The Swain-Mitchell Boys and Other Friends

THE FOLLOWING IS AN EXCERPT FROM MY MEMOIR “RAISED ON THE RADIO” WHICH I WILL RELEASE IN 2018.

“…With a friend at hand you will see the light, if your friends are there, then everything’s all right..”  (Bernie Taupin)

A key part of my formative years was growing up in Elmhurst with neighborhood friends we referred to as the Swain and Mitchell boys. Swain is the street me and some others lived on and the next street over was where the Mitchell boys were housed. I was the youngest of the guys by one year and some were as much as ten years older than me. The Swain-Mitchell boys were a constant in my life for a long time. There were the Hassler brothers, Tom and Pete, Steve Bouse, Spicer brothers Andy, Bill and Mark, Jerry Dhamer, Steve ‘Harvey’ Charvat and Dennis ‘Rudy’ Rudolph. Rudy was a speedy guy who while playing running bases in the street could slide on the asphalt and not rip his jeans or slice up his knees or elbows. Playing sports together, all major sports, was what the Swain-Mitchell boys did almost daily. It was a constant for all of us. We swam in the summer, played wiffle ball, off the wall, watched sports on TV in the Spicer basement and went to Cubs, Bulls & Blackhawks games as a group. We also did everything from play ding-dong ditch at night to skitching on car bumpers in the snow-filled winters.

All the Swain-Mitchell boys were often jabbing fun at someone else in the group. It wasn’t what is now referred to as bullying, it was good natured joking. Slow runners had to “get the piano off their backs” and somebody who was all sweaty and smelly “could wake the dead.” If you couldn’t keep up with the joking the others did, then you got eaten alive and we all took part and laughed through it all. Steve ‘Harvey’ Charvat was the funniest of the bunch. During rounds of all of us ranking on each other, Harvey would lay low, stay quiet and then come up with some perfectly worded zinger that would bust up everyone. Harvey was like a sniper, one shot and someone was slain. I picked up a lot from him about being clever with my comments.

The Swain – Mitchell boys still stay in regular touch despite moving away years ago. The down note being Jerry Dhamer was the victim of what remains an unsolved murder. Jerry ran his older brother Jim’s successful plumbing business. One morning in November of 2006 as he was leaving the house and walking to his car, some unknown person shot Jerry dead with shotgun blasts. Jerry by all reports and for all we knew did not have an enemy in the world. His death remains a mystery. Jerry Dhamer’s wife and family hold out hope for a resolution to this awful tragedy some day. The Swain and Mitchell boys do too.

Come seventh grade, which was the first year of Junior High or Middle School, I met a guy named Bob Ciciora. We had classes together and Bob or as he came to be known later ‘Bobbo’, would become my very closest friend and still is. We shared a common bond in humor, joking about our teachers and impersonating their voices and characteristics. That was more than enough to lock us like super glued Lego bricks. Bobbo and I remain close like that to this very day. He’s pretty much the brother I never had.

To borrow a line from the end of the movie “Stand by Me”, “I never had friends like I did when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”

Where Were You When The World Stopped Turning?

THE FOLLOWING IS AN EXCERPT FROM MY MEMOIR “RAISED ON THE RADIO” WHICH I LOOK TO RELEASE IN 2018

At the time of 9/11/01 I was working as the morning show producer at US*99 radio in Chicago.  Big John Howell & Trish Biondo were co-hosting the show.

I attended a family wedding on Sunday September 9th 2001 and had Monday September 10th off from work. On Tuesday 9/11 we were having a regular morning show when Trish Biondo came into my studio a few minutes before eight a.m. to tell me to tune my TV to the Today Show. I switched channels to see an airplane lodged into the side of the north tower of the World Trade Center. I wasn’t even sure if it was an airliner or a small private plane. Big John Howell told listeners about what was on TV but nobody knew what was happening. I stayed in my studio to screen calls and monitor my TV.

Less than twenty minutes later, while on the phone with a listener, I kept one eye on my TV screen and saw a second hijacked plane hitting the south tower of the World Trade Center. I was numb with shock seeing this go down live! John went on to announce what just happened and that we were under attack. I wondered to myself if there was some computer hacking that took over the airliners’ controls and steered them into the towers. All of our phone lines were lit up, pulsing fast like my heart rate and I answered them all. Many questions and updates from listeners kept coming in and it was a crazy situation.

About half an hour after the south tower was hit, there came word that a jet crashed into the Pentagon in D.C. A caller told me this and I flipped TV channels to get confirmation. With the Pentagon attacked the first words that came to my mind were what Governor Connelly’s wife said when JFK’s motorcade was being fired on in Dallas in 1963, “My God they’re going to kill us all!” I truly remember thinking this. My rationale was if the Pentagon is our country’s base for military operations/defense and it’s under siege, who the hell makes calls on how our country defends us? We were in a world of shit. I was never more scared in my life than when the Pentagon got crashed into. Was this the end? Was this OUR end?

Next was a local news report that a threat had been phoned into Chicago’s Sears Tower (now called the Willis Tower) and they were evacuating the entire building. I picked up a hotline call from our GM Steve Ennen. He said if the Hancock received the same ‘get out’ order we were to switch our radio transmission to simulcast sister station WBBM AM, Newsradio 78, then get out of the building ASAP. I relayed this information on the air to Big John and noted that since the Hancock is considered to be one of the most recognized buildings in the world, I wouldn’t be surprised if we got a similar threat.

As I left the air studio, an announcement blared out of a hall speaker from the Hancock Security people ordering everyone out of the building immediately. I told Big John this news as Trish left the control room, grabbed her purse from her office and was out the door. John and I were talking about the Hancock evacuation and he wanted to stay. I said, “John, we HAVE to go!” He grudgingly agreed, signed off then switched our broadcast transmission to Newsradio 780.

The John Hancock Building

Hustling to our morning show office I scooped up my briefcase and put in a quick call to my mother. I told her I was O.K. , on my way out of here and that I loved her. Mom was puzzled. “What are you talking about?” Turns out she was in her garden tending to flowers and tomatoes and just got back in the house when I called.   She knew nothing about the planes crashing into the World Trade Center and the unfolding chaos. My mom told me to be careful getting out of there and said she loved me too. In just about an hour’s time we went from a plane has struck one of the World Trade Center buildings to evacuating our building because the world went nuts.

Before leaving the 13th floor, I needed a quick bathroom break. When I got to the men’s room, the fear I had over the Pentagon getting hit suddenly lifted. I thought, “If this is it, and it’s my last day on this earth, I’m O.K. with that. I had a good life and if the worst happened, I’m ready for what’s next.” Washing my hands I smiled thinking if the Hancock got slammed by a jet right at this very moment, I could die like Elvis did, in the bathroom.

John and I met up at the elevators and headed down to the Hancock lobby. The doors opened and I pivoted toward the parking garage elevators so I could get my car. John walked to the street exit and saw I wasn’t with him. He called out and asked if I was going to stay downtown and wait out the building’s evacuation. I told John this might be the end of everything and I was going to be with those I love. With that, my elevator door opened and I was on my way to fetch my car to get out of Dodge. It was very spooky to see a totally abandoned parking garage and my car was one of the last around.

Minutes later while crossing Michigan Avenue en route to the hopefully safe suburbs, I had the radio on the all news station and saw so many people on the sidewalks on their cell-phones. Nobody knew what to say or what to make of anything. A couple months later Alan Jackson would come up with the best words to describe 9/11 with the song “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning?” Alan nailed the mood and the feeling in ways that can still be felt today.

Once the Hancock evacuation was lifted, John Howell did make it back on the US*99 airwaves and did a stellar job updating listeners on the insanity of the terrorist attacks. He took calls and provided a smart, calm and measured voice of sanity during an insane day. I admired what John did but at the same time was fine with getting the hell out of the city and taking everything in from the network TV reports at home.

We all knew 9/11 would change millions of lives forever. However the depth and scope of those changes was way beyond what anyone ever anticipated. To this day it’s pretty scary to think nineteen hi-jacking assholes could have such an effect on the world. Alan Jackson’s song was a profound moment to come out of 9/11 and while the world turns in a different way these days, I’m just glad to still be here to live in it.

“Welcome to White Castle May I Take Your Order?”

THE FOLLOWING IS AN EXCERPT FROM MY MEMOIR “RAISED ON THE RADIO” WHICH I HOPE TO RELEASE LATER THIS YEAR

At age sixteen, I began working part time in nearby Lombard at White Castle, home of the greasy bite sized ‘sliders.’  Most of my friends had similar jobs and they were not hard to find. Back then, it wasn’t IF you were going to work, it was WHERE.  My pals Bobbo Ciciora and Todd Beja ended up working with me at the castle for a time. Pay started at $3.30 an hour.  Considering the minimum wage at the time was $2.30 an hour, it was a decent job. This was 1977 when a movie ticket would cost no more than $2.50 and gasoline was around sixty cents a gallon.  White Castle took good care of their employees with even part timers getting a week’s paid vacation after working there a year.  Working on holidays like Thanksgiving, New Year’s Day and Easter we earned double pay.

One weekday afternoon a wedding reception took place in the White Castle dining room.  About thirty people bounced in, the bride in her gown, groom in his suit and everyone else dressed like they just came from church. They even brought in a wedding cake and champagne.  I recall the bride telling her new husband in a half-joking manner, “I’ll never marry you again.”  We burger makers posed in some of the photos the wedding party took.  I sometimes wonder if that couple is still married today, probably not.

Working the occasional weekend late hours of 11pm til 7am I got a glimpse of what adult party life was like. White Castle was open 24/7 and the bars would stop serving booze by 2:00 a.m. so we’d have lines out the door til about 5 a.m. I mean just ask Harold & Kumar about the joys of late night sliders when you’re all high or liquored up. Working those graveyard shifts exposed me to a heavy stream of drinkers and stoners. Customers’ slurred words and laughing loud at just about anything said were the norm for those hours.  Cleaning the men’s room on that shift was the worst. Drunks pissed in the sink, on the floor, walls, toilet paper roll and every once in while they managed to squirt a little in the toilet bowl.

I can’t count how many times on the graveyard shift I went to take garbage to the parking lot dumpsters and found drunken Castle patrons passed out in their idling cars. Often they had a door open and their bagged food still sitting on the hood or roof. Usually I would reach in, turn off the ignitions and let the pooped partiers sleep it off.  I could’ve always dumped out the drunks’ food but that would have meant that at some point they’d wake up and come in and want more.  Some of the partiers were pretty funny and we used to take quiet notice of who came through our doors with the worst case of bloodshot eyes.

In the summer of 1979 I was planning to quit White Castle in August because full time college classes were coming but was shown the door a few weeks early. On a slow overnight shift, a  man was giving me his order a bit quick and I told him to slow down so I could get things right.  He raised his voice to me and was in as crabby a mood as I was.  I looked the guy in the eye and said “If you ever yell at me like that again, I’ll knock you on your ass.”  Well he screamed for my supervisor to come out and deal with this hassle.  The night manager was given the story of what went down, I admitted to my part and was sent home for the night.  Two days later I was summoned to meet with my head supervisor to be let go.

Three years later a similar customer/fast food employee confrontation played out on the big screen in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”  Judge Reinhold played the role of me as he told his irritated patron, “Mr., if you don’t shut up I’m gonna kick 100 percent of your ass!”   Cameron Crowe wrote the ‘Fast Times’ book and screenplay and it was almost as if he was in White Castle that late July night.