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A Walk in the Woods



Which way is north?

She points vaguely east. Maybe south. She has no idea. But what are grandparents for, if not to teach kids the difference between up and down?

They're in the forest preserve along the Des Plaines River, the granddaughters, the grandfather, the dog. Far enough back to convince a couple of big-city kids they might really be lost in the wilds. But across the river is the O'Hare expo center, and if you pass under the expressway on a special path I know, you'll find a couple of phone booths sitting out in an open field. Whenever he sees those booths the grandfather thinks of his own father, who used to tell a story about two children who got lost in the woods and came upon a hot-dog stand.

Excuse me. I plan to tell one my own way, sometimes in the third person, sometimes in the first, the very kind of thing that drives readers mad. It can't be helped, any more than those phone booths can be helped. Some things simply must be.

The idea today is to see wildflowers. The granddaughter, the ten-year-old one, was given a wildflower coloring book for her birthday; now she's the expert. "That," she declares, "is a black-eyed Susan. And that's Queen Anne's lace. And that's a common field daisy. And that's poison hemlock." Meanwhile the dog is choking on his chain, doing his best to drag little sister into the brush.

The grandfather knows this place. For ten full years he was a county forest-preserve officer. At this very spot he once arrested a retarded man for indecent exposure. The man was squatting down in the bushes and the grandfather drove right up to him in his squad. "What are you doing there?"

The retarded man had nothing to hide. "I'm masturbating," he said.

But he wasn't the right guy. He wasn't the one we were looking for.

When you retire from a police job, you turn in your uniform, you turn in your ID, you turn in your star. You turn in part of your life, and the next day you see a white-haired civilian in the mirror.

But certain places on this earth will never be the same to you.

Imagine yourself driving patrol summer and winter and summer again; eventually the landscape lies before you like a storybook. You could just say here, here, and here, and put it down on paper--you would have your book. On this corner I saw a man collapse in his wife's arms. At that curve the kid on the motorcycle got killed. Down those tracks, the homicide, I could draw a circle around the spot. There's no end to it, you could drive and drive and you'd always be seeing things nobody else knows are there.

"Look, kids." It's the grandfather talking. OK, it's me. "Here's where we pulled out the stolen car."

Kids are not impressed with policeman relatives. Try as he might, the grandfather cannot do it. They've seen The Terminator.

We're in a field that the Forest Preserve District mows once a year. Weeds reach their full natural height here, develop flowers and wonderful seedpods that make great dried bouquets in the fall. It may not be virgin prairie, but it's 15 minutes from home. Along the fire trail, where the best flowers grow, is where the grandfather helped search for the rapist one day and found giant puffball mushrooms instead. A 17-year-old girl, beaten across the face with a blue steel revolver, you don't forget that, not ever. But you don't forget a mushroom as large as a basketball either.

At the end of the firebreak the trail turns and joins the main river trail. There are parts of this trail you can drive--if you're authorized, otherwise don't try. When he was a cop, the grandfather gleefully arrested everyone he caught doing it. What is it they say? If you're going to do a job, do it right?

It was on this trail that people used to stop the grandfather's Bronco and complain of the man in a tutu cavorting on the other side of the river, displaying those parts of the masculine body society deems it proper to cover. After a month or so of this, someone who believed in doing a job right crept through the weeds one fine Saturday morning and arrested the poor guy, tutu and all.

When you come down this trail in a squad, you have to be careful. At every turn you're likely to meet someone: a jogger, a bicyclist, an old man with two granddaughters and a dog. Sometimes a kid roaring along on a motorcycle. Once the grandfather met a stolen van traveling 50 miles an hour. "Keep your eyes up," he warns the granddaughters.

Therefore they see the deer, a big guy with full antlers who steps off into the woods and stops to eye these intruders. On a Tuesday morning? he seems to say. Come on! Don't we ever get any peace?

It's no trick to spot deer along this trail. There are deer enough to be a problem. Almost every night, herds of 10, 12, and more graze along Lawrence Avenue, sometimes a mere step away from speeding traffic, and yes, they do often make that step. The cop--somehow I can't stop thinking of myself as a cop--has seen the results, deer with legs dangling and intestines on the ground, cars with hoods stove in and windshields dangerously shattered. Sometimes he thinks it would be better for all concerned if there weren't so many deer. Better, maybe, but what a thrill for two city kids when a full-grown buck stands at attention.

As for the dog, snuffling in the dirt, he sees nothing at all. Good thing--the kid holding the other end of his leash is the little one.

"We found a car here, too," the grandfather says. He's so proud of all those stolen cars he recovered. They've come to a little footbridge spanning a gulch, filled with leaves and rubble. The girls trip merrily across. They could care less about some forgotten Camaro torched in the middle of the night.

This particular bridge, built by hand out of stone and concrete during the days of the Civilian Conservation Corps, sets the grandfather to thinking. It stands today as good as ever. Another inefficient government program. Isn't it a shame all this land can't be privatized and turned over to the developers? Isn't it socialism to have so much valuable land owned by the government? Think of the wonderful condominiums that could go up, the fences that might be erected, the "keep out" signs that could be displayed. Think of the wealth that would trickle down to the poor!

The concrete starts just east of East River Road, the condos, the apartment buildings, the office buildings, Mike Ditka's restaurant (it seems he has one out here too). The Catherine Chevalier Woods have become the backyard for the apartment and condo people. On sunny days they cross East River Road and spread out on the lawn. On almost any weekend you can see them on the trails.

Many are women. Young women. Attractive young women. They float their blankets over the grass, lie face down, unhook their halters, and soak up the sun; they pull on their jogging suits and start down the trails, sometimes in pairs, sometimes alone. Occasionally they flag down a cop and ask:

"Officer? Is it safe back here?"

What kind of answer do you give when you've seen a girl with her face beaten into hamburger, and know the man has never been caught? You stop and you patiently explain certain facts. You don't want to frighten anyone, but look, this is the 20th century, this is a major population center, yes, things have happened here. Here, not many yards from this tiny bridge.

She was never quite clear on the location. She got the bridge and she got the fork in the trail, but we never could pinpoint exactly where it happened. That was the summer when the rains were so heavy, when the woods flooded, all that moisture may have caused the mushrooms to grow so huge. We got the call as soon as we reached work. It must have happened at eight, before anybody was up . . .

"Do you know where you're at?" the grandfather asks. "Do you know how to get back?" The girls point in all directions; eventually the little one gets it right. The dog, for all he knows, might as well be on the moon. Tongue lolling, he finally picks up the scent of the deer and nearly yanks the leash from her hand. "You're dumb, Sport," the girls laugh. "That deer is all gone."

Poor Sport. A hunting dog raised in the city. His genes say "run." Open the gate and he's gone, one time for three days and a $200 veterinarian bill to take care of all his injuries when he finally returned. A dog like this, you somehow don't expect he will learn his lessons.

Anyone could get mixed up back on these trails. The grandfather would like to show the girls the spot where the archaeologists spent several summers digging. It's somewhere off this trail. He remembers their cars parked where no cars are supposed to be, parked so brazenly he knew at once they had a permit.

The woman in charge of the dig was from a nearby university, an attractive gray-haired academic who took the cop back and showed him the site. An Indian village here, many hundreds of years ago. She and her students had dug a neat pit, exactly square. You could tell there had been a campsite by the color of the soil, the way it darkened at a certain depth. And the grandfather, who felt very comfortable talking to this intelligent woman, had lied and said yes, he could see. Then she showed him several pebbles that could have been any bits of broken stone but in fact were artifacts of a people who had disappeared before history even arrived. This entire riverbank, she explained, had once been prairie. There had been no woods here before the white man.

Maybe he can inspire his granddaughters to grow up to be like the archaeology lady, active, intelligent, successful, presumably happy. It would help if he could show them the spot.

It was by the bridge. She was telling this story for the third time, once to the Schiller Park police, once to Chicago, now to me. I hated to ask questions she had already answered. She was so small, her face so bruised and bandaged. "Right where the path forks." That's what she said. Where the path forks. Is it such a big deal, a single attack on a single young woman in a world where people are slaughtered by the thousands? I watch my granddaughters skipping ahead. Yes, it is a big deal.

The Des Plaines River, they say, once ran as clear and pristine as any Michigan stream. The grandfather remembers canoeing on this coffee-colored water and reaching his paddle down to touch a gravel bottom. There were rapids here, the old books tell you, and the early voyagers had to portage them. The rapids are gone now, replaced by a series of little dams that often create dangerous pools people can drown in. Not a mile north of the expressway there is such a pool, where three men died one afternoon, one after another after another. The grandfather remembers that afternoon and how he had to hold back a fourth man who still wanted to make the rescue, and he remembers how that fourth man, in grief and frustration, punched a fist-sized depression into the side of a car.

Crossing beneath the expressway, you would not know the Des Plaines River could drown anybody. The water seems shallow and slow and the banks are pure bottomless mud. Poor Sport, trying for a drink, goes in up to his elbows and retreats. It's a curious experience to stand here beneath the rumbling traffic. It's not prohibited, but you get the feeling you are in a place the public was not really intended to go.

The sunlight on the other side is blinding. The grandfather, the girls, and the dog continue north until they reach the cemetery fence that interrupts this trail. Following the fence they circle back, and enter the Higgens and East River Road corner where the grandfather, in his cop days, made many a halfhearted chase of off-the-road motorcycles. Little stories keep popping into his head, and he wants to tell his granddaughters, but they have seen The Terminator. They wouldn't care to hear about the time he was training a rookie and the rookie, spotting a dirt bike, leaped out of the squad with such enthusiasm he tore the handle right off the door, and how that rookie had tackled the bike at full throttle and brought the rider back a prisoner.

"How old are you, kid?" the grandfather remembers asking.

"Sixteen. What are you going to do with me?"

Do with him? A 16-year-old? "Give you back to your mother."

"Oh no, not that!" Suddenly he's over a ten-foot fence, leaving his shirtsleeve in the grandfather's hand. Stories like these, known by cops as "war stories," are the principal form of conversation, excluding bitching, whenever two squads meet.

In the shadow of the expressway, at a spot where a rented Chevrolet went right through the fence one night, the grandfather finds 15 perfectly good Forest Preserve District picnic tables scattered about in the weeds. Clearly they have been gathered for no good purpose. Thinking like a cop again, he sees a chance to perform one more service for our county. Drive over to the Indian Boundary Division and advise the superintendent of this situation. Taxpayers! You have just been saved $1,500!

Which way is north? Which way is south? How would you get home from here? The girls hang their heads. I don't know. Well, what would you do, the grandfather asks, if I fell down and had a heart attack right now?

Can't fool kids today. They know it isn't going to happen. We pass back beneath the expressway and cut toward Catherine Chevalier Woods, where the car is parked. The sun has gotten a bit too high now, the dog is beginning to wilt. The little one is beginning to wilt. The grandfather has definitely wilted. No one notices that he has taken a shortcut that bypasses the little bridge.

She was 17 when she started her run. She circled the grove and started south toward the bridge and the man waiting in the brush. Could she describe him? Describe a man who leaped out of the woods and dragged her off, who raped her and beat her across the face with his gun? Could you?

They're parked at the very end of the road, right where the grandfather captured a barrel of beer long after closing hours one summer night. A young man with more enterprise than good sense tried to run into the woods with it, and finally fell down laughing. This grove, with its long narrow parking lot hidden back among the trees, was always a favorite for late-night drinking parties. The grandfather remembers 75 picnic tables piled into what forest-preserve workers call a pyramid and set afire. The next morning--charcoal, the wonder being no one saw a thing. That's how far back this grove goes.

Now he's wondering, was it after the second rape, not the first, that the wonderful mushrooms were found? The grandfather sometimes gets things mixed up. You would think every act of violence and pain a person encounters would stand out separate and distinct forever, but only parts of them do.

The grandfather did not handle this second rape personally. He had the dubious privilege of being watch commander that morning, and sent his best man north as soon as the call came in. It was a repeat, the grandfather knew it, following in his Bronco; it was the same place, the same MO, the same time of day, even the same time of year. A full year between attacks, or was it two? See how things blur? This time the grandfather did not have to go to the hospital and interview a young woman with her face smashed in, he had only to talk to his officer and get the story from him, and it was the same. The same.

Yes, now that he thinks of it, it was on the second search they saw the mushrooms. After the lieutenant came up and took charge. The lieutenant knew about this type of puffball mushroom, he was Italian and his people ate them all the time but this one--he picked up a mushroom slightly larger than his head--was already too old and would not taste right. When he threw this head-sized mushroom aside it exploded on the trail.

The Indian Boundary Divisional Headquarters is located on Belmont, adjacent to the Indian Boundary Golf Course. As a cop, the grandfather always drove through a little service road connecting them, but now, as a civilian, he comes in off Belmont. "I have to see a man," he tells the girls. Of course they'd rather stay outside. They've spotted a swing set on the lawn. There is an apartment above the divisional offices, rented to one of the Forest Preserve officers, and he has kids.

The superintendent is happy to hear about his tables. "I'll have a truck over there right away!" he promises. He's a good man, conscientious. "I bet they were going to steal those tables," he says. The grandfather, remembering the flaming pyramid, thinks otherwise.

While the grandfather is sitting in the office catching up on the latest district gossip and talking retirement to Joe the desk man, he keeps an eye on the girls through the window. At what age do girls get too old to swing on swing sets and ride the teeter-totter? Certainly not ten. The woman the grandfather has been married to for the last 41 years claims she went swinging in her prom dress.

"But do you miss it?" Joe the desk man says. "Do you miss it?"

"Yes, I do," the grandfather says. "But I'm glad I made the decision."

What the grandfather does not miss are the long grinding hours, the monotony of one slow night after another, the endless chatter of the police radio, the long commute back and forth from the city. At a certain point in life, just getting up and going to work is enough to wear you out.

At a certain point in life, just keeping up with a couple of granddaughters will wear you out. It's time to start home. They drive north, up River Road, and spot a stand of cattails growing in the ditch. "Can we pick some?" the oldest granddaughter cries. She still hasn't had enough. "Next time," the grandfather promises, thinking what a joke it would be if he were to be arrested by his successor and charged with destroying native flora. Sometimes these rookies tend to be overzealous. And they never know north from south!

"What direction are we going?" the grandfather asks. "North, south, east, west? You have to look hard at everything! You have to train yourself to observe."

But they're tickling each other in the backseat.

He's about five-ten. He wears a blue jacket and tennis shoes. She remembers that they weren't laced. She remembers everything. He is dark-complected, has an accent, he carries that blue steel revolver. She describes him so well that the Chicago police are able to draw his face, and when he does it again and they draw it again, it is the same face, the same man.

That face stays on the bulletin board almost four years. It greets the grandfather each morning, it eyes him every night. He can see it as clearly now, staring at his word processor, as if it were posted before him. A thousand times, up and down that trail, he looked for that face and never found it, and now he has turned in his star to another.

Where are you, my brave friend who beats young women with a blue steel revolver? Have you gone away, have you died, has someone else caught you, or have you, by chance, found Jesus? Will you be back, or have you moved to another place where young women go, and what shall I tell my granddaughters? North, south, east, west, which way is safe, and what if the answer is none?

Several days later it occurs to the grandfather that his granddaughters may not have seen Terminator. Suppose they read this? He can just hear their cries. "But we didn't see Terminator!"

In that case . . .

Let me tell you about the time we were looking for a man with a gun and a gopher ran up my pants leg.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.

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