Editor’s note: The first part of this story was printed on Page 1B in the May 2 edition.
When World War I started, Anton Venski joined the U.S. Army to do his duty. He ended up in France and drove an ammunition supply vehicle, a very dangerous job. Only two of the original men he shipped with survived until the end of the war, as one stray round to a truck meant instant death.
When Venski came home he attended night school, and he landed a night job at the post office. This part of the book starts to show his sense of humor and his camaraderie with his friends. They hung out at pool halls and saloons and even into the Prohibition days when everything but near beer was banned. They overcame that obstacle by spiking their beer with homemade gin, which most of the bartenders kept hidden from unknown people’s eyes.
Venski was careful in his writings to never mention anyone’s last name. He made two exceptions to that rule — once at the beginning of his book when he mentions the families that lived on the same block he lived on, and the other when starts talking about his best friend, Andy Garton, who owned a motel.
Venski liked to have new houses built and had 10 or 12 during his lifetime. As he moved from one relatively new house to a brand new one with a different design, he never seemed to be satisfied. And during his moving he never mentions where he moved to, until toward the last half of the book. He just mentions living in the country, and spending a lot of time at a tavern called Big Jim’s. Even though he never says were this bar is, his pranks, stories about his garden and relationships with the people at Big Jim’s made it sound like a place I had visited at one time in my life.
Jim mentioned to Venski and Andy one day that he had bought a team of Clydesdales. Both men advised Jim that he would go broke feeding those big horses hay and oats. Unknown to Andy and Venski, the next day the Budweiser Clydesdales were in the bar. When Andy and Venski came in, Big Jim asked them how they liked his new team of horses. Needless to say, both men were miffed, but the person with the last laugh was the winner.
Later that summer, Andy came up with an idea to get even with Big Jim. He had Venski meet him out at a hayfield he owned across from his motel. The two then baled up one bale of hay, and making sure that Big Jim wasn’t at the bar, they placed the bale of hay under the pictures of Big Jim’s team of horses. Big Jim was gracious about the bale, but then asked them if they would haul the manure that the horses produced. Andy and Venski agreed. That night Venski went home and typed up an invoice with the heading: GARTON & VENSKI, HAYBALERS & MANURE HAULERS, INC., and then they billed Big Jim $18.50 for the bale of hay.
Well, Big Jim sent them a check, but he dated it Aug. 14, 1900, which would make the check no good. They cashed the check one day at the bar when Big Jim was absent, and Big Jim was rather put off by it. But the guys gave him his $18.50 back, and all was well.
That part of the story got me thinking again about the location of this bar, and when Venski mentioned that Big Jim’s was a hangout for railroad workers from Altoona, I was almost certain that Big Jim’s was McElroy’s bar or Ole’s Southside Tavern today. I called Ole and when mentioning some of the names in Venski’s book, he remembered a one-arm bartender, Honest Irv as he is called in the book. That and the fact that Garton’s motel is right next door, that did it.
Venski’s tale ends shortly before he wrote his book. In 1961 his friend Andy developed a heart condition and died. Shortly afterward Big Jim suffers a heart attack and dies. Jim’s wife is killed in a car accident a year later, and somehow the tavern isn’t the same anymore.
Venski does talk about going there after he had lost his friends, and he mentions a middle-aged bartender named Bob who also brags about his garden. I can never know for sure, but the timing is right that this bartender could have been my dad. I will never know for sure, but I have a hint that it might have been.
Venski had a favorite saying when he entered a bar to have a beer. He would say to the bartender, “It’s a nice day to be working. I’m glad you are working.” My dad was known to use that expression, so who knows, maybe he had been sitting at McElroy’s one day when Venski came in.