Joe Murphy ’61

 As taken from the book “Echoes in the Gangway” by Joe Murphy ’61

Chapter 29 

High school days

 

“You’re no mental giant, Murph!”

– Brother Coogan, 1958

 

After a summer fraught with worries about starting high school I

wound up arriving two days late. Thanks to our extended visit to

Jack’s house both Jim and I had to get up to speed fast. I felt like

an intruder walking into class. Things were already in motion and

here I was interrupting the flow. Catching up in Latin and algebra

was a pain in the butt (I never did catch up in algebra).

 

On my first day at Leo I learned that I couldn’t go home for

lunch without getting a lunch pass from the office. This

little yellow card allowed me exit the building at noon. A faculty

member stationed at the alley door made sure that only students

with passes left the premises during school hours. Living less than

a block from Leo was a mixed blessing. On the positive side I could

eat a home-cooked lunch and I didn’t have to take a bus to school.

On the negative side I missed out on riding the CTA with my

classmates. We could have talked about girls, swapped homework

and horsed around. I might have made more friends.

 

High School was a series of highlights and lowlights. In

freshman gym class Bob Hanlon, our instructor, told everyone to

do pushups like I did. “Watch Murphy, he has perfect form!” As a

sophomore I got caught helping a kid on a religion quiz. We both

got zeros from Brother O’Hare. In junior year I tripped in the hall

and kicked a football player who was crouched at his locker. He got

up and punched me in the jaw. The next year my English teacher

liked my essays so much, he read them to other classes. Other

episodes from my stint at Leo still come to mind now and then.

 

The notebook tragedy

 

Tall, distinguished-looking Brother Sullivan required that we

freshmen maintain a notebook for his religion class. We had to

outline each chapter covered by the textbook. In order to keep us

honest Sullivan periodically collected our notes and checked them.

He also made all the rows of kids compete against each other in

contributing to the missions each week. The winning row escaped

homework for one night. If someone created a disturbance in class

Sullivan corrected them in a literate manner that made them feel

stupid.

 

I was dragging my butt through religion. Moses and John the

Baptist bored me to death. Keeping my notes updated seemed

impossible – I was always a chapter or two behind. Then something

happened that multiplied my woes. One afternoon my English

teacher, Mr. Charles Byrne, checked to see if the class had written

an essay that was due. I had totally forgotten about it.

 

Byrne walked up and down the aisles, peering over each kid’s

shoulder. I tried to bluff by opening my religion notebook and

folding it back to make it look like a single page. I covered the title,

The Life of St. Joseph, with my forearm. Byrne stopped at my

desk and snatched the notebook. Turning beet red, he tried with

all his strength to tear it in half. After three or four attempts

the pages ripped. He strode to the front of the room and pitched

my ravaged religion notes into the wastebasket. Then Charlie sent

me to jug.

 

Sitting in detention after school, I wondered what to tell Brother

Sullivan about my lost notes. In retrospect, I should have returned

to Byrne’s classroom after school, retrieved the notebook and

repaired it with Scotch Tape. Instead, I went to jug, then walked

home and told Mom what had happened.

 

“Why don’t you just do your homework like you’re supposed

to?” she asked angrily. “Now you’ve got all that work to make up.” As

I sat at the dining room table after supper pecking at my homework

I could hear Mom relating my story to Dad in the living room. She

questioned the right of a teacher to destroy work that a student had

done for another class. The next day Dad phoned the Leo faculty

building and made an appointment to see Brother Sullivan on Saturday.

He told me that we’d both be going.

 

Saturday morning we walked a block to the handsome brick

structure that housed the Irish Christian Brothers. A nice middle-

aged lady answered the door and showed us into a waiting room.

When Sullivan entered a few minutes later Dad introduced himself.

He explained what had transpired in Mr. Byrne’s class.

 

My religion teacher was sympathetic but he said I’d have to

do the lost work over again. Dad looked at me resignedly, then at

my teacher. They agreed that I would start in on a new religion

notebook, working on it at the faculty building each Saturday

morning. Saturday morning, I said to myself, That’s my favorite time

of the week! Losing two hours of prime free time each Saturday

morning was a drag, but with no distractions my efficiency was

miraculous. I brought my religion notes up to date within a few

weeks.

 

The joys of jug

 

Jug was detention. Kids at Leo went to jug for offenses like smarting

off in class or not completing homework assignments. Detention

meant staying after school for an hour. As a freshman I was sent to

jug several times, mostly for homework violations. Every brother and

lay teacher at Leo had a pack of detention slips permanently molded

into the palm of one hand. They could scribble a kid’s name in a

flash, along with the number of days to be spent in jug. The offender

received a slip and a duplicate went to the jug room, 212. During

regular school hours this large room was a lecture hall.

 

Jug period began right after school, with Brother Ryan presiding

as detention monitor. He wrote arbitrary page numbers on the

blackboard – maybe 134-138. Everyone, from freshmen to seniors,

copied those pages from their literature books. Meanwhile, Ryan

read the jug slips aloud, including the number of days: “Morrissey,

one day, Walsh three days,” etc.

 

Sometimes a confused kid would raise his hand and ask, “Hey

bro, there’s a picture on page 134 in my book. How am I s’posta

copy that?” A little annoyed, Ryan would answer, “Then start on

page 135!” We’d sit there quietly copying parts of stories instead

of doing something productive, like homework. But to be honest,

I found those stories more interesting than most of my homework

assignments.

 

When I was a freshman a big blonde kid named Jim LaDuke

was in jug every time I went. And his jug slips were long ones – for

several days – and from multiple teachers. Ryan would read through

the pile: “LaDuke – three days…LaDuke – two days…LaDuke –

indefinite! (Indefinite jug meant you went until the teacher decided

you’d had enough). One day the sullen Ryan even joked, “LaDuke,

you’re going to earn a major letter in Jug this year. We’ll have to

sew a big J on your jacket.” 

 

I knew LaDuke through my cousin Mike. As kids growing up,

Mike, Jim and a few other guys hung out together and played ball in

their neighborhood a few miles east of Leo turf. I always thought

Jim was a nice kid. His high score on Leo’s entrance exam got him

placed in 1A, the brightest group of freshmen. A kid in his class

told me that LaDuke had separated the test’s two-ply sheets so

he could see which of the multiple-choice answers were the right ones.

Maybe, but I think Jim was much smarter than he pretended to be.

 

According to my cousin, the office at Leo told LaDuke at

the end of his freshman year that he still had more that a hundred days of

detention left to serve. He was expected to make good on them

if he came back as a sophomore. When I started my second year

LaDuke was gone. He may still hold school records for the most

days of jug and the highest entrance exam score.

 

The exploding letter

 

Brother Hennessey, my freshman algebra teacher, was a hefty

middle-aged man with a shiny bald head and a flair for the dramatic.

Looking down his nose through his wire-rimmed glasses, he

pontificated in a pompous, nasal voice. He reiterated pet phrases,

like, “Now boys, we must watch our signs,” referring to plus and

minus signs. “Low grade moron” was another expression he favored

in certain contexts like, “Only a low grade moron would do that”

or “You don’t want to be a low grade moron do you?”

 

Hennessey liked to stage little entertainments featuring kids who

didn’t complete their homework. The slackers were summoned to

the front of the room. Then, one by one, they were punished. Each

kid bent over while Hennessey whacked him in the rear end with a

drumstick. Hennessey had a special rhythm – bam bam…bam!

Just when the first two smacks were really starting to smart he

laid in a final one that brought the exquisite pain he loved to

inflict.

 

One day when I didn’t finish my homework assignment (being

clueless as to how I should approach it) I tried to buffer the sting of the

drumstick waiting for me in the afternoon. While home for lunch

I took a letter from the morning mail, slipped it under my jockey

shorts and walked back to school. When Hennessey collected the

homework I was in trouble. He called me and one other deadbeat

to the front of the room. As we bent over to take our raps, one of

my classmates shouted, “Hey, Murphy stuck a letter in his pants!”

Instantly others chimed in: “Murphy has a letter in his pants –

yeah, he stuck a letter under his pants!”

 

To his credit Hennessey pretended not to hear these complaints

as he disciplined the kid in front of me. When he hit me, however,

the letter under my pants sounded like a loud cap pistol. The class

went nuts, some kids laughing and others complaining about my

added protection. But, to his credit, Hennessy silenced them and told me to get

back to my seat.

 

Coogan’s Latin Club

 

My fifteen-year-old mind did not place a high priority on Latin.

All that crap to memorize – vocab words, declensions, verb forms

– yuk! Studying and translating was tedious, using up time that

could have been spent playing touch football or watching TV. But

on the positive side, Brother Coogan, my sophomore Latin teacher,

was a bright young guy who projected energy and had a wry sense

of humor that I liked. 

 

In response to my incorrect answer Coogan once fired a barb

at me in front of the class. “You’re no mental giant Murph!” he

said, his Ivy League accent adding a bit of extra sting. The line

and its delivery made me laugh out loud. This really irritated him.

“You can laugh? You can laugh at that Murphy?” He asked. “You’re

great Murph – you’re really something, you know that?” Now

everybody was laughing.

 

The day Coogan described the ablative absolute I thought he

was joking. He tried to make this quirky Latin construction sound

classy and elegant. It puts any words that are absolutely detached

from the rest of the sentence into the ablative case. OK. But then

there was something about a noun or pronoun and a participle…

forming an adverbial phrase…that would require a subordinate

clause…zzzzzzz. I drifted off to slumberland. It was the only time

I ever fell asleep in a high school class. Luckily, the ablative absolute

faded into Latin limbo and never showed up on a test.

 

Quiz scores lower than 80% put some of us in Coogan’s after-

school “Latin Club.” We had to stay and study our vocab words,

then take another quiz. If our scores didn’t improve we’d be

copying definitions multiple times at home that night.

 

One day during spring football tryouts the Latin Club was

making me and another kid late for practice. When we informed

Coogan of this he commented frankly on our football prospects,

“You’re wasting your time – you’re not big enough, you’re not fast

enough and you’re not mean enough!” As it turned out, he was

right.

 

Morrissey’s mouth

 

Tom Morrissey couldn’t control his quips in Latin class. His off-the-

cuff cracks just kept coming. Tom was a heavy-set kid who made

me think of Oliver Hardy as a youngster. Coogan was pretty good at

keeping him at bay, but one day Morrissey went too far. Thoroughly

pissed, our young teacher decided that major humiliation was in

order.

 

With an orange stuffed in his mouth, Morrissey had to stand in

a corner holding Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary over his head.

He stood there like that for most of the period, so by the time the bell

rang, the dictionary had sunk to the top of his head and orange

juice was dripping down his chin onto his shirt and tie. Next period

Tom was back up to speed with his spontaneous comments.

 

Rousing pep rallies

 

Before football or basketball games against arch rivals, like Mount

Carmel or St. Rita, the entire student body streamed into Leo’s tiny

gym, filling the courtside bleachers and the gallery above. Standing

at center court, the principal, athletic director and coach took turns

talking into a microphone, trying to pump us up. Then the team captains

said a few words. Next our cheerleaders (all boys) took over, shouting

into their big cone-like horns.

 

Cheer Ldrs: Can the big team fight?

Students: Yeah man!

Cheer Ldrs: Can they fight all night?

Students: Yeah man! 

Cheer Ldrs: Well who says so?

Students: We say so!

Cheer Ldrs: And who are we? 

Students: Leo! (Wild cheers and applause)

 

Another cheer that really shook the building was one that

had us all stomping our feet in time with the band’s bass drum:

 

Lions! Lions! Boom, boom….boom-boom-boom!

Lions! Lions! Boom, boom….boom-boom-boom!

 

The noise level was deafening. Our tiny gym vibrated. As a

timid freshman I feared that the building might topple. Finally, the

band played the Leo fight song. Everyone sang:

 

Oh when those Leo men fall into line

And their colors black and orange are unfurled

You see those brawny stalwarts wait the sign

And their might against the foe is hurled

For then the foe shall feel the Lion’s might

And the spirit of our team’s attack

For with every heart and hand

We will fight as one strong band

For the honor of the orange and the black. Rah! Rah! (More cheers

and applause)

 

When the rally was over we returned to our classrooms, where

The Oriole, our school paper, was distributed. We were allowed ten

minutes or so to look at it before early dismissal.

 

Going out for football

 

Encouraged by my alley football friends, I tried out for the varsity

squad in my sophomore year. My goal was to play quarterback. And

to equip myself I bought a pair of racy, low-cut spikes at Bill Johnson’s

Sporting Goods on 79th Street. Walking home I pictured myself

rolling right in my new low-cuts and chucking a long pass down

the sideline to my wide-open receiver. He took the ball in over his

shoulder, striding into the end zone for a touchdown. The crowd

went wild!

 

Back on earth Leo High School’s varsity tryouts began with sprints

in the hall bordering the locker room. The fast guys covered this stretch

in three seconds flat. I was maybe two tenths slower – fairly fast but

not really fast. Trials continued at Shewbridge Field. Here, along

with the other QB hopefuls, I conducted a pass line, tossing the

football to receivers who ran out on short patterns. My passes were

on target and I was glad nobody was going long. The arm sprouting

from my 133-pound frame could only throw about thirty-five yards.

 

And since I’d never played on a helmeted football team I looked

lame in blocking and tackling drills. Two weeks into the tryouts a

chart was posted listing me as the fifth-string quarterback. Oh Christ! I ran

my fifth-rated backfield through a few simple plays for a week but

quit the tryouts without ever throwing a pass in a scrimmage.

 

A couple guys at school razzed me, calling me a “quitter” and it

hurt. But I still enjoyed playing touch football on concrete or asphalt. Over

the next year I picked up speed and became more sure-handed.

Occasionally, I’d make a grab that drew applause from passersby

on 80th Street. Then, halfway through junior year, something

possessed me to try out for football again. This time I went out for

end, hoping to catch my way onto the squad. I stuck with it

until the very last day of tryouts.

 

On that fateful final day we varsity wannabes approached coach

Arneberg on the practice field. Each kid got the Yea or Nay verdict,

then took off from a football stance and sprinted to the locker room.

When my turn came, the coach looked at me a little embarrassed and said,

“Sorry Murph, I guess you’re cut.” I put in my helmet and took my stance.

“Hit it!” the coach barked. I dashed toward the locker room wondering

why I should hurry.

 

My senior job

 

At the start of my senior year I got an after-school job at Auburn

Food & Liquor on 81st & Halsted. Part of the Certified chain,

it was a good-sized neighborhood grocery store. The place looked

a little shopworn, but that gave it a comfortable character. On the

day I started my very first task was hauling a load of groceries on

the store’s ugly beat-up delivery bike. It had a small wheel up front

that made room for the giant basket above it. 

 

It took leg strength and good balance to propel the bike when

it was heavy with grocery orders. Going down a curb or hitting

a pothole could make the bike cartwheel, tossing the rider and

his deliveries onto the street. I learned this the hard way. On the

positive side, powering a loaded delivery bike really built up my

thigh muscles.

 

Addresses for deliveries were written on the same piece of

paper that listed a customer’s grocery order. Long and narrow, it

came off a roll. Claude, a likeable long-time employee, took delivery

orders with the phone tucked under his chin. Gripping a heavy pencil he

hand-listed each item and its price, putting the total at the bottom.

Claude was sharp and neat but his hearing was bad. On more than

one occasion he wrote down the wrong address and sent me on

a wild goose chase. I remember a freezing-cold night when I cycled

east – all the way to Vincennes Avenue – and then north for

several blocks, 1ooking for the address that Claude had given me. Had

it been the address of a real customer, his house would have been

located inside the CTA bus barn.

 

Once I had the feel of the delivery bike I had no trouble loading

four cases of beer into its cavernous basket and delivering them to

faithful guzzlers. On a more than one occasion I was intercepted

before I could get the beer to its destination. As I approached the 

address, two or thee teenage boys popped out of a parked car and

flagged me down. One of them asked me if I had a delivery for Mr.

Brown (or whoever). When I answered yes, he said that he was Mr.

Brown, and paid me. Then he and his buddies moved the beer from

my bike to the trunk of their car.

 

Snapshots of the store

 

I met some characters at Auburn, including Wally, the stock boy

who’d worked there the longest. A muscle freak, Wally worked

out to make his biceps bulge like bricks. If he didn’t like someone

they were a “pringding.” He had a crush on a pretty girl named

Chris who frequented the store. I knew her a little because our

older sisters were friends. Whenever Wally tried to strike up a

conversation with Chris she ignored him. Her stuck-up attitude

must have enhanced her allure.

 

One night Chris entered the cooler to get a large bottle of pop.

She went in through the big door that we used for loading. Observing

this, Wally decided to have a little fun, so he locked her in. Finding

the door locked, Chris acted decisively – knocking over rows of

bottles so they dominoed into the glass doors used by customers.

The first person that opened one of those doors would release an

avalanche of glass bottles filled with beer and pop onto to the hard

floor. Realizing this, Wally quickly unlocked the cooler door. Chris

exited smiling. As she walked toward the checkout counter Wally

scrambled into the cooler to straighten the toppled bottles before

some customer opened one of the glass doors in the store.

 

The butcher shop at the rear of the store did a thriving business.

Bob, the cheerful young butcher, cut steaks, chops and roasts with

a confident flair. He also sold great pastries supplied by a local

bakery. A narrow corridor led to another rear section of the store.

It wasn’t much more than a short passageway with a sink. Here

Bernie, the diminutive produce man, washed and trimmed fruits

and veggies. He was a pleasant little guy unless you left something,

like a hand truck, sitting on his limited turf.

 

Out back there was much more to see. To the right stood a

freezer with a thick door, secured at night with a padlock (I had

irrational fears that I might get locked in there and found frozen

stiff the next day). To the left was an oft-frequented cooler for

milk. Gallon glass bottles and cardboard cartons needed constant

replenishing inside the store. And down in the asphalt yard (about

five feet below the cooler) was a heated garage for canned goods,

beer and pop. We wheeled stock to and from the garage on hand

trucks – up and down a narrow wooden ramp. There were only a

few inches of width to spare for the rubber tires on our trucks.

 

The rat

 

Another experienced stock boy (I’ll call him Phil for political

reasons) was a stinky nasty character. He’d worked at another

neighborhood grocery store where he learned to stamp prices

on cans, stock shelves, keep the coolers filled and so forth. He

knew about pricing as well. By checking a three-ring binder from the

distributor he could figure out the correct price to be stamped on

any item in the store.

 

This process involved finding the wholesale price and then

adding the proper markup to arrive at the retail price. I wondered

how he had earned his pricing privilege. Phil tried to make the process

look like a problem in celestial mechanics that only his superior

intellect could grasp. Even worse were the dirty tricks he pulled

on me. If Phil dropped a glass jar of applesauce and it crashed to the

floor, he would shout “Nice going, Joe!” I could be in some distant

part of the store, but the boss would think it was me who screwed up.

Phil was a rat. I had no respect for him.

 

That’s why I was delighted with what happened when the

two of us were filling the cooler one night. We had to haul big loads

of beer and pop up the slippery outside ramp into the store and over

to the cooler. It took heavy-duty hand trucks with fat, air-filled tires to

handle the job. One guy got the cases and wheeled them into the store while

his partner stayed in the cooler stacking them and putting single bottles in

rows so customers could access them through the big windowed doors

in the store.

 

When I was working the hand truck I just took one load at a

time – Pepsi, 7-up, Meister Bräu beer, whatever. Phil had his own

system. He went out to the garage and set up all his loads in stacks

before binging any of them into the store. It was Phil’s night to go

get the beer. Fine with me – the temperature outside was around

zero. When he left to set up his loads I knew he’d be gone for a while.

This gave me time to restock rows of bottles and push them closer

to the customer windows.

 

Where the hell is Phil?

 

I thought he’d be back by the time I’d tidied up the cooler. But for some

reason he wasn’t. What’s keeping’s him? I wondered. Well, I figured

he knew what he was doing. To kill more time I sorted through

some cans of imported beer in a box at the rear of the cooler. Their

labels were printed in foreign languages and they were rusty with age.

Finally it hit me that Phil might be in some kind of a jam, so,

I decided to take a look outside.

 

Exiting the back door I spotted Phil immediately. He was lying

with his back pressed against the slippery ramp. On top of him was a hand

truck stacked with five cases of beer. He’d slipped backing up the icy incline so

everything had come down on top of him. “Where the **** you been?” he

screamed. “I been stuck here for twenty minutes.” “Sorry,” I said.

“I thought you were in the garage setting up your loads.”

 

“Get this off me!” he commanded. I lifted the hand truck so

Phil could slide out from under it. He got to his feet and took the

handle, cussing about how cold he was. Phil struggled up the ramp

with his load and into the store. While I loaded the beer into the cooler

he warmed himself in the back room, swearing under his breath. I

made extra noises as I stashed the bottles so he wouldn’t hear me

laughing.

 

Store chores

 

There was plenty to do to at Auburn Food & Liquor – even

after closing time. Before we could leave we had to sweep the

floors, and one night each week we had to swab it. Mopping up

was a pain in the ass. Even worse, things got downright scary near the

checkout counters. The wet floors conducted electricity from the

cash registers, sending a mild electric shock through the soles of

my shoes. My tingling feet told me to mop fast and get away from

that part of the floor.

 

Saturday morning at the store was hell. Customers poured in to

do their weekly grocery shopping. The checkout area, a single aisle

with a register on each side, was a mob scene. It got so clogged that

customers sometimes had trouble opening the door to exit.

 

Every few months there was a Saturday milk catastrophe.

Someone leaving the store swung a gallon glass bottle into the front

door, breaking the bottle, the glass pane in the door and its burglar

alarm tape. Milk splattered everywhere as the alarm bell blared with ear-

piercing volume. Alerted by that familiar noise, a couple of us stock

boys rushed to the front with buckets and mops. We tried to avoid

tripping customers as we picked up the jagged pieces of glass and

sopped up the milk with our mops.

 

 

Everybody out!

 

The Saturday milk spills paled in comparison to The Little Bo-Peep Incident. 

It happened in midwinter on Thursday, which was stock day. A

forty-foot truck from Certified Grocers arrived each Thursday,

replenishing our supply of just about everything. We wheeled in

hand trucks loaded with goods, then hurried to stamp prices on them

and get them onto the shelves.

 

Amid this blur of activity one of the stock boys (not me) dropped

a case of glass bottles filled with ammonia. The overpowering fumes

spread quickly. Ken, Eberly, the owner, made everybody – customers and

employees – evacuate the store. Then he and Len, a long-time

employee, tried running back into the place, one at a time, to mop up.

They dashed in for maybe thirty seconds, then ran out, choking and

gagging from the fumes. It was clear that this drill was not going

to work. Amid the melee someone had the good sense to call the

Fire Department.

 

Within a few minutes a pulmotor arrived. Two firemen stepped

off the truck, put on masks and entered the store. They knew what

they were doing – twenty minutes later the situation was under

control. Airing out the store with fans and open doors took another

hour or so. That Thursday did not rank among Auburn Food &

Liquor’s best days for sales. I never found out who dropped that

case of Little Bo-Peep ammonia. Nobody ever owned up to it.

 

Congraduations!

 

The spring of ’61 saw four Murphy graduations. Joan matriculated

from Mundelein College, Jim graduated from Calumet High, I got my 

diploma from Leo and Margaret Mary said goodbye to St. Leo

Grammar School. You couldn’t swing a tassel without hitting a

grad. Happy to have high school out of the way, I looked forward

to a summer of earning tuition money for college. I couldn’t have

imagined what lie in store for me during the summer of ’61.

 

FOR ADDITIONAL READING PURCHASE THE BOOK OF “ECHOES IN

THE GANGWAY” BY Joe Murphy ’61 CLICK HERE.

 

Comments

  1. tom brann 64 says:

    Way to go Murph. I experienced the same adventures, including Bro Hennessy’ special sense of getting his kicks. You brought back a lot of memories. It was a good read, and you left a good hook, compelling one to buy the book. I look forward to reading more.

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