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!