Sunday, August 7, 2011
Like many small midwestern towns, downtown Vandalia has a friendly feel: clean, quiet, and safe. I love to see it. The old state capitol dominates the square; businesses line the quiet streets. Bright signs just into the daytime space and color the night. Power lines zigzag above my head just higher than the cornices of the stores and their memorialized businessmen. From the street the top, second stories look unused and dry. Stop signs, railroad lights, the yellow and black R x R signs, the signs for routes 40, 51, and 185; emblems for gasoline, liquor, and soda; painted ads for Brunswick Tires and Mail Pouch tobacco — look sun-baked and familiar. I’ve always loved the way the signs look, the way the sidewalks look, the downtown architecture, the faces of townspeople. The effect is one of closeness and safety, feelings that attend memories of growing up in a small town.
Even before I come to town I can picture the sights and sounds of my childhood’s cool interiors: the lightning-bolt calligraphy of Zenith ads tacked upon a drab beige wall; bins of stereo LPs and the sound of country music from WPMB; displays of cemetery flowers at the downtown florist; rows of Maytag washers and dryers. I can picture the shelves of pharmaceuticals, beauty products, and boxes of Fruit Stripe gum inside Capps’ Drugs (“Your grandfather traded here,” read the sign outside); the wooden bins of tools inside the Greer hardware store. I can picture one bank’s “giveaway” calendars from which huge numbers were torn at the start of each day; the hard plastic squares of dates, set in holders upon the smooth counters of the bank where I had my first savings account, the wet counter of the soda fountain where I got cherry Cokes; the movie theater with its dim interior. Some of these things are still here, some are gone, and some have been sold, improved, and freshly painted. Some are antique and craft stores. No store sits vacant long.
Vandalia has grown over the years, so the neighborhoods press the city limits beyond the borders of my childhood. But like so many small towns bypassed by superhighways, Vandalia’s economy has largely been diverted by Interstate 70 to the other side of town, and the business district is quiet. “You seldom see anyone you know downtown,” says a classmate, “you see them at Wal-Mart.” Though Vandalians hope to continue revitalizing and preserving the downtown, an older “Main Street” era has passed, and I caught its end. I survey the short business blocks between Third and Sixth Streets and miss the shaded row of small, busy shops near Sixth, Dr. Mark Greer’s downtown office (inside the waiting room were, I recall, enormous mounted animal heads), and, up the block, the corner “Illinois Brokerage” store where my aunt once worked. On busy Saturday mornings it was tempting to take the parking spots reserved for the physicians who had offices in the upper stories of the block. I miss all these places because they are my childhood recollections. The present-day businesses are not inferior, except from whatever moral standpoint my own sentimentality can claim. I miss downtown signs for auto tires, shoes, the Abe Lincoln Cafe, the Shirley Shop, Merriman’s. I miss the Craycroft car lot which I passed as I crossed the Pennsy tracks with a new LP under my arm. I miss the small town clothing stores like the Model and the Hub where as a toddler I hid in the soft darkness of pant legs and dresses hanging
Allen’s furniture store, the local photographer, and two pharmacies are still downtown, but two other pharmacies are gone, as is the Western Auto store and the frame building which served as Democratic headquarters during the ’64 campaign when I eagerly collected badges for “LBJ” and Illinois secretary of state Paul Powell. The “Tri City” grocery store is gone now too. “Before my time” there were several downtown markets. As we pushed our cart past familiar symbols of flour, baking goods, and hair tonic, I’d check my own list for sugary breakfast cereals, Bazooka gum, and candy cigarettes. If we saw him, we chatted with a widowed cousin of Mom’s who came there to shop. Dressed in overalls he always rested on the seats near the exit before he pushed his cart sadly to his old car.
I miss the downtown businessmen and women of my childhood; some are retired or moved, a few have died, but I welcome seeing those folk who are still just inside their doorways and who still recognize me after intervals of time. For years I came to town like a thief, hoping not to be conspicuous because I’d have to contact so many people and it would take time away from filial visits. I’ve changed my mind, and try to see several folk at least for a short time. The older I grow the more I value those people who still stand in the doorways of my private recollections.
This place could be anywhere. Vandalia is typical of midwestern towns and has even been scrutinized by an “outside” author looking for greater movements of social change. Such a community possesses a closely-knit social fabric wherein, as the historian Lewis Atherton puts it, one scarcely needs a name. (Yet a “good name” is indispensable: a good name can make even large financial transactions friendly affairs of first-name basis, and my father is proud that his own name elicits trust.) But with that closeness and rural sociality comes the inconvenience of fewer services and a claustrophobia that may set a young man dreaming. He dreams of greater opportunities beyond the small town, a different kind of human community and new friendships. So he leaves the small town and for better or worse becomes part of those greater social trends. Yet he always thinks of his hometown as a friend who will always be a friend but, since friends want the best for each other, they must live many miles separately and there is always fear that each reunion will be the last.
“He” of course is “I.” I write this neither with regret for being one of the “young people” who have fled the small towns, nor blameful at something which might have caused me to leave, nor scornful toward classmates who stayed. Yet as I raise my own child I often think of my favorite childhood places and consider how those landscapes influenced me through the subtle nuances of human geography, while feeling regret that this won’t be the place where I’ll raise her too.
(Thus, I’ve become the nostalgic nuisance I once thought my parents were. Even better, I’ve incorporated their nostalgia into mine.)
Several things downtown have changed since I was small. The Easterday Building at the corner of Sixth and Gallatin has changed hands several times. I remember inspecting the Jethro Tull and Van Morrison 8-tracks inside the store, during one of its incarnations. Across the street a sign for a downtown cafe-with the greater admonition to drink Pepsi-Cola (“Taste that beats the others cold!“) —
The Illinois Central tracks were purchased by Vandalia in 1983, two years after the ICRR ceased all service but the Conrail thunders through on the Pennsylvania tracks. The two lines intersected at Vandalia and the depot, built in 1923 and now a restaurant, sits beside the rails. The Illinois Central saved Vandalia economically prior to the Civil War. Completed to Vandalia in 1854, the ICRR joined the Vandalia Line (established in 1847 as the western line of the Terre Haute and Indianapolis Railroad). By 1905 the Vandalia Railroad Company had combined several different lines, including the St. Louis, Vandalia, and Terre Haute R.R., and the Pennsylvania Railroad held a majority control therein. The railroads made Vandalia a popular stopover for traveling salesmen—the best for accommodations, people said, between St. Louis and Indianapolis and between Chicago and Cairo.
My parents remembered that time as exciting. They grew up on Fayette County farms and Vandalia was a bustling place to “come in” to as the “Spirit of St. Louis” rumbled into town. My railroad memories are very different, since the trains no longer stopped here. I recall how we waited and waited in the family car as the lights of the striped railroad crossing guards blinked bright red, and I’d count the passing box cars marked with the interlocking PRR symbol of the Pennsy. Other times, on foot, I liked walking the tracks and studying the numbered rail spikes, the blue insulators upon the tall power lines, the red no-left-turn lights which stood along Main Street, the disused railroad equipment and the weeds which thrived upon the graveled railroad line. A small concrete bridge forded the Pennsylvania tracks at Fourth Street. The tracks were thirty feet below and if I waited long enough I could scoop up a handful of gravel and throw rocks down upon the passing boxcars. It was great fun for a 12-year-old boy. I could recall the First Street Bridge, never replaced after an August 1962 train wreck demolished it, and the fascination I felt, as a five-year-old boy, seeing freight cars tumbled along the tracks like toys.
Gallatin Street, which is Vandalia’s “main drag” rather than the quieter Main Street, slopes upward at Sixth to an auto parts store in the old Kroger building (where teenagers used to park in its lot at night), to the sanctuary and watchful spire of the Lutheran church — “the friendly church on the hill” – and to the county courthouse. A Christmas tree has for years been annually positioned at the top of this hill, right in the middle of the street. Traffic is less hectic there than in years past. U.S. 40 once passed directly through town, entering town to the east at Gallatin Street, along with the longitudinal U.S 51, then 51 turned north at Fifth Street on its way to Lake Superior, and passed through the rest of downtown and onward to the west. Both highways were rerouted after World War II; instead of passing through downtown they turn north at Third Street, where Vandalia’s older commercial blocks begin, and the former path of 40 (or “Alternate U.S. 40″) is now the charming, winding Illinois 140 west of town. I-70 was opened locally in 1965. But even during the early-Seventies a good deal of highway traffic still came through the downtown. I recall that buses once stopped at the Hotel Eakin—a grand hotel of my parents’ generation. In old pictures the Eakin’s Ford garage stood at that corner with a “gargoyle” Mobil sign out front. My parents remember all the businesses which catered to the highway travelers, the Hotel Evans and its Abe Lincoln Cafe, the Eakin, the Star Hotel, the Wigwam Bar-B-Q (“Gas for the Car, Eats for You”), the Junction Park Motor Co. which sold Mohawk and U.S. Royal Cord Tires, and the Smith Brothers Sales and Service which sold Whippets, Willys Knights, and Nashes. Some of the buildings for these places remain but have been transformed into other kinds of
Realizing, perhaps, that “my” Vandalia had lost some of its former importance as a trading center, I felt lonely looking down the railroad tracks into the hot, hazy distance. Yet it was a fond kind of loneliness, as a child understands such things: it was a gratitude for life plus sadness at change. If home is a road that every other road of one’s life crosses, I felt both sad and happy at the prospect of other roads.
I still feel that way. I recognize that my hometown is a mirror for me of the changes in my own life and my own mortality. Yet the older I become, the dominant feelings which I’ve kept about Vandalia are not sadness or self-pity, but gratitude and, of course, affection.
I feel a little guilty–since it betrays the triumph of marketing–by how enduring to my thoughts of home are product symbols. Not surprising, I suppose; antique dealers make a lot of money on both authentic and reproduction signs. Such things become the specifics of one’s childhood life. One of my earliest memories is that of a railroad building on Sixth Street. A billboard was attached upon its north side and the distinctive calligraphy of Coca-Cola, painted on the wall itself, protruded from behind the board. I was a tiny child when the building was razed but I recall recognizing that calligraphy, and what it stood for, and the taste. (I remember the building as huge. But the tiny grassy place where it stood reminds me that, as one grows older, childhood landscapes shrink ). Trademark symbols for Pet Milk and Ked’s shoes, Buster Browns and Hush Puppies, Kiwi shoe polish, Gold Medal flour, Sherwin-Williams’ “Cover the Earth”, Firestone tires, the Standard Oil Company’s flaming torch, Shell Oil’s shell, the Socony-Vacuum Pegasus, and the wildly cursive “GE”-all these symbols stir recollections of going downtown, holding tightly to my parents’ hands, not having a care in the world. Even beer ads–this would have horrified my non-drinking parents–caught my juvenile attention. One purchased the brands, after all, in “package stores”–there were an abundance of package stores and saloons following the late-Thirties oil boom in the county–and “package” was a sweet-sounding word, a word we used at Christmas. Beer signs hung from the old facades and flashed in dark tavern windows. I liked the ads for Falstaff best. They looked like the six-pointed U.S. highway shields that I also liked, except the Falstaff shields were misshapen, as if left on a hot car seat on a summer’s day. I also liked the Miller High Life signs, with their muted colors of red, green and gold, like an old gift in an old home.
Perhaps it is not merely the triumph of marketing which makes me remember such things, but also the fact that one’s childhood memories are a complex of rich associations both banal and sublime. The sight of anything–a business marquee, an architectural relic, a highway sign–triggers a litany of memories that have collapsed into a common experience. Spotting the wooden footbridge over the “town branch” I recall summer days when, walking along Fifth Street near our church, I’d stand upon the bridge and enjoy spitting down to the small smooth stones and lapping water. I’d hum the latest tune from The Who or The Doors or The Jefferson Airplane. I’d head up the hill past the appliance store from which Dad got Frigidaire boxes for me to play in, past the rich wood smells of the lumberyard, and I’d walk under the cool shade of the awnings on the north side of Gallatin. I’d wander to the library for a book or I’d pick up the local paper for my folks. A stroll to town seemed more productive than watching television, yet better than mowing the lawn. If I turned all the knobs on the parking meters I might even hit the jackpot.
I recall an old hotel on Fifth Street, with a group of idle, older men sitting outside in their plaid shirts, caps, and overalls. It is among my very earliest memories although I can’t say for sure if the image of overalled fellows is a later interpolation after seeing such men in a hundred small towns through which I’ve passed. At some point in time, things were slower and easier. Down the street from the shoe store that stands at the site of the hotel, City Hall stands beside the newer fire station. Once there was a room in City Hall where mothers could stop and change a baby’s diaper or rock the child to sleep. The newspaper office sits all the way down on Fifth Street on the corner. I still subscribe to the local paper–I have to know the local agricultural news, the news from neighboring communities, the names of folk who have died, the issues of local politics, the folk who have found morel mushrooms this week, the reflections of the local clergy, and the daily menus of the public schools–but something is lost now that I don’t go to town to obtain each issue. I recall minor traffic jams whenever the paper “came out” on Monday and Wednesday. The Tri-City grocery and the First National Bank had parking lots on Fifth Street that could serve for the local library and the newspaper office too. But people double-parked in front of the library as well as in front of the paper office when the paper came out. People double-parked in spite of the fact that City Hall and the police cars might have discouraged them in any other place than a small town. This row always had a friendly feel to me. In a small town, one could double-park and not fear a ticket. One knew everyone else, after all, and most everything about them.
I make more mental connections as I survey Fifth Street. My grandfather died many years before within that friendly, public space, while walking to a harness shop. I have seen pictures of the street as it
Still looking around Vandalia, I think about other things. I like to see a variety of Vandalia friends during visits to Vandalia. There are people I miss seeing: Dr. Phil Cocagne, the outgoing retired physician; my close friend Pastor Arthur Cullen Bryant, a Brooklyn-raised descendent of the poet, who loved Vandalia and looked at small town mores with a dry, amused wittiness; G. V. Blythe, the school superintendent who never failed to buy any fool thing which I came peddling for scouts or school. To this day I buy anything a little kid sells, in honor of G.V. I miss Amel Oberg, my old friend from church who read voluminously and told me many stories of his rich life. I miss seeing my mother’s brother, Harold Crawford, who walked all over town for his bad heart, and another relative who liked to tickle children and claimed that boys lack a rib because of Adam.
I’ve always liked the block where my cousins Don and Hazel Jones operated a gift shop and photography studio. I bought “45s” there and got the tenth one free: Jesus Christ Superstar! . . . now a period piece. Just down the street, I generally got my hair cut at Reeves’ barbershop. I liked its electric, striped pole, its penny gum machines with Lion’s Club emblems glued to the clear globes, and its strewn collection of Field and Streams. The long mirrors on both walls sent reflections back and forth of white bottles of aftershave and scented oils. (How long would the reflections go? The old Pet Milk cans, which my parents purchased, each had a picture of a cow in a Pet Milk can, and the can on the label had a picture of a cow in a can, and so on forever. As I sat in the barber’s chair, I had time to speculate about such things.) Next door was the “beauty parlor,” which always startled me when I encountered the strong, toxic smell of “permanents” in the air. Next door to that shop was Doug’s shoe store. I liked to collect the latest promotional giveaways there. Ked’s Shoes offered kids things like little plastic whistles containing secret “spy” compartments–rivaling the devices of James Bond himself. When school was in session we kids took them to school to scare girls and teachers, whenever we weren’t already involved with catching “tobacco juice”–spitting grasshoppers or playing “Red Rover” or singing childish choruses–complete with mildly sexual references which to us were the height of daring–for the sake of being unruly.
I sometimes wonder what nuggets of lifelong happiness we gain from such hometown scenes. What lasting joy did “spy toys” give me? What confidence did I gain at age four or five when I was allowed to select my own box of cereal from a certain grocer’s comfortable shelves? What self-esteem did I gain when Dad brought me, a tiny child, to a store and introduced me as “the boss,” or when my rock collection was profiled in the local paper, or when I could walk unsupervised to town for a haircut?
Much of Vandalia remains the same. The land itself is as undulating as the Lord and the Illinoisan Glacial Drift made it: the hill at Seventh and Gallatin; the slope of the main drag as it gently tours past the filling stations of “Gasoline Alley” near the Kaskaskia River bridge; the way the patriotically named streets climb the apex of small hills and descend into respective valleys; the topographical pleasantness of the small-town churches. After growing up here I sometimes feel, not irreverently, that my very soul has been laid out in perpendicular grids by the surveyors of the Old Northwest. The neighborhoods are tree-lined and pretty with older homes of Queen Anne and Italianate style set among the Craftsman, ranch, and split-level houses. There are fences and brick barbecues in people’s backyards, canopies of bright green leaves of the town’s great trees, the dogs, cats, and playing children. When I try to imagine what these streets would look like if I were a tourist “just passing through,” I fail utterly. But when I try to do so, I initially think, This would be a pleasant place in which to grow up.
It was such a place. Except for a very short time after my marriage I’ve never lived in Vandalia as an adult and thus the town retains a special quality for me: a freedom from want, a freedom from the need to make my own living, a freedom to have a name which everyone knows. Where I live now, in the suburbs of a city, I’m a wage earner, happy in my privacy, wistfully content with my malls where I rarely see people I know.
Vandalia was by no means perfect. Like most small towns its character lay somewhere between the discord and isolation of famous fictional small towns and the virtuous agrarian ideal of Thomas Jefferson. Many times I’ve walked downtown and thought of stereotypical “small town” things from my childhood, conflicts between town and farm kids; the overheard gossip and scandal; the judgments of people. Yet the town elicits a deep sense of loyalty in many of its natives. It is a loyalty quite different from nostalgic, small-town smugness for, traditionally, it has resulted in progressiveness, civic teamwork, and Vandalians’ laudable and ongoing work of historical preservation. A few years ago most of Vandalia’s citizens gathered on Gallatin Street for a promotional photograph. The sight of 6000 people on one street gained the town national publicity.
I grew up in Vandalia during the Sixties and early Seventies. The character of the county’s agricultural economy was changing. “You starve to death on eighty acres–even on twice that much,” one farmer complained in 1962: the area’s farms were by necessity becoming vast operations needing greater capital outlay than newcomers to farming, including many sons of farmers, could afford. My grandparents–who had productive small farms near Vandalia in the early 1900s–would have had difficulty in the Sixties with comparably limited acreage. Yet the period was only slightly less “cash rich” than the late Fifties and most local people owned their homes and had sufficient income for savings and long vacations.
During that time a good amount of small town patriotism–from the war-veteran courtroom orators to the daily displays of the American flag in schoolrooms, churches, and public offices–was not abated by the deepening confusion over Vietnam. Until it was abandoned in 1969 a dress code in the public schools kept teenagers from imitating the hippies, and kids’ Sixties-era sensibilities had finally more to do with fashion and adolescent self-indulgence than social protest. Yet, when, a young man from Vandalia, the son of a local service station manager, came home from Southeast Asia in a flag-draped casket, I knew better than to believe that small towns had nothing to do with the greater world, or that patriotism was an empty gesture.
So my mind teems with the era’s contradictory images, images of American faith, heroism, and youthful rebellion. I remember deadly serious discussions in our church youth group over the issue of long hair–was it Christian? Didn’t Jesus have long hair and preach love? We practically pinned a “peace symbol” upon the Lord’s seamless robes. I recall discussions among my parents and their friends: what’s wrong with young people today?
The times were a-changing. I grew up feeling part of two eras and I was confused about both: my parents’ generation which sought to relieve their children of the troubles of their own youth, and my own generation which sought to discover its own way. Walking or riding to town, I had solitary time to think about such things. I could view the tangible, mercantile legacy of my parents’ lives while seeking a footing in my own life, about which I hadn’t a clue.
On hot, mosquito-ridden summer days of the Sixties, the 5:30 whistle blew loudly downtown. The American flag at the courthouse came down, and the neighborhoods filled with smell of barbecues and cut grass. The downtown streets remained sunny and hot long after folk went home for supper. At some point, it seems that people went home for supper and just stayed there, for the downtown streets seem so quiet now. Vandalia is larger than during my childhood years, but, like so many small towns, its economy is no longer primarily “Main Street.” I’ll drive through and recall how the streets looked on big shopping days when Gallatin Street, both ways from Fifth, became filled with tables of wares and bargain-hunting shoppers. I’ll feel wistful for those days.
Yet my own memories pale compared to those of my mother who felt wistful at Vandalia’s “glory days” even when I was small. Even though the Depression had gripped the region, Vandalia was a busy, exciting place as people “from all over” gathered on Saturday nights! Cars were bumper-to-bumper! Farmers lined up their trucks near Kelly’s elevator! The present First National Bank was the great Dieckmann Hotel of the railroad era, and it was always full; the other downtown hotels were filled with salesmen and tourists, and the streets were filled with country folk who had “come to town.” Polk Atkinson’s store at Fifth and Gallatin was the chief gathering spot on Saturday nights; the crowds were thick. All her relatives from the farms of nearby Brownstown and the Four Mile Prairie would be in town too. You’d see everyone you knew!
What accounts for the change? Alteration of styles of travel, of course, with interstate highways superseding the older roads and railroads as primary modes. Also the lesser importance of both farm-town and tourist economy and the increasingly indoor quality of community functions–the teens have their malls in nearby towns and their jobs, the adults have Wal-Mart. All these things explain some of the quietness of the business district, a quietness which, ironically, does not reflect Vandalia’s economic healthiness in other areas and its population growth.
Yet I miss the downtown of my childhood, and miss, in a manner of speaking, the downtown of my parents’ childhood “before my time.” In a why, as I look through the old local histories, I feel some sense of connection with Andy Stroble’s 1890s childhood in Vandalia: a time without the sights and sounds I have known, a time without automobiles. My feelings thus emerge as entirely contradictory since they count upon social and geographic change that makes today’s Vandalia different from “mine,” and in turn different from the town of my parents and my grandparents. In which case is change true and good?
I accept such contradictions, just as I accept the contradiction of loving deeply a small town that I’ve chosen to leave. It’s not a matter of Frost's “road not taken,” but rather Wordsworth's "Ode" to our childhood memories:
… those first affections,
Those shadowy recollections,
Which, be they what they may,
Are yet the fountain light of all our day…
Uphold us, cherish, and have the power to make
Our noisy years seem moments in the being
Of the eternal Silence: truths that wake
To perish never…
So I become nostalgic for the place of my childhood, and wish for my own child a comparable light.
I’ve used that expression “before my time.” In a way, it has little meaning. Time is something I fight against. I hope to beat the clock which will inevitably beat me, all the while I place my hope in an Eternity which enriches and redeems time.
But space …. therein I live and remember. Little wonder that Christians, unconsciously at least, think of Heaven as a place without time but with “streets” and with earthly, affective ties made everlasting. For unless you keep a diary, you cannot date the time you bought a favorite outfit, got a great bargain, found an appliance box for your child to play in, read a library book which especially moved you, stepped up to a yellow curb, or noticed a place had “changed hands.” You won’t recall delighting in the red shape of a stop sign, a yellow railroad sign, or the number of a U.S. route, because that was the time when you were first learning words, shapes, colors, and numbers. These things have become the particulars of your earliest life, deeply part of home.
This essay originally appeared in Springhouse magazine, then in my book Journeys Home: Thoughts and Places (1995), and then my wordpress blog.