The Slough

The Slough

By Gene Wilburn

Behind our small ten-acre farm, just outside Lyndon, Illinois, ran a railway line, and beyond that, another farmer’s field, and beyond that, “the Slough.”

The word slough often denotes a muddy swamp but in this case it was a river inlet off the Rock River, which starts in Wisconsin, winds through Illinois past towns like Rockford and Rock Falls and empties into the Mississippi at Rock Island. And while slough carries a lot of negative baggage — “a state of moral degradation or spiritual dejection” according to Merriam-Webster, and in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, “the Slough of Despond,” meaning a “swamp of despair,” this slough, whose formal name was Hamilton’s Slough, was a delight and wonder.

To get there you had to squeeze through the barbed-wire fence at the back of our farm, cross the railroad tracks, then squeeze through another barbed-wire fence at the start of the next farmer’s field. You could climb over the fence, but squeezing through was faster and easier, especially since repeated squeezings had left one section of the aged fence wire with a deep sag. If there were two or more of you, one person would hold up the top barbed wire while the next person squeezed through while pressing down the bottom wire. If you were on your own, you squeezed through carefully, limbo style, so a barb wouldn’t rip the back of your shirt.

Next came “the crossing of the field.” This part always made me nervous because the field’s owner often ran his dairy herd into this particular spot, and if the cows saw you they’d start running your way. I had no fear of cows, but the farmer also had a bad-tempered bull, and the grownups had once or twice warned us to watch out for that bull. I don’t know if they were serious or just teasing us — there was much teasing of kids in the 1950s — but that was all it took to plant the terror firmly in my mind that one of these days the bull himself would come charging.

Because of this we always crossed close to yet another farmer’s field so we could jump the fence if necessary. We never tarried while crossing, but covered the 150 yards or so at the fastest clip we could while trying to appear nonchalant.

The barbed wire on the far side of the farmer’s field was relatively new and unpliable, forcing us to climb over. Once over that final hurdle, you emerged at what we called “the top of the slough.” The slough, which meandered about three miles in from the river, passed alongside a steep hill on one side. I believe, in hindsight, that the hill was some kind of small escarpment, and “the top of the slough” was, in fact, simply the top of the escarpment. From the top to the bottom the height was maybe twenty feet or so.

Once at the top, the real adventure began. Just to the left and sloping down into a small ravine awaited a thicket of thorn trees — honey locust trees with long, hard, sharp barbs. It was easy to accidentally slide down into the ravine and meet a honey locust waiting with outstretched barbed limbs to help you break your fall.

But on the right was one of the prettiest sights of my childhood. A grove of shag-bark hickory trees extending all the way to the edge of the escarpment, and a view of distant farmlands beyond. You could see almost all the way to Prophetstown, three miles away. It was dead flat and most of what you could see was corn fields, with a bit of building showing here and there in the distance. Farmers’ barns, silos, and houses.

Where you have shag-bark hickory, you have squirrels that harvest the delicious nuts. Most of us are accustomed to urban squirrels that have learned to live among humans and thrive, not to mention boldly charging right up to you to beg for food. No. These were the wild variety. They got hunted from time to time and at the sight of any of us they bounded for the hickory trees and kept on the opposite side we were on. They were extremely skittish at the sight of humans.

The walk from the top to the bottom of the hill was a choice of the steep way or the easy way. The easy way, with its gentle incline, lay maybe fifty yards to the right and was one of the best approaches to the water. It was our usual route to the water’s edge.

The slough itself teemed with life. It provided a home to hundreds of carp that would occasionally jump out of the water and re-enter with a splash that rippled outward in waves of concentric circles. Crayfish lurked under water near the shore.

The air trilled with the sound of insects and frogs. Here and there among the cattails were muskrat huts, looking like tatty beaver-hut knockoffs. If you kept still you would soon see a muskrat or two plying through the still water, their vertical tails acting as rudders. We were too far north to have any poisonous water moccasins lurking in the waters, but I’d read about them and that was enough to keep me on the alert in case one of them hadn’t consulted the guidebook.

My biggest fear of the slough was not drowning — the water was maybe three or four feet at its deepest. It was the mud — oozy, black, slimy mud that seemed bottomless when you poked a stick in it. Even if you stepped into it near the shore, it was hard to lift your feet out of it. It inspired me to coin the word quickmud — an analogy to quicksand. It was pretty tame stuff compared to real quicksand, but being raised on TV adventures that featured miscreants and innocent folks alike being sucked down over their heads in a quicksand mire, I supplied similar attributes to the slough’s bottom.

I was also leery of stepping on one of the many turtles that liked to sun themselves on logs and rocks and then bury themselves in the mud to cool down. I never saw anything other than painted turtles but, unlike water moccasins, snapping turtles were common in the Rock River and I didn’t want to meet one by accidentally stepping on it.

My favourite slough denizens were the herons — great blues and great whites. Watching them fly in on broad wings to take up stalking positions was thrilling. They were well-fed herons, feasting on fish, frogs, and crayfish. Multicoloured sulphur butterflies flitted over the flowering plants that grew at the edge of the water, and often gathered in large groups to sun themselves on bare muddy sections of the shore.

I must confess I pinged one or two of the butterflies with my Daisy Red Ryder BB gun. Every boy in my class at school carried a BB gun when he ventured out into the countryside — there weren’t many naturalists around in the 50s. Nearly all the farmers did a little hunting, mostly for rabbit and squirrel, which they ate. It was a rite of passage for boys to graduate from shooting a BB gun, to acquiring a .22 calibre rifle, and, when you got old enough, a .410 gauge shotgun. Soon after that you got a driver’s license.

I read in a science book at school that if you collected some pond water and looked at it through a microscope you’d see it brimming with microscopic life. I borrowed one of my mom’s pint canning jars and let it sit in the slough water for about half an hour, then took it to school next day. Sure enough, through the microscope in the science lab, I saw my first paramecia, amoebae, and hydras — a sight that sealed my lifetime interest in natural history.

In winter the slough froze over solid and if there wasn’t too much snow on the surface, you could slide across its surface and peer through the ice to see what was below. There wasn’t that much to see, but if you were above a muskrat channel under the ice, you would sometimes spot a muskrat swim through on its way to or from its hut.

If I’d been Canadian then, I probably would have learned how to ice skate, but I didn’t own any skates and ice-skating and hockey weren’t particularly popular with my classmates. Our winter sport was basketball. Illinois was, and still is, as far as I know, basketball mad. We are shaped not only by our experiences, but our culture.

However, someone once gave me a pair of old barrel-stave skis. They were optimistically crafted with a small groove at the bottom back of the stave, presumably for stability, plus a single leather strap loop for your boots. But barrel stave skis, as you can imagine, are curved and they’re curved exactly the wrong way for skiing.

Occasionally a friend or some of my younger siblings — Jim, Howard, or Lori — and I would carry the odd little skis to the slough and try to ski down its steeper side. Not one person ever made it to the bottom while remaining upright. The curve of the skis caused them shoot up in the front and down you’d go. It was fun anyway and one day we tried sitting on one ski per person and tobogganing down the slope that way. With a bit of luck you could make it all the way down, though usually you spilled off part way. I once slid off the ski into a particularly deep snow drift head first and backward, forcing snow down the back of my neck. It was a waker-upper.

Although it was fun to share the slough with some of my town friends from school – a couple of us even camped out overnight on the top once, and cooked meals over a Boy Scout fire — my favourite visits were the ones I took on my own. There was a harmony and serenity to the place that seeped into my boyhood spirit and prepared me for that most extraordinary book I encountered later in high school: Walden, by Henry David Thoreau.

There was a natural beauty about the slough, and a Bradburyesque dandelion-wine magic, that helped sustain me through my ensuing dry years in Arizona. Slough of Despond? Not at all. The slough of innocent adventure and the beginning of a lifelong love of nature. Despite the ever-present quickmud.

God and the Slingshot

God and the Slingshot

By Gene Wilburn

My main passion as a kid was baseball. In Rock Falls, Illinois, in the early 1950s, we lived in a mixed blue-collar white-hispanic neighourhood and my best buddy, Felipe Gallegos and I pored over the box scores and the statistics of the Chicago White Sox every day in the daily newspaper. His parents took a paper and mine didn’t so I spent a lot of time at his house. What intrigued me about Felipe’s bedroom, where we lay sprawled on the carpet with the sports page spread out under our faces, was that he had a little chapel sort of thing in the corner.

It housed a small statue of the Virgin Mary, a rosary crucifix hanging from it, and a lit flickering votive candle in a red glass container. It was rather beautiful and I’d never seen anything like it. I knew that it was Catholic, though, and because I’d occasionally overheard white Protestant grownups mumble disparagingly about Catholics and their statues and symbols, it seemed slightly illicit. It was also the first time I had seen religious objects in a home, rather than in a church, and that felt a little spooky.

I can’t remember ever being especially drawn to religion as a youngster but one day some of my mom’s faith rubbed off on me. She was a first-generation Swedish-American who didn’t speak a word of English until she went to her one-room country schoolhouse. Unto her last she was Lutheran, which she always pronounced Luteran. She was quietly but deeply religious and I respected her for it. My step-dad, I think he was vaguely religious, more to please my mom than anything else. There was no Lutheran church near us though so we went to a local non-denominational Protestant church that was relatively mild, plain, and homespun.

On that day mom got talking to me about God, and how through the power of prayer, if you had sufficient faith, God could make your prayers come true. She quoted a Bible verse to the effect of if you had as much faith as the size of a mustard seed, you could move mountains, or some such.

I thought it marvellous that He (always referred to as masculine) would grant your prayers, so I decided to put it into practice because there was nothing I wanted more than a slingshot. Some of the neighbour boys had made them from a red-rubber inner tube found in a vacant lot, and they let me try it out. The sheer joy of finding a good stone, aiming it at a fence post, and watching it arc through the air toward the target was one of the greatest pleasures I had yet encountered, and I desperately wanted to be member of the slingshot club.

So I went outside to a shady spot in the back yard where I sat down to pray. In the history of Christendom, I’m certain no little boy ever prayed harder or more innocently. I concentrated on praying so hard I got dizzy from the effort. Just deliver it to the side door step, I requested, as politely and believingly as can be. I prayed so hard that if I were to do that at my age today I’d likely have a stroke. I rose from prayer feeling holy and I just knew that slingshot was sitting on the porch waiting for me.

I was already plunking fence posts in my mind as I went to retrieve my miraculous slingshot. I was stunned, and confused, when I didn’t find it there. I checked on the ground around it in case God missed the step itself. He must have to hurry to make all his rounds of prayers, I thought, ot maybe he put it on the wrong step, so I checked the step at the front of the house and the back of the house, and all the yards, but no slingshot could I find.

I distinctly remember thinking “well … that didn’t work” and shrugging my shoulders. It was nearly time to visit Felipe anyway, and I wondered how the Sox had fared against the Orioles. Maybe Minnie Minoso had driven in Luis Aparicio and Nellie Fox again. Or hit one of his occasional home runs.

Slide Rule (I)


Autumn 1959.

I’d never been truly inspired by a teacher until I entered high school (Lyndon, Illinois) and got Mr. Buikema for general science and algebra.

He was a newly minted teacher from Northern Illinois University at Dekalb. With his blond crewcut, dark horn-rim glasses, and enthusiasm for science and math, he epitomized the collegiate, scientific look of the late 50’s. Not to mention he was a fan of the Kingston Trio, my favourite music group, and he had built his own Heathkit amp which he connected to an AR-3 speaker (this was before stereo). I idolized him.

I liked science and enjoyed his lab, but what really excited me was his algebra class. I’d disliked arithmetic because it was so boring, but algebra — it was a new language, the beginnings of real mathematics. I was hooked. The symbolic notation and equations appealed to me from the start. Factoring seemed intuitive and beautiful. I loved story problems of the type “if Train A is going west at X miles per hour, and Train B is going east at Y miles per hour, etc., how far will each have traveled when they pass each other.”

One day while we were working on our algebra exercises, Mr. Buikema pulled a slide rule from his leather briefcase to do some grade calculations. I was smitten. I’d heard of slide rules but I’d never seen one up close, much less met anyone who knew how to use one. The slide rule, or “slipstick” as it was affectionately called, was the icon of science and engineering. Wernher van Braun, the German, then American, rocket scientist was photographed using one.

After class I asked Mr. Buikema if they were hard to learn, and he said if I picked up an inexpensive one, he’d teach me how to use it. The next week my Mom bought me a plastic 10-inch slide rule for $1.99 at Walgreens. It had the most-often used scales and while it lacked the precision of an engineer’s metal or laminated bamboo slide rule, it was more than adequate as a learning tool.

Mr. Buikema taught me how to do multiplication, division, squares and cubes. It was my first calculating machine, and I loved its elegance and what would be called, a half century later, its geekiness. To my delight I found I could use the slide rule effectively in solving physics problems, calculating forces on an inclined plane, and velocities of objects in motion.

I had joined the Space Age.

Retirement: The Great Divide

Lawn Chair & Shadow

[With this post I’m beginning a new series of what I’ve dubbed “cozy essays”]

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there” — L.P. Harteley

The thing about retirement is that you realize your past is longer than your future. Inevitably you wonder how you got here, to this point, this day in the now. What shaped you? If you’re a writer, you reach the age where memoir and autobiography take on new appeal. To the philosopher, it presents a new line of thought and query. But how can any memoir or autobiography not be philosophical? Philosophy and memoir are intertwined.

Questions. For instance, what is friendship? I’ve never had a lot of close friends, other than my wife and son. I was close to my wife’s mom and dad, but they’ve both passed on. There are a number of people with whom I share interests in technology or photography but only one who is a close friend. I’ve only ever had one writing friend. My family doc says I should have at least seven social encounters a month. That’s a higher quota than I can manage.

I’m not a misanthrope. I often like being around other people and enjoy their company, but I’m not good at maintaining chitchat for extended periods of time. I don’t follow sports. I barely follow broadcast news. I’m not so much cynical as skeptical. News stories are shallow, often misleading.

Skepticism prevents me from embracing any kind of spiritual path, as I did when I was younger and naive. I agree with Aristotle that everything there is is contained in nature. I’m scientifically inclined. “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proofs,” said Carl Sagan. And yet, my academic background is in the humanities and I take even my skepticism under advisement.

Retirement is a unnerving mirror. You look in it and see fading flesh, aging eyes, dwindling energy. It reflects reality. But not all of it. It doesn’t reflect back your mind.

Peter and the Wolf

Peter and the Wolf

Peter and the Wolf

By Gene Wilburn

For those who grew up with television, it’s hard to fathom the grip that radio once had on the imagination. In the small blue-collar town of Rock Falls, Illinois, in 1951, I was six years old and radio captivated me; I listened each week to episodes of The Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, The Cisco Kid, Red Ryder, and, my favorite, The Adventures of Superman.

Our radio was a floor-standing Zenith in a deep-brown wood cabinet. Behind its wheat-colored grill was a twelve-inch speaker that filled the living room with the deep, sonorous voice of authority. The Zenith logo was formed with an oversized Z made of lightning bolts that trailed under the enith with a flourish. It looked modern, futuristic. I imagined the round tuning dial with its little lamp that shone on the station markings as a cockpit instrument. Sometimes, when I was alone in the house, I would spin it around and listen to the stations click by. I never imagined that this wonderful instrument would lead to trouble.

Like much trouble, its beginnings were innocent. My mom and step-dad wanted to go out to dinner or a movie or something and asked if I was okay being on my own. I didn’t mind and they promised to be back as soon as possible. It was common to leave responsible youngsters on their own back then. They headed out in their gray 1951 Ford sedan, under an overcast, wintry sky that smelled of snow and I settled in for an evening of comic books and radio shows.

As it grew dark outside, I switched on the radio for the special children’s hour programming and was delighted to hear it was going to be a presentation of “Peter and the Wolf,” music by Prokofiev, narration by Boris Karloff. I owned the Disney book of Peter and the Wolf and knew the story well, though I always found it a little scary.

The show opened with Karloff’s rich, cultured voice introducing the instruments that represented the characters in the story: the bird, the duck, Peter, his grandfather, and the wolf. When the three horns representing the wolf played, the hair rose on the back of my neck and I began to feel uneasy.

As the story progressed, the music began to spook me. Never had “Peter and the Wolf” been this scary. I got up and closed all the doors leading into the living room. I couldn’t abide the darkness on the other side. Even that was not enough. My nerves were on edge. I closed all the drapes on the windows and, as an added measure, locked the front and side doors, something we rarely did back in the early 50s. Finally it got too tense for me and I switched off the radio and turned on all the lights and snuggled under the cover on the couch where I listened to the snow hitting the side of the house until I fell asleep.

The weather had turned into a nasty snowstorm with blizzardy winds. My mom and step-dad tried to drive home in it but could only get within two blocks of the house because the snow plow hadn’t yet been through. The drifts were three or four feet high and they abandoned the car on the side of the road and trudged their way through the wind and drifts to get to the house.

When they got there, the house was locked and they had no key. This too was typical of the 50s. Houses only got locked when the last person went to bed. Looking in the window through a crack in the drapes they could see me sleeping on the couch. They pounded on the door and the window and shouted at me, but it didn’t wake me. Getting colder and more desperate to get inside, my step-dad finally broke a window and entered that way, opening the door for my mom. That didn’t wake me either. My fright over “Peter and the Wolf” had carried me to a deep, safe place in my slumber.

When they shook me awake I was at first glad to see them, but was confused by the scowls on their faces. My step-dad was so livid with anger he could scarcely talk. I think he might have wanted to shake some sense into my head, but mom intervened more gently, though she was angry as well. I was scolded sternly about locking them out on the night of a blizzard.

I felt embarrassed and sorry that I had let them down, but I also felt a rebellious sense of injustice. All I did was keep out the wolves, and I knew that, if it came to it again, I’d do the same thing. My fear of wolves was stronger than my fear of being scolded and chastised.

They later told the story as a joke to their friends, always featuring me as the butt of the joke, but I noticed that, from that time onward, they carried a house key.


The Look It Up Club

Here’s something I wrote, inspired by the challenge “look up.” It’s not meant to be profound — just a light bit of memoir.

The Look It Up Club

Beside the Rock River, downstream from Rock Falls and upstream from Rock Island, nestles the small farm town of Lyndon, Illinois. Perhaps not so much nestles as puzzles, wondering what happened. When first founded, Lyndon was designated as the capitol of Whiteside County, but shortly after, the county seat was moved to the bustling town of Morrison. Lyndon, meanwhile, nestled and swelled to a population of 600, given a generous rounding up by the census bureau.

When my family shifted residence from the booming blue-collar town of Rock Falls to a small farm outside of Lyndon, there was another shift in the wind. The Top-Ten radio stations that featured Perry Como, Tennessee Ernie, and a fresh young balladeer, Pat Boone, were being infiltrated by a new sound, from artists like Elvis, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, and the Big Bopper. Changes were afoot. Who’d have thought you could have a Number One hit with a song about a hound dog?

Changes were coming to the classroom too. In my schoolroom where the combined grades five and six were ably juggled by the legendary Mrs. Emmonds, who had taught most of my classmates’ parents, a mystery man appeared one day. Lyndon School had purchased the World Book Encyclopedia, a new publication aimed at elementary students. The mystery man was evidently part of the deal. He stayed on from Monday to Friday, with one period a day devoted to the gleaming white workbooks distributed to each of us. We were suddenly pledges in the World Book-sponsored Look It Up Club. By looking up and answering all the questions in the workbook, we became official members, each of us receiving a piece of paper with Look It Up Club at the top and our name on it, gracefully penned in by Mrs. Emmonds.

When your top entertainment includes throwing rocks at snapping turtles at Walker’s Slough, sipping coke and listening to the hound dog song on the jukebox in the Sip’n’Bite Cafe, and watching the high school basketball team lose another game, the World Book came on like fireworks. It was full of dazzling color: maps, photos, diagrams. It told you where things were, like Rhodesia and Ceylon. It had diagrams of how things worked, like electric toasters and automotive gear shafts. It was amazing, and understandable. It was the World Wide Web in a set of volumes with pebbly covers that made you want to pick them up. The only thing more exciting was the annual summer week at scout camp.

That was a long time ago, 1955 or 56 — a different era. Yet the population of Lyndon has remained constant to this day. Given that most of us left after our school years, the constancy is a bit of a mystery. I sometimes surmise there’s a kind of psychic warp where the river bends in Lyndon, compelling newcomers to settle there, maintaining the balance. That means new kids to educate. Kids sprouting ear buds, carry iPods to school. Kids who never heard of Rhodesia or Ceylon, but who occasionally listen to a “classic oldie” about a hound dog.

Kids more aware of things, who would never find the World Book a match for the World Wide Web, and who would likely think the Look It Up Club hokey. As Heraclitus stated: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”