Friday, May 20, 2016

Coming of Age

“We’re all pretty bizarre.  Some of us are just better at hiding it, that’s all.”  Andrew in “The Breakfast Club”

I spoke to Steve McShane’s class about their assignment to interview someone from the Calumet Region who was a teenager during the 1990s, then had them read excerpts from memoirs published in Steel Shavings (volume 31, 2001) by such memorable students as Highland skateboarder Craig McLain, West Side basketball player Rashon Davis, North Newton “wigger” Elizabeth Grzych, and Boone Grove graduate Marshall Lines, who talked a friend out of committing suicide and, like “nerdy Andrew in “The breakfast Club,” was a late bloomer.  Erin Hawkins had her tongue pierced on her eighteenth birthday, and Merrillville grad Anne Marie Laurel got jailed for underage drinking at a Portage trailer park.  I referenced Donny Hollandsworth, still a fanatical IU and Bears fan and presently in a poker group with Dave, and Samuel A. Love (then Sam Barnett, singer with the punk band Fuzz Factor), a Gary community organizer and close friend. The Nineties Shavings, titled “Shards and Midden Heaps” from a Jean Shepherd quote, contains William Buckley’s “Night Shift” about downtown Crown Point:
  Our sudden coolings in August
              When boys come flying
              on their rollerblades
              their arms stretched like wings
  Streets are empty, except for hard legs
              walking into Pete’s Irish Pub, and the movies
              are doing business with families, for “Die Hard.”
  Our boys lean for the wind, circle
              round the gingerbread courthouse on wheels
              like birds around the lawn, and cop cars
              cool their engines by the Triple Play Saloon.
  There’d been a street dance, before the rains.
              And the jail where John Dillinger carved his wood
              into a gun, has been saved for renovation.

 “Shards and Midden Heaps” examines coming-of-age” teen experiences of so-called Generation Xers or their younger siblings, sometimes nicknamed Generation Nexters or Generation Why? Volume 31’s chief merit, I still believe, may well be its anecdotal glimpses into the contemporary history of adolescence, at present a virtually virgin field.  Contributors recalled wild parties and car rides, body piercings and visits to tattoo parlors, color guard highlights and gridiron thrills, skateboarding feats and deaths coming too soon.  Adolescence was truly a period of danger.  Young people succumbed on the highway, at unprotected railway crossings, from drug overdoses, at the hands of predators, and from insidious diseases such as AIDS and asthma. The latter affected a disproportionately large number of residents living in the shadow of the mills.

One critic called Dan Wakefield’s coming-of-age novel “Going All the Way” (1970) the Midwest “Catcher in the Rye.” Kurt Vonnegut wrote that it “is really about a society so drab that sex seems to the young to be the only adventure with any magic to it.”  In the chapter on Sonny and Gunner’s 1954 visit to Calumet City, just across the Illinois state line, Wakefield wrote:
  There was this main street lit up like a carnival with flashing neon signs and barkers trying to get you in the strip joints, all of them saying the main attraction was just coming on no matter what was actually happening.  It was just a little country-town except that it was nothing but bars and strip joints and all that mothering neon glaring and blinking in the night, and behind it, in the sky, the reddish-orange glow from the steel mills, like the skyline of hell.

Driving through Gary, renown photographer Camilo Vergara, a frequent visitor to the “Steel City,” spotted a billboard at Fifteenth and Monroe soliciting  blood plasma donations and indicating that one could buy a motorcycle or snowmobile with the money.  It reminded me that right after Alaskans received oil-generated money from the state’s Permanent Fund (in 2015 the payout was $2,072), ads touting trips to Hawaii and other enticements began appearing for the exact amount allocated.
 Jessica Nieman with Pally and Jean
Jessica Nieman interviewed 90 year-old Alberta “Jean” Ellis in a house in Chesterton just down the street from where she grew up.  Jessica wrote:
Jean Shultz’s family farmed 27 acres.  When she was 11, her dad was struck dead by a truck while mowing grass. Jean’s mother Edith took over the farm with help from her children. Jean said, “We were all farmers, because that’s all that was around at that time here!”  The youngest of six, Jean gathered eggs, fed the chickens, and brought in the cows.  She said, “My mother was a great seamstress and made all my clothes. People would give her heavy overcoats, and she would tear them apart and make clothes for us.  My first store-bought coat was right after my father had passed.”  They traded farm produce for clothing.
  When Jean was 14, she had her eyebrows done for school picture day, and they swelled up.  “My mom was pissed,” she recalled.  Jean was first in her family to graduate high school.   She said, “At 16 you could stop going.  My older sister would buy me clothes to keep me in school. She wanted me to succeed.”  She was one of 28 graduates in Chesterton’s class of 1943.  Jean had started waitressing at Edward’s Barbecue when just 14.   She learned to drive in her mother’s 1934 Ford.   A Chesterton movie theater had midweek dime shows, which made for an affordable evening out. Jean also loved roller-skating.
At age 20 Jean married Earl Ellis. They had four children, Mark, David, Gwen, and Danny. In 1978 Earl passed away. Fifteen years later, at Moose Lodge on Thanksgiving, Jean ran into an old friend, recently widowed Lou “Pally” Gordon, and they have been inseparable ever since.  The October day I met with Jean she had just gone to Chesterton Farmers Market, as she does every Saturday, for cheese curds and coffee, and we sat and talked for two hours, with 94 year-old Pally sometimes joining in.

Joseph Mastej wrote about Elaine Brezovich Jamrose, who was born on February 28, 1937, at St. Katherine’s and grew up in Whiting.  Her parents, Tom and Ann Brezovich, were from Czechoslovakia.  Tom worked at Amoco (BP) refinery.  Mastej wrote:
              Elaine’s grandma owned a tavern and several adjacent apartments.  Elaine recalled, “On Fridays she’d have fish fries, and all these guys would come for her dinners. And all of her kids had to pitch in to help: fry the fish, make the coleslaw, and all of that.  My dad used to plop me on the barstool. I was like five or six. I’d sing in Polish or Croatian.  Guys got a big kick seeing this little girl sing and would tip me a dime or a quarter.”
Elaine’s older sister Carol ended up marrying, in Elaine’s words, “a big shot at Ford.”  Elaine’s favorite memory at St. Adalbert’s was wearing a beautiful dress in an ethnic pageant.  In fourth grade a nun locked her in “the dark closet,” as kids used to call it, for talking, and she came home crying.  Her dad went crazy and put her in public school.  In high school Elaine played the piano for the chorus and the viola in orchestra.  She was a cheerleader, on the yearbook committee, and participated in plays.  She lived near Lake George and played volleyball at the beach and ice-skated in winter. A favorite uncle often took her to Whiting beach.   Elaine recalled: “I used to go to a hamburger place after school, where there was a juke box.”
Elaine attended dances after basketball and football games and at Madura’s Danceland and St. John Panel Room.  After one game, she recalled: “I was waiting for my boyfriend to come and this boy from Tolleston asked me to dance.  His name was Paul Krysitch. I really liked him. He said why don’t you come visit me sometime, I work at this shoe store in Gary.  That Saturday I did, but he was off that day. I never went back but wish I had.  I only met him one night.”
  Elaine graduated in 1954 and intended to become an X-ray technician, but her boyfriend proposed to her so she got a job at American Trust and Savings until she got pregnant with son Danny.  She and her husband were married on October 13, 1956.  The reception was at St. John Panel Room, where she’d go for dances. The shower was at the Slovak Dome.  The couple moved to a part of Whiting called Goose Island.  She often took a bus to downtown Hammond and shopped at Goldblatt's.  A dozen cookies cost just a dollar.
Elaine’s marriage ended in 1969 when she caught her husband having an affair.  She summed up their 13 years of marriage, “The first ten were really happy.  My mother-in-law lived upstairs and was a good cook. She took my kids under her wing. Then the last three years I had a little bit of a suspicion and those weren’t good years.“  Elaine moved above her grandma’s tavern with Danny and Laura.  It was noisy, and drunks would stumble upstairs looking for the bathroom. She found work at Inland Steel and after five years moved to a nicer apartment.  She joined a bowling league with co-workers and said: “All the guys I worked with were married but tried to hit on the divorced women. They were tired of their old lady so figured, ‘Let’s try this one out.’”  She and her girlfriends traveled to Hawaii.  She recalled: “That was my first trip on an air plane. It was this great big 747 with all these people and their luggage, and we are going over the ocean. I was sitting there petrified, praying the rosary, as the plane bounced around.”
White Sox hurler Chris Sale won his ninth consecutive start, 2-1, with former Philly Jimmy Rollins scoring on a sacrifice fly after stealing second and advancing to third on a grounder.  Sale and Jake Arrieta of the Cubs are the best pitchers in their respective leagues.
Five days ago, on safari in Tanzania, Alissa wrote: “Josh and I are in the Serengeti (literally)! It's been the most amazing 48 hours! We watched a herd of elephants snacking on grass, ended up in the center of a circle of stampeding wildebeest, and a full-grown male lion came to visit us during our picnic lunch. We survived and are living in style in this crazy Serengeti paradise of a hotel.”  Today came this update:
Josh and I are back in Arusha! The safari was such an adventure! Our group spent a day with the Hadzabe tribe - they are Bushmen who have extremely little contact with the outside world. There are about 1,000 members of this tribe left in Tanzania. They live entirely off the land. In order to reach them, our guides had to call two local guys to find where they were that day. They are nomadic and move around every few weeks (depending on the hunting). Every day, the women gather, cook and take care of the children while the men go hunt. We drove deep into the remote bush of Tanzania (had to drive through a small river) and hiked to find them in a hollowed out bush. They speak in a language with a lot of clicking noises, which can't be written down so it's very hard to learn). They taught us to play their instruments and we danced. They taught us how to make fire (Josh was by far the best at it - he has been bragging ever since) and we got to go hunting with them! I was nervous about it at first because their favorite meat is baboon. Luckily, with 25+ loud Americans behind them, all they were able to catch were small birds and rats (which they shot with arrows!!!!) They also found us fresh honey in a huge tree and how to find fruit. To hunt, they run with a pack of pretty wild looking dogs that help them track animals; we had to sprint to keep up with them at times. It was one of the most exhausting, exciting, and mind-bogglingly awesome experiences of my life. 

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