We have all had friends when we were young that had a tendency to tell a tale or two. I had one that was just an outright liar. It took until fourth grade for my friends and me to discover that he was living a life of surreal delusions; and oddly enough, it was a fish story that put the final nail in the coffin for him.
Like most kids growing up in Chicago our lives revolved around playing sports and supporting our teams: The Cubs, Bears, Blackhawks, and Bulls ─ in that order. After school, depending on the season, we were off to the nearest ball field or frozen pond with our spikes or skates to emulate our sports heroes. These parks and ponds were our Mecca: a place where we could fantasize about our lives as sports legends.
What Greg lacked in athletic ability, he made up for with prefabricated fables concerning our local heroes. The first fib happened in the middle of the winter during third grade. We were playing hockey in the Cook County forest preserve on our favorite frozen pond when Greg said, “Hey fellas, I don’t want you to spread this around, but my father has invited Bobby Hull to come over for pasta and meatballs on Saturday night and you guys are welcome to come over and meet him. Just don’t tell anyone else.”
Bobby Hull! ─ We were flabbergasted. Bobby Hull of the Chicago Blackhawks was not only an icon in Chicago, but also a superhero. Most of us would rather meet Bobby Hull than have a Red Ryder BB gun. The gang was so excited that could barely concentrate in school the rest of the week and when Saturday morning came around we went out to the pond, played the dreaded Boston Bruins, and proceeded to pound them into the ice: now for the reward.
We all showed up at Greg’s house wearing our red home game Blackhawk jerseys around five o’clock Saturday evening. “Bobby will be here about six, so why don’t you guys grab a soda and I’m going to put in a package of these Jeno’s frozen pizza rolls in the oven so that we have something to hold us over until he gets here.” Greg’s father worked for Jeno’s frozen foods, and we all knew the pizza rolls were disgusting; but we indulged in order to calm our anxiety. We finished the pizza rolls and became thoroughly nauseated, but something else didn’t smell right to me. “Where is your mother?” I asked Greg.
“She ran out to get some Italian sausage.”
“How come the house doesn’t smell like pasta cooking?” I asked. I had spent many Sunday afternoons having pasta and meatballs at Greg’s house and when Mrs. C. cooked a batch of this stuff, you could smell it half way down the street.
“She already cooked it and froze it,” Greg said. “Don’t worry.”
“Where is your Dad?” my friend Don asked.
“He went out to get the wine. You cannot eat pasta without wine,” Greg said.
Six o’clock came around and there was no Mrs. C. or Mr. C; and more importantly, no Bobby Hull. “Don’t worry,” Greg said, “they probably had an accident.” (All three of them?) When seven o’clock came around, we still had hope; but by ten o’clock we dejectedly decided to leave. “Can’t figure out what happened,” Greg said, as we walked out his front door into the subzero Chicago wind chill to go home.
We all let it pass but when summer came around and we went into the baseball mode, Greg once again piqued our interest by telling us the Ernie Banks of the Chicago Cubs was coming to his house for a barbeque on Saturday afternoon. “Ernie Banks!” I said. “You have got to be kidding me.”
“No, I’m not kidding,” Greg said. “Bring your mitts and bats for autographs.”
Once again we all became so excited that we could barely sleep. When Saturday afternoon came around, we hoarded all of our baseball gear and headed to Greg’s house. “What time is Ernie coming over?” Jeff asked.
“He will be here about three o’clock,” Greg said.
“Where are your parents?” I asked.
“They went to get some charcoal and some beef patties at Jewel,” Greg replied.
We sat and waited; and waited some more; and some more.”
“It’s six o’clock,” Rich said, “Where’s Ernie at?”
“Not sure,” Greg said, “maybe that wrist injury he suffered last week sidelined him.”
Eight o’clock came around and we all gathered our gear and headed home. “This is bullshit,” Mark said, “First Bobby; now Ernie.”
Football season soon approached and now all of our thoughts and activities revolved around the Chicago Bears. Every day after school we played football in the sandlot across the street from my house. “I’m Gale Sayers,” Jeff said.
“That’s good,” I replied, “because I’m Dick Butkus and you’re about to get flattened.”
“Speaking of Gale Sayers, “Greg said, “We’re having a hot dog roast at the house after the Packer game on Sunday and Gale Sayers will be there.”
“You’re full of shit,” Jeff said, “The only person that is coming to your house on Sunday is Captain Kangaroo.”
“You do what you want; the rest of you are invited,” Greg said.
“Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice; shame on me; fool me thrice ─ and you’re a mental,” I said to myself. But what if he really shows up? “We better go fellas,” I said to the gang.
After the Packers demolished the Bears Sunday afternoon, we all headed to Greg’s house. This time we found Mr. C. lying in front of the television like a beached whale. Greg himself looked a little tepid, “What’s up?” Mr. C.,” I asked. “When is Gale coming over?”
“Gale who,” he asked.
“Gale Sayers,” I said.
“Son, you have quite the imagination: you should be a writer when you grow up.”
We all looked at each other in astonishment.
“That’s it,” Rich said, “F… him: he’s full of shit.”
We gathered our stuff and left. “No more fellas ─ never again,” I said.
Greg had pulled the wool over our eyes for the last time, but we all still remained friends. I would still occasionally stay overnight by his house to watch a late night Cubs or Hawks game taking place on the west coast, and the fictional sports fairy tales seemed to come to an end; or so I thought. He soon unveiled a new angle that caught me by surprise.
After getting permission from my parents to stay overnight by Greg’s house to watch a late night Cubs game, I walked down the block and knocked on his front door.
“What’s up pal?” Greg asked me as I entered. “I know you love fishing, and do I ever have a surprise for you.”
“Really; let me guess,” I said. “Curt Gowdy is here and we are going to tape an episode of the ‘American Sportsman’ while fishing for blue marlin in your plastic pool.”
“You’re close, my friend: follow me.”
I followed Greg downstairs where he appeared to have something covered with a towel. He grabbed the towel and pulled it off the object as if he were performing a magic trick. “Guess what that is?” he proudly asked.
“Looks to me like a fish bowl with two itty-bitty fish in it,” I said.
“You’re wrong: those are two killer sharks that my father bought for me; and if you were dumb enough to stick your finger in there, those things would rip it off.”
“No, they’re really not killer sharks, you friggin’ dope: they’re actually two gold fish that eat nothing but fish food,” I said.
“Watch this,” he said. He took a pencil that had a piece of monofilament fishing tackle attached to one end of it and then tied a small hook to the bottom of the line. “This is my fishing pole,” he said. “I’m going to take a piece of this sausage-filled Jeno pizza roll and use it for bait.” He dropped the pizza roll into the fish bowl and waited for a bite.
“I’m not quite sure if a fish can be stupid as you are, my mentally challenged friend; but they sure are doing a good imitation,” I said, as I glanced at the stupefied goldfish.
After ten minutes, I had enough. “You’re losing it man,” I said, “let’s go outside and shoot some hoops before the game starts.” We went out, played a little basketball, and then came in to watch the game. During the seventh inning stretch I went to the bathroom and checked on Greg’s miniature fishing rig to see if he had gotten a strike: nothing going. When the game was over we went to sleep, but not before I snuck downstairs and put the five remaining pizza rolls in the fish bowl. “We’ll see if these little suckers are sharks,” I said to myself. “I’m sure if they are, they will get hungry during the night like all killer sharks do.”
The next morning when we got out of bed, Greg went to check on his carnivorous goldfish and found a couple of floaters ─ the apparent result of a Jeno pizza roll overdose. “I think they ate too much,” Greg said.
“Yeah, I can see that,” I said.
The poor guy didn’t know it, but his delusions had crossed the thin line from the “Wide World of Sports,” to “The American Sportsman.”
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