Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Lake Rats

“At Crown Point, where I graduated in 1967, kids would call those of us from Cedar Lake “Lake Rats.”  At times it was a little rough because of the stigma.”  Bob Carnahan
 logo for the indie band Lake Rats
I’ve been enjoying Jeff Manes’ “All Worth Their Salt: The People of NWI,” volume II, which includes interviews with such IUN colleagues as archivist Steve McShane, reference librarian Barb Kubiak, former Communication Department secretary Dorothy Mokry, former Labor Studies prof Ruth Needleman, and former A+ student of mine Bob Petyko.  A self-described “Lake Rat,” Petyko now teaches at MacArthur Elementary in Cedar Lake, which he attended during the 1950s.  He worked for Standard Forge in East Chicago after high school and started college at IUN at age 41.  Petyko wrote so compellingly about growing up poor in Cedar Lake that it inspired me to edit a special Steel Shavings issue on his historic hometown.  It proved to be controversial because of Petyko’s candid coming-of-age story about, in Petyko’s parlance, “the wages of sin” (at least in the eyes of respectable society) set against a backdrop of class and generational conflict.  In 2008 Petyko told Manes:
  I remember my third grade teacher giving me a bag of clothes because I had only one pair of pants to wear to school everyday.  I wore an old pair of dad’s shoes – size 11s.  That was embarrassing.  But at MacArthur there were a lot of kids like me.
  I had five brothers.  We’d prop a garbage can inside the front door so we’d know when the old man came home drunk.  My dad was the kind of guy who would hit you while you were asleep.

Petyko recalled Cedar Point Park a half-century ago:
  I grew up in a pretty bad neighborhood.  When my father had a job in Illinois, he’d stay the whole week in Chicago and come out weekends on the bus.  I found out later that he had a girlfriend in Chicago.  He was a butcher.  He’d give my mom maybe $60 a week, and that would keep us going.  We didn’t have a car.  We didn’t even have a phone until 1967.  And, of course, my parents never owned a home.  The American dream, man.
  There were eight of us.  Whenever my dad lost his job, we’d get kicked out of the place we were living.  Then we'd move to another house.  We used to put our furniture on wagons and sleds.  We’d be like gypsies going through the neighborhood.  We liked to move in winter because it was easier to push the stuff.  All the neighborhood kids would help us.
  We lived in this one house that had a little lean-to addition where I slept.  Once it snowed, and the room caved in.  My mom took a sheet and thumb-tacked it up along the doorway.  We spent the whole winter like that.  It would be windy, and that sheet would flap around.  We didn’t have hot water.  When we flushed the toilet, we had to go to the lake to get a bucket of water to make it work.
  There were so many taverns, especially on the east side, that you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting one.  In one area of less than a mile there was Chatterbox, the VFW, the Amvets, Mother Tucker’s, Melody Hill, Coleman’s, and the Band Box.  The adults used to get hammered all the time.  Men, and women in my family’s case, they’d get tanked up.  When I was real young, my dad would send me down to the bar for beer or a bottle of Seagrams, and I’d just walk it home.  They’d put it on my dad’s tab.  There was never a problem about my being underage.
  Illinois people would drive around the Point, staring at us “porch monkeys.”  That’s what we were.  Everyone would sit on stoops with our clothes half on, and it must have been like a zoo to them.  I’m sure some must have said to guests, “I have to take you down here; you must see this.”  And they’d drive around and gape, as it to say, “Oh look.  It’s inhabited.”
  The first time I heard the phrase “Lake Rat” was from an older brother.  One of his teachers said, “Oh, I got the Lake Rat class.”  I think Crown Point people coined it.  I call myself a Lake Rat to this day and am proud of it.
  We bought Lake Rat patches for our blue jean jackets at a head shop in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood.  My junior year they made us stop wearing our Lake Rat jackets to school.

Bob Petyko described his fourth grade students and colleagues at MacArthur to Jeff Manes:
  I have a couple kids who might be considered upper middle class, and then I have all these kids who are poverty.  That’s why I don’t give homework.  Besides, moms don’t like getting Cs.  My kids work for me: from the time they sit down until the end of the day.  They owe me that.
  The people at MacArthur have genuine love for the kids.  MacArthur is a special place.  Our custodian has a thing called Carnahan’s Helpers; the kids love and respect him.
At Gardner Center Friday Jeff Manes (above), a former steelworker, recited Carl Sandburg’s poem “The Mayor of Gary” and one of his own entitled “Thirst.”  I’ll use these lines in my upcoming talk at Calumet College:

Screech, roar, POOM! Blast.
Bells and whistles out the ass.

Gaudy knickknacks.  Goofy nicknames.
Bawdy jokes and poker games.

Preachers, bikers, pikers, thugs.
Dinosaurs and engineers.
Holy rollers.  Carpenteers.
Melters, blowers, hookers too.
A college boy from Whatzmatta U.

Lary Car and Sal O’Manders
Steamboat Jack and Gerry Manders.
Lead and coke gas tough to hack.
Our snot and spit is always black.

The time has come I’ve paid the bill.
Thirty years in the mill.
I woke up Saturday eager to learn the Semi-State basketball results. 21st Century Charter School lost despite 42 points from Eugene German (above). To my shock I read that a car sideswiped the bus carrying Griffith players to Lafayette. The driver lost control of her car after spilling coffee on herself.  The bus veered off I-65 and overturned.  There were scrapes and bruises aplenty, but, miraculously, no fatalities. 
 above, NWI Times photo by Jonathan Miano; below, Post-Trib photo by Rich Leber
In the NCAA third round IU won an exciting contest against longtime rival Kentucky to reach he “Sweet Sixteen.”   Facing off were Hawaii, where I received an MA, and Maryland, where I received a PhD.  I had one eye on the game while playing bridge at Brian and Connie Barnes’ house in Crown Point.  It remained close until the Terrapins went on a 12-2 run midway through the second half. 
The NWI Times has been highlighting the origins of Region communities.  According to LaPorte County historian Fern Eddy Schultz, its first resident of Westville was Miriam Benedict, who passed through the area during the 1820s with her husband on her way to Illinois.  When he died shortly thereafter, she moved to Westville, the story, perhaps apocryphal, goes, because an Illinois law prohibited widows from keeping their children. 

Nicole Anslover invited me to her History seminar on “The Media and Modern America.”  The topic was press coverage of the Vietnam War.  During the first part of class students discussed media treatment of current events, including North Korea firing off missiles, violence at Donald Trump rallies, and President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Cuba.  I got laughs speculating that an upcoming Rolling Stones concert in Havana will probably get more media coverage and again noting that Pope Francis has joined Twitter.  When I was teaching, sometimes I’d pass another classroom, hear laughter, and be slightly envious.  I normally did not go for laughs, but when they did occur, I generally was so focused on the lesson that it did not fully register.

Home Mountain Press delivered 400 copies of Steel Shavings, volume 45, to IUN’s mailroom.  As always, the cover design is topnotch and the color photos of the highest quality.  Since I basically underwrite its publication through a donation to IU Foundation, I’ve decided to give copies away rather than deal with all the necessary hoops that sales would entail.

For an oral history assignment in her Indiana History class Kaitlyn Ingram interviewed her “grandpa” Frederick William Ingram, born in 1943 to Zula and Fred Ingram in Valparaiso. Zula, born in 1912, grew up in Gary with 11 younger brothers and sisters whom she helped her mother, also named Zula, care for.  She married Fred Ingram in 1935 and had daughter Judy in 1936.  Fred, Jr., an only son, recalled:
Growing up was tough; we didn’t have the most money in the world, and because of it both parents were gone a lot. My sister had to watch after me and considered me a bother.  My father passed away when I was only 5, so I don’t remember him much.  Memories of my stepfather aren’t the fondest.  I looked forward to school each day despite walking 10 miles uphill to Northview Elementary, barefoot in the snow, of course.
Fred and Judy Ingram

Fred Ingram’s pet crow, named Joe, followed him everywhere, he claimed, telling a skeptical Kaitlyn:
This stupid old bird would sit in the tree outside my house, and as soon as I made the trek from our home on Campbell Street to school, he would fly right above my head and follow me all the way to school. He would sit in the tree outside of my fourth grade class window, and wait until I left, and then follow me home all over again. One day he was making a ruckus, and my teacher finally got fed up enough and yelled “Freddy, take your bird home now!”  I thought to myself, “Well thank you Joe,” because I took my sweet ol’ time walking home and back.

Fred recalled stepfather Jack Forman:
My mom really loved him, but I could not for the life of me figure out why. He was quiet, never seemed too interested in what was going on with anyone, and never seemed happy.  He wouldn’t let me play sports and instead wanted me to get a job or do something beneficial to the family. I was really good at basketball but never allowed to play so I became interested in hunting and fishing.  Once you were outside the Valparaiso city limits, where Vale Park Road is today, it was all country and good hunting land. My buddies and I had some good times out in those woods. We would go out in the morning and sit all day, hoping to find deer, but mainly ducks.  We usually wound up laughing so hard out that we scared all the dang birds away.

Fred and his buddies cruised Lincolnway at a time when gas was only about 25 cents a gallon.  After Fred graduated from Valparaiso High School in 1961, Zula, and Jack moved to Pakistan on business.  Fred enlisted in the service.  Stationed in Iceland, he intercepted and deciphered telegrams. He recalled:
Iceland was beautiful but cold and boring. I was out in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of guys. We ended up getting pet rocks.  We’d take them with us to the bar on our down days. We’d grab a seat, order a beer, and ask for a little dish to pour a little beer into for the pet rock.  They needed to have fun, too!  After my time in the service, my mother did not recognize me because I had grown so much. 

Fred hired in at Bethlehem Steel and began to save up money.  In January of 1967 the great Valparaiso snowstorm hit.  It took Fred almost 2 hours to drive home from the mill.  A couple days later, Fred and Kenny Jenkowski decided to attend the VU basketball game and to Tony’s Pizza Place afterwards. Fred told Kaitlyn, “That was where I met your grandma, and the rest is history. We dated and in May of ’67 we got married and that was that.” 
 Proud parents

In her paper Kaitlyn wrote that Fred and Roberta Ingram have been married 48 years.  Their first house was on Campbell Street, close to where he grew up. Eventually had one built a couple miles south in Morgan Township, where they still live.  In 1970 son Geoffrey was born.  A year later they found that Geoff had retinoblastoma in his left eye, necessitating its removal. Fred said, “It was horrible and terrifying but a blessing all in one because we found it fast enough to contain the problem.”  Paul, Kaitlyn’s father, came along in 1972. The boys were the best of friends growing up.  Like their father, they shared a love for sports, and Fred, vowing not to be like his stepfather, encouraged them. He coached Little League teams, played catch in the yard, and attended Geoff’s basketball and baseball games for Morgan Township and Paul’s track and field meets.  As time went on, Geoff and Paul got married and grandkids started arriving, much to Fred and Roberta’s delight.

         In 2000 Geoff, who had beaten cancer as a child, was diagnosed once again, this time terminal. Fred recalled: “It was a sinking feeling when he drove home from Indy and told us the news. It just wasn’t fair.  Knowing your child has a terminal illness and that there really isn’t anything you can do about it, that’s a pain that I wouldn’t wish on anyone ever.” Geoff passed away on April 1, 2001.  Kaitlyn’s grandpa, teary-eyed, confided, “No parents should ever outlive their child. That’s not how the world is supposed to be. But I suppose that’s life.”
 Proud grandparents

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