From The Shadows of The New York City Skyline, A Homesick Longing For Simple, Silent Lessons
By Steve Schippert | June 10, 2010
There are many influences in the making of a man. Discipline instilled by parents, openness inspired by wives and the immediate maturity demanded at the birth of a child. There is also for some the peace of faith, the selflessness commanded by uniformed service and the pain of loss and error. These are the big things, hard to miss, and the man embraces each and all.
Then there are the little things more easily missed. The images, sounds and smells that encompassed and filled the early years. Eventually, finally, a decade became half our lifetime. Free were we to flee the trappings of our small towns. Then, suddenly, we awake to find a decade to be but a recent memory ago and hardly half our lives. Precisely at this point, the man realizes the little things impatiently dismissed in seeking a greater, more consequential experience - life as he dreamed it - were hardly small at all.
One particular man's 25th high school reunion approaches. The time seems as distant today as his suburban New York City home feels from his small rural Illinois hometown. Yet, the memories are also as near as a tracing of a map. It is quite strange in a way, unexpected. I know this because I am that particular man.
A tree's branches may wander and sway as it grows, sometimes unexpectedly so. But its roots always remain precisely where they have always been. So too with me, as my branches now sway just across the Hudson from New York City. But my roots are and will forever be, thankfully, in and around a very small Midwestern farm town.
The mark of 25 years gone does not inspire an unwelcomed feeling of aging and sudden mortality. Rather, at hand is clarity - and with it, an almost desperate longing. Not for glory days or youth, but for those subtle so-called little things that are as much a part of the man as the unmistakably significant.
Vivid is the screaming silence of sunset on a farm. Sunrise on terrain so flawlessly flat that from the area's highest hill, the equivalent of a rooftop, the mind swears it can make out the curvature of the earth on the vast horizon. The almost healing smell of rich black soil turned in the fall and tilled in the spring.
Present behind closed eyes is the feel of the dull cutting on the skin of bare arms by the edge of cornstalk leaves. The predictability of straight country roads with intersections precisely every mile, where every turn is 90 degrees left or right. The hot afternoon smell of the Roth family's small stock of cattle and the Gerber's horses on the left heading south out of town on Route 47, quickly followed by the Summers' pigs just over the creek on the right. The way the smell of fresh baled hay in the nose triggers in the mind the accompanying sensation of a gritty sweat-soaked shirt and a dripping sting in the eye.
The way endless rows of 8-ft. tall corn seemingly stood vigilant guard over any breeze, keeping it out and away, and preventing relief from breezeless waves of almost visible humidity seemingly hurled from the fields and magnified relentlessly by an oppressive sun. Crystal clear is the unnerving, otherworldly green glow of grass when a funnel cloud is churning near, where hail is not just a weather event, but a harbinger of potential violence to come.
So too is the exhilaration of a tornado warning in the afternoon, while the same on a disturbingly sightless, loud stormy night generated near-paralyzing blind horror. I've huddled with fellow Marines in bunkers fearing nerve gas as scud missiles flew overhead and I've crossed a border armed into unknown resistance. Neither of those anticipatory fears came close to being alone upstairs in a large farm house with reports of tornadoes during a deafening nighttime thunderstorm that goes suddenly, eerily silent. Instantly, the keen awareness that you are in the unprotected openness of the flat Illinois prairie landscape is all-consuming. Deafening thunder gives way to silence, a void quickly filled by a heart-pounding that assaulted the eardrums from within and left you longing for the relative solace of a return of the thunder.
It's also the sun-baked bricks that spectacularly pave the main street downtown and the sight and smell of the steam rising from them after a sudden, fleeting July afternoon shower. It's the Harvest Moon Twin Drive-in Theatre, a rare treasure that still attracts families and dating teens on a Saturday night. It's the way we lift our fingers from the wheel to wave to a passing driver on a country road, just because. An act inexplicable and wholly foreign to New Yorkers is just who we are.
Of course, people left their marks on the soul. Take Brian DeAtly. I often joined the crowd in relentlessly and remorselessly ribbing him because he was not the intellectual we apparently fancied our young selves to be. Then one day, I desperately needed a calculator for class. Not five minutes removed from loudly calling him a heartless name seeking the laughter of others, I had no choice but to ask to borrow his calculator. Without pause or even an untoward look, he answered. "Sure," he said, already reaching for it as he spoke. Not because he needed a friend. That's just who he was. Kind, humble, forgiving. He taught me perhaps the most valuable lesson of my life without a word, though he spoke one, and in mere seconds. It was life-altering. We were 13, and he remains the best friend I have ever known though I've not seen or spoken to him in 25 years. I still owe him much.
Shared silently between us, however, are the wordless lessons of a place called Gibson City, Illinois. Even in conversation, the lessons are wordless, for when folks ask you "how are you doing," the lesson isn't in their kind asking, it's in the silent pause afterwards. They are actually waiting for an answer because they asked sincerely, not simply out of polite formality.
I am not a perfect man and - it is rumored - even in my longing and 25 year absence, neither is my hometown a perfect place. That may well be debatably so, but one thing is for certain. If the streets of heaven are indeed paved in gold, they are paved with golden bricks and modeled after Sangamon Avenue in Gibson City's downtown, itself a collection of cornerstones shared by those who call it home.
Some may point to 'Rock of Gibraltar' moments as the cornerstones of their lives. My cornerstone will always be a subtle, solitary brick from Sangamon Avenue. It, and the wordless lessons of my hometown, long before shaped me into the man my wife met, and long before all of the other 'Rock of Gibraltar' moments in my life.
The little things are not so little and the loudest lessons are those unspoken. In many ways, when you long for what you once ran from, you begin to understand. Lucky are we who acknowledge and understand. We have bricks in our treasure chest.