In Which We Gather by the River

A story in four parts.

I. Non-Confluence

Taking up where we left off last August, my dad and I — this time with my brother Chris — drove out to southwestern Will County on Monday to see if we could see the place where the Des Plaines and Kankakee rivers meet to form the Illinois River. Why? Well, the reason to care about the rivers is that in the mid-19th century they, along with the Illinois and Michigan Canal, represented the link between Lake Michigan, the Great Lakes, and the entire eastern United States and the Mississippi, the Gulf, and the country to the west. On top of that academic-sounding justification, there’s the relative obscurity of it. Who else is driving around the Chicago area looking for this spot? (Some good Web background on the I&M Canal, by the way: from the Chicago Historical Society (including pictures of canal sites in present-day Chicago settings); the Chicago Public Library (part of its "Down the Drain" site on the city’s sewer system); the National Park Service, and Illinois Department of Natural Resources.)

When we visited the area last summer, we hit the towpath along the canal a little too far to the west for it to be a reasonable walk, given my dad’s cantankerous knees. This time, we drove into a county park (McKinley Woods; among other things, the brief history posted at the park  says it was a POW camp during World War II) and started walking east on the towpath. The canal runs to the north of the path, and the rivers to the south.  About a mile from the McKinley Woods parking lot, after passing a little marina on the opposite bank, we came to a what appeared (to me) to be a spit of land that marked the separation of the Des Plaines and Kankakee rivers. Pictures were duly snapped and huzzahs sounded, and we walked back to the parking lot.

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It was only in the course of writing this, though, that I discovered to what an extent I had betrayed the legacy of  Louis Joliet, the 17th century French-Canadian explorer who traveled up the Illinois River to the Des Plaines and then on to the Chicago River and Lake Michigan and quickly realized the feasibility of a canal connecting the lake to the Illinois and Mississippi. The "confluence" I located was in fact just an island in the Des Plaines River. The real merger point was west of the lot where we parked, not east.

I guess we have an excuse to go back and look for the spot a third time. (Pictures, from left: Dad on the Illinois and Michigan Canal towpath; a glimpse of the false confluence; the I&M Canal, with the river bluffs in the distance.)

II. Country Cemetery

From the non-confluence of the rivers, we got on Interstate 55 south, headed for Lexington, about 70 miles away. Our destination was the cemetery in Pleasant Hill, a hamlet two or three miles outside town. My old high school English teacher, G.E. Smith, died in April and was buried there alongside his mother and stepfather. I visited Pleasant Hill once, around 1971 or ’72, when G.E. went down to check up on his family’s old home, which by then amounted to a falling-down house and a cellar with a roof on it. He was attached to the place, but it wasn’t until later that he seemed to act on the interest, writing a column in Lexington’s weekly paper about Pleasant Hill history and then becoming a serious geneaologist and trying to gather all the strands of the family that had wound up out there on the prairie.

The Pleasant Hill cemetery goes back to the first half of the 19th century. The area’s first white settlers, who arrived in 1820, are buried there. It used to serve two congregations in the little town, but those churches are long gone. The grounds are unfenced and merge into the corn and soybean fields. G.E.’s grave is on an east-facing slope; his freshly cut brown-red granite stone announces his middle name, Edward, a matter that he liked to keep to himself. It describes him as "teacher, counselor, writer," and includes a quote from him: "My highest goal was always and still remains simply this: To be able to look back upon my life, from any point along the way, and be able to say that this little corner of the world that my life touched has been made better, not worse, because I touched it."

When we arrived, in early afternoon, it was clear and very warm and the caretaker, Ron Eckhart, was watering new sod on G.E.’s grave from a tank on his red pickup. He’s been the caretaker for 26 years — "That’s a lot of grass cut," was how he put it — and long before that, his dad was pastor at both of the Pleasant Hill churches. Eventually he moved off to another part of the cemetery, and so did we. Up the hill from G.E.’s spot is the oldest section of the cemetery, filled with  people from the days before the Illinois Central bypassed Pleasant Hill and doomed it to perpetual hamlet-hood. With only the graves to go by, you would guess life was hard there. There’s the usual large complement of children who died in their first year or two; but there are also seemed to be a lot of adults who didn’t make it out of their 30s. But maybe life was just hard everywhere when these people were trying to make farms and towns. For one example, take a look at the life of another Prairie Stater, Abraham Lincoln: His sweetheart was carried off by a fever at age 20. Just one of his four children survived to adulthood.

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Looking around the little cemetery, it looked like G.E., who was aged 81 years, three months and a day when he died, might be one of its oldest residents.

III. Wrecked

We drove through Lexington to start the drive back toward Chicago. On the way out to Pleasant Hill, Chris had pointed out the placards on every telephone poll downtown bearing the names of local soldiers serving in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Chris counted 19 names. The town has about 2,000 residents, so roughly 1 percent of the population is serving. We fueled up at the Freedom gas station — just $2.899 a gallon — then headed north on old U.S. 66 to Chenoa. I wanted to take U.S. 24 east to Interstate 57 both because I knew there was a Dairy Queen along the way (in Fairbury) — my dad’s favorite road-trip stop — and because I remembered a little piece of local history along the way: the Chatsworth Wreck.

Back in the mid-70s, I stopped to read a historical marker just outside Chatsworth, one of the series of farm towns strung along U.S. 24. It reads:

THE CHATSWORTH WRECK

MIDNIGHT, AUGUST 10-11, 1887

One-half mile north on the Toledo, Peoria & Western Railroad occurred one of the worst wrecks in American rail history. An excursion train – two engines and approximately twenty wooden coaches – from Peoria to Niagara Falls, struck a burning culvert . Of the 500 passengers about 85 perished and scores were injured.

We stopped at the DQ in Fairbury, then continued on through Chatsworth to the wreck marker, which is about two and a half miles east of town, nearly on the Livingston-Ford county line. One thing that’s a little unclear when you’re at the roadside, though, is exactly where the disaster occurred. The TP&W tracks — the railroad still goes by that name — are a half mile north of the highway. I wanted to see if we could find the site of the notorious "burning culvert" — actually, a small wooden trestle. I imagined there could be a memorial or marker at the spot where the train left the tracks.

We parked at an electrical substation near the railroad’s marked but unguarded level crossing. My sense, based on the marker’s placement west of the section road that runs up the county line was that the wreck site was west of the road, too. Chris and I walked along the single track until we got to a culvert maybe a quarter-mile west of the road. It’s not deep — in fact, it’s a narrow ditch that crosses under the track through an 8- or 10-foot-diameter steel pipe. The site is unprepossessing, just like every foot of track east or west of it to the horizon, and there was nothing to suggest we were at the scene of a sensational event.

After we walked back to the car and started east again on 24, Chris and I spotted another culvert — this one an actual trestle — just east of the county line. We turned around and hiked out to it, too. It’s a much more satisfying place for a calamity: The tracks cross a bridge that’s about 75 feet long and a good 20 feet above a sluggish little creek. We agreed that between the two possible sites, this seemed the more likely.

Back at home, I poked around online to see if I could find some account that sheds light on the wreck’s precise location. Chatsworth had a newspaper, the Plaindealer, in 1887, and much more recently, a retired teacher and local historian there, Helen Louise Plaster Stoutemyer, published a book on the disaster, "The Train that Never Arrived." Eventually, I came across a Chatsworth native’s website that includes the Plaindealer’s first account of the tragedy. The story says the train left the tracks at "the first bridge west of the county line" — the first place Chris and I looked. In addition to offering the salient facts, the writer has a lot to say about the impression the wreck left:

"The sight was most terrible. … It was too horrible to admit of description.  The screams and moans of the wounded were heartrending, and the terror of the sight can not be imagined. … To add to the terror of the scene a heavy thunder and lightening storm came up, and , with heavy rain made such a scene as would appall the bravest hearts. … Even the strongest men were forced to tears as they heard and saw the anguish of the unhappy excursionists.  While many displayed strong courage, grit, and heroism, others were almost frantic, and those in attendence upon them were forced to hold them to prevent acts of insanity and self-destruction."

If you like the newspaper’s rendition, then you’ll love the song: "The Chatsworth Wreck."

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(Pictures: Left: The marker, east of Chatsworth on U.S. 24. Middle: Wreck candidate site A  (west of the railroad crossing 2.5 miles east of Chatworth; north end of culvert is just visible on far left). Right: Wreck
candidate site B — east of the crossing.)

IV. Wrecked Again

After investigating the site of the 1887 trackside carnage, we turned east again on U.S. 24. The highway crosses Interstate 57 at Gilman, then crosses Highway 1, which follows an old trapper’s trail from the Wabash River up to Chicago, at a town called Watseka. I was curious to see Watseka, which I’ve passed through exactly once: In the autumn of 1966, when Dad took us on a long-weekend trip down to the Smoky Mountains and back. I remember going through there late on a Thursday night that ended at a Holiday Inn just outside Indianapolis.

As we started to get close, I asked Dad and Chris whether they remembered the big disaster that had happened in Watseka around 1970. It didn’t ring a bell with them. I recounted the big blast and fire in town — apparently some kind of gas explosion — and an image I still vividly remembered. A fireball rising far above the old-fashioned town water tower.

A couple minutes later, a town came into view. There was a newish water tower rising up in the middle of town. I thought I was looking at Watseka, and said something like, "See, that must be the replacement for the old water tower." Chris was driving, and noticed the town limit sign: Crescent City. He spotted a historical marker on the left side of the road. As we passed, he asked whether we should stop. Yes, let’s. We went back, and the marker turned out to be a small pavilion with some displays. In fact, a big blowup of the picture I had described — water tower, fireball — was the centerpiece in one of the displays. Somehow I had transferred the disaster — which occurred June 21, 1970 — to the next town over.

The cataclysm involved the same railroad that ran its train off the tracks in Chatsworth in 1887, the Toledo, Peoria & Western. Several liquified propane tank cars derailed in the center of Crescent City on Father’s Day morning. The town fire department responded and fought for an hour to prevent an explosion before the first car finally went off. At that point, according to a hand-written reminiscence that’s part of the memorial, "the boys retreated and let fate take its course." Sixty-four people were hurt (mostly firefighters who suffered second- and third-degree burns), none killed; the center of Crescent City was obliterated. The president of the TP&W issued a statement accepting responsibility for the blast and apologizing for "the inconvenience."

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A few years ago, another former teacher of mine, Mort Castle — also a longtime friend of G.E. Smith — helped G.E. pull together the hundreds of poems he had written since he was a boy in central Illinois and select some to be self-published in what turned out to be a pretty hefty volume called “Long Trails from Pleasant Hill.”

Longtrails
At various times, G.E. talked about his youthful ambition to be a writer. Most of the time he was dismissive of his own efforts, though occasionally he would talk about the factors that led him in other directions. For instance, that other writers had already said what he wanted to say, except better (published writers are the ones who realize this and keep going anyway). More significantly: His teaching absorbed so much of his time, intellectual energy and creative attention he didn’t really have the resources to follow his writing seriously. That was not an excuse: He poured all of himself into his classes and students, to the point where the demands he placed on himself brought him to and beyond the point of exhaustion. As Mort remembered in his little introduction to “Long Trails”:

“In 1968, I was Smith’s student teacher. I saw him in action, ‘grading papers,’ and it was not a quick-scrawl ‘Nice figure of speech’ here and ‘comma splice’ there. Not infrequently, a student who handed in a two-page paper received four pages of comment, comment not limited to correcting apostrophe goofs and refining expression, but personal commentary, a Smithian response to what was said and how it was said.”

Still, G.E. had the 800 or so poems, maybe in a picturesque heap that he thought of as organization, probably piled in the post-World War II semi-finished concrete-shell basement of his co-op apartment unit at 134 Dogwood in Park Forest. They probably would have stayed that way except for Mort and a change in G.E.’s own thinking about what his writing represented. “After I left college, I had no interest in publishing my poetry,” he wrote in his book’s preface. “It wasn’t until I began to think, as a genealogist, about how anything written by ancient relatives — even in signature — was (or could have been) so extraordinarily precious that I decided to consider publishing. I realized that I, too, someday, would likely be a long-ago ancient relative to someone who was pursuing my family history.”

So he and Mort brought out the book. I’d like to say that when it arrived here in Berkeley a few years back, I dove into it. But I didn’t. G.E. wrote a long inscription that thanked me, for among other things tracking down a copy of an obscure futurist novel that he had read while sailing from Europe to the Pacific as a Navy Seabee during World War II. I flipped through the book and stopped at a few of the poems. I probably found the project of reading more than a little overwhelming; and I’m sure I also had a tinge of envy and regret that I was holding yet another book by someone I knew while I myself had produced — what, exactly? (If I had ever said anything like that to G.E., he would have had something reassuring to say, then maybe started a conversation about why exactly I thought writing a book was important. Mort would have just said to sit down and start writing if I wanted to publish a book.)

G.E.’s funeral is tomorrow, down in the town where he went to and first taught in high school, Lexington. Afterward, I imagine there will be a long, long procession out to the tiny cemetery in his real hometown, Pleasant Hill, about three miles away. It will be by far the biggest event that would-be city, which started withering when the railroads bypassed it in the 1850s, has ever seen. G.E. and his grandfather and probably many others to whom he unearthed family ties have been cemetery caretakers there; we visited the spot together a couple of times a good 30 years ago; I think I was aware even then, when he was younger than I am now, that this was where G.E. hoped to come back to; not a patch of dirt in a swath of farm and prairie, but a place where his people were.

Feeling sad about the prospect of missing G.E.’s funeral, I picked up his book of poems. I thought, there’s got to be something in there where he talks about his own passing. I turned to the back of the book, to the section whimsically titled “Fear, Aging and Death.” And found this, dated 1990:

Grave Notes from the Underground

When I am dead,
who will enter this quiet sanctuary
and, speaking softly,
(Don’t shout!
I’m not deaf, you know.)
tell me the news I want to know?

Did the Cardinals win last night–
and who was the winning pitcher?

Did the bluebirds sing this spring
on the trail along Bluebird Lane?

Has the Big One ever struck
San Andreas or New Madrid faults?
(And am I safe in Pleasant Hill?)

Have politicos on Capitol Hill
yet understood the limits …
… and limitations … of capitalism?

Do my friends I loved so much
… just once in a while, perhaps …
call or visit each other?

From the knoll and the gnarl of Old Flat-top,
does anyone ever watch, as I once did,
the sunsets west of the sanctuary?
Or the April sunrise on the trail
as it enters Canary Clearing?

Does a cool breeze still stir the air
under the sinuous branches of Old Flat-top?

Do Browns and Boggs still gather
for reunions in July?
(Or do they go their separate ways,
ignorant of the roots that nourished them?)

Is warmth still there at one-three-four
on Dogwood Drive?
Is someone nurturing those
in need of nurturing?

Who came to say goodbye
as I lay freshly dead?

I know, I know.
I can’t reply.
Nothing has really changed.
I rarely had a chance,
when lifeblood-flowed and tongue was ripe,
to sneak a word in edge-wise.

Hey, take it easy there.
Your clomp’s so hard it’s apt to wake the dead.

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A for-the-record entry that should really be much more: Earlier this week, G.E. Smith, an old friend and one of my English teachers at Crete-Monee High School in the late ’60s and early ’70s, passed away. He died Monday, April 3, in St. James Hospital in Chicago Heights, Illinois. He was 81 years, three months, and a day old, a native of the village of Pleasant Hill, near the town of Lexington, in McLean County.

I wrote about him once before, on the occasion of his 80th birthday celebration last year. I’m just one of hundreds of former students and neighbors and distant relatives who became G.E.’s extended family. Every one of us would describe him differently, I’m pretty sure, yet we all saw a lot of the same thing: Someone who poured passion and love into ensuring the well-being and happiness of others, into learning and teaching, into exploring the world through the ideas and people he encountered, into developing a moral understanding of his place in the universe. A powerful example, and he is missed.

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Happy 80.5, G.E.

Back on the 2nd of the month, friend and former high school English teacher at Crete-Monee High School, G.E. Smith, was the honoree at a big bash celebrating his 80th birthday (which was actually January 2; but out of respect for the majority of humanity that doesn't want to travel to northern Illinois in the dead of winter, he waited until the unbearably hot, muggy days of early July to stage a fete). I didn't make it — new job, just returned from a trip to the Midwest, et cetera.

He had asked me to speak at the event — to be one of a panel of people who would "roast" him. Even though I couldn't go to the party, I made a last-minute stab at writing something for someone else to read. This is it:

***

From a distance of about four or five months, I loved the idea of roasting G.E. What a natural target! The first guy I knew who used a pocket protector! And who *always* carried nine or ten different pens in his shirt pocket — black ink … and blue, red, green, brown, orange, purple, yellow and … invisible.

And yeah, there was his fridge. Stocked with the full array of Ocean Spray products and maybe a pickle jar with just the pickle water still in it and some leftovers that were evolving into new life forms. He had handwritten tags on some jars — an opportunity to exercise his sense of humor. Here's a label — "gorilla beds." "Gorilla beds?" you'd ask more or less innocently. He'd look at you and say, "Ape-ricots."

Get it? And that illustrates another key facet of the G.E. persona: Unashamedly bad punster.

Of course, G.E.'s friends at the E.P.A. eventually declared the fridge a Superfund site — at least that's what the newspaper said. But not before G.E. had demonstrated to his many visitors what he suggested was a genetic capacity to eat old, over-the-hill, and past-the-expiration-date delicacies that he had aged to perfection in the ice box. Maybe he was right. He's still among us to sing the praises of moldy peaches.

So, OK, yes — there's lots of stuff you could pick out from G.E.'s curious existence and roast him for it. His shocking fashion sense, maybe. That's "fashion," in quotes. His taste for homemade recreations like yard golf. His ultralogical grading system, so massively straightforward that he'd have to pull a week of all-nighters to finish his semester grading on time. Maybe his biggest flaw is that he likes to hang out with people like us.

But the more I've thought about it and the closer the day has come, the more I feel G.E. is kind of roastproof. I mean, he's been getting roasted for years and years on a daily basis, and it has never seemed to faze him. Always the teacher, he even sent out a sheet to his "roasters" to suggest sample subjects on which he might be skewered. He helpfully listed 19 topics that might make good joke material, including quote "my philosophical, theological and moral-ethical codes" unquote.

Oh yeah! "Did you hear the one about G.E. and Ahura Mazda! It's a real side-splitter!" There — I was determined to get Ahura Mazda into the mix. G.E.'s a sucker for Zoroastrianism.

Anyway, G.E.'s roast crib sheet was his way of letting us know that anything and everything in his life is fair game so people wouldn't hold back on all the wild stuff they know about him. (He also warned about saying anything risque or using obscenities — but he forgot that we're talking about him. The most risque thing I think I've ever heard about G.E. is that he once failed to change his wiper blades on time. Mort Castle could probably turn that into a tale of terror for us.)

Now, there *is* something wild that comes through about G.E. after knowing him for a few decades — his declining, post-Eisenhower years. But it's not about any of the outward idiosyncrasies that he helpfully proposed as theme topics for his roast. By the way, G.E., you misspelled "idiosyncrasies" on that crib sheet. That's a big F-20 for you.

No, I'd say the wild thing about G.E. is that all that stuff we've been seeing — whether you got to know him as a kid running around Pleasant Hill or in the Navy Seabees or at Illinois Wesleyan or teaching back at Lexington High or holding forth at Crete-Monee or Homewood-Flossmoor or in his codger genealogist years — what we've been seeing all those years is a real, honest-to-goodness person who hasn't been afraid to be himself and to be honest with himself about who he is.

Like I said — always the teacher. And the lesson there is to live up to the injunction, whoever came up with it, to "know thyself." But that's not the wildest thing in his life, or the biggest lesson G.E. has tried to teach us.

No the biggest thing we've gotten from G.E., and the reason I think we're all here with him today, is his unfailing willingness to give to the people around him, whatever they needed, whatever was in his reach to do. Through all the years, that's the constant. He didn't list that as something to roast him about, but there it is.

All I have left to say is: Thanks, G.E.

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