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Part Five: The Champion Distancers

A Serial in 12 Parts

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My great-grandparents' house was always crowded. Besides Bosh and Agnes and the flock of children, there was also a floating population of visiting cousins, friends of friends, and overnight guests who wouldn't leave. It was a rare meal where fewer than a dozen people sat down at the dining room table. At bedtime cots and mattresses were strewn over the floors of every room, and on the hottest nights people moved out to the back porch and the yard and sprawled like lions on the veld.

The big occasion each week was Sunday dinner after church. Everybody in the neighborhood had a standing invitation. Agnes cooked an enormous pot roast (the menu never changed, even in the height of summer) and laid out heaping bowls of string beans in porked vinegar, mountains of mashed potatoes and corn, gleaming ponds of corn relish, and steaming clutches of fresh-baked biscuits. There were flagons of wine and pitchers of fresh milk and spiced lemonade; dessert was peach pie topped with cinnamon ice cream. When the weather was fine everyone ate in the backyard, at long picnic tables draped with red-checked tablecloths beneath the thin shade of Bosh's new peach orchard. The regulars became adept at covering up bowls and platters with their napkins whenever a freight train trundled by, trailing its squalls of cinders. In cold or foul weather everybody crowded around the heavy old table in the dining room, with the spillover at the kitchen table, and jokes were called back and forth through the open doorway. Toward twilight, if the sky was clear and the air was warm, everyone moved out to the front yard and sat together watching the lanterns of the wagons slowly bob through the dark along Troy Road.

In those days the southern edge of Edwardsville was creeping toward the house like a glacier. Across the tracks on First Avenue there was now a new row of bungalows; down the wandering dirt track on Second were a couple of sprawling houses and a poultry farm. Clapboard storefront buildings were springing up on Troy Road, bringing with them streetlights and electric lines. Bosh paid to have the house wired: a new pole drooping with a spaghetti tangle of cabling was planted just outside the picket fence, and soon Bosh was proudly showing each new visitor how every room in the house had its own outlet.

Bosh was a familiar figure around the neighborhood by then. Everybody up and down Troy Road recognized his gentle lope. Sometimes he dressed to the teeth and sauntered downtown to play pool, but he was always willing to stop and chat with new neighbors and passersby, and frequently he'd throw away whatever he was planning to do that day and help someone out with a carpentry project or plumbing repair. He always surprised people with the thoroughness and quality of his work--especially if they'd observed him lolling about his own house like a pet dog. When the trains came by, Agnes and the children raced through the backyard rescuing sheets from the clotheslines, while Bosh would be seen dozing in his hammock under the back porch eave, sheltered from the black showers around him.

After Prohibition came, Bosh was one of the first in the neighborhood to take up wine making, and his bottles brought up from the basement became the treasured high point of Sunday dinner. Everybody agreed he was an exceptional winemaker, though they couldn't help shaking their heads over the absurd flavors he insisted on bottling: dandelion, peach, blackberry, apricot. But he was surprisingly diffident about beer. He never bothered to make his own; like the rest of the neighborhood, he bought it at a corner tavern on Troy Road that masqueraded as a laundry (men's long johns hung in the window, and a stack of shirt boxes hid the taps). Unlike everyone else, he didn't take the time to chill it. "That was such terrible beer we had then," one of his neighbors told me. "Just dreadful. And then seeing Bosh drink it warm--imagine how that tasted!" It had been 75 years, but the memory still made her shudder.

The neighbors remembered Agnes as Bosh's keeper, the household's taskmaster, and the children's disciplinarian. She'd never much cared whether the children stayed in school--she was fond of saying that book learning never did anybody any good that she'd ever heard of--but she was determined that they be devout churchgoers. She'd never been happy pretending to be a Catholic, and a few years into the marriage she convinced Bosh to begin attending a newly built church of the Disciples of Christ. Bosh agreed; he was indifferent to religion. But for Agnes it was a return to something deep and comforting. The church had none of the somber rituals of the Catholic church, nor the wilder goings-on typical of the Protestant churches in the deep country. Ranting, testifying, and speaking in tongues--to her this would all have been as strange as the witches' sabbaths in Bosh's stories. Instead the stress was right where she preferred it--on good fellowship, sensible obedience, and a clear conscience.

In the mid-1920s Bosh found a new extravagance: radio. The first battery-operated sets were appearing in Edwardsville's stores then (units that could be plugged into wall sockets were still a few years away); Bosh bought the fanciest model he could afford and spent hours hunched over it, twiddling the knobs and straining to make out anything intelligible through the headphones. Most of what he heard was mysterious: horrible wailings and bellowings like demons caught in a thunderstorm; deafening outbursts of static; eerie jumbles of distorted music and voices as two stations broadcast on the same frequency. Only at rare intervals, as though in the lull of a gale, was there something recognizably human--a faint voice ranting a sermon, a lonely fiddle sawing out a fragmentary melody. Then the roaring drowned it out, and no touch of the knobs, however patient or incremental, could recapture it.

Bosh and a few of his fellow radio enthusiasts in the neighborhood began playing a game. It was called "distancing," or "DX-ing"--"DX" was the ham radio code for "distance." They would hang on to a recognizable broadcast, no matter what it was, until the announcer identified the call letters and location, and when they compared notes the next day, whoever had heard the most remote station was the winner. The game depended on the fluky way radio signals bounce off the ionosphere at night: a station a thousand miles away could briefly come in more clearly than one on the other side of town. So while Bosh and his friends mostly heard a scattering of broadcasts from around the heartland--backcountry music from Illinois and Missouri and Kentucky, down-home bands playing "Sail Away Ladies" or "Down the Old Plank Road"--sometimes they'd dimly catch jazz from Chicago or the somber boom of classical music from New York. And once, long after midnight, Bosh heard a tinkle of marimba music and a faint voice unmistakably announcing a broadcast from a ballroom in Havana, Cuba. That made Bosh, at least for a while, the town's champion distancer.

Clarence spent his first winter in Chicago living in a cheap rooming house on the near north side and working day labor at the big factories north and west of the Loop. The view from his room was of smokestacks and slag heaps along the slate-gray river and the unbroken overcast sky. He was miserably lonely.

Edwardsville, Ill

Feb 7 1927

Dear Son

Well I guess you think that I have forgotten you because I don't write but you know your dad and I have poor eyes and can't see. I got your dad's glasses on now which he got from grandma but they don't fit my eyes very well. You'll have to excuse us both for not writing.

I thought if I would write you a letter once, maybe it will bring you good luck finding a job soon. I certainly feel sorry for you that you always have such bad luck. But hope you will soon find one. Work is very scarce here. Hilda came home yesterday. She gets home once a week but she wishes she could come home to stay it is so lonesome at grandma's. It sure is warm outside today. I guess there will be lots of sick. It is too warm for this time of the year. So take care of yourself that you don't get sick.

The radio is working pretty good but your dad won't have it so loud. Takes too much juice. Needs 3 new A batteries every 2 weeks. He sure enjoys it so what is the difference.

How are the cookies getting along or can't you eat them.

The roads in front of the house are awful poor, the worst I ever saw them.

Well, Clarence I see I am going uphill so you will have to excuse my writing. I never noticed it till I had this page half wrote.

News is scarce around here, besides I never go away. Well I hope this letter reaches you by February 9th and have a job by the time you are 24 years old. Please enclosed find 3 bucks for a happy birthday. 1 buck is from Hilda. She also wishes you a happy birthday and hope you have good luck for a new job.

Well I don't know any more new so I will hope that you have good luck which we all hope you have. Will close with love from all to you.

Answer soon

Mother

Shortly after he got that letter, his luck began to change.

He got a job as a taxi driver. He'd still seen almost nothing of the city firsthand, but there were few applicants who knew the street grid as well as he'd learned it sorting mail on the train between Saint Louis and Chicago. And while he wasn't that skilled behind the wheel--most of his practice had been with a friend's pickup truck on the empty back roads around Edwardsville--the traffic in Chicago was a daylong paralysis of automobiles, trolley cars, trucks, and horse-drawn wagons. One more bad driver was hardly noticed.

The cab company worked the German neighborhoods on the north side. Clarence spent his shifts shuttling along Lincoln Avenue; it was a rare event when a passenger wanted to go as far as the Loop. He quickly felt at home among the countless coffee shops and meat markets and corner bakeries, the pharmacies with their herbal remedies and the newsstands with their arrays of Teutonic eccentricity (magazines devoted to naturism, and magnetic healing, and National Socialism), the endless elm-pillared streets, the receding rows of brownstones, the turrets and spiky church steeples and water towers; it was like a dream of the old Germany he'd sometimes heard described in his childhood. He found a boardinghouse on Sacramento Avenue just off Irving Park--the owners were from Edwardsville and welcomed him like the prodigal son.

The boardinghouse was on a quiet block of old brownstones, where cats skittered safely between the rows of parked cars and kids played stickball and jump rope in the middle of the street. A few doors down was a big stoop where a group of young women gathered in the evenings. Clarence made a point of sauntering past them at the end of his shift; he was too shy to make eye contact, but he did quickly get the impression that one of them was making a point of being there to watch him go by.

Her name was Mary Galambos. She had just turned 23, which made her a year younger than Clarence. She was half German and half Hungarian. Her father had emigrated from Budapest in the 1880s; he'd gotten a job at a German-language printing press on the north side, been promoted several times, and ended up marrying the boss's daughter. Mary was their youngest child. She was small, plump, round-cheeked, and athletic, and to Clarence she was as exotic as a gypsy.

They strolled up and down Sacramento Avenue together under the watchful, mocking gaze of her friends. He told her a little about Edwardsville, and she pretended to be charmed--small-town life struck her as hopelessly dull. She described her life, and he was enchanted. She was working that spring as a jockey at the little racetrack in Lincoln Park. He boldly told her that he wanted to see her ride, and she laughed and said not to bother, the races were fixed: each morning a scary, stone-faced man from one of the north-side mobs came around to tell them the day's winners. But Clarence came anyway. He rode the trolley car on his day off and joined the crowd at the rail to watch the horses thunder past. It was a gorgeous day: the grass was green, the trees were in flower, the sun played across the mountain range of the skyscrapers. He wasn't besotted enough to place any bets, but he did cheer wildly when Mary won the last race. She laughed when she saw him coming into the winner's circle to offer his congratulations.

Afterward they strolled through the park and the zoo. Decades later, she remembered that stroll. She talked about how beautiful and mysterious the park had looked in her childhood--the fancy dress of the aristocrats, the old trees shrouded in evening mist. There had been skating on the lagoon in winter; to test the ice, a fully loaded beer wagon with a team of horses drove back and forth across it. Clarence told her that his father had driven a beer wagon for years. They paused by the statue of Goethe at the north end of the park, and she was amused and appalled when he confessed he didn't know who Goethe was.

Clarence had never met anybody like Mary. She hadn't finished high school (she confided to him in dread secrecy), but she was determined to be cultured; she was forcing herself through a self-imposed literary boot camp, and had just finished Tom Jones and was now starting on Tristram Shandy. Clarence was baffled by the idea of reading any book for pleasure, much less for status. Nor could he keep up with her whirl of opinions about current events; to him the news was as remote as the canals of Mars. But he was enchanted by her conversation even when--or mainly when--he had no idea what she was talking about. He also responded well to her impatience and her ambition. From the first, she nagged at him about his job: it was high time, she told him, that he quit driving a cab and find something respectable. Thinking of the stories he'd told her about sorting mail, she kept at him to apply for work at the Chicago Post Office. It took her months of needling persecution before he agreed, but at last he dragged himself downtown and to his lifelong shock was immediately hired. After training at the behemoth main office, he was assigned to the new municipal airport just opening on the southwest side of town.

The airport was little more than a weedy lot about a mile square, with a couple of cinder runways, a row of hangars, and a makeshift terminal. Even on the busiest days no more than a dozen commercial airplanes, mostly eight-seaters, took off or landed, each carrying a couple of small sacks of mail. Sometimes hours went by with no motion anywhere inside or out. The wind socks hung limp on their tall vanes, the pilots and mechanics played poker in one of the hangars, and in the mail room Clarence dozed at his desk. The boredom could feel intolerable (though the dark day would soon come when Clarence was the only person he knew with a secure federal job).

He and Mary spent all their free time together, riding horses and going to the movies and sitting in cafes. Her family was Catholic, and he started attending mass at their parish church. (He didn't tell Agnes about that.) One late-summer evening they were walking along Clark Street when they were caught by a sudden squall and ran for shelter under the Egyptian archway of the new Reebie building. Everything Egyptian was fashionable then, a few years after the discovery of King Tut's tomb. Clarence and Mary had just seen some foolish pharaonic epic at the Biograph, and as the rain careened down around them he kissed her and called her his Gypsy Cleopatra. A few weeks later he asked her to marry him.

The whole family came up from Edwardsville for the wedding that October of 1928. None of them had ever been in Chicago before, and when Clarence met them at Union Station they were huddled together like refugees. They were dazzled by his assurance as he led the way out into the streets; they were oppressed by the scale of the city, the interminable rows of brownstones and the furious bustle of the commercial districts; and they were intensely suspicious of Mary's family, Agnes in particular--after the news was broken to her that Clarence had converted to Catholicism for the ceremony.

The wedding reception was spread along most of the backyards of their block of Sacramento Avenue. It was a cool, clear day. White bunting draped the picnic tables, and white balloons jostled up from the fence gates; as the cloudless twilight came on, people lit up dozens of paper lanterns. Agnes and her daughters sat hunched together in a defensive knot, glaring at anyone forward enough to approach them and casting worried glances at the encircling brownstones and crisscrossing power lines as though they were under siege.

But Bosh was at his most exuberantly charming, telling jokes, offering toasts, and dancing with his new in-laws. Afterward, people said it was a damn shame his friends back home couldn't have seen him. At the end of the evening he gave Mary a special present, a gleaming brass horseshoe he'd cast at the foundry for her. "Always keep it with you for luck," he said, and Mary did. Later she could barely talk about him. "He was a wonderful man," she'd say, "just wonderful." And her eyes would fill with tears.

After returning from Chicago Bosh began to feel sick. He thought at first it was just bad digestion, the ordinary price of getting older. But he got steadily worse. His stomach burned constantly, there was blood in his stool each morning, and a couple of times without warning he doubled over in pain. He didn't believe in complaining: months went by before he said anything to Agnes and months more before he nerved himself to visit the doctor. The diagnosis was quick. He had colon cancer.

In the spring of 1929 he had to quit work and stay in bed. Friends and neighbors were perpetually coming by to keep him company, and the house took on the air of a permanent, desultory party. He tried to rouse himself each Sunday to preside at the dinner table, but by summer he was too weak and the dinners came to an end. The neighbors went on helping in discreet ways. When Helen was on her way home from school somebody might lean out over a fence or from a kitchen window and invite her for dinner; that was a code letting her know that she shouldn't go home.

By the end of summer Bosh was on his last legs. The doctor was paying a house call when Agnes, in a fit of fury, demanded he do something. The doctor burst out that he was helpless, unless she wanted him to stick a red-hot poker up Bosh's rear to burn the tumor out. From the next room they heard Bosh weakly calling out that they shouldn't bother--he felt as though they'd already done it. The doctor prescribed opium, but by then it would have taken a lethal dose to dent the pain. Instead, Bosh began asking his visitors, with a great show of conspiratorial whispering, if they could smuggle him bottles of peach brandy.

In the end, only Agnes could bear to be in the house for very long. She sat at his bedside, talking to Bosh about whatever came into her head. Sometimes she prayed, but Bosh just rolled his eyes and smiled. Sometimes she sang to him. Mostly she talked about their children--about how Clarence was doing in Chicago, and whether he and Mary would make them grandparents soon; or about some crazy thing Cecil had said to Pearl; or about how Hilda had grown so much more responsible staying with Franciska; or about whether Eugene and Helen would ever stop being so shy. Bosh would appear to listen, though his gaze wandered off and he stared vaguely at the sunlight on the wallpaper. Those were his good days. On his bad days (or so a neighbor told me) his screams were so loud they were heard by the crews of passing trains.

In two weeks: We Can't Take Care of Our Own.

The previous installments are posted at leesandlin.com.

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