By Eric Burbridge
For once I followed the doctor’s orders. “Get some sunshine, good ole vitamin D.” He said. I loaded my walker and headed for Tooley Park, a thirty-minute drive from the house. As fast as I walked being tall, thin and I stood erect, people questioned, did I need it? Yes, unfortunately, these seventy-year-old legs were not what they used to be; arthritis took its toll. The weather was warm, sunny with a mild breeze and a three-hour window before the kids got out of school. Plenty of time to walk around the three-block square park with enough for lunch. The aroma of fresh cut grass filled my nostrils as the Park District employees systematically worked their way around the baseball diamonds. The tennis courts had been resurfaced, new swings, monkey bars and those big colorful playhouses. The squirrels ran everywhere chasing each other up and down the trees. It must be mating season. I reached in my bag and shared a few almonds and cashews with my furry friends. They sat close and nibbled cautiously.
Do not feed too many, Paul, you do not want to be overwhelmed.
I moved to another bench; they didn’t follow.
The more I looked around the more Catholic school day memories returned. St. Martin’s was a few blocks west and the archdiocese sold it to the public-school system. The convent and rectory were converted to condos and rental units. The world changed, but my grandmother said, “The world ain’t changed, it’s the people in it.” And not for the better I’m afraid. Time to take a walk. Surprisingly, a cop SUV passed and waved. I remember when Chicago cop cars were black and white. There never were many cars parked on this block. A late model Nissan pulled in front of a well-kept Bungalow. Several kids piled out of the mini-van dressed in plaid skirts, shirt and ties with their back packs. Catholic school uniforms…I remember those days. My heart goes out to the parents who have to make work and daycare adjustments to deal with the half day schedules of today’s parochial school fund raisers and budget cuts. Half days at St. Martin’s was unheard of. I saw the frustration on the mother’s face. Obviously, she left work early, she still wore her scrubs. I imagined there was a limit to the number of days a health care professional can take off. But the kids were happy and more than likely could not wait to play those video games. Those little rascals were walking computers…virtually born with a phone in their hands. We played with cars and trucks in the dirt.
I sat on one of the remaining wood and concrete benches and opened a bottle of water. Sister Mary Ann came to mind. Why? She was a mean woman; short, wide with a bent noise and stale breath, but she demanded the best of students. The nuns of St. Martin put the fear of God in our little hearts, at least mine anyway. But I did want her to die from time to time. I never told any of my class mates what happened that time she made me go home to get a permission slip for a field trip. They’d say, “You lying again, Paul Dade.”
It had to be seventh grade; I think I was thirteen. It was the last day to turn it in. I did, but Sister Mary Ann swore she didn’t have it. “I can’t find your slip, Paul Dade, look in your pockets.” I did.
“I gave it to you, Sister Mary.”
She fumbled with the papers on her desk. “I don’t have it.” She cut her beady eyes at me. “This will hold up everything for the class. Go home and find it…now.”
Without any objection, I left the class. I knew I turned it in, but I headed home. I lived a mile and a half away and I had to be back before lunch. The problem; what if I couldn’t find the paper, I knew I turned in? I was dead without it.
I remember it was a pretty nice day. I decided to run as much as possible. A couple of blocks later I got to the park, stopped at a water fountain and quenched my thirst. I continued past the tennis courts, swimming pool, the field house and took the short cut through the baseball diamonds that bordered the park. I stopped at South Park Avenue [ now renamed, Martin Luther King Drive] and thought, I was not going back…runaway I told myself. They’ll kill me if I do. Three more blocks and I’m at the half way point. There was a beautiful new home on the corner of 89th street with a big fenced off vacant lot next to it. That family had swings and monkey bars for their kids. They also had a big vicious dog who we pestered when we walked by. During the winter, we bombarded it with snowballs. That animal hated us. He ran so fast trying to get us he’d slam into the gate. His owner screamed at us all the time. Of course, we ignored her. At first, I didn’t see the dog, but the closer I got and there it was sleeping next to his owner stretched out on a lounge chair sound asleep. I walked across the street not saying a word. That mutt still heard me, his ears perked up and he shot to his feet and ran toward the fence. He’ll do the usual, run into the gate and run back and forth like mad. Not this time…that crazy dog paused, then leaped on top of that chain link fence and over he came. I took off and tripped on the uneven sidewalk and almost fell on my face. That dog just missed my leg when I jumped on a car’s hood and crawled to the roof. It tried to get on the vehicle but couldn’t get any traction. “Get off my car, kid!” A guy big fat guy came running out his house with a broom and charged the animal. That dog didn’t move until the fat guy swung. Get out of here, Pepper, go home!” the guy shouted, then he turned and frowned at me. “Get…off my car!” I slid off the roof of his Cadillac and ran between two houses. He did not follow me. I scaled a tall chain link entrance gate like and ran through the yard to the alley. I stopped to catch my breath. I was alone. I looked everywhere for a big stick, pole or anything I could knock that dog out with. Nothing. Finally, I found half a house brick and continued to the street. If that dog saw me, I had one chance to stop him. Three houses from the street I heard what sounded like a pack of dogs yelping and barking. I froze… then ran across the street. Several dogs of all sizes ran in my direction. I hurdled the brick and ran up the stairs of the nearest house. I rang the bell frantically. No answer. Then I realized they were after another dog and surrounded it; in the pack was that dog named, Pepper. Now was my chance to get away. I jumped off the porch behind the front gate, shot through a junk filled yard to the back-privacy gate. It was chained and padlocked, but I scaled it with no problem except a gash on my leg. I still have the scar. My leg stung like mad, but I continued on 91st street until I got to the house. I cleaned and bandaged the cut on my leg, ate a bowl of Rice Krispy’s, looked for the paper that I knew wasn’t there and out the door I went. If I called my parents, I was dead, so whatever consequences I suffered when I returned to school was on me. Unfair, but who cared?
I watched from the 91st Street overpass the newly operating Rapid Transit train running down the middle of the Dan Ryan Expressway, affectionately known as the damn Ryan. Suddenly, tires screeched, horns honked and the terrifying sounds of metal-on-metal colliding scared me to death. I looked down on the all but stopped traffic. People exited their vehicles to assist the injured. It was getting late, I picked up my pace. Each alley I passed I looked for a big stick or a pole heavy enough to knock the crap of any size dog. I found one.
Well, Pepper, if we meet again, I got something for you.
I heard sirens approaching the closer I got to that dog’s block. When I turned the corner an ambulance and fire truck had stopped in the front of that house. Paramedics exited their vehicles and rushed into the side yard. I stayed on the opposite side of the street, but from what I saw the EMTs were standing over someone laying on the lawn furniture. It must have been the dog’s owner. Too bad.
I threw the stick down an alley just before I got to South Park Avenue. When I crossed a car turned, slowed and the women driving waved. I smiled and waved back. I never will forget they drove one of those big convertible Buicks. People kick named it a deuce and a quarter [Electra 225] it was black with a white interior. They kept pace with me. “Hi, honey, how are you doing?” She asked.
“I’m okay.” The woman passenger looked like a man with a sloppy wig on her head.
“You go to that Catholic school, right?” I nodded. “You look tired get in we’ll drop you off.”
It was like somebody stuck me in the butt with a straight pin…several pins. I took off running across the baseball diamonds. I heard them laughing hysterically and honking the horn. Terrified, I looked over my shoulder and they pulled off still laughing. They kept going, I kept running directly for the park field house. Inside I remember looking for a back exit. The only one was on the side for the public. Whoever those people were, they were gone. I ran those last two blocks.
The secretary in the school office, Ms. Fields asked, “Where have you been, young man?”
“Home, Sister Mary, made me go home.”
“What…she did. Well go to your class.”
I was beat and when I walked in the class all eyes were on me. Now what? I didn’t have the permission slip and that meant I would have to sit in the office with Ms. Fields. She was an older lady with really short blonde hair who was always kind to us, but still.
“Good to see you, Mr. Dade. I’m sorry, I found your slip soon after you left.” I remember staring at that ragged tooth smile on her face. When I think about it I was a fool for accepting her apology, but I was a kid. What would have happened if I didn’t? I could’ve been killed. I do not remember telling my parents. Nowadays, something like that would be criminal. Why think about those days? I thought about too much for one day. There was plenty of time before school let out. I opened a book and started to read.