During the summer of 1960 my family moved from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin to Bensenville, Illinois. I was beginning my junior year in high school and was about to enter a new school with the challenge of making all new friends. Fortunately, I have never had a problem doing that. I was used to it since this would be the fourth time I would be going to a new school.
As luck would have it, one of my first new friends also became one of my best friends and that was Ernie. He was a tall lanky guy with an infectious grin. He also had a car. Ernie introduced me to another friend of his named Denny and the three of us soon became inseparable. We did every thing together and we went everywhere in Ernieís car.
Ernieís car was a red 1956 Ford convertible and he loved driving it. We loved riding in it so Ernie was our "wheelman" even back then. We would often go out to Daveís (a popular local burger joint) for a burger and a Coke after school, then Ernie would drop me off at home and my mother would wonder why I was not eating my dinner. Friday and Saturday nights when none of us had dates (which was often the case) we would just go cruising in Ernieís convertible.
There were several drive-ins along the cruising route where guys with fast cars would meet and challenge each other to illegal drag races on the nearby streets. Carloads of girls would hang out at the drive-ins as well to flirt with the boys in the fast cars. We never got involved in the illegal drag racing because while Ernieís car was cool, it was not fast. The fact that it was a convertible was enough to attract the girls and that is all we really cared about anyway.
After we graduated from high school and I went to college, Ernie and I stayed in touch, even when he decided to go to school in Arkansas. Denny sort of faded away and I have not seen or heard from him in many years. After I graduated from college, Ernie and I became roommates in the apartment across the street from Dukeís. Eric eventually moved in with us for a while as well.
We made a few more trips in the hearse to Road America that year and a couple up to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. One particular trip to Lake Geneva stands out in my memory. The four of us had started going up there on weekends the year before we got the hearse. The bar we frequented was called "Lakeview Bar." Across the street from the bar was a park and on the other side of the park was the lake. You could see the lake from the entrance to the bar but since there were no windows in the place, the lake view from inside was left to the imagination.
Paul, the bar owner, was quite impressed with our hearse and promptly reserved a parking spot for it right in front of the joint. I think he figured it would attract customers - which it did. Even if they did not come into the bar, most people walking by would at least stop to check out the hearse.
We had become pretty good customers and would often order our beers by the case. On this trip Paul had a gift for us. He gave each of us our own bottle opener. It was a piece of wood with a bottle opener on one end and a loop of leather string on the other end so we could wear it around our necks. He had burned our names into the wood so we each had our own personal bottle opener. Not only did this reward us for being such good customers, it made his bartender more efficient because he did not have to take time to open our beers for us.
Whenever we showed up, we pretty much took over the place and were the dominant group in the bar. That was until the Red Angels showed up on the Fourth of July weekend. They were a motorcycle club (gang) from Chicago, all decked out in their leathers and tattoos. There were twelve of them and they parked their Harleys next to the hearse. In fact, it was the hearse that attracted them to the Lakeview in the first place. They had no sooner ordered their beers than they asked about the hearse and who owned it.
We knew that there would not be room for two dominant groups in the bar and they outnumbered us three to one (not to mention they looked a lot meaner than we did). We quickly decided to try to make friends with them, which was not as hard as we thought it would be since they turned out to be a great bunch of guys. The gang was interested in the hearse, and we gave them the usual tour. They were particularly impressed with the cooler in the floor.
Biker Bob and Billy were pretty much the leaders of the pack. They were sitting in a booth in the bar with Eric and me. Now Eric is a big guy and tough as nails. I first met him my first day at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois.
When I arrived on campus that first day, I was both excited and a bit apprehensive. Going away to college was a brand new experience, even though I was not going all that far away - only to Naperville, which is some 30 miles from home. My parents had driven me out there with all my stuff packed in the trunk and the back seat. When we arrived at the residence hall I had been assigned to, I checked in with the housemother. Yes, back then they still had housemothers.
She told me my room number and gave me a key for it. I went down the hall to check it out. I unlocked the door, went in, and there on the bed was a giant wearing only a pair of briefs. The giant woke up as I came in and quickly jumped to his feet. I apologized for waking him (I am sure I had learned somewhere that it is best to let sleeping giants lay) and introduced myself as his new roommate. As he stood towering over me, he told me his name was Eric, but I am not sure I heard it. I told him my parents were waiting out in the car with all my stuff. The giant quickly said he would get dressed and help me move in.
I brought my parents in with each of us loaded down with clothes and stuff and was about to introduce them to the giant when I realized I did not remember his name. When I apologized a second time and told him I did not recall his name he just smiled and introduced himself to my parents. This time I did catch the name and a bell went off in my head.
I asked him, "Did you go to York High School?" He seemed surprised and said yes he did. It was my turn to smile as I told him, "I saw you win third place in the heavyweight division at the state wrestling meet last spring." A big grin spread across his face and he said, "No kidding! You were at the meet?" I said, "Yes, I have on lot of friends on my high schoolís wrestling team and we all went down to see the state finals. That was a heck of a match you had with that guy from East Leyden to win third." Eric just beamed and we were instantly buddies.
Eric was about 6 foot 2 and weighed in at 230 lbs and none of it was fat. He was a terrific athlete and had been in the room for two weeks because he was on the football team and they had started practicing two weeks earlier. He was a big guy but as gentle and nice a guy you would ever want to meet, unless you were meeting him across the line of scrimmage or on the wrestling mat. He could be one mean sucker in those situations.
For example, when he had a big wrestling match coming up he would let his beard grow out until he had nice, stiff stubble. Then, when he had his opponent down on the mat, he would rub that stubble on his chin into the back of the guyís neck. Eric said you do whatever it takes to give you an edge to help you win.
While it was bad enough to meet Eric when he had his game face on, what you really wanted to avoid was making him mad. That next spring, we double dated for the Spring Formal dance, the collegeís version of a high school prom. After the dance, we took our dates to the Boulevard Room in one of the big downtown Chicago hotels. This was supposed to be an excellent restaurant and had an ice rink in the middle on which they presented an ice review to entertain the diners.
It was the season for proms and several couples from high school proms were also there, all dressed up in their tuxes and fancy formals. We were not as dressed up as they were, but Eric and I wore a coat and tie, and our dates were in nice dresses. No matter, apparently our waiter tagged us as prom kids and gave us the "special" menu with only a few selections and cheaper prices. Eric asked him for the regular menu and the waiter said it was the regular menu. It did have what we thought was a sirloin steak on the menu so we all ordered that rather than make a fuss.
When our dinner arrived, the "steak" turned out to be a hamburger without the bun. The fancy way they had worded the menu kept us from realizing we were ordering ground sirloin. I could see Eric starting to get that look and warning flags started to go up in my mind. Our waiter was an expert at avoiding us, but Eric finally got his attention by nearly tackling him, and asked for catsup for our hamburgers. We never got it but when we asked for the bill, it was there in record time. We left enough money on the table to cover the bill and a nickel tip, which I thought was generous under the circumstances.
I could sense the anger in Eric boiling away just below the surface so I was more than a little relieved when we got up and started for the exit. My relief was short-lived for as we made our way out, our waiter came up behind us, stopped us and complained that we had not left him a tip. I quickly stepped between Eric and the waiter and said, "Yes, we did, we left you a nickel and that is all we thought your service was worth." He replied, "Well, a nickel is not a proper tip"
That was all it took to set Eric off like Mt. St. Helens. "A proper tip!" Eric shouted, "Iíll give you a proper tip!" I turned to face Eric and block his path to the waiter who at this point was probably thinking a nickel tip wasnít that bad after all. Eric started toward the waiter and I put my hands on his chest and tried to hold him back. He kept coming, pushing me backwards with my feet sliding on the carpet. All the while, Eric is shouting at the top of his lungs, "We asked for a regular menu and you would not give us one! We order steak and get hamburger, we ask for catsup and you never bring it, and now you expect a proper tip!"
I can assure you that the ice review was not getting the attention it deserved from the rest of the patrons. Even the skaters stopped to watch, realizing that this was a scene that probably did not occur in the famed Boulevard Room every night. Managers came running from all directions. I did not know a restaurant had that many managers.
I finally got Eric to calm down a bit, primarily because the focus of his anger had managed to scamper away with his nickel tip. I explained to the managers what the problem was and they apologized to us. When we finally did turn to leave, the other diners applauded us.
Eric and I did not do well at dinners following formal dances. We double dated again for Homecoming the next fall. Dinner was going well since we actually got steak that was still all in one piece. Ericís date had taken a fancy to the silverware the restaurant had on the table so Eric lifted a set from the next table and put it in his inside jacket pocket.
As were leaving, I retrieved my dateís coat from the coat check and went to help her put it on, like any gentleman would. Her coat had a nice fur collar and I held the coat by the collar as she slipped her arm into it. When she did, the coat fell to the floor and there I was, holding just the fur collar. I must admit I was more than a little embarrassed.
On the other hand, Eric thought it was hysterical and he began to roar with laughter at my plight. He laughed so hard he doubled over and when he did, that set of silverware spilled out of his pocket and bounced noisily all over the tile floor of the restaurantís foyer.
Another time when I saw Eric angry also showed me how tough he was. We were sitting in a bar in Downers Grove one summer afternoon. There was a band playing in the bar, and at one point the bandleader announced that they were dedicating the next song to John Mack. Eric turned to me and asked, "Who the hell is John Mack?" The guy sitting next to Eric apparently overheard that and took extreme offense to it. He stood up and smashed a beer bottle over Ericís head.
Had he done that to me, it would have been lights out and my next stop would be the floor, but not Eric. He just sort of hunched his shoulders, shook his head, stood up, faced the guy and said, "What the hell was that for?" At this point the guy must have realized he was in big, big trouble. He dropped what remained of the beer bottle from his hand and made a break for the door. The bar had a screen door on it but the guy did not bother to open it. He just ran right through the screen with Eric in hot pursuit and I mean hot.
Eric never did catch up, but the guy was literally running for his life. Eric was at least twice his size and really mad. The bartender told me that John Mack had been this guyís best friend and he had recently died. We had no way of knowing that or we would have been more respectful. But if Eric had caught the guy, he may well have been reunited with his deceased friend.
After we graduated, Eric was signed as a free agent by the Washington Redskins, who tried to make him a tight end. Eric had played only interior offensive line in college and it was soon apparent that he was not going to make the team as a tight end. However, the Redskins' middle linebacker at the time was the future Hall of Fame member, Sam Huff. Sam was nearing the end of his career but he knew talent when he saw it and convinced Otto Graham, the coach, to keep Eric on as a middle linebacker.
For a year Eric was the back-up middle linebacker for the Washington Redskins behind Sam Huff. The next spring, however, Washington used a first round draft pick on a middle linebacker and Eric was history. He did spend a training camp with the San Diego Chargers, who tried to make him a center, another position he had never played, and he did not make the team. From there, Eric went to Canada where he was the starting middle linebacker for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers for five years.
While Eric and I were sitting in the bar booth with Biker Bob and Billy in Lake Geneva, Billy asked about the bottle openers we had around our necks. I told him that Paul had given them to us so we could open our own beers when we bought a case, one of which was on the table between us. "That what you always use to open your beer?" asked Billy. "Not always," replied Eric, who casually pulled out a fresh beer and proceeded to pop the cap off with his teeth. Just watching him do that made my teeth hurt.
Billy said nothing and just pulled a beer out of the case and also opened it with his teeth, but unlike Eric he did not spit the cap out right away. We could hear him sort of chewing on it as he rolled it around in his mouth. When he did spit it out onto the table, the cap was rolled up into a tube. I was suitably impressed and turned my attention to Biker Bob, who had said nothing. Biker Bob was a huge man who made even Eric look small. I half expected him to pull out a bottle and bite the neck off. I was not far off.
Biker Bob grunted when Billy spit out his rolled up bottle cap, then reached across the table and pulled Ericís plastic sunglasses from his pocket. He picked up a saltshaker and sprinkled some salt on them and then proceeded to eat them! I could not believe what I was seeing and cringed at every crunch as he munched away. Ok, so now we knew who the tough guy was in the group.
At one point in the weekend, we suggested to our new friends that we go down to the local go-cart track and race the go-carts for a while. The Red Angels thought that sounded like a great idea, so off we went. Ernie, Tuna, Eric and I led the way with the hearse and the gang followed on their Harleys. We must have presented quite an entourage with the red and white 1952 Henney Packard hearse leading a dozen rumbling Harleys through the center of town. All along the route, people would stop and watch us pass by.
There were not enough go-carts for all of us at the same time, so I diplomatically suggested the Red Angels go first. This turned out to be a wise choice on our part. What should have been a harmless go-cart race quickly degenerated into a demolition derby. The ensuing carnage was almost frightening to watch as the gang careened into each other with reckless abandon. Cart parts and biker bodies were sent flying through the air with regularity. Within minutes, at least three carts had been totaled while the guy who was running the place looked on in horror. Why none of the gang was seriously injured is beyond me.
They finally determined that the carts were just too slow to have any real fun and decided to head back to the bar. The track manager must have decided that discretion was the better part of valor for he said nothing as the gang left the track and mounted their bikes. He just stared at the wreckage left behind, shaking his head in disbelief.
Biker Bob led the pack out, but as he pulled his big Harley Davidson out into the street, a young couple riding a small Suzuki motorcycle ran into his side and knocked him over. There was silence as a cursing Biker Bob struggled to get out from under his bike and when he jumped to his feet, I was sure nothing good was going come from this. Biker Bob had an intimidating look about him at normal times. Now the glare in his eyes and the grimace on his face was truly frightening as he stepped over his fallen Harley toward the young couple.
They were quaking in fear and I remember thinking to myself, "Well, at least they have helmets on." Biker Bob had just started toward them with fire in his eyes when I heard Billy call out, "Hey Bob!! You just got run over by a damn Suzuki!" Then Billy started to laugh. "A damn Suzuki! You got dumped by a damn Suzuki!" Biker Bob stopped as the rest of the gang began to laugh and joined in with the gibes. "Bob just been run over by a damn little rice burner!" Tears started to roll down their cheeks and they bent over double, roaring in laughter.
Biker Bob glared at his buddies for a moment, then slowly his grimace weakened and the corner of his mouth began to turn up in a grin. Soon he was laughing as hard as the rest of them. "Do you believe that? I just got run over by a Suzuki!" I motioned the young couple to exit stage left, which they did in as much haste as their little Suzuki could muster.
That Fourth of July weekend with the Red Angels was one of the best weekends I ever had in Lake Geneva. Biker Bob and Billy were both ironworkers and worked together hanging steel in Chicago high rises. Other members of the group included a lawyer, an accountant and Little Tommy, who was President and CEO of a small manufacturing company. There was not one fight or altercation the whole weekend, mainly due to the fact that the hippie could run faster than Billy.
The year was 1967. The United States was still immersed in Vietnam, and protesters were still protesting. One such protest happened to take place on this Fourth of July in the park across from the Lakeview. Some hippie decided to burn an American Flag to show his opposition to the war. Billy may have been a tough, hard drinking motorcycle gang member and he may have done a few things the law would have looked on with favor, but Billy was proud to be an American and a Vietnam Vet.
We saw the crowd gathered across the street and wandered over to see what was going on. When we saw it was a Vietnam protest, Billy expressed his disgust to us but did nothing. Nothing, that is, until he saw the hippie set the American flag on fire. Billy let out a roar and charged him with patriotic fervor. The hippie heard the roar and saw him coming, so he dropped the burning flag and wisely took to his heels. Billy stopped and put out the fire on the flag, picked it up and took off, roaring in rage, after the fast disappearing hippie.
An hour or so later, Billy walked into the bar with the slightly charred flag draped around his neck and disappointment on his face. The hippie had eluded him and being beaten to a pulp at the same time. Billy wore that flag around his neck like a badge of honor the rest of the weekend, lamenting the fact that he did not get the opportunity to strangle the hippie with it. That was one Fourth of July weekend I will never forget.
Ernie and I both worked in downtown Chicago and would ride the commuter train from Wood Dale into the city. During that summer, the commuter train engineers went on strike. We had made friends with fellow commuters and would usually sit together on the train. Each morning during the strike we would buy coffee and doughnuts and then pick up our commuter friends with the hearse and drive them downtown in style. They loved it and were kind of sad when the strike ended.
Being an old vehicle, the old girl began having some problems, which naturally cost us money. Before long, we had spent more to keep it running than we had paid for it. Sadly, we decided we had to part company with our hearse. We gave it to Duke in exchange for his forgiving some of our tabs between the bottles.
Duke loved driving it around town but finally it broke down to the point where he did not bother to fix it. He parked it behind his bar and at one time even let some homeless guy live in it for a while. I am not sure what ever finally happened to our hearse. I suppose Duke just had it towed to a junkyard. It was a sad end for a unique vehicle, but for one summer we had a great time with our "new" wheels.
Eric, the Author, Ernie and Tuna at my wedding, five years after the hearse
Copyright © 2006 by Terry Aasen