We Sailed from 72nd Street

Author: Rev. Gene F. Smith '84M.A.

High school days were over for the Boys of 72nd Street in Chicago, and a summer of sun lay before us, waiting to reveal its charm and mystery. We hoped for Wonderland. Our diplomas, we felt, would be a segue, not only to another level of education but to something that was calling to us. We, the unsuspecting lads of leisure, moved inexorably toward this call to something more.

In the beginning of that fine summer, four of us bought a 16-man rubber raft at a Community Surplus Store for $100. The raft had originated during World War II. It weighed 750 pounds. An assortment of attachments completed the package: two machine gun mounts — machine guns not included — three sets of oars and two foot-depressors for inflation. Two guys pumping vigorously, but not enthusiastically, would need 45 minutes to inflate the raft. We inflated it only once that summer. It was too much work, so we decided to keep it inflated. Three of us lived in apartments without access to a backyard. The raft, then, became “moored” in the backyard of the one who lived in a house. The sheer size and bulk of the raft took up most of the yard and quickly ruined his mother’s lawn. She wasn’t happy about this, but she was tolerant and now, looking back, saintly. The only concern that surfaced during those early days of summer was what to name the raft, who would be elected captain and whether the captain could perform marriages.

During the week, several of us would lift the raft and put it on top of an old Plymouth that belonged to the son of the woman who owned the house. The raft would buckle and its sides would spill over the top of the car. We drove slowly down 72nd Street toward Lake Michigan, with the raft collapsed on the car like a huge pancake. The driver was able to see, barely, while the rest of us served as lookouts: “Look out! You’re too close”; “Look out! There’s a car coming.” The ride was a slow, two-mile journey, but nobody seemed to mind. We drew lots of attention: People watering their lawns would gape in amazement as this large, tortoiselike shell moved past their homes; people in approaching cars would slow down or stop until we passed; little kids would point to us, wave and clap their hands. Huck Finn’s movement toward the Mississippi River was a quiet, resourceful uncovering of reality on his terms. Our movement toward Lake Michigan, a similar odyssey, was a noisy confrontation with the core of life and its accompanying rhythms.

We’d launch the raft from a cove behind the South Shore Country Club. Then we would paddle a few hundred yards out into the lagoonlike setting and float under the summer sun. The excitement of the adventure was everyone’s silent partner. One of us received a transistor radio as a graduation present, and we drifted to the sound of music or a White Sox game. Occasionally we would jump over the side for a swim. More often than not, we spoke of the girls in the neighborhood whom we admired, and who, we hoped, admired us.

Each Sunday, about 16 of us would make our sojourn down 72nd Street to the lake and launch the raft. We rowed out to the “Crib” (Chicago’s Water Filtration Plant) three miles from shore. Sunday after Sunday, the “Crib” was a lure for us. We could not resist the attraction, though its ominous sign read, “Stay 300 Feet Away!” Behind us we towed a little yellow one-man dinghy filled with ice cubes, beer and pop. Capriciously, we jumped into the lake and swam alongside the raft, enjoying the cool water and the camaraderie of fellow travelers. Everyone wanted to row to the “Crib.” We spent the afternoon telling stories, laughing the way kids laugh and vaguely plotting our future. One Sunday afternoon a police boat approached us to see if everything was all right. As they sidled up next to the raft, someone said to the officers, “Throw your weapons over the side and prepare to be boarded!” The officers laughed, left, and we stayed 300 feet away. None of us ever wanted to row back to shore. The warm weather withered our energy, so we hailed passing yachts, which would tow us back to 72nd Street, where we would plan for our next sailing adventure.

Sadly, summers do end. Our Sundays of fun on the raft that year not only came to a close, but 72nd Street, as we knew it, ended as well. The neighborhood racially changed. That September a new family, with hope of their own, bought the house with the grassless backyard and got more than for which they had bargained. They got to keep the raft. We took with us a summer full of memories.

September brought new hope to us as well. Everyone went to college: some to Loyola, DePaul, Notre Dame. I went to Conception (Missouri) College, where the homecoming queen was called “Miss Conception.” Hope shows up in some funny places.

Everyone majored in different areas: business, law, philosophy and engineering. Almost everyone got married, some more than once. A few became millionaires; one became a co-pilot for the president’s plane, Air Force One; a few became attorneys; one became a priest. Two others died of alcoholism, one died prematurely of a heart attack, one was killed in Vietnam, and one left 72nd Street at the end of that summer and was seen no more.

We meet now and again, mostly at wakes, weddings and the occasional fancy ball. Invariably, we speak of the old neighborhood and the surprises it held for us. Too, we mention that one summer of Sundays in our raft, listening to the call of the “Crib” out in the lake, three miles away.

In the Gospel of Saint Mark, Jesus is standing on the shore in his old neighborhood, the Sea of Galilee. He calls out to Simon and Andrew, men who know the water and the business of fishing. Jesus calls, as well, to James and John, boys who are probing the depths of family obligations. Each of them heard Jesus’ call, his lure to move their lives in new directions. They responded with hope and a zest for life. Afterward, their neighborhood was never the same.

What prompts people to make drastic changes in life? Lewis Carroll reminds us in Alice in Wonderland that our way of seeing things is relative, that there are dimensions in reality that transcend and even contradict fixed assumptions of life. He takes Alice out of her everyday world and introduces her to a Wonderland where rabbits and mice and Dodo birds and a Mad Hatter and the Queen of Hearts challenge her notions of how things must be (the way our dreams do at night). They entice her to become more curious.

Each of us has to face decisive moments in life. We sit in our raft, listening and looking into the distance and wondering about the future. The call we hear is an invitation to look into ourselves, search for meaning and follow our passion.

Logic cannot be the only navigator. Like Alice, we need to reach for the possibilities beyond our normal experience, so we can see and hear things in a new light. Our resistance to change is strong. We protect ourselves, and wisely so; at times, we move away from growth and integrity. However, our resistance to change collapses and gives way when genuine hope comes into view. That’s what happened to Andrew, Simon, James, John and the Boys of 72nd Street.

Father Gene F. Smith is a priest for the Archdiocese of Chicago and teaches in the summer Elderhostel courses at Notre Dame.