Place names evoke. They have the power, for good or ill, to enfold universal memories and symbols within their stretch of letters. The world and I share many of them:
Munich, where fear and cowardice chose to mask itself in classic English tones and pitiable self-delusion against brutal, mocking truth.
Dien Bien Phu, where for the first time Western arrogance saw its coursing red blood drawn by the bite of their inferiors.
Dallas, where each shot from that Mannlicher-Carcano, guided by the self-aggrandized, nictating eye, laid mortal a thousand truths and homilies.
Some places are of no great importance for a wider world and belong only to a few.
Or to one.
McIlroy Avenue is mine
Named after one of West Terre Haute’s early merchants, McIlroy Avenue (pronounced Mac uh roy), only runs about 6 or 7 blocks south from Paris Avenue. The blocks between National and Paris Avenue were our route, mine and Gramps’. “Let’s take a walk, Buck (his nickname for me),” he would say. And off we would go. Gramps usually carried a stick (likely the handle of one of Grandma’s old brooms) because he was frightened of dogs and would wave it at them if he thought they were coming too close. Among our favorite family stories was the time Gramps was asked to bring home a big bag of potato chips for a family gathering. When he got home and the bag was hungrily ripped open an aunt found the it contained only crumbs. A dog had lunged at Gramps and he fought him off with the potato chip bag. Not a chip remained unbroken when the duel was over.
More often than not our destination was Snacks Café. Snacks tavern is an institution, having weathered the Prohibition era, when it was renamed a “soft drink parlor” (nudge, wink). It still stands, barely, serving its dwindling clientele.
I would wait in the back room while he went through the swinging door where Gramps got two quarts of beer. Falstaff and Sterling were his favorite, possibly because they were cheapest, fifty cents a bottle if I remember correctly. While he ordered and perhaps chatted with the bartender I would wait in the back room. An occasional raucous laugh floated toward me through the swinging door. But I remember the smells most of all. That ever pervading scent of stale beer and cigarettes mingling with fried onions and hamburgers is fixed deeply in my senses. Every time I pass an old tavern with its exhaust fans wafting that smell into the street (it happens a lot in Chicago, for some reason) I am instantly back again at Snacks Café.
When Gramps was done, his brown paper bag filled with beer, we walked back home, just talking.
But my stretch of McIlroy was the block between National and Riggy. No Black ever walked it. Nor any Jew as far as I know, unless it was earlier in the century and he was a salesman. A gay man walked it. But he was followed by a dialogue usually spoken from behind a hand hiding a smirk. There goes the sissy. You boys never be alone with him. Still it was my street.
On the southwest corner of National and McIlroy was “Red” Roach’s Gulf station. It sat on land once owned by my great grandfather David Arthur, and adjacent to parcel where another great grandfather’s family lived. The Gulf station was a place to get a bottle of pop or candy bar. Or, if you used what I thought was a strange gum machine in the men’s bathroom, condoms if you were one of my uncles. There was an empty lot south of the station. We played there occasionally. I remember one dark night when I was in my The Man From Uncle phase the field was a nest of foreign spies. I chased them with a highly prized plastic Beretta fitting snugly in a holster I fashioned from the leather price-labler holder Uncle Danny brought home from his job at the A&P.
Before it was an empty field it was David Arthur’s peach orchard, and evidently home to more than the fuzzy fruit. My grandmother’s youngest siblings were the twins Eva and Iva (known as Evie and Ivy). They were fun aunts. I always called them the Bawdy Bobbsey Twins. They would make my Mom laugh so hard she would pee her pants at times. They would do things like come up to you at the family reunion and ask (innocently?), “Do you know how to make antifreeze? Put an ice cube in my bra.” One day at a family get together they were reminiscing about younger days. Ivy asked Evie if she remembered the old man in the neighborhood who would sneak into the orchard and expose himself to them. Evie, in a reply that was so evocative that it sticks in my mind almost fifty years later, said, “Oh my yes. Poor old man, it looked like two old dried up peaches hanging from a dead limb.”
South across an alley was the telephone building and the Wardle’s house. It was a Bedford stone house and my favorite in town. I just liked its clean solid looks. Claude ran a lumbering business. Between high school and joining the Marines my uncle Jim worked for Claude. I remember him piling into the huge dinners Grandma would make, building a small mountain of mashed potatoes on his plate. Grandma sometimes cleaned for Jessie Wardle. Jessie was in her late fifties or early sixties and favored a drink or two in the afternoon I remember. I also remember her too-blonde hair and the low-cut blue dress that presented me with my memorable first view of cleavage.
Across the street was 101 W. Riggy, but more on that house later.
The Dog N Suds was on the southeast corner of National and McIlroy. It was an oasis of bright lights and tempting aromas. Mom worked there for a bit after I was born. Grandma loved their fish sandwiches, which were often purchased on Fridays. It was owned by Charlie Clements, and also stood on property once owned by David Arthur. Charlie and wife June, a kindly but always tired looking woman, worked the kitchen. There often treated me to blissfully cold and foamy root beers or ice cream cones. Charlie’s legs were aided by metal crutches, the kind that included supports that came up to his elbows. I often saw him struggle to move forward. He had contracted polio. I was told by his son when I was five that his dad’s polio was caused by him swallowing a bug. For a year afterward I would frantically spit out any insect that might land in my mouth lest I spend my life in an iron lung. It was not until the second grade that we all lined up in the gymnasium at Consolidated School, jiggly waiting in line to swallow the sugar cube that would save us from being trapped in that terror-inducing machine.
The Clements lived in a house behind the Dog N Suds. Their daughter Amy was my age and the first girl I became smitten with. Just south of their house was a tiny home where June Clements’ mother lived. The house had a mysterious aura to me. Perhaps because Amy’s grandmother was ill, or perhaps ill-tempered, we never were invited in there. It had a closed in, dark feel to it. I usually hastened my step when walking by there.
The next house on McIlroy was a two-storey brown shingled house. It was on property sold by my Grandma to the Clements. Mom and I lived in a second floor apartment there for a while after I was born. The first neighbors I remember were the Mattox family, Jerry, Rita, and their two girls. I liked Rita a lot, but Jerry, a diffident man who worked as a mechanic, seemed a distant sort. Between their house and the hill stood a small shed. Behind that shed a neighborhood girl and I gigglingly removed out pants and allowed each other to survey the disparate wonders of our nether regions.
So that was the stretch that led to Grandma and Gramp’s house. The street at the center of my existence. When I was 5 or 6 Mom and Grandma would let me walk up McIlroy as far as National around 5:00. Cautioned to watch out for cars I was allowed to stand by the Dog N Suds and wait for Gramps to come home from work. This would have been in his last years working, as 10 years in the mines and 37 more working at Terre Haute Concrete Supply had overcome his lungs. He would ride the bus home and get off at Paris and McIroy and walk home. He would stride across National and take my hand and lead me home to 20 S. McIroy.
I have lived in many houses. But until Robin and I bought the house we have made our home, it was truly the only place in the universe that was home to me.
The house at 20 S. was perhaps the most unusual one in West Terre Haute. Not for its splendor or stately lines certainly, but because it was basement house. It was not intended to be that, but circumstances made it unable to fulfill its full stature.
After they married my grandparents lived in several places, in David Arthur’s old house on National, in St. Marys, in Terre Haute. But they finally settled at 101 West Riggy, the house Grandma grew up in. They loved there for over twenty years. My Mom and all but two of her nine siblings were born or lived there on that triangular slice of land. Just before WWII they decided to build their own house. It was to be much larger. I know this because I sometimes pulled out the blue architectural drawing they kept in the cedar chest at the foot of their bedroom in the basement house. It would have been a fine home.
But materials shortages caused by the war and other things forestalled their dream house. Not until after the war did they start to build on the property left to Grandma by her family. They never finished it. The why is not fully known. Perhaps because their four oldest children had already moved out to start lives of their own, or money became short. Likely it was a combination of both.
They sold 101 W. Riggy and moved, leaving the home Grandma had known. Eventually it was bought by Arnold Selvia. He lived there with his family. His second wife Lois became one of our great friends. She and Grandma were close. His youngest daughter was named Susan. She was a tall girl who combined a bright smile with something forlorn living behind her eyes. At 14 she became partner of my first kiss and first love. Sadly, McIlroy and Riggy did not become the home, the safe haven, that it did to me. Shortly after high school she moved to Los Angeles, perhaps looking for that place. She died alone, in an LA County Jail cell, of a drug overdose. She was 21.
But that was later.
So my grandparents moved to 20 S.. The house was a rectangle, roughly 1600 square feet. The visible part of the shouse was about three feet above ground, topped by a tarred roof (tar had to be applied every few years to prevent leaks) and encased by brown tarpaper siding. Rising at the front was the entrance that took you down a stairwell. The ceilings were only about 6”8” high, which became a niggling problem for me when I reached my full height of 6’10.”
The stairwell was bookcased by two rooms. One might have first been used as one of the boys’ bedrooms, but later was used for storage. The other was the coal room. About once a month the coal dealer would deliver a load from one of the mines to be shoveled down into the room. Until I was about 10 the house was heated by two potbellied stoves, one in the living room, another in the kitchen. One of my jobs was to shovel out the ashes at night and the next morning. Next came the living room and Grandma and Gramps’ bedroom. I spent my first night after coming home from my birth at St. Anthony’s Hospital in their bedroom, swaddled and placed in the drawer from their bureau because my babybed was not yet put together.
The kitchen was next to the storage room. Grandma cooked on both a gas range and the coal stove. In one of the more oldey-timey, clichéd aspects of my life my early baths took place in a zinc bathtub beside the coal stove. Grandma’s Maytag wringer washer was in one corner. I was fascinated by the wringer and when I was old enough she let me work it to pull through the slopping wet clothes. Her washdays were long enough when it was just her, me and Gramps, I can’t imagine what it was like when she had seven or eight kids at home.
We were a kitchen family. That is where everyone gathered. If it was just the three of us in colder months, Gramps and I would play rummy, or Grandma and I would play Scrabble while she put up with me playing the radio loud when my favorite songs came on..
There were two bedrooms off the kitchen. The middle bedroom was often mine (I also liked to sleep on the living room couch so I could stay upe watching TV). I decorated it with scores of pictures of Mickey Mantle and other Yankees that I pasted on the walls. There was a secret (or maybe not so secret as Grandma was a sharp one) hole in the bedroom wall where two of my uncles, Kenny and Danny, hid their condoms.
All the walls were wallpapered until the 1970s, when the kitchen, living room and a bedroom were paneled. Linoleum covered the floor, except the back bedroom which was painted concrete. Each room had a single rectangular window (the kitchen had two) that barely let in enough sunlight, so lights were always turned on in the house. Indoor plumbing did not make its appearance until I was 16.
It could be stifling in the house in the summertime. Fans just did little more than waft warm air throughout the rooms. That is why Gramps and I loved rain storms. When they promised to break the heat (“Look at the upturned leaves, Buck. It’s gonna storm soon.”), we would climb the stairs and sit under the small overhang and just relish the rain. I still love to sit and watch and feel summer storms. I sometimes have imaginary conversations with Gramps.
As you can understand most summer evenings at 20 S. McIlroy were spent outside. Gramps and I would go out first. Grandma would come out when she had finished the dishes. She might water her peonies (pronounced “pineys”) and sit with us. I usually had a baseball game on the radio and a book in my hand, but the three of us would just talk. Often they would reminisce. It is because of those stories that I became an historian. They taught me a love for the past. On really stifling nights Gramps might bring up a pillow and old sheet and sleep on the roof. I tried it once or twice with him, but I have always liked my comforts.
At the back of the house was a mulberry tree whose fruit went uneaten but stained all it touched. In its notch, reachable by an easy climb, was an area that made a perfect cockpit. I shot down many a Messerschmidt 109 from there. When Gramps felt up to it we played catch in the yard. I cherished those times, though worried if I dropped a ball because he had played minor league baseball. But it was a silly worry. My Gramps never, ever said an unkind thing to me in my life. I was his boy. He and I had the sort of relationship I think he wished he had with his sons. But it is always easier with grandkids.
By the time I was 10 or so I realized how others viewed my home. I knew they saw it as shoddy and felt either sorry or superior because we lived in that basement house at 20 S. McIlroy. As a teenager I sometimes felt the pangs of unease about what they thought, but then thought to hell with them. And now…..
That house was my home. A home made by those who lived there. My only real sadness about that house is Grandpa’s end. Though Mom and Grandma nursed him with incomparable compassion and love, his body wasted in his last few months. When I went in to talk to him I often closed my eyes. I wanted to remember my Gramps as he had always been in my life. He passed away in his bed, in his bedroom, in his home in August, 1977.
A little over a year later his house had become as worn and wasted as he was at the end. Grandma was forced to move into a new house. A few years later the house at 20 S. McIlroy was leveled. Nothing of it remains to the passing eye.
I started this essay with rather grandiose allusions to the place of place in history. 20 S. McIlroy means nothing to the world. But it does to me. I think of it often. I visit in every week in my dreams.
It was, and is, home.