For me it probably started one weekend evening in Chicago’s Old Towne, Summer 1965, when I chanced to witness a street debate between 5 or 10 mostly Jewish American college students from Roosevelt University and a crowd of about 20, over the merits of the escalating Vietnam war. I was in Chicago that summer working on roofs in the western suburbs, hanging out with my college sweetheart, Suzy Fountain, sharing work and a room with my college buddy Chuck Paterson. I had never witnessed anyone criticizing U.S. foreign policy until that evening. Military action to prevent the spread of communism, as the Vietnam War was viewed, was an absolute necessity. I can remember dreams in which I was engaged in ghoulish hand-to-hand combat with Asian soldiers, inspired by a lifetime’s anti-communist teaching in my Catholic grade schools, high schools, and college. Perhaps I was attentive to the anti-war students because my father was disdainful of “flag waving veterans” at work, who had superior airs because of their military service(Dad was exempt because tool and die makers were needed to make the weapons in the arsenal of democracy). Maybe I listened with an inquiring mind because I was a political science major, with minors in history and philosophy. Perhaps it was the obvious literacy and intelligence of the students, who seemed more knowledgeable about the facts of the Vietnam war. After the crowd dispersed I and Chuck talked with the students who were sufficiently pleasant and inspiring that a tiny seed of doubt had been planted in my very ripe and fertile mind.
Let’s rewind the story a bit to my 18th summer, before Kennedy was assassinated, when worries involved basketball and girls, not a nation headed for new kinds of nightmares.
John Kennedy was president when I turned 18. Our family was enthralled. I can remember all 5 of us in our tiny living room at 6209 Marquette Ave., in South St. Louis, quite like Milwaukee’s “south side,” witnessing this brilliant, gorgeous man, an Irish Catholic American, just like us, offer compelling images of our nation’s possibilities and destiny. But politics was did not loom large in my minds eye back then, despite Uncle Emmett’s advise to introduce myself to the precinct captain of the local Democratic Party office over on Chippewa Ave., which was also the famous Route 66, only 10 blocks from my parents’ home.
Basketball, Kerry Moore, and roofing were my passions. I was preparing for my freshman year at Rockhurst College, a small Jesuit all male school in Kansas City, chosen because it offered the prospect of playing basketball, perhaps winning a scholarship if I made the grade my freshman year. Kerry and I were sweethearts during our junior and senior years in high school. I went to the local Jesuit school, St. Louis U. High, she to the “sister school,” St. Joseph’s Academy. Kerry was a lovely girl in every way, but her profoundly class conscious and overbearing mother made it very clear that no blessing would be forthcoming for a South St. Louis boy whose father was a tool and die maker. “Kerry should marry a banker’s son,” she literally told me more than once! And roofing! My father did not want me in harms way at his factory, where fingers were lost and young boys brushed up against hard men. But neither Mom nor Dad objected to roofing, even though roofers make machinists and tool and die makers look like choir boys. So Rock Tarantola and I, in our second year of roofing, found ourselves making the incredible sum of $2.50 per hour at South Side Roofing, he as Glen’s helper, me as Ed Diamond’s. Roofing made me feel strong and rich. It did, however, detract from my basketball ambitions. I did not have that much energy to practice after a day on the roofs in St. Louis summers. And I put on some bad weight from the Ted Drew malts, sometimes two, my wages allowed me to purchase just about daily, thinking it good to add some weight to my 155 lb. senior year playing weight.
Highlights of the summer of my 18th year include impressing Ed Diamond with my shingling prowess, playing basketball against Kenny Rutledge, taking a trip to Grand Haven Michigan with Rock in his Ford convertible, and dating Katey Cravin and Mimi Francisco.
Ed Diamond, like most professional steep roofers, was a spectacularly rough fellow. Cursed with a countenance only the most blessed of mothers could accept, an interior as homely as his exterior, Ed Diamond saw me as a necessary evil, a college lord fauntleroy, beyond contempt. He was enraged, spewing spit and venom, during a morning drive to the job site that found me unable to howl with him in appreciation at the silhouette of an elderly woman’s legs outlined beneath her house dress as she waited at a bus stop. He asked Bob Osterholtz, the Rock Hudsonesque owner of South Side Roofing, renowned for fabled stories of troweling roofing tar at roof/wall intersections with gloved hands rather than a trowel, to get rid of me that same evening.