Down Norbert hallway lived Joseph Dvorak. Joseph—a below-average student, unlucky in love, confident and loud—sucked Sean out of his introspective shell like a vacuum cleaner. Sean rejoiced that people at TBI treated him as a regular person, one of the boys—a new experience. One day in November Joseph met Sean in the hall. “Sean, you wanna come to my house for Thanksgiving dinner?”
“I dunno, Joseph. Are you sure your mom wants me?” He felt apprehensive about dinner with a strange “Eastern European” family.
“Sure! She loves having people in. Besides, I want to show you my old car.”
So, on Thanksgiving morning they caught the train at Madison Street Station and headed for New Lennox. The day turned colder. Sean cracked open one of the dirty, wood-framed windows on the train and stared at the city as he heard the train wheels clacking and felt the cool air rushing in. But he had little time to absorb the industrial sounds and smells because soon they were passing fields of snow-glazed corn stubble.
Joseph Dvorak worried about everything, and today he worried out loud, raising his voice over the clatter. “I don’t know if I can make it to the end of the semester. . . . don’t know if I can pass Meacham’s class. . . . I’m not sure what I’ll do when I get out of TBI. . . . I don’t know if my girlfriend wants to break up . . . .”
Sean didn’t know what to say but he thought, What’s friendship when all’s done but the giving and taking of wounds? So he spoke more out of hope than certainty—“Joseph; you’ll be fine! God has a plan for your life.” Joseph’s scowl turned into a smile.
When the train stopped in New Lennox, they grabbed their overnight bags and jumped off. “Sean, we have to walk a mile down Center Road here to my house.”
Joseph’s home appeared a modest bungalow, with an old flat-tired car slumbering alongside the house. “That’s my baby,” Joseph said, peeling back the tarp to reveal his green, 1945 MG TA. “I just need the time and money to work on it.” Sean stared enviously.
Joseph’s Czech mother dominated the Thanksgiving meal, with its wonderful, homey smells flowing out of her tiny kitchen. They sat down, and Mrs. Dvorak asked Joseph to offer a prayer of thanks. After a couple months of institutional food, the bounty overwhelmed Sean—a perfectly-browned turkey, heaps of mashed potatoes and gravy (Sean’s mother rarely made gravy), cloven slices of cranberry sauce, candied sweet potatoes. Mrs. Dvorak kept saying to him, “Sean, eat!” Music to Sean’s ears—he served himself two extra helpings. After dinner he devoured a big piece of pumpkin chiffon pie topped with two scoops of vanilla ice cream; then she said, “Do you want another piece?” Sean thought, Have I died and gone to heaven?
They spent two wonderful days in the Dvorak home, where Sean slept up in the dormer bedroom. Joseph became a true friend, a friendship that would last more than fifty years.
On the train trip back, the guys talked about future plans. Joseph said, “I’m studying for the ministry, or maybe missions. But I’m worried about Emelia; I don’t know if our engagement’s gonna last.” Sean tried to reassure him.
Back at TBI, Joseph asked Sean, “Wanna walk over to Michigan Avenue and pass out gospel pamphlets?” Fundamentalists felt a holy obligation to tell others the Good News of the gospel. Sean reluctantly agreed and they set out, walking east.
Michigan Avenue! Broad sidewalks and steel-posted street lights with their four-clustered hanging globes. Sean leaned against the frost-silvered stone wall of one of the upscale department stores and stared into a cold display window filled with plastic mannequins clothed with the latest fashions. Up and down Michigan Avenue strolled the Beautiful People—women hatted and high-heeled, displaying sequined sheath dresses, fur wraps and sheer hose; men wearing black wingtip shoes and double-breasted dark suits with handkerchiefs in the breast pockets. Some wore stiff-brimmed, creased-crown Hombergs.
“You know, Joseph, I’ve never bought anything, never even walked into one of these stores.” Like most students, Sean came from a modest economic background. The Depression still lingered in his parents’ minds and commanded frugality. Besides, TBI’s ethos encouraged marshalling energy and resources for Christian evangelism and mission. Sean felt like an alien among the Beautiful People of Michigan Avenue.
And what could an atheist say to people anyway? He gave a passing man a pamphlet and said, “God loves you.”
The man replied, “I doubt it.”
Sean said to himself, I know how you feel!
Joseph told the man, “Don’t doubt God. Our god is a consuming fire.” The man jumped back and stalked off into the distance. Joseph attributed this to the power of God.
Walking back along Chestnut Street, the sharp winter winds blowing off of Lake Michigan pierced their clothing. They passed a brown-skinned man¾sandals, baggy pants, un-pressed shirt, ripped sweater—and handed him a pamphlet. “No leo Inglés,” he said.
Sean told Joseph, “I don’t think he speaks English.” He tried to talk to him in his broken Spanish. “Jose” didn’t trust them at first, but then ended up inviting the guys up to his apartment. Joseph opted to walk back to TBI, but Sean climbed upstairs with Jose to a tiny third-floor room where Jose showed him his Spanish Bible, which they read together. When Joseph prayed for him, Jose mumbled a prayer along with him, then crossed himself.
One night a few weeks later the Norbert Hall guys heard fire sirens, so they poured down the stairs and ran out into the street.
“This one’s close!” Joseph and Fulton were running next to Sean, breathing in the snowy air as they ran toward the blaze.
“Sean—it looks like Jose’s apartment building!”
Fireman standing on the hook and ladder truck sprayed the upper floors. Firehose water stood freezing on the sidewalks. Sean strained to see Jose’s apartment window—there it was, with smoke pouring out of it. Surely he’d gotten out by now. The flames quickly consumed the wood-frame building, lifting smoke high into the sky. When the heat drove Sean back, he talked to a couple of firemen. “We don’t know much , , , whole building’s destroyed, though.”
The firemen controlled the blaze and the spectators straggled away. The guys walked back to TBI leaving behind the collapsed, charcoaled rafters still glowing with dying embers. Sean was worried. “I hope Jose’s safe. Surely he got out in time.”
The next morning Sean sat in Norbert lounge scanning a small article in the Chicago Tribune. One person died in the Chestnut fire, it said, name of Jose Torres. Sean’s shivered—Jose! He turned to Joseph—“That dear man, far from family and his native home, trying to survive alone in the city, perished in the fire. I wonder what his Catholic faith did for him.”
But then, he thought, what did my faith do for me? I cannot be certain of Jose, or even of myself!