By Mike Zimmerman
Mike Zimmerman grew up in West Ridge in the late 1940s and the 1950s. Now retired from a variety of careers around the world and back home, as engineer, soldier, political analyst, college instructor, journalist, and businessman, he lives in the Chicago area.
My urban childhood echoes with Huckleberry Finn-like adventures. Our family lived in Chicago’s West Ridge neighborhood, in our day called West Rogers Park, on Farwell Avenue just west of Francisco. We kids played outside mostly, except in pouring rain. An empty lot was across from my house. (Some vacant land still was around then.) The first few years in the area, late 1940s and early ’50s, pals and I built a fort and had camp-outs there. We played soldiers, pirates, cops and robbers, were fans of western movies, cowboys and Indians, frontier American culture. Because of scouting, we admired Native American tribal mores, their closeness to nature, and we imagined ourselves frontier Americans. Thus, we big-city kids, most of us Jewish, began becoming skilled outdoorsmen. Who’d figure?
Down the block westward was a multi-acre wildlife area – the “clay pit” apparently served in the 1930s as a source of materiel for making bricks. It seemed gigantic, stretching eight blocks north to south and several wide, defined by the streets Sacramento, Pratt, Kedzie and Touhy. Its wilderness-like atmosphere included swamps and ponds with reeds, brush, trees, birds, squirrels, skunks, snakes, frogs, and fish. My best buddy for several years, Jerry Schoenfeld, and I found an abandoned cement-mixing tub at a nearby former construction site, hauled it to the clay pit, hid it in reeds and overgrowth, and used it as a raft, poling through clay pit waters exploring the wildlife.
A few years later real estate development began. The clay pit was turned civilized, with five very large apartment buildings (called Winston Towers), Decatur Elementary School, the Bernard Horwich JCC, the Park Plaza retirement complex, town houses, and parks with playgrounds and tennis courts.
After graduating high school, I lived elsewhere for more than two decades, involved with university studies, military service and civilian jobs around the world, and then moved back to the old neighborhood, where my children would be born. Soon enough we flew kites in the park areas of West Ridge where Jerry and I had once adventured when it seemed a frontier.
My grade school was suitably named for the American frontiersman Daniel Boone, with he and Davy Crockett being role models for me. Some of us acted in a school performance of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer on stage in the Boone auditorium. Friends and I got into Cub Scouts, and then Boy Scouts. These frameworks opened up love of the woods and continued our development of skills for outdoor survival. We had overnight camp-outs, hiked and biked, rode horses, and canoed.
Our Boy Scout Troop 822 met at the Indian Boundary Park Field House on Lunt Avenue. We frequently camped out at forest preserves. Some of us for several weeks during summers attended Owasippe Scout Camp in Michigan, and canoed along the Wolf River just north of Muskegon. With our scout troop, we also canoed in Illinois and Wisconsin. When in high school, my brother Marty and I with two friends canoed alone for ten days in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters. The next year, with the same buddies, Leon K and Jay Leavitt, we drove west to hike, camp and fish, and explored southwest Wyoming where frontiersmen and fur trappers rendezvoused in the 1820s and ‘30s. My English term paper in junior year of high school dealt with the American western mountain men of that period.
Most of my crowd later served in the U.S. military or the Peace Corps. It was natural, expected, that we would serve the nation, partake in patriotic rites of passage. My brother and I joined the Army, Jay was accepted into the Peace Corps, and developed a career as an architect. Leon became an attorney and then was in government service for decades. Only after he retired did I learn that it was the CIA. He said nothing about it, except some places he served during his government service. For years his mailing addresses were at U.S. embassies in Asia, Africa, South America and around Washington D.C. When he passed away, I gave the first eulogy at the funeral, and the next speaker was an agency comrade from their days in Vietnam, and elsewhere.
I’ve had the sense that the Boone crowd of my generation was like a big family of distant cousins, with a commonality of culture and ties. It was a patriotic period: we may have known some of America’s imperfections but profoundly appreciated that it was a wonderful place of which we were a part.
The Midwest seemed a place of decent values, a fine environ to be raised in. Since the street of my family home on Farwell was dead-end, that meant we could and did play “line ball” there after school. (Fathers joined in when arriving from work.) We organized softball games in nearby Chippewa Park and the Boone School yard, and touch football (a passing game). Tennis, for me, came later when an adult. Badminton was played in backyards. The popular game of pinners used a tennis ball or an orange rubber ball to bounce off stairs or a horizontal line of slanted bricks facing a sidewalk, grassy area or playground. In every nearby house lived several kids, so we youth always had playmates.
There were sedentary activities as well as more vigorous ones. We would daydream, resting on the grass in backyards and nearby parks, contemplating shapes and drift of clouds. Stamp collecting absorbed me, with globe at hand (my dad’s idea) to check out geography of countries issuing the stamps. And I read a great deal. With but modest television and long before computers, we voraciously read books from public libraries, at first kid stuff like the Wizard of Oz books and the Hardy Boys series. I soon grew to like Kenneth Roberts’ historical novels on early America, and Mark Twain’s writings. Bill Mauldin’s cartoons of WW2 were a favorite – my dad had his books Up Front and Back Home, which I perused frequently and we discussed.
Our folks taught us card games and my brother Marty, sister Alice, and I played frequently – gin rummy, canasta, single and double solitaire. Later were long poker games, usually for chips, sometimes small change. We also frequently played Monopoly, checkers and chess, and marbles. We did experiments with chemistry sets –common exercises included creating stink bombs and concoctions that burned very hot and sparkling. Neighbor Fred Kayne, about my age, had an electric train and invited me to help develop an elaborate track layout. Later we both got into photography plus developing film and printing pictures. Fred became a professor of chemistry.
There was some innocent but exciting interplay with the opposite sex, social dance classes for 7th and 8th graders at the field house of Indian Boundary Park, and occasional spin-the-bottle at boy-girl birthday parties.
Our Midwest childhood was also connected with the geopolitics of the adult world. Jerry and I partook of exploding small gas cans in nearby empty lots. We learned how to make various kinds of fuses. Little did we anticipate that later I’d become a skilled U.S. Army Ordnance Corps officer, as would my brother (both gaining the rank of captain), and dealt professionally with military equipment development, use and maintenance. Jerry’s service would be in the U.S. Air Force as a flight mechanic; he became a motorcyclist, was active as a skin diver, and later opened and managed a scuba diving school. Alas, in his mid-thirties he was killed when his seaplane crashed during a diving expedition.
The big war, i.e., WWII and its aftermath, was much on our minds as kids. Two uncles and numerous family friends returned from military service, and over dinners I heard about some positive personal encounters and dangerous military situations they experienced, a bit about horrors Jews and civilians encountered in Europe, and battles to access and secure a portion of the holy Land from the British.
Over dinners with my dad and his friends, I often heard discussions about the wars (WWII and Korea) and other serious topics of the times. We kids, my brother, sister and I, often ate earlier, but then sat at the table with Dad when he got home from work later. Mom was always there when we arrived after school. She went on to become a skilled artist (using watercolors and oils), and published Passion in the Oven (illustrated with her paintings and sketches), which became a best-selling cookbook. I recall attending her book signing events downtown at Marshal Field’s book department and Stuart Brent bookstore on Michigan Avenue.
We felt American holidays, especially Memorial, Independence and Veteran’s Day, more than it seems many do today (with exceptions, like those in military veteran groups). I remember viewing newsreels from combat in World War II and from the heavy fighting in Korea. We realized how fortunate it was to be American and did not take patriotism lightly.
Funny how many memories of those days, for boys at least, deal with softball, baseball and football. We organized sandlot games with teams from other schools, especially Rogers and Clinton. My friends and I played baseball nearly every day from spring through autumn. We traded baseball cards and remembered statistics. We practiced pitching hardball, a pitcher and catcher with a building wall as backstop in the schoolyard, but games were played with the Chicago-style large softballs (sixteen inch), without gloves. We did not indulge much in basketball. During the winter, we did play ice hockey on ice patches in nearby empty lots and parks, and at actual community skating rinks. Surprisingly, none of our crowd got hurt during touch or touch-tackle football scrimmages and games.
Later, when serving in the army in Korea, my unit often chose baseball tidbits of knowlege as tactical passwords for frontier patrols. After yelling, “Halt! Who goes there?” We’d shout a question like, “Ted Williams’ top batting average?” (It was .406 in 1941.) Our guys knew this sort of thing, even if they occasionally forgot some outgoing instructions and the formal password, but infiltrating soldiers from North Korea would not.
One memory reflects some history of the times. During 7th and 8th grade, my friend Jerry and I “manned” the important patrol boy post at the Pratt and California intersection. This was near a turkey farm, replaced later by Ida Crown Jewish Day School and then other buildings. During the Korean War, we felt it our duty to report any extraordinary aerial sightings. Twice we spied airplanes we didn’t recognize. Immediately we asked Mr. Sam Gunther, owner-manager of the Shell gas station on the southwest corner (now site of a synagogue), if we could use his telephone to call the police. Mr. Gunther nodded gravely. The police operator spoke formally and politely thanked us for our report. We did our duty.
At the nearby intersection a few blocks to the north of Lunt and California was a drugstore, its highlight a soda fountain bar with stools. We’d have milk shakes, chocolate phosphates, and sodas with strawberry syrup, fizz and ice cream, topped with whipped cream, nuts, and a cherry. Cost a quarter. The store also had a magazine rack which I browsed regularly. A Boone School classmate, Carolyn Ettinger, lived with her folks and siblings in the building; we thought her lucky for such convenience. She and I became friends again years later via meeting at a high school reunion when I moved back to Chicago.
Remember the Cine Theater on Devon Avenue a block or two west of Western? In the early 1950s, friends and I went there frequently. The best part, in addition to viewing western movies while eating fresh popcorn, was sitting in the balcony with bean blowers and blasting away at buddies below who fired back. Some of us carried sunglasses and wore them to avoid getting hit in the eye. After several weeks of complaints by movie-going innocents, the ushers (mostly our high school elders) checked us out when entering the theater, by patting us down and then to save time would order us jump up and down in order to hear whether there was any rattle of dried peas or beans – ammunition. If found, they ordered: “Hand it over!” Management’s action elicited counter-measures. The next week we sawed-off bean blowers so we could hide them in our mouths when entering the theater. For ammunition we bought popcorn at the theater’s concession stand and used remnant kernels as ammo. Finally we realized our pastime was way off-base and ceased disturbing the peace with the bean blower battles.
Sometimes after going to the movies at a local theater – the Cine, Nortown, Granada or Adelphi – we ate at Zweig’s Deli, for a time at the southeast corner of Devon and Western. (Later it moved to Skokie, to Golf-Mill area.) My uncle Herbie’s family owned it. The food was great: chocolate phosphates, blintzes, great soups, brisket and chicken plates, corned beef sandwiches on fresh rye or pumpernickel, mildly fatty meat with great taste, not like today’s leaner blander style, and tasty kosher-style dill pickles. Zweig’s provided my first restaurant meal in Chicago after returning from a full year of military service overseas in Korea. My companion was my teenage cousin Barry Zweig. I recall him politely suggesting that I not swear so much because women at nearby tables might overhear us and be uncomfortable. (In the military many of us swore even in normal conversation, but most outgrew the habit.)
Other favorite neighborhood restaurants were Pekin House (for Chinese) on Devon, Millers (a steakhouse) on Western, Little Louie’s (hotdogs, burgers, fries) at several locales over the years. Our family’s regular destinations for Italian food, a favorite, were Fanny’s in Evanston and Como Inn just west of Chicago’s Loop.
On summer evenings my folks often took my brother, sister and me to Thillens Stadium at Kedzie and Devon, to watch men’s softball games; occasionally we’d go to a Major League game. My parents were Yankee and American League fans, having lived in New York for several years when first married. They mostly took us to White Sox games. I still remember vividly the 1959 pennant-winning team. Billy Pierce and Early Wynn were great pitchers, and Sherm Lollar, Nellie Fox and Luis Aparicio come to mind as team stars.
It was in 7th or 8th grade when I was honored to be part of the color guard for a school assembly. My job was to loudly say, “We will now sing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’!” The following story is a big admission. As the color guard formed up outside the auditorium, we kidded around with word plays, and I came up with an alternative anthem name – “The Star Speckled Banana.” In front of hundreds of people (seemed like thousands), including classmates and teachers, I formally announced in a loud voice, “We will now sing . . .” you know what. There were incredulous faces, howls of laughter, and my utter embarrassment. I tried to save the day by saying, “Ah, er, you know what I mean, the ‘National Anthem’.” For weeks my buddies called me “Speckled Banana.” That is my biggest memory from Daniel Boone grammar school, aside from once hitting for the cycle – a single, double, triple and home run, plus a second double – during a serious schoolyard softball game against nearby Clinton School’s eighth grade team.
While in high school, my brother, our good friend Bob Gold, and I became amateur radio operators. (Marty and I went to Senn and Bob to Sullivan.) A government license was required, for which one had to pass rigorous tests. We developed skill sending and receiving/interpreting Morse code, and handing two-way short-wave radios using voice and code transmissions. Marty and I erected an elaborate antenna system on the roof of our family home. Soon we volunteered for a Red Cross-affiliated communications system to relay (“phone-patch”) radio-voice messages from military personnel at duty stations far from their homes (this all long before cell phones and Internet). My brother later became an electrical engineer, then an entrepreneur, and lives in Chicago, and Bob became a U.S. Air Force pilot (flying F-100 aircraft in Vietnam) and a medical doctor.
Our parents encouraged us to try doing different things, and we considered most everything an adventure. I kept in touch with childhood friends as an adult even while studying or working for more than two decades in far-away cities and lands. Among us, we covered much ground, participating fully in the dramatic developments and history of our times. Daniel Boone and similar elementary schools like Rogers and Clinton, and high schools like Senn, Sullivan, (and later Mather), plus nearby Lane, Roosevelt and Von Steuben, produced generations of solid, creative interesting people. My own life has treated me to a wonderful close and extended family, great friends, the experience of learning at first-rate universities, serious military service and satisfying civilian work around the U.S.A. and in four countries abroad. And it has included love and wonderful children.
I returned to the old neighborhood to live when forty-one years old, after leaving for college at eighteen. (Of course, I visited regularly.) My dad had become seriously ill and I figured to keep him company and help out my mom. I was married by then, and our kids were born after we came to live in my old home area. Some serious jobs found me or vice versa, and there was work to do, life to live. Hello neighbors!