For their honeymoon in November 1952, Mom and Dad went to Niagara Falls on a pair of free tickets from the New York Central. Railroad employees were allowed to ride for free to anywhere on the system and that was the farthest it went from East St. Louis.
The newlyweds had planned to take photos, with a camera Dad picked up for a great price in Tokyo while in the Navy. Sailors meandering the streets of Tokyo could get just about anything for a great price in those years just after World War II, killing time on leave, when Japan was still emerging from ruinous defeat.
Unfortunately, Bill Durbin’s beautiful new bride left his beautiful new camera on a seat when they changed trains in Cleveland. Their only photographic memento would be a postcard from the Lafayette Hotel in Buffalo where they stayed. Mom felt terrible about the camera, but Dad, from his perch on cloud nine, forgave her without hesitation.
Once married, in keeping with strict company policy, Mom quit her job as a comptometer operator at the Swift packing house where she used the bulky electro-mechanical calculators to “count the B’s” (bonus payments) for employees who worked overtime.
Many employers in those days banned married women from their payrolls—men could of course be married or unmarried—but the sexist policy didn’t matter in this case. Lorraine Kalish was more than ready to spend the rest of her life as the full-time wife and mother, Lorraine Durbin.
Their first home was an apartment at 456 23rd Street above the home of an elderly couple, Mr. and Mrs. Weir, who gave them a break on rent in return for Dad helping out with household chores. My brother Dan was born when they lived there, in September 1953.
As the first of a new generation on both sides of the family, his arrival was feted in grand style by the army of aunts, uncles, grandparents and great grandparents who all lived nearby.
With the arrival of a child and visions of more to come—Mom thought five kids would be nice—thoughts naturally turned to Dad’s career. His wife and father-in-law encouraged him to get a college degree. He already had a few credits from Belleville Junior College, from before he enlisted in the Navy, and the GI Bill, an act of Congress ensuring veterans wouldn’t have to pay for a college education, would cover the cost.
No ancestor on either side of the family had ever finished college and to Mom and her parents it was an obvious next step for the bright young man. His own parents thought otherwise.
In a rare display of unanimity, Grandma and Grandpa Durbin thought the son of a Chief Clerk for the venerable New York Central was crazy to even consider wasting time at college when his future on the railroad was so bright. He didn’t like the idea of bucking the will of his parents, and knew he’d have to keep a full time job while he went to school, but in the fall of 1953 Dad enrolled in night classes at St. Louis University.
* * *
My parents started thinking about a house of their own when they learned a second child was on the way while Danny was still learning to crawl. (The American tradition of diminutizing kids names by adding a “y” ending was alive and well in the Kalish and Durbin families of that era.) Mom and Dad had no money for a down payment but Dad’s grandmother, Ma, offered to take care of that. Pa, who died in 1950 while Dad was away in the Navy, had left his widow a bit of a nest egg she was happy to share.
The bigger problem in finding a house was redlining. This was a widespread practice in those days (now quite illegal) whereby banks would not lend money to buy houses in areas that “had turned,” that is, where blacks lived. The practice contributed to a vicious cycle that fulfilled its own prophesy: Whites who would have been happy to live where blacks lived couldn’t get a mortgage there, so home prices dropped to levels affordable by poor families, most of whom were black, who paid cash and moved in, making the bankers nod in smug righteousness.
By the waning months of 1953 the “color line” had already crossed into most of the neighborhoods of East St. Louis where Mom and Dad could afford a house, and was in the process of crossing into the area around 29th Street where most of Dad’s family still lived.
Fortunately there was a block of Ridge Avenue, between 27th and 29th Street, where every house was still owned by a white family. State Savings & Loan was still writing mortgages for those houses. In February 1954, Mom and Dad bought 2719 Ridge Avenue for $9,450.
The location was perfect. The Ridge Avenue house was a short walk north to State Street, an arterial road where you could walk or catch a bus to just about any place you’d want to go. Ma lived around the corner at 484 29th Street, and Dad’s parents and little brother Dicky Joe still lived next door at 486.
My brother Steve was born in September 1954. His big brother seemed happy enough to share the spotlight, but he didn’t say so in words. Danny in fact had not uttered a single word by his first birthday, convincing Grandma Durbin something was wrong with the otherwise normal kid.
Mom and Dad were less concerned and figured perhaps there were so many excited relatives talking all the time that Danny just preferred to listen. Only after his baby brother Steve started talking did Danny bother to do the same. And then he made up for lost time, soon becoming the most talkative of the Durbin kids, a distinction he would retain for years. Many years. Including this one.
* * *
In October 1955, seven months pregnant with her third child, Mom said something that insulted her mother-in-law. It was entirely inadvertent—Mom thought the world of Grandma Durbin—and she would never learned 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 Dicky Joe from ever stepping foot in the Ridge Avenue house. Period. 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 to just wait them out.
In March of 1956, Grandma spotted Dad walking to catch the bus to St. Louis University one particularly cold morning and offered 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 railroad.
He accepted his mother’s offer and, on the way, asked 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 she 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.
* * *
Dad’s daily grind was one helluva challenge and not just for him. With only 24 hours in a day, and having to work nights and attend classes in the day, the only time he could sleep was in the afternoon and early evening. Mom had to somehow keep a house of young children quiet during these hours and thanked God the house had a basement.
My older siblings got to know that place well, and the coal bin became one of their favorite places to play while Dad slept. They could make as much noise as they wanted in there.
Dad reached a breaking point one of those evenings, not long after my brother Bob was born in January 1957. He was trying to do math homework on a mind starved for rest when he reached the end of his rope. Dad tossed his books into the waste paper basket, went to the kitchen and announced to Mom and everyone else in the house he was giving up school.
For decades thereafter he told of how she promptly towed him from the kitchen back into the bedroom, retrieved those books from the trash and ordered him to plant his butt back in the chair.
“If I can go through this hell then so can you, Bill Durbin!” said the mother of four, probably with a soup ladle in her hand and curlers in her hair, and her own mind addled by sleep deprivation and exhaustion.
Dad got back to his homework and never did that again.
When the kids weren’t playing in the basement coal bin they could of course play outside, which they did as often as they could, with playmates both black and white. Ridge Avenue “turned” in the mid 1950s and before long there were black families living on either side of the Durbins.
Mom and Dad liked it just fine. They thought this was the best way possible to learn racial tolerance and was glad the kids got to see firsthand the that judging people by the color of their skin was about as stupid as stupid gets.
Mom and Dad did things any friendly neighbor might do, like inviting their neighbors’ kids along on weekend fishing trips with their own, having them over for coffee or a beer, and accepting their invitations to backyard barbecues that featured whole pigs roasting over a pit dug into the ground. The Durbin kids didn’t have to be told that skin color didn’t matter. They saw it for themselves.
* * *
Dad received his degree from St. Louis University in February 1958, with a major in geology and minor in math, five years and four kids after signing up for night classes. At graduation, his in-laws beamed in pride, his own parents were kind (but still wondered what good his degree would do) and Dicky Joe was proud to be given responsibility for taking a picture of his big brother’s big event, so proud that he used up all the film in the camera before the ceremony began.
The birth of my brother Ed in April made it all the more evident Dad would need a better-paying job. He was elated to soon get an offer from none other than Standard Oil, as a field geologist helping to locate oil reserves, and the dream job came with just one small catch: The job was located in Libya. Yep. Libya. In Africa.
My parents accepted without hesitation and soon found themselves explaining to slack-jawed parents and grandparents how the family would be relocating to the Middle East, quite literally about as far from East St. Louis as one could go.
As it turned out, Standard pulled the job offer just weeks after extending it. They cited vague economic reasons and the rejection sent my Dad into the dumps. No other job offers came and he began to wonder if the five years of college were a complete waste. Luck turned at a summer party that year as Dad sipped a beer while bellied up to the basement bar of a neighbor, Al Janacek.
“I’ve got a geology degree,” complained Dad. “And I’ve got a rock hammer. But no place to swing it.”
It turned out Dad was crying in his beer to just the right guy. Al Janacek worked for a place called the Aeronautical Charts and Information Center, a branch of the US Air Force, located in St. Louis. He told Dad they were hiring something called earth scientists and that sounded a lot like a geologist to Dad. He had a job offer within weeks.
This job came with a catch as well: He’d have to take a pay cut. And not a small one. Dad was earning around $4,000 a year as a clerk at the New York Central railroad and the ACIC would pay only $3,000. His parents, as when he considered college, again wondered why was even looking for another job when he already had a great one on the railroad.
But Mom and Dad took the long view, took out a second mortgage, and took the job he would have for the rest of his career.
Dad wouldn’t need to swing his rock hammer at his new job but he would put his geology and math skills to work. ACIC made maps for the military and they needed scientists who knew things about the earth, hence the need for earth scientists. And just as Dad came on board, they were sending new recruits to a year-long program at Ohio University to learn a radical new scientific technique known as geodesy. Dad threw his hat in the ring and went to Columbus, Ohio for the first half of the program.
Geodesy deals with precise measurement of the surface of the earth and the effects of gravity. It was cool stuff back in Dad’s day. And he loved it. When he did well in preliminary coursework and was allowed to stay for the remaining six months, Mom and the kids found a renter for the Ridge Avenue house and trekked to Columbus to be with Dad.
The apartment was hotter than hell and way too small for a family of seven. It grew to eight when my brother Bill was born in August 1959, the only one of us to be born outside Illinois. When the little Buckeye was 11 days old, the family returned to East St. Louis and the house on Ridge Avenue.
* * *
My dad never had a chance to show his own father how the ACIC gamble paid off. They were still just treading water financially when Grandpa Durbin came down with lung cancer, the grim result of smoking multiple packs of cigarettes virtually every day of his adult life. He went into the hospital just as my parents returned from Ohio.
Grandpa would spend 80 days there until his death on Friday, November 13, 1959. My dad visited him every single day, shaving him, reading the newspaper to him, and anything else he could think of to comfort his dying father. My uncle Bob visited him too, sneaking his dad sips of gin when the nurses weren’t looking.
Grandpa Durbin wasn’t the only loss in the final years of the 1950s, though at the age of only 53 his death was certainly the most tragic. His mother, Ma, died just a few months after watching her son die. Julia Malec, Mom’s maternal grandmother, died suddenly in late 1958 after going to the kitchen for a drink of water; an apparent brain hemorrhage struck as she held the glass to her mouth. Her husband Adam came down with prostate cancer not long after. He turned down all treatment.
“I don’t want to live,” Adam told his pleading children. “Not without my Julia.”
* * *
There was still plenty of family around as the 1950’s came to a close. Grandma Durbin and a teenaged Uncle Joe (begging people by this time to stop calling him “Dicky”) were still nearby, in a nice brick house on 39th Street where they had moved a few years before, and Grandma and Grandpa Kalish were soon in a comfortable little house on Pershing Lane.
Mom and Dad tapped into the abundance of nearby family for more than emotional support. When they needed a short-term loan to make it to payday, or a few pounds of meat to cook up for dinner, Mom wasn’t too proud to reach out and ask.
In 1959, a sign went up on St. Clair Avenue announcing that East St. Louis had been chosen as an “All American City.” The designation by Look Magazine was said to be awarded for the city’s good government and progressiveness—which made many wonder if the magazine had made a typographical error in its announcement.
Plenty of words had been chosen to describe the government of East St. Louis during the nearly one hundred years since its founding, but “good” was rarely among them.
In any event, the award was more like a jinx. The economic decline already underway when they put up that sign up was about to grow to all out collapse as employers relocated farther south in search of ever-cheaper labor. Racism didn’t help. While the overall population of East St. Louis declined steadily, the percentage of black residents went up.
It was a sure sign of an insidious trend known as white flight. People with light skin watched the value of their houses plummet, noted the skin color of their new neighbors, and connected the dots. White flight was of course happening in cities all across the country, not just East St. Louis, so in this sad sense it was, indeed, quite an All American city.
* * *
1960 was a big year in US history and my family watched it all on their big TV, a giant box filled with glowing tubes that took over the living room on Ridge Avenue where it generated enough heat to warm up leftovers.
John Kennedy was elected President, ushering out the stodgy Eisenhowers and ushering in what was deemed by liberals a New Frontier, and by the more romantic as a “return to Camelot.” The Durbin’s and Kalishes were just ecstatic to see a Democrat—and a young Catholic one to boot, with a gorgeous wife and cute kids—in the White House.
The Cold War was in full swing that year and the most frightening event would have an indirect effect on our family’s future. In May, Air Force pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down while taking spy photographs from his U-2, high above Russia. The United States denied it, of course, trying in vain to convince Khrushchev the errant pilot had just gone out for cigarettes. But the lesson of the humiliating setback was simple: We would have to take photographs from higher than any plane could fly, and that meant satellites.
An experimental and top-secret program, code named Corona, was just getting underway when the U-2 came down. Corona satellites would snap photos from the lower boundaries of space, then drop the exposed film in parachutes, which were then snatched out of the air by jet planes towing giant hooks. I’m not making this up.
The spy birds—which would have been considered something right out of Buck Rogers science fiction had they not been such a well-protected secret—of course required navigation. This required maps, really excellent maps, and the department in charge of maps in those days was the ACIC where Dad worked. The Corona project got a big boost in funding in 1960 as a direct result of the termination of the U2 program. As Dad would spend a good part of his defense career on Corona, some of those dollars found their way into his paychecks.
* * *
With the stint in Ohio, expenses that exceeded his income, and the long illness and death of his father, Dad’s head was in a spin for most of his first couple of years working for the government. But he loved his job. And he wore with pride his civil servant’s uniform of a dark suit with thin lapels and even thinner tie, atop a starched white shirt, finished with dark horn-rimmed glasses and short-cropped hair.
Driving to work each morning, Dad no doubt pinched himself as he thought about his assignments to classified projects like Corona, wondering how the son of a railroad clerk in East St. Louis found himself working on matters of national security.
It was heady stuff. He would have loved to tell his parents, wife and children all about his amazing new job. But he didn’t. Bill Durbin was a loyal Cold Warrior and kept it all to himself.
The only visible sign he was doing something secret were government agents knocking on the doors of his neighbors, dressed like the dudes in the Men in Black movies, doing periodic background checks as Dad received ever-higher security clearances.
* * *
Their two-bedroom house on Ridge Avenue was already packed to the rafters when, in the spring of 1962, my parents learned a seventh child was on the way, a child who would turn out to be me.
Mom and Dad shared the small bedroom. My four brothers Dan, Steve, Bob and Ed were on two sets of bunk beds in the larger bedroom, with a crib between the bunks for Bill, and six-year-old Barb didn’t even get a room. She slept on a sofa bed in the corner of the dining room.
Mom and Dad had always planned to get a bigger house one day and with my arrival on the horizon they realized that day had come. The only questions now were where to find that house and how in hell to pay for it. Fortunately, Dad’s financial gamble of taking a pay cut to go work for ACIC was starting to pay off. He had earned raises so they were no longer in the hole each month, but there was not even one dollar in savings. Those questions remained unanswered as Dad planted a For Sale sign in their front yard.
Mom and Dad’s black neighbors on Ridge Avenue—they were all black by this time, save one, the Martychenko’s—had grown sadly accustomed to white families’ houses going on the market. And they were polite and understanding, assuring their friends Bill and Lorraine how they clearly understood the need for a bigger house.
Seven kids in a two-bedroom was tight even by East St. Louis standards. Some of the neighbor’s children were less polite. My brother Ed one day had to use the For Sale sign as protection against rocks, thrown at him by neighbor kids who just the day before were his playmates.
“Go on and leave, Whitey!” they shouted to the four-year-old. “We don’t like you anyway!” True story.
Protecting Ed from rocks was about the only good the sign was doing. It sure wasn’t attracting many buyers. And Mom and Dad weren’t getting far in their search for a new house. Wanting to stay in East St. Louis—to remain near family, and to dispel any notion they were white-fighters—they looked at larger houses all over town.
But houses in their price range were redlined, so no bank would lend them money to buy them. And like their current house, those larger houses, some quite grand, had coal-fired furnaces. It was Danny and Steve’s job, at the ages of 8 and 7, to shovel coal to keep the Ridge Avenue house warm. Mom couldn’t picture asking her children to tend an even bigger furnace for a bigger house. It was 1962, after all, not 1862.
* * *
Driving east out of East St. Louis on St. Clair Avenue, you have to step on the gas a little extra once you cross over Route 157 at the edge of town. That’s where the flat alluvial plains of the Mississippi River give way to wooded bluffs. The road turns into Highway 50 right about there and the land flattens again once you get up that rise, making it just right for farming.
For a century or so, starting in the mid-1800s, that’s about all that happened above ground in these parts. Below ground, workers dug coal from a sprawling network of mines with names like Mentor, Ruby and N-word Hollow.
Both the mining and farming went away in the 1950s, the former when the coal ran out and the latter when housing developers came in, with offers to buy up land from aging farmers. One of those was Alvin Meckfessel. His acreage was turned into a subdivision dubbed South Bountiful Heights, and by 1962 the firm of Adams Gordon was looking for buyers for the hundreds of affordable houses they planned to build.
Their ideal prospect? Couples in East St. Louis with young children, steady jobs, and white skin. And gentiles only, of course. Jews were nearly as shunned as blacks.
Adams Gordon made Mom and Dad a tempting offer. They would buy the Ridge Avenue house for $4,850. That was only half what they paid just eight years before, but it didn’t matter. Adams Gordon would assume the unpaid balance of the mortgage. Mom and Dad would get back every penny they’d put into the house and not have to worry about selling it.
The proceeds would provide Mom and Dad a down payment on a new $20,000 split-level at 114 Primrose Lane, just one block from the future site of the neighborhood feature that made their kids nearly salivate: a swimming pool. The painted image of a girl diving into a pool was about the only thing they noticed on the billboard on Route 50—the sales agent said construction of the pool would begin any day.
Barb of course liked the idea of having her own bedroom, and Danny and Steve loved the idea of a furnace powered by natural gas—a fuel that required no shoveling.
Moving his family the seven miles east to South Bountiful Heights, in an unincorporated area of Caseyville Township known informally as Fairview, made perfect sense to my parents. The new house wouldn’t need repairs for a while, it was likely to appreciate in value, and though he would say it out loud only to Mom, Dad very much liked the idea of putting a few miles between himself and his mother, who was at the time, on 39th Street, only a few blocks from their house on Ridge Avenue.
Dad’s relationship with his mother remained strained. And in the almost three years since the death of his father, things had only worsened. Without a husband to blame for her every woe, her eldest son became the obvious substitute. My Uncle Bob had already put half a continent of distance between himself and Grandma by moving west to California, and Uncle Joe had gone to the opposite coast when he went off to Georgetown University in Washington, DC.
Dad wasn’t moving as far as Bob and Joe had moved. If she really needed something, he’d be close enough. Just not too close.
The only downside of accepting the Adams Gordon offer was a personally painful one for Dad. Fairview was a landing strip for white flight. By moving there, Bill Durbin would appear to be just another white guy getting away from the blacks. He knew he’d be living among bigots, but when he took everything into consideration he felt he was making the right choice.
Besides, he figured a place like Fairview could use liberal minded people like him and Mom. Maybe they could be a force of change. He made a deal with himself to work on that.
* * *
Fifty years after William Oscar Durbin moved his family off the farm in Dahlgren and into the city of East St. Louis, his grandson Bill Durbin moved his own family out of that once nurturing and now malnourished place, back onto farmland sprouting houses instead of soybeans.
Dad was 32, Mom was 28, and they had a six-card straight of children—one at every age from 3 through 8—plus me on the way. It took the entirety of a rainy day for Dad and his best friend Joe Levy to shuttle the family’s possessions to the new place, with each trip’s payload limited to what they could fit in the back of Joe’s truck.
It was hours past midnight by the time the last box was in the door. Everyone by that time was as hungry as they were tired. Dad took care of that by fixing a huge pre-dawn breakfast of bacon and eggs while Mom and the older kids fixed seven beds, which were soon occupied by exhausted Durbin’s with tired limbs and full bellies.
* * *
The house at 114 Primrose Lane was quite modern for its day. It was a split-level, the term referring to how the floors were aligned. There were three. The basement level had a big open room that acted as our family room and another level directly atop that had three bedrooms and two baths. There was a third level adjacent to those other two, positioned in between, with kitchen, dining room, living room and garage.
The house was square and boxy, clad with a combination of white siding and a few bricks, and sat on the corner lot where Primrose met North Point. The ample lot was as verdant as the lunar landscape—there was no money for grass, trees or shrubs just yet. Nor was there money for furnishings to fill out the larger space inside. Mom and Dad took care of that, in part, by pooling all the kids’ savings and using it to buy end tables and lamps. The kids were too young, or maybe just too excited about the new house, to notice their life savings had vanished.
My family of eight filled their new house to capacity the day they moved in. Barb got a room of her own (this was—trust me—the only benefit of being the lone girl among an ever-growing brood of kids) and Mom and Dad, as they had on Ridge Avenue, took one of the smaller bedrooms so they could pack bunk beds into the master. Three boys went in there.
Dan and Steve occupied a bedroom Dad made in the basement, a cozy space that doubled as Dad’s study. The desk in there, which Dad built himself, was an ingenious thing consisting of a flat-panel door attached by its hinges horizontally to the wall, held up on either end by heavy chains. It reminded me of the retractable door over a castle moat.
A pair of huge, green-vinyl sleeper sofas in the basement family room would later provide space for four more to sleep, spaces that would not go unused.
* * *
Money was tight as ever but life was pretty good overall as my family settled into a routine at its new home in the fall of 1962. Dan, Steve and Barb attended school at St. Albert the Great Catholic Church, at the intersection of Highways 50 and 159, while the three younger kids kept Mom on her toes at home.
Dad found co-workers at ACIC to start a carpool so Mom could have the car a few days a week. She had dinner ready at 5:00 o’clock sharp every evening, which Dad preceded nightly with a Beefeaters martini—very dry. After dinner there were plenty of hands to clean up the kitchen in time for the 15-minute evening newscast on TV.
The biggest news that fall was of course the Cuban Missile Crisis. From October 14, when news came out that the Soviets were installing nuclear-tipped missiles a short 90 miles off the coast of Florida, until October 28 when Nikita Khrushchev realized that maybe putting atomic weapons so close to US soil wasn’t such a good idea after all and halted the project.
Dad was even more spooked than the rest of the country, watching those newscasts in our basement. He and everyone else in the defense department were on high alert, preparing daily for the very real possibility of global nuclear war. As he came home from the office each day, I imagine those martinis tasted pretty damn good.
On November 28 of 1962, shortly after Walter Cronkite ended the nightly CBS News with his famous “and that’s the way it is,” Mom headed upstairs to fix holes in underwear. Alone for the first time that day, opening the old fruit cake tin that held sewing supplies, she looked forward to the peace and quiet.
Those plans were soon thwarted with labor pains. She’d been through the drill and knew just what to do, and got herself calmly down the stairs to tell Dad. The kids were in front of the TV looking forward to an evening of prime time shows—Bonanza, The Flintstones and the brand-new Beverly Hillbillies—when Dad’s voice echoed down the stairs.
“Everyone in the car,” he yelled. And when none of the kids budged, “Now!!”
Dad had to remind himself they’d be going to St. Elizabeth’s hospital in Belleville, and not St. Mary’s in East St. Louis, where all of his kids except Bill had been born. Mentally mapping the most direct route, he grabbed the keys and helped Mom into the car. Moments later, the Ford station wagon descended the driveway, pausing just long enough for Dan to jump out and close the garage door.
The family of eight was off to the hospital. A few hours later, they came home a family of nine.