Apart from the wedding of Michael and Jill last weekend in Chicago, I had a great time hanging out with old friends, new friends and Open Space colleagues from around the States. But of all the things that happened on the weekend around the wedding the best had to be meeting Al Camp.
The wedding took place at Pleasant Home, in Oak Park. The house is situated in a lovely little park and in true Buddhist fashion, Michael had strung up strings of Tibetan prayer flags around the place with the Guru Rinpoche mantra on them. In this little park, during the afternoon I lounged on the grass with Daniel O’Conner, Karen Sella and Ted Ernst in the warm sunshine. Thinking I should practice a little before the wedding, I pulled out my flute and started playing some Irish tunes. After a few minutes, a man rolled up in an electric stroller and expressed astonishment that here was live Irish music, right here in his own park!
He stopped to listen and then engaged us in conversation saying that he had been a pilot of bombers and cargo planes and that many times he had stopped over in the Shannon airport. I asked him when that was and he said it was during the Berlin airlift, after the wall was erected in 1948-49. He flew B-29s and C-47s full of coal from England to West Berlin and crashed twice doing so. Daniel, the economist, immediately set to work calculating the massive efficiency waste of this exercise.
Al later flew B-29s in Korea.
Al continued to tell us the story of his life, interspersed with enthusiastic demands for more sets of tunes, which I happily obliged. He told of skipping school to go to Al Capone’s wake, and the way his taste for bourbon ruined his life and caused his divorce from a woman he still loved. He had tears in his eyes telling us about the love he still held for his former wife.
He told us stories of crashing weddings in all the top hotels for almost three years, during which he was only caught twice and fined $50 each time. He heard the famous L-train derailment of 1977 in which 11 people died, and rounded the corner of Lake Street to witness first hand the damage. It happened after work on February 4, 1977 and Al was on his way to the Merchandise Mart to drink. At that time, the Chicago Transit Authority was in that building, right on the river, and Al ran into a friend of his at the bar who was a high-up executive in the CTA. Al asked him what he was doing at the bar when an L-train had derailed. His friend hadn’t heard about it. He rushed upstairs to confirm the news and then came back down to the bar 15 minutes later. “Say, you’re right Al,” he said before Al encouraged him to catch a cab and maybe go see the wreck for himself.
After Al took his leave from us, we debated the truth of these stories and I think the consensus was that any man who still cried in public over his long lost love had to have more than a little truth in his story telling. And ultimately, what really mattered was the stories themselves. Whether the man was telling the truth or not, I had a marvellous experience of hearing history told as a wonderful personal narrative set against one man’s struggle with his own life. We all left knowing more about these events than we had ever known, and for that, here’s a big thanks for Al Camp.
And in honour of Al, and all my American friends on your Independence Day, here is an mp3 of the Chicago Reel.
[tags]Berlin airlift, al capone, chicago, L-train, Ted Ernst, Karen Sella, Daniel O’Conner. Al Camp[/tags]