MY FATHER USED TO JOKE THAT as a boy he kept his ball-playing far away from any of his family’s windows.
“A broken window at my mother’s house,” he’d say, “meant that Grandpa and I would have to get the sand to make the glass to fix the window.”
His father was all of fifteen years old when he made his way from Vienna, Austria, to Bremen, Germany, where he boarded a ship—he called it a boat, which his grandchildren found to be funny—named the Barbarossa that brought him to New York’s Ellis Island. His emigration to these United States from the Austro-Hungarian Empire was completed in 1906 when he got to Chicago, whose meatpacking industry had been assailed by Upton Sinclair that very year in The Jungle, and whose baseball teams, the Westside Cubs and Southside White Sox competed in the World Series (the Cubs lost).
How and why he chose the Windy City were questions never answered, perhaps never asked, although we know he had no family waiting there. Perhaps he had a friend there. It’s doubtful that he had read Sinclair’s novel as he would have been in the beginning stages of learning to speak English. And baseball had yet to catch on in Europe so I doubt if he cared about the World Series.
Before the start of World War I, he, his father and his two sisters were reunited in Chicago. I recall learning that one of his sisters was a cook for a prominent Chicago family; the other committed suicide by jumping into the Chicago River. I never knew them. From pictures we once had, I could see that great-grandfather Liska was a huge man, his frame and girth easily filling a doorway. His business in Austria was to dig basements with the use of horses. My father told me that he was mean and had a violent temper.
I never heard any mention of Grandpa’s mother from anyone in the family. Perhaps she stayed in Vienna or moved back to Prague. I’ll never know.
From the stories that pass as fuzzy history it was in Chicago that my grandfather, a man of slight build who was an educated steel fabricator and structural engineer from the Old Country (he was born in Bohemia and defiantly insisted that he was Bohemian and not Czech), would invent a counter-balanced fire escape that hung parallel to the street until one stepped on it, the human weight thereby creating a staircase to safety. The design also prohibited access to the building from the street. The patent for this amazing feat of engineering and design, of course, was not his. It belonged to the man who owned the company where my grandfather, Josip Liska, worked for wages. Grandpa was a young immigrant man who had received a mere pittance of a wage while his boss enjoyed yachts and golf club memberships, the best tables at the best restaurants and tailor-made suits, a beach house in Benton Harbor, Michigan, and a South Shore apartment with a splendid view of Lake Michigan.
Or so I assume.
I like that story. I have no idea if any of it is true, other than the ancestral and travel parts which have been documented, and if it isn’t true that he invented such a device that would over time save thousands of lives and help secure properties, then I offer my sincere apologies to those other families who might believe their grandfathers created such a fire escape under such similar circumstances.
It was, however, the story that was told around the kitchen tables of my childhood.
I’ve come to discover that many people have learned their family histories in the same manner, with little plot twists and turns that make the story more interesting, as well as its characters.
At heart and by our very nature, after all, we are storytellers.
What I know as fact is that Grandpa was multi-lingual, as was his wife, Mae Hamrová, my babička. They conspired to allow their three children to only speak English because, after all, this was America. Their arguments were wonderfully cacophonous, understood by no one but each other.
Grandpa was quite adept at fixing stuff. He was a turn-of-the-previous-century MacGuyver—minus the pyrotechnics, violence and dramatic tension—and he could breathe life into any inanimate object with a screwdriver, some baling wire and a roll of black electrician’s tape (this was before duct tape had become widely used, let alone legendary).
The stories of his self-sufficiency were endless and, obviously, exaggerated with each telling. If, for instance, babi wanted a rug for the front room (in Chicago, Eastern European immigrants had front rooms, if they were lucky; living rooms belonged to the suburbanites, parlors to the upper crust), Grandpa would raise a few sheep, shear them of their wool, spin some yarn, build a loom and proceed to weave her a rug comparable in design and quality to any that might have come from Persia. In the back of their brick bungalow in Cicero, Illinois, was a yard about the size of a one-car garage. There, reportedly, he grew enough cucumbers, cabbage, barley and hops to provide a year’s supply of pickles, sauerkraut and beer—each a staple of the Bohemian diet. The much-needed dill and caraway grew at the base of the damson plum tree that produced enough fruit to make enough slivovitz—a vile drink that tastes like what I can only imagine turpentine must taste like—to sicken his entire neighborhood of fellow Bohemians. Since he had yet to figure out how to grow tobacco on his backyard plantation, I can only guess that he bought the Lucky Strikes he chain-smoked.
So with all that having been said, my father, who renamed his father Grandpa after my sister and I were born (it caused less confusion at the time than it does now), grew to hate anything that involved tools, sheep, looms, dirt, sand, glass, plants, trees or the possibility of callouses.
And yet, when Dad returned something of a hero from the war in Europe he went into the steel business with his father.
Their plant was on the South Side of Chicago, within spitting distance of Comiskey Park. The business was designed to be a family business, but Dad’s brother, Eddie, wasn’t interested in working without a regular paycheck. His brother-in-law, John, whose wife, Dad’s sister Violet, had a good job at Brach’s candy company, wanted no part of it either. Uncle John worked as a body man for the Yellow Cab Company where he drew a steady paycheck.
The little company was structured to have Grandpa designing the work and running the shop. Dad did sales and worked in the shop. My mother did the books, and babi made them lunch from the little grocery in Cicero she had established in 1931.
The company muddled along, fabricating staircases, sidewalk grates, foot bridges and wrought-iron railings, the same things Grandpa had done in his first business. It was a struggle to pay the few men they employed, let alone draw more than a few dollars for themselves each week.
Grandpa, it should be noted, unionized his own shop. Having worked for wages as a young immigrant, he wanted his employees to have access to good jobs should his business fail. A union card would help any worker find employment.
To me, that was the most noble of acts.
And then one day Dad had his best day as a salesman when he closed a deal on the Florsheim Building on Adams Street in Chicago. After three years of struggling, winning the contract to construct the skeletal steel structure of the building was cause for celebration.
Eddie and John heard the news and wanted in. My father told them no and his father told him that they were family and yes, of course, they were in. My father, perhaps (probably) at the insistence of my mother, said that he had no interest in dealing with the prodigal sons and left the company.
And that’s when he got into the hardware business with a True Value franchise store on Roosevelt Road in Broadview, Illinois, a village bordering the west edge of Chicago.
BY TODAY’S STANDARDS, IT WAS A real, old-fashioned hardware store that mixed paint, cut glass and threaded pipe for the tradesmen who arrived early and drank coffee from ceramic mugs my father provided while he filled their orders.
And he got out of the hardware business a few years later because he didn’t like mixing paint, cutting glass and threading pipe for the trades—all the things hardware stores once did and the very things I wish hardware stores still did. I hate being forced to buy a box of two-penny nails when all I need is a handful, which you used to be able to buy by weight. I loved those rows of galvanized aluminum bins with dozens of different nails, a vicious-looking, wood-handled claw to dig them out, and the brown paper sacks one put them in. For the record, I would love to find a job at an old-fashioned hardware store, preferably one with wood flooring like my Dad’s and a pot-bellied stove: I’d wear a flannel shirt, lace-up boots and suspenders, as well as a baseball cap advertising a tool company or a local contractor. I’d speak slowly to explain to impatient young people exactly what a two-penny nail was because they’re not called that anymore and I’d smile as I heard them whisper “geezer” as they walked away.
Dad seemed addicted to retail. It was a “bad job with long hours and low pay,” he’d say. “What’s not to love?” He opened a Ben Franklin store in Bellwood, Illinois, that failed after a year or so. He would go on to open three more—each a success.
When I was growing up post-hardware store, if I happened to detect a leaky faucet in our house and mention my discovery to my father, he would hand me the Yellow Pages and instruct me to call a plumber. (“Do I look like a plumber?” my father would ask incredulously, as if I could recognize that one genetic trait that plumbers once must have shared to make them all look, if not exactly the same, at least like plumbers.)
The family joke was that the discovery of a burned-out light bulb was cause for us to move, although for a kid who attended six different schools before I was fifteen the joke fell flat.
By the time I had reached fifteen I, unlike my grandfather, had yet to earn a degree in structural engineering, let alone master German, Bohemian, Polish and Yiddish, traverse Eastern Europe or cross the Atlantic in steerage class with a couple thousand other immigrants with whom there were few common languages. On my grandfather’s trans-Atlantic cruise, shuffleboard probably was not a recreational option and dining at the Captain’s table was not within the realm of possibility. He traveled in windowless steerage, eating gruel from wooden bowls with flat spoons.
“I must be part Gypsy,” my olive-skinned father would note as professional movers packed the moving van.
Apparently he hadn’t noticed that real Gypsies lived in caravans and taught their children to be pickpockets and thieves.
THE WHOLE MOVING THING became only more problematic as I grew older.
In February of 1972 I traveled with a band to Iceland for a couple of weeks in the employ of the USO. After entertaining the NATO troops in Keflavik and at several radar outposts around the frigid island country (imagine the fun of playing a two-hour concert of rock ‘n’ roll music for five or six uniformed guys who never left their stations—desks that hosted eerily green, blipping radar screens), I returned home and called my parents to let them know that I was back home in New York, that Iceland was a really fabulous country with natural hot springs and where the aurora borealis was clearly visible nearly all of the time because it was dark most of the time. I also was eager to share with them my discovery of the magical, if not downright mystical and mind-altering qualities of akvavit in my journey. (Note to young people: Parents really don’t like hearing this kind of stuff.) What I discovered before getting to say anything to them about any of the recent changes in my personal history was that their home telephone had been disconnected and there was no new listing.
I called my sister, who I think had already moved to California by then. It doesn’t matter.
“They moved,” she said.
“What do you mean they moved?” I inquired.
“I don’t know how else to say it,” she fired back. “They moved.”
“Nobody told me anything. Why did they move?”
“The hall light burned out while you were gone,” she said. “Where have you been?”
“Not cold enough in New York.”
“Oh. Is that where you live now?”
“Only when I’m not in Iceland.”
We were a tight-knit family that shared everything.
A few years later, after finishing my degree at the University of Illinois and moving back to Cleveland to pursue a business deal that failed and left me flat broke inside of three weeks, I decided to come back to St. Charles, Illinois, a suburb on the Fox River some thirty-five miles west of Chicago where my parents had moved. My plan was to stay with them for a few leisurely weeks of not paying rent as I decided what would be the next direction I would let life drag me. Pulling into their driveway, I noticed the “Sold” sign in the yard of what had been their ninth home, not counting the three winter homes they had bought and sold in Florida.
And that’s when and why I moved to California. Really.
It was the summer of 1976 and my sister was getting married in Colorado to Gary Cronkhite, a Ph.D. professor of communications, an ordained Free Methodist minister, and perhaps the most intelligent person I’d ever met. He had long before abandoned his ministry and soon thereafter his faith, although all of that might have occurred simultaneously. (What differentiates Free Methodists from your everyday, run-of-the-mill Methodists, by the way, is that historically the Free ones didn’t have to pay for the pews in which they plop their butts on Sunday morning. Isn’t that precious? That fact alone should inform us deeply about at least one aspect of organized religion.) As I noted, Gary was a brilliant man and he had a wicked, dry sense of humor fueled to some extent, I suppose, by his incessant use of marijuana. How ironic it was then that he died of cerebral atrophy, his most-active brain slowly emptied of content and reduced to the size of a walnut at his death.
Anyway, I was to be their only attendant—best man, maid of honor, flower girl, ring bearer, witness, et alia.
At the time, I had a cairn terrier named Sappho, a pale-blue Ford pinto station wagon that hadn’t a name, and maybe thirty dollars. And now that my parents were moving to some undisclosed location, I was, basically, homeless.
My father gave me a credit card and told me he’d see me in Estes Park, Colorado, the site of the wedding. After the wedding, which was very nice in an outdoorsy, hippie sort of way, he told me to keep the credit card and follow the advice of Horace Greeley.
A couple of days later I was about as far west as a young man could go in these United States. I found myself camping out on a couch at my sister’s house in Winters, California, a one-horse town near Davis on Pudah Creek, where the fishing was pretty good, and the food and wine at the Pudah Creek Café was impressive. Considering that I was eating on my father’s dime, it was damned affordable, too.
“You want me to send it back?” I responded to Dad’s rather anxious inquiry about my finding a job. “No. Just cut it in half. Today. Now.”
To replace my father’s line of credit, I free-lanced a few pieces of feature copy for some local publications that paid in the low double digits. I traveled south to tour Corcoran State Prison to get a look at Charles Manson, making forbidden eye contact with him through what amounted to a mail slot in the door of his padded cell (nope, not much of a story there). And I made a mild killing by finding small manufacturing concerns along the Route 80 corridor between Sacramento and San Francisco that I would discover needed my editorial help. I’d enter these roadside places constructed of corrugated steel, decorative brick and tinted windows and ask the receptionist for an appointment with whoever was in charge of their promotion or marketing. Typically, that person was the owner. While I waited in the lobby to see that person, I’d quickly re-write and edit whatever brochures they had lying around the waiting room. When I’d be ushered into the office, I’d introduce myself and suggest that their marketing materials were so far below standard as to be embarrassing. About half the time I’d get a couple hundred dollars (I’d return a couple of days later with the work I’d already done in their lobby); the other half of the time, foul language was involved as I was shown the front door.
I learned that a lot people in Northern California who made gizmos and gadgets didn’t like being told that they were functionally illiterate.
I WAS MORE AMUSED THAN CONCERNED when my mother called me one early spring morning in Montana with her observation that “something was wrong with Dad.”
Oddly enough, I was working with a friend on a building project at the time. My hands were greasy and had grown calloused from the work, my hair flecked with sawdust, my Carhartts worn and deeply stained.
Dad, who had pretty much beaten his two-year bout with lymphoma, had become confused and agitated while hanging a new shower curtain, Mom said.
“He was hanging a shower curtain?” I snickered. “What? He couldn’t find the Yellow Pages?”
My mother, in addition to being a hypochondriac and a really bad cook, had little-to-no sense of humor. It was something she picked up from her father, along with the hypochondria; I’m not sure where or from whom she learned to be such a lousy cook.
“I’m taking him to the doctor this afternoon.”
The next call from her was to tell me that Dad had brain cancer. The prognosis was dire and the time he had left was being measured in weeks. I left for Chicago the next morning, driving my truck numbly across the wintry Great Plains as I replayed moments of our life together.
There really weren’t that many, despite the fact that I had known him for forty-four years. That fact might have contributed to my numbness.
Dad and I didn’t do a lot of father-son things together, unless you count all the time we spent in cars as he drove me around to my various activities, lessons and gigs as I was growing up, which he did dutifully and without complaint.
He didn’t like to fish, something I learned about him when I expressed an interest in fishing. He found me a surrogate, Uncle Ray, to teach me how to fish, which he did from a little aluminum boat he kept on Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, where our family frequently visited and where we would later keep a boat that was used exclusively for leisurely cruises so my mother could enjoy looking at the mansions that dotted the lakefront. Water skiing was never an option; it was too dangerous.
Later, and on my own, I would travel to the Florida Keys to deep-sea fish with Uncle Ray, after first meeting my parents in Miami to go to the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Day, an odd tradition whose genesis has been lost…none of us really cared all that much for football. They would travel back to Boca Raton and, in later years, to Naples, as I headed down to Tavernier on Key Largo to Uncle Ray’s winter home and we’d fish all day, every day for a week or so. Aunt Helen would cook our catch of red snapper and grouper each night, always followed by homemade Key Lime Pie. The narcoleptic Uncle Ray would complain about the “sons-a-bitches” who ran the government until he nodded off at the table. I’d retire to a stretch of pavement under the carport and drink beer and smoke cigarettes until bedtime.
I was never in Scouting (my father was deeply bothered by the sight of young boys in tan shirts with insignia, epaulettes and what might have appeared to be campaign ribbons) but several of my friends who were Scouts spent some of their weekends camping. I envied the stories about their wilderness adventures, most of which took place in the Cook County forest preserves that were always within earshot of highway traffic. When I asked Dad one day if we could go camping, “you know, Dad, just the two of us,” he lowered his newspaper, peered over his half-glasses and told me that after having “camped” across northern Europe from June of 1944 until the following January when he was shot for the third time the answer was simply “no.” Camping for him had had little to do with an appreciation of nature, the drama of campfire stories or s’mores and much to do with avoiding being the target of sniper fire.
Aware that a watch face could reflect light, my soldier father always wore the face of his wristwatch on the inside of his wrist.
One match lit one cigarette.
Dad really liked to golf and I did play a lot of rounds with him over the years. Unless it was men’s day at one of the two country clubs where he was a member over the years, I golfed with him and Mom. They rode together in a cart and, usually, I walked. On men’s days, Dad and I rode together in a cart and he would try to convince me to become a golf pro—a club pro. “What a life,” he’d say, his voice full of admiration for anybody who could find a job hanging around a country club in the service of well-to-do, overfed duffers with bad comb-overs and plaid trousers. For an FDR Democrat, he sure sounded like a Republican.
He would then proceed to tell me everything that was wrong with my game.
From I don’t quite remember when until 1962, when Granddad died, we went to two baseball games a year together. After that, I was pretty much on my own.
On one of the occasional weekends during any season that the Cubs and the White Sox happened to both be playing at home, my maternal grandfather would travel by train from western Nebraska to Union Station where our family would meet him and take him home for the day. That evening, Granddad, Dad and I would head to Comiskey Park to see the White Sox play a night game. After the game, we’d go home, sleep and arise to go Wrigley Field for the second game, after which we’d drive Granddad back to Union Station to catch the five o’clock departure of the venerable Denver Zephyr for his overnight trip back to Nebraska.
This was in the fun-filled, let-your-hair-down Fifties and the three of us would wear suits, ties and felt Fedoras with wide hatbands stuffed with clusters of brightly colored feathers from birds nobody had ever seen. Dad and I liked our hot dogs “dragged through the garden,” as they used to say; Granddad was happy to fill out a scorecard and scowl at the people around us who verbally reacted to any part of the game. God forbid a home run would be hit and they’d stand up and cheer.
Dad followed the Cubs religiously—in the newspapers and on the radio and later on television—just not at the ballpark.
My childhood summers on the West Side pretty much started with my leaving the house in the morning and returning home in time for dinner. We were wildly unsupervised in those days—no bicycle helmets, no seat belts in the car, monkey bars without safety nets and see-saws that delivered splinters to one’s rear while threatening serious spinal injury when the kid closest to the ground would abandon his end of the plank to facilitate your crash to earth. We also ate dirt, made fun of fat kids (“fatty, fatty, two-by-four”) and kids with glasses (“four eyes”) and kids with braces (“tinsel teeth”). We peed against alley fences and we only washed our hands before dinner. Most of us survived. In those days, self-esteem was earned by accomplishing something and trophies were won for performing better than the opposition. And nobody would have believed that such things as pedophiles, child abductors and serial murderers might even exist, though, of course, they did.
With financing secured from my profitable business of redeeming for pennies the soda bottles I found in the neighborhood alleys (that venture might well represent the most successful I have ever been in business), I would spend many of those halcyon days outside the friendly confines of Wrigley Field. I would take the green-and-white bus that ran along Roosevelt Road and turned onto Harlem Avenue to Oak Park. From there, I’d take the Blue Line El to the Loop and transfer to the Red Line to Addison Street and spend the afternoons alternating my location between Sheffield Avenue and Waveland Avenue, depending on who was at bat (we could hear the stadium announcer and of course we knew the lineup and who batted left or right). I played catch with kids I didn’t know, forever hoping a home run ball would leave the friendly confines of Wrigley Field and find its way into my glove.
I might have caught, or at least retrieved on a second or third bounce off the concrete pavement, a home run hit by Ernie Banks. I don’t know for sure. If I did, I played with it (like all the others I snagged), scuffed it up. It never would have occurred to me to get it autographed.
Sometimes, if the bleachers weren’t filled, a door on Waveland would open and a bunch of us kids would get to scramble into the bleacher seats for the last two innings. That was like winning the lottery.
On those days that I didn’t travel to Wrigley, I’d listen to the ball game on our radio while sitting at the kitchen table, a pink Formica-topped table for four with a pattern of tiny, overlapping boomerang designs in white and gray, and a ribbed chrome skirting. WGN, which was owned by the Chicago Tribune and whose call letters stood for World’s Greatest Newspaper, clearly an arguable point, broadcast the games and Jack Brickhouse, whose mind and commentary frequently wandered far from baseball, was the announcer. My mother would interrupt the game at 2:00 p.m. to listen to a fifteen-minute daily broadcast by Liberace on another station. If ever there was a guy whose act belonged in a visual medium rather than on radio, it was Liberace. Quaintly called “a momma’s boy” (wink, wink) by his adoring fans, he was, without the visible affectations, sequins and candelabra, just a mediocre piano player with a lousy repertoire that I had to endure on those days when I just wanted to listen to Ernie Banks and the Cubs play baseball.
Perhaps that is why I became a music critic. Perhaps I had developed a deep-seeded need to punish mediocre musicians who interrupted my enjoyment of baseball.
Mr. Cub was my first real hero and I met him once at an “all-Chicago celebrity” event in Beverly Hills (as a jazz critic for the Los Angeles Times, I was enough of a celebrity to warrant an invitation to a grand-opening party at a diner-inspired joint on the all-too-fashionable Rodeo Drive). I was absolutely tongue-tied when I was introduced. Over the course of my career, I have had the great honor and pleasure to have spoken with people from almost every walk of life—presidents, politicians, criminals, hookers, musicians, actors, scientists, artists, writers and bartenders (lots of writers and bartenders)—and have never had a problem posing a question or offering something to stimulate conversation.
I hadn’t a clue about what to say to Ernie Banks.
Beyond “Hello, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” I drew a blank. We shook hands and I merely stared at him, somewhat taken aback by his size, perhaps. After all, when I was a kid, he was an adult and therefore he was larger than me, a larger-than-life figure in a pin-stripe suit whose mantra was “Let’s play two!”
But what was I going to say to Mr. Cub?
“Geez, Ernie, you’re kind of a little guy aren’t you?”
Yeah, well, that wasn’t gonna happen.
And talking about the Cubs’ chances in any season was pointless because we all knew that any such discussion would end rather quickly with the inevitable “Maybe next year.”
I just stood there in the tented parking lot of Ed Debevic’s, eating White Castle-style sliders with Ernie Banks and saying nothing.
A signed portrait of Ernie Banks in the on-deck circle at Wrigley Field hangs in my office, courtesy of my son. I frequently touch it with the tips of my fingers and greet his image, as if that act might bring good luck.