I lived a mile south of OLA, just south of Garfield Park...Madison and Homan. We lived in the 3400 block of Monroe St. I walked two blocks east to Marshall for kindergarten and most of first grade.
We moved from the neighborhood in March of 1954, when I was still in first grade. My new school was almost just over nine miles due north of OLA, and about a half-mile to the east.
I was a 6th grader on the day of the OLA fire. It was a bright sub-freezing early-winter day. My seven-year-old kid sister was watching "Susan's Show" on WBBM-TV, and she was laughing at "Mister Pegasus, the Talking Table" when the first awful bulletin interrupted the show. It only got worse after that, much worse, for at least another six hours.
The news kept pouring out of the TV and the numbers kept climbing, until the death toll was past ninety. Late that night my father brought home the extra edition of the Daily News. For days, I read the newspaper stories. I was transfixed by the graphic images I saw. I could neither look at the photographs...nor manage not to. I began having nightmares about the fire. I had nightmares for weeks, and,like so many other Baby Boomers of a certain age, have never really forgotten. It has remained with us, and will until we, too, die. As I was the same age as many of the victims and had lived in a nearby neighborhood, I soon realized, to my shock and horror, that if it could happen to them...it could easily happen to me!
My greatest fear has always been of being trapped in a fire. The year before the OLA fire, I had learned about the terrible 1903 Iroquois Theater fire, in Chicago's Loop, that killed over 600, mostly women and children. A couple of years later, when I was around 13, I began devouring all the library books I could find about famous fires and deadly fire disasters. After a couple of years of that, I couldn't take it anymore, and got into reading other things, like history and sports.
For many years I was absolutely certain that I was the only one who became terrified about being in a fire because of OLA, and that there must be something wrong with me. But now, thanks to this website and others like it, I finally realize that I am far from alone. Many people my age, and especially Chicagoans who were of school-age that day, felt as I did. And we still remember how we felt. True, there are millions our age who don't, but thousands do...and hundreds of them, from all over the country, have expressed their feelings here.
My first dentist, as a kid, was Dr. Dorothy Rizzo, DDS...she was very unusual for the Fifties. Few dentists were female and Italian back then. And she was also unique for specialized in treating youngsters. Her office was above the old Alamo Theater, on Chicago Avenue, a few blocks from OLA. I later heard stories about how the authorities called upon her and made use of her dental records. I don't even know if this is true or not. But just thinking about it bothers me, and has haunted me for many years.
In 1992 I left Chicago, married my former college sweetheart, and moved to Cleveland. She attended Catholic school there, through fifth grade, but was in public school in 1958. She has no clear memories of the OLA fire. I have tried many times to get her to understand just what it was like to be a traumatized grammar-school kid in Chicago in December of 1958, and what an awful Christmas it was, but some things are just beyond words.
Whenever I hear the songs that were on the radio then..."Smoke Gets In Your Eyes"...the "Chipmunks' Christmas Song"...and especially "The Little Drummer Boy"...I remember...and I recall how awful those days were.
Ironically, I now live close to another old Catholic school, here in Cleveland, that is named Our Lady of the Angels. And of course, whenever I pass it, a chill goes through my blood that the natives will never, ever even begin to understand. They weren't eleven years old and living in Chicago on that terrible day. Some things, you just can't explain.
Godspeed to all who were there.