Friday, October 30, 2009

There’s a Kind of Hush

By Kevin Guilfoile

Two weeks ago I posted about little coincidences outside of your reading that often increase your appreciation of a novel. I talked about it with respect to Theresa Schwegel's great new book, Last Known Address, but I also mentioned that I had just finished reading our own Sara Paretsky's outstanding new novel Hardball. And son of a gun if it didn't happen to me again.

In Hardball, VI Warshawski is investigating the disappearance of a young man from Chicago's South Side more than 40 years ago. In fact the last time anyone saw Lamont Gadsden was on January 25, 1967. That's significant because on January 26, the worst snow storm in Chicago history hit the city. Vic, who grew up on the Southeast side, remembers the day well, and she describes it in the book this way:

Oh yes, the big storm of 'sixty-seven. I'd been ten then, and it seemed like a winter fairyland to me. Two feet of snow fell; drifts rose to the height of buildings. The blizzard briefly covered the yellow stains that the steel mills left on our car and house, painting everything a dazzling white. For adults, it had been a nightmare. My dad was stuck at the station for the better part of two days while my mother and I struggled to clean the walks and get to a grocery store. Of course, the mills didn't shut down, and within a day the mounds of snow looked dirty, old, dreary.


I've been engaged in a fun, year-long project of digitizing and editing dozens of 8mm reels, home movies taken by my wife's family from about 1935 to 1975. They also lived on the South Side. And shortly after I read Hardball, I came across the following video, taken by my father-in-law, of the aftermath of the 1967 storm. By itself, it's a pretty typical home movie. But having just read Sara's book, it was almost like a DVD extra, like evidence in Lamont Gadsden's disappearance.

video

Well, in the context of Sara's book, I thought it was cool. But here's where I confess that I showed you that video just so I would have an excuse to show you this next one. It's also from my in-laws' 8mm archive, and it's also of a snow storm, but it's a lot less typical. This was taken in January of 1939 (during the seventh-largest snowfall in Chicago history) and this time my wife's grandfather actually got his camera out in the storm. In addition to family and dogs playing in the snow, he filmed the wreckage of two El trains which had crashed on the Garfield Park Line. And in the final frames you can see the horse drawn carriages that were used to haul the snow away from Crawford Avenue (now called Pulaski). The footage is in excellent condition and pretty remarkable, I think, as a snapshot of one Chicago neighborhood on an historic day more than 70 years ago. No one has even looked at it for probably half a century. I haven't seen too many videos quite like it.

video

Anyway, if you want to set your next novel during Chicago's Storm of the Century of 1939, there's your reference. And while you wonder with the fellows in that video how they are ever going to get that train off the elevated tracks, here's an outstanding story about how the CTA rail lines got their color-coded names.

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6 comments:

Dana King said...

Thanks for the clips and the link. I moved to Chicago in 1993, already familiar Boston's T and Washington's Metro, so I just assumed Chicago used color designators all along.

There's a valuable lesson here. Just because we know something to be a certain way doesn't mean it was always that way, and the reasons are often fascinating.

Sara Paretsky said...

Kevin, in the first place, thanks for your generous mention of Hardball, but thanks especially for these two clips. Your inlaws' archives are truly wonderful to watch--and to see the city in 1939 was for me an intense experience

Pete said...

Wow, El trains were a lot more stylish then. Love the arched windows.

Marcus Sakey said...

Those videos are hypnotic--thanks for posting them, Kevin!

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