O’Hare Airport opened in 1955, but most Chicagoans continued to fly prop planes out of the old Midway Airport on Cicero Avenue. Travelers wouldn’t trust jets taxiing onto O’Hare’s longer runways until the 1960s.
The Kennedy Expressway opened about that time, too, creating a faster route from Chicago’s northern suburbs to both airports. But in early December 1958 my parents’ drive to the airport was right on the cusp of these modernizations.
At ages two, eleven, twelve and thirteen, my sisters and I could have stayed home but we were accostumed to saying good-bye at the airport when my father left on business trips. We piled in the back seat of the Buick and headed down Grosse Point Road for the hour-long drive to Midway. At the Chicago city line we could have turned on either Pulaski Road or the wider, faster Cicero Avenue. We had plenty of time before my father’s plane left for Mexico City, so my mother turned south on Pulaski.
Midway was the center of air travel to Mexico from the Midwest. By the end of 1954 three planeloads a week of Mexican workers who entered the US illegally would be flown involuntarily out of Midway Airport back to Veracruz. Federal officials named the operation “Wetback Airlift”.
My mother wasn’t a thrill-seeker but she seemed to be at the scene of disasters by happenstance. While wading in knee-deep water once at the Atlantic Ocean she witnessed a shark swim in and chomp off a swimmer’s leg. Another time she was out for a walk and watched a hotel light on fire and burn to the ground. She told these stories at cocktail hour sitting cross-legged in her chair, Marlboro in one hand and a scotch in the other, as if she were a significant witness to earth-shattering historical events.
As we neared Chicago Avenue, my father spoke softly, reverently, signaling my mother to keep her voice down. I leaned closer to the front.
“Go slow.” He angled to look out her window and down the street.
“Smell that?” He asked.
“Hmm. What is it?” She answered.
“Lady of Angels. You can still smell burnt flesh.”
A fire near Chicago and Pulaski had ravaged Our Lady of the Angels Elementary School a few days earlier. Ninety-two children and three nuns died. Some from smoke and fire and some from jumping out windows. I strained to hear my parents hushed voices.
“…Sisters of Charity.”
“…one fire escape?”
“…a nun made a bridge with her body from the windows of one building to the other for the children to cross…”
We said goodbye to my father at the gate. Dressed in a suit, tie and fedora he turned at the foot of the stairs and waved. I imagined him hurrying to his seat to order a scotch. My mother drove home north on Cicero Avenue. She never added the school fire to her disaster repertoire.
When I started traveling on my own, I avoided Midway and the visions it brought of the burned-out school. Our Lady of the Angels is no longer on the route to Midway Airport, but memories have a way of hiding in the senses. Every time I go there, I smell the burning flesh of those children.