Tag Archives: Francine Marie Tolf

Eugene

By Francine Marie Tolf

I found out what happened to Eugene Vukelich one bright December day in 1969 when my sister Gwen told Mom and me about it over lunch. Gwen was in eighth grade and I in sixth. It was the week before Christmas vacation started. Nothing of substance ever got done at St. Patrick’s Grammar School during this pre-vacation week. Classes held parties and rehearsed for the Christmas play (in which I was an angel and got to wear a white gown and halo). Instead of grammar lessons, we had spelling bees.

I wish I could remember that lunch hour more clearly. Its heft sank into my consciousness and never left, but particulars are vague. I am sure only of what I learned: Gwen’s class had presented Eugene, a slight boy with a shy smile, with a festively wrapped present. Inside were giant containers of mouthwash and deodorant. Accompanying these gifts was a card signed by nearly every one of his classmates as well as the lay teacher, Mr. Gleason.

Eugene burst into tears after opening the present. He fled the classroom. This joke was only the most recent act of cruelty towards him – more elaborate, but entirely in keeping with the way kids tortured Eugene Vukelich daily. Basketball stars blocked him in the hall and dared him to pass. Girls in the popular clique performed a song about him on the playground. They sang about his “BO,” how he picked his nose and was scared of being beat up by their boyfriends.

Gwen decided during that lunch hour that when she returned to school, she would address her class about what happened. Our mother had nothing to do with this. As I knelt under the Christmas tree trying to guess what was inside various presents, my sister must have discussed her milestone decision with Mom, adult to adult. The braveness of it still stuns me. Gwen was herself the target of teasing. My sister was the tallest, smartest girl in her class – and she stammered.

I loved Gwen but I was grateful I wasn’t tall like her, didn’t wear horn-rimmed glasses. I wasn’t popular but I was pretty and knew how to fit in. Now I look at a photograph of my sister when she was in eighth grade and think, Wow. She is all legs, the face behind those glasses is lovely and fresh, and her thick blond hair hangs half-way down her back. Strangers would linger over that snapshot in a way they would never linger over a picture of me at thirteen.

Those long legs of hers must have trembled when she walked to the front of her classroom later that day and met a sea of indifferent or defiant faces. Gwen’s class was brutal. It had chewed up and spit out three teachers in the past two years. It had cowed its current one into behaving deplorably in the hopes of gaining acceptance.

My sister was one of the few students who had not signed Eugene’s Christmas card. Yet when she spoke to her classmates, she did something rhetorically brilliant: she included herself in the blame. We should all be ashamed of ourselves, she began, looking straight into the eyes of cheerleaders and athletes. (How do I know what my sister said when I wasn’t there? How do I know that her class actually listened? Gossip, the grapevine, perhaps asking Gwen myself. I don’t remember how I know, but I know.)

I can imagine Mr. Gleason’s crimson-splotched face as he watched a girl half his age school him in courage. Decades after the incident, I cannot bring myself to feel sorry for this man – dismissed by our principal, Sister Leo Margaret, that afternoon – yet I understand why in a moment of weakness he did what he did. He must have entered his classroom every day sick over what awaited him: boys with shoulders broader than his purposefully ignoring his pleas for quiet, girls applying eye shadow as they imitated his warnings.

And then one morning unexpected camaraderie as the ringleaders of his class approached him. “Hey, Mr. Gleason, you’re a cool guy. We’re planning a little joke on Eugene Vukelich, just a Christmas thing, and we want you in on it.”

Mr. Gleason might first have objected after hearing the details. “I don’t know, guys,” (guys, he heard himself saying, just like a popular teacher would). “I’m not sure this is such a good idea.”

“Mr. Gleason, everyone’s signed the card except you. C’mon, it’s just a joke.”

“Pleeeaaase, Mr. Gleason.” This from the prettiest of the girls who tormented Eugene on the playground with her clique’s song. “Pleeeaase?”

So he signed the card and broke a boy’s heart. It’s entirely possible that Ronald Gleason taught grammar school to avoid being drafted, for in 1969 America wasn’t yet sending teachers of children to Viet Nam. His immunity ended that day.

If Gwen and I were closer, I would ask her what she remembered about those moments she stood in front of her class. Was she terrified, did students talk to her about it afterwards, did kids in the popular clique treat her differently? But I think my older sister – now happily married, by the way, with three spectacular kids and a lifestyle several tax brackets above mine – would dismiss the incident and appear puzzled at my immense admiration for what she did. Gwen once claimed she had no interest in recalling her years at St. Patrick’s. They were dead to her, she had moved on.

How many victims of bullying can do this? How difficult it must be to lift yourself from a childhood of hurt and humiliation and walk into the future with an open heart. The irony is that bullies might be even less likely to experience such a future. Children capable of inflicting cruelty on a daily basis can’t imagine how it feels to be the other. And without this leap of faith, how can compassion, or wonder, or joy, take root in their hearts? When I consider this, I almost feel sorry for the students who tortured Eugene. If you have no imagination by the age of thirteen or fourteen, it’s difficult to develop one. You’re trapped under the dome of your own limited perspective with no window, not even a chink, revealing blue air beyond.

I hope Eugene breathed that blue air. His parents removed him from St. Patrick’s that day, but more than forty years later, my memory of this boy I barely knew survives. He was small, with freckles and a shy smile. His red hair was always neatly combed. His brown eyes were meant to be merry.

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Francine Marie Tolf has published two poetry collections, Rain, Lilies, Luck (North Star Press of St. Cloud) and Prodigal (Pinyon Publishing), as well as a memoir and a number of poetry chapbooks including Eighteen Poems to God and a Poem to Satan by Redbird Chapbooks of Minnesota. She has received grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board; Barbara Deming/Money for Women; and the Elizabeth George Foundation. Francine recently won First Place in the 2013 Outrider Press/TallGrass Poetry Contest. She lives and works in Minneapolis.

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Jefferson Street Bridge

By Francine Marie Tolf

First a bell clanged, then a siren screamed, then fifty-year-old steel moaned as guard rails lowered and Jefferson Street Bridge split open.  People in cars that were backed up on either side of the canal watched their half of the bridge loom perpendicular to sky as a barge slid past underneath.

How this terrified me as a child!  I was sure our station wagon would one day be trapped on the bridge when the bell began its urgent clanging.  My mother promised me this could not happen.  “That’s the gatekeeper’s job, Honey.  He makes sure no one’s on the bridge before he presses the switch that divides it.”  Her assurances didn’t prevent nightmares in which I clutched a railing that rose higher and higher above black water.

That water never froze in the winter and always stank.  Long ago, it had been clean.  But in 1871, the flow of the Chicago River – by then an open sewer for over 180,000 Chicagoans –  was reversed in order to keep it from contaminating Lake Michigan.  City engineers backed the sewage-laden water into the Illinois and Michigan Canal (originally the Des Plaines River).  A good length of the ninety-six mile waterway turned dark over night.  Residents of canal towns like Joliet muttered that the Great Chicago Fire, which occurred in October of that year, was Chicago’s just punishment.

My older sisters used to tell me there was one rotten plank on the bridge.  If you stepped on it, you fell right into the polluted water.  They enjoyed reminding me of this on Saturday afternoons as we walked across Jefferson Street Bridge to go downtown.  Only the lure of a strawberry ice cream soda purchased in the basement cafeteria of the Boston Store kept me putting one gingerly foot in front of the other.

The gate keeper my mother mentioned spent his day in a cement turret attached to the side of the bridge.  I never glimpsed anyone gazing out of the turret’s narrow windows.  Was my mother mistaken?  By the 1960s, were bridges in Joliet operated remotely?  No matter.  The gate keeper exists in my imagination, a bony fellow in overalls, more cheerful than you’d expect a man with such a solitary occupation to be, kidding easily with waitresses at the Peter Pan Restaurant on Clinton Street where he treated himself to an open faced turkey and mashed potato sandwich every Friday.

A bridge is built to join, but in my hometown, it divided.  Blacks lived on the East Side of the canal.  Whites lived west of it.  The night of Martin Luther King’s death, there were riots on the East Side of Joliet.  White families feared a mob of blacks would march across Jefferson Street Bridge to burn and loot.  Mayor Berlinsky raised it to prevent this from happening.  I was nine years old.  I remember my parents sitting in the kitchen listening to WJOL, the local radio station, as rumors flew via phone calls from house to house.  I heard that the Honiotos brothers, who owned a grocery store on West Jefferson Street, had mounted machine guns on their store’s roof to protect against looting.  I felt some fear and a lot of excitement.  It didn’t bother me that I lived in a town where a polluted canal separated black neighborhoods from white neighborhoods.  That’s just the way it was.

I didn’t know that only ten years before, black children were forbidden to swim in Nowell Pool, Joliet’s largest community pool, except from 9:00 a.m. to noon on Mondays.  Employees then drained and cleaned the pool before whites used it for the remainder of the week.  How did frightened parents on the West Side feel about that?  Had any one of them protested?

For years after I moved away from my hometown, I dreamt about Jefferson Street Bridge.  Sometimes I sped in a car as it split apart and I flew over the edge.  Sometimes my shoes stuck in grid work as black water rose.  The bridge was my personal symbol for terror, part of an industrial landscape that literally and figuratively hovered at the edges of my childhood.  Yet again and again, I gathered the courage to cross it so I could enter downtown, that tawdry but attractive kingdom that held the Bamboo Pet Shop and the Rialto Theater, where in velvet darkness I watched The Castaways or Five Weeks in a Balloon.

It wasn’t until the movie was over and I stepped into the dull heat of an overcast summer afternoon that the real world came back, filling me with something stranger and more indefinable than sadness.  Candy wrappers littered the curb.  One block away the Princess Theater was showing B movies the nuns from St. Patrick’s Grade School said it was a sin to watch.  The day’s magic was gone.  I would have to cross Jefferson Street Bridge all over again to get home.

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Francine Marie Tolf is the author of Rain, Lilies, Luck, her first full-length collection of poetry, and Joliet Girl, a memoir, both from North Star Press of St. Cloud (2010).  Her poems and essays have appeared in numerous journals, including Water-Stone, Rattle, Spoon River, Poetry East, Under the Sun, and Southern Humanities ReviewProdigal, her second full length collection of poems, was published by Pinyon Publishing in 2012 and she has a prose chapbook forthcoming from Greenfuse Press in 2013.

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