Archive for July, 2010


An essay written about sixteen years ago, prior to the much more recent “A Very Fine House” on this site (Dec. 24, 2009). What was nostalgic to me in the 90s is even more so now…


My wife, our daughter, and I live 250 miles from Vandalia. We moved to the Ohio River Valley after a few years’ sojourn in northern Arizona. There, our lawn work consisted mainly of moving rocks, but here in Kentucky the climate affords a wider range of activity. On springtime afternoons we set out flowers—impatiens, daffodils, “hens and chickens,” azaleas and the like. We pull weeds and try to coax into growth those certain pesky plants which drop leaves, as the joke goes, only on days ending in Y. We take turns mowing our large lawn. After a while we’re hot, dirty, and, to use my mother’s graphic rhyme, wringing wet with sweat. Our daughter Emily sits in her sandbox, a woman of leisure.

I listen to my mind as I work outside. When one mows or does other outdoor tasks, the lunacy of the human mind becomes obvious. The religion scholar Huston Smith cites a Hindu saying to the effect “that the movements of the mind as are purposeful and orderly as a cage filled with crazed, drunken monkeys.” Daydreams, images, feelings of insecurity, hatred, or joy rise to the surface so often that, psychologists say, one cannot concentrate single-mindedly for more than two or three seconds. I think of the “Proteus” chapter of Ulysses, where Stephen Dedalus’s mind wanders among philosophical problems (“Ineluctable modality of the visible”) and his feelings for the girls on the sand. Our minds are neurologically set to wander. (So much for those of us who earn a living speaking to audiences!) Yard work becomes a barometer for the state of your soul. How happy or miserable or angry or charitable are you as you work on those plants and blades of grass?

I’m beset with the disease nostalgia (etymologically that’s what it is), and so much of my manual daydreaming has to do with times past. Many of us could, in fact, write an entire autobiography around familiar lawns, fields, acreage, and house corners, the places where we’ve spent hours and years working and puttering. On sunny summer mornings when I was small, I’d come in and out of the house involved with swinging on the swing set or trading comic books with neighborhood boys or playing in my cousin’s house next door as we crawled inside Frigidaire boxes. Dad once attached four boards in the back yard and dumped sand into the box. In the heat of the day, assisted by a good, wet garden hose, my cousin and I spent hours squishing the sand through our fingers and toes. On hot summer nights, I loved to catch fireflies in the palms of my hands.

I still visit my parents’ home—a brick house of which I have fairly continuous memories from the time that we moved into it new in 1960. (It is not the first home I recall. Incredibly, I have a few memories of the small house in Bonnville, Illinois, where we lived while the Vandalia house was being completed. I was barely three at the time yet I recall walking down the quiet streets with Mom to the post office and crossing the railroad tracks. I also remember the television sitting beside the Christmas tree, and … a Budweiser commercial.) Early in 1960 Dad bought a new gold Cadillac, with fins. I remember the three of us pulling into the driveway of our new house with that new car, proud as we could be. Thereafter I played on the living room floor with a model Cadillac, running it into the wall with great pleasure, and “filling up” at the toy Texaco station (white box style, complete with a freestanding Texaco star).

The family home returns to me as surely as I return to it. The television programs during summer days: “Love That Bob,” “My Little Margie,” “The Lone Ranger,” Mom’s “soaps,” and especially “Captain Kangaroo.” The narrow kitchen window and the screen door with a fleur-de-lis aluminum pattern. The herbs and spices on the “lazy Susan,” the Youngstown Tappan oven, the shelves stocked with products of Crisco, Betty Crocker, Post, and Nabisco, Sunkist raisins and Morton salt. Simple specifics like the RCA stereo, Dad’s gun collection, his World War II histories, quite a lot of books, a dog-eared copy of Death of a President, ball-point pens with the names of local businesses, Mom’s philodendrons, and her mislaid sewing ruler which read “how wide is your smile” and the 5-and 6-inch standards were Martha Raye and Joe E. Brown. I never understood why you’d want to put a sewing ruler in your mouth. We rarely ate out; once in a while we had a Saturday evening treat of hamburgers at the small, brightly-lit Reaban’s stand at a highway wye and then we’d hurry home for Jackie Gleason on our black-and-white Philco. Once in a while we’d have TV dinners—which were terrible in the early Sixties—but more often Dad, a cook in the army, fixed big meals with leftovers. Later that evening I’d fall asleep on Mom’s lap as she watched Gunsmoke.

Such automotive and middle-class memories inevitably surface as I daydream through childhood landscapes. Like Wordsworth’s “first affections and shadowy recollections” they are tenacious if not specifically “intimations of immortality.” They are intimations of mortality, of passing time. But they are also intimations of grace, in a way, reflections of psychological growth as one learns to interpret reality — a reality which I knew first as a small-town milieu. That is one reason why, now that I’ve long since moved away and have a family of my own, I retain qualities of our family home among all the unconscious aspects of my daily routine, the way I prefer the kitchen drawers arranged as spoons-forks-knives, my habit (Mom’s too) of closing the drapes at the first hint of twilight, my unscientific preference for Tide laundry detergent (Mom’s favorite), my selection of news from NBC, CBS, and then ABC (our television antenna pulled in the St. Louis affiliates KSD, KMOX, and KTVI in that order of strength), my enjoyment of classical music (the Huntley-Brinkley reports ended with Beethoven’s Ninth, which I liked) and my pleasure (without a trace of threatened masculinity) in cooking meals. I still hate green beans, for Dad canned them in bulk each summer.

Our family home is not “lost” to me so it has not retreated to the past as our backyard has. I don’t return to the yard, somehow. The yard—its sunburned grass and spruce tree, its butterflies and dandelions, the broken sidewalks on the west side of the house, the woodpile, the garden-has never seemed so boundless and free as it did in the days of my childhood. For many of us, yards are the places where we first know things like light, water, earth, animals, insects, weather, construction, and the number’ of toes on each foot—then we grow away from such places, secure in our knowledge of space and time and the world.

Before the Copernican revolution of adulthood, though, our yard was a very fine place. I remember that Dad built his tool shed in 1964 and it was promptly preempted as a club house by us unwashed neighborhood boys who had “helped” with the building. Out of a boyish sense of junky aesthetics I nailed onto the shed’s beams several Illinois license plates, a 1940s Nebraska State Route 31 sign, and a great yellow R X R sign, which Dad had found somewhere, discarded. We boys dug holes to the Center of the Earth, starting in Dad’s garden between the tomatoes and strawberries. We hid inside the shed and plotted attacks upon the Mole People or the Martians who hid in the trees beyond the yard. A small rock that I’d painted metallic green served well as kryptonite with which to slay the imaginary malefactors. (That stuff works on everyone.) The evening news, the Saturday matinees, the simple, violent world view of Saturday cartoons had funneled down into children’s play, where we boys, full of fun and Original Sin, made of them full use. One summer I blew a hole in Dad’s picnic table with an M-80 amid some elaborate, crime-fighting scenario. But, innocently enough, if we decided to transform ourselves into superheroes it was the easiest thing in the world to fly.

The lawn and vicinity seemed to join in a larger land beyond the echoes of the ten-penny nails we pounded into two-by-fours and tree trunks. Horses grazed on the undeveloped farmland across the street—my folks always called it “the old Sonnemann place.” The thick brush of that area was fine for games of jungle warfare. A rotted sign for Stag beer leaned uncomfortably in the overgrown fence row separating the Sonnemann property from the cultivated field beyond—a leaning testimony that our street had, until fairly recently, been the blacktop out of town. The Stag sign deflected imaginary bullets quite well. What kid ever thinks, as would an adult, that he shouldn’t cut across a neighbor’s yard? My parents lived just down the street from the city park, and how easy it was to hike from the lawn across other lawns to the park—with its swing sets and trees, its creek in which we boys fished for “crawdads” with pieces of raw bacon, and its spray-painted (“Class of 61”) concrete pedestals for a long-dismantled railroad tower—great things on which to climb and hide and play cowboys or spacemen. The gravel drive of the park crossed the creek over a culvert and proceeded to the next park beneath the tarred wood of the ICRR Bridge. We hiked that gravel path in the shade of the cedars and maples, loudly singing

Jingle Bells, Batman smells,
Robin laid an egg

and (to the tune of the theme from “Bridge over the River Kwai”):

Comet, it makes your mouth so clean!
Comet, it makes your teeth turn green!
Comet, it makes you vomit,
So buy Comet and vomit today!

We howled at the sublimity of our wit. We hid in park pavilions then crawled among clover and honeysuckle in elaborate games of make believe. We hurled dead snakes at one another. We climbed on the slides; each slide step formed the company’s name, “American.” Other times, on burning-hot summer days, I hiked through the yards and parks to the Vandalia swimming pool. The chlorine-rich air was filled with loud laughter and splashing and the tinny guitars of Sixties music, to this day, songs like “Help!” and “Paperback Writer” and “Day Tripper” and “Satisfaction” sound as though they should be played through a swimming pool’s cheap speakers.

Not far beyond our home, the streets lost their names as they merged with country roads and fed into US. 40. We did not even have a house number until the 1970s. Lonely power lines traced undulating lines across the sky; trees and shrubs obscured the mailboxes of our neighbors; I watched the sparrows, mourning doves, robins, and mockingbirds as they lit upon our small trees. There was a cluttered view of the old water tower to the south and sunsets to the west. On summer nights when the air was heavy and I was tired from play, I could hear the trains rumble in the distance. I could hear noises from the pool, clapping and laughing, and the buzz of model airplanes. Eventually our area was developed more fully. Commercially there was once only the drive-in theater behind the tangled vines of its high fence; the small market, motel and roadside cafe up on U.S. 40; and the “Dairy King” ice cream place where we—my parents, my cousin next door and her brother and parents—got cones on hot, bright evenings. The Dairy King eventually disappeared; the motel became a nursing home; the drive-in (sadly) went the way of most such theaters and finally was replaced, after several years of neglect, by a new subdivision; and both sides of 40 became lined with farm implement dealers, wholesale stores, and equipment outlets. A Purina plant came to Vandalia in the early 1960s and was built there, too. Beyond was the newly formed Vandalia Lake, and traffic by our house picked up. Kids older than I raced in the heavy twilight heading to the drive-in or to the lake, and some met in troubled love beneath the park pavilions where we once had played.

Eventually, too, my shyness reemerged from the rowdiness of childhood sports, so when I myself became driving-age and such twilight rendezvous began to matter, I often volunteered to mow my parents’ lawn, secondarily to help out around the house, primarily to gain a socially-acceptable tan upon my fair, acne-ridden complexion. Clad in cutoffs and sneakers I mowed the long, narrow lot, avoiding the posts of the TV antenna, chipped bits of woodpile, the roofs drainpipes jutting out onto an unplanted flower bed, the protruding culvert beside the sunbaked mailbox upon its spray-painted metal pole, the honeysuckle vines and especially the rose bushes, and the rock beneath which, years before, I’d buried a dead pet salamander in a Cool Whip container. I carefully avoided the large rock collection I had gathered from family trips West. I pulled weeds from the coleus and moss rose which grew between my parents’ driveway and the neighbors, and the worn, cracked quality of the drive reminded me of old U.S. 40 that we always took to Grandma Crawford’s house. All the while I’d be daydreaming, in a lonely, self- involved kind of adolescent way, as the transistor radio played music like “Rocket Man,” early Seventies Motown— and that favorite Eagles’ song about standing on an Arizona street comer as a girl in a flatbed Ford drives by. How nice that would be, I thought!

Other times, as I lay in our backyard while trying to get a tan on the back of my legs, I read a good deal. By then the sandbox was gone and the yard and its environs had “shrunk” for good. I liked history books from the library, especially pioneer histories. A favorite junior high teacher, Jim Coleman, had also given me some Marshall MacLuen and Buckminster Fuller to read which, along with Thomas Aquinas, had instilled in me an interest in philosophy which grew once I attended college. For now, I just read it in the grass, feeling vaguely important in the effort, and vaguely anxious about what I’d “do with myself” after high school. I liked poetry too; it expressed things I was thinking about at the time. I liked Robert Frost. The library had a turn-of-the-century anthology called Chief American Poets, and I found other collections. At an age when rock and roll lyrics passed for poetry to me, and having been bored during literature classes, I knew little of poetic styles but I liked the blank verse cadences of William Cullen Bryant

To him who in the love of Nature holds
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks
A various language …

more so than the more sentimental or conventionally “poetic” styles of the other 1800s poets represented therein. Grandma Crawford had died recently, and I was being “tough” about it. I suppose the poetic expression of Nature as care giver—Bryant’s image of going to death “sustained and soothed By an unfaltering trust” — conjoined with my immature efforts to comprehend her death. The celebration of the American wilderness corresponded mythically to the pioneer histories I was also reading—and the vastness I had once perceived in our neighborhood lands. I also liked the fact that Bryant had written “Thanatopsis” when he was sixteen or seventeen; could I learn to express myself like that at the very same age?

(Already I was beset by that very American impulse to pen The Great Work.)

One passage in Whitman reminded me of Grandma’s farm.

In the dooryard fronting an old farm-house near the white-wash’d palings,
Stands the lilac-bush tall-growing with heart-shaped leaves of rich green.
With many a pointed blossom rising delicate, with the perfume strong I love,
With every leaf a miracle— and from this bush in the dooryard,
With the delicate-color’d blossoms and heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
A sprig with its flower I break.

Whitman was my favorite.

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.

I dug my toes into the hot grass of our back yard and said, too,

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

Here was an exuberance and an affirmation of life—I was too confused about sexuality in general to comprehend Whitman’s—which I loved more than my anxieties and love-hate strivings for popularity.

A vast similitude interlocks all,
All distances of space however wide,
All distances of time,
All souls, all living bodies though they be ever so different..

I liked Masters’ Spoon River Anthology for the same reason.

The world keeps some vibration going
There in your heart, and that is you….
What do you see, a harvest of clover?
Or a meadow to walk through to the river ?…
I ended up with forty acres;
I ended up with a broken fiddle—
And a broken laugh, and a thousand memories,
And not a single regret.

Masters’ graveyard reminded me of our family’s old cemetery where many of my ancestors, including Grandma, were buried: a place of surrounding forty-acre farms and memories. I liked the honesty with which the Spoon River people spoke, even the obviously overly dramatic.

As I lay in the grass getting a sunburn, I felt much the same way as I did at church: here were wonderful mysteries beyond what I perceived to be the quiet world of our town. I loved the possibility that you could passionately devote yourself to such mysteries—and to lead others in that way. Such feelings helped to push me toward a career, a few years later, beyond our little community.

Appropriately enough, on the way to that career I spent many hours reading books of divinity in the grass beneath a great New England tree, “flying” in the gladness of knowing my life’s purpose.

In his book of essays, Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West, Wallace Stegner observed that, in the West, “you have to quit associating beauty with gardens and lawns; you have to get used to an inhuman scale.” I understood that when we lived in Arizona, and felt a bit of relief when we moved to the Ohio River region, parochial though such feelings may be. Yet for many of us, I believe, the places where we read and work, especially the first places, are nearly indistinguishable from the things we read and the lives we lead—and we never really leave such places.

During my more recent backyard days, I’ve been reading about “aboveground archaeology.” That’s the term historians of modern culture give to twentieth-century roadside artifacts and vernacular commercial and private architecture. One could do an archaeology of the soul as one assesses those favorite haunts of childhood, those particular corners or buildings or places which strangely move one’s heart and mind. As a first time parent I’ve looked at our yard through a child’s eyes as I mow or rake. What hiding places, nooks, and corners, what waters, which paths, which landscape remnants will someday move my daughter to flights of wonder? What “first affections” and “shadowy recollections” will she have which, I pray, will deepen her soul by God’s grace? What books will she read while lying in the grass? Will she patiently listen to my tedious stories about old fishing doles and club houses and pretend-rocket ships, and then have memories older than her?

For now, the lawn work beckons. There’s a nice breeze outside, I’m feeling peaceful, and those monkeys are getting pretty nostalgic.

(A portion of this essay was published in Springhouse magazine and then in my book Journeys Home: Thoughts and Places, self-published in 1995, 2000. Thanks to Michelle for transcribing!)

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The theologian Karl Barth, on whom I wrote my doctoral dissertation, was adamant that no knowledge of God was possible other than God’s triune self-revelation. Somewhere in his vast Church Dogmatics (I’ll have to remember where), Barth even criticizes the use of organ preludes in worship as potentially a false “point of contact” between God’s grace and the believer! Yet Barth listened to Mozart every day, found that music essential for his theologizing, and spoke glowingly of Mozart’s ability to understand and communicate divine mysteries. Barth’s own aesthetic sense contrasted with his epistemology.

The relationship of religion and art/music is a fascinating one. One would not want to judge a person’s spirituality based on their artistic and musical taste, but on the other hand a growth in taste and appreciation can accompany spiritual growth. I’ve been reading about this subject in an interesting book by Frank Burch Brown, Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian Taste: Aesthetics in Religious Life (Oxford University Press, 2000).

Among several topics, I was interested in Brown’s reflections on new Christian music, or “Next Music.” He comments that the music is “club-style soft rock” which leaves out a broad range of “morally daring” music such as the Indigo Girls, Paul Simon’s Graceland, U2’s The Joshua Tree, “just to mention a smattering of widely accessible, equally white, and mostly middle-class alternatives” (p. 233). He also mentions composers whose religious music is quite profound but would likely never be heard in either megachurches or smaller suburban churches: Arvo Paert, John Tavener, John Adams, not to mention Olivier Messaien, James MacMillan, and others (p. 234).

Brown also discusses ideas of the church consultant and author William Easum. I appreciate Easum’s passion for evangelism and mission but his pronouncements can be imperious and (I worry) thus potentially misused by church leaders who fail to prayerfully adapt his ideas to the needs of their own congregations. (As another author puts it: Saul’s armor fit Saul, but it didn’t fit David, therefore church leaders need to understand the Spirit’s will concerning that congregations’ special circumstances and ministry needs: but that’s a topic for another blog entry).

Easum believes music that attracts the most vital (to church growth) generations is soft rock. Traditional church music and classical music are not for Easum culturally relevant to church growth. “Quality” music is the well-provided, synthesized music used by praise teams. Easum implies that if music in churches is good if it brings people closer to God, but in his view, older and traditional styles of music belong to aging and perhaps dying congregations (Brown, pp. 235-236).

I’m glad that Brown writes, “many readers will find that [Easum’s] assertions regarding church music are not only uncompromising but also discordant and at points uninformed and misleading“ (pp. 238-239). In criticizing the perceived (and perhaps actual) elitism of professional church musicians, he himself is musically elitist: “The music that wins his contest is bound to be the music of those churches that grow the fastest” (Brown, p. 240). Among other arguments, Brown points out things that Easum misses: the growing (although still small in sales figures) audience for classical music, including opera, and also the significant influence of classical music in film music (Brown, pp. 242-243). “[T]he range of ’culturally relevant’ music in general is altogether more diverse than many promoters of church vitality recognize” (Brown, p. 244).

Not to personalize, but as one who listens to Pärt, Tavener, and Messiaen plus Mozart, Haydn, Bach, and other older masters while I write church-school curriculum (to help church people grow spiritually), I hate to think I’m against church growth and evangelism just because I like a range of different styles of music. I’ve worshipped at churches wherein the music program is good but a balance of contemporary and traditional styles is missing, which is frustrating. I was once on staff at a church where, in fact, a balance of traditional, classical, and contemporary music made for an overall program that was a dynamic part of a growing congregation. If Brown’s book doesn’t make it into the hands of many church staffers, I do appreciate his thoughts.


Here are just a few more interesting ideas  from Brown’s book.  He writes (obviously) about musical taste in connection to religious faith and distinguishes “at least four concentric circles of [artistic] judgment, each broader in scope than the one before” (p. 193).

First, he notes that he dislikes Chopin’s Ballades because his brother practiced them during meal preparation, and now he associates those pieces with “cheap hamburger and other food odors” (p. 193). He knows that no one else would share his associations: it’s a purely personal judgment based on his own experiences, but which prevent him from making any judgment about the music’s suitability for a church (p. 193). (A lot of music can function in a deeply associative way!)

Second, music judgment can apply to a particular place and be most valuable there. For instance, a church choir may sing well enough to warrant their own CD, which in turn might sell well in that area. But that doesn’t mean other people beyond the community would find that music as lovely as those familiar with that choir (p. 193).

Third, certain music is aesthetically great but would not be appreciated by everyone or even by most people. Brown’s example is the religious music of Frank Martin (1890-1974).

Fourth, certain music are recognized as religious classics: works of Bach, or the singing of Marian Anderson, and many others. Brown even uses the example of Miles Davis’ trumpet on Kind of Blue (p. 194).   You could add John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme to the list.

“Church musicians are aware that music of their music must make it s mark within a particular community or tradition, or not at all. Yet within that tradition, a musician will want to distinguish between work that is good for very special purposes and for a limited time and other work that promises to be far more enduring and of more than local appeal. That judgment must be ratified, of course, by some significant portion of a church community. A church cannot reach any such judgments, however, without experiencing various possibilities for itself… Dialogue must be accompanied by musical encounters” (pp. 194-195).

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My hometown Vandalia was founded atop a bluff along the Kaskaskia River. The first state capital, also named Kaskaskia, was old and inconveniently located so provisions were made in 1818, the year of statehood, to establish a seat of government in a newly settled area. Thus the state government could gain revenue from the sale of town lots. Four state commissioners rode to the designated area during the spring of 1819 and selected the site for Vandalia. One of the town surveyors gave it that name, for legendary reasons that have been passed down through generations. Vandalia remained state capital for only twenty years but it has remained, slowly growing and secure, atop the river’s high bluff. People–non-Illinois people—sometimes say to me, “You’re from Vandalia! Isn’t that where the prison is?” Or, “Isn’t that where they grow Vidalia onions?” Fewer people will say, “Didn’t that used to be the state capital?” Still fewer will say, “Isn’t that where that little river is?”

The river-not so little—makes a hundred-degree turn beneath the Conrail trestle and flows south beneath the U.S. 40-51 bridge. Further down river stood the old ICRR bridge, and the abandoned roadbed of the Illinois Central forms a “natural” trail for a distance down through the river bottoms. The river bottom itself—the Kaskaskia floodplain—formed (in the words of my friend Keith Sculle) “a chronically forbidding quagmire” for travelers until an embankment for the National Old Trails Highway (now U.S. 40) was completed in 1923. A drainage ditch near the old Clark homestead west of Bluff City aids in flood control.

The Kaskaskia is a narrow, small river but due to its serpentine path the Kaskaskia is the second-longest river wholly within Illinois’ borders. Two manmade lakes, Lake Shelbyville upstream and the Carlyle Lake in lower Fayette County, were created in the years when I was very small; I vaguely remember the fanfare which greeted the completion of those lakes. According to legend, the early French settlers of Illinois preferred shortening Indian words, so when someone asked “Ou allez-vous, voisin,” “Where are you going, neighbor,” a typical reply might be “Je vais aux Ka,” “I’m going to the Ka.” “Aux Ka” became “Okaw,” the river’s nickname. Another legend places an 1810s French trading spot along the river at Vandalia’s site with the ambiguous designation “Eau carre,” “water square,” given to the river. “Eau carre” became anglicized as “Okaw.”

The river is part of us natives’ identity. “Okaw” is a word we heard very early, along with Lincoln and Jesus. Its waters flow reliably through our lives; during the 1920s my dad and his father hunted rabbits and gathered pecans along the Okaw’s banks. The Kaskaskia fascinated me even as a child. It was the threshold of the greater world, pretty, yet a little frightening, a swirling, midwestern Moldau. Throughout Fayette County streams like the Hurricane Creek, Sand Creek, Hickory Creek, and others wind through the timber and hills, flowing finally to the Okaw. I liked to imagine Vandalia’s stalwart pioneers setting camp along the river and its several wooded tributaries. My father said he had a relative who was buried along the river—she had died from eating wild berries, of all things—but he did not know where she was buried. The mystery of that tragedy thrilled me.

Thrills abounded at the Okaw. For a childhood buddy and me, there were enough make-believe thrills gained from the river’s woods to keep us happy. We’d engage in elaborate tales as we hiked the edge of the trees near the bridge; once we scared ourselves witless when we discovered, at the high bank of the river, cats’ graves marked with stick crosses. Later we went home, listened to The Doors in his sunny, attic bedroom. Other times, it was enough for us to watch the traffic pass and see trains loudly cross the light bottomlands. The fields were flooded with sunlight.

I fancied taking a boat trip down the Okaw’s 300-mile path, and still do sometimes. But as a child, I never came close enough to the river to learn its deepest secrets, for its currents are swift and carry logs and branches on the way. The river carried death. When the present bridge was constructed in the early Sixties, replacing an old steel truss bridge built in the 1920s, a small boy came out to look at the water and fell through a space in the uncompleted railing. I didn’t know him, but I think of him and shutter when I cross the bridge. He would be my age now or slightly older. Some fishermen have lost their lives in the river and I can think of one suicide when a man laid his wallet and keys upon the Kaskaskia’s bank and leapt. One of Vandalia’s infrequent homicide cases happened in the Seventies when two men were killed and their bodies dumped into the Okaw.

So I was strictly forbidden to approach the river. You didn’t have to tell me twice. I watched the waters from high, safe distances. In spite of that, I loved the river and do still.

There was a time, not so long ago, when the promise of my life lay beyond the narrow, forceful river. But now, the river is the last landmark for the return trip, like a promise that the trip has gone well and the destination is very near. The Okaw didn’t hold me back, and it welcomes me when I come home. I’m happy each time to greet it.

(This essay originally appeared in Springhouse magazine and then in my book Journeys Home: Thoughts and Places, self-published in 1995 and 2000. Thanks to Michelle for transcribing!)

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It is a time-honored tradition, I suppose, to revisit the landscapes of one’s first home in order to relax and reflect. I do this fairly often. I like to drive around my hometown Vandalia and recall times past.

As I drive the area south of my parents’ home, I like to remember funny things, childish things—like the spring when, while running to my grade school on Jefferson Street, I skinned the same knee five times. My knee still shows a scar. The school nurse began to say “You again” each time I came in for a bandage. I loved school. I loved the tiny desks which made my squirming bottom sore and the rich smells of paints and pastes–sensations which linger in the back of my mind each time I mentally do math or think how a word is spelled or think about geology or the stars. Sometimes I’ll wait at a stoplight in my city and remember where I first learned those colors. (Vandalia had no stoplights then. The reds, yellows, and greens were hypothetical.) Nearly all my teachers at Jefferson were very good—Mrs. Bannister, Mrs. Wells, Mrs. Lackey, Mrs. Straub, Mr. Walker, Mrs. Ortegren—I was blessed to have had encouraging teachers at the outset. I was eager to learn, and once knew every kind of igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic rocks, and types of butterfly common to southern Illinois. I still know the alignment of the planets as well as, unfortunately, all the swear words which I learned from other little boys. I once came home from first grade and blithely told my mother “I’ve got to piss now.” Her indignation startled me to tears. (Not all my words were so short. One good friend, the Free Methodist pastor’s non-swearing son and I tried to outdo one another with our knowledge of long words. My “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” from Mary Poppins lost to his “pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovololcanoconiosis,” a neologism for a certain kind of lung disease.)

I drive around the neighborhood south of Jefferson Street. My school and its environs were wonderful places to play. During the fall and spring we boys chased grasshoppers in the warm grass. In summer I rode my bike around the empty, playground, past the diamond and spigots. In winter the nearby hills were perfect for sledding. One winter when we hauled our sleds to the top of the steep Shoe Factory Hill, just down from the school, with a steely resolve in our hearts to conquer the hill or be conquered by it. We were the few, the proud … the really stupid. Thankfully none of us broke our necks when plowing into the wet snow at the bottom. The land seems smaller and the hills less treacherous. Beyond the school were a variety of businesses set among shady neighborhoods, the Pennsy tracks that passed beneath Coles Street, the disused tourist places along old Route 140, and other familiar places. A number of small neighborhood markets stood near Randolph Street; I’m sad to say they’re all gone now, like stores of their kind. Living near these markets, my grade school buddies were able to buy the latest boyish fads—juice-filled paraffin whistles and gross-out characters on bubble gum cards— before I could, to my chagrin. I wasn’t good at baseball, so weren’t cartoons of booger-laden monsters a better way to be popular.

Popularity was important to me, and it didn’t come ready-made. I was an archetypal smart kid—awkward, skinny, and picked ever last for sports teams and competitive games. I managed better in grade school. There was enough general playground foolery to help me avoid the specifics of phys. ed. humiliation; meanwhile I gained popularity via my math speed.

I work my way back to the north side of town. Scouts, which I joined around the time I was in fourth grade, gave me an intimation of adolescent distress. Tougher kids were in my den and my lack of athletic ability made me a ripe target for teasing. My father relates how, as a boy, he handily choked a kid for calling him an SOB. I was far less assertive. I lived in dire fear that someone would learn that I took piano lessons—the zenith of sissiness. When I finally quit scouts I felt like the proverbial fellow who’d been beating his head against the wall; it felt so good to stop. It was not the den leaders’ fault. But the problem remained: I had to face the same kids in junior high.

I drove near my high school. Such painful childhood experiences had a benefit: ever after I’ve had a limitless source of compassion for the underdog, the sufferer. And my anxiety had a limit. The historian William Manchester speaks of “million dollar wounds,” non-life-threatening injuries which removed one from the carnage of battle. Mine came from a sophomore-class Softball game when, exiled to right field, I tried to catch a high fly ball and missed it, but the ball hurled straight into my face. My incisors were knocked loose. The teeth were saved but my orthodontist exempted me medically from further phys. ed. classes. Removed from daily displays of shame, I had more friends than ever. I even started to have dates, for pete’s sake. The kid who hit the high fly thought I’d come after him with fists. I wanted to buy him lunch.

So I finally made my way through my high school experience and gained my dreamt-of popularity. Ironically considering my earlier anxiety concerning lessons, I gained my modest fame by playing the piano, rock-style: “MacArthur Park,” “Rocket Man,” “Tiny Dancer,” “Piano Man,” ” Aqualung,” and Jesus Christ Superstar. For all my uncertainties, insecurities, and temptations I felt myself growing in greater self-confidence and free-spiritedness approaching the time for college. Like most teenagers I believed my insights and choices were nearly infinite and always would be. Each new day of being liked increased the overall quality of life!

Sometimes we encounter our younger selves and say “you again.” As I tour these hometown streets, I ask, am I different now? I’m stronger, still disinterested in sports, and still fond of music. Self-confidence and a need to be liked still join within me. Unlike the me of the Seventies, I know I’m not immortal. And unlike me of those days, I’m more appreciative of the place where I was born and raised.

As I drive around town some more, I remember those teenage days. I remember classmates. Sometimes I’ll see them in the local paper, or in person at Wal-Mart, or we reconnect on Facebook. But why do they always look older? They weren’t, during the Sixties and Seventies!

I remember summertime things, like summer band. Kids came to school for a dreaded hour of rehearsing marchable “classics” such as The Liberty Bell March, The Theme from Hawaii Five-O, Do You Know the Way to San Jose? The prospect of marching in a July 4th parade somewhere in Southern Illinois, when the humidity was near the saturation point, was almost enough to make one give up music for good! I remember one girl. What ever happened to her? I don’t think we even ever kissed. We whispered through the band director’s instructions, and once we took a shopping trip through the A & P. Thus was the whole romance, beginning middle and end. But the “romance” helped my teenaged Angst—a girl had noticed me!! What sweetness in that love!

I remember the summers when I tried to find a job. My parents discouraged my working; they wanted to spare me the shame of their childhoods’ poverty. I appreciated their concern but I wanted the experience. I wanted to feel grown-up and have my own money. So I applied at the hospital, where I had been born: I knew kids who were maintenance helpers. I sat in the sanitized, modern waiting room and filled out the form as the waiting room’s TV blared game shows, then I took off on my bicycle down quiet Seventh Street, hoping for the best. Nothing ever came of my efforts there. As a clergyman I’ve spent plenty of time in hospitals so I don’t regret the lack of adolescent experience there. I tried other places too. I tried the grocery stores—Day ‘n’ Nile, Tri-City—without success. The competition was fierce. Some summers no job came, and I had household chores to do and other interests like genealogy to pursue. But sometimes just walking around town or riding my bike seemed like productive activity, although I was doing nothing in particular, except watching suntanned girls.

I turn my car back to Eighth Street. During my high school years I’d also applied for summer work at some of the establishments there, at the town’s north side, the motels, the restaurants. That was a busy part of town; Greyhound and Trailways buses stopped at the office of one of the Mabry motels, for not only U.S. 40 but the new interstate passed through the northern side of town The landscape was a typical one along old U.S. roads: a landscape of summertime relief and tourist-trade, spliced into a madhouse of curbs, gravel parking lots, greenery, and signboards promising cool rooms, cool drinks and Color TV.  Most of my memories of the landscape have to do with leisurely twilights. In the sweltering evening heat, when you wanted to in your non-air-conditioned home, you needed little more than to take a seat on a Dairy Queen outdoor table, sip a headache-inducing Mr. Misty, and watch the sun set beyond the motel neon. That whole area of North Eighth Street was wonderful on a scorching evening. So I hoped to work there.

Yet I also remember an altogether different time, several years before I was old enough to job-hunt, when Dad and I stopped at the old A & W for a late-night meal. We’d just taken Mom to the hospital for surgery the next day, and then we’d taken Grandma Crawford back to old farmhouse east of town. None of us was sure how the surgery would go. (It went fine, and there was no cancer.) I remember the VACANCY sign at the Mabry motel. The streetlights were bright and the night was dark and hot; the jukebox was playing “Let It Be.” I sat and drank my root beer in the orange neon light and stared at the motel sign, feeling not so much fear but an unbearably heavy perplexity—a confusion. What if life isn’t as fair as I’d hoped it to be? What if the sorrow that comes to all, would come to me as well?

How easy that is to know, how difficult to believe, especially when you’re young. I felt very grown-up in a way I didn’t want.

Most of all I remember how it was to have safe, good places, around town, within walking distance. They were aspects of a world not yet transformed by interstates, franchises, and my own maturity. But these things, too, were not far distant.


And I remember when I finally got a summertime job—at a local fast-food restaurant. I’ll tell it as a Jean Shepherd-type fiction story.

Most people come in to such places, place an order at the counter, watch the young workers orbit the equipment with varying degrees of interest, obtain the food on a plastic tray, and eat upon an orange, crumb-adorned table or booth. Or they’ll drive up to the speaker and, with all the confidence of a person talking to a phone answering machine, they’ll make a transaction.

“[buzz]-LCOME TO CHICK’N’BURGER MAY I TAKE Y’ORD—[buzz click].”

“Yeah, I’ll have, um, a, a Super Deluxe with, um, mustard and ketchup and, um, … onion, and, um, a Super Fries, and a Triple Chicken Special with barbecue sauce and, and a large root beer …. and, that’s all.”

The person inside will say, “That will be $5.26, please drive to the window,” but you’ll hear it as “[prolonged static]—WENTY SIX PLEASE DRI— [buzzzzzzzzzz, click].” [“What’d he say? How much?]

During the summer of my summer job, that golden, tenor voice that sang the orders belonged to Dave. There was no drive-through yet by which tourists could obtain their tasty treats and 10-W-40 coffee; Dave only vocalized in the restaurant. “—SUPER DELUXE WITH MUSTARD KETCHUP ONION SUPER FRIES TRIPLE CHICKEN SPECIAL WITH BARBECUE SAUCE LARGE ROOT BEER—” “OOUUCCH!” That voice belonged to Mike, who sliced lettuce. “AARRRGGG—-STROBLE!” he said to me as I arrived for my shift. “Where’d you put the Band-Aids??

“Hi, Mike, I’m fine, thank you.” Clad in jeans and one of several white short- sleeved shirts, freshly Cloroxed for another evening’s work, I received a squirt of mustard just above my heart. “Hey, Paul-o!” greeted my buddy Don. “-THREE DOUBLE CHEESEBURGERS ONE WITH MUSTARD ONE WITH MUSTARD AND PICKLE AND ONE WITH EVERYTHING EXCEPT GARLIC—” Outside, the late afternoon sun threw long shadows across the parking lot, and burned the grass around back at the garbage bin. “—THREE PEPSIS DIET—”

I was thrilled to have the job.  I liked the money and I liked the friendships.  As my story progresses, Mike, Don and I worked the grill, while Heather or Jane, and Dave with the shouts, worked out front.  Like me, Heather and Jane dreamed of vistas beyond our town where “nothing ever happened.” All day long Dave called “FOUR TRIPLE CHICKENS ONE WITH PICKLE ONE WITH MAYO AND PICKLE AND THREE WITH EVERYTHING—” (What? four triples; one, one, and three with?) MAKE THAT FIVE TRIPLES WITH EVERYTHING EXCEPT FOR ONE WITH NO MAYO-MAKE THAT NO ONION AND NO MAYO—” (What?   Was that a new order?)   “So how’r’ya doin’?” Don said as he scraped the grill of its grease and burned meat.

“OK—manager here yet?” “–FIVE—”

“Called in, said he’d be here—had a transmission go out.” “–SIX SINGLES THREE WITH CHEESE THREE FRIES AND NO COKES-” “Say, d’yu hear the one about…” He flipped the fries and basket smartly down into the vat of boiling oil. “… then HE said …” We deftly wrapped the sandwiches in the color-coded paper and sent them sliding toward the front. “—ONE FISH LETTUCE MAYO NO BUN—” “(singing) Pardon me, Roy, is that the cat that chewed your new shoes?” Laughing, we both tried to grab the fish from the oil with pairs of tongs. The fillet broke in half; try again. “Pardon me, Roy—” “OOUUUCH—” Mike again. “–THREE ROOT BEERS NO MUSTARD—” “—ONE CHICKEN LIGHTLY SAUTEED TWO ONIONS TOASTED.”

“Sorry, sir,” Heather said out front, “you can’t come in here without a shirt. . . . Yes, I know you have constitutional rights . . . Yes, you can place your order if you put on a tee-shirt.” (“Creep”) (“Oh [diet cola], here comes another one.”) “Sorry, sir, you can’t …” (“That’s the sixth one this evening.”) It was air-conditioned inside, but outside the temperature slowly dropped from the daytime nineties. I glanced up. Out of a car and up the walk came two girls in swimsuits. Heather, giving up, took their order. I thought they’d leave, but they sat down in a booth. I heard Heather mumble something about constitutional rights.

An irate customer approached the counter. “I ORDERED A CHICKN DELUXE AND GOT A CHEESEBURGER.” “Sorry, sir, we’ll have it right out.” (“[French fried] grouch.”)

During the shift, the preparation of one-ounce patties, fish fillets, chicken, friends, and soft drinks vied with bad jokes, Dave’s “—TWO LARGE BURGER BATCHES WITH NOTHING—”, minor disasters, and an occasional squirt of Special Sauce at a clean white shirt. I carried sacks of garbage out to the bin—an interesting task considering the effect of the heat on the bin’s contents, but it was a break from the kitchen. “TWO CHEESE FISHES—” The sun started going down across the road. “—ONE FRIES LARGESPRITE–”

We took turns having our own supper. “THREE SPECIALS WITHOUT—” I sat down with Heather. At 7 p.m., the sun was still up, the air hot.

“Getting’ to you?” I asked.

“No, waiting for my Knight in Shining Armor to come in for onion rings makes me love this job.” A car with out-of-state plates parked nearby. A couple with three small children piled out. The very-suntanned woman was bluejeaned and barefooted. Heather, paper hat still on, gave her a silent look of authority. The woman didn’t notice but returned to the car for her flip flops when she read the “No Shoes No Service” sign.

“Wish you had her tan?”

“I thought you liked me.”

“You think Don likes Jane?”

“I can’t imagine—he’s dating Donna and Jane’s dating Tom. Jane can’t stand him anyway!”

“I thought Donna was going out with Terry.”

“That was ages ago! I’M going out with Terry!”

“So how about Sherrie?”

“Sherrie’s not going out with anybody. But I think she likes you.”

“Then why did she look the other way when I waved at her out front yesterday?”

“You jerk — that’s how I know she likes you! You ought to ask her out!”

I leaned back on the orange fiberglass seat and thought about it. “Are you sure?”

“Might as well,” Heather said disgustedly, “What else is there to do around here?”

“It’s my constitutional right!”

By 8.30, business had tapered off considerably. Someone pulled the lever that turned on the sign out front. I watched people’s faces as they came in. From the back, you can see that nearly every customer arrives squinting up at the menu above the registered. Hardly anyone makes eye contact with the cashier. Heather cleaned tables in the dining area, while singing along with the radio. Don fingered invisible guitar frets in time to the radio. Jane, a part-time lifeguard who worked other days out front taking orders, came through the back door to pick up her check. She wore a Grand Funk Railroad tee shirt over her swim suit. Her hair was still damp. “Hi, guys!”

“Jane, marry me,” said Don. There he goes again.

“In your dreams.” She picked up the kitchen phone to call her boyfriend.

“I have a great deal of money.”

“Working HERE??-Hi, Tom, I’m off at the pool now-”

“My parents own Standard Oil. My real name is Vanderbilt,” he said, confusing his rich people. “I’ll kill the cat that chewed your new shoes.”

“What are you talking about? Get away!”

Jane kept talking, holding her hand out to keep Don at bay. “Jane, Jane, I love you, I NEED YOU—” he said longingly, just as Jane’s foot made contact with his shin. He dropped. “OOUUCCH!-” But it was Mike again. Don gave up, for now. I’d always thought his flirtations with Jane were meant to annoy her. This time he looked hurt. I looked at him for a moment, surprised. I was draining the vat of used grease. Then I was on my back on the floor, taking the cap off the drain to get the last of the hot grease out before I opened several one-gallon cans of fresh grease to replenish the vat. I was also listening to Jane talk to Tom charmingly. Just at that moment—


“Oh, [Super Deluxe]” Heather said, just as two 47-seaters pulled up. I hurried to open the cans and prayed that the grease would heat up quickly. Jane said to Tom, Dave-like, “IVEGOTTAGOBYE!!!” and hurriedly stomped across the linoleum and out the back door. “See you tomorrow, guys! Happy trails!” “Coward!” called Heather.


I looked at my mustard-covered watch. It was 8:45. By 10:00 the Presley tourists finished their meals and ambled to their buses, happy and happily fed.

“I want to die.”

“Stroble, Stroble, oh Strobe Light—” Don said, paternally “EEEEEEEK!” cried an elderly woman out front, just as a man in a ski mask over his face—that’s all, just a ski mask—ran in one door and out the opposite door. A streaker! It was the evening’s highlight.

Just at that moment, the phone rang. I picked it up. It was the manager. He apologized for not coming in then gave instructions for closing. “And don’t forget to mop in the restrooms.” But Mike was already out front mopping, holding the mop handle with bandaged fingers.


We fed the masses, and at twelve we closed. I went out looking like an extra in an R-rated movie with my shirt stained red with ketchup and sauce. I smelled of grease. I wearily entered my Chevy as we said goodbye to one another. Eventually we all said goodbye to one another for good. Mike became a surgeon. Heather became a public defender in St. Louis. Jane got work the next summer as a life guard, then went to college in northern Illinois and, last I heard, she’s an agronomist and has done major research with corn hybrids and double cropping. I don’t know what happened to Don; I wish I knew. Maybe he’s out there in those vast, flat Illinois fields, somewhere, telling Jane he loves her. (Sherrie, by the way, didn’t go out with me. She was dating Terry secretly while he was going out with Heather and when Heather found out. . . ) I don’t know about Dave, either, although I listen for that golden voice whenever I pull up to a fast-food drive-up. I still haven’t heard him, but his vocal descendents are everywhere.

Whenever I pull up to a window, too, I think of home. I think of that whole landscape which fed into the summertime landscapes of parks and summer band. Some of us wanted to leave our town, and then we did. But I’ve wondered if my friends feel certain longings for home whenever the evening’s sun throws shadows across the land. They are longings to belong somewhere, to feel part of something or of someone’s life, to have one’s memories tied to a common place. They are summertime longings, felt most keenly at season’s end.

Today I stop at the place and go in. There’s a new vegetarian “light” menu added, and a selection of juice. Our health-conscious times, I think. I watch the laughing, disinterested kids in back and remember Shakespeare’s Henry.

From this day to the ending of the world.
We in it shall be remembered,—
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers [and sisters]
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me [Mike],
Shall be my brother [sister]; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition…

Feeling happy, healthy, I order a triple-decker cheeseburger–“TRIPLE CHEESE WITH EVERYTHNG”–and get it to go. The cashier wishes me a Good Day. In my car, I pull out my sandwich and prepare to pull away—a hometown Tiny Tim ready to bite his triple burger exclaiming, “God bless us, everyone!”

(But I got a chicken deluxe. So many years have passed. But some things, like teenage jobs, seem to stay the same. I feel reassured by that.)

(This post originally appeared in my book, Journeys Home: Thoughts and Places, self-published in 1995 and 2000. Thanks to Michelle Wobbe for transcribing!)

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Lincoln’s Big Jump

Local history was so much a part of my growing-up years. Listening to my parents reminisce about days “before my time” would have made me, in childish fashion, embrace or disdain the historical sense of my aging parents, and I came to embrace it. Whenever I shop local antique stores I like to buy old products of bygone Vandalia businesses; our house is filled with such things.
My 1891 Platbook of Fayette County, Illinois, a family heirloom saved from a long-ago fire, provides a map of the downtown Vandalia – the barbers, saloons, stables, wagon makers, hardware and grocery store, a tobacconist, a bakery, blacksmiths, and others – as it appeared during my grandparents’ childhoods. I’ve seen photographs of Vandalia from this period: the statehouse sits upon the public square, the streets are muddy, and horses and wagons are hitched outside the businesses. Robert W. Ross provides a complete business directory in his 1904 Historical Souvenier of Vandalia, Illinois. He lists several of the same kinds of stores as the 1891 book, plus he mentions a stave mill, a foundry, a poultry plant, a lumberyard, a soda water manufacturer, a coal dealer, and offices representing Standard Oil and the Illinois Central. I recognize the names of businessmen: Steinhauer, Burtschi, Craycroft, Denny, Emerick, Lakin, Hausmann, Sonnemann, Pitkin, Mabry, John Roth the tobacconist, T. Polk Atkinson the merchant, and others. The names strike me: Old Vandalia names. I do not remember specific conversations with my parents when they recalled these names – several of these men were in business during my parents’ 1920s and 1930s childhoods – but when I read Ross’ directory, how these names evoke my thoughts of home! How closely are names associated with a community! They are still well known local names.
One name stands about the others, and Ross mentions it elsewhere in his history. Abraham Lincoln.
The old state capitol stands grandly upon Vandalia’s public square. Cumulus clouds drift high above the cupola and the American flag. Mom worked there as a tour guide in the early 1970s to pay my orthodontist bills. Each year since the mid-Sixties, on Father’s Day weekend, the town has hosted a fine Grande Levee pioneer festival, centered on the public square. It’s one of my favorite times to return home. Vandalia was founded as a state capital in 1819. Built in 1836 near the end of Vandalia’s era as a seat of government (an ancestor of mine hauled timber to the public square for the capitol’s construction), the statehouse was eventually remodeled to its present “Greek Revival” style and used as a county courthouse for nearly a century. Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas met for the first time in Vandalia in 1834 and subsequently served together during the 1836-37 General Assembly. Lincoln, in fact, served in the 1834-35, 1836-37, and 1838-39 state legislatures at Vandalia, and Douglas served one term. Both were political newcomers. The “Little Giant” distinguished himself at Vandalia as a powerful speaker and a master of partisan practice. Lincoln began more modestly – one legislator saw him and another homely colleague and asked “Who the hell are those two ugly men?” – but he grew in sureness and abilities during his terms in the house of representatives. Lincoln’s probable places of lodging in Vandalia no longer exist, so the statehouse is the town’s foremost Lincoln site.

In addition to the statehouse, a statue honors the sixteenth president. In 1928 a granite “Madonna of the Trail” was dedicated upon the public square to honor pioneer women, the memory of Lincoln, and the terminus of the pioneer National Road. It was one of twelve statues placed along the transcontinental National Old Trails Highway – the road was soon incorporated into parts of U.S. highways 40, 50, 350, and 66 – and each statue commemorates a different aspect of local history. Vandalia’s Madonna inspired great fanfare. Harry S. Truman, then a Missouri judge, was scheduled to speak but canceled at the last moment. The celebration and pageant parade went on apace, and my father and his sister are among the young “Indians” in the panoramic photograph of the celebration.

How many small town histories could be written about a courthouse and a statue on the public square? For me, I have never been able to disassociate Lincoln from the small town ambiance in which I first encountered him. Striding confidently forward, children in her arms and tugging at her dress, her long skirt clinging to her striding leg like that of a Greek goddess but her (stone) sunbonnet looking—so I thought as a boy – a little too much like a German helmet: the Madonna looks out toward the West as if meeting some bully’s challenge on Gallatin Street as surely as Lincoln stood up to the “Clary Grove boys.” Lincoln’s name was the name I saw on Illinois license plates; his was the face on the brown-and-white Lincoln Heritage Trail signs which ran along U.S. 51 and Route 185; his was the face on the penny which I placed in downtown parking meters; he was the great president honored by Vandalia’s Little Brick House museum which I visited on grade school trips; he was the hero whose home we visited by traveling U.S. 66. There was even a plaque to Lincoln in the city park where I played as a boy, for the pioneer road from Vandalia to Lincoln’s Springfield ran there. Cars with out of state plates parked in downtown Vandalia as tourists visited the statehouse. Every downtown drug store and restaurant sold postcards with the famous full-face November 1863 portrait of the president. Before it burned in 1969 the downtown Hotel Evans contained a mural depicting Vandalia as capital, with Lincoln and Douglas in the painting’s foreground, their height differences notable. Postcard renderings of this mural can still be purchased locally. I still purchase Vandalia postcards, as if I was a tourist who means to send them, as if I don’t know those scenes by heart.

Once, in one small town, I discovered an ancient historical marker that called attention to a Lincoln visit. I surmised that a state or U.S. route had once been aligned through that very old, shady and isolated neighborhood, and that motorists looking for a mom and pop cafe or a picnic table might have stopped in front of the plaque and had their pictures taken. But in Vandalia, no plaque is needed; the old capitol reminds us each day that the greatest president began his political career here. (Lincoln’s visits to Vandalia in 1856, which would have earned an historic marker in any other town, have been largely forgotten locally.) The young man Lincoln walked the same streets as the shoppers and business people and the teenagers who traipse around looking for something to do on a dull, hot summer day. If he came to town… today, he would come downtown on U.S. 51 and 40. We call him “Abe” (a name he himself disliked), even if local accents run the name together into “A. Blinkin.”

Most of all, we think of Lincoln as the man who jumped from a statehouse window. It is Vandalia’s most tenacious legend-one I’ve heard all my life. When I began to haunt the history stacks of the library, I discovered the facts behind the legend. Lincoln’s jump happened on December 5, 1840, one and a half years after the state capital had been moved from Vandalia to Springfield. The house of representatives was meeting in the Springfield Second Presbyterian Church until the statehouse was finished. House democrats sought to adjourn the assembly sine die in order to force the whig-controlled state bank to resume redemption or close. Learning of the plot, house whigs resolved to prevent a quorum. But when the democrats managed to gather a quorum—and blocked the doors to prevent exit—Lincoln and at least one other man jumped from a window. The drop was not long. Lincoln regretted his impulsiveness and was greatly embarrassed by the ensuing, mocking publicity.

Why this incident became a Vandalia legend is not known. As locally told, Lincoln leapt from a window of Vandalia’s statehouse in order to break a quorum on a vote to keep the capital at Vandalia. No newspaper or any other documentary evidence exists to prove a previous jump at Vandalia; Lincoln surely would not have twice opened himself to public ridicule. Likewise the top-floor windows of the statehouse are too high for Lincoln not to have broken something besides a quorum; but no such injuries are known in Lincoln’s well-documented life. Yet by the early 1900s a Vandalia jump was locally accepted as fact. An glass ashtray in my possession advertises the Hotel Evans as being “across from where Lincoln jumped.” I have other brochures and folders that say the same thing. Tourists often accosted a friend of mine who worked at the Evans. He enjoyed teasing them, “Yes, you can still see Lincoln’s footprints where he landed,” and occasionally faced their accusing disappointment, “We couldn’t find them!” My friend was in the minority in making light of the story. Many Vandalians, claiming descent from eyewitnesses to the leap (myself included), are protective of the legend and scold those who would debunk the story. Furthermore, a happy reenactment of the leap, using a window frame set upon the ground, was part of Vandalia’s recent 175th anniversary celebration.

One Lincoln scholar criticized the legend of the Vandalia jump. I agree with his concern to the facts of the case but not with his criticism. For like the more famous New Salem stories, the Vandalia legend demonstrates very well the symbolic power Lincoln still exerts over upon American consciousness—and the ability of Lincoln stories to define a community. Vandalians are deeply proud that Lincoln served in his first political office there, proud that tourists come frequently to inquire after the greatest president, proud to actively preserve his memory. The fact that Lincoln helped secure the state capital for Springfield has not diminished that local pride in the least, even though the legend may be a collectively unconscious way that Vandalians can, in effect, humanize the nation’s hero. I grew up in the shadow of the old statehouse and believed, correctly, that Lincoln was as human as you and I. After all, he walked this downtown too-and as anyone can tell you, he jumped onto it.

(This essay originally appeared in Springhouse magazine and then in my book Journeys Home: Thoughts and Places, self-published in 1995 and 2000. Thanks to Michelle for transcribing!)

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The original Star Trek series ran on television for three seasons from 1966-1969. I was in fourth through sixth grade during those years.

I recall playing adventure games with classmates on the playground of my elementary school. These were pretend-games in which we made-up and narrated stories, with a more or less Western theme, and which involved a lot of chasing and running around. Usually the way we incapacitated someone was by shooting them with our hands (the index finger and thumb functioning as the gun: this was thirty years before school shootings, or we probably would’ve ended up in the principal’s office or worse for even pretending to have a gun).

But we also used the Vulcan nerve pinch. “Spock!” you’d declare as you pinched someone at the base of the neck, and he would be expected to fall to the ground. Like finger-shooting, this had a remarkably short-term effect on the kid; he just got up after a few seconds and resumed the adventure.

I looked online for information about the nerve pinch. Apparently Trekkers disagree on the exact nature of this procedure: whether it temporarily interrupts neural signals to the brain, or perhaps it involves some kind of Vulcan telepathy. My favorite example of the nerve pinch of the movie Star Trek IV where Spock knocks out an obnoxious person on a bus.

I (lightheartedly, satirically) thought about uses, if humans had this ability. Meetings could certainly go faster if loquacious people knew they might be rendered unconscious by an annoyed colleague.

People on their cell phones! Prime targets for spocking! My daughter and I were in line at the store yesterday, and the person in front of us was on her phone, talking loudly and rapidly, during the whole transaction. She hardly made eye contact with the cashier. “Tom, she told me yada yada yada and this afternoon yada yada yada and if you don’t come over Thursday night you’ll have to come Saturday because all day Friday we’re —” Spock! (“Customer spocked in lane 6 …”)

Actually, anyone who is having a conversation that disturbs other people (parents at a band concert, for instance) could be “spocked.” So many folks seem oblivious to their surroundings these days and the volume of their voices. Chatty folks in movie theaters: spock! People who cut in line: spock!

I’m still not used to young people who employ the F-word in casual conversation. “And I thought, ‘What the f—?’ Why don’t you–” Spock!

Of course, people could spock you and me, too! We’d have to be careful of our actions and conversation. Oh, no! That’s much harder than pointing out the faults of others! How might we treat one another with more courtesy, kindness and respect if we faced the possibility of a Vulcan nerve pinch?   Amid our current period of nasty political rhetoric, how might we treat one another with more respect, anyway?

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I’ve a different sort of category of favorite Bible verses: those which, at some point, I forgot or didn’t know their location. Now these passages stand out in memory because I had to search for them. We have to discover for the first time even the most well-known Bible verses, after all. I’ve several of these underlined or yellowed in my old Bible.

So the angel swung his sickle on the earth and gathered the vintage of the earth, and threw it into the great wine press of the wrath of God (Rev. 14:19).

I searched for that one when teaching a class on Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. I remembered the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” but not the location of the original scripture.

John Wesley, founder of Methodism, used this verse to encourage Christian unity among doctrinal differences.

When he left there, he met Jehonadab son of Rechab coming to meet him; he greeted him, and said to him, “Is your heart as true to mine as mine is to yours?” Jehonadab answered, “It is.” Jehu said, “If it is, give me your hand.” So he gave him his hand. Jehu took him up with him into the chariot (2 Kings 10:15).

Wonderful words. “Do you love God and neighbor as I do? If so, let us love one another, even though we disagree.”

Here are several other scriptures that, at some point, I searched for, or “misplaced”:

As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord (Joshua 24:15).

I could’ve checked the household items for sale at the local Christian bookstore for that one. You can purchase Joshua 24:15 plaques for your front door.

Be still, and know that I am God (Psalm 46:10)

That’s another verse featured on Christian products!

Then the Gileadites took the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites. Whenever one of the fugitives of Ephraim said, ‘Let me go over’, the men of Gilead would say to him, ‘Are you an Ephraimite?’ When he said, ‘No’, they said to him, ‘Then say Shibboleth’, and he said, ‘Sibboleth’, for he could not pronounce it right. Then they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand of the Ephraimites fell at that time (Judges 12:5-6).

That’s the source for the term “shibboleth,” although the word itself just means “stream.”

Some other passages:

And if he finds [the lost sheep], truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish (Matt. 18:13-14).

I have escaped by the skin of my teeth (Job 19:20).

Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall (Prov. 16:18)

Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray (Prov. 22:16: the familiar RSV translation is Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it).

The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective (James 5:16b, although I prefer the King James, the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.)

Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven” (Matt. 18:22).

Is there no balm in Gilead? (Jer. 8:22)

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths (Prov. 3:5-6).

The years of our life are threescore and ten (Psalm 90:10).

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path (Psalm 119:105).

Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days (Eccl. 11:1).

Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow (Gal. 6:7).

He that goes forth weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him (Psalm 126:6).

Darn it, now I’ll have that hymn stuck in my head all day! It’s a religious “earworm.”

Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Jeshanah, and called its name Ebenezer; for he said, “Hitherto the LORD has helped us.” (1 Samuel 7:12).

That’s another scriptural reference for a hymn, “Come, Thou Font of Every Blessing,” and this one inspired the hymn, “Almost Persuaded.”

Agrippa said to Paul, “Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?” (Acts 26:28).

Other scriptures:

God helps those who help themselves.

Wrong! I’m being lighthearted again. That saying has been attributed to Aesop, and also to Benjamin Franklin. I’ve known at least one person, though, who thought it came from the Bible.

I’m ambivalent about that saying. My own career has often benefited when I was adaptable, did my best, treated people rightly, and kept my professional skills updated. I work hard, solve my own problems, and have been praised for adding value to organizations. And yet … the Bible does not teach competency and self-reliance. Throughout the Bible, God constantly helps people who cannot help themselves; he takes the side of the sinful and the helpless. Proverbs 28:26a actually says, “He who trusts in his own mind [himself] is a fool.”

As long as I’m thinking about non-scriptures, I recall another popular saying, “Build it and they will come,” which is from the movie Field of Dreams (actually “build it and he will come”). But I’ve heard the phrase quoted in the context of church building programs. It occurs to me that, someday, people may think the phrase comes from Nehemiah, a Bible book also often cited for building programs because of its theme of the rebuilding of the Temple. You’ve been warned!

While I’m still on the subject of movies …

I will execute great vengeance on them with wrathful punishments. Then they shall know that I am the Lord, when I lay my vengeance on them (Ez. 25:17).

I looked up this verse after seeing the movie Pulp Fiction. One of the hit-men (Jules, played by Samuel L. Jackson) quotes an elaborated version of the verse when he kills people. What happens to him is what preachers hope for: a Bible verse opens up for him, causes him to recognize his own evil, and inspires him to change his life. His partner, on the other hand, refuses to see the possibility of grace in a random-seeming event, and his refusal costs him his life.

Those who trouble their households will inherit wind (Prov. 11:29a).

That’s the reference for the well-known play and movie about the Scopes “monkey trial.”

Here’s one more movie reference. The warden in The Shawshank Redemption has a picture in his office that reads, “His judgment cometh, and that right soon.” I dug a little bit, and unless I’m mistaken, this is a version of an Apocrypha text, Sirach 21:5, The prayer of the poor goes from their lips to the ears of God, and his judgment comes speedily. Of course, the warden in that movie cares nothing of the poor or God.

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