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Crossing the Mississippi

End of the Semester

For sixteen weeks, I focused on my academics, and by “focused,” I mean mostly focused on my academics.  The second half of freshmen year, quite possibly the most worthless of my college studies, became an exercise in minimalism: what was the absolute least I could possibly do to get fifteen more credits under my belt?  Of course, I sometimes missed class for unusual circumstances, like it was snowing, or it was Tuesday.  Three of my classes met just once a week.  My strongest effort for the duration, an entire term paper in one week, happened to be completed during spring break, and then I just hung on to it until the semester ended.  And on top of everything else, I saved money by not buying any text books.  The semester ended when my father drove the three hours to the campus to pick me up.  I had a mega-fun summer job lined up in a sunny, warm climate, and I was delighted to put the monotonous semester behind me.

Parents can be tedious (I know, I am one) so taking the time to stop at the Decatur Public Library on the way home from college to do research sounds like the continuation of my academic nightmare that I thought had passed.  Yes, after sixteen repetitively dull weeks, I had the privilege of beginning my summer in a library in Central Illinois with my father researching a distant grandfather in the Army of the Republic and his regional regiments.  And as an added bonus, we routed through a small town near the heart of the Land of Lincoln – a town with a coincidentally identical last name to ours – to check on any connection to that same relative who may have marched through Atlanta with Sherman.  Welcome to summer break.

When History Wakes Up

As we decelerate to the posted, ridiculously low speed limit, we pass the miniature community church bearing the town’s name.  (For months thereafter, my father jokes that he started his own religion.)  But the dearth of residents slows our progress in learning more about the history of the town, so when we spy an elderly gentleman tending to his garden, we pull into his dirt driveway.  And like most small towns, the man warmly welcomes us to his little hamlet.  Within moments, he erases any possible notion that the town’s founders have a connection to our ancestors.

But then he shares a story about his family’s history in the region.  As a small boy he recalls his grandparents describing their journey crossing the nearby Mississippi River with their wagons, horses and livestock.  As he describes their passage through waist-high water, I think of the current breadth of the dammed Mighty Mississip, making a comparable modern-day voyage completely impossible.  Considering this storyteller dates back two generations, and his river-crossing family members two more generations beyond that, his story nears the middle of the 1800s, the Civil War, and the very timeframe of my ancestors, which my father and I searched for in the library.  And in this simple recollection of an old man, for the first time, history wakes up, leaps to life, and sparks an entirely new academic interest for me.  If only college proved as interesting as this senior citizen in dirty overalls.
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About Pam Portland

For a decade and a half I worked behind a series of desks, peeking out from around my computer monitor. Seeing the United States in bits and pieces wasn't enough to satisfy me, so I am grabbing my virtual pen and taking flight. Welcome along!

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