My Brother Bill

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My Brother Bill


My brother, Bill (William Ernest), was born in 1925, when I was seven years old. Although we lived together in the family household for the next 12 years, my memories of him are remarkably sketchy. I suppose "shamefully sketchy" would be a better way to put it.

Bill was born in the Methodist Hospital at Gary, when my mother was 37 years old and my dad 42. In keeping with practice of the time, baby Bill and my mother were kept in the hospital for at least a week. Since we had no automobile, when we went to visit them, Dad and I had to take the streetcar to downtown Gary, then out to the hospital on the west side of the city. Or we got a ride with one of the motorized relatives who were driving to Gary to visit the new mother and child. Melvin Ross, husband of dad's sister Louise, drove a Dodge touring car; Honey Hall and dads sister Clara, and Charlie Pfeil and dad's sister Matilda both owned Model T Fords. Peter Fagan, the banker, and his wife owned a Pierce Arrow. For some reason I still recall vividly fierce arguments among the men about politics and the economy while they were sitting around my mother's hospital room ostensibly giving her comfort. But the men in the family always did that, whenever and wherever they got together.

When Bill came home, there were no immediate big changes. A couple of years earlier, dad had hired Honey Hall to convert the attic space west of the master bedroom into a bedroom. That had become my room when Grandma returned from California to live with us and took over the south bedroom. My room had just enough space for a cot, chair, and small chest. The ceiling sloped from about six feet high on the east wall to about three feet on the west, under the eave. The west wall had two narrow basement-unit windows, which let in adequate fresh air and also the sound of the St. Mary's church bells calling the parishioners to early mass every morning at about the same time my mother called me to get up to go to school. Bill's crib was placed in Grandma's room, and I kept my own "little bedroom".

However, things changed drastically when Bill was about two years old. Grandma moved to the "little room", though she had to keep her dresser-drawer and closet space in the south room, and Bill and I were assigned to share what had been her double bed in the south room. Because of the demotion, or for other reasons, Grandma soon returned to California, and Bill and I assumed ownership of at least part of the closet. And that arrangement continued for nine or ten years, until I left for college. My only recollections of that arrangement are frequent battles--usually in good humor but sometimes vicious--over the position of the imaginary line separating our halves of the bed. Our (Jane and John's) kids sometimes had to share a room, but never a bed. I wonder how far down the socio-economic scale you have to go nowadays to find siblings sharing the same bed.

Memories of times with Bill are sporadic and relatively few. I suppose the age difference between us simply meant that we usually went different ways with different friends. I recall a few occasions, when he was small, when I made up games for us to play to settle him down or divert his attention from some fit of frustration. I think I would do that when my mother was at her wits' end and dad was on the road, and it would give me a sense of status and feeling of accomplishment.

We also did quite a bit of exploring together. In the early years I introduced Bill to the mysteries of the "woods" on the 40-acre undeveloped tract back of our place, on the southeast edge of Crown Point's incorporated area. He helped to build forts; I challenged him to climb trees, find me when I disappeared in the brush, raced him through the briars, and always ran the risk that he'd hurt himself and I'd be blamed.

Events were not always benign. I recall dad normally admonishing me when he left for work not to "torment Bill". Two events still crowd my memory. There was one time when I lowered my left arm, like a portcullis guarding a medieval drawbridge, to keep Bill from crossing into my half of the bed, shortly after we had retired. Bill screamed that I had tried to kill him; the folks came running upstairs, and I was in some kind of big trouble. And there was the time when Bill became exasperated with me over some issue, picked up the garden rake, and, whirling like a dervish, swung the teeth of the rake in a ten-foot circle daring me to come close enough to tangle with the rake. But more often there were good times.

There were many good hours together on family summer picnics. Many of the picnics were on Roger Schnurlein's farm southwest of Crown Point. Roger's place was on the stony, hummocky Valparaiso moraine land, not far from the old Wagenblast homestead. The land was poor. Much of it was in original oak-hickory woodland or rough pasture overgrown with hazel bush. On those picnics Bill and I spent a lot of hours playing hide and seek among the trees and shrubs, helping the folks gather hazel nuts and hickory nuts, and floating logs, chasing turtles, or just throwing stones along the drainage ditch. Before we got the family Whippet, we'd go out there with Aunt Kate and Aunt Clara and Uncle Honey Hall in his Model T. Many other outings were at the Indiana Dunes State Park, where we explored the miles of trails and blowouts, swam in the surf, and built massive ports and cities in the sand on that marvelous beach.

There were other day trips simply to points of interest that I would suggest and my mother would be eager to see--neighboring county seat towns with different settings and sizes and economic bases than Crown Point--the rapids of the Kankakee river at Momence, Illinois; the locks on the Lake Michigan-to-Mississippi System ship canal at Lockport, Illinois; the college and riverside parks at Renssalaer, the hydro-electric dams and riverside parks at Monticello; the college campus and ancient Sager mill and pond (later a nudist colony!) at Valparaiso. After we acquired the Whippet, and dad didn't like to drive, my mother made a point of scheduling Saturday or Sunday "rides" when dad was on the road. Bill and I enjoyed a lot of those trips together.

Of course, I spent quite a lot of time playing catch and knocking out flies and grounders with Bill when he was about age 7 to 10 and in need of endless baseball training and practice. And I played hockey a few times with him and his friends on the frozen pond on Sauerman's farm or on "Lake Seven", an ephemeral pond/marsh a mile walk west of Aunt Kate and Clara's just west of town. Cousin Charlie Sauerman--who later successfully developed the entire farm as high quality residential real estate--recalls the time I took on him and his brother and Bill and beat them. Though pretty competetive, I was a poor skater and seldom on the winning hockey team in my own age group; perhaps I salved hurt feelings by playing with Bill and his contemporaries.

It's surprising and dismaying that I do not remember Bill's part in longer trips such as visits to mom's brother's household in Lombard and Glen Ellyn, Illinois. I suppose Bill played with his contemporary cousins, Betty and Judy, while I concentrated on the typewriter (the only access I had to one until Mom and Dad got a $15 Remington Portable from the Sears catalog when I was about 13). Nor do I recall his role in the trip to Nebraska when we got the new Studebaker in 1935. There was a crowd--Bill and I, Mom, Aunt Til, her son Walter, and Walt's new bride, Gertrude Eberspacher. It was fun, chaotic, a bit traumatic for the newlyweds.

But I have no special recollections of Bill, though the Nebraska relatives must have made a fuss over meeting him for the first time.

I do recall his company on our full-family trip to Nebraska in late summer of 1937. That was dad's first and only venture out there by car, and only the second and last time he got out there to see that branch of the family. (The other one was a train trip at the time of Rudolph's death.) It was a nice time - the only time we ever spent long hours together in the car and in hotels, as a family. Bill and I were more mature: I had worked a year and was headed for college; Bill was going into junior high school; and dad was in good health, prosperous, and quite proud to show his two sons to the relatives.

After I went off to college in the fall of 1937, Bill came into his own in junior high and high school. I think he combined good scholarship, athletic ability, and social popularity. He also had a daily paper route through all those years. "Paper boys" found themselves, for the first time, in a seller's market during the1939-42 recovery and subsequent years of World War II. Bill took advantage of that and had both more spending money and more savings than I had ever dreamed of during my high school years. Meanwhile, I think dad found in Bill what he had never found in me - a fishing partner. The new family lake lot played a role in this.

Just before the 1929 crash, some Chicago promoters dammed a creek on the Valparaiso moraine southwest of Crown Point and created an artificial lake called "Dalecarlia". (Locally called "Wonder Lake", for the name of the development company.) The lake was much less impressive than its magnificent namesake in central Sweden. Nevertheless, it covered perhaps 700 acres, and perhaps 10 or 12 miles of shoreline twisted among the hummocks and potholes of the moraine - not far from the original Wagenblast homestead.

It was part of the "lake-making" industry which mushroomed on the moraines outside Chicago during the 1920s boom. There were several dozen small lakes northwest of the city which were not on the main suburban rail lines and lay undeveloped at the beginning of the automobile era after World War I. With the wave of Sunday-drivers in the 20s, developers seized on this cheap lake shore, platted small lots on every foot of it--and severel blocks inland, as well--and sold them almost overnight. In a short time the supply was exhausted, and they turned to making artificial lakes to create more shore line to subdivide. Likewise, the contemporaneous sell-out of the shores of large, natural Cedar Lake, five miles southwest of Crown Point, led to the development of Lake Dalecarlia, east of Cedar Lake.

The Dalecarlia project came on line just in time for the crash of 1929. Several thousand lots and miles of shore lay vacant in the Great Depression. Enter dad and mom about 1938. Although they never built anything on their lot, dad and Bill kept a rowboat there and occasionally slept out under the stars. Among our legacy of family snapshots there's one of dad, holding oars, on his bit of the shore of that lake. I think the lot and Bill's company meant much to him.

The next-to-last adventure with Bill that I still remember came while I was home for the spring break in 1940. Bill was approaching legal driving age. He would take the car out on country roads to practice whenever he could get my mother to go along as the licensed adult driver. One afternoon I agreed to go out. I determined the route and gave the commands and occasional comments. He was doing very well, as we went from one township gravel road to another. Then, suddenly, he rounded the sharp, right-angle turn at a section corner crossrods, failed to staighten out the wheel, made a 110-degree sharp turn, and ran head-on into the deep, muddy drainage ditch beside he road. (Things were usually muddy in early spring.)

By great good luck, George Randolph was plowing in the field next to the road. His mother lived across the street from us, in town, and had been a sort of proxy aunty to me almost all my life; and his son was a little younger than I but often a playtmate when he would visit his grandmother. So it was easy for me to walk across the muddy field, hail Mr. Randolph, and ask for help. He unhitched the team of horses, drove them over to the ditch, and pulled the Studebaker back up onto the narrow gravel road. Bill and I considered whether to report this to the folks or just make up some kind of story about the mud on the car. We soon decided to come clean, since Mr. Randolph would tell them about it, anyway. Indeed, he told a lot of people because he thought it was funny.

The last adventure was a brief one during the Christmas break in 1941, when I was home from graduate school t the University of illinois. Jane came down to Crown Point from Bismarck to meet my family in the brief inerval between Christmas and New Year. One day we went ovet to the Indiana Dunes State Park. Although it was winter, I still wanted her to see that place because I had talked about it a lot, and it held such a special place in my recollections. We bundled up and walked the icy beach and climbed the snowy hiking trails over the dunes, through the woods, and across the barren blowouts. It was a goo day. And Bill went along. He was good company, and later told my mother that Jane was an "ace babe".

After that, I was home for only literally a few hours en route to and from North Dakota, and on to Alabama in February of 1942.

In early June of 1942 Jane stopped in Crown Point for a couple of days en route to our wedding in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She found a congenial situation. Dad was home. Once again, Bill found Jane very likeable and attractive - "ace curves", he confided to my mother. Jane liked Bill. And Jane's brother, Frank, came up from Purdue, where he had just completed his junior year. We have one or two snapshots of that time.

The story ended shockingly about two weeks later. Jane and I had barely settled into our apartment on Upland Road in Cambridge when word came that Bill had died of a head injury. A pitched baseball had struck him. He had ridden his bicycle home from the park, went into a coma, and died within a short time. Jane said it was the only time she had seen me cry. It was a shock, and I guess I had given quite a bit of thought to what he might do and how we might help him as he moved from high school into college. I could only get away long enough to attend the funeral and participate as a pall-bearer. My mother and dad were devastated. There was a remarkable outpouring of support from Bill's classmates and their parents and friends. The following spring the students dedicated the high school annual to his memory. We have a copy in our files, and it should contain a lot of important biography of which I am ignorant. I think my mother and dad patched together the memories and recovered, though never entirely.


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