Tag Archives: Lincoln State Park Indiana

Dropping Deep: A Memory of July

In my years in Indiana in the mid-1990s, I worked a couple of summers as stage manager for two musicals running in rep at Lincoln Amphitheatre in Lincoln State Park, about forty miles east of Evansville.

I have found that summer theatre gigs – especially at outdoor theatres – have much in common with military boot camp. A crew of people living in close quarters, working hard, and unwinding when and if ever the opportunity arises.

Our “dark day” – the day on which we had no shows or rehearsals – was Monday. That was the day for resting a little, laundry, paying bills, shopping, car maintenance, and occasional impromptu parties or a nice dinner out.

Our technical director, Bud, would occasionally arrange group outings for Mondays. A “Christmas in July” event happened on a July Monday near the end of the season. It was held, naturally, in Santa Claus, Indiana, which was just a few miles from the state park.

My favorite Bud-organized event was the annual canoe trip on the Blue River near Milltown, Indiana. It was always held on the Monday closest to Independence Day. Most everybody in the company participated. After the Sunday night performance, we’d hit Schnuck’s and buy food and beverages to pack into coolers. My friend Randy always packed a large supply of chicken wings. Now that I’m thinking of it, I’m pretty sure I left my Blue River cooler to Randy when I moved to Texas.

On Monday morning, we’d leave Evansville early in cars and travel to Milltown (www.cavecountrycanoes.com). After grabbing our gear at the Milltown base, a school bus took our group of two dozen or more to the launch ramp seven miles upriver.

Even though our group started at the same ramp, it didn’t take long for everybody to spread out and the canoes travelled through quiet and solitude, passing an occasional angler or other canoers and kayakers along the way.

The Blue River is a scenic river with a series of Class 1 rapids passing through Indiana cave country on the way to the Ohio River. The bulk of the trip is through peaceful waters and verdant forests with the rapids comfortably spaced. Longer trips are available, but our 7-mile excursion – estimated at 2-4 hours length – was easily stretched longer with frequent pauses for breaks, lunch, and swimming at sandbars along the way.

It’s a perfect summer day that I looked forward to in my Indiana years.

Before you read on, you need to know this: … When I was a boy, I took swimming lessons at Midfield pool. The instructor was good and I learned to swim. On the final day of the two-week session, the swimming instructor wore street clothes and let all of the students just play in the pool, enjoying our newly-developed skills. That water play included a dive from the high diving board.

We had diving lessons earlier in the week and, while it was not my specialty, I was okay with it. On that final day, I eagerly climbed the ladder to the high dive to take my turn. When my turn came, I walked out to the edge of the board and looked down at the deep end of the municipal pool.

And I froze.

I don’t know how long I stood there, but it feels like a really long time. I wouldn’t jump, and I wouldn’t turn around and go back down the ladder. I was mortified. And petrified.

The other kids were urging me on, as were the adults at poolside. I still didn’t budge.

Finally, the poor swim instructor stripped down to his trunks and got in the pool. He assured me that if I would just jump, he’d be there if I had a problem.

Finally, I jumped and swam to the side. No problem. I still don’t know what happened to me up there on the high dive but, ever since, I am skittish in water over my head – especially if I’m not sure how deep it is.

Over time, however, when I do take the plunge, I have a habit of letting the fall continue after I hit the water until the downward momentum ends. Occasionally, I touch the bottom; usually, the fall stops before I get there. Then, I begin to swim back up to the surface. Nobody ever told me that isn’t the way it’s done …

Near the end of the Blue River canoe trip take-out point, the old Milltown Bridge crosses the river. It had been a tradition for some of the veterans of our group to jump off the bridge to close out the trip.

On my first Blue River adventure, my buddies in the group asked me if I would join them for the jump. Some were old hands at the ritual and others were first-timers like me. Given my trepidation with unknown depths, I was hesitant, but I finally decided to go for it. Five of us climbed up to the middle truss of the bridge and, after a short count, jumped in together.

The water was cool, deep, and pleasant and I allowed myself to drop until I wasn’t dropping anymore. It was freeing, a calming sensation that I still recall.

I slowly began my swim back to the surface of the flowing river. As soon as I surfaced, I heard shouts of “We’ve got him!” and three of my friends began grabbing at me to help me back to shore.

I had stayed under too long. I was being “saved,” it seems.

I kept insisting that I was fine to swim on my own, but my friends wouldn’t let me go until they had pulled me to the riverbank and forced me to lie on the ground, despite all my assurances that I was okay.

And oh, yes, we had drawn a crowd to watch my “rescue.”

I appreciate the concern. Now, all these years later, I still know I wasn’t in danger and would have successfully finished the swim on my own. I made a “note to self” to not allow the long drop to continue next time I plunged into deep water. It makes people anxious and causes all kinds of commotion.

Slightly embarrassed, I made my way to the showers, cleaned up, and changed clothes.

1971 news photo of Milltown Bridge by Berney Cowherd, Evansville Courier & Press

A subgroup of our canoers had made plans to travel over to Leavenworth, Indiana, for dinner at the Overlook, a restaurant on a bluff overlooking a gentle bend in the Ohio River. As we dined on home-style meals, the sun set across the Ohio. A nearly ideal Summer day – despite a brief setback – was drawing to its end with the evening drive back to Evansville in the direction of the setting sun.

A Notable Addition to Lincoln Lore

  For a couple of years in the ‘90s I worked for a theatre at Lincoln State Park (www.indianasabelincoln.org)  in southwestern Indiana that presented an annual summer musical, Young Abe Lincoln. Lincoln’s boyhood years in Indiana from ages 7 to 21 were full of sorrow – he lost his mother and his sister there; much of his lifelong melancholy has its roots there – but crowds could flock to the park on a summer night to watch that story being told in song and dance.

The show was performed in a beautiful outdoor amphitheatre. On the drive to the theatre, one passed the churchyard where Lincoln’s sister, Sarah, is buried. Lincoln’s mother, Nancy, is buried across from the state park in what is now the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial (nps.gov/libo). Young Abe Lincoln was sweet and charming and it played fast and loose with the history.

One rejected marketing pitch for Young Abe Lincoln was “Walk in Lincoln’s Shoes by Day, Dance in Them at Night!” It wasn’t used but it made me smile.

The mythology and biography of Abraham Lincoln is in constant revision. In a timely discussion of unpopular U.S. Presidents not long ago, I mentioned that Abraham Lincoln was so disliked in many quarters that there were those who did not think he would live through his first inauguration.

Somebody said, “But everybody loved Lincoln.”

Such is the filter of time on history. Even though Lincoln is almost universally revered and practically deified today, he was widely reviled by many Southerners and Northerners alike when he assumed the presidency in 1861. Of course some were so fearful of his presidency that there was mass secession and civil war.

Even so, as an elementary school student in a still all-white public school in Birmingham during the height of the civil rights movement and the centennial of the American Civil War, my history lessons presented Lincoln as the epitome of goodness – loved and revered by all, the Great Emancipator, the man who brought unity from division. He was the leader of the northern troops during a bloody civil war but my southern teachers, in teaching that war, always painted Lincoln in a beatific light.

My parents were taught that same reverence for Lincoln in southern classrooms two decades before me.

The dichotomy is not lost on me.

Lincoln has been a popular persona of American culture since his death, celebrated by artists from Walt Whitman’s sublime “O Captain! My Captain” to the ridiculous Seth Grahame-Smith novel Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and its subsequent film adaptation.

Since the advent of film, it seems every generation produces a definitive biographical film about Lincoln. New Lincoln titles are added to book lists annually.

Like most Americans, at least from Baby Boomers back, Lincoln’s life and legacy have been a constant. On my one and only trip to Springfield, Illinois, in the ‘90s, my only objective was to visit Lincoln’s tomb.

On a recent visit to Lexington, Kentucky, I found myself stumbling across places that had relevance to Mary Todd Lincoln’s early life even though I wasn’t necessarily looking for them.

Several birthdays ago, I received Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life by Adam Gopnik (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009) as a gift to commemorate the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth. Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born on the exact same day – February 12, 1809. Gopnik explores the profound impact those two distinct 19th century lives had on society and culture in the two centuries since their births.

Now comes an extraordinary novel, Lincoln in the Bardo (Random House, 2017). The title character of Lincoln in the Bardo, the first novel by George Saunders (who is already wildly acclaimed as a short story writer), is Willie Lincoln, not Abraham. Willie, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln’s third son, died at age 11 in 1862, barely a year into the War. It is known that, after Willie’s funeral, Lincoln travelled alone to the cemetery at night to be with his son’s body, to mourn and weep over him.

That element of fact provides the impetus for Saunders’s highly entertaining choral meditation on death and grief. He uses the night of Willie’s burial as the material for a brilliantly compelling work of robust, complex, and unique fiction.

Lincoln in the Bardo is hypnotic and hallucinogenic. The virtuosic structure combines real historical accounts with fictional historical accounts and, most intriguingly, a chorus of the voices of spirits whose bodies are laid to rest in the Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown where Willie has just been interred in a borrowed crypt.

The “bardo” of the title is a liminal state – a concept in Tibetan Buddhism that refers to the transition from one life to the next. The spirits of Lincoln in the Bardo have, for a variety of reasons, not moved on and are in denial about their own deaths. They refer to their coffins as “sick-boxes” and, despite their supernatural abilities and extreme permutations, await the time when they might return to their normal earthly lives.

I hesitate to divulge too much about Lincoln in the Bardo since it is best to encounter the book with a fresh eye. Suffice it to say that the novel begins with a poignant narrative about an unconsummated marriage and ends with a moment that is thrilling in its abrupt and surprising impact. In between are dozens of distinct voices that narrate the struggle for young Willie Lincoln’s soul, framed by historical documents providing further context for the political and emotional struggles of his father.

Abraham Lincoln’s appearances in the book provide a hush and urgency to the turmoil of the night of Willie’s burial. Saunders captures Lincoln’s insurmountable grief through many eyes and illuminates the undependable nature of personal perception.

In the course of the book, observers call Lincoln “The ugliest man I have ever put my eyes on” and “The homeliest man I ever saw.” A page later someone comments that “He never appeared ugly to me, for his face … had the stamp of intellectual beauty” and another adds that “neighbors told me that I would find Mr. Lincoln was an ugly man, when he is really the handsomest man I ever saw in my life.” Such contradictions abound in the historical testimony of the novel.

Such moments of human and otherworldly cacophony make Lincoln in the Bardo a triumphant read despite its grim and often disturbing subject matter.

I am not an aficionado of audiobooks but I am curious about this one. Each character is voiced by a different performer – 166 in all, including Don Cheadle, Julianne Moore, Susan Sarandon, David Sedaris, Ben Stiller, and George Saunders. I may have to listen to it. In fact, while reading the book, I kept envisioning it as a play or a staged reading event. Its theatricality is undeniable.

Lincoln in the Bardo is certainly not typical summer reading fare and it’s definitely not going to be to everybody’s taste, but for an adventurous reader willing to tackle it, it’s easy to be quickly drawn into this original, magnificent, and challenging book.