When ancient Native American people are illustrated in textbooks and museum installations, they are almost always clad in skimpy loincloths, bare-chested. Here we are in Southwestern Illinois in mid-October and it is freezing as all get out. The air is misty with a cold drizzle, and the wind is piercing. If I were dressed like one of these Mississippians I saw here in the interpretive center my Cahokias would likely have turned into ice cubes and fallen off. Being a human sacrifice wouldn’t have looked like such a bad option, especially if fire were involved.
What you didn’t see in our TV segment was a rare moment where smiley Ben lost his cool. It was around 9:30 am on a Friday and the school groups were just now charging in, hoards of them. (Same deal at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield.) We’re trying to interview Steve Riddle, the educational program director, and the kids are swarming everywhere. Not only that, they are far more interested in our bright lights and my microphone than they are in the social status between the merchant and the artisan of ancient Cahokia town. I don’t know why but I seem to get really ticked off, not just a little, when small boys start sticking their hands and faces in the camera while we’re trying to do our work. It had been a few years since I’d been shooting in these kinds of conditions, so I guess that may have had something to do with my outburst as well. Anyway, as soon as Steve finished answering a question that had been screwed up by this kid’s hand in the shot, I turned to the little shaver and bellowed: “I want you to stop doing that RIGHT NOW.” Naturally, the kid giggled and took off. Steve and Tom said nothing and I immediately thought, “Oh, shoot, I’ve just over-reacted.” I apologized to my cohorts and the day went on. When I saw the incident on tape weeks later back at the ranch I saw that my assessment of its gravity was likely overblown.
Outside, the cold made it hard to connect with the reality that I was walking on the site of an ancient metropolis. When I’m at a place like this I like to really soak in the history and feel the presence of our fellow humans. Not so here. As Steve shuttled us about on a golf cart along the highway with diesel trucks roaring by, all I could think of was hot joe with bacon and eggs. (I’d had nearly nothing for breakfast.) Once we were done shooting, Steve, an admitted “foodie,” recommended The Happy Cow diner, and that’s where we ate. Cow imagery and dolls and toys everywhere, all bovine. This could’ve been a good segment in its own right, with a couple of colorful characters and a discussion of Mad Cow disease woven in. I had the “special burger” (dang, no breakfast served after 11:00) and it was yummy. And the coffee hit the spot. My caffeine buzz was being kindled. I was already plotting my giant Classic Coke for later in the afternoon on our long drive back to the big city.