I was fascinated by the size of and the contrast between New York and Chicago. Both cities had large ethnic populations whose arrival in the areas had driven the growth and progress of both cities. In fact, outside of Warsaw, Poland, Chicago had the largest Polish population in the world. I was living in Chicago when Los Angeles passed Chicago in population, making the term “Second City” less relevant. It was also a blow to the pride of the residents of the City of Broad Shoulders.
There were many similarities between New York and Chicago. They were both located on a body of water. They both had a unique transportation system, the subway in New York and the “EL” in Chicago. Both drowned in sport teams. Chicago had the Bears, Cubs, White Sox Black Hawks and Bulls. New York had the Yankees, Giant, Mets and Knicks. Both were known for food and music, but that subject matter is far beyond the scope of this essay. One interesting sidelight regarding the New York-Chicago food discussion is that both became famous for food because of the trains. European chefs originally came to the U.S. to be chefs on trains. The fanciest food in America was found in the dining cars of passenger trains. Over time, chefs gravitated to the largest two cities to open their own restaurants. Thus, the culinary explosion was on, expanding to most major cities.
Crime was big business in the two cities with bodies strewn all over the dark neighborhoods of New York. In Chicago, many found peace on the bottom of the Chicago River along with stolen cars and corpses that had found a final resting place in the murky water. I once spent several hours sitting on the bank of the Industrial Canal that ran through the suburb of Cicero. Al Capone had a home in Cicero and that stretch of waterway was a favorite dumping place. If you set your imagination free, you could almost see the bodies floating along the waterway, bumping into barges and the like—such a rich source of short stories and poetry.
Up until the 1940s, the train was the fashionable way to travel in the U.S., particularly between the two cities. The 20th Century Limited was the queen of all rail travel, rivaling Europe’s Orient Express. The Limited made the New York-Chicago trip in sixteen hours, boarding in New York at 4:00 pm and arriving in Chicago at 8:00 am. The train made one stop, Cleveland, along the way. All of the cars were Pullman, so every passenger had a bed and white- cloth dining prepared by the best chefs in America. All of the cars were met in both cities by red carpets as you exited or climbed aboard. This was the forerunner of the red carpet of Oscar fame. The price $51.00, or $710.00 in today’s currency.
I suppose I should approach the purpose of this collection of thoughts. My purpose was to describe one pilot I had the privilege of traveling with on several occasions between New York and Chicago. The year was 1978. Mr. Jim Tilmon was the fifth black pilot to fly for a commercial airline. He was the third to fly for American Airlines. Jim learned to fly while serving in the U.S. military. He was both a helicopter and fixed wing pilot.
Part of what made Mr. Tilmon so interesting was that he was first clarinet in the Chicago Symphony and the 10:00 pm weatherman on the NBC affiliate TV station. As an allowance to his varied lifestyle, American assigned him to the Chicago O’Hare-New York La Guardia route. He left Chicago at noon and left New York at 5:00. That gave him two hours to get to the TV station when he returned to Chicago
I became aware of him because of his unique piloting style. He talked to the passengers for an inordinate amount of time over the intercom system in his rich baritone television voice while piloting his plane. Depending on which way you were going, east or west, he described the best restaurants, as well as a “quirky” dive or two. He announced which shows you could still get a ticket to as well as giving a myriad collection of other facts and things you might need to know.
Tilmon’s skills as a pilot were brought home on a trip from New York to Chicago. The weather was awful and there was some discussion about having to go back to New York or somewhere in between to wait out the storm. With a little persistence with the control tower, Tilmon secured clearance to head north into Canada, far into Canada near the bottom of the Hudson Bay, and then circle back around and come to Chicago from the West. While this was going on, we were treated to a narrative of events by our pilot including weather reports. Running out of fuel as we approached O’Hare, we were granted permission to land before many planes ahead of us in the skies over Chicago.
After landing I took the community limo to my home in the Naperville. I greeted my wife, Jan, played with our two little girls for a time and then we put the girls in bed. Then Jan and I enjoyed dinner while we watched Jim Tilmon give the nightly weather.