Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Road Trip-Getting Started

I didn’t need the road atlas when I headed  south out my driveway onto Caton Road in Ottawa.  It was 5:57 a.m., still dark, and the glowing green light from the odometer told me the Buick had 118,213 miles on it.  It was Tuesday the 27th of February and I was leaving home with a full tank of gas. 
Like most,  I travel the same streets and roads over and over.  I left the radio off on purpose and put the windows down.   The air was cold and clean.  I rolled past my neighbor’s houses.  Few had lights on.  It felt like  just me out there.

Caton Road begins on the bluff near Interstate 80 and winds down the hill onto the Illinois River valley.  If you slow down to 20 mph or so and let off the gas when you enter the first curve at the top of the hill you can take your feet off the pedals and coast till you bottom out past Norris Drive and climb up to the second set of tracks past the Shell station.  It's steep at the top so you go  fast at the start, have to tuck into the second curve pretty tightly, and exceed the speed limit for a while.  It’s best done when there are few cars on the street.  It alarms passengers so I’ve learned to only do it solo.  I did it that morning.  Gravity can be fun.  I felt good.
Route 23 South took me through downtown Ottawa, across the Illinois River, and out of town.  I turned right past Grand Ridge onto Richards Road, left on a blacktop that took me through Kangley, skirting around Streator, and crossed Route 18.  I stayed on that blacktop, more or less, until I got to Towanda.

The sun rose yellow in a flat orange sky over empty fields as I crossed those bad curved tracks on the uphill grade past Ancona.   
That blacktop, more or less, is the way I used to go from Ottawa south to Danvers, Bloomington, and Springfield in the old days, when Route 39 was unfinished and Route 51 was a crowded mess.  I say more or less because it is not a single road.  There are jogs you have to make, usually right then left, picking up a different road.  I know the turns so well it feels like a single road to me.  In Gridley you have to think a little, go south past Route 24, turn right, stay on the east/west blacktop for two sections, then turn south.  I was a little unsure, but as I drove I knew by the buildings, the barns and such, where to turn.  It’s familiar territory.  I love it out there.

I jogged right over Money Creek then turned left toward Towanda.   I used to pick up Route 55 there and stay on it when I was going to Springfield, or take it to Veterans Parkway when I was going somewhere in Bloomington Normal.
This time I crossed over 55 and took the frontage road.  There’s an short section of old Route 66 alongside it.  Small stretches of the mother road are sprinkled here and there, and people try to follow the route.   I’m not that much of a purist, but I was trying to avoid interstate highways.  Too fast, too bland, not for me on this trip.  Being near Bloomington Normal was nostalgic.  I was getting close to home.  

 I ended up on Ft. Jesse road, took Towanda Avenue south, and went west on Washington Street.  As I got close to Bloomington’s downtown I knew I was somewhere near the place Hubbard’s Cupboard used to be, could feel Lucca Grill and the Grand Cafe, still in business I hope, a few blocks away.  I saw the old State Farm headquarters up ahead near the McLean County courthouse, where  a college kid I had an interesting meeting with a judge and a state’s attorney. 

I passed the Castle Theater.  It’s a music venue now but I used to watch movies there.  I remember disappointing my first high school girlfriend by not making out during "Bonnie and Clyde", preferring to watch the movie instead.  While a freshman at ISU I saw "Easy Rider" there, and later "Woodstock."  Washington Street took me by the Pantagraph, the newspaper where I worked part time during college.  I kept going west on Washington, turned north on Morris Avenue, then west on Market Street which is Route 9.  Past I-55 and Farm and Fleet Bloomington thinned out and disappeared.  I was driving on the road that would take me past my family’s old dairy farm. 
I began to pass farms where I knew the men and women, virtually all dead now, who worked them in the 50’s and 60’s.  I knew where the blacktops off Route 9 would take me.  I saw places where cribs once stood, buildings where I scooped, sometimes freezing sometimes sweating, ear corn into conveyors that took it to an old sheller.  I passed fields where once I baled hay.  At the T intersection, which used to be the 3 mile Y, I turned north.  Huge silver corn bins, topped with a web of augers high in the air, now surround the Ernst place.

At the top of the hill I followed the curve west past the Y tap.  The Buick was now on the stretch of Route 9 I once thought I would never escape.  I used to think if you drew a line with a pencil, even faintly, on a paper map each time I made a trip on that little three mile stretch of road, between our farm and Danvers, it would be black and shiny.  Worn through the paper most likely.  I was driven by Mom in a car to and from Sunday School and church, on a tractor driving corn and oats to the elevator, on a school bus, on a bicycle, then finally driving myself.  It seemed I would never get off that piece of road, the shortest distance between the farm and our little town. 

I knew every farm along that road, who farmed them, tenants  or owners, their kids’ names, what kind of tractors they used, their dogs, what the wives cooked best, how their haymow was configured, their corn cribs laid out, everything. 
Those barns, like the cribs, are doomed without purpose.  I dreaded seeing the barn on our former farm.  It was erected in 1941 as a state of the art 24 stanchion dairy barn anticipating Grade A milking standards.  It featured a separate milk house, an electric vacuum system for milking machines, lots of natural lighting, insulation and good ventilation, a self supporting roof and obstruction free hay mow.  It was built with pride and maintained with great care.  My father, even after he sold the cows, had a new roof put on to preserve the building for its next users.  There were none.

I passed the Biddle house, the Shifflet place, two Lemons farmsteads, Duane Smith’s farm, the place Bait Correll farmed, Paul Mehl’s place, and the dirt road to the timber.  I slowed the Buick down as it climbed the hill toward the farm I grew up in, then turned in the driveway.
New owners, now the second since us, painted our big white house brown. New pine trees form a windbreak in the north end of the big yard.  They choke off he space where my Dad used to hit me flies and grounders till it got to dark too see the ball.  I sat there for a moment.  I wanted to go to the hydrant by the deep well and get a drink of that good hard water.  I stayed in the car instead, letting it idle. 

When I looked at the barn it was nearly more gray than white.  The paint was flaked off and the boards below it weathered.  Louvers in the vents in the big gable end to the north were missing.  Trash trees grew up by the foundation.  I couldn’t get a good look at the roof, so I backed out of the drive, headed west, and turned north on the road that ended at John Twenty’s old place.  I stopped short of it, turning around where there was a culvert for a driveway that used to take you over the ditch to Roy Miller’s.   
Roy Miller lived in a little house there set back from the road and began collecting old vehicles.  Over time his house was dwarfed by a sea of cars.  Amazingly, those cars, at least some of them, are still there.  A fence, and brush, surrounds them now and a big Keep Out warning is on a faded gate with a phone number for those inquiring about storage.  What’s more lonely than an abandoned junkyard?

I headed slowly back towards our farm, and saw the hole in the barn roof.  I’d been told about it but didn’t want to admit it was there.  The shingles were gone and the wooden boards under them rotted through on the south end of the west side.  I imagined rain getting in and ruining the floor, that huge wooden mow floor polished slick with bales of alfalfa hay and oat straw over the years.   I sped up and turned down the blacktop going south.  The asparagus patch is gone.  On the opposite side of the barn roof another patch of shingles is missing.  The sub roof won’t hold up much longer.  Once the roof goes, if not quickly repaired, the barn will be done.  I don’t think I want to go by when it begins to lean, or when it sags and falls in. 
I get it.  You can’t make money milking 24 cows anymore even if you wanted to.  They don’t use the kind of bales we stacked in the tall hay mow above the stanchions.  It’s not a working farm, but merely a residence   Only the house has real value, and the new owners need the barn for nothing but perhaps storage.  As an asset the barn doesn’t warrant investment, not even apparently the cost of tearing it down.   But all those realities didn’t help the disgust (or was it hurt?) I felt as I drove south, keeping my eyes off the rear view mirror.  Everything changes but you don’t have to like it.  It’s so hard not to look back.

I was lost in thought as I took the blacktops to McLean.  I still had the radio off.  I didn’t need to think about where I was going because I knew all those turns by heart too.  Past the Stringtown road, jog left then right to Stanford (a jog right takes you to Minier). At some point when we lived on the farm the county numbered the blacktops and gravel roads, and put up markers.  We stubbornly ignored them.  Soon I was in the parking lot of the Dixie Truck Stop.  It’s now a Road Ranger.  It has changed constantly over the years.
The McDonald’s across the road has no doubt taken away a lot of the Dixie's business.  It’s now almost exclusively truckers.  I took a stroll.  Of course they’ve taken out the pay phones, which I used before cell phones to call the office for messages.  The Dixie is  halfway to Springfield for me. They've replaced the Route 66 museum with expanded retail space,and put in more showers.   The men’s room is a little iffy.  But all in all the Dixie still has character.  I bought a decal for the Buick.

I had breakfast at the counter and brought  the Atlas in to peruse.  By the looks of it all the other diners were having the buffet.  I knew what I wanted before I sat down.  Fried mush and eggs.
It’s hard to find a place that serves mush.  Mom used to make it, almost sheepishly, calling it depression food.  We’d have a bowl of mush for supper, the three of us, and she’d put the leftovers in a loaf pan in the icebox and slice it in the morning, frying it in butter in a skillet.  We ate it with syrup like pancakes, always with a side of eggs.  Something about those old time meals seemed to delight Mom and Dad.  They acted the same when Mom cooked brains with toast.  Almost giddy.

When the waitress walked up I knew my order without looking at the menu.
“Will you be havin’ the buffet sir?”

 She was young.  But then, you know, everybody looks young these days.
“No.  I’ll have the fried mush, 2 eggs over easy, glass of milk, whole milk if you got it, and black coffee.”

Those were the first words I’d spoken all day.
“You seem pretty sure about that order sir.  Anything else?”

“Nope.  That’ll do it.”
As I waited for my order to come up I opened the road atlas to Illinois and looked at where I might go next.  The Dixie was as far as I’d figured it out.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Prelude to a Road Trip

In the winter of 1974, between jobs, I hung out for days at the public library.  I took first to a globe of the earth, planning my next trip, which I intended to start in spring.  I was in Aberdeen Scotland, with India as my ultimate destination. With direction determined, it was simply a matter of route, the only real variable after that.  Direction is predetermined by geography and is rigidly set unless of course you want go the other way to end up in the same spot, circumnavigating the globe, which is a whole different trip, and crazy.  
For route I needed more detail, which I found in a World Atlas.  There are lots of ways to get to  India, but all of them in one way or another are south and east of Aberdeen.

I had dipped onto the African continent from Europe earlier that year, visiting Morocco for a short time, and wanted to go back.  I was also drawn to Cairo and the pyramids in Giza.  So south through Gibraltar to Morocco and east to Egypt.  From there it looked good to go south down the Nile to Sudan, make my way to Kenya, and go east and a bit north from there by boat to India from the Kenyan port of Mombasa.  With any luck I could get cheap passage on what used to be known as a “tramp steamer” there.  I was all about cheap in those days.  Traveling cheaply meant longer trips when you had resources as limited as mine were in 1974.

I kept  to the first part of that route though I never made it to India.  I knew I would have to work along the way somewhere, and as I travelled along the Mediterranean coast in Africa nowhere looked promising for a guy like me to earn money.  The prospect of getting stranded without currency was sobering.  That coupled with trouble getting a visa to Sudan once I arrived in Egypt caused me to change direction and go instead from Cairo to Greece.   Different trip, but also good.   I have yet to make it to India, but you know, we’re both still on the planet and it’s not over yet.

And that’s how I learned all you really need to know to get from one place to another is the direction to go.

My most recent trip was quite different from those days 44 years ago.  My resources have increased but my life has changed considerably.  In 1974 I had no end date looming in any fashion.  I could still be out there I suppose had I persevered.  But as you might guess, my life in 2018 is significantly more constrained.
I had created for myself an opportunity for a much smaller trip.  I had to get from Ottawa, Illinois to Pensacola, Florida in four days.  In Pensacola I would join a group of friends for a string of daily rounds of golf in warmth and sunshine.  Until I arrived I had four days of complete and solitary freedom.  When I was younger four days, which now seems a luxury, would have been a drop in the bucket.

I could go anywhere I wanted, as long as I traveled once again in a southerly and easterly direction, and got to a place called Perdido Key in four days.  Out of stubbornness I avoided planning a route.  I did buy a new Rand McNally road atlas.  It was beside me on the passenger seat of the Buick.  I’d work the route out on the fly. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Running for Office

My church helped the local food pantry in their primary food drive and fund raising activity “Freezin for a Reason” held in early December.  It’s always a cold day it seems.  We were lucky enough to be tasked with work inside, making some sense of the huge flow of food in cans, boxes, and jars streaming into their small facility.  Boxes of food were collected, put in big cardboard containers, then placed on wooden pallets, moved to the outside of the pantry by forklifts, waiting until they were slid into an open area inside the pantry.  Our crew of a dozen or so church members segregated it loosely by type of food and got it to shelves and areas around the perimeter, making room for the next wave.  It was classic “make hay while the sun shines.”  The community was providing its pantry food and we were helping them absorb it. 

Handling food is hard work.  Boxes of cans and jars get heavy quickly.  As we emptied those big containers the reach to the bottom became harder and harder.  I was just about to bend in once again, my head nearing my knees, when I felt a hand on my shoulder.  It was Beth Osmund.

“Don’t do that Dave, you’ll hurt your back.  Let me.”
Beth had just come in from outside to see how we were doing.  She swung one leg over the side of the cardboard wall, then the other, disappeared and came up hefting a big box of canned green beans to me.  She continued that way until the floor of the container was cleared, then went on to another task.  

That’s the kind of worker I expect Beth Vercolio Osmund will be if we can get her through the Democratic primary next Tuesday and elected to Congress in November in the mid term elections.
Beth has a degree in Special Education and in addition to teaching, has put it to use in creative ways.  She worked as an educational consultant with a software company training teachers and as a professional skills trainer at Arthur Anderson, the accounting firm, teaching accountants how to work more effectively with their clients.  She is now the director of Ottawa’s local food pantry and a partner with her husband Jody in Cedar Valley Sustainable farm.  I know her as a friend, a mother of three boys, and as a supporter of local organizations.  The Osmunds were early donors to our church’s monthly free community lunch program.  They pitch in when they see real need and they support local causes of critical importance.

It’s funny, but when someone you know well runs for office it matters little to which party they belong.  Rather, you imagine them representing you with the values you see firsthand in them through the way they talk and the way they behave in the community.  The truth is no candidate can have a firm grasp of all the many issues to which members of congress must react.  In the end we need to elect legislators who are smart, analytical, good listeners, and comfortable with compromise.  Kindness and compassion sweeten the package.  I think Beth has all those qualities.
Beth is certainly not the only person in our community to display those characteristics, but the amazing thing about Beth is she is willing to run.  I think anyone who spends time trying to affect policy, getting to know legislators, and working issues with a political body during its legislative session considers how they might better do the job of those we elect.  But for many, including me, it’s a fleeting thought.  I don’t want to work that hard for starters, nor spend time away from home, raise funds, talk constantly to those trying to influence your vote, and withstand the attacks of those who oppose you.  Run for office in this political climate?  Are you kidding?

I talked later to Beth at a more quiet time at the food pantry, early in the morning before it buzzed with activity, about that very thing.  Why do you want to do this?  Here’s more or less what she said.
“First, I think I know the district well.  It’s a rural and very grounded part of Illinois, rooted in large part to the farming community and small town life.    All the issues which confront us in 2018 affect us all.  For example, when we talk about “environmental issues” that triggers thoughts of a set of actions attributed to the left.  But I farm.  And I have yet to meet a fellow farmer who is not deeply concerned with caring for the land.  Farmers have to make a living, and yet we know our way of life can only be sustained if we are smart about managing our land and water.”

“I get that Beth but why run?  I know you understand the demands of the job.  It looks to me like a huge task, and a huge commitment.   Why put yourself and your family through that challenge?”
“That’s not a a simple answer.”

“It’s OK.  I’ve got time, and I really want to know.”
“Well, in 2012 I attended a seminar, training really, called Vote, Run, Lead.  It was designed to encourage women to be more active in politics.  I’ve always voted, have been in plenty of leadership positions, but had no intention of running for anything at that time.  I wanted to know more about affecting the process.  How I could become a better advocate, and help create forward thinking policy.

And I did.  I joined a national organization of women in agriculture.  I became a USDA grant reader.  I attended a national sustainability summit.  All through this my husband was very supportive, and I knew I was making an impact.”
She paused. 

“And then I got this food pantry job.  Not the biggest or the best job I’ve ever had, but so important.  You always learn new things.  I learned this.  There’s this thing with food pantries.  You can be judgmental and try to force nutritional choices on people, like refusing to distribute some foods with empty calories or questionable value, or you can ‘give what you get’.   The classic example of not following that motto is highly principled pantries or co-ops that give out only brown rice because it is more nutritious.  That’s fine, but most people prefer white rice.  Here we accept what food the community gives us, we buy wisely with the dollars donated to us, but in the end we offer needy people the kind of food they are used to eating, and we keep them fed.  We give what we get.  It hit home to me, that saying.
And then I thought of the converse saying,  we get what we give.  And I realized it applies to politics.  While it may be fine for a food pantry to go along with the flow, the status quo of food norms, if you ascribe to that in politics, and government, we don’t advance as people, or change happens so slowly you end up frustrated and disillusioned.  I want politics to change, as I sense many people do, and I can’t just sit back any longer accepting the kind of candidates and the kind of politics the parties now offer us, with someone else defining the issues and the proper responses to them.

So what do you do when you reach that point?  For me the answer became clear.  You run for office.  I realized if you aren’t willing to involve yourself more you will continue to get the same old thing.  So here I am.”
“And you know what you’re getting into?”

“Of course I do.  I know it will be demanding, create big change in my life, present me with challenges I can’t anticipate, but I’ve done all that before.   I know exactly what I’m doing Dave.  And I’m willing to do it.”
So there you go.  If Beth Vercolio Osmund is willing to run, I’m certainly willing to vote for her.  I hope you are too.

I know many Dave in the Shack readers live outside the 16th Congressional district.  If you do, I urge you to find fresh, young, reasonable, pragmatic candidates like Beth and sending them to Washington, or Springfield, or more local government with your votes.  We need fresh reasoned voices speaking for us.  Thankfully they are beginning to emerge.  Please support them.