by MITCHELL J. STRUCINSKI
IT SEEMS to me the tonal fluting whistles of steam locomotives are heard less and less often these days. In a way I’m glad the diesel growler has replaced the steam whistle, for in that way I am not reminded of Old Jeff, the winters of my youth, and my old crowd from around 46th and Whipple.
Living in that decrepit house, with its air of desolation, the slight, graying old man was a perfect mark for our forays. When there was nothing else doing in the neighborhood we would collect a bunch of tin cans, garbage, rocks, and other portable trash, then head for the old man’s. With a yell we’d toss the stuff over his back fence and run, thrilled to our soles by the clatter of junk and the crash of window glass echoing satisfactorily in the night.
I don’t know with any certainty why we picked on Jeff Doubleday. It may have been because he was different from the rest of the men we knew. They were all either Polish, Lithuanian, or Croatian ex-peasants with enormous families. Childless, silent, and living in that large house all by himself, he fascinated us. Then again, maybe it was a kind of jealousy. Years ago he had worked for the Rock Island railroad as an engineer, and with his monthly pension check he was considered well-off in our neighborhood, which was made to appear even poorer than it was because of the grinding desperation of those depression years. I suspect the real reason was in some way related to the old man’s penchant for inventing things. For the other things the neighborhood might have forgiven him, but he was forever perfecting some new, impractical gadget
— like the rake which could also serve as a hoe — and this singled him out for our scorn.
He was a familiar sight in the alleys, and this, too, mystified us. With an old burlap sack in his hand, Old Jeff was continually poking into ash cans for the refuse of the community — refuse we knew he couldn’t need very much, in view of his pension and his two-story brick house, which we were told he owned outright. He’d salvage crazy-shaped bits of metal and hurry homeward, and we wouldn’t see him again until the next morning.
For years I hated him, because it was the thing to do, and I supposed him to return the compliment. Certainly there was nothing friendly about him when, as often happened, leaning on the fence, he watched us scuttle across the streetcar tracks to the large field across from his home. He was an alien, and that wrinkled old face, with its many creases around the eyes, its clean-shaven but sunken jowls, reminded one of the threatening look a wounded buffalo has. Of course, in view of the way we tormented him he had reason to be angry at us.
I always enjoyed doing things with a bunch of other kids, for the feeling of anonymily it gave me. With five or six others around I felt disembodied and nameless, as if no onlooker could separate me from the gang and say, “That scrawny kid, the one with the baseball cap, that’s old man Krupa’s boy.” Numbers made me brave, but whenever I saw the old man coming down the alley and there was no one around to support me, I’d hurry out of sight, for I could never be sure he wouldn’t whale the hide off me if he caught me alone.
It was common knowledge that Jeff Doubleday was a hard one. He had, for example, trapped and nearly beaten to death Mike Piefuk’s old man, who had crawled in to burglarize what he must have thought was an empty house. Doubleday’s light frame, his old man’s shuffle, the patched and baggy, but always clean, engineer’s overalls he wore, disguised taut and wiry muscles, not yet softened by inactivity. The night before Christmas was a hectic one, for my mother loved and lived by the Polish custom for that season. I waited expectantly for the chemistry set I was sure Father would give me. After supper, with the fish eaten and the oplatek broken, and good wishes for the next year exchanged, my mother sent me on an errand obviously trumped up to get me out of the house. I was elated, and in my excitement ran the four blocks to Archer Avenue and back again, only realizing just as I swung into our gangway that I hadn’t given my parents time to ready the tree. I took a leisurely trot around the block, running into old snowdrifts, thrilled by the crunching explosions my shoes created as they kicked their way through the crusted drifts. Then, deciding to take a short cut, I hurried through an alley. Then I saw the old man again, but this time he saw me, too.
Although we hated him, he held an enchantment for us, and this was to a great extent the result of his railroading background. For a long time I believed that was why he made the model trains.
In his basement Jeff Doubleday had a workshop such as I had never before seen. Mike Pietuk and I sneaked up there one night, long after we should have been in bed, attracted by the lights which burned so late every evening. I suppose we expected to see him doing something crazy, like Goofy Sobota from 45th Street, who used to make clock faces out of cardboard but never had any clocks on which to put them.
What we saw was the old man’s workbench, the tools he used, and the trains he made. I think I fell in love with railroading then. I remember Mike nearly gave us away with his excited whispers. I had to clap my hand over his mouth to shut him up. You really couldn’t blame him, for there they were, like something out of a Lionel catalogue: a tableful, a whole railroad yard of carefully exact locomotives, coal cars, cabooses, freight and passenger cars — the works. Little as we knew about these things, we could see that all of them weren’t electric trains, although that alone would have been miracle enough for us. The old man was testing an engine, and from its stack came a thin stream of smoke, and in its firebox we saw the hot, red, unfalsifiably real glow of fire. We watched him pull the whistle cord, and heard the engine’s thin, flute-like whistle. It was little wonder we lurked there for hours, watching and freezing in the cold, and the thrashing I received from my worried father seemed little enough to pay for it at the time,
AS FOR Mike, from that day on whenever we missed him we’d look for him near Old Jelf’s and there he’d be, staring through the window, eyes glowing, mouth agape.
In one way it was tragic. Alt hough we were poor, the Pietuks were poorer. Mike’s father, who had tried to burglarize the old man’s house, was now serving two years at Joliet. Model trains were out of our reach. Even if Doubleday hadn’t been so confoundedly hard to get along with, though, any chance of Mike’s playing with the engines was gone because he was Big John’s son, and the old man was his father’s enemy.
Big John Pietuk had hated Jeff Doubleday for a lot of reasons, but I think the biggest one was the result of the old man’s being a teetotaler who not only would not buy Big John’s bootleg whiskey but never failed to advise anyone who’d listen not to buy the stuff. My father, and quite a number of other men like him, didn’t listen to the old man. They believed he wasn’t qualified to make the statements he did. They felt any man who drew a pension shouldn’t have to prowl through other people’s garbage. Being Middle European peasants, they couldn’t understand a man who was independent enough to do what he wanted, the way he wanted, and when he wanted. I suppose their heritage told them there was something terribly wrong with such a man. I don’t know. At that time I thought my father was right, but that was more than twenty years ago. Anyway, much as he was disliked, I don’t think anyone could equal the hatred Mike Pietuk had for Jeff Doubleday. Not only had the old man deprived him of his father, but he had also — by a process of reasoning I always had difficulty understanding — deprived Mike of the model trains.
Early one morning in mid-November I came out to play in the snow before going to school. I saw a squad car parked before the old man’s house and made a quick guess what had happened. I was right. The old man’s basement had been broken into and the trains and track stolen. I found Mike on the fringe of the crowd, looking fabulously innocent. From that day I stayed clear of the old man’s window. I didn’t want him to find me looking in, and I knew enough even then not to take the blame for something I hadn’t done.
Once, however, I was walking through the alley behind the ramshackle frame building in which Mike lived, and I met the old man. I didn’t exactly meet him. I hid between the bole of a telephone pole and a rusty garbage can, so that the old man passed without seeing me, but his wandering I around back there after dark like that puzzled me. squatted in the smelly darkness for some time, and then, in the winter stillness, I heard it and I knew why Old Jeff had been in the alley. It was the thin, slightly melodious sound of a distant train whistle, and it came from the shed behind Mike’s house.
It was my intention to tell Mike about it sometime when we were playing with the trains, but then he and I fought over some magazines he’d loaned me and I hadn’t returned. After that, I didn’t much care what happened to him; I was too busy nursing my split lip and trying to convince my mother I actually had fallen down the school stairs. By the time Mike and I were again on speaking terms, Christmas had come and I was too enthralled by the preparations to remember something as ancient as my meeting with the old man.
We stopped, each for some odd reason looking guiltily at the other. I cringed, expecting a blow which didn’t come.
“How come you never peek in my window no more?” he asked.
“I — uh — I never.” It wasn’t very convincing.
‟Didn’t you like my trains?”
I nodded dumbly. ‟I liked ‘em.”
“Then come on down someday soon. I started building all over again. I’ll show you the new diesel. They’re the comin’ thing, you know.”
I simply nodded again, not knowing how to act in this unprecedented situation.
He turned, and I saw his face was contorted in the bright greenish winter moonlight. “Bring Mike with you,’ he said, and shuffled away. There was something in the air around me, and I seemed to realize then that he had never been harsh with us, that our fear of him was largely created by our hatred.
The meeting took the edge off my excitement, and the next morning, after making a suitable fuss over my gifts, I hustled over to see Mike in his shed.
“Did you get the set?” he asked. I said I had, and then told him about meeting Old Jeff.
Mike’s face flushed. ‟How did he find out about the trains?”
“Aw, cripes, Mike,’ I answered, “everybody on the block knows you were buggy about them.”
“Should we go over?” I asked after a minute.
His pinched face grew stern and white. He grabbed up a caboose and threw it against the wall. The wheels came off when it hit the floor, and bits of its wooden side flew around the room. Then he started to cry. I thought it was kind of silly, but.
I didn’t say so. It always makes me uncomfortable to see people cry, and I am no different at thirtyfive than I was at ten. I slipped away quietly, shutting the sagging, leather-hinged door behind me.
It was my chore in those days to make the morning trip to the bakery for our daily supply of ryc bread and hard rolls. The bakery was in the next block, and I generally look the alley behind Old Jeff’s to get there more rapidly. Not that the distance was really any shorter, but the alley always seemed to me so much more of an adventure than the staid and prosaic street.
As I approached the old man’s back fence I saw him kneeling and putting away some objects into the old burlap sack he habitually carried on his scavenging expeditions. Seeing him salvaging stuff from his own garbage can was odd. Impelled by curiosity, and influenced considerably by his invitation of Christmas Eve, I approached him.
He looked up at me, and if it is possible for a human to snarl, Old Jeff did. What was worse, he seemed to be crying.
“Keep away from me, you little bastard! Haven’t you done enough?” He snatched at the dirty snow and threw something at me. I caught it roflexively, called out an obscenity, and ran.
I had a chance to look at what I’d caught, after I turned the corner and saw he wasn’t going lo chase me. What I had was the shattered boiler of a small steam engine: a beautifully detailed, faithfully copied working model of a Pacific-type locomotive. The shards I held, I know now, represented many hours of loving, skillful labor, and had the engine been undamaged it would have been worth a respectable sum even in those days.
For some reason, I put the tortured and beaten metal into my pocket and completed my errand.
I never again used the alley behind Old Jeff’s house, which was foolish because a few months later he came down with pneumonia and died. Perhaps it was some instinct, perhaps it was discomfort growing out of an associative guilt; whatever the reason, from that time on I saw less and less of Mike. The last I heard of him he’d committed suicide with a girl whose mother wouldn’t let her marry him.
I’ll never understand why he destroyed those stolen trains and dumped the pieces into Jeff’s garbage can. He was always proud, and perhaps didn’t like the idea of accepting charily from his father’s enemy. I don’t know. I really don’t. All I know is, I don’t like to hear the long thin wail of a steam engine in the distance, because it makes me think of Christmas and an old man crying.