(Author’s note: In the middle school where I work, a class of eighth-grade students were each asked to write a memoir. I joined in — with middle school memories, now 40 years old.)
We packed brown bag lunches with ham or bologna sandwiches, potato chips and orange soda. Just Dwight, Pete and me. We were close friends and classmates: only 12 years old, giggly and hyper. Also, bored and alone all summer. We shared similar backgrounds: Each of us living with a single, overworked parent, divorced or widowed. In 1978, like now, family dynamics weren’t discussed by “tween” boys, who would rather send spit balls through a straw at one another. We met at Dwight’s house, closest to the city bus and the first of three public transportation modes to reach Wrigley Field, home of the woeful Chicago Cubs. It would be another decade before the beloved and beautiful ballpark would add lights for night games. That meant three kids from the suburbs could attend Cubs’ games with their 1 p.m. first pitches and few fans. About 25 times that summer, we sat in the wooden grandstand seats – as isolated from our dreary home lives as if sitting on Mars. In a sense, Wrigley Field became our daycare, our summer camp . . . one that left three kids unattended in a big-city stadium, where a roaming vendor pitied us and launched a small bag of peanuts our way. It was weird and wild and wonderful.
From the suburban bus, we shifted to the “Skokie Swift” rail line then hurried onto a congested Chicago elevated (“L”) train, which wiggled through the city’s north side and deposited us at Wrigley Field. It took about 45 minutes. The other riders who glanced at us were amused. “Where are you kids going?” one asked as we clutched our lunches. I felt slight envy from an adult when one of us said, “Cubs game,” while he was heading to a drab downtown office. We enjoyed each time the “L” zipped so closely past ragged apartments as if the train would scrape brick buildings; the ride always felt like a carnival attraction. Cubs’ tickets for general admission seats were $2. Within a week, we learned that the team gave free tickets to anyone who stayed after games and flipped up the wooden seats. After that, we usually got in for free.
We arrived to games an hour early, watched batting practice and scrambled for autographs. Most players were all business. Few, if any, liked day games; it meant playing in stifling humidity and the sun’s laser glare. Only shortstop Ivan DeJesus signed autographs regularly or tossed practice balls to fans. During games, we took turns filling out the scorebook. We dashed for foul balls as if they were covered in $100 bills. Dwight got one game ball that landed at his feet, and he allowed us to hold it for mere seconds, provoking our jealousy and an argument over who sat where that day. We jeered opponents and – when a New York Mets outfielder flipped the bird in our direction – it sent us into spasms of laughter. Hey, we said, they can actually hear us! Between innings, we’d walk through Wrigley Field’s corridors, which hardly changed since its 1914 groundbreaking. The Cubs lost more than they won despite having a future Hall of Famer, pitcher Bruce Sutter, and home run slugger Dave Kingman. If anything the Cubs whittled away the summer like we did, just looking for a place to hangout.
In mid-August, before we started seventh grade that fall, the harsh big-city reality landed literally in our laps. We stayed after the game to flip seats for free tickets and we left an empty stadium. The steps up toward the elevated (“L”) train entrance were oddly quiet. We sat with our backs against a fence while waiting for a train. Two men, both in their early 20s, ran onto the platform and shouted racial slurs at other men down on the street. We froze as still as flagpoles. The two racist young men then darted to the exit. Their departure calmed our nerves after about five silent minutes. We sat back against the fence – and, at that moment, at least a half-dozen bottles shattered across the fence thrown from the street below. It felt like 100 cymbals smacked together. We tucked ourselves as small as turtles. Then the noise stopped. So much glass was strewn across the platform it was as if a sudden rain fell instead of diamond-shaped glass of all sizes. The train arrived and, shaken, we rushed into it with our lungs thundering; none of us was hurt. The scratches and memories were internal. No one would tell their parents, we agreed, fearing we wouldn’t be able to return to Wrigley Field.
“How was the game?” my Dad asked me that night.
“Fine,” I said.
* * *
We did return to Wrigley Field that summer and three more years after that, although the number of games declined as other activities filled time. Each of us continued to explore Chicago, not just its sports but the city’s concert venues, art and science museums, sky-high buildings and glorious lakeshore. We became wiser; we knew to sidestep times when Chicago didn’t feel safe. Three decades later, I returned to Wrigley Field with my son for a sold-out night game. Massive screens filled the outfield. A few years before, the Cubs remodeled Wrigley Field’s to squeeze every dollar from its fans. But the team won easily that night. And for the first time since before World War I, they won the World Series that October.
I haven’t heard from Dwight in 23 years. He has a common last name, and I can’t find him even on the deepest Google search. It’s so odd; he disappeared like snow in April. Pete and I keep in touch every few years, but we exchanged a flurry of Facebook direct messages one night last year. When we were 14 years old, we attended a few professional soccer games at Wrigley Field. We followed a team called the Chicago Sting and, when they won the league championship, we joined other fans and headed to O’Hare Airport where they would return to Chicago. I brought my Chicago Sting pennant and held it high. ESPN aired a popular documentary on a British soccer star who spent a few seasons playing in the American league. To illustrate how soccer grabbed America’s attention, ESPN showed a montage of fan gatherings, including the one we attended when the Sting won. As I watched the documentary, I turned to my son and said with shock, “That’s me!” Pete had seen the same program. We shared screen shots: There I am, taller than most even in my early teens, hoisting my pennant.
“Those were good times,” Pete wrote me.
“Yeah,” I wrote back, “good times.”