Thursday, January 5, 2017

A Year in Illinois - Part II

Several years ago, Larry wrote a description of our year living in Chicago, from April 1, 1969 through March 30, 1970. I thought I had posted it as a blog long ago, but I discovered I hadn’t. So, please enjoy Part 2 of his walk down Memory Lane.

Being native Californians, Lorna and I had become used to the occasional earthquake, but tornadoes were a new experience. Our April arrival timed with the start of the storm season. We were soon to learn our new home was located dead center in an area known as “Tornado Alley,” and our apartment complex was built on land cleared of its former houses by a tornado some six years earlier. Not a comforting thought. The Baezas had offered their first-floor apartment (which was partially below grade) as shelter during the most severe blows, and several evenings the Collins, Wilson, and Baeza families all huddled there.

The second week after our arrival, the first of several twisters touched down a few blocks away from the apartment. Lorna watched out the rear kitchen window of the Baeza’s apartment. As she put it, “The sky turned green, really. Then in the distance, the unmistakable shape of a funnel descended from black clouds above.” Fortunately, it wasn’t headed our way. It touched down harmlessly in an empty school yard a few blocks away.
The family visited us in Hickory Hills

Extra Money
Bob Wilson owned his own company installing wood and metal siding on houses. It was a one-man operation consisting of a truck, a circular saw, some scaffolding, a couple of ladders, several hammers of assorted sizes, and Bob. The siding supplier paid him about sixteen dollars a square. (A square referred to enough material to cover one-hundred square feet of surface area.) In this case, one-hundred square feet of building exterior wall for wood, and eleven dollars a square for aluminum to install the material. Since decorative siding was very popular in the Midwest, Bob had all the work he could handle. When he found out I could actually drive a nail without bending it, he persuaded me to join him on weekends for some “second story” work.

Many of the new housing tracts in the Illinois area featured a traditional Midwestern style. These two-story dwellings had first-floor walls made of brick. Decorative siding covered the wood-framed second level. For someone working alone, installing the exterior wood siding was most difficult. He needed to first climb up a ladder to measure, then down to cut a section of siding to length, back up to hammer it in place, and repeat this for each piece. Not only was it exhausting, but so much time was wasted climbing up and down ladders all day that very little siding actually got installed.

Since Bob was paid by the square foot, it also meant very little money. Two people installing made a great difference. One worker on the ladder measured and called lengths to the helper on the ground. The helper cut the wood or aluminum and passed it up to be nailed in place by the person on the ladder. No climbing up and down. When the ladder person got tired, they could change places. Two people could install four times the siding of someone working alone and hence collect four times the pay. Bob could provide me a good salary and make even more for himself.

I worked through the summer and fall on my days off from the refinery whenever Bob had “second story” work, and the extra pay went directly in the bank to add to our “saving to buy a home” nest egg. The cold Chicago winters made doing anything outside miserable, so Bob took his vacation then. From November through February, Bob practiced his other passion, motorcycle racing.

The Family Meets the Mob or “Which way to the pool?”
Spring had passed along with its associated storms and wet weather. The notorious long, hot Chicago summer was about to start. In early June, our landlord presented us with a pass to use the guest pool at the motel adjacent to our apartment complex. He said he had friends there and had made special arrangements with the owner for us to use the facilities. We took it as a great opportunity to teach Kim to swim. Armed with the pass, we headed next door. The manager behind the counter, an older gentleman, glanced at our pass and, with a wave of his hand, motioned for us to proceed to the pool. He seemed a very serious type, never smiled and never said more than one or two words.

The Olympic-sized pool was originally outdoors, but a roof and solarium-type structure had been constructed around it. Green indoor-outdoor carpeting covered the pool deck. The carpeting was always soggy and added a slightly musty smell to the entire building. The pool itself was heated year-round. Kim took to the water right away and learned to hold her breath and swim short distances underwater.

We, however, began to notice some strange events next door. The pool and motel were usually deserted. We were often the only ones enjoying this retreat. The motel seldom had any parked vehicles, and rooms appeared to be unoccupied. However, on any given evening, one or several large black vehicles, filled with well-dressed men in suits, would drive up to the entrance and a passenger would call, “Do you have any vacancies?” To which the manager always responded, “Sorry, all full up.” The car would then drive away.

Also, the name of the motel appeared only on the flashing neon sign out front. No stationery, matchbooks, napkins, ashtrays, or anything portable listed the business name or address.

It seemed strange for a business not to advertise. But we surmised maybe they just did things differently in Chicago.

In July, my parents and teenage brother, Casey, planned a trip to see us. We thought, “Wouldn’t it be convenient for them to stay next door?” So, one evening as we left the pool area, we approached the manager. He looked up from behind the large desk he always seemed to occupy.

“Hi”, Lorna began energetically. “We were wondering if you would have any rooms available for the third week in July.”

“Maybe”, he blandly replied.

“Wonderful,” I joined in, “my parents are arriving for a visit, and it would be great if they could stay so near our apartment. Do you have a price list we could see?”


He didn’t have a list, but quoted a reasonable figure for three people for one week and wrote down names and dates on a nearby note pad. So the reservations were made.

My dad later said it was the strangest motel they had ever seen. First, there were no towels when they arrived. They called the main desk and made a request, but Dad had to go down and pick up the towels themselves as “maid service had gone home.” In fact, it seemed the housekeeping was non-existent. No beds were made or rooms cleaned during their entire week-long stay. They could hear late night activity in adjoining rooms but no one was ever there in the morning. Fortunately, they spent the days and most evenings at our apartment and very little time at the motel.

When checkout time came, Dad first had to locate someone to pay. The guest receipt he received was written on a generic receipt pad obtainable at any stationery store.

Some months later, all was revealed when the Chicago Tribune reported our little hamlet of Hickory Hills to be the most corrupt city this side of Cicero. The local underworld headquarters was identified as our nearby motel. The manager named Alberto Capone (brother to the famous gangster Aphonse Capone) had been arrested on a charge of selling 35,000 amphetamine tablets. The motel was closed for a week or so, then magically reopened as if nothing had happened.

It seemed our purpose there had been to populate the pool as “normal guests” and create a family atmosphere cover. After we discovered our true role, the swim didn’t seem so pleasant and we curtailed further visits. Summer was almost over and the weather was turning cold anyway.

In late fall, we were awakened to police sirens as officers again descended on our nearby neighbor. This time was more serious, a young lady had been killed in the motel. Thereafter it remained closed.

Several articles were written about corruption in the Chicago Tribune. One in January, before our arrival, and another in January of 1970.


  1. I was raised in Tornado Alley, so I was never that nervous about tornados after I figured out their apparent path. One year a tornado took out 3 houses a mile south of us. And yes the sky did turn jade green. Actually pretty. To me, tornados signaled power outages and getting to go Grandma's for a meal.

    I like your motel story. In our area (Joliet), restaurants occasionally burned down. Common wisdom was the owners had failed to pay off the mob. I don't remember anyone ever being arrested for arson.

    Maybe I should use these memories in a thriller.
    JL Greger, author of Murder...A Way to Lose Weight

    1. Good idea. The refinery Larry worked on was in Joliet (Union Oil).