I thought a lot about Abraham Lincoln while I was growing up, which I guess is not very unusual in Illinois.
Today (as I write this) is Lincoln's birthday, and though his life is getting more important to me now, it was his death that mattered to me as a boy. It was by thinking about Abraham Lincoln that I first began to wrap my mind around the idea of death.
My dad spent decades working his way to the top of the hierarchy of the Knights of Columbus in Illinois, so our family criss-crossed the state constantly. Belleville, Peoria, Beardstown, Carbondale, Mattoon. It is a BIG state.
Around 1973, we saw the Dickson Mounds, a prehistoric earthworks containing a lot of Native American burials. They had the side of one of the mounds carved out to expose the bones, and they'd built a vast visitor's center where you could stand behind a railing and look at the skeletons. It was dark and dramatically lit, and there's a photo of a 9-year-old me standing at the railing, looking rather green in more ways than one.
Someone in our family also took some photos of the bones, and we came across them whenever we'd pull out the family slide projector. The last time we saw those slides, my mother talked about wrapping them up and sending them to the tribal government for proper disposal. She probably did, if I know her.
Anyway, it was on that same trip that we visited Lincoln's tomb in Springfield, and I half expected to see his bones, too. Of course, someone had stolen his body long ago and, when they got it back, it had to be locked firmly away so they'd stay put. But I remember imagining what his skeleton looked like.
Around that age, I read "The Death of Lincoln: A Picture History of the Assassination" by Leroy Hayman, from Scholastic. I still have it. One night, with that book at my side, I woke up around 3 AM thinking of Lincoln's recurring dream, the one where he was traveling toward some "indefinite shore" in a "singular, indescribable vessel." I freaked myself out, and couldn't stop my limbs from shaking in my bed.
And then I thought the little bust of Lincoln on the shelf above my headboard was moving. It was made of white wax — my mother had given me a quarter to get it made by a machine in the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.
That's when I woke up one of my brothers and told him what was happening. It was the night my child's mind seized on death, finally understanding it was real, something truly in the world, a pervasive thing. He told me not to worry about it, rolled over, and went back to sleep. In retrospect, that was pretty much the right answer.
The night culminated when I heard a terrible groan that seemed to come from everywhere at the same time. It was undeniably a ghost — I can still hear it in my head, it was awful. Now that I'm older and things are starting to come back to me, I realize it was exactly the same sound my dad — who was a champion snorer — would make down the hall when he rolled over in his sleep.
Obviously, that was a long time ago and I've very much moved on. But I do occasionally feel a bit like spitting at the mention of John Wilkes Booth.
Editor's Note: This is the 13th installment of my fool-hardy attempt to write something every day for the entire month of February.