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Sailboats make their way east on the Chicago River under the Michigan Ave. Bridge Sunday as a dense fog hangs over the city. Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Classic Royko: The young man and the sea

SHARE Classic Royko: The young man and the sea
SHARE Classic Royko: The young man and the sea

Memorial Day weekend marks the unofficial start of summer in Chicago, when the weather finally warms for good and business picks up for the tour boats. The sea calls, in its own Chicago way, as Mike Royko wrote in this column from 1966.

The young man pushed the white cap back on his head, leaned on the railing of the ship and gazed at the horizon. The glare of the hot August sun on the rolling waters made him squint.

The voyage was almost over. Home port was off the starboard bow. Soon the lines would be tied to shore, and land, with all of its problems, would be under his feet again.

But for the moment there was still the cool breeze, the open waters, the white gulls in the blue sky and a good engine throbbing below the steel deck.

He reached into the pocket of his crisp white shirt, found a cigarette, and lit it expertly in the wind, cupping his hands. He smoked for a few minutes, flicked the cigarette into the churning wake, turned and looked across the deck.

Two girls, young and pretty in summer dresses, stood near the aft railing. The young man watched them. Then he walked over, smiled and said: “Hello.”

The girls looked startled. He took off his white cap and ran his fingers through his long dark hair. His face was deeply tanned. He smiled again, showing white teeth. “Did you enjoy the trip?”

Before he could answer, a voice boomed on the ship’s speaker:

“On our right, ladies and gentlemen, is the city’s new water filtration plant, built at a cost of. … And there is Navy Pier. Soon we will be going back through the locks of the Chicago River and your two-hour river and lake ride will be over. We hope you enjoyed it.”

The young man said: “I was, uh, saying, uh, did you enjoy the trip?”

One of the girls, about 16, looked at the other girl, about 16, and giggled. Her friend giggled back. They giggled together. The blond said: “Oh, it was all right.”

The young man looked past them at the shoreline. This was the moment to say: “The sea is like a woman.” Or: “Ma’am, it’s been a long time since I last saw land.” Or: “I keep saying this is my last trip, but something keeps calling me back.” This was the moment to be John Garfield, John Wayne, Gregory Peck, even Barry Fitzgerald — anybody.

“Uh, are you girls, uh, from around here?”

The girls looked around. The boat was entering the Chicago River locks. “Not exactly,” they giggled.

“I, uh, I mean are you from Chicago?”

After a few more giggles, they said they were from a suburb. They had been downtown shopping and had decided to take one of the $2 boat rides that leave from Wacker Drive. They asked him how he liked his job on the boat, taking tickets and all that.

He was silent. This was the time to say: “You know, the sea can make a man lonely … ” Or: “I’ve never settled down on the land because I’ve never met the right … ”

He scratched the back of his neck, which was in need of a barber, and said: “It’s awright. Say, you girls wanna go to the show with me and a buddy? I get off pretty soon. Huh?”

The girls exchanged glances, widening their eyes, narrowing them, sending teenage messages back and forth. The blond said, “Gee, I dunno … we’ve got to get home pretty early.”

This was the moment for the young man to appear pensive and say: “Home … aye … I had a home once … long ago … before I set out to sea … as a boy ….”

He shifted his feet and said: “We could go to a place with only one picture.” Then he giggled and said: “And I’ll pay.”

The girls looked at each other. One shrugged. The other shrugged. The young man looked around. The Wacker Drive dock was only 100 yards away.

“We’ll be there in a minute. What about it?”

The blond looked exasperated. She said to the brunet: “Well? You decide. You’re older.”

“You know my mother,” said the brunet.

This was the moment for the young man to say: “Aye … I had a mother once … she cried when I went away … she’s back there somewhere ….”

He said: “Well, uh, maybe some other time, huh? How about your phone number?”

The girls sent more eye signals back and forth. Then they exchanged names with him and one revealed her phone number. He repeated it and said he’d remember.

The boat was pulling up to the dock. The passengers were getting up from their seats and moving toward the exit gate. It was the young man’s job to open it.

He said: “Well, I’ve got to get to work.” He turned and walked away. Then he looked back over his shoulder. This was the moment to say: “Don’t move. I want to remember you just as you are.”

He said: “I’ll give you a call. No kiddin’.”

Then he stumbled on a passenger’s foot.

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