The other day I suddenly began thinking about vests. The kind that have shiney cloth backs with a strap across them. I don't mean Ivy League tartan types, but the real thing that was issued with two-pants suits. They had bout six dozen buttons up the front and usually were draped, when in action, with a gold chain and the tooth of some defunct animal, or perhaps a railroad emblem.
I mention railroad emblem because the most imposing vest in my memory always had one made of gold that bore the Rock Island's insignia of tracks receding into the distance toward the setting sun. It belonged to my uncle, who worked all of his life for The Rock, and whose finest hour came when the company rewarded him with a lifetime pass.
When we visited him he invariably took us kids to the station for a quick trip on a local for a couple of stops o the line, and then back home again on the next train. This was a real gas for a couple of small fry from the south side of Chicago, to whom the Western Avenue streetcar run had all the glamour that the Super Chief has to a reader of Screen Life. Once In a while, when he was in a really expansive mood, he'd take us to the office. This was the headquarters for what he called the Chicago Division, and somehow for me today, the title itself still has a peculiarly solid individual ring. A mixture of looking through wastebaskets loaded with long strips of adding machine tape and lunch bags, drinking lots of spring water from the cooler, and being allowed to a peck away at a real typewriter.
Everybody in the office seemed old and gray. They all wore vests too, and there were big clocks on the wall. While faces with the names of banks in gold tottering below. The Division office was filled with a slow deliberate tick. It was always very hot, and somehow when I think of vests I invariably seem to hear steam radiators hissing away.
His home was a hot stuffy apartment on the South Side. It rang all night with banging radiators as well as the slow tolling of a Sessions clock with Doric columns framing the face. They had a round oaken dining table covered with a lace cloth that smelled of dust and old curtains. In the center of the table was a bowl made of orangish-colored glass shaped like a scalloped sea shell and full of wax bananas and apples and a pear with brown flecks that looked realer than the genuine article. My aunt, who never had a child of her own, kept a jar of Nabisco wafers for the kids. They were always stale and rubbery, but I guess she didn't know the difference, or thought we didn't, at any rate.
Uncle Al did two things that fractured both me and my brother, who Is two years my junior. We must have been about 8 and 6 at that time. When we stayed overnight at my uncle's place, he would wake us in the morning by crowing like a rooster. That was his big joke. That and the great record. He had a record that was nothing but people laughing hysterically. He must have played it for us 5000 times.
The last time I saw Uncle Al was at his funeral. I was in my late teens, and had seen him but rarely in the intervening years. Our family had moved from the city and lost all but Christmas-card touch with him and my aunt. Now he was dead. I'll never forget the sudden feeling of sick terror I felt when I viewed him surrounded by white satin and roses. He was small and pink and they had dressed him in a dark-blue single-breasted suit and white shirt. There was a black tie - but no vest. I have no idea what they did with his Rock Island watch fob, but it was gone too.
I suppose it was like seeing Abe Lincoln in Bermuda shorts or something, but all I know is that I couldn't look at him without feeling something awful in my stomach. There were a few old men sitting around in the hard chapel pews - probably those who had worked with him at the Divlsion - but no one in the family knew them, so they didn't speak to them. Next to the casket was a wreath of yellow roses encircling a set of tracks leading to the setting sun. The card read: "From the Boys at the Chicago Division."