Thursday, October 29, 2009

Another Autumn, Another Look

It’s been a challenging fall.
Some would even call it nasty.
Wet, cool weather has put our farmer friends at the brink of disaster, while the same stuff has recently made my weekly job prowling the sidelines at high school football games less fun than it ought to be. We had such a delightful spell of late-summer/early-fall weather, that the “November in October” conditions we’ve lately experienced have been disappointing, even depressing, from time to time.
But there are exceptions.
Take last Sunday, for example. The sun came out.
You remember the sun, don’t you? It’s that bright star located just under 93 million miles from us, providing most of the earth’s energy in the form of sunlight.
It’s no big surprise that a sudden influx of that amazing light would have an effect on my energy, as well. I was raring to go...somewhere.
My co-pilot had already been battling flu-like symptoms for the better part of a week. But, probably just to please me, she indicated a day enjoying a glimpse of beautiful fall weather would be more beneficial than one spent in bed with a mug filled with TheraFlu. The bug squelched any thoughts of backwoods bike rides or hilly hikes, or even much in the way of shopping, dining or other pursuits. But a fall color tour via car seemed just right. We had already attended church the night before, so, with a hearty hi-ho Silver and a note for the cat (who was sleeping when we left) we hit the road again.
As with many of our trips, the destination was vague, but I had an inkling that north was the direction I wanted to take. County cops, farmers and sportswriters seem to share a knowledge of where certain blacktops and country roads can take you, as often, the main road is far from the shortest or prettiest route. We would, I thought, take the blacktop out of Galva to and through Atkinson, wind our way northeast to Erie, then follow yet another back road to Albany, on the mighty Mississippi River. From there, we would follow the river road to Galena, a beautiful little town perched on a high hillside overlooking a once-busy river. My meandering back-roads route actually trimmed a few miles from the “normal” directions, though it probably didn’t save a lick of time. But that’s not the point. A drive is only long if you spend it worrying about getting where you’re going. The trick is to savor every bend and twist, every view and vista, every sight and every sound.
There’s a special little trick the light plays in fall. Even full sunlight has a soft, flat feel to it that, in turn, mutes even the most brilliantly red, gold and orange leaves into a new set of colors that no photograph or picture postcard ever captures. The beginning of harvest added contours and casts that belied the green growth that covered those fields just weeks before. Tiny cattle dotted a far-below pasture as we gazed at trees and farms and meadows and fields from an overlook high above.
“Look,” we said, over and over.
We finally reached Galena. The bustling lead mining capital, river port and railway center of the mid-1800’s is now a popular tourist destination. Happily, either through good luck, good sense or good zoning, much of the wonderful architecture of downtown Galena and its surrounding neighborhoods remains intact. We poked around for an hour or two, stepping into a couple of galleries and museums, but mostly just moving slow and enjoying the sights of the little town President Ulysses S. Grant once called home.
The nice thing, though, was just as we had felt no particular pressure to get there, we likewise felt no need to stay overlong. As the shadows began to lengthen into mid-afternoon, we started home. The light had changed, once again, so that those autumn leaves took on a deep, rich purplish cast. The sun set low and slow as we wandered our way back home. Just as we approached Galva, a few raindrops spattered our windshield.
There are a lot of things I’d like to do with the rest of my life. I want to live in a houseboat somewhere warm and a cabin where there’s a lot of snow. I want to look and see this entire country of ours, and other countries, too. I want to visit the places my grandparents and great-grandparents left to come to American. I want to see my children enjoy their fondest dreams. I want to see my grandchildren grow.
But, as a part of it all, I want more days like the soft, sweet days of autumn.
Those days when we say “Look,” over and over again.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Along the Magical Mystery Tour

Love is a many splendored thing. That’s for sure.
We’ve recently experienced a good, thorough taste of the many ways the ultimate expression of love can be expressed, with a social calendar that’s been unusually full. We’ve called it “the Magical Mystery Tour,” because we have attended seven different weddings over the summer/fall season, with the last five occurring on consecutive weekends.
The tour has been magical, because we’ve gotten to observe the wonderful result of that thing called love, as young couples declare and celebrate a lifetime commitment to each other. It’s been a mystery, because the locations of the weddings and the receptions that followed have been, suffice it to say, mixed and fancy. A couple of the more interesting wedding sites included a state park and a pizza and billiards restaurant, while the reception spots included an upscale art/design/furniture gallery and a grand outdoor garden center. Of course, there were some traditional church weddings and hotel ballroom receptions in the mix, too, but each of them had their own unique moments that will remain in the memories of the guests attending and in the hearts of the couples who were wed.
We traveled to Indiana, Iowa and northern, eastern and southern Illinois, with mandatory sidetrips including a tour of a giant Indiana dairy farm, glimpses of beautiful lakes, historic churches and near-forgotten graveyards, and even a surprisingly sophisticated lunch in a French bakery/cafe in old downtown Dixon. But as different as each destination and celebration was, they all had certain things in common: The brides were beautiful, the grooms were nervous, and the result will certainly be a lifetime of love and happiness.
What’s more, nobody made me do the chicken dance.
Oh, yeah. And there was cake.
I actually missed out on the last wedding, which was held in Normal last Saturday. I had originally intended to go, despite the fact there was a Galva Arts Council coffeehouse scheduled for that evening. Thinking I could possibly do a little of both, I had scheduled a seasoned featured performer who would require a minimum of introduction and guidance, plus arranged for someone else to handle my duties as emcee and sound board operator. I figured I would arrive late, if at all. I felt sort of bad about missing the coffeehouse. It’s the arts council’s 20th year in existence, and last Saturday’s coffeehouse was going to celebrate the 17th anniversary of that monthly gathering of artists, musicians and other performers. I’ve been involved since both the organization and the coffeehouse series started, so I hated the thought of being MIA, despite knowing all would easily go well without me. But the flu bug bit both the performer and the substitute emcee/sound man, causing me to change my plans and stay behind to be on hand for the evening.
A good thing, too.
Unbeknownst to me, mysterious plans were in the works.
Nancy Anderson, who has served as a board member, officer, spearhead and all-around go-getter for the organization, had organized a special bit of recognition for an individual who has been around since the early days of the council and coffeehouse.
I was a little surprised when Megan didn’t object to my last-minute decision to stay behind, and even more so to see her show up midway through the evening, knowing she would have had to leave the wedding reception early to get there. I was even more startled when Nancy, who I thought was going to make an announcement about an upcoming event, called me to the stage. First, she pointed to a sign on the wall behind the stage. On it is a slogan that I, the ever-cynical marketing maven, coined many years ago regarding the coffeehouse:
“It’s free and you get a cookie.”
You see, I never thought the coffeehouse would gain enough support, both in terms of performers and audience members, to be a success. And indeed, in the early years, there were evenings where it was pretty much me and a plate of cookies. But the years have proved me wrong. Oh, the performers and crowds still come and go. But mostly, they come. They come to enjoy an evening spent together, sharing the simple talents we all possess in an environment free of most distractions other than the trains that roar past the building from time to time.
You’ve probably guessed by now that I was the person who was going to be recognized. 17 years is a long time, so I guess longevity has its perks. But I’ve been just an itty-bitty part of the success of the coffeehouse Saturdays. Nonetheless, I received a wonderful original portrait by Galva artist Ron Craig that, happily, makes me look entirely more dashing and handsome that I really am. And Nancy baked an astonishing, hand-decorated cake, complete with my name and a guitar,
So I was sorry to miss the last lovely stop on The Magical Mystery Tour.
But I was glad to be in a place where I will always belong, with people I truly love, enjoy and appreciate.
Oh yeah. And there was cake.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Here and Gone

Something wonderful happened to us this weekend.
Both of our sons were at our house with their families.
One was in town for a wedding, and the other came for a family celebration on his wife’s side. I think they both made the trip to see each other, too.
And us, even.
They say you spend the first couple of years of a child’s life trying to get him to walk and talk. Then you spend the next few years begging them to sit down and be a little more quiet.
It’s kind of the same after they’ve grown up.
We all, I think, want our kids to eventually leave the nest. It’s the right way to feel, as we pray our children will embark on meaningful, interesting, love-filled, independent lives of their own. But, here’s where the conundrum occurs:
As soon as they’re gone, we want them back.
What’s more, that feeling is multiplied by a factor of about a zillion when grandchildren come into the equation.
When we know they are coming, our existence is suddenly shoved into an exhausting overdrive mode that finds us (especially grandma) trying to clean, dust, scrub and buff our digs into a place more suited for a visit by, say, the Queen of England, rather than the same sons who made it their job to more or less trash the place for the first 18 years of their lives. I found myself begging Editor Mike Landis for late-night sports assignments in the days right before the visit, hoping to dodge some portion of the nocturnal cleanfest, while knowing full well that a few chores would remain mine and mine alone.
But getting ready for an anticipated visit is a lot like getting ready for Christmas:
You’re never quite done. You just run out of time.
And that’s OK, because the visit--not the preparation--is the thing. Plus, I’ve yet to see either of my daughters-in-law run a white glove over the top of the refrigerator, nor did I spy my youngest grandson critically examining the shine on the kitchen floor while he was playing with his Batmobile.
“Gee, grandma, are you sure you’re using a floor product that truly polishes while it cleans?”
No, he didn’t say that. But he did say “grandpa” for the very first time, which was quite a marvelous high point for yours truly.
Of course, the weekend went quickly, with lots to do and talk about.
And then, quite suddenly, they were all gone again.
This big old house is a great place for families, with a kitchen that bursts with life, talk and the preparation for happy family meals. There’s lots of room to get together, along with nooks and crannies for those requiring a little quiet time, a book, or a nap, even.
But it can be a little empty when there are no toys underfoot, no items of clothing on every hook and flat surface, and no running feet or balls bouncing through the living room. The gallons of whole milk will be replaced by a quart of skim that often lasts a week or more. We’ll buy or bake bread weekly, instead of daily, and sometimes skip meals altogether when it seems silly to cook for two ships that often just pass in the night. But mostly, life will resume a pace and volume we’ve become more accustomed to. Busy, yes, but quieter, too.
Our sons live over 1600 miles apart. We’re somewhere in the middle. Someday, perhaps, we’ll be closer to one or the other, or maybe both if changes in life, circumstance and location allow it. Right now, though, we know we need to be content knowing they’re happy, with wonderful wives, loving families and interesting careers.
So, we cherish the days, hours and moments when we’re together.
And we miss you when we’re not.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Cheerleader Right

As a sportswriter, I have one of the best seats in the house.
At football games, I prowl the sidelines, camera and clipboard in hand, with a great view of the action. This leads, of course, to the desire to overanalyze--and criticize,even--every play and every decision the coaches and players make. I hear folks in the stands doing the same, especially if things aren’t going as well as they might.
I’m well aware that a lot goes into those plays and decisions, just as I’m aware that timing, talent and circumstance don’t always let things happen the way they’re supposed to for the players and coaches involved.
I’ve been there.
Back in the fall of 1965, I was on a Galva fresh-soph team that was challenged, indeed. My classmates and I were “in the middle” between a great group of athletes from the class before us and some more quality players coming up through the class ranks. We had a few standouts on our squad, but many of us were basically undersized and overwhelmed.
I was the quarterback.
Quarterbacks in those days called their own plays, which resulted in some truly boneheaded decisions on my part. In my own defense, there were times when it seemed nothing would work anyway, but that was no excuse for running a dive play on third and 11 or calling for a pass on one of the few times we were inches away from a score. I can still see my coach standing on the sidelines, turning grayer by the second and wondering, no doubt, if anyone would really care if he murdered me with his bare hands right then and there.
But I topped them all one night while in a game against a school from a nearby town.
It was, naturally, all about a girl.
I met her at an area swimming pool the summer before and she had, I thought, encouraged my attentions. Looking back, I realize that encouragement was probably limited to the fact that she had not actually laughed out loud the first time I revealed my then-skinny bod upon entering the pool area, but remember...I was 15, and all things were possible. She was probably dating a Harvard Law student who drove a Ferrari, while I was struggling through first-year geometry and didn’t yet have a driver’s license, but I was convinced all it would take would be some football heroics to totally captivate her.
It was a cold, rainy night. The field was a churned-up mess of frost-layered mud and big, icy puddles.
I don’t remember the name of the play I called. It probably had some esoteric-sounding name like “Zulu red 78-12” or some such hard-to-remember nonsense. I remember it, simply, as this:
“Cheerleader Right.”
She was, of course, a cheerleader.
I wasn’t even sure she knew I was a football player, much less THE QUARTERBACK, so I decided to abuse my signal-calling responsibilities by calling a keeper around right end, directly in front of her and her friends.
“Wasn’t that the handsome, yet intelligent, guy from Galva you met at the pool this summer?”
Those were the words I was sure she would hear from one of her gal-pals as I zoomed past them up the sideline.
Energized, I took the snap, faked to the fullback, then tucked the ball and scampered toward their side of the field.
Meanwhile, on a nearby highway, the driver of a Mack truck lost control of his vehicle, careened through the fence surrounding the school area, and sped onto the football field.
Or, at least, that’s what it felt like when a linebacker, who had read the play perfectly, met me helmet-to-helmet as I crossed the line of scrimmage.
John Madden would have loved the lick that sucker laid on me. He would have probably put his picture on the side of his bus. But Madden wasn’t there, so the linebacker had to be satisfied with the mass groan that arose from the Galva bleachers as I flipped and flew through the air...
...and landed in one of the icy mud puddles.
As I crawled from my watery grave, I glanced at the sidelines.
There she was. Looking right at me.
And cheering.
Not for me. For the hit.
A few games later, I suffered a knee injury that all but ended my football career. And a few years later, I was lucky enough to meet a beautiful girl who has continued to love me for all the things I am, not caring about the football hero I never was.
Like most guys my age, my personal sports highlight reel generally features the high points and skips the violent trips to cold, deep mud puddles. Even so, as I stand at the sidelines, I think back to that night once in awhile, especially when an especially hard hit scuttles a play right in front of me.
I remember.
I know how you feel.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

A Tree Falls in Galva

I’m used to hearing her call my name as she goes out the door early in the morning. Generally, she’s reminding me of something I promised to do, often in the faint hope that I’ll actually remember to do it.
Me: “Yes, dear.” (I’m unfailingly polite in the early morning)
She: “There are some limbs in our front yard.”
Me: “Alright, I’ll pick them up after I finish getting dressed.”
She: “No, I mean some big limbs. Really big.”
Sure enough, a huge section of the giant old tree in our front terrace had come crashing down in the night, filling the larger portion of the front yard with an enormous pile of tree-sized limbs that fell with such force that they buckled and crushed a portion of sidewalk and utterly smashed a small Flowering Crabapple tree that was minding its own business in the side yard.
The good news?
It missed the house, the car and the cat. And me, too, as I suppose it could have just as easily come down while I was mowing the lawn or raking leaves.
There was no big storm or wind of any kind the night before. Light sleeper though I am, I didn’t even hear it, though a neighbor later reported she heard a big thump around 4 a.m. and wondered what it was.
First on the scene that morning was Galva Street Superintendent Myron “Mouse” Townsend. As the tree sits on the terrace side of the sidewalk, it’s actually city property. We had talked about the possibility of having to take the tree down ever since an ice storm a few years ago caused some damage almost equal to the new downfall. But it seemed the big old tree had beat us to it.
He uttered a phrase I would hear many times in the next few days:
“Well, at least it missed the house.”
“We’ll have to take the rest of it down,” he added. And I suppose that’s right, as all that’s left is the main trunk and a pair of branches that hang--now kind of ominously--over busy Northwest Fourth Avenue.
I’ll miss that big old tree.
I’ll miss it for its shade and as a home for countless families of squirrels and birds and as a part of my family’s history and the history of my hometown.
My mother grew up in the house where I live now. I’ve looked at old, sepia-toned photos of her and her brothers standing in the front yard, as children and as young adults. They were, no doubt, standing in the shade of that tree. They are all gone now, but the tree has remained with its memories and mine.
It remained to be a necessary part of the pastimes my sons pursued in our front yard. It was “base” in games of tag and a combination base and outfield fence in a version of whiffle ball with rules so exhaustive and complex that no one ever really knew how to play it.
Mouse says they’ll take the rest of the tree down in the next month or so. In the meantime, I’ve been spending parts of the mornings looking at the way the light is different without the huge crown of branches to filter the morning sun. It’s a time of year when that light is already affected by the change of seasons and the southward movement of the sun, so it’s hard to imagine what next summer will be like. For now, the added sunlight is a welcome part of my morning yard, though I may not feel the same come July. For it is, truly, the cooling shade that has made the big tree an important, yet often unnoticed part of my life and the life of my home.
The house is an old one, built about 1864. I can’t help but wonder if the tree stood even then. It’s big enough to have been a part of the landscape those many years ago and, perhaps, even 10 years earlier, when Galva founders James and William Wiley stood several yards away in what is now the southeast corner of a Park that bears their name.
“What a beautiful spot. Let’s buy the land and lay out a town.”
Maybe, just maybe, they were looking at a tree when they said it.
My tree. My big old tree.