Friday, March 31, 2017

On Thin Ice

Winter in Chicago is always unpredictable. Sure, it gets cold and an occasional snowstorm disrupts routines and even shuts down schools every few years. But ice worthy of skating when I was a child existed for a relatively brief time between mid-December and early March in the best of years.

There were no ice rinks where I grew up until much later. In those days, community groups cooperated with the fire department to flood a couple of smooth local fields when the weather forecast was favorable. And tucked away between my grammar school and a handful of sequestered homes was a small circular pond with a central tree-filled island. Skating there was preferable to the flooded fields. It was liberating to carve up the ice in any direction, not simply traveling around in monitored circles as you would in a roller rink.

Our pond was called Maine Park. When we were small it seemed enormous. Much later visits with my own children proved it to be not much more than a retention pond. But it was in a pretty, although by current standards isolated and creepy, setting.

Nestled in a suburban neighborhood, and being in such close proximity to our school, the crowd that gathered at the park for skating closely resembled the K-6 population. But young adults and parents with small children mixed in, serving as a buffer that prevented much of the clique formation and social structure inherent in gym class or recess. It felt safer.

The Park District constructed a temporary warming house each winter. A small wooden structure with benches along the walls, it provided a sheltered place to rest when tingling fingers began to hurt and toes became completely numb. I recall hot chocolate being available, but that may be a product of revisionist historical embellishment. Nobody really liked being in the warming house. It cut into our skating time.

On January 24th of 1965 Chicago was hit with a crippling ice storm that caused extensive damage, power outages and generally brought things to a halt for a couple of days. The autumn just prior to this, Oakton Street, a thoroughfare through the north side of town, began undergoing widening from two lanes to four. The project was worked on as weather permitted, redirecting traffic to two lanes as the others were paved and sealed with asphalt.

Sometime during the height of the ice storm, those of us at home due to school closure discovered that the cordoned off segment of the street, straight and smooth and flat, was thick with ice as smooth and hard as if it had been carefully conditioned for skating. And skate we did, at first tentatively while we tested the integrity and consistency of the frozen surface, and then with wild abandon, like birds launching into uplifting thermals over a canyon.

If an ice-covered pond provided a sense of liberation, speeding along a quarter mile of frozen road was freedom itself. It felt like dreams I’ve had of flying, or of swimming in impossible rivers painted through improbable locations by my sleeping mind. Our mood was giddy. We waved at smiling passersby, who watched astonished at our clearly innovative but acceptable behavior. A few adults even joined us. We skated and raced, the biting wind in our faces as we flew down the empty roadway. Even kids without skates were having a ball, running and sliding, crouching into a controlled fall and skimming painlessly along for dozens of yards. There was never again anything like it. The nexus of freakish weather and a one-time road construction project were perfectly timed to create a memory for those of us fortunate enough to be its beneficiaries.

Imagine my joy many years later when a mid winter rainstorm and a cold front conspired to flash freeze a large corner of our backyard at an age when my children could bundle up and skid across their own little ice rink from end to end. That too, happened only once and no doubt looms much larger in their child-minds, like a neighborhood pond and a frozen road do in mine.

Thursday, March 16, 2017


My new friend and neighbor in Florida has been threatening to take me out for a ride on his boat for about three years. Last month we finally headed out twelve miles into the Gulf of Mexico for a day of fishing. The cloudless sky was as blue as the nearly flat water on an ideal February day. As we ventured further into open water we eventually lost sight of land, but it didn’t make me nervous. I was in clearly capable hands.

But I was mistaken. I was informed that we weren’t going fishing. We were going catching. I was about to learn the difference, and I swear that this story is true.

Now, I’ve never caught anything bigger than a Bluegill or Sunfish in a local retention pond. Even on fishing charters, I stand with my empty pole, examining the horizon and enduring some kind of sea-curse while others gleefully pull a variety of fish into the boat.

“You’ll be frustrated with me,” I said, “when you find out how bad at this I am.”

My captain tweaked the settings on his astoundingly sophisticated navigational Garmin and just smiled as he throttled up and headed to a favorite spot, pinpointed on a digital chart full of other such locations.

If any idiot can catch a fish, I was the perfect candidate to test the theory.

A clear plastic baggy full of shrimp emerged from a cooler. I pulled the head and tail off of one slimy, gray creature, it’s cold body chilling my fingers as I embedded a hook from one end of the body to the other.

I was taught to hang my pole over the side of the boat and let the line play out until I felt it stop, at a depth of about 50 feet.

“Jig it up a little,” I was instructed. On the Garmin, a colorful sonar profile of the rocky bottom showed peaks and valleys – perfect for fish. I guess I was moving the bait in order to simulate live food.

I prepared for a long wait, settling back in my chair and trying to just enjoy the sound of the water gently lapping at the hull of our boat, rocking gently with a hypnotic rhythm that….BAM!

My line pulled tight, the slender fiberglass rod bending nearly in half from the weight and struggle of a snagged fish. I reeled like crazy, winding fifty feet of line back onto the pole and lifting skyward until a large red snapper broke the water’s surface.
The entire sequence of events had taken only a couple of minutes. We unhooked the fish, tossed it into a live well and repeated the process. And repeated, and repeated. Every time I put a line in the water, another snapper struck. We were both catching, often two at the same time, off of both sides of the boat, in a seemingly choreographed sportsman’s fishing highlights video.

As I lifted a particularly large specimen out of the water, my phone rang. Yes, twelve miles out in the Gulf, I had a signal, and I had to answer. I was on a more difficult fishing expedition back in Chicago. And catching back home was of paramount importance. On land, the bait was a house, and the call was to tell me we had caught a buyer. We had sold!

“This is the best day EVER!” I yelled, as I continued hauling in my fish. And indeed, we continued to load the live well until we’d reached the limit for the day.

So it turns out that there are those who fish, and those who catch. I have joined the ranks of the catching. And I keep in mind the need to be truthful about the adventure I’ve related, because in the words of Mark Twain, "Do not tell fish stories where the people know you. Particularly, don't tell them where they know the fish." And my captain surely knows his fish!

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Fair Weather - Memories From My Inner Cubs Fan

My grandfather spent much of his retirement watching Cubs games on WGN. His comfy armchair faced a 19 inch black and white television in his apartment on Rascher Avenue, less than three miles from Wrigley Field. He went to games occasionally, but mostly opted for Jack Brickhouse’s play-by-play in his “box seat” just off of Clark Street. It came with a kitchen, a refrigerator stocked with Schlitz beer and a private bathroom.

My wife’s grandmother took her and her sibs to Cubs games, where they sipped her home-brewed unsweetened Kool Aid and built lasting memories. Maybe my grandfather didn’t like other people’s children. Or maybe he overdid it with the Schlitz at the games and grandma intervened to shield us from that lasting memory. Or did they only serve Hamms at Wrigley? Well, when you’re out of Schlitz, you’re out of beer…

Although he never took me to a game, he did bring me a pin that he got at the ballpark on Ernie Banks Day in 1964. I still have it. I knew that Ernie was a legendary player, and I recall six years later filming his 500th home run with a super 8 movie camera pointed at an instant replay on TV. As you might imagine, the quality is awful. You can barely read “Hey Hey” flashing at the bottom of the screen. My dad thought Ernie was pretty special.

My dad loved the Cubs. I associate his fatal heart condition with the colossal disappointment now known to sports historians as simply 1969. He played baseball as a young man and taught me the basics in our small back yard in Park Ridge. Recently my son thanked me for passing on those skills to him and my daughter Melissa. Eric was playing on a Tucson team recently where he noticed a severe lack in the areas of throwing, catching and hitting. You’re welcome Eric and Melissa. Thanks Dad!

The truly strange thing that occurred at my father’s funeral will hopefully not be repeated at mine. Please consider this the eulogy-equivalent directive of a living will. The minister who was recruited (drafted you might say) to say a few words at Dad’s service interviewed us for a few minutes the day before. I guess we mentioned sports, because it became the epitaph for my father’s life.

“Carl, lover of baseball.”

My mom, sister and I did double takes at each other, grief-stricken, appalled, and on the verge of a much needed uncontrollable burst of laughter. What the heck?!

Autographed Twice - Click to Enlarge

But back to Park Ridge and more pleasant memories. My then living dad surprised me one evening in 1965 by suggesting that we go meet Ron Santo at the grand opening of his new pizzeria. I was ten and Santo was 25. Both of us were children, I realize now that I look back, sprinting toward home in my third 25. But he was a celebrity, a baseball star, a golden glove and a genuinely nice guy. We would later find out that he was already suffering the effects of insulin-dependent diabetes, but that night he came out of the kitchen at Santo’s, smiling and wiping the flour from his pizza-making hands on a dusty white apron.

“Are you a Cubs fan?” he asked me. The Cubs hat and jacket were subtle clues. I went speechless, nodding my head in a repeat of the silent Santa experience I’ve written about earlier in this blog. Hmmm. Santa. Santo. Vastly different heroes for sure.

He personalized an autographed photo of himself crouching and ready to scoop up a ground ball at third, and a miniature souvenir baseball bat that I will bequeath and not sell on eBay.

“Hey Glenn, come on out here” he shouted, looking back over his shoulder at the kitchen door. Glenn Beckert pushed through the swinging doors, also up to his elbows in white powder. He signed a photo for me as well. I was star-struck. Short of Ernie Banks coming out of the kitchen, I was face to face with two thirds of one of the greatest infield combinations in the game. Santo to Beckert to Banks for the double play. Amazing!

Years later I brought Ron’s old photo to an autograph event at a local Target store.

“Oh, look how I used to sign my name,” commented the much older Santo, signing the image for a second time.

So life continued for the beleaguered Cubbies. We grew older and a bit more despondent. Along came 1984. And then a series of “next years.” And then a brief period known for steroid-driven, Sosa-crushing home runs and broken records throughout baseball. It was exciting, but ended abruptly on June 4, 2003 with a corked bat, an eight game suspension and our departure as a family of followers to the Chicago White Sox.

Ironically, the Sox manager at the time, Ozzie Guillen, has been quoted as saying, “Everyone cheats in baseball. You’re not cheating if you don’t get caught.” Cheating or not, the Sox took the World Series two years later. It was a short wait for a big win in a family of very excited new fans, especially when compared with the Cubs. My father, lover of baseball, was born in 1911 and lived his entire life without enjoying a Cubs World Series win.

But now it’s 2016. There’s something in the air again. Curses be damned, the new Cubs don’t even seem to be aware they’re not supposed to be succeeding in the playoffs. It’s the kind of magical, crazy energy we felt last year. And in the words of one of my kids’ coaches at a tournament years ago, spoken with a smile and a shrug,

“Somebody’s got to win…”

A recent limo ride to O’Hare airport found us in the back seat of a car driven by a very pleasant and talkative older man. He made the usual small talk, then asked us if we were Cubs fans. We explained our position to the clearly disappointed driver, who proceeded to reveal that his son plays for the Cubs.

“Kyle Hendricks,” he said, glancing in the rear view mirror for a reaction.

That we had never heard of this potential Cy Young candidate spoke clearly to our ignorance of the modern Cubs team. We wondered if our driver was just making things up, but later saw him on a post-game sports show, down on the field with his arm around Kyle’s shoulder after a particularly amazing playoff performance.

Holy Mackerel!

So for now, whether you prefer the Sox or the Cubs, Chicago has a team in the playoffs, and they really need our support. Let us all cross our fingers and repeat the pledge for one our fine city's baseball teams:

I pledge allegiance to the Cubs
And the generations of Chicagoans
Who stand by their heroes in Wrigley Field
Ron Santo, Ernie Banks
With bleacher bums and ivy
Hey! Hey!