The Phantom Patriarch

I can’t explain how the question was thrust into my consciousness that day. It could have been some subconscious subterfuge bubbling to the surface, but I like to think it was the phantom asserting his spirit, reaching out to thicken the family plot.

I was 11 years old; my family was enjoying a July cookout at my grandmother’s. While playing tag with my siblings, in the tears of a Weeping Willow tree, I suddenly felt compelled to approach the adults hovering over the searing meat and pose the burning question.

Why do my father and grandfather have different last names?

My query triggered puzzled glances and stammering responses, I was promised full disclosure – some other day; I knew right then that I had stumbled upon a family jewel.

Perseverance furthers, reminds the I Ching. In time, I was informed that our grandfather was really our step-grandfather, a loaded word that doesn’t explain the complexities of such relationships. Our hyphenated grandfather was kind to us, and was a good match for my grandmother, to a point anyway. He had a amicable relationship with my father, but displayed clear preference for his son from a previous marriage. He didn’t have the time, nor desire to fill the void left by the phantom, the one whose name was not to be spoken.

I found the lack of detail totally unsatisfying, the phantom had been summoned, but not allowed to speak. As time slipped onward, I pursued this shadowy being. I questioned my grandmother; she angrily refused to discuss him. My father, too, became agitated when asked and simply snapped “he’s dead, end of discussion”!

But, I had an informant who I could turn to for clues. My aunt Grace, was the story keeper of the family, and although, hesitant, about divulging her sister’s sensitive information, she eventually spilled the beans, recognizing that I had a right to know about my ancestors.

The phantom was named James Jefferson Gill. My grandmother married him at age 18 and moved to Chicago for all the revelry of the roaring twenties. My father was born in a downtown hotel room on a hot June night in 1927, and above the roar of the city, was given the name of his father.

It seems the phantom preferred whisky and other women’s company to that of his family, and so was written out of his role in the nativity scene. My grandmother resented him so deeply, she had my father’s name legally changed to James Jefferson Hale, erasing any reference to the Gill clan.

The phantom disappeared, I can only speculate it was to avoid child support. He was never to be heard from again, not even by his own family, and no one in my family had any interest in finding him. It was assumed he died anonymously somewhere in Chicago.

Fifty years, after my original question, I wrote a book of my family history and was fortunate enough to find info on the Gill family dating back to 17th century Scotland. I had photos of the phantom’s grandfather in the Civil War and even his father’s life story. Even more interesting was that my father was the fourth generation of men named James Jefferson Gill. The internet had opened crack in the phantom’s crypt but he was nowhere to be found.

I posted a PDF version of the book on my website thinking someone might find my family menagerie interesting; months later a message appeared in my inbox. A guy from California had read my research and revealed that the phantom was his father also, thus my father’s half brother. Two photos quickly followed.

With a single click, a 1948 photo of a moustached man in a zoot suit and dapper hat was looking right at me. I freaked out and sent the photo to family members. We were astonished that the phantom had been dragged into the daylight. More details followed.

Apparently, Grandpa Gill was an extremely violent, alcoholic who beat his kids and had started several families, at least 6 that we know of, with women around the California and Seattle areas. My new found half-uncle said that his only memory of his father, was a slap across the face. My father was an angry alcoholic and verbally abusive, occasionally whacking me. Since he never knew his father there must be a few troubled genes swimming in the pool. Comparing 23 and Me DNA tests, we confirmed our relationship.

Another woman, now in her nineties, contacted me through her niece saying that she had become pregnant from the phantom when she was 16 years old, during the same period he was married to my grandmother. She was spirited off to St. Cloud, MN to have the child as was done in those times. He vanished, but, she would never forget his name nor his sweet-talking manner.

The phantom patriarch was buried in Seattle, a city my father loved, and visited often on his business travels. Maybe they even passed each other on the street. I would like to believe that grandpa had some redeeming qualities; perhaps, not inflicting his wrath upon my father was one of them.

We’ll never know. My father died twenty years ago and the phantom, twenty-five years before that. One thing for certain, I would loved to have shown my father the photo and seen the look on his face as he saw the image of the man who had been a phantom in his life, but I’ll have to settle for their photos hanging side by side on my wall.

Working on the Railroad


The Dale Street Locomotive Repair Shops

This story originally appeared in the Saint Paul Almanac, 2013-2014 Edition

Driving through the intersection of Dale St. and Minnehaha Ave, in the Frogtown district, you couldn’t help being impressed by the massive yellow-ochre brick building with the exceptionally tall glass block windows. The three story monolith housed the diesel locomotive repair and overhaul facilities for the Great Northern Railway. The ‘shops’ as they were known, were built by James J. Hill at the turn of the 20th century. Because of his admiration for the work ethic of the Bohemian and German immigrants of Frogtown, he built the shops in their neighborhood in order to have a dependable work force to drawn on. It seems like almost everyone in my family, and my friends’ families, worked or had worked for the railroad at some point in their life. I was no exception; after returning from a tour of duty in Vietnam, I was offered a job in the materials department and joined the union of the Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks.

Locomotive engines are propelled by microbus-sized diesel engines that spin the generators that power the traction motors that in turn, move the wheels. To overhaul and maintain these beasts required a corps of mechanics, steelworkers, pipe-fitters and electricians, along with a warehouse full of parts. My first day on the job, I felt as if I had been transported to a medieval blacksmith shop. Lined up before me were three tracks of locomotives with their guts spilled out on the floor alongside them. The dark air was perfumed with petroleum distillates; the light from the tall, glass block windows was dim, punctuated by brilliant blue welders’ torches and showers of sparks cascading off over-sized grinding wheels. All rays of light were lost in the concrete floor which was saturated black with decades of oil and solvents.

Above the dull roar of the machinery, the ring of hammer on anvil ricocheted off the pale green walls that were coated with a film of oily grit, obscuring the red stenciled safety slogans above the power tools. Time of day was marked by the steam whistle atop the building. Start time, break time, lunch time, break time, and finally at 3:20 pm the crew shed their masks, goggles and safety hats to assemble near the open door. Before the final whistle ended, we were gone.

Many of the guys headed over to the Bourbon Bar, kitty corner on Dale St where they cashed their paychecks and washed the diesel dust from their throats with bottles of Schmidt beer, openly uneasy about their futures. Rocky, the Great Northern Goat had morphed into the generic corporate logo of Burlington Northern, Inc.; the old timers with insider information warned of a bad train coming down the tracks. I moved on to Colorado before it hit, but family members kept me in the loop as the age of corporate consolidation progressed.

A sprawling, state of the art locomotive maintenance facility was constructed, somewhere in Montana I heard, and in the late seventies the end came for the Dale Street Shops. In 1999, the wrecking ball punched through the bricks and glass; decades of history crumbled in a heap onto the carbonized cement floor. It took three years and approximately thirty million dollars to clean up the soil contaminated with 100 years of chemicals and petroleum products before it could be redeveloped into an office park. I often shop across the street at Dragon Star Market and glance at the turquoise sign that reads Great Northern Business Center, but it must be a mirage, I still see the shops.

Robert Hale, 2011

Franky Rides the Clipper

You can also listen to the author read this story on SoundCloud !



This story originally appeared in the Saint Paul Almanac, 2014-2015 Edition

As was its custom, the Alberta Clipper rode into town on a carpet of warm Pacific air, dropped a couple inches of fluffy white, and headed south. Nipping at its heels was a howling Canadian wind, so dense and frigid that, even the windows shivered in their frames, loud enough to rattle Frank out of his coma.
Frank Rothbauer, an under employed, twenty-eight-year-old, would have loved seeing his story in bold headlines on the front page of the St. Paul Daily News, sharing the spotlight with the smiling photos of the Winter Carnival queen candidates. That was Frank. As were so many of his age, Frank was enchanted by the glitz, glamour, and lifestyle of the gangsters of the era. In his pursuit of the dream, he obtained a tenuous low-level position managing a “Soda Shoppe”, a front for illegal liquor distribution.
But peer way down between the fuzzy lines of official denials, and there you’d read Frank’s tale, one of an unfortunate individual caught up in that great American experiment known as Prohibition.
“The Drys”, the popular name given to the federal agents charged with ferreting out illegal sales of alcohol, raided Frank’s Frogtown “Soda Shoppe” that Sunday morning intending to nab a big- time bootlegger. If Frank hadn’t sampled his own product before breakfast, he may have had the clarity to recall that what the Feds really wanted was the owner’s name or at least a payoff; he might also have wiped the cockeyed grin off his face that his assailants interpreted as a defiant smirk. After refusing their demands, he was knocked around the soda bar and thrown to the floor, almost taking a couple frightened patrons with him. Frank’s last conscious thought that day was probably to wonder where that “Dry” got the money to buy a those brand Red Wing boots with the deep snowy tread that was were coming at him.
Dazed and in cuffs, Frank was led across the intersection of Thomas and Dale Street just a half block from home in full view of the neighbors to the waiting Ford Model A and taken downtown to jail. Later that day he was moved to Ancker Hospital after he began to convulse in his cell. As in a nightmare, Frank thrashed about in his restraints as as the wind rattled and howled like banshees at the windows, all the while mumbling “stop beating me” as his sister Anne held his hand and tried to soothe his swollen brain. The doctors proclaimed his injuries fatal, and so two days later they were.
With the passing of the Clipper, the winds died down enough for a good crowd of friends to caravan from the Church of St. Agnes across the Dale Street Bridge to Calvary Cemetery. The case was referred to the coroner, who reported he could not “definitively” determine the cause of the injuries. Public outrage at the case waned as the official investigation was shuffled between departments, and within a month, Frank’s story had drifted to the far pages and languished among the classifieds, leaving only his family’s voice demanding justice. Months later, after the Alberta Clippers had retreated, the stock market crashed and Frank’s story was buried in the avalanche of the Great Depression.

Frank Rothbauer was my great- uncle. His story was told to me by his ex-wife, my great- aunt Grace. The “official” story appears in the St. Paul Daily News, Vol. 23, No. 323, January 17, 1928, and several weeks following.