I love neighborhoods with a past. They feel, well, real.
Walking home, I noticed my across-the-street neighbor on his porch. He is not infrequently found there. Quietly, yet observantly, he mines the street scene. From time to time, he shares his observations, and I am the beneficiary.
In anticipation, I crossed the street and bid him hello. First leaning upon his gate, then slowly advancing, I ended up sitting on the edge of his porch. We poked at the news of the day, speculated, shared stories.
As dusk was approaching, another neighbor from a block away strolled by. I hailed her. She did not know him. I introduced the two of them.
I have known her since she moved into the neighborhood 20 years ago. I suspect I am now one of the old timers in the neighborhood, having been here 30 years. Only Sherry in the middle of the first block east and Earl around the corner and half a block up have been here longer — I think. But I digress.
I asked her what brought her walking down this block. She responded that she was just out stretching her legs, enjoying the evening. We three chatted about litter in the neighborhood, how pleasant the evenings have been of late and other news.
She and I have had many conversations over the years, and I know the grooves her needle often drops into. I waited for it and I was rewarded.
My across-the-street neighbor shared that he and I had been discussing the latest shooting in the city. We all commiserated that it was terrible what had been happening.
She shared that the Lord had a plan, and while it seemed terrible now, she knew it would be better this upcoming year. She elaborated specifically, “Yes, it is my people shooting each other. And that is a terrible thing. We have to say that out loud, that it is our people shooting each other.”
Then she looked at us and said, “But when we go to shooting, it is just each other, one or two at a time. When your people start shooting, scores and hundreds die at a time.” We had to agree with her that she had it pretty well thought out.
She asked both of us individually if we believed in the Lord. Then she said how good it was to meet a new neighbor, and with darkness starting to settle in, she took her leave to return home.
As I said, I have been here for 30 years. I knew the couple who lived in her house before her. He was an Air Force veteran. Like a lot of men from a certain era, while stationed at Chanute Air Force Base, he met a girl, married her and settled down in Champaign-Urbana with no original plans to do so. They both have now been dead for years.
The house resides upon land that had long been in his wife’s family. I recall a conversation with him. He shared that her family had never forgiven him for pulling down the old homes that had been on the site and building a new modern one with an attached garage. That can happen when you marry into a family with their own long personal history.
I know because my second wife’s family were in love with the fact that their kin had sailed on the same ship as Capt. John Winthrop and helped to found Massachusetts and subsequently a lot of towns named Salem. Quietly, observing the current state of the family, I never exactly saw the connection to 200-plus-year-old events; however, that just might be my difficult nature. But I again digress.
When I first moved into the neighborhood, I became interested in its history. I took time to find and meet a number of older individuals who either still lived in the neighborhood or had lived here once upon a time. I have a number of recorded oral histories as well as ones from folks who were kind enough to write at my request. Among this second group was Carrie Luetta Pope Bank.
In 1995, Carrie wrote, “My parents, Cecil and Carrie Alice Lee Pope, moved to 808 N. Prairie St. in 1919. My grandfather, George Pope, owned the property at 314 and 316 W. Maple St. and 806 and 808 N. Prairie St. He gave my father, Cecil Pope, the property at 808 N. Prairie, and it was there that I was born.” She went on to write, “My grandfather and grandmother and my aunt and her husband and daughter, Kathryn Pope Means, lived at 314 W. Maple St. My grandfather had a beautiful home. His yard looked like a picture in a magazine.”
Carrie went on to share stories of family outings, Christmases and Fourth of July celebrations in the neighborhood. You might now begin to understand why the retired Air Force officer who married into the family got into trouble for tearing down those homes to build his new one. But I digress once again.
My neighbor had shared with me that he had plans for a larger-than-usual fire in his backyard that evening. He has a mantra practice that involves backyard fires, contemplation and good whiskey. This one was going to involve a largish stump, and he was looking forward to it.
When, earlier that evening, he was asked about his belief in the Lord, he had suggested that puzzling that out was what a large portion of his time spent with his fires entailed.
With darkness settling in, I took my cue, and bidding him a great fire and a good evening, I wandered back across our shared street. Glancing up at the the moon, I was reminded of Red, my once-upon-a-time neighbor, who used to bay at it when in his cups. But that is a story for another time.