Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Wildwood Revisited: We've Changed Along with Our Fields of Dreams

A white-tail deer pauses beneath a willow tree that stands in a pasture area that once was home to a large pond in Burnidge Forest Preserve, west of Elgin, Illinois, on Thursday, July 3, 2014. | Credit: Ted Schnell

Childhood friends reunite after nearly four decades

The 1989 film Field of Dreams starred Kevin Costner as an Iowa farmer who follows the mantra, “If you build it, he will come,” building a baseball field amid his crop of corn, ultimately to recapture a piece of his childhood with his father.

Twenty-five years after that film’s release, three friends returned to their fields of dreams — the former pastures and farmland now known as Burnidge Forest Preserve, west of Elgin, Illinois. We had no need to build anything, for the fields in which we played and formulated our dreams for the future are still there.

Granted, things have changed. Thick brush and small woods of 30- to 40-year-old oaks, shagbark hickory and myriad other trees now cover the slopes of gentle hillsides once covered with waist-high grass that rolled like waves on a breezy day.

That same growth now obscures the once-open vistas that allowed us, as children, to step out onto the deck of my parents’ former home on Brindlewood Lane in Wildwood Valley, from which on a clear day we could see the John Hancock Building, some 35 miles away. In fact, twice a year — once in the spring and again in late summer or early fall — the rays of the setting sun would reflect off that Chicago skyscraper and stand on the horizon like a distant torch. Our first glimpse of that phenomenon had us believing there was a big fire in Elgin.

So the three of us — Kevin O’Rourke, Ed Sieracki and I — reunited on July 3, 2014, to revisit our old stomping grounds, where we had played as kids in the late 1960s through mid-1970s while growing up in Wildwood Valley.

Despite the changes, much of the area remains recognizable to us, even if the remnants of old forts, a ball field and sledding hills no longer are clearly visible. Long gone is an abandoned hay wagon, where we sometimes ate lunch during our hikes, for example. But, the trail that passes by the spot — in fact, the main north-south trail along the western edge of the preserve — still follows nearly the same path originally created by the black Angus cattle that once grazed those fields.

Along one trail, near an old spring once used to water those cattle, is a pair of trees enveloped in deep brush. One of the trees bears a large scar in its bark, where we, as children, once carved the first initial of each of our names — K, E and T, although not necessarily in that order. Our handiwork no longer is visible, long ago covered over as the tree’s bark grew back over the bare patch. Also gone is the lean-to, of sorts, we had built there as a primitive shelter. The fallen branches and logs rotted away long ago, although a trench we had tried to dig — a rock under the ground there that probably was bigger than we were, thwarted us — remains, although time and erosion have filled it nearly completely.

Each step we took jarred loose a memory, which we discussed, sometimes in detail, as we revisited past jaunts, old adventures. We talked about times that, through the eyes of middle-aged men who perhaps have grown a little jaded by the sorrows and burdens we’ve accumulated over the years, somehow seemed better, purer, cleaner.

We recognize that nostalgia looks back at the past through rose-colored glasses, often choosing to overlook the tragedies even the young experience. Even so, some things were better — things that are hard to ignore in a world that seems to grow increasing uncaring and too often violent.

We did not worry about things like rapists and pedophiles, street gangs, shootouts. Bullying occurred too often, yet far less frequently, I think, than today.

Then, we would leave our homes early in the morning and seldom returned until dinnertime, whether we were simply playing within the subdivision borders or were making our frequent hikes, crossing field after field or following the railroad track en route to Tyler Creek, just a little south of Camp Big Timber, at Big Timber and Tyrrell roads.

They were genuinely good times. We ran wild through the hills and valleys, never worrying for a minute about what we might encounter, although today, as we look back, we’re fairly certain our parents would have been mortified at some of the risks we took. But we were “indestructible” children for whom these simply were grand adventures.

The landscape indeed has changed over the years. Just as there is more brush and trees cover the landscape, we too have changed. Crow’s feet accent our still bright eyes, and the worries and cares of more than five decades line our faces. Gray has begun to take over as the dominant color of what hair we have left.

But while we walk together in these fields of our dreams, we can almost be boys again, perhaps in part as we relive those precious years, but also as we renew old friendships that had been sundered by circumstance for far too long.

We shall do this again, soon, and create new memories as we go.