The Real Grampa Joe

The Real Grampa Joe

My dad left Hungary when he was just seventeen years old. His father told him he had to go to America because he could no longer feed him.  I admired him for the courage it took to make a move like that. He never looked back. Once he arrived in the USA it became his new home, and he adapted quickly. His sponsor was my Aunt Anna and her husband John. Uncle John worked for the Illinois Central Railroad. It was Uncle John who got dad his first and only job in America.

Dad worked as a laborer at the Burnside shops. He became an expert at repairing brakes on rail cars. During his career as a laborer, he received several awards for money-saving suggestions for how to improve the efficiency of brake beam repair.

Dad met Mom in Burnside and that is where they married. They bought a house with one of the very first Savings and Loans mortgages. They lived in that house and raised three kids there. At age seventy, Dad bought Mom her dream house in Calumet Park. He took out a loan and paid it off before he died.

Dad was a staunch Democrat. He voted the way his boss told him to vote because he didn’t want to rock the boat with his job. Dad and Mom lived as conservatives. They would have died from shame had they accepted welfare. They didn’t have much, but they knew how to make it stretch and to work for them. They made today’s Green Movement look like a bunch of wasteful polluters. There wasn’t anything Dad or Mom wouldn’t reuse or recycle into something of value.  Sometime, I’ll tell the story of being sent out to the street to collect horse manure for Mom’s garden, or  going to the railroad tracks to collect coal from the roadbed, or about raising pigeons and chickens for Sunday meals, or about using old pieces of rubber to fix worn tires.

Dad taught me moodiness, and quiet. He also taught me honesty, love, and the value of hard work. He taught me love by example. He and my mother parted only by death after sixty-four years of marriage.

Dad retired at sixty-five from the very same job he got when he arrived from Hungary. He never complained, he just kept working hard, and kept on loving us the best he knew how. He remained independent until his last week on earth. When he realized his loss of independence, he left the same way he came, alone.

Cutting and Smacking Old Rail

Illinois Central Railroad 201, built by Rogers...

Image via Wikipedia

The summer after my bout with polio, I was sixteen going on seventeen and barely over the legal age to work.  Dad lined me up with a job in the scrap yard of the Illinois Central Railroad in Markham, Illinois.  They paid minimum wage. The work was physical and mindlessly boring.  Markham was a long way from Burnside, so Mom asked Mrs. Schulz whose husband worked at the Markham yard to give me a ride.  I gave him $5.00 a week for gas.  The Schulz family lived west of Cottage Grove on 92nd Street.  Every morning I rode my bike to their house by 7:00 a.m.   The ride to Markham took forty minutes.  I carried a lunch pail with a sandwich, an apple, and a thermos of coffee.

The job excited me in the beginning because I learned to use an acetylene torch to notch old rail. A partner and I worked together.  Our job was to “break rail”.  We faced a field of old steel rail stacked neatly in rows.  The rails wore out and had served their function.  It was time to melt them into something new. The steel mill could only put short pieces of scrap into the smelter;  the twenty-foot rails were too long.

My partner and I took turns with the torch. The “torch man” went along the rail and cut a shallow notch into the surface every twelve inches. When the rail cooled, the “hammer man” smacked the end of the rail with a full swing of the sixteen pound sledge-hammer.  Like magic, a short piece of rail fell to the ground.

All day long we cut and smacked, trying to get rid of the pile of rail.  When we finally finished, a crane car came and picked up the pieces with a magnet and loaded them into a gondola car.

When the pile of broken rail filled the gondola, they shifted us to sorting scrap.  There were many different kinds of steel used on the railroad and when they pull out old rail,  spikes, tie plates, connectors, bolts, and nuts came out with it.   All of this junk came to the scrap yard mixed up.  A magnet crane unloaded the mixture into a twenty-foot hopper.  An opening at the bottom of the hopper allowed me to pull scrap to the shelf with a big hook.  I started sorting when junk covered the shelf.  Behind me stood two lines of empty fifty-five gallon oil drums. I threw spikes into one drum, tie plates into another, and so on all day long.

On most days there were two of us sorting so we talked as we worked.  On other days I worked alone.  I set mini goals to fill an entire drum with spikes in one day.

A whistle let us know when lunch started, and ended.  Everyday, a milk-truck came, and many workers bought a quart of cold milk to drink with their sandwich.  I started doing the same thing.

The milk came unhomogenized so the cream rose to the top of the glass bottle.  I peeled off the metal cap, and picked out the paper insert sealing the bottle. My ritual was to drink off the cream first.  Gulping an entire quart of milk with lunch made me bloated.

The summer sun was hot and when we were cutting rail it got even hotter.  One day my teammate and I needed some shade to cool off.  The only shade was under a gondola car parked near us.  We sat on the rail in the shade of the car when Mr. Lassiter, the yard supervisor, drove up in his pickup.

“What are you boys doing?” he asked.

“Getting some shade”, we answered.

Mr. Lassiter got out of the truck, walked over and proceeded to chew us out. I’ve never been dressed down like that before.  He gave us a lecture about how dangerous it was to sit on a track anytime.  What if a switcher pushed another car down the track we were sitting on?  We’d be cut in two for sure.  We never sat under a rail car again.

Hudson Hornet four-door sedan finished in burgundy

Image via Wikipedia

By the time the whistle blew to end the day, I was dirty, tired, and needed to go home.  I dragged myself through the scrap yard to the parking lot to find Mr. Schulz’s Hudson Hornet.  He come out of the shop all washed up and fresh looking.  I plopped into the back seat and fell asleep.  His regular carpool friend sat in the front.  I got home at 5:45 to take a bath, eat supper, then went out to spend time with my friends.

Bicycle Commuting in 1952


After the first couple of weeks of riding the streetcar to high school, it was time to ride my bike back and forth.  She was hard to convince, but Mom finally relented and allowed me to do it.

Why it was so important for me to do it, I don’t know.  Maybe it was the adventure of riding a little over three miles from home on streets that were all strange. My paper-route basket was able to carry my books without any trouble.  This was the first school year that I didn’t deliver papers in a long time.

I plotted a route to take Woodlawn Avenue south all the way to the dead-end at 99th Street.  A right turn swung me toward Cottage Grove.  A left turn put me on Cottage Grove Avenue where I followed the streetcar tracks up to 103rd Street.  At 103rd Street I ducked right under and through the  viaduct to Dauphin Avenue. Dauphin runs parallel to the Illinois Central tracks in a southwesterly direction. It is a narrow street with little to no traffic.  I stayed on Dauphin up 109th where it stopped. I zigged west to Eberhart which turns into 110th place, and finally dead ends at South Park Avenue (Martin Luther King Jr. Drive). I rode the sidewalk along the Mendel property fence to the school gate. On a busy day, I might see two cars during the trip. The twenty-five minutes  it took to ride was less than using the streetcar, especially if the cars were running slow.

Bike route from home to Mendel High School

I parked in a very long bicycle shed with room for fifty bikes behind the Rec Center.  It had three walls and a roof.  There, I locked my bike to the rack and walked the path to the building.  The total distance was short, but I felt like I had ridden to the end of the world.

It wasn’t long before the days got shorter and the weather turned nasty and I was back on the streetcar again.