For Pete Seeger: Hobo’s Lullabye

By Ryan Hilligoss, February 1, 2014

“I look upon myself as a planter of seeds. It’s like the Bible says, some land in the stones and don’t sprout, some land in the path and get stomped on, but some land on good ground and grow and multiply a 1,000 fold. My job is to show folks there’s a lot of good music in this world, and if used right it may help save the planet” Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger's banjo. This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender

Pete Seeger’s banjo. This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender

Pete Seeger died this past week at the age of 94 and I think the picture above is a perfect microcosm of Pete’s life: two strong hands, a banjo, his voice leading others TOGETHER in song. Pete often said, ” The best music I’ve ever made in my life has been when I can get the folks, all of them, young and old, the conservative, liberal and radical, get ’em all singing on the chorus.” And he did just that for over 75 years. Pete Seeger lived a good, long and meaningful life and used the tools he had at hand to get out and do his work of singing, playing and passing the songs along that he picked up from Woody, Leadbelly, Paul Robeson, from cultures around the world and from countless others while trying to influence the people and to make this a better, more fair and decent place for all of us to live.


It is fitting that I write this while in Springfield, Il, The Land of Lincoln, for  Pete and Abe were very similar despite the fact they were born 100+ years apart. Both were tall men with beards, both chopped wood on a regular basis :), both believed in the power and goodness inherent in the Constitution and The Bill of Rights, and they both believed in the beauty of this country and world and were willing to use their voice and influence to fight for them. Pete Seeger chopped wood everyday of his life as a form of exercise and to help clear his mind and spirit and to keep the rhythm of his songs and life. On days where his  schedule did not allow for his chopping, he complained bitterly to friends and family. And according to Arlo Guthrie, Pete was still chopping wood until about a week before he passed. If only we all can be so lucky to live to a similar age while doing the things we love.
A few  weeks ago, my dad and I went to the Abraham Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Il to see a new exhibit there of stage props, settings and clothes worn in the Spielberg directed Lincoln. Wasn’t much to see and was fairly disappointing on that end, but we also walked through the main museum for the 100th time as you can always find something new if you look hard enough. (By the way, as a standing offer, if any of you ever make your way out to Illinois at anytime and wish to go, I would be happy to take you down to Springfield and see some Lincoln sights. I’ll be your personal chaufer, tour guide and overall general raconteur 🙂 It’s well worth the time)
One of the exhibits is on the Gettysburg Address which celebrated its 150th anniversary last year, 2013. The library collected several letters from notables around the country and world on the importance of the speech including WJ Clinton, Colin Powell, poet Billy Collins and one Mr.Pete Seeger. His letter was simple, to the point and showed his wit, charm and intelligence all in one brief letter and the additional page he attached with his own design of Lincoln’s speech which he changed to allow for an easier memorization for his listeners. Classic Pete and a prime example of what Pete did his whole life: passing what he thought was important in life, in sustaining a democracy and continuing to build a connection between the people.
Pete Seeger's letter and redesigned Gettysburg Address. Springfield, Il ALPML

Pete Seeger’s letter and redesigned Gettysburg Address. Springfield, Il ALPML

The picture I took isn’t the greatest quality so here is the text: “Dear friends at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. Since November 19, it will be 150 years since Old Abe gave the address. I try to get people to memorize it. Written out as 10 sentences and 4 clauses, it’s much easier to memorize than the way it’s normally provided in 2 or 3 paragraphs. I’m curious to know what you think of it. I am sorry I can’t visit you in person but at the age of 94, my travelling days are over. Sincerely, Pete Seeger.”
(With his famous drawing of his banjo underneath)
Rock music critic and historian Dave Marsh wrote a great tribute to Pete this week, A Golden Thread, A Needle which can be read  by clicking this sentence. In his essay, Marsh writes of a night in 1996 at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the Woody Guthrie Tribute concert. As  a finalee, Pete led a song along with many musicians joining him on stage and getting the entire audience to sing with them. Marsh writes, “I think it was the first time I’d ever truly seen him. He was pleased, I understood, not so much that the night had carried Woody and what he represented forth in such grand fashion. What I remember seeing in Pete Seeger’s eyes was a sense of relief. He knew something that night—if I’m right—something important about not just Woody’s work, but his own. Which meant also the work of all the people he’d learned from, and all those who’d taught them, from the slaves who came up with “O Freedom” to Mother Bloor writing the labor history Woody made into music. He knew that folks would try to carry it on, in both spirit and substance.
That linkage is the golden thread and its purpose now is weaving the garment of human survival, which was the explicit theme of Pete Seeger’s last few decades on the planet. A rainbow design without which we cannot live. A design that shows us why and how to keep the most important thing that Pete Seeger represents alive.
We cannot experience the full measure of what it means to lose Pete Seeger until we realize that this burden is not his to carry, anymore. Now, it’s on you. And me.”
Marsh is right, it’s up to you, me and all of us to make the world a better place for all of us. And it’s time to pick up an axe and start chopping wood.
Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen, Madison Square Garden, 2009

Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen, Madison Square Garden, 2009

“Pete was one of those guys who saw himself as a citizen artist and an activist. He had a very full idea about those things, how it connected to music and what music could do. The power that music has to influence, to inspire. And that’s the power of folk music. That’s the power of Pete Seeger.”  Bruce Springsteen

Coda: This Land Is Your Land
 In 2012, my dad and I took a road trip to see sights in Kansas and Oklahoma like DDE Presidential Museum, Mickey Mantle’s boyhood home in Spavinaw and Commerce, OK and we went to Okemah, Oklahoma where Woody Guthrie was born. After searching for a while and with a little help from friendly people, we found what remains of Woody’s boyhood home which now is simply some of the original stone foundation. In the yard stands one of the last remaining trees and a local artist carved a message from Woody into the side. And in one of life’s great ironies, there was a small white sign in the yard that says “It is a crime to steal stones from this property.” On the other side, it doesn’t say nothing, that side was made for you and me. This Land was written by Woody in 1940 and would have been a dust speck of history if not for Pete Seeger picking up the song and singing it time after time for crowds, school children, unions, and presidents alike.
Bob Hilligoss at site of Woody Guthrie's first home, Okemah, Oklahoma, 2012

Bob Hilligoss at site of Woody Guthrie’s first home, Okemah, Oklahoma, 2012

Original foundation of Guthrie's boyhood home, Okemah, Oklahoma

Original foundation of Guthrie’s boyhood home, Okemah, Oklahoma. One side is a warning to trespassers. On the other side it says nothing and that side was made for you and me

Top 10 Pete Seeger Songs, written, sung or inspired by
10) Goodnight Irene- Written  by Leadbelly and taught to the Weavers who performed this version on early television

 9) Forever Young– Written by Bob Dylan and sung by Pete along with child’s choir. From Chimes of Freedom: Songs of Bob Dylan honroing 50 years of Amnesty International.

8) If I Had a Hammer

7) Waist Deep In The Big Muddy

6) Johnny Cash on Pete Seeger’ Rainbow Show

5) Bring Em Home- From Bruce Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions Tour

From The New Yorker profile on Seeger from April 17, 2006 by Alec Wilkinson.

“Springsteen began listening to Seeger in 1997, when he was asked to provide a song for a Seeger tribute record. To choose one, he told me, he “went to the record store and bought every Pete record they had. I really immersed myself in them, and it was very transformative. I heard a hundred voices in those old folk songs, and stories from across the span of American history—parlor music, church music, tavern music, street and gutter music. I felt the connection almost intuitively, and that certain things needed to be carried on; I wanted to continue doing things that Pete had passed down and put his hand on. He had a real sense of the musician as historical entity—of being a link in the thread of people who sing in others’ voices and carry the tradition forward— and of the songwriter, in the daily history of the place he lived, that songs were tools, and, without sounding too pretentious, righteous implements when connected to historical consciousness. At the same time, Pete always maintained a tremendous sense of fun and lightness, which is where his grace manifested itself. It was cross-generational. He played for anyone who would listen. He played a lot for kids. When I set the musicians up in my house to make this record, and we started playing Pete’s songs, my daughter said, ‘That sounds like fun—what is that?'”

Seeger typically performed with the simplest instrumentation—by himself, with banjo and guitar, and, in the Weavers, with another guitar player. Springsteen is accompanied by drums, bass, piano, guitar, accordion, banjo, double fiddles, horns, and backup singers. His versions include more references than Seeger’s did—Dixieland, Gospel, stringband music, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll among them. It is as if folk music, temporarily dormant, had been revived in a more populist and modern form. “The Seeger Sessions” does not include any songs that Seeger wrote, such as ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!” which was a No. 1 record for the Byrds in 1965. Springsteen recorded “If I Had a Hammer,” but felt that it asserted itself too forcefully among the other songs, possibly because it was so well known. The songs he chose, he said, are “ones that I heard my own voice in. When you’re going through material that way, you’re always trying to find your place in the story. With the songs I picked, I knew who those characters were, and I knew what I wanted to say through them to transform what we were doing. That’s your part in the passing down of that music. You have to know what you’re adding. Every time a folk song gets sung, something gets added to that song. Why did I pick Pete Seeger songs instead of songs by the Carter Family or Johnny Cash or the Stanley Brothers? Because Pete’s library is so vast that the whole history of the country is there. I didn’t feel I had to go to someone else’s records. It was very broad. He listened to everything and collected everything and transformed everything. Everything I wanted, I found there.”

4) Hobo’s Lullabye- Written by Woody Guthrie, performed by Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger. For my grandfather Hubert Barr who rode a train from central Illinois to work in the CCC during the Great Depression.

3) The American Land- Bruce Springsteen, inspired by Seeger’s He Lies Here In The American Land

2) Turn Turn Turn- Written by Seeger, performed by Bruce Springsteen, E Street Band and Roger McGuinn

1) Co tie- We Shall Overcome- History told by Pete Seeger

1) This Land Is Your Land- Written by Woody Guthrie, performed by Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger, 2009, Washington DC

Rememberance from Tom Morello, guitarist/musician/songwriter and political activist Tom Morello. Much like Lincoln, Pete was willing to actually excercise his Constitutional freedoms and not just claim them. In a recent post in Rolling Stone by , Morello writes, “He was a hardcore bad ass when he stood up to House Un-American Activities Committee, saying, “How dare you question my Americanism because I play music for people whose politics are different than yours?”

Mickey Mantle, The Kid From Spavinaw: You Could Have Done Better

By Ryan Hilligoss, December 2012

(We are all Newtown.This piece is dedicated to all those affected by recent events. My thoughts are with those families directly impacted including the children and their parents and the educators. For that could just have easily have been my kids or your kids, or that could have been us when we were in school. This is a story of parents and the hopes and dreams they hold for their children.)

The kid from Spavinaw

The kid from Spavinaw

Oh, but love is fleeting/ It’s sad but true

When your heart is beating/ You don’t want to hear the news

Life is just heaven in the sun

From small things mama/ Big things one day come

Bruce Springsteen

Field in Spavinaw, Oklahoma where Mickey Mantle's first boyhood home once stood

Field in Spavinaw, Oklahoma where Mickey Mantle‘s first boyhood home once stood

In August of 1995, baseball and New York Yankee great Mickey Mantle died after battling through first, a liver transplant, and then liver cancer. During the eulogy at his funeral, broadcaster Bob Costas spoke for many when he stated,  “I guess I’m here, not so much to speak for myself as to simply represent the millions of baseball-loving kids who grew up in the ’50s and ’60s and for whom Mickey Mantle was baseball. And more than that, he was a presence in our lives — a fragile hero to whom we had an emotional attachment so strong and lasting that it defied logic. Maybe Mick was uncomfortable with it, not just because of his basic shyness, but because he was always too honest to regard himself as some kind of deity. But that was never really the point. In a very different time than today, the first baseball commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, said every boy builds a shrine to some baseball hero, and before that shrine, a candle always burns. ”

Robert Hilligoss at Mickey Mantle Field, Commerce, Oklahoma 2012

Robert Hilligoss at Mickey Mantle Field, Commerce, Oklahoma 2012

Just as I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s loving the St.Louis Cardinals and players like Ozzie Smith and Willie McGee, my dad was one of those who grew up in the 50’s looking up at Mickey Mantle as a role model. So it was with great emotional impact and meaning when my dad I went on a road trip this year through Oklahoma and stopped in the towns Mantle was born in and raised in……but I’ll get to that later.

Mickey Mantle was born October 20, 1931 in the town of Spavinaw, Oklahoma to Mutt and Lovell Mantle. He was named in honor of Hall of Fame catcher Mickey Cochrane, Mutt Mantle’s favorite player. Later in his life, Mantle expressed relief that his father had not known Cochrane’s true first name, as he would have hated to be named Gordon. The picture above is of the area in Spavinaw where the house Mantle first lived in used to be but is now just an empty field with a small house and garage in the neighboring lot. In 1935, the family moved to Commerce, Ok so Mutt could work in the zinc mines that used to populate the area in the northeast part of the state. Mutt Mantle lived a hard,difficult life as a miner and didn’t want his kids to follow in his footsteps and wanted his kids to have a better life, as most parents do. Father also had a deep love of baseball and chose to pass it on at an early age to his first-born.

Mutt and Mickey Mantle, Commerce, Oklahoma

Mutt and Mickey Mantle, Commerce, Oklahoma

Starting at the age of six, Mickey started practicing a swing that would take him to the heights of baseball stardom. According to his brother, Ray Mantle in the fine documentary, Mantle from HBO Sports, “Dad would get off work everyday at 3:45pm and it was Mickey’s job to be at home for practice by 4:00pm. He’d always be there as soon as dad got home. And it would be trouble, big trouble if he wasn’t there on time. They’d practice ’til you couldn’t see. Dad would pitch to Mickey right-handed, and then granddad would pitch to him left-handed. He was teaching him to switch hit. They would play for hours and hours. They were obsessed.”

Mickey Mantle boyhood home, Commerce, Oklahoma

Mickey Mantle boyhood home, Commerce, Oklahoma

A few months ago, after hitting some dead ends and after having to ask a Commerce police officer for directions, my dad and I visited the house Mantle lived in until he left for the lights of Broadway. There are no markers in town to notify tourists and the house is not any type of historical site and stands with heavy paint chips around it, but does have a well maintained yard. The house is as it was when the Mantles lived there along with a heavily rusted steel shed to the side that was used as the backstop during practice by father and son. You can still see dents on the side made from their batting practice sessions.

The Natural, Ryan Hilligoss stands in where the Mick stood, Commerce, Ok

The Natural, Ryan Hilligoss stands in where the Mick stood, Commerce, Ok

They made up games to make the batting practices more enjoyable. The house and shed are set in a way that a batted ball would either hit the house or go over it. In the picture below, you can see the location of the windows on the side of the house. A ball hit below the window was a single, above the windows was a double, on the roof was a triple and over the roof was a home run. Mantle often said, “I was the only kid in town who didn’t get in trouble for breaking a window.”


Baseball was a shared bond between the two. Brother Ray Mantle again, “The biggest thing in his life was when dad took him to St.Louis to see the Cardinals play. It was 300 miles to St.Louis and dad wouldn’t drive more than 35 miles per hour. Took us more than a day to get there. Mickey would say ‘Dad, I can run faster than you’re goin’ and dad would say ‘Okay get out.'” As far as Mutt was concerned, the endless practices at home were only the beginning for young Mickey, and he pushed his son to excel as the years passed. According to Mickey Mantle’s wife Merlyn, “Mutt was pretty hard on him. Mickey told me, ‘I could do really good in a ballgame and dad would never say you did well, all he would ever say was “You could do better.’ And that really made Mickey try even harder to please him.”

After graduating from Commerce High School in 1948 where he had starred in baseball, football and basketball, Mantle signed a minor league contract with the Yankees by scout Tom Greenwade who just happened to be driving through the country on Route 66 and stopped to watch a game in which Mantle hit three home runs. He was called up to the Yankees team in 1951 and started the season on a hitting tear. But later in the year he struggled and was sent to play in the minors again in Kansas City where he struggled even more. His dad came to see him one night and Mickey, in a moment of weariness and low confidence, said, “I might as well quit and give up the game.” According to Merlyn, “His dad said, ‘Is that all the guts you have? Then get your things together and we’ll go home. I’ll put you to work in the mines and you can do that the rest of your life like I’m doing.’ He wanted his dad to sympathize with him and he did not. Mickey replied, ‘Well dad I want to stay and make a try of it.’ To which his dad said ‘Then quit acting like a baby and get out there and play ball like I know you can.'” Mickey always relied on his father as a friend, mentor and confidant and took his father’s rough edged advice to heart. Mantle took to the field again, went on a hot batting  streak, and was called up in August of 1951 by the Yankees for good.

The Yankee Clipper and #7, Joe Dimaggio and Mickey Mantle, 1951

The Yankee Clipper and #7, Joe Dimaggio and Mickey Mantle, 1951

I have often been reminded of this during the past two summers as my wife and I have coached our son Graham’s youth baseball teams. As coaches, we have tried to instill in our players an understanding of baseball fundamentals and skills while also teaching them the value of teamwork and discipline. Before each practice and game we ask the players to listen to your coaches, to try your best and to have some fun. We have been fortunate to have a lot of good kids; not good players necessarily but good, decent kids who listened, tried to the best of their abilities, and developed their skills as the season progressed. But part of being a coach is identifying areas that need improvement, communicating with the player and then implementing a plan to enhance their skills. If they did something well, we would heap praise on them accordingly, but if they made a mistake, we would pull them aside later and ask what they were thinking and then let them how they could have done it better and then worked with them on it at the next practice.

However, some players and parents did not agree with this philosophy, and the parents would tell their children that they were fine and not to worry about making an error. Fearful of being critical or providing constructive feedback, some parents choose to massage their kid’s self-confidence instead of building character, responsibility and self-respect. Yes these are young children, but when does it end and when do the kids figure out that everything they do is not perfect and they might need to be responsible for their own actions instead of relying on mom and dad to fix it for them. Are these the same parents who demand to know why little Johnny or Susie got a C on their report instead of an A? These are called helicopter parents, ones who hover and swoop in at the slightest sign of distress to make it all better. Somehow, there has to be a middle ground between Mutt Mantle never telling Mickey that he did a good job and parents soothing their child’s fragile egos.

During his stellar 18 year career, Mantle piled up the results and awards. Mantle was noted for his hitting ability, both for average and for power. Mantle once said that he put everything into his swing including his teeth. He remains the last player to win the Major League Triple Crown in 1956, leading both leagues in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in (RBI). He currently is 16th on the all time home run record list with 536. He received three American League (AL) Most Valuable Player (MVP) Awards and played in twenty All-Star games. Mantle appeared in 12 World Series, winning 7 of them. He holds the records for most World Series home runs (18), RBIs (40), runs (42), walks (43), extra-base hits (26), and total bases (123). Mantle is regarded by many to be the greatest switch hitter of all time, and one of the greatest players in baseball history. Mantle was inducted into theNational Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974  and was elected to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team in 1999. .

Mickey Mantle and Robert Kennedy, Mickey Mantle day at Yankee Stadium, 1968

Mickey Mantle and Robert Kennedy, Mickey Mantle day at Yankee Stadium, 1968

I’m Gonna Live Forever

Retired from baseball left Mantle to his own devices, many of them negative, as he struggled with alcohol abuse starting in his playing days and on through the 90s when he checked himself into rehab and started life anew. His drinking caused untold hardships on his wife and kids and his career. But part of his drinking was trying to run from what he thought was an inevitable early death given his family history. Mutt Mantle, the man who had taught Mickey so much about baseball and life and was his best friend, died in 1952 at the age of 39 of Hodgkins Lymphoma. His fraternal grandfather, the one who had helped him learn to switch hit, died when Mantle was 13 of Hodgkins. And he had two uncles who died early deaths of the same cause. Mantle thought it was just hereditary but what he didn’t know at the time was the disease was exacerbated by the zinc dust in the mines that all those men had worked in back in Oklahoma. Upon leaving rehab clean and sober, Mantle was often quoted as saying, “If I had known I was going to live this long I would have taken better care of myself.”

In 1995, after receiving a liver transplant, necessitated by years of heavy drinking, Mantle decided to address his fans at a press conference. In doing so, he publicly acknowledged the costs of drinking, especially on his family and was willing to expose his faults and frailties to a public he often shunned earlier in life. He decide to take a stand and let people know that he could have done better, not in baseball, but in trying to live a good, decent life. With cameras and microphones rolling, Mantle gave a heartfelt, honest appraisal of what a hero really looks like, “I would like to say to all the kids out there, you talk about a role model: this is a role model. Don’t be like me. God gave me a body and an ability to play baseball and that’s what I wanted to do. And I blew it. I want to give something back, seems like all I ever done was take.” With his dad’s words of ‘you could have done better’ echoing in his mind, he acknowledged his dad was right and admitted it to himself and for all those to hear and take heed in their own lives and families. So, the kid born in the small town of Spavinaw and the kid raised in Commerce, and whose dad demanded an extremely high level of effort, perseverance and mastery, rose from total obscurity and the hard life in a dusty corner of Oklahoma to the highest level of skill and gave boys and girls around the country and world a hero to hold onto. From small things momma, big things one day come. (Below you can listen to The Highwaymen sing Billy Jo Shaver’s Live Forever)

In giving his eulogy at Mantle’s funeral, Bob Costas stated, “The emotional truths about childhood have a power that transcends objective fact. They stay with us through all the years, withstanding the ambivalence that so often accompanies the experience of adults. I just hope God has a place for him where he can run again. Where he can play practical jokes on his teammates and smile that boyish smile. Because God knows, no one’s perfect. And God knows there’s something special about heroes.”

Well, for me, the truth is this: the memories and emotions in childhood of playing baseball and softball with my brothers and father will stay with me through the years and are the same truths that I will pass on to my kids. Everyday all over the world, with the their parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, some kids play sports, some play musical instruments, some go fishing or hiking, some work out in the garage messing around with tools, and so on and so on. As the friends and family we once knew leave over time, the memories and shared experiences are the things that stay with us as we go through life. As time passes, those are the things that sustain us and bring us good health  and make us feel young again,if only for a brief time.

The Hilligoss Boys: Robert Lee, Kevin Lee, Ryan Barr and Graham Ronald

The Boys(Hilligoss) of Summer: Robert Lee, Kevin Lee, Ryan Barr and Graham Ronald


Back in Commerce, the house and shed still stand even though they are a little weatherbeaten, the house paint is peeling and falling, and the shed is rusty and leaning to one side. But, they still stand nevertheless. They stand as a testament to the love and devotion and shared time and pleasure between a parent and a child. They stand as a testament to the power of love and to the hopes and dreams that we pass on to those that follow. They stand as a symbol of the hope for a better life, for a good life, for a decent life, for a meaningful life that parents pass to their kids. For those that chose not to have kids, or want to but can’t for various reasons, they stand as a testament to just wanting a better world for all of us to live in and pass on the goods things from their lives to those around them.

Someday that house and shed will fall away to time and nature and will be turned into soil and rust and blown down that ‘old dusty road.’ At some point in time, that house and shed will long be gone. And years from now, people may not know who Mickey Mantle was or what he meant for so many, but the power of the love forged, so long ago, between a little gap-toothed, blond-headed  boy and his dad playing catch in the yard will never fade away.

Now when all this steel and these stories/ Drift away to rust

And all our youth and beauty/ Has been given to the dust

When the game has been decided/ And we’re burning down the clock

And all our little victories and glories have turned into parking lots

When your best hopes and desires are scattered to the wind

And hard times come and hard times go

Hard times come and hard times go

Hard times come and hard times go

Yeah just to come again/ Bring on your wrecking ball

C’mon and take your best shot/ Let me see what you got

Bring on your Wrecking Ball


Take your best shot, let me see what you got, bring on your wrecking ball

Take your best shot, let me see what you got, bring on your wrecking ball

The Kid from Spavinaw Video, video of Costas interview with Mickey in 1995 and eulogy and more road trip pictures

Robert Hilligoss at Mantle Field, Commerce High School

Robert Hilligoss at Mantle Field, Commerce High School

Below you can hear an exquisite song by the fine songwriter and singer Tom Russell that gets to the heart of the matter of the relationship between father and son.

Store front window in Spavinaw, Oklahoma. The only visible indicator that mantle was born there

Store front window in Spavinaw, Oklahoma. The only visible indicator that mantle was born there

Mickey Mantle and Vic Dimaggio listen to Satchel Paige school them on throwing the stinky cheese

Mickey Mantle and Vic Dimaggio listen to Satchel Paige school them on throwing the stinky cheese

Hank Says, or, All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in China

(Editor’s note:  At the age of 70, and in a state of semi-retirement, my father Robert Lee Hilligoss, the original Humboldt, Illinois Tiger, traveled to China for a total of 30 days, with his fellow Mattoon High School alum and  friend, Henry Weaver.  On the way to O’Hare airport prior to departing America for points eat, Bob confessed to being as nervous as he was on his first day of school with Ms. Emily in her one room school-house in Coles County Illinois. Upon his return to America 30 days later, he said that much like Chuck Berry, he was so glad to be right back here in the USA. The following are brief excerpts from the upcoming one man monologue, much like Spalding Gray, sure to be coming to a theatrical venue near you. Check for local listings.)

The Humboldt Tiger goes to the land of the Flying Tigers

By Robert Lee Hilligoss (But we call him B.O.B)

What’s For Dinner? The Ballad of the Uneasy Eater

The food was different from the Chinese cuisine that I get at my local Chinese eatery, the China Star. Most of the food was very good. Some was very foreign to my taste. I found very little to be unacceptable. The one thing that I ate, which I wished I had passed on, was chicken feet. I discovered what my friend Hank had spent a year talking about was the noodles in soup, with meat, to be a delight to eat. Even though I could not manage the art of using chop sticks, there are spoons to be had, but forks are rare. Dumplings with meat or vegetables were delicious.
Surprisingly I was offered very little rice. Fish was good, but bony. They had one dish that reminded me of Buffalo Hot Wings, but they used unbreaded pork. Drinks, water, tea, Coke(with ginger) were always served, hot. I never
saw ice once in China until I boarded flight 850 to return to the states. The first request that I had for stewardess was a diet Coke with plenty of ice.

The Ways of the World : Trains, Planes and….taxis??

Travel by train, taxi or bus, I found to be comparable to train and bus travel in America. The best way to travel between major cities is by far to take a plane. The cost is very reasonable, an hour and 15 minute flight cost about 600 Yuan or $96, the planes are modern and the service staff is very good.

What You Really Need to Know (If you know what I mean)

Prepare yourself for some surprises when it comes to bathroom facilities. There is a thing called an Asian toilet, most Chinese people understand the word toilet. The Asian toilet is basically a hole in the floor, some are metal, some are ceramic. Every hotel I stayed in had a western toilet, but the shower in most have no tub or stall. There is a
drain in the floor below the shower head, and when you take a shower, you flood your bathroom floor, your ceramic tile floor becomes extremely slick and dangerous. The hotels that I stayed in, and the Lemon Hotel in Yan’an
was very acceptable, do not offer a simple wash rag(face towel). You use a hand towel.

I Depended on the Kindness of Strangers; An ode to Blanche Dubois

The most impressive feature that I found in China is the people. They tried to be as helpful as possible. Two young women that Hank and I met in St. Louis in 2010 helped us greatly by drawing up a list of questions written in Chinese. I have save that paper, and it is worn out. Everytime we were having a difficult time due to language, out came the list. It bailed us out several times. If we were having trouble with giving a taxi cab driver directions, a crowd always formed, and people tried to help out.

The people that I met and grew to know were the teachers at Yan’an Shaanxi Middle School(High School). They were top-notch individuals, the kind of persons that would be good neighbors and friends. They are hard workers and are dedicated to their profession of teaching. The students were an exciting group of young people that I enjoyed speaking to, at every opportunity that availed itself. They asked enlightened questions, and tried their best to speak English that was understandable. They were fun and interesting.

In My Life; All Those I Met Along the Way

Walking upon the ancient Great Wall was my greatest thrill. I have to thank Mr. Gao, Mr. Li, Andrew, Mrs. Li U Feng, Paul Prang, Jenny, Michelle, Mrs. Tree, everyone I met at the school for making my 24 days in Yan’an worthwhile. But without the aid of Clair, Veronica, Amy and Michelle, we probably would not have made it out of the Beijing Airport.

Why China? Because Hank Says

After my return, while substitute teaching at New Berlin High School, a student asked as to why I would choose to travel to China. I probably surprised him when I answered safety. The simple fact that there are people in the world that want to see Americans dead because we are Americans, no other reason. I have not heard of one American dying in China as a result of terrorism. The Chinese government knows as to who is in their country and where they are to be found. You buy a ticket for air travel, you present your passport and it is copied. You buy a train ticket, you present your passport. You check into a hotel, you show, guess what—–your passport. They know who is in THEIR country and WHERE you are located. Unlike America, they want to know just who is in country and where they can be found. A high school student in Yan’an asked me as to why I would choose to visit his hometown of Yan’an. I answered that I wanted to see the “real China”, not the post card version for the average tourist. Some of the people of Yan’an saw their first white man with blue eyes, when they saw me for the first time I walked the streets of Yan’an, Shaanxi. There was plenty to see, it centered around the simple fact that Mao Zedong lived in the Yan’an area from 1937 to 1951


Bob flew back to Chicago in March and as we left the airport in Chicago on the way home, I cranked up some Chuck Berry music, as a welcome home and heard the pride of St.Louis, Charles M Berry sing these words:

I feel so good today

We just touched down on an international runway

Jet propelled from overseas right  back into the USA

Looking hard for a drive-in

Searching for a corner cafe

Where hamburgers sizzle on an open grille night and day

And the jukebox is jumping with records like Back in the USA

Uh huh huh, oh yeah…….

Editor’s note: My father, Robert Lee, retired in June of 2011 after teaching, off and on over a course of 47 years, for a total of 35 years in public school classrooms. He began in 1964 in tiny Westfield, Illinois, and then moved on to the metropoli of Divernon and Rochester before taking a 13 year sabbatical to work in the restaurant business before returning to the Divernon Dragons in 1990. During his career, he taught thousands in the classroom and hundreds more on the floor of the basketball gymnasium. He was a teacher and coach, but he taught his students and athletes much more than simply the dates of the Civil War or how to run a three-man weave. He taught them how to be better people. And he continues to teach as evidenced above.

Written by Ryan Hilligoss, March 2012