Letter from Central Illinois

Dear Grandma Uchytil,

The Illinois Department of Nuclear Safety passed out potassium-iodide pills this month for citizens to take if the nuclear plant is blown up by terrorists. If we swallow them four hours before a release of radioactivity, our thyroids will be protected from cancer. A brochure that accompanies the pills warns, "We maintain that if there is a nuclear emergency, the safest thing you can do is get away as quickly as possible." The brochure doesn't say where we're supposed to go, but I immediately thought about your place over in eastern Iowa.

I'm a long way from that city kid who rode the Empire Builder from Chicago to Iowa every summer. The boy who couldn't wait to see you at the train station, barefoot and wearing a flour-dusted floral apron. You swept me up in that apron, clucking and cooing in Czech and chain-smoking Raleigh cigarettes, the ones with the coupons you saved and turned in for toaster ovens and alarm clocks. It was a deal with the Devil himself: the more you smoked, the more stuff you got, including colon cancer, which killed you long before I could properly thank you.

Every summer you spoiled me with raspberry kolacky, cords of sweet corn, and quarts of prickly-pear jam. You worked the city out of me. I sat on the back porch and snapped beans and shelled peas into silver bowls. When I got in your way, you sent me out back to weed the potatoes, pick berries, feed the rabbits, and catch blue racers. "Go on, get outa here!" you said. "It's too nice to be inside." I traded alleys and sidewalks for creeks and cornfields.

Everyone in Tama County knew what a character you were. You used to call the talk-radio shows in Cedar Rapids to complain about the way the country was being run. I thought you were famous when I heard your name on the air. "Hello? This is Georgia Uchytil, and I want to speak my mind! Now, this Vietnam thing . . ." And who could forget the time you were on the glassed-in porch shaking out the pink chenille and you heard Ray Charles singing "Georgia" on the radio? It was your fifty-fifth birthday, and you knew he was singing just for you.

We're on orange alert this week, which is the second highest alert level, just under red. Orange means we're supposed to take "additional precautions at public events." I hope that doesn't mean our farmer's market, because I need cucumbers and tomatoes. Mom called yesterday. She's worried about anthrax, except she calls it "Amtrak." "I'm worried about Amtrak," she said. "Believe me, we all are," I answered. This week army helicopters are swooping over the lake next to the nuclear plant. They haven't let us fish there for a year. Some folks who've snuck down to the lake claim the bass are getting as big as dolphins.

I remember you visiting us in Chicago only once. It was hard for you to be away from your vegetable and flower gardens, and for you to leave Grandpa to his own devices, which usually meant heavy drinking followed by guilty sobbing in the garage. We lived in a century-old third-floor walkup on the South Side. The city was in the middle of another heat wave. This particular Midwest August night was a scorcher without a breeze. Mom and Dad are fighting. It must be near the end of their marriage. I am six or seven-years-old. The yelling gets louder. Somebody throws a punch. You quickly take me into my bedroom and close the door. I can hear the police climbing the stairs and more screaming. They are taking Dad away to the YMCA. I won't see him for quite a while. We will move to Iowa, where I'll attend first grade. Mom will sign up for secretarial school and work nights at a pizza parlor. But for now, you gather me into your arms and carry me to the windowsill. The room is dark except for the dim glow the streetlight casts our way. I bury my face in your grandmother body until the voices in the next room are muffled. You begin to rock me. You stroke my hair and softly call my name. You wipe away my tears. You tell me to be brave; there is no other choice. You sing me a Bohemian lullaby. You will not let go.

I've decided not to take the pills. Or buy a gas mask. Or pack a gun. Or sign up for the smallpox vaccine. I'm not even stashing away food and water. If I have to live in a world of perpetual biological and nuclear contamination, I want to be among the first to go. The world I want to inhabit is the one you gave to me each endless summer: A wide-open green world with plenty of lightning bugs and buzzing cicadas and lilacs. A world where a boy can get lost in his own big dreams while he's chasing a rat snake up a tree. A place of perpetually rising loaves and canned goods; of fruit cellars you can hide in when the tornado sirens go off. And when I'm scared -- and believe me, Grandma, I'm trying not to be, despite the alerts and the helicopters -- I close my eyes, and I'm a small city boy again burrowed in your bosom. You are rocking me back and forth. You call my name, and together we leave all the bad things behind. We have to be brave. What other choice is there?

Your grateful and loving grandson,
Stephen J. Lyons
About the author:
Stephen Lyons is a native of the South Side of Chicago and, after living for almost thirty years in the West, now resides in a small farming town in central Illinois. He's been employed in nine different states as a tree planter, daffodil picker, dude ranch cook, ice cream vendor, magazine editor, phone solicitor, newspaper reporter, professional tofu maker, grain truck driver, assistant dairy herdsman, and agricultural extension editor.
He once worked for a week in Colorado pulling nails out of two-by-fours, and for one twelve-hour day picking hops in southern Oregon. He was fired from the hops job after accusing the foreman of having bad karma. He was also fired from the phone solicitor job when he was overheard telling prospective customers that the deal (a lifetime of magazine subscriptions at creative interest rates) was a scam.
Lyons is the author of Landscape of the Heart: Writings on Daughters and Journeys, a single father's memoir. Author Terry Tempest Williams wrote about the book, "Stephen J. Lyons has offered us his grace and compassion...These essays are the deliberations of a sensitive and intuitive mind, a mind not afraid of exploring regions of the heart, so often side-stepped by men. Mr. Lyons's writing reads like poetry and has the effect of a lingering memory of love."
Stephen writes articles, reviews, essays, and poems for a variety of national magazines, newspapers, and journals including Northern Lights, Salon, Newsweek, Sierra, USAToday, High Country News, Manoa, Commonweal, The Sun, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Reader, Whole Earth Review, Hope, and The Christian Science Monitor. He is a member of National Book Critics Circle.
Lyons' poetry appears in the anthologies Passionate Hearts, Bless the Day, and Split Verse. His prose appears in Living in the Runaway West and Idaho in Black and White. Lompico Creek Press published an essay by Stephen in its just-released anthology Love is Ageless: Stories about Alzheimer's Disease. University of Iowa Press will publish prose by Stephen in its forthcoming anthology Father Nature, writings by fathers about children and nature.
This past year Lyons was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for "Seymour's Last Dollar," an essay about his step-father that appeared in the October 2001 issue of The Sun. This year he received a 2002 Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Prose Writing.
Stephen is a lively reader and he has appeared at many writing venues including Elliot Bay in Seattle and as guest writer at the YMCA's Writer's Voice in Billings, Montana. For appearance fees or to send Lyons feedback, email him at: midlife@austinmama.com