Lots of Lincoln

Friday, October 26, 2007

Springfield -- the one in Illinois -- has long been on our list of places to visit, but my wife and I always found excuses to go other places. Until last weekend, that is.

It has been our custom for several years to plan a long weekend away from home when the cool weather of autumn arrives. Other trips have included such destinations as Asheville, N.C., in the Great Smoky Mountains and Saugatuck, Mich., on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. Now Springfield ranks near the top of our best-ever October meanderings.

Springfield has a lot going for it, including the newly opened Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. The city -- flat as a table top to those of us who are used to the Ozarks over yonder -- is as clean and pretty as you could possibly imagine, with tree-lined streets laid out like a checkerboard.

The Illinois capital is filled with politics, but history buffs won't even notice. Springfield has taken great pains to make a tourist feel right at home. And, fortunately for those of us who are age-advantaged, almost everything is within easy walking distance.

In addition to all the Lincoln-related sites, Springfield offers one of the most spectacular Frank Lloyd Wright houses, the Dana-Thomas House, to be found anywhere. Built in 1904, the house was meant by its owner to be the most ostentatious home in the city. It was. And still is.

Just a few blocks away is the Lincoln neighborhood, where streets are closed to traffic and the houses, including the one the Lincoln family was living in when Abe became president, have been restored to the way they would have looked in the mid-1800s.

The spectacular centerpiece, however, is the Lincoln Presidential Museum. It is a stunning combination of artifacts and the latest technology. Productions in the museum's theaters leave you breathless -- and scratching your head and saying, "How did they do that?"

It was serendipity that the weekend we chose for our Springfield trip was the same weekend picked by the American Ex-Prisoners of War Organization for its national convention in the same downtown hotel where we were staying.

Most of the former POWs were captured by the enemy during World War II, so they are in their 80s. There also were former POWs from Vietnam and Korea, but one attendee told us on a windy walk toward the hotel entrance, "We won't be meeting too many more years. We'll all be gone."

It was great to see that many of the former POWs had brought younger generations of children and grandchildren to the convention. What a wonderful experience that had to have been for them.

Every time I walked through the lobby or went to breakfast, I got a lump in my throat thinking about the sacrifices these men had made.

Something eerie happened at the Lincoln museum while we were visiting. In the main rotunda there are life-size figures of the entire Lincoln family dressed for church or some similar outing. They are standing as if they are having their photograph taken, and museum visitors join them to have their pictures taken with the latest electronic gizmos. It was great fun watching families and individuals of all ages line up for photos.

While resting on a bench in the rotunda, I saw one of the former POWs (most of them wore red vests and garrison caps) trying to adjust some of the knobs and buttons on his digital camera. His palsied hand was struggling with the task when a younger (Korea, maybe?) ex-POW came up to help. As the first man turned my way, I gasped so loud others around me started to stare. The man was the spitting image of the 6-foot-plus Lincoln figure.

If you visit the Lincoln museum -- or maybe you already have -- you will learn a great deal about a time in our nation's history that may have been its most crucial.

Here's one guarantee I can make: If you spend enough time in the museum to see everything -- it took my wife and I from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. -- you will be a better American.

R. Joe Sullivan is the editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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