Friday, February 02, 2007

Take the Star Out of the Window

And it's hello California
Hello Dad and Mom
Ship ahoy
Your baby boy
Is home from Vietnam
Don't you ask me any questions
'Bout the medals on my chest
Take the star out of the window
And let my conscience take a rest

--"Take the Star Out of the Window"
John Prine

In 1968, my family moved from the Lincoln Park neighborhood in Chicago to Albany Park, on the city's Northwest side.

1968 was a tumultuous year. In April, a few weeks before we moved, our teacher had had to walk us all home the day after Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination-- there was rioting all over the city, including in the Cabrini Green housing projects just a few blocks away. I also remember Bobby Kennedy's murder. One image that sticks out in my head was a Chicago Sun-Times someone was holding, the headline shouting out "Doctors Fight to Save Kennedy." I could read it, because I had just learned to read the year before.

Earlier that year, the Tet Offensive had occurred in Vietnam. The Vietnam War was on everybody's mind. Even in my grade school, we talked about it.

Albany Park was a working class neighborhood. It was in a transition from predominantly Jewish to the grab bag of ethnicities it is today. Even then, my friends were Jewish, Polish, Appalachian, Lebanese, Latino and a half dozen other things.

It was also the kind of neighorhood where guys grew up to be factory workers, electricians, pipefitters and whatnot. Guys from that neighborhood did not go to college. They did not get college deferments. They went to Vietnam.

Consequently, a lot of windows had the blue "Service Stars" in the windows, indicating a son who was in Vietnam. I would see them as I walked to Haugen Elementary School, where I went from first through fourth grades.

One star stood out in my memories. It was in the window of a post-war bungalow that was across from the now-long-gone Jewish Community Center on Wilson Avenue, near Hamlin, a stone's throw from my grade school. When I would see it on a winter day, it meant that my cold walk to school was almost done. Over several years, it came to seem like an old friend.

In 1971, my family moved out of the city and into the suburbs. I finished high school and went off to college. When my youngest brother went off to college as well, my parents sold their home and rented an apartment in Lincoln Park.

Lincoln Park had, of course, changed. Gone were the cool little book and record stores. Gone was the blues club Big John's, where my parents had gone to see the Paul Butterfield Blues Band when they were young. Gone were the tenements inhabited by Puerto Rican people. Lincoln Park was now filled with nice restaurants and expensive boutiques. Lincoln Park had gentrified.

One day, during Christmas break of 1982-83, I was feeling pensive. I'd had a rough year at school-- a troubled relationship with a troubled woman, that had ended, and not knowing in general where I was going with my life. I felt disconnected. I'd moved too many times, left too many friends behind with each move.

I was visiting my parents over the break, staying with them in their apartment. I caught myself wondering what had happened to the kids I'd grown up with. I'd kept in touch with my best friend Richie Gustek, until he was killed in an automobile accident right after he and I had finished high school. His letters had told of changes in Albany Park. What had been a safe diverse blue collar neighborhood was an increasingly rough gang-ridden place. Still, I felt like I'd left part of my life behind there, and craved to seize something of it back, even if only memories.

On that cold January afternoon, I got on the Ravenswood el (now the Brown Line), the el that my mother had taken to work everyday when I was a kid. Sometimes my brothers and I would walk down to meet her at the Kimball-Lawrence stop, the last stop on the line, near our apartment.

I stepped off of the el and started west down Lawrence Avenue. It was like stepping into a time capsule of 1971. Little had changed physically except the writing in store windows. What had once been Hebrew writing was now Korean writing. Where there had been Appalachians there were now Latino people.

I turned left and walked down the 4700 block of Central Park Avenue, where our apartment had been. I stopped for a moment at Richie's old home, and thought of him for a moment.

I continued down the street and turned right at Wilson Avenue. I passed Jensen Park, where I'd played on the playground in the summer and ice-skated in the winter. I walked past the synagogue where my Cub Scout meetings had been. It was now a Korean church.

I continued walking down Wilson Avenue, toward my old grade school, a place I hadn't seen since just before I turned ten. I was stunned to see an old friend. The Blue Star.

I stopped and just looked for a moment. This thing that was etched in my childhood memories was still there. And suddenly it hit me what a sad, sad story it was telling on that bitter cold January day in 1983.

I had a sad thought for a man I never met and never will, and felt bad for his parents. I wished for a moment that I believed in a god that would look after this guy's soul and give some relief to his family's grief. And then I turned around and walked through the cold back to the el, realizing that my problems were all things that would pass.


Bubs said...

You describe those neighborhoods perfectly.

My bride grew up just north of Albany Park, near Northeastern U, and I remember taking the 82 bus with her over to the Ravenswood el at Lawrence and Kimball. A lot of the guys I went to Gordon Tech with were from Albany Park, and we bought our first house there in 1987.

The imagery of that blue star in the window is so sad.

vikkitikkitavi said...

Nice. Very nice.

lulu said...

My mother grew up in Albany Park back when her family was one of the few non-Jewish families in the neighborhood. I love the timelessness of some Chciago neighborhoods. Walking up Lincoln Avenue is such a great way to see the old and new side by side, particularly when you get up past Foster.

Natalie said...

Beautiful post. It is odd how neighboorhoods cycle. I wonder what Rogers Park (where I live) will ook like in 20 years. I hope that it remaind the hodgepodge of ethnicities it is today. It's the whole reason Ilive there.

Tenacious S said...

We lived way northwest in the city, Oriole Park. It too was a heavily blue collar neighborhood with a lot of first generation immigrants. I had forgotten about the blue star. I apparently am a little younger than you, not by much, but my memories of those times were the next door neighbor boy leaving for Viet Nam and then joyously being welcomed home about two or three years later. He always was really nice to me and my brother and sent us souvenirs shen he was away. I was so little that I don't know what I thought of where he was, I just remember how happy everyone was when he came home. He wasn't the only one. The boy kitty corner from our house went as well. I don't know about any others because my world was pretty small then, but I do remember the blue stars. Every once in awhile I drive through the old neighborhood. In mine, some has changed and some is just as I remembered it. Thanks for helping me remember times gone by and how to put it all in perspective.

Chris said...

Really touching post, Johnny. Thanks.

Erik Donald France said...

Excellent post, Johnny. I lived in Justice, IL, 1965ish-1968ish before we moved on to St. Paul, MN. It was a totally crazy scene, lots of unrest, disturbances, Vietnam, all of it. Had a great impact on me, living in the Chicago area in such a wild time.

Toccata said...

The image of the star still hanging gave me shivers and a deep sense of melancholy.

Toccata said...

When my brother died his bedroom door was closed shut and the inside remained the same, forever untouched. I used to sneak in there and go through his toybox and try to remember every moment of his existence. I hated that closed door and the heavy silence that fell upon our house. That star in the window reminds me of that door and a family forever changed.

Johnny Yen said...


I love that neighborhood near Northeastern. I got my teaching certificate at NEIU, and loved walking through that area. Beautiful housing. When I went to Haugen, I'd get a CTA token twice a week so that my friend Steve and I could attend gifted classes at Petersen Elementary, there on Foster and Kimball.

That's funny-- I drive right by Gordon Tech on the way to work.

Albany Park is on an upswing now. Their condoing a lot and people are buying houses there.

Have you been through Albany Park lately? They built a new middle school on what was the north end of Jensen Park recently. They tore down the old synagogue to make a parking lot for the middle school.


Lincoln Avenue had an interesting history. My great-grandfather, the anarchist bomb-thrower, owned a bakery on Lincoln at one time, about the 4100 block.

Thanks! That's funny, because I lived in Rogers Park, on Morse, just west of Clark, 20 years ago. It was my first apartment after college-- I answered an ad for a roommate in the Reader. The neighborhood then was on a downward spiral at that point-- drugs and crime. I know it's getting better these days. I hope, unlike Lincoln Park, it's able to maintain its diversity as it improves economically.

Ten S-
Adam played floor hockey the last couple of winters in the Oriole Park field house. It's not too far from my ex's house (she lives in Norwood Park).

It's hard to convey to people who weren't around then, that time. It was bitter.

Thank you!

My father was working nights in 1968-- he'd just started working for IBM the year before. He was downtown the night of the Democratic Convention riots, and witnessed what went on. He really hated old man Daley from that day on.

Melancholy sums it up beautifully.

I'm sorry about your brother.

Your story about your brother's room reminds me of an old girlfriend, whose brother had died at the age of 24. He was morbidly obese and died of a heart attack in his sleep. He didn't work and still lived with her parents when it happened. They kept the room exactly as it was when he died. It was not very healthy. I think that it had a lot to do with them being from a very patriarchal culture (she was Honduran), and the brother was venerated, unlike she and her sister. It deeply affected her. She was one of the most intelligent people I've ever known. She put herself through college and grad school, yet, could not be recognized by her father for her successes simply because she wasn't male. The anger from this was incredible, and made worse by the fact that she wouldn't acknowledge it. It damaged our ability to communicate, and I hold this largely responsible for the end of our relationship years ago.