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If it were possible to return to the day when we were very poor and very happy, men would line up for miles to do it. A Moveable Feast was posthumously published, and when he was writing it, Hemingway was neither poor nor happy nor young. But Mike Royko's letters burn with the passion and obsession of the moment. It is a state older men remember as happiness because they would be so happy to feel anything that intensely again. Here is Royko in a panic because he hasn’t heard from Carol in a few days: “The fact that you don’t feel the way I do and probably never will is a very old, old story. It’s happened thousands of times. I’m prepared for that — nearly expect it. If fate had it that you not only didn’t feel love but that you should hate me, I could even bear that. Indifference is the most frightening possibility of all. I could bear anything but that.”
The letters begin in February 1954 with Royko, 21, still in the air force but home from Korea and stationed now in the state of Washington. The first letter is a nonchalant note to the Duckmans, the friends down the block back in Chicago that “Mick” somehow avoided dropping in on during a recent leave. He shrugs off his absence. Writing back, Carol Duckman, 19, drops the news that her brief marriage didn't work out — she and her husband have separated. The information hits Royko like a miracle. “Writing this letter is going to be the toughest thing I’ve ever done,” he responds. “I’m in love with you…. I’ve been in love with you for so long, I don’t remember when it started…”
The letters pour out of him. There’s a pause in November, when Mick and Carol marry, but they resume when Mick goes back on duty and end in January 1955 with his news that he’s being transferred to the air force unit at O’Hare Field to finish up his enlistment.
David cannot say why, but Carol's letters to Mick did not survive. Carol kept every letter Mick wrote, and eventually they turned up in one of the boxes that David moved into his basement after his father died in 1997, which was 18 years after she did. "I'm certain he knew they were there," David says about his father and the letters, "and I'm just as certain he never reread them after Mom died. I think it would've been just too painful."
Until he found them, David tells me, he was no longer sure they actually existed. His mother had told him about them when he was 13. They’d been sitting around his grandmother’s kitchen table and she’d said “I have something to tell you” and for the first and last time told him the story — about marrying Larry, and calling it off, and the letters that then came bursting out of his father. “And she told me why she hadn’t told me before,” says David. “It wasn’t shame, a family secret, none of that. There was no reason to keep the secret except one reason — so I’d be old enough to keep my mouth shut. Not to anybody else but to Dad. Because he was still insanely jealous. The mention of Larry would send him into, if not a rage a depression.”
Decades later, it can be hard to remember the exact order in which the transformative events of a childhood happened, the series of little awakenings that constitute coming of age. But David thinks that by the time his mom told him about the letters he already “had a sense that Dad could be obsessively jealous.” He says he remembers his parents “coming home from an event that had taken place in some kind of room atop a high rise, and Mom telling me that during the evening, a guy made some lewd remark toward her. Dad went berserk and picked the guy up over his head and was moving toward a window to throw him through, with several other guys finally stopping him.”
So when his mom told him to keep his mouth shut, he obeyed. Never did he say a word about the letters, never again to his mother and and never at all to his father, “or anybody in the freakin’ world. Just because my father never got over it.”
David Royko is 51. That's seven years old than his mother was when she died and old enough for him to be the father of the two people writing and reading the letters of Royko in Love. A divorce mediator for 22 years, David Royko published Voices of Children of Divorce in 1999. I described it in the Reader as an "unpretentious, mournful book," and when I called him up to interview him I got to know him. I've always envied him his ability to talk about his parents. "He was a rough-and-tough Chicago journalist," David told me then about his dad, "and that doesn't necessarily translate into being a Father Knows Best kind of dad. He wasn't home much. And my father was never somebody who glossed over things in terms of himself. He was the most self-critical person I've ever known."
A year ago, David talked about a reminiscence Roger Ebert had written of O'Rourke's, the writers' bar in Old Town. "I understand now in a way I couldn’t understand as a kid how my father could be drawn, more than drawn, having grown up in a tavern and this being very comfortable — homelike almost — for him," said David. "Being a guy in his position, on top of the world, the reigning rock star of columnists. Surrounded by people, intelligent people, funny people, and to be at the pinnacle of it....I wish I had been there, instead of at home waiting with my mother. There’s almost a feeling like — what’s the word? — I feel like I’m being, not unfaithful, but when I think back 30 years ago, I wish I could have been down at O’Rourke’s with Dad."
David's work has taught him what happens to a heedless promise of life-long love. A life lived happily ever after is never in the cards. Yet sometimes the promise is kept.
“The thing is,” says David, “it was always up and down with the family depending on where Dad was at with his drinking — all of that.” When his mother died, David was 20 and angry. “I might have said, ‘Well, they would have wound up divorced anyway.’ I might likely have been feeling, ‘Well, she should have divorced him.’” But today David knows more about his parents and a lot more about marriage. “What I’ve come to see,” he says, “is if Mom had lived a full life and if she was alive now and Dad was alive now, and they’d both be in their 70s, if they’d made it through the roughest patches, if that had continued, and then things settle into a different — things turn out fine in the long run. Even during the rough patches she never filed for divorce. She knew him better than anybody and loved him more than anybody and she never filed for divorce. There was such a strong core of love for that marriage.”