Live ’Til I Die: a memoir of my father’s life
Your dad, as I recall, was the tallest and the loudest. Of all the kids. You always knew he was there because he was taller than anybody else and he was mouthy. Your dad was an attractive kid because he was interesting to be around. He was always the center of activity. My life with your father could be described as always interesting, sometimes exciting, and once in a while a little dangerous. Even as a lad. Your father had a certain something—a capability for mischief.
He was a big clumsy kid. It’s funny now but he used to walk off a curb and fall down and break a leg or something. He wasn’t too coordinated. You want honest answers? He was a pain in the backside. We’d go out in crowds—we didn’t call them gangs then, we just had a crowd of guys goin’ out. We’d be walkin’ down the street, maybe two or three of us alongside of one another on the sidewalk. Ben always seemed to kind of veer to one side or the other, keep walkin’ into people. He was an aggravator of sorts.
The parents didn’t get involved with the kids. With the exception of the Cahos, there was not a lot of contact between us, the kids in the group, and the various parents. They went their way and we were pretty much on our own. That’s why I think we stayed together as a group for such a long time.
Rita Caho McElroy:
I don’t know why the boys were available to spend so much time at our house, but they were. It’s true they could walk into our house without even ringing the doorbell. And we thought nothing of it. They were around so much they were like our brothers. A couple of times I had a date and all eight of them were there waiting for my date. When my date rang the doorbell they all rushed out like cattle, practically knocking one fella down. They thought that was the funniest thing ever.
When we were in high school Ben was a soda jerk at Walgreen’s on 67th and Stony Island, right on the corner there. I worked in a drugstore at 64th and Cottage Grove Avenue. But Ben was a typical soda jerk. He had the hat on… kind of like a Norman Rockwell painting—right!
Another place we used to gather was the Island. That was a soda fountain on Stony Island, about 65th and Stony. That’s where the Carmel boys would meet the girls from Loretto and Aquinas.
Dorothy Johnson Moore:
The nuns at Loretto didn’t want us going to the Island because the Carmel boys were there and they didn’t want us loitering around with them. Your dad used to come in the Island with Bill Caho and a bunch of guys. He was two years older than me. I thought he was handsome. He was really It. Tall, handsome, good company. Funny. Everybody liked him.
Your dad, he was cool. He was sort of a leader. It would be his idea where we were going. It was always his idea, and the trouble was, we’d get in trouble because of him. He couldn’t punch his way out of a paper bag but he would start every fight. He was always fast and loose and ready to go.
There were various adventures we’d have with your dad because we would go to the Southwest Side to Father Perez Hall, a dance hall where they’d serve anybody who could walk. There was a neighborhood tavern not far from there called OBJ’s. It was a little like “West Side Story”—there were a lot of groups that came there, some of them a little rough. Your father would always want to dance with one of their girls. That’s when things would get exciting. Only when he got a little older did it occasionally get dangerous.
O Be Joyful was a popular place for meeting girls. That was quite a little trip from our neighborhood, from Woodlawn. All of us drank young. All of us were being served in taverns in high school. We were all confirmed drinkers by the time we graduated high school. I mean, we were heavy drinkers, most of us. But we didn’t know it. Believe me, we didn’t know it.
We were pretty wild. In those days we started drinking—going into taverns even—when we were 15. During the war we’d pretend we were 4F. They’d say, “What are you doing in here? You should be in the Army.” And we’d say, “Well, Dempsey here has a heart murmur,” and somebody else would walk in with a limp. Just so we could get into some goofy bar and get a beer. We did a lot of that.
When we were drinking, we never thought about the consequences. Nobody told us, you’re going to be an alcoholic. Nobody said that. We grew up drinking. We were drinking from the time we were freshman in high school, as soon as we could. It was like smoking. It was the thing to do. We’d see bums on Madison. Well, we thought, but that’s different. We’d drink wine or beer, we can handle it. I’d like to have a nickel for every time we said we can handle it.