The Best of Jacksonville Awards

By Ken Bradbury

Springfield’s Illinois Times’ most awaited issue is their “Best of Springfield” feature, and our own Journal Courier holds an annual “Reader’s Choice,” that’s enjoyed by many. So far I’ve not seen a similar awards issue from The Source, and I certainly don’t speak for the newspaper, but in case anyone is interested in my occasional-visitor observations I’ll toss out a few idea for “Best of Jacksonville” as the year winds down to the nub end of 2014.

BEST NEW FEATURE: The opening of the downtown square’s south side. Now we are complete! Last month the vintage convertibles broke the ribbon barrier and Jacksonville once again became what it was. . . a genuine town square with exits in each direction. The only downside goes to any forgetful Lincoln Land student who steps out the side door.

BEST NEW RETAIL DEVELOPMENT: County Market’s acquisition of a small army of cute little mini shopping carts. If you’ve not seen them, they’re worth the trip. No more pushing a boxcar on wheels around the grocery store when you have these little rascals to use. They can take corners on two wheels and you no longer have to fear the intersection of coffee and frozen meat without a half-mile of shopping cart sticking out in front of you. Sometimes I stop to push one around when I don’t even need groceries.

BEST PLACE TO DRINK A CUP OF COFFEE: Norma’s Café just off the square because the cups don’t match. I love it. Just like Grandma’s house.

BEST ADDITION TO THE DRINKING SCENE: The downtown area now has three espresso machines! Schiraz, SafeCo Coffee Shop, and The Soap Company Coffee Shope all feature espresso. You can define heaven how you like, my pearly gates quiver and shake to the hum of an espresso machine. If I missed one, not only forgive me but tell me where it is!

BEST SOUP: Heck, I’ve not tried them all, but Annabel Lee’s is still in my beard. De-lish!

MOST FRIENDLY HOST: If you’ve been lucky enough to step into Hardee’s when the manager is behind the counter you’ll have learned how to treat a customer.

BEST NEW DOWNTOWN VENUE: Okay, I’m a bit prejudiced because I’ve done shows there, but Rich and Laurie McCoy’s Playhouse on the Square is a wonderful and welcome addition to our area and another reason why we have a leg up on most communities when it comes to quality of life. What could be more pleasant than to browse a bit at Our Town Books, then step next door and see live theatre?

BEST DARNED IDEA: The New Directions Center at Grace Methodist. Yeah, that’s putting feet on Christ’s message.

BEST SALAD DRESSING: Lonzo’s may change hands, but the recipe continues to float to the top of the local lists.

BEST REASON TO EAT IN JACKSONVILLE: Look at the choices we now have downtown! Wowsers! Go ahead and spend an hour driving to Springfield, finding a parking space, then taking a number to wait. Meanwhile I’ll be finishing up one of the many places on the square or within a block or two.

BEST RETURN TO THE WAY WE WERE: To once again hear the voice of Ron Tendick broadcasting games on WLDS/WEAI.

BEST REASON TO DOUBT STATE GOVERNMENT: Drive by the abandoned Jacksonville Developmental Center.

BEST TOPLESS BAR: I’m not sure, but I think you have to go to Peoria.

BEST PLACE TO WATCH A BASEBALL GAME AT LENZ FIELD WHEN IT’S OVER 100 DEGREES IN THE SHADE: On the bed of Dr. Prabhakar’s #2 examination room. You have to lean over a bit and hold tightly to your sheet. The nurses can sneak up on you.

BEST CHEESEBURGER IN JACKSONVILLE: There’s no such thing as a bad cheeseburger.

BEST PLACE TO GET A HAIRCUT: How in the heck should I know?

A Soft Touch

Okay, I’m a soft touch. I’ll admit it. With the absolute exception of telemarketers, I’ll fall for about anything. When the Girl-Boy-Scout-4-H-Volleyball-Baseball-Library munchkins come to my door selling candy for the cause, I’ll buy it. In fact, word is out around the neighborhood that little Johnny can make his quota and earn his portable DVD player with one stop at my place. It doesn’t help that candy is the one evil habit I’ve never managed to acquire and I always end up purchasing the candy then giving it to the knee-high salesman.

That’s why the Farmer’s Market is such a trial for me. On one hand, I really like what the place has to offer. Don’t misunderstand me, I think the Farmers Market concept is fantastic, but on the other hand it’s…well…so darned personal.

Festival Foods…Aldi’s …Save A Lot …good food, nice folks, great variety, but the fellow who raised my broccoli in California is not standing there looking at me. There’s a world of difference in passing up the bunch of radishes grown in a New Jersey hothouse versus walking by the eager eyes of a lady who rose at 4 a.m., got down on her knees and pulled the vegetables from her own garden, then washed them and toted the load into town in time for a 7 a.m. opening. How dare I sleep until eight, casually hop into my Honda, cruise to the market with my espresso in hand, and then have the nerve to walk right past her without purchasing anything? So darned…well….personal.

I actually asked a friendly jelly-peddler about this. Do you feel slighted when people walk up to your stand, finger your fruit, then walk on by? He told me that it doesn’t bother him much and that he’s glad to be in the open air and chatting with folks. He was lying to me. I just know it.

If I examine a tomato then walk on down the asphalt alleyway I begin writing my own scenarios in my head. “Look what he did! He touched my tomato then just strolled off! Aren’t my tomatoes good enough for him? Is he so high and mighty that he can casually get into his foreign-made car and drive home without a single thought of the sweat and toil and tumult it took to get that tomato to the Farmers Market?” And if I’ve had way too much espresso then the storyline gets even more desperate. “Here I am with three kids in college, the soul provider for my aging mother, sponsoring six third-world orphans out of my monthly social security check, and wondering how long before my family can afford indoor plumbing, and he refuses to buy so much as a single tomato!”

One idyllic morning last summer I cruised the Market in search of raspberries. That’s all I wanted..just raspberries. On the drive in I’d steeled myself against the possible temptations that I knew the Farmers Market would send my way. No matter what, I told myself, I will buy raspberries and ignore everything else, including the plaintive expressions on the faces of the other vendors. I found my raspberries, bought two boxes, tucked them under my arm like an aging, vegetarian quarterback, and headed for my car. Then I spied them.

Two young urchins…no adults around them, standing behind their makeshift stand displaying a sign “We Picked Them!” It was Norman Rockwell on steroids. I peeked out the corner of my eye to see what they were selling. Onions. Big, white gorgeous onions. Hey! I like onions! I need onions! The world needs onions…especially those purchased from the work-stained hands of two such adorable kids. So I broke my raspberry exclusionary vow and loaded up a plastic sack with onions.

Okay, I’m a dummy. I don’t know an onion from a turnip. I mean, I thought they seemed especially firm and perhaps a bit smaller than the average Vidalia, but in my mind the future of these children was at stake. Nine. Nine turnips. And I have not the slightest idea what to do with a turnip. Last night on Turner Classic Movies there were showing an old version of Huckleberry Finn. Circus owner Andy Devine was painting his little mule with white stripes to make it look like a zebra while Buster Keaton was feeding the animal turnips, but Keaton cheated. His turnips had long green stems attached. That… THAT I could have seen was a turnip.

Having neither a donkey nor a turnip cookbook in my kitchen I tossed them, making a mental note: check future onions.

I’ll return to the Farmers Market. It’s not only an economically sound and ecologically wise place to shop, but I like the feeling of community that develops when I know the lady who grew my lettuce. You’ll recognize me. I’ll be the one avoiding your gaze.

THIS FAMILY IS BUGGED

‘Tis the season for family reunions…fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-yawn.

I’ve been required to attend a number of these Sunday outings in the Midwest undergrowth and have sorted and classified the various types of in-laws, outlaws and there-oughtabe-a-laws. If your tastes run toward the insect kingdom or if you’ve just attended a family reunion of your own then you might recognize a few.

The first species is BORUS KODACHROMAS. The Kodachromas is a bug who has pouches all over its body. Each of these pouches contains about a hundred snapshots of the bug’s offspring. This is in spite of the fact that all of the bug’s children are right there on the picnic grounds in the flesh. The Kodochromas is easy to detect since his appearance is nearly always preceded by a strong odor of developing fluid.

The ADOLESCENTUS IMPATIENTUS. The Impatientus is a bug of any species somewhere between the larva and adult stages. They tend to hang around the edges of family reunions jangling the keys to their cars and mumbling such enlightened phrases as “Mom can I go now?” and “You told that story last year, Uncle Harvey.” The Impatientus is among the most harassed of the insect kingdom, being constantly assailed by cheek-squeezing aunts, backslapping uncles and such comments as “My gosh! I can’t believe how you’ve grown!” The female of the species is especially irritated by Great Uncle Marvin’s “Why, you’re bigger than your Mom !”

The ANONYMOUS PSEUDO-COUSIN appears from out of state. No matter what state you’re in, the Anonymous will always be from outside it. No one at the family reunion has the slightest idea how this bug is related to the family but it always shows up… and it’s been showing up for so many years that the other family members are by now embarrassed to ask.

The KENTUCKY SANDERS BUG is known for bringing purchased and boxed fried chicken to each reunion while the rest of the family has slaved over hot stoves and spends hours mixing five-cup salad. The Sanders bug is also known as the “Cheap Bug” and is usually related to the family by marriage.

The MIDWEST PUCKER BUG is a close relative of the Kentucky Sanders. However, the Pucker Bug ignores the fried chicken and brings instead her annual deviled eggs which are so loaded with vinegar that the other bugs fall victim to an involuntary pucker whenever their cousin approaches. Luckily for the other insects, the Pucker Bug’s warped Tupperware can be easily identified at a distance of three picnic tables.

THE ONE-UP BEETLE. No matter what happened to your family in the past year, the One-Up Beetle has an experience which tops yours. This particular insect carries no photos of family members but has 8-by-10 glossies available of … its van, its pool and its tanning bed.

One of the most unusual insects to be found at any family reunion is the STERILE PICKIUNUS. The Pickiunus is among the most fastidious bugs in all of bugdom. She brings her own tablecloth for her family, a large collection of handiwipes and would vacuum the very lawn if she only had an outlet. The Pickiunus carefully inspects the assembled foodstuffs for any sign of relative bacteria before allowing her family to consume. She can easily be identified by the sight of her own Thermos for private use by her family and is often accompanied by a slight aroma of Lysol.

The newest bug to be developed by Oriental research labs is the CAMUS CORDUS. The Camus Cordus is born with a VCR camera permanently attached to its shoulder and insists on recording every moment of every family reunion. This most obnoxious of all picnic pests is especially fond of creeping up from the backside and taking pictures of how poorly somebody’s bottom fits into a lawn chair. The bug has been suspected of carrying an infectious virus which causes the other bugs to huddle together and smile insipid smiles while waving at the camera and mouthing “Hi, Mom!” whenever the Camus Cordus appears. The only known insecticide for this new strain of insect is a dead battery.

I don’t mean to sound mean-spirited by assigning these labels. These are just observations. To me a bug’s a bug. Being related to one doesn’t necessarily make them any worse than the average garden variety of pest. I guess we should know by now that anytime you have a big picnic, you’re sure to draw cousins and grandma’s, and uncles … and ants.

THE SQUIRREL OBITUARY

Obituaries are just no fun at all if you’re dead and can’t read them. I just went to my third funeral … not really mine, actually … where the eulogy was given by a well-meaning minister who really didn’t know beans about the dearly departed but stumbled on the best he could from whatever hearsay information he could gather on two days’ notice. In cases like that, the family could just have a good friend get up and talk.

Every time we get a new preacher I get this awful fear of dying and lying in wake at the hands of a guy who’s not sure what my name was. That’s why I thought I’d write Della Dosier’s eulogy while she’s still around to hear it. If her hammer gets tripped and the minister is new, he can always refer back to this article.

Della is a cleaner. Long as I’ve known her, that’s all she does. Cleans. She works for one of those Jacksonville firms who clean for hire and every evening you’ll find her in some bank or business or governmental office, vacuuming carpets and shaking the rugs. She enjoys her work and folks enjoy having her around although most of them are gone by the time she gets there.

But the joy of her life could also be her downfall if she’s not careful. Della feeds the squirrels. Brown squirrels, gray squirrels, the occasional albino … big, small, toothy and toothless, they all know that Della is good for a handful of peanuts, the half-eaten Twinkies she’ll pull out of the trash, bread crumbs, biscuits and yesterday’s bagels. This is heaven for the squirrels. The geography has been a little lower for Della on occasion.

Her employer has warned her more than once about this. The letter of reprimand read something like, “The reputation of our business rests on our professional cleaning service. Any other activities which might otherwise detract from the purpose for which you are hired may damage our credibility as a reliable contractual business.” Interpreted that comes out to “Quit feeding the darned squirrels! It makes us look bad.”

So Della quit the feeding … sort of. Now she waits until her boss has gone on to the next job before she feeds the squirrels. I have personally seen this rebellious law-breaker in action. Everybody’s gone … you’ll see a glass door open carefully then Della’s little head will peek out, looking both ways. If you look real close, you’ll notice the squirrels looking both ways, too. Then she’ll sling a handful of breadcrumbs out onto the sidewalk and the door will slam shut. She used to enjoy watching the squirrels eat but this has become too dangerous.

Now, don’t get me wrong. That woman does her job and does it quickly. She can scrub a floor before you can turn around and the squirrels don’t slow her down a bit. Truth were known, it’s probably the incentive of the squirrels that makes her Hoover suck it in with the desperation of a beauty contestant in the finals.

She’s also contracted to clean a local church sanctuary and although she’s received no letters of reprimand from the haughty and holy, her request for a squirrel feeder was turned down. Since a church is usually only open for business one or two days a week and doesn’t require the daily scrub-job of busier places, Della was worried about the squirrels eating the other six days. She sent a letter, saying she’d provide the box, the pole it sits on and all the food the little critters could eat.

The church allowed as how it would detract from the looks of the building. After all, they spend thousands of bucks a year on their landscaping and they were not going to ruin it with Della’s squirrel box.

Della’s a Christian woman and would never commit the sacrilege of messing with a church’s landscaping. In fact she was stumped on how to follow the obvious law of God and shrubbery while still taking care of His creatures. So, to satisfy the squirrels’ hunger and still safeguard her own salvation, Della stops by the church every evening to feed the squirrels by hand. She does it quietly, not wishing to disturb the really important finance committee business on the inside with her trivial pursuits on the outside.

Della’s a softy and she knows it. When the comets started knocking chunks off of Jupiter some time ago and the whole world celebrated the grand show in the galaxies, all Della could talk about was how poor old Jupiter must feel. Such demented thoughts are what come from a lifetime of feeding squirrels, I suppose.

Della got pneumonia last winter and came back to work a week before she should have. She just couldn’t stand the thought of little Chip and Dale out there without their accustomed crumbs.

I’ve known Della all my life and can testify that there isn’t a more gentle spirit on the planet … a wiry little gal with salt and pepper hair and hands that have seen a lifetime of washing and polishing. When she does make that final trip down the church aisle, there’s a lot worse that could be said about a person than “She fed the squirrels.” When her final bucket gets emptied, they’ll hire a new cleaning lady who will probably scrub ever bit as good as Della. Nobody coming into their clean office the next day will even notice a change. Nobody except the squirrels.

BAM’EM LIZZIE, BAM’EM

Did I miss something? When I was about three years old I was running through Grandma’s kitchen, burning up time while waiting for a Sunday dinner to begin. I rounded the intersection of Front Porch and Kitchen Table when my nose picked up the distinctive aroma of fresh strawberries. The smell brought me to a halt right in front of Aunt Lizzie who sat stemming the little red delights for Sunday dinner.

Being only three years old … and about half wicked at the time … I reached out and grabbed one of the strawberries. Aunt Lizzie looked down her nose, through her glasses and straight to where I was standing. I grabbed another and popped it into my mouth. Just as I was grabbing for the third berry, Aunt Lizzie’s hand shot out and clamped mine in mid-air. “Did I hear you ask permission?” she said. Being uncommonly brave at the time … or more likely, extremely stupid … I reached out with the other hand and grabbed another strawberry.

Aunt Lizzie popped me so hard I not only dropped my final berry but nearly spit out the one still rolling around my mouth. As far as I can remember, I have asked permission ever since.

So what’s happened to the rest of the world?

Some time ago, I was talking on the phone to my friend Louise when the receiver started beeping in my ear. I often hear strange sounds when talking to Louise but this is one I’d not encountered before. As the day went on, two or three more conversations got beeped in mid-chat and I just assumed that something was wrong with the phone. The next day’s mail to the family explained it all. The local phone company announced that, “We are proud and happy to inform you that Call Waiting and Call Forwarding services have been provided to you at no additional cost.” Who on God’s green earth do they think they’re fooling?

As of today when you call me and I’m on the line, the signal you get will make you think I’m not home. It may be tomorrow before you call back. One thing for sure, I sure won’t interrupt the party I’m talking to. To me, “I’ll put you on hold,” is translated as “Good-bye sucker.”

How stupid can the phone company think we are? It’s a pure money-making gimmick! “Call Forwarding?” Guess who makes the money when somebody can now reach you wherever you go? “Call Waiting!” Now the phone company won’t lose a single dime to busy signals! The letter ended with, “All of these improvements have required our company to spend about $1.2 million. This is indicative of our commitment to the future of the areas we serve.” Well. First, it’s only indicative of their commitment to make more money, and second, if they call that “service,” then Heaven protect us from any future do-gooders. Unfortunately, Aunt Lizzie passed away or she’d go over and pop ‘em.

We opened more mail. One came from a credit card company. Without our asking they sent us a brand new card. And I quote: “Enclosed is one of our new cards for people we’ve identified as our PREFERRED customers!” (Yeh, us and 20 million others. It went on … ) “The enclosed little piece of plastic is your ticket to freedom!” (I think that Attila-the-Hun was the first to use that phrase when addressing the conquered peasants of France.) Well, to summarize, which this letter never tried to do, the gist of it was this: If we buy any plane tickets with the credit card, they will automatically charge us for flight insurance! Aunt Lizzie would have her work cut out for her. “Did I hear you ask permission?” Bam!!!

Ever eat out at a nice restaurant in a group of six or more? Do you know that restaurants no longer trust people in large groups? The tip is automatically added on to the bill. “Alone, we trust you. Where two or more are gathered around our menu, we assume that you’ll stiff us.” So much for the concept of tipping for good service. Bam ‘em, Aunt Lizzie! Bam ‘em !

My mom got a call from a tele-market-er from a national gasoline company. “For being one of our PREFERRED customers, we are offering you free life insurance for 30 days …” (Then they threw in enough mumbo-jumbo to get your mind off the subject, followed very hurriedly by …) “After thirty days unless you’re dissatisfied we will automatically charge the insurance to your monthly bill.” Dissatisfied! We’d have to die to find out whether it was any good! Did I hear you ask permission?

Bam! Bam! Bam!

You know … any person alive who actually buys anything over the phone is making life miserable for the rest of us. If you quit feeding a stray dog he’ll eventually go away.

And of course we are all victims of the companies that sell our names and addresses to others. That’s how we get all our catalogues and the telephone calls at the dinner table. Our names and numbers are being given out by so many companies that Aunt Lizzie could have herself a full-time job.

“Did I hear you ask permission?” Pow!

“You gave my name to whom?” Whack!

“You’re charging me what?” Bam!

I’m lucky that I was raised in a family that showed

me love and understanding and I feel rightly blessed by that. But there isn’t a single departed relative I miss as much as Aunt Lizzie. Especially when we get the mail.

THERE OUGHTA BE A LAW

Roscoe Peabody lives in our little town. He went loony during the last Presidential Election and committed murder. The victim was his 17-inch Zenith television. The entire nightly news was devoted to one candidate bashing another candidate without one dribble of substance from either candidate, so Roscoe salvaged what bit of satisfaction he could by blasting both candidates through his north wall. It was a 12-gauge political statement that did little damage to the house’s structure but left him without any way of watching “Wheel of Fortune.”

Political promises have been the butt of jokes ever since we demanded that King George of England give us the vote but it seems to me that the recent political seasons are getting worse. Everybody’s promising new bills, laws and statutes and I’m reminded that Will Rogers said, “The trouble with Congress is that every time it tells a joke it becomes a law, and every time it passes a law it becomes a joke.”

I haven’t seen anybody with a lick of sense promise anything with a lick of hope, so as long as the Gates of Promises are wide open, I might as well jump right in with a few of my own. You want promises … how about these?

I propose HOUSE BILL 583: This makes it a misdemeanor to wear certain garments out on the porch of a morning to fetch your paper. I don’t know about your neighborhood but once the paperboy flings the morning rag onto the stoop, we get a fashion show that ought to be illegal. Mirna Floyd has a housecoat that was given to her back when her shape was considerable different, and she hasn’t bothered to alter the size of the thing since she’s reached her current queenly proportions. When you add to this the fact that Mirna’s got to bend over to get the paper, you’ve got a potential crime of neighborhood proportions. Then there’s Alvin Johnstone, who puts on whatever is handy to come out and fetch the news. His taste in clothes isn’t very good when he tries hard but his random outfits are breaking the laws of good taste.

I’m in favor of THE LONG MEETINGS ACT: So far we’ve got Open Meetings Acts, Public Meetings Acts and Municipal Meetings Acts. I’m personally in favor of a Long Meetings Act. Any church, civic or other meeting which goes over 90 minutes should be immediately raided just like prohibition days and the long-winded perpetrators locked away in a cell without microphones or access to Robert’s Rules of Order.

There should be a NOISE TAX: I propose to do away completely with any sort of sales tax and start levying taxes solely on the amount of noise an item produces. I’d start with car HORNS. They were invented to shoo errant horses off the road or warn other Model T’s of your approach. I can’t see a single useful purpose they have any more, other than to keep the neighborhood awake. Same goes for that obnoxious little “ting” when the microwave shuts off. Gosh, I can see it’s off. It doesn’t need to “ting” at me. I’m not a complete idiot. Tax that “ting.” Tax car stereos … lawnmowers which only run during your Sunday sleeping time … most 12-year-olds … loud phones … super-mega-car-stereos that circle the high school. Tax ‘em all and do society a service while you’re at it.

The companion to the Noise Tax is THE BUMPER STICKER BILL: This is a small but important bit of legislation. It’s intended to stamp out bumper stickers that encourage people to honk for any reason. Only allowed bumper stickers will be those that don’t advocate some kind of racket.

The SPELLING WORK-BOOK LAW! OK, this one isn’t really my idea. My neighbor girl, Mindy Parsons, came over while I was writing this list and asked that I suggest a bill banning spelling workbooks. So there.

Another one of mine is THE CALENDAR STATUTE: Anybody who can’t read the calendar shall be severely fined. This includes anybody who runs a political ad before August, or a Christmas sale before December.

THE CONGRESSIONAL SALARY ACT shall be hereby enacted. The salary of a congressman shall be the same as the average salary of a wage earner in his or her district. Talk about economic reform in a hurry …

A very important law is THE NAPKIN ACT: Any employee of a fast-food restaurant caught stuffing over 42 napkins in your sack shall be arrested for “waste and gross stupidity.” If they manage to turn the fries upside-down it’s another two years onto their sentence.

I’m for THE COMPLETE STOP BILL: This is for those infuriating motorists who think they’ve got to come to a complete stop before making a right-hand turn off the highway. If you’re that afraid of making a turn, take the bus.

I’m a supporter of THE BURGOO ACT. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Burgoo. It’s kind-of a down-home-cooked-outdoor stew with all kinds of creatures and vegetables in it. I think every citizen shall be required to eat one bowl of burgoo a year. Just like requiring everybody to go to the dentist, it’s probably good for you. There isn’t a reason in the world for this law so I thought it might fit nicely into either party’s political platform.

Oh, I know all this is silly but when the candidates are silly enough to propose legislating “family values’ and advocate such idiocies as a “one percent decrease in income tax,” or telling us they plan to balance the budget with “undisclosed cuts in spending” well … it’s an idiot’s field day, so I thought I’d might as well jump in.

Rollin’ Up The River

Okay, I’ll be up front with this: my idea of “roughing it” is making my own bed in a Ramada Inn. God did not design my spine along the contours of an Army surplus tent floor stretched out over a mole-hilled campground. I’m serious..my big concession to nature is hanging up my towel in a Best Western for use on the following day.

That’s why I’m not much into nature writing, but with the sound of budget belts tightening all over the country, I’m an advocate of using the resources of nature (and the state of Illinois) to come up with low-cost vacations.

Let’s begin with the fact that we already own our state parks. The closest state park to Jacksonville is Lincoln’s New Salem and I have personally staked out my share of its 700 acres. (With an Illinois population of 13 million, it comes to 2.36 square feet.) Mine is about half-way through biking trail number three, some twenty feet to you left, and encircled with ring of French fries…at least that’s where I left them.

The two biggies in our shank of the state lie directly up river at Starved Rock, and downstream at Pere Marquette. Both are an easy drive from Jacksonville and both offer a bounty of things to do and see without injuring your spine or a spine near and dear to you.

The two parks are remarkably similar in layout and what they have to offer, and both lodges were constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps boys in the 1930s. If you want to camp, that’s fine with me, but remember: bears a saber tooth tigers once roamed Illinois and it’d be just my luck to turn Boy Scout on the night they return.

Both parks derive their beauty and sense of adventure from the canyons formed by glacial melt over the centuries, and both offer a bucket load of hiking, boating, and just-plain-fooling-around options.

Enough about the parks… as you remember from your first prom, half the fun was getting there. And I can think no better nor cheaper way to access either of these Illinois showplaces than on a paddle-wheeled riverboat.

It’s named The Spirit of Peoria, a three-decked replica of the old show boats that used to ply the Illinois Rivers, and for my money it’s the best way to see either Starved Rock or Pere Marquette. Drive to Peoria, hand over your luggage and hop on. For $309 per person you take a two-day, one-night cruise northward to the Rock or for $475 you can head downstream for three days and two nights to St. Louis by way of Pere Marquette. This includes everything…the boat, lodging, meals, tour guides, and complimentary drinks. For my money it’s the best vacation deal in Central Illinois.

I’ll be honest … I’ve only taken the Starved Rock tour. The down river cruise makes its first overnight in Meredosia where you’re bussed to Jacksonville for lodging. Although I’d love to see our part of the world from the river, I’ve never convinced myself to pay for lodging when the tour bus passes my own house.

But oh, the delights the Spirit of Peoria has to offer! Let’s get serious and start with spiritual side of the journey….the food is great. Buffet breakfast as soon as you board, a scrumptious deli buffet for lunch, wine and cheese mid-afternoon, then the prime rib just before you dock at Starved Rock. The next day offers a similar fare, all cooked on the boat, and quite seriously some of the most delicious buffet food I’ve tasted.

It’s entertainment from shove-off to docking with a three-person crew of ragtime piano player, storyteller, and folk singer holding forth on the mid-deck and if you choose instead to stay outdoors and watch the Illinois river towns go by, the entertainers will likely find you and serenade you in your deck chair. KB’s tip: do not fall asleep near the calliope. The Spirit has a genuine, old-time calliope on the aft end of the top deck and that’s also the choice place to catch a few rays. Bev the keyboard player has a penchant for tooting her pipes whenever the boat nears a town and the calliope has only one volume. It’s called “Death.”

In fact, the only thing worse than lounging on deck three when Bev’s honker goes off is to be sitting underneath the loungers on deck two. How can it be raining in the sunshine?

Once the Spirit of Peoria sticks it nose into the mud of Starved Rock (I’m not kidding..there’s no dock), you’ll be bussed up to the Great Lodge where you luggage will be awaiting you in your room. If you’re lucky the weather will permit a

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About the author

Ken Bradbury is an adjunct instructor of theatre at LLLC after retiring from Triopia. He entertains on the Spirit of Peoria riverboat and is the author of over 300 published plays. Website: creativeideas.com

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