Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Back Home Again In Indiana

One of my all-time favorite holiday movies is Jean Shepherd’s A Christmas Story. I have probably seen this film every year since it was released in 1983. In fact, I have the video and bring it out to watch during Christmas just like my other favorites, It’s A Wonderful Life, Miracle On 34th Street (original version), Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory, and The Wizard of Oz, among others.

The first-time I saw A Christmas Story, I was amazed and excited. All I could say was, that’s where I came from; that’s my home town. My family looked at me like I had lost it. I knew that Jean Shepherd came from Hammond, but I had no idea that A Christmas Story took place in Hammond.

Jean Shepherd as narrator says that the characters lived in Hohman, Indiana. Actually, the story takes place in Hammond, Indiana, the place where I was not only born and raised, but also the home town of author/humorist Jean Shepherd. Hohman, Indiana, is a fictional place but his descriptions of the place are real. Hammond was and remains an industrial town that at one time had a population of approximately 125,000 people. Over the years the place deteriorated and those who could afford it emigrated to the richer suburbs.

For those who are not familiar with Hammond, it is located approximately 20 miles southeast of Chicago on the southern tip of Lake Michigan and is part of the greater Chicago area. Hammond is on the state line with Illinois at Calumet City, Illinois, a notoriously old, bawdy town that used to have strip joints and bars lining State Street when I was a kid. You could drive up and down the street and see strippers dancing in the clubs, sort of like New Orleans is today. “Everyone” knew that the mob ran Calumet City in the 1940s. Calumet City is still the place to go for bars and taverns if you like that sort of thing.

I especially like to point out all the places in the movie that are or were located in Hammond as I was growing up there. The similarities between the movie and real life were all too obvious to my eyes. First, Jean Shepherd lived at 2907 Cleveland Street in Hammond. That house still stands. In fact, I had a childhood girlfriend that lived in the neighborhood. There is a Hohman Avenue which runs North and South through the town. The department store depicted in the movie is Goldblatt's Department Store (now defunct and gone for many years). The parades and store windows were real, including the in-store Santa. The movie theaters (the Paramount and the Parthenon) actually gave away dishes. The cold and snow are real. It is so cold in winter that your tongue WOULD actually freeze to a flag pole if you were that stupid to try it. It usually begins to snow in late October or early November and doesn’t quit until April or May. If you didn’t cover your nose in Winter, your nose hairs would freeze as you inhaled and exhaled.

The school that Ralphie and his pals attended looks just like my old high school, Hammond High. I actually went to grade school with a kid that looked exactly like Skut Farkas, including the yellow eyes. The houses, streets, and alleys looked like those in the movie. And, there were “hillbillies” everywhere in our neighborhood. These were the southerners who came up north to work in the factories during the war and never left. My parents owned a corner grocery store and you could always tell the “hillbillies” by their vernacular and by the junk cars they were always working on in front of their houses or in their yards (this is where the expression “shade-tree mechanic” came from). Some of my favorites are “I want a poke of . . . ,” which means put it in a paper sack, and “gimme a bottle of dope,” which means I would like a Coke (pronounced Co-cola).

At the end of the movie, after the next-door neighbors’, the Bumpuses, smelly old hound dogs ate their turkey, the family goes to a Chinese restaurant for dinner. The restaurant in question is Cam Lam’s Chinese Restaurant on Sibley Street. The exterior shot in the movie shows the actual restaurant, which is still in business today. Our family used to eat there every Sunday and my father invariably ordered Chicken Chow Mein or Sub Gum Chicken Chow Mein and an egg roll. My sister and I ate whatever our parents ordered for us. We loved the place because we always got orange sherbet for dessert and the owner would bring out little containers of real cream that we would pour over the sherbet. It would freeze and form a sweet crust on top. It’s still my favorite.

I always called Hammond “the armpit of America” because it was such a dirty, smelly place crisscrossed with a million trains and railroad tracks. You couldn’t drive a block without getting caught by a train. Our favorite pastime, if caught at a crossing, was counting the rail cars. You were only slightly inconvenienced if there were fewer than 100 cars in back of the engines. I couldn’t wait to get away from Hammond, so I left immediately after graduating from high school. I moved back briefly before moving to Kentucky in the late 1960s. After my parents passed away and my sister and her husband moved to Las Vegas, I vowed never to return. On my last visit to Hammond, I got pictures of every house, business, and other buildings that were owned or had relevance to our family.

This Christmas I will again bring out and watch the video A Christmas Story and I will again get that nostalgic feeling about Hammond. But, to this day, I have never gone back home again to Indiana and I don’t regret it a bit. I will allow my memories to remain memories and to flicker briefly while I watch the movie.

I do, however, still get teary-eyed when I hear Hogie Carmichael's version of Indiana.

Words by Ballard MacDonald
Music by James F.Hanley
C. 1917

I have always been a wand-'rer,
Over land and sea,
Yet a moon-beam on the water
Casts a spell o'er me,
A vision fair I see,
Again I seem to be:

Back home again in Indiana,
And it seems that I can see
The gleaming candlelight still shining bright
Thru the sycamores for me,
The new mown hay sends all its fragrance
From the fields I used to roam,
When I dream about the moonlight on the Wabash,
Then I long for my Indiana home.

Fancy paints on mem-'ry's canvas
Scenes that we hold dear,
We recall them in days after,
Clearly they appear,
And often times I see,
A scene that's dear to me.


At November 15, 2005 7:05 PM, Blogger Trish Milburn said...

Hey, I didn't know you had a blog! The whole family's blogging. :)

At November 15, 2005 9:36 PM, Blogger susan said...

My husband's favorite movie! This year when he drags it out and we watch it yet one more time, I will look a little closer at the town. Thanks for sharing.


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