On a clear winter day in Streator, Illinois, we gathered with our sleds at the top end of the Snake Path.
Sturdy sleds they were—Flexible Flyers and American Flyers— on which you lay full length, gripping the wooden crossbar that bent the steel runners right or left to turn in a seemingly impossible radius, aided by a rubber-galoshed toe planted at a crucial moment.
The Snake Path was a twisty trail that dropped down a field of dried grass and milkweed stalks, wound through a thicket of scrawny maple and basswood trees, and emerged on a large hump that formed something like a ski jump. If you kept your speed while turning amid the trees, you could fly off the big bump to the shale road below, land hard on your belly (OOF!), jink ninety degrees right, and coast all the way to the little bridge over the Stink Creek. What a ride!
That was sixty-five years ago. Today there is no snake path, there is no big hump. There is hardly a hill at all. Only a few weeds and bushes mark the spot where a magic woodland once stood. The road survives, but the green, odorous understory of woods it once penetrated has vanished. Only a few yards down the road, a steel gate now bars the way to all but authorized personnel. Some company bought up the land beyond for private uses. You can’t even smell the Stink Creek anymore.
Hardly a trace of the past remains.
I met a traveller from an antique land, Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand, Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown, And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed; And on the pedestal, these words appear: My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.” —Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ozymandias”
Hardly a trace remains.
It’s a small thing when a childhood playground vanishes, and perhaps not much larger when a mighty king’s monument is buried under the sands.
But works of vast importance can also disappear, leaving little or no sign of their existence. Something big is then lost to humanity, unless a record of some kind—a jotting, a memory— survives.
Even my grandchildren know the Fabulous Fifties for the birth of rock and roll, for roller-skating parties and sock hops. Thanks to Richie Cunningham and Marty McFly, those marks of the era are well documented.
But have you heard of basement houses? Maybe a quarter of the kids I knew lived in them.
In the postwar building rush, one common strategy was the basement house. The would-be homeowner—most likely a Second World War veteran—would buy a city lot and hire somebody with a bulldozer to dig a basement. A concrete floor would be poured, cinder-block walls raised, and the below-ground enclosure covered over with joists, sub-flooring, and tar paper. What funds remained were used to install plumbing, electricity, and room partitions in the basement. Then the family moved in. They lived in this basement, often for several seasons, until they could save enough money to build a regular house on top. Conditions were cramped and less than ideal—but they had housing!
In the town where I lived, there were whole subdivisions of basement houses. One by one, as the occupying families prospered, the upper floors were finished. My Uncle Dick and Aunt Jane lived in their basement house for several years. When they finally built up from the ground, they had a fine suburban house. Gradually, almost all of these basement homes were finished. Today they stand, in hundreds of neighborhoods, cheek-by-jowl with conventionally-built houses. You would have to be a construction expert to detect which houses had been occupied in their early years as basement homes.
I scoured the internet a while back for a photograph of such a basement house. There were none to be found. It seemed the basement house had altogether vanished from view. But just today I Googled again and found, to my delight, a May 2022 real estate listing for just such a home—perhaps the one remaining basement house in Illinois that was never finished above ground. You can see it here. The weird black hump rising from the tar paper in some of the photos is, of course, the above-ground door leading down a stairway into the basement.
The text advertising this house uses terms like “unique,” “unusual or interesting,” and even “amazinggggg.” Whoever wrote it did not know houses like this were once common.
I sometimes feel like the messenger who came to Job. (That’s Job 1:15, if you’d care to look it up in the Bible.) The Fifties have been abducted, “and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”
Basement dwelling was a way of life for millions of kids and their families.
Hardly a trace remains.
It’s not only my little, parochial, Illinois past that sinks out of sight. Consider the Great Hedge of India.
Most educated people know that the greater part of India was once ruled by the British as a colony. Those who have seen Richard Attenborough’s remarkable 1982 film about Gandhi know that the British paid the costs of their occupation by means of a salt tax that was very burdensome to the health, not to mention the finances, of Indians.
What goes unmentioned is the method by which the tax was enforced. A Brit who served in India, Sir John Strachey, wrote: “To secure the levy of a duty on salt . . . [a] Customs line was established which stretched across the whole of India, which in 1869 extended from the Indus to the Mahanadi in Madras, a distance of 2,300 miles, and it was guarded by nearly 12,000 men. . . . It consisted principally of an immense impenetrable hedge of thorny trees and bushes.” [My emphasis.]
What is the Englishman’s answer to all land questions? Plant a hedge.
An Indian Customs commissioner elaborated: “In its most perfect form the hedge is a live one, from ten to fourteen feet in height, and six to twelve feet thick, composed of closely clipped thorny trees and shrubs, amongst which the babool (acacia carecha), the Indian plum (zizyphues jujuba), the carounda (carissa curonda), the prickly pear (opuntia, three species), and the thuer (euphorbia, several species) are, according to salt and climate, the most numerous, with which a thorny creeper (guilandina bondue) is constantly intermingled.”
This hedge required enormous maintenance. But it was effective at keeping smugglers from bringing in untaxed salt from the Princely States to the west of the British Raj. When India gained independence in 1947, the hedge project was abandoned.
In 1995 an Englishman named Roy Moxham discovered written references to the Great Hedge. Curious, he spent years researching its history, traveling to India armed with maps obtained from British libraries and Indian government agencies. In 1998, he at last found a remnant stretch of the Great Hedge, a few hundred yards long, in north central India. He documented the whole quest in his unique book, The Great Hedge of India.
Think of that: In barely fifty years, a major feature of the physical, political, and moral landscape of that great subcontinent had all but disappeared.
Hardly a trace remained.
Larry F. Sommers
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