Approach the little burg of Atwood through the country — and there is, frankly, no other way to approach — and the first thing you see are the lights. They glow high in the pitch black of an autumn evening, higher than anything in town save perhaps the big grain elevator that once gave places like Atwood their reason to exist.
By the time you depart the car and test your jacket against the night air, the very atmosphere seems charged with the current of those lights. I've experienced those sensations perhaps a hundred times, felt that tingle of the electricity. I remembered it instantly.
Friday night offers the full week's entertainment in thousands of places like Atwood. That's not a complaint. People don't seek such places in search of excitement. But an evening's diversion under those big lights seems welcome by nearly everyone.
They'll have it no more, not in Atwood, one more town now dark the whole week long.
These are the Friday night lights — storied in Texas, perhaps, but instantly recognizable in communities from Southern California to upstate New York. In villages, they mark the social center of the week, not for athletes and adolescents, but for everyone still able to board a pickup truck or minivan and make it to the school.
(I used to marvel that my late mother-in-law, who raised three boys, would decades later still drive herself to a spot facing the end zone and roll down her car windows. Severe arthritis kept her in the car, and milling fans on foot blocked the view from the seat. But she could see the scoreboard, hear the P.A., feel the airborne electricity and still make it home in time to see if the highlights she missed had somehow found their way to the TV news. If that seems odd, you've never lived in a place like Atwood.)
This night — this particular night — they were calling the game at Fred Boll Field in Atwood "the last homecoming." It would be the final opportunity for those who graduated from Atwood-Hammond High School (or from Atwood Township High School before that) to see the lights, climb the noisy bleachers or cling to the surrounding fence.
And they came. Came from all over. Came from Arizona and Georgia and California. Came in numbers no one really expected, I think, to watch a game none of them particularly cared about. Mostly, like me, they just wanted to be there — maybe to feel the electricity they'd forgotten, maybe to bathe for a few minutes in the warm water of nostalgia, maybe just to see who else would come. But they came. And it had almost nothing to do with football.
Homecoming everywhere is the designated event to welcome back alumni. They rarely indulge. I hadn't been to a homecoming game since I reached the age of majority. It's really for the kids — a time to build floats and to wear flowers and fancy dresses and ride convertibles.
Tonight, the alumni came by the hundreds, someone thought maybe a thousand of them. At a school that graduated maybe 50 or 60 youngsters a year at its peak and far fewer now, a thousand is a lot. But the word had been sent and the welcome set out. In the west end zone, a tent awaited each decade of grads, each stocked with homemade cookies and jugs of lemonade and festooned with memorabilia from their era — pictures, old sweaters and football jerseys. Someone knew they would come.
There, beneath the lights, the decades all merged. The carefully managed high school cliques dissolved faster than the lemonade mix. Old classmates who may rarely have spoken as kids greeted each other with open-armed embraces. Age melted like ice cubes. Extended conversations arose between people who'd never even met before.
And at halftime, they toured the old school — now physically much smaller than it once was, as if it had sometime since been left in the dryer too long. Could the halls really have been so short? The rooms so very small? Everything was otherwise unchanged. The English room was still where the English room belonged. Biology was still in its appointed place.
And casual eavesdropping suggested that the inhabitants of the place maybe didn't change so much over the years. A 60-year-old can be heard excitedly: "Do you remember that one time when we ...?" as she passed through the library. A few minutes later, someone else — maybe 30 years her junior, giggles: "Do you remember that one time when we ...?"
But as small as the old place has become, it is way too big for the current occupancy. The pictures of each graduating class on the wall tell the story. My own class of baby boomers was one of the largest, it turns out. Come next year, the handful remaining will make the trip to school at Arthur, a nice little town not really all that different.
Little Atwood will grow quieter still in the absence of school plays and Friday lights and boys in cars on gravel parking lots. Who knows what will become of the old brick building and Boll Field.
But I think I now know something that will remain. There are bonds, you see — long, strong and invisible — that tie people together against great differences of time, station and space.
This came back to me last week as I listened to people talk about Gifford. Those from there, but no longer of there, spoke of the need — not just the desire — to go back and help. "Those are my people," one told an interviewer.
Maybe small towns are just that way. People grouped so closely for 10 or 20 years become like the ingredients in a long-simmering soup. They may seem as different as cabbage and carrots. But take one away, even far away, and it nonetheless retains the taste of all the others.
We live in a world where everything must be big. Big fish eat little fish. Big stores eat little stores. Big towns eat little towns. "Global" is almost a synonym for good. "Universal" is better.
But small isn't bad. Good things, my mother told me, come in small packages.
People must be tightly bound to fit in small places. Some of us chafed at those bonds. We were far more alike than we knew, and we so wanted to be different. But the tethers stretch over great time and great space and great change without ever fully loosing their pull — be the occasion a great community maelstrom or no more than one last chance to happily share the lights.
John Foreman, publisher of The News-Gazette, can be reached by email at email@example.com or by mail at P.O. Box 677 in Champaign.