Earlier this year the University of Chicago Press reissued Mike Royko’s first book, a 1967 collection of pieces he’d written for the Chicago Daily News since it made him a columnist in ’63. Back then the title was Up Against It. The new edition is called Early Royko: Up Against It in Chicago, and the name change gave David Royko a problem.
David, Mike’s son, had come across a couple columns his father wrote in 1955 and wanted to share them with the world as “early Royko.” But since that claim had already been staked, he’s posted them online as “earliest Royko,” which isn’t exactly right. You see, earlier yet are the love letters David’s dad wrote his mom back in 1954, when she was in Chicago and he had to court her from Blaine Air Force Station in Birch Bay, Washington, 1,800 miles away. Those letters, discovered by David in a box in his basement, are now the contents of Royko in Love: Mike’s Letters to Carol, which the U. of C. Press has just released. (For more on the letters, see my blog, News Bites, at chicagoreader.com.)
“His only weapons against Carol’s many suitors were his pen and his brilliance. And they were enough,” David writes in his introduction to Royko in Love. They sure were. In March “Mick” admits to Carol Duckman, a girl from the block, that he’s been nuts about her since he was ten. By November they’re married. The book ends in January 1955, with a letter from Mick telling his bride he’s coming home to finish up his enlistment at the air force installation at O’Hare Field. “Everyone has been congratulating me and saying this is as good as a discharge,” Mick writes. “They are absolutely right. This is as good as a discharge.”
In one important respect it turned out to be better than a discharge. Wildly exaggerating his credentials, claiming he’d already done some reporting for the Daily News, which he hadn’t, Royko got himself put in charge of the base newspaper, the O’Hare News. He promptly assigned himself a column, “Mike’s View.”
David had heard some funny stories about the O’Hare News, but never expected to read anything his father had written for it. Then he experienced what he calls “total serendipity.” Digging through boxes he’d piled in his basement after Mike Royko died in 1997, looking for old pictures to illustrate the letters in Royko in Love, “I found a lot more,” David says. “I couldn’t believe it.” In a scrapbook stuffed with loose pieces of paper, he came across a “little mini holy grail . . . two completely new columns. And they sounded like Dad.”
David organized the columns, plus some other materials he’d come across, into a new wing of his elaborate website, (davidroyko.com), a lot of which is devoted to his parents. But he offered to wait to post a link to this newly discovered material until I announced that it existed. Which is what I’m doing now. (One of the columns is reprinted here; you can read both at davidroyko.com/roykoinloveplus4earliestmikeroyko.htm.)
Was there ever a time when Royko was too young to sound like Royko? He must have been a wisenheimer from day one. If the cold war was good for anything it was absurdity, and here he is at 22, strutting his stuff. “The many letters we have received requesting information on survival during an atomic blast indicate an immediate need for a set of rules,” begins the O’Hare News column the Reader reproduces here. “I have looked into the field of survival and have compiled some important things to remember. . . .
“If you are home at the time of the attack, go to your basement immediately,” he advises. “Then pile all your furniture against the doors and walls. This offers absolutely no protection but it is good exercise and provides more room on the floor if you should have unexpected company and want to dance.”
The advice rolls on. “Subways are safe because they are below the ground. This has caused the noted scientist, Professor Ignats Phnff, to state that after the next war, all that will remain on earth will be snakes, worms, gophers, and subway conductors. This should make us all appreciate the man who invented the subway. He may be the hope of mankind.”
David Royko marveled when he read this. “I got so excited,” he says. “Ignats Phnff! He already had a Doctor Kookie”—the later Royko’s fictitious all-purpose expert. “And I got a kick out of Afghanistan.”
Meaning this: “If you have been out of the Air Force less than six months, your best bet is to reenlist. This has nothing to do with survival, but unless I print it, I’ll be shipped to Afghanistan.”
David discovered that a few days before the column ran, the prime minister of Afghanistan had made a bellicose speech that led to the looting of Pakistani missions in Kabul, Kandahar, and Jalalabad. He wonders if this touchy situation is why the proprietor of “Mike’s View” had Afghanistan on his mind.
It’s possible. Back then, Afghanistan symbolized exoticism and total irrelevance. Among journalists, “Afghanistanism” was the term of choice for the bloviating of editorial writers on matters their readers couldn’t have cared less about. Perhaps Royko had spotted some local pundit weighing in on the rumbling of war drums along the Khyber Pass. Who knows? (Times have changed: when Afghanistanism is practiced today, the subject is commonly Europe.)
The second column David found in his basement offered romantic advice.
“Dear Miss Hellpall: When I am with girls I don’t know what to talk about. I get nervous and upset. Sometimes I feel so shy that I swallow my tongue and a doctor has to be called to prevent my strangling. A girl once said hello to me, and I was so shocked I hid in a sewer for three days. It was cold. What can I do to become a life of the party? Shy.
“Dear Shy: Try getting hopped up on cocaine.”
Royko’s reign as editor of the O’Hare News ended badly. Richard Ciccone tells the story in his biography, Royko: A Life in Print, as Royko once told it himself: “The base commander was a nut on sports, and his pride and joy was the base softball team and the pride and joy of the team was the pitcher. But the pitcher was due for his discharge, so to keep him the commander extended his enlistment. I ran a big front-page story about it, thinking it was great news for the commander and the team. What I didn’t know is that you can’t extend a man’s enlistment except during time of war or emergency. Well, the thing really blew up in my face. It went through all layers of command, clear on past the generals to our congressman. One man got sent to the Aleutians.”
The paper was shut down and Royko spent the last three months of his enlistment, or so he claimed, “as chief janitor and hotel clerk.”
I question whether Royko was quite as uninformed as he claimed to be about the implications of shanghaiing a pitcher, but I’m sure he sincerely admired his commander for taking necessary measures. As I told David, the championship Daily News 16-inch team was notorious for its ringers back in the days when I played against it for the Sun-Times in the media league. Royko, who ran his team, believed in doing whatever had to be done. The Sun-Times was the only (relatively) clean team in the league, and we never beat the Daily News. We never beat anybody.
By Mike Royko
The many letters we have received requesting information on survival during an atomic blast indicate an immediate need for a set of rules. I have looked into the field of survival and have compiled some important things to remember.
If enemy aircraft are sighted, a warning will be provided by use of a loud siren. The Russians are sly, so they may attack at noon when the lunch whistles are being blown. To distinguish between the two, all lunch whistles are been arranged in the key of C and all air raid whistles in G flat. The war department has announced that a pamphlet on reading music is being printed and all families can be provided with one by sending in ten cents and the tops off two airmen.
After hearing the siren, the first thing to do is to swear. If you are a Republican, you should swear at the Democrats, and vice versa. If you are an independant [sic] voter you swear at both parties. If you don’t swear there are other emotional outlets such as breaking street lights, pinching girls, and letting the air out of tires. All are recommended.
All members of the American Legion should put on their uniforms and have a protest parade because the Russians are un-American. Following the parade they will adjourn to their headquarters where they will drink and sing dirty songs. All airmen are invited.
If you are home at the time of the attack, go to your basement immediately. Then pile all your furniture against the doors and walls. This offers absolutely no protection but it is good exercise and provides more room on the floor if you should have unexpected company and want to dance.
If you are outdoors when the blast occurs, it is advisable to climb a tree. It has been said that only the monkeys will survive an atomic war so there must be something beneficial in being in a tree.
If you have been out of the Air Force less than six months, your best bet is to reenlist. This has nothing to do with survival, but un-less I print it, I’ll be shipped to Afghanistan.
One of the safest places to be during an attack is in a subway. It would be a good idea to keep exactly twenty cents with you at all times, and if possible, take an apartment near a subway entrance. Subways are safe because they are below the ground. This has caused the noted scientist, Professor Ignats Phnff, to state that after the next war, all that will remain on earth will be snakes, worms, gophers, and subway conductors. This should make us all appreciate the man who invented the subway. He may be the hope of mankind.