I grew up in an era when various combinations of Illinois Route 66 took my parents, my brother, and me from our house to my grandma’s in Benld, a coal mining town some 40 miles to the north on State Route 4. Our Sunday drive over two-lane roads that also included State Routes 159 and 157 lasted about an hour or so each way. That is, if my dad didn’t have to pull over to the side and change the usual flat tire. Or two. Yes, how well I recall the trip in which we had a flat on our way there and one on the way back, somewhere on the outskirts of Hamel, north of Edwardsville. Was it any wonder my dad puffed on one cigarette after the other during those drives, all the while preparing himself for the inevitable breakdown that never failed to occur.
Upon our arrival at Grandma’s house, we immediately transitioned into the Italian-American mode. More so Italian than American, with my mother and grandmother engaging for hours in the Piemontese dialect the rest of us hadn’t learned to speak—much to my later regret, my brother’s too, especially when we traveled together to search out our roots in Northern Italy. Fortunately by then, I’d been married for years to my high school sweetheart, a first generation American who still speaks fluent Piemontese. And grew up eating the same kind of food my grandma cooked, an everyday occurrence for him since he lived with his grandparents for much of his childhood.
Ah-h, in today’s world if I lift my head a certain way, I can still smell my grandma’s kitchen—the garlic-laden roast beef simmering in red wine, usually a home brew better than any sold in the store. Potatoes, yes, cooked with the beef and cut in less-than-perfect chunks known as rustic style, same as I do mine. If not potatoes, then Grandma would make polenta with a few potatoes added for good measure, which is not the way I do my polenta. Always a salad at Grandma’s, greens from her garden dressed with the perfect ratio of vinegar and imported olive oil purchased from the Italian co-op where she bought most of her groceries, along with the lemon drops that served as a simple dessert.
I wrote about the Piemontese Italians in my saga The Family Angel. Petty bootlegger/Italian immigrants Carlo Baggio and his brother Jake move from 1920s Prohibition Chicago to the Southern Illinois town of St. Gregory, an hour or so south of St. Louis. You won’t find St. Gregory on any Illinois map—it’s only located within the confines of my imagination, which gives me lots of freedom to create a town square inspired by the one in Carlinville (also along the Route 66 corridor) and houses like those I recalled from an earlier Benld. Like many of the immigrants who came to Benld, my fictional Baggio brothers wind up mining coal in St. Gregory and boarding with immigrants who already found their place, in this case Mario Roselli and his wife Irene.
In this scene from The Family Angel, Mario gives the Baggio brothers some insights into St. Gregory during its heyday.
The church-going preferences of St. Gregory’s inhabitants didn’t interest Carlo. Sluggish from a full belly, he stifled a yawn. “How far are we from St. Louis?”
“Ninety minutes by train, less by car,” Jake said. “The damn train stops for every whistle.”
“St. Gregory has just about everything,” Mario continued. “And what we don’t have can be ordered from Sears Roebuck. ‘Course some ladies still take the train to St. Louis every so often to shop. Even my Irene.”
The heart of the business district formed a four-block square jammed with buildings, most of them two-storied. In the middle of the square a circle of earth held three twenty-foot American Linden trees, five lilac bushes, and a scattering of park benches. Mario pulled into a parking slot facing the common green, turned off the motor, and got out, as did Carlo and Jake.
“The park ain’t much,” he said as they strolled through it, “but it’s where everybody comes to watch everybody else. Those crowded benches remind me of Italy: old men trying to outdo each other, young ones hoping to arrange a date, or maybe some nookie, depending on the girl.”
Jake lifted his brow. “So that’s where the action is.”
“As if you didn’t already have your own connections,” Mario said with a wink.
At the bronze statue of three doughboys with bayonets drawn, Mario tipped his cap, and said, “In memory of three St. Gregory men who died in the Great War.”
“You fought?” asked Carlo.
“Nah, my lungs couldn’t pass the physical.”
They shared a bench and watched the parade of Sunday drivers circling the park. The beep-beep of horns reminded Carlo of Chicago’s quieter streets, a thought he quickly dismissed. “So everybody’s got a car.”
“Except me, and now you,” Jake said. “The town’s overrun with Model Ts, Chevys, Oldsmobiles, and Plymouths. Yesterday, I saw a Hudson.” He motioned to a passing car. “Hey, Mario, ain’t that your neighbor driving a Hudson?”
“Brand new, just off the showroom floor, he paid cash.” Mario pointed out a row of hitching rails near the circle’s outer perimeter. “Those are for the horse and buggy diehards.”
“Times must be good,” Carlo said.
“Booming, same as the coal company,” Jake said. “Not just here, everywhere. Coal fuels the whole damn country.”
“Since I first came over, the town has doubled in size, all because of the mines. Italians, Germans, even hardscrabble from the South. I tell you, Carlo, and Jake’ll back me on this, won’t you Jake?” Jake nodded and Mario continued. “Any man can make a good living if he ain’t squeamish about the conditions. You know: the underground cave, the picking, chipping, shoveling, and hauling for eight hours a day, six days a week.”
Carlo narrowed his eyes to Jake. “How much did you say?”
“Fifty to sixty dollars, every two weeks.”
“And we owe it all to John L. Lewis,” Mario said. “In case you don’t already know, he’s head of the United Mine Workers. I ain’t going to whitewash what we do. Mining can be hellfire dangerous: cave-ins, fires, explosions, and methane poisoning. But it ain’t as bad as before. Not like when I first came here. Not like it was for my pa.”
If you’d like to read more, check my website for various sites to purchase The Family Angel.