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.
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.
Gunsten Gundersen was the schoolmaster for the seacoast village of Øiestad, Norway. Christian Conradsen Nybro was a boat builder in that same small town.
The schoolmaster’s second son, Anders Gunstensen, and the boat builder’s eldest daughter, Johanne-Marie Elisabeth Nybro, married in Menard County, Illinois, in 1855.
Your New Favorite Writer is a great-great-grandson of those two Norwegian pioneers.
People in our family do not seem to believe that much is worth mentioning. I was a full-grown adult before my father thought to inform me that his mother—my Grandma Sommers— came from “Norwegian people down around Springfield.” This abrupt onset of Norwegian-ness took me by surprise.
But it was welcome news. Norwegians, of any sort, had to be more interesting than the rest of my relations.
With no clue what it meant to be a Nordmann, or how to be one, I joined the Sons of Norway to check it out. SoN lodge meetings and lutefisk dinners soon confirmed my ignorance. There was no doubt my blood flowed from the north. But my Norwegiosity was several quarts low.
I had grown up as a plain American. None of my kin spoke Norsk. My mom did not bake sand bakkels at Christmas. I envied my Nordic friends their silver-clasped, richly patterned Marius sweaters but did not invest the four hundred dollars to buy one for myself.
Years went by.
A Brief Essay
My wife, Joelle, qualified for a Sons of Norway genealogy badge by tracing my family tree. The final requirement was a brief biography of a Norwegian ancestor. Since Anders Gunstensen was my ancestor and not Joelle’s, she made me write the essay.
“Yes, Dear,” I mumbled. The project would be a distraction. I was focused on writing fiction. She was asking me to pivot and write two pages of nonfiction about my great-great-grandfather.
Cornered, with no way out, I glanced at the information Joelle had dug up. The more I read, the more I marveled. Anders emigrated to America in 1853 on the sailing brig Victoria, departing Arendal, Norway, in early February and landing at the end of March in . . . New Orleans.
Curiouser and Curiouser
New Orleans? Are you kidding me? Norwegians sail to New York, don’t they?
Not all of them. Anders didn’t. And after passing through New Orleans, he settled in Menard County, Illinois, near Springfield.
Wait a minute. Norwegians live up north—Wisconsin, Minnesota—don’t they?
Not all of them. Anders didn’t.
Two years after reaching America, he married Johanne-Marie Nybro, a Norwegian girl. Compatriots in a strange land they seemed, drawn together by a common language and culture.
But hold on, now. Anders and Johanne-Marie were not chance acquaintances. They came from the same hometown. She was the boat builder’s daughter, he the schoolmaster’s son. The village was only a few hundred people. Everybody went to the same church. Anders and Maria must have known each other all their lives.
Was There a Plan?
So, why didn’t they get married in Norway and then emigrate as a couple? They shipped separately, for some unknown reason. Maybe they had a pre-set plan to marry after arriving in the United States? Hmm. Unlikely. More likely, the decision to wed was made only later, after they reached America.
But unless they were planning as a couple, why would both be drawn to the same small county in Illinois? Old microfilms in the Wisconsin State Historical Society Library disclosed that Johanne-Marie’s cousin Gunder Jørgen Nybro had already settled in Menard County in 1850. Gunder Jørgen must have written home in praise of his place of settlement. Such a letter would be passed around, even read aloud at public gatherings. Everybody in Øiestad must have known, from Gunder Jørgen’s letter, that Menard County was THE place to go.
Anders, by the way, sailed from Norway February 9, the very day after his passport was granted. He did not wait for spring or summer, when the North Atlantic would be in a more friendly mood. It seemed to me that Anders left Norway in a big fat hurry.
Fact Into Fiction?
Still mumbling, I wrote the two-page biographical essay, which posed more questions than it answered, and we earned the lovely three-level badge for Norwegian genealogy. But the project left me frustrated, with open spaces in my ancestors’ biographies that likely would never be filled.
The obvious next move was to make up the answers and thereby convert my ancestors’ story to a fictionalized account. A historical novel.
The image of a footloose, 23-year-old Norwegian stepping ashore in 1853 New Orleans was irresistible. Anders the Nordic farm hand meets the lush warmth of a Louisiana spring. He sniffs fecund and beguiling odors, hears a polyglot of strange tongues, and sees a mix of people—rich, poor, merchants, townspeople. White, black, and brown. Some are free while others are slaves. Some, rich planters, have come to town to buy slaves, whom they regard as livestock.
The Question of Slavery
What would Anders have thought of slavery? America’s Peculiar Institution was an enigma to Norwegians. Scandinavian immigrants in general disapproved of slavery.
And purely from the standpoint of fiction: If this is going to be a historical novel with Anders as hero, of course he opposes slavery! Having gotten an eyeful of the slave trade during his sojourn in New Orleans, he would have been revolted.
Would he have left slavery behind when he traveled to make his home in Illinois? Not by a long shot, Gentle Reader.
The Prairie State swarmed with runaway slaves from Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, and points south. Chasing the slaves were slave catchers—bounty hunters empowered by the Fugitive Slave Law to capture slaves, even on “free” soil, and return them to their owners. As a settler in 1850s Illinois, would Anders not have met freedom-seeking slaves and their hunters?
Ole Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth and Vilhelm Moberg’s The Emigrants were trail-blazing novels of Scandinavian immigration, and Laura Ingalls Wilder sketched the lives of prairie sodbusters. A new book along these lines could hardly add anything.
But what if Anders and Johanne-Marie became abolitionists and Underground Railroad agents? “Norwegian immigrants aid enslaved African Americans.” That would be something new.
“You gotta lotta nerve”
How plausible is the premise? Did any Norwegian-Americans help fugitive slaves through the Underground Railroad? Alas, Dear Reader, I have not found any examples.
Norwegian immigrants were anti-slavery activists. A Norsk immigrant named Even Heg and his son Hans Christian collaborated with other Norwegians to publish Nordlyset (The Northern Light), a Norsk newspaper that was an organ of the Free Soil Party, pushing freedom for slaves.
Central Illinois, where Anders and Johanne-Marie settled, hosted plenty of Underground Railroad operations. At least nine sites in Menard County were stations or otherwise associated with Underground Railroad activity.
Norwegians in central Illinois, with no native-language press or other Scandinavian institutions, had to learn the English language and American ways quickly. Would not Anders have cultivated American mentors? Could those mentors be station agents for the Underground Railroad? Of course they could.
The factual, historical Anders, like thousands of Norwegians and other immigrants, joined the Union Army when war came. Not all Union soldiers were abolitionists, but some were. Anti-slavery principles must have been part of Anders’s decision to fight.
It is not at all far-fetched to imagine Norwegian farmers in the antislavery struggle. The Underground Railroad was an illegal clandestine movement, most of its operations conducted in secrecy. For that reason alone, its true facts will never be fully known by historians.
The point of a historical novel is not to narrate events that definitely happened. It is to tell a story that could have happened, by which the reader is entertained or informed.
A New Literary Work
So I embarked on writing my first novel, Freedom’s Purchase. Five years later, it is greatly improved and bears a new title: The Maelstrom. Johanne-Marie’s name has been shortened to the less tongue-twisting Maria. A few facts of family history have also been altered for the plot.
Most importantly, the antislavery theme, first conceived as merely one aspect of Anders’s and Maria’s struggle to adapt to life in America, took on a life of its own and became the main conflict of the book. The invented character Daniel, a runaway slave, came to embody in some way the whole institution of slavery. Thus The Maelstrom gives equal weight to the separate stories of Anders, Maria, and Daniel. It is a braided narrative of three interwoven strands.
Yet this book also is a dialogue between two different experiences of life—the immigrant experience of Anders and Maria, and the enslaved experience of Daniel and his friends. These two perspectives speak in ways that I hope are powerful, informative, and humane.
“But how dare you, a white American male, write a character like Daniel, representing the hopes and frustrations of black Americans whose lives you did not live?”
You may with equal logic inquire how I can write of Anders and Maria, whose life as nineteenth-century Scandinavian immigrant farmers was almost as remote to me as that of Daniel the slave.
The answer is the same in both cases: One can only do one’s best.
We have the right to invent stories. They need not be factual. We hope they may entertain, inform, and address something in our common humanity that readers will recognize as true.
His name was Franklin. Most folks around the small town of Knoxville, Illinois, called him Frankie.
He was the youngest of five children. At Knoxville High School he played football and basketball and ran track—as had his brothers Lloyd, Stanley, and Edward before him. He was a regular kid, good-looking, with a winning smile.
He graduated from high school in May 1941. Seven months later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and the United States went to war against the Axis Powers. Frankie enlisted as an Army Aviation Cadet on 3 April 1942.
In December, while he was in his year-long pilot’s training, his brother Stanley was killed flying a B-17 in the Southwest Pacfic. Frankie graduated from Advanced Flying School and was commissioned a second lieutenant 12 April 1943. After a week-long home furlough and a brief training assignment in Florida, he left for England.
They sent him to RAF Chipping Ongar, near London, home of the U.S. Army Air Forces’ 559th Bomber Squadron, 387th Bomber Group, Medium. On 1 August, 1943, after 68.6 hours of training flights in the squadron’s twin-engined B-26 Marauders, he flew his first actual bombing mission. Through the end of August, he flew five training missions and five more combat missions, totaling 20.5 hours.
His seventh combat mission was on 2 September 1943. By this time he was the regular co-pilot on Aircraft 41-31629, Janet’s Dream, captained by First Lieutenant William F. Vosburgh.
Over Bergues, France, Janet’s Dream took flak—anti-aircraft artillery fire—in her right engine, and Frankie’s war ended. The Marauder broke up and crashed, killing Frankie, Vosburgh, and two others. Two back-end crewmen bailed out and became prisoners of war.
Frankie’s eldest brother Edward, a pilot for Pan American Airways, paid a visit to Frankie’s unit in England. He collected Frankie’s things, talked with his commander and fellow fliers. Frankie had been well-liked, a “regular guy” and was the “banker” of the outfit—always had a few bucks he could lend to a fellow aviator in need.
“Hap” Arnold, Commanding General, Army Air Forces, sent my grandparents a letter that read almost as if he knew young Franklin William Sommers personally.
“It has come to my attention that Lieutenant Sommers, a highly regarded graduate of the Advanced Flying School at La Junta, Colorado, was a brave and conscientious officer. He attained success in his effort to perform his duties in a superior manner and his commanding officers were pleased with his accomplishment of difficult tasks which they entrusted to him. Amiable and dependable, he made friends easily, and he is keenly missed in the activities of his group.”
Though doubtless they knew it was War Deparment boilerplate, this stately prose must have given them some comfort.
Frankie was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart. His remains were buried in Plot A, Row 14, Grave 32 at the Normandy American Cemetery, Colleville-sur-Mer, France.
Frankie was 20 when he died, unmarried and childless.
I was born almost two years later, never having known my Uncle Franklin—who now lives on only in my middle name, and in a few yellowing letters and photos.
All of that was three-quarters of a century ago. What has it to do with today?
Through life my friends have generally known me as Larry Sommers; but when I launched my writing career at age 70, I did so as Larry F. Sommers. I thought it had implications for author branding. “Larry Sommers” was plain vanilla; but “Larry F. Sommers” was premium vanilla.
Besides that trivial consideration, I’m starting to understand that my name is more authentic with the “F” included. Authenticity can’t be manufactured; it can’t be designed, can’t be faked. Authenticity is that ineffable quality of actually being who you really are.
My middle name, Franklin, claims the patrimony of my uncle’s remembrance. It is not something to be shucked off lightly. This man I never met gave his life for me before I was even conceived. He gave his life for all of us—one of many who did so in a dark chapter of the world’s story.
Unlike those many others, Frankie, and his older brother Stanley, were mine. I am bound to them by two bloods— the blood of kinship and the blood of sacrifice.
We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Our being is entangled in those we remember and perpetuate—ancestors, forerunners, pioneers of our civilization.
Whatever authenticity we may possess is a mix of individual traits with old associations. We are the sum of our present selves, our past, our family’s past, and our people’s past.
I never knew Uncle Stanley or Uncle Franklin. There is no need or mandate for me to carry their baggage, the burden of young lives so casually cast on history’s ash heap. Yet, wearing their mantle on my shoulders makes me more the person I am, not less.
You can be an atom, bouncing along in a hostile universe; or, with God’s grace and your own awareness, you can purposely pitch your tent along the route of the grand parade. You can be one with your uncles, with your aunts, with Mister Lincoln, with Frederick Douglass, with the signers of the Magna Carta, with Leif Erikson and with Homer, who sang the tales of Odysseus the adventurer.
You can be part of all the glory of the human condition, but then you must be part of the pain also.
That, Gentle Reader, is what I mean by “seeking fresh meanings in our common past.”
A vast reach of flatness, wrinkled only where streams of water flow. Small towns wedged among square fields of corn or, in winter, corn stubble. A place where calendars yield only 1950s, and people come in all varieties of regular. In this place I am always a boy, roaming bemused through a tall prairie of grownups.
In 1953 I am eight years old. It is Thursday night, December 24. It’s already dark when Dad comes home at five. Mom bundles us into the car. It’s a 1939 Chevrolet like the ones in black-and-white gangster films. Dad drives, because I’m too young. (But if I had an electric train, I could drive that. How great would that be?)
I share the back seat with my teddy bear and my three-year-old sister, Cynda. Mom reaches over the seat and hands back a tuna sandwich on white bread. Cynda gets a sandwich too, but Teddy must be content to share mine.
The miles unspool, a ribbon of two-lane highway painted by headlights.
In a small town called Wenona there is a mountain, the only one I have ever seen. Dad says it’s only a hill of coal mine tailings. By day it is a pink cone that sticks up like a huge pimple on the skin of Illinois. By dark, we can see it only because someone has placed a five-pointed star of colored lights on its top for Christmas.
We zoom along at fifty miles per hour. (By the way, did you know there is no top speed limit on electric trains? Another advantage.)
We have eaten our sandwiches. Cynda has given up on crawling all over the back seat and has gone to sleep. I curl up with Teddy by the cold glass of the window and watch the night go by. Here and there a light gleams from a farmyard. Not much else out there.
Near Princeville, a wooden barricade like a sawhorse juts into the road to keep us from driving into a hole. It is marked by round pot flares, like black bowling balls with little orange flames flickering from their tops.
After two hours we arrive in Knoxville, a town of 2,000 souls, many of them our relatives. Dad drives past the old courthouse, makes two left turns, and parks in front of Grandma and Grandpa LaFollette’s one-story house.
At the party
Inside, a party is already going on. Uncle Dick and Uncle Garrett kneel on the floor, unscrewing and replacing colored bulbs in a string of unlit lights. Richard Henderson, Aunt Jean’s skinny boyfriend, stands by, cracking jokes and handing them new bulbs. Suddenly the many-colored lights blink on. Everybody claps.
The grownups stand around drinking from red glasses.
“What’s in the glasses?” I ask.
Dad takes a sip from his. “Mogen David and Coke,” he says.
“It’s wine,” Mom says. “Only for the grownups.”
Grandpa comes in from outside, holding a metal pitcher. He pours from the pitcher into the big brown heater that stands out from one wall of the living room. The stuff he pours in has a funny smell. I like the heater because you can look through a round window on its front and see orange and blue flames dancing inside.
By now, the uncles have draped the lights all around the skinny balsam that stands in the middle of the wall across from the heater. Mom and Grandma and Aunt Sue and Aunt Linda hang glass balls, bells, and tinsel on its branches. “That looks real nice,” Grandpa says.
Grandma has placed white fluffy cotton on the window sills. It’s supposed to be snow, and on it stand plastic reindeer and Santas. One is a red plastic Santa with a brown pack on his back. He is not in his sled but stands on a pair of green plastic skis, ready to deliver his gifts on foot. I like this Santa best, because of the skis. I can make believe the skis allow him to fly, like ski jumpers in the newsreels at the Earl Theater, even though he has no reindeer. I lift him off the cotton, fly him in circles through the air, and bring him in for a perfect ski landing.
Grandma and Grandpa and all the aunts and uncles make a fuss over Cynda, because she now walks quite well. She stalks all around the room. “My, how she’s grown!” Big deal. I could walk years ago.
The other grandparents
After a long time, we get back in the car and drive Main Street to the other end of town. Even though all the Christmas fun happens at Grandma and Grandpa LaFollette’s, we are going to stay with Grandma and Grandpa Sommers. Their house is quiet, except when Grandpa shouts or curses about something. We have to stay with them because they have enough room for us. Uncle Stanley and Uncle Franklin died in the war. Uncle Ed and his family live in England; Aunt Mabel and her family are in California. We’re the only ones left who live close enough to spend Christmas with Grandma and Grandpa Sommers.
It’s not so much fun at their house, and I’m afraid of Grandpa. But it is kind of nice to stay there on the night before Christmas. They have a tree, but not a lot of other decorations. Only, in the front window of the side room where Cynda and Teddy and I will sleep, Grandma has hung an electric candle with a single blue bulb. When we’re tucked into bed and the lights are turned off, the blue light from the candle glances off many points in the silvery wreath that surrounds it. It is pretty.
I can imagine Santa and his reindeer, or maybe Santa on skis, just outside that window, just beyond the blue candle. I hope this year he’ll bring me an electric train, or else a trap drum set like the one in the Sears catalog.
I want to stay awake long enough to see him arrive, but somehow I never quite make it. . . .
Some of Wisconsin’s best writers hail from the Flatlands. Kristin A. Oakley is one of those.
Oakley’s novel Carpe Diem, Illinois (Little Creek Press, 2014) is a mystery, a suspense thriller, and a romance. Dashing but troubled reporter Leo Townsend hopes to save his career by taking on a ho-hum assignment to profile a small town, Carpe Diem, that is a haven for home schoolers. Just when Townsend arrives to interview the mayor, things in Carpe Diem are heating up, due to an auto crash involving a local activist and the wife of a crusading state senator.
In the process of investigating the town, Townsend finds himself also investigating the accident. The lives and fortunes of the town’s residents—particularly its young, “unschooled” citizens—hang in the balance. There are lots of thrills and twists, and along the way we learn about the philosophy known as “unschooling,” a form of education in which “the children determine what they need to learn, when they will learn it, and how they go about it.”
The book is well-written and moves at a brisk pace. The reader winds up cheering not only for Leo Townsend but also for various teen and adult denizens of Carpe Diem. If you like to examine important social and educational issues in context of suspense and high drama, you’ll enjoy Carpe Diem, Illinois.
Kristin Oakley, who now lives in Madison, was a founder of In Print professional writers’ organization, is a board member of the Chicago Writers’ Association, and teaches in the UW-Madison Division of Continuing Studies writing program. She is also the mother of two daughters who were home schooled. You can find more about her at https://kristinoakley.net.
Carpe Diem, Illinois is the first book in the Leo Townsend series. The second, God on Mayhem Street, was released in August 2016.
When geezers gather, the gab gets garrulous. There is boasting value in extremes.
“We were so poor that the patches on our jeans, had patches on their jeans!”
“What! . . . You had jeans?”
Tales of poverty can still score points, but people who remember the Great Depression are mostly gone. So the extremest thing most of us can conjure these days is the weather.
Eco-warriors among us—whippersnappers!—construe any bump in the barometer, any thump in the thermometer, any slump in the sling psychrometer as a harbinger of the woe we are to reap from Global Warming. Well, maybe.
I can say this for sure: Nobody ever weathered weather like the weather we weathered, back in The Old Days. Gathered geezers may tell of the Terrible Winter of 1935-36, the Great Floods of ’93, the Summer That It Rained Alligator Eggs, or the Year With No Summer Atall. You never know, Dear Reader, when you may find yourself swamped in a five-hundred-year flood of such remembrances.
Winter of Purple Snow
When I mention the Winter of the Purple Snow, people look askance. When I claim that, actually, every winter in The Old Days was a winter of purple snow, a ceiling-mounted wide-angle lens would show a frenzy of Brownian motion away from me and toward the exits.
But it’s all true, every word. We did have purple snow, at least in Streator, Illinois, where my boyhood was misspent. Other cities must have had it, too.
Each winter, the snow tumbled down in December—pure, fluffy, altogether white. Over the next three days, the snow on the ground—not the snow in my backyard, but the snow on every city street—became empurpled. The cause of purple snow is easiest to explain in retrospect: Snow tires had not yet been invented.
In these apocalyptic times—even as we face continual peril from CNN-scale floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, and disaster films—one thing we no longer worry about, much, is sideways slippage on winter streets. All our cars wear radial tires. Radial tires slump a bit. This increases the surface that contacts the road, thus improves traction. Those who like to gild the lily may put on special “winter radial tires” in the fall. They have a deeper, more “road-gripping” tread design in addition to the famous radial slump. Most of us don’t feel a need for this. But before radial tires were invented, deep-tread “snow tires” were better than nothing.
However, in the 1950s, we didn’t even have those. There were only regular bias-ply or belted-bias tires. No special deep tread, no radial slump. They just perched on the ice and slid this way or that. In heavy snow, you might put messy, inconvenient “tire chains” on your tires. These were circular cages, made of interlinked chains, that enveloped each tire. They bit into the snow and ice. If you had to climb a long hill in the country, you needed chains. But on city streets that were half snow-covered and half clear, as is often the case, those chains chewed up the pavement, the tires, and themselves. So you didn’t use them any more than you had to.
“Where,” you ask, “is all this headed? Have you forgotten about the purple snow?” Stay with me, Kind Reader.
We needed something short of chains to help tires grip the street—especially at intersections, where most winter crashes occur. Sand would have been dandy. But why use expensive sand, when you can get crunchy, gritty cinders free of charge? This thrifty solution appealed to the city fathers in Streator and, I’ve got to believe, elsewhere.
You see, our houses were heated by coal. In Illinois, Mother Nature, 350 million years ago, had buried a generous layer of bituminous coal not far underground.
There are three forms, or “ranks,” of coal: anthracite, bituminous, and lignite. Lignite is brown, not much harder than the peat burned by poor Irish cottagers and rich Scottish distillers. Anthracite is hard, black, almost-a-diamond coal that’s mined in Pennsylvania. Bituminous is harder lignite but not as hard as anthracite. In other words, it is just right—not too hard, not too soft. Goldilocks would have used it in her furnace, for sure.
One ton of bituminous coal cost about five dollars—1950s dollars, that is. About fifty bucks in today’s money, so it wasn’t as cheap as it sounds. But if you could heat your house halfway through the winter on fifty dollars—that wouldn’t be so bad, would it? Bituminous coal was useful, abundant, and cheap.
But “O! The horror!” Did not all this burning coal cause sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, toxic metal residues, acid rain, air pollution, and so forth? Why, yes. It did. That is why we have air-quality regulations now, why the coal industry looks for low-sulfur deposits. It’s also why most coal-burning homes converted to gas, oil, or electric in the 1960s and ’70s. Through a combination of governmental action and industry initiatives, air and water in most places is cleaner now than it was in the 1950s.
Even in the Fabulous Fifties, however, pollution from coal was not very bad—in most places. It was quite bad in some heavy industrial corridors. But for most of us, the worst side effect was a thin film of soot on our walls.
“Spring cleaning” in those days meant something very particular. Our mothers each April removed coal dust from every interior wall. This was not a happy task that added joy to Mom’s relentless mission of caring for her family. My mother seemed to regard it as an irksome chore. But it must be done, and done it was.
She bought wall-cleaning putty at the hardware store. She rubbed it over the wall surface, then pulled it out, folded it over to expose clean putty, rubbed again. At the end we had clean walls. Plus many little balls of soiled putty to throw away. When homeowners abandoned coal, the makers of wall-cleaning putty added bright colors to the stuff and called it “Play-Doh.” That’s right, they did. (As Casey Stengel might say if he were alive today, “You could Google it.”)
“BUT WHAT ABOUT THE PURPLE SNOW?”
How to Be a Kid, 1950s Edition
When I was seven, Dad introduced me to my first regular chore—stoking the furnace. The furnace lived in the basement. It was a huge cylinder with ducts about a foot in diameter that sprouted all directions from its head. The main chamber and all the ducts were padded with asbestos insulation. (See “O! The horror!” above.)
Bituminous coal filled a room near the furnace, called “the coal bin.” Two or three times a year, the coal deliverymen would pour a ton of coal down a metal chute into the coal bin through a basement window.
Our coal came in rough lumps the size of a baseball or softball. It was shiny and black. You could break a lump in two with your bare hands. This exposed the striations of the rock. Sometimes it also exposed a fossil—the outline of a small leaf, for example—that had been trapped in the coal back in the Pennsylvanian Age of geology.
Coal was lightweight, for a rock. It was friable; when you handled it, you got greasy black dust on your hands. I scooped it from the coal bin with a giant shovel, set it in the furnace on top of the coal already aflame there. I had to make sure the new coal caught flame, augmented the fire and did not smother it.
Then I shook down the grates. (Purple snow coming up, Gentle Reader!) Two metal handles protruded from the furnace below the coal door. I rattled these handles; dead ashes and cinders fell through the grates into a hopper below. Once a week we shoveled ashes and cinders—also called “clinkers”—out of the furnace. We carried them to the alley behind our house in a five-gallon can. When the garbage men came by to collect our refuse, they dumped our ashes and clinkers into a separate compartment on their truck.
They collected these materials from every alley in the city. The product, as donated by householders, was a mix of fine, white fly ash and dense, iridescent clinkers. The city washed the fly ash away, leaving the clinkers—small, irregular rocks of metallic slag. A single clinker could be round, bulbous, sharp, jagged—all at the same time. They were multi-hued, but dominated by purple, blue, green, and pink.
The Empurplement of Streator, Illinois
When snow blanketed city streets, crews dumped these clinkers on every intersection for traction. Every passing car crushed them into smaller pieces. Periodically the city replenished the clinkers at the intersections.
Numberless bits of cinder got dragged down the street—transferred from interesections to tires, then deposited in mid-street, in driveways, in alleys, even on sidewalks. By mid-winter, all streets were festooned with purple snow, colored by the powdered residued of our furnace clinkers. It ranged from bright purple-pink to a dull brown slush with just a bit of rosiness.
Snow melts; cinders remain. They lay in small, sharp bits, in gutters and on sidewalks. They formed a light coat over asphalt schoolyards and potholed alleys. They lay in wait for innocent childen.
Cinders paved athletic running tracks before the invention of GrassTex, Tartan Track, AstroTurf. Sprinters and middle-distance runners got cinders in their low-cut track shoes, chewing up their feet. Or they fell on the track and embedded tiny chunks of metal under their skin.
The same hazard faced every child who strapped on a pair of roller skates or drove a tricycle pell-mell along uneven sidewalks while clad in short pants and tee shirts. Nobody escaped. Some kids had cinders embedded so deep that years later you could still find the black speck in cheek, knee, or elbow where the projectile had burrowed in.
“Fried egg sandwich and a turnip,” Millie said, with a clack of her new boughten teeth, something she did unconsciously these days, to settle them in her mouth.
“That’s good, it’ll fix me up for the walk home.” Bill heard the turnip clunk inside the lunch pail as she handed it to him. He would not eat this lunch until he got off work at two.
She turned away to stoke the woodstove and start mixing cornmeal mush for the kids, who were due to get up an hour from now.
Bill buttoned his wool greatcoat, pulled his fedora down around his ears, and stepped out into the five a.m. March drizzle.
He walked east in darkness on the damp shoulder of the Peoria Road—U.S. Route 150, as it was now designated—almost sprinting, almost at a lope. A man of spare physique had to hustle to walk the nine miles to Dahinda in three hours. Bill usually made it in two and a half. Good to be early to work; some of those god-damned young jay-larks at the pumping station could take punctuality lessons from him. Not that he was old. He wouldn’t reach fifty for two more years.
Still, it was hard to be walking three hours each way, six days a week, for a six-hour job. Get six hours’ pay, but it takes you twelve hours to do it. The pipeline company had cut his hours a year ago, to make room on the payroll for a few more men. Well, everybody had families to feed, and most of the big employers were reducing the standard workday. The imbecile in the White House, Herbert Hoover, encouraged them all to do it. Not that this Roosevelt would be an improvement.
Damn it, he missed the Pierce-Arrow—a 1929 touring car, made shortly after Studebaker bought the company. Bill had bought it new for just under three thousand. A bit of a luxury, but it was a fine machine and well within the range of what he could afford. Then the stock market crashed, the company cut back hours, and something had to go. He couldn’t sell back Millie’s teeth—and anyhow, they wouldn’t fetch one-tenth the price of a Pierce-Arrow. He had sold the car at a sacrifice, but better fifteen hundred than nothing. Every one of those dollars would be needed to keep feeding five young mouths—plus his own and Millie’s, of course. Even with the large vegetable garden he kept.
So far the company had only cut hours, not the hourly wage rate. But that was coming, no doubt. Things would get a lot worse before they got better. They couldn’t move back to Dahinda after moving all the way to Knoxville for Edward’s high school. And the other four were coming along right behind him. Best to stay put. So trudge three hours each way, whatever the weather. Sometimes he could hitch a ride from a passing freight truck.
Still, he missed that touring car. It had the optional side curtains with little isinglass windows in them. Just the thing to roll down and keep warm and dry in weather like this. He clutched the handle of the little steel lunch bucket. Nine hours from now, he’d need the nourishment before the hike home.
A fictionalized account of true events.
Grandpa’s Pierce-Arrow with Isinglass Curtains
My grandfather, William P. Sommers, terrified me. By the time I knew him, he was a bombastic, profane, old man—a bantam rooster, probably not over five-foot-two in his size six shoes. But I was naturally timid; he really meant no harm. He simply believed he knew best and everybody else was a damned fool. And what were children, if not to be yelled at?
Dad told me that Grandpa had once owned a Pierce-Arrow, one of the finest cars of its time, but had to give it up during the Great Depression and then was forced to walk to and from work. Nine miles was only a short drive, even on the roads of that day. But to walk it twice each day, rain, shine, or blizzard, must have been brutal. Maybe that’s part of what made him a tough old buzzard.
Dad said the Pierce-Arrow had “isinglass curtains you could roll right down in case of a change in the weather.” He was, consciously or unconsciously, quoting Curly, from Rogers and Hammerstein’s Broadway musical Oklahoma!, who sings exactly those words in a song about “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top.”
But what are isinglass curtains, whether used on a horse-drawn surrey or on a fine motor car? The quest for the answer is perplexing.
In the first place, “isinglass” means at least two different things.
DIGRESSION ALERT: When I was a boy, there was a popular quiz show on the radio called Twenty Questions. Panelists guessed a secret object by asking no more than twenty yes-or-no questions. The quizmaster started each round by saying whether the object to be guessed was “animal, vegetable, or mineral.” (Come to think of it, old radio programs might be an excellent subject for a future blog entry!) END OF DIGRESSION ALERT. WE RETURN YOU TO YOUR REGULARLY SCHEDULED BLOG POST:
Isinglass would need to be classified as both animal and mineral. From Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition: “isinglass . . . 1 a form of gelatin prepared from the internal membranes of fish bladders: it is used as a clarifying agent and adhesive 2 mica, esp. in the form of thin, transparent sheets of muscovite”. So now you know.
What is this fish-bladder stuff? Other sources say it is a substance obtained from the dried swim-bladders of sturgeon and is used mainly for the clarification or “fining” of beer and wine. (Exception, however: The isinglass used for making kosher beer or wine must be from a different fish, because sturgeon is treif, or non-kosher.) This kind of isinglass is also used for darkly-hinted-at “specialized gluing purposes.”
The mica form of isinglass is a “phyllosilicate mineral of aluminium and potassium” that occurs as thin, transparent sheets. That form of mica is known as “muscovite” because large quantities of it are mined in Russia.
I can’t imagine either material being made into carriage-sized curtains that can be “rolled down.” The mineral mica would not be flexible enough; the animal mica would not be durable enough. And neither could be made in large enough sheets. Curly, in Oklahoma!, probably spoke imprecisely to achieve a lyric that would fit metrically into the song. That’s probably the answer, for we know that horse-drawn carriages and early automobiles did have fabric curtains inset with small windows or peepholes of isinglass. But, which kind of isinglass: animal, or mineral?
Coachbuilt.com (which appears to be published by “Adirondack Motorbooks & Collectibles LLC dba Auto Antiques” of Palmyra, New York) reconciles both sides of the question quite nicely: “ISINGLASS—typically a window made from thin sheets made of a material other than glass. Early isinglass was made from a transparent sheet of gelatin, processed from the inner lining of a Sturgeon’s bladder. As it was flexible, it was perfect for the storm curtains and window on early touring cars. The term is now commonly used as any non-glass sheet material which passes light, such as mica, oiled paper, celluloid or plastic. Early isinglass of all varieties yellowed and scratched easily.”
This explanation is logical and harmonious; but is it true? Were fish-gelatin sheets really used for windows? It’s hard to swallow—except perhaps as a fining agent in beer or wine, which could be easy to swallow. At least it would be flexible, so it would roll up nicely in a curtain. Mica, on the other hand, has only a slight flex—less than that of the wobble board Australian singers use on songs like “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport.” Such windows would have to be tiny to roll inside a fabric curtain without undue lumpiness. The most sensible thing about Coachbuilt.com’s explanation comes at the end, for no doubt all different kinds of things have been casually called “isinglass”—just as in the days of my youth any kind of transparent candy or food wrapper was called “cellophane.”
Wikipedia states: “Thin transparent sheets of mica were used for peepholes in boilers, lanterns, stoves, and kerosene heaters because they were less likely to shatter than glass when exposed to extreme temperature gradients. Such peepholes were also used in ‘isinglass curtains’ in horse-drawn carriages and early 20th-century cars.” This seems to contradict Coachbuilt.com’s theory, but we might be wise to take this Wikipedia factoid with a grain of salt—or perhaps quartz or feldspar.
My other grandfather—Alvin E. LaFollette, also of Knoxville, Illinois—had a kerosene space heater that stood in his living room in winter and kept it warm. It had a round window in front, about six inches in diameter, through which you could see, somewhat indistinctly, the leaping orange and blue flames. I think this actually was mica. But note: In stove/boiler/heater applications, the isinglass did not have to roll or bend. Mica, for its heat-resistant properties, was perfect in the application.
In short, when old Bill Sommers longed for the comfort of his isinglass curtains, and when his son Lloyd passed the story on to me, the exact composition of the particular transparent windows was hardly relevant. It was just “isinglass.” Whatever that may have meant to them.