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Royko in Love

Long before becoming an acclaimed newspaper columnist, Mike Royko was a young airman secretly in love with a beautiful gal from his Northwest Side neighborhood. From afar, “Mick” began to pour out his feelings in a torrent of letters that ultimately won her heart. Discovered after his death, they show glimmers of the wit and voice that would one day distinguish Royko’s prose—and a romantic streak buried beneath the wise-guy exterior

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A photo of Carol that Royko cherished while stationed in Blaine, Washington


In our day of cheap cell phones and e-mail and instantaneous communications, it’s easy to imagine the torture my father must have felt as he waited in 1954 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.

Serious fans of my father’s know of his love for the tale of Cyrano de Bergerac, the man with the big nose and brilliant way with words. Cyrano wooed his beloved with prose that he provided to a callow but handsome suitor, watching her fall for a dolt because of the words Cyrano put into the other man’s mouth. Cyrano could say what he felt only when hiding from her sight. He was my father’s hero, and Dad would now follow suit, wooing Carol from 2,000 miles away. Reading his letters is to watch the die being cast as he applied, for the first time, his wit and facility with the pen to a practical purpose. My father was always pragmatic, and these circumstances brought his writing and pragmatism together for the biggest challenge of his 21-year-old life.

The letters also show a different side of my father from what the public later saw in his columns for the Chicago Daily News, the Chicago Sun-Times, and the Chicago Tribune—or, at least, a side that was rarely exposed. Though my father wrote with sensitivity, he only occasionally laid bare his tender streak. It appeared in print most famously in 1979, when Carol died suddenly and unexpectedly, and he was shaken to the core. His column, “A November Farewell,” described the end of their great love. (To read it, go to suntimes.com/news/royko and select “A November farewell.”)

These letters illuminate the beginning.

April 8, 1954

The ’42 Olds I mentioned is the car I recently bought. 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.

I’ll probably be able to get three weeks leave in September. How much time will we be able to have together? 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.


April 15, 1954

The mailroom doesn’t open until 11:30 so lately I’ve been phoning the mail clerk at 10:30 to see whether I received a letter. When I called this morning he told me I didn’t receive any mail so I slumped down at my desk in as deep a mood of depression as I’ve ever been in. A few minutes later the phone rang and he said “I was only kidding, you have a letter.” The things I said to him will be left unmentioned, but I’m sure that for the sake of his right ear he won’t joke anymore. I dropped what I was doing, hopped in my car and violated half the base traffic laws in driving to the mail room. Thirty pages. The library has lost a customer. By three this afternoon the officer in my section asked me if I was trying to memorize every page so I showed him the picture you enclosed. That shut him up. I’ve worked out a pretty good schedule for reading your letter. I read it before and after lunch, while I’m working, before I go to the golf course, before I start my evening job and before I go to bed. The schedule changes in the morning because I usually oversleep and only have time to look at your pictures and bid you a telepathic “good morning.”

I’ve just had a good idea. When I get home the weather should still be warm. Lets go on a picnic. For two years I have been living in a crowd. Barracks, work, planes, boats—always a crowd of people. Lets go to some quiet place where there isn’t another human being in sight. You can sit in the shade, relax, and I’ll sit and tell you how wonderful you are. Deal?

Were you eight when we met? It doesn’t seem that long ago. I guess I’m the most haywire suitor that ever lived. When we were kids I used to cut my own throat by bringing you boyfriends, then I just stayed away, now when I’m across a continent I find my voice. Some people must be destined to do things the hard way.


April 22, 1954

Today I discovered that anything is possible in the service. For two years I have been getting extra time off by conjuring some of the most fantastic excuses imaginable. This morning my mind was a blank so I did what every good airman knows is the wrong thing to do—I told the truth. I told the woeful creature who is my boss that I wanted the morning off to write a letter. The ridiculousness of my request must have dulled his little brain because he said OK. That’s twice in the last two days that I have told the truth in the so called line of duty. Yesterday it had the opposite effect. I met a promotion board (a group of men who’s IQs range from idiot to moron, gathered together to determine whether my mind has become stagnant enough to assume the lofty title of “sarge”) and flunked with flying colors. I spent one full hour answering questions correctly. This was easy because they don’t use any specific list of questions. They ask only what their limited knowledge allows them to ask. Finally one sly little sergeant created my downfall. He asked me if I would order one of my friends to shine his dirty shoes in the event that I were promoted. I’ve established a reputation for being non military so every man on the board knew that I couldn’t give such an order. I spent a full minute debating with myself whether to tell an obvious lie or the truth. I said “no” quite emphatically. That ended my interview and also my chance for promotion this month. In the afternoon the results were posted and I was bypassed because of “Inability to assume responsibility.” This caused the officer in charge of my section to feel that I had put a black mark on his record so he gave me a long winded lecture. I took the lecture OK but when he asked me if I planned on reenlisting I blew my stack. The profane eloquence of my answer rocked the building and unnerved him completely. Apparently he was still “shook up” when I asked him for the morning off.

What did you do Easter? All the while I [was] driving up Mt Baker I kept trying to imagine what you were doing. . . . On the way up we took three rolls of pictures and I’m pessimistic about the results. I think the camera we used is the granddaddy of all cameras. It passes more light through the cracks in its sides than through the lens. The only thing that made the trip worthwhile was the effect we had on the skiers at the lodge. Everyone up there was dressed in ski togs so when we entered the lodge dressed in suits & white shirts we stood out like sore thumbs. After dinner we returned to the car, took out our golf clubs, strolled casually to the edge of a cliff, teed up the balls in the snow, hit them, and walked back to the car. Everyone stood around looking bewildered so before they could summon the men in the white suits, we departed.


April 26, 1954

I have one picture that I took mainly to preserve the sight of what is laughingly referred to as the “green hornet”—alias, my car. The ornament on its hood is partially glass and at night it glows with a ghostly green light. This plus the unusual noises emitted from its engine give it a supernatural appearance at night. Sometimes, when returning to the base, I floor the gas pedal, causing it to reach its maximum speed—50 to 60. This sends the local rustics fleeing to their cabins to tell their bonneted wives that the spirits are prowling. The people up here are, by Chicago standards, pretty backward. The idea of a lively Sunday is to go clam digging. Our base is surrounded by farms and recently we had what would be called a “shotgun wedding.” Everyone is still laughing. Due to the pressure applied by his new father-in-law, the young airman involved now arises at 3:30 to milk cows and perform other chores before coming out to the base. He is from New York and had never seen a cow until his marriage. That last sentence sounds ridiculous.


May 11, 1954

Six hours ago, as I was sitting down to write, sirens started wailing all over the place. It seems that someone decided that we should have a practice alert. That was at 4. Its 10:15 now and I have finished my little tour of guard duty. When I got down to the guard office I was assigned the job of guarding a little building that contains nothing. To assist me in this important mission were two apple cheeked young lads of 17, both of whom joined the AF 2½ months ago.

When the three of us reached our little line of defense, I explained to these boys in my best old soldier manner that we must have a system. This system consisted of their staying on the outside and watching for any people that might be snooping around and me staying in the building as a one man reserve unit. When I explained to them that this was the system used in the battle sectors they readily complied so I entered the building, found a comfortable table and curled up for a six hour siesta. Just as I was dozing off, one of them came in and asked me what he should do if an enemy approached. Yell “halt” I said. Naturally he wanted to know what to do if the “enemy” didn’t halt so I told him to engage in hand to hand combat.

When the sun went down it became very dark outside since we were at the remotest part of the base. Apparently they were afraid of the dark because every little while they would enter and tell me that they see something moving in the shadows and want to go have a look. To help ease their minds I told them pleasant little stories of guards being found with slit throats and that if they kept a constant vigil they had nothing to worry about. When we were relieved both these “heroes” looked like they had been through an attack on Heartbreak Ridge [site of one of the most brutal battles of the Korean War] and I can imagine the grizzly tales that will be written to their families this evening. One of them was so impressed with everything that he kept calling me “Sarge” and talking like one of the characters in an old war movie. Three months ago they were flighty young high school boys. Now they are hardened, calloused veterans of a harrowing combat mission.


May 26, 1954

We’re having a party in the barracks. It’s a special type of party known as a G.I. party and required special equipment such as mops, brooms, brushes, soap and other cleaning utensils. This morning the lad who was assigned the job of cleaning the halls, windows and such did a 2 hour job in ½ hour then dashed off to the golf course. The inspecting officer decided that the job was incomplete so we were confined for the evening. Now everyone is calling the negligent airman names and accusing him of causing them all this work. An evening in the barracks will do them all good. By the way, I was the guilty party.


June 6, 1954

One little word you used in your last letter has had me floating all over Washington. One word and I’m completely “shook up”. You called me “Hon”. Maybe you didn’t realize what an effect it would have when I read it. I was reading your letter as calm as usual. That means I was chain smoking and my heart was going at twice its normal pace, when suddenly that word hit me in the eyes. Believe me, it was as if you had been right here and kissed me. I wasn’t the same for the rest of the day and I’m afraid to read the letter again because of the unnerving effect that one word has on me. If a one syllable, 3 letter written word can effect me that much I can imagine how being with you will be. Who says I have to die to go to heaven!


July 1, 1954

If ever it should look like I’m out of the running [with you], I could never make Chicago my home. It would be too painful. I’d probably get an officers commission and stay in the service. It wouldn’t make much difference what I did because I’d just be going through the motions of living. With you I think I could not only set the world on fire—I’d melt it. Most people never realize their full potential because they lack a sufficient incentive. If a person has that motivation then he’s unlimited. You’d be the incentive. I could do anything. That may sound a little over confident but I know the extent of my own capabilities and I also know the limitations of my own personal ambition. For myself I don’t want anything. I could probably go through life hitting a golf ball and wishing I had you. Every person has unused, dormant reservoirs of ability that never come into use because they lack the spark that can only be provided by some strong emotion. Love, hate, fear—In my case loving you isn’t enough. I can love you and still have no necessity for success because the love is one sided but if ever the situation changed there’s nothing I couldn’t do within reason.


August 23, 1954

Carol, to me the future without you is no future at all. Life wouldn’t have any meaning. Anything I accomplished would be worthless, I’d have no incentive. I can understand why so many men have joined the Foreign Legion because of a woman. That probably sounds silly but believe me, I don’t know what I would do without you. I wouldn’t join the Foreign Legion of course but I doubt if I’d ever return to Chicago.


Photograph: Courtesy of David Royko


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