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Life Itself A Memoir
By Roger Ebert
Grand Central Publishing Copyright © 2011 Roger Ebert
All right reserved.
410 EAST WASHINGTON
I LIVED AT the center of the universe. The center was located at the corner of Washington and Maple streets in Urbana, Illinois, a two-bedroom white stucco house with green canvas awnings, evergreens and geraniums in front, and a white picket fence enclosing the backyard. Hollyhocks towered above me by the fence. There was a barbeque grill back there made by my father with stone and mortar, a dime embedded in its smokestack to mark the year of its completion.
There was a mountain ash tree in the front yard, and three more next to the sidewalk on the side of the house. These remarkable trees had white bark that could be peeled loose, and their branches were weighed with clusters of little orange berries. “People are always driving up and asking me about those trees,” my father said. He had planted them himself, and they were the only ones in town—perhaps in the world, I gathered. They needed watering in the summertime, which he did by placing five-gallon cans next to them with small holes drilled in their bottoms. These I carefully filled with the garden hose from the backyard, while making rainbow sprays over the grass around.
After they married, my parents lived in a small apartment in downtown Urbana, and then bought this house not long before I was born. My father took great pride in it. Not only the trees were unique. It was one of the few stucco houses in Urbana. The green awnings were handmade and were taken in and repainted every winter. We had a peaked roof over the living room, which also had stucco walls. There was a Spanish feeling, which reminded my father of the years he had lived in Florida.
My bedroom was the one with the window overlooking Maple Street. The walls were pale yellow, the ceiling red. It had a two-way fan, posing the fundamental scientific question, is it more helpful on a hot night to blow cooler air in, or warmer air out? I had better get to sleep quickly, because Harry with His Ladder would come around to look in to be sure my eyes were closed. I lived in fear of Harry and kept my eyes screwed tight until I drifted off to sleep. I can tell you even now what Harry looked like, because I saw him many times, perched on top of his ladder, when I allowed my eyes to flicker open.
Of this room as a very young child I remember only a few things. My mother putting me to sleep in a bed with sides that lifted up to prevent me falling out. A nightly ritual of love pats. My small workbench on which I hammered round pegs into round holes. A glass of water that was filled to the rim, but that I could see straight through, so obviously there was room down there for more water. My tears when I was accused of playing with water and spilling it, when I had been following strict logic.
My own little radio. I would lie on the floor under my bed, for safety, while listening to The Lone Ranger. I thought Arthur Godfrey and His Friends were friends about my age. I listened carefully to the lists of the FBI’s most wanted men, whose descriptions were read by J. Edgar Hoover at the end of The FBI in Peace and War. Caution—do not attempt to apprehend them yourselves! From my hideout under the bed I used binoculars to search for them in the clothes closet. I had a bookcase in which I carefully arranged first childhood books, and then books about Tarzan, Penrod, the Hardy Boys, and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. Also Huckleberry Finn, the first real book I ever read and still the best.
When I was sick it was the best time. I could stay in bed and listen to Our Gal Sunday, which asked the question, “Can this girl from a little mining town in the West find happiness as the wife of a wealthy and titled Englishman?” Before that there was a local program Penny for Your Thoughts, where people got a penny just for calling up Larry Stewart and talking to him. Larry Stewart was also “the voice of the Fighting Illini,” my father informed me. The Illini were the University of Illinois, the world’s greatest university, whose football stadium my father had constructed—by himself, I believed. It was there that he had seen Red Grange, the greatest player of all time. Also in that stadium were seen the world’s first huddle, the world’s first homecoming, and Chief Illiniwek, the world’s greatest sports symbol (“Don’t ever call him a mascot,” my father said. “Chief Illiniwek stands for something.”)
The university also had the world’s largest arched roof, over the Armory. The cyclotron, where they worked with atoms. The ILLIAC computer, in a building filled with vacuum tubes that could count faster than a man. My dad worked in there sometimes. “Your father is an electrician for the university,” my mother told me. “It can’t run without him. But I’m afraid every day that he’ll get shocked.” I didn’t know what that meant, but it sounded almost as bad as being “fired,” a word I also didn’t understand, although thank God that had never happened to my father. There was the Natural History Museum, with its stuffed owls and prehistoric bones. Altgeld Hall and its bells, which could be heard all over town in the summer, and which my father had personally installed, I believed.
The town also contained a cemetery where we would go to see swans float on the pond. And a Cemetery Graveyard, next to the Atkinson Monument Company in a lot overgrown with trees and shrubbery, where the corpses of broken gravestones could be picked through for the rock garden my father was building in the backyard. If you got lost in the Cemetery Graveyard, the ghosts might come for you. There was the Boneyard, a creek running through town, where the Indians had buried their dead and at midnight you could see their bones. An airport where we could see Piper Cubs taking off. A train station north of town, in Rantoul, where we could watch the Panama Limited and the City of New Orleans hurtling through, the world’s fastest trains.
I attended Mrs. Meadrow’s Tot’s Play School during the day. This was because my mother was a Business Woman—in fact, the president of the Urbana Business Women’s Association. She was a bookkeeper for the Allied Finance Company, up a flight of stairs over the Champaign County Bank and Trust Company. It was run by Mr. R. V. Willis. On the first of every year they worked all day to get the books to balance. When they succeeded, Mr. Willis would take us all, including my father and me, to dinner at Mel Root’s two doors down Main Street. In between the bank and Mel Root’s was the Smith Drug Company, where Mr. Willis bought me by first chocolate soda. My parents smoked Lucky Strikes, but Mr. Willis smoked Chesterfields.
Our house had a concrete front porch on which rested four steel chairs that bounced on springy legs. My father painted them in pastel colors. On summer nights my mother would make lemonade and we would all sit out there. They would smoke and read the papers, and talk to neighbors walking past. Later you could see fireflies. The sounds of radios, voices, distant laughter would float on the air. On spare days, there were jobs to do. Pulling up dandelions. Picking tomato worms off the tomato plants in our vacant lot. A riskier job, climbing a stepladder to pick bagworms off the tallest evergreens. The paper bags containing the worms would be gathered in a pile, sprinkled with kerosene, and set alight. “Don’t worry, boy. They’re only worms and can’t feel anything.” The most exciting job, in the autumn, was putting on old clothes and swimming goggles and crawling up the big air pipes of the furnace while dragging the vacuum cleaner hose, to pull the dust out.
In winter I was awakened by the sound of my dad shoveling coal into the stoker. In summer, by the clip-clops of the horse wagons of the Urbana Pure Milk Company. The horses knew their routes by heart and stopped at the doors of customers. Sally Hopson’s family owned the milk company. In summer, the whistles of passing trains could be heard through open windows all through the night.
When you entered the house from the front porch, you were in the living room, with our fireplace. My father would place tablets on the burning logs that would make the flames burst into colors. Here we sat on Christmas Eve listening to Bing Crosby and his family. He had a son named Gary Crosby who I thought was just about my age. Off the living room was the dining room, nearly filled by the table. Most of the time the table’s center boards were out, so my mother could let down the ironing board from the wall. Then came the kitchen, where my father made his chili and let it sit in the icebox overnight.
A hallway had doors opening to the living room, the kitchen, the bathroom, and both bedrooms. When Chaz and I revisited the house in 1990, a woman named Violet Mary Gaschler, who bought the house from my mom, asked us to come in and look around. I saw the alcove in the hallway where our telephone rested. We were on a party line. When the phone would ring at night, my mother would hurry to it, grab the receiver, and say, “Is it Mom?” My grandmother had heart trouble. Having a Heart Attack was worse than being shocked or fired. On that same visit with Chaz, I went to the basement and felt chills down my spine. Hardly anything had even been touched. On my father’s workbench, a can of 3-in-One oil still waited. The chains on the overhead electric light pulls still ended in toy letters spelling out E-B-E-R-T. Violet Gaschler let me take an “E.” The basement’s smell was the same, faintly like green onions, and evoked summer afternoons in a lawn chair downstairs, reading Astounding Science Fiction.
It was from the basement that I operated the Roger Ebert Stamp Company, buying ten-cent ads in little stamp magazines and mailing out “approvals” to a handful of customers, who must have been about my age. These I addressed on an old typewriter. One day two men came to the door and said they might want to buy some stamps. I proudly took them downstairs and showed them my wares. My mother hovered nervously at the head of the stairs. The men left quickly, saying they didn’t see anything they needed for their collections. Nevertheless, they seemed to be in a good mood. As they were driving away, my dad walked in from work. “What did those men want?” he asked. We told him. “Their car said Department of Internal Revenue,” he said.
On April 22, 2009, the city of Urbana honored me by placing a plaque at my childhood home. At first I resisted. Far greater figures had lived in Urbana, such as the sculptor Lorado Taft; the poet Mark Van Doren; the novelists William Gibson, David Foster Wallace, Larry Woiwode, and Dave Eggers; the newspapermen William Nack, James Reston, Robert Novak, and George F. Will; the Nobel winner John Bardeen, who invented the transistor; and the Galloping Ghost himself, Red Grange. You see that Urbana truly was the Center of the Universe.
The city fathers assured me they planned to dedicate plaques to many other worthy sons and daughters of Urbana, and so I agreed to the ceremony. As I stood in front of 410 East Washington, I reflected that this was the first and only home my parents owned. Here they brought the infant Roger home from Mercy Hospital. Here they raised me, and encouraged me in my dream to be a newspaperman, even if it meant working after midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. Here my father refused to let me watch him doing any electrical wiring. Here he told me, “Boy, I don’t want you to become an electrician. I was working in the English Building today, and I saw those fellows with their feet up on their desks, smoking their pipes and reading their books. That’s the job for you.” Among the old neighbors who turned out for the occasion was Sally Ormiston, who lived across the street and used a big toy clock face to teach me to tell time.
In the 1970s, an article appeared in the News-Gazette about the restoration of the bells in Altgeld Hall. It said the crew had found a note tacked to a beam up in the tower. It read “We repaired these bells on…” I forget the date. It was signed with three names, one of them Walter H. Ebert. On that early visit to Urbana, I took Chaz to visit my parents’ graves. Close by, my father’s parents are buried. My grandfather’s name was Joseph Ebert. Joseph is my middle name. I must have noticed that many times when I visited those graves with my father, but that day, for the first time, I felt a bond with the man in that grave.
MANY YEARS AGO during a drinking dinner at the house of the sociologist Howard Higman in Boulder, he refused to serve me dessert until I had heard him explain the difference between the European and American ideas of family. In Europe, he said, one’s family roots went down, down, into the past. In America, they went out, out into the society. “An Englishman knows who his great-great-great-grandfather was,” Howard said. “An American knows who’s on his bowling team.”
By his definition I am an American. I didn’t realize until I began to write this book how little I know about my ancestors on either side of the family. It is a custom that all memoirs contain a chapter about the author’s descent from long lines of Italian aristocrats and Mongolian yurt-dwelling camel hair jobbers, with an American bootlegger or Nazi sympathizer thrown in. I will disappoint.
I was a late child. My father was forty when I was born, my mother thirty-one. On my father’s side, my grandparents died before I was born. On my mother’s side, there was one grandmother. My father had three sisters. Two of them died spinsters, and from the third descended all my cousins. My mother had two sisters and three brothers, who together produced two children. I have three first cousins, which a European would find inadequate.
My father’s parents appear in America from Germany in the late nineteenth century, leaving no memories. I never heard a word about my German relatives, nor do I know the names of my great-grandparents. My mother’s Irish grandmother, known to me only as Grandma Gleeson, sailed to America during the potato famine, and my cousin Ethel Doyle produced a mimeographed record of Grandma’s memories, with photographs mounted in it, which I cannot find. The only oral history I remember is that her sailing ship was blown back to shore by fierce storms six times, or eight. No Irish immigrant ever had a pleasant crossing.
My grandmother Anna Gleeson married a Dutch-American farmer named William Stumm, who was adopted and possessed no blood ancestors he knew about. He knew about his adoptive parents, but I don’t. He must have had the spark of wit, because in my aunt Mary’s family album I find a small display ad from September 12, 1901, reading: “W. H. STUMM. The game of billiards is brain-food for the over-worked businessman; an invigorator of the system that is exhausted thru studious attention to the routine of worldly affairs. East Side Billiard Parlors.” This shred suggests he had a gift for drollery.
Anna had a sister I knew and visited, my aunt Ida in Chicago. Her daughters Ethel and Blanche lived with her, and died spinsters. Anna had other brothers and sisters, but none I remember meeting, except Uncle Charlie. I remember visiting his house in Taylorville as a little boy. He stood on the front steps and played “Turkey in the Straw” on his fiddle. After his death he wasn’t much mentioned. When he was, his name was used as if everyone knew who he was, but I didn’t. There was also an Aunt Mary Magner, but I believe she was an honorary aunt. She lost her only son when a two-by-four fell off a truck and flew through the window of the car he was driving, beheading him. He was an exemplary son who remained faithful to his pledge to his mother never to smoke or miss Sunday Mass, “although he was such a good man that he always carried a pack of cigarettes in his pocket so he could give them to friends.”
On that side of the family I have two first cousins, Colonel Tom Stumm in Virginia and Marianne Dull in Colorado, who I see from time to time. Tom and I met in South Bend to bury his mother, Margaret, and I’ve visited Tom and Gloria in Virginia. Marianne and I have met when I’ve been in Colorado, and Tom’s daughter Kathryn, an assistant district attorney and now a teacher, lives in Denver with her children. Many second cousins in the Stonington and Taylorville area were well known and frequently visited by us, and I am in touch with Tom Stumm and his children to this day, but distantly: weddings, a funeral, a Thanksgiving, a Fourth of July, Christmas cards. Tom’s children and some grandchildren came to visit in Michigan. We like each other and are happy when we meet, but we have gone our own ways.
On my father’s side, there are also two close cousins. I was raised with Jim and Karol Ann Pickens in Champaign-Urbana, and Jimmy inflamed my envy at family gatherings by playing “Lady of Spain” at breakneck speed on his accordion. Their mother, Reba, was the daughter of my father’s sister Mame. This would have been on Christmas Eves at the Ebert family home on Clark Street, where my aunts Hulda and Wanda still lived. Karol Ann married Dwayne Gaines, and they had Tim and Shelly. Karol Ann helped run the University of Illinois Employees Credit Union, which her parents Glen and Reba had founded. Dwayne, Karol Ann, and Tim were heroic in the care of my mother, Annabel, in her later years. This often involved expeditions into dangerously drifting snow to carry her to hospitals or department stores. Dwayne has spent years restoring a Ford Coupe to such perfection it can hardly be risked to exposure at auto shows. I have good contact with Tim, who is the only person on either side of the family who can be called a movie fanatic, and thus can make good use of his old cousin. Jimmy Pickens spent his life as the town pharmacist in Watseka, Illinois. He and his wife, Bev, have four children, Todd, Susan, Steve, Kristin, and with them at last we strike gold in the reproduction department. They produced so many children and grandchildren that a photo taken at their fiftieth wedding anniversary looks like a church social.
In general, however, my grandparents on both sides began a population implosion. This fact, and age and geography, have resulted in my sense that I grew up pretty much alone in the world. I had warm relations with my mother’s sisters Martha and Mary, and her brothers Everett, Bill, and Bob, but they were more than usually older than me, and after Bill died twenty years ago there was no one left.
Fortunately, it was at about that time I married Chaz Hammel Smith, or as she later became, Chaz Hammelsmith Ebert, because an American can have a double-barreled last name but there is little practice for a triple-barreled one. By marrying an African American, I was suddenly propelled from a void with few relatives into a world with relatives without number. Some months before my marriage, a reader wrote me about African-American families, “What you won’t be prepared for is the relatives. The entire extended family is in continual communication, and it is a slow year without at least three weddings and three funerals.” This is true. My white family valued and kept in touch with what few relatives they had, but in moderation. Chaz and her family are living genealogists. I once heard her on the phone asking about how Sharon was. I know two of her cousins named Sharon, and asked her which she was asking about. “Neither one,” she said. “This Sharon is the daughter of a former neighbor of one of my brother Andre’s girlfriends.”
Many of her family have become my own family. I love and am loved. There are no strangers in her family, and as a member of another race I have without exception been accepted and embraced. Her children and grandchildren are mine. The grandchildren have six living grandparents. These people are good and kind to such an extent that I am on warm terms with Chaz’s first husband, Merle Smith, and his wife Donna. Chaz’s niece, Ina New-Jones, is greatly valued by me because she’s one of those rare people who always think I am funny. A bad comedian would never learn the truth from Miss Ina. She and I can instigate laughter in each other almost to the point of unconsciousness. I have spent most of my life perfecting the skills and compulsions of a very funny guy, and Ina is the only person who always agrees with me.
Chaz’s family transcends time and distance to stay in touch. Road journeys between Minneapolis, Chicago, and Atlanta are undertaken not only for weddings and funerals, but for birthdays, anniversaries, and graduations from college, high school, grade school, and kindergarten. At the other end of the age scale, there are retirement dinners and testimonials not to be missed.
My two families overlapped just barely. After my grandmother’s death in 1960, Martha and her lifelong friend Jean Sabo continued to live in a house at 807 West Clark with Martha’s brother Bob. After he moved to the Champaign County Nursing Home, crippled by emphysema, my uncle Bill retired from teaching and with Martha and Jean bought houses in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and later in Wapella, Illinois.
Bill, Martha, and Jean came to live in my guest cottage in Michigan during the summer of 1988. “I love you and I don’t have much time left,” Martha explained. She had a heart attack on the evening of Bill’s Thanksgiving dinner in 1988 and died in a nearby hospital three days later. On her deathbed she desperately tried to tell me something but failed, and shook her head “no” when I tried to guess. It wasn’t “I love you.” It was something very important. The two of us looked more alike than anyone else in the family, and I wondered if she was trying to tell me she was my real mother. That would have been unlikely. I have my birth certificate and a photo record of myself in my mother’s arms beginning on the day of my birth. All the same, haunted by her urgency, I asked Jean if she knew of any family secrets she could share with me. “Not that I can think of,” she said.
At Martha’s funeral Mass in Wapella, Father Richard Brunskill, their next-door neighbor, noticed that as a lapsed Catholic I remained in my pew, and walked over to me. He held up the Host and said, “Take this for Martha.” The village held a crowded potluck dinner in the church basement, and Martha was buried in the plot she and Jean had purchased in Wapella. Then Bill and Jean moved into separate retirement homes.
My uncle Bill and aunt Mary attended my wedding. Mary, learning I would marry a black woman, asked me, “Honey, that’s never been done in our family, so why do you want to start now?” I said I loved Chaz and wanted to make her my wife. “Well the good lord knows you’ve waited long enough,” she said, “and it’s better to marry than to burn.” At the wedding, Mary and Bill sat with Chaz’s mother, known universally as Big Mama, and enjoyed their celebrity.
Aunt Mary had a childless marriage with John J. O’Neill, a former state trooper who became the Champaign postmaster. Tall, jocular, a glad-handing Democrat with a patronage job in a Republican city, he ganged up with my father against Uncle Everett the Republican at family gatherings. He and Mary moved house at least every two years. “Johnny has Mary work like a slave to fix up those places, and then he sells them,” my father said. “She loves it,” said my mother, who may have been right. Some people enjoy being in eternal interior decorating mode.
Uncle Bill, a lifelong bachelor, was a retired high school agriculture teacher who taught in Elkhart, Indiana, and Elkhart, Illinois. Bill and Mary visited us in Chicago frequently, and we often drove down to Urbana. Bill and Mary by then lived in the Clark-Lindsey retirement home, where both remained alert until the end, although Bill in his eighties began counting on a visit from Ed McMahon with a $1 million check from Publishers Clearing House, and after his death we had to cancel his subscriptions to Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy.
Bill came to visit in Michigan many times, Mary only once. As I proudly turned into our wooded dirt lane, she shrank in her seat and said, “Oh, honey! Cut down these trees! They’ll never be able to get in here to get you out!” Mary slowed in her later years because of emphysema. All those cigarettes. Bill was still planting tomatoes and cooking family dinners into his nineties. Every summer in the 1980s, he and Martha and Jean Sabo would take long road trips with their close friends Dave and Dot Sparrow of Kenney, Illinois, near Wapella. It was Bill’s bitter disappointment that they wouldn’t allow him, at eighty-six, to ride a mule to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. He dismissed their fears. “The mule isn’t about to fall. Just strap me to the saddle and I’ll get there one way or another.” He was very serious, and there was lingering resentment over the issue. At the very end, on his last birthday visit to Michigan, he said he thought his brother Everett had died and yet there he was sitting at the table big as life. He was looking directly at me. Dot Sparrow said, “Well then you’d all better have some cake and ice cream!”
MY OLD MAN
UNTIL THE DAY he died, I always called him “Daddy.” He was Walter Harry Ebert, born in Urbana in 1902 of parents who had emigrated from Germany. His father, Joseph, was a machinist working for the Peoria and Eastern Railway, known as the Big Four. Daddy would take me out to the roundhouse on the north side of town to watch the big turntables turning steam engines around. In our kitchen, he always used a knife my grandfather made from a single piece of steel. “That is the only thing you have from your grandfather.” There was a railroad man’s diner next to the roundhouse where we would go for meat loaf and mashed potatoes, but my first restaurant meal was at the Steak ’n Shake on Green Street. “A hamburger for the boy,” my father said.
What have I inherited from those Germans who came to the new land? A group of sayings, often repeated by my father: If the job is worth doing, it’s worth doing right. A good workman respects his tools. Don’t go to sleep at the switch. They spoke German at home until the United States entered World War I. Then they never spoke it again. He was taken out of the Lutheran school and sent to public school, “to learn to speak American.” He spoke no German, apart from a few words.
There is a story he told many times, always with great laughter. It was from Joseph. Before a man left Germany for America, the schoolmaster taught him to say “apple pie” and “coffee.” When he got off the boat, this man was hungry and went into a restaurant. “Apple pie,” he said. The waiter asked, “Do you want anything on top?” The man replied, “Coffee!”
My father was raised in a two-story frame house with a big porch, on West Clark Street. His parents believed they couldn’t conceive, and adopted a daughter, Mame. Then they had three children: Hulda, Wanda, and Walter. Aunt Mame and Uncle Ben lived north of Champaign in a small house made of tar paper, heated by a stove. This was not considered to be living in poverty, but simply was their home. It was always comfortable and warm, and I loved to visit. Uncle Ben drove a heating oil truck and would sometimes drive past our house and wave. Always with a cigar stuck in his mug.
Hulda and Wanda remained at home. I spent hours with coloring books on their floor or at their kitchen table, and tiptoeing up and running down the scary staircase. They had an actual icebox, and they had me hang the sign on the porch so the iceman could see from his horse-drawn wagon how much ice they needed. We sat around a kitchen table covered with oilcloth and ate beef and cabbage soup. Hulda contracted tuberculosis, and I heard, “She has to go live in the sanitarium up on Cunningham.” This was spoken like a death sentence. She died, and the body was laid out in the living room. I was allowed to approach her and regarded her body solemnly. The occasion itself made more of an impression than the dead body: A coffin was in the living room. How strange.
I never knew Wanda as well as I knew my uncles and aunts on my mother’s side. There was tension between my parents about their families, and I was always at the Stumm house, rarely at the Ebert house, although they were only six blocks apart on the same street. This was never really discussed, and my mother and Wanda always seemed friendly. I vaguely gather it involved how their financial assistance was divided. Perhaps their difference in religion. Because my father wasn’t a Catholic, their marriage couldn’t take place in St. Patrick Church, and my mother often observed, “We had to be married in the rectory.” This wasn’t my father’s fault. Religion was never mentioned by Hulda and Wanda. I never went to their Lutheran church with them, because that would have been a mortal sin.
Wanda worked most of her life as a saleswoman for the big G. C. Willis store in downtown Champaign, and we’d visit her there, my father buying something. Everybody seemed to know her. The last time I saw her was in the 1970s, after she moved to a nursing home. My mother and I took her out to dinner. I was a little surprised by her warmth and humor. I felt her love. When I was a child she seemed tall, spare, and distant. “Your father’s initials are still carved in the concrete on the curb in front of the old house,” she told me. I went to look, and they were.
My father as a young man moved to West Palm Beach, Florida, and opened a florist shop with a man named Fairweather. “We delivered a lot of flowers to the Kennedys in their mansion,” he said when Jack was elected president. There was a photo of him, trim and natty, standing beneath palm trees with a cigarette in his fingers. He and Fairweather lost the shop during the Depression and he had to move back home. He apprenticed as an electrician at McClellan Electric on Main Street in Urbana and then “got on” at the University of Illinois, where he worked for the rest of his life.
After the war, Bill and Betty Fairweather moved to Urbana, where Bill, the son of my father’s partner, would study for his Ph.D. in psychology. He’d been a bomber pilot. Night after night, the voices of Bill and Walter drifted in from the front porch, as they talked late and smoked cigarettes. In the 1980s, the Fairweathers came to visit us in our Michigan house. “Rog,” he asked me, “did you ever wonder why a Ph.D. candidate and an electrician would spend so much time talking? It was because your dad was the smartest man I ever met.”
One day years later I was out to dinner with Glen and Reba Pickens. Reba was the daughter of Ben and Mame. In the years after the war they founded the University of Illinois Employees Credit Union, which began in idealism in dingy basement quarters and later grew into a big new building and millions in deposits. Glen and Reba were two of the sunniest people in my family, popular all over town. Their children were Jim and Karol Ann, who are the only cousins near my age I have from my father’s side. At dinner I asked Glen and Reba what they knew about my dad’s life in Florida. Not much, it turned out, although they thought the florist business had been doing well until the Depression.
“Your dad wrote a lot of letters home,” Glen said. “He wrote about good times and then times turned bad and he started to think he would have to come back home. There were some sad things in there. We found all those old letters after Wanda died.” I asked what had happened to them. “We threw them out,” he said. “That house was filled with things. She never left home, you know.” It hadn’t occurred to him I would have given anything to read letters written by my father in the 1920s. My father was thirty-seven when he married, fifty-eight when he died. He lived twice as much of his life before I was born as after. How did he write? What did he dream? What were the sad things? I loved Glen and Reba, but what were they thinking? One Sunday in the 1950s, during the Rose Bowl game, the phone rang, and it was an old girlfriend of “Wally” from Florida, who told my mother she’d found his number from information. My mother handed him the phone. There was ice in her eyes. After the call was finished, I was told to go back downstairs and watch the game.
Growing up, there were always books in the house. Daddy’s living room chair had a couple of bookcases behind it, which held best sellers like USA Confidential, and matching volumes of Hugo, Maupassant, Chekhov, Twain, and Poe. We took both local papers, and the Chicago Daily News. He told me that if I read Life magazine every week and the Reader’s Digest every month, I’d grow up to be a well-informed man. Every night at dinner we listened to Edward P. Morgan and the News, “brought to you by the thirteen and a half million men and women of the AFL-CIO.” He told me I should never cross a picket line, and I never have. He was a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and my mother told me, “Your father may have to go on strike.” I pictured him consumed in flames and wept until it was all explained.
He told me, “The Democratic Party is the friend of the working man.” On election night in 1952 I was allowed to stay up as late as I could, listening with my parents to the radio. I must have been carried to bed. They came in together to wake me the next morning with the news that Eisenhower had defeated Stevenson. I had no idea what this meant, but I saw they were depressed. I knew Stevenson was the Democrat and had been governor of Illinois. “He gave a speech,” my father said, “saying that he felt like the little boy who stubbed his toe. He said it hurt, but he was too big to cry.” I burst into tears. He bought me The Major Campaign Speeches of Adlai Stevenson, and in 1956 when Stevenson came to the University of Illinois for a speech, I took it to him for a signature. He was surrounded by Secret Service agents, but when he saw the book he reached out to sign it. “Haven’t signed one of these in a while,” he said.
The TV set in the early days was banished to the basement, because my mother didn’t want it “cluttering up the living room.” Half of the basement held my father’s workbench, the washer-wringer, and clotheslines. The other half had been supplied with reclining aluminum deck chairs. Later there was room for my science fiction collection and the desk that represented the offices of the Ebert Stamp Company. Daddy and I faithfully watched Jack Benny, Herb Shriner on Two for the Money, Omnibus, and particularly The Lawrence Welk Show. Welk reminded him of his father. When something good came on, my father would shout, “Bub, you’d better see this.” She was often right upstairs at the kitchen table, reading the papers, listening to music on the radio. When she came down, she usually remained standing, as if she didn’t want the TV set to get any ideas. Otherwise she could have my chair, and I’d sit cross-legged on the floor.
My father woke up about five thirty every morning, and listened to Paul Gibson on WBBM from Chicago. Gibson had no particular politics; he just talked for two or three hours. Daddy would make coffee and liked his toast almost burnt, and the aromas would fill the small house. I’d stumble in and he’d hand me a slice, slathered with clover honey from the university farms. Gibson didn’t play much music, but one day he played “The Wayward Wind” by Gogi Grant. I walked into the kitchen. “You like that?” my father asked, nodding. The song has haunted me ever after.
My parents took me to see my first movie, the Marx Brothers in A Day at the Races. I had to stand to see the screen. I’d never heard Daddy laugh more loudly. He had seen the real Marx Brothers in vaudeville at the Virginia Theatre in Champaign. We went to see Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and I was prepared to clap my hands over my eyes because Our Sunday Visitor, the newspaper distributed in church on Sundays, said the movie was racy. Together we saw Bwana Devil, the first movie made in 3-D. Those were the three movies I remember us seeing together. My aunt Martha took me to most of my movies.
At Walter’s lunch hour, he’d come home and fix himself something. His favorite meal was a peanut-butter-and-jam sandwich and pickled herring in wine sauce. “The sweet and sour go against each other and make every bite fresh.” When he cooked at dinner—rarely—it was usually hamburgers, pressed on a device of his own manufacture, or round steak, pounded with the side of a saucer, sprinkled with Accent and flour, and fried. He made chili with some bacon in it and let it improve in the refrigerator overnight. He always drew onion-chopping duty, with his father’s knife.
He’d take me to Illinois home games at Memorial Stadium. “See those electrical pipes? I installed them.” When the All-American J. C. Caroline broke away for a touchdown, he and everyone around us yelled so loudly it could be frightening. When it was very cold, he’d send me under the stands for cans of hot chocolate, to hold in our pockets. In the cold air the smoke of his Luckies was sharp. Everybody smoked. Ray Eliot, the legendary Illini coach, smoked on the sidelines. After my father was told he had lung cancer, he switched to filter-tip Winstons.
Walter was a tall man for his generation, six feet two inches. I never saw him angry with anyone except my mother, and that was mostly shouting at her to calm down: “Cut out that noise!” Their fights were mostly about money: how much they were helping her family, and how much they were helping his. Sometimes my mother would lie on my bed at night, sobbing after a fight, but I pretended I was asleep. My stomach would hurt. I have never been able to process anger.
They pushed me. I would go to the university and get an education. I wouldn’t be an electrician like my father. Daddy refused to teach me a single thing about his work. When I was in grade school and used a new word, they would laugh with delight and he’d say, “Boy, howdy!” When I won the radio speaking division of the Illinois High School Speech Contest in 1957, the state finals were in a room in Gregory Hall. My aunt Martha told me years later that he had hidden in a closet to listen to me.
When I was around twelve he spotted an ad for a fishing resort in Wisconsin and mailed off for the brochure. We studied it. He was especially impressed by their seven-course meals. “Boy, howdy!” We drove north for a fishing trip, the two men in the family, who had never been fishing together in our lives. I guessed I was about to be told the facts of life, which I already knew from a leaflet hidden in the night table of my friend Jerry Seilor’s father, who was never able to bring himself to give it to him. No facts were mentioned in Wisconsin. The resort was small and inexpensive, knotty pine with stuffed deer heads and painted sunsets on the walls. I remember little about the food except that my father carefully counted the courses. Combination salad. Split pea soup. Cottage cheese with chives. We rented a boat and fishing tackle and sat upon the glassy lake in the sun. The weather was one degree above cool. I don’t remember if we caught anything. I remember our contented silence together, the smoke from his Luckies, the hiss when a spent cigarette would hit the water, the songs from our portable radio: “The Wayward Wind.” “Oh, Mein Papa,” by Eddie Fisher. “That makes me think about my father,” he said.
In 1956, I entered Urbana High School and joined the staff of the student paper. That autumn, Senator Estes Kefauver was Stevenson’s running mate, and my father learned that after his speech Kefauver would be spending the night in a guest room of the Illini Union building on campus. He hatched a plan for me to interview the senator. He found someone on campus to letter an official-looking badge reading:
ROGER EBERT URBANA HIGH SCHOOL ECHO
At six in the morning, we took up our post with other reporters and photographers outside the senator’s room, and when his aide looked out and saw me, he saw a photo op. I was brought in to “interview” Kefauver and had my photo taken. “Are you deeply concerned that we are all in danger from strontium ninety?” I asked him, because we had been at his speech the night before as he lectured about the dangers of nuclear testing. “That’s an excellent question,” he said, smiling for the photographer.
I always worked on newspapers. Harold Holmes, the father of my friend Hal, was the managing editor at the News-Gazette and took us down to the paper. A Linotype operator set my byline in lead, and I used a stamp pad to imprint everything with “By Roger Ebert.” I was electrified. I wrote for the St. Mary’s grade school paper. I used a primitive hectograph kit to duplicate copies of the Washington Street News, which I distributed to neighbors, and Ebert’s Stamp News, which I mailed to the six or so customers of my mail-order stamp company. Both were hand lettered in the purple ink that was absorbed by the hectograph gel and produced copies until the ink faded.
Harold Holmes asked me before my junior year in high school if I wanted to cover the Urbana Tigers for the News-Gazette. This caused a debate at the kitchen table. I was not yet sixteen. I would have to work until one or two a.m. two nights a week and drive myself home on a learner’s permit. My mother said, “Those newspapermen all drink, and they don’t get paid anything.” There was some truth in this. My father said: “If Harold thinks the boy can do the job, we’ll always regret not giving him the chance.”
As a younger man, he drank. My mother determined to put an end to this. “She put your father through hell on earth,” Aunt Martha told me. Advised by a family doctor, my mother added some substance like Antabuse to his coffee. When he had his next beer, it made him deathly ill: “He didn’t get up off that davenport for two days.” This was before I was born, and I never saw him take a drink. When the old Flat Iron Building in downtown Urbana burned, he took me down to witness the flames, and I saw tears in his eyes. It had been the home of the Urbana Elks Lodge. “Why are you crying, Daddy?” “I had some good times in that building.”
We went for drives. We went to Westville, south of Danville, to eat Coney Island hot dogs made the same way they made them in West Palm Beach. We went up to Wings, north of Rantoul, to have Sunday dinner, and they brought a tray with kidney bean salad, celery sticks (stuffed with canned cheese), carrots, green onions, radishes, pickled peppers, candied watermelon rinds, quartered tomatoes, and coleslaw (pronounced “cold slaw”). Every single time my father beheld this sight, he said exactly the same thing: “They fill you up before you even get your meal.” Then he would glance at me, to signal that he knew he said it every time. That’s how I gained a lifelong fondness for repeating certain phrases beyond the point of all reason. These included: “Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart,” from my best friend John McHugh, via Yeats; “A wee drop of the dew,” from my great editor Bob Zonka; “Irving! Brang ’em on!” from my Cannes buddy Billy Baxter; “Not by foot, I hope!” from Tintin’s dog, Milou. These phrases are not tics, they are rituals in the continuity of life.
We drove to Starved Rock State Park. Turkey Run State Park. The Great Smoky Mountains. Rockome Gardens, the big rock garden in Amish country down around Arthur, Illinois. These destinations I found interesting, the drives boring. I read books in the backseat. Sometimes we’d drive with our neighbors the Wikoffs up to Mickelberry’s Log Cabin on Ninety-Fifth Street in Chicago. This was a long drive in the years before the interstates. Sometimes we’d just drive up to Rantoul to see the Panama Limited go barreling through. “It must have been going ninety miles an hour,” my father would say, glancing at me because he said exactly the same thing every single time, no matter how fast it was going. Then my mother would run into the Home Theater to get popcorn and Necco wafers, which we would share when, on our drive home, we parked at Illini Field, north of Urbana, to watch the planes land.
Daddy loved music, and as a member of the university staff he let us into the balcony at Huff Gymnasium to “keep an eye on the lights” while we watched the orchestras of Harry James, Count Basie, Les Baxter, Stan Kenton, Les and Larry Elgart. I absorbed popular music through my pores. In the basement I would use a tape recorder he bought me to record radio shows on which I played my 45 rpm records and pretended to be a deejay.
On his belt he carried a leather pouch with his smaller tools and a key ring large enough for a prison warden. He needed to be able to walk in anywhere. On nights when a fierce thunderstorm would descend, the phone might ring. I would lie awake waiting for my father to say, “Come on, boy, the lights are out.” We would drive in the maroon Plymouth through the darkened streets to the power plant, a looming coal-smelling building that my father would enter with a flashlight and do something. “All right, boy,” he would say. “Stand by the door.” All of the lights on the campus would come back on, and we would drive home, me dozing in the car, although I could tell when we came closer, on Race Street, because the bricks rumbled beneath the wheels.
The university was smaller then, and so was Champaign-Urbana. We went as a family to every dairy that had an ice cream counter. Daddy scouted out little restaurants. There was the Huddle House on University Avenue, which had a counter with perhaps fifteen stools in the front of an enormous building with no apparent purpose. Every time we went there, he speculated that the Huddle House was a front for Russian spies. He liked the Race Inn on Race Street, where you get all the fried smelts you could eat on Fridays. And Mel Root’s on Main Street. I joke about movies with a café where everybody in town comes and they all know one another. Mel Root’s was that place in Urbana.
I wonder what my father really thought about his life. He married a beautiful woman, and I believe they loved each other. Whatever had happened in West Palm Beach stayed in West Palm Beach. He married in his late thirties, held a good-paying job, owned his own home on a corner lot. He debated politics with my Republican uncle Everett Stumm, was militantly pro-union, had me worried when Eisenhower defeated Stevenson the second time. He never said so, but I got the notion that the Republicans were not good people. He read all the time. In another generation, he would surely have gone to university and read books with his feet up on the desk, and he wanted me to do that for him. Sometimes I resented him, as when blinded by summer sweat while pulling bagworms from evergreens while he repeated, “If the job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” He wouldn’t let me have my dog Blackie in the house. He thought rugs were more important than dogs. Did I know how much I loved him? I do now.
In the spring of 1960 I announced that I didn’t want to go to Illinois, I wanted to go to Harvard, like Jack Kennedy and Thomas Wolfe. This was on a warm day, the screen door open in the living room. “Boy, there’s no money to send you to Harvard,” he said. “But I have my own job,” I said. To my astonishment he began to cry. Then I learned what my mother already knew, that a month earlier he had taken the train to Chicago and consulted a specialist who told him he was dying of lung cancer.
Surgery was at Cole Hospital. I waited in a small rose garden; my mother was inside. The surgeon closed up his chest and told us he might live two years at the most. He came home, worked for a few weeks, then went on sick leave. He read. Harry Golden, the liberal North Carolina Jew, had a new book out, and he loved Harry Golden. He never missed Lawrence Welk. I was busy, pledging a fraternity, dating, working for the News-Gazette, publishing my science fiction fanzine. I would sit in the living room or the basement and read with him or watch TV. He told me he was doing fine. Lighting up a Winston. I saw my mother’s eyes, but we didn’t speak of the unthinkable. He went back to the hospital, and I brought the new Harry Golden book over for him.
That day I saw something I am so grateful to have seen. He sat up on the edge of his bed. “Hold me, Bub,” he said. “It hurts so much.” She took him in her arms. “Oh, Wally,” she said, “I love you so much.”
ANNABEL STUMM WAS born outside Taylorville, Illinois, on the family farm. Her father, William, was of Dutch stock, had been adopted as a boy, and that is all I ever learned about his family. Her mother, Anna Gleeson, was a second-generation Irish American whose own mother immigrated to America on a sailing vessel. How the two families came to farm in Illinois I was never told. It wasn’t a closed subject, but simply never an open one. Because I was a late child and my relatives were a good deal older, it belonged to the past. William must have operated a billiard parlor in Taylorville, or perhaps the smaller town of Stonington, because someone pasted his tiny newspaper advertisement from 1901 in a family album.
After William died Anna moved her family to Urbana so two of her sons could attend the university. She opened a boardinghouse for students, and in that establishment Annabel was raised with her brothers Everett, Robert, and William, and her sisters Mary and Martha. There was another brother, Gleeson, a tow-headed playmate in old photographs, who died on the farm: “He fell down the steps carrying a bottle.”
One day in the 1970s I drove with my mother, Martha and Bill, and our cousin Bernardine Gleeson to visit the old farmhouse, which stood, abandoned by later tenants, open to the weather. They walked cautiously inside and thought maybe they remembered one patch of wallpaper. They were shocked by how small it was: “How did our whole family ever fit in here?” There was a creek at the bottom of the yard and my mother remembered they ran barefoot to it all summer long. This was almost the only time I ever heard them discuss their brother who had died there.
I read the memoirs of Europeans who trace their ancestry back for centuries. My ancestors appeared as if from nowhere in the New World, and I know so little about any relatives of the great-grandparent generation. They were Irish, Dutch, and Germans, immigrating on my mother’s side from need and on my father’s side from the demand for skilled labor in the railroad shops. I only knew one of my four grandparents, Anna, who lived on Clark Street in Urbana with her children Bob and Martha, and Martha’s lifelong friend Jean Sabo. This house was always referred to by Annabel as Home.
My parents were scarred by the Depression. My father lost his business. My mother, a decade younger and more vulnerable, remembered the hard times on the farm and the crowded boardinghouse where the boarders took precedence. I would take her on drives around town and sometimes our route would take us past the Champaign County Nursing Home. She always called it the “poor farm,” and predicted, “That’s where I’ll end up.” I told her I would not allow that, but the dread was too deeply embedded. I thought I could count on things to turn out right. She never learned to do that. For some time after I moved to Chicago, she didn’t know how to explain to her friends how I earned a living. “And does Roger still just… go to the movies?” she was asked.
Annabel and Mary were beauties. Martha, with whom I felt an instinctive sympathy, was plain. Everett, the oldest, was the vice president of a gravel quarry somewhere near Crystal Lake, Illinois. He was the only Republican in the family. His children Tom Stumm, a West Point graduate and retired colonel, and Marianne Dull, wife of a Colorado veterinarian, are my only first cousins on my mother’s side. Bill, Bob, and Martha never married. Bob, who wasn’t as smart, worked as a janitor at the University of Illinois library. He was always more of a bystander at family gatherings.
After high school, my mother attended secretarial school and then went to work for the Allied Finance Company, which had four rooms above the bank in downtown Urbana. Working outside the house was an unconventional, even dashing, decision. She was at one time president of the Urbana Business Women’s Association, and involved in some kind of infighting that inspired conspiratorial phone calls late into the night. When the owner of Allied Finance, Russell Willis, was drafted into the war, she managed the business by herself, hiring an assistant to help her repossess cars whose owners had fallen behind on their payments. Such deadbeats were known as “No Pays.” It was a term of disparagement, given meaning because she lived in lifelong fear of someday becoming a No Pay herself. The company supplied her with a car, so we had two cars in the driveway when that was rare. And there were two paychecks, so I grew up in security and comfort although I realize now my parents never really had much money.
When Walter returned to Urbana from Florida, I was told, he set eyes on Annabel and began courting her. They were a fashionable couple, both stylish dressers, he at the time with a movie star mustache, she with a knockout figure. After their marriage they lived in Tuscan Court, an Italianate apartment compound behind the Flat Iron Building in downtown Urbana. It was two blocks from Walter’s job at McClellan Electric before he got his university job, three blocks from Allied Finance. In about 1940 they bought 410 East Washington on a twenty-year mortgage.
During the war, my mother was a Gray Lady and left home two nights a week in her uniform to do wartime volunteer work. After the war, Russ Willis returned and hired his son, a nice enough man, but my mother felt hurt that he was promoted over her after she had kept the company running in the war years. Feminism was not heard of in those days, but she would have been in favor.
A great deal of Annabel’s life revolved around St. Patrick Catholic Church. It stood on Main Street, only half a block from Home. At three or four I began to think of the church as a realm apart from life, perhaps in another dimension, where the priest spoke an unknown language and moved through incense and music, vestments and processions, awesome and boring. Annabel wasn’t concerned with theology but with ritual, centering on the public display of devotion. She and some of her friends were much taken with a woman named Jean Shroyer, who lived in an apartment two doors down from the church and never missed a service, even attending every Mass on Sunday. In 1952 Jean made the Marian Year pilgrimage to Rome and returned with the papal blessing, holy water, Kodak slides, and prayer books. She began a study group devoted to the Virgin, which they all attended, and was greeted in our home as a temporal saint. My father remained detached during these occasions.
Walter and Annabel were stage parents, encouraging situations in which I might draw attention. When the Urbana Police started the Junior Police, it was my photograph that appeared in the paper, being fitted with my official hat. I remember not one thing more about the Junior Police. I heard over and over that I was “gifted,” although I never had any special gifts in school other than those, like reading and writing, that seemed to come naturally. Much was made when, in the eighth grade, I won an essay contest held by Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, north of Urbana. Again my picture was in the paper. My award, a desk pen, was presented by David Dodds Henry, president of the University of Illinois. That such a great man would officiate at an essay contest for eighth graders strikes me as peculiar.
My mother’s life revolved around our family, her family, and her job. I often visited the Allied Finance offices, where Mr. Willis supplied me with a copy of Swiss Family Robinson and allowed me the use of a typewriter on which I taught myself to hunt and peck more or less the way I do today. When we went outside for lunch at Mel Root’s or the counter at Smith Drugs, everybody knew Annabel. To be a “businesswoman” was a form of celebrity, and her friends included Frances Renner, president of Urbana Home Loan, whose husband was later to be framed in the death of my dog Blackie.
There was some kind of upheaval at Allied Finance, unclear to me, and Annabel left the company. It may have involved the promotion of a man into a job she thought should have been hers, and there were endless evening phone conversations that could be overheard but not understood. In about 1956 she went to work as the bookkeeper for Johnston’s Sport Shop in Champaign, and I got a Saturday job there at fourteen, as a salesclerk. After my father died in 1960, she supported us as a bookkeeper for a plumbing supply and two florists. She paid off the family home and sold it, and we rented a two-bedroom house a few blocks north, which is where I lived while going to the university.
In all those years there were half-understood conversations about the fact that Jean Sabo continued to live at Home with my grandmother, Martha, and Bob. She and Martha had met in nursing school; Jean became an army nurse, took an apartment after the war, and later moved in. Martha was the youngest, and always the most self-confident, and she announced that Jean would be moving in as a fact. Anna Gleeson died in 1960, attended by all of her children, and Jean and Martha continued to live together, eventually buying homes where Bill joined them after retirement. Not once was the relationship between Martha and Jean ever discussed in my hearing.
Annabel began to date a man named George Michael, who had lived with his late wife, Berenice, a few blocks down Maple Street. He was an accountant for the university’s computer division. Stable, reticent, a pipe smoker, he introduced her to the social life of the American Legion post in Urbana, and for the first time in her life she began to drink. I started drinking in college at about the same time, and gradually we both began drinking more. One night I returned early to our house and found Annabel and George in bed together. I went to my room and after half an hour George came in and told me he loved my mother and he “planned to do the right thing.” They were married in a simple ceremony in the St. Patrick rectory and there was a little reception at Home. “Now you listen to me,” Martha said, as she often did. “George Michael is a good man and he likes you. He has his work cut out for him with your mother.”
He bought a new three-bedroom house on Vawter Drive in a new subdivision and told me, “All of my life I’ve dreamed of a house like this.” There were happy times there, as I essentially lived my life on campus and moved into my fraternity for one semester. But the social life at the Legion post expanded into more drinking, more for Annabel than George, and there began to be arguments centering on Annabel’s jealousy of Berenice; let her find one thing in the house that had belonged to her, and George was “holding on to it.” This reached such a pitch that in 1964 I moved out for good and rented an attic apartment on Green Street, near campus.
George and Annabel sold the house and became managers of a nearby apartment complex, living rent free. I by now had spent a year in Cape Town and was living in Chicago, where they would visit for Cubs games. One day my mother called and said George had moved out. He disappeared without a word, reportedly went to live in California, and I never heard another word from him. “I’m not surprised,” Martha told me. Annabel went to the church to have the marriage annulled, for reasons never clarified: “It’s between me and the church.”
Although alcoholism was in my family, my parents never drank during my formative years, and my memories of life at 410 East Washington are of happiness and encouragement. I had an idyllic childhood, and no more than the usual tumultuous adolescence. I can see now that the Daddy I knew was preceded by a different young man who left to try his luck in Florida. After he stopped drinking, he retired completely into our family and his work. He had no separate social life with friends and never went to places where drinking was expected. That must have been the nature of his bargain with alcohol. He was a rock of my childhood. I wonder what he was really thinking. I know my parents were mostly happy together and in love.
My mother passed all those years in innocence of alcohol. George wasn’t responsible for her change, but only the occasion for it, and I don’t believe he was an alcoholic. He was kind to me and patient with my mother. I often saw them happy together and enjoyed being with them. But as I understand alcoholism, Annabel’s first drink filled a place in her she never knew existed, and she was not a person who could drink. I took her to an AA meeting in Chicago once, at which she told the group she was so proud of me for all I was doing to help them. She didn’t believe I was really an alcoholic, and she knew she wasn’t.
People liked Annabel. She was funny, chatty, a character. She made an impression. Whenever I return to Champaign-Urbana, I meet people who smile when they remember her. Her employers liked her. Neighbors, friends, companions, nurses. Students she met when she was working in the office at Hendrick House, the student residence owned by her friend and mine, Betsy Hendrick.
My mother continued to smoke and drink. She moved into a new two-bedroom apartment and began to employ women to look after her. The first of these was Ruby Harmon, whom we’d known since she started doing my family’s laundry in the 1950s. Ruby was her best and most loyal friend, and one day in the 1980s she called me and told me there was something I should know: My mother was drinking too much and had to be put to bed drunk every night, “although she pulls herself together when you visit.” She was being treated for emphysema and osteoporosis. I was then three or four years sober and called her doctor to tell him this news. My mother must have guessed my source of information and banished Ruby from her life. I don’t believe the doctor took me very seriously; Annabel would have never let him suspect the nature of her drinking.
What then followed were a series of enablers, some who drank with her, some who did not. Her emphysema worsened, she grew thin and frail and moved into a nursing home. Here she couldn’t drink, and our conversations grew happier. Betsy Hendrick and her daughter Becky were regular visitors, like members of the family. Karol Ann and Dwayne were always helpful. Other friends filled her room. The nurses told me with some pride that she insisted on always looking her best for her visitors.
She continued to smoke, and when she was on oxygen would remove the tube to have a cigarette: “Honey, it’s all I have left.” Her circulation began to fail, her blood pressure dropped too low, and she was moved to Mercy Hospital, where I had been born. In her last days she fell into a coma, although when asked how she was, she would faintly reply “fine.” On her last day and night, she recited the Hail Mary unceasingly, hour after hour. At four that morning she seemed to fall into a deep sleep, and I told a nurse I’d go home for a nap. She looked at me curiously but hesitated to tell me what she must have been thinking. At six that morning, I received the call that my mother had died. I fell to my knees and sobbed.
I remember her with a sense of great loss. She was a good mother during all the years that counted. After my father’s death she worked full-time to help me in school. I never felt a moment’s poverty, and after her death I found an old checkbook and was astonished to find that during some years her income was little more than $2,500. We must also have been living on the proceeds of the house my parents bought. She never asked me for money from my News-Gazette job but was happy for me to take her out for dinner.
She was smart and canny. In the 1970s I sent her on a trip to Europe and she found her way around easily and came back loaded with stories. She made friends everywhere. In Ireland, she bonded with my friend John McHugh’s family. In line at the Rome airport, the people behind her heard her name and introduced themselves as the Rotarians who’d met me when I got off the plane in Cape Town. The tension between us grew during the 1970s as we both drank more, and possibly became worse for her when I stopped drinking in 1979. But she never let down her guard or expressed a single worry about herself. She was always “fine.”
Don and Ruth Wikoff, our old neighbors, ran her funeral from the Renner-Wikoff Chapel. Martha, Bill, Jean, cousin Bernardine from Stonington, and Karol Ann and Dwayne Gaines and Jimmy and Bev Pickens, cousins from my father’s side, stood with me. Ruby Harmon came and hugged me and said, “She always loved you, Roger, and I always loved her.” I told her she had done the right thing by calling me.
MY GRADE SCHOOL probably couldn’t get state approval today. The teachers were unpaid and lived communally. Two grades were taught in one classroom. There were no resources for science, music, physical education, or foreign languages except the Latin of the Mass and hymns. No playground facilities. The younger students were picked up by the single school bus; as soon as we were old enough, we rode our bikes to school, even in winter. A typical meal in the lunchroom might consist of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white bread, a dish of corn, a dish of fruit cocktail, and a carton of milk. If you had a penny, you might buy a jawbreaker afterward.
I received a first-rate education. At St. Mary’s Grade School in Champaign, one block across Wright Street from Urbana, we were taught by Dominican nuns who knew their subjects cold, gave us their full-time attention, were gifted teachers, and commanded order and respect in the classroom. For eight years we were drilled in reading, writing, arithmetic, and religion. Periods were devoted to history, geography, and science, taught from textbooks without visual aids or any other facilities. We learned how to write well, spell, and God knows we learned how to diagram a sentence.
I can’t prove that a St. Mary’s graduate had a better education than a majority of today’s high school graduates, but that’s my impression. Some of the high school kids who write thoughtful comments on my blog say they’ve taken charge of their own education, at least in reading and writing. At some point they needed to because their classes had become boring. I taught rhetoric in a Chicago city college for a year. The impression I got was that some students always could write, and some of the others would never be able to. For years during grade and high school I read secretly at my desk while following the class elsewhere in my mind.
I attended St. Mary’s for an excellent reason: I would go to heaven. I liked my public school friends, but they were non-Catholics and couldn’t look forward to that. It was their misfortune they weren’t pagans; pagans at least could spend eternity in limbo because they were not lucky enough to have learned about the Roman Catholic Church. Protestants and Jews had their chance and blew it. “Hindus” and “Muhammadans,” the titles under which I mentally filed all the peoples and religions of Asia, India, Arabia, and the Holy Land, were, I suppose, given a pass as honorary pagans.
We put dimes into envelopes that were mailed by Sister to the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. We were each “sponsoring” a little African child, who would now be able to learn about the Church from missionaries and look forward to spending eternity gazing upon the face of God. The first hour of every day was devoted to the study of religion, which began with memorizing the Baltimore Catechism and in upper grades developed into fascinating discussions of theological loopholes. I asked in class one day if the little African children wouldn’t be better off without missionaries, because if they never learned about salvation through the Church, they wouldn’t run the risk of hell. Sister Rosanne looked at me sadly. “Those poor little children have just as much a right as you do to enjoy the love of God.”
This was, if you think about it, a liberal argument. We never discussed politics in class, but I came away with the firm impression that Franklin Roosevelt was our greatest president after Lincoln. In general the Dominicans applied Catholicism toward liberal ends, such as support for equal rights, freedom of speech, separation of church and state, and the rights of workingmen. We especially valued separation of church and state because it was all that protected us from a Protestant takeover. Abortion was off the table as a subject fit for the classroom. Birth control was also not discussed; it was assumed you saved yourself for marriage and then had as many little Catholics as the Lord desired. Religion class did however cover such topics as tattoos (a sin against the body, which is the temple of the Holy Ghost) and naming pets after saints (a sacrilege; Rover was allowed but not Max). One day in eighth grade the boys and girls were separated and the assistant priest took us into the auditorium and warned us never to touch ourselves. He didn’t specify where we were not to touch.
The school building had a basement for Sister Ambrosetta’s first-grade room, the cafeteria, and the gymnasium. The gym was just slightly larger than a basketball court and had two or three rows of seats across one of the short ends. Pads under the baskets protected us from crashing into the walls. Our coach was the tomboy Sister Marie Donald, who tucked the hems of her habit into the rosary she wore around her waist and dribbled and shot better than any of us. She taught second and third grades on the second floor, and it was there we had what passed for school band practice. She passed around triangles, tambourines, ratcheted sticks, maracas, and wooden blocks, and we formed a rhythm section to pound, scrape, ding, and rattle along with music on 78 rpm records. Fifth and sixth grades were taught by Sister Nathan, a fresh-faced favorite who usually seemed amused by us. We took this as a sign of favor.
Now my memory fails. I know Sister Rosanne, an immensely kind woman, very smart about current events, taught seventh and eighth grades, and Sister Emma taught third and fourth. Did Sister Gilberta, the principal, come in there somewhere? To be sent to the principal’s office was a special damnation. We feared her, because we feared the feeling of guilt. The nuns weren’t “strict” in the sense usually meant. No sister ever laid a hand on any student as far as I know. Nor did they raise their voices. It was an orderly school. We regarded the nuns with a species of awe, because they were the brides of Christ and had the entire One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church backing them up.
The school year mirrored the church year. We turned the pages on a big Advent calendar, observed saints days, wore ashes on Ash Wednesday, announced what we were giving up for Lent. After a long winter, relief came on May 1, and the crowning of Mary. We held a May Day parade, the boys in ties, the girls in frocks. In eighth grade our queen of the May was Jeanne Rasmussen, whom I was smitten with, but too shy to tell her. We marched in procession from the school to the statue of Mary next to the church, and placed little bouquets at her feet, singing:
Bring flowers of the rarest
bring blossoms the fairest,
from garden and woodland and hillside and dale;
our full hearts are swelling,
our glad voices telling
the praise of the loveliest flower of the vale!
O Mary we crown thee with blossoms today!
Queen of the Angels and Queen of the May.
For recess, we raced from the school to the playgrounds, which were dirt lots ringed with shrubbery on either side of the convent. The nun who was cook and housekeeper kept an eye on us from her kitchen steps. There was no playground equipment, not even a swing or a slide. Bringing our own gear, we played softball, dodgeball, football, marbles, jacks, hopscotch, and mumblety-peg. There was a fallen tree trunk on which we played king of the hill, which involved two boys mounting the log and trying to push each other off. Girls fanatically jumped rope, which boys would not and as a result could not do.
I was not gifted at sports but was sought after as an entertainer. I had the knack of reading a book and repeating its dramatic highlights, and I’d walk around the block regaling my followers with the career of Harry Houdini. I went through a particularly devout period after I took the confirmation name of Blessed Dominic Savio, the saintly young pupil of St. John Bosco. I was allowed this choice by the special dispensation of Father J. W. McGinn, since technically my choice should have been a saint. Dominic made the grade a few years later, one of the youngest saints in church history. A large image of him can be seen on the wall of the grade school in Fellini’s 8 1/2.
I became inflamed by a biography of Savio in which, as a lad in school, he attempted to teach his schoolmates the folly of violence as a means of ending disputes. Two of them had a grudge and announced they would settle it with a fight. Vainly did the Blessed Dominic attempt to talk them out of this. When they squared off, he removed a crucifix from his pocket and stepped between them, holding it aloft and telling them, “Throw the first stones at me.” Shamed, they lowered their heads, and he urged them to make a good confession. This struck me as exemplary behavior, and I went to school with a small crucifix in my pocket and asked two of my friends, Dougie Pierre and Jimmy Sanders, to start a fight so I could step between them. They said they weren’t mad at each other. “Then start one anyway,” I pleaded, not quite capturing the spirit of Blessed Dominic’s message.
I was a case study. I threw myself into winning the school’s annual magazine subscription contest, sponsored by the Curtis Circulation Company. A portion of each subscription went to the school, and the best salesman won a trophy. I won two years in a row, flogging the Saturday Evening Post, Ladies’ Home Journal, Popular Mechanics, and dozens of other titles (the nuns neatly crossed out Esquire on every form). A pitchman arrived to kick off the next year. “Everyone you know is a sales opportunity!” he lectured us in the auditorium. “Your parents, your neighbors, even people you meet! Don’t be shy! Sell those subscriptions!” I raised my hand. “Sir,” I asked, “would you like to buy a subscription?” I expected laughter, applause, and his congratulations. What I got was total silence and Sister Gilberta ordering me to meet with her in the hall to explain why I had embarrassed my whole school. Then followed talks with my parents. I felt humiliated and outraged. It seemed to me I had been mistreated by people with no imagination or sympathy. I suppose in another sense I was being a little jerk. That pattern has persisted.
Something happened the summer after eighth grade that puts St. Mary’s in a new light. It was my last year at St. Joseph’s Camp for Boys, on Bankson Lake in Michigan. One of my buddies was Mole Hasek from Ohio. One day the kids were grabbing off his glasses, putting them on, and staggering around: “I’m blind! I’m blind!” I took my turn and suddenly the entire world shifted into focus. I didn’t want to ever take them off again. I wrote to my parents: “I need glasses!”
The optometrist had me read the charts and slowly straightened up. “Has Roger ever worn glasses?” he asked my mother. “No. He hasn’t needed them.” The doctor said: “He’s probably always needed them. He’s very shortsighted.” He wrote me out a prescription. “Wasn’t he ever tested?” It had never occurred to anyone. My parents and my aunt Martha the nurse monitored my health, which was good; I was in the hospital only twice, to have my tonsils and appendix removed, and had monthly radiation treatments for ear infections (they were probably responsible for the salivary cancer I developed in my sixties). I’d never complained about eyesight, and no one noticed any problems. My father said, “Now we know why you always had your nose in a book.” I also knew why I was no good at sports: I couldn’t see well enough. I remember in seventh and eighth grades having a desk in the back row of the room. Apparently I couldn’t read the blackboard very well—then, or ever before. How did I get through grade school? I have no idea. Maybe Blessed Dominic coached me.
DAN-DAN THE YO-YO MAN
WHEN APRIL WITH its sweet showers brought flowers to the lawns of May and birds filled the air with melodies, Dan-Dan the Yo-Yo Man made his annual pilgrimage to our playground at St. Mary’s School. He drove up in a dark maroon 1950 Hudson we all recognized on sight: It had the Step-Down Ride that allowed it to outcorner Fords and Chevys at the stock car races out at the fairgrounds. To own a car like that was to be a Duncan Yo-Yo professional.
Dan-Dan dismounted on the far side of the big Hudson, and when he walked into view there were already two Yo-Yos spinning in the air before him, a whirl of red and yellow. He walked smiling toward home plate, let the Yo-Yos bounce off it, and snapped them on the fly into his pockets. He took out one and rocked the baby, walked the dog, skinned the cat, made the monkey climb the string, and went around the world. Then he pulled out a Camel, lit up, and passed out flyers for the citywide Duncan Yo-Yo contest that would be held on the stage of the Princess Theater on Main Street in Urbana for the following three Saturdays.
The marathon began with an elimination contest. Whoever couldn’t do a sleeper, the easiest trick of all, had to leave the stage in shame. This first Saturday was run like a cattle call: Contestants onstage at the right, sleep or wake, offstage to the left, keep it moving. Ushers made sure no one sneaked through for a second chance. Survivors were given a Yo-Yo Club card to show the next weekend.
The Saturday matinee at the Princess at one time cost nine cents. Popcorn was a nickel. Candy bars were a nickel. So were bags of drops: licorice, lemon, root beer, or horehound. An all-day sucker with Mickey Mouse on it was two cents. Jawbreakers a penny. Girls would buy a roll of Necco wafers, ten cents, and share them out. Urban legends were passed along about the kid who was running with a Holloway bar in his mouth, and he fell and the stick got driven through his brain. You gave your ticket to the usher and got your serial card punched. The serials had twelve episodes. Eleven punches, and you got into the twelfth show for free. What if you gave your card to a buddy? The Princess didn’t care. Then the buddy had to buy a ticket.
We raced inside and grabbed our favorite seats. Then big kids took them and told us to get lost. The interior would be flooded with light as someone let a buddy in free by the alley door. Much whistling and stamping of feet. An usher would race to collar the sneak before the door slammed and he took cover in protective darkness. Boys sat with boys and girls with girls. Sometimes older kids might be going steady. She would have his class ring around her neck, its weight ever so slightly depressing the uncanny valley between the sweet little bumps of her cashmere. If you sat behind them and said anything, you might get a knuckle sandwich.
Saturdays at the Princess involved a time commitment, a fact not lost on our parents. The show started about noon, with a slide offering a five-dollar reward for the apprehension of vandals. Then a slide reading Ladies! Hold onto your bags! Do not place them on the seat next to you! Your cooperation will help them in not getting lost! Then the ads. Busey Bank. Hudson Dairy. Urbana Pure Milk Company. Lorry’s Sport Shop. Mel Root’s, Serving fine food at affordable prices 24 hours a day—we never close! Then the coming attractions. Next week! Roy Rogers, King of the Cowboys! Cheering! Dale Evans, Queen of the Cowgirls! Booing! Coming soon! Hoppy! Rex Allen! The Bowery Boys! Then five color cartoons. Mickey Mouse. Daffy Duck. Tom and Jerry. Mr. Magoo. Goofy. Then the serial. Batman, Superman. Rocket Man. Flash Gordon. Cheering as the hero escaped from last week’s fatal trap, only to fall into another one ten minutes later. Then the newsreel. Commie defeat in Korea! A-bomb tests! Premiering the new Studebakers! It looks speedy—but which way is it going? Yankees off to a good start! At Florida’s beautiful Cypress Gardens, syncopated mermaids parade on water skis! Their smiles say, come on in—the water’s fine!
By this time only the girls doling out Neccos to themselves were still in business. Even the all-day suckers were gone; they hadn’t been licked, but crunched in greed. There was a sudden fanfare, as on the screen searchlights crossed over the words Our feature presentation. There was a preshow rush downstairs to the boys’ room. It had a semipermanent population of underage smokers, looking like they were ready to paste you.
It was always a double feature: A Western and a comedy. Of the comedies, usually the Bowery Boys or Abbott and Costello. When Bud and Lou met Frankenstein, it scared the shit out of us. Then the Western. For some reason, I have vivid memories of two enigmatic cowboys, Whip Wilson and Lash LaRue. They packed wicked bullwhips. It was incorrectly believed by some that they didn’t carry guns. Untrue. They carried them, but they didn’t need them, because their whip snatched your gun out of your holster faster than you could draw. I wished they’d been married, like Roy and Dale. I fantasized about their wives Whippet Wilson and Lashes LaRue.
As the afternoon came to an end, the theater, now hot and humid and smelling of sweaty T-shirts, grew quiet in suspense. Dan-Dan the Yo-Yo Man strode onstage—from the steps, because there was no backstage—with twin Yo-Yos spinning, maybe Whistlers. The Yo-Yo showdown began. The second Saturday, the prizes were cartons of six Coke bottles, courtesy of the Champaign-Urbana Coca-Cola Bottling Company on South Neil Street. Third weekend, after a surviving handful met the challenges of advanced tricks, the winner got a brand new Schwinn. I assume the Duncan Company paid for this and Dan-Dan’s salary out of the Yo-Yos they sold across the street at Woolworth’s. What Dan-Dan did to pass the time Monday through Friday, I have no idea.
After some lucky kid had his new bike handed down to him from the stage and pushed it up the aisle, we staggered out into the sunshine with sugar headaches and went to the dime store to buy a professional Yo-Yo; those cheap red and black models would never win you a Schwinn. But one year I lingered over a display for the Miracle-Gro Garden in a Pan and brought it home to my bedroom windowsill. It was an aluminum pan like chicken pot pies came in, filled with vermiculite and embedded with eager seeds. I bathed them with water, and they brought forth young shoots, and it was spring, and everyone was in love, and flowers picked themselves.
ON THE LAST day of school, time stretched forward beyond all imagining. There was a heightened awareness in the room as the second hand crept toward our moment of freedom. We regarded the nuns as a discharged soldier does his superior officer. Here had existed a bond that would never be again. We didn’t run screaming out the door. We sauntered. We had time. We were aware of a milestone having passed.
Some kids would go to second homes, or to visit relatives, or to summer camp. My friends and I would stay at home. We would have nothing planned. The lives of kids were not fast-tracked in those days. We would get together after breakfast and make desultory conversation, evaluate suggestions, and maybe play softball, shoot baskets, go down into somebody’s basement, play cards, go to the Urbana Free Library for Miss Fiske’s Summer Reading Club, rassle on the lawn, listen to the Cardinals, play with our dogs, or lay on our stomachs on the grass and read somebody’s dad’s copy of Confidential magazine. Somebody’s mom was probably keeping an eye on us through a screened window.
Our bicycles were our freedom. We would head out for Crystal Lake Park, dogs barking behind us until they grew uninterested in this foolishness and fell back. Or maybe this would be a day when we would earn money. This we did by mowing lawns, or when we were younger taking a card table out to the sidewalk and opening a Kool-Aid stand. Some kid would announce he was “opening,” and we would look at him in envy, because he was in retail, and we wished we had thought of it first. It was nothing for two adults, perfect strangers, to pull over and invest a dime to drink from two jelly glasses, washed out in a soup pot full of dishwater. When the sun fell lower in the sky, the newspaper trucks would come around pitching bundles, and I would ask a pal, “Want to walk me on my route?” Always “walk me.” Never “walk with me.”
In all of our movements away from home base, we peed when we had to and where we could. Behind trees, in shrubbery, against back walls, in the alley. This we called “going to see a man about a dog.” When the City of Urbana dedicated a plaque on the sidewalk marking my childhood home, from my seat on the little platform I could see several of my boyhood pissoirs. Why didn’t we just go home to pee? Your mom might grab you and make you do something.
As an only child I was sometimes content with my own company, especially after I discovered science fiction. In a corner of the basement I positioned my cast-metal bookshelves, for which I redeemed three books of Green Stamps each. On these I placed the old s-f magazines that two foreign brothers, graduate students on my Courier route, had given me. Astounding, Galaxy, Fantasy & Science Fiction. Then I discovered, more to my taste, Amazing Stories, Imagination, and the final issues of the full-size pulp Thrilling Wonder Stories. Science fiction itself somehow had an aura of eroticism about it. It wasn’t sexually explicit, but it often seemed almost about to be.
Down there in the basement it was cooler. I reclined in an aluminum lawn chair and played albums on my record player—Pat Boone, Doris Day, the McGuire Sisters, Benny Goodman, Les Paul and Mary Ford, Polly Bergen, who sent me an eight-by-ten autographed photo. I wrote to Percy Faith and he mailed me a dozen of his 45s. I wrote asking Stan Freberg for an autographed photo, and he wrote back regretting that he was all out of photos, but as a consolation was enclosing a hairpin from Betty Furness. A lot of my records evoked thoughts of lost romance, about which I knew nothing. I grew sentimental at second hand.
Sometimes a central Illinois thunderstorm would come ripping out of the sky, loud and violent. All hell broke loose. Afterward the rainwater would be backed up at the corner drains, and we would ride our bikes through it, holding our Keds high to keep them dry. The rest of the time it was hot outside, sometimes for a few days even “above one hundred degrees Fahrenheit,” we said in an official tone. Air-conditioning was rare except at the movies. Windows and screen doors stood open day and night. The idea was to get a “cross breeze,” although actually you just left everything open and the breeze did what it wanted.
Eventually my parents bought a Philco window air conditioner for their bedroom. After they finished their iced tea and their last cigarettes on the front porch, my father would say, “Time to turn on the air conditioner.” In my room I read late into the night in the heat and humidity, the book balanced on my chest. I was decked out in what my aunt Martha described approvingly as “shorty pajamas.” I read far later than I should have. I’d joined the Book-of-the-Month Club with a twenty-five-dollar gift certificate from my aunt Martha, at a time when few books were as much as five dollars. I read By Love Possessed with fascination for the adult characters entirely outside my experience. Countless science fiction books. Erle Stanley Gardner. The angry screeds of Vance Packard, like The Hidden Persuaders with the attack on “ad men” and its photos discovering subliminal images of genitalia in the ice cubes of vodka ads. Julius Caesar by Shakespeare, feeling smug. All the King’s Men, recommended to me by the lady at Robeson’s Book Department. I read it four or five times, absorbed in its portrait of its hero Jack Burden, the cynical newspaper reporter and enabler for the corrupt governor.
In my teens I began to read Thomas Wolfe, and felt I’d met my soul mate. From a small town he went north to Harvard and then to the great city of New York. He was a Writer, filled with fierce energy, pouring out a stream of passionate prose. His hero stalked through the stacks of the Harvard library, feeling driven to read every book. On the train north, he had dreamed of the soft white thighs of the farm women of the night. He walked the campus, uttering wild goat cries to the moon. Through my window, a lonesome train whistle blew. My chin made a puddle of sweat on my neck. No writer since has been able to sweep me up like Thomas Wolfe when I was thirteen and fourteen. I read all his novels nonstop. We all grow less sweepable. I read Look Homeward, Angel again a few years ago and expected it to seem overwrought and dated, but it held up pretty well. Then I began again on Of Time and the River but got bogged down. I still have my Universal Library reprints of The Web and the Rock and You Can’t Go Home Again, but they remain on the shelf.
In the summer mornings, I remember the freshness of the new air, and my father in the kitchen listening to the radio. Television came late to Champaign-Urbana, because the News-Gazette and the Courier were fighting for the license. But we had radio. The fifty-thousand-watt clear-channel stations boomed in from Chicago: WBBM (CBS), WGN (Wally Phillips with Your Top Ten on WGN and the Cubs), WMAQ (NBC), WLS (ABC and Dick Biondi). And from St. Louis: KMOX (Harry Caray doing the Cardinals, until, every kid repeated, “Augie Busch caught him in bed with his wife and threw him out of town”). The local stations were WDWS, WKID, and WILL, the university station. WDWS had CBS and news about flooded viaducts, farm reports, local election results. WKID had Joe Ryder, the “Country Gentleman,” in the morning, and a mix of pop and country all day. It was only on sunup to sundown. In the evening sometimes I would ride my bike out to the Philo Hard Road and visit the Dog n Suds, where the Dog in a Basket, including coleslaw, fries, and a root beer, seemed to me a spectacular feast. WKID was next door in a hunched concrete-block building, and once on a long summer evening when the station was on late, I shyly knocked on the screen door. Don McMullen invited me in. He was the deejay, news reader, engineer, everything. Joe Ryder was the station manager, long gone home. Don let me sit in the studio and watch him cue records, holding them in place with a thumb while he finished reading a commercial, then announcing a song and lifting his thumb, perfectly timed.
While a song was playing he showed me into a closet where the UPI wire was pounding, ripped off yards of news and threw it away, ripped off the weather forecast, and went back to the broadcast booth. “Something Smith and the Redheads,” he said, and then: “We have a young announcer here named Roger who is going to tell us about the weather.” He pointed to the paper in front of me and swiveled the mike over. I was almost dizzy with a flush of excitement. “Sunny and warmer tomorrow, with a high around eighty,” I read. “Good job, Roger,” Don said. I had been on the radio. There was no turning back. When Don got married I gave him steak knives.
My best friends were Hal Holmes, Jerry Seilor, Larry Luhtala, George Reiss and Danny Yohe from across Washington Street, and on my side of the street the Shaw Boys (Steve, John, and Chuck Shaw), Johnny Dye, Karen Weaver, and Steve and Joe Sanderson. Gary Wikoff and Jackie Yates were around the corner on Maple Street. We boys would form circles with our bikes, one foot braced on the ground, as a girl would sit on her porch steps and hold court. I sensed these conversations were about more than they seemed. Hal and Gary were a little older and seemed to understand more.
The Four Stampers Stamp Club would meet in my basement to trade stamps, allegedly, and look up years and prices in our “Elmers,” the thick orange booklets from Elmer R. Long in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I say “allegedly” because the talk quickly turned to girls—those at school, and then, with wonder, Jayne Mansfield. One night a Four Stamper explained to me what men and women “did” together, demonstrating with the fingers of one hand forming a circle and a finger from the other hand poking into it. “You know, like this,” he said. All became clear to me, although I couldn’t figure out what the circle stood for. The navel, probably?
A lot of time was spent trying to get cool. Riding our bikes worked, but when we stopped we’d be streaming with sweat. All of us would ride over to Harry Rusk’s grocery, lean our bikes against his wooden porch, and reach into his cooler, a block of ice floating in the water, and haul out a Grapette, a Choc-Ola, or maybe an RC, because for the same money you got more. Never a Coke or 7Up, which you got at home, and you didn’t see the point of 7Up anyway, although “You Like It—It Likes You!”
If we rode our bikes out to Crystal Lake, we would pass the A&W Root Beer stand at Race and University. A five-cent beer in a frosted mug. Then we would go to the swimming pool and wash off our bike sweat in the water. In high school I was hired by the pool manager Oscar Adams to be an assistant lifeguard. My duties included the Poop Patrol, my tools a face mask, a waste basket, and a spatula. General cheering each time I emerged triumphant from the deeps. Oscar Adams was also the high school basketball coach, driving instructor, physical education teacher, and chaperone at the Tigers’ Den on Friday nights. Urbana couldn’t do without him. He had one daughter in particular, Barb, who brought to life the wonderful qualities of a bathing suit.
Movie theaters advertised It’s Cool Inside! To make this difference more dramatic, the Princess on Main Street made the temperature as cold as possible. Returning to the blinding sunlight, we got headaches between our eyes. Hal and I called each other Holmesy and Stymie. Sometimes Holmesy and I would head across the street to the fountain at McBride’s Rexall Drugs where he introduced me to the Cherry 7Up, and my prejudice against 7Up disappeared. We sipped them so slowly they could have been liquid gold. We agreed it was the best-tasting drink in the world. There I also searched the paperback racks for Robert Sheckley, Arthur C. Clarke, and Theodore Sturgeon. Also the Ace Doubles, two s-f novels in the same binding, the cover of one novel on one side. Turn it over and there, upside down, was the other cover. I read my first Philip K. Dick in an Ace Double. To sell Philip K. Dick in those days, Ace had to bundle him with someone else. Today he has two volumes in the Library of America.
Sunday Mass at St. Patrick’s was sweltering. The doors stood open, the lower panes of the stained glass windows were propped wide, and big oscillating fans swept the congregation, although these were turned off during the sermon by Father Martel, who followed Father McGinn. The longer he talked, the more we sweated. We worked the fans that were Compliments of Renner-Wikoff funeral home.
The midday meal was the big one on Sundays, and after a nap, for his dinner on Sunday my father liked oatmeal. Then we watched Ed Sullivan. Then my father would say, “My oatmeal has worn off. Does anyone feel like a chocolate malted?” In my high school years there was the Dairy Queen, but in grade school we went to Hudson Dairy on Race Street, a counter lined with stools, a strong aroma of milk, a malt that came with a metal can to hold the part that didn’t fit in the glass. “They give you a smaller glass so it feels like you’re getting more,” my father explained several dozen times.
The nature of summer changed as I grew older. I got a part-time job at Johnston’s Sport Shop in 1956, and my first newspaper job at the News-Gazette in 1958. Holmesy got an early 1950s Chevy. We’d go out to the new McDonald’s at Five Points, across the street from Huey’s Store (“What’s not on the shelf is on the floor. If it ain’t on the floor we ain’t got it no more”). A couple of years later I got my first car, $395, a 1954 Ford, sky blue. I painted the wheel rims red, bought stick-on white sidewalls, and hung a pair of foam dice from the rearview mirror. Left sitting in the sun, it smelled inside like scorched plastic, and the steering wheel was too hot to touch. The last day of summer came sooner.
CAR, TABLE, COUNTER, OR TAKHOMASAK
IN MY THIRD or fourth year I ate my first restaurant meal, at the Steak ’n Shake on Green Street near the University of Illinois campus. The eyes of the world were on this capable little man, sitting on a stool at the counter, grasping a Steakburger in his hands and opening up to take the first bite. My dad passed me the ketchup bottle and authority flowed into my hands as I smacked it on the bottom. “Aim it on your plate next to the fries,” he advised. I did. “Good job.”
If I were on death row, my last meal would be from Steak ’n Shake. If I were to take President Obama and his family to dinner and the choice was up to me, it would be Steak ’n Shake. If the pope was to ask where he could get a good plate of spaghetti in America, I would reply, “Your Holiness, have you tried the Chili Mac or the Chili 3-Ways?” A downstate Illinois boy loves the Steak ’n Shake as a Puerto Rican loves rice and beans, an Egyptian loves falafel, a Brit loves bangers and mash, a Finn loves reindeer jerky, and a Canadian loves doughnuts. This doesn’t involve taste. It involves a deep-seated conviction that a food is right, has always been right, and always will be.
Steak ’n Shake is a fast food chain, the first except probably for White Castle. Certainly it’s the best. How many fast food chains bring you a glass of water and silverware, and serve you on china? Friends in Los Angeles took me to In-N-Out Burger, and I consumed a mushy mess on a soft bun and shook my head sadly. The very names of the two chains describe the difference in styles of sexual intercourse between California and the Heartland.
The motto of Steak ’n Shake is “In Sight It Must Be Right.” No comma. This achieves the perfection of a haiku. There is no skullduggery going on in the back room. Take a seat at the counter and everything happens before your eyes. You watch acolytes in ecclesiastical black and white and little paper soldier caps. The griddle man spears ground beef in the shape of a big marshmallow, positions it on the griddle, mashes it with his spatula. Two, four, six, eight patties, consulting the green and white guest checks lined up before him. He positions the buns facedown on the grill and places a thin wooden plank over them. He turns over each patty and mashes it again. He lifts the plank and places it on the stainless steel shelf before him. He lines up buns on the plank. He blesses a few chosen patties with a slice of cheese. He lifts up the patties and distributes them on the buns. He slides the plank along toward the sous chef in charge of condiments.
The Steakburger is a symphony of taste and texture. Steak ’n Shake has always boasted “We grind all the select cuts—sirloin, porterhouse, ribs, filet.” This they do in “Our Own Government-Inspected Commissary,” located in, of course, Normal, Illinois. The sandwich is Served on a Toasted Bun. If you order onion, it will be a perfect slice of sweet Bermuda. If you order pickles, you will get two thin slices, side by side. Mustard, relish, tomato, lettuce can also be added. When you bite into the Steakburger, it is al dente all the way through: toasted bun, crispy patty, onion, pickle, crunch, crunch, crunch. The Steakburger has remained unchanged since 1945. They don’t add ketchup in advance, because it lends itself to soggy buns. You find a bottle at your table. Also a little bottle of Steak ’n Shake Hot Sauce, which is whole hot peppers floating in water. My father said it was not for the likes of me. He liked to dash it on his Chili 3-Way. I would watch in awe as he sprinkled it on and took his first bite. He would glance at me sideways and elevate his eyebrows a fraction. You see why as a film critic I am so alert to the nuances of actors.
These days at Steak ’n Shake you can order such items as soups, taco salads, chef salads, and Philly cheesesteak. There is a three-page fold-out glossy menu, including even breakfast. I have never ordered an item that was not on the original menu. It is a rule with me. From the start my order was unchanging, unless I added a Tru-Flavor Shake. In Sight It Must Be Right, and you can see the soda jerk combining ice cream and milk in a stainless container, blending them in a mixer, and pouring it all into a big tall glass. Many of today’s children think milk shakes are extruded from a spigot.
My Steak ’n Shake fetish is not unique. On an early visit to the Letterman show, I said to David during a commercial break, “I hear you’re from Indianapolis, home of the head office of Steak ’n Shake.”
“In Sight It Must Be Right,” he said. Our eyes locked in communion.
“Four Ways to Enjoy,” I said.
“Car, Table, Counter, or TakHomaSak,” he replied.
“Specializing in Selected Foods…”
“… with a Desire to Please the Most Discriminating.”
“Thanks for Your Liberal Patronage.”
“Signed, A. H. (Gus) Belt, founder,” he said, and we shared a nod of great satisfaction. Augustus H. Belt founded Steak ’n Shake in 1934, and despite changes in ownership over the years, it preserves the original logos, mottoes, typography, design, approach, philosophy, and recipes. The founder built well.
My wife, Chaz, having been raised in Chicago, knew nothing of Steak ’n Shake. For reasons obscure to me, Steak ’n Shake surrounded the city but never entered it. In 1990, driving downstate to Urbana for my high school reunion, we were passing Kankakee when she said, “Look! There’s a sign for your restaurant.” I smoothly took the interstate exit. The Kankakee store looked much as all Steak ’n Shakes always have, although in the 1970s they added red to the original color scheme of black and white. We took a booth. “Permit me to order for you,” I said. Chaz enjoyed her meal. “I see what you mean,” said the darling girl. That night the Urbana High class of 1960 met at the Crystal Lake Park pavilion for wine, fruit, and cheese. “Let’s blow this Popsicle stand,” said Chris Hastings after a few hours. “Steak ’n Shake!” said John Kratz. “You weren’t kidding,” Chaz said, for I had told her I was not the only devotee in Urbana.
Our cars formed a parade to the Steak ’n Shake on University Avenue, and I was reminded of the universal drive-in ritual: Find a place in the back row, wait until the cars in front of you move ahead, race your engine, jerk ahead in a cloud of burnt rubber, and brake precariously inches from the car ahead. We ordered from carhops, and I remembered a mystery that haunted our high school days: Why didn’t we ever recognize a single carhop? Were they pod people? In recent years curb service has been replaced by drive-thru windows. Customers shout their orders into a squawk box, and if they don’t plan to TakHomaSak, they find a parking space and dine meditatively. In the curb service days, the car windows were all rolled down. You could look straight through other cars to the end of the line, while currents of rivalry, gossip, and lust flowed back and forth. If your friend had his parents’ convertible, you could sit on the trunk with your feet on the seat and command the big picture.
That was on the Friday night. On Saturday the class toured Urbana High School, and at lunchtime it was decided we should inspect the new Steak ’n Shake up on Route 45. “Your classmates are crazy,” Chaz said. That evening we held our banquet at the Urbana Country Club. The club had its own chef, but the dinner committee had decided on catering by Steak ’n Shake. On Sunday morning, as we got into our car at the Lincoln Lodge motel, Chaz took my hand and said, “Let’s not stop at Kankakee.”
EVERY TIME I see a dog in a movie, I think the same thing: I want that dog. I see Skip or Lucy or Shiloh and for a moment I can’t even think about the movie’s plot. I can only think about the dog. I want to hold it, pet it, take it for walks, and tell it what a good dog it is. I want to love it, and I want it to love me. I have an empty space inside myself that can only be filled by a dog.
Not a cat. I have had cats and I was fond of them, fonder than they ever were of me. But what I want is unconditional love, and therefore I want a dog. I want to make its life a joy. I want to scratch behind its ears, and scratch its belly when it rolls over. I want to gently extend its tail so the dog can tell it has a fine tail indeed. I want to give it a shampoo, and sneak it bites from the table, and let it exchange the news with other dogs we meet on the street. I want it to bark at the doorbell, be joyous to see my loved ones, shake hands, and look concerned if I seem depressed. If I throw a ball I want the dog to bring back the ball and ask me to throw it again.
If you’ve read John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee books, you’ll remember Meyer, the hairy economist, who lived on a neighboring houseboat. He went to dinner with some new boat owners at the marina, and when he got back McGee asked him what they were like.
“They were bores,” Meyer said. “Do you know what a bore is?”
“I’m sure you’ll tell me, Meyer.”
“A bore, Travis, is someone who deprives you of solitude without providing you with companionship.”
For me, that’s the problem with cats. If they follow me all over the house, it’s not because they want to play, it’s because they think something edible might turn up, or that I will entertain them. If these prospects seem remote, a cat will simply stay where it is, idly regard me as I leave the room, lick itself a little, and go back to sleep. I had cats named White Cat, Orange Cat, and Sports Fan. They were swell cats and all that, but they could take me or leave me. After we got married, Chaz confided that she didn’t enjoy the cats jumping on the table during dinner and staring intently at her plate.
“They won’t grab anything unless you leave the table,” I said.
“That isn’t the point,” she said.
I realized that one of the peculiarities of women is that they don’t want their dinner anywhere near inquisitive little paws that have been busy in the litter box. Men aren’t like that so much.
I never met a dog that didn’t beg at the table. If there is a dog that doesn’t, it has had all the dog scared out of it. But a dog is not a sneak thief like a cat. It doesn’t snatch and run, except if presented with an irresistible opportunity. It is a dinner companion. It is delighted that you are eating, thinks it’s a jolly good idea, and wants to be sure your food is as delicious as you deserve. You are under a powerful psychological compulsion to give it a taste, particularly when it goes into convulsions of gratitude. Dogs remember every favor you ever do for them and store those events in a memory bank titled Why My Human Is a God.
Excerpted from Life Itself by Roger Ebert Copyright © 2011 by Roger Ebert. Excerpted by permission.
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