My father never talked much about religion but he went to Mass every Sunday, the 6:30 Mass where few people would be and he wouldn’t have to deal with friends and neighbors. His contribution envelope was always filled out the night before, sealed and propped against the salt shaker on the kitchen table. It was gone with him when I as a child rose in the morning.
My sister and I would go to the children’s Mass later and my mother to the Mass at noon. We weren’t, spiritually speaking, a close family. Truth be known, we weren’t a close family. But that’s another story sometimes hard to write or explain.
I remember, though, when I was very small, not yet in kindergarten, walking by my parents’ bedroom going to the bathroom before going to bed and I would see my father on his knees saying what I assumed were his prayers. Yet I don’t recall him ever saying a word to me about God or religion. His life was hard work Monday through Friday and all the overtime he could get.
He earned enough money climbing high voltage poles and towers in alleys in Chicago to put me through parochial grammar school, high school and college. He didn’t drink or smoke and he put his money in passbooks at a local savings and loan.
His weakness was five spoons of sugar in each of four cups of strong tea early every morning before work.
I doubt that with overtime in the Forties despite being skilled he ever made more than $9,000 a year, yet he was a top “troubleshooter” for Commonwealth Edison Company, called out myriad times in the middle of the night and on weekends when the power had gone out in Chicago and other places in Illinois.
In his 37th year he was up on a pole one bright summer day training a rookie and the rookie made the wrong move and was about to touch a hot wire and my father tried to stop him. In the process, he took the 12,000 volts instead.
His story ended up on the front page of The Chicago Tribune. By then I was married with kids of my own so I came to the hospital not knowing how badly he had been hurt. Gathered outside his room were fellow workers who I would talk with after I had gone in to see him.
He was lying in bed in decent spirits and showed me the hole in his thigh, not bandaged, and it looked like a small volcano after an eruption. Then he showed me the bandaged missing part of his forearm. A big indentation almost from elbow to wrist.
I don’t know why his arm was bandaged and his thigh was not. He didn’t say what had happened, just something about a rookie.
We talked a bit more than we normally might have. After a while I left the room quite shook up and was met by a trinity of co-workers waiting to find out more about my father’s condition.
I recognized the name of one them, Charlie, who my father had trained decades before. Despite their difference in ages and background, they were very close friends. Charlie had been born in Chicago, my father in Ireland.
Charlie was quick to tell me that my father taking that much voltage should have died, something the newspaper article the next day seemed to confirm.
The other workers told me he was one of the top five linemen with Edison Company, maybe the best. He should have been a foreman long ago but did not want to boss people. Preferred doing the work.
Finally Charlie told me what had happened after they brought my father down from the pole bleeding and burnt. They laid him in the alley and the workers were shouting “Call a doctor! Call a doctor!”
Still conscious, my father looked up and said, “Fuck the doctor! Call a priest.”
Apparently a church was nearby because a priest was there before the ambulance arrived. My father received the last rites in the alley before they took him to the hospital.
He never mentioned that to me over the years but I wasn’t surprised to hear what happened. He was a man who always had his priorities straight.