From Here to Obscurity--Eight Blocks From James Jones
I grew up in a small central Illinois town "where the highways cross and the porch lights burn all night." It was our claim to fame--the boast of a town of 3,000, set amid expanses of corn fields and soy beans, a mere dot next to railroad tracks on most maps. It was the tag line on our water bills and on the postcards that you could buy at Cauldwell's Five and Dime, where Mr. Cauldwell never failed to say, "One thin dime, little lady," when I bought my Richie Rich comic book or my bag of candy.
It was also the town where James Jones finished writing "From Here to Eternity" at the writer's colony that sat just one block north of main street, where he lived when he won the National Book Award in 1952, and where he went on to write other books and to build himself a two story bachelor house on the edge of the colony, a short six blocks from Mr. Cauldwell's Dime store. And eight blocks from my house--a five minute bike ride away in the town where I grew up knowing everyone.
Except that I didn't know James Jones, or Jim Jones, as I vaguely remember him being called. To my knowledge, I never saw him. My sister remembers seeing him at the community pool, doing a swan dive off of the high diving board. But she also remembers an airplane dropping little toys from the sky at our annual Easter Egg Hunt, so I have reason to doubt her account.
Perhaps I saw him from a distance, as he was known to frequent the taverns downtown and to mow his grass without a shirt on. He was also known for other things, which is probably why little reverence seems to have been afforded him among the townspeople. Tales of drinking, and women, and trips to the red light district in Terre Haute, Indiana, 18 miles away, filtered through the hushed conversations of adults playing cards at our dining room table, in the front room, on Saturday nights. There were words in his books that weren't repeated at that table or in good company in our town.
Which is the idea I had of him as I grew up. Not good company. A man to avoid. Not a role model that any of the parents or teachers wanted to put in front of us.
And so he lived and wrote, almost a ghost, eight blocks away.
In high school, we read Macbeth and memorized Longfellow. But we never read James Jones, or spoke of how he finished one of the best books of the 20th century in our town, or how Norman Mailer came to visit him here. There was a scholarship given out to a graduating senior with writing talent each year, which my sister won and I didn't, much to my chagrin since I wrote the senior poem and the senior history in our yearbook. It gave a few dollars to a senior and continues to this day, although James Jones name is not a part of it. It carries the name of Lowney Handy, his purported lover, and the woman who started the writer's colony and then financed it in large part from the money that Jones recieived from publishing "From Here to Eternity."
His second book, "Some Came Running," was started and finished at the colony, but didn't receive the same acclaim. Critics didn't like the misspellings and poor grammar that he adopted to bring realism to the characters from the small Midwestern town that was the setting of the book, and which also may account for the less than open arms that our town extended. Arms that may partly explain why he left some seven years later, never to return, leaving the colony to flounder for another seven years, and then finally to fold.
It was then that I first visited the colony on my bike and explored the little cabins and round edged trailer homes, and gawked at the swimming pool--a concrete pond, really--empty by then. No filters that I remember. Most likely fed by the cold water stream that meandered on the outskirts of the colony. The buildings were still filled with barren furniture, and magazines, and papers, and odds and ends that my friends and I rifled through, but didn't take, although I wish we had.
The two story bachelor house that he built was empty too, but was locked to the curious eyes of little girls. It was an open concept house, ahead of its time, with only two rooms, we had heard. When I finally had the chance to visit in later years, it appears it wasn't true. There was a kitchen, and two bedrooms, and bathrooms with doors, and a separate living space. More open than the Sears prefabs of the time, but not the two room house that gave up any pretense of privacy and lent itself to the parties that I had always imagined.
James Jones was not the man I imagined either. He was a real writer. A man who left a mark on the world that extended far beyond the shine of our porch lights or the dot of our small town amid the cornfields of central Illinois. A man who had the talent, and the time, and perhaps the courage to write books of hard truths and use real language.
Only eight blocks away.