Sunday, November 28, 2010

Legion Park

We were in Watseka for Thanksgiving. We stayed until this morning. Weather-wise, it was a perfect post-harvest weekend; frost in the mornings, a chill in the air, and sunshine during the days.  A Woodland farm-girl recently told me that, on days like those in the 1970s, she and her friend rode in bean wagons to stay warm after they played outside.

On Watseka mornings, I usually spend time in Legion Park. Early today, there was a light frost covering the trees, the grass and the playground equipment. The Lagoon had a paper-thin sheet of ice on it. The air was so crisp I swear I could hear Sugar Creek’s current.

Man, Legion Park brings back good memories!

The Lagoon is a Legion Park Landmark. I doubt anybody ever voluntarily swam in it - although some people got pushed in once in a while.  Many of you probably fished the Lagoon. Wasn’t it the spot for an annual fishing derby?  After the “Turtle Derby” (can anybody send me the history of that event?) there were dozens of turtles let loose into its green water. The Lagoon really lends character to the Park.

The pool is empty for winter. It’s changed a bit, but it’s basically the same pool that many of you swam in after hours (could you still climb in the dark?) when you were in high school. 

Who remembers being young and spending hours at the pool in the summer?  Did it seem to anyone else that a ten minute pool check lasted an hour?  Who brought change for the concession stand?  What was your favorite candy? Did you put your shoes and shirt in a basket or carry them out to the pool side?

Which one of our classmates, trained in first aid as a Watseka lifeguard, ended up with stitches after slipping on the pool’s concrete while working? At the time, was he saving a small child or goofing off in a mock super-hero costume?

Most of the Park's old metal playground equipment is still standing. It was probably covered in lead paint when we were kids. Remember the wood planks on the merry-go-round by the monument off Fourth Street? They were guaranteed to give a kid a dagger-sized splinter. We are all lucky to have survived.

There are few changes in elevation in Iroquois County. Because it has the only hills for miles that aren’t dotted with tombstones, Legion Park is ideal for sledding. I am betting some of you have children or grand-children who will sled in the Park this year - like you did years ago.

In the 70s and early 80s, on the Fourth of July, the Park was the center of the universe. I remember: bands playing on flatbed trailers; mud volleyball pits; and all kinds of other activities during the day. At night, everybody watched the fireworks at the Girls’ Softball Fields.  

The Park still has well kept picnic pavilions. They are great places for family picnics and getting together with friends. Remember how, when lightning closed the pool, the pavilion across the road would be full of kids waiting out the storm?

The roads through the Park were great for cruising. When we were in high school, today’s gazillion dollar muscle cars were just cool used cars. Of course, after an oak tree brought a Plymouth ‘Cuda to a dead stop, the new speed bumps slowed things down.

Speaking of trees, could there be a better collection of them anywhere? There are willows, maples, oaks etc. Does anyone know how old the oldest Legion Park oak tree is? 

Sugar Creek is a nice border to the Park. There is a pretty good current just south of the Pool. The Creek is wider at the Park than the Iroquois River is in many places.  The current and width of the water made the Park an ideal place to launch a canoe.

Legion Park was a gateway to other things. The banks of Sugar Creek had paths that led to the “swimming hole” (complete with a rope swing) and the trestle. I’m not sure today’s kids, regularly dosed with amoxicillin from birth, could swim in the pre-eco-friendly-era waters of the Creek without becoming septic overnight. How high was the trestle? To a ten year old, it seemed to be a thousand feet over the water.

Legion Park is one the best things about Watseka.  It’s one of the reasons there wasn’t any better place to be a kid.

I hope you had a Happy Thanksgiving!


Friday, October 22, 2010

Mr. Ponton

My contact list for Watseka-oriented emails usually only includes Watsekans. Today, I've included some non-Watsekans; my musical friends and relatives.

Today’s lesson is a pretty cool! It’s about Mr. Lee Ponton of Papineau,  Iroquois County, Illinois.  Here's a link:

There are lots of folks here in Central Iowa who are just like Mr. Ponton. They are incredible!

Mr. Ponton’s affection for his Gibson ES 330 reminds me about one of the greatest nights of my life (thanks Woody!). I played a gentleman’s 330 when I sat in with a bunch of guys like this in a barn in Southern Iowa. The old timer who owned it traded guitars with me for a while. He said his 330 was the only guitar for him (Mr. Ponton calls his “my partner”).

A few things about Mr. Ponton's history jumped out at me:

First, he uses his gifts to serve others: "I made a vow then to use my music to help people and I've done it for the last 50 years." How cool is that?

Second, the story has nearly all the elements of the perfect country and western song.* Read the story. There are references to: mom (slamming the piano on Mr. Ponton’s hands for rockin' in the house); prison (the guy killed his best friend, what was he like to casual acquaintances?); drinking ("crocked"); trains ("Bill's Depot" - likely a bar - but close enough); and trucks (a country song about truck driving!).

Third, Mr. Ponton won’t fix the worn out neck on his guitar because: “Everyone of those holes represent a time, place and person in my life." I bet/hope every one of you has something like that.  I bet it isn’t the most expensive thing you own.

To Iroquois County natives: From a historical and sociological perspective, isn’t it proper that “Waylon Jennings" and "Bud and Swede's" appear in the same article?

Marilyn, this is further evidence that my affection for drop D tuning and outlaw country music comes from much more than drinking water from a horse trough.


* Surely you've all heard the famous verse from "You Never Even Call Me By my Name" by Steve Goodman (with credit to David Allan Coe).


Friday, September 17, 2010

Mr. Brown, Hero

I recommend this article:  "Veteran able to take trip to WWII memorial"

"Brown was in the Air Force in England for 10 months before the Battle of the Bulge. He said when it started there was a search for anyone who wanted to be in the ground force, to which he transferred."

You have to love these Watseka Old Timers! The guy gives up a plush job in England to slug it out on the ground in one of the biggest battles of the war. Then, the only thing he asks for is a little ice cream - 65 years later.

Who couldn't be proud to be from Mr. Brown's town?

Have a good weekend.


Saturday, September 11, 2010

Thoughts on 9-11

Since we were kids, does it seem like our public discourse has become a little meaner? Maybe it’s just that we were a bit isolated because so many of us grew up in and around tranquil Watseka.

If you let yourself get sucked into talk radio’s demagoguery, you could end up thinking we live in a divided
America. If you want to take a swan dive into a real downer – you could start believing that no generation after World War II’s “Greatest Generation” can pull its weight.

I’ve never bought into any of that. I believe that every generation of our Country’s citizenry has risen to challenges. Future generations will too. The torch is always passed to those willing to carry it. No one has dropped it. Today, two things affirmed my belief.

First, I saw a note from Watsekan Jeff Brandenberg (who served this Nation in uniform for 25 years). Jeff said: “this Country is strong and worth fighting for! We the citizens of the
USA make this Country [not the politicians]!” Jeff is right. It’s the way it is and always will be. The uniqueness of our Constitution and the system it provides for us ensure it.

After I read Jeff’s note, I watched a bit of MSNBC’s complete footage of NBC’s
9-11-2001 broadcast. The replay showed that, on that day, at , there were several dozen police officers and firefighters walking quickly toward the remaining World Trade Center tower. They were only part of a long procession. Their heads were held high and their postures displayed absolute determination. They knew the first tower was down; they had to have known the second was probably going to come down soon. At , the second tower collapsed. Those firefighters and police officers carried the heaviest of torches.

I’ve been thinking all morning about 9-11 and its aftermath. As I’m sure you do, I remember that day and the next week very well. From where I worked in 2001, I had a pretty good view of a Cathedral and a large
Lutheran Church – pretty much next door to each other.

That terrible Tuesday, when I wasn’t glued to the TV, I watched Catholics and Lutherans walk together, hug, wipe each others’ tears, and come and go from those houses of worship.  We all saw Republican and Democrat members of Congress put aside their business-as-usual foolishness and come together. We all flew flags and wondered who could hate anyone so much. Midwesterners remember that, over the following days, there were blue skies and an absence of passenger jets’ vapor trails between clouds.

Many of us wondered and worried about friends and loved ones in uniform. We all knew war was imminent. Everyone knew our children’s lives were forever changed. We knew our kids would face an enhanced threat of terrorism on our soil.

For a time, the national discourse was not so ludicrous. None of my acquaintances (neither liberal nor conservative) sent me any political emails. People joined in prayer and concern. There was a new, albeit brief, dawn of mutual respect across the land. For a while, despite the evil that spawned it, the National affect made me feel like I was thirteen years old and at the Watseka Bicentennial celebration.

I don’t want to go back to that post 9-11 feeling of mutual grief and concern. But, it sure would be nice to have everybody on the same sheet of music again. Wouldn’t it?

How do we come together? Not all of us can be firefighters or serve in the military. Does our generation carry the torch? Yes. Are there people doing things to bring us together and make the Country a better place? Yes.

Look at our WCHS class. We produced Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines. We have: a scientist working for the greater good; several teachers who could have sought higher paying careers; people who gave up lucrative endeavors to go into public service; folks who work in health care; members of the clergy; people who work with the elderly; and countless numbers of you who quietly do good deeds every day. Some of you have raised thoughtful children who, despite the certainty of danger, have entered the military in the last nine years.

I’d like to think all this is unique to those of us lucky enough to be from Watseka. It’s not. There are people like you everywhere. It’s shameful talk radio doesn’t focus on you – and those like you.

This is a day of reflection. I don’t know about you, but reflection makes me proud of my Country and my Hometown. I am especially proud of (I’m paraphrasing Jeff) citizens (like you) who make The U.S. and Watseka what they are.


Wednesday, September 1, 2010

"12 cows escape in Prairie Green Township"

"12 cows escape in Prairie Green Township"

That's right, that was the lead story in today's online Times-Republic.  I'm serious, check it out:

 Don't go getting all defensive - I'm not making fun of Iroquois County.   I wish that was the worst news where I live.  Our stories are about egg producers who sell bad eggs, shootings, police chases, politicians, and swindlers (are those last two redundant?).

The closest news in today's Des Moines Register to cows running loose is a story about a woman who found dynamite in her garage rafters in Waterloo, Iowa.

How can a spot where escaping cows make the paper not be a great place to be a kid?


Friday, July 23, 2010

Iroquois County Fair

It’s hot enough in the Midwest for the mosquitoes to spontaneously combust.  The corn is high. Summer is about half over.  Many of us who moved away from Iroquois County refer to this time of year as “Fair Time.”

The word is out that the Iroquois County Fair was held north of Crescent City for the fiftieth time.  That probably means it’s in a good location.

I’ve heard from a bunch of classmates. Nearly everyone has fond memories of the Fair. Many of us haven’t been since the early 1980s. The Fair is one of those things that make us homesick.

Fortunately, this year, some of our friends put pictures on line. The Times-Republic put Fair articles on the internet. Other than the big cats (what’s up with that?), the Fair doesn’t seem to have changed that much. It looks like it still has a talent show, a midway, a queen, and a demolition derby. 

There are still contests involving everything from baked goods to livestock. Blue ribbons are still awarded.  An article about showing dogs reminded me that one year my sister showed our wiener dog (meaner than any pit bull) and got a ribbon.  It’s all about feel good stuff.

I live about the same distance from the Iowa State Fair as I did from the Iroquois County Fair. It’s easy to get to the Iowa State Fair - but hard to find parking. The State Fair’s a big deal to a lot of people. Somebody wrote a novel about it (the novel was adapted into a musical - which was adapted into a movie). 

The Iowa State Fair’s not a big deal to me. It lacks the charm of the Iroquois County Fair.  It’s too big. There are so many animals displayed they all look the same. The carnies are snobby (it may be that, for carnies, working a state fair is like going to the big leagues).

From what I remember, at the Iroquois County Fair parking was convenient. Nobody had to walk too far to see or do anything. It had something for people of all ages.  It was the place to go to catch up with classmates we hadn’t seen during the summer. It was a see and be seen place.

There were events for people of all ages and just about anybody could participate. There were opportunities to exhibit art, set forth baked goods, compete in a talent show, drive in the demolition derby, show livestock, and even (ladies) shoot for the title of Fair Queen.  We all knew folks who did that stuff.

Food and drink were everywhere. Porkburgers were a staple. Lemon shakeups would quench thirst, and cotton candy was a big deal. Weren’t there crispy sweet things called elephant ears?

Remember the fun of the midway? How much metal fatigue do you think there was in those portable Ferris Wheels, Tilt-a-whirls, etc.? What was the contraption that looked like a Ferris wheel but had egg shaped cages that flipped upside down?

How many of you got suckered by carnies who gave you a Daisy air rifle that didn’t shoot straight or light baseballs to throw at heavy milk bottles?  I don’t remember seeing a whole bunch of huge stuffed animals flying off the shelves.

Did you walk through the livestock area to see if anybody you knew was showing anything?

Did you hang out in the white building to listen, or dance, to live music?  That’s something to miss. Even a mediocre live band is better than the digital DJ stuff my kids get nowadays.

Can you name a Fair Queen or Demolition Derby winner? You know one - or maybe more than one. The Queen and the winner of the demo derby get celebrity status.

If you don’t think the Iroquois County Fair is about the coolest thing since canned peaches I think you forgot where you came from. Sorry, that’s just how I see it. The Fair is one of those things that made our hometown a great place to be a kid.

I, for one, am glad the Times-Republic reported about the Fair. Those articles take me back. They are full of gems. For example, Just this Monday, there was a great article called “Master Showman." It quoted a young man who said: "My goat got a little rowdy.”  That’s exactly what Bruce said thirty years ago when he “borrowed” a goat to put it on the WCHS roof.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

For the "Brevity is the Soul of Wit" conspirators:

I've written about vandalism at WCHS.

The statute of limitations is tolled for vandals who left Illinois to avoid prosecution.

Ventures into the Land of Lincoln could be interesting for those who painted the English Room window.  Sources close to the Watseka PD report the list of suspects has been narrowed.

Someone in the know told me the perpetrators were motivated by an enjoyment of English instruction and their affection for their WCHS English Lit teacher.

In any event, not much is likely to come from any arrests in the case. There is speculation the Iroquois County DA would accept an immediate and meaningless plea agreement.

Lawyers I questioned tell me that, while literary infatuation is not a traditional defense, juries are sympathetic to defendants whose crimes were motivated by love of the English Language.

So, for that few, that happy few, that band of sisters who quoted Shakespeare in graffiti, I offer the following from a young friend who enjoys English too:

"Let's eat Grandma!  Let's eat, Grandma! Proper grammar saves lives."

You may use it at trial, if necessary.

By the way, many of your classmates think themselves accursed they were not there painting with you.

My apologies to Mrs. Bard, and the Bard, for paraphrasing.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Watseka Beer

On June 1st, most Iowa newspapers ran stories about an interesting drunk-driving arrest. Unfortunately, after a Memorial Day weekend, that’s not unusual. Fortunately, no one was hurt. This arrest probably only made the news because the twenty year old driver was naked. He’d been chugging beer all day. Being a smart young man, he took his car out at - inebriated and wearing his glory suit.
The story reminded me of some of the tales a few (okay, many) of you sent me. Particularly those stories I received after I sent the Scotchmon's and Watseka Police Department photos. It’s amazing how many of you remember Watseka police officers “confiscating” (not pouring out) your beer.  You didn’t have to be a Starsky & Hutch fan to know it wasn’t going to an evidence locker.
From your emails, I know there were many of you who didn't indulge. Your emails also showed me there were more than I remembered who did.  To the latter, don't worry. I'm not naming names and I'm not writing to your children.  To the former, I’m not condoning the behavior.
I’ll accept responsibility for my mistakes. But, I am letting the rest of you off the hook. To the extent you did any underage beer drinking, I blame it on the very creative brewery industry marketing of the 1970s. 
Before the Swedish Bikini Team, Weiner Dog Racing and Spuds MacKenzie, there were TV commercials that made people equate beer with meaningful things.
Who didn’t want to “go for the gusto!” and have a Schlitz?  You knew if you drank Hamm’s you could train a grizzly bear, right? Who didn’t want to say ”Budweiser” and say it all?  Come on, you know you “had a taste” for a Stroh’s.  Was LITE better because it tasted great, or because it was less filling?  Did you want to escape our flat county and “head for the Mountains” by drinking Busch beer?
Yeah, in the 70s the beer companies targeted a youthful audience.  The proof was in the packaging. Did you ever see an adult drinking an 8 ounce bottle of beer?  Some of you remember those little Miller packs, don’t you?
It wasn’t too hard to get beer. There was an underground railroad supplying it to underage drinkers in Watseka – tickets to ride the train were cheap.
Beer was great for lowering teenage inhibition. I’m not just talking about being able to talk in public. For specific instances of conduct, I’ll leave you to your memories - for the most part.   However, I’ll generally mention a few that some of you sent back to me:
-         Climbing over the Watseka Pool fence at night and swimming (naked?)? Beer related.
-         The hole in the football field (it’s too good not come up again)? Beer.
-         A few hapless, non-injurious fights? Beer related.
-         A young couple waking up to find themselves locked on the roof of a local business? Beer, definitely beer.
-         Scaling the Water Towers with spray paint? Beer.
-         All kinds of Gusto-seeking things we hope our kids neither learn about nor do? A lot of beer.

I know, some of us are embarrassed about things we did while drinking. I say - let it go. To the best of my knowledge, none of you ever drove drunk . . . while naked.
Beer is a cultural thing. There are some places people just serve and drink beer. I remember it showing up in Legion Park and at a few parties. I remember there being beer at Senior Skip day at Tim’s and the senior party at Karen’s.
If it hadn’t been for that genius driving drunk and naked last week, I’d have forgotten all about Watseka and beer. In the great scheme of things, beer was a mere accessory, like a belt or hat.
Until I read that article - I remembered fun, hanging out with a bunch of young cool people, and things being a whole lot simpler. That stuff would have been great without beer.
In a way, I envy those of you who knew there was Gusto (and there was plenty) in Iroquois County for those with a zero blood alcohol content.
All I know - beer or no beer, there wasn’t any better place to be a kid.

Friday, May 28, 2010


Long weekend ahead . . .
Isn't it interesting to see people we haven't seen in years? We almost always do a double-take. Until we see them again, we remember people as they were the last time we saw them. 
I first heard about this phenomenon over twenty years ago when our First Sergeant ("Top") returned from a reunion of his Vietnam infantry unit.  I asked him how it went. Top said he was surprised - he'd "figured everybody'd look the same."  He said "man, those guys are getting old."
Then, Top got somber. A faraway look came into his eyes. He told us some of "our guys never got a chance to get old.”
Monday's the day when we are obliged to remember America’s young men and women who "never got a chance to get old."
The sons and daughters of rural counties and small towns have always given of themselves for our Country. Iroquois County and Watseka are not exceptions.  Young men and women from our neck of the woods have served during every conflict in which our Nation has engaged. 
This Memorial Day, please join me in remembering young people from Iroquois County who gave their lives in the service of our Country.
An email doesn't give me room to provide you a list of all the names of locals who “never got a chance to get old.”  
Accordingly, I’ll give you the names of two men from Watseka (two of many from Iroquois County) who died in Vietnam: Charles Michael Evans (age 22 when he died in 1967) and Rolland Leon Durflinger (age 21 when he died in 1969). 
Most of us will have Monday off; we'll be with family and friends. While we are relaxing, there will be young folks from Iroquois County in faraway places sweating out their day in the face of unimaginable danger. Hopefully, they'll get home safely to their loved ones.
Have a good weekend. While you do, please keep all members of our military (living and dead) and their families in your hearts this Memorial Day.
* * *

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate - we can not consecrate - we can not hallow - this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. 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.

President Abraham Lincoln,

Gettysburg, 1863

* * *
Here lie officers and men, Negroes and whites, rich men and poor . . . together. Here are Protestants, Catholics and Jews together. Here no man prefers another because of his faith or despises him because of his color. Here there are no quotas of how many men of each group are admitted or allowed. Among these men there is no discrimination. No prejudices. No hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest democracy.

Whosoever of us lifts his hand in hate against a brother, or who thinks himself superior to those who happen to be in the minority, makes of this ceremony and the bloody sacrifice it commemorates, an empty, hollow mockery.

Rabbi Roland Gittlesohn
Iwo Jima, 1945

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Watseka Main Street

I was involved in an interesting discussion this week. A school principal was trying to change the way his school has been run for fifty years.  A critic snidely asked the principal if the principal thought he “can change the world”. The principal politely said: “absolutely not, but I can change my part of it.”
It made me think about how much downtown Watseka has changed.  In fact, it made me think about a lot of small towns. It also made me think it about how American culture has changed. It’s a lot less personable than it used to be.
This is what it brought to mind:
In early December, the Times Republic reported on a fistful of Iroquois County folks who stole a Wal Mart truck from Bradley. They were caught and arrested. It was a funny story. The thieves were unloading the truck in view of a highway. Clearly, it was not a master heist.
For laughs, I sent the article out to about ten of our classmates. Half-joking, I asked why Wal Mart wasn’t being arrested for stealing downtown Watseka. Even the most conservative capitalists I sent it to understood what I meant. One person reminded me K-Mart was there first.
The pictures I’ve been sending you are from a booklet published in the fall of 1984. Most of the businesses were the same as they were in 1981.  I’ve attached the index of businesses so you can take a trip down memory lane (see the pdf).
 I know Watseka memories are important to many of you. You’ve told me about going with your dads to Randy’s, buying a lot of candy at Variety for less than a quarter, and washing down French fries with Cherry Cokes at the Ritz. You’ve mentioned buying clothes at Penney’s, Casualtowne or The Chicago Store. You talked about getting your athletic shoes from the Sweat Sock. Some of you scored a few underage beers at Eimo’s or Peck’s. You said you worked at family owned drug stores.
For those of you who haven’t been back, most of those places are gone. I tried to get a cup of coffee in downtown Watseka on a Saturday morning in February. I had a hard time finding one (the sole coffee shop was closed for a wedding). There wasn’t any place between second and fifth streets that looked like it could serve up bacon, eggs and hash browns; let alone fries and a Coke (with a hard time from Mr. Wagner on the side). Unfortunately, it’s because there aren’t main street businesses anymore to draw people downtown on Saturday mornings.
 It’s too bad all those places are gone. Those businesses were family owned and the owners treated customers like family. The money spent in those places was carried to one of Watseka’s local banks everyday.  It was spent at other places in our town. Customers and small businesses supported each other.  More importantly, a thriving downtown brought people to places like The Ritz/Eastburn’s and the Lamplighter (all owned by our classmates’ families).  Those were places where people gathered and honed their sense of community.  It was best to respect other people’s opinions because people saw each other all the time.
Those places went away when the big stores and chain restaurants lured customers away. I’ll never convince everybody that shopping on Main Street was better than shopping at a big store. I’m sure some of you think McDonald’s has better coffee and French fries than our classmates’ dads served. I’ll respect that. But, I have to think most of you know downtown Watseka was pretty nice in the 70s (in a Mayberry kind of way).
It’s not just Watseka. Even in bigger cities, it’s hard for local merchants and restaurant owners to make it now. Every time somebody opens a shop on a main street, or a new restaurant, that person is taking a huge risk.  He/she is counting on us.  Many of those folks are people our age, trying to bring us back to the way it used to be.
Times are tough and it’s hard not to want to save a buck.  I don’t want to completely knock the big chain stores and restaurants. They have their place and they have plenty of things that only they offer. Some of you may work for them.
But - what if, wherever we live, we looked to our local merchants before we went to the chain stores for things?  What if we took our kids and grandkids to a good local diner instead of McDonalds or Chili’s? I’m thinking, like that principal, we could change our parts of the world.  If we worked at it, we might even get back the old Watseka.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Mr. Sampson, Hero

Please read this article in the on line Times Republic,

Stick with it. About half way down the screen you'll read about James H. Sampson (Nancy's dad), recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Watseka Chamber of Commerce.  What a great American story! What a great man!

How many of our children will remember us this way?

"But aside and apart from how he handled the responsibility of taking care of his family, he also took contributing to his community and his country very seriously. He has always had a selfless willingness to make sure that the people around him received his service and respect. Often his service was behind the scenes, but that didn't matter to him. I admire him very much. I think if a person's life is measured by the number of friends he has, and the lives he has touched through his service, then my dad is a very rich man in the ways that matter the most."

There really were heroes among us.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Planting Time

Watseka was, in my view, a farm town. How could it not be? It’s surrounded by rich black dirt. 
Years ago, some guys I knew from the Chicago suburbs would make jokes about Watseka. I just figured they were jealous. They grew up in cookie-cutter houses and went to schools with fifteen-hundred kids per class.
If my in-law the professor was right, and we all compare our surroundings to our home place, I could be making fun of those suburban guys now. What do they have to remember? What could be special about places like Elgin or Palatine?  Was their Bennigan’s different than any other?
Watseka was unique from the ground up. Even the dirt around it was special.
I wonder how many of you do this? Everywhere I go, without even thinking about it, I look at the soil. I instinctively compare it to Iroquois County’s good black dirt.  Over the years, I’ve been all over the country.  For a while, I even had a job that required me to spend a lot of time in the dirt of several states. In my experience, there is no soil anywhere like the good black dirt of Iroquois County.
I’ve never farmed. I don’t garden. I don’t even tend to houseplants.  I barely made it through WCHS’ science classes.  Accordingly, anything I’d ever suggest on my own about agriculture would be based on pure speculation.
Regardless, when I go home in July and the corn and beans are coming in - I'm always amazed at how green everything is. The crops rarely have any yellow tint. The timber (think about Eastburn Hollow or areas along the River) never looks stressed; it’s thick and lush – jungle-like. Every plant (except the wildflowers and dandelions) is about the deepest richest green on Earth. I’ve always guessed the soil is what causes all that.
Well - - I did a little research. It turns out my assumption was right.  Guess what?  (I trust you not to tell my neighbors in Iowa I said this) Iroquois County has the best dirt in the world. 
Here’s a heading from the on-line High Plains/Midwest Ag Journal (3/24/05): “Illinois soil named nation's best; Iowa officials beg to differ”.  The author of the article cites the Ice Age as the reason for the good soil.
"The mammoth sheet of ice protected the ground beneath it, essentially making it at least 15,000 years younger than land farther south that remained exposed during the glacier era, soil experts say. As the ice melted, strong winds handed the land another jolt of fertility. Massive dust storms spread mineral-rich river basin soil well over 100 miles, laying a fertile layer of topsoil ideal for corn and soybeans. Illinois got yet another boost because glaciers killed off the state's one-time woodland terrain and replaced it with prairie grasses, which feed even more crop-friendly nutrients into the soil, said John Lohse, a soil scientist with the Illinois Department of Agriculture."
The article puts the soil in Eastern IllinoisIroquois County – as among the best in world. 
That's why everything grown there, nurtured or wild, turns out so well. That dirt provides a pretty good place to take root.
There wasn't any better place to be a kid.


Monday, March 29, 2010

Mrs. Drake

I sent a link to a Times Republic link (Living History Lesson) about Mrs. Drake. The link is gone.

That's okay, the story was good, but it didn't do justice to what a great lady she is!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Iroquois River

Rivers are interesting.  Before trains and trucks, rivers were the primary means by which goods were transported. Rivers were used for travel. They were sources of sustenance for settlements and towns that sprung up throughout the Midwest. They could be irrigated to provide moisture for crops.  They acted as natural drains that kept entire areas of the Midwest from becoming swampland.

A while back I mentioned something about the "Iroquois River’s and Sugar Creek’s brown waters." A friend of mine here in Iowa (one of the folks who acted like I was inbred when I talked about our horse trough) got a hold of that. She grew up in Northeast Iowa, on the Mississippi River and a half-hour from some very clear rock-bottomed rivers and trout streams. She asked me: "What is so special about brown waters?" When she posed that she made a noise like she was kind of disgusted.
I thought about her question, and I didn't want to take her on directly, so I told her something like what follows:
Authors, songwriters, poets, filmmakers, and artists have always been fascinated with rivers. It's not a new phenomenon. Think about the Bible; the Old and New Testaments are full of river imagery.
There are Midwestern rivers (even the Kankakee in parts) that are crystal clear. They are lovely. Their banks could be the setting for fancy art movie picnic scenes. That can’t be said of the Iroquois. It’s a mud river. You can't see the bottom. It's murky and it's brown. There aren't many places to wade across it without getting muddy. Nobody’s likely to see fish swimming at the bottom of three foot pools of water. 
The Iroquois River winds through Indiana and Illinois. It isn't dammed by man. It doesn't have locks. It flows in its own natural channel. It's untamed and it changes course a bit over time; it adapts.  The Iroquois flows into the Kankakee River. The Kankakee is a tributary for the Illinois River. The Illinois winds its way into the Mississippi.  The Iroquois is part of something bigger than itself.
As it flows, the Iroquois picks up a lot of junk - mud, garbage, and chemicals. Some of these things it gets pretty well by itself; some things people contribute.  The Iroquois even picks up a little animal waste here and there. I used to see bulls wading and relieving themselves in it (some of you who canoed with me will remember them glaring at us).  

As the Iroquois winds through its life, some of the junk it picks up gets left forgotten along the riverbank. When the Iroquois gets temperamental (like when it floods) it throws that junk around and disrupts people’s lives. A lot the junk gets carried, then dumped, into the Kankakee.  Some of that junk gets taken to the Mississippi and probably ends up in New Orleans.

The Iroquois is full of junk and so muddy you can’t see the bottom - but that doesn't matter. In spite of the mud, garbage, chemicals and animal waste (or “b.s.”) - despite the fact that it floods, the Iroquois is a good river. It serves a purpose. The Iroquois drains the land so crops can grow. It also provides water in droughts so that the same crops can flourish.  It provided the basis for early communities that grew into thriving towns. It provides drinking water to the people who live in those towns now. It is home to fish and wildlife galore. It is its own eco system.  The Iroquois gives life and that's good.
At this point my friend looked at her watch and yawned; so I took her on directly. I told her:
Pretty rivers like where you grew up aren't all that special. Those pretty little streams aren't like real life.  The Iroquois is a perfect river because it is just like real life.
Like the Iroquois, we're all a bit untamed and part of something bigger than ourselves. We all adapt sometimes.
I rhetorically asked her: Can you think of a person in his or her forties who isn't like the Iroquois River?
We're all a little muddy. We all pick up our own share of junk and carry that - along with junk that others gave us (especially the b.s.).  When we leave a little junk behind we're a little cleaner - but we have to be careful not to dump it on someone else (like the Iroquois does when it floods).  We also have to remember when other people dump their junk on us (especially the b.s.), that they probably do a lot of good things too (like the Iroquois).

I think she got it.
Have a Happy St Pat's!
"Find some long river and follow it down to where our old sins have washed
up in New Orleans"
  Iowa Songwriter Greg Brown

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


I’d always heard that girls mature faster than boys. For years I thought that was a rumor started by our 8th grade math teacher. I figured she was annoyed because some of the guys made fun of Liberace, whom she admired.
I coach middle school kids. Many of the boys are wild and reckless. The girls are more focused. I wondered if there was truth to what I’d thought was a rumor.
Dooley’s been a teacher for years, so I asked her: “Do females mature faster than males?”  She told me: “it’s true; not just a rumor started by Mrs. _______.” I asked: “When do guys catch up?” Without hesitating, Dooley replied: “never.”
 I guess Dooley’s a Liberace fan.
The maturity thing made me think about Watseka, trains, and train tracks. Trust me; it’s not a big leap. Watseka is a train town. Trains and tracks figured into many of the memories I’ve received from you folks.
The tracks that form the crossing in Watseka were originally the Chicago and Eastern Illinois Mainline (north/south) and the Toledo, Peoria & Western (east/west). Crossings were an ideal place to put grain elevators, factories, and depots. With a crossing, Watseka was destined to be the epi-center of Iroquois County. Railroad travel opened the Midwest and Watseka to a new influx of people and businesses. Trains increased farm productivity because crops could be shipped to more markets. 
The crossing also guaranteed there would be plenty of opportunities to engage in mischief for young men with too much testosterone.  The trains and train equipment around Watseka allowed for what Rod Wagner calls the “the hormone induced, more stupid than brave exploits” of our youth. Basically, Rod is describing adrenaline inducing activities.
One of our classmates “borrowed” a railroad handcart. He rode that thing up and down the tracks over and over again with his buddies. They looked just like the guys in “O Brother Where Art Thou?”.  They kept that cart for a while. I’ve talked to the guys who used it the most.  They tell a story about a day a train bore down on them when they had the cart on the trestle.  Apparently they worked the cart’s lever at light speed to safely beat that train. One of those guys says that ever since that day he can “rapidly inflate the rear tires of a farm tractor with a bicycle pump.”
Remember “train bombs”?  They were impact triggered devices; palm sized packages with metal strips attached. I don’t know anything about their practical purpose.  They could be found too often by young men with nothing to do. One curious thrill seeker decided to pound on one with a sledgehammer. The bomb exploded and peppered the kid with powder and debris. For a few weeks, he looked like he had the measles. The explosion was loud enough to cause temporary hearing loss. That wasn’t all bad because the guy couldn’t hear his cohorts laughing at him. Deafness spared him the addition of insult to his injuries.
Trestles: there were at least two near Watseka that were pretty attractive. Some of the ladies have reported being on and around these.  Objectively, trestles were just the next step up from Legion Park’s playground equipment. Anybody remember climbing high over Sugar Creek on the girders under the trestle? Remember doing this while the trains were going overhead?  I think that counts as a “hormone induced, more stupid than brave exploit” of youth.
I watched several guys from our class hop trains. The activity required running along side a moving train on loose rocks. The runner had to avoid tripping on ties while getting a grip on a side ladder or vaulting himself into a box car.  Thankfully (miraculously) the guys I saw engage in this sport all survived. As far as I know they kept all their moving parts. Two of them, however, let their adrenaline get ahead of their intellect. They hopped a particularly fast mover. The train picked up speed.  When the scared hungry pair was finally able to get off north of Momence, they hopped the first southbound train they could catch. They spent their return trip getting their stories straight about why they weren’t home for dinner.
If you lived in Watseka you heard trains during the night. I liked that sound. Even now, when I wake up in the middle of the night, I catch myself listening for trains.
Somebody might say if there’d been more to do Watseka boys wouldn’t have engaged in “hormone induced, more stupid than brave exploits.” That’s not true. If you ask the guys who did all this stuff why they did it, they say “because it was there.” Maybe, because it was there, there wasn’t any better place to be a kid. 
By the way, I’ve stayed in touch with two of the guys I saw hop trains. Both of them still engage in adrenaline inducing activities. Of course, in their forties, they deny those activities are stupid. They deny that engaging in them has anything to do with hormones.  I’m not going to ask Dooley for her opinion about it.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Our "Place"

Thanks for continuing to send me memories.  It’s pretty cool to learn that so many of us still feel connected to Watseka and Iroquois County. Some of you have asked me why I’ve been writing all this stuff. It all goes back to a conversation I had in the late '80s.
I have a cousin in-law who has his PhD in History. He’s pretty smart; but not too effective at communicating with a small town guy like me. He uses too many big words. About twenty years ago, he obtained a position at the University of Minnesota. He got a pretty good state salary and benefits. I asked him about his job and he told me he was a “Research Professor.”
I asked him what he researched. He took a good ten minutes to answer but didn’t say much (that’s probably why he wasn’t a “teaching professor”).  Still curious, I asked: “Could you tell me what it is you do in five seconds or less?” He thought about it pretty hard and said: “I study what it means for people to be from a certain place.”
For years I never knew what the Professor meant. I never forgot the conversation though. Finally, at middle age, I think I am starting to understand “what it means for people to be from a certain place.”  I think it means that we are shaped by the uniqueness of where we spent our formative years. It gives us a distinct world view.  It makes us look at other places, intentionally or not, and compare them to our home place. It’s what gives us an instant connection with other Watsekans.
I left Watseka, for all intents and purposes, in 1981. Maybe absence does make the heart grow fonder.  When my mind wanders to Watseka and Iroquois County, it always conjures up mid-summer scenes. The crops, trees, and grass are a deep green and the sky is a rich blue. There’s a comfortable breeze. Where the dirt shows beneath the crops, it’s rich and black. The Iroquois River’s and Sugar Creek’s brown waters are flowing gently within their banks. It’s never sticky hot. There are no mosquitoes; not even in Legion Park.
 More importantly, when I am daydreaming, most people in Watseka are smiling.  Everyone is willing to lend a helping hand. If I need advice, a wise old farmer can set me straight in a matter of seconds.  Folks come together to celebrate big events and mourn tragedies. Whether or not they go to church, almost everyone turns the other cheek and does unto others as . . . (you know the rest).
Somebody might say looking back like that is romanticizing; dwelling on a time when things were simpler and better. It’s deeper than that. We are all connected to the people and the place where we were raised.  The people of Iroquois County showed us how to live our lives.  The place is where everything important happened during our most formative time. It’s where we probably have a loved one or an old friend buried. The people and place produced, in some way, our sense of being “from a certain place.” They merged and became a part of us.  
Because of the way I picture Watseka, I am certain there wasn’t any better “place” to be a kid.
 A writer by the name of Corey Ford wrote in a story (“The Road to Tinkhamtown”) that the "Hereafter" "isn't someplace else" . . . "It's someplace you've been where you want to be again."
That view of the “hereafter” sits right with me. When it’s my time, I’d like to end up someplace where the weather is just right, everything is green, the dirt is black, and there is a mud river nearby. I suppose all this writing helps me clarify where it is I want to be again. Judging from what some of you have shared, if I get there, I’ll run into a few of you.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Watseka Haircuts

In the late 70s, there were only two types of men in Watseka . . . guys who got their hair cut at Randy's, and guys who got their hair cut at Slick's.
Randy's Barber Shop was on the south side of Walnut, Slick's was on the North. I think when we moved to town Randy LaBounty was working with another guy. Maybe the shop had a different name then; but I remember it as Randy's.
 My dad was a Randy's man. So, that's where I got most of my Watseka haircuts. As some of you remember, back then I didn't get many. 
 There were a few times, when my hair was real long, I went to Z's to get a trim. I'm not embarrassed to admit this because some of you guys got "perms".  Looking back, I paid more for vanity's sake. I got very fine '70s style haircuts; but I would have done better to go to Randy's. You see, going to a barber shop was a rite of passage.
 The guys all know this, so this is for you ladies. Young men got manly instruction at barber shops.  That's why our dads instinctively took us to barbers. There were usually a handful of men at Randy's. Some were waiting to get their haircut, some had already taken their turn, and some were just there to b.s. while their wives shopped downtown.
 At Randy's (and I am sure Slick's) boys learned what Watseka men thought about Politics. We could get a haircut and soak up information about sports, both local and national. We learned some men talk differently in the presence of only men than they do around women. Guys, you know what I'm talking about.
 I'd be a lot better fisherman if I'd gone to Randy's every two or three weeks. I should have been asking more questions. Remember the mounted fish and the pictures? Remember the cigarette and pipe smoke not being quite enough to overpower the smell of whatever it is that makes barber shops everywhere smell the same? What was that smell? Tonic?
 I came home while I was on leave in the late 80s. The last time I'd seen Randy before that he was probably trimming my hair up to the bottom of my ears. I didn't have much hair at the time but I still needed a trim. Randy treated me like the prodigal son.  After we talked about fishing and some old guys had some laughs about something (I don't remember what it was, but it probably wasn't P.C.), Randy sent me back to base with a good high and tight.
 Randy doesn't have his shop anymore. I wish he did. I'd take the boys for hair cuts next time I visit Watseka.

Thursday, January 7, 2010


Has anybody else been thinking about Watseka in the old days? Has it really been almost thirty years since most of us saw each other? From the pictures I’ve seen, you are aging very nicely. There must have been something in the Watseka water. Maybe it was whatever would make our white clothes come out of the washing machine yellow once in a while if we weren’t careful.
In this part of the Midwest we’ve had more snow than I can remember getting at this point in winter. We're getting pounded again today. Work started late. My boys have another snow day. We’re looking at a week of temperatures averaging below zero.   
The reminiscing some of us have shared has me determined not to whine about winter this year. This year I remember winters in Watseka being pretty fun. It must be because when I asked you for memories some of you reminded me of: bumper hitching (what were we thinking?!?); hay rides; sledding in Legion Park and Oak Hill Cemetery (the north side, unused then); basketball games; basketball tournaments up by Lincoln Mall and at Clifton Central; doing all our Christmas shopping in three city blocks before  *#%#  K-Mart and Wal Mart came; Jazz Band; Swing Choir; watching the Midnight Special and Saturday Night Live (the original not ready for prime time players); skating on ponds and Sugar Creek (too young and dumb to worry about thin ice); snow days; snow piles outside of Glen Raymond; walking through snow in tennis shoes; movies at Don Merrill’s Watseka Theater; eating hot fries and washing them down with cherry cokes (before Coca Cola sold them that way) served by Rod’s dad at the Ritz; the Santa House; people caroling door to door; doing donuts in rear wheel drive cars; etc. etc. etc. 
I don’t remember ever being too cold and caring about it. I don’t remember thinking the snow was a pain in the neck. Obviously, there wasn't any better place to be a kid.
Enjoy the weather!