By Stuart Dybek
A seiche warning had been issued. Newspapers and radio recounted the seiche of June 26, 1954, when a wave 25 miles wide and 10 feet high surged from a placid Lake Michigan, sweeping seven people from a breakwater at Montrose Harbor to their deaths. Atmospheric conditions were right for another. Were the beaches closed? I’m no longer sure. In memory, Lake Shore Drive is empty, barred to traffic, as if awaiting a tsunami. That’s how I imagined the seiche: a towering wave, all the more menacing for its gloss of moonglow, suspended for a heartbeat before dashing against the night-lit skyline. I didn’t want to miss seeing it.
The vantage point that came to mind was a single-story utility shed in the shadow of a chapel on the Lake Shore campus of Loyola, where I’d been an undergrad. Now, years later, I was a caseworker, living in Rogers Park again, and I’d taken to going back to the campus on nights when I couldn’t sleep. They still had the old cinder track, and I’d set up the hurdles and run imaginary races, then walk to Columbia Beach and swim as far out as I could into the darkness. Treading water, I’d gaze back at the distant, luminous Gold Coast and the slums behind it. I’d think how, if a sudden outage knocked out the lights, I’d be confused as to the direction of the city. That fear would get me swimming toward shore.
On the night of the seiche, the campus was deserted, but then, it was deserted most nights. I climbed onto the roof and looked out over the oily oscillation of water. I estimated I was well above ten feet and wondered if I was doing something really stupid. I waited, senses cocked. The lake gently sloshed against the pebble beach below. I didn’t know much about seiches. I believed they could swell without warning, as if the basin of the lake had suddenly tilted, or that the water lapping the beach could be sucked out, as if a drain plug had been pulled, before rushing back in biblical proportions.
From where I perched, I could see Madonna della Strada, a chapel whose doorstep was the lake. Before I learned it meant Our Lady of the Way, I thought its name translated to Our Lady of the Streets, which sounded like a Virgin to whom whores might be able to pray. The still summer night made the memory of necking in a side doorway of the church all the more vivid.
It was the winter of my junior year, and a girlfriend and I had huddled there to escape the wind off the lake. She’d wrapped her scarf around us. Her hair kept blowing into our mouths until I gathered it in an ungloved hand and held it to steady us as we kissed. We thought we were alone, hidden in that doorway, but when we pulled apart, we were greeted by an enormous cheer. The doorway faced the dormitory at Mundelein, a Catholic women’s college, and the Mundelbundles, as the students were called, lined their dorm windows, cheering and applauding.
I waited until 3 a.m. for the great wave to roll in. Even after I finally gave up and climbed down, I kept looking back to make sure it wasn’t gaining on me as I walked away.
MacArthur “genius” Stuart Dybek is the author of The Coast of Chicago.