(Not) 1000 Words: The Good and The Bad

Nothing one-thousand-word-y today. Just several things meriting a few paragraphs.

So, let’s go.

I quote from a story in this morning’s Chicago Sun-Times:

Neighbors were shocked to hear about the deaths on their normally quiet block.

Now, that’s a boilerplate line from any of a hundred thousand — hell, a million — newspaper articles about murder. In this case, five people were found dead in their home in the upper-middle class Chicago suburb of Buffalo Grove. Authorities suspect it was “domestic” in nature, meaning someone the victims knew and loved offed them.

Horrible. Heinous. Of course. But, for pity’s sake, aren’t we savvy enough to grasp that the neighbors’ll be shocked by such a crime? They’d be shocked to learn even one person had been murdered next door. Nobody — even among people in the toughest, most crime-ridden neighborhoods in any city — would say to a reporter, “Yeah, I figured it’d happen. Now, pardon me so I can finish raking the leaves.”

Staying in Chicago — my beloved hometown, natch — today and tomorrow are a couple of notable anniversaries.

Tomorrow, first. On December 2, 1942, physicists led by at least four eventual Nobel Prize laureates conducted the world’s first sustained nuclear chain reaction in a secret lab under the stands at the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field. For decades, the event was described among laypeople as “splitting the atom.” It proved that trillions of volatile atoms of uranium could be manipulated into releasing their collective potential energy. Researchers employed by the Manhattan Project then went about the business of developing nuclear weapons, based on the successful Stagg Field experiment.

Talk about a double-edged sword! Many historians feel the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki effectively ended World War II (although others just as forcefully argue Japan already had been defeated; it’s navy and air force crushed, its home islands totally blockaded, and 60 of its cities destroyed by conventional bombing raids). Yet more than a quarter-million human beings were killed in two finger snaps. Tens of thousands of people who survived the initial nuclear bombings would later die of radiation effects for decades to come.

And, after the end of the war countries began arming themselves to the teeth with nukes, so much so humanity soon was in real danger of incinerating itself. It still is.

Table from ICAN (Internationall Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons)

Yet, delving into the recesses of the atom has allowed us to understand the basic nature of physical existence; to develop almost magical treatments for cancer; generate usable energy; and gain deeper understandings of chemistry, biology, and physics.

A double-edged sword indeed.

Now, then, today’s anniversary. At about 2:00pm, December 1, 1958, a fire began smoldering in a trash bin in the basement of Our Lady of the Angels grade school on Chicago’s West Side. Within 20 minutes, the little fire grew, emitting noxious smoke and generating superheated gasses that circulated through the building via its ventilation system. Soon, the school was engulfed in an inferno.

A total of 92 kids and three nuns died in the blaze. Thousands of people gathered on the streets and sidewalks surrounding the school as firefighters battled the flames. Many parents stood in the crowds, desperate to learn the fate of their children. The disaster became worldwide news.

My fifth grade teacher was named Pearl Tristano. She was my favorite teacher throughout elementary and high schools (we didn’t have middle schools or junior highs in Chicago in those days). Miss Tristano was youngish, fashionable (she wore colorful scarves, trendy dresses, and fine necklaces and earrings), and she had a sense of humor. She loved to quote lines from the sitcom “Get Smart.” She’d say “Sorry about that, Chief,” if she made a mistake on the chalkboard or “Would you believe…?” if I were caught not turning in my homework. Miss Tristano never betrayed any hidden grief. She smiled more than all the other teachers at St. Giles school, mostly nuns, put together.

I only learned later that Miss Tristano taught fifth graders at Our Lady of the Angels. She was on the job the day of the fire. My guess is she must have been fresh out of college then, as she was still young when she taught me.

A couple of Our Lady of the Angels schoolgirls returning to her class after running an errand told her the stairway was filled with acrid smoke. They could barely get the words out, they were hacking so badly. Miss Tristano pulled the fire alarm.

She witnessed a horror few people had ever experienced outside of wartime. Yet, she was the most positive, joyous teacher I can recall.

I read about her trauma at Our Lady of the Angels in a history of the disaster a few short years ago.

That fire, too, was a double-edged sword. School building codes around the nation — around the world — were rewritten to ensure such a tragedy might never happen again.

Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, the image of a Chicago firefighter carrying the lifeless body of a child victim became as well-known a public service announcement for fire safety as Smokey the Bear.

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Images from the Chicago Tribune/Chicago American photo files.

I don’t suppose Pearl Tristano is among us anymore. But she’ll always live in my memory and my heart.


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