Twin Beeches -- an Illinois Love Story
Author: paul schoaff

Chapter 1
My Roots, Grandpa's Tragic Mistake

 

(MJ voice)

My name is Martha Josephina Gonsalves.   My mother’s name is ‘Mama’ Gonsalves, though she began life 1960 as Wilma Weiser. Her mother we called, ‘Grandma Martha’; she had been Martha McAlister before marrying Grandpa.  Grandpa Weiser -- I think, Benjamin -- died 1960 way before I drew my first breath.  Grandma Martha died a year or more before my birth in 1982.  My father, Joe Gonsalves, died 1982 – you guessed it, before he met me.

 

I would have wished not to add to this sad family tree, but you can’t always control what other people do, can you?

 

Mama told me her part of this story twice.  The first time when I,  twelve, tried some of the Lilac scented ‘toilet water’ among the stuff once belonging to Grandma Martha.  When Mama walked into my room and smelled it, she breathed deeply and under the spell of the lilac fragrance began to talk, and talked straight on through supper and Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy.  Finally, she asked me why I was into Grandma’s things, but she still seemed lost in memories and didn’t really seem to mind.   Before writing this, I asked her to tell me all the stories again; this time I wrote everything down just the way she told it, and asked questions when I didn't understand.

 

Her memories were pretty much the same both times, so I think it is almost the honest truth.  Since she didn’t ever tell anyone else her story, it hadn’t had a chance to get expanded every time it was told, like so many stories do.  When she said things Grandma Martha told her, her voice went up a bit, her mouth pinched a bit, and she shook her head slowly back and forth.  Grandma must have looked and sounded like she imitated, I guess.  When Mama talked about the first time she met Daddy Joe, then she got all smiley and even blushed a little, and I seemed to be standing in the field next to the Vermont-Woodland blacktop seeing it all unfold.  When Mama and I remembered the same thing, well, you know, it wasn’t quite the same  to both of us, if you know what I mean.  You'll have to trust me on my part and the rest of it, because this is the way I remember it, and this is the way I was told about some things by other folks.  There were times I wasn't told things but they made sure I knew what they couldn't bring themselves to say.    I think you know what I am trying to say -- I'm not lying to you about anything, but, some places I had to give it my best guess....  Nobody, so far as I know, ever wrote it down before.   So, here goes.

 

1952-1960

 

Mama's folks, Benjamin Preston and Martha McAlister Weiser,  moved to the little town of Woodland, Illinois back in the fifties when old man Babb ruled as the checkers champ in the square. A local war hero,  Mr. Forest F. Glass, decided Woodland shaped up as a great place to start a new business building custom pickup truck bodies to sell to different kinds of trades people.  Mama says Grandma told her he was handsome and energetic and dynamic.  He played on his name and pretended to have the middle name, “Fiber”, in the advertising in the old Farm Journal.   He wanted to make fiberglass bodies customized for farriers and DVM’s and plumbers and such, so he hired his slight-built and big-brained high school classmate, my Granddad,  to come out from Peoria to build the factory and run the production end.  Granddad took his engineering degree from U of I to go with a pocket protector and big glasses, and didn’t care for the idea of working for Caterpillar Tractor.  He thought Mr. Glass saw the future, I guess, and Mr. Glass thought my Granddad planned, engineered and executed better than anyone else might and left him to do things as he pleased.

 

   Mr. Glass handled the sales management, and hired several men from Woodland to start traveling the state, and, eventually, the whole Midwest, with demonstrator units.  After their first trip as a helper, they began working by themselves and on a strict 10% commission. The demand for the units was hot and got hotter so everyone seemed to be doing well.   Every unit they sold, they wired the 25% down payment to Glass who wrote up the shipping order and deposited the 10% commission directly into their accounts at the Farmers and Merchants Bank of Woodland.  Then he’d go into the redolent haze of the main shop and ring this big old railroad engine bell from “Old Maude” to let everyone know they had made a new sale.  Some days, they rang the bell five or six times.  There were hundreds of bodies of all the different styles and colors lined up neatly in the field next to the factory where they could be seen from the hard road.  The inventory meant shipping usually happened as soon as the money hit in the bank.   Glass trusted the customers to sign the promissory note showing up with the unit. For several years, he never had to send a crew out to repossess a bed.

 

 He always said “Small town businessmen are the best risk in the world, and small town people, the best salesmen.”  Perhaps he thought to himself there weren’t any better businessmen in the world than small town people like himself who had a dream and went after it.

 

'Fiber' Glass got the money to start the factory from three different sources – first, his folks retired to town and gave the farm to him.  A year later, the coal company came to him and offered him $1000 an acre for the land, plus, he could have it back after they were done stripping.  Then he went to the Farmers and Merchants Bank and got younger Mr. Babb and Mr. Farley and their partners to match the capital he had.  After, he sold shares to all the business men in town and other farmers who had sold their acreage.   All told, he still owned 42% of the business and after four years had paid the bank back about half the loan before the problems started and accumulated and overflowed and left him broke and broken down by the church lake.  He sat there  with a Wehrmacht Walther P38 pistol he had taken from the body of a dead German officer he chased and killed right outside Buchenwald. He sat there in the front seat of his big black Oldsmobile 88 with the big tail fins.  And, while he sat there, his whole body likely shook with an anxiety attack as he raised the sleek pistol to his mouth, released the safety and pulled the trigger.

 

Mama decided, “Enough about Glass” because, “Glass happened ‘later’”.  “First”, she insisted, “go back to when I was born”.   Grandma Martha, a smallish, pale skinned woman with spindly legs from a touch of polio as a child, had a rough pregnancy – pain, spotting, water retention, constipation, you name it.    She spent a lot of time at the little county hospital up in Canton, and was told to 'just rest' so many times she would usually say it before the doctor or nurse did.  One nurse even said she took too many chances coming to the hospital so often.  Not only would the trip leave her exhausted, she also exposed herself and the baby to all the diseases she could catch in the clinic. 

 

Grandma didn't give up – she knew she would have a beautiful baby and she and her husband and the baby would 'live happily ever after'.   Their life, until then, felt just like a storybook.  But, tragically, the day, September 11, of Mama’s birth, Granddad had such a headache while in the waiting room  he couldn't even pace.  His fingers tingled and he swore he could smell ozone everywhere.  Then he couldn’t even get to his feet to come see the new baby.  When Mama and Grandma left the hospital three days later, my Granddad remained there.  A technician took a dye scope of Granddad’s head the night of the day Mama was born and saw he had a cancer the size of a walnut deep in his brain.  Obviously, he had been in great pain before Mama's birthday, but hadn't wanted to worry Grandma.  They say it shouldn't have come as a huge surprise, since two of the original crew at the factory were dead already, one from brain cancer.  Liver cancer took the other, and of the rest of the men hired the first two years, three of 10 were claiming disability from emphysema.  Granddad lived until Mama reached four months old, dying at 38 quietly late one afternoon with a bottle of single malt scotch in his lap, sitting in his favorite recliner, watching the Kennedy/Nixon election returns on their 13” Black and White RCA television.  His brown hair had grown long and scraggily and he had obviously refused to bathe for several weeks.   Next to the chair sat a shoebox full of personal letters written to all the men he had hired  – letters  apologizing for the bad decisions he had made leading to the use of suspected carcinogenic materials in the plant.  Grandma dutifully stamped them and sent them on.  Within a month or two, the flurry of lawsuits began.

 

Grandma didn't know what to do – on the one hand, she remained grateful to Mr. Glass for the job he gave Grandpa and all the paychecks every two weeks even after Grandpa had to stop working; but, they suddenly stopped and neighbors were telling her to join the suit against Woodland Fiberglass.  She also continued to be grateful to 'Fiber' for the part-time work she had before she her pregnancy, work in the office where she learned how to do the bookkeeping and filled in for the quiet widower,  Mr. Varner, the CPA, when he went off to South Texas in the fall for two months.   Also, since moving to Woodland, Grandma had been churching at the Brethren church and knew, for the first time in her life, Everything Was God's Will.  God knew everything, happening now, a thousand years before her birth.  Would God want her to sue Mr. Glass?  Even though he had become just an Easter and Christmas Christian at the Methodist Church?  She thought not.  If anyone was to blame, it was her Benjamin.  He had known it, and now, she knew it and knew she would have to accept some of the consequences.  

 

Some people would say she was 'doggedly determined'.  Mama said Grandma described things at the time and told her, "Folks sometimes mistake 'having your back against the wall and nowhere to go'  for 'dogged determination'.  From the outside, it looks the same."

 

Glass fussed and fumed, too.  He had admired and trusted Granddad and had been generous to him, no doubt, no one could question how generous he had been – he even rented him his ranch style house in town for $100 a month when he moved out to the new place on the lake.   But that was then, now was now.  If he let Grandma stay in his town house, folk’s conclusion might well be he recognized his fault and, so, had let her stay.  When the time came, he intended to use Grandpa’s letters against him to try to avoid personal liability for the tragic deaths in the plant, and if he still treated Grandma kindly, a jury would have a time believing Glass didn’t know everything from the beginning.

 

Truth was, Glass was more concerned about how folks thought about him, personally, than what they might try to do to him legally.  He couldn't bear for anyone to think he would ever have used anything or done anything  hurtful, even accidentally, to other people.  He knew, deep down, other folk's opinion of you is a whole lot more important than money.  He needed to do the right thing, both for himself and for Grandma Weiser and for all the folks at the plant.  When he visited young Mike McCombs at the hospice, a man who had worked in the factory for three years, he looked at Mike's emaciated features and flashed back to the concentration camp fence where he and the rest of his liberating company saw the result of inhumanity clinging to life and almost beyond even the hope of hope.  He had trouble distinguishing the difference between his anger at the Nazis then and his disappointment and anger with himself now.  Could he be as bad as that damned Heine he shot as he was trying to run away from his crimes?  Could this man represent his own Buchenwald?  His dreams, when he was able to sleep,  were filled with the faces of his men at the plant and the men clinging to the wire, all mixed together and all, all doomed.

 

After talking it over with his lawyers, he did what he thought best – and raised the rent to $200 per month, a small fortune then.  He gave Grandma Weiser the fairly priced option of buying the house, but, as she told Mama much later, “how could a single parent with scruples and without a real job get a mortgage?”  She and Grandpa had tried to get one when they first moved to town, and even with Mr. Glass behind them, the bank wouldn’t let them have one.  Later, Glass sat down the street, guiltily, in his big black Oldsmobile while Odd-job-Otto Onion moved her and my mother in his old pickup truck just three blocks west to the Camp Ellis housing.

 

  “Why wouldn’t she just take her girl baby and go back to Peoria?” he mused.

 

 

 

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