is when you’re alone late at
night with the hum of the
dishwasher and the soft
glow of a computer screen.
The solitude screams –
“Write something or die trying.”
combination. So do love and money.
Without the sweet hiss of
a breeze in the leaves, I think
I’d be left watching
Love American Style reruns.
The laugh track makes
you wanna stick your finger
down your throat.
But the women. Oh the women
of Love America Style. It’s enough
to make you wanna wake the wife
for a sympathy throw.
There is beauty in a simple apple.
Without death, there wouldn’t
be any life or regret. Stop when
you’re ahead and you won’t be
there for very long.
Burnt coffee smell from a
percolator. Wake up to that
every day as a kid and
you’ll drink tea your
whole life. One more
relative has died
and there’s nothing that
anyone can do about it.
It’s 11:24 on Columbus Day. That makes it a Monday. I didn’t do the morning show. Instead, I went to my aunt Connie’s funeral and to my grandmother’s 98th birthday party. Both were surreal. Sometimes I can’t believe I have a life with such pain and beauty in it.
It was, to boot, a perfect October day. Blazing sunshine and skies so blue you could argue about the hue. My aunt Connie’s relatives came from the East Coast. Her sister Deborah gave an amazing eulogy about two sisters splitting the room with an imaginary line.
“Connie was drop-dead gorgeous with this long black hair. All the suitors would come knocking and they were so good looking I would have taken any of those that Connie rejected. It never happened, though.”
It never made much sense to me that my aunt Connie would leave the cushiness of an East Coast upper crust existence to come to Crown Point, Indiana, to be married to my uncle Duane.
Now don’t be confused. My uncle Duane is a tall man with a hearty laugh and a huge personality. He could lure women to the back of the woodshed with ease.
But Crown Point is Crown Point. And Cambridge, New Haven and Maine are a lot more than Crown Point. Deborah made reference to that in her eulogy. My wife Alexis summed it up after the funeral – “You gotta wonder if Connie’s relatives took offense to her leaving her life on the East Coast to live in the Region and marry a guy with nine kids.”
Maybe they did. Maybe they didn’t. Connie’s dad was Kingman Brewster, the president of Yale and ambassador to England. There’s a lot of ceremony in those titles. At the funeral, the rotating photos kept showing young Connie on a sailboat, or on a horse, or skiing. It is very Kennedy-esque. The only thing that I could come up with to get her or anyone to leave a live of wealth and culture to come to the Region is love. She must really have loved my uncle Duane that much. There’s no other explanation.
So now it’s 11:32 on a Sunday evening and, to tell the three or four of you the truth, I’m overwhelmed by the amount of family interactions in the past 36 hours. I really am grateful to be part of such a forceful and large family. There are enough stories in each of the gatherings to fill a lifetime of kitchen solitudes.
Where does radio fit in with all of this?
If the three or four of you know anything about WJOB and its place in the history of the Region, then you know the 400-foot tower sits behind Smith Chevrolet in central Hammond. To the north, there’s all sorts of industry. There’s old Stauffer Chemical that spits steam every hour, day and night. The plant is a maze of huge tubes and pipes and at the top is a little chimney and if you lose your way, you can stand on top of your car and look for the steam.
Old Stauffer is next to a 20-lane railyard. There’s a new fertilizer company monstrosity that’s been built at this railyard. Further to the north of all of this is British Petroleum’s Whiting refinery, one of the largest in the world. A little bit east of that is Arcelor Mittal’s East Chicago facility. That too is one of the largest of its kind in the world.
Stop me if I become too industrial. I can tell you this - there is more beauty in a soot-spattered mill rat walking to his car on a windy day than there will ever be in a bowl of fruit on a kitchen table. If you want beauty, let it come to you. Can’t search for it.
Anyways, amidst industry is Frogsville. It’s a little sliver of Hammond that thinks it’s East Chicago. Frogsville is tucked under what used to be the nine-span bridge. It’s homeland. My people came here more than 100 years ago to work in the steel mill. It’s a few blocks north of the WJOB tower.
A few blocks east of the tower is a section of Hammond called Hessville. This is the slice of Americana that has been immortalized in Jean Shepherd’s “A Christmas Story.” It’s where my relatives came in 1871.
So now do you get why I have so many relatives in this area? One side – the Polish side – came here around 1900 to work in the steel mills.
The other side – the Germans and the Dutch – walked down the lakeshore after the Chicago Fire of 1871.
And both sides have been around here pretty much ever since. There are times I’ll run to the grocery store and come back and tell Alexis – “I just ran into three different people that I’m related to.”
It’s also what helps me talk on the radio. I know these people. I know Region Rats because I am a Region Rat. And so are hundreds of my relatives, maybe thousands if you did blood tests.
Some of these Region Rats related to me came to my aunt Connie’s funeral today. She died suddenly while driving on a Toll Road in Ohio. She left the Kennedy life to live the Region life. I don’t understand and probably never will. I just wish I had one more chance to ask her why. Was it really just love? Or was there something else? I really want to know.
… Later, after the funeral, Alexis and I went to my aunt Debbie and uncle Danny’s house in Merrillville for my grandma’s 98th birthday. We sat around and ate bean soup and chicken from Strack & Van Til’s. My grandma asked me how many times I smoked marijuana in my life, and I didn’t have a good answer for that. My aunt Joanie – my mom’s twin sister – kept saying that I look like my mom and that my mom loved her kids more than life itself. I guess so, because here I am 30 years after my mom’s death still thinking about her and writing about her once in a while.
There was a moment today of beauty and sadness that I do want to share with you. After all of the eulogies in the little chapel at Chapel Lawn, we all walked about half a mile behind the hearse carrying Connie’s body. It was hot and, as mentioned, the sun was really bright. We all walked and no one spoke. There was death all around us on a sunny day, and no one talked. I held Alexis’s hand and looked out over the many gravestones. I wondered if my dad and brother and sister and I would, after the lowering of Connie’s body into the earth, walk over to our mom’s grave. We didn’t. No one mentioned it.
No one made mention of another grave close by. That would be the grave of my cousin Luke, who died of leukemia at the age of 19. He was Duane and Connie’s son. One day he was visiting my sister on Long Island, and the next thing you know he’s in the hospital there. A few weeks later he was dead. I still don’t know how that happened so fast.
But here’s the kicker. Duane and Connie had two children together, twins, Luke and Shannon. And poor Shannon. First, she loses her twin brother. Then she loses her best friend, her mother. And her dad is 80 years old and failing. I can’t imagine that when Connie left the East Coast to be married to my uncle that she had any plan in mind that would include leaving her only daughter so alone. It’s really very sad.
Shannon has married a Crown Point guy, Jimmy Eaton. And they have a son, Leo, whom Alexis and I volunteered to babysit. We have a big house and a lot of empty rooms and it would do us some good to watch what looks to be an unruly and curious child. Just keep him away from the fireplace tools and my Grateful Dead cds and we’ll be all right.
‘That should be enough for tonight. It’s 12:05 on Tuesday morning and I really planned on telling you more about my grandmother, but what can I say? She is walking history, an active novel. I did run across a picture of my grandmother as a relatively young woman sitting next to my grandpa Brown. I asked one of the nephews, Jake Haney, who is 20 years old.
“You know who this is?”
“He’s your great grandfather. Your grandpa’s dad.”
And that’s when I learned even more about my grandpa Brown other than he was a White Sox fan who smoked a lot. My uncle Danny told us.
“Your grandpa Brown fought in Africa during World War II and was on the beach at Normandy. He won two purple hearts. One day, he just flipped them to Dennis and me while we were playing in the driveway. We lost them, of course.
“But grandpa Brown was one of the original hippies. One time, Dennis or just happened to mention that we won World War II.’ And your grandpa stopped us right there. He grabbed us by the arms and said –
“’ Don’t you ever say that again. Nobody wins a war, ever. People die. That’s all that happens.’”
My uncle Danny acted out the telling of the story. I could see my two uncles, Dennis and Danny, playing on the front porch and they innocently let it out that we won World War II. Next thing you know, they get their arms grabbed. It’s a memory I wasn’t even present for but can feel in my gut.
There’s more to this story. Uncle Danny told it to Jake and me.
“I’d really like to know more about my dad’s service in the military, but I guess there was a fire a few decades ago in St. Louis in which the military records of 3,000,000 people were destroyed.
“I did get to see a copy once of my dad’s record. It listed all the places he served – Africa, France, Germany, and it listed all of the awards he earned.
And then in the last line, it said – ‘court martial.’
“I asked my dad about this, and he told me. When the United States had finally won the war and the celebration had begun, my dad and a buddy hopped in a jeep and toured France for a couple of weeks. It turns out it was the general’s jeep, and he wasn’t too happy about it.
“The army took away one of my dad’s sargent stripes and officially called it a ‘court martial.’ But my dad said that most of the people in the Army congratulated him for seizing the moment.”
These are the kinds of things that you learn about your family when you pay attention. I don’t pay attention enough. I’m just concerned with the next thing I’m gonna say on the radio show, which starts in five hours. So go to bed.