Saturday, May 30, 2009


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) 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? How might we treat one another with more respect, anyway?

Friday, May 29, 2009

My Civil War Ancestor

John Strobel 
I traced my mother’s family, the Crawfords, when I was in high school. I started to research the Strobel family but became busy with college and didn’t get very far. My grandfather and his siblings were all long dead, so that generation was no longer available for interview, a fact that also discouraged the project.

Recently, though, a friend who still does genealogy sent me my great-grandfather Strobel’s obituary. (The surname was misspelled on my father’s birth certificate.) In honor of the upcoming original Memorial Day, founded by a Civil War vet, I’ll copy the obit.

“John Strobel died Friday, August 26, 1932 at his home north of Vandalia [Illinois] of senility. A short funeral service was held at the grave in Ramsey [Illinois] Cemetery Monday afternoon. A number of World War veterans from Vandalia and Ramsey attended the services in a body. The following grandsons were pallbearers: Kark E. Schaefer, Delmar, Fred and Paul Strobel, Leo Holdman and Stanley Miles.

“Mr. Strobel was a veteran of the Civil War, having served with Co. D, First Missouri Cavalry. Mr. Michel, aged 90, of Altamont, who served in the same company with Mr. Strobel, attended the services Monday afternoon.

“Grandpa Strobel as he was familiarly known, was born in Germany, Jan. 1, 1840. At the age of 4 he came with his parents to this country, settling in Madison County.

“On June 20, 1865 he was united in marriage with Emma Hotz. To this union ten children were born, two dying in infancy and one daughter, Mrs. Lizzie Schaefer, died in 1904.

“Besides the aged wife he is survived by the following children: Mrs. Lena Hoffman, Ramsey; Mrs. Amelia Holdman, Avena; Geo. Strobel, Peoria; John, Charles, Andy and Edward Strobel of Vandalia.

in Ramsey, IL 
“The Family wishes to thank all of the neighbors and friends for all kindnesses extended them during their [illegible].

"Th [sic] following out-of-town people attended the funeral: Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Hotz and daughters and Chas. Hotz, Edwardsville; Mrs. Mary Dumbeck and daughter, St. Louis; Mrs. Margaret Winters, son and daughters, Highland; Mr. and Mrs. Geo. Strobel and daughter and Edward Strobel, Altamont; Mr. and Mrs. Robert Ferrell, Pana, and Mr. and Mrs. Ward Stowell and Mrs. May Litchenberger, Decatur.”

My father-- “Paul” the pallbearer mentioned above-- remembered many of these people fondly. Dad was 20 in 1932. He recalled that his grandfather made several gallons of wonderful homemade sauerkraut every year. It would be interesting to know what kind of difficulties my great-grandfather faced in America at a time when German immigrants (and he was German Catholic, at that) faced prejudice.

A Common Reader

While sorting through belongings in preparation for our imminent move, I came upon the Holiday 2005 issue of A Common Reader (Catalog 277). This was a delightful little book catalog which, I believe, I started receiving in the mail around 1990, when we lived in Arizona. I liked the catalog so much that sent them a change of address notice when we moved in 1991, and when we moved again in 2000. A Common Reader had a nice selection of literature, history, science, and quirky books. One of the editors wrote short blurbs about the books, and you could tell the people who ran the operation were truly book lovers, too: they thought and felt along with the books. The company included a publishing house that printed the works of good authors like Barbara Holland and Alice Thomas Ellis.

This issue went into my stack of magazines and catalogs that I read in the bathroom. A few months later, I realized I hadn’t received a catalog for a while. Sure enough, I did a web search and the operation had closed rather quickly in early 2006:
I even found a couple of blogs that lamented the company’s demise. The bloggers wished, like me, that the owners had alerted customers of financial difficulties or, at least, had thanked customers for their loyalty.

Perhaps the owners just didn’t realize how much people enjoyed and appreciated the catalog. Perhaps not enough people took the time to send feedback. (I didn't, although I did order from them regularly.) Coming across this last 2005 issue, I remember the enjoyment I took from the listings, as I would browsing the aisles of a small, quirky bookstore (like one I enjoyed in Kentucky--which also closed) in hopes of finding a book that might touch head and heart.

Sweat and Mosquitoes

Our house is in process of being sold. The house is 13 years old but the air conditioning unit is just a year old. Our previous AC broke down during late June last year. In hindsight, we think that was the hottest week of the whole summer. We had to wait just a few days for the new unit to arrive. I kept the windows open all morning to let in cool air, but by afternoon the inside of the house reached the 80s. We went to a lot of movies.

You do get spoiled. I told our daughter, in mock old-fogy style, “When I was your age, we didn’t have air conditioning!” That was partly true: My own parents didn’t buy an AC until the mid 1980s, after I’d left home. Yet when I was a kid, AC had been available for years. Window units, in fact, became available after World War II: according to an online source, sales climbed from 74,000 in 1948 to 1,045,000 in 1953. I heard somewhere that the hospital in which I was born--the Fayette Co., IL Hospital, constructed in 1955--was one of the country’s first with air conditioning. My dad’s sometimes painful cheapness is well illustrated by his unwillingness even to buy a window unit. We had a huge fan that mounted in the back door, which drew cool air through the house.

The summer of 1967, when I was ten, was the most uncomfortable, not only because of the heat but also the mosquitoes. (Late that year or during the next year, my hometown’s government authorized mosquito spraying.) I recall many nights when I lay awake well into the early morning because of the heat and the buzzing. Fortunately, when you’re ten, you don’t have many responsibilities the next day.

The playwright Arthur Miller recalled a very hot September in the 1920s: “Every window in New York was open…People on West 110th Street, where I lived, were a little too bourgeois to sit out on their fire escapes, but around the corner on 111th and farther uptown mattresses were put out as night fell, and whole families lay on those iron balconies in their underwear.”(1) I suppose the small town version of that would be front porches and back yards instead of fire escapes.

I was chatting with someone the other day who declared she hated to turn her AC on because she liked her windows open as long as possible. I understand the sentiment, especially its ecological aspects. Yet … I never quite got over that summer of '67, not for me the summer of love, but of sweat and mosquitoes.

1. Arthur Miller, “Before Air Conditioning,” in Edward Hoagland (ed.), The Best American Essays, 1999 (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999), pp. 185-187 (quote on page 185).

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Ways of Old Roads

I taught a course at University of Akron called “American Highways and American Wanderlust.” Did you know that odd numbered federal highways are longitudinal, and the evens latitudinal? I never thought about that until I studied the subject, even though I grew up on the west-east US 40 and the north-south US 51. Did you know that the even numbers are higher as you go south and the odd numbers are higher as you go west? I’d never thought about that, either. If you want to be in California and you’re on US 1, you’re in trouble. Similarly if you want a southern vacation and you’re on US 10, you better reorient yourself.

With interstates, the numbering is just the opposite. The lower numbers are west and south. I-95 goes down the east coast, I-5 down the west coast, I-90 is up north and I-10 is down south. What about diagonal highways. They’re evens, apparently. I live near US 42, for instance, which runs diagonally (from Cleveland, OH to Louisville KY). So is US 62, from Niagara Falls to El Paso. In the 1960s the Saturday Evening Post contained a certain game: small close ups of national maps, and your job was to guess the location. If you knew something about the system of routes, the game was pretty fun.

Beginning around 1915, states began numbering their roads. Illinois developed a system, beginning with (but not limited to) several primary routes. There were four longitudinal roads. Illinois 1 is still there, except that the long curve from Norris City to Metropolis, originally part of route 1, is now part of US 45. Except for portions in the north, the original Illinois 2 is now US 51. Illinois 3 is still there, east and south of St. Louis, but north of St. Louis it’s now mostly US 67. Illinois 4 is still there, although it was originally a Chicago-St. Louis route, mostly replaced by the fabled US 66. (This c. 1920 postcard shows IL 2 meeting the National Road just east of my hometown.)

Several horizontal Illinois roads, too, were more or less in sequence north to south. Moving south, Illinois 5 (now US 20) went through Rockford, then 6 (the old Lincoln Highway, now Illinois 38), 7 (now US 6), then 17 through Kankakee (still there), 8 (now US 24), 9 (still there) through Bloomington, 10 (now mostly US 36) through Decatur and Springfield. The next west-east route, though, is Illinois 16 (still there), followed by Illinois 11 (the old National Road and now US 40) and 12 (now US 50). Then—still heading south—you have Illinois 15 through Mt. Vernon, 14 through Benton, and 13 through Marion and Carbondale.

I found this information at The website has information about U.S. highways and also links to sites that describe roads in particular states.

Before roads were widely numbered, people relied upon AAA “Blue Books” to help them get around. You’d need a navigator every time you drove much distance in an unfamiliar territory! That’s because roads were imperfectly marked and followed zigzagging, sometimes informal paths. I’ve a copy of the 1915 AAA Blue Book. Here’s part of the directions if you were driving from St. Louis to Vincennes (p. 291):

66.2 7.3 4-corners, church and blacksmith shop on right; turn left and take first right crossing RR.
66.6 0.4 End of road; jog left and take first right, following poles.
70.2 3.6 End of road; turn right across RR. And immediately left, bearing right away from tracks. Go straight ahead into
75.9 5.7. Salem, Court House on left. Keep straight ahead cross R.R. 76.4. Road is direct with poles. Jog left and right, 77.2, winding through woods 81.5 past Xenia (on right—92.8)

That’s actually one of the easier routes!

I found physical evidence of a very old, winding road like this. If you take U.S. 51 north of Sandoval,
Add caption
IL, the modern alignment goes straight north, but you can see cracks in the pavement where the road once made a right-hand curve. (I tried to photograph it in this picture.) Then, following that old alignment a few tenths of a mile, the older road makes a left-hand curve and goes north for a mile or less, crossing a narrow bridge. (I love that bridge because of its plaque that preserves the name of the builder, something I've never seen on an old highway bridge.) Past a picnic area, that old alignment rejoins the modern road with a left- and then a right-hand turn. Again, you can see the cracks in the modern pavement where the curve had once existed. To think that a major highway would’ve once included such an zigzagging pathway! You have to assume that the original highway routes followed the paths of existing local roads. A 1920s Illinois map confirmed that 51 did, indeed, shift to the east and then the west where this rest area and old bridge (photographed in the last three pictures) remain.

Locating very old alignments is interesting. Of course, many people like to discover and follow alignments of old Route 66. I also love to take U.S. 40 between Troy and Highland, where several stretches of old roadbeds, presumably from the late 1910s and the 1920s, still exist, although abandoned and overgrown, just north of the main road. I also found interesting roadbeds of U.S. 40 in Clark and Cumberland Counties, Illinois.

One time I found a highway bridge deep in timber. I was scouting the remains of a pioneer town, Old Loogootee in Fayette Co., Illinois. I found a few bricks from buildings, but I also found that narrow bridge fording a stream. There was little evidence of a road there, the old Vincennes Road that became state route 185. The bridge was haunting in its incongruity and abandonment.

A few years ago I found a wonderful book about landscape exploration, Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places by John R. Stilgoe, New York: Walker & Co., 1999. If a person is interested in evidences of 20th century American culture (not just roads but railroads and small town life), Stilgoe is a good author for ideas and inspiration!

Cherishing Keepsakes

Here are some thoughts from a "work in progress."

Mom and Dad and I moved into my childhood house in 1960, when I was three. Dad was a truck driver; Mom had worked in retail until she became pregnant with me, their only child. Our house was brand new, and so was our car: a ’60 gold Cadillac, complete with fins! Unbeknownst to us, the house would ground our lives for many years. Although my folks lived in other places before my birth, they never moved again, and Dad died in the house. I lived there through college and then moved out of state in 1979 to work on my master’s degree. Since then I lived in six states, but of course I returned home many times to visit.

Our house was strewn with the toys that my folks loved to buy me. I even had a toy gold 1960 Cadillac, which I crashed around the living room with aplomb. Not surprisingly, several of my toys had tie-ins with television shows or with kids’ products advertised on TV. I had a Popeye watercolor set and a spy decoder gizmo from Keds Shoes. Santa brought me a Western-style BB gun, but unlike Jean Shepherd’s Ralphie, I liked but didn’t crave it. I liked model airplanes and science-fiction toys the best. One toy became a source of reminiscence between Mom and me. It was Fred Flintstone atop a “dino-crane,” and the thing ran along on battery-powered wheels. Dad bought it for my fifth birthday, in 1962, when The Flintstones was in its third season. For some reason the toy made me cry, and so it went, box and all, into the attic. Dad’s feelings were hurt; he thought I’d love the gift. The attic became the place where, eventually, Dad stored nearly every toy I’d outgrown.

As a little kid, I didn’t think too deeply about the plan of our house, which is typical of the era. The one-story house has a low, rectangular design, a pitched roof with deep eaves, brick siding, large picture windows, and an attached one-car garage, plus a full, unfinished basement. Inside, a minimum of interior walls divide the rooms. If so inclined, a person could run laps through the living-dining room, the kitchen, the den (my parents’ office), down the hallway by the full bathroom, past the two bedrooms, and then back into the living room.

For over these years, Mom and Dad filled their house a lot of “stuff.” Before they traded the Cadillac for a more modest, 1966 Chevy Impala, our one-car garage had become an extra family room, though never decorated as such. Mom and Dad began to place their “overflow” belongings into the garage. With stuff in the garage, well . . . why not put some chairs out there? And also the old black and white television! Mom and Dad purchased an upright piano and set it in the garage. I could practice for piano lessons and also watch Lost in Space.

Our house became full with belongings as the years went on. Beginning in the late 1960s, Mom and Dad collected antiques. Many of our Sunday afternoons were spent shopping local antique stores or in shops in nearly small towns. My folks loved antique clocks, and their living room and bedroom walls became decorated with gorgeous clocks: twenty-nine in all. Mom and Dad enjoyed antique furniture, too, though they needed a vaster house to hold their treasures.

Mom and Dad were formed by the Great Depression. Be saving; everything (an empty box, an old towel, out of style clothing) might have an eventual use. Food should never be wasted; money should be watched carefully. Dad loved to drive among our small town’s groceries to find the best buys. Neither of my folks could part with things easily. My old toys resided in the attic and the basement, while cast-off items became stored away. I told my folks that, if they ever wanted to have a big garage sale, I’d come home and help with it. They thought that was a good idea for extra money. But they never wanted to take the first steps; each looked to the other to take the initiative. Eventually they resented my offers: apparently I didn't respect their things or their desire to give them to me someday.

I speculated what to do, someday, with the house. At that point the issue was theoretical, but since I’m an only child, I knew that the house would become my responsibility. Mom and Dad always wanted me to have a nice inheritance, including their belongings. I was grateful for their love and treasured their many gifts, but I couldn’t keep and cherish all of their possessions. To paraphrase a popular mid-Sixties song, “cherish” is not the word I use to describe old newspapers and broken appliances. The house, and also a small and a large shed in the back yard, became filled with stuff, good and useless. By the late 1990s the basement had scarcely a one-person path through the empty boxes and cast-off belongings.

Dad died in 1999. I kept Mom at home as long as possible but, eventually, she had to go to a nursing home. After she moved there, I readied the house for eventual sale by hiring an auctioneer to handle her better belongings and also a team to dispose of junk. The “junk” part of this story is appalling; the stuff in Mom and Dad’s house that wasn’t worth selling filled three large trash bins--I mean the big bins that you see at construction sites. The positive part of this story is that the better belongings provided a good source of funds for Mom’s care.

During this whole process, I rediscovered my childhood toys, so much a part of my memories of home. The attic was accessible only by ladder through the ceiling of the garage, and so anything stored there seemed far beyond the ken of man. But I hired a team of courageous fellows to empty the attic’s contents into the garage. There were other things besides my toys—old chairs and stools and the like—but the resulting pile filled nearly a whole side of the garage, nearly over my head. “Paul never lacked for toys!” commented a friend whom I’d hired. I decided the now-vintage toys should be sold at auction, for they’d bring an excellent price for Mom’s finances.

Of my childhood keepsakes, I was satisfied to locate a few representative items. If possible I wanted to keep that Flintstones toy. Thank goodness the 40-year-old Fred and dino-crane, still in the box (and with the D battery), made it to the top of the pile. I’ve displayed the toy atop my bookshelves. Hey, Dad, now I’m not afraid of the toy! It’s cute! Thank you. I also wanted to locate my 1960 gold Cadillac. It too wasn’t difficult to locate. The toy, with its smashed roof and loose tires, has “condition issues,” as they say on Antiques Roadshow.

Don’t we all? I think about all this because, at this moment, my wife, daughter, and I are getting ready for a move from Northeast Ohio to St. Louis. We’ve been moving out things that aren’t worth moving, tossing away some things, donating others, selling still others at an upcoming garage sale. My feeling of nostalgia for certain belongings intermingles sometimes with a feeling of … revulsion, not revulsion about the object itself, but the terrible feeling of keeping belongings too long, allowing them to accumulate, allowing them to control your life in a way. That’s a good lesson which my folks unintentionally taught me. You can own something that has wonderful personal meaning--I’m about to sell my old art easel, for instance, which my folks bought me years ago--but if it has no space in your new location, perhaps you shouldn’t keep it. "Things" are crucial for our sense of well-being---remember George Carlin's famous routine about "stuff"---but stuff can overaccumulate, and you have to stop sometimes and do some soul-searching about your belongings.

Developing a proper attitude about belongings is a very important aspect of both emotional and spiritual growth, and one thing we can do is to make those choices about representative keepsakes as we proceed through life, preferably with the input of our family members, rather to wait until some point when our belongings "take over."

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


My family and I are moving in about three weeks. I’ve been saying goodbyes with people. I've even given my email address to folks I know at the coffee shop! (A good book that can help with transitions is Praying Our Goodbyes by Joyce Rupp, OSM: Ave Maria Press, 1988.)

So many people enter and leave our lives, casually and profoundly. Why do some friendships last and others don't? The philosopher Martin Buber wrote about the rapport between people (he used different terms like “the I-Thou encounter” and “the event of meeting”) that brings us out of the objectivity of the everyday world into an event of mutual respect and affirmation. You could push that idea a little and say: sometimes that “event” of friendship is limited to a certain time, and sometimes the rapport lasts a long time. What makes the difference?

I think of people to whom I was very close, but the bonds didn’t last over the long haul. Beth and I had several great friendships during our three years in Virginia. But just four years later, when we returned for my graduation, only one of those friendships (actually a couple-friendship) remained: the rest had fallen out of touch with us.

On the other hand, I’ve one friend whom I met only once, in 1983, and we’re still in touch over all these years! I had comparatively few long-term friendships from my college years (1975-1979), but several from my masters’ degree program (1979-1982).

We like to stay in contact with people and send over 100 Christmas cards each year, But something about that seems rushed and minimal. I feel like I should do more. The busier life becomes, seems like the less time we have for friendships. I used to be a faithful letter-writer but now I’m pretty much a telephoner and emailer.

I’m a believer in God’s providence, and I’ve had occasions to connect with friends at opportune moments. I called a friend on her birthday several years ago and, as it happened, her brother had passed away very recently, so we talked about that. So many times we (all those of us who exchange cards) hear of losses in our respective families only at that one “catch up” time, Christmas.

Once I read a book, coauthored by two pastors, concerning church leadership. One of the authors confessed that he was all about goals and getting tasks done; if he had to discard people along the way to achieve the goal, he’d do it. But the man wrote that his wife never could discard anyone; she’d rather “lose” a goal than to lose a friendship, and so, he writes, the two of them compliment each other. That’s good! A person needs good goals and good friendships.

Expressing feelings to friends can be difficult, but it's so important to do. A dear friend says, "I have a philosophy about life. The world would be a much better place if people took a moment to let people know about the positive impact they have had on others’ lives. Too much time is spent on negativity. The good in people simply isn’t recognized; too often it is taken for granted." I liked my friend's philosophy so much that, with her permission, I quoted her in an article:

In the book Uncommon Friendships (Mariner Books, 1989), James Newton describes his friendships with Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, Henry Ford, Alex Carrel, and Charles Lindbergh. Amazingly, Newton never asked to meet any of them. He recounts life-lessons that he learned from these men and their families, but I was struck by a comment about the author early in the book, “With Jim, personal relationships come first.”

I try to live that way, which is why I’m telephoning, emailing, and otherwise contacting several people we’ve known here in Akron. Perhaps Facebook will be just a fad over time, but I’ve been very happy to connect with some people whom I liked years and years ago—and hopefully that will be a way that current friends and I will be able to stay friends as my family and I travel to a new location.

Peace and Justice

This past weekend I wrote an issue of FaithLink, an online curriculum available at The topic was Peace with Justice Sunday, one of the special Sundays designated in The United Methodist Church.

Among other things, I was interested in the biblical conceptions of peace and justice. The Hebrew, Greek, and Latin words tsedaq, dikaios, and justitia all translate as “justice” but also as “righteousness.”

We tend to think of righteousness as a personal quality of integrity. Justice can be both personal and public, but our desires for justice do take on personal qualities: I want my own rights respected; I want suitable compensation and satisfaction for some wrong done to me (or a loved one).

But now there’s a dilemma. For obvious reasons, I wouldn’t want to criticize the notions of individual rights and legal justice. Those things are fundamental; plenty of the Torah laws have to do with legal definitions and what we would call tort. But the dilemma is the temptation to dualism: splitting reality into different sectors like the public and the private (as pointed out at the site The biblical conception of tsedeq/dikaios, reflected in the Torah and throughout both testaments, unites the public and private. Justice is based on right relationships within the world and between the world and God.

(The Jewish practice of righteousness, which has influenced me over the years, is explained at:

Researching my lesson, I found a website,, which made the interesting comment that, when people demand equal justice and when they march for justice, they almost never mention “righteousness.” (Dr. King’s speeches would be a notable exception.) Righteousness is not just individual uprightness but is the quality of God that is given to us as the grace which puts us in a right relationship to God and calls us to help strengthen and mend relationships among us.

The biblical idea of peace (shalom in Hebrew, eirene in Greek, pax in Latin) includes the cessation of conflict but also the idea of wholeness and well-being. In my research for this lesson, I studied several examples of people doing “peacemaking” simply by providing needy people with things that would improve their well-being, like solar-powered ovens for Haitians. This peacemaking, though, is also a justice issue—because it is unjust to let people live in unsanitary, impoverished conditions.

These ideas of peace-justice-righteousness are, needless to say, challenging. If we're deeply committed to peace and justice, we may have to relinquish aspects of our comparatively comfortable, daily lives in order to help others.

In Luke’s gospel, John the Baptist challenges people to do works of righteousness, and his suggestions fall within the realm of the people’s everyday lives. Perhaps that challenge can give each of us some ideas. We aren’t supposed to save the world singlehandedly—“That’s vanity,” as Uncle Ennis says in No Country for Old Men—but we can potentially do amazing things within our individual spheres of influence (and, perhaps, beyond) as we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit’s influence.

Decoration Day

Memorial Day weekend is coming up. My daughter has graduated from high school and thus is no longer in the band, but I've fond memories of her participation in the Copley, OH Memorial Day parades each year. The parades ended at the Copley Cemetery and its impressive veterans' monument. The cemetery is bright with flowers and American flags.

When I was a kid in Fayette County, IL, the holiday was always “Decoration Day.” We picked up Grandma at her old farmhouse then backtracked on Route 185 to the turn off to the Pilcher Cemetery. I was told that one ancestor, Winslow Pilcher, had owned the land first but that another ancestor, Josiah Williams, formally deeded the property as a cemetery. The graveyard was located in a bright meadow surrounded by thick timber. A single massive oak stood in the clearing. We saw no houses and heard nothing except sounds of nature, our own voices, and the slam of the trunk as the grown-ups removed the “decorations” and then placed the flowers on the grave of my grandmother and other relatives.

My grandfather’s red granite stone read, CRAWFORD Josiah 1886-1954 Grace 1890- . To each side of the stone are the graves of my great-grandparents, John and Susan Crawford and Albert and Abbie Pilcher. Grandma and my parents decorated these graves. I was usually more interested in the older section of the cemetery. A new stone, so plain and solid, seemed less interesting to me than an old, leaning marker which carefully tallied the person’s exact age at time of death and contained an odd name like Comfort, Alonzo, Mortimer, Elvina, Reuben, Ulysses, Tabitha, Jahiel, or Eudoxy. A few of the old stones had fatalistic inscriptions, like the epitaph of Moses Cluxton, Sr.:

Remember, friends, as you pass by,
As you are now, so once was I.
As I am now, so you must be.
Prepare for death, and follow me.

Others had more explicit promise of Heaven:

The rose may fade, the body die,
But flowers unmarked bloom on high
Beyond the land of sinful powers
Our son is safe in Eden’s bowers.

The stones had extremes of brevity and wordiness, from the most basic inscription (“J A T 1835”) to a hymn carved upon my great-great-great-uncle David Washburn’s stone:

When Jesus comes to reward his servants
Whether it be noon or night
Faithful to him will he find us watching
With our lamps all trimmed and bright
Chorus [sic!]
O can we say we are ready Brother
Ready for the soul’s bright home
Say will he find you and me still watching
Waiting waiting when the Lord shall come.

The cemetery was a place of lonely peacefulness. Each year, the adults interrupted that pace with remarks about the peacefulness, about how long that tree must have been growing there, about how badly Cousin So and so misses his wife (who’s buried over there) when we last saw him at the grocery, about why Cousin Such and such hasn’t been out with flowers because she’s usually decorated by now, about how old Grandpa would’ve been (“196- minus 1886 is ___ so he’d be ___”). Sometimes we’d arrive in time for a trustee’s meeting beneath the oak and the grownups would talk about how much mowing costs had been last year, what kid was going to be around this summer who could be counted on to do trimming and … on and on. Mourning doves made their haunting call.

We weren’t the only “decorators” of course. Someone usually placed flags on the graves of veterans. Two were Civil War veterans (one a casualty at Vicksburg according to his stone). Josiah Williams was a Mexican War veteran. On the east side of the meadow, a small flag decorated a plain rock. “So and so knew who that soldier was,” a cousin told us wistfully—“so and so” being another cousin who had long since passed away.

We didn't neglect relatives in town.  My grandfather Andy Stroble, who died over twenty years before I was born, is buried at Vandalia's South Hill Cemetery, and we also put flowers on his grave.  "Everybody knew Dad, and liked him," my father commented, and I wondered what nice times Andy and I missed by the fact that our lives did not overlap.  We drove up the hill to the graves of my dad's grandparents, Mac and Alice Carson, and also placed flowers there.  American flags lined the lanes of the cemetery and all the way along Sixth Street back to the downtown. 

My mother is very elderly and in a nursing home. She wonders who is decorating at the cemetery. Albert and Abby Pilcher had only one child, and so they’ve not many descendants in the area. With such mundane things as a bouquet of artificial flowers or a $1 American flag, we could show departed loved ones that we still cared and remembered. Decorating was no casual thing.

For this Memorial Day weekend, here are my relatives buried in Fayette County, IL who were war veterans. Off the top of my head:

My dad, buried in the South Hill Cemetery in Vandalia, in World War II.
My great-uncle Ed Strobel, buried in the Ramsey Cemetery, in World War I.
My great-great-grandfather George Washburn, buried in the Bolt Cemetery near Ramsey, in the Civil War.
My great-grandfather John Strobel, buried in the Ramsey Cemetery, in the Civil War.
My great-great-grandfather Josiah Williams, buried in the Pilcher Cemetery near Brownstown, in the Mexican War.
My great-great-great-grandfather Winslow Pilcher, buried in the Winslow Pilcher Family Cemetery near Brownstown, in the War of 1812.
My great-great-great-great-grandfather James S. Carson, buried in an unknown location in Fayette County, in the Revolutionary War. His name appears on the bicentennial monument, honoring him and other Revolutionary veterans, at the Fayette County Courthouse.

I'm leaving out other uncles and cousins on both sides. John A. Wakefield, an early Fayette County pioneer who married my great-great-great-great-grandfather Henry Brown's niece, led troops in the unnecessary Black Hawk War of 1832 and wrote an 1834 history of that conflict. He's buried in Kansas.