Sunday, July 11, 2021

The #Midwessay: Ron Burch, I Am John Hawk


I Am John Hawk

Ron Burch


In the cool basement of the brick house we played. I could hear the rain drumming on the roof of my grandparents' house. The basement was the largest room. It’s still rough. Painted cement block walls, exposed ceiling floor boards and joists, safe but rough, what Ornelio DePietro could afford when he had the house built fifteen years ago in 1955 on a corner lot he got cheap and with help from his father. A sturdy stairway came down an open center, so there were no walls anywhere except for the pantry and the room around the corner where his grandfather worked on the thick-boarded wooden tool bench he’d inherited from his father. 
     The floor was polished cement with a vertical plumbing pipe in the middle of the space. Still room for kids to play. Run under the staircase. That was a hiding place. Or into the little pantry area where the upper shelves were stocked with canned vegetables and fruits. Or around the other side of the wall where on my grandfather’s tool bench sat an unfinished project of wood and screws. Also, I had a nonna bonus, who was making pizzelles and snowball cookies for us.
     Houses were built out of cardboard boxes stretched across the cement floor. We were young, five or six. There was a long, soft rug underneath us which we put the cardboard houses on although my grandfather didn’t see what the fuss was about with the kids playing on concrete—my mother did it when she grew up here. 
     “We should play house,” my friend said. If we were outside, we’d be playing ball.
     “Who should we be?” 
     We bickered as to who owns the house. The girl with her simple brown hair and freckles wanted to be the mom. My other friend can’t decide if he’s the brother or a fireman. I heard my grandmother, Diamond, walking above us in her small, clean kitchen, opening the oven door, and moving the cookies to the counter. The cabinets were simple varnished wood. The counter top itself was done in pink tile, my petite grandmother’s favorite color. A brown clock radio sat on the counter to the right of the kitchen sink. On it the announcers argued what the country needed to do post-Watergate. 
     I was an average kid, a little chubby, brown hair, brown eyes with long lashes hidden by thick lenses. The change happened quickly, magically, as it always did. I slumped over slightly, as if my head was too heavy for my spine. My walk slowed and my voice aged into something heavier. I could feel my right hand curling into a ball, around the top of an imaginary walking stick that I used, favoring my right leg, as I limped around the basement. My friends laughed, but I walked slower, stooped over now, my back in pain, my voice of something long ago, and their laughter died down as I declared: “I am John Hawk. I work for the railroad.” 
     In the middle of the 2020 pandemic, I start devoting time to the genealogy, self-discovery in a way, on my mother’s side. One night Polly, my wife, and I are both in the kitchen, making dinner and splitting our last beer while we swap funny stories about our childhoods. I tell Polly about this particular character I kept returning to when I was a kid. She asks me to do it, and I think back, trying to remember what it was like. It was a long time ago but there’s that one nugget I have, that one chunk of memory. I close my eyes and hunch over until it feels right, more slumped. I can picture my grandparents’ basement, my halting steps across its cement floor, the pretend cane in my right hand, leaning heavily on it. My right hand curls up, and the voice, John Hawk’s voice, which I haven’t done since I was a child, speaks: “My name is John Hawk. I work for the railroad.” My usual childhood refrain as John Hawk. As I say it, my eyes open and I walk across our kitchen toward my wife. 
     Polly says, “That’s not funny. It’s really creepy. Stop it.” 
     I laugh. 
     “I’m serious.”
     Even I feel awkward about it happening just there. I shake it off. “Told you it was weird.” I feel as if I’m back, John Hawk no longer there. 
     It had been a recurring role since I had been little. I don’t know how many weeks, months, or years it lasted. I don’t even remember how long I’d pretend to be John Hawk. It was a stupid thing kids did. My friends thought it was funny. I had OG grandparents. At their house, we weren’t allowed to play video games or watch tv or hang on the phone. We had to invent our fun for a few hours. So we made up characters and ran around the basement. We could yell and hide down there. Grandma, in her faded cooking apron and worn house slippers, often sat on the basement steps watching us but really reading the romance novels she traded with my newly divorced mom. 
     “So what happened?” Polly asks.
     I’d bring it up at home and everyone would tell me to shut up and stop fooling around. My parents thought I was play acting and it was no big deal. I forgot about it eventually, getting more interested in music and video games. “He eventually went away,” I said. “Every now and then, I remember him but that’s it.” I sip the beer and pass it to her.
     “Have you looked him up?” She asks before taking a drink.
     I nod. I had in the past, maybe once or twice, when it occurred to me. I looked him up in an index for the census records and for births and deaths. I never found him, nothing even close as far as I can remember, and thought that it was a silly kid thing I should let go. I’d even feel absurd looking him up after all these years, wasting the time on him when I could be researching my own family history. After failing a couple times to find him in the past, I didn’t expect to find anything and then I could finally forget about it. I can’t remember if I’ve always remembered John Hawk. I think he always was. Forgetting is my family’s way of healing, but I’ve never forgotten John Hawk. 
Prompted by my wife, I go over to my laptop and boot up a genealogy site. I punch in his name, Columbus, Ohio, whatever else might fit and enter it for the hell of it.
     And John Hawk pops up. 
     No way.
     I mean a lot of John Hawks populate the list, but the one that interests me is at the top. He worked as a machinist at the Bolt Works in Columbus, Ohio. It’s not the railroad. Different guy. Common name. This man could have nothing to do with my experience. Right under his listing, there’s another John Hawk. And then another. Thousands of John Hawks respond to my query. 
     I surrendered to my imagination. Ornelio and Diamond, my mom’s parents, talked about working for these types of places in the late 30s and early 40s, especially after the war broke out. I look up the Bolt Works and find them to actually be the Berry Brothers Bolt Works, a company mentioned by my grandparents. 
     Still feels like a coincidence. I type John Hawk’s name into an internet search engine and receive 67,000,000 hits within .64 seconds. There were many people named “John Hawk” in this world. I decide to close that genealogy window and get back to my mom’s family history. I tell Polly that it’s not going anywhere. As I shift up to click, I spot something on the screen: John Hawk’s death date. He died only several years before I was born. 
     I get a chill. 
     Um, what?
     I hadn’t thought of it that way. My John Hawk was an abstract. An old guy who needed a cane to walk. I don’t remember knowing more about him. I didn’t know he had a wife. It was only him identifying himself to me. Many years later, however, after seeing that his date of death, a date that was not 1832 or 1790 or even 1942, was much closer to the year of my birth, only a handful of years away, it frightened me. I don’t know why.
     Here’s another thing I discover while researching my Italian genealogy: My great-grandfather, his relatives, and friends who immigrated from Italy all worked for the railroad in Ohio. They started arriving in Columbus in the late 1880s but still sailed back and forth to Italy to get the money home. Between 1900 and 1920 immigration surged. That’s when my Italian great-grandfather, Giulio DiPietro, arrived. Huge families at the turn of the century lived in a small Italian-immigrant neighborhood that my grandparents called generally St. Claire Avenue, which was the main street they lived on, sharing houses with multi-generational families and even non-families.
     John Hawk also lived in that neighborhood. 
     Polly’s right. It is getting weird.
     Maybe I had heard John Hawk mentioned by someone when I was little and didn’t forgot it. Giulio DiPietro left Italy and its mountain poverty, moving to America for work. He was alive for a few years after my birth. I don’t remember him. He worked for the railroad as a machinist and repaired the cars. He was also a general laborer until his old age. He never made it past the fifth grade. Did he mention John Hawk in front of me? Did I somehow lock onto it? Most of my family back in those days worked for the railroad. If you look them up in the census or city directories or even their draft cards, most jobs are with the Pennsylvania Railroad, which was later bought by Norfolk Southern, still present today near where John Hawk lived. As far as I understood, there was no John Hawk as a family friend. 
     I wish I could ask my family about it. Both my mom and my maternal grandparents, the Italians, passed away, so I can’t question them: what do you know about this? My life’s slowly fading away with their passing. Family houses lost. A memory clutch that still holds what it can from those times. When they were alive and we spoke about the past, I was surprised by how little my grandparents understood their own history. They knew their parents and, maybe, grandparents and, of course, aunts, uncles, and cousins, but, after that, they grew quiet. By that time in their lives, they had also forgotten. I knew about the railroads. I knew about St. Claire Avenue and its homegrown 1931 football team called The St. Claire Boosters. I knew about the various Italian clubs they belonged to, but even now those places are disappearing in Columbus. 
     I keep researching. According to his social security records, John Hawk was born on May 31, 1875, in Pleasant Township, which is south of Columbus in the suburb of Galloway, where he’s buried. The 1880 census has him at five years old in Pleasant Township. His father was named John Thomas Hawk and lived from 1842 to the 1920s. John’s mother, Frances, was born in the 1850s but died young in 1885. John Jacob was ten years old when he lost his mother. He was of my great grandparents’ age, his birth in the 1870s, death in the 50s. The same age as Giulio DiPietro. 
     “That’s really crazy,” Polly says over my shoulder. She points to the census information.
     In 1900 John Hawk, age 25, was a boarder at a rooming house in Columbus. His listed job was “Breakman.” Hmm, the spelling wasn’t always the best from the census takers, or the residents, but it impacted me. He was a brakeman. 
     “He worked for the railroad,” Polly gasps.
     He actually worked for the railroad. This individual that I thought I had made up as a young kid actually lived and worked where I said he did. 
     I nod.
     “And you’ve never met anyone named that before?” 
     I shake my head. 
     It gets stranger. John Hawk also lived around my grandparents’ old St. Claire Avenue neighborhood, the one they grew up in from the early 1900s up to the 1940s when they were ready to start their own families. The St. Claire Avenue neighborhood is now officially recognized by the city of Columbus as Italian Village, the one my grandfather and all the immigrating Italians gathered in, where they lived family on top of family. John Hawk was living nearby at 326 S. Sixth Street, which is now a huge parking lot for the downtown commuters, a couple blocks south of Italian Village. He was a possible neighbor to my family. 
     On December 12, 1904, John married Bridget Smiser. John’s 26 and not previously married. Bridget, also age 26, was born in Ireland. From a previous marriage, she’s listed as a widow.
     I discover his middle name: Jacob, which comes from the Biblical story of Jacob’s birth where he came out holding the heel of his twin brother, Esau. The name either means "to follow, to be behind" but also "to supplant, circumvent, assail, overreach," from the word for "heel.” Interesting yet slightly creepy.
     In the 1910 census John Jacob Hawk’s life was coming together. His job was brakeman on the railroad. He was married to Bridget, and they lived at 80 Union Street, which doesn’t exist now. There’s a Union Avenue but it doesn’t go down to 80, instead dead ending in another street. Another fading Columbus neighborhood: bungalows with peeling scales and multiple cars parked in their front yards. Columbus has erased John’s life over the years.
     In 1917-1918 John enlisted in World War 1. His build was listed as “stout.” He’s 5’7” with brown eyes and sandy hair. He currently worked as a yard foreman on Parsons Avenue. This is the only description of John that I’ve found. No pictures so far. 
     In 1920 he was 44 years old. He’s a conductor on a “steam railroad.” He rented at 170 W. Main Street in Columbus, still a mile or so from St. Claire Avenue. According to the census and the local city directories, John and Bridget moved around frequently. John’s been with his wife for at least 16 years and they have no children, which is unusual. Especially in the 1920s, many families were still super-sized because of either no birth control or, as it was on the farm, to have as many free workers as you could get and hopefully afford. 
     Like his previous residence, this house has been wiped away by the years. The downtown neighborhood has been transformed into towering new apartment buildings and hulking cultural arts centers done in that color of brick so popular with universities. Eventually these buildings will come down as well because developers always need land to develop. Think of it like growing corn. Eventually they’ll dig it up and plant new.
     The Hawks had no children. Not even adopted.
     I don’t have children. At one time I wanted but that time passed me. The other night on Food TV, the host mentioned that being a father was the best thing in the world. I choked up. 
     My wife leaves a book on my desk. Its central thesis seems to be that there are no accidents. I don’t know if she’s being serious or not. I’m not a religious person. I don’t believe in ghosts or spirits. I don’t believe in life after death. I put it to the side.
     I find John in the 1930 Census. He’s fifty-five. He’s still married to Bridget. Still no kids. Their time too has passed. Instead, a boarder lives with them. His name is George McCormick, and he could be a friend or relation. He’s 45 and a laborer in concrete. Not an easy life. John’s listed as not a veteran. He can read and write but he didn’t go to school. Self-educated? Self-taught? No matter what, he owned his own house at 239 S. Skidmore Street, around Rich Street, but it’s no longer there. It’s a one-way street in an industrial part of town. The lot’s empty, trash strewn in the grass. Houses remain on the opposite of the street, old bungalows redone in aluminum siding. These houses look to be from the late 1800s, a few two-story brick houses in a Federal style still standing, a reminder of how once this neighborhood was regarded, and is struggling to retain itself. 
     My grandparents’ house was less than ten minutes from here. After getting married, Ornelio and Diamond lived in the North Linden area of Columbus for most of their lives. Their house was about 1000 square feet inside, where they raised two kids, my mother and uncle. After my mom’s divorce, I spent most of my time there. Dropped off in the mornings, picked up at night by a tired single mom who often worked two, if not three, jobs. My grandparents repeatedly offered to let us move in, but my mom was independent and wanted to have our own home for the two of us, which was usually a small apartment.
     In the 1940 Census, the last census available to the public, John’s living at 257 Gift Street, where he owns the home. The neighborhood remains the same: he still lives a mile or so from Italian Village, still connected to the area.
     The highest grade he completed was 4th. There were others in the house, a man in his late 70s and a woman in her 40s. Were they here for protection or were John and Bridget so poor that they needed boarders even in their old age? John’s 68 in 1940. Bridget lists her age as 54, about 14 years younger than what she really is, still embracing her youth.
     John and Bridget moved to 257 N. Grant Street. They still lived close to the St. Claire Avenue neighborhood. Unlike John’s other residences, there’s a house at the address. It looks as if it could be from the 1920s, a small one-story bungalow, painted a dark blue. It sits near another industrial site, a scrap yard with rusting metal and wood pieces. A small crane lifts into the sky as if celebrating its life. The house is tiny, less than 1000 square feet surrounded by an uneven, rusted chain link fence. Across the street are more commercial buildings, industrial in nature. The remaining houses on the street are tired, old remnants from our past, still struggling to survive in a city that has moved on.
     Bridget died in 1945. In the 1946 Columbus City Directory, John has relocated to a new house at 497 Holton Avenue. Now another empty lot. Abandoned cars litter the area, parked in vacant, muddy lots, once where John lived. At his address, a car with its roof smashed completely down sits in the grass. John’s listed by himself, his occupation: employee. It must have been hard for him. They were married 41 years. They never had children. I don’t know if John had siblings living close by. He never remarries and dies within eight years, several years before I’m born. On his tombstone, in addition to his name and facts, it says “Brother.”
     It's hard to tell how families interacted based on numbers, data. Perhaps they were a close family, but John’s siblings had their own problems. There’s divorce and child separation. Two brothers disappeared: one into the darkness of the past, the other written out of his family history by a few researchers. John’s sister, Anna May, seemed to be present in his life. The estranged brother quoted her as always being there for him. She had a daughter, but there’s no information I’ve found yet about any interaction with John. One marriage doesn’t work out for her. Another husband dies young, leaving Anna May and her daughter alone. Another brother goes through divorce and ends up living with his sister. He’s a fireman. I find a picture of him, black and white, tightly cropped of his head and shoulders. He wears his uniform, some type of embellishment on his collars, his hat perched on his head. It’s hard to see his face even though it’s right there. His kids don’t appear in later census information with him. I’m hoping John had a happy life but, even if it was, it was not an easy one. 
     I’m still trying to understand why this occurred to me. I’m researching something I don’t even believe in—the concept of soul—because it happened to me repeatedly, and I’ve never forgotten. Did John Jacob Hawk’s “soul/life force/essence/etc.” come to me? That’s what this is about. I’ll never get an answer, not really. But how did I channel, for lack of a better word, the first-person point-of-view of a man who had been dead for several years before I was born? Is that my thinking for his motivation: no kids, not much of a family life, dies rather young after his wife dies. Does that leave someone wanting more when they die? Or is it just nature and for some odd reason, I “remembered” him or channeled him or whatever it’s professionally called. If I buy into this idea, that somehow there’s a part of John Hawk inside me somewhere, a part that made me establish my young self as him, and if that’s true, what else belongs to John Hawk?
     What do I take away from this? Was it a coincidence, a name I just happened to grab out of air and wrap around me, or did one of my relatives who worked on the railroad know Mr. Hawk, perhaps a friend or just a colleague? Or do I go the way my wife suggests that John and I are somehow part of the same thing. 
     John died on December 7th in Columbus, Ohio. He lived until his late 70s, during a time when technology rapidly began advancing, leaving behind the plows and corn, for manual labor in the growing cities. He saw the invention of telephones, radios, television and so many other things. He was married but no children. He died alone.
From the kitchen, Polly calls me. It’s getting close to dinner. I’m always happy to hear her voice. 
     No one wants to be forgotten, neither by its city or by its history. No children to carry on your name. I understand this. I am in the same situation. I am the last of my family surname. When I die, it will end. My line will not be carried on. Like John Jacob Hawk, I will be forgotten in time. It’s inevitable for most of us. There are too many for history to remember, but, maybe, like John, he decided to skip history and visit me, keeping his vanishing life alive, or, maybe, we’re all more connected than we ever thought.
     Maybe I will read the book Polly left for me.

Ron Burch's fiction has been published in numerous literary journals including South Dakota Review, Fiction International, Mississippi Review, and been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His new novel, JDP, comes out in 2021 from BlazeVOX books. He lives in Los Angeles.  

There's one story that I keep returning to, over and over, writing and rewriting, turning it and tilting it this way and that so I can examine it from every possible angle. It's this story of growing up in Vandalia, Ohio, the "Crossroads of America". 
     I’m always at those crossroads, figuratively and literally. I’ve been there all my life. Sometimes it consumes me. Sometimes it plagues me. I’m there physically, psychologically, emotionally. My history is there. It’s where I’m most comfortable. 
     The crossroads are where East meets West and North meets South. It’s where Route 40 crosses Route 25 and where I-70 crosses I-75. If I did dare to leave, which direction should I go? Which path should I choose? Or, is the ideal path to stay put? Should I continue to live at the Crossroads, facing every direction but moving in no direction at all? What good is a crossroad if you don’t choose a path?
     All of the Ohio essayists seem to share this strange sense of wanting to leave or, for those who did leave, wanting to return. What is it about this place that makes people want to escape but then, draws them back? Read this weeks' essays to find out.
     Ohioans: We'd love to have more essays in conversation with the #Midwessay. Email your take on the subject to and I'll get your words turned in to the Powers-That-Be.
—Beeda Speis, Ohio Coordinator

What is the #Midwessay? What is the Midwest? What are the characteristics, if any, of the #Midwessay (the Midwest essay)? What gathers us together? What pulls us apart? Springing from a twitter conversation, we started asking writers and readers what they imagine (or would like to reimagine) as the Midwest and the Midwessay. The #Midwessay is a series of reports from the Midwest (whatever that is) by and/or about Midwestern essay and essayists (whatever those are). Essay Daily will be publishing these, sorted (loosely) by state, in February 2021 and beyond.  These #Midwessays will be collected here and on a separate site at a later date. If you'd like to submit a report / essay, send it our way. Details and coordinators for each state are listed here. You can also ping Ander (link at the upper right) if we don't list a coordinator yet for your state. —The Editors

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