By Tim Murphy:
Denny Burns lived in the house behind us. He was 6 or 7 years older than me. His house faced Kedzie, a really busy street that we were only allowed to cross with Special Permission. That meant we had to specifically ask for and specifically have permission granted. That didn’t happen very often.
We weren’t allowed to play with Denny—actually Denny wasn’t allowed to come out of his yard. I never really knew why until my sisters and I were talking about our old neighborhood a couple of weeks ago. They remembered that he was a Peeping Tom. He had been caught looking in Sissy Kinsey’s window one night, and he had to go to the Juvenile Detention Center (Ju-Vee) for a couple of years. I had forgotten about that, but I didn’t really know what a Peeping Tom was back then. Anyway, that’s probably why he couldn’t come out of his yard and why we weren’t allowed to play with him.
We grew up in a very superstitious neighborhood, and it is part of my Irish heritage to be superstitious. Before the house that Denny lived in was built, it was part of the prairie. One day when my brother, sisters, and I were doing our homework at the kitchen table, we saw that the prairie was on fire. We told our mom, who called the fire department, which was right across the street from the Burns house/then prairie; but the Fire Department hadn’t noticed yet. So, the fire trucks came screaming across the street with the sirens howling—it was a really big deal. Shortly after that, they started construction on what would become Denny Burns’s house. After Denny became a Peeping Tom and went to Ju-Vee, the moms got together at the mailbox and concluded that there were bad things going on over there. Starting with the fire and all; these were signs.
I felt sorry for Denny. I didn’t really know much about Peeping Toms or what went on there. I was only about 6 or 7, and he was probably 13 or 14 at the time. The concept of looking in somebody’s window never crossed my mind (and Sissy Kinsey was really mean, I tried to avoid her whenever possible). Nobody talks about Peeping Toms anymore, maybe because we have the internet. I guess that’s progress. Back then though, it was a thing, but I didn’t get it.
Somewhere around this same time, I remember my dad and grandpa telling a story about a kid looking in my aunt’s window when she was a young girl. It wasn’t a story that I was supposed to be hearing, because they were whispering, which is why I paid attention. The story goes that my dad and my grandpa caught the kid while he was looking in. My dad wanted to beat the hell out of him, but my grandpa said no and escorted him home and told his dad instead. They said that was worse than my dad beating the hell out of him. They were whispering, and it sounded like something happened to his pee pee, and I remember them saying that it ruined the poor kid’s life. I thought they were calling him Pee Pee Tom because of what happened to his pee pee and because I couldn’t hear all of what they were saying, and Peeping Tom didn’t make any sense. I remember thinking, I’ll say it ruined his life, going around with the nickname Pee Pee Tom for the rest of your life would be horrible. Back then nicknames said something about you: Choo Choo Charlie was an engineer, Cowboy Bob, Beltin’ Bill Melton the slugger for the Chicago White Sox. Nicknames told a story about you. So Pee Pee Tom . . . we weren’t even allowed to say that word in our house. So to have it as part of your nickname, well, that would not be good. What kind of story does that tell and what can you do with a nickname like that? Like my grandpa said, it ruined the poor kid’s life.
But anyway, I felt sorry for Denny because he could only play in his own backyard, and I didn’t really know why. The yard had a really high fence around it, and they had a dog. So, one day I could see him through the slats in the fence and, feeling sorry for him, I climbed the fence to talk to him. When I got to the top of the fence his dog jumped up and took a swipe out of my chest with his paw. I had to go to the hospital because part of my chest skin was gone. We never went to the hospital back then, and my parents didn’t even really know where to take me. We sat down and had dinner first while they discussed where to go. I remember my sisters saying, “He’s bleeding all over!” But we ate dinner as a family back then, so that came first.
The closest hospital they could think of was Oak Forest Hospital, but it wasn’t really a hospital; it was a state-run nursing home for the indigent. I didn’t know what that meant at the time either (I didn’t have a strong vocabulary), but they had a doctor and he patched it up. He may not have been a real doctor though because it got infected, but then again, bad things happened over at Denny’s house.
So, the neighborhood moms came up with the devil theory: Denny and the devil dog lived in a house borne out of a fire storm—hell fire. They all knew about the Pee Pee Tom thing. They thought Denny was possessed by the devil or maybe even was the devil himself. They figured the devil had lured me into the trap, making me sin twice: once for climbing the fence (which I was not supposed to do) and second for trying to talk to Denny (which I wasn’t supposed to do either). And devil dogs are full of infection.
A year or two later, a girl got stabbed down the street from us one night. It was in the winter, so the knife blade only cut her a little because she had a big coat on, a Chicago-style coat that looked like a sleeping bag with arms. The moms at the mailbox were terrified at the lawlessness going on in our neighborhood.
A couple days later, Denny Burns got arrested for the stabbing; the girl identified him. This was confirming what the moms were thinking; “Oh, we got trouble” as the song from the times went. They were walking and squawking at the mailbox with their arms flailing around (”with a capital T and rhymes with P and that stands for . . . ,” well you know what that stands for). When the police went into his house and searched his bedroom, they found all sorts of girl’s underpants. Big ones, small ones, mom ones, granny ones . . . a bunch of them. When this news got out, the moms at the mailbox started putting 2 and 2 together. All of them had been missing underpants. Their daughters were missing them, too. My sisters had been getting yelled at for not clothespinning them to the clothesline properly. My mom thought they were blowing off the clothesline and flying away, and she wasn’t too pleased about that. Turns out it was Denny sneaking into the backyards at night and taking underpants off the clothesline. Worst of all, in our neighborhood, our names were written on our underpants, so the moms would know whose were whose; but now the policemen knew whose were whose, too. It was only girl’s underpants though, which I was kind of glad about because for once, my name didn’t get soiled.
Isn’t that creepy? But that’s how the devil works. He lures someone into bad behavior, and they get a bad reputation and a bad nickname. Pretty soon body parts take over their mind, and they can’t leave the backyard, can’t go near schools, or even clotheslines. Then their dog turns into a devil dog, and it helps to lure semi-innocent kids into their burning hell of infection. The next thing you know, underpants have gone missing and there is a Jack the Ripper running amuck in the neighborhood. The moms thought, Yep, it’s the devil alright. Just look at his name: Burns.
I have often wondered what happened to Denny Burns. I imagine he became a Congressman or something. I mean, there was that honorable congressman from New York that kind of made a name for himself, and even had the pictures of his namesake to prove it. Maybe Denny followed in his shadow and took a stab at that window of opportunity. And after all, I grew up in Illinois ,where 4 of the last 7 governors spent time in prison. Maybe that’s just dirty underwear.
So, we are a month away from the elections. Please take the time to vote. Our founding fathers broke laws that earned us the right to vote. Apathy is infectious; it’s “the devil’s playground.” But I would also ask you to do your homework. Learn some. Our founding fathers were also leaders. Find who today’s leaders are and who has some bad history. Shed a little light on things—window dressing can lead to a false sense of security. Don’t just vote for a name you recognize, learn their story. When you see the ads, look underneath to see what names are behind them, you might be blown away by what you find. Sort through the screaming and the squawking and be careful of the dark shadows. Look for the “tell-tale signs of corruption.” Listen to the watchdogs. But sift through the false accusations to find the truth—there is a lot of smoke out there. We have a lot on the line. So don’t just sit on the fence; a mistake here could be more than just a flesh wound.
Please use your eyes, your ears, your brain, your heart, your gut, and even your nose . . . but leave that one body part out. There’s already enough of those out there.
As they used to say in Chicago when I was growing up, “Vote early . . . vote often.”
Tim Murphy grew up on the south side of Chicago in a home filled with Catholic Irish traditions. He has kissed the Blarney Stone and been given the gift of storytelling. He attended Catholic Grade School, public high school and a Lutheran College—which perhaps has shaped his somewhat irreverent style. In his sixty-four years, he has received many blessings, and despite his misbehavior, they seem to keep coming.