I WAS BORN AT Seaside Hospital in Long Beach, California, on January 13, 1950. Friday the thirteenth. My folks named me Vernon Case Gauntt, after my maternal grandfather, but I’ve always gone by Casey. I am a fifth-generation Californian and a seventh-generation American on my mother’s side and eleventh-generation American on my father’s side.
We lived in the Naples area of Long Beach, and at the time my father was working for his father-in-law’s company, Case Foundation Company. Vern Case had become interested in the foundation drilling business and thought the Midwest would be a hotbed for work. In early 1951 he asked my dad to set up an office near Detroit. He and his wife Henrietta would remain in Los Angeles.
My father travelled a lot, hustling and supervising construction work, and he was becoming dissatisfied with a lot of things, including working for Vern. He reluctantly decided to leave Case Foundation and in January of 1953 we moved back to Los Angeles, where he got a job with Anthony Swimming Pools. We settled into the recently completed Park La Brea Towers apartments near the corner of Fairfax and Third. My dad may have left Case, but he didn’t get very far from the Cases. Vern and Henrietta were living in one of the penthouse apartments at Park La Brea.
My dad decided to partner with a co-worker at Anthony Pools and build homes. They bought some orange grove land in West Covina and started building houses. In 1954 we moved into one of them. It even had a pool!
However, my father’s decision came at the wrong time. The Veterans Administration cracked down on housing loans for vets, leaving him and his partner land poor, with several unsold houses. By this time Vern and Henrietta had moved to Keeneyville, a suburb of Chicago, and set up the new headquarters for Case Foundation.
In October of 1955 Dad wrote a letter to his mother-in-law. She talked to Vern, and he was rehired. We moved into a house on Greenview Road in Itasca in February 1956, the same month Elvis’ new song, “Heartbreak Hotel,” was released. Prophetic? My mom may have been happy to be near her folks, but for my dad, going back to work for Case Foundation was a painful reminder that he couldn’t make it on his own. This would have serious repercussions, though not for many years.
Dad, Casey and Grandfather Vern Case in Itasca Ill.
Vern was not an easy man to work for, and my father knew only too well what he was getting back into. Vern paid off his debts, bought the house for us in Itasca, and gave him a job, all generous gestures, but with the sternly delivered condition, “Don’t you ever quit on me again!” The psychological strings may have been invisible, but they were unbreakable. My father was now, financially and emotionally, even more deeply indebted to his father-in-law.
Itasca was the quintessential Midwest town, quiet, reserved, sur- rounded by farms and linked to Chicago by the Milwaukee Railroad. Our town was so small that the main drag, Irving Park Road, which paralleled the railroad tracks, didn’t have a stop sign or a traffic light. Cars and trucks just blew through town at high speed.
Across the highway The Lampliter catered to the cocktail crowd, while Ed’s Standard Oil gassed and greased cars. The police station and the vol- unteer fire department sat next to each other. Between the highway and the fire and police stations was a pond that froze in the winter, making the perfect ice hockey rink.
The Lutheran church, with its prominent white steeple, and the water tower with “ITASCA” painted in bold black letters, were the town land- marks. Our Presbyterian church perched on a high hill just outside the
town center. Whenever I went to town, I had to hike or bike up that hill. The return trip was great, though. Without pedaling, I could coast about a quarter of mile down Center Street along the ninth and tenth holes of the Itasca Country Club golf course.
Walnut Street was the center of what passed for the business district. Shumann’s Bakery, the Itasca State Bank, a pharmacy, and the phone company building were prominent. The Itasca Basket supplied the grocery needs of the town. Dr. Bowman saw to our medical needs.
Whenever I had a dime for a comic book, I’d head for The News Agency, which sold newspapers, magazines, model kits, squirt guns, and kites. But my favorite store was Matt’s, a tiny grocery next to the railroad tracks. The building was in such poor shape that it constantly threatened to fall down around anyone who happened to be inside when a train rumbled past. The danger involved in entering that sacred place only heightened my excitement. Snaps, Lik-M-Ade, Jujubes, jawbreakers, Charleston Chews, and all the other candy so dear to a growing boy’s heart filled one long shelf, and I would spend hours, and most of my allowance, choosing my favorites.
North School housed kindergarten through eighth grade, and the kids from Washington Elementary, which opened in 1960 on the other side of town, came to North for junior high.
There wasn’t much to do in Itasca. With only two channels available on our small black-and-white television, sitting around the house didn’t hold much appeal, either. Our moms drove us ten miles if we wanted to see a movie or go bowling. Our house backed onto the eleventh hole of the golf course, a blessing when at six I discovered how much fun golf was. I spent half my life on the links until I graduated from high school and went to work in West Virginia.
First Grade North School
Fifth Grade North School
When my hair needed cutting or I wanted a library book or just wanted to go to town to see what was happening, I’d jump on my cherry red Schwinn bike that I’d tricked out with baseball cards clipped on the fenders so they’d slap against the spokes of the rear wheels, making a whizzing sound as I rode. In the interests of being cool, I had also turned the handlebars upside down. I was sure that everyone I zipped past was admiring my ride, and I sat tall in the saddle, hands raised above my head, proud to own such a marvelous machine.
For such a small town, it was a bit of a mystery how Itasca could sup- port two barber shops. Mr. Lund and Jerry had been partners, but they had a fight and Jerry started his own shop, which was sandwiched between the library and The News Agency. Mr. Lund’s shop flanked Schumann’s Bakery. I considered Lund’s to be the clear winner in the location battle, but in order to be fair and keep the peace, we split our business between the shops. I thought a haircut every two weeks was excessive, but my mom insisted. Keeping our flattops short and neat was one of the rules of our home.
My brother G.G. was nearly three years older and wouldn’t be caught dead going to the barber at the same time as me, and that was just fine. In some ways, I wished we could be as close as the characters in my favorite TV shows—Wally and Beaver, or Ricky and David Nelson—but he preferred that I keep out of his business, and I mostly did, unless I was looking for a fight.
I longed for the day when Mr. Lund would shave my sideburns and neck. I couldn’t just ask him to perform that most important rite of passage, however. He decided when a boy was man enough to undergo the ritual of hot lather and straight razor. I was fourteen and had not yet reached puberty when Mr. Lund reached for the shaving cup. I closed my eyes as the handle of the brush clinked against the cup. The soap scent engulfed my nostrils as the sable bristles caressed my temples, nape, and sideburns. When the razor touched my skin, I knew I had attained barber- shop manhood.
Chicago Athletic Club–standing L to R Grover “G.G.” and our neighbor Scott Nottke — seated Casey and Dad–1961
When it snowed or rained, I walked the mile into town and back to get my hair cut. My mother would not drive me unless the temperature was below zero, claiming that the exercise was good for me. On frigid days, I swore that a fiend had stolen her soul and was forcing her to torture me. When I considered the proximity of Schumann’s Bakery to Mr. Lund’s, the fairness doctrine of splitting our business equally between the two barber shops spiraled away on the howling wind. A twist donut and a cup of hot chocolate fortified me for the death march home.
With the luxury of hindsight, I realize that, in spite of my childhood perception of nothing to do, we kids owned the town. Unless we were grounded, we could go anywhere, any time, and play for hours. A casual shout of “’Bye, Mom!” and her return shout of “Be back for dinner!” were enough to free me to seek adventure on my tricked-out bike. In good weather, my friends and I would play baseball, football, basketball, and field hockey, using tennis balls for pucks. Sometimes we’d head for North School and smack the tetherball around its pole or play wall ball, our version of dodge ball, against the three-story solid brick wall in back of the building.
Even though our bikes were our most treasured possessions, bike tag enticed us into a scaled-down version of demolition derby. We raced our bikes around, charging at other boys, slamming on the brakes to skid into them without doing too much damage to our own. When we made contact with another kid’s pride and joy, he was out.
After dinner, we’d gather in the dusk for nightly games of kick the can, red rover, and pompom pull-away. Or we’d hide in the shadows and tell ghost stories and tall tales of what we wanted to be when we grew up. Pro golfers, major league pitchers, race car drivers, spies, President: Who knew such a small town could house so much ambition?
When the town lay blanketed in Midwestern winter, we hauled toboggans and skis to the steepest hills on the golf course. When rain froze, the streets became our rink, and we’d skate for blocks, safe because most drivers wouldn’t venture out on the slick streets. Spring thaws flooded low-lying areas of the golf course; our homemade rafts became the vessels on which we ruled the mighty waterways. When the winds blew strong in the spring and fall, we’d “borrow” bed sheets, launching ourselves off the same hills we’d tobogganed down, hoping to soar to altitude, always disappointed. Two creeks wound through town, and every kid had a fishing pole. In fact, we had plenty to do, and we were free. Crime, other than an occasional speeding driver, was unknown to us. Our parents never worried about us as long as we were careful crossing Irving Park Road. Which I usually was, until one strange event happened.
Late one summer afternoon I was biking across town to Washington
Park for a Little League game. When I got to Irving, I dismounted and began to walk across the road. The next thing I remember was being on the opposite side of the road, facing traffic, and everything was moving in slow motion. A red-and-white station wagon was only a few yards past the point where I was standing and holding my bike. Its blaring horn was an arrow of sound shooting through my eardrums. The driver thrust a hairy arm out his window and shook his fist. “You wanna get yourself killed?”
Itasca Little League All Stars
When I started across the road, I never saw that car or any other com- ing. For the life of me, I don’t know how I made it across without getting hit. I got back on my bike and rode a block or so. Then I began shaking and sobbing. I got off, sat down on the sidewalk, and cried for a long time, wondering what in the heck had just happened.
Other kids in town weren’t so lucky. In 1959, a boy named Peterson who was a couple of years older than my brother collapsed and died as he ran home from football practice. Another kid, a year older than I, and his younger sister were playing with matches in their basement one afternoon in 1963. Her dress caught on fire and before brother could chase her down and put out the flames, she burned to death. That same year my seventh-grade classmate, Karen, who lived a few houses away, died of leukemia.
My friend Buddy Wheaton dodged death because of a phone call. One February night in 1967, a blizzard had buried the entire Chicago area in snow. Two of Buddy’s friends, Rodney Hendrickson and Gary Olsen, planned to hitch a toboggan to the rear bumper of a car belonging to one of their classmates and ride across Roselle, a town that neighbored Itasca. Buddy thought that would be a fine adventure and agreed to go with them.
As Buddy waited in his driveway for them to pick him up, his mother yelled out the door, “Buddy! You have a phone call.” “Tell ’em I’ll call when I get back,” he replied. “It’s Kathy,” Mrs. Wheaton said. Buddy’s girlfriend had missed several days of school due to illness, so Buddy went inside and took the call. “Hi, Buddy,” Kathy said. “Can you bring your biology book over? I want to catch up on my homework.” “Sure. Be right there,” he replied.
As he backed the family car down the driveway, Rodney and Gary pulled up. “You coming with?” Rodney asked. “Can’t,” Buddy replied, holding up his textbook. “Kathy wants to catch up on her homework. Have fun.”
They drove off, intent on their upcoming thrill ride. They never returned. As the tow car flew across an intersection, another car sped through. It missed the car but smashed into the toboggan. Rodney and Gary were killed instantly.
is a retired attorney and former senior executive of a major San Diego real estate company. He lives in Solana Beach, California, with his wife, Hilary. Casey grew up in Itasca, Illinois, graduated Lake Park High School in 1968, and received B.S., JD and MBA degrees from the University of Southern California.
was born and raised in Solana Beach and graduated from Torrey Pines High School in 2002. A prestigious Trustee Scholar at the University of Southern California, he majored in English and Spanish. He authored six plays, five screenplays, and a multitude of poems and short stories. Beginning in 2010, the USC English Department annually bestows the Jimmy Gauntt Memorial Award—aka “The Jimmy”—to the top graduates in English. Jimmy passed over to the other side in 2008 at age 24.