Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Night Visitors

Ferris Wheel
Photo by Kate Ter Haar
Even at 11 o’clock at night, the August air was as thick and sticky as the cotton candy that my best friend Debbie and I had devoured at Roanoke’s weekend carnival. The community fundraiser was set up on village’s south side, in the American Legion park, past the railroad tracks.

Giddy with excitement—and too many sweets—we lounged on my bed, sweating in the moonlight that streamed through my open bedroom window. Not even the slightest breeze stirred the curtains as we whispered about the evening’s fun and waited for our expected midnight rendezvous.

We had met our school friends, Chuck and Jim, at the carnival that Friday evening, where we were allowed some pre-teen independence in the waning summer days before we would start seventh grade. With our allowances stuffed into our shorts’ pockets, we careened around the midway, throwing down dimes and quarters on games of chance, sideshows, and snacks. And, of course there were the rides.

We screamed on the Wild Mouse, squished unnaturally close together on the Scrambler, and cuddled at the top of the Ferris wheel, with all of Woodford County laid out below us. Or at least Chuck and Debbie cuddled, as Chuck clearly had a gleam in his eye these days when he looked at perky, button-nosed, brown-eyed Debbie.

To me, Jim and Chuck were just friends. We had gone to school and the Methodist Church together since kindergarten, playing softball in the school fields, riding bikes to the creeks, climbing the Jumbo. The two of them were lots of fun and full of mischief, but the familiarity crowded out any notion of romance for me.

That night at the carnival, the four of us quickly discovered an intriguing symmetry—Debbie was spending the night at my house, and the boys were camping out in a tent in Chuck’s backyard.

A plan was hatched.

A little before midnight, when parents would surely be asleep, the boys would sneak due north through the cornfields to my house, which was just a half-mile out of town, and rendezvous with us. We girls agreed to leave a lawn chair under my bedroom window so the boys could recognize where to find us.

As the minutes ticked past midnight and on towards 1 a.m., all was quiet in the house. We had heard my parents go to bed an hour ago in the bedroom next door. We yawned and stretched out, trying to find a cool place on the sheets. Clearly, the boys weren’t coming. Maybe Chuck’s parents had caught them, maybe they’d gotten lost in the corn and turned back, or maybe they’d just changed their minds. We yearned for sleep, which seemed impossible in my stifling bedroom.
Corn field
Photo by Watt Publishing

Even as a wind was starting to kick up, Debbie and I gathering up our pillows and sheets, and headed for the basement playroom, a comfortably cool retreat on a night like this.

Some of what happened next is still in dispute as everyone had a little bit of the story. But this much is pretty clear:

Sometime after 1 a.m., two figures, flashlights in hand, emerged from the cornfield on the south side of our lawn. The house windows were all dark.

Suddenly, my mom awoke to a light panning across her bed. Seeing a face at the open window, she uttered a dry-mouthed scream, and my dad leaped from bed toward the window.

“Hey! hey!” he yelled, spying two figures scrambling off, lickety-split, into the corn.

“Who was it?!” my mother asked, her heart still racing.

“Just kids,” Dad said. “I think I can guess who.”

At the breakfast table the next morning, my mom casually asked, “Did you two have a plan for Chuck and Jim to come by the house in the middle of the night?”

Debbie and I passed surprised glances, and then, feigned our most innocent expressions as Mom told us about the fright she’d received. As quickly as possible, and saying little, we high-tailed it to the bedroom to giggle about the boys’ mistake:

  • "Can you believe they got your parents' bedroom?"
  • "Why would they DO that when we told them that the window was the closest to the porch, and that's where the chair was?"
  • "I can just seem them running off into the field! Probably tromped down a couple rows!"
  • "It's a good thing Dad doesn't keep a gun!"

Later that afternoon, my dad stopped by Jim’s house to return a cake pan to Jim’s mother that she had left at the Boy Scouts’ bake sale at the carnival. As he was leaving, he spotted Jim in the yard, and remarked with a chuckle:

“I see you made it out of the cornfield last night, Jim. I figure Chuck did, too.”

Never ones to believe their reputations might precede them, Jim and Chuck were  convinced that we had ratted them out—an argument that raged for years, and chances are, could still be resurrected with renewed vigor.

Monday, March 12, 2012

How Topography Intersects Personal History

A child of the flatlands, I have always loved the wide-open spaces—unrestricted vistas from east to west where it is possible to see the sun appear on the horizon at daybreak, ascend to the zenith, and sink below the edge of the earth in the evening, one day, whole and complete.

I have lived in places with trees or buildings or cliffs, where open sightlines are not possible. Such places wear on me and begin to feel confining. But if I can get out, away, on higher ground and see the arc of the earth against the sky—ah, that’s freedom, and my soul soars.

Topography must influence our personal histories in some way, certainly in the experiences we encounter, and perhaps also in our very outlooks on life. Can a person who born on the savannah see life the same as someone who grew up beside a great river? Wouldn’t folks living at 8,000 feet have different experiences from those on the coasts?

Few places are flatter than central Illinois. The rolling fields, mostly corn or soybeans, go on and on, unbroken until there is a creek or a river. But a “mountain”—the Jumbo—also defined our town, Roanoke, and still does, I suspect.

Roanoke's Jumbo, courtesy Cheryl Wolfe, www.roanokeil.org
Rising from the prairie at the southeastern corner of town, the Jumbo is the tailings of the Roanoke Coal Mine, sunk in 1881, the second shaft in Woodford County. Although only a couple hundred feet high, the Jumbo stands out for miles around, it’s odd gray and red color contrasting with the rich, black top soil. The Jumbo is Roanoke’s distinctive symbol of place.

Against the Jumbo's weathered backbone, the annual Independence Day fireworks show was mounted, as families gathered in the park at its base. At Christmastime, a lighted star was displayed from the Jumbo's summit, and today there waves an American flag. 

For us kids in the 1960s, the Jumbo was a place for adventures. We would pack a lunch, a canteen of water, and ride our bikes to the park below the Jumbo and hike to the top. The old railbed, along which rail cars had hauled and dumped the dirt and slag, provided the easiest climb. But some kids liked to try the steeper side. The mound, an uneven pile full of gullies, steep faces, and coarse soil full of sharp gravel, and bits of coal could be slippery. Fall down, and you were likely to sustain a nasty scraped knee or thigh.

Kids liked to tell tales about the Jumbo:
  • a cave-in had trapped miners inside and their bodies were never found; 
  • the place was haunted by the ghosts of dead miners; 
  • Boy Scouts had seen eerie figures sitting on timbers where the tipple had been;
  • some kids knew a secret entrance to the shaft; 
  • and the mine had once blown its top off.
Not much of that was completely true, of course. Here’s a few facts from the Roanoke Centennial History:
  • The longest shaft ran two miles east and a little north of town, on a downward slope.
  • Originally, mules were used to pull the coal cars through the tunnels, and a room was carved out at the bottom of the shaft where the animals were stabled during the mining season, September through April.
  • In 1890, the mine produced 42,000 tons of coal, selling at $2 per ton.
  •  At its peak, the mine employed 300 men and hoisted 500 tons a day.
  • For two weeks in late summer, the mine was opened so that farmers could purchase coal to fuel the thrashing machines that traveled through the countryside during harvest time.
  •  Two men were killed in separate cave-ins in the mine in 1905, prompting extensive repairs to improve safety and efficiency.
  • Clay brick and tiles were manufactured after the turn of the century adjacent to the mine, utilizing coal-fired kilns.
But the most dramatic events were these:
  • On June 29, 1906, quicksand shot into the mine shaft 70 feet below ground, tearing a scaffolding from the walls, and plunging four men 400 feet to their deaths. The Roanoke Call published a special edition the next day, recounting the tragedy. The four victims—Andrew Mitchell, August Mueser, Camille Faucon, and Joseph Dewasme—all under forty, first-generation immigrants from Scotland, German, Belgium, and France, respectively. Each had married Roanoke women less than ten years before their deaths, and each left young children.
  • On April 14, 1941, several years after the mine and brick factory had closed, the mine tipple collapsed with a roar into the shaft, creating a crater 60 feet deep and wide, and shaking the earth for miles. The Centennial History reports, “The hole filled the next day with the bluest water anyone in Roanoke had ever seen.” The dramatic event marked the end of the mine. The state ordered the crater filled and sealed. The equipment was sold. Only the Jumbo remains of Roanoke’s mining days.

Topography holds ambience, history of time and place, and particular experiences for those whose lives it intersects. How has topography affected your personal history? 

Sunday, March 4, 2012

for those who stand and wait ...

That day’s blizzard was not the first snowfall of the winter of ’62–’63, but it came with a singular speedy intensity. By afternoon, the decision was made to close school an hour or so early and send everyone home before the roads got any worse. The drifts on the country roads were already too much for the school buses, and parents were phoned to make other arrangements to get their children home.

Microsoft File Art
Schoolchildren in Roanoke, Illinois, population 1,800, belonged to one of two groups—the town kids or the country kids. Town kids walked to school (rarely did anyone’s parents drive children to school); country kids rode the school buses. Inclement weather sometimes kept the school buses from running, giving the country kids a day off until the plows could clear the roads. I started kindergarten as a town kid, and I often envied the country kids’ extra “snow days.”

But this winter, my fifth-grade year, was the first my family spent in our newly built house located just a quarter mile north of town on a corner plot my dad bought from a farmer. A country kid now, I rode the school bus to town, and extra snow days were a distinct possibility. But I hadn’t figured on getting stranded at school.

When we students learned school was letting out early, some parents—country and town alike—were already waiting outside in cars. Townies who lived near by bundled up and headed out to walk home.

My teacher, Mr. Castro, passed the message from my mom: “Stay at school and wait for your dad. He’s out on a call, but will come and get you when he’s done.”

My heart sunk. My dad was a veterinarian, and his “calls” could take him to far-flung farms across the Illinois River valley, and the duration of his visits were unpredictable.

Happy to get home early, all my friends skedaddled out of class in a blur, leaving me—the last kid. As the minutes ticked by, the custodian seemed to be the only soul in the building as I waited and waited at the school door, a lump growing in my throat. Did Dad get detained? Had he slid into a snowy ditch? There was no way to know and nothing to do but wait.

Unless . . .

Microsoft File Art
The school was on the northern edge of town, its athletic fields backing up to a cornfield. And beyond that field, at the intersection of the section line road and the gravel extension of Main Street, was our house. In the summertime, I often took my bike down the gravel road into town. Or, to avoid the dusty road, we kids would simply take off through the cornfield, following the straight rows until they ended at “civilization.”

Now, with the field empty save for the snow, I could easily see the gravel road from the school, and I knew that at the field’s highest place, I would be able to see the roof of our house. There was no way to get lost.

And so, taking charge of my own fate, I headed out the door. Rounding the school building, I slammed into an icy wind blowing with ferocity off the flat, expansive prairie. I caught my breath, and for an instant, hesitated. Then, pumping up stubborn determination, I thought, “I can do this. It’s not far.”

On I trudged, into the field, snow swirling and blowing around me, heading due north to home.

The going was easier at first, snow just to my boot tops. But the farther I went, the deeper the snow became. Soon I was up to my knees, and it was a slow slog. Clearly, the trek was going to take longer than I figured, so I determined to angle off toward the road, hop the fence, and take the road home.

Reaching the rise, the older snow was packed hard from the dry wind. I could walk on top of it as I turned toward the road.

Then, whoosh! The snow bank gave way and I went down into a gully. I was over my head in snow. Flat on my back, staring up at the steely sky, I was spent. This was a dumb idea, and I was going to have to eat crow, if I was ever again warm enough to chew. No matter—dry clothes and a warm house was all I wanted.

As I struggled to get free, the snow felt like quicksand around me. Recalling the extraction technique demonstrated in some old movie, I rolled over and over on my belly until I was back up on hard snow.

Straight ahead of me, not a hundred yards away, stood the last house on Main Street where my friend Beverly and her family lived. They would take me in! I lumbered forward, snow packed in my sleeves, my boots, my cap, and falling down my back.

I must have looked quite a sight when Bev’s mother opened the back door to my knock.
Microsoft File Art

“What in the world...

“Mrs. France, can I stay here until my dad comes to pick me up?” I asked.

“What happened to you?”

The Frances graciously took me in, warmed me up, gave me dry clothes, and fed me the most delicious potato soup I’ve ever had.