Having lunch with my dad, by Don Curto

Long before it was called Founders Landing, the area was known as the South Switching Yards, or just the South Yards. Here, trains for DSS&A were taken apart and put together. For some reason, the switch engine job was looked down upon by over-the-rail firemen and engineers. But in the ’30s, my dad, one of these engineers, felt lucky to get a job once in a while on the switch engines. Things were very tough in those days, and it was hard for a trainman to get a steady job, even with years on the road.
The yards were not good places for young children to hang around and we were cautioned by our parents to stay away. The first danger was the switch engine with its ability to change direction quickly. There also was the danger of the many switches used to shuttle cars around. There always was some danger of getting a leg caught in a switch closing. The switch engine, all steam in those days, did not necessarily pick up a car and take it to join a growing train of cars. Sometimes the engine would start a car on its way to couple with a growing train and the brakeman would cut the car loose and let it roll slowly to bump its way to a coupling with the next car. These free rolling cars seemed like they were going fast—in fact they were moving very slowly—but it still was possible to get hurt by a moving car.
Locomotives, freight cars, rail cars and passenger cars all were things of great interest and excitement. I remember sitting on the rock cliff behind what is now the Chamber of Commerce building, watching the activity and being mesmerized by the ebb and flow of the cars and locomotives. Sometimes, I could see my dad in his engine cab and would wave and yell. Sometimes, he saw me and waved back.
The best times for me in the old South Yards were those few days when my mother would ask me to take my father’s lunch pail to him. This usually was triggered by my Grandmother Tobin’s special soup days. If all the planets and stars lined up just right, I would take some of my grandmother’s French pea soup to my dad. The time was set very carefully, and he would have the engine near the Front Street crossing so I could meet him safely.
Once or twice, I was let up onto the engine deck, where the heat was intense and the engine fire might be roaring. Twice, I recall with complete clarity, my father let me sit in the engineer’s seat and pull the handle to let the steam move the engine ahead a short distance. I actually drove a steam engine. I can think of very few more exciting things, even to this day. Was that an exciting childhood, or what?
It was the pea soup that got the entry. My father really liked that pea soup. A more or less accurate recipe for that soup is held by my cousin, Patt Mayer, and with good luck it is repeated from time to time by Kareem Shaw, the new owner of the New York Deli. I can get you to the soup, but there are no more steam engines roaming the old South Yards. You’re on your own for driving a real steam locomotive, too.
In the 1920s, when steam railroading probably reached its peak, the “railroad days” were exciting times, especially for the families of those who worked with the steam engines. In our house at 821 North Third Street, there was no telephone, so railroad companies—here and all around the country where this same telephone situation existed—hired “call boys,” whose job it was to alert the train crew in time to get to work. These call boys were not, at least not around Marquette, boys at all. Those I remember were grown men who had this great responsibility.
One time I recall, with great warmth and excitement, was a winter day with snow falling when the call boy came to wake my dad (by pounding on the front door) so he could get to work to start the day’s trip by 7:00 a.m. The call boy came to wake my dad about 3:00 a.m. because not only did he have to get up and get to the roundhouse by 7:00 a.m., but he had to walk there. Sometimes he could get a taxi, but not often, because taxis cost money. We lived at Third and Crescent, and the roundhouse was at the end of Main Street near today’s city maintenance center. This was a hefty walk in the snow and the dark and the cold. We would be hard put to find workers to do this kind of job today.
At that time, we did not have central heat in our small house, but a wood-fired stove in front of an old fireplace in the dining room. Other than this source, there was no heat in the house. It was my dad’s job to get the now almost-cold stove roaring again. When my dad was not home, it was my job. On this morning, my father got up and told me to stay in bed until he called me and we would have breakfast together—what a treat. At this time in my father’s life, this was an occasion for a big meal to stoke him up for a hard day.
I got up and helped him get started. This was a very special day, and I have no memory why. Perhaps I had done my household chores really well, for a change, or perhaps I had got a good report card from school. Regardless, here’s the breakfast menu for that very cold, snowy morning: two thick pork chops each, a pile of fried potatoes with onions, and strong coffee with hot milk, sugar and a beaten egg.
You have to pay particular attention to the manner in which the chops were cooked. My dad sliced some lemon very thin. The fry pan was started with melted butter and about seven or eight slices of the lemon. The lemon was cooked until it got soft, and then pushed to the side of the pan to make room for the chops. When the meat was done, he would take the lemon slices and put them on top of the chops, so the lemon flavor could penetrate the meat. We relished the lemon along with the meat.
You might wish to try this dish, as the lemon makes the somewhat fatty chops taste extra tangy. Not so unusual, you say; possibly that is true. But you would have to know that my father was profoundly prejudiced against Sicilians and anything that spoke of them. I did not know it at the time, but my father had prepared his pork chops in the best Sicilian manner. My father died before I came to realize this connection, but I hope he reads this column wherever he gets his Marquette Monthly these days.

A Thanksgiving note
As is our custom, we celebrated Thanksgiving in the Copper Country this year. In the past, we usually met at the Tikkanen farm outside of Calumet, overlooking the Huron Mountains across Keweenaw Bay to the southeast. This year, we started a new custom and held the first annual Conglomerate Café Thanksgiving Dinner for family and friends.
The café, newly opened on Fifth Street in Calumet, is the quite elegant brain child of Babette Jokela, my sister-in-law via marriage to my wife Pat’s brother, Tom Tikkanen. It’s family, get it? There were fourteen of us there, all related in some way, and all enjoying what has come to be known as a traditional Thanksgiving dinner.
Actually, the idea was mine. I phoned Babette and suggested we eat at the café and share the work to prepare the menu. So here’s how it all worked out. Pat and I brought the ham; Babette and others made everything else. Pretty good sharing, I say. If you get to this part of the country, you might stop by. The café is charming, and the proprietor is not bad either.
—Don Curto

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