I began writing a story several years ago and put it up on Write Me Something Beautiful in 2012. I jotted down the guts of it, McKenzie’s Field-Ole Ole Olson Free, back in 1992. I remember being home sick with the flu or something and reflecting on my years growing up in Itasca, Illinois, a tiny suburb of Chicago. I thought who knows, maybe someday I’ll write a memoir. I scribbled fifteen pages of memories on legal size paper beginning with playing kick the can on muggy summer nights in the McKenzies’ backyard across the street from my house, and my childhood chum Buddy Wheaton’s brush with death.
This is one of those stories that has stuck with me—actually I’m a bit haunted by it—and God only knows for whatever reason it continues to unfold and cross my path. Before I get to the new additions, I should back-track a bit.
Connecting Some Dots
The story, which is also part of the Itasca chapter in Suffering Is the Only Honest Work, took place in February of 1967. Here’s quick recap. The Chicago area was blanketed with one of the biggest dumps of snow in history, and the snowplows had not yet cleared the suburban streets. Two of my Lake Park High School classmates, Rodney Hendrickson, who lived near Buddy in Itasca, and Gary Olson from Keeneyville, invited Buddy to go with them on a little night adventure. Another classmate was going to tow the three of them behind his car on a make shift sled, an overturned car hood, on the snow packed roads.
Buddy was all set to go—he was waiting in his driveway to get picked up—when his girlfriend, Kathy, called his house. Buddy’s mother came outside and he reluctantly went back inside to take the call. Kathy had been sick and she wanted him to bring his biology book over to her so she could catch up on some homework.
As Buddy was getting into his dad’s car to head over to Kathy’s, Rodney and Gary pulled up in front of the house. Rodney rolled down a window and called out, “Hey, Buddy, you coming with?”
“I can’t make it. I’ve got to run a book over to Kathy.”
Gary, Rodney and their driver drove off, intent on their upcoming thrill ride. A half hour later, as the tow car flew through an intersection, another car drove through. It missed the car but smashed into the sled killing Gary and Rodney.
We heard the news when we arrived at school the next morning. Everyone was stunned and a dark cloud hung over the student body and faculty. Buddy and I were good friends and a year behind Gary and Rodney who were seniors. In elementary school and junior high, Rodney and I were on the gymnastics team and played little league and pony league together. We didn’t hang out in high school and I didn’t really know Gary.
I began work on McKenzie’s Field a little over a year after our son, Jimmy died. I suppose I was drawn back to it because Rodney, Gary and Jimmy suffered the same tragic fate of being struck and killed by automobiles. But I also think a big part of the pull was Buddy’s “save” by a phone call. I wondered ‘Does he still think about his near miss—Is he haunted by it?’
Funny thing is, I wasn’t entirely sure it was Buddy who dodged the bullet. I thought it could have been another classmate of ours, Jeff Duncan. It was so many years ago and it wasn’t as though I could just reach out and ask Buddy. I’d had no contact with him nor any of my other childhood friends since my father took his life right before Christmas of 1970, and my family ran out of Itasca two weeks later. I would have to fact check this before I could come out with the story.
It was around this same time I began to reconnect with a few of my old mates through Classmates.com starting with my best friend from high school, George Blystone, who now lives in Connecticut. The story of our head-scratching, hair raising meet-up is told in our website story Want To Go For A Ride? and the chapter in our book of the same name.
It was completely out of character for me to try and find my old friends. I just wasn’t one of those guys who stays in touch, and more than a little awkward after forty years. But I wasn’t the same person I was back then or even in 2008 before we lost our son. And I know I was emboldened by one of my angels, Emily Sue Buckberry, who reached out to me forty years later with the letter my father had written to me in the summer of 1968 when I was working in Coalwood, West Virginia.
Blystone actually played a big role in my reconnect with Buddy in the summer of 2011. That is a whole other story, jam-packed with so many synchronicities it nearly defies belief. The tale didn’t make it in the book—we thought one hair-brained reconnect with a high school mate was enough—but we did put it up on our website. Wheaton- The Bermuda Triangle
Long story short, I cold-called Buddy who, of course, was living in Wheaton, Illinois—Bill Murray’s hometown. He confirmed he would have been on the sled with Rodney and Gary but for Kathy’s call. “Casey, I’ve never forgotten that.”
Buddy also told me a little bit about his two sons, and what they were up to. Neither of them were yet married and both were avid outdoorsmen living in Colorado.
I followed up with an email—as I had done after my initial reconnect with George—and let Buddy know we had lost our son Jimmy. On both occasions I had the same inner debate with myself: ‘Why am I dragging these guys into my nightmare after all these years with no contact? How is this fair? How selfish-desperate must I be?’
Well, I did it anyway, and apologized to them as I was doing it.
I didn’t hear back from Buddy except much later—and l will get to that—and I absolutely could not blame him. George on the other hand jumped into our river with all his clothes on. We picked up right where we left off in 1968 and correspond and talk on the phone all the time.
I figured, OK, those were some pretty good reasons to reconnect. I got confirmation from Buddy he was “the guy” plus other important details that I wove into the McKenzie’s Field story. And I got my old best friend, George, back who is also the funniest man I know.
Just when you think it’s one thing….
Some of the mind-blowing synchronicities recounted in Wheaton-The Bermuda Triangle involve Megan, a young attorney who worked with me at the Allen Matkins law firm in San Diego. I practically fell down when she told me her father was the principal of my high school although he started a few years after I graduated. “What a bizarre coincidence?’ I thought. I shared the news with George. That was nothing. What prompted my cold-call to Buddy was what Blystone found out a day later through his good friend, Gus Pasquini, who was Dean of Students at Lake Park and knew well Megan’s father.
“Casey, Gus is pretty sure Megan dated one of Buddy Wheaton’s sons.”
I shared these discoveries with Megan and then with Buddy on our call. Megan confirmed the connection.
“Such a small world that you were friends with Bud Wheaton! I knew him and his family very well because I dated his oldest son in high school and for quite a few years after too. There is another son, Ryan, who is a few years younger. I can’t believe all these crazy Chicago connections we have!”
Six months later, Megan sent me this email.
“I heard over the weekend Bud Wheaton’s younger son, Ryan, passed away at the age of 30. I don’t know what happened. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but I thought you would want to know.”
I wrote a letter to Buddy and his wife expressing our deep condolences and made a donation to the charity mentioned in Ryan’s obituary. A few weeks letter I got a very nice letter from Buddy thanking us for the donation and support.
Fast forward about two years later. I close with this in The Fraternity chapter of our book:
On December 22, 2014, I came into the office and pulled up an email from George Blystone that he had sent the night before. “If you have time, call me tomorrow at the office. I need some advice.”
I called George right away. When he picked up, his voice was tired and shaky, devoid of all humor. “Hey pal. I joined your fraternity. Our daughter Remy died two weeks ago of a brain aneurism. I’m desperate for a sign from her, like you got from Jimmy. What do I do now?”
Thirty-four, same age as our daughter Brittany. I broke down before I could answer his question.
I opened the Wheaton-The Bermuda Triangle story with this introduction from an episode of the
T.V. series, Touch, which aired in May of 2012 and unfortunately lasted only one season.
If two points are destined to touch,
The Universe will always find a way to make the connection,
Even when all hope seems lost.
Certain ties cannot be broken.
They define who we are,
And who we can become.
Across space, across time,
Across paths we cannot predict.
Nature always finds a way.
This is the best explanation I’ve found so far as to why and how George, Buddy and I reconnected. It was never about getting the McKenzie’s Field story right. No, the story was my bridge for my connection with Buddy, just like the story of The Letter was my path to connect deeply with George. My fraternity-in-loss brothers. The Universe will always find a way.
As I said, it’s complicated. OK, now that I’ve caught you up, we can move on with the next chapter of McKenzie’s Field.
The Next Chapter
Luke Diana was another classmate of ours at Lake Park. He also grew up in Keeneyville which is where my grandparents, Vern and Henrietta Case, lived and where the headquarters of their company, Case Foundation, was—and still is—located. Luke and I had been friends on Facebook since around 2010, but before I got a message from him in January of 2016, we had not seen, spoken or written one another in 48 years. Luke wanted to let me know he had bought and how much he enjoyed Suffering Is the Only Honest Work,
“I had no idea that your family was part of the Case company. It is great that you connected with George and that you mentioned Buddy Wheaton. Thanks for sharing your life with us.”
Luke also shared his memory of Gary’s and Rodney’s tragic accident.
“I remember the morning after Gary and Rod were killed being on the school bus going to Lake Park. Gary’s girlfriend was on the bus and I think we all found out about it the same time. If I remember the sled was an old car hood turned upside down. Someone was pulling them with a rope. Such a horrible thing to happen.”
In my thank you to Luke I explained there wasn’t room in the book for me to tell the convoluted story of my reconnect with Buddy, and I sent him the link to Wheaton–The Bermuda Triangle.
I also sent him a link to the Vern Case story I wrote about my grandfather and the company he founded and relocated from California to Keeneyville in the early 1950s. Luke shared the story on the You Know You’re From Keeneyville Facebook page and made me an honorary member of the Swamp Rats, as they refer to themselves.
The story received a lot of comments from folks who grew up near the Case Foundation property, worked for Case and knew my grandparents. I particularly enjoyed this memory shared by Dean Glorso who is the administrator of the FB page:
I remember Mr Case well. He came to our house once to check on me after I was bitten by his dog. Another time when I was walking my paper route he asked me why I didn’t have my bike. I told him it was broken. He asked me what it would take to get it fixed. I told him l saw the part I needed in the Montgomery Ward catalog. He asked me how much the part cost. When I said $7 he reached in his pocket and gave me the $7. I’ll always remember him as a kind and generous man.
In 1965 Case Foundation purchased our property on Lake Street, and the Glorso family moved to Fresno, California.
I immediately sent Dean’s wonderful story to my family.
Dean posts regularly and I make it a point to read his stuff because it’s always good. He’s a former Marine and Vietnam War veteran. He’s had a long career as a land surveyor, now living in Colorado. He’s also an amazing photographer, painter, poet and writer. Dean is a deep thinker and has that gift of clearly describing and conveying his thoughts, perspectives, memories and opinions through his writings and art.
Here is a link to Dean’s book of paintings and poems available on Amazon
In Search of the Laughing Place
And a link to his blog
Fine Art America- Dean Glorso
So, I opened this post on the Keeneyville Swamp Rat FB page when it landed on February 11, 2018:
MY FRIEND GARY J. OLSON, A KEENEYVILLE SWAMP RAT
By Dean Glorso
Had Gary Olson lived into adulthood he might have been a popular actor. There are a few of humorous stories I’d like to tell, to make my point:
WAITING FOR THE TRAIN IN ELGIN
One summer day in the early 1960s six or seven of us young swamp rat boys decided to take the train into Elgin to spend the day. We used most of our time wisely by hanging out in the pool hall downtown, learning some new trick shots. Toward the late afternoon after we finished our shopping we made our way back to the train station to catch the train home.
Getting bored waiting on the platform, several of the boys decided to explore the railroad yard, while Gary and I remained on the platform, kind of as look-outs. The fellas were just doing some loud horse play behind the parked train cars. Gary turned to me and said, watch this. In the deepest, loudest, adult voice Gary could muster he said, HEY YOU KIDS, WHAT ARE YOU DOING BACK THERE!
Gary’s voice was like a megaphone and was enough to scare any kid straight. He and I laughed so hard watching those lads come flying out from behind the train cars meek as church mice in their politest voices, describing a litany of excuses for their behavior. Their faces were in shock when they saw only Gary and me. They couldn’t believe it was Gary’s voice and kept asking and looking for the ‘official’ who yelled at them. I couldn’t believe the voice was Gary’s either, and I was standing right next to him when he used it.
ON THE BUS HOME FROM SCHOOL
One winter on the school bus home from Lake Park, the driver was making the left turn off Lake Street on to Wheaton Road where it would stop for most of us to get off, at Kupps. A good number of us were standing in the isle of the bus waiting to make our exit. The driver had to make the turn kind of fast in order to get through the stacked up snow on the shoulder of the highway. The pile of snow and ice must have been pretty packed down and frozen as when the door portion of the bus hit the pile of ice, there was a large bump and CRASH sound, as the bus rocked from left to right. Before anyone knew what was happening, there was dead silence. Gary again quickly used his loud deep voice in dramatic style. He said, “OH MY GOD, SOMETHING’S HAPPENED!” After, the bus stopped and the driver was able to open the door, everyone laughed hysterically at Gary’s quick wit.
ON THE TEAM – BABE RUTH LEAGUE
I believe it was the summer we were about 15. Gary Olson, played 3rd base, Terry Kupp pitched, and I played Center Field on the Keeneyville Babe Ruth League Team. The ball diamond was next to the swamp at Foster Road just East of Virginia Road. The three of us especially had fun, and maybe didn’t take the game quite as serious as the coaches wanted us to, especially during our practice games. At the end of each practice the team was given the duty to make a lap around the field starting at home plate. From there, we’d run down first base line, out to right field, and continue around in a counter clockwise direction, until each of us came in from the outfield on the 3rd base side and touched home plate again.
Just for laughs, Gary and I started to run side by side using our ‘gazelle’ step in unison. Soon the three of us were leaping as high as possible on every third step. We kept in step throughout as we rounded center field. Our moves usually got a good number of laughs from the parents and bystanders waiting for practice to be over with. Even the coach seemed amused, but many times he would make the three of us take a second lap. I still like to think he admired our moves so much, he just wanted to see it again.
Growing up in Keeneyville was great, especially with my good friend Gary Olson keeping all things interesting.
Dean attached to the post the portrait of Gary he had painted and titled Never Drain the Memories.
“I painted the portrait of Gary Olson about four years ago when Gary’s Mom’s health condition was worsening. I had stopped in to see her on one of my trips to Chicago. Georgene Olson, Gary’s Mom, was one of my Chicago American Newspaper customers when I was about 11 or 12. A wonderfully good natured lady who I loved to listen for when I delivered her newspaper. She was often outside talking to neighbors.”
‘Never Drain the Memories’ made me think of a recent campaign slogan Drain the Swamp. Dean explained for me the genesis of The Swamp Rats.
“Keeneyville Swamp Rats was the condescending name the Roselle kids gave to the Keeneyville kids about 3 or 4 years older than my 1966 graduating class. There was a rivalry between the two towns. I think it was because the Swamp Rats had all the good looking girls from Roselle. There are a lot of different opinions for giving us the name, I’m sure. But the group of boys I hung with decided it was a badge of honor.”
I fixated on the opening line “Had Gary Olson lived into adulthood…,” and emailed Dean my question:
“Is Gary the one who was tragically killed with Rodney Hendrickson many years ago?”
I sent Dean a link to the McKenzie’s Field story.
“I remember how devastated we were when Gary and Rodney were killed. I also know how haunted Buddy Wheaton is by the fact that he was supposed to be on that sled with them. Here is the story I wrote about it several years ago after reconnecting with Buddy to get more of the details of that fateful night.”
I got to thinking. I only briefly mentioned Gary, who I didn’t really know, and Rodney in the story. Just two boys in the wrong place at the wrong time who tragically died. Nor did I say anything in that particular story about the pain and suffering endured by their parents, families, friends and the drivers of the two cars involved.
Luke Diana shared this enlightened observation:
“It was great that you sent the letter to the driver of the car that struck your son, Jimmy. I had a similar thing happen back in 1974. I was just married with my 1st wife. Her youngest brother was visiting from Michigan and pulled in front of a semi and was killed. I took it upon myself to later talk to the truck driver after the inquest, feeling his pain and letting him know we understood. Things happen in life and there are other people involved. Everyone suffers in different ways.”
I couldn’t agree more.
I so enjoyed reading Dean’s remembrances of Gary, and getting to know more about him through his Dean’s colorful stories. Gary had a great sense of humor, was a good athlete and a hard worker. He was well liked and a good guy.
I followed up with Dean:
“Would it be OK with you if I incorporated your remembrance of Gary into a postscript to the McKenzie’s Field story? I didn’t know Gary, but I’d like readers to know what fine young men Gary and Rodney were—not just two boys whose lives were cut way too short.”
“Yes of course,” Dean promptly replied. He also attached a couple of news articles from the local papers about the sledding tragedy and Gary’s and Rodney’s memorial services. He also shared this story:
“My parents sold our house to Case Foundation in November 1965. I was in my Senior Year at Lake Park and we moved to Fresno, California. I promised my folks I would help with the move and would finish high school there so long as I could go back to Illinois. I returned in June 1966.
“During that summer I palled around with Gary and his buddies from Lake Park including, on occasion, Rod Hendrickson and others from Roselle. We did some craziness that summer working for carnivals around the Chicago area and Adventure Land. Gary and I worked a shooting gallery along with other sideshows at various spots around Chicago. In the fall after I returned from the southern circuit working county fairs, I moved into the Kupps’ home in Keeneyville and worked with Wally Kupp at their service station on Lake St. and Wheaton Road up until January 1, 1967, when I went back to Fresno and enrolled in junior college.
“I was only back home in Fresno one month when I heard about Gary. I was also one of those who could have been on that upside-down hood that night with Gary and Rodney. I’d done that before with Gary, only in the day light. It could have been me had my Mother not convinced me to come to back to Fresno just a month earlier.”
What if my grandparents’ company hadn’t bought the Glorso house fourteen months earlier?
Some points are not destined to touch.
McKenzie’s Field Revisited is dedicated in loving memory of Gary Olson, Rodney Hendrickson, Ryan Wheaton, Remy Blystone and Jimmy Gauntt.