Street-smart, wickedly funny, piercingly perceptive, and eloquent enough to win a Pulitzer Prize, Mike Royko continues to have legions of devoted fans who still wonder “what Royko would have said” about some outrageous piece of news. One thing he hardly ever wrote or talked about, though, was his private life, especially the time he shared with his first wife, Carol. She was the love of his life, and her premature death at the age of forty-four shook him to his soul. Mike’s unforgettable public tribute to Carol was a heart-wrenching column written on what would have been her forty-fifth birthday, “November Farewell.” His most famous and requested piece, it was the end of an untold story.
Royko in Love offers that story’s moving and utterly beguiling beginning in letters that “Mick” Royko, then a young airman, wrote to his childhood sweetheart, Carol Duckman. He had been in love with her since they were kids on Chicago’s northwest side, but she was a beauty and he was, well, anything but. Before leaving for Korea, he was crushed to hear she was getting married, but after returning to Blaine Air Force Base in Washington, he learned she was getting a divorce. Mick soon began to woo Carol in a stream of letters that are as fervent as they are funny. Collected here for the first time, Royko’s letters to Carol are a mixture of sweet seduction, sarcastic observations on military life, a Chicago kid’s wry view of rural folk, the pain of self-doubt, and the fear of losing what is finally so close, but literally so far. His only weapons against Carol’s many suitors were his pen, his ardor, and his brilliance. And they won her heart.
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About the Author
Mike Royko (1932–97) worked as a daily columnist for the Chicago Daily News, the Chicago Sun-Times, and the Chicago Tribune. His Pulitzer Prize–winning columns were syndicated in more than six hundred newspapers across the country. He is the author of Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago; One More Time: The Best of Mike Royko; For the Love of Mike: More of the Best of Mike Royko; and Early Royko: Up Against It in Chicago, the latter three published by the University of Chicago Press.
David Royko is the director of the Marriage and Family Counseling Service of the Circuit Court of Cook County. He is also the son of Mike and Carol Royko, and the author of Voices of Children of Divorce.
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Royko in Love
By Mike Royko
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE LETTERS: PART ONE
"Another year and another letter"
Dad's letters speak for themselves, but when necessary, I have added some brief commentary, including references based on my own knowledge and any information I have learned from those close to the story, including Mike's surviving older sister Eleanor and younger brother Bob; Don Karaiskos (Mike's barracks-mate, referred to frequently in the letters as "Chris," derived from "Karaiskos"); and Mike's niece and future sister-in-law Barbara (she married Mom's brother, Bob Duckman), who as a one-time close friend of Mom's provided some insight into the brief marriage and subsequent breakup of Mom and Larry. I also provide some brief historical background when needed. For the sake of readability, I opted to correct the rare spelling mistake.
Unfortunately, Mom's letters to Dad do not appear to have survived. She did keep-very sporadically-a diary of the "A Line a Day" variety, and I have included several of her entries in my comments where they offer insight into Carol's thoughts or feelings about Mick.
I have included postmark dates as they appear on the envelopes, as most of the letters are undated, though the day of the week is often noted. According to the 1954 calendar, these days usually correspond to the day preceding the postmark date. The stamps are always airmail, and were six cents.
As I looked for pictures to include in the book, digging through boxes I hadn't opened in years, I realized that I had far more than the book had space for. I have posted some of this additional material on my website (http://www.davidroyko.com) and on the University of Chicago Press website (http://www.press.uchicago.edu/).
Dad wrote 114 letters to Mom. They are preceded by a letter he wrote not to Carol but to the whole Duckman family, to whom Dad was close.
Mike and Carol both had brothers named Bob, and this letter refers to Bob Duckman. At the time, Bob was an undertaker.
POSTMARK: FEBRUARY 1, 1954 ADDRESSED TO: DUCKMANS
Another year and another letter from the bad penny. I'm now stationed in Washington, seven miles from the Canadian border. It's great up here. They have weekly barn dances and during our time off we can chase rabbits or carve our names in redwood trees. Nothing like a social life. The next time I get a leave, I'll probably arrive home wearing buckskins and carrying a flint lock rifle. The air force seems determined to keep me separated from civilization. The local farmers are very friendly tho, they probably reckon that I'll give em a mite of help with the spring plowin.
I guess I should apologize for not coming over during my leave, but I lost so much weight in Korea that I thought Bob might not recognize me and toss me in a pine box. I had a pleasant leave but it flew by so quickly that I didn't get around as much as I would have liked to and I spent a big part of it traveling back and forth from Washington.
Needless to say, I left Korea somewhat gaunt but still intact. The first condition I attribute to the bully beef and dehydrated potatoes we lived on and the second to the fact that on guard duty, when sighting a Korean I yelled "help" instead of "halt." All in all it was pretty interesting, but if they ever want me to go back there again, three of us will arrive at the dock. Me and the two cops who will have to escort me.
I'll probably take another leave this summer so you can expect me to pop in then. I've been here four days now and I haven't let the family know where I am so I'll close now and give them a buzz on the phone.
When you have time, drop me a line.
"Mountain Man" Mick
Carol wrote back, apparently chiding Mike gently for not stopping over and not writing. She also revealed that she and Larry had separated and would divorce. The marriage had been a mistake.
Carol was nineteen years old and Mike was twenty-one.
POSTMARK: MARCH 16, 1954
Writing this letter is going to be the toughest thing I've ever done. In answer to your note-yes, I did plan on writing once a year-or less. Naturally a statement like that warrants an explanation. I'm in love with you. Surprised? Well I am and the result has been mental hell. For a couple of years I've been wondering when I'd stop thinking about you every day. I've come to the conclusion that I won't. So as long as I have to keep going this way you may as well know about it. I've been in love with you for so long, I don't remember when it started but when I decided to do something about it, it was too late.
I was home for 30 days and at times the urge to go to you was overpowering. I drove by your house time after time but couldn't stop. I can't write anymore. Anything else I say would be a futile attempt to elaborate on a complete statement. I love you. I don't harbor much hope but please answer or I'll be forced to call you on the phone. I don't want to do that until I hear from you.
In our day of cheap cell phones and e-mail and instant communication, it's hard to imagine the torture my father must have felt as he waited for his letter to cross two-thirds of the continent and hers to return. But when her reply came, the message was clear: Even if she did not reciprocate his feelings in full, she did not reject them either. In fact, they seemed to be just what she needed-her diary entry of March 18 says, "Got a letter from Mick today, telling me he loves me. I can't believe it's actually true. I'll start living again."
Stanley Steamer was one of Mike's nicknames for his car.
POSTMARK: APRIL 3, 1954
You haven't received any of them but in the past week I have written you dozens of letters. All have ended up in the waste basket. Nothing I write sounds right. Night after night I've sat here writing 'til my roommate is suspecting me of having a few loose screws. When I unfolded your artistic endeavor this afternoon, he just shook his head in a confused way and left the room mumbling in an undertone. Seriously, I feel guilty and sorry for putting you in the position of encouraging me to write. Your letter had such an exhilarating effect on me that my section chief gave me three days off, hoping I would come back to earth. I guess I've read your letter until the ink is practically worn off but I haven't been able to put together a reply so I'll just sit here and write whatever comes into my mind. I didn't know until last week that you had cried when I left. I'm glad that I didn't. My year in the land of rice would have been a lot tougher than it was. As it was I had an occasional day when I didn't think of you. Not often, but once in a while. Then I'd take a look at those pictures you gave me and my peace of mind would be shattered. One night, after consuming a goodly amount of distilled morale booster I came to a hazy conclusion that your pictures were doing me more harm than good. So you now have the unique distinction of having your image carried all the way to Korea for cremation services. I regret it very much.
Sorry to have upset your apple cart, but it's better to have an upset apple cart then to feel like a dog. I realized when I wrote that I wasn't going to help uncomplicated your life but I kept my feelings bottled up for so long that I had to share them with someone and you seemed like the logical person. I haven't kidded myself into thinking that you might feel the same as I do. This isn't the first time that a love has been one sided. No matter what happens, in feeling the way I do I've experienced something that most people have missed. I feel sorry for them. I realize that you've had a rough emotional experience. I can't help feeling that I'm partly to blame. I've felt this way for a long time and I should have said so long ago. It might have been different. But remember you're young and though you have had a bad break, you have your whole life ahead of you. Life is similar to a card game. You're dealt so many cards and you have to make the best of them. I've seen good card players have a bad night and from then on they are wary and afraid to take a chance. The smart player bounces right back, forgetting the bad breaks and making the best of the good ones. You've been dealt good cards. You're young, attractive and intelligent. All you have to do is forget the unhappy things and take what's good out of life. I'm an optimist. To have loved you all this time, I can't have been anything else. I just want you to remember that no matter what happens, I'm going to be on call. I've been quietly hopeful for a long time. I can continue the same way for a long time to come.
It's getting late and I want to get this to town so I guess I'll go warm up my Stanley Steamer. By the way, when you write, please don't tell me about sitting on actors' laps. I'm hard enough to live with now and my roommate is a bundle of nerves.
POSTMARK: APRIL 8, 1954 Wednesday
A half hour ago I returned from a two day trip to one of the other bases to pick up some radio equipment. When I walked into my room, your letter was on my desk. The letter was wonderful, the pictures are wonderful and right now it feels pretty good to be alive. An hour ago I was so tired it was an effort to keep my eyes open. Whatever the speed record is for 300 miles in a '42 Oldsmobile, I must have shattered it tonight. It's 1 AM but I want this to go out tomorrow so my roomy will have to endure the light in his eyes.
Your pictures are going to be a problem. My room is the hangout for most of the guys in the barracks, and I know exactly what their reaction will be. "Who are you kidding, you don't know her." I guess I'll just have to keep the pictures locked up.
The '42 Olds I mentioned is the car I recently bought. While I was home I bought a '50 Ford but the weather made it impossible for me to drive back in time so I sold it before I left. The main feature of the Olds is that it continually provides me with laughs. Last week the horn decided to blow. I was on a quiet country road when it happened and it took five minutes for me to find the cause. While I was looking, the farmer whose sleep I had disturbed arrived on the scene fully armed. He stood there yelling "Turn it off !" and his dog sat on the ground and barked. When I fixed the horn he told me to "git!" I gitted. It was probably the first time he had talked to anyone in years. The people out here are comparatively backward but the country itself is beautiful. From my window I can see a snow capped mountain range and the base is right on a bay. The weather is mild but rainy. It's not a bad base but the thought of two more years is pretty rough. I've already used up 60 days leave so I've got 60 more to go. I'll probably be able to get three weeks leave in September. How much time will we be able to have together? You asked me that question. I'm taking the leave for only one reason. To see you. My last leave was spent just killing time and thinking about you. When I arrive in Chicago in Sept., I'll stop at home long enough to say Hi, then I'm going to establish squatters rights on your doorstep. I had hoped to get home sooner then September but no leaves are being given right now. Five months seems like such a long time to wait so I've decided that I can't wait that long to talk to you. I'm going to call you up. When can I get you? You seem to have a pretty heavy schedule so if you can figure out a good time for me to call, let me know in your next letter.
This is my last piece of stationery so I'll have to cram a lot on it.
I was glad to detect a more cheerful spirit in your last letter. If my letters have done anything in the way of boosting your morale then I feel it's the most worthwhile thing I've ever done. You said that I'm wonderful. I'm not, but nothing anyone ever says to me will mean as much as that. Two months ago I was all set to volunteer for overseas duty again. Right now it would take a dozen men to get me on a ship. Since I've been in the service, the hardest thing for me to do has been to spend a night in the barracks writing letters but lately the only time I feel relaxed and happy is when I'm writing to you. As long as you enjoy hearing from me, the letters are going to keep coming.
I hope you never meet a multi millionaire or even a millionaire because I'd probably be converted to communism. Don't ever worry what people say. The world is full of unhappy people who have messed up their lives by being affected by what people say or think. Nuts to people. They aren't that important.
I'll probably be a bit more wide awake tomorrow and make a little more sense.
So until then
Dad went to Chase, a Chicago public grammar school.
POSTMARK: APRIL 13, 1954 Monday
I just checked my mail box and was greeted by the unhappy sight of emptiness so I'll have to try to salvage some pleasure out of this evening by writing a letter instead of reading one of yours.
Because it's raining I've managed to get a free evening. I'm on the base golf team and play a practice round each evening. When I finish playing I work 'til midnight in the clubhouse bar. The job helps compensate for the frugality of the AF but it doesn't leave much time for writing. The main benefit of a full schedule is that it keeps my mind occupied and facilitates the passing of time. September seems years away and 3000 miles seems like a million.
One of my favorite pastimes lately has been thinking about my leave, or, to be more correct, day dreaming about it. Mentally, I've been dancing, driving, I've proposed, and been accepted, and rejected. I guess it sounds corny, but literally, you're the girl of my dreams. I guess a cynic would doubt that I could love you because, as you've said, we've never even held hands but my concept of love differs slightly with that of other people. I love you, not because you have blond hair, a beautiful face and look good in a bathing suit, but because you have certain undefinable qualities that to me are unique in a person. A person isn't just so much flesh and bone put together in a certain way, but a creature with a soul and the beauty inside a person is the beauty that attracts love. If you were plain or even homely I couldn't feel any differently.
Some of the things I've said could probably be considered as being too forward to say to a married woman. I wouldn't have said them three months ago because then I thought you were happily married. What I should have just said was, because I thought you were married, because as far as I'm concerned, a marriage can't be a marriage unless it's happy. All the religious, and civil ceremonies in the world can't create a marriage unless both people are happy. I just looked back and discovered that I've been spelling marriage "marraige." It seems Solomon P. Chase didn't fulfill its responsibility.
Easter Sunday I'm taking a drive up to Mt. Baker. For the last 3 months I've been looking out my window and seeing this mountain and wondering what it looks like close up so I've made up my mind to find out. I'll probably take a few pictures so if any of them are worth seeing I'll send them. I never cease to be amazed at the beauty of the country around here. After living in Chicago and then seeing the drabness of Korea, this mountainous country is fascinating. When I look out the window in the morning, the mountains have a blue white color. When I was a kid, I'd look out the window and see the blue white color of the Pabst sign.
What kind of quartet do you sing with? Is it a hobby or do you have professional ambitions? Three of the guys who wait on tables where I work decided that we should organize a quartet. We practiced a few songs, then tried them out on the customers. The two songs we sang set music back 500 years and did more to further prohibition than the temperance leagues. The owner of the place has been giving us dirty looks ever since. Nothing sounds as terrible as everyone singing harmony. In order to hold our jobs we have disbanded.
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Table of Contents
Prologue: A November Farewell
The Letters: Part One
“Another year and another letter”
Letters, February 1, 1954—August 24, 1954
The Letters: Part Two
“My darling, as soon as possible be with me again”
Letters, September 23, 1954—November 2, 1954
The Letters: Part Three
“Hello My Sweet Wonderful Wife”
Letters, November 12, 1954—January 14, 1955