Of the historic defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington is supposed to have said: “This victory was won on the playing fields of Eton.” Meaning the British line troops had acquired their courage and mettle as boys playing in hard-fought school sports.
I can’t help reaching for an unlikely comparison between the playing fields of Eton and those of Oak Park, Illinois. As a child living during the Great Depression, I could see one of those fields from my small bedroom window. My family lived at the Austin Boulevard border which still separates Chicago and Oak Park. Exactly 80 yards due west of my Joe Louis & Otto Graham wall pennants was this little patch of brown earth my ragamuffin friends and I called ‘the prairie’ [Midwestern name for unoccupied city lots]. But not unlike the vast coiffed sports fields of Eton, this small lumpy prairie was our world on which to learn how to play to win, to survive, to laugh as we saw our parents do in the hungry face of deprivation.
Oak Park was already famous in the 1930s for sons like Ernest Hemingway, Frank Lloyd Wright and soon Bob Newhart and Rev Andrew Greeley. None of us from the Chicago side became famous; but we did become everything we eventually became. Decent docs and cops, teachers and bankers, priests and poets. Running and tumbling through the prairie’s four annual seasons, we had no idea we were becoming anything. But in retrospect we were. Maybe more than in any of our classrooms or libraries.
Running every January to see the police piling up the discarded Christmas trees into a pyramid we thought surely would prick the sky….watching the fire department turn the green pyre into a crackling winter solstice….oohing as they next flooded the prairie for ice skating….and of course entering into the annual hobgoblin world of each mystical Halloween night. These were our rituals, our gospels, and surely our initiations into the world we were, without any clear knowledge, about to enter. To grow. And in a few cases to lead.
Tracking our life stories since then, Wellington might have paid us that same small compliment.
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