A Strip of Long Hair Running Down the Middle of a Bald Head

Young girl with blond mohawk in Germany.

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My creative brain is frozen, locked up, dead. The best way to unfreeze it is to begin writing, anything.  My political brain is the most locked up. The politics of the current administration is soooo bad, and I am soooo mad, I cannot think of how to cartoon or to opinionate them. My personal life is soooo dull, I don’t have, nor do I want to share my thoughts; although I am doing that just now.

My projects include a new movie called “Searching for Indians and  A-Bombs,” my new book soon to be released on Kindle is “Jun-e-or, Recollections of Life in the Forties and Fifties,” both are consuming time to the point of  “IT’S WORK.” By the way that is pronounced Jew-knee-or. Buy the book to learn what that means.

My series of posts titled “Simple Amusements” is from the book. Perhaps if you wait long enough and read this blog often, you will get the entire book without spending a dime.

Today, I had a neat little workout. I shoveled snow for the first time since early January. I missed a bad snowfall a few weeks ago because I took a weekend off to visit my son in Texas. Thank you Lord for letting the worst storm of January take place while I was out of town. By the way, South Texas weather is gorgeous this time of the year, I recommend it to anyone who wants to escape winter.

At mass this evening, a young couple sat in front of us. The man took me back with his appearance. First, he had muscle definition to die for. Large arms, skinny waist, and a broad chest. He appeared like he worked out often. He removed his jacket to further reveal a short sleeve tee shirt that displayed great arms and upper abdominal physique. His wife was bundled in a heavy winter coat over a hooded sweatshirt.

What took me back was his hair. He had a strip of wild hair running down the middle of a bald head. I believe it is called a Mohawk. The center hair was waxed to stand up and to look unruly. His wife was gorgeous but slightly heavy with blond hair that was nearly white. He looked like a Rush Street bartender, and she like a stay at home mom. After a few minutes, I regained my composure and looked past the man’s hairdo. Here was a couple in their late twenties worshipping God in a church. Hello, what is wrong with that picture? Young people in church? How rare is that?

At the traditional handshake of peace, both of them turned around and offered a most gracious blessing with a heartwarming smile. I wanted to know them and to learn more about them. Perhaps I will see them next week. I will not let them leave without some friendly conversation.

Hot Date With a Hungarian Fiddle Player

Coat of arms of Hungary

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I mentioned earlier that I had never dated a Hungarian girl.  I was wrong.  I remember a Hungarian girl named Hermena.  She was beautiful and blond.  I met her during my freshman year.  She lived in Burnside, west of Cottage Grove. I first noticed her hanging around 93rd Street near Our Lady of Hungary church  Perhaps she was visiting some one. Because she was so pretty, well-developed, and shapely the boys all swarmed around her.

Hermena played the violin and had to practice daily.  Her parents were very protective of her, and didn’t want her hanging around with guys. They wanted her to become a concert violinist.  I never heard her play, but the way she talked about it she must have liked it.

One day I got up enough nerve to ask her to go to the movies with me.  She accepted on one condition, she would meet me at the show. Later, I realized she did not ask her parents and lied to them about who she was with. We went to the theater on Cottage Grove. Ave.

We met in the lobby, I bought the tickets and popcorn and we watched the movie.  At one point I put my hand on her knee and promptly had it removed.  Shortly after our date, Hermena disappeared from the neighborhood just as mysteriously as she appeared.  I sometimes wonder if she ever made it as a professional musician.

Cutting and Smacking Old Rail

Illinois Central Railroad 201, built by Rogers...

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The summer after my bout with polio, I was sixteen going on seventeen and barely over the legal age to work.  Dad lined me up with a job in the scrap yard of the Illinois Central Railroad in Markham, Illinois.  They paid minimum wage. The work was physical and mindlessly boring.  Markham was a long way from Burnside, so Mom asked Mrs. Schulz whose husband worked at the Markham yard to give me a ride.  I gave him $5.00 a week for gas.  The Schulz family lived west of Cottage Grove on 92nd Street.  Every morning I rode my bike to their house by 7:00 a.m.   The ride to Markham took forty minutes.  I carried a lunch pail with a sandwich, an apple, and a thermos of coffee.

The job excited me in the beginning because I learned to use an acetylene torch to notch old rail. A partner and I worked together.  Our job was to “break rail”.  We faced a field of old steel rail stacked neatly in rows.  The rails wore out and had served their function.  It was time to melt them into something new. The steel mill could only put short pieces of scrap into the smelter;  the twenty-foot rails were too long.

My partner and I took turns with the torch. The “torch man” went along the rail and cut a shallow notch into the surface every twelve inches. When the rail cooled, the “hammer man” smacked the end of the rail with a full swing of the sixteen pound sledge-hammer.  Like magic, a short piece of rail fell to the ground.

All day long we cut and smacked, trying to get rid of the pile of rail.  When we finally finished, a crane car came and picked up the pieces with a magnet and loaded them into a gondola car.

When the pile of broken rail filled the gondola, they shifted us to sorting scrap.  There were many different kinds of steel used on the railroad and when they pull out old rail,  spikes, tie plates, connectors, bolts, and nuts came out with it.   All of this junk came to the scrap yard mixed up.  A magnet crane unloaded the mixture into a twenty-foot hopper.  An opening at the bottom of the hopper allowed me to pull scrap to the shelf with a big hook.  I started sorting when junk covered the shelf.  Behind me stood two lines of empty fifty-five gallon oil drums. I threw spikes into one drum, tie plates into another, and so on all day long.

On most days there were two of us sorting so we talked as we worked.  On other days I worked alone.  I set mini goals to fill an entire drum with spikes in one day.

A whistle let us know when lunch started, and ended.  Everyday, a milk-truck came, and many workers bought a quart of cold milk to drink with their sandwich.  I started doing the same thing.

The milk came unhomogenized so the cream rose to the top of the glass bottle.  I peeled off the metal cap, and picked out the paper insert sealing the bottle. My ritual was to drink off the cream first.  Gulping an entire quart of milk with lunch made me bloated.

The summer sun was hot and when we were cutting rail it got even hotter.  One day my teammate and I needed some shade to cool off.  The only shade was under a gondola car parked near us.  We sat on the rail in the shade of the car when Mr. Lassiter, the yard supervisor, drove up in his pickup.

“What are you boys doing?” he asked.

“Getting some shade”, we answered.

Mr. Lassiter got out of the truck, walked over and proceeded to chew us out. I’ve never been dressed down like that before.  He gave us a lecture about how dangerous it was to sit on a track anytime.  What if a switcher pushed another car down the track we were sitting on?  We’d be cut in two for sure.  We never sat under a rail car again.

Hudson Hornet four-door sedan finished in burgundy

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By the time the whistle blew to end the day, I was dirty, tired, and needed to go home.  I dragged myself through the scrap yard to the parking lot to find Mr. Schulz’s Hudson Hornet.  He come out of the shop all washed up and fresh looking.  I plopped into the back seat and fell asleep.  His regular carpool friend sat in the front.  I got home at 5:45 to take a bath, eat supper, then went out to spend time with my friends.

Proms to Dear Johns

Duke Ellington Orchestra - Mood Indigo

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In the nineteen fifties, Junior and Senior Proms in high school were important events  The Senior Prom was the really big deal.  The Junior Prom was a training event. Let’s face it, Junior boys are not very coördinated when it comes to the social graces, at least not in my time.

My brother Bill colluded with a buddy to set me up with a date in the fall of 1954. Bill’s friend, Bob Keough, had seven sisters, one of whom was a Junior in high school. Jacqueline attended St. Louis Academy on State Street near 115th.  Mendel and Saint Louis often attended each other’s sock hops, but I never saw Jacque (pronounced Jackie) at any of them.

Bill talked me into calling Jacque.  At the same time, her brother Bob told her I was going to call her. I am not a big talker, but when I heard Jacque’s freindly voice and her infectious laugh, the conversation went easy. We talked for an hour about all kinds of stuff. Finally, I asked her out for a date. We went to a movie and followed with ice cream.   We learned a lot about each other on that date and became great friends.  That date led to another, and soon we were going steady.

Jacque invited me to her junior prom. A prom is a very formal dance.  The girls wear gowns and the guys wear tuxedos. The guys buy the girls a corsage to make it nicer. The St. Louis Academy Junior Prom was held at the school.  The band played great music. I prided myself on being able to dance the jitterbug. Dancing fancy made a guy popular. We had a fantastic evening.

We dated through the summer and all through our senior year. I asked her to my prom, and she reciprocated. The Mendel Prom was at the Conrad Hilton Hotel in the Grand Ballroom. The Saint Louis Academy Prom was at the DelPrado Hotel in Hyde Park.

When prom ended, it was customary to go to a night club on Rush Street.  None of us was old enough to drink, so we wound up paying the cover charge and getting Cokes for our drink minimums.  We went to the Blue Note Jazz Club on Rush Street in Chicago. The Duke Ellington Band played until it was time for us to leave.  Each of us had a curfew to make.

Jacque and I were an item for two years.  We talked on the phone all the time.  We went to every sock hop, dance, game and pep rally that our schools had.  When the school social calendar was quiet we dated on our own.  We went to movies, or to the Grant Park concerts, or we just hung out together.

Mom took a shine to Jacque too.  Why, I don’t know, Jacque wasn’t Hungarian, but she was a good conversationalist and listened well. Mom always wanted her kids to hook up with a Hungarian mate.  That never did happen.  I never even dated a Hungarian girl.

After the proms and graduation, the summer sped by as we prepared to leave for school.  Saint Joseph’s College in Indiana is where I headed, Jacque enrolled in nursing at Saint Francis School of nursing. We spent every minute we could together.  I was hopelessly in love with her, but too young to marry.  Neither of us wanted to marry until after we finished our college.

I started college in August of 1956. St. Joe’s is a small school in the middle of a cornfield on the outskirts of Rensselaer, Indiana.  Jacque started nursing school on the far north side of Chicago.  Each of us lived at school.  We wrote letters to each other daily.  I looked forward to the mail with excitement.  We wrote about our classes and how hard everything was, especially pop quizzes and exams. Her life was very different from mine. I attended classes while she did class work and worked in the hospital.

My roommate in freshman year was my good friend Jim Geil from high school.  Jim and I were bosom buddies.  Geil, as I called him, and I were always looking for ways to entertain our ladies.  We learned of the Junior-Senior Prom at St. Joe.  We did an unusual thing, we joined the prom committee. We were the only freshmen that ever volunteered for the prom committee. It was an upper class event, but because the total enrollment of Saint Joe was eight hundred, invitations went to the entire student body.

We worked every spare minute we could on decorations for converting the huge gymnasium into a Roman Garden.  I painted two very large canvasses with scenes from ancient Rome.  These paintings were the back drop for the two balconies overlooking Rome.

Jim invited his girl and I invited Jacque. The band was the Duke Ellington Orchestra.  The girls had to stay in town at a boarding house for women only.

The committee transformed the gym into the courtyard of Roman Villa. The ceiling was dark blue with tiny lights for stars. The exterior walls were stucco with two large windows overlooking Rome. A long pond with a fountain adorned the center of the floor.  Jim and I made a lot of friends in the Junior-Senior Class because of our participation on the committee and that made us popular at the dance.  The Ellington Band was also fabulous.  I collected his music for years afterwards.  I can still recognize Ellington music within a few bars.

After the prom, the year ended with exams. The summer was busy with work to earn money for school.  Jacque went to school through the summer and our dating became sparse.

A few weeks into sophomore year at St. Joe I received a letter from Jacque.  I was just as excited as ever.  This time, however, the tone of the letter was different.  The letter more popularly known as a “Dear John”,  started “Dear Joe”.  The lady I loved with all my heart dumped me.  Devastated, mad, and sick,  you name it, I was it.  How could she?  Didn’t she know I loved her?  Well, I sent many a letter asking why, but I never got a response.  I made up my mind to get over it and put the energy into my studies instead.  My letter writing didn’t stop, though.

Jim did not return to Saint Joe that year, but we corresponded. Our friendship helped me get through a very rough emotional time. Jim began dating Carol Jean, a student at St. Anne’s School of nursing. The letters continued, and led to some very interesting times. It was during this period, that I invented Steve Star, a character I could hide behind.

This story does not end, but it will continue.

Return to Civilization From a Polio World

Coming home for the Christmas holiday from Michael Reese Hospital created a high level of activity.  It was a good thing for me.  We had lots of company and I went to church a lot.  The holiday action gave me an opportunity to get into living at home more gradually.

The connection to the hospital did not end by any means.  Three times each week I rode the Cottage Grove streetcar from 93rd Street to 29th Street, and then walked  three blocks to the hospital for physical therapy.  At first, mom came with me, but she realized that I could handle the trip on my own and I began taking the trip solo.  The hot packs were gone but the stretching and resistance training continued.

When I first transferred to MR, progress was fast, but now it became tedious. The exercises turned into the sweat of building muscle and learning to use those that still worked.  In the case of my badly damaged neck and hip, it was a matter of finding available muscle fibers and retraining them to do new things.  The process required constant repetition of exercises and stretching.  In many ways a physical therapist is a personal trainer.  They are with you to push you toward a goal without hurting you or damaging a muscle.  In addition to therapy at the hospital, I did a set of exercises at home everyday.

The holidays ended and the next big adventure after traveling to MR was returning to school.  I missed an entire semester, and wondered how I would make it up.  In my mind I was ready to repeat sophomore year and graduate a year after my classmates. Unbeknown to me, Mom kept in touch with Father Grace and the priests at Mendel. Not only were they praying for my welfare, they assured her that when the time came for my return, they would give me an opportunity to catch up.

The toughest aspect of returning to school was answering the questions from my classmates about what happened to me.  It didn’t help that the collar and the crutches broadcast my condition.  After answering and explaining for a week, things were pretty well accepted.  It became very clear that I was seriously behind in every subject, and the prospect of repeating the year challenged me. Each of my teachers gave me counsel and assigned extra reading and homework to help catching up. It became my responsibility to accept the challenge and do the work. Religion, English, Social studies, etc. were easy. They involved reading and some one on one with the instructor. Plane Geometry was another matter. The entire concept of geometry as mathematics was totally new. I thought geometry involved shapes. Later, I learned that solid geometry is the mathematics of shape. Plane geometry was Greek. My head buzzed with new words like “proof, axiom, theorem, congruent.” Father Burnell recognized the dilemma quickly, and assigned a student to tutor me. The second semester work relied on knowing all the definitions and basic proofs presented in the first semester. My classmates literally bowled me over with their knowledge while I trembled at the lack of it.

God bless my classmate Bob Zimmerman.  He was in the Scientific curriculum and the editor of the school newspaper.  I liked him and everyday, after school he spent one hour with me going over all the first semester work.  His patience and persistence to stay with me until the lights went on in my head saved me. At the same time he coached me on the basics I had to absorb the new material and solve daily homework problems.

With all the extra reading, geometry problems to solve, and three trips a week to Michael Reese, there was no time for extra curricular activities. My days of managing the basketball team ended last spring. I had to give up metal shop because of the late start and my condition made it unsafe for me to work with machine tools.  Father Hartigan didn’t want me getting hurt. Instead he suggested I use that time to do my catch up work in the library. I did, and it helped. Would you believe that machine shops became an part of my career? They did, and I am proud of my accomplishments in the field of precision tool making.

The semester finished too fast, but I managed to get through finals with average grades.  All of the teachers were very generous and understanding to my plight and I thank them for that.  On the other hand, I studied very hard to make up the lost time and to catch up.  It worked, I moved into my junior year. I suppose I could chalk up the first semester as experience, but I will brag and say that I came through it with straight A’s in Swallowing, Walking, Smiling, and Living.

The cherry on the cake came when the basketball team awarded me a Varsity letter for participating as their manager in spirit.  By August, on my sixteenth birthday, I gave up the last crutch and my physical therapy ended at Michael Reese.

Thank God for Jonas Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine.

Riding the Red Rocket Through the Cottage Grove Ghetto


Three times a week after school, I hobbled out to Cottage Grove from Mendel on crutches.  I always got a seat on the streetcar  at 111th Street. The Red Rocket went without a transfer all the way to 29th Street.  The ride was long, but I had to continue with physical therapy at Michael Reese.  All the way up to 63rd Street things were familiar because Mom had taken us shopping to the Sears and Hillman’s at 63rd & Halsted.  North of 63rd Street, however, Cottage Grove Avenue became interesting.  The neighborhoods progressed from poor  to more poor. The store fronts told the story.  In the better sections there were a variety of businesses; TV shops, cleaners, butchers, bakeries, flower shops, you name it and you could find it on Cottage Grove in each neighborhood along the way.  By 43rd Street the buildings were older, dirtier, the businesses were fewer and those that were there were different.  Night clubs, taverns, storefront churches, groceries and drugstores.  What impressed me most was the up-keep on the buildings – there was none.  Some of the old frame buildings had boards missing or they were loose and hanging.  The paint wore away  years ago, and the wood was grey from weather.  Many windows had boards nailed on, others had metal guards.  There were people everywhere, just hanging around.  The further north I traveled, the people on the car changed from white to black.  By the time I got off at 29th  I was the only white left.

I never felt unsafe at any point of those trips.  The neck brace and crutches gave me a pathetic look and kept me safe.  That section of Cottage Grove was truly what I call a ghetto.  So many poor people all living in very crowded spaces with landlords that didn’t care to spend money on upkeep of the buildings.

The three block walk to the hospital after the long ride was a welcome relief.  I arrived at the Physical Therapy Department at 3:45 p.m. for my 4:00 appointment.  Once in the PT area, I stuffed my duffel bag, crutches, and brace into a locker and donned an Indian style loin cloth for the session.

Each treatment was the same.  Walk the parallel bars without crutches, do leg exercises, then follow-up with neck stretches and neck exercise. The therapist always took over my neck. At times, it felt like she twisted my head backwards..  The drill lasted 30-45 minutes and then it was time to go.

On the trip home, I pulled on the handhold and pushed against my crutches to hike up the high steps into a crowded rush-hour Rocket.  I learned quickly to take any seat that was available.  Many times I stood all the way to 79th Street before a seat became free.

One day I stepped into a very crowded car and squeezed my self away from the entrance to give room for more people to get on.  A little white-haired black lady looked up at me and offered me her seat. She looked exhausted and tired. I thanked her but refused.  At age fifteen I wasn’t about to take a seat from a senior citizen.  That incident repeated itself many times over the course of eight months that I commuted on the Rocket.

The therapy continued throughout the spring and the summer.  By the time of my release from Michael Reese  Physical Therapy, I was very glad.  During that summer I began to lift weights at home to build up my arms and legs.  My gym was the back yard. I dressed in swim trunks and looked like the guy who got sand kicked in his face in the Charles Atlas adds. I lifted weights.

By the time school started in the fall, I talked my way into using just one crutch.  The therapist didn’t think my hip was strong enough to get off the crutch completely. After only a few steps my hip swung out to the side and I fell into a limp. Eventually, I got rid of the collar, wearing it only when I felt tired.

My physical condition was 1000% better by the time school started at the end of August.  The summer of PT and weight lifting did wonders for my muscles. At the same time I was still growing in height.

A feeble smile returned to my face.

Weekend Pass-Free at Last

Physical therapy worked wonders for me.  God spared me from major nerve damage.  Each day in therapy gave me confidence and measured improvement. My strength gradually  returned.  My room mate Myron made no progress at all.  He became a prisoner in his bed limited to scratching his nose with one weak arm and fingers that didn’t move.

Mom came everyday religiously; Dad came on the weekends.  Myron’s mom did the same.  She was an attractive woman, not beautiful but pretty.  She had red hair.  His father owned a business and could not come often.  They lived in the Northern Suburbs.   As days passed, and the two moms spent time together, they became good friends as people  do in a situations like that.

Within three weeks I had gotten my crutches and neck brace and was walking.  I graduated to solid food because my swallow function had improved.  My muscles still received the hot packs and the workout everyday. There was no talk of sending me home, but I had gotten to the point of asking “when” daily.

The day before Thanksgiving Dad appeared in the evening with Mom.  The doctors consented to give me a weekend pass to celebrate Thanksgiving.  They didn’t tell me in advance so I wouldn’t get overly excited about it.

Being home was wonderful, but it was also a shock.  Home was quiet.  It was so quiet that it was scary.  There were no people walking in to check on me all day, and all night.  We did have company but no one stayed very long.  At the hospital, I took walks down the long corridors. At home, I walked the circle from the kitchen to the living room into the dining room and back. I missed the nurses stations and the smiles they gave me when I cruised by. It was too cold to go out. Anyway, I was too fragile to go out.  No telling how I would react to a cold.

Mom’s cooking was even strange at first. This was the first time since August that I ate at home.  I had gotten so accustomed to tube feeding and hospital food that her sumptuous meals that I had loved so much tasted different.  I survived the weekend and I gladly checked back into the security of the hospital late Sunday afternoon.

Coming home on the weekends became a regular thing after that.  I quickly got into the home routine and worked hard all week so I could go home.

The big surprise came at Christmas.  The doctors and therapists all agreed the time had come to release me from the hospital to go home permanently.  What a fabulous Christmas present that was for me and the family too!  Mom got her life back and I was home anxious to return to school.

During mass on Christmas day, I thanked God for sparing me from a worse fate. I thanked Him for all the wonderful people who worked with me. Most of all, I thanked Him for my wonderful mom who never gave up on me. Her support and the vision of getting back in time for football tryouts kept me from going insane. I asked God for guidance about a career in medicine.

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