Now I’m thinking of the time my father worked in the horse stables for Tom Wilson. This was after the coal mines had shut down for good, and at 40 years old, after spending most of his adult life underground, he now found himself adrift. I was just 13 then, and while I was certainly old enough to understand the strain the loss of his union job put on our family, my parents did what they could to shield me from the realities that lay ahead.
We decided we’d stop for the night in Denver while eating at a Taco Johns in North Platte, Nebraska, and scanned the Expedia app on my phone. There was a 4-star hotel in the suburbs northwest of the city on sale for 86 bucks, so I reserved a room because it was the same price as the Best Western.
I’d met Jimmy Reynolds when we were in fifth grade and his parents were the new owners of one of the two grocery stores in Maysville, my hometown of 900 or so, on the banks of the Little Wabash River in southern Illinois. I even went to his house once after school. His dad supervised while we shot off Jimmy’s model rockets, then later his mom cooked hamburgers and homemade fries for us and his younger brothers Jason and Jonah. The Reynolds kids spent that summer with their grandparents back up in Michigan but then with just a few weeks to go before the 1978-79 school year started Jimmy called and asked if I could come over again.
When I’m there I never think about Mr. Sam O. Dale, an eight term state representative for whom this site was named. Actually, I’ve never heard anyone call this 194 acre lake anything other than Johnsonville Lake, that being the nearest town. I’m not sure if this is because in southern Illinois there seems to be a common disdain for politicians or if it’s just that Johnsonville Lake seems like a more fitting moniker. All I know is this Sam Dale guy never crosses my mind. Usually I’m trying to stay focused on the subject at hand, be that catfishing, building a campfire, or trying to land a nice rainbow at the trout pond. Regardless, when my mind does wander, and it often does, especially while I’m waiting for a fish to bite, I often find myself thinking about my grandpa Dutch Hale who drove down from Clay County to fish here.
We decided to go to Metropolis because we heard there was a giant Superman statue in the middle of town and even though it would be a long, hot drive, it felt like something kitschy and summery to do with the great swaths of time afforded by summer break. That none of us had a particular affinity for Superman made the folly of the trip even more amusing.
I’d leave as early as I could and head north, straight up US 51 for three hours. Just a few years before, I was living in the same small Illinois town that my great-great-great grandfather, Hezekiah Gill, had come to from Tennessee, just before the outbreak of the Civil War. Then he turned around and fought for the Union, surviving the battles through Kentucky, Mississippi, his own native Tennessee, and on to Atlanta. But he returned back to Illinois, and it was there in that tiny village that my family stayed for the next 130 years.
After the accident, when I no longer walked with a cane, we met there at dusk. I hesitated stepping off the dock into the gently swaying boat, still unsure of the steel screwed into my bones, scared in that instant, like every other, of the infinite number of ways a person can die. I took my place in the hard plastic fishing seat, and by the time we reached the far side of the lake and tied onto the line of buoys near the spillway, full dark had come. We set our lines and did no more.
Five miles north of the town of White Heath, Illinois, some houses have clustered close enough together to be called a neighborhood. Each is set on no less than two acres; most have five or more. Blacktop roads dip and curve through the land, bubbling with tar in the summer, buckling into washboards after the breaking cold of winter. Here, twenty-five miles west of Champaign, a few shallow hills wrinkle the land, which stretches out flat on every side in one-mile grids of corn and soybeans.