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The Poor House

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Whenever I wake to one of those cold, blizzardy mornings tempting me to call in sick, a childhood song floats into my mind. "Over the hill to the poor house." I'm up, shaved, and off to work in ten minutes. The only place worse than hell in my Midwest Lutheran home was the county poor home.

Every county in the Mississippi Valley had one hidden away up on the bluffs. A large old farmhouse in need of paint huddled at the end of a long lane, hidden by a tangled windbreak of scrub trees. Here lived those whom life had thrown three strikes: they were elderly, poor, and alone. A few were ill, too. They sat in rows of rocking chairs on the long front porch of the house.

My family only drove past our poor house once or twice when I was young, but it was enough to keep me doing my school assignments and delivering my papers on time. "You don't want to end up at the poor house," my mother would say.

Now, I'm not so sure. I have just read an account of life at the Warren County poor farm south of here by a man who grew up there with other children from broken homes or no homes. He remembered the friendliness, the caring shared by those thrown together by adversity. They laughed, those children, just as my friends and I did. They played the same games of marbles; they, too slid down haymows; they swung wide on knotted ropes and rode farm pigs.

In fact, they were allowed to do daredevil things we never could do. They walked the parapet along the roof of the home, they skinny dipped in the creek and mooned the Santa Fe train as it passed by.

The county poor house is long gone, but I now see why my mother never told me to read Walden. In the last chapter, Thoreau suggests that faultfinders will find fault even in paradise, whereas even in the poor house, "you may find some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours." "The setting sun" wrote Thoreau, "is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man's abode."

I know all this, and believe it, but still, I can't shake that little ditty from my mind and call in sick.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

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.