a senior in Marengo High School, sixteen years old, in 1943
'44, living at my grandparents' house in town Sunday night through
Friday, and suffering out the weekends on the farm. Everything about
high school was easy for me, and I loved it, except for the fact
I was always broke. My "allowance" was tiny, about fifty cents a
week. Even in that long ago time when the picture show cost ten
cents, soft drinks at soda fountains a nickel, and admission to
the weekly dances upstairs at the old opera house a quarter, half
a dollar didn't go all that far. I had heard through my grandpa
that the Gilchrists, proprietors of the Doose Hotel, were looking
for a student to work as a night clerk, and I went over, not feeling
any too keen about it, to apply for the job.
The Doose Hotel - nobody ever
referred to it in my hearing as the Hotel Doose, though that's what
it said on the front window - was a two-story building across the
street east from the southeast corner of the town square. Just over
the way, at a spot in the park directly opposite the hotel, there
was a merry-go-round that Mr. and Mrs. Gilchrist had donated to
the kids of the town. In summer, the Gilchrists put heavy wooden
lawn furniture on the sidewalk in front of their hotel where they
and their guests could enjoy the cool evenings outside, and where
they could see what was going on in the park - the Saturday night
band concerts, kids playing on the merry-go-round, that sort of
The hotel entrance was just north of the
corner of Washington Street and "Velva's Beauty Parlor" occupied
the corner space that she rented from Mr. and Mrs. Gilchrist. Next
to the hotel lobby was the dining room. North of that was Emma Graber's
Mrs. Gilchrist had only recently stopped
regular meal service in the dining room, probably because of the
war, food shortages, and difficulties in getting help, but she kept
the room set up - tables complete with place settings, table cloths,
silver, glassware and all, and she continued to serve meals on rare
occasions for the Chamber of Commerce or for weddings. The place
was kept sparkling clean, and was decorated in the manner of old-fashioned
country hotels with potted palms and the like. As the war dragged
on, however, it was clear that Mrs. Gil, and the one or two women
she was able to hire, could no longer handle the load of the hotel
dining room. The dining room area was then converted into a tavern
that remained there until after the war when Gilchrist sold the
hotel, and he and his wife retired from business altogether.
Although Gil was a great friend of
my grandpa, I knew the Gilchrists only on sight. Everyone spoke
of Gil as a real gentleman, but his wife was harder to get to know.
I'd heard that she was a bit of an ogre. My information about Mrs.
Gilchrist came mainly from the three youngest kids in the Thomas
family, my cousins, all of whom had worked for her at one time or
another. To hear them tell it, she was crabby, mean, tyrannical,
stingy and a bad cook. The Thomas family was as poor as Job's turkey,
which made me wonder how they came to be judging Mrs. G.'s food.
Later, after I had worked for her for a while, I found she was almost
exactly the opposite on all counts. I was never able to understand
my cousins' bad feelings toward her, although it is true she was
hard to get acquainted with at first.
Mrs. Gilchrist was a little woman,
quite formal in manner, who spoke rather slowly in a soft voice.
Even though she was heavily wrinkled, her dark auburn hair was always
neatly done up, not a strand out of place. She persisted in using
a pince-nez, on a little retractable chain she wore pinned to her
dress, even though it made deep grooves in the sides of her nose.
Some years earlier, before she and Gil were married, she had been
in an automobile accident that threw her out of an open car. Her
hip was broken, and for some unknown reason the break never healed
properly. As a result, Mrs. G. used a crutch when she walked, and
anyone who worked at the hotel was sternly warned about leaving
anything spilled on the floor where she might put her crutch in
it and take a fall. Although I never heard her complain, I suspect
she still suffered from her injury, and that it was pain from her
hip that gave her face its pinched expression.
Mrs. Gilchrist explained the duties
of the night clerk to me. I was required to attend to the front
desk, to help guests in with their luggage, get them registered,
sell them stamps, and generally make everyone welcome. About once
a week, I was to wash the big front lobby windows on the street,
and, in winter, I was to keep the sidewalk in front of the hotel
cleared of snow. While it was light work, my wages were accordingly
light- a dollar a night, plus my evening meal and any tips I might
get. The going tip was ten cents, occasionally a quarter, and very
rarely fifty cents from some big spender. Gil showed me the bell-hop's
trick of carrying four bags at one time a big one in each
hand, and a smaller one tucked under each arm. He winked, and said
it was a way to increase the tip, and he was right.
While it was clear that my job as
the night clerk was going to be easy enough, it also did away with
all my leisure time after school, tying me up from four in the afternoon
until midnight. The thought of leaving my pals and going off to
work every day immediately after classes didn't appeal to me much.
I was caught in a silly dilemma. I would now have all the spending
money I needed, but I'd have no free time in which to spend it.
I felt pretty sorry for myself at first,
but then my friends began to drop around to visit, and things didn't
seem so bad. Mrs. Gilchrist clearly didn't approve of most of my
buddies. She had it in worst for the girls who stopped by, always
referring to them as chippies. I didn't know what that meant until
I looked it up, and then I never bothered explaining it to the girls.
My social life was now restricted to Saturday night, but the change
jingling in my pocket took most of the sting out of my lack of free
Guests at the Doose Hotel were almost
all traveling salesmen. Most of them had had the same territories
for years, and they were completely at home at the Doose. That was
just as well, because the old place had some odd things about it.
There were about fifteen rooms altogether, all but two of them on
the second floor. Only one room, the bridal suite, if you please,
had a lock and a key. Doors on all the other rooms could be fastened
from the inside, but they could not be locked when the occupant
went out. Try explaining that to some traveler from Chicago or points
east uneasily making his way through the wilds of the Midwest for
the first time. Especially when you, the explainer, are a spindly,
The lack of fire escapes was another feature
of our hotel that tended to worry greenhorns. To be sure, the building
was only two stories high, but no ladders or stairs of any kind
led down the outside of the hotel to the street. Instead, under
the windowsill in each second-floor room, there was a coil of manila
rope knotted at eighteen-inch intervals. The rope was tied into
a metal ring in the floor. I know now that only a person in excellent
physical condition could have used a thing like that to escape from
a fire, but at the time I accepted it as I accepted everything else
that adults presented to me. It was the way things were, and that
was all there was to that.
Three of the rooms at the Doose had
baths. They rented for two dollars and fifty cents a night. The
bridal suite with no bath (I guess the married couple was expected
to wash up before the wedding ceremony) went for three dollars.
It was almost never used. Mrs. Gil liked to save the bridal suite
for the people who ran the Old Style Tavern. They closed late, around
midnight, and they had a long drive to their home outside of town.
In winter especially, when the weather was bad and they preferred
not to risk the roads, Mrs. G. had me put them in the bridal suite.
The wife hated it, complaining to me about it behind her hand, "It's
so big! And all that dark furniture!" I tried to convey the lady's
misgivings to my boss without hurting her feelings, but never had
any luck at it.
Rooms without bath rented for a dollar
and a half a night. There was a clean bathroom down the hall. The
Doose Hotel wasn't dirty, it was Spartan. We also had three "inside
rooms," rooms with no windows that cost only fifty cents a night.
Mary Howlett, the chubby neighbor who saw me safely to school my
first year on the farm, lived in one of the inside rooms. Mary did
scullery work at the hotel, and it is just possible she did a little
something more on her own in the way of entertaining, but I can't
say that for certain. The known facts were simple and grim: Mary
later had an illegitimate baby, and she died young. While she was
alive, it was clear to everyone who knew her that Mary had no future.
The worst thing about it was Mary seemed to know it, too.
We had some characters around town
for whom Mrs. G. felt an inside room was plenty good enough. She
gave me thorough instructions on how to spot a drunk all the way
across the park. "You don't want the ones who stagger, but you don't
want the ones who walk too straight, either." They were to be kept
out because of the likelihood they'd vomit and make a mess. I became
fairly adept at identifying anyone carrying a heavy load of booze,
and I can proudly say not one of them ever got by me. The Doose
remained unsullied by drunks during my tenure as night clerk.
There were many nights when we had
only one or two guests at the hotel. At those times, boredom was
my worst enemy. After I had read the evening paper, I was free to
use the big table in the lobby to do any homework I might have,
waiting until the salesmen were finished with their paper work.
There was a small radio at the desk that was turned off when Mr.
and Mrs. Gilchrist went to bed. I read, or I listened to a wall
clock in the lobby. It had a second hand that clicked at every jump.
I never quite got used to it.
Doose, I learned, turned out to be
the name of the old German who had originally owned the place. It
was nothing more unusual than that. One of the relics of Doose's
time was an oak card table with shelves built into each corner to
hold beer steins. That table survives today, although how it has
been kept out of the hands of antique hunters I wouldn't venture
to say. It is still part of the hotel furniture, and it is all that
remains of the Doose lobby as I remember it.
I ate my evening meal in the unused
dining room. One table was set near a connecting door so that I
could keep my eye on the front desk while I was eating. Mrs. Gilchrist
prepared my suppers in the hotel's cavernous old kitchen. Using
a crutch as she did, Mrs. Gilchrist could not carry anything heavy,
and I was called from the lobby to pick up my meal on a tray.
Her food was tasty even though it was
mainly the meat and potatoes diet one finds in the Midwest. She
almost always served soup as a starter, something I was not accustomed
to, and she often provided blue cheese and crackers by way of desert.
That was about as different as it got, but it was still out of the
ordinary for me, and I must say I enjoyed it. I have a feeling that
it may have been the slight unfamiliarity of Mrs. G's meals that
was behind my cousins' complaints about her cooking. I knew, from
having been in their home, that they sometimes literally had nothing
to eat but bread, but conservatism bred in poverty is hard to combat.
Faced with her soup and blue cheese, they were prepared to go down
swinging for their bread. In the same way, I knew farmers who had
their farms sold out from under them, but remained steadfast Republicans
until they died.
Mr. Gilchrist was an aristocratic-looking
gentleman with straight white hair and a Roman nose. His first name
was Roland, although I never heard him called anything but Gil.
He was a life-long Democrat. A big picture of an extremely youthful
Franklin D. Roosevelt hung in the hotel lobby. For his faithful
services to the Party, Gil held an appointment as Marengo's Post
Master a kind of general manager at the post office - all
through the Roosevelt Administration.
He wasn't in any way puffed up or arrogant,
but Gil had a proper sense of himself, and he dressed accordingly.
Turned out in a dark suit and a snow-white shirt, never a colored
shirt, he looked as if he were about to step off on parade. He habitually
wore a black bow tie, and he never went out on the street without
a hat. In summer, that meant a Panama or a sailor straw, and, in
winter, a pearl-gray Homburg. When the weather was cold, he wore
spats, but I don't think I ever saw him with a topcoat. Mrs. G.
used to fuss at him a lot about that, just as my wife does with
me when she thinks I'm going out in the cold improperly dressed.
Gil had an evening ritual with me
that never varied. He came back to the hotel from the post office
a little after five. Mrs. Gilchrist was not one to stay up late.
She liked to get all her day's work done up as early as possible.
I would be eating my supper in the dining room. Gil came through
the door from the lobby every night with the same question. "Well
sir, have you been a pretty good boy today?" Please notice, it was
not just "good," but "pretty good." Gil was a realist. I would assure
him I had been just that. "All right then," and he laid a quarter
on the corner of the table. He never failed. Then he was on his
way to eat his supper with Mrs. G. in the dark old hotel kitchen.
I was so accustomed to seeing him in a suit, it was always a surprise
to see him eating in his vest and shirtsleeves.
Mrs. Gilchrist had been a widow with
two daughters when she met and married Gil some years before. I
think she may have been a few years older than her new husband.
She seemed ancient to me, but my mother used to say she remembered
Mrs. G. as quite an elegant-looking lady. Perhaps it was to preserve
that opinion in the world that she wore a wig.
I had heard about the wig from my cousins,
but the report was confirmed for me one night when I had to ask
for the cash box after Mr. and Mrs. Gil had gone to bed. They kept
a room for themselves across the hall just off the lobby, because
Mrs. G. with her crutch could manage steps only with great difficulty.
We had no safe at the hotel, so they took the cash box and stamps
into their room when they turned in for the night.
Some guest had insisted on buying
stamps, and when I knocked and was admitted to their room, there
was the wig on a form on the dresser, and Mrs. Gilchrist in bed
wearing a mob-cap over her white fringe. I liked Mrs. G. in spite
of my cousins' complaints about her. She was strict about what she
wanted, and how she wanted it done, but she was fair and reasonable,
too, and I was horrified that I might have done anything to embarrass
her. Evidently my fears were for nothing; not a word was ever said
about the incident. From then on, however, I did check the placement
of the wig on the sly, to see if there was any day-to-day variation
in the way she wore it, but, if there was, I never spotted it.
After supper, Gil generally read his
paper in the lobby, and talked with his guests, most of them old
friends. He had had a fairly adventurous life when it was all added
Not far under that gentlemanly exterior
I think there may have been a confidence man concealed. He had the
voice and manner of a slimmed-down Sidney Greenstreet, the fat villain
in "The Maltese Falcon."
Gil told me about how he had trained to
be a dentist, but had given it up because he disliked the work so
much. I think it must have been because of the pain he would have
had to inflict on his patients. At the time he was fixing teeth,
dentists used slow-turning drills powered by foot treadles. "Painless"
dentistry was a bad joke. You needed the moral fiber of a Plains
Indian to go to the dentist in those days.
As a very young man in search of adventure,
Gil had tried to enlist in the Army for what would then have been
the last gasp of the Indian wars out west. News of the massacre
at Wounded Knee (when I was a boy, it was called "the Battle of
Wounded Knee") had balked his career as a soldier, I'm happy to
say. He had gone to Fort Riley in Kansas to join up, and he was
there long enough to get acquainted with a veteran sergeant. Gil
liked to tell how he teased the leathery NCO, asking him what he
would do if they were to get into a fight with the Indians. The
old soldier seemed taken aback for a moment, but then replied, imperturbably,
"Why, I'd do just what the Captain told me."
The great adventure of Gil's life,
the story he told over and over to his guests, was shipping on as
a stoker in a freighter bound for Bremerhaven. Fuel for the coal-burning
furnaces had to be laid in precisely according to a pre-set pattern,
each shovel full exactly in its required spot in order to produce
maximum heat. Furnace doors could not be left standing open while
the fire was being fed, but were closed after every shovel full
was tossed in, and then reopened with a full shovel before the next
toss. Men working in the stokehold flipped their shovels up in front
of their faces in an effort to protect themselves from the fierce
heat. Even so, Gil said his face was scorched bright red on all
the high points: chin, nose, cheeks and forehead.
When the officers on the ship found
that Gil was better educated than the rest of the black gang, capable
of lively, intelligent conversation, he was occasionally invited
to eat at the officers' mess. That got him into a lot of trouble
with his shipmates who were sure he was a spy for the brass. The
result, he told me, was that he was in a fight every day of the
At Bremerhaven, the crew found Buffalo
Bill's Wild West Show in town performing on a European tour. The
ticket-seller wanted to know where the boys were from when they
showed up at his booth. When they told him the United States was
home, he waved them in to see the show free of charge.
Gil often talked about the Red Scare
that hit the States just after the First War. He thought it was
nonsense, and he made no secret of his scorn for people who spread
fear of the "Bolshevikis." He said he had never seen a Bolsheviki,
and that he wouldn't have known what to do with one of them if the
creature had presented itself.
One night when, as usual, I was alone
in the lobby, our town marshal, Carl Sickles, brought in an old
man so drunk he could barely walk. Barney Baughman was a dwarfish
little fellow who made his living taking care of yards and doing
odd jobs around town. Conscious of Mrs. Gilchrist's warnings, I
didn't want to put him up at all, but Carl insisted on it, and he
was the authority. We got Barney into an inside room, and, although
he was all but passed out on his feet, we managed to get him out
of his clothes and into bed. I had never seen a man naked before,
outside of my own family, and I was struck with how pathetic the
old fellow looked with his clothes off.
We had just got him covered up in
bed, when I noticed Carl shaking his head, and making clucking noises
of disapproval. "My God, look at this." Barney was carrying $2,200
in cash. It was the winter of 1943. I suppose the money would have
been worth roughly ten times that now. Earlier that day, Barney,
acting on some weird impulse that was never explained, had drawn
all his life's savings out of the bank, and had gone on a spree
in a tavern across the park buying drinks for everyone in sight.
We had deadbeats enough around town who were more than willing to
drink up the old man's money, but somebody at the tavern had the
good sense to call the marshal, and had poor Barney picked up. Carl
insisted that I count the bills, I suppose in order to have a witness
in case questions were asked later, but nothing more came of it.
Barney's money went safely back into the bank, and the old fellow
himself went back to his work mowing lawns.
Chronic bronchitis bothered me more
than usual that winter. There were some nights I must have kept
all the guests in the hotel awake with my barking until the stroke
of midnight when my tour finished, and I could make my way across
our dead-quiet town to my grandparents' home. The cough got to be
so bad that in desperation I sometimes resorted to an old wife's
remedy (and a risky one) of a few drops of kerosene on a little
sugar. You held it in your mouth until the sugar melted. God knows
what the result might have been if I had choked and sucked some
of that petroleum-based mixture down my windpipe.
It was also during the winter I worked
at the Doose Hotel that I came down with scarlet fever, my last
go-round with childhood diseases, all of which I got while I was
in high school. A year or two earlier, I had been quarantined in
town for mumps, later for chicken pox, and (on the farm) for measles.
Fortunately for my poor grandma, for whom one trip a day up and
down the steep stairs in her house was quite enough, I got the unmistakable
symptoms of scarlet vomiting along with a high fever
on a Friday night after I had returned to the farm for the week
end. That was one time when we did call the doctor.
In those days, everyone was deathly
afraid of scarlet fever because of the lasting effects it might
have on its victims. People often came out of it with damage to
major organs heart, liver, kidneys sometimes weakened
eyesight. Campbell Watts, Doctor Watts' son, also a physician, came
out to the farm, and put me in quarantine for three weeks. It was
like being sentenced to solitary confinement. There was no television,
of course; I wasn't allowed to read in order to protect my eyes;
and daytime radio programs didn't have much appeal for me. I put
in three excruciatingly dull weeks in my upstairs room at the farm.
The Gilchrists bore with me during
my illness, holding my job open for me, substituting one of my cousins
from the Thomas family. I continued as night clerk at the Doose
Hotel right up until I graduated from high school. The slight scholastic
demands I had encountered up to then had given me a taste for what
I thought would be the frivolities of student life, and I was determined
to go on to college.
Aubrey had made it clear to me that when
I graduated from high school his responsibility for my education
was over. His plan was for me to work for him on the farm. There
was no talk of wages. I was rescued by the Army's having a school
program for seventeen-year-olds who were willing to enlist. I grabbed
The Rock Island Railroad and its Rockets
are now gone, with only the long-unused tracks still there as a
reminder. Like the trains, I went away too, except that I managed
my exit a little before the Rock Island disappeared altogether.
Only a few days after I graduated from high school in 1944, I rode
one of the then-new Rockets out of Marengo to Des Moines reporting
at Camp Dodge on my way to the Army, a new life, and good-by to
the farm forever.
After I had enlisted as a reservist,
I found myself on my way to a college engineering program, although
I knew absolutely nothing about engineering. It was May 1944, and
I had just turned seventeen.
It wasn't until I returned home on my
first furlough the following autumn that I began to realize I had
stepped over some mysterious dividing line, and that my life in
Marengo and on the farm had, in effect, come to an end. It was Thanksgiving
1944, and I was going home on leave.
A first homecoming is like no other.
At four in the morning, I stepped off the train at the coal chutes
east of town, where the Rock Island from Chicago made its regular,
unscheduled, stop. I had been away for six months, and I was astonished
to see that nothing had changed during my absence. The town was
dead still, empty as a stage setting, as I trudged along the snowy
streets to my grandparents' house.
The front door was locked. To get
in, I had to crawl through the dining room window next to Mom's
sewing machine. The un-oiled wheels squealed when I pushed it aside.
I knew that Mom wasn't going to hear anything this side of the Last
Trump, but Pop was a light sleeper. The racket I made woke him,
and he was downstairs in his nightshirt to greet me before I could
get out of my overcoat. The lights in the hall woke Mom. My uniform
was saturated with cigar smoke after the long train ride, and the
first thing Mom said to me was, "You've been smoking!" It wasn't
true; I hadn't yet started to smoke, but I was seventeen, and the
accusation alone made me feel like a man.