Home >> Volume 1, Issue 02

Chocky’s Debut

Bill Miles

SHAKO/shay-ko/n.(pl.-os) 1. a stiff, cylindrical military dress hat marked by a flat top, high crown and short visor. 2. a headpiece signifying honor or accomplishment.


Czeslaw Piotrowski, known as Chocky to everyone except his big sister, Ula, stared through the window of the Chicago Pawn and Loan Company. He pressed his nose against the cold pane and exhaled. As the circle of frost widened on the glass, a cough erupted from deep inside his lungs. He shook it off and spoke to a silver harmonica in a red-velvet case. “You can’t help me. Marching bands don’t have harmonica sections.” Then, as if to convince himself once and forever, he said, “And sister would snatch me baldheaded.”

During two and one-half years of high school, he’d brought home a clarinet, saxophone, trombone and bassoon. When Mr. LeClerc, the band director, asked for a volunteer to play the tuba, Chocky struggled from his seat and embraced the battered instrument. Mr. LeClerc, Ula and the guys in the band thought he loved music as much as they did. They felt that he’d learn any instrument just to win a place in the marching band. They were certain that his greatest wish in life was to be part of that majestic flow of bodies and sound a community of musicians could bring to a dull winter’s afternoon. Chocky never let on that he hated music.

When he’d entered St. Philip High School in 1953, he used his polio to get himself excused from the thrice-weekly gym classes, and persuaded Mr. LeClerc to give him extra music lessons. Clarinet and trombone the first year. Ula happily paid the weekly rent for the instruments, but insisted that Chocky practice in the basement. He begged Mr. LeClerc to let him march at football games, but the guys laughed, called him a gimp. The polio had struck him as a child, putting him a year behind in school, rendering his left leg shorter than his right and, at times, causing violent coughing spasms. Joe Monjoe, the band captain, once called him a clubfoot. Chocky swung a clarinet at Monjoe, taking out two teeth and splitting the captain’s lip up to the nose. He wasn’t a clubfoot; he’d had polio. Period. A clubfoot was a legit gimp. A guy who’d had polio was like any other kid who’d gone through measles or mumps . . . but hadn’t had the luck to get over the disease. Chocky’s sister called it God’s will.

Ula, six years his senior and already so old she was ruined of any dream she might have had, thought him touched in the head for wanting to exhibit his handicap. “We don’t need to show the world the crosses the Good Lord has placed on our shoulders,” she said.

“My shoulders aren’t the problem,” Chocky said.

The argument hadn’t been all that violent. He never said that she was as homely as mud pie. He never called her waffle face. He wanted her happiness--as much as he wanted matching legs--but realized that she’d likely die a withered old maid. He wouldn’t add insult to her luckless life. He also wouldn’t tell her the reason he was fascinated by the marching band.

It was so obvious, Chocky was surprised she hadn’t figured it out… especially after hearing how poorly he played the instruments. He didn’t want to be a band member, he wanted to lead the band. He wanted to be the one--and only one--whom everyone followed onto the field at half time. He wanted to head Chicago’s St. Patrick’s Day parade. And, ultimately, to lead the grand Rose Bowl Parade. One day, he would be a drum major and wear for the world to see his badge of honor: the shako. Complete with flowing ostrich feather. This would prove he was over his polio.

Chocky knew Ula wasn’t quick to the times, struggling as she did with shopping lists, correct carfare and the strain of attending daily mass. Were she not quite so concerned with God and her collection of Sacred Heart of Jesus images—the family bungalow had at least two in every room, three in the basement, one over each garage window and one in the attic, thirty-one at last count—she might have seen the obvious. He bet himself a quarter that Ula, when she reached thirty, would have fifty Sacred Hearts and still no husband. What suitor could endure the sight of fifty Sacred Hearts? He doubled the bet.

Every day, Ula took the Division Street bus to Central Avenue and the Central streetcar south to the Austin Public Library where she was the assistant children’s librarian. To protect herself against imagined attackers, she openly carried her St. Joseph Daily Missal, reading aloud the Apostles’ Creed when she felt endangered. At her job, she stared wistfully at any young family in the library. Around marriageable men, she stammered, fondling the St. Jude scapular she wore over layers of sweaters. St. Jude, Chocky knew from Lives of the Saints, was the patron of hopeless cases. Landing a husband would test the power of any saint, but at least Ula was talking to the right guy. Chocky scanned Lives to find the patron saint of good luck.

Ula once said to him, “I’ve prayed and prayed but life maintains its mysteries. The Lord has stricken you for a reason. The reason isn’t clear to us now, but some day . . . . ” The sentence hung like a breath taken but never released.

Chocky didn’t know if she believed such tripe or simply failed to understand that God didn’t have much to do with dispensing polio. “The Lord doesn’t deal it out like bad canasta hands.”

“Hush your sacrilegious mouth!”

“I’m not sacrilegious, I just have bum luck.”

Ula countered, “It’s God’s will!”

Ula had been eighteen when their mother died. The doctor said pleurisy. Ula explained pleurisy to Chocky. “It’s something like what daddy died of when he got smoke in his lungs fighting the big fire. Bad lungs have been the Piotrowskis downfall.” It was then that she began her collection of Sacred Heart images believing, it seemed, that they could protect the family from any additional lung problems. When Chocky scoffed at the idea, she pulled him to her bosom and said, “Sacred Heart of Jesus, be merciful to my little brother.”

“I don’t need mercy,” Chocky said, “I need a matched set of legs.”

At their mother’s graveside, Ula whispered to Chocky, “I will take care of you until the day I die.”

He thought about saying, ‘or the day I die, whichever comes first.’ But because Ula was still staring down into their mother’s grave and because she gripped his arm so tightly that all blood circulation had ceased, he kept the thought to himself.

Monsignor Callahan intervened on their behalf at Citizens National Bank and negotiated a reduced mortgage, of which Ula understood nothing except that she was to pay the bank $48.80 a month to continue living in the Leamington Avenue bungalow. The Monsignor also suggested she take in a boarder to defray some of her expenses and, toward that end, sent over Mr. Klotka, an immigrant man stooped beyond his forty years. He moved into the basement with his own army cot and a photo enlarger. Mr. Klotka didn’t seem to mind Chocky’s practice sessions. Not only was he deaf, he was almost mute. He could grunt agreement or displeasure, but the sounds didn’t approach any words Chocky had ever heard. The basement became their shared sanctuary.

Chocky learned the tuba well enough to perform at concerts and basketball games, but was not allowed to march. Mr. LeClerc told him that if he could somehow level out his walk, he could try marching. And Chocky knew that if he could march, he could become a drum major. At the end of his junior year, he tested a variety of corrective shoes: orthopedic boots that rose up over his ankles like high-top gym shoes, brogans with soles that ranged from pizza-pie thin to telephone-book thick.

Nothing equalized his steps until Mr. Klotka dragged him into Frank the Shoemaker’s on Division Street. Frank clamped down on the black stub of his Parodi, scowled at Chocky and said, “Heel.” He fashioned a wooden block from a two-by-four and attached it to Chocky’s boot, already thick with a three-inch sole. He planed the block and then built it back up with shoe leather, layer by layer, over three weeks. On Good Friday, Chocky officially declared that his legs were of equal length. Mr. Klotka photographed him marching around the dining room table as smoothly as if he were sailing on a lagoon. Ula produced a bottle of Chianti and poured for Mr. Klotka and herself. She served Chocky a Green River and a shot glass of cough syrup.

“It’s my boot,” Chocky said. “Don’t I get wine, too?”

“Not until you’re 21, young man. Not under my roof.”

“Did someone die around here and make you Marshall Dillon?” he asked.

“At least you’re not Chester any more.” She raised her glass and tipped it toward Mr. Klotka who mumbled, “Shurrf.”

After daily band rehearsal, Chocky practiced high-stepping in the alley behind the bungalow. On television, he’d seen drum majors prance like Lippizaner Stallions, the young men bringing their knees to their chins. They were godlike in their perfectly-creased uniforms emblazoned with gold piping and buttons. Their magnificently-plumed shakos were as tall as sky scrapers. At first, Chocky could manage no more than three high steps in succession before landing on the side of the wooden shoe and toppling over. He practiced for a month before he learned to land without so much as a wobble.

He knew that he’d have to learn the drum major’s signature move: the spine-snapper. While high-strutting at full speed, the true drum major arched his spine and threw back his head. When the shako’s plume brushed the ground, half-time fans roared. Chocky had to master it.

His first attempt left him on his back in the middle of the alley, his head gashed open. Ula sprinkled him with holy water. “What in the name of the good Lord happened to you?”

“Bad luck,” he said.

“God helps those who help themselves.”

“This was my bad luck. God didn’t push me.” He took four stitches at St. Ann’s Emergency Room but practiced the following day. He needed three sets of stitches before rummaging through the basement storage shed for his father’s fireman’s helmet. He continued to fall but the heavy helmet ended his weekly trips to the emergency room.

On a balmy August night before his senior year at St. Philip, Chocky took Ula and Mr. Klotka to LaFollette Park. “Watch.” In the grassy park midway, he strapped on the fireman’s helmet, broom bristles taped to it for effect, and broke into a run, his legs churning up to his chin. He hurled back his head and arched. The bristles scraped the ground. Ula shrieked. Mr. Klotka snapped her picture.

That night, in the privacy of the bungalow, Chocky confessed to Ula that he didn’t care a fig about music. All he’d ever wanted out of life was to lead the parade. “Now I have the moves.”

“What about all the instruments I rented? I even bought the bassoon.”

“I’ll pay you back after I’m a star,” Chocky said.

“Star? We don’t know drum-major stars. Name me one.”

Chocky couldn’t . . . nor did he have any inkling about how to accomplish stardom. He only knew that he was ready to lead the parade.

“Lead the parade?” Ula screeched. “Lead the parade!” She clasped her hands over her ears, shook her head from side to side and cast her eyes toward the Almighty. When it seemed as if her head would twist off, she screamed, “Mr. Klotka!” and thumped the floor.

The extent of Mr. Klotka’s devotion to Ula—and her affection for him—had become apparent to Chocky the day he’d found the fireman’s helmet. He also found an envelope of photos. Ula was naked, her innocence clearly gone. True, she was a woman devoid of physical beauty with little hope of finding a man in the traditional manner. Chocky pondered the photos. Mr. Klotka’s army cot was Ula’s stage, the family’s wringer washer her background. She had participated of her own free will. Chocky saw that she had never looked more . . . “radiant” was the word to which he kept returning. Mr. Klotka’s camera had somehow found the center of Ula’s soul.

In September, Ula and Mr. Klotka, holding hands in front of the washer, announced their engagement. They wanted Chocky to lead the wedding party. She had spoken to Monsignor Callahan and he had agreed to the unusual request. “Keep Thanksgiving Saturday open,” she said.

Chocky said, “Lead a wedding party? Wearing what . . . my purple and gold band uniform? Carrying a bassoon? It’s out of the question.”

“You always wanted to lead something,” Ula said.

“Not looking like any average jamoke.”

Shyly, Mr. Klotka tapped Chocky on the shoulder and raised an index finger. From under the army cot, he produced the Stremple and Klinton Catalogue of Uniforms. He flipped to a full-page photo of a drum major, spectacular in pure white. A rakish cut-away featured buttons the size of gold pieces, gold piping, chevrons and braided gold citation cords. The drum major cradled a shako two feet high with a plume that added another foot. Chocky’s head buzzed. He grabbed the rim of the washer to keep from falling. Finally he said, “Where does the money come from? You were still paying for the bassoon last month.”

“Mind your tone, little brother.”

“So . . . what about the money? Look at the price . . . $24.95. I’ll earn my place at the head of a real parade. No one has to create one out of sympathy.”

“Czeslow, I—”

Mr. Klotka touched Ula on the shoulder, then put a finger to his lips. He disappeared into the coal shed, returning with five five-dollar bills. “Schlant,” he mumbled, nodding to Ula. “Schlmut ooo.” He pulled her to his side and roughly pounded a fist against his heart. The matter was settled more surely than if decided by a judge and jury.

The day after the band uniform arrived, Chocky made an appointment to see Mr. LeClerc. Once the band director overcame his surprise at seeing a fully-uniformed Chocky Piotrowski standing at attention, balanced and rigid, he said, “Mr. Piotrowski, surely you’ve noticed that we don’t utilize a drum major. For parade marches, I keep the boys in time by walking alongside the trombones. On top of that, you must realize our school colors are purple and gold. The football uniforms are purple and gold as are the basketball uniforms and the band uniforms. You’re wearing white.”

Chocky said, “May I stand down to Parade Rest, sir?”

“Mr. Piotrowski, no one but you suggested that you stand at attention.”

Chocky snapped into a crisp Parade Rest, his feet fourteen inches apart, his gloved hands behind his back. He had prepared his case, listing each argument Mr. LeClerc might make and perfecting the necessary response. He advised Mr. LeClerc that almost all the other high school bands—and one-hundred per cent of the bands good enough for TV—were led by drum majors. “As often as not, the drum major wears a white uniform, regardless of the school colors.” This was a lie; maybe Mr. LeClerc didn’t own a television.

“Son, what about your . . . your . . . handicap? No one wants to see you . . . ”

“ . . . make a fool of myself?” Chocky released the chin strap and removed the shako. “Mr. LeClerc, if I show you that I can make the moves—with no sign of a limp—will you give me the job? Look what it will add to your band!” He would neither beg nor wheedle. Or use sympathy. He would earn the position honorably. He’d handle the lie in Confession.

“Very well,” said Mr. LeClerc.

Chocky led the band director to the gymnasium. At the free-throw line, he donned the shako and demonstrated a series of precise turns and pivots, both left and right-footed. He took a position under one basketball net, a baton in the crook of his arm, and ran down an invisible line toward the far basket. At half-court, he threw back his head and bent into the spine-snapper, the ostrich plume dusting the floor behind him. He pulled up to a perfectly-balanced stop under the far net and, with the school’s fight song playing in his head, wheeled and marched back down the court, knees to chin, the long baton pumping a perfect cadence. He snap-turned and high-stepped directly to Mr. LeClerc, and then executed a precise about face, once, twice, ending up nose-to-nose with the band director. Mr. LeClerc said, “I do believe we will be able to work you in.”

Two weeks before the wedding, Ula said, “Czeslaw, your cough is getting worse. Don’t spend so much time outside.”

“I haven’t missed a day of school or a single band practice.”

For the next hour, Ula insisted that Chocky was sick—his skin had turned gray!—and Chocky continued to insist that he was, if not the picture of health, at least able to carry on. The cough was usual; the touch of pain around his waist and kidneys would pass. He’d endured much more since the polio had struck. Nothing would get in the way of her wedding. Besides, he had a surprise for her. “I’ll be an experienced drum major before your wedding.” The St. Philip marching band had been invited to perform during the half-time show of a Notre Dame-Navy football game on Friday night before the wedding. Mr. LeClerc had said that the rare opportunity would be Chocky’s debut.

“So you see,” Chocky told Ula, “you’re stuck with me leading the parade. Your show will go on.”

Chocky created a special number for the wedding. He called it “Ula’s Military March of Love,” a cross between a stiff-legged strut and a reverent processional. To stifle his cough, he practiced deep breathing. On Thanksgiving Day, he rehearsed at the park for five hours. Over and over, he ran half the length of the field and then threw himself into the spine-snapper. He worked up a sweat that soaked through his dungarees and shirt. He took a chill, but just bundled up in two sweatshirts and continued practicing. At home, Ula said, “You look like a ghost! Get in the tub and soak.” She brought him a glass of Chianti diluted with 7-Up and lemon and honey. The wine and steamy aroma floated him off . . . until Ula shook his shoulder. She sat on the edge of the tub. “You’re a sick boy.” She tossed her chenille bathrobe onto the sink. “Get out and wrap up in this.”

When she shook him in the morning, his color had gone from gray to a soft blue. He muttered, “Parade.” Ula pounded on the floor for Mr. Klotka. On the way to the emergency room, she wove her rosary through her fingers.

Inside the plastic oxygen tent, Chocky dreamed of his white drum-major’s uniform and Ula’s white bridal gown. He saw Mr. Klotka waiting at the altar and Ula shyly walking toward him. His vision faded. It returned when he was leading the St. Patrick’s Day Parade down State Street, his ostrich plume proud and tall, his baton pumping in perfect time, his gait as smooth as if he were rolling on tires. Mayor Richard J. Daley, as short and regal as Napoleon, marched behind him. A blast of frigid air blew through his uniform. For winter parades, he must remember to wear thicker long johns. He wheezed out two coughs.

He didn’t understand why Ula’s hand was on his chest, nor why it gave no warmth. The look in her darkened eyes told Chocky that he’d miss the Rose Bowl Parade. More bad luck. California couldn’t be as cold.

For the funeral, Ula dressed him in the white uniform, the shako formally at rest in the fold of his arm. Inside the main gate to All Saints Cemetery, the procession of cars paused. The St. Philip band members tumbled out of the school bus and took up their positions.