in 1953 (pretty much smack-dab in the middle of the "Baby Boom"
generation), I grew up on Chicago's southwest side in a blue-collar
working class neighborhood known more for its manufacturing plants
and ward politics than any vague notion of its place in the city's
identity. What you did for a living defined your place in the scheme
of things: Policeman, fireman - good, respected, basically "one of
us" with a badge and gun or boots. Electrician, mechanic, production
worker - hey, we didn't have to understand these people, we were
these people. Teacher, lawyer, banker - we knew we needed them, we
just weren't sure why. And of course precinct captain, alderman,
city worker - well...wink-wink, nudge-nudge, say no more!
Oh, and I guess I
should mention musicians, actors, dancers and other "entertainment"
types, but these people didn't actually work for a living any more
than a pro baseball or football player did. They had simply lucked
into a scheme to have people pay them for doing something fun. Never
mind that they had devoted many long, thankless, unpaid hours to
learning their craft - it was still "play," not work.
I am the son of a
millwright (that's a guy who builds and sets up machinery in a
manufacturing plant) and a 1950's mom. She stuffed her three kids
with good food before sending them off to school, was there to ask
them how their day had been when they got home, and did all the
things that make a kid feel loved, safe and secure. It was years
before I came to know that my parents were giving us something they
themselves had never had.
My father, a
high-school dropout, was born into a poor, dysfunctional Spanish
family in a rough west-side neighborhood. My mother was a German
girl from a white ethnic part of town where divorce was practically
unheard-of. Yet, her mother had walked away from the family and
divorced her father when my mom was at an age when she should have
been playing with dolls and hanging out at the local soda shop.
Instead, she had to do the cooking and cleaning for the family her
mother had left behind.
My parents met at a
downtown "music club" where you could go to learn to sing or play a
instrument. By all accounts it was love at first sight, but I can
only guess at how well my dad's brown skin and curly black hair went
over in my mom's German-Irish neighborhood. I always knew they loved
each other, but I was a young man before I realized how much they
had clung to each other for survival. They desperately needed each
other, and could never have guessed just how much their relationship
would be tested.
My childhood was a
happy one. My brother Larry was the oldest - a skinny kid with
blue-gray eyes and curly hair. His good looks helped compensate for
his shyness, but still he had a hard time making friends. He was a
natural athlete, and I always joked that as much as I loved being
born with my father's mechanical ability, I would gladly have traded
it for Larry's strikingly beautiful eyes and the cross-country
letter on his high-school sweater.
My sister Susan has
always been my idea of what is right with this world. Even though I
was bigger at 10 than she was at 13, she was always my big sister.
She would cry if she found a tiny bird dead on the sidewalk, but
would stand up to the biggest bully in the neighborhood. A petite,
pretty blonde, she always had the local "tough guys" hanging around
her, but I suspect they got fewer stolen kisses than they did
lectures about behaving themselves. I'll never forget the look on
her face the day she returned from summer camp to discover that a
former boyfriend, who had proven himself to be unworthy of her
loyalty, had been killed in a horrible 100-mph car crash. Thank God
the choices she had made kept her from being a passenger in that
brother Tim came along in 1962 I had been the baby of the family. I
was a chubby, carefree little smart-aleck, and I was glad my parents
had already been "broken in" by my two older siblings. Although
neither of my parents had known a "normal" joyful childhood, we
could never have guessed it as kids. Thanks to their self-sacrifice,
I can look back on many happy times.
To be continued...