“Hail, hail, the gang’s all here.
Leave your worries at the door, boy
They’re not going anywhere.
Hail, hail, the gangs all here.
When the going gets tough, I know my friends will still be there.” …Lyrics to The Gang’s All Here
When I was around eleven years old, my parents mentioned that Salmons, Egans, Whites, and Harveys were coming over on Saturday night. I knew them well. Any time these couples got together, tidal waves of raucous laughter punctuated the atmosphere. Under a blue haze of cigarette smoke and lubricated with martinis, manhattans, and old-fashioneds, the friends shrieked, guffawed, giggled, and har-d-harred while we kids, trying to sleep, couldn’t tune out the racket emanating from the living room until the wee hours.
“Oh, it’s your rowdy friends,” I commented.
My parents liked my choice of adjectives, and later on that evening, shared it with the group. The name stuck. It was no longer “that group of friends”; it was the Rowdies.
The guys — my dad Ted, his pals Austin, Pinky, and Jim — all went to high school together and when World War II began, they joined the Navy. They began their military careers at Glenview Air Station, just north of Chicago. Then, they went their separate ways – my dad to Scotland, Jim to officer training at Notre Dame in Indiana, Austin to the Pacific, Pinky to New York.
A whirlwind of weddings followed the war – ’46. ’47, ’48. ’49. Jim married his South Bend sweetheart Mary, and all the rest married Chicago girls. Babies began to arrive and beers at the bowling alley soon became highballs in each other’s homes. My mother’s friend Pat and her husband Bill were adopted into the group. For years, the couples – Pinky and Sarah, Austin and Anne, Jim and Mary, Pat and Bill and my parents Ted and Mary — took turns hosting parties.
No matter where the party took place, it was quite a big deal. Everyone dressed up in their Sunday best. The guys wore suits and ties; the women dolled up in high heels, cherry red lipstick, and stylish dresses, like Mom’s black shantung sheath with its lacy insert to hide her décolletage. When it was her turn to host, Mom set the table with her best dishes and prepared some culinary specialty like chicken divan or a pork roast. She’d mix Lipton’s French Onion Soup Mix with sour cream and serve it with ridged potato chips in her fancy myrtlewood chip dip set. Those chips, the bridge mix, and the fancy mixed nuts were verboten to us kids, along with the maraschino cherries and the jumbo olives set out to garnish the drinks. On the Sunday morning after the party, we scrounged around in the kitchen in hopes that there might be some delicacies left over.
My mother recalls that an aching jaw was a consequence of partying with the gang, the result of nonstop laughing. Stories were told, retold, and told again. One of their favorites was a Glenview story. So it goes… the guys were assigned a truck and were sent to pick up an airplane wing and some office furniture. They loaded the truck, then drove it under an overpass. The wing, standing upright, hit the overpass, and it and all of the office furniture ended up on the sidewalk. As the guys worked to reload the truck, someone stopped and called out, “Can we help you?” Our sailors shouted back, “Buy war bonds!” No story was ever funnier, at least not to them. Just who was in the truck – surely not all of them were – was inconsequential to the tale. The two Marys, Anne, Sarah, and Pat all knew to laugh in the appropriate places, and Bill, who had the misfortune to be the only “outside” male, politely feigned amusement. It took a little while, but before long Bill was a contributor to the story-telling and wackiness.
On Labor Days, the whole gang descended upon my grandmother’s lake house. The gals lounged on the lawn, the guys yukked it up. Babies grew into toddlers who grew into kids old enough to swim in the lake without a dad or mom at their sides. Austin, a worrywart, once fretted when my brother went off in a row boat, and looked to my grandmother for affirmation on his concerns. “Yes,” she agreed. “The boys shouldn’t be out in the row boat. What if they fell in? Their clothes would be all wet.” Poor Austin was mocked for his mother hen-ness.
That wasn’t the first time that Austin was on the receiving end of playful derision. As young couples, they collected dues at their house parties, saving up for a night on the town. Austin had a better idea. He suggested that their dues be given to the Purgatorial Society at his Catholic church, to pay for Masses for the poor souls hovering around outside the gates of heaven. As if! The group screamed with laughter at this wild suggestion. No dues ever paid for anyone’s walk through the pearly gates, and a fine dinner at a nice restaurant was enjoyed by all.
Every get-together had its own hilarious antics to add to their repertoire. Once, when the Egans were hosting, Jim hung a pair of his boxers on the mailbox for his guests to see when they arrived. At another Egan party, Pinky backed out of the driveway at around one am, smashed into the mailbox across the street, but kept going. The neighbors, no doubt awakened by the ruckus of departing guests across the street, saw their mailbox demolished and called the police. At around two am the police were ringing the Egans’ doorbell. Did Pinky pay for the damage? Probably.
One party at the Harveys in Hoffman Estates ended around 2:00 and Ted, who’d been overserved, was in no shape to drive. Mary took the wheel, trying to navigate through dense fog. The only way she could follow the road was to keep her eye on the white lines edging the roadside and to follow the dim lights of a car in front of her. After a long while, she followed the other car into the O’Hare Airport drive. She managed to find her way out, but the ride took hours. They arrived home as the sun was coming up, around 5:30 am. While Mary had warned the babysitter that it would be a late night, she hadn’t prepared her for this. The Simmons girl earned her fifty cents per hour that night.
The get-togethers continued for years. Once, there was a road trip—kids included — to the Egans in St. Louis, where we all stayed in a Holiday Inn, our family’s first time in a motel. There was a kids-included Sunday afternoon at Jim and Mary’s posh Wilmette home. I was an awkward high school freshman and Kathy Egan took me with her to a high school football game. Kathy was kind, but she was a junior and very North Shore in her perfect Bobby Brooks outfit. I felt like a complete dud, no fault of hers. As the kids grew up, there were couples’ trips, once or twice to Door County where Egans owned a summer cottage.
But, beginning in 1985, deaths began to diminish the group. My dad was the first to go. When he died, the task of calling Pinky to give him the news fell to me. It was one of the hardest phone calls I’ve ever made.
At some point, Pat and Bill moved to Arizona, and my mother saw them when she went on her annual trip to stay with my sister. By the early 2000’s, here in Illinois, it was down to Pinky, Anne, and my mother, and they’d meet for lunch once in a while. I took my mother to Anne’s funeral. Then to Pinky’s.
Pat, my mother’s friend since high school, was a special guest at my niece’s wedding several years ago, and the two beautiful old friends, sat side-by-side, laughing and enjoying the celebration together. Then Pat’s health declined, and she was gone, too.
Now, Mom’s the only one left. One of the cruelest burdens of old age, it seems, is to be left alone, to survive the deaths of friends.
But, oh, those memories! My mother’s eyes twinkle with mirth as she recalls some of the nuttier stories of those dear, delightful people who always lived up to their name: The Rowdies.