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The End of the Beginning



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An oral history of November:

There were five of us driving west. The car was my old Studebaker, a beater with no radio, and we weren't going to stop until we made Chicago. Mid-afternoon--it was a Friday--we pulled over for gas in upstate New York, and Winnie went into the cafe there to buy a soda. I followed him in a couple of minutes later, and he looked at me and he said "They got him."

The jukebox was playing "Up on the Roof." I'm as sure of that as I am of my middle name.

We listened to the radio in the cafe for a few minutes and then we all got back into the car. If we pushed it we could make Syracuse by six o'clock and then we'd pull over at a restaurant or lounge or something and watch the news. We weren't thinking very clearly. There was nothing but news for the next four days.

Wait a minute. You're telling us about Kennedy's assassination.

Sure I am.

That was 24 years ago.

But that's when it all began. Vietnam, the 60s, the peace movement, Nixon, Watergate. That was the beginning of modern times--when we stopped to buy gas outside Albany. Before that lies youth.

But please give us something more recent.

OK. There was the Saturday afternoon after the memorial service for my father. Our friends had all gone home and no one was in the house now but the family. It was a chilly November day, not too cold for what we intended to do. We fetched the box from its shelf in an upstairs closet and piled into the car. We drove to the municipal golf course, a course he'd played all his life, and parked alongside his favorite hole. We got out, walked down a hill to the fairway, opened the box, and scattered him. Some of the pieces were about the size of a dime. My sister dropped a few ashes into a lagoon off the fairway, because that's where a lot of his balls had gone. There was a certain amount of kidding around and Mom said, "I just know he's up there somewhere laughing at all this." I took my time about what I was doing, and sprinkled methodically, but it turned out that the others hadn't. They were standing around waiting for me to finish, and then we climbed back up the hill and went home.

The next day I took my girlfriend to the place. I wish it had been a wet, lush spring day that washed my father into the earth, but it wasn't. The ground was brown and hard. "I'm not sure, but it was around here someplace," I said to my girlfriend, and then we came upon a crescent of lumpy gray ash that looked like someone's little campfire.

"Is that it?" she said. "I don't think so," I said, pulling her away. "I think it is," she said. But we were already walking back up the hill. My brothers apparently had let go of him in handfuls. Anyway, it is a beautiful hill, and I go back there now and then to visit.

I take it this episode wasn't last month either.

Oh no. It was a good 10, 11 years ago. And one year later, same month, our first child was born.

We had in mind November of '87, you know, last month.

And I'm telling you. Every month arrives with its baggage. Even when nothing much happens, and I am not saying that last month was such a month, November is still November. It is when the very last leaves fall off the trees, and Wrigley Field is empty and silent, and Thanksgiving when it comes is the only perfect holiday of the year. We surround ourselves with friends and thank God for letting us taste the experience that is life.

But last month?

What is it you want? This might interest you. One Thursday morning last month I carried five sacks of garbage out to the alley. Three of them bulged and weighed a ton and the other two just contained some kitchen scraps, bacon grease and so forth, and they were half empty and much lighter. I dumped them all into one of those new carts the city has handed out. I put the light bags in first and mashed them down with the big bags--OK, I see that look you're giving me, but this was the intellectual high point of the month! I mashed them down with the big bags, and realized, in a stroke of insight, that if I were simply piling these bags on the ground instead of placing them in a rigid container, I would have piled them in reverse order. The big bags would have gone down first to make a stable base and the light ones on top. You see, there's not even a simple answer to the question, "What's the right way to pile garbage bags?" The answer, as always, is, "What's the context?"

And that's what you remember?

Yeah. And on my way back inside, I went over to examine the rhubarb that's growing along the fence. There had been some mild days and I thought the rhubarb might have responded in some way to this weather, but it hadn't.

A few days later, we bought a new car. You probably know how a new car smells. How wonderful you feel climbing into it. But here's the really interesting thing. Our old car--which was filthy and all torn up inside and had a heater that didn't even work and which we hated!--as soon as we didn't need it anymore it became our dear old friend. We keep it around and drive it once in awhile; and I'll tell you, the real reason why is that we know if we trade it in it'll immediately be busted up for scrap.

This is pretty thin stuff.

Well I'm sorry. That is what I remember about last month. By January I'll have forgotten it all. Maybe I'm still too close to the trees to see the forest.

Let me refresh you. What were your feelings about the two big running stories of the month?


Charles and Di's marital problems and the search for a new Cubs manager.

In a perfect world, the next king of England should be a happy man. Now that Don Zimmer's manager I'd like to see him lose some weight. When he kicks dirt at umpires he always looks like an irritated strawberry.

Where were you when Douglas Ginsburg withdrew?

Boy, you'd think I'd remember something like that, but so help me . . . But I can tell you about my daughter's slumber party . . .

Do you remember anything at all about November 25?

Yes. I was driving home from the bank and I stopped at Mary's Kitchen for some Swedish pancakes. Then I came home. I let myself in. And my mother, who was sitting on the couch watching television, said, "Did you know Harold Washington just had a heart attack and is in full cardiac arrest?" I went up to my room where I could be alone for a few minutes, and turned on the big TV. And I watched it.

And what I thought, when I had taken enough of it in to think anything, was, this is the end of the beginning. Hearts were breaking all over Chicago, and nothing would ever mend them. Time, events, journalism, history--all that would march on. But for millions of people in Chicago, Harold Washington was the beginning. And the beginning was over.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/John Figler.

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