FROG HOSPITAL -- September 25, 2019
I'm having flashbacks of the Watergate hearings this morning. This is serious. Well, all I have to say is that Nancy Pelosi speaks for me. Elizabeth Warren speaks for me. Greta Thunberg speaks for me. They will set things right. What I'm going to do is stay out of their way and tell this tale from the 1950s.
By Fred Owens
This isn't really a story because nothing changed. From 1956 to 1960 everything stayed the same in my life except for a few things like I got bored in school because I was one of the smart kids and there was no challenge to it, just sitting there and staring at the ceiling, but this was in 7th and 8th grade. In earlier years I was pretty happy at school. And nothing changed. I was ten years old in 1956 and I had no concept of change, like upheavals or conflict or evolutionary development. I liked things the way they were, but you might say I knew of no alternative to the way things were. Like the song books. After recess at lunchtime, after we lined up in the hallway and had drinks at the drinking fountain, after we got back into our polished wooden desks all lined up, Sister Hubert told us to bring out the music books and she announced the song, which might go like this "Wait for the wagon, wait for the wagon, wait for the wagon and we'll all take a ride...." I always enjoyed the singing. But in going over the memory last night, something occurred to me -- we had no choice. Did Sister Hubert ever ask us what song we wanted to sing? No. No choice. That possibility never crossed my mind.
Sister Hubert was tall and a little scary, not quick to smile. She had milky white skin and soft-grey eyes. You could see her face and her hands, everything else was swaddled and robed in black wool with a super-white starched collar around her neck. I liked her a lot, but it wasn't anything cozy.
The nuns were of the Franciscan order, modeled after the life of Francis of Assisi, so they wore rope belts rather than leather belts out of simplicity. They lived in a convent in back of the school with its own entrance on Forest Avenue. I walked by the convent every day on the way from our house to school in the morning and every afternoon on the way back. I never saw anyone go in or out that entrance. The other way in or out was the kitchen door, and you might see a nun coming or going out that door, but not too often. Outside of teaching us in the classroom and guiding us to church and back, you hardly ever saw them at all. They stayed in the convent I guess, but I don't know what they did in there. I wasn't curious. And it was always the same.
I made a list because I remember each one of them distinctly and I liked them all except for Sister Virtunia in 7th grade who was an old sourpuss. Here's the list
Sister Thomasita -- kindergarten
Sister Clothaire -- first grade
Sister Virgina -- second grade
Sister Laverna -- third grade
Miss Marshall, not a nun -- fourth grade
Sister Hubert -- fifth grade
Sister Laverna, again -- sixth grade
Sister Virtunia -- seventh grade
Sister Gregoire -- eighth grade
Fifth grade was my best year in playground baseball. I was usually picked first or second on the pickup team and I played first base, which had the most action, plus I was a good hitter. I was left-handed but I batted rightie. I got that way because my older brother Tommy was the same way -- left-handed but batting rightie. It wasn't important. Mostly I just loved playground ball -- and hated Little League with all its formalities and worried parents. In playground ball we made our own rules and picked our own fights. The nuns stayed out of it. Short of bloodshed they never interfered. We had huge arguments about whether the runner was safe or out, or whether the ball was fair or foul. The girls skipped rope and played other games, we didn't pick on them. And some of the gangly, non-athletic kids just stood around and didn't play, like Fitz Higgins, one of my good friends. He could not play worth a darn and didn't care either.
Fitz lived over on Chestnut Ave, maybe six long blocks away, you could go down Elmwood past the Murrays, or go down Greenwood past the Muenches and then turn left to Chestnut where the Higginses lived, with six kids, Biff, Fitz, Kathleen, Liz, Danny and Ellen. I liked the whole family which might be why I remember their names.
When I grew up six kids was a big family and three was a small family. We had five kids at our house I thought that was just right. Seven people in all counting Mom and Dad so there was always something going on. But we'll get to that later. I am writing this down in the order it comes from my memory, so it may seem scattered to you, but you don't live inside my heart/soul/brain. I will be repeating myself and contradicting myself...... it's the natural order of things. We lived in Wilmette, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. A French trapper named Ouilmette built a cabin there about 1820, near the shores of Lake Michigan. It grew into a village and they changed the spelling to Wilmette. Being near the lake, maybe one mile from our house, meant we had the best trees. Nobody told me this but I knew just from looking up in the yard, that we had the most magnificent oak trees and elm trees towering over our house, giving wonderful shade in the summer and giving strength in the winter. An elm tree in the front yard, three or four feet in diameter at the base -- that elm tree was Home for Hide and Go Seek during summer games after dinner. I'll get back to this -- the trees and the games we played -- and talk about somebody I had not thought about in years -- Billy Hoak.
Bill Hoak was my friend. He was a soft, pudgy kid with red hair and massive freckles. He didn't go to St. Joseph's school like my other friends. I don't even know how I met him. He was a year younger than me and went to Logan, the public school three blocks from where he lived. Billy didn't fit the pattern because he lived in an upstairs apartment with his mother. Just them. An only child and no Dad either. Not a problem. just different. All my other friends lived in a house and had a mom and dad and brothers and sisters. The mom stayed home and the dad went to work in an office and wore a white shirt. I had no idea what the dads actually did at the office. That was too boring to even think about.
Billy's Mom had freckles too and she was very sweet and soft spoken. The two of them lived on Lake Street across from Vattman Park .... Vattman Park had swings, a teeter-totter and a jungle gym, plus tennis courts, but we only got to the tennis courts later during high school years. Sometimes we walked to Vattman Park in the summer to play, only three blocks, down Forest Avenue, right on !5th St., look both ways crossing Lake Street and there you were. But I still don't know how I met Billy because he was a shy kid and didn't go outside very much. I suspect that Mrs. Hoak might have known my Mom, and told my Mom they were new in town and Billy needed a friend -- me. No problem there.
This is where it gets really cool. I would go over to Billy's house to play and his Mom would give us both a dime, and that was for walking one block down Lake Street to Green Bay Road and the train tracks. It was the main intersection, although traffic was pretty light in 1956. We took our dimes to Shimineck's gas station and bought sodas. Usually Orange Crush. We sat on the curb and drank them. Then we walked back to Billy's house, only this time down the alley in back and we looked for bottle caps because we had a collection of different types, even beer bottle caps.
That's what we did. Just Billy and me, no games, no sports, no bike riding, just the walk to the gas station. And here we are looking for ethical guidance -- the question that I always ask -- Did I hang out with Billy Hoak just so I could get a dime for the soda? Boy, that's a tough one. I did like Billy. He wasn't stupid or anything, but, not to put too fine a shade on it, I was going for the dime. Billy and his Mom moved someplace else after a couple of years. I didn't know where. But I can see the service station clearly in my mind. The soda machine, you could get grape soda or root beer or Seven-up or Coke. All considerations, except I almost always got Orange Crush. We could sit on the curb and watch the cars come and go for a fill-up and ding the bell. Or we could peek in the repair bays with the hoods up and the mechanics in greasy overalls. These were men who fixed cars and used tools -- they actually did something.
I have something more to say about Sister Hubert, but this is enough for today. I enjoy writing this recollection of childhood.
Laurie and I are leaving on Tuesday, October 1, for a one-week visit to Seattle to stay with Eva, her wife Lara, their two-year-old boy Walter AND the new kid on the block, little Joey, just born, and six weeks old now. What a lovely family. We will also drive up the Skagit, then Up River, then up and over the Casade Pass to the eastern side and the village of Winthrop for a few days of sightseeing.