Monday, April 19, 2010

The Early Years group

Just over a year ago I found myself looking for old grade school classmates on Facebook.
..A pretty common activity for FB users. Especially when they're bored.

I spend my childhood growing up in Bolingbrook, Illinois. It's a pretty big suburb of Chicago these days, but when my family moved there in 1962 it was mostly cornfields. There were 2 small subdivisions of new inexpensive tract homes that comprised the village of Bolingbrook; Westbury and Colonial Village. Brand new houses there cost between $10,000 and $15,000. Modest but charming mid-century designs built by Dover Construction, about 8 models to choose from in their brochure.
There was one family-owned grocery store, one doctor (who made house calls), a barber shop and a penny candy store (which was only known as 'the little store'). For banking, post office, police and fire, we relied on nearby Lemont which was 15 minutes away.
In 1965 Bolingbrook was incorporated as a community and started providing their own police and fire protection. My dad was among the very first cops and firemen. My mom organized and helped run the Bolingbrook parades. There were 4th of July parades and open cookouts at the village firehouse, and a local ice cream truck that trolled the neighborhood. Every summer they would bring in a carnival with great rides, and every winter they'd have a Christmas decoration contest for the most Christmasy home (the house down our block always won). Spring would bring the smell of freshly-mowed lawns and charcoal barbecue. Fall would bring swarms of trick-or-treating kids out of the woodwork on Halloween, enduring long into the evening, door to door, block after block, reaping huge sacks of candy treasures at the end (and not those measly little mini-bars. I'm talking full-sized candy bars).
There were a lot of small-town activities organized with very little money. Mainly by families getting together and volunteering their time and energy. Picnics to pee-wee league ball.
Both of my parents were among the other few dozen young families who were always working to make their little hamlet a wonderful and safe place to raise a family.

It's a textbook case of charming small town America. And I got to be a part of it along with my 2 older sisters. It was serene and simple. And it was a wonderful place to grow up. My dad worked a lot sometimes, and we didn't have a lot of money, but we had everything we needed, a nice new split-level ranch home, a color TV, and room to roam on our bikes. Roam anywhere, completely unsupervised. ..Pretty free and blissful for a kid.

It was when the Old Chicago indoor amusement park came along, that my parents decided it was over for them.
Suburban sprawl was already encroaching the Southwest areas. Especially since the still recent I55 extension had replaced old Rt. 66. The commute into the city was now lightning fast, and more people looking to live outside the city saw Bolingbrook for what it was; a wonderful and safe place to raise a family. By the time we moved away in 1974 Bolingbrook had its own big box shopping mall, fast food restaurants, chain stores, ..and a number of new subdivisions had popped up like mushrooms in the once rich cornfields that cradled us. It was too much too soon. Schools couldn't be built fast enough and kids were bused to nearby Romeoville every day. The inexpensive condos that were built in the early 70s had quickly degenerated into Bolingbrook's first ghetto. Crime became more of an issue, and the building of Old Chicago was the writing on the wall for my folks.
They shopped for a home further South on I55, finding a lovely custom ranch in Channahon. And during the summer of '74 we moved, ..rather suddenly, it seemed. Just as I had finished the 7th grade.
I was 13.

I stayed in touch with my best friend Ted (whom I don't remember not being friends with), but being in a new house, new town, and new school provided plenty of distractions and opportunities for me as I moved into my teens. I made a number of new friends, and within a couple of years had started the next chapter of my life. My childhood in Bolingbrook, and the friends I made in school, became mostly memories.

"What hast thou wrought?"

So, I got a bug up my butt and, after finding a handful of old Bolingbrook friends I had lost touch with, started a Facebook group for us. I started scanning and posting old pictures from back then, and pages from a 1969 yearbook I had. Pretty soon others were doing the same. Friends started inviting their siblings and other old Bolingbrook classmates to the group, more old friends started popping up, and things began to blossom.
The group now has over 850 members, virtually all of whom lived (or still live) in the old sections of Bolingbrook. Many of them live throughout the country now, having families of their own. Most of them remember the early simpler years and have a great story to share, a detail to add, or a name forgotten. And it seems clear that it's been a lot of fun for them to come on and see who's there, look at the old photos, post a fond memory or announce some related news.
There are even senior citizens on there chiming in. Former village workers, trustees, and even Bolingbrook's current mayor is a member.

..All of this in one year.
It's pretty cool, I have to say.

Just this past weekend our group held a walking tour of old Colonial Village. My old neighborhood. It was a beautiful day, and a good turnout. The villages historic director met with us at the beginning and showed us the recently unveiled plans for a proposed history museum for the town, and gave us all a personal guided tour through the original police station; a 2 room farmhouse. It has been closed up for years and awaiting renovation, and will become part of the museum itself. Its interior will be entirely restored and completely re-staged as it was when first used back in the mid 60s.
It was the same police station my dad reported to when he was one of the first Bolingbrook cops.

The rest of the walk was like a trip back in time for us all. Virtually nothing had changed there, since Bolingbrook quickly sprawled as newer and nicer subdivisions were built. The trees were much bigger, and some of the houses needed repair, but many more of them were well-kept and maintained over the decades since. It was like walking through a living time capsule.
We finished our walking tour and gathered for a group photo near the 'little store' (now long gone) where we used to buy our penny candy. All in all it was a delightful day of reminiscing with old neighbors and even a couple of old classmates. Everyone had a great time, and it looks like we're going to schedule more of these walking tours in the future.

I did something good here. I think I should stick with it.