you're a kid you're only a kid. That's exactly my way of
looking at it. You don't even begin to grow up until you've
learned certain things, things about friends, things about
money. The rest--sex, health, life, death; that stuff
generally takes care of itself.
dollars. That may not seem like a lot today, but it's
enough that it should be respected. Imagine when the
minimum wage was 50 cents an hour. Imagine someone earning
that much throwing away 100 dollars.
Right after World War
Two, things were far from normal. Given four years of
shortages, rationing and all out effort, people were just getting
back to driving their beloved automobiles. A kid today
thinks of a car as part of his birthright. High school?
You drive to it. And very often in a late model vehicle.
After high school? You're on your way.
But in 1948,
you could be a kid like Donnie Murphy who was almost twenty and
had never even learned how to drive. Never.
a kid who didn't have much going for him. He was tall, but
that was all. He stood almost a head over his friends, but
even the shortest of them outweighed him, some by a lot.
They called him bean-pole, or slats, or bones; they asked him how
the weather was up there, and wondered if he could hide behind a
dangling light cord.. He was as clumsy as he was tall.
If there was something that could be tripped over, he'd
trip over it. If there was something that should not be
dropped, he would drop it. Basketball? A kid half his
size could beat him to the rebound.
It follows that Donnie
wasn't much with the girls. They stuck their noses up in
the air and walked right on by. Sometimes he would call one
up for a date. How about Saturday night? Um, um, I'm
busy Saturday. Next Saturday? Busy then too.
The Saturday after? Um, um, busy. Same for
Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, you get the idea. And Donnie
wasn't even asking the pretty girls, just the girls he knew darn
well were sitting right next to their phones.
he graduated high school, he tried to figure out what he was good
for. He was working in a machine shop, a kind of an
apprentice, came home every night with oil and grit on his
hands. Meanwhile all his friends had gone off to college.
This was not an option for Donnie; he'd screwed around all four
years of high school figuring he'd be drafted after he graduated,
drafted, sent to the Pacific and dead by time he was nineteen.
None of which happened, thanks to Harry Truman and the atomic
bomb. Now, the only way he could hope to get into college
would be by paying every red cent of the tuition. Donnie's
father believed a kid should work his way through college, the
same as he hadn't.
In time the only friends Donnie had
left, and we better use this word "friends"
cautiously, were other losers like himself. Fat
Frankie who was never to grow up, Vito who claimed he
screwed his own sister, Barry Baldshneer who breathed through his
mouth, and finally, Sailor Bob.
Sailor Bob was stationed
at Great Lakes Naval Station, and how he got mixed up with
Donnie's crowd is difficult to say. There are certain
people who simply show up and become your friends and nobody ever
remembers asking them to do it. First there were four boys
who hung out at the pool room and went to the Friday dances at
Eagles Hall where the girls pretty much turned them down en
masse. Then there were five.
Sailor Bob had that
Elvis Presley look; he was ahead of his time. He wore his
dark hair as long as the navy would allow, his bell bottom
trousers just a bit tighter, he chewed gum continually, and never
had a dime of his own. He claimed he sent it all to his
But he looked like a guy who could get the girls.
And he acted like it. And the girls would dance with him
and let him take them home and do stuff with them. As much
as they would let anyone who didn't have a dime to call his
What it came down to was that Bob not only joined the
group, he expected the group to pay his way. You wanted to
shoot pool with him, you better be ready to pay for his game.
You wanted to go to the Eagles Hall Dance with him, expect to buy
his ticket. Sailor Bob was like one of these millionaires
who never even carry a wallet.
Meanwhile Donnie was
already taking care of Frankie, Vito, and Barry. It was
almost as if he had to pay people to hang out with him. He
was constantly reaching into his hip pocket, a guy who made
forty, sometimes fifty dollars a week. Compared to
what they had, it almost seemed a lot. But he was careful about
money too. A dollar here, fifty cents there. He
could say no.
Donnie never went into the service
himself. When the Korean War started up in 1950, the
recruiters simply took one look at his spindly frame and
laughed. Heart murmur, they said. Of maybe they just
figured it would be impossible to find a uniform to fit him.
6'7", 138 lbs. But they took fat
Frankie who froze to death somewhere north of the 38th parallel.
And they took that braggart Vito, and they took witless mouth
breathing Barry Baldshneer, both of whom returned safely only to
scorn Donnie for the rest of their lives.
The car was
Sailor Bob's idea. Poor Donnie, the older he got, and he
kept going till he was over seventy, the more dreams he found
himself having about that car. In these dreams it would
always be parked behind his parents house on Wexford Street, an
old green Buick that dated back to the running board era.. He
would wake up wondering if his memory were true or false, if
there ever had actually been such a car, of if he had imagined it
all along. He couldn't remember driving it, or even being driven
in it. He only knew he had brought home a crisp one hundred
dollar bill from the bank and handed it over to Sailor Bob.
Just because we remember something poorly doesn't mean it
didn't happen. There must be dozens of people alive today
who attended those Eagle's Hall dances and remember them,
each in his or her own way. For that matter, Eagle's Hall
is still there, intact, if seldom used, but the Grand
Ballroom (later turned into a basketball court until the
neighbors began to complain of the "unsavory" elements
it drew from surrounding areas–by which they meant black
youths) has been pretty much abandoned and is visited only
by an occasional rat.
To tell the truth, the place
was seedy even in 1948, but it looked swell to the local teens.
Every Friday night there would be crepe paper streamers and a
three or four piece band--accordion, drums, sax, and bass the
usual combination--playing the latest songs from Your Hit
Parade. Kids would do the toddle, the two step, and the old
fashioned polka, and hope they would catch on with someone cute
before the band played "Good Night Ladies" and the
floor went dark.
Tall gangly Donnie Murphy had no hope of
this. Girls who had not been asked to dance in weeks
would flee at his approach. Sometimes a girl would dance
with Vito, but then she would find out what he was like, and then
the four boys would be left to stand along the sidelines hoping
some new girls would show up.
Sailor Bob changed that. He
cocked his cap on the side of his head and went straight up to
any girl he pleased. Since girls always came to the dances
in twos and threes, there would always be an extra girl or two
for Bob's friends. In a way, he was almost worth the ticket
Donnie had to buy for him.
One night there was a tall
dark-haired Italian girl with a strong sharply-defined face.
Sailor Bob liked his girls shorter and blonder, and
immediately took up with her shorter blonder friend. Vito
made a try but the tall girl dismissed him so quickly one would
think she'd met him before. It took all the courage
he had but Donnie finally asked her to dance, and they were lucky
enough to get in one slow number before the band switched to
"I'm sorry," he said. "I
guess I'm not much of a dancer."
"I can see
that," she said. "Don't you have a sister to give
"Oh, yes I do," Donnie said,
and then he realized he should have said, no. The tall girl
began to laugh, and later on she allowed him to walk her to the
bus stop. She lived in a neighboring town.
"Could I call you some time," Donnie
"You could call me," she said, "But I
won't go out with you."
you don't have a car. I live in Franklin Park. How
could we ever get to see each other?"
it could have been arranged, but the tall girl said, no, she
wasn't going to get involved in something like that.
if he ever got a car, that would be different.
right. He understood that. And she was honest enough
to come right out and say it.
So it was already in the
back of his mind that a car might be a good idea. Money was
a problem, but it wasn't the biggest problem. He had never
driven a car except for two or three lessons with his father, and
these had been such fiascos he now feared he would never learn.
You had to shift those gears and coordinate them with the clutch
or the car would go jerking up and down the street and rolling
backwards on hills, and sometimes you would hit things while
struggling to regain control and then whoever was with you (your
father) would leap out of the passenger seat and say, enough,
give me that wheel.
What Vito suggested one night in the
pool hall almost made sense.. "We're going to get a
car," Vito said. "Bob knows this guy. Only
three hundred dollars. Bob's going to put in one hundred,
me and Frankie and Barry can put in another hundred. We
just need you for the rest."
Donnie thought about
that dark haired Italian girl. He would be thinking about
her for the rest of his life, even though he forgot her name
before the summer was over. He imagined himself taking that
car out on Lincoln Highway early Sunday mornings when everyone
else was in church or sleeping. He could practice by
himself, without anyone yelling into his ear and making him
nervous. Maybe Bob could help. Bob had a way of
making you think everything was going to be all right.
on, Bob showed up at the pool hall. He was in his summer
whites, his cap on the edge of his head, a dark curl of hair
carefully pushed over his forehead. He took Donnie by the
arm. "Look, I know I owe you money," he said.
"I won't be able to square up till next month, but here's a
five on the account." He pressed a worn looking five
dollar bill into Donnie's hand. Then he insisted on
treating for a game of rotation, laughing and joking whenever he
slopped the wrong ball into a pocket. He bought Kayo for
all, and told stories about making out with girls. The
thing about Bob was that even if you forgot what he looked like
years later, you always remembered how easy he was to like.
Not only was he easy to like, you wanted him to like you.
guess we all know people like Sailor Bob. Strangers who
suddenly pop into our dull lives and brighten them, and
just as suddenly disappear, leaving us feeling foolish and filled
with shame. Donnie had a few more Bobs after this one, but
he was all through with them by the time he was thirty. By
then he had learned a few things--how to drive a car, how to
please a woman, how to earn good money in a machine shop.
He'd also learned how to be private and suspicious and keep even
his best friends at arms length. If you wanted to go
fishing with him and you showed up five minutes late, Donnie
would go on without you. If you wanted to borrow money from
him he would make you put something up as collateral, something
he would take and hold personally until he got his money back.
His own sons told me that even they were required to sign notes
although, oddly enough, there were never allowed them to pay back
what they had borrowed. It was as if he simply wanted
people to know he was no sucker.
A one hundred
dollar bill. When Donnie drew the money out of the bank,
the cashier asked him how he wanted it. Tens?
Twenties? Why not a one hundred dollar bill? A
C-note as they used to say in the gangster movies.
Donnie had never even seen one before, and when he held it in his
hand, a simple bit of paper that represented more than eighty
hours grit and oil and machine shop grind, he marveled that so
much could be compressed into so little, and disposed of so
easily. The bill disappeared into Sailor Bob's back pocket
and was never seen again, and the car, which did appear, never
ran once, just sat there on Wexford Street in need of some part
that was no longer manufactured. Worst of all was the
gradual and ever growing conviction that no one other than
himself had ever contributed a dime to its purchase, if in fact
it had even been purchased at all. It's no wonder that he
forced the whole thing from his mind so throughly he could not
remember, in later years, how the whole thing came to an end.
Eventually the car must have been towed away, perhaps by the
city, perhaps by its real owner. All that was left was an
empty parking place and those odd recurring dreams.
certain sense, all memory is a dream. Yes, it is.
Somewhere in this world there is a tall once-dark-haired woman of
Italian descent who remembers dancing with a boy a whole head
taller than herself. Somewhere a clever sailor boy grown
old is still sidling up to strangers, flashing his crafty
smile, and looking for one more sucker, one more easy mark.
Somewhere, I cannot doubt, there is man named Vito who remembers
himself as a hero in Korea, and not as the boy who boasted of
having sex with his little sister. It is even possible that
Barry Baldshneer, still breathing through his open mouth,
may now believe he has grown wise.
In his last months on
this earth Donnie Murphy lived in a haze and was often confused.
Sometimes he recognized his sons, who visited him often, and
sometimes he did not. If he felt pain he did not declare
it. He had led an upright life, all agreed, and done well
as a machinist, held office in the union, and attended mass about
as often and regularly as was right for any decent Catholic.
He owned a good home, and always bought sensible cars, the last
of which his wife of over forty years used to drive him to the
doctors, and later to the hospital. Toward the end,
she was constantly with him, and he talked to her. When he
was not asleep, he talked incessantly, to her, to the nurses, to
the walls, to the priest (whom he did not trust, he managed
to make that clear), and to people who were not even there.
He often talked about money. He wanted to know how much his
room would cost, and was his wife sure the insurance would
cover. In short, there is nothing remarkable to be said
about his last days.
It would be nice to
say that after the funeral, when all those white envelopes that
were sent in lieu of flowers were opened, one of them contained a
crisp one hundred dollar bill. And if fact, several did,
but we must not read what we want to read into that. No,
that one hundred dollar bill has gone to where all wasted money
goes, and it shall never be heard of again.
What we can
say about the funeral was that it was well attended. No one
took a head count but Donnie's wife and sons found themselves
constantly speaking to strangers who claimed to friends of the
deceased. There were men who had worked with him, and men
who had been union officers with him, and men who had been in the
Knights of Columbus with him, men, and women too, who
surfaced out of some mysterious past, "Oh, your father,"
they would say of this man who had once paid other boys to keep
him company. "They don't make them like that anymore.
"He was the kind of man you wanted for a friend."