Rebel, Rebel

Illinois Welcome Sign

I recently went on a long drive out west to see my in-laws at Christmas. A few pictures and stories from the trip were shared in this space, but the vast majority of it will live in brain’s memory, rather than in my computer’s memory. And that’s as it should be, I suppose.

But one moment from the long drive home stands out. We spent a night in Wichita, Kansas, and had to get back to Chicago the next day. After a drive through Kansas and into Missouri, and then across a long stretch of Iowa, we made it into Illinois. But even then, we still had to get from one end of the state to the other along Interstate 88, which has been named the Reagan expressway because it runs through Ronald Reagan’s birthplace of Dixon. But this story begins before we even made it that far.

We pulled off the highway to fill up, and I then went inside to use the restroom. My younger daughter came along too, and as I was waiting for her to come out I started to peruse the store. The first thing I noticed was one of the Calvin-type little boy stickers peeing on the word Obama. A disrespectful sticker to be selling in the president’s home state, certainly, but not terribly surprising because once you get more than five or ten miles away from Chicago, Illinois is not much different from Iowa or Missouri or even Kentucky, culturally speaking at least.

But just because I don’t like the message that a sticker sends, that doesn’t mean others can’t buy or sell it as they want to. This is America, after all, and the freedom to disrespect those in power, whoever they are, comes with the territory. I have no problems there.

But another sticker that I saw in the store had a much different effect on me. It carried the words “Kiss my rebel ass” wrapped around a confederate flag. That’s where where my tolerance ends, because the Confederacy killed off more Americans than the British, the Nazis, the Soviets, and Al-Queda ever will.

Why would anyone buy a symbol of disunion, sedition, and human bondage to attach to a car? Especially in Illinois, which never was a part of the Confederacy to begin with and–even more importantly–was home to the man who put the Confederacy out of business. Anyone who traffics in the Confederate flag in Illinois–even the western edges of it–only reveals their ignorance of the past.

But maybe that’s where the rebel part of this comes in. The bravado of the “kiss my ass” part of the sticker is designed to mask–or perhaps even to amplify–the ignorance of someone who would buy and display such a sticker. The Confederacy may have been able to run a weak president to the ground, but Abraham Lincoln proved to be their downfall. He kept the nation together, somehow, through the Civil War. And Reagan expressway or no Reagan expressway, and sitting president from Illinois or not, this is–and always will be–known as the Land of Lincoln. And hailing from such a place makes me exceedingly proud.

I wanted those stickers to be hidden from view somehow, so I turned them around and put them back in place on the rack. It was a small protest against an idea and a cause that was as un-American as anything ever has been. I’m sure it has been recognized by the gas station by now, and the stickers have since been put back into the proper position for some fool to consider buying one. But the rebel flag will always be an anathema to me, here in the state that did more than any other to shut the Confederacy down.

Long live the First Amendment and freedom of expression, but even longer may the memory of the terrible things that the Confederacy stood for be remembered.

After the purple sunset

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October 5 seems like such a long time ago. On that date, I had high hopes for Northwestern’s football team, which was unbeaten and ranked in the national polls.

I had written an exuberant piece for Five Wide Sports a few days earlier, about how it wasn’t 1989 anymore for the two sports teams I truly care about. The Chicago Cubs were losing, but the Northwestern football team was winning. The latter helped to take my mind off of the former, and it was a tradeoff I was glad to make.

And then, just before Northwestern played Ohio State in a nationally-televised game in primetime, the skies opened up and it started to pour. I wasn’t tailgating at the time, but the thousands who were probably got soaked in the process.

I mention this because afternoon rain showers can lead to some interesting sunsets. I saw it when I was in Door County, Wisconsin last summer. An afternoon cloudburst led to a green and brown sunset that I hope I’ll never forget. And the rain before the football game on October 5 also led to a unique sunset. But this was a portentous Northwestern purple, or at least it seemed that way to me.

I was driving around in Evanston when I saw it, on my way to the game and trying to find a place to park. There was a buzz in the air, because the rains were gone and it was going to be time for football soon. There were lots of Ohio State fans dressed in scarlet red, but there was a lot of Northwestern purple on display, too. And nature had seemed to decide the matter in the Wildcats’ favor.

The picture above probably shouldn’t have been taken in the first place, as I was trying to drive in a crowded situation at the same time. And it doesn’t really doesn’t do the scene justice, either. You can see purple here if you want to see purple. But to me, the purple was impossible to miss.

After a parking snafu, I finally found a place to park the car, and my daughter and I went to the stadium to watch the game. Northwestern played Ohio State close right up to the end, and lost when they couldn’t flea-flicker their way to a miracle finish. Clearly, the purple sunset hadn’t meant what I thought it did.

Northwestern went into a tailspin after the Ohio State game, and they haven’t won a game since then. They have one get left, against Illinois on Saturday. I hope they win this game, at least, to avoid the indignity of a winless season in the Big Ten. It won’t be the first time that has happened, of course, but once upon a time such losing ways were expected. This year’s collapse was completely unforeseen.

The purple sunset turned out to have a far different meaning than I had imagined. And the postseason bowl scene won’t have Northwestern involved, for the first time in a while. I’ll miss that part of the holidays, for sure, but then again it’s only a football team.

There are more important things in the world, as this year’s tornadoes in central Illinois have made abundantly clear. There are more than false omens that can come from the skies. If disappointment with my alma mater’s football team is all I have to feel bad about, I’ve got a very good life, indeed.

Illinois catches up, a little bit

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Illinois is the only state that I’ve ever lived in, and I can trace my family’s history in the state back for not quite 200 years. Yesterday, the state that I call home became the 20th state to allow for the use of medical marijuana. I’m glad that help can now be legally obtained by many people who need it, and were probably already using it, anyway.

I don’t have a problem with adults who want to light up, medicinally or otherwise. I’m not convinced that it will lead directly to heroin and other drugs, as some opponents claim it does. And alcohol already takes such a terrible toll on our society that marijuana can’t possibly be any worse. Alcohol seems to fuel our society in some sense, and nobody ever seems to question this. But for anyone who goes out and gets blitzed, or who abuses prescription drugs, to then oppose someone else who wants to cultivate a different type of buzz seems hypocritical to me. To each his own, and if rolling up a fat joint happens to be your own, then more power to you.

Two states have already legalized marijuana for recreational use, and I don’t know whether Illinois will do so in my lifetime. Would I think about smoking it if they did? Probably, but the truth is that just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it must be indulged in. Alcohol is legal, but my two-plus years of sobriety are among the best ones that I’ve ever had. I feel great, and I’m setting an example for my kids not to use it, either. And so can it be with pot, too.

Marijuana has been used for decades–even centuries–to help people cope with various pains and medical issues. There’s no reason to criminalize this, and I’m glad that a less-progressive-than-I-would-hope-for Illinois has finally recognized the value of doing so.

Eight wins and disappointment

The world certainly has turned for Northwestern football. I bore witness to exactly eight wins in the entire four years that I was on campus, from 1986 through 1989. There were four wins in my freshman year, and four in the following three years.

We threw marshmallows at each other in the stands during football games to keep our minds off what was happening on the field.

Every victory at home, no matter who the opponent was, was grounds for running onto the field and tearing down the goal posts.

My senior year, 1989, was so bad that the final two games were lost by a combined score of 169-28. Talk about ending with a whimper.

But things have turned around since then, beginning with 1995 and stretching into the foreseeable future. Coach-for-life Pat Fitzgerald has pointed out, correctly, that everyone under the age of 40 only knows Northwestern as a winner. And that’s a change for the better, as far as I can see.

But today’s win against Michigan State marked the eighth win on the season. I should be thrilled at the progress that’s been made over the past 20 years, right?

Well, not so fast. Each of the three games that Northwestern has lost this year was as a result of a fourth quarter meltdown. Double-digit leads were surrendered against Penn State in Happy Valley, against Nebraska in Evanston, and–most shockingly of all–against Michigan just last weekend. If even two of those three games were won, Northwestern is 10-1 and making plans to play in the Big Ten’s first championship game this year. So an 8-3 record could be as much as 11-0 instead. It’s very hard to see this season as anything other than a disappointment, when viewed through that lens.

But it is what it is. Illinois comes in next week, and while I hope the game is competitive, I would be shocked if it actually was. Then comes the ritual of accepting a bowl invitation, travelling to wherever the game will be, and then losing the game. I won’t ever take being in a bowl game for granted (how could I, when the dark days of the late 80s are considered?), but you play the games to win, after all. That’s really the only way to redeem what has been an agonizing eight-win season. And I really did just type that. Wow.

It was 20 years ago

As the election returns are coming in, I want to share a story about the 1992 election. I had volunteered for the Bill Clinton campaign, and on election night I was at the election night party for Clinton and Carol Moseley Braun. Illinois was still considered a swing state at the time, but it turned out that Clinton carried Illinois by a wide margin. And it hasn’t gone for a Republican candidate since.

As the late Paul Simon introduced Dick Durbin as “the senior senator from Illinois” to a big cheer, and Mosely Braun was introduced as the state’s junior senator to a bigger cheer, the mood in the room was euphoric. And when former Senator Simon proclaimed the end of the Reagan-Bush era, the room positively erupted.

I don’t know this for certain, but I have to believe that an as-yet-unknown Barack Obama was in the room–and perhaps even on the stage–that night. His time would come, beginning at the Democratic convention that nominated John Kerry in 2004. And now, as Obama’s meteoric political career comes to an end tonight, one way or the other, it’s important to know that he did the ground work at the state level first. And Illinois is now as blue as any state in the country.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing

In 1860, there was a four-way presidential election held in America, the likes of which had never been seen before, and will likely never be seen again. The winning candidate–Abraham Lincoln of Illinois–prevailed by getting a majority of the votes in the electoral college. That’s what the Constitution requires, and that’s what he did. But a handful of states couldn’t abide by those rules, so they decided to leave the game and start their own one.

Lincoln had a choice to make, upon taking the oath of office in 1861. He could recognize the doctrine of secession, and let the states go on their way, or he could ignore it and act as though nothing had happened. Lincoln chose the latter course, and in so doing committed the federal government to preserving the Union. The Civil War began, soon after that decision had been made.

The war was waged long and hard, and all states suffered terrible losses before it was over. But it ended with the understanding that states could not decide to leave the Union. The nation we live in today, all 50 states of it, are bound to follow federal laws, including accepting the outcome of presidential elections, whether their candidate wins the election or not.

I’ve lived in Illinois–the Land of Lincoln–all my life, and this has pretty much insulated me from expressions of sympathy for the Confederate cause. I watched the Dukes of Hazzard as a kid, unaware of the meaning of that flag that was painted on top of the General Lee. I’ve seen Confederate flags at flea markets in Wisconsin, which made no sense to me because Wisconsin fought on the Union side during the Civil War. And I’ve seen the flag on items in gift shops in other states.  But Lincoln lost his life preserving the Union, and his martyrdom, I thought, protected his home state against any overt Confederate sympathies.

But this afternoon, in a large shopping mall near the Wisconsin border, these illusions were brought to an end. A store in the mall had a Confederate flag on display, presumably for the purposes of selling it. Although I was stunned at the sight, I was able to snap a picture of it, and it is posted above.

There is a Naval station not terribly far from the mall, and some of the other items offered for sale in the store had Naval terms on them. Apparently, a store catering to military families sees a market for the emblem of a failed attempt to bring the United States down. And that’s just what would have happened, had the Civil War ended with a different result. But thanks to Lincoln’s leadership, the Union was preserved instead.

A person who buys a Confederate flag from this gift shop in a mall in Northern Illinois–or anywhere else where this emblem might be sold–is offering their support for what? The idea that presidential elections can be disregarded by states that don’t like the results? Or the idea that America is a collection of independent states, who can decide for themselves when they’re free to leave the Union? Those ideas have already been tried and, fortunately enough for us all, defeated.

This is a symbol that belongs in the history books, instead of on the sales floor. And yet, America being what it is, it can’t be–and shouldn’t be–just legislated away. That change can only take place in the hearts and minds of Americans who appreciate, and ultimately reject, what the flag really stood for. And until that day comes, the Civil War is still with us in some sense.

I thought I knew the story

As Lincoln’s birthday comes to a close, I feel compelled to comment on the origin of my middle name. I’ve written before that I’m a Junior, and my full name is the same as my father’s. The first and last name, when combined, are very common, but the middle name–Lincoln–really stands out. I use it in my email address, in part to stand out from all the others who share my name, and in part to pay tribute to the man who hasn’t yet ceased to amaze me with the things he wrote and did in his lifetime.

I had always assumed, since my father was born on Lincoln’s birthday, in Lincoln’s hometown, and when his family lived on Lincoln Avenue, that the choice of his middle name had something to do with one or more of those factors. But when I brought this up to him within the past few years, he told me that wasn’t it at all. And the real story is much more meaningful to me, and so I’ll have to share it here.

My father was the fifth child–all of them boys–born to my grandparents. On the day my father was born, sixty-five years ago today, the phone rang at his house. On the line was my father’s great aunt, the sister of my father’s grandfather. She was 80 years old, and she was calling with a request. She wanted to name the baby that had just been born. Her wish was granted, and so she named the baby (my first name) Lincoln (my last name). Little could she have known that she was also naming me, who she never got to meet. But I’m happy it worked out like it did.

So where’s the big interest here? Anybody can choose the name Lincoln for their child if they want to. And this is certainly true. However, my father’s great aunt had a reason for choosing that name. Her father, who gives me my family’s surname, married a woman who was the daughter of one Newton Walker, whose picture I have seen before but wasn’t able to locate online. Probably you have never heard that name before, so I’ll share his backstory here.

Newton Walker was born in Virginia in 1803. I believe it was on a plantation, but I have no way to know  that for certain. He was made a major under the military laws of Virginia, and he came into contact with James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and others from the Revolutionary era. This is referenced in the opening work in Edgar Lee Masters’ “Spoon River Anthology”

Where are Uncle Isaac and Aunt Emily,
And old Towny Kincaid and Sevigne Houghton,
And Major Walker who had talked
With venerable men of the revolution?—
All, all, are sleeping on the hillIn 1835, Major Walker and a traveling party of about three dozen left from Virginia and traveled westward. They crossed the Illinois River in the fall of 1835, and settled the town of Lewistown, Illinois. Major Walker, as everyone called him, designed the courthouse for this new county, and he was elected to the Illinois legislature, where he served as an ally and a mentor to a young and unknown Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln and Major Walker’s relationship was described by Ida Tarbell as mutually beneficial. Lincoln would tell Walker his stories, and Walker would play his fiddle at Lincoln’s request.

Major Walker served a single term in the Illinois legislature, while Lincoln served for another decade until he was elected to Congress in 1846. How often their paths intersected after that isn’t clear, but there is one encounter that has been documented. It happened in 1858, shortly after Lincoln gave his famous “House Divided” speech and was nominated to challenge Stephen A. Douglas for a Senate seat from Illinois.Everyone knows of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates that year, but what most people don’t know was how they came to be. Lincoln made it his practice to show up in a place where Douglas had already spoke, and give his response to what Douglas had said. He did this in Chicago in July of 1858, and again in Lewiston in early August. Douglas accepted Lincoln’s offer for one-on-one debates, in part to get Lincoln to stop following him around the state.

In early August, as the details for the series of debates were taking shape, Lincoln came to Lewistown and delivered a speech on the steps of the courthouse that Major Walker had designed. Lincoln’s speech is referred to as the “Return to the Fountain speech” and it presages what Lincoln would later say in the Gettysburg Address. After the speech was over, Lincoln rode to Major Walker’s house in Lewistown, and he had dinner there with his old friend. The house still stands today in Lewistown, and I’d love to see it one day. To just sense the history in that house would be a remarkable thing.

So if my geneology is correct, Major Walker would have been my great-great-great grandfather. One of his granddaughters named my father and he, in turn, named me. It’s a legacy that I’m very proud to have, and one which I had only learned about after my own children were born and named. I wish I had given Lincoln’s name to one of them, but telling this story is the closest I’ll come to passing it on. It will just have to be enough.

It’s a tribal thing

The first night of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge was yesterday, and the made-for-ESPN event will wrap up this evening. The Big Ten is off to a 4-2 lead so far, and has to win at least two of tonight’s games to claim victory for the season. And a tie goes to the Big Ten, since they’re defending champions from last year, but hopefully it won’t come to that.

When the World Series came around this year, I wanted the Cardinals to win, despite my personal distaste for them, because they were the National league team. By the same token, even though I loathe Michigan, strongly dislike Ohio State, and have a personal antipathy for the blue and orange of Illinois, I wanted them to win their games (and two of the three came through last night, too).  My school held up their end of the bargain, and in the early days of this challenge that usually wasn’t the case.

I give credit to the Big Ten Network for tying the schools together in some meaningful way. They’ve been successful at this because the Big Ten represents the Great Lakes and midwest region of the country, just like the SEC does with the South, and the Big East does with the East coast. The ACC has long fancied itself as the premier basketball conference in the country, so anytime they can be disabused of that notion, it can only be a good thing for the rest of us. And Duke getting blown out? That’s a rare treat.

I’ll be back tomorrow to wrap up tonight’s games. But in the meantime, Go Big Ten!

Hopefully he’ll sit today

At the start of this college football season, Northwestern put up billboards touting Dan Persa as a Heisman trophy candidate. The problem was that he was still rehabbing from an Achilles injury that ended his season–and Northwestern’s as well–against Iowa last year.

I was literally hanging on every play listening to that game in the car, and the joy that I felt when they came all the way back in the 4th quarter didn’t even last a minute, since Persa went down when the play was over. And the final games of the season, when he couldn’t play, were just an embarrassment. But that was last year.

For this season, Northwestern’s athletic department coined the word PersaStrong, and sent out packages to media figures with dumbells bearing Northwestern’s colors and Persa’s #7. Everything looked to be a go for his longshot candidacy to challenge Stanford’s Andrew Luck, who everyone has all but given the trophy to at this point.

But Persa’s rehab hadn’t gone as well as everyone would like, and he was scratched from both the Boston College and Eastern Illinois games in the first two weeks of the season. Kickoff for today’s game against Army is still at least an hour away, and I don’t know if Persa will be in the lineup today. I actually hope he isn’t, for two reasons:

First off, the team has seen Kain Coulter emerge as the kind of a credible backup QB that Northwestern did not have last year. His time will come next year after Persa’s time is up, but it certainly can’t hurt to let Persa continue to heal for one more week, with a bye week coming up next Saturday. This would give Persa two full weeks to heal before  the Big Ten season begins two weeks from today.

The second reason is that non-conference games just don’t mean the same as conference games do. Army doesn’t have a conference, so they have to get up for every game the best that they can. But Illinois, Michigan, Penn State, and others are the opponents I really care about, not Army. The Wildcats can win today’s game or lose it, but the season really begins with the Illinois game on October 1.

The Heisman isn’t going to Dan Persa this year, but I hope he didn’t choose Northwestern to boost his Heisman chances. He would be the first one to ever do this, if that’s the case. A week off is actually two weeks to continue healing, and I’m more than willing to wait that long to see him in the huddle. My hope is that coach Pat Fitzgerald feels the same way.

Go Cats!