Tales of Lost Youth: A Chicago Story Continued

by Peter Sandstrom

[The author humbly asks that you read part one, if possible, in the last issue before launching into this concluding episode.]

After The Summer of 42 came the fall of 1971 when I became a freshman at North Park College. To save on expenses, I lived at home and walked to college—the same distance I had walked to high school. As a result, I was an “off-campus” student m the North Park world. It also meant that for most practical purposes I was still a Chicagoan.

During that initial year at NPC, I took my first European literature course, was introduced to world and historic cultures in the infamous “Soc. Sci. 101,” studied classical music history, practiced painting and sculpture for the first time since grade school, and landed in Introduction to Philosophy, the class that would change my course of study and my life. Professor Mel Soneson introduced me to Socrates and Plato, Kierkegaard, and Fletcher, and assured me that, as I had sometimes thought, the “unexamined life is not worth living.” Here was the place of honest conversation that I had been looking for since junior high school and confirmation. This conversation which included Professor Elder Lindahl and Dr.Paul Sebestyen lasted through my four years in that department I owe much to these teachers and my philosophy and religion colleagues.

The echoes of this conversation were taking place for me around another table and circle of friends as well. Ravenswood Covenant Church was home to Stuart Carlson, an artist and teacher of art at North Park. Stuart, Grace, his wife, Lyle Rankin, Stuart’s old Hi-League friend, Dan Madvig, Associate Pastor Chuck Johnson, and I comprised the core of Ravenswood’s alternative adult Sunday School class. Our conversations ranged far and wide. There were no holds barred or boundaries encountered. Subjects of conversation included art, music, Ravenswood, philosophy, theology, Covenant history, North Park politics, and an endless supply of funny stories. Stuart Carlson was the most intense person I had known. He was on the edge artistically, personally, and religiously. His moods and antics were often unpredictable. Even though I was interested in exploring ideas and shared his love of folk music, I was not spared his fits of impatience when I was slow or reticent to pick up on his perspectives and his agenda. I was still a relatively straight little fellow, and I was much younger than this “thirty something” group of characters. I was interested, flexible enough, and essentially of the same spiritual cloth. So, I continued to hang in there with them and they graciously gave me their camaraderie and access to their experience.

The high-water mark of this group was reached not by something we said but by a work of art that we created together (under Stuart’s direction, of course!). We labored for weeks in Lyle’s gutted apartment—he claimed that the exposed lath and plaster was part of a grand remodeling scheme— to create a series of enormous wooden foldout panels for Lenten worship at Ravenswood. Standing on the chancel platform, it looked for all the world like a six-foot-tall Eastern Orthodox icon transmuted into an urban pietistic mosaic. It was staggering.

The theme of a seed dying to create new life was the constant image that was developed as more panels were unfolded each Sunday. The symbol of the seed frequented many of Stuart’s paintings and was the whole theme of some of his exhibitions. Among the many materials used to bring the panels to three-dimensional life were vast quantities of dried com stalks, weeds, and wildflowers that I and my willing, though bewildered, aunt collected along Highway 23 in Kandiyohi County, Minnesota, during a snowstorm while I was there on winter-term break. This work of art is one of the most glorious I have ever participated in; it transformed forever my vision of the power of symbols in worship. That paneled icon may still exist in some attic or church closet, and it is the best and most telling testament to who we were.

Grace and Stuart got me back to The Earl of Olde Towne. This time we went through the front door. The early seventies was the time of the great folk music “renaissance” in Chicago. Some people recalled the glory days of the folk music movement that had swept the country during the late fifties. It had begun, in large measure, at The Gate of Horn Club in Chicago which had featured Bob Gibson and his twelve-string guitar. This time around, The Earl was at the center of things featuring the amazing, energetic, and creative talents of singer-songwriters Steve Goodman, John Prine, and Bonnie Kolac.

I have not heard a female vocalist who could match the power and persuasion of Bonnie Kolac singing at you from thirty feet away. She owned audiences. When I first heard her sing John Prine’s immortal “Angel From Montgomery,” I was transported to uncharted realms. It was Steve Goodman, though, who caught my imagination and who somehow managed to sing most of the things I had wanted to say. His infectious humor and friendliness, together with his astounding ear for a tune (he wrote “The City of New Orleans”), and his vivacious guitar work made him the finest and most enjoyable folk musician to whom I have ever listened. I have lost count of how many times I heard those singers perform at the Earl and elsewhere. Once in a while one of them would sing at North Park’s legendary coffee house, The Cranny.

For me, to sit at a table at The Earl of Olde Towne with Grace and Stuart soaking up the sounds and spirit of the music and the movement was to be a part of something deep and important It went beyond the borders of both church and Chicago conversations and yet somehow included them in a vital way. Even today I do not know if that time was unique or whether it was just that I was young with a capacity to enjoy such things. I know that a lot of it was the gift given to youth but deep inside I feel there was an electric spirit, a wind blowing through our lives then, that went away and has not returned.

Some years later I travelled to Wells Street to gel tickets for the annual New Year’s Eve show that Goodman and Prine would put on at the Earl. It was December 26 and a bitter cold winter wind with snow was blowing off Lake Michigan. The neighborhood was deserted. When I got to The Earl of Olde Towne’s door and found it closed and locked tight, my body shook with cold, angry frustration. All the lights were out I was stamping my boot in disgust when the door suddenly opened and there, standing in the doorway grinning at me was Earl Pionke, the owner and Earl of the club, himself!

“Come on in, buddy! How ya doin’?” (I had never met Earl). Come over here to the bar and park yourself down.”

When I explained that I was there to get tickets for the Goodman/Prine show he became even more exuberant and poured me a whiskey.

“Here, get yourself warm, man.”

“Earl, I’m afraid I got just enough money for tickets.”

“Hey, 1t s Just you and me and the stage. It’s my treat guy!”

When he leaned that I had been coming to see Goodman and company since the beginning, he launched into an animated history of Chicago folk music, practically dancing a polka behind the bar.

“Here, have a hamburger I was just cooking myself some lunch. You ever had one of our hamburgers?”

I just didn’t dare to tell him the truth “No, I haven’t. Thanks a lot Earl!”

But he got me thinking. When at last I left, I went to the back and up the dark stairs to the old landing and found that Arthur and his mother were no longer there. The one door that now opened to my knock revealed that the tenants had left without a trace. As 1 shuffled back to my car, wondering what had become of my old comrade, I noticed that Earl had scribbled something illegible on my tickets. I forgot about it until concert night. When I presented them, we were promptly escorted to the table directly in front of the platform, right under the microphone. Thanks a lot, Earl.

My sophomore year, I moved on campus and became more engrossed in my studies. I began to become more like other on-campus students and to see Chicago more as a college visitor than as a resident of the city.

By the time I left college and entered seminary, my Ravenswood circle of conversation had gone the way of my Amundsen lunch table. Yet, the combination of people and experiences produced the conviction in me that the borders I had crossed and merged could and ought to be transferred to pastoral ministry and preaching of the Gospel. I considered it a matter of personal integrity to preach and teach in a manner consistent with the perspectives and truths that I had learned during those times. I self-consciously made an effort to examine my words from the pulpit and lectern to determine whether what I said and who I was could be recognized by old friends and would include new listeners who were in similar places and conversations.

I attempted that kind of pastoring but was unable to remain employed as a Covenant minister. I am grateful for those who have taken similar risks and have managed to stay in their churches to serve the rest of us with their word and witness, as I am now wonderfully served at Community Covenant Church.

I look back on my teenage return to Chicago as a magical mysterious time that brought me back to life and, also, set me up for disappointment and vocational misdirection. Chicago is now a mostly sad place in my memory. There, dreams, romances, and relationships began to go awry. On increasingly rare visits to that city, it is difficult for me to walk even the streets near my old neighborhood and my campus. Stuart Carlson and Steve Goodman have both been dead for some years now and the Earl of Olde Towne is, as e.e. cummings would say, defunct. Chicago unceasingly recalls for me truth of my life echoed in a songline of Bonnie Kolac: “I’m a long-distance runner; my life is full of holes.”

Nevertheless, I cannot look at my present enjoyment of life, family, and some hopes for the future without recognizing that they are rooted in large measure in that seed of new life and spirit which was planted back then (Thanks a lot, Stuart) when I was sixteen—when the waters parted and I walked through.