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Political Mercury

Stolen nights and places in between


political mercIt started as instinct. I was 10. I didn’t have the words to summon an explanation.

But I knew it, felt it. These are my places — the places along the journey to celebrated destinations.

My father was a music professor at Simpson College in Indianola, which afforded our family wide openings on summer calendars in the late 1970s.

On one weeks-long trip into the northern United States and Canada — one that would bring stunning mountains and brilliant ocean vista views to my young eyes — we spent the first night at a motor lodge in Chamberlain, South Dakota, a city of about 3,000 people on the Missouri River.

We swam in a modest outdoor pool, and surely visited a museum with something to do with the Plains Indians and ate local diner food. I thought it was about the best place ever — my kind of place.

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“What was your favorite place on the trip?” my family and friends asked on our return.

“Chamberlain,” I said, without hesitation.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the experience would launch a lifelong love of the places in between. There’s a serenity to stopping in Paducah, Kentucky, just across Ohio River from Illinois — a state that gives us Galesburg, home of a Lincoln-Douglas debate, and of course, The Packinghouse Dining Company.

We’re told, bludgeoned by popular culture really, with the allegedly accepted opinion that there’s nothing worthwhile in these towns, that they are to be flown over at 20,000 feet and sped around on a four-lane bypass. Don’t want to miss an hour in Orlando, right?

But I’ve delighted in these days and nights in Peoria, Illinois, or Port Angeles, Washington, or Crawfordsville, Indiana (where you can get a really super car wash). The nation’s molders and shakers of what’s cool, what’s worth doing, tell me I’m not supposed to be having fun on a Wednesday night in the middle of May in Peoria. But I am. I call these times my stolen nights because I know that I’m getting sustenance that escapes the Expedia addicts of urban America — people for whom Aspen, Colorado, passes as rural.

Stephen King — the novelist, not the same-named author of political horrors — captures the richness of life in the places in between in “11/22/63” — a door-stopping and genius work in which the protagonist, a GED teacher in 2011, is shown a time porthole that takes him back to 1958. The fictional Jake Epping travels back into rural Maine with a mission: stop the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

The premise is a page-tuner, to be sure, but the heart of the book is King’s decision to use rural locales — namely the small town of Jodie, Texas, an hour south of Dallas — as characters themselves in the book. King’s time traveler could choose anyplace to live — with riches from predicting the stock market and Kentucky Derby outcomes — but he chooses the quietly fulfilling life of a high school drama teacher in the early 1960s rural reaches of Texas.

Epping is living, really living, in a way that is heart-liftingly familiar to many of us in rural Iowa. Stephen King is not just filling pages along the way to a date with destiny in Dallas.

As for the fate of Kennedy in the King novel…

It’s only 849 pages. I’d suggest reading it.

I’ll give you one hint: George Wallace is involved.

It’s interesting, though. In reading a book fed by thoughts on time, I came out loving a place.

A place I know so well, even though I’ve never been there. CV

Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman who writes for The Carroll Daily Times Herald and offers columns for Cityview.

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