After high school I left Indiana, where I had lived my entire life. Soon afterwards, I discovered the books of Kurt Vonnegut, who was also from Indiana.
Vonnegut, who died four years ago this week, taught me many things in his writings, including that a body of water near the town where I grew up had the name Lake Maxinkuckee, and was not named Culver Lake like I had always believed. Vonnegut used to vacation at Lake Maxinkuckee as a kid.
Vonnegut, who was born into a prominent Indianapolis family in 1922, seemingly knew everything about the area he was born, and somehow worked Indianapolis into nearly every book.
I, on the other hand, knew next to nothing about my town, despite having lived there for 18 years.
This realization was brought home again to me last week as I was sitting in a dentist chair. While waitingfor the novocaine to take hold, I read from a book about Gene Autry called Public Cowboy No. 1 by Holly George-Warren and was shocked to see the town of North Judson, Indiana – my town – mentioned inside.
It turns out that at the height of the Depression, the singing cowboy came to the Gayble Theatre, our tiny movie house, and played a show that night before the featured film.
It may not sound like a big deal, but I had never heard this story (or for that matter, had never seen my micro-community’s name in print). I would have thought this tale would have been regaled by at least one overalls-wearing old timer at every fish fry, high school basketball game, and tractor pull.
I’ve been feeling a bit nostalgic since, and thanks to the web, I’ve learned more stories about North Judson this past week – both good and bad – than I did during all the years I lived there.
I found out that in 1889 a world lightweight boxing championship took place in an opera house in Judson. It ended in a draw after a match lasting over four hours and 64 rounds.
And on a darker note, I also learned that the KKK once marched down Main Street in 1923, and someone, presumably a Klan member, blew up the Catholic parsonage that same year.
It’s also triggered memories of the Gayble, which was a brick 488-seat Tudor Revivalist gem, where I saw my very first movies on screen.
One of my goals is to return to Indiana for an extended period of time so that I can make a documentary about the places that Kurt Vonnegut mentions in his books.
If this ever happens, I plan to make it back to North Judson, to find the site of the opera house (which I never knew existed), and to have my heart broken at the vacant lot where the Gayble once stood (it was demolished in 1999).
If it’s summer when I make it back there, I may even take a dip in Lake Maxinkuckee … now that I know it’s real name.
(Speaking of Gene Autry, I will be giving tours later this month at Melody Ranch, Gene Autry’s old film lot, for Santa Clarita’s Cowboy Festival.)