Rock Island Public House: A Toast on the Olde Western Strip.

The Yuletide season enveloped me as my sleigh skidded southbound on I-57. Leaving the snowy lakefront of the city and heading toward Champagne-Urbana, Bituminous Conference 2021 felt like brown paper package tied up with string. I couldn’t wait to talk to colleagues and industry friends who I hadn’t seen in person for two years.

Approaching the exit for 127th Street is always a challenge for me regardless of time of day or responsibilities at hand. I’m constantly bombarded with the urge to quickly turn off and head west to Blue Island. I’m rarely able to nowadays, but when that window appears…I can’t not.

On the Olde Western Avenue strip, beneath the Western Bridge, which spans the Calumet Sag Channel, exists Rock Island Public House, one of the best beer bars around. It was opening for the day in four minutes.

My indecision came to a split second crescendo as I felt Rudolph steering the reins toward the exit ramp. It was then that I knew it was out of my hands.

Pulling up a barstool in the still-empty pub, I sent off a few texts – “ok so I’m going to be a little late to the conference.”

Named after the old Rock Island Railroad, the first rail to reach the Mississippi River in 1850s, the tracks are still functional directly behind the bar. The Rock Island Line itself was defunct the year I was born, 1980, but bares importance to me and I always feel a warmth in the area.

My grandfather worked for Rock Island, a mighty fine line, for decades. Including my mother, he and my grandmother raised five kids there in Blue Island, and I truly believe the pub would be a standard for him if it existed in the 1960s and 1970s.

Whenever I go to Rock Island Public House, one drink is always dedicated to my grandfather. Sometimes I picture the time he randomly had a drink with Dean Martin on a train club car to the old Las Vegas strip in 1969. Sometimes I picture him tinkering in the garage of the house on Vincennes, hillbilly radio station playing through his transistor, my eye trying to follow his weathered blurry-blue Navy tattoos.

In the spirit of togetherness with cozy toasted grains, I chose Alpha Klaus. A Christmas porter of pine and spice, a pint glass of nostalgia from holiday seasons past. Deep aromas of sawing down our own Christmas trees, with multicolor lights reflecting on my glassware like an antique mirrored ornament.

Hazy memories swirl like the smoke from my grandfather’s Pall Mall. Vintage orange plastic swivel chair at the kitchen counter, a plume blends with steam from his black coffee in a Sands Hotel & Casino mug. Like the void my childhood memories exist in, they all follow to the dark.

When I was a child, my grandfather’s oldest daughter, my aunt, was abducted. For five full grueling days she was missing. After not showing up to work, her coworkers began to worry, so they sent word. My aunt was eventually found by police in a secluded cabin in Tennessee, restrained to a bed, just barely alive. Shotguns leaning up against the wall like a bunker.

Beaten so brutally by a rabid, toxic monster of a “man”, my aunt suffered a fractured skull, a stroke due to asphyxiation, and permanent brain damage. The extensive contusions and blunt trauma were so severe, at first we didn’t know if she would survive, let alone be able to speak again. I remember us driving through the night to get to Tennessee.

Once a vice president of a major company, life as she knew it was barbarically snatched away from her. She required prolonged rehabilitation and was forced to relearn basic motor functions. My aunt spent the last thirty years on disability in a tiny apartment in Blue Island. She passed away yesterday as I write this.

In summer of 1988 during the courtroom trials of the individual who inflicted the assault, my grandfather left Blue Island and stopped at our place in Richton Park on his way to the west coast. He had one stop to make in San Francisco to visit my other aunt, and one final trip to Las Vegas. After pushing my one-year old sister on her swing for a final time, he beckoned my father to the driveway. He popped the trunk of his white Cadillac with blue velvet interior. He showed my father a pistol.

He told my dad he was planning to murder the man who kidnapped and brutally attacked his daughter. His plan was to wait outside the courtroom after one of the trial dates, pull out the snub nosed revolver and twist the guy’s cap back. Straight gangster.

He knew the defendant wouldn’t get an attempted murder charge. The schlub was the sheriff’s son down there in Bradley County Tennessee and there was already talk of the State only pursuing aggravated assault. He also knew that after his own attempt my grandfather would either be dead or in jail, and he left my father with this secret alone. My father didn’t even share it with me until three decades later.

I hold with me the wallet my grandfather had on him during his final breath. Hand scribbled notes on shreds of paper, items I can’t decrypt. He died of a heart attack in a movie theatre in Las Vegas, and I think it was largely due to the stress of the situation at hand. The piece of human garbage defendant only got six years and served a mere three.

I wasn’t shocked to hear this plotted story of vengeance; in fact I didn’t know my grandfather very well. I was only eight when he passed. I wasn’t appalled either, because after having daughters of my own now, in all seriousness if this had happened to one of them, I’d be contemplating homicide myself.

Ruminating on Christmases spent in Blue Island playing with my He Man guys and my new Thundercats figures. Wreathes and stockings hung on the old stucco walls, I thought about my grandfather dropping us off at church for childrens’ Christmas musicals and the Power Team. I never saw him go in. I just remember him in the car waiting after we came out. He may have very well gone somewhere, but in my head he was sitting there the entire time – his church, the appeal of solitude and a cigarette.

Under tinsel and pub holiday décor I ceremoniously cheers’d my sacrificial wee dram of Balvenie Caribbean Cask single malt with the barkeep in proud Scottish dignified honor of my grandfather. (The Scotsman to the right, below).

Here’s a bottle and an honest man –
What would ye wish for mair, man.
Wha kens, before his life may end,
What his share may be o’ care, man.

So catch the moments as they fly,
And use them as ye ought, man.
Believe me, happiness is shy,
And comes not aye when sought, man.

Earnest and resolute, may his spirit persist. Slàinte mhath.

Until next time. I closed out and crawled back out in to the wintry bluster to continue my trek.

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