By Terry Hogan
"Home" has been written about by poets, philosophers, travelers, soldiers, lovers, and nearly all others categories of folks at one time or another. Ive not lived in Galesburg since 1969, when I left with my new bride to spend a couple of years in the army. Nevertheless, when I load up the car, point it west on Interstate 74, I am heading "home."
It is a drive that I have been making from various points east, as long as there has been I-74. We have lived in Indiana longer that we lived in Illinois. But "home" is Illinois for us.
Home is the house at Lake Bracken that was built by my father, with his own hands. The foundation, the studs, floors, ceilings, roof are all of his labor. Only the wiring, plumbing, and the fireplace were done by others. It was built during WWII so building supplies and lumber were limited. Some of the flooring is from Abingdons old Hedding College.
The house was built to replace a smaller, old summer cottage my parents had owned prior to my birth. A kerosene space heater exploded, spewing fuel and fire across the kitchen floor. Anything that was combustible disappeared in the flames. My mother had to leap from a window to safety. Large oak trees that grew next to the house died in the flames and the heat. My father saved an unusual curved, y-section of one of the oaks and made it into a footstool that served him the rest of his life.
The new house was built on the point of land called "West Point" at Lake Bracken. It was built where the old house stood. I suppose if my father had been more into mythology, the new house might have been called "Phoenix." But he wasnt, and it isnt. The house was completed before I was born, so I only have early photos and brief snippets of oral history. There are a few old pictures of the house under construction- the foundation of cinder block, protruding from the hillside. Another of the external wall of wood planks on the studs (no plywood or Styrofoam insulation back then). There was one of my Dad, younger than I am now, with his father-in-law, my Grandpa Wesley Williamson, standing by the unfinished house. It looks as if they were both working on the house.
I am told that Dad just learned how to build a house as he went along. Building the house, piece by piece as lumber and supplies became available, and as time allowed as he had a full time job at the Lucky Boy Bakery. But the house got built and it became a full time home. I knew no other home until my marriage.
It was, and is a small house. It has a gray rough stone fireplace that has burned logs and has been the center of the living room and of home. The mantel supports an antique clock from the Williamson side of the family. At Christmas time, the mantel was decorated with fresh pine branches and "bubble lights." The interior walls are mostly of cypress wood, now aged a deep rich red and full of little cavernous notches. I grew up believing, for some reason, that this wood was used, as it was available during the war, when other more conventional wood was not. Recently my mother shattered this misconception, saying that the wood was added after the house was built, when they decided to make it a year round place. They removed the interior walls to install insulation and then replaced it with the current material.
Some of the cypress panels have cavities that are a little deeper than originally. My pet parakeet liked to land on a notch and reach in and pull out the soft fibrous center of the wood planks. It increased the cavity, created a mess on the floor, and was generally considered unacceptable bird behavior. The bird met an untimely death one night when the coal furnace backed up through the coal auger and coal pile and filled the house with toxic and deadly coal smoke. We awoke in time and aired out the house and corrected the problem in the coal furnace, but it was too late for the little bird with too high a respiration rate. We found it dead, on the floor of its cage in the morning. I recall its untimely death received mixed reviews.
Despite the untimely death, the bird made out all right. I was only a very young lad when I found the bird in a cage sitting in the bright sun of a neighbor's driveway. I asked the neighbor why the bird was there and he indicated that he was trying to kill the bird as his wife no longer wanted it in the house. It was only a matter of a few minutes before I was dragging the birdcage, with stand, various bird support items, and the bird down the gravel road to our house. I had a bird for free. I was pleased. My mother was silent, as I recall. With time, we opened the cage door but the bird had been locked up so long, it couldnt fly. But it kept trying and the mechanics and the muscles improved and he became master of the internal airways. And the wall chewing began.
The old coal furnace followed the parakeet a few years later. Now a small gas furnace does the same task, without complaint, without the smoke, and without the childhood task of removing the large clinkers from the coal furnace firebox. We used these big old ash clinkers to help hold the shoreline against bank erosion. Today you can still find fragments of these old clinkers along the shoreline, too small to be effective in erosion control. The clinkers are retired, I suppose, like the furnace that made them 40 or so years ago.
The old coal bin that used to receive the periodic delivery of coal was opened up and made into a small storage room for tools. The old auger that fed coal from the coal pile to the furnace is gone. I recall as a child sitting astride the auger, feeling and hearing the auger turn inside as the coal slowly spiraled to its delivery into the firebox and the point of combustion.
It was in this basements front room that Dad made my first (and only) 8-foot long hydroplane made from plywood and one-inch lumber. The plans came from a Popular Mechanics magazine that showed the general design and finished product. I had to order the detailed designs. Dad built, and I paid for the materials with my first real job- de-tasselling corn for 80 cents an hour. It was a terrible job for a 13-year-old (I lied about my age, 14 was minimum), but the boat was perfect. We painted it bright yellow and white with gloss enamel paint. It sported Chevy Impala emblems on the side. The other kids on the lake would come by and watch the progress of the boat. Dad built the boat like he built the house. He had done neither before, but he learned as he went, and they both came out well.
My two older brothers and I slept in the converted attic. We had no conventional stairs to the bedroom. Instead we had a fine-link chain that dangled from the ceiling in the hallway. Pulling the chain caused the stairway to open up, similar to an attic access now common in garages, only this was better made and withstood two decades of daily use by three sons. The single attic room extended across the width of the house, with its peak ceiling, reflecting the roofline overhead. At each end, windows allowed the summer warm breezes to pass through the bedroom, carrying with it the evening sound of whippoorwills, bullfrogs, and at times, spring peepers. We would also hear the occasional nocturnal passage of a raccoon across the roof above. Summer storms would bring the drumming of the rain and the flash of lighting, chased by the thunder. In those days, there were no "security lights" and night was dark and skies were filled with brilliant stars. The Milky Way was obvious to anyone who looked up. And the lightning was all the brighter in comparison, at night.
Home for me, in time, became "Grandpa and Grandmas house" to our two daughters. Beyond all that grandparents bring to their grandchildren, the house also meant boat rides, fishing for bluegills, and swimming in the lake.
Today the house is still standing. I still call it "home." It has not changed much in appearance in recent years. It still has pretty views of Lake Bracken from three sides of the living room. The fireplace still releases the suns energy in the winter, holding the cold winter winds to do their harm outside.
But now only Mom sits at the kitchen table, with a cup of coffee in the morning, watching the chickadees, nuthatches, doves, and finches feeding at the birdfeeder that Dad had placed just right so many years earlier. Everything she sees, touches, uses, reflects Dads work over his lifetime. Little has changed since he died a couple of years ago. "Dads chair" is still there and it is still referred to in that way. His basement workshop is as neat as if he had just finished putting things away and insuring that the tools had a light coating of protective oil. The house, the home, he built over 50 years ago still stands and still serves and protects her even after his death.
She is content to live there and misses no opportunity to make it clear that she has no other place she would want to be. She has the sunrises and sunsets, the light of the day dancing on the surface of the lake, reflecting upon the living room ceiling. She has the birds and squirrels at the feeder and a warm fire in the fireplace on a cold winters night. Although she now lives alone, she is not alone. Everywhere there is Dad and his attention to detail and workmanship. Everywhere there are memories of a lifetime together.
It is, after all, Home.