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Pilgrimage to Moline

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

In his lifetime, John Cervantes has made forty-one pilgrimages—all of them to Moline, Illinois. He has trouble explaining that to his eight children in Southern California.

Even to John, it's more heart than reason. Moline is where his family came in 1925, determined to stop their migrant wanderings from Mexico to Montana, following the sugar beet harvest.

As did many other Mexican families, this family of illegal aliens lived for a time in a boxcar between the Burlington and Milwaukee tracks, with one outhouse for all the boxcar families. The only water came from an outlet valve for use by train crews a half-block down the tracks.

Money was always tight, but it grew desperate when John's father, worn out, died at the age of forty-one. John managed to help support his mother as a caddy at the Rock Island Arsenal Golf Club, and still save just enough for tuition at Augustana College in 1934.

From these unpromising beginnings, John Cervantes went on the get a master’s degree in education at the University of Illinois. He became a United States citizen by serving in the Fifth Air Force at Okinawa and the Philippines during World War II. As a distinguished teacher in Southern California, John served as a member of the first Los Angeles City Schools Council on Human Relations.

So why these pilgrimages back to a boxcar in Moline? The boxcar is long gone. The world of uniformed bellhops and wealthy patrons he envied through the glass doors of the new LeClaire Hotel in 1925 is no more.

But for John Cervantes, the Moline that let him become an American is still here. "A spiritual place," he says. In this Moline lived the school chum from the right side of the tracks who got him his golf club job; the hardware man and the grocery store owner who extended the immigrant family credit, the policeman who bought John a new bicycle when his was smashed by a truck, and the Moline school teachers who gave him books and encouraged him to go on to college, and whose mysterious supply of clothing kept him dressed.

A spiritual place, perhaps, but peopled not by angels, but by sturdy Moliners.

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.