By Ryan Hilligoss September 1, 2019
I woke up this morning with the half light of sunrise creeping through my window shades, wondering where the train was. Lingering in the state half way between dreamy slumber and consciousness, I heard the far distant sound of a train whistle a mile to my south emanating from a Canadian National freight train heading east to Chicago. A feeling of melancholy took hold of me as I realized I was taken from a dream, a dream of my youth. In my dream, I am 10 years old again, lying in my grand parents bed room in their house on the north end of Springfield, Illinois. In my dream, I can see myself as I lay in the dark listening to the train whistle and the click and clack of a long freight train passing on the tracks to the south. I lie in bed with sounds in my head as I watch the soft light shadows splayed on the ceiling above me, shadows coming from the trees and bushes outside the window, wondering where the train is heading, what the conductor looks like, and what mysterious materials are held in the big, heavy box cars.
I know dream researchers say that we all dream all the time, but for whatever reason, I have’t had many vivid dreams that I remember when I wake up in a long time. I think what set this off was, after having turned 45, the half way point for me in life hopefully, taking a recent trip to the Illinois State Fair held annually in Springfield near my grandparents old house. On the way into town, I drove by the old house to take a look at what had happened to it’s appearance since the house was sold last year after being in the family for close to 70 years. Not much had changed at least on the outside, what with some rock laid down in front of the shrubs in the front yard and some landscaping stones. With my kids in the backseat, I stopped for a short time in the street looking and remembering and sharing a few funny stories about my grandparents.
My maternal grandparents were William Hubert “Hubie” Barr born near Mattoon, Il August 30, 1916 and Iva “Ivy” White Barr. They married October 6, 1936 and had two daughters, Glenda Lou and Madonna “Donna” Sue while living in Mattoon near Western Avenue. My grandfather grew up on a farm near Lerna, Il, served in the Civilian Conservation Core, one of Roosevelt’s CCC Boys, worked for Hayes Freight and was a proud member of the Teamsters Union. My grandmother raised two great women while also working in various restaurants in Mattoon including Snappy Service. In the mid 50’s, Hayes Freight decided to move their operation to the state capital and the family decided to move for a better opportunity. For $15,000, they built an 800 square foot, 3 bedroom, one bathroom house near the Fairview neighborhood of Springfield, bounded by Sangamon Avenue to the north, 19th Street to the east, North Grand Avenue to the south and 9th Street to the west.
A working class section of town, the north end was supported by jobs at the Illinois Watch Factory, Hayes Freight, a Pillsbury mill and shipping center among others. The bells of St. Aloysius on Sangamon avenue, a quarter mile to the north, could be heard ringing out throughout the day, the ones I remember were in the morning and at the end of the day. Burlington Northern tracks a quarter mile to the south had constant rail traffic running every 30 minutes with clanging bells alerting drivers as the gates came down halting traffic followed by the train whistle. Church bells to the north, train whistles to the south, both a quarter mile away, half way between heaven and earth, The state fair grounds to the northwest, a short 15 minute walk away. Both my mother and Aunt Glenda graduated from Lanphier High School to the south west.
All this is to say the kind of neighborhood my grandparents and mom and aunt were a part of and lived in, and by extension myself and brothers Kevin and Sean and father. I was fortunate that my parents Robert and Donna Hilligoss lived in the Springfield area until 1977 when we moved to Godfrey, Il. Fortunate in that we got spend a lot of time with our grandparents at their house and in the area as our grandmother watched each of us for a time while our parents both worked, dad as a teacher and mom as a legislative aide at the Capitol. Even after we moved, we often times made the trek up and down I55 to see them and spend time together. Random memories: lunch and hamburgers at Maid Rite, hot dogs and chili at Den’s Chili Parlor, donuts at Mel-O-Cream, pizza from Vic’s and daily afternoon visits to the pubs and saloons dotting neighborhood corners in the area. Hubert would take us with him for his afternoon PBR, Falstaff or Schlitz beer. We’d sit next to him on a bar stool while he ordered one for him and would tell the bartender, “Set my boys up with a redeye!!” To this day I don’t know what the hell a red eye is but it tasted just fine. Hubie wasn’t one to suffer fools gladly and had this sign on the front of the house right above the doorbell warning those dumb enough to read it and still ring the bell.
Fairview Park was built after the houses were built and included basketball courts, a playground and 3 baseball fields, one for T ball, one for Sandy Koufax league teenagers and one for 10-12 year olds directly situated behind the house, with a 30 foot tall screen separating flyballs from the field from the backyard of the house. For as long as I can remember, one of his daily battles was waged against violators of the sign that clearly said “No one over 12 can hit balls from this field”. One by one, late teens and even adults would step onto the field with baseballs and bats, taking swings trying to knock one over the “Green Monster” in short left field, creating their own version of Home Run Derby. Balls would come flying over the fence into the backyard, some dropping innocently into the grass, some banging off the roof or window awnings and sometimes breaking a window. He’d hear the tink of a bat against ball or hear a thud off the roof and go tearing into the back yard, looking for the ball and after finding it, leaning against the fence holding the ball daring the perpetrator to come ask for the ball back: not many dared and those that did came away empty handed.
My grandparents maybe didn’t have lot in the way of financials, but they had a lot of love and grace, and they took great care of what they had, working daily to carry themselves with dignity and pride. Adding an awning over the front porch along with a glider seat to provide a shady spot to sit and rest and enjoy a beer every once in a while listening to the St.Louis Cardinals on the radio. Growing rose bushes in the backyard near the wooden swing. Later adding a full one car garage and work space along with an adjacent shaded porch. Ivy would play games with us all the time including shut the box, Go Fish, and endless rounds of Trouble. All of us spent a lot of time there as kids and then as teens and adults, coming back to visit as often as we could.
In 1983, our grandmother Ivy passed away after a long battle with cancer. In 1994, Hubie died from cancer as well. Our father who had decided to go back to teaching in the Springfield area in 1994 and had stayed with Hubert during that time took over the house and lived there most of the time until he retired. The house remained in our family until February 2018 when we decided it was time to sell the house after our mother died. On a cold, damp late winter day, we cleaned the house out one last time, donating most of the furniture and taking what was left, some for practical uses and some for sentimental reasons. After the work was done, we took one last look around, the years and memories and love swirling in our hearts and minds. After 70 years and thousands upon thousands of entrances and exits, we closed the front door one last time, making sure it was secure and locked, taking care just as they did.
Afterwards, we went and shared a meal together. Before leaving town to return home, I drove by the house one more time just to linger for a moment, lost in my memory. With the sun setting to the west and the golden glow of winter sun shining off the houses and rooftops, I parked my car and decided to take one more look around. As I have done hundreds of times, I climbed the 60s era television antenna ladder bolted to the west side of the house and stood on the roof overlooking the park and baseball fields of my youth. As I looked around the neighborhood remembering all the good times and those that have come and gone who graced the same ground, the church bells of St. Aloysius began ringing to the north and a freight train began rumbling to the south, letting off a whistle blast, a gift from Hubie and Ivy saying thank you, we love you and miss you Barski and Tevin and Shagnasty. The sun setting to the west, church bells to the north and a train whistle to the south, halfway between heaven and earth.