A Trip Back Home: $75

Lowell L. Getz

In September 1949, after growing up and completing grade school and high school, I left my small, population 233, hometown of Chesterfield, Illinois.  Over the subsequent 54 years, while pursuing careers in the military and academia, I have driven in excess of one million miles throughout all 48 lower states and most of the provinces of Canada, as well as in Belgium and France.  I have driven in almost every major city in the United States and Canada.  I prided myself in adhering, within reason, to legal speed limits.  During 57 years of driving, my only motor vehicle transgressions were two parking tickets, one of which resulted from hurriedly placing the coin in the wrong side of a two-headed meter.  All that came to an end at 9:30 PM on 1 August 2003.

While returning alone to my sister-in-law’s home in a near-by town after visiting my aunt and uncle south of Chesterfield, nostalgia over-took my senses as I approached my old hometown on Illinois State highway 111.  Ghosts of the past swept into view.  To the west, the old Grade School--memories of my first four grades with Mrs. Wheeler who taught me right from wrong and to obey the laws.  The excited voices from the ball diamond next to the school, where we played “rounders” at recess.  Over there, the High School where I took my first natural science course, which led to a life-long career in ecology.  Next to the High School, “Red” Wallner’s Gulf Service Station--after eating our sack lunches at noontime, we went to “Red’s” for a coke and to play a few hands of “pitch.”  The town “square”--Saturday night free movies--other nights we simply sat and talked on the cement bench honoring a long ago mayor who lost his life while cleaning up after a storm.  The darkened streets where we played “tally-ho” on warm summer nights.  Near the end of the few remaining empty buildings on the north side of the “square”, “Chet” Towse’s drug store, where we bought our school supplies (the thrill of a box of 12 new “Crayolas”), penny “Guess-Whats”, comic books, and vanilla phosphates after school.  Next to the highway, the empty space where “Lenny” Moore’s barbershop had stood.  “Lenny” nailed cigar boxes on trees in the “square” and kept them supplied with hickory nuts for the squirrels inhabiting the “square.”  On the opposite side of the highway, Mr. Holmes’ tavern (he looked so dignified, we always called him “Mr.”).  On hot summer Sunday afternoons Mrs. Holmes, “sick and tired of standing on my head in this d _ _ _  ice cream chest”, would pile up the cones as high as she could so as to run out of ice cream as quickly as possible.

All these and other wispy ghosts of my youth floated through my head as the Buick LeSabre moved along on its own through the town.  As I rounded the corner on the way out of town, my mind was still drifting about in the past.  On approaching the last house on the right, a sudden intrusion of reality pierced my blurred, misty eyes and snapped me back to the present--the flashing lights of a police car in the rear-view mirror.  The young officer informed me that my sojourn back in time had been all too brief, and all too fast, 17 miles per hour over the posted speed limit, to be exact, as I had approached the edge of town.  My fleeting return to earlier days was to cost me $75, plus other expenses and inconveniences regarding my auto insurance and driver’s license.  I could not argue, my mind had been in another time, while the Buick had been in the present.  To add ultimate insult to my already mortified embarrassment, he stopped me directly in front of the very house in which my mother had lived the last 29 years of her life.  Only a mother can imagine what she was saying to me from above (“Now what will the neighbors say?!”).

Thomas Wolfe once said, “You can’t go home again.”  I would change that to, “You should not go home again.”  For, as you are driving through your old hometown at 9:30 PM, remember, the past is over and gone.  Let the ghosts lie; keep your eyes on the speedometer.  Mrs. Wheeler has passed away and no longer teaches students right from wrong; the abandoned Grade School is boarded up and the now quiet ball diamond overgrown with weeds; the High School was demolished years ago; “Red” Wallner and his service station have been gone for decades; there has been not been a movie in the park for over 50 years, and no one sits on the cement bench at night; the streets are quiet on warm summer nights--no one even knows how to play “tally-ho” any more; it has been more than half a century since “Chet” Towse mixed his last vanilla phosphate and departed this world; squirrels in the park now fend for themselves; Mrs Holmes lies at peace in her grave, no longer having to stand on her head dipping ice cream on hot summer Sunday afternoons.  Ghosts of the past are not roaming about.  But, there is a very polite young police officer sitting in the dark, waiting, as you are caught up in your nostalgia, so he can enhance the town budget before you return to the present, and to the legal speed limit beyond the edge of town.