I live in the best of all possible worlds. I live in Rockford, Illinois.
Rockford is centrally-located in the north-central part of the nation, about equally-distant between metropolitan Chicago (home of John Wayne Gacy) and Madison (near the home of Ed Gein) in Wisconsin or Milwaukee (home of Jeffrey Dahmer). I’m six hours out of Indianapolis going southeast, or six hours out of Minneapolis heading northwest or six hours north of St. Louis. I can drive to New York in fourteen hours or Atlanta in fifteen hours. I’m a good day out of East Texas or Kansas City. I can drive to O’Hare International Airport in around an hour. It took me an hour or longer to get to O’Hare when I lived in downtown Chicago or in Oak Park. What difference does it make if I’m stuck in urban traffic or cruising past mile after mile of cornfields?
My daughter Tammy, who chooses to live in mountainous states like Colorado or Washington or Oregon, calls me a flatlander. To her, endless miles of Illinois cornfields is “bore-ring!” But I write in my mind while I’m driving, and it’s easier for me to write and drive while racing past boring cornfields than fighting construction and congestion on the Eisenhower or Kennedy expressways.
Although I was born and raised in Rockford, Illinois, I moved around a lot to attend various universities and when I worked for the U. S. Army. I spent seven years going TDY (temporary duty) to Timbuktu, or packing up the entire household (including four-year-old Tammy) for a PCS (permanent change of station). I hadn’t intended to return to Rockford after seeing Paris and living in Chicago, Atlanta, and D. C. But, as John Lennon said, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”
The reason I mention Rockford is: much of the action of my forthcoming novel Abandoned takes place in Rockford, Illinois. My other novels are set elsewhere: Arizona, Texas, New York, Virginia, Thailand, Viet Nam, Cambodia, Wisconsin, Tibet, Sweden, Abu Dhabi, even other worlds that may or may not exist. Abandoned is the first novel that mentions Rockford by name. Although the setting is an actual place, the characters are all figments of my imagination.
I mention the Army, too, because I was associated with the military in active, reserve, or civilian status for more than twenty years (not counting five years of junior and senior ROTC). Several of Abandon’s main characters are active or former military.
So let me introduce you to Rockford, Illinois. Rockford was built in the early nineteenth century on both the east and west banks of the beautiful (we used to call it the Mighty Muddy Rock, not because it was a mighty river but because it was mighty muddy) Rock River, and Rockford was the stagecoach stop at the ford of the Rock River midway between hog-butchering Chicago and the lucrative lead mines of Galena. Rockford’s about a hundred miles from Lake Michigan and ninety from the Mississippi River. When my paternal grandparents came to Rockford from Sweden in the last half of the nineteenth century, there was already a railroad from Chicago to Rockford’s Seventh Street train depot. Seventh Street was a Swedish village in America, and the old Swedes called it “Sjundegarten” which was hard for Americans to pronounce because the Sju sounded like wind “whoooondegarten” whistling through the fjords. Some folks even called Rockford “Swede Town” and my father, who was born and went to school in Rockford, spoke Swedish instead of English. Dad dropped out of school in the fourth grade because Turner School stopped teaching most classes in Swedish and everyone had to learn to speak and write in English. Dad found work with the Army at Camp Grant on Rockford’s south side during WWI, and he worked there driving a horse and wagon between the camp and cemeteries during the swine flu epidemic that killed so many in 1918.
Rockford was then, and still is, a divided city. The west side of the Rock River was populated with Italian immigrants on the south side and Irish, English, American immigrants on the north. Swedes occupied most of the east side, along with a few Jews and Germans. I had to learn to speak multiple languages to communicate with friends after school. The Tondis and D’Agostinos spoke Italian, the Singers spoke Yiddish, the Harts spoke German, the Witkowskis Polish. My father, neighbors, aunt, and grandparents spoke Swedish. Rockford had a great multi-cultural mix, and I learned to appreciate differences as well as similarities among residents.
My mother’s side of the family lived on the northwest side of the river. The Crosbys were English, Irish, and German. My cousin Pam Crosby Yager, a Mormon, wrote and published a history of the Crosbys to get her degree from Brigham Young University.
My grandmother Crosby was Roman Catholic, my mother was Methodist, and my father was Swedish Covenant. Pam’s family was Mormon. My uncle Bill was Baptist. Monroe Singer was Jewish. I grew up with all of those religious influences.
This, too, I mention only because it has bearing to the novel Abandoned.
Rockford had a wonderful public library with branches in each of the ethnic neighborhoods. The main library itself, a gift of Andrew Carnegie, sat on the west bank of the river, between two bridges fording the Rock, with doors symbolically facing both east and west. The Montague branch was (and still is) on the southwest side of the river and served both Italian and Spanish speaking residents. The West branch served the English and German and Irish of the northwest side. The Southeast branch served the Swedes. The Highland branch served the Jews and Swedes and Germans and peoples living on the northeast side. There was even a bookmobile that went to each public elementary school every two weeks. The bookmobile is no more, unfortunately, and the main library is about to be demolished. But the legacy of the library endures, and there are still branch libraries serving each part of the city. If there was one thing that unified the city, it was the public library.
The other thing that united the city was factory work. Skilled Swedish, Italian, German, and American craftsmen built multi-national industries with headquarters and production facilities in Rockford. Every family in town either worked for the factories or for one of the local businesses that serviced the factories and their workers. Camp Grant was a major military installation that housed and trained thousands of troops during both World Wars. Rockford had a great economy until Camp Grant closed and the old visionary capitalists died off. Because Rockford had no major universities (why bother when Chicago was so close and the University of Wisconsin and the University of Illinois were handy), the heirs to Rockford’s fortunes moved elsewhere for higher education and few returned. They sold their inherited stock to global conglomerates like Textron and United Technologies who moved the headquarters and manufacturing out of Rockford and left the city with the highest unemployment rate in the entire country. All that remained were a few aerospace technology companies that found a bonanza in currently unemployed highly-skilled engineers and machinists that would work cheap.
To Be Continued