I moved to the Chicago suburbs during the years we used to call “Jr. High.” Now, it’s “Middle School.” My folks built a brand new house in a new subdivision. Dad had been transferred to his company’s office in Wheaton from Dixon, IL, his hometown and the place we had lived for a few years near my grandparents. Now we were starting a new adventure.
I can still see the tears in my grandfather’s eyes as we drove away.
The community into which we were moving was made up of “immigrants” like us — folks who had come from other places to take jobs in the burgeoning western suburbs of Chicago. Families with baby boom babies like me were filling the subdivisions and schools. I got my first job as a paperboy in our neighborhood. We were in “section three,” which was still under construction. I started in the late fall and remember the panic of watching the late afternoon skies grow dark while I tried to find street signs and addresses on unpaved lanes and cul-de-sacs. I finally gave up, crying, and Dad drove me around and helped me get the papers delivered.
The school I attended was not one of the newer “Jr. Highs” but a K-8 elementary school. We had a dress code, and I was sent home the first day to change because I wore blue jeans. For boys, hair had to be neatly trimmed above the ears, collared shirts tucked in and belts worn. No sneakers were allowed. Girls had rules about skirt length and make-up was forbidden, as I recall.
I entered the school just as we were all being immersed in adolescence. Thrown together like refugees on a ship, we became close, so close that today, over forty years later, we who lived through those junior high years still feel like best friends, and we reunite whenever we can.
I have more than one story like that, because I am a person who has moved often. Now, I haven’t relocated as often as people whose folks were in the military or in similarly transient vocations. However, over the course of my life, I have been transplanted with fair regularity. Like many who move often, my memories are compartmentalized, like separate chapters in a storybook that have little relation to one another.
There’s my life in small town northwestern Illinois as a child. We lived in three houses in that town. I don’t remember the first one, but we moved to the second when I started school. I got my first bee sting crawling under the clothesline and putting my hand down on a bee in the grass while mom was hanging wash. Dad taught me how to ride my bike there, and he caught me with my grandpa’s old catcher’s mitt as I learned to throw a baseball. They gave me my first watch and I set it back and lied about it having stopped when I didn’t want to stop playing and came home late for supper. I stayed up into the wee hours one night with the searing pain of an earache and had my tonsils out while we lived there. I don’t remember any of my friends’ names, but it seems now like I must have been outside playing with them all day, every day.
It’s the next house that I remember best because it remains my favorite. The small attic had been converted and I had the whole thing for my room. We had the best basketball court in the neighborhood and a two and a half car garage in which we made a haunted house one Halloween. Most of all I remember Mark and Jimmy and other friends, playing wiffleball and war and climbing trees and getting in trouble for breaking the neighbor’s windows and throwing tomatoes at the grumpy old man who lived behind us. Dad took me to high school basketball games and the local team did their warm-up routine to “Sweet Georgia Brown,” just like the Harlem Globetrotters. I explored under the bleachers and picked up change that had fallen so I could buy baseball cards.
That’s where we lived when Roger Maris hit 61 homers and I fell in love with watching Sandy Koufax pitch. That’s where we had the weeping willow in the backyard that was like my own personal “Giving Tree.” Dad brought home a dog for me once. We called him Rusty and he didn’t have a tail. He dug so many holes in the backyard that Mom finally had enough and we took him back to the pound. I used to dress up in my dad’s huge hooded sweatshirt, pull it up over my face and head and run around the backyard until Rusty knocked me down and dug through the fleece until he found my face and licked it. I hung grandpa’s catcher mitt on the back of the garage on a nail and practiced my pitching.
There’s a whole rich chapter in a corner of my mind for that place, even though we only lived there a few years. I was young enough that one Christmas I laid awake in bed and looked out the dormer window of my room at the moon, just waiting for the moment when Santa would ride his sleigh across its path. My sisters were born there after my younger brother had died. Our street was still paved with bricks. One time I took the word of a neighbor and thought I could run and find the end of the rainbow and get the pot of gold. Gosh, I loved that place.
From there we moved back to Dad’s hometown. It was great to be near my paternal grandparents. Grandpa suffered with diabetes and had trouble with his eyes, but I was the first grandchild and his pride and joy — he loved having us close. Nothing could be finer than watching the Cubs on TV with my grandpa while he sat in his recliner, muttering through each loss and saying, “One day when you pitch for the Cubs, things’ll be different.”
We rented a two-story house on a busy street and I played in the yard whenever I could. Even if no friends were around, I’d toss the wiffleball up in the air and hit it and play my own ball game. When we moved into the house, I found a treasure. Down in the old cellar, under the coal bin, were cases and cases of old pop bottles. We had a little neighborhood store two streets over from us, and I made several trips to turn those bottles in for the deposit money. I’m sure I spent it all on baseball cards.
We walked to school, and sometimes I would take a shortcut by climbing the wall of the old quarry at the end of the street. Our school was at the top of a large hill. One of the streets near the quarry was our usual route — a long and very steep climb — and when we weren’t trudging up or down it on school days, we would ride our bikes or skateboards down it, faster than I’ve ever gone, as I remember. It really is a wonder we survived.
My best friend was Randy, and we went to church as well as school together. The best thing of all was singing in the choir on Wednesdays after school. Rosie, our choir director, was an angel to put up with boys like us, and wow, could she make us laugh. Afterwards, I would walk to grandma and grandpa’s house or home for dinner. I sang my first solo on Palm Sunday one year, from the balcony up on the right, wearing a red robe.
That’s also where my mom introduced me to my first phonograph record: “The Best of the Kingston Trio.” But before long it was the Dave Clark Five and the Beatles and the radio, and there was no looking back. Each week WLS in Chicago came out with a “Silver Dollar Survey,” listing the Top 40. I’d go down to the record store and pick one up on the day it was released. For a long time I saved them (wishing I had them now!). Every day after school I’d play in the yard or on the swingset and listen and sing along as they counted down the top songs. When I could I would buy a 45. I had a friend sleep over one night and we were jumping on the bed when he fell off and broke my new “She’s a Must to Avoid” by Herman’s Hermits. My favorite movie was “Pinocchio” and mom and dad bought me the record that had the storybook with it so I could relive the story at home.
One time I cried and asked to be kept home from school because that day I had to dance with a girl. My favorite indoor game was “sock basketball.” We’d hang a wooden box with the bottom cut out up on the wall in our playroom and shoot a ball of rolled up socks at it. Dad still took me to the high school games — he had been a star at that school. One time they let the YMCA kids play at halftime and I think I missed every shot I took. Dad liked the Drum and Bugle Corps. shows on the football field too. That’s also where I started playing Little League and I used to pitch sidearm. We played on fields by the river and the old Borden milk factory. Occasionally dad and I went fishing.
Then one day it was off again, to a new life in a new subdivision with new friends in the suburbs of Chicago. From Chicago, several years later, we moved east and everything was different. That move initiated new chapters and additional journeys to places I’d never dreamed. But those are other stories for another day.
All these things came back to me this past week when we went to Tennessee to move my parents into a retirement community. They sold their home in the same town and have taken up residence in a new place that has cottages, apartments, assisted living, and rehab facilities. They’re still healthy and active, and have a beautiful new, smaller home now, and no longer do they have to do the upkeep, yard work, and so on.
It’s stunning to me that this will be their last house.
As one who has moved a lot throughout my life, I’ve developed an ongoing, nagging sense of “What’s next?” My life has not so much been a novel as it has been a book of short stories, each with a definite beginning, middle, and ending. The characters in each tale continue to live in my mind as they did when I knew them. They don’t cross into the other worlds and the other experiences of my life, they exist within distinct ecosystems that somehow each remain unique and special inside of me. Life has been a wonderful journey of moving through these separate stories, each one holding its own meaning and significance. It’s hard for me to fathom that one day the book will end, the final chapter will be written, and the cast of characters in that final story will take their last bow.
When I go to the reunion next month and see Tom, Debbie, Jan, Pat, Bob, Dawn, others, I will enter a time warp. It will be as though I open up the book to that particular chapter and step right in to the story again. I will want to say to them, let’s go walking through the neighborhood. Let’s do a James Brown dance. Let’s play homerun derby or basketball in the driveway, or two-on-one football in the street. Let’s record the Beatles album on your dad’s reel-to-reel and play it backwards and see what we can hear. Let’s spend the day at the pool. Let’s go steady.
It will be good. And then I’ll move on again.