Hanging Out in Rockford: A personal journey

When I was a kid, I worked for Uncle Frank. Uncle Frank owned Larson Brothers Sand and Gravel with his three brothers, Ed, Art, and Hilmer. Frank was at one point the mayor of Loves Park. He built the Riverside bridge. He built it as a toll road, but he pledged that the toll would only be in place until the bonds were paid. When they tried to retain the toll after the bridge was paid off, he took the city to court. He won. He said it was a matter of his word.

At 11 years of age, I had a Rockford Morning Star route. At 3 in the morning, I saw the northern lights for the first time. They took my breath away, I had no idea what they were. Then (at 12) I worked at the lake (Windsor Lake) picking up trash. Uncle Frank owned that, too. By the time I was 15, Frank had built Windsor raceway, the world’s largest go-cart raceway. Jimmy Green and I ran the rental cart concession. His dad Curly repaired the Clinton engines on the rental go-carts when they broke down. We charged 50 cents for three laps around the half-mile track. Some days we would take in $500.

We would sneak into the concession stand and drink Pepsi warm out of the dispenser. There was a pretty 14 year-old redheaded girl with an over bite and enormous breasts who was reading Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. I remember reading it and being really confused when it started all over again. I remember having fantasies about the redheaded girl.

At 16, I was the summer grill cook at the Gill’s Diner in North Park about half a block from where my mother and I lived at the corner of Maple and North Second. I had always cooked, and to their amazement, took over the grill with no problem at all. The most expensive thing on the menu was the double rib-eye steak dinner. I think it was $2.95. By the end of the first shift, we would do $300 or $400. We sold a lot of breakfasts.

After a short stint at the Plaza restaurant in Rockford Plaza, I went back to work for Uncle Frank at the north pit across from where the Kawasaki dealership is now on 251. Russ Hasinger was my boss. I drove a ‘56 White Autocar six-wheeler. My job was to keep the bins from overflowing in between the pickups by Rockford Blacktop and the other Larson’s trucks from the south plant. Russ taught me how to lubricate all the machines and to start the generator that powered all the gravel-sorting machinery. We worked 12-hour days, and I often took home $200 in a single week.

One day, Russ dropped a 3-foot wrench into the screen machine where I was replacing screens on the bottom level. It landed next to my head. “Missed,”was all he said. Another day, he cut all the fingers off his right hand applying goop to the belts on the Cedar Rapids crusher. He wrapped his hand in a rag and waved to us saying he was going down to the other plant. In actuality, he went to the hospital and had his hand sewn up. He came back to work that afternoon. He was one tough son of a bitch.

The Cedar Rapids crusher had a moveable jaw and a fixed jaw. The fixed jaw was worn out and needed to be replaced. We used huge wrenches to remove the enormous nuts that held the jaw in place, but the jaw simply wouldn’t budge. I was standing in the opening straddling the two jaws, pounding it with a sledgehammer. It was about 90 degrees, and I was feeling faint. Russ remarked calmly that it hadn’t been that hard to get off last time. But then he quietly added that had been 27 years ago.

We needed to build a dike across the pit to prevent it from flooding in the spring. Flooding made it hard to get the gravel out. My part in this was to back the dump truck under the drag line crane to receive a load of black dirt and then back out and dump it off the edge where a Cat would push it over. The dirt was sticky, and to get it out, you had to learn to bang the tailgate. This was done by moving the truck in time to the swinging of the gate and then slamming on the brakes causing the gate to bang against the box. To see where you were going, it was necessary to get out of the cab and stand on the running board, steering the truck with your right hand, and jumping back into the cab at the last possible moment.

I was doing this when the edge of the dike collapsed under the weight of the truck. The truck started rolling down the 50-foot embankment. I wisely got back into the cab. Just when it seemed the truck was going all the way over, the load in the bin broke loose and fell out, and the truck settled back on its side about half way down. I climbed up out the door and made my way to the top. They pulled it back out with the Caterpillar Tractor.

Ed Larson was really quiet as they changed all the fluids in the White, but I could feel his disapproval. Then Russ told me to get back in the truck and back it out there again. I stood there with tears in my eyes telling him that I couldn’t but he told me that if I didn’t do it now, I would never be able to do it. I finally backed the truck out to the dike, standing on the running board sobbing. By the end of the day, I was doing OK. Russ Hasinger was a tough son of a bitch, but he was immensely fair.

More next week.

Mike Leifheit’s “Hanging Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. These columns are available on his Web site, IrishRoseRockford.com, and featured on WNTA talk radio AM 1330. Leifheit is owner of the Irish Rose restaurant in the downtown River District.

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