The Ballards - USA - Illinois


The USA is not a country: it's a continent.
As a result many people, especially in the UK, assume America has a homogeneity that simply doesn't exist.

The America presented to the world via popular culture is sunny, clean, Caifornian / Floridan, obsessed with shopping malls and superficiality, overweight and overtly moral, even if the results of that morality causes massive human fallout in other parts of the world.

And all the stereotypes exist: the bumbling bibbed farmer with wispy beard in a beaten-up pick-up; the massively overweight couple who could simply not attain or maintain that size in any other country apart from the US; the loony Southern Baptist who is convinced that his is the Right God, and that believers in other religions, especially Moslems, should be converted, by force if necessary (!). They're all there.

But it's not all the same. Imagine each state as a separate country, with it's own character, and you won't be far off. But they do all speak (roughly) the same language (which is not "English", by the way).

I've been reading some back copies of "Leica" magazine recently from the 1950s and a European traveller of that time to the US was bemoaning the ridiculous and arbitrary European frontier trade and tourism barriers of the time compared with the freedoms Americans had (and still have).
Inter-state travel, commerce and migration is simple and economically friction-free.
Even in post-Schengen 2008 Europe, especially the UK, still has huge and entirely unnecessary cross-border controls.
And of course the language barrier prevents any meaningful economic migration.
Europe is creeping towards a friction-free internal market but entrenched groups profiting from the trade barriers, and the huge language barriers, will always mean it comes a poor second to the USA, or indeed China or India.

Illinois is a state right in the middle, in an area called "The MidWest".
It's not "Old America" (New England) or "the West" (think Yul Brynner in a cowboy hat) but was settled following a few Indian massacres people are careful not to discuss any more during the 17th and 18th Centuries by a mixture of Europeans seeking space, land, religious freedom and a better life.
It's the size of England and has a smilar spread of local characteristics.

Chicago is metropolitan, Yuppie lakeside, stainless steel and glass skyscrapers, wannabe New York, and inescapably borderline rust-belt, especially the Southern Chicago industrial agglomeration which continues pretty much unbroken all the way around the bottom of Lake Michigan to Gary, Indiana and beyond.
All the way, in fact, to Michigan, where at last it peters out into woods and small farming communities peopled by the descendants of dour Protestant Dutch farmers; hence the preponderance of white-painted churches in the Dutch colonial style.

Central and Western Illinois is John Deere farming country: mainly maize (they call it corn) with hogs (that's pigs to us Brits) living off the discarded husks.

It's hugely flat, to a degree unknown in the UK, even in Norfolk.
Parts of France South of Paris come the closest I've seen, and French influence is strong in the MidWest, espcially around Detroit.
The fields are multiples of a mile square, to accommodate highly mechanised agriculture performed increasingly commonly by contractors, who sweep across the country like huge, mechanised locusts, to sow or harvest.
The square-mile grid system was instituted in the 1800s and due to the curve of the earth, every few miles the fields are not quite a mile square and the roads don't quite line up.
So the earth really isn't flat.

No hedgerows means few signs of wildlife; the silence can be deafening.
A non-fence mentality prevails: nothing is fenced: not fields, not gardens, not roads, not railroads (railways to us Brits).
This would add up to many train fatalities were it not for the fact that the trains never run at more than 40mph and there are no corners on the tracks, so you can see one coming for 10-15 miles away, giving even an arthiritic tortoise an even chance of escape.
But many Americans are killed each year on level crossings due to the stupidity of automatic transmissions making it impossible to crank a stalled car off a level crossing using the starter motor.

Many minor roads run unbroken and straight for hundreds of miles, broken only by occasional jarring bumps presaging Stop signs (to awaken sleeping drivers who haven't turned the wheel in 8 hours), small farming communities consisting entirely of men in John Deere baseball hats, and huge, looming grain elevators looking like stranded spaceships.

Every Stop sign has buckshot marks and every small bar has a Pabst Blue Ribbon illuminated sign outside and 50 pickups: everyone drinks beer from the bottle.
The beer comes universally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin and is weak, extremely gassy and sufficiently cold (reinforced by glasses held in a freezer) to prevent any remaining possibility of taste from activating the taste buds.

This is the real MidWest.

Further South the accent changes, racial attitudes harden, poor black people and denim dungarees are more evident.
Northern Illinois looks down on Southern Illinois, and yet the State Capital (Springfield) is in the South.
I never understood the State Capital thing: Springfield is relatively small, compared to the giant that is Chicago: why isn't Chicago the State Capital?

The whole state resounds with weird names: from Moline in the North to Mechanicsburg in the South, via Normal in the middle, the encroaching pioneers in the 18th Century simply ran out of European names in the vastness and, I suspect, started making them up after boozy hoedowns...
"Hey, Jed, you got one o' them newfangled ploughs, ain't ya? That makes you a mechanic, and where you live, this one horse town, we can call it Mechanicsburg, 'cos none of us can think of any better names......"

Only in the States is the infrastructure suited to being vastly overweight.
American cars are available with bench seats, so an individual who would simply not be able to reach the gearstick or the handbrake in a European car can effortlessly slide in as far as necessary: the steering wheel even raises out of the way to accommodate girths of such huge proportions.
Everything is larger: shop doors, car doors, escalators, lifts, house doors, baths, toilet seats.
The whole country is designed around large people.

The concept of a highly mobile internal labour market has underpinned the American economic powerhouse in a way that can never be repeated in Europe due to the different languages.
Theoretically, I could go and work in France or Germany with no Work Permit necessary, but in practice I don't speak French or German well enough to get, or to hold down, a job there, nor do my family speak either of these languages at all.
America speaks the same language from coast to coast and this eases the transition of a worker from, say, a MidWest rustbelt job in Gary, Indiana, to a new start in Utah.

Generations of this mobility have resulted in a thoroughly mixed-up gene pool and an element of rootlessness: few Americans live anywhere near their forebears and this results in simply huge demand for internal travel at Public holiday time.
The rootlessness causes great interest in genealogy: "where did my forebears come from?" to an extent never matched by Europeans.
Americans especially prize an English or Irish connection a few generations back which gives them an excuse to "go visit the Old Country", where they rediscover all the reasons their forebears left in the first place: repressive governments, religious persecution, poverty, racism, high taxation, and a lack of decent plumbing.

American plumbing is the best in the world: the showers are hot and strong, there is always plenty of hot water, the cold tap is always on the right, the loos are clean and flush with plenty of water, the baths are long enough (although not always deep enough), the shower stays at the same temperature all the time without suddenly scalding or freezing you, you can flush the loo paper down the loo without blocking up the drains, they have TVs and phones in the bathrooms, having 2 sinks in a bathroom is not considered the mark of a lunatic, there is always a plug and it always fits, and you can swing a cat in the bathroom.

Many of the above rarely apply in any other country.
In Heaven the plumbing is designed by Americans (and in hell, by the French.....)

But American cars are universally crap.
I reckon I've driven representative vehicles from all major US and "home grown import" manufacturers, and they're universally dreadful.
No wonder the discerning American drives a BMW or a Merc: after 30 years of serious imports the US auto industry still can't design, or build, a car that can hold a match to a German vehicle.
The suspension is of the "boulevard ride" type, so you get seasick, the steering bears little relationship to what the front wheels are doing and has half a turn of slack around the midpoint, the brakes are dead to the foot, the tyres scream and let go at the first sign of a turn, the interior space inefficiency is enough to make Alex Issigonis turn in his grave: a car the size of Nessa's Volvo estate has room for 2 people, two children (just) and a golf bag in the boot if you're lucky.
And the predilection for automatics doesn't help: automatics are simply dangerous and unsophisticated.
You can't stop smoothly, you can't change gear quickly or smoothly, you can't start the car without flashing your reversing lights, you have no engine braking so you wear your brakes out and you can't control the car on icy roads, the box shifts just as you've got the car set up for a corner and one end or t'other lets go....... I could go on.
But they should be Banned.

What I can't understand is that the US has the best road system in the world, the worst cars, and some of the worst drivers, and the lowest speed limts in the civilised world: for years you could legally drive faster in Poland than in many US states....
Only Montana (where they have removed, like Germany, the upper limit entirely), has a shred of common sense.

Ever since I was young (and watched too much American cop-TV) I have yearned to drive on those amazing US interstates, with their complex, looping junctions, overpasses and multi-lane heaven. Of course since the mid-1960s when sophistication in the UK was a third, "suicide" shared overtaking lane down the middle of a wide A road) a lot of the American road system has come to us in the form of the Motorway system, many dualled A-roads and of course the notorious "Spaghetti Junction" at Gravelly Hill in Birmingham, less impressive from the roadside it must be said. But I was still keen to sample this childhood dream.
And I have to say I was hugely disappointed: the promise of high speed, uninterrupted city-to-city Autobahn-like cruising has simply not been achieved. The terrible expansion joints in the concrete surface, the abysmal tyres and suspensions of the cars, the lunatic policing and the over-tight corners of the uncambered, narrow sliproads combine to make long-distance driving dull, dangerous and slow. Over 100 miles you may as well fly. I have driven in Germany where you really can attain 150mph for hours, and the other drivers expect it and move out of the way, so I know the real thing when I experience it. And here it is, US Government: the German system is better.

The weather in Illinois is more extreme than in the UK: more wind, more cold, more hot and more weird.
I saw a thunder-snowstorm one night; you don't get these in Oxford!
And one afternoon, descending into Chicago O'Hare, the cloud was flat and all-encompassing below us in the late afternoon light; all except one interruption. The John Hancock Tower stood up right through the cloud, the only sign of land for hundreds of miles in all directions.
And I didn't have a camera available...

Many things have been said about Peoria, many jokes have been made ("if it won't go in Peoria, it won't go anywhere").
In reality, it is a typical MidWestern town remarkable only for the fact that it is almost exactly halfway between the East and West coasts.
The people are a little parochial, but that's to be expected when the sea is 1,000 miles in any direction and the nearest foreign country is a clone of yours.

Peoria started as an Indian encampment on a lake in the Illinois River (apparently the fishing was good), and has grown to 112,000 people (and not a Native American in sight.... Ooh, hush my mouth).
Its main claim to fame is that it is the home of the Holt Engineering Company.

You've never heard of the Holt Engineering Company, have you? Let's try their more commonly known title, Caterpillar.
Ah, that's a little better.
Now try anything that shifts earth, is bright yellow and doesn't have JCB on the side.
The biggest earthmoving and construction machinery company in the world, Holt invented the caterpillar track in the 1930s to prevent farmers getting bogged down in muddy fields.
It has been the most phenomenally successful idea, variously credited with ending the Depression, winning the 2nd World War by allowing airfields to be quickly built by the SeeBees in the Pacific theatre, and rescuing the world from agricultural disaster in the 1950s by opening up areas of the world hitherto inaccessible to agriculture and thus feeding the hugely increased post-WW2 populations in many countries.

Nowadays, Peoria has spread to both sides of the river, and up on to the bluffs above the river valley.
In the best American tradition, downtown is dead, kept alive only by public money in the form of grand civic projects, and all the economic activity has moved up on to the bluffs in to what social geographers call "edge cities" (gosh, I do remember some A Level Geography: JJMcPartlin can't have been such a bad teacher after all...).
The river valley is now populated by poor white trash who watch daytime TV and appear on Gerry Springer, and black people desperate to rise to the middle class and move up on to the bluffs.
Behind the bluffs is the endless expanse of the MidWest prairie upon which Peoria is slowly but surely encroaching, but such is the scale of the place that if they were to expand for a thousand years they would barely begin to make a scratch upon the expanse.

The people are mainly descendants of assorted Northern European escapees with genes that, released from the privations of the low-quality European diet, have spawned generations of successively taller and taller people.
These people are known locally as "corn fed", although I would suggest the description is better suited to the huge number of vastly overweight people in the State.
Often blonde and blue eyed, they still have the inbred taciturnity necessary to survive the subzero winters and the boredom of sitting, week upon week, on a tractor, ploughing the same 1,000-acre field.

It's easy to make friends in Illinois: the locals are pleased to see you, to get to know you, and to interact socially.
They teach good social skills and good citizenship in the schools: Illinois people are immensely proud of their country.
Every 4th July virtually all houses have an American flag outside, and many fly the Stars and Stripes all year round. Burning an American flag is considered to be a slight upon the country in a far deeper sense than we would take the burning of a Union Jack.
British people, since the 1960s, have lost all sense of their country being an important world power in that sense, following the successive body blows of loss of Empire, the oil crisis of the 1970s and the crippling Trade Union strikes and obduracy leading to a disastrous lack of investment precisely at the point the country needed it most.
We survive as a second rate power still punching above our weight but only until North Sea oil runs out, at which point we will truly become a 3rd World country.

But it is hard to make a true, close, Illinois friend. From my time there I have only kept in touch with 2 or 3 people, although I had several hundred acquaintances.
I found it hard to get beneath the surface, but perhaps that's me and not them.

I lived in Peoria, Illinois from 1986 to 1988, so I saw two extremely cold winters and one ferociously hot summer.
The extremes of a Continental climate are unimaginable to one brought up in a Maritime climate.
I mean, we get snow in the UK, but it's rare and it melts in a few days. We get heatwaves, but they are rare and short.
The Mid-West, by comparison, gets feet and feet of snow many times throughout the winter, and the summers are always over 100°F for several months, much larger temperature excursions than the benevolent (but depressing) collection of Maritime storms the Brits call a climate: let's face it, we don't have a climate, we just have weather.
Weather forecasting for Illinois must be the easiest thing out: you can see the weather coming for days ahead.

Summers are unbelievably hot, making it imperative to wear as little as possible; hence the Mid-Western predilection for T-shirts, denim shorts and tennis shoes.
Nowadays the intense heat (coupled with 100% humidity) is tempered in houses, work places and public areas by positively Arctic air-conditioning systems but before "aircon" was invented they just sweltered in the summer, so a traditional Illinois house has a porch on the front with swinging chair not because it was cute, but because it was the best way of catching any possible breeze of an evening.

This goes on for nearly 6 months of the year. Then one day in October the temperature plummets, you switch off your air-con and start your boiler (furnace) as Winter arrives.....

These are bone-numbingly cold: breathe in and the hairs in your nose freeze, your jaw aches, your skull aches as the cartilage in your ears transfers the cold inwards, car door locks freeze up, frostbite theatens in the 100 yards between the car and the Mall door.
Suddenly wearing vests or long johns becomes more than "something your Grandfather once did in the days before central heating".
The road surfaces (pavements in American), car parks and pavements (sidewalks in American - confusing, isn't it?) become sheet ice, impossible to walk or drive on in any sane fashion.
And then it snows. Not a couple of inches but 2 or 3 feet will fall.
Roads get blocked by 12 foot snowdrifts.
And they still expect you to get to work.
Bloody glad I did that skid pan training all those years ago.

But Illinois folk are used to the conditions: whereas three inches of "the wrong sort" of snow will cripple British transport, 12 feet of snow and Illinois just carries on.
Everybody has a pickup in the garage and they all have dozer blades for the front.
They each seem to have, by some undisclosed rota, a car park or road section to clear, and within hours they're all back to normal.
And (I hate to admit this, but....) they can drive in snow better than we can.

And this goes on until April when Spring (all of one day) arrives, you switch the heater off and the air-con on again.

I watched them building houses and apartment blocks. Everything, but everything, is built from wood. So, of course, they are paranoid about fire in buildings.
Why not build in breeze blocks like everybody else, then buildings don't burn so easily?

A lot of old buildings get torn down to make way for new ones: antiquity is not generally prized.
But occasionally a building or group of buildings will be preserved for their heritage value, and these can be beautiful.

Illinois is "real" America, far more than many tourist destinations.
As a result, many people have a) never left the state, b) never left the country (only 16% of Americans have passports, less than the percentage claiming to have been abducted by aliens...) and c) never met a real live Brit.
The horny joke about them believing we all live like "Upstairs Downstairs" in some Georgian timewarp and know the Royal Family personally is not so far from the truth.
I got more free beers from just speaking normally in a bar than I will ever get anywhere else.