Mr. Macala

Mr. Macala, 1976 Gage Park High School Yearbook.

When I think of influential people in my life, I don’t often think of teachers. Some teachers merely teach, but others offer valuable lessons that don’t sink in until much later in life. So when I think back to influential teachers like Sister Laverne at Holy Cross School and Enrico Mordini at Divine Heart Seminary, I also recall Robert Macala and would like to add him to my list of influential teachers. Whenever I recall him, it’s as Mr. Macala, as we were taught to address our teachers in high school.

I met Mr. Macala at Gage Park High School because he took my picture for the chess team and when I won a trophy at a chess tournament at the La Salle Hotel in downtown Chicago. I’m not sure how he found out that I had won the trophy, but he came looking for me with his camera and took a picture of me with the trophy. If I’m not mistaken, I believe that he called two girls walking in the hallway to come in and pose with me for another picture. I suppose to give me this aura of being a sexy chess player. I may just be imagining some of the details about the girls as I recall the incident. But it seems so real now as I imagine it. Forgive me if I have embellished the story. Lately, I’ve been recalling events that I have never experienced!

Anyway, Mr. Macala asked me to write a short description about myself and about the chess tournament and he would then publish the picture in the school newspaper. He asked me to write this with such great confidence that I would do it immediately. He just assumed that I was capable of such a simple assignment. But, alas, I never wrote the brief description and my picture never appeared in the school newspaper. He overestimated my capabilities, but I liked the fact that he truly believed I could do it.

I met Mr. Macala again in the summer of 1975 when I attended summer school at Kelly High School and he was the English teacher. I must admit that I had a very bad attitude that summer. I had just failed English in my senior year, so I didn’t graduate. I had to make up the English class during the summer. I truly believed my life was over. FML! That’s how I felt, long before the acronym was even invented.

I worked midnights at Derby Foods, the peanut butter factory, and then went immediately to English class in the morning. I had failed English because I worked and I didn’t sleep enough before my midnight shift. I often fell asleep during my classes. Plus, I didn’t do any of the reading or writing assignments. And, sometimes I didn’t show up to class. Was that any reason to fail me? Oh, yes, I also failed to write the required term paper!

So, I was greatly relieved in summer school when Mr. Macala announced on the first day of class that we wouldn’t have to write a term paper. The whole class breathed a collective sigh of relief! Perhaps the class wouldn’t be so bad after all. I don’t recall all the details about what was taught in class. But I do remember how Mr. Macala kept the class’s attention by straying from the lesson. He did teach us English, even though I don’t remember exactly what, and he also gave us writing assignments. I still have a book report and a couple of assignments that I wrote for Mr. Macala. I was so happy with the class that I actually saved some of the assignments instead of throwing them away as I did with all my other high school classes. Occasionally, he read student papers aloud and I was surprised he read mine. The assignment was to write a letter that you would like to receive. I tried to be funny and apparently he thought it was funny because he read it to the class. No one had ever read my writing to the class in high school before.

What I remember most are the lessons that were not part of the curriculum. He told us stories to entertain us. Some were works in progress, I’m sure, that he was perfecting for future use. He once told us a mystery story. “It was a hot summer day. We ate some apple pie, but there was still once slice left in the pan. We put the pie pan away. I took a nap and when I woke up–the last slice of pie was gone! I never did figure out what happened to it!” Perhaps this doesn’t sound like much of a mystery story to you, gentle reader, but Mr. Macala had a way of telling stories that kept you hanging on his every word.

The story that fascinated me the most was the one about how he started a backgammon club. He loved to play backgammon. Someone suggested that he start a backgammon club. So he put a flyer up at the local supermarkets asking backgammon players to send money to him to join a backgammon club. He was surprised when many people actually sent him money to join. He had to actually follow through with the club. Soon, he was holding backgammon tournaments with prize money. This proved to be a very profitable venture. I learned a very valuable lesson about capitalism, but I had never had the initiative to do anything comparable. I didn’t capitalize on this knowledge.

He also inspired me academically. He told us he wasn’t a very good student in high school, but discovered he was intelligent once he started college. I would remember this fact years later when I contemplated going back to school. I never thought I was a good student either. Ever! I recalled his words when I went back to school. I told myself to do all the homework for all the classes and study for the exams. My goal was to try to get at least a C in every course. Once I applied myself, I discovered that I was a much better student that I had thought. Eventually, I graduated Phi Beta Kappa. Thanks in part to Mr. Macala’s story of his student days.

After high school, I lost track of him. Jim, Vito, and I often remembered Mr. Macala. We all agreed that he was a little wild and crazy. But that’s what appealed to me about him. He was intelligent and a little eccentric. One Saturday night, Jim, Vito, and I were on Rush Street for a night on the town. Picking up girls, the way we always did. That was our joke. Picking up girls the way we always did. Actually, we weren’t very good at picking up girls at all. On Saturday night, one of us would ask, “What do you want to do tonight?’ “I don’t know” “Why don’t we pick up girls!” “Yeah! Let’s pick up girls. Like we always do!” We never managed to pick up even one girl! If a girl fell unconscious in front us, we couldn’t pick her up. Not even if we all lifted at once.

Anyway, we were on Rush Street picking up girls as per usual. Suddenly, we see a man standing at the entrance of a night club, actually called a disco back then. This man was flirting with every woman who walked by. He made comments to every passerby. He started telling us something when we approached him. We all recognized him immediately. “Hi, Mr. Macala!’ We were surprised to see him there. Now that I think back, it makes perfect sense that he’d be there!

Well, of all the teachers who greatly influenced me, Mr. Macala is the only with whom I still communicate. In fact, we are friends on Facebook! He now lives in Florida and he asks me questions about Spanish all the time. The roles seem to have reversed.

Love is …

Chicago Sun-Times

“Love is …”

I’m talking about the little cartoon that you see in the newspaper comic section. You know, the one with little cartoon couple that illustrate some aspect of love. I saw it today, but I didn’t even read it. I just kind of stared at the picture because I recalled the very first time I became aware of the cartoon way back when I was still in high school. All the girls used to like reading it. Some of them even clipped out the ones that they especially liked. I was your typical teenage boy who didn’t pay much attention to those cartoons. But then one day, I met Maria Pardo …

At Gage Park High School, I met a lot of interesting people that I still remember to this day. I’m still friends with many of them. Instead of staying in the assembly hall for the study period, I used to go to the library because I loved reading magazines or whatever book caught my interest. I never actually studied for any of my classes. I used to read U.S. News and World Report cover to cover. Occasionally, I talked to the librarian.

Then, one day, I looked up from my magazine and I saw her. Apparently, she had been sitting there for weeks, but I had not noticed her before. Actually, she noticed me first, but it took her two weeks to catch my attention. But that’s how I am. I’m frequently oblivious to everything around me once I start reading. When I finally took a good look at her sitting at the table across from me, she was smiling and signalling me to sit by her. She was beautiful! She had long black hair and brown eyes. She wore makeup even though most of the other girls didn’t. She even painted her fingernails. When I sat next to her, I smelled her perfume that just captivated me. From then on, I always sat next to her in the library. And somehow, she always managed to sit right next to me. She always read the Chicago Sun-Times, but she always read the horoscope first and then the comics. I always preferred brainy girls, but she was the prettiest girl I had met at Gage Park and she had asked me to sit next to her.

At first, I thought she was Mexican. I mean, she looked Mexican, very Mexican. But then she told me that she was born in Ecuador. I was surprised because I thought everyone who spoke Spanish in Chicago was either Mexican or Puerto Rican. She spoke English with this really very sexy accent. I loved listening to her talk, so much so that when she spoke to me in Spanish, I lied to her and told her that I didn’t know Spanish just so that she would continue talking to me in English with her sexy accent. But the highlight of the study period was when she would read the “Love is …” cartoon. No matter what it was about, she would always squeeze my hand and say, “Isn’t that so cute?” Frankly, I didn’t get it, but I played along. We got to know each other quite well that year. Or so I thought. When spring came, I asked her to the dance, but she said that she already had a date. At the end of the school year, I asked her what she was doing for the summer. She said she was getting married and moving back home to Ecuador. I was disappointed, but for a while, everyone thought I had the hottest girlfriend in the school!

Isn't this so cute! Love is keeping him company!

Patrick Fahey

International Union Stockyards, Chicago, Illinois

I met Patrick Fahey when I attended Tilden Technical High School in Back of the Yards. We were very good friends, but only when we were in school. I’m not even sure when and where I met him. He just somehow materialized at school and we often sat together in cafeteria or the library. Sometimes when I walked home from school, I would walk over to his apartment because he only lived two blocks from the school.

His apartment didn’t have very much furniture and no one was ever home. Patrick was Irish with brown hair and freckles. He was tall and thin. His face wasn’t exactly symmetrical and it kind of reminded me of Pablo Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein. I often found myself staring at the dimensions of his face, but he never said anything. Perhaps he never noticed since he always seemed to be off in his own little world. He didn’t have a girlfriend that I knew of, other than his imaginary ones. Sometimes he would show me a model in a magazine ad and say, “I wouldn’t kick her out of bed.” But I couldn’t even picture him approaching any girl even to say hello to one since he was so painfully shy. I didn’t think he would ever attract a  beautiful girl like the models in the magazines, or any girl at all for that matter, because of his extreme shyness.

But, one day, as I was putting my books in my locker between classes, I closed my locker door and I suddenly saw a girl standing there, smiling nervously. We were both speechless for a moment. She looked Irish to me. She was pretty in a plain sort of way and pleasantly plump. I finally said hi. She said hi, but then the bell rang and we went our separate ways. The whole incident was mind-boggling. I couldn’t fathom why this girl would be standing by my locker.

I forgot all about her until the next day when I saw her by my locker again. “Do you know Patrick Fahey?” she asked. “Yes,” I responded feebly. “Do you talk to him a lot?” “Yes.” Then, the bell rang and we went to our respective classes. I told Patrick about the incident, but he didn’t even acknowledge what I had told him. That was actually quite normal for us because we didn’t always talk to each other. We often just sat there in the library, just reading. We were kind of like Pedro and Napoleon in the movie Napoleon Dynamite, only I didn’t have a mustache then. Now that I think of it, we spent a lot of time together, but we hardly ever talked, even when we walked to his house together.

A few weeks later, the girl was at my locker again. This time she talked and talked so much that I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Her name was Maureen and she was in a history class with Patrick. She said she really, really liked Patrick, but he would never talk to her. So, she approached me to help her. I said I would talk to Patrick. When I saw him, I asked him if he knew Maureen. He did. But he wasn’t interested in her. End of conversation for the day.

I would see Maureen by my locker regularly and she would ask me for progress updates. Actually, what I gave her were more like lack-of-progress updates. Patrick just wasn’t interested in her, not even as a friend. I eventually broke the news to her gently, but she was in denial and only tried harder. Finally, it was the end of the school year and it was time for the spring dance. Maureen came to my locker asked me if I was going to the dance. Then, she asked if I knew if Patrick already had a date for the dance. I knew he didn’t because we both confessed that we weren’t going. Maureen then told me to ask Patrick to take her to the dance. She stood there by my locker, the epitome of woeful lovesick misery, so I agreed to talk to Patrick for her. Patrick immediately said no. When I saw Maureen again, I told her his response. She cried and said, “But I love him!” She begged me to talk to him again. To ask him to please take her to the spring dance. I felt uncomfortable because she had her arms around my neck and everyone in the hall was staring at us.

I told Patrick everything that had transpired between Maureen and me, but he was unmoved. He said he wouldn’t go to the dance with Maureen. He just wouldn’t. Just because. For me that wasn’t a good reason. Somehow, I felt that I had to help Maureen. And by helping Maureen, I was also helping Patrick. “Just take Maureen to the dance!” I finally said. “I can’t.” “Why not?” “Because she’s fat!” “That’s not true!” Suddenly, I felt that I had to defend Maureen since I had gotten to know her a little better with all the time she spent talking to me by my locker.

Besides, to a Mexican, she wasn’t considered even remotely fat. “She just wants you to take her to the dance,” I said. “She’s not asking you to marry her.” Well, this seemingly sad tale eventually had a happy ending. Maureen, with all of her perpetual persistence–with a lot of help from me–, eventually went to the spring dance with Patrick. Afterwards, he wouldn’t talk about the dance or Maureen. In fact, Patrick acted as if the spring dance had never occurred, as if it were some sort of void in his life. But I knew they were happy together because Maureen would constantly update me on their relationship on her regular visits to me by my locker. I don’t know whatever happened to Patrick and Maureen because I transferred to Gage Park High School the next year. I like to imagine that they’re still together, happily married with children. Only Patrick doesn’t tell his friends about her.

Kung Fu


Dr. D in kung fu uniform

You’ve probably noticed the yin and yang symbol at the end of some of my blog posts. I’ve been meanig to explain why I use it, but I’ve always been hesitant to tell you. Well, now it can be told. Now that I’m feeling more comfortable with you, gentle reader, I’ll tell you. But you have to promise me that you won’t tell anyone. Okay? Well … Okay, I believe that you won’t tell anyone. So here goes.

I didn’t want to go to Divine Heart Seminary, but my mother made me go anyway. While I was there, I kept telling her that I wanted to leave. Finally, she gave in and she said I could leave the seminary. However, she didn’t make any effort to get me into the Catholic high school of my choice, or any private school for that matter. We lived in Back of the Yards, so I had to go to a public high school. I went to Tilden Technical H.S. I was extremely unhappy there.

As bad as things were, I never regretted leaving the seminary. At that time, I was only five feet tall and weighed about eighty-seven pounds. I was the perfect target for bullies. Ever since I was little, I always fought back no matter who picked on me, regardless of the consequences. When I transferred to Gage Park High School, I was suspended quite a few times for defending myself. My mother yelled at me for having to miss work in order to get me reinstated in school. I told her that if she would have sent me to a Catholic high school, I wouldn’t be having those problems.

Oh yeah, my bedroom was in the unfinished attic of our house at 4405 S. Wood Street. That added to my overall happiness of my adolescence. My bedroom was hot and humid in the summer, and extremely cold in the winter. I spent a lot of time by myself in that room. I had a black light and fluorescent posters. I had my own black and white TV. I had a radio that I wired to every speaker that I found. I had surround sound before anyone else even invented it.

Okay, get ready. Here comes the part about kung fu. Are you ready? Well, here goes anyway. I hated getting picked on at school. And, I loved to watch TV every waking moment, especially all the comedies like The Dick Van Dyke Show, Laugh In, The Bill Cosby Show, The Flip Wilson Show, the Johnny Carson Show, among many others. If the TV show wasn’t a comedy, I didn’t watch it. With one notable exception. Kung Fu. There was something about that show that attracted me. Something that really moved me. I felt lonely, scared, defenseless, and scared. After watching Kung Fu, I learned to apply some of that philosophy to my life. Oh yeah, and I observed those martial arts techniques and learned to use them to defend myself at school and in the neighborhood. I never backed down from anyone. And everyone learned not to start trouble with me. I’m not saying I won many fights since I was smaller than most of the bullies, but I would cause enough pain and anguish to my assailant the he often thought twice before picking on me again. Once, a bully approached me to exact revenge from our previous encounter. I gave him a look that could only be interpreted as, “Bring it on!” He shook his head in disbelief and walked away.

The TV show Kung Fu actually changed my life. I started practicing kung fu religiously. I wanted to be one with the universe. I wanted to be Chinese!

My favorite TV show when I was in high school.

Well, I never became Chinese. Or even learned to speak Chinese. But I have gotten older and wiser. That last time I practiced kung fu? Oh, about forty pounds ago. But I always fondly recall David Carradine as Kwai Chang Cane or Grasshopper when he was known when he was a young boy in the Shaolin Temple back in China. But I still feel that I benefited from watching Kung Fu. So whenever I get philosophical, in my own unique way, I categorize my blog entry under Life and end it with the yin and yang symbol. Peace, love, and eternal cosmic wisdom!