[I can hardly find anyone today who remembers when the White Sox won the pennant in 1959, then drubbed by the Dodgers 4-2. Alas some of us still do.]
BY AUGUST OF 1959, even we kids of Chicago’s North Side had become White Sox fans. Our allegiance to the Cubs, those perennial denizens of the National League cellar, evaporated in deference to Senor Al Lopez and his Go-Go Sox – Nellie Fox and Luis Aparicio. Big Ted Kluszewski, whose arms were so hammy he had to wear a sleeveless jersey.
Back then, winning was a novelty for Chicago. But, by God, the Sox were going all the way. That delicious night that the Sox clinched the pennant, my parents indulged me in the extraordinary privilege of staying up to watch the game. A pudgy 10-year-old, bathed and swathed in seersucker pajamas, I camped out on the living-room floor, eyes fixed on our Zenith. The living-room fan buzzed intrusively, stirring the stagnant air. My Depression-bred father deemed air conditioning a frivolity.
Despite my grandmother’s protests, the TV stayed glued to WGN as Jack Brickhouse hey-hey-ed us to the victory to end all victories. “Little Looie” deftly fielded a final routine grounder and euphoria reigned.
I was about to be marched off to bed when the air-raid sirens began to wail. For 3,999,999 residents of Chicago, the shriek on that glorious night in 1959 had only one plausible significance: a tribal cry of victory reverberating throughout the camp.
But for my father, Colonel Wilson, intrepid citizen-soldier of North Seeley Avenue, late-night air-raid sirens tolled a more ominous tiding. This was the heart of the Cold War: 1959, fallout shelters, solemn air raid drills, CONELRAD alerts and Soviet table-pounders. Civic officials were under strict orders: The sirens were to be sounded only in event of an imminent nuclear attack.
Never flustered, my father, the National Guard colonel, set the drill in motion. My mother, grandmother and I were shuttled to the basement, where we were instructed to be brave and stand in place until we received further orders. My father emerged minutes later regaled in full battle fatigues, his sidearm strapped to his thigh.
But our phone had not yet rung. These were naive days, when the military establishment functioned from the delusion that peashooter missiles could intercept nuclear-tipped warheads as they wafted across the cityscape. The standard procedure for alerting citizen-soldiers like my Dad was a chain call like a PTA bake sale.
“Daddy,” I remember asking, “do you think that the sirens might be for the Sox?”
“Nonsense,” he barked. “No one would be so foolish.”
So there we stood next to the washtub for two hours, in limbo between elation and impending nuclear holocaust. The phone, of course, never rang. CONELRAD never cranked up its generators. My father finally violated protocol and called his superior. Aroused from his slumber, he gruffly instructed my father, “Go to sleep! Don’t you know that the White Sox won the pennant?”
The sirens merited only a brief sidebar in the morning paper. Mayor Daley made short shrift of the matter, explaining that his crony the fire commissioner had taken the liberty, which it certainly had his blessing. The Sox, of course, lost the World Series.
By opening day of 1960, the entrepreneurial Bill Veeck had fitted Comiskey Park with a self-cleaning home plate and the first-ever exploding scoreboard. In 2005, the Sox finally won another pennant. Our Cubbies, not yet.
As for my father, the citizen-soldier, his missile battalion was phased out a few years later. He retired in 1964, but laughed out of the depth of his Alzheimer’s when I regaled my kids in the story a few months before he passed on.
No, the Russkies never dropped the bomb. We have lived to see the Evil Empire dismantled. Schools no longer conduct air raid drills. I own nary a pair of seersucker pajamas. Seldom do the air raid sirens wail. My once-adopted home of Atlanta has had one ultimate victory juxtaposed to a long string of also-ran’s.
The TV still intrudes with throngs of fans spilling drunkenly into the streets, overturning cars, reveling in their team’s glorious ascendancy. On those occasions, I cannot help but remember that muggy Chicago night in 1959, when one dutiful soldier and his family actually believed that a pennant for the home team had touched off Armageddon.
WILUDI (Rabbi Marc Wilson) is a retired rabbi who writes from Greenville, SC. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.