At the beginning of every school year, the nuns gave us the same assignment, a composition to be titled, “What I Did Over My Summer Vacation”. This year, I was determined to have something exciting to write about, though I’d yet to discover what that was. So far, the most interesting thing that happened was the Fourth of July, and that was only because of my Uncles, Frank and Ernest. They always managed to surprise us with their competitive pyrotechnics and were the envy of the neighborhood fireworks fanatics. But, that was about it. September would be here before I knew it. I was on high alert for anything that wouldn’t make me appear like the dullest student of St. Sebastian’s sixth-grade class.
It was on the morning after the Fourth that I found what I’d been looking for. Instead of staring out the window at the breakfast table, or reading the back of the Rice Krispies cereal box for the umpteenth time, I gazed over the top and at the front page headlines of the newspaper Dad was reading.
BEVY AND BALLYHOO Expected AT BUCKINGHAM!!!
Chicago rolls out the RED Carpet
for the Queen and her Prince
This Monday, July 6, 1959, Chicago is to have a royal day indeed. Queen Elizabeth and her husband, Prince Phillip, will arrive on their yacht, the Britannia, on their first visit to our city. There will be much fanfare and celebration as she steps onto a specially built “Queen’s Landing” to view Buckingham fountain where she will be greeted by the Mayor’s wife. The festivities will continue…
It was only a glimmer, but by the time I got to the bottom of my cereal bowl, a bright idea lit up my mind. I knew just what I was going to do. The only trouble was, I had to convince my parents, then beg my best friend, Kenna, to come with me. And, I had only one day in which to do it!
“Even if you can manage to convince Kenna’s parents, I’m still not quite sure about this. You’ve never gone downtown without an adult. And to such an ostentatious event? They’ll be thousands of people there. I don’t think it’s a good idea,” said Mom.
Here’s the thing about it; I half agreed with her. It would be my first time venturing into the Loop on my own, if you don’t count Kenna. But, I didn’t dare show a single shred of uncertainty. That would have killed Mom’s confidence in me, and my plan would be no more.
“Babs, was my age when she went with her friends downtown on the bus, I deserve the same chance,” I said, holding that fact over my mother’s head.
She didn’t deny it. “Yes, that’s true your sister did,” she said, and then added, “but there wasn’t such a large crowd expected in the heart of the city that day.”
“A lot of those people will be there just to gawk at the Queen, there’ll be police all over the place,” I told her. “I couldn’t be safer.”
And so, like all parents, who really want to say “no”, but don’t want to be the ones to actually come out and say it, she gave that job to Kenna’s parents. Without much conviction in her voice, she told me, “If Kenna’s folks say it’s OK with them then I guess it’ll be OK with me.”
Surprised at my luck, I mumbled under my breath, “That was a breeze.” And headed out the back door towards my best friend’s house.
Kenna, however, wasn’t as easy to persuade. She was a homebody and not prone to exploration the way I was. The idea of going downtown amongst a large crowd was bad enough. Doing it on our own (not to mention for the first time) well, let’s just say I got the feeling that she would have rather kissed the class nerd, Covington Fletcher, flat out on the mouth!(well, maybe)
“Sooner or later, you’re going to have to do it.” I kept after her.
“I’d rather it be later,” she quipped.
I didn’t ask her where her spirit of adventure was. I knew she had little of it.
Trying a different method, I went from begging to whining, and finally resorted to guilt-goading. “Awwwwwwww comeon’ Kenna, you owe me.”
She pursed her lips and folded her arms across her chest.
“I went for a whole week with you to your Grandparents dairy farm in Wisconsin. Remember?” I asked, and continued, “You said you’d be bored to the brink all by yourself. Remember? I got butted by a goat. But did I complain? When I was chased down by angry wasps after I bumped into their hornet’s nest, did I hold it against you? And what about letting me think we were going out to their barn to have dessert after dinner. Cowpies? Really? Even after being the brunt of that joke, I helped you shovel out their stalls. Didn’t I?”
“I knew you’d bring that up one day.” She scowled at me.
Though I never consciously stored those things in the back of my mind, I supposed she was right. Whatever the case, she agreed to go with me.
We had no trouble convincing her parents who said that, "if it was OK with my mom, it was OK with them”. Of course, I never divulged that they were just repeating Mom’s strategy. There are some things better left unsaid.
Everyone knows when you go downtown you have to wear your Sunday best, so it goes without saying we were prepared and would be more than ready. There was always a (slim) chance that we might get to shake hands with the Queen. If we did get that lucky, would we have to curtsy too? I put that horrifying thought out of my mind as quickly as it came in.
The pair of us rose early in the morning. We’d been to other parades and knew from experience they could draw huge crowds. The evening news said that as many as 50,000 spectators were expected. It was important to get a head start.
Kenna clung to my side, and for her sake, I put on a totally brave front (even though I was shaking in my summer-white patent leather shoes). I’d written down directions, the buses we were supposed to catch, kept extra change in my purse for the fare and a dollar in my sock (mom’s solution to making her feel better in case we lost our purses).
A special landing spot was built next to Lake Michigan, as well as a special crossing. Lake Shore Drive always hummed with traffic. And if the Queen was going to tackle that busy road to get to Buckingham fountain, she’d have to have a more elegant way to maneuver it. I couldn’t imagine her running across holding on to the hand of her husband, Prince Phillip, dodging cars like commoners.
By the time we arrived and found our way to Congress Street, people had already staked out and claimed their spots. It was a sea of humanity, one that Kenna and I slowly waded through. We managed to get relatively close, but were heads and shoulders beneath the crowd.
Blocked from seeing most of the Queen’s Landing, we barely got a glance at the barge that carried the royal couple from ship to shore. At least I got a glimpse of the Queen’s yacht, Britannia. Its flag flying high above the deck; the big cross flapped in the wind, and the colors were the same as ours, red, white and blue. I guess that was pretty understandable since Americans were practically related to the English. After all, we spoke the same language (sort of), didn’t we? Suddenly, military planes zoomed overhead and the fire boats sprayed geysers almost as high as the aerial display.
“Here, take my hand Kenna,” I commanded her. This was no time to be polite and ask, please. “Let me hold on to it for balance.”
She stretched out her arm and asked, “What for?”
I didn’t answer. Instead, I stepped on top of the fireplug next to me, raised my hand that held my Kodak Brownie camera above my head, and blindly snapped pictures in the general direction of the landing.
“You’ll waste all that film,” Kenna said. “You can’t even see what you're shooting at from there.”
“Maybe I’ll get lucky and get a good shot,” I told her, my hand still high above my head, hoping for the best.
Then, it happened.
“It’s the Queen’s hat!” a voice hollered.
A blustery breeze blew across the choppy waves and snagged the Queen’s white lace brimmed hat. It lifted from her chestnut brown hair, swirled around above the crowd, and floated on the wind. In the wise words of my cousin, Wendell, “just leavin’ the house, can sometimes bring you an adventure”. Being here with my hand in the right place and at the right time, was about to bring me one. The Queen’s hat hooked on to the edge of my camera.
“She’s caught it!” called out the lady standing next to me.
“Caught what?” asked Kenna, tugging on the hem of my dress.
I held on to it and hopped off the red step stool.
How? I asked myself in shock. How could something like this have happened to me? Me, ordinary Peggy Standish, amongst thousands upon thousands of people. Why me? But other than that small amount of contemplation over the miracle of it all, there was little time to think about it.
A tall policeman had pushed his way through the tight mob and loomed over me. I looked up at him, the sun reflecting off his gold badge, the visor from his cap shading his eyes.
“Young lady,” he spoke in a deep voice. “Please come with me.”
Though I’d done nothing wrong, I felt as if I was going to be arrested. Fearful of losing my friend in this crowd, I grabbed Kenna’s wrist and followed closely behind him. The people parted for us like the Red Sea, and we tread our way to the front. Not more than a hundred feet away from me, and in full view, sat her royal majesty, Queen of England. I had read her full title in the newspaper before we left the house this morning, ‘Her Majesty Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and of Her other Realms and Territories, Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith’, but was sure I’d never be able to get it out in one breath correctly. It was a perplexing feeling; I was both terrified, yet hopeful that I’d be introduced to her.
“Wait here,” were the next words to fall from the officer’s lips.
Kenna and I stood as if someone had put glue on the soles of our shoes.
“What are they going to do to us?” she asked, her eyes wide. “Maybe, you weren’t supposed to touch her hat. Maybe, it’s like some kind of holy relic or something like that. Maybe it’s forbidden, maybe…”
Personally, I looked at that hat differently. To me, it was like a trophy, like a ball that I might catch right after Ernie Banks slammed a homer across Wrigley Field. I could just about hear the audience cheering and Jack Brickhouse shouting, like he always did on the best plays, “Hey! Hey!”
So, I felt pretty safe in telling Kenna, “Look, I caught that hat totally by accident. Actually, I did the Queen a favor…”
The policeman interrupted by tapping me on the shoulder and held out his hand. He didn’t say a word. He didn’t have to. Disappointed, I placed her royal highnesses’ hat on his palm. There would be no introduction, no formal thank you, no shaking of the Queen’s white-gloved hand.
Kenna saw the expression on my face. “Well, at least we have a great view of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip,” she said, trying to cheer me up.
And that we did. The weather was “fit for a Queen”. She sat in a convertible limousine with Mayor Daily right next to them. One of the military aircraft buzzed above us, looking like it might knock off the antenna of the largest skyscraper downtown, the Prudential building.
My disappointment soon faded when I realized Kenna and I were given a place of honor at the curb of the crossing. At least we got to see everything front and center. As the Queen drove off, she waved and nodded in my direction – I swear it was meant just for me!
“Anyway,” I muttered to myself waving back, “That’s just how I'm going to write about it in my composition.”
Queen Elizabeth actually did visit Chicago the summer of 1959. Here’s a link to the video regarding the actual event.
"PLEASE, please do NOT call on me.” I pressed my back against the chair and slid down to the edge of my seat until my chin nearly sat on top of my desk, certain that I’d become invisible behind Dottie Dombrowski.
“Peggy, can you tell me what the word, “misapprehension” means?”
Rats! My strategy failed. It was no use hiding, Sister Mary Therese had eyes in the back of her habit.
I hadn’t done anything other than glance at last night’s homework. I grabbed the sides of my seat, and pushing myself upright, made a stab at the answer.
Let’s see now, I thought to myself, misapprehension is like two words put together, mis and apprehension. “Mis”, well the meaning for that is obvious enough, and “apprehension” sounds a lot like apprehended, which could mean being arrested. I heard Sergeant Joe Friday use that word on one of Dad’s favorite police TV shows, Dragnet.
“Misapprehension,” I repeated. “Means you just missed getting arrested.”
Then I heard it, a familiar sarcastic snicker at the front of the room. Only one human being could make that sound. Becky Know-It-All Newton’s arm snapped up like an arrow shot from a bow. Nobody else in the classroom had a chance.
“I know what the right answer is, Sister.” She looked over her shoulder at me, smirking with satisfaction. “Misapprehension: is a false impression or incorrect understanding, especially of somebody's intentions. As in this sentence, “Peggy is giving her teacher the misapprehension of doing her vocabulary homework last night.”
It goes without saying that I could not stand Rebecca Newton. There was no reason for her to add that example sentence, but she never could resist the opportunity to show someone up by putting them down. I should have expected it.
“Thank you, Rebecca,” Sister Mary Therese said and then added. “However, next time please wait until I acknowledge you before giving me your answer.”
Sometimes, there is justice in the world.
The two hands of the classroom clock met and pointed straight up to the sky, setting off the noon bell. We lined up, half of the students heading for the lunchroom, the other half for home.
I sat at the cafeteria table with my buddies and reached into my brown bag. What did Mom pack today? Of course, there was the usual healthy piece of fruit, but what about the sandwich? Turkey, salami, ham on rye? My stomach had been rumbling the last hour, and I was more than ready to pull apart the aluminum foil wrapper to reveal its contents. Liverwurst. Unappetizing, brown as the bag I brought it in, liverwurst. I pushed it aside. I’d have to be content with the apple that I usually traded for a Twinkie or tossed in the trash.
Wormeater (you don’t want to know how he got his nickname) lunged for my leavings. Liverwurst was just fine with him. “Well,” he said to Jeff and the rest of our lunch crew, “it looks like I’ll be busy for the next couple of weeks practicing.”
“Practicing what?” Jeff asked.
“Dancing. You do know the Christmas Snow Ball is just two weeks away.”
The Snow Ball is a party that was reserved for sixth, seventh and eighth graders. It’s supposed to be a fun way for the upper-grade kids to kick off the two weeks of Christmas vacation while teaching students proper etiquette at a formal dance.
“Of course, I remember,” chimed in my best friend, Kenna, “though no one’s asked me to go with them…yet.” She glanced moon-eyed at Jeff across the table.
“I’d ask my brother to help me,” Wormeater continued, “but I don’t think he knows any more about the Hand Jive or the Stroll than I do.” Then, he turned to me and said, “Hey, Peggy, your sister Babs is pretty cool. Do you think if I came over she could teach me some of the new dances?”
I suddenly stopped chewing my mealy apple. Wormeater liked me, but the feeling was one sided - his. Anyway, that wasn’t saying much, he liked a lot of girls.
"I’ll see,” I said, though I had no intention of asking my sister any such thing. I wasn’t about to encourage him.
I looked at Jeff who was sitting next to me. He had an expression on his face somewhere between acceptance and anxiety. And I knew why too, it could be summed up in one word, Emaline.
Emaline Bogs was a big girl - bigger than most of my classmates (boys included) and fully developed (if you know what I mean). Heck! She should be, this is her third time around in the sixth grade and now her younger brother, Luther, who’s caught right up to her, is in our classroom also. Having two members of the Bogs' family in the same space with the rest of us is trouble waiting to happen.
The season of comfort and joy struck fear in the heart of every male in our classroom. It was Emaline’s tradition to take the cutest boy in her class to the Snow Ball. Like I said, it was her tradition; the boy she chose didn’t have a choice. Worst of all, her brothers were the school bullies of St. Sebastian. There were enough of them to go around for each grade, so whatever Emaline wanted, she got.
This year Emaline targeted Jeffrey Drumbott or Jeff “Dreamboat” as Kenna called him. He had been an ordinary looking kid like the rest of us, but over the summer, he stretched three inches, his voice deepened and his features changed from round and rosy-cheeked to chiseled and rugged. Though I wasn’t into boys (at least not that I cared to admit to anyone) even I had to own up that he was good looking.
Emaline sniffed out Jeffrey and strolled over to our table. She slammed her tray down, tomato soup splashing on to her grilled cheese sandwich and sat across from him. “See you before the dance at 7:00 sharp,” she barked and then added, “Oh yeah, my dress is pink, don’t ferget to bring a corsage.” Then she slurped up the soup, shoved down the sandwich and went off to join her brothers. Things must have been done differently in the Appalachians where the Bogs’ family used to live. Around here, boys usually do the asking when it came to dates and dancing. It was clear that Emaline wasn’t bothered by propriety of any sort, she didn’t even ask Jeff if he would like to take her, but then again, she didn’t have to.
You would think that since he’d grown some and was now only a couple inches shorter than Emaline, he wouldn’t be afraid to tell her to get lost. But you’d be wrong. Crossing Emaline meant that you’d cross her brothers at the same time. The Bogs’ family was stickier than Elmer’s rubber cement glue. If you messed with one member, you messed with all of them. Jeff was a goner, and he knew it.
“What’ll I do?” he asked when Emaline was out of earshot.
“Nothing,” Wormeater told him through his beaver teeth. Pushing his thick glasses up his nose, he said, “If you don’t go to the dance with her, she and her brothers will clobber you.” He wiped the liverwurst from the corners of his mouth.
“Well, I need to do something to get out of this situation,” Jeff said.
Wormeater’s bushy eyebrows flattened into a single line across his forehead. “You need something alright. You need a miracle.”
That evening, as my family sat around the dinner table exchanging happenings of the day, I told them about the Snow Ball and Jeffrey’s problem.
I don’t see a way out for him, he’s doomed,” said Babs. She was as familiar with the Bogs’ bullying as I was. “I sure would like to be at the dance to see the expression on everyone's face as Emaline waltzes in with Jeff.”
“Aren’t you going?” I asked my older sister.
“No, and neither are you.”
“We’re going downtown that day for our Christmas outing. It’s all been arranged. Dad is going to take a half day off of work to meet us there,” she told me.
You would think that my older sister and I would squawk about not being able to attend the school dance, but you’d be wrong. Babs had her reasons, and I had mine.
I’m sure that my older sister would have liked to go, but there was a rule in our house (actually it was Dad’s rule) of no dating boys until you were sixteen. So I understood where Babs was coming from. In Dad’s strict eyes, going to a school dance with a boy constituted an official date, it didn’t matter if the Sisters of St. Sebastian sanctioned it or not. Babs was taking no chances, she was popular and knew she’d be asked. This was as good as a way as any to avoid the embarrassment of going alone.
I, on the other hand, had my own concerns. Being on the shy side, dancing with boys in order to learn the social graces of life was something that I wouldn’t mind delaying for a while.
“We are going to see Uncle Mistletoe in Marshall Field’s department store window,” said Katie changing the subject.
“Me too,” echoed Jimmy, her twin. “We’re going to visit Santa, and eat lunch under the big Christmas tree in the Peanut Room.”
“It’s called the Walnut Room,” Mom corrected Jimmy.
“How much does a corsage cost?” Jeff asked me the next day at school.
“I see you haven’t found a way to wriggle out of it,” I said, ignoring his question for which I had no answer.
“Nope.” He hung his head in resignation. “Not only do I have to take her, I have to spend my money on her too.”
“Maybe you could find a way to cut out of the dance early?”
“What?” Wormeater jumped in. “Are you a ditz? Did you forget that some of Emaline’s brothers will be there too?”
“Emaline won’t let you out of her sight, she’ll make you dance every dance with her,” said Kenna and then added with a sigh, “She’s not the sharing kind.”
Wormeater doused Jeff with more cold reality. “You’ve only got two weeks to come up with a plan to get out of it. And it has to be a good one. One that will make Emaline back off without her brothers going ape.”
“I’m doomed,” Jeff echoed my sister’s words.
I’m sure that for Jeff those two weeks moved faster than the speed of sound. It was just a few days before the dreaded dance when the first school bell of the morning rang. Students lined up according to grade. The eighth grade first, followed by the seventh grade, and so on. Suddenly, twitters of laughter and muted whispers flew amongst the eighth graders at the front. None of us knew what was up until the pipeline of murmurs made it all the way down to the sixth grade.
Amanda Prittle, who stood in front of me, received the hushed news from Kenna, who received it from Wormeater. “It’s something about St. Sebastian,” she leaned into my ear and said in a quiet voice. “Something about the statue. Pass it on.”
And so I did. By the time the second bell rang, the word made it all the way to the first grade. And if you hadn’t heard about it by then, you were sure to see it for yourself as the procession of pupils passed by the statue of St. Sebastian. The entire student body knew what had happened to St. Sebastian, except for the nuns.
As we walked in the classroom Sister Mary Therese immediately sensed something. She wouldn’t have to wait long to find out exactly what the source of our unusual behavior was.
“Sister, have you seen what someone’s done to poor St. Sebastian?” asked Becky.
“What do you mean Rebecca?” Sister Mary T asked.
“Why, just look, out the window. I think what’s been done to him is a crime," she said, adding, “whoever did such a thing should be arrested for vandalism or something like that.”
Sister Mary T walked over to the window and gazed down at the front of the church. The reverent statue of St. Sebastian looked anything but saintly. Sprouting from the top of his haloed head was a pair of moose antlers. A bright red ball was plopped squarely in the middle of his pious face over his nose, and a long green and white striped scarf straddled his neck. The branches of the sculptured tree that the marble martyr was tied to, glimmered with silver tinsel icicles dangling in the winter wind.
Though I couldn’t swear by it, I thought I heard her start to laugh. She quickly covered her mouth with her hand and changed her tone. “Who on earth would do such a disrespectful thing?” Sister Mary T asked, clearing her throat.
Of course, she didn’t directly ask Know-It-All Newton, but she just might as well have.
Becky folded her arms across her chest with enough attitude and arrogance that would have given President Eisenhower an inferiority complex. “That’s not hard to figure out,” she said. “Who do you think would have enough nerve to commit what is practically a sacrilege?”
With that, the entire class turned around and looked at Luther and Emaline Bogs.
“What?” Luther stared at us like a deer caught in the headlights of a car. “It wasn’t me. I didn’t have nothin’ to do with it.” Though he tried to fight against it, he couldn’t help but cast an eye in his sister’s direction.
“Hey! It wasn’t me neither!” she said.
While the two of them were busy trying to defend themselves from the suspicions of Sister Mary T and the students, I pulled on the sleeve of Jeff’s sweater and whispered to him. “You’d do just about anything to get out of taking Emaline to that dance wouldn’t you?”
“Sure I would,” he answered and looked at me like I was crazy for even asking.
“Well, here’s your chance.”
There was a puzzled expression on Jeff’s face. I could see I would have to do some explaining. “Listen,” I said, “if Luther Bogs goes down for this, he’s sure to get expelled. He’s already been suspended twice this year. You get expelled on your third offense.”
I could see that the power of understanding was penetrating Jeff’s brain. A look of realization crept across his face as he hung on to my every word.
“If you said you were the one who dressed up St. Sebastian like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, and take the fall for Luther and Emaline, you’ll be the one who gets suspended and…” I dragged out the word so Jeff could fill in the rest of the sentence.
“... I won’t be able to go to the dance!” he said.
“What’s more,” I added, “the Bogs will respect you for it, and Emaline will never be able to bother you again.”
Sentenced to a suspension of two weeks, Jeff had more than enough time to miss the dance and then some. I told Mom and Dad the whole story (well, actually not the whole story) of how Jeff took the fall for Luther and Emaline. I just left out the reason why he did it.
“That was quite noble of him,” Mom said. It was the way she used the word noble that made me uncertain of how much of the story she believed. “I have an idea. Since you’re not going to the dance and neither is he, why not invite him to come along with us on our holiday outing?”
As if my raised eyebrows formed question marks on my forehead, Mom answered, “Don’t worry; your father won’t think it’s a date.”
The ride on the El train was not my favorite thing in the world. But, it was a convenient couple of blocks from our house, and a quick means to an end. In less than a half an hour, we would arrive in the heart of downtown Chicago.
It was like looking death in the face when I stood on the skinny platform of the station. Every so often, I would read about people that were electrocuted on those tracks in the newspaper, fried like eggs on a Sunday breakfast. And if that wasn’t enough to make you back away from the edge, there was always the wind that the El train created when it roared in, ready to suck you under its wheels. I didn’t feel safe until I was on board.
The train threaded through the city at roof top level, flashing unfamiliar neighborhood scenes from its windows. It was a slide show of seedy side streets, back porch life, and a peek into enticing ethnic areas that were as foreign to me as a different country. Just as I got used to my bird’s eye view, the train dove into the darkness of the subway. A continuous howl echoed from the El against the walls of the underground tunnel and made it nearly impossible to carry on a conversation. Getting off of that train was the best part of the ride.
From this cold, dark, dingy and graffitied cavern, we floated up on the escalator and out into the bright blue of the sky. Tall elegant buildings that seemed to touch the clouds formed a concrete canyon filled with bustling people, dazzling lights, and traffic. Babs held on to Katie while Jeff and I held on to Jimmy keeping them safe from being mowed over by fast moving shoppers on crowded crosswalks, or being blown away by the east breeze whipping off the icy waves of Lake Michigan. Mom held Danny close, shielding him from the cold. I didn’t think she had to worry, though; Danny was bundled in a snowsuit so thick he looked like the Michelin Man.
Jimmy started to talk but neither Jeff nor I could understand him. He pulled the scarf from his mouth that muffled his words. “Dad! There’s Dad!”
I had to squint to see the man that Jimmy’s red-mittened hand was pointing to. But yes, it was Dad alright, standing beneath the Great Clock of Marshall Field’s Department store.
When we met up with my father beneath the hovering timepiece on State Street, we said our hellos and immediately started the beginning of our Christmas tradition with the tour of Marshall Field’s windows. They were brimming with the red and green of Christmas, holiday fantasies, and whimsical characters. The twins, Jimmy, and Katie, pressed their noses against the panes, they couldn’t get close enough to the festive magic. It was one eye-candy object right after the other. Uncle Mistletoe, a little elf with wings, flew around a miniature replica of the giant Christmas tree that was inside the store while animated characters hammered and sawed, making new trains, beautiful dolls, and other toys. Christmas mice danced in the kitchen and made scrumptious looking pastries and sweet treats. Finally, when we finished, our red noses chilled, our eyes watering from the biting cold, we stepped inside.
The store smelled of high priced perfume, Frango mints, and expensive chocolate. Everywhere I looked from floor to ceiling was embellished with a lavish garland of gold and silver or some other kind of holiday paraphernalia. The entire place glittered, shimmered, and shined.
“Are you going to ask Santa for something too?” Katie asked Jeff.
Jeff looked at me with a half grin on his face. “I think I’m a little too big to sit on his lap,” he said to my sister.
“Then, how can you tell Santa what you want from him? How will he know what to bring you?”
“Don’t you know anything?” Jimmy said to his twin. “He’ll do what Babs and Peggy are going to do.”
“What’s that?” I asked Jimmy.
“Write him a letter of course,” he answered.
“Oh.” Katie sniffed. “Well, I’m glad I get to sit on Santa’s lap, cause all I can write is my name.”
After the little ones' visit to Santa, came my favorite part of the Standish Christmas tradition, hot chocolate heaped with a mound of whipped cream and a slice of Yule log cake beneath the giant fir tree.
As we walked into the elegant Walnut Room restaurant with the magnificent Great Tree towering above us, Jeff looked up, his eyes sparkling with the reflection of the lights on the tree. “Wow!” was all he could say.
The waiter seated us at a table close enough to see our faces in the giant ornaments.
“I’ve never been here before,” said Jeff, as he sat between Dad and me. “It was really nice of your family to let me join in.”
“Well, my Mom thinks you deserved a reward, for helping out with the less fortunate,” I told him.
“The less fortunate?”
“That’s what she calls the Bogs kids. She says that she thinks they don’t have the same advantages as most children. But then, she doesn’t know them like we do,” I added. “Anyway, Mom thought that by taking the blame for Luther and saving him from getting expelled, you were being “noble” and should be rewarded.”
“But, I…” Jeff was about to blurt out the whole premise behind his act of supposed nobility when I hushed him up.
I removed my hat and scarf and started to work on unbuttoning my wool coat. One of them was hard to undo, so I pulled off my glove to make it easier. A single strand of silver tinsel fell out from the glove and floated down. I was able to scoop it up in midair before it landed on the floor, but not before Jeff caught sight of it.
I quickly shoved it into my pocket and didn’t say a word, but then, I didn’t have to. Jeff’s eyes twinkled, and it wasn’t because of the Christmas lights.
Follow this link to Tour Chicago Christmas of the past at
About the photos
Marshall Field's Department store created the Uncle Mistletoe character to compete with Montgomery Ward's, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Uncle Mistletoe often appeared in their fantasy windows and was usually placed on top of the fully decorated, 45 foot Great Tree in the center of the Walnut Room restaurant.
The Great Clock where Peggy’s family met up with her father to mark the start of their Christmas tradition still hangs on the Marshall Field’s building (now Macy’s).
Follow this link to see the Great Tree at Macy’s (formerly Marshall Field’s)
Sister Mary Therese's pointer smacked against the blackboard! White dust floated from the word written in nearly perfect penmanship.
“CONSCIENCE,” she said loudly, “is what we must rely on to tell us what is right from wrong."
Then she put down the pointer and took up the chalk. Pulling back the long sleeve of her robe, she added more words so it read, “Conscience is the moral compass that guides our souls.”
Sister Mary Therese was an imposing figure enough, but when she waved that pointer of hers around, you knew you’d better pay attention.
I thought about what those words meant. Most of the time I was able to let my mind steer me away from doing something I thought might be wrong. Still, there were moments when my will was weak, and my compass wasn’t always pointing north.
Enter the school newspaper contest
And give us a thrill,
Have your Halloween story published
In THE EAGLE’S QUILL!
They’ll be winners from each grade
One through Eight,
We’ve got deadlines to meet
So don’t be late!
Runners-up will read their compositions
at the Halloween Assembly
With the winners to be announced afterward.
1st place - a case filled with new art supplies
2nd place - a Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys book
(depending on who wins)
3rd place - Bozo the Clown Lunch Box
Deadline for entries October 15th
My best friend, Kenna, and I looked at the flyer hanging on the hall bulletin board.
“What? School just started a week ago and they’re already putting up things about Halloween?” Kenna shook her head.
I reread what the prizes were, and barely heard her grumbling. Who cared about the lunch box, I was in the sixth grade and wouldn’t be caught dead with one. Though the Nancy Drew book sounded good (Heck! I’d even like the Hardy Boys book), it was the first prize that caused my eyes to shine. A box filled with new art supplies.
Last year, I’d made a surprising discovery about myself. I could draw. Actually, draw!
It started one Sunday morning when I took the Chicago Tribune and tried to copy Snoopy and Charlie Brown from the Peanuts comic strip. As much as I liked my new hobby, only Kenna and members of my family knew my secret. I wasn’t ready yet for the world to know, not until I got better and felt more confident. That case of new art supplies was just the ticket I needed to help me on my journey to get there. I wanted to win first prize more than anything.
For the next few weeks, I worked on my entry, writing story after story. Nothing seemed to be working. It needed to be different; it needed to be interesting...it needed to be the best. I had given up my favorite television shows, Dobie Gillis and Bonanza (twice) and a trip to Buffalo’s ice cream parlor. But my sacrifice didn’t yield a single word that pleased me. Nothing I wrote was good enough.
It was Tuesday, October 13th. I looked at the flyer once again in the hope that I had read the submission date wrong. But nope. I stared at the flyer, searching for I don’t know what, and like the beacon of a lighthouse shining through a foggy haze, the words guided me right to an idea. The flyer rhymed, and so would I.
I had just two days to make it work. That evening, filling the wastebasket with crumpled paper, the pressure mounted. Anybody who's ever tried to make words rhyme knows it’s not easy. Each time I wanted to give up, I thought of new brushes and bright colored tubes of paint. I would have to wait all the way till my birthday or Christmas to get what could be mine by Halloween.
It was late Wednesday evening when I reprinted everything and read it out loud. I wasn’t sure that it rhymed the right way, but it sounded OK to me, and if I do say so myself, kind of spooky.
Next, I needed an audience. After all, I’d be expected to read it in front of the whole school. I was about to ask my older sister, Babs, and thought the better of it. She might tell me what I needed to know, but didn’t want to hear. Instead, I headed straight for the twins bedroom and asked them if they wanted to listen to a bedtime story.
They were only five, and for a moment, I hesitated. Was my story too scary for them? Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. I knew that Katie could be a bit morbid. She had a section in our backyard near Mom’s flower garden where she kept an animal cemetery. Dead birds, squirrels, rabbits and who knows what other carcasses made their way into Katie’s makeshift graveyard, so she might be able to handle my Halloween poem. And as for Jimmy, well he did have a sensitive nature. But Heck! I needed someone to listen. If he got scared, he’d just have to get over it.
“Who wants to hear a story I made up?” I knew I’d get a positive answer. The pair of them would jump at the opportunity to garner attention from one of their older sisters.
“Sure,” Jimmy said, climbing to the top of his bunk bed.
“What kind of story is it?” asked Katie sliding off her slippers.
“It’s a poem, the kind that rhymes. It’s about Halloween,” I answered.
Giving away no more details than that, seeing that they were settling in their beds, I sat on the floor cross-legged. Opening my black and white composition book, I began to read.
THE BIG SCARE
Margaret Louise Standish
St. Sebastian School
We couldn’t wait for costumes,
and bags of candy to collect,
for party games at school,
and jokes and pranks to pull.
Halloween was coming,
excitement in the air,
the old word for it…All - Hollows - Eve,
our word for it …The BIG SCARE.
This year was going to be different,
this year was going to be rare,
cause we thought up something awful,
for our annual Halloween dare.
At the end of Shady Tree Lane,
stands an old abandoned house,
it’s been cursed, some say, for many years,
ever since the last owners moved out.
Our parents won’t tell us exactly why,
“It’s much too horrible to hear,
for a child’s delicate ears.”
“If we told you, you’d have nightmares
for a solid straight year!”
So, on Halloween night,
a ghost, a tramp, a vampire, and clown,
headed out together to the edge of town,
to a place that was cold, gray,
and crawling with rats,
and crawling with rats,
with rickety shutters, fallen gutters,
and flying bats.
and flying bats.
The wind seemed to whisper a warning of,
“Don’t go, stay away,
from that house today.
For wicked things happened
within that space,
and evil still lingers
about the place.
You’ve one last chance to change your fate
go not a step further,
go not a step further,
before it’s too late.”
Above the ancient stone house
hung a haloed moon,
Casting down its silver glow,
a sense of impending doom.
I should have paid attention,
to my feelings and the signs.
‘Stead, I chose to ignore it,
told myself, “It’s in my mind.”
We joined hands beneath the white bones
of an old dead tree,
We took an oath to seal our dare,
and swore to each other
to take on The Big Scare.
"One of us …,
must spend the entire night,
in that empty shell.
One of us…,
must come out and (hopefully)
live to tell.”
Just then, for a moment, I swore I heard it again.
The wind whistling in my ear,
“Don’t go, stay away,
from that house today.
For wicked things happened
within that space,
and evil still lingers
about the place.
You’ve one last chance to change your fate,
go not a step further,
before it’s too late.”
Then clown opened his big red mouth,
broke the spell and spit,
“Yea, but who’s gonna' be the one?
Who’s gonna' walk into that pit?”
This shook us from our trance,
we dropped our hands to our sides.
Our bond was broken,
by what we now had to decide.
Each of us thought the -“other guy”
had nothing to fear.
Guess we were hopin’ that the - “other guy”
would be the one to volunteer.
Cowards may be short on bravery,
but they usually have ideas to spare,
“Let’s draw straws. The shortest gets the rap,”
the ghost declared.
We searched and found,
some old dried brambles,
broke them in fours,
and took the gamble.
Each of us drew one,
till there were only two left.
It was between tramp and me,
I could hardly catch my breath!
Funny how quickly time can fly.
A years’ already come, gone,
and past us right by.
Each of us knows our lives will never be the same,
all because of that stupid game.
I was the lucky one that night.
I was the lucky one that night.
The tramp drew the short straw,
and was bound to take on the fright.
Slowly, he crept up the path,
toward the crumbling old home,
We stood by, watched him walk,
by himself, all alone.
He stopped for moment
and asked with his eyes,
“Call me back, please,
won’t you guys?”
But I wasn’t,
and ghost wasn’t,
and clown wasn’t,
going to be the one…
To break the oath,
to pop the pact,
to tell him to turn around
and come on back.
So the tramp kept on movin’
even though he didn’t want to go,
till the shadow of the house,
seemed to swallow him whole.
Silence can be really noisy,
if you know what I mean.
It seemed to last forever,
It seemed to last forever,
till we heard a curdling scream!
Then the house itself,
began to rattle and shake,
the ground beneath us,
shifted and quaked.
Green bolts of lightning
shot out through boarded up windows,
thundering down on us,
like clashing cymbals.
Knocked right on our backsides,
by the rolling land.
We found our feet,
We found our feet,
scrambled, and ran.
We spoke not a word,
just read each other thoughts.
What happened back there,
was all our fault.
No one ever saw
the little tramp again,
And we swore we’d never tell a soul
what happened to our friend.
Living with a guilty secret,
and living with fear,
can really gnaw away at your conscience
if you’ve done it for a year.
This Halloween night we’ll hide beneath a cover,
in the attic or under the bed,
But if you ask me, it won’t matter,
'cause nothing can stop the dead.
Sure as dark clouds loom high in the sky,
I can feel it way down deep in my bones,
the tramp’s comin’ to take one of us back,
to the other side, he now calls home.
A sudden gust of coldness
just rushed past my side.
It blew off my blanket
under which I tried to hide.
A familiar voice, a warning,
whispers on the wind,
“Don’t stay, run away,
from your house today.
For wicked things will happen
within this space,
and evil will come
tonight at your place.
You’ve one last chance to change your fate,
I think it‘s too late!”
“What did you think of my poem?” I asked them closing my notebook.
“I like the Cat In The Hat better…that rhymes too you know,” Katie answered, her voice muffled beneath her blanket.
I looked up at Jimmy. He was sitting in the corner against the wall with his Davy Crockett covers pulled to his face, only his large blue eyes were visible as they looked down at me.
“What about you Jimmy? What did you think of it?”
“I think we should leave the light on in our room tonight, that’s what I think,” he answered.
“Awww come on,” I chided them. “Don’t act like such little kids.”
“We are little kids,” mumbled Katie, still buried under her bed covers.
The pride I felt in my hard written work overshadowed any guilt I should have had. Now, I was sure that I had it made in the shade with my spooky story-poem. I walked out with a smile of satisfaction on my face, leaving their bedroom light blazing brightly.
The next morning as Mom poured cereal into my bowl, she was still in her robe and pajamas. Unusual for my mother, who was up and ready, well before any other family member, frying eggs or working on some kind of hot breakfast.
“Jimmy and Katie crawled into bed with us last night.” She yawned, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. “It seems that story of yours frightened them.”
“It did?” I asked, trying to feign an expression of innocence.
Dad was reading the morning news. “Yes.” He barely lifted his eyes from the paper. “We didn’t get a wink of sleep last night.” He immediately returned to his reading and randomly said, “This is interesting, they launched the Explorer 7 yesterday at Cape Canaveral.” And then went off mumbling something about it measuring the energy of the sun.
Mom wasn’t sidetracked for a second. “They are too young for such things," she continued with her lecture. “You know how gullible Jimmy is. I would have thought you had better judgment than to read something that would scare the ba-jeebers out them.”
“OK, OK.” I scooped up my last spoonful of cold Post Toasties. “I won’t read it again to them.”
And that was the truth. Of course, as I left the table, I omitted telling her that this was the tale I would enter in the contest and most likely be reading it to the whole of St. Sebastian’s students. I was sure the kids at school would love the spookiness of it. Mothers don’t know everything.
“I mean it. No more of those,” she added one more time, as I walked out the door. “It’ll give them nightmares!”
That very day at noon, I handed my entry to Johnny Hersztski, the editor of the Eagle’s Quill.
“Looks like you put a lot of work into this,” Johnny said, flipping through the pages.
“I did,” I told him proudly.
“I’m glad you got it to me on time. There aren’t many sixth graders who entered the contest. Counting yours, only three. It’ll go before the committee of judges this week, you’ll find out soon if you made the cut. Those in the running will be announced over the PA Friday or Monday afternoon.”
“Only three?” I asked, hoping he would tell me who.
“Only three,” he confirmed, divulging no more information.
The next few days were filled with anticipation. With only a few entries from my grade, I was a shoo-in. I imagined myself taking on a project with my secret hobby with new paint, crayons, and pencils. It would be a challenge to draw the fashionable Katy Keene comic book character.
I suppose it goes without saying that rehearsing my poem was a priority. I kept trying to get just the right effect. Soft and whispering for the voice on the wind, bold and loud for the main character’s voice. If the contest was a close call, this could be the difference between winning and losing.
While we lined up to leave the classroom for recess, I was just about to give up on Friday, resolving to wait for Monday, when the principal’s voice rang out over the speaker.
“Good afternoon boys and girls,” Mother Scholastica's voice crackled. “I would like to announce the following contenders for the Eagle's Quill writing contest.”
As she slowly read through the names of each grade level, I scanned the room to see if I could detect who the other sixth grade contestants might be. I knew that one of them would be upset if they lost out. Curbing my enthusiasm when my name was announced wouldn't be easy. It isn't nice to gloat.
Finally, Mother Scholistica said, "And now for the students of Sister Mary Therese's classroom. “Janice Gomez, Ronald Lawson...”
“And, and?” I held my breath.
“And…,” she said, “now for the seventh-grade class."
I was stunned into silence. “Wait a minute, I don’t think she’s done!” I wanted to call out.
After that, I didn’t hear a word. My mind couldn’t cope with the catastrophe of defeat. Gone were the brushes and drawing paper, even Nancy Drew fell through my fingers.
Leaving the classroom, my shoulders dropping in disappointment, I said to Kenna, “I can’t understand it. I worked so hard on that poem.”
“Me neither,” my best friend agreed.
Johnny Hersztski, who was right behind me, heard the two of us talking and said, “It was great, I think it should have won,” he told me. “Mother Scholastica liked your work too, she said it was very creative. But the principal has the final say so on the contest.”
“Then how come Peggy’s poem didn’t make it?” Kenna asked for the both of us.
“Cause of the younger kids," Johnny said as we walked out the door, "she told me it'll give em’ nightmares!”
Copyright Joyce E.S. Pyka ©
(Summary: Young Adult Historical Fiction, Spooky, Humorous, Halloween, Short Story)
About the photographs:
Katy Keene was a comic book character in the 1950s. Sophisticated and stylish her books were quite popular with young girls back then and in later years. Today, some of the older issues are highly collectible. This picture was printed with permission of mycomicshop.com. To see more of Katy Keene comic books follow the link to their website:
The Explorer 7 Satellite was actually launched in October 1959. The space race was on, and anything launched from Cape Canaveral was exciting and big news. Follow the Wikipedia links for more on the Explorer 7 Satellite and Cape Canaveral: