Searching for a Way Home

Shortly after the war with Iraq began, I waited in line at my local post office. Ahead of me stood a man holding a large parcel. He wore a scraggly beard, un-styled hair, and faded Levis. He was around fifty. One of my numerous faults is to label people without sufficient information. The kid with the hat turned backwards and the baggy pants dragging on the ground must be gang-affiliated when, in fact, he is on his way to an advanced physics class. The African-American men approaching me on the sidewalk are threatening gangsters, but they ignore me, instead lost in conversation about their residencies at the hospital. The man with the southern drawl has got to be a white supremacist. Instead he runs a mission for minorities.

Maybe it was the beard—a rarity in this farming town, except for the Amish who live a few towns over—but I decided the man with the box at the post office was a former Vietnam demonstrator and probably a current anti-war protestor. I even went so far in my imagination to think that he had, like me, lived at one time in the Northwest. Maybe we had mutual acquaintances and lived in the same dead-end mill towns. My characterization of this man made me feel better. Virtually no dissent existed in this farming town, although in the nearby university town pro-peace rallies occurred daily. Yellow ribbons were tied around ancient sycamores and oaks, and flags flapped loudly from mini vans. The man’s presence, his relaxed dress, chipped away a bit of the loneliness I’d been experiencing.

"How is your son doing?" the clerk asks the man. "Is he still on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln?"

"Yes. He’s fine, anxious to get home. His outfit just set a record for the longest deployment in the history of the Navy. They’re just doing circles in the Gulf of Oman."

The postal clerk and the father of the sailor talk for another ten minutes about families, local gossip, and the weather. I wait patiently in line. In a small town you learn to wait.

When the father of the sailor finishes, he turns around and looks me over. There is no recognition. For the hundredth time I feel that odd, lonesome feeling of an alien or an intruder. "I hope your son comes back safely," I tell him. He thanks me and I move to the front of the line feeling like the outsider that I am.

After three years in the farm belt I am restless. Even though I’ve kept up my volunteerism at the nursing home, I’ve taken to passing on the simplest of good citizenship duties: donating blood and voting. In my weak defense, the Red Cross phlebotomists are brutal with the needle (I’m always left with bruises) and most local candidates run unopposed on the Republican ticket. I don’t blame the town for my restlessness: a place is neutral and as I’ve already shown, we mostly live in our minds anyway. Topography is also not a factor. Flat land doesn’t annoy me particularly. Forest trails are just a ten-minute drive away and a river keeps the herons and ducks flying overhead. If you deduct the speeding tickets and DUI’s, crime is nonexistent. You can walk anywhere at any hour of the night. People are generally friendly and welcoming. The mythical town of "Pleasantville" has nothing on this white-fenced, wood-framed housed slice of Americana. But like the James McMurtry song, "I’m not from here, I just live here."

I keep my bags packed and my exit doors unobstructed. Nine states fill my life resume, destinations like Bark River in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where I raked barley in fields surrounded by hardwoods. Astoria, Oregon, where I planted trees on treacherous hills in relentless rain. Tucson’s skid row, where I drove an ice cream truck and lived across the street from the blood donor center, Northern California, where I made tofu for more than two years and was paid $135 a week. Money was never the goal. The objective was romantic, if not altogether vague. Once I had a taste of motion and the inspiration of landscape, I was hooked.

I’ve hung my hat in log cabins, unheated trailers, leaky tents, and sleeping bags under the stars, ranch houses, apartments, highway culverts, strangers’ basements, and friends’ couches. But before long, in every place I’ve dared to call home, I always began dreaming about the next new destination. I still scour maps, looking for the most obscure passage, or the longest stretch on the atlas without a road. Where can I go to initiate that addictive sense of magic and wonder; that delicious two-month long disorientation and discovery period, when one finds the best two-egg breakfast and the friendliest waitresses; the meanest dogs; the loveliest houses; and the best-stocked libraries? Where is that undiscovered American town, that slice of authenticity, a place that doesn’t yet know all the slick ways to pretend to be unpretentious?

At first I wore my restlessness like a badge. Jack Kerouac’s "On the Road" was my bible. "Now, Sal," says crazy Dean Moriarty, "we're leaving everything behind us and entering a new and unknown phase of things. All the years and troubles and kicks—and now this! So we can safely think of nothing else and just go on ahead with our faces stuck out like this, you see, and understand the world as, really and genuinely speaking, other Americans haven't done before us...."

But I am not a fictional character.

Transience comes with consequences. You can never really be a "local," even in the youthful West, where a two-year residency elevates you to "native" status. The real community—the enviable, agrarian one that revolves around life and death, planting and harvest, cemeteries, granges, church potlucks—will always be out of reach. Now that I am nearing fifty, there are not even the required years remaining to sink roots deep enough into this black Midwest soil. Even if I endure a twenty- to thirty-year residency in this close-knit town, I will always be viewed as a newcomer or, at most, the husband of my wife, who was born in the area and has most of her relatives here.

I accepted that status when I came here, thinking I could stave off the inevitable migrating ache in my heart. In the dark winter and the humid summer months I can manage. But when the redbuds bloom in the spring and the snow geese fly over in the fall, I begin to plot my escape. Nights are the worst moments. Reoccurring dreams about tearful reunions with old friends jolt me awake. I walk around the dark house in an attempt to come back to the present, but then a momentary sensory trigger stops me in my tracks. How is it, from a living room in the Midwest thirty years after the fact, that I can suddenly smell juniper berries or feel the exhilaration of a moon rising or remember a dream about black bears? Whatever walls exist between the past and present disintegrate and I would pay dearly to control that uncontrollable urge to cut and run. But run where?

I write down these words and yet they are lies. I know better than to sink to the unhelpful level of apathy. For a place will grow on if you let it, if you begin to live a life outside yourself. I keep thinking back to August of 2000, three months after my wife and I have moved back to Illinois. I won’t go through all the details of my father-in-law’s struggle with skin cancer. Most of us know how horrible cancer is. Melanoma is particularly evil. So check your moles and wear sunscreen, and pray.

Anyway, the long week’s vigil at the hospital has ended. Cancer has won. Howard has just passed away and we stand there surrounding his still body in the hospital bed: Betty his wife of 55 years, his two daughters and his son, and me, the newest member of the family, at about seven years. We have cried, held hands, and prayed over his body; we have allowed the doctor to come in and pronounce him dead and we have called the undertaker. Phone calls and arrangements have to be made. I stand across from Betty, trying not to be noticed, and let the family have their space to mourn. But she finds me, looks me in the eye, points a finger at me, and says, "And you, you will write and deliver the eulogy."

It was an offer I could not refuse, a request from which I could not run.

So on a hot humid August morning in DeLand, Illinois, another American town on life support—population either 450 or 350 depending on which direction you enter the town—I put on Howard’s clothes, his light blue summer blazer bought at Delbert’s, an Amish Big Man’s store over in Arthur, I tied his flowered tie around my neck, buttoned up his short-sleeve dress shirt. All of the clothes were too big, too symbolic, and I knew there was no way I could ever grow into them. I stood at the altar in the small Methodist church, where most Sundays the congregation numbers twenty, and almost all of the congregation is over seventy years of age and windowed, and where in three more years the church would close.

I stood there as Betty asked me to, in front of people connected at the roots like the oldest stand of oaks in the county; these people who had known everything about Howard and each other for more than half a century. I stood, a newcomer, trying to sum up in a few pages what this man’s passing meant. In the front pew his wife Betty, daughters Beth and Jan, and his son Steve, still farms the home place. They all listened. Here’s part of what I said:

"Howard’s life spanned a period of time covering most of the history of Illinois agriculture—plow horse to thresher to combine. He was an innovator and took pride in his crops. He served on so many boards and committees, from the Deland-Weldon School Board to Goosecreek Township Drainage Commission, and every board in between. He served because that is what you do with life—you immerse yourself in it, and for Howard, such a social and talkative man, the boards were very rewarding. He lived through world wars, watched the freeways unfurl across the country, and through it all he stayed in this community he loved so dearly.
A thousand people from Howard’s generation—the greatest generation, no question about it—die each day in this country. They are the reservoir for our wisdom. They are our bedrock, our sustenance. With them go not only the history of farm and soil, but also the ability to mend fences and the art of compromise. And when the last of this generation passes, who will tell us stories?
Like this story he told to his daughter Jan recently about the time his parents, Ola and Parley took he and his three little sisters to DeWitt for their diphtheria shots. Howard could see the children ahead of him in line receiving those dreadful shots, crying out in pain, and running back to their parents, dribbling tears the whole way. Closer and closer the line crept forward to where the nurse was waiting with the long needle. At the last possible moment, when no one was looking, he grabbed his arm, gave out a war cry of pain, and ran out the door. His poor sisters had to actually receive their shots, and their arms stung like wasps’ bites. On the way home he confessed his mischief to his parents, but they didn’t turn the car around. The shame of the confession was punishment enough.
Or the time long ago when he and his best friend Halsey ate an entire quart of ice cream in one fabulous afternoon. Here are his own words:

‘Hot afternoons between chores we’d go to the People’s Cafe in Farmer City, sit up at the counter and order a quart. Hard as a rock it was, kept in dry ice. They cut it with a cleaver into two square chunks, just like it was steak.
We were teen-age boys and because of that we wouldn’t stop eating until we finished it in one sitting. Now that was good. Now that was all right.’

Who will tell us these stories?
The time in 1939 when he and Lyle Resser and Paul Longenbaugh drove across the country to Washington DC in the car Howard borrowed from his dad Parley. This was historic—his very first long-distance driving trip and they lunched and camped in fields along the way. But the best part of the story, according to Howard, was their thriftiness. In a week’s time, he proudly remembered, they each spent $9.32.
So many stories we still want to hear. Stories we need to hear.
Howard, like all the men and women of this generation knew the important things. He knew that the only remaining store in DeWitt once sold Buffalo Chewing Tobacco. He knew the exact date electricity came to his family’s Deland farm—1945, nine years after they moved there. He could always find the schools that have been long torn down.
He knew to use gun grease on his bird feeder stand to keep the squirrels at bay. But you know how it is with squirrels; you can only fool them for so long. And, as his son Steve recounted to me, Howard still remembered in great detail how to kill cinch bugs with logs, post holes, and an unhealthy dose of creosote.
And there was Howard’s pride of conduct. He knew how to carry himself forward into this world, and his courage carried him to the next. Betty said one of the qualities she admired most about her husband was his devotion to his parents in their illnesses and in their aging. Here, then, is perhaps the best way to be beloved.
His mother Ola taught him the importance of knowing how to spell, to use a good vocabulary, and to speak well. Swearing is sloppy and unacceptable. Cynicism is a weakness. Wallowing in self-pity just wasted precious time. The bright light of life was where Howard wanted to bask, not the dark recesses of gloom. Even when he was dying he was searching for light, always searching for a way to make us, the healthy ones, feel more comfortable.
To be called beloved you have to be smart. And Howard was smart enough to marry well; to join forces 54 years ago with Betty Jean, who he sometimes called his 'navigator.' She guided them across this great country on their many trips, and she navigated him so gracefully though his illness to his final gentle breath. They made a warm place within their home for sisters, cousins, nieces, nephews, grand kids, and six years ago, they took in new son-in-law, even, as Howard said with a wink in my direction, even if he was a Democrat. We gravitated toward Howard’s light and he folded us all up in his big arms.
When he retired to Monticello from the farm, Howard set up what became known as 'Command Central,' his big, brown leather chair where he ran everything—phones, remotes, the unraveling of the afternoon paper, the evening news, plotting trips, calling friends and family, and always telling more stories. He stayed active in farming even after retiring, helping Steve with planting and harvest. There was Rotary on Wednesdays, weekly trips to the elevator here in DeLand to participate in the finely honed art of loafing, drives through the countryside to check on crops and reminisce, And each afternoon around 3 p.m. he’d head over to Hardee’s to attend that day’s official session of the Liar’s Club.
In 79 years, such a rich life of accomplishment and family and duty, but still he wanted more and, more than ever, we wanted more…of Howard.
Howard, my dear friend, you are beloved by all of us, and you will always be with us, in this church, in our homes, in these bountiful fields of grain, among the gathering geese, across the big prairie sunsets and moonrises, in these precious communities of faith and flag. You are here with us today, your roots sink deep into the rich fertile soil of our grieving hearts."

Then we carried the coffin out to bury in the country cemetery. The cherry wood coffin was too heavy for one man to bear, so six of us sweating out the humidity, carried Howard down the church steps for the last time. I was the only man under the age of fifty to be a pallbearer.

Halsey, Howard’s best friend and a man of few words came up to me as I was leaving and said, "Nice words." That’s all he said. It was enough.

During that first harvest with Howard gone, I saw the ramifications of what his passing meant. Riding with his son Steve in the combine cutting corn, I noticed he was consulting a worn pocket notebook with tiny perfect script: odd numbers and fragments of sentences with under linings and scratch outs. These were Howard’s combine settings for corn and soybeans. And there in the golden September harvest light, the words and numbers were fading before his eyes.

"Do you want me to copy all those notes down on computer, Steve?" I asked.

"No, this is fine. This is OK." And he was right.

I am trying to be at home in this new place. I am trying not to live another lie. Close the backs doors. Seal the escape hatches. Try to be like my father-in-law. Drop the pose. Be an asset. Contribute to community.

I run each afternoon through the city cemetery, past Veteran’s Hill, past century-old oaks and headstones, past the fresh graves with the fresh flowers scattered on the mounds. Slowly the names are becoming more familiar. The obituaries in the weekly newspaper have meaning now. The fuzzy images focus. Vast flat fields reveal themselves to be a way of measuring worth and value. Slowly, in the time I am blessed to have remaining, this place will someday be home.

One of the headstones reads: "Life is temporary, Love is forever."

Perhaps this is what endures.
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. His next book—profiles, journalism, and essays from the Inland Northwest—will be published by Globe Pequot in September. Order your copy here
Stephen writes articles, reviews, essays, and poems for a variety of national magazines, newspapers, and journals including Northern Lights, Washington Post, Salon, Newsweek, Sierra, USA Today, High Country News, Manoa, San Francisco Chronicle, The Sun, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Reader, Whole Earth Review, Hope, and The Christian Science Monitor. Lyons' poetry appears in the anthologies Passionate Hearts, Bless the Day, and Split Verse.  He also appeared in last year’s anthology, Life As We Know It, Essays for Living from Salon.com.  For appearance fees or to send Lyons feedback, write: midlife@austinmama.com