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The good old days in Homer

There, life was an Odyssey

Published: Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012 5:00 a.m. CDT

If you look at a map of downstate Illinois and highlight the highways and railroads, you’ll see there are large sections of land where tiny villages hide from the bright lights and city life.

These are places where kids still pause and look up at the sky when they hear a helicopter overhead because it’s so rare that they get to see one. The piercing scream of an ambulance siren can become the topic of conversation for weeks.

Illinois is full of places where the directions start out: “You can’t get there from here.” Places like Cairo, St. Joe, Sidell and Homer. Places like Cobden and Campbell Hill, Hardin and Oakland. Meredosia, Minonk and Assumption.

If the world is really going to end this year, you want to be in one of these places when it happens because they won’t know it for another 10 years. If you have only a year to live, I’d recommend moving to Newman, Ill. It will seem much longer. But if you have only 6 months, I suggest Illiopolis. After 6 months in Illiopolis, you’ll be ready to check out.

Of all the towns I’ve listed so far, I’ve been to all of them except Cairo, which is on my list of places I want to visit. I had an invite to go there this month, but that’s like a three-day round trip for me.

These are my kind of towns, though. I’ve lived in a lot of them and have family from some of them. My maternal grandparents lived in Garret when I was young, where the big thing to do was to walk down to the post office to check the mail. The streets had no names back then; Grandma explained that she lived at the end of Tough Street – the farther you go, the tougher it gets.

My paternal grandparents lived in Homer where Grandpa retired as principal of the grade school. I have the hand-stenciled nameplate he kept on his desk; students had made it for him. Grandma Porter had the distinction of being the longest-serving teacher at the grade school when she retired. I’ll bet some of her former students are reading this right now; her youngest students would have to be in their 40s by now I’m guessing.

I haven’t been back to Homer for a long time. The last time I was there, I drove by the old house, but the ancient, red barn, where I used to jump out of the hayloft, was gone. It’s always a little sad to see such an icon of one’s youth disappear from the landscape.

Grandma and Grandpa’s house on South Ellen Street wasn’t real big, but there might have been 25 or so people sleeping there over a holiday. Some of us would bunk in the garage where the older cousins convinced us that bats would swoop down in the middle of the night. It didn’t help that the abandoned mansion across the street had to be haunted.

The space between the house and barn was large enough for a football game. If there weren’t enough interested players for football, the barn was a treasure trove waiting to be explored. Grandpa was a bargain hunter and frequented auctions, so the barn and garage were filled with beds, dressers and assorted junk.

Up in the hayloft, there was a hand-hewn beam that stretched across the width of the room, effectively partitioning off about a third of the space. The massive beam could be a pirate’s plank, a dining table or an airport runway depending on what game was being played. Those were the days when a kid’s imagination was the cornerstone of entertainment.

My paternal grandparents had 18 grandchildren and most of us have children of our own. We’re spread all over the country with a few overseas. We’re all products of our environment and heredity, so that means there’s at least a little bit of small-town Homer influence spread around the world.

Notable people from Homer include former P.O.W. Paul Lewis (Iranian hostage) and Indiana Gov. Frank Hanly, a presidential candidate during Prohibition. Indians forced to relocate in 1838 camped near Homer as part of the “Trail of Death.”

All of these little towns have their stories about famous residents and events, and it all weaves together as part of the history of the state, the nation and the world.

To think, forty years from now, people who are kids today will be talking about this decade in fond memory of the “good old days” just like the ’70s were my good old days and the ’50s were my parents’ good old days. We talk about the days before computers; today’s kids will probably recall the days when nobody had a jetpack.

Maybe they’ll jetpack over a sleepy little town like Homer and a kid will look up and say, “Wow.” And another “good old day” memory will be made.

©Copyright 2012 by David Porter who can be reached at david@ramblinman.us. Now I want a jetpack.

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