It was raining. Not a heavy rain, but it bothered me just the same. I wanted it clean and bright, no obstruction to my views through the windows. This trip was about removing the veil that kept me from the past, and I didn’t want it obscured by anything, not even by specks of rain on glass. The windshield wipers screeched as we drove.
“Well, what do you want to see?” Pops asked.
“Whatever you can remember,” I said vaguely from the passenger seat, feeling small and weak, like I was six years old all over again. I’m not sure how he felt about it. I’ve never really asked him. He was quiet, which isn’t out of the ordinary for his nature, but there was definitely an extra helping of silence sitting between us on the console as we set out that morning. I imagine he was still chewing on the news I’d delivered the week before, probably wondering what in the hell he was doing trying to find places he hadn’t seen in decades, stewing in a whole mess of irritation over a man who had been a part of his life for so long, but had been sheared out of it even longer.
“Well, I figured we’d head up a little northwest first before we go down to Freeport. That’s some of the earliest stuff I can remember,” he said, turning onto an unfamiliar road. It’s amazing how quickly you can find places you’ve never been, even when they’re just miles removed from where you spent so much of your life. Neighborhoods. Parks. Country roads.
We went in a direction that I rarely traveled out of town, particularly because there wasn’t much there. No large towns to speak of. No shopping areas or points of interest to those looking for adventure or a story to tell. Long, straight roads with street signs for towns that were vaguely familiar. We hit the Wisconsin border. Monroe. Grandma grew up there. South Wayne.
“County fair,” he told me.
“We would picnic up here even when the fair wasn’t going on. Nice little drive. The old man would throw us in the car and drive up to the fair grounds and we would spend the day here. Wasn’t much money around, you know. And it was cheap. There was a lake up here my brothers and I could swim at. We’d spend all day here and head back home that night.”
We followed the drive they would take home. South through Stockton. Pops offered a couple times early on that he we might just get ourselves lost. He hadn’t driven through here in a long time. But I didn’t care. We were driving. He was talking. I was drawing it in with each breath. A better prepared human being would have had more questions, but I was comfortable letting him lead this song, and I didn’t want the record to skip. There were long stretches of farmland here, flat, the occasional tree dotting the side of the road. Old farmhouses. Barns. Granaries. Long, level cemeteries. Stretches that turned into tractor equipment retailers that turned into gas stations that turned into Family Dollar that turned into Main Street. We were in Stockton. There were relatives there, at least, there had been, he shared. I was impressed with his memory, the way it carried us in the right direction. Main Street. Like Hardy, time seemed to have stopped here, like it has in so many little towns across this country. A lot more concrete than wood, it didn’t claim the quaint boardwalks of the Arkansas town, but did maintain some of the same old awnings, the original brick buildings still carrying the flaking paint from half a century ago.
We came into the Freeport area from the western side, which I’d never done before. The earth began to take on a more sloping shape as Pops hunted for the first home he could remember.
“This is different,” he said, puzzled, pulling the car over along the side of the road. “The highway comes through here now right across what used to just be a two-lane road. Maybe they closed up that road for good.” We stared down at the highway that cut between two hills, wondering what to do next. And then it clicked. “It’s somewhere over there, behind that mound,” he pointed. I waited, irritated I couldn’t help. “Maybe,” he whispered, licking his lips, pulling the car back onto the road, driving ahead until a small, partially hidden dirt road appeared. He drove uphill until it came to an end at an old wooden fence, our only choices being left or right. The rain had lightened, but the ground was soft, the dirt having become a thick mud. “This way, I think,” he turned right, ignoring the sign indicating a private driveway. The ground went steeply downhill here, and we were able to take in our surroundings from the top of the hill. “Holy shit,” he murmured. “There it is. Damn thing is still there.”
On the right, a couple hundred feet down the road in front of us, sat a small, white farmhouse, tucked away into the surrounding hills. Small front porch, crumbling barn next to it. Pops smiled.
“I’m afraid to go down there,” he shared. “Not sure we’ll get back up.”
We took a chance driving down the road, the mud sloshing beneath us, knowing we were risking the chance of ending our tour before it began. Water had pooled into a substantial lake between us and the house, deterring us from getting really close, but we parked and stepped out of the car into the tickling rain, about 20 yards from the front door.
“I can’t believe it’s still standing,” Pops said, taking in the house, which had clearly been abandoned for some time, but somehow hung on to its charm. A memory sparked through his head, and his voice came out sharp and excited. “Right there,” he said, pointing to spot in front of us, “right there my grandpa used to kill chickens we’d eat for dinner. I remember him calling me over to show me. Cut the head right off, and I remember the thing getting up and running around for a few seconds. Scared the shit out of me the first time I saw it.” He turned around and scanned the fields behind us. He remembered being too young to have major chores on the farm, which were reserved for his older brothers. A story about his father accidentally running over a deer out in the field with some sort of heavy machine, running wide-eyed into the house and calling for his oldest son, Spencer. Scampering back out to the field to see if they could help it. But when they got back, the deer had gone.
“I would sit on my dad’s lap and steer the car down this hill,” he pointed at the road we’d just traveled down.
It may seem melodramatic to pause here and mention how I felt seeing that house, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say there was something powerful in the lay of the land. There was a weird sensation that took hold in the pit of my stomach, and carried with me the rest of that morning. Since then, I feel it any time the land lays out in front of me the way it did that day. Sprawling, undulating farmland, the sporadic reach of ancient hardwood trees, surrounded by emerald foliage and fields. Home in a place I’d never been before. I’m no farmer. Never even lived on a farm, but for the briefest of moments, I saw the draw of those surroundings for the family that came before me. And I realized, I’d already found what I was after. I made no mention of it to Pops at the time. It would have sounded stupid, risked shattering his train of thought. But there was a warmth I felt toward country that I’d always dismissed. Ignored. I’d even laughed at the simplicity of folks who lived this way. Can’t say I was ready to flee the city, but I understood my deeper connection to the land itself, and I understood its pull.
We managed to get back to the top of the muddy hill behind us, which seemed steeper, more threatening than it did on the way down, Pops chuckling and shaking his head one last time at that old, white house. “I’ve gotta tell Grandma it’s still here,” he said. “Man, would she get a kick out of seeing that.”
The trip continued that way all morning, Pops often stopping at the side of the road as I watched him work through a trail of breadcrumbs in his brain. “That tree is familiar. I remember that sign. Wait, wait. I think I know this place.” We found his Grandparent’s home this way. In Red Oak. A tiny collection of homes, the final one was theirs, butted right up against a corn field. Told me how he would eat himself sick behind the house, pulling black and red raspberries off the vine. “They even had a grape vine we’d eat from, my brothers and me, right off the driveway.” One spark would ignite a series of others, and I believe that his memory surprised even him.
“That’s the only farm I remember living on,” he said. “Let’s head into the city now.”
The city of Freeport offered a different take: Little League baseball fields. Pops talked about how his coach would take him out to eat after games sometimes, knowing his father wasn’t around.
“Hell, you can’t even do that kind of thing anymore,” he said. “People would think you’re a pedophile or something. Guy was just trying to make sure I got enough to eat, make sure I was alright.”
I was struck by my own memories at this point. Sitting in the passenger side of the car, sun on my face, stopping to pick up one or two of the less fortunate members of my baseball team in the summer. These kids were clad in ragtag clothing. They perpetually needed haircuts, and would accidentally drop curses once in a while in front of Pops. They’d hop in the car at gas stations and convenient stores. He wouldn’t ask them for their addresses. Knew they might be embarrassed for him to see where they lived. But it was important that he helped those kids make it to the games. He didn’t grow frustrated at their parents because they only had one car, or that it had broken down. He treated them just like any other kid, maybe even cut them a little more slack, simply because he knew they needed it. Because he could see himself in them.
The second house he brought me to was also an old white farm house, but bigger than last. This was a real beauty in its heyday. It was weathered, but strong, and you could tell it had fought its way through the progress of history. Sunk its fingernails into the earth and had endured the changing world over the last hundred years. The newer paved streets. Shops. City that popped up around it. Shiny, sleek cars parked along the roadway. Rather than tucked away, this one sat atop a hill, surveyed the surrounding town from the corner of two streets, begging to be noticed.
“Grandma looked out the window one day to see the three of us boys peein’ in the front yard, right in full view of the tavern across the street,” Pops laughed. Man was she pissed. Embarrassed as hell. I mean, we didn’t know any better. Hell, that’s what you did on the farm. Grabbed us by the hair and yanked us inside.” He grew quiet for a moment. “Don’t remember much from that time,” he said. “Just a lot of fighting. My folks went at each other quite a bit. Things went downhill pretty quick after that.”
The rain had stopped, but the stories kept right on churning. “Here’s where I went to school,” gesturing at an old brick building. “That’s where I was when Kennedy got shot. Hell, they announced it over the speakers. The president has been shot. Really spooked us to hear something like that.” We passed the mammoth homes and parks on Empire Street, making our way across the city, and he stopped at any destination that caught his attention.
“Bought my first bike right there,” he pointed at a storefront that now sold appliances. “Bought it on credit,” he laughed. “The owner knew us, knew we didn’t have much, so he let me come in every week and pay a quarter or so, until I’d paid full price. After a couple months, it was all mine. Taught me the value of money.” I could hear the amusement in his recollections, the short chuckles. The smile. Mentions here and there of his father, most being favorable. Here was the location of Jack’s, Freeport’s first fast-food restaurant. Pre-McDonald’s. Harold had waited in line for a ridiculous amount of time, just to bring Pops a burger.
We arrived in another neighborhood a little more rundown, turning a corner to see a huge, dark home. “That’s where we stayed when the old man was in jail,” he said, pointing at the hulking structure. Large porch. Three stories.
“Man is that a sad-looking place,” he said in a soft voice. I couldn’t tell if he was referring to the memories that were flooding back to him, or the actual state of the home itself, but, I’m going to assume, it was a bit of both. Broken windows, Missing railings on the porch. The third story attic window shattered. It had probably been a beauty once, but now looked sad and crumbling. He searched for good memories anyway. “Kissed my first girl on that porch,” he laughed. But I could tell it had been hard there. His silence spoke for him. His brothers were older, mostly working by then, and Pops and Grandma Bonnie were often the only two around. We laughed a little when he told the story of a bat in the attic. How grandma sent him up there with a broom because she was terrified of it. Eight years old or so, swinging a damn broom at the furry rodent that kept buzzing his head. After he connected on a furious swing, he took it to a burning barrel behind the house in a dustpan and flipped it in.
“The next morning when I left for school, I don’t know why, I just had to peek at it, so I lifted up that lid real careful, and that damn thing screeched at me. Still wasn’t dead.” He imitated the screech and we chuckled. “About pissed my pants. Slammed that damn lid and took off like a shot down the road.”
He’d learned to fight young, and often. These were the stories I’d known for years. How my mother took notice of him, actually. Mom watching him fight other boys at the back of the classroom. Almost everyday. A crash. A huge racket that would cause everyone to turn. Pops with another kid in a headlock. The kids who criticized his hair or his clothes. I felt like the beginnings of that kid had taken hold here, in that house, based on both his silence and the residence that scowled back at us from across the street. Something about the shutters that clung at awkward angles by a single bolt. The angry bushes in front. The fuming, discolored shingles. Something out of a scary movie.
The rest of the day continued pleasantly, though our travels led us back toward Rockford, and the handful of houses and apartments he’d lived in there. Some were sad, others were meek. He talked football and sports, things that save him, shared stories about his brother, Danny, cutting wood behind the house, accidentally gashing his own head with a double-sided axe. We drove through old neighborhoods, down weeded alleyways, past chain link fences where we peered into backyards. I saw the two-flat where Perry and Dorothy had lived below them, where my father would be treated to slice after slice after slice of french toast on Saturday mornings, Dorothy doting on him like her own son. Pops teased her by calling her Doorknob. And she gave it right back to him. It was a ritual, a game of sorts, Perry chiming in, offering regular irritated comments his way.
“Get that damn kid out of here. Gonna eat me outta house and home,” he’d say. The routine would culminate in Perry finally chasing him out the back door, throwing a glass of water at him as he leapt the railing, laughing all the way. They’d loved him like one of their own. Never interfering too much, but enough to make sure he kept out of too much trouble. I could see that as Pops shared his history. Good people.
We didn’t hug at the end of it. Didn’t have some sort of lasting moment. We stopped for lunch. Pops shared a story or two more at the restaurant, anecdotes about Harold leaving notes for him to find in the morning, just to make him smile, to make waking up for school an easier endeavor.
Smile, sour puss, it might say.
We didn’t talk much about him directly. Didn’t need to. It was bigger than that.
“You get what you were after?” he asked as we pulled into the driveway.
“Yeah,” I said. “Definitely.”
Harold died in September of 2007, a small write-up in the Rockford paper that my maternal grandmother spotted, and notified the rest of us. My mother told me over the phone. Pops had never gone to see him, and, in the end, I respected that decision.
It seemed obvious to me that I should go, and my mother and sister joined me. Pops went to work, although he’d considered the matter fully before deciding. The drive to the small church couldn’t match the tension as the drive to his house a few months earlier, when I was ready to tell my sister to turn around and drive home. I simply wished to thank Bobbi for her letter, and offer my condolences.
She wore sapphire blue, and after I introduced myself, she hugged me tight, like old friends, smiling an honest smile, turning to talk to her sons (not Harold’s) with her arm still around my shoulder.
“This is Ben. He’s the one who wrote the letter.”
I didn’t like that spotlight.
I shook their hands. We were only staying for the funeral, not the meal, a deal the three of us had worked out in the car on the way there. I watched Bobbi hug the people who arrived, watched the smile, the tears. That flutter of being an intruder stung me again, but I shooed it away.
There wasn’t agony surrounding her. And I was glad for that. It would have been hard to make sense of it. There was probably relief after the way he’d slowly fallen to painful pieces. My Uncle Spencer had showed, along with his wife and several children. News of my letter had spread quickly.
“What did his response say?” they whispered to me across the pews in the church.
“Did he say why he left Grandma?”
“Where’s your dad?”
“Did he have any idea the pain he caused?”
I didn’t have much commentary for them, nor would I have approached Harold like that. My journey had been more personal, not as thorny or accusatory. But I understood their perspective. So many questions left unanswered. So I answered in simple responses, nodding my head, explaining that I hadn’t learned much from him. Never got to meet him.
Harold did not, in fact, have many friends it seemed. I don’t say this in jest, nor is it sarcastic. There is no satisfaction for me in poking fun at a man who’s passed away. But the church was rather empty that day, and the eulogy was less than memorable. That was what finally made me feel sad. Not that he’d passed. Not that I hadn’t gotten to know him. But that his absence produced such a forgetful afternoon. There were times when I felt the pastor was reaching for things to say, and his unfamiliarity with Harold had begun to soak through.
“Hugging Harold was like hugging a porcupine,” he said. (Yes, I stole that line for Perry in one of my first posts. But at least I gave the pastor credit here.) A few chuckles from the audience. The rest was speculation. Things you could tell about him that made him a good man. His ability to break things down, second-guess you. Disassemble your argument. Tell you like it was. And then he did what any man struggling for words might do…he opened the floor for guests to speak.
“Does anyone have anything to share? Any stories they’d like to share of Harold?”
My Uncle Spencer, a man who has spoken about five sentences to me my entire life, rose, and walked to the pulpit. Kristy’s eyes grew wide when she looked at me. Uncle Spencer, the man who, most likely, had the most reason to dislike Harold, as he’d had the most time with him. Uncle Spencer, a retired roofer who’d broken his back twice, only to be found atop a ladder a week later, torso encased in plastic. Uncle Spencer who screamed in agony in a hospital bed, drowning out the morphine they pumped into him after he fell.
“Hardest damn workin’ man I’ve ever met,” Pops says.
He staggered to the front, and read from a piece of paper, introducing himself, the tension building from the few people in the audience. He explained that he didn’t know why Harold had left his family. Didn’t know why he didn’t want to stay in touch. And then he told the story about the deer, about his father running over it, running to the house to fetch him. The same story my father told me on the road trip a few weeks before. It made everything worthwhile, hearing that story again, knowing that I’d tapped into something important. I can honestly say I was proud of him. That took real guts.
Bobbi got up and thanked Spencer. Hugged him. She was the gracious host, pointing us out to their churchgoing friends in the audience, thanking us for being there. It was a touch awkward, but honest, and for the first time, I was thankful the attendance had been so bleak. Less eyes on us. I headed back to Chicago the next day, feeling fortunate, confident in how lucky I had been to have shared so many important experiences in such a short time. And I’m not sure why I didn’t write them down right away. That water wheel brain of mine, I guess. Perhaps I just wasn’t ready. But I knew what had spurred it. I knew what had fueled me to unearth some of the mystery. It was my interview with Howard Estes, the musician who was never supposed to play music in the first place.