I’m sitting in my office this morning, looking down the main drag in Arenzville, a colorful checkerboard of orange leaves and gray pickup trucks. Just a half block away a few fellows from Chapin are unloading a kids’ game at the local Legion Hall. There’s a benefit being held today to help a fellow pay some medical bills, and before the day is over the tiny street will be jammed bumper to taillight with families who come into town to eat a few Sloppy Joes, play some bingo, toss a ring in hopes of snagging a liter of Mountain Dew, and supporting the cause. It takes some effort to load up your family for even such a short excursion and it means a very long and wearying day for those neighbors who arrived at sunup to start erecting the event. If tradition holds, they’ll be packing up long after the sun goes down tonight.
I scanned this week’s Journal Courier and found no less than seven benefits being held in the Jacksonville community over the next six days. The events range from those like the medical needs across the street to youth group raising funds for a mission trip and a group of cheerleaders needing a few extra bucks for … I don’t know…whatever cheerleaders need. Pom-pom laundering? And I have no doubt that each of these events will be well attended and that a good many folks in our area may even attend more than one of these events in a single day. That’s a lot of caramel corn.
A former student of mine moved to St. Louis several years ago to care for her ailing mother. The two ladies were able to hobble along with barely adequate insurance until her mother fell and broke her hip last year. My friend sent out just a dozen heartfelt letters to folks who might want to send a loan in their direction. I sent a check but added a note asking if she’d considered holding some sort of benefit to help pay some of the medical expenses. A couple days later she sent me a Facebook message saying that she’d mentioned that to her church and some of her neighbors, but gave up on the idea. In her words, “People in cities just don’t respond like they do in small communities.” These were her words and not mine, but it did come as a reality slap in the face. We often assume that the whole world thinks and acts as we do.
A member of one of our local American Legion posts tells me that hosting benefits has become the number one use of their facility. He said, “We’ve got the space, folks know where we are, and that’s one of the reasons we’re put on earth.” Oh, that we’d all live by such a motto. Of course our area churches, Masonic Halls, Elks Lodges and Moose dens are also frequent hosts for benefits. In fact, a couple of our Jacksonville banquet halls have been known to be very generous when it comes to cutting a deal for folks and organizations in need. I can imagine walking into a fancy banquet facility in Chicago and asking if you could get the room for free with the restaurant only taking the bar tab. You’d be laughed off the Loop.
Maybe I’m wrong. I hope I am. I doubt it.
As a guy who plays a little music I’m often asked to slam the keys around for one benefit or another. The approaching Christmas season will be the most tightly scheduled part of the benefit year and if I have the evening free I’ll always say yes. When I mention my schedule to my two fellow entertainers on the Peoria riverboat they always shake their heads in disgust. “Man, you can’t just give it away,” they say. Sometimes they’re more pointed in their polite complaints, telling me, “People like you are taking work away from those of us who make a living entertaining.” I tell them that the folks I often play for could never afford these guys’ fees, but that answer seldom satisfies. Both of them live in cities. Just sayin’.
Both of these guys drive really nice cars, live in comfy homes, and rake in a salary that this retired teacher will never see, but when I go to bed tonight I’ll be smiling after I’ve crossed the street, eaten a hotdog, bought a raffle ticket on a quilt, picked up a small Saran-wrapped package of homemade brownies, chatted with old friends and then closed my eyes knowing that I live in a community of folks who take care of each other.