Growing up, my take on things was that there were actually two worlds.
I thought there was the world I lived in with my mom and dad and two sisters on Chicago’s south side. And then there was the world I experienced in old television shows and old timey movies on the television. For the longest time I thought that my neighborhood and everyone and everything I knew was sort of an individual cell of the overall world. Like a single kernel on an ear of corn.
I thought that Wally and Beaver Cleaver were real. I thought that Fred and Ethyl Mertz really lived one floor up from the Ricardos. The Brady Bunch really lived in that cool house and that there really was an advertising agency in New York called McMahon and Tate.
I used to marvel at how kids lived in movies and on television. The Little Rascals had some of the coolest clubhouses ever. Wally and the Beaver may have had to share a bedroom, but they had their very own bathroom. Kids had paper routes or stocked the shelves at the local grocery to make money. All the kids, even the fat ones, could play on the school football or basketball team and they got a uniform with their name stitched on the back. Moms wore high heels and loads of jewelry while cleaning the house and cooking the dinner, and after dads got home and had time to down a few glasses of scotch and browse though the mail and the newspaper headlines, he would join his family at the dinner table, not the kitchen table, and he’d still be wearing his suit and tie.
For the longest time I thought my family, neighborhood and life were the exception to the rule—especially when it came to heroes. In old movies and on television, people, young and old, would have posters and pictures up on the walls of Joe DiMaggio, Albert Einstein, JFK, Martin Luther King Jackie Robinson, Neil Armstrong, Muhammad Ali, and the like.
Setting the Way-Back machine thirty-five years or so I've tried to remember who I had up on my wall.
Well, I remember for sure I had a little mini poster of the Groovy Ghoulies. Umm. I think for a while I had a picture of Micky Dolenz of The Monkees taped up—only because I thought he was the funniest of the four—with Mike Nesmith coming in a close second. Oh, I think I had my membership to the Archie Fan Club up over my bed.
Does this mean that I didn’t necessarily have any heroes growing up?
I guess so.
In the late 60s and early 70s astronauts were pretty popular, but there were a lot of them to keep track of. It’s not like they sent them up alone, so you’d only have one name to remember--they were shooting them up three at a time. I never had any real aspirations that I might one day be an Apollo astronaut. Even as a kid I was something of a realist and I figured they were never going to make hatches in the command modules big enough for me to squeeze through.
I was never a massive sports fan but we were a Cubs household and I grew kind of fond of Ernie Banks. I liked it when he came up to bat or snagged a fly ball out of the air. I admired him, and I guess if someone had given me an Ernie Banks poster I might have taped it up to the wall, but that never happened.
He wasn’t famous or anything, but I always kind of had heroic feelings about my best friend, Donnie Draves’ father. Donnie’s father was a carpenter who worked at the General Mills plant in Chicago. I could never fathom why a cereal company would need a carpenter. I liked Donnie’s dad so much because he built things. Most weekends he was in his garage workshop sawing and nailing something together.
Mind you, I was no stranger to carpentry. At least two of my mother’s brothers were carpenters. There was my Uncle Paul, who was a massive bear of a man who genuinely filled a room when he entered it. He had a booming voice that would scare a bulldog off a meat truck, and when he got frustrated he would breath in deeply through his mouth and then exhale through his nose and it sounded like you were in a wind tunnel. He smoked a pipe on occasion, which is, I’m only just now realizing as I’m typing this, the reason I took up the pipe at an early age. My other uncle that was a carpenter was my Uncle Beefy. His real name was Joe, but he’d been given the nickname Beefy at an early age and it stuck. He was a loud man as well, but gentle as a kitten. He was also as round as a beach ball. From any angle you looked at him he was round. My wife takes great glee at the fact that one of my mom’s other brothers is my Uncle Willie, who is a butcher. She thinks it’s hilarious that Willy was the butcher and Beefy was the carpenter.
The thing that was attractive about Donnie’s dad was that he had a massive amount of patience for us kids and he always seemed to be building stuff for us. For example, there was an empty lot on the north side of the three-story building that Donnie’s family lived in. Empty lots were a rarity in my neighborhood. These were row houses that Pullman built for the workers in his Chicago railroad factories (it used to be that if you wanted to ride the train in luxury you rode it in a Pullman car), and each butted up to the next. Scars on the sides of Donnie’s building indicated that once upon a time there might have been a house standing where the lot was, and perhaps it had been destroyed by fire or some other calamity. Fires were a rarity in that kind of housing because of the rampant use of brick construction. It wasn’t until we moved away that I learned that houses could also be made of wood.
So anyway, back to the empty lot. It was naturally a bit on the sunken side, so when winter hit Chicago like a sledgehammer and the temperatures dropped, Donnie’s father would open the garden hose in the lot and before long it was filled up with water. The next morning we had our own private ice rink. Most of us couldn’t skate so he built a wide ramp with stairs that he ran water over until it became an ice ramp sturdy enough to hold a sled full of kids.
The summers in Chicago were just as brutal as the winters, so further back in the empty lot, approximately where the garage would have been, he built a wooden form and had a concrete slab poured. Once it was dry he built a wooden platform that he erected a swimming pool on top of. The icing on the cake was when he had a truckload of sand brought down the alley and he surrounded the pool with it.
The man was very cool and I admired him a lot. Maybe too much. It wasn’t until years later that I came to realize how hard my father was working to support my family, while I was off watching Donnie’s father design and build a multi level birdhouse for the roof of the garage. As I’ve mentioned here before, my dad probably only made it through the eighth grade before he had to go out and work to support his family. As a man he worked on ice trucks, hauling hundred pound blocks of ice into stores and taverns. He also worked alongside a lot of uncles in one of Chicago’s famous meatpacking houses. Somehow, I never really learned how, he got involved with radio and television repair. He taught himself and then got an entry-level job at a shop where he learned the rest of what he knew. For a period of what must have been a year or two I never saw my dad. He was out the door before I woke and he got home after I was in bed. During that period he was working at the TV shop by day and then going and pumping gas at night. This was in an effort for us to move out of the city and out to the suburbs where my parents could finally own their own home.
In retrospect, I can’t think of a single person I admire more than my father. He never raised his voice or his hand to me. I got a little further than he did in school, but much of what makes me a moderately successful writer comes from what made him a moderately successful television repairman. It’s all about problem solving. He would take the back off the television set or radio and fiddle around inside, switching tubes and transformers around until he made it work; much the same way I hack away at a story idea, removing bits and switching things around until it works.
My father also had the unique ability to befriend anyone he would meet. I’d walk over to where he was and he’d be talking to a grocery store cashier, gas station attendant, or just someone standing in line behind him at the store like they were long lost cousins. He always had a smile on his face and a good word for anyone he met. I guess he had a right to be a happy man. He had risen up beyond his roots, raised a healthy family, and as far as I know, didn’t have a single enemy.
I’m not saying that he was the best father in the world. He didn’t wear a suit and tie to the dinner table. He never took me to a single baseball game. He snored like the whistle on a steam locomotive. Every day when he came home from work he’d have a couple of beers and a nip from the Crown Royal whisky bottle, and then nap until dinner was ready. But damn, he was a good guy.
In the mid-80s, when I couldn’t get arrested in New York, let alone sell a story, I came back to the Midwest and my dad offered me a place to stay. He had sold the house and was living a quiet life in a reasonably quiet trailer park (not the type you see on COPS). During the two years that followed my dad and I had a chance to do a lot of catching up. We would sit and talk all night long. At that point my mom had been dead a few years and he was keeping the company of a woman he’d recently met at church.
Of course, when I say church I don’t mean Church. If I’m not mistaken I think it was St. Ann’s Church on Ridge Road in Lansing, IL. St. Ann’s was technically our family church, although I can only remember going there once or twice. (We were fallen Catholics and we couldn’t get up) Maybe this happens in churches all over the world, but the evening mass at St. Ann’s was at the time something of a lonely hearts club. There were a dozen or so people, mostly retirees, who would follow along with the sermon or nap silently, and then afterwards they would head out together and hit the coffee shops or bars for a night of chewing the fat.
Anyway, my dad would go out for coffee or dinner or drinks with his lady friend and then come home to find me slumped over my IBM Selectric, my muse MIA, and starved for company. He’d pop a beer and I’d pop a Pepsi and we would talk the night away. I am so deeply grateful for those talks we had. I got to know the man who was my father.
My mom had died of cancer, so we had a heads up that her time was short. That wasn’t the case with my dad. No time for goodbyes. He had been out shopping for a birthday present for me (talk about guilt) when a young lady asked him for help starting her car. He was happy to comply, but while doing so suffered a heart attack that killed him. The kick in the ass was that he had called me at work earlier that day to talk about something, but I cut him off and told him I was kind of busy. He was all apologetic and said he’d talk to me later.
The thing was, I wasn’t busy. I just didn’t feel like talking to him at the time. Again, talk about guilt.
My sister Nancy called me at work, later that day, close to quitting time. One of the guys I worked with had just given me a birthday present. It was a Chicago street sign from Schiller Street. When Nancy called she told me that dad was hurt and that I should get to the hospital in a hurry. I had driven to work that day, so I headed out to the car with my Schiller Street sign under my arm, hoping a cop wouldn’t happen to be passing by. It was a half hour drive to the hospital and I knew deep in my heart what I would find there. My sister’s tone had said it all. I managed to hold it all together pretty well during the drive until the radio played that Bob Seeger song ‘Like a Rock’. Then the waterworks began. I was crying so hard it’s surprising that I didn’t run off the road. By the time I reached the hospital he had long since been declared dead.
Shortly after my mother died I was kind of hung up over the fact that I hadn’t officially told her that I loved her before she died in her hospital bed. That’s what you’re supposed to do, right? Our family wasn’t big in the touchy/feely/huggy department, and as a rule we didn’t use the ‘L’ word very often. A friend of mine, Patricia Nowlan (who is Nowlan-Tunberg now, I believe), was quick to set me straight. She told me that no matter what was said or wasn’t said, if I loved my mother, she knew it. Words were meaningless if there was nothing behind them.
I pretty certain that I never once told my father that I loved him, but I am one thousand percent certain that as he was stretched out on the icy parking lot pavement, with that chainsaw ripping up his left arm toward his heart, he knew his son loved him, just like I know he loved me.
I guess heroes aren’t that hard to find after all. I will die a very happy man if I wind up a fraction of the man my father was.
I know it sounds a tiny bit macabre, but whenever I end a telephone conversation, especially with someone I don’t see or talk to very often, I always let them know how I feel. Because, well, you just never know.
I must tell my daughter and my wife a hundred times a day how much I love them. I never get tired of saying it or hearing it.
In fact, it’s 3:21 in the middle of the a.m., but as soon as I’m done writing this I’m going to go wake up Dakota and Val and remind them how much I love them. They’ll probably get mad and throw something at me, but it’s worth the risk, right?