Category Archives: C: High School Pt 1: The Big Time

The Five Esses

Aside from an occasional disagreement, during which we wouldn’t speak for a couple of days, Vern was far and away my closest friend. From the day we met this was, and remained, a lifelong constant. But for a while, in our middle High School years, it was not just Vern and I, but a slightly larger group.

Vern had met, and befriended, a fellow named Dennis S. who was a year older and had both a drivers license, and an actual car – a 51 Plymouth. And then we were three; and a now mobile three, at that. At about that same time I introduced Vern to my old grade school, and current homeroom friend, Mark S. And three became four. Occasionally joined by Dennis’ friend Jerry S, we were now a group (or perhaps a gang, though more in the old-time sense of “Our Gang” than what the term implies today). We even had a cool, if somewhat obvious, name for ourselves; “The Five Esses”, and with matching jackets we were, or so we imagined, just too cool for words.

My memory suggests that we, as a group, spent more of our Friday nights at the CYA dances than at the “Y”. These events were held in the gym/theater on the second floor of the Knights of Columbus building at Lincoln Avenue and Galena – conveniently right across the street from Prince Castle (good burgers and great ice cream), and just down the block from the original “hole in the wall” Don Walker’s Sandwich Center (absolutely the best Italian beef sandwiches on the planet, then or now).

But the main attractions of the CYA functions were that the place was small, compared to the “Y”, and more importantly that it was popular with a lot of girls. We would cruise in sporting our fancy jackets, hair neatly combed, breath newly freshened by “Binaca”, hoping to make an impression. This we usually did, and occasionally a favorable one.

We would circle the perimeter, just as at the “Y” – although a complete lap took a lot less time – and would even dance now and then to songs like “The Way You Look Tonight”, by the Letterman, “Close To Cathy,” by Mike Clifford, or “What Would My Mary Say?”, by Johnny Mathis.

I know they played a fair number of up-tempo rock ‘n roll songs as well, but for some reason I mostly remember the gooey stuff. Maybe it was the dancing part.

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.

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.


Second Plymouth – First Drive

IN THE SUMMER of 1962, between my sophomore and junior years at East High, my parents briefly owned three cars. The venerable ’50 Plymouth was relegated to “Dad’s car”, in favor of a sleek, and much more modern ’58 Chevy; now the official family car which my mother also used for everyday travel. Somehow a third car appeared; a second Plymouth sedan — a ‘51 I think, and blue — but otherwise virtually identical to the ‘50 with which I was now quite familiar. Not privy to, nor really caring about, the details of the acquisition or the disposition of this car, I don’t know how all of this happened but soon after it was acquired it was sold to Jim, the maintenance man at Aurora Cleaners.

Jim planned to drive the car, but decided first to rebuild the engine. So one weekday afternoon, Jim and I took our leave from the cleaners to move the car to his house. I didn’t know the plan, but was happy to be away from the hanger table for a couple of hours, so off we went. When we got to my house, Jim handed me the keys to his “new” car and instructed me to follow him home. Immediately, conflicting emotions were at war inside my head.

I did know how to drive. I had briefly taken the wheel, under my father’s watchful eye, on more than a few country roads on our family after-dinner rides, but I was still 15 years old, and did not have a permit, let alone a driver’s license. I looked at him as if he were crazy, but inside the excitement was building. I was actually going to drive a car, alone, through the streets of Aurora.

It was a distance of about two miles, and the trip went quickly and without incident. I know my parents would’ve been furious had they found out, but I will always cherish the experience of my first “solo” drive.

For the balance of that summer, I spent a fair amount of my free time helping Jim rebuild that engine. This was performed mostly in Jim’s garage, and on tables set up in his driveway. It was crude, but engines were simpler in those days and Jim knew what he was doing. I not only enjoyed the work, but learned a lot. The experience furthered my already keen interest in engines, and cars in general, and helped lead me to Engineman School when I joined the Navy.

Friday Night Dances at the “Y”

Beginning — for me anyway — in the spring of 1961 and on until I left for the Navy, virtually every Friday night was spent, for at least part of the evening, at a dance somewhere.

At first, the venue for these events was always the “new” YMCA, on the west side of town. The old “Y” on the corner of Fox (now E. Downer) and LaSalle Streets, where I learned to swim (naked), and to socialize with boys from all over town, was closed in favor of the new facility. The new Y — in which I never swum a lap – had not only a nice pool but a large gymnasium where there was plenty of room on Friday evenings for girls to dance, and for most of the boys to lean against the walls. Sometimes the boys would stroll around the perimeter of the dance area, gazing inward, Wishin’ and Hopin’, and sometimes might even take the plunge, but …

The music was heard from the gym’s PA system and was supplied by a guy with a stack of 45s and a phonograph set up on a small table just inside the entrance. It was of course contemporary; Del Shannon, Dion, The Lettermen, the Bobbys, Rydell and Vee, and so forth. By 1963, it was largely British music with the Beatles and the Stones prominent, but with the likes of Herman’s Hermits, Peter and Gordon, and even Freddy & the Dreamers in the rotation. But no matter the year, the last song of the night was always the beautiful (slow dance) instrumental “Theme from a Summer Place”, by Percy Faith.

Hearing this song signaled, in the earlier years an impending long walk home or, as the years passed a trip to Prince Castle, Burger Chef, or Tops drive-in in someone’s car. I didn’t dance to this song anywhere near as often as I would’ve liked. The girls, it seemed, followed the advice of the Drifters, and Saved The Last Dance … for whomever they were going – or wanted to be going – with. And if you were there with the guys, it was sometimes tough to end the evening on a high note.


The Freshman Clique

Aside from a very good football team my class at East High produced the biggest collection of elitists and snobs the school has perhaps ever seen. In 1961, the so-called “Freshman Clique” was so socially powerful at the school that even the seniors complained. They managed to take the notion of the popular, or cool, kids to another level, and it was a group in which I had no part.

I instead fell into the social limbo which lies somewhere between the student elites, and the schools “bad element”, but more likely to associate with the latter. The Clique, including some former friends, was not very inclusive of those who fell short somehow.

A few years later, I would be a member of just such a group, on a much smaller scale. That I would cherish my status within that future group to the extent that I did was, I’m sure, influenced by this earlier rejection.

Coke Bottles

In my job at Aurora Cleaners, while I worked at my hanger table I could slowly consume a small bottle of “ice cold” Coke, obtained for five cents from the vending machine near the stairs.

An annoying aspect of this however was that the owners son, who was the principal delivery driver, about my mother’s age, and who knew my mother and my aunts quite well, complained that I always had a bottle of Coke at my table, and was therefore consuming mass quantities of the stuff.

This did not please my mother, and as with other things, displeasure rolls downhill. When confronted, I tried to explain that I was sipping the stuff, and could make a bottle of Coke last a long time. But no one seemed to believe me. Very frustrating.

Besides, with what I was being paid, were in the world did they think I would be getting all those nickels.