Today I was thinking about the summers I spent at my grandparent’s house on the outskirts of La Salle, Illinois.
You know how it is when you start thinking about something from your past and then suddenly, the memory floodgates open and all the memories come rushing out. That’s kind of what happened today on my way to the gym when—thinking about this summer day and what I might be doing if I were back in Illinois—when I started thinking about growing up in Oglesby, Illinois and spending my summers at my grandparent’s house.
And then I remembered an essay I had written about my grandfather back in 1999, a year after he passed away.
My grandfather always referred to it as “the warehouse.”
About three times the size of a garage—constructed from red-tile blocks with a corrugated sheet metal roof and complete with a concrete loading dock that could accommodate most semi-trailers—it was his place of business up until he retired.
Built by himself and his brothers prior to World War II, part of it was temporarily converted into a three-room apartment after he married my grandmother following the war (until they could get a loan to build a house). Afterwards, the warehouse was used for storage as well as his salvage business.
It might have been just part of his business, but it was much more for me. It as a summer vacation retreat where a young, wide-eyed boy could hang out with his grandfather—a place filled with a treasure chest of future memories, and indoctrination to some valuable life lessons—that was only surpassed by the love and veneration that exists between a grandson and his grandfather.
My grandfather was a self-made man. He started working when he was twelve because he was forced to drop out of school to help out his family. He delivered newspapers, sold fish, built bridges, and even baked bread before he started his refuse and salvage business in the 1930s.
To some it might have seemed that he was just a garbage man or junkman. However, he built up a reputable business and was a well-respected member of the community. He was able to pay off the mortgage of his house in twenty years, take a two-week vacation every summer, and afford a new car every couple of years. Call it your American Dream if you’d like, but he was just a real working class blue collar archetype.
He was the last of the independent refuse operators. While larger sanitation operators patrolled the residential areas, his route serviced stores, shops, and factories. He hauled away refuse from stores as diverse as retail stalwarts, Sears and J.C.Penny’s to factories like petrochemical giant, Foster Grant—later American Hoechst.
In between, there were doctor’s offices, optometrist’s offices, a couple drugstores, and even a township high school—an account that he managed to hold onto, despite fierce competition from other sanitation companies until the 1970s. Although he had to submit bids each year along with the other sanitation operators, it was still a time when tradition, family-businesses, and a handshake still counted for something.
As for his salvage business, it was just a small-scale recycling operation—before recycling became a 70s buzzword. Not that he was a grassroots environmentalist or anything—he just wanted to make a little extra cash.
What couldn’t be burned at the city dump (and later buried at the landfill) was brought home for salvage. Corrugated paper (cardboard boxes of all sizes) was baled in a gargantuan black press.
Metals like aluminum, stainless steel, cast iron, copper, and brass were extricated and separated into barrels of various sizes. Fiber drums from Hoechst were stacked and stored—later sold to a larger salvage operation. Grease from the kitchens of the turn-of-the-century Hotel Kaskaskia was collected and later sold to a firm that processed grease into soap and other products.
For me, summer vacations and almost any other break from school meant time with grandma and grandpa, and of course, hanging out with him in the warehouse after he had finished his route, which normally took seven hours to complete.
Hanging out with him, watching him work, inundating him with a million questions that almost always began with “why” calls to mind the universal bonding that takes place between a grandfather and his grandson. Indeed, it’s a union whereby a grandson can see the world through his grandfather’s eyes, and the grandfather can see the lineage of his bloodline passed down to this grandson.
In the beginning, though, my Grandfather’s warehouse was a mysterious world for a young boy—especially if he was not there to guide me through it. Part archives, hardware store, garage, and perhaps a bit of the Twilight Zone, it fueled my imagination and curiosity.
Illinois license plates from the past and faded felt state pennants embellished wooden support beams. Bumper stickers picked up from vacation trips advertised such points of interest as “See Rock Gardens” and “Merrimac Caverns” along with “Jesse James’ Hideout” and “Lookout Mountain, Tennessee” adorned the walls and the large, wooden, sliding door. Garden tools of all sizes and variety were lined in descending order against one wall, or hung up by large spikes. Sickles and scythes hung menacingly from the rafters.
Gaskets, gear shafts, and fan belts were hung up by nails. In one corner, coffee cans and empty paint cans, or mason jars were filled with assorted nuts, bolts, screws, and nails. Other cans and jars were equally filled with an assortment of washers, elbow joints, door hinges, and pulleys. The smell of grease and oil was everywhere.
Maybe not the ideal playground for a young child, but for me it was filled with hours of curiosity seeking that whetted my young imagination.
Those countless summer days spent with my grandfather in his warehouse would soon become a veritable treasure chest of memories for me.
My grandfather was a pack rat by nature—he never threw anything away. When I was younger, I wanted to be a carpenter, so I had an inexhaustible supply of nails and tools to slap some wood (pilfered from a pile of used lumber in back of the warehouse) together. Everything was worth something. Sometimes a store would throw out boxes of toys because some parts were missing, or the goods had been damaged in transit or by water—but they were still usable. (Once, a store threw out a couple cartons of “paint-by-number sets” because some of the paint had dried up. I was able to cannibalize the good paint and end up with enough sets that kept myself busy painting all summer!)
I got a kick out of following him around, imitating and emulating. There’s the old adage “like father like son,” but in my case, whenever we were together it was more “like grandfather like grandson” I even pestered my grandmother to buy me the same blue work shirts he and gloves he wore when I was old enough for him to put me to work.
If it were summer, a Philco radio (one he had found and repaired) hummed—tuned to a Chicago Cubs or White Sox game. (He was a die-hard Yankees fan, though.) In two corners of the warehouse, two vintage floor fans—circa 1940—hummed and whirred away with a wind tunnel-like velocity. He loved working out there in the summer. He never minded the wasps and hornets which made their hives inside, buzzing overhead.
An old Westinghouse refrigerator was always stocked with bottles of Royal Crown Cola or jugs of water for breaks. He never took off his shirt—just rolled up the sleeves on the blue chambray work shirt and kept on working. With sweat dripping off his brow, and puffing away on his pipe that always seemed permanently clenched between his teeth, he tinkered with radios or other gadgets, or salvaged metals.
In winter, he’d fire up a pot-bellied stove and put in a couple of hours. There was always something for us to do, no matter what the season. There were always precious metals that had to be removed and separated, or fiber drums that had to be counted and stacked.
In between helping him out, I picked up some pretty good habits and schooling along the way—like learning about the value of tools and an organized workbench. (Once, when I left a saw outside overnight, he scolded and lectured me about the value of tools.) He was a practical man. Nothing was to be wasted. Everything had its place. He learned the hard way—like so many others his age that had gone through The Great Depression.
He instilled in me the virtues of the worth ethic—especially when it came to putting in an honest day’s work. More importantly, he saw it as something that built character. He took pride in himself for having learned everything with a lot of sweat and perseverance. He didn’t have much to say about a college degree (“a dime a dozen,” he’d say as he puffed on his pipe) or college graduates in general (“give them a pick and shovel and they’ll run”), but when it came time for me to go to college, he would be the one who would co-sign the loan for me.
As I grew older, I helped out more during summer vacations and other breaks from school. When I wasn’t helping him on the route, he had me working in the warehouse. I sort of became the caretaker of the warehouse after awhile. Summers were spent patching the roof, filling in cracks in the walls, and painting the exterior. In some ways, I suppose I became part caretaker of my Grandfather’s permanence.
Unfortunately, there would be no business to pass on. When he finally retired n 1985 at seventy-four, the dozen accounts he had still hung onto were bought out by a larger sanitation firm. As for his salvage business, that too was gone having sold off everything at the time of his retirement. The warehouse had pretty much been abandoned—by then just used to park his car and store a riding lawnmower and other lawn and garden tools. He still worked out there, but more often than not it was just to find a tool.
Sadly, the warehouse, house, and property—all that he had worked so hard for—would be lost to cover extensive and exorbitant medical bills following my grandmother’s prolonged illness and subsequent death in 1995. He would take up residence in a nursing home where he lived until his death in 1998.
We all need something in our lives; something that serves as an anchor or as personal monument of sorts that lets everyone know that we were here; something that defines who we are, whether it’s our family, career, friends, or even hobbies. And perhaps, something that says we left this world in better shape than when we came into it. This manifestation of our physical presence and contributions indubitably evokes such sentiment as “the whole—in this case, a person’s life—being greater than the sum of its parts.” Whether manifested through personal, professional, or spiritual achievement, it’s something which transcends time and space and ultimately insures one’s immortality, one’s permanence. At the very least, that which becomes one’s memorial—like the love and veneration between a grandson and his grandfather.