Tales of Lost Youth: A Chicago Story

by Peter Sandstrom

During a recent flurry of job applications, I picked up more hints that being an ex-pastor with a graduate degree in theology has been a detriment to my present career development. My background was hampering my efforts to climb out of a six-dollar-an-hour job bracket that I have been in for some years. In response to my attempts at positions ranging from teaching philosophy to research work for a museum, I have received suggestions that I am too close to the church to be effective or desirable in certain positions. This seems to be a capping irony to my vocational adventure that began eleven years ago. From the month in which I stepped out of seminary and into the church to the day of my departure from pastoral ministry four years later, the charge was ringing continually in my ears that I was too closely connected to secular influences, counterculture, and academic liberalism to be effective or desirable in ministry, at least in the Covenant. Too secular for the church and, now, too churchy for the secular sphere! Where did I begin to come under the curse of this catch-22? I have been asking myself that question lately, more out of sheer wonderment than anything else. Though I can point to many suspect sources, some as far back as my baptism, I have to settle on our move to Chicago as a sixteen-year-old in 1970 and the following couple of years as the chief culprits in my odd career moves since then.

Moving from Rockford, Illinois and its First Covenant Church to Chicago and the Ravenswood/North Park community was, for me, akin to going to sleep in Archie Bunker Land and waking up on the Left Bank in Paris. Some great water divided and I had walked through the River Seine unaware. Though I had watched the ’60s Revolution from afar in Rockford, I was allowed access only to the barest connections with people affected by and attracted to the movements blowing through the country at that time. I had looked enviously down the tollway to Chicago (were they really striking at North Park College?!), but those ninety miles were as good as a thousand miles and a century removed.

My first glimmer of just how great a divide this was came my first week in Chicago when I attended an all-city church youth conference. At Rockford First Covenant, I could get stares and reprimands for singing Peter, Paul, and Mary songs on church property. But, as I walked into the sanctuary at my premier Chicago youth gathering, I was stunned and knocked against the back wall by the music of “Jesus Christ Superstar” that assaulted my ears at volume ten through the biggest set of speakers I had ever seen. I had heard of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” but it had never crossed my mind that I would ever actually hear the thing. “Jesus Christ Super Star” was followed immediately by The Who’s “Tommy” and then by Chicago’s “Carnegie Hall” album. I kept coming back to the sanctuary all night long. I felt that I was breathing my first fresh air as a teenager, and it was dazzling and electric. The truth of the matter was that I had not even thought that such fresh air existed. I was so utterly surprised by discovering it and by the wonderful way it enlivened my spirt that my joy was not lessened by the realization of what I had missed.

Well, if Chicago church life proved to be an exercise in new sounds and sources, the city itself provided even greater breadth of exotic experience. There were deeper inroads to be made into some of the garrisons of the counter-culture and the hidden communities that were a part of Chicago streets and neighborhoods. During my first day at Amundsen High School at the intersection of Foster and Damen, it dawned on me that I had heard no English in the hallways or bathrooms. Greek, Spanish, and a variety of Eastern European and Far Eastern tongues that I could not distinguish provided the background noise as I wandered from class to class. Immigrant adolescents, hippies, and greasers: I didn’t know if I was in Woodstock or on the set of Westside Story. Wherever I was, I was certainly the lone little Covenant kid about.

Around a lunch table of English-speaking students at Amundsen, I developed friends and acquaintances who would be my comrades during my last year of high school as well as the means of my personal introduction to the pulse of subterranean Chicago. Among them were: Bill, a mop-haired hippie clown who was cartoonist for Amundsen’s underground newspaper; Syrie, a Norwegian Lutheran, fellow math student, and the only other Scandinavian in a school that was named for a famed Nordic explorer; Patty, a chatty, Catholic party girl who wore her minidress hems up to her naval, and who was my navigator through my class schedule; Kathy, a gracious literature scholar and atheist who liked talking theology with me, and who was an ash-blonde “drop dead” beauty, resisting active attempts from Michigan Avenue to make her Playmate of the Month upon graduation; Carl, a black, star fullback (through that line, not around it!) who was bound for the Air Force Academy; and Arthur, my best buddy, a black hippie—a rarity even in those days—who resembled a benign Jimi Hendrix having a good day.

Arthur was the one who would prove to be my bridge to a counter-cultural scene and to street people with whom I would otherwise have had no contact. Arthur had a wonderful ability to be at ease both with blacks on the street as well as in white hippie circles. It was a gift beyond price for a straight Swedish kid like me to be allowed to tag along for the ride. Arthur, for his part, got a kick out of me because I looked so normal (a Covenant parsonage was no place for a Neil Young look-alike contest), and I talked like an “on the barricades” leftist. He appreciated, too, that I liked to listen to his stories and tell some of my own.

Arthur lived on Wells Street, near north, in the Old Town area of Chicago. He lived directly behind and above The Earl of Olde Towne, a famous club for folk singers and others. The Earl was directly across the street from the more notorious Second City comedy hall. My first visit to the Earl was through the back door. Arthur seemed to know all the cooks personally. The hamburgers were excellent and, of course, they were free to Arthur and his friends. With Arthur as my guide, I went up and down the sometimes-ominous stairwells. I was warmly welcomed into the “Bohemian” apartments and crash pads they serviced. The feeling for life in these environs charged the air I was breathing and heightened my sense that I was witness to a spirit that the “youth-aware” media knew nothing about.

One Saturday, Arthur and I left Chicago on a trip north to tree-lined Evanston. This community, the home of Northwestern University, with its park-like quiet and prettiness, was like another country to me. It was a favorite place to go to the movies. After a good film and a stroll down its lush streets or around the NU campus, I was prepared for another week in Chicago.

For weeks in the lunch-room we had heard conversation about a movie called Summer of Forty-Two. It was reported to be strange and artsy—like a European film. But it was about American kids during World War II. It was also rumored to have an incredibly beautiful actress who helped give it an “R” rating. It was spring, and I had turned seventeen during the winter. I suggested to Arthur that we celebrate my new legal status by going to this mysterious movie. We quickly discovered that even the rumors failed to do this experience justice. We were both totally seduced by the film. By the time Jennifer O’Neil almost disrobed, we were transported beyond speech. (This was uncommon to both of us.) The muteness lasted most of the trip home. Finally, Arthur broke the silence by saying that the film had got him thinking about his own “first time.”

When he turned sixteen, his father had brought him to a brothel as a present. This was not, of course, the usual birthday gift that Covenant clergy bestow upon their sons, so I had no comparable story to offer in return. I could only mutter something dispassionate about a nice matching shirt and sweater I had receive on my sixteenth. There was a moment of silence, and then we erupted into hysterical laughter and suffered from breathlessness the rest of the trip home to Chicago and to another week at Roald Amundsen High School.