School's Out: Chicago's Summer of Boyhood
'On California' is taking a break. Amid all the stories of kids falling back during the summer and the necessity of rigorous summer programs, we leave you with a glance backward to the summers of youth in Chicago.
We lived on the South Side then, in a somewhat ramshackle Victorian at 9911 S. Prospect (below with author. Notice tilt of columns on porch) , which my parents bought after the war. It was old then but—as Google Maps shows—still stands. On the last day of school, I skipped home with my mates singing the time honored "school's out, school's out; teacher let the monkeys out." And that was pretty much the last anyone in my family thought about school until after Labor Day.
Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown, two of the prophets of new learning, described the Internet era's "new arc of learning" as "bounded and structured environment that allows for unlimited agency to build and experiment within those bounds." My mother would never have used those words, but we were free to explore, wander, and create on the bounded space called "the block."
There were lots of kids on the block. We wandered in and out of one another's houses. Street games, like kick-the-can and stick ball greeted the twilight. One of the families owned a pharmacy and made patent medicine in the basement. We were recruited to bottle the stuff. Terrible taste. Later, I realized that it was about 50 percent alcohol. Down the street, one of the parents was a teacher and had an early version of a "Ditto" machine that we used to make flyers to advertise our lemonade stands.
Afternoons were long in the Midwest, and days slipped gently into evenings with fireflies, and on the Fourth of July real fireworks; the kind you light yourself after dire warnings about little careless boys who burned and blinded themselves.
For several days, our little gang followed the Edison Company crew from manhole to manhole as they laid cable under the street. Without curriculum, we learned a little adult guy talk and also about how real workers interacted. It was one of my first experiences with negotiations. The guys below wanted a break. The foreman above resisted. The guys below spread sewer goop on the air monitor causing it to signal that the tunnel must be evacuated. All done with good humor.
I was rich then. I got an allowance of 25¢ a week. After the required tithe to church of 5¢ plus two pennies to support the missionaries, I had more than enough to buy penny candy and enough to save up for a Duncan Yo Yo. Passage from little kid to okay kid was marked by your ability to walk the dog, do cat's cradle, or successfully perform around the world.
I learned a lot following father. The old house provided continuous projects. Dad was relatively fearless, and we were relatively broke as I understood later, so there was hardly anything that he didn't try to undertake. I'm sure I was quite a pest, but I learned to measure and saw, paint and plumb, and pound a nail straight. I learned that triangles were strong and that lap joints were better than butt joints. I also learned that gasoline was highly explosive when ignited by a match. (Boys love to experiment with fire.)
Mother wanted to buy a playhouse from Marshall Field for my sister, Carolyn. She recalled that the price was $29, expensive enough in those days, and father insisted he could build one more cheaply. And one day the lumberyard truck arrived and left a large pile of building material. The resulting playhouse was about five times the size of the cute little structure mother had in mind and only cost 20 percent more than the one that would have come from the store. It was much too big for my sister's use, but just the right size for my gang of little thugs to set up a repair shop for bikes and a secret clubhouse.
I learned a lot from the city, too. We visited the zoo, parks, and the aquarium. The mummies at the Museum of Natural History were scary. My favorite city outing was the Museum of Science and Industry, in Jackson Park near the University of Chicago. My love of trains was stoked by the huge model train, over 1,000 feet of track, that was to fascinate kids for 60 years. (It's been replaced by an even bigger one.) The coal mine, installed in the 1930s, still operates, and the baby chicks still hatch.
Lake Michigan was the city's air conditioner, and going to the beach was one of summer's treats. The almost always-chilly water gave issue to mother's rule, "swim till you turn blue, then come out."
However much fun the lake was, the attic was my retreat on cool and cloudy days. The old house had a walk up attic with trunks, boxes, and discarded furniture, some of which was left by the prior owners, including a hand cranked Victrola and thick old-style 78 rpm records. I thought it sounded scary, like people screaming...probably opera music.
We took vacations out of the city to visit relatives on farms in central Illinois and once to a cabin in Wisconsin, where I learned to fish, and where there were bats in the sleeping loft, but that's a longer story.
It's interesting that six-plus decades later, I have more vivid memories of the summers in Chicago than the classrooms at the old Vanderpoel School at 95th Street, which is now a fine and performing arts magnet. I'm sure that I learned at school. I remember Dick and Jane, and I know my math facts, so I must have learned them there, but the imprint of place and conscious memory of lessons is more vivid for the months I spent outside its walls.
So, soak up summer. 'On California' is On Vacation.