Here we celebrate the extended Gidzinski family history and experiences
as told by the personal stories of our family members.
You can either scroll down to read the stories in the order that they were posted or you can click on the story list below to jump straight to that particular story.
Free Diving by George Gidzinski Apr, 2020
Randy Murphy by Rolfe Jaremus Nov, 2020
Our Summer of '69 Adventure by Rolfe Jaremus Feb 2021
Well it all started with a canoe trip down to Shades State Park in Indiana. My newlywed daughter Christina and her husband Al came down to our farm house in central Iroquois County on my birthday, Friday, August 31. They brought their two rescue dogs to the farm as they didn’t want to leave the dogs alone for a day and a half. On Saturday morning, my other son-in-law Chris was coming down with his young boys. He would let the dogs out until we got back. At least that was the plan.
So we took off early Saturday for Shades State Park. Heading into Indiana we lose an hour, so an early departure was essential so as to make an 11:00am departure time. I missed the Route 41 turnoff to Attica, so we got there just in time to sign in and get on the buses. Once on the canoes, we were soon out of cell range amongst the river bluffs. It was a great late summer day for canoeing, hot and sunny.
Meanwhile, my son-in-law Chris arrived at the farm about 10:30am with his 8 month old baby and a 4-1/2 year old in tow. Shortly after arriving, he let the dogs out to relieve themselves and a few minutes later let the dogs back in. Then he noticed that the little guy Biscuit wasn’t there. He looked all over the property and after a few minutes, loaded the kids back into the car and drove down the road looking for the dog. About a quarter mile east, he spotted Biscuit running along a cornfield. He drove alongside and then got ahead of him with the car. Biscuit turned around and ran back along the corn towards the farm house. Chris turned around and followed Biscuit in the car. As Biscuit passed the farmhouse, Chris pulled over to retrieve Biscuit, who then proceeded to run into the corn. Chris pursued for a while but with the heat and the little kids in the car, he couldn’t do too much. Biscuit was gone, apparently looking for his “mother”, my daughter Christina.
We got back in cell phone range by about 1:00pm llinois time and soon saw the messages. We took off and came back home as quickly as we could. We all walked the fields, calling and yelling for Biscuit. My other daughter, Airamanda, mother of the two young boys, showed up about 3:30pm and immediately joined us in the search. She took Uma, Biscuit’s companion with, and began driving the roads. No sooner had she started, than she saw Biscuit alongside a corn field along 1750 north road between 1700 and 1800 east roads. But when she stopped the car, Biscuit ran into the corn. We now focused our search on that area. Neighbor Peggy joined us and we all walked the nearby ditch, some of us walked through the corn rows, and others drove the roads in the area all to no avail. The temperatures were blistering hot.
As a hunter, I went out into the field to see if I could find Biscuit’s tracks. I did find a few tracks but they only confirmed that he went where Airamanda last saw him. I couldn’t find any tracks in his last location.
As the days went by, we were in contact with a number of local people who really helped a lot. A cousin of ours, Jaimie came over on Saturday to help take care of Uma. Jaimie also contacted her neighbor Carrie who volunteers with I-CARE, the Iroquois county Animal Rescue Organization. Carrie came by with Mike another volunteer. They met all of us at a shed and materials site on a local farm that Jamie’s father farmed. We set up a large tent so that Christina and Al could camp out at the site. Mike and Carrie gave us tips on what to do. Mike also lent us 5 Have-a-heart animal traps which we baited with food and water and set out on the periphery of the farm field. Christina, Al and Uma camped out for two days at the site hoping to attract Biscuit. They cooked food, put out blankets and did the best they could to make Biscuit feel comfortable.
From Saturday night until the next Thursday, Al and I checked the traps about every 4 hours. Nothing happened other than catching two raccoons and a cat in the traps. One thing I can say is that raccoons really like sardines.
During this time, we talked with all of the neighbors. I had posters and flyers made at Scheiwe's Printing in Crescent City which I posted at the local stores and on every telephone pole within about 2 miles of where we last saw Biscuit. Christina and her sister Airamanda kept folks updated on Facebook where almost 500 people shared the posting. We continued to make the rounds, but by Wednesday night , we were getting pretty discouraged. With the high heat and the coyotes in the area, it was getting hard to believe little Biscuit could make it through with no food and occasional rain. That said, many people told Aira that it usually took 5 days. So that brought us some hope.
Then on Thursday morning, Al went east down 1750 North road to one of the local houses where the folks had a lot of small animals out in pens around the house. Maybe Biscuit had found a refuge there, or at least some food. The proprietor, Chuck immediately tells Al that he just saw the dog right near his house. While they’re talking, Al looks to the west along the road and there along the corn rows was Biscuit’s head popping out of the grass. As Al slowly approached, Biscuit once again runs into the corn.
That said, we were beginning to realize that Biscuit was not going to come easily. Carrie from I-care told us that skittish dogs like Biscuit don’t like loud noises and often will not come to people. So we needed to back off. No more walking the roadsides or cornfields yelling his name. We put out food and water bowls about every 100 yards along the road. I was worried about how Biscuit was holding up and just wanted to get some food and water into him as I assumed he was starving.
By the early afternoon, I ran into Watseka for a few errands. I decided to come back using 1800 East road. As I approached 1750 from the north, at 2:00pm there on the east side of the road I saw Biscuit’s head above the grass. He had been sniffing a white Taco Bell taco wrapper that someone threw out along the road. As my car got closer, he looked at me and then ran right back into the corn. I was relieved that he appeared to be frisky and energetic, and that he was in the same general area.
Upon hearing the news, my daughter Christina who had been eating very little in sympathy with Biscuit decided that if he could eat tacos, she should eat as well.
That said, with all of this local activity, we got calmly energized. I brought my trailer out with a heavy duty storage box which I parked at the corner of 1750 N. and 1800 East roads as a lookout. We sat up on the box on a lawn chair with binoculars and we just scanned the roadways where he had been seen. I’m sure that many of the people driving by were kind of wondering what the heck was going on. It certainly looked odd.
So during Thursday afternoon, Al decided to move all of the food bowls into the traps. He moved all of the traps to the general area, each with water and food. As it was predicted to rain that night, we set up a trap in the open shed near where he was first seen. We figured Biscuit might seek shelter there.
As the day went on, there were no more sightings. That night it rained. We worried about a wet Biscuit and coyotes, but at least the rain brought cooler temperatures. About this time, about 10 people told us to pray to St. Jude and St. Anthony. I don’t know if any of us did, but it may have helped.
After 3 sightings on Thursday, we were getting hopefully. But now on Friday, it was drizzling and grey. Being out in the rain on the trailer didn’t make any sense. I stayed at home and did some electrical work in my barn while Al sat in his van on the road and made the rounds.
Then at 3:00pm, I got a call from John from Woodland. He said he had seen the notice on Facebook and decided to join in the pursuit. He drove past the materials shed and there he saw Biscuit. Al and I drove over there immediately and got the story. He was just cruising along slowly and saw the dog. When he called out to Biscuit, he ran back into the corn. So this was like sighting number seven! Once again, Al moved some of the traps back to the west to be nearer to the shed area. The rest of the day went along without any additional sightings.
My daughter Christina got out of work in downtown Chicago late that Friday evening and drove down to the farm. She arrived about 9:00pm. Her and Al drove around the area checking the traps and roadsides, but saw nothing.
The next morning, Christina and Al woke up early and got out by 6:30am and drove over to the shed area. There along the corn by the roadside was Biscuit. Al slowly stopped the car. Christina got out on the other side and slowly crept over. She crouched over and put out her hand and Biscuit came to her. You can’t imagine how happy she felt. Christina was so overjoyed. She said she had been dreaming that she would catch Biscuit this way and was now hoping this wasn’t all a dream. She came back to the farmhouse and it wasn’t even 7:00am when they arrived with Biscuit in her arms.
Shortly after bringing Biscuit back to the farm, Christina and Al took her to The Watseka Animal Hospital. Dr. Yousef checked him out and said he was in good shape, no problems other that a small scratch on his nose. He was 15 lbs., about same weight as usual! When he came to the farm house, he didn’t even eat. Where did he find his food? This little guy was apparently quite resourceful!
Christina and I then made the rounds to show all of the neighbors who had been so helpful the little dog that we were trying so hard to find. Everyone was happy and thankful that we found Biscuit. Biscuit went home for just a few days and then spent a week at Christina’s parents house in Woodridge, Illinois. Christina and Al were just married and decided to wait a few weeks to take their honeymoon. They could now do so without worrying about little Biscuit. It took him a while to warm up to his temporary home in Woodridge, but as you can imagine, he wasn’t let out without a leash!
One thing I can tell you is that there is no easier way to make a friend in rural Iroquois County than losing a dog. It’s a terrible event, but everyone was so helpful and understanding. So many people opened up their hearts to this effort. Most everyone had a story about their own dog or one they knew. We would especially like to thank Carrie and Mike from the Iroquois County Animal and Rescue Center. They do some great work for a lot of dogs that are abandoned, injured, have an illness or are lost. Thanks to all of our farmland neighbors who helped and who kept an eye out for Biscuit. My daughter and son-in-law are eternally grateful.
Back in the 1950’s before aluminum cans were used, and before recycling efforts were instituted by local communities there was a 2 cent return and refund cost on glass pop bottles. Back in those days, we didn’t have money in our family to buy pop except on special occasions, but when we did, my folks were pretty good about keeping the bottles in the kitchen and returning them to the grocery store for the refund. At the grocery store the empty, returned bottles were piled high in a large bottles bin near the front of the store.
As a young child that walked almost a mile to Barry elementary school north of Diversey, I walked along a lot of parkways (the strip of grass way between the street and the sidewalk), and being closer to the ground than adults, I saw a lot of bottles in the parkways. Since my mother did not drive or have a car, we walked everywhere, and discarded bottles were everywhere. As a 7-8 year old, I found out from my parents that you didn’t need to be an adult to get the refund for bottles. You didn’t have to prove that you bought the bottles and you didn’t have to return them in the cardboard six pack carrying case. We just had to return the bottles. It dawned on me that there was literally cash on the street waiting to be picked up!
Now let me put this refund amount into perspective. Two cents is nothing today, but in the late 50’s two cents would be equivalent to at least a quarter today. In those days, a penny was the cost of an individual piece of candy; a gum ball, a stick of red licorice, a pretzel, a tube of sugar candy a jaw breaker. A pack of gum with 5 baseball cards was a nickel. Ten cents was enough money to buy a small bag of candy that would last several days. So two cents was a lot of money to us kids. The great thing was that all we had to do was take the glass bottles, mostly green 7-Up and clear, (with blue and white lettering) Pepsi bottles – to the local grocery store and we got paid… Cash!
So, as I had an insatiable appetite for candy in those days, one summer day, I got my sister and along with our red wagon we started to walk the neighborhood collecting bottles. The real gold mine was Kelvyn Park High School. It was located adjacent to but on the other side of our city block. There we probably found several dozen bottles laying in the grassy parkway. But while we were mining the parkway, we became aware of the enormous number of bottles that were inside the yard.
The outside of the school was surrounded with a 6 foot high, wrought iron fence that bordered the sidewalk . Inside the fence was a 15 foot deep grassy yard that ran to some yews that lined the school building. The high school kids drank a lot of pop and threw the bottles all over the place, including the enclosed yard area. The difficulty was how to get inside the fenced yard as it was designed to keep people out. The iron bars were close enough that we couldn’t squeeze in.
Being a bit of a monkey child, I took this as a challenge and figured out how to climb the bars and get over the fence. After all, this was being done to help clean up the school property, right? Now keep in mind, this yard area wasn’t continuous. There was a yard area, then a set of steps, then another yard. There were probably 4-5 yards on the north and west side of the school, so it took a lot of climbing to retrieve these bottles. We picked up so many bottles in our inaugural haul that we didn’t have enough room in the boxes in our wagon to carry them. I think we made at least two trips to the grocery store before we had cleaned up all of the bottles on our block and the adjacent school area. That day, we made about two dollars.
What did we do with the money? Well we certainly bought some candy. But when my mother found out how much money we made, she quarantined most of it. I think the money went into our “college savings fund”. I must admit that that move took a lot of the incentive out of our bottle returning efforts. Working most of the day for some really obscure goal like saving for college (whatever that was) deflated our enthusiasm. I also thought that it might take a long time for the high school kids to replenish the bottle supply. And since it was summer, that wasn’t going to happen soon.
When I look back at this early “recycling” effort, I am actually surprised that the government was willing and able to put such a large refund fee onto the cost of pop. It’s pretty amazing. I think the cost was primarily an effort to keep bottle litter off the streets, parkways and yards. As our efforts showed, it certainly didn’t work very well for high school kids, but it did create an incentive for at least a few children.
Another thought about this was that this whole activity, from beginning to end was completely unsupervised. There was no adult involvement at all. There was no parent telling us how to do it or where to go, we just figured it out. I don’t even think my mother knew what we were doing. That would be unheard of today.
We largely do not use glass bottles for pop today. Glass bottles are largely used for specialty drinks where the purity of a glass container is valued. Adding a 25 cent fee would not only be prohibitively expensive, it would be a logistical nightmare trying to get the unique bottles that they make today back to the hundreds of companies that sell tea, juice and other specialty drinks in bottles. And today we have recycling efforts, which largely address the bottle cleanup effort. But I have to hand it to the authorities back in the day for being able to include such a large cost on the consumption of pop.
In the early 60’s, someone in our family discovered or heard about pizza. I think it was Tina maybe tasting it at a friends’ house. She told us about this different food, and said it tasted pretty good. Mind you, we had never eaten a pizza or even a slice of one in our life. Pizza was considered some kind of different food that we didn’t know anything about. That wasn’t really so unusual because we never went out to eat. It just wasn’t done. We never went out to eat and neither did any of our close friends. So, growing up we had never eaten Chinese, Mexican or any other “ethnic” foods. The closest thing I can recall was my mother making “chop suey”. Her version of it was a very basic version with chopped chicken and celery in a sauce on white rice.
So, back to the pizza. I think it was Tina that told us we could make our own kid’s pizza’s which she proceeded to make. These mini-pizzas consisted of a saltine cracker with catchup on it and a bit of black pepper on top. That was it. No cheese, meat or anything else, and we didn’t try to warm it up. We thought it was pretty good. At one point I recall we set up a table out in front of our house like a lemonade stand and we sold pizza for a penny a piece. I think we ate more than we sold, but surprisingly we did sell a few pizzas, mostly to our friends.
When I was growing up, there were a lot more insects around than there are today. Even in the city I remember seeing 4” long grass hoppers. The summer evening sky would light up with fire flies. But most of all there were a lot more flies. Flies were everywhere. The reason for fewer flies today is quite simple. Our environment today is a lot cleaner. There is less rotting organic material around than in the 1950’s. A couple of examples come to mind.
The first example has to do with garbage. On Kildare Street, and essentially everywhere in Chicago, garbage was deposited into an outdoor cement “tank” near the alley. The top of the tank had a metal door and a latch into which one would deposit garbage usually in paper bags. Plastic garbage bags were unheard of. The alley side of the tank had a large door that was either open or closed. This is where the garbage men would shovel the garbage from and into the garbage trucks. What a dirty job. There were usually 4 men on a garbage truck because there was a lot of physical work to do, shoveling up all of the garbage from both sides of the alleys.
In the summer, the garbage would sit out in the heat for days, with all kinds of kitchen scraps and rotting food. Keep in mind there was no recycling, so food scraps would be mixed up with paper, plastic, bottles, food cans and other “recyclable” materials. The paper absorbed some of the liquid waste so that enhanced the stench. As a result it was a paradise for flies. There were literally thousands of flies and maggots crawling around in the cement tank. Often times you didn’t see the maggots until the garbage men came and shoveled out the garbage. The maggots would fall out of the garbage onto the alley and the bottom of the cement tank area. The glass bottles in the garbage would often break leaving glass shards all over this area. What a mess. It kind of looked like a cesspool.
As a kid, we occasionally had to pass by this garbage area to go from the back yard to the alley. I would run as fast as I could to avoid the stench and seeing the maggots. They were gross. At that time, I didn’t understand that maggots were fly larva. I just thought they were there to eat the rotting food. I use to wonder how the garbage men could stand the smell. What a job. These guys seem other worldly. Once in a while, grandpa would hose off the area and wash the maggots and glass into the concrete alley way. At least it helped to reduce the wretched smell.
Another reason for the reduction in flies is the reduction in large animals like horses, and dog waste. Back in the 50’s there were not many horse in the city, but occasionally the “rag man” came down the alley in a large wooden wagon pulled by a horse. Naturally the horse attracted flies as did the fresh horse dung. I don’t recall anyone sweeping up the horse dung. The rag man collected old cloth material to make rags I guess? He also sharpened knives. As the horse and wagon came down the alley, you could hear the staccato of the shoed horse’s hooves clomping on the cement pavement. The rag man was always an old man. He would yell out something like “rags”, “sharpen your knives”. As he walked there was a klinking noise, I think it was from all of the utensils that he picked up. He sharped a knife for something like a dime.
By the early ‘60’s the City of Chicago started to migrate towards the use of 55 gallon steel drums for garbage. Slowly these became the norm and by the time we moved away in ’62 there were few cement tanks left or if they were, they weren’t being used. They just sat there along the alleys as rellics of an older time. As a young boy, picking up these drums, filled with garbage seemed like a herculean task. The garbage men were strong, tough guys. They wrestled with the cans like pros. The cans soon got scraped and dented. They started to look like they should be part of the garbage.
Up until about the turn of the 21st century, nobody picked up dog poop. People walked dogs and they pooped mostly on people’s parkway, between the sidewalk and the street. This poop was a good resource for flies where they would lay their eggs. In the suburbs the smell wasn’t so bad, but in the city the poop stench could get pretty bad I believe because there is a lot less green space. Most alleys are paved and yard space is small. I think the city people started picking up dog poop a lot earlier than in the suburbs where most everyone that had a dog, just let it run free in the back yard. People didn’t walk dogs very much. Life was different back then.
Today we use a lot more plastic. Plastic containers are now the norm. Back then, there was very little plastic being used. Plastic garbage cans are now the rule. They are now omnipresent. They are well designed so that the garbage truck can pick them up without the one garbage man touching the can. Who would have thought of that? Also, tons of plastic bags. I can’t say I miss the flies or mosquitoes, but I think the birds, frogs, toads and bats miss the food.
I heard a whistle that a teacher used in the schoolyard behind out house to call in the kids from their lunch break . It reminded me of our whistle back in Morton Grove.
During the summers in the mid-60’s we practically lived outside. Our neighborhood was alive with kids playing, or riding bikes, building forts, or the like. So when my mom made lunch or dinner, there was a bit of a problem in that we didn’t know what time it was and she got tired of yelling out the back door to call us in.
In those days, we were too young to have a watch. Even if we hadn’t been too young, we roughhoused so much, a watch would probably not have survived for long.
So it started with a little bell. My mom got a bell and would step out the back door and ring it. It was OK, but the range of sound was not that great. If we were more than half a block away, we couldn’t hear it.
After a short while mom graduated to a whistle. I don’t recall where we got it, but it was a fairly cheap whistle. It had a good range and we could hear it from most everywhere. It became such a fixture in the neighborhood, that if our friends heard it and we didn’t they would tell us. Then at some point, one of our friend’s parents did the same thing. It was easy to tell which direction the sound was coming from so it wasn’t confusing. But I recall thinking, “hey this was our idea!”.
Our father was a carpenter who did mostly additions and remodeling work although on occasion he did other interesting work like a Cold War era bomb shelter. He taught by example and he started taking me to the job site at a young age. He did the addition on aunt Mary’s house in Hoffman Estates and that was my first paid work for him. I don’t remember how old I was but I’m guessing around 12. He sat me down and showed me how to hammer in the floor sheeting (plywood) into the floor joists. He then filled a coffee can with 12 penny nails and told me to keep track of how many i used because he was going to pay me a penny a nail. A short time later I came to him with an empty coffee can and he asked me what I did with all those nails. I said that they were in the floor as directed. He then said that he was going to have to reconsider my piece work rate. Then he went over to the area that I was working on and saw that I was missing the nails and hitting the wood putting these crescent shaped dings in the floor. Now it didn't matter in this case but later when I would work on more delicate things like trim carpentry it would matter. This being a teachable moment, he told me that he didn't want to see any more smiley faces in his lumber. That slowed me down considerably. That and not having the carpenter muscles and strength to swing a full size hammer all day. I always marveled at how my dad would pound 16 penny nails (much bigger) into framing lumber all day with three hits and no smiley faces. It would be many years before I was capable of that type of skill so for now I would just marvel at how may dad was bigger than life and slave away with 10 hits per nail.
There are many more stories of carpentry, construction labor and painting, many of which involve my cousins but I will spare them from the embarrassment of documenting our many Three Stooges moments as we learned the trades. Boards through windows, paint cans falling off of 20' ladders, spilling paint on perfect manicured lawns in Evanston ... Well for today anyhow. LOL. Actually, we finally got it together and actually knew what we were doing. I for one eventually became a painter for very good money after my father recommended me to follow his work with the Illinois Bell phone company one summer. It took me five years of working at my first job with an engineering degree before I was making more money than I did as a painter in college and I know that my cousins went on to further develop their skills as well.
Even a blind squirrel ...
When we were children my mother told us that when she was growing up on the near northwest side of Chicago in the 20’s and 30’s that their toilet was under the sidewalk of all places. To go to the bathroom, they had to leave their house and go under the sidewalk! This seemed like a ridiculously strange custom. Why would anyone go under a sidewalk to take a pee or the other thing? There wasn’t enough room. My gosh, even if you could dig a hole under a sidewalk, wasn’t it rather dirty, and hard to crawl into? And then, anyone could see and hear you down there. Can you imagine needing to go in the middle of the night? It just didn’t seem to make any sense. Mom described it to us but it wasn’t until many years later that I found out the real story. It wasn’t quite as strange as it seemed.
It all started back in 1855. Chicago was a low muddy town built on swampy ground. I mean the streets were a real frickin mess. Horses and people would get stuck in the mud. Finally someone got the ingenious idea of raising up the buildings and roadways to improve drainage. Large buildings and even city blocks were raised, under which they made basements.
The roads were a different issue. The idea was to raise and pave the roads with bricks so that they would be dryer and easier to travel on. But, where to get the dirt? There weren’t big trucks and equipment like we have today. And there weren’t even motorized vehicles yet. Horse and cart can only carry dirt so far.
So someone got the ingenious idea of digging dirt from along the sides of the roadway where the sidewalk was and piling the dirt into the street. They would build retaining walls on the outside of the roadbed to keep the dirt from caving back out. And then they would suspend a concrete slab sidewalk from the road support across to iron support pipes. The roads and sidewalk would be pitched towards the curb, where storm drains would take the water to the nearest river.
So that’s exactly what they did. They raised up Chicago’s streets by between 4 and 14 feet, the greater depths being right along the Chicago River. This raising up of the roadways was done in most of the downtown Chicago and the nearby neighborhoods. Wacker Drive is one of the results of this roadway raising.
In the residential neighborhoods where the sidewalks and roads were raised, the houses usually were not raised resulting in first floor apartments becoming sunken garden apartments. The area underneath the sidewalk was a hollowed out area about 6-7 feet tall that existed alongside that sunken garden.
Up until that time, outhouses were essentially wooden boxes sitting on top of a hole in the ground. As the city’s population grew, the shit began to pile up, literally. So moving toilets under the sidewalk was actually a healthy move because getting one’s drinking water from a hand pump in one’s back yard located not too far from an outhouse was a serious health hazard. Contaminated drinking water was the result. But hell, who knew anything about bacteria back then?
So toilets in the late 19th and early 20th century for the common folk were located under the sidewalk. It was a short walk out of a basement door, across a sunken garden to an enclosed toilet area under the sidewalk. As you can imagine, fencing, screens and doors soon followed for greater privacy.
Initially the area underneath the sidewalks was used as a storage area, but soon someone got the ingenious idea of putting toilets into this area under the sidewalk. So the idea was, put a toilet under the sidewalk, connected to the storm water drains. The rain water from the streets would help “flush” away the human excrement whenever it rained. Into the Chicago River the waste was washed, which then proceeded to wash out into Lake Michigan.
As technology advanced, Chicago began pumping drinking water from Lake Michigan to residents and businesses. The primitive sanitation system that dumped raw sewage into the lake resulted in frequent Cholera outbreaks. So In 1900 they reversed the flow of the Chicago River so that the stinking mess went downstream, and not back into the cities drinking water. That Chicago River flow reversal was considered one of the wonders of Chicago and a key to the cities continued growth.
During Chicago’s major building boom in the 1920’s, indoor bathrooms became the norm, with water supply lines and sewer lines running into the houses. But as you can see, by the 1930’s their were older tenements, especially in the Polish neighborhoods that hadn’t changed. A common Polish saying was “gejay yest Joe” or where is Joe? The Polish-Chicago answer was “Joe sidevalkiem” - Joe is under the sidewalk.
In downtown Chicago, this open area under the sidewalk is still used today as a loading area for many businesses. There are mechanical lifts that are located under the raised sidewalks. Iron covers open up and a lift comes up to street level. A supplier loads the lift with supplies and recedes back under the sideway where the supplies can be taken into a supply room. So today, the space under the raised sidewalks is used for storage, for supply delivery and for infrastructure (water, sewer, electrical lines). Some of these areas are also passageways between businesses.
Anyway that is the strange story as I know it about under-the-sidewalk toilets in Chicago.
Now, my mom never told me about the “under the sidewalk” toilets, and my guess is that she was more interested in portraying some elegance at all times, even if it flew in the face of reality. The memories she shared of her days on Kildare and Division streets were more likely to revolve around family, with a big brother and three big sisters she loved dearly, and her loving parents who prepared the greatest Polish food in the world. To be honest, I think she changed her middle name to “J” instead of “Jane” because in her mind, “Jane” was simply too plain, and the initial was mysterious and somehow more chic.
As a mom, she was my go-to person for help with homework. Eventually when I got my learner’s permit, she taught me to drive, spending many many hours driving around Long Beach with me in our VW bug.
But George’s story got me to thinking about my dad, and how he taught Steve and I tons of things. He taught us to fish and shoot, and how to work. He was definitely stern about chores. As a result, along with regular chores, I participated as a digger and a schlepper on the many remodeling tasks we did as a family. And there were lots of “Three Stooges moments” that I’ll not get into.
My dad knew I was clearly a catastrophe around tools and such, and never considered me for a roll with, as George pointed out, the “more delicate things”. Oh yeah, I got to use a hammer once in a while, but even when we re-did our shake roof, my task was to haul shingles because my hammer misses left only broken shakes, and no smiles.
This is not to say he didn’t involve me in his actual work. As most of you probably know, before he became an L.A. Sheriff, like his father before him, he was a plumber. And at an early age [how old? I don’t remember] I worked for him on a few jobs . . . for free! No, I didn’t drill the holes to run the pipes. I didn’t run the pipe-threading machine. I didn’t melt or work with the lead used to seal cast iron pipes. I didn’t measure anything. I didn’t saw the plywood or two-by-fours when the job called for it.
No, I mostly helped clean up and moved things from here to there; from truck to jobsite, back to the truck and finally, back to the house. My guess is, I did way less of this stuff than I think, but as a youngster, memories of memorable tasks can be enhanced greatly. Anyway, it wasn’t so much the schlepping that made me sure I didn't want to be a plumber, it was the locations that I was tasked to move pipes in to him: underneath houses.
Having already been imprinted with an inordinate fear of insects by my brother [Steve recognized my frailties early on and would pin me to the ground and torment me by holding bugs near to my face, or put them in my hair, drop them down my shirt or pants while simultaneously telling me it was a Black Widow] I was ill-prepared for what I had to contend with sub-floor. Oh my God!
With 2 or maybe 3 feet of very dark crawl space to slither around in/on, with nothing but a flashlight to get my bearings, the number of Black Widow spiders my dad calmly dealt with everyday doing his job, was insane! And because he was an honorable and loving man, he definitely tried to point out the locations of the worst infestations of spiders to me [you had to already be under the house for this lesson to occur]. Needless to say, the exposure to this real world reality did not inoculate me against my fears. It just made me more determined to never, ever end up under houses, or anywhere that bugs proliferated for that matter.
Many years later, when I moved to San Diego, I got interested in more hands-on things. One of my first jobs was as a carpenter/remodeler apprentice, and it was then I learned to use and respect tools. At the same time I got more artistic: started playing guitar, painting, airbrushing etc.
At some point, I gave my dad something I had made [it was either an airbrushed t-shirt or a carved and decorated gourd that was now somehow functional, like a planter or something] and he told me something that made me extremely proud. He said that he “always knew” I was smart, and was apologetic for not thinking I had the aptitude to create things or be artistic. That conversation propelled me to continue in the direction I was heading. It was a huge moment for me, especially considering how few years after that comment that I lost every bit of his input. NOTE: When I was in Elementary School, I did win 1st place for Artistic Achievement in a kite contest. But it was mom that created the golden eagle that adorned that beautiful winning kite. And, it was my dad and brother that put it all together. Doh!
Considering the wide variety of jobs I took over the years, except for my work as a steel worker at the last open-hearth furnace in the United States, the most satisfying of these definitely had an artistic, hands-on nature to the work. Whether doing sailboat carpentry, working in a TV studio, or the wide variety of hands-on visual and audio tasks required for video production, it is those jobs I remember most fondly. Maybe because using both hands involves both sides of the brain? I don’t know.
Getting back to the purpose of my mental meanderings, this I do know: our parents were “bigger than life”. They were phenomenal teachers who learned themselves, mostly by doing. Their generation gave us all a boost, this after having fought daily to survive, and to secure our liberties as a nation.
When people now-a-days think of spring break they usually think of going to Florida or somewhere warm for a week or two. When I was growing up in the 60’s, spring break meant something different. It was time for Spring Cleaning! When we got that week off of school around Easter time, besides going to church for Easter Service and going over to our friends house to pray on the rosary on Good Friday, that week was a time to clean the house. Mom usually assigned each of us kids a special job to do, like washing the floors in our bedroom, bathroom or kitchen. We usually swept the floors on a weekly basis but at spring break time we got out a bucket with soap and water and washed the floors on our hands and knees.
Fortunately this work didn’t last forever. Our spring cleaning tasks might take an hour or two, but then we were off playing. So there actually was a great incentive to get the work done quickly because the sooner we were done, the sooner we could go out and play. And after the long Chicago winters, we usually were able to get on out bikes and go somewhere if the weather cooperated. In our neighborhood, I don’t remember anyone going on a trip to Florida during Spring Break. It just wasn’t done back in the 60’s.
When I got to college, in the early 70’s I was a member of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity at Northwestern University. There were a few guys that went down to Florida for Spring Break, but the vast majority of us did not. A lot of us Phi Psi’s were on sports scholarships, and Spring Break meant longer more relaxed workouts at Dyche Stadium and usually a spring road trip. I recall one year we went down to the University of Tennessee where we practiced outdoors and had a track meet. Spring Break was the transition time between indoor track and outdoor track. Spring Break was also a time for us to clean up the fraternity house. Fortunately, since this was our tradition at home, I didn’t mind pitching in.
Our father instilled a strong work ethic in us at a very young age. He was a product of the Great Depression and he fought in two wars. He did not know privilege, quite the opposite, he knew living without, working for everything that you had and being frugal. That rubbed off on me starting as a young boy
I was always working at something. Building forts, doing yard chores, and cleaning our room were the standard activities at a very young age but you didn’t make any money doing that stuff. Somewhere at a single digit age, I started doing things for pay. The first thing that I remember was selling Wallace Brown Christmas cards. I ordered a kit out of the back of Boys Life magazine and went door to door giving my sales pitch and then submitting custom card orders for friends and relatives. A few weeks later I would hit the circuit again hand delivering the goods. I was already a salesman and maybe a little bit of a hustler at less than ten years old.
When we lived on Greenview in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago from 1962 – 1965 (I was 7 – 10), I used to jump on the Devon avenue bus and go to the Loyola train station to hustle business men in the morning and again at 5pm shining shoes. My dad and I made a portable shoe shine box with a foot rest and storage that I used. I got 2 bits (a quarter) a shine and was like a 10 year old millionaire by Saturday. I would take my haul in the other direction on the Devon avenue bus to a huge hobby store at Devon and Western and spend the afternoon looking for additions to my various hobbies like race cars, chemistry sets and the like. Its hard to imagine a ten year old doing that today.
This isn't technically a job but one day the neighborhood women came over and got my mother all spooled up over my escapades with their kids. They all came downstairs and confronted me. "Do you have club that involves their kids". "Sure, I'm the president!". Are you taking their lunch money?". "Well I collect dues every week for the club, its required to be a member". "What are you doing with the money?". "I have it hidden in the basement, its for club expenses". Well this was the end of that as my mom made me produce the money and give it back and the local club was no more. The de facto board of directors had fired me.
In the summer of 1965 I ran the cash register at my grand fathers’ restaurant in Port Carling Canada because I was good with numbers and could do the math in my head, old school. Later that year we fell on hard times in Toronto where we lived until that school semester was over. The owner of the house that supplied the dormer apartment for us owned a gas station and he hired me to work there at age 10 because we needed the money for food. I worked many days after school and on the weekends gassing up vehicles, checking oil and radiator coolant and tending to the register. He would even leave me alone to run the station when he ran errands. Tractor trailer rigs would come in frequently and I would jump right up there to unlatch the cab and tilt it forward to check the fluids and service the trucks. In the beginning the guys would try to chase me away and ask for the owner but in time I was accepted as one of the guys there. I gave every penny of my earnings to my mom for food and supplies. My mom was born the year of the 1929 stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression so she was no stranger to survival either.
Once back in Illinois after Canada my father started taking me to work as I wrote about in my story “Smiley Faces” on this page. That started a long history of construction work but we will get back to that in a minute. I was in the Boy Scouts at this point and we would do things to raise money for summer camp. We would go door to door selling bird feeders. After the orders we would go to the scoutmaster’s house to buy kits of raw parts to make them. We would nail and glue them together and then stain them before delivery. Now if you know anything about razors and copy machines, the real profit was in the bird seed. Lugging a few bags to my customers was all well and good but I needed more volume. We used to go to this small IGA grocery store in Half Day about a mile away. I went to see the owner George and negotiated some floor space near the entrance where I would pile my bags of bird seed and would hustle the customers as they entered and left the store. I stayed there throughout the weekend until the pile was gone. I also did odd jobs for neighbors and relatives, mowed lawns, took and printed family portraits in our dark room, etc.
By now I was getting bigger and stronger and started doing more work for my father mostly as a laborer – moving bricks, bundles of shingles, and lumber. Wheel barrows of cement, breaking up sidewalks, digging, cleaning up the job site and so on. In time I did more carpenter work, cement finishing, brick laying and so forth. My brother worked more with our father in the later years as I started college and went off in some different directions.
At 15 I got a work permit (which you needed to get a proper paying job at that age) and worked as a stock boy in an antique shop, a stint at McDonalds and then I graduated up to regular restaurants. Besides my regular gigs at the Golden Bear and a Greek restaurant during college, I also worked a few times for Uncle Ted to help out in a pinch like for New Years Eve. During college I worked every summer and break for the entire 5 years and during the school year itself for the first couple of years. I took a single week off to hitch hike to the Atlantic Ocean with my cousin near the end of college and that was the only break from work that I ever took.
One summer I got hired by a landscaper that also had a site development operation with dump trucks, graders and earth moving equipment. I started off laying sod 7 days a week with a crew of illegal immigrants in the summer heat which was really hard work. I eventually got promoted to a supervisor with a company work truck. One day I was going into the office to get my truck keys for the day and the owner was in the process of firing one of the dump truck (6 wheeler/10 wheeler) drivers during a spectacular screaming match. I walked in the door and the owner yells hey Gidzinski do you know how to drive a dump truck to which I answered sure. Well he fires the guy and throws me the keys, yells a bunch of obscenities about not messing up and tells me to get my butt to the job site and start moving earth with the site development crew. Well I didn’t know squat about driving a 2 transmission, double clutch, 15 speed dump truck with a wide turning radius capable of hauling 15 ton loads, never mind being unlicensed and uninsured. Oh ya AND I was not a union member working on a union job site. What could go wrong? To say that the next couple of weeks generated some great stories is an understatement. This will be the subject of a separate article at a later date. Well this job ended abruptly mid summer and I was having a hard time finding work. Then my cousin called.
“How would you like to be a painter he says?” “I don’t know anything about painting”. How hard can it be, right? All you need is a ladder, bucket, brush and some drop cloths. Besides my cousin had a paint shop owner that was going to give us advice and help us and he had already been doing some painting work. Well I didn’t have much choice so necessity made this into a great idea. Well once again, there are many stories for the ages from the first few jobs that we took on when we didn’t know what we were doing and again that will be the subject of another story. We eventually improved our skills and started getting better at painting. I eventually went off on my own doing jobs more local to where I lived and developed my skills. My father did a job for the Illinois Bell Telephone company one summer and the union painters were on strike. The supervisor asked my dad if he knew a painter that could follow his work and he recommended me. That was a massive break as after that first job the supervisor of maintenance for all the Bell System buildings in the region told me that he would have work for me any time I was off from school and the money was really good. That work carried me to graduation in 1977 with my Electrical Engineering degree from the University of Illinois.
I don’t see too many kids today with those types of experiences, especially in the younger years. Times are very different now. We are many generations removed from the Great Depression and the big wars so many families today don’t know much about the struggles of lean times. Well it will cycle back around eventually but for now I don’t see any kids selling Christmas cards door to door. I don’t know if those were the good old days or not but they were the old days for sure.
It was January 1977 and my 5 years at the University of Illinois School Of Engineering was coming to a close. Job interviewing season had started and I needed to cut my 5 years of hair growth, trim my beard and get fitted for a business suit. During the Christmas break I went to Mark Shale at the Northbrook mall and bought my first 3 piece suit (think Saturday Night Fever). Well it was tailored and ready to be picked up. Job interviews started in a few days and I needed to look presentable. Road trip!
It was the middle of the week and I needed to make a quick round trip from Champaign-Urbana to the Chicago suburbs and back to get my suit. One of my roommates declared shotgun, jumped in the passenger seat of my 1965 Ford Galaxy 500 that I paid $125 for and off we went. The trip was about 3 hours each way and most of it was on a desolate stretch of Hwy 57 that ran north and south through the middle of Illinois. If you have not been down this stretch highway, it is massive open fields with the standard Illinois farm crops a great deal of the way, or at least that was the case in 1977 so it’s wide open and exposed to the elements.
Well the trip up was uneventful but it was January in Chicago so it was cold and bad weather was common in this location during this time of year. My car radio was broken and my portable radio had just been stolen when my car was broken into so we had no communication with the outside world. We had started the 3 hour trip home and the weather was starting to look dicey. South on 295 wasn’t too bad. The short jog on 80- was getting worse. The beginning of the southbound run on 57 was starting to get scary. What we did not know was that a massive snow storm was building and the officials were telling people to stay off of the highways. Well here we were starting to slow down on southbound highway 57 as the winds started gusted up to “push the car off the road over ice” velocity and the snow started coming, and coming and coming! Eventually we were in complete white out conditions and I was having a hard time keeping the car on the road. Eventually I could not even see the road any more. I had to drop to a crawl and keep running off the road at the right shoulder to know where I was. Holy crap, we were in a 100 year storm in the middle of nowhere, late at night in a junky unreliable car and we were almost unable to move forward. The car started to run rough and stumble. I kept taking it out of gear and revving the engine trying to keep it running but eventually the engine just died while we were moving and we were stranded in the middle of the highway and you literally could not see past the hood of the car. I told my room mate that we needed to push the car off of the road so that nobody plowed into us so I opened the door and stood up the road.
I went to take a breath and my lungs just locked up. It was so cold, the wind was blowing so hard and the air was filled with a blinding, high speed snow. I immediately knew that we were in serious trouble. At 22 years old you are dumb and invincible. You never thought about dying. Well at this exact moment I knew that dying was a distinct possibility and we needed a plan. Fast! We managed to get the car off of the road. I tried to start it and it just groaned a little and completely froze up. I opened the hood and all you could see was snow packing the entire engine compartment up to the underside of the hood with the pattern of the hood braces in the snow. I slammed the hood shut and started brain storming with my room mate, and then he freaked out. We were both shaking from the cold and he started screaming – “We are going to die, we are going to die!” I told him to calm down but he just got worse. I grabbed him and started shaking him telling him to calm down, that we needed to focus on surviving. The meltdown continued. Then I hauled off and punched him in the head and that snapped him out of it, at least for now.
There are rail road tracks that parallel the highway off to the west and that was the direction that the wind was coming from. I told my room mate that our best chance of surviving this was to walk to the tracks and dig a shelter in the snow on the leeward side and use our body heat to keep us alive. In addition a train might come down the tracks at some point. Well we started off the road in the direction of the wind and I took one more look around. Back to the north I thought I saw some lights so I yelled out “hey Marc, stop I see something”. We ran back to the middle of the road and could now make out the headlights of a vehicle driving in our direction southbound. We waved our arms and yelled as the semi tractor trailer approached and the truck stopped in front of us. I ran up to the drivers window and the guy says there is another truck right behind me and we cant see the road any more so you get in my truck and have your buddy get in the truck behind us. We started southbound at just a few miles an hour while I opened and closed the door trying to keep track of the right shoulder of the road. This went on for hours as we made the slow crawl to the next exit – Kankakee.
Right off of the exit was a HoJo’s and that’s where we spent the night, sleeping with other refugees on booth seats and chairs all night. I periodically looked back at the highway and did not see another vehicle all night. We were picked up by the last possible option on the highway that night. I had just used another of my nine lives. The next morning I called my cousin who lived in Kankakee. He picked us up and took us in until I could get back to school as the trains and roads started to clear up. We later found out that location was where a number of cars had all stopped running that night. All around us were other stranded cars and people and we had no way of knowing that they were there. A group of people had the same idea and had gathered by the train tracks and were picked up by a train. Others were not as lucky as some had died in their cars that night. A few weeks later I got a call from the garage that had my car and was told that it was thawed out and could be picked up.
Well I interviewed with 26 companies that semester and decided that I was either going to work in California or south of the Mason Dixon line. I was over Chicago winters for good. Florida it was and 6 months later I sold that Ford to a family friend and headed south in the 1970 Chevy Impala that my parents gave me as a graduation present. I was broke and needed reliable transportation so that was a big help in getting me to Florida in one piece. I started at Harris Corporation in Melbourne Florida in June of 1977 and I stayed there until I retired in 2000.
This is the actual blizzard of central Illinois in 1977, train tracks and all. It was no joke!:
I have been privileged to experience a great many of life’s adventures. I’ve traveled the world, experienced many cultures – their people, countries, foods and customs. I’ve explored the open oceans on my own boat, jumped out of airplanes, caught 500 pound marlin, scuba dived in exotic locations and so forth.
Scuba diving is a great experience. You have anywhere from one to several hours of air on your back depending on the depth. You dive anywhere from just below the surface for say underwater photography down to 120’ as I did on the Cozumel Wall in Mexico where you just drift with the current and marvel at the reef marine life. In Hawaii once I was with a dive operation that took us to a cleaner shrimp station where hundreds of cleaner shrimp are hanging upside down under a ledge waiting for fish to stop by. They jump on to the fish and proceed to clean parasites off of them on their body, eyes and in their gills. It s a classic symbiotic relationship. The fish gets medical attention and the shrimp gets lunch. The dive master noticed that I was experienced and comfortable so she motioned for me to come over to the ledge. Then she motioned for me to pull the air regulator out of my mouth and open my mouth near the shrimp. I did and not much happened. She then motioned for me to be still and wait. I could hold my breath for up to 4 minutes back then so I just became motionless at the cleaning station. One by one the shrimp started jumping into my mouth and started pinching and eating all over my gums, mouth and tongue. It was like a million little mosquito bites all inside my mouth. I held on as long as I could but eventually needed air again so I started putting my regulator back into my mouth. The shrimp started darting out of my mouth, returning to their station for the next customer. That was super cool, something I had never seen or heard of before. Most diving involves multiple people like this, its sort of a team sport.
One particularly satisfying set of experiences has been traveling deep into the Bahama Islands on our own boat to barely inhabited islands using our own vessel handling skills, navigation skills and abilities at catching and spearing our own fish and lobster. On one of our trips we were gone for over 3 months and traveled a total of 2,000 nautical miles and went over half way through the Bahamas Island chain which is about 700 miles across and consists of 350 islands. There is nothing like jumping off the side of the boat and dropping down to a reef to spear lobster or Hogfish that you are grilling one hour latter for dinner. It is literally the freshest fish you can eat. More on that in another story. My wife Marilyn and I enjoyed fishing our boat together as a team to catch Mahi, Wahoo, White Marlin, Blue Marlin, Sailfish, and Tuna etc. We were a great team at most things and this was no exception. Most boats of this size have a crew of at least 4 people if not more. The Captain, angler, and two mates. We fished our boat as a crew of two and we had perfected the process as such a minimal crew through the choice of equipment on the boat and our practice and teamwork. As mentioned, we caught up to 500 pound Marlin together but only kept what we would eat, releasing all other fish including every billfish we ever caught. This teamwork and partnership was a major feature of our wonder life together and something that can never be replaced or repeated. That said, my final story today is more about my favorite solitary experience.
When I was in peak shape in my 30’s, I could as I mentioned hold my breath for 4 minutes and was a very strong swimmer. In the Bahamas we did a lot of things on the surface of the water but one of our favorite things was free diving for food over the reefs. You have on a mask, weight belt, gloves and fins but no air tanks. You also have a spear pole and bag. You hyperventilate and then hold your breath to head down to the reef. Sometimes you’re in fairly shallow water but on occasion we would head down as deep as 50 feet to look for fish and lobster. As you descend you go from being neutrally buoyant (if you have weights on as I usually did) to negatively buoyant . This means that once you get to a certain depth you can stop swimming downward because you start to drop on your own and literally “hit” bottom eventually. I will never forget the first time that I did this. Your usually focused on the reef, its fish and looking for the telltale signs of a lobsters antenna sticking out of the holes and cracks in the reef. On that first descent to 50 feet I eventually turned upside down at the bottom and looked up to the surface. Holy crap, the surface was an impossibly long distance back up through a 50’ column of water. The air was the distance of a 5 story building away from me! The pressure of the water at that depth was holding me on the bottom and I was in the process of using up the air in my lungs and bloodstream. I could see the sun dancing on the surface of the waves way up and the beams of light cascaded down through the water to the ocean floor. The ocean is so clear in the Bahamas that you can see through up to 100’ of water. The whole thing was mesmerizing. It was so quiet and peaceful. Then another feeling came over me. I was completely at peace on the bottom of the ocean with no supplemental oxygen, just holding my breathe and if I did nothing, that’s where I would stay. I was coexisting with one of the strongest forces of nature observing its beauty but in another minute it would not hesitate for a second to take my life. I then started to swim back to the surface to life sustaining air getting dangerously close to running out but I never once got anxious or scared. I just calmly swam back to the surface and hit the atmosphere just in time. It was very cathartic to go through such a potentially dangerous experience with such calm and experience such beauty. That’s an E ticket ride for sure!
Growing up on Luna Street in Morton Grove back in the 60’s our Jaremus family was a bit larger than most families in the area. The norm in the area seemed to be about 2 children. We had 4. So when the Murphy’s moved in down on the next block on a corner lot with 12 kids, it was kind of a neighborhood sensation. For all of those children, I think there was one girl.
The Murphy’s moved into an old wooden frame, “farmhouse” that looked strangely out of place in a neighborhood of primarily brick ranches and bi-level houses. The outside was pealing white paint. The old wooden framed windows frosted over in the winter. The house looked cold. Brother Ben and I use to shovel snow a lot during the winters in the neighborhood to make a quarter or so. For some reason, the Murphys with a houseful of boys never did. They just stepped over the snow. So, it seemed, with all of those boys, they were not very ambitious.
They were a Catholic family that went to St. Peter’s Church in town we were told by our Catholic friend Mike. Word was, the Murphy family was in need of help. At one point, the owners of one of the bakery’s in town gave the Murphy’s their left over bread. They used it for their family but also sold the loaves for like half price to anyone that wanted one. We would occasionally go over to their house to help them out and buy a loaf. It was also a treat for us, because we usually couldn’t afford bakery bread. When I stopped by for a loaf, the inside of their house sure looked desperate.
That said, while we had lots of friends in the neighborhood, for whatever reason we didn’t really associate with the Murphy boys. I think this was because there were so many kids in that family that they formed kind of a clan and just related to each other. The only kid that we became somewhat familiar with was Randy Murphy, the baby of the family. I think he was the same age as my sister Julie. Maybe he was different because he was a young boy when the family moved in. For whatever reason we got to know him a bit.
So while brother Ben and I were constantly looking for ways to make a dime or a quarter shoveling off someone driveway, most of the other kids in the neighborhood were not so inclined. Then something interesting happened. I think one of the older people down the block asked Randy if he would cut their grass and he did. Then it wasn’t long before another neighbor saw that and asked him if he would also cut their grass and he did. Soon Randy had his own lawn mower. We thought, wow he’s got his own lawn mower. Not bad for a young boy.
Now, in those days, landscaping companies were not as ubiquitous as they are today. Most everyone cut their own grass and trimmed their own bushes. Even the nicer houses for the jewelers or other professionals on the block did not have outside labor. They did most of the landscape work themselves. So who would have thought there was a future in cutting grass? I guess the Murphy’s did.
It seemed like Randy was busy with the grass cutting for at least one good summer. The next year, Randy was at it again and somehow he now had 4-5 lawns that he was cutting. At some point, he roped in one of his older brothers to help. Time went by and the boys seemed pretty busy. We’d see them pushing their lawn mowers over to this house or that and cutting the grass. We were usually off playing football or baseball catch with our friends or involved in school sports, but Randy and his brother were busy cutting grass. We didn’t really pay a lot of attention to the poor Murphy’s.
Then a few years later, I remember staring in disbelief as we saw a large landscaping truck roll by with the name Murphy Landscaping on it and a green shamrock alongside the name. The father drove the truck and a good 6-8 of the boys were in the back of the truck with 10 lawn mowers. They were off to some distant job. I think the father may have quit his job at some point as they made a family business out of it.
I sometimes think back at how the efforts of little Randy Murphy transformed the raggediest family in the area into entrepreneurs. I don’t know what happened to the Murphys but wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Randy has a landscaping company and the family has a lot of entrepreneurs.
It was the summer of ’69 and while many of the cities were burning and anti-war protests were raging on college campuses, in Morton Grove, Illinois we were a world away from all of that. It was late August, and cousin George came down from Lincolnshire for a couple day visit before school started. Usually he came with his brother Johnny, but for some reason, this time he was alone.
Earlier that summer, Ben and I had enrolled in Gymnastics Summer School for I believe the first time. Niles West Coach’s Berkel and Armour were intent upon improving the team and a 4-6 week summer session was a new way of doing it. On occasion, after practice, Coach Berkel took some of us down to the school’s swimming pool and let us go for a quick swim. While in the pool area, I happened to notice that one or two of the large outside doors was open.
On a few occasions during that summer, while playing baseball around the school, I noticed that the pool doors were open just like after Gymnastics practice. Having swum with the gymnasts, I knew the pool was lightly used. So on a few occasions, we would hop the fence and go for a swim. It was so much fun that while swimming with the gymnasts on occasion, I thought I’d increase our chances for an evening swim. I wandered over to the big doors and pretended to be looking out. I quietly slipped a latch or two with my toes so that we could access the pool later.
So, George was in town and it was our turn to find something interesting to do. It was the middle of the afternoon and our friend Mike was around so we (Ben, Mike, George and I) decided to go to the fields behind Niles West to play some two on two baseball or fast pitch against the school walls. It was a hot, humid late August day and after playing for an hour or so, we were hot and sweaty. So we thought we would take George to our new swimming hole to cool off. This was our chance to show our younger cousin how cool we were. We headed over to the pool area as I was pretty confident that one of the large pool doors would be open.
So, being a gymnast, I easily climbed over the six foot wrought iron pool area fence and proceeded to check out the big doors expecting to find one that was open. I tried one after another but they were all closed and locked. “What the hell”, I thought,” this is unusual”. I was quite disappointed. So I climbed back over the fence and I said, “let’s try the regular doors” because often times one of them was open. We tried the south door. It was closed. We then walked around to the north doors. They were also locked. They weren’t just closed though; they had chains and locks on them. I thought, this is really unusual. I wondered, “What the hell is going on?” So we headed back around the west side of the school and back to the south side where our baseball bat and ball were and then we would go home.
While walking around the south side of the school, I happened to notice that one of the windows on the highest part of the gym area was wide open. And it wasn’t just cracked open, it was a louvered window and it was wide open on the bottom. This looked like an open invitation for us but the window was way up on the highest part of the school. I convinced the other guys that we should see if we could get in through that window if we could. The big question was, how would we get up to the highest part of the gymnasium area? It was a good 15, maybe 20 feet above the lower part of the roof. Was there a ladder up there?
Well alongside a south school entranceway, there were a bunch of steel 55 gallon drums along the side of the building. We climbed up on top of them and then, working together the guys were able to hoist me up so that I could grab the edge of the roof. From there, I was able to pull myself up and onto the roof. Then we all worked together to hoist and pull George up there as well. It was not really possible for both Ben and Mike to join us, so they said that they would walk around the school and continue looking for a way to get into the school. So we split up.
Up on the roof, walking around was easy because the roof was flat with pea gravel on a tar roof. And as there was no one else around and no one in sight we had the place to ourselves. George and I headed over to the area where the window was with an upper balcony. As we walked over to that area, we were rather surprised to find a large wooden ladder laying on the roof right next to the upper balcony area with the open window. It was like an open invitation. We hoisted up the ladder and set it in position to climb onto the upper balcony landing about 20 feet up. We then carefully climbed the ladder. Once onto the small but flat upper balcony, we were then able to squeeze in through the open window. We were like cat burglars. This was fun.
Inside, we found ourselves in the upper east balcony area of the massive gym building. As a gymnast, this area was part of the area where we worked out, so I knew this area like the back of my hand. This was the area where tumbling and weight lifting was done. From there, so as not to be exposed, we made our way north behind the upper bleachers into the gymnastics area. We didn’t see anyone and we tried to be as quiet as we could be. We made our way west through the gymnastics area, and then took the north flight of stairs down to the main floor west of the main gym where we proceeded west through a hallway to the pool area. All the time, we saw no one.
In the pool area, there was a long wide corridor running north and south with a row of perhaps 6 outside glass doors on each end. The north area was where the boy’s shower and change room was. The south side was for the girls. So naturally, I tried the boy’s pool entrance hall door and vwala, it was open! George and I went in, went through another unlocked door and found ourselves in the empty men’s change room. There was a double metal door on the southwest side of the change room that led into the pool. I remember looking through the crack between the doors to see if anyone was in there. There wasn’t. I could smell the chlorine wafting through. We were almost there. This was exciting. If we got through, we could open the outside doors and let Ben and Mike in and then we could leave through those doors.
I turned the door knob, but the door was locked. The door had a metal rod that went into the floor below and the door frame above the door. It was kind of loose so I yanked and pushed and pulled on the door hoping that it might give way. I didn’t want to break the door but I kept at it for a couple minutes. I had no tools with me so I couldn’t try to jigger the lock. And I didn’t want to make too much noise. After trying for a few minutes, I figured, “Oh well, we did the best we could”. How frustrating. To come this far only to be thwarted at the very end. It didn’t seem right. Well, we had a good story to tell the other guys. So we headed back out of the gym area.
We left through the men’s pool access doors back into the long wide corridor. I then thought – maybe the women’s access doors are open. So we went over to the women’s side to see if they might be open. It seemed a bit weird to be trying to go into the women’s door since I had never gone in that way, but I figured, no one was here so, what the heck, we’d just be passing through. Well the outer door was closed, so that wasn’t an option. We then headed back to the north side area. First I checked the outside doors as it would have been nice to exit there, but as we saw from the outside, they were closed, chained and locked. As we turned and headed back to the north stairway, I happened to notice a janitor (I assumed) on the south side of the long corridor. He was a ways away from us heading east. I wasn’t sure if he saw us but he didn’t say anything and just kept walking so I figured maybe he didn’t see us or care. Then again I was a little concerned.
So we retraced our steps. We went back up the north staircase to the upper level, went back through the gymnastics area to the weight training and tumbling area. From there we climbed back out of the window onto the small upper balcony roof. By then a heavy white fog had enveloped the area and it looked like we were in a cloud. We could only see about 500-1000 feet. It was eerie indeed. George and I climbed down the ladder onto the lower level of the school roof. We planned on going back to the south area from whence we came and then find the other guys.
As I walked along the roof to the south a short distance, I noticed flashing lights. There was a police car with several policemen facing the school. One was carrying a rifle, holding it across his chest. He looked ready to shoot. I pulled back and told George what I saw and we waited for a few seconds. We then heard one of the policemen on a bull horn saying “Come down off the roof, we have you surrounded”. He repeated this several times. “Holly shit” I thought, this is getting serious. Our natural instinct was to run, but where to?
I then told George to follow me and we quickly made our way to the north side of the roof area. In this northwest area, there was an open receiving area for truck access and deliveries. It was just to the east of the north gymnasium doors. It was a long way down from the roof, and instead of grass, the landing would have been pavement, so it would not have been an easy descent. But as we approached the receiving area, I saw another police car drive into that receiving yard. “Oh my god” I thought. “We are surrounded.” So we pulled back from the roof edge and I stopped and thought about what to do for a few seconds.
To our west was the upper gymnasium with brick walls going 20 feet up so that was not an option. Going north and south was no longer options as there were police in both locations. The only option that we had left was going east into the main school area so we headed that way. This lower roof ended where the school building went up another floor, so we couldn’t go very far. But I knew the school layout well, and there were two courtyards to the west of the main building. We crept and crawled over the lower roof to the center area of the school and the two open courtyards, lined up back to back running north and south with a hallway in between. I knew this area well as these courtyards abutted the cafeteria where we ate lunch and took breaks.
So I looked down into the open north courtyard and the hallway half expecting to see cops but I didn’t see a soul. All was quiet. So I decided that we would go down there and try to get out. This was really our only option. I figured if one of the courtyard doors didn’t open we would go in through a classroom window, breaking one if we had to. The only problem with getting off the roof, was that it was a good 12 foot drop to the ground. George was reluctant to go, but we didn’t have any other options.
I looked around and I saw no one, so I swung myself around and hung by my fingers from the roof and dropped myself into the low growing yews which cushioned the drop. I looked around and didn’t see anyone so I then helped George as he in turn dropped down. We were both OK. Once we were down in the north courtyard, we carefully walked over to the center door and we entered the central hallway. We then carefully proceeded east past a long hallway, and a stairway towards the east building exit.
While still in the building vestibule area, a police car slowly made its way north on the curved east drive. We waiting until the cop car went fully past and then we exited the school doors on that east side. We carefully scanned the area as best we could through the fog and then made a mad dash directly to the east towards the Eden’s expressway. It was about 100 yards from the school, across the road and field to the fence but the fog had now blanketed the area so we had a fairly good cover. That said, it was also a bit scary because a police car could just appear without warning. So we ran as fast as we could. This area was our backyard. We were in our element, so there was no way a policeman could catch us now.
We got to the four foot chain link fence that runs along the edge of the school property and expressway. We hopped the fence and quickly made our way through some sumac bushes and down to the open, grass covered embankment of the expressway. We quickly went under the Gross Point Road Bridge. We didn’t want to be caught crossing either the Gross Point or Oakton Bridges which were next to the school for obvious reasons, so we proceeded east along the expressway right of way to the Niles Center Road Bridge about a half mile to the east.
Once we got to the Niles Center Bridge, we felt safe. We were a good half mile or so from the school bridges and there was no reason for anyone to think that we were the guys on the roof. So we took a deep breath and proceeded to walk back home. We crossed over on the east side of the bridge and then took side streets avoiding the more open Frontage Road along the expressway. We came back home from the east so that if anyone wondered we could say we had been in downtown Skokie. Our alibi was set.
In the meantime, while we were up on the roof, Ben and Mike had been walking around the school looking for an open door, but to no success. While on the northwest side of the school a policeman showed up and accused the boys of being on the roof. They denied being on the roof. The policeman kept insisting that they were on the roof or that they knew who was on the roof but they continued to profess their innocence saying they knew nothing about it. It was apparent that the officer had a fairly weak case.
The police officer told the boys to follow him over to his car on the south side of the school. The fog had become as thick as a blanket and Ben and Mike found themselves lagging a good 20 feet behind the policemen. They looked at each other, wondering if maybe they should make a run for it, into the fog. How would this overweight policeman ever catch them or know where they were in the fog? After all, Ben and Mike knew the school field area quite well. But they saw that he had a gun and were scared that he might decide to use it so they didn’t make a break. The policeman loaded them into the back of his squad car and brought them back to Ben’s home.
There my mother met the officer at the front door. He told her that they were suspected of being on the school roof or something like that. According to Julie, Mom had a few terse words with the policeman. She played along pretty well and didn’t say anything about Rolfe or George. So that was about it for the cops.
After a couple minutes of cooling off, Ben and Mike headed back out to see if they could find Rolfe and George.
A short while later, George and I showed up on Luna Street. All was quiet, but the lights were on in the girl’s bedroom. So I threw a pebble at Tina and Julie’s bedroom window and Tina came over and opened the window. Whispering, I asked her “what’s going on?” I didn’t want to say anything in case she didn’t know anything. She told us that a police officer had brought Ben and Mike back home and that mom had talked with him. I asked her “Are they OK?” I was worried that they had been arrested, but Tina said “no, they were OK. They are now out looking for you guys”. So I thought, it couldn’t be too bad, they weren’t even in detention at home. So without hesitation, George and I went out looking for Ben and Mike. We ran into them somewhere in the neighborhood and we commiserated about what had happened. George and I had gotten away with murder and Ben and Mike were taking the fall for it, at least somewhat.
I don’t believe we told our parents what actually happened. I think we made up a story and said we were just over there playing baseball, which of course was true, but not nearly half the story.
Later in the school year, I overheard someone say that there had been some robberies at the high school. Someone had stolen typewriters and other equipment and then later they saw the burglars on the roof. I wanted so much to tell someone that the people on the roof were not the burglars, but I kept my mouth shut. We never told anyone at school about our little adventure.
Ben: Years later I was working at Niles West as part of the Grounds Crew. If things on the outside got slow we were assigned to assist the janitors working inside. I was sent to work with a janitor named - oddly enough - Benny Infante. Somehow he mentioned to me that he was the one that was working evenings and saw "intruders" and notified the police.
So that was our Summer of ’69 Adventure.
This page was last updated 02/16/21