AT THE BEGINNING
When taking stock of one's life, the logical thing to do is to conjure up your earliest memory. Why not start at the beginning? My earliest memory is looking through the bars of my crib. It was against the wall that bordered the stairway. I had a stuffed donkey named Francis. One time I had dreams about an elephant that lived under my bed. When I told everyone there was an elephant under my bed, they told me I was crazy. I remember standing at the bottom of my bed, peering over the footboard to get a better view of the living room. I remember my grandma in the living room with another white haired woman, and it bothered me that I didn't know who that other woman was. I remember lying in bed early in the morning, listening to Mom and Dad in the kitchen as Dad prepared for work. I remember Dad's tin dome lunchbox with it's coffee thermos that clipped into the lid. I recall the sound of the clip as my dad closed his lunchbox before walking out the front door, leaving for work. One day I figured out how to lower the bars on the side of my crib. Soon after I was given a regular twin bed.
I can see myself sitting on a grey vinyl chair with chrome legs, my chin far enough above the formica table top to no longer require a phone book below my butt. Staring down at me are numerous boxes of cereal, many with the word "SUGAR" unabashedly displayed as part of the title. I lived in a world of cartoon characters. That was the way adults and commercial advertisers drew the line between our world and theirs. But our world was much more exciting and definitely more colorful than theirs.
Tony The Tiger would look down at me to assure me his cereal was G-R-E-A-T! A little boy in a pointed cowboy hat would scream "I want my Maypo!" Cowboy Tom was feeling his Cheerios. Sugar Frosted Flakes, Sugar Crisp and Sugar Smacks all appealed to our passion for candy. Tigers, clowns, bunny rabbits, cuddly bears, Mickey Mouse, Bullwinkle the Moose and others were all conscripted to sell us cereal.
Then there were the cartoons all deliberately scheduled in our free time to keep us busy while Mom was fixing dinner, or on Saturday mornings when we had no school. We all knew who Popeye, Olive Oyl, Bluto Wimpy and Swee'pea were. But the idea that we would eat spinach because it was good for us was still a hard swallow. We sang M_I_C…K_E_Y…M.O.U.S.E, along with the members of our favorite club! The past and future were represented by The Flintstones and The Jetsons. The great outdoors was embodied in two bears named Yogi and Boo Boo who lived in Jellystone Park and Smoky The Bear would remind us that only we can prevent forest fires. To satisfy our need for international intrigue, we had Rocky and Bullwinkle always on the trail of Russian spies Natasha Fatale and Boris Badenov. Woody Woodpecker, Mighty Mouse, Tom and Jerry, Heckle and Jeckle, Bugs Bunny, Huckleberry Hound, Betty Boop and Donald Duck were all our accepted imaginary friends.
When I was growing up there was a lot of talk about the generation gap. In my teens I certainly experienced it personally. Like everything important in my life back then, I wrote about it. Now, going through my things after decades, I have a very different perspective on what I wrote in my teens. I see my notes and writings as a specific message for the me of today. It's an urgent calling from a young man asking me not to forget him the way he feels the adults at the time of his writing had forgotten him. I actually remember making myself a promise back then. I promised I would not be one of those adults who looked at young people as totally naive and unaware. But that would require not forgetting the thoughts and feelings of the young boy I used to be.
It was a cold winter afternoon. Dark clouds were congregating in the west. Each time I inhaled though my nose, there was an undeniable smell of snow in the air. When a large wet snowflake landed on the tip of my nose, quickly turning into a droplet of water, I took my cue. I closed my eyes, extended my arms to each side, then began to spin. The faster I would spin the harder it would snow. I was convinced that I was personally turning up the volume on the snow. I also realized that any onlooker would probably see me as just a silly little boy simply excited by the snow. But I knew on some level that I was exerting an innate ability to not care what other people think. Throughout my formative years I kept reaffirming that promise to not forget the little boy I once was. When I close my eyes I see a young boy spinning around in a snowstorm, connecting to nature in a way that will serve him for the rest of his life. That young boy is neither naive nor unaware.
The very first day of school. Now there's a pivotal moment in a child's life. The teacher instructs us to hold up our hand with one finger if we need to pee, and two fingers if we need to poop! I think I wasted a lot of time trying to remember how many fingers to hold up, in fear I would get it wrong, before I finally realized it didn't really matter. Our textbooks were very well illustrated with a few words on each page in very large print. Across the top of the blackboard were 26 representations of the letters of the alphabet, in capital letters and small letters. The people illustrated in the textbooks were very unthreatening. They became our friends, and there was always a dog named Spot. "See Spot run." "See Spot run fast."
When we get older we take so many things for granted. So what is it that young boy wants me to say on his behalf today. I think he wants to remind us all that the reason we can construct sentences, write letters and build bridges is not only because of great teachers and schools. We can do all these things because all these little people who were thrown into very challenging and sometimes scary situations, rose to the occasion and did what it takes to survive. But most of all, he wants to remind us to get in touch with that place of beauty inside us, where the eyes of a child sees life much more simply.
The year before I started school I was alone with my mother during the day. In the 1950s the television was turned on early in the morning and often was not turned off until the evening. A test pattern came on at 10 PM as stations went off the air. The test pattern squealed a high pitched sound that resembled a phone left off the hook, I suppose it was designed to wake people up. At the top of the test pattern was a picture of an American Indian in full headdress. We never dreamed that one day the TVs would have 24 hour programing that would allow some to leave their televisions on all night.
During my days with my mother the soap operas always played in the background. Guiding Light and Search For Tomorrow were favorites on CBS. I was among the first generation to grow up with TV. In my young developing mind were black and white stories of dysfunctional families interrupted by commercials. At 4 o'clock the cartoons came on, flooded with cereal commercials, all designed to babysit the children who had just arrived home from school. I Love Lucy, Lassie, Make Room For Daddy, The Cisco Kid, The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin and more all occupied time that was previously spent sitting in front of a radio. Adding visuals to stories took away the creative process of imagination. I realized this when my favorite radio programs were converted to TV. I remember feeling angry that the TV versions of my favorite characters were so different than the ones I imagined from the radio. I felt something had been stolen from me.
On weekday afternoons my mother would often take me out to the sidewalk as we watched for my sister Sandy and my brother Steve to appear at the corner of Collett and Williams Streets on their ways home from Collett School. With my mother's permission I was allowed to run toward them like a puppy wagging it's tail. After a long day, at last my playmates had returned. Of course as a preschooler, I had no idea what took place at school. I watched my siblings leave for school in the morning and return in the afternoon. I was content with coloring in my coloring books as my sister and brother did homework.
Saturday was our day! Saturday mornings were filled with cartoons, cowboys and Indians and sugary cereals straight from the commercials that informed us which brands to demand from our parents. The very concept of a weekend prepared us for futures of 9 to 5 jobs where we would long for Friday afternoons and two days of freedom. Somehow, even as a child, I knew that was not my destiny. Those few years of radio shows had awakened a part of my brain that needed to be fed with creativity. I was never comfortable with someone else stealing my ability to choose my own visuals. I was more comfortable with a well written book where I partnered with the author to create an imaginary world where I could walk through their narrative.
Facing my own mortality has forced me to look at everything in a different light. I ask myself questions I never even contemplated before. Having looked death in the face, I see more than ever, the importance of living one moment, one day at a time. But it's also important to have purpose in each moment, otherwise we find ourselves just waiting to die. I've seen enough death in my lifetime to have had unanswered questions even before my own experiences at death's door. Perhaps my purpose is to be more sharing than the people I was caregiver for. Standing now on the other side of the fence, I have an opportunity to share some insight.
When I watched my beloved Robby take his last breath, the first thing I noticed was that his beautiful blue eyes had instantly lost their shimmer. I thought to myself, that saying about the eyes being the window to the soul is really true. Then my heart ached for all the knowledge, creativity and compassion that had been an expression of his soul. What is the point if it all just disappears in that last breath? Perhaps that's why I take such pleasure in putting my thoughts down in words. I feel like they are my way of sending something into the future.
I can also attest to the idea of one's life flashing before one's eyes at the moment of death. Another one of the mystical wonders of life is the human brain that stores information from a lifetime of experience, only to be recalled by a familiar scent, taste or picture. In a way I got stuck in my flashback. Maybe that's the best reward of coming back from the dead. I get to take my flashback slow and easy.
My brain and the attic boxes are inextricably tied together now. Each holds the next clue to some long forgotten memory that perhaps also holds another key to why I am who I am. Like a complicated jigsaw puzzle, I take pleasure in putting the pieces into the proper places, knowing that they all fit snuggly into place, meaning every experience was exactly the way it was supposed to be. Imagine being able to take your last breath without regrets. Perhaps that's why our whole life flashes before us at the moment of death. To show us the value each of us has in the bigger puzzle.
I remember when a really cool guy moved to the neighborhood. His name was James Bone. He combed his hair in a way that was similar to a rock star. Anyway, that's how it seemed to me as a grade schooler. I don't remember how exactly it happened, but I wound up walking to school with James in the mornings. He would wait for me to walk down the alley to join him on Kimball Street. That made me feel really special, that a cool older guy would even bother with me.
Before classes began we would all congregate near the south entrance of the school on Clarence Street. When the doors opened we were required to climb quite a few stairs to get to the first floor classrooms.
At the top of the stairs directly on the right was my fourth grade class with Mrs. Leverenze. I remember looking over at my best friend Sandy while singing "get along little doggies, quit roving around, you've wandered and trampled all over this ground." We would always smile at each other in recognition of our mutual love of that song. Then on the day when we were making paper mache animals late in the spring, I pulled out a scrap of the Chicago Tribune, ready to slather it with paste, when I saw a headline that read "Little Girl Loses Her Life." Sandy's photo stared back at me from the page with that same smile we always shared when singing folk songs. Mrs. Leverenze, noticing my tears, came over and placed her hand on my shoulder as she glanced down at the paper on my desk. "Bless her heart" she said, then walked away. Even now, 61 years later, I can still hear her voice reciting those words.
At the other end of the hallway on the right was Miss Graig's first grade classroom. I still remember the first day of school. A mixed feeling of terror and excitement. All the fragrances of September. The smell of crayons and and paste. The odor of newly fallen leaves crunching under foot. The scent of chalk wafting into the air to the muffled sound of erasers clapping together.
In the winter, the long corridor we called the cloak room was lined with wet coats and mittens, rubber boots and melting snow that created a fragrance like a waiting pot of hot soup, as we transitioned from the cold outdoors to the warmth of our classroom. We would sit on our hands until our fingers stopped tingling.
At noon we would all go home for lunch, where my mom would have sandwiches and Campbell's soup waiting on the table. And of course, a soap opera on the TV! Occasionally we were treated to a school luncheon where mothers volunteered to cook in the kitchen. The smell of hot dogs and baked beans filled the entire school house as we all watched the clock in anticipation. Then we would return to our desks carrying trays of food with a small individual package of potato chips on the side.
Recess was a time when we were all usually given freedom to choose how to spend it. I remember a time when I would sneak over to the big tree that grew just above the retaining wall on Kimball Street. I would jump from root to root as I wound my way around the tree, counting the number of rotations. I imagined that each time around constituted one flight up in a skyscraper. The game was to guess how many stories I could climb before turning around to climb back down in time to go back to class. I was surprised when another boy asked me what I was doing, then joined me in my quest.
One day in third grade, as we were drawing easter pictures, we watched out the window as dark black clouds turned daylight into darkness. We could see the concern on the face of our teacher Mrs. Thiede. Soon the wind was pounding rain and leaves against the windows. Then the emergency sirens went off and we all recited the words we had been taught for a situation like this. "Stay calm and line up single file, then walk to the basement!" We all gathered against the appointed wall as we quietly listened to the whistling and banging sounds upstairs. Then, after what seemed like forever, the sun came shining through the basement windows signaling the "all clear". We returned to our classrooms, ancy with anticipation, waiting to run outside to survey the damage.
My memories of Collett School are mostly good memories. If I had the opportunity to change my life, I think I would leave it alone just the way it is.
The 600 block of Collett Street in the 1950s was the embodiment of the Little Rascals. We played baseball in the vacant lot between my grandmother's house and the Weller's to the north. We played football in the lot in front of the Testa's, two houses to the north. In the summer we would often gather in the back yard of the Roth's, three houses to the south. The vacant lot also provided the space for kick the can at dusk, or a game of badminton or croquet in the afternoon. There were lots of trees in the vacant lot. I can remember to this day, the ones that were climbing trees. Against the warnings of our mothers, we would climb into the trees, straddle a secure limb, hanging out sometimes unseen by passersby on the sidewalk below.
Each child on Collett Street was raised with the awareness of the danger of playing in or near the alleyways. Behind our houses were a trucking company and a factory. Multiple times each day the alleyways would see traffic from semi-trucks. This created a potential disaster in a neighborhood with so many children. That problem was compounded by the fact that the alleyways were paved with gravel full of native American beads uncovered in the strip mines. We children understood the danger of the trucks, but for some reason we decided to take risks for finding beads. Is it just luck or fate that we all survived?
Both of the Wellers worked, so my mom watched the Weller children until their parents returned home in the evenings. So our daytime family consisted of Sandy, Steve, Bob, Christy, Mike, Marla and Rhonda. And our summertime play group often consisted of Sandy, Steve, Bob, Christy, Mike, Marla, Rhonda, Cathy, Connie, Jennifer, Judy and Freddy. We were all part of one gang on the west side of the 600 block of Collett Street. We were very creative in filling our time together. I'm not sure if the Little Rascals influenced us or if the show was just a reflection of the times.
Directly across the street from our house was the home of the Timm's. It was a large yellow house with manicured lawn and beautiful gardens. Most of the children in the neighborhood were afraid of them. When walking on the sidewalk in front of their house, we were careful not to step on their grass, lest they come out the front door screaming. When playing baseball, we would cringe when a fly ball would land on their lawn. One of us would quickly retrieve the ball, running back, never looking behind.
The Timms were shrouded in mystery. Occasionally a delivery truck would park in the driveway. pushing crates of beer down a shoot into the basement. When their granddaughter would visit from St. Louis, a Mercedes would be parked in the driveway. She was a singer and we could hear her practicing songs from the musical Annie Get Your Gun. "Anything you can do I can do better than you." How do I remember all these things, you may ask? When I was 12 years old I started writing things down. I wrote notes to myself for the rest of my life. Those notes are in the attic of the house where I now reside in San Francisco.
On the corner north of the Timm's house was Timm's Grocery. The grocery was owned by a different Timm, a relative. The grocer and butcher was Smitty, a relative of the Roths. The store gave the feeling of stepping into the past. Wooden shelves lined the walls. The wooden floor was worn smooth by decades of boots and shoes. Immediately to the right, upon entering the door was a whole section devoted to children. A large glass case filled with penny candies and candy bars. We would place our pennies on top of the case and point to our choices with our noses pressed upon the glass. Each purchase would be followed with the sound of a manual cash register, ka-ching, followed by a bell that announced the opening of the drawer. In the back, Smitty could be heard chopping meat on a large wooden chopping block.
It was the end of an era. So called progress would eventually destroy all of the institutions that were formed in a world where people were connected to each other by birth, by community and by choice. Now all we can do is count our blessing that we were part of something so intimate and organic.
610 NORTH COLLETT STREET
On my last visit to my hometown, Danville, Illinois, I returned to my grandmother's house on Collett Street, where I spent the first twelve years of my life. I introduced myself to the minister who now owned the house where I grew up. He graciously consented to my request to take a photo from the front porch where I had stood fifty years before when I took my very first photograph with a camera that my grandmother had gifted me. The photo was a pumpkin sitting on the railing that no longer existed. In the background was the Timm's house across the street. As I stood on the porch looking out on a multitude of memories, I was astounded by the feeling that i was in the countryside instead of a city. To the north, all the houses had been torn down, along with the memories of all the families who had lives there. I was happy I had written my memories down. Now it's time to resurrect the memories of 610 North Collett Street.
One day my father showed us some original papers and blueprints pertaining to my grandmother's house on Collett Street. I don't remember why he had them on that particular day or where they were put afterwards. I never saw them again. The thing I remember most is that Dan Beckwith was listed on the original deed as the owner of the property in the beginning. My father explained that Dan Beckwith was the Dan in Danville. If I had not seen the papers on that day, I may have never known that part of Danville history. As a matter of fact, I had never imagined that Danville was named after a guy named Dan. It never crossed my mind.
My father and my grandfather worked for Grieser and Son Plumbing and Heating. Together they dug out a new section of the basement for a coal furnace, installing steam radiators on each floor. When my brother Steve and I were old enough, we were given the responsibility of "stoking" the furnace. We were told if we didn't do it right, there was a possibility of blowing up the house. So we were very careful to follow the instructions exactly. The trick was to watch the gauge above the furnace door so the needle never reached the red zone. When the needle got to the appropriate pressure, we were to close the bottom door to stop the air flow that fanned the flames. The bottom door gave access to the ashes which we scooped out with the shovel, depositing them in a large metal bucket to cool. Then the ashes were spread on the alleyway behind the house to create more traction on winter snow. In the summer we kids would be reminded of our furnace jobs as we walked across the ashes in bare feet, wincing in pain.
Next to the furnace room Dad and Grandpa had dug a coal room where truck loads of coal were deposited by chute through a small window. After a load of coal had been delivered, the room was practically filled to the ceiling. On winter mornings everyone remained under the covers in bed until the radiators began to rattle and steam came whistling out of a small valve on the front of each radiator. Sometimes, on the coldest winter nights, we could see frost forming on the walls of our bedroom just before Dad stoked the furnace.
Directly behind the house was a small semi-detached building with a gable roof that we called the summer kitchen. Summer kitchens were common among homes of that era. Our summer kitchen, however, never saw any cooking. It was a repository for my father's tools and fishing supplies. That was how a 19th century necessity was adapted to 20th century uses.
The stairway to the second floor was in a hallway closed off from the first floor by a door from the living room. Under the stairway was a small telephone stand that held our party line telephone. We shared our line with our neighbor, the Roths. Our number was 7974J and the Roth's line was 7974W. If we wanted to make a call, we picked up the phone and waited for the operator to say, "number please."
The stairway had a banister! Yes, the kind of bannister you see kids sliding down in movies and TV sitcoms. You can bet we did just that. But the end of our ride down the shiny polished wooden railing was not as graceful as in the movies. The post at the bottom of the stairs was much too high for a comfortable landing. So we negotiated the ending as best we could. When ever we decided to walk down the stairs like civilized people, we got to fantasize about being on a huge ocean liner. At the top of the stairs a round porthole window was intended to provide natural light to the stairs. But the unintended purpose was to provide a prop for the fantasies of creative children's minds.
In the upstairs bathroom was a small window to provide natural ventilation and light. When I say small, I don't mean tiny. It was big enough for a small body to climb through. Once through the window, that same small body could easily negotiate its way down the graduating roofs to the summer kitchen where a metal pole supporting the back stairway railings could be used like the pole in a fire station.
Just behind the summer kitchen a cherry tree bloomed every spring, providing cherries every June. In the center of the backyard my father had planted a small peach tree that provided peaches a little later in the summer. The lot between our house and the Weller's had plum trees. Walking down the alleyways in summertime, it was understood that anything hanging out over the alley was fair game. So fruits our own trees did not provide were accessible in the rest of the neighborhood.
On certain days of the week the iceman came to provide a huge block of ice to the Timms for their icebox. As the cold sharp, shiny metal fingers of the ice tongs crashed into the block of ice, pieces of ice fell onto the brick pavement. They were exactly the right size for cooling off children playing on a hot summer day in the nearby field. We simply brushed aside the dirt and started sucking on the ice like it was a lollypop. Later in the afternoon the ice cream man would park his truck in the same place the ice man had been in the morning. The music box type jingle worked like a Pavlovian dog clicker. We all lined up as a man in a white hat bent down to dispense ice cream and popsicles through a small window. The window was definitely designed for our convenience, not his.
My grandmother's house was situated on a street where during more than a decade up to eighteen children had grown up in the same block, on the same side of the street. We were all part of a family that was bigger than our biological families. By playing together we learned together. We broke down barriers and planted seeds that would inform our future decisions in life. We had taken the first step of socializing outside the boundaries of our biological, religious and cultural teachings. While we were having fun, we unwittingly prepared ourselves for interacting in a bigger world.
CUTTING THE APRON STRINGS
My bicycle was the chosen mode of transportation for my first escape from the very well defined perimeters my parents had imposed on me. Each time I expanded the boundaries, my mind was also being expanded. Little by little I clipped the apron strings as I came to understand that I had the capability to make decisions for myself. Sometimes I wondered if perhaps my mom and dad were standing in the wings cheering me on, because personal freedom and responsibility were exactly what they were preparing me for. My mom would always joke: “When you leave I’m selling your bed so you can’t come back!” Of course there were always beds in the spare bedrooms whenever any of us wanted to come home.
The first time I rode the Illini-Swallow bus to the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, I cut the apron strings forever. It was like a dream come true, as if someone had constructed a pipeline from Chicago, that ran beneath all the rural farm lands, then suddenly exploded onto the University of Illinois campus. When I attended my first event at the Student Union Building, I imagined I was attaching my brain to a million tentacles that led to a million places and ideas I had yet to explore. No longer was my concept of the outside world defined by buying the next copy of the Sunday New York Times from the newsstand at the Plaza Hotel. Now I was able to talk to people who actually grew up in the places I dreamt of visiting. I learned that Chinese food was much more than Chop Suey and plastic noodles. I tasted sushi with wasabi for the first time. I ate my first bagel with lox and cream cheese.
I rode the Illini-Swallow lines back and forth between Champaign and Danville many times before it occurred to me that I could ride the same bus in the opposite direction and be in Indianapolis, a bigger city than CU with different lessons to be learned. My hometown was strategically located between two sources of infinite learning. I was hooked. It was like that WW2 song I had heard my mother sing. “How you gonna keep’em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paris?“ When I brought little pieces of my “Paris” back to Danville, it only strengthened my position as a weird boy who was very different.
I believe Bing Crosby is responsible for much of our obsession with having a White Christmas. But the conversations among children always revolved around whether there was enough snow for Santa’s sleigh. I spent more than one Christmas eve night lying in bed listening for sleigh bells. I also recall a Christmas day when the temperature reached into the sixties and everyone brought their new toys outside to play. But most Christmases were cold and many were white. One Christmas day was spent spinning down the hill above the small pond next to Lakeview Hospital on our new fiber glass flying saucer sled. When two boys fell through the ice, my father was first on the scene and he too fell through the ice trying to save the boys. Everyone got out safely, but very wet and cold.
Christmas at our house began in November when my mother would make fruit cakes and German springerle rolling pin cookies. The cookies were put in tins and the fruit cakes were wrapped in dishtowels soaked with rum. My mother said they were kept in the pantry until Christmas because they needed to age properly, like wine. My mother’s baking and cooking were very important parts of the Christmas memories we would carry throughout our lives.
A few weeks before Christmas we would form an assembly line to create the Santa cookies with raisin eyes, red sugar lips and coconut beards. The smell of cinnamon rolls baking on Christmas morning would almost succeed in distracting us from our main goal of unwrapping our gifts. In mother’s large crockery bowl, bread dough would rise up under the damp dish towel covering the bowl, only to be kneaded down to rise two more times. Later Mom would carefully divide the dough into small balls placing three in each muffin tin to create cloverleaf rolls. The aroma of fresh baking bread was an important element in the sweet and savory Christmas bouquet.
Decorating the Christmas tree was always a family event. Dad had the honor of stringing the lights, which were large colored bulbs back then. The floor was strewn with open soft cardboard ornament boxes waiting to be unpacked. Mom would continually remind us to put the tinsel on one strand at a time. Occasionally we would walk to the other side of the room, squint our eyes like an artist contemplating a painting, then return to fill in the dead spots. In the background, on our black and white Emerson TV that had been moved to the left to make room for the tree, we would hear Alastair Sim proclaim “Bah, humbug!” Or Jimmy Stewart (George) telling Mary one more time that he’ll lasso the moon for her. And through it all was the ever present fragrance of a freshly cut pine, the essence of Christmas.
Christmas was so special to children, we would use the phrase “just like Christmas,” in later life to describe an event that is very enjoyable. But the truth is, nothing in later life could ever come close to Christmas as a child. On Christmas morning our eyes were open the moment the first ray of daylight snuck between the slats of the Venetian blinds. We were sentenced to remain in bed until we heard the clanging of the radiators announcing the arrival of heat. Someone would come to the door to give the all clear to assemble in the living room. Then we sat in a semicircle waiting for Mom to pick up the gifts one at a time, reading the labels aloud, then distributing them to their rightful owners. This created absolute carnage as we totally disregarded the time and effort put into wrapping the packages and tying the bows. We ripped the paper and bows apart like hungry dogs tearing meat from bones. Just before breakfast we would carry our spoils back to the bedroom where we would display our gifts neatly on our beds as Mom picked up the garbage off the living room floor.
Fast forward thirty years to the future. My Christmases in Germany and Austria were very different. Christmas trees were purchased and decorated on Christmas Eve. Real candles were lit on the branches of the tree. Everyone was given one thoughtful simple gift from each person. During December, in the center of each village or town was a Christkindlmarkt, (Christmas Market), selling Christmas ornaments, Christmas cookies and Glühwein, (hot mulled wine). Christmas in Germany was more of a spiritual event and less about gifts. Gee, now it’s hard for me to say which was better, the Christmases of my childhood or the Christmases of my travels. Let’s call it a draw and end it there.
Search through any photo album of Danville, Illinois residents from the second half of the twentieth century and you are bound to find pictures of Douglas Park. This was the summer weekend go to place for many family reunions or just a spur of the moment picnic. Douglas Park was the favorite of children because there was a merry-go-round, a train, a roller-coaster, bumper cars, and boats.
If I close my eyes, I smell the aroma of fried chicken, the taste of potato salad, the feel of cold strawberry snow cones, a fleeting moment of candy cotton as it magically disappears on the tongue. In the background I hear the squeaking of the coaster brakes followed by the sound of the chain that drags the cars to the top of the hill. The cars are released as the passengers throw their hands up in the air and scream with joy until they reach the bottom of the hill.
I hear the sound of ice swooshing through cold water inside the huge metal tub that holds glass bottles of “pop.” The crunchy salty flavor of potato chips dipped in sour cream onion dip. The unique texture and flavor of red and black licorice whips. The sound of wood upon wood as a croquet mallet comes in contact with a croquet ball. A baseball game broadcast upon the newly invented transistor radio can be heard as uncles and cousins gather at a nearby picnic table to cheer on their favorite team. This is a place I go in my mind to remember how it felt to feel totally protected, at peace and so happy it was impossible to contain my laughter.
I don’t remember if it was the Fisher Theater or the Palace Theater, but it was definitely a Saturday morning. The theater was filled with screaming children, including myself. I remember lots of cartoons. Then there was an auction of sorts, where the currency consisted of cut out waxy labels from milk cartons. That’s probably the earliest memory I have of going to a theater.
Mom and Dad took us to see the movie Giant. That’s my only memory of actually sitting in a theater with my parents beside me. Of course, like any 1950s American family, we went to the drive-in together. Usually on a hot summer night when no one wanted to be inside a house. They would send us kids up to the concession stand during the movie to avoid the crowds at intermission.
I have two memories of going to the movies with my sister Chris. The first was to see a matinee rerun of the horror movie “The Blob.” I don’t think Chris slept for a week after that. The second was The Beatles, “Yellow Submarine.” And many cartoon Saturdays with big brother Bobby.
At one point I had decided to graduate from the profession of neighborhood grass cutter, to take on the task of a theater usher. I arrived early on my first day so they could show me the ropes. I lasted about two hours before I quit. Opening the door to the room in the basement where the already popped popcorn was stashed in big plastic bags, I saw rats scurrying into the four corners. I never ate popcorn in a theater again, unless it was popped fresh behind the counter before my very eyes.
Of course I was there for the opening of Mary Poppins in 1964. But those theaters of my youth also allowed me to grow beyond the boundaries of the landlocked midwest. As I watched “The Sound Of Music,” I imagined that I would one day stroll through those hills near Salzburg, and I did. After standing on the set of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” on my first trip to California in 1967, I came back to Danville to actually watch the movie on the big screen. “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” would become one of my all time favorites because I identified with it so personally. “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” would inspire a rebellious part of my being that longed to jump off a cliff with absolute confidence that everything would turn out okay. “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” and “Fiddler on the Roof,” stoked a curiosity of the world that I have yet to satisfy.
Movie theaters were important because they were the link between the era of radio and television. In 1927, sound was added to movies, revolutionizing communications. Then color was added to movies as symbolized in “The Wizard of Oz.” In the 1950s, visuals were added to the sound of radio in the form of television. But in my lifetime, with all the advancements in communications technology, there is still nothing more special than sitting in the audience of a vintage theater, with a bag of (freshly popped) popcorn, watching a movie on the big screen.
TRAIN OF THOUGHT
One of my favorite things as a child was riding the bus downtown with my grandmother. We lived at the end of the line and waited for the bus in front of Mrs. Bowman's house, a friend of my grandmother. Mrs. Bowman had a huge lot beside her house with an apple tree. The lot was divided by a path worn by people cutting through as a shortcut.
I cannot speak of Mrs. Bowman's lot without mentioning the day the circus came to town. The circus unloaded their train where the tracks intersected E. Williams Street, two blocks from our bus stop. All the neighbors congregated in Mrs. Bowman's lot as we watched elephants, clowns and acrobats dancing down the middle of E. Williams Street on their way to the fairgrounds.
But getting back to my trip downtown with Grandma. We always had lunch at the counter in Woolworths. I always ordered a cherry coke, club sandwich and potato salad. After lunch we would browse the shelves of the 5 & dime. I was always sure to go home with some small souvenir of our trip.
The elegant interior of the 1950s bus is etched in my mind. Everytime I get on a refurbished streetcar in San Francisco, I am reminded of my trips with my grandmother in the late 1950s.
When I see the word youth I am reminded of George Bernard Shaw’s quote, “Youth is wasted on the young.” As a senior citizen, I fully understand the meaning of his quote. But I have to ask myself, if it’s wasted, why do we all go back to the memories of those days to satisfy our lust for youth? If we were able to physically go back as adults, wouldn’t we screw everything up the way we already have? Perhaps a more fitting quote might be: “adulthood is wasted on adults.” Perhaps what we really want is a more achievable goal of getting in touch with our inner child.
When I close my eyes I always see myself standing on the red brick sidewalk in front of my grandmother’s house on Collett Street. If I stand facing south, I imagine all the times I walked to and from Collett School alone. I remember coming home from a grocery shopping trip at Eisner’s supermarket on Vermilion Street to find friends of my mother seated in the kitchen with a pot of coffee and donuts. We never locked our doors. Mom always had dinner on the table at exactly four o’clock. I never had to worry about anything, because that was the job of the adults in my life. Perhaps it’s a return to that feeling of security we long for.
So much of the world is new to young people, They are not jaded from a feeling that they have already been everywhere and done everything. If we think about it, children are really easy to please. For instance, a ride up North Vermilion Street to The Custard Cup for the most delicious ice cream on earth was always a crowd pleaser. Afterwards we would cruise further up Vermilion to the entrance to the cemetery where we watched swans gracefully gliding back and forth on the pond. Other great North Vermilion attractions included the giant Indian and Tin Man towering over the passing traffic, to the delight of children.
I remember summer trips to the Sportsman’s Club for family reunions. Cruising slowly up Vermilion looking for that elusive turn off to the left. The smell of hamburgers and hot dogs grilling. Cousins racing by on water skis.
We also made trips to Liberty Market, where they “plugged” watermelons to be sure they were ripe. The Putt Putt miniature golf course was always fun! In the fall, Coates orchard provided bushels of apples in huge wicker baskets. The A&W root beer stand had the best hot dogs, tamales wrapped in corn husks, and Brown Cows (Root Beer Floats) served on trays that hung from a half opened car window.
>From the perspective of a child North Vermilion Street was our Avenue des Champs-Élysées. As children, we were not aware of how much of our happiness was due to our parents attempts to make us happy. Think about it. Our happiness depended on the adults who had charge over our lives. We are all adults now. Perhaps it’s time we took charge of our lives and made ourselves happy.
Anybody wanna go to the Custard Cup?
The door to Walgreens was not on Vermilion or North Streets. It faced northeast. That small corner cut-out made it the perfect place to stand when waiting for a ride to arrive on either street, especially in winter or on rainy days. Just inside the door was a convenient pay phone for calling cabs. One half block east, on North street was the Prescription Shop, a smaller local pharmacy with loyal customers for decades, including my mother. Their personalized service and first name basis allowed them to overcome the trend to the Walgreens of the world. Directly across the street on the same side of Vermilion Street was Montgomery Ward, and one half block north stood Sears and Roebuck.
This was before the concept of shopping malls. In the 1950s nobody imagined a controlled environment where people could walk back and forth between stores without getting cold or wet. We ran during rain storms, bundled up during cold winters, wore shorts and T-shirts in summer and sweaters in spring and fall. You can’t want what you don’t know. So we trudged along, accepting the seasons with little complaint.
The most exciting time in downtown Danville, was of course Christmas. There was a steady stream of shoppers filling the sidewalks on the path that began at Meis Brothers on west Main Street, ending at Sears on Vermilion. Meis Brothers had an animated Christmas display in the front window each year, perhaps inspired by movies like Miracle On 34th Street. During bad weather my mom would always take us on a shortcut through the lobby of the court house from Main to Vermilion. The shopper’s parade on Vermilion began with the two “dime stores’ Woolworths and S S Kresge that provided the best stocking stuffers. Then a hop across the street to Osco Drugs to buy wrapping paper and tape. Then the last two stops, Montgomery Ward and Sears, where you could, of course, find just about everything.
I have no wonderful shopping mall stories to tell since my childhood. I will say there were times I would stand in the middle of a mall wondering which city I was in because they all look exactly the same. There was something better about getting wet and cold. When we deserted our inner cities for shopping malls, we lost our identities, our uniqueness. Even stores that once stood on their own, lost their specialness in the sterile environment of the mall.
The great thing about my childhood is that we interacted with each other on a more personal level. We had one car per family and we did more things together. So called progress sometimes has a hidden price that isn’t obvious in the beginning. In the 1980s I began traveling the world. In 30 years of travel I found myself always affectionately comparing my experiences to my childhood in Illinois. Then one day the rest of the word caught up with us and there were few special places left.
One of my mother’s closest friends was the grandmother of two girls, Connie and Kathy, who lived two doors down from my grandmother’s house on Collett Street. Dorothy lived on a farm just over the state line in Indiana. I was privileged to stay on that farm in the summer of 1960, at the age of eleven. Dorothy was very different from my city raised grandmother. She spoke with a heavy Hoosier accent. Dorothy was perhaps one of the wisest women I had ever met. It seemed there was nothing she couldn’t do. Everyday we would cruise the local dumps in her pickup truck. Dorothy would throw the wooden frame of what had once been a couch or chair into the back of the truck, take it home to reupholster, then sell it. The finished product looked like something from a department store showroom.
During my short stays on the farm I learned how to dig post holes, mend fences, slop pigs, and properly shuck corn. Nobody gets a free ride on a farm. But everybody gets to rest on Sunday. On Sundays we would drive to the designated after church farm where all sorts of farm vehicles covered the lawn and a food spread of fried chicken, potato salad, baked beans and pop were laid out in the kitchen. As usual, the guys were in one room and the women were in another room. And we children took our plates of food outside where we could run free to play as soon as we had devoured our lunches.
Driving down an Indiana country road, everybody waved at passing cars. Mostly because everybody knew everybody else. But strangers also got the wave. Many days, after doing our chores, we would walk down the dry dusty road until we reached a stream that ran parallel to the road. Shoes and socks in hand, we would wade through the icy water until the stream abruptly turned away from the road. Then we walked back to the farm on a dry dusty deserted road where sometimes no car or truck had passed for hours. No wonder people waved at passing vehicles. They were happy to see other human beings.
Just behind the farm was a dense forest. Connie took me hiking through the forest as if we were playing in the backyard of their house in Danville. Oh the things that went through my mind when we reached a point where nothing but trees could be seen in every direction. I was a city boy used to street signs and paved roads. But somehow Connie always knew where we were and how to get back to the farm. After a week of walking I learned the signposts in the forest. I even walked solo one day, proudly finding my way back to the farm alone.
Back in the city, Dorothy showed me how she truly was different from my own grandmother. On Saturday nights at the fairgrounds speedway, Dorothy drove a stock car in the races. I couldn’t believe I was sitting in the stands beside two girls who were cheering for their grandmother. To borrow a phrase from that Leave It To Beaver era: “that was really neat!”
From this vantage point 60 years later, I’d have to give credit to Dorothy for being one of the positive influences in my developing years. In her own way she was a rebel, an advocate for women’s equality. She remained my mother’s friend until she died. I will always remember her as a woman of integrity, wise from experience and generous beyond belief.
Before they were married, my parents had already formed a friendship that would last for the rest of their lives. Robert Starkey, Mary Dreher, Gertrude Hale and Herbert Wiese were inseparable friends in the 1930s. They picnicked together in Kickapoo Park, went on double dates and celebrated each other’s marriages. During the war, Gertrude (Dottie) and my mom, Mary, looked after each other until the guys returned at the end of the war. Fast forward to the 1950s after I had entered the scene. I believe my mom and Dottie were a lot like Lucy and Ethel.
The Wieses lived on a small farm on Voorhees Street near Bowman Avenue. In the 1950s it was at the edge of the city. Their side of Voorhees Street had yet to be connected to the city sewage lines. I have very distinct memories of the trials of using an outhouse, especially on the coldest nights of the winter. I believe a child’s brain saves special memories in a file that is meant to be opened in later life. My special file is filled with memories of our times with the Wieses.
Let me begin by reminiscing about the farm on Voorhees Street. It eventually became a Wendy’s restaurant. For some reason the first thing I remember is standing on the flatbed of a truck in the driveway, picking apricots from a tree at the edge of the driveway. That memory segues into an autumn wiener roast where a roaring bonfire, in that same driveway, keeps us warm while lighting up the early autumn darkness. Then my memories are drawn to the end of the driveway, where the countryside really begins. I see myself throwing feed to the chickens as they scramble at my feet, pecking at the ground. A few steps further I find myself looking over a low gate while slop from the local dairy on Vermilion Street is being poured into the feeding trough for the pigs. I remember the smell of bacon and stacks pf pancakes slathered with butter and syrup on a Sunday morning, after an overnight stay.
My parents and Mick and Dottie played cards on Saturday nights. They alternated hosting every other weekend. The thing I looked forward to were the differences in the Saturday nights at the Wieses. They were an RC Cola family and we were a Pepsi family. They offered Cheese Puffs while we had potato chips. But everybody had the same sour cream onion dip! And we could always count on the standards, mixed nuts and pretzels as we played board games, watched TV or played our own versions of cards.
We traveled together as a family. I remember the long and dangerous drive from Danville to Chicago on route 1, to visit the Brookfield Zoo. Every time my father would push the pedal to the floor, to pass a slower driver, we would all hold our collective breath until we were safe back in the proper lane. Just outside of Chicago my father became concerned about a constant hissing sound. He motioned for Mick to pull over so he could check the engine. That’s when they discovered we were driving into a plague of locust. At the zoo, it was fun watching women screaming as locust landed in their hair. I remember women with huge wide push brooms sweeping up piles of locust from the walkways. Our parents bought us pointed Chinese hats to protect our heads. You know, all these years later, I can’t remember seeing any animals at the zoo. The locust stole the show.
The furthest trip together was to Lake Tomahawk in Wisconsin, to a fishing camp where we stayed in cabins. One morning we got up long before sunrise and the boys joined our fathers in a day long fishing trip. I was mesmerized when the motors were turned off and paddles were used to push the boats through dense grasses to reveal a remote portion of the lake unaccessible by any other means. As we parted the last blades of grass, the sun rose over the east shore of the lake turning the water a bright red/orange. In the distance I could see a buck with a huge set of antlers gracefully dancing away into the forest and out of sight. When we returned to the camp later in the day I grabbed my camera to record the event. Bob Wiese and my brother Steve proudly held the day’s catch as my sister Chris looked on. But the thing I took away from that fishing trip was the image of the sunrise on the remote lake. Throughout my life I would have dreams where I would paddle through high grass to a peaceful lake, sometimes on the other side of the world, where I felt safe and secure.
Whenever I returned to Danville, my trips to Bob’s Market were always about reminiscing about old times. But the thing I remember most is when Bob and I were pulling a wagon through the streets of Danville selling vegetables door to door. You’ve come a long way baby!
EAST PARK JUNIOR HIGH
The first thing I remember about East Park Junior High School happened during my first year. I had an English teacher who assigned us a project to write a poem. All these years later I don’t even know her name, but I owe her my gratitude. After the papers were graded and returned to us, she asked me to stay behind after class. She told me my poem was the best piece of writing she had seen from a 12 year old. She wanted me to promise I’d keep writing. She said all I needed to do was write as much as possible. I’m not sure if I believed her or not in that moment, but she planted a seed in my mind. That was a pivotal moment in my life, the example of how a good teacher inspires her students. She inspired me by making me feel special. I started writing my experiences and kept them to this day.
Here is the poem, found among my notes many years later:
God made our eyes so we could see
God made the honey for the bee
But he gave me a special gift
When he made you especially for me
Now in my eye there lay a tear
Just like a drop of dew
For he made one mistake my dear
He forgot to make me for you
My first year at East Park was also East Park’s first year of existence. One image that is seared into my memories is the experience of walking down hallways littered with buckets catching rainwater leaking from a badly designed roof. The roofs were flat and the rainwater gathered on the rooftops like small ponds. I saw one classroom completely closed as water ran down the walls in sheets.
I remember music class with Mr. Perkins. Every Thursday Mr. Perkins would ask who is wearing red socks? You know what they say about men who wear red socks on Thursday! Is it ironic that Mr. Perkins often chose to wear red socks on Thursday? Then there was the very carefully constructed poem about chewing gum. “A gum chewing girl and a cud chewing cow, are somewhat alike somehow. Oh yes, I see the difference now. It’s the thoughtful look on the face of the cow!”
On November 22, 1963, I was lying on the floor of the gym doing sit-ups with the rest of my gym classmates. Our gym teacher came out to the middle of the floor and solemnly announced that President Kennedy had been shot. In the locker room he gave us a crash course on the line of succession. Then came the final blow. The president was dead! We were all sent home to our parents where we were glued to the television, watching history unfold in black and white.
The next spring, 1964, the school principal Mr. Yeazel took a group of boys, hall monitors, on a field trip to Chicago, to the Museum of Science and Industry. Once I got inside the museum I don’t remember seeing any of the other boys until we got back on the bus. That was my first exposure to museums. I often wonder if these special teachers and principals understand that going beyond the perimeters of their lesson plans can have such lasting positive effects on their students.
THROUGH A CHILD’S EYES
When I close my eyes to imagine I’m young again, it really is like Alice falling through the looking glass. Through my child’s eyes the distance from my home to the corner seemed so much further than it really was. For years I thought my mother had a really forceful voice when she stood on the front porch calling us home at bedtime. Until I stood on that porch 50 years after moving away, it never occurred to me that my mother had been within shouting distance. From my child’s perspective the year was divided into two equal parts, summer vacation and the school year. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, my child’s mind invested every ounce of energy in denial of the impending return to studies in September. From September until May, I lived for the holidays and snow days, never taking my focus off the return of summer.
We children were so easy to please in the 1950s. I remember taking large pieces of cardboard boxes to the hills where we had gone sledding in the dead of winter. We slid down the hill on our summer fashioned sleds with the same enthusiasm and screams of joy we had on the snow. But we had no frozen toes or fingers. Just mosquito bites and sunburns. We easily accepted the idea that an inflatable circular plastic bowl that held no more than 6 inches of water was really a swimming pool. I don’t remember anyone in my circle of friends who knew how to play dominoes, so we carefully placed them on their sides spaced just enough apart, curving like a snake, then delighted in watching them fall “like third world countries succumbing to communism.”
There’s a lot to be said about the concept of an expanding mind. It would be great if we could all keep the innocence of a child while also learning about all the world has to offer. There’s also a lot of truth in the concept of a second childhood. Perhaps we should all think about the idea we have all repeated from time to time throughout our lives. “If only I knew then, what I know now.” What a great idea as we all approach our second childhoods. Let’s combine the innocence of childhood and the wisdom of age as we go forward.
DICK VAN DYKE
One of my first jobs as a budding photo journalist took place in March 1963, in my hometown, Danville, Illinois. I was 14 years old. Like every other inhabitant of Danville, I was glued to the television set every Tuesday evening for the next episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show. Occasionally the newspaper would warn us that Dick was going to mention Danville in his next show. I would ride my bicycle to my sister Pat’s house on Grove Street near Cleveland Avenue. to watch the show. When Dick actually said the word Danville, we would scream, “he said it, he actually said it!” We all got some personal satisfaction that for a fleeting moment people in Amsterdam were asking themselves, “where is this place called Danville?”
In March, 1963, the city of Danville had declared one day, Dick Van Dyke Day, complete with parade. I ran beside the yellow antique convertible snapping away, even managing to get an autograph. All my excellent pictures along with the newspaper articles and autograph were proudly displayed in an album that unfortunately got lost when I moved to Berlin in 1991.
In 1964, I sat in a packed Fisher theater along with my fellow Danvillians waiting for the premier of the movie, “Mary Poppins.” I had read reviews in Chicago newspapers as well as the New York Times. I was very well read for a 15 year old boy in Central Illinois, thanks to a decently stocked newspaper stand on the square in the Plaza Hotel. When Bert (Dick Van Dyke) began dancing with cartoon characters, the audience became very animated. “They didn’t see the reviews,” I thought to myself. Otherwise they would have known about the cartoon characters. It was the talk of Hollywood. In 1967, for my graduation, my husband Larry and I drove to California. On top of our list of sights was a drive by Dick Van Dyke’s house.
Through the years my mother would get calls from relatives and friends telling her “Dick is in town!” My mother and Dick Van Dyke were both born on December 13. Somehow, someone arranged for my mother to send Dick a birthday card and the next year my mother received a birthday card from Dick in return. To this day I have a signed picture of Dick as Bert the chimney sweep. As I have gotten older, the Bert in the photo has gotten younger.
Needless to say, most people from Danville, even today, can rattle off the names of Danville’s celebrities, Dick Van Dyke and Jerry Van Dyke, Gene Hackman, Bobby Short, Donald O’Connor as well as Helen Morgan, Uncle Joe Cannon and Joe Tanner.
My grandmother’s house was on the west side of Collett Street, bordering a small industrial area to the west. Behind the first three houses was a trucking company where semi-trucks would back up their trailers to be unloaded. Behind our house, the Weller’s and the Testa’s was a small foundry, McEnglevan, that manufactured furnaces and accessories for factories. Across from McEnglevan, on Griggs Street was a dog food factory.
The sidewalk in front of McEnglevan’s was on a big slope that was perfect for maximizing the speed of our homemade go kart that consisted of a few two by fours and and old wheels from a wagon. It was also the perfect playground when we discovers metal clip-on roller skates. In the winter we used sleds in the middle if the street. There was never any traffic to speak of, especially after a snowstorm. There was nothing more exciting than sledding down Griggs Street after an ice storm.
Just beyond the alley on Griggs Street, behind the Testa’s house, was the main entry to the foundry with its hot molten steel. All the kids knew the names of the workers and they knew our names. In a way we were constant companions. Directly behind our house was an empty field that gave us a clear view to Anderson Street. To the right, in a small cove cradled on two sides by the foundry and its offices, there were several old furnaces that sat rusting in the elements. On Sundays we had free reign over the the abandoned furnaces. One became a WW2 submarine. Another was a bomb shelter to protect us from the impending armageddon. One Sunday, one of the workers arrived in a pickup, pulled up to the back entrance and carried out the safe from the offices. Of course he was immediately arrested and it was the talk of the foundry on Monday morning. We were not witnesses, but we wondered what would have happened if we had witnessed the great McEnglevan heist!
One summer McEnglevan added a new addition to the factory with a metal roof that required thousands of rivets. The alleyway was littered with unused rivets that had fallen from the scaffolding during construction. The guys in the factory made a deal with us. They gave us a penny apiece for every rivet we returned to them. I don’t really think they needed them back. They were just being nice. And we appreciated their kindness as we chose penny candies at Timm’s Grocery across the street. When we had collected 100 rivets, we were handed a one dollar bill that made us feel really important. Actually having paper money was a big deal in a child’s financial world that usually consisted of coins only. Most of the time only pennies.
I feel lucky to have grown up in what would today be considered an unsafe environment. We were street wise because we lived in that environment. We stood at the side of the railroad tracks as the north and south bound Illinois Central passenger trains sped through at the intersection of Griggs Street. We waved patiently until someone, anyone, waved back from the train. Then we walked away with gratified smiles on our faces, knowing that we had for one second been acknowledged by someone free enough to travel on trains. For one brief moment we had injected ourselves into a life we wanted to be a part of someday.
At such a young age we were quite the entrepreneurs. Across the tracks was the “junk yard.” My mother did the owner’s laundry. When we would run out of candy money, we would roll our trusty little red wagon around the neighborhood picking up every piece of metal we could find. We would proudly walk upon the scales with the wagon to have our entry weight taken, then pull the wagon into the yard to dump it. We returned to the scale for the exit weight and Jerry would give us money for the metal. Then it was off to Smitty’s for more penny candy.
One day a stray cat wandered into our world. None of our parents would let us have a cat. So we decided to build a “cat house’” for our new friend. We went to the nearby lumber yard to ask if we could have scrap wood to build a cat house. We did not understand why everyone was laughing. It didn’t matter though, because they told us we could have as much scrap lumber as we could carry, on one condition. That we would let them know when the cat house was finished.
My great grandfather was born on July 6, 1856, in Rustow, Germany. In 1879, at the age of 23, Ludwig Wahlfeldt set sail for New York. He went directly to Danville, Illinois from New York to join other skilled Germans attracted by jobs at the C&EI Railroad shops. Ludwig worked the next twenty years as a car repairman at the Chicago & Eastern Illinois Railroad shops. He would remain in Danville for the rest of his life. During Mayor John Smith’s administration (Louis) Wahlfeldt was appointed chief of police in Germantown, and remained in that position five years, until Germantown was annexed to the city of Danville. Germantown got its name because of all the skilled German workers who settled in the neighborhood to be close to their jobs at the C&EI railroad shops.
On April 15, 1916, my great grandfather Ludwig Wahlfeldt died from stomach cancer, leaving nine children behind. On July 4, 1916, Ludwig’s daughter, Martha Starkey gave birth to my father Robert Starkey. My grandmother was a founding member of the Immanuel Lutheran church at the corner of Fairchild and Griffin Streets. Growing up in my grandmother’s house was my connection to my roots. Grandma taught me my first words in German by teaching me to sing Silent Night, (Stille Nacht). From the time I was a young boy, until I was a young man, I would sit with my grandmother in her room, as she proudly turned the familiar pages of her photo album, passing her stories on to me.
Because I grew up in Germantown, my experience as a child was as much German as it was American. The twentieth century saw a lot of melting in the melting pot. But the American experience is not an annihilation of our heritage. It is an incorporation of the best of what the immigrants brought with them when they came here for a better life. When I am in my German/American mode you may find me eating bratwurst and sauerkraut. But when I’m in my American mode, you may find me eating spaghetti or udon, burritos or dolmathakia, tom kha gai or jook, fry bread or sourdough, corn on the cob or hamburgers. When I think of my concept of America I see all the colors of the rainbow.
There’s a saying that time seems to go faster as we get older. A quarter of an 8 year old’s life is 2 years. A quarter of an 80 year old’s life is 20 years. Today we have entire PBS documentaries dedicated to explaining the complexities of time perception in the human mind. But one thing is simple. When we were children, three months of summer vacation seemed much longer than it does now. Thank heaven for that!
The other perception that changes with age and experience is distance. When we take our first steps, the distance from Dad’s arms to Mom’s arms seems insurmountable. Under the watchful eyes of an older sister or brother, one day our boundaries extend to the perimeters of our backyard. The third step to freedom is noticeable when Mom trusts us to go to the end of the block, as long as we can respond to the sound of her voice calling us to supper from the front porch. Step four is when we children become aware that Mom only calls us at lunch time or supper time. We quietly sneak beyond the boundaries, always sure to be back inside when Mom calls. Step five is the realization that Mom doesn’t call us anymore. We test our freedom in increments until one day we get the courage to run far beyond the boundaries without looking back. That freedom came for me on a warm spring day in 1961 when patches of leftover snow drifts were still melting into the gutters.
I rode my new bicycle north on Collett Street until it turned right, becoming Fairchild. I crossed over the tracks that led to Chicago on the left and New Orleans on the right. As I passed the passenger depot, I was confident of the day I would walk up to the teller to buy a ticket to Chicago on my own. But on that day my sights were on something more attainable. I was intent on riding my bike to Lake Vermilion. As I turned left on Bowman Avenue, setting my sights on Voorhees Street, I realized I had never been beyond the Germantown drug store alone. I was in new territory and it felt liberating. When I reached Logan Avenue I knew I was getting close. I passed the small white cottage in the 1500 block of Logan Avenue where my father had lived as a child. What a privilege it would be to live so near the lake, I thought to myself. Each of these seemingly small impressions would become parts of who I became as an adult. I would never lose that desire to go just beyond the next perceived boundary.
On the evening of January 16, 1994, just hours before a destructive Los Angeles earthquake, I departed L.A. on a Korean Airlines flight headed west to Southeast Asia. For the following 12 months I kept traveling west until I was back in San Francisco one year later. Thirty-three years after my great escape to Lake Vermilion, I broke the final barrier.
My grandfather George Edward Dreher was born on Sept. 19, 1893 and died on May 17, 1952. My grandmother Lena Gray Dreher was born on Aug. 13, 1892 and died on Dec. 16, 1946. My mother grew up on McKinley Avenue in Danville, Illinois. My mother’s family was hit hard by the great depression. Mom’s stories of her family’s survival during one of the most trying times of twentieth century America affected her children’s view of the world. Even during the great recovery after the end of WW2, my mother’s generation carried the scars of those years of struggle and sometimes near starvation. Everyone who is descended from the McKinley Avenue Dreher clan, carries the strength and determination of the strong women who gave birth to us, then raised us, nurtured us and showed us how to survive.
My great Grandfather, John Dreher was born in Nussplingen, Germany on February 15, 1861 the son of Joseph and Ursula Laffler Dreher. He immigrated to the U.S. and moved to Danville, Illinois in 1881 sponsored by an uncle, August Schatz. He had 4 brothers and 2 sisters. His brothers Engelbert, Fiedel, Martin and Joseph stayed in Germany. His sister Mary Elisabeth also stayed in Germany, but his sister Theresa came to Danville, Illinois and married Michael Yost. My great grandfather,John Dreher, married Mary Barbara Eberle in Peru, Indiana in October, 1884. My great grandmother, Mary Barbara Eberle was born in Peru, Indiana on December 3, 1863. She was the daughter of Jacob and Anna Marie Faust Eberle. Jacob Eberle was born in Germany February 27, 1825 and died in Peru, Indiana on January 30, 1887. Anna Marie Faust was born in Germany June 2, 1823 and died September 16, 1867 in Peru, Indiana. My great grandfather, John Dreher died January 6, 1934 in an automobile accident. My mother is Mary Lilian Dreher Starkey. Her parents were George and Lena Dreher and John Dreher was her grandfather.
Just beyond the New York Central tracks that crossed North Collett Street near Griggs, on the west side of Collett Street, I remember an old dilapidated building that resembled a saloon in a 1950s cowboy movie. Peering through dirty wavy glass windows, I could see broken remnants of the bar and tables and chairs covered with dust and cob webs. On a warm summer day, the saloon smelled like grandma’s attic. In front of the saloon near the curb was a hitching post for tying one’s horse. I was aware that most of my friends did not feel the connection to the past like I did. I used the smells and visuals as a conduit to a time and life I felt were more suited to my disposition. I knew inherently, that the fast paced world that was developing around me had the capacity to actually make me physically ill. Even as a preteen I understood that as a survival technique I had to find a way to live outside the expectations of that fast paced world. One way I escaped that world was to immerse myself in the study of the past. Most of that past in Danville led to one undeniable point in time when a young lawyer appeared on the scene, who would change the direction of our country and the world. His name was Abraham Lincoln.
When my parents took us to New Salem in Springfield, I’m sure their intent was to inspire us by exposing us to physical remnants of a very rich Illinois history. The scent of leather that had been drying up from over a century of exposure would be forever tattooed on my olfactory memory, ready to conjure up images of horses and buggies or leather bound books in a library lit by candle light. The clumping sound of shoe leather on hard roughly finished wooden floors painted the image of a strong woman cooking and baking over a black iron stove heated by burning wood. I envied them all for the fact that they had never known or been tempted by the things we later falsely classified as necessities. I envied the simplicity of their lives that I’m sure helped to balance the great struggles they endured. But I knew in many ways I had already been spoiled beyond redemption. I had already embraced many things they would never even dream possible.
I took my obsession with Lincoln to the point where I memorized the entire Gettysburg Address, which I can still recite today. As I read those words over and over again, they got under my skin, becoming a part of who I am. The words that made the biggest impression were these. “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” For me, even as a child, that’s what it meant to be an American. By his carefully chosen words, my hero and mentor had reached into the future to instruct me in my greatest duty as an American citizen.
Another hero and mentor as a young teen was D.H. Lawrence. “I am not a mechanism, an assembly of various sections. and it is not because the mechanism is working wrongly, that I am ill. I am ill because of wounds to the soul, to the deep emotional self, and the wounds to the soul take a long, long time, only time can help and patience, and a certain difficult repentance, realization of life’s mistake, and the freeing oneself from the endless repetition of the mistake which mankind at large has chosen to sanctify.” When I read these words they resonated with the core of my being. He had put into words what I felt and knew, but was unable to speak. I took D. H. Lawrence’s words and the words of Lincoln to heart, vowing to never be a conscious part of the “mistake which mankind at large has chosen to sanctify.”
I remember the fragrance of lilacs in the spring. That was the smell of the end of a school year. I remember playing on the porch on a rainy summer day. Hugging the wall to avoid the spray carried on the wind. I remember the smell of a new mowed lawn, the sting of dust raised by a passing semi-truck, the taste of pink lemonade, the burn of bare feet on hot pavement, the sound of flip flops smacking my soles, the odor of chlorine on my skin, the warmth of sun after the rain.
I remember sitting on a tree limb eating cherries. I remember the taste of peach cobbler with homemade vanilla ice cream. I remember Kool aide served in sweaty aluminum glasses. I remember cherry cokes at the Germantown drug store. I remember collecting “pop” bottles to exchange for penny candy at Timm’s Grocery, I remember playing kick the can at dusk. I remember the sound of a hardball as it comes in contact with the bat. I remember fireflies and crickets.
I remember the humming sound of car wheels as they came in contact with the red bricks of Collett Street. I remember watermelon when they still had seeds. I remember the sound and smell of fireworks on the 4th of July. I remember the odor of lighter fluid mixed with hamburgers and hot dogs. I remember the sound of the ice-man, metal piercing the ice block as we children picked up the pieces to suck on. i remember the ice cream man, a huge music box on wheels, beckoning children.
I remember stock car races at the fairgrounds. I remember miniature golf, badminton, croquet and roller skating. I remember playing king of the mountain on the raft in the lake at the sportsman’s club. I remember Planters Peanuts and cream sodas at Lincoln Park. I remember the view from my father’s boat in the middle of Lake Vermilion. I remember summer nights before color TV and air-conditioning.
I remember stiff blue jeans and the smell of notebook paper. I remember the odor of crayons and paste. I remember wishing summer could last forever. But every summer eventually ended in going back to school. Then we set our sights on Thanksgiving and Christmas, hoping it was enough to get us through to the end of the year.
When I was a child in Central Illinois, I loved snow. Even before I started school, before knowing the value of snow days, I loved the snow. I would stay out in spite of the caked ice on my knitted gloves that made my hands numb. I would continue to play with ten toes tingling under wet socks. I can remember the smell of snow in the air even before the first flake descended from heaven. I would race outside early on a snowy morning to enjoy the lily white drifts before they were soiled by the soot from nearby coal furnaces. I was tuned into the sound of a snowy night when snow plows could be heard in the distance, breaking an eerie silence. We built igloos and snowmen, fought snowball fights and charged down hillsides on our sleds, all in a race against that day when the sun would come out and erase the winter wonderland. Its fleeting existence made it so much more desirable. All the pain endured during a play day in the snow was mitigated by the experience of undressing in front of a steaming radiator that became a receptacle of our wet gloves and socks. Then off to the kitchen where mom had steaming hot cups of cocoa waiting with tiny marshmallows floating on top.
On September 20, 1968, I was downtown. I had just turned onto East Madison Street from Vermilion Street to begin my walk home to Tennessee Avenue. A huge explosion rocked the buildings around me. Just to the right I could see a huge mushroom cloud of smoke and dust, followed by flames that lit up the sky. “Oh my God,” I screamed, “Lauhoff’s just exploded!” Being a WLS radio addict, I remembered the jingle that contained their news tip telephone number. I ran to a pay phone near the public library and dialed their number. They had no trouble believing me. By this time every police car and firetruck in Danville were en route to the scene, sirens blaring. Within an hour WLS had dispatched a helicopter to the scene and were reporting live. They said the flames from the explosion could be seen from Chicago as they left the airport.
By the time I reached my sister’s house on North Griffin Street, everyone in Danville knew what had happened. Rumors abounded. “If it blows again, half the downtown area could be leveled!” a caller to a local radio station exclaimed. The sound of helicopters replaced the sirens as we stayed up half the night, waiting for news. It was a Friday night and Main Street had already been crowded with High School students cruising the Steak’n’Shake. Now it seemed half the city had joined the typical Friday night ritual of driving up and down the street, but they were hoping to get a glimpse of the fire.
As we finally gave in to our urges to sleep, it was the sound of the radio listener’s paranoid vision of Armageddon that kept our minds active. When we awoke half way through the next morning, we found everyone involved in a normal Saturday morning routine as if nothing had happened. Everything always looks different in the light of day.
Two men eventually died after being flown to a special hospital for burn victims in St. Louis.
In November, 1965, I traveled for the first time outside of the states of Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Missouri. My sister Barbara had just returned to Danville from Stuttgart, Germany where her husband had been stationed in the US army. My mother arranged for me to get out of school to travel with Barbara to Baltimore to pick up her Volkswagen. Even though I had traveled to Chicago many times by train, this time was different. I suspected this might be the beginning of a lifetime of travel! Finally something to satisfy the wanderlust I felt bubbling up inside me as I thumbed through books and magazines, admiring the photography that captured far away exotic lands. As I watched the farmhouses and cities pass by outside the window of the train, I was able to imagine the people inside those houses multiplied millions of times around the world. The prospect of traveling further than I ever traveled before made me aware of the immense possibilities this vast planet holds for anyone brave enough to search them out.
The trip by train from Chicago to Washington, D.C. seemed like a long uninterrupted dream. I kept my nose pressed to the window out of fear of missing some significant sight that might pass by in a nanosecond. Since leaving Chicago, every mile of track was uncharted territory to be discovered and savored. Barbara and I ate sandwiches made with leftover turkey from Thanksgiving as we watched the train weave our way through small farm towns lightly dusted with snow. As we turned slightly south we encountered freezing rain. Pittsburgh made the biggest impression, although not a good one. It was wrapped in a cold winter darkness, broken by glaring lights of steel mills and silhouettes of smokestacks. That’s when I became depressed and decided to try to sleep.
After Pittsburgh, my sleep was occasionally interrupted by a slow methodical rocking side to side, accompanied by screeching wheels as we wound our way up cold snowy mountains. I was sad that my first time in the mountains was in total darkness. Each time we approached the next road crossing, the flashing red lights reflected on the now dark interior walls of the train like embers reflecting from a fireplace. The crossing bells began as a faint whisper, then rose to a crescendo before quickly fading away again. The journey down the other side of the mountain had its own unique music. The screeching of brakes accompanied by a gentle rocking back and forth that made it obvious we were no longer climbing, but descending.
When we arrived in Washington, we had to change trains to Baltimore. I had just enough time to walk outside the entrance of Union Station where I could see an uninterrupted view the Capitol Building. Something wonderful happened to me in that brief encounter with the majestic architecture of the nation’s capital. The voice inside my head that often had the uncanny ability to predict my future, told me I would come back to D.C. one day. What it didn’t tell me was that I would someday spend six years of my life there.
Barbara drove the V.W. back to Illinois. My only requirement was to sit in the passenger seat beside her to keep her company. All those mountains I had missed on the night train were now under the wheels of a small German car that was born in a place where mountains were bigger and more magnificent than my imagination could conjure up.
As we were passing through Indianapolis, at around 4:00 pm, I had an uncontrollable urge to tell something to my sister that I usually kept to myself. I told her I felt that someone had died while we were gone. I didn’t tell here I thought it was our grandmother. But that seemed the most logical. When we arrived back home we found my mother sitting at the kitchen table crying. Her brother, our Uncle Junior had died at the time I had spoken to my sister in the car.
This was decades before I would face the realities of being a caregiver for multiple friends dying of a strange disease in San Francisco. It was years before I would grieve for my grandmother’s death. But looking back now, I understand it was a brief glimpse into what is possible when we are forced to confront the mortality of those we love as well as our own mortality. In that space of unconditional love, of utterly unbearable grief, our bodies break down all the artificial barriers we have constructed against our sixth sense. I have learned that most people, once you get them alone, will tell you their own story.
I believe my lifelong commitment to understanding my connection to nature began in the summer of 1965. I was given a waiver by the Illinois State Parks service that allowed me to camp in Kickapoo State Park without adult supervision. My mother and I packed my father’s WW2 pup tent into the back of the station wagon, along with a large aluminum cooler, a propane camp stove and appropriate utensils. After setting up camp my mother drove me home to pick up my bicycle to ride back to the park. Monday through Friday I was essentially alone.
I rode through the park on the first day to get my bearings. On the second day I locked up my bike and walked through the park for about six hours. I felt as if I had come home. It was the first time I was left responsible for everything in my existence. I had to cook my own meals. I got to decide when I would go to bed and when I would wake up. I understood that bedtime was soon after darkness and rising time was with the sunrise. Nothing smells better than breakfast cooking in a skillet outdoors on a chilly morning with dew covering everything.
I had no interest in participating in the summer activities of my peers. It was designed to prepare those who wanted to live lives already written for them. I was aware that my life would have to be written myself on a blank page. Walking through Kickapoo Park in 1965, I learned about meditation. I discovered I could learn more strolling through a forest than I could learn from a million hours of television. I connected to the spirits of people who had walked the same earth before any white man had ever dreamed this land existed. Occasionally I would stumble upon an artifact in the road, dug up by the coal strip mining nearby. On my early morning walks I shared space with wildlife that weekend visitors would never see. For the first time I could imagine a world without the technology of the twentieth century. To my surprise, in every respect, life seemed better to me, without the technology of the twentieth century.
I discovered that being alone without anyone to converse with, heightened my awareness of intuition. I learned this miraculous vessel I inhabited was equipped to handle anything I encountered. During the summer of 1965, in Kickapoo State Park, I experienced a modern version of a vision quest. That was the summer I came of age.
There are certain things that are so different, so scary, so surprising or so life altering, they are seared in our memories forever. When we close our eyes, thinking of the past, those are the things that first come to mind, front and center. Perhaps those are the things we will see as our whole life flashes before us in our last breath.
I remember a fire in a factory near the intersection of Bowman and Griggs Streets when I was not yet 12 years old. The entire building was engulfed in flames that lit up the night sky. We could feel the heat from a block away. Each time a wall or roof collapsed, the crowd would let out the kind of scream you’d hear at a fireworks display. I remember wanting to run away, but I couldn’t because the sight of that magnificent fire was mesmerizing.
One day after school our mom gave us cinnamon rolls from the bakery on Collett Street. As we sat at the table with our rolls half devoured, glasses of milk in hand, a knock came at the door. It was the clerk from the bakery. “Stop eating the rolls,” she screamed! “They are infested with tiny ants!” My mother calmly turned to us and said, “drink lots of water. Drown them!”
I’m not really sure how we were informed or who informed us, but a large semi truck had crashed into the train overpass on Collett Street. It was a Chuckles Candy truck. A freight train was stopped on the tracks above, evidently bringing the height restriction down lower than the posted height. The truck driver did not slow down as he approached the overpass. The impact split the trailer open sending Chuckles candies everywhere. Word spread like wildfire as children and adults came running down Collett Street pulling wagons, pushing wheel barrows or carrying whatever was handy for collecting the spoils. It was like something out of a segment of the “Little Rascals.”
It must have been the storm of the century. All the lights had been out for hours and we were gathered by candlelight around a small transistor radio. The darkness was pierced every few seconds by an unrelenting duo of lightning and thunder. The wind howled fiercely through every crack in every door and window, whistling like a big monster trying to break in to consume us all.
Then came a frantic knock at the door followed by a woman’s voice pleading for help. My dad opened the door. There stood a woman with an umbrella turned inside out, soaked from head to toe. “I can’t get through Collett Street because a downed tree is blocking the street,” she said. “There are downed power lines everywhere. I’m afraid!” She was invited in and my mother brought her a towel. The storm lasted for a few more hours as we all fell asleep sitting up. At dawn we all walked out to the front to survey the damage. There was something really beautiful and calming about the sunrise shining on the wet green glistening leaves of the downed branches scattered everywhere. We all took a collective sigh of relief. “It’s finally over!”
Sandy, Steve and I had just been tucked into bed. The lights were out and we could hear the sound of crickets chirping as they did every night during the summer. Crickets were our organic lullaby as we all entered that twilight area half way between sleep and waking. Suddenly there came an unfamiliar crashing sound that shook our beds. A drunk driver had rear ended my father’s Desoto, sending it into the back of my mother’s 1958 Chevy station wagon, bending the frame of the Chevy. The inebriated woman was lying on the grass, bloody and seemingly unaware of what she had just done. I didn’t know whether to feel sorry for her or hate her. I don’t remember ever choosing either. But the image of her lying on the grass left an indelible mark on my attitude toward alcohol consumption.
I was lying in bed in nothing but my underwear, tucked under a single white sheet because it was one of those hot sticky summer nights that made everyone sweat. As I rolled over in bed I could see a bright shimmering yellow light flashing against the wall of the house next door on Tennessee Avenue. Then I heard those words no one wants to hear: “FIRE!” My sister Christy went absolutely berserk. She was terrified of fire. I believe our neighbor Charlie, a fireman, was first on the scene, checking to see that our neighbors across the street were all safely out of the house. The house was a total loss. We spent months trying to convince my sister Chris that she was safe, that our house was not going to also burn.
These are things I remember because I wrote them down. I can look at them to assess what impact they had on who I became because of my experiences. But I have to wonder how many things there are that weren’t written down. How many memories are there lurking in the dark recesses of my mind, covertly influencing the way I operate in the world?
My grandfather Frederick John Starkey and his twin sister Faye Starkey (Swindle), were born on September 15 1886, in Bismarck, Illinois. My grandmother Martha (Wahfeldt) Starkey was born on January 13 1885, in Danville, Illinois. Fred and Martha had eight children, Alice Fossard, Magaret Deeken, Ethel Hance, Wayne, Curt, Harold, Fred junior and my father Robert Henry Starkey who was born on July 4, 1916. My grandfather, Frederick, my father’s father, died on my father’s birthday, July 4, 1940.
My great grandfather, Robert Cornelius Starkey, a machinist at Robert Holmes and Bros, was born in Indiana on December 23, 1858, the son of John and Elizabeth Starkey. My great grandmother Alice (Miller) Starkey, was born on August 21 1861, in Alvin, Illinois. Robert Cornelius Starkey died in 1931, leaving behind his widow, Alice Miller Starkey, two sons, Fred and Arthur, Danville, three daughters, Winifred Moss, Bismarck, Faye Swindle, Catlin, Ethel Bentley, Philadelphia, Penn and three sisters, Carolyn Smith, Jane Trott and Martha Wilson, and a brother Will Starkey.
My grandfather worked for Grieser and Sons plumbing and heating and my father worked as a plumber, then at the C&EI shops before going to work at General Motors for more than 30 years. My grandfather and my father were both active union members.
In my search for my ancestry, the Starkey family history stops in Illinois and Indiana. so far. I do not know from which European country they immigrated. Because of the common practice of changing names at Ellis Island, the possibilities are endless. I’m hoping someone out there can help me in this endeavor.
DHS GRADUATION 1967
If you ask most people about their high school graduation, they will be able to give intimate details about the event. Not me. The only memory I have is not really a memory at all. I look at the photos of my cousin Gail and me dressed in our gowns and I can’t even remember being there for the picture. It’s the same for my entire three years at Danville High School. Except for a few major, mostly negative events, I don’t remember my high school years. I was obviously there in body, otherwise they wouldn’t have given me a diploma. But my spirit was somewhere else, learning how to survive. I was born with an innate ability to resist things that were not connected to my spirit. High school was not connected to my spirit. Directly or indirectly, deliberately or accidentally, it was designed to kill who I really was.
Here’s what I remember about the night of my graduation. I remember packing my suitcase. I remember waiting for my husband to get off work at R&S Printing. I remember driving our 1965 yellow Pontiac convertible through the car wash on Main Street early the next morning. I remember the moment when we had driven further west than either of us had driven before. I remember how it felt as all those tiny tentacles of expectation snapped as we got further and further away from Illinois.
Larry and I drove straight through from Danville to Los Angeles, stopping only for food and gasoline. We alternated sleeping and driving. There were still parts of the old route 66 that had not been converted to an Interstate Highway yet. I enjoyed some of the old route more than the new one, because I could imagine Tod and Buz driving their Corvette across America. Of course Larry and I in a big yellow Pontiac convertible was not quite the same!
There was nothing really spectacular until we reached the desert. What a thrill it was too see real mountains for the first time. Not those old worn down east coast mountains, but real pointed peaks that rise up on the horizon. They defy time and distance. You keep driving down the road toward them and they seem to remain unattainable. Sometimes it seems you are driving on a conveyer belt that keeps your wheels turning in place. Then suddenly you are upon them, turning left, then right, then left again as your engine strains to get up steep grades that create an optical illusion of being on a flat surface. Then there’s a sign that says View Point. The view is spectacular. As far as you can see there is nothing but desert and more mountains in the distance. This is the moment I realized deserts are nature’s way of protecting large parcels of land from being destroyed by human occupation. The most beautiful aspect to the desert is its ability to create breathtaking beauty with simplicity.
When we arrived in Santa Monica I was surprised at how cold and foggy it was. I had always thought of California as sunny and hot like Florida. The newspaper racks along the beach all screamed with headlines about a war between Israel and Egypt. But all that seemed a million miles away. Nothing was going to spoil our two week holiday from that other reality where we wore masks for acceptance. On the car radio, Scott Mackenzie sang “If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.” Golden Gate Park was already filled with young people arriving for the “Summer of Love.” I wanted to drive up the coast to see it for myself. But Larry said no, and he held the keys to the car. I had come within 400 miles of my real spiritual home. I knew I would eventually come back!
THE ACCIDENTAL HISTORIAN
One of my most memorable, emotional and life altering photo shoots was the day I walked through the burned out ruins of Coffey Park in October 2017. Over the following 14 months, as I recorded the rebuilding of Coffey Park, I always wondered what it had looked like before the fire. When taking photos, the inhabitants of that vibrant Santa Rosa neighborhood were not focused on the possibility of losing everything in what was the biggest wildfire in California history at the time. Like amateur photographers all over America, they lined up their human subjects with no conscious acknowledgement of the background in the pictures. As I reminisce about my childhood sixty plus years ago, I long for visual representations of the landmarks of my past. But they can only be found in the accidental recordings of amateur photographers who unwittingly document a row of trees perfectly aligned, the favorite corner grocery store where we bought penny candies or the facades of neighbor’s houses.
There are three ways I’ve changed since my experience in Coffey Park. When I aim my camera now, I pay more attention to the background, taking more photos of the neighborhood and the street. I also look at old photos with a greater awareness of what’s behind the main subjects. For more than half a century I looked at our old black and white photos, making the same mistake the original photographer made. I only focused on my three sisters standing together, ignoring the rich historical background that was over their shoulders.
Before my teen years I was a loyal advocate for my hometown. If someone asked about Danville, in one breath I could rattle off all the names of those who had left Danville for fame and fortune. Like an employee of the chamber of commerce I could list all the major industries that called Danville home. I read all the books on Vermilion County stored in our public library. I studied the history of Abraham Lincoln, given the fact that he had spoken from a balcony in my hometown. When I was a student at East Park Junior High School a fellow student, Sharon Akers and I did a special history project on the home of Mrs. Joseph Barnhart. That home is now the Vermilion County Museum.
Sharon and I were invited to interview Mrs. Barnhart and were given a personal tour of the home about a year or so before it was sold to the Museum Society. My interest in the project came from my fascination and near obsession with the life of Lincoln. By doing this project and interview, I was also exposed to the life of Uncle Joe Cannon. Of course the interview with Mrs. Barnhart and the tour of the home reflected her pride in the rich history and historical events the home represented. I however, in preparation for the project, had read a book about the tyranny of Uncle Joe’s reign in the House of Representatives. Add to that the observations of my AFL-CIO member father who had childhood memories Uncle Joe riding around in his touring car, “waving at no one,” as my father characterized it. It was clear my father thought Uncle Joe was both a fool and a dangerous man who had oppressed the working classes and the poor in favor of the rich and powerful. But like a good student I was aware that I was not allowed to venture beyond certain boundaries. I had not yet seen the world outside Danville, Illinois. Like most of the people who lived there then, I was blinded by my need to think my hometown was always special in a positive way.
Uncle Joe Cannon was the most powerful politician in a time of growing opposition to corporate monopolies and the lack of a social safety net. Uncle Joe routinely used his power in the House of Representatives to kill any legislation that would hurt his rich corporate friends. He abused his power so badly he was eventually characterized as a dictator by fellow Republicans who joined Democrats in 1910, to strip him of his right to be on the Rules Committee. His abuse of power eventually led to a more limited, less powerful role for the Speaker of the House. His abusive behavior also led to the end of the powerful “Old Guard” Republicans who stood in the way of a social movement that eventually led to FDRs New Deal.
For four years Rob and I taught yoga classes in a 13th century Venetian castle ruins in a small village called Loutro, on the island of Crete. Working in the shell of a building that had been constructed before Europeans were even aware the new world existed, was impressive to two Americans. On the hillside leading down from the castle to the Libyan Sea, however, were Minoan Ruins that were destroyed in the biggest volcanic eruption in history more than 3,600 years ago. By the time I had landed on Crete, I already had many experiences sleeping under roofs that were built four or five hundred years before. I learned how to appreciate the imperfections in the aging stone walls, the slanted ceilings and floors, the giant hearths that once served as both stove and furnace. At night, when I crawled beneath down feather duvets, I felt I was being tucked in by centuries of mothers who possibly gave birth to my great-great-great-great grandparents. Standing among the ruins of a Minoan village, I was able to imagine cultures that were possibly more advanced than we are now. Until I left America on my first trip abroad, I never knew the pleasure of touching an object that I could imagine being touched by someone else a thousand years before. In America, my family tree had branches that only reached back a couple of generations before they stretched out over that vast expanse of ocean known as the Atlantic.
It wasn’t until I returned from my longest stay abroad, that I experienced what many expatriates call reverse culture shock. I watched in horror as structures that had been built in my lifetime, crashed under the weight of a wrecking ball. Because of my extensive travel, I was able to experience what many Americans were oblivious to. Our throw away culture is now on steroids. We are throwing away examples of beautiful architecture in the same way we throw away toasters that are no longer repairable because of designed obsolescence. As many Europeans, Egyptians, Asians and more, stand before their great respected treasures, connecting to centuries of rich history, Americans often stand before empty fields wondering what the hell happened.
When I witnessed the destruction of Coffey Park, Fountaingrove and other Santa Rosa neighborhoods after the great 2017, fire, I already understood the connection and importance physical structures have to memory and history. In my photographs of Fountaingrove, I saw an eerie resemblance to the ruins I walked among in Athens. Those were moments that tied together all the different aspects of the grief I shared with everyone involved in the Sonoma firestorm. I thought about the Minoans who were swept away in the great tsunamis, 3,600 years ago. I remembered my landlady Pandalitza, on Crete, touching the olive tree to connect with her ancestors. In my mind I could see the outline of the Gedächtniskirche in Berlin, the remains of a bombed out church, a memorial to a dark time in their history.
Then I thought of my hometown where I had returned to find that most of the landmarks of my childhood had been deliberately toppled by bulldozers. I felt a confusing sense of loss as I watched the same kinds of bulldozers remove all traces of the Santa Rosa firestorm damage. I knew the twisted metal, broken glass and piles of ashes were more than just garbage to be hauled away. They were as sacred as the ashes in an urn that rests on a mantle in the living room. They were the last physical vestige of lives lived in that space for decades before. All the past love, struggle, heartache and joy were still there in the ashes. Where others saw ugliness, I saw beauty.
I felt an urgent call to document the rebirth of Santa Rosa. In spite of the pain of an undiagnosed progressing cancer, I went everyday for 14 months, to photograph the rebuilding of the neighborhoods destroyed by the fire. I wasn’t just taking pictures as a photographer. In Coffey Park, I was mourning the loss of my own working class neighborhood back in Illinois, where children played together, neighbors had barbecues and everyone knew your name. When I stood in the middle of the street in Coffey Park days after the fire, I felt the same sadness as when I stood in the middle of the street in my old neighborhood five years before. But in Illinois there was little hope of reviving my old neighborhood. In Santa Rosa I was able to be a part of something that seemed impossible five years earlier.
My grandmother’s house on Collett Street seemed huge when I was a child. My mother’s stories of sleeping on the floor, or four to a bed during the depression, made our bedroom with four separate beds seem luxurious. When I visited friends in their new small prefab houses, I felt even more love for our 19th century home. I developed an appreciation for the historic aspects of architecture and an affinity for the ghosts and spirits of past residents. In 1981, I arrived in San Francisco with a shopping list for our future home. It had to be a Victorian, with a fireplace and a view. On the last day before returning to Washington, D.C. I signed a lease for 186 States Street. It had everything on my list and more. Our new neighbor Jay, across the street, had lived in our house in the 1960s with her lover, Janis Joplin. And the house came with its very own friendly ghost.
Nearly a decade after Rob had died, a good friend bought the former British Consul General’s residence in San Francisco’s prestigious Pacific Heights neighborhood. My friend wanted a place to display his private collection of art. He also wanted a place where he could recreate the original experience of chamber music in the intimate setting it was designed for. When I was offered the position of Resident Manager of the private museum, it was not exactly a slam dunk. It would mean ending years of international travel. It took a lot of persuasion, but i finally gave in. I eventually took up residence on the top floor that had once been the servant’s quarters. For nearly a decade, I lived alone in 11,000 square feet of historic San Francisco. The floor below me had once housed members of the royal family on their trips to San Francisco. From the windows in my bedroom I could see sunsets behind the Golden Gate Bridge. I had a full view of the bay and Alcatraz.
I found myself playing the part I jokingly referred to as Den Mother to the stars. The royal bedroom, the master bedroom and the canopy bed room all housed many of the world’s most talented musicians and entertainers coming to San Francisco to perform at the opera, the symphony and other venues. There was never an Upstairs, Downstairs aspect to my job. During events, I took off my apron and put on my best vest and silk tie, then positioned myself at the front door where I was always the first to greet the politicians, movie stars, writers, musicians, singers and others entering the house. It was understood that I was the go-to guy to get things done. I spent many mornings sitting across the breakfast table sharing stories with celebrities from around the world. After decades of a vagabond existence, it was the perfect balance to round out my life experience.
One of the most memorable moments was when opera singers Federica von Stade and Zheng Cao performed the song Over The Rainbow in our music room. I told them afterwards that they had made a gay man’s dream come true. They had performed my favorite song in the very house where I lived. I can still hear their voices when I close my eyes. Over the Rainbow was a song Zheng performed numerous times in her years long struggle battling cancer. She lost her struggle in February, 2013.
I didn’t get a car until I got a job at the University of Illinois when I was 21 years old. So most of my life in Danville, Illinois was traveled on foot. I knew I was an anomaly, but I didn’t care. Walking allows one to take in all the details missed when racing by in a car, or on a bike or a bicycle. There was something really soothing about arriving home late on a summer night, carefully holding back the screen door so it wouldn’t slam and wake up the parents, then raiding the fridge for iced tea and cold juicy chunks of cantaloupe. I never had a problem falling asleep. I attribute that to walking.
A walker also learns the shortcuts when needed. One day my cousin Barney showed me a shortcut along the railway tracks that bisected the farmland behind their Cleveland Avenue house. When we reached the railway bridge I got my first taste of vertigo as I slowly and carefully made my way to the other side of the bridge. After what seemed like no time at all, I was surprised to find ourselves on Georgetown Road. I had always looked at things from a pure linear point of view. Now I was forced to look at Danville as a map, with many unexplored avenues waiting to be conquered.
Those were days when most people didn’t have air-conditioners. People sat on their porches on summer evenings. Some spoke to me as I passed by, many times leading to conversations. I sat many nights with my grandma’s brother Max Wahlfeldt and his wife Leota on their front porch on Griffin Street, talking until the mosquitoes started biting. Those days of my youth were an important part of my training for the life ahead.
When trekking from village to village in the Swiss Alps, I appreciated the training of my youth. In my first weeks living in Frankfurt, Germany, I mapped out my new home with my feet, returning home each evening hungry and tired. In all my years in Berlin, there was never enough time to walk to all the places I desired. I walked with my friend Ulf who had escaped from East Berlin a year before the wall came down. He drew a vivid picture of his struggle to escape, as we walked freely across the places where he would have been shot. In Southeast Asia, I confidently accepted the challenge of a German man, to walk from one side of the island to the other through the jungle. The path from my village Loutro, on Crete, to the village Anopolis, 1000 feet straight up a mountain trail was no big challenge. During bad weather, when ferries were not able to run, a hike from Loutro to Sfakia, for supplies could take up to two hours in each direction.
But living under the dictatorship of Daniel arap Moi, in Kenya, in 1991, challenged me more than any other place I lived. I only left the diplomatic compound once on my own. There was something very intimidating about military soldiers on every corner with automatic weapons. I will always regret not taking more walks and not having my camera. But I will also regret not having the chance to go back one more time.
The best, most important walk of my life was this past March when I walked out of the Summerfield Nursing Home in Santa Rosa. It wasn’t until I remembered that I was a walker, that I began to heal. The more I walked, the healthier I became. When I first struggled up the hill beside Summerfield, I told myself, “you’re doing this to save your life!” And it did save my life!
I didn’t buy my first car until I was 22 years old. So I walked everywhere. I knew the streets of my hometown Danville, Illinois like the back of my hand. I had to deliberately walk on side streets in order to learn about different neighborhoods, because my first inclination was to walk on the main streets in case I needed to catch a ride. But many times I refused to take rides offered because it would disturb my walking meditation. As I look back on those days now, I realize I didn’t even understand that what I was doing was in fact meditation. I still consider those days my formative years. On the streets of Danville, I developed many of the parts of my psyche, my behavior, that others would always see as different. For that I am grateful.
One evening as I was approaching the pedestrian mall on Vermilion Street, I witnessed two young boys grab a woman’s purse, then run down a side street. Without even thinking, I ran after them, shouting as I pursued them. I was so angry that they would tarnish the reputation of the place where I was born. I didn’t even know what I would do if I caught them. I was fueled by adrenaline, giving them a run for their money, (or their purse). They eventually escaped down the railroad tracks. I returned to the mall to see if the woman was okay. I waited with her until the police arrived, then walked her back to the Hotel Wolford. She was in Danville on a business trip from Georgia. Of course she told me what a polite young man I was, and asked me for my address so she could stay in touch. A few weeks later a package arrived in the mail. It contained a thank you note along with a small folding travel alarm. I cherished that alarm. It was like she somehow knew that i wanted to travel. She understood the perfect thank you gift.
Six years later I had just moved into a new condo near Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. I heard a commotion in the alleyway behind my building. When I opened the bedroom window I saw an old woman crying that someone had just stolen her purse. I saw the figure of a young boy running down the alley toward the circle. I knew exactly where he would come out onto P Street. I flew down the two flights of stairs, passing two neighbors coming up. “Sorry, I can’t stop, I’m going to catch a mugger!” I blurted out. That was their first impression of me, and they always repeated the story of how we met, as I would shrink in embarrassment. The boy came out onto P Street as I had imagined. Once again I started shouting, then chased him through a parking lot until he managed to climb over a brick wall.
A few months later, as I was walking home at rush hour, I saw a kid I thought was up to no good. Suddenly he began to run, grabbed a woman’s purse, then bolted down P Street. My feet took action almost without my consent. Someone else flagged down a police car. They followed me as I followed the thief. As they passed me, I shouted. that’s him. They tackled him in a garden, handcuffed him, then took statements from me and the victim. A year later I received a letter from the justice department. It was a commendation. They said i was the link that made it an open and shut case. They didn’t even have to go to court. That’s when I decided to retire. I wasn’t eager to find out what happens when I actually catch up to someone. I was never trained in self defense or how to dodge bullets.
BACK TO SCHOOL
Every September was like Christmas for essentials. A new pair of stiff blue jeans would chafe the legs while we sat behind desks on one of those unusually hot September days. It seemed new shoes were specifically designed to wear blisters on the heels. A brand new box of pointed crayons were among the special back to school smells. They waited to be rounded then flattened, until the paper on the side had to be peeled away to make them functional again. It was somehow nice to carry a virgin box of crayons on that first day of school, along with pencils, flat on one end, with an eraser on the other end. One day before the Christmas vacation, those pencils would be worn to stubs, after raising our hands a few dozen times to use the pencil sharpener bolted to the top of the teacher’s desk. The smell of white paste, the strong odor of mimeographed papers, the dry dusty powder from chalk erasers clapped together, the astringent eye burning stench of Lysol on the bathroom floor, were all markers of a transition from one reality to another.
The labor day weekend marked an end to summer for most, but to children it marked the end of the freedom of summer vacation. We knew there was nothing that could be done to change that, so we took it in stride, hoping for the best. September in Illinois in those days was unique among the months of the year. Anything could happen in September. One day it could be 80 degrees, then the next day there would be frost on the pumpkins, prompting the first wearing of the winter coat. As darkness came earlier in the evenings, wiener roasts would be organized around bonfires on weekends. On the ends of long sticks whittled to points by our fathers, we would carefully place one or two marshmallows, hold them over the fire until they turned black, then quietly wonder why we were eating ashes and pretending they were tasty! Soda pop was replaced with hot chocolate, again with tiny marshmallows floating on top. Tiny marshmallows that just weeks before had been suspended in a Jello mold on a picnic at Douglas park. Oh, yes! Douglas Park. It was closed for the winter. Perhaps one of the saddest things about September from a child’s point of view.
September was also sensual. The aroma of freshly picked apples was blended with a light fragrance of wooden slates that formed the bushel basket they rested in. Cinnamon was retrieved from the back of the cabinet to take it’s place once again among the chosen spices for complimenting autumn dishes. With all the doors and windows closed, the kitchen magnified the bouquet of every dinner, while also providing an escape from the encroaching winter cold. All the windows would fog up whenever Mom prepared a huge pot of soup. The sweet candy like smell of condensed summer fruits overpowered the kitchen as rows of mason jars lined the kitchen table. As we hurried home to escape darkness and cold, the undeniable duo of the smell of dried autumn leaves accompanied by the sound of crunching under our feet, quietly reminded us of our place on the calendar.
My mother walked me to school on my first day in first grade at Collett School in Danville, Illinois. After that I was the charge of my older brother and sister. We walked to school, which was no big deal since the school was three blocks from our house. At noontime we went home for lunch. The menu never varied much. Campbell’s Chicken Noodle, Tomato or Beef Barley soup with saltine crackers. We always had lunch meat sandwiches with Kraft cheese slices on Wonder Bread. My mom had calculated the time it would take to walk back to school, so we were all pushed out the door at the appointed time, then we walked briskly back motivated by the fear of being late.
My sister Sandy, brother Steve and I were post war babies. Our siblings Marlene, Pat and Barbara were pre-war babies. Although it was never really mentioned, it was obvious to us all that we were parts of two pods, related by blood but divided by a world war. That decade between the pods meant the roles we played as siblings were a mixture of brother/sister, parent/child. That’s one of the advantages of a large family. After coming home from public school, we returned to another classroom constructed by our mother in order to make a family of nine function smoothly.
My dad’s mom, my Grandma Starkey lived in a large bedroom upstairs. She was the only grandparent I knew. All the others had died before I was born. My grandma Starkey was my main link to my family past, with her photo albums and stories bringing my heritage to life.
But when I think of my Grandma Dreher, I think of the only thing I know that belonged to her personally, her sheet music. My Grandma Dreher taught piano lessons. When I held those browned brittle pages in my hand, I imagined my grandma standing behind an eager student as those same pages rested against the front of an upright piano. When I read the words to some of the songs, I imagined my mother singing them the first time while my grandma played the piano. From that sheet music, I came to know all the words to songs I heard coming through the basement window as my mom sang while doing the laundry.
I never thought of myself as a child of the 1950s, because I was born in the last year of the 1940s. I still had one foot planted in the decade of a world war. I had the experience of sitting before a radio, forced to draw pictures of the characters using my imagination. I had actually sat in the presence of people who had lived before the first airplane flight, or the advent of the automobile. When an old man brought a horse drawn wagon down the alleyway, it was like a phantom from a dying past. I had three older sisters who created an important bridge between the life that lay ahead of me and the life that existed before I was born.
Now I’m that phantom with the horse drawn wagon. I’m the guy with the stories about life before the internet. I witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall, but now there are adults with children, who were born after the fall. If you subtract my current age from the date of my birth, it takes us back to the year 1878. I’m now in the position that a 71 year old was in 1949, when I was born. 1949 is the 1878 of a baby born today. That brings me to a personal understanding of something I’ve heard throughout my life: “Life is short! Make the best of everyday you have!”
When I was a child, the biggest mysteries were in the past I had not experienced, and I had a whole life waiting to be lived. As an old man, I now sit on the other side of that construct, where the mysteries lie in a future I will not be here for, and a past I hope someone will remember when I am gone. My biggest fear is that no one will care anymore.
YOU CAN NEVER GO HOME
In the spring of 2012, my sister Chris called to tell me she had been diagnosed with stage four cancer. In August of 2012, I returned to my hometown, Danville, Illinois, for the last time. There was a serious drought that year, so the corn was dying in the fields. Everyday the temperature climbed beyond 100 degrees. The stage had already been set for a very emotional reunion and the unusual weather did not make it any easier. The tumultuous relationship with my hometown in my last years of residence there still left a bad taste in my mouth, even after 40 years. To distract myself from the thoughts of losing my baby sister, I decided to drive to the sights of my childhood to jog my memories of happier times. But even that endeavor was plagued with disappointment. Whatever was not in ruins had already been completely erased by bulldozers.
The C&EI train depot that had inspired a young boy to dream of far away places laid in ruins, protected by a chain link fence. Grass grew from every crack in the parking lot. The “subway” or underpass where I had spent many mornings walking to and from Danville High School was now crumbling from neglect. Beyond the east entrance of the subway, where German immigrants had settled more than 100 years before, the only sign of their existence were the letters GERMANTOWN embossed in the concrete over the entrance to the fire station. The parks that were always inhabited with mothers serving potato salad and soda pop during the summers of my youth, were now deserted. All signs of the roller-coaster and the train had been erased by half a century of shifting soil and grass. The interstate highway I watched being built in the early sixties resembled the crumbling East German highways I traveled after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Everywhere I turned were stark reminders of how much time had really elapsed while I was out living my own life.
At the end of each day, I would pull into the parking lot of the Custard Cup on North Vermilion Street. That was the only place I could find that hadn’t really changed. I would order two scoops of lemon ice cream in a cup. Then I would sit with a smile on my face staring at the parking lot as I imagined my father arriving in our blue DeSoto filled with kids screaming with joy. Then holding back tears I saw Robby, Aunt Margaret and myself eating ice cream in the shade of the tree, after having lunch at Long John Silver’s, or the last time I shared ice cream together with my mother and my sister Chris. As each bite of lemon custard melted in my mouth, it triggered memories from my life, exemplifying the value of continuity and history.