Life with Charley:
You Can Go Home Again
by Charles McKelvy
Yes, you can go home again.
I base my claim on a recent realization I had while driving through the South Shore neighborhood of Chicago. I realized as I drove north along South Shore Drive that I was home, again.
The past—specifically the first six years of my life from May 7, 1950 to May 7, 1956—was present. I was back in the formative neighborhood of my early childhood, and I was feelin’ it.
Was I ever.
No, I’m not getting all Twilight Zoney on you here, but I think a lot of you know what I’m talking about. Face it, sports fans, we’re all getting older, a second at a time. And, as we wind down the mainspring of our lives on the mortal coil, we tend to look back.
And why not?
When wiser friends than I firmly suggested that I “should not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it,” I took them at their word.
And so, as I advance relentlessly into the eighth decade of my life, I rather enjoy looking back. And, lately, circumstances have enabled me to take a really good look at those aforementioned first six years of my life, when I lived in South Shore with my parents and baby brother, who arrived on the scene in the spring of 1953.
I am no expert on early childhood development, but I have interviewed those who are. They all claim that those young, developing brains of ours are—well—big, wet sponges lodged between our ears.
So my little McKelvy brain was on full record as I grew and developed in South Shore in the early 1950s. I didn’t need a camera or tape recorder to capture all those formative experiences with my parents and little brother, because that wonderful wetware between my ears did it all.
And those memories are there for instant retrieval, especially when I trigger them by one of my regular drives through the old ‘hood.
Take, for example, a recent drive home through South Shore:
I caught the red light at 79th Street and South Shore Drive and happened to look to the left. There for my wondering eyes to see was a sign identifying that stretch of green space along the big, blue lake as Rainbow Beach Park. I knew it simply as Rainbow Beach. I knew at once that I was in for a flood of memories, chiefly of my late father, James S. McKelvy, taking firm hold of my infant self and gently guiding me into the gentle surf of Lake Michigan. I couldn’t have been more than 18 months old at that point, but I was lovin’ it. And, as I waited for the green light, I was lovin’ it all over again.
Yeah, you really can go home again, and, sometimes, you have to take a trip down memory lane, or South Shore Drive, or whatever, in order to get there.
Well, I was there that afternoon in 2021 reliving that afternoon in 1951 when I was learning to swim from the master.
Yeah, my Dad.
The same guy who had rescued distressed swimmers from the big surf of the Atlantic Ocean along Long Beach Island in New Jersey. I knew I was in the best hands possible, and my dear old daddy sure got me lovin’ the whole experience of being in the open water.
So much so that I found myself entering open-water swimming events as an adult. Just such an example being the Fox Lake Challenge Four Mile Swim my swimming buddy, Tom “Griff” Griffith, and I entered in September 1986. That was a year after my father died. He was very much on my mind that chilly, post-Labor Day morn out there along the Fox River northwest of Chicago. Griff and I had trained for the swim in Lake Michigan between North Avenue and Oak Street in Chicago. Yes, we had more or less swum the full four-mile distance before our big day. We reckoned we were fit to be victors in our age groups, but then the race director dipped a thermometer into the water and shook his head. Now, this was in the age before swimmers could wear wetsuits for outdoor swims. We were all eyes and ears as he shook his head and proclaimed: “Hmmm. 64 degrees. If it was up to me, I’d cancel this event, but I’m leaving it up to you swimmers.”
There weren’t all that many of us—no more than 20 at the most—and we were all pumped and primed enough to chorus: “Let’s go for it.”
We all hopped into the icy drink, shivered and shrank, and then stroked on down the four-mile course. A course, mind you, that involved both the aforementioned Fox Lake, and then a channel that led to the Fox River. At least that’s how I remember it, but all I could focus on that morning was warming up in that chilly water and staying on course.
Mind you, the better prepared swimmers had arranged to have friends in kayaks and/or canoes escort them along the way, but Griff and I figured we’d buddy up and stay on course.
Well, right way old Griff said he was too cold to do much more than survive the swim. He told me to go on ahead without him, and, reluctantly, I did.
Sticking with my tried-and-true freestyle, or front-crawl stroke, I crawled across Fox Lake, looking up every couple of strokes to see where in tarnation I was. I could see some faster swimmers on up ahead, along with their canoe escorts, so I followed them.
And, in keeping with the theme of this essay, I truly went back to Rainbow Beach in 1951, and said, “Hey, Dad, how about swimming with me today?”
Dear Old Dad did just as I requested, and he was with me the whole, entire four miles. He swam before me, behind me, and beside me. He never left my side. I know he was more than a little amused when I overtook the fastest swimmer in the race, a nationally ranked Masters swimmer from Indianapolis. I caught up with her just shy of the finish line, and, as I approached her, I could see why I had caught her. She had hypothermia and was floundering, barely able to doggie-paddle forward.
I asked her if she needed help, and Dad and I were ready for an open-water rescue, but she was out of her head with the chills and screamed: “Don’t get near me!!!”
Dad said, “Back off, son, and call for help.”
Father knew best. I did the best thing for that poor woman I could by waving my arms and shouting for the race officials at the finish to paddle over in a rowboat and pull her out. They did. They had her wrapped in blankets and sipping warm fluid in no time; she lived to swim another day.
So did I. And so I waited for Griff to finish in fine, but utterly chilled, form. “Guess I still have a little more baby fat than you,” I told him.
He laughed and said I must have channeled some inner resource to finish as well as I did.
I shrugged and racked my success up to some “higher power thing,” knowing full well that I had gone home again to Rainbow Beach and enlisted the moral support of Dear Old Dad.
And Dear Old Dad was mighty proud that morning when the race officials gave this big boy a second-place trophy for the 30-39 year-old age-group.
My time that day?
No idea, except to say it was one of those magically real times of my life when my past informed my present.
So, yes, you can really go home again: I have a trophy on my mantlepiece to prove it.