“The soul has no assignments,” Randall Jarrell says. “It wastes its time.” That’s never more obvious than when you’re trying to teach your five-year old everything he needs to know about the place you grew up so that he’ll become, well, you.
“Thank you, Daddy, for teaching me all these things,” he says politely, trapped in his car seat by a five-point harness. “But, Daddy? Can we get hamburgers for lunch or not?”
Most know little about Southern Illinois. It’s at the same latitude as Richmond, Virginia, and had a strong secessionist movement, despite Grant using Cairo to control the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. (My father remembers an anvil on display in the town where he grew up that had been broken, in one of the town’s anniversary celebrations of Lincoln’s murder, by “shooting” it—loading gunpowder into it and blowing it sky-high. One wishes fewer had dodged it on its way back down.) The voices sound mid-southern, especially those of older people, who’ve distilled local speech with age.
Southern Illinoisans eat according to various cultures that worked the mines—grits, biscuits and gravy, ham steaks with gravy, fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy, black-eyed peas, greens, and God’s own sweet corn and tomatoes; costolette, scaloppini, rolladi, lasagna, pasta verde, polenta, risotto, and crucants (most of the Italian-Americans in my town were descendants of Lombardy); the occasional white-tailed deer, quail, wild turkey, Canada Goose, bluegill, and catfish; strawberries, red, black and purple raspberries, apples, peaches, pears, blackberries, blueberries, grapes, and cherries—though not always at one sitting.
The bottom quarter of Illinois, where I’m from, is called Little Egypt. One explanation is the bounty of its orchards, fields, lakes, and rivers: One year in the nineteenth century the upper Midwest had a bad winter, then lost its crops the following summer, and it was saved by milk and honey from Southern Illinois. Others say the name refers to the Promised Land imagined by African-Americans fleeing the Reconstruction South. Newcomer Chicago spread the rumor with her wild-onion breath that Little Egypt is a gaunt-cow and locust-plagued wasteland.
The area is a geologic anomaly. The Pleistocene glaciers that ground down most of Illinois never arrived. So, while Southern Illinois didn’t get the utterly flat yet fertile farmland of upstate, it kept its enormous sandstone bluffs and rock formations (the odd “streets” between the building-sized rocks of Giant City State Park). Teeming with flora and fauna that in some cases look positively Jurassic (see spider, right), it’s part Ozark Plateau, part coastal plain of an ancient inland sea. Streambeds and highway cuts are full of fossilized ammonites, corals, sponges, Archimedes screws, and trilobites, as well as the fossil ferns, grasses, and other swampy plants that sprouted and died over the Pennsylvanian Period and became bituminous coal. The local economy boomed along on that high-sulfur coal for a couple of decades then went bust and never recovered. It hasn’t been easy. The people of Southern Illinois are warm and suspicious, often silent but as easily voluble, and natural storytellers. Having been away a while, I’m the least funny one in the bunch.
I wanted Starbuck to know all this, just for context. Then we would drive past all the places of my childhood, and I would say, There, my boy—you see? across that field spotted with lightning bugs?— there I used to make hot-air balloons with my friend Eric out of plastic sheeting and pie plates and release them after dark. They were mistaken for UFOs, and we listened to a CB radio and giggled as drivers in the vicinity shouted and swore over the airwaves at the sight. Eric’s dad was an electrician at the mines, a huge man with swollen fists, and he and his tiny wife had four big sons. The family sometimes lived on aid when Eric’s dad was laid off again, but because he was a mechanical genius, they owned an airplane, dirt bikes, a dune buggy, a motorboat, and cars too exotic to identify in mid-America back then—Saabs, Peugeots, Jaguars, Porsches, and one of those with its only door in front between the headlights. It sat in the woods out back, waiting its turn to be restored in the building they all called The Shop. Eric’s dad had a heart attack in his Piper on the approach to our local airport, and his quiet tiny wife had to land the plane herself—her first time at the controls. She clipped a light pole on descent but rolled up safely with her dead husband next to her.
Problem is, I could tell Starbuck whatever I wanted, but he wouldn’t retain it. I’m sly enough to show him instead. While we were in Southern Illinois, I let him play with friends’ kids in the city park where I learned to swim and play tennis. I walked him down several trails through sandstone bluffs, and we climbed a dry waterfall. College students had stashed empty beer bottles under a boulder at the top of the cliff, and Starbuck wanted to know if they were from, you know, not dinosaur times, maybe, but from ancient times, like back when the cowboys lived, or something…. Could be, I said.
He wanted to know why there was a filthy waistband ripped from a pair of underwear up there too, and I said maybe somebody had wanted to go swimming real bad. I could see him thinking. We hunted fossils while mosquitoes whined in our ears, and I played music too loud in the car and let him drink all the root beer he wanted on the way home. This is the education of Oronte Churm, which we won’t reveal to Mrs. Churm, who sometimes wants to confer on my methods.