Galesburg is an old town for Illinois, having been established in 1837.
Since then, it has gathered thousands of distinct strands of memory.
Some of those memories attach to famous people. Carl Sandburg and Edgar Lee Masters, poets. Mother Bickerdyke, the indefatigable Civil War nurse. George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., inventor of the big wheel that takes people up in the air and brings them down again.
Some of the memories attach to me.
I don’t mean to compare myself to Great Figures of the past, Dear Reader. You see, it’s just that we were all jumbled together—George Fitch who spun droll fin-de-siècle yarns about football and other college hijinks; Grover Cleveland Alexander, Hall of Fame pitcher whose career started in Galesburg; Jack Finney, Knox College graduate who wrote such classic speculative fiction novels as The Body Snatchers and Time and Again; Edward Beecher, abolitionist preacher, close friend of the martryed Elijah P. Lovejoy; plus tens of thousands of other folks you never heard of.
Oh, my dear—that brings us back to me.
Why I mention this is that all of us, famous and otherwise, contributed strands to the giant skein of recollections and speculations that is Galesburg. And the reason I belabor the point is not that Galesburg is much different from other small Midwestern towns.
Only that it is mine. What commends it to comment is the homeness of the place.
Mom and Dad graduated from Knoxville High School, five miles from The Burg, in 1940. They might have gotten married there and then, but Dad was ever slow and deliberate. The Army got him before Mom did. After he got back from the Southwest Pacific, in September 1944, they married, in a home ceremony in Knoxville. By the time Dad entered Knox College the following September, I had been added to the ménage.
Dad was not the only veteran who wanted a college education. Uncle Sam catered to the aspirations of millions by providing funds, under the GI Bill, to make their dreams come true. Cheap housing units were thrown together on college campuses for returning veterans and their young families. We lived in one such apartment.
We did not have a refrigerator; we had an icebox. The iceman would come once or twice a week—more often, I think, in summer—lugging a huge block of ice using iron tongs, sliding the ice into the upper compartment of the icebox. The lower compartment was where we kept milk, meat, eggs, and butter.
The Burg was a gridwork of purple brick streets, lined with glass-globed street lamps which cast a soft glow on warm summer nights. My little friends and I played on green grass crisscrossed by walks of crushed white gravel.
Mom and Dad stayed up late, playing bridge with their neighbors. I lay in my tiny bedroom with my teddy bear and listened to the thwop of cards being shuffled and the more distant roll-and-bang of trains being assembled in the nearby Chicago, Burlington, & Quincy freight yards. By day, passenger trains dashed by on the main line—just across Cherry Street from where we lived—pulled by big black locomotives, streaming white vapor from their stacks.
A Durable Pageant
Later, in the 1950s, Aunt Bertha and Uncle Harry would take us across town to get ice cream at Highlanders’. It was a little stand run by a family who made the product in their own kitchen. I knew about chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry. But it was not until we patronized Highlanders’ that I learned ice cream could be infused with crushed bits of peppermint sticks. Zowie!
Mom liked black walnut fudge. Yechhh!
Even when Dad graduated in 1949 and we moved away to little Dwight, and then Streator, where he had chemistry jobs, we always came back to The Burg and its little satellite Knoxville. Because that was home. It was where all our people were.
Aunt Bertha would pile us kids into her Ford Victoria and take us to Lake Bracken for swimming. There was a nice sandy beach and a big clubhouse where you could get a Snickers bar that was frozen. Another zowie.
Sometimes we went to Lake Storey or Lincoln Park at the other end of town for picnics. Life was pretty good.
The Small End of the Telescope
All that was decades ago, Gentle Reader. Things have changed dramatically. Highlanders’ is no more. Purington Bricks folded up long ago. The Lake Bracken Clubhouse burned down in 1987.
But the memories mean something. They stick in people’s minds. In 1960, when The Body Snatchers and other work had already made him rich and famous, Jack Finney reached back and penned a short story called “I Love Galesburg in the Springtime.”
We are not just a jumble of experiences. We are a bundle of associations.
Even on increasingly rare visits to The Burg of today, I sense immediately that I have come home.
I pray, Dear Reader, there is a place like that for you.
Stuff of the moon Runs on the lapping sand Out to the longest shadows. Under the curving willows, And round the creep of the wave line, Fluxions of yellow and dusk on the waters Make a wide dreaming pansy of an old pond in the night.
—Carl Sandburg (1878-1967), “Nocturne in a Deserted Brickyard,” 1916
Ever been in a brickyard? It’s a factory where bricks are made. Today there’s a computerized, robotic operation in Brampton, Ontario that makes 200 million bricks a year.
In Sandburg’s time, brickyards were smaller. They were numerous; they dotted the countryside.
There would be a large building where bricks were formed, kilns to bake them into hard pavers or building bricks, square stacks of finished product, and a tall smokestack or two, or three. By night, moonshadows might mold the place into a mystic realm of keeps and turrets, standing sentinel over the sleeping countryside—or else brutal, stolid hulks suggesting somber reckonings in the chill moonlight.
Charlie Sandburg knew all this. But he describes only a pond—the softest, most horizontal piece of the picture. Brickyards had ponds, formed where clay and shale were scooped from the earth. But the pond in this poem is a pond and nothing else—not an artifact of industry or a byproduct of production. It is a pool of water, swayed by breeze, by gravity, by the moon.
The “brickyard” in the title gives us a setting but makes no demands on the “wide dreaming pansy.” Sandburg was a romantic.
He was also one of the the great American poets, a singer of plain people and their lives, a successor to Walt Whitman.
Sandburg was born in Galesburg, Illinois, in a three-room cottage at 313 East Third Street. He lived his first twenty years mostly in and about Galesburg. After brief service as a private in the Spanish-American War, he returned to Galesburg and he attended Lombard College. Besides glimpsing the life of the mind and acquiring a habit of poetry, Sandburg captained the Lombard basketball team in days when they stopped the game after every score to retrieve the ball from the peach basket.
Even after leaving Galesburg, Carl Sandburg remained a Midwesterner, a son of the prairie.
Galesburg had several brickyards. The greatest of these was the Purington Brick Company of East Galesburg. They made heavy bricks that paved the streets of Galesburg and other cities, even as far as Panama City, Panama.
As time went on, cities quit paving their streets with brick. The Purington brickyard ceased production in 1974. If you drove through East Galesburg today, you would be hard-pressed to discern there was ever a brick-making factory there. Above the surrounding woods you may glimpse a tall chimney, now crumbling. That’s about all.
I know this, Dear Reader, because I do get back to Galesburg once in a while. Like Sandburg, I am a native. My birth took place in Cottage Hospital on North Kellogg Street, in 1945. By that time, the 67-year-old Carl Sandburg—winner of Pulitzer Prizes in both poetry and history, a recognized national treasure—was relocating to Flat Rock, North Carolina, where he would dwell the last twenty-two years of his life and produce a third of his work.
Something of Galesburg made Sandburg who he was. Today, his birthplace is preserved as a sort of historic shrine. There is a small visitor center. You can visit the tiny cottage where the poet was born. You can see Remembrance Rock, under which lie the ashes of Sandburg and of Lillian Steichen Sandburg, his wife of fifty-nine years.
The place is worth a visit, if you’re ever in Galesburg.
But Sandburg is only one memory that clings to the skirts of this old prairie city.
I have dragged myself out of bed after midnight on a good sleeping night—one of those rain-blessed nights when you hear the tap and drizzle of the storm just outside the window—because this musing has come to me.
If I wait till morning, I’ll lose it.
It’s a message for you, Dear Reader, about creativity.
Maybe you have thought you would like to write something. Something true from your life and experience, be it written as fact or fiction. Something you might share with your children, your grandchildren, or the world.
But you have answered yourself: “No. I’m no writer.”
Or maybe: “No. I’d start and then not know where to go from there. I’d get writer’s block.”
But before you give up on the idea, consider my case. I resolved six years ago to start the writing career I had always promised myself. I knew not what I would write, nor how. But there was something inside me that had to come out. Surely if I gave it a whirl, something would turn up.
So I plunged in.
Are you still with me, Gentle Reader? Just plunging in is not unheard-of. People do it. You could plunge in, too—if you so chose.
When I plunged in, I wanted to write about the past—the place where I spend most of my time. But the first thing that came to me—it came in a dream one night—was a brief, whimsical character study of Skeezie, our woebegone old Siberian husky. I sent it to Fetch! magazine—“For dogs and their humans”—and they bought it.
What a morale booster! But it was an isolated victory, something of a fluke. I buckled down to my real aim of writing about the past. I wrote short stories about a young boy named Izzy Mahler, growing up in the ’Fifties. I submitted one to The Saturday Evening Post, and they published it in their online edition.
Wow, another fluke.
Over the next couple of years, the Post bought a couple more Izzy Mahler stories (here and here).
But I wanted something more. I hankered to write a novel. My wife, Jo, had unearthed my Norwegian ancestors, and the framework of their lives, as shown by her research, suggested the beginnings of a plot.
Plunging in is fine, Cherished Reader, but I craved a surer sense of what I was about. What kind of Pandora’s box would I open if I embarked on a novel? So I signed up for the University of Wisconsin–Extension’s “Write By The Lake” conference in the summer of 2016. There, the inimitable Laurie Scheer encouraged me to go ahead and write my “immigrant novel.”
So I plunged in. Does this suggest any writing strategy to you, Dear Reader?
I wrote most of the novel on my laptop but part of it in longhand in a notebook I took with me to a church meeting in 2017. I recruited volunteer beta readers to read my work and give feedback.
Sensing I was in over my head, I joined Tuesdays With Story, a writers’ mutual critique group led by Jerry Peterson of Janesville, Wisconsin. Jerry is an author with plenty of publication credits, a master of great stories. When I showed my early chapters to the group, I had to swallow a lot of guff arising from amateurism in my writing. It was galling, Dear Reader—but I could not ignore the truth in the critiques.
My writing started to get better.
We talked a lot in the group about “writer platforms,” about one’s “social media presence,” about “blogs” and “podcasts.” It seemed you had to do that stuff to be successful. My heart screamed, “No! No! No! Here I am trying to burrow into the past, and you’re trying to shove me into some godforsaken future. I won’t go!”
But at some point in those discussions, Jerry said, “Well, instead of thinking of a blog as something to promote your writing, you might look at a blog as being your writing—at least, part of it. If nothing else, it’s a chance to write something and get it in front of the public, on your own terms.”
To Blog, or Not to Blog: That Is the Question
It was an agonizing decision. For a blog to be worth doing, it ought to be posted regularly, maybe as often as once a week. I would have to spend a lot of my precious time composing and posting blog entries.
I had heard somebody say, “It’s easy. Just rattle off something and post it. A few minutes a week.” But I could never do that. Why would I put something into the world under my name that was not carefully written? Pondered? Revised? Crafted? To do so would be the opposite of what I was trying to do. If I was going to start a blog, the entries needed to be high in quality.
That meant significant time spent each week, and that would cut into my novel writing time. Besides—where would I come up with all the material needed for a weekly blog post?
I’m hearing an echo now, Kind Reader, as you murmur, “What if I tried to write something? Where would I get the content?”
Well, I’ll tell you what Your New Favorite Writer did.
I plunged in. Here we go again. Do you see a pattern?
Since April 2019, I have posted 164 blog entries. What you are reading now will be Number 165. I have posted almost every week, usually on Tuesday morning. I have written about my grandmother’s postcard collection, the Springfield race riot of 1907, the losses of two of my uncles in World War II, General Grant, the onset of autumn in Wisconsin, the craziness of coping with COVID, how to use a chainsaw, the philosophical reflections of Milo Bung (a direct descendant of Æthelred the Unready and fourth cousin to Slats Grobnik) and more than a hundred other topics. I have even posted a few not-quite-ready-for-prime-time short stories.
Where did all that content come from?
All I can say is, there’s always something. I never run dry.
Wellspring of Creativity
That’s my message to you, Fair Reader: There’s always something. When you start to create, you reach down into some magical place, where there’s always more stuff ready to bubble forth. As soon as you take some out and write it down, more wells up to take its place.
I think of it as a wellspring of creativity. I’ve spoken to other writers, and I’m assured the situation is the same in all other kinds of artistic endeavors: The more you produce, the more there is to draw from.
You can never run out. There’s a wellspring of creativity inside you.
I’m not talking about Creation. That would be presumptuous. In my theology, only God creates. The best we can do is recombine elements of that primordial Creation in new ways. That’s not Creation—but it is creativity. Somehow, when we do this kind of work, we participate in God’s creative work.
Yes, Distinguished Reader. I’m saying it’s a Divine Calling.
Ignore it at your peril.
Despite the time and effort required for the weekly blog post, I have completed and sold an epic novel, due to be published August 23. I have a middle-grades novel for which I’ll soon be seeking a publisher. And there are other projects in the works, which I’m not ready to talk about yet.
The more you dip out, the more comes in to take its place.
You might think about trying it, too, Dear Reader.
Just plunge in. You have but to stretch forth your hand.
We viewed the now-restored courtroom where celebrated 19th-century tussles had taken place. I made a photograph of it. Then Ron led me around the corner and pointed out an old wagon from the Abraham Lincoln era.
On the wall near the wagon hung a photo that stopped me in my tracks.
“Whoa!” I said. “I know this picture.”
“You do?” Poyner was goggle-eyed.
“I have a copy at home. Do you know who these people are?”
He shook his head. “A farm couple, for sure.” He squinted at a small plate on the lower corner of the frame. “Says the oxen’s names are Buck and Bright.”
“But you don’t know the people’s names?”
“No.” He looked at me expectantly.
“The man is my great-great-grandfather, George Witherell. And the woman is his wife, Martha Stolipher Witherell. He was a Civil War veteran. Fought with the 77th Illinois under Sherman. Went all over the South and marched in the victory parade in Washington in May 1865.”
Ron whipped out a small notebook and started scribbling. “How do you spell that? And what relation did you say they were?”
I started to spell it for him, then stopped. “Well, the thing you might want to know is, he was the maternal grandfather of my Grandma LaFollette, who donated the cabin to the town. Don’t bother trying to write it down. When I get home, I’ll email you a complete summary.”
So that’s how we left it.
When we got home, I dug out my copy of the photograph.
I scanned it and emailed the JPEG to Ron Poyner, just to confirm it was in fact the same photo. Then I started going through the materials my wife had compiled, years ago, about George and Martha Witherell.
George was the son of Ephraim Witherell and grandson of Asaph Witherell, a veteran of the War of 1812.
Asaph Witherell, son of Ephraim Wetherel Jr. and Tabitha Harvey of Norton, Massachusetts, was born in Keene, New Hampshire, in 1783, the very year that King George III renounced his claim to the American colonies via the Treaty of Paris.
Asaph was 29 in 1812, when the U.S. again fought the British, and he joined the fight. After the war he married Joanna White, ten years his junior, and they lived in her home area of Windham County, Vermont, where their son Ephraim was born in 1816. In 1817 Asaph was awarded a war bounty of 160 acres of land in what would become Stark County, Illinois. But it was impractical at that time to pick up and move west.
Ephraim, Asaph and Joanna’s son, grew up and married a Pennsylvania girl, Rebecca Donaldson. They moved to Washington County, Indiana, in 1840. There, on September 8, 1845, George Witherell was born.
The Witherells Come to Illinois
The whole family, including George’s grandparents, Asaph and Joanna, moved to Peoria County, Illinois, when George was three. Despite his tender age, George retained a lifelong memory of seeing, while en route to Peoria County, a victory procession for newly-elected president Zachary Taylor. That would have been 1848.
In 1851, when George was six, the family moved again, this time to Knox County. He spent the rest of his life there, on the family farm about a mile south of the Old Courthouse in Knoxville where now hangs the photo of himself, his wife Martha, and their two oxen, Buck and Bright.
It is unclear whether George’s grandfather Asaph Witherell ever claimed his 1812 bounty grant, which was in Stark County—not Peoria or Knox County.
Apparently the only time George Witherell left Knoxville was when he joined the 77th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment. That was on 11 February 1864. He was eighteen years old. He was vaccinated against smallpox in March and shipped south to join his unit in Louisiana, where it was engaged in the disastrous Red River Campaign under Major General Nathaniel Banks.
Although George was not wounded in the campaign, his left upper arm got inflamed, swollen, and afflicted with a running sore—all in apparent reacton to the vaccination he had received in Galesburg after enlisting. This reaction lasted until November 1864. After-effects plagued him for the rest of his life, resulting in a disability pension from the U.S. government.
The 77th Illinois and a sister unit, the 130th Illinois, continued operations in the Gulf region for the rest of the war. When George mustered out of service in 1965, it was as a member of the 130th, to which he had been transferred.
So many of the “facts” I had told Ron Poyner were based on wrong assumptions. George Witherell was indeed a member of the 77th Illinois, which under General Sherman had fought throughout Grant’s Vickburg Campaign of 1863. But by the time George joined the unit in 1864, it had been shuffled out of Sherman’s command and into a dead-end action that kept it in the lower Mississippi basin for the rest of the war. Even during that action, my great-great-grandfather spent months on extended sick call because of his arm problem.
He did not serve in the 77th when it was under Major General William T. Sherman, as I had said. Neither he nor his unit, the 77th, “went all over the South and marched in the victory parade in Washington in May 1865” as I had promised Ron Poyner. Open mouth, insert foot.
Oh, well. The facts are the facts. George did serve honorably in the Union cause.
He married Martha Stolipher in 1866, shortly after returning from the war, and never left Knoxville after that. As the photo attests, they acquired a team of oxen and grew old farming the prairie soil south of town.
One of their children, Minnie Witherell, married John Dredge and became the mother of Berneice Dredge LaFollette—my grandmother, who in 1963 donated the Sanburn cabin to the City of Knoxville.
For the past sixty-five years I have lived as a Wisconsinite. I’ve grown to love the Badger state—its saucy lingo full of bubblers and hotdishes, its full spectrum of tasty cheeses and sausages, and its gentle yet unmistakably corrugated landscape.
But through age twelve, I was all Illinois. My family was Illinois before me. Flatlanders, every one of us.
My mother’s parents, Alvin and Berneice LaFollette, dwelt in a rambling, single-story house. It sat on the south side of the town square in Knoxville, Illinois, facing the old abandoned courthouse across the square. Knoxville was once the county seat of Knox county, but it did not grow enough to keep the distinction. When I was a boy, in the 1950s, it was a town of about two thousand souls.
My grandparents’ house must have been built bit by bit, expanded over the years by adding rooms. The dining room and kitchen were down a step from the living room and bedrooms. You had to go outdoors to get to the indoor bathroom, which was not only behind the house but also down a flight of stairs; it was basically a plumbed storm cellar, with toilet, shower, and laundry tubs. The whole house, except for this unique subterranean bathroom, was clad in weathered brown clapboard siding.
Time passed. Grandpa died. About 1963, Grandma needed to sell the property and take up a more practical and frugal mode of living. Buyers would want the lot only if the tired old house were first removed. Grandma found a man who agreed to tear down the house for free in exchange for the salvage—a good deal, she figured.
Demolition began. All went well. But when the man took his crowbar to the kitchen, what he found beneath the clapboard siding was not framing studs but the solid walls of an old log cabin—square-hewn timbers, saddle-notched to lock at the corners, no nails needed. Gaps were chinked with prairie clay and hay.
Everything stopped while local historians scratched their heads and searched old records. It turned out that Grandma’s kitchen had once been the first permanent structure built by a white man in Knox County. Pioneer settler John Sanburn built it in 1832 to house his general store. Naturally, it also became the town’s first post office.
All that was well and good, but Grandma still needed the land clean so she could sell it. She donated the cabin to the village on condition that it be moved from her land. They jacked it up, put it on wheels, and eased it across the square. There it sits to this day, beside the old courthouse.
Grandma sold her land and went to live with three daughters and a son-in-law in Albuquerque. In the old place, where we held family picnics in the big yard under Knox County’s largest elm tree, where we caught lightning bugs after dark, where the town band serenaded us with Sousa from the bandstand in the square on Saturday nights, and where we met the Yule with aunts and uncles and cousins around the roaring kerosene heater in the ramshackle old house—there now stands a jim-dandy asphalt parking lot.
The Past Restored
Meanwhile, the old cabin on the north side of the square has come under the stewardship of the Knox County Historical Sites, Inc., which also maintains the old courthouse, the old jail, and the Knox County Historical Museum. The cabin has been restored to what it must have been like in John Sanburn’s heyday.
Last weekend, having an hour free during the course of a Knox College class reunion, my wife and I met Ron Poyner, current president of the Knox county Historical Sites, Inc., for a quick tour of the cabin.
It was a poignant moment for me, being inside an 1832 general store which I had last visited when it was a modern 1950s-style kitchen featuring great meals served by Grandma LaFollette. Aunt Sue made peanut butter sandwiches for me in that kitchen. Aunt Linda, still a kid herself, sat with me and my sister and our cousins at the “kids’ table” in that kitchen while the grownups ate their Christmas dinner in the dining room.
Ron offered to show me also the second floor of the old courthouse. “We’ve restored the courtroom to the way it was in the old days,” said Ron, who is also Knoxville’s chief of police. “It’s where the trial was conducted that resulted in the only legal hanging in Knox county history.”
I wish I had thought to ask how many illegal hangings there were, but my mind was on other things. I knew the old courthouse had also been the scene of a fierce legal fight over Susan “Aunt Sukey” Richardson, a black woman who had fled a brutal situation of indentured servitude that was tantamount to slavery. Although the legal proceedings came out muddled, Aunt Sukey did stay free and lived out her life in nearby Galesburg and later, Chicago.
Naturally I wanted to see and photograph the old courtroom, which was on the second floor of the stately courthouse. So up the steep, narrow stairway we went. I viewed the courtroom and shot a picture.
Then, as I turned to go back downstairs, a photo on the wall stopped me in my tracks.
“S-1,” says the copilot’s voice on interphone. “Rotate.”
The nose lifts, the wheels leave the ground.
The Boeing RC-135M tilts skyward, pressing the twenty of us into our harnesses chestwise, for we have swiveled to face aft while slipping the surly bonds of earth. A Renaissance tune piped by Ed Flaspoehler on his recorder whistles bravely through the bluster of four jet engines and the whoosh of the fuselage as it parts the air.
Off we go, into the wild blue yonder.
Marking time. One more bottomless day.
But coming soon, for me: Liberation from all this glory.
“S-2.” We cross an unseen threshold in the sky, en route to our twelve-hour recon mission. Our faces glint green and orange from the freq scopes and nixie tubes that surround us in the darkness of the cabin. We are airmen of the 6990th Security Squadron, U.S. Air Force, flying out of Kadena Air Base, Okinawa.
The Allied Powers defeated Japan in 1945, my birth year. Innocent of the war just behind me, I was a bright-eyed, precocious little learner—smiling, always merry, long-winded and talkative, yet also shy and timid.
Now it’s 1969. In twenty-four years I have picked up a lot of baggage, have grown a hard shell wrapped in a muffling batt of sullen. Well, you need to get through some way, don’t you?
The Japanese island of Okinawa remains occupied, though Japan is now America’s friend. We use Okinawa as a staging area for our war against a new enemy, North Vietnam.
Today’s mission is part of that war. Our platform—dubbed Combat Apple by some wizard in the Air Force’s Bureau of Baffling Nomenclature—will speed south, swoop round Hainan Island, and fly a long oval above the Gulf of Tonkin at thirty-seven thousand feet, keeping thirty nautical miles shy of Vietnam to the southwest and China to the northeast.
Our cockpit crew, from the 82nd Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron, are simply bus drivers. They will keep us on course, zooming along the charted racetrack while we back-enders in our windowless box do The Mission: scooping up signals from Vietnam and South China.
After twelve hours and two mid-air refuelings, another aircraft will relieve us on the orbit over the Gulf. We will jet home to Kadena with our take—hundreds of enemy transmissions recorded on reel-to-reel tape and hand-scribbled traffic logs.
Anyway, that’s the plan.
It’s a routine. Each of us endures three to six such flights every month. At first I was airsick every time. Then somebody taught me to chew soda crackers and control my breathing. Now, after forty-two missions, I’m an old-timer.
But this trip, my forty-third, is different, being my last. Tomorrow I will turn in my headphones, brain bucket, and oxygen mask. I will climb aboard the Freedom Bird and fly home.
There, a spot in the junior class at the University of Wisconsin awaits—my earliest opportunity to atone for past failure. There’s also an exhilarating young woman from Chicago, Joelle Nelson. I will leave the military and return to real life.
But not till tomorrow.
Wouldn’t you know my final mission would turn hairy?
There’s a storm—not quite a typhoon, but big enough to fill the Gulf and strong enough to garble electromagnetic signals, even VHF, beyond recognition.
Combat Apple’s main job is to overhear Vietnamese surface-to-air missile controllers. However, the back-end crew of twenty also includes three of us who work what is termed “the Chinese Problem.” We are graduates of Robert Tharp’s uncanny 32-week Mandarin Air Force Aural Comprehension course, on board to give early warning in case the Chinese Communists decide to scramble on our plane. Four ChiCom fighter bases—Haikou, Lingshui, Jialaishi, and Mengzi—lie within a MiG-21’s flight range of our orbit.
The MiGs fly a lot, mostly practicing ground-controlled intercepts and air-to-air gunnery. So far, they have never come out over the water to get us, but there’s a first time for everything. Splashing the Apple would cost them something, a couple of planes and pilots lost at sea by running out of fuel. But if that old man in Beijing, the one with the high forehead, had a sudden craving for a U.S. spy plane, his pilots would have a fair chance of giving him one.
Normally we can hear what they’re up to—vectoring on imaginary intruders for practice, shooting at targets towed behind AN-2 biplanes, or sometimes just flying around, shouting inane slogans: “Long live Chairman Mao! All reactionaries are paper tigers!”
The pilots’ and controllers’ voices blast out in clear speech, in regional accents of Mandarin, the national tongue. We ought to be able, theoretically, to detect hostile intent in time for our plane to beat a swift retreat.
But today weather blitzes the airwaves. I can catch only a few callsigns.
As our confining cabin bucks up and down, tilts left and right at odd moments, sweat bathes my face. I breathe deep and slow to calm my stomach as the bottom drops out repeatedly. Worse, I can’t make out what the MiGs are saying. Is there hostile intent?
Last April a North Korean MiG-21 shot down a U.S. Navy EC-121M over the Sea of Japan, sending thirty-one souls to watery graves. Men unknown to any of us, but colleagues just the same.
I see myself donning brain bucket and mask, buckling my straps, standing up and waddling under sixty pounds of parachute and survival gear, through smoke and flames, hoping for a clean drop through the slim emergency hatch as the Boeing cartwheels in flaming loops toward the sea. To bail out at thirty-five thousand—even if the conditions were ideal, which they never will be—is something near a death sentence.
I have come this far—have survived college disgrace, military exile, and forty-two of these disorienting, sinus-busting, strep-throat-inducing joyrides—and stand now on the brink of a new opportunity to prove myself worthy of adult life, maybe even with a delightful bride at my side. Only—could this be the day the MiGs have us in their sights?
To get blown out of the sky and miss my chance to show what I can really do in life would be par for the course—just one parting humiliation.
Tech Sergeant Cooper is with us today as a performance evaluator. I call him over to my console. “Plug in here. See what you make of it.”
Cooper, standing, jacks into my panel, sways as the airplane lifts and drops. He listens. “Got some call signs. Seven-eight-ex.”
“Out of Jialaishi. I think. Can you tell what they’re doing?”
Cooper frowns. “Could be a practice GCI. Or maybe the real thing. Too barfy to tell.”
Cooper is one of three Chinese ops conceded by all to have golden ears. If Cooper can’t pull anything out of this traffic, neither will I.
I swipe the back of a hand across my damp forehead.
Cooper listens, stares through the rolling tape recorder on the bulkhead. He holds his hands over the earcups, brows beetling.
He takes off the headset. “Let’s abort,” he says.
I exhale. My heart slows to normal. I slump in my seat, feeling for all the world like a mound of SOS plopped on a tin mess tray.
Cooper scoots down the aisle to the airborne mission supervisor and speaks in his ear. The AMS nods. He calls the pilot, Major Martin, on private interphone. The plane banks away, out of its assigned orbit.
I’m glad Martin is our bus driver. He’s one of the good ones. You know the landing at Kadena will be smooth, even if there’s a crosswind.
Over Ie Shima, Major Martin stands on the dive brake, and our aircraft drops like a rock. Civilian airliners make gentle descents, but military pilots like Martin prefer to stay high as long as possible and then make a steep dive for the runway. It’s accepted practice.
There’s a fifteen-knot wind across the runway. Martin sets the heavy plane down softly but glues it to the tarmac. No three-bounce landings for him.
We roll to a stop on the apron. We walk down the portable steps with helmet bags slung over our shoulders, board our Air Force blue school bus, go to the ops building for debriefing, get back on the bus, and ride to our barracks.
I drop the helmet off in the barracks room I share with Tom Stehura, who is out somewhere. As usual after a nineteen-hour flight, I’m dog-tired but can’t sleep. I stagger like a drunken seaman two blocks to the base bowling alley, where there is a little snack bar with a juke box and formica tables. I order my usual—peach pie à la mode and root beer—pick up the Pacific edition of Stars and Stripes, and sit down at a vacant table.
I glance around me, checking the room. The horizontal line of the panel wainscoting bobs up and down, tilts left and right in irregular rhythm. I focus on my newspaper and pie.
“HO IS ‘SERIOUSLY ILL’,” screams the 54-point banner atop the first page, summing up a rumor-based UPI story out of Paris. Maybe he is, but it’s not that big a deal. Don’t they realize Ho Chi Minh could drop dead this morning, and General Giap would keep fighting the war as if nothing happened?
Another front-page headline reports progress in the Paris peace talks. I’ll believe that when I see it. Why we’re talking with the Vietnamese Reds at the same time we’re bombing them to smithereens is a bit hard to dope out. Must be part of Nixon’s secret plan to end the war.
There’s an article on page two titled “The Killing Pace of College.” Guess I’ll find out soon enough. The peach pie is tasty and comforting, as always. One of the best things Okinawa has to offer.
Page thirteen has a profile piece on three black musicians—Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, and Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong. Very nice.
The pie is all gone. I sip at the root beer and look up at the room. It holds pretty steady now. I get up and walk back to the barracks, not swaying much at all.
The next day is spent out-processing. I sign a form stating that I will be prosecuted to the maximum extent of the law if I ever breathe a word about anything I did, saw, heard, learned, produced, or processed as a member of the United States Air Force. I turn in my green Top Secret Cryptographic access badge.
I turn in my white, spherical brain bucket with oxygen mask and hose.I turn in the rugged, olive drab field jacket that has been with me since Basic Training. I can keep all my uniforms, summer and winter flight suits, duffel bag and B-4 bag, flight jacket and parka, flight boots and aviator sunglasses. But my field jacket—the one item that might be of use in civilian life—that’s an accountable item I have to give back so it can be issued to some newly-minted zoomie at Lackland Air Force Base. That and the switchblade jackknife with the special sharp hook in case you have to cut tangled parachute lines. I don’t suppose I’ll have much need for that in Wisconsin.
The foregoing narrative is true and accurate as best I can recall it over the intervening space of almost fifty-three years. It was written to be part of a more general personal memoir, only I don’t know which part.
America, in the era leading to and through the Civil War, was filled with formidable women who shaped the course of history though they seldom rate more than a footnote in standard accounts.
Maria Nybro, the main female character in my historical novel Price of Passage, is one such woman. The seventeen-year-old daughter of a small-town boat builder, she resolves to follow her heart’s desire, Anders Gunstensen, to America. She cajoles her father and uncle into a scheme that sends her across the sea with other family members, as caretaker to her strange Aunt Osa.
In central Illinois, where Anders has settled, Maria moves heaven and earth, taking a tough scullery job to stay near him—while meeting her family obligation to care for the bewildered old aunt.
Aunt Osa herself is one of a kind. Marked as a “different” child from infancy, Osa sees herself as a changeling, one of the babies left with unsuspecting human families by huldrefolk, reclusive beings who live in Norway’s forest glades. When asked why she does not have the long, hairy tail of the huldrefolk, she explains that her mother took her to be baptized soon after the exchange, and her rudimentary tail dropped off within days of becoming a Christian.
Another strong woman in the story is Kirsten Haraldsdatter, mother of four, who fearlessly leads her family’s expedition across the sea to join her husband Osmund, who has gone on ahead to establish a farm. Like Maria and Osa, she is fictional but based on a real woman, a shipmate of my great-great grandfather Anders on the brig Victoria in 1853.
These strong women and others in Price of Passage meet challenges as great as those facing the male characters. Some of those challenges, indeed, are posed by the male characters. When Anders goes off to fight in the Civil War, for instance, Maria must fend off the advances—financial and carnal—of a seedy land speculator. She finds an original way to defend both her farm and herself.
The Real Thing
Actual historic women also appear as characters in the book, such as “Mother” Bickerdyke. Mary Ann Ball Bickerdyke, a middle-aged widow from Galesburg, Illinois, who practiced “natural medicine” in that community, went south with a wagon of medical supplies in 1861 to aid the sick and wounded soldiers at Fort Defiance in Cairo, Illinois.
Focused on healthy food and good care for ailing soldiers, Bickerdyke shrugged off Army regulations and red tape. Backed by the Sanitary Commission and the ordinary soldiers, she soon won the full support of Generals Grant and Sherman, who cheerfully deferred to her in matters of soldier care.
Mother Bickerdyke stuck with the Army until the war’s end, serving on nineteen battlefields and establishing three hundred field hospitals. After the war, she continued her work on behalf of the veterans she called “my boys,” lobbying and aiding in their fight for pensions and other benefits.
Bickerdyke was just one of many women who served ably as nurses and Sanitary Commission workers—but she was the most colorful and legendary. When a surgeon questioned her authority to take some action, she replied, “On the authority of Lord God Almighty, have you anything that outranks that?” In a day when male surgeons ruled the Army Medical Department, Bickerdyke caught and held the ear of the generals. Sherman called her “one of his best generals,” and others referred to her as “the Brigadier Commanding Hospitals.”
The soldiers just called her Mother.
She’s only one of the strong, pioneering women you’ll meet when you read Price of Passage.
HISTORY IS NOT WHAT YOU THOUGHT.
Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer
Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation, coming August 23. No fooling.
Consider Daniel, a young slave in my soon-to-be-published novel Price of Passage.
Daniel felt like a motherless child. His heart thumping, he crouched in the weeds between two of Mister Davis’s warehouses, not far from Mister Davis’s wharf. . . .
The steamboat idled a few yards away.
Torchlight from the wharf made his task more difficult, yet not impossible. . . .
Daniel darted across the open ground. He slipped into the water. His toes sank in warm mud. He waded chest-deep in brown water to the boat. With strong shoulders, he pulled his slim body over the low rail. . . . The deck gang shouted as they drew in the gangplank. The side wheels churned, and the boat backed away from Hurricane Landing. . . .
Light from the landing faded away when the boat turned upriver.
Daniel had been born on Hurricane Plantation, had never left its boundaries. Now he would see the rest of the world. As the wooded shore slid by, lit by stars and a sliver of April’s waning moon, he reckoned he had never traveled so fast. Oh, Mammy, look at me now.
Daniel is a fictional character, but Hurricane Plantation was a real historical place. It was owned by Joseph Emory Davis, whose younger brother Jefferson would lead the Confederacy.
Joseph Davis worked for years as a lawyer and invested his earnings in Mississippi Delta cotton land, and slaves to work it. He became one of the wealtiest planters in the state and owned more than three hundred African Americans.
Under the sway of utopian reformer Robert Owen, Davis sought to establish a harmonious, and therefore profitable, community based on the master-slave relationship. He provided better-than-usual quarters, clothes, and bedding, more varied and plentiful food. Going beyond physical measures, he established limited self-government, setting up a slave court “where no slave was punished except on conviction by a jury of his peers.” Davis also encouraged his slaves to gain skills in areas that interested them. He allowed them to keep money they earned beyond the value of their labor as field hands. And they could sell their own poultry, eggs, and firewood for in the local economy.
Davis believed Owens’s dictum: “There is but one mode by which man can possess all the happiness his nature is capable of enjoying—that is by the union and co-operation of all for the benefit of each.”
It never occurred to him that the very foundation of slavery—one person owning another—might be incompatible with an ideal society.
A Remarkable Slave
One slave stood out among all others at Hurricane. Benjamin Thornton Montgomery tried to escape but came to terms with Davis when he was made manager of the plantation store. His ability and enterprise led Davis to place him in charge of all purchasing and shipping operations.
Montgomery learned to read and write. He mastered land surveying, flood control, architectural design, machine repair, and steamboat navigation. He made himself a skilled mechanic and inventor and applied for a patent on a new steam-operated propeller for shallow-draft boats.
When the Civil War came and the master of Hurricane Plantation fled the advancing Union troops, it was Montgomery who kept the place going. Resourcefully, he found ways to keep his fellow slaves employed and fed. After the war, he bought the plantation from Davis on a land contract and continued to provide an economic base for the Black community. But in 1876, catastrophic floods made him default on payments, and the land reverted to the Davis family.
Montgomery died the following year. His son, Isaiah, struggled to keep his dream alive, leading a group of former slaves to establish the town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi, in 1887 as a majority African-American community.
Most Black slaves in the South worked and lived under far less favorable conditions. But they did not simply wait for the U.S. government to emancipate them. There was another option.
Colonies of self-liberated Blacks laid low in swamps and upland forests, sometimes under the noses of their former masters. Dubbed “slavery’s exiles” by historian Sylviane A. Diouf, these reclusive plantation refugees are known to history as maroons.
Unlike the better-documented maroons of the Caribbean basin, the ones who lived in ethe United States are poorly represented in historical accounts. Their colonies, hidden away in every slave state, were small compared to those ofd Brazil, Surinam, Hispaniola, or Cuba. Official records usually called them truants, runaways, or banditti.
But they were more than that. They were organized communities of sub rosa freedom.
Marronage was a hard life that involved hunger, cold, danger, and much privation. Many maroons were caught by professional slave hunters and driven back to the plantations. Many others perished in the woods. But there were those like Thompson West of Plaquemine, Louisiana, who held out until the Yankees arrived and then walked out of the woods, saying, “I’m a free man!”
What about those African Americans who were already free? At the start of the Civil War, almost half a million free Blacks lived in the United States, South and North. Their numbers were continuously augmented as enslaved people fled their masters and established lives of freedom in northern cities and rural areas.
These people had a powerful interest in seeing their enslaved brothers and sisters liberated. They almost unanimously sided with the Union in the war. Many of them wanted to serve militarily.
Abolitionist Frederick Douglass, a self-liberated slave, declared, “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on the earth or under the earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.”
Douglass made this famous remark in April 1863, in the midst of a struggle to get Black Americans admitted to service in the U.S. Army. Everyone who has seen the film Glory knows that, despite African Americans’ willingness to serve, enlistment was denied them until about the mid-point of the war. The rationale was that “colored men won’t fight” or “they won’t make good soldiers.” It took the actual experience of several ground-breaking regiments such as the 54th Massachusetts to begin to dispel these myths.
A fact less well-known is that sailors of color were admitted to the U.S. Navy from the start. More than ten percent of the Continental Navy in the American Revolution was Black. Even more sewrved in state navies and on privateers. In the War of 1812, Blacks represented one-sixth of U.S. naval personnel. In the Civil War, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles authorized recruitment of escaped or liberated slaves in the Atlantic Blockading Squadron from September 1861. These new sailors supplemented many other African Americans already in the Navy. Blacks served on seven hundred Navy ships. Eight won the Medal of Honor for their service. These sailors of color were limited to low-level positions and served under conditions of inequality with white sailors. But serve they did, in large numbers.
A utopian plantation. An enterprising inventor/engineer slave. Self-governing communities of runaway slaves in the wilderness. Naval vessels with free Blacks and newly-liberated slaves in their crews.
None of these things are really surprising, if we remember that history is composed of millions of individuals with their own unique situations. They only seem surprising in the face of oversimplified assumptions gathered from popular sources.
I call these instances to your attention, Dear Reader, for selfish purposes. I want you to buy my book, Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation, when it comes out August 23. It is filled with little things like this. Things that may be unexpected but are nonetheless true.
I began writing this novel in the conviction that fiction can be a good way to tell the truth.
HISTORY IS NOT WHAT YOU THOUGHT.
Next Week—Some Uppity Women.
Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer
Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation, coming August 23. No fooling.
Our brains are stocked with tableaus sketched for us by parents, by teachers, by Hollywood. These static visions are partly true. But they are oversimplified. They dull our sense of wonder.
When we get down to actual cases, something magical happens. History stretches forth as a varied landscape, vividly peopled by wayward actors who refuse to stay on script.
HISTORY IS NOT WHAT YOU THOUGHT.
Nordic immigrants appear in the mind’s eye as quaintly dressed folk descending from a ship in New York harbor, then forging their way westward by wagon, oxcart, train, or even on foot, to reach Wisconsin, Minnesota, or the Dakotas—the paradise of a Scandinavian farmer’s dreams.
We have read this story in Ole Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth, or in Vilhelm Moberg’s The Emigrants. If you saw the Emigrants film back in 1971, your brain may show Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullman as the Swedish trekkers.
And if you happen to be descended from Norwegians or Swedes who did indeed follow this well-trod path, then you know the image is true.
Wait a minute.
What if I told you my great-great-grandfather, Anders Gunstensen, took a ship in 1853 from Norway to NEW ORLEANS, not New York? How does that affect the picture?
A Different Story
It’s true. Anders landed in the Crescent City. He was far from the only one. Many Norwegians, Swedes, and Danes entered America through its second-greatest seaport. These people must have been stunned—if not by the warmth and lush vegetation, then at least by the bouillabaise of nationalities, tongues, and skin tones encountered on the wharf at New Orleans.
And if stunned by these things, they must have been shocked to see African American slaves, human chattel herded like livestock to and from the auction block. This was something their kinfolk taking the northern route would not witness.
But hold on. Why, you might ask, would Northern Europeans sail the long way round, to fetch up on America’s south coast instead of the northeastern seaboard?
The U.S. railroad system was in its infancy. Modern highways did not yet exist. The broadest, swiftest, most sure-fire route to America’s heartland was the Mississippi River. Still, only a minority came through New Orleans. Most of the Scandinavians arrived at New York or Quebec and made their way by Great Lakes ships, canal boats, and the railroads just being built.
Many who came through New Orleans were recent Mormon converts. The Latter Day Saints began harvesting Nordic souls in 1850 and soon had thousands. Church doctrine required converts to gather in Zion—that is, Salt Lake City. In March 1853, a week before my ancestor Anders Gunstensen would arrive, a sailing frigate landed three hundred Danish Mormons in New Orleans. They took a steamboat up the Mississippi to St. Louis, where they caught another boat westbound up the Missouri, getting closer to their coreligionists in Utah.
But Anders was not a Mormon, nor did he emigrate for religious reasons. He wanted opportunities not available to him in Norway. So in February 1853, he sailed from Arendal on the brig Victoria. After arriving on the Gulf Coast, he traveled up the Mississippi and settled in Menard County, a place in the middle of Illinois, just north of Springfield.
Huh? Aren’t Norwegians supposed to go farther north?
Most of them did, but not Anders. He and a few fellow Nordmenn chose Menard County for reasons of their own—most likely following the lead of one Gunder Jørgen Nybro, who had arrived three years earlier.
With only a handful of Norwegians, they could not publish a Norsk newspaper like Nordlyset, established in Muskego, Wisconsin, by Even Heg, James Reymert, and others. Nor could a Norwegian in Menard County burrow into a large Scandinavian community and spend months or years learning the American language and folkways. No: Anders, Gunder Jørgen, and their friends had to deal with Americans, in English, from the start.
Our first Norwegian immigrants, Cleng Peerson and fifty-one fellow voyagers on the sloop Restauration, came to New York in 1825. Norwegian immigration peaked fifty-seven years later, in 1882.
In the 1850s, when Anders arrived, Norwegians were more footloose than they had been since Viking days. Decades of smallpox vaccinations had allowed Norway’s population to grow explosively. With only three percent of her land arable, something had to give.
Norwegians have never been daunted by ocean waves. They headed for America, filling old-fashioned sailing vessels in the days before widespread use of ocean-going steamships. Even as early as 1853, travel to America was no strange thing.
In March 1853, besides Anders Gunstensen and three hundred Danish Mormons, New Orleans hosted violinist Ole Bull, who performed a series of “farewell” concerts in Odd Fellows’ Hall, with nine-year-old singing sensation Adelina Patti. Bull was no stranger to America, having visited first in 1843. In 1852, he had founded a visionary colony called New Norway in Pennsylvania but soon gave up on the endeavor, which was not an agricultural success.
Norwegians were exploring the world, particularly the United States. They found it inviting. And they did not all settle in Wisconsin and Minnesota.
HISTORY IS NOT WHAT YOU THOUGHT.
Next Week—The Black Experience.
Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer
Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation, coming August 23.
In 1856, on the Illinois prairie, Norwegian farmers ANDERS and MARIA encounter DANIEL, a young fugitive slave. Will they do their legal duty by turning him in? Or will they break the laws of their new country and put their lives at risk to aid Daniel in his bid for freedom?
That’s not really a story. It’s more like a situation, a setup. But it’s a start.
In historical fiction, an author wants to pay attention to the underlying morality of the situation. But you have to build on that. The story of Anders, Maria, and Daniel, as mentioned above, is incomplete without some sense of where Anders and Maria have come from, to be newly-arrived Scandinavian immigrants in central Illinois.
One also ought to sketch Daniel more fully. What kind of slave life is he trying to escape from? What are his chances? What will he do with his new freedom, if he makes his escape good?
There are more questions than answers.
It’s notable that Anders, Maria, and Daniel all arrived at the same place in 1856—just when the nation’s quarrel over slavery was starting to come to a head. John Brown was murdering pro-slavery men in Kansas about this time. The Dred Scott decision, which gave iron force to the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, would come along in early 1857. Lincoln and Douglas would contest for the Illinois Senate seat in a series of debates in 1858. Brown would show up again, this time raiding the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, in 1859. The pot was coming to a boil.
How would these events affect Anders? Maria? Daniel?
It’s all there in Price of Passage—A Tale of Immmigration and Liberation, coming August 23 from DX Varos Publishing.
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Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer
Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation, coming August 23. No fooling.