Russ Ringsak

To Indiana and Back Again

April 14, 2001

The trip to Indiana went well and we returned to an ordinary day for this time of year, cold and overcast; the best we could hope for and maybe more than we deserved. Only a few shards of snow left lying around, to show people's dogs where the coolest places to lie this summer will be. As if they needed directions.

We had missed a heck of storm back here. The yard was full of broken branches and wrappers and lightweight flotsam from neighbors to the west, known to me by name only, from misaddressed junk mail. The flyers brought to mind a mail carrier who made the news a few years ago for parking his car behind a dumpster at the start of his route and tossing his patrons' junk mail into it. A heinous crime, no doubt about it, messing with the mail, but at the same time one that brought on a lot of sympathy for the carrier. People said, "I wish that guy was delivering my mail."

Others said, "I wish he was opening my e-mail, too, and answering my phone."

He was naturally convicted; not much else they could do, in spite of all the compassion from the public. Seemed almost noble for him to take the hit like that, saving his patrons hassle and irritation, and few cared that he was also saving himself time and bother. The unsolicited offer has become such an irritation these days that whole new sectors of the economy have sprung up, like the Caller ID industry and the Call Screening industry. Most people, and midwesterners especially, don't like pushy marketing.

But your driver here has found ways to enjoy it. When somebody who has come up on the ID machine as Unavailable or Anonymous or Nobody You Know says, "May I speak to- uh- Russell- uh- King- er- Rang-" he just answers the question directly, and says: "No, I'm very sorry, but you may not." Click. That's it. Very clean. And now lately he's polished the technique, become even smoother and more sophisticated, and says, "NO, YOU CAN'T! DON'T CALL HERE ANY MORE!!" But either way, it's the end of the dialogue. I've learned to take real pleasure in this. For a person who grew up in the most civil of surroundings, a rural small town on the plains, it is like enjoying forbidden pleasures. To just go ahead and let some rude stranger have it.

Once you get past your natural reluctance to answer the phone in the straightforward mode, dealing with doorstep missionaries gets a lot easier as well. No need to get angry, folks, just smile and tell'em what you think. Let'em have it. Long-term universal civility is yet attainable; you can serve the greater good and have fun doing it. I'm getting so I look forward to junk phone calls, so I can do my civic duty.

Went the long way down to Lafayette, by way of Interstate 39 south from Rockford, Illinois, a preferred route these days around Chicago at rush hour. It probably didn't save time, but cruising the countryside is easier on truck, load and driver than grinding through the toll booths and tension. You take that 39 south to some crossing highway, in this case US 24, and then cut east to I-65 in Indiana.

24 takes you through very flat country in middle Illinois, through an unusual rural area where farmsteads are stark to the point of nekkid. The yard is flat and typically contains three buildings: a square 2-story wooden house, a hip-roofed wooden barn, and a wooden machine shed, barely large enough to house a medium-size tractor or two. There are a few trees, maybe six, but they are spaced apart, nothing you could call a grove or a shelterbelt. You are struck when you see these small places by the fact that there is no place on that farm where anybody could do any wrong. You are visible for two miles in any direction. If you went behind the barn to take a leak the neighbor to the south would see you.

I grew up where farmsites were full of all sorts of mysteries and secret places. Heavy woods, tall corn, eight or ten buildings scattered around, including chicken coops with roofs so low a grownup could barely get in there. Tall weeds, tall corn, old machinery sitting around partly cannibalized for parts; hollyhocks and lilac bushes, and cool shade under the big white pines. Spacious oaks and elms hiding treehouses up in the leaves. Room under a large pine tree for a club house. I wondered what it was in this area that had taken that lushness from the farm; someone told me later that more of the farm support checks that get sent out in Illinois are addressed to Chicago than outstate. People own land for tax benefits, hire someone to run it, don't care about making the place livable so they pare the old farmsite down and farm a few more acres. I don't know if that's true or not; driving by, it looks like some kind of extreme religious sect imposing a stark Puritan existence had taken hold there.

It got dark chugging along that road and in the twilight up ahead I could make out a black shape lumbering along the shoulder, an older man. I slowed, thinking to give him a lift, but as the distance closed I could see he had two large white dogs snuffling alongside. People walking on the shoulder are another vanishing American, but when you spend all your highway time on freeways I suppose you'd think that way. Maybe it's not that rare out there on the two-lanes like this. It was a striking sight, anyway. Old man, two long-haired dogs, flat country, dark, lights in the distance; if you saw him in a city you wouldn't think much about it but out there on the road at night you wondered where he was bound and what kind of life he'd had.

We finished loading a little after nine o'clock Saturday night and I headed back; no problem through Chicago around midnight and easily made the Petro truck stop north of Madison about three, slept in the truck with the heater on low and woke up and had a big breakfast; got home in plenty of time to take a nap and wake up and watch the Masters.

Now a week later we're having the biggest floods since the last time we went to Indiana, in 1997. Seems like nowadays we've got the famine and pestilence thing fairly under control here in Minnesota, but that flood part is still kind of a problem.

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