My name is Heath, and I am an Author and Businessman who was born in Rockford, Illinois. Big surprise there, right? My parents were, likewise, born and raised there: pedestrian, I know. Beyond that, however, my lineage becomes sort of sketchy, and my family tree ends up looking more like a dead shrub turned on its side; tiny tendrils of xylem and phloem in a chaotic knit of interlacing twigs. And the whole awful mess viewed from beneath the murky depths of the Rock River, just for good measure. Suicides, divorces, deaths, relatives who moved to faraway places, and on and on. In summation: my family tree is more Chinese Elm than White Oak.
When I was mere months old, my parents had the foresight and means to enact their own American dream of home ownership and, with the funds available, purchased a 1920’s bungalow on a one-block long street that ran North-South, and perpendicularly abutted the busy chainsaw blade of traffic known then – as now – as Auburn Street. Though, it was a far skinnier thoroughfare than it is in its current form.
Pauline Avenue lay in between Kilburn Avenue and Rockton Avenue and, as such, I had the now far less common opportunity to reside in a mixed residential/commercial/industrial area. We had it all, though the industry bit was of no use to me, save for the odd weekend adventure into the near-magical confines of their property indulged upon by a young boy with more time on his hands than is probably good for him, or his parents and local police force, at that.
“So what,” you’re saying, “Everyone grew up on a street. We all have our own stories like this. This is stupid. When is Mattlock on?” Work with me on this. There’s a story here, I promise. Lots of them, in fact.
On my street lived a veritable melting pot of Americans. We had the Hispanic family on the corner, the newlyweds, the single mothers, the aging retirees, the thriving families, the African American family. Everyone, with the exception of the Asians, seemed to be present and accounted for. I wonder where the hell the Asians were?, now that I consider it. None of this meant anything to me as a kid. All I saw were people. Prejudice, bigotry, sexism, and avarice were all words I not only could not spell (dude, I was like three or four – what did you expect?), but whose existence I had no notion of. My lexicon, at that tender age, didn’t require words like that.
One of my Mother’s favorite stories to share, is that of the first time I saw a black person. We were in a store, I believe in the Rockton Plaza shopping center. I espied a portly African-American matron from within the mystical confines of my stroller and, being the keen observer that I was, I felt it imperative to immediately bring this fascinating anomaly standing before me to my Mother’s attention. As such, I immediately did what any card-carrying, awe-struck kid would do: I shouted as loudly as I was able, to anyone caring to hear (and the way she tells it, there were plenty of ears), “Mom, look! That lady is BLACK!”
Of course, my Mother was mortified. The woman on the other hand, I am told, laughed herself silly as my Mother stepped all over herself trying to apologize for the atrocious lack of manners that the Hell-spawn in the stroller before her was broadcasting loud and clear. The woman took the time to come over, smile, and calm my Mother. Apparently, I was precocious because I am told that she took the time to get to know me, and explain her situation to me, all while indulging my deep fascination with her dermal melanin levels. I’d give anything to meet that woman again, and make her dinner.
The whole reason for bringing this story to the fore was to give you some idea of who I was as a very young person. I was curious, adventurous, curious, a handful, curious, intellectually challenging, curious, racially clueless, and curious. I might also have been a little curious. It’s hard to recall.
Growing up, I played with children of every color and creed on my street. My staple playmates, however, were girls. Our neighborhood, for all of its vast diversity, was sorely lacking in the male child department. As such, I played more Barbie and house than a grown man should probably ever admit to anyone other than his therapist. Still, I think those estrogen-laden days of interaction molded me into the man that I am today. I know for certain it gave me a better sense of the female perspective. This is why, I am certain, I have decorating sense, have zero interest in sports, and am totally stupid for my wife. I often joke that if it weren’t for my overt sexual disdain for the male form on every conceivable level, and my overt love/lust for my wife, I would probably be considered a stereotypical gay man. Eh: I’m comfortable with who I am.
The anchor of the neighborhood – then, as now, even to this very day – were the Zeigle family. The Zeigle’s live in the largest house in the neighborhood which, I learned years later, was home to the original builder of all of the other homes in the area. He wanted some swanky digs and he sure got them. I still love that house.
And, let me tell you: those folks needed the room. The Zeigle’s, you see, had nine children. All fiercely active, and I have no idea how Mrs. Zeigle still has any hair. Mr. Zeigle, much like myself, self-becalmed with a goodly mixture of humor, familial love, and cocktails. Both Warren and Ann – those are their names – are still treasured friends, and marital role models for my wife, and myself, even to this day. Everyone should have someone like the Zeigle’s in their lives.
We lived next door to the Zeigle’s, at 1516 Pauline Avenue, in a well-constructed home, complete with monster box elder tree in the back yard; a tree that, when we finally had to cut it down in the early eighties due to the devastation caused by decades of carpenter ant abuse, proved to be more than one-hundred years old (120-ish, I believe, but I’m not completely certain). Suffice it to say, it was old. And its absence was – and still is – palpable. I miss that tree not only because its absence feels wrong, but because it had a shape and form that were magnificent to behold. It was a work of art.
Next door to us, in an arrangement that would never stand the potential legal scrutiny in this litigious day and age, were the Johnson’s. Our driveways – and garages – shared abutting space, making for one large driveway, and a party-wall garage. What the builders were thinking, I’ll never know, but this configuration appeared in two further instances along the length of the street. Be that as it may, I’m fairly certain that it had the effect of bringing two neighboring families even closer together. Even more so when taking into account that the back yard had a fenced perimeter, but no dividing fence to keep either clan off of the other’s property.
My parents had two boys, while the Johnson’s had two girls. I was a year younger than their oldest, and my brother was nearly the same age as their youngest, making us a natural foursome for getting into trouble, and under the skin of other neighbors. Suffice it to say, the memories of those early years still bring fond feelings of emotion, and wistful feelings that most of the video game entranced, insane crime rate, 300 television-channel, cell phone adhered, children of today will never know that sort of childhood. If they only knew what they were missing. It’s a poverty.
In the coming months, I intend to bring you some of my favorite recollections of my home within the confines of Rockford. Some will be short, while others will be recollected in the entirety that they deserve. I have no idea if they will be of interest to you, but here’s what else my neighborhood – both immediate and extended – had that you can plan to read about in the near future:
– A pair of business tycoons
– ‘Rockford Royalty’
– Hobo camps
– A Mayoral candidate
– Embarrassing kissing stories
– Sassy old folks (who sometimes cheat at cards)
– The Rockford Expos experience
– The unbelievably weird world of Boylan High
– Vagabond summers
– Viva la Beaky’s Chicken!
– A plethora of other unique odds and ends that I don’t want to give away, just yet
I hope that you will join me, in recalling stories otherwise forgotten, or unknown, about the great city that I had the pleasure of growing up in: Rockford, Illinois.
Heath D. Alberts (email@example.com)