Gage Park Chess Team


Evergreen Park, Illinois

When Chicagoans hear the names Palermo’s, Giordano’s, Chesden’s, and Falco’s, pizza comes to mind. Delicious Chicago-style pizza. My thoughts turn to chess. Pizza always reminds me of my days as a high school athlete at Gage Park High School. Okay, I didn’t actually play any sports that involved physical activity at Gage Park, but I did letter in chess and our chess team was awarded athletic letters the athletes award ceremony. For some reason unbeknownst to me, chess was even covered in Sports Illustrated back then.

Dr. D. plays Jim Harmon as Ted Rafacz watches.

Anyway, I played chess on the chess team at Gage Park High School with Jim Harmon, Vito Vitkauskas, Dave Johnson, Bill Rozivics, Ted Rafacz, and Nick Polo. We were coached by Mr. Crowe, who also coached the hockey team. I suppose tenacity and mental toughness is required for both chess and hockey, so Mr. Crowe was the perfect coach for both sports. I think he liked the hockey team better, though. He used to brag about how smart the hockey team was. And he would tell us every time a hockey player got a college scholarship. The chess team was a bunch of slackers by comparison. One time, Mr. Crowe complained because two chess players were suspended and couldn’t play in an important chess match. Bill was suspended for low grades, even though he could recite the atomic chart from memory. And I was suspended for fighting. As a member of the chess team, bullies liked to pick on me, but I always fought back. I didn’t know you could get suspended for self-defense. To school officials, fighting was fighting and that warranted a suspension.

But back to the pizza. In order to inspire us to play better chess, Mr. Crowe promised to take us out for pizza every time we won a chess match. If we lost, we had to treat him to a steak dinner. We complained that this wasn’t fair because steak was more delicious and more expensive than pizza. But since he was the coach, we finally agreed with the arrangement reluctantly because he insisted that he was buying a meal for seven chess players while we were only treating one person.

I don’t remember how many matches we won or how many times Mr. Crowe treated us to pizza, but I do remember the one time we lost the match and we went to Chesden’s on Archer Avenue for Mr. Crowe’s steak dinner. We barely had enough to pay for his steak dinner, so we didn’t order pizza for ourselves. But Mr. Crowe was so kind as to keep asking the waitress to keep replenishing the bread baskets. All we ate was bread and water while Mr. Crowe savored a juicy t-bone steak. He insisted that he was teaching us to become better chess players!

The other memorable event of this day was the snowball fight afterward. As we were walking to Mr. Crowe’s car, we started throwing snowballs at each other. Since we were always very competitive, we chose up sides and began battling in earnest. Suddenly, Ted said that he lost his school ring while throwing a snowball. We must have looked for that ring for about an hour in the snow, in the dark, before we finally found it.

So whenever I think of pizza, my thoughts turn to my days on the Gage Park Chess Team!

Davis Square Park


Back of the Yards, Chicago, Illinois

When I was growing up, I spent a lot of time in Davis Square Park in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. The park is located between Marshfield Avenue and Hermitage Avenue, 44th and 45th Streets. There are larger parks in the city, but when I was five, the park was huge. My mother always took my brothers and me there to play whenever it was nice out. Basically, if it wasn’t raining, my mother took us to the park to play no matter how cold it was. I loved going down the slide, which was the biggest slide I had ever seen! All the kids said it was the world’s biggest slide and I believed them. Come on, I was only five years old at the time. One day, I fell of the top of the slide because one of the kids told me to slide down one of the supporting poles instead of sliding down the slide.

When I was too afraid to go down the pole, he demonstrated how I should go down by doing it himself. Well, my legs didn’t wrap around the pole just right and I fell for what seemed an eternity and landed on my right arm. I cried because I was in so much pain! My mother came running over to see what had happened to me. She took my brothers and me home immediately. She massaged my shoulder, but I kept crying. She called a friend of hers who immediately came over. She looked at my arm and shoulder, and then, boiled some herbs on the stove. She then rubbed this pungent concoction on my shoulder and arm that made me gag and massaged me forcefully. I remember crying even more while she did this. Actually, I remember feeling much worse after her “cure.”

Davis Square Park had a field house where we would go after school in the fall to play floor hockey and in the winter to play basketball. In the winter, they would hose down the baseball fields so would could play ice hockey. Everyday after school, I would play hockey all afternoon and evening long. I just loved playing hockey. I would have been a great hockey player if it weren’t for my one weakness: I couldn’t skate very well! However, I was fearless. I turned out to be a very good goalie. As long as I was standing in front of the net, I could block slapshots with my stick or chest, and I could catch the puck and give it to one of my teammates. My team usually won because hardly anyone ever scored on me.

The park had a swimming pool where we spent as time as possible, although that was very limited because of their schedule. For reasons unbeknownst to us, the schedule alternated between a boys day and a girls day when we could go swim without an adult. In the afternoon and evening, families could go swimming together. I could never go because you needed an adult to take you. My mother never took us because she refused to wear a bathing suit. In fact, I never saw her go in the water when we went to the beach.

Our time at Davis Square Park just flew by. When it was time to go home, my brothers and I would want to stay. It seemed like it wasn’t until we were really having fun that my mother would decide we had to go home. But we had to go home, my mother told us, because they let lions loose at the park at night. She told us this every time it was time to go home. At first, we went home without questioning her. Then, I started thinking about the logistics and safety of maintaining lions at Davis Square Park. But my mother always had an answer for every question I posed. “Where do they keep the lions?” “In the basement of the fieldhouse.” “How do they let them out?” “Through the steel plates that cover the basement windows.” “How come the lions don’t run away if there’s no fence all the way around the park?” “Because the love the park.” “What’ll happen if I don’t go home with you?” “Fine! Stay! But don’t come home crying to me when the lions eat you!” “Wait for me!”

I met Mayor Richard J. Daley at Davis Square Park for the first time. Our neighborhood had a slight gang problem, so Da Mayor decided to start up his own rival gang called the Centurions. In theory, the Centurions would provide an alternative to street gangs. All my friends and I joined even though we never even thought of joining a gang in the first place. But we had a lot of fun! We played all kinds of organized sports and sometimes we even won a trophy. I really loved when they would load us up on a school bus and take us the the White Sox games for free!