Around here in McHenry County, Spring Break begins for most school districts. Now that my kids are long grown and even the resident grandson is four years out of high school, that shouldn’t mean much to me except that morning traffic is less clogged with big yellow school buses. But this year, after the endless winter we’ve had—and it is supposed to snow again tonight—I am frankly jealous. Not a pretty or noble emotion. But, damn it! Why can’t I have a Spring Break?
It’s been years since I had an honest-to-god Spring Break. Not that I ever went anywhere exotic with palm trees, sand, girls in bikinis, and beer by the semi tanker. When I was home, the family never went anywhere. Spring break just meant sleeping till noon and reading a stack of interesting books I checked out of the library.
On my only Spring Break at Shimer, my pal Paul Jordon and I decided to go camping at Mississippi Palisades State Park in Savanah, just 10 miles down the road from Mt. Carroll. The plan was to throw on back packs and hike there from school. Paul had a nice light Euro-style tear-drop pack on a comfortable frame, and I had my Dad’s World War II knap sack stuffed with his mummy bag, a couple of flannel shirts, a spare set of jeans, socks and four or five paperback books. I wore Dad’s old Army web belt with a GI canteen and mess kit attached. Paul carried a little two-man pup tent. He had real hiking boots, an old Army Jacket, and a knit cap. I wore a totally unsuitable pair of Dingo boots, and old wool car coat, and my battered white Open Road Stetson.
Despite or best intentions, less than a mile down the road from Shimer, a car pulled over and offered us a ride to the park. We took it. We were let off along Rt. 84 at the entrance to the Park and made the long curving hike up the road to the top of the bluffs. It was a raw March day, and the Park was virtually deserted. Any early fishermen were far below on the river. We staked out a campsite and put up the little tent. Then we looked at each other, wondering what to do next.
As I recall we had some trouble getting a fire started from the mostly wet, dead underbrush we gleaned from the woods. I tried to heat some canned beans in cup of the canteen. Paul had some pemmican. Then came the realization that we had no beer and that it was a long trek back down the road and to the highway and then another piece to store. It was discouraging. We did have a little hash, however.
The next thing we noticed was that it got dark. Very dark. Pitch black under a thick shelf of clouds blocking whatever moon their might have been. Then it started to rain. Before dawn that turned in to a slushy snow. The pup tent turned out to provide little shelter and we set it up with high ground above us which sent a little river right through it. By morning we were cold and miserable. We packed up our gear and headed back to school. We were failures as adventurers. We spent the rest of Spring break on the nearly deserted campus smoking dope and trying to get warm.
My big plan for Spring Break when I moved to Chicago the next year and enrolled at Columbia College was to throw a big party and invite my Shimer friends, kids from Niles West back in Skokie home from their own schools, and any new folks I had met.
I was living in a garden apartment—a glorified basement—in a run down three flat on Howe Street just west of Old Town and about a block south of Armitage. That also placed it about two blocks north of Cabrini Green. It was a tough neighborhood back in 1969 long before gentrification. Working class white families, many of the Appalachian were squeezed in the few blocks between the better off older German and Italian families and the new crop of artists and bohemians of Old Town, the Blacks of Cabrini, and the Puerto Ricans to the west and north.
The teens and young men were organized in old-style small street gangs—the Lill Street Boys, Howe Street Boys, etc. and were fighting all encroachers—and that included a hippy looking dude like me. And worse, I had a young Black street hustler as a roommate who I found through an ad in the Seed. Then I let 54 year old José move in. We me at an air conditioning factory in Skokie where I worked the summer before and for the several weeks over the winter between my last semester at Shimer and starting Columbia. His adult son had been shot while standing in line at a Kentucky Fried Chicken and took a long time to die. José spent every dime he had on medical bills and the funeral and in the process lost his apartment. He had nowhere to go, so I let him bunk in what had been the coal bin off of the kitchen. To the Howe Street Boys, that meant that we had all of their hated enemies under one roof.
I, of course, was too naïve and stupid to realize it. Even after the place was burglarized three times. I went on with plans for my big Spring Break party just the same. In my eagerness, I had forgotten a significant upcoming anniversary. Friday, April 4, 1969 was the one year anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Chicago decided to commemorate the event with a fresh round of riots. Cabrini Green, just two blocks away was a major battle ground with some taking pot shots at the Cops from the high rise windows.
As dusk fell, not so distant gunfire rattled, smoke could be seen to the south, and squad cars were zipping through the neighborhood with their windows taped. This did not discourage the plans, or, evidently the large numbers of folks willing to travel in and to the city. The lure of Delaney Daggers—a lethal concoction of 180 proof grain alcohol and orange juice whipped up in a twenty gallon garbage can—a half keg of Meister Bräu, plenty of reefer with a good chance for a variety of psychedelics was too much. Not only were the invitees coming, so were those who sniffed out the party in the ozone.
As a parade of folks tromped in, the Howe Street Boys began to gather. They felt that they had not been invited to partake of the weed and hippy chicks. In point of fact, had they come to the door, I would have let ‘em in. What the hell. The more the merrier. But, alas, they did not realize this and resentment built, as did the electric energy of a city gone mad and the sure knowledge that, whatever they did that night, the cops had other priorities.
The boys began hooting at and cat calling guests as they arrived. They looked menacing, but nothing had happened. Inside, partying hard, I was not even aware of it. Then, around 9 pm one of my Shimer friends arrived and decided it was a good idea to hoot and cat call back. Bad idea. He was flat on his back in no time. A girl ran in and finally got my attention. I emerged and saw four or five of the guys standing over my friend, some aiming kicks at him. I pushed my way through them muttering something intelligent like “what the hell is going on here!” I knelt beside my friend who had now rolled himself into a ball like a hedgehog and was bleeding a bit.
That’s when I got a kick to the head, sending my glasses flying. I stood up. Got knocked back down. Stood up, rinse, repeat. Suddenly a young woman who I never saw before in a decades old mink coat charged up the stairs swearing like a sailor. She literally threw herself over the two of us. The astonished gang bangers pulled back. She helped me get to my feet, a bit unsteadily. I could see a knot of guys from the party now ready to charge into the melee. Which, I knew, could only make things worse. “Get the fug back inside!” Frankly they looked relieved at the suggestion. The girl and I gathered my more battered chum and together dragged him into the apartment.
We were under siege for most of the rest of the night. But, having nothing better to do, the party rolled on inside. Just no one could leave. By dawn there were bodies all over the place. A couple of us went outside. The Cabrini gunfire had stopped. The Howe Street Boys had gotten bored and gone home. We decided to drop some acid and walk to North Avenue Beach.
As you can see, I was not getting Where the Boys Are college Spring Break experience.
After college, of course, there was work. Lots of different jobs in those early years. Not a spring break to be had.
Fast forward a couple of decades and I am a married man with children in Crystal Lake and working as an elementary school custodian in nearby Cary. Aha! You say. You must have had Spring Break then! Actually, not so you would notice. Spring Break, like Christmas Break, institute days, state mandated holidays not in our contractual holidays—think Lincoln’s Birthday or for a while in Illinois, Pulaski Day—and the long Summer Break—were all work days.
In fact the custodial crew busted serious ass on days like that. That was when we did the heavy work that could not be done while school was in session—stripping and waxing hard floors, cleaning carpets. In class rooms that meant moving all of the furniture three times—to one side of the rooms, do the floor, to the other side of the room, do the other half, restore the room to its original condition. Kindergarten and first grade rooms, where the carpets were stained by spilled juice boxes, tempera paint, magic markers, and pee required that the rugs be scrubbed with a heavy rotary shampooer and then hot-water extracted, the latter sometimes twice. The same was true of the long hallways crusted with a winter’s worth of mud and salt stains. In the spring we only had five days to finish the whole school. And sometimes we were interrupted by spring blizzards that required shoveling and snow blowing.
By the time that the kids came back the custodians were broken and exhausted.
In the years since the school district saw fit to “invite” me to retire early. I of course did not retire. Even that first Spring ten years ago when I didn’t have a full time job, I picked up more nights at what had been my second job at a gas station. When I got my day job, I was as contract employee, an independent entrepreneur my boss assures me, which means I get no holidays, breaks, or vacation. If I am not on the job, I am not paid. And we could never afford for me not to get paid. So I have worked through every Spring Break since.
And as I have pointed out, this year I really need one. You can keep the partying and babes now. But those old grade school breaks sure sound appealing—sleeping till noon and reading good books.
Lord, hear my prayer….