Vacation Down Memory Lane in Chicago

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            Crystal and I recently took a trip to back to my old stomping grounds in the Chicago area. The trip had several purposes. First, it was the beginning of a new phase in our retired life. Now that dad has gone on to be with mom in heaven, we have a lot more free time. When I first married Crystal, I promised to show her more of the country and the world. We finally can, and are planning some trips. Second, our trip was to take care of some details of dad’s estate. Finally, we went to catch up with some friends and neighbors. That last one is the subject of today’s post.

            It’s amazing what memories can flood your brain when visiting former residences. The first day there, Crystal and I took an extended walk near the downtown Chicago lakefront. The walk almost proved too long for Crystal (which I heard about often). It’s amazing how much change there has been over the years. Many new and tall buildings, some over 100 stories tall, have overtaken the skyline. As we stood close to the new Millennium Park and looked north, I saw the building known as One Prudential Plaza (formerly, and as I remember The Prudential Building). It was built in 1955, about a year after I was born. When I was around five, at 41 stories, it was still the tallest building in the city. Dad took mom and me up to the top to see the view. The elevator almost knocked me over. I loved it. I thought the view amazing. The buildings looked plenty tall enough for me. Over the beautiful Grant Park, you could see the home of my Chicago Bears, Soldier Field. Surprisingly, it doesn’t look much different now than I remember. Although, it might closely resemble the Roman Coliseum, instead of feeding Christian’s to lions, this stadium is about feeding Lions (Detroit’s football team) to Bears (sorry, couldn’t resist).

            After a Chicago style pizza, we headed back to our hotel room in Plainfield. The trip back reminded us of what we don’t miss, the traffic. The next day it was on to Oak Lawn where I grew up. To our delight, Mrs. Baker was home. Living in the brown brick house directly across from my old house, she is probably the last original neighborhood resident I remember from my youth. They moved into that house in 1957. Two years later, we arrived. Now 90 years young, it was fun and sad to remember good old times and people while commiserating about all the changes in the area.

            My old playmate, Jeff Baker,was in from Colorado for a visit. The oldest of the Baker’s seven children, he seemed so far from the carefree adolescent with whom I used to play. Darting in and out of the room with his cell phone attached to his ear, he seemed so focused. Apparently his boss wouldn’t leave him alone while visiting his mom.

            As we walked out of the Baker’s house, I looked across the street at my old house. I was flooded with memories. The house itself looked pretty much the same. The yard, however, wasn’t nearly the pristine “Better House and Gardens” type dad always kept. The joke around the neighborhood was that a weed wouldn’t dare show up in his grass. He was so proud of his yard that he wouldn’t even trust me to mow it. Instead, I made my candy money mowing for some of the neighbors.

            Next to the Bakers live the Preisers. They were good friends to my parents, but weren’t home for our visit. Before, they moved in, the house was owned by the Pozdols. They too had a Ron. He was my age, their middle child, and we got along quite well. His father was our scout master and a really great mentor to us kids. I remember sitting in a field with Ron for three hours watching an ant hill for our ‘Insect Life’ merit badges. Ron got bored, so he ripped the wings off a moth to see what the ants would do. Oh the carnage! Fortunately, the battle didn’t last long and the boring peace returned.

            Next to the Pozdols lived the Browns. They were an older couple who had one son, Billy a few years older than me. Mrs. Brown was so nice to us kids all the time. That kind of balanced her often grumpy husband. Mr. Brown was a fixture on his front porch summer evenings, with a cigarette in one hand and a can of beer in the other. He yelled at us when we played softball in the street. “You kids know there is a park just a block away.” He worried we would hit a parked car, even after I assured him that we were too good, and aiming away from the cars.

            A couple houses down from the Browns were the Byczeks. They’re oldest; Tim was my best friend growing up. We went through school together and hung out whenever possible. With a couple other friends, our usual Friday nights were spent either playing pool in his basement or ping pong in mine. Occasionally, there was a movie night. John Wayne was our favorite star. After the movie, it was always McDonalds. Back then you could get a Big Mac, fries and a Coke, and get a nickel back from your dollar.

            Summers were spent playing softball in the nearby field, now a large school. Mom would be ready with Kool Aid and cookies. The rest of those fleeting years included school, scouting, and in the winter, skiing.  It seemed such a simpler time.

Finally it was time to leave. As we drove away for quite possibly the last time, I peered in the rear view mirror,  remembering the good times, and visits with Crystal and the girls. And then sadly, as we drove away, mom and dad waved from the porch. Mom usually was crying.

            When she was gone, for a few months, until we could move him closer, it was just dad on the porch. And then, as dad and I drove away that last time, only the house remains. It outlasted my parents, and will most likely outlast us too.

            And so it goes. The house on Oak Center Drive still appears in good shape. It will probably need a new roof in a couple of years. But that is someone else’s concern. There is, from what I hear, a new young family for it to protect and serve.

            After Oak Lawn, we visited with some old friends, Laura (Crystal’s childhood friend), and Bob (her husband), whom we haven’t seen in forty years. We couldn’t visit Crystal’s old neighborhood because, as Crystal put it, it’s no longer safe.

In the end, our trip gave us what we needed. As we enter a new phase in our lives as empty nesters without parents, a look back gives us some perspective, and a greater understanding of who we are and how we got here. I think that’s always a good thing.

Our old house now

Me after a storm and our house about 45 years ago

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