Willows

Memory is a funny thing. It is not, strictly, accountable.

Memory is evocative. It calls up emotions. When gripped by clear and distinct memories, we may easily grasp the emotions they inspire. We may re-live the feelings we felt at the time.

Nostalgia (1895). Ladislav Mednyánszky (Hungarian, 1852 – 1919). Public Domain.

But when we revisit early childhood—fragmentary scenes, half remembered and half dreamed—we may feel vague longings which have no substance but a mysterious and compelling flavor.

Reeling In the Years

Last week, on May 20, my mother would have been 101 years old. She only made it to 74, so she’s lived only inside me these past 27 years. My memories of Mom are mostly concrete and specific. Thinking of her, I re-live my feelings from the midst of life with her.

Some other Woodrow Wilson. Photo by Harris and Ewing. Public Domain.

But now I’m thinking of Georgia McCune, Mom’s best friend from high school. Georgia married a man named Woody Wilson, a few years older. His parents, the Wilsons, had chosen to name him Woodrow. So that gives you an idea when he was born.

Mom lived in Knoxville, a village of two thousand souls in West-central Illinois. Georgia was from East Galesburg. East Galesburg is more like a suburb of Knoxville than of Galesburg—except that East Galesburg couldn’t possibly be a suburb or any kind of “urb.” Even now, it barely forms a hamlet. In those days it was but a few houses along a gravel road. 

I do remember the house Georgia McCune’s parents lived in—because we visited there often. But the memory is blurry. I must have been three or four years old.

Theirs was the last or nearly the last house. The road sloped down to a cattail-fringed lake. The lake is no longer there; I checked on Google Earth. But it was an ill-omened lake anyhow, Georgia’s older brother having died there. He dived in headfirst, struck a submerged rock or a shallow bottom, broke his neck, and drowned. This was told to me as an object lesson. 

To this day, in all things, I look before I leap. 

I do recall walking down to the lake once with Mr. McCune, Georgia’s father. He took out his pocket knife and carved me a whistle from a willow branch. He cut a notch and slid the bark off the willow. I have forgotten exactly how it was done, but it turns out you can find anything on YouTube

Magical Nights

I must have been five or six when Mr. McCune made me that whistle, else I would not remember it so clearly.

But I remember more vaguely once, or perhaps more than once, when I was younger, attending a picnic at the McCunes’. They had a large patio, probably paved with brick or stone, beside their house. There were wood tables and a large brick barbecue. The whole side yard was canopied o’er with two or three giant weeping willows, their branches trimmed just enough to cast a splendid aura over the whole scene. 

A weepy willow. Photo by Larry F. Sommers.

It turned dark as we ate. But the darkness and the end of supper did not extinguish the evening. Somebody—one of the picnickers, or perhaps a neighbor—had a small pack of hounds. They treed a coon down near the lake. I recall watching and hearing the hounds baying at the treed coon. I do not recall any guns, shooting, or a dead raccoon. Maybe it was not a real hunt, just an exhibition of the dogs.

Later that night, or maybe on another, similar night, Mister McCune took a few of us—men and boys—down the railroad line to see something or other on the tracks. He may have been a Santa Fe Railroad employee—a switchman or yard hand. I recall he lit a red signal lantern and escorted us from the gravel road to the tracks, where we looked at some train cars. Why we did so remains a mystery.

The cars may have been parked on a siding for the brickyard. East Galesburg’s only industry was Purington Bricks. Purington Pavers were famous throughout the Midwest and beyond for their deep purple color and their adamant composition. Some streets in small towns are paved with Purington bricks to this day, long after the brickyard has fallen silent. 

Purington Bricks 1895. Galesburg Republican Register. Public Domain.

The silent brickyard has been overrun with woods. If you know just where to look, you may see a ruined smokestack poking above the trees. That’s about it.

Meaning

What does this all mean? 

That’s just it, Dear Reader. I don’t know. 

Perhaps if I did, it would not call me back so. Its meaning would be too plain for further query. 

But as things stand, this reverie of summer evenings in East Galesburg is just a near-fantasy—a wisp of truth at its heart, and a swirl of nostalgia surrounding it. 

I don’t even know why I thought you might like to hear about it.

Perhaps there is something like this lodged stubbornly in your own memory, Gentle Reader. Some fragment of a long-lost world. Something you don’t understand now because you had not reached an age of understanding then. 

Take my advice. Don’t interrogate it too hard. It won’t stand up under questioning. 

Just bathe in it for a time.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer 

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!)