The heartland's harvest of change

You don't have to have a calendar or raise your gaze very much above ground level to know the season as you move across central Illinois. The land is a tabletop of green and black. Soft green from the miles of ankle-high corn seedlings and dead-of-night black from the powerful soil soon to be the bed for soybeans.

The days before Memorial Day are at the tail end of a span where the farmer does an annual dance with nature, betting that his instincts and the knowledge he can glean from others can make those fields solid green and bulging by the Fourth of July. It is a process that does not change.

This small-town boy, now much older, holds firmly to such constants, for such a visit is, mostly, a checklist of change:

Sometimes it's good. There's a new restaurant, one where you canget a drink with excellent food. Younger people are moving in, and some who left long ago have come back to active retirement.

Sometimes it's bad. Nobody cared enough to fight for the town's old railroad depot, once a place of wonder and excitement for all, and the railway company just bulldozed it away.

Sometimes it's mixed. The uphill struggle goes on to revitalize the town square that long ago lost its commercial focus to a strip along the state highway on the edge of town long ago. Stores have come, stores have gone. But the square has a healthier look. A center aimed at giving young folks something to do has opened. A bluegrass and food festival drew pretty good crowds last week.

Sometimes it's a culture change that has closed pretty firmly around towns of all sizes. Long accustomed to the sight of tow-headed farm boys in urban, hip-hop-style basketball pants, the senses are a bit taken aback at the sight of a platoon of cheerleaders with hair done unerringly alike in the "anchor helmet" style of TV women. The visitor who allows to their coach that he does not see a single curly-haired or pony-tailedgirl among the dozen or so, is told with a smile, "No, and you never will."

Out on the highway, as you head to the little town, there are sounds saying that the culture change is on a continuing, relentless march. Rare now are those rural radio stations that delivered the morning hospital and death rundowns, the "swap shops" and agriculture market reports. The power stations from cities push Midwestern versions of shock-jock shows, with leering men and women who can be one of the boys, and they seem to smother the horizon.

Startling to the ear also is the first hearing of a new country music song, not played yet on my city's leading country station, that is a step down closer to the cultural trash pit, a double-meaning piece of adolescence called "Four Wheel Drive," by John Michael Montgomery.

Not that small-town ears are that sensitive. Barnyard humor was invented in the barnyard, after all, but rural people traditionally have been very careful about when they opened the door and let it in. Not so much now, it appears.

But the country verities - some of them - persevere.

Memorial Day is a cool but glistening gathering on a hill that has taken the victims of war and sheltered them for many, many years. The service is more militaristic than remembered, but the touch of the town is on it all. The Boy Scouts who had decorated those graves with small flags stand proudly and patiently through the speeches. So does the American Legion honor guard. But later, older members allow that it was getting a little tough to stand at attention, as lengthy as this year's speeches were.

An hour later, they repeat the ceremony at a rural cemetery where 99 oversized flags, one for each veteran buried there, create one big, waving, star-spangled field. They'll put up 101 of them next week on the Fourth, when the farmers expect today's souped-up corn to be waist-high, the beans hearty, and the lovely mosaic of black and green long gone.

One last verity. Before I go back to the city, there is a wedding anniversary dinner at an old restaurant in the nearby state capital. Sixty years are being honored. Diners are given a choice of lobster or steak. I take the position that if you're in Boston, you go for the lobster; if you're in Illinois, you take the steak. It is the best call I've made in decades. The steak is a jewel that will always be there in my memory.

Just like those green and black fields.

Ed Goodpaster has been an editor at Time Magazine, The Washington Post and The Baltimore Sun. He taught journalism at Hood College in Frederick, Md. and lives in Baltimore.

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