The Death of my Father – Part One

In the years after my return from Vietnam, my family lived in the newly built house in Boulder Hill. At that time it was a summer Saturday afternoon tradition to have grilled hamburgers and fresh sweet corn for dinner. And iced tea – from a huge jar which my mother had sitting in the sun all day long.

In the middle of the afternoon my mother would journey to a butcher shop in Montgomery, where the butcher would, right before her very eyes, grind the Saturday afternoon beef. Before visiting the butcher shop, she, and a number of other ladies, would visit a farm just off Montgomery Road picking out fresh ears of corn, literally as wagons arriving from the fields were dumping their newly cut bounty into the bins.

At the appropriate time my father would position the grill in the driveway, just outside the open garage doors. As the charcoal got going, he would drag out a lawn chair and sit – just taking it all in. If the day was warmer than normal, or perhaps just if he felt like it, he would have a cold beer. A rarity actually; these are the only times I can recall him drinking beer, or pretty much anything else. I would often drag out a chair of my own and join him, though I passed on the beer. In truth I’ve never really liked the stuff.

For my dad, and for my mother as well – children of the depression, survivors of the war – this was, I believe, a dream come true. The setting, the family, and – despite the turbulence of the era – the peaceful nature of it all. For me it was the living embodiment of the Monkees “Pleasant Valley Sunday”, played out on idyllic late Saturday afternoons.

One such quiet and peaceful Saturday afternoon in 1971, my father asked “Say, what you think of this?” And pointed to a pronounced bump on the side of his neck. In that instant, although I was not yet aware of it, my world began to tilt.

Evenings “Downtown” – The Biograph Theater

Roaming the bars and clubs of Aurora and the Fox Valley, as well as our favorite Chicago haunts, my best friend Vern and I were inseparable. Until he met Carol, that is. After this momentous event Vern would more than occasionally spend time in her old neighborhood, on Austin Avenue in Oak Park, or in St Charles when she was at school. This of course left me alone, and to explore, and to range a bit further. In doing so I discovered a couple of new hangouts, some new friends in the neighborhood on N. Lincoln Ave. which seemed to me at the time to coalesce around the Biograph Theater.

I was told that a couple had recently acquired the Biograph, and because of its fame, or notoriety, earned in the 1930s, decided to restore it to past glory and only play old movies. This was great fun, and I can say that my first large-screen viewing of a Marx Brothers movie – “Animal Crackers” – was at the Biograph.

Authors Note: I went to that particular showing because my brother and his friends were at the time obsessed with the Marx Brothers; reading books about them and quoting lines from their movies. After that night I was borrowing the books, and memorizing lines and passages myself. I quickly became, and still am a huge fan of Groucho, Harpo, and Chico and love each of them as individuals. But truth be told, Arthur (ne Adolph) Marx – Harpo – will always be my favorite. In fact, Harpo’s picture stares down at me from my office wall as I write this. So, thanks to my brother David for steering me to a lifelong obsession.

The Biograph theater was of course notorious as the site of the death of public enemy number one John Dillinger in 1936. The time in which I frequented that neighborhood coincided with the release of what I still feel to be the best John Dillinger movie ever made, the aptly named “Dillinger” starring Warren Oates.

I recall how angry the people who lived in the area were after seeing that movie. In actual events, the infamous lady in red had tipped off G-man Melvin Purvis as to when she and John Dillinger would be leaving the theater. As they exited they turned left (or south on Lincoln Ave) toward the alley a couple of doors away where Purvis was waiting. He confronted the gangster in front of the alley and in a scuffle fatally shot him.

This dramatic exciting climactic scene was well produced and well played, with one notable exception. In the movie upon leaving the theater Dillinger walked north on Lincoln Avenue to meet his fate. Locals who had awaited the movie with great anticipation were incensed.

Not growing up in the Biograph neighborhood, I didn’t mind the error in direction so much, and thought the movie was great. I have a copy and I still think so.

Evenings “Downtown” – The Playboy Club

Unlike a lot of our friends in Aurora, my best friend Vern and I, both singularly and more often together, spent a lot of time “downtown”, which is how we referred to the city of Chicago – mostly the area from the Gold Coast to Rush Street, through Old Town and, of course, Wrigleyville.

By the summer of ‘69 we were both members of the Playboy Club. This was the original club; a five-story building just west of Michigan Avenue at 116 E. Walton which Hefner had leased from Blackhawks owner Arthur Wirtz.

Entering the club, where you are greeted by a Door Bunny, to whom you showed your “key card”. This provided access and also served as an in-house credit card, After entering, a turn to the right and down a couple of steps led to a fairly typical, if rather high-end, cocktail lounge. To the left of the lobby was a reception office and an elevator.

The theme of the club was that it represented what was supposedly the adult male’s dream, the ideal “bachelor pad”. Each of the four floors offered the experience of a different room; Playroom, Penthouse, Library, and Living Room. These floors – accessed via the elevator – allowed one to move easily from cocktail lounge to cabaret to fine dining to dancing without ever leaving the building.

In 1972 Playboy acquired, and moved into the former “Palmolive Building” on the northeast corner of Michigan Avenue and Walton. The building, and the famous rotating “Lindburg” beacon at the top were renamed for the new owner. The site of the original club soon became a parking structure, and the charm and cachet of the old club was lost forever.

The bachelor pad concept notwithstanding, The Playboy Club was an excellent place to bring a date. It was especially exotic, I think, to the girls we knew in the suburbs, many of whom didn’t venture “downtown” all that often.

One in particular was an altogether charming and delightful girl from Plano –then working as a waitress at the N. Lake Street Big Boy – whom I dated for a while. On our very first outing we drove into the city to see that season’s smash hit movie “The Godfather” at the Chicago Theater. So as to impress her with my sophistication and worldly knowledge we started the evening with drinks at the bar above the 95th floor restaurant in the Hancock Building.

Stepping off the elevator we were presented with just the scene for which I had brought her. The half-floor lounge was a balcony over the restaurant, and the one and two-story high, floor to ceiling windows offered a twinkling array of billion city lights far below. My date turned to the Maître d’ and asked breathlessly, “Can we sit by a window?” He turned, scanned the nearly empty lounge, then smiled and said he didn’t think that would be a problem.

We had dinner at the “new” Playboy Club, and then hustled to the theater where we waited in line, barely making it in for the showing. I liked the movie – very much – as it seemed did everyone else. My date, however, admitted later that while she enjoyed the movie, all she could think of was going back to the Playboy Club and dancing. Which is just what we did, and the evening was a success.

Working at Henry Pratt Company: Part Two

Of the two senior Industrial Engineers with whom, and for whom, I worked, Lynn was a bit older, and perhaps a bit more “grounded”, and as such was, I felt, the senior I.E. and the procedural foundation of the department. Joe on the other hand was more of a free spirit, making him more of the “think out-of-the-box” innovator. From my perspective, as mentors go, this was a nice mix

At first, I associated more easily with Joe. Also, he was a great fan of football and had been a coach at some Junior League level. He and I attended many semi pro games in nearby Joliet Illinois, were he lived. Also a couple of preseason “College All-Star” games at soldier Field.

Despite this it was Mr. Beu with whom I formed a more lasting friendship, which continued after we had both left Pratt, fading only with my relocation to another city.

Despite the differences, or perhaps because of them, I valued my associations with each, learning enough from them so that by the time I moved on to a new job – as a real Industrial Engineer in my own right – I had been given a sound foundation, from which I was able to advance fairly rapidly.

But despite the work, and the learning, I had a great deal of fun working at Pratt. The people of the various departments by whom I was surrounded in the crowded office were, for the most part, easy to get along with. And my immediate colleagues, Lynn and Joe were, each in their own way, pranksters, assuring that the department environment was always, to say the least, interesting.

Working at Henry Pratt Company: Part One

Henry Pratt Company, headquartered in Aurora with, at the time, a second plant in Dixon Illinois, was, and is, a manufacturer of valves. In particular, butterfly valves, which are opened or closed by the rotation of an internal disk (the butterfly of the somewhat stretched metaphor).

My job, as “rate setter” was to apply work standards to various machining and assembly operations – such as the drilling of necessary holes in component parts, or assembling a disk to a valve body. This meant, mostly, adding calculated time values to the controlling paperwork of such work assignments, for the purposes of establishing costs, scheduling, and of course measuring the performance of those actually doing the work.

I have often been asked, over the years “what does an Industrial Engineer do”. To this I have responded with the oversimplified, but accurate answer that “an I.E. is a sort of combination time study man*, and efficiency expert”, and developing, and applying, work standards is at the very heart of all. So, as I would discover, I was in a pretty good position to learn the basics.

Other than IE Department supervisor Frank Fontana, who turned out to be much more than a pretty good boss, there were two genuine Industrial Engineers in the department. In the curious title structure which named me a rate setter, these two senior engineers both held the title of “Methods and Standards Analyst”.

I can only say that I am eternally grateful for these two fellows, Lynn Bue and Joe Ryan, who, each in their own way, quickly became colleagues, mentors, and friends.

*Or woman, as was becoming a reality in my early years in the profession.

Bob’s Betting System

The trip to Vegas, which cost me my job at Thor Power Tool Co and thus was the proximate cause of the change in my life’s trajectory, was the culmination of an odd relationship with an even odder fellow who was, at the time, the quality inspector for the machining department in which I, sort of, worked. Bob J___ was my father’s age more or less, seriously overweight, and with one leg shorter than the other. Bob was also something of an intellectual, an expert in, among other things, comparative religions, collectable coins, and a self-proclaimed psychic. I found him very informative and altogether fascinating. He could go on, at length, on any number of topics, and I was happy to listen and learn.

One of Bob’s notions — the one which led to the Vegas trip — was a variation on a strategy which, I later learned, was widely known as the “Gambler’s Ruin Formula”; a technique of simply betting a dollar (or any desired amount) on an even-money bet – Red/Black, Odd/Even, Pass/No Pass, etc – and if you won, great. If you lost, simply double your bet until you won. Bob’s variation was that every time you doubled your bet after a loss, you added an amount equal to the initial bet. This way, when you eventually won, you would win that amount for every play; not just for the ultimate winner.

What made Bob’s method so compelling was the added trick of always betting on what had previously just won. This was founded on the principle that nature does not like an extended series of “back and forth”, and that two-in-a row was always not only possible, but indeed likely.

While I still believe the idea has some merit, it certainly requires a measure of luck — and a large bankroll. Nature actually does, from time to time, allow for extended back and forth runs, which soon require large bets to keep going. The one dollar bet becomes three, which becomes seven, which becomes fifteen, which becomes . . . So after four losses the next required bet is thirty-one, after having already lost twenty-six. In 1970, when my resources fell well short of limited, an investment of fifty-seven dollars — in an effort to win five — at a time when a dollar was worth much more than it is now, was a HUGE risk which, as it turned out, I was not really willing to take.

The fact that I did not suddenly become rich notwithstanding, the trip to Las Vegas was great. This was around Easter time, and still snowy that year in Aurora, so the Nevada climate was a treat – although we traveled from the airport to our hotel through a sand storm (which the locals blamed on a just completed atomic bomb test somewhere to the north). This was, remember, the old 1970 Las Vegas. Getting around was easy. The famous hotels were the Stardust, The Dunes, The Sands, The Flamingo, the earlier, smaller Caesar’s Palace, etc. Rooms were inexpensive; we stayed at the old Hacienda, at the end of the strip in a space now more than occupied by Mandalay Bay.

The lounge shows were free, a well-known singing group called The Ink Spots were the regulars at the Hacienda. I saw comic Jackie Mason at Cleopatra’s Barge in Caesar’s Palace. Being a fan, I arrived early to claim the end seat at the bar, where I was just a few feet from the performer.

And everywhere were cheap, unlimited, and altogether excellent buffets, open at any hour. It was all great fun. I even won $100 from a quarter slot machine at the airport. I hated to leave.

Music In Transition

As the turn of the decade brought major life changes to me personally, the music which launched us into the 1970s was also in transition. The ‘60s ended with the hard, angry songs of protest, and the jarring melodies of acid rock. 1970 started with Sly Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again)”, and the music of the new decade led us, eventually, to a milder time.

My favorites in the early months of the that year included Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, “Teema Harbor” by Mary Hopkin, and Brook Benton singing “A Rainy Night in Georgia”. This last a song which my father later admitted he loathed, but, knowing I liked it, never asked me to turn off when it came on the car radio as we drove to or from work. Also, from Simon and Garfunkel’s last, brilliant, and Grammy-winning, album “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, came my second all-time favorite song, “The Boxer”.

As the new decade progressed, we moved further and further from the works of late ‘60s groups like Blue Cheer “Summertime Blues”, The Amboy Dukes “Journey to the Center of the Mind”,  Jimi Hendrix “All Along The Watchtower”, Cream “White Room”, and lest we forget, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown “Fire”.

We children of the 60s were growing weary, I think, of the angry music which mirrored the “days of rage”, and other shrill aspects of the end of the ‘60s era. We instead began to embrace the likes of The Carpenters, Bread, Three Dog Night, Neil Diamond, on to Elton John, and God help us, Tony Orlando and Dawn (The pendulum sometimes swings too far).

 The Beatles suddenly faded, and soon dissolved. Many blame the breakup on Yoko, but let’s face it, great as they were, when you reach the point of singing of “toe jam football”, it’s sort of time to move on. And so it was that perhaps the greatest rock & roll band of all time transitioned as well. In the early ‘70s Paul McCartney, and the rest of the Beatles, emerged as solo artists. Sir Paul (and Linda) distinguished themselves with “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” and others, as well as the music of their new group, Wings.

John Lennon, despite Yoko, produced memorable music, while my favorite Beatle, George Harrison, overcame one – unfair, in my opinion – legal setback to do marvelous things, both as a solo artist with such songs as “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, and later with the superstar collaboration The Traveling Wilburys “Handle Me With Care”. Even the much under-appreciated Ringo did some very good things, getting, but not really needing, a little help from his friends.

And so, despite a bit of a sag in the middle (The Disco Years), the 70s, at the beginning – and again at the end – was a great time for music.