..."poor gentle Joe"...
"One day early in July, as I sat there dreaming on the front steps, I became aware of a strange sound. One I hadn't ever heard before, and I looked up, to the top of Quinn's front tree, and there I saw, a strange bird. About the size of a robin, but no particular color. But what was different about the bird was its song. It was a strange little song. Kind of plaintive and lonesome. I didn't particularly like the bird's song, but there he was every day. Either in Quinn's front tree or our front tree, singing that song. Singing his lonesome little song. Nobody else seemed to notice bird, or his song, but I did. It seemed that as time passed his song kept getting weaker and weaker. It even almost sounded as if he was hoarse, and then the day of July 24th, he was gone.
"But here we are, July 24th, lots of excitement in our house that morning. My brother Joe and sister Carrie, were getting ready to attend the great Western Electric yearly picnic, they both worked there. Three big boats carried Western Electric workers, family, and friends, across the lake to St. Joe Michigan, to spend the day and frolic on the sands of Lake Michigan's shore. Carrie had dressed in a new dress, a real summery dress that she herself had sewn; she had also sewn a coat, in black and white houndstooth check that she took along. But first she went to the meat market to get sandwich meat for their sandwiches. Joe and Carrie were not going to the picnic together. Joe had his friend Al Burrick who was going to meet him at the boat. And Caroline went with Anna Quinn who also worked at Western Electric. So, Mr. Pitner the butcher told us later how Carrie had come in all smiles and happy laughter and had said, 'Mr. Pitner, do you think I'll make that first boat?' and he said, 'You sure will, you're early enough.' So they got ready and pretty soon left. Carrie stopped next door at Quinn's and she and Anna set out gaily for the picnic. I began to do my Saturday chores. One of which was to wash the front porch and steps. Mother was busy of course this being Saturday, baking. And Charles, where was my brother Charles? He's such a quiet little boy, he was always around, but you never knew where.
"Sometime in the middle of the morning I heard Mrs. Quinn call Mother and she hurried out to the backyard and over the fence. Mrs. Quinn told her, 'Alby, there's been an accident to the boat, Joe called' (you see, we didn't have a phone, the Quinn's did) - so Joe called and told Mrs. Quinn not to worry, that he would search for the girls and call her later, but as soon as Mother got that message she called Papa at work (because of course he worked half days on Saturdays), and Papa came right home. He and Mama went right downtown. They didn't know what to expect. But what they saw, when they got to the Clark Street bridge on the Chicago River was horrifying. Here was that first boat. Lying on its side. People struggling in the water. It must have been terrible for Joe and Mama and Daddy. They didn't meet because the place was jammed with people. Some who had been rescued were soaking wet. And Joe, in the meantime, poor gentle Joe, what a heartbreaking task was his, that awful morning, going from place to place, where they had placed the bodies. Joe had been on the boat too. But he was on the side that was upper. And he was rescued. And his friend, Al Burrick, being a very fine swimmer helped save some people struggling in the water. Some were never found. Alice Quinn came over, this must have been after Mama and Papa came home, and she said let's go up to Austin Avenue. And so we went, hoping that our sisters would be on one of the streetcars that were coming from the Loop. The streetcars were filled with people, some of them wet. And Alice and I sat on the curb and watched and waited and hoped. But our sisters never came back. I can't recall when Mama and Papa came home without Caroline, but Joe finally came home. And he had found the girls bodies. In an armory, on West Randolph street. It was a terrible day. More than eight hundred people lost their lives in that disaster.
"I'll never forget that evening. Joe was home by then exhausted as were poor Mother and Daddy. We kids couldn't imagine such a tragedy. The next day Mr. Robert Nightingale, who was principal of Robert Earns Burns school where we had all matriculated, he came to pay his dearest condolences to this family, as he did to all of them in Lawndale who's children had been under his care. There were crepes on almost every door in Lawndale. I even remember there was a shortage of coffins and so when my dear sister Carrie was brought home, they had placed her on a sort of wicker sofa. She lay there as beautiful as ever. Oh poor Carrie, we were told that she must have fallen when the boat tipped over because she had a dark bruise, and that it killed her instantly. Because there she lay, and she had a death pall over her face. It was brought home to rest every time we sat at the table and there was one missing, at every meal, one missing..."
Copyright © 1996 Blanche Homolka Petsche
Reprinted with permission