I was about five years old when my dad told me that a new highway was going to be built in our town. He said it would be coming right past our house. I pictured it running through the middle of our driveway and wondered if I would ever be able to go outside and play again.
Families living in the corridor of Interstate 80 would see life as they knew it changed forever. The first sign of change that I noticed was when they started moving houses out from the path of the interstate. The buildings were raised up, placed upon tow dollies and pulled out onto the road in front of my house. They sat there blocking our street for a week or so.
Nighttime created a dark, gothic like scene. Tall silhouetted buildings appeared to be marching beneath the dim light from our one and only street lamp. Kerosene smudge pots surrounded the houses and the flames dancing off their wicks gave the eerie impression that the houses were floating in the air.
My mom told me to stay away but I couldn’t resist sneaking a peek. Fascinated by the sight of houses pulled out of the ground and placed on dollies, I just had to see what the underside looked like. Carefully crawling underneath, I was greeted by cob webs, boards and a lot of nails. Suddenly something creaked; that was followed by a loud crack. Curiosity quickly changed to panic as I dashed out from under that house like a rabbit fleeing from a beagle. I kept my distance after that.
The Brindza’s house was just east of our backyard. For some reason it was demolished instead of moved. My dad and other neighbors would go over there and sift through the rubble saving bricks, pipe and other materials that they thought they could use. I would continually sneak over to the ruins only to be sent back home. My persistence finally paid off as the men were too busy to keep shooing me away. I settled into a spot and began excavating for my own treasures. Just my luck, I stepped on a nail. It went through my shoe and about a half inch into the bottom of my foot. The board was stuck to my foot and I started screaming for help. Dad was P-P-PISSED! You could always tell when he was mad because out of his mouth would come the only thing close to a cuss word I ever heard him utter, “Son of a buck!…son of a buck!” He picked me up and carried me back home. Glaring into my mother’s eyes, he handed me off and headed back to the pile of rubble. When he returned home that evening he walked up to see how I was and handed me a small piece of decorative iron saying, “Here, you can have this.” I didn’t know what it was, but it was my own personal treasure and I was thrilled.
After the houses had been moved out of the way, they started hauling in dirt and rock to elevate the road high above the neighborhood. The dirt used for this was dug out of local forest preserves. Wampum Lake and several other preserve ponds were created as a result.
They put up a chained link fence with barbed wire along the top to keep people away from the road construction, but that wasn’t near enough of an obstacle to deter young boys. We dug out an access site under the fence and would explore the giant hill when the workers weren’t around. We started off looking for suitable throwing rocks to break that street corner light bulb, but we discovered some of the rocks had designs in them. I showed my dad and he told me they were fossils. The next morning I noticed a step ladder hung over the fence and my dad up on the side of the hill with a bucket hunting for some fossils of his own.
Everyone in town referred to the new expressway as the toll road. It and I seemed to grow up together. When the road finally opened for traffic, our quiet town was not so quiet anymore. At night the semi-trailer trucks roaring down the road sounded like fighter planes diving towards the earth. Box cars banging together at the nearby rail yard sounded like bombs going off in the distance. I would lie there in bed and pretend I was somewhere in Europe fighting Nazis, winning of course.
The toll road provided year round entertainment. In the winter kids would sled down it’s side or play hockey on the frozen large moat like ditch that ran parallel to it. In the spring we would race boats in the high ditch water. That ditch was also our source of the cattails we would collect and throw on the roof of my grandfather’s out-house to cure in the sun. When dry we’d light the end and pretend we were smoking cigars. Summer and fall would find us racing our bikes or homemade soapbox carts down the side of the hill.
Dileo’s farm was located on the north side of the toll road and a few of us kids from town would work for him during the summer. The Center Street underpass took us a half mile out of our way. Most of us chose the short cut. We jumped the fence, climbed up to the road and then ran across six lanes of busy traffic. The police chased us a number of times, caught us twice.
The only time we were actually allowed to be up on the road was when someone needed help. Travelers would run out of gas or have other car problems and people from the neighborhood were always willing to lend a helping hand. Chicago’s worst blizzard occurred in January of 1967 dumping a record-setting 23 inches of snow. The toll road actually came to a standstill, stranding travelers for two – three days. Families from town climbed up to the road at the height of the storm, rescuing people from their vehicles and offering them food and lodging. That’s the image of the American People I savor most. Mom and Dad took in a truck driver for a few days and one family down the block eventually saw their daughter marry the truck driver that they rescued. It was joked that the widow lady down the block went from car to car searching only for single men.
Seemed like a kid could always find something of interest by just sitting in the grass and watching what went by. Sometimes we would stand along the fence raising an arm in the air and simulate the motion of a trucker pulling his horn valve lever, hoping that one of them would respond with a loud blast; many did. Often we’d just sit and take-in the curious sights passing by, like airplane fuselages, helicopters, race cars, sections of bridge, circus transports, military conveys, even saw a huge fuel tanker fire. Most memorable, and every young boys dream was the two topless girls perched high in the back seat of a Mustang convertible.
As the steady flow of traffic increased, eminent domain once again forced the neighborhood to sacrifice in the name of progress. Widening the road to eight lanes took our home along with all but three others on that entire six block stretch bordering the expressway. A walled barrier was recently built alongside the toll road to block both the noise and the view. What was once a bee hive of activity, today lives on as just a memory on a blog.