Act Three: Caught in the Middle
OTF’s Robert Suarez is back with the third installment of his series of memoirs charting a Chicago fútbol life…
I’ve heard it said of life …”Beginnings are usually scary and endings are usually sad, but it’s everything in between that makes it all worth living.”
Or perhaps things are not always as they seem. But the summer of 1959 was among the most blissful periods of my life. It was a fun-filled and carefree time and I was allowed to live life as only little boys are naturally inclined to do. I recall childhood days filled with games and of an imagination running wild with youthful abandon.
It seemed we ran the streets and alleys of the Harbor to the rhythmic sound track of Doo Wop music because only the coolest cats lived in the Harbor. It was a time in which East Chicago Washington High School ruled Indiana basketball and when pretty girls could be seen gyrating in public with their Hoola Hoops; while greasers in black leather jackets with slicked back hair admired their street rods and checked out the chicks.
Punks like me waged play war and stole candy just because we could. The paved alleys were our playground and the afternoon Cricket games there were the social event of the day.
Perhaps I suffer from selective memory, but I recall the summer of 1959 as a time of long, sunny summer days. Hot, humid days that ended with warm evenings with friends and neighbors gathered in groups on the sidewalks or porches, talking, laughing and relaxing to the sights and sounds of the Harbor.
On those summer Sundays, crowds would gather at Block Stadium or Todd Park to watch Atlas take on the bad guys. My friends and I would run around and play knowing with certitude that El Sifon and his team-mates would carry the day and everyone would celebrate afterward.
I would have much preferred for summer to have never ended, but without my permission, fate intervened and a new beginning disrupted my safe and happy world. Thus my parents, with the best of intentions, pursued their small piece of the American dream.
As a result we left our ethnically diverse community of East Chicago for a new beginning in an old, run down house in the predominantly Polish neighborhood of north Hammond. A neighborhood in which there was only one other Mexican family.
My father purchased the house from a Mexican acquaintance who had decided to sell it and move his family to the greener pastures of California. The two men came to an agreement on the terms of the sale, but I suspect that El Sifon was pressured to buy the house.
The seller was a slick and educated businessman who was in the radio business and even hosted a local popular Spanish language program. He was a talker and a schmoozer by trade and, although El Sifon was known to drive a hard bargain, I am quite sure he was baffled by the bull shit this acquaintance shoveled his way.
In the end, one Mexican family moved out and another one moved in. Needless-to-say, we never saw a Welcome Wagon.
It was in late October of 1959 when we finally moved into our Hammond home. Immediately my mother, a good and pious Catholic woman, registered us at the neighborhood church – St. Casmir (the Paton Saint of Poland).
Despite our miserable financial situation, the well intentioned nuns and priests would not hear of a good Catholic family attending a secular public school when a fine Catholic institution, such as St. Casmir’s School, was available.
So they sharpened their pencils and offered a hardship relief package with free tuition to St. Casmir’s Parrish School. The offer was promptly accepted by my mother. To his credit my father was opposed to the idea of sending us to a predominantly Polish Catholic grade school.
He understood how my mother, bless her heart, imagined her boys as little angels waiting for their wings to grow out. My father, on the other hand, recognized that we were pretty much little savages and that putting us in a rigid Catholic school environment could not possibly end well. In the end he was proven right.
During our first year at Alcatraz, as we affectionately referred to it, I was insulted, degraded, embarrassed, humiliated and assaulted by both the sweet nuns and my fellow classmates.
Even my poor little brother Roy could not escape the harassment and had been reduced to tears on more than one occasion because the nuns took his fine Spanish baptismal name of “Rogelio” (which is commonly translated as Roger) and butchered it into something horrid sounding – something they spat out with a sneer and pronounced as “Row-gee-liyo” (which we assumed was commonly translated in Polish as genital warts).
Perhaps its meaning was something more innocuous, but the truth of the matter was whenever a nun, or heaven forbid, a priest would call out his name it usually evoked giggles and chortles from the kids while adults stared at their shoes in a lame and weak attempt to hide their inclination to laugh. And if truth be told, despite my feelings of fraternal empathy, I found it near impossible to not burst out in laughter myself. Oh the shame of it all!
For an entire school year we both endured mistreatment and shame at St. Caz Alcatraz. But despite my brother’s degrading treatment I was treated even worse. I was routinely taunted, slapped, and punched by classmates as well as pinched and degraded by well meaning nuns.
On one occasion dear Sister Labosza dragged me by the ear to a supply room and kept me there, under lock and key, for an entire day because I could not pronounce the word “deny”. But it should be noted her stern teaching method worked wonders as I have never forgotten how to pronounce the word.
Mercifully that school year eventually ended. But it ended with a kick to the proverbial groin by providing yet one more humiliation for me. On the last day of school Sister Labosza took me aside and told me I had failed miserably.
Sister explained how I had failed myself and how I had failed her, as well as, wonderful St. Casmir’s school. It was made clear – I had let everybody down. In the end, the feeling of being known as a failure became another most bitter pill for me to swallow.
But a silver lining to this sad tale soon began to emerge. That summer El Sifon finally put his foot down and demanded an end to the tortures of St. Caz Alcatraz.
Perhaps El Sifon’s Mexican pride was bruised by perceived, or real slights, by the pious, fur draped, arrogant, fat Polish women at church. Or, perhaps he sensed something increasing wrong with me; or maybe he got tired of hearing his son’s proud Spanish name mispronounced and butchered by people who should have know better.
It was during this period of personal turmoil that our family began our weekly treks to Chicago. These weekly excursions became necessary because El Sifon had joined the Tanners soccer club and was actively involved in both the club, as an officer, and on the team as a player/coach.
It seemed as if our family spent virtually every Sunday in Chicago during the 1960’s. We attended countless futbol matches involving my father’s new club.
Sometimes we would gather with others in a caravan of sorts. We would enter all kind of interesting ethnic enclaves and even though futbol was the common denominator it did not always feel friendly. Football fights and verbal confrontations were common and full blown riots were not unusual – but always exciting spectacles to witness.
More in keeping with the sporting nature of the beautiful game the Tanners occasionally would also participate in tournaments. On these occasions multiple families would come prepared for a full day at the park. It was on those days that we would sometimes get the chance to see some of the big clubs play – up close and personal.
My father and his friends would crowd the sidelines and watch powerhouse clubs like the Lions, Hansa, Schwaben, the Maroons, the Wanderers, and Sparta to name a few.
During the early years of the decade the Tanners won most of their matches and quickly rose in Chicago’s “National Soccer League” rankings with promotions to the 2nd and 1st division. They eventually would reach the Major Division several years later.
In the course of our weekly futbol outings we must have also spent thousands of hours at “El Club” celebrating the Tanner’s futbol victories. On occasion we would also gather there in defeat, but much to our relief, a fiesta always seemed to break out just the same.
The Tanners’ club was located on the north side of Chicago. It relocated several times, but during this particular era it was usually in the vicinity of the Oscar Mayer Public School which was located on the 2200 block of North Clifton.
It was decorated, I suppose, in much the same way most football clubs of that era were decorated. There was a bar, of course, a pool table, a jukebox and sometimes a ping-pong table and/or a pinball machine.
It usually reeked of stale beer and cigarettes, with just a hint of Ben-Gay ointment. It was an aroma that left no doubt of the masculine nature of the establishment.
The walls proudly displayed posters of the great football clubs of the world, and those of some individual international superstars. Pele, Eusebio of Portugal, Real Madrid star Alfedo Di Stefano and the legendary Hungarian Puskas all graced the walls of the club.
There were also various trophies and banners prominently displayed. Of course, there were assorted and varied posters of Las Chivas and a few other Mexican clubs as well. Occasionally, if one searched hard enough, posters of beautiful half naked women could also be located for ones viewing pleasure.
It was here that los Tanners would celebrate victories over the Wop, Pollock, and Lugen teams that they had vanquished. And even if they were not familiar with good derogatory terms for the Slovak, Bulgarian, Armenian, Greek or Romanian sides – defeating them was certainly just as satisfying.
On those boisterous Sunday afternoons loud Mariachi music would welcome friends and fans to “El club”. The warm and brash music always seemed to fill the air with Mexican pride. The competing sound of futbol boots would often resonate on the walkway outside and on the hardwood floor as the men arrived. All the while tequila shots and cervezas were consumed in rather large and impressive quantities.
I especially loved to hear the men talk of what had actually transpired on the pitch. It was Mexican trash talk at its best, laden with sexist innuendo, macho bravado and vulgar cultural disrespect – all done in a sporting and funny way.
I understand today that it was in those brief, hectic moments that my father was happiest. In those time-frozen scenes I recall him most fondly, not so much as my father, but rather as a fellow footballer standing proudly in a haze of cigarette smoke, surrounded by his futbol teammates, eternally young and laughing, spouting trash talk and downing “tragos de tequila”.
All sons should be so fortunate to see their fathers so happy even once in a lifetime. I was blessed, during these years, to witness these scenes on most Sundays evenings of my youth.
Sentimentality aside, my brothers and I usually played pool or table tennis, chewed on pork rinds (which came with little plastic packets of hot sauce), guzzled soft drinks and devoured authentic Chicago Style Polish Sausages which we would purchase at a nearby classic Chicago hot dog stand.
We seldom got home by midnight and El Sifon never got home completely sober. The next week we would do it again – right after morning Mass.
Yet every Sunday always ended and eventually that first summer ended too. When autumn arrived it found me at Lincoln School where my confidence and spirit began to heal. It was there I found acceptance and friendship in the secular, but kind, environment of the public school.
In time our family found wonderful friends and neighbors in our Polish neighborhood. We also befriended other wonderful people, from different cultures and faiths, who enhanced, enriched and expanded our lives and more importantly made us feel welcomed and part of the community.
El Sifon became a regular at the “Sunshine Tap” which was located at the north end of our block. It became his favorite watering hole and “Raymond”, as he was known to his Polish drinking buddies, was quite the popular fellow there.
My old man was deaf in one ear and he had a natural scowl – both the consequence of a near fatal automobile accident suffered as a young man. As a result, he spoke loudly – which he claimed endeared him to his Polish drinking pals. He once explained to me that the “Pollocks” liked him because he was big, loud and ugly – “just like a real Pollock”.
The friends he made there became life long friends. They would often visit us and we knew them all on a first name basis. Inevitably they would wink at us then proceed to insult my old man in Polish and call him a “wetback” to which he would respond with various profanity laced retorts that all ended with “Got-damn Pollock” – bellowed at full volume. It was funny stuff.
Over the forty years that I lived in Hammond I grew to love and admire the Polish people. Our faith, our foods, and our music became intertwined and eventually even our families and blood lines became one.
Yes, “Beginnings are usually scary and endings are usually sad, but it’s everything in between that makes it all worth living.”
Looking back over the decades to those difficult and painful first years in Hammond I have come to realize that I was not the only one who was scared at the time. I can understand now why the established community feared our arrival.
And when I allow myself the luxury to contemplate these things I sometimes wonder if I truly failed the fourth grade – or if it is possible that, in reality, it was others who failed me.
Yes, it is in the middle where we live our lives and where we find the things that make life worth living.
Sad endings awaited me in the future, but in the early 1960’s life began to look amazingly rich in possibilities – living in the middle … of a Polish neighborhood in Hammond, Indiana.
OTF contributor Robert Suarez is older than dirt, but slightly smarter. Coach Bob mans his “Bobservation Post” high above a rural Indiana corn field, from where he proudly dispatches missives of futbol insight, experience, and opinions via his telegraph (with enhanced morse code, version 2.5). Follow Bob @rxs225