Recently I once again journeyed back to the gentle plains of my Midwestern home, this time with my younger son in tow.
He had been there often enough as a boy. In those days, we spent part of every other August soaking up my hometown’s blessings.
I, for one, looked upon our stays as an easy way to boost my boys’ English skills.
Meanwhile, my two sons saw it as a chance to rake in loot from their generous relatives, who would lavish them with an over-abundance of attention, gifts and goodies.
Disneyland? Christmas? To my boys, there always was one word so much finer . . .
Illinois — the gateway not to Iowa, but heaven.
Yet, schooling, work and then health setbacks had kept my second son away for almost a decade. This would be his first opportunity to view his father’s stomping grounds with adult eyes.
And my first chance to tell him about it, man-to-man.
“See, Son . . .” We are driving along the town’s main thoroughfare. OK, the only thoroughfare.
“When I was a kid, we used to call this road, ‘The Strip.’ From the Dairy Queen to the Maid Rite and back. We used to cruise up and down each night and hunt for girls.”
“Why? Were they hiding?”
“No, no. They were in plain sight. And then we’d drive slowly past and they wouldn’t even glance our way.”
“Because . . . you were that bad-looking?”
“No, no. Because it was the cool thing to do. And we’d ignore them as well. Yet, believe me, they knew we were there.”
“But maybe not ALL there.”
I sigh. “A slow car, country girls and the Maid Rite. Now what could be better?”
“Taco Bell perhaps. Or maybe city girls.”
Later we end up at a park. One with a shimmering circle of water, spanned by a short bridge. “Gosh, Son! I used to play here as a boy! And do you know what we would do!? For fun!? We’d make little boats out of empty cottage cheese tubs and sail them out onto the lake!”
“And then we’d throw rocks at them from the bridge till they sank! What a blast!”
He shakes his head. “Sometimes I’m surprised Japan let you in.”
“Why I bet . . .” I sweep my arm over the water. “If you drained all the water from the lake . . .”
“The whole bottom would be covered with cottage cheese tubs! That I put there myself!” He closes his eyes and shakes his head again.
“And then!” I tell him. “We would scrape together all of our pennies and go buy a bottle of pop! And sit in the shade by the edge of the lake . . .”
“And share it! I tell you, nothing I drink today tastes half as good as that pop did then!”
“That’s because you buy wine in cartons.”
Still later, we tour the city cemetery.
“And this,” I say, “is where I learned to drive a car. Up and down these quiet graveyard lanes.”
“At least you couldn’t kill anyone. Someone beat you to it.”
I laugh and ask if he wants to see our family markers. He laughs back and says . . .
“C’mon. I know they’re people you never met, but it’s still kind of neat.”
“You think ‘neat’ is visiting the graves of dead strangers?”
“But they’re not dead strangers. They’re dead family.”
“And they’re not going to get up and hug me?”
“Well, they would if they could. Take Great Aunt Louisa, for example. She would sometimes wear a sock on her hand, like a puppet. And when she spoke to kids it was often via the puppet. Like . . .”
And I cup one hand and squeak . . . “My, you’re a cute little boy, aren’t you?!”
He pauses for a moment, then says . . . “And so someone shot her, right?”
“No, no. She was beloved. And I bet she would just die to meet her great, great-nephew. But she’s not a blood relative. She’s family through marriage.”
“What a relief.”
Next, we roll from the cemetery and spin through country fields. Cornstalks tower on both sides around us. And when the road rises, the view stretches to the horizon. The cornfields ripple on and on, an ocean of green and yellow. With the sky above a canvas of deep blue. The same sky as that of Japan, yet here it seems a whole lot wider.
“Corn, corn everywhere!”
“Yeah. Now I know where you get your jokes.”
The fields of plenty surround us.
“Ah, it was a nice place to grow up!”
“And,” he says, “I bet it was an even nicer place to leave.”
“Maybe, but — I tell you what — it’s a good place to return to as well.”
And I sense that he somehow agrees.
Holding on, perhaps, to those childhood memories and that old but golden vision of the gateway to heaven.