Children rarely want to know who their parents were before they became parents, and when age finally stirs their curiosity there is no parent left to tell them.
— Russell Baker, Growing Up
Take Off | Baptism | Cake | 112 | Coffee | Fire | Cigarettes | Shoelaces | Haven | Grant | Communion | Progressio | Sibs | Hellfighters | Friends | Scrabble | Another Fire |Shutters | Cairo | Prayers | Vietnam | Sweater | Games | Girls | Dear God | Potential | DMA | Landing | Grandma
In the summer of 1973, stepping aboard the TWA jetliner in St. Louis just behind Mom, I got my first glimpse of the inside of a plane. The months of waiting were down now to just a few minutes and I couldn’t wait to buckle in. But why were we passing these empty seats?
Before my butt could hit the leather of these wide empty seats, Mom turned her around just long enough to steer me back into the slow-moving queue, now halted, for the back of the plane. I wanted to ask why we couldn’t take these but her attention now was back to Marty and Kenny, my two little brothers at her feet. The answer came from behind me.
“Those are first class,” said my brother Bill, our newest teenager, smacking me on the back of my head. “Don’t you know anything?”
Bill never missed an opportunity to remind me how stupid I was. Or to smack my head.
“Shh!” My brother Bob was smacking Bill, talking in a loud whisper like he didn’t want us to get in trouble. “Just keep moving!”
“There’s no place to move,” said my sister Barb, holding the hand of my youngest brother David as she lectured the back of her brother’s Brylcreemed head. “And I think it’s okay to talk on a plane. It’s not church, Bob.”
“Sssssssshhhhhhhhh!” answered Bob.
Standing back-to-belly in this strange new place, a sense of disoriented realization set in. First, none of us kids had ever been on a plane before. Second, after months of talking about it and imagining it and packing for it, the it was actually here. We were moving from Fairview Heights, Illinois to Washington, DC. Well, really to a town in Maryland called Kensington, but it was just a bus ride away from the nation’s capital. An hour earlier we had crossed over the Mississippi River, on our way to Lambert Field, for the last time as Illinois residents.
Dad worked for a new agency of the federal government called the Defense Mapping Agency. We didn’t know what he did—with the Cold War still going on it was all top-secret stuff. I knew the Reds wanted to blow us to bits with their atomic bombs, and that Dad had something to do with blowing them to bits if they ever tried. Whatever he did, I figured he must be doing a pretty good job if he was being promoted to Washington.
Dad wasn’t with us on the plane because someone had to drive the family Ford—a powder blue Gran Torino, a recent upgrade from the usual station wagon—out to Maryland. Dad chose my brother Ed to go with him so they could do what in later years would be called bonding. Back then it was called punishing the kid who talked back the most by not letting him go on the plane. My oldest brothers Dan and Steve weren’t on the plane either. They were in college, in Chicago, so they already knew what it was like to move away from home. But it was all new for the rest of us.
Moving to Washington was like getting to eat at the grown-up table. Fairview was bread and water compared to the feast to be had at our nation’s capital: The White House. The Pentagon. The Capitol. I had read every word about Washington in our World Book encyclopedias. Three times.
Big things were happening in Washington that summer. President Nixon figured the end of the Vietnam War that year would take minds off the nagging Watergate scandal. But it hadn’t.
I learned about Watergate helping Dad barbecue chicken earlier that summer, in the backyard in front of our so-called portable TV. In truth the thing weighed more than I did and took multiple Durbin kids to lug from one place to another. But the manufacturer had installed a little plastic handle on the top and as such it qualified as portable.
Set atop two kitchen chairs, the hefty black-and-white Zenith allowed Dad and me to watch the Watergate hearings as he tended to the browning meat. Standing at his side, holding the bowl of dark red sauce, I learned Watergate was the name of a building where burglars had broken into the headquarters of the Democrats. We were Democrats. So we were particularly ticked off about it.
“Remember that’s Democrat with a capital D,” Dad told me. “Just like Durbin.”
I remembered all right. Democrats, as best I could figure, wanted the government to help everyone and not just rich people. We didn’t like Richard Nixon because he was a Republican. They think government should just help people who already have it made.
Anyway, now all these guys who used to work for the president were on TV in something like a courtroom, rat-finking about how Nixon had something to do with this burglary at our office in the Watergate and all sorts of other dirty tricks. I didn’t know why this crook was still president and Dad said he didn’t know either.
I took a window seat and figured out the buckle all by myself. Mom took the middle seat next to me, sighing in relief as she settled in. She had been up since way before daybreak and had worked harder than anyone getting this family of twelve ready for the move.
She was too exhausted to notice, or care, that a half dozen of her kids across the aisle were playing with tray tables, rummaging through seatback pockets, and seeing who could recline their seat the farthest.
“Hey there’s Grandma!” shouted Barb from her window seat on the opposite side of the plane. “Come wave goodbye!”
Grandma Durbin stood behind the tall glass windows inside the airport, looking out to our plane, as her eldest son’s family left to live elsewhere. She and Aunt Jackie, Mom’s sister, had driven us from our house—now our old house—to Lambert Field in St. Louis.
My little brothers hopped off their seats and crowded onto Barb’s lap, poking their arms toward the window in a frenzy, yelling goodbyes I knew Grandma couldn’t hear.
“Do you want to go over?” Mom asked me.
I gave my head a quick shake and pressed my nose to my own window, watching guys load suitcases into the belly of the plane. I knew Mom wouldn’t ask a second time. She knew what was going on.
Grandma had been my best friend in the whole wide world until a few weeks before, when I found myself in her doghouse. Actually a doghouse sounded like something fun to be in. This was like the cooler in Hogan’s Heroes on TV, where the POWs got sent for breaking the rules, this silent treatment from the best Grandma in the world.
She really was great. The problem, I had now learned, was how she could use one hand to shower people with love while the other was poised on the spigot, ready to shut it off at the first sign of disrespect—real or imagined.
All I had to do was apologize, Mom told me over and over, and Grandma would let it go. But I wouldn’t. I didn’t do anything wrong! Mom said it didn’t matter, that all I had to do was pretend I did something wrong and say I was sorry. “It’s worked for me,” she said. Nope. I wasn’t gonna and besides I didn’t have to.
I was moving to Washington DC, hundreds of miles away. That’s how this Durbin was escaping Grandma’s doghouse.
I had to stretch my neck above the seat in front of me to watch the stewardess demonstrate the safety features of the McDonnell Douglas DC-9. I knew the model of our plane from the information card in the pocket at my knees, and already knew McDonnell Douglas manufactured it because our Uncle Bob worked there. I thought that was pretty cool.
We didn’t see much of Bob because he moved away before I was born, to California. Dad said it was more like an escape. Still, knowing I was related to someone who worked for McDonnell Douglas was almost like we owned that plane.
My other uncle on my dad’s side, Uncle Joe, he had moved away too. He was going by the name Dick Durbin now but I still thought of him as Joe. He and Aunt Loretta lived a couple hours north in Springfield, the Illinois state capital, where he worked in politics.
Uncle Joe was a lawyer for Paul Simon—the lieutenant governor with the deep voice and bow tie, not the famous singer. Our uncle had told us all about Washington because he had already lived there, when he was a student at Georgetown University and worked for Senator Paul Douglas.
I wondered if Uncle Joe might someday go back to Washington.
“We’ll fly over East St. Louis, right?” I asked Mom.
“I suppose so.”
“Will you show me Grandma and Grandpa’s house? And where you grew up and Kruta’s Bakery?”
“I’ll try,” she answered.
“And the packinghouses?”
“It’s a big place, Mike. And we’ll be pretty far up.”
I had heard about East St. Louis, where my family lived before I was born, about a million times. But I hardly ever saw it. Listening in from my corner of the Sunday dinner table or backyard lawn chair, the family stories painted pictures in my head of an exciting place full of interesting people and interesting things to do.
There were East St. Louis aunts and uncles and cousins too numerous to keep track of, and railroads and bakeries and packinghouses, and movie houses and parks and streetcars and hotels.
I got the picture it used to be a really nice place to live. But now you couldn’t go to East St. Louis. It was too dangerous. And thanks to the Interstate highway planners of the 1950s, if you lived in Illinois and needed to get over to St. Louis there was no need to go through East St. Louis or even slow down. You went over it.
They put the interstates a good thirty feet off the ground in East St. Louis, like a gentleman lifting his pant leg as he steps over a patch of mud.
East St. Louis was not only dangerous, you gathered as a kid living in suburb like Fairview. It was also where black people lived. It was in fact the only place black people lived because they weren’t welcome in nearby Fairview or Collinsville, or—God forbid—Belleville.
It was easy for a Fairview kid to put these disparate facts together, that East St. Louis was a dangerous place where black people lived, and arrive at notion that black people were dangerous. And once that got in your head it was easy to gobble up all the other racist lore spoon-fed by generations of whites too dumb or scared to spit it out.
Kids in Fairview might take on racist attitudes as easily as they took on the southern Illinois accent–the one that made you pronounce the word fork like fark and shorts like sharts and lord like lard. Unless your parents were Bill and Lorraine Durbin. Then you learned otherwise. You were the atypical child of Fairview who was taught by word and deed that judging someone on the color of their skin is just stupid.
For months I had imagined how it would be to glide across the sky in a speeding plane, looking down as the ground zoomed by. What I hadn’t imagined was what it was like getting up there.
When we got all settled in and the doors were closed, and we had been towed out to the runway, the jet engines started roaring like metal tigers and my head got pushed back on the seat as if by some invisible hand. I clamped my fingers into the armrests, startled, and held my breath.
Then the floor started tilting up, and up some more, as if the plane was fleeing some danger and couldn’t get away fast enough. And then the whole thing started rolling to the right.
“It’s okay, Mike,” said Mom, putting her hand on top of mine.
I looked out as we crossed the brown water of the Mississippi into Illinois, heading east toward Washington. The intriguing sight of toy-like buildings and houses loosened my mind of its terror and lit it up with questions.
Had we really climbed so high already? Why were things down there moving so slowly if we were moving so fast? And why did everything look so gray? The plane leveled, the engines quieted, and my brow-knitted eyes took in the rolling view.
“Is that East St. Louis?” I asked Mom, pointing out the window, unable to make sense of the changing landscape below me.
When I turned I saw she was already looking out with me.
“Hmm, I don’t know.” Mom sounded like she had a cold all the sudden. “I don’t recognize anything but I guess we’re not in East St. Louis anymore.”
I noticed Mom’s face was dry but her eyes were ringed in red. She was crying.
Mom had lived in and around East St. Louis her entire life. And her parents, Grandma and Grandpa Kalish, and her sister Jackie and brother Jim and their families, were still down there. And she was leaving.
“It’s okay, Mom,” I said, putting my hand on top of hers.
I turned back to the window and watched as the plane went in and out of clouds, recoiling when the window flashed a blinding white.
This was the coolest thing ever.
When I turned back to Mom again I saw her eyes were closed. She was falling asleep so I turned back to my window. I wanted to see everything, and wanted to ask Mom more questions but I knew she probably needed the sleep. I watched the clouds some more.
And pretty soon I was asleep too.
When you’re born Catholic it’s like you get this ticket that needs to be punched at various stages of your life in order to get into heaven when you die. These ticket punches are called sacraments and the first one is baptism, or christening. This is one of the easier sacraments because all you have to do is let a priest dribble some holy water on your forehead while he says some prayers, and if you’re like me you get this done when you’re just a few weeks old so chances are you sleep through the whole thing.
At least until that cold water hits your face.
I’s a big deal to get baptized, especially when you’re first kid in a family to go through it. It’s progressively less of a big deal for the second, third and fourth kid. And if you’re the seventh kid like I was then you’re lucky if anyone remembers. Not really but you know what I mean.
My godparents, who held me at the St. Albert’s baptismal font as Monsignor Schindler did his thing one Sunday after mass, were my Great Aunt Mary and Great Uncle Owen. As godparents they supposedly agreed to see I was brought up a good Catholic if Mom and Dad weren’t able or willing to.
It’s a good thing they were never called into such service because I hardly ever saw them again my entire life. They may have been chosen because I was the first baby born since my Grandpa Durbin died, and Dad thought choosing his late father’s brother and sister would be something of an honor. Or maybe my parents were just running out of candidates.
Standing nearby were my actual parents, and my five brothers and sister who mostly just wanted to get the heck out of there and back to our house for the party. My brother Bill, age 3, may have been the unhappiest of them all and not just for being bored.
According to Mom, once Bill had figured out I was not a temporary fixture of the Durbin family but was there to stay, he wasn’t too pleased that the spotlight that goes to the baby of any family would no longer shine on him. No longer the center of attention, Bill may have been hoping it was all just a bad dream. Or that I was being handed over to my godparents to be taken home with them.
Like all of our baptisms, mine was the occasion for a rather large celebration afterward at our house, attended by just about every living member of my extended family within driving distance. This was because my parents cleverly combined my christening with a house-warming party.
It had been four months since Bill and Lorraine moved out to their new house in Fairview and everybody wanted to see it. Everyone was wide-eyed and smiling, and happy to see me as they entered our front door and gave me a little pat on the head. But then they were off to see the features of 114 Primrose Lane, rushing in like tourists who had been kept in line too long.
Moving out of East St. Louis was a big deal and so was buying a brand new house. Nobody had done that since Grandpa Kalish moved his family into the house on Lake Drive twenty years before, but he had built that house himself along with some buddies so it was different. Bill Durbin had a house built to order. That was a first.
My Dad was indeed the rock star of the Durbin-Kalish extended family and for pretty good reason. Not eight years before this celebratory parade of extended family he was still a junior railroad clerk, walking the tracks of the New York Central with a clipboard in his hand. Now he was leading guided tours of his one-third acre corner lot, which was actually nearly twice that size owing to the vacant lot next door.
“The developer says that lot should stay empty for years,” he boasted.
The fact he was doing top-secret work for the federal government only added to his cache. “I’m a physical scientist,” he would answer when asked by a relative exactly what he did at this ACIC place. “And I hope that answers your question because that’s all I can say.”
Most of the aunts and uncles and other relations who piled into our new house on the day of my christening would return only infrequently, while a few came back nearly every Sunday. These regulars included my Grandma Durbin, who was still smarting a bit at her three sons, all of whom had now left her to live alone in East St. Louis. But she was always bright and cheerful to her grandchildren, and was a talented cook who never came to a meal empty handed.
Another regular Sunday visitor was Great Uncle Martin. His contribution to Sunday dinners were freshly made strudels from Kruta’s Bakery, located next door to his house on 8th Street in East St. Louis. Grandma Kalish’s brother was the family bachelor and East St. Louis bon vivant. It was a role he’d play all the way to the age of 65, when he married his high school sweetheart, as if waiting for her first husband to die. Our Uncle Martin could certainly carry a torch.
He was a decidedly dapper man, sharply dressed at all times, who topped off his freshly pressed attire of sport coat and slacks with a hat featuring a tiny feather sewn into its band. He was one of many great uncles but was especially great to us kids. Uncle Martin was the source of our weekly allowance of a quarter—always new, always still warm from his pocket, and always dispensed so freely into the outstretched palms of his Durbin nephews we just assumed he was the wealthiest man alive. Rockefeller, after all, only gave out dimes.
No Sunday dinner was complete without Grandma and Grandpa Kalish. They were fixtures. Grandpa arrived precisely on time driving whatever modest sedan he owned at the time, and always with the seat next to him empty. Grandma Kalish rode in back. This made Grandpa sit up front alone, like a chauffer, but it was not out of haughtiness.
Bernice Kalish was as delicate as a Hummel figurine and nearly as quiet, but with a mindset stronger than steel. She refused to wear a seat belt. Those were relatively new inventions in that day and she didn’t like they way they crumpled her dress. Grandpa, safety conscious and pragmatic to a fault, refused to turn the key until his wife either buckled up in the front seat or rode in back. She chose the back.
Grandma Kalish always reminded me of the queen of England. She moved slowly, even decades before age required one to do so, and wore modest dresses with minimal accessories. She wore her prematurely white hair in a perfectly styled manner that never changed, fixed so solidly with AquaNet that even a tornado was unlikely to move a single hair. And she always carried a purse with the strap looped over her forearm, a purse omnipresent but never opened, just like the queen’s.
The celebration of my first birthday was not particularly joyful—and not just because birthdays by then had become rather routine at my house. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on the 22nd of November, just six days prior to my turning age one. It was a punch to the national gut that had people stunned for days, and it’s all people could talk about. But still my Mom invited a few people over for dinner and cake on the Sunday following my birthday. Just the regulars.
After my birthday dinner, as the sad conversation about the national tragedy refused to go completely away, Mom gave everyone a welcomed distraction. She carried a cake to the table and placed it right in front of me, as I sat on someone’s lap, teething on the edge of the tablecloth. It was my birthday cake. And on that cake was a candle.
When you’re in a big family you get to see lots of birthday cakes. In my case, around once a month on average. So by the time of my first birthday I had seen candles before. Now, even as a baby, maybe especially as a baby, these things get your attention. You see these bright spots of flickering light in front of a small crowd of happy, smiling people. Then everyone sings and someone makes the little light go out and everyone erupts in a cheer. I had seen all that. And now that I had a cake of my own I got to see the source of this light—and happiness—up close.
The candle was inches from my face and I stared at it. I could see the flame dancing, changing color from blue to red to yellow as it rose up off the wick. What was this thing? It didn’t fit into any of the laws of physics I had observed by then. I knew, for example, that when you let go of something it fell to the ground. I knew you couldn’t put your fingers through a hard solid thing but you could easily splash your hand through water. Or your brother’s glass of milk. Liquids sloshed around wherever they wanted to go but solid things stayed put until you moved them. And now this flame? What was going on here? What was this thing? And what did it feel like when you touched it?
That may have been the first time I was fascinated with fire. Or maybe not.
But it certainly wasn’t the last.
As soon as I could walk, at the age of 1.5 or so, Mom would let me roam our big front yard, side yard, back yard, or the vacant lot just next door all I wanted as long as someone was out there to keep me off the street. And I could go there too if someone was holding my hand.
One day my brother Dan walked me up to the swimming pool. There actually was no pool there, just a wooded depression in the middle of our neighborhood, South Bountiful Heights. The developers promised construction would start any time so my siblings started calling the area ‘the swimming pool’ in eager anticipation. (South Bountiful Heights is still waiting, by the way.)
I listened to Dan as he narrated our expedition.
“Won’t this be great?” said Dan. “We’ll have our own swimming pool just a block from our house and we can go any time. And you know what? It doesn’t matter they haven’t built this pool yet because you’re not old enough to go by yourself anyway.”
Dan always saw the bright side of any situation. “But by the time you’re older, it will be here just waiting for you!”
Dan talked to as if I were his age. Intentionally or not, Dan didn’t talk to toddlers like they were toddlers. And we toddlers, well, this one anyway, appreciated that.
As we ambled back down Primrose toward our house, I pointed out something that wasn’t there when we’d left. A huge truck had pulled up to the vacant lot next door to ours. It was hauling a back-hoe, one of those big yellow machines on tank treads, with a shovel-tipped arm for digging foundations.
Dan said he hoped it was going to dig the swimming pool but the truck had clearly reached its destination. The driver was out of the cab and smoking a cigarette, walking around the lot at 112 Primrose Lane, the lot next to ours, the one Dad had expected to remain vacant for years.
“Hey driver!” said Dan as we crossed the lawn to get to our own. “Are you here to build a house?”
“Not me, young man,” said the driver as he crushed the cigarette butt into the ground with the heel of his boot. “But the builders are coming tomorrow. You wanna help? Can you swing a hammer?”
Dan laughed and shook my arm as he looked down at me, like he wanted me to do the same. So I laughed too. I didn’t know what the heck I was laughing at but it sure felt good.
The laughing didn’t last long. When Dan and I went inside and delivered the news, Steve and Barb lamented the prospect of losing the open lot next door. Mom reminded everyone we knew all along there would be another house there eventually.
“But there are so many vacant lots!” noted Barb. “Why do they have to take the one right next to us?”
Mom didn’t have an answer for Barb, not at that moment, and no doubt wondered the same thing. In the summer of 1964, there were still entire stretches of nearly empty streets in South Bountiful Heights where someone could build a house and have plenty of elbow room for a while. But we’d all learn soon enough why the buyer chose that lot. And the reaction in our house was mixed. To say the least.
“She’s moving here?” Dad asked Mom as he changed out of his suit, his face rotating between bafflement, pain and confusion as it searched for just the right expression. “My mother has to move to Fairview? To the lot right next door?”
Ann Durbin had again shown her eldest son who was boss. She hadn’t told anyone she was considering moving, much less moving to 112 Primrose Lane, right next to our house at 114. She just did it.
Dad suffered in silence over his mother’s decision to move next door, knowing anything he said would just make things worse, and Mom just accepted the fact and decided not to let it bother her.
The kids of the house had a reaction that could not be more different from theirs. We could not have been happier had we learned Santa Claus was putting his workshop there.
“Grandma is moving next door!!??” said Dan, and Steve, and Barb and the rest of us upon hearing the news. “Groovy!!!!!!” The popular term of exclamation maybe referred to the grooves in a record. I’m not sure. In any event, for us, this unexpected development was as groovy as groovy got.
A lot happened in the early 1960s on the civil rights front, as my family settled into their new house in Fairview. The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail in April, advocating disobedience of unjust laws, not long before that Alabama town’s Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor used firehouses and attack dogs on demonstrators.
In the months that followed, the NAACP’s Medger Evers was murdered in Mississippi, Dr. King delivered the historic I Have a Dream speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, and the terror only escalated in Birmingham when four young girls attending Sunday school were killed by a bomb explosion at their church.
With no black neighbors, Dad felt especially removed from the earth-rattling transformation of American society. He could talk with his wife and older kids about it, which he did, but he wanted to do more. He wasn’t the type to go out and picket, or organize demonstrations. That wasn’t his style. But he had an itch to do something. Anything.
My parents met plenty of other former East St. Louis residents at St. Albert’s. They were glad to know at least some of them shared their liberal views on civil rights, as well as their concern for the destabilizing effect of white flight on their former home town—especially as they appeared to be fueling it. Sipping coffee after church one morning, these like-minded Fairview Catholics hatched an idea to do something about it.
Their idea was to hold informal coffees at their new homes, inviting both their new neighbors in Fairview and old neighbors—black neighbors—from East St. Louis. If families would just get to know each other, they figured, they could build simple friendships to help bridge the racial divide, a divide that was widening daily into a chasm all across America.
Dad saw it as a golden opportunity. If there was any place that needed an advocate for racial tolerance, it was Fairview. If it was ever going to change, God knew it needed people like him and Mom working from its inside to affect such change. And Dad would not only demonstrate it passively, he would advocate it.
Unfortunately, the idea that seemed so brilliant at church didn’t seem so bright when they started running it by their neighbors.
“You want me to do what?”
Dad had expected some resistance, but the sharp edge of Lester Smith’s voice told him this might be harder than he thought. He was still thinking of how to respond when Mr. Smith, a pot-bellied man whose entire wardrobe seemed to consist of sleeveless white tees and chino pants bought in the 1940s, made it clear there was no point.
“You want me to come to your house and drink coffee with coloreds??”
“Lorraine and I would be very happy if you and Mrs. Smith came by,” Dad continued. “Yes.”
“I’ll bet you just would,” said Lester, running a hand over his crew-cut head as he sized up the situation. “Listen, Bill. That’s your name right? Bill Durbin?”
“Yes, and if you would just give this some thought and spread the word—”
“Oh I will do that!” Lester was grinning now. “I will call up everyone I know, starting with the rest of the volunteer firemen. I will be happy to do that.”
Dad didn’t know Mr. Smith was a firefighter.
“Listen, Bill Durbin. We like things how they are here in Fairview. It would sure be a shame if things changed.”
Of course the “change” he referred to was the unwritten law against black people living in Fairview. Or visiting.
Stories found their way into our house of the police idling their cars at the base of the bluffs on Highway 50, watching for cars with dark-skinned occupants heading up to Fairview, cars that were promptly escorted into, and out of, town.
Intimidation like this kept the number of black visitors to Fairview at approximately zero, and the number of black residents at exactly zero.
“He’s a fireman,” Dad reported to Mom back at the house. “And he’s telling all the other firemen too.”
Dad had figured some of their neighbors might take a dislike to their radical idea of actually inviting African Americans up from East St. Louis. They hadn’t figured the ones bothered most were firefighters.
Dad had been particularly sensitive about house fires since one January when they were still on Ridge Avenue, when he burned the Christmas tree in the backyard, as was customary. It took only one strike of a match to make the bone dry tree burst into a frightening tower of flames. It was the last live Christmas tree he would ever allow in the house.
The coffee idea went cold. And Dad went back to feeling his regret for leaving a diverse neighborhood and moving to a pointedly racist one, a regret that felt like a rock in his shoe. He didn’t dwell on it, and nor did he feel shame. He knew he’d made an ultimately wise decision in leaving East St. Louis, all things considered.
But his itch to support the civil rights movement was not going away.
In 1965 I gave up the new-baby spotlight when my brother Marty was born. My three year run was pretty good by Durbin standards; Marty didn’t even get a year before Kenny was born. I liked the idea of having younger brothers because I might have someone to play with. It didn’t work out quite the way I pictured because of our three-year age difference, and as so-called Irish twins they naturally did most of their playing with each other. So when the big kids were away at school I had to find my own entertainment. Our TV was of course very helpful in this regard, but only until mid-morning when the kid shows were all over and nothing was on but soap operas. Then it was just me and the house. I got to know every inch of it, looking for something interesting. The bookshelves were full of books, but almost none had any pictures so those were good for nothing except for building staircases to the top of the bookcases so I could see what was up there, which wasn’t much.
I found the bathrooms a great place for the discovery of new and interesting things. The sinks and tubs were interesting enough but the far more fascinating device was the toilet. I was out of diapers earlier than most of my siblings, getting a fine grasp of the mechanisms involved if not their correct names. Learning the verb “to pee” was easy enough. But when Mom referred to the other function as “moving your bowels” I thought she said “moving your bottles,” and that is how I referred to it for more years than I care to admit. I toilet-trained relatively quickly in part because I loved sitting on the seat with a hole in it, making a deposit just so I could push the lever and watch it disappear in a vortex of rushing water.
It was a simple but genuine pleasure of my life, and for a time I found occasion to pee or move bottles many times a day.
One morning in the fall of 1966, at the age of not-quite-four, I found myself particularly bored. School had just started so the house was nearly empty. My sister Barb was home but she was up in her room getting over a bug going around, and Mom was busy tending to Marty and Kenny upstairs. I was downstairs in the kitchen looking for something to do. It was full of interesting devices and appliances and drawers full of cool stuff. What fascinated me most was the stove. It was magic. Normally when you want a flame you need to strike a match—I’d seen that done a million times for the lighting of birthday candles, and had in fact expressed so much interest in the lighting of matches that Mom had long since kept all matches well-hidden. But I had quietly observed something amazing about the stove. You don’t need matches to make a fire with this thing. You just turn those knobs.
I couldn’t quite reach the flush-mounted knobs of our built-in stove top, but quickly solved that problem by drawing on my first-hand knowledge of what was inside the floor-level cabinets beneath the stove. Like other moms of the day, ours took full advantage of the convenience of canned goods. The whining of our motorized can opener could be heard several times a day. Indeed, a portion of every supper ever served in that house came out of a can. Those heavy metallic vessels, packed with juices, sauces, and not-so-green beans and other vegetables leached of most nutrients, were some of my favorite toys. One day years before this one, when I was still crawling, I wanted to see how high I could stack those cans. I thereby succeeded in making a stack taller than it was stable and looked up from the floor just as gravity did what gravity does. The gash on my lower lip, from a can of creamed corn whose fall to earth was interrupted by my face, left a scar for life. That can was not nice to me. This day, however, these cans would be my friends. This day I would find myself perched atop two giant cans of Hawaiian Punch fruit drink—Fruit Juicy Red under my left foot and Orange Ocean under my right.
In no time at all I had four little rings of fire going. The magical blue flames danced at my command as I fiddled with the knobs. I felt the heat of the flames on my face, and took in the scent of remnant natural gas while the burners hissed in front of me. It was really nice but I soon got bored with it. Couldn’t I make these fires any bigger? Why yes I could.
We ate a lot of bacon in those days and Mom stored the leftover grease in a paper milk carton with the top cut off, right next to the burners. We used the congealed grease to fry eggs—it gave them a wonderful bacony flavor—or slather on a piece of Wonder Bread for a quick snack. I bellied myself onto the countertop to reach the grease carton, and when my fingers flicked against it I was surprised how heavy it was. I pulled back to get some momentum and lunged. This time I whacked the carton and tipped it over. The morning’s grease was still viscous and clear, in a lazy pool atop the older, solid white stuff, and I took in the comforting smell of bacon grease as I watched it ooze onto the stove. I grinned as the grease met the blue flame and ignited, and my eyes opened wide as the flame spread to the paper carton and transformed it into a bright yellow flame.
But then came the smoke. Natural gas doesn’t make smoke when it burns, but bacon grease sure does. And this smoke was black, and heavy, and it made my eyes burn. I rubbed my eyes and stepped off the Hawaiian Punch cans, toppling one over and sending it on a roll, then left the kitchen and ran upstairs. I didn’t think Mom would be too happy with what was going on down in the kitchen. So I didn’t say anything. I cloaked myself in nonchalance as I entered the back bedroom where she was changing Kenny’s diaper. Marty played on the floor at her feet. I meandered over to the open window, looked onto our backyard below, and after a relaxed moment or two turned and pointed outside.
“Look at the smoke, Mom.”
She closed the heavy diaper pin on Kenny’s waist and stepped over Marty to see a tower of inky black smoke pouring out of someone’s window. Ours.
“Barb!” Mom yelled to my sister. “Get out here!”
Mom looked into the kitchen as she and Barb hurried us downstairs to get us out of the house. A glance at the Hawaiian Punch cans and toppled grease carton were all the clues she needed to know what had happened. I was looking too, and noticed the flames climbing the back wall of the stove and licking the wooden cabinetry above. The black smoke was now clinging to the entire first-floor ceiling of our house, like a heavy blanket defying gravity. Dad and my older brothers had painted those ceilings, and every wall in the house, just days before.
Mom told Barb to take us out of the house while she turned off the stove. The ceiling of smoke was expanding now, really fast, growing from the top down. All the sudden I could only see the bottom half of Mom and Barb because their top halves were in the smoke. I started to cry when Mom disappeared entirely and Barb pushed us toward the door, which then burst right open before we could get to it. A man none of us knew came running inside.
“Is anyone else in here?!” he demanded.
“Mom’s in the kitchen!” answered Barb, her eyes burning.
When the adrenalin-pumped stranger entered the kitchen he found Mom covering her eyes with one hand and trying to turn off the stove burners with the other.
“We need a blanket,” he told her, pulling Mom aside and turning off the burners for her.
“A table cloth?” she asked, eyes burning.
Mom fetched the big green table cloth, the nice one we only used for Sunday dinner, while the man ran water in the sink. Using the soaked cloth, they quickly smothered the flame. As billows of white steam overtook the black smoke of a defeated fire, a crew of volunteer firefighters burst through our front door, these clad in scratched metal helmets and buckled fire coats, the nozzle of a ready fire hose in their hands. Luckily for us they never turned on the hose. It saved the house from who-knows-what kind of water damage. The smoke, however, did plenty. It got into every room, every drawer, and every stitch of clothing inside those drawers.
Mom wasted no time in commencing a clean-up effort. She and Alice Albro, Mom’s friend and neighbor who had rushed over when she heard the fire trucks, had buckets and sponges out in no time. They were wiping down walls when Warren Baker, the State Farm insurance agent who had sold us a homeowner’s policy just the month before, arrived at the scene.
“Girls, you can put down those buckets,” said Warren, who then delivered the relieving news that State Farm would take care of everything—including putting us up in the Trailways Motel while they fixed up our house. That part of the story turned me into something of a hero to my older brothers. While Mom, Barb and my little brothers stayed at Grandma’s house next door, us guys enjoyed a life of comparative luxury for the next few weeks at the Trailways, complete with daily maid service and all-you-can-eat meals and a different dessert every night.
“Eat up,” our dad encouraged his growing boys at the restaurant dinner table. “State Farm is paying for it!”
Our last night at the motel, Bob ate so much chicken and dumplings he threw up right there at the dinner table. We didn’t stay for dessert that night.
On the day of the fire, things were settling down by the time Dad could get a ride home from work; Mom had called him as soon as she knew the fire was out and the kids were somewhere safe. Drenched in sweat and taking shallow breaths off the top of his lungs, the first thing he did after checking in with Mom was to consult with the firefighters, and to thank the man who stopped in the nick of time. By some head-scratcher of a miracle he was driving up North Point Road when my stove-top experiment got out of hand. His eyes had met the black plume of smoke pouring out of the kitchen window just as my Mom’s had, and he instinctively pulled his car onto the lawn and jumped out.
He knew what to do because it turns out he wasn’t just some guy driving by. He was a volunteer fireman with years of experience, but not in Fairview. He was a firefighter in another town who was just visiting friends in our neighborhood. Adding to the magnitude of the miracle, it was a very good thing he was not a Fairview firefighter. My dad knew some of the town firemen and they knew him. Had it been one of them driving by, as black smoke poured out of a window, they just might’ve kept on driving.
That was my first conclusion, as a young pre-schooler living in a town where African Americans could not. I formulated my theory watching a TV commercial. A man and woman were smiling and happy, strolling down a sidewalk and sucking on Winstons or maybe Salems or Camels, and blowing out smoke. At first I thought their skin was dark because they were in the shade but when I went up close to the screen—Mom always told us to stay back ten feet but we never did—I saw their faces stayed like that wherever they went. Anyway, with every puff they seemed to get happier so I figured they must smoke a lot, and all that smoke darkened their skin.
My hypothesis was supported when I glimpsed a man sitting at a bus stop, not in our all-white town of Fairview but down the bluffs at the edge of East St. Louis. Blacks were allowed to live there. Mom was dropping off my brothers Dan and Steve so they could take the bus across the Mississippi river to see a Cardinals baseball game at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. My brothers and everyone else in my family were huge baseball fans—the Cardinals made that easy by winning the World Series twice in the 1960s—but I never was. As my brothers climbed out of the car, I peered at the dark-skinned man with a cigarette in his hand. His clothes were nice and just like the clothes Uncle Martin wore—tweed sports coat, golf shirt and hat. He took a deep puff as I watched. A plume of gray smoke wrapped around his face and he smiled at my brothers, and tipped his head just a little bit too. My brothers smiled back and tipped their heads too. The man took another puff as we drove off.
Another black face I saw all the time in our house belonged to Bill Cosby. He was a smoker. I’d peer at his dark face on the record cover while listening over and over to comedy routines my brothers were soon reciting by heart, routines like Noah and the Neighbor, Tonsils, and The Chicken Heart. Bill Cosby was the first comedian I’d ever heard of and before then I had no idea a guy could tell stories so funny. I also didn’t know that laughing really hard can make you wet your pants even when you don’t need to pee.
My dad didn’t listen to record albums as much as his kids did, but he did watch a fair amount of TV. And by fair amount I mean pretty much whenever he could. He relaxed there, in front of the glowing box that depicted life in shades of gray and weighed more than our washing machine, and got his mind off of work and family management and child disciplining, and whatever drama was going on at the time with his mother. And it didn’t cost anything. When he was in front of the set he of course got dibs on what show we watched, and one of his favorites was Mission Impossible. I used to love watching the tiny cassette recorder self-destruct in a plume of smoke at the beginning of every show, after Mr. Phelps received his instructions for the episode. My favorite character on the show was Barney the electronics expert. He was black. Very black.
“Barney smokes a lot of cigarettes,” I said to my Dad as we watched one evening, just the two of us.
“What’s that?” he responded.
“His skin is real black, Dad. From all those cigarettes!”
I knew I got his attention when my dad did something he pretty much never did. He got up and turned down the volume of the TV while the show was still going on, then sat back down with a kind of scrunched up look on his face like he wasn’t sure what to say but knew he needed to say something.
“So, um,” he said, pausing to be sure he had the right name. “Mike. Do you think that smoking cigarettes make a person’s skin black?”
“Your grandfather, my dad, he smoked a whole pack of cigarettes every day.”
“Grandpa was a black man?”
“No, no, no.” Dad knew he needed to get right to the point. “People are born with dark skin. It has nothing to do with smoking or anything else.”
“Oh,” I responded while formulating the obvious next question. “Why are some people born with dark skin?”
Dad went on to explain, as best he could to curious kid, the basics of ethnography and racial differences. He didn’t get very far that evening but the lessons continued over the months and years that followed, and eventually, like the rest of his kids, I would learn from my parents not only about racial differences but about the injustice of racial inequality.
I learned at home that some people made decisions about other people based only on the color of their skin, which was stupid because under our skin we’re all the same. I also learned that black people—we weren’t supposed to used the word colored, or negro, and we’re never ever ever to use the other word that started with the letter N—weren’t allowed to do things that white people could do. And some black people were saying enough is enough. They wanted the laws to change so they could be treated just like white people. Only some whites were real angry about this and did mean and terrible things to black people to get them to shut up.
Some of the blacks wanted to fight back and do mean and terrible things back to the whites. But some of the blacks went about it different. They intended to get their way not by fighting, but by just not going along with the unfair rules. It was called civil disobedience and the leader of this idea was a black man whose name was a real mouthful: The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Junior.
I thought I’d never be old enough for school.
With no preschool or kindergarten I kept having to watch my big brothers and sister go off to school every morning to do fun stuff, while I was stuck back home with three little brothers and nothing to do. I couldn’t wait for my big brothers to get home. That’s when I was part of their pack again and got to do the things they did, when they let me.
One of our favorite things was going through houses under construction, after the workers went home. We’d climb through rooms that were still just a bunch of upright two-by-fours, smelling still like the pine trees they came from, and dare each other to walk across floors that were just a bunch of beams stretched across a cinder block cavern waiting to become a basement.
One day we heard the wheels of a truck crunching the gravel out front and made a run for it out back. They had just laid a foundation for a garage that day, so we had to leap across this moat of still-wet cement to make our escape. The older kids leapt across just fine but I wasn’t what you’d call the athletic type. Anything having to do with getting my body to move or jump or catch or swing a bat or anything else like that—those things did not come easily to me. So when I tried to follow the other kids across that moat, my dorky little legs didn’t make it.
I plopped right in and was soon up to my thighs in wet cement with nobody else in sight. The other kids had taken off so I had to pull myself out of the muck.
My pants were coated in the gray wet stuff, and had I been thinking clearly I might have rushed home and had Mom hose them off. But I was not thinking clearly. I wasn’t sure what to do so sat down on a curb to think about what to do, and cry some, because that’s something that did come easily, during which time that cement did what cement does. So when I did finally get up and trudged home, it was like walking with stove pipes around my legs.
For a while I had a playmate. Chris Zittle was another pre-school boy who lived across the street and came over now and then. He and I might dig holes in the back yard and bury our little green plastic army men. Or we’d eat Life cereal in the middle of the day, when it was neither breakfast or lunch but just because we thought it was fun. And you know how humming into a spinning fan makes your voice sound funny? One day I showed Chris how to do that.
We had a window fan in the front room, which had a motor big enough to power a lawn mower and really got the air moving through that house with its giant metal blades. Unfortunately, the manufacturer only bothered to put a safety guard on one side of this beast so the only thing separating occupants of our living room from spinning blades of metal was that thin screen meant to keep the bugs out.
It was a real hot day, so that fan was going full blast, which is good cause the faster the blades are going the funnier you sound when you make noise into it. I pulled up a chair and stood up to the fan, and put my face right up to that screen and started humming and singing and yodeling, and it sounded just as funny as ever.
Chris asked if there was room on the chair for him and I said sure, so he climbed up next to me. Then he asked if he could put his face in the fan and hum a little and I said sure. Only I forgot to tell him not to press in on that thin screen, the one just meant to keep bugs out. And before I thought to tell him, he was already hollering and pushing his face waaaay too far into the screen and then I could feel something wet spraying back on the two of us.
My friend Chris kept on hollering, but now it was not to make a funny sound, but to simply express the terror of having all his front teeth chopped off his face. Lucky for Chris it was only baby teeth, but he didn’t come back to our house after that.
One thing I did a lot of was thinking about what I wanted to be when I grew up. As soon as I learned about a new occupation it went right to the top of my list. Garbage man kept appearing and reappearing, as did car mechanic and door-to-door salesman. That last one was inspired by a kindly older man who roamed our streets on foot with a basket in his hand. Mom called him the Watkins Man because he was an agent of JR Watkins, a Minnesota manufacturer of all-natural detergents and other household goods.
Once a month or so he’d knock on the door and Mom would invite him in to put his basket on the kitchen table and show off the latest soap, or spices, or beverage syrups. I’d stand at the edge of the table with my nose inches from the woven basket, taking in the mix of exotic smells from his products. Mom never needed anything but felt sorry for the man, who never seemed to get much business, so she’d always buy fifty cents or a dollar’s worth of something from his basket.
When I got some of Mom’s time it was usually in slivers. Like one morning beneath the young silver maple in our backyard, the only tree on our entire lot, Mom tied my shoelaces for me extra slow, explaining what she did as I looked on. Then she’d untie it and disappear into the house to tend to my little brothers while I gave it a try. Then I’d give up and sit there for a while, enjoying the light breeze rustling the maple leaves, the smell of the grass, and a peaceful quiet broken only by the complaint of a distant crow.
When she came back she’d congratulate me for how much progress I’d made on my shoelaces and then tie and untie them again, seeming not to mind how many times it was needed. I don’t know how many times this went on but I do recall the last time.
Squatting on the grass with my chin on raised knee and eyes locked onto my clumsy hands below, I curled the loopy lace held by my right fingers over and under the loop held in my left, then pulled the two laces apart to create the knot. It was a moment of magic and it felt good. As I stood up and ran to tell Mom, light-footed with euphoria and a well-tied shoe, I reveled in the simple joy of figuring stuff out.
If I could learn how to do something so complicated as tying shoes, I was pretty sure I could learn anything.
It was a Saturday morning so Dad was in charge while Mom was at the beauty shop. Dan and Steve were inside sweeping and dusting and doing laundry and Bob, Ed and Bill were outside picking up sticks. Dad was certain anything heavier than a blade of grass would bust up the blades of our Lawn Boy lawn mower, so before he cut the lawn he’d send an army of boys out on a search patrol, and when you returned with a handful of sticks he’d say “good job” and if you found a rock you’d get a pat on the back too. And the he’d send you out again.
My sister Barb was in charge of the little kids, as usual. Rather than stick around the house she’d go find a neighborhood mom who felt sorry for her and would help out with the babysitting. Usually I was one of those little kids, stuck at some house being even more bored than I was at my own. But on this Saturday, for the first time, Dad let me stay home and pick up sticks.
“I found one!” I yelled
“I saw it before you did,” said Bill before grabbing it.
I stood up, ready to go tell Dad that Bill took my stick. But that’s when I saw Mr. Cook. He was in his front yard across the street with a strand of Christmas lights. Christmas lights! It was the first sign of the second best holiday of the year, after Halloween, and I wanted to go see those lights up close. So I forgot all about the stick and Bill and bolted. I ran out of our yard and across Primrose Lane and right into the path a speeding car.
I didn’t even notice when the driver slammed on her breaks and the car skidded, getting everyone’s attention but mine. Dad and Mr. Cook and my brothers all had their eyes on me as the car’s trajectory drew closer to my own. Then I saw the shiny chrome bumper, and the hood that looked to be about an acre across, and the face of a woman behind the windshield and her white-knuckled hands squeezing the steering wheel with all her strength as if that would make a difference.
I couldn’t even see daylight for all the people standing around me, staring and talking and asking if I was I alright. Dad was on his knees, his eyes on mine, his hands holding me up by the torso with a grip that felt really good.
“Show me where it hurts, Mike.”
“It doesn’t hurt.”
“Are you sure?”
I was sure. The car had slowed enough that I might have been moving faster than it was when the bumper sent me flying into Mr. Cook’s yard, where I slid and rolled a few times.
“Take his pants off,” said Grandma, who had run out of her house at the sound of the skid. “You have to check his leg.”
“No!” I yelled. The thought of taking off my pants in a crowd was terrifying. I’d rather be dead.
“Are you sure Mike? Does this hurt?
Dad put his hands on my hips and legs, applying a little bit of pressure until he was satisfied I was telling the truth, I really wasn’t hurt.
“You’re one tough little boy,” Dad concluded. He looked at me in the eyes again and smiled, letting me know everything was okay.
Grandma didn’t think everything was okay.
“How could you let him into the street, Bill!?” she interrogated as the crowd dispersed.
“He’s fine, Mom.” Dad could tell where there was leading.
“Well I still,” continued Grandma. “I still don’t understand how you could let Mike out of your sight like that.”
“Here, Mom.” Dad gave me a pat on the shoulder and moved me toward Grandma. “You take him. You take him and watch him and make sure he doesn’t do that again.”
“Well I just might.”
“No, you just will. Either that or you can go back to your house and let us get back to work.”
It only took Grandma a second to size up the situation. She looked at me and I watched a smile grow across her face.
“Come on, Mike. Let’s go have a tea party.”
Starting that day, Grandma’s house became my new place to be on Saturdays. Dad didn’t have to watch me, Grandma didn’t mind, and I got something that felt really good: attention. At 114 Primrose I was one of seven kids when Grandma’s house went up. Next door at 112 I was one of one.
Grandma’s house was smaller than ours—just a single level with two bedrooms at one end, garage at the other, and living room, dining room and kitchen in between. But her little house was packed with riches that drew me like a honeybee to a flower patch. There were books, records, recipes, kitchen tools, garage tools, games, collections of one kind or another. It was an endless trove of interesting stuff with a curator full of interesting things to say about every bit of it.
I could always count on a homemade cookie from Grandma, or corn-meal fritter, or a spoonful of a sweet and sticky concoction she called tutti-frutti and kept in a big jar over the washing machine. And once our bellies were full we could sit beside her on her couch in front of the TV—it was a big color TV, much nicer than the black-and-white at our house—and pretend to help her do the crossword in the daily paper, or actually help her play solitaire. For that game she’d pull out a sheet of Masonite board she kept tucked between the sofa and the wall. The smooth, brown board would rest on our combined laps, providing a perfect surface for the card game meant for one that she would turn into a game for two. When Grandma was busy in the kitchen or doing laundry she’d offer me her coin collection to browse through, or her stamp collection, or a giant book of department store trading cards she’d found in the basement rafters of one of her houses.
I never failed to find something fun to do at Grandma’s house. And I never had to call ahead or even knock on her front door. I’d just bolt right in whenever I got the urge and she’d always greet me with a heart-felt “Howdy, pardner!” and asked me what I’d like to eat. And the very end of our time together, as I left 112 to return to 114, was always the same. “See you later, alligator!” one of us would start off. “In a while, crocodile!” answered the other.
Grandma worked at the New York Central Railroad, which just added to her worldliness. And unlike my Dad’s job, her occupation was one I could picture. I hadn’t a clue what my Dad did all day. But my mind’s eye clearly saw Grandma walking up and down the NYC platforms with a clipboard in her hand, making sure everything was in order before the trains pulled out or as they arrived—although her actual job was behind a desk far from the trains. Of course my Dad wasn’t allowed to talk about his job. But it was more than that. Dad just wasn’t the talkative type, not to his kids anyway. But Grandma loved talking about her day, or her knitting or crocheting or gardening, or anything else that sprang from a mind brimming with ideas and experience.
One year Grandma let me adopt one of her cherry tomato plants as my own. I tended it daily and watched for flowers that turned into tiny green tomatoes which I counted like a marble collection, looking forward to popping them in my mouth once they ripened. Day after day she told me how “sweet” they would taste. When the moment finally came and my teeth broke the skin of the first cherry tomato to ever enter my mouth, I spit it out as if she had played a cruel trick on me. It sure didn’t meet my definition of sweet.
Grandma didn’t have a dog but she did have a doghouse. And there was always someone in it. As one of her favored grandchildren, I got a kick out of watching my brothers be on the receiving end of her wrath, and to listen to her spout off. It was pure shadenfreude.
“You just tell [fill in the blank] that if he ever does that again I will tear his arm off and beat him with the bloody end of it.”
“Okay, Grandma. I will!” I’d assure her before heading back to our house.
“Hey [fill in the blank], Grandma says if you do that again she’ll tear your arm off and beat you with the bloody end of it.”
Then Mom would chime in.
“[fill in the blank], go apologize to your Grandmother.”
“But I didn’t do anything!” he protested.
“Go apologize anyway,” Mom insisted.
At which point [fill in the blank] would trudge next door, and apologize for upsetting her, prompting Grandma to insist that she wasn’t mad, there was no problem, that it was all a misunderstanding. And then she’d offer [fill in the blank] a spoonful of tutti frutti, a jam-like concoction made of a dozen different fruits steeped in brandy in sugar, kept for months in a big jar over her washing machine. She’d let that stuff age like it was fine wine and dole it out with great parsimony.
When she offered you tutti frutti, you could be sure all was good again between you and Grandma.
In the summer of 1968, the question of whether or not I should start school in the fall was complicated by my November birthday. You’re supposed to be six years old to start first grade, and I would only be five until three months into the school year. Now as one might imagine, Mom, with three pre-schoolers and a baby at home, was more than ready to ship another kid off to school—especially the one who played with matches. With me up the street at Grant School, that was 8 hours of the day she didn’t have to worry about my burning someone’s house down. Still, to get some advice on the matter she enrolled me in a summer school program called Reading Readiness.
It was pure joy. For two weeks Mom or my sister Barb would walk me to the end of Primrose Lane and through the long path in the woods up to Grant School. There, I’d run around like a banshee with a bunch of other five-year-olds and all I had to do was once in a while read for the teacher from a picture book. And that was no problem. Reading was something I could do just fine.
Mom and Dad didn’t have a lot of time for attending to our educations, and relied on school to take care of that while they focused on more basic necessities. Still, my parents were big believers in reading. Dad was always reading a book, and when he went on business trips his favorite gift upon return was a new book for the family. There was no town library in Fairview, so other then the one at Grant school, the two giant bookcases in our basement had to suffice. There you’d find the World Book encyclopedias and Year Books, bound collections of Readers Digest book excerpts, the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift adventure series, a couple of Time-Life series of books—one on nature and the other on ancient history—and an assortment of favorites like Jack London’s White Fang and Call of the Wild. There was always a subscription to Time Magazine in our house, and a number of daily newspapers—the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and the Belleville News Democrat.
Mom, while she didn’t have much time for reading more than the newspaper herself, forever reminded us to read.
“It doesn’t matter what you read, just read. Even the funnies,” she said, referring to newspaper comic strips.
I taught myself to read by picking up one of the handful of picture books in our house and slogging my way through the sentences, asking for Mom’s help when I got stuck on a word, eventually figuring out how the words described what was going on in the pictures. It took a long time, but time is one thing I had a lot of.
Mom would always help when I showed her a word I didn’t know, but she didn’t have much time to sit and read a book out loud to me. But Grandma did. I’d go next door and she’d have me pull one of the picture books off her shelves, and sit next to her on the sofa and read it to her.
One of her favorites was about a boy named Little Black Sambo who comes across some hungry tigers in the jungle. These tigers took all of Sambo’s clothes, then chased each other around a tree, and then get going so fast they turned themselves into butter which Sambo’s mom uses to make pancakes. It was weird. But it delighted the heck out of Grandma every time.
I learned about a lot more than just reading at Grandma’s house.
“Mike did you see that colored boy’s face when he thinks those tigers are gonna eat him up?”
“What’s a colored boy?” I asked.
“Colored?” Grandma seemed surprised I didn’t know. “Why that’s another word for a negro. A person with black skin, Mike. We used to call them niggers and some people still do, but now we say colored because that’s more respectable. At least that’s what they say. Anyway, sometimes I forget you never lived in East St. Louis, Mike. That’s where all the coloreds live now.”
We didn’t have picture books like Little Black Sambo at our house. Ours were all Bible stories. One was about Noah’s Ark, and another was about Daniel and the Lion’s Den. And there were a few others. The one that made the most lasting impression was about Adam and Eve. My favorite part was when Eve showed up because she always showed up naked. Of course she was always in front of a plant or tree that cleverly hid her interesting parts, which was frustrating, but there was enough that a curious young boy could use his imagination to fill in the rest. Which I certainly did. It wasn’t quite Playboy magazine, but it was pretty good.
At the end of my Reading Readiness summer school, the teacher told Mom her seventh kid was ready for first grade—at least academically.
“Mike can read just fine,” she told Mom, before adding a caveat I wish she would have kept to herself. “Just don’t ask him to catch a ball.”
I was apparently not the most coordinated kid on the playground that summer. The problem was not the assessment itself, which was right on the money, or even that she shared it with Mom. The problem was that Mom gifted it to my brothers, who for years thereafter would wield it verbatim as a weapon of humiliation.
“That Mike he’s a smart kid!” they’d revel in repeating. “Just don’t ask him to catch a ball!!”
My first day at school was even better than I’d expected. It was just like summer school, with nothing but playing and drawing and otherwise horsing around, but this time there was a ravishing beauty at the head of the classroom. Miss Kathleen Daschbach was pretty. And I mean almost as pretty as Mom pretty. She had long and wavy brown hair that fell all around her face and shoulders, and wasn’t all scrunched up in a pile on her head the way most women wore their hair in those days. She smiled all the time and was nice to us almost like she was our Mom. I was so taken by her beauty I couldn’t even talk to her. I was too shy, too embarrassed, and too self-conscious to even answer her when she asked a direct question. Like at the end of the day, when she pinned a small piece of paper to my collar. I could feel the smooth back of her hands on my chin as she spoke to me.
“This is your bus number,” she said as she closed the safety pin under my chin. “Be sure to check the number on the bus before you get on, and make sure it’s the same number on this piece of paper. Okay? You know your numbers, right Mike?”
I couldn’t speak but I managed to nod as she headed off to the next kid. I had no problem with reading numbers. But the way she attached it under my chin, I couldn’t read my own number. I thought about bringing this to pretty Ms. Dashbach’s attention but of course I couldn’t do that. So instead I asked my new friend Tim Stark. He was right next to me in the line to go outside. But he couldn’t read my number either, or didn’t want to, maybe because he was talking to girls. Tim really liked girls and they liked him back just as much.
“Just come on my bus,” Tim finally said to me. “It’ll be fun!”
That sounded fine to me so I did just that. It didn’t occur to me, nor to pretty Ms. Dashbach, that there was no need for me to take a bus at all. Our house was a short walk from Grant School and none of the Durbin kids ever took the bus. Still, I had it in my mind I was supposed to get on a bus so I did as Tim directed and climbed onto his bus, which was very much the wrong bus, as Tim lived on the opposite side of Fairview from where I lived.
As kids got off the bus I’d look out and see I didn’t recognize any of these streets. So I stayed on. After his last stop, the driver looked back to an empty bus, save one kid crying in the last seat. Me. He was confused and didn’t know what to do, so he just drove me back to school and dropped me off in the parking lot. It was empty now. There was nobody on the entire school property save a slightly dazed first-grader.
As the bus pulled away I pulled myself together and headed for the woods. I knew just where the path opening was. So I scooted along as the half-dirt and half-gravel path sloped down into a ravine of dark woods, next to a pond that some winters froze over enough you could walk on it, and then back up again to an opening on Primrose Lane. And then I ran home and told Mom what a great day I had at school.
Like most first grade teachers, Ms. Daschbach filled our days with a combination of play activities and learning activities. I liked the former, but not the latter, so I just sorta sat out the learning activities until it was time for play. When a mimeographed worksheet was put in front of me, with lines for me to write something or whatever, I just stared at the purple ink until Ms. Daschbach took it away, usually with no more than my name at the top if even that. I didn’t mind this. In fact, I soon developed a liking for the smell of mimeograph ink, and would spend the whole time just taking in deep breaths as it out-gassed into my face. It made me feel light-headed and a little bit giddy, so I was totally ready for a play activity or, arts and craft time, as Ms. Daschbach scooped up one blank worksheet after another from my desk.
Once during an art project I had this great idea. Using my black crayon I could fill an entire side of a piece of paper and make my own carbon paper. And when I tried it out it actually worked. So I told this girl Tammy about it, and another girl Kim, and before long they were making carbon paper too.
I told them if they made enough we could start a school newspaper and I would be the boss and they could take turns being my secretary. Tammy said okay but Kim put down her crayon and scrunched her eyes.
“What if I’m the boss and you are my secretary?” she asked.
Tammy and I stopped drawing and held our crayons still as we took this in. Then Tammy looked at Kim like Kim was the dumbest kid in school.
“It doesn’t work that way,” she said, before resuming her work.
“You need to be a secretary,” I added, trying to be helpful, “because you’re a girl.”
Kim pondered this for a moment, then shrugged her shoulders and picked up her crayon and resumed drawing.
What I liked most about school is that, unlike at home, here I was surrounded by kids my age—and half of them were girls, and I was starting to like the girls even more than the boys. Especially the pretty ones. And all the kids, the boys and the girls, liked to have fun as much as I did. So when I couldn’t understand what pretty Ms. Daschbach was telling us to do, or didn’t feel like doing what she wanted us to do, I could always start up a conversation with another kid and they’d usually converse right back. And when pretty Ms. Dashbach noticed and asked us really nice to participate in the class discussion and not our own, I just had to wait a minute or so before striking up another conversation, or wandering from my seat to the window, or drawing lines and squares or whatever on the blank spaces inside my book.
When I was in first grade I had five older brothers and a sister going to Grant School at the same time. But you’d never know that fact by seeing my siblings next to me, because that’s just a sight you never saw. They kept their distance and hung out with kids their old age, and more or less forgot I was there. And this was fine, but I’d always keep a look out anyway.
One day we were lined up waiting our turn to go out to the playground while some older kids were being marched back into class. I saw my brother Bob in there and waved crazily to get his attention. “Hey Bob! Bob! BOB!” Bob was always the most athletic of the Durbin kids and very, very cool. He was so cool he didn’t jump out of line to talk to me or anything like that, as I kept hollering. “Bob! Bob! Bob!” I wasn’t giving up. “It’s me! Mike!!” He finally just turned a little tiny bit in my direction and gave me a quick little nod of his head. Just this kinda flick, which he clearly meant to convey something like Please-shut-the-hell-up-before-my-friends-know-I’m-the-one-you’re-waving-to. I wasn’t hurt. Mostly because I misunderstood. I just thought he was being cool. I took careful note of the gesture, and would later practice it myself, in front of a mirror at home.
I didn’t mind walking to and from school by myself, but there was one day I wish I hadn’t. It was the morning and I was on the path in the woods, and there were some older kids at the lowest part of the path next to the pond, and they told me to stop. I didn’t know these guys. They told me I had to smoke a cigarette before I could pass. “But don’t worry,” they assured me as if I was one of their best pals. “It tastes like candy.”
“Really?” I asked, fascinated. “What kind of candy?”
I had always wanted to try a cigarette because it seemed everyone else in Fairview smoked except for us. And now I was learning they were like candy!
“Just put it to your lips on suck on it real hard, like it’s a straw in a bottle of sody pop.”
I took the cigarette extended to me, said thank you, put it to my lips and sucked in about the deepest drag I possibly could. It was like swallowing ashes. I spit it out and coughed, and coughed again, and gagged, and looked up to the boys for help. But they were just laughing now. They told me to go on to school which I did.
I didn’t take the path after that. Instead I took the longer way along Lincoln Trail highway. There were lots of cars and no sidewalk, but at least there were no bullies making little kids smoke cigarettes.
My favorite place at school was, of course, the playground. There were no instructions or work activities or anything out there but freedom to have fun. You just did whatever you wanted. I didn’t play dodge ball or basketball or those things most of the other kids liked to do, especially the boys, and I found out I wasn’t the only one. I met a friend named Rex and he didn’t like those things either. He lived way back in the woods behind the South Bountiful Heights subdivision so I hadn’t met him before school. He knew the woods really well so that’s where we’d go during recess. There was no fence or anything and the teachers didn’t keep good track of their students, so Rex and I would wander to the edge of the ball field and just duck into the trees and roam around there. Rex also taught me something cool about the big metal mats just outside the school doors, for wiping your feet before you go in. If you looked between the slats you could find little chunks of salt left over from the winter. He was good at spotting the salt and popping them into his mouth for a little treat. He smiled like they were candy, or like maybe he didn’t get enough to eat at home—he was definitely about the skinniest kid in school. I tried, but mostly I picked up little rocks, and spit them out when I realized they weren’t dissolving, until I got as good as Rex.
I loved going to school every day and being with all those kids and pretty Ms. Dashbach, and roaming in the woods with Rex. At home I told my Mom all about it (except the part about Ms. Daschbach being almost as pretty as she was). She was always happy to hear me talk about school and smile and laugh about it, and when she wasn’t too busy she’d smile and laugh about it with me.
Everything was going fine until I learned about these things called report cards. Nobody had told me to expect this, but Ms. Daschbach was keeping track of all of the work assignments I turned in empty, or the ones where I’d put my pencil down in the middle then slide the paper all over the place while the pencil remained stationary. It turns out school wasn’t just a place to have fun, a place to go play so you don’t have to be stuck at home with little baby brothers and nothing to do.
Pretty Ms. Dashbach got right to the point in her written comments: “Michael shows signs of immaturity” and “signs of difficulty” and has a “short attention span.” I got a Satisfactory check mark for cleanliness, but Needs Improvement for working quietly, following directions, and preparing work neatly. And then came the letter grades. Mine were mostly C’s with a few D’s and B’s. I wasn’t even getting things right during recess, noted in yet another written comment: “Mike is often a problem on the playground.”
I got pretty scared thinking how Mom and Dad would react to my report card. I knew my brother Steve got A’s all the time and my other brothers got A’s at least some of the time. And my Grandpa Kalish gave them a dime for every A. And here nobody told me I was going to get a report card in the first grade. I thought those were for older kids. And I didn’t have a single A on mine.
“Here, Mom.” I braced myself as she scanned it, sitting at the kitchen table with David on her lap.
“You need to pay more attention, Mike.” Then she signed it and handed it back to me, to take back to school the next day.
“What about my grades?”
“You got mostly C’s,” she said. “And you see what it says here?”
She held up the report card and showed me the key to the letter grades. Next to C it said Normal Progress.
“You mean a C is okay?”
“Just try not to get any more D’s.”
This was a relief. Just get a C. I knew I could do that. I looked at her signature in perfect cursive writing: “Mrs. William P. Durbin.” I wanted to ask why she put Dad’s name and not hers, but David was crying now, indicating he had something in his diaper that needed more attention than my report card. So she went off to deal with that and I left the table satisfied.
School went back to being fun again after that.
Like all new parents, Mom and Dad got a kick out of naming their babies and put a lot of time into it. They spent weeks coming up with Daniel Paul for my oldest brother. After the fourth or fifth kid, the task became a bit, well, administrative. So they asked for suggestions from the older kids. When I was on the way my brothers narrowed the list to Bernard, Patrick, and Michael, from which they selected Michael for my first name (for Michael the archangel, thank you very much) and Patrick for my middle (partly as a nod to my Irish ancestors but mostly because it sounded good after Michael and before Durbin).
By the time the tenth Durbin came around even the older kids were getting a bit tired of the routine and wanted little to do with it. Grandpa Kalish proposed Fineas because he thought it meant “final” in Latin, and he (and every other grandparent, aunt and uncle) were really thinking enough was enough. My parents went with David Gregory—David being the first name my Dad’s finger landed on when he opened the phone book at random, and Gregory being the second. I’m just making that up.
My youngest brother had the distinction not only of being the last of Bill and Lorraine Durbin’s kids to enter this world, but the first to enter God’s world at a fancy new place. Construction of a new church at St. Alberts completed shortly before he was born in May of 1968, and he was the first to have water dribbled on his forehead at the elaborate baptismal font at the door of this groovy new place.
The new church at St. Albert’s was about as different from the old one as you could get. The old one was a traditional red-brick structure of modest and symmetrical composition and didn’t look all that different from an American Legion hall, save a small steeple front and center and elongated windows. Inside were straight wooden pews in two perfectly identical rows, and all the other features you are likely to picture when you think of the word church.
The new church was round. It had a big domed roof and a cupola thing at the top. It looked sorta like a spaceship, kinda like a stove pot with its lid on, and a little bit like a breast. With nipple.
I learned about breasts one winter when my brother Steve turned his snowman into a snow lady by affixing a pair of snowballs to its chest. To be sure they stayed there, he sprayed the whole thing with water a few times. The icy maiden was at the edge of our corner lot, pointed over to the house where the Baker girls lived. I’m not sure if his positioning was intentional or not but it didn’t take long for Mrs. Baker to take notice. She came over one day and put a blouse on it.
Church both confused and intrigued me.
I didn’t know what the heck was going on when Dad would take us to Mass every Sunday morning, but I was captivated by the setting and the man in charge. Everyone dressed up, filed into the pews of a fancy place with candles—I especially liked that part—and followed the instructions of the man up front wearing a robe, who was followed around by alter boys who lifted the hem of his robe, opened the big book of fancy words, and gave him an air of authority and respect.
We filled an entire pew at St. Albert’s and Dad liked to put is in order of age. That suited me fine because I’d get to sit at the end, at least while Marty and Ken were still lap babies, so I could see what was going on. And before I could read the little instruction book called a missalette I would simply parrot what everyone else did—sit, stand, kneel, sit again, kneel some more, stand and sing a song, bow your head and look like you’re thinking real hard, and so on.
“Why do we go to church?” I asked Mom once.
“To spend some time in God’s house.”
“Saint Albert’s is God’s house?”
“So that man up front—he’s God?”
“No, no, no,” said Mom. “That’s Monsignor Schindler. He’s a priest.”
“What’s a priest?”
“A priest is… A priest is someone your Dad can tell you all about,” said Mom, recognizing she was at the edge of her ability to explain the religion thing. “He’s an expert on church things. He was almost a priest himself.”
“Dad was almost a priest? That would have been groovy!”
“Not really,” said Mom. “If he was a priest you all wouldn’t be here.”
“And why’s that?”
“Your dad can explain that too,” said Mom. “When you’re older.”
While Dad was into church with all his heart and soul, Mom’s attitude was more pragmatic. She liked church in large part because she knew her husband loved it. And she liked the ceremony and the ritual and all that, and when she prayed to God her silent words were unequivocally genuine. But she didn’t let it run her life, didn’t agree with all its teachings, and didn’t feel as driven as Dad in following all the rules, starting with the one about always going to church on Sunday. When Dad was away on a business trip, we learned from Mom that, no, we weren’t going to burn in hell for missing Sunday mass once in a while. And yes, Dad knew the rule too. So there was no need to bring it up with him.
The inside of the new St. Albert’s felt to me like the palace of a king, or at least a very wealthy man. Everything was bright and polished, and the altar was adorned with all sorts of candles and flowers and vessels, including shiny brass bowels with lids that made a pleasing “ting” sound when they were removed. And everyone was so well-behaved and dressed up, listening to the priest and doing exactly as directed in the missals in each our pews, I felt I was in the presence of the most powerful force in the universe. Which I suppose was the point. Even my dad did exactly what he was directed to do when he was in this place, and I figured if there was a force more powerful than Dad then it must be one powerful force indeed.
It didn’t take long for Sunday mass to get boring, though, even with all the fancy trappings of the new church. It was like watching the same episode of the Lone Ranger over and over again. We followed the same sit-stand-kneel routine and listened to monotone readings and gospels and sermons that didn’t mean a thing to me. Fortunately, the pews were in the shape of a giant horseshoe and we sat on one of the sides, so I could always look straight across and stare at the people on the opposite side in order to kill the time. My eyes would always search out and settle on the prettiest girl. There were a good half dozen that rotated in and out of my weekly staring spree, in which I would daydream about getting up the courage to talk to the girl after church, then meeting her at Little Pleasures for ice cream, then kissing her and becoming her boyfriend.
Catholic Sunday school goes by the cryptic name of Confraternity of Christian Doctrine or CCD for short. Classes were held in the old building, which wasn’t nearly as impressive as the new church, but I did enjoy rifling through the ancient wooden desks of the unlucky kids who had to go to school here every day. I heard the nuns would whack you on the knuckles if you so much as looked sideways. Or something like that.
In Sunday school I learned the whole God thing which wasn’t too difficult to grasp: there’s an old white guy with a long beard who wrote all the rules about how we’re supposed to behave, and he lives forever, and he looks down on us all the time from a place in the sky called heaven and controls things, watching to see if we followed the rules or not. And he knows what you are thinking, too. And he definitely knows when we’re naughty and when we’re nice—like Santa Claus only this guy is in charge of everything in the whole universe, and not just giving out Christmas presents.
The Jesus part was confusing. I wasn’t even sure his full name but one time Rex’s dad dropped a wrench and said something about “Jesus H Christ” so I figured that must be it. But I never learned what the H stood for. But the really confusing thing was this three-part thing about Jesus being the Father (God?) and the Son (huh?) and the Holy Ghost—all at the same time. That made no sense no matter how hard I scrunched my face to make it all add up.
I learned something really important in my second grade CCD class. The sister (that’s what they were called) wore a long robe and a headdress, but not the big wingy kind that Sally Fields wore on The Flying Nun show on TV. Just a simple white band that wrapped around her head. So this nun tells our class that if we wanted to know how painful it was in hell—that’s the fiery place deep underground where the devil lived, the opposite of heaven, where sinners got sent for eternity—then all you have to do is some imagining, and some math.
“Has anybody done felt a match burn their finger?” she asked.
My hand shot up.
“You did, Mike?”
“Uh huh! I light matches all the time.”
I was so proud to have something to add.
“You don’t play with matches,” the wary sister asked. “Do you?”
“Oh, no Ma’am, I mean sister. My dad was just lighting the barbeque once and I asked him if I could, you know, put my finger over the match.”
“Did it hurt?”
“Well imagine that pain, Mike.” She took a giant stride to the middle of the classroom, and twirled around as she made this powerful point, aiming her finger at our eyes. “Everyone, imagine how much it would hurt to have a burning match held right under your finger. And you can’t move. Now. Imagine not one match burning you but ten thousand! Can you multiply by ten thousand?”
We hadn’t got to multiplying by ten thousand in new math yet, but I knew it was a big number so didn’t need to do the math. We were silent. There were plenty of things our young minds couldn’t yet do, but we could sure imagine ten thousand burning matches, roasting our little bodies like rotisserie chickens.
“Does anybody in my classroom want to go to hell?”
“No!” we all shouted, some of us feeling tears coming on.
“Well you don’t have to. Nobody has to go to hell!” Our faces lit up as she got to this welcomed news. “You just have to go to church, to our wonderful St. Albert the Great, and do all the things that God teaches us to do.”
I had it in my head nuns never lied, so of course I believed her. And when she went on to say that scientists—not just priests but scientists—had proven this fact about the intensity of eternal damnation, well, I decided on the spot I would thereafter lead the most holy life the world had ever seen. Starting that day I was the model child, sibling, student and citizen, until a few weeks later when I repeated the facts of hell to my brother Steve. He waved his hand and told me it was a bunch of baloney. Actually I think he used the word ‘horseshit’.
“Listen, Mike,” said Steve with authority, like he was getting ready to set me straight on a very important fact, even though it was a waste of time trying to teach an idiot like me anything at all. “Even if there is a hell you only go there when you die, right?”
“And when you die you can’t come back, right?”
“So how could anybody still living know the first thing about what it’s like after you die?”
He stopped there to let it sink in. And it worked. It was the perfect application of reductio ad absurdum and the Socratic method, pure and simple, right there at 114 Primrose Lane. I could feel the pieces of truth Steve lay before me assembling themselves into a newer and larger truth. They fit perfectly. It felt great.
Then, as Steve got back to his book and I wandered away, the realization I had been duped—by a nun of all people—infuriated me. Sally Field would never tell a lie. I thought they should make a new TV show called The Lying Nun! I didn’t even know where nuns fit into the whole religion picture. Someone told me they just did laundry and cleaned houses for priests, when they weren’t teaching kids with a ruler in their hand. I figured nuns would at least would tell the truth, I mean with God watching them all the time. But wait. Maybe that part wasn’t true either?
I was so mad about the whole thing. There was no old man in a white beard watching me! Like Steve said, how could anyone on earth know that? That just got me madder. I felt like going right up to the Short Stop and stealing a candy bar. But I didn’t. I had tried to steal a box of cigars there once. I stuffed the box of White Owls under my skin-tight tee shirt and walked right out, and who do I run into but my brother Ed talking to the owner of the store. Mom didn’t tell my dad, but she said if I ever did it again she would. And the thought of that was plenty hellish to keep me from shoplifting ever again.
I told my dad about the nun’s fib. We were watching a war movie on TV and I waited for a commercial break.
“Are nuns supposed to tell the truth, Dad?”
He didn’t answer. Dad had dozed off, sitting up straight the couch, and his head was starting to lose balance and teeter backward toward the wall. This happened all the time. Once gravity took over his head would hit the wall behind the couch and he’d wake up with this startled what-the-hell expression. And then he’d do it again. This time I nudged him so he wouldn’t hit his head.
“Hey Dad?” I asked.
“Huh?” he said. “What did I miss?”
“The tanks came over the hill and saved those soldiers trapped behind the trees,” I said. “And I think some of our airplanes shot down all of theirs.”
“Oh yeah that’s a good part,” he said. Dad had seen every war movie ever shown on TV, so it was no wonder he fell asleep.
“Dad is it okay for a nun to tell a lie?”
He had to think for a minute, then explained that no, nobody is supposed to tell a lie and the sister was just trying to make a point. It was something called a metaphor. I didn’t know what that meant but by then the commercial break was over so we went back to watching the war movie.
One Sunday in CCD class we had a visit from a priest. He was carrying a Tupperware container with little white wafers, and asked the class if we knew what they were.
“Sure!” someone shouted. “Those are communion hosts.”
“No, not yet. That only happens during Mass,” he explained. “That’s when we turn these into the body of Jesus Christ, and we turn the wine into his blood. Right now these are just wafers.”
He went on to explain how, once we had received the sacrament of First Communion in a few weeks, we too would be able to eat the body of Christ and drink his blood during mass. Yikes, I thought. It sounded like we were being promoted to cannibals and vampires. I figured it was all a buncha hooey anyway, another helping of horseshit. But I kept thoughts like that to myself because this First Communion thing was a really big deal. I’d get a whole day devoted just to me, celebrating me, and this was a ton more special than a birthday. For those we just got a cake after dinner. But for First Communion I’d wear this special gold and white robe, and march up to the alter with my classmates, and get my first communion wafer placed on my tongue, followed by a sip of wine. I mean blood. And then I’d get a humongous party back at my house where all the relatives would come over and have a huge feast.
When the big day arrived someone drove me to church early so I could meet with my class for our final instructions and what not. Mom and Dad and the rest of the family would join me later for the ceremony. I got a little nervous once the nun put the robe on me, though, and decided I didn’t want to go into the church without my family. So I walked out to the side of Highway 159 to wait.
And there I waited. And I waited some more. I watched all these cars pass by and a bunch of cars pulled into the church but none of them was a blue Ford station wagon full of Durbins. After a while I figured my family just decided not to come, that it wasn’t such a big deal after all, and this was crushing. A sadness and despair fell upon me that got me crying my eyes out there on the side of the road. I don’t know how long this went on, but at some point I heard my brother Dan.
“Hey Mike!” he shouted. “We’re all inside! Come on!”
He ran to me and I ran to him, drying tears with the long sleeves of my robe. I had forgot there was another entrance to St. Albert’s, on the Highway 50 side. That’s where my family had come in. Dan got me into the church just in time. He ushered me into line with the rest of my classmates and then went to our usual pew. And man did I feel stupid. But at least I didn’t feel abandoned any more. I looked over to the pew and there were Mom and Dad, and Dan, Steve, Barb, Bob, Ed, Marty, Ken and baby David. Some of them were waving and smiling and pretty soon I was smiling too.
The ceremony flew by and I did a fine job, not letting that wafery body of Christ thing fall to the floor and not drinking too much of the wine which just tasted like Welch’s grape juice to me. Later on my brother Bob told me that’s just what it was. Figures, I thought. Another fib. But the party back home was good. Dad made barbecue chicken and filled a giant metal tub with ice and filled it with cans of soda and beer.
The whole church thing baffled me. Was there really a guy named Jesus with all those amazing powers? Or was he just pretend like Batman or Superman the Lone Ranger? I didn’t know what to believe, or who, especially after the Lying Nun thing. Did the priests tell the truth or were they pulling our legs too? I went along with it, of course. In our house there was no option. You went to church and you went to CCD and that was just that. I didn’t complain. I figured I just wasn’t old enough or smart enough to figure it out, the same way I struggled with math at school. And maybe it was like sixth or seventh or even eighth grade math and I really wasn’t supposed to understand it just yet. So I went along, and sat there in the pew and looked for pretty girls to stare at and waited for church to be over.
Mostly I went along with church because it meant so much to Dad. It wasn’t so much blind faith in Jesus or even God, but faith in Dad because he wouldn’t waste half a day every weekend on something that wasn’t worthwhile. He saw something I could not, and one Sunday I got a tiny glimpse of what that was.
It was during the communion processional when everyone was chanting the same hymn over and over, to fill the time because the church was packed that day. Whatsoever you do, to the least of my brothers, so you do unto me. Repeated over and over as the line moved slowly up the center aisle to the altar, where the priest laid on your tongue the thin wafer said to be the body of Christ himself while an altar boy held a shiny brass plate under your chin to catch it should it fall, I realized it was more than a way to kill the time. Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, so you do unto me.
When I heard “the least of my brothers” I thought of poor people, and when I thought of poor people I thought of black people, and how bad they were treated and how much that bothered Dad—and that’s when I realized something. This is the part of church that must have made the truth so clear and obvious to people like my dad.
If you believed in Jesus and liked him and thought he was a really great guy—the way I thought of, say, the Lone Ranger—then of course you wouldn’t hurt him. You wouldn’t call him hateful names, or spit on him, or sic an attack dog on him. And you sure wouldn’t put a rope around his neck and hang him from a tree.
And what Jesus is saying here is that, if you do any of these things to anyone, then you are doing to him. So quit it.
And this guy Jesus, well, he was like Dad’s Lone Ranger.
What a church teaches is one thing, but what it actually does is another. My dad knew that. He knew politics and customs and personalities affected the way things were as much as scripture and faith. But he was an idealist at heart, and as the civil right movement got underway he held out hope that his beloved Catholic church could use its influence to make things right.
His hopes were bolstered by something called Vatican II. This was a radical rewriting in the early 1960s of some of the most basic rules of Catholicism. Much of it had to do with how things worked at Sunday service, or mass, but I think it showed my dad how the church, a sort of authoritarian monarchy then ruled by Pope John XXIII, was willing, in the Pope’s own words, “to open the windows of the Church to let in some fresh air.” The fact the church could change, overturning rules that had been in place for centuries, gave my dad hope and made him feel prouder than ever to be a Catholic.
My dad was particularly happy for the changes about Mass because one of the biggest things to come of Vatican II was the increased involvement of the laity, or congregation members. Before Vatican II the priest did pretty much everything during Mass. And he did it speaking Latin, mostly with his back to the congregation. Now he could speak the local language and face the members of his church. And now he could appoint members of the congregation to be lectors, so the priest could focus on the spiritual stuff and leave more routine matters to someone else. The lector is like a master of ceremonies to keep things moving, by taking care of things like scripture readings and telling the congregation when to sit, stand, or kneel, and what prayers to say and what songs to sing.
Dad signed up to be a lector right away. He would practice his readings on Saturday and put on his suit Sunday morning and stand at the lectern and never miss a cue. A natural public speaker, he had a loud and clear speaking voice and was easy to follow. The congregants thought he was great. He loved doing it. Monsignor Schindler, however, he didn’t love it so much. The septuagenarian priest didn’t think the church needed to change and went along with Vatican II only because he had to. Most of the time he kept his reservations hidden, but not always.
One Sunday during mass Dad delivered one of his lines as printed in the missal and then waited for Monsignor Schindler to say his. Monsignor just sat there. Dad waited some more. And Monsignor just sat there some more. Finally, after several awkward moments with everyone in the congregation wondering what the hell was going on, Dad decided to skip ahead and read his next line. As the words came out of his mouth he noticed Monsignor Schindler approaching him on the altar. He had left his chair and was walking toward Dad, unfastening his vestments.
“Here, Bill,” said Monsignor. “Would you like to say Mass?”
My dad, rattled by the departure from the tightly scripted ceremony, shook his head no and turned beet red. The humiliation was crushing. Monsignor returned to his chair and said his line, my dad said his, and the rest of the Mass went along as normal.
Monsignor never again asked Dad to be a lector.
The rift with Monsignor was a remarkable departure from how things once were between these two guys. When Dad joined St. Albert’s in 1962, after moving his family up from East St. Louis, the church was preparing to celebrate Monsignor’s 25th anniversary as a priest. They needed someone to write up his accolades for the big celebration. Dad readily volunteered and wrote words of praise that made Monsignor proud—and happy to have Dad in the parish. That happiness began to dull in the years that followed, however, when Monsignor decided Dad wasn’t putting enough in the collection plate . Dad tried to convince Monsignor he was squeezing every penny he could out of his government paycheck to support the church and was simply tapped out. He was trying to contribute in other ways, for instance by being a Sunday School teacher in the CCD program or making pancakes on pancake Sunday, and manning the deep fryer on Friday night fish fries that could feed his entire family for about a couple of bucks. But Monsignor wasn’t moved.
When Monsignor chose to humiliate my dad on the altar, and strip his name from the lector roles, Dad knew he would need to steer clear of Monsignor Schindler and keep his mouth shut—at least at St. Albert’s.
Dad decided to go way over Monsignor Schindler’s head in his search for answers from the church to his questions about racial inequalities, and the civil strife making headlines nearly every day. Catholics believe the Pope, as the vicar of Christ, is the closest one can get on this earth to God himself. When he speaks you listen. One of the ways he speaks is by publishing these things called papal encyclicals, and in 1967 Pope Paul VI published one that caught Dad’s eye. It was called Populorum Progressio, or On the Development of Peoples. Its 86 pronouncements translated from Latin wandered all over the place and took a fair amount of effort just to read, but it sure spoke to my dad. It didn’t come right out and say it was addressing the plight of blacks, but when it referred to “those who are looking for a wider share in the benefits of civilization,” Dad thought of blacks. Its opening passage speaks of the Church putting herself “at the service of all, to help them grasp their serious problem in all its dimensions, and to convince them that solidarity in action at this turning point in human history is a matter of urgency.” To Dad this was as a clarion call to get to work.
Although he no longer lived in East St. Louis, Dad stayed in touch with Father Goldammer at St. Elizabeth’s, the parish he attended as a kid. This priest was right in the middle of the racial divide, with a once-white parish dwindling by the week. And it bothered the hell out of him. He would turn red in the face, raging from the pulpit about the racial conflict tearing the country apart. And when my dad brought up the papal encyclical with him, Father Goldammer was all ears. These two were on the very same wavelength. And somewhere along the way they decided my dad could give write speeches, inspired by the Populorum Progressio, and Father Goldammer would find him an audience.
So my dad gave these talks, to small gatherings at churches in the area, and his speeches were well received. His message was simple, borrowed from the Populorum Progession and put into the words of Bill Durbin: Let’s all just get together and talk. Riots aren’t the answer. Violence and anger and hatred aren’t the answer. Coming together is the answer. Look past racial differences, because differences like skin color just don’t matter. We are all brothers and sisters of the same family, the family of God’s people. Dad felt like one of the big brothers of that family. And it felt great. He had found his cadence in the great march for civil rights.
The nation’s dilemma over race of course had an effect on the presidential campaign of 1968. It was one of the craziest ever. Lyndon Johnson was completing his first term after winning by a landslide in 1964 and was expected to easily win again. But the yoke of Vietnam weighed heavily around his neck. After the primaries were already underway he started everyone and their uncle by declaring he would neither seek nor accept his party’s nomination to return to the White House. It appeared the nomination would certainly go to Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who kinda hated Johnson anyway and wanted to continue his slain brother’s work. RFK’s assassination in June, on the night he won the California primary, sent yet another shock wave through a nation still reeling from Martin Luther King’s assassination in April. The Democratic nomination was eventually won by Vice President and former Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey. Our family liked this guy a lot. He was the architect of the Peace Corp, and one hard-working liberal known as the Happy Warrior. He was also, before becoming Johnson’s Vice President, the Democratic Whip in the US Senate, a position my uncle Dick would fill some 40 years later.
Johnson’s withdrawal from the race also opened the door for the reincarnation of Richard Nixon’s political life after losing to JFK in 1960, in an election many now agree was tainted by Chicago’s mayor Richard Daley’s dubious delivery of his state’s electoral votes, and again in 1962 when, after losing his bid to be California’s governor, he famously declared to the press “You won’t have Nixon to kick around any more because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.” Johnson’s decision made him think that, well, maybe just one more press conference to announce I’m running for president.
Unlike most presidential races this one had a serious third candidate, the segregationist George Wallace. He ran as an independent. Most of the nation wrote off the Alabama governor as an avowed racist, given his attempts to block black children from entering schools, and of course his famous commitment in his inaugural address to “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
In a mock election at Grant School, where six Durbin kids were enrolled in the fall of 1968, the ones old enough to participate all voted for Hubert Humphrey. They were apparently the only. The mock voters from the Durbin family were promptly labeled “nigger lovers” by classmates, and taunted for not supporting Wallace.
“Don’t worry,” Mom assured us back at home. “If George Wallace wins we’re all moving to Canada. Or maybe New Zealand.”
Although Illinois is not generally considered part of the South, the southern part of the state sometimes like it is. Especially in neighborhoods like ours. The South Bountiful Heights subdivision of Fairview was all but founded by racists, and was a haven for whites of East St. Louis who wanted to self-segregate from the blacks. At the entrance to our subdivision, where North Point Road met Highway 50, was a structure made of red-brick (it always reminded me of the brick barbecue pits popular in backyards back then) with a concrete panel and the name South Bountiful Heights.
In the fall of 1968 someone used Wallace bumper stickers to form the name “Wallace” over the “South Bountiful” part, so this family of Humphrey supporting Democrats found themselves living in Wallace Heights until that crazy campaign came to an end. Nixon won by only 1% of the popular vote, but given the practical irrelevance of actual vote tallies in our fine nation, by electoral math Nixon won by a landslide. Wallace came in third, happily, although he did win five entire states in the South. No third-party candidate has done that since.
Dad got pretty good giving his civil rights speeches with Father Goldammer. He felt empowered with that encyclical in his hand. The Pope had his back. And Dad knew Pope Paul VI outranked the priests and monsignors and bishops and cardinals, so he didn’t shy away from delivering a message to them as well: The leaders of the church have a responsibility in this matter of racial intolerance and the civil unrest it was now causing. They needed to do something. They too needed to be more racially tolerant. They needed to open up those windows like the Pope said to. Open up those windows and let in some fresh air, some fresh ideas, some new ways of thinking about things and doing things! This part of his speech didn’t go over so well, at least not the church leaders. When word got back to people like Monsignor Schindler and other leaders of the local diocese, those leaders delivered a message back to my dad that he was going too far.
The message came from other members of a men’s group that Dad had belonged to for years, a fraternity of sorts called the Diocesan Council of Catholic Men. These guys were all friends, some going back years, and a couple of them took my dad aside after a meeting one night. They told him he was upsetting the church leadership and needed to stop. Monsignor and even the Bishop thought Bill Durbin was being arrogant. They thought he was sending the wrong message to the diocese Catholics and wanted him to stop.
It didn’t work. Knowing he was being heard only made my dad want to speak out more. He felt he was actually accomplishing something, even if just getting the attention of church leaders. He was on a roll.
So he told these guys to go pee up a rope.
Mother Nature got it right when she made Dan the first of the Durbin kids. He was the rock solid trailblazer for his younger siblings and never tired of pulling us along the path, which is all the more amazing when you think about how much baby-sitting and diaper changing the oldest gets to do. And he always had a way of making you feel less bad than you might have otherwise, like one day when he took me into our backyard to explain a word I didn’t understand.
“A coincidence is when two things just happen to occur at the same time, but are really unrelated.”
Dan was dribbling our basketball on the hard-packed dirt of our homemade basketball court. The bumps and rocks made the ball occasionally bounce in unpredictable directions, and the discarded telephone pole Dad used to hold up the backstop tilted slightly to the east and wobbled some on every dunk, but we were the only house to have one, so by local standards it was like Madison Square Garden.
At the edge of the court I sat cross-legged, we called it Indian style, digging up a green plastic army man out of the dirt. When it wasn’t used for basketball we’d recreate great scenes of trench warfare with hundreds of those little army men. I’m sure plenty of them are still there.
“I thought a coincidence was something to do with the weather,” I explained to Dan. “Like a kind of rain storm or something.”
“And you know what?” said Dan, not missing a beat as the basketball pinged off the dirt and miraculously back up to his hand. “I used to think the same thing.”
“Really?” I said, believing him. Of course he was just making that up. But he knew it would make me feel better, which it did.
In contrast to Dan’s extroversion and natural comfort around others, Steve was among the more insular of the Durbin kids. And the smartest, too. At least that’s what Mom always said, and she told use why. More than once.
“You know why Steve gets good grades?” Mom would ask.
“Because he reads,” one of us would reply, as usual.
“Because he reads! Steve is always reading and he gets good grades. So you should read too!”
Steve didn’t always get good grades. He was certainly the most academically inclined of us ten kids, and brought home straight A’s by the time I was in the picture, but when he began school he just didn’t see the point of completing his homework or tests when, after he completed the first problem, he was convinced he knew how to do them all. Eventually he got tired of seeing other kids showered with attention for getting good grades, kids he considered his intellectual inferiors, and decided to get good grades.
And Steve was indeed a voracious reader. Mom held it up as a virtue but Dad started to see it as a way to avoid interaction with the rest of the family. And Dad didn’t like some of the books Steve was reading.
“Helter Skelter is no book for someone your age,” Dad told Steve at the dinner table.
“Have you read it?” asked Steve, knowing the answer.
The clink of Dad’s fork on his plate got everyone’s attention.
“I know enough about it to know what I’m talking about.”
Dad let Steve read the book about Charles Manson’s murder spree but put his foot down when Steve came home with Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. And this time Dad waited till he had some facts. He knew colleagues at work who had read it, and he read a book review, and was armed with a convincing case when he confronted Steve.
“The Godfather has scenes of inappropriate relations between a movie producer and, well that’s all I’m going to say. And the violence goes well beyond what’s needed to tell a good story.
“Fine,” said Steve, knowing the wisdom of choosing one’s battles with care. He pitched the book into the trashcan in front of Dad.
As the third oldest and only girl among a sea of boys, my sister Barb was our second mother. Barb probably didn’t like being told to take care of the little kids all the time but, speaking as one of those little kids, she sure didn’t let on. We didn’t know the half of what she did for us, like being sure everyone had a gift under the Christmas tree and taking care of wrapping. We did know, and love, when she took us to the Little Pleasures ice cream parlor on Highway 50.
“This is my favorite place in the whole world,” she’d tell us, scraping up tiny amounts of ice cream to make the experience last longer.
“Have you seen the whole world?” I asked.
“No of course not. But I don’t need to,” said Barb with confidence. “I just know that even if I did see the whole world, this would still be my favorite place.”
“Wow,” I thought.
Mom and Dad never had to worry about my brother Bob getting in trouble. He respected authority, did all the right things, and instinctively subordinated his own wishes in order to please those in charge. Born left-handed, he forced himself to learn with his right because he didn’t want to tell his first grade teacher he was a leftie. He played the trumpet until the band teacher, Mr. Widges, asked him to switch to baritone. The only problem was he hated the baritone and loved the trumpet—but switched anyway. One time when Mom sent him to the Shortstop to by napkins for the dinner table, he eyed sanitary napkins on the shelf and thought they must be cleaner than plain old napkins. So that’s what he brought home.
There was one thing Bob would not do for his parents or anyone else, and that was the consumption of a green vegetable. But he was so accommodating with everything else in life that Mom and Dad couldn’t bring themselves to force him. He was still the healthiest and most physically fit of any of their kids, despite the lack of vegetables. And his grades were always good too. Bob won an American Legion award for all-around scholarship, and regularly demonstrated maturity beyond his years, as when he volunteered to write a eulogy for a sixth grade classmate killed in a car accident.
Ed wanted to please authority figures as much as Bob did, but he didn’t have the good grades or patience of Bob. So he used charm instead. Ed began winning people with his smile and good nature at the tender age of 3 months, when he won a beauty contest sponsored by the neighborhood diaper service. He could be a real smart aleck but learned just how far he could go before getting into trouble. Sometimes the hard way.
When he was four, one of the Martychenko kids put Ed up on a tree branch and threatened to leave him there if he didn’t shut up about something. He took the dare and found himself dangling by his fingertips and everyone else gone home. A short while later he was on the ground with a broken arm. In Fairview, he once yelled out taunts to some older neighborhood kids riding by on their bikes. They were known bullies, and Ed figured he’d be safe if he stayed in his front yard. The bullies stopped anyway and gave him a bloody nose on the spot.
Ed didn’t care much for school and his grades showed it. But he did like playing the trumpet, and made such a clear and pleasing sound, demonstrating such preternatural talent, that people tended to overlook his grades. I sure didn’t know his grades weren’t so good. But I sure knew how good he was at the trumpet.
I’d gaze up at Ed from the floor, watching him practice, until he told me I was distracting him. So I’d go sit in the hallway and listen through the closed door. He showed me how to oil the valves once, on the shiny new trumpet he bought with paper route money and a generous discount by Steve Walko, unofficial stepbrother to Grandpa Kalish and a musical instrument dealer in Springfield. Ed also showed me how to buzz my lips and press them to the mouthpiece to make a sound. I took up the instrument myself, in the fifth grade, but never came close to sounding like Ed.
My brother Bill was born three years before me. Like Ed, Bill was an agreeable little kid who got along with everyone and thrived on attention. That may explain why Bill never seemed to like me, along with the fact I stole the new-baby spotlight he had rather enjoyed during the three year interstice between his birth and mine, the longest any Durbin kid had had to wait before the next one came along. Whatever the cause, I got into more arguments with Bill than with any other sib. I found myself hopelessly incapable of winning any of them, or budging him in the least from his position on any topic under the sun.
Bill was a powerful debater, who didn’t hesitate to accompany his sharp words with equally sharp jabs to my ribcage or smacks to my head.
“Mom! Bill hit me.”
“Did you hit him back?”
“He’ll just hit me more.”
“Mom! Bill hit me.”
“Go tell your dad.”
“Mom! Bill hit me.”
“Those weren’t hits.”
“They were love taps.”
Love taps. God only knows why Mom started calling them love taps—and why she told Bill. Feeling particularly frustrated one day after a barrage of love taps, and knowing I could never get back at him verbally, or physically, I decided to exact revenge with a knife. A razor blade, actually, taken to the clothes in Bill’s drawer, including the shimmering basketball shorts in blue and gold (school colors of the Grant Yankees). And wouldn’t you know it worked. He kept his money in an old metal box in his drawer and Mom blamed the shredded clothes on its sharp edges. She really let him have it. I delighted in listening to her scolding and his pathetic attempt to defend himself. And I would have gotten away with my maneuver had I been just a little bit smarter, in a new tussle with Bill some weeks later.
“Stop it!” I demanded.
“Stop it or what?”
“Stop it or I’ll cut up your clothes again!”
“With a razor blade!” I shouted. “Like I did before!”
“What the hell,” said Bill, taking only a second to figure it out. “Mom!!”
Man did I get in trouble for that.
Unlike Bill, I didn’t particularly mind when my little brothers Marty, Kenny and David came along. Marty was born three years after me, Kenny less than a year after that, and David two years later. Mom called me the oldest kid of the second family.
As so-called Irish twins, Marty and Kenny were so close in age it took me a while to remember which one was older. They were natural playmates, rarely apart from each other, so when I was in charge of watching them I could pretty much let them be. They didn’t need much help finding things to do.
As the youngest, David got to keep the Durbin baby spotlight pretty much forever. And he was so agreeable and content, always giggling and never seeming to want for much, everyone was happy to let him keep it.
I was too young in 1968 to follow the events rattling the nation like a socio-economic earthquake. I was fixating on things much more important, things like where I could get hold of some matches. Mom and Dad knew better than to leave any where I might find them and nobody smoked in our house—Dad went cold turkey when Grandpa came down with lung cancer—but it was pretty common at other homes in Fairview. My friend Ricky’s mom had a small purse specially made for cigarettes, just big enough for one pack, with a special little pocket where you put the matches. One day she lit up as she joined Ricky and me at their backyard picnic table for a lunch of fried bologna sandwiches and Bugles crispy corn snacks. With one horn-shaped Bugle on each of our ten fingers, we were giggling about how we were going to eat our sandwiches when she strained her head to one side and exhaled, in order to keep at least some of the smoke out of our faces.
She finished her sandwich right after that, complained about the heat, and got up and left. Ricky’s mom took her plate with her but left the cigarette purse behind. And I couldn’t help but notice that she hadn’t returned the matches to their special pocket. They sat on the table just beside my untouched glass of milk. Ricky didn’t seem distracted by the matches but they were all I could think about. When we finally tired of lunch, I waited for him to leave the table first. While his back was turned I snatched up the matches and crammed them into my pocket.
Unfortunately they were still in my pocket when Mom did laundry the next day. I was napping in the top bunk in Dan and Steve’s room. Dad was also in the room, working at the desk. I was dead to the world in my usual napping position: On my belly with legs straight out and pressed together, arms down tight at my side, and the palm of each hand wedged under a thigh.
“Wake up, Mike.” Mom entered the room with the evidence in her hand. I thought I might be dreaming. “Mike? I found matches in your pants pocket again. Where did you get these?”
I denied they were mine, and explained how they must have fallen out of someone else’s pants pockets and into mine, in the laundry basket. Things like that can happen, I explained. I was unshaken. Not worried. I just sat there while Mom stared at me from next to the bed, waiting, and Dad watched me from his chair, waiting. And then I burst out in tears.
Recoiling into a fetal position I could just picture Dad getting up from that chair and thundering wrath down upon his repeat-offender pyromaniac, maybe even unbuckling his belt and yanking it from the loops, right there in Dan and Steve’s room, and giving me a few whacks to make sure I never again got near a pack of matches. I’d been told he did that. I never saw it myself but just knowing it was a possibility was enough. But I wouldn’t feel the belt that afternoon. I wouldn’t even hear his wrath. My tears were all for naught because Dad didn’t even get up from his chair. Mom and Dad did something unexpected. They took me to a movie.
The 1968 film Hellfighters starred John Wayne playing the real life oil-well firefighter Paul “Red” Adair, who was famous for putting out gushing oil wells that burst into flames. Mom and Dad took me to the French Village drive-in movie theater to see it. And they only took me, which ticked off and confused the hell out of their other kids because, first, we almost never went to the movies and, second, what made Mike so special? What made me special in this case was my pyromania. I had an insatiable fascination with flames and fires and things that caused them, and Mom and Dad must have figured I might get it out of my system cathartically by watching huge fires up on the huge screen.
Their plan didn’t work. I kept stealing matches whenever I could, and hiding them in my clothes drawer. I figured my clean dark socks were the best hiding place because I didn’t wear those very often and Mom would hardly ever have occasion to look inside those.
But I did really like the Hellfighters movie, at least the first 20 minutes or so, which is all I saw from the middle seat of the station wagon, perched on the big hump on the floor we called the watermelon. Mom brought a paper grocery sack filled with popcorn she made at home and smuggled in. The drive-in didn’t want you to bring in your own snacks. They wanted to sell you snacks from the concession stand and pay god knows what for it, and hated the smugglers almost as much as they hated the people who didn’t even have money for a ticket and just parked the car up on the ridge of Highway 157 and watched the movie with no sound. We had sound. The speaker, a big gray metal thing with slits where the sound came out and a knob to adjust the volume, was hanging inside the drivers side window, with the cord running off to a post in the ground. And now that bag of contraband popcorn was open and the three of us took turns reaching our salty hands into the bag with the lip folded down over itself to keep the bag nice and open, while our eyes stared through the windshield at the huge fires up on the huge screen.
When my hand started coming out of the bag with unpopped kernels, I leaned back and took a sip from my can of soda (also smuggled in) and decided the movie wasn’t so good in the scenes where people were just talking. I licked the salt off my fingers. I looked into the cars on either side of us but couldn’t see much. I got kinda bored. My eyelids started drooping when Mom looked back at me and smiled. Then she moved the popcorn bag out of the way and scooted herself over the bench seat to be next to Dad. The last thing I saw was Dad reaching his arm around Mom as she rested her head on his shoulder. Then I fell asleep.
My hometown town of Fairview was unincorporated in the 1960s. This meant it was technically not a town at all. There was no mayor or city hall or anything like that. It was really just the area on either side of a two-mile stretch of Highway 50, an area everyone knew as Fairview, the name invented around 1905 by a Dr. Fairbrother. He was one of the first known land-owners in the area. Along those couple of miles of Highway 50 that defined my home town were a dozen or so houses of varying ages, intersections with side roads that went off into very new subdivisions and very old farms, and a handful of small businesses and what not. That stretch of road was my universe. It began at a beer garden and ended at a church.
The Fairview Beer Garden was one of the first things you got to as you rode up the bluffs from East St. Louis. It was a small clapboard roadhouse with a big shaded lawn, featuring wooden tables and painted metal chairs with the clam-shaped backs, and springy legs that made you almost think you were in a rocking chair, especially after a couple of beers got settled into your system. Budweiser was of course a popular seller, with the Anheuser Busch brewery just over the river in St. Louis, along with Stag and Falstaff and Schlitz. About a bottle’s throw from the beer garden, Norm Cox had an ice cream stand that was only open in the summer, and a barber shop. A few more steps got you to the Fairview firehouse, and then you were at Grant Elementary School. That part of Highway 50 was known as Lincoln Trail because our 16th president supposedly spent the night at a house that used to be across from the school. By 1962 that house was long gone, replaced by the Trailways Restaurant and Motor Lodge. Across from there was Bob Simon’s Gulf service station where half the people in town got their cars fixed. The other half went to the nearby Shell gas station whose landmark sign consisted of five back-lit boxes high atop a pole, one for each of the letters S-H-E-L-L. One of the letter boxes was usually burned out, and when it was the letter S, it made for quite an introduction for first-time visitors to Fairview.
Continuing east on Highway 50 got you to the Short Stop market, a sort of 7-Eleven prototype that sold everything from ham-hocks and beer to toilet brushes and denture powder, located right where the highway meets North Point Road. A right turn there took you into the South Bountiful Heights subdivision where we lived. If you didn’t turn but stayed on 50 heading east, you’d find yourself driving by modest houses interspersed with small businesses like the Woods Confectionary and the Little Pleasures Ice Cream shop, a hardware store where Mr. Otto Hesse would meet you at the door and guide you to what you needed, and Everett Moody’s pharmacy, which shared a space with a doctor’s office. Dr. Efren Naguit was maybe the only dark-skinned proprietor to be found in Fairview, but he wasn’t black. He was Phillipino. This, I believe, and the fact he was a damn good family practitioner, gave him a pass in the otherwise whites-only town.
Just east of Moody’s on Highway 50 was the intersection with Illinois Route 159. The Lincoln Trail Bank was on one corner, and on the opposite was St. Albert the Great Catholic Church, surrounded by soybean fields that stretched about as far as the eye could see.
This was my world. And Mom and Dad never seemed to mind when I’d take off with no particular destination or return time in mind, usually with Rex but not always, to stroll along Highway 50 or play with matches in the woods, or walk a creek in search of arrowheads (I never found one) or pillage through a family’s trash dump at the edge of their property. The houses in the woods behind our subdivision didn’t have garbage collection. They just made a trash dump in the woods and let raccoons and other animals devour whatever they wanted, and kids like me pillage through for cool stuff. I can’t even estimate how many bits of old radios and TVs and record players we carted back to Rex’s house, fully intending to get them working again.
I liked Rex a lot. He was introverted like me and god-awful curious too. And he looked up to his dad. My dad was only a mechanic on the occasional weekend. My friend Rex Kuhl’s dad was a mechanic every day. He worked for the Trailways Bus Company and Rex bragged about him every chance he got.
“He’s the best mechanic in the whole bus line,” said Rex as we peered into his dad’s tool box in their garage, but only looking because Rex knew to never ever reach inside. “He gets to work on the Silver Eagles and the Golden Eagles – that’s the best bus ever made.”
My friend Rex and his family led a life rather different from ours. Not only was their dad a mechanic who probably didn’t even own a suit and tie much less wear one to work every day, but he had the most amazing collection of arrowheads and other Indian artifacts in a glass case in their front room. I left nose prints on that case after every visit. He was actually Rex’s step-father, a fact I learned after asking Rex why he called him Bill and not Dad. I was intrigued by the non-traditional structure of their family and can only hope I didn’t ask too many impertinent questions about how it got that way. Rex’s mom was a sweet and tireless homemaker who made butterscotch brownies that so delighted me I asked her to write out the recipe for me. Which she did, in longhand, on an index card.
They lived in a house much more modest than ours in the unincorporated area outside of Fairview, accessible by bushwhacking through the woods at the edge of our subdivision. Unlike our cookie-cut and tree-denuded subdivision of South Bountiful Heights—an early version of the planned housing development that would, over the coming decades, cover the nation like a rash—tree-shaded roads back where Rex lived seemed to meander with no apparent destination and no two yards looked alike. It was a simpler, shadier, and less-stressful place than where I lived. I went back there whenever I could. And for as many times as I went to Rex’s house, I don’t recall him ever coming to mine. Rex and his family didn’t even exist as far as mine was concerned, and the place where they lived was nothing special. To my family it was just some place back in the woods. To me it was Brigadoon.
One day Rex’s older brother Billy called Rex and me out of their garage to go fishing at Heitmann’s Lake. I was excited to go to this place I’d never heard of before, a stone’s throw from the Haydite mine as it turned out. The trip took on a dangerous aura as we followed our Pied Piper through the woods and listened to his warning.
“Now we ain’t supposed to go there,” warned Billy. “It’s a private lake and Old Man Heitmann keeps a shotgun loaded for trespassers. So we gotta fish fast.”
Rex and I had barely wet the lines of our bamboo poles when Billy found something much more interesting than a fish.
“Looky that!” he whisper-shouted.
The dark gray head of what I would soon learn was an alligator snapping turtle poked out of the water just a few feet away. Billy quickly found a long piece of tree branch, the diameter of a baseball bat and three times as long, and dangled it over the turtle, seeming to know just what he was doing. I was sure the turtle would flee the taunting stick but it did just the opposite. It lunged its muscular neck and head at the stick and snapped its jaws into the wood. Billy then used every bit of his strength—the turtle must have weighed 40 pounds and was at the far end of a long branch—to lift the turtle out of the water. He laughed hysterically, giddy with some kind of joy I couldn’t quite understand, and started trotting back toward home.
As he passed by me, the decades-old turtle hung on tight and amazed me with its jaw-strength and stunning appearance: stony, spike-shelled, pre-historic. It was the most dazzling creature I had ever seen up close and I was instantly jealous that Billy now had one. Turtles were my favorite animal in those days. Mom and Dad let me keep some in the house, thinking they would eat the water bugs that never failed to stay out of our basement. My favorite was a box turtle I named Lurch, after the Addam’s Family character. It wandered the basement, usually hiding with one or two of its friends beneath the sleeper sofas. I learned I should have given it a girl’s name when Mom found a turtle egg.
As Rex and I gathered up our things to leave the lake—we weren’t about to stick around Heitmann’s alone—I wondered how in the world Billy would manage to keep a pet turtle as big as that snapper. I got my answer as soon as we arrived at the clearing across the gravel road from Rex’s house, where several members of his extended family, who all lived in nearby houses, had already gathered. As we wormed our way into the small crowd I saw the turtle on their well-worn chopping block. His dad had already cut off its armored belly plate with a frighteningly sharp knife. Their mom was standing nearby with a large pot. Billy looked on proudly as his dad tugged on the turtle’s guts, estimating out loud how much soup they’d make from a critter this size, then cursing when the intestines broke and sprayed its contents onto his shirt. I didn’t stick around after that. I walked home slowly, through woods growing dark, wondering how I would ever get such memory out of my head.
Rex and I were always wanting to build stuff. One particularly grandiose project also involved our friend Chip who had the equivalent of a palace in his backyard—an old barn complete with hayloft—where we decided to construct a flying saucer. I appointed myself project manager. We got as far as nailing together a frame, so heavy we couldn’t budge it, out of scrap lumber in the barn. The engine for our aircraft was to come from a rusted-out car someone had rolled into a nearby dump. We were convinced we could get it working and attach some sort of propeller to it for lifting our craft off the ground and over the houses and treetops of Fairview Heights.
“Hey Rex we need some of your dad’s tools,” I said.
“No way!” said Rex. “Bill will kill me.”
I really wanted a socket wrench. So I took my life savings of ten dollars from my drawer and trotted up the hardware store, where Mr. Hess sold me a beautiful chrome socket wrench and exactly one socket, that being all I could get for my ten dollars. The socket was the wrong size. When I took the socket wrench home and showed my dad, he let out a sigh of regret.
“Aw, Mike. Why’d you go waste all your money on a wrench?” said Dad, more sympathetic than scolding.
“I don’t know,” I said, ready to cry for wasting my entire savings.
My dad didn’t need the socket wrench, having a complete if not so shiny set already, but he bought the socket wrench and one socket from me anyway.
“I’ll pay you a dollar a week, okay?”
It was more than okay.
The spaceship project continued on for weeks over at Chip’s barn. We weren’t stupid. We were just blissfully ignorant, still at an age when adrenaline-pumping projects are rarely encumbered by inconveniences such as reason and rationality. It took Rex’s brother Billy, a street-smart and much admired teenager who patiently enlightened us to some basic laws of physics and engineering, to disabuse us of our aeronautical notions and bring us back down to earth.
One day after we disassembled the spaceship and returned the lumber to the barn, Chip and I decided to clean the place up a bit, starting with the removal of some broken window panes. With the hay loft door swung open, Chip held my feet as I lay face-down with my torso dangling out the giant door where hay bales used to go in and out of the loft, so I could pick from a window below shards of glass, one of which made an impressive gash on my ungloved digit. Aided by gravity, owing to my vertical and upside-down-position, the blood poured out and splashed all over the side of the white barn as Chip hoisted me back up to the loft. His mom had been watching us from the kitchen window and came running out with a much-needed bandage.
Having that loft as a clubhouse was worth some loss of blood. It was a classic place with sunlight sneaking in through long vertical gaps in the aging wall timbers, a lingering scent of hay that once filled the place, and no other purpose than to provide refuge for a couple of lucky kids. On the ground floor were dusty Suzuki motorbikes we rode through the abandoned crop fields next to the barn (sans helmets, naturally). Just beyond the small trailer parked next to Chip’s house (a trumpet-playing uncle lived in the trailer) was a pond we’d fish or swim or both.
For all the time I spent there I never stepped a foot inside Chip’s house. The closest I got was the space beneath the front porch, where one day Chip took me to peer into the basement through a vent.
“My grandpa’s penis is in there,” he told me.
“What?” I asked, my pre-pubescent eyebrows raised high on this bit of weird news.
“My grandma chopped it off!”
Still ignorant of the second function of the male organ, the one the might lead to the resolution of a domestic dispute by its removal, I painted a picture in my head and laughed hysterically at the clever ingenuity of his knife-wielding grandmother. My uncontrollable laughing soon infected Chip, who joined me in tumbling out from under the porch in rolling joy.
For anyone not in Grandma’s doghouse, her door was always open. And I entered it whenever I could for generous helpings of attention, kindness and education. I learned all sorts of things over there: how to play solitaire and Scrabble and pinochle, how to work a crossword puzzle, how to knit and crochet, and how to plant and tend a vegetable garden.
I learned the meaning of the word peck from Grandma, after seeing it printed on the side of a vegetable box from Eckerts, and the tongue-twister: “If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers, how many pecks of pickled peppers could Peter Piper pick?” I once bragged to Grandma that I could fill that peck basket with wild raspberries, from a wild patch I’d discovered in the woods. This was a mistake.
“Well you just go do that, Mike.” She was lit up with inspiration. “And we will make one dandy pie!”
“Um, sure!” I said.
“I’ll start on the crust while you go out this afternoon to get the berries.”
I actually had found some raspberries in the woods, but it wasn’t so much a ‘patch’ as a single plant. One the birds had found, too. Still I trotted off with my Eckert’s peck basket just like Grandma said to. The hunt netted approximately 20 berries, half of which I ate on the way back home.
“We can’t make a pie out of that!” exclaimed Grandma, pointing at the handful of berries rolling along the purple stains of the cardboard box.
Suddenly my legs felt weak. I had upset Grandma, for the first time in my life, and now it was my turn to feel her wrath. My stomach churned as I tried to imagine which pain was worse: having your arm ripped off or being beaten with the bloody end of it.
“I’m sorry, Grandma,” I said, through sniffles.
“Well,” said Grandma, magically soothed by my quick apology. “I tell you what. You come over for breakfast tomorrow and we’ll put these on a bowl of oatmeal.”
I felt an inch taller, returning home after that, with a feeling that sometimes the universe worked exactly as it’s supposed to. I had bragged when I shouldn’t have, disappointed someone I cared about as a result, apologized with all sincerity, and all was good.
Some things Grandma taught me just didn’t take. Like knitting. She tried and tried to show me how to hold the needles, how to loop the yarn in just the right way. I couldn’t do it. I decided to just watch the miraculous transformation of balls of yarn into the thing she liked to knit the most: sweaters.
“Who’s this one for, Grandma?”
“This is for Ed. When I gave Bob his, Ed just about begged me for the same kind.”
The kind they liked was called a fisherman’s sweater. It was made of a cream-colored yarn that was more cotton than wool, and the undulating ridges were so perfectly stitched they looked like only a machine could produce them.
“Ed sure is lucky,” I said.
That was an understatement. It took Grandma nearly a year to make a sweater and she didn’t hesitate to remind anyone of that fact. This required one to remain out of her doghouse for a rather long time, because Grandma wouldn’t hesitate to rip a sweater back into a ball of yarn, or designate it for someone else, if the anticipated recipient was not as respectful as a footman during the knitting process.
I looked forward to a sweater of my own, but knew I had to wait my turn. If she was making one now for Ed, then Bill would be next, and then it would be my turn. And maybe Bill would go in her doghouse and lose his place in line! Ah, I could only hope.
I was all of eight when I first played Scrabble with Grandma, a game I lost by several hundred points. She loved that game and played to win no matter how young her opponent. Few of my sibs would come back for a second game but I was always up for a game and she was always up for a win.
What drew Grandma to Scrabble? Its demand for intellect and knowledge had something to do with it. As an adult she had a penchant for developing herself intellectually—by enrolling in business colleges, reading voraciously, frequenting museums. She considered knowledge the only permanent possession. “They can take everything away from you, Mike, your house, your money. But nobody can take away what you know.”
Grandma did more than share with us her wealth of talent and knowledge, her cookies and cakes and candy, and her endless supply of companionship. She could peer into our nascent beings, see things we couldn’t see ourselves, and share those impressions back to us. She taught us who we were, if we cared to listen. I did.
“You’re a curious one, Mike. I only wish I could live long enough to see what you do with your life.”
Grandma did more than point out my curiosity. She let me know that my curiosity was okay. And so were my sensitivity and my total lack of physical coordination. She taught me to never apologize for being my own person and to in fact be proud of it. More than just bolster my self-esteem, she introduced me to the very concept of self-esteem. I know Mom and Dad had similar impressions of their seventh kid, and valued pride of self just like she did. (“Don’t let anyone change you” was Mom’s stock answer when her boys got on the subject of girlfriends.) My parents just didn’t have as much time as Grandma did. She was our auxiliary parent. Our teacher of Important Things. The adult who could do anything—almost.
I once brought Grandma a baby bird that had fallen from a nest, fully expecting her to help it. She put it in an Eckerd’s box—a half-peck because this bird was tiny—atop some clean rags. She put it under a lamp to keep it warm and fed it milk from an eye dropper. She let me help. I was certain it would live, but it didn’t.
When that bird died, I had no idea what to do with the strange and uncomfortable feelings that swept over me. Nobody in the extended family had died in all the time since I was born so I was pretty clueless. Grandma could tell. She told me not to worry because the bird was in heaven, and would still be there when Grandma got there.
“But not for a long, long time—right Grandma?”
Grandma said only God could answer that question. She had more than her share of medical challenges, and someone less strong as she would have died years before. Grandma would talk like she might go any day, but acted like she intended to outlive every last one of us. Grandma told me she had had something called a near-death experience, during an operation, and was lucky enough to get a glimpse of heaven.
“It was like being surrounded by the most beautiful sky you can imagine—a sky with a deeper blue than you can ever see here on earth.”
I thought it was pretty cool she knew something about heaven.
“Do they have Scrabble in heaven?”
Grandma laughed. “Well sure they do!”
“Can you play with God?”
“Well he’s the best player of them all! You’ll need to draw some pretty good tiles to beat him.”
“Like the U?” I offered.
“Yes, indeedy,” she answered. “It’s always good to have one of those if you draw that Q.”
Grandma told me she didn’t fear death because, even though she’d miss everyone down here, she’d be re-united in heaven with people she missed. Like her mother, and her little sister who died as a baby, and childhood playmates who were like brothers and sisters.
“And your dad too?”
“No,” she answered. She sounded different all of a sudden. “He won’t be there.”
“Where will he be?” I asked.
She didn’t answer.
But I figured it out.
When she didn’t answer, I figured it out on my own
She changed the subject.
Grandma never told me about her father, and how unlucky she was to be born to a troubled and abusive man. It would be years before anyone told me those stories. But I did see some of the effects, even if I didn’t notice them at the time.
Grandma had one of those huge stereo consoles in her living room. It was a beastly thing, very popular in the sixties, with mock-mahogany panels that cleverly disguised all your cool electronics as an ugly piece of furniture. But Grandma was both proud and protective of the thing, and we kids were under strict orders never to touch it.
She would always put on a record when asked, though. Unfortunately it was almost always the same one: Lara’s Theme from the 1965 blockbuster movie Dr. Zhivago. Now this is, granted, a pretty tune. And after hearing it 3 or 4 times I found myself humming the flowing melody by heart, enjoying the mental images of attractive Russians in big furry hats and billowy snow showers in Siberia. But after hearing it 30 or 40 times I felt like I was drowning in borscht.
One day I screwed up the courage to ask for something else.
“Grandma, do you have any other records?”
“Sure I do!” I was relieved she wasn’t insulted. “Here’s one of my favorites.”
It was Arthur Godfrey’s 1947 Too Fat Polka with its memorable lyric:
I don’t want her, you can have her, she’s too fat for me –
She’s too fat for me –
She’s too fat for me!
I found it awkward—we weren’t supposed to make fun of people for being overweight—but Grandma loved it. I watched as she simultaneously stomped her foot and smacked a hand to her knee.
“She’s too fat for me,” Grandma echoed. “She’s too fat for ME!”
I forced a smile onto my face, not wanting her to think I didn’t like it. When it ended I feared she might play it again.
“And what else?” I asked, wasting no time.
“Oh now listen to this one, Mike.”
My brows knitted in confusion as I listened to the next one, which began with a spoken introduction:
Come here, gal dern you, and take that (SLAP) and that (SLAP)…
Was he hitting his dog? No, it was worse than that.
Slap her down again, Paw, slap her down again —
Make her tell us more, Paw, tell us where she been —
We don’t want our neighbors, talking ‘bout our kin —
So slap her down again, Paw, slap her down again!
My nose was at the console now, staring down awkwardly as the needle rode the vinyl grooves of the record. A song about hitting someone? Grandma was behind me at the couch, beyond giddy as she sang along. It sent a mixed message to this young kid, knowing that hitting was wrong but seeing Grandma getting such joy from this song about domestic abuse.
Standards for popular culture were sure different back in the 1960s. Thank God they didn’t stay that way. But it was more than the slow pace of cultural evolution that made Grandma’s enjoyment of this awful music so perplexing. Ann Durbin sat on the couch at a slight angle that afternoon, with her head turned to her left because, as we all knew, she was mostly deaf in her left ear. What I learned only much later was how she got that way, as a young girl. It was the result of a cuff to the head from a monster of a father.
The story goes that she came home after hearing another musical miracle of the time, a radio, when she was a little girl. Nobody in her family had ever heard of one, much less heard one. Well little Annie did. And when she burst into her house to tell her parents about listening to music being played in New York City, from an electronic box in East St. Louis, her father thought she was making up a story. He slapped her so hard, on the side of her head, that her inner ear filled with blood. The wound was never treated properly and became infected. The infection cost her the hearing in her left ear.
After the song ended Grandma just sat there, the smile still propped up on her face but her gaze off to another place. The still-turning record made that scratchy thump-thump sound as the needle ran out of groove, and I walked over and turned the lever that lifted the needle off the record. Grandma didn’t seem to mind I was not only touching the record player but also operating it.
When I looked back to her the smile was mostly gone. Maybe she hadn’t enjoyed that record so much after all. I felt responsible for apparently making her sad.
“One more, Grandma?”
She took a deep breath as a bit of smile returned to her face. “Okeedoke,” she said.
“Can I pick it this time?” I asked. “And put it on myself? I know how.”
She had to think for a minute about this one, but she had just seen for herself I knew what I was doing.
“Okay, Mike. You pick the record this time.”
Grandma leaned back on the sofa as I carefully changed the record, lowered the lever that placed the needle at just the right spot, and quickly moved to the sofa to get beside her before the music started.
There we sat as the sound of Lara’s Theme filled the room, humming along to our favorite song.
Most of the lots in South Bountiful Heights had houses on them by the late 1960s but few remained vacant. One was on Bountiful Drive not far from our house. The grass and weeds grew tall there, so a kid could crouch down and not be seen by passersby. One day I headed there with my matches. It was a very hot day, and sunny, and when the wind blew it was like opening the door of an oven. The drying grass crinkled at my ankles as I waded through it.
Depositing myself where the grass was tallest, I was delighted to see my pack of matches was nearly full and, if I wasn’t wasteful, would last me a long time. I was down to two packs. The other one was back in my socks. I struck one of the paper matches and recoiled at the sharp smell of sulfur as it ignited. The flame was a nice one and I held it close to my face, wondering why it was blue at the base and then turning reddish yellow. I made a mental note to ask my brother Steve. He could always explain stuff like that. It was all that reading.
I held the lit match until my fingertip burned and then let it drop. I did that again with another match, and again with another, and before long I was down to the last one. So much for not being wasteful. Before lighting the last one I made myself a very small pile of dried grass. When I lit the last match I held it as close as I could to the mound of tinder. I was amazed at how quickly the flame transferred from the paper match to the grass.
I didn’t need to feed my little fire with new grass. It founds its own fuel and spread in all directions all by itself. When I realized the smoke might be visible to others I sprang to my feet like a prairie dog. With my head just above the grass line I did a slow 360, twice, scouting the horizon until satisfied nobody could see me. As I went to crouch back down, a gust of wind blew, tipping a tall strand of nearby grass until its top was over my fire. The new grass lit instantly. It took my by surprise and made me step back. I stepped right back in and decided to put out my fire, but quickly realized that wasn’t going to happen. I would need some water. And buckets. From my house.
I ran between the backyards to get over to the road leading to our house. When I neared the curb I had to slow down because there was a fire truck there already. It was the little red jeep, with two coils of hoses mounted next to a tank of water. Had the fire been burning so long someone noticed and called for help? Oh man. I felt like throwing up. But when the jeep approached the curb, fixing to pull in and go along the path I just took, I realized they didn’t know where the fire was.
“It’s on the vacant lot!”
“You sure?” yelled the firefighter.
“Yah! Well,” I suddenly realized how this looked. “I think so!”
The jeep went into reverse, popped back onto the road and headed down Bountiful Drive to the lot. Then I heard the sirens of the big pumper truck, and it headed down Bountiful Drive too. But they didn’t need the big pumper truck. The little red jeep took care of the grass fire, which hadn’t spread all that much since I left it. There wasn’t so much grass to hide in any more, at least not that summer, but at least the fire didn’t spread to any yards or houses.
When I got to my house I wanted to tell Mom all about it. Not the part about starting the fire, of course. But the part about being so lucky I was just walking down the street doing nothing when I noticed the fire jeep was lost and I helped it get to the fire just in time and put it out before it did any damage. It felt good. It felt really good and I wanted to tell her all about it. But I figured she’d just wonder if I had something to do with it. So I kept that thrill to myself. And I couldn’t wait to feel it again.
Mom and Dad never had to tell us to be racially tolerant. It didn’t even come up in conversation, or at the dinner table, hardly at all. Maybe it was in our genes and telling us not to judge others on their skin color would be a waste of breath because we already had that programmed into us at birth. Or maybe just seeing their actions, like Dad and his speeches, or Mom shaking her head when she’d read about a race riot or lynching or something else in the paper, maybe a few years of exposure to parents like ours is what did the trick. Whatever it was it worked. We knew black people were getting the short end of the stick and didn’t deserve it. We knew not to make jokes about blacks, and to only refer to them as “blacks” because that was the most acceptable term of the day.
One day at school I almost forgot we weren’t supposed to use the n-word. Out on the playground at recess, a kid named Henry got into a fight with another kid. It took approximately one second for every other kid to swarm around the fighters. We were suddenly like inmates in the exercise yard of a prison, crowding in, all excited, eager to watch the fight. Someone started chanting. “A fight! A fight! A nigger and a white! Come on, Henry, BEAT that white!” Everyone but me knew this one because everyone joined in. I just listened. “A fight! A fight! A nigger and a white! Come on, Henry, BEAT that white!” Pretty soon the teachers were barging in and blowing whistles and breaking up the fight before anyone got hurt.
I couldn’t get that nasty chant out of my head—it was so clever! At first I thought everyone wanted Henry to win. But then I realized they were actually calling Henry the n-word. Ingenious. Wow! It was like they played a trick on everyone with words and it worked, at least on me. I fell for it. The satisfaction was like when someone tells you a really good joke and you don’t see the punch line coming then are holding your sides and laughing your head off. I knew of course this was a chant not to ever come out of my own mouth. It used the n-word, after all, and even when I repeated it in my head I couldn’t bring myself to say it. “A fight! A fight! A hmmmm and a white! Come on, Henry, BEAT that white!”
It didn’t take long for word to get out that the big family at 114 Primrose was a bunch of hmmmm-loving supporters of Hubert Humphrey.
“Dad? How come there’s broken eggs on our house?”
“Well, didn’t you know chickens could fly?” said Dad, poking me in the belly with his meaty finger. I giggled in delightful pain. “What do you think those wings are for?!”
He had an answer too when we woke one morning to find the front of our house defaced with loopy lines of spray paint. The twisting patterns were all over our fake window shutters, and along the railing of our front porch. The first thing Dad did was to take a walk around the neighborhood to confirm his suspicions. Other houses were fine.
“Aren’t we lucky to get decorations like this?”
“That’s right. And I kinda like it. It makes our house look—special.”
It wasn’t easy, but Dad just made a decision not to let the egging and the spray painting bother him. He knew it wouldn’t go on forever. And it just bolstered his confidence he was doing the right thing. Bill Durbin moved into a neighborhood of bigots, but he sure wasn’t going to turn into one just to keep his house undisturbed. And he let those shutters and porch rails stay just the way they are. That was his message back to the haters.
The next message wasn’t so easy to ignore. We were woken in the middle of the night by the sound of a car tearing across our front lawn, just a few feet from where we all slept.
“Who drove their car on our yard, Dad?”
“Some yahoo kid,” he said, inspecting the tracks.
I didn’t know any family named Yahoo. But I didn’t think I wanted to after seeing how serious it made my Dad. The car left deep ruts in our lawn, so we could see how it entered our corner lot on Primrose Lane and exited on North Point Road. Dad would have to do something about the yahoos.
A couple of miles down the bluffs from Fairview there’s this place Dad would take us to hunt for fossils, a place we called the Haydite. That’s the name of the mining company that once had this operation where they’d dig up shale and cook it in their ovens then grind it up into aggregate for making cinder blocks. Or something like that. It was way back in the woods and the main building was a massive, industrial structure that scared me a little just to look at. So right after our yahoo neighbors started driving their car across our yard in the middle of the night, Dad drove us down to the Haydite.
Our station wagon was already loaded up with kids when Dad pulled up to the Haydite, after waving to some back-country folks who lived outside its gates in dilapidated houses, whose primary entertainment seemed to consist of watching the occasional vehicle go in and out of the mine. After piling out of the car we proceeded at Dad’s direction to further load it up with massive, fossil-laden stones. The biggest was the size of an ottoman and took six of us to wrangle into the wayback. Dad was crazy about fossils and kept thinking there was room for one more rock, until finally he let his kids get in the car and get back home. It’s a metallurgical miracle the suspension of that old Ford didn’t snap in protest. I can still recall the delight of hanging our heads out of the tailgate as we lumbered up Old Lincoln Trail, watching sparks fly as the bottom of the car scraped the road.
Dad had us put those rocks all along the edge of our yard, just close enough together so no car could get between them. The biggest he put square in the middle of the yard and, later, we’d paint our house number on it.
The yahoos never buzzed our lawn after that. Our corner lot was safely protected now, with ancient rocks ready to rip the mufflers and transmissions off of any vehicle whose driver was stupid enough to try. I was kinda hoping they would. I think Dad was too.
One evening I could tell Dad had plans after dinner. When he came from work he kept his work clothes on and skipped his usual martini. At the dinner table, after he said Bless us oh lord and these thy gifts which we are about to receive through they bounty through Christ amen, he did a funny thing. He tossed his necktie over his shoulder. I figured it was so he wouldn’t get any gravy on it. It kept falling down though. He had to toss it back five or six times by dessert time, when Mom brought out the orange Jell-O with embedded Del Monte fruit cocktail bits, suspended like bugs in amber.
Listening in on the table conversation I figured out what was going on. Dad was going to a church in East St. Louis called St. Joseph’s, to give a speech.
“Can I go?”
“Not tonight, Mike. But you can come along next time.”
Nobody told me what Dad was talking about at these meetings, but I figured it out because he talked about it a lot. There was so much conversation all the time in our house you really didn’t have to ask many questions. All you had to do was listen in. Dad talked about his speeches in the car, too, especially on Sunday mornings when we’d all pile into the station wagon on our way to church. I couldn’t hear him if I was in the way-back, laying on my side with Marty and Kenny. They could lay out straight and move around but I had to pull my knees up some and stay kinda scrunched up all the way up Highway 50 and hope Dad didn’t miss too many potholes. It was better when I could sit on the watermelon seat. I was just as scrunched but could hear every word Mom or Dad said. Or even better was middle of the front bench seat, but someone usually beat me to that coveted spot.
I never did get to hear Dad make one of his civil rights speeches. That night after we had gravy with dinner, at the civil rights rally at St. Joseph’s in East St. Louis, Dad walked into a bigger crowd than he’d ever seen come out for one of his speeches. Father Goldammer was promoting Bill Durbin by then like he was a presidential candidate or something, so the crowds were getting bigger and the basement was packed. The crowd was also there to listen to another priest, another Father G, this one Father Geneseo, who like my dad thought it was time to listen to the Pope and his encyclical and make all the Vatican II changes. And just like my dad, the bishops and other church leaders didn’t like Father Geneseo saying all these things.
As Dad entered the basement he noticed a guy with a TV camera and another guy with lights and another guy with a microphone. Father Goldammer was happy as could be and made sure the film crew had a good place to set up. My dad, though, wasn’t so happy. Those cameras made him feel funny. But he just tried to relax as he waited his turn. When Father Geneseo gave his speech, the TV guys just sat there. And when the local priest got up and said his speech, the TV guys just sat there again. When Dad looked around the room, he saw some faces he knew from work at ACIC. He wasn’t expecting that. And these fellas were sitting right next to Dad’s buddies from the Diocesan Council of Catholic Men. What the hell?
Finally it was Dad’s turn to give his talk and he made his way up to the front of the crowd. That’s when the TV lights went on. And that’s when the film camera started whirring. And those lights stayed on during his entire speech. When he was done the crew packed up and left. They didn’t stay for the next speaker. They only filmed Bill Durbin.
All kinds of thoughts went through my dad’s head after that night in the basement of St. Joseph’s. Who brought the film crew to the meeting? Why were the guys from ACIC there? What kind of word would go back to his supervisors at work? Would they make some kind of report to the government investigators who kept an eye on the personal lives of the men working on their secret projects making maps for the military? Would a transcript of his remarks go into his official record? Would he have some explaining to do when he was next up for promotion? Would he even be up for promotion? He decided not to even ask. He didn’t want to know the answers to any of those questions. The possible answers were too painful to bear.
Until that night at St. Joseph’s, Bill Durbin hadn’t made a connection between his job at ACIC and his speeches in church basements. He didn’t think anyone at ACIC would know or even care what he did, as long as he wasn’t talking about work and revealing classified information, which of course he never did. He was making steady income for the first time in his life, serving his country. It had been years since he or Mom went to one of their parents to borrow a few dollars until payday, or cross their fingers that the young family might be invited over for dinner. But now there was a connection and it scared him. Was his own government recording his activities?
My dad told Father Goldammer there would be no more speeches. Without his job there was no way he could provide for his family. He couldn’t do anything to put that at risk. The march for civil rights would have to continue without Bill Durbin. Dad also called up the head of the Diocesan Council of Catholic Men to tell him he had reconsidered their advice. They didn’t have to worry anymore about his offending the church leadership with his speeches, Dad told they guy, because there would be no more speeches. Dad stopped giving speeches. And he quit the Diocesan Council of Catholic Men.
And that’s when we painted the shutters, and the porch rails, to get rid of the graffiti. I was too young for a brush of my own so I just watched, and I asked my brothers a lot of questions, especially Dan and Steve because they were the oldest and they seemed to know everything. By the time the painting was done I knew what was going on. Dad was done sending his message to the yahoos who spray painted our house. And he was done giving speeches. He wasn’t going to stand up in front of crowds in church basements anymore and tell them to help black people get their rights. That was over.
I was mad I wouldn’t get to hear my dad give a speech. He had told me I could go next time and now there wouldn’t be a next time. Now he’d changed his mind about helping black people get their rights. And now we didn’t have to care about all that civil rights stuff anymore, like watching our language. Or so I thought.
One night after dinner my little brothers Marty and Kenny got into a big argument about whose turn it was to sit in the TV chair after Dad left the room. This was a special chair that was padded like a couch but only big enough for one person, and now Marty and Kenny were both trying to get into it. It took all of a couple of seconds for the two of them to be wrestling on the floor and hitting each other. I leapt to my own feet.
“A fight! A fight! A nigger and a white!” I shouted, loud enough for everyone in the house to hear. “Come on, Marty. BEAT that white!!”
They stopped fighting. They stared at me from the floor. I was still trying to figure out why they stopped fighting when I felt the ground shake as Dad nearly jumped down the basement stairs. He took me by the arm and yanked me up those stairs and through the kitchen and out into the garage. My arm really hurt by the time he let go and the tears were already pouring down my face. Mom came into the garage and closed the door behind her, knowing, as I did, what was coming.
“You know better, Mike,” said my dad. I feared he would soon take off his belt. “We do NOT use that word.”
“I thought it was okay now!” I yelled.
“You don’t give speeches any more,” I muttered through tears. “Dan and Steve told me. I thought we don’t care about black people anymore.”
Dad stopped cold as I struggled to catch my breath through heaving convulsions of fear. My fear subsided as my dad stepped away and Mom handed me a Kleenex. He leaned himself against the car and dropped his head as if in defeat. He covered his face with one hand and began rubbing his forehead, hard. After a minute he took a deep breath and headed out of the garage.
“Lorraine I don’t know what to do,” said Dad as he opened the door.
“Take the kids to Cairo,” said Mom, “Like you talked about.”
Dad paused, nodded in agreement, and left.
I was still shaking as Mom crouched next to me and finished dabbing the tears from my face. She explained how I could never, ever use the n-word and that we very much still did care about black people. I appreciated the clarification, and felt bad for what I had said.
I told Mom I was sorry. She said it was okay.
Although typically considered a northern state, the longitudinal expanse of Illinois puts in both the North and South. For the better part of the 20th century, while the progressive metropolis of Chicago at its northern edge was chock full of racially tolerant whites, the little town of Cairo at the other end had approximately none. Pronounced KAYro like the syrup (not KYro like its namesake city in Egypt), things happened in Cairo that one might think would only be seen in states like Alabama or Mississippi.
In July 1967, 19-year-old Private Robert Hunt, a black soldier home on leave, was stopped by the police for a malfunctioning taillight. A few hours later he was dead. His battered body lay crumpled on the floor of a holding cell in the Cairo police station. The cops reported it as a suicide. They said the disturbed AWOL took his life with his tee shirt. The FBI agreed and decided not to investigate, despite the bruises, despite no indication he was AWOL, and despite a mesh ceiling that could not possibly hold the weight of a grown man. At any earlier time in history any repercussions of such an incident might have ended with the tears of his grieving family at a gravesite a few days later. But this was 1967. This time the black community rose up in anger. They smashed windows, burned buildings to the ground and vowed to continue until things changed.
Two years later, when Bill Durbin drove a station wagon full of kids past the cotton fields on the outskirts and into the town of Cairo, things hadn’t changed much. The whites had formed a group known as the White Hats, for the white construction helmets they wore while patrolling the city. White civil rights activists joined up with the NAACP and local blacks to form the Cairo United Front. One of those white activists was Father Bernard Bodewes, once a priest at St. Albert’s in Fairview, who had relocated to Cairo to join the battle. Dad had called Father Bodewes and asked to bring his kids down for a visit. Dad wanted us to see firsthand that the riots and violence we read about in the papers weren’t all that far from where we lived.
Father Bodewes pointed to the wall of his dining room.
“See those holes? Who wants to look through and tell me what they see?”
We took turns peering through some of the half dozen or so holes in the wall, each big enough to slide a hot dog through.
“I see a flag pole,” I said as I peered outside and felt a slight wind on my face coming through the hole.
“That’s the police station,” said Father Bodewes.
As it dawned on us these holes were from bullets fired from the direction of the police station, maybe by police themselves, Dad suggested we move away from the wall and into the living room. There, Father Bodewes shared some of the stories of what was going on in Cairo. I didn’t follow much of it at all, but you could tell Dad really thought the world of this guy. Dad might have stopped speaking out himself on behalf of civil rights. But I think he wanted us to know someone who was still speaking. At least for the time being.
Father Bodewes was booted from the Catholic Church in 1971. His excommunication was ostensibly the result of the young priest taking the diocese to court in an attempt to simply get his paycheck; priests are supposed to work out disputes within the church, not outside. But the church hadn’t paid Father Bodewes his $700 month salary in nearly a year. They had cut him off when he refused to sever his association with the Cairo United Front, and were unswayed by the fact he put his life on the line in attempt to bring peace to a place that needed it desperately.
There were plenty of priests like Fathers Bodewes, Goldammer and Genesio, any of whom I think would make Jesus Christ himself rather proud. They were ultimately unable to overcome the forces of an immensely powerful and determined church, but they sure tried. God knows they tried.
On the way out of Cairo Dad drove us through some parts of town that made even East St. Louis look good by comparison. The half dozen Durbin kids packed into the station wagon were unusually quiet. The streets were nearly deserted, and it looked like the trash hadn’t been picked up in years. He slowed down as we passed the remains of buildings that had been burned down. Some were nothing but charred wood piles and some were like brick boxes with no tops, filled with blackened debris.
“What used to be here, Dad?” one of us asked.
“I don’t know. Some warehouses. Some stores. Maybe some houses.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“Molotov cocktails,” said my brother Ed.
“A what?” I asked.
I had never of fire-bombing before. So Ed proceeded to describe how you can fill a bottle, say a Coke bottle, with gasoline and stuff a rag in it like a stopper. You light the rag and throw it through a window.
“Like the window of someone’s house?”
Then Dad asked us all to be sure the doors were all locked and the windows rolled up tight. He stepped on the gas, and we were soon heading back to Fairview. I was haunted the entire way. I pictured someone living in their house having dinner or watching TV with their family—maybe Beverly Hillbillies or Mission Impossible. Then I pictured a flaming Coke bottle crashing through the window and the mom and the dad and the kids all startled at the same moment, watching flames disburse as the gasoline spreads over shards of thick glass on their floor. Then I’m watching from outside as the family runs out of their house as flames shoot out the windows. Everyone is yelling and scared. There’s mom and some of her kids, more than she can carry, and the dad is nowhere to be seen.
When we got home it was already bedtime. I was the first to run upstairs. I had to be the first one in our room. I couldn’t let anyone see me go into my drawer, find those black socks and retrieve my last pack of matches. I made it with plenty of time. I ran into the bathroom and locked the door behind me and tore that pack of matches apart and flushed all the bits down the toilet.
Dad never again spoke publicly about civil rights. And his kids knew to watch their language, and never say or do anything that might demonstrate insensitivity to the plight of African Americans. His mother was another matter.
“Danny, pass me the nigger toes,” said Grandma at the dinner table one night.
She had brought the chocolate covered Brazil nuts as a special treat to accompany dessert.
The table went silent as Dan decided what to do. If he passed them, would he be recognizing and implicitly accepting use of the forbidden word?
“Mom?” said my dad, with a voice of determination not often used when dealing with his mother. “Do not use that word in this house.”
“But that’s what they’re called!” countered Grandma.
“Maybe they are at 112 Primrose Lane,” answered my dad as he pushed his chair away from the table, rose, and went to the front door. “But not at 114.”
The room went so quiet you’d think it was empty. Nobody knew what to do. What to say. What to think. Seconds passed like minutes.
“Oh Bill,” said Grandma, breaking the awkward silence. “You know I was just giving Danny a little test. He knows we don’t use that word. And now all your other kids do too. Now, Danny, please pass me the Brazil nuts.”
Dad returned to his seat as Dan passed the nuts and stood from his chair.
Nobody believed Grandma, of course. But we forgave the fib, happy just for peace at the dinner table and maybe, just maybe, Grandma herself learned something.
I really struggled to get the point of religion. I just couldn’t figure out what you got out of wasting an entire Sunday morning putting on good clothes and being on good behavior and listening to a nun tell you horseshit. There was just no rational explanation of why we bothered. I knew you went to school to learn, and you went to work to make money, but church? But then I learned something nobody had bother to tell me about this religion thing.
For as long as I knew how to pray, all I did was recite things like the Our Father and the Hail Mary, and they were just a bunch of words you had to memorize that didn’t make any sense but that didn’t matter. Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Art in heaven? Hallowed?
But then this guy sitting next to me at CCD class told me he was praying for good weather so he could go fishing with his dad or something, like he did all the time. And it worked, he told me. And that’s when it dawned on me. You could use prayer to ask for stuff. You could ask God for anything you wanted, and if you were good enough he’d give it to you. And I hadn’t totally lost my belief in God. I just didn’t think he was an old white guy with a beard up in heaven. I always figured there was God, I mean someone had to create the universe, right?
So I decided one Sunday night after church to give this prayer thing a try. I knelt at the side of the bed and crossed myself and said “in the name of the father and the son and the holy ghost amen.” And then I asked God something easy. “Dear God, please make my mom lose the recipe to Hungarian pot roast.” And then I said amen again and crossed myself and went to bed. And then on Monday we had spaghetti, and on Tuesday chicken and noodles, and Wednesday meat loaf, and on Thursday tuna casserole, and on Friday we had fish. Saturday was chicken noodle soup and Sunday it was fried chicken. We went a whole week without Hungarian pot roast! That never happened. But just when I was thinking up what to pray for next, the very next day Mom made Hungarian pot roast.
“But Mom I thought you lost the recipe!”
“What recipe?” she asked. “I’ve been making this for years, Mike. God knows your mother doesn’t need a recipe for Hungarian pot roast.” God knows this? He sure didn’t tell me.
She thought it was funny I thought she needed a recipe. I didn’t think it was funny. And I thought this prayer things was a bunch of hooey just like everything else we were told up at St. Albert the Not-So-Great Catholic Church. And I told my mom all about it.
“You got something wrong, Mike” Mom assured me. “You can’t just ask for things for yourself. That’s just selfish. You think God wants to waste his time answering those prayers when there are so many thing people really need?”
I figured she might be right. But I still wanted to get something out of this prayer thing for myself so I had an idea. I decided to pray for something not just to make myself happy but for something all my brothers would like, too. That would surely count as asking something not just for yourself. So I prayed for a new bike. And this time I prayed every night. I asked God to get rid of the old one-speeder we all shared, an ugly green thing, and get us a new bike.
And then about a week or so into these nightly prayers, I was lazily cruising up Primrose Lane on the old green bike with my forehead resting on the handlebar—don’t ask me why—watching the pavement roll by in a pleasing blur below. And then I hit the back of the Haggerty’s parked car. The bicycle stopped cold but my ride continued, at until my nether regions slammed into the gooseneck joint holding up the handlebars. The old bike broke into pieces, starting with the handlebars which snapped in two.
The next thing I knew, Mom was walking beside me back to our house, with pieces of the bike in each of our four hands.
“Are you hurt?”
“Then why are you still crying?”
“Because I wrecked our bike!”
“Did you hurt your penis?”
“Shhh! No!” I was horrified she was talking out loud about my privates in broad daylight walking down the street.
“I can take you to Dr. Naguit.”
“I didn’t hurt my… privates, Mom!” I whisper-shouted.
“Then why are you walking like that?”
“This is how I always walk!”
There was only one bright side to the ordeal, I realized once the immediate pain had dulled a bit. I figured that half my prayer was in the process of being answered! That old bike was gone and now it was only a matter of time before the new one arrived.
“Can we get a new bike, Mom?”
“We don’t have the money.”
Man, this was the last straw. When Mom said that, the conversation was over. We never did get a new bike. We just lost the old one because I cracked it up.
I was done praying. It didn’t get me a bike. All it got me was a sore penis.
War was fun. We played it in the back yard in two versions. One was full size in which we’d run around pretending to blast each other with bazookas or machine guns—Bill was really good at making this really good slurpy rat-a-tat sound by holding his tongue and cheeks in a certain way then blowing out—then fall to the ground, then come back to life and grab a gun off your dead buddy and blast some other guys until they blast you and fall down then come back up and do it again. We did this until the grass was littered with exhausted kids wondering what to do next. Then there was the miniature version of war played just like the big version but with little green plastic army guys. Dad was always telling us to remember to pick them up after the game but we’d always leave some in the grass, to rest in piece until Dad found them with the lawn mower, at which time he’d remind us again.
Dad didn’t play War games with us but he did watch war movies on TV. Most of them were set in World War II. I could never keep track of what was going on, because the story lines were awfully confusing, but I knew the Americans always won these things in the end. I could never figure out why any country would ever be dumb enough to go to war with the United States of America. We always won. Didn’t they watch these movies?
I wanted to be one of the soldiers who got to hike through the woods. That looked like fun, getting to camp out and hike with your buddies, with your guns and radios and stuff, making campfires in the woods. I especially liked that part.
When I started watching World War II movies with my dad, the war still going on for real was the Vietnam War. They weren’t making movies yet about Vietnam. I didn’t know much about the this war except that it was way on the other side of the globe were there was mostly jungle, so I figured the soldiers there must be doing lots of camping in the woods and having a pretty good time. I always wanted to see a jungle. I hoped the Vietnam war would last long enough so I could go.
The Vietnam war wasn’t all that big deal in the early 1960s. It wasn’t even considered war until 1964, when Lyndon Johnson convinced Congress that some of our boats in a place called the Gulf of Tonkin were attacked by some dirty communists called the Viet Cong, even though it would turn out our boats really weren’t attacked by anybody. Congress didn’t officially call it a “war” even after they heard the Gulf of Tonkin story. But they did give the president the okay to pretty much send as many soldiers over there as he wanted, and to spend as much money as he wanted. So he escalated our involvement like crazy. Most Americans didn’t mind all that much, though, and figured the problems way over on the other side of the world would be figured out in no time.
Around 1967, the American people started getting really impatient with the how things were going over in Vietnam. It had been going on for longer than World War II, and that war was with Germany and Japan. Something was wrong with this war against little Vietnam. And American soldiers, mostly black kids and poor white kids who couldn’t get a student deferment like most affluent white kids could, were coming home on the order of a thousand a month.
“What’s a body count?” I asked my dad.
“Well,” he responded. He was rarely quick with an answer to an important question. “That’s how many soldiers have died in Vietnam.”
Martin Luther King, already a rock star in the civil rights movement, started speaking out against the war. And college students all over were demonstrating too. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara told Congress the American efforts were basically failing. What seemed so easy—stopping the spread of communism in this small Southeast Asian country in order to prevent the so-called “domino effect” in which the entire hemisphere would soon be Red—was proving extremely difficult. More like impossible. We didn’t know how to fight in a jungle but the Viet Cong sure did.
“What’s a quagmire?”
“Well,” he responded. “That’s when the ground gets so wet and muddy your foot gets stuck.”
“So there are lots of quagmires in Vietnam?”
“I suppose so. But when you hear about Vietnam being a quagmire the word is being used as a metaphor.”
Dad went on to explain. I thought it was pretty cool how you could use a word meant for one thing to refer to something entirely different, but the same in some important way. It saved lots of explaining. I didn’t know what was really going on in Vietnam and wouldn’t have understood even if someone explained it. But it was easy to put a picture in my head of a foot stuck in soggy ground.
There were plenty of pictures of this war on TV, too. The Vietnam War was the first one Americans back home got to see on TV, pretty much as it happened. Every night we’d watch the latest footage from Vietnam and it wasn’t anything at all like the war movies I watched with Dad. There were guys nearly curled up on the ground, surrounded by tall grass, smoking cigarettes and looking really scared as they told a reporter what it was like. There were soldiers tramping through water so deep they had to hold their rifles up over their heads. And there were soldiers with bandages that covered almost their entire face, and other soldiers being carried on stretchers.
I decided maybe I didn’t want to go be a soldier in Vietnam. I’d seen enough pictures, in my head and on TV and in the newspapers, and I didn’t like this Vietnam thing any more. War was not fun.
Normally I didn’t like seeing my brother Bill get nice things. There was never a lot of brotherly love between Durbin kids six and seven. We just had this unspoken pact that he hated me and I hated him back so things were even.
But when I saw Bill get his hand-made sweater from Grandma, when I was in the fifth grade and he in the seventh, I nearly hugged him. It was a fisherman sweater that had taken her an entire season of Carol Burnett Shows to knit, working in front of her TV every night.
Bill’s receipt of the handmade garment meant that kid number seven was next. Grandma never came out and said it, but I had complimented her so many times on her knitting, and figured out she was making sweaters more or less one Durbin boy at a time in order of our ages, I just knew she was now fixing to make one for me.
I planned to show my appreciation by making something really special for Grandma. At school I had seen a girl wearing a clover chain necklace. It was so simple and ingenious—you just picked a bunch of clover flowers and tied each one to the other—and I knew Grandma would love one. That would be my gift to her in return for a sweater, and there was no shortage of clover growing in our yards. But I was going to do much more than a simple necklace. I was going to make an entire blanket. Or maybe a vest—with a pocket.
Knowing I would need help, I recruited my little brothers Marty and Kenny. I figured their little fingers would be pretty good at tying those little knots. So one day we were in our garage, with the door open to the driveway, and I was instructing my helpers what to do. There was a big pile of clovers on the floor and Marty was getting pretty good at tying them together. Kenny was wondering what the heck was the point of all this and not sure if he wanted to be part of this project I was so gung ho about. I was showing him for the forty-ninth time how to tie the clovers together when who walks up the driveway but Grandma. I jumped to my feet.
“Grandma don’t come in!” I shouted, turning my back to her and moving my body in front of the pile of clovers so she wouldn’t see.
She must’ve got the message because before I knew it we were alone again, and now I was pleading with Kenny to please help me do this because I needed about a million of these things tied together to make something good for Grandma. We all looked up when we saw her white Dodge Polaris drive past our house. Actually we didn’t see it as much as we heard it. Grandma was gunning the engine, driving a lot faster than usual like she was in a big hurry. I was just glad she hadn’t spoiled her own surprise.
I never realized we were living hand to mouth those days, except one time, when I went to my drawer (we each had exactly one) and discovered that my prized silver certificate had been replaced with a regular dollar bill. Slack-jawed in horror, I went promptly to Mom who provided a reasonable but painfully unsatisfactory explanation. She had run out of money before payday and needed groceries. So she did what she always did when that happened and made the rounds to our drawers for payday loans, repaying them before her microlenders even noticed.
I didn’t get much sympathy when I tried to convey the agony of losing my one and only collectible, the oddish one-dollar bills, engraved with their blue serial numbers and the anachronistic One silver dollar payable to the bearer on demand.
“But Mom it was my silver certificate!”
“We needed groceries, Mike”
“But it was rare! And special.”
“You’ll find another one,” Mom said. “They’re not that rare.”
I went over to Grandma’s house to tell her the news of my loss, carrying the boring everyday dollar bill that was not special at all. I figured she might check to see if she had any silver certificates that she’d trade me. I also wanted to see if she had started a new sweater. But when I went into Grandma’s house I didn’t find her knitting. She was painting. She had a blank canvas on an easel and a bunch of little jars of paint. I had never seen her paint before, and it seemed like a very time-consuming hobby.
“Whatcha doing, Grandma?”
“You’ll need to come back another time, Mike”
“What are you painting?”
“Go on home.”
This was unexpected. She never asked me to leave as soon as I came over. She never ignored my questions about what she was doing. And now she was starting some project that might keep her busy for months. When would she knit my sweater?
“You’re in her doghouse, Mike.”
I nearly stopped breathing when Mom told me the news. When I got my breath back I wanted to scream “No!!” but all I could do was squeak out a question I didn’t ever expect to ask.
“What did I do, Mom? How did I make her angry?
“She said you wouldn’t mail a letter for her. She came over and you told her to go away, and then when you saw her drive off you pointed at her car and laughed.”
This was unreal.
“But that didn’t happen!” I assured Mom.
“I’m sure it didn’t. But you need to apologize.”
“But I didn’t do anything wrong!”
“That doesn’t matter,” Mom reminded me. “If you want out of her doghouse you need to apologize.”
I knew full well how to get out of her doghouse. I’d seen my brothers do it all the time. But I hadn’t done anything wrong. It was my first and only stumble into her legendary dog house, and it was a painful and baffling place. Was life truly so cruel you could suddenly, and inexplicably, find someone so unhappy with you? So palpably angry? Someone who once loved you?
Mom had some experience in this department. In October 1955, seven months pregnant with her third child, she said something that really ticked off her mother-in-law. It was entirely inadvertent—Mom thought the world of her husband’s mother—and she never learned just what the misunderstood words were. But she learned the effect. Grandma put up a wall of silence between herself and her 21 year old daughter in law, refused to ever see her again, and forbade Grandpa and Dickey Joe from ever stepping foot in the Ridge Avenue house. Dad knew what was said, but thought his mother’s interpretation so ridiculous he vowed to never tell Mom, instead saying something along the lines of “welcome to my world.” Dad knew that for all of his mother’s strengths and admirable qualities, emotional stability and predictability were not among them. He knew you just had to wait out these grudges.
In March of 1956, Grandma spotted Dad walking to catch the bus to St. Louis University one particularly cold morning and offered to give him a ride. Dad was going to school in the morning because by that time he had taken all the evening classes available. To earn a degree he would have to take classes offered only during daytime hours and go on the night shift at the rail road. He accepted his mother’s offer and on the way asked her if she’d like to come over that night and meet her 3-month-old granddaughter.
“Well sure I would!” answered Grandma.
That night at dinner Grandma raved and raved about the beautiful baby girl, and conversed with Mom as if nothing had ever happened. Mom learned to walk on eggshells after that.
I walked around our house six times just thinking about the collapse of life as I knew it. The agony grew with every trip. But every time I passed by the side of her house something happened. The agony, bafflement and confusion were replaced by a different emotion. The last time around I went into the garage and scooped up all my clover and the half-finished clover chain project. I scrunched them into a big green ball and went back outside to her fence. I threw it into her gardens.
“There’s your present,” I said under my breath. “And I don’t want a sweater. Keep it! I’m not saying sorry because I didn’t do anything wrong!”
Mike feels school is fun-and-games and refuses to cooperate. He is capable of more than he is doing.
That’s what my teacher Ms. Aldrich had to say about me on my second grade report card, which could have been made into a rubber stamp and sent along with me as I rolled from one grade to another at Grant School. I did in fact think school was fun-and-games because it was fun. And I didn’t want to do more than I was doing so who cares—I sure didn’t and nobody at home did either. Except for Grandpa. He kept giving out those dimes for every A. I thought about earning some dimes for myself, but then I remembered Uncle Martin. He gave us each a quarter every single weekend, and we didn’t have to do anything for those except be there when he showed up for Sunday supper. Grandpa would have to up his ante to beat that.
I struggled with more than academics at Grant School. Sometimes I didn’t even get the holidays right. Once for Halloween I had a grand idea to go as a mummy, wrapping myself head to toe in strips of torn t-shirts. The problem was Mom wasn’t about to let me cut up a bunch of t-shirts and nobody was about to help me with the wrapping. It’s hard to wrap yourself as a mummy. When it was time to go to school I was in tears. Refusing to go, Mom finally drove me to school and made me go to class with a couple of rags I’d managed to wrap around one leg and half an arm.
“You look fine, Mike,” she said as I whimpered away from the car.
“But I don’t look like a mummy!”
“Tell everyone you’re a hobo!” she offered.
Mom had an answer for everything.
I did like the annual Valentines Day ritual. Mom would buy huge bags of miniature cards and we’d sit at the kitchen table the night before filling them out. Every other kid at school did the same. Then at the appointed hour at school, we’d deliver our Valentines one by one into decorated boxes on each of our desks. One year I found myself with exactly twice as many cards as everyone else. I had put my name on the outside of each envelope, and the intended recipient’s name on the inside.
I saw my first theatrical performance during the third grade, from an upfront seat in the packed gymnasium. It was some fairy tale put on by college students from the nearby Southern Illinois University who had brought along basic scenery flats, elaborate costumes and apparently quite a lot of talent—at least enough to transport this little kid from my real world and into their made-up one.
When the actor came out costumed as the king I didn’t just think it was a real king I knew it. And everyone else was real, too. When the knight pulled a sword on his rival I felt his anger. When the princess felt threatened I got scared along with her, and was as relieved as she was when the danger had passed. Not only did I know this was a real world, I was in this world.
The illusion was flawless. And it continued even as the performance ended and the actors took their bows. It continued as I got up from my chair and marched back to class with the other kids. I knew of course I was in a classroom in Grant School, but I also knew that other world was still there back in the gym. Fortunately the school day was nearly over, so when the bell rang not fifteen minutes later I raced back to the gym. There was nobody there now, except for the janitor folding up chairs. I dashed outside and saw a station wagon backed up to door. The un-costumed actors were loading it with props and scenery. And that’s when the curtain came down.
That’s when I realized it was just a play, that the world I had just been to was gone. One of the actors noticed me and smiled, and waved, but I couldn’t wave back. And I couldn’t get any closer. It was like the scene of an accident and I had to look away, and get away. I went behind the school building and sat down against the red brick wall, and with the aid of some tears finished my trip back to the real world.
And then I thought, wow. That was really cool.
Most of my teachers didn’t care if I got good grades or not so long as I wasn’t too disruptive when they tried to teach the kids who cared about things like grades. There were some exceptions, like when I finished a writing assignment before anyone else and killed the remaining time by drawing flowers in the margins. Quite a few of them as I recall. They did not have the intended effect on my teacher Mrs. Morrissey, however, who made me drag my desk into the hall and stay there the rest of the period. In the dark and quiet hall, I did as instructed and carefully erased the decorations from the margin of the paper.
And then I read what I had written. And it was good. Man oh man, I thought. The one thing I could do was spell words and make pretty good sentences, and all Mrs. Morrissey cared about was how I sorta put a frame on it by drawing all those flowers. What was so bad about that?
She was making a grocery list in the kitchen.
It was a long list and she kept looking in the cabinets and the refrigerator. Finally she came over.
“Mom can you help me with my homework?”
“Let me see,” she said, looking at the purple mimeograph.
“Sorry. That’s new math,” she said, walking away. “I only know old math.”
New math was this radical new math curriculum that swept the nation in the 1960s, apparently as a result of our falling behind the Soviets in the space race. When the Reds launched the first satellite, Sputnik, someone in charge decided we needed to change the way we taught math in grade school. The result was doing away with time-tested methods like rote memorization of addition or subtraction. Instead, even simple math problems were formed as problems in set theory. So instead of learning 3 + 2 = 5, we learned that the union of a set containing three units with a set containing two elements yielded a set of containing five elements. Instead of learning that subtraction was a simple matter of take-away, as in hold up 10 fingers and take away 2 and see you now have 8, we learned that subtraction was essentially a process of intersections and unions, and remainder sets and other concepts that left us scratching our heads. We also learned that 11 = 11 only in something called base ten. In base five, for example, 11 = 6. If you want eleven in base five you write 21.
By the end of the 1960s, someone in charge came to their senses. New math was replaced with good old math. But I think it was too late for me.
My early years at Grant School weren’t a total waste of time. I learned the concept of irony in the fourth grade. As an example, Mrs. Nelson told us of a new rock band “whose music is really awful, and just a bunch of terrible noise really.” The name of the band was Led Zeppelin. When she explained that a zeppelin is an airship, she let notion of an airship made of heavy metal sink in. I got a good chuckle when I figured it out. It would be years before I got Mrs. Nelson’s opinion of Led Zeppelin out of my mind and formed my own, but I always thought of her when Stairway to Heaven came on the radio.
I was sent to the band room in the fourth grade, with all the other kids, to see if we wanted to play an instrument. I picked up a trumpet and buzzed into the mouthpiece like my brother Ed told me you were supposed to do. It was a horrible sound but at least it was a sound, and that’s all it took for me to get into Beginner Band. It got me an A in music and a shiny dime from Grandpa.
As Grandpa handed over the dime, it wasn’t receiving the coin that felt so good. It was seeing the smile on his face, and listening to him boast about me to everyone in earshot.
“Oooooh, looky that,” he said. “An ‘A’ in music class.” He emphasized the word music like this was no ordinary A. “That’s really good, Mike! Music is not an easy subject and you must really be impressing your teacher to get an A. That’s the top grade! You’ll be playing trumpet just like your brother Ed in no time. I just know it.”
I felt a wave of confidence flowing out of Grandpa Kalish and right into me. He didn’t even seem to notice all the Cs and Ds on the card. He just saw that lonely A and seized it, and enjoyed and savored it as if he’d earned it himself.
I wanted more of this. I wanted to make Grandpa say these things again. I needed to get more As.
I figured out one way onto the path to an A and I wasn’t even trying. I woke up one morning and remembered I was supposed to write a book report, due that day. I hadn’t even started the report and the book was back at school. Fortunately the book was a biography of Abe Lincoln. Like every other kid growing up in the Land of Lincoln, I knew enough about him to write a book report on him without even reading the book. I just made sure to put in a few phrases like “the author explains how…” and “near the end of the book…” and it worked. I got an A on the book report. Later on I tried the method again, this time on a book about sharks, to the same result. The next time I didn’t bother opening the book even one. The teacher had a bunch of books to pick from on a shelf in the classroom, and I quickly noted one with an interesting title. A few days later I turned in my report, “Pearl on Mars: An Exciting Book about an Exciting Discovery! by Mike Durbin!” It was filled with excellent spelling and grammatically correct sentences, summarizing how a giant pearl was found on the planet Mars by brave space travelers. It earned me the grade of F. The book title was “Peril on Mars.”
By the fourth grade I figured out what was missing from my life, the one thing that would make me happy all the time. A girlfriend.
Only problem was I figured a guy had to have some special quality about him in order to attract a girl and I knew there was nothing special about me. None of my brothers had a girlfriend, except for Dan who had Erie Mills. She came over once and everyone harassed her and Dan until they went in their room and closed the door. I decided I wanted one.
I decided my classmate Janet would make a nice girlfriend. She lived just two doors away on Primrose and I liked looking at her. She was cute. I could never get the nerve to talk to her, though, so instead I just timed my walks to and from school to coincide with hers. She was usually with her sister or brother or another neighbor kid. I would just tag along and not say anything and listen in and wait for her to ask me something, like how I liked my brand-new-and-much-treasured Lost in Space lunch box. It was this hinged metal container with an embossed illustration on the lid from the TV show Lost In Space, and it had a thermos bottle inside that kept the ice cubes in my Kool-Aid from melting, even on a hot day. I had to beg Mom about forty times to buy it when I kept seeing it at Venture, and when it went on clearance sale she finally caved in.
I knew if I held it just right and walked a little bit ahead of Janet she’d see my brand-new-and-much-treasured Lost in Space lunch box and say something. And one day I learned I was right.
“Hey Mike,” she said.
“I like your lunch box.”
“Isn’t it great? It has a thermos bottle inside too, and it keeps ice cubes from melting even on a hot day. And the thermos has a Lost In Space picture on it just like the outside of the box. Isn’t that a great show? I like the robot the best, and I’m thinking about getting one. Mom says I’ll need to save up my quarters from Uncle Martin for a long time. Do you watch Lost in Space? Who’s your favorite character, Janet? Maybe Will Robinson?”
“Hey Mike,” answered Janet.
“Do you know what ‘get lost’ means?”
“Uhm,” I said, having no idea what it meant. “Sure I do!”
“Well get lost!”
As she sped up to get away from me I figured out what it meant. Very clever, I thought, telling someone to “get lost.” But it made me really, really mad. I didn’t like Janet any more. Now I hated Janet and wanted her to know it. She was way ahead of me by the time I decided how to let her know how much I hated her. I swung my brand-new-and-much-treasured Lost in Space lunch box back and forth a few times, to get up some good momentum, then threw it straight toward that awful Janet. It felt good, watching it tumble through the air at my new nemesis. It didn’t hit her. It didn’t even come close. But still it felt really good, until Mom that evening went to clean out the thermos bottle in my brand-new-and-much-treasured Lost in Space lunch box. It sounded like a baby rattle as she shook it in front of me, now filled as it was with shards of broken glass. She then told me what I already knew.
“You don’t get another one.”
My only actual girlfriend in Fairview was Laura. She sat across the aisle from me in the fourth grade, slightly in front of me, where I could conveniently and surreptitiously fix my gaze for as long as I wanted on the smooth skin of her face and shiny brown hair. Like Janet, Laura lived close to where I did so I regularly found myself walking to and from school when she did. Unlike Janet, those walks yielded a more pleasurable relationship, or at least one that didn’t involve the chucking of a lunch box.
Laura lived in one of the nicer houses on her street. It was built on the rim of the aforementioned Swimming Pool. I’m stretching a bit to refer to Laura as my girlfriend, as she never did let me kiss her. But she did show me her underpants one day. It was just a peek, as she pushed down the edge of her elastic waistband about an inch, for approximately three seconds. And it was entirely her idea. I didn’t have a clue why a girl would think a boy might want to see her underpants. But I routinely followed her every instruction, happy to offer unquestioning obedience in return for this new shade of love, different from the love you feel for your parents and far more intense.
Laura taught me to play house like the director of a play. She would arrange imaginary furniture and appliances on her driveway and tell me to go away to work and come back home, putting a make-believe briefcase in my hand before nudging me out the make-believe door. There wasn’t much else to our relationship but it was more than enough for me.
It all ended, inexplicably, when one day Laura showed up at my house on her bike, alongside my friend Tim of all people, telling me I wasn’t her boyfriend anymore.
The next day Mom found me alone under the silver maple in our back yard. I wasn’t crying but clearly displayed some sign of hurt.
“Girl trouble?” she asked.
I was baffled that she even knew what was going on.
“Uhh,” I stammered. “Of course not!”
“Just remember there are plenty of girls out there,” offered Mom.
It took no time at all for my embarrassment to turn to comfort. Mom just smiled, reminding me that even though girlfriend love is pretty amazing, so is the kind you feel for your parents—and they for you.
My teachers at Grant generally didn’t think much of my academic ability. But once I got a writing assignment back with red stars of satisfaction all over it. My teacher really liked this thing which I’d adorned with superfluous peace signs—the circles superimposed with one vertical and two small diagonal lines, meant to represent the foot of a dove—and exclamation points:
Peace means living together, and loving together. Peace is one the most of all that we need to live together and share together, on this world.
We need peace to live together. We can also make peace is by sharing together all we can and to stop the war. We’ve stopped other wars, well why can’t we keep them stopped?
You should also make peace with black or white people, No matter how you look or act you should still make peace with everyone.
We were all made to make peace with everyone, including you. God meant us to be this way. Kind and helpful is how we should all be.
We should all live together with everlasting peace.
Peace also means not fighting or hating one another. Peace among naitions, and peace among yourself, are two meanings of peace and happiness. Peace is one of the most important thing this world needs.
When you put up your two fingers, that means peace among people. And peace among nations.
One of peaces worst enimies is hating and fighting.
And since world war II we have been fighting for world peace. Many people have gave up there lives witch brings us here today. We wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for those people
But we still need more peace to make everlasting life. We should all make peace beetween everyone.
Peaceable people don’t like to quarrel are make fights, anytime.
We should all be peaceful beetween our fellow men.
Indians make peace by peacepipes. We can make peace by loving and sharing beetween ourselves with our own heart.
That is what peace is all about.
!!! PEACE !!!
“What does drafted mean?” I asked, when the word came up at the dinner table.
“It means you have to go be a soldier in Vietnam—whether you want to or not,” said Barb.
My brother Dan was in college, at Loyola University in Chicago. Going to college used to keep you from getting drafted. But now, to make things fairer, the Army stopped letting college students get out of the draft just because they were college students.
The night before that dinner, Dan listened to the radio as they pulled ping pong balls out of a giant basket, to see if he might get drafted. Here’s how it worked: First they picked one ball with a date printed on it, and then they’d pick one with a number from 1 to 365. When they picked the ball for September 2, Dan’s birthday, he held his breath while they fished out the next ping-pong ball. He was hoping for anything over 75, because that’s where the cutoff was going to be. So if your number was over 75 you probably wouldn’t have to go. They drew 17.
“I’m toast,” he said. “I’m going to Vietnam.”
The Vietnam war had turned into a national nightmare by the time Dan got his unlucky number. And nobody was sure if we’d ever wake up. American soldiers kept getting killed. Sometimes the Americans were killing more than just the bad guys. A bunch of angry soldiers went into this village My Lai and shot up almost 500 unarmed civilians—women, children, babies, and really old men and women. Americans were even killing Americans, back here at home. At Kent State University in Ohio a bunch of protesting students got really angry and maybe were throwing things at the police or maybe not. Whatever they did, the authorities dealt with it by shooting four college students to death.
A few months after Dan got the news about his draft, there was a picture in Time Magazine that showed a naked girl, nine years old, running toward the photographer with her arms out. She had been covered with napalm, this gooey gasoline lit by Americans then dropped into villages, and was yelling “Too hot! Too hot!” An even younger boy, maybe her brother, was also running to the camera, his face so contorted in crying I wondered how he could see. I had never seen a picture of a naked girl before. And I had never heard of napalm before. And I just couldn’t understand how the Americans, no matter how angry they were at the Vietnamese, would do this to kids.
Dan had to come home from college in Chicago to get his physical for the Army. He rode an old school bus with a bunch of other guys his age, over to an Army office in St. Louis. He knew there were things he could do to get out of the draft. Some guys were doing things like eating a pound of bananas to throw off blood levels, or swallow cellophane so that X-rays showed an ulcer, and other stuff like that. But Dan didn’t do any of that. After three hours of being stripped, poked, prodded and humiliated, he sat with an officer in a private room.
“Is there any reason you should not go into the Army?”
“No,” said Dan.
That evening at dinner, he told us all about his experience and I couldn’t get over how he wasn’t upset or anything. Between forkfuls of macaroni and cheese and peas, he just rattled off all the things he might do in Vietnam that wouldn’t get him in harms way—maybe be an office clerk, or a hospital assistant, or organize supplies and stuff.
His optimism rubbed off on nearly everyone at the table, who were agreeing with him and offering other possible assignments. But it didn’t rub off on me. My brother Dan was going to Vietnam.
“In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost,” I said as I crossed myself. I had pushed the little button on the bedroom door to be sure nobody came in until I was done.
“Dear God, please don’t send my brother to Vietnam.”
I pictured myself kneeling at the feet of an old man with a white beard, sitting up above the clouds in heaven. I told God all the great things about Dan, how he was a really swell big brother to me, and how with such a big family Mom and Dad needed his help, and how, honestly, he probably wouldn’t make a very good soldier anyway.
“He never gets angry, God,” I said, fibbing but only slightly because Dan really did almost never got mad, “I just can’t picture him wanting to hurt anybody, not even a bad guy communist.”
I didn’t want to end my prayer. I kept thinking I should use all the time I could with God so he’d know I was serious. I even said an Our Father, and a Hail Mary, twice, and I threw in grace for good measure, as best I could anyway.
“Bless us o lord and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive,” I said, before trying to remember the next part. “Right here in Bountiful Heights, Illinois. Amen.”
I repeated my prayers every night. I didn’t tell anybody I was saying these prayers, because I figured they were like the wishes you make before you blow out your birthday candles and they won’t come true unless you keep them a secret. Nothing seemed to happen. But I kept saying those prayers. I figured it wasn’t doing any harm and maybe I just had to say them one more time for God to get my message, and see I was being really good. And I really was. One night I was helping Mom put away the pots in the cabinets under the stove and I just couldn’t keep it a secret any more.
“Mom? I wish Dan wasn’t going to Vietnam.”
Mom turned off the water and looked down at me.
“He’s not, Mike.” Mom seemed like she figured out why I’d been so quiet lately. “President Nixon ended the draft.”
I had to take a few breaths for the news to sink in, and for a smile to form on my cheeks. I didn’t care I was the last to know.
“In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost,” I said as I crossed myself. “Dear God. I just wanted to say, well, thank you. Thank you!”
I couldn’t think of anything else to say and figured he must be pretty busy anyway. “In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost,” I said again.
Fifth grade started on a promising note. My teacher, Ms. Huskey, was pretty and very nice—much nicer than mean Mrs. Morrissey in the third grade and meaner Mrs. Nelson in the fourth. My grades were no better in the fifth grade than they were in the fourth, but at least Ms. Huskey never made me feel bad about it. “Look at all the room for improvement, Mike!” she’d say, handing me my report card. She also invited kids from higher grades to come in and give demonstrations, which I thought was pretty cool, when I bothered to pay attention.
One day some eighth graders gave a little demonstration of different types of energy, and were explaining the difference between something called potential energy and another thing called kinetic energy. They wrote the words POTENTIAL and KINETIC up on the board, and said one had something to do with a battery and the other a little electric motor they were showing us, but I wasn’t listening so I didn’t know which was which. I wasn’t listening because by that point I wasn’t paying attention at all, and was instead focused on trying to distract the girl sitting next to my by saying “pssst” without moving my lips, so Ms. Huskey wouldn’t notice. But it didn’t work. She noticed.
“Mike?” she said with a tinge of disappointment I wasn’t used to hearing in her voice. “Can you tell us the difference between potential and kinetic energy?”
I could not.
“Which is the energy in a battery and example of? Potential or kinetic?
I didn’t know. I tried to get around it by being funny.
“It’s ponetic!” I said, waiting for laughter than never comes. “Get it??”
“Your classmates are here for learning,” said Ms. Huskey. “Not just fun and games.”
As the class chuckles at my expense I pointed to the girl next to me.
“It’s her fault,” I say, loudly enough so everyone can hear. “She’s a SLUT.”
I’m not making that up. It’s the exact word I used, right in front of Ms. Huskey. And man was she not amused.
She gave me detention, at lunchtime. I had to eat at my desk and sit alone with Ms. Huskey while everyone else was out on the playground. It was awful. Mostly, I felt bad because she was the one teacher I actually liked and I blew it. Now she’d never be nice to me.
“Do you know what that word means, Mike?” she asked.
“Uh, you mean the word I used that got me in here?”
“Well no,” I said honestly. “I just heard someone say it on the way to school.”
“It refers to a woman with loose morals, Mike.”
“Ahh,” I said, relieved that she seemed to be letting me off the hook. “Now I understand why that’s such a really bad word. Loose morals. I’m really sorry, Ms. Huskey. That’s terrible. ”
“Good,” said Ms. Huskey. “So don’t use it again, okay?”
“Okay,” I replied before pondering all this, searching my brain. I thought of Brenda, and the loose waistband on her pants, and wondered if morals had something to do with that.
“What are loose morals?”
Now it was her turn to ponder. “That, Mike,” she said finally. “That’s something you need to ask your parents.”
After finishing my brown bag lunch I offered to help her erase the chalkboards. I erased the picture of the battery and the motor, and tried to figure which was potential and which was kinetic. I didn’t want to ask Ms. Huskey because that would just remind her I wasn’t paying attention in class. So I finished erasing.
I did ask her what chalk was made out of. She explained how it’s a kind of rock, basically, all ground up and put back together in these sticks. I told her about the fossils in our yard, in the huge rocks we got from Haydite.
“Dad is looking for a trilobite but hasn’t found one yet. I’m helping him find one. He went to college to be a geologist but now he makes maps for the government.”
Ms. Huskey seemed genuinely interested in this and asked me all kinds of questions. Before long we were chatting up a storm.
“What was that fossil again? The one your dad is looking for?”
“A trilobite… try, lo, bite…” I explained. “It’s like a June bug when you step on it and it goes all flat… kinda like that.”
We were talking about how fossils are really just rocks, but they formed around the body of a plant, or an animal, when another teacher came into the room. It was a man. He seemed surprised Ms. Huskey wasn’t alone and offered to come back later.
“No, no,” she protested, with a big smile on her face. “Come on in.”
So much for our conversation. The man went over and sat on the corner of Ms. Huskey’s desk, with his back to me. I did not like this at all. I kept waiting for him to leave so I could be alone again with Ms. Huskey but he just stayed, making her giggle a couple of times. I reached into my pocket and fished out a pack of matches. I held them low so they wouldn’t see what I was playing with.
I hadn’t started a fire since our trip to Cairo. And I hadn’t gone looking for matches to steal, either. But one day we went to a turkey shoot at the Fairview Beer Garden. What a disappointment that was. They didn’t shoot turkeys like I thought they would. A bunch of men just shot rifles at targets, between swigs of beer, to see who had the best aim. And they served this chili that was so spicy hot you couldn’t eat it. Well, I couldn’t. While Mom went to get me some water and everyone else was away, I noticed the ashtray at our table. It had one of those doublewide packs of matches and hardly any had been used. I slipped it in my pocket.
Ms. Huskey kept talking to that man and I was wondering if she’d ever talk to me again. I opened up my pack of matches and folded one over on itself, so the tip was on the striker, and just pressed it there. And then I moved it just a little, wondering if a match would light if you rubbed it super slow on the striker. And then I just yanked one off and gave it a proper strike. But it didn’t light. I didn’t think Ms. Huskey was watching me but before I could strike again I learned different.
“Mike!” Ms. Huskey yelled out, running over to me.
The man teacher came over too and took the matches from me and said he would take throw them away.
“No. Wait!” I yelled.
Ms. Huskey was holding her hands up to her head, one on each temple, like she didn’t know what to do.
“Should I take him to the office?” asked the man.
“Matches have potential energy!” I yelled out. “And then when you light one, it’s kinetic energy!”
Now the man teacher stopped, like he didn’t know what to do either, and we all just stood there before finally Ms. Huskey figured out what to do. She took the matches from the man teacher and asked him to leave. And then it was just the two of us again. And then I explained how matches are potential energy, because the energy is just stored up and not doing anything, like in a battery, and fire is kinetic because it’s making something happen, in this case heat and light, like in a motor it’s making the spindle turn around and around.
This felt really good.
“Michael,” said Ms. Huskey, calling me by my full name, like nobody ever did but how I liked to be called. “Do you like spending time in here, talking about things?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Then I want to trade promises with you. I will promise to you let you spend lunch time in here whenever you want.”
“And in return, I you need to promise me you will never, ever play with matches again.”
“Well… Okay. Sure. Of course! I don’t even like playing with matches anymore,” I lied.
But I didn’t lie about making that promise. I kept it.
And thus began the best schooling I ever had at Grant Elementary. Ms. Huskey never tired of my stopping by her classroom at lunch to share whatever experience was on my mind. She was interested in what I had seen or done, asked questions, and knew when to challenge me.
“And that’s really a word? EM?”
“It is,” I explained. “It’s a printers measure. The width of a letter M. And ‘EN’ is also a printers measure. It’s a little bit skinnier.”
I told her about the list of ten Q words that Grandma had typed on a piece of paper and kept in the box. Words like QUAY and QUID.”
“And what do those words mean?”
“I don’t know. But she says those are real words, I can tell you that.”
I told Ms. Huskey about how most people think pennies are made out of copper, but Grandma has pennies made out of steel. She asked if I knew why and I said no. She explained how during World War II there was a shortage of copper because that was used to make things for the war. So the government used steel for a little while to make pennies. I thought that was a pretty cool thing to know.
I almost didn’t tell her about the flying saucer we tried to make at Chip’s barn. I didn’t want her to know I thought I could make a big heavy thing made out of wood fly through the air, but I let it slip out once.
“So what kept it from flying?”
“And what’s that?”
“You don’t know what gravity is?” I teased. She laughed.
“Well yes I do, Mister Smarty Pants,” she said. “But I want to know if you do.”
I explained how I knew all about gravity because my dad was an expert on gravity. One time he brought home this metal container that looked like one of those giant milk containers you see on a farm. But it was full of padding and a very, very expensive scientific instrument called a gravimeter. He set this thing on our driveway and it measured how much gravity there was at that very spot. And then he used this really strong glue called epoxy to fix this brass plate—it was round and thin and heavy and about the size of a mayonnaise jar lid—to our driveway, to mark this spot where in the future other scientist could know what the gravity was. And then he put the gravimeter back in the giant milk bottle and put it in their bedroom closet for the night because he didn’t anyone messing with this really expensive instrument.
“Wow,” said Ms. Huskey.
I asked her if she knew how high-beams worked, because that very spot on the driveway was the same place I learned how high-beam headlights work when Dad and Mr. Nelson were fixing the car that day and drinking lemonade during a break. She said no. So I explained that.
“Does your family take car trips?”
I told her about Monks Mound and Dickson Mounds and the Piasa Bird. And about the hotels we stayed in when Dad took us on vacations, when we got to eat fried chicken from KFC even when it wasn’t a Sunday when we usually had fried chicken.
“Oh wait,” I said, realizing I’d said something wrong. “Those weren’t hotels those were motels. Motels have parking lots but hotels don’t.”
“Why do you think they’re called motels?” she asked, and I couldn’t tell if she was testing me or just didn’t know.
I had to think about this one. She gave me a hint.
“You think it’s because cars have motors?”
“Motor hotels!” I said. “They squished those words together and made motel.”
“Precisely. Those are called contractions.”
I thought that was pretty cool. I thought Ms. Huskey was pretty cool too.
My report card that year was the best I ever received at Grant School. I got six B’s and two B-plus’s and four A’s—in Spelling, Phys Ed, Art and Band. My test scores were still lousy. But she looked beyond my test scores, and jotted a note at the bottom of the report card explaining: “Mike’s outside interests have been included in the final grade.”
I wondered if all the teachers in the upper grades were like Ms. Huskey. Or maybe she’d get promoted to teach sixth grade, and I’d get to have her again! That sometimes happened. But it didn’t matter. I knew when I left Ms. Huskey’s class for the last time that fifth grade was the last I’d spend at Grant School. My family was moving. I was going to spend sixth grade at a school in the most important and interesting city in the whole country: Washington, DC.
By 1973 there was hardly a trace left of Alvin Meckfessel’s farm. For a long time his house stood on Highway 50, beside a massive sycamore tree that was easy to carve your initials in and a persimmon tree that every year produced these things that looked like little peaches but where so sour it would scrunch up your face for hours. The house came down to make room for Burt’s Chuck Wagon and the sycamore and persimmon tree not long after, leaving no trace of the farmer whose fields were now covered with houses. Except for his name. They named the first street of South Bountiful Heights Meckfessel Drive so I guess that part of him will be there forever.
Highway 50 was still the main thoroughfare between East St. Louis and points east, but that was about to change. Construction had begun on the newest interstate highway, I-64, and businesses along 50 started disappearing. The hardware store where I bought my ten-dollar socket wrench had closed, as had Woods Confectionary and the Little Pleasures ice cream parlor. It was replaced with a barbecue joint with a sign out front advertising “Pig Snoots and Knuckles!” I had to ask Dad to explain what those were and then wished I hadn’t. There were other interstates now swarming in on the area, all converging on the Mississippi bridges at St. Louis. In addition to I-64 there was also I-55 and I-255 and I-70, where they halted construction when the tractors started hitting bones and Indian artifacts. It was one of the Cahokia mounds, and they stopped for just a few days so archeologists could come pick up what they could before the tractors started up again.
Fairview wasn’t even Fairview any more. Now it was Fairview Heights, Illinois, a bona fide Illinois municipality with a mayor and a police force and the authority to collect taxes. That was one of the reasons they incorporated, to collect money from the fast food joints now sprouting up along Highway 159, where the I-64 ramps would bring cars into town. There was also a giant mall planned for that area on the soybean fields surrounding St. Albert’s. These things were popping up now all across the country so hopes were high for the new St. Clair Square.
The other reason Fairview incorporated was to keep at bay what many of our neighbors considered a nightmare: annexation by East St. Louis. In May 1969, Governor George Ogilvie signed a new law permitting cities to annex adjacent territories without the approval of those being annexed. You could hear the collective gulp up and down Highway 50 when Fairview residents found out. Whites had been fleeing East St. Louis for nearly a decade, and places like Fairview owed their very existence in large part to whites wanting to get away from blacks.
East St. Louis was starting to crumble in every imaginable way. Annexing all of those businesses up on the bluffs of Fairview, and the all the new houses where the white people lived, would bring in desperately needed tax revenue. And now the increasingly desperate city had the legal right to just that. Many in Fairview would just as soon drop dead as see that happen.
This wasn’t the first time their racial preferences went on display. In 1965, the county board had approved a little publicized change of name from Fairview to Lincoln Heights. Alarmed residents quickly arranged a referendum and voted it back to Fairview—maybe because they weren’t about to be associated with the president who freed the slaves. With much more than their identity now at stake, the Fairview whites kept it that way incorporating as Fairview Heights. They didn’t waste any time. The vote was held is September 1969, not four months after the new law took effect.
Not everyone in Fairview was a racist, and not everyone who voted for incorporation did it for fear of annexation by an increasingly black city. They wanted tax revenue to stay in Fairview, for things like better schools and infrastructure. My parents were among this crowd. They in fact hosted one of the first meetings to discuss the prospect of incorporation, before the incorporation law was even passed, but they did it in secret.
Many of the old-timers in Fairview wanted things to stay just the way they were. If the incorporation idea didn’t fly, my parents didn’t want to further alienate themselves from their neighbors. My brothers Dan and Steve served as waiters at the dinner, putting on ties as thin as string beans and serving Hungarian pot roast over noodles (which I happily missed, having been sent next door to Grandma’s for dinner that night) with peas, salad, and angel food cake with strawberries for dessert.
My dad remained on the planning committee when support for incorporation went viral. Drawing on his cartography credentials, he drafted the official map showing the boundaries of the new city. But that’s about all he contributed, as his proposals for things like sidewalks and better traffic lights went unheeded. Dad wasn’t tight with the emerging leadership of Fairview—they weren’t about to forget his outspokenness in support of civil rights—so he wasn’t appointed to any leadership posts, and his comments at meetings were ignored. He got the message. He did try to help his friend Tom Sullivan run for mayor, but the incumbent mayor and pharmacist Everett Moody had built up a power base that nobody would soon topple. When Sullivan got trounced in the election, my dad dropped out of politics for good.
We only knew he went over to St. Louis every morning to the ACIC, then returned home in time for dinner. I knew the ACIC was part of the defense department and that it had something to do with making maps. Otherwise I hadn’t a lick of an idea what went on inside a government office building I saw only once from the outside (no visitors were allowed) nor what my father did there. Of course I would ask dad what he did at ACIC, and his answer was always about the same.
“I’m a physical scientist,” said Dad. “That’s what you can tell your friends. And if anyone wants to know more than that, well, you’d better just let me know.”
I ate up that last part—“you’d better just let me know”—picturing surprise visits to overly curious friends’ houses by FBI agents. Like many kids I didn’t really much care what my dad did at work, but the fact he did something secret for the government made me feel as important as if I held the job myself. It was a fact I delighted in sharing at school with anyone I could make listen.
“Ask me what my dad does,” I would challenge a classmate on the playground.
“I don’t care what your dad does.”
“C’mon… just ask me.”
“Okay, what does your dad do?”
“He’s a physical scientist! And if you ask me again I have to report you to the government!”
Although we would later learn he worked on some really cool projects, at the time I never got the impression Dad liked his job. I would eventually learn his functional role had to do with “planning and requirements.” And whatever secret stuff he did all those days in St. Louis, by the end of them he was tired of it and in need of one or two (never more) adult beverages—almost always a martini of Beefeaters gin, dash of vermouth and a green olive. With a stressful job that paid barely enough to get by, I don’t blame him for feeling less than giddy when he got home.
By 1973 Dad had climbed the ladder at ACIC about as far as he expected he ever could. He had mastered the promotion system there, and every couple of years would rise from GS-14 to GS-15 and so on. We knew he got a promotion when a bouquet of flowers showed up at the house before he did. In the early part of the year he spent several weeks on an extended trip to Washington DC, where he helped to transform the Aeronautical Chart and Information Center into the Defense Mapping Agency, or DMA.
We actually didn’t mind his being away so long. We missed him some, sure, but that was a small price to pay for the upside: weekly dinners at McDonald’s. Our meals were limited to hamburgers and fries—requests for Big Macs or shakes or hot apple pies fell on deaf ears—but it was still a very special occasion whenever Mom would get back from Belleville with the huge bags of warm burgers and fries.
It was a small let-down when Dad came back from Washington that spring, knowing it meant the end of dinners from the Golden Arches, but he made up for it with some unbelievable news. He had done such a good job setting up the new DMA headquarters in Washington that they wanted him to move there. Permanently.
This was news too good to be true. We would move to the place where the President lived, where Congress and the Supreme Court worked (although I hadn’t learned much at Grant School, I did manage to get the basics of the federal government into my head). I couldn’t wait to see things like the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. Monks Mound and Elephant Rocks were nice, but the Washington Monument!
And here was another bonus. I’d get away from Grandma. Like 500 miles away. I still hadn’t apologized for my supposed crime, so I was still serving my sentence when Dad told us we were moving.
“Can we go tomorrow?” I asked.
“Mike!” said Mom. “We need to sell the house and do a million other things. We’ll move in August.”
Excellent. That would be just in time to start sixth grade at a new school. And there was only one problem there, as I imagined myself trying to make new friends and fit into established cliques of kids. The problem was my weight. I had put on a lot of it in the fourth and fifth grade.
“You’re not fat, Mike. You’re just husky.”
“Husky?” I answered. “That sounds as bad as ‘fat’.”
“Okay then think of yourself as stocky,” said Mom, trying to do her best. “And all you have to do is suck in your gut. And do sit-ups.”
So I started doing sit-ups at night, behind a locked door because I didn’t want my brothers teasing me about it, and learning to suck in my gut. Mom learned about sit-ups watching Jack LaLanne. He had the first exercise show ever on TV, and Mom watched it everyday and once in a while would follow along. I think she just liked looking at Jack LaLanne. Some times I thought she just might have a crush on Jack LaLanne. I knew Mom loved Dad, a lot, but I think if Jack LaLanne knocked on our door one day and invited her out for ice cream she just might go. But I’d guess he’d ask her out for sherbet.
The Jack LaLanne sit-ups weren’t doing a thing for my stockiness, but the gut sucking worked instantly. So I got in the habit of pretty much sucking in my gut whenever I was around other people.
I found another solution to my fears of fitting in at my new school in Washington, this one in Time magazine. My eyes landed on a full page ad for Coca-Cola featuring a crowd of six or eight teenagers all smiling and having a good time, with each of them clad head to toe in Coca-Cola garb—hats, shirts, pants, sneakers, and you-name-it. I knew what I had to do. I ran to Mom with the ad and asked that we go to the store the next day to find these clothes, insisting it was the only way I could be sure to fit in at my new school. And I wanted a complete set, or at least a shirt and pants. I’d pay for the hat with my own money.
“You’ll fit in fine with the clothes you have,” she assured me.
“But half of them don’t fit,” I reasoned.
“Then wear the other half.”
“And when those are dirty and I have to wear the ones that don’t fit?”
“Then wear them. And suck in your gut.”
Mom had an answer for everything.
Whereas I felt so much joy about moving to Washington I could hardly sleep at night, my older siblings felt the opposite of joy. The thought of moving away from friends and family didn’t faze me, but it sure bothered them.
In the months leading up to the August move their gloom and disappointment filled the house. And when Dad came home from a house-hunting trip, and sat on the stairs describing our new house at 10003 Thornwood Road in a town called Kensington, in Maryland, I may have been the only one hanging on his every word.
He went on an on about how many trees there were in the yard, compared with our lone silver maple, and how big this new house was. “Then when you go down the stairs, there’s a big unfinished part of the basement we’ll turn into a bedroom, and a huge basement living room with wood panels—the real thing, not laminate like we have here—and a laundry room off to the right. And you think that’s it? Nope. There’s a utility room we’ll turn into a workshop.”
My older siblings were not impressed by Dad’s description of the house or anything else. Dan and Steve were off to college, in Chicago, but still they’d be 500 miles farther from home. Barb had just finished high school and was the only one of her friends not staying in the area.
Bob, Ed and Bill got it the worst. Bob was well underway at Belleville East High School where he was making good grades and great friends and just getting the hang of the place. Ed had a gazillion friends in Fairview, far more than any of the rest of us, whom he was about to lose. And Bill was really pissed. He had just finished eighth grade at Grant and wanted more than anything to go to high school with his big brothers. Now he’d have to go to something called “junior” high school for a year.
On moving day we all got up early. Dad took the day off work and got up super early to make one last breakfast of bacon and eggs at the only house I’d ever known, in the kitchen I nearly destroyed when I was 4.
The white and blue North American Van Lines truck was massive. It was way too big to fit in the driveway so we were helping move boxes down to the curb. On one of the trips a car full of people slowed to a stop in front of our house and started honking, and the people inside waved and yelled good-byes out the window.
“Who the hell is that?” asked Ed, who knew everyone in the neighborhood but didn’t recognize these people. “It’s Rex!” I shouted. “And his Mom! And Billy and Bill!”
I waved back furiously as my brothers shrugged their shoulders and left, but Mom stayed at my side and waved back with me, before Bill the mechanic gave one last honk and continued on their way.
Most of my family had never met Rex and his family. My brothers thought I was making up stories about this family that lived back in the woods. But now they knew they were real. I was glad our families got to meet, even if for just a wave, and even if it was for the first and last time. I felt like the most important kid in all of Fairview Heights, watching them pull away.
The top of the landmark obelisk poked out from the emerging landscape of low-rise buildings, roads and open spaces that make up Washington, DC. My gleeful outburst startled Mom.
“Shh, shh…” she said, patting my arm and turning to look out the window. “Show me.”
“Right there,” I said, “and way beyond is the Capitol building. See it?”
The descent to National Airport down the tree-lined Potomac River was long, gradual and relaxing. It was the complete opposite of the abrupt departure two hours before, when the airplane seemed to want to get the hell away from East St. Louis as fast as possible. It still didn’t seem we were moving all that fast. Our speed only registered to me as we made our final descent over the parked cars and picnickers of Gravely Point, the park at the end of National’s runway. The last thing I saw was a man and his son, about my age, on stopped bicycles, their hands over their eyes as they watched us land. Mom told me to hold on to my arm rests for the touchdown and I did, but I didn’t need to because the landing was so smooth I could barely tell when the wheels hit the runway.
I couldn’t wait to ride a taxi for the first time, as Dad told us we would, and was disappointed when instead we got an unexpected lift from our real estate agent Marge Hester, who met us at airport. In the over-packed station wagon—I insisted on a window seat—I continued to point things out things I recognized as we passed them.
“See the Jefferson Memorial?” I asked. “And think the red building is the Smithsonian”
I kept peering outside as we glided up the George Washington Parkway. I was surprised how many trees there were. It was like we were driving through a forest. There we hardly any exits or signs. We didn’t even know when we were driving right past the massive, secret headquarters of the CIA, in Langley, Virginia. It was just behind the trees. But it wasn’t the kind of place that announced its presence. The sign on that exit just said Fairbanks Highway Research Center.
My excitement over the move to Washington lasted for days. We stayed at the Colonial Manor motel on Rockville Pike for the first two weeks, living it up on endless buckets of fried chicken and as many hours in the parking lot swimming pool as we wanted, where Shawn the lifeguard fought boredom by giving us swimming tips.
Our new house in Kensington, actually an old one built in the 1950s, did not live up to expectations. Dad had painted in our heads a mental picture of a house twice as big as the one we left, but in reality it was something like half. Money didn’t get you as much in the Washington real estate market as it did in Fairview Heights. It was a little three-bedroom thing with a tiny kitchen, perfect for a retirement house, which is essentially what Mom and Dad bought, figuring every couple of years a kid would move out and free up some space. But in August 1973 there were ten people sleeping in that house every night, packed into its three bedrooms and semi-finished basement. When Dan and Steve came home for summer it grew to twelve.
Dad hadn’t fibbed about the trees at our new house. They were all over. Even though the lot was smaller than what we had in Fairview, there was a big crabapple out front, two chestnut trees in the back, and a giant weeping willow that shaded nearly the entire backyard, and the house next door had a big stand of bamboo. I had never seen bamboo, nor a weeping willow, nor a crabapple, nor a chestnut tree—and we had two of those.
Some things about our yard were the same. The grass was just like the grass in Fairview, but if you dug down deep the dirt was more reddish colored than the brown dirt I’d grown up digging in. The weeds were about the same, crab grass and dandelions mostly. There was plenty of clover here, too. Most of it didn’t flower because it got mowed down with the grass, but along the edge of the yard the clover grew big enough to flower.
Daily life on Thornwood Road was pretty much like it was on Primrose Lane, with everything just compressed into a much smaller house. Mom served the same meals and planned grocery shopping just as carefully, because Dad took the car on weekdays. As before, sometimes there wasn’t quite enough money left over from Dad’s paycheck to pay for enough groceries. But now with no relatives to turn to for a quick payday loan, Mom had to stretch those grocery dollars farther than ever and get more creative.
Soon after our arrival she found a jewelry shop that paid $40 for her and dad’s high school rings, which took the pressure off for a couple of weeks, and she’d later take on babysitting neighborhood kids for a few extra bucks.
My brothers and sister didn’t think things were just like Primrose Lane. One day I found my brother Ed in the backyard, at a wobbly and weathered picnic table the previous owners left behind, rather than cart it to the dump where it belonged. He had his face close to a cassette tape player that he had bought with paper route money back in Fairview, and he was listening to the voices of his friends back in Fairview. They took advantage of this new technology to devise an ingenious way to stay in touch. Instead of mailing letters they mailed cassette tapes to each other. I thought it was really cool, and I’m sure Ed did at first, but this day he didn’t seem to be thinking it was cool. He looked sad.
I couldn’t understand why anyone in the family was sad about moving to a place as exciting as this. There was so much more to do! Rock Creek park was a short walk away, and Dad said you could follow the path there all the way to Mount Vernon, home of George Washington, if you gave yourself enough time. And you could walk up to the corner of Connecticut and Knowles to the pharmacy, a hardware store called Hardware City, a dairy store called High’s that sold as much candy than the Short Stop did and maybe more, and a place called Continental Pizza that served pizza too greasy to eat, but they made something called a steak and cheese sandwich which was hands-down the most delicious thing I had ever tasted. My brother Ed or Bob would call in an order—the number 949-9797 was soon memorized by all of us—then run up to retrieve the heavenly lunch.
I’m not sure why they called it steak and cheese, because the meat was super thin and I always thought steak was thick. Mom made us steak once in a blue moon, when there was a really good special at the Safeway, and it was a giant thing she spread out on a big pan and baked in the oven.
The next day some of us were eating leftover steak for lunch. It was just Bob, Barb and Bill and me. I went to swallow a piece, but it only went down part way. It got stuck in my throat. This chunk of meat was lodged there and I couldn’t move it and couldn’t breathe. I grabbed my glass of milk and tried to drink but the milk just tumbled out of my mouth and onto my plate.
“Oh Mike,” said Bob, irritated. “That’s disgusting.”
“He’s choking!” yelled Barb.
I didn’t know what to do. I kept trying to get this thing out of my throat so I could breathe again but nothing worked. I felt someone lifting me out of my chair. It was my brother Bill, wrapping his arms around me from behind. He put his hands together in a giant fist and thrust them upward into my stomach. And then, suddenly, instantly, I could breath. The steak fell onto my plate and I fell back into my chair, realizing for the first time how good air tasted. I took deep breaths, savoring each one.
“Oh God,” said Bob. “I thought you were just horsing around!”
“Yeah, Bob,” said Bill, sarcastic. “We all horse around by turning our face blue and gurgling milk on our plate.”
The jab broke the tension and soon we were all laughing. Then I felt a punch on my arm, a hard one that hurt. It was Bill.
“Learn to chew your food!” he scolded me. “I never thought I’d have to do that Heimlich thing I don’t ever want to again.”
“We’re just lucky you did,” said Barb. “We can’t lose Mike.”
“No, we can’t lose Mike,” added Bob, picking up my plate to take them into the kitchen. “He’s a smart kid. Just don’t ask him to catch a ball.”
“Thanks Bob,” I said. “And thanks Bill.”
Bill and I went back to being mutually least favorite brothers after that. But for the moment I almost liked him.
One day my sister Barb used the word “grandma” in a sentence, during a commercial break when while we were all crowded around the TV in the front room of the house. I wasn’t even listening so I didn’t know at first what they were saying about her. It had been weeks since we moved and I hadn’t thought much of Grandma. But when someone mentioned her name she was all I could think about. Even when the TV show came on I couldn’t get her out of my mind.
I got up and went to the backyard where I didn’t even make it to the shade of the weeping willow tree before I was weeping myself. The excitement of the move was replaced in an instant by this sudden weight on my chest, and a sensation of loss and sorrow I had felt before.
The thought of not having Grandma next door just plain hurt—as did the idea of never again wandering the woods with Rex and Billy, or ascending into the hayloft at Chip’s barn. When I couldn’t stop my tears I wondered if they would ever stop. I convinced myself that of course they would, because I knew when I cried from a physical pain they stopped. This was just a different pain.
I didn’t want anyone to see me so I wedged myself into a narrow space between the tool shed in our backyard and the fence of the neighbor behind us, just next to a pile of firewood that came with the house. I stayed out there, behind the shed, until the crying stopped. Then I stayed to be sure my tears were dried up and my face wasn’t red. Then I stayed a bit longer just to be sure.
At some point the mourning process had run its course and I felt up to going back in to see what was for supper. I was hungry and looked forward to squeezing into the table, until I saw what came out of the pot on the stove. Hungarian pot roast.
I took my place at the dinner table next to Barb. So far it was just the two of us at the table.
“What did you say about Grandma?” I asked.
“She called this morning,” answered Barb.
“Is everything okay?”
“Oh yeah she’s fine. She was just calling about the family who moved into our house.”
A white family. And to plenty of our old neighbors that’s all that mattered.
Rumors had been circulating for months—maybe years. It was always the same. Somebody had heard from somebody who knew someone who knew for certain that a black family from East St. Louis was going to buy a house in Fairview. Whenever a new house went up, or went up for sale, the neighbors were unsettled until they new it would be occupied by a white family. A Christian one, preferably.
Tension was particularly high about the new house on Bountiful Drive. It was built on the last vacant lot in the entire subdivision, the lot where a few years before I had set my spectacular grassfire and then directed the firefighters in the little red jeep to go put it out. The neighborhood kids hated losing that lot on Bountiful. The neighborhood adults did mind losing the lot, they knew it would get built on eventually, but this new house just sat empty for months. As usual, somebody suspected a black family might have bought it, and the fact it was sitting empty for so long just made the rumors grow stronger. When we moved from Fairview it was still vacant.
Seeing black people was no big deal in Maryland. It was still somewhat segregated, in that whites tended to live near whites and blacks near blacks. But there was plenty of contact between people of different skin color. I had my first conversation with a black person when I boarded the L2 bus on Connecticut Avenue, for a trip downtown to visit the Smithsonian museum. When I ascended the steps with my forty cents to deposit in the coin box, the driver, a black man, gave me a little smile.
“Hello,” he said.
“Hello,” I said back, before heading into the bus to take a seat.
It wasn’t much of a conversation. But it was one that could never have taken place that day had I been boarding a bus in Fairview Heights, Illinois. We also had a barber in Kensington who was born in Korea. His name was Ed, and he was the first person from Asia I ever saw up close. Ed the Barber’s shop was right at home among the antique stores in the old part of Kensington, but it wouldn’t last a day in Fairview.
The L2 bus came to a stop at Federal Plaza, a big open parking lot a few blocks from the White House where most of the buses into Washington ended their trips before turning around. The Ronald Reagan Building would go up there two decades later. The bus driver spoke to me as I stepped down to the pavement.
“Enjoy your time in the nation’s capital!”
“Oh thanks,” I said back. “I’m sure I will. And thanks for the ride!”
“You are most welcome, young man.”
Dad was unusually quiet at the dinner table one night. He just looked down at his tuna casserole and green beans as he ate his dinner, and didn’t ask any questions and didn’t seem to be paying attention to our small talk. He didn’t seem unhappy or angry or anything, just quiet in a serious kind of way—like he was thinking how to solve some really big math problem. I figured there was something going on at work. Mom told us he had a tough time leaving his work at the office, that sometimes he just couldn’t get it off his mind.
“Excuse me,” said Dad once his plate was clean, as he stood and left the table.
The rest of us had to ask to be excused from the dinner table but Dad and Mom were allowed to excuse themselves. But he usually waited to be sure we all cleaned our plates before excusing himself.
“What’s going on with Dad?” asked Barb.
“He got some news from Fairview,” said Mom. “A black family moved into the house on Bountiful.”
We all looked at each other to compare reactions. This was big news! Dad had predicted for years that blacks would be allowed to live in Fairview one day, and we all knew how much he wanted to help make that happen. It had been years since he stopped giving his speeches but we knew he hadn’t given up inside.
“Oh my god,” said Barb, her face lighting up. “It’s just too bad Dad didn’t get to see it before we moved. Doesn’t he want to talk about it?”
“I don’t think so,” answered Mom.
“Why not?” Barb asked.
The table went silent, save the clinking of silverware and resting of milk glasses on the tablecloth. Bob cleared his throat.
“Ed knows,” said Bob.
“Ed?” asked Barb.
“The house got fire-bombed,” said Ed.
The picture filled my head. A family is running out of their house as flames shoot out the windows. Everyone is yelling and scared. There’s a mom and some kids, more than she can carry, and the dad is nowhere to be seen.
“Was anybody,” I asked, pausing. “Ed do you know if anybody–”
“Nobody got hurt,” said Ed. “The family hadn’t moved in yet. The house was empty.”
Now the silence was complete. Nobody could think of anything to say. We each finished our dinners, every bite, then asked Mom to be excused.
In 1973, Fairview was still a few years away from its inevitable shift from strict racial codes to racial tolerance. It would take the St. Clair Mall, and the explosion of fast food shops on Route 159, and the thousands of cars that would daily roll off the ramp of Interstate 64 filled with people ready to spend their money in Fairview Heights, to make the residents of Fairview get over their issues with skin color. Good old American commerce would eventually do the trick.
Things would change for the better in Fairview, but not quite yet.
“Grandma’s coming!” shouted Kenny, bounding into the backyard with David on his heals before bounding right back out.
I had finished my chore, pulling up overgrown clover, dandelions and other weeds from the edge of the yard and depositing them in a heap next to the woodpile. Now I was looking for slugs that lived between the pieces of aging, split wood. We didn’t have these odd creatures in Fairview, these terrestrial mollusks that crawled like snails without a shell and left a trail of shiny slime wherever they went. Dad had filled a pie pan with some beer, to attract and kill these things, though I couldn’t figure what harm they were doing. “At least they die happy,” Dad would say. I was hoping to see one before it bellied his way into the tavern of doom.
I wasn’t sure how to take the news of Grandma’s visit. It hadn’t crossed my mind she would come out to Maryland when I devised my escape. That was dumb, I thought. I missed Grandma, that was for sure. But I knew I was still in her doghouse so I didn’t figure she’d want to have anything to do with me.
When she walked in the front door, so many grandkids swarmed around I just stepped into the crowd said “Hi Grandma!” before backing out again. I didn’t think she noticed me among the pile of kids clamoring for a hug, which was just fine by me.
She waited until the next day to corner me.
“Well there’s Mike,” she said from Barb’s bedroom as I walked by. Barb gave up her room for Grandma’s visits and was sleeping on the couch in the living room. She said it was like living on Ridge Avenue again. “Will you help me with this suitcase?”
The massive Samsonite, one of three she had brought from Fairview Heights, was on her bed.
“Sure, Grandma. Are you trying to move it?”
“I’m trying to open it. This latch seems locked but I know it isn’t”
I inspected the situation, pressed hard on the lid with one hand, and used the thumb of the other hand to open the latch. It popped open like a can of refrigerator biscuits.
“Ah, I knew I might have packed one sweater too many in there,” said Grandma.
“Thank you, Mike,” she continued, as if our business was done.
I wanted to get the hell out of there. How many sweaters did she bring? Had she made one for all my younger brothers to rub it in? I turned to leave but figured this was my time. I had carried this albatross of ill-deserved shame for long enough. One way or another I was getting it off my neck.
“Grandma I’m sorry, okay?”
She didn’t seem to know what I was talking about.
“Sorry for what, Mike?”
“I’m sorry I didn’t mail your letter,” I continued. “And I’m sorry you thought I was pointing at you and making fun of you when you drove off to mail it yourself but I really wasn’t. I was just doing something in the garage I didn’t want you to see. I should have stopped and said hello and asked if you needed something. But I didn’t, okay? And I’m sorry. I’m sorry you hurt your feelings, okay? I’m really really really really sorry!”
I had to stop because my face was too pre-occupied now with crying. Grandma closed the door and ushered me to the bed, where I sat beside the giant suitcase. She handed me a Kleenex from the box on the night table, and when she saw how quickly it got soaked she handed me the entire box.
“Don’t feel bad, Mike,” said Grandma. She sat uncomfortably in the kitchen chair brought into her room. She didn’t seem to know how to handle an emotionally distraught adolescent but she clearly wanted to try.
“Can I tell you something?” asked Grandma. I nodded. “You didn’t hurt Grandma’s feelings!”
That didn’t make any sense, but she sure seemed to mean it.
“No you did not. Why, I don’t even know what you’re talking about,” she lied, convincingly.
When I looked into her eyes I thought I could see that little look you get when you’re telling someone something not true and you know the other person suspects it’s not true but you’re just trying to make the person feel better.
“You don’t remember when you came over to have us mail a letter?” I asked, dubious. “And I made you think I wanted you to go away because I was making a present for you—”
“A present for Grandma,” she interrupted with an I’ll-be-damned ring to it.
Then I remembered something that made me feel terrible. I remembered gathering up my half-finished clover leaf sweater and scrunching it all up and throwing it over the fence into her garden. I felt my lungs empty, and the skin on my face felt suddenly heavy. But then I remembered something else. And this made me feel like the luckiest stupid kid in the universe.
“I’ll be right back.”
I shot up off the bed and left the room before she could say anything. When I returned she was still in the chair with the most pleasingly perplexed look on her face.
“Close your eyes and put out your hands,” I told her.
She did as I said and waited for her to hands to come together. Her fingers were long, with knuckles that seemed bigger than they needed to be with thin white skin stretched between them. Her left hand was solid as a rock but the right one shook just a little bit.
“Okay, you can open your eyes now.”
Her eyes widened in appreciation but I could tell she didn’t know what it was.
“It’s a clover necklace. Here.”
I held it up carefully so she could inspect it, then put it over her head.
“Why this is the dandiest necklace I have ever seen!”
“I wanted to make you something more than just a necklace, but, well. I’m glad you like it.”
“I’ll wear it to supper tonight,” she said. “And see how well it matches my blouse? Now open up that lid there for Grandma.”
She was pointing to her suitcase. I lifted the heavy top half and plopped it down on the bed. And there it was.
“Let’s see how Mike likes his sweater.”
“It’s perfect!” I said even before I had finished slipping it over my head, feeling the gentle scratch of the blue and white yarn on my nose. The body length was just right and I only had to suck in my gut a little bit for it to fit over my stocky midriff. The sleeve length was perfect too, but only when I retracted my arms at the shoulder, which I did, because I didn’t want Grandma to see my exposed wrists.
I didn’t care that my sweater wasn’t the right size for me. It turned out to fit Mom just fine, and she would wear it for years. Maybe Grandma made it for her in the first place. But Grandma and I came full circle that afternoon and that’s all that mattered. We were best friends again.
As I slipped off the sweater, I found myself with a taste for tutti frutti and wondered if she might have some in that suitcase. I knew she didn’t. That would have to wait until our first visit back to Fairview, which for me couldn’t come soon enough.