Monthly Archives: June 2014

The Neighborhood: Part Three – The Hoodlum and The Girl Across The Street

The Hoodlum — To the east of the house next door was a house which must’ve been occupied by someone but, strange to say, if I ever knew who lived there I have long since forgotten. Just on the other side of the mystery house lived in elderly woman, Mrs H__ who, like my grandmother had a very nice garden in her backyard extending all the way to the alley. But I was young, and didn’t really know her very well, so the alley was the only place from which I could enjoy the flowers.

Coincidentally, between the garages across the alley from the garden was a wild array of many colored hollyhocks, so when walking there, perhaps on an errand to the Buy-Rite, it was – for the width of one house, at least – kind of like being in a botanical garden.

In the mid 1950s Mrs H__’s son, a vet who my father had actually known in the Army, moved in with his wife and son, who was just my age. You would think this would be a doubly good thing and the families were supposed to sort of automatically be close. As it turned out, my father had never really liked the man — for good reason — and the son Billy, who joined my class at Bardwell Elementary School, was a young hoodlum in the making.

But my parents were polite, and not wanting to cause bad feelings they were friendly with the newcomers. Fortunately, after a couple of years the young family moved on, and relative peace returned to the neighborhood.

For years my parents cited an incident which they felt demonstrated a result of bad parenting technique. One afternoon Billy climbed the apple tree which then grew in our backyard, and then refused to come down. My father, not wanting the boy to be hurt, nor in truth having a boy in our apple tree at all, tried to talk him down, finally telling him that he should come down from the tree because his father would be angry. To this Billy replied “So what? I’ll just get another whippin’”. Billy did eventually come down from the tree, and as it turned out, the issue was resolved in the precisely the way that now everyone expected.

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The Girl Across The Street — I can’t say that I was one of those young boys who hated, or had no patience for girls, until one day suddenly discovering the wonder of it all. I sort of always liked them, and when I was young there was a girl who lived across the street named Stephanie who certainly liked me.

When my mother would cross the street to visit, and I, being too young to be left alone, would be taken along, Stephanie would talk to me, and sit with me, hold my hand and embarrassingly kiss me on the cheek from time to time. The two mothers thought this was adorable behavior for seven-year-olds — and I didn’t really mind as much as I pretended.

Unfortunately (perhaps), a year or so later — long before anything could have developed — the family moved to New Mexico and I never saw them again.

Geometry Class – Fini Mathematics

I’VE SPOKEN of my habit of doodling sometimes as a method of “staying in the room”, be it a classroom or a business meeting. A somewhat different, but relevant example of this occurred during my sophomore year at East High.

I’m the first to admit that I have limited “mathematical aptitude”. In spite of this I fared well enough in Algebra class as a freshman. One year of basic Algebra was the extent of the mathematics requirement at my high school, but having passed easily enough, I signed up for sophomore Geometry.

Geometry turned out to be somewhat simple, but for me not at all engaging. I nonetheless passed the first semester without significant effort. I credit this to the fact that I had friends in class, with whom I occasionally joked, and mildly misbehaved. This, I’m convinced, is what kept me in the classroom; joking around notwithstanding, I paid enough attention to pass with a grade of “C”.

With the change of semester, the classroom roster changed and I now found myself without friends in Geometry class. My mind thus free to wander, I missed most of what was said to me in class and I therefore failed. And subject to the rule of the time, failing the second semester caused me to fail the entire year. I readily admit, the fault lay with me, and the net result was that while the first semester marked the high point, the second semester of sophomore Geometry marked the end of my mathematics training.

A Sunday Drive – Nov 3, 2013

I originally posted this on Facebook last Nov 4th and have finally gotten around to posting it here. It’s a bit out of season, but I don’t want to forget again.

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I drove to Aurora yesterday, and because it was a great fall day I took the long way; down old IL Rt 47 from Lake Geneva. There along the way, despite the car dealerships, and under the superimposed clutter of Taco Bells and Wendys, Anytime Fitness and Advance Auto Parts Stores, were many examples of the small town America which I remember.

And this reminded me of something else. The opening title sequence of the movie “Hoosiers” which, if you love the autumn, and are nostalgic for simpler times, is truly one of the great things ever to be put on film.

My Neighborhood: Part Two – The Herald and The Family Next Door

The Herald — On the other side of the G__ house lived the E__ family — unfortunately White Sox fans — who had a son Robert who was one year younger than I, with whom I often roamed the summer streets of 1950’s Aurora. The E__s also had another son the same age as my brother, and our parents were also friends. So it all worked out quite well.

The E__ house was also a duplex; this one, oddly, front and rear. In the early years the E__s lived in the rear unit and rented the larger front, but somewhere early in my grade school years they made the switch and occupied the front apartment, and then of course rented the rear.

For a time, in my junior high school years, the rear portion of the duplex was occupied by the I __ family who had two older boys and a girl, April who was my age, and on whom I would have, not so much a crush, but a bit of an infatuation. But like most of the temporary residents of the neighborhood, in time they moved on and that was that.

I recall, one early spring afternoon, walking past the E__ house on my way home from Bardwell Elementary School. Just as I was passing their house, Mr. E__ poked his head out the front door to inform me that my brother — who had been quite sick — had been diagnosed with pneumonia. Thus informed, I quickened my pace and hustled home to find out what I could do to help.

Some years later I recall being informed in similar fashion that “Oswald was shot!” As the years rolled by, whatever the news of the day – local or otherwise — Mr. E__ could be counted upon to pop out and inform whoever might be passing by.

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The Family Next Door — Moving into the somewhat larger house just to the east of ours was a couple who had children the same ages and genders as my siblings and who, after moving in, quickly became pretty good friends of my parents. Their moving in was also good for me for a couple of reasons. The first benefit was that before too long I would be presented with the opportunity to make a little cash babysitting on some Saturday nights.

Also fortuitous was that the man of the house had a part-time hobby/avocation repairing television sets, and occasionally radios, in his basement. When I was in Junior High and became obsessed with the workings of radios, televisions, and all manner of electronics, my neighbor took me under his wing and I spent a lot of time in his basement tinkering, and soldering, and learning. As luck would have it, he was also very good friends with a Mr. McCarville, the Electricity/Electronics teacher at East High so, when a year or so later I advanced to that level, I had an in which allowed me extra tutelage, and opportunities in the electronics lab.

The families remained great friends through the years until they both — and the E__s as well — read what the hospital was writing on the wall, and moved on.

My Neighborhood: Part One – The Witch

From the time I was born in 1946 to the mid-60s I lived on Weston Ave on Aurora’s East Side; a neighborhood which was annihilated for parking by Copley Memorial Hospital — before it closed and moved its operations to a newer, larger, and one would suppose better – if not more convenient — location.

This was a simple, very typical working-class neighborhood in the heartland of 1950’s America, located about 45 miles west of downtown Chicago. A visit to the big city in those days required a grueling day trip along IL Route 34 (Ogdan Ave) through what seemed to be a dozen small communities. This made, for my family anyway, seeing a ball game at Wrigley Field a once per summer event. Later, the newly built East-West Tollway would take us through seemingly endless cornfields, the western suburbs, and on into the city, but it would still seem to be quite the journey.

Other than the annual visit to Wrigley, and infrequent trips to southern Illinois to see friends, , we really didn’t travel much. We took the ’50 Plymouth twice to the Mississippi River: once to visit my father’s brother in East Moline, IL, and once for, well, just for the drive I guess. So for my childhood years Aurora was pretty much the whole world, and of course the street on which we lived was at the heart of it all. It was a pretty nice neighborhood, I thought growing up; verdant green in summer with a lot of oak trees and — until the mid-50s — no small number of Elms as well. Plenty of parks and playgrounds nearby — and a lot of kids. As for the neighbors themselves, our street, perhaps like all neighborhoods everywhere, contained a rich diversity of characters; several of whom I will comment on in due time, starting now with:

The Witch — The house next door to ours to the west was a side-by-side duplex with a seemingly ever-changing stream of either vacancies, or new neighbors whom we never really got to know.

The side of the duplex away from our house was occupied by the owners who, in my earlier memories, were Mr and Mrs G__, a curious and semi-hermitic couple who were the neighborhood oddities of my early childhood. This changed profoundly on a dramatic summer Saturday afternoon in 1953 when the Mrs returned home to find the Mr seated at the kitchen sink with opened wrists.

When the neighborhood excitement and the novelty wore off, Mrs G__ had become the Widow G__ who remained there for many years, living alone with seemingly no visitors. She continued to manage the duplex, and would quickly go well beyond eccentric and reclusive. Looking back, this was kind of sad I suppose, but memory suggests that she really wasn’t a very nice person.

Inevitably perhaps, she was soon thought by the neighborhood children to be a witch; a notion which was both scary and delightfully exciting at the same time. To her advantage, I would suppose, this reputation meant that we neighborhood kids left her strictly alone — even on Halloween, no tricks — fearing to some degree, both her and whatever powers she might possess.

At roughly the time I graduated from high school, the G__ house became the first to be sacrificed for the block-and-a-half wide, and block long – and ultimately useless — parking lot which my old neighborhood has become. The immediate, if temporary, benefit to members of my family was that rather than being torn down, the house was put on blocks and moved away. This fascinated and delighted the neighborhood kids of my brother’s age; entertaining them and leaving them with an empty basement hole in which to play. But soon enough, the hole was filled as the lot became parking for the Weston Avenue Clinic. This provided extra parking for us as well, as the now gravel covered lot had plenty of space for the family car just a few feet from our kitchen door.

Record Hop – On Stage with the “Wild I-tralian”

Beside the weekly Friday night events at the Y and the CYA, I went to several sock hops, or dances which featured well-known bands, or were hosted by a popular DJ, or sometimes both. One such event was held in a catholic school gym somewhere — my aging memory suggests that it was in Aurora’s “Pidgeon Hill” neighborhood, but I may be wrong. But in any event it was well outside my normal sphere of travel at the time.

On this autumn evening in my high school years I went, alone for some reason, to such dance. The star of the night was the MC of the event, Dick Biondi, star DJ of what was, at the time, the best radio station in the world. This last of course was just my opinion, but not by any means a singular view.

I had a nice time that night, I saw a few friends and met a few people I had not known before, and aside from the music, the dancing, and the clever patter of the MC, there were “Special Guests” and other entertainments planned for the teen-age crowd. One of these required a boy and girl to come up on stage to compete in some pop music related contest. This got everyone’s attention. Not the prize so much as the possibility of actually standing on the stage with Dick Biondi himself.

As Dick kept up the chatter, one of his minions scanned the audience for the contestants. After a moment or two he stopped scanning and pointed straight at ME, gesturing and saying “come on up”. I was so shocked at being selected, as well as the thought of actually standing on stage with the guy that I had largely come here just to see, that I hesitated. Perhaps I hesitated a moment too long, for as I was getting myself moving through the throng and to the steps at the side of the stage, he selected another boy, and then a girl. So in due course, all three of us arrived on stage. This result, I’m sure, disrupted, to some degree, an otherwise carefully laid plan. For my part, I immediately took the decision that if there were one too many kids on stage, that I had been chosen, and chosen FIRST. And so I was staying right where I was — standing on stage next to Dick Biondi for all to see.

I’m sure the careful plan included contingencies for all manner of unexpected happenstance. The contest went off without a hitch, and we were soon back on the floor among the others. The evening moved on and in due course ended. Well, almost. It was announced that the Dick Biondi would be in the cloakroom signing autographs for a short period of time.

So I joined the crowd and eventually got to the counter of the split cloakroom door and there he was. When it was my turn, I handed over a piece of paper for Dick to sign, hoping he would remember speaking to me during our brief onstage encounter. He did not. But that was okay. I left and went home feeling that, all in all, I had had a pretty good night.

 

Going East

My performance at the Navy’s Engineman School was typical. I settled for being an average student by not actually trying very hard. However, I left the school wearing three red stripes, which designated me a “Fireman” (Grade E-3 Enlisted), topped by an “Engineman Striker” Badge.

The red stripes identified me as engineering, as opposed to deck (The generic Fireman vs. Seaman). And the striker badge indicated that, having graduated from Engineman School, I could thereafter not be arbitrarily assigned to a different engineering rating, such as electrician, or working in the boiler room.

As completion of the course drew near, with visions of World War II action and glory in my head, I requested duty aboard a destroyer. Upon graduation, I was instead detached with orders to report to the USS Tutuila, a repair ship specializing in internal combustion engines, stationed in Norfolk Virginia.

With a short leave to consume, I spent a few days at home before departing for Norfolk via Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There I would spend a few days with the Forkin family — my namesake and my father’s WWII best friend, Tom, his wife Helen, and their two boys Skipper (Tom, Jr) and Billy.

Being quite familiar with trains at this point, I decided that the rails to Pittsburgh would get me there just fine. So once again into Chicago, this time to change trains at Union Station and continue heading east. My single memory of this particular train ride is of rolling out of Union Station, and bending to the south and east around the bottom of Lake Michigan. As we rounded the bight of the southern lakeshore and on through Gary, Indiana we were in the heart of the Midwest’s steel mill country; and the air was orange.

Since it was about 11:00 am, this was not the effect of a setting sun, but rather a result of the mills, and other industries which polluted not only the air, but the lake, and the natural wetlands of the region. We were still, at the time, several years from the awakening, and environmental turnaround, signaled by the first Earth Day. I am often amused by younger people these days who, with no memory of the not so distant past, campaign to clean up today’s environment, and save the earth.

I must admit that we, as a society, were quite ignorant of such things in those days, and in the years prior. On one of the occasional long-weekend, mini-vacations to New York, which I was fond of taking in the late 1980s, a major news story on WCBS radio was, I recall, the locating and cleanup of landfills in what was once the marshland upon which Jersey City, New Jersey was built.

One by one, seemingly endlessly, homes, trucking depots, factories, parks, vacant land, and an elementary school, were being identified as former landfill sites (an eventual total of 104), and were scheduled for cleanup. It seems that, sometime in the mid-1950s, an inexpensive landfill material became available from two area companies. Referred to as “chromium slag”, a byproduct of some manufacturing process, the stuff was, as the Jersey City officials stated at the time, a great landfill material, for in addition to filling up the wetlands, “all the rats died”.

At the end of the train ride I was welcomed by the Forkin family. While I have no musical memory of the train trip itself, the Beach Boys’ “Help Me Rhonda” will always remind me of my visit, and of those evenings, Friday and Saturday, when my friends Skipper and Jimmy introduced me, briefly, to life as a teenager in Pittsburgh, PA.