ground-level stump of an oak tree on a grassy island in
a parking lot north of the Communications Building on
the Southern Illinois University campus in Carbondale,
Illinois, is the last vestige of the front yard of the
home I grew up in from 1952, when I was in diapers, to
1964, when I was entering puberty.
Not exactly breaking news. But in February 2008 I got a call from a reporter at the SIU Daily Egyptian student newspaper who said the university was tearing down the remaining 13 houses in the area so Lincoln Drive could be rerouted behind the Communications Building. One of my former playmates, Larry Weller, whose stolid home at 1010 S. Elizabeth St., near Chautauqua Street, was still standing, had suggested me as a source for a story on what the neighborhood had been like before the single-family homes were eminent domained by SIU for the higher public purpose of providing academians with a place to park their cars.
I wasn't much help to the reporter, and after getting off the phone I felt like I'd let down the neighborhood, which had been unexceptional to adults, but a virtual Neverland for kids. As the author of "Carbondale After Dark," I'd chronicled the golden age of Carbondale's notorious strip. And as the last of my old neighborhood disappeared, the least I could do was put together a few sentences marking its final passing. So with apologies to myself, I humbly submit a prequel called "Carbondale Before Dark":
The year was circa 1959, and I was about 8 years old and living two blocks west of SIU at 906 W. Grand Ave., between Elizabeth Street and Forest Avenue, an address that no long exists, except for the aforementioned oak. Like most of the homes in the neighborhood, our white frame house was modest. My younger brother Sandy and I shared one bedroom, my parents, Julius and Audrey, the other.
We had a leaky basement and an unfinished attic that sometimes served as a guest room. The furnace had been converted from coal to fuel oil, and during the winter a man in a truck would come by and stick a hose through the coal chute to fill the tank. Sometimes I'd sneak into the furnace room and get high on the fumes. A garage in the backyard that was accessed via a cinder alley that went past the oak tree, and ran from Chautauqua to Mill Street, was where I played with matches.
Carbondale had about 11,000 people and SIU even fewer students. There were no computers or video games, so kids were forced into what today would be considered an alien environment. We called it "outside," as in, "Mom, can I go outside and play?"
The whole neighborhood, indeed, most of the town, was covered with trees, and the oak was actually the youngest in our yard. There was also one in the backyard perfect for climbing, with a wild grapevine entwined in the upper branches, a couple of dying elms, flowering bushes, hedges later replaced by pine shrubs, and a gnarly tree we learned to stay away from because of its coarse, sticky trunk.
The trees attracted birds, especially robins, cardinals and blue jays. In the spring, maple seeds fell to the ground in pods that whirled like helicopters. We'd pinch the pods to squirt the seeds at each other, then suck on the leafy part until it was just the right consistency to make a perfect kid's noise -- somewhere between an air horn and a fart. Some of the neighbors had apple trees we'd pilfer from. We'd also chew on the leaves of minty plants a neighbor grew along an alley, and casually dangle the stems of wild wheat stalks out of our mouths like they were toothpicks. After another neighbor put a couple trailers on his lot and rented them to male SIU students, we'd sneak into the trailers when they were gone and rifle through their girly mags.
Outside for me was bounded on the north and west by streets deemed by my parents to be too busy for an 8-year-old to cross -- Mill Street and Oakland Avenue -- and on the south and east by SIU, which was a murkier line of demarcation, since I attended grade school on the campus. My friends and I often played on the rolling hills in front of the new Morris Library, which had three floors and some of the first elevators in town. Lawson Hall was houses, the Wham Building a marshy field and the Northwest Annex a forest. The westernmost buildings on the campus were University School, now called Pulliam Hall, and the Life Science Building.
West Grand Avenue was one of the few on the southwest side with paved concrete, and ran from Oakland on the west to Normal (University) Avenue on the east. Tractors, bulldozers, cement trucks and other heavy equipment would lumber past on their way to farms off Chautauqua or construction sites on the campus. Many of the other streets were tar or asphalt. Forest Street was made out of bricks, Chautauqua was gravel, and what is today a section of Lincoln Drive between Mill Street and Grand was a rutty, barricaded dirt road called Lake Street, an apt name, because when it rained that's what it turned into. Between Forest and Lake streets and Grand and Mill was a patch of dense woods. At Lake Street the woods gave way to a dry marsh filled with cattails, milkweed, reeds and bushes taller than an 8-year-old.
Most of the townies in my area attended Winkler School to the west on Freeman Street, while the children of SIU employees and Jews -- I fell into the second category -- went to U-School, a training and lab school for student teachers in what is now Pulliam Hall, the campus building with the iconic clocktower. The schools, my neighborhood and the southwest side in general were mostly white, as were the southeast and northwest sides, except for Martha Johnson, our maid, who lived on the northeast side but spent most days at our house, cleaning and looking after me and my brother.
Martha used to walk us to Kelly's, a mom and pop grocery store -- owned by the family of the current manager of the Giant City Lodge -- in a drafty wooden building next to an alley around the corner on Forest between Grand and Chautauqua. It became my first hangout, where my recreational drug of choice was glucose in the form of Popsicles, candy bars, soda pop and bubble-gum. After school and on Saturdays, the concrete porch in front of Kelly's would be filled with urchins getting their sugar fixes. And stocking up on baseball cards.
Sports were a big part of our lives. In addition to Little League, we played baseball and football on the field in front of a state public health lab that still exists on the southeast corner of Oakland and Chautauqua streets, using the tree that's still there as a backstop. We also played in front of the University Baptist Church at Oakland and Freeman streets, and in a neighbor's yard behind my house -- a childhood chum, Tom Small, who later turned me onto pinball, dubbed it Sad Sack Field.
We often watched Itchy Jones and the rest of the SIU baseball team playing or practicing at Chautauqua Field -- the south end of the Communications Building would have been in left field. The SIU marching band, in their spiffy new tuxedos and homburgs, practiced there as well.
East of the SIU baseball field was a grid of dingy green and brown barracks that had housed troops during World War II and been turned into married student housing. South of that was a construction site for what would become Thompson Point dorms. We used to have dirt clod flights on the mounds of earth that had been excavated. We also rode bicycles over the paths of Thompson Woods and went swimming in Thompson Lake. To the west of Chautauqua Field, separating it from the lab, was a ditch and a drainage pipe filled with spiders, bugs and stinky yuck, large enough for an 8-year-old and his friends to crawl into and explore.
Most parents forbade their children from going into the woods between Forest and Lake streets, so that, of course, became a favorite hangout, despite the poison ivy, tics, pollen and chiggers. We sometimes walked the winding foot paths through the forest and marsh as a "shortcut" to school, but there was always the risk of getting stuck in the mud.
On the southeast side of the woods, atop a steep hill off Lake Street, fortified by thorn bushes and clinging ivy, was the best hangout of all -- a large abandoned house that had been damaged by a fire. We called it the haunted house, although it was mostly haunted by us kids. With a basement, two floors, an attic, and eaves accessible through broken windows, there was plenty of space to play hide and seek, roam through the charred rooms and participate in other risky activities.
Eventually the authorities found out about the goings-on at the haunted house and had it razed. Using its eminent domain power, the university annexed the other properties in the area, including the one at 906 W. Grand, and paved or built over most of them, except for a tree or two. I was sad to leave, but the university paid us enough money to build a nice new house on Briarwood Drive, and when I discovered I'd have my own bedroom, I got over it.