Decatur, IL

Decatur, Illinois

Even though Decatur was less than a hour’s drive east from Springfield (40 miles), they were two very different cities. Springfield, the state capitol of Illinois, was a mixture of governments buildings, hospitals, lobbyists, local businesses, and farms. With hot summers and no dry season, ninety- seven percent of the area around Springfield was covered by croplands

Decatur was the the home of private Millikin University and public Richland Community College. It’s was a college town with treelined streets and vast industrial and agricultural processing production. “Unofficially, called “the Soybean Capital of the World" It is home to the corporate headquarters of international agricultural conglomerate Archer Daniels Midland. It also has production facilities for Caterpillar, Archer Daniels Midland, Mueller Co., and Tate & Lyle (previously A. E. Staley).Though Springfield is called the home of Lincoln, Decatur was the first home in Illinois of Abraham Lincoln, who settled just west of Decatur with his family in 1830.

There were no words between us for a few miles. Then one of us would comment on something we saw outside the car window, and we would fall back into silence.

At Carol’s friend’s house, we looked at photo albums of friends and families. Talked and laughed as they remembered who was doing what when the pictures were taken. I learned about the faces in the pictures from their conversations. I recognized some pictures of Carol’s family, but most were strangers I could only identify with stories that I heard that day.

Decatur was having a street fair downtown. We went to it. The city had closed most of the downtown streets. Bands played on every other street corner, the streets were filled with people dancing, eating and drinking. It was great. Carol and I embraced the festive mood of the street fair as the first event of our adventure. We ate, drank and danced in the street like it was a going away party give just for us.

Her friend’s club was holding their annual dance. He was searching for a theme for the event. Carol told him to talk to me. One of the things we had planned was for me to write while we were traveling. My first effort would be about the Vietnam War, combat, and returning home a changed person. I had served as a corpsman with a Marine long-range reconnaissance unit in Nam and seen a lot of action. I had a lot inside me and I was going to try to let it out through writing.

I outlined a theme script for the opening of the dance based on black Chicago street scene’s I had grown up in. Opening scene, colorful clothes and music from the sixties with the club President and his wife driven onto the dance floor in a big, long Cadillac. He liked the theme.

I called my mother. We talked about the foolish things I had done in my life. She felt this was the most foolish. Leaving a stable good life for something unknown. She was very upset to say the least. She wanted to know if we were going to see her before we left the state. After lots of bricking and crying on her part, we agreed to meet at her brother’s house in Markham, Illinois which wasn’t too far from route I-80 that we would take east.

It felt foreign sleeping that night in a strange bed. We had stayed in hotels around the country so it wasn’t just sleeping in a strange bed. I think knowing we wouldn’t get up and go home to our bed made the difference. Carol and I were up early. Breakfast tasted so good, perhaps because we didn’t know the next time we would have a real home cooked meal. We left their house with hugs and offers of help if we needed anything.

We took I-72 east from Decatur to Champaign then north up I-57, which ran into the Dan Ryan expressway. We didn’t talk much on the drive, just looked at the flat countryside pass by.

I was named after my Uncle, Thomas. My mother’s brother had been the first black electrical contractor in Peoria, Illinois. A very courageous act back then. However, since he was a very independent businessman the white labor leaders in town worked hard to make it as difficult as possible for him. There were no black electrical people in the union so most of his workers were white laborers. I worked during the summer with him when I was a teenager.He was one of the first blacks in the union and never let his dues lapse. When he left Peoria he went to Chicago and became a supervisor for a large electrical contractor.

He now lived in Markham, Illinois. His modest house had a nice size fenced back yard for his dog to run around in and to park his cars and fishing boat. When I thought of him three things popped in my mind working, fishing, and taking trips. He had driven all over the United States on sightseeing trips. No matter where he was going if something caught his attention while driving he would go see it, even if it was hundreds of miles away in a different direction. He was mostly a self-taught man through reading and traveling.

My mother traveled with him on some occasions. She liked the sightseeing, but I think the most enjoyable part of the trip for her was returning home to share with friends where she went and what she saw. Friends, who usually left Chicago, going south, back home. They heard from her about places they only knew existed on television. She preferred to travel to places where there were family or friends to stay with. No knowing where you were going or having a home to come back to didn’t make sense to her.

She made that very clear when we walked into my uncle’s house. “You finally made it. I was beginning to think you were going to go without stopping. Since you don’t know where you’re going I guess it wouldn’t make a difference.” She said.

Carol started to say something about leaving late. I walked over to my mother and hugged her. She was scared for us and angry with us. I knew there was no answer we could give that would satisfy her.

We sat around the kitchen table drinking coffee. Uncle Thomas talked about his trips out east and the sights he had seen. He thought there were more interesting sights out west. He did care too much for the all the rich American history in buildings out east. He preferred the outdoor sights in the west.

My mother started in on Carol and I. I knew she would, I had told Carol what to expect and not to get upset about what she would say.

“I thought you two were smart. It doesn’t make sense to just pick up leave your home and good jobs to go tramping across the country. You don’t know anyone where you going. You don’t even know where you’re going.” She said.

I laughed. “Don’t worry mom, soon as we know we’ll let you know.”

She didn’t laugh. “It not funny. People will try to take advantage of you. You are a stranger so they got no reason to care about you. You will not have any family or friends close by to help you if you run into trouble.”

“Mom, it’s too late to turn things around. We’ve left our jobs, sold or given away everything that didn’t fit in the car, and we’re on our way. We’ll keep in touch so you will know what is going on.” I said.There were no tears, but I could feel the worry and concern she had as we hugged goodbye.

We were finally on the road. We had said goodbye to family and friends. The only people we could expect see would be strangers. We were on our own with no expectations of familiar faces, sights or scenery.

J Publications, Inc. 2013