Toddling… 6

The show ended every day as calmly and warmly as it began with a personal touch from Miss Nancy. She would wander off casually toward the side of the set and grab her magic, psychedelic mirror and start to sing The Magic Mirror song.

She would hold up an opaque mirror and talk from behind it. “Romper Bomper Stomper Boo, tell me, tell me, tell me who…. Magid mirror tell me today, did all my friends have fun at play?” The screen would go into elliptical swirls and twirls of rainbow colors like Miss Nancy was on an acid trip, but when it faded back to her the opaque mirror part was gone and we were looking into Miss Nancy’s face and she would say the names of the kids she was seeing through her magic mirror.

She’d say “I see Judy, Ricky, Caroline and I see Mark this morning and Amanda and Timmy and on and on and on….” But she never said my name, and my name’s not that unique. She tried to cover the omission with “And of course I see you too, and tomorrow I’ll be looking for you tomorrow morning in the Romper Room School.” I don’t know; maybe I just missed it, but even on my Special Day, as she used to call a kid’s birthday, she didn’t say ‘And I see Danny!’

Mom asked quite often, “Did she say your name today Danny?” and I’d always answer with a ‘No’. “Well, maybe tomorrow she will; you’ll see,” mom would say in encouragement (mom was a Do Bee kind of mom). And I’d think ‘Hey, yea, maybe she will say my name tomorrow. It could happen!’ And I’d be hooked and wait the twenty-three and a half hours hoping.

Mom had a way of turning disappointments into hopes, she made my world my world, she was my world – that’s what moms do for their toddlers. And all she asked was that I say please and thank you, and eventually to distinguish between can and may (“Can addresses ability, may speaks to permission.

So you should have said, ‘May I have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch?’ not ‘Can I have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch?’ ‘). She wiped my nose, combed my hair, tucked-in my shirt, tied my shoes, did my laundry, cleaned my room, made my bed, wiped my nose, washed my face, cleaned-out my ears, combed my hair, always found Bunny when I mislaid him, encouraged me, scolded me, touched me, hugged me, held my hand, took me everywhere with her – she loved me, and I loved her. “Mom?” “Yes, Danny?” “Mom, I love you,” and she’d blush, stop what she was doing, and always respond, “Oh Danny, I love you too!” I loved her so much that I hated everyone else, even dad. It’s really quite normal for young kids to live with a zero-sum take on life – that if you love something so much, it must mean you hate everything else since you’ve only got 100% of everything, like love, and since mom got all 100% (it would have been an insult not to reciprocate her obvious 100% love for me with, say, 63% for her and 37% for dad). “Danny, you don’t hate your dad! That’s really not a nice thing to say.” “‘But I love you mom!?” was my only response – it’s every toddler’s only response, that is until we learn that we can love more than one thing at a time and are better because of it.

It’s all about figuring out what makes my mom, my mom. Now she gave birth to me, and that happened because of something she did with dad, but I had to learn that mom and dad were one thing – married.

Mom and dad married was like peanut butter and jelly on a sandwich was just one thing (who eats peanut butter without jelly, but word has it that Elvis liked to eat peanut butter and banana sandwiches, but that’s another matter altogether). This was why mom just smiled at me when I told her I was going to marry her. I once said that I was going to marry Miss Nancy of Romper Room, but I always loved mom the best. I couldn’t marry mom, of course, but she wasn’t going to tell me that. Not even dad said more than, “Hey, that’s my wife you’re proposing to young man!” when I informed him I was going to marry her.

I didn’t really think marriage was anything more than being with someone who is very special to you so that everyone else would know that person was special to you. What that something you did to that special someone was I had no clue. Dad said he asked mom to marry him and she said yes, and it was time for me to go to bed. “Okay dad, goodnight.

I’m going to marry her, just like you.” “Okay, Danny, you do that.” As he was tucking me into bed I asked, “What does it mean to get married?” “Well, that’s a good question,” dad said, but he didn’t really answer so I pressed, “What do people do when they get married?”

Maybe I thought this angle might improve my chances for an answer, but I was wrong. “Well, after the ceremony, there is a party called a reception where everyone eats dinner and dances and celebrates with the married couple.” “Then what?” I said. “Well, then the couple goes on a honeymoon.” “And?” “And what, Danny?” dad responded. “And, what’s a honeymoon?” “Well,” dad paused, again, “a honeymoon is kind of like a vacation for the couple and…they start their marriage together, and….” And dad stopped there. “Okay, thanks dad. Goodnight.”

And I went to sleep and dad seemed relieved at the end of the questions, but I never married mom.

*** *** ***

Toddling… 5

The show, like almost every show on TV that I watched, tried to communicate and reinforce basic American values of hard work, honesty, thriftiness, wholesome virtues of modesty and chastity (that’s why Elvis was such a problem to some people).

For instance, Romper Room taught you not only how to stand up straight (a chief virtue of adolescence), but it also taught kids to avoid complaining (like, I’m tried, I’m hot, I’m cold, I’m thirsty, I’m bored, I can’t, and the cardinal sin, I don’t want to, which covered everything). Instead Romper Room modeled ideal behavior in the Do Bee song; Mr. Do Bee would lead and everyone knew what it meant to be a Do Bee instead of a Don’t Bee.

It started with the chorus, “Did you ever see a do bee, a do bee, a do bee? Did you ever see a do bee? Go this way and that.” And then broke into verse after verse (back to the chorus in between the gung-ho, Marine-like chant of the stanzas), “Go this way and that way, and this way and that way.

Did you ever see a do be go this way and that?” And then bow, raise this hand and then that hand; and if you raise your hands you certainly have to wave them, “Did you ever see a do bee wave this hand and that?”

I did, just about every morning. And, last but not lease, you’d “Clap this way and that,” and the last stanza’s “that” would trail off and everyone would sit, exhausted, on their seats or on the rug and quietly model a controlled afterglow of excitement (whenever we did action songs at birthday parties we’d go crazy and get out of control and someone would get hurt, as the parents promised, If you don’t settle down, someone’s going to get hurt.

And, Sure, it’s all fun-and-games until someone gets hurt.). But no one ever got hurt, unruly, boisterous, wild or crabby on Romper Room.

The only time I got out of control was when I mislaid my Bunny. By that time I was four Bunny was just a rag with strings, but it started out as a baby toy – a stuffed animal that I had in my crib since I was in my crib.

Over time, with day after day with a toddler, Bunny began to show signs of wear with every inch and ounce I gained. Bunny started out blue (I was a boy, after all), then became brown as the fur wore off to reveal the fabric underneath, then it tore and the stuffing fell out, but I still hung-on to Bunny even though Bunny was now just a ragged thing with strands and stitching dangling from it that I would rub in between my fingers as I went to sleep.

When I lost Bunny I couldn’t go to sleep; I could be in bed but I cried and refused to sleep. I loved  Bunny. Once I left Bunny in the station wagon, and another time I put Bunny in the bread keeper-drawer in the kitchen, and one hysterical night I refused to sleep without Bunny even though it was late and I didn’t know where I had put Bunny that day. Mom and dad looked everywhere, tried to bribe me with the promise of a new Bunny in the morning, threatened me with grave bodily harm if I continued to whine and cry for Bunny, until they got me up and led me on a tour of everywhere I’d been that day in the house.

When we got to the kitchen, I checked the bread keeper-drawer (Bunny was there last time), I checked the oven but mom barked that Bunny couldn’t be in there because she had baked a casserole in there just hours ago. And we checked the clothes’ hamper in the bathroom and in the closet in the hallway, the one in the basement where some toys were stored, and we had already checked the closet in my bedroom.

We eventually returned to the kitchen and started going through the cabinets and mom even checked in the cold cuts drawer in the refrigerator, but I was standing looking out the screen door. “Did you take Bunny with you when you went with mom to the store?” dad asked, but I wasn’t looking toward the station wagon.

I was looking into the yard, “I think Bunny is out in the yard, by the swing.” Mom said Bunny couldn’t be there because I wasn’t outside that day. “Yes, I was” (I needed Bunny so I had to be honest even though it would get me in trouble because I had slipped out in the afternoon and played on the swing when mom thought I was watching TV while she was taking care of Mary up in her bedroom). Dad didn’t ask how Bunny got outside, but when he returned with a ragged, brown, stringy piece of fabric just moments later I jumped for it and gladly hurried off to bed without saying a word.

I guess mom and dad were so happy I was going to bed that it never bothered them that I had gone outside when I shouldn’t have. The next morning I took Bunny to breakfast with me and then to Romper Room, just like every other day.

*** *** ***

The Year I Was Born… 5

I’m just glad I wasn’t named after something or someone silly. I had a friend who was named after the movie star John Wayne who played Sean Thornton in the movie The Quiet Man (the family named my friend Sean, not John Wayne, except his last name was Donohue, Sean Thornton Donohue – quite a mouth full).

The movie came out in 1952 and it was about this American, Sean Thornton, who went back to Ireland to claim his homestead. Turns out he was born in Ireland, went to America to make a fortune and come back; “I’ve come home and home I’m gon-na stay” Sean said. Then he met a nice girl named Mary Kate (played by the red-headed Maureen O’Hara) but Mary Kate’s brother tries to keep them apart and they start singing and fighting and dancing and laughing and drinking all around until the director John Ford runs out of scenes and songs.

The movie appropriately ends with a fight when Mary Kate’s final stubbornness leads to her humiliation and she gets dragged through sheep shit by her red hair in front of the whole community – sort of an Irish version of Taming of the Shrew, except with Irish music.

It’s proud and poor – it’s Irish! And it’s pure nostalgia for the old ways on Ireland; quaint, simple and true just as John Ford wants us to remember them. For instance, Mary Kate refuses to be bossed around and says, “Come a-runnin’! I’m no woman to be honked at and come a-runnin.” On their wedding night Mary Kate refuses sex because without her dowry according to Irish custom she doesn’t consider herself married, “I’ll wear your ring. I’ll cook and I’ll wash and I’ll keep the land but that is all! Until you have my dowry, you haven’t got any bit of me” – me, myself, and everyone knows what she means by that, even the thick-skulled Sean Thornton understands. But first he has to prove that he could bed her if he wanted to by grabbing her, craning her head back by grabbing her red locks and kissing her harshly before tossing her onto their honeymoon bed collapsing it and then spending his wedding night in a sleeping bag). It is a romantic comedy if you find the abuse and humiliation of strong-willed fiery Irish women by their pugilistic beaus romantic.

The music is nice, and scenery is, well, Ireland, and that’s quite enough for most people, but Sean Thornton Donohue can’t live it down among his parents’ friends who tell and retell the whole movie’s story saying “Sean Thornton…just like your name” again and again.

My name is Daniel which is an uncle’s name, my dad’s oldest brother who pickled his liver at a young age and died a painful death eased by the hospice care of Bushmill’s (I can’t look at a bottle or glass of the amber without thinking of him). Dad said he was a great guy who worked a city job in Streets & Sanitation, loved his wife, loved kids but they had none of their own so I was named after him posthumously. And Patrick is also my dad’s name – no significance to the name, he told me, just something we shared.

We knew we were Irish, but St. Patrick’s Day wasn’t as big a holiday as Christmas or Easter or Thanksgiving. But having alcohol around was just ordinary (dad told me Uncle Danny used to look out at Lake Michigan and say, “Oh, if she were beer….”). We ate corned beef, cabbage and boiled potatoes and mom and dad each drank a beer, only one each and mom would never finish hers. And we wore something that was green on my middle-namesake’s day (just one thing that was green). Everyone else in Chicago would get blasted, they’d dye the Chicago river green (instead of the greenish-brown it was every other day of the year) and we’d get a special dispensation from the Cardinal that allowed us to eat our corned beef if March 17 was on a Friday during lent.

These days in celebration I imbibe in a simple pint of refreshment that is enough to stir my genetic pool with its predisposition for drinking, smoking, poor anger management skills, and the high fat-low exercise lifestyle which puts the majority of us in the grave well before we’ve outlived our usefulness to society and thereby earning ourselves a saintly remembrance from our abandoned families and friends. These are genetic predispositions that insurance companies will certainly consider pre-existing conditions for a certain and untimely death. This is why the Irish need to mind their ‘p’s’ and ‘q’s’ – usually taken to refer to the pub’s way of accounting for one’s bill by counting pints and quarts. Dad’s story was that the wife would utter the charge “Mind your p’s and q’s deary” and that meant that he shouldn’t get so drunk that he was charged for a quart when he only had a pint (like an Irishman could ever get that drunk).

Everyone else adopts the Irish stereotypes as credentials which allow the underprivileged of the world (born with the dumb luck of not being Irish) to experience the life of simultaneous joviality and sorrow called inebriation. But the Irish don’t need an excuse to drink, just as mere mortals don’t need an excuse to breathe. And St. Patrick’s Day doesn’t make anyone Irish (it didn’t even make St. Patrick Irish); to paraphrase someone who paraphrased the Irishman H. L. Mencken, just because you have discovered millions of cowboys willing to throw up on their shoes in the name of some distant foreign patron saint doesn’t mean you have discovered an actual culture!

*** *** ***

The Year I Was Born… 4

It was a Saturday when they brought me home to an apartment – two bedrooms and my new parent’s second residence since their marriage five years before my birth. In that time they had acquired a genuine dinette set, two chairs for the living room to go with the same old couch with a few pillows added to fill the empty space of the missing cushion, and a bassinette.

They were still poor, my dad was now working full-time at the law firm and attending the last of his law school classes at night, and my mom stopped working because of me. “We were so happy” mom always said. “We didn’t have two pennies to rub together, we had a radio that Grandma Kelly had passed-on to us and your dad worked all day and went to school at night.”

She said he used to come home after 9 pm and sit on the couch holding me and telling her about his day. Then he would study and go to bed. On Friday nights they would go to Grandma Kelly’s for dinner (another cheap night out) and show off baby Danny – me.

I didn’t choose my name, Daniel Patrick Kelly. Nobody chooses his names; they happen to us like infant baptism – we don’t have a choice and that’s the point about salvation and grace, and life. “Character is formed by how we handle what comes our way,” dad said as many times as he said “Goodnight Danny” or “It’s time to go Mary.” And like our names, we don’t choose the things we believe in either, they chose us.

The surname Kelly is the second most common Irish name you can have and probably comes from Celli that some people say means something like man of the woods.

But most also connect it with the Gaelic, Ó Ceallaigh, and that is taken to mean strife or war or contention and it either refers to the Irish predisposition to fight as an instinctual reaction to adversity or joy. It doesn’t matter because we’d just fight about it. Or it may have to do with the predisposition to face the challenges that come our way instead of running from inconvenience.

If it explains why the Irish are angry even when happy then it never showed-up much in my family; my dad never yelled at us, he didn’t hit things or throw things, he just went out on the front steps in the evening and looked up at the stars, never saying a word.

I would join him, under his condition that I joined him in his silence and we would just stand there in the quiet until I got bored and went back inside. So our surname probably had more to do with not running away from trouble when it finds us.

We travel through life and make a place for ourselves, not just taking the crap of life without a fight and maybe even making life work for us or die trying. This might explain why there are more Kellys in the United States than in Ireland (we make life work when it doesn’t fall into our lap).

The Kelly coat of arms has an Enfield – a green wolf-dog standing on a crown and it means something like the Kelly’s fight like this against oppressive kings and the Danes. Actually our Enfield is a composite: the head of a fox, chest of an elephant, mane of a horse, front legs of an eagle, body and back legs of a hound and tail of a lion. Our Kelly motto is Turr-is Fort’iz Me-He Day’us, which means “God is my tower of strength.” We got this from our patron saint, Grellan, who was a young cleric in the 5th century who received a parcel of land from Saint Patrick and built a small church on it and proceeded to build churches wherever he traveled, but never settled down himself (most Kelly’s are from Galway and Roscommon in the West). He actually had a distaste for warring and spared others from exploitation, treachery and injustice. He spent his life like a religious civil rights leader.

Kelly was the right name for my dad. “We can’t just stand by and see wrong done to good people” was his usual take on life… like the time, mom told me, he worked weekends and spent a week in court and then at the office afterward for someone we’d never met and my dad wasn’t getting any money to lawyer for – pro bono was what it was called and being poor pro bono meant we’d be poorer and happier.

That self-righteous and come to the aid of the victim Kelly spirit also has its roots in just being Irish Catholic because being Irish Catholic was officially a crime, especially since the seventeenth-century when it became a crime to be – simply be – Catholic in Ireland. Laws included prohibitions against Irish Catholics owning their own land and against passing on the land to your eldest son.

You had to divide it up in order to prevent any perpetual and settled land-base of power and in turn impoverish the lads. But if one of the lads converted to Protestantism he got the whole parcel of land and the others got nothing. Catholics couldn’t inherit land from any Protestant stupid enough to bequeath it to a Catholic and Catholics could only lease land for a maximum of 31 years (that’s practically an entire lifetime for an Irish Catholic male).

They even rewarded Protestants for providing information on a Catholic who broke a land-law by making the incarcerated’s land available to him. This was a high incentive to snitch. Oh, and they used to hunt priests for sport (but this seems to be less certain and more a tale told).

For their part Catholics snuck around, held masses in secret and if one of the Catholic lads was mentally handicapped they’d registered him as a Protestant (not much of a difference to them really). It was noble but tragic to be a Kelly and I enjoy that reputation.

*** *** ***

Apocalyptic dumb luck…

apocalypseEnough will be enough,
finally,
when it is what it is;
no doubt about it
this time,
no great disappointment
or Julian recalculation,
no more merciful delay,
only tribulation
for those left behind
having ignored
the apocalyptic signs;
I will probably not
be ready;
maybe sleeping
or even worse, napping,
or indisposed
or picking my nose
when the trumpet
shall sound like
a jazz tone,
an archangel squeal,
laughing
while the clouds will
have that look
of sharp, bright rays
beaming through,
opening up heaven
at the end of days;
and one
date-setting schmuck
will finally be right
by sheer,
dumb luck.

Zigging and zagging…

Davey and I spent the days riding
our bikes from the block where we lived
to the park to play baseball to the
swimming pool to meet more friends
where everyone gathered, and back home
when the street lights came on to
repeat the cycle the next day and the next;

with our gloves slid over the handle bars,
towels slung over our shoulders,
zigging and zagging from pavement to
gravel to sidewalk to grass to garages,
exhausted and straight to the refrigerator
until scolded away by mothers well
prepared for the hunger and dirt and sweat
and laundry and stories of young boys,

only interrupting with short questions of
Is your bike put away? and Did you win?
which didn’t matter all that much – Win
at what? at riding our bikes or never
running out of air in our lungs or at a
baseball game meant to be played but

never really ending or wearing the same
pair of blue jeans the most days in a row
until your Mom takes them away when
she sneaks into your room after you’ve
collapsed into bed to live another day.

A good dinner…

The dinner went well,
tasty and sufficient –
two qualities typically
undervalued in a meal;
when the conversation
turned to conversation,
as if an interminable
debate over the meaning
of meaning, or how much
one loves love, or even
if words can be used
to say something in
words or without and
I chose to just nod at a
tasty and sufficient meal.

Elizabeth Parsonage

An excerpt from a budding manuscript…

Elizabeth 2Chapter One – Go You Wildcats

In small towns that were once frontiers of hope and promise of so much more – of gold that turned out to be lead ore, the expansive and unlimited plains and the rich earth of the Mississippi Valley where settlements supported surrounding laborers breaking rock or dark earth with heavy and rich yields – life is different with good reason. Isolated by relative circumstance, these small towns crisscross America and if one could connect all these dots it would form a patchwork blanketing the land’s contours, creating the illusion of a crowded network from one point of view. But close-up, in the space in between this and that town, there are few enough people to leave room for productive labor, not far from outlets of provision, but with space to breathe and an uncrowded landscape to see.

At first isolated settlements weren’t escapes from urban preoccupation with noise, and for few were they a comparable opportunity for riches. They didn’t flee industrialization or the growing sense that productivity was becoming the measure of human success, replacing contentment and virtue with utilitarian and pragmatic preoccupation. Enough labor for enough reward for enough supply for enough comfort for enough opportunity for contentment –enough for life that few would call happy without significant qualification. In rock or earth, both or either were a good even if hard source of living, somehow sanctified by the motto Early to bed, early to rise. Rest was welcomed but not worshipped, leisure was enjoyed instead of planned, and the evening prayer was Good night, sleep tight, wake up bright with the morning light, to do what’s right with all your might.

They may live along a lonely road, and live among lonely people –not always, but often. But loneliness is relative, sometimes coming from straightforward emotional isolation, sometimes the quiet we so earnestly desire becomes the very danger that threatens our well being, and sometimes perfectly acceptable physical isolation, like living in a perpetually small township with little variation in lifestyle save that of the four seasons, stupefies its residents so that the greatest argument is over the experience of loneliness itself. The cure of such loneliness isn’t a simple reversal of circumstances, the sensory overload of immersion in a crowded setting or stadium or even a city; the cure may be a little hair-of-the-dog-that-bit-us, but that isn’t so much a cure as it is a treatment. It is learning to live with the satisfaction of isolated living –Simple is as simple does, as the old-timers say. –And that just might be the aphorism of Elizabeth, Illinois, U.S.A.

Most of the buildings in town were constructed before World War II, but there were a few old farmhouses, a town hall, a railroad depot, and dozens and dozens of barns dotting the landscape that survived the nineteenth century. The Baptist church and parsonage next door were built just after the War to End All Wars but before the next War to End All Wars. The motto being, Use care with superlatives. Anything that was wood frame is gone, remembered but gone. And buildings that remain are wood and brick and stone, stone and brick and wood, and the township was built and torn down and rebuilt.

Of course there’d been explorers and missionaries through the area, but they’d already moved on in their interminable march to anywhere else. They wrote journals and reports of the landscape, the Indians, the climate, and the peculiarities that when compared to where else they’d been made for the remarkable. When the first white settler arrived in the territory, a surly man named A. P. VanMatre, he traveled because of the report of rich hills for land mining near the Fever River. He settled in 1825 and was too busy to be lonely; too busy building a smelter and making money with hard work and a seeming unlimited supply of lead ore. Two years later a fur trapper settled nearby and his name was Henry VanVolkenburg (and it seemed that you needed to be VanSomething-or-other to live here). It isn’t official, but folks tell a story about the two Van’s, about how they got to know each other in their free time. Then someone else who’s an insider to the joke says But I thought they didn’t know each other, and the first person says That’s because they didn’t have any free time. That’s frontier humor for you. And you say But that wasn’t funny, and the response is That’s because they were too busy working to be funny.

The area was first claimed by the French and they had a trading post in the late seventeenth century, but then an Englishman and officer of the British Commonwealth named Wolfe defeated them on the Plains of Abraham near Quebec in September, 1759 and to the victor go the spoils, including the hilly area we call Jo Daviess County and everything around it called the Upper Midwest. That is, until the Revolutionary War spoiled the spoiled in the famous Treaty of 1783 but then the area was claimed by Virginia. They gave it up, and it turned out that Virginia control of the remainder of the known world was just a formality. Speaking of formalities, without ever seeing the area Congressmen enacted the even more infamous Ordinance of 1787 that divided up uninhabited lands to the West by geographic markers like the Mississippi River and making the area West and North of the Ohio River into at least three and no more than five states. Sometimes the lines were drawn along waterways, sometimes along valley basins, and sometimes it looked like someone stretched a line from one place to another to come up with a state and as arbitrary as it seems that’s why folks live where they live instead of someplace else.

Farmers followed VanMatre and VanVolkenburg and changed the balance of odd to ordinary names when Winters and two brothers named Flack cut the rich soil and planted a first crop of corn in the area and the rest, as they say, is history. Mining and farming, farming and mining, made the area livable and that’s Jo Daviess County from its establishment February 17, 1827 to today; at first literally, then faming took over but mining became the first story in Elizabeth’s history, The Lore of the Ore, as they say.

Why mining? That’s the way it’s always been actually. Geologists call this the southern terminus of the Driftless Region, an area that covers the upper Midwest of southern Minnesota and Wisconsin, northern Illinois and Iowa. About two million years ago, back in the beginning of the Pleistocene Epoch (that’s the sixth epoch of the Cenozoic era of geologic time for those of you keeping score), this area supposedly didn’t have glaciers while everywhere else nearby did. That’s why all around is leveled land, flat and without contour, but the Mississippi River area has deep valleys that were pushed, shoved and cut by the undulation of advancing and receding glaciers nearby that teased the area only to dump their outwash deposits of silt, sand and gravel and made the mighty Mississippi a mighty drain, flushing waters but leaving the rugged and rich deposits that drew settlers to the area in the nineteenth century. Thus it was, and thus it will always be.

The first official settlers were a small crowd that stayed small; and the story always goes back to two men: John Winters the farmer and Captain Clack Stone. The Captain owned the claim to the village of Elizabeth and that meant they had all the responsibility but just a little authority. They took care of settlement claims and kept the peace, which they thought would be an easy job and they’d nurture the area into a modest infamy. Infamy it was, but not modestly thanks to a little incident known as the Black Hawk War in 1832. On May 15th Captain Clack Stone’s Company, the 27th Regiment Illinois Militia was called out of retirement to repel the aggression of the Sac and Fox Indians all because they reacted poorly to President Andrew Jackson’s order of relocation to west of the Mississippi. There’s a suspicious account of a cowardly retreat (or Was it wise? –that’s the debate) by some of the militia on May 14th that led to the Governor’s order the very next day to Captain Clack Stone and the war was on.

The battle took one farming season, May to August, which was unfortunate for the farmers, but the peaceful result of war was a happy irony that was tragic but short lived enough to become historically curious and provide the Chamber of Commerce another folksy attraction in what is now a quite farming community that it’s always been. Soundly quiet, that is until the Chicago Great Western Railroad came ‘a steamin through in 1888, stopping at the Depot on Myrtle Street in downtown Elizabeth and connecting the sleepy community to Chicago to Iowa to Minnesota to Omaha, Nebraska, to Missouri (obviously not a straight route). They built an elaborate tunnel west of Elizabeth called the Winston Tunnel. It was over a half-mile long and was the longest in Illinois –considering the topography of Illinois it was pretty much the only place someone could build a half-mile tunnel without digging straight down.

Now it’s the next century and Elizabeth, Illinois, is pretty much the same it was last century. Except the railroad’s gone now, the tracks torn up not long ago, the Depot is a historical site, and the impressive tunnel became such a burden to maintain that it was closed as well. Mining lost its luster after its glorious contribution to the Civil War armory. And the Fort the settlers hastily built in the Black Hawk War is also gone, the lumber used to build a barn for farming. Only the farming remains, and the rest are the stories of history.

These days almost seven hundred people live in Elizabeth, in 1950 almost seven hundred people lived here, and in 1900 almost seven hundred people lived here. And the same thing can be said for the town’s downtown; there is a diner named Wiler’s right along the main street cutting through town, a bar, a bank, a grocery and variety store, a B & B and a craft and antique shoppé owned by the same woman, a town hall and a township library, and two or three churches depending on how one defines the word Church. There’s the Baptist church, cleverly named Elizabeth Baptist Church, unaffiliated with any Baptist Convention. There’s a Lutheran church named St. John’s even though you’d expect it to be named after Paul, and the Saint part always bothered Baptists anyway because they say all true Christians (read Baptists) are saints themselves –at least Positionally, as they say. To call any of Jesus’ apostles Saints seemed sacrilegious to the real Protestants who called themselves Baptists and thought all other Protestants were just closet Papists. Luther didn’t go far enough and should have thrown the baby out with the baptistery water according to Baptists because the child shouldn’t be there in the first place. In town there’s also what used to be a Presbyterian church and it had one of those paedo baptisteries as well so they could sprinkle the secretly elect of God. But in the sovereign providence of the Almighty it seems Presbyterians weren’t predestined to thrive in the area and the church building was boarded up during in 20’s until a developer from Galena bought the building and turned it into a Wedding Chapel in the late 80’s, making for a sort of rural Las Vegas in Northern Illinois.

Families in this part of Jo Daviess County in Northwest Illinois send their kids to Hanover for middle-and junior high school (everyone except the Catholics and the growing number of home schooled these days), which means they take a bus ride each day and it gets iffy when ice and snow fall, as in anytime from November to March. Used to be that both Elizabeth and Hanover had their own schools in their own towns with their own teachers, but nowadays it’s different.

Back in the eighties the Elizabeth and Hanover schools consolidated into River Ridge Community School District number two hundred ten. The towns are eight miles apart and that was close enough to wonder if they couldn’t do more together than apart. Back in the seventies town leaders and pastors got involved and presented a united front about the unity of comm-unity, and then there was a referendum on the local ballot and everyone put big Yes or No signs on their front lawns. Those in favor, the Yes sign folks, said that even though it would cost more in property taxes the quality of education would also improve. Some Yes sign folks got caught up in the rhetoric and made it sound like their new School District would be the next Ivy League of primary and secondary education in the Upper Midwest –as is their hayseeds would blossom into Albert Schweitzers. Those opposed, the No sign people, said that classes would be too large and the quality of education would decrease, and it would raise property taxes.

The Yes’s won with over seventy five percent of the vote and property taxes went up proving that Winner takes all, but how he takes it sometimes hurts. The school district quickly became the County’s largest employer with more employees than the local electric, gas and telephone companies combined. Oh, and the property taxes kept going up, but the kids’ I.Q.’s remained about the same.

Everyone knew they were right about the tax burden; the argument was about whether the money would be well spent, and that’s always an argument in Jo Daviess County, as it should be everywhere else for that matter. Jo Daviess folks have always thought that some communities, like anywhere near Chicago, think that spending money is the solution to everyone’s problems, especially problems with their kids. Buy them a car, a video game, buy them anything to see if that makes them more loving, better young people. That means that the greatest failure as a parent comes from not having enough money to spend on their kids. In Jo Daviess County money doesn’t buy happiness and money doesn’t make you a better parent; maybe that’s because there’s not that much money around, and the money there is only comes from work and all the work in Jo Daviess County is hard work. So there’s a natural suspicion about throwing money at a problem, even if the problem is your own children.

That was the polite debate in town meetings and in Wiler’s diner, but everyone knew the real dispute was over the loss of each school’s traditions; Hanover’s school colors were red and gold, Elizabeth’s were navy blue and gray, Hanover’s school mascot/nickname/cheer was Go Wildcats! and Elizabeth’s was Hey Lions! In the compromise of consolidation the district’s school colors were navy blue and gray, and the mascot/nickname was Go Wildcats! One can be thankful that both school districts shared a lack of creativity when it came to school songs since they both used the same music (the Naval Academy’s Navy Blue and Gold tune) and the words were pretty much the same, except for the Wildcat/Lion thing. Now they all sing:

Let’s Go you Wildcats, win you Wildcats,

Let them hear our name.

We are the team from River Ridge,

We’ve come to prove our fame, Rah, Rah.

Now Go you Wildcats, win you Wildcats,

Hold our colors high.

The Blue and Gray will march along

To vic-to-ry today.

We are the Wildcats, fight-ing Wildcats,

Give your best al-ways.

Stand up, with pride, for River Ridge

Your loy-al-ty dis-play, Rah, Rah.

Now go you Wildcats, win you Wildcats,

Hold our colors high.

The Blue and Gray will march along

To vic-to-ry to-day.

But some people to-day still say It isn’t the same, and Nobody wins with compromise, and It’s better just to stick to what you know.

What people know in Elizabeth would flood the Mississippi, so to speak. The almost seven hundred residents know each other, sometimes too well and that blurs the line between common knowledge and gossip. As a rule, speaking ill of someone’s supposedly private affairs or goings-on’s is gossiping, but reporting things that are open like a book to anyone who wishes to read them is news. So when folks do the math and figure out that so-and-so’s baby was born just six months after so-and-so’s hastily planned wedding, well, then is it gossip or simple math? And the news would be malicious only if conceiving a baby out-of-wedlock was improper, which most people thought it was in 1900. By 1950 such a thing was unseemly but not necessarily sinful. And by 2000 it was understandable and the wedding made it legitimate and a happy occasion, like the story of Joseph and Mary when her virginity was under suspicion and instead of divorcing her he married her and made her an honorable woman in the unseemly situation. Except in Elizabeth the couple was named Jim and Susan and Susan was most definitely not known to be a virgin, and everyone said they made a nice couple, even at the shot-gun wedding, and they made a nice family living above the garage in back of Susan’s parents home until they get on their feet which took a while since Jim couldn’t find steady work…at least that’s what people were saying but the gossip was more sordid. And it all started-the Jim and Susan thing –because they were lonely, or bored, or both –but not for long, obviously.

There’s a steady stream of people through the town, so it’s not for lack of passersby that Elizabeth seems lonely to some. County highway 20 runs right through her, creating a northside and a southside that are almost identical to one another except for the Catholics on the northside and the Lutherans on the southside; the road joins one town to another, both bigger, with two or three of everything, and six or seven churches. To the east is Woodbine and then Stockton, big and bigger than Elizabeth but not as old, to the west is Galena and everyone knows and goes there.

–Fifty-five to thirty for almost two miles and fifty-five again none too quickly on the other side, offering pretty much the only excitement for her one sheriff. His name is Jason Markinson, the grown son of the previous sheriff named Mark who moved to Elizabeth after being wounded breaking-up a gang fight in a place where such skirmishes were happening too often, at least once too often for Mark. Sheriff Mark was famous for saying that he moved for his family, and resented any complaint of quiet days. His son Jason, on the other hand, appeared eager for the little excitement of his watch, and he preferred to be called Sheriff Markinson. His father was known as Sheriff Mark, or just Mark by the old-timers and his friends, a familiarity he used to his advantage to reconcile, treating Elizabeth’s residents as friends. Sheriff Markinson, on the other hand, thought his father was too lenient, resented being compared to him, and often had to be encouraged by the town’s council members to avoid trapping speeders, lest Elizabeth become known as a place to be avoided, slowly, but avoided nonetheless.

Mark was a good small-town sheriff, and his only frustration was with those who were frustrated with the small town of Elizabeth. Some lobbied for industry, development, wishing to offer incentives to attract business, dreaming of a hopeful future that was impossible at present. The others who were vocal were old-timers who sourly dismissed such vain wishes, and wondered why Elizabeth wasn’t good enough for others like it was for them. The majority, as in any place, was silent or just too busy making-do to make a fuss. Women’s consolation seemed to be daily chores and the spice of gossip reminding themselves of other, less fortunate women, or well-to-do neighbors who have at least as much trouble as money. The men’s distraction is work often without obvious reward and rarely the satisfaction of conclusion. And the children –they grew-up learning to find satisfaction in the ordinary but that doesn’t last much beyond high school for most, or they dared to hope to move anywhere else, and a few, but just a few, went-off to college never to return except for holidays or funerals.

Like most small towns, there was an unofficial group that took responsibility for the community. Elizabeth’s includes Sheriff Mark, a local dairy farmer named John Ober who was chairman of the River Ridge school board, there is the diner owner named Mr. Wiler, and the local Baptist pastor, Jack Webber. These men were sort of Elizabeth’s soul and conscience and compass all rolled-up together. They’d treat people like family, maybe more than they probably should have, and it got them into trouble sometimes and earned them little recognition all the time.

When cow manure was obviously polluting the stream, they encouraged the council to declare the cause as soil erosion and avoided forcing a young struggling farmer named Ross Clark to pay for the earthmoving necessary to alter his field’s access to a tributary, and the work was done by Mr. Ober himself. Even retired, Sheriff Mark was the peacemaker, intervening with wise alternatives before they became problems for the county sheriff’s office (they didn’t want to be bothered with small-town squabbles); like when Mrs. Jenkins’ son was accused of stealing tomatoes from Mrs. Smith’s garden and the latter wanted to press charges against the former, but Sheriff Mark figured out that it was probably Mrs. Jenkins herself who had stolen the tomatoes and suggested that Mrs. Smith would enjoy some of Mrs. Jenkins sweet corn as compensation. –Hardly Solomonic, but it was as close as Elizabeth had ever seen. Mr. Wiler fed the towns two widows by pretending that their tea was free and charging them 1950’s prices for meatloaf and mashed potatoes with gravy even though they complained about the gravy and how it wasn’t as good as their own which they hadn’t made since their husbands left them as widows and their kids stopped visiting. Mr. Ober donated milk and cheese to the food pantry at the church so that Pastor Webber could anonymously give it to the poor mother with three children and a sickly husband that everyone gossiped about. These men calmed the disquieted, and remedied the dilemmas of their lonely town, all the while shrugging-off the complaints that preoccupied so many. It wasn’t their responsibility to make people happy or solve everyone’s problems, and even when they did solve their problems people weren’t necessarily happy because some people don’t know how to be happy or are only happy when they have something to complain about, as strange as that sounds. Mr. Ober, Mr. Wiler, Sheriff Mark and Pastor Webber didn’t organize a crusade to change the world, or even change Elizabeth, Illinois. They did what they did because the things they did were the right things to do no matter what other people thought. They were, after all, Wildcats, fight-ing Wildcats, Give your best al-ways. Stand up, with pride, for River Ridge, your loy-al-ty dis-play, Rah, Rah.

In the Hills – Excerpt 2

I was first, then Cathleen and then baby Johnny. It only took a few years to have the three of us, but it changed life in ways mom and dad couldn’t really explain to us, although they tried. That change, or rather changes, that came into their world when we the world. The way they tell it they were very poor and very happy before I was born – romantically living paycheck to paycheck, eating canned peaches and stale bread and peanut butter and saltine crackers the couple of days leading up to the next payday and then after cashing that check they’d buy more of the same anticipating poverty again the next week. They were never ashamed or embarrassed to inform me and then Cathleen and me and then Johnny, Cathleen and me that their happiest days were before me and before us. It wasn’t me or us that made them less happy they told us. It was some unspecified, incalculable ratio of paucity and happiness; sometimes told as one-in-spite-of-the-other and at other times as a we-didn’t-know-any-better-but-that’s-still-okay-because-we-love-you-all kind of fairytale.

They also never tired of reciting the inventory of all their earthly possessions in great detail, which was easily done in light of the number of their possessions. They owned a folding table and three folding chairs that didn’t match as their kitchenette, a very, very old sofa with a back cushion missing and the folding chairs doubled as living room furniture, a double bed and a couple of crates covered with old curtain fabric as night stands for their bedroom suite. Add towels, everyday dishes, hand-me-down flatware, pots, pans and kitchen towels from my dad’s mom’s kitchen and they could cook food when they had enough money to buy food to cook. It never sounded like they bought fresh food, but I’m sure they did – like some hamburger or a can of vegetables or even a potato they shared in a romantic dinner-for-one-eaten-by-two moment they never forgot to rehearse for a table of five with more leftovers than they had for a month before me, before us, as they insisted on reminding us on many occasions.

Before mom became a Mom she was Mary and she was a typist in a secretarial pool. Three years of what we’d call high school education for a poor girl on the south side of Chicago meant typing, grammar and home economics classes. She claimed she only owned two dresses and wore one then the other and then the first one again, rotating the order the next week – that’s what she always told us but we didn’t believe it. And she met my dad while working at the law firm when he was clerking. He was in his second year, didn’t have a penny to his name, lived with his mom, and fell in love with a seventeen year old girl with a 22 inch waist accentuated (according to a photo of her) by a full skirt and tight sweater. He didn’t stand a chance. They had  cheap dates of free concerts in park, visits to museums, the zoo, parades, walks along the lake and anything else free the city of Chicago had to offer. They ate meals at the school’s cafeteria or at one of their family’s homes. “Mary, I have nothing to offer you but my love; will you marry me?” They were standing by the lake next to the Shedd Aquarium.

Like Shedd himself sort of. John Shedd started as a poor clerk in Marshall Field’s store and worked his way up to the top and became president and chairman when Field died – from poverty to riches and a story told through hard work for forty years. Shedd bought into Daniel Burnham’s “make no little plans” hook-line-and-sinker. He put up millions to build his fish tank and then died before it opened but after he paid for it. His own wife – his very own Mary – stood on the lake front and cut the ribbon for him. This made it something romantic and couples just happened to favor this spot for their proposals.

The aquarium was something huge and romantic and totally unrealistic. It took a million gallons of saltwater brought by train from Key West, Florida to fill the tank in this first permanent inland saltwater aquarium. And when did all this happen? Well right at the start of the Great Depression, that’s when! When everyone was dirt poor in Chicago (except Shedd obviously) he built that one damn huge tank of water that sat right there on the edge of Lake Michigan. It was as extravagant as it was ironic. And to top it off, literally, was its Beaux Arts design. That was a style used for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and everyone was so impressed by the Greek and Roman synthesis became a way of making Chicago “the Paris of the Prairie.” That’s why young couples went there to do romantic things, including propose marriage like dad did. They’d stand right there where John’s widow Mary cut the ribbon and promise to tie the knot.

It was a cool spring evening – a Friday they said – in May of 1951 when dad proposed. (Make no little plans.) He didn’t even have a ring to offer her, just a promise that he would always love her no matter what. He said he wanted them to spend the rest of their lives together, to have a family and it didn’t matter that they were poor. Mom told us all this more than once and it was the best story she told. She said “Yes” and now she was 44 weeks pregnant sweating through eighteen hours of labor and dad was pacing in the waiting room wondering how he was going to pay for me.

 

Da Yu

Yu-the-Great_proj-copy-700x420

This is the story of Da Yu, who we saw walking along a roadside on the early evening of one Sunday – Easter Sunday of all Sundays – and a child asked “What’s that man’s story?”

So this is Da’s story.

Yu the Great was the founder of the Xia Dynasty over four thousand years ago. Yu’s father attempted to control a great flood that threatened land and life. He built dikes and damns of soil and rock to hold back and contain the waters. He failed.

The great flood continued. Yu was conscripted to do what his father could not. Instead of restraining the great flood, Yu dredged deeper channels in rivers and valleys to carry the great flood to distant rivers and distant seas.

He opened waterways, unearthed damns and removed dikes with hard labor in long days. He was covered with the same dirt and mud his father struggled to amass, but Yu was washed clean in the rushing flood he did not resist. Yu succeeded in the task his father failed, and he was given the name Yu the Great – Da Yu.

Today Da wears his suit. The blue one He has just the one and he’s only ever had just the one. So, Da wears it. As dusk begins to cover this late April afternoon, along a road he’d built, Da Yu walks in his blue suit and white shirt – his shirt as white as his full head of thick hair – he walks home, alone.

As a young man Da Yu was pushed in one direction and pulled in another – he didn’t want what his father demanded for him and yet would not refuse what he must do.

Mr. Yu – Da’s father – insisted, “You will not be like me.” The hard life of manual labor had strengthened the father’s back and his resolve as well, and he was determined that his son would not live such a hard life because he didn’t have to live like his father had to: “I work so you can learn to do better work; not so hard work, and you will be happy and not tired like me.”

On his eighteenth birthday Da received just one gift from his parents – a blue suit. It was as expensive for Mr. Yu as it was important, “You will wear a suit and not dungarees.”

But this changed the day Mr. Yu came home lame.

Mr. Yu would not cry in front of his wife and son – he would yell and stomp and curse, but Da knew his father cried when Da was forced to give up on his father’s plans and dreams. The boss of the road crew Mr. Yu worked said that Da could have the work until Mr. Yu was healthy. Mr. Yu barked “Never!” but he never was healthy again. As a man of hard labor, he withered each day he was lame, and willed from his bed – fighting back the inevitable – the victory that eluded him. Mr. Yu never worked again and Da worked every day for forty years from that day.

Not long after Da wore the suit to his father’s funeral.

He wore it when he asked a sweet girl named Sarah to marry him, and he wore it when they married in her church.

He wore it when his boy Sun was christened for Sarah’s sake, and he wore it the Sunday he went to church each year on Easter. She didn’t ask much and he knew this was to please Sarah’s family because they were concerned about Da, and that Sarah was settling for a man who lacked dreams; a man who did not fight back, a man who simply nodded. All this Da knew but it was never spoken of – there was nothing to be gained and little that would change if he protested. He would work his hard work and wear his dungaree, and save his blue suit for special days to be remembered.

In his first years, Da’s skin became tanned and leathery from summers and winters, the cold, rain and heat of long, hard days. His hair was black and thick and covered his head, and a cap only made him sweat so he avoided his. The crew chided Da that he yellowed in the sun. Sarah worried that he worked too many hours, but a was happy to work and he was healthy and would do whatever was asked and he worked hard. When asked he would simply nod; he was glad to work. He did not refuse hard work.

Da didn’t get bigger or fatter or stooped like the others with whom he worked. Younger men took their places and the next generation took up the same lament – work is hard and the best work is no work.

But Da was healthy and quiet and bosses wished they had a dozen Yu’s but hired more of the others instead. Da’s hair did turn white; not gray – white and pure.

When his child, Sun was a young boy he would asked his father what he did, why his skin was so dark and rough, and why his hair was white like snow. Da always answered that he worked in the sun and rain and snow, so his skin showed he worked hard, and his hair just showed outside what was inside. But the boy didn’t understand.

Sarah was kind to Da; gentle and affectionate – she called him Yu-Yu, lovingly, and she was understanding of his labor. What he earned he gave his family and took little for himself. She worked herself when Sun started school, and she’d ask him to take a day to rest, but he’d always refuse, “What would I do if it wasn’t working?” he’d answer.

When they had time they’d take walks together, with Sun in a stroller, then the three on foot; always just walks that took different paths, along different roads and streets and returned them to their small home. It was the home Da’s father and mother had, the home Da had grown up in, the home Sarah and Da moved into after they were married to care for his mother, and the home she died in one night and their home since the day Da wore his suit to his mother’s funeral.

Da didn’t dream dreams of a different life, and he refused the nightmares of his own son’s life. There was only discontent in such dreams, and Da’s way was a nod and not a dream. He never bought Sun a suit – he could afford to, he had the money, but the thought never occurred to him.

When Sun grew, his mother and father helped when they could with clothes and books and papers that proved their modesty, but Sun grew embarrassed. The very things that showed their love were too modest for their son. Soon Sun was off to school, but Da and Sarah didn’t visit their son until his graduation when Da wore his suit and Sarah coughed through commencement. It was a cough that came one day and stayed, keeping her away from work, in bed eventually being cared for in the evenings by Da who stopped taking the walks.

The next time Da wore his suit it was to Sarah’s funeral.

Sun moved away and stayed away, but Da kept working, now less with shovel and more with a sign that read Stop and Slow. And he again walked at the end of each day, retracing the same paths and same roads and streets he’d walked with Sarah and Sun. He lived in the same home but it became more of a house. He washed his clothes, his own dungarees, made his rice and worked only his own hours until they told him he’d worked enough and not to come back tomorrow.

And then he’d wait each day until it was time to take the walk at the day’s end, walking the same paths and same roads and same streets he’d walked with his Sarah and Sun. And on Easter Sunday each year he’d put on his blue suit and leave it on all day, until the day’s end and he’d walk along the street he’d paved.