A Boy Named Bobby
Julie L Scharf
My father knew he was sick long before they diagnosed him with terminal cancer. I could hear him throwing up late at night, suffering, heaving, and crying until he fell asleep again. To say he was a stubborn man would be an understatement. People in my family do not get “sick” because they need to work in order to pay the bills. Taking a day off could certainly mean a day’s pay, and no one wanted to use any sick leave, just in case they were really sick. My father was an inner-city worker and worked for a large corporation in Chicago as a supervisor over production for the Sweetheart Cup Corporation. They make straws, plastic utensils, and McDonald’s Happy Meal cups. He´d worked from the bottom of the barrel, making his way up in the world.
After prodding him enough, I convinced him to make an appointment with Dr. Purdy, our family doctor. Dr. Purdy had been our family doctor since before I was born. He had been there for my birth: nine pounds, three ounces. He was made famous in our family for making the statement: “Put shoes on that one and she could walk right out of here!” when I was born. Not only was I a healthy baby, but very large, too.
That was so many years ago. Now, it was my father’s turn to see Dr. Purdy for his diagnosis. Would the news be good, as when a baby is born? It was my life twenty-two years ago Dr. Purdy held in his hands; would the fate of my father’s be in his now? I didn’t know what to think, or feel about all this. But since I convinced him to see Dr. Purdy, he promised he would be on time to his appointment first thing Monday morning, taking one sick day off of work.
That morning, my father was up very early, which wasn’t unusual for him. He usually woke up before six in the morning. Unlike my father, however, I enjoyed sleeping past nine. Mondays were my day off, so I stayed in bed listening to my father rustle around in the kitchen, making coffee and opening his daily newspaper. It was tempting to get up and talk to him before his appointment, but I decided to stay in bed instead. I fell back asleep, and awoke when I heard the front door close. I knew he was on his way to see Dr. Purdy. When I decided to get out of bed, I spent most of the day watching television and thinking about my father until he came home, wondering how the appointment went.
I heard my father’s truck pull into the driveway about noon. He had been gone almost five hours. I was very curious to know how everything went.
As my father walked through the door, I stood up from his recliner chair where I had been watching television. “How did it go?” I asked.
My father told me how he’d received multiple tests, including blood tests and electronic cancer screenings. “Won’t know until Thursday how the tests came out,” he began, closing the door and hanging his coat on the couch end. “Let me have my chair.”
This was my father’s favorite reclining chair. I only sat in it when he wasn’t home and when I wanted to watch television. It was pretty comfortable, in fact, even though it was very worn and had stains all over its back side from my father’s incessant snacking. When he was home, it was all his. He spent hours, even days in that chair, on the weekends.
Thursday came, and my father went to his second appointment with Dr. Purdy. This time, however, I decided to go with him. We arrived at the multiple-story building and took the elevator to the fourth floor. My father was nervous, I could tell, because he always made jokes when he was nervous. What was I talking about? My father made jokes just about all the time, usually corny ones, but ones he knew made me smile, even as an adult.
“You think this thing is sturdy enough that it won’t break in mid-air?” My father said, referring to the elevator as we almost reached the fourth floor.
The waiting room was clean and decorated for just about any age. There were magazines for women and men, hard-cover books for children, and a beautiful fish tank with several freshwater fish. My father went to the counter and gave the receptionist his name. He then walked over and sat next to me. The waiting room was surprisingly empty. About five minutes later, the receptionist told us to walk back to room number two. There were three waiting rooms.
We sat down in the room and the receptionist closed the door. About a minute later, Dr. Purdy knocked on the door and came in.
I listened as Dr. Purdy told my father he had terminal cancer. He estimated his life at about six months. Dr. Purdy told him that it would be best to quit smoking and to begin chemotherapy right away, and that he was referring my father to a specialist.
He began rounds of chemotherapy. My father lost so much weight. What was once a round, healthy man became an old, bald, thin man that couldn´t keep his trousers above his waist.
He had caught that disease they don’t tell you about in all those cigarette advertisements. Women wearing bathing suits and holding lit ones, men in white tee-shirts and blue jeans sitting on their dark navy 1950´s Chevrolet modeling the latest, newest brands—that was the part they left out. My dad, who was once a “cool” teenager, was now a sick, decaying man with a cigarette still in his hand.
One day, shortly after his doctor visit, I found a brochure on the kitchen counter. It was a time schedule for the Elevated Train, or “El,” which are trains that move through downtown Chicago on elevated tracks above the city. They run every day, every hour on the hour, even during the nights. It was cheaper for Chicago to build the El above the city instead of trying to make room down below. My father would never ride on trains, nor did he ever express a desire to. As a child, we would take long road trips, but we never travelled by train. My father used to warn me about going near train tracks, and cautioned me to stay away from them at all times.
Finding that brochure instilled a curiosity in me, and I asked him why he had it in our kitchen.
“Where did you get that?” he said to me, rising from his chair and turning off the television.
“It was on the kitchen counter. Are you going somewhere?”
My father became silent and walked toward me. He took the brochure out of my hand and turned the corner into the kitchen. I heard him begin a pot of coffee. I entered and looked at him again. The brochure was still in his hand.
“It was where I grew up,” he said.
“Why would you be thinking of going downtown on the train?” I said to him.
“Sit down,” he said, “and I’ll tell you.”
I sat at our kitchen table, and my father walked over and laid the brochure in front of me. He brought the pot of coffee with two large mugs to the table, along with his ashtray and pack of cigarettes. He offered me one, but I wanted to hear what he had to say with no distraction. He poured the coffee in the mugs, and then sat across from me.
“I haven’t seen that place in years.”
My father had grown up downtown in a small area called Englewood, which was considered the heart of Chicago. He had lived three blocks from the El tracks growing up. The street that he’d grown up on, Carpenter Street, was only six blocks from Halsted Avenue, a main street that runs a few minutes from our house straight into the city. My father would never take that street to work. He used the highway or side streets, though at times it may have been an easier route.
“My friends always called me Bobby,” he said.
When my father was thirteen, everyone called him “Bobby.” My father had been born Robert Duncan Vandekreke, his middle name after my grandfather’s first. The name Bobby didn’t fit much these days; however he said that back in those days it fit very well, especially for the friends he would associate with on Carpenter Street. Bobby had two best friends on Carpenter Street when he was thirteen, Leonard Granberg and Jake Morgan.
“Jake, now there was a character,” my father said.
Jake had always been one of those kids that if there wasn’t a dare presented before him, he’d sure find a way to think one up as the day went by. He was a tall kid, and he always rolled his t-shirts up at the arms the way the big kids would. His family was one of the poorest on the block. From a family of four brothers and three sisters, Jake wanted so badly to grow up fast. He had a knack for thinking up new ideas that had some danger intertwined. It was usually what convinced their other friend, Leonard Granberg, to come out of his shell. He was always poking fun at Leonard to do something daring.
“...always calling him a chicken.”
Leonard was a quiet kid, a momma’s boy, the only child of the family. His mother was very overprotective with him, always making sure that he wore jeans with the reinforced knees so that he wouldn’t bump them climbing too much.
Leonard had almost been made fun of for an entire school year for wearing shorts on the first day back from summer to Beale, and the kids laughed at him so badly that he had to be sent home to change. Though it was so hot, boys in those days didn’t wear shorts. Even in the blazing summer Chicago humidity, you would rarely catch a city boy dressed down in a pair of shorts. They didn’t mind a little sweat, as long as they could get outside and play in the fresh sunshine and air. All of them attended Beale School in Englewood, which was located about five blocks from Carpenter Street. Beale was the kind of school poor kids would attend, and you wouldn’t ask another kid why he had a hole in his jeans or why he didn’t have lunch money in his pocket.
“We would always play together, no matter how hot it was. It was hard times then. Things were definitely different for us. Most kids did what they could to have fun, not like kids today,” he said to me.
“What did you do?”
“A lot of things were mostly stupid, but at the time they didn’t seem so,” he said. “Leonard and Jake were my best friends. We used to get together after school and on the weekends to play together.”
It was the summer of 1954 when the boys were out of Beale that summer. The air was thick with humidity, and the closest things you had to cooling off were a cool drink of lemonade from mom or a swim in the river off of the Chicago Canal. The Canal was a dirty place full of mud and waste, harboring boats and ships that moved metal parts or lumber across. Bobby and his friends would play at the edge of the river, keeping their shoes and socks on. Bobby, my father, would always like to play the “Sea Monster” with Leonard, who was the “Helpless Ship-Man that went overboard.” Jake, of course, was the “Avenger” of the Sea Monster, and had to save the Ship-Man. When they would get out of the water at the end of the day and head home, their parents would ask them why they smelled so bad, and would make the boys strip down before entering the house.
“We would have fun just hanging out and just being boys.”
Most families weren’t equipped with televisions, and those that were fortunate enough to afford one for their home had only one. That was the way it was with children then; it was a time of finding themselves, of escaping from the boredom of being indoors and experiencing the city and world on their own. It was a perfect opportunity for kids to play stick ball, climb dirt hills or play jacks on the ground.
“We always found something to do together.”
Because it was the summer and all three of them were finished with school for that year, they had their entire summer to spend time finding new adventures, with no cares or worries about what their parents were thinking, really. Leonard’s mother would only ask for him to check in if he got hungry or if he needed his scrapes cleaned. It was easy for the three of them to escape for long periods of time, until they knew they had to be back inside for dinner or when the street lights came on.
“Always when the lights came on,” my father said.
“So what ever happened to them? Do they live around here?” I asked him.
“No,” he said. “I don’t know where Jake is now.”
“What about Leonard?” I said. “Do you still talk to him?”
My father leaned his head toward the table and rubbed his hand over his face.
“Listen. What I’m going to tell you, I haven’t talked about in years. I never even told your mother about this.” He rubbed his eyes, and continued. “I want you to remember not to talk about it to your grandparents.”
“Okay,” I said hesitantly, but knew why he asked me not to. My grandparents were very old-fashioned. Once they made up their minds not to speak about something, it was final. Things my grandparents chose not to speak about included death, pregnancy, and extra-marital affairs. My father, who was over the age of fifty, was still under an obligation to not speak about such things around his own parents, my grandparents.
“I was younger than you now,” he began, “when it happened.”
It was a Thursday when they had met up on the same corner, the corner of Carpenter and 60th Street, to find something to do.
“What are we gonna do today?” Leonard asked them. They figured they would find something to do, whether they would figure it out right then or walk around to find it.
“Let’s go over to the El,” Jake said.
Leonard didn’t like the sound of this request. “I can’t do it,” he said, and reminded Jake that his mother didn’t want him to go near that place.
“Ok, momma’s boy, chicken momma’s boy!” Jake laughed at Leonard.
“Cut it out,” Bobby said to them both. “We can go, come on.”
Leonard pushed Jake in the chest making Jake fall back a little, but Jake just kept laughing.
They began to walk toward the El. As Leonard and Bobby walked, Jake kept behind them both and made “Bgawk-Bawk-Bawk!” sounds at Leonard. Bobby had told him to stop teasing Leonard, and that again, they were going to do it, together. Leonard became quiet and continued walking next to Bobby, until they reached the tracks.
The El tracks were located above the street where the boys arrived. The street was quiet. It was getting towards noon, right when the sun was becoming hot. The humidity hadn’t let down since the day before. Only the metal rods that held the train tracks gave little shade, but not enough to cool them off.
“Alright, each of us are gonna take a turn first jumping. I’m goin’ first, then Bobby, then Leonard.”
Jake climbed up to the top of the tracks. He stood at the edge and waved at the other boys down below with a smile. He took his jump and landed on the other side of the tracks, wobbling a little when he landed. He climbed down from the other side to meet them both.
“Now you!” Jake said to Bobby.
“Don’t rush me,” Bobby said.
“You ain’t gonna do it?” Jake said to him.
“I didn’t say that!” Bobby said back to Jake.
Bobby wanted to get it over fast, because he knew that it was dangerous. He had wanted to do it to prove that he wasn’t scared. He climbed up the metal railing and quickly, without thinking, took his jump. He landed on the other side safely, falling on his knee. He climbed off the other side rubbing his knee, then motioned to Leonard it was his turn.
“Come on Leonard,” Bobby said.
Leonard stood where he was and looked up to the train tracks. He seemed to not want to go through with it.
“Bgawk!” Jake laughed at him. “He’s gonna chicken out.”
Leonard left their sides and began to climb the metal railing. When he got to the top, he stood at the edge of the tracks right below where the other boys were standing. He looked down at Bobby and Jake, Jake still taunting Leonard and calling out insults.
“Come on, do it Leonard!” Jake yelled up to him.
Leonard looked at Jake and Bobby, held his breath, clenched his fists and called out, “I can do it. You’ll see.”
“Can’t touch the third rail! Can’t touch the third rail or you’re disqualified!” Jake called out to Leonard, who was already infuriated by what Jake had said to him earlier, and his face was burning bright red.
“Come on Leonard. Hurry up,” Bobby called to Leonard.
Leonard turned from the boys to face the tracks. Bobby and Jake watched as Leonard made ready to jump across. Bobby could see that Leonard was scared, but determined because of what Jake had said. Leonard closed his eyes. He looked like he was shaking, even from down below.
“Chicken! Bgawk-Bawk-Bawk!” Jake called to him. “Jump!”
Leonard got ready at the edge of the first rail and bent down. He seemed to not to be listening to what Jake was saying. He touched the first train track as if to be testing it. Just then the sound of a train’s horn was coming from a short distance away.
“Come on Leonard, the train’s coming,” Bobby called out to him. He wanted Leonard to hurry up so he’d just get it over with and they could go find something else to do.
Leonard looked down again at Bobby and Jake, then turned from them both and leaped quickly. He soared high, almost landing on the safe rail. He missed the jump, and almost in a split-second turned around to the boys again, and it happened. He had touched the third rail with the other. He fell on the tracks, unconscious. The train was seconds away from Leonard’s body. Bobby ran toward the bottom of the tracks, but he didn’t have a chance. The train came quickly toward Leonard and struck his body, decapitating his head and taking the other side of him where the two boys could see it fall on the other side of the street below. The wind from the train barely moved Bobby, who stood frozen. He turned to look at Jake, but Jake was running away from them down the street.
Bobby could not move. He screamed for Leonard again. He then turned and ran to the closest house down the street and banged on the door. An old lady answered. Bobby screamed at the woman to call the police, and that Leonard had been hit by the train. The woman pulled Bobby inside and called the Englewood District Police Department, who arrived at the woman’s house and shortly after at the scene where Leonard had been hit.
The police asked Bobby all the questions: What they had been doing, when, and how Leonard had been hit. Bobby told them that Jake had dared him to do it, that Jake told him that he couldn’t jump, that Leonard told him he could and he would prove it, and that Leonard was electrocuted by the third rail and the train struck him. Bobby was the only one that went and called for help. Jake had ran home after what happened to Leonard, not telling his parents or anyone, only running to his room and locking himself there. It was up to Bobby to tell them what had happened, to show them where his body was, and to be there at Leonard’s home when his mother heard the news.
The Englewood Police arrived at the Granberg house, with Bobby inside the police car. They stepped out of the car and rang the doorbell, Bobby close behind. Bobby was scared, and he didn’t know what Leonard’s mother would say or do. When she answered, she had a look on her face as if she already knew. When the police told her what had happened to Leonard, she fainted on the floor and the paramedics were called. Bobby just stood there crying, waiting for someone to tell him that everything would be fine, and this hadn’t happened at all.
That boy named Bobby was now sitting across from me at our kitchen table, a grown man and father.
“I never heard from Jake again after the accident. He disappeared. I guess he didn’t want to deal with what had happened.”
Jake Morgan transferred to a different school, away from Bobby. He eventually moved away from the Englewood district, and neither my father, nor my father’s family, ever heard from him again.
Leonard Granberg’s parents relocated and sold their home on Carpenter Street after the accident, and moved to a small town in Wisconsin where their family owned a lumber company. Bobby knew why they had moved away.
After the accident, Bobby, my father, became a different person. For a few years he stayed in, rarely going outside, even at the request of the other neighbors´ kids. He spent most of his time watching my grandparents’ first television set. The accident was something he never spoke of to anyone afterward, at my grandparents’ request.
“They never wanted for me to talk about what happened. I guess your grandparents thought it better that way.”
My father was to go on the El train tomorrow to see his old neighborhood again for the first time in years. It was what I understood about this boy named Bobby, a boy I’d never known before, that he wanted to make it right. He had done everything he could to avoid that place and that memory.
“Now you understand,” he said to me, leaning further across the table to pour some more coffee in his large mug and light another cigarette.
The El arrived at approximately 1:08pm that next day. We boarded through the third entrance and sat on the bottom row, myself facing the window and my father in the passenger’s seat. The train shook back and forth lightly, and a man’s voice came over the intercom: “Next stop, Englewood district.”
The train began to move faster, and my father sighed heavily. I took his hand.
I looked out the window with him, and watched the city move with us both. I would have never known Leonard, but I felt that a part of me already did. I waited and watched outside the window, still holding my father’s hand, and I knew I would finally be able to see the place that Leonard, and my father, had come from.