Growing up

Bon Voyage, Capt’n Nemo

 

Almost half a century ago, the teenagers from St. Jerome’s were playing football at Sherwin Park on North Clark Street when a strange man came over and interrupted our game. He said he was about to open a sandwich shop nearby and we ought to check it out.

We did. This was the first of many encounters with Lou Ragusi who, to me, was always Capt’n Nemo.

Lou Ragusi at Capt’n Nemo’s in 1976.
(Sun Times photo)

I remember my initial reactions:

“This food is good.”

“This guy is nuts.”

He talked constantly and at high volume. He seemed to be arguing with his workers and they were arguing back. They all seemed to be having a good time. There was nothing like Nemo’s in the neighborhood at the time so I was sure he’d quickly fail.

48 years later, Capt’n Nemo’s is still there. Mr. Ragusi was real American entrepreneur.

Mr. Ragusi died on November 18 at age 88. Read the Sun-Times obituary.

Bon Voyage, Capt’n. I hope wherever you are, you are getting a free taste of soup and I hope it’s as good as Mrs. Nemo’s Split pea.

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Growing up

Worst birthday ever

I’ve had two really terrible birthdays in my life. The last of these was 36 years ago.

I was depressed because I had convinced myself everyone else had their life figured out by age 30.

Because I was only two years out of college (it’s a long story), had no money and wasn’t married, I felt like I was failing at life. Despite a nice party, I went into a major sulk and started my 30th year with one of the all-time great hangovers.

In time I saw I was doing fine. Eventually I realized life was pretty good. And it only continued to improve.

That was the last time my birthday made me depressed.

But, that was not the saddest birthday of my life. That was the day I turned ten.

November 25, 1963.

I had been excited about this birthday. It had a number with two digits! Big stuff.

There would be presents!

CAKE!

Singing!

Lots of attention FOR ME!

CAKE!

It didn’t exactly work out that way. Three days before my birthday, in Dallas Texas, the President of the United States was murdered.

Suddenly, everyone I knew was sad. I was puzzled at first. After all, my parents were Nixon Republicans and I’d never heard a good word about President Kennedy spoken by either of them. So, I was surprised by my mother’s crying.

The assassination occurred on a Friday. Instead of preparations for my party, the weekend was spent in front of the television, where there was only one thing on; coverage of and reaction to, the assassination.

To a ten year old, there was a sameness to all I saw on the small black and white screen in our living room. I couldn’t understand why the news people kept repeating  information and showing the same pictures.

Things took a turn for the unexpected on Sunday, when alleged gunman Lee Harvey Oswald was, for reasons never adequately explained, marched through a crowded hallway at the police station, where he was shot by (choose one):

A) a distraught local resident,
B) a patriotic American,
C) a strip club owner who wanted to ensure Oswald didn’t implicate the Mafia.

There were presents and cake on my birthday (they’d already been purchased) but no joy. Rather than the attention I had anticipated, the focus was on President Kennedy’s funeral. The ceremony was overwhelmingly sad and, at times, sent chills down my spine, like when the riderless horse, with backward boots in the stirrups, was led down Pennsylvania Avenue as part of the funeral procession.

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That weekend, I experienced crushing sadness for the first time. There would be more to come, of course. It was the first of those things that happen that make you think, “I will never get over this.”

And you don’t. Tragedy is indelible.

Yet, life goes on.

– – –

On the eve of my 66th birthday it was pointed out to me, “You’re just one “6” away from Satan.”

Is that any way for a child to talk to her father?

This will be a pretty good birthday. So will each of those to come.

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Growing up

St. Jerome’s all-time hit leader

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(A previous published version of this post contained an error. As I was fixing that, I recalled information from more than a half-century ago that changed some of the details. This is an updated version of the original post)

With baseball season coming up, my thoughts drift back more than 50 years to the one time in my life I regret going to Wrigley Field.

At the center of the story is Sister Mary St. Delphine.

Everyone who attended Catholic schools taught by nuns has “nun stories.” Sometimes, survivors from different schools compare stories.

In the competition for the worst/craziest/most violent nun, I always win because my eighth grade nun was Sister Delphine.

In the photo above, taken around the time she was my teacher, Sister Delphine was approximately 180 years old. She presided over Room 301 at St. Jerome’s School in Chicago’s Rogers Park.

Every day of eighth grade started with torture disguised as “music appreciation.”

There was an upright piano in the front of the room with a mirror positioned strategically above the sheet music. This allowed Delphine to monitor the students as she pounded out the hits using her gnarled, arthritic hands.

The songs we had to learn in 1966 included World War II era classics Buckle Down Winsocki and Coming in on a Wing and Prayer, along with one contemporary hit, The Ballad of the Green Berets.

This was torture, not because the songs were bad (though most of them were extremely old-fashioned and corny), but because Sister Delphine insisted on singing them.

Delphine’s singing voice was…unusual.

I strain to find comparisons, but if you Google ” Taser demonstration video” you’ll have a sense of the experience.

Sister Delphine demanded a roomful of eighth grade boys remain calm and unsmiling as the most horrible sounds we had ever heard filled the room. This was impossible.

When we laughed (and we all laughed), Sister, who had been watching us via the mirror, would get up from her bench, grab a yardstick (she bought them by the gross) and offer her response to our review of her warbling.

We had mixed feelings when the yardstick was headed our way.

On the one hand, we knew it was going to hurt. On the other, there was usually no singing during beatings.

You could tell who Sister Delphine liked. They were the ones with the faint bruises.

Then there were others. I was one of those.

There probably was never a good time to have met Sister Delphine, but this was definitely a bad time.

I arrived in her class frustrated, hurt by my parents recent divorce, and overly emotional. Delphine picked up on that and, like any nurturing teacher would, gave me a nickname in front of the class.

“Bambino.”

Surprisingly, this did not result in improved behavior.

Warning: The following story ends with a “sad trombone” sound effect.

As the end of the eighth grad year neared I hated school. On the school day in question, in May 1967, I realized I really needed to see a Cubs game.

I don’t remember what my plan was for explaining my absence. Maybe the story was that I was sick and had to go to the doctor. Or, I had to stay home in bed. Or I had a sick relative I had to care for.

Whatever the story was, it did not involve sunshine.

So maybe sitting in the bleachers was not the best idea.

When I saw my sunburned face I knew I was in for a bad time. The next day, I made a half-hearted attempt at a lie, but Delphine wasn’t having it. She quickly got me to confess.

The rest is a blur, but I’m pretty sure I got more hits than the Cubs did the previous afternoon.

The kicker: While I was sunning myself at the ballpark, Sister Delphine, who wasn’t much interested in teaching anyway, decided to give herself and the class a treat and tuned the classroom TV to the ballgame.

I’ve only scratched the surface (something Sister Delphine did often) on my eighth grade year.

There will be more.