The world was different in 1954.
Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House, put there by at least two votes from my family; my grandfather would have been a third vote of approval for Ike. We were solid middle-of-the-road Eisenhower Republicans; subscribed to The Chicago American newspaper, one of the city’s four dailies, a thin working-class afternoon paper for the likes of us: decidedly not pro labor (despite the fact that my grandfather had worked for the Corn Products company for forty years) and far more inclined toward advertisements for Sears, Wieboldt’s and Monkey Ward, rather than Marshall Field. You could tell someone’s income by the paper they read.
My grandfather was an alcoholic, but I didn’t know that. I have no recollection of him ever being drunk or of the spousal abuse I learned about as an adult. He was good to me; sat me on his knee—his only grandchild; smoked a pipe; told stories and died at sixty-four, the day before my sixth birthday. Too soon, if you ask me.
Clara, my grandmother, had her breast removed that year. She endured multiple chemotherapy sessions and became a cancer survivor, succumbing to heart disease sixteen years later, the day after my thirty-fifth birthday.
In 1954 I was nine and finishing the third grade with Miss Piancimino; she had a wooden leg, but so did my father, so I related to her differently than my classmates might have, I suppose. Even then I was an eccentric: parents divorced, mother gone who knows where, grandfather deceased, being raised by my grandmother. Pumping gas at my dad’s Phillips 66 gas station after school and on weekends was unusual, too, I guess, though I wasn’t quite old (or tall) enough to check under the hood for oil or wiper fluid. Air pressure in the tires was another matter. I learned how to change them and patch their inner tubes about then, also—life skills I’ll be able to fall back on in retirement or when the economy collapses.
As the motherless child of a father whose distance may have grown from also being an only child, I was left pretty much to my own devices. I had several friends, neighbors (Butch Murray, Denny Furlong, Linda Fierke) where I hung out and learned a bit more about life. The Murrays had a huge Catholic family, umpteen children both older and younger than me. The Fierkes had nearly as many with an equivalent spread, so the neighborhood offered more than enough role models to complement my stunted family. I watched TV at the Murrays, did puzzles on the Fierke kitchen table.
I played with Andrea Miller, too. Her dad Bill also worked for CPC (the newer and improved version of Corn Products Co.) and they lived two doors west. It was a tight little community where everyone knew everyone a bit too well. Chicagoland may be large and dense, but it consists essentially of intimate communities like Bedford Park; I was fortunate to have been born into it.
Others, many others, stepped up to become involved with my growth and development; hindsight tells me that. Older neighbors, contemporaries of my grandparents, often spoke with Clara as though I was not standing there beside her. Kids learn a lot while you think they’re neither watching nor listening. I did. And not all of it was good. Even then—long before I developed an interest in genealogy—I sensed being the end of the line. Today, at seventy and change, that prediction is about to come true.
The Millers were churchgoers. Andrea was also an only child, so there was a place in the back seat for me on Sunday morning on their way to First Congregational, an unpretentious brick box in Argo, filled with old ladies in pillbox hats with veils, short white gloves, each a body double for Mamie Eisenhower in a congregation that oozed mainline Protestant Christianity. I did the Sunday School thing—though I might just as productively been searching the phone book for a pizza shop as the good book for Psalm 31:09: “Have mercy upon me, O LORD, for I am in trouble: mine eye is consumed with grief, yea, my soul and my belly.” But the damage was already done: my grandfather was an atheist; my father Roy, an agnostic. I was well past the age of believing.
What does mercy resemble anyway? If a loving father and grandmother and generous supporting neighbors are the ways of the Lord, my needs were more than met. Looking at the news these days—the circumstances of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray—I was lucky to be White and safely lower Middle Class with aspirations. I lived in a time and place of high employment; the schools were good; my prospects, though I never thought of them as such, were without bounds. There was no question that I would attend college; Roy ensured that I would have all that he had not. So, as I approached Fourth Grade and my tenth birthday, the world looked pretty good. I didn’t think about “the future”; tomorrow was plenty far ahead. But it seemed to me that things could only get better and better and better.
My point this afternoon is simply that Agincourt has a lot of Bedford Park, Argo and Summit in it; the places that nurtured me until I went away to college in 1963. My years there owe much to so many people I can only begin to enumerate here. Look for them in the characters that inhabit a fictional place in Iowa.