As I watched the minutes tick away on my Seiko now certain I wouldn't make the flight I double knotted my shoelaces, tightened my pack straps, did a little stretching and prepared myself mentally to be the dolt who didn't leave enough time to catch his plane. As soon as the doors opened I was off at a sprint running down the platform towards terminal 2 and into the tunnels overtaking startled Friday morning travelers with a pounding headache all the while. There was no line to print my boarding pass and a momentary delay at security before I had my shoes back on.
In dire need of greasy food I sacrificed a few precious moments at the McDonald's counter thinking I still could make it. With a sausage McMuffin in hand I rounded the corner to the boarding gate and yelped "Wait!!!" as the attendant was just about to close the ramp door. Had I been a second later I would have been eating my breakfast on the train back to Chi-town wondering when my cousin would be done working to let me into her place to crash for another week.
But I made it and felt pretty smug to be such a savvy traveler. As the airplane taxied away from the gate into the early morning line up I polished off my breakfast and feeling much better in mind and body opened the USA Today to read the headline: "Mid-Atlantic buttons up as storm nears".
"F.M.L." I thought as it continued: "US Airways, which has an international hub in Philadelphia, canceled all 300 of today's' flights in and out of airports in the Washington area, Philadelphia and LaGuardia in New York." My stomach sank at the thought of spending the next three days sleeping under one of the 3000 stockpiled blankets at Philadelphia International as the mid Atlantic was pelted with what papers were hyping up as the "snowpocalypse".
My life as a movie had gone from action adventure to dark comedy. Had I even caught a whiff of this impending “snowmageddon" I would have staid put with friends and family in Chicago and attended the Saturday night underground dinning party a local celebrity chef had given me an open invitation to. Instead of starting dinner off with an amuse-bouche along with 30 other guests in a high end Chi-town condominium I would be eating Sbarro pizza for 7.99 a slice for the next three days!
My annual visits to the mid-west center around spending time with my almost 88 year old grandmother, Beatrice, while trying to fit in time with any and all of the aunts, uncles and cousins that have remained in the land of our Swedish and English forefathers. A night or two out in Chicago is always included in the itinerary.
Chicago, unlike so many other cities I've visited, feels like a small town to me despite its sprawling flat expanse. The bar where I spent last night getting schooled at pool felt as if the only thing that had changed in the last thirty years was the bar tender had stopped pulling patrons over the bar when arguments over the Cubs got heated.
The patrons, unlike the more stylish hipsters and yuppies of New York and L.A., looked like any other Schlitz loving Midwesterner from Joliet or Peoria. No gel in the hair, no Italian shoes, no big city attitudes. It helps that most people I know in Chicago are from the mid-west and perhaps the homogeneity of the city people contributes to this, but they don't put up the egotistical front city dwellers do elsewhere.
One of the places that this small town U.S.A. atmosphere is fostered is none other than Galesburg Illinois. A city of 33,000 Galesburg is historically known for it's importance as a railway hub, evidence by the immense "Hump yard" and mile long freight trains. It is also the birthplace of Carl Sandburg, the first anti-slavery society in Illinois (Also a stop on the under ground railroad), my dad and the home of my Grandmother.
In a town where Ronald Reagan attended primary school my Grandmother has been an ardent and active supporter of the Democratic Party throughout her life. Working on the city council, assisting candidates and volunteering in prison literacy programs (Besides raising 5 children) are some of the accomplishments of her life. Before moving to Galesburg my grandmother also championed the working class man as the swing vote on a county ordinance to legalize the consumption of liquor on a Sunday. She has never taken a drink in all her life.
On the campaign trail with ObamaShe also has an amazing collection of family photographs, journals, letters, postcards and bibles dating back to the mid 19th century. It was amongst these documents that I spent the better part of this week searching for the naturalization documents my great-grandfather carried with him on that ocean passage long ago from Sweden to the United States. My search came up empty but in the process I discovered not only his first leather billfold but original photographs of the entire family on both sides of the tree.
My grandmother as a single womanOn my grandmothers side I read through journals detailing the day's weather, the condition of the crop, visits and trips, every financial transaction for the family as well as an announcement of my grandmothers birth. The journals especially impressive reminding me of my own infatuation with trying to keep a record of each passing day of this life.
I always have been fascinated by the lineage of ancestors who forged a life on the plains of Indiana, Iowa and Illinois after arriving from Northern Europe leading to my creation. Sifting through these photos and belongings allows me to look back into a very personal history derived from the love of family, hard work and faith.
That faith rooted in Quakerism on the matriarchal side was evident in the leather bound family bible measuring roughly 18 X 15 inches and 5 inches thick hidden away in a bureau drawer. In between old and new testaments was a written record dating back to the 1850s of the births and deaths of family members from all over the mid-west. Having no one else interested in taking the massive book I volunteered to keep the bible and look forward to preserving it for future generations.
Swedish immigrants who bestowed on me both blue eyes and blond hair but shorted me on the height genesAfter an afternoon of going through boxes I was left with more questions than I had started with. When did my great-grandparents immigrate? Where in Sweden were they from? What was their faith if not Quakerism? What did they do for a living? Were they well to do? Their photographs made it appear as such so why did they leave? Taking a break we went to Applebee's for some "Neighborhood" cooking which left me determined to reserve our next meal at the finest dinning establishment in Galesburg rather than spending another penny on undercooked shrimp and burnt chicken salads lathered in the local corn syrup.
The following day on our way to Farm King for a new bird feeder I fulfilled my uncle's orders of showing my Grandmother how to slip the engine into neutral while braking if her Toyota Carola uncontrollably accelerates. It was in the Farm King, a Reny's-esque department store for the mid western farmer (An Illinois adventure for certain), that I overheard the old boy working behind the gun counter say to a corn farmer as he chewed his gums in consternation that he had never sold so many guns so quickly. Over the last couple of weeks increased sails had dwindled his inventory of both semi-automatics and ammunition. Oh America the brave, always so quick to arm ourselves against the unseen foe during uncertain times.
Back at the house I replaced the squirrel mutilated bird feeder with the new iron clad feeder of Chinese design and manufacturing and bid my grandmother adieu promising to come back soon. On my way towards Peoria for lunch with another cousin I spotted something that might actually lead to real security here in the American heartland.
Two massive wind turbines were thumping away on the edge of interstate 80 glistening in the mid morning sun. I snapped a few pictures of these from the car window but I liked this one the most. A diesel burning tractor trailer, something I would like to see relegated to short distance overland hauls rather than long distance cross country shipping, passes beneath a pair of tri-bladed American built wind generators. Alas there were only two where as the thousands needed to help put oil in it's rightful place as a precious, useful and limited commodity were still on the drawing board.
Over lunch my cousin and I caught up on the last two years of our lives. She was interested to hear what exactly a profession at sea entails as I was curious about her legal work. As a clerk for an appellate judge in Illinois I was surprised to hear that she was handling an appeal from none other than the infamous former law officer Drew Petersen. Again, the stuff of Hollywood.
My cousin told me that she would soon be headed to Seattle to begin a new chapter in her life and I suggested she might look into firms that handle Admiralty Law. How awesome would that be to have my own cousin on quick dial as legal counsel if I ever had bad day at work?
Now three weeks into my vacation from work I find myself reflecting on my short visit to Illinois. Driving through the cornfields, stretching from horizon to horizon much like the ocean broken only by water towers, power lines and the silos of distant farms, I imagined what a secluded life my ancestors led here. How many days it would have taken to reach Harper's ferry where distant relatives met their end as "terrorists" or Africa where a great grandmother did missionary work is so distant from my life experience as a wandering mariner.
In this modern world I believe it's necessary for my existence to understand the lives of those who went before just as I know it's important to keep in touch with the cousins and aunts and uncles I know. Visiting my living relatives is a reminder that my personality attributes are not wholly my own fault.
The traits of my dad, uncles and cousins are so similar to my own that I can't help but feel connected to these people even if I only see them once a year. As a family we have a high regard for doing the right thing, honesty, priding ourselves in our work and striving for the things we want. I have also noticed we love to give good solid advice to people which often includes career advice that we know we should have followed ourselves. We like to listen and are good at it but enjoy being listened to as an authority on a topic just as much. We have a stick-to-itivness that compels us to work and aspire but grow bored if our setting doesn't change or our responsibilities do not evolve. And a few of us tend to be dreamers.
I'm happy to report that my dark comedy of spending three days in the airport with other stranded travelers had a happy ending. My connection was made before the snow had started flying and I was able to make it to Boston unimpeded to clear and crisp New England skies.
In one of the boxes in my grandmother's garage I found a half dozen Swiss Army knives still in their original unopened packages. On the back of each one my grandfather had written one of his grandson's name written next to their age when he was to receive what would be his first knife. Apparently we were never old enough to receive the knives before his passing so they have remained in the box over the ensuing years.
Amongst the black and white photographs, antique cameras, and old family slides I could see my grandfathers calculating wisdom in preparing ahead of time a number of birthday gifts. I knew that buying a basket full of Swiss Army knives for grandchildren well before they're old enough to operate the scissors and saw blades is definitely something I myself would do. It's not just a good idea; it's in our blood sans changer.