Better to Pursue One’s Passion or a Practical Profession?

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The Wright Brothers from Dayton, Ohio, pursued their passion of manned flight. In 1903, their dedication and efforts created not only a practical profession for themselves, but the entire aviation industry! In case they were not successful, they had an established backup plan: Their profitable bicycle shop back home. They were quintessential examples of successfully pursuing a passion.

The working world offers many career choices. Within any given category lurks the tricky task of choosing “passion” or “practical profession.” The question is: “Shall I pursue my passion, or shall I choose a more predictable profession which will offer financial security?” The expense of a college degree or other training which is required is often a significant factor in the whole equation. Let us look at another, less dramatic example of passion vs. profession involving aviation.

Another Aviation Example: Passion or Profession?

For a youngster looking to the future who loves airplanes, the prospect of flying them might entail both a passion and the most enviable of professions – at least until a reality check makes it clear that a smooth path to a steady, well-paying flying career in the airlines is a thing of the past. Many career airline captains in past decades received their flight training and flying experience while in the military, a point of entry which is, today, almost non-existent compared with years past – especially the World War II and Korean War eras.

Private aviation flight schools are no less expensive than most colleges and universities; a degree/certificate from one of these comes complete with very tenuous employment opportunities with the major airlines. Flying for a small feeder line guarantees very poor pay, long hours, and no job security – if one should be so lucky to even find such a position. For some, their innate talent and the dedication to pursue their passion will overcome any practical considerations…and Godspeed to them!

A more practical alternative for the aviation buff might be to enroll in a college or university which offers a degree in mechanical or aeronautical engineering. With such credentials, the chances of a stable and rewarding career in aviation are significantly improved – compared to flying. My father had such a career.

My Father and the Perfect Solution

My Father had a lifelong passion for airplanes and aviation along with virtually no initial chance, whatsoever, to embrace his passion or even to experience a rewarding career in the field. He had but one year of high school before coming face-to-face with the necessity of going to work to help support his family during the Depression. He went from the bicycle assembly shop at Arnold Schwinn in Chicago in 1940  (the year I was born)  to senior mechanical design engineer/engineering manager at United Air Lines many years prior to his retiring (comfortably) in 1981 from United. He accomplished this very difficult feat through dedication, study, and hard work over many years.

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My father was a most uncommon man: You may read my prior posts on him for the details. Click here for: Aviation Scrapbook: A Long-Lost Treasure From the Attic (3-16-14); The Work Ethic and the Dignity of Excellence  (9-15-13); Family Funnies / Great Laughs! (6-9-13).

The point, here, is that he was able to do important work in aviation and to be around airplanes for the better portion of his career by making judicious choices along the way. Ultimately, he made his youthful dream come true by earning his private pilot’s license and flying single engine airplanes under the auspices of United’s employee flying club. Although he would have loved to fly for United as a career, he forged an alternate pathway to get up-close-and-personal to his great passion – airplanes and aviation. His career with United spanned thirty-seven years, capped by a comfortable retirement of eleven years before he passed away. He had aspects of both passion and stable profession over all those years.

Is the Passion vs. Profession Quandary Always Easy to Resolve?

Not really. For would-be artists, dancers, musicians, and athletes whose passion is  to reach the upper echelons, there is no compromise with the all-out dedication and effort those fields require. Although there is inevitably a fallback position available to those who fall short of reaching the top in those fields, the long-term prospects and the financial security of those alternate livelihoods are typically problematic.

It would seem that only those imbued with extreme confidence in their innate talent (and dedication) – Charles Lindbergh, for example – should “risk all” by entering a potentially dead-end, one-way alley. The rest would be well-advised to hedge their bets and plot an alternate path – just in case! Even Lindbergh, with his warranted, great self-confidence and his passion to make aviation history, had a fallback position: As an experienced air-mail pilot. He did not need it.

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From Bing to Bix: Beiderbecke, That Is!

Last week’s post profiled Bing Crosby, an entertainer whose name is still widely recognized but whose historical importance and versatility as a performer are rarely appreciated. I like a good story – one with real interest, and the short life of this week’s subject easily fills the bill. So….here goes!

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Few of you will recognize the name or the image. Most of you with an interest in music history and early jazz will readily identify the “Young Man With a Horn” as the enigmatic, genius Cornet player from the nineteen-twenties, Bix Beiderbecke. In the early nineteen-twenties, jazz was still in its formative stages as a musical art form. Emanating primarily from New Orleans after the turn of the twentieth century, it was begun and shaped by black musicians who imbued it with deep-south cultural experiences, primarily the blues tradition which echoed the travails and sorrows of the field hands who worked barely beyond what were once slave conditions.

If you follow my blog, you are aware that Louis Armstrong was one of those born into the New Orleans culture which gave jazz its start. The jazz art form was subsequently refined up the Mississippi River in bustling, vibrant Chicago.

Bix Beiderbecke was born in 1903, in Davenport, Iowa, to respectable, upper class parents – far from the breeding grounds of jazz clubs and speakeasies in New Orleans and Chicago. At two years of age, Bix was already showing signs of musical precociousness. He was playing the piano by three, and soon, he could play by ear after hearing the piece once. By ten years of age, Bix was spending time at the end of town, down by the riverfront dock, waiting for the excursion boats to come in from down south replete with on-board bands playing the new, infant jazz. He reportedly heard the cornet playing of Louis Armstrong who regularly worked these excursion boats early in his career.

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Around 1918, Bix’s older brother brought home a Victrola phonograph along with records featuring the “Original Dixieland Jazz Band.” That seemed to be the seminal event in young Beiderbecke’s life, for he was soon hooked by the hot dixieland jazz sounds like Tiger Rag which poured forth. He sat in front of the Victrola for hours playing along on his cornet.

Beiderbecke floundered in high school as he began to play cornet in local bands at the age of seventeen. His refined, merchant-class parents had always looked down upon the new music and those who played it: For them, the music and those who immersed themselves in it bordered on the degenerate. They saw no good future for their son in such avante-garde activities.

Bix was sent to an exclusive boarding school in Lake Forest, Illinois, to get his schooling back on track – an unfortunate choice on the parent’s part due to Lake Forest’s proximity to Chicago where, by the nineteen-twenties, all the real jazz action was happening. Chicago was the welcoming ticket for the many aspiring black musicians who took a chance and traveled up the Mississippi River seeking greater fame and fortune. Chicago filtered out the best from the rest of these.

Beiderbecke was attracted like a moth to the bright lights of Chicago and the aural pleasures it offered. After a few weeks of cutting classes and spending late nights in Chicago’s jazz clubs and speakeasies, Bix was expelled from Lake Forest and sent home. He made it a point while in Chicago to get to the South Side to hear King Oliver and his jazz band at the Lincoln Gardens. It was about that time, in 1922, that Louis Armstrong arrived in Chicago from New Orleans to join his boyhood mentor and idol, Joe “King” Oliver at the Gardens. It was from that point in time and place that Louis Armstrong’s long, storied career in music was launched.

By 1923, Beiderbecke was now living in Chicago after a brief stint back in Iowa with his parents. He had acquired a strong fancy for alcohol (Gin preferred), a taste undoubtedly reinforced during his earlier sojourns to Chicago. His drinking, along with his academic failure, combined to doom his tenure at Lake Forest. After working odds and ends of musical gigs while living in Chicago, Bix joined the Wolverine Orchestra in late 1923. The group took its name after their signature piece, “Jelly Roll” Morton’s Wolverine Blues.

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The Wolverine Orchestra with Bix on cornet: Early 1924

Then as now, “cutting a record” was the ultimate achievement for any performer or musical group. On February 18, 1924, the Wolverines made their first recording at the famous Gennett Records studio in Richmond, Indiana.

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The Wolverine Orchestra at Gennett Records: Feb. 18, 1924

I love this photo showing a young Bix, second from right! Look carefully at the Gennett “recording studio” where they, and so many other jazz pioneers made their first recordings. Note the “air-conditioning” in the form of two fans on the shelf. Note also the large “horns” which feed a black hole into which the sound travels to a stylus which grooves the master disc. Pictures of the “studio” show few changes during these years – from 1923 on; the same two fans are always present!

In those days, there were no microphones and no electronic amplification of the music being played. The recording process relied on adequate sound-pressure coming from the musician’s instruments to cut record grooves.

An interesting sidebar at Gennett Records: When King Oliver’s group with Louis Armstrong first recorded their classic discs in 1923, Armstrong, with his power-playing on the cornet, was moved back away from the pick-up horn and into the hallway of the studio to prevent his robust sound from drowning out the rest of the group on the recordings!

Bix in the Big-Time: The Making of a Jazz Legend

In October of 1926, Bix Beidebecke joined the Jean Goldkette band out of Detroit. The band which was headquartered at the Graystone Ballroom in Detroit was well-known and regarded. Bix and the band opened at the famous Roseland Ballroom in New York City opposite one of the best jazz ensembles of the time – the all-black Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. The resulting “Battle of the Bands,” as it was billed by Roseland, left Goldkette’s group with top honors – quite an upsetting experience for the seasoned Henderson group.

These were the early days of jazz when bands were segregated – either wholly white or black. Black musicians had literally birthed and raised jazz to its adolescence by 1926, and they still largely defined its direction.

The boyish-looking young white man from Davenport, Iowa, playing cornet for Goldkette was, by now, turning heads in the jazz world with his pure tone and his innovative jazz phrasing. White and black musicians alike were very impressed with his fresh style, reminiscent in some ways of the pioneering innovations of Louis Armstrong. By 1926, Louis, himself, had made it a point to see and hear this young white player perform his very own pioneering jazz style.

“Ain’t None of Them Play Like Him Yet”

Adolphus “Doc” Cheatham, a legendary black musician whose trumpet playing spanned from the early nineteen-twenties to well into his nineties, and who knew all of the great ones, stated that many cornet/trumpet players back then, white and black, tried hard to imitate Beiderbecke’s unique tone and style of playing: As hard as they tried, they found it impossible, he concluded.

Perhaps the finest tribute to Beiderbecke and his talent came from the great Louis Armstrong himself: “Ain’t none of them play like him yet.”

Paul Whiteman: No Better Than This!

In October of 1927, Beiderbecke hit the top – an invitation to join the Paul Whiteman Orchestra…quickly accepted. When Whiteman came calling, few musicians turned him down. Even Bing Crosby’s young career got its kick-start as vocalist with the Whiteman Orchestra. Paul Whiteman, a violin player, had been billed as the “King of Jazz,” a decided misnomer even though he was a significant influence and his orchestra resided at the summit of the musical mountain. Perhaps you have heard that old tune, Whispering? Whiteman made that into a very big hit in the twenties. In 1924, he also premiered George Gershwin’s famous orchestral jazz composition, Rhapsody in Blue in New York City. Unfortunately, Bix’s arrival at music’s summit with the Whiteman Orchestra coincided with the beginning of his precipitous, personal fall.

Life in the Fast Lane – Then Suddenly Gone

Bix’s smooth run with Whiteman was to last no more than a year. By November of 1928, after a year of grueling touring and recording with Whiteman, Beiderbecke suffered a nervous breakdown in Cleveland. His troubles were unquestionably fueled by his love of gin and uncontrolled drinking which by this time had affected his health and his playing. Whiteman sent him home to his parents in Davenport to recover. When Beiderbecke returned after two such attempts at alcoholic recovery, Whiteman finally had to let him go. Beiderbecke spent his last months in a New York apartment in Queens where he died at twenty-eight years of age from failing health and pneumonia on August 6, 1931. Alcohol had literally robbed the cradle of one of music’s most illustrious, inventive musicians.

A Sad and Poignant Sidebar to the Bix Story

Bix’s body died from his flagrant misuse of alcohol, but his heart and soul likely were already dead from the steadfast lack of recognition and approval from his parents. In the euphoria of those occasions when Bix recorded with the Goldkette and Whiteman bands, he proudly sent copies of his records to his parents in Iowa to share with them his success. While he was at home in Davenport recuperating after his breakdown with the Whiteman band, Bix discovered the cache of records he had sent to his parents in celebration of his musical achievement stashed in a closet …the packages were never opened.

Knowing Bix: The Legend and the Cult

The life and career of Bix Beiderbecke holds a special fascination for most early jazz enthusiasts. For someone with so short a musical life, he has captured the imaginations of many fans over the decades – to the point of becoming a music legend.

I have his recordings, and I have listened. His cornet solos do stand apart from other players – I particularly love his rendition of I’m Coming, Virginia recorded with Frank Trumbauer in 1927 – a true classic. The fine jazz cornet player, Bobby Hackett, played that number in tribute to Bix at the memorable Benny Goodman jazz concert in Carnegie Hall, 1938. With respect to Hackett’s tribute, it is interesting for me to reflect upon my current, avid interest in Bix and my very first LP album purchased almost 60 years ago as a teenager – Bobby Hackett’s In a Mellow Mood! I still have that album – so many “connections” throughout life.

I had long wondered if the immense adulation heaped on Beiderbecke over all these years was, perhaps, a bit overdone. Was his legend the product of a cult mentality? After all, his short life has always seemed to me a series of shadows, barely glimpsed and recorded.

That all changed a few weeks ago when I stumbled upon a two hour DVD documentary on Bix filmed some years ago and released under the auspices of the Playboy Jazz Series. It is a film by Brigitte Berman, exquisitely crafted and featuring live interviews with many of the musicians who actually played with Bix, including Hoagy Carmichael of Stardust fame. I listened and heard the message voiced by so many who were there: Bix was a musical genius living in his own inner world. For him, music was life – there was nothing else…except alcohol. He never could “read” music in the true sense, something that bothered and hindered him, but a shortcoming that he overcame by virtue of his musical ear which allowed him to play anything he heard.

Bix’s improvisation skill was legendary. He often played without music even in Whiteman’s band. When asked to sit down with Beiderbecke and musically notate a piano composition of Bix’s, the poor producer found that whenever they had to run through a section of the piece several times, Bix played it differently each time through. The producer practically went nuts. Until he succeeded in getting some version down on musical staff paper, no one else could play the piece!

Here are the universally acknowledged attributes of his playing that the film highlighted through first-person testimony:

-His gorgeous tone on the instrument: “Each note like a small mallet hitting a chime,” to paraphrase his good friend, Hoagy Carmichael.

-His innate jazz phrasing and style which were so revolutionary coming from a white player in the early nineteen-twenties – and much of it was improvised on the spot! To repeat what Louis Armstrong said about the legions of  Bix’s contemporaries, white and black, who tried to imitate his playing: “Ain’t none of them play like him yet.”

-His social/historical impact. Beiderbecke and Armstrong reportedly met on at least one occasion to jam into the wee morning hours. This was no so-called “cutting” session to see who could outplay the other; by all accounts, it was a friendly, joyful collaboration between two virtuoso musicians wishing to make great music together. Such informal fraternity between black and white players was not at all unusual in those early days, although it was not until the mid-nineteen-thirties that mixed musical groups were seen performing. Bix was one of the first white players whose abilities the black jazz pioneers could relate to and respect. In that historical and human sense, he was a most interesting and important character.

The film by Ms. Berman is titled, simply, Bix and wonderfully reconstructs the aura of the jazz age and what it was like to be a musician during this most exciting and colorful period. The interviews and the many photographs of ballrooms and band ephemera help paint the vibrant picture it so successfully projects. I am a “Bix believer” after listening to his music and viewing the film’s testimonials from musical colleagues who fully support the legend.

The opening photos of this blog show Bix and his Vincent Bach “Stradivarius” model cornet. The Bach “Stradivarius” instrument was a legend in itself among horn players in those early days. Here is the factory production ticket for one of Bix’s horns, dated Feb.,1927. Note the name “Bix” engraved on the cornet bell. The horn is one fine reminder of the life and legend of Bix Beiderbecke.

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A Most Unbelievable Encounter, Thanks to Lawrence Welk

I would like to relate one of the most interesting experiences I have ever had in all my seventy-three years on this good earth. It involves family genealogy – always an intriguing topic.

Just a bit of family background will set the stage. Our young family of four moved from Chicago, Illinois, to California in 1948 – when I was eight years old. Virtually all our relatives lived and remained in Chicago, except for two of my dad’s three brothers. One, my Uncle Gil, had settled in the Los Angeles area by the late nineteen-forties. In those days of infrequent travel and poor communications, Gil and his young family were the only relatives we saw to any extent after moving to California – and that occurred on only a few occasions over the decades. I, sadly, never saw my grandparents after 1951 when we made a short vacation visit.

Unlike my wife’s extended family and so many others that we know, I have only vague memories of my family roots in Chicago, and virtually no keepsakes in the form of letters, mementos, diaries, etc. from my distant past. I have done some sleuthing on Ancestry.com and was able to pull up immigration papers and old Chicago addresses concerning my forebears. Otherwise, much of my family history has remained an intriguing mystery to me; the personalities who comprise that history, live only in the shadows of my mind and memory.

I was long aware that there was one other distant relation living in Los Angeles in the early part of the last century, and that was the brother of my paternal grandfather – my Dad’s uncle who happened also to be named Gil(bert). He and his wife Louise had settled in the Los Angeles area by the nineteen-twenties. Chicago was his birthplace.

“Gil and Louise” were, to me, only names, having never seen them before even in photographs. Little did I know about a year ago, that I was about to meet them up-close-and-personal. How would I even know that I had met them? That is where the fun begins!

Last year, I was on our living room floor doing stretching exercises (yoga) in front of our television. One of Lawrence Welk’s many old, weekly, live television shows was playing on our DVR (digital video recorder). Being a big band fan, I enjoy much of his music; where else can one see and hear a top-flight big band performance these days?  Of course, the many Welk shows I have recorded from recent PBS re-broadcasts date way back from the mid-fifties to the early- eighties. Lawrence Welk loved his music, pretty ladies, and dancing, in that approximate order; accordingly, his live studio audiences were periodically caught on camera as they happily danced to Welk’s trademark “Champagne Music.”

The particular show I was watching was called “From Polkas to Classics.” The band was playing a somewhat mundane, but bouncy dance number, and the camera was panning the dancers, couple by couple, quite close-up.

All of a sudden the face of an older gentleman dances into the picture with his lady partner in-tow. In mid-stretch, I took one glance and sat up with a start! I blurted out, “That is a Kubitz!” I did not know who it was, but I knew it had to be a “Kubitz” based on body-type and, especially, the facial characteristics and expressions.

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Immediately, using that wonderful feature called “electronic rewind,” I went over and over the fifteen or twenty seconds of footage, even stopping at certain points to “freeze the frame.”

Who is that person? I knew almost immediately that, despite the strong facial resemblance, it could not be my Uncle Gil because this gentleman was too old, in the nineteen-sixties, to be him. After some thought, I settled on a possibility: My dad’s Uncle Gil…and his wife, Louise! These kinds of identity questions are often fraught with uncertainty: “Looks a lot like so-and-so, but…maybe not.” No, I was absolutely convinced – at first glance – that I was seeing a family ancestor for the first time – based solely on looks. It was truly startling.

I needed to do some detective work, so I set to it. To begin with, the Welk show in question was taped in Hollwood, in 1967. Further sleuthing revealed the fact that Gilbert Irving Kubitz died in 1969, in the Los Angeles area, at the age of seventy-nine. Age, location, and circumstances all support my belief that I had just met my Great-Uncle Gil through the magic of television and the subsequent technology which allows such images to be preserved and reproduced at will.

The facial features and expressions, in all respects, eerily called to mind my father – now gone since 1992. When that face danced into the camera range, I knew immediately that the message I was receiving was not merely electronic in nature, but genetic, as well. Along with my dad, the images ring true with my uncle Gil and my grandfather, Elmer Kubitz – even though I saw little of them both. Gil and his wife, Virgie, who are now both gone, were here for my mother’s funeral service in 1989. My vivid recollections of Gil, at that time, lend so much additional credence to my contention that the television images are those of Great-Uncle Gil Kubitz. The similarities to my dad, my grandfather, and my uncle are striking.

After viewing the pictures, my cousin Nancy – originally from Chicago, also – said she is convinced that the images are, indeed, of Great-Uncle Gil and Louise. Nancy spent many of her young years around Grandpa Elmer and verifies the uncanny resemblance that certainly would identify them as brothers.

If I have made a mistake in identity, I sincerely apologize to the person(s) in the images – but I do not think so! I could not be more certain. Genetics is a powerful force.

Note: I posted earlier on my Chicago and family background in Chicago Roots, July 14, 2013, available in my blog archives.

 

 

 

 

 

Cowboy / Western Music – from Chicago

Meet Clay, Bob, and Bill Mason of the Circle-J Ranch – from Chicago, circa 1946. I will always remember them and the several other performers of the Circle-J western stage show. Why? Because that singing/performing group first opened my eyes, as a lad of age six, to the spark and excitement of live music and entertainment; it was my first taste, up-close-and-personal of the “sparkle” of show-biz!

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The experience was personal because Chuck Maitzen (“Clay Mason” was his stage name), his wife and two little girls were close family friends in Chicago. Chuck and his identical twin brothers, Bob and Bill, headlined the Circle-J western music show which performed regularly in the Chicago area; they also had a weekly program on a local Chicago radio station. Because my father had training in radio electronics during World War Two, Chuck asked him to operate the public-address system at Circle-J performances.

I recall vividly the evening that my mother and I were in the audience at their performance in a local high school auditorium. Dad was working the public- address system for the show that night, as usual. I recall the footlights and the overhead lighting which bathed the stage in a brilliant light. I recall the colorful and stylish western outfits of the performers. Most of all, I recall the opening number when Chuck counted off the downbeat and the group launched into a swinging western number, steel guitar soaring above all. I was so enthralled by that sudden rush of western swing melody that my behind must have elevated an inch or two off the seat at that precise moment!

My younger sister and I never had much during those early years in terms of exposure to entertainment, the pleasures of eating-out, neat toys, and extra amenities. We did have two wonderful parents who loved us and slowly built a comfortable life after years of hard work. So…at that young age, the Circle-J experience hit me like a bolt of lightning. No one in our extended Chicago family had any musical background whatsoever, so the instant enlightenment brought about by the music and entertainment of that evening was deeply implanted within me. I never forgot the experience through all those years.

I suppose the band’s gal vocalist, an exceptionally pretty woman named Helen Anderson, was the very first “crush” I ever had. I just thought she was beautiful, which she was, and she sang so “pretty.” I noticed her a lot, that evening!

Helen Anderson, Circle J Ranch

One other fascinating character on stage was the bass player, a fellow who had a very good comedic sense, an expressive face, and a bow-tie with electric lights that would flash on and off as he played and periodically twirled that big bass fiddle on its little spindle-stand.

In many ways, the latter half of the forties was a great time in this country as people mobilized toward a new prosperity after sacrificing so much during the war. It was a simpler time than today in many ways, a time when a young lad like me from a working-class family could sit in the first ten rows at a western musical show in a large high school auditorium and be thrilled by the spectacle on stage. The entertainment environment was close and intimate – not like the high-priced, impersonal mega-concerts of today which too often feature more production and less pure talent.

Chuck Maitzen & Circle J Ranch

Thanks, Circle-J, for the wonderful experience!

Note the bass player at right-front with bow tie; also note the steel guitar, second from the end, right-back row. How I do love the western sound of a steel guitar – rarely heard these days – until last year, when I heard the legendary Bobby Black at Santa Clarita; more on that in a future post on the Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival. The festival is an annual event held at Gene Autry’s sprawling old cowboy movie set located north-west of Los Angeles. My wife and I will, once again, be attending this year’s edition, and we look forward to more fantastic cowboy/western music and poetry. Our first time there nine years ago awakened, in me, many fond memories of Chicago and the Circle-J.

For more on my relationship with music over the years since the Circle-J, click on “CATEGORIES” in the right-hand column of the “Home” page and click on “Music.”

The Boy in a Bottle

Boy in a Bottle Pic

In June of 2004, my wife and I traveled to Chicago for a short vacation. We intended to both see the sights of Chicago and to visit several locales from my early boyhood. I had left Chicago in 1948, at age 7, when my father was transferred to California, and I was curious to revisit my roots. One of the places on our sightseeing agenda was the famous Museum of Science and Industry, an experience which is highly recommended for visitors to Chicago. From the dim recesses of my childhood memory, I recalled a youthful visit there and delightful images of a gigantic Lionel electric train layout – the sort of exciting display that always made an impression on young boys in that era.

We arrived at the museum rather late one afternoon and had less than two hours before closing time. As I anticipated, all we could expect from such a short visit would be a cursory view of major exhibits with little time to contemplate and absorb things of interest. As a result, we steadily worked our way through an often confusing maze of rooms, corridors, and exhibits, arriving at the upper-level of the building only thirty minutes before closing time. In retrospect, we should have headed there earlier, for the upper-level was dedicated more to basic science, both the physical and natural sciences, than many of the other areas which focused on technology.

As my wife and I each worked our way around the room, I came to a large exhibit on human reproduction featuring a display of the human gestation process. A long line of specimen bottles mounted on the wall contained preserved examples of the human fetus at its various stages. The first bottles exhibited the very beginnings of life, fetuses little bigger than a small seed, then a pea, then a walnut. Some of the time increments between progressive stages were as short as a week or two.

I worked my way along the line of bottles, marveling at the miracle of the reproduction process, all the while reinforcing my firmly held belief that fact is always stranger than fiction. In each bottle down the line, the displayed fetus grew slightly larger and more recognizable as a human being. Near the end of the line, I came to a well-developed fetus of 27 weeks. I was impressed and amazed by the long line-up of miniature humans-in-the-making, yet I had seen it all before in other lesser, but similar exhibits – and in picture books. My reaction to all these little fetuses was heavily tinged with scientific interest; while these were all potential human beings, they reminded me of biological specimens in some natural science collection – much like beetles or butterflies – yet clearly more special.

I Was Not Prepared for This!

 Then I arrived at the last bottle in the long display which contained a fetus at 39 weeks, and I was stunned. At that moment, any thoughts of the “interesting scientific nature” of the overall exhibit vanished immediately. Freely suspended in this large bottle was a full-term fetus, a baby boy, ready to be born. Its form, even more than the others, was an eerie, almost translucent, milky-white throughout, with delicate and perfectly formed features. I could see the gentle surface-relief produced by blood vessels in his temples. Ten perfect little toes and fingers were accompanied by formed male genitals and finely-delineated eyebrows and eyelids comprised of the most delicate hairs. His eyes were closed, and the hint of a worried frown hung across his brow – perhaps in the realization that he would never open his eyes to see and join the world beyond the glass prison which contained him. The worried brow was reminiscent of that familiar transitory expression which passes quickly over the faces of sleeping infants – so lifelike, yet frozen in time for this perpetual boy-to-be. 

 I have never seen so exquisite an example of a tiny human being. Newborns, for all their charm, fuss, cry, and howl, and their faces become contorted and splotchy red as the result of their unhappiness. This little boy looked as if he were sculpted in delicate, pure white marble, and, as I gazed at the perfect little face with its frown, it seemed possible that he might awake at any moment from his troubled sleep. Alas, this will never happen, and his preservative-filled bottle will remain his world, forever.

 Of all we saw and did in Chicago, this singular experience stuck to my ribs and stayed with me. It remains with me still after all these years. While my wife and I were enjoying a wonderful Greek dinner that evening in downtown Chicago, I could not take my mind off the boy in the bottle. I will never forget him. My thoughts about him have been numerous. How did he come to his perpetual sleep before birth? Who were his parents? What were the circumstances of his conception? Who might he have become?

Nature’s mission is to evolve and preserve her species. Accordingly, the reproduction of species can too easily be taken for granted, regarded as a natural version of mass-production. With so many people and so many problems in the world, indifference and cynicism can take hold. The boy in the bottle reminded me in a powerful way that the human reproductive process is very personal, and that each new person is special and unique. Perhaps reproduction is not merely a mindless natural process, after all. It does appear that the hand of the Creator has imbued, in us human creatures, the ability to be and to recognize… something more.

Chicago: Returning to My Boyhood Roots

I’m from Chicago. We all are who we are due, in no small part, to our inherited beginnings, our genes. In a similar sense, that applies to our childhood roots. Although my younger sister and I came to California in 1948 and have spent much of our lives here in the San Francisco Bay Area, it seems that I have never lost the taste in my mouth of Chicago.

 Chicago and the Midwest can stay with one for a long time. I was flabbergasted many years ago – and many years after we came to California – to be asked by someone out of the blue if I were from Chicago! I replied, “Yes, what prompted you to ask that?” I was told that I had a Chicago accent! “I do?” I thought to myself; amazing!

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 We left in early 1948 when United Air Lines transferred my father to SFO (airline code for San Francisco) along with their maintenance operations. I was seven at the time. I recall the long flight on a DC-4 United Mainliner which left virtually all of our family-ties behind and carried our young family into a great unknown. Aside from a brief return visit in 1951, we never returned. A temporary stay in a small motel along the Bayshore Freeway (also known as Highway 101) in San Mateo, revealed to us a landscape (sparse) and a way of life which promised to be very different from what we left behind. Now, after sixty-five years in California, most of it in the Bay Area, this area is barely recognizable from what we first saw in 1948!

 Through all the years, I kept alive memories of our West Chicago neighborhood, my boyhood friends, my grandparents, uncles and aunts, and weekend fishing and boating trips north to Lake Loon and Lake Geneva.

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That’s me next to my sister, Karen, in front of our apartment building.

 I remembered the wonderful Lionel electric train layout at the Museum of Science and Industry at Lakefront Park. I recalled the famous and elaborate Christmas window displays at the venerable Marshall Field department store on State Street. And the snow – we kids loved the snow and sledding down the gentle slopes in the vacant lot across the street from our apartment building.

 How often I thought about these things, and how often I missed family ties which were suddenly severed when we left. I was old enough to form some vivid memories of my grandparents, but not old enough to really know them and to benefit from their life-experiences as I grew.  I have always regretted not being able to truly know them, especially now when I wonder to what degree their attitudes and sensibilities are present in me, our children, and our grandchildren.

 Visiting My Chicago Boyhood Places in 2004

 Fifty six years after my departure, Linda and I decided to return to Chicago on vacation – to revisit those places which stubbornly resided in my memory all those years. Would anything remain, and, if so, would it at all resemble those mental images I had carried around for so long? We hired a town car for one full day during our stay with the express desire to visit the old places. Our driver, Steven,  came for us in his black Lincoln town-car at our Oak Park B&B at 10 AM one bright, sunny morning, and off we went on one very special personal adventure.

Boyhood012Our first stop was the nearby neighborhood and apartment building which contained many of my boyhood recollections. As we pulled up at the curb, I saw that the venerable old brick building was not only still there – it had not changed one bit from the old black and white photos which captured me, my playmates, and my sister Karen playing along the front of the building so many years ago.

 The garage at the left facing the alley was where my dad completely overhauled the engine of our 1934 Pontiac when it threw a piston in the mid 1940’s!

Our tiny apartment was located in the far wing of the building closest to the sidewalk – the upper two windows nearest the camera.

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These two photos are of the same guy and the same windows (to my right in the 2004 photo); 59 years had passed, and I must admit that the building had changed much less than the guy. An interesting anecdote will support that contention: I was not sure which of two sets of identical windows was pictured in the early photo. Later, when I carefully inspected both prints with a magnifying glass, I could recognize the exact same pattern of light/dark bricks under the windows to my right as were identifiable in the black and white shot! Elementary detective work, my dear Watson!

 Next, we drove several miles to the little brick home of my maternal grandparents, a house which figured in so many of my memories. It had a real attic, a wonderful, rough-finished attic where old trunks and other things were stored. It was the kind of attic in which little folks could run around upright and have a ball. The house also had a full basement with little windows at ground-level and a great big furnace. To feed that fiery beast during the heavy cold of Chicago winters, a large walk-in coal bin and a shovel were nearby!

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My grandfather and grandmother both arrived in New York from Poland as young, single adults. Grandpa was very proud of the fact that he became a naturalized citizen and that he was living the American dream when he bought this brand new house in 1938 – his first and only. He was a barber for many, many years just across from City Hall in Chicago’s Loop. He had a large repeat clientele which included many city big-wigs from across the street. Grandpa was a no-nonsense kind of guy – short, stocky, and stern in demeanor, but dutiful, hard-working, and apparently, very honest.

There were fun times for me at the house: Going up and down the circular attic staircase with my sister; sitting in a huge galvanized wash-tub filled with cool water in the backyard on very hot Chicago days (the pungent smell of that galvanized tub is as vivid today in my memory as it was back in the mid-1940’s). I recall, as well, humid Chicago evenings when we all sat in the back yard as it got dark eating fresh garden tomatoes with one hand with a salt-shaker in the other. I never forgot those wonderful Chicago fireflies which seemed like nature’s magic.

 One of my favorite memories involves the weekend afternoon I was following Grandpa all around his house; I was probably around four or five years of age. Down to the basement, back up into the house, out to the back-yard, and back again inside we went. He apparently was quite busy that day, and I presumably had nothing better to do than to follow him around asking questions, etc.

 At one point in this parade of two, I locked him out of the house. When he was let back in, he blurted out his frustration for the benefit of anyone within earshot, “He’s a nuisance!!” Now, I did not know exactly what that word, “nuisance,” meant. I recall thinking it might have something to do with “newspaper.” I probably was exactly what he said I was – on that particular day!

 As with our old apartment building, my grandparents’ little house was virtually unchanged through all those years. Even the wrought-iron hand-rails framing the several front steps were the exact same ones pictured in keepsake photos we have of the early days. My mother was photographed in her wedding dress on those steps in 1939. My parent’s wedding reception was held at the house in the backyard which faced the unfinished “field” behind the newly constructed house.

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And, finally, there is my personal favorite, a photo taken in August of 1944 of me, my parents, grandparents, and my young Uncle Edwin by the front steps. I cannot fully explain my affection for this particular picture, but I feel it in part because it somehow embodies the mysteries of time, space, and family for me.

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There were other sentimental family stops for our town car that day. Several involved the earliest residences of my parents and me. The major disappointment of the day was our inability to locate my paternal grandparent’s store-front/home on Diversey Avenue. Elmer and Martha lived very frugally directly behind their little store-front which combined a radio repair shop (Elmer’s) and a candy/toy store (Martha’s). She emigrated from Germany early in the last century; Elmer’s parents came from the German-Polish border. Dad’s parents had little money throughout their lives, yet managed to raise five children who carved-out a good, successful life for themselves and their families. After returning home, we surmised that the little premises we sought once occupied a site now covered by a large, modern banquet-hall/restaurant which we had photographed.

One more stop was noteworthy: We went up Milwaukee Avenue, northwest of Chicago proper, to visit my mother’s old high school, Carl Schurz High. Given the fact that it was built in 1910 (she graduated in 1936), I did not expect much more than a dingy, dilapidated facility. I was totally blown-away when we got out of the car; there before us was this stately old, meticulously maintained, classic brick school building situated on a gorgeous, fenced campus.

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We learned afterward that Schurz underwent a full-blown, loving restoration in 1997 and is now listed as a Chicago Historical Monument, being a beautiful example of the “Prairie Style” of architecture, reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s pioneering style in nearby Oak Park. What a beautiful surprise this school was to me – to see such a fine and noble structure knowing that it was an important part of my mother’s early life.

 She had fond memories of her years there in spite of the social disadvantages of being so young when she graduated – she was sixteen or barely seventeen. Education and learning were always important to her. Nevertheless, alongside her senior yearbook picture, she declared she “wants to become a dramatic actress.” During that heyday of the movies, that was a common yearbook sentiment, it seems. My sister, Karen, and I are glad she opted for home-maker and mother.

Here’s Megan!

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Our desire to visit my Chicago roots was fulfilled after the first few days. By pre-arrangement, our older daughter, son-in-law, and first grandchild, Megan, joined us in Chicago for several days. We all had a wonderful time in Chicago; there is so much to see and do there.

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Linda and I at Buckingham Fountain – Lakeshore Park, Chicago

 In concluding this post, I want to add one more comment: As with Schurz High School, I was deeply impressed by the beauty, cleanliness, and wonderful spirit of my first home, Chicago – not what I expected from a big city! So clean, so fine, and so much to see and do.  For me, returning to my boyhood roots …and seeing so much still unchanged was a life-long dream come-true.

My kind of town, Chicago is !

Have you experienced a similar reunion with your past?

 If so, please share with us by adding a comment with some details. We would all enjoy hearing about your experience!