America’s Greatest: 1959: Fun Times Four in Chicago, Chapter 1: The Importance of Being Earnest

by Dan Swanson

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It had been a great day for Ernie Earnest. The White Sox and Cubs had both won last night. The sun was out, and it looked like summer was just around the corner.

And based on the achievements of his students, it looked like he was improving as a teacher, too. Two of the kids in his senior physics class had just been awarded scholarships to the University of Chicago to study nuclear physics. Two of the girls in his ninth grade general science class won a prize in the West Side Science Fair last weekend. And tonight he got to tell his latest naturalization class that they had all passed the citizenship test, and that their citizenship ceremony was scheduled the week after next. It didn’t get any better than this.

He was enjoying the walk from the high school to the courthouse where the evening citizenship classes were held, despite the constant pain in his hips. He had been shot while helping resolve a hostage situation in 1956, and one of the bullets was so close to his spine that the surgeons hadn’t dared to remove it. (*) He walked with a limp and a cane, but he had learned to ignore the pain — most of the time, anyway.

[(*) Editor’s note: See Red Rocket & Tom Atomic: Times Past, 1956: Right and Magic.]

When he rounded the corner onto Stutgart Street and saw the restless crowd around Mama’s Corner Store, his day started downhill fast. The people in the crowd were fighting for a better look inside the store, and a number of cops were trying to keep them back. Ernie’s stomach dropped to the ground when he recognized Captain Tony Spinelli of Homicide through the front window of the store.

Mama Kelly and Papa Carlo had owned this store for almost half a century. When Mama had passed away last year, Papa had decided to retire. He had put the store up for sale, hoping to sell to one of his neighbors, but he couldn’t find any suitable buyers. Finally, Papa had sold to a couple who lived in another neighborhood some distance away.

This neighborhood was old and threadbare — not exactly run-down, but tired, not exactly poor, but money was tight. The residents were mostly descended from immigrants from Germany, Italy, and Ireland, the unusual diversity brought together by their common religion. In fact, the grandparents of many of these folks had moved to this neighborhood to help build the cathedral where their descendants now worshipped. They lived together, usually peacefully, because that’s the way it had been for two generations.

But the demographics of Chicago were changing. It had begun with refugees from World War II, and increased as living conditions in the Soviet Union worsened. A lot of Eastern European refugees ended up in Chicago, and most of them were followers of a different religion than most of the residents of this neighborhood.

The new owners of Mama’s Corner Store were a refugee couple from Eastern Europe. They had been shopkeepers all their lives, and they realized that the people of Chicago needed shopkeepers, just as the people in the old country had. When they saw Mama’s for sale, they jumped at the chance.

Someone in the neighborhood had resented them, for being different, for living somewhere outside the neighborhood, for “coming in and ripping us off, and then taking our money out with them every night.” It didn’t matter that they did most of their personal business in this same neighborhood and kept their store and the sidewalk in front spic and span, or that they sold the same goods at the same prices that Mama and Papa had. They were different — and that’s really all the reason a thug needed to take a violent action.

If the couple hadn’t tried to defend themselves, and instead had let the thugs destroy their store and their new lives, they probably would have lived through it. In the old country, though, they had been powerless against their thuggish government. Here the thugs were criminals, and free men and women could resist. They had resisted, and now they were both dead.

Spinelli knew he would catch the thugs. A lot of people in the neighborhood probably had a pretty good idea who had done this. They wouldn’t talk right now for fear of retaliation. But over the next couple of weeks, every time someone was inconvenienced by not having a local market, every time someone had to spend tight money to ride a streetcar to the next-closest market and buy lower-quality produce at higher prices, every time someone noticed the boarded-up corner store, resentment toward the thugs would grow. Sooner or later, someone would secretly snitch to the beat cop, and then, Spinelli promised himself, he would come back and make the bust. It wouldn’t take long; he could wait. But he hoped nobody else got killed in the meantime.

Ernie’s day got even worse, as very close to him, one of the cops struck a frantic bystander in the stomach with his nightstick. Probably a relative of the new owners, Ernie thought. He never found out what had triggered the cop, but it really didn’t matter. The civilian doubled over in agony, and the cop started an even more painful blow, swinging the weighted nightstick down in a vicious arc toward the back of the man’s head.

Ernie’s walking stick, an honest-to-goodness blackthorne shillelagh — a gift from one of his former citizenship students — flashed out and deflected the blow. The enraged cop turned his attention to Ernie. He grinned when he saw Ernie move with a limp.

“Shouldn’t have butted in, gimp. I was gonna break that bum’s head, but you’ll do just as well!” He swung the nightstick at Ernie’s head, but the shillelagh easily blocked the blow. The cop changed tactics and stabbed the stick at Ernie’s solar plexus, but his weapon was again knocked to the side. He was reaching for his pistol when he heard a chilling sound.

“Officer Magoon — stand down, now!” Magoon very carefully moved his hand away from his pistol. Captain Spinelli was not someone you wanted mad at you. “Murph, get a doctor over here for this guy!” He pointed at the civilian. One of the other cops ran for the radio in the squad car.

Magoon complained to Spinelli, “This guy here was attackin’ me, and I wuz just doin’ my job.”

“Not the way I saw it. And I saw the whole thing. You had no reason to attack that civilian, and all this guy did was keep you from maybe killing an innocent bystander. As it is, you’re on report, and fined two weeks’ pay.”

“Why, you greasy–! Do you know who I am?” Magoon swelled with indignation. He was about to continue, but Spinelli cut him off again.

“You’ve told everyone you’ve ever met, over and over again, that you’re second cousin to the mayor. We’re all sick of hearing it. It’s the only reason you ever got through the Academy, and everyone knows that, too. Now shut your yap, or I’ll bust you out of the force.”

“You’re gonna regret talkin’ to me like that, w–”

Once again Spinelli cut him off before he could say something that would get him in even worse trouble. He doubted that Magoon would thank him, though. “Tell you what, Officer Magoon, I’m actually having lunch with the mayor tomorrow. Why don’t you join us, and we can discuss today’s problems with him.”

Spinelli waited. Magoon didn’t say anything. There were rumors that Spinelli was about to be promoted to vice-commissioner of police, so he would be experienced enough to take over when the current commissioner retired next year. Magoon started to realize that the captain might have more pull with his second cousin than he did.

“Well, Officer Magoon, should I tell the mayor’s aide to have the chef cook for three?”

Magoon shook his head and walked away.

“Just what I needed — a crippled civilian beating up one of my team during a murder investigation!” Spinelli spoke angrily to Ernie.

“Nice to see you too, Tony!” The two men shook hands warmly, then Ernie’s good cheer at seeing his friend vanished. “So what happened here?”

“Somebody trashed the place and bumped off the couple who owned the place. Looks like the wife tried to stop someone who wanted a five-finger discount; she got knocked down, the husband picked up a baseball bat, and that someone shot them both.” It sounds so simple and neat, so routine, summed up like that, Spinelli thought. But it wasn’t. Two human lives, with all their stories, secrets, and potential, had ended. “Sometimes I hate this job.” He wasn’t talking to Ernie, but his friend responded anyway.

“Tony, if it weren’t for you, a lot of the guys who do this kind of thing would get away. And there would be a lot more of it. Never forget that!”

Spinelli nodded, just barely. “Thanks, Cap! Say, I gotta get back to work.” Spinelli turned back toward the store. He stopped and looked over his shoulder. “See if you can leave the scene without provoking any more of my boys, will you?” And then he was back inside.


Tonight’s naturalization class was informal, the sole purpose to review Friday’s upcoming ceremony so the students would be more comfortable. Ernie Earnest wasn’t surprised to see that most of his students were there; they were a good bunch. He was glad; teaching was always a good anodyne to sadness for him. So even though the class was technically completed, he used the occasion for a little more teaching.

“What is the official oath of citizenship of the United States?” Several students raised their hands. This was a trick question, so he asked his brightest student. “Yes, Miss Ming?” Anna Ming was a short Chinese girl with a sunny disposition.

“No specific oath is required by law, Mr. Earnest,” she replied earnestly. “According to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1953, any oath that meets the five principles is legal.”

“Thank you, Miss Ming. Mr. Regan, what are those five principles?”

Donal Regan was a big, beefy guy with red hair, a red Donegal beard that left most of his face clean-shaven, and a twinkle in his eye. He also had a very thick Irish accent. He squinted, then counted on his fingers.

“One: renunciation of prior allegiances to other countries. Two: support, and three: defense of the constitution. Four: service in the armed forces when required. Five: performance of civilian duties of national importance when required.”

“Very good, Mr. Regan. Mr. Habasinski, what else?” Jozef Habasinski wasn’t sure, and he fidgeted until Ernie gave him a hint. “The last sentence of the oath you are going to deliver, Joe.” That got him going.

“I take this obligation freely without any reservations.” That wasn’t it exactly, but close enough.

Somewhat heartened as always by teaching, Ernie wrapped up the class. “Remember, there’s a party at my place after the ceremony, but you gotta bring something — you wouldn’t want to eat my cooking!” It was now his tradition to have a potluck dinner after each new class took the oath of citizenship. He encouraged his students to bring dishes that were popular in their native countries, and he was gaining a very cosmopolitan gourmet, even if he couldn’t cook.

He decided to take a bus home rather than walking. Habasinski rode the same bus. As they were talking, another man approached and, without warning, yanked Ernie’s shillelagh away from him. As he crumpled to the ground with a moan of pain, his assailant pointed a gun at Habasinski.

“Don’t ya be movin’, now!” Ernie immediately recognized Magoon’s voice, though it was muffled by an improvised mask, a kitchen towel draped over the man’s head, with cutouts for eyes. As Habasinski raised his hands, the thug kicked Ernie in the back. With an enraged roar, Habasinski rushed at the bad guy, who immediately shot, and the young man dropped to the ground.

A rock thudded into Magoon’s head, and he was hit at virtually the same time behind the knees. As he started to fall backward, something smashed into his head from the left, and then something else slammed into his chest from the right. He cracked his head on the pavement, dropped the gun and the shillelagh, and writhed on the sidewalk, no more than semiconscious. Fighting the pain, Ernie crawled to the gun, then struggled into a sitting position. By then, whatever had attacked the gunman was gone.

A siren, quickly growing louder, attested that someone nearby had already called the police. A half-dozen people were rushing from nearby buildings, and one had taken charge of Jozef Habasinski.

“I was a medic in Korea! You–” He pointed at one of the approaching people at random. “–call for an ambulance! You and you–” He pointed at two men in suits, who must have been working late. “–I need your shirts for bandages.”

At that second, the beat cop arrived. The medic saw that Ernie’s face was white and that he was shaking violently and spoke to the cop. “He’s in shock,” he said, pointing at Ernie. “You better take that gun away from him and keep an eye on that guy on the ground.” Another bystander took off her coat and wrapped it around the violently shivering teacher. Realizing that he wasn’t needed any more just now, Ernie surrendered to the pain and passed out.


A couple of hours later, Ernie Earnest was sitting upright in a powered hospital bed, making his official police report to Tony Spinelli. He was fighting the effects of the morphine and resolved never to let it be used on him again.

“Thanks for coming personally, Tony, ‘specially ’cause there’s no murder involved.”

“Magoon worked for me, though. I’m sorry, Ernie.” He paused, then continued apologetically. “Habasinski confirms your story, and some night security guard saw Magoon knock you down and shoot Habasinski. So even though Magoon says you attacked him, you’re off the hook.” Ernie saw pain on his face, pain that any cop could act like that, and then Spinelli changed the subject. “How’d you recover enough to knock him down like that?”

“Wasn’t me! It was hard to shee — see, damn it! — from the ground. I thought I saw… no, it must have been the pain. A hunka-hunka burning pain!” He shook his head. “Sorry. I thought I saw a kid, couldn’t have been more than four or five, try to tackle him at the knees. And then he fell, and I was chasin’ the gun, and then I was here. I can’t remember much more, but it wasn’t me.”

“On top of the paperwork, and all the crap I’m gonna take about Magoon, that’s just what I need most right now: a bloody mystery!” (Well, maybe he didn’t say bloody.) “Good to hear you’re going to be out of here tomorrow, Cap.” Nobody but Ernie and Tony knew the derivation of that nickname.

“Thanks! You and Barb are comin’ to the post-grad dinner, right?”

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world.” They shook hands, and Tony went back to his desk to finish the paperwork.

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