“A Little Slice of Heaven”
Floyd Vesela was born on January 14, 1911 in Chicago. His parents were Anton Vesela and Helena Starek, both of Czechoslovakian descent. It was always assumed that both of his parents were born in Chicago, but Floyd thinks his mother may have actually been born in Czechoslovakia and came here as an infant with her family. Either way, Floyd and his five siblings were raised to be proud of their Czech heritage.
Anton worked as a bricklayer, and Helena cared for their six children: Mary, Wilma, John, Herbert, Louisa and Floyd. They lived on St. Louis Avenue on the west side of Chicago. Tragically, when Floyd was still very little, one of his brothers, Herbert, climbed a utility pole while they were playing and was electrocuted and died. Floyd was very much affected by his brother’s death and supposedly had terrible nightmares for many years after. Even now, he doesn’t like to talk about the accident.
Floyd says that besides his brother’s death, he had what was probably considered a normal childhood for the time. He and his siblings attended grade school and mostly played in the streets, though he did join the local Boys Club and played a lot of sports there. When he finished grade school, he went on to attend high school and even graduated. Anton was very proud of the fact that Floyd went to high school, as he was the only one in the family to do so. All the others had had to quit to find work. Floyd then trained to become an electrician—an interesting career choice considering his brother’s death—and eventually found a job at Western Electric in Cicero.
Not long after, however, the family was again shaken when Anton was tragically killed in an accident at work. He was working on the construction of a building downtown when a load of bricks fell from the thirtieth story of the building and landed on top of him. He lived through the accident, but he had severe brain damage and only lasted a week before he died. Floyd was the only one of the children still living at home at the time of his father’s death, so he remained and cared for his mother.
One of the things Floyd enjoyed doing for fun was going out dancing after work. The Aragon Ballroom was his favorite, and he went nearly every weekend. It was there, in fact, that he met a lovely young woman by the name of Thelma Schultz. The two fell in love and eventually married and continued going to the Aragon every weekend for several years before they had children. They enjoyed going with two other couples with whom they shared expenses, namely gas and drinks. They would usually go on Sundays at 3 pm to practice before the “real thing” started. Wayne King and his orchestra would play, and Floyd says that to be there was like “a slice of heaven,” even if they didn’t dance and instead just sat and listened to the music.
Floyd and Thelma eventually had two children, Russell and Sadie. When they were first married, Floyd and Thelma lived in an apartment in the Pilsen neighborhood, but when Russell was about five, they bought a house in Berwyn. As the children got older, Floyd and Thelma mostly stayed at home, only occasionally going back to their old stomping ground at the Aragon. Russell relates that his father did not have a lot of hobbies and didn’t go out much with the guys. “He worked all day and then came home and watched TV.” He liked to make people laugh, though, says Russell, and he “had a genuine concern for other people’s welfare.” He always helped Thelma with the housework, and besides being a very skilled electrician, he was also an excellent craftsman at mechanics. He worked at Western Electric his entire life, retiring at age 68. In all, he had put in fifty years there.
According to Russell, Floyd never stopped being in love with Thelma, and he was likewise completely dependent on her. She pampered him completely, something he was used to as the youngest child of six kids. When she died of cancer, then, in 1984, Floyd was devastated. “He had no idea how to exist on his own,” says Russell. “He couldn’t balance a checkbook and had no idea how to pay bills.” Both Russell and Sadie stepped in to help him during this sad time and tried to teach him some basic skills.
Floyd eventually got the knack of living independently, but in 1991, he decided that it was getting too difficult. He sold the house in Berwyn that he and Thelma had bought back in 1940 and moved into a retirement community. After that, Floyd’s health continued to decline, and he was then transferred to the “nursing home” part of the facility. He was very unhappy there, however, and repeatedly asked Russell or Sadie to transfer him to a different nursing home. This was a difficult request, as Russell had moved to California at the same time that Floyd moved into the retirement community, and Sadie has been living in Georgia for years. Finally, however, Russell made time to fly back to Chicago to help his father transfer to The Bohemian Home, known for it’s high population of Czech residents.
Floyd is happy with the change and delighted in his new home. At times he is confused and moody, but overall he seems happy. He likes to walk in the gardens and watch sports on TV in the dayrooms. He is also a big fan of the big band hour on Sundays, and says he loves the Czech food served in the dining room, especially the Czech beer served on weekends. He still misses Thelma, he says, but he is content knowing that she is waiting for him and that “we’ll be together again.”
(Originally written: Sept. 1994)
If you liked this true story about the past, check out Michelle’s historical fiction/mystery series, set in the 1930s in Chicago:
Or you might try her new stand-alone historical women’s fiction, also partially set in Chicago: