Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Ghosts of Christmas Past — A snowy night in the Illinois Valley

On a quiet, snowy Tuesday night in December 1980, I am sliding and fishtailing down Water Street on my way to Murphy’s Saloon where The Jerks are playing that evening.

It’s a good thing there are no other cars on the street-that runs through an industrial section of Peru, Illinois that in turn is located on the banks of the Illinois River-with the way I have been sliding and skidding along. It’s the first real heavy snowfall that I have driven on in years and I am having the time of my life.

It’s been a bittersweet and tragic December. First there was John Lennon being gunned down outside his Dakota apartment; then it was coming home for the holidays after finishing my first full-length semester at Southern Illinois University to find out that my grandmother was in the hospital. My major at SIU was supposed to be filmmaking but after all the concerts and parties, well let’s just say my grade point average for that semester gave new meaning to the term swan dive. No problem, I would have a strong C going into my third semester. And as for my grandmother, she was just in the hospital as a precaution after suffering some dizziness. She would be out in time for Christmas.

So there I was, sliding and skidding along Water Street. I really had no business to be out that night; after all I had seen The Jerks the past weekend, but a lot of people would be there like my very good friend Chris Vasquez. We had bumped into each other one night in October, the first time we had seen each other in over four years and we were becoming tight again.

What I like most about December snow is that if the conditions are just right-temperature and moisture wise-when it does start to snow you can be in for a lot of the white stuff. As long as it stays right around freezing. Don’t want it to get too cold. Then it’s not so fun sliding down the street after you have locked the brakes.

And that’s just what happened in the morning of the 23rd when that white started to come down and come down and just kept on coming down the rest of the afternoon and early evening. It had caught everyone by surprise, not the least of which were the city workers, the snow removal guys who couldn’t get enough trucks out in time to start clearing the streets. And the snow kept on coming down.

When I finally slid into a parking space in front of Murphy’s Saloon, which had once been a small grocery store in the 1930s, it didn’t look like too many people had made it out that night. Still, there was a good crowd inside-mostly the regulars, those who followed The Jerks wherever they played in the Illinois Valley (LaSalle-Peru-Oglesby-Spring Valley) at places like Murphy’s, Friday’s Saloon (just down the street from Murphy’s) and Three N’ Company on St. Vincent’s Avenue on the north end of LaSalle.

The Jerks were this popular New Wave cover band that played a lot of New Music covers by bands like The Vapors, The Police, XTC, The Jags, and The Fabulous Poodles with a lot of 60s rock-The Beatles, The Stones, and The Kinks-thrown in for good measure. Comprised of three former members of Buckacre–Dick Verucchi, Alan Thacker, and Dave “Bodine” Morgan–along with Al Schupp, The Jerks were one of the area’s more popular bands along with Longshot. Back in October of that year, the News Tribune had an article about them and other bands playing the local bar circuit, calling it a “resurgence of rock and roll.” Other than this night when only the courageous and diehard braved the elements to get down to Murphy’s just to dance and party, The Jerks packed them in wherever they played.

That’s what really made the night special. There it was, the night before Christmas Eve, the whole area blanketed with a couple inches of snow that would stay for a couple of days, and just being with people that you really wanted to be with because you all liked the same music. Kind of tapped into the magic of the season. That’s what it is all about, coming home for the holidays and being with loved ones and friends and enjoying your time together.

And then later that night, or should I say early in the morning, with the head buzzing from all the one hits and beer, my ears ringing from the music, I am driving back home down First Street in LaSalle which was still covered with snow. As I slowly maneuvered my car down that snowy street, I gaze up at the illuminated Christmas tree on the top of these cement silos for Illinois Valley Cement. Every year they put up a Christmas tree on top that you could see for miles and now, it was like some beacon guiding me home.

Many Christmases have come and gone since that night; some good, some not so good. When I need to draw upon some of the Christmas and Yuletide magic of those years gone by, I often travel back to that night in 1980.

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2 Comments

  1. Don Twardowski

    April 4, 2012 at 11:26 am

    This story made me a little homesick for days long gone by. Although we didn’t hang around together in those days, I feel like we lived parallel lives to some extent. Your stories almost make me feel as though that was my past. We travelled the same roads but just out of sinc. Thanks for bringing back the memories.

    • Jeffrey

      April 4, 2012 at 4:28 pm

      Thanks so much for your comments, Don. This is one of those posts which is very near and dear to me because it reminds me of back home and a time and place I like to revisit time and time again when I need a bit of “back home.” Yes, we do have much in common and have traveled many of the same roads. Knowing that someone else has a similar experience, or at the very least can share in that experience is what keeps that connection back home vital and heartfelt. Thanks again for stopping by, Don. I hope you will be a regular visitor here.

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