The final Saturday in October swept me three hours south for lunch with my parents and nearly-new grandniece and, later that Halloween afternoon, backwards about 40 years for visits with some ghosts on the farm of my youth.
It began as an afternoon drive from my parents’ home in town to the Bottoms, that black gumbo-and-sand plain mostly on the Illinois side of the Mississippi just south of St. Louis. But a peek-a-boo sun pulled me down the limestone bluffs and into the past.
Like most times, the slow descent raised the haunting voices of the Native Americans, French colonists, British soldiers and American revolutionaries who, over the centuries, laid claim to that land. Upon first seeing it, I reckoned, all must have reveled in their incredible fortune.
This place, I heard them whisper solemnly, is a place of possibilities.
At the base of the bluff I zigged, then zagged through the decaying little village of Modoc. When I was a kid, Modoc had 54 residents and possibilities. It also had two taverns, one general store, a blacksmith shop, a post office, a gas station and the home of the county sheriff (conveniently next door to the tavern he once owned). As such, the little berg fairly hopped.
Few things, and even fewer of its residents, there hop today. One tavern remains because, it seems, Modoc without a tavern would be like Rome without a church.
I followed the bluff south past old neighbors’ farms but soon had to slow to get my bearings. I was on the right road yet many of its landmarks had vanished and the ones that still stood were unrecognizable.
The green house that had anchored the Behnken farm was gone. Another mile brought another missing farmhouse. Then another. The latter wasn’t just missing a house; it was missing an entire farm — fences, barns, bins, cats, everything. All that remained were gravestones of corn and soybeans and they said nothing.
The slow passage to my home farm — which was sold, what, 10 years ago already? — did bring warm, familiar voices.
Someone unloading a semi-trailer of corn on the home place brought the sound of my father warning me to stay clear of the tractor pto that powered an auger moving corn to the top of the biggest, tallest bin, all 5,000-bu. of it, in the Bottoms.
A moment later I heard our long-time hired man, Jackie, reply “Right smart,” to Uncle Honey’s question of how much corn he and Dad had shelled that day.
“Maybe even a little more,” Jackie added without looking up from rolling a cigarette.
A quarter mile farther down the road left me in front of the farm’s now-sagging dairy barn, a place so filled with memories and voices it was hard to make sense of ‘em all.
The clearest voice, though, was that of Howard, Jackie’s oldest brother and one of the kindest, most caring people on earth.
“Hey, Allie Boy,” he’d say as I entered the milking parlor nearly every evening during the harvest season, “nobody showed up on time, so I started without ‘em.”
No one “showed up” because his parlor partner, Dad, was on the combine and Dad’s replacement, me, was still on the school bus.
I never liked getting stuck in the dairy barn every harvest evening but, truly, I never minded being stuck anytime with Howard.
I drove another mile to the road’s end and then to the top of the massive Mississippi River levee where I stopped for one last look and listen over the land of my upbringing.
It’s as empty as it was a century ago, but its beauty and possibilities remain.