1969, Thursday, December 4
At 3:15 Spike Lillegaard, proprietor of Spike’s Corner Bar, as everyone miscalled it, glowered out the window at the gathering dusk, not that dusk had much gathering to do. The string of heavily clouded days provided ample gloom even when the sun reached its low zenith behind the overcast. As usual, December came double-fanged: short days and leaden skies.
Street lights came on, reflecting aqua-yellow on the three inches of dingy snow. As dark as it was, Spike’s day grew darker. A hunched figure shuffled down the street towards Spike’s corner. To Spike’s relief, the figure shuffled past. “Good for you,” Spike said through the neon railroad spike hanging in his window.
Spike’s eyes lost focus. Once again he mulled the bleak reality of the Iron Range. The iron mining industry was in free fall, sinking deeper than it had in its eighty years of boom or bust. Hematite, the hard rock high-concentrate ore, was gone. Left was the low-concentrate taconite, which required upgrade into pellets before being shipped. The international iron and steel market played against the taconite. Much of hematite mined from Minnesota was on the bottom of the Pacific, strewn in the soils of Europe, rusting in derelict ships in the far ends of San Francisco Bay, lost in Korea, or piled in America’s junkyards.
In its first forty years the mining industry had absorbed the poor of Eastern Europe, Italy, Cornwall, and Northern Europe. Their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren fulfilled the immigrants’ dream by becoming educated and escaping, many of them into the professions. A man who had taught in several places before settling in the Arrowhead told Spike that this was the best place to teach. “Solid families, models of hard work, parental support of schools. Mostly because you don’t have to convince these kids, or the good ones anyhow, that education matters. Here, education is the ticket out. Courtrooms, classrooms, boardrooms, and operating rooms are full of people from the Da Range.” The teacher, being an outsider, did not have the knack for giving the final consonant in Range a sound halfway between j and ch.
“Not that I should talk,” Spike had answered across the bar, “being from here myself. We have filtered out mosta the good and left ourselves with lotsa the bad.”
Spike had inherited The Spike Corner Bar from his father twenty years before the man died. In 1936 his father purchased the bar on the cheap from a drunken Croatian. When Spike returned in 1947 from six months of war and two years in the German occupation force, his father handed him the keys to the bar and the apartment upstairs where Spike’s mother died in 1946 while he was in Germany. His father wished Spike luck and moved out to bartend in sunny California where he would be free of balance sheets. Tired from his time in Europe, Spike took the easy route of running the bar. “For a couple years, maybe three,” he told everyone. After four years he knew he was bound to stay on forever. He had come home to be home. His home, Da Range, for good or ill. He looked for a wife, but the good women had followed the good men into suburbia. A few bold women pioneered their own way to college and beyond. Nope. Spike was staying on Da Range, and it seemed probable he was staying single.
The Spike Corner Bar anchored an intersection in the one remaining original neighborhood in town, the rest all having been moved to access the ore beneath them. The neighborhood looked tired. Not the bar. Spike kept the bar looking fresh and clean on the inside and out, even adding four years ago the distinctive neon railroad spike in the window. Only a few old locals knew Spike got his name from the bar and not the bar from him. His father Hjelmer gave Spike the name Kjell. Because few knew how to pronounce it after the War, people started calling him Spike, which turned the bar’s common name into Spike’s Corner Bar. Who was he to argue with paying customers who did not look up and read a sign.
It was not quite a cocktail lounge; certainly not a dive. Spike did not need a bouncer and had called the police only twice in twenty-two years. When problems arose, Spike used the people-control skills he developed in occupied Germany. Beneath his velvet glove was an iron fist. The area on the opposite side of the front door became known as “The Ladies’ Table.” The far end of the bar was the unofficial auxiliary town hall. Red and white metal “No Cussing” signs hung from all four walls. Spike had heard enough swearing in the army.
Movement on the sidewalk drew Spike’s eyes back into focus. Looking like the ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come, the shuffling figure came back past Spike’s window and stopped in front of his door. Spike willed him to move on, to have the courage to defeat his demons. The figure took two steps away, then turned and entered. He nodded to Spike and walked back to the far corner booth, the only gloomy place in the bar. In the past Spike tried to talk the man out of entering or staying in the bar, which agitated him. “It’s a free country, even for drunks,” his friend the police chief told Spike.
Spike set up a tray and carried it back to the corner. A fifth of brandy, two beer glasses full of water, and one empty Manhattan glass. “Good afternoon, Mr. Iasolino. How are you today?” Only ten years separated the men, ten years but a lifetime of experiences. They fought at opposite ends of the War.
The man looked past Spike’s right ear to the window. “A dark day, Kjell. A dark day. Dark.” Somewhere along the way, Mr. Iasolino had learned Spike’s real name and how to pronounce it. Aligned with the edge of the table lay a neat pile of one five and seven ones. Spike picked them up.
“It is. It is, Mr. Iasolino.” As Spike cut the revenue seal on the bottle, he asked softly, “Sure you need to do this tonight?”
“Do not worry. Cab at 10:00, eh.”
“Twelve dollars still cover the cost of the brandy, the cab, and tips for you both?”
“Yes, thank you.” It was a generous tip, but Spike had also lost that argument several times. He poured one finger of brandy into the empty glass. Mr. Iasolino slugged it down. Spike poured a second finger of brandy and added two fingers of water. Mr. Iasolino nodded. Spike went back to the bar. Spike never measured aloud in fingers for Mr. Iasolino.
The door opened. Wearing semi-dress clothes, in walked Police Chief Davey Uremovich to sit at the last seat at the bar. Davey had missed the War but served from Forty-Five to Forty-Nine in occupied Japan. Only Davey’s wife and Spike knew he had spent time in Nagasaki. Spike drew him a Miller High Life and set it before his friend, who drank half and then put it back down. He tipped his head sideways towards the gloomy corner. “When was he last in here?”
“Monday. He fights it. It seems four days is the longest he can make it. You say he drinks nowhere else?”
“No. Only here. Compliment for you, eh.”
“He only buys his brandy here, near as I can tell.” He lifted his glass to Spike. “End of war forever, eh, even that damned stupid mess over in Viet Nam.”
Spike spread his fingers in the peace symbol.
Davey tipped his head again towards the gloom in the corner. “Not that he’s breaking any laws. Just one vet looking out for another, or two of us vets looking out.”
For twenty minutes Davey and Spike discussed local sports, specifically how some people made it too important. “They forget it’s s’posed to be some kids having some fun,” Spike said
“It gets worse in bad times. Why feel better if your high school beats the next town over?” Davey asked. “Ain’t we all in the same sinking iron ore boat?”
Spike’s answer was interrupted by the arrival of five-eighths of the local economic development committee, all of whom looked overwhelmed. Spike began setting up their usuals: three draws, a pres, and port from a bottle he kept only for Fr. Raddich, the priest being the only one who drank it. Spike nodded to Fr. Raddich and then at Mr. Iasolino. The priest threw back the port, which he usually sipped, and headed into Mr. Iasolino’s gloom.
Spike asked, “Three committee member missing, eh?”
The Mayor answered, “Lost our three bony-fied Iron Range Big Blowhards between there an here, thank God. Time they waste for us, eh!”
Davey stood up to leave. “Twentieth anniversary for Katy and me. Out to Moss Lake for their Thursday prime rib. We’ll be back later for a nightcap, Spike. Round for the committee, eh. I’ll pay up when we’re back.” Davey collected his slaps on the back for his anniversary.
After ten minutes, Fr. Raddich returned and sat on Davey’s empty stool. Spike asked, “Davey bought a round. Up for another?”
Fr. Raddich seldom drank more than one port. Fr. Raddich, who was at his third church in Northeastern Minnesota since 1945, drummed his fingers on the bar, looked over at Mr. Iasolino, and held his fingers still. “Give me one of those brandy preses. I’ve never had one.”
Spike grinned as he mixed the drink, “Going Protestant, eh.” The brandy pres was the most common drink in Spike’s bar. It’s full name was brandy presbyterian.
Fr. Raddich took the drink and toasted, “Here’s to Reverend Andrews, my Presbyterian brother of the cloth.”
No one said anything for a few minutes, until the mayor finished his drink. “What is there to say? Dark times, my friends.”
The committee followed him out the door, except the priest. “Has he always been like this?” Fr. Raddich asked, nodding towards the dark corner, “ever since the War?”
“No. He was good, not perfect, as long as he was working. But not in the layoffs. Then he couldn’t work anymore. He was a blaster, believe or not.”
“Learned it in the War?”
“Learned it in the mines and took it to war. Back when he was working, he’d come in for a couple drinks at the bar. We’d talk about the War, just in general, like vets do. You now you can tell, one vet to another.”
“Yes, we can. Was he ever married, have children?”
“None I know of.”
“You Protestants don’t know a good drink.” He pushed most of the pres back to Spike.
“Father, I am a Lutheran, or so in theory. We Norwegians drink coffee or that high-priced fancy Everclear they got over there.”
“We survived the War, you and I. We still have our walking wounded.” He stood up. “A good sound Cat-o-lick blessing upon you, friend. Take care of our man in the corner.”
Spike called Meatball Ellingsen. His wife answered with, “Mesabi Taxi.”
“Spike here. Tell Meatball he has his three-block fare tonight at 10.” She said he would be there.
For the next couple hours a few customers drifted in and out, decent enough business for the supper hour. His real trade began after supper. When the mines were working full shifts, his business was about equal Monday to Thursday. Miners had different days off. Now Thursday was his favorite night, relaxed but busy. The middle-agers, many out of work, claimed Thursday as theirs and left the weekend to the youngsters. At seven the Ladies’ Table held five women taking turns playing shmear. The new elementary principal was taking abuse in absentia. Some couples asked Spike to put on their music, which was not on the juke box. He had installed a Hi-Fi just for this purpose. Polkas and schottisches keep the too-energetic young and the hard drinkers away. Spike bar-chatted with six men on the stools before him, meaning he appeared interested but was tired of all the topics. Most of their conversation scalded U.S. Steel and the other companies, the AFL-CIO, Japan, Germany, and presidents near-past, present, and wish-to-be’s.
About 8:30 the married couples separated, wives to the Ladies’ Table, husbands to the other back corner where they could quietly cuss away, free of Spike’s Puritanism. By 9:30 half his customers had gone home. At 9:40 in walked a problem: two man/boys and one girl/girl, all 21, which would make their ID’s seem illegit, except Spike knew them. They had been in before and caused Spike a bit of trouble. After he did the formality of checking their ID’s, he tapped on the “No Cussing” sign behind the bar. He kept tapping until all three nodded, after which he filled their order for three draws. They stood together at the end of the bar trying to assert with pose, gesture, and loud voices their right to be here. Spike sat on his stool in the middle of the bar. At their age, he knew, he would have been just like them, hanging around at a dead-end job, fearful he looked immature, which, of course, would make him act immature. Except at their age he was occupying Germany and was maturing fast.
Davey and Katy walked in. Davey settled his tab for the earlier round. Spike gave the anniversary couple a round on the house. They sat with two friends of Katy’s who were still at the Ladies’ Table. They talked about a game of shmear, but no one took the initiative to deal the cards.
Spike’s ears picked up the sound of over-abundant youth: amusement being sought, bullies on the prowl ready to assert superiority over the easiest targets. They were eying Mr. Iasolino half in his cups in his dark corner. Spike shifted down the bar to be near them. Davey caught Spike’s eye, who put up his hand to say he had it covered. The three kids sniggered and half-whispered. They ordered a second round.
Mr. Iasolino worked a Camel out of a squashed cigarette pack. One fell free on the table. He picked it up with his right thumb and index finger, the only fingers on his right hand. “Look,” one of the boys pointed. “The ol’ drunk’s got only one finger.” His loud voice made everyone look up, not at the boy as such, but to see what Spike would do.
Spike leaned across the bar. They felt his presence and turned to face him. He spoke softly in a calm voice. “Three fingers on his right hand were shot off in Sicily.”
The same boy spoke, at first too loudly, his voice dropping as Spike looked him in the eye. “Sicily. Like in the Mafia? Like in that book, what’s it called?”
Spike lowered his voice a notch more, drawing the two boys to lean in over the bar. “The Godfather.”
“Yah, The Godfather,” the second boy nodded. The other two looked at him in suspicion.
“Read it, eh?” Spike asked.
The boy nodded, embarrassed to admit in front of his friends that he had read a book.
Spike held out his hand. “I’m Spike, what’s yours?”
“Billy.” They shook hands.
Spike did the same to Johnny and Deb.
“No,” Spike told them as if betraying a confidence, “World War II. He was fighting there.”
Deb, still standing back, said, “Sicily is like, Italy. He lives by me. He’s an ol’ dago!”
Spike looked her in the eye until she looked down. “He is Italian. Full-blood, I think. He fought in North Africa and then across to Sicily. He speaks Italian, making him mighty handy to have around.”
Keeping the conspiracy, Johnny spoke. “Why was he fighting there. The War wasn’t in Italy?”
Billy answered, “Yah, dummy. It was a big fight getting Italy away from Mussolini.”
“Oh, yah, him,” Johnny said. “The guy hanging dead upside down by a gas station.”
“Read about the War, eh?” Spike asked Billy.
“Well, I remember from tenth grade history.”
Johnny did not accept Billy’s explanation. “You’re the one who showed me that picture in a history book from the library.”
Deb whined for all to hear, ”Yous guys, I didn’t go out to talk about history. Bor-ring!”
“Wait for just a bit, Okay,” Billy whispered back, betraying they were the dating pair in the set of three. He leaned back across the bar with Johnny. “So, Spike, did he keep fighting in Italy after he got shot up?”
“No. He came back here to go back to blasting iron ore.”
“They let him do that with his bad hand?” Johnny asked.
“Forty-Four was still the War. Then by Forty-Six when the War ended, he had proved he could do it, and you didn’t fire wounded vets.”
“Gu-uys!” from Deb.
“Then what?” Billy asked
“Not much to say. He kept blasting until the mining industry went bust. Then he started hitting the bottle pretty hard. Nothing to do but remember the War. No family.”
“So, he was, whatcha you call it?” Johnny asked.
“Shell-shocked,” Billy whispered.
“Yah. Shell-shocked,” Johnny agreed.
“Not during the War, I don’t think. Maybe. He earned some decorations would be my guess. We’ve only talked enough about the War to know we were both in Europe.”
Deb trounced her anger off to the toilet
“So, you get shell-shocked?” Johnny asked.
“It’s all degrees. In a way I s’pose we all did.” Spike looked around the room. “There’s eight men in here, not counting us three. Four of them were in the War or the occupation after the War. One was in World War II and Korea. Sometimes it comes to you later, like the War haunts you. Being out of work is hard on a man.”
Johnny looked around the room at the men, trying to decide which four. Billy looked at Mr. Iasolino.
Meatball came through the door. Spike turned to hand the cab driver his money. “Not too bad tonight, Meatball. Want my help?”
“I got it. Thanks, Spike.”
Meatball gathered up Mr. Iasolino’s cigarettes and the half-empty bottle of brandy. The boys watched Meatball guide him out the door.
Deb stomped her way from the toilet to the door. “Guys! Going someplace fun, eh.”
Johnny went to the door. Wanting to ask more questions, Billy hesitated but followed the other two out into the cold.
Davey told Spike. “Smooth as ever. Occupying Germany, Japan, or Da Range is kinda all the same.”
Spike answered, “Not bad kids, well, maybe her. What a wife she’ll make some poor dumb slob! Hope it’s not Billy. One day we’ll be gone and Da Range will be theirs. So, who’s driving?”
Katy answered, “Me. I’ll take a Pepsi.”
Spike brought her the pop and Davey a pres. Tonic water in hand, he sat down with them. “What we drink to, eh?”
Katy lifted her glass. “To all the vets of all the wars.”
Davey touched her glass. “To our ancestors who were dumb enough to come here and mine hard rock.”
Spike touched their glasses. “To Dominic Iasolino.”
By 11:15 the place was empty. Spike shut down the outside lights, unplugged his neon railroad spike, locked the door, and cleaned up. Each night when the glassware was all washed, he had his usual nightcap of two fingers of rye whiskey.
Tonight he made it three fingers.
©Clyde L. Birkholz 2017