The Grade, the Bottoms and a Yellow DogPosted: August 21, 2014
I took one of my semi-sentimental sojourns west today. I tend to do this on less than the brightest of days, and hovering today was a grey, mottled sky. I crossed the Wabash on the “new” bridges. Which always seems strange to me as I was used to the ancient bridge that once stood in their place. I have ever been wary of bridges. Mainly because expanses of water bother me. If water reaches the level of my chest I feel my lungs constricting and breath shallowing. Possibly this is because my mother was saved from drowning by my uncle Dave as a girl, and her terror was somehow transferred to me by memory or fear-altered genes. I think I always have moments of bated breath while crossing a bridge.
Across the bridge I entered “the grade,” at least that is what I and others my age or older know it by. It is the road that runs to West Terre Haute. It is, or was, called the grade because a roadbed was graded up from the bottom lands that separate Terre Haute and West Terre Haute. Terre Haute (French for high land) was located on a high bank east of the Wabash. This hank of land high above the river is the very reason that the town was located there.
This not so on the west bank. The land is much lower and the flood plain of the Wabash formed a two mile stretch of swampy bottom lands. They began “grading up” a path through the bottoms in the late 1860s or 1870s. Eventually the road would rise, I suppose, 10 or 12 feet above the bog. Even in the driest times you can see water standing along the way. How many times I have gone across the Grade? Quite literally thousands of times in my years.
Just as I reached the point where the Grade curves a little to the left I saw a man walking inside the guard rails. He was, I guess, in his thirties. He carried a white trash bag in one hand, some sort of gig in the other. Like the ragpickers I wrote about in an earlier blog he was harvesting the detritus of others, likely picking up soda or beer cans to sell to a recycler. How many trips, I wondered, how many cans would he have to pick to make a dollar? How demoralizing must it be to take on such a job to help feed him or his family?
I was stopped by the light at 7th & National. I saw two hands sticking out of the backseat windows of the car in front of me. As we pulled away from the light, the two hands became gliders buffeted by the wind s of a moving car. My god, how many times did I do that as a kid? Let the wind swirl and take my hand to flight as if it were not part of my body.
I drove “old 40” into Illinois, eschewing the quicker interstate route. Speed and reflections are inimical to each other, I think. I passed Dunlap. A left turn and a few miles would have taken me to the wreckage of the first house we lived in after moving to Illinois. I did go that way, but thought about the great fun we had using a storm-downed tree as fort and airplane when living there. I also remember my Uncle Danny hiding his car there as a 19 year-old when he feared thr bank would find and repossess it.
Now one of the oldest clichés (and I have used it myself more than once) is that when you return to childhood scenes they all look much smaller than the world you remember. But the stretch from Dunlap to Dennison gave the opposite impression. So little had changed. And the trees lining each side of the road seemed taller, thicker than in my youth, as if they defied greed to even try to usurp their place to make way for a convenience mart or dollar store of some ilk.
I don’t much like recalling Dennison. We lived there for several years when I was in high school, hard by the railroad tracks and catercorner from the one-armed former race car driver and mechanic. To me it signifies the period when my family went into a severe economic decline. The house, long since gone, was home to the only sad Christmas I have ever known. So I did not even glance to the right as I went by.
I angled my way off 40 into Marshall. I suppose you could call Marshall my “other” hometown after West Terre Haute. Even now after it as suffered mightily at the hands of the economy over the last two decades, Marshall is a different world from West T. I vaguely remember it being named by the Chicago Tribune as one of the finest small towns in Illinois. It is still, for the most part, a pretty town with neat house, trimmed lawns and tree-shaded street. At the intersection of Route 1 (by the Archer House, once host to Lincoln, and still operated as the oldest inn in Illinois) I turned south and headed to Lincoln Trail State Park.
Lincoln Trail is a small treasure, a vast winding, hilled, forested park. I find it hard to believe I used to ride my ten-speed bike (purchased at the Topps department store in Terre Haute) the 10 or 12 miles from our house north of Marshall to there.
I turned off the highway onto the park access road. Barely 500 yard along the road I saw the skeleton of a decades old barn slowly being flattened by Newton’s thumb. I drove up and down the many, many hills before I saw a spot that I seemed to remember. I grabbed my notebook and camera from the car and headed to a picnic table.
Forty years ago I sat at that table, or its predecessor, after the long bike ride. I would kick back and try to write poems and short stories (about themes I had yet to experience anywhere but in my perfervid mind) in my head and hope to remember by the time I rode home.
Sense memories immediately flooded back. The quiet. The feeling of isolation, aloneness, society of and kind being far away. I scribbled some notes, took some photos. Above me thunder rustled the lofted treetops. Peace and thoughts. I stayed about an hour, just thinking.
On the way out I came upon an ebon crow so intent upon his carrion that I had to apply the brakes. He did not fly away until I was about five feet from him. I am sure he returned as soon as I drove on.
I retraced my path to West Terre Haute. My only conscious destination of the day was to revisit the bottoms. Just outside of West Terre Haute is a spot called the Wabashniki fishing and game preserve? It was meant to be part of a much larger effort to help revitalize West Terre Haute, I am told. At one point, it was hoped it would include a library and small museum. Dreams long gone now, I suppose.
The view of the Bottoms from Wabashniki is much more prettified and sterile than the ones I grew up with. The Bottoms were just down the hill from Grandma and Grampa’s house. Before the levee was built in the early Seventies you could walk right into it. It was a dark, swampy morass of a place as I remember, West Terre Haute Haute’s version of the Old Dismal. It was home to creaking trees, snakes, and odd sounding bird voices. Most of my uncles played there. My mother forbade 4 year-old Tim from going there (I seem to write about her fears and mine, often). But one summer when I was about 4 or 5 my two youngest uncles, Kenny and Danny, hied me away when she was not home and took me to the fort they had built. Whether it is an actual memory, or one that has been ingrained by it retelling, I do not know, but I have in my mind a scene of them lifting me over the top logs and sitting me inside. That I think I remember.
They left me there as a joke. When they went back up Riggy to the house my mom was home from work. At first they sad they did not know where I was, maybe Grandma took me to the store. But their laughter soon gave them away. They finally confessed to my “kidnapping.” My mom babied her younger brothers, but on this day… She grabbed a switch from the mulberry tree in the backyard and chased them back down the hill to the edge of the bottoms. I was retrieved forthwith amid apologies and supplications that she not thrash them. I cannot remember if she did switch them, but I know they suffered the wrath of my Grandpa when he got home from the concrete plant.
I left the Bottoms and headed home. I was barely back on the Grade when I saw an old, old man riding a child’s bike toward West Terre Haute. A yellow bag was strung on the handlebars as he strained to make his way in the rain. The sight caused a quicksilver sadness in me. Made worse when I saw that just behind him was a big yellow dog trotting behind him. I imagined the dog as his best companion and friend. It left me with an ineffable sadness, but also a hopeful thought. No matter how tough things may be, if you have a dog who loves you, life cannot be all bad.