Thursday, April 21, 2011

By Popular Demand

Initial comments on the three book ideas leaned heavily toward Stoolies or Strike Enable with the growing up memoir a distant third. This morning some late input indicated that maybe another taste to the memoir might be in order. So, here's a bit from the start. It's WW II, my mother is sick with essentially a strep infection and my father has been called on emergency leave to the bedside of his "dying" wife. The overview of her illness and his arrival home has already passed:


He had come to Chicago to escape the coal mines that had killed his oldest brother and worn out his father much sooner than that man’s years would dictate. There wasn’t much future in Clinton, Indiana and those who wanted more from life went to the big town to the north as soon as they could. He wasn’t sure what he could do with his life, but an attempt at factory work in a stamping plant had cost him the last joint of his right thumb and convinced him that crafts and tools weren’t his strong points. He had an outgoing personality and a gift of gab that made it more natural for him to gravitate toward jobs that worked with people.

A high school dropout, he had been destined for the mines but watching his father drain his life into the black holes on the edge of town and then seeing his seventeen year old big brother disappear one day beneath the wheels of a coal-laden tram convinced him that there were better options. Downtown was where it was at. There was opportunity there as the country started to lift itself out of the Great Depression. The tall buildings and dark canyons of the  central city were alive with chances to make something of oneself. Newspapers were a magnet for him and he aspired to the exciting life of a reporter. Lack of any writing experience or journalistic training was hardly a deterrent to his optimism. When the newspapers wouldn’t offer him any kind of a job he found himself clerking in Ligget’s Rexall drugstore on the ground floor of the Chicago Daily News building on West Madison Street. It was close to the action, he would meet the people of the newspaper and he would get an opportunity soon.  

She was the middle of five children, an older brother and sister and two younger brothers. Her father was an ambitious Polish immigrant who came to this country with an education and the drive to establish a successful printing business. He and his sister had married another brother and sister who were first generation Americans with Polish parents. The family lived in a beautiful and spacious brick bungalow on the developing northwest side of Chicago. The children attended nearby St. Constance catholic school and went to Mass on Sundays at the church. The youngest of the five children was born the year the stock market crashed and the roaring twenties came to a most abrupt end. The demand for printing withered, the business failed and soon the mortgage on the house was called.

She finished high school and dreamed of a career in show business. She had played piano throughout her school years, had danced in school productions with her older sister and had a passable good singing voice. She took to bleaching her hair and many observers remarked that she showed an incredible resemblance to Jean Harlow. She hadn’t found a way to get a paycheck out of the entertainment industry and the depression made it critical that she support herself. Beautician school in downtown Chicago was the answer. The school was just around the corner from the Daily News building.

It didn’t take long for the handsome, glib, ambitious small-town boy to notice the glamorous, self-confident blonde that stopped in the drug store for lunch on most days. He’d wangle a way to be nearby and take any chance to talk to her, exchanging pleasantries about the weather, the traffic, the movies or the news. She responded to the attention of the man who was ten years older than most of her friends. There was prestige to be gained from dating an older man; one who worked downtown and could take her places. She might have lost some privilege when her father lost his business and their house had gone on the auction block, but that didn’t mean that she would miss out on the good things of life.

They dated. They enjoyed each other’s company. He was in love. She might have been. He was twenty-nine. She was nineteen. They married in a traditional Catholic nuptial ceremony, he in a white suit and she in a classic bridal gown.

The next few years were a whirlwind. He succeeded in getting a job with the Daily News. It wasn’t reporting or journalism. It was in circulation. It wasn’t downtown, it was handling newspaper deliveries. The job was to live in a small town in northern Illinois and deliver the papers to subscribers every day. Rise at three or four in the morning, meet the train from the city and pick up the papers, then travel through the countryside dropping off bundles to newsstands and delivery boys who would get the paper to the subscribers along their routes. In short order they lived in a sequence of small towns with names like Rock Island, Moline or DeKalb. Each town brought a different run-down apartment and a new series of problems to be dealt with in finding reliable delivery boys and retailers. Underlying the job was the requirement to produce new readers and build the subscription base. It was a thankless, underpaid task but he knew that eventually it would lead to a real newspaper job. She knew that life wasn’t the song-and-dance routine or the theatrical show-tune that she had always felt she deserved. She had a series of miscarriages and finally succeeded in carrying a baby to term. I was born in Swedish Covenant Hospital in Chicago just ten months after Pearl Harbor had signaled the real end to the Great Depression.

The war meant that manpower pool was getting shallow quickly. War plants needed blue collar workers and the battlefield needed anyone who wasn’t essential to the production cycle. Newspaper distribution drones weren’t essential and despite being ten years older than most draftees, my father was called up.

Basic training, then a quick two stripes because of his age left him a buck sergeant viewed as just a bit long in the tooth for combat. He’d been in the pipeline out of Biloxi, Mississippi when the doctors decided he had varicose veins and needed to be kept in the states. He got trained to run the movie theater and when fully qualified was bounced from the infantry to the Air Corps and shipped to Santa Rosa, California to run the theater for the P-38 training facility. The projectionist and theater manager training might offer promise for a new career if the war ever ended. Now with Loretta sick, he’d been shipped quickly home to see his 25 year old wife’s final days.

They weren’t her final days, however. The sulfa drugs began to take effect. Her fever broke and she began to recover. She relished her days off of work at the beauty salon and stayed in bed as my father doted on her. He had thirty days furlough to allow for the travel time to and from the coast. He had gotten a ride on a Red Cross sponsored C-47 from California back to Chicago but it would be a train ride back to the West Coast when Loretta’s recovery was complete. Along the way from Santa Rosa he had gotten priority over another soldier whose father had died. The Red Cross agent had simply said, “Your wife is still alive, you can do something. His father is dead and he can’t make a difference. You get aboard.” Now he was able to spend two weeks finding out who this tiny entity that bore his name really was. Dad would have some bonding time with his son.

It snowed the second week he was home. It was one of those late season wet and heavy dumps that covers the dingy buildings, bare trees and dark streets of the city to create a wonderland of brilliant white beauty. Dad carried me down the three flights of stairs and down Milwaukee Avenue to the hardware store where he bought a Flxible Flyer sled fitted with a wooden basket child seat and a length of clothesline through the steering yoke. With me tucked under a blanket and comfortably in the seat, he dragged me down the street and off to Wilson Park where we cruised through the fields getting soaked and cold and laughing all of the time.

Our gloves caked with snow dingles and shoes dripping slush we returned to the apartment to find Loretta sobbing quietly in the bedroom. She’d been left in her illness and playing with me wasn’t why my father was home. She wanted him by her bedside. That was the way it was supposed to be when you were sick. One did not frolic in the park when she had just narrowly avoided death. How could we be enjoying ourselves?

She didn’t look that sick to me, but I wasn’t yet three. What did I know? I would learn that life was meant to be a certain way. What you saw and what you heard might refute what she thought should be, but that didn’t change the view of life. It was a strange combination in which I would learn to ignore reality of big city apartment living and domestic strife in exchange for a Ozzie and Harriet view of suburban life and pinafore perfection. What you saw would not be what you got. 


Anonymous said...

This is better than the first go. It still isn't quite ready; there is more imagination in this attempt. It needs more, like after having written "Stoolies".


Six said...

I'm hooked Ed. I take back what I said earlier about my choices. I want to read your memoirs, dirt, hair, eyeballs and all.

Ed Rasimus said...

Anymouse: This is from Chap 1. The trip to Indiana was from a later chapter.

nzgarry said...

I like reading about real people and what happened in their live so have no problem with this memoir. In fact to me it reads quite well.

Dweezil Dwarftosser said...

Told 'ya !
Everybody can identify with a well-written youth story.

(Might want to capitalize the 'c' in Catholic, though - used as a proper noun.)