Chicago is an Indian name with several meanings. One of them is, “Big, stinking onion swamp.” After a few weeks of searching for land, and being eaten alive by mosquitoes, Nelson and Christiana decided the Indians got it right, Chicago would never amount to anything. So they traveled another sixty miles southwest to Wesley Township and bought property on the Kankakee River. They farmed it until they died and then my grandfather, Edward Wurtz, took over. When I was 12 he died but his wife, Mary Somers Wurtz, who’d been born in Scotland, stayed on the farm.
“Granny” lived there until she was in her mid-90s. After my grandpa died Granny rented the big house to a man named Harry Rodgers, who had a wife and three horses. Granny moved into a little cottage on the property.
Chicago is where I grew up, and when I was a teenager I liked to visit Granny on the farm and bring my friends from the city. One time I had my buddy, Bob “Spooky” Cavanaugh, with me and we decided to ride the horses. I led them out of the barn, tied them to a fence post, and put on their bridles and saddles. Spooky had never been on a horse so I gave him Susy, who was better trained than Star. We got on the horses and Star and I headed for an open field. I soon realized Spooky wasn’t following — in fact he was nowhere in sight. Susy had walked back into the barn and returned to her stall. I went into the barn to see Spooky still in the saddle, in the stall, staring at the wall. Susy was munching hay. Susy made Spooky look like an idiot, a condition he was unaccustomed to, and he’s hated horses ever since.
I liked riding horses. Sometimes I’d strap on saddlebags and ride into town to get groceries. Once, on the way back from town, we passed a farm and a dozen or so beagles came running out after us. A couple of kicks and Suzy took off, leaving the yapping little suckers in her dust. That was cool.
I brought another buddy, Tom “Mac” McDonough, to the farm once, and only once. He had never been on a horse either. I saddled up Tonto, an old grouchy sway-back. Trying to be like the cowboys he’d seen in movies he grabbed the saddle horn and swung himself up. He landed askew, Tonto bucked, and Mac flew off the other side.
Mac had never seen a BB gun. I had one in Granny’s cottage. He picked it up, examined it, then aimed it at a cat outside on the grass. Granny and I were stunned when he pulled the trigger breaking the window. “Holy shit!” he said.
“You can say that again,” said Granny.
That same day Mac and I chopped down a large, dead tree on the steep riverbank. We planned to cut it up for bonfire wood but when it fell it started rolling down the bank to the water. I stopped it by bracing my leg against it. Mac was on the upward side. Next to him on the ground was a heavy, pointed steel rod.
“Mac,” I said, “Stick that rod on this side of the tree so I can move my foot.”
He quickly grabbed the rod and plunged it through my foot, severing a tendon. The scar is still there. The toe next to my big one is still screwed up.
When we were leaving the next day, my foot wrapped in a huge bandage, Granny waited until Mac was out of ear-shot. As she handed me my crutches she said, “Jimmy, please don’t bring that one back. I think he’s crazy.”
Granny’s crazy streak
Of course Mac was crazy, he was a teenager, but Granny was crazy, too. Every summer Harry and his wife took a two-week vacation and I stayed with Granny to take care of his horses. Harry, now that I think about it, wasn’t all there either because he told me I could use his car. Granny and I took advantage of his offer by going into town for groceries, or just riding around. Granny loved to ride around.
Mom, unexpectedly, drove down from Chicago to see how things were going and to bring us food. When Granny told mom we didn’t need food because we had been driving Harry’s car into town everyday, she became more upset than I had ever seen her. She was positively furious at me and at Granny, too. “You know the rule!” she yelled. “Just wait ‘til you get home.” She left us without saying goodbye.
The rule was that I could not drive a car until I was 15 and had to be accompanied by a licensed driver. I was only 14 and Granny did not have a license. She only drove a car once, ran over a chicken, and never got behind the wheel again.
Mom’s reaction to my disobedience really upset me (she was mad!), but Granny calmed me down, “She’ll get over it, dear, and no harm done. You’ll feel better tomorrow.” I went to bed that night realizing, for the first time, that Granny no longer outranked my mother.
The next day Granny, all chipper, decided we needed to go to town again to get more groceries.
“How are we going to get there?” I asked.
“In Harry’s car,” she said, “Let’s go.”
Reluctantly I got in the car, but before starting the engine I turned to Granny and said, “You know, Granny, if we do this you can not tell Mom.”
“Of course I’ll tell her, dear. I can’t keep secrets from your mother.”
“That’s it, Granny. Get out of the car.”
The truth be known
My Granny was also a liar. When I was little she and my grandpa had a German shepherd, Rin, named after the movie star Rin Tin Tin. My memories of Rin are vague but I do recall he was crippled. Granny told me he got that way because one night Rin swam the river, the length of a football field, to attack a pack of wolves he’d heard howling. “He killed four of them, and wounded two,” she said, adding that this was verified by the farmer who lived across the river. “The fight went on for hours,” she added, “Poor Rin was never the same.”
Rin was a hero in my memory until I was in my late 40s when I read in “National Geographic” that the last known wolf in Illinois was killed in 1818 — the year Illinois became a state, and 127 years before Granny made up the story. God I loved her.
My friend Chuck “Jarbie” Crowe joined me on the farm on many occasions but only one memory survives. I’d purchased, without my parents consent, a .22 caliber rifle. This was not disobedience — I never asked If I could buy one. The .22 was an improvement over the BB gun because with it I could kill snakes. There were a lot of snakes by the Kankakee River and all of them, in my mind, were poisonous water moccasins.
Jarbie and I were in my boat. I’d turned off the motor and we were leisurely floating down Horse Creek, a tributary of the Kankakee, smoking cigars. We heard a loud noise in the trees above us as a great blue heron landed on a limb about 40 feet up. Jarbie’d never seen a heron and couldn’t believe how big it was.
“Want to see it up close?” I asked.
“How?” he said. “I’m not climbing that tree.”
“No need for that.”
I picked up the .22 and fired. The bird dropped lifelessly, splashing into the water next to us.
“Great shot!” said Jarbie.
“Oh God, I wish I hadn’t done that,” I said. I made myself sick and never again shot another living thing, including a snake, until I got into the Army.
The first time I took Tommy Stack to the farm we slept together in the guest bed. This was Tommy’s first night away from home. He must have been nervous because during the night he wet the bed. Both of us woke up soaked. He was afraid Granny’d find out. I told him she wouldn’t care and, of course, she didn’t. She cheerily stripped the bed, fixed us breakfast and did the laundry. She was delighted to have us as company — and to have something to do.
Jimmy and Granny
I was a lucky city kid to have that farm. Once I even used it to do some personal psychotherapy. I needed to cleanse my emotional system of high school. When graduation finally came I took my physics book into the basement of our house in Chicago. I found a 2-foot-by-2- foot piece of plywood and placed the book onto it so the pages splayed upward. I then nailed the four corners of the book’s cover to the wood.
I got into my Dad’s car and drove down to Granny’s farm. I got into my boat, cranked the motor, and went up the river about a quarter of a mile and cut the engine. Then I put the board onto the seat in front of me and doused the pages with lighter fluid, using the whole can. I very gently placed the wood on the surface of the water and lit a match. It burst into flames.
I restarted the motor and raced back to the farm. I parked the boat then sat on the bank with my .22 and waited. As my floating, flaming physics book drifted into range, I started shooting at it, causing the fiery pages to fly into the air then gently flutter down onto the water. It was beautiful. I continued shooting until the book was out of range and burned to a crisp. Leo High School was purged from my system.
I’ve had many great friends throughout life — college, the Army, business, neighbors. My closest, from childhood, also has the same name as me. We are not related. Jim spent lots of time with Granny on the farm. When she was 95 years old she had to go to a nursing home — frail, half deaf, almost blind, mind not up to par. By this time I was married and living in Colorado. Jim frequently traveled to Joliet, 40 miles from his home in Chicago, to visit Granny. The nurses would announce, “Jimmy Joyce is here, Mrs. Wurtz!” and he’d pull up a chair next to her bed. All through their visit Granny thought she was talking to me. Jim never corrected her.