Take Cover!

The summer that Russ and Doug were 12 and Terri was 9, Pat drove them back to El Dorado, Kansas to spend the summer with their grandparents, Melba and Eddie Wygle. They had a great time boating, fishing, shooting skeet, and doing all the things that Melba and Eddie came up with to entertain them. They also got acquainted with some of the more sobering parts of Kansas life such as tornadoes.

Here in California, the kids were used to hearing the sirens of police cars, ambulances, and fire trucks. In Kansas, cities had installed sirens that could be heard for a mile or more. They were used to indicate that a tornado was coming and it was time to take cover. The kids didn’t actually experience a tornado that summer but a number of times they heard the warning siren and had to take cover in the neighbor’s cellar. This was enough to impress upon them that tornadoes were nothing to mess with.

In the summer of 1974, we rented a 35 foot motor home and made the trip to Kansas. The boys were 15; Terri was 12, as was her friend, Susan, who was traveling with us. When we arrived in Augusta, we went to the home of Aunt Rachel and Uncle Dave Peebler at 124 High Street. I parked the RV in a driveway in their back yard. When it was time for bed, the girls shared a bedroom, Pat and I were in a bedroom at the front of the house, and the boys were going to sleep in the RV. The boys were especially happy with this arrangement. It helped them maintain their image as independent young thinkers who didn’t have to conform to the conventions of mortals and sleep in the house…they would take care of themselves in the RV outside.

After some visiting, we said our “good nights” and headed for bed. It wasn’t long before a siren started screaming across the town. Pat and I didn’t worry about it because we knew two things that the kids didn’t know. The first was that it was a very nice evening with none of the tell-tale attributes of an unsettled tornado condition. The second was that Augusta has a volunteer fire department that alerts its members using the same siren as is used for tornado warnings. We recognized the siren immediately for what it was. The boys, however, were out in the RV alone, in a strange place that was already a little bit spooky. All of a sudden we heard a wild pounding on the back door (which was locked). Russ and Doug were yelling at the top of their lungs, “Let us in! Let us in! We’re going to die! The tornado is coming!” As I said, Pat and I were in the front bedroom and it was taking us a little time to reach the back door. Pat got to the door first and was trying to get it unlocked but not being familiar with it was fumbling around and not having much luck. The boys were getting more frantic every second and were screaming “Why won’t you let us in? Do you want us to die out here? Please! Please! Help!” Pat yelled back at them “Look at the sky…no clouds…no lightning…no twister…no noise…no strange atmosphere!” The boys were so shook up they wouldn’t listen and couldn’t think of anything but running to safety. Pat got lucky and got the door open and let the guys in and we tried to quiet them. They were excited and big-eyed and it took a little bit for what we were saying to register. When it finally sunk in that the siren was not for a tornado but was a call for the volunteer firemen, the boys settled down. Naturally, Aunt Rachel and Uncle Dave, and Terri and Susan heard the commotion and were all at the back door, too. As you can imagine, it took a while for us to settle down and think about sleeping again.

Dave Thomas
March 15, 2015


Before the Stair-climbing Dolly

I was thinking about tools this morning. If you go into one of the large warehouse stores like Home Depot or Lowe’s you can be overwhelmed by the number of tools you see. There is a tool for every job you can imagine. As you go up and down the aisles and you see these wonderful objects, most of them shiny, your imagination takes hold and you begin to drool. “If I only had one of these”, you say to yourself, “I could do the job so much better and faster.” You reach for that sleek ergonomically perfect beauty and your fate is sealed. You are going to buy that beautiful tool because it makes so much sense to do so and take it home to do that one job and then put it in the drawer where it will stay for the next forty years. That’s what tools do to us.

The Industrial Revolution has been a tribute to the resourcefulness of man. Machines were invented to make work easier and to multiply the amount of work that a person can do. Naturally, new tools had to be invented to manufacture these machines and maintain them. It was an exponential explosion that created more gadgets and tools than any of the pioneering inventors could have ever dreamed. If you are a real “handyman” type, we might go out into your garage and find a roll-away toolbox full of hand tools, an air compressor, an arc welder, a paint spray booth, an electronic stud finder, and enough gadgets and tools to fill a catalog.

While thinking of these tools, I was letting my mind roam the aisles of Home Depot. The high turn-over stuff and the big-money items are located closer to the entrance or the center of the store. As you get farther away from the action, you get to the more mundane items like brooms and shovels and hand trucks and dollies. As I look at the dollies in my minds-eye I am reminded of the unit I have in my garage. It looks like a regular dolly but if you pull a pin and remove the handle, you can then insert the handle in a position that makes the dolly into a 4-wheel hand truck. I love it! As I get older and less well-balanced when carrying heavy stuff, I appreciate this feature more.

Thinking about dollies, leads me off on another tangent. Have you ever seen a stair-climbing dolly? I was introduced to this marvel of the material handling world back in the 1970’s or 80’s. I was Manufacturing Manager of a company that was moving to a new building. One morning, I was at the new place checking our progress as the equipment was brought in and set up. I was standing on the loading dock when the truck from the vending machine company drove up. The vending machines were scheduled to be installed in the lunch room that day so I was happy to see a number of machines on the truck. I was concerned to see only one man on the truck because the lunch room was on the second floor and I didn’t want anyone to get hurt trying to wrestle those machines up the stairs. Also, my men were all busy and I didn’t want to use my manpower to move the vending company’s machines.

I finished what I was doing and headed for the main staircase to see what was going on. As I got there, I saw a Coke Machine going up the stairs with one man climbing the stairs with it. There was a ½ horse motor and a 50 amp battery doing all the work. It really was amazing.

stair climber

I was fascinated and fortunately had the time to watch the guy take several pieces of equipment up the stairs. There was a Coke machine, 2 sandwich and dessert machines, a hot canned soup machine, a cigarette machine, and a refrigerator. The machines were different sizes, configurations, and weights, but everything went as smooth as silk. The guy told me that the dolly could take things down the stairs just as easy. Amazing!

All this talk about machines that climb stairs brings us to the question, “What did we do before stair-climbing dollies?” Well, I’ve got one answer for that. This story concerns my Dad, Al Thomas, so let me tell you a little about him. Dad was always tall and slim. As a grown man he was about 6 foot tall and for years weighed 168 pounds. He prided himself in being perfectly honest so if anyone ever asked how tall he was, he never said “6 foot”. It was always “five eleven and three quarters.”

When Dad was a freshman in high school, he preferred individual sports so he played tennis and lettered on the track team. The following year, he was diagnosed with mastoiditis and later with rheumatic fever. Fear of heart damage caused the doctor to prescribe bed rest for several months. This pretty much finished his high school athletic career. Re-gaining his strength after high school, Dad began playing softball in an inter-city league and pitched for several years. Jobs were hard to find during the depression and Dad took a lot of hard jobs like digging ditches and scooping wheat. Another hard job was shoveling coal. A gondola full of coal would be delivered to the siding near the downtown area and Dad and a couple other guys would shovel the coal out with scoop shovels and toss it into a bin beside the tracks. Scooping wheat and coal made for strong backs and legs.

Based on what I can remember about my size and the looks of things around me, I must have been 10 or 11 at the time I’m thinking of. That would make it about 1946 or 1947. Dad said he had a little job to do and that I should come with him. That was surprising enough because back in those days kids did “kid stuff” and Dads did “Dad stuff.” We got in Dad’s 1940 Chevrolet and he drove us downtown. He parked there on the west side of the 500 block of State Street, near Cooper Drugs. The buildings were mostly 2 stories although a corner did have a 3rd story. The first floor of every building was a business of some kind and the upper floors were mostly apartments with a couple of offices sprinkled here and there. On the sidewalk, right in front of where we had parked, and up against the building, was a refrigerator. Between the stores were stairways going to the upper floors and giving access to the apartments. Dad said that the lady that lived upstairs from where the fridge was setting was a friend of him and Mom and that she had to buy a new refrigerator. She said she bought a second-hand unit from a family that was moving out of town and they said they would leave it on the sidewalk in front of Cooper Drug but she would have to arrange to get it upstairs. She asked Dad if he could get it up the stairs for her and he agreed to do it.

Dad and I were standing there and looking up those stairs that were scarcely wider than the fridge. There wasn’t room for anyone on the stairs beside the fridge. Being a dumb kid, I had no idea how this was going to work but Dad had a plan. He went to the trunk of the car and came back with a web belt. The belt was yellow, about 2” wide and maybe 15 feet long. He pushed the refrigerator over directly in front of the stairs and tipped it a little and told me to slide the belt under it. I positioned the belt and then we tugged on the ends of it and evened it up. Then, while I held the ends, Dad went around and faced the stairs with his back to the fridge. He crossed the straps and pulled them over his shoulders. Then, he bent his knees, pulled straight down on the ends of the straps to remove the slack, and then straightened his legs. All of a sudden, there he was, standing up straight with a refrigerator on his back! He said “Stay here on the sidewalk and don’t get behind me on the stairs.” He took a couple of steps forward and started climbing. He took one step at a time and didn’t waver a bit. I was worried about him but knew that if he got into trouble he would simply let go of the straps and let the fridge come crashing down the stairs. I still kind of held my breath until I heard him yell that he was at the top and I could come on up. I went racing up the stairs and there he was at the top, safe and sound. As for me, I was in awe of the whole operation. I learned a number of things that day but the main one was that a man with a plan (and a little muscle) could do remarkable things before we even heard of a stair-climbing dolly.

Dave Thomas
October 15, 2015

The Augusta Theaters

Augusta Theater

After graduating from high school I was working at Howard Motors, the Chevrolet/Buick garage. We worked from 8:00 to 6:00 on weekdays and 8:00 to 1:00 on Saturday. One Saturday afternoon, after work, I went home and cleaned up and came back downtown to have a cup of coffee at the bakery. The P & G Bakery was located in the 500 block of State Street, our main drag and was located just across the street from the Augusta Theater. Actually, there were two theaters across the street. The Augusta was the main theater, open every night and was large and beautifully decorated. Next to it on the south was the Isis Theater. It was well decorated in a modern western motif and was open Friday night, Saturday night and for Saturday matinee. Of course, the Isis only ran westerns. 

The P & G Bakery provided first class bread, doughnuts, and other baked goods but also had a fountain and half dozen booths. I was sitting in a booth, sipping my coffee, and visiting with everyone that came along. Bob Bisagno, the son of the owners of the movie houses, came in and sat down with me and ordered a cup of coffee. He was in his 30’s, was a tall, good looking guy, and was well liked by everyone in town. Bob was the manager of the theaters and every night you could see him at the Augusta taking tickets and welcoming the patrons to the movie. There was a small alcove off the lobby and every night, Bob’s parents, Dave and Aline, were sitting on the couch and greeting the patrons, also.

As an aside, I should tell you a little about the family. Mrs. Bisagno had been the piano player for the silent movies back in the old days. The old movie house was still there, in the next block, but was locked up tight and no longer used. The Bisagno family still owned it. Dave, the old man, had been raised on a farm north of town. He was short, maybe 5’ 7″ or 5’8″ tall with very broad shoulders, and big, powerful hands. One of the local legends was that Dave’s hands were so powerful that using a pinch-grip, he could hand-walk the rafters of a barn from one end of the barn to the other. One time, I saw a couple of old boys that had grown up with Dave and asked them if it was true that he was so strong. They swore that it was.

Bob graduated from Kansas State College at Manhattan and did a hitch in the Air Force before coming home to work at the movies.

Bob and I drank coffee and talked for a few minutes and then he changed gears and asked me if I’d like to work for him as a relief projectionist at the Augusta Theater. I was both flattered and flabbergasted. I had never considered such a thing. The relief projectionist or, operator, would give the regular man a break by working two nights a week and would be available to cover illnesses and vacations. Bob explained the job, the wages, and what would be expected of me. It sounded interesting. I asked a few questions and we shook hands and had a deal. I think I was eighteen at the time.

I don’t remember how long I trained before going solo. The regular operator, Lee, soon started going to the lobby and leaving me in the booth alone. It wasn’t very long before I worked a couple of nights by myself. There were a number of things to learn. Most reels of film lasted 18 to 20 minutes so the features normally had 4 to 6 reels. One of those super-duper blockbuster movies could have up to 8 reels. To get a reel ready, you placed it in the upper projector film housing and then threaded the film through several sprockets and then past the aperture plate which sized the projected image exactly to your screen. Then you went through a couple of sprockets and past the exciter lamp that picked up the sound which was imbedded alongside the 35mm image frames. The light source was a carbon arc with a parabolic reflector behind it to focus the light exactly on the aperture plate for maximum illumination. You had to set the carbons so they burned at the correct rate and you had to check them periodically when changing reels. There were 2 projectors and you switched back and forth between them. When a reel was about done, a mark on the film would show up in the upper right hand corner of the screen. That was the “get ready” cue and you got yourself in position with a hand on each of the 2 switches (one for the picture and one for sound). In a few seconds, the second cue appeared in the upper right hand corner of the screen and you hit both switches at the same time for a near seamless transition to the next reel. You had to learn to splice film, trouble- shoot the equipment, operate the curtains and lights and other chores that soon became second nature.

I learned at the Augusta Theater and then learned at the Isis Theater next door and got to work relief there and ran”B” westerns. Then I got to go to the drive-in and learned that equipment. All 3 movie houses had different projectors and sound systems so there were new things to learn at each job. The regular operator at the drive-in was an Electrical Engineer and that’s the work he did during the day. He was offered a job in another town so I was asked to be the full-time drive-in operator. I was tickled to death and accepted before Bob finished getting the words out of his mouth. I kept working at the garage, too, so I was pretty busy. At the drive-in, I kept the booth clean and repaired speakers while the movie ran.

The drive-in was about a mile and a half north of town on Ohio Street. Ohio Street was a busy road that serviced the farms north of town and served as a secondary way to get to El Dorado or Towanda or Wichita. The drive-in was on the east side of Ohio Street but on the west side was Garvin Park and our City Lake that served as our water reservoir. Across from the drive-in entrance and a little bit south there was an entrance into the park. At the time, I was driving a baby blue 1953 Ford convertible and generally had the top down during the summer months. I’d get off work on those beautiful summer nights, go into the park and head for home on the road that ran along the edge of the lake. It was rare to see another car at that time of night and I enjoyed tooling along, under the stars by myself.

One time, I had the night off and Bob Ford and I were going to go horseback riding. Since we both worked during the day this was the only chance we had. The horses that Bob had access to were only about 1 ½ miles from the drive-in. We got there and were saddling up and Bob says “I’d sure like to see that western movie that’s starting over at the drive-in tonight”. “I’ve been looking forward to going horseback riding tonight,” I says. “Well, let’s do both,” he says. I figured that since I worked there I might get away with it. We rode on over and when we got to the ticket booth, Bob bought himself a ticket. Right beside the concession stand there was a patio area with 4 benches on it. We rode on in and as we were sitting down, Bob Bisagno, the owner/manager came up and asked what we were doing. I told him we came to see the movie. After we all talked it over, Bob said it was ok but I’d have to come back in the morning and clean up after the horses. That was fair so we sat down on a bench to watch the movie and held onto our reins. We wanted to be able to control the horses so they wouldn’t get hurt in case some idiot blew his car horn. We watched the movie with no incidents and rode the horses back to the barn and put them up. The next morning, I got up early and went out and cleaned up the asphalt and then went to work at the garage. Another memorable experience and nobody hurt.

Dave Thomas
December 11, 2013


Quarry Story 2

The rock quarry and surrounding area always had an “old West” feel to it. The quarry itself was hardly 100 yards from the road but it was hidden by the trees so being there caused you to be isolated from the reality of roads and cars. When you were in the pasture above the quarry and you got in the creases between the hills you could look off toward the skyline and see nothing but grass, just as it was during the days of the buffalo. The hills themselves looked like loaves of French bread scattered around the landscape. If you took a sharp knife and sliced down through one of the loaves (hills) and removed the cut-off portion, what remained would look like the sheer limestone wall of the quarry.

Another curiosity that added to the feeling of the old west was the old dynamite shack. It was only 30 or 40 yards from the quarry wall. Built of stone, it was maybe 10 foot by 10 foot, with a barred window that never had glass and a door jamb that was still intact though the door was long gone. The roof had long since disappeared, too. The barred window made you think “jail” and added to the mystique though you knew it was a dynamite shack.

Every square inch of limestone was full of fossils. Most of them were little round things shaped like wheels and were approximately the diameter of a large pea. Some were larger and were actually well-formed and intact sea shells. I spent hours digging through the fossils and looked up the shells and memorized their names and the names of the formations or clusters they were in. The only thing I can remember is “brachiopod”. I know that information and five pennies is worth about a nickel.

We camped out overnight at the quarry on several occasions but only one stands out in my memory. It was almost the first of April and though we knew spring was coming we were still anxious for a break in the weather so we could go camping. This particular weekend looked like a good chance for us. There was still a little snow on the ground but it hadn’t been too cold.

We loaded up our stuff, drove out to the quarry, and set up camp near the old dynamite shack. We scrounged up enough tinder and dry branches to keep our fire going all night. We thought we had prepared a pretty good camp site so when the time came we piled into our bed rolls and looked forward to a good night’s sleep. Unfortunately, the temperature had started dropping at sundown and it didn’t quit dropping. A cold snap caused it to be one of the coldest nights of the year. We took turns tending the fire all night and didn’t really get any sleep. What’s more, the next morning when we went to make coffee, the water in our canteens was frozen. Okay, so we can’t have coffee, we’ll get going on the bacon and eggs. Well, the eggs were frozen, too! About this time we were deciding that we were too dumb to be “cold weather campers” and started loading our stuff into the car. We each had a buck or so in our pocket so we headed for our favorite café and ordered coffee and bacon and eggs. Remember, this was back when a cup of coffee cost a nickel and I think breakfast was 65 cents. The warm café and a hot breakfast greatly improved our dispositions.



Dave Thomas
October 25, 2013

And A Porcupine

For a short time (1 ½ days) I had a pet porcupine. I was 13, going on 14, when I spent the summer of 1950 in Safford, Arizona with my Grandpa, George Sicks. I had never seen a porcupine and all I knew about them is that when they got mad or scared they threw their quills at you and you ended up looking like a pin cushion. I figured them to be pretty mean animals.

Grandpa sold Allis-Chalmers farm equipment there in eastern Arizona. He spent a lot of time on the road calling on the farmers and ranchers in the area. One day, he said he would be going south to make some calls. I couldn’t go with him because he had hooked me up with a job on one of the big farms in the area. When Grandpa got home that night he told me about his trip. To get to the area where he wanted to make calls he went south out of Safford and after a few miles arrived at the Pinaleno Mountains. As the elevation increased he got up into the pine forest. As he went over the crest of a hill, he almost ran over a porcupine in the road. It was standing beside the body of another porcupine that had been hit by a car or truck.

Grandpa went about his business but when he returned in late afternoon the porcupine was still beside the body as if grieving over the loss of its companion. They may have been involved in a mating ritual or, as we learned later, this may have been a mother and baby as the babies stay with their mothers until they are about 6 months old. Grandpa pulled over, got out of his car, and walked back to the porcupine. It didn’t move. Being afraid that the animal would eventually be hit by a car, Grandpa picked it up and put it in his car and headed for home.

When he got to the house, Grandpa told me what had happened. He had a big cardboard box and some chicken wire and we used them to fashion a pen. We got a bowl of water and some vegetables from the house, put them in the pen, and we were ready for our guest.

Grandpa was good with animals and believed that touching was the best way to establish a bond and begin communicating with them. As he got the porcupine out of the car he began showing me how to stroke its back as he spoke quietly to it.

The quills normally lay flat and needless to say, you should always stroke “with the grain” unless you want to deal with quills sticking out of your hand. We put it in the pen and I spent the rest of the evening sitting beside it and talking to it and stroking it. I didn’t get any reaction at all until I started rubbing the bridge of its nose. Then, it started leaning into it a little. I knew the animal was unhappy and scared so it was gratifying to get any kind of response.

I didn’t have to work the next day so I just hung out with the porcupine. It didn’t eat or drink or move around in the pen. Besides the other trauma in its life it couldn’t get any peace now because some kid was checking on it every five minutes. I talked to Grandpa about the situation when he got home that afternoon. He said that he had been worried about the safety of the porcupine but shouldn’t have interfered. He said he should have left it to Mother Nature to take care of business and we would have to make it right.

The next morning, Grandpa put the porcupine in the car and said he would leave it where he had found it. That evening, he told me that the remains of the other porcupine were still where he had seen them last. He moved the body several yards off the road and then got the other porcupine from the car and placed it beside its former companion. We were both sorry that we couldn’t have done more.

For the record, porcupines don’t throw their quills. They are passive little animals but when forced to defend themselves, turn their back to the aggressor and “bristle”, causing their quills to stand up straight. If the adversary persists and gets too close they whack it with their tail. That’s when the pain comes in.

This is a sad memory but I am grateful for the things I learned.

Dave Thomas
October 21, 2014


Red Rose, Green Lizard

When Pat and I were living in Keller, Texas we had one of those free-standing swing sets on our patio. The thing had a canopy over it and was quite comfortable. One day we were out there watching the clouds drift past and watching the birds go about their business when we noticed that a couple of the little green lizards that lived in the back yard were running around on the fireplace chimney and the roses growing next to it. I went in and got my camera and sat back down in the swing to take a few shots. I wasn’t having any luck at getting a good picture so Pat said she wanted to try. I handed her the camera and she immediately got what I consider to be a great nature shot.

Red Rose-Green Lizard

When our grandson, David, received the picture he sent a reply saying that he had gone one better and had actually caught a lizard. Here’s the picture he sent.

Lizard Guy

Dave Thomas
October 17, 2014



A Rookie On Ice

I was 18 and working at Howard Motors, a Chevrolet/Buick dealership in Augusta, Kansas. It was winter and we had been having some lousy weather. It snowed and then the next day it warmed up enough to thaw a little. Then, that night, the water standing in the streets and roads re-froze and a little bit of snow fell and covered it. This resulted in roads so icy and slick you could barely walk or drive on them.

I had been told the night before that the next day, I would be delivering a brand new 1 ½ ton Chevrolet truck to Great Bend, Kansas, about 130 miles away and bringing back the trade-in. The trade-in was at a dealership in Great Bend and the dealer had already removed the livestock bed from the truck. That meant that neither truck I would be driving had a bed mounted on it so therefore there would be no weight on the rear wheels.

I got to work early and got my instructions and by 8:00 AM was heading out on an adventure. I had never been to Great Bend, had never driven so far, and had certainly never driven a truck that far. I was having an exciting time before I hit the city limit. Touch the brakes and the rear end slid out from under you because there was no weight to hold it down. Try to accelerate and the same thing happened. At that time there was no 55 MPH speed limit on the highway but it didn’t make any difference because I couldn’t get over 20 MPH and neither could anyone else who was on the road. Going west from Augusta to Wichita I never got over 20 miles an hour. When I got to Wichita and took Highway 81 North, it was the same story. I kept hoping it would warm up a little and the roads would thaw. Otherwise, I wouldn’t get home until midnight.

I finally got to Newton and stopped for some pie and coffee. I figured I could kill 15 or 20 minutes there and give the weather a little more time to warm up. I got back on the road and headed west out of Newton. After a few minutes, I was tickled to see patches of road that were free of ice. I was actually able to get up to 50 and 55 miles an hour for short periods of time but had to be careful of bridges because they were always shady and covered with ice. This was nice country with farm towns every few miles. Probably most of the farmers through there were Mennonites as they had settled the area many years before.

I finally got to Great Bend. As I recall, it was called “Great Bend” because it was located on a great bend of the Arkansas River. That’s not pronounced “Arkensaw” like the state. It’s pronounced “R Kansas River”.

I got the paper work taken care of and they showed me the old trade-in I would be driving home. It was a pretty well beat up old 1 1/2 ton with slick tires. They told me the engine had a knock in it and it was burning lots of oil. They also told me to stop and check the oil frequently and they put 4 quarts of oil up in the cab with me. I lit out for home and drove as smoothly as I could. I didn’t rev the engine or let it load up at all. I got it up to 50 miles an hour and held it steady. I watched my gauges and stopped and checked the oil often and was getting on down the road. I got to one of those little farm towns west of Newton, and the engine threw a rod! I pulled off onto the shoulder and looked under the hood. Sure enough, the party was over.

I could see a country store up ahead so I hiked on up there. The people that owned the place were real nice and let me use their phone for a long distance call. I called Kenny Markley, the Service Manager at the garage and my boss, and told him what had happened and where I was. Kenny said it was getting late so he had called the Truck Manager at the dealership in Great Bend and after hearing about the truck was surprised that I had made it that far. He told me to sit tight and he would get in the wrecker and come up and get me.

I hung out at that country store and visited with those nice people until Kenny showed up. We hooked up the old truck to the wrecker and took off for home. It was getting late so we stopped in Newton and Kenny bought me supper. It was a big day and I experienced a lot and learned a lot.


Dave Thomas
December 7, 2014

Chicago, a Sparrow, and a Tattoo

I had been to the U.S. Navy Recruit Training Center at Great Lakes, Illinois for boot camp and had then gone home to Kansas on a 30 day leave. Now, I was headed for Glenview Naval Air Station just north of Chicago where I would spend 5 or 6 months while waiting for orders to school. Coming into Chicago on the train was exciting for me. I had wanted to check out Chicago ever since reading Carl Sandburg’s poem, “Chicago”, in high school. I was already impressed as we rolled through the neighborhoods and saw what a large city it was. Then, as we went through the railroad switching yards and saw track after track I knew it was a big-time operation. No wonder Carl Sandburg called it a “Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler”. My gosh, they’ve got more tracks than you can shake a stick at. This is going to be special.

I got checked in at Glenview and started using my spare evenings and weekends to see the city. I’d ride the commuter trains from Glenview into downtown Chicago and get off the “El” somewhere in the loop and just wander around. It didn’t matter where I was for I looked in every store window and went into every building that looked interesting. I checked out Marshall-Field, the giant department store, Navy Pier, Soldier Field, and the Museum of Science and Industry where they displayed U-505, the German submarine captured during WWII. A number of times, I went into the lobby of the Palmer House Hotel just to gaze at the beautiful woodwork and the rest of the décor. After a few visits the doorman recognized me and would nod when I showed up. I was really fascinated by the lift bridges along the river and was highly entertained when I got there at the right time to see the bridge open up and a ship go sailing across the street! I enjoyed a couple of night clubs on the main drag, Randolph Street I think it was, where in the evening you could stand out on the sidewalk and listen to Jack Teagarden and other well-known musicians.

Chicago Bridges

One of my favorite buildings was the John Hancock Building. At this time, 1957, I believe it was the tallest building in Chicago. It had an unbelievable view of the city and Lake Michigan from the top floor where there was a restaurant and bar. You could sit up there and enjoy all the sights. I celebrated my 21st birthday there and it was the day I quit drinking. My hair started turning gray at the temples when I was 17. This gave me access to beer joints, bars, and liquor stores long before I should have been admitted and I was never once challenged or carded.

My excursions in the city were always alone as I wasn’t the buddy-buddy type. On my 21st birthday I did my normal sight-seeing and then went over to the John Hancock. Up in the lounge, I ordered a 7 and 7, my favorite drink, and sat back to enjoy the view and think things over. I was thinking that for the first time, my drink was legal, but my next thought was that I was a pretty poor man if the ability to buy a drink was the highlight of my day. Right then I decided that drinking was a waste of time and money and certainly a waste of life. I’ve adhered to that belief ever since and haven’t ordered another mixed drink.

There were 4 or 5 tattoo parlors in the loop and I had been checking them pretty close. I’d always wanted a tattoo and had decided that this was the time and place to get it done. The tattoo parlors looked like you would expect on the outside. The windows were wildly painted and gave off a cheap, carnival feeling. I started going in and talking to the tattoo artists so I could make a decision on what guy I wanted to do the job for me. In the group, there was only one place that impressed me at all. It was very clean and orderly and the man inside was nicely dressed in slacks and a dress shirt with no tie. I introduced myself and told him I wanted to learn about tattoos prior to getting one. He told me his name was Phil Sparrow and that he was a retired professor from Loyola University. He said he enjoyed doing the tattoos and in his spare time between clients was writing a novel. He said he would be glad to show me how the art of tattooing was done. His warm and gracious manner made me feel comfortable and I decided right then that he was the guy to do the tattoo work for me.

That first day, Phil showed me the plastic templates he used first to trace the outline of the pattern. He used a marker to draw the lines on your skin. Next came the vibrating tool with a large needle installed that was dipped in the black ink from time to time and created the outline. Colors were filled in with a broader tool that actually looked like 5 or 6 needles welded together to form a wider tool. Phil said that as he worked his way across the design he would finish all the work with one color before starting the next. That pretty much took care of the basics for me.

I think it was on my second visit to the shop that Phil asked if I was interested in reading a couple of chapters of his novel. I immediately said yes and got started. I don’t remember the plot but do remember that I liked his style. He had an open and uncluttered way of telling a story. You were able to relax and enjoy it without getting all tangled up in it. I don’t know if he ever got the book published. I enjoyed just hanging out and reading. When Phil had a customer I would watch as he created the tattoo.

I had to pick a design and decide where I wanted the tattoo to be. The only tattoo I had ever seen up close was on the upper arm of my Grandpa, George Sicks. His was located on his upper arm, almost to the shoulder, and was of an old sailing ship under full sail. The thing was probably 1 ½” from end-to-end. I couldn’t imagine getting a tattoo if I was going to hide it. I decided that when I was dressed casually I would display it but if I was wearing my uniform or dress clothes I would keep it covered. I always thought it looked tacky to see a tattoo peeking out from a guy’s cuff or the neck of his shirt. Phil had several designs of eagles that I liked and I finally picked one of an eagle swooping down or landing with talons extended as if to catch his prey. The template fit on my forearm and looked like it was swooping down to grab the I.D. bracelet I wore. The bracelet was awarded to me at the graduation ceremony at the Naval Recruit Training Command when I was named as “Honor Man” of my company at boot camp. it.

After all the decisions were made, it just took Phil a few minutes to execute the tattoo. The base color was indigo and there were small red sections on the leading edges of the wings. The eagle also had a yellow beak and feet. The red and yellow have pretty much faded away after more than 57 years but I’m still happy with the outcome.

I’ve told stories to my wife and kids about Chicago and Phil Sparrow many times. Our daughter, Terri, was intrigued by the name “Phil Sparrow” and looked him up on the Internet. It turns out that Phil was everything he said he was…and more. Terri found articles on Phil and on the famous San Francisco tattoo artist and designer, Ed Hardy. Hardy considers Phil Sparrow to be his mentor and gives him credit for his inspiration and guidance and for being the man who pioneered the inclusion of Japanese design into western tattoo artistry. Hardy, himself, has branched out and designs jewelry and purses and other items. Our grand-daughter, Christie, is very familiar with his creations.

Dave Thomas
January 27, 2014

Colored Chicks

Gene Scholfield and his Dad had a feed and grain store on the west side of the 400 block of State Street. I believe they called it Scholfield Hatchery. I remember that in the spring they would have brooders on the floor in the front room where you could look in from the sidewalk and see the chicks. Of course, you could go inside the store and see them too.

A brooder is a heated cage where baby chicks are raised. It keeps them warm and safe and together.

As Easter drew near, colored chicks were added to the brooder and the chicks were so cute all the little kids wanted one. Like bunny rabbits they were a big part of Easter. So, after a lot of tears and begging a lot of kids took one of those cute chicks home. The excitement lasted for a few days and then the chicks were neglected and succumbed. It’s doubtful that many lived through the holiday season.

Colored Chicks 1

I was thinking about the colored chicks this morning and got to wondering how they dyed them. It seemed like the simplest way would be to just dunk the chick in a bowl of food coloring and then let it hop around until it dried off. I went to the Internet and discovered that coloring chicks is not at all what you would think. Some might even call it creepy!

You’ve got your eggs in an incubator, so on the 13th day you remove an egg. You hold it with the pointed end up. Wipe the tip with alcohol to sterilize it. You’ve already loaded a syringe with the proper amount of vegetable dye (3% or less concentration). Measure down about one inch from the tip of the egg and make a hole. Inject the vegetable dye, Seal the hole with a small bandage and return the egg to the incubator. Now it’s just a question of waiting the allotted time and you will have cute little colored chicks all over the place.

Colored Chicks 2

Dave Thomas
January 2, 2014