Thursday, July 9, 2015

My life sounds a little boring in comparison

Like many people of their generation, my mom and dad didn't talk much about their early lives.  Both of them were children during the Great Depression and understandably those were not years to look back on with much affection.  The few stories my mom has told over the years have served to highlight how drastically different the lives my brother and I led in the 50s and 60s.  We were firmly rooted in the growing middle class, with all the hard earned luxuries afforded that group. A new car every couple of years, a home with bedrooms of our own and a fenced yard, a huge monstrosity of a TV in the living room and a cute little portable phonograph that my mom would sometimes let us play records on. Compared to the stories my mom has of her parents and grandparents, my life seems downright boring.  No romantic elopements, no illegal moonshine stills, no armed-to-the-teeth family feuds,..and certainly nothing like the story of how my 5'2", 100lb grandmother foiled a kidnapping plot.

In the late 30s my grandfather had taken a job at Joliet State Penitentiary and quickly rose in the ranks to become Captain of the Guards, then Assistant Warden. In that capacity he was in charge of the 2500acre Honor Farm where prison inmates raised cattle and hogs along with vegetables for the entire State of Illinois. There were 125 inmates who had earned the right to live and work on the Farm. In the 40s my grandparents and the remaining children at home moved onto a 20acre property owned by the prison, located about 3 miles outside the prison gates, but within the boundaries of the Honor Farm. In my mom's words: "We were assigned one houseman and as many workers as needed weekly. They painted the inside of our house every 3 months and the outside every 6 months. They did the yard work and took care of the garden, processing all of the food grown in the garden, canning or freezing it for later use. They cleaned the house, did repairs, built shelves and helped with the cooking. We could leave our shoes in the halls just outside our bedrooms and after school would find them polished and returned to our closets." For kids who could vividly remember how little food there had been just a few years before, this seemed like heaven to them. There were uniformed guards on horseback who patrolled the Farm and who would supervise the team of workers each morning as they made their way to my grandparents' house and then back to the Honor Farm barracks in the evening. Mom said she and her brothers and sisters were all on first name basis with the men who worked in and around their house and even though they knew they were in prison for a reason, she said they rarely thought of that and considered some of them friends.  All of that changed in the late 40s.

By 1948, there were only 2 children remaining at home, one of them just a baby. Here, in my mom's words, is the story of the fateful day of the aborted kidnapping.

"One day, our houseman named Wash went on a rampage and almost succeeded in taking my mother hostage.  My baby sister was asleep in her crib and my mom knew she had to keep him occupied until help came. She fought with him, ending up with bruises all over her body.  He was about 6'2" and weighed over 200 lbs, but my mom managed to slip out of his grasp time and time again, climbing over beds and running from room to room avoiding at all costs my sister's bedroom.  Her screams caught the attention of one of the horse mounted patrol officers, who radioed the State Police, then charged into the house.  Wash was captured and taken back to the main prison. They found several large slivers of glass pane with handles made of wrapped cotton and tape in our linen closets and the basement, along with several homemade knives. Three other inmates were in on the hostage taking with the idea of exchanging the wife of the Assistant Warden for their freedom. Mother had to testify before the parole board and Wash was given 4 consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole."

Now you would think that with that experience fresh in her memory, my grandmother would have insisted that they move to a house far, far away from all things prison.  Nope, not my grandmother!  She was certain it was a one time thing and the likelihood of something awful happening again was very small. She was right.  She and my grandfather and my two aunts lived on the Farm until my grandfather's untimely death at the age of 47 at which time my grandmother, who had never worked outside the home a day of her life, suddenly found herself a young widow with two small children for whom she would have to provide. How she managed to not only provide for them, but become comfortably well off is an amazing story in and of itself and involved Tupperware.

Amazing woman, my grandmother.  Although I didn't know her well, she passed in the early 70s, I am proud that the blood of such a courageous woman runs thru my veins.  Sometimes at night, when I am alone in the house and I hear a scary sound and am just sure I am about to be murdered in my bed (I might read too many murder mysteries), I think of my grandmother and the courage it took to keep her wits about her as she faced down a convicted felon. And that thought drives me out of my bed to grab my faithful Louisville Slugger and confront whatever is lurking in the halls...which usually turns out to be my deaf dog getting a late night drink of water. So I pet my dog, put away the Slugger, and imagine I hear my grandmother saying "Not bad, granddaughter, not bad at all."