B-Side: Childhood friend was an extraordinary Joe

  • Written by Bob Rakow

I learned that the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey team defeated the Soviet Union when my best friend, Joe, raced out the side door of his house screaming the news. If memory serves, we were playing ball hockey in his driveway—using a section of the garage door for a goal—when he rushed outside with the exciting, unbelievable news.

I thought about that moment last week when I learned via a Facebook post that Joe had died. I had not seen him in more than 25 years. People move on, go their separate ways. But news of his death truly saddened me. He’s not the first member of the Class of 1978 at St. Thomas More School on the southwest side of Chicago to pass away, but he’s the first one I knew well.

Joe and I were as close as could be for about three years from 7th grade until freshman year, when my family moved out of the neighborhood. During those years, we did everything together, and the memories came flooding back upon news of his death. I’m told he suffered from a host of maladies, and I know that he lived a tough life, but the thought of someone passing away at 49-years-old is tough to comprehend.

I don’t remember what brought the two of us together, but I vividly recall how we spent our time. Neither of us had much in the way of athletic ability. In fact, when we played together on a on an organized softball team, we took turns playing catcher. But, we did it together, had fun doing it and somehow that was enough. Who could imagine that 35 years later, I’d learn of Joe’s death from another player on that same softball team via social media?

In the days long before Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and the like, Joe and I spent our time outside in the neighborhood—me peddling Joe’s old Schwinn while he sat on the handlebars. We were not especially popular, and I’m sure that’s part of the reason we became friends.

We played endless hours of home run derby with a Wiffle ball and bat. The batter stood on the sidewalk across the street from Joe’s front lawn, the outfielder was positioned on the lawn. A caught ball or one that did not get across the street was an out, while a ball that fell on the lawn counted for one run. A ball that landed on the lower-level roof of Joe’s house was a grand slam, and the rare ball that reached the upper roof counted for eight runs. We played basketball, ball hockey, tossed around a football, you name it—sports were everything to us.

On Fridays during the NFL season, we got together after school and bet on the games. It was a simple affair. We threw the names of the all the teams in a hat and took turns selecting one. One week the big wagering—50 cents a game—was conducted my house and the next week we’d circled back to Joe’s place. We made endless calls to Sports Phone to track the Sunday scores in the days long before sports radio and the Internet.

Saturday’s were reserved for trips to Ford City. We’d get together at Joe’s house, walk to 79th Street and hop a bus to the mall. It seems one of us would always buy an album, t-shirt or sports apparel. We’d have lunch at Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour, and more often than not I’d have to quash Joe’s plan to dine and ditch. But that was Joe. He was a crazy guy that occasionally would step over the line. I routinely reached over than line and reined him in. I’d get mad sometimes, but somehow our friendship maintained.

In the years after I moved out of the neighborhood, I’d talk to Joe now and then, spend a little time with him occasionally, but it wasn’t the same as the bond between us as kids. Still, Joe’s death really saddened me. It’s as though a lot of childhood memories—good times—died along with him.

Rest in peace, my friend.

Bob Rakow is a news reporter for the Reporter.