2023 Commentary & Memories
counted my years and realized that
I grew up in Mishawaka, Indiana, in a neighborhood of 315 houses that had been built after World War II for returning veterans. The streets were Normandy, Ardennes, Palau, Bastogne, Leyte, Saint Lo, and Guam, and the dads all had served in the U.S. military during WW II. My dad had served for the entire war, getting out six months after the war ended.
In some ways, during the first years of the neighborhood, it functioned like a military unit. No, there were no "commanders," and the military was not there, but you can't have house-after-house and street-after-street full of military-trained men who would not function as, well, military-trained men.
To be clear, Normain Heights was not "government housing." The neighborhood was begun by veterans. Mishawaka's American Legion and VFW organizations joined forces to deal with the housing shortage for returning vets. They formed a legal entity called "Veterans Homes of Mishawaka" and acquired land necessary for the construction. To buy the acreage (about 76 acres), they used a loan that would itself be repaid with the sales of the houses. And, in order to buy a house in the neighborhood, one had to be an honorably-discharged vet who had served during WW II. The vets buying the houses used VA loans, something that the U.S. Congress had authorized in the G.I. Bill.
The houses were modest but entirely serviceable. They were stick-construction, with aluminum siding on the outside, thin plasterboard on the inside, and nothing but air between the two -- sort of like metal sheds with drywall added on the inside to cover the "sticks." Thank God for the forced-air heat throughout the houses! Before the dads added insulation, things got cold at night. Early on, dads would join forces with other close-by dads and pretty much rebuild the shells of those houses. The sheetrock on the inside walls had to be removed; insulation was put into that empty-air-space between the aluminum siding and the sheetrock, and the dads and moms had warmer houses.
The dads borrowed and loaned tools back and forth. For the fancier and less-used tools, when a man was deciding what tool to buy next, he'd buy one that none of his neighbors had. Early on, those men functioned like a military unit. Within a few years, we all had insulated houses. There were long streets where kids played and big backyards for friends. And the streetlights told us when to go inside at night. For the first three or four years, most houses did not have phones. There was one pay phone inside a phone booth at the edge of the neighborhood, and there were emergency pull boxes at the end of every street that could put in an emergency call for help from police or firemen.
It was an unusual collection of men. In the 1950s, my dad had some status as a man who'd gotten out as a master sergeant. At that time, the fact that he supported his family by working in a factory was of less importance than the fact that he'd been a master sergeant in the U.S. Army. Behind us and across a street was John Kane, head of the Sociology Department at U. of Notre Dame. Dr. Kane testified as an expert witness for the NAACP in Brown v. Board of Education (1954). The lawyers working the case wanted a sociologist to say that separate educational facilities are inherently unequal and that such arrangements harm black children. The lawyers began their looking at top universities. None of the profs drawing big checks from the big-name universities would risk their big checks. NAACP's lawyers worked their way down the academic food chain until they reached John Kane, at Notre Dame. Father Hesburgh gave Dr. Kane a green-light, and John Kane gave the testimony that the lawyers needed. ... Fr. Hesburgh was a not-infrequent guest in the Kane household. There were early mornings when I'd be in the Kane home, playing with my little girlfriend, when Mrs. Kane had not yet cleaned up after the previous evening's soiree, which had included Fr. Hesburgh. My little friend and I would finish off the last bits from the funny-looking glasses and giggle as we did so.
My memories of growing up in Normain Heights are almost uniformly positive. It was a great place. We began at North Side in September 1955. Our teacher was Mrs. Uhrenhold, who also taught the kindergarten children at Twin Branch. We were in a big room with floor-to-ceiling windows that ran the entire width of the front of the classroom. Within the classroom, we had our own little potty rooms -- one for the boys, and one for the girls. The toilets and sinks were a little smaller than the usual. If you hear the smile on my face as you read these words, your hearing is good. The floor was made of big square tiles, some that had pictures on them. When we sat on the floor for storytime, I always tried to sit on the tile with the ballerina.
In the old photo below, I'm in the back row, 2nd from the left, between Bob Harringer and Tim Farr. Fifth in that row is Randy Shalyer. In front of Tim is Lois Rice. At the right end of the row with Lois is Christina Nicholas, and two away from Chris is Marsha Brown:
In 2nd grade, most of the girls became "Blue Birds." Mothers in the community welcomed little girls into their homes once a week to help them form friendships. We would sing, "To have fun. To learn to make beautiful things. To remember to finish what I begin. To learn to keep my temper in. And to learn about nature and living outdoors. To have adventures with all sorts of things. To make friends." Then Blue Birds became Camp Fire Girls, and we learned about giving service and being trustworthy. Along the way, we made hobo stoves and bird feeders, camped at Camp Kiloqua, and learned that you could cook anything by wrapping it in aluminum foil and tossing it into a campfire.
My oldest and most trusted friends from childhood are people whom I met back at North Side and in Normain Heights. We were children of WW II vets and grew up with similar values and with a similar understanding of what is right and what is wrong.
For 5th grade, we moved to the dark halls of Battell Elementary; some of the Battell kids may have seen the North Siders as interlopers. In 7th grade, we moved to the intimidating Main Junior High. Main was a big mixing pot, with kids from Mary Philips who'd been together since kindergarten, some kids from Bingham, a few from LaSalle, and a few from St. Monica's. Main was rough. Not only were there boys who would settle differences with physical violence, there also were some "tough" girls who would have knock-down, drag-out fights, and there were male teachers who would beat male students. Strangest of all, we were expected to accept all of that as "normal."
November 1963: I was in 8th grade at Main in a gym class, in the school basement. To get inside the gym, one walked down five or six steps. After all were inside the gym, the steps were pushed inside a closet. That November afternoon, the gym was filled with a mob of girls, all wearing blue shorts and white shirts, running around and making noise. Then the noise quieted because something strange had happened: The gym door had opened. Standing above the gym was a large grey-haired man, a teacher, who normally never would have opened the gym door with girls inside. We got quiet and looked at him. He looked ashen. It was a few moments before he spoke: "Mr. Firmani has asked me to tell you that President Kennedy has been shot." He said no more and walked away. The confusion of 60 girls was left to a young phys ed teacher, who knew no more than we knew.
With the magical thinking of a 13-year-old, I told myself that it was an experiment by the school principal, so that he might observe how we would respond to such news. It wasn't until I stepped inside my mother's car after school that I understood it was real. Even at 13, I understood that the world had changed that day.
In September of 1964, we began at Mishawaka High School. The place seemed enormous!
June 1968: We were awaiting a high-school graduation ceremony. I was one of ten on the graduation committee. By chance, also on that final MHS '68 committee was another who had begun kindergarten with me, way back in September 1955 at North Side. The graduation committee planned and arranged everything perfectly -- except for one thing: We had no idea that there would be the need for a silent prayer for Bobby Kennedy. He was shot in the early morning hours of our graduation day. He died the next day.
Those two Kennedy assassinations were the beginning and the end of my time as a "carefree teenager."
Between those bookends, I don't remember much: I remember feeling lost in a vast space during 9th grade at MHS. I remember arranging a bus trip to Chicago's Museum of Science & Industry for kids in the Science Club during 10th grade. I remember the strange circumstances after 11th grade when I was told that I had enough credits to graduate. For reasons that make no sense at this end of life, instead of taking my diploma and moving on, I stayed around for a redundant "senior year." I.e., during all of 12th grade, I already was a high-school grad. Strange, huh? ... Beyond those memories, my time at MHS is mostly a blur.
After June 5, 1968, the MHS Class of '68 was in the books.
That time at MHS when the lives of over 420 young kids intersected was a short time, but that graduation year -- when we were "officially grown up" -- served as something of a measuring stick as the years ticked by. In 2008, 2013, and 2018, at the request of various folks, I arranged potluck days at Castle Manor (in Merrifield Park). The invite was to any and all who ever had been part of the MHS '68 group.
Apparently, people enjoyed the days I arranged. In 2022, people began sending emails asking if I would do it again in 2023, fifty-five years after high-school graduation, from 600 miles away. For 47 years, I've lived 600 miles from Mishawaka. For many, many years, I've had no connection to Mishawaka. I'm 72, and my life long ago moved on from my childhood hometown. The North Side and Normain Heights crew are forever in my heart. However, all but a few of the folks whom I'd met at MHS had become nothing but genealogy puzzles that I fiddle with, just as some folks fiddle with crossword puzzles. I would share news of deaths when I would hear about them, and there were a few people with whom I would exchange emails, but the many hours of pulling together such an event and a 600-mile drive to spend a day with any and all held no interest for me.
Then one more insane story hit the headlines in 2022 -- one more insanity delivered to the USA by trans-radical-activists pushing the insanity that men-can-be-women and women-can-be-men.
For 47 years, I've lived in "left-wing liberal land." I wanted one day of escape to a place with normal people -- people who do not support the killing of viable unborn babies, people who know that men cannot become women and that women are real, and people who comprehend that corporate media have been gaslighting us. I wondered if there were others who would like such a day.
I looked over the list of email addresses I'd collected for MHS '68 people. I deleted all whom I knew to be supporters of the modern leftist agenda. Then I sent a blind-copy mass-email to the rest: "I'm considering renting a place in Mishawaka and inviting people I knew back when who know that men-who-pretend-to-be-women are MEN, that killing viable babies is wrong, and that corporate media have lied to us about Hunter's laptap and about the 'Russia! Russia! Russia!' hoax. I would pay the rent, and food would be potluck. Interested?" That was in March of 2022.
My words were clear: I would pay the rent; I would hostess the day. And I would do it so that I could have one last day in my old hometown, with people who share what I see as basic beliefs and basic values. It was a pretty broad invite: What kind of a person thinks it's okay to kill a baby who could live outside its mother's body? What kind of a person does not know what a woman is? And, of course, it was not long after my invite when The New York Times and The Washington Post acknowledged that, well, by golly, Hunter's laptop was real and Hillary paid for the "Russia! Russia! Russia!" hoax.
There were over 30 positive responses. The positives included six from the old Normain Heights crew. Among the others were most of the folks whom I'd be willing to drive 600 miles to visit with. ... Among the Normain Heights responses: "Tell me where and when, and I'll be there." ... "I'd like to cover half the rent." ... The best was, "I just keep believing we have hit the wall and this ship is going to right itself soon."
The Normain Heights kids mean the most to me. We played marbles on the playground at school. My mom played "Santa Claus" for them at Christmas. We were Blue Birds and Camp Fire Girls together. We played kick the can and baseball in the streets. We played in the woods together and followed the creek. We spent summers at Normain Heights Park. (Did anyone ever really learn how to square stitch that plastic gimp?) We caught tadpoles in the creek together. We played cowboys and Indians. We had pretend weddings with bathtowels as wedding veils. We dug holes in the ground and were going to get to China -- or at least make a tunnel under the street. We put on plays in driveways and charged people a penny to watch us give our thespian performances.
So I paid the rent, signed the lease, and planned one last day to remember Mishawaka -- a day of moms, apple pie, and the American flag. The invite allowed folks to sort themselves out. Here was the audio invite:
July 2nd arrived, and I was at Castle Manor. Shortly after I unlocked the kitchen door, three of Mrs. Hysinger's old Camp Fire Girls arrived to help Mrs. Blankenhorn's old Camp Fire Girl set up tables and chairs. ... "Seek beauty; give service, and knowledge pursue. Be trustworthy ever, in all that you do."
Soon after, Terry DeMaegd arrived with a coffee maker and some donuts from West End Bakery.
Castle Manor served as a pop-up home-for-a-day for people whom I wanted to see in my last visit to Indiana.
There were many
moms, several homemade apple pies, and a big American
Doris Kronewitter made a "by-phone appearance" from Florida. She had planned and expected to be there. She had paid for her non-refundable plane ticket. In the days before July 2, Doris was mugged and robbed in broad-daylight. The thief got away with her purse, and with all of Doris' ID. Physically she was not seriously hurt, but she was understandably shookup. Doris is 73. Her husband of 47 years died in 2014. She is a small woman, and she was attacked by a male likely in his mid-20s. A reality that is hard to accept at our age is that we are vulnerable. Some advice to women is this: If you carry, keep it on your person. ... (A side story here is that I made an MHS '68 man blush when I spoke of bra holsters. That says something about the basic decency of some old MHS '68 men.)
Don Plummer kindly offered grace before we ate.
Christina Nicholas and Lois Rice were there. Chris is beautiful! She is my age, but she doesn't look a day over 40. She still has that long, sleek, dark hair and beautiful smile. I handed my camera to someone to take a photo of Lois, Chrissy, and me, but somehow the image wasn't on my camera the next morn. ... Same thing happened with a photo that I wanted of Jim Shown, Connie Shaffer, and me. Jim, Connie, and I spent many hours in the "blue room" back in the '67-'68 school year working to make The ALLTOLD happen every week, week after week. Connie made the trip from Florida to Mishawaka. That's a long way, and I was delighted when I saw her walk in at Castle Manor.
Some of the vets from the MHS '68 group were there. I asked each to stand and tell about his military service. Sixty-five from the MHS '68 group served in the military: 60 men and five women. About 25% of the men from the MHS '68 group were in the military. Twenty-four men served in Vietnam. One served in Iraq. Their recognition was long over-due.
Some played Euchre in the afternoon, but my visiting with others left me out. That was the one "miss" of the day for me.
I listened to a few tell of childhood hardships that I'd never known about. I asked a few, "How are you?" and could tell from the face that the smile covered some realities of being our age. Sometimes a bit more questioning revealed that some are wearing smiles even while they're hurting.
There were a couple of excellent conversations. With one, I was mainly listening. With the other, I did too damned much talking, but it was a pleasure to tell a story to another lawyer who could understand an old story of a small part of my life:
* In high school, Jerry Thacker was a modest, bright, quiet kid. He was not the kind of showboat about whom anyone would have said, "He'll end up building and holding together one of the best school systems in Indiana." But he did, and I got him talking. Jerry has been superintendent of PHM schools since 2006. Every number, every bit of information says that Jerry is an amazing superintendent. I asked if he thought of retiring. Obviously, he could easily afford to retire and live an easy life. Not only did his words say that he has no interest in retiring, his face and his tone communicated that's not on his mind. He has built a great school system, and he wants to make it even better. I asked, "So why have you not left? A superintendent with your track record surely has been courted by bigger school corporations that have offered you lots more money." I don't recall his exact words, but I remember the look on his face. His response was on the order of, "This is my baby. I built it. I nurture it every day. I could not walk away from it." ... If you're buying a house in the Mishawaka area, buy it in the PHM school district. Whether you have kids or not, an excellent public school system will protect the money that you put into your house.
* Then there was poor Tom Grau. He politely asked a question to make conversation, and it turned into me babbling a long story about my strange mid-life law school adventure from almost a quarter-of-a-century ago. I never shut up to let him talk. The story involved how I beat the ABA's Standard 501 by offering a deal in exchange for not suing. But it was a long, tedious story, and I owe Tom Grau an apology for bending his ear so badly.
The food was excellent, and there was lots left over. By supper time, the decision was to skip the delivery pizza and dine on leftovers from lunch. After supper, there was still food left over. One of the hustles at day's end was finding a place to take the leftover food. Two MHS '68 folks who've been part of the First Methodist Church community since they were young children made connections to get the food to Hannah's House, a pro-life group in Mishawaka that puts their money and their efforts where their mouth is: They help women who are pregnant and otherwise on their own.
Late in the day at Castle Manor, Alan got a photo of me, Pat McGee, and Jim Shown:
My shirt read, "Heroes are remembered." It was in honor of Spider Draves (1948-2022).
The day ended with an amazing fireworks display. Terry had offered use of his driveway, just south of Merrifield Park. I'd given a budget to Spider's daughter, at Spider Fireworks. She assembled a beautiful show. And, by chance, Terry's neighbor two houses down also was setting off fireworks. There were side-by-side fireworks. From 9:45 until 10:15 that night, the sky was lit over Homewood Avenue.
Alan and I stayed in Terry's driveway until after midnight, talking one last time. Alan finally asked me a question that no ever had asked, and maybe no one else has ever considered: "How is it for you, Alice, to send out death notices?" Answer: It's not always easy. At least 88 from the MHS '68 group have died. For some, I barely knew the person, and it's just info to share. But some were real friends way back when, and the news has hurt, and composing the info to share has hurt. For some, I knew in advance what was coming: A very few informed me in advance how ill they were. One gave me specific info that she wanted shared and saved. One asked me to research suicide laws for her; I refused. Sometimes the death news comes from a close friend of the deceased; sometimes that close friend was also a friend from my young childhood, and I remembered back when we were just little children. Occasionally the news has come from a surviving spouse who never knew me but who knew that his/her spouse had been getting odd emails with "MHS '68" in the subject line for many years. Once the news came from a daughter; her dad had raised her by himself, after he'd buried his wife when he was 31 years old and left with four children under nine. ... Finally, it was too late to trade one more old memory. Alan and I met the 1st time in a classroom at North Side School. We hugged goodbye in Terry's driveway. I don't remember the 1st hello, but I'll remember the final goodbye.
The next day, I visited with Spider's daughter, and I left Mishawaka with a genealogy puzzle to work on: Spider died on June 10, 2022. Four months after he died, I learned that Spider and I share DNA; i.e., the DNA says that we are distant cousins, through my father, but how is not known. Spider's daughter did a DNA test at ancestryDOTcom. We had learned back in October that we share DNA: 8 cM across 1 segment. With some luck and some fiddling, Spider's daughter got into Spider's 23andMe account, and I could see the exact share:
For a genealogist, what you see above is GOLD! The top portion of the image shows 23andMe's analysis of the DNA share. It shows that Spider and I share one segment on chromosome # 22. Segment size is 10.35 cM (which 23andMe rounds up to 11). ... When I got home, I downloaded Spider's raw data and uploaded it at GEDmatch. The GEDmatch analysis is more refined. It shows in the colored bar at the bottom of the above image, and it shows exact start and stop positions as 26,821,469 and 34,156,607. The DNA share on chromosome # 22 is in blue. ... Already, I can indentify one other person with whom Spider and I share that exact segment. It's a genealogy puzzle that will provide many hours of "genealogy-ing." It is the best possible souvenir I could take home from my last time in Mishawaka.
Here's a photo of Spider with one of his oldest and bestest friends, Joe Swift. Two old Marines, both who were boots-on-the-ground in Vietnam:
It was a mixed-feeling kind of trip back to the old hometown. Returning to a place where you grew up but that you moved away from almost 50 years ago and that you've had no connection to for many, many years is jarring. The reality is that you CAN'T go home again. That time is gone. That place is gone. Even the people whom you knew as a child are no longer the people whom you once knew. And you're not who they once knew. I have both good and bad memories of Mishawaka. Normain Heights? Almost 100% good memories. ... MHS? It was such a short time of my life, and teen years are tough for most.
To those who came, thank you kindly for a lovely day. A special thank you to those who travelled long miles to be there. People came from Arizona, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Florida, North Carolina, and Texas. Please know that I really appreciate your having crossed those miles, to share one last meal and one final hello & goodbye.
May God keep you safe and grant you peace.