I wasn’t an orphan, but sometimes I felt like one. I missed my mother and grandmother tremendously, and wrote long letters to them. About once a month, I would get a letter back, though by allusions to events I had not heard about, (likely contained in other mail) I could tell I was only receiving a fraction of their mail. In those days, letters were written on a single sheet of special onion skin paper, folded in a certain way, to keep the weight down. These were sent air mail, and would arrive typically in 1-2 weeks. Other mail would travel by ship to Europe, and could take months to get to the addressee. I lived for those letters.
My father, living in a room rented to him by a widower, spent his days as a draftsman, and his evenings and nights studying English from books given to him by his nephews, as well as attending ESL (English as a Second Language) at the local public library. In addition, he was attempting to learn the specialized engineering terms he would need to know in English in order to pass his licensing exam. He kept telling me that he was sorry he couldn’t spend more time with me, but his studies were the most important thing to him right now, otherwise he could never support us. I understood his need to study, but sometimes it felt that it was easier for him to have only limited time alone with me. Unfortunately, our conversations, even after I became an adult, were never easy or free flowing. This wasn’t because he didn’t love me, because I was certain that he did, and would have done anything for me. Yet, there was awkwardness between us which we each felt, and somehow couldn’t surmount. He wasn’t this way with everyone, especially with the people with whom he worked. Regardless of the reasons, our times together were limited to a few hours in the park, most of which was spent with me playing by myself, and him sitting on a bench with a book, studying.
I didn’t make friends with anyone in my first couple of years in grammar school in Chicago. It’s not that I didn’t want to (all kids, especially at that age, yearn to belong with their peers), but I was too different, too adult in some ways, not childish enough in others. I lacked all of the “cool factors” that kids in middle school valued, and also lacked the “tough guy” aspects to make others afraid of me. I wasn’t really bullied, just casually made fun of, in the cruel ways children have of establishing their pecking order. I not only lacked great athletic abilities, I didn’t even know how to play most of the games. I was mostly left alone, with only an occasional shove to remind me that I wasn’t one of “them.” Even the other outcasts in the class stayed clear of me, as I didn’t share any of their special enthusiasms.
I soon discovered that my cousin Rick, in a class a half year ahead of mine, was almost as unpopular as I was. He was overweight, lacking in athletic skills, nerdy, with a last name too easily mocked. He also lacked friends, and his only salvation was having an older brother who would come and occasionally pummel anyone who picked on him too much. Truth be told, I wouldn’t have picked him as a friend, but since we were placed in the same undesirable social strata at school, and living under the same roof, we ended up doing things together. I was grateful for having been taken in by his family, and remain so to this day.
Our extracurricular activities involved two main events. One was riding our bikes to a hot dog stand on the South Side, and filling up on that special kind of hot dog only Chicago natives truly appreciate – the kind that comes in a steamed poppy seed coated bun, and is packed with relish, mustard, onions, ketchup, and is accompanied by a bag of greasy French fries. Our second and most frequent form of fun were visits to the Museum of Science and Industry. Originally built for the World’s Fair at the end of the 19th century, this place is amazing. Filled with interactive exhibits long before “interactive” was a thing, the huge edifice contained a coal mine you could actually tour, exhibits showing the evolution of the automobile and the internal combustion engine, details of how man learned to fly and the machines that enabled him to be in the air, and the largest model railroad setup any child or adult has ever seen. During WW II, the Navy successfully captured a German submarine – the only one intact in captivity. This submarine, the U-505, still at the museum, remains one of its most popular attractions, allowing visitors to actually walk through the sub and appreciate the claustrophobic environment in which its sailors lived. There is a movie showing how the sub was actually captured, and how these weapons of naval warfare almost turned the tide of the war in favor of Nazi Germany. The two of us would spend an entire day at the museum, and return again the next day for more. Admission was free, as it was at the time to all the other fabulous museums of Chicago – the Adler Planetarium, the Shedd Aquarium, the Museum of Natural History, and the fabulous Art Institute of Chicago. I owe a great deal of my education to what I learned in these museums, as well as from the books of the Public Library. I remain grateful to those who saw the value of providing these rich fountains of knowledge to all free of charge, for without that generosity, a poor refugee boy like me would never have been able to afford the benefits they offered. It was a good investment, as most of us who came to these shores with only the clothes on our backs were encouraged to become the scientists, doctors, teachers, and artists America needed, and still needs today.
The excellent public transportation in Chicago gave Ricky and me the opportunity to visit the museums without the need of being driven there or picked up by adults. It was perceived to be a safer world in the late 1950’s, and no one gave much thought to letting a couple of young middle school children loose on their own in a large metropolitan city. It was a time when milk was delivered in bottles to the doorstep, and when I first moved in, most people were still not locking their doors at night. Sadly, lot of that changed fairly quickly, but I still had a glimpse of that age of innocence.
Ricky’s older brother mostly ignored us. Being a teenager, self-absorbed, and seeing us mostly as nuisances to be tolerated, his world centered on rock music and girls. He was given more freedom by his parents than I was used to seeing, and was frequently out of the house most evenings, hanging out with his friends. My father’s uncle’s life revolved around his business, about which he could talk endlessly, and often did. He had hopes of having his older son join him in his enterprise, but this would never happen. His wife, a woman of the time, kept house, cooked, washed, doted on him, and acted as every pronouncement coming out of his mouth was spoken from the Mount. She was very kind to me, and aided by her excellent cooking, my usual thin frame put on some heft.
Though I still liked watching Have Gun, Will Travel and some of the other Westerns on TV, I would mostly disappear into the world of books. Ricky and his family were not into reading. Besides a set of the Hardy Boys (which I finished quickly, and later found were a gift from another family) there were no other books in the house. Aside from our interest in hot dogs and the museums, Ricky and I had little in common. This is likely the reason we never became close friends. Once I eventually moved out of his house, we only kept in touch during holidays.
More to follow…