By the age of three I had mastered such standard life skills as how to stack things, how to operate a toilet, and how to start a fire. Indeed, I nearly burned our house down. You’d think that such a traumatic experience at that age would make some impression on my developing brain, such that my childhood fascination with fires would stop. You’d think that.
When you’re the seventh of ten kids, the question of what to do with your free time is often up to you. Even the best parents to ever walk the face of this earth (e.g., my mom) have only so much time to spread around.
I’ve a memento from one of my very earliest attempts to entertain myself. Sitting on the kitchen floor, possibly still in diapers, I extracted cans of vegetables from the cabinets beneath the stove and decided to stack them as high as I could. After making a tower much taller than it was stable, I looked up just as gravity did what gravity does. The gash on my lower lip, from a can of creamed corn whose fall to earth was interrupted by my face, left a scar for life.
I found bathrooms laden with new and interesting things. The sinks and tubs were cool. And the toilet? Utterly fascinating. I made deposits far more frequently than was necessary, just so I could watch them disappear in that entertaining vortex of rushing water. With astonishing speed, I developed a fine grasp of the mechanisms involved in the essential bathroom functions, if not their correct names. Learning the verb “to pee” was easy enough. But when Mom referred to the other one as “moving your bowels” I thought she said “moving your bottles,” and that is how I referred to it for more years than I care to admit.
I was particularly bored one morning, at the age of not-quite-four, in the fall of 1966. School had just started so the house was relatively empty of kids. My sister Barb was home, up in her room getting over a bug going around, and Mom was busy tending to Marty and Kenny upstairs. I was downstairs in the kitchen, drawn to the stove and its magical feature: You don’t need matches to make a fire with this thing, I had observed. You just turn those knobs.
I couldn’t quite reach those knobs but solved that problem using those cans under the stove. Perched atop two giant cans of Hawaiian Punch fruit drink, it took me no time at all to light a little blue ring of fire. Couldn’t I make it any bigger, I wondered? Why yes, I could.
Mom stored leftover bacon grease in a paper milk carton with the top cut off, right next to the burners. I bellied myself onto the countertop to reach the grease carton, tipped it over, and took in the comforting smell of bacon grease as it oozed onto the stove before transforming into a most impressive flame. But then came the smoke. It was black, and heavy, and it made my eyes burn. I stepped off the Hawaiian Punch cans then ran upstairs to where Mom was changing Kenny’s diaper.
I did not report what was going on. Cloaking myself in nonchalance, I meandered to the open window, looked onto our backyard below, and after a relaxed moment or two turned and pointed outside. “Look at the smoke, Mom.”
She did as instructed, only to see a tower of inky black smoke pouring out of someone’s window. Ours. “Barb!” Mom yelled to my sister. “Get out here!”
Mom looked into the kitchen as she hurried us all to safety. A glance at the Hawaiian Punch cans and toppled grease carton were no doubt all the clues she needed to know what had happened. The flames were now climbing the back wall of the stove and licking the wooden cabinetry above. The black smoke was clinging to the entire first-floor ceiling of our house, like a heavy blanket defying gravity. Dad and my older brothers had painted those ceilings, indeed every wall in the house, just days before.
Barb took us into the garage and into the car while Mom tried to turn off the stove. That’s when the miracle happened. A volunteer fireman, clearly following careful instructions from God because how else does one explain this, had been driving up North Point Road just as smoke began billowing out of our kitchen window. He stopped his car and burst inside to find Mom in the burning kitchen.
“We need a blanket,” he told her, pulling Mom aside and switching off the burners. “A table cloth?” she asked, eyes burning. “Get it.”
Mom fetched the big green tablecloth, the nice one we only used for Sunday dinner, while the fireman ran water in the sink. Using the soaked cloth, they soon smothered the flame. As billows of white steam overtook the black smoke of a defeated fire, a crew of firefighters burst through our front door, the nozzle of a ready fire hose in their hands. Luckily for us they never turned it on. It saved the house from who-knows-what kind of water damage. The smoke, however, did plenty. It got into every room, every drawer, and every stitch of clothing inside those drawers.
Mom wasted no time in commencing a clean-up effort. She and Alice Albro, Mom’s neighborhood friend who had rushed over at the sight of the fire trucks, had buckets and sponges out in no time. They were wiping down walls when Warren Baker, the State Farm insurance agent who had sold us a homeowner’s policy just the month before, arrived at the scene.
“Girls, you can put down those buckets,” said Warren, who then delivered the news that State Farm would take care of everything, including putting us up in temporary lodging while they fixed up our house. So while Mom, Barb and my little brothers moved into Grandma’s house next door, the rest of us guys enjoyed a life of luxury at the Trailways Motor Lodge and Restaurant, complete with daily maid service, all-you-can-eat meals, and a different dessert every night.
“Eat up,” our dad encouraged his growing boys at the restaurant dinner table. “State Farm is paying for it!” Our last night at the Trailways, my brother Bob ate so much chicken and dumplings he threw up right at the dinner table. We didn’t stay for dessert that night.
Did the experience extinguish my fascination with fire? Hardly. Over the next few years, Mom was forever finding books of matches in my pants pockets—I swiped them whenever I could—and my older siblings nearly tired of ratting on me for my little grass fires in the yard. Mom and Dad certainly tired of telling me not to play with matches, and resorted on one occasion not to spanking or scolding but with something rather creative. They invited me to a movie.
The 1968 film Hellfighters starred John Wayne playing the real life oil well firefighter Paul “Red” Adair, who was famous for putting out gushing oil wells that had burst into flames. Mom and Dad took me to the French Village drive-in movie theater to see it. And they only took me.
I really liked the movie, at least the first 20 minutes or so, which is all I saw from the middle seat of the station wagon, perched on the big hump on the floor we called the watermelon, before falling asleep. Mom had brought grocery sack filled with popcorn she made at home and smuggled in. To hear the movie there was a speaker, a big gray metal thing with slits where the sound came out and a knob to adjust the volume, hanging inside a window.
If my parents thought the experience would get pyromania out of my system cathartically, by watching huge fires up on the huge screen, they were unfortunately wrong. I kept stealing matches and just got better at hiding them—I found my clean black socks a fine place. And one day I used them to again summon the Fairview firefighters.
Most of the lots in South Bountiful Heights had houses on them by the late 1960s but a few remained vacant. One was on Bountiful Drive not far from our house. The grass and weeds grew tall there, so a kid could crouch down and not be seen by passersby. One day I headed there with my matches. It was a very hot day and when the wind blew it was like opening the door of an oven. The dry grass crinkled at my ankles as I waded through it.
Depositing myself where the grass was tallest, I struck a match. The flame was a nice one and I held it close to my face, wondering why it was blue at the base and then turning reddish yellow. I made a mental note to ask my brother Steve. He could always explain stuff like that.
I didn’t need to feed this fire. It founds its own fuel and spread in all directions, indeed with alarming speed. When I realized the smoke might be visible to others, I sprang to my feet and ran off. It took no time at all for others to see the smoke and call the fire department. On my way home, the town’s little red fire jeep passed me by. It sped to the fire and began putting it out and was soon joined by pumper trucks, whose deafening sirens really got to me. Or something did.
When I got home I decided to stay quiet. Unlike the kitchen fire, the fire on Bountiful would never be credited to me. Had I brought it up, I’m pretty sure Mom and Dad would have figured out it was mine. And then I expect they would have done the only sensible thing and sent me off to reform school.
Fortunately, no such measure was needed because the Bountiful fire was my last. Never again would I set a fire I wasn’t supposed to. We moved to Washington, DC when I was ten, and our new house there had a fireplace where I helped Dad build lots of fires. I think that helped. So too did joining Boy Scout Troop 1092. On countless camping trips with those fellas I learned to build fires safely and, I might add, with rather some finesse.
Indeed, I got pretty damn good at building fires. Nowadays I can still get a roaring fire going with no more help than the sulfur on the tip of a match. And I do so whenever I can. It’s still fun.
I learned that racial discrimination is wrong the same place I suppose some people learn it’s okay. At home. From my parents. Most of this education took place during the late 1960s and early 70s, in Fairview Heights, Illinois, where I lived until I was ten. And, like the best lessons from parent to child, all I had to do was watch.
Mom and Dad were torn when, in 1962, they had outgrown their two-bedroom house in East St. Louis. With a seventh child (me) on the way, they desperately needed a bigger place. They found one in Fairview, just up the bluffs from their decaying industrial hometown of East St. Louis. They loved their house in an all-new subdivision. But they were keenly aware they had joined a parade of white families fleeing Black ones. And it bothered them.
My parents themselves had learned racial tolerance from the words and deeds of their own parents. As little kids, when my mom and her sister needed a babysitter when their mom went into labor, their dad invited Addie, a Black woman and family acquaintance, to stay at their house. When my dad got his first job at the New York Central Railroad, where his dad was Chief Clerk, my grandfather assigned his very best stevedore, a Black man, to be his son’s mentor.
After settling into their split-level on Primrose Lane, Mom and Dad had an idea. Maybe they could host coffees at their house, inviting their old Black neighbors from East St. Louis to sit with their new white neighbors? If families would just get to know each other, they figured, new friendships could be made to help bridge the racial divide.
After broaching the idea with a few of their neighbors, the coffee idea went cold. There was zero interest. And asking Black friends to come to Fairview could put them in harm’s way. The police were said to idle their cruisers at the base of the bluffs on Highway 50, watching for cars with dark-skinned occupants heading up to Fairview, cars that were promptly escorted out of town. Intimidation like this kept the number of Black visitors to Fairview at approximately zero—and, for many years, the number of Black residents at exactly zero.
As a devout Catholic and avid reader, Dad kept up with what the Pope had to say, which was quite a lot in that era of reform known as Vatican II. The 1967 papal encyclical Populorum Progressio by Pope Paul VI addressed the needs of “those who are looking for a wider share in the benefits of civilization.” Dad thought of Black people. It spoke of the Church putting herself at the service of all, and proclaiming “solidarity in action at this turning point in human history is a matter of urgency.” To Dad it was a clarion call to get to work.
Dad had stayed in touch with Father Goldammer at St. Elizabeth’s, the East St. Louis parish he attended as a kid. Many priests are known for mild manners and solemnity. But this priest would turn red in the face, raging from the pulpit about the racial conflict tearing the country apart. And when my dad brought up the papal encyclical, and offered to write and give speeches to anyone who would listen, Father Goldammer was all ears. He would find my dad an audience.
So my dad gave these talks, mostly in church basements, and his speeches were well received. He put the message of the Populorum Progessio into his own words that went along these lines: Violence and anger and hatred aren’t the answer. Looking past racial differences is the answer. We are all brothers and sisters of the same family, the family of God’s people. Dad felt like one of the big brothers of that family. And it felt great. He had found his cadence in the great march for civil rights.
Just as the police murder of George Floyd would ignite the flames of protest in 2020, so too did the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. Then, as now, the battle over civil rights became an intense topic of national conversation. Which side you were on, and how vocal you were about it, could make a difference in how others, including your employer, saw you.
There was a presidential election in 1968 that turned out to be a memorable one. Although he had won by a landslide in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson, with the yoke of the Vietnam War around his neck, decided not to run for re-election. The Democratic nomination went to Vice President and former Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey. Our family liked this guy a lot. Nicknamed the Happy Warrior, this architect of the Peace Corp, before becoming Johnson’s VP, was the Democratic Whip in the US Senate, a position Senator Dick Durbin, Dad’s brother, has filled since 2005. Our family likes this guy quite a lot, too.
Johnson’s withdrawal from the race also opened the door for the reincarnation of Richard Nixon’s political life after having lost to John F. Kennedy in 1960. He won the 1968 Republican nomination. Unlike most presidential races, this one featured a viable third party candidate in the segregationist George Wallace. He ran as an independent. Most people wrote off the Alabama governor as an avowed racist, given his attempts to block Black children from entering newly integrated schools.
In a mock election at Grant School, the Durbin kids old enough to participate all voted for Hubert Humphrey. They were promptly labeled “n-word lovers” by their classmates. And on the big sign at the front of our South Bountiful Heights subdivision, someone used Wallace bumper stickers to rename it “Wallace” Heights.
“Don’t worry,” Mom assured us all back at home. “If George Wallace becomes president then we’re all moving to Canada. Or maybe New Zealand.”
Some of our neighbors made a point of letting us know how they felt about our views. One morning we found our house had been egged and spray-painted. The twisting patterns were all over our fake window shutters and front porch railings—you can see them in the photo at the end of this post. Dad decided not to let it bother him, and to let the vandals know by keeping those shutters and porch rails just the way they were.
He responded differently to the next message that came our way. Some “yahoos,” as Dad called them, began driving their cars across our yard at night, leaving deep trenches in the grass. He drove a bunch of us down to the nearby Haydite mines, where I think they made cinderblocks. There, we loaded our Ford station wagon with massive, fossil-laden stones. It’s a miracle the car’s suspension didn’t snap on the drive home. I can still recall the sparks flying as the bottom of our lumbering car scraped the asphalt of Old Lincoln Trail. We put those stones along the curb of house and the yahoos never came back.
Meanwhile, Dad got pretty good at giving those speeches and his words were mostly well received. When he spoke of church leaders having a responsibility in the matter of racial justice, however, word got back to his new church St. Albert’s in Fairview. And he got a message from fellow members of the Diocesan Council of Catholic Men. They took him aside one night after a meeting. The head priest at St. Albert’s and even the local bishop, they told him, thought Bill Durbin was being arrogant. His DCC buddies asked him to stop. Knowing he was being heard by Church leadership only made my dad want to speak out more. He felt he was accomplishing something, and told these guys, in so many words, to go pee up a rope. They weren’t going to shut him up. But something else soon would.
One night, as Dad entered the basement of St. Joseph’s Church to give a speech, he saw something he hadn’t seen at one of these events before: A film crew. And, beside them, some colleagues from the Aeronautical Charts and Information Center, the Defense Department agency in St. Louis where Dad worked. What the hell?
Dad’s speech was preceded by one from another activist priest, Father Geneseo, who was himself on thin ice with Church leadership. But the crew didn’t film him. They waited for Dad. When he approached the pulpit, they turned on their lights and raised a microphone as the film camera started to whir. When he was done, the crew packed up and left. They didn’t stay for the next speaker. They only filmed Bill Durbin.
Then all kinds of questions went through my dad’s head: Who brought the film crew? What kind of word would go back to his supervisors? Would they make some kind of report to the government investigators who kept an eye on the personal lives of the men working on their secret projects making maps for the military? Would he have some explaining to do when he was next up for promotion? Would he even be up for promotion? He decided not to find out. The possible answers to any of these questions were too painful to bear.
Until that night at St. Joseph’s, Bill Durbin hadn’t thought anyone at ACIC would care what he spoke about, as long as he wasn’t revealing classified information, which of course he never did. He was making a steady income for the first time in his life, serving as a diligent civil servant in the midst of the Cold War. It had been years since he or Mom went to relatives to borrow a few dollars until payday. But now, with the government apparently recording his activities, he felt that meager financial security was at risk.
Dad told Father Goldammer there would be no more speeches. He also called up the head of the Diocesan Council of Catholic Men to tell him he had reconsidered their advice. They didn’t have to worry anymore, Dad told the guy, because there would be no more speeches. The guy thanked him.
Then he quit the Diocesan Council of Catholic Men and, keeping his word, stopped giving speeches. And, at last, he painted those shutters on our front windows. The march for civil rights would have to continue without Bill Durbin, at least outside the house. But the education of his children would continue. And it included one field trip I’ll never forget.
Although typically considered a northern state, the longitudinal expanse of Illinois puts it in both the North and South. For the better part of the 20th century, while the progressive metropolis of Chicago at its northern edge was chock full of racially tolerant whites, the little town of Cairo at the other end had scant few. Pronounced KAY-ro like the syrup (not KY-ro like its namesake city in Egypt) things happened in that Illinois town that one might think in those days only happened in places like Alabama or Mississippi.
According to newspaper accounts, in July 1967, 19-year-old Private Robert Hunt, a Black soldier home on leave in Cairo, was stopped by the police for a malfunctioning taillight. A few hours later he was dead. His battered body lay crumpled on the floor of a holding cell in the police station, where the cops later told the FBI the disturbed AWOL had hung himself with his t-shirt. The FBI agreed and decided not to investigate, despite the bruises, despite no indication Private Hunt was AWOL, and despite a mesh ceiling on the holding cell that could not possibly hold the weight of a grown man. In any earlier year, things might have ended there. But this was 1967. This time the Black community rose up in anger. They smashed windows, burned buildings to the ground, and vowed to continue until things changed.
A few years later, when Bill Durbin drove a station wagon full of us kids past the cotton fields on its outskirts and into the town of Cairo, things hadn’t changed much. White residents had formed a group known as the White Hats, for the white construction helmets they wore while patrolling the city. White civil rights activists joined up with the NAACP and local Black residents to form the Cairo United Front. One of those activists was Father Bernard Bodewes, once a priest at St. Albert’s in Fairview who had relocated to Cairo to join the battle. Dad had called Father Bodewes and asked to bring his kids down for a visit. Dad wanted us to see firsthand that some of the riots and violence we read about in the papers and seen on TV happened just a few hours drive from where we lived.
Father Bodewes pointed to the wall of his dining room. “See those holes? Who wants to look through and tell me what they see?”
We took turns peering through some of the half dozen or so holes in the wall, each big enough to slide a hot dog through. “I see a flag pole,” I said as I peered outside and felt a slight wind on my face coming through the hole.
“That’s the police station,” said Father Bodewes.
As it dawned on us these holes were from bullets fired from the direction of the police station, maybe by police themselves, Dad suggested we move away from the wall and into the living room. There, Father Bodewes shared some of what was going on in Cairo. I didn’t follow all of it, but I could tell Dad really thought the world of this guy. Dad might have stopped speaking out himself on behalf of civil rights, but I think he wanted us to know someone who was still speaking. At least for the time being.
Father Bodewes was booted from the Catholic Church in 1971. His excommunication was ostensibly the result of his taking the diocese to court in an attempt to restore his paycheck. The Church hadn’t paid his $700 monthly salary in nearly a year, cutting him off when he refused to break with the Cairo United Front. Apparently, these disciples of Jesus Christ were unimpressed by a priest literally putting his life on the line in the service of people in need. Bernard Bodewes died in 2013.
On the way out of Cairo, Dad drove us through parts of town that by comparison made even East St. Louis look good. The streets were nearly deserted and it looked like the trash hadn’t been picked up in years. Dad slowed down as we passed the remains of buildings that had been burned down. Some were nothing but charred wood piles, or brick boxes with no tops and filled with blackened debris. The half dozen Durbin kids packed into the car didn’t have much to say.
The long drive home was a quiet one.
I called Mom while preparing this post. “I suppose some people just need other people to look down on,” she said. She remembers exactly where the so-called color lines of the East St. Louis were drawn—Blacks had to stay south of Louisiana Boulevard, Latinos in Washington Park—and laments that we’re still struggling with such things. “The worst four-letter word we have is ‘hate’,” she told me, before quickly attributing the quote to Eleanor Roosevelt, reminding me that I learned the sin of plagiarism from my parents too.
We lost Dad to heart disease in 2001. After nearly twenty years, I still think of not just his message but the messenger himself. He loved his family, his country, his faith, and the ideals of fairness and justice. And he worked hard every day in service to all that he loved. Would that I might follow in such footsteps.
I think about how Dad would view the Black Lives Matter movement today, a half century after those turbulent 1960s. I think about our trip to Cairo, his speeches, those shutters—fresh memories come to mind daily.
I think too about 19-year-old Robert Hunt, that young Black man on leave from serving his country, who died back in 1967 at the hands of the police. His life sure mattered.
Houses nowadays are built twice. The first creation uses software to produce plans. The second uses mortar mixers, nail guns, and all manner of hardware to produce an actual dwelling where one can watch TV, make a pee, and otherwise live a life. We thought our first build would be lots of fun and parts of it definitely were. Some parts definitely were not.
Before we’d even bought our lot we met a local builder who’s built lots of houses in Carrboro we think are quite nice. When he told us we wouldn’t need to hire an architect, that we could just show him photos of houses we liked or draw a sketch, and he would create construction plans for a fee well below what any architect would charge, we were ecstatic.
Becky and I had already agreed we liked Craftsman homes, a classic American style of dwelling from the early 1900s. She quickly gathered lots of photos she’d found on Houzz and I got to work with a pencil, ruler, and big pad of paper. I sketched a handsome foursquare, complete with a view from the street and a top view showing where all the rooms might go, and a carport off the back of the house. The local builder thought they were great and said to keep going.
A week or so later we all met for coffee at Johnny’s on Main Street (back when one could do such things) and this time I had several sheets of paper, taped together to form detailed plans that spanned the length of the table. I had toiled for hours on these things and thought they were pretty good. “Let’s see here,” the local builder said as he moved his coffee cup and took in the dimensions on my sketch. “That’s almost five thousand square feet!” My house was twice the size of what we could afford. Suddenly I saw my plans for what they were, an artifact of enthusiastic naïveté.
We needed an architect. Becky tapped into her enviable network of friends, built over a lifetime spent in these parts, and before long we had interviewed three: Bill Waddell, Jody Brown, and Sophie Piesse. Each blew us away and left us in a quandary over who to go with. While deliberating, we continued thinking about what kind of house we wanted, and for ideas went to look at nearby houses nearly every day. One of them was the fight house.
It’s a gorgeous one-story home on Hillsborough Street, with a built-out attic and secondary structure I really liked. I liked everything about the place, in fact, and wanted Becky to like it just as much. She, wisely, takes more time when deciding what she likes and pushed back a bit. She said something—neither of us can recall what exactly—that seemed, to me, to contradict advice one of the architects had given us. “Are you saying Bill lied to us?” My stupid remark stopped Becky in her tracks.
“How can what I just said make you say that?” That’s when the excitement of planning our dream house tipped into anger and resentment. It was… not fun. The argument continued after we climbed into our car and drove away, ending before long with a truce, a genuine hug, and a decision to let an architect listen to what we both had to say then tell us what they thought. Like a marriage counselor.
We decided to hire Jody Brown after a few quick rounds of rock-paper-scissors. Not really. It was his portfolio, which happened to include a modern take on a Craftsman that we both loved. When we met to begin the design process Jody gave us each a list of words—hundreds, including different shapes, colors, styles, and whatnot—and asked us to independently check off those we liked. Silently, handing back my sheet, I thought it seemed silly. He also asked lots of questions you would expect – how many bedrooms, how do we feel about porch space, and so on – and spoke in a casual way that made us think we were chatting with a good friend who happened to also be a licensed architect. I wondered if it was too casual, and grew concerned that he seemed to say yes to everything we said.
Our only concern at that meeting was his answer to what we thought was a reasonable question: Would he give us three sketches of rough ideas, so we could select one before spending more of his time? This time he said no. He would give us only one design, but if we didn’t like it we could ask him to start over. We could do that as many times as we wanted until he designed a house we loved.
We left with more than a bit of anxiety. How long would this take? How many designs would Jody have to produce to make us happy? The answer, it turned out, was one.
On the last day of September, not two weeks after our meeting, Jody emailed us a PDF. I called Becky and, not wanting to influence her, asked her what she thought. “What do YOU think?” she answered. “No,” I insisted in the flattest voice I could muster, “you go first.” “Well… I really like it,” she said. “Me too!!” I yelped. “Do you mean it?” she responded. “I really REALLY mean it!”
We still don’t know how he did it. Maybe it was the goofy word quiz or maybe, and this is more likely, Jody is just a damn good architect, and this is what damn good architects can do.
Jody made a few more drafts for us, adjusting things like the number of bedrooms and other interior aspects. We changed not one single thing about the exterior. When we figured we were now done with the planning stage, in mid-October, we learned otherwise. Jody would now need to create construction plans with thousands of additional details. That took another three months. And when those plans arrived, we knew why. I couldn’t have made these in three years.
When printed, the first creation of our house fills 28 pages with elevations, electrical and framing plans, roof plans and more. Arranged side by side, the resulting quilt of paper would cover the entire floor of a typical bedroom. Plans like this used to be called blueprints, for the color of the light-sensitive paper, so tinted due to the infusion of ammonium ferric citrate, against which a tracing paper sketch was pressed under glass and placed under a strong light, thus transferring the sketch to the blue paper. I know! I’m quite a nerd when it comes to such things!
Jody’s construction plans are in black and white. Putting color onto all those squares, triangles, and rectangles was up to us, with some great tips from Jody. The color selection process involved more than a little bit of disagreement between Becky and me, but nothing approaching the level of a fight. In matters of taste there can be no dispute, the old saying goes, so when one of us didn’t like a color the other did we just moved onto the next one. There are only about a million or so to choose from. Jody was kind enough to put our Sherwin-Williams colors onto his plans, and we ended up with one plan we like a lot. We need to test it out with real paint, but we think we’re pretty close.
“There’s the fight house,” one of us will say to the other as we pass by that house on Hillsborough Street nowadays. It makes us smile. And it makes me grateful. Genuine conflict tests a couple’s mettle like nothing else, and passing such a test, by talking about it and learning from it, as we did, feels really good. So does looking at those plans.
When Becky and I decided to build a house, it did seem a bit impulsive. We had just met. When Covid hit a few months later, the idea seemed suddenly improbable. Then impossible. Then, positively insane.
Our original plan was to do what most people do and just buy a pre-existing place—a used house, as it were. So, one very hot Sunday in July 2019, we decided to scope out neighborhoods just north of downtown Carrboro, North Carolina, where I lived.
Becky Broun and I had been dating for less than a year. Indeed, less than two months. Seven weeks earlier we’d met at Caffe Driade, a local institution whose name translates from ancient Greek to “place for online coffee dates.” It’s rather popular with the Match.com crowd.
I had an iced herbal tea, having given up caffeine some months before when I realized it was giving me weird bouts of vertigo. Unfortunately, what I’ve just explained here in 24 words I took several hundred to explain to Becky that day, just as we sat down, prattling on as if defending a research thesis. Another woman might have excused herself and raced off in her car. But Becky stuck around until at last I gave her a chance to speak, and by the end of our date we had each pretty much decided our online dating days were over. How we could be so sure, so quickly, is a story for another time.
Now we were highlighting streets on a paper map so we’d know when to pounce if any of those houses went up for sale. The real estate market had cooled some as summer heated up, but only a little. It was still the kind of market where if you wanted a nice house you had to be there on the day it hit the market with a fat wad of money in each hand.
“Wouldn’t it be great to find a house in walking distance to Weaver Street? Or even better, to build one?” I said to Becky as I lurched my car through tree-lined streets, with one eye in the rearview for cars that might want to get by.
I was referring not to actual Weaver Street but to Weaver Street Market, the cultural centerpiece of Carrboro where people gathered to shop for groceries or fill plates at the food bar for dining under the giant oak trees out front. On Sunday mornings bands play live music there, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that more Carrboro residents go to Weaver Street on Sunday mornings than to church. I had worshipped there countless times over pancakes and Mexican scrambled eggs.
Becky agreed. “It’d be amazing to live so close to Benj and Rachel” she added, referring to her brother and sister-in-law who lived on a street just behind Armadillo Grill, another downtown Carrboro fixture. Becky and Benjamin are close. She’s the only person on earth allowed to call him “Benj” and I’m pretty sure they talk on the phone every day.
We’d arrived at Weaver Street and decided to hit the adjacent neighborhoods, slowing to take in the quant mill houses the town is known for: impossibly small structures—tiny houses way before tiny houses were a thing—built for Carrboro’s cotton mill workers at the at the start of the 1900s. Houses are packed tight around here, on some streets like cereal boxes on a store shelf, and the odds of finding a vacant lot are impossibly long. But this was our impossibly lucky day.
Someone else had managed to build a house on an empty lot in this neighborhood—I had watched it go up with envy. We were driving by it now. What I hadn’t noticed before is that the house took up only half of a double lot. But Becky noticed it right away. “There’s a For Sale By Owner sign!”
I slowed to the car to a stop and we both jumped out. The grass was nearly as tall as we were, so we couldn’t see the entire lot and hesitated to go romping through it just yet, but we took down the web address on the sign. As we drove away Becky tapped the URL into her phone, we texted the owner, and set up a meeting.
The next day we pulled up again at the lot and parked. There was now a path mowed in a giant figure eight through the tall grass, and shortly after we arrived a spectacled man with close cropped hair rode up on a small bicycle.
“Hi, I’m Chris.”
We introduced ourselves and thanked him for cutting the path.
“While I was mowing I found a dead deer back there,” he quickly offered up. “The smell was awful and I had to drag it to the curb myself so the town would come pick it up. I’m glad they got here before you did!”
As were we.
Chris had lived in the area for many years, so it didn’t take long for him and Becky, who grew up here, to identify people they both knew. He and his wife had bought half the double lot with the couple who now lived in the recently finished house on the northern half—the one I watched go up. There had been a 1950s brick house here, in bad repair, which the two couples tore down. When Chris and his wife decided to renovate their current house just a few blocks away, rather than build a new one on their half, they put the lot up for sale.
We strode around the path, listening to Chris tell us how great it was to walk to everything in Carrboro, especially the restaurants. “Some nights we just start walking toward Chapel Hill until we smell something that draws us in. It’s pretty sweet.”
Carrboro is adjacent to Chapel Hill, home to the main campus of the University of North Carolina. The college town is known for being one of the more liberal outposts in the southern state, much to the frustration of conservative politicians, of which there are more than a few. The legendary Republican Senator Jesse Helms, when the state was debating where to put a new zoo in the 1970s, is said to have asked, “Couldn’t we just build a fence around Chapel Hill?” Carrboro, just to the west, is even more liberal. “A little to the left of Chapel Hill,” a sign here once said.
The next day, Wednesday, I called the town hall and spoke with zoning officer James Thomas. He confirmed it was a buildable lot but warned us there was a stream buffer along one side, on either side of a drainage ditch. “You can’t build within the buffer,” he stressed. We’d seen the ditch and didn’t think it would be a problem. On Thursday we gave Chris and his wife a cashier’s check and executed an offer to purchase.
It was done. Becky and I, eight weeks after meeting, and four days after first laying eyes on the lot, had committed to building a custom home, something neither of us had ever done before nor even dreamt we might. The next several weeks consisted of both easy things, like securing hundreds of thousands of dollars of financing and choosing a builder to entrust it to, and difficult things like convincing our families we weren’t out of our gourds.
We hired a local design-build firm to put a house our lot. In September, their architect, after just one meeting with Becky and me, produced plans we loved at first sight. It was a craftsman bungalow with a big front porch–we found ourselves looking at it several times a day. The firm’s owner, our “builder” in construction parlance, told us if they submitted the permit application by end of year then construction could start in February. Neither of those things, it turned out, would happen.
By early March we were growing more frustrated by the day. What could be taking so long? Then frustration gave way to the gratitude when an impossibly small creature, a coronavirus named SARS-Cov-2, began causing the infectious disease COVID-19. It had already wreaked havoc in China and was now grinding life on the rest of the planet to a halt. Restaurants closed (the Weaver Street lawn was eerily empty even on beautiful Sunday mornings), college students all came home, and toilet paper disappeared from grocery stores. I began working from home and set up a desk at a window that looked out on the local health clinic, where I watched them erect a tent for drive-through screenings. Seemingly overnight, life had turned upside down and outside in.
Nobody knew how bad this was going to get. Becky and I had to wonder, if we started construction now, could we finish? Would workers be available? How about all the materials? We had visions of a half-built house rotting in the sun for months. Or years. And what if one or both of us lost our jobs? All that cash we were about to pour into a house might come in very handy.
We put the project on hold. “I’d probably do the same,” our builder offered up glumly when we called him with the news. We told him we were postponing for two months, knowing it might be much longer. It was depressing, pulling the plug like that. But, we decided, it was better to be sad than scared.
Then, with the pressure off, we took a few days to size up the situation. Yes, if the worst of our predictions all came true, then Becky and I would be, as a learned economist might say, really in the shit. But it might not be so bad. There was uncertainty.
There was no uncertainty, however, on the likely effect of pulling the plug on spending hundreds of thousands of dollars. Construction workers would need to look elsewhere for work. Our orders of cinder blocks and two-by-fours and everything else would be cancelled. The national economy was facing its worst crisis since the Great Depression, and we had control over just this tiny little bit of it. But it was our bit.
We might get hurt if we proceed but others will certainly hurt if we don’t. Fuck it, we decided. We called our builder back not two weeks after postponing. Let’s build this thing, we told him, full speed ahead. We could hear his sigh of relief. “This will be one special house,” he said.
One weekend nearly three years ago, something weird started going on inside my head. The chief symptom of my ailment was vertigo, which came and went spontaneously, in episodes typically lasting well under a minute. Some of these dizzy spells were barely noticeable. Some were accompanied by sudden deafness in my left ear, ringing on the right, and profuse sweating. Some sent me crumpling to the ground in spinning agony.
My only comfort was in thinking my symptoms were so striking, and so consistent, that my doctor would pinpoint their cause in no time. Man was I wrong about that.
In October 2017 I was 54 years old and divorced, with two kids off in college, and single as a dollar. To improve my chances on the dating front I decided to get serious about losing the few extra pounds around my middle. So, one Monday I hatched a plan to go two solid weeks living the healthiest life possible. I would choose meals with extra care, get lots of sleep, and double my running and hiking routine. I dubbed it my “fitness fortnight.” By Friday, my thrice-weekly run had grown from three miles to six, and on days between running I took long hikes through the woods behind my house at the fastest clip I could muster. It felt great.
One Saturday morning, sitting at my writing desk and looking out at the birds at my feeder, I felt as if something were gently squeezing my brain. It lasted just a few seconds. An hour or so later it happened again, feeling more intense this time but still lasting no more than half a minute. I had one more spell that day, again out of the blue and slightly more intense than the last.
The next morning, I was just waking from a good night’s rest when I heard a whooshing sound I attributed to the dishwasher running in the kitchen downstairs. But then I remembered just emptying it the day before. It must be something outside the house, I figured. When I heard it again later that day I went to the window. There was nothing there. That’s when I realized the whooshes were whooshing at a familiar tempo. I pressed a hand to my neck and realized the whooshing was tracking my pulse perfectly. I was hearing my blood.
I decided to see my doctor first thing Monday morning. I also decided, reluctantly, to hold off on running. My fitness fortnight had become a fitness four-night.
My regular doctor was out. His replacement was not the least bit alarmed. “I get two new vertigo patients a week at your age,” he told me. I hadn’t even thought of this as vertigo, as so far I hadn’t experienced any spinning, only these brain-squeezes. But apparently there’s such a thing as non-spinning vertigo. And what about the whooshing, I asked? “Let’s work on the vertigo,” he said, then prescribed a drug called meclizine.
I had had seven spells by then. That evening I had my eighth, while standing in my kitchen making dinner, and this one came with a new feature. When my brain squeeze came on, I held onto the edge of the sink to steady myself. It wasn’t enough. Suddenly I was unable to remain standing, as if my brain had shut off all instructions to the muscles that allow hominids to stand upright. I dropped to the floor.
I remember once playing with a toy doll made of hollow wooden limbs held together by wires. When you pressed a button at its base, the wires went slack, causing the little man to crumple into a pile of body parts. The experience in my kitchen that night was just like that. Something pressed that button. I would later learn these are called drop attacks, and the one that night would be the first of many.
I decided to work from home the next day, fearful of having a severe episode while driving to my office some 20 miles away. I had another episode that day, and another at night. That one woke me from a deep, dreamy sleep and I had to sit up and steady myself until it passed.
Early the next morning, back at my writing desk, I noticed the birds outside my open screen door went suddenly quiet. Turning to look, I realized my hearing had gone out in my left ear—just as my brain felt the familiar squeeze and, this time, for the first time, the world began to spin. It was textbook vertigo. I laid both palms on the desk and looked out the window as a great wave of nausea came on. I was on the verge of vomiting, sucking in that one last deep breath as my stomach prepared to spew forth its contents, when the spinning stopped and my hearing came back. As I exhaled, I noticed beads of sweat on the hairs up and down on my forearm and shivered as a light wind blew across my wet skin. I was so drenched I had to change my shirt.
I called my mom, who had had some experience with vertigo, and learned that her doctor had also prescribed meclizine. But she had never experienced episodes quite like mine. She recommended I begin logging the episodes, in order to have solid data to share with my doctors, advice I began following right away.
The meclizine was not helping. I called my doctor’s office to get an appointment with an ENT, and got one, but would need to wait four weeks. With each episode worse than the last, I was pretty sure I’d be in the ER way before then. Fortunately, the next episode was slightly less intense. And the one after that was even milder. I decided I could wait.
I went two days with only the mildest of spells and so began driving to work again. The whooshing episodes also subsided. I was hearing my pulse only once or twice a day, for five or ten minutes at a time. Interestingly, the whooshing spells never coincided with the dizzy spells. They were on their own random cycle.
Ten days after my first episode, sitting at my desk at the bank where I work, I heard a ringing on the right side of my head. Then my hearing went out in my left ear and the world began to spin. It spun for less than a minute, not as badly as it had before, but when it stopped, I again noticed my forearms wet with sweat. I made an appointment to see my regular physician the next day.
“You need a brain scan right now.” My doctor’s face had gone slack when I described what was going on. His alarm, though, was oddly reassuring. I’ve been seeing my primary care physician for more than a decade and was glad that he too saw this as being something truly weird. Other than an argument over how to pronounce tinnitus (I’d always heard it tin-EYE-tus and he insisted it was TIN-i-tus, which I think sounds silly) my doc and I were on the same page.
While waiting for the results of the emergency MRI of my head, I went online to see what my doctor might be worried about. It didn’t take long to find a condition whose symptoms lined up with mine, a non-cancerous tumor called an acoustic neuroma. This was it, I thought. It was an awful thing to have, but weirdly I took some comfort in knowing what was probably going on. My mind turned to my son and daughter and how I would break the news, explain the condition, and assure them I would be fine once the tumor was removed.
I learned by email that the MRI came back negative. There was no tumor or other sign of anything unusual. My first reaction was disappointment at having to go back to square one. Then I remembered that learning one does not have a brain tumor is actually not a bad thing.
Thus began something of an odyssey, which consisted mostly of waiting for appointments with specialists of various stripes, all the while experiencing random waves of vertigo of varying intensity. It was like a gremlin had taken up quarters in my head, tormenting me at random moments of his choosing. Sometimes he’d sleep quietly for two or three days, then come out 30 times or more in a single day.
My first stop was the otolaryngology or ENT department at Duke Hospital where, over the course of several weeks, a team of ENTs ordered a hearing test, a test of the vestibular functions of my inner ear, additional MRIs, and a CT scan of my brain. Between appointments I began scouring the internet to learn about my hearing and vestibular system, and basically to see what the hell might be going on.
The space between your earlobes and brainstem is home to a remarkable bit of machinery. Consider just the semi-circular canals, three hollow rings positioned on opposing axes like the rings of a gyroscope and filled with tiny crystals floating in liquid. Moving your head in any direction disrupts the flow of those liquids, disruptions transmitted to your brain by the vestibulocochlear nerve. As its name implies, this nerve, also known as the eighth cranial nerve, also transmits signals produced by air pressing on your cochlea, or eardrum. The mechanisms are magnificent. And as a software engineer I can only marvel at the complexity of the “code” inside the brain that has to interpret the data coming in via this key pipeline of information on either side of our heads. Wrapped all around the hearing and vestibular organs is a web of blood vessels large and small, equally marvelous it its ability to get blood in and out of impossibly compact nooks and crannies.
There are any number of things that can go wrong in this part of the head, all of which would need to be considered in my case. Doctors call this process of elimination differential diagnosis. So far, only the tumor had been struck off my list. That left things like Benign Positional Vertigo (whose cause has to do with those canal crystals not moving around as they should) and Meneire’s Disease (an inner-ear disorder that can cause random vertigo spells like mine). To be considered on the vascular front were things like aneurysms (blood bubbles), stroke (blood clots or bleeding), stenoses (vessel narrowing), fistulas (abnormal connections between arteries and veins), and dissections (blood vessel tears). The whooshing, I learned, was known as pulsatile tinnitus.
When I asked my senior-most ENT about a condition I had run across called vestibular paroxysmia (VP) caused by a blood vessel compressing the vestibulocochlear nerve, and whose symptoms seemed to line up with mine, he responded as if I’d insulted him. “I don’t believe in that,” he snapped. His umbrage made me feel like I’d just suggested voodoo. He hadn’t seen it in 25 years of practice, he continued, and when I pressed him for more he said if such a condition were real it would cause much more severe hearing loss than what I was reporting. He clearly knew what he was talking about. I decided to let the doctors do the diagnosing.
One of the doctors suspected a vestibular migraine, whose typical symptoms include dizzy spells, and suggested I go on a migraine diet for two weeks. But removing nuts, cheeses, processed foods, soy products, and olives from my diet had no apparent effect. Nor did abstaining from alcohol. And thank God for that.
The battery of testing ordered by the ENTs gave no clue as to what was going on. My hearing was fine, except for a slight deafness on my right side, which I’d had since I was a teenager, when a firecracker went off in my right hand after waiting too long to throw it. My vestibular organs all seemed to be functioning properly. I didn’t qualify for Meniere’s, whose spells need to last 20 minutes or more, whereas mine typically lasted 15 or 20 seconds. And none of the brain scans—not the MRI, MRA, MRV, nor CT—showed signs of a dissection or other obvious vascular disorder. One scan did find an aneurism, or blood bubble, deep inside my brain. But its size (thankfully quite small) and location ruled it out as a culprit.
The apparent lack of vascular disorder baffled me for two reasons. One, pulsatile tinnitus by definition is due to blood flowing where it shouldn’t, i.e., where your cochlea can pick it up. Two, my symptoms came on after the most intensive cardiovascular workout of my life, with long runs or fast hikes every day. Rather stupidly, in hindsight, I had clearly let my heart rate go way into a danger zone. Wasn’t it reasonable to assume I had torn some vessel up there? Perhaps. But the testing showed no sign of it.
The ENTs concluded that a central nervous system disorder should be considered next and referred me to neurology. And the referring doctor told me to expect the neurologists to order a lumbar puncture, or spinal tap, which quickly brought two words to mind: ohshit. If there was one medical procedure I had feared more than any other it was a spinal tap. Fortunately, the very first neurologist I went to saw no reasons to indicate a central nervous system disorder. “You don’t need a lumbar puncture,” he told me. I nearly hugged the guy.
He still suspected a vascular issue and referred me to a neurologist who specializes in those. When I told her about another symptom that had come on a few weeks before onset, a stiff neck whenever I ran, she ordered MRIs of my neck to expand the search for a vascular disorder in that area. Nothing.
Meanwhile the episodes continued. In April, I crumpled to the ground after drinking one beer at the Ponysaurus Brewing Company in Durham, where the other patrons no doubt assumed I had had way more than one. In May, waiting in baggage claim at the airport, I noticed the loud ringing on my right side, which I had learned by then signaled the onset of a drop attack. I headed for a bench not ten feet away but didn’t make it. I dropped like a rock onto the cold, tile floor. Leaving Duke’s imaging facility one day, passing by the cancer center, I put both hands on its stone exterior when the ringing began, thinking wrongly that I could remain standing. A second later I was on the ground, rehearsing what I would say to the passersby who I knew would soon be coming to assist. Actually none did.
One thing I noticed about my drop attacks is that my body seemed to always fall to the left. Wanting to confirm this, one day I hurried to my bedroom when I felt one coming on. Standing next to my bed and a safe distance from any hard furniture, when this one came on I offered no resistance. Sure enough, I fell not slightly to my port side but directly, as if someone twice my size were standing to my right and pushing with gusto, their invisible hand toppling me right over.
It had been seven months since this gremlin made a home of my head. By mid-April 2018, I had logged 853 episodes, including 28 drop attacks—one per week, on average.
Duke Hospital is a world-class medical facility with a well-deserved reputation for superior medical care, but it appeared my condition had them stumped. I decided to look elsewhere for help and started, of all places, on Facebook. There I found a group of pulsatile tinnitus sufferers and began looking for names of doctors in their posts. Because my PT had begun on nearly the same day as the vertigo, I figured there was a good chance they had the same underlying cause. If I could diagnose the PT, my thinking went, I might simultaneously diagnose the vertigo.
I went to see two doctors who specialize in pulsatile tinnitus, one in New York and one in Baltimore. Looking at my scans, the New York doctor, a neurointerventional radiologist, saw some indication of stenosis but could not say that was causing my symptoms. The Baltimore doctor was equally baffled, until the day after the appointment when he placed a phone call that changed everything.
I was driving to work one morning and saw a call coming in from Baltimore. The ENT had woken up that morning with a new idea, he told me with a hint of pride. I was just thrilled he took the time to call. He suggested my symptoms might be due to something called intracranial hypotension due to a cerebral spinal fluid leak. I thanked him profusely and pulled over for a quick bit of googling. The condition, I learned, would seem to explain every one of my symptoms.
I was ecstatic. After seven months of riding this disturbing roller coaster, finally a doctor had the combination of curiosity and caring to point me to the most promising path I’d yet encountered. Incredibly, one of the three major centers in the US for treating CSF leaks, I learned, is none other than Duke Hospital. Why my Duke ENTs, neurologists, and radiologists did not think of sending me down the hall to their CSF colleagues I cannot say. In any event, I went back to Duke.
After reading everything I could find on CSF leaks, a plausible story nearly wrote itself. It was plausible to me, anyway, and it went like this: Our brains are suspended in a bath of clear liquid that extends down our spinal column. On one of my intense runs back in October, I had caused a tear that CSF was leaking out of, causing my brain to sag onto my vestibulocochlear nerve, in turn triggering either the pulsatile tinnitus or vertigo, depending on where it sagged. The whooshing was the result of something called the Venturi effect when blood is forced to flow through a constricted space—just as a running water hose hisses when you kink it.
Two things supported my story. First was the fact that from time to time, with no symptoms of a cold, I would find a thin clear fluid dripping from my nose—I read this was a common symptom. I also decided to test the saggy brain theory. One day when I felt the pulsatile tinnitus coming on, I got down on all fours, hunched up my hiny and let my head dangle upside down. The whooshing stopped. When I stood up, the whooshing came back. I repeated this test dozens of times with same result.
I was a lead-pipe cinch, quod erat demonstrandum, and a no fucking brainer: my spinal fluid was leaking.
Waiting three months for testing to confirm a CSF leak (I’d become accustomed to waits of weeks or months between stops on my journey to diagnosis) I read that caffeine was known to reduce symptoms of intracranial hypotension. I happily increased my morning consumption from four cups to six. A lifelong coffee drinker, this was a silver lining, albeit slim, to the gray cloud of dread that hung over me waiting for the test they would use to detect a CSF leak: a spinal tap, while lying on the bed of a CT scanner, to inject dye into my spinal fluid, dye that would show up on the CT scans when it leaked out.
It turned out to be not the least bit painful. Just a bit of pressure against my spine. “Do want to see what I see?” asked the friendly technician who had patiently explained everything beforehand, setting me at complete ease. “Sure!” He positioned the CT screen so I could watch as a needle entered the space between the bones of my spine. So the CT myelogram turned out to be rather cool. But it did not show any signs of a CSF.
“I know it’s disappointing to not know what’s going on,” the doctor told me over the phone a few days later. “But trust me, you don’t want to have a CSF leak.”
How could this be? I had fallen victim to something called confirmation bias, where you focus on evidence that supports a hypothesis you already believe to be true. It was the same as when I was convinced I had a tumor. So once again, a year into this odyssey, I went back to a familiar place: square one.
Until this time, my episodes of vertigo had come on randomly throughout the day. But now I began noticing a pattern. They tended to occur between 2:00 and 3:00 in the afternoon, when my recently increased morning caffeine infusion was starting to wear off. Might there be a connection? Over the course of ten days I switched to decaf, gradually mixing it into my regular coffee. It took all the will power I could muster. But the result was striking.
I went from having 50 or more episodes per week to having just a few. And none were severe. I missed the effect of fully caffeinated coffee but still enjoyed a lesser effect, from the residual caffeine in decaf, but was elated that my symptoms were now easily tolerable. A week went by with almost no episodes. Then two. Then four.
Still wanting an explanation, I went to see a neurologist in Chicago whose name I had seen on dozens of research papers on hearing and dizziness disorders. He examined my growing collection of images and ordered an all new battery of tests of my hearing and vestibular functions. Sitting with me in his office after several hours of testing, the friendly doctor (who looked remarkably like Steve Martin) patiently summarized nearly a dozen different conditions that could potentially explain at least some of my symptoms before choosing for his diagnosis the very condition my Duke ENT said did not exist: vestibular paroxysmia.
The cause of VP, also known as microvascular compression syndrome (MCS), is not known. It may be due to a weakening of the myelin sheath surrounding the vestibulocochlear nerve, which makes it susceptible to interference by a blood vessel running beside it. Such interference triggers sudden episodes, or paroxysms, of hearing loss, vertigo, and imbalance. The impact of caffeine abstention made sense to my Chicago doctor given its well-known effects on both nerves and blood vessels in the head. He suggested that I stay off caffeine as long as that helped, and if the symptoms returned, there were drugs available known to help relieve VP symptoms.
I went back to Duke and found a neurologist who did believe in VP and who in fact was treating other patients for the disorder. But he didn’t think I had it. He told me it did not cause hearing loss, the exact opposite opinion of the Duke ENT who said it would come with severe hearing loss.
Three specialists were saying three different things about this vestibular paroxysmia: You have it, you don’t have it, and it doesn’t exist. I decided to just accept the uncertainty of my situation and get on with life. The only thing I knew for sure was that limiting myself to decaf seemed to minimize my symptoms to the point of irrelevance. I brushed off the two or three mild head squeezes per week, enjoyed my decaf, and learned to tune out the occasional whooshing in my ear.
Then, six months after my trip to Chicago, I was sitting at my desk at work when one of the mild dizzy spells came on. It wasn’t too bad, but something told me to head to the nurse’s office where I work. It was lasting a bit longer than usual. As I sat on the examining table explaining my history, the spinning accelerated and suddenly I could no longer sit upright. I rolled over in agony—the spinning had never been this bad—and began vomiting. It was the first time I threw up since this whole thing began.
The spinning and vomiting subsided for ten minutes or so, then came back. I texted my friend Elisabeth who rushed over and drove me to the Duke ER. The waves continued, thankfully growing less intense each time. Until that day, no episode had lasted more than a minute. This one lasted nearly four hours. The ER docs ordered a CT scan, reviewed my records, and sent me home at 6:30 the next morning. As expected, they had no idea what was going on.
At a follow-up appointment my Duke neurologist prescribed carbamazepine, known to be effective in treating vestibular paroxysmia, but I decided to try something else first. Learning that “decaffeinated” coffee can contain up to 30% of the caffeine of regular coffee (I think “low caf” is a better name), I went entirely caffeine-free. No decaf, no caffeinated teas, and no chocolate beyond the occasional nibble. For the next six months I still heard whooshing from time to time, but not a single episode of vertigo. Not even a mild one. The carbamazepine went into the trash.
I was symptom free. My gremlin, it appeared, loved coffee. And whenever I felt the urge to make myself a French Roast pour-over, or dash into the nearest coffee shop for a latte, I just thought back to that marathon night in the ER. Still, even still, I wondered if I might some day recaffeinate.
One day, months later, googling yet again for all the neurovascular disorders with symptoms like mine, I stumbled upon one with the weirdest name yet: secondary endolymphatic hydrops. Its symptoms are episodic vertigo and intermittent hearing loss that come on a response to some event or condition. When I read it might have something to do with the chemical balance of the fluid inside the inner ear, I got to thinking about the apparent dehydration effect of caffeine. There’s disagreement over just how dehydrating caffeine really is, but what if I was dehydrating just enough to mess with the chemistry of my inner ear?
I started drinking more water. Each morning I filled my one-liter Nalgene and made a point of emptying it at least once a day. After a week or so I treated myself to a decaf. Things were all good that day. And the day after that. Over the course of about a month, I worked my way up to a full cup of coffee every morning, always careful to empty the Nalgene at least once a day.
Fact one: I’ve been symptom free for six months. Fact two: I drink coffee, and plenty of water, every day. God only knows if there’s a connection between those two facts.
Was secondary endolymphatic hydrops the cause of all this bother? I don’t know. But learning about it, and thinking about what’s known about it, got me thinking about drinking more water and when I did so I could drink coffee again without fear of falling down. That’s all I can say for sure.
I still think I damaged something in my head during my ill-advised fitness fortnight, the extreme workout that immediately preceded the onset of symptoms. The coincidence is just too striking for me to believe otherwise. And if that’s the case, then maybe Mother Nature has now healed whatever I did. Or maybe, or maybe. Dot. Dot. Dot.
Truth is I don’t expect to ever know the real story. And I’m fine with that. These bodies of ours, I have come to learn, are complicated as hell. I’m just grateful as hell mine is working properly again.
I learned to play Scrabble from a grandmother who didn’t cut kids any slack when it came to this game she loved. When I finally learned to play at her level, it felt great. Until it didn’t.
I was eight years old when I first played Scrabble with Grandma and lost that game by more than a hundred points. “Don’t be discouraged, Mike. It’s all in the tiles you draw. Sometimes you draw good ones and sometimes all you get are the stinkers.” For the next decade or so she avoided the stinkers with amazing regularity. Grandma was an awesome Scrabble player who played to win no matter how young her opponent. She worked those little wooden tiles with the skill of a surgeon and confidence of a concert pianist. She would extend my DOG into DOGMATIC, my CAT into CATHARTIC. Questionable words were challenged before the last tile could hit the board. And she was always so certain whether or not a word was in the dictionary, I would wonder if she had it memorized.
Few of my siblings would come back for a second game. But I was always up for a game of Scrabble at Grandma’s house next door and she was always up for a win. Part of what brought me back was the simple joy of observing talent. Grandma was skillful at many things—gardening, knitting, cooking—but her mastery of Scrabble impressed me most of all. And while many good people surrounded me in my childhood, nobody else struck me as being an expert as she did. Going back for another game was like going back to the theater or concert hall or big league ballpark. We enjoy watching talent at work and she had plenty.
It was more than Grandma’s performance that kept me coming back. Something told me that Scrabble was something I could learn, that one day I might impress others the way she so impressed me, if only I kept working at it. And as Grandma’s inveterate sparring partner I got quite a workout. I learned two-letter words with virtually no relevance outside the game, words like EM and EN and AA. I learned the word QUEUE at a comparatively young age, as well as what it means to GIRD your loins, to DUN a debtor, and to DRUB your opponent. I learned Scrabble strategy: Always aim for the pink squares that double your word score. Never play a word that puts your opponent within reach of a red triple-word square. And never, ever play the letter U early in the game—it’s always good to have one if you draw the Q.
What drew Grandma to Scrabble? Its demand for intellect and knowledge had something to do with it. As an adult she had a penchant for developing herself intellectually—by enrolling in business colleges, reading voraciously, frequenting museums. She considered knowledge the only permanent possession. “They can take everything away from you, Mike, your house, your money. But nobody can take away what you know.” Grandma grew up at the hands of a monster of a father, in an unenviable immigrant household where possessions were fleeting. She watched her father destroy her few and favorite trinkets in fits of rage. She came home from school one day to an empty house—her father had moved the family and not bothered to tell her. Is it any wonder she always played Scrabble to win? Was it not an opportunity to show off the knowledge in which she had so much pride?
As happens to one who studies with a master, Grandma’s skill at Scrabble did eventually begin to rub off on me. I started using words like EM and AA myself. I was careful to save any U until the difficult Q had been played, and if a word might put her within reach of a triple word square I wouldn’t play it—no matter how many points it was worth. I began losing by reasonable margins, then by just a point or two. Then, when I was in high school, I won my very first game of Scrabble with Grandma.
It was a heady achievement that left me in something like a state of shock. I don’t remember details of the game but I do remember wondering how she might react. Would she check the math on the score sheet? Attribute the win to a dubious word that should have been challenged? She did neither. “Nice game, Mike. Those were some clever words you played.” Grandma was a good sport about losing to me, attributing only her own wins to luck-of-the-draw and never my own.
My skills continued to improve over time and before long I was winning as many games as was she. Our games continued even after I moved half a continent away, when a Scrabble match became a mutual expectation of my every visit. My mother became our standard third player. Mom’s vocabulary was every bit as good as Grandma’s and mine but she didn’t give a whit for strategy. For instance, she would not hesitate to place a word that gave a triple-word scoring opportunity to the next player. This tendency did not go unnoticed by Grandma and me. As play moves clockwise in Scrabble, we developed a shameless ritual prior to each game in which we would jockey—oh so innocently—for the seat to Mom’s left, where those valuable openings would be ours.
It often amazes me I have any talent at all for Scrabble because it requires something I don’t have: a good memory. Memory in general has never been my strong suit. (Have I told you this before? I have? Are you certain?) But somehow I do remember words, especially interesting ones. Did you know there is a word abecedarian? It’s a person learning something, such as the alphabet. How about navvy? That’s a laborer on a canal or railroad, short for navigator in a sense that word is no longer used. You may know these words, of course, and wonder how one who fancies himself a writer finds them extraordinary. That’s okay. It doesn’t bother me that I’m the last person to learn a word, I still enjoy learning it.
Grandma kept up her yen for Scrabble into her older years, even after the shaking hands of Parkinson’s disease made it difficult to place those little wooden tiles on the slippery board. More than once a tiny jerk of a finger would send every word on the board askew as if a small earthquake had struck, requiring Mom or me to tidy things up. As her body slowed with age, though, her mind stayed sharp. I once played the word FAX and Grandma immediately threatened a challenge. I explained what a fax machine was, which at the time could be found in any workplace but was completely unknown to Grandma. “Is it in the dictionary?” she asked. “Not our old dictionaries, but it’s a word used all the time. It’s actually short for facsimile.” “Then it’s an abbreviation,” she pointed out, “and abbreviations aren’t allowed.” I removed the word from the board.
Midway during one game my outlook changed forever. On my tray were the letters S-E-E-I-G-V-T. On the board was an open S. As long as the spot stayed open until my turn, I could empty my tray and make the word VESTIGES. It would be a seven-letter play for a fifty-point bonus and certain victory in a game I was already winning.
As I waited my turn, I began browsing the old score sheets we kept in the Scrabble box. There were ten or fifteen at least. Before long a startling fact lay in front of me: I had won every single one of those games. I suddenly felt a lump in my throat so big I could hardly swallow. A sense of arrogance swelled deep inside me, mixed with a feeling of selfishness. Grandma and Mom could no longer be playing only for their own enjoyment, I realized, they were playing in large part for mine, knowing I loved the game, knowing I especially loved to win it.
As I peered across the board, my eyes opened for the first time to see that Grandma was no longer the player she once was. Her right hand shook so uncontrollably she would hold it tight with her left, cursing it. She had a difficult time just concentrating on the game. It had been years since she played a seven-letter word and the words she now played rarely returned more than twenty points.
It was my turn. The space remained open, beckoning my seven-letter play. I paused and waited, pretending to search the board for openings. “Can’t you play anything?” Mom asked. I stopped stalling and made up my mind. Using only six of my seven tiles, I played the word VESTIGE and added a handful of points to my score. The final S stayed in my tray. There would be no fifty-point bonus. “The board’s really filling up,” I said. Grandma set her tiles on the edge of the board, not even trying to place them. Mom slid Grandma’s word into position.
Before long we added up the score. Grandma won by eleven points. “Nice game, Grandma. Those were some clever words you played.” Her reply was one I hadn’t heard in years. “It’s all in the tiles you draw. Sometimes you draw good ones and sometimes all you get are the stinkers.”
That was our last game. Grandma died eight weeks later at the age of 87, when ailments she’d been battling for more than four decades finally won their match—or, perhaps, were allowed to win. I had seen her in the hospital the day before she died, passing through town on my way out of the country on business. We exchanged regrets that we hadn’t played a game of Scrabble during that visit and ended our last conversation with a vow to play on my next one. I was hardly over jet lag when my wife called me in Paris with the news. I flew back early to be with family for the funeral. Like most everyone else there, it was an occasion to reflect upon all I had learned from Grandma and how much she influenced the person I had become. And of course I thought about our Scrabble, especially that last game. Did I betray all she taught me by throwing the game? Would she be angry had she known? I don’t know. In fact, can I be certain she never threw a game for me? That first win—was it all my doing? No matter. I’m glad I let her win that last game. In the moments afterward, as we poured the tiles off the board and into their bag, as Grandma placed her letter tray back in the old maroon Scrabble box for the last time, there was a priceless glint of satisfaction in her eye. Or maybe it was in my own. At Grandma’s wake, as I laid my eyes upon her, I slipped a small memento into her casket. A Scrabble tile. The letter U, of course. It’s always good to have one if you draw that Q.
Lorraine Kalish hadn’t heard from Bill Durbin for nearly two years after their 1949 Easter Dance date and visit to the Chatterbox roadhouse, when one day the senior at East Side High was mortified to be called to the principal’s office. Had she done something wrong?
It was only to retrieve a letter from my dad, writing from Tokyo, apologizing for losing her address and wondering if she would exchange letters. She readily agreed but didn’t realize what she’d committed to.
Lorraine found it nearly impossible to match the length of Bill’s long, daily letters in the finest penmanship she had ever seen. The lonesome sailor had so many experiences to write about and she struggled to even fill a page, writing only on one side of the paper and in very large letters. This did not impress Bill.
“My kid brother writes better than she does,” he wrote to his mother. “And she’s supposed to be a good student!”
Lorraine’s writing skills may have disappointed her Navy boyfriend but all of that was forgotten over the course of his next leave in April 1951. They saw each other every day. The letter-writing continued for the next year and, on his next leave, one year later, Bill Durbin asked Lorraine Kalish to be his wife. She said yes.
Mom and Dad were married on November 22, 1952. As they climbed into the back seat of the limo after exchanging vows at St. Patrick’s, in front of a church packed with an army of Durbins and Kalishes and friends, the photographer snapped a photo of the two happiest newlyweds this world has ever seen.
Bill and Lorraine had only seen each other for all of two-months of leave time when they got engaged. But that was all either of them needed to believe this would be a loving, lasting, and all-around excellent marriage. And they were right.
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 alongside blacks 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 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 learn 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 Joe from ever stepping foot in the Ridge Avenue house. Period. My 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 it 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 three-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 something snapped. 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!” 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 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 little 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 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 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 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 U-2 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 and what he did there. 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-flighters—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. There’s more on that story here.
* * *
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.
Adam Malec was 20 years old in 1901. That’s the year he crossed the Atlantic in the zwischendeck, or steerage compartment, of a steamship. Adam had seven years earlier fled the family farm in Poland to get away from a mean stepmother, walking more than 600 miles to Hamburg, Germany. One of his first stop was a cobbler shop, undoubtedly to fix up those shoes. The repair may have involved some barter as Adam stayed in that shop for the entirety of his teen years, working as an apprentice while saving money for passage.
Adam wanted to join his brother Stanley, who had found work in the meat-packing plants in Chicago, a treacherous place where workers were valued little more than the hogs and cattle they butchered, a place made infamous by Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle. It’s a classic book of the American literary canon, a must-read, just not while eating.
Adam in fact arrived in Chicago around the time Sinclair was there researching his book. They may have crossed each other on Halsted Street, or in a tavern in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. But Adam didn’t stay long. Stanley directed him 300 miles downstate to East St. Louis, where there were also meatpacking houses and where jobs were said to be more plentiful.
Adam took the advice, went south, and soon got a job at the huge Swift and Company operation.
* * *
Round about 1902, Julia Walczak finally succeeded in convincing her skeptical parents to let her leave Poland for America. A cousin in the navy had told glorious stories about the exciting country where it seemed everyone in Eastern Europe was headed, and also gave her the name of a supposed distant relative living a prosperous life in East St. Louis.
Julia wrote to this woman who sent back a letter urging her to come, going on to say how there was plenty of room in her big house for a member of the family and assuring her parents the teenager would be well cared for. When Julia arrived at the house on 4th Street, she quickly learned the “big house” was an overcrowded boarding house for packinghouse workers. And Julia was expected to pay rent.
With no money to return home and few options, she took a job in the sausage department at Armour’s in order to pay for one of the four beds jammed together in the dining room. Those were for women. In the adjoining living room were four beds for men. One of those men was Adam Malec.
“It’s okay to go out with a man,” Julia would in later years exhort to her daughters and granddaughters. “But don’t let him give you any beer!” This is an actual quote from one of those granddaughters: my mom.
Owing to the fateful beer and/or proximate sleeping quarters, Adam and Julia were married in August 1905 and had their first of five children shortly thereafter. Their youngest, Bernice, was my maternal grandmother.
Adam proved to be a dependable provider, thrifty saver, and caring husband and father. Julia proved to be resourceful, strong, and smart. She was also the family disciplinarian. When their son John or daughter Fay arrived home after curfew, Julia would send them out to the chicken shack in the backyard for handfuls of corn (I’m not making this up) in which they were made to kneel (though I wish I were).
When Adam was badly scalded by a tipping vat of boiling bones, unable to work for nearly a year while healing from wounds that nearly cost him his life, Julia hung up her apron and went back to making sausage at Armour’s. Later, once a fulltime homemaker again, Julia continued to bring in money, this time without leaving the house.
Julia had only to open a rear window to hand over a few coins to a bookie running numbers up and down the alleys of East St. Louis, hiding the strips of paper indicating her bet in a turkey pot in the oven. She didn’t make a lot of money gambling, but did have enough spare cash during Depression years to lend money to Kruta’s Bakery next door to their house on 8th Street when they needed a short-term loan to buy sugar or flour.
The connection with Kruta’s Bakery and our family would continue for decades, with their signature cheese and apple strudel a fixture of Sunday dinners well into the 1970s.
* * *
Anna Krokvica was 16 when she left the family farm in a region of Austria-Hungary that would later become Croatia, travelling to East St. Louis with her mother Mary and younger sisters Josefina and Maria. It was 1908.
Five years earlier, Anna’s father Lenhardt Krokvica had deserted his family and taken their life savings with him. The scoundrel didn’t say where he was going; Len figured his wife would never find him in and industrial nowhereville in the middle of America. But somehow word got back to Mary that her husband was living the life of a happy bum in East St. Louis while his wife and kids back home struggled to survive. She promptly sold the farm and used the proceeds to buy passage to America.
Like most immigrant crossings from Europe theirs was a difficult one, with the three girls and mother huddled among masses in the bowels of a ship where disease and sickness ran rampant. All four made it through Ellis Island but only three made it to East St. Louis. Nobody is sure what happened, but when Mary finally caught up with her runaway husband, the first thing he may have learned was that his daughter Maria was dead.
One thing we do know is that Lenhardt had bad news for his wife: the family money was all gone. He had drank it all. Len was broke, making just enough to get by working at Swift. Mary had no choice but to join him at the packinghouse and she took their daughter Anna with her. Had the expression “this sucks” been around in these days, I’m fairly certain both Mary and Anna would have used it more than once right about this time.
Len’s alcoholism would plague his family for decades. When in later years he worked the night shift at one of the railroads, he was often too drunk to leave the house. So Mary would go. Under the cover of darkness, she used every ounce of body weight to throw the huge levers to switch rails in order that her whiskey-sodden husband wouldn’t lose his job.
It’s a miracle the booze didn’t kill this man at a young age. But Lenhardt and Mary, known later as “Daddo” and “Bobby” to grandchildren, would both live well into their eighties. Go figure.
* * *
Twelve-year-old Louis Kalish stepped off a train in East St. Louis in 1903. Having travelled alone on the month-long journey, from the same region of Austria-Hungary where the Krokvica’s lived, this round-faced kid was no doubt happy to see his sister Annie waiting for him at the Relay Depot.
Annie had rocked the family just the year before when she left for America to escape the mean hand of their father Stephen. The elder Kalish was born illiterate in the Slovakian mountains in the 1860s, where he taught himself to read and write. He had used that talent to find work in the more populated Croatian region of Austria-Hungary, ultimately becoming the town notary in the village of Banova Jaruga. It was a powerful position for someone with his background but he unwisely let that power go to his head. And out through his fists.
The packing houses in East St. Louis paid five cents an hour to women and ten cents to men—wages unheard of back in Europe. With their combined incomes, Annie was confident she and Louis could earn enough to send for their four younger siblings and mother Katrina. They didn’t have to.
When his son Louis disappeared, Stephen figured out what was going on and decided to foil his free-spirited daughter’s plan to break up his family. In 1906, he brought the rest of the family to East St. Louis himself. It would not be a permanent reunion. After leaving a position of some respect back in Europe, Stephen Kalish didn’t like being like being looked down upon at the packinghouse.
“I’m no hunkee SOB!” he complained before getting back on the boat. (The ethnic slur “hunkee” came apparently from the earlier “bo-hunk” which referred to a Bohemian from Hungary. The term would later evolve into “honkey,” a slangy term used in the 1960s for a white person.)
Stephen returned to Europe with his wife Kata and daughter Mildred in 1912, just in time for World War I, which no doubt put a damper on their homecoming and may have been a factor in their re-emigration to the US in 1921. Sadly, Kata contracted pneumonia on her second time through Ellis Island and was dead within a couple of weeks.
* * *
Nobody knows if the Kalish and Krokvica families knew each other back in Austria-Hungary or not. In any event, the families were joined in 1910 when Louis Kalish married Anna Krokvica. Two years later, Louis was offered a huge raise in pay—from ten cents an hour to fifteen—as a packinghouse supervisor. But there was a catch. The job was some 500 miles away. They took it.
Their son Jimmy, my Grandpa Kalish, was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in August 1912. That’s about the time Louis and Anna learned something they hadn’t been told before leaving East St. Louis: The man who held the supervisor’s job before Louis, when he was fired, had vowed to kill anyone who tried to fill his old job. And apparently he tried to make good on the promise.
The death threat, and distance from family and others in their ethnic circle, was enough to convince Louis and Anna that Oklahoma was not OK. They were out of there less than six months.
Back in East St. Louis, Louis Kalish was not happy about his return to a 70-hour workweek at a dime an hour. He was determined to change his young family’s fortune. So my great grandfather did just that, in a big way, by getting out of the hogs and cattle business and into a more lucrative one: liquor and prostitution.
* * *
In the 1880s, East St. Louis began raising its streets in order to keep homes and businesses dry when the Mississippi flooded. The massive project wasn’t quite finished in 1903, when the city found itself under 39 feet of water in one of the worst floods ever recorded. The area around 2nd and 3rd street, between Missouri and St. Louis Avenue, had not yet been raised, so flood water collected there as if in a valley. The name stuck.
Property owners in the area, known for decades thereafter as the Valley, grew tired of waiting for the area to be raised, and simply walked away from their ruined houses on streets of mud. Tavern owners and prostitutes were only too happy to take over the abandoned properties. And they liked the streets that way.
Whenever the city did fill a pothole, bleary eyed working girls would dig it out promptly the next morning, forcing cars to slow down, making it easier for the ladies to hop on the running boards and offer their services.
City officials might have thwarted development of this corridor of unseemly services, but to do so would have cut off their most reliable source of municipal revenue. Many of the major employers of East St. Louis—the stock yards, meat packing operations and factories of all sorts—shrewdly located their operations just outside city limits to avoid paying taxes. Monsanto Chemical and the National City stockyards would go so far as to incorporate their properties, as bogus municipalities, in order to make the scam permanent.
But owners of Valley taverns with back room gambling and prostitution, known euphemistically as “resorts,” had no such options. The wads of cash they handed over for licenses, fees and bribes allowed the struggling city to pay its bills.
As you might expect, details of how Louis Kalish made his fortune in prostitution are not well known—these are not the kind of stories families like to pass down to posterity. His transformation apparently began with the help of his brother Joe and a Model T car, which they used to shuttle prostitutes the hundred miles between East St. Louis and the booming coal-mining town of Zeigler, Illinois. They made $5 dollars a ride and expanded their operation with the purchase of a boardinghouse in Zeigler.
Louis moved Anna and Jimmy to the boardinghouse around 1914, along with Anna’s parents and others relatives who helped run the place. It was very, very successful. They all moved back to East St. Louis around 1919. That’s when Louis paid $50,000—the equivalent of more than half a million 2020 dollars—for the Savoy Hotel at the corner of 2nd and Missouri in the Valley.
The once penniless immigrant Louis Kalish was now, just a few years later, a man of means. And his lucky streak continued. Louis and his hotel were well-positioned when Prohibition went into effect in January 1920. The ground floor tavern became a speakeasy, and there were plenty of rooms upstairs for both family and prostitutes. And his lively place in the red light district was even adopted as the home of the Shelton gang, archenemies of Charlie Birger’s gang in the bloody rivalry for control of the illegal liquor trade.
* * *
Jimmy’s father did not handle his turn of fortune well. This Louis was no saint.
As an alcoholic with easy access to all the booze he could drink, Louis would regularly force Anna and Jimmy to hide beneath the stairs while he trashed the house with a gun in his hand, vowing to kill them both. The terror came to an end in 1926 when cirrhosis of the liver killed the man.
The relief for Jimmy was short-lived. Within months, his mother Anna came down ill and went all the way to the Mayo clinic in Minnesota for treatment. It didn’t help. Anna came home with an infection that only hastened her death, and 14-year old Jimmy soon found himself an orphan.
Louis and Anna Kalish didn’t leave Jimmy with a lot of money, but he did inherit the Savoy hotel and a plot of land on Lake Drive, which his dad had taken from a customer as payment for a gambling debt. He would later appreciate the Lake Drive property but forever despised the hotel and left it to his uncle Joe to run.
And he thanked God he no longer had to live there; his Aunt Josie and Uncle Steve Walko took him in and he enjoyed the following years in a roomy house across the street from Jones Park. He had also taken his mother’s advice to study hard in school, advice he took very seriously, and his cousins took advantage of his ever-willingness to tutor them.
Luck turned again on Jimmy Kalish in 1929. Most people who lost their fortune that year could blame it on the historic stock market crash but Steve Walko had only a gambling addiction to blame. He lost every penny he had, along with his nice house, on a pack of ponies at the new racetrack.
With no place left to turn, the Walko’s, and Jimmy, moved into the Savoy. The young man remained stoic and redoubled his studies, never losing faith in education to get him out of a place he didn’t want to be. He turned as well to physical fitness and could soon do 100 push-ups without breaking a sweat. (He would do those push-ups every night before going to bed, well into his 80s, when his doctor told him to stop.)
* * *
Jimmy surprised no one when he got into Northeast Missouri State Teachers College in Kirksville. He had enough money to pay for classes but not for transportation. But being from East St. Louis he knew his way around railroads, and there were plenty of freight trains to get him home whenever he wanted.
On one of those visits home he met a delicate young woman named Bernice Malec at a dance. She accepted the impeccably fit college man’s offer of a date—but may have disregarded her mother’s advice about mixing men with beer. In any event, Jimmy soon learned his girlfriend was expecting his child.
As much as he valued education, he valued commitment to family even more. So Jimmy gave up his dreams of being a history teacher and got a job hauling salt bungs at Swift. Bernice moved in with him at the Savoy. Their daughter Lorraine, my mother, was born on December 7, 1933.
As one might expect, Adam and Julia Malec didn’t like the idea of their daughter and granddaughter living in a brothel. Shortly after my aunt Jackie was born in 1935, they offered the young family use of a small house they owned on 8th Street, next door to their own.
It was tight quarters—Jim and Bernice used a rollaway in the kitchen and Lorraine and Jackie shared the bedroom—but it was a welcome step up from the Savoy. They got more elbow room when Jim and some friends built a house on his inherited property on Lake Drive, not long before their son Jim was born. And there, at long last, life was good.
East St. Louis blossomed in the late 1940s, four decades after pushing itself out of the hard ground of a rapidly industrializing America. Back when my immigrant ancestors arrived it was said “Only those who must, live in East St. Louis.” In 1913, John Chamberlain was elected mayor after campaigning on the promise to “make East St. Louis a little more like home and a little less than Hell.”
Things had improved dramatically by the time Lorraine Kalish was growing up. Mom and her sister Jackie and brother Jim got good educations at well-equipped schools, spent free time in the giant sand-bottomed swimming pool at Jones Park—said to be the largest inland beach of its kind in America—and took summer “vacations” at Grandma and Grandpa Malec’s house on 8th street where they were showered with attention.
It was a good time indeed for many grandchildren of the Eastern European immigrants who had flooded through Ellis Island at the turn of the century. Life was not so good for the African Americans of East St. Louis.
The national scourge of racial discrimination and bigotry made no exceptions here. Race riots had ravaged the city in 1917, when mobs of excitable and sadly misinformed whites feared the blacks migrating from the South were taking all their jobs. East St. Louis in the 1940s was still hell for those unlucky enough to be born with the wrong color skin. And it would pretty much stay that way.
* * *
Like most American families, the Kalish’s had to endure the rationing, worry, and other deprivations brought on by World War II. The US reluctantly entered “the Good War” on December 7, 1941, Mom’s birthday, when news of Pearl Harbor came across the Malec’s radio as they sat down for her birthday supper.
Unlike later wars, this one was felt by virtually every household in America due to rationing of everyday goods. Shoes, for example, were limited to one pair per year. Grandpa Malec used his skills from his cobbler days to keep everyone’s shoes in good repair.
The Kalish family could at least count on meat on their table every day. Or nearly so. The packing houses let workers buy meat at a discount and Jim Kalish took advantage of the bargain. He’d bring home whatever cut was made available that day—short ribs, organ meats, pig knuckles—but never hot dogs. Nor bologna nor liverwurst, known then as Braunschweiger.
Grandpa had sworn off processed meat of any kind after one day watching a coworker sweep the grimy packinghouse floor and empty his pan into one of the grinding vats, as was routine. As he peered into the machinery this day, he spotted among the soiled and boot-trodden meat scraps a campaign button. I’m not making this up. “Wendell Willkie for President,” it read.
The powerful grinders reduced the visage of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s dark horse opponent to tiny flecks of filler, and Jim could only imagine what else might be going into America’s wieners and franks.
* * *
Mom’s parents provided a great many things to their children, but ethnic identity was not one of them. Like many children of immigrants they took pains to break ties to the old country. They didn’t want to be seen as immigrants, especially during wartime. They were Americans now and felt obligated to reinforce that.
They did things like only speaking English at home, and discouraging their own children from learning any Croatian, Slovakian or Polish, languages Jim and Bernice knew well. And they allowed the consumption of garlic only on Sundays when they were with family—God forbid coworkers and schoolmates should smell garlic on any of their breaths, a sure giveaway of being an immigrant.
One thing that was passed down from generations past was an unbending work ethic. This was a working class family to its genetic core, and every member knew that if you wanted something you worked for it. So when the kids became teenagers and wanted extra money, they got jobs.
Mom found one at Jimmy’s Malt Shop on State Street. There, a very pretty Lorraine Kalish scooped ice cream, wiped down countertops, and, when they needed it, went outside to wash the windows. On one of those occasions a young man she recognized approached.
“Are you Lorraine Kalish?” the nervous guy asked. “Oh you’re Bob Durbin’s brother,” answered Lorraine, catching the sharp-dressed fella off guard. Composing himself, he invited her to the annual Easter Dance coming up soon.
Mom accepted, enjoyed the dance, and accompanied my dad afterward to a road-house called the Chatterbox with a crowd of other couples. She didn’t enjoy that part of the evening as much, because she had never been around so many people drinking alcohol, which is not a surprise given her age.
When my dad learned his date was only fifteen years old, he returned her home and made it clear he had no idea he was four years older than her. Mom wasn’t sure if she’d ever hear from this guy again or not. And she’d wait a long time to find out.
In 1723, more than five decades before the 4th of July meant anything special, Samuel Durbin and Ann Logsdon were married on that date in Baltimore, Maryland. He was my great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather—my G6—and may have been one of the two brothers from Wales who, according to oral history, brought this line of Durbins to the new country by way of the Caribbean island of Nevis, the birthplace (half a century later) of Alexander Hamilton. Nobody can say for sure. But we know Samuel and Ann were married on that date and that he was a toll-road watchman near Owings Mill, a featureless exurb of Baltimore then and now.
Ann was the daughter of my G7 William Logsdon, a successful farmer who in 1705 or so met a ship full of women brought over for the boys toiling away in the colonies. One can presume he met the tall ship with more than a bit of manly anticipation, perhaps wearing his finest waistcoat, breeches and spatterdashes. How much of a say the women had in the matter is unknown. It may have been rather little, as the other fragment of oral history passed down from this era is that Honor O’Flynn was kidnapped off the coast of Ireland and taken across the Atlantic, where she would become William Logsdon’s wife and mother of his children.
* * *
Samuel and Ann had a baker’s dozen kids. One of the 13 was G5 Christopher Durbin, born in 1741. He and his wife Margaret Brown Parkinson were themselves prolific in the procreation department, having 12 children. Their son John J. Durbin, my G4, was born in 1769.
Not long after the Revolution, when the colonists finally succeeded in making King George go pee up a rope, John Durbin (and presumably his parents) made their way from Maryland to the vicinity of Sunfish, Kentucky. They may have known another European in the very same area, John Houchin, who legend has it was hunting a bear in 1797 when the animal turned against him, forcing him to utter obscenities appropriate for the era as he retreated into a hole in the ground that turned out to be the entrance to the enormous Mammoth Cave.
The joining of the Logsdon and Durbin families did not end with the marriage of Ann and Samuel. Ann had a nephew Edward Logsdon (son of her brother Thomas) who married her granddaughter Mary Brown (daughter of Edward Brown and Margaret Durbin, Samuel and Ann’s daughter).
Is it okay to marry your cousin’s daughter? Okay or not, it happened again one generation down the same branch of the family tree when John J. Durbin, son of Christopher Durbin and hence grandson of Samuel and Ann, married Patience Logsdon, daughter of the aforementioned Mary Brown and Edward Logsdon.
One hopes John and Patience did not quiz their kids on their ability to classify blood relatives, as they had a mother who was also their second cousin twice removed, a grandfather who was also their first cousin thrice removed, and great grandparents were also—you get the picture.
Our John J. Durbin lost his eyesight somewhere along the way. Henceforth known as Uncle Blind Johnny (he could have also been known, correctly, as Second Cousin Once Removed Blind Johnny) this G4 of mine was also a slave owner—but a peculiar one.
The story goes how Johnny would punish his slaves by whipping. Unable to properly aim the wicked strap of coiled leather (I’m not making this up) master Durbin would order another slave to mete plantation justice while he listened. The slave so-ordered would crack the whip not on the other slave but on the tree to which the punished slave was pretending to be tied, his fake wails thus satisfying Uncle Blind Johnny that the job was done.
Curiously, this G4 of mine chose to be buried not in the Catholic cemetery for which he had donated land, where his family was buried, but among his slaves in a cemetery just next door. He apparently objected to the church forbidding the burying of slaves in the very cemetery he made possible, and wanted to record his objection in a rather permanent way. I say he succeeded.
I don’t know much about my G3 Robert A. Durbin, son of John J. Durbin, other than he was born in 1813 in Kentucky and that he and his first wife (he would go through four until getting the hang of it) Elizabeth Ann Hill were parents to one of nine children. One was my G2 Pius Anselm Durbin, also born in Kentucky, in 1847.
Robert was apparently feuding with his children when he died in 1892. But he got in the last word, pointedly, in his will, by giving each child the screw-you sum of a dollar. The rest of his cash went to an assortment of priests with instructions to pray for his soul.
* * *
Pius Anselm took his wing of the Durbin line out of Kentucky. His first stop was Illinois. There he married Elizabeth Ellen Burtle of Sangamon County, and together in 1873 they crossed the Mississippi River they only way you could in those days, by ferry, to find their fortune in Kansas.
The slave-free state had disposed of most of its native American inhabitants by this time and was enticing settlers of European and African origin onto its wide open plains of opportunity. Its state motto was per aspera ad astra, Latin for “through hardship to the stars.” Elizabeth bore Pius six children before succumbing to some unknown ailment that took her life.
With a heavy heart and distraught beyond words, Pius rushed back to Illinois to deliver the tragic news, comfort his sister-in-law and ask how quickly she could pack a bag. Thus the widower returned to Kansas with Teresa Burtle who promptly married Pius and went on to produce another seven Durbin kids. One was my great grandfather William Oscar Durbin, born in 1881.
Even with his backup Burtle sister and brood of 13 children, the hardship to the stars got the best of Pius Anselm and his Durbins. They weren’t alone. The Midwest drought was of true biblical proportions, complete with dust bowls and grasshopper plagues, and gave rise to another popular motto of the era: “In God we Trusted, In Kansas We Busted.”
Pius Anselm cut his losses and tried again in Missouri. They didn’t do much better there and got spooked by the prospect of earthquakes after experiencing temblors on the massive New Madrid fault line that runs through the area. So Pius headed back to Illinois using the only mode of transportation he and his family could afford: their feet. And when they crossed the Mississippi this time, there was a bridge.
The masterpiece of engineer James Buchanan Eads was a jaw-dropping marvel when completed in 1874, and, as the longest arch bridge in the world and the first to employ all manner of technology, plenty of folks were afraid to step foot on it. As such, the first to cross the officially opened bridge was a giant elephant, borrowed from a circus to convince people it was safe. The first human to cross may have been some guy following with a broom.
Nine-year-old William Oscar Durbin entered East St. Louis for the first time in 1890. Lacking shoes, he would later recall for his grandchildren how walking on the metal grillwork of the Eads made his feet hurt. But he would never forget the sight of peering 88 feet below his callused feet at the brown water of the river known as the Big Muddy as he crossed the already legendary structure.
After crossing, the road-weary family of Pius Anselm and Teresa Durbin passed East St. Louis and didn’t stop until they reached Dahlgren, Illinois some hundred miles downstate. There, they would again put plow to soil in an effort to put food on the table.
Another family doing exactly the same thing in Dahlgren were the Gaul’s. They too had tried and failed to make a go of things in Kansas. We’re not sure if the families knew each other or not back in Kansas, but they were joined in 1902 when William Oscar married Margaret Gaul of Monmouth, Illinois.
* * *
Margaret was the daughter of Billy Gaul, a Civil War veteran and Irish immigrant who came to the U.S. as an infant in 1845 with his parents, brother and sister. They were among the million or so Irish refugees of the great potato famine. Both of his parents, William Gaul and Bridget Leahy, their bodies no doubt weakened by poor nutrition and near-starvation, died soon after arriving. The orphaned Billy grew up a farmhand for William Massey, a prominent landowner who would later stand as witness when Billy married.
We don’t know what life was like for Billy on the Massey farm, but in November 1861 he eagerly answered President Abraham Lincoln’s call for volunteers to put down the insurrection by the southern states. Like many of the first enlistees of the Civil War, young Billy may have seen joining the Army as a golden opportunity to change his status from “immigrant American” to simply “American.” Or maybe he was just tired of pitching manure.
After mustering in at the fairgrounds of New Carrolton, Illinois in midwinter, and nearly freezing his onions off waiting for enough enlistees to arrive to fill a bus, Billy Gaul and the rest of his Company C of the Illinois Infantry Regiment 61 survived one of the first major battles of the war, in April 1862, at Shiloh in Tennessee. Although Billy left no written record of his experience, another member of Reg 61, Leander Stillwell, published a complete memoir so we have a good idea where our Billy was and when.
Billy’s Army experience, indeed his life, nearly came to an end in September that same year. The infantryman who dodged countless bullets on the battlefield wasn’t so lucky as he passed a stopped wagon train on a long march between battlefields and got himself kicked in the head by a mule. This is true. The bone-shattering injury was rather a doozy, according to field surgeon affidavits in his pension application years later, but he managed not only to fight on for the remainder of his three-year term but to re-enlist in 1864.
His patriotism did have its limits, however, and when, in August 1865, his superiors refused to let his regiment go home—this was four months after Lee’s surrender and end of the war—Billy Gaul deserted. His brazen act was duly recorded, as was his debt of “69 cents due the U.S.” for the waist belt, plate and cartridge box he took home with him. In 1884 the charge of desertion was removed from his record by an act of Congress, which realized that leaving a war well after it had ended wasn’t such a terrible thing, and changed the discharge status of scores of such veterans from dishonorable to honorable. We don’t know if they made Billy pay back the 69 cents or not.
In 1866 Billy Gaul took advantage of the Homestead Act by acquiring from Uncle Sam 160 acres of undeveloped land in Kansas in return for a $10 application fee and promise to live on the property for a minimum of five years. One year later he sold the place for $2,200—earning a nice 10,000% return on his investment. Honorability would never be one of Billy Gaul’s long suits. When I met with his granddaughter Margaret Petterson in the 1980s, she referred to her grandfather as a rounder.
“What’s a rounder?” I asked. “It’s a drunkard who leaves his family and only comes around to pick up his pension check,” she replied through pursed lips. And that’s the last she wanted to say about my G2 Billy Gaul.
* * *
William Oscar and Margaret Durbin had a tough time starting a family in Dahlgren. Their first child died at birth in 1902, and daughter Helen survived only a few months after her birth two years later. Things didn’t look so good for their son William Pius Durbin when he was born in 1906. Ill and frail, he was fed by an eyedropper and slept on a pillow. But my grandfather eventually strengthened and his parents could at last thank God for a healthy child.
They weren’t so thankful for their dismal financial condition, however, and had to give up farming for good around 1912 to keep from starving. That’s when they moved to East St. Louis where William Oscar got a job first as a streetcar operator, and later as a bus driver. His family would never go hungry again.
Margaret and William Oscar Durbin were known as Ma and Pa (pronounced “maw” and “paw”) to everyone in the family, no matter the relation. The tireless work ethic brought from the farm served them well. Pa didn’t make much money as a bus driver but he was thrifty, patient and resourceful.
Pa built a garage behind their house at 484 29th Street with his own hands, and once fashioned an electric fan out of scrap metal—it moved air brilliantly but had no guard of any kind so it scared the hell out of Ma. She raised chickens in the back yard until the city told her it was against municipal ordinances. Then she raised them in the basement until Pa told her either the chickens were leaving the house or he was, but only in jest. In reality, their marriage was “tight as the bark on a tree” to use one of Ma’s woodsy expressions.
Ma and Pa took full advantage of the farm-to-city transition. And they introduced the Durbin family passion for baseball that continues today. There was an unspoken rule that Pa was never to be interrupted listening to the St. Louis Cardinals on the radio, and the same for Ma, though her team was the St. Louis Browns, thank you very much.
Ma and Pa followed different teams but prayed in the same church. They went as a family to weekly mass at St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Church, and Ma went every day, no matter the weather. As she kneeled in the pews, she no doubt thanked God for the bounty they found in East St. Louis that had delivered them from a life of hunger, and perhaps snuck in the occasional prayer for the pitching arm of Dixie Davis.
* * *
Grandpa Durbin was a model son to his Ma and Pa. Healthy and fit, good-looking and humble to a fault, this devout Catholic was a good student who knew his manners. He was a member of the Knights of Columbus Drum & Bugle Corp (we don’t know whether he played bugle or drum) and went to work in the early 1920s at the Pennsylvania Railroad as a stevedore, loading and unloading cargo.
During the first half of the twentieth century, if you weren’t working at a packinghouse in East St. Louis then chances were good you made a living on the railroads. The confluence of so many rail lines here is what drew packing houses in the first place. And what got the railroads here was the coal. There were mountains of it beneath the Illinois bluffs just east of the city, mined like mad in the decades after the Civil War.
My grandfather would make his career on the railroad, where his sharp mind got him off the tracks and into the office where he would advance to the coveted position of Chief Clerk for the New York Central. On a blind date in 1926 he met Ann Kutkin, a Lithuanian immigrant, and in 1928 he married her.
It was more like a rescue.
* * *
Grandma Durbin was born Ona Kutkite in Jurbarkis Lithuania, in 1909. In 1911 she emigrated to East St. Louis, where her name changed to Ann, by way of Baltimore, Maryland with her mother Marcela Sorockaite and half-brother Leo Davlanski.
Marcele had been running a tavern in Lithuania when her first husband died of TB. Fortunately he left her a fair amount of money, but very unfortunately she soon married a fella named Rokus who happily spent it all on booze before taking off to America where he used the name Robert Kutkin.
He got a job as a steel molder at the Durbin Foundry (the name is a weird coincidence) where he made good money that he handed over to saloon keepers as fast as he could earn it. His wife and kids lived above a tavern she ran, and she may have suffered from alcoholism as much as her husband.
“You have to understand I never really had a home,” Grandma Durbin would share decades later.
Her parents moved frequently from one place to another when she was a kid, one time failing to tell her. She came home from school to an empty house and sat alone, with only schoolbooks and tears of bewilderment, until her brother Leo came to fetch her.
Once Ann reached her teen years, her own house was no longer safe. Rokus would chase her into the street barefoot in the middle of the night, and she had to defend herself against drunken men who went after her at wild parties, apparently with her parents encouragement.
Ann was living with relatives when she met William Durbin. She must have latched onto the morally upstanding and handsome young man as to a lifeline. He was only too willing to extend one.
At their wedding in 1928, Ma and Pa were there to celebrate their son’s marriage. Ann’s parents were not. Nor were they to be in Ann’s life much longer. Her mother died mid-sentence of a heart attack in 1930 and Rokus was not welcome in his daughter’s home. At first he was, as the young couple tried to be cordial. But the troubled man, reeking of alcohol, would demand money of his son-in-law and once at an attempted family dinner got so out of control that his step-son Leo grabbed a tire iron from the garage and threatened to swing it.
Rokus took the challenge but was too drunk to be any good to himself. When Leo cracked him in the skull, Rokus found himself drenched in his own blood. As he staggered out of the house, the bull of a man helped himself to a generous handful of salt from a barrel in the kitchen. He smacked it onto his head to cauterize the wound and stem the flow of blood. That was the last anyone in the family saw of my great grandfather Rokus Kutkin.
Around 1947, Ann got a call from the city with news her father had died and would she please come down to claim the body. “I don’t have a father,” she said, before hanging up the phone.
* * *
My dad, William Pius Durbin, Jr., was born in 1929—just in time for the Great Depression. His first bed was a dresser drawer. Money was always tight but Billy and his brother Bob, born two years later, were lucky to have a father with a good job on the railroad and a mother who was as strong, smart and determined as any woman who ever stepped foot in East St. Louis. No economic downturn was going to defeat Ann Durbin.
Dad’s family moved a lot. They lived on 30th Street when he was born, then 33rd Street in St. Patrick’s parish, then Belleview Avenue near 29th. In 1936 they moved to 484 29th street—next door to Ma and Pa at 486. The kids loved being so close to their grandparents, but in less than year Ann demanded they move after getting into a snit with her mother-in-law, vowing never to see them again (this was neither the first nor last time she’d do this).
They moved to a place on 41st Street, then a year later to 40th, then to a shotgun house on 33rd—so called because one could supposedly fire a shotgun from the front door and have it go clear out the back door without interference. This was across the street from the aptly named Acid Hills where ALCOA dumped its industrial waste into piles, favored by neighborhood boys on their bikes.
My dad and his brother were instructed to keep an eye out for huge clouds of chemical dust rolling across the street, then call for help in a rush to close all the windows.
Billy and Bob hadn’t seen Ma for three years, and Pa only on infrequent visits, when in 1944 Pa brokered a détente and Ann consented to their moving back to 484.
In 1937, Grandpa brought home for my dad a library card and a book on Roman mythology. The surprise gift made Billy Durbin a voracious reader and lifelong lover of books. This was the same year a traveling salesman convinced his parents to buy an accordion for next to nothing, in return for a commitment to take lessons. Dad mastered the complicated instrument and for decades thereafter could play any number of tunes by heart.
World War II was of course the defining event of dad’s childhood. Dad had a paper route and would read the East St. Louis Journal before delivering them. One afternoon he read that sugar was about to be rationed. On his way home he stopped at several stores and bought up as much as he could carry on his bike—nearly 30 pounds of it.
His mom gave him the 1940s equivalent of a high five and fist bump but his dad did not, pointing out that hoarding in wartime could get you in serious trouble with the law. Dad never did that again. One thing they never ran out of was eggs. Grandpa was in charge of the feed house at the New York Central and came home with an armful every day. My dad soon got hooked on fried egg sandwiches, and Grandma sold extras to neighbors.
In 1944, Bill and Bob Durbin got a little brother, Richard Joseph Durbin. Dick Durbin would one day be elected to the U.S. Congress, running in the district where Abraham Lincoln once served, and further advance to Assistant Majority Leader of the Senate where he would urge a reluctant first-term Senator from Illinois, whom he had befriended and mentored on the ways of Washington, to run for President. His name was Barack Obama.
* * *
My dad had a front-row seat to three of the great domestic battles of the 20th century, for women’s rights, union rights, and civil rights. His mother was a staunch feminist before anyone used the word, demonstrating at every opportunity that she could do both a woman’s work and a man’s work—better than any man could, she might add.
Grandma wouldn’t hesitate to paint a room herself or attempt the repair of a lamp, and took classes at business schools so she could go to work in an office. She eventually got a job as a clerk at the New York Central Railroad. Her husband and supervisor didn’t like the idea one bit—which probably only made her want to do it more.
Not surprisingly, my dad’s first job was also at the New York Central. His dad had helped arrange it and also appointed an African American stevedore named Jesse to show his son the ropes. Not only did Jesse know those ropes as well as anyone, but my grandpa wanted his son to see first-hand, as he had, the absurdity of judging a person by skin color.
African Americans were of course not called that in the 1940s. The acceptable term in public was “colored,” and at home the n-word was used, even, I am told, by whites who meant no disrespect.
My grandpa William Durbin was a union man to the core. He took a stand for the rights workers—of any skin color—as he rose through the ranks on the railroad, even after his promotion into management, when passions for worker rights are often put to test.
He navigated well the fine line between the interests of management and worker and decided at the age of 38 to apply his skills in the political arena. He was elected to the County Board of Supervisors in 1944 and within three years found himself chairman of the Finance Committee. He also found himself in a battle between personal ethics and government corruption.
My grandfather was offered bribes more than once, one time accepting a cigarette and noticing just before lighting it the tobacco had been replaced with a $50 bill—about a week’s pay.
We don’t know if he accepted the bribe but we do know he took an all-or-nothing stand in the 1949 election for Chairman of the County Board, when he refused to back a long-time family friend who apparently had no problem at all with the rampant corruption. Another bribe, for nearly a half a year’s pay, wouldn’t sway William Durbin but apparently it swayed others. His candidate lost, narrowly, and the very day after the election his former friend stripped William Durbin of his committee chairmanship.
The Durbin foray into politics was over. Or so Grandpa thought.
* * *
Grandpa Durbin fought battles at home, too. His marriage did not turn out to be a happy one. Nobody outside a marriage can truly know what goes on inside, but Grandma was certainly more willing to let the world, or at least her East St. Louis neighborhood, know how unhappy she was.
When Grandpa one night closed the windows to keep the neighbors from hearing a particularly angry tirade, she opened them back up and just raised her voice louder. Listening from their shared bed in the basement below, sons my dad and brother Bob debated who should go with which parent when they divorced. They never did, but the strains on Grandpa exceeded his ability to withstand it.
He displayed chronic symptoms of depression and found solace in few places. One was a pew at St. Elizabeth’s church and the other was his smoking chair. Cigarettes gave him much-needed comfort, but they also gave him cancer. Grandpa Durbin died on Friday the 13th of November in 1959, at the age of 53, as the bells of St. Henry’s rang in the noon hour on the Angelus bells.
Grandpa’s was a challenging life, respected and appreciated perhaps more so by others than himself. Over 500 mourners attended his wake. Among them was Maurice Tolden, an African American and railroad co-worker, who came to pay his respects. Owing to strict racial customs of that time and place, Mr. Tolden remained on the State Street sidewalk outside the Burke Funeral Home. When my dad spotted the impeccably dressed man outside, he promptly escorted him in. I know that would have made Grandpa proud. It sure makes me proud.
* * *
My dad enlisted in the United States Navy in 1948, in large part to put some distance between himself and his mother. Grandma had always dreamed of having a priest for a son and for a time thought it would be her eldest son. After an unimpressive eight years of grade school at St. Elizabeth’s, Billy Durbin surprised the nuns there—he was not a straight-A student, although his composition, penmanship and oratory skills were impressive—by winning a scholarship to St. Henry’s Seminary in Belleville. For his mother it was an answering of her prayers. For Dad it was a big mistake.
He went through the motions for the first two years, but by the third, the irreconcilable conflict of trying to please a mother who expected him to become a priest, and his very much not wanting to be a priest, only made him ill. He spent weeks in the infirmary before screwing up the courage to deliver the news to his parents: he was leaving seminary.
His mother said “Fine.” And then spoke not a single word to her son for six months.
Dad finished high school at Central Catholic then enrolled at Belleville Junior College, still not sure what he wanted to do with his life. His dad was ready to continue grooming him for a career at the New York Central railroad but Bill had an itch to do more.
With the euphoria of winning World War II still hanging in the national air, and the regret of having just missed the opportunity to serve in the Good War still nagging him, the idea of a career in the military crossed his mind more than once. And the walls of the little house on 29th street were closing in more and more every day.
His mother helped make up his mind. One night after dinner, his buddies came to the house to pick him up for a long-planned night on the town. Ann Durbin watched Bill, silently, as he grabbed a sweater and headed out to the curb. She followed him outside and waited until his friends were within earshot.
“Get back in here and wash these dishes!” she commanded from the porch.
The blood drained from Bill’s face before starting to boil. Knowing that if he defied his mother his belongings were likely to be strewn across the postage stamp front yard when he came home, Bill retreated into the house, defeated but determined.
The next day he went to the Navy enlistment office. The officer there greeted him with a warm smile, congratulatory handshake and an offer of coffee. As the steaming cup passed between their hands, the officer noticed the ends of Bill’s fingers. The nails were chewed down to the quick.
“You can’t join the Navy with fingers like that,” the officer explained. “It’s a bad sign. I’m sorry, son.”
Dad was crestfallen, but only until realizing the easy way around this obstacle. He grew those nails back, trimmed and buffed them until his hands were as handsome as any movie star’s, and within a few short weeks was using them to sign his enlistment papers.
* * *
Dad spent four years lugging his accordion back and forth across the Pacific as a radar operator on the USS Eversole. His brother Bob enlisted as well. Bill liked the work but got lonely, and homesick, which he treated with daily letters home. Letters to his mom were comforting, but what he really wanted was a girlfriend.
On his first leave home, in the spring of 1949, he was determined to find a date for an Easter dance where George Stoltz and His Orchestra would perform at the American Legion Hall. He went to his brother Bob for advice.
“Bill I know the perfect girl,” offered Bob. “Lorraine Kalish. Works at Jimmy’s Malt Shop and she’s a real doll.”
Bill appreciated the tip but was suspicious. Was he being set up? Did Bob know this Lorraine had a boyfriend already? Did he just want to humiliate his older brother when this Lorraine turned down his invitation to the dance?
“Is she going steady with anyone?” asked my dad. “Because if she’s got a fella I’m not asking her to the dance.”
“Forget it.” said Bob. “You’ll never have the guts to ask a girl to a dance.”
“Okay I’ll ask her!” said my dad, feeling the exasperation he always felt after an exchange with his brother Bob. A few days later my dad was on State Street.
“Are you Lorraine Kalish?” he asked, seeing the girl wiping the windows outside Jimmy’s.
“Oh you’re Bob Durbin’s brother,” answered Lorraine, catching the sharp-dressed sailor off guard.
Lorraine accepted the invitation, enjoyed the dance, and accompanied Bill afterward to a road-house called the Chatterbox with a crowd of other couples. She didn’t enjoy that part of the evening as much, because she had never been around so many people drinking alcohol, which is not a surprise given her age.
“Fifteen?!” asked Bill Durbin the next day of his brother. “Why didn’t you tell me she was fifteen?”
“You never asked,” answered Bob.
Bill Durbin put Lorraine Kalish out of mind. He would find some other girl just as nice. Or so he thought.
At age ten or so I read a brief article in one of the St. Louis newspapers titled “How to draw your family tree” or something along those lines. The idea intrigued me, and when I asked Mom and Dad about it they sat me down at our kitchen table with a blank piece of paper. On it they proceeded to draw from memory a crude tree with every ancestor they could name off the top of their heads.
That sketch is long gone but the exercise continued. Dad and I kept at it together, even visiting the reading rooms of the National Archives when we moved from downstate Illinois to Washington, DC. As a teenager, my interest in geneology faded but Dad kept at it for the rest of his life. After he retired, geneology became a serious passion that consumed countless hours. It ranked up there with baking bread, reading books, and keeping the squirrels away from his beloved backyard bird feeder.
Thanks to Dad and his brother Bill, who was likewise bit by the family history bug in his later years, I can tell you something about dozens of my ancestors. The first thing I can tell you is where their life stories happened to converge: East St. Louis, Illinois. I think of it as my ancestral homeland. A number of my known ancestors spent much or all of their lives in this once booming (and now busted) river town just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Missouri.
I never lived there myself. I was born three months after Bill and Lorraine Durbin moved their growing family out of East St. Louis in 1962, off the floodplains and past Cahokia Mounds where pre-Columbian Native America once thrived (and where the population in the year 1200, by the way, exceeded that of London) and up the Illinois bluffs to an unincorporated suburb known as Fairview.
But my parents, grandparents and some of my great grandparents all met each other and raised families in the town known by some simply as East Side. They arrived starting around 1901. These working class folks didn’t know one another as they arrived on the Illinois side of the Eads Bridge. But this is where Polish immigrants Adam Malec and Julia Walczak would meet and marry—their daughter Bernice was my Grandma Kalish. Slovaks Louis Kalish and Anna Krokvica would meet up here after emigrating from Austria-Hungary—their son Jimmy was my Grandpa Kalish. And long before becoming my Grandma and Grandpa Durbin, East St. Louis is where Anna Kutkin met William Durbin, she from Lithuania and he from a failed farm in downstate Dahlgren, Illinois. Unlike my other grandparents, William Durbin was already an eighth generation immigrant to the United States. His line started in the colony of Maryland and would meander to Kentucky and Kansas before settling in Illinois.
None of my East St. Louis ancestors were educated beyond a few years of grade school when they arrived, none had any money, and, except for Grandpa Durbin, none spoke a word of English. But they all had strong backs and a will to survive. And in those days in East St. Louis that’s all you needed. It helped too if your ancestors came from Europe and not Africa.
The stories I can tell would hardly count as an abstract to the dissertation of knowledge my dad and his brother gathered. But tell them I must, doing my best to tell an authentic story of what is known of whence I came, applying the occasional bit of dialog invention along the way. The basic facts in my stories are just as I understand them.
Considering one’s ancestry is like peering up at a contrail, the trail of water droplets behind a plane way up in the sky. As you follow it back, the dense white line turns into blobs, then puffs, then nothing. Thinking back on my ancestors, of which I have thousands, just like everyone else, is to me like that. I’m lucky I at least know the names of three dozen or so of my progenitors. So before these puffs of story dissolve into forgotten history I’d better jot a few down.