Summer beckoned as I neared the end of my freshman year at OPRF High School in 1977. I was excited for another season of caddying at Oak Park Country Club. My parents had other ideas.
Before I knew it there I was, along with my brother Mark, registering for the summer naval program at Culver Military Academy, in Culver, Indiana. We followed our guides around campus, picked up our uniforms (uniforms? I thought Mom said this was summer camp!), handed in forms, and weighed ourselves down with Culver-logoed wool blankets. (It was sizzling hot for late June. I need a wool blanket?)
When a Culver admissions staffer visited our home in River Forest that spring, I didn’t take it seriously. Our protests and whys to Mom and Dad were met with variations of “It’ll be good for you.”
A realization came at the end of that long, grueling first day, amid gentle winds that circulated the sweet smell of the towering American Sycamores: It was clear this was not Camp Care-Free. “Left, left, left, right, left!” shouted an all-too-eager second-year middie. Our parents watched from across the expansive lawns as we were instructed in the ways of proper marching. Instead of waving goodbye, we shot them dirty looks they would remember years later.
Mark and I were assigned to different naval companies — he to “Fighting 4” and me to “Spartan 3.” Both of us resided in the huge Main barracks. No air conditioning, by the way. Wool blankets?
I saw my brother only occasionally the rest of that summer. We became occupied in all we had to learn and wrapped up in the silos of our respective groups.
It appeared escape from Culver was not an option, so I followed along and tried to make the best of it. Commiserating with other “plebes” (first year/3rd class) helped the transition. Wilson Jenkins, from Alabama, was my roommate. I’d only known one other person from the South, a colleague of my father’s from Tennessee. Fortunately, Wilson and I got along well.
Summer CMA coed students were divided into distinct areas of service: naval, cavalry, aviation, and band. In the naval companies, we learned how to sail, in addition to learning semaphore code and rules of boating. There was also required academic work as well as athletic competitions among all the service areas.
Everyone became practiced in military life: waking to the 6 a.m. cannon blast, saluting, the daily recitations of “Sir. Yes, sir. No, sir”, preparing for room inspections, keeping uniforms neat. Boys, but not girls, learned how to carry a decommissioned World War II M1 Garand rifle. We practiced marching daily, all in preparation for the weekly Sunday Garrison parade.
Thank God for the athletics at Culver. The sports events kept me interested and engaged. I participated in track, swimming, and basketball, my favorite.
A wiry 5-foot-5, I failed to make the freshman basketball team at OPRF where competition was fierce. At CMA, I found my outlet as a starting guard on the Spartan 3 hoops squad.
Memorably for me, it was on the basketball team that I got to know Andre Guyton. He was my first Black friend.
Culver, a private school, had a sterling full-time secondary school in the winter, where admissions were exclusive and the tuition expensive. The summer school was less exclusive and less expensive. Among summer students, there was some degree of ethnic and racial diversity. Company 3 had a large contingent from Latin America, all in the English language immersion program. There were also students from Europe. And there was Andre, the only Black boy among the remaining majority of mostly Midwestern white kids.
At 15, I was racially aware to a degree, but certainly had a lot to learn, especially living in a comfortable suburban cocoon. I had grown up mostly in River Forest, which back then was almost all white. My racial consciousness was awakened sometime in the mid-’70s when I watched a PBS documentary with searing images of black demonstrators being hosed and attacked with police dogs. That’s not right, I thought. Yet I was too naive to know others applauded those actions.
At Culver, no one was going around intentionally connecting with people who were different from themselves. The priority for us nervous plebes was just coping within this regimented environment. Fortunately, there was no prohibition on formal and informal socializing, which provided many opportunities for getting to know others. I saw it as a welcome trade-off for abiding all the rules.
Andre was from South Bend, a student at St. Joseph High School. At about 6-foot-2 he was one of the tallest of our 3rd class bunch. He seemed quiet and cool at first, with a polite and dutiful nature that earned the respect of higher-ups and eventually his peers. I was oblivious to it at the time, but I’m fairly certain now that the summer counselors saw high potential for his leadership abilities.
But I remember Andre best for his excellence at basketball. This got everyone’s attention and soon he was being revered across campus. Our Spartan 3 team made easy work of just about every opponent that summer. Soon actual spectators from other programs were showing up to our games. It was Andre’s time to showcase his skills. It was because of him that we dominated our opponents.
The following year, when our parents signed us up for another summer session at Culver, my brother and I did not protest. Even with the military grind, I did enjoy the swimming and sailing on Lake Maxinkuckee and, of course, more basketball. Wilson and I kept up a correspondence between summers and I looked forward to seeing him, as well as Andre and others from Company 3. Mark and I both returned voluntarily in the summer of 1979 to complete the formal naval program and earn certificates from the U.S. Navy.
That second summer it was even more of a blast to play hoops with Andre and our Spartan 3 team. He and we got better every year. Soon after Andre appeared at Culver he was recruited to the winter school where he eventually became a star on the CMA high school division team. And we continued to crush our opponents.
Andre and I were not as close as roommates, but we bonded as teammate-friends. We got to know each other better during the final summer. I saw his humor and mischievousness emerge, especially partaking in pranks around the barracks. He was adept at balancing containers of cold water atop ajar doors. When unsuspecting underclassmen returned to their rooms they’d get a chilled surprise.
Apart from basketball and the antics in the barracks, I was the beneficiary of another of Andre’s talents.
All summer students were required to keep their hair neat and cut above the ear. The campus option was to visit the old barbers who kept shop in the basement of the aviation barracks. Rumor had it that both of these geezers were half-blind. The resulting trim was usually something that would assure mockery from your friends. And since there were occasional weekend dances, everyone maintained some degree of vanity.
Andre kept his hair short and preferred to buzz it himself with an electric clipper set. He took advantage of the botched campus barber work and through word-of-mouth established a side hustle giving cuts for $10 a pop. And I was one of his best, if exacting customers.
“Leave a little hair for the ladies to like, Andre. OK?”
“I can’t work if you keep talking dude. Damn! You Italians have wiry hair.”
One of those summers I briefly met Andre’s family: his mother and sister, and his father, with salt-and-pepper beard, smoking a pipe. I was too socially awkward at the time to express to them how much I admired Andre.
While third-year students all went our separate ways after 1979, Culver would still bring us together. Summer Homecoming weekend was a big tradition we’d noticed each year, with swarms of alums making the trip back to campus. So on a July weekend in 1980, Mark and I invited our friend John along, and we drove the family van to Culver.
We had no idea whom we might run into that weekend. The lake was inviting on that hot Saturday, and we swam quite a bit. After dark we swam out to the ski jump and used it as a water slide. The big event was Sunday’s Garrison parade, something we’d participated in a year earlier.
I ran into a few friends from Spartan 3. I asked if anyone had seen Andre, and they had — he was indeed here for the weekend. I was told he’d graduated from winter school as a battalion commander and was destined for the University of Cincinnati in the fall on a basketball scholarship. I was going to find him and congratulate him. I’d also be sure to razz him that my alma mater-to-be, Loyola University Chicago, had defeated Cincinnati in 1963 to win the national basketball title.
Sadly, I wouldn’t get that chance.
After our midnight swim we found a local parking lot and crashed in the van. In the morning we ate breakfast in a combo diner/sporting goods/hardware store in downtown Culver. Afterwards we took a long drive around the lake.
As we neared the end of the loop and got closer to campus we came upon several police cars with lights on. As I slowed I saw a fellow Company 3 friend, Warren, from Indianapolis. He looked serious.
“What’s going on?”
“They’re looking for Andre. Did you hear? He fell in the lake last night.”
Before I drove on, Warren said something about Andre being on a boat with friends and that he’d tumbled into the lake.
It was hard to fathom what I was hearing. It was about 12 hours later, so I was imagining the worst. You’re 18 years old, on top of the world, and you don’t die yet.
It was another sweltering afternoon. We muddled about campus the rest of the day, took another swim and hung around the “Shack,” the campus snack shop. We ran into others who had heard about Andre, but we learned nothing more of his fate. Subdued and in shock, we reluctantly lingered, not for the big parade but for news about my friend. We departed as darkness fell, with no real answers.
The next day, Monday, July 21, Andre’s body was found in Lake Maxinkuckee.
I have just one remaining photograph of that Spartan 3 group, taken in the summer of 1979; I look at it occasionally and challenge myself to remember names. I stand just behind Andre, over his right shoulder. He looks slightly uncomfortable, his body askew. I look like I needed a visit to his barbershop. (Photo: https://photos.app.goo.gl/zCriYBMtedV8W35a7)
My parents were right. The experience of those Culver summers was good for me. Like many adolescents, I was a bit aimless and sometimes unmotivated. Culver gave me the gift of self-discipline I didn’t know I needed.
Beyond that what I now prize most was being ejected from the sheltered white silo of River Forest. There is no way at age 15 that I could have known the value of these experiences, friendships and interactions, many with people not like me.
While my friendship with Andre was not deep, neither was it insignificant; this relationship marked the first occasion I had spent time with and gotten to know a Black person as a friend. Without this first connection, I might not have taken a step toward the understanding people strive for today. Our Culver experiences provided us the chance to develop friendship and mutual respect.
While race can’t be minimized nor claimed as incidental to anything, the nature of our relationship was basic yet profound, reflecting life’s possibilities, and its joys and sorrows.
Through Andre, I witnessed the fragility of life and suddenness of death. I absorbed and internalized the anger and hurt I felt about his end.
I have a lingering, foggy memory of telling my mother about Andre drowning upon returning home to River Forest. Her emotional response seemed to encompass the feelings I was unable to express at the time. Andre was my first Black friend. His death also marked for me the first time that a friend my age had died.
Anthony Gargiulo Jr. is an Oak Park resident.