Trains of Thought

31 10 2010

One of the most obvious changes in Princeton since the days of my childhood is the rerouting and reengineering of the roadways. In the late 1950s on up through the present day, President Eisenhower’s vision for the interstate highway system has continued to grow, altering the travel and commerce patterns of America.  I know there are valid arguments on both sides as to the benefits and drawbacks of this trend; I understand both positions.

Back in the day, when I was growing up before interstate highways crossed the Midwest, one of the nation’s Mother Roads, Highway 41, ran north and south through Princeton.  That meant that everything from car parts manufactured in Chicago to concentrated orange juice from Florida came through Princeton.  That cartage was not the exclusive domain of the highways in Princeton.

Princeton was a railroad town.  In fact, two major rail lines intersected in Princeton. The Chicago & Eastern Illinois (C&EI) and the Southern railroads ran on tracks that for all practical purposes surrounded Princeton.  Not only were there multiple tracks skirting and bisecting Princeton but the Southern had a very large maintenance facility located on the south edge of town.  That facility was commonly referred to as “the shops.”  My maternal grandfather worked as a boilermaker at the shops repairing steam locomotives.  I have only limited memories of steam-powered engines chugging along the tracks and my grandfather coming home from work covered with soot.

All of the trains and all of the traffic traversing Highway 41 made for traffic jams that simple would not be tolerated today in our current, “I’m late, I’m late for a very important date.” society.  In fact, getting caught by a train on the Southern track that crossed Highway 41 could end up in a wait well over an hour if the train was “switching.”  Switching refers to the process by which a train is actually put together. Apparently, there is a rhyme and reason to the order in which cars are assembled in a train behind the engine.  This process would include multiple stops along with several forward and reverse movements of a train in order to couple and uncouple specific cars to achieve the desired order before the train began its journey across America.

More times than I can remember, I sat in the backseat of the family car as we waited in a line of traffic being blocked by a train.  The reality of the roadways and the train tracks at that time was that with a long enough train, there was literally no way to get into town or out of town.  I guess in the years shortly after WWII this was not such a big deal because the number of automobiles per capita on the road was not what it is today.

During those long waits for the trains to clear the crossing, I remember being absolutely bored to tears.  In order to help fill the time, my parents created some games that focused on the train and held my attention for what could be a long wait. If the train was moving at a steady pace the game was to simply count the number of cars on the train and write it down to compare with the next inevitable wait at the train crossing.  If the train was switching which involved long periods of time when the train did not move, the game was to read on the sides of the train cars when each was constructed or refurbished.  Since the train was moving slowly as in stopped or creeping along, reading the small print on the side of the boxcars and tankers was not a difficult task.  The only time that the date game became difficult was when our car was not close enough to the crossing to easily see the dates.  We solved that be carrying an old brass spyglass that my dad got from his grandfather–problem solved. As long as the people at the front of the line of traffic kept their headlights on at night we could make out the dates.  If, as many people did, the drivers in the line of traffic turned off their cars, then boredom was inescapable.

Today, the shops are shut down and Highway 41 bypasses Princeton as a nice dual-lane.  The old route of the highway has been reengineered as an overpass crossing the tracks.  No one has to stop for the trains on the Southern tracks but no one gets to play the games of my childhood either.  I guess those games do not compare to Gameboy or Leapster but still, I think something has been lost.



Cigar Smoke and Coal Oil

30 10 2010

Yesterday morning was the first official frost of Fall.  As I sat outside in my Polartec, drinking my morning coffee, the colors of the leaves and the feel of the air took me back to similar mornings over four decades ago when I would join my Uncle Bill and my cousin, David, quail hunting.  I would get up before sunrise and start the process of getting my hunting clothes on and making sure that my shotgun and ammunition were ready to go.

At this point, I need to state that three men served as the models for my core beliefs of what a man should be.  First and foremost was my dad.  The other two were my Uncle Bill and my Scoutmaster, Richard Bell.  Uncle Bill served as my grade school basketball coach for a couple of years but my fondest memories of him are those hunting trips.

My dad was not a hunter.  He took me deer hunting two or three times but still, he was not a hunter.  I never really knew why he didn’t hunt.  That is a question I should have asked him.  As I commented in an earlier post, my dad taught me to shoot and was, himself, an excellent shot.  I always suspected that growing up poor and in the country, he maybe had to hunt squirrels and rabbits to eat.  If my suspicions are correct, he may have put hunting in the same category as hauling and heating water for baths and laundry.  He didn’t need to do either and therefore wanted that part of his life to be in the past.  I am confident he never saw the sport in hunting.  He wasn’t against it, he just didn’t enjoy it.  I came to that point myself many years ago. So, in my formative ‘tween years, my Uncle Bill took on the role that might normally have fallen to a father to go hunting with a son.

On those early frosty mornings, Uncle Bill, David and I loaded the dog cage and Buck, the English Setter, in the back of an old green Chevy pickup and placed our shotguns in the gun rack against the back window of the truck.  We did not immediately head out to hunt.  Oh no, there was more to the ritual of going quail hunting than just going hunting.  Besides, the sun was not up at the time we would leave and the law prohibited shooting any game before sunrise or after sunset.

We always stopped at Cricket’s Pool Room for breakfast.  My parents warned me about going into one of the two pool halls in Princeton (not sure why, even today) so, eating breakfast at Cricket’s was forbidden fruit.  The three of us, complete with Carharts, boots and the mandatory camo hats worn in the Red Green style,  sat on the chrome and red swiveling pedestal stools that lined the lunch counter.  We always ordered fried egg-and-cheese (on a hamburger bun with pickles) sandwiches. The orders never changed–that would just not be right.  I still like egg-and-cheese sandwiches but I have never had one as an adult that compares to the ones I ate with Uncle Bill and David at Cricket’s.

After the clandestine breakfast we would all pile back in the pickup that smelled of cigar smoke and coal oil; Uncle Bill smoked cigars and worked at a local refinery. The aroma of stale cigar smoke in cold air and/or the faint fumes of kerosine/diesel fuel still trigger some of my clearest sensory images.

When we reached the designated hunting area, we would dawn our game vests, load our shotguns and open the tailgate releasing Buck to do his instinctive job.  Uncle Bill would yell, “Hunt birds, Buck!” and off the setter would go.  As we walked across harvested cornfields and bean fields we watched Buck as he ran at breakneck speed with his nose to the ground.  Rarely would Buck ever find any birds in the middle of a field early in the morning.  For protection at night, quail will usually gather into a covey and seek shelter in a wooded fencerow.

As Buck eventually zig-zagged his way across the field and began to run a fencerow at the edge, we continued our march toward what we hoped would be the hiding place of a large enough covey that all three of use could shoot at least a couple of birds each without depleting the covey too much.  When we came within earshot of the dog, Uncle Bill would yell, “There’s birds in there, Buck!  Hunt birds!”

One of the most magnificent moments in hunting is when a well-trained birddog goes on point.  From a full run, Buck would turn on a dime when he picked up the scent of the quail and go into a stance with head down, front paw up and tail out straight. One of the marks of a good birddog is the ability for the animal to stay on point for a prolonged period of time without advancing into the covey and flushing the birds.  Buck was a champ at staying on point.  Many times we lost sight of Buck for prolonged periods of time only to find that he was on point all the while.

The three of us would pump the forearms of our shotguns to insert a shell into the chamber as we took our positions in a semi-circle behind Buck; he shivered with excitement but never changed his stance.  On Uncle Bill’s command, Buck would flush the quail and all hell would break loose.  Even knowing that birds were going to fly out of the brush, the sound of their wings beating the cold morning air still evoked a mix of fear and thrill in me as the adrenalin surged through my body. Within less than five seconds it was over.  If our reactions were quick and our aim good, Buck would then shift from pointer to retriever and bring the downed quail back to Uncle Bill.  We then moved onto the next fence row and, hopefully, another covey.

Usually, by noon, Buck was exhausted and we returned to the truck.  In fact, the dog would be so expended that Uncle Bill usually had to lift him into the truck.  After we got back to town, we cleaned and dressed the quail then Uncle Bill would put them in the freezer to be part of our annual Wild Game Feed each year in January.  The main course of the meal normally consisted of squirrels, rabbits, quail and occasionally pheasant if we went to Glenview Game Preserve up around Washington, Indiana that season.

Last weekend, I had a chance to ride in an old pickup with Uncle Bill again.  We were not going hunting and we are both a lot older.  He can no longer hunt but still loves to shoot trap.  His  (not green) pickup no longer smelled of cigars and coal oil nor did we eat egg-and-cheese sandwiches at Cricket’s.  Still, it felt good to spend some time with my Uncle Bill.

Being an only child I have never had the experience of being an uncle.  I watch our children and their spouses with a bit of envy as they all interact with our seven grandkids.  Aunts and uncles can and do serve a vital role in the development of young people that the parents simply cannot because of their roles as parents.  I suspect that being an actively involved aunt or uncle is also good training for grandparenthood.  Regardless, I know that Uncle Bill certainly was important to me as a boy and still is.



25 10 2010

Today I took another one of my mini-odysseys around Princeton.  Where I intended to travel and where I ended up were different.  I drove north on what is called North Main which eventually turns into Petersburg Road.  My initial plan was to wander around a cemetery and see if I could locate the gravesite of a girl who was a friend during high school and college; she died as a result of a car wreck forty years ago.  I drove through the cemetery but never spotted her stone.  I didn’t get out the of car because it just did not seem like what I should do.

As I pulled out onto Petersburg Road I turned north again rather than south back towards Princeton.  As I was making the turn I realized where I was going–Severns Bridge.  About three miles north of Princeton the old section of Petersburg Road crosses the Patoka River.  Back in the mid-1950s and early 1960s I would accompany my parents along that stretch of road and over that old iron bridge nearly every weekend to go visit my paternal grandmother who lived in the small community of Union about twelve miles to the northeast of Princeton.  Damn, I dreaded those weekly trips.  I enjoyed visiting Grandma Wright but the curvy roads and my parents’ secondhand smoke would bring me to the point of vomiting from being so car sick–another story, another time.

As I came to the spot where Old Petersburg Road and New Petersburg Road reunited, there was a modern concrete bridge crossing the narrow river.  I felt a pang of disappointment as I slowed and turned onto the bridge.  I had come to see the old Severns Bridge.  This concrete monolith held no memories.  Just as I was about to accept that like many other Princeton landmarks from my youth, the rusty iron bridge had passed into memory, I saw it.  There it was–about fifty yards upstream.  It was not a memory but a present day reminder of a time gone by.

I’m not wanting to get all sappy here but Severns Bridge was the location of many of my fondest memories growing up.  Many Saturday afternoons, weather permitting, my dad and I would drive out to the bridge with a cardboard box full of glass jars and bottles to engage in an activity called plinking.  Now many people may not know what plinking is but it refers to shooting at jars, bottles or tin cans with a small caliber rifle or BB gun.

Out of the backseat of the car dad would take the box of targets and I would follow behind carrying a smaller box of .22 shorts in one hand and a Remington rifle manufactured around the same time that the bridge was erected (1908) in the other.  That rifle was the one that my great-grandfather used to teach my dad how to shoot.  I realized, even at the early age of 9 or 10, that using the same rifle he used was cool.  I still have that rifle and will one day pass it on.

What came next in our Saturday afternoon adventures would not be looked up as politically correct or environmentally friendly today but it was a different time with different views on such subjects.  The rightness or wrongness of it can be debated by others. For me, it was all a boy could ask for.  I was with my dad doing something we both enjoyed–it was our time.

After carefully loading the cartridges into the magazine of the rifle I would stand at the railing of the old bridge and shoot at the bottles and jars floating down the river.  Dad would throw one at a time into the water thirty or forty feet below and it would bob and weave as it started what I hoped would be its interrupted and unfinished journey to the White River.  When the two of us first started our little game it was not unusual for us to bring back jars and bottles (probably never more than a couple of dozen were ever taken to the bridge in the first place) because I had exhausted my supply of fifty cartridges before I exterminated the pesky glass containers.  However, as time went on and my marksmanship improved, I would quite often be able to make a fifty-five cent box of 22s last two sessions of plinking.

As I walked across the bridge in its present day incarnation complete with oak flooring, traffic barriers, commemorative bronze plaque and an ugly as hell, Carolina blue paint job those warm feelings of my time with dad came rushing back–I cried and smiled at the same time.

Those Saturday afternoons were filled not only with the sharp reports of the rifle and more splashing water than breaking glass but also quiet conversations.  Many of those conversations revolved around the old legends of John Severns and a hidden Indian treasure located somewhere along the bluffs of the Patoka River very near to where we were standing.  Dad would retell the stories that his grandfather passed on to him when he was a boy about my same age.  I felt connected.


Sunday Morning

17 10 2010

Sunday morning I drove into town to get a newspaper and a gallon of milk (something I would not have done if we were not in Princeton) and saw only a very few cars in the parking lot of the grocery store.  At the time it dawned on me that people do most things in their lives according to some sort of a routine.  Obviously, going to the grocery store on Sunday morning around 9 a.m. was not in most people’s routines.  Why not?–it’s easy to find a parking place right by the door.  The answer must be that people don’t need to go to the grocery store so they don’t.  I’m not sure where my ramblings are headed but I did notice that the drive-through lane at Mickey D’s and the parking lots of a couple of restaurants had more cars in them than did the grocery store parking lot.

Sunday breakfast has always been a big deal as I was growing up.  Rarely did my family go out to eat on Sunday morning.  In part, much of that probably had to do with going to mass on Sunday morning and the church’s rule of abstaining from food for a prescribed amount of time prior to receiving communion.  Anyways, Sunday morning breakfast after church generally consisted of fried eggs, lots of either bacon, sausage or ham, toast or biscuits and gravy–gravy was a must for Sunday morning breakfast.

Today, my wife and I have developed our own Sunday morning breakfast routine.  We don’t attend church so I really don’t know how it came to be;  unless we are on the road or invited for breakfast we will have poached eggs, toast, and turkey bacon.  It’s not very glamorous or trendy but it is what we have.  During the rest of the week, fruit, yogurt, oatmeal, mushroom/cheese omelets, pancakes or french toast may be on the breakfast table.  But Sundays, you can make a pat bet on the poached eggs.

I guess one of the nice things about being retired and not having a schedule or a lot of specific obligations in life is that routine or the lack of it really doesn’t matter.  Routine by choice is definitely a preferred situation than routine by necessity.  Both types of routine serve a purpose in different phases of life.  I wonder when routine turns into tradition.

My wife and I do have routines that I think have morphed to traditions and may well be on the edge of becoming rituals.  Morning coffee beside the goldfish pond, gin-and-tonics on late summer afternoons before supper along with putting underwear in the kids’ and grandkids’ Christmas stockings are examples of things we do without giving it much thought.  Being in Princeton for a month now has disrupted our routines and yet, at the same time, has made us aware of just how much those routines/traditions/rituals give us comfort and a sense of control in our lives.

I guess there is a thin line between being comfortable and being in a rut.  With our plans for future glory days I suspect that our routines fall into the comfort area and are continued by choice rather than a lack thereof.

Time will tell as we enter a new phase of our lives next year what routines we take with us and what new ones we establish.

Life just seems to be getting better.  Now that’s a routine I can live with.


The Armory

15 10 2010

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have intentionally been driving up and down different streets during our time here in Princeton hoping to recall some memories of my childhood and teenage years.  Well, yesterday as I was driving south on Hart Street and I passed by an old, refurbished brick building that served as the National Guard Armory during my years as a Princeton resident.

Saint Joseph school had a gymnasium back in 1961 (I was in the 6th grade) but it was converted into a church complete with sanctuary, confessionals and pews.  Therefore, the Saint Joe Wildcats basketball team had to practice and play elsewhere.  That is where the Armory comes into the story. At 4 o’clock one afternoon each week–I don’t remember which day–the 5th-6th grade team and the 7th-8th grade team would practice on the basketball court in the Armory that also served as the assembly area for the monthly National Guard drills.  Besides being the location of our practices, the Armory also served as our home court at least once a week.  We usually played two games a week; one at home and one on the road.

Coaches for our basketball team were men from the parish who were willing to volunteer their time with varying degrees of expertise in the fundamentals of the game and of coaching.  As I look back, I guess we were fairly lucky in that all of our coaches during my four years of playing for Saint Joe had, in their glory days, at least played high school basketball.  Those who have grown up in Indiana understand that playing high school basketball in this state gives a person a better than average understanding of the game.  One of our coaches even played college basketball for Loyola.

All of these coaches had their own styles but the one I remembered when I drove by the old Armory the other day was my 6th grade coach, Eddie Thies.  Eddie was a skinny redhead whose family owned the local movie theater.  Although I never knew for sure, Eddie couldn’t have been much older than 25, so he was still a big kid himself.  I never heard how Eddie came to be the coach that year but he took the job very seriously.  To say Eddie was passionate about basketball would be an understatement.  When Eddie was instructing during practices he would scream and holler in a Bob Knight-esque manner.  When he was coaching on the sidelines during the games in a business suit and tie, his enthusiasm was similar to Tom Crean’s style. Eddie wanted to win and could not tolerate anyone he thought did not share his same level of commitment to winning.

As a result of a particularly poor showing against a local school, Baldwin Heights, we knew the next practice was going to be difficult, to say the least.  As we reluctantly meandered up the steps from the basement level dressing rooms/showers of the old Armory and spread out onto the court, Eddie was standing at center court dribbling a basketball ferociously with two hands. Each of us knew not to do anything that might draw attention to us as individuals.

After what seemed like an eternity of nothing but the echo of the bouncing basketball echoing off the metal rafters, Eddie finally stopped and glared at us–we knew the shit was going to hit the fan.  As he started his litany of mistakes and errors in judgement committed by the team in the last game he was gaining momentum as his face grew red and sweat broke out on his forehead.  Once he finished his general indictment of the entire team, he turned his wrath on the guards for taking poor shots.  I breathed a sigh of relief–I played forward. However, I knew it was only a short reprieve because we also did a very poor job of blocking out and rebounding.  Those of us on the front line would be the next target of his ire.

Apparently, language was no longer effective in communicating Eddie’s disapproval of the guards’ shot selection and he decided that a demonstration was in order.  He started dribbling the ball down the court screaming that the guards just threw up the ball up from anywhere on the court.  At about the top of the key, on a full run, Eddie heaved the ball towards the stratosphere with both hands.  If this narrative is ever converted to a movie, this where the film editor will shift to slow motion.  As the ball left Eddie’s hands it soared up into the dusty I-beams that held up the metal roof; he screamed that he was just showing us what he saw in the game.

By now you probably have guessed how Eddie’s bombastic and exaggerated “shot” ended its improbably trajectory.  After launching the ball, Eddie turned his attention and condemnation back to the team.  During the entire reaming that the team endured, I doubt that any of us ever made eye contact with Eddie–I know I didn’t. Once we had the courage to look at something other than the laces on our chucks, we gazed skyward.  All of our eyes were transfixed on the ball as it careened off the metal roof, some 30+ feet above the court, bounced off several girders like a pinball and dropped perfectly through the basket–nothing but string music.  Eddie was catching his breath between sentences when the sound of the swish filled the vacuum of sound in the gym.

I have never fought a laugh so hard in my life and believe me, I am very irreverent about a lot of things.  However, I knew, as did my teammates, that living long enough to see the next sunrise depended on remaining dead-panned.

Eddie’s rage went to a whole new level once he realized the ball had passed through the hoop behind him.

All that could be heard in the Armory was the mocking sound of the basketball bouncing on the hardwood as it eventually came to rest on the opposite end line.

“Don’t you dare say a goddamned word!–50 laps–no talking”

All of us knew that running the laps was getting off easy.

Regardless, Eddie was still one of my favorite coaches.  So many of his antics have made me chuckle over the years.  I also learned that if you are going to compete, compete to win or stay home.

Wherever you are, Eddie Thies–Thanks!


Incense and Root Beer

9 10 2010

Cemeteries have be the part of so many pieces of literature that I hesitate to use one as a subject of my writing for fear of it coming across pedestrian and filled with cliches.  The idea for this post has been simmering in my subconscious for nearly three years but not until earlier this week did it come to the surface where I could examine it and determine if it was worth writing about–I’m still not sure it is.

Being raised Roman Catholic and being a practicing Catholic until my mid-20s, I have seen my share of ritual as well as being a part of those rituals as an altar boy.  In fact, I served as an altar boy from the 4th grade up through the time I left for college.  To me, one of the most fascinating of the church’s rituals is the one surrounding the internment of the deceased.  Of course, most cultures have elaborate rituals and beliefs about dying and the afterlife and, in my mind, one is as good as the other since no one has every been able to write a first person narrative about the experience.

I cannot remember exactly when I became aware of funeral masses and the ceremony at the gravesite but I suspect I first experienced the funeral mass in the 3rd grade. School children in Catholic schools were herded into church to sing at funerals which were usually scheduled mid-morning.

In the established pecking order of Saint Joseph School only 7th and 8th grade altar boys were allowed to get out of school to serve at a funeral mass and then go to the cemetery with the priest for the graveside ceremony.  After I served my first funeral I knew I wanted to serve every one that I could.  Getting out of school was cool but the real reason was because the undertaker, Frank Colvin, always took the alter boys to Dick Clark’s Drive In for root beer.  This was our little secret.  Father Egloff and Sister Mary Lea had no idea that when we were with Frank, we were really skipping school. I guess that is why the root beer always tasted so good.

I know we had to be a funny sight; three altar boys in full black cassocks complete with white surplices and a undertaker in a long black hearse. Hanging of the driver’s window of the hearse, a curb service tray holding four frosted mugs of root beer–life was good.

I had not thought about the undertaker and the root beer for decades until October, 2007 when we buried my dad and I saw the altar boys/girl at the gravesite.  As sad as the mood was, I smiled a little smile and hoped that they too might get a cool drink after a hot day of carrying a heavy crucifix and getting light-headed inhaling the smoke from the incense.  No pain, no gain.



Hometown Memories

3 10 2010

One of the most important lessons I have learned thus far in the last half of my life is that I can have a very clear, detailed memory and that memory be incorrect.  I guess this phenomena is similar to what causes witnesses to recall the same event with considerable diversity of remembered details.  I read somewhere that the brain fills in the blank spots of a memory when that memory is recalled.  Human thought is in the form of pictures.  When memories/pictures are recalled, the brain will fill in any blank spots in that image.  For example, if a car was parked on the street where an accident happened nearby, a witness may well recall that a car was parked on the street but the make, model or color of the car may not be recalled at the same time the overall image of the accident scene is brought into the conscious mind.  The brain sort of proofreads the image and fills in any blanks with the most likely detail but not necessary the most accurate detail.  That is why a blue car can be remembered as a black car.

I first became aware of this false memory concept back some twenty years ago.  During one of those many times in my life when, along with several of my buddies, I tried to drink all the beer in Southern Indiana, I found myself retelling a story from our glory days.  As I concluded my tale, several of my friends remembered the story differently.

After thinking about their version, it dawned on me that they must be correct even though my memory of the event was unchanged.  I concluded that I simply did not remember the event correctly.  As my friends pointed out to me, one of the key individuals in my story had died in a mountain climbing accident three years prior to the time that my story took place.  I remembered the timeframe of the event correctly, just not all the details.

That narrative sets forth the context for what I hope to be several future blog posts.

Two weeks ago, my wife and I moved back to my hometown of Princeton, IN in order to take care of my 81-year-old mother who is suffering from Stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer.  After making the 250-mile round trip from our home to Princeton approximately once a week for the last year (she was diagnosed in September, 2009) taking her to her chemo treatments and doctor appointments along with restocking her groceries, she is now at that point where she can no longer safely drive or effectively take care of her own everyday needs such as bathing, cooking, or administering medication.  I suspect this whole experience of caring for a parent through the end-of-life process will be something I write about at some point but not now.

I want to focus on the memories I am experiencing on a daily basis as I navigate around my hometown after being born and raised here and then leaving in 1972.  I have come back throughout the years to visit my parents, other family members and two of my lifetime friends.

On previous visits to Princeton over the years I would, of course, have memories of everything from childhood experiences to more contemporary happenings such as golf scrambles, old-timer softball games and family get-togethers.  However, those are memories more in the flashback vein than something of substance.  Over the last week and a half I have intentionally made an effort to drive on different streets throughout Princeton with the purpose of seeing what I remember and what has changed.

I hope over the next few of months as we care for my mother that I can sort out some things from my past, validate or discredit memories and hopefully, rid myself of some demons.