-They are things that have both endeared me to, and alienated me from, my father.-
Who remembers Petticoat Junction? Jeez, I am not that old, am I? Don’t answer that. I saw it when it was first run and you might have seen it on Nick at Night. Either way, you may recall that the beginning scene showed part of the cast swimming in an open water tank for the rural city of Hooterville. You remember when they grabbed the towels one by one over the top of the tank? People don’t usually use their town water tower like that, but it does make for a memorable scene and a cute introduction. Come to think of it, did they ever actually show the cast IN the water?
Anyway, when I was a kid, my dad started to make real water towers. He was a union steel worker for Chicago, Bridge & Iron. They shortened their name to CB&I when they moved their operations south to Kankakee, IL. My brother Sonny was a welder there and worked on a variety of contracts including those for US Navy subs. The company was bought out by Prax-Air in the nineties because of their interest in the small cylinders that CB&I made and that they used as gas containers for oxygen, helium, etc. (Nothing compared to the scale of the bridges, water towers or submarines, but it is what they wanted and it is what they got.)
The first real water tower that I can remember specifically was the one that my dad pointed out that he helped to make. It was located on I-57. We had to pass by it every time he would pick us up from our mother’s house in Garden Homes, IL to visit him on weekends at his place in Manteno, IL. We traveled that road a lot when I was young but up until I was about sevenish, I still thought of water towers in relation to the ‘swimming pool’ at Petticoat Junction. However, one day I got my first lesson in water pressure and peak usage. I learned that pumps worked to bring the water to the top of the tower during off periods in order to allow greater water pressure during peak usage. It was not just for the community but also for businesses, too. I started to notice that sometimes there were small water towers on top of various businesses scattered about. Coupled with the image of the swimming pool, I marveled how all of this could happen beneath the surface of the tower. Just like you can’t really see the cast of Petticoat Junction swimming in the water but you know they are there because you saw the towels being pulled into the top. Many years later when I attended college, one of my instructor’s used examples from CB&I to teach Statics and Structures and I was proud of my dad and my brother by association.
I guess because of that pride and those early lessons that the understanding was in the depth and not the surface, I tended to look at things a little more differently than most. I wanted to always go a little deeper than the facade. Funny though, I hate the thought of going under water for any significant length of time—like more than one minute. Which makes it harder to believe how often I end up in deep waters because I like to dig or wade, as it were, beneath the surface. I can’t help it, it has been my way for decades.
Like when my father used to take us to Midway Airport in Chicago, IL to watch the planes take off and land, BEFORE terrorism put the kibosh on such actions. I watched landing gear deployed and air speed brakes engaged. I could spot a brake in the air from the ground and see the flap separations. When they got closer, I would look for aileron and rudder adjustments. There is something cosmic or other worldly, about the whole concept and I just really like it. Military aircraft are the best because if you look very closely, you can see the sweep of the wing change when the pilot alters his course or increases speed to complete different maneuvers. My gift to you--try it some time.
My dad could tell which planes just landed and which ones were about to take off. It took a long time before I understood how he could do that. Let’s just say that it was easier to understand when I discovered that the fuel tanks are normally in the wing span and wing tips tended to dip more when fully loaded and ready to embark on their journeys. Smiling. Son of a gun! Ha Ha.
He liked Gladiola Festivals in Momence, IL. Marching bands and carnivals, too. I didn’t really notice that his English was broken until long after I had marveled at what he knew. He even let us make our own Christmas ornaments…a gift in memories in itself. But the best part was the ornaments that he bought somewhere in Chicago. The dark chocolates of Europe wrapped in colored foil with little, colored strings to act as hooks for the tree. Every year, even though I do not remember ever living with my dad when my parents were married, I do remember when I was young that we got to eat the tree down. Literally. I mean, how many kids get to eat some of their ornaments? Of course, we didn’t eat the ones that we made with pins and beads on those silky satin ornaments though I am sure that I must have tried at least once! I also remember that CB&I used to have a Christmas party for the kids. We would get age specific gifts and fruit. Do they do that anymore, anywhere?
He was born in Budapest, Hungary and came to the United States about two weeks before the Soviet Union rolled tanks into his home town. He had been in the Hungarian Army-Border Patrol and I grew up with guns in the house. They never scared me, just some of the people who own them. He had been a demolition expert and met my mom in Pennsylvania while he worked at blowing things up in various mining operations. Few “Americans” would take that job, but he did it until his English got better. He married my mom and they headed to Chicago along with my older brothers and sisters from my mom’s other ‘lives’.
Though my father was not a religious man, I discovered that he had been brought to the United States through a missionary organization-some Hungarian Reformist movement. I was baptized as a child in a Hungarian Reform church. My God Parents—Mary and Joseph, witnessed this though they were Catholic. (I have no delusions of being Christ or even Christ-like, but I am amused at the Mary and Joseph, thing.) In December 1993, I was baptized as an adult at Moody Church, a non-denominational church in Chicago, IL. I made my profession of faith publicly. Before my father died, after cutting me out of his will and on at least one occasion wrote that I was ‘noisy’ instead of the ‘nosey’ that he meant because I had asked too many or maybe the wrong questions, I had given him a Bible written in his native language Hungarian. I don’t think he read it though he often spent hours reading newspapers. It is my hope that he read that Bible and that it brought him some comfort in his final hours.
But, it still bothers me that such a man—a man who instilled curiosity in me through the love of airports and water towers, would hate me for wanting to know certain things. Somehow, a request for a picture of my Grandmother in a classic babushka makes me smile since her country was the originator of the ‘do rag’ also made him angry that I wanted a copy. This while I simultaneously writhe in agony because I do not remember her name. Suffice it to say, that is not the only question that was asked. But for here and now, let it represent the many things that remain unanswered from my questions.
I do not know if the path was strewn with lies or truth. Or, if the water towers, airports, marching bands and gladiola festivals were just diversions. I do know that I keep asking questions, for better or for worse, when I see planes in the sky or something clever painted on the sides of those water towers. I notice perhaps a little more deeply than I should. May-be I make people uncomfortable because of that. May-be I am uncomfortable around people because of that, too. But, I can’t help but want to peer beneath the surface. It is both a blessing and a curse. As I have grown older, some things that I thought were curses have become blessings. Unfortunately, the reverse is true, as well. Yet, I am still always compelled to ask.
In all this, I have enjoyed the things that stand out to me in plain sight, that may be missed by others. Like the “Bow Tie” bridge in Jacksonville, FL. It is really called the Dame Point Bridge and originally the Napolean Dynamite Bridge but I like to call it the Bow Tie because of the tuxedo-like bow tie structures that support the weight of the bridge. Word has it that it was called the Dame Point Bridge because the ‘Dames’ would wait on the bridge for their husbands to come back from sea as their ships crossed under it headed back to the Jacksonville Port. I also like the painted rose on the water tower in a suburb of Chicago, IL near O’Hare Airport, too. I don’t know if it is still there but for some reason, I hope it is.
Sometimes, I believe that because I am inclined to be ‘noisy’ and dive into a deeper level of understanding, that I must also bear the thorn in my side that brought me there for the extent of knowledge that it brings. It is the Sword of Damocles—in this case if I say what I must, I will have a sword driven through my head. Alternatively, if I do NOT say what I must, the same sword will be driven through my heart. How do you choose? I guess that is why I had to ask the questions that made my father hate me so much that he literally disowned me. But, the questions were necessary to ask…even if I know that they will never be answered. Whether they be diversions…or reality. But the journey has taught me to keep asking.
It is funny the things that we remember and the things that shape us. This love of airports, planes, water towers and such comes at a great price. But I cannot say that it was not worth it.