Bicycle excursions, usually to the west of town on Flagg Road, were a major entertainment in the summer among the little gang I ran with. Some number of us would suddenly decide to flee town. We would start at the little store at 10th Avenue, which U.S. 51 bent sharply to avoid, to purchase a can of beef stew and perhaps some sort of candy before setting out on the hike.
We sometimes rode up U.S. 51, but that usually seemed unnecessarily dangerous. On the west side of town, a canner road, really just a dirt track for tractors and trucks, passed through the corn field north of Lawnridge Cemetery and carried us to Flagg Road, not far north of town. There we turned west and, hugging the shoulder when traffic appeared, pedaled to our next stop. The little store in Flagg Center was just a block or so beyond the railroad tracks, on the southeast corner of Flagg Road and Center Road. Flagg Center, at the center of Flagg Township, was a tiny community. It seemed to consist entirely of a few houses, the railroad tracks, a few buildings for the railroad, and the little store. For us this community was the source of a bottle of pop before we began our trip in earnest.
The goal of these hikes varied. Sometimes it was a farm inhabited by someone’s relative; sometimes it was less specific, simply a ride; but most often it was Skare’s Woods. Norm Skare (pronounced “scary”) grew fruit and vegetables on a farm on Flagg Road nearly to Chana Road. Instead of hiring pickers, or perhaps in addition to hiring pickers, he let people come and pick their own fruits and vegetables, then pay by the quantity they took. Sometimes my mother would take me out there to pick strawberries or asparagus. But the farm wasn’t our destination on those bike rides; our destination was Skare’s Woods.
The western boundary of the Skare farm was Kyte River, The Crick, wending its way from Rochelle to the Rock River, and a portion of the farm consisted of a steep, wooded bank above it. The bank was allowed to be wild woods, probably because it would have been too difficult to farm, but it was a magical place for kids. If Mr. Skare knew that we played there he didn’t seem to mind. There were small trees, brambles, and grape vines hanging from on high. Anyone who has seen a wilderness would think this place merely a neglected place, but to us it was wilderness enough.
The Crick was not very deep here, and sand or mud bars often made it even more shallow. It was a place for wading but not really for swimming — the deepest part couldn’t have been as much as three feet most of the time. The Crick was not entirely a wild place here, either, since the field to the west included a small flood plain, allowing the water to spread out rather then racing. But that didn’t prevent us from becoming pirates, Tarzan, savages, explorers, whatever came to mind, with inspiration flowing freely from The Crick and the Woods and whatever movie we had seen most recently at the free show. At some point we would clear a space for a small fire and heat our can of stew, if we had taken the time to buy one. We were a bit wild and free for a little while, and would be safely home by evening.
On one bright summer day Dave and I decided to ride to Skare’s Woods. As we rode out on our bicycles we encountered Al. Al was dressed in “good clothes”, not our usual childhood uniform of blue jeans and white tee-shirt, because he and his mother were to visit friends or family later that day. But since Dave and I were intent on having fun that afternoon we couldn’t see why Al shouldn’t join us as well. Al explained that he needed to stay clean and that he needed to be home by a certain time, but Dave and I were persistent. “There’s no reason you can’t stay clean at the Woods, and we can be sure that you will be home on time.” Bold words, amazing confidence, the foolhardiness of youth, and sufficiently persuasive.
When we three got to the Woods we made a wonderful discovery. Someone had built a raft and left it on the low shore on the west side. Naturally we had to get it. Dave and I told Al to stay on the shore while we waded across and launched the raft, then we picked Al up from the east side. We merrily floated, pushing the raft back and forth. We promptly turned into pirates, or perhaps explorers on the Amazon, and The Crick was a raging river or the bounding main. Then suddenly the raft hit the mud bar. We all staggered, danced gracelessly about to regain balance, and Al fell into the deepest part of The Crick.
I felt truly guilty for talking Al into joining us, as he rode off in his soggy, muddy clothes toward town and certain doom. I don’t know if he, or I, would have felt any better about the incident if Dave and I had also fallen into the water. But I console myself with the thought that it was really his mother’s fault. She put him into good clothes much too early.