Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Growing up in Wildwood

Burnidge Forest Preserve once was a largely grassy pastureland that was the playground upon which my neighbors and I played. | Ted Schnell

Former neighbor's death  recalls a great place to grow up, a remarkable legacy 

The legacy you leave behind is reflected, I think, in the quality of the people who loved you, knew you, respected you.

I write this not as I look back on my own life per se, although I find myself doing that a fair amount these days. I am at an age when men often do look back. I weight my failings against my accomplishment, all the while wondering such things as:
  • Have I changed the world as I once imagined I could?
  • What kind of legacy will I leave?
  • In a hundred years, will the way I lived, loved, worked, and believed have any relevance to anyone?

Ultimately, I suppose, it boils down to, “Will I have made a difference?”

I ponder these things once again just a day after attending a wake on Tuesday afternoon, May 27, 2014, for Phyllis O’Rourke, a St. Charles woman and former longtime Elgin resident.
Mrs. O’Rourke attended high school with my Dad, and eventually married a guy name Jim who I always remember as a friendly but sometimes gruff man whose laugh was loud and could spread as swiftly as the brush fires he occasionally started in the spring. The laughter was intentional, the brush fires were not.

Like my folks, the O’Rourkes had six kids and built a home in Wildwood Valley, a subdivision east of Coombs Road, west of Elgin. My folks built a home there a little later, and our families became quite close.

In recent weeks, I have thought a lot about growing up with the O’Rourkes. Memories come flooding back every time I go traipsing about Burnidge and Paul Wolff Forest Preserves, where I go fairly often to photograph wildlife, wildflowers and other things that strike me.

You see, those preserves were once a vast playground for the O’Rourke and Schnell kids, and a host of other children whose families built homes in and around Wildwood. Then, the eastern portion of Burnidge largely was pastureland for black Angus cows.

The fields were oceans of rich green grass that, on windy days, rippled on the rolling hills like waves on a lake. They were the grass- and brush-covered palettes for the fertile imaginings of children growing up in a better world — or perhaps in a more sheltered world. On a sunny summer day, our parents could chase us out of our houses at 9 or so and not see us until dinnertime. They never paused to worry about our safety.

While Wildwood Valley’s 2-acre lake doubled as our fishing hole and swimming hole, the ponds and the woodlands of Burnidge were truly our playgrounds. The ponds were treasure troves of frog and salamander tadpoles, leopard and pickerel frogs, toads that started peeing the moment you picked them up, freshwater shrimp and crayfish, and bullfrogs large enough to cover most of a dinner plate.

In fact, Mr. O’Rourke paid us 50 cents for each bullfrog we would catch in the subdivision’s lake — the bounty was conditional, however, requiring that we take each frog back to one of the three ponds in those fields east of our homes. The O’Rourke’s home was located at the thin end of Wildwood’s lake, near a small stone dam, where the behemoths often sat and did what bullfrogs do — eat bugs, small snakes and other things, as well as belt out their loud, deep croaks, sometimes for hours on end. Behind their home — and behind ours, which was two doors to the north — were the pasturelands that would become Burnidge Forest Preserve.

The 50-cent bounty, we learned, was Mr. O’Rourke’s attempt to ensure he could sleep at night during the summers. So, after showing him our catch and receiving our due, we would march into the fields to release these big frogs.

Some years later, it occurred to me, two of those ponds often dried up toward the end of summer, when the population of bullfrogs in Wildwood’s lake would explode. I now suspect the frogs we caught earlier actually returned as the ponds subsided, and I wonder if Mr. O’Rourke ever suspected as much at the time.

Those were some of the best years of my life. Kevin O’Rourke, a year older than me, was my first best friend. We would climb into the low-hanging branches of an old oak in his backyard, where we would dream about one day becoming forest rangers with eagles, bears and mountain lions as our pets. No dream was out of reach, no obstacle impossible to overcome.

We looked up to Kevin’s older brothers, Tom and Jim, as well as to the Miller boys.

Tom was the adventurer and climber of tall trees. Jim was more quiet and studious, with an early interest in science, which always impressed me. Of course, he went on to become a doctor.

These older teenagers already were nearly “grownups” in our young eyes. They seemed fearless when all the neighborhood kids would join for games of “Ditch ‘Em” and other variations of hide-and-seek or tag.

Kevin’s older sister, Maureen, turned the heads and broke the hearts of every pre-teen and teenage boy in the neighborhood without even being aware of it. That was a different time, too, when a boy’s crush was framed by an innocence that envisioned simply holding hands, a first kiss, and a happily ever after.

Mike is Kevin’s younger brother and two years my junior. While he more frequently hung out with my younger brother Bill, Mike also palling around from time to time with Kevin and me. One winter, after Kevin headed off to college, Mike hiked out with me a couple of miles through deep snow to dig out the car I’d had to abandon the night before after sliding into a ditch during heavy snow.

The youngest of the O’Rourke siblings is Sharon, who is the same age as my sister Barbara, the youngest of our brood. One of my favorite memories of the two — I call it the Cul-de-sac Goldfish Calamity — came one summer a day after they returned from a church ice cream social, where each had won a pet goldfish.

The demise of the innocent fish came to light the next afternoon, I think, when Mom happened to look out a front window to see Sharon and Barb sitting on a big boulder in the cul-de-sac in front of our homes. The girls appeared to be talking to their clenched hands.

Mom went out to look into this curiosity, where she learned the girls were indeed not talking into their hands, but were talking to their now-dead goldfish, which they held in their tiny little hands as they told them how cute and special they were and other sweet nothings that children often tell their pets.

Sharon and Barb were not old enough to understand that fish need water to breathe, and so out of their gentlest love and appreciation was borne the tragic and untimely demise of two small bejeweled pets.

These are but bits and pieces of a larger, much more complicated tapestry weaving together the lives of 16 people in just two of the families in Wildwood Valley. Many other kids and their parents also played big parts in weaving that tapestry.

But my recent hikes through Burnidge stirred deep memories of my childhood. The wake for Phyllis, and that her son Kevin was, as he put it while introducing me to some others as “my original friend,” refocused my attention on our two families, the joys and struggles we shared growing up in one of the best places we could have ever imagined.

Mrs. O’Rourke and Mom often seemed to be the neighborhood counselors for some of the kids, in addition to being wonderful moms to their own, rather large broods. I believe the priests often referred to the O’Rourkes and the Schnells as “good (meaning large, as well as well-behaved) Catholic families.”

I look on these “children” I grew up with and marvel at the memories we share of a youth enmeshed in a wonderful rural landscape, where freedom was as wide as our imaginations, and our imaginations knew no bounds.

We’re all adults now, in body if not in in mind, and many of us have our own children. As adults, we now bear scars from personal tragedies, hurts from wounds that are unimaginable, not to mention the inevitable loss of the innocence we once held. Yet, I believe that each of us wants the same innocence, the same sense of freedom we once held for the generation we’re raising, and for the one that follows. At the same time, as our parents have done before us, we fear the consequences our children and grandchildren will face in a world that seems to be growing increasingly corrupt and perverse.

And, while I look back at this period through the eyes of nostalgia, which depending on your temperament and experiences casts the past either as evil, hard times, or as blissful, perfect times, I recognize there were issues that from time to time rocked our worlds.

But that in no way diminishes that we grew up in a great location, surrounded by some truly wonderful people. That is the kind of legacy that Mrs. O’Rourke and her husband helped to build for their children; it is the same kind of legacy my parents tried to build for us.

Mrs. O’Rourke left children and grandchildren who loved her dearly and who will miss her. She had friends and family who loved and respected her. These people are the kinds who work within their own spheres of influence to improve the world. Theirs is a family who had a place in changing mine.

All told, in my view, that’s a heck of a legacy.