23 September 2006

The Man from Waukegan (J P Zabolski)

Waukegan, Illinois, is a small industrial city (population around 65-70k in the ‘60s) on the shores of Lake Michigan, about halfway between Chicago and Milwaukee. Amongst other industries, Johns-Manville and Johnson Outboard had factories there. There’s a harbour, used by small boats and by ships bringing in mountains of gypsum. It’s probably best known, though, as the home of comedian Jack Benny and author Ray Bradbury.

J P Zabolski graduated from Waukegan High School in ‘73, and left home to join the Army.

Ten years later, in ’83, he left Waukegan again (by this time he was out of the Army, had gone around the world twice, and had held various interesting jobs in various interesting countries), this time to join the Marines.

Ten years later, in ’93 (by which time he had left the Marines and emigrated to Australia), he returned to Waukegan for his father’s funeral and to sell the family home.

Ten years later, in ’03, he came back to Waukegan, for the first time in ten years, to spend two weeks walking around town, mulling over the changes in the old neighbourhood, the city, and himself.

Zabolski stops to talk with old neighbours, teachers and friends, hunts down childhood treats he hasn’t tasted in years (such as angel food cake), and visits old hangouts. Each stop reminds him of the past, and his stories of this trip are mixed with reminiscences of things past – movies, television, ROTC and other classes in high school, his parents, hobbies, church.
One year [Sunday school] started issuing out report cards that had to be signed by your parents, like the ones in Glen Flora. They had two grades, one for your studies and one for your conduct. I got an ‘F’ for Failure on both. I hid the report card under our wooden porch through the winter, with the nuns constantly asking where it was. Two weeks before the final day, I brought the shriveled thing to Mom to sign. Mom was not pleased. I had never ever received an F on any real school report card.
There have been a lot of changes in the city, but the more things change....

A few doors up Grand Avenue, the house where the female principal of McAllister School for twenty-seven years had lived until she died in 1981 aged 101 was now an antique store. The owner was originally from Savannah, Georgia, and we had a pleasant chat about a variety of subjects. I asked if he’d mind if I sat on the swing on his porch and he was delighted to let me. I love sitting on a porch and watching the world go by.

I had another pleasant romp in the ravines of Yeoman Park before having lunch at the Chuck Wagon. It was still there after all those years, but locals had said ‘the place is run by Mexicans now.’ The sign was the same except that it now said ‘Juan’s’ over the name. Everything else was still exactly the same. Though they had huevos rancheros on the menu, the other food was unchanged. There was a group of four white truck drivers at a table, a friendly black fellow having coffee at the bar, and some amusing waitresses. The hamburger and fries were the same except that there was a wedge of pickle rather than the pickle chips on the plate.

For everything gone or changed in Waukegan, some person from Georgia or Mexico would carry on its traditions.

I’m not saying you should run out and buy this book just because it was written by my best friend (though it was; we've known each other since 1967), or because I’m mentioned in it (though I am). But anyone of about our age, or a little older, or maybe even a little younger, has probably had similar thoughts, especially if (s)he hasn’t been home in a long time.

Heck, I didn’t even like Waukegan that much – I’d come from a much smaller town that didn’t have many more people in it than Waukegan Township High School alone had – but this book brings a feeling of nostalgia that makes me want to go back for a visit.
Cinema-going was always a major part of my life. You’d always go by the cinemas to look at the collection of stills and the exciting posters that would also feature in the Waukegan News-Sun. The price was 50 cents for a child under twelve or $1.50 for an adult, but a double bill of B movies was 35 cents and $1.25 respectively. That meant more money for a 25-cent box of popcorn, or 15-cent drink, candy bar, snow cone, or giant dill pickle. There were also larger drinks, larger candies, and hot dogs.
And I’ve never in my life found a place that serves hot dogs as good as those at the Genessee Theatre were.

"There's no place like home." And yes, sometimes you can go back home again....

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