My favorite children and the ones who weaseled their way into my companionship after I already decided that I don't want any dependents didn't complain or look crestfallen when I told them they weren't getting any Christmas presents but I was going to teach them how to make fettucini did all the dishes and helped with cooking on Christmas day, like most days, so I felt the generosity of the holiday eventually and promised to take them on vacation for spring break. They picked a trip to St. Louis rather than a trip to a water resort in Wisconsin which impressed me because they advertise the water resort on TV. It turned out to be an adventure because they don't complain. I always had the impression that children are whiny and I think most really are, but these kids are true optimists. Well, chances are everybody will find a kindred spirit or two now and then, but three at one time? They also eat their vegetables and you can get them excited suggesting we go out for shrimp and broccoli or spinach pie so I never managed to find anything to hold against them and found them to be pretty reliable and good company.
Winter was spent finding the ambitious, oldest girl a high school to attend. Chicago public schools suck and most give a kid a 30% chance of graduating, but we have a handful of selective enrollment schools that are some of the best in the state, public or private. She set her dreams on Lane Tech and she didn't get in. This year was the worst year ever for CPS students entering high school. The bad economy caused families that normally send their kids to private schools to apply for spots in the eight selective enrollment public schools that have around six thousand spots for the entire city. Upwards of 75% of applicants don't get in and those applicants have to be the top of their classes to even apply. It's disheartening. It was interesting to see how much heart the middle schools put into their student's efforts at finding a good high school. They categorized all students that ran for student council as members even if they didn't win the elections by simply expanding the council to include all of them. Miss S. proceeded to write an essay about how she didn't win and the lessons she learned in her disappointment as a revolt against the consolation prize which really could make a good ethical dilemma about what administrators face in the desperation of advancing students through a really crappy school system. Miss S. wants to keep things real. I like a kid that doesn't indulge in fantasies. I like her alot. I wrote a cunning letter about her for the second chance principal's picks program to get into Lane Tech and I hope she gets it, but they only take 50 more applicants, so...we went and scrambled for a spot at another neighborhood magnet school that has an Intl. Baccalaureate program and she got that spot, but as we toured the school, I wondered. It's a rough school, with the fights in the stairwells just like you see on TV and she'll have to commute an hour on the CTA back and forth every day. She's happy, you never would guess her dream is nearly crushed, it's like she has a secret, that she knows things will work out for the best.
Spring break came and the adventure continued. I discovered near the end of it that people hide their emotions and I don't know why they do that. We stayed with some friends of mine in north St Louis. Most people have never had the opportunity to see it, but alot of people have seen Detroit. North St Louis makes Detroit look nice. It's largely abandoned, four out of every five buildings have broken windows and collapsed parts, many buildings are half standing, fire destroyed buildings even, just left there. The buildings themselves are very beautiful. It's a much older city than Chicago, to see them left to crumble is a sight that is incomprehensible. It's hilly and very green with large trees and brick alleys and side streets, old churches and water towers and parks with old fire stations and water fountains. We pulled in at night so I thought they wouldn't be too shocked, but they noticed it was abandoned even though most of the street lights are turned off. Thank goodness we arrived in good spirits. I would think for a first car trip, (they've never left Chicago), they'd of been cranky, but we went fast, we only saw one car faster than us and I taught them how to calculate the miles from the exit sign numbers and mile markers and our speed and we got to see a change of climate as we travelled south when suddenly after all still bare trees they changed to blooming ones and they never knew what telephone poles are and how they used to have to wire to every place and they never saw a suspension bridge before and we went over those and they loved the Arch peeking out in the distance as we neared the city.
We settled into the apartment my friends had waiting for us that belongs to their oldest daughter and she had a bunny so the kids were pretty happy. The whole building is three stories and I gave them a tour and they found steps to the roof and an old storm cellar. When the dad came out though, the two girls were shaking with fear, he's a rastafarian, a pretty big guy, with gray hair to the floor and they closed their eyes when he reached for their hand. It all passed and he showed them cool stuff he had from Ethiopia, carvings and stone replicas of the churches with tiny holes like Indiana Jones and a cape worn by Haile Selassi that had real gold woven into the emroidery threads that sparkled suprisingly sparkly. They were asking him all kinds of questions about Africa and having an easy, fun time so it was good. In the attic they still have one son at home and his room is just like it was almost twenty years ago when I first visited, terrified by the neighborhood and then overcome by the spirituality of the home with it's ancient incense burning and the food garden in back and the solid old house full of artifacts and dried sticks of chocolate and coffee beans and nests of sorrel tea and jars of honey and old carved wood furniture and wood burning stoves and stairs to cool places and the three really nice children and school teacher mom...and dad with his tales of Ethiopia.
They have a tall, long wall in the attic in the children's room that has poster sized photographs of old indian chief's portraits that mesmerized me when I was young. They did the same thing to the children. They stood silent before the photos and gazed at them for a long time, wordless for a while and then said, I heard of him, I think. You can't describe the photos, just look at photos of old indian chiefs, thay have impressive expressions set in their feathered regalia, you just don't see in faces today. We all went out and searched the garden for something I had smelled when I parked and climbed over the fence quickly and difficultly rather than walk around through the dark alley. They told me the alley was safer than the street, but by climbing the fence I avoided both. That was the last of my usual fear of the neighborhood which always passes. I can still hop a fence if I have too. You reach to the top and walk between your arms till your knees hang over and lean up till your're sitting and jump, hoping ypur pants don't catch. The mom saw me and made a big fuss about why I didn't just walk around, so I diffused it by carrying on about the fragrant thing I had smelled by the fence and we went out and poked in the garden. The children noticed stars. They never saw so many stars, it wasn't that many, but they couldn't stop looking at them.
After some annoying time of the girls taking turns trying to straighten my hair till I had to howl that my back was killing me to get away with half straightened hair we went to sleep. But the youngest was reading a little kids book and wouldn't turn off the light. Finally after lots of questioning about when she would turn off the light, she went and found a lavalamp and put it by her head and turned off the lights. Turns out she was scared and her mom told her to read a bedtime story to go to sleep. I didn't know she was scared. They don't lock the doors either and the kids had noticed and I had to barricade the back door. In the morning I was makng the bed and she had slept with a picture of her mom under it. And the bunny had been knocking around during the night, but the youngest hid her fear from us.
The next morning they had muffins for us and we talked about going to Cahokia mounds. The dad told the children that they have alot of indian blood in them but the kids cringed and don't like to hear that. I don't know what they were thinking as we looked at the museum that was hosting a Native American art show with tables of indians all taking an interest in the children. Two men were chanting a nursery rhyme song indian style about going to Mexico for the children and they stopped and listened, everybody did. They liked the museum that has still life like scenes of daily life at Cahokia that I always enjoyed, it was practically stone aged, except foir corn, no metal except ornamental copper, and no tops for the women which had the boy groaning about having to see that, but he got over it. I had to wonder, they had four seasons, why they had to show everybody topless, but the animals were all taxidermy and they had the real tools and food and things so it was very interesting and detailed. They spent alot of time pondering the scenes, so I know they enjoyed it. They have a good movie about the passage of time and human being's quest to understand the world around them and what the people of Cahokia wished to know. I have the idea after all these years of going there that they built the mounds to try and get closer to the stars. It was raining but warm and we climbed the mound and the kids loved it. I tried to call it off because of lightening, but sometimes you take things on faith that you won't get struck down and I gave them an order that if I said so, they were to hit the ground and crawl back down till I said it was safe. They were still and listened carefully before they went back to laughing and hanging off each other and running to the edge. It was still a damn good view for the clouds and no lightening formed, but I was relieved to get back down. They wanted to walk all around and the rain had all the frogs singing so we listened to that. And ducks and birds were coming to eat the worms that floated up and we saw egrets and a turkey. A wild turkey is one of the craziest things you'll ever see, they're noisy and fly like they are about to crash to the ground.
I gave them a choice about where to go for lunch. I suggested Hooters because they used to have one on Laclede's landing by the famous old Eads suspension bridge where they engineered the first caissons and is the oldest part of St. Louis. I always thought Hooters was one of the weirdest restaurants, and I told them the waitresses had to wear sexy shorts and they wouldn't believe the outfits anyway. They almost picked it but decided on an old candy and malt shop that has lunch. We got there and there was a line out the door so we went for Hooters, but it had moved to a mall and they liked the landing with cobble streets and outdoor tables and a view of the Arch so we ate there. We went to the Arch and they loved it. The museum was interesting, especially with me explaining everything like how much it sucked to be a horse pulling one of those huge wagons or riding in one without shocks to absorb the bumps, but going up in the Arch thrilled them. I had vertigo and lay looking out the widow with one wave after another telling me I was about to fall and it wouldn't pass, it was unpleasant. They didn't have vertigo. We planned to have homade vegetarian pizza from the dad and to make a salad and fry eggplant to go with it and they decided not to get any meat for their pizza and try the eggplant and we went shopping for that and drove around taking pictures of all the crumbling buildngs. Dinner was great and he was talking about the time he made endless pizza for some kids on an indian reservation where they didn't have pizza and the kids were looking sideways at each other like oh great, he still thinks we're indians. Dad got angry when he saw the oldest do the dishes, like I was enslaving her, so I told him she does all the dishes at home and quite a bit of the cooking since her mom works and he was scandalized. I had to make her stop and he did all the dishes the whole time we were there. I said, don't tell her it's a chore, she helps her mother. We got into a big fight, me and him, when I found a pirate mug in my hand and I remarked that those are some nasty folks, turns out he thinks of himself as a pirate, so that explains his aversion to people actually doing a little work around his house, and he was hopping up and down about they only steal from people that deserve it and only kill people that deserve it and he obviously likes to live a life of fantasy, so thanks. Right. We had homade gelato and a lovely evening, where I kept bringing up how hard we work for a living and the female pride was having him glowering. He grabbed a spear and club and came rushing up to scare the children who didn't flinch, but were amused so he gave the boy a bundle of bottle rockets to try and win an ally. Nobody in the family thought the kids would be that impresed by Cahokia, but they were and it ended up in the end to be the fantastic first and last stop on our trip.
The next day we went to the city museum that has been tried to shut down by the city since it opened. It's an old warehouse they built out with junk and industrial steel and iron and it has places to climb through long tunnels and ladders and seven story slides and an aquarium where you can touch animals and feed stingrays and all kind of stuff, ropes to swing on, collections of old door knobs. Everybody got at least one bruise and Ms. S. got a lump on her head. They had all predicted the kids would like that place best but in the evening the Arch was still the favorite. We had two hours before another option, the science center, closed. They decided to delay lunch and spend two hours there. We saw migrating ducks in Forest Park, one of the largest urban parks in the world. They didn't believe one of the ducks was really a duck it looked so strange and we had to sit and look at the duck till I howled from grief because it was so cold. The science center is a great place. We don't have anything like it in Chicago. It has hundreds of hands on displays for science and nature experiments that teach biology, physics, engineering and astronomy and it's all free! The children were mostly too tired to try the experiments so we decided to see a show. They had two omnimax movies to pick from but, suprise surprise they picked the star show in the planetarium. It shows how to spot the constellations and then a film about what was discovered from the Hubble telescope, infinite galaxies, forming ones and dying ones, it's really nothing can be said thinking about all of it. I thought they'd be bored, but they came out of there really excited and then they checked out all the space exhibits and space travel. We went out to eat Chinese and they refused to order duck since we had seen some walking around in the park. They were looking at those roast ducks and really suspected I might be a real sicko taking them there, but THEY had picked Chinese! I thought they might want to try duck. We were looking at taxidermy of a cattle didn't kill their appetite for beef fried rice... I guess it'd different when it waddles up to you.
We had gotten a call in the morning that my country friends in the Ozarks had the three year old and mother come down with Strep so we couldn't go. The kids hadn't complained, but we would only get one day in the country. We planned to see Meramec cave, their choice (rather than the zoo or another museum) and a hike and cook out in Meramec state park. That night Ms S. wanted to watch Heroes on TV but the family wanted to watch some other show and she appeared to pout. I thought that's what it was. She wouldn't say a word, answer any question or look at anybody. She went and lay with her face buried in the pillow. She said she had a headache, then a fever so I brought her aspirin. The next morning it was the same, no talking or eye contact. By breakfast I was mad. I told her she was pouting and it was making me uncomfortable. She said she hurt her head and sure enough she had a lump, we all gathered around and put cream and ice and it was better, she came out of her shell. I apologized and shook hands. They don't want to show when they're upset, I think its part of the silence and no eye contact, so you can't hear it in the voice or see it in the eyes. Why? Why do people hide it. I realized that I, myself, go to great lengths to hide emotions, but I don't know why, what's it's purpose. I read about when people try to hide them, it spoils the effectiveness of their memory of an emotional event, but I haven't read why they do , takes some digging to find out, I guess.
We left and they gave the dad who had frightened them at first a big hug goodbye. maybe as an apology for their first reaction. maybe they just like the nutball. We went off to see the cave. It was OK. I had a hard time convincing them nobody made it and explain how long it took. They didn't give us enough time in the total dark or explain how it forms, it was cheesy, with jokes and Jesse James hideout hoopla and a goofy light show on the most fantastic formation that they been showing there since the 1930s that plays the Missouri Waltz and a rendition of God Bless America. I was explaining about the actual cave formation to the children, people don't know much about caves, they ought to tell people in the tour. Then we went on a hike and cook out. We picked out a spread and a half and then they wanted an expensive pie. I didn't want to buy the pie and they looked disappointed, which doesn't happen often, so I bought the pie and said here is Christmas and Birthday presents I wouldn't get you and they sort of realized it was a jip but dispayed appropriate happiness at the pie. Turns out it wasn't even close to homade. They said, we're in the country and we can't even get a homade pie? I guess they thought it would be a homade country pie. We went to great lenghths to shop at a country store. I was asking around, where's the grocery store and people looked at me like I'm crazy, you mean Walmart? which of course you can't miss. the children kept telling me they have groceries, I didn't know, didn't go. Finally we found the old one in town. They have a partnership with the local electric co op, so it's just like they say, in one direction commerce is getting larger and larger conglomerates, but there is a simultaneous movement that is also growing of smaller and local things. Got amusement out of it, but no homade country pie, only country canned filling.
So they liked the hike more than I would have guessed. It was a bluff over a river. They sat on a log for a long time looking and listening and saying it was really pretty. It really wasn't all that special of a trail, it seemed to me, but when I was a teenager myself, every chance I'd get I'd go hike in the woods. I once lived by a creek camping for two weeks by myself to see if I could live. I did, but only because someone was leaving me food by my campsite. Lowell who finally revealed himself and offered to show me a cow carcass that had been picked clean and proposed marriage. When my friends came back for me, I had lived up to my reputation for survival and fearlessness and built all kinds of sculptures out of sticks and rusted junk and painted a mural of cows building it on the wall of an abandoned old stone house with a can of paint I found. Those were the days, but its not like that anymore. I thought, nothing special here on the hike. We went down to the river and the kids loved it. I'd been explaining and explaining rivers to them after they kept thinking the Mississippi was a lake. We found a spring so they got to see and it interested them and then we saw leaves and debris caught in fallen trees where the water had come up and they saw how it only flows one way. It seems juvenille to figure out, but they never saw a river, I don't think they even realize we have the Chicago river, so I'll take them there. How am I going to explain you can reverse a river after all we went through clearing up how rivers work.? We caught a frog and saw butterflies and a wolf spider but no other wildlife. We saw prints though, but they loved it. I let them stay long because they were just standing at the edge of the river quietly looking. S. said we should take the frog to the water. I said let it go where we found it. When we got to the river, maybe 25 feet, there were most frogs and she said SEE, we should've taken him to the river. I realize kids have instincts and I should let them follow them. She'd've been happy to help the frog or whatever and I wouldn't let her. It was getting later but I sort of left them alone and then I decided to actually leave them alone and left to go back into town. Supposed to be good to leave kids alone in nature. For some reason, teen agers really like the woods. They even all separated to walk. It is pretty weird to see other people through the trees in mountains. I came back and we cooked out and the youngest got upset and did the same thing, wouldn't talk, wouldn't look. Her brother had screamed at her for trying to eat chips before dinner, a new thing for them, not eating chips, but I got them steaks and mesquite for the coals because when I was a kid I thought it was the greatest thing I ever tasted. I don't know if they had steaks even once in their life except in tacos. Maybe at a barbecue, so they were heeding my instructions to wait except she got hungry. Then when she was overcome with the painful emotion she hid in the car and wouldn't come out to eat. I decided to leave her alone, like the kids do for each other. Her sister brought her a plate. they liked the food alright, oh yes. I had lost my wallet in the woods, so I had promised to take them shopping for souvenirs, but they didn't get to. They handled it fine. We had to borrow money to get home, so it was dark leaving St. Louis. The one thing we hadn't gotten to do was see stars in the country, which they had talked about in the planetarium. I decided we would go back to Cahokia and climb the mound in the dark even though it would put us home at 1am., maybe later since I can't speed without my driver's license. Climbing the mound at night was probably the most fun. It was an extra surprise for the end of our trip. There was a pretty good moon, but we had to cross a large field and I was pretty anxious because that area has copperheads which lay out on sun warmed paths in early evening, it's probably too early in the season and there's no paths, no chance they are there, really, but if you ever saw one before in your path and saw someone who had been bitten, it's the terror of Missouri. You can see other snakes, rattlers rattle, well maybe cotton mouths are worst, they will actually chase you, but whatever the case, I was worried about copperheads in the early evening, just like I was my whole time in Missouri woods. We climbed the stairs up in the dark. It was a long climb in the dark and the girls started laughing when we reached the top at how funny it was to climb so many stairs. When we got up there you could see all the lights and a good amount of stars, just a few more than in the the dark North St.Louis but the whole sky all around the distant city and as far as the horizon. The boy who does poorly in school turned out to be the quickest on the trip. He followed a whole bunch of stuff I showed them how to calculate on the highway and then he was the first to spot a constellation. He found Orion. The girls found the big dipper. It was very breathtaking. We'd ve been up there all night and slept in the car halfway home. He laid in the grass. He wouldn't lay down in the theater, insisted on a chair, I think to avoid laying next to females, so he tried it there. I wasn't going to cut it short, so we wandered down the path in the dark. It's rocks... and there in the path was a large snake. I screamed and grabbed the girls and ran for dear life upsetting them terribly and cursing. I had chills, seeing a snake on an indian mound is a very superstitious feeling. I thought maybe this could be a cool thing, like a vision and I shouldn't spoil it for the children. I could hardly talk, I said, OK, the snake won't chase us, so if you don't get too close you can look. Stay on the path because the moon is lighting it and stop walking when I tell you to stop. They wouldn't take a step closer so we just watched from far away. Quietly. Who knows what they imagined. Anybody knows its something to be on an Indian mound, it's a feeling of the place and a snake is one of the most primordial affects on the psyche. I know the kids felt it. they were whispering when we left. I had chills. we didn't talk. till we were away from the mound in the field. I had a hard time keeping to the speed limit. They were laughing at me, and then they had sympathy and said thanks for driving late. We stopped for pie. It was better the second time around.