Get in line before the Methodists do

Get in line before the Methodists
by Ed Collins/October, 1996

You’re welcome to join me on an annual pilgramage to Kankakee County, Illinois, locale of my mother’s family. My mother’s parents were raised here; they raised their three daughters here; my Aunt Wave and Uncle Joe live here now, in Irwin, Illinois, a one-bar, one-church, no-gas station, no-convenience store “town,” located about 90 miles south of Chicago, on the prairie, smack dab in the middle of America’s breadbasket, a place where John Deere is iconic and corn cobs outnumber people millions to one.

This yearly trip first began ten years ago, when we attended Wave and Joe’s 50th wedding anniversary. Prior to that I had been here only twice before––once as a child with my folks, and once in 1971, when Judy and I were on a ten thousand-mile cross-country motor trip. Both times we stayed with Wave and Joe in their modest two-story white wooden house on Main Street––the same house my uncle was raised in.

Two blocks north of their house is the St. James Catholic Church. That’s where today’s activities start. Although I’m not a Catholic, Wave decided that we’ll all go to early Mass.

While everyone kneels, crosses themselves, recites scripture and sings hymns, I spend the morning looking at people.

Particularly noteworthy (to me, anyway) is a family of five sitting in the pew in front of us. At one end is the father, a stern-faced man in his late-30s, who looks to be an enterprising farmer; at the other end of the pew sit his short, plain-as-can-be, blond-haired, small-boned wife who wears the pre-occupied look of a mother of the three children sitting along side her. Next to the father is a nine/ten-year old boy wearing a Chicago Bulls tee shirt; next to the mother is a cute 14/15-year-old girl wearing her high school letterman’s jacket (I’m guessing soccer, but from behind I can’t see); in the middle is the oldest son, a 16/17-year old who bears an exact image and demeanor as the father.

After communion, when the family walks self-consciously back to their pew, I notice that the oldest son is wearing a belt buckle the size of a grapefruit. I take it that the belt buckle distinguishes him as a farm boy––a card-carrying member of the local 4H Club and FFA (Future Farmers of America). I imagine that many teenage boys already have their sights set on city life, as far away from the farm as possible; the belt buckle must be this boy’s way of expressing his wish to one day run his dad’s farm, or maybe he wears it to please his father, but in his mind he’s already bar-hopping in Springfield or Chicago.

After church, without being asked, I take the wheel of Wave’s new Buick La Sabre.

“Not so fast on the corners,” Wave barks from the back seat, her piercing voice seems to come from right behind her dentures. It’s a voice that serves her well in a crowded room, but one that has an after-effect as it rattles around in a nearby receiver’s head for an uncomfortably long while.

As I come to intersections of the two-lane country roads, I slow to a crawl; I had been forewarned to be on the alert for inexperienced teenage country drivers. Corn stalks still stand tall in the fields; until you reach the corner, you can’t see what’s coming.

I’m getting pleanty of navigational advice from the back seat, but on prior solo trips, driving has been nerve-wracking. There are no landmarks to speak of, save for the occasional big red barn or the tall silver silo; otherwise, this part of the world is flat as a corn tortilla, and each and every dirt, gravel and asphalt road has been laid out by a yardstick, all at 90-degree angles, directional decisions to be made exactly one mile apart.

In a matter of minutes we’ve reached Herscher (pop. 1345, a bank and a video store, even). We’re here to take part in a monthly event that draws people from farm houses near and far.

On the first Sunday of the month the Country Table Restaurant serves Sunday brunch: Two kinds of scrambled eggs (one with bell peppers and onions, one without), bacon, sausage, biscuits––and gravy, of course––fruit, fruit salad (bananas and pineapple suspended in cherry jello), cream puffs, coffee cake and hot raspberry strudel.

While everyone in our party heads for the buffet line, I take a seat.

Bashful, red-faced farmers with pale forehands walk in slowly ahead of their normally chubby wives, some with kids and grandparents in tow. Until they’re seated and eating, they look around the room, greet one another with a nod or by calling each other’s name.

“You better get in line before the Methodists get here or there won’t be any food left,” cautions my cousin Patty. I look around at what I took to be the Catholics, and they all had their heads a few inches from their plates, eating as though they hadn’t in a while.

At one table sits Patty, her farmer husband Leon, her twin sister Judy, Joe, Wave, my sister Pam, my wife Judy and me; at another table sits Judy’s husband Bob, their kids John, Amy, Beth and Beth’s husband Jason, Patty’s daughters Judy and JoAn, and her husband John.

After breakfast, with my Aunt Wave at the wheel, we ever-so-slowly pull out of Herscher. When Wave turns left on Route 115 my Uncle Joe speaks. “Where ya goin’ ma?”

“To Patty’s,” she answers. (Patty and Leon live on a farm in nearby Reddick.)

“What for?” asks Joe.

“Cuz that’s where we’re all meeting,” she says.

“But the Bears are on pretty soon,” Joe says.

From the back seat I size up the situation: Joe is a Bears’ fan and he wants to watch the game on TV. I’ve been to Patty’s before, and the TV reception is, how should I put it, unreceptive; on a good day they pull in a couple fuzzy stations from Kankakee; I’m guessing that the Bears game isn’t broadcast on one of those stations.

Thirty minutes later the women are in the house, probably talking about food preparation and quilt-making. Leon, Uncle Joe and I sit on aluminum folding chairs in front of the garage, listening to the game on the portable radio. A not too strong sun, combined with the gentliest of intermittant breezes, make for a perfect Fall day. These are ideal conditions for a snooze; I am comfortably stuffed and care less who wins the football game.

With the harvest season a few weeks away, Patty and Leon’s modest two-bedroom farm house is surrounded by an ocean of seed corn and soy beans. Adjacent to the house is a two-car garage, one corrigated tin-roof barn, one hundred-year-old wooden corn crib, and two shining-in-the-sun silver steel grain bins. It’s all so neat and orderly, somehow pleasing to the eye, and I’m not sure how to explain it, but it just feels good to be in the middle of such stark and practical simplicity, out of view of boxy RVs parked on cluttered streets next to Geico billboards and so many traffic lights, curbs and sidewalks and those banks and medical offices with all that landscaping and those asphalt parking lots and even water fountains. Plus there’s something about having space around you, and you being taller than most of what you see. I don’t know about anyone else, but it makes me feel more confident or something.

Leon rarely speaks unless spoken to, and he somehow manages to respond to most questions with one-word answers. It especially amuses me when he explains how and why things work or don’t work. “Shit happens,” he says.

I ask what he does with himself in the winter months, when the crops are out and the fields have been plowed. “Read,” he answers.

“Books?” I ask.

“Farm magazines, mostly,” he says.

“Don’t you get kind of antsy after the hectic harvest season? All that intense work and then nothing.”

“Just relax, that’s all,” he says.

While Joe and I take a series of cat naps, Leon sits quietly, staring out at his crops. He never makes a comment about the game and I’m certain he’s unaware of the score. I’d like to know what he’s thinking.

I remember asking Patti about Reddick, the nearest village to their farm, about what was there, what, if anything, there was to do. A part of her answer made me laugh: “When someone goes to the hospital they post a note on a bulletin board at the post office.”

There’s an apparent sameness to everything and everybody here. The farm houses look more or less the same, the barns and grain bins look the same, the farmers and their wives all dress alike. If there’s a status symbol among farmers it’s their combines and their pickups. If true, Leon is one of the have-nots. His combine is nearly antique (no air conditioning, no stereo system) and he owns a 1972 Chevy that’s got character but not much shine, along with a couple rust spots under the fenders and a dusty bottle of antifreeze that sits, permanently, it seems, on the front seat.

If I can locate it, I’m going to insert a photo of the truck that was taken on a previous visit. Leon had parked it up against the cab-high corn stalks on his lawn. If I remember correctly, his name is professionally printed on passenger’s door.

Leon Kersch Reddick, Ill.

During our pilgramage last year Leon proudly took us up into his new $35, 000 grain bin. Inside there was a contraption that continually brought the grain from the bottom to the top (to dry it, I think). When Leon sat on top of all that corn I think I saw what one could correctly call a proud and satisfied man. His corn on his property. He was literally sitting on it, until the price rose high enough to sell it down the river, where it’s either exported for livestock feed or turned into soda’s high-fructose corn syrup or fuel alcohol, or Kellogg’s corn flakes, so I learn.

On Sunday outings Leon wears a fancy seed-corn cap. A navy bill and a tan top with a corn field scene embroidered on the crown––that, I reckon, is about as close to pretense as Leon gets.

On his day off he wears a pair of Levi Dockers and Nike tennis shoes. He plays golf, he says, but I can’t see it. I can see him out in his freshly plowed field chipping golf balls against his barn.

Standing inside a dusty tin barn, white light streaks through hundreds of tiny holes in the roof. “That’s what hail does to you,” says Leon. The tiny holes look like stars. Daytime becomes nighttime.

The block-long road into Leon’s farmhouse is one-lane gravel. Cars coming up the lane leave a trail of dust.

In front of the garage is a cold, uncomfortable, yet somehow inviting bench. Thick pieces of unpainted wood are held in place by two huge slabs of concrete. I’m told it came from a mental hospital in Kankakee.

A few hours after kickoff I awake to learn that the game was over and that Wave has decided we will all go to see JoAn and John’s vacant lot.

Where everything else on this Sunday is moving in syrupy slow-motion, Wave keeps up her everyday whirlwind pace. Before I am fully awake, I’m in the car and on the way to the lot.

On the road I ask Leon who inhabits the remote farm houses I see. Without hesitation, he identifies each and every one of the residents.

When we cross Route 17 I ask about the farm house on the corner. “I don’t know anyone on this side of 17,” he says.

Interesting how a road can create a boundary of familiarity.

After the 25-minute drive to Joliet, Illinois, a leisurely walk around the subdivision that will be home to JoAn and John’s new house, we’re back on the road.

Dinner (or supper as everyone around here calls it) is in Braidwood, Illinois, at the Polkadot Drive In on Historic Route 66. The 50s diner advertises hamburgers, shakes and fries.

Last to be seated was Patty’s daughter JoAn and my Uncle Joe. JoAn is a full nine-months pregnant; her baby was five days overdue.

As I sit amongst photos of Elvis, Marilyn and Buddy, I watch Joe get out of the car and push his walker. Slowly and deliberately he places the walker in front of him, taking two short steps at a time, pausing, then taking two more. Just after he sits down, he sighs heavily, looks at JoAn, then says to no one in particular, “One coming and one going.”

An educated man with a wonderfully dry sense of humor, Joe suffered a near-fatal stroke five years ago; nowadays he speaks and moves in slow motion––he’s become the antithesis to his nimble and fast-talking wife.

“What’s good?” I ask JoAn.

“Everything,” she says.

I order a hoagie, assuming that it’s some kind of submarine sandwich, piled high with three kinds of sliced meats, provolone cheese, lettuce and tomatoes.

It isn’t.

After pretending to enjoy two-thirds of a suspicious-looking sausage sandwich dripping with garlic butter, followed by a disappointing banana split without strawberry or chocolate ice cream, we pile in the cars and head to John’s parent’s house. (That’s my cousin’s daughter’s husband’s parent’s.)

After driving through the sparsley inhabited countryside we arrive at a grand house that sits in the middle of four acres of well- manicured grass (someone obviously takes pride in its appearance). It’s dark and dead quiet outside, but at once everything changes; inside the spacious and well-appointed home is the biggest TV set I’ve ever seen.

In a few feet I’ve gone from one atmospheric extreme to another. I enter the house expecting to be greeted by soft classical music and a cat or two napping next to the fireplace. But the TV is so large, and the volume set so high, that it dominates all potential conversations, let alone private thoughts. The effect is more akin to a sports bar than a secluded country home.

After standing to greet us, John’s mother immediately sits back down in a chair that looks so comfortable I’m envious. Not only does the chair rock, but the foot stool in front of her moves also. During our hour-long visit the lady sits, rocks and crochets, only occasionally looking up to monitor the TV, and rarely to look at her guests.

On the way back to Irwin I sit upright in the back seat, stiff and alert, watching the road. Although I could use another nap, Wave is driving and she can barely see over the wheel.

Back at Wave and Joe’s house, we watch the Clinton-Dole Presidential debate. With nothing really being said, it’s a fitting end to the day. At 9:30, in the middle of a long, rhetorically uninspired Dole rambling about balance budget amendments and middle-class tax cuts, Wave jumps up from the sofa and says in a voice more appropriate for a wake-up call, “Time for bed everybody.”

I’m not really tired, what with all my naps, and I would prefer to watch another hour of TV, even the debate, but I obediently rise to follow Wave’s orders.

“Yes boss, goodnight now,” I say. ◆