Common Thread

Vol. VI No. 2 - SPRING 1995

By: Carl Helbig

I was never asked by my father; I was just told, “We’re going fishing!”

It was a long walk to the Horseshoe, which is what the pier at the end of Montrose avenue was called. It was 1933; I was eight years old.

We had one-piece bamboo poles that we carried over our shoulders and a basket with extra lines, hooks, weights, bells and whatever else we might need to catch fish.

The city felt that they needed more land by the lakeshore, so they drove pilings out in the lake and put large, rusty-looking pipes on stilts where they wanted the land to be. In order to save on walking distance, we would take a shortcut through where they were pumping the sandy water from the bottom of the lake with a sand hog. I never liked walking that way.

“What if they start pumping water in while we are walking here?” I asked my father. The pipes were big enough for me to crawl into, but they were on stilts, head high to me. “Would we be trapped and covered with sand?”

My father never bothered to reassure me that my fears were unfounded. He knew this was late afternoon and the workers had gone home for the day.

“Come on, hurry up! It’s a west wind; it’s going to be good fishing!” was my father’s answer.

The pier was a real challenge for someone as small as I. It consisted of big limestone rocks that were haphazardly placed between steel pilings. Many were titled crazily, instead of being flat on top. They all had gaps between them, some larger than others. The rocks were probably six feet square. I’d have to go from one side of the pier to the other looking for the shortest gap. If I missed my jump across the gap, besides getting scraped up, I’d get wet in the water at the bottom of the crevice.

My father’s fishing spot was way out near the end, just opposite the other leg of the Horseshoe. Was I glad when we finally got there and I could sit down!

To fish for herring, you had to bob your line up and down, about a foot. If you felt a little jerk, you had to give a little jerk back to set the hook and hope you caught a fish. But they didn’t seem to be biting that day.

“They’ll probably start biting when the sun goes down,” was my father’s wishful thinking.

I didn’t have to fish if they weren’t biting and could amuse myself. As the sun went down, it got colder out on the pier, surrounded by cold water. I was missing supper.

As it got darker, the lights want on at the Edgewater Beach Hotel. There was a little curve in the pier so, by looking straight ahead, you’d see the hotel. Its cupolas were lit up in different colors: red, orange and green. There was a tall building and a short one, but they both had similar cupolas. Their warm colors were striking and, together with the Spanish design of the hotel, made me feel warmer. I could not help looking at them. If you didn’t talk, you could hear music coming from the hotel, then applause and, sometimes, what sounded like laughter. I asked my father what that place was.

“A hotel for ‘rich’ people,” he said. That left us out. My father was a bricklayer and couldn’t find a job laying bricks. We were on relief (welfare), trying to catch a meal of fish.

A man with a basket came by selling hot coffee out of a thermos and sandwiches. That really made me hungry. But my father didn’t have any money.

As it got late, I got even more tired. I sure could have used a nap! Cold, hungry, tired and cranky, I let my father know of my discomfort.

“Crawl down between the rocks; just watch out for rats,” my father responded. The rocks held heat from the afternoon sun. It was warm down between them. Rather than going deep in the stone crevice, where it smelled, I kept my had out so I could see and hear the beautiful hotel.

I had mixed emotions. I felt sorry for myself, fearing I would never know the luxury of such a hotel. On the other hand, I felt thrilled that such a magical place existed. I was also envious of those who were there enjoying its refinements.

We didn’t catch any fish that night. Finally my father said, “Let’s go home!” It was scary going back in the dark, with only the moon for light. It made me very cautious. It was hard to see the edges of the slabs because the moonlight cast weird shadows over the rocks. My father was getting too far ahead of me. What if I fell in a crevice? I thought. How would he know which one to look into to find me?

“Pa, wait for me!” I cried.

“Come on, hurry up! Mother’s waiting supper,” was his reply.

Supper at last! That promise was all I needed to get a move on.

It was too dark to go back the way we came, so we went straight up Montrose. We stopped at the pumping station. Its big door was open because it was warm on land. You could watch the big pistons go up and down, splashing water, feeling the warmth and the smell of the machinery in that cavernous building with its insides all lit up. I wondered what the inside of that hotel smelled like.

We could have just gone east on Glenlake to catch perch, but my father liked eating herring; that meant the Horseshoe. Sometimes we caught a stringer of fish longer than I was tall. I remember those times, fishing and thinking about the beautiful hotel.

It was 1943 and, rather than being drafted into the military before we could graduate from Senn High School, many of us went to summer school.

I was elected secretary of the summer school graduation class. We were to have our prom at the Edgewater Beach Hotel. One of the fellows had a convertible. All of the elected students went in his car to the hotel to make arrangements for the party. I dutifully took notes and prices but, on the way back to school, I sat in the rumble seat and they blew away. A teacher had to call the Edgewater Beach Hotel and ask for the prices over the telephone.

Even though I worked evenings at Walgreen’s Drug Store at Ridge and Clark Streets, I just couldn’t afford to buy a class ring or go to the prom at the hotel of my dreams.

I survived the war. After returning home I heard that the Catholic Youth Organization held dances at the Edgewater Beach Hotel on Saturday nights. I put on my only suit and got up the nerve to enter the building that I had so long admired. I was in awe at the beauty of the interior and hoped no one would realize I had no right to be there, seeing I was a poor Methodist.

The dance attracted quite a crowd. Being a Methodist, when a girl would ask me what parish I belonged to, I’d lie and say St. Gertrude’s. It wasn’t long before all the stag girls found out that I wasn’t a good dancer. I spent a lot of time in the boys’ stag line. They didn’t let the dancers roam the hotel, but I liked going to the lobby and watching the people that lived there go up the elevator.

The outer drive had displaced the hotel’s famous Beach Walk by that time, so those who had been that earlier said it wasn’t as nice as it used to be. It still seemed wonderful to me!

One of the other guys in the stag line said, “The CYO has another dance at Lewis Towers; they have some real beauties there.” Lewis Towers was downtown by the Water Tower. So I went there and got to dance with an attractive girl in high-heeled shoes named Lorraine. I got her telephone number and we began going together.

One evening we went to the Ice Capades at the Chicago Stadium and later to the Boulevard Room of the Edgewater Beach Hotel. It was there that she agreed to become my wife.

In the 1960s, wanting to give my children the same Christian education I had received, I became active in the Highland Avenue Methodist Church. The congregation often enjoyed church dinners together.

My carpenter friend once mentioned that his retired father used to be a chef at the Edgewater Beach Hotel. After meeting his father, George Gidzinski, I asked if he’d cook for our congregation. He consented and gave the Pastor, Charles Peterson, the job of peeling radishes.

“I sure wish these were potatoes,” Chuck said. “You can get your hand on a potato!”

We had a good crowd and the food was very delicious. But Mr. Gidzinski wouldn’t come out of the kitchen to eat with us. Finally, after the meal, he stood in the kitchen doorway. Only then did we get a chance to show our appreciation for the culinary delights from the world famous hotel he had prepared for us.

I found no joy in watching the Edgewater Beach Hotel being demolished. I had already witnessed too much destruction in Europe. It saddens me to see great treasures destroyed.

The rumor was that the owner of the wrecking company was losing his shirt. He got no sympathy from me.

We never know where we will find our inspiration and hope. How even a great building can influence us. The Edgewater Beach Hotel slowly threaded its way into my life, helping to form the person I am today.

All of these things exist only in my memories now. My mother and father both have passed away. The Edgewater Beach Hotel has been replaced by a sterile, black, glass highrise and a senior lifestyles building. The crevices in the pier have been filled up with concrete. Even the herring have been eaten up by some other type of fish. But, sometimes, I imagine I can once again see the red, orange and green lights of the hotel’s cupolas and hear the faint, forgotten strains of music, applause and what sounds like laughter.