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The House on Baldwin Road

Aunt Marie’s and Uncle Bill’s house in, or rather outside of, Palatine, Illinois holds many memories:  Winters and Summers, Christmas weeks, and especially, part of the Summer of 1968. But, almost as important as the family times there were, The House Baldwin Road represents something of the times, from 1963 until now,  something of the nature of changing times and places, and of a part of civilisation--though maybe not so grand a thing as all that.

Those days, The House Baldwin Road was the site of my uncle’s camping business as well as his, my aunt’s and cousins’ home.  Uncle Bill sold and rented various kinds of camping equipment, mostly for car camping.  Trailers and tents were displayed and stored, at various stages of erection, on the lower part of the property.   The House was at the other end, surrounded by trees and shrubbery, which helped it to stay somewhat cool on a hot day.

Also in those days, farmers’ fields started right at the end of the short road which came off the highway (US 14, or Baldwin Road), and continued north, broken by forest preserves all the way into Wisconsin.  I discovered in 1968 that the roads round about were not heavily travelled, and one could ride a bicycle peacefully and quietly along for miles and miles.  Indeed, one could, as I did, live in the city itself and make a day trip, riding out to the country and back.  Many days I did just  that. It was the first personal acquaintance with rural life that I had made truly on my own.
Those first encounters started  from The House.  I had just received my first derailleur bicycle, a green Schwinn Super Sport (still my favourite colour of all my bikes).  It was not a spectacular bike.  It had a nice feature, though, in a small rack that fit into the slots of the saddle, and strapped to the seat post.  I loved that bike, and it took me on many a fine trip . It was, like all good bikes, stolen.  Counting that one, three of the five bikes I’ve owned since that time have been stolen.  My favourite bike (apart from my friend of these past several years) was stolen in St. Louis du Ha! Ha!, Québec.  I duly reported its loss to the Surété du Québec, but they did not find it.  I loved my old white Holdsworth.  It seems a shame now, looking back, that it should have taken me all that way, on the longest bicycle trip of my life, all the way across Michigan and then into Canada, sew-up tires and all, only to be stolen …
That beautiful white Holdsworth took me on many rides north of Chicago, in the northern Illinois countryside. By the time I owned that bicycle, I owned a pair of cycling shoes which, as I had done habitually since my high school cross country and track days, I wore without socks.  One particularly hot and bright late morning, I developed a sunburn on my ankle as I rode north on a country road.  Like many of the days I'd venture out into the northern Illinois countryside, it was hot and humid, and the sky was brilliantly blue, with the sun beating down on everything.
…But, to those first trips in that Summer of 1968.  I rode often up Quentin Road.  I learned that, riding a bicycle, one could make reasonably good time and still see, hear, and smell the world all around.  Moreover, it is easy to stop. Quentin Road went through farm country then, and I learned the joys of smelling a farmyard and looking a cow in the eye, as well as being able to hear small sounds, sounds of animals, the wind in the trees, or simply the ticking sound of a coasting bicycle. 
The cycling high point that summer came when a tour of cyclists came by on their way to Wisconsin.  They were kids my age and younger, with a guy or two in their twenties providing some sort of adult supervision.  I went with them as far as Genoa City, Wisconsin.  With them, I travelled on the highways.  The next day, I came back alone, this time on small roads that would be my friends on the rides of the next few years. I came back on roads with no shoulders and little traffic, with wildflowers nodding their heads over the pavement.  I rolled down one hill into the town of Johnsburg, and I stopped at a gas station for the last ten cent pop of my life (as it turned out).  It was a bottle of Squirt in an old fashioned cooler in which the bottles are imprisoned between metal bars, held at their necks, and must be guided through the bars to a gate, which opens after the deposit of a coin or two, liberating the bottle.  It was the War in Vietnam that made things cost more.  A pair of Levi’s  went from $4.25 to over $5.00, and the price of a Hostess Cupcake (or Snowball, or Twinkie) started going up, leaving its long-time 13 cent price forever. Though that trip, on that Sunday and Monday were memorable, that last dime pop was historic.
Many of the afternoon rides up Quentin Road that summer—and other summers—were memorable, though.  I was always making discoveries.  I discovered  old cemeteries as places to stop and rest on hot afternoons.  One time, in 1973, I stopped at the old McHenry Cemetery, and, leaning against a tree, I heard the report of Willie Mays’ retirement on the small radio I always brought with me (for weather news, mostly).  Willie would retire at the end of that Baseball season.  It was incongruous, in a way, sitting there amidst the peace of a cemetery on a fine, lazy Northern Illinois summer afternoon, listening to the urban sound of the sports news, seemingly miles away from anywhere anyone would care.  With the radio off again, it seemed as though time hadn’t past at all since many of the headstones all around me had been erected.
Willie Mays’ retirement marked an end of an era in baseball, of course, but also in my life.  There had always been a Willie Mays.  He came into the majors the year I was born.  I sat longer in the cemetery thinking of that, too, as I did when I finally got back on my bike and rode home.
*  *  *
In  that Summer of 1968, the little road next to the Baldwin Road land ran into a corn field and turned up to Quentin Road.   It wouldn’t be too many more years before that corn field would be prairie again, and shortly after that, the prairie would be under the handiwork of the developer and contractor.  This was by 1974, when I rode my yellow Motobecane along the roads of North-eastern Illinois.  Then, Quentin Road’s fields, barns and farms were giving way to plant entrances, traffic, and a loss of peace, quiet, and safety.  Suburban development was, of course, underway by then, but large amounts of land was still being farmed, and many small villages and towns still went about their business in the area north and west of Chicago in the late sixties.  Since leaving Chicago in the late seventies, and coming back for visits, usually from the north and north-west,  I’ve seen the subdivisions of pretentious houses rear up where fields of corn and soya beans were before, and artificial lakes where once there were copses and wood lots.  In places where the earth was black with richness and promise in the Springtime, ready to be ploughed, straight roads and meandering, aimless subdivision streets separated bloated houses.  The furrows were gone, and the prairie, too, and the wildflower-lined small roads, full of quiet and peace.  Now, senseless lawns, dahlias and driveways,  Ford and Daimler, Briggs and Stratton, and the work of Seoul’s and Osaka’s auto works,  Detroit’s remnant of prophetic past-future.
The small houses and farmyards are gone now, as the arable land around Chicago goes under the atrocities passing as dwellings these days—too much house for so little time spent in them, these houses of the commuters, homeless but not houseless.
Palatine, and the house on Baldwin Road were travelled toward—by bicycle—on Willow Road.  Though at first, in Carmen Avenue days, we went by car, out Foster Avenue, to the expressway, to Hicks Road to US 14, or Baldwin Road.  I’d gone by commuter train, too, art various times.  The trains could be heard, and in less verdant seasons, seen not far across the road.  The tracks paralleled the road.  The train, with its whistle seemed to complete a scene of green heart and heavy air on a hot summer night.
Nights at the house were ones of long conversation and board games or card games.  Some years, we went out to the house on the days after Christmas.  Life would be indoors then, warm and happily close, with my aunt’s good food and fine baking.  Their presents would be under the Christmas tree still, and the decorations which made their house a home would peek out shyly at me.  Two of my cousins would be home from their colleges, and their young sister would have her sister and brother back, at least for a little while.  Winter was white and stark and bleak outside, but life was relaxed and stimulating at the same time for me, inside in the warmth.
“Shirts”, my aunt would say with quiet authority when my cousin and I would appear for supper on a hot summer’s day.  She always insisted on that much decorum at least at the table.  I didn’t usually need reminding, as I didn’t like being shirtless, but my cousin routinely went about without his most of the summer.  Suppers there had a magnificence that can only come from good food served in the setting of family and friends.  Aunt Marie was a great cook.
That first bicycle summer, after my trip with the cycling tour, I came back to a rich meal, which I sorely needed.  I needed a shower, too and such was the state of my dehydration that I drank water straight out of the tap.
*  *  *
In The Fall of 1994, I had an interview at a church in Redvers, Saskatchewan.  We decided that we would go there by way of the Upper Peninsula, and come back via Minneapolis and Chicago, stopping at mother’s in Sturgis for Thanksgiving.  In keeping with our practice, we decided to go into Chicago on roads other than Interstate highways.  We found US 14 in Wisconsin, and followed it into Chicago, knowing that it would pass the House on Baldwin Road, as US 14 was Baldwin Road there.
We found the house surrounded by the suburbs, huddled in amongst the old trees and shrubbery.  It was as if they huddled together to guard and share their memories of pleasanter, more tranquil times, times of the days of my cousins, times of other occupants;
times when farms and wood lots surrounded the house.  Of course, we couldn’t slow down and take a good look, and of course, we couldn’t go and ask for a tour for old times’ sake.
            Do the fields, the corn, the copses, the farm houses, and the prairie have ghosts?  Yes, and in the case of the prairie, a certain expectation of a resurrection.  But, the powers that exiled them are strong still.  The ghosts are gone, and the trees, the cows, the farm buildings I would ride past in Cuba Township, the farmers, my family—all are gone from there now.  House, will you stay, hiding amongst trees and shrubs, or will the lure of a grand house with untold numbers of bathrooms, and homeless house owners be your undoing, too?  I wonder if the roads without shoulders, fringed with wildflowers are not now running, multi-laned, past gross houses on curving streets with no place to walk, places with nautical names, so  incongruous in Illinois prairie.
            Are there ghosts? Are there ghosts?…
            The more than thirty years of summers gone by, my seventeen year old self rides the quiet, flower-edged roads and talks to cows.  Chicago was looming, but (still barely) unseen from that place in the country form which I embarked.
            Once, the city drew in;  now, it throws itself out into the Northern Illinois countryside—taking the countryside away from itself.  But, Chicago throws, not its essence, but a counterfeit of itself, complete with authentic looking labels.  It is made from but not of Chicago.
            “I’m from Chicago”.
            “Yes?”  “I’m from the North Side.”
            “You mean, right downtown?”
            “No, I mean the North Side.”
            “Actually in the city, you mean?”
            “Yes, IN CHICAGO!”
            Made out of Chicago, like a quilt made out of scraps of fabric, by people who reject and resent Chicago, its streets, its buildings,  neighbourhoods, and who don’t care for the countryside, either.  They abandon the city and destroy the countryside, paving, lawning, and building houses in suburbs: town-less, city-less, neighbourhood-less, aggregations from which to set out on daily journeys to jobs or shopping places, only to return to home-less houses.
            Made out of Chicago--or any city—a pâté  of ground urbanness, processed rurality, bearing as much relation to anything authentic as Spam does to Herefords.  Can anything but the kind of ominous organisms that grow on putrefied  Spam grow places like this? Or have attempts been made on them with antiseptics and antibiotics which will, in time, breed potent killers of first the Spam, and then the Authentic, as it is looted to supply the suburban Spamworks.[1] Constantly, seemingly relentlessly, Chicago is taken, ground up, into the countryside, a countryside destroyed in order to put up more sham Chicago. Gone are the farms, old towns, woods, and prairie. The Northeastern Illinois  of the First Nations is gone past recognition, and has been for a long time.  The Northeastern Illinois I knew only a few decades ago is now fast becoming just as unrecognisable.  For there is such destruction now that even the eighteenth and nineteenth century colonists, in their wildest, greediest dreams of conquest could not match, imagine, or even countenance.  Concrete and asphalt, auto emissions, and lawn care chemistry are the final break with the land’s supporting role in human life: even the farms and market towns erected on stolen land remained a part of it, being of it, at least, and not just on top of it.

Afterword:  When I saw two of the cousins that lived in the house in 2008, they said that they'd been out to the spot, and found that the house was gone.

 [1] Processed meat seems a very appropriate Chicago metaphor.: the stuff of stockyards past, transformed into “lifestyles” present.

Robin L. Øye is a composer, performer, and writer, and the founder of Torcroft Press.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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