Jul 13, 2013

Fort Sheridan

For the last 2.5 years, GABROEN have lived in the so-called tower barracks in the Town of Fort Sheridan. The fort was an actual army base for over 100 years, and was named after Philip Sheridan, a celebrated Union cavalry general during the American civil war. He was a colorful character to say the least, with a personal quest to get National Park protection to Yellowstone's buffalos, but at the same time he applauded white hunters trespassing on indian lands and killing 4 million bison. He is also known for being a 'great' indian fighter; supposedly, when told by the Comanche chief "me good injun", he responded "all good indians I know are dead". This made it into history as "the only good indian is a dead indian", which may not be exactly what Ol' Phil meant, but I think you get the picture of this guy.
He actually was in Chicago at the time of the Great Fire, and was put in charge when the mayor installed martial orders in the fire's aftermath. To thank him for his services, the newly installed fort was named after him, as well as the lakeside road from downtown Chicago to the fort. To this day, there's a bronze statue of Ol' Phil on his horse Rienzi along Sheridan Road in downtown Chicago, by the same sculptor that designed the four presidents' busts at Mount Rushmore, and another one on the fort's former parade ground - now our front yard.

Interestingly, Fort Sheridan was never close to a battlefield, nor to any border
with enemy nations or tribes to the West or North. The only reason for its creation was that a few guys that made it big in Chicago's industry where moving out of the stinking city to more comfortable mansions and villas on the Northshore, and they were getting a little nervous with the labor unrests of the 1880s. They requested a garrison from the federal government to protect their valuable estates, who initially refused - I'm sure it had more pressing things on its mind at the time. To get their way, the Chicago commerce club ended up donating the prime real estate along the lake to the army.

Most of the fort's 90 or so historic buildings were built in the 1880s and 90s, including the iconic tower which at the time was the tallest building in the Chicago area. Not for long, as competing architecture firms figured out a way to build skyscrapers on Chicago's marshy soil. The garrison was actually deployed to quench the 1894 Pullman strike, but within 10 years of its existence the fort became a major training and rehabilitation facility for the Spanish American War and in particular World War II, processing a staggering 500,000 soldiers for military service in the early 1940s. So again, the federal government had more pressing things to care about than the mansions in affluent neighbor towns Lake Forest and Highland Park.
Most of the fort was closed in 1993, but there still is an active reserve base to our South and to our North. Part of the lands were used for housing employees of the Great Lakes Naval Base further north, but all historical buildings, including barracks, officer homes, kitchens, jail, veterinary office, mess hall and fire station, were turned into residential area.


One of our neighbors, now 85, grew up in this area and returned to live in the fort 15 years ago. He vividly remembers the bustling activity during World War II, and told us about the encampments where German prisoners of war were held. This lot is once again designated as "prime lakefront property", but the housing market bust has not helped in finding interested buyers. In contrast to the German POWs, who were locked up in camps, the Italian POWs were put in apartments in the next door village of Highwood. They supposedly did not require incarceration, as they had no desire to return to their homeland, and to this day Highwood still is a very thriving Italian-American community.

Our 85-year old neighbor Narrin also recalled shooting practice in the indoor range on the top floor of the tower barracks, what is now our bedroom; you can still see the original opening in the exposed brick wall on Jeroen's side of the bed, now closed up with almost exactly matching masonry work. The historic bricks were all made locally out of the local bluffs, and they show over 100 years of wear and tear, but some holes in our bedroom wall seem to originate from a stray practice bullet. The history and character of this place makes it unique in the northern suburbs, and that's what was appealing to GABROEN. We visit friends who live in the old kitchen unit, had a christmas party in the old bakery, do an evening dog walk by the tower, officers' mess hall and fire station. We walk along the parade ground and beautiful officer homes, we hike on trails that used to be the airstrip but are now restored as original prairie land with abundant wildflowers, and we sleep in a former shooting range.

After so many years in the fort, Narrin is moving out next week. He's going to an assisted living home in Lake Forest - we heard it was his grand wish to one day call zip code 60045 home. It's a step up, numerically, from where we are at 60035. But I guess for him it's a big step up on the aristocratic ladder to finally move in with the truly affluent, the rich benefactors who created Fort Sheridan in the first place. We hope you enjoy it, Narrin

Jul 10, 2013

Extreme weather

As they say, everything is bigger in America. Typically that saying is referring to manmade things, but after moving here GABROEN realized it also applies to nature, and the weather. Tornadoes, hurricanes, snow storms, all indicate the US climate produces more extreme weather than what GABROEN has encountered in Western Europe. And that's not only a matter of perception - statistics show that the U.S. holds many weatherly world records:

- most snowfall in one year: 95 feet (Mt Baker, Washington)
- heaviest rainfall in one hour: 12 inches (Holt, Missouri), which is about a third of the average annual precipitation in notoriously wet places like London or Amsterdam
- largest hailstone: 8 inch in diameter (Vivian, South Dakota) - imagine getting that on your car
- hottest temperature: 134 F, or 57 C (Death Valley, California) - back in 1913, and the local mercury came eerily close at this record's centennial last week.

Supposedly this all has to do with geography - the US is uniquely situated about halfway between the equator and the pole, in between two oceans, and without east-west mountain ranges. This creates a continuous collision between dry, cold arctic air and moist, warm air from the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and Pacific, a recipe for everything from arctic blizzards to the 10,000 or so severe thunderstorms and 1000 (or 80-90% of the world's) tornadoes each year.

Northern Illinois is not part of tornado alley, but being perched against Lake Michigan we do seem to be at a summer storm cul-de-sac. Most of the storm systems that wreak havoc further southwest migrate up to us and create spectacular skies (see last year's post Local warming), perhaps because they hit cooler air over the lake.

This year's first visitor frequented our climatic cul-de-sac about two months ago, dumping almost 10 inches of rain (see the post Crazy weather), and since then we have seen a pretty continuous flow of storms come through. Much to the dismay of the fragile petunia flowers on our deck, and a particular Mexican hairless dog. Fortunately, her senior ears make her pretty much oblivious to all but the heaviest thunder striking very close-by, but she still appreciates being walked appropriately timed in between storms, so she's the only one watering the plants.

We had another spectacular system come through a few days ago, with dramatic skies of grey and fiery tones and a tiny rainbow as extra splash of color.

Jul 2, 2013

The right to bare heads

I was always puzzled by the fact that in most states one is required to wear a helmet when riding a bicycle, but can leave one's helmet home when taking one's Harley on a 70 miles per hour cruise on the interstate. I wondered whether this has something to do with the free-spiritness of motorbikes, with not wanting to be told or restricted in any way by the government. Similar to the gun debate - perhaps NRA stands for the National Riders Association? I have not studied all constitutional amendments in detail, but I would not be in the least bit surprised if the famous Second Amendment not only talks about the popular right to bear arms, but also includes the right to bare heads. 

All of that said, I did encounter an unexpected reason to wear a bicycle helmet yesterday. I was going to the office along the local bike path, enjoying the nice morning sun, a little lake breeze and plenty of wildlife. A deer, six rabbits, two chipmunks, red robins, barn swallows and plenty of pretty redwinged blackbirds. The latter were singing and gurgling their little hearts out, with so much enthousiasm that they spread their tails wide in order not to fall of the electric wires. I had forgotten my helmet, so rode bare headed, which is actually a better way to enjoy the gentle lake breeze. However, I rode bare headed straight into  a Hitchcock movie, when one of those pretty redwinged buggers attacked. It hovered over my head, scratching my skull with its tiny talons!  Not a good day to forget one's helmet. 

I was certainly aware that these little buggers were not as pretty as they look; on another bike path a couple of miles south there are traffic sings warning for these attacks during breeding season. But this breeding season, apparently the redwinged blackbirds are extending their territory northbound. Or perhaps they share that same American free-spiritness; they are leaving the path with the traffic signs, as they see that as the government interfering with their lives and with their rights to bare heads, to attack bare heads that is.