Monday, December 21, 2009

Merry Christmas '81

Class of 1981:

Christmas is a great time to reflect on all the people we’ve known. It’s the Ebenezer Scrooge/George Bailey effect. 

On reflection, I didn’t know many of you very well in high school. I suspect some of you feel the same way about many of our classmates. No need to apologize, that’s just the way it is.

I have enjoyed catching up with you this year. It’s always good to connect with old friends. It’s also great to learn more about folks with whom I grew up, but didn’t really get to know. Lo and behold, just being a Watsekan is a pretty solid ice breaker.

Shortly after we graduated one of our teachers told me we were a “different kind of class.” She said the class of 1981 wasn’t close. She intimated we had “cliques.” She may have been right. We didn’t always move as one entity.

There are social divisions in nearly every group of people.  They’re prevalent among young folks.  “The Breakfast Club” came out a few years after we graduated. It was all about cliques. It was a big hit. If you missed that movie, you may remember the secretary in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”.  You probably got a pretty good laugh when she named all the groups in Ferris’ school. Compared to 1980s pop culture depictions, WCHS ‘81 was pretty tight.

I don’t have any terrible high school recollections. Even if I did, I am fortunate. The shelf life for my bad memories is much shorter than the shelf life for my good ones. As I remember it, even if we weren’t all on the same sheet of music, at least everyone was doing something. Nobody can say our class was class was boring.

Think about, for example, pranks (the “authorities” referred to these as “vandalism”). To the best of my knowledge there was no conspiracy: Some of you scaled great heights to put a live goat and an active porta-potty on the roof of the high school. Others took to the low ground and dug a large hole in the middle of the football field (causing the principal’s voice to shoot up at least an octave in his morning announcements!).  For the coup de grace, somebody else’s mischief consisted of quoting Shakespeare backwards on a window (take that East Coast boarding schools!).

So what if we all ran in our own packs twenty-nine years ago? Our “diversity’ (they celebrate that today) made things pretty cool. If we were not close (that is, by the way, disputable) - - - why get in touch with people we haven’t seen in nearly thirty years? Because: We have a lot in common.

Per the United States Census Bureau, as of December 10, 2009, there were about 6.8 billion people on Earth. Per my reliable sources, there were approximately one hundred members of the Watseka Community High School Class of 1981.  I’m no mathematician (it isn’t Mr. Sutfin’s fault) but those numbers are impressive. Only one in 68 million people got to be in our class (trust me regarding statistics; I used to work for the government).

Obviously, we are members of a pretty exclusive club. 

If you aren’t into statistics, think about this: You drove over the muddy waters of the Iroquois River and Sugar Creek hundreds of times. You waited for trains by the grain elevator and the VFW more times than you can remember. You played on steel playground equipment in Legion Park. You saw movies (after they hit the big cities) at the Watseka Theater. You remember the Primeburger.  You can instantly conjure up the maroon profile of the Warrior. You ate Pantera’s in high school but would stuff yourself on Monical’s now – because Monical’s was the very first pizza you ate (at least in Watseka) with your family and friends.         

We all remember those things too. I’d bet we all bleed a little maroon.  I’d wager we all have a little muddy river water in our tears. I’d gamble we can all close our eyes and picture Watseka’s Main Street, decorated in December, with all the stores it had when we were young.

I recently talked with a member of our class. It was great to reminisce with an old friend. We talked about the flat land between the muddy waters. She said: “people from Watseka totally understand where we’re coming from.”  That was a kick start for my holiday spirit.

Thank you for contacting me this year. Thank you for being receptive if I’ve contacted you. It’s nice to see how people have “turned out” in middle age. Everybody has been around enough to know that we are part of an exclusive club. Everybody seems to appreciate membership. Nobody cares what anyone has or does for a living. Everyone seems to care how everybody else is. 

There wasn’t any better place to be a kid.

Want to give yourself a Christmas gift? Touch base with an old friend.

I hope you, and yours, all have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Warm regards,


Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Watseka Heroes

Who else is sick of stories about Tiger Woods? He's another pop culture “hero” knocked off his pedestal by his very human actions. Cultural heroes are fallible. Real heroes are not.
We are lucky. In Watseka we were surrounded by infallible real heroes.
My family and I were in Watseka last summer. It was the 4th of July weekend. We went to the parade. A parade in Watseka is like a living Norman Rockwell painting. It’s one hundred percent Americana.
If you have forgotten who you are or where you’re from - I recommend attending a Watseka parade.

The 4th of July was cold and wet. Like they did when we were young, local veterans led the parade. They carried the Stars and Stripes. Seeing those guys, some of whom I knew, brought back childhood memories.
There were still World War I veterans marching in the first Watseka 4th of July parades (early 1970s) I can remember.  Back then, the “Greatest Generation” was in its 40s and sliding fast into 50 (like we are).
Twenty years before the release of “Saving Private Ryan” we were surrounded by men who saved the world.
One example (of many): Jack Oakley patiently taught instrumental music to hundreds of young Watsekans over the years. Mr. Oakley shaped many of us into musicians of fairly consistent talent.
That alone makes him a hero. But-- that’s not all.
I once asked Mr. Oakley’s wife, Betty, where she learned to sing all the Jodies (Army marching songs) she taught my little brother when he rode her school bus. She told me about Jack being in the Army Air Corps during the War. Technical Sergeant Oakley was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. 

Mr. Simmons (Glenn Raymond) and Mr. McMorris served too. The latter was a Prisoner of War in Germany after having had to parachute from the bomber he co-piloted.
We were fortunate enough to be up and close and personal with veterans of Korea and Viet Nam too. Many of those folks came back to Iroquois County and led quiet and productive lives, contributing to the community in understated and underappreciated ways. The vast majority of them set a positive example that led to the quiet good works that many of you do to this day.
Our class carried its weight. An informal headcount reveals that a disproportionately high percentage of the class of ’81 entered and honorably served in the military.  Jeff Brandenburg stayed in for 25 years and two wars.
On that cold July 4th, 2009, in Watseka, when the veterans came by with the Flag, people were respectful. That isn’t the case everywhere.  Where I live, not everyone knows someone who has served, is serving, or who has had a family member wounded or killed while serving.  In Watseka, and Iroquois County – everyone does. 
I think that’s just one part of what made, and probably makes, Watseka special. Everyone knows each other and everyone is accountable to each other. Everyone is in it together.
Where many of us have settled, if something bad happens to a number of people across town, we may not know any of them.  In Watseka, if something bad happens to somebody across town, it happens to everybody.
You want more Watseka heroes? How about the middle aged Civil Defense volunteers who staffed cold football games – just in case something happened? How about folks who lived on high ground who helped sandbag homes and/or took in families during Watseka floods?  How about teachers who spent hours and hours of their off duty time with kids who were struggling or had less than happy home lives? What about volunteer firefighters who helped out whenever they could? Who remembers getting a break from a police officer who thought you might turn out okay even if he didn’t haul you in for doing something stupid? Etc. etc. etc. There were hundreds of these folks all over Watseka – but they wouldn’t raise their hands if you asked them to identify themselves.
Are there people like this everywhere? Yes. In Watseka, however, they know your first name.
Watseka wasn’t perfect; it’s easy to poke fun at it. But, like I told you before, there wasn’t any better place to be a kid.
Like you, I’m hoping my head hits the pillow tonight without my having heard anything else about Tiger.
I really hope my sons “get” that sports figures are just talented people – but nobody special. When I want my boys to meet heroes, I’ll take them to Watseka in July.
By the way, if you'd like to thank a hero today, I’ll give you Jeff Brandenburg’s email address.

Friday, December 4, 2009

We Take Care of Our Horses in Watseka

The note to "Marilyn" was written several years ago, I sent it to some Watseka folks in November 2009 with the note to "Friends."


I tell tales about growing up, occasionally true, when my little group
plays and sings to old folks. They always end with "there was no better
place to be a kid."

One day, I said that when I was a boy in Watseka I regularly drank out
of a horse trough in the city limits. My band-mates told me I was full
of it. Within a week I sent them an online Times Republic newspaper
article that said the city approved funding for the trough for another year
(there was such an article, no kidding, ask Dooley).

After I sent it, I got an email from one of my band-mates. She wrote: "Do you
possibly need therapy services on account of this here town you talk
about? I could offer some services at a reduced rate. This could take
years, Tom. ;)"

Being a frustrated writer, I responded with what follows:


This stuff is mostly almost true:

In the 70s the Watseka police busted a drifter for pot or drinking - you
know - a big crime. They handcuffed the guy to a park bench in the lobby
of the station while they started the paperwork. The accused picked up
the park bench and left with it. The police never found the guy, the
bench, or the cuffs.

We had a fire station on the East side of town. West side fires were a problem because the trains delayed the fire trucks. So, we built a fire station on the West side and put a new truck in it. The first West side building to catch fire after that  - was the new station.  The responding east side trucks were delayed by a train.

I know of at least one case where two brothers married two sisters. One
brother cheated with his sister-in-law (or vice versa). The cheaters
never got their relationship off the ground. The forsaken spouses (a/k/a
siblings of the cheaters), however, began a lengthy loving relationship
born of commiseration (interesting family reunions).

The most popular spot when we got our drivers' licenses was "Lantern
Lane" (reputably haunted).

One colorful gentleman lived on the outskirts of town. He kept goats. The goats apparently got along with him in spite of his drinking problem. The relationship may have gone south when the guy tied one of the goats to his car bumper but forgot about the poor thing before driving to town.

One of the highlights of the year for Watseka children is the "Turtle
Derby." It would take too long to explain.

Google "The Watseka Wonder" - I dare you.

In nearby Kankakee, at Kankakee County Fair time, a bull escaped from a
truck and was running wild downtown at lunchtime. The local police
opened fire on it at a distance. The cops were fairly criticized. It was
alleged they didn't pay much attention to what their bullets might have
done to the crowds gathering on the sidewalks to watch a bull run down a
main street.

I'm probably the only guy you know who drank regularly from a downtown
horse trough.

I don't need therapy - but all this may explain why I feel so drawn to
the most down and dirty outlaw country music.