Junior Year-Missing the Ball or Hitting the Net

 After spending a year convalescing from the polio my being thirsted for involvement in everything that I could get into at Mendel.  I needed to make up for lost time.  Although the polio kept me from playing football I participated by going to the games.  During the second half of sophomore year I became buddies with Stan Kantor, an old rival from Burnside. Stan is one of the tough guys from Avalon Avenue who went to Perry School. He and his neighbors liked to think they were meaner and tougher than the rest of us on Avalon. We were about the same height and weight.  At Mendel, I learned that Stan was one of the nicest guys I ever met. He played quarterback position on the football team.

Father Theis started a booster club which I joined.  We designed and painted posters advertising the football games.  We hung the posters all around school to promote attendance at the games.  Some of my posters were good enough to hang in places where the hall traffic was the heaviest all day long.

My ability to do the posters got me recognized in the school club scene, and Father O’Neil invited me to join the year book staff as art editor.  On the yearbook I met some really nice guys who became great friends.  One of them is Jim Geil.  He and I became inseparable for several years after. Jim and I still correspond regularly by e-mail. because there are eighteen hundred miles between us.

The school dedicated a new chapel and monastery in time for the start of Junior year.  The monastery led me into a new opportunity.  One day, an announcement came over the PA about a job.  I applied, and got the job as the monastery phone receptionist.

In the new monastery, each priest had a room with a pager.  All of the calls came to a single phone in a small cell at the front door. The cell had a desk, a chair, a phone and a large light board on the wall. Each priest’s name was on the board.  If the priest was in, and the light next to his name was on, he took calls.  When the phone rang, I answered it, and determined who the caller wanted.  I placed the caller on hold, and buzzed the priest.  He answered and I announced which line his call was on. The priests let me know when they left the building, and I took messages.   The job required that I be on duty four hours a day from four until eight.  This meant that I got to screw-off after class until four.  Sometimes I walked up to Michigan Avenue.  Most of the time, I did homework, worked on a poster, or the year book.

In the spring, I tried out for baseball and made the fourth string.  Father Burns placed me at third base.  Throughout the time I played sandlot baseball, I always played second base. Third base was never my position but I was happy to play.  I fielded the ball very well; in fact, I robbed some hot-shot hitters of line drives by spearing the ball on the fly.  My reactions were very good.  unfortunately for me, I didn’t have the strength to throw the ball to first base on the fly.

I also tried out for the tennis and made that.  I often played against myself by stroking the ball against the wall of the handball court at Palmer Park. It was another way  to fill time after school before answering phones.  I never played a real game of tennis with anyone so when I joined the team I had to learn the rules as well as the strokes and the serve. That is when I met Jim Murphy.  We became lifetime friends, and roomed together in college. Jim also stood up at my wedding.

Although I played tennis well in practice I never won a match in competition. Years later I realized why.  During a match, I was so worried about making a mistake, I kept seeing myself missing the ball or hitting it into the net.  That problem stayed with me until my forties when I finally realized the power of positive visualization, that is, “see it in your mind and believe it”.  Why did it take me so long to realize that?

By the end of Junior year things were starting to come together for me.  The effects of the polio were still there, but my sports and weight lifting helped me overcome any handicap that I had.  Life was good.

Hand Made In the USA

One of my favorite times at Mendel was the wood shop class. The class met three times a week for two hours. I had some exposure to woodworking from my grammar school experiences at the Tuley Park boat building shop. This class was different. Father Hennessey, my instructor, believed in teaching the basics. At Tuley Park, I jumped into a project and started cutting wood. At Mendel, I had to learn the name and function of every tool before Father let me touch a single one.

For the first assignment, Father H. gave me a block of maple wood to square up using only a chisel and a square. It sounded too easy, but I almost didn’t finish the assignment on time. Father H. came around the benches and asked for the piece. He inspected every corner, every edge, and every surface for square and for flatness. If any sliver of light showed under the square he bounced the piece, and sent me back to the bench to do better. The piece also had to be within the tolerance he specified.  Father Hennessey was a tough, but fair teacher.

The next project was a more complicated. We had to make a chevron-shield with separate wooden letter “M” applied to it. The last project was a table lamp that looked like a hand water pump. Pushing on the pump handle turned on the light. This little lamp was in continuous use over the years serving me well at all of my desks.

Fr. H. was a tough disciplinarian. If he caught you using a tool incorrectly, he jerked it out of your hand, and hit you with it. He also had a habit of squeezing the muscle on your shoulder, the one that stretches from your neck to the shoulder. It hurt so bad that I dropped to the floor to get out of the grip. Fr. H. hardly ever had a problem with anybody in his class.

Safety was paramount in the shop. During my semester there was not a single incidence of injury. Even though the school shop had all the power tools as I used at Tuley Park, I never got to use any of them.  Only Fr. Hennessey ever used the tools powered by electricity. The experience gave me an appreciation for the term “handmade.”

Social Networking circa 1952

SOCK HOPS

Many wonderful new worlds opened up to me in high school.  It seemed like every time we listened to the announcements during home room class a new activity was born. This time it was the “sock hop.”

My social life was never lacking because of all my friends around the block.  In grammar school we stuck to each other like glue.  We hung together, we danced, we played games, we laughed and told each other our deepest feelings.  When high school entered our lives, it all changed.  We were still friends but our common interests were gone.  All of us were developing new ones.  We had new activities to attend. Now, we met our high school friends at these activities rather than take our grammar school buddies with us.  The school frowned on bringing boys from a different school to a Mendel social function. It was okay to sell them a ticket to a ball game but not to a dance. In a way, attending high school was like belonging to an exclusive club which was members only.

Up until that time, I had never heard the term ‘sock hop” before, but my new buddies, who were already in the know, told me I had to go because it was a great place to meet girls.  I could have taken a date to a sock hop, many boys did.  I was too afraid of girls to do that.  Even though I danced a lot with the girls of Avalon, this was different.  These girls were strangers and I’d have to talk to them.  It wasn’t easy for me to come up to a stranger and begin a conversation.  My mom was great at it. She made friends with people in an instant.  Dad was quiet. He had to force himself to meet new people all the time on his insurance job.

The sock hop was always on a Friday night. They began in mid-fall during football season, and continued through the basketball season. Many times they were right after the pep rally, and bon fire. They were simple dance socials organized for the purpose of getting the boys to meet girls and vice versa.  We always had a live band of high school kids who played the latest music.  At least one band member was a student at Mendel. We had to take our shoes off to dance on the sacred basketball floor; that’s why it was a ‘sock hop’.

There were a number of Catholic schools In the Roseland area. Saint Louis Academy was one of them.  Saint Louis was an all girl’s school located on State near 115 Street, and about a mile from Mendel.  The priest in charge advertised our event at all the neighborhood girl’s schools.  The word always got out, and there was always a good crowd at these dances.

Homecoming Dance, Not a Sock Hop, 1956

 

In my first year, I attended as many hops as I could.  Each time, I met a buddy and we stood on the sidelines drinking a coke, eyeballing the girls dancing by themselves.  We poked each other when a particular girl peaked our interest, and dared each other to ask her to dance.  I always thought the girls were too good for me, or too pretty. I never believed a pretty one would ever accept my offer to dance. The girls all seemed so old and mature. Most times it took me all evening to build up enough nerve to ask a special girl to dance. Then, when I finally made my move, another guy asked her just before me.

It was easier to talk to someone if you were dancing a slow dance than if you did a jitterbug.  That limited the number of chances I had to meet someone.  Since most guys could dance slow, but not fast, the competition was fierce.  (It just occurred to me as I am writing this that I was a good dancer, and loved to jitterbug. I should have taken advantage of that skill to meet the girls.  Duh!!  Not too dense, it’s only taken me fifty-eight years to figure that one out!)

The dance ended at 10 p.m., then everyone went their own way.  Many parents waited outside in cars to pick up their daughters.  A few older boys drove home from school, but most of us took the streetcar home.

In that first year that I attended the sock hops, I never developed enough nerve to ask a girl for a date after the hop.  I finally got enough nerve to begin asking girls to dance, but never had the nerve to go past “see you at the next sock hop” when it came to furthering a relationship.

Every time I attended a sock hop I took a step away from Avalon and a step further from my friends on the block. My freshman year at Mendel was my ‘breaking away’ experience.  We were all growing up and expanding our horizons, but desperately holding on to each other at the same time.

In Over My Head

IN OVER MY HEAD

I visited Mendel High School once before I signed up. They held an open house in the winter.  Mom and I took the tour and got to know the place, or so I thought.

On my first day, entering the main hallway, was very exciting.  All of a sudden I didn’t know where anything was.  The letter I got said to report to room 103 for home room.  “Where is room 103”, I asked myself.  I climbed the stairs up to the main floor. There were people everywhere but no one to help.  I walked the main floor looking for 103 but couldn’t find it.  I finally broke down and asked.  By this time my heart was pounding fast because it was getting closer to the 9:00 a.m. start time.  A loud bell rang and then shut off.  That scared me.  The bustle of activity in the halls was even faster now.

Room 103 was on the ground floor downstairs.  Whew!  I got into the room with a minute to spare.

The bell ruled my life at Mendel.  The idea of a bell ringing to let us know a class was over or beginning was totally new to me.  Getting up from your desk at the bell seemed disrespectful to the teacher.  AT OLH we stayed in the same seat all day, we got up when Sister told us to.  We would never think of getting up and walking out on her because the time was up.

My home room meant that it was the very first class of the day, and that is when the teacher took the roll call. My home room teacher was Mr. Mills;  he was also the football coach.

Another strange new practice was the ‘announcements’.  When the principal or a school leader wanted to talk to us, he’d turn on the public address system.  Each room had a speaker and we listened to the announcements during our home room session.   Once roll call and announcements were completed, Mr. Mills started teaching General Science.  This subject fascinated me because it covered all of the practical things in life, like water seeking it’s own level.  I’d learn much later that General Science was basic physics.  Physics is the foundation of engineering.

It always seemed like we just got started in General Science when the bell rang and class was over.  The next class was Algebra, taught by Mr. Magee, the assistant football coach.  He came to our room to teach the class.  I never heard of algebra before and wondered what it would be.  Once he started, I loved it.  The whole idea of algebra was fascinating.

Being in a Catholic school meant we always had a class in religion, which, for the first time in my life, was taught by a lay person.

After lunch on Monday, Wednesday and Friday I had woodshop for two hours with Father Hennessy.  There was also English and something called Social Science.  Of all the classes, I hated English and Social Science the most.  What do they have to do with being an engineer? The question haunted me.  Yet, in looking back over my years as an engineer, those two subjects were an integral part of my life and work.  So many times during school, both high school and college, I would ask myself the question “What does this subject have to do with engineering?”  The answer was always ‘nothing’.  The simple truth is that subjects like Social Science, Art Appreciation, Philosophy and Religion may not directly be a part of engineering, but they are a huge part of life. Knowing about many things makes me a better person all over.  I didn’t believe it or understand it back then.  I did know that I wouldn’t graduate with the credits.

Credit is another concept that was new to me.  In grammar school, everyone learned the same things, but in high school the kids in a home room could be learning along four different tracks.  At Mendel, it was Pre-engineering, Scientific, Business or General.  All of the curricula were preparing the student for college, but each one had slightly different subjects to learn.  Each subject carried credit hours and to graduate I needed a certain number of credit hours completed successfully.  Credits made it easier for the school and student to know how close one was to graduation.  Oops, the bell just rang; it’s time to go to the next class!

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