Archive for August, 2010

Encounters

August 28, 2010

At 5 mph, time and the asphalt move very slowly. It gives me tremendous flexibility for many things. Thoughts about everything from childhood to my next flag, to food choices from my tray on the buggy, to drink choices (mainly gatorade and gatorade) and the views to the left and the views to the right. It is like being in a very slow car but with the heater on and blowing in your face some days. So today I focused on my encounters with people over the last few weeks and my encounters, however short-lived they may be, with the character of the towns I pass through.

Take Mendota, IL for example, it is the Sweet Corn Capital of the World. Ottawa, IL was the site of the first Lincoln/Douglas Debates. Streator, IL at one time was the countries largest producer of glass and birthplace of the scientist who discovered Pluto. Pontiac, IL is home to the Livingston County War Museum, an absolute must see display of mannequins and memorabilia. Pontiac is also famous for Route 66 which passes through town and 20 painted murals that adorn the walls of the older buildings. In Saunemin a cabin is being restored that was home to Albert D.J. Cashier a local civil war veteran who was born Jenny Hodger in Ireland. You see Jenny lived as a man and enlisted as a man and fought as a man. Her identity was not known for many years for the military never conducted physicals back in those days. Jenny marched thousands of miles and fought at Vicksburg and it was because of her service and the friends she made who rallied behind her, that she was able to keep her veteran pension the military tried to take because of identity fraud. Well then…..sleepy communities with secrets.

My encounters with people continue to climb. One day a few weeks ago I had just left Mechanicsville, IA when a car pulls up behind me. A couple walks up. The had lost their son, Army Staff Sergeant Donald Griffith Jr. in 2005. They had seen something on the news, followed flags, found me and just wanted to say thank you.

A couple stands along the road..I don’t recognize them at first then I see the smiles and hear the voices. They are old Army friends from Germany that I had not seen in 29 years. They had seen something on TV and followed the beacon and found me.

He stands at the corner of a gravel road, I think the sun is reflecting of a mailbox but is actually his head, now bald. I recognize the voice and when he runs the familiar gait I chased and passed many times 35 years ago. He was my old cross country nemesis from High School. With all due respects he did dust me a few times. Again, a chance newspaper article and he found me on the road.

This morning a truck pulls over. Approaching, I notice the Vet Plate. He is a small man and all smiles with a firm handshake. His shirt reads “Home of the Brave, Land of the Free”. He is from Ransom, IL. We chat a bit and then before he leaves he literally gives me the shirt off his back and drives away into the cool morning without it.

Thats what the days have become. Meetings with people continue to climb.

I never know who is reading. I never know who is watching. I never know who is around the corner. Thats what life is like on the road. The element of surprise. It is something that can’t be choreographed or planned. It happens. So between the towns I pass through and these encounters that lift me, my days are pretty exciting…..

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The Midwest Love…….

August 24, 2010

As I travelled across Iowa my company on the road grew substantially. Outside Mount Vernon, IA the local high school team of almost 40 strong, would run into town with me. Iowa with its non-shoulder roads and sloping gravel had made pushing my 50 lb. stroller a challenge and that along with heat and humidity pushed the heat index to 112 or higher. Despite these small speed bumps it was a great return to the midwest. Unless one has lived here there is no way to really describe the sun climbing high in the morning over corn that has been soaked by the dew overnight. The smell of fresh cut hay is glorious, the smell of cattle trucks and fertilizer, downright nauseating. Outside Davenport friends join me again along with 3 members of the National Guard and a Sunday becomes a social hour on the road. Miles fade away and the Mississippi comes into view. Now I can smell home. I cross the grand river and head up the bike path from Rock Island, IL to Savanna. This is a 60 mile stretch of sweetness. No cars, paved pathway and towns close enough to my route to remind me of life along the river. It is also a nostalgic period of time for me here on this stretch. As I enter Thomson, IL, I run past my grandmothers house. She has been gone from us for 8 years now. I stand out front on the sidewalk and close my eyes and smell sugar cookies and hear a parakeet, one she kept on the porch. I smell my grandfathers rolled cigarettes….We were young then. My brothers and I, way back in the early 70’s. It was a time of camping every weekend just down a dirt road from this house. A time when the only thing that mattered in our young life was fishing……and more fishing and grandmas treats when we could get away. I shuffle on and enter the shrouded tunnels of trees near Savanna, IL. These open up to a stretch of highway that leads to the hills of northern Illinois. Galena is a pre-civil war town that sits along the aptly named, Galena River. It is the only town I have ever seen that had a flood gate that can be closed, barricading the main street from the rising flood waters of the river. It is a historical town with much character. President Ulysses Grant had a home here and it stands now as a museum. I climb a long road for 7 miles to my grandpas home. The 85 year old retired farmer/bulldozer operator/slot machine gambler is waiting. The love of a grandparent becomes more evident the older they, and we get. I shuffle on and on, up one hill and down the next. The flies are a nuisance and I feel like a cow or a horse or some farm animal. I never tire of coming home, though my visits have been so sparse the last few years. This past Sunday I am greeted by a small group of friends and we run in to Rock Falls, IL. Our group swells to 20 then 40 then 60 and then 80. The road is ours and it is pleasant to see the reception this run has been given. It is by far the largest group to greet me and keep me company on the road. This is also the end of my 3rd Section of the run and the beginning of the last. These corn fields will give way to the eastern part of the country that I have not seen yet. This line of flags continues to grow as my brothers join me for a short section of the day and place flags also. They are now connected to the journey as are so many others. As one friend said in Iowa, the flags, in their unending weave,  have become a memorial highway. So be it then.

Grandpa………..

August 18, 2010

GRANDPA……

He sits in a chair in his living room, near the big picture window that looks out to a towering, shady oak tree in the corner of his front yard. The last I saw of him he liked to play his tiny remote, video slot machine game. He would play for hours and when the opportunity arose he would make the forty five minute drive to Dubuque Iowa, where the Riverboat Casino was docked and hit the real machines.

Across the road and down the lane from him, are fields of corn and beans all bordered and often surrounded by these sweet smelling woods of Northern Illinois. The smell of fresh cut hay is carried by the winds that have blown upwards for over 150 years across his property. Up and over the bluffs of the Mississippi River which flows lazily below. It is a good place to be, a simple place, a place where your life and the years can pass as quickly as the sun rises and sets.

He was born just across the pasture in a small farmhouse 86 years ago and would never leave this small one mile square area. It was a time when the prosperity of this country was on the verge of collapsing and we were beginning to sink into the Great Depression.

His family would struggle during that time but they never lost their resolve and they never left. When all you give is all you got then it just has to work. Farming has been in his blood his whole life .  From my earliest memories I recall a smiling man, a laughing man, a man who would grab me and tickle me and who was always kind. He worked hard. He squeezed harder. Whenever my brothers and I would visit we would run as fast as we could down to the barn where the cows are. We Look? No Grandpa. On past the tractors and past the hay loft. We look? No Grandpa. More often than not he would be found in his garage working on the chainsaws that locals had dropped off. It was a cheery place to be. A pot-bellied stove would be glowing orange and giving off the most wonderful, smoky scent.  His dog, Mitsy, all 30 pounds of long matted hair would waddle by and squeeze out the door. He would let us help with chores. “Cmon’ lets go feed the pigs” he’d say and I would shovel ground up corn into a bucket and spread it into their feed trough. We would go inside then to a warm kitchen and he would sit at the end of the table with a cup of coffee and a plate of my Grandma’s chocolate chip cookies. “Tell me whats new little man?” he would ask and poke me in the arm and smile big and bright. At that moment he made you feel like you were the most important person in the whole world, even if you were only 10 years old.

I always admired his work ethic. Some people are born with it and others develop it over their life and others never do seem to acquire that quality. I believe he carried that sense of resolve and fortitude into the Army where he did a stint during WWII in Japan and again in Korea as a young MP.  It carried over into the rest of his life as a farmer and bulldozer operator. Locals said that when operating a dozer he could pick up a nickel and move it 100 yards down a road and never disturb the dirt. To this day I do not doubt the skills he exhibited to me as I grew up.

For almost 3000 miles I have crossed this country on foot. Day after day, slowly making my way towards his home. It will be our last visit. Time is not forgiving and has taken its toll on his body. Parkinson’s disease has made these last years difficult although in a positive way he would say it has contributed to his success with the slot machines. I do know that once I place a flag near that oak tree in his front yard , a flag we will both salute to, I will move on and not be back. For he will be gone I am sure.

Today I ran up the bike path from Albany to Savanna and it brought back a flood of memories from childhood. I shared those thoughts and memories with the names on each flag. They listen intently, though I do not see them. They smile and I can feel them. It is their presence that has brought on things I cannot explain. Random meetings like the one in Iowa with friends I had not seen in 30 years who saw me on TV and tracked me down on the road. It is with parents that have met me on the road who I reassure that their loved ones will not be forgotten. This road has become a Memorial Highway of sorts and its taken me back to a familiar place. Back to a country lane that weaves its way north.

Quietly my breathing rises and falls often whispering, often lost in unspoken words. Legs that were once young and spry and dazzled on his lawn now old and bent carry me slowly towards a hill that is long and steep. At the top is his home. At the top he waits. I know Grandpa will be there, standing in his front yard, leaning on his cane. His hat will be tilted to shield the western sun as he looks down that road for me.  I know the leaves in his oak tree will be fluttering and singing in the August winds. I know our time together will be short and I have come so very far, so I will be there Grandpa, I will be there and I know you will smile, and laugh and you will poke and squeeze me and for the briefest time we will both be young again……watch for me……….

Iowa encounters of the Glidden sort

August 9, 2010

I approach Glidden, IA from the west. The sun has torched my neck and I can also feel its intensity through my shirt. I refused to put my hat with the neck cover on partly because I didn’t want to stop and start again and partly because I just wanted to get done, so I was now paying the price. Not exactly a smart decision after 7 hours on the road weaving through gravel because of the road having no shoulder to run on. Outside Glidden is the Merle Hay Monument. Beneath it lies the remains of Merle Hay who was one of the first 3 Americans killed in WWI in 1917 and the first Iowan to lose his life during that war. In town I would visit Butch the Woodworker who lives in the McNaught Home. The McNaughts owned the only grocery store in town for many, many years. The house is designed after the rural homes and villas of southern Italy where the McNaughts had visited. It was in this home that the remains of Merle Hay would lie in state under armed guard while the town waited for dignitaries of the Army to arrive for his burial. A procession would take him to the little cemetary just west of town. It was in this same cemetary that just last week a deer ran across the road, leaped the wrought iron fence and  caught the highest spike on his underside which in turn sliced him open. The unfortunate animal made it to the Owens grave marker 100 yards away before collapsing and dying. This story was told to me by Mike, a retired Army Veteran, who along with another Mike (ex-Navy) picked me up at the end of the day. A day in which I ran with Kathleen whose partner Mike owns a car lot. After running a few miles she headed back to town and I was met by Mike the State Trooper who inquired about what I was doing. To top the day off, I would meet Fat Mike that night at a gathering of folks in the town bar. Go figure. It was like a Mikes of America gathering that day.

Near Dixon, MT back in May,  I had placed Sergeant JJ Bonnells Flag. He was from Fort Dodge, IA. and was 22 years old. The flag was picked up by a curious passer-by who sent it to his parents in Iowa along with an article about me. The father and daughter in turn tracked me down on Route 30 via the link on the website and my beacon. They found me at my host home. On a mission to say thank you they had found me and it was exactly 3 years to the day of JJ’s death.

Lt. Colonel Daniel Holland was 43 when he died. His flag is placed on CO. 285 near Conifer. His brother, John, is a retired Major who found me on the same Route 30, east of Glidden. He rode 12 miles with me on a recumbent bike then would turn north for Minnesota and home. John had just wanted to say thank you and spend a little time with me on the road. For many of the miles I would give him a flag and let him place it and then we would salute in unison.

As I headed back to Glidden that day, these fresh encounters on my mind, I spy a giant pig of the artificial sort,  in the front yard of a farmhouse. This pig is huge as in the size of a Ford F-150. What an oddity. Certainly would not be hard to find their home…no directions needed, just look for BIG swine.

Ahhhh yes….Glidden….land of Mikes, giant pigs, chance encounters and home to Merle Hay and Butch the Woodworker, who did I mention, gave me a wooden top with a string that when pulled can spin for 7 and a half minutes? Gotta love Iowa!

A Boy Named Kyle

August 2, 2010

Shelton, NE, pop.1140 is an unassuming small town just past the center part of the state not far from a town called Wood River. Both lie along this stretch of Route 30 that runs parallel to Interstat 80 to the south and to the Union Pacific Tracks that are 100 meters to the north. On the edge of town is a John Deere Farm Implement dealer, across from a large grain elevator. A small ice cream store sits deserted along the road, its menu still in the window. Hamburgers for $1.50, slushies for $1.00 and assorted floats and sundaes. I can imagine this must have been the gathering place for many kids back in the day. Boys eyeing girls and girls eyeing boys. In a small town like this everyone is close. You feel that your neighbors children are almost your own. To lose one feels almost the same. In the front of the store under a huge shade tree is a bench and it is here that I would sit with the father who had lost a son.  Wain Codner had heard about me through the grapevine that exists along this highway. He found me taking a break and sat with me and told me Kyles story. They were farmers south of town.  Kyle was a good son. He wanted more though than to continue farmng and joined the Marines soon after turning 18. He graduated from Boot Camp on Fathers Day 2005. To this day his parents don’t really know why he chose to serve his country. In a  journal they discovered long after he was gone there is an excerpt dated 9/11/01. It read, ” I can’t pull myself away from the t.v., I wish I had the courage of those Port Authority Police and the Firemen.” Kyle Codner was patriotic and he loved his country. Like many before him and since he felt an obligation to serve. I close my eyes and try to imagine his life. I look down the long gravel road that leads to his house, a road he probably learned to ride a bike on, to drive on and drove tractors on. The road now bears the name, Kyle Codner Memorial Road. I run past trains that sit vacant, trains he probably threw rocks at and like any boy probably put pennies on the track to be flattened beyond recognition. I hear locusts singing in the trees and imagine they must have serenaded him to sleep many a summer night. I imagine that days in the fields in this Nebraska humdity built strong character and work ethic.  He was engaged to be married upon returning to the states from his tour of duty and in his last phone call said he wasn’t afraid of dying just of not being able to spend the rest of his life with his wife to be. The next day he was gone. In one short year a light that had shone so brightly over Shelton, NE for 19 years  was now out.

I spoke that night in a small VFW in Wood River, NE. Wain and Dixie Codner were there. Before he left Wain told me that the biggest fear a family has is that those they have lost will not be remembered. I have been told that people look at these mile markers differently now. That they remember those who are gone. That is a good thing. We owe that to the Kyle Codners of this world. We owe it to the generations that have passed before us so that no one is forgotten.