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A Davenport Boyhood

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

We all agree, don’t we, that civilization is on its last legs? A few more years, at most. Who’s to blame, do you think? The atomic bomb? Women’s liberation? Rock music? McDonald’s? I might have picked one of those had I not come across Harry Hansen’s reminiscence of growing up in Davenport, Iowa a hundred years ago.

I now know the culprit: it’s the exodus from the front porch—where we could see each other across the street as we watched life pass for our inspection—to that ubiquitous construction known as the deck, stuck onto the back of nearly every house whether it fits or not, where we hide from each other while we grill hamburgers.

Harry Hansen became famous as the literary editor of the Chicago Daily News in the 1920s, where he mingled with Carl Sandburg, Sherwood Anderson, and Edgar Lee Masters—a success he ascribed to a boyhood spent peering through the picket fence in front of his Davenport home. Who needed television when, through that picket fence, a boy faced streets that were alive with sights and sounds—horse cars rattling across the intersection, iron-rimmed wagons whose drivers raised their voices in animated conversations, pounding horse hooves raising swirls of dust.

That was only the beginning. Through that picket fence or from the high front porch, a boy could watch a succession of parades and marches until his ears rang with band music. Everyone took to the streets, where ready-made audiences on front porches waited. Political rallies, lodge events, conventions, civic celebrations, even family picnics called for a march through town. In the evenings, Hansen wrote, Davenport was bright with torchlight parades and with luck, a new march by John Philip Sousa. If a boy watched long enough, all of life paraded before his eyes and ears.

What a difference today, with civilization in its decline—life has deserted the streets, now quiet. Cars are not there to be seen, and in any case, there is no one to watch. Even boys are behind the houses on the decks, with little but garages to look at and a foreboding sense that nothing is about to happen.

Rock Island Lines is underwritten by the Illinois Humanities Council and Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, with additional funding from Humanities Iowa, the Iowa Arts Council, and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.