Day 37. WI/IL/IN: underpants, Reagan lore, Amish country, shouty housewives, ass-wipes

by Kevin May

CNN was still on when I woke in the morning. It didn’t look like the news had changed much while I’d been asleep.

It also looked like my laundry hadn’t dried much either. With a miscellany of damp T-shirts, boxers and socks strewn across the back seat and parcel-shelf, I set off for Illinois.

I took the Blue Star Highway, a tribute to the US Armed Forces who had defended the United States of America, to Galena where U S Grant had once lived. This highway could have been a road in Wiltshire. It swept through rolling hills of green fields and trees, with neither the mind-numbing straightness nor the testing twists that had broadly been the alternatives so far.

The next town was Hanover, which to all intents and purposes had two streets (or perhaps just one arranged in an “L” shape, depending on how you looked at it). This wasn’t enough to prevent them proudly claiming the lofty title of being “The Mallard Capital of the World”.

More rolling countryside led to Dixon, where my guidebook assured me I could find the boyhood home of one Ronald Wilson Reagan. I hadn’t intended to hang around long, but there was a sign inviting people in for a free guided-tour.

Three other cars were in the lot, each with a bumper sticker voicing approval of the former President: “I [heart] Ronald Reagan”, “Ron’s the best”, and “God bless Ronald Reagan”. I parked my car, with its South Carolina plates and arrangement of undies on show through the rear window, alongside. It would make an interesting photo for someone.

I walked through the door into a lobby area, where an elderly couple and a young child were milling about. An old biddy stepped forward to greet me. She was wearing a badge sewn onto her shirt that informed the world that she was a “Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home Tour Guide Volunteer”.

After a couple of minutes, the guide announced that the tour was about to commence. We all took one pace to the right and stood facing a quilt that hung on the wall. On it had been embroidered six pictures depicting key stages in Reagan’s life.

The guide painstakingly explained the details of each as we stood there motionless for twenty minutes. I was interested in the waves and the tree, which represented Ron’s time as a lifeguard on the River Rock. He saved 77 lives in his time.

Or so he said. He used to carve a notch in the tree each time he performed another heroism, so I guess the count had to be irrefutable. He sounded like the type of guy that would have been really popular around town.

I commented that it seemed like a high number. With a wink, the guide told me there was a theory that, because Ron was such a heart-throb, some of the local girls would deliberately get into trouble (in the water) so they could be saved by him.

With the quilt lecture over, we moved through to the adjoining room where the process began again with various framed photographs being explained in laborious detail. The stories were identical to the ones that we had heard in the previous room.

After another half an hour, we were ushered into the next room where seats were lined up facing a TV screen with a U-matic. The lights were dimmed, and a twenty-minute video reiterated the same stories a third time just in case they hadn’t sunk in yet.

I was itching to leave, but there had been no real opportunity. I hadn’t banked on it taking so long. The lights came up and the guide announced that we would now be welcome to go next door to see the house.

We weren’t even in his boyhood home! We’d spent an hour of eulogy in triplicate in the house next door! The others were keen Ron fans, so I rushed ahead to have a quick look around. It seemed silly to have wasted all that time and not even seen the house. Another volunteer biddy greeted me as I arrived, but we had to “wait for the others”.

Ten minutes later we began our plod around the actual home. During this second phase, a few important facts came to light. Since his time living there, the house had become dilapidated. After he had become President, a trust fund had been set up to renovate the property. It had been gutted and built again exactly as it had been. None of the furniture was original, although the Reagans had been sent catalogues from the era and had picked out what they could remember. Not all the furniture was modern reproduction. They had one rocking chair from a friend’s house that Ron used to go around and sit on sometimes.

It also transpired that Ron had not been born in Dixon. He had lived there for three years, between the formative years of 14 and 17. He’d come back twice since the house had been renovated, once as President in 1984 and once again in 1990. He’d even taken a meal in the dining room.

Or at least that was the story told by the volunteer guide. I picked up a leaflet as I was leaving. From this, not only did I learn that “only three weeks after moving here, Ronald and [his brother] Neil both took out library cards” but also that he had moved to this house at the age of nine. It confirmed that he only lived in this property for three years, but that the Reagans had had four other houses in Dixon. And that he’d grown up to be King of Brazil.

It was now about 12.30. I had planned to be away by eleven with a view to having lunch in Chicago. It needed to be full steam ahead along East-West Tollway to the Windy City.

Unfortunately, despite paying my 70 cents for what I assumed would be a fast road, a combination of roadworks and heavy traffic exacerbated my delay. The absurdity of trying to see a city such as Chicago in a couple of hours had not really dawned on me until I got there. It should have been obvious, but I had naively thought that a Sicilian lunch in Cicero (Al Capone’s old stomping ground) followed by a drive through the skyscrapers of downtown would do the trick.

It might well have done, but it wasn’t much of a plan if you arrived in Cicero at 3.30. I parked precariously outside Cicero Post Office, unsure whether my chosen spot was safe from the twin dangers of thieves or meter maids. Inside the pleasure of a twenty-minute queue lay in store.

While I was waiting I witnessed some fantastically rude customer behaviour. These people subscribed to the “if you don’t like what you’re told, then shout obscenities back really loudly” school of thought. When it came to my turn, the woman seemed taken aback at my politeness. She told me that it would be best to get out of Cicero as quickly as possible and go downtown, which was both much more interesting and safe.

With the looming skyscrapers came a depressed feeling. This was pointless. I couldn’t park and had no time to do anything here. I took a photograph of the Sears Tower and decided to come back another day when I had a sensible amount of time. Like two weeks. At least I could be thankful that I had broadly stuck to small towns on this trip. The big cities were just not amenable to speed tourism.

I had booked myself a room in an Amish village in Indiana. The directions I had been given were excellent, and I was soon approaching Shipshewana. With the hour added on after passing into Eastern Time, it was 8.40 pm.

My headlights reflected off a red triangle up ahead in the darkness. It appeared to be oscillating. As I drew near I could make out a square silhouette. I’d come across my first horse-drawn buggy.

The inn was run by Anna, who came originally from Austria. She was a strapping woman with soft edges and a kindly smile. When I mentioned food, she looked at her watch and told me that I’d have to hurry as the restaurant nearby closed in fifteen minutes.

The place to which she was referring was an Amish restaurant, with an appended gift shop selling hand-made crafts. All of the waiting staff were dressed like something out of Witness.

I wasn’t sure whether this was a gimmicky uniform or whether they were all for real. The dining area was large and felt more like a refectory than a restaurant. Although it was newly built of some sort of light-colored wood, it had a huge angular vaulted ceiling. The furniture was all very solid stuff and made of the same wood.

The place was brightly lit and also packed. I was squeezed in to a table near the middle of the room and handed a menu. It didn’t take long for me to decide that I wanted to try the Amish Sampler, a plate with a variety of good wholesome Amish fare including ham, beef and chicken.

My waitress seemed to have disappeared, although dozens of other uniforms were swarming about. They were all around the late-teenage bracket and were all girls. I might have assumed that they were for real if it weren’t for the high tech nature of the operation. I’d already noticed the cash register area, which was more like the reception at a five star hotel with computer terminals instead of tills.

Two or three slightly older girls stood at starship command near the head of the room, brandishing an assortment of mobile phones and walkie-talkies. And all of the waitresses had pagers clipped to their waistbands. What was more, some of these girls were wearing clumsily applied make-up, the Jezebels. It was obviously just a theme restaurant.

Most of the diners looked like civilians, but some Amish were lurking in the lobby. They really did look the part. And all the men appeared to be chewing matchsticks, which hung out of the corners of their mouths, and had full on beards and pudding-bowl haircuts.

I had a quick look in the gift shop. It was mainly wooden artefacts and books, including one called Living without Electricity, which seemed a bit incongruous given the environment.

It was a non-smoking establishment and I figured the inn would be too, so I had a cigarette in the car park before returning. It was bizarre. There was no noise of conventional traffic, just the clip-clopping of horses’ hooves approaching and receding. The buggies were all out in force.

Relative mayhem had broken out when I returned to the inn. “Inn” was a rather grandiose word for it; it was really just a big family home. I was greeted by Anna, who looked embarrassed and apologetic.

Screeching and jabbering from the lounge filled the air. I assumed that she had friends or relatives over, but it turned out that they were other guests, a party of housewives down from Michigan. It was their annual girls’ weekend away, which always preceded the start of the hunting season after which their husbands would all be gone every weekend for about six months.

Anna assumed that I would like some peace and quiet. I had told her briefly about what I was doing and she seemed to accord some VIP status to it. She appealed for hush and announced to the room that I was an author over from England and was researching an important work.

The implication was that people should calm down because I would probably not want to be disturbed, but the announcement had the opposite effect. The women screamed like teenagers seeing David Cassidy walk into the room. They begged me to come and join them. I didn’t need asking twice.

About half a dozen made up the Michigan contingent but other guests had already joined the party: a mother and daughter from Indiana and a couple who lived in Indianapolis. Anna was serving iced tea but you would have guessed that the rabble had been feasting on Champagne all afternoon.

It was riotous. I listened for a while, and talked below the din with a woman called LuAnn who was sat on my right. I also had a chat with a teacher called Mrs Culver, whose face had been decorated like a Christmas tree. It looked like someone had painted on it. She had the letters LHS in glitter on her cheek and the end of her nose was blue, as if she’d been chalked up for a game of billiards.

The Michigan women came from a town called Fraser, which they loved. They wanted to know where I would be going in Michigan and I answered that I didn’t know yet. Michigan was the most unplanned of my states and the only thing I knew was that I wanted to avoid Detroit because it was the only place I’d been to previously in the USA that I thought was a complete shithole. I didn’t appreciate when I said this that Fraser was a suburb of Detroit, but they accepted my immediate apology with good grace.

Everyone had something to say about where I should go and what I should see. The lower peninsular of Michigan is shaped like a mitten, and soon the whole room were holding up their right hands and pointing to “places” on their palms.

They also wanted to know what I thought of the USA, and I held court for a while with stories of my adventure to date. I asked the assembly whether every American place had to have a superlative claim, and whether best/biggest/most in the world actually meant that or did it just mean there wasn’t anything like it within the known vicinity.

They laughed and laughed. They seemed to think that it was one of the most incisive observations that had ever been made about their country.

They asked me what it was like in the UK, and whether all the Brits hated the Americans too. They wanted to know whether the UK would be a friendly place to go for an American.

The woman from Indianapolis was concerned about the Queen, because she was quite old and likely to die soon. She wanted to know what we would do then. Would there be another queen or would Prime Minister Blair take over?

I explained the function of the monarchy, and she was surprised to learn that British laws were passed by an elected parliament and not on the whim of the Crown. When I pointed out how succession worked and that Charles and William were lined up to follow the Queen, she was quite dismissive. “Well, that’s not going to work, is it?”

Anna joined us and I asked her about the Amish. She said that a number of her neighbours were Amish. She reckoned that the restaurant staff were all bona fide. The aversion to electricity only applied to their homes. It was OK to have it in the workplace.

The make-up meant that the girls were aged 16-18, the period when they are allowed to try the “other way”. The Amish bring children up to follow their strict code until 16 and then they are allowed to experiment with modern living for two years before deciding whether to go back. Make-up was part and parcel of this deal.

It seemed surprisingly enlightened. You couldn’t imagine the Catholic Church giving everyone a free spin at abortion, contraception and adultery to see if they liked it.

The women wanted to know whether I had been to a garage sale yet. They claimed that they bought all their clothes from garage sales, basically off one another. Mrs Culver tugged at her lapel and announced that she’d bought that shirt for a dollar at one of LuAnn’s garage sales.

It struck me that somewhere along the chain, clothes had to be introduced from outside or else everything would just go round and round, but I let the point lie. The woman from Indianapolis confirmed that she generally did the same, but announced that today she had bought a present for herself from a real shop. She was decked out from top to toe in Tommy Hilfiger gear, as a reward to herself for losing 56 pounds in the last eight weeks. I thought that everyone was going to applaud.

I turned to Mrs Culver. I just had to ask. What was all that stuff on her face, or did she usually go out like that? She laughed and explained that her kids at school had done it. They knew she was going away for the weekend and so she had let them daub colours all over her face.

I tried to think of a teacher from my high school who would have agreed to such treatment, but drew a blank. The LHS stood for Lakeview High School. My watch told me that it was almost 1.30 am, which seemed quite late to be gabbling on.

I asked them whether they usually stayed up to this time, and one of them looked at their wrist and exclaimed that it was twenty-five after midnight. I queried this. Wasn’t this part of Indiana on Eastern Time?

Indianapolis woman confirmed that it was, but that Indiana didn’t participate in daylight saving and so never changed its clocks. For the time being it was in synch with Illinois instead of Michigan, although she became irked again when I described it as being on Central Time. “No, we’re on Eastern, it’s just that we don’t change our clocks.”

Whatever, it was time to turn in, and the Michigan housewives had to go across the yard to the barn where they were sleeping. They warned me that there were another dozen girls over there, and that I’d be able to meet them all at breakfast.

Indianapolis woman went out onto the deck for a cigarette, and I was delighted to join her. Her husband came out too and we exchanged frivolous small talk.

We were just about to go in, when he sidled over and enquired whether he could ask me a question. He was shifting from foot to foot, as if something were really bothering him. As he prefixed his question with “This is probably a dumbass thing to ask but…”, I braced myself.

“You know over there in Europe like? You know, where you come from?”

I nodded. So far so good.

“Well, I’ve been meaning to ask. What I mean is, I’ve never had the chance to ask a European face to face…”

For goodness sake, spit it out man.

“Seeing as you’re here, I just wanted to know…”

Yes. Get on with it.

“Do you have, you know, toilet paper in Europe? Or do you use your hand?”