Monthly Archives: August 2015

Reserve Meetings

When I re-entered the naval reserve ranks at the Aurora Armory, things were very different. In the time before my stint in the real, active duty, Navy I had no rank. A seaman apprentice has the distinction of surviving basic (boot) training, and pretty much nothing else. As such I simply went with the flow; progressing through the initial training, the selection of a service school – in my case “Class A” Engineman School (I had chosen to become a diesel engine mechanic), and a single two-week “cruise” aboard an aging destroyer escort on Lake Michigan.

Weekly meetings had been mostly about instilling in us the regimen and discipline of Navy life and attending general training classes. For engineering strikers (like me) this meant mostly shipboard safety and (because the bitter lessons of the Second World War were still fresh in the collective mind of the Navy) damage control and firefighting.

But when I returned – a third class petty officer, and veteran of the “conflict overseas” – I felt a bit jaded and dismissive of this “simplistic” environment. Plus there was really nothing much to do. I did not have the rank, or the internal political connections at the Armory, to assume a leadership role – and of course my attitude didn’t help.

Relief from the situation came when I, and several other returnees – of engineering rating – were assigned to a young, but veteran, Lieutenant who I think was in pretty much the same situation that we were. This turned out to be a pretty good move. The Lieutenant took his mission seriously, and molded the group into a team (largely loyal to him), and worked at creating projects which not only filled the time, but captured our interest and were broadly instructive.

We also took on engineering projects supporting, in a limited way, the Armory, its physical plant, and its various machineries. But there was more. Being an officer, and a college graduate (and of course a gentleman), he broadened his assignment to include discussions of national and international events, and politics. We even had homework. During the 1968 presidential campaign, we were each assigned to research and objectively evaluate each of the candidates. A surprisingly interesting project; one which fueled in me a nascent interest in national politics. So Thursday nights at the Armory became a looked forward to event.

The reserves proved useful to me in a couple of additional ways, as well. The meager pay, for three hours each week, was not much but at the same time very welcome. Additionally, I learned that while a two week ACDUTRA (active duty for training) was required annually, we were not limited to this one annual event. I therefore began to take advantage of the additional training (and travel) opportunities posted on the Yoeman’s bulletin board, which led to several grand adventures.

The Widening Circle

I liked the Fox Valley Country Club events, which became regular, if not every, Friday night activities. But as time marched on, our circle of activities, both together and singularly, widened. Autumn Friday nights for me again came to include East Aurora football games – or the occasional Friday night Oswego High School away game, where I enjoyed seeing my brother David excel in a venue where I had not.

My best friend Vern, now a journeyman electrician, moonlighted for a while as house electrician at Aurora Downs, during mid-winter meets. I would go on such evenings to the race track in North Aurora, sometimes meeting one or more of our Geneva friends there. I, or we, would hang out with Vern during his idle time, of which there seemed to be a great deal.

I would dress up a bit in a sports jacket and tie (or scarf, as was the fashion for a while), in which I fit nicely at the track – giving the illusion of affluence. Appearances notwithstanding, I quickly learned not to risk my small supply of cash at a venue in which I knew less than nothing.

Note: Vern ever after credited me for bringing a fashion to Aurora. While on the West Coast late in 1968, a current fashion trend was a sport coat, a turtleneck, and in lieu of a tie a largish medallion hanging on a chain. A variation which was gaining popularity was the jacket with turtleneck, or open shirt, and a large multi-colored scarf – often paisley in those days.

There were even little double rings available through which each end of the scarf would pass, and the ring cinched to the neck, thus eliminating the need for a knot, and allowing the scarf to flow more freely. I thought this was pretty chic at the time (although I was not then familiar with the word). I brought several scarves and a couple of rings – silver and gold – home with me to Aurora and started to wear them on evenings on the town. I was looked at askance the first few times I wore one of my new scarves, but slowly similar attire started to appear about the necks of others. I was a trendsetter!

Like the Beach Boys of a few years prior, we “got around”. Through a couple of friends from the Geneva/St. Charles area, we discovered the bar at the St Charles Bowl, near the intersection of Randall Road and Route 64. The place was upscale (for a bowling alley), and had a nice clientele. Also there was some pretty good live music on weekends.

It was here that Vern met Carol, the woman he would marry. Pretty, intelligent, and with a saucy Italian attitude, I could sense pretty much right away that to Vern (theretofore something of a playboy), this was a “keeper”. Carol was attending teachers college in St. Charles at the time and would go on to a long career teaching at, of all places, our alma mater Aurora East High School. In the course of things, Carol and I also become friends, a fact which remains true to this day.

Though living in the dorms at the college, Carol’s home was in Chicago, and this opened – to Vern and me – the door to the many entertainment possibilities of the big city. We soon began to explore the “Near North” and “Rush Street” areas, becoming familiar with and comfortable at several of the local bars.

Vern became a member of the “Gaslight Club”, which was a great venue for dinner and for impressing our dates – though I usually had to save up a little to cover my half of a Gaslight Club dinner for four. Actually, I wasn’t really too fond of the turn of the century ambiance, and the “old college songs around the piano” barroom. It was OK to sometimes go as a guest with Vern, but I could “take it or leave it” and was happy I wasn’t the one paying the dues.

By the middle of 1969, Vern and I were both members of the original Playboy Club just off Michigan Avenue, of which I will speak a bit later.

The only daunting aspect of our spending so much time in the city, was the travel time to and fro. But we pretty much took that in stride. Gasoline was cheap, and by this time Vern and I both had new, more powerful cars*. Not being much of a drinker I almost always drove home, regardless of whose car we had taken, and while the early evening drives eastward on the “Tollway” and the Eisenhower Expressway were taken at prudent speeds, the westward journeys, at 2 or 3 AM, or often later, on totally empty roadways, were accomplished in breathtakingly short times.

* Unbeknownst to each other, in the same week in 1968 Vern and I had both purchased new cars. A ‘68 Buick Riviera, and a ‘68 Charger R/T respectively.

 

Friday Nights at the Fox Valley Country Club

All through my high school years, Friday night’s – with the exception of those on which East Aurora played football – were spent, all or in part, at a dance. Whether at the “new” YMCA on Aurora’s west side, or at the CYA (Catholic Youth of Aurora) in the old Knights of Columbus building, attending these events was the definition of a Friday night for those of my age in the first half of Aurora’s 1960s.

Upon returning to Aurora in the spring of 1967, I was quickly introduced to the “grown-up” equivalent. Friday night dances hosted by the Fox Valley Country Club on Rte 25 in North Aurora, Illinois were quite similar to the earlier events at the Y. They were both social events for young people, organized around music and dancing. The crowd was similar too, being mostly the same people we knew, or had seen at the Y or CYA gatherings just a few years prior.

The differences were not many, but significant. The venue, to which we now of course always drove, was larger and included a stage featuring live music. Bands from the area – and all of Chicagoland in general – rotated through on a weekly basis, including a few that the nation at large would come to know.

There was an area of tables and chairs, separated from the stage by a largish dance floor. Because of the stage, we couldn’t really circle the dance floor as we had done at previous venues. So instead we cruised the seating area, or hung out at the most notable difference of all. The Bar!

I don’t remember if underage patrons could, legally, enter to just socialize and dance. Probably not. But proof of age – 21 in Illinois – was required at the bar for anything stronger than a Coke. But whatever consumables were available to whom, my memory suggests that (occasional inter-personal dramas notwithstanding) everyone had a pretty good time.

I’m not sure how long the Friday night dance venue survived at the Fox Valley Country Club, but I know it was still going strong in the middle of June of 1971 when I purchased my last ever pack of cigarettes (Pall Malls, if it matters) from a vending machine at said bar.

The Strike

In the spring of 1967 the labor contract between Thor Power Tool Company and the union to which its shop employees belonged, expired. This event had been looming on the horizon for some time and was much on everyone’s mind. Word from the union bargaining committee was that negotiations for a new contract were going poorly. The “company” was being intransigent; reasonable requests had been rejected, and intolerable grievances were being ignored – in the union’s view, at least. Momentum was building and talk of a strike was in the air.

I recall the union steward for the milling department checking the dates carefully to make sure that my probationary/training period would be completed in time for me to join the union and to, of course, vote yes for the now almost certain strike. Had I been wiser I would’ve followed my father’s example and voted “no” when the time came. But I was young, and easily influenced by the union firebrands – despite any knowledge on my part of what the issues were really all about. I voted “yes”.

To be honest with myself, and with you, I must confess. I think the actual deciding factor for me was, now that I again had some money in my pocket, the thought of a little time away from the milling machines – to be lazy and irresponsible – at the start of the summer, sounded pretty good.

Actually, it didn’t really matter how I voted. The “Ayes” had it by a large margin, a strike was called, and the little time off I anticipated became seven months – a period of time which insured that both the company, and its employees, would never make up for what they had lost.

The First of August

August begins and with it I get a sense that autumn is near. Stephen King once suggested that some time after the mid-point of September, fall arrives. Geography notwithstanding, this is more or less true. However, I will suggest that there is also – not so much a mid-point but – a high point of summer; a seamless, virtually unnoticed moment when summer begins its downhill journey and the preliminary to autumn is upon us. And so begins, for me at least, the best time of the year. From this high point of summer, to autumn’s close on Thanksgiving Day.

Oh, I know, some argue that spring is the best time, and it is hard to disagree. There are warmer days at last, newly green lawns, and a fringe of green on the bushes, soon to be followed by the trees as well, as winter is finally over.

The springtime changes weekly. At first, a few brave flowers – crocuses and the like – poke their heads up, sometimes through a late-season snow. Then a few daffodils, and then suddenly many, many daffodils, and glorious spring is upon us. Then, just as they begin to fade, the daffodils are joined by tulips. And as many daffodils as there are, they are vastly outnumbered by tulips of every imaginable color. And in a week or two the landscape changes again as suddenly, fragrant lilacs and other flowering bushes and trees burst forth.

The days continue to get warmer as now irises dominate the gardens and lawns as summer has arrived. But with it, a same-ness sets in. The summer weeks (here in Milwaukee) are no longer measured by seasonal progression, but are now counted off by the festivals; Summerfest and Bastille Days and Festa Italiana and Germanfest, and so on through the summer.

But in time, August takes hold. And while the same-ness remains, there is now – every once in a while – a hint that transition is again in the air. Pellucid blue skies are sometimes dotted with benign white puffy clouds, occasionally driven by a cool northeast wind. One senses that the flowers are no longer bursting forth, but instead holding on as nature seems to hold her breath awaiting the change. Autumn is near and there is a feeling that an old friend is on the way. Those of us of a certain age have learned not to “wish away” the weeks, or days, or even the hours, but still, anticipation is strong.

In good years, the warm weather lasts well into the fall season, But in the best of years Jack Frost makes an overnight appearance with his brushes early in October to paint the leaves. The few prematurely turned trees of September give way to the burn and blaze of Indian Summer, which will hopefully last well into the next month – coloring the world in shades ranging from mild-mannered browns and tans, to yellows and burning oranges, to brilliant scarlet.

The sun remains warm but the air, particularly at night, is cool and hazy, and maybe even a bit damp. Perfect weather, I’ve always thought, for a Friday night football game. No setting sun in the west to obscure the sophomore contest, watched with one eye as you greet both stadium friends and real friends, arriving to take their seats. And you sit, bundled against the chill, the watery concession stand hot chocolate tasting wonderful as the varsity Tomcats take the field to do battle with whatever conference or non-conference lamb is being offered up this week (It’s the good seasons that remain in memory, and that are easily recalled).

But fall is a season of transition. The local football season and beautiful October conclude, more or less simultaneously, and now the autumn is drawing down. The mild-mannered, patient, tans and browns now hold dominance over the landscape, but are still are beautiful in their way as the season marches finally to its conclusion, which is celebrated by, what else, a feast of Thanksgiving.