Heartland, homeland

Mar 13, 2005

In case you didn’t know this about me, I’m addicted to chocolate and magazines, and in the extra moments of each day, I reach for a bite of chocolate or an article not yet read. At some point today, on one of the many in-and-out trips as I did yard work while constantly looking for tissues to wipe Anna’s and Malia’s noses, I picked up the March 14th issue of the New Yorker and flipped to Lost Son, an essay by Calvin Trillin about First Lieutenant Brian Slavenas. Slavenas was from DeKalb, Illinois, and was a high school classmate of my brother, Joel.

Trillin’s essay is excellent, not because he features DeKalb (where I spent my high school years, detassled corn and weeded soybean fields, was Corn Fest king and homecoming king and student body president and varsity soccer captain, and played horrible golf with my loving grandparents), but because he writes with his emotions on his sleeve, explaining why the death of Slavenas – in a helicopter crash in Iraq in November, 2003 – speaks to him as a parent and grandfather, as an Iraq war opposer and as a Midwesterner. The essay isn’t available through the magazine’s website (the link above is to an interview with Trillin about his essay), but here’s a paragraph I found especially insightful about what my homeland is and has become:

DeKalb County is a perfect rectangle of a county an hour or so west of Chicago. Parts of it—the patch north of Genoa, for instance—look like the sort of flat Illinois farmland that couldn’t have changed much in decades; the farmhouses resemble the picture that springs to my mind when I hear someone who’s from the rural Midwest talk about “the home place.” Genoa (pronounced Jun-NO-ah) is a town of four thousand where the main street is called Main Street and the newspaper is delivered by a boy on a bicycle. To the south, though, an occasional subdivision sits on former cornfields; DeKalb, a city of forty thousand people about fifteen miles from Genoa, has not only subdivisions but a strip of box stores and franchises that would make an urban planner of any sensitiviy weak at the knees.

And this paragraph about Slavenas was full of truth:

Modesty may be particularly becoming in the person of someone who could win benchpress tournaments and play Chopin and fly a helicopter and co-write a thesis called “An Economic Analysis of Combination Vaccines.” I grew up one state away from where Brian Slavenas grew up, and, as I spoke to his friends and family about all he’d accomplished in his short life, I could almost hear him mumbling what I’ve always treasured as the Code of the Midwest—“No big deal.”

Anton Zuiker

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