By Norman V. Kelly
What is wonderful about living in your home town all of your life is that you have but to look around and the memories seem to whisper to you. Maybe I just defined a ‘nutty old man,’ but it sure works for me. I often go to Smoeger’s Park next to El Vista where I grew up and it is like visiting an old friend. Of course it wasn’t a park then it was just ‘Our Woods.’ I can still see the nails in some of the branches where we built our tree shacks, and where, as Daniel Boone I shot my first squirrel. Just north of there is the creek where we built our dams, waded in and skated on. Just a quick glance away is the steep cliff that we played king of the hill on. Over there just east of the cliff is ‘The Old Hill’ that we sledded on all those glorious snowy days. The moonlit nights we tobogganed down that hill that was at least a zillion miles high. The log fires under the big cottonwood tree, the wiener roasts, the fun, all those friends, so many of them gone now. All I have to do is stand on the edge of that cliff and all those memories of my childhood pour over me like gentle, cool raindrops on a hot August day.
I often pull into the parking lot there next to Woodrow Wilson School. With the top down on my convertible I perch on the back seat and look all around me. I can see myself playing on those school yard swings, talking to my friends, laughing at every thing and every one. My dog Shep, lying under the shade of those old trees, waiting for me to take him to the woods where we would wade in the cool creek and chase minnows and frogs. Down Forrest Hill, just a couple of blocks away is a liquor store today but when I was a kid it was Sieks Grocery Store. I can almost feel that ice cold Coke or Nesbitt’s orange bottle in my hand that I just took out of the soda cooler loaded with chipped ice. Every kid that lived in El Vista gathered there and I remember the day when the first bus came to our little spot out in the ‘boondocks.’ That day changed our lives forever because then we could make our way to Downtown Peoria, and the wonders of that place. During WW11, we spent every penny we could earn, beg, borrow or steal going to the movies. We saw a lot of war films and when we got home we played ‘Commandoes’ down in the woods heroically saving America from her evil enemies.
I drive around to my friend’s homes there on Hudson, Albany and so many other streets where they all lived. I think about them and wonder where all that time has gone. There were eleven kids in my family and that made our house the central meeting place. We put up a couple of basketball rims, and played the summer away pushing, shoving, and screaming at each other. My, it was fun. The fights were all part of what we did, but we quickly forgot why we were fighting as we headed for the woods, or rode around on our bikes looking for something else to do.
Once most of us ended up having a car our lives changed. It was a different world as we began to pair off with the girls we grew up with. One day I visited the homes of the four girls I had an interest in when I was a kid, I never had any problem remembering where they lived. I think most all of them ended up getting married, being mothers and leaving good old Peoria, Illinois. They scattered all over America, and sadly many of them are gone now. I still remember all of them. All I have to do is drive slowly by their old houses and I can see them there. They will always be those cute little teenage girls that I did everything I could do to get their attention…if only for a moment. Most of them, as well as my friends called me Sam then and somehow or other that name got passed on to my grandson.
I guess today I am classified as just another octogenarian living in the past. But I am among the lucky few that get to write about it. On all of the trips I drive slowly by my old house that used to be on Albany Street in El Vista. It burned to the ground in 1950, but I can still see it sitting at the back of that lot, beckoning me to come on home. I would like to, but I am afraid the folks living in their warm and cozy house might misunderstand my intentions. You think?
Editor’s Note: Norm is a Peoria historian and author. His many stories are on line and his ten books are in the local library. Norm welcomes your comments and you can also e-mail him: email@example.com