How I became Grandpa Don

Chapter 2
Brighton Park
1939 - 1944

Recorded by Donald J Plefka (Grandpa Don) January, 2001

Most of my grade school years were spent here. 
They were good years.

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We moved to a flat in the Brighton Park neighborhood near Archer and California Ave. It was a Polish neighborhood with a mix of Lithuanians and others. Polish was spoken at the nearest grocery store. The nearest school was a public school and they would not accept a 6 year old into 2nd grade so I repeated 1st. I had been accustomed to a lot of work in school and this was like play time for me. (But the stomach problems eased up considerably). 

I loved the water. 
Mom was not so sure!

After one year there, I switched to St. Joseph and St Anne school at 38th and California. That meant crossing busy Archer Ave twice a day but there were several kids from our block making the trip.

Dad loved fishing and we went to a lake or river whenever we could. I preferred to get into the water with the fish.

At home I learned to play quietly. The landlady, living below us, would complain if I made noise. Often, when friends would stand in front to call me out, she would open the door and tell them I wasn't home. That was a time when children should be "seen, ... but not heard". My boxes of logs and blocks were big and I really enjoyed them. I also read a lot. I had all the Grimes Fairy Tails, and books about dogs. 

There were a few empty lots to play in with friends but he best one was the huge field across from Kelly High School. This field was an old quarry that had been filled with garbage and covered with dirt years before. Sometimes there was evidence of very large rats. There was a section of tall wild sunflowers with paths that were like a maze which made a great "hide and seek" area. When in 6th and 7th grade, summers were spent in the pool at McKinley park. There were no organized sports that I knew of.

The landlord's son pulled an old boat from the bottom of Lake Calumet. It made a great place to play.

We took our "window shopping" walks on Archer Ave.  There were no "malls" at this time and stores were all along major streets. There weren't even parking lots because most people either walked to the stores or rode the street cars. The movie house was the much bigger Brighton Theater and after a few years I was there every Saturday afternoon. Sometimes the family would go shopping (or just walking) downtown and go to the Chicago Theater. There you would see a double feature and a live stage show between features. Each feature was preceded by a cartoon and sometimes a "news reel". I was 10 when we were on such an excursion on December 7, 1941 and news boys flooded the streets shouting that "Japan bombed Pearl Harbor". We didn't know where that was. Dad left his job selling appliances for the gas company and got a job a Kellog Switchboard Company. During the war, there were no appliances to sell and Kellog was war related.

First Communion - 1939

While at Catholic school, I became an Alter boy. That is when we had to learn the Latin prayers of the Mass. We really didn't know what we were saying, but we could rattle off the words. The good Sisters found that I could get a clear tone out of a soda bottle and so I became the flute player in the school band.  Sister Stella called me "the Judge". I was quiet, serious and quite proper. I recall an incident when she called me aside an told me that on the previous Saturday someone had been calling Dorothy's house on the phone and hanging up. They thought it was my friend Edward. I informed her that Edward was with me all day Saturday. Edward was not accused and it didn't occur to her to ask what we were doing. (Calling Dorothy)
 I remember playing on the living room floor while Dad listened to the White Sox game on the radio. There was no television. The radio also provided variety shows in the evenings, mysteries on Sunday afternoon and kids "serials" every day after school. To get the "secret messages" on the radio serials we had to get decoder badges or rings from local stores. 

Dad, Mom & me

By now, we had a car and sometimes we would drive to North Judson, Indiana for a weekend at Uncle John's farm. Uncle John was one of Mom's half-brothers. We would help clear brush, pick potatoes, ... or whatever needed to be done. Sometimes we would stay for a week. I did not like the outhouse, but for the most part, this time with Uncle John, Aunt Tony, and cousins John and Diane was a very good time.

 Once in a while, we would go to Grand Rapids, Michigan for a week's visit with Uncle Joe, Mom's step-brother, Aunt Blanch and cousins Bob and Dave. They lived in a home in town and it was always a good time. One of the high points of these trips for Dad was when we would get a section of open road and he could get up to 45 MPH.  Most roads were two lane and if you got behind a truck you could be stuck going 30 or 35 for miles with no opportunity to pass. "Rest stops" were made by finding a place to pull off the road were there were some bushes.

My parents got together with Aunt Kate (Mom's sister) and Uncle Charles often to play cards (three chips for a penny) and I got to be with Ken and Bob. Sometimes Mom & I would go there during the day and Bob and I would go to play in the park. Mom and Aunt Kate were very close and Uncle Charles and Dad were friends before either got married. There would be family gatherings with Mom's other sister, Aunt Lill, Uncle Jack and cousin John but they were not as close. During the depression, Mom and Dad rented their house to them because Uncle Jack was working and they could afford to pay enough to cover the interest on the loan. But they moved out because Lill didn't want to shovel coal into the furnace when Jack was at work. Mom and Dad lost the house. Mom never forgot.

The Judge - Don
 "The Judge"

It was also during this time that dad's mother lived with us for one of every three months.  I didn't like these times because Grandma didn't speak to me and when she spoke to Mom or Dad, it was in Bohemian. She was 16 when she came to the US and never learned English! She wanted to live with us all the time, but Dad had two older brothers and it took a court order to rotate her to each household for a month at a time. We would pick her up at Uncle John's and Aunt Mary's and I could visit with cousins Jim, Ed, Frances, Marie, and Rosalie. When we brought Grandma to Uncle Frank's house Dad brought her to the door, rang the bell, turned and left. Grandma died of bone cancer. She must have been in a great deal of pain for a long time, but I didn't know. I just knew that she used an awful lot of rubbing alcohol and I suspected that it wasn't all used for rubbing.

Easter 1941

After the war started, there was rationing for many things and some things were just not available at all. We saved newspapers, string, metal foil and bought savings stamps which, when you had enough were turned in for a war bond. I remember mixing the packet of yellow color in the white margarine when it first came out because the diary industry would not allow pre-colored margarine to be sold. Butter was impossible to get. By this time, I had a two wheel bike and we would go down Archer Ave to Municipal Airport (Midway). I was the busiest airport in the world! There was an Army section at the SW corner and we would go there to see the military planes. 

I also started caddying at Beverly Country Club. I was finally able to earn some money  and learned how to play blackjack between rounds. I learned a little about how the "other half" lives and that even though I could select a club for the golfer, I could not use a golf club myself. On caddy day, each week, I went to the pool.

Mom and Dad saved enough money for the down payment on a house. Homes were being built on the far south side of Chicago where bus and streetcars would be available along with "Chicago" water and sewers. My parents would not consider going outside of the city and put up with well water and septic systems. As a result, I left my school and my friends. 

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A historical note:

Our Lady of Fatima Church - 2751 W. 38th Place 
(Formerly St. Joseph and St. Anne)

This is a house of worship, devotion and healing. The edifice itself was the early home of French Catholics in Brighton Park. First named St. Joseph’s, it was designed by architects LaPointe and Hickok in a French Provincial Gothic style. Dedicated in 1892, its stained glass windows were crafted by the same firm that did Holy Name Cathedral’s original windows—Lascelles & Shroeder. The church became St. Joseph and St. Anne in 1900 when a shrine in her honor was established here. Novenas drawing thousands still take place prior to her feast day, July 26. Crutches hang on the wall, a tribute to her powerful intercession through the years. In 1991 the parish merged with neighboring St. Agnes, whose church, dedicated in 1906 originally served Irish immigrants—the two are now blended as Our Lady of Fatima. A new Johannes organ has just been installed.

From an article in the Catholic New World.2001

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