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Chicago Stories: Concerning Judy Thorkelson's Noble Deed

Due to some peculiarity of settlement during the period from 1900 to 1920, Swedish immigrants in Chicago formed two widely-separated communities. One center was on the South Side, gradually drifting from 55th and Stony Island in the 1920's to 79th and Stony by the 1930's, to 90th and Loomis in the 1940's, and finally dissipating in the upheavals of the 1960's and '70's. The other community was located on the North Side, and, although its population tended to move north and west from the area, its cultural center remained fixed at the Viking Temple until that institution finally closed its doors in 1986.

In the 1930's, this demographic bifurcation meant that many South Side children of Scandinavian descent labored under the burden of having relatives who required them to make periodic visits to the North Side. I imagine that many would question the use of the word "burden," but so it was regarded by those who were affected by this peculiar situation. None of them relished their stays on the North Side, partly because, as they explained to each other, "it smells funny up there." This was quite true inasmuch as the North Side of Chicago lacked the atmospheric enrichment that the Union Stock Yards supplied the South.

A half-century ago, the animosity between the North and South sides of the city was quite real and reflected in many ways: the Cardinals and the Bears, the University of Chicago and Northwestern University, strippers and exotic dancers, Brookfield Zoo and Lincoln Park Zoo, The Chicago Defender and Germania, junk shops and antique stores, the White Sox and the Cubs, Blatz and Schlitz, the CIO and the AF of L, the Chicago Times and the Chicago Tribune, workers and wealth, Calumet City and Winnetka, kielbassa and frankfurters, steel mills and light manufacturing, and so on.

The story of the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre, when Mr. Capone's employees entered a garage on North Clark Street and eliminated most of Buggsy Moran's organization, has been told and retold a hundred times in print and film, and every time incorrectly. For most of the tellers, it was a simple competition between mobsters; for some perceptive interpreters, it was a struggle between the old Irish immigrant element and the recent Italian arrivals; and for a few on the lunatic fringe, it was merely another episode in the long struggle between Roman and Celt. For many of those living at the time, it had simply had been a war between the North and South Sides, and most residents of the South Side felt quite satisfied that it had been resolved in favor of a man who rarely found any reason to travel north of Twelfth Street.

Most of the sons and daughters of the residents of the South Side were also content, except that for our inability to understand why Mr. Capone had failed to improve upon the occasion by shooting the Chicago Cubs. There were some who would have who would have wished the bloodbath extended to include the Cubs' fans, but it was generally felt that this would have been a trifle excessive. It was agreed, you see, that Cub fans had one redeeming feature. When a member of the opposing team hit a home run in Wrigley Field and a real fan, one of those in the center field bleachers that they eventually closed off, supposedly because the glare of the white shirts there blinded the visiting batters, caught the ball, he would sometimes toss it back into the field and shout, "GAAR-BAGE!"

Cub fans still occasionally do this and are very proud of themselves for the fact. They act as if it somehow makes them very special. It is, in fact, a laudable but hardly unique gesture. Something of the same sort of thing often happened when a visitor hit a homer into the right field stands at Comiskey Park, but the affair was conducted with far less fanfare and self-congratulation. In Comiskey Park, if the ball was caught by someone with a good arm, he would simply try to nail the batter on his way to second. These attempts were uniformly ineffectual, but so too were the White Sox, and that didn't stop either the team or its fans from continuing to try.

One needs to understand all of this in order to grasp the significance of what may have been the high point of Judy Thorkelson's life. I have no idea what other heroic deeds she may have gone on to perform, or how great a person she may have become; I have neither seen her nor heard of her since that summer of 1939, but I find it hard to believe that she could ever have surpassed that one fine gesture she made so long ago.

Judy's father was Lars Thorkelson, whose godfather had been Gaius Carlsson, brother of Justus Carlsson, my own father's godfather. Gaius had also been the father of Anders Carlson, who lived on the North Side and had lost an "s" from his family name as had so many others of his generation. This personal accommodation to Anglo - American orthography gave rise in the Swedish community to a popular pun about what happens to a good Swede in the big city, a pun that is obvious and needs no repeating since both I and my father before me have found it tasteless and not at all funny.

Anders was about forty and singularly ill-favored, so Uncle Justus said, by having one blue and one brown eye. He was greatly enamored of Judy Thorkelson's eighteen-year old sister, Astrid, and entertained hopes of gaining favor with the Thorkelson family generally, and Astrid particularly, by having nine-year old Judy visit him, providing her with lavish treats, and making off-hand comments about what a fine woman Astrid had become and how unfortunate it was that she was on the verge of turning into an old maid. This may appear to have been a strange way of going about things, but Anders was what the grown-ups called "careful" with his money. The more Anders had thought about how expensive it would be to go to 63rd street and court Astrid directly, the more certain he had become that he could best impress Astrid by buying Judy ice cream cones and taking her to watch the pinochle games at the Viking Temple. As Uncle Justus observed, some people insist on trying to saw logs with a soup ladle and there was no sense in either of us letting half a coffee-cake go to waste just sitting there on the kitchen table.

After more than a year, nothing had come of Anders Carlson's somewhat indirect courtship, and he was about to give up the matter when he learned from Lars Thorkelson that Judy loved baseball. Although he was a great fan of the game himself, it had never occurred to him that anything more noble than the customary tender passions could stir the female heart. He finally decided that Judy must be pretending, as children sometimes do, but he was more than ready to make use of what he regarded as a mere juvenile idiosyncracy. And so, it was sometime in June that Anders called Lars and invited him to send Judy up for Sunday, saying that he had a surprise for her that he knew she would like.

Judy loved surprises. A couple of weeks before school had let out for the summer, Mory Salzman had acquired a garter snake and had managed to get it into Judy's lunch bag without being detected. Those of us who knew about it watched Judy closely as Judy put her hand into her sack. Her eyes widened slightly and then she grinned fleetingly, and got up with her bag in hand and went to Mrs. Munson's desk. After a brief whispered conference, Judy returned to her seat and her tuna-fish sandwich, while everyone else waited for whatever was going to happen to happen and silently cursed Judy Thorkelson for being nothing but a great big tattletale.

Judy complacently ate her lunch while everyone else tried to avoid the sweep of Mrs. Munson's eyes and inwardly practiced impassioned protestations of absolute innocence and complete ignorance of all knowledge of any wrong-doing. Ten minutes passed, then fifteen, and lunch period was drawing to a close with everyone in a fever of apprehension. Mrs. Munson's gaze suddenly fell on Benny Sheehan, and she announced with her usual tone of disgust, "Benedict Sheehan! Your hands are filthy! Imagine putting food into your mouth that has been held by hands as filthy as that! Go to the washbasin immediately!" She followed him to the washbasin and reached into the pocket of her light blue smock for her ever-present bar of odiferous Lifebuoy soap. There was a sudden piercing scream, a garter snake and a bar of Lifebuoy soap went sailing over her pupils' heads, and Mrs. Munson sank into a seated position on the floor, making choking noises.

As I was saying, Judy Thorkelson liked surprises, so her eyes were sparkling as she climbed onto the Cottage Grove street car for the first long leg to the North Side. After her return, however, she refused to say anything at all about her visit to the Far North, but Uncle Justus Carlsson told his friends the whole story a few days later. It seems that Anders' big surprise was that the Dodgers were in town for a double header with the Cubs, and that he had bought bleacher tickets for himself and Judy. He had even decided that he would buy Judy a hot dog and a cup of lemonade, but that was not the surprise. Uncle Justus said that Lars had pretended that he and Judy were simply going for a walk and, as they neared Wrigley Field, he had exploded his bombshell. Not only was Judy going to get to see two baseball games, but Dizzy Dean was pitching the opener. "Yah, Yudy. Vit Ditzy Dean pitching, de Cubs is sure to vin de opener. Maybe dey can make a sveep." Judy was so stunned by the thought of attending a Cubs game that she was almost paralyzed. She could not even scream as Anders took her by the hand and pulled her through the turnstiles into Wrigley Field.

They sat in what Anders called the best seats in the place, a stretch of planking about three feet in length three rows up in the center field bleachers, just above the 400 foot marker. Imagine poor Judy Thorkelson sitting there, holding a hot dog lying limp in a soft bun and awash in greenish pickle relish instead of clenching a Polish sausage with horseradish mustard on a hard roll, having to drink syrupy lemonade from a waxed paper cup instead of sipping the froth from the beer from her father's glass, and having to sit in Wrigley Field and watch the Cubs play. But she suffered all this without protest, out of respect for the fact that Anders' father, Gaius, was her own father's god-father. At least that's what Uncle Justus Carlsson said, and perhaps even believed.

Judy's moment of transfiguration came with one away in the bottom of the fifth inning of a scoreless first game. Gabby Hartnett was up and had taken two balls, when the pitcher laid one down the middle and Hartnett jumped on it. He hit a rising line drive over the second baseman's mitt, over the center fielder's head, over the railing of the bleachers just left of the 400 foot marker, and into the outstretched bare left hand of Judy Thorkelson. Everyone began cheering and applauding, not so much because the Cubs were now up 1-0, but because a little girl with big blue eyes, long ash-blonde braids, and wearing a starched blue-and-white calico pinafore had caught the ball almost as if she had meant to. They were still applauding, Uncle Justus said, when Judy climbed onto the bleacher seat, threw the ball back onto the field, and screamed, "GAAR-BAGE!"

Lynn Harry Nelson
Professor Emeritus of History
University of Kansas

042404