Michael James : Heart of Illinois in the Summer of ’64

Boys in a pickup truck in front of the Fulton Democrat in Lewistown, Illinois, in the summer of 1964. Photos by Michael James from his forthcoming book, Michael Gaylord James’ Pictures from the Long Haul.

Pictures from the Long Haul:
Heart of Illinois in the Summer of ’64

Hanging with this band of old dudes I learned to roll smokes. I played guitar and sang with them, and in the process acquired some finger-picking guitar riffs and a staple of country tunes. I chipped in change and took regular slugs from half-pint bottles of Jim Beam.

By Michael James | The Rag Blog | September 17, 2013

[In this series, Michael James is sharing images from his rich past, accompanied by reflections about — and inspired by — those images. This photo will be included in his forthcoming book, Michael Gaylord James’ Pictures from the Long Haul.]

The March on Washington was so positive. Good feelings flowed. The assassination of President Kennedy in the fall brings grief and sadness. Things are different now, often a world away from those feelings of hope, optimism, and belief in the future we shared after The March in August 1963.

At Christmas I leave school early for a job delivering the mail in Weston, Connecticut. I drive beside the Bridgeport Hydraulic Reservoir; I love the snow and the pines, and watch a snow goose fly over the ice-covered lake. The big bird reminds me of a B52 Bomber. One day I get out of the little Morris Minor I use to deliver the mail and knock on a door. The great jazz pianist Dave Brubeck greets me, then thanks me when I hand him his package.

Hotel Spoon River in Peoria, Illinois, 1964.

That holiday season I also saw a Broadway production of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology at the Belasco Theater. I fell in love with Spoon River. Discovering Masters — and other authors, radicals, and muckraking journalists — gave me a more realistic view of America. Masters’ portrayal of small town life countered the popular images of “the good old days” and an unblemished American flag.

My dad and mom had known Masters when he was an older man. I heard about him all of my life. I hadn’t paid much attention to it. And I was not an enthused listener when my dad, standing in his underwear, would pull Spoon River Anthology off the bookshelf and read the poems, the stories from the grave.

At the University of Chicago Dad had the lead in a theatrical production of Masters’ Andrew Jackson. Masters’ wife saw it and told him to look up Edgar Lee in New York City. As he was a young actor then in Morris Carnovsky’s Group Theater, he did and was treated kindly. He also met Sherwood Anderson while hanging out at the Chelsea Hotel. Later both my parents worked on the radio show Against the Storm, and Dad gave Masters the part of the “old Professor.”

Each weekday during the spring of 1964 I got up before dawn and drove out Route 22 to Half Day, Illinois. I climbed up into my bus at the Ritzenthaler bus barn and drove two school bus routes. I saw cows heading to pasture, picked up kids from as far north as Antioch on the Wisconsin border, and dropped them off at school.

I would return to my apartment and spend several hours writing before going back out on the roads. Then I would pick up the school kids and drop them at their homes. I loved that job.

The writing was academic: sociology. I was working on my senior thesis and the topic was “The American Business Elite: Route of Entrance and Field of Success for Those Possessing Low Status Attributes.” Got it? Basically the well-heeled — the old-line bluebloods — made it big in established fields like banking, while Catholics and Jews, possessing “low status attributes,” made it via newer, riskier routes, like the railroad and entertainment industries.

That spring some of the Lake Forest College fraternities brought Bo Diddley to campus. I reconnected with Jerome, the maraca player, and reminded him of the time in 1957 when we shared hard cider at St. Anthony’s Hall in Saugatuck, Connecticut. Then I told him about when my boyhood pal Doug Fenton and I — with two young well-to-do New York girls — went to the Apollo to see Bo and waited after the show at the backstage door.

Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner at Heart of Illinois Fair in Peoria, 1964.

We wanted to say Hi and talk with “my friend Jerome.” Eventually he had come out — blasted, wearing a doo rag and a leather coat — and given us a mumbled hello before he split. This time, Jerome laughed. We talked and drank beer.

Who would have thought? I graduated from Lake Forest College — with honors. I was awarded a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship and accepted for graduate study at the University of Chicago, Columbia University, Brandeis, and the University of California, Berkeley. My plan was to become a sociologist. I thought the most radical sociologists were at Berkeley. So Berkeley was my choice.

But first, I had a summer ahead of me.

I got a job as a “participant observer” working with an anthropologist named Mel Diamond on a Notre Dame study of Southern white migrants in Chicago’s Uptown. I moved into the Villa Sarata, an SRO (single room occupancy) on the 4100 block of Kenmore. It was the first time I had lived in a city since I was a baby in New York. And it was my first — though not last — move into Chicago’s legendary and notorious Uptown.

I began learning about Appalachia: its people and the conditions that moved them North.

A good amount of my time was spent under the El tracks in the alley between Kenmore and the Graceland Cemetery — resting place of the boxing champ Jack Johnson. By day I hung out with a group of older hillbillies — or Southern guys — and wrote up notes at night. One of the “subjects” was Penny Menser from Kentucky, a one-armed guy who was an ace cigarette roller.

Hanging with this band of old dudes I learned to roll smokes. I played guitar and sang with them, and in the process acquired some finger-picking guitar riffs and a staple of country tunes. I chipped in change and took regular slugs from half-pint bottles of Jim Beam.

The manager’s wife at the Villa Sarata taught me to make biscuits and gravy. Sometimes at night I walked up to Montrose Avenue to the Jubilee, a bar with a great C&W band and one amazing — and near-naked — shake dancer in a cage. One of the musicians, Louie Bautista, later emerged as Luis, a conscious Chicano and body worker; I received my first massage from him, in 1976.

My girlfriend from Lake Forest, Lucia, and her family had moved back to Peoria. I took the Illinois Central Railroad down to visit. Waiting to be picked up at the station on what turned out to be a very hot day, I enjoyed an ice-cold beer at the Coney Island Tap. The next day we visited Spoon River country, starting in Lewistown, where farmers in overalls gathered for an auction. I spotted the Hotel Spoon River and a Ford pickup truck with two boys in it, parked in front of The Fulton Democrat.

Next we went to Petersburg to visit Masters’ boyhood home and the cemetery where he is buried. Also buried there is Ann Rutledge — who may have been Abe Lincoln’s first love and the subject of a poem in Spoon River Anthology.

Our final stop was the Heart of Illinois Fair in Peoria, where we attended a Democratic Party rally featuring Governor Otto Kerner. Kerner was a liberal, two-term Governor best known as the head of Lyndon Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. That Commission issued The Kerner Report after the summer of ‘67’s urban black rebellions, a report critical of the government’s failings in the issues of poverty and the inner city. It warned the nation was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”

Kerner was also known for allegedly arranging favorable dates for some Illinois racetracks. The racetrack scandal made him the first of four Illinois Governors to do prison time, though to this day his conviction remains suspect. Big Jim Thompson prosecuted Kerner. Thompson was the U.S. Attorney General for Northern Illinois, appointed by President Nixon. A Republican, he would go on to four reigns as Illinois Governor, supporting the flat-tax idea responsible for the pension crisis crippling Illinois today.

Mike’s 1957 Ford “ragtop” convertible.

The summer over, I rode solo in the white ‘57 Ford convertible I got from Dick Simon. Simon, from Manhattan, was one of Lake Forest College’s beatniks. I took the “ragtop” through Indiana, driving through the night down the old Route 20.

The convertible’s top was ripped-up and coming apart, so I kept it down. It was August, but the night was unseasonably cold. I was bundled up and wearing my foul weather rain gear. Both the heater and the radio were blasting away. I sped under stars and a waxing moon through mile after mile of cornfields, slowing at irregular intervals when cruising through the dimly lit and very still small towns.

Again, I headed home to visit my family at the old farmhouse on Westport’s Wilton Road. I’d stay a few days, soak in the people and the vibes once again, then roll west, back across the continent to sunny California. UC Berkeley, here I come. I’m about to take another step into America, and the exciting, fun-filled, dynamic, and tragic days of the 1960’s.

[Michael James is a former SDS national officer, the founder of Rising Up Angry, co-founder of Chicago’s Heartland Café (1976 and still going), and co-host of the Saturday morning (9-10 a.m. CDT) Live from the Heartland radio show, here and on YouTube. He is reachable by one and all at michael@heartlandcafe.com. Find more articles by Michael James on The Rag Blog.]

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