The whirring noise of the bricks when our car’s tires turned from Losey Street onto Kellogg Street is still in my head after all these 69 years. Those bricks are gone now, as is the home where I grew up. The hospital across the street from 692 North Kellogg bought our house and turned our whole neighborhood into a parking lot.
I loved that two-story house with a coal bin in the basement during the 1950s, and a cherry tree sporting a home-made swing in the backyard. But now it’s gone, except in my memory, and the memories of a very few relatives. I’m sure if that house were still sitting there on the lot between the houses of friendly neighbors, I would think it was terribly old. But I remember every nook and cranny of both the house and the neighborhood. It’s permanently mapped in my head even though it no longer exists. I spent much more time there than I did in my elementary school.
Yesterday, I went back to see the grade school where I spent my first five years before being transferred for sixth grade to another school closer to home. Silas Willard School was built in 1912, and next summer they will begin demolishing it so students can go to a cleaner-and probably healthier- building already constructed next door. In all seriousness, I wasn’t sure what I even remembered about the building since I hadn’t been in it since 1957. Curiously, I have few photographs of that time nor composite pictures of my classes and teachers, so I couldn’t even look at those before I checked out the old building.
I had rather ambivalent feelings about this whole adventure since it was a blank in my mind. But just walking into the building and down the first hallway, I felt punched in the gut. It was familiar and emotional even if my brain seemed devoid of memories.
Fortunately, I ran into a friend from those years just inside the door. Neal Gensini shared all twelve years of my school days in District 205, Galesburg, Illinois, and I’m glad his memory was stronger than mine. Strangely, however, my body seemed to find its way of its own accord.
Neal and I both remembered first grade the best, and that’s the room we found on the east side of the building. You see, this room definitely seemed familiar, but mostly we remembered our teacher. Miss Jaeschke was our very first elementary school teacher, and she was young and pleasant and smiled a lot. She taught us how to read, opening up the world to us, and I’ve never stopped reading. But most importantly—as Neal and I agreed—she made us feel confident and cared for in this new part of our life away from our homes and parents. I still remember she hugged us when we left each day.
Later years in that school came and went. In the building yesterday, remembered thoughts came back in pieces and parts. Our second and third grade experiences were not so memorable, but in fourth grade, we were in a basement room we thought of as the dungeon. We were the first of the Boomer generation, you see, and the schools couldn’t handle the influx of numbers. So we were stashed away in a small basement room which, even today, looks quite dingy and un-memorable. I imagine even the hallways were crowded back then.
Fifth grade was a nightmare. We were in the gymnasium with other classes, sitting at desks in this huge room with no partitions or walls, and the noise was dreadful. The school had run out of room for us. I remember being in this gym, too, for polio shots and eventually the little containers of vaccine we drank. These were the Cold War years when polio vaccine seemed like a miracle. So I certainly remembered this gym, with a kitchen on the north end that had an upright piano where I took lessons.
The playground on the east side was also familiar. Boys and girls had separate playgrounds, and I remember playing hopscotch on the east sidewalk. In first grade, when the bell rang, we went in the east door and up the stairs to our classroom.
On the second floor was the library, and that was the most wonderful place of all because it had books. Neal and I both remembered really positive feelings in that room with its south window that was—amazing to us—round. Today, I could imagine tables in that room, and shelves of books on the south and west sides of the room. But there were not lots of shelves, because books weren’t as plentiful as they are now. I can still remember we learned to read with “Dick and Jane” books.
The last place we went was outside to see the sign in front and the door we used to walk in on the south side of the building.
People, yesterday, had a lot of opinions about this building that had meant so much in our lives. Some were sad that it would be torn down, and others were of the opinion that its time had come and gone. I was appalled, frankly, that it looked so much like it did in 1952 when I arrived there as a first grader. Granted, the shelves and furniture had all been torn out or taken out, which didn’t exactly add to the ambiance. But it appeared to me that the building we had loved was not updated or cared for like it should have been over all those years.
I have thought about this whole experience since yesterday morning. It’s a lot to process. What really existed inside that building, all those years ago, were my hopes and dreams and understandings of life and happy days and sad days and friends and playground alliances and rejections and fears and tears and smiles. None of those will be torn down over the summer, but the place where I experienced them will be gone.
One less building from my childhood that helps me remember.
Another part of Galesburg’s history is the Roof Garden, where people went to dance in the 1930s and 1940s, on the roof of the Weinberg Arcade. My latest mystery on Kindle, The Locket: From the Casebook of TJ Sweeney, is about a fictional murder connected to that venue. You can order it on Amazon.com, here.