A Vietnam Era Chicago Story
By Joe Miller (reviewer)
Remembering Gage Park
by William P. Shunas
Halfway into this great little book, Vietnam enters the picture with the assassination of JFK. The first half sets the table with a detailed description of the main characters in the context of a particular neighborhood on the Southwest side of Chicago from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s.
There are descriptions of ball games in the alleys (before they were paved), when foul balls were hit into the yards of angry neighbors. There was a "prairie" in Gage Park (as there was in Austin on the far West Side). This was undeveloped land that was a place to escape and make up stories...that is, before the developers came in and began construction. There is a Catholic elementary school and a public elementary school in the neighborhood, and there were tensions between the students — no one knew exactly why.
The story is told by "Mike" in the first person. He details what happened in his neighborhood and to his friends and family during a period of major change. Mike and "Connor," who would become his best friend, experienced these changes in early episodes, from the simple things like Mayor Daley finally paving the alleys (only in neighborhoods that had "clout"), to learning to relate to kids from the "colored" neighborhoods in sports contests. There were high school romances and fights between students from rival schools.
There were changes coming to the neighborhood in the form of "Negroes" or "colored" moving in beyond "their place." Overt racism among the neighbors was reflected in Mike's family, and even with Connor. Through it all, Mike and Connor remain friends.
By late 1965, racial divisions intensify with news about Watts. According to Mike, "If the Negro people were upset about the riots, white people in places like Gage Park were afraid of being victims of Negro violence...People were picking sides. Many of my neighbors were appalled by the use of dogs and water cannons against civil rights protesters."
Vietnam comes into play soon after their graduation from high school, especially after the assassination of Kennedy in 1963. Mike and Connor hear about friends who are already "over there" (they weren't sure where "there" was). By 1965, Connor decides he wants to enlist and go to Vietnam to "stop the commies." He and Mike discuss and debate this. In the end, Connor went off to the Army and Mike suffered a sports injury that kept him out.
Mike was soon involved in another "war," when, in 1966, Dr. King announced he was going to lead a civil right march in Gage Park at Marquette Park. The neighbors were split on this, with some folks walking out of church when a Catholic priest spoke about the need for civil rights. People were planning a huge response to King's "invasion" of their territory.
Mike describes the uproar at the park when King was hit with a brick and the racist slurs increased in intensity. The KKK was there, as were the Nazis, who, according to Mike, recruited a large following that day. "Not long after the marches in Marquette Park and Gage Park, the mayor [Daley] got a court injunction...The marchers bypassed the injunction by having a march in the suburb of Cicero where they met with more hostility." (141).
This novel is really a march through history as told by a person of our generation, the so-called Vietnam Generation. Connor trained in the Airborne and got orders to Vietnam. Mike went to work on the dock at a factory. One year later, Connor returns to the neighborhood minus his right arm. "Had a little accident in the Nam," he said, "I've got to shoot my free throws left-handed now." (147)
Connor's emotional distance from Mike becomes a part of the story. In 1968, after Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy were killed, Connor opens up about what happened in Vietnam. He got shot trying to save his buddy, "this black guy from Georgia.....I would have gladly given my life for that nigger," Connor says, "And the bastard didn't make it." (152) From this point on, Connor deteriorated.
Then, Mike's younger brother Mark surprises everyone by becoming involved in anti-war organizing. Early on he had supported the war against the "commies." Now, he wanted to "stop the damn war." To top it off, according to Mike, his little brother was now dating a black girl, after having been involved the in the demonstrations against King in 1966!
Connor eventually gets connected with other Vietnam veterans in a rap (discussion) group, and begins to climb out of his hole. But, too soon, after a family and more great things in Connor's life, Vietnam came to bite him in the ass in the form of Agent Orange poisoning.
Mike and Connor had experienced great transformations in their neighborhood and in their personal lives. Mike was still there for Connor and his family at the end, and life went on...a little emptier, a little sadder.
This is a story with depth, with heart, with compassion and sadness....and resistance to the lesser angels inside each of us.
Joe Miller is a Navy veteran, 1961-68. Naval Security Group, 1961-64. USS Ticonderoga (CVA14), 1964-66. HELTRARON 8, 1966-68. He is a VVAW National Board Member.