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


Just Whistle


I grew up in Augusta, Kansas, a small town of 5,000. Our lives were regulated by the steam whistle at our local oil refinery. The refinery was originally called the White Eagle Refinery. Then, it became Socony-Vacuum Refinery and later, Socony-Mobil. The logo was the very distinctive Flying Red Horse.

The refinery was the main employer in our town and I guess the company wanted to make sure that there were no punctuality problems. They used the steam whistle to regulate the events of the day. Here’s the schedule as I remember it.

            7:00 AM You’d better be getting out of bed.
            7:50 AM You’d better be punched in, helmet on, and ready.
            8:00 AM Start work.
            12:00 PM Stop working and eat lunch.
            12:50 PM Stop eating and get ready for work.
            1:00 PM Go back to work.
            5:00 PM Quit work and go home.

The whistle was a pretty handy item. Back in the 1940’s few people had wrist watches. There were certainly no kids with a watch. The whistles could be heard all over town and at least a mile out into the country.

Dave Thomas
January 9, 2014

Seaplane Story 9: Chow

The electronics compartment is amidships in the P5M and has a section for a tiny galley. I guess the compartment was 8 or 10 feet long and had a hatch (door) on each end. There were racks on both sides, from floor to ceiling, that held all the electronic gear and the wiring harnesses. However, on the port side and at the rear of the compartment, was the galley. The space was about 3 foot wide and had a counter with a built in electrical cook top that as I recall had 2 burners. The counter top had a built-in receptacle and a small stainless steel coffee pot to plug into it. Every crew had replaced the coffee pot in their plane with a household pot capable of making 12 cups. The planes used 400 cycle AC power rather than the standard 60 cycles like in your home but the coffee pots worked ok. Beneath the counter was storage for metal plates, pots and pans and silverware. Above the counter and mounted on the bulkhead was a stainless steel water container that probably held 3 or 4 gallons and could be removed for filling.

On short hops of 2 to 5 or 6 hours the mess hall provided us with box lunches that were pretty good. On long training hops or patrols we were provided with a box of groceries that featured steaks, canned vegetables, bread and butter and whatever else was necessary to make a meal.

The coffee pot was always plugged in as soon as we were airborne and we drank coffee anytime we weren’t busy. The steaks were prepared at times that were convenient for most of us depending on what the mission was. A hot steak dinner and coffee were always welcome. We tried to rotate the kitchen duty so nobody got tired of it.

Dave Thomas March 13, 2012


V J Day

The Victory over Japan that ended World War II was announced August 15, 1945. I was just a couple of weeks shy of my 9th birthday but I remember the war vividly and remember V J Day. The war was part of our everyday lives…friends and neighbors going to war, some getting killed, rationing, black-outs, and horrible news broadcasts as the major battles were fought. Many people have shared their memories of those days so I’ll leave you to ponder their accounts. I’ll just share a few of the things that I remember about V J Day and the way things were.

We had supper with my Grandpa and Grandma Thomas at their house at 315 Walnut Street in Augusta. It was just a few blocks so Mom, Dad, Sylvia, and I had walked. There were some out-of-town relatives there but I don’t remember who they were. After supper, we kids were out on the front porch when the noise started up. We could hear car horns and people yelling and cheering and really carrying on. One of the adults came out and told us that the war with Japan was over and the boys would be coming home. Everyone was excited and we started yelling too.

My Dad came out of the house with a box of wooden kitchen matches and a pair of pliers. He said “We don’t have any fireworks but you kids can make some noise with these.” He then showed us how a kitchen match can make as much noise as a cap gun. If you recall, the tip, the striking part of the match, is a different color than the body. You line up the pliers in the same plane as the match stick and grasp the tip of the match with the pliers. While gently applying pressure you start to turn the pliers as if uncorking a bottle and the tip of the match will separate from the body. Maintaining a firm grip on the pliers, you strike the jaw of the pliers on the sidewalk and that causes the explosion. Pretty neat and as I said, it’s at least as loud as a cap gun. We kids took turns with the pliers until the entire box of matches was gone.

By this time it was dark and we could hear more noise coming from State Street which was a block over including a band that was playing full blast. Dad and Mom came out of the house and got us and we walked over to State Street and went up a block to the corner of 5th and State. The sidewalks were packed. The street was jammed too with cars, trucks, and tractors. One of the flat-bed trucks was carrying the Augusta High School Pep Band. I used to remember the names of all the band guys but now can only recall Corky Smith who played the drums. State Street was the main street in our town and was paved in brick. It ran north and south for maybe 1 ½ to 2 miles. The north end was on high ground and after maybe a half mile you came to High Street where it started going downhill and continued to slope all the way to the end. If you were going to “drag main street” you would drive up to High Street, make a U-turn, then cruise all the way south to 4th Street where you would make another U-turn and head back to High Street. Driving this mindless track used to occupy the kids for hours. High Street was in a residential area that continued south to 7th Street. The business district or “downtown” part of State Street went from 7th to 3rd St. On V J Day, all these cars, trucks, and tractors were making a big loop from High St. to 4th and back and making noise all the way.

That’s all a 9 year old kid can remember…the crowds, the noise, the joy, and the relief that the war was over.

Dave Thomas
October 11, 2014


The Old Barn

I have always liked old barns. When you see them quietly standing there now, they may not look as good or as strong as they once did but they have a resolute and stately quality about them. Their job is done but if needed, they would gladly step up to the mark. This story about the old barn is the only work of fiction I have attempted. I hope you see the barn as a giver and a worthy member of the community.

            Old Barn 1

The Old Barn

Hello! I seldom get visits from pretty young ladies like you. I’ll bet you are a city girl and have never met or talked to an old barn like me. What…you say you would like to take my picture? That’s an unusual request as I certainly don’t look my best now. I’m nearly one hundred years old and am missing some of my shingles and boards and have begun to lean a bit. No, I’ve never had a coat of paint. I hear that in some parts of the country they paint their barns but around here they just let us weather.

How was my early life? Oh, it was wonderful! Barns were a big part of life on the farm. In the early days if someone needed a barn, neighbors came from miles around to take part in a “barn raising”. Generally, the men built the barn, the women cooked a wonderful meal, and the kids got acquainted and played together. The community developed camaraderie and the barn was pretty much built in a day.

The hay mow or loft, which was the upper floor, was large enough to store several tons of hay for the winter. The hay of course fed the cattle and horses but it also insulated the barn and helped me provide shelter for the animals and for my people when they needed it.

They brought the milk cow in twice a day and milked her and when she had a calf, the birthing took place in one of my stalls where they knew both of them would be safe. The farmer had a beautiful team of draft horse that lived here also. They did all the heavy work here on the farm. It was my pleasure to give them a warm, dry home where they could rest and eat and get ready for the next day.

I also enjoyed the hens. There were a couple of them that just wouldn’t stay in the chicken coop. They’d come in here and lay their eggs in the mangers and even up in the hay mow sometimes. The farmer’s wife finally gave up on keeping those hens contained and made a regular trip out here every day to gather their eggs.

Sometimes the boys and girls got caught necking out here in the loft. The farmer would dress them down but he and his wife always chuckled about it later.

I also provided storage for the harnesses and for corn and grain and the many tools it takes to keep a farm going. There are many facets to farming and we tried to be prepared for them all.

Life was good and my people were happy. They didn’t have a lot of money but they always worked hard and as a result had plenty to eat and always had the things they needed.

What happened to me? Well, I don’t have anyone to care for me anymore. The kids all grew up and decided to get jobs in the city where they could get a steady paycheck and not have to work from dawn until dark. The farmer and his wife hung on because this was the life they loved but eventually they became old and feeble and died.

What was that? Oh, you snapped my picture. Well, when you look at it later remember that in spite of what you see, it’s been a good life for me.

What does the future hold? Well, I’ll keep standing here as long as I can. I miss my people and the laughter and the animals. I took good care of them all. It’s been wonderful and I’ll keep looking forward to the next sunrise until there are no more.

Dave Thomas
December 4, 2013