And it's hello California
Hello Dad and Mom
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"
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.