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A visit home, cheese in hand

A trip to his childhood home in the Midwest brings thoughts of high school, highways and how some things never change.

May 07, 2011|Chris Erskine

I've gotten to the point where I actually welcome TSA checkpoints, for the crush of strangers, their foibles, their foolishness always makes me feel a little better about myself. It's sort of like that moment when you discovered you're in the top third of your high school class.

I'll have you know that high school was hell for me, the entire experience consisting of teachers questioning the work I turned in. "Did you really write this?" they'd ask. When they'd send home report cards, I'd scribble in the margin before returning: "Did you really write this?"

Aristotle said that "wit is educated insolence." But sometimes it's just insolence.

Anyway, to throw yourself into the mayhem of public gatherings -- airport checkpoints, jury duty, high school -- is to discover that you function at a slightly higher level than average, though once, at a TSA checkpoint, I forgot about a corkscrew in my backpack and the TSA rep almost had a conniption, so routine his job.

"Knife!" he said, and he was right, for attached to the corkscrew was a little knife, the kind the Swiss Army carries -- minnow-shaped and about as lethal.

After 90 seconds of shrugging, the authorities sent me on my way, shaking their heads as I left, muttering something about the stupid Swiss and how it's a good thing they don't get into many wars.

Such is life on the road. I was back out there again recently, a trip made easier when the little guy announced one day before I left that he wanted to legally change his name to Jackie Robinson. A few minutes later, he referred to his mother as "Little Miss Perfect."

"Maybe she should change her name too," I told him.


"Little Miss Perfect," I said.

"Good idea," Jackie Robinson said.

I didn't want to be around when he suggested this to Little Miss Perfect, so I jetted off to Indiana.

At a cheese shop 20 miles east of nowhere, they were handing out samples. I was headed to my mother's house for Easter and thought I'd bring some quality cheeses in hopes of trading them for lodging.

At the dairy counter, there were two types of Swiss cheese, a sweet Swiss that they were really pushing ("Our best seller!") and a more pungent smoky Swiss, which I preferred.

"You know, I think I like the smoky Swiss," I told the dude next to me.

"I think I like the brie," the guy said.

Now, if I wanted his opinion on the brie, I'd have asked for it. But we were clearly sampling the Swiss(es), and all I wanted was a little affirmation that the smoky was better than the sweet, which it clearly was.

I try not to overreact to those kinds of situations, because you know how they can quickly escalate. Besides, I was on my way to Chicago, after business in Indianapolis. And, no, I have no recollection of why I was in Indianapolis, only that I was there.

I had a big trip in front of me, the Chicago interstate system a glory of god and numerology. In Chicago, all interstates have either a 9 or a 4 in them: 90, 94, 294. And they have these toll plazas every 20 feet. You hit second gear, and suddenly you're braking for another tollbooth, the attendant with his hand out in the shape of a gun.

From what I hear, the money travels directly to the Illinois governor's manse, but that doesn't make sense because then how would you bribe the aldermen and state reps? Another issue for another day.

One other note: When I arrived back in the suburb where I grew up, there were so many white people I thought I'd hit Finland. I have nothing against white people; most of the time they've treated me decently enough. It's the sameness that drives me a little crazy, I think, or maybe that's just something I heard Faulkner once say.

After a while, I began to get comfortable being around so many white people. They really are like you and me, most of them.

This spring, the people seem especially white. Explanation I heard is that it's been such a long winter that the blood that usually colors a person's face -- that makes them beautifully Irish, or German or Polish -- is still pooling down around their ankles.

Of course, that doesn't really explain the Chicago Cubs, who continue to run cold. They're a complete mess, actually, each victory followed by a loss, so that they are playing what is known as .500 ball.

And the trees back here don't look much better than the Cubs. Usually in full plumage by now, they remain almost skeletal.

An elusive thing, a Midwestern spring. No justice to it at all.

In the house where I grew up, I find that the pots make the same sounds they always did, the cymbal ping of metal against metal.

And the floorboards in the den still creak in the same spots they did back in 1965.

Creak. Clunk. Thud. My late father's footsteps.



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