An alien view of Jacksonville

By Ken Bradbury

I met Richard sometime in the mid-1980’s. Our Jacksonville-Triopia tour group landed at London’s Heathrow airport, jet-lagged and a bit lost, looking around for the guide who was to meet us and be our host to Europe for the next weeks. I looked down the row of sign-holders in the airport but could see no indication of our guide, then from the back of the crowd I spied a harried young man shouting, “Anyone here named Bradbury?” It was a voice from heaven and a fellow who’d soon become a lifelong friend.

Richard Taylor was the product of an upper-middleclass British education, quite proper but with enough devilish imp in him to make him a real character. He’d worked for various tour companies, eventually starting up his own, and he’s now a flight attendant for Virgin Airlines. He and his Swedish wife, Annette, live in Hove, England with their three children.

The next time I took students to Europe I asked for Richard as our guide, but by that time he’d switched companies. I made a bold stroke: I told our travel coordinator that I’d only travel with Richard, so somehow our British friend was hired away from his present employer for two weeks. It’s amazing what you can do when you control the pocketbook.

We became such good friends that Richard would occasionally fly into O’Hare airport, we’d pick him up, and he’d spend the Thanksgiving holiday with us. As the years went by he’d often bring his wife, and it would be up to me to show him the sights of Central Illinois for a few days. We covered all the obligatory sites . . . Lincoln’s Tomb, New Salem, and the St. Louis Arch, but the majority of our time was spent in the Jacksonville area. Richard had spent most of his life in and around London and small town America fascinated him. In fact, a must-do on each of his trips was a visit to Mark Twain’s Hannibal. Richard had read everything by Twain.

On his first trip to Jacksonville I drove him down Morton Avenue. His observations were interesting. “Is this just one long town?” I told him that Morton was sort of the main drag and simply a part of the town. “But why does everyone clutter around this one street? The others seem prettier.” I was stumped. “Uh. . . people go where the businesses are.” He said, “That’s strange. You’d think it would be the other way around.” He had me there.

I took him up to the Jacksonville Square. This was back some years ago before the recent renovations. “This is lovely. Mayberry, isn’t it?” I told him that we had no Barney Fife and only a few Aunt Bea’s, but yes, it was a charming spot. “So why are the buildings empty?” Again, the square in those days had much less business activity. “It’s like that all over American, Richard. The town centers die off and the edges of the cities expand.” He thought that was a shame. The highest-priced real estate in London and Paris were still in the centers of the city.

We lunched at Lonzerotti’s and Richard proceeded to overdose on the restaurant’s breadsticks. We’d taken a seat outdoors and my British friend was amused when our waiter had to stop talking while a noisy train passed. “So why,” he asked me, “are there huge crowds at the Morton Avenue restaurants when they all serve the same burgers and chips, instead of eating at a wonderful place like this?” Uh. . . his questions were getting tougher. “I guess it’s faster out there,” I said. “So?” he asked. “Where are they in a such a hurry to go?” He had me there.

We cruised the town and Richard was especially thrilled to go by Eli Bridge, the home of Michael Jackson’s Ferris Wheel, he loved the fact that Jacksonville had so many parks, he wondered why we needed over a hundred brands of breakfast cereal at a supermarket, he was astounded that people in the U.S. actually obeyed traffic signals, he was fascinated to know that so many of the Beatles recordings were produced at EMI, and perhaps the biggest shock of all was when I took him into a local school. He looked at the size of the gymnasium that was right next to the room for special education students. “This huge space for bouncing a ball and they put the special needs kiddies in a closet?” I didn’t have the nerve to show him the football field.

Since Richard’s last visit I’ve had the chance to travel to England to visit his family and I’d hoped that I could come up with a few similar posers to stump him about his home town. All I could think of was, “How come you serve vinegar instead of ketchup on your fries?”

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