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Roy Times Two

When Roy lost his leg in 1926 at the age of nine, artificial limbs were clumsy and expensive. So he grew to manhood on a series of crutches until his growth had begun to slow. But graduation from high school in 1935 put him squarely in the midst of the Great Depression. What factory was likely to hire an amputee for the assembly line? So he and his dad, Roy L. built a gasoline station and garage for auto repair. When he married Marge, the station became a family affair until she disappeared in 1953. I hung out there as a child and eventually worked on weekday evenings and weekends — no doubt in violation of child labor laws. Eventually, I took on the half-day Sunday operations.

[In case this teaching gig doesn’t work out, I picked up some valuable job skills, like changing split-ring truck tires or giving a ’59 DeSoto a grease job and oil change.]

Ramsey’s Service Station enjoyed an eclectic clientele. Somewhere between a quarter and a third of our customers—in the days long before self service—were Blacks who had gone to school with my dad and knew him before and after the amputation. Many “protected” him while he was still on crutches; artificial limbs were both crude and expensive in the latter years of the Depression. So it was that I went to school with the children of many of Roy’s grade- and high-school friends.

These were families who had moved northward along the Illinois Central mainline from Louisiana, Tennessee and Kentucky in search of better wages and less overt racism—or at least a different species of it. We lived in Bedford Park but Argo (where the high school and dad’s grade school were located) was divided on racial lines, with Blacks living south of 63rd Street and west of Archer Avenue. I wonder if things have changed very much. Coming of age in the 1950s, I cannot recall my father ever uttering a racial epithet or slur. I’ve tried to build some of that part of American history into Agincourt: you may find interesting the story of Truman Hand, a.k.a., “Handy”, an exploration of that point of view and Agincourt’s own racial tolerance.

But back to Roy.

Preparing for the Minimalist seminar next spring semester, I’ve discovered the short stories of Lydia Davis; some of them are one sentence long. Here’s a short story about dad in the spirit of Professor Davis (whose work I recommend).

Do you know the way to Resurrection? 

Depending on the season or time of day, a long bench across the front of the gas station hosted a changing cast of characters, the usual suspects. In the heat of summer, Roy was there, shirtless and tanned like a Mexican, drinking Schlitz and whittling two-by-twos into wooden chains. He wasn’t disinclined to move but some customers would pump their own and save him the trip. After school and while he ate supper, I worked the pumps from about the age of twelve.

Now and then someone would pull up to the pumps, clearly positioned for a full-up, but only be interested in directions. The station at 6455 South Archer Road was just beyond the comforting grid of the city, on a road that followed an trail blazed by the Illini and other native tribes moving between the Mississippi and Great Lakes watersheds: Summit, the next village north of us, wasn’t named by accident. Archer was State Highway #1A, a winding road between Chicago and Joliet with a string of leafy villages along the way that are now part of suburban sprawl.  Strung along between them were four large cemeteries — Bethania, Resurrection, Archer Woods, and Fairmount — some of them near the Forest Preserves that were a legacy from the Progressive Era. Weekends, especially Saturday, Sunday, Easter, Memorial and Veterans holidays, traffic was heavy to those destinations and a good many of them got disoriented beyond the grid. We called them “Losts.”

If a “Lost” pulled up to the pumps and only wanted directions, Roy took a dim view of their presumption and, more than once, sent them on a quest more likely to locate the wild goose than the grave of Aunt Harriet. But the flip side was also true: if you pulled up to the curb, within a few feet of that bench, Dad would go well beyond the giving of simple accurate direction, drawing a map on a handy piece of butcher paper with annotations that anyone could follow. I remember one of those situations from the late 1950s.

It was late on a Saturday, a slow time on a hot summer day. A southbound car pulled in and idled a few feet from Roy, who had settled in for an afternoon of whittling. Fairmount was the driver’s goal but the I-394 bypass had been under construction for months and getting through that maze of barricades in a cloud of gravel dust was tricky, so Roy volunteered to provide a map. Pen and paper were in the station, so he put down the carving project and casually threw the pocket knife into his leg — which, of course, our Lost had no idea was made of wood. Feeling no pain, Roy stood to go inside but I watched as the expression of the guy behind the wheel turn from shock to “What the fuck have I got myself into?” He put the pedal to the metal and laid a ten foot trail of burnt rubber in a burst of exhaust. Dad and I just stood there, wondering what was wrong — a pen knife still firmly imbedded where his right thigh ought to have been.

Typical Roy.

Let sleeping doubt lie

A year or so before he died, I gave Dad a family genealogy as a Christmas present. I’d worked in those pre-ancestry.com days with a professional in DC and put together quite a reasonable effort for not much investment. For the first time EVER, he actually talked about himself, like the picture of him, Roy L. and Clara (the lady in cloche hat) and his grandmother. Then he dropped the bombshell: Roy wasn’t at all sure that Clara was actually his mother!

It seems that my grandfather had been married twice and that the first Mrs Ramsey had died in childbirth. What had apparently concerned him for most if not all his life was that he had been that child and that Clara was actually his stepmother. Shit! You can imagine I manifest the precise opposite of his disconnect. That doubt was all I needed.

An afternoon at the office of Vital Statistics in downtown Chicago gave me all the information I needed. Roy L. had married Nellie in 1908 and their son Evard was born in early 1912, dying just seven weeks later, apparently along with Nellie. Roy married Clara in 1913 and Roy (confirmed by birth certificate) was born in June 1917. Clara, the woman who raised me when Marge left (with a suitcase of lingerie and loose cash, never to be seen again), stepped in and took me on as her “parenting” swan song. I slept well that night and so did Roy, though he never mentioned it again.

Perhaps that is the greatest difference between us: Roy could live with that nagging suspicion — he’d just rather not know — for most of his adult life, while I needed an answer a.s.a.p., regardless of the truth.


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