Tales of the 7th Battalion 14

Chicago Lil

Tony’s bar occupied the building next to Engine 29 in the 7th Battalion. It was a wild place where you could find Firefighters enjoying a few beers every payday. The place was full of characters. Tony, the bar owner, and his wife Helen were dog lovers. They kept every stray that was lucky enough to wander into the neighborhood. Helen kept them in the back room of the bar. At times there were over 30 or 40 dogs enjoying the hospitality of Tony’s bar. When the dogs barked Tony would pound on the door with his fist. Silence quickly followed. The only time the dogs would ignore Tony was when the roaming Gypsy band came into the saloon and played Hungarian songs on their violins. The howling of the dogs could be heard across the street in the working foundries of Zug Island. The dogs also howled when Chicago Lil would sing. Chicago Lil was a street woman who was long past her prime. She wore a cloth coat with a mangy rabbit fur collar. Her once cute nose was bulbous and red. She wore too much make up and still wore her hair in the style of a 1920s flapper. The years of drinking cheap whiskey had changed her voice into a gravely sounding whisper. She was always full of great stories. She loved the Firefighters and was a fixture at the bar on paydays. There was a young Firefighter who frequented the bar who also had a deep gravely voice. We used to kid him that Chicago Lil was his mom.  Lil would go along with the joke and always called the kid Sonny Boy. Lil had one bad habit. After a few drinks she would shout out, “Anyone want to see my tattoo?” She would pull her dress up exposing her fat rear end which had a tattoo of a rose on it. Her butt was an ugly looking thing covered with freckles and warts. The guys were quick to buy Lil a beer so she wouldn’t show her tattoo. She claimed to be from Chicago. She said she had a daughter there. I was in the bar one day when she asked me if I wanted to hear the letter she was preparing to send to her daughter in Chicago. I listened to the long rambling letter. When she was finished with the reading I bought her a beer and commented that it was a good letter. Lil took a long deep sip of the beer then reached into her purse and pulled out another letter. She asked, “You want to hear the answer to my letter?” This was Lil. She was boisterous and mysterious. She was fun and impulsive. She lived in the past and the kindness of the Firefighters kept her going. She was one of the players who made running in the 7th Battalion so much fun. One day she disappeared. We learned that she had been robbed and murdered. It was a time when the city was changing. Not too long after Lil died Tony’s bar burned to the ground. When the smoke from the fire slowly dissipated you could almost hear a gravely voice saying, “Hey buddy do you want to see my tattoo?”  It was a sad time down in the old 7th battalion.

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