Pretty much most of the 60,000 residents of Battle Creek, a city in the southwestern part of the Michigan mitten, engage in their own surefire practice of predicting the weather: if they smell Froot Loops in the morning breeze, it means it’s gonna rain in the afternoon. Most of the time they’re accurate. In Battle Creek, cereal is not just a breakfast staple or the weatherman. It’s an after-school snack. And a midnight snack. And kids find mini-boxes of cereal (sugary, sweet ones, of course) in their Halloween bags when they go trick-or-treating. During the summer, life-sized Tony the Tigers and Snap! Crackle! And Pop!s graze the picnic tables at the carnivals, giving away autographs and hugs to little ones. Cereal — artificially flavored toasted corn floating in cow’s milk — was the theme of the museum, and it’s what put the city on the map. The production, the distribution, and the marketing of cereal is what employs more than half the town. It is the foundation and livelihood.

Kellogg’s Toasted Corn Flakes
(Early 20th Century)

Battle Creek was founded in the early 1800s, and according to a commonly accepted account, the name has its origin in a clash between two natives and a government land survey party led by Colonel John Mullett. The story goes that during a harsh winter in 1824, Mullett and his group were surveying an area several miles from the present city when Indians who were reportedly attempting to steal the party’s provisions attacked two members of Mullet’s party at their base camp. The survey party promptly abandoned their camp and didn’t return until summertime, but before they left, the guys pointed to some nearby running water and dubbed the area “Battle Creek.” So the city was founded by a guy who shares his last name with a popular (and quite disgraceful) 1980s haircut.

A lot of good things come from Battle Creek: Carlos Gutierrez, our nation’s former secretary of commerce (and father of the boy with whom I had my first kiss); the ardent abolitionist Sojourner Truth; Ellen White, co-founder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church; Del Shannon, the guy who wrote the oldie (but goodie) “Runaway;” and Jason Newsted, the former bassist for the heavy metal band Metallica. Still, Battle Creek is best known for being “Cereal City, U.S.A,” the world headquarters of the Kellogg Company, established by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and William Keith Kellogg. They’re the brothers who invented cornflakes.

Battle Creek had a Cereal City Museum where you could get your photo on a box of cornflakes, and during the summer, Battle Creek’s residents would put together “The World’s Longest Breakfast Table,” at the Cereal Festival — a weekend community festival of local food, local blues bands, face painting booths, Harley Davidson displays, and dance recitals put on by local dance studios. The highlight or purpose of the whole event was an eat-off, annually pitted against Springfield, Massachusetts’ “The World’s Longest Pancake Breakfast.”

Battle Creek is the city my parents migrated to after falling in love, getting married and having my sister Sabina. It’s the city where, in 1979, I was born then reared, and it’s the city where in August of 1983, right around the time of the Cereal Festival, I imagine, he finally came to us. I remember it was a blood-warm day.

“Where are da keys? Where are de keys?”

From behind the passenger seat, I watch my mother press her face against the second-floor window’s rusty screen as she sharply calls out to no one in particular. “Who took da damn keys?” Momma’s lips are cranberry-colored and wet looking, and as she slides back in she snaps her pearl clip-ons to her earlobes and paces around the bedroom, trying to remember everything from her mental checklist (car seat, bag of Apple Jacks, wet wipes, We Sing Silly Songs cassette tapes, grape juice, car keys).

For months she’s known he was hers. She would never say something like he belonged to her; it was more like they were meant to be, this was meant to happen, or something along those lines. Like a feed-bag to a horse, Mom’s been holding onto the one small picture of him as proof, carrying it around as a reminder to pursue, as encouragement to keep on pushing. As hope. In the photo, she thinks her little guy looks like a concentration camp baby — round, dark eyes, flaccid limbs, pale skin and a rather large head.

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