The way I remember it is I was home from school — I was a fifth-grader at Talala School in Park Forest, in Chicago’s south suburbs. I’m sure I was bored and looking for something to do — I wasn’t that sick. I was as interested in politics as any fifth-grader — well, not counting my former classmate Billy Houlihan, whose father, John J. Houlihan, was getting ready to run for the Illinois House of Representatives (he won and wound up serving four terms). I’ve forgotten my specific motivation on the long-ago day in question, but I sat down and wrote a letter to Otto Kerner, who had recently begun his second term as governor, congratulating him on his victory and asking for an autographed picture.
The portrait above, with a short letter acknowledging my note, arrived a week or two or three later. I was inspired, and a hobby of sorts was born. I started writing to other politicians who were in the news: Edward Brooke, the Republican Massachusetts attorney general who became the first popularly elected Black U.S. senator and the first to serve in the Senate since Reconstruction; Pat Brown, the Democratic governor of California; Nelson Rockefeller, the “liberal” Republican governor of New York.
Soon, I started going down the list of members of the U.S. Senate. The notes I sent were brief and to the point, written in my imperfect Palmer method cursive on a sheet of blue-lined notebook paper: “May I please have an autograph of Governor X or Senator Y?” — not much more than that. I was pretty unaware of the politics of a lot of the senators whose portraits I was requesting. So I sent away for pictures of Richard B. Russell of Georgia and John McClellan of Arkansas, two of the staunchest segregationists in “the world’s greatest deliberative body.” (Robert Caro’s “Master of the Senate,” the third volume of his biography of Lyndon Johnson, is an effective antidote to that “greatest deliberative body” nonsense.) But I also wrote to Bobby Kennedy’s and Gene McCarthy’s offices.
After collecting about 60 or 70 of these signed pictures, I got bored with the project. I was still passionately interested in what was happening in politics — in the Civil Rights and anti-war movements, especially — but the interest took other forms: going with my mother to the weekly peace vigil at the post office in Park Forest, for instance.
What is there to remember about the man in this particular portrait?
Kerner became a national figure in 1967 when President Johnson appointed him to lead a commission studying the causes of the widespread riots of that summer — the ones that always come to mind were in Detroit and Newark. The resulting report unflinchingly concluded that the nation’s long history of white racism, oppression and abuse of Black people drove the 1967 uprisings. (“What white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”)
The report was a little too unflinching for Johnson’s taste, and he declined to publicly endorse its conclusions or support its call for a sweeping program of investments to address the effects of past discrimination.
Still, before Kerner’s second term as governor was over, Johnson nominated him to serve on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. But Kerner’s undoing was not long in coming: He was indicted in 1972 for conspiracy, income tax evasion, mail fraud and perjury. The indictment said that early in his first term, he had agreed to set favorable racing dates for a Chicago-area horse track in exchange for stock in the track, which he later sold at a significant profit. Kerner was convicted on 17 counts. On appeal, all but four of the counts, all for mail fraud, were thrown out. But he was sentenced to three years in prison — a sentence that was cut short by the discovery he was suffering from lung cancer. He died in May 1976.
Kerner’s New York Times obit mentions that some supporters never believed he was guilty, and many others remained sympathetic to him after his fall. A few months before Kerner died, the Times reported, “Chicago journalists organized a ‘newsmen’s testimonial dinner to Otto Kerner.'”
“‘We like the guy personally, no matter what he’s done, and we thought it would be a shame if someone didn’t do something for him,’ said Steve Schickel, a television reporter for station WLS-TV. “
You never know where you’ll be when the next mass shooting or schoolhouse slaughter takes place.
We’re out of town on a family visit. Around noon, I went out for a walk. I got an alert on my phone about some breaking news: a school shooting a few hundred miles away. The only question I have after seeing something like that is not, “How could it happen?” It’s, “How bad will it be?”
About the same time I was taking in that news, I started to hear sirens. I happened to be walking up the street toward a high school. A fire truck passed, then an ambulance. I wondered with a certain dread whether they might be responding to something at the school, and if so, whether the “something” involved firearms.
But there were no more emergency vehicles rushing toward the school, and I encountered a bunch of kids going about their day in what I took to be a happy, unconcerned way — just enjoying their friends and their day.
So at this hour, at any rate, tragedy is far away, out of earshot. But never out of mind.
Fifty years ago today, I started my first newsroom job.
But wait a second. Let me set the stage first.
I had graduated from high school a semester early. I was inspired in part by a friend whose desperation to get out of school drove him to take a bunch of classes early and graduate a full year ahead of us in the Crete-Monee Class of 1972.
Getting out four months ahead of my remaining classmates seemed as close as I was going to get to any kind of high school accomplishment. I was as average as average could be gradewise, the result of doing occasionally brilliantly in English and history classes and barely achieving passing grades in math and science. I believe I ranked 158th among the 314 students who graduated in ’72, which I joked made me the valedictorian of the bottom half of the class.
And I did get what I considered a valedictory moment: My final semester at Crete, I took a drama class with a teacher named Tommy Thompson. He told me a few weeks into the class that he had a part for me in the school play, which would be put on in January, just before I was done with school. The part turned out to be Nick Bottom, the bombastic fool who’s transformed into an ass in “A Midsummer NIght’s Dream.”
So this was January 1972. I didn’t have a plan laid out beyond a position I had staked out a couple years earlier that I didn’t want to go right from high school to college. It wasn’t clear what this non-college period would look like beyond getting together with friends and smoking whatever it was popular to smoke, but I eventually had one idea about that.
We lived in a sort of rural, informal, woodsy subdivision — this was about 35 miles south of downtown Chicago — and among our neighbors out there were the McCrohons — Max, an Australian immigrant, his wife Nancy, an immigrant from Westchester County, New York, and their kids Sean, Craig and Regan.
Max was a newspaperman. He’d first come to the United States in the early 1950s as a reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald. By the time our families met, in the mid-1960s, he was an editor at the Chicago American (a former Hearst paper that the Chicago Tribune had bought and rechristened “Chicago’s American.” But I digress.) In 1969, Max was one of the editors who led the redesign and relaunch of the paper as Chicago Today.
My family was always engaged with the news. For most of my time growing up, I think we got two papers a day — the Tribune, and later the Sun-Times, in the morning, and the Daily News, and later Chicago Today, in the afternoon. We watched the early evening news, national and local, and then the late news. There was no NPR back then, but we would have been listening to that all the time, too, probably.
And “news” just wasn’t whatever happened to be in the papers or on the national and local TV news. For me, the stories that at least in my memory were woven into our daily lives all grew out of the the civil rights struggle and the Vietnam War.
As I wrote a while back, Max and Nancy McCrohon were always welcoming to my brothers, my sister and me. They indulged my presence for hours at a time on weekday nights, where often we’d talk about what was in the papers that day. They’d invite me to stay for dinner, and though it was less than half a mile back home, Max would insist on driving me at the end of the evening.
By the time I was done with high school, Max had been appointed the Tribune’s managing editor, the same position he held at Today. One night when I was over and we were watching the 10 o’clock news, we were talking about what I was going to do now that I had graduated. I don’t remember the particulars, really — the only thing I feel reasonably sure about is that I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do — but I think I asked him what it would take to work at one of the papers. And that’s how the idea of applying for a job as a copy boy at Chicago Today came about. It was a sort of prized entry-level position, and he said he could get my name “shuffled to the top of the list” of candidates.
That was in February ’72, maybe. A couple of months later, probably, I got a call asking if I could start May 1. Yes. I could and I would.
I wish I had a picture of 18-year-old me on that first day. I don’t remember a lot of details. I got to take the Illinois Central — the I.C. — from Richton Park, our station at the southern end of the commuter line, up to the last stop downtown, Randolph Street. The best exit was the one out onto East South Water Street. From there, it was about a five-minute walk to Tribune Tower, where Chicago Today shared space with its parent paper. There were two entrances — the grand one at 435 N. Michigan Avenue, and the more modest one next door at 445 N. Michigan that Today employees used. The newsroom was on the fourth or fifth floor.
I had the same long hair that I had sported in my “Midsummer Night’s Dream” performance, but for some reason, I thought it would be more dressy or neat or something to wear it in a pony tail, which I could just barely get my unruly mop into. I also wore a pair of corduroys held up by some braided leather suspenders my girlfriend had made. I must have cut quite a figure as I walked into the city room for the first time. I don’t remember whether someone said something or I just saw a couple of smirks, but I reconsidered my style, and the pony tail and the suspenders were retired after the first day.
What did that first newsroom job involve? Well, the term “copy boy” has been retired, too, but basically, you were there to run any kind of errand the reporters or editors or front office secretaries needed. Heading down to the mailroom to get the edition that was just coming off the press. Getting coffee and making sure you remembered just how every editor on the news and copy and city desks liked theirs. Getting lunch for said editors — the most memorable purveyor of which was a basement dive about a block from the paper called The St. Louis Browns Fan Club, whose specialty was a really greasy cheeseburger. I’d be painting less than a complete picture if I left out the shouting and swearing and other indecorous behavior that you’d encounter on at least a daily basis.
None of that sounds like it has much to do with news. Here’s the part that did.
On deadline, our job was to run the typed copy from reporters to the city, copy and news desks. Depending on the shift, there would be somewhere between three and six rewrite men — and they were all men — taking dictation from reporters somewhere out there in the city. They’d write their stories one paragraph at a time on a tissue-thin sheet of paper backed by four carbon copies (also tissue thin). When a paragraph was finished, the rewrite guy would pull it out of his typewriter and call (usually shout): “Boy! Copy!” Or “Copy!” Or “Copy boy!”
Whereupon you’d hurry to the grab the copy and separate the top sheet from the carbons as you walked to the city, news and copy desks, which were clustered at the center of the city room. You’d give the top sheet to the city desk, and the other desk would each get one of the carbons. On edition, that routine could keep you busy.
One of the other jobs we did was watching the wire room, the semi-sound-proofed space where all the wire service teletype machines were spitting out stories from all over the world. If you were assigned to the wire room, you’d separate each new story as it came off the machine, then run it to the desk editor who needed to see it. You also had to make sure the teletypes didn’t run out of paper — the big rolls (which also included carbons) that ran through the machines hour after hour all day and all night long.
Of course, that’s all stuff I had yet to discover on that first day, which was spent “learning the ropes” — how to get down to the mail room and the composing room, say — and filling out paperwork, and maybe hearing about which reporters and editors you had to watch out for.
Fifty years later, and I’m still working in a newsroom— or at least for a newsroom, given pandemic realities. I have thought a lot about what it means to have been lucky enough to get to do this work for so long — not all of the last 50 years have been spent in news, but nearly all of that time was what people might now call “news adjacent.”
I’ve thought a lot about that half century as this day approached. About the technological changes. About all the changes in perception of what news is and what facts are. About the shortcomings of journalism and its triumphs. About the changes in who gets to do the work — it’s very clear in my memory that the Chicago Today newsroom I walked into was all white; there were just two women working in the department as I recall it — and about how much further those changes have yet to go. About all the people I’ve worked alongside. About how we treat each other in the news business. About my own failings. And even about my successes, such as they are.
I’ve thought a lot about all of that, and yet, you know, it takes me a while to gather myself for the challenge of writing about some of it. But yeah, maybe, sometime during this 50th anniversary year that will happen.
For now, I’ll sign off with something I didn’t remember from that first day at work.
You can see our early edition headline at the top of the column here. I have to say, without having read the story in question, that it must have been a really slow news day for a “doctor shortage” to become the lead story in a big-city tabloid.
What I’d forgotten before I spent an afternoon last summer spooling through microfilm at the Chicago Public Library was how the front page evolved that day.
The lead in the next edition was “Lift wage, price curbs for millions,” which is another yawner.
Then something happened less than a mile away in downtown Chicago. Our next-to-last edition, the Green Streak, bannered: “Car rams crowd in Loop, 6 injured!” Yes, there was an exclamation point — it appears to have been a Chicago Today specialty.
The story detailed an incident where a car jumped a curb at State and Washington streets and crashed through one of the display windows at Marshall Fields. It was clear people were hurt.
The story evolved rapidly. The last edition, the Final Streak, is below.
I insist I don’t spend a lot of time in cemeteries. But when I do, I’m always conscious of the capsule histories that many grave markers contain. I tend to notice children’s graves a lot, maybe because my brother Mark died at age 2, an event that I remember vividly. Occasionally, you come across what looks like a family story — like the grave we once spotted that is marked as the final resting place of three people named Mary Dahl — a mother and two of her daughters who all shared the name.
During a visit to Chicago several years ago, I went over to Mount Olive Cemetery, where my dad’s parents and many members of his extended family are buried. It’s a beautiful green place in the summer, and you can see that nature will have no problem taking back the property once someone skips mowing the grass for a few years. The older, heavily Scandinavian sections of the cemetery have lots of markers that have shifted askew or fallen, and I always wonder whether there’s any family left to visit these long departed forebears.
On this particular visit, I was stuck by how many graves declared a relationship: father, mother, husband, wife, daughter, son, sister, brother. One of the markers I spotted was unique: “Wife and Baby,” it says. Not “Wife and Daughter” of “Mother and Daughter.” Both had died in 1906, and the child was just five months old. I snapped a picture and later, having taken note of the names and dates, tried to find out what had happened.
I can’t say I found out much beyond the fact that no two people, including the person put in charge of engraving a substantial and expensive headstone, agreed on the spelling of the family name.
The stone itself says “Dunhom,” as you can see — but that surname doesn’t appear anywhere in genealogical records or in Chicago phone books from this period (though losts of people didn’t have phones in this era). The name used in the “Official Death List” published in the Chicago Tribune several days after Carrie A. “Dunhom” died in February 1906 is “Dunham.” That agrees with a Cook County death index record that lists her full name as Carrie Anderson Dunham and adds that she had been born in Norway in 1883.
As to Carrie’s daughter, she is listed in the Tribune’s death list as Ebba C. Dunholm. Again, there are no Dunholms or Dunhoms in other records. Again, there’s a Cook County death record that uses the surname Dunham — but lists her given name as Effa. One guesses that there were serial transcription errors that led to all these different renditions of the name. It’s impossible to figure it out without disappearing down some rabbit hole, and I’m not sure you’d be able to sort it out even then.
But I do wonder about the “husband and father” who presumably had this headstone placed. Presumably he had some idea of how he wanted the name spelled. I can’t find any record of him though — no marriage record, no birth record for the daughter. I hope whoever carved the stone rendered it just the way it was handed to him. That, at least, would have been some comfort to the mourner.
My siblings and I were lucky to grow up in a place, just at the outer edge of Chicago’s southern suburbs, where nature was close by. For a crucial period of our growing-up years, we lived in a house my parents had built on a one-acre lot in the middle of a forest. During the summers, especially, we almost lived out of doors — camping, exploring and even learning a little about the life of the woods.
Until last weekend, I hadn’t taken a long walk in the woods in decades. Most of my visits to the area have involved checking out our old house and marveling at the fact that a good-sized residence on a wooded acre could be on the market for the low six figures (or even less; the place sold for $99,000 about three years back).
But since my brother John and I are here on our long road trip, we had the rare circumstance of all four siblings being in town together. So we got together and drove down to the woods on Saturday afternoon. The immediate purpose: to do something to remember our mom, who had a significant hand in the campaign to stop the nearly one thousand acres of forest from being knocked down for tract housing in the late 1960s.
A lot has changed out there. Instead of walking out into the woods from our backyard, we accessed them by way of a trail that starts at a nature center just outside Park Forest. (The center building is an 1860-vintage Lutheran church that was moved about four miles in the mid-1960s to serve a new congregation, then later repurposed for the forest preserve.)
The woods themselves look different. Some areas are densely overgrown, others have little vegetation (but plenty of poison ivy) under the forest canopy. So ravines and gullies that used to be pretty much obscured by undergrowth are much more obvious.
A stand of fir trees that was apparently planted in the 1940s or ’50s has bolted. When we were kids, our neighbors and others used to go out and cut some of the firs for Christmas trees; now many of those trees appear to be seventy or eighty feet tall.
The Will County Forest Preserve District has installed wooden walkways through areas that are typically wet and put up a series of bridges over Thorn Creek. There are signs now marking trails through the trees. And a nice viewing platform on the edge of a seasonal wetland.
None of the improvements felt intrusive, and plenty of what we remember is intact. For instance, much of the gravel road that used to wind its way from just below our house to a Remington Arms plant on the other side of the woods is still there.
Probably the best measure of how satisfying it was to be back in the woods is that we continued walking and talking and exploring until it was nearly dark. Just as we did when we were kids.
One trip I try to make when I’m back in Chicago is to the cemeteries where my mom and dad and their families are buried.
My dad’s family cemetery, by which I mean the place where his parents and most of his mother’s family, the Sieversons, are interred, is Mount Olive, on Narragansett Avenue between Irving Park and Addison on the Northwest Side.
As kids, we were dragged out there for the occasional funeral. I only remember one in any detail: on a Saturday afternoon in September 1975 when Grandma Brekke was buried. I don’t recall that my father, whom I think was pretty stricken, stopped to take in the other family graves in the vicinity: His grandparents, Theodore and Maren Sieverson, for instance, or the several children surrounding them, or his Reque uncles and cousins, or the Helmuths or Simonsens or anyone else. Instead, we left the cemetery for a lunch at my grandmother’s church, Hauge Lutheran.
My siblings and I began visiting the cemeteries on our own — voluntarily — after our mom died in August 2003, followed by her last surviving sibling, our Uncle Bill, who died just four months later. My dad wanted to visit the cemeteries in the wake of those passings, for one thing, and we’d go with him. The two deaths so close together were so shocking in their suddenness that for me, I think going out to the cemetery when I was in town was a way to help process the grief. It also led us to find and visit all the family graves we had never seen before.
Anyway. I made my rounds last week, and yes, everyone was pretty much where I left them. Mount Olive was predominantly a Scandinavian cemetery until the last few decades, and it’s filled with graves of Norwegians and Swedes and probably some stray Danes whose families came to the city in the 19th century. The place hasn’t gone wild, but the years are catching up with those old Scandinavian sections, with lots of markers askew or tumbled down. There are a few that have markers stamped with the words “perpetual care.” My grandparents’ stone, which is rather unique in its simplicity, is still straight.
On this trip, I took a few pictures around the various grave sites, then drove toward the entrance, my next destination being my mom’s family cemetery on the far South Side. On the way out, though, I passed the inescapably phallic monument pictured at the top of the post. I must have passed it at least a dozen times in the past, but it had never registered. Maybe the light was just right this time.
The stone, which is 15 or 20 feet high, bears the name “O.A. Thorp.” Not a household name, at least where I live. Here’s what I can piece together:
Ole Anton Thorp was born in the town of Eidsberg, south of Oslo — then Christiania — in 1856. He emigrated to the United States and arrived in Chicago in 1880, where he started an import-export business.
The moment that made him a public figure arrived in 1892.
A promoter of all things Norwegian, including trade, Thorp had puzzled over a way to bring goods directly from Norway to Chicago, thus skipping the British and East Coast ports where they’d normally be handled at great expense. His solution was to charter a small freighter and bring his cargo up the St. Lawrence River and through the various canals connecting that waterway to the Great Lakes and Chicago.
The ship, the Wergeland, left Bergen with a cargo of salt herring and cod liver oil in early April. It made the crossing to the St. Lawrence without difficulty. But the canals of the era were so shallow that the steamer had to be unloaded before it passed through, then reloaded at the other end, a process that was repeated several times.
The Wergeland made it to Chicago on May 26, six weeks after leaving Norway, and was greeted as the first steam cargo vessel to make the voyage from Europe to the city.
So that was Thorp’s major claim to fame. A writeup on important Chicagoans done shortly afterward declared Thorp “has during the last decade done more for the development of trade between Norway and the United States than any other man in the West, and possibly more than anybody on this side of the ocean.”
He chartered steamers to make the journey again in 1893 and 1894, but then the venture seemed to fizzle. A magazine article a few years later — “Chicago Our Newest Seaport” in the May 1901 number of Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly — suggested that the nature of the cargo was part of the problem:
“… With each succeeding venture (Thorp) found it more and more difficult to dispose of a whole cargo of dried fish and cod liver oil at one time, especially in summer. In winter it might, perhaps, have been easier; but in winter navigation was closed, and it was impossible for his steamers to reach Chicago. Norway had little but fish and oil to send us … “
Thorp remained active in business, civic, and Norwegian American affairs in the city. He was one of the organizers of the campaign to commission a statue of Leif Erikson that was erected in Humboldt Park in 1901. He was appointed to the city’s school board in 1902; in the photo accompanying the appointment announcement in the Chicago Tribune, he looks vaguely like the accused Haymarket bombers of 1886.
How is Thorp remembered today? Hardly at all, though there’s a school named after him just a few blocks from Mount Olive Cemetery. And then there’s the giant O.A. Thorp shaft, rising amid the graves of less notable Norse folk.
In the individual graves around the monument, there are two markers with dates in January 1905.
One is for O.A. himself, who died Jan. 25, reportedly after surgery for an abdominal abscess. The other grave is for his daughter, Sara Olive Elizabeth, who died at age 14 on Jan. 5. The death notice in the Tribune says she passed at 4 in the afternoon at the family home in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood.
It’s my sister Ann’s birthday today. And here’s the outline of a brief story I’ve often told on the occasion.
The year was 1962. I was nearly eight years old, and I’m not sure I grasped the import or meaning of anything that was going on around me, but yes, there was a build-up to a major family event: Our mother was expecting, and the big day was fast approaching.
I remember riding along as Dad drove Mom to her obstetrician appointments with a Dr. Kenwick — Anthony Kenwick, I think, who turns out to have been a fairly well-known practitioner. I remember her relating his reaction to her earlier childbearing history. My Norwegian father and Irish mother managed to have what you might call Norwegian-Irish quadruplets; four boys who arrived in less than four years — April 1954, September 1955, December 1956 and March 1958.
Mom said Dr. Kenwick took this in and asked, “No bundle from heaven in 1957?”
Back to our story. The morning of March 26th. Mom had started to have regular contractions. Dad was staying home from work. Every time Mom reported a contraction, he’d check the time on his watch and write it down on the back of an envelope. Did I understand why? I’m not sure I did. But I think both Mom and Dad said the new baby might arrive today.
My brothers and I went off to school, just a couple blocks up the street at St. Mary’s. I was in 3rd grade, John was in 2nd, Chris was in 1st. We went home for lunch. Mom and Dad were still there, and Dad was still writing down times on his envelope. We went back to school.
We got out of class about 3 o’clock and started for home. The walk was down Monee Road, at the southwestern corner of Park Forest, and the road had (and has) a pronounced right-hand bend as you headed from St. Mary’s to our place just the other side of Indianwood Boulevard.
Just past the bend, I looked up the block and saw our car, a red-and-white 1958 Ford station wagon (with a three-speed manual transmission), turn the corner up Indianwood. I figured that was Mom and Dad headed for the hospital — Ingalls, in Harvey, which through the magic of modern online maps I see was about 10 miles away.
When we got home, our neighbors, the Lehmans, were waiting for us. They told us what I’d already guessed — that our parents had left for the hospital. We were parked over at the Lehman place for several hours. As I recall it, they got a call about 6 o’clock that the baby — a sister! — had just been born.
Mom, no doubt, was enjoying her evening away from us and the peace and quiet of a busy maternity ward.
Dad came home later, probably fresh from trying to explain to his mother, Otilia Sieverson Brekke, why the baby’s name was Ann — almost the same as Anne Hogan, Mom’s mom. (Ann’s middle name is Margaret, and I think Dad only half-jokingly insisted that she had been named after Ann-Margret, the Swedish-American actress. Grandma Brekke got over it, I think. I remember her referring to Ann as “Tuula,” a Norwegian girl’s name that she seemed to use as a fond reference for her only granddaughter.)
It’s 11 p.m., and the temperature is 71 here in Berkeley.
That late-night warmth in mid-June would not be news in Chicagoland, where I grew up (the current temperature at Midway Airport, recorded at midnight CDT, is 78) or most of the rest of the country outside of the Pacific Northwest.
But here, 71 degrees as we move toward midnight is unusual; and reminiscent, though we don’t have midwestern humidity, of growing up in Chicago’s south suburbs.
Somehow, my parents grew up without air conditioning. We didn’t have it, either, in our house on the edge of Park Forest. It seemed impossible to sleep on really warm, humid nights, though I’m probably forgetting that fans helped.
Our dad would go to bed early; our mom was a night owl and would have some late-night TV on. Johnny Carson, maybe, or “The Late Show” movie. She’d let us stay up if it was too hot to sleep. If the night was oppressive and sticky, she’d have us take a cold shower to cool off.
Thinking back, Mom didn’t get her driver’s license until after our last summer in Park Forest. The next June — 1966, when I was 12 — we moved out to a new house built on an acre lot in the middle of the woods we had lived across the street from. It was like a jungle out there in the summer — green and moist and full of mosquitoes and lots of other wildlife.
Things changed once we moved out there. We had air conditioning. One unit upstairs, one downstairs. Outside, it might be dripping. Inside, it was miraculously cool and dry — a different world. I imagine the electric bills were staggering compared to what they had been at our old place.
Then, too, Mom had her license. Every once in a while, she’d invite us out on a late-evening jaunt — to the grocery store, or just to drive.
Gamboling about downtown Chicago last Sunday night after the conclusion of the Third Coast audio festival, I walked up LaSalle Street past Chicago City Hall. I think I was inside once, back in the early 1970s, tracking down a copy of my birth certificate so I could get a passport. I don’t know the building well.
So I was struck, looking across LaSalle, at a series of four bas reliefs on the wall of the building. They are heroic renderings interpreting the life of the great city as it was understood a century ago, when City Hall was built. I found one of the panels arresting: It depicts what I saw as a woman in the waves, with a lighthouse nearby. Something about the sweep of the waves, the woman’s expression, the figure’s apparent passiveness in the midst of (what I see as) peril, the presence of the lighthouse, made me think this was about near-drowning and rescue — maybe depicting the city’s role as guardian of the shores. Or something.
Delving into the history of the City Hall figures a little, here’s what I can readily establish: The bas reliefs were designed (if not executed) by a well-known American sculptor and medalist named John Flanagan. Most Americans know one piece of Flanagan’s work: George Washington’s head on the quarter.
What are the bas reliefs meant to depict? Here’s some research by way of the April 25, 1956, editions of the Chicago Tribune. The piece was written to mark the beginning of sandblasting at City Hall to remove nearly a half-century’s accumulated grit and coal-smoke residue. The story makes it sound like that before sandblasting, it wasn’t even apparent that the “woman in the waves” relief was there. The writer takes up the figure shown in the waves:
When the writer of this piece looked at the same bas relief I was viewing the other night, he saw it as an “Adonis like figure with long, wavy hair, and he is bathing in some extremely high surf.” He, not she.
Huh. If you look at the other three reliefs — here, here and here — the male figures are all, to my eye, unmistakably male. The few female figures are clearly female. So I’m wondering what the sculptor’s intent, as executed by construction workers, actually was.
But here’s something that I’m sure colors my viewing of the piece: When our mom was nine years old, she survived a near-drowning out at the Indiana Dunes. Four others in her family — a brother, an aunt, a cousin, and an uncle — all died. So that image, to me, is anything but abstract. When I look at it, I see tragedy and loss.
Just remembering: It was two years ago today that our dad passed on. I’m not sure a day goes by that I don’t have some thought of him (and yes, of our mom, too — she died in August 2003, and it’s hard to believe it’s been that long).
Here’s a reading for them, two lifelong Chicagoans: Carl Sandburg’s “Passers-By,” from “Chicago Poems” (1916):
Out of your many faces
Flash memories to me
Now at the day end
Away from the sidewalks
Where your shoe soles traveled
And your voices rose and blent
To form the city’s afternoon roar
Hindering an old silence.
I remember lean ones among you,
Throats in the clutch of a hope,
Lips written over with strivings,
Mouths that kiss only for love.
Records of great wishes slept with,
And prayed and toiled for…
And your throats
I read them
When you passed by.