Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Louis Vasquez

   “I used to hang around with older boys.  During the summer I was their lookout as they tried to sneak into the back of stores along Michigan Avenue and steal things, such as firecrackers.  I think this is how my nickname started.  I was the smallest guy in the gang, so they called me ‘Wee.’  Later on it became ‘Weasal.”  Louis Vasquez, “Weasal: The Autobiography of Louis Vasquez”

Recalling his memorable childhood during the 1930s in East Chicago’s immigrant district of Indiana Harbor, Louis Vasquez wrote:
  It seemed like we all grew up with nicknames.  Johnny Busea was Pickle, Joe Gonzalez was Chinky.  Many names designated physical characteristics; my brother was Fat Dog.  Others highlighted personality traits.  One guy was called The Beast; if you said good morning to him, he’d likely reply, “What’s good about it?”

above, Damien Jefferson; below, Rhyss Lewis drives on Treyvon Smith; NWI Times photos by John J. Watkins
In a barnburner harkening back to the glory days of “Hoosier Hysteria” I witnessed East Chicago Central trounce previously unbeaten Chesterton, led  by Damien Jefferson's 27 points and Jermaine Couisnard’s 25.  After Chesterton scored the first six points, the Cardinals reeled off the next 16, many on steals and fast breaks.  As the NWI Times headline put it, the Cardinals flew by the Trojans.  Leading scorers for Chesterton were two African Americans, Rhyss Lewis with 28 and Antwan Beeks, with 12.  Also on their team was Ky Palombizio, son of 1981 Mr. Basketball Dan Palombizio, who played for Michigan City Rogers. 
 Coach Pete Trgovich; below 1971 E.C. Washington state champs

I told Dave about being in the Chesterton gym 30 years ago when Lew Wallace star Jerome Harmon made a spectacular dunk, and several home fans held up signs reading 9.5 and 10.  Classy!  E.C. coach Pete Trgovich starred for the undefeated 1971 East Chicago Washington Senators and played on two UCLA national championship teams.  Dave told me he scored the final bucket the last time the state finals took place at Butler University’s Hinkle Fieldhouse as well as the last points of Coach John Wooden’s career in 1975.  In 2007 Trgovich coached the Cardinals, led by E’Twaun Moore, to a state title.  Then Pete coached at IUN for three years when one of his present assistants, Pete, Jr., became IUN’s all-time leading scorer.  Another assistant, Juda Parks, starred on East Chicago’s 1990 team and at the time of his graduation was the school’s all-time leader in points and steals, second in rebounds, and third in assists and blocks.

A pep band kept the gym rocking when play stopped.  When they belted out Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” I told Dave they were playing a “Weird Al” Yankovic number.  “Eat It” was actually in a recent New York Times crossword puzzle.   Chesterton’s coach, Tom Peller, a 1979 Andrean grad, played football (quarterback) at the University of Indianapolis.  He was an assistant to Merrillville’s Jim East before becoming head coach at Chesterton in 1999.  His wife Julie Peller until recently taught at IUN, and I had an opportunity to ask how she was doing at Valparaiso University (just great, she reported).  Coach Peller later told TR Harlan of the Chesterton Tribune, “We learned a lot about our team tonight and where we need to get better.  This was a good lesson for us.”

At the scorers’ table Kenny Gunia put out a hand and said hello.  My double partner in a senior tennis tournament a dozen years ago, we finished second to two septuagenarians.  During the j.v. contest Gunia had trouble seeing around Coach Jon Moskovich, so Dave helped him identify scorers.  Near the Cardinal bench, during he varsity game we could hear Coach Trgovich yelling such commands as “Move your feet,”  “Go, go, go,” “Look up, look up,” and “Don’t foul.”  Damieln Jefferson, whose graceful moves reminded me of Jerome Harmon, told Times reporter Jim Peters, “Coach says never to walk the ball up the court.  That’s our style of play.  We like to get rebounds and we go, go, go.  We’re an up-tempo team.  That’s the way I love to play.”  The offense bears a resemblance to plays Trgovich ran under Coach Wooden.

In “Indiana’s 200” sports historian Alan Karpick profiled Hoosier legend John Wooden, who led the 1927 Martinsville Artesians to a state championship.  A three-time All-American under Purdue coach “Piggy” Lambert, Wooden coached at South Bend Clay and Indiana State before becoming head coach at UCLA.  With such stars as Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Bill Walton, and Pete Trgovich UCLA won 10 NCAA titles in 12 years.

In a wheelchair due to a recent fall 92 year-old faithful Cardinal fan Louis “Weasal” Vasquez was wearing a World War II veterans cap.  He called me Jimmy and flashed his trademark smile when I gave him a hug. I published his autobiography in 20 years ago as Steel Shavings, volume 24.  Like his father before him, who moved to Indiana Harbor in 1919, Louis worked at Inland Steel.  He dedicated “Weasal” to his grandchildren and bragged: “No feeling quite matches the pride that comes when grandchildren put their arms around you and call you gran-pa.”  Louis III, an excellent student of Dave’s, had his gran-pa speak to a class at IU about his rich life.  Now Weasal has a brood of great-grandchildren.

Louis Vasquez was a mainstay in the Latino Historical Society, whose President, Jesse Villalpando, turned me on to his autobiography and praised him as a mentor to returning Korean War veterans.  In “Weasal” Louis wrote about such winter pleasures as sledding down Washington Street across Guthrie (dangerous unless one had a look-out) and hitching rides, something, I must confess I used to do with terry Jenkins and Paul Curry by grabbing onto car bumpers with one hand while holding onto the sled.  Louis recollected:
  If the automobile stopped suddenly, heaven forbid, you either let go quickly or you would go underneath the chassis.  This was a dangerous practice, and the police warned us against it.  One night, the neighborhood cop, Mr. Brown, caught me hitching cars.  Threatening to take me to jail and confiscate my sled, he had me in tears.  I was more worried about my Dad; if he found out, it would be another whipping.  The officer knew I lived a couple houses from him; so, I guess, because of this, he let me go.
 Louis Vasquez (front, left) coaching 1949 women's softball team
With scrapbook in hand Louis closely followed the 1971 ECW “Super team” starring guards Darnell Adell and Reuben Bailey, forwards Pete Trgovich and Ulysses “Junior” Bridgeman, and center Tim Stoddard.  In the Regional final Gary West Side led at halftime 43-41.  Louis wrote:
  In the third quarter the Senators came out smoking and scored 29 points.  West Side cut the deficit with 28 points in the final quarter, but it wasn’t enough.  The final score was 94-89
  That was the closest any team would come.  The Finals were played for the last time at Hinkle Fieldhouse.  In those two games Trogovich scored 68 points to lead the Senators to victory, first against Floyd Central and then Elkhart.  I had seen too many teams get upset in the playoffs to be complacent, so it was a thrill to watch these young men add to East Chicago’s rich basketball history.

At Market Square Arena for the 1976 and 1977 Finals Louis recalled:
  In 1976 E.C. Washington got to the Final Four only to lose in the morning game.  The following year, however, we made it to the championship against Carmel.  Drake Morris took the last shot.  I swear he was fouled, but the referees didn’t call it.  The ball bounced off the rim; that’s how close we came to becoming state champions.  I was distraught for a short while, but my girls had a wonderful time staying in an Indianapolis hotel with [daughter] Sylvia's classmate Diana Hernandez.  Over the years these basketball weekends had become outings that the children remembered fondly.

In the early game Drake Morris had 37 points.  Against Carmel Morris scored 27, including two free throws with 11 seconds left to give East Chicago the lead, 52-51.  Then with four seconds to go Carmel’s Jon Ogle sank a jump shot, and Morris almost nailed a desperation shot.  I can just imagine Weasal’s torment.

In “All Worth Their SALT” Jeff Manes wrote about Lil’ Joe Gutierrez, like Vasquez a “mill rat” at Inland Steel.  “At that time,” Gutierrez stated, “Mexicans went to the yard department.  Blacks were sent to the coke plant.”  After finishing the interview, Manes, himself a former steelworker, headed east on Cline Avenue.  He recalled:
  I notice Beto’s Restaurant.  Used to be Mehilo’s watering hole.
  Nearer the union hall, Pete and Mabel are but ghosts like Hot Dog John or the no-legged man who sold pencils at the corner of Michigan and Guthrie.  Bust Corner Drug Store – gone.
  Joe stays.

I interviewed Lil’ Joe Gutierrez for a Steel Shavings issue, “Steelworkers Fight Back,” co-edited with Mike Olszanski on the history of USW Local 1010. Oz recently was driving east on 80/94 near La Porte when a wheel (not just a tire) suddenly materialized in the middle lane.  His Mazda ended up facing backward in a ditch.  Fortunately nobody was to his right.  The car was totaled, but Oz escaped without a scratch, just aches and pain.  A week earlier, he spotted a ladder in the highway.  Someone appears to be tossing objects from a nearby overpass.

Going into Monday night, I had a comfortable lead in the Fantasy Football playoff, but Eli Manning passed for 300 yards and tossed four TD passes, enabling The Powerhouse to squeak by Jimbo Jammers 84-82.
good buddy Omar Farag at Gary Bowman

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