Following is a guest post by Ray Gehring, who grew up in the Avondale area in the ’50s and ’60s
The Dad’s Root Beer plant along the Avondale stretch of the Chicago & Northwestern tracks was one of two huge neon signs that shouted “home!” to us whenever we returned from vacation, or just a weekend family visit out of town. The other was a giant Budweiser sign.
Both logos are gone now, but in their day they were something to behold, as they lit up the Chicago night sky. Seeing them at a distance, especially at night, was exciting. It meant that you were back home, that tomorrow you’d be hanging out with your friends again, playing endless games of corkball, lineball and murder dodge at the schoolyard; or rummaging around down by the muddy banks of the Chicago River; or hunting snakes up on the RR tracks or in the freight yard between Kedzie & Kimball; or maybe just hanging out on the corner. In short, these two iconic, rolling neon images meant that the world we knew was still there.
Both “Dads” and “Budweiser” were visible to all who drove the Kennedy Expressway at night. Dad’s was a factory, Budwesier a warehouse; together they employed hundreds of local families and the two powerful logos represented our narrow world to the wider one.
The Avondale tracks played such a major role in our lives. You could get up onto them from a number of entry points. As in any neighborhood with a freight yard running through it, there were concealed slits cut into the fencing at advantageous places all along the fence route. But we were kids; so, rather than walk to an opening we just scaled the 8 foot fence, barbed wire and all. (The fence that you see here is low and has no barbed wire because it’s actually running along – ON – the Kennedy Expressway, where pedestrians aren’t allowed).
One common spot where we often went up onto the RR tracks was in the alley that ran between Albany Avenue & Troy Street, just north of Roscoe. Another was the old coal yard fence at Cornelia & Sacramento. Of course this real estate is long gone now; gentrification turning coal yards & RR trestles into condo developments, strip malls and office complexes. And while it’s fashionable to suggest that on foggy nights with only a few alley cats and the Elston Avenue moon as your companions you might still catch a glimpse of the old places, truth is, they’re gone for good. There are no ghosts out of times long gone, no vestiges of the past; redevelopment leaves nothing in its wake.
Once up on the tracks you could walk southeast all the way to downtown, or northwest all the way to Wisconsin. If you walked southeast past Western Avenue the neighborhoods quickly got worse; less than a mile and you were in the type of inner-city community that sociologists wrote tomes about. If you walked northwest past Kedzie Avenue the tracks opened up, branching off in several directions as you entered a large freight yard with trains from everywhere. You could hang in this freight yard for hours on end, and oftentimes, especially in summer, that’s just what we did.
Inside the freight yard between Kedzie & Kimball were trains from all across the country. Many were “staged” in the yard for a period of time; a night or two, perhaps a week. As kids we’d heard rumors about “what” was on those trains. All sorts of stuff, it was said. Food, clothes, furniture, auto parts, even musical instruments. But of paramount importance: liquid refreshment from the Anheuser-Busch Company, of St. Louis, Missouri.
During the teen years when we were greasers (juvenile delinquents in baggy grey work pants, black Army-issue combat boots and “Cabretta” leather jackets) we confirmed these rumors many times over. And if what Mark Twain said about stolen watermelon was true, well, it goes double for beer.
But for now we were just kids, aged 9-12, and the tracks were still our special place for cutting school, catching garter snakes, smoking cigarettes, playing poker, crossing paths with hobos & boxcar Willies and watching teenage rumbles from afar.
On this day we continued NW through the freight yard, crossed Kimball Avenue to enter a small swatch of Illinois prairie behind the Arvey paper factory. This little patch of littered grass was filled with very large, very mean garter snakes. There were garter snakes by the RR tracks too, but the ones behind the paper plant with its dyes, glues and chemicals were true Midwestern monsters. They lived under leaking barrels of toxic waste and feasted on deformed rodents. In Winter the waste would seep into all of the dips and holes in the ground and freeze into a yellow-green sludge. Come Spring, we’d break the sludge into pieces with our pocket knives, often finding a fat juicy garter snake still hibernating underneath. These beasts were huge: 3 feet long, fat and aggressive with wide snapping mouths, exactly like the one in this video.
We’d catch them with bare hands, laughing at the bites. But when a big one bit you, you knew it. It would bleed and sting for a day or two, but that was just the beginning. The real torture began 3 days later: a constant, horrible, bacteria infected itching that no amount of Bactine or rubbing alcohol would cure.
The first time I heard about gangs was on these tracks. We were west of Kimball, in the prairie behind the Arvey paper factory, in the land where the big snakes roamed. It was just me and Larry Okinski, hot on the trail of a large, fast garter that was heading for cover when 4 older kids emerged, Vietcong style, from an underground fort.
They’d dug their fort deep into a hill sloping upwards towards the tracks and covered the entrance with plywood & branches. Before we could turn and run they were on us.
Ugh… Eddie and his psycho pals. I knew Eddie, had no desire to know his goons. They led us down into their lair of evil intent and we had us – as they say in New Jersey – a sit-down.
Their “fort” was crowded and smelled of fresh earth. The side walls were fortified with large slabs of cardboard and the floor was also of cardboard. “Nice!” I thought, but kept the compliment to myself. They had flashlights for card and dice games and Pepsi bottles, some full some empty, lined one wall. I knew stolen soda when I saw it and wanted one badly, my mouth dry as dust.
Eddie’s droogs helped us empty our pockets, so nice they were! I had swiped two Kool Filter Kings from my folks, had wrapped them in folded notebook paper and Scotch tape, carried in the back pocket so they’d bend but not break. Larry, who didn’t smoke, had brought me one of his dad’s L&M’s.
Eddie wasn’t his real name. His real name doesn’t matter here. What matters is that he was a bit of a legend in our neighborhood. Two years older and kicked out of every school in his own neighborhood, his family found amnesty in ours. But after school and on the weekends he always hightailed it back to where he used to live. And when he wasn’t back in the old neighborhood? Then he had a bunch of friends from there visiting him at his new house. And some friends they were; compared to these guys me and Larry were Pillsbury Dough Boys.
As the droogs rifled through our stuff Eddie dryly explained how badly they needed money and smokes. “We’re fresh out, had to give to my brother; you guys gonna bail us out here?” Of course we agreed to help; after all, he was hurting and it was the right thing to do.
We didn’t have much money; a few pennies to put on the tracks when a train flew past. So they took our combs and cigarettes along with what little change we had. The money we expected to lose and the comb tax was what it was, but the cigarette action was totally unacceptable. When I protested Eddie threw me a reptilian “whatta-you-gonna-do-about-it” sneer. But then he suddenly grew cooperative, almost gracious, agreeing to give us back one smoke each. It was as if he were looking to store up some good will for the next time he & the boys jumped us. Larry later gave his smoke to me, so I had a two smoke afternoon.
But then Eddie put it to us… “Hey! Whattaya doin’ here anyway? Are you guys stupid? You gotta get the hell outta here and fast. And I mean now! Simon City is coming.”
“Simon City?” we repeated, having no idea what that meant.
“Yeah, they’re coming up from Koz Park and North Avenue to rumble the Bellaires; you got five minutes to scram before they get here and stomp your faces into the ground.”
Well, I did not want my face stomped into the ground. And I’m pretty sure that Larry didn’t want his face stomped either. But we did want to see these guys called Simon City. Simon City, what a name! Hollywood could never invent a name like that. We wanted to catch a glimpse of these bad-mofos. Hell, we would have settled for a glimpse of the Bellaires, whoever they were. Bellaires: It had a California sorta ring to it…
So Larry and I were released and told to go home, but of course we didn’t. We hung around just far enough out of sight to be forgotten. Hung around and waited. And waited some more. We waited a full six minutes. How long can two ten year olds be expected to wait?
Soon we wandered back towards our neighborhood; crossed Kimball Avenue and climbed back up into the big freight yard with the trains full of beer. We mulled around there a while, walking slowly east but with eyes trained steady on the south, trying to catch a glimpse of these warriors from Koz Park and North Avenue.
But the sun was now too high for snakes and we had no coins to flatten under the barreling wheels of a passing train. I found a loose railroad spike in the weeds. They said Don Drysdale could pitch one hundred miles per hour. I wound up slowly, deliberately, drew my arm back like a sling and delivered; CLANK! The spike made a satisfactory ring off the side of an empty car.
Ho hum. We never did see either gang that day, but over the years we saw plenty of action along the Avondale tracks. Somehow – and I’m not really sure how – we always managed to emerge with non-stomped faces.
The Avondale tracks and their surrounding factories & warehouses were our wilderness, our playground, our clubhouse, our retreat from the world; our place to brag boldly and dream big. Today’s kids are kept indoors or shuffled around by their parents from activity to activity. They’ll never know the freedom that we knew; nor will they know the feeling of optimism & security that comes from living in a country with factories and warehouses along its RR tracks; a country that BUILDS things.
Good jobs and two political parties that work together for the common good, is this too much to ask? People who settle their differences civilly. Sure, you might get dragged down through an underground tunnel, into some dank hideout that smells like a grave. And those who do the dragging might recite a laundry list of all the “turrible” things gonna happen if you don’t bail ‘em out. They might even rifle through your pockets, helping themselves to what was once yours. But back then they always left you with a little something for yourself. These Sharpies nowadays…they ain’t leaving you with nothin’ but dread.
The only remaining piece of the old Dad’s plant that employed hundreds is the turret, which serves as historical centerpiece to a condo complex. I don’t know what became of Budweiser. And nobody knows where the jobs went…