School Days–A Remembrance

When I was six and a quarter, in September 1951, we moved to Streator, Illinois.

After Dad got his bachelor’s degree at Knox College, we had moved away from Galesburg—away from Dale and Hado, away from warm-globed lamps on purple-bricked streets, away from iceboxes and late-night card games and the rumble of freight cars in the night—to little Dwight, a hundred miles east. Dad taught chemistry in the high school there. After two years, he threw in the towel and got a job that paid a living wage, working as an analytical chemist for the Smith-Douglass Fertilizer Company in Streator.

Dad about 1950.

My sister, Cynda Jo, had been born in 1950, when we lived in Dwight. With that single exception, we left the town no richer than we came.

The house we rented in Streator was on First Street, in the shadow of the Owens-Illinois glass bottle factory. The house was small, but we were a small family.

My father was a slender twenty-nine-year-old with brownish hair, a high forehead, and wire-rimmed glasses—studious in appearance, methodical in all his doings. A scientist by nature. He was sociable, even garrulous, yet far from smooth or accomplished in social graces. He was a nice guy, might say, even if he seemed a bit bewildered. He could bore you with things you did not want to know, yet clam up about things you did want to know.

Mom’s 1940 graduation picture.

My mother was our dynamo. She was a statuesque blonde, also twenty-nine—beautiful, smart, energetic, and hard-headed. She was a flash typist and stenographer, with perfect spelling and grammar. She had the drive and determination that Dad seemed to lack. She was forthright. She would tell you what was on her mind, often in terms you could not figure out.

Cynda, about age 3.

Cynda Jo, my little sister, was sixteen months old when we moved to Streator. She was beginning to walk and talk. Already her personality seemed, from my perspective, crabby and self-centered.

Me? I was high-spirited and inquisitive. I still thought I could decipher the world’s secret code. I was eager to start school. When I finally got there, it was a smashing success. 

#

Our teacher, Miss Gamble, showed us a picture on a big white card. There was a boy named Dick and a girl named Jane. 

“They are brother and sister,” said Miss Gamble. She pointed to words printed in big letters under Dick: “Look. Look. I can see.”

There were words under Jane also: “Look, Dick. Look. Can you see?”

The poetry of Dick and Jane. Fair use photo.

The speeches were not very interesting, but I could read them. “Look” had different letters, and a different shape, from “see.” They meant the same thing but sounded different. You could tell which was which by their shapes. Other words, like “I” and “can,” had other shapes.

It was my first day of school, ever, and already I could read! This was a promising development.

#

I soon learned that reading was a little more involved. There was something called “phonics,” which meant you had to know the sound of each letter. The great benefit was that you could look at a word and “sound it out.” You did not have to know what a word was already. You could figure out the code on your own. This appealed to me. 

Naturally, there were oddities. For example, f was sometimes spelled ph. Even so, it was a kind of system one could master.

There was also a social system, which was harder to master. 

#

A skinny kid named Allen and his chunky cousin Donny Bill sometimes blocked my path home from school. They were well-known bullies, with a little gang of hench-kids who aided their bullying. None of them struck me, but they danced around, made fun of me, called me names—especially when I walked home hand-in-hand with a cute little girl named Mary Lou.

I knew not what to make of these kids’ rudeness. What if they went from taunts to actual hitting? How could I protect myself? The idea of counter-punching, of bravely facing them down, was nowhere in my brain. 

When I confided in Mom, she told me to stand up for myself. I could not imagine what she was talking about. She said, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”

One winter day when Allen’s gang bothered me on my way home, Roger Benckendorf, my next-door neighbor, stepped in. Roger was in fourth grade and towered over my tormentors. He took Al, Donny Bill, and their friends aside. They all stood in the dirty purple snow at the side of the street. 

“Look, youse kids,” said Roger in a voice that was soft yet just loud enough I could hear every word. “Larry is my friend. Youse lay off of him, see? Leave him be, if you know what’s good for youse.”

Just like that, my problem was solved. 

It pays to have friends.

#

After Roger solved my problem, Mom kept trying to solve it, by interpreting Allen to me. 

“He’s a year older,” she said. “He had rheumatic fever and was off school a year. Because of that, people spoiled him. So now he thinks he’s king of the mountain, and he hasn’t got any real friends of his own. That’s why he acts like a bully.”

She arranged a play date. Allen and his family lived up the street from us, in a two-story house. I showed up at the appointed time. Al answered the door and let me in. “You wanna go upstairs and play with my train?”

Lionel passenger cars, ca. 1950.

“Sure.” I followed him up to a large room. A big oval of track was laid out on the shiny hardwood floor. A couple of switches formed an inner loop. There was a Lionel diesel-style engine and a long string of passenger cars, all identical, a dozen or more. 

Al worked the lever to speed the train around the track, occasionally flipping the control buttons for the switches. 

It was interesting to watch these operations. Here was something I could surely master.

“Let me try,” I said.

Al’s eyes flashed. “No,” he commanded. “You watch. I run the train.”

He had invited me upstairs to play with his train. But he didn’t mean that. He meant that he would play and I would watch.

I was no longer afraid of Al. Somehow, it now seemed he was afraid of me.

Feeling embarrassed for him, I left. 

I didn’t need to play with his train as much as he needed to be the only one who played with his train.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

Charlie Nash’s Big Guy

It was the size of a double-wide house trailer, but flashier. Green and silver and glass and shiny, like a future mode of transportation.

I didn’t think Galesburg had seen anything like it before, and in fact the old town might not be ready for it yet. It was only 1963.

I leaned on the lampost at Simmons and Cherry, watching. In five minutes, the thing did not move. The only hint of its identity was a big sign on a steel pole: CHARLIE NASH’S BIG GUY. 

Some clue. 

The green panels are now red, and the sign has changed; but in six decades, the future mode of transportation, pictured here with a couple of present modes of transportation, has still not moved. Photo from Google Earth 18 July 2022.

I went in. Tables and chairs stood along the front windows. On the other side, a short man in a white shirt stood behind a counter. His crewcut head resembled a ripening peach. 

“What is this place—a restaurant?” 

“Could be,” the man said. “You need a job? Where you from?” 

“Kenosha. Wisconsin.”

“Kenosha, fancy that. I’m from Fort Wayne.” He stuck out his hand. “Charlie Nash, the Fort Wayne Flash.” 

Perhaps I gave him a strange look, for he winked. “That’s okay. I need a busboy-dishwasher-salad set-up man for the noon rush. You can be the Kenosha Flash. Think you can handle it?”

I mentioned my weeks of service at the Keno Family Drive-in Theater concession stand. 

We shook hands.

#

Charlie Nash turned out to be a peach of a boss. He taught me to run the dishwasher and how to set up salads and garnishes. When things were slack, he taught me to grill hamburgers and manufacture his signature sandwich, the double-decker “Big Guy” with shredded lettuce and Charlie’s special secret sauce. “It’s just tartar sauce,” he said, “but we’re the only ones that use it on hamburgers.” Contrary to my expectations, it was tasty.

In between rushes, he taught me all I know to this day about sports betting. If I give you Notre Dame and six-and-a-half points, my team needs to beat the Irish by a touchdown.

I worked all that autumn from eleven to one, six days a week, at a dollar per hour, which was standard for scullery work in those days. I believe Harley made a dollar and a quarter an hour, or maybe a dollar and a half. Harley was the actual fry cook, spinning out Big Guys and all sorts of other burgers during the thick part of the noon rush. 

Harley was gaunt, lanky. He had a tattoo on one hand and smoked Kools, a dire mentholated cigarette brand. Harley was a rough customer, with greasy black hair and a wasted look, like Johnny Cash before June Carter got hold of him. He was middle aged—like forty-five, only maybe he was thirty-five and looked ten years older, if you know what I mean. Haggard look aside, he seemed like a nice guy, quiet and reserved.

Charlie Nash’s only reservation, which he told me in private, was that periodically Harley did not show up on Monday morning. That meant he was “off on a toot” and would come dragging in two days later, after the hangover had passed and he remembered he still needed money. 

Another employee, who probably made a dollar ten plus tips, was Winnie. She was, like me, a Knox student. Only she was a first-semester freshman, whereas I was a sophomore. She was a bustling hive of competence, her waitress uniform packed with capabilities. 

It was a joy to watch Winnie work. I was not the only spectator. I think quite a few of the regular lunchtime guys actually came to ogle Winnie.

One day in late October, lunch counter heroism was called for. There was no Harley, which was not terribly unusual. But there was also no Winnie. More than sixty dollars was missing from the till. 

“We won’t see them again,” Charlie said. “They’ve probably gone off to Peoria, and who-knows-where after that.” Sixty bucks could take them quite a ways. It would be a couple of weeks before they really needed to work. They could be in Wichita by then.

Charlie looked fuzzily forlorn, let down by those he had trusted. But he took the loss like a philosopher, not being the kind of guy who would hold a grudge. 

His wife, whose name I no longer recall, issued quite a few “Hmpfs” as she dashed about the small diner, taking orders and clearing tables. But she was a loyal trooper. You could tell this was not the Nashes’ first disaster.

We survived the day and carried on. 

Harley’s absence got me promoted to approximately one-half dishwasher-busboy-setup man, and about one-half short-order cook. By then I knew the menu and could turn out each item flawlessly, thus giving Charlie the breathing space to schmooze with the customers, a vital necessity of trade.

#

One day a month later, as I was shucking my apron to return to campus for afternoon classes, an old kibbitzer at the counter made some wisecrack about “what Kennedy got,” which puzzled me. I paid attention to the news in those days, but I didn’t know what Kennedy had gotten. 

The Galesburg Register-Mail’s printing plant was just a block west of my route back to campus, and I jogged over there to see the morning’s headlines. The pressmen always wrote them in crayon on a big sheet of newsprint and taped it in the window before they took the afternoon paper to press.

This day no headline sheet was posted. The big press visible through the window stood idle, no pressmen in sight.

As I walked back to school, I saw no other pedestrians. No cars cruised the streets. I seemed to be the only citizen at large. 

A figure came toward me from Seymour Union, the main gathering place for Knox students. It was Ray Gadke, a campus personality.

“Hi, Ray,” I said. “What do you know?”

“They killed him,” he said, tears flowing down his cheeks. He kept walking.

In 1963 there was only one television on campus. It was in Seymour Union. The place was packed. The television lounge was full, students and faculty members spilling into the halls. People leaned against walls. Some lay limp on the floor, sobbing. 

JFK in Dallas, 22 November 1963. Photo by Walt Cisco, Dallas Morning News. Public Domain.
Martin Agronsky. Public Domain.

You could not get near the big floor model TV set in the back corner of the lounge, but the volume was turned all the way up. Martin Agronsky, an NBC reporter, his voice trembling, stated that President Kennedy had been pronounced dead. 

#

Harley and Winnie never did come back. 

Neither did John Kennedy.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

Spoon River

Violin. Auckland War Memorial Museum, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0
Fiddler Jones
The earth keeps some vibration going
There in your heart, and that is you.
And if the people find you can fiddle,
Why, fiddle you must, for all your life.
What do you see, a harvest of clover?
Or a meadow to walk through to the river?
The wind’s in the corn; you rub your hands
For beeves hereafter ready for market;
Or else you hear the rustle of skirts
Like the girls when dancing at Little Grove. . . . 
Spoon River Anthology, first edition, in its original dust jacket, quoting a laudatory review. Fair use.

Galesburg’s literary fame does not rest only on the shoulders of Carl Sandburg and Jack Finney. There is also Edgar Lee Masters (1868-1950), who published a poetry collection titled Spoon River Anthology in 1915.

Usually we think of an anthology as a collection of poems or other content by various authors. Spoon River Anthology still qualifies in a sense, because its central conceit is that each poem is voiced by a deceased town resident speaking from the grave. The lives and viewpoints thus chronicled are diverse and lively. Consider the reminiscence of a long-lived lady, with its flinty valedictory:

Lucinda Matlock

I went to the dances at Chandlerville,
And played snap-out at Winchester.
One time we changed partners,
Driving home in the moonlight of middle June,
And then I found Davis.
We were married and lived together for seventy years,
Enjoying, working, raising the twelve children,
Eight of whom we lost
Ere I had reached the age of sixty.
I spun,
I wove,
I kept the house,
I nursed the sick,
I made the garden, and for holiday
Rambled over the fields where sang the larks,
And by Spoon River gathering many a shell,
And many a flower and medicinal weed—
Shouting to the wooded hills, singing to the green valleys.
At ninety-six I had lived enough, that is all,
And passed to a sweet repose.
What is this I hear of sorrow and weariness,
Anger, discontent and drooping hopes?
Degenerate sons and daughters,
Life is too strong for you—
It takes life to love Life.

The young Edgar Lee Masters. Photo by unknown photographer. Public domain.

Born in Kansas, Edgar Lee Masters grew up in Illinois—first at Petersburg in Menard County, then in Lewistown, Fulton County, where he attended high school and had his first publication in the Chicago Daily News. In 1889-1890 he attended the Knox Academy in Galesburg, a college-prep school run by Knox College in those days, but was forced to drop out for financial reasons.

Masters became an attorney, poet, biographer, and dramatist. He published twelve plays, twenty-one books of poetry, six novels and six biographies, including those of Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Vachel Lindsay, and Walt Whitman. None of these many works ever matched the success of his graveyard poems collected under the banner of Spoon River—a quiet stream that drains the prairies east and south of Galesburg, snaking its way down to the Illinois River at Havana.

Spoon River at Seville in Fulton County. NOAA photo. Public Domain.

Here are more examples of Masters’s craft:

Griffy the Cooper
The cooper should know about tubs.
But I learned about life as well,
And you who loiter around these graves
Think you know life.
You think your eye sweeps about a wide horizon, perhaps,
In truth you are only looking around the interior of your tub.
You cannot lift yourself to its rim
And see the outer world of things,
And at the same time see yourself.
You are submerged in the tub of yourself—
Taboos and rules and appearances,
Are the staves of your tub.
Break them and dispel the witchcraft
Of thinking your tub is life
And that you know life.
Mrs. George Reece
To this generation I would say:
Memorize some bit of verse of truth or beauty.
It may serve a turn in your life.
My husband had nothing to do
With the fall of the bank—he was only cashier.
The wreck was due to the president, Thomas Rhodes,
And his vain, unscrupulous son.
Yet my husband was sent to prison,
And I was left with the children,
To feed and clothe and school them.
And I did it, and sent them forth
Into the world all clean and strong,
And all through the wisdom of Pope, the poet:
“Act well your part, there all the honor lies.”
The Village Atheist
Ye young debaters over the doctrine
Of the soul’s immortality
I who lie here was the village atheist,
Talkative, contentious, versed in the arguments
Of the infidels. But through a long sickness
Coughing myself to death I read the
Upanishads and the poetry of Jesus.
And they lighted a torch of hope and intuition
And desire which the Shadow
Leading me swiftly through the caverns of darkness,
Could not extinguish.
Listen to me, ye who live in the senses
And think through the senses only:
Immortality is not a gift,
Immortality is an achievement;
And only those who strive mightily
Shall possess it.

Generations of students have read these poems—in other anthologies, fittingly, high school anthologies—and, perhaps in olden days, memorized some of them, free verse and all. They were, among other things, indicators of the stern and happy potentialities of life. I do not know whether Spoon River Anthology still holds a place in public school curricula. If not, we are the poorer for it.

Wikipedia notes, “Masters died in poverty at a nursing home on March 5, 1950, in Melrose Park, Pennsylvania, age 81. He is buried in Oakland cemetery in Petersburg, Illinois.” I wonder if he felt at all like his creation, Fiddler Jones—

. . . How could I till my forty acres
Not to speak of getting more,
With a medley of horns, bassoons and piccolos
Stirred in my brain by crows and robins
And the creak of a wind-mill—only these?
And I never started to plow in my life
That some one did not stop in the road
And take me away to a dance or picnic.
I ended up with forty acres;
I ended up with a broken fiddle—
And a broken laugh, and a thousand memories,
And not a single regret.

To have left on earth behind you some bit of music, art, or poetry, quivering in the air for those with ears to hear—perhaps it’s not such a bad epitaph.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

Through the Lens Backwards

Today, Galesburg, Illinois, is unprepossessing. My old hometown has seen better days. As you drive through various residential neighborhoods, you see signs of urban decay. 

Still, there is a vitality. People are doing things. 

Main Street Underpass. Contractor photo.

New overpasses and underpasses have liberated Main Street traffic from its former bondage to the railroads’ freight-hauling schedules. 

The commercial section of Seminary Street was remodeled decades ago, its old brick pavement lovingly restored. Stores, restaurants, and a coffee shop line both sides of the street for a three-block stretch, south and north of Main. Establishments like the Landmark Café have been in business for a long time now and do a steady trade. Redevelopment of this old street is a retail success story.

Knox College looks prosperous. There are new buildings, and some of the old classics, such as Alumni Hall, have been rehabbed and repurposed beyond their former glory. The Knox Bowl football stadium is a big step up from the old field where we used to watch the hapless Siwashers struggle against the bruisers of Lawrence and St. Olaf. 

The very term “Siwashers,” once a proud and unique moniker, has been officially retired in favor of “Prairie Fire.” Ladies and gentlemen, applaud as the Knox Prairie Fire take the field. It doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but we learned in 1993 that “Siwash”—which the college had used in all innocence for nearly a century—was also an ethnic slur against Native Americans, used especially in the Pacific Northwest. 

Victorian house, Buffalo, New York. Note the fishscale siding on the tall mansard roof. Photo by Andre Carrotflower, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0.

Another sign of the times: There is now a nice soccer pitch beside the Knox Bowl. Not quite as nice as the gridiron for American football. Still, it’s something.

The tony streets north of Main in the central part of the city—Broad, Cherry, Prairie, Kellogg, and Seminary—are still lined with very nice, well-kept houses. Some of them are gorgeous Queen Annes or other late Victorian castles. Here and there one of these old dowagers crumbles down towards her foundations—neither rehabbed nor yet plowed under. Such eyesores tend to bring the neighborhood down. But it’s still a nice neighborhood. Some of the streets are still made of brick and lined with old globe-style streetlamps. 

Charming it is, as in quaint.

That fin-de-siècle architecture, and the town’s disused streetcar tracks, prompted the late Jack Finney to pen a classic short story called “I Love Galesburg in the Springtime.” In case anyone under sixty is reading this, I ought to explain the story’s title was a sidelong allusion to a line from “I Love Paris,” a very popular song penned by Cole Porter in 1953.

Finney, a Milwaukee native, was a 1934 Knox college graduate. Most of his best work was what today we call speculative fiction—a mélange of sci-fi, fantasy, and magical realism. The basic thrust of “I Love Galesburg in the Springtime” was a comforting conceit that the old red-brick and fishscale-sided town was possessed by a benevolent antiquarian spirit which actively subverted the schemes of developers to tear things down and modernize. 

You might not enjoy the story—if you can even find it. I, however, have long been captivated by Finney’s atavistic sensibility. 

James Daly in “A Stop at Willoughby.” CBS Television photo. Public Domain.

The late Rod Serling penned a favorite episode for the first season of The Twilight Zone called “A Stop at Willoughby.” In it, a harried, hounded, and henpecked New York ad exec looks out the window of his commuter train as he goes home in the evening and sees a little town called Willoughby—a town that’s never been on the train’s route before. 

In Willoughby, the sun always shines. A band plays in the park. Men and women in outdated garb stroll down streets traversed by horse-drawn rigs. Young boys roll hoops along board sidewalks. The ad man, portrayed by actor James Daly, longs for the slow-paced serenity of the little town. 

The story has a Serlingesque dark side in the harsh forces of modern life that impel the ad man to crave a life in Willoughby. I won’t reveal any spoilers, but my point is that the protagonist’s yearning to turn back the clock is pure Jack Finney. 

Maybe Jack was right. Maybe Galesburg harbors a stubborn, almost animate, resistance to change. Perhaps that’s why not everything has gone right for this grand old American city. 

But speaking as a native, I still love it—springtime, summer, or fall. 

Winter is another thing altogether.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

The Burg

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.

The original Ferris Wheel at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Public Domain.

Some of the memories attach to me. 

Body Snatchers cover. Fair use.

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.

Antecedents

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.

Icebox

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. 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

Knox County Romance

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. 

Abandoned brickyard in Ohio. Photo by Theodor Jung (1906-1996). Public Domain.

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.

Moonlit Panorama” by j.edward ferguson is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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.

Carl Sandburg in 1955. Photo by Al Ravenna, World Telegram. Public Domain.

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.

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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.

Sandburg’s birthplace. Photo by Robert Haugland, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

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.

More next time.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

A Flock of Recall

The tagline of this blog is “seeking fresh meaning in our common past.” It’s my mission as a writer. I’m all about the past. Especially, I take an interest in how the past comes down to the present, and what that means to us.

Sometimes a mere object flushes a covey of memories like doves bursting from cover into sunlight. Who can say the meaning? One must be content to list the fowl of the past and let them perch where they will in the present.

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I rummaged through a box of old junk—some to scrap, some to keep. My 7-year-old grandson, Tristan, said, “Bapa, what’s this?” 

It was a lighter—the self-capping Ronson type, not the Zippo type. A handsome thing in silver and white, it touted the Galesburg Register-Mail, “A Better Newspaper.” The gizmo enthralled Tristan, who had never seen one. He is mechanically inclined and immediately discovered that this thing flips its lid with a satisfying click every time you push its lever. There was no other effect—no spark or flame—because the lighter had lost both flint and fluid long ago. But the mere action itself: that, Tristan loved.

Circulation

I explained that it was used to light cigarettes back when everybody smoked. And that the reason we have this item is that my great-uncle, Harry Young, was circulation manager of the Galesburg Register-Mail in those days. Tristan’s eyes scrunched up the way they do when he’s working something out, so I told him what a circulation manager does; that many boys, not much older than Tristan, were hired to fling papers on porches all over Galesburg, Illinois, a city of 35,000; and that Uncle Harry made sure enough boys were hired and told them which houses were to receive the news.

There was more to it than that. Uncle Harry had overall responsibility for getting the paper out to all its customers. When a delivery was missed, the phone rang in Aunt Bertha and Uncle Harry’s house—in the middle of supper, for the Register-Mail was an afternoon rag. Uncle Harry usually had two or three spare copies on hand; so they would finish eating, get in the car, and drive the paper out to the stiffed subscriber. Then, if it was a nice summer evening, they might stop at Highlander’s for ice cream.

A Family Affair

In the late Forties, when I was a tot, my father attended Knox College on the GI Bill. Mom had a part-time job, but even so, we needed a bit more money. Uncle Harry hired Dad—that is, his niece Barb’s husband—to drive a Register-Mail route every afternoon to Bushnell, thirty miles south of Galesburg. All to make sure folks got their papers.

Aunt Jean worked as a secretary at the Register-Mail for a year or two after she graduated from Knoxville High School in 1952. I don’t know whether she worked in Circulation or elsewhere in the paper. In any case, being Harry Young’s niece was a good thing.

Aunt Bertha and Uncle Harry were family favorites. Down-to-earth, droll, with no children of their own, they doted on my mother and her six younger siblings. And, by extension, on me, my sister, and our cousins. They took us swimming at Lake Bracken. They had the whole family over for fish fries after they made a good catch.

Nothing lasts forever. Uncle Harry, a lifelong smoker, succumbed to emphysema. The  loss devastated Aunt Bertha. She did not long survive him.

A Presence

Even after their passing, the Register-Mail went on. It remained a presence in our lives.

In the 1960s, I attended Knox College following my father’s footsteps. For spending money I  worked the lunch rush in a hamburger joint, Charlie Nash’s “Big Guy” restaurant. One day, a lunch customer made a strange remark about President Kennedy; but I had hung up my apron, was on my way out the door, did not stop to inquire.

I walked a block out of my way to pass the Register-Mail on my way back to campus. The printing plant had a huge front window, so townspeople could see the paper printed. Pressmen would crayon headlines on a big sheet of newsprint and tape it up in the window, a preview of the day’s edition. If the news about Kennedy was important, I would see it in the pressroom window.

No sheet hung on the pressroom glass. The presses were still. No employees to be seen working inside. 

“They killed him.”

I walked back to school puzzled. The silence was eerie. No cars moved, as far as I remember. Near Seymour Hall, the student union, I encountered one living soul—a history major I knew, Ray Gadke. Ray walked toward me, away from the union. “They killed him,” he said, tears in his eyes. He staggered on by. 

We had only one television on campus. It was a floor-model Sylvania with a fine wood cabinet and commanded form one corner the Seymour Lounge, a large room with lots of sofas and chairs. Students, professors, administrators, staff members occupied all the furniture, leaned on walls or pillars, sat on the floor. It was a scene of flowing tears, faces frozen in shock.

The sound was cranked all the way up. Martin Agronsky of NBC-TV News announced  that the president had died.

You know the rest, if you were alive then. If not, you have heard all about it all your life. No point rehashing it. It’s just that it comes up, inevitably, when a flock memories is flushed out by the mere mention of the Galesburg Register-Mail.

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Someday I’ll share all of these things with Tristan. He knows that Uncle Harry worked for the paper, managed the lads who delivered it across town; and that the lighter itself makes a delightful click. That’s enough for now. 

But we’ll hang on to the lighter, for the time being. 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Larry F. Sommers

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

No No Nostalgia

Never imagine, Dear Reader, that these treks into our common past are the sloppy rants of a senile mind deranged by worship of the roseate past. I seek a narrative in which the past informs the present and even the future. 

Still, nostalgia can’t help creeping in. It’s only natural. That’s what nostalgia does. 

Some folks think we are damned lucky to have stumbled into the light of the present from out of the stinking cesspit of the past; others see that same past as a golden age casting its fading twilight beams on the regrettable present. These are, seriously, two competing theories of history. Both are fueled by powerful emotions as much as by objective facts.

Two Views of History

A confused undergraduate at Knox College in the 1960s, I mumbled through a seminar taught by Prof. Douglas Wilson, which compared the writings and worldviews of Samuel Clemens (“Mark Twain,” 1835-1910) and Henry Adams (1838-1918). The two men were contemporaries; they lived through pretty much the same history. Yet they brought with them different backgrounds, and they reached different conclusions. 

In those days I was not paying much attention to scholarship, but I seem to recall hearing that Clemens, who when young had piloted the era’s most advanced riverboats, undeniably belonged to the forward-looking 19th century. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court was written by one who saw antiquity as not merely quaint but benighted and probably dangerous. Even in his literary life he embraced modernity, from the typewriter to the Paige compositor, an early typesetting machine. A modern man. 

Photo by Michael D Beckwith on Unsplash

Henry Adams was the scion of New England’s most distingished family. The great Adamses—Samuel, John and Abigail, and John Quincy (Henry’s grandfather)—were denizens of the recent past, imbibers of the heady wine of revolution and republicanism. But Henry’s own eyes had seen the disastrous Civil War and the rapacious, ugly “Gilded Age” that followed. These alarming developments neither Henry nor his scholar-diplomat father, Charles Francis Adams, could prevent. In later years, Henry adored the High Gothic period—the last time, as he saw it, that mankind was united around high Christian principles. The Gothic arch symbolized, to him, the rapid plunge from an unsustainable zenith. All the glories of the West were doomed to perdition.

Jack Finney

In times of stress and disintegration, people yearn for simpler, more graceful and natural times. This came to mind on a recent reading—in some cases, a re-reading—of short stories by Jack Finney (Walter Braden Finney, 1911-1995), collected in a 1986 book called About Time.

Finney, another Knox College alum, was a successful fiction writer from the 1930s through the 1980s. He specialized in evoking the pleasant reverberations of days gone by. Many of his stories featured time travel, in one way or another. Most of them were a little spooky—paranormal, if you will. He is fondly remembered for his novel Time and Again, in which a 1960s ad agency man is selected for a secret government project to travel back in time—back to the New York City of 1911, to be precise. His other major work was The Body Snatchers, which was adapted for film under the title Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It is, as far as I can tell, the locus classicus for the concept of “pod people” intent on replacing Earth’s citizens, one by one, with exact but soulless duplicates. Told through Finney’s trademark regular-guy persona, the prospect is remarkably chilling.

Even in Body Snatchers, Finney displays a concern with the gradual deterioration of a gracious social and physical environment over time; but it’s even more prominent in Time and Again and in his many short stories, such as “I Love Galesburg in the Springtime.” On nearly every page we sense, through his fictional characters, the author’s yearning to be back “in the good old days.” 

Willoughby, Anyone?

Finney was not the only twentieth-century writer sounding that theme. Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling had a streak of it, as shown in “A Stop at Willoughby.” Serling’s own favorite story from the first season of the series, “A Stop at Willoughby” shows a modern New Yorker under pressure at home and at work, who discovers an special stop on his commuter train that leads to an idyllic town of the 1880s, a place where he longs to escape. I won’t spoil the ending, in case you wish to access it here.

Old codgers like me are easily beguiled by the charms of old times. We remember those times, and it is easier to remember the good bits than the other bits. But an honest understanding of history must include the dark spots. There were too many of them, and they contributed too much to our present straits, to think of omitting them.

At the same time, it seems to require the perspective of age to affirm, praise, and if possible rescue essential goods of the past that have been too easily swept aside, left bobbing in the wake of society’s mad rush to perfect the human beast in the present for the sake of a utopian future. 

Somewhere in the weighing and balancing of these conflicting claims, some valid, actionable truth of history may reside. I wouldn’t know. I only write the stories.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)