Some years back I volunteered at a retirement home in the Chicago suburbs. One day a gentleman named Mike asked if I would type up some notes he had made of stories he remembered from growing up. I happily did so and long forgot about it. The other night I found these notes on my computer and they’re such a great snapshot of a life I thought the world should read them. I want to attribute these properly but am sad to say I don’t remember Mike’s last name. Most likely he is no longer with us. I thought it would be a great idea to collect stories from all the residents to make a book. So many great lives and stories hidden away, while so many residents languished with no one to tell them to. This is for all of those great people I met there.
In 1925 tragedy struck our home. I was ten years old.
It was customary for my father to play cards from 1 to 4 o’clock at the Luxembourg Club with the same group of men. They played 66 and could lose or win usually a quarter.
My mother on this beautiful sunshine Sunday decided to take the four younger children to see our new church – also it was open house. My youngest sister, 5, darted into the street and was struck by a car in front of the church. She was rushed to St. Charles Hospital, where she died three days later. My mother was at her side for the three days.
We had construction in front of our house – putting in sewer and water. Funerals were held in private homes for visitation – then taken to church. The pallbearers had to carry the little body two blocks for a waiting hearse, due to construction.
The driver of the car was not responsible – driving below the speed limit.
We (meaning the neighborhood kids) often played in empty lots. We played a lot of baseball. One day at the far end of the field, Harold Gleason was almost stung by a bee. We checked further and realized we could get a lot of honey. Harold said his mother had a hat with a wide brim and a lot of lace and wanted to dig up the honey. About five or six of us volunteered to watch from inside a garage window nearby. Everything was in order. He almost got the shovel in the ground and the swarm of bees attacked him.
Course he screamed and ran in by us. Each of us was stung.
We were playing baseball one day. We had been told Charles Lindbergh would be flying over at approximately 11AM. Sure enough he appeared, flying very low. We were able to read “The Spirit of St. Louis.” They had no restrictions on flying low.
We had a family near us that got food relief. Every month the truck would bring apples, oranges, different fruits and vegetables. Our family was too proud to accept. This family had the biggest Fourth of July fireworks display, it lasted for hours.
I remember the balloons. They were made of tissue paper. They were approximately six to eight feet tall and maybe four feet wide. Red, white and blue in color. They had a wick saturated with kerosene and oil. They would fly high in the sky – beautiful to watch at night. We could tell when they would descend. We chased them. We tried to reuse them but they were only good for short distances in the air. They were outlawed. Many a farmer lost his hayfield due to fire.
One time Mr. Dittman took four of us kids fishing at Millington – close to Aurora on Fox River. He was told we could catch a lot of catfish. We didn’t catch a one but caught a lot of turtles. It was hot and for lack of water we went to a nearby cemetery where they had a pump so people could water their flowers and plants.
The caretaker scolded us, fearing typhoid fever.
We lived on the outskirts of town – many empty lots and fields, many garden snakes. We would catch the small ones and dip them into aluminum paint – let them dry and carry them in our pockets and love to shake hands, especially with girls who would scream.
In the wintertime after a heavy snow we would get a gunnysack and a long pole. People had culverts so water would drain. The rabbits would hide in them. We caught many. One of us would hold the bag at one end and chase the rabbit into it.
I remember there were two deaths in our block. They had a saying that owls would chatter in the trees and the third death would happen. This one day an owl was in this big oak tree. I got my slingshot and about ten stones. I climbed the tree and was 10 to 15 feet from the owl. I finally hit him on the last stone and down he went – I think I was a close second on the ground. I felt like a hero – no deaths in the neighborhood.
I was duped into being an alter boy. One of my so-called friends told the nun my mother wanted me to be an alter boy. We had to memorize Latin prayers. I was an alter boy for approximately six years. Every time there was a wedding the nun instructed us to run to the front of the church and catch the groom with an empty basket. The nun then waited for us to collect the loot.
I went to St. Nicholas School for three years. We had to walk past this particular house where some kid found out this couple were not married. We always crossed the street on the opposite side, then back on the same side.
They built a new church and put up boundary sides. I had to switch schools due to that. I was in 4th Grade with Sister Andrea for my nun. There were two grades in each room. Every time I would move to a higher grade she would also. I had the same nun through 8th Grade. She told the class one day she also was a little girl who would ride her bike and had roller skates. I thought she was an angel – I had her on a pedestal. She also said she had to go to the bathroom like all of us – I couldn’t believe. At our 8th Grade graduation she gave out the diplomas. Then she asked if everyone got theirs. She said she had one left – I was so embarrassed I was very quiet. At the end of class she gave it to me. I don’t know why she enjoyed having fun at my expense.
I remember one Halloween – half a dozen of us got a bar of soap. We would soap the windows. I was caught – I was youngest and couldn’t run as fast. I was sure I was going to jail – he was a Beacon News Reporter.
Some of our ladies in the neighborhood worked in Chicago. They had to walk two blocks past an empty field where there were high winds. Our trouble friend suggested putting cans full of water on either side with a string in between. It was dark where we hid. When the ladies screamed we knew they had tripped the cans of water on their feet.
My mother bought me a new pair of pants when I was to make my first Communion. I had a friend who had a horse. It was an old nag and would walk the fence line which was barbed wire fencing. Needless to say I ruined the pants and I got the dickens.
Another time at a different farm I rode a horse bareback. I had read many cowboy books and read where the horse would trample the rider. Someone threw a green tomato – hit the horse – it reared – I turned a somersault and couldn’t run fast enough for safety.
Another horse story. Probably 10 of us went to a horse riding stable. This one guy said, “Kick the horse with your heels and they will run faster.” We left our group in the dust. We were getting close to the starting place and there was a sign stating “Please walk your horse to the barn.” We dismounted and walked out horses. We sure got the hee haw when our group caught up with us. I didn’t know a horse will run when it sees the barn.
St. Nicholas Day is celebrated in Europe almost like Christmas and my parents carried on the tradition. I remember how the kitchen floor was washed. In the evening we had to sing songs and put the potato peelings on the back porch step. All at once there was this banging on the windows and doors. The back door was thrown open – we were busy picking up the candy thrown in we forgot the source.
Then we heard moaning and groaning from the bedroom – my mother complaining of a terrible headache.
My mother’s brother lived in Chicago. He was a bachelor. He would bring us the nicest gifts at Christmas – baseball gloves and clothing which would fit. He lived in a very small apartment and was broken into many times. We went to see the Cubs with him. We ate at a restaurant – my first time – the waitress asked me what I wanted. I didn’t understand I could order individually. I told her I ate what was put in front of me – like home.
I had an Uncle who also was a bachelor. He showered me with gifts. Every Sunday morning he would visit. I got 50 cents from him weekly. My mother took it from me and bought sweets for the whole family. I did not see it her way.
I remember my Uncle Mike taking me on the streetcar to town. In the store he told the clerk, “I want him to have new clothes head to foot – including shoes.” Boy was I a fancy Dan.
Uncle Mike had a mixed breed dog. “Mooneye!” Best dog I’ve ever seen. They hunted a lot – “Mooneye” could catch more rabbits than three or four hunters with guns.
They made “Moonshine” beer. A typical bachelor hangout. If Uncle Mike forgot to watch his cooking or was carrying a load, the house would fill with smoke. Mooneye more than once would get the neighbor – tugging at his pant legs and rescuing Uncle Mike.
He also had a big garden snake he was proud of. It usually occupied a chair – he said it caught a lot of bugs.
Uncle Mike was the other brother that drove. There were very few cars then – no city license – state – drivers or insurance. I sat on his lap and he steered.
On Saturday night he would get a half a buzz on and he was scarred when he would go down the street and as he said, “The trees and telephone poles got in the middle of the street.” He gave me the car – it was either a 1925 or 1927 Ford. My mother sold it to our egg man for two dozen eggs.
Getting back to my childhood. I served mass frequently. I remember Father Henkle got me out of bed. He invited me to breakfast – his sister “Rose” served us. He also had a big dog. I was so embarrassed and turned color when he said, “Come here you son of a bitch.” Then he said to me, “Did I say something wrong?” I was speechless. He was it was a male and female dogs are known as bitches. When we had carnival time – next morning – he asked me to help him count the money. We then drove to the bank to deposit it and then stopped at a tavern for a beer.
One time he heard of a good steak house – he ate two big ones. I had a hard time with one-half.
I remember many many years ago when a person had a contagious disease they would put a large red sign on the front of the house. We had one – it read “Keep Out.” I think we had Diphtheria. My father worked and moved in with his brother Matt. He would sneak over after dark – he had special treats for us when we opened the window. We were bed ridden for a few weeks. I still remember Dr. Scwial giving us shots.
I remember one time I was quite sick – mother couldn’t’ leave the family. I took the streetcar downtown. I went up 4 floors and waited for doctor. He was gruff, “What’s wrong with you?” he said. I told him I was sick. He wondered why. I said I got wet in the rain. He said, “Do you take a bath?” I said “Yes.” Then how come you don’t get sick then? He scarred my sickness away.
When I was 13 or 14 I worked at a nursery. We had to dig up Japanese Barb berry bushes. We wore special leather gloves – the barbs still went through the leather. We could never please the boss. He would ask, “How many did you dig out?” If we told him 20 he would be looking for 25. If we told him 25 he wanted 30.
I got a job at a gladiola farm. Mr. Newman was principle of a small school and won many prizes with his flowers. One day he told me “I have good news for you. They raised the minimum wage from 15 cents to 20.”
When I was in High School, Brother John Juke, neighbor and two others decided to go on vacation. We each had ten dollars. One person said he could have his father’s car – it was a Coupe – three rode in front, two in the rumble seat. First night we slept on Lake Michigan shore. One said we should gather leaves to keep us warm. The spiders almost ate us up.
We drove to Detroit and toured the Ford Motor Assembly. We went to Niagara Falls – hired a limo that showed us points of interest. He charged five dollars – also five dollars for a motel. We slept five in bed – there was a bench so we slept sideways. I remember how we flipped coins to find out who slept on the outside.
We would go to bakeries and ask for day old baked goods and tell them how hard up we were. We stopped the horse drawn milk man for samples.
One evening we build a fire near a corn field and had a corn roast. The Canadian mounted wanted to know if we had enough money to get back to the United States. We told him we had a little car trouble which we were able to fix. We drove and visited the Toronto fair and ten days later we arrived home. One guy had a dime in his pocket. Gas was 10 cents a gallon. We met a couple in Canada on their honeymoon. They were so gracious – at a rest stop they gave us a small glass of wine. We had a shower at our motel at the falls. We had no flat tires which were common, course we didn’t have a jack.