Monday, June 22, 2009

Greetings from the "Home of the Gentle Giant"

Situated along the banks of the Mississippi River, Alton, Illinois, is where I grew up, the place I love to visit when I need a break from the big city, the kind of town I'd like to settle down in once I finally escape New York.

It's also the birthplace of Robert Wadlow, the tallest man on record ever to have walked the earth. A life-sized statue of the Gentle Giant at his full height of 8' 11" was erected several years ago on the campus of the SIU Dental School. I used to dream that this statue was my best friend, but all we would do is sit face-to-face on the benches you can see in the photo above and chat. Once, I asked him if he was sad that his glasses kept getting stolen. His reply: "Rachel, I'm a statue come to life. I don't need glasses to see." It's a good thing since in real life, the statue no longer wears glasses. My dad tells me that it got too expensive to replace them every time they were taken. He also told me that the statue gets a new set of braces every once in awhile. Those cheeky dental students.

Other neat things about Alton: Miles Davis was born here, too. It was a major stop on the Underground Railroad thanks in large part to abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy. It was the site of one of the many Lincoln-Douglas debates. It's considered one of the most haunted cities in America mostly due to its violent history: Bootleggers wreaked bloody havoc on Alton in the 1930s and before that many Confederate soldiers died in Alton's Union prison during the Civil War. (One of my friends suspects a ghost lives in the basement of her beautiful old craftsman home--hopefully I'll never find out firsthand!) Of course, there are some not so neat things, too, and plenty of things I'm leaving out, but I'm just too tired to write about that now. But a post about Alton wouldn't be complete without mention of the Piasa Bird painted on the bluffs along the Great River Road:

Sadly, the original, prehistoric images of two Piasa birds no longer exist--I think they were destroyed to make way for the River road. In his diary, Jacques Marquette says, "each was as large as calf with horns like a deer, red eyes, a beard like a tiger's, a face like a man, the body covered with green, red and black scales, and a tail so long that it passed around the body, over the head and between the legs, ending like a fish's tail." Legend has it they were also strong enough to swoop down and pick up a cow in their talons and that they had an insatiable appetite for human flesh. Guess ghosts don't seem so scary after all!

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