—Chapter 1 —
One of my earliest memories of my dad is an event that happened when I was about eight years old. It was an incident that I have never forgotten. It was a rainy weekday afternoon in the springtime in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. The nasty winter had finally become history and the first signs of spring were among us, with melting snow and frequent rain showers. You would have thought that we had just come out of hibernation during that long winter with the way my brothers and I were running around outside, like we had never seen rain before. We didn’t need jackets, gloves and hats, just a pair of jeans and ratty old sweatshirts. They were the attire of choice for the day.
With all of the excitement around us, Mike and Bob and I had an idea of gathering up as much twigs, grass, or anything we could get our hands on to build a few dams near the sewer drain in the street. We lived on Downing Road, which was part of a huge subdivision aligned with numerous families. There must have been about thirty kids who lived on our street, ranging in ages from high school years on down to around my age.
We had a bunch of good times, playing kick the can or flashlight tag with the other neighborhood kids, but, as in most neighborhoods, there were a couple of families that we didn’t exactly get along with too well.
My dad was known as a tough, but fun-loving man who loved his wife and kept his kids in line. My mother was seen as sweet and a very “hands on” type of mom who could hold her own.
The McManus boys and my sister were well known in our part of town of Buffalo Grove. We were all pretty athletic and somewhat popular on the playing fields, at school, and in our neighborhood.
My sister, Moira, the oldest, would have to stick up for her brothers from time to time, especially me, until I got older, that is. Bob and Mike would have to do the same when called upon as well. Case in point: I got beat up by an older neighborhood bully one day down at the local school. I came home with a black eye and my dad immediately sent Mike and Bob back down to the school to take care of that bully, who was more their size and age. They did, for the mere fact that they would have to answer to our dad if they didn’t obey his orders.
My brothers and I weren’t really into any serious mischief, but to say that we were choir boys would have been sadly mistaken. Being the youngest, half the time I just followed along on what they were doing. Sometimes a few neighbors didn’t take a liking to our rambunctious antics.
One of those neighbors was a big man who lived a few houses up on the other side of the street. I don’t remember his dimensions, but he was a tall and overweight man, perhaps in his late thirties. And boy he could yell!
He and his wife had two daughters, and he had a reputation as a loud father, always yelling about this or that. There were urban tales of him hanging his daughters upside down off their second floor railing whenever they got in trouble. He was somewhat intimidating, especially to the young kids in the neighborhood, not the very least of whom was me.
So, there we were, building these fake dams, not bothering anyone. To be honest, the dams barely worked, but we tried diligently to change all of that by adding more and more twigs and leaves. We were having a great time, home from school, homework done, enjoying the first days of spring. My mother was inside and my dad was on his way home from work in downtown Chicago.
I remember vividly this big man getting out of his car, and immediately yelling at us with something to the effect that we were going to back up the sewer system with our dams. We boys didn’t think we were really doing anything wrong, but we didn’t talk back. Our dad never let us talk back, whether it was to him, our mom or to elders in general. That was a sure way to get a crack on the butt or on the back of the head.
I talked back once to a different neighbor and she called my house to complain about something I was supposed to have done. My dad immediately called me in and gave me a good one for that, so it was instilled in us from a very young age: Don’t talk back to adults. It’s disrespectful. If you have a problem, you come to me.
All I remember is that this neighbor kept yelling as he walked briskly towards us. I was the farthest one down the street looking at him coming at us. I stood there, frozen in silence, wondering what was going to happen next. As I stared at this big, menacing man marching in our direction, I saw my dad’s car turn down our street. The man kept getting closer and closer, flailing his arms in the air.
I don’t remember what the man kept yelling about for I was now fixated on my dad’s brown Cutlass Supreme coming down the road. The threatening neighbor didn’t see him coming because he had his back to the direction of the street where my dad was heading from. The man was just past our driveway in the street when my dad pulled into the drive. He screeched to a stop and I could see his eyes focused on us and the large man shouting and pointing his hands at us.
I stood there and watched my dad get out his car, calmly take off his tie, and roll up his sleeves. He then walked briskly towards us and the neighbor in the middle of the street. I was just a few feet away, standing by our mailbox. My heart was pounding as I could see that my dad became very upset in an instant. “You yelling at my kids?” he shouted with his fists now clenched as he approached the man. He had to look up to the taller and wider neighbor as they stood toe-to-toe, but the look in my dad’s eyes was fierce, almost scary.
“Gene, they’re building these dams and messing around with the sewers and…” he started to explain. My dad immediately interrupted and pointed his finger at the eyes of our neighbor and barked: “If I ever catch you yelling at my family again, I’m going to knock you on your ass and drag you up and down this goddamn street! You got that?” His face was so red I thought it was going to explode.
“I’m sorry Gene. I’m sorry. It won’t ever happen again!” the neighbor said as he backed away with his opened palms near his chest. My dad quickly turned his look toward us and firmly said: “You boys get inside.”
When we walked into the foyer, just inside the front door, he slapped the closest one to him across the back of the head and growled: “Why in the hell are you building those dams anyway?” He clearly wasn’t looking for an answer. “Get cleaned up and get ready for dinner!” We just kept heading towards the stairs of the house that led us down to our bedrooms, knowing he would head to the upstairs part where the master bedroom and kitchen were situated. I went to my room and sat on the edge of my bed and recounted what had just happened.
I knew my dad was tough. I mean, he always seemed tough, from his tales of playing football with no pads, to his boxing days filled with lore. He lifted weights every morning to keep in good shape, baring wide shoulders and big arms. And although he was very affectionate, he also could be very intimidating, when the time was appropriate, which always gave me an underlying fear of my father. I had always looked up to him. I mean, he was my father, but soon after that encounter I realized that he was a bad ass, a force to be reckoned with in my eyes, who would do anything for his family, no matter the circumstances.
Another vivid memory that has always stuck with me happened when I was around ten years old. I got into a fist fight in front of my parents before
one of my little league baseball games. It was the first time that had ever happened, except with my brothers, although they would usually just beat the crap out of me. My mom and dad stood among a small crowd overlooking the baseball diamond at the local park district.
One of my teammates who was a year older and quite frankly, a spoiled brat, tried to jump my position in batting practice. I stood my ground and made my case. He tried to bully me and push me out of the way. Before he or I knew it, I had socked him a good one right in the mouth. He fell down and I jumped all over him.
It was over in a matter of seconds and I knew I had won the bout, but I was immediately overcome with a slight fear for I didn’t know how my parents were going to react, especially my dad. When I got off the boy, I looked up to where my mom and dad were standing as I shook inside with a bout of trepidation. It quickly dissolved though, because without hesitation, my dad flashed me an “okay” sign with his hand.
He had watched the entire encounter and thought that I was in the right with my actions. At that precise moment, it gave me a tremendous sense of satisfaction and acceptance as one of Gene McManus’s boys. Later on in life, my mother would tell me that as the fight was about to take place, she made an attempt to walk towards the fence to stop it but my dad quickly reached his arm across my mom’s body and told her to hold on a second for he wanted to see how I was going to handle the situation. I was ten years old!
My dad wanted his boys to be tough, whether it was playing sports, at school, or out in the street standing up for ourselves. He also made sure that we were good kids too. Behaving in school, getting good grades, being respectful to elders, teachers, and coaches and obeying him and my mother were all top priorities in our upbringing, but being tough was equally important. I believe he wanted to instill in us physical toughness in all walks of life which would in turn give us the mental toughness that it takes to succeed in the world, just like the toughness that he had to show on his way to becoming an adult.
It wasn’t until years after, though, that I learned that his inner strength and toughness came from a lifetime of facing and overcoming adversity. He would impart those lessons on me as I grew older and, as I faced adversities of my own, those lessons would help get me through it all. Those life experiences that he endured and made him the man that he was, would help prepare me not only for the game I loved but also for the game of life.