Sunday, June 15, 2008

Jimmy John's, Bonnie Blair and other stars of Champaign

We spent the weekend in Illinois, helping my in-laws move into their new condo in Champaign.

It’s a nice place, close to the University of Illinois campus where they both worked, and there’s a bookstore nearby with free wi-fi that allows me to check on the progress of the Mets as they played the Rangers – or not, in the case of Saturday’s rainout.

Alas, all this activity kept me from filing the usual Deezo Friday Five. But here is a special Champaign version, delivered slightly late, making it a Sunday Six.

1) Among the famous people to grow up in Champaign is speed skater Bonnie Blair , the most decorated U.S. woman athlete in the history of the Winter Olympics.

She attended Jefferson Middle School along with my wife, and I can prove it, too! Here’s her yearbook photo.

I think that’s really impressive, but my wife doesn’t get too excited about it. It trumps my most famous classmate at Berner High in Massapequa, actor Stephen Baldwin.

2) The Fighting Illini football team struggled for a time, but made it all the way to the Rose Bowl last season.

Folks were pretty excited about this. But after getting pounded by USC 49-17, it’s not considered polite to discuss the game. But you can get Rose Bowl caps, t-shirts and hoodies for half-off in the campus bookstore.

3) Barn swallows. Right above the front door of the new condo was the huge mud and straw thing that I thought was some kind of hornets’ hive.

But my father-in-law said it was a barn swallow’s nest, and that Mom would really like to see it out of there.

Removing a nest seemed like an easier job than moving more boxes around, so I took a broom and hose and offered to heroically evict the flying squatters.

Well, I knocked the thing down with the broom and four baby birds tumbled out. I swear I didn’t know they were in there. This sent my daughter into the house hysterically crying. My wife says she’ll write sad poems about this moment when she’s a teen-ager.

I felt really horrible, even went to Wal Mart and bought a little hand shovel to give them a proper burial.

Then I read this in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's “All About Birds” Web site:

“An unmated male Barn Swallow may kill the nestlings of a nesting pair. His actions often succeed in breaking up the pair and afford him the opportunity to mate with the female.”

I don’t feel as bad now, knowing that some bachelor barn swallow was probably prowling around ready to do the job anyway, and would do so without burying them. And I found an AC/DC CD I wanted for $6 at Wal Mart, so, except for the expected bad poetry, it’s OK now.

4) The founder of the Jimmy John’s sandwich shops lives in Champaign, and we were always told that the store at 809 S. Lincoln in neighboring Urbana was the franchise’s first.

This is like year three of my Jimmy John’s phase, so a pilgrimage was in order. With Jeff, my brother-in-law, and my daughter in tow, we made the short trip and took turns posing in front of the store, especially the sing reading “the original” in the window.

We went inside, and a chatty crew member told us that the real Jimmy John still lives in town, visits the store and can be seen tooling around in his bright red sports car.

Savoring the moment, I said, “And this is the first store. Pretty cool.”

And the employee said, “Nope. That’s in Charleston, near the campus of Eastern Illinois University.”

Say what?

“We’re the eighth store. We’re not even the busiest in Champaign-Urbana. That would be the one on campus.”

Deflated, we ordered a Slim 5, a pickle cut in quarters and a large Diet Coke, and decided that being in the eighth Jimmy Johns is still a neat thing.

“Yup,” my daughter said. “Better than being in No. 9 – but not as good as being in No. 7.”

5) The University of Illinois has a beautiful campus, and we enjoyed strolling around on a perfect day.

One of the landmarks is a statue called “Alma Mater” and there are three women standing with a fancy chair.

I went through a phase after college where I climbed on statues, attempted to climb the “Alma Mater” and sit in the chair, but chickened out.

My 11-year-old showed no such fear, trusting her father and uncle, who assured her that all kids do it. There might be poems about this, too.

6) We’ll even turn to Champaign for the Hidden iPod Gem. REO Speedwagon was founded by two U of I students. The band’s “Hi Infidelity” disc was a monster hit when I was in high school, and sounds only somewhat dated today. “Can’t Fight This Feeling” still makes me gag, but the under-appreciated “Don’t Let Him Go” still rocks – in an early 1980s corporate rock kind of way.

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