Writer’s Workshop: Great Lakes I Have Known

Today, we’re asked to “Tell us about the lake you used to swim in when you were a kid.”

Every kid who grew up in the city of Chicago (well, most of them, anyway) know that the place to swim was Lake Michigan.

Lake Michigan is the darkest of the lakes in this picture. By Phizzy at the English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6489135

When it got hot in Chicago, there was really nothing better than having the largest lake entirely contained in a single country (so saith Wikipedia) as your swimming hole. Temperatures in Chicago were always taken at three places: Midway Airport on the Southwest Side, O’Hare Airport on the Northwest Side, and at the lake. The temperature by the lake was always 5-10 degrees cooler than at the airports. (Remember, I’m an American, so those are Fahrenheits and not centigrades or Celsiuses.)

There are lots of beaches along the lake shore, from the Wisconsin border to the Port of Chicago. Pollution didn’t seem to be much of a problem, at least where we were. The water was clean for the most part, although you found the occasional dead alewife floating on the surface, and there were times when you would find the jagged edge of a broken bottle, thrown in by a drunk teenager, with your foot. I cut my toe on one once.

Oak Street Beach from the north end. By Maw87 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9513245

The most popular beach in Chicago is Oak Street Beach, close to the curve of Lake Shore Drive, where it becomes Michigan Avenue. In the 30 years I lived in Chicago, I never went there. Every time I’d see a picture of that beach, it was always crowded. Besides, we had Albion Beach, later Hartigan Park, close by. When Walkie and Hicks (my grandparents) lived on Loyola Avenue, you were practically in the park when you walked out the back door, and it was a short walk to the water.

When I was a toddler, breaking in my first pair of shoes, my godmother, Fabulous Auntie Jill, took me for a walk down to the beach. As we were walking along, she stopped to talk to a friend of hers. I kept walking, right into the lake, before she caught up with me. So much for my new shoes.

I was never much of a swimmer, really, and that was the beauty of the beach: even if you didn’t swim, you could play in the water. You had to go quite a ways offshore before it got really deep, and most of the water was waist-high. Maybe that’s just as far as I ever went.

I can’t talk about lakes without some mention of Lake Delavan, in the southern part of Wisconsin. We used to go there every summer when I was in grammar school and rent a cottage in Assembly Park on the northern shore of the lake. We went swimming practically every day, except for the day (and there was always that one day, sometimes two) when it rained. There was a centrally-located swimming area and beach that was surrounded by piers, keeping it safe from fishermen and speedboaters. On a hot day, there’d be hundreds of kids in the lake, diving off the piers or the diving board. Even when it was a little cool out, you could count on it being pretty crowded.

Across the lake was Lake Lawn Lodge, where Dad used to golf. In 1964 or 1965, there were rumors that The Beatles were staying there, resting up during a tour. Turns out, the rumors were true.

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Writer’s Workshop: Dad’s Books

When I was growing up, we had a modest book collection, many of which were ones that Dad had read. I always had the impression that I wasn’t to touch them. I don’t know why; I guess it was the idea that they were his books, and that, if he wanted me to read them, he’d let me know it was okay. He died before he got around to that.

So, anyway, the books sat on the shelves in the living room, and I would look at them sitting there, but never had the nerve to pull them down off the shelf and read them. I didn’t think I was supposed to. So I would see the books like Moss Hart’s Act One, John Gunther’s Inside Russia Today, Bleak House by Charles Dickens, Elick Moll’s Seidman & Son, Allen Drury’s A Shade of Difference, and one whose name I was sure was Bright Ieaf, because that was what was on the spine. I had no idea what an “Ieaf” was. I didn’t even know how to pronounce it.

One day, I screwed up the courage to pull that one off the shelf, and discovered that the book was Bright Leaf, by Foster Fitz-Simmons. The gold leaf had worn off the horizontal stroke on the L, I guess.

Bright Leaf, by Foster Fitz-Simmons, the edition my father had.

Fitz-Simmons was a dancer by profession, and taught at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, deep in the heart of Tobacco Road. Bright Leaf was his one major work as an author (maybe even his only work as an author). It was loosely based on the life of the Duke family, who were big in the tobacco industry. They put up the funding of what became Duke University in Durham, NC. It was made into a movie in 1950 which starred Gary Cooper, Lauren Bacall, and Patricia Neal.

Of course, I didn’t know any of that at the time. Once I learned the real name of the book, I quickly put it back on the shelf. I didn’t want to get caught reading Dad’s books, as though they had a curse on them. Actually, I was scared that I’d get in trouble. I remembered the summer that Mom read Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger, which had been turned into a movie that year. I asked her if I could read it after her, and she was emphatic. “No, you my not! It’s an adult book!” Naturally, I thought that extended to all the books in the house except for the ones that we were specifically told we could read, or that were assigned to us at school.

The books made the move from Chicago to Northfield with us, where they were placed in the bookshelves in the living room. And they sat there as well. I’m sure it wouldn’t have been an issue to read them by then, but I was never sure wth Mom.

A couple of years before she died, I was in Chicago for business, and Mom said “Do you want any of your Dad’s books?”

I was dumbfounded. She had never said anything about them. “Really?”

“Of course. Why?”

“Well, I’ve looked at them all my life, but I thought reading them was off limits.”

“Oh, for God’s sake, Johnny! I wish you had read them. Your Dad loved them, and he would have been thrilled to know you wanted to read them. Take a few home with you, and read them, and when you’re done, pass them on. They’re just things.”

I picked a bunch of them, but Bright Leaf wasn’t one of them. And I read them, then donated them to the library. They were definitely a product of the times in which they were written, but were still good reads.

The moral of the story: make sure your kids know it’s okay to read the books you do as soon as they’re ready for them. In fact, put the books in their hands.

Writer’s Workshop: Fame and/or Fortune

We always hear about people going off to seek “fame and fortune,” but I don’t think anyone does. Go off to seek fortune, yes. I mean, to quote Mickey Bergman, Danny DeVito’s character from the movie Heist with Gene Hackman,

Everybody needs money. That’s why they call it money.

(I love that line. It’s such nonsense, it actually makes sense.)

But fame? I think most of us could do without it. Sure, there are those who seek fame, but fame doesn’t pay the bills. Unless you can parlay your fame into a fortune like Paris Hilton has. (Her great-grandfather is Conrad Hilton, who started the Hilton Hotels. One night, he was a guest on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and Johnny asked him if he had any advice for people who were traveling. He said, “Yes, put the shower curtain in the tub.”) And certainly we don’t want to become infamous, like Lindsay Lohan or Tonya Harding, or for that matter Charles Manson or John Gacy. Infamy is the wrong kind of fame.

Closely related to being infamous is being notorious, which started out meaning the same thing as famous, but over the years has come to mean the same thing as infamous. Notorious is usually applied to gangsters, like Al Capone or Sam Giancana or Joseph Bonnano, also known as “Joe Bananas.” A friend of mine and I went to dinner one night when we were in Chicago on business. The restaurant was next door to the Biograph Theater, where the notorious gangster John Dillinger was shot to death by the FBI. The woman he was with tipped off the Feebs by wearing a red dress, just like in the song.

Where was I? Oh, yeah…

The point is, fame and fortune go together, but if most people had a choice, they’d take the latter. I know I would.

And that’s all I have. Don’t forget to put the shower curtain in the tub.

Writer’s Workshop: Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here (Registering For Classes)

Ah, this prompt again:

Share a college memory.

I’ve talked about my years at Northwestern University before (here and here). I think I’ll dip into that well again.

At the end of Freshman Orientation Week comes the day that all us newly-minted students find out, after a week of being told that we’re special and that the university really cares about us, just what a bitch college life can be. Of course, I’m talking about registering for classes.

In my case, I knew I was cursed from the start, because the sheet the university gave us with the schedule for registration told me that I would be among the last group of freshmen that would be registering. My faculty advisor, Brother Juniper, told me when I was setting up my schedule that I should plan on at least three alternatives for each of the classes I was to take, because I could count on not getting many of the classes I had selected. Accordingly, I chose four classes I wanted to take and a dozen alternates that I could live with. Thus prepared, I toddled off to get them.

Everything started out smoothly, and soon I had two of the four classes I wanted. Psychology was full, but they still had plenty of seats in Sociology, so I was down one alternate class. I was thinking, hey, this shit’s easy and walked over to the table for Intro Studies, a set of classes of which every freshman was required to take two. Needless to say, I didn’t get the class I wanted, or any of the Intro Studies classes, all of which had been snapped up by my fellow classmates. No problem, I thought; I still had eleven alternatives I hadn’t used yet.

Fifteen minutes later, I had exhausted all of those alternatives and was reduced to stopping at tables to see if they had anything at all. If they had a class, it conflicted with my schedule, but in most cases, the answer was “sorry.” Finally, I found an Art Appreciation class, the last opening in that class, added that card to my stack, and handed my cards in.

I went home and read the description of the class, and recoiled in horror when I saw that the only requirement for the class was “sophomore status.” I had inadvertently signed up for a class I shouldn’t have. What was I going to do? This was in the days when I thought registration was final, carved in stone, and once everything was set, it would take an act of Congress, or at least the intervention of the Board of Trustees, to change. I was stuck with it. I just knew the Prerequisite Police were going to find me and drag me off to the gas chamber.

I learned later that about ten percent of the people taking the class were freshmen (I knew this because they had registered with me), and there was no such thing as the Prerequisite Police. The class ended up being unintentionally funny: the professor who taught it was a magnificent painter, but had been breathing turpentine fumes a little too long, and her teaching technique was to turn on a slide projector and spend fifty minutes talking to the screen, blissfully unaware of anything else going on in the lecture hall. One day a large collie with approximately 650 tags on her collar wandered in and spent most of the period walking around the room, collar jingling loudly, until her owner came and got her. The professor droned on through all of it. I got a C in the class, not the best grade, but it was enough to pass.

Writer’s Workshop: Come Join Us!

I’ve been doing Mama Kat’s Pretty Much World Famous Writer’s Workshop since October 8, 2015, or about 2 ½ years now, and recommend it highly to all who read The Sound of One Hand Typing and are looking for something (else) to do blog-wise on Thursdays. Every Tuesday or so, she posts a list of writing prompts on her blog, like this one, from which we are to choose one and write on it. On Thursday, she puts a Linky out there, and everyone who’s done it posts a link to their post, then goes and visits as many of the people as they can, in true Blog Hop fashion.

You can see all of the posts I’ve written for MKPMWFWW here. Kat is a lovely person and I’m sure she wouldn’t mind if some (or all) of you were to join in on the fun. So, give the Writer’s Workshop a try. Click that badge for rules, and I’ll see you soon. Maybe next time!

(The prompt was to write a post that ended with the sentence “Maybe next time!”)