Hardly a Trace Remains

On a clear winter day in Streator, Illinois, we gathered with our sleds at the top end of the Snake Path. 

Flexible Flyer sled. The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.  

Sturdy sleds they were—Flexible Flyers and American Flyers— on which you lay full length, gripping the wooden crossbar that bent the steel runners right or left to turn in a seemingly impossible radius, aided by a rubber-galoshed toe planted at a crucial moment.

The Snake Path was a twisty trail that dropped down a field of dried grass and milkweed stalks, wound through a thicket of scrawny maple and basswood trees, and emerged on a large hump that formed something like a ski jump. If you kept your speed while turning amid the trees, you could fly off the big bump to the shale road below, land hard on your belly (OOF!), jink ninety degrees right, and coast all the way to the little bridge over the Stink Creek. What a ride!

That was sixty-five years ago. Today there is no snake path, there is no big hump. There is hardly a hill at all. Only a few weeds and bushes mark the spot where a magic woodland once stood. The road survives, but the green, odorous understory of woods it once penetrated has vanished. Only a few yards down the road, a steel gate now bars the way to all but authorized personnel. Some company bought up the land beyond for private uses. You can’t even smell the Stink Creek anymore. 

A few trees, a lawn, and a shed fail to suggest the vast jungle that once reigned here, skewered by the tortuous Snake Path.

Hardly a trace of the past remains.

#

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
—Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ozymandias”
Ramesseum in Egypt. The Ozymandias Colossus:” by Christopher.Michel is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Shelley’s inspiration for “Ozymandias.”

Hardly a trace remains.

#

It’s a small thing when a childhood playground vanishes, and perhaps not much larger when a mighty king’s monument is buried under the sands.

But works of vast importance can also disappear, leaving little or no sign of their existence. Something big is then lost to humanity, unless a record of some kind—a jotting, a memory— survives.

Potsy, Richie, Fonzie, and Ralph at Arnold’s, from Happy Days. Public Domain publicity photo.

Even my grandchildren know the Fabulous Fifties for the birth of rock and roll, for roller-skating parties and sock hops. Thanks to Richie Cunningham and Marty McFly, those marks of the era are well documented. 

But have you heard of basement houses? Maybe a quarter of the kids I knew lived in them.

In the postwar building rush, one common strategy was the basement house. The would-be homeowner—most likely a Second World War veteran—would buy a city lot and hire somebody with a bulldozer to dig a basement. A concrete floor would be poured, cinder-block walls raised, and the below-ground enclosure covered over with joists, sub-flooring, and tar paper. What funds remained were used to install plumbing, electricity, and room partitions in the basement. Then the family moved in. They lived in this basement, often for several seasons, until they could save enough money to build a regular house on top. Conditions were cramped and less than ideal—but they had housing!

In the town where I lived, there were whole subdivisions of basement houses. One by one, as the occupying families prospered, the upper floors were finished. My Uncle Dick and Aunt Jane lived in their basement house for several years. When they finally built up from the ground, they had a fine suburban house. Gradually, almost all of these basement homes were finished. Today they stand, in hundreds of neighborhoods, cheek-by-jowl with conventionally-built houses. You would have to be a construction expert to detect which houses had been occupied in their early years as basement homes. 

I scoured the internet a while back for a photograph of such a basement house. There were none to be found. It seemed the basement house had altogether vanished from view. But just today I Googled again and found, to my delight, a May 2022 real estate listing for just such a home—perhaps the one remaining basement house in Illinois that was never finished above ground. You can see it here. The weird black hump rising from the tar paper in some of the photos is, of course, the above-ground door leading down a stairway into the basement.

The text advertising this house uses terms like “unique,” “unusual or interesting,” and even “amazinggggg.” Whoever wrote it did not know houses like this were once common. 

I sometimes feel like the messenger who came to Job. (That’s Job 1:15, if you’d care to look it up in the Bible.) The Fifties have been abducted, “and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”

Basement dwelling was a way of life for millions of kids and their families.

Hardly a trace remains.

#

It’s not only my little, parochial, Illinois past that sinks out of sight. Consider the Great Hedge of India. 

Most educated people know that the greater part of India was once ruled by the British as a colony. Those who have seen Richard Attenborough’s remarkable 1982 film about Gandhi know that the British paid the costs of their occupation by means of a salt tax that was very burdensome to the health, not to mention the finances, of Indians. 

What goes unmentioned is the method by which the tax was enforced. A Brit who served in India, Sir John Strachey, wrote: “To secure the levy of a duty on salt . . . [a] Customs line was established which stretched across the whole of India, which in 1869 extended from the Indus to the Mahanadi in Madras, a distance of 2,300 miles, and it was guarded by nearly 12,000 men. . . . It consisted principally of an immense impenetrable hedge of thorny trees and bushes.” [My emphasis.]

What is the Englishman’s answer to all land questions? Plant a hedge. 

An Indian Customs commissioner elaborated: “In its most perfect form the hedge is a live one, from ten to fourteen feet in height, and six to twelve feet thick, composed of closely clipped thorny trees and shrubs, amongst which the babool (acacia carecha), the Indian plum (zizyphues jujuba), the carounda (carissa curonda), the prickly pear (opuntia, three species), and the thuer (euphorbia, several species) are, according to salt and climate, the most numerous, with which a thorny creeper (guilandina bondue) is constantly intermingled.”

This hedge required enormous maintenance. But it was effective at keeping smugglers from bringing in untaxed salt from the Princely States to the west of the British Raj. When India gained independence in 1947, the hedge project was abandoned.

In 1995 an Englishman named Roy Moxham discovered written references to the Great Hedge. Curious, he spent years researching its history, traveling to India armed with maps obtained from British libraries and Indian government agencies. In 1998, he at last found a remnant stretch of the Great Hedge, a few hundred yards long, in north central India. He documented the whole quest in his unique book, The Great Hedge of India.

Think of that: In barely fifty years, a major feature of the physical, political, and moral landscape of that great subcontinent had all but disappeared. 

Hardly a trace remained.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

Life on the Vermilion

Read Time: 10 minutes.

Trivial? Maybe.

Moot? If you say so. 

Nonetheless, my acknowledgment is overdue: No father was more earnest, more dedicated in his fathering, than my father.

Dad in WWII.

He was the second-youngest in his family and felt “left behind the door.” His parents raised him up, in the Great Depression, to use little and want less. He survived combat in the Pacific, then joined the ranks of veterans striving to build a chrome-and-formica utopia for their young families in postwar America. 

I know these things now but did not know them then.

All I had to go by was details: The sun blazing down on an August afternoon in 1956, drops of sweat glistening on my father’s forehead.

“Come on, Dad, pleeeease. At least we’ve got to try her out.” 

Dad sighed. He had just spent his last pre-vacation morning at work, running test titrations so bags of chemical fertilizer could roll out to farm co-ops around the Midwest with accurate numbers on their labels. 

“It’ll be her maiden voyage,” I pointed out, to enhance the expedition’s appeal.

Wooden shipping pallets. Photo by Jon Moore on Unsplash.

He mopped his face with a handkerchief and looked down at the maiden in question: A wood-and-rubber raft. 

Not just any raft. A river raft. 

She had no name—though, come to think of it, why would she, with no champagne to christen her? But she was a trim vessel, based on a wooden shipping pallet of the commonest variety. Since a few strips of wood could not buoy up two young men on a riverine adventure, my neighbor Jon and I had augmented her with inner tubes. In those days, all automobile tires had inner tubes to hold the air in. We had lashed four black rubber tubes between the pine slats with clothesline rope and inflated them using a bicycle pump.

We dreamed we would take her down to the Gulf, à la Huckleberry Finn. Neither Jon nor I had read that book, but you couldn’t grow up a boy near a river and not know the concept. We would launch our craft in the mighty Vermilion. We would float down to the Illinois and thence to the Mississippi, where there were adventures to be had; adventures just vaguely surmised. If we had not read Huckleberry Finn, what are the chances we had even heard of Don Quixote?

Don Quixote de la Mancha and Sancho Panza, 1863, by Gustave Doré. Public Domain.

But before we could get the raft in the water, Jon went off with his family on a driving vacation. He okayed my attempting a solo test voyage, “just to make sure she floats okay.” 

Dad in the 1950s.

Knowing that we were about to leave on a vacation of our own, I ambushed Dad when he came home from work, still in his dress pants and white shirt. He had laid down his slide rule and loosened his tie, but that was it.

Dad frowned. “How are we going to get it from here to there?” With the negativity rampant among grown-ups, he saw the three-quarters of a mile between our driveway and the river as an obstacle. 

“We’ll put it on my coaster wagon and wheel it down there.” Voilà! Problem solved.

My plan worked fine until we hit the rutted, pock-marked shale road that led to the river. The wobbly front wheels and tongue of my wooden Radio Flyer wagon immediately bogged down in surface debris. 

By this time, however, Dad was committed. He stood the raft up on its end, inched himself underneath, and hoisted it onto his broad back. Off he trundled, bent double by the weight of the raft. The thing was heavier than it looked.

Caught up in the romance of the voyage, I skipped along happily beside Dad. I was eleven years old. He was thirty-four. Once upon a time he had humped a forty-pound U.S. Army field radio over steamy  jungle trails. Later he had been the centermost center on the Knox College Siwashers football team. But his recent pursuits had been sedentary, and he smoked. While I cleverly flailed and swished our paddle, made of two small boards, through the air, Dad staggered down the shale road under the weight of a huge vessel.

Twice, once each side of the Stink Creek bridge, he had to set the raft down. Twice he lifted it again and stumbled on through clouds of mosquitoes and swarms of gnats, regaled by my cheerful commentary at his side.

We reached the launch point, a shelf of sandstone that jutted over the sluggish green river. Dad dropped the raft beside the water, and between the two of us we shoved it into the stream. I clambered aboard. The raft crept away from the sandstone ledge, pulled by a current of about a quarter-mile per hour. 

An eyebolt sunk on the front of the raft anchored fifteen feet of white cotton clothesline, the other end of which Dad held firmly in his hand.

“It’s okay, Dad. You can let go.” I waved my clever little paddle in the air. “I’ll take it from here.”

He peered across the water at me. “I don’t think so. You mother made me promise to keep you on a tether.”

Curses. Foiled again by Mom. I looked about me, upstream to where the old iron bridge crossed the river near the National Guard Armory, then downstream to where the river bent beyond a fringe of willows on the low bank. It was a hot summer afternoon in Streator, Illinois. It was almost impossible to detect a quiver of motion anywhere. No birds swooped low. No fish leapt for joy from the water; none even cut the surface with their lips, seeking food or air. There were a few bubbles on the green, soupy surface. If I looked very closely at them, I could see they slowly changed position against the background of the opposite shore. 

“Dad,” I asked, “what if I fell in the water?”

“Why would you do that?”

“Well, I wouldn’t. But I mean if I fell in by accident. Do you think I’d drown?”

“Not if you had the presence of mind to stand up.” Squatting on the ledge, he lit a cigarette, took a drag, and exhaled a stream of smoke over the water. “This time of year, I doubt there’s a place between here and Quincy with more than two feet of water or a current faster than a turtle’s walk.” 

“Yeah, that’s what I figured.” I dipped the paddle in the water and propelled the raft back along its fifteen-foot line almost to the bank; then let it drift back out, then paddled it in again. “I guess that’s it. We can go.” 

Dad carried the now fully-tested watercraft back all the way on his back, huffing and straining, his face turning red as he broiled in the afternoon sun. He was a good enough citizen that he would not have simply left a junked raft sitting by the side of the Vermilion River all by its lonesome. 

I figure now, looking back on it, that he probably knew I would not be needing the raft for any actual river exploration. I had sucked out my fill of the adventure that was to be hand from the thing. Maybe Jon would want to give it a try when he got back to town. But by that time I would be on to something else, and Jon would probably be along with me on that. Jon was a year or two older than me. Sometimes I think he just followed my lead because he enjoyed my company and wanted to see where my curiosity took me. He was like Locomotive 38 the Ojibway, in that story by William Saroyan.

We went on our vacation, the inside of our Buick Special smelling of Ben-Gay as Dad drove us out of town over the new bridge on Highway 18. I can’t tell you just what happened next.

That was 65 years ago. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to be a dad myself, and a granddad; to spend myself foolishly, from time to time, indulging the whims of my offspring, or bailing them out of some little mess or other. I probably never did anything as foolish as carrying an 80-pound raft on my back a mile and a half on a summer afternoon in downstate Illinois.

But then, my dad’s dedication to the art of fathering was in a class by itself. I guess that’s what I’m getting at.

Thanks for listening.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

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!)