Abe and me

About 10 years ago, I trespassed onto the front yard of Abraham Lincoln's cabin.

It was a frigid December night just outside Charleston, Ill. It was near midnight, and there was a full moon. God, it was cold.

My girlfriend at the time, who flew back to Illinois from Oregon to meet my family, sat mostly silent in the passenger seat as I wound my old man's work car through frosted country roads to the Lincoln Log Cabin.

Throughout the drive her face bore that pensive, slightly resigned look that all girlfriends don when they realize their male counterpart has temporarily lost his mind and won't be deterred from doing something incredibly dumb.

As we neared the cabin at the end of a long stretch of blacktop, freezing rain began snapping on the windshield. Coupled with the sub-20-degree temperatures, the drive home was looking to be an eventful one, maybe even deadly.

I didn't care. She had flown 1,800 miles and, by God, was going to see Abe Lincoln's old stomping grounds. Even if it was the last thing she ever did before dying of hypothermia in some desolate cornfield outside Lerna.

The car's headlights beamed through the specks of falling ice and illuminated a gate that blocked access to the cabin.

"OK, let's go look," I said.

She shrugged. "Alright, let's do it."

We popped out of the car and were assaulted by a Midwest wind that instantly froze that thin layer of skin that rims the gristle of your ear.

We shouted curses as we jogged the 20 feet to the gate and peeked over it.

And there, on the other side, sitting silently in the dark, was the plain piece of ground Abraham Lincoln visited in the mid-1800s.

Abe never actually lived at the Lincoln Log Cabin. The property belonged to his parents, Thomas and Sarah Bush Lincoln. Sarah Lincoln was his stepmother, someone with whom he shared a close relationship, closer certainly than his miserable and clenched old man.

Abe, like the dutiful son who made good in the world, would journey back to his parents' pad outside Charleston about once a year for a brief visit.

At the time, Lincoln was already making a name for himself in courtrooms in Springfield and had successfully entered the world of politics. He made the same trip in 1861 after winning his bid for president, stopping there to say goodbye to his stepmother before he left for the snake's nest that was, and remains, Washington, D.C.

Of course, the cabin is long gone and a cheesy reproduction sits on the 90-acre plot. On the night we braved the cold and dark, I related this fact to my girlfriend. She didn't seem to mind.

We decided to break the law and slid around the fence and walked a few feet down what would have been Abe Lincoln's driveway had he owned a 1998 Dodge Neon.

We just stood there for a few minutes. Freezing on the Lincoln property.

Like an over-protective parent who had just dropped his young daughter off at college, I felt a rush of panic right before I watched Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" biopic this week.

I can't help but have an emotional reaction to all things Abe. I grew up in south-central Illinois and right along the Illinois/Indiana border.

That was Abe Lincoln country, my friends.

As kids in grade school, we were taught Abe's story as if it was some religious parable. We heard about Abe reading all the books in the library and scratching geometry problems in the dirt outside the barn right along with Red Riding Hood and Noah's Ark. Memorizing these Abe tales was a pathway to legitimate Illinois citizenship.

We made Abraham Lincoln hats in art class. Most classrooms in that area were decorated with at least one painting of Abe Lincoln, and if not a painting a bust or statue of some sort. We memorized the Gettysburg Address in fifth grade. We watched "Young Mr. Lincoln" in fourth grade. Henry Fonda was a badass Abe Lincoln. Daniel Day-Lewis is also good, allaying my fears before the movie this week.

"Lincoln" is not a great movie. "Young Mr. Lincoln" is better. But "Lincoln" entertainingly presents a monumental time in Abe's life, and after, as the credits rolled, the Medford audience gave the screen a brief ovation before heading out of Tinseltown.

As I left the theater, I remembered standing in the Lincoln yard, freezing my ass off with my partner in crime that night.

After a couple of minutes of silently staring at the barren farmland surrounding the cabin, I tried to lighten the mood before our faces froze.

"Can you feel the history?" I asked.

"Yeah, I really can," she said.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471 or email cconrad@mailtribune.com.


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