Tuesday, May 31, 2011

DeKalb -- Memorial Day

I drive west on 88 from Chicago. The city recedes and fields open up the landscape. Many of them stand flooded with today's heavy rain. The suns slips down through cloud banks it colors spectacularly. By the time I turn off the freeway onto Annie Glidden road it is dark.

If a quiet dinner in Rosita's Mexican Restaurant, served by a fresh-faced blonde girl, with a couple of young farm families to either side of me, doesn't complete the dramatic change of venue from Boston's cosmopolitan splendors, the freight trains that rumble through my motel room every ten minutes throughout the night remind me that I am no longer looking down on the Charles River from the 29th floor of the Westin Hotel at Copley Place.

 Monday morning I drive around a town much smaller in reality than it had been in my imagination. When a police car blocks my way, I get out to watch DeKalb's Memorial Day parade. First comes a swarm of rumbling Harleys, ridden, I gather, by veterans of wars past and present, streaming large American and black POW flags. One pot-bellied rider puffs on a big cigar.

People on the curbs stand respectfully and then applaud warmly as four Marines march past bearing American, Illinois, POW, and Marine flags.

There follow elderly members of the VFW in scrappy pieces of uniforms, each clutching handfuls of little American flags on sticks that they hand to children on the sides of the street. Before they are past, the girl sitting in front of me has three flags. Several younger veterans come next. One twenty-year-old in camo limps by. A couple of boys not long out of high-school pass, not in uniform but still in the parade. They look bewildered.

Then squealing bagpipes and rattling drums and burley men in kilts and one man with a ceremonial ax: The Firefighters Highland Guard. Fire trucks, new and antique. An ambulance. The orange and black uniformed DeKalb High School band dances past, playing a jazzy tune. They call themselves "The Barbs!"

More uniforms: Girl Scouts Troop 705. Cub Scout Pack 193. Methodist and Catholic Boy Scout troops. The Middle School Marching Band. The DeKalb County Sheriff K-9 Unit.

Middle America, I think, small-town America, conservative America honoring its soldiers and raising its children to be soldiers.

Too many uniforms for my taste; but I stand respectfully, taking photos and writing in my notebook assiduously enough that a man passing on the sidewalk stops and winks and says: my name's James Dean -- for your newspaper account. I wink back and write another note.

Around the corner comes another American flag, carried by a man in his 60's without a uniform. Behind him two women carry a banner stretched between them that reads DEKALB INTERFAITH NETWORK FOR PEACE AND JUSTICE: WE MOURN THEIR LOSS.

A bearded man walks behind the banner, beating solemnly on a drum muffled by a cloth and whistling "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" as a dirge. Somewhere close to 40 people follow, bearing a linked set of photos and names of Illinois servicemen and women who have died in current wars.

There is absolute silence on the sidewalks.

My jaw hangs loose. Stereotypes of smalltown, middle America flee my brain like lemmings. I'll be damned! I say. I'll be damned!

The last of the interfaith group passes by, followed by one last police car, and the parade is over.

A man next to me folds up his chair and explains to his daughter, his voice tense with the surprised silence that still reigns on the street: The ones who were first in the parade, they fought so those people could march.

I drive to the Ellwood House, thinking I will tour the mansion of the barbed-wire baron before my noon appointment with local historian Steven Bigolin. It turns out that the parade has ended there too. From the front porch, a VFW dignitary directs the proceedings: music from the "Barbs" -- a jazzy "God Bless America," music from the Highland Guard -- a plaintive "How Great Thou Art," a gunfire salute by the VFW honor guard, a heart-wrenching "Taps" played by echoing trumpets. After a string of "I would be remiss's" -- remiss not to mention Captain . . . , remiss not to mention the mayors executive assistant . . . , etc., we applaud and that's that. Except, of course, for the Cub Scouts who are directed to gather in the rear of the mansion to meet the VFW Commander who wants to thank them personally for having placed flags on the graves of veterans.

Barbed wire, Steven Bigolin explains as he leads me through the town barbed wire made famous, had to be shipped west.

That explains the freight trains in the night.

And the tracks cutting across DeKalb's main street, The Lincoln Highway.

Mr. Bigolin shows me barbed-wire sites high and low: the houses of Glidden and Ellwood and the parking lot the Lutheran church laid out after destroying Haish's house; the original barns and factories for manufacturing the device that made all three men rich; and the burial places of
the barbed-wire barons (the men who did the work in the factories have no such monuments; but Haish did, Mr. Bigolin says, deliver a turkey to each of them every Christmas):

First the self-aggrandizing Ellwood mausoleum --
Then the self-advertising Glidden resting place --

And finally the self-memorializing Haish memorial --

. . . not to mention the Glidden Crossroads shopping center, Glidden Campus Floral, the Barb City Manor, Barbed City Upholstery, the Haish Memorial Library, the Hyrum Ellwood House, the Haish Carriage House, and so on and so on.

There's a final note for Memorial Day:

Jacob Haish manufactured his last barbed wire in 1916, Mr. Bigolin tells me. Haish received reports on how the wire was being used in WWI and refused to produce barbed wire for that purpose.


michael morrow said...

I love this post scott...I was raised not too far from DeKalb...in champaign...and I love your observations...sure do touch on traditions and midwestern flat-land christianity...god, apple pie, soldier parades and miles and miles of barbed wire...I gotta tell you..after a personal experience leaking onto an electric fence...I may hate electricity more than my barb scared backside.

After studying rhetorical analysis from every which angle with the likes of you, calderon, hamblin, albrecht, sawyer, haprper......the list of uvu scholars I owe brain access to is very long...

...I love immersing myself in your experience...daddy was a steam engine machinist for Illinois Central RR which ran on those DeKalb tracks .. fortunately for me I had more livestock and grain in my life than barbed wire but I love seeing the barbed wire mogul mausoleums standing tall in the same cemetery where those who labored to provide such glorious digs for their bones...makes me snicker..

Scott Abbott said...

Thanks Michael. As you can see in an earlier post from the Boston Fine Arts Museum, I don't resonate to the monuments of the rich either (except negatively).

And thanks for your own stories from Illinois.