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Finding Tom

“12: Growing Up the Youngest of a Dozen Kids in the 1970s”

A memoir by Ted Slowik

I. Finding Tom

In 1974 my family drove to California to look for my brother Tom. We found him living with topless women in a log cabin with no electricity or running water.

I was 9 years old at the time. I didn’t actually see any of the women topless. But while we were there I recall a friendly girl cut up a beet and shared it with me. It was the sweetest beet I ever tasted.

Tom, the second oldest of the 12 Slowik siblings, had fled Chicago after watching the West Side burn in 1968 following Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. He found refuge in the hills outside San Francisco.

He was living on a hilltop near La Honda. In the morning the mist would rise from the valley below. We stayed for a couple days. Dad shot an 8mm movie of the mist rising, in a sort of time lapse sequence. Eventually the mist enveloped the cabin in the woods.

We drove across the Plains and over the Rocky Mountains in an International Harvester Travel-All. It was a truck with two rows of passenger seating and room for storage in the way back, a bit like a Chevy Suburban—sort of an SUV before the term was invented.

Travel may have been by interstate, but in the 1970s there was still abundant evidence of the America that existed before the Eisenhower Interstate System was built. Every locale had its own flavor of Mom and Pop filling stations, restaurants and roadside attractions. Today it’s much more homogenized. Commercial centers around interchanges all have the same national chain restaurants and stores. It all looks and feels the same.

My siblings in California 1974. From left: Mike, Me, Sue, Tom and Jeanne.

Back then in the ‘70s there were still traces of what America was like in the first half of the 20th century. Before cable TV, satellites, home computers, the Internet, email, smart phones and video games. I grew up on five or six TV channels, the radio, albums and stereos, books and whatever entertainment I could make for myself, indoors or outdoors.

We towed a trailer that Dad had built, and camped along the way. The trailer was painted green and had many compartments along the sides. In these various cabinets were stored the essentials: food, dishes, tools, camp stove, etc. The tents and canopies were stored in the bed of the trailer.

One of these side compartments contained plastic jugs for water. These were old bleach bottles. My job on camping trips was to fetch water. In any group the most menial task usually falls to the low man on the totem pole, and as the youngest I fit the bill.

I didn’t see much of Tom during my childhood. In fact, I barely knew my three oldest brothers. The two oldest—Stan and Tom—were sent to a high school seminary by our father, a devout Catholic. Years later, toward the end of his life, my father shocked me by telling me something about his father.

I had asked Dad about his father’s church-going habits. Dad was a lector at church, never missed a Sunday Mass as far as I remember, and embraced everything about the Catholic faith. So naturally I assumed Dad was the product of generations of Catholic upbringing. That’s why I was shocked when he told me about my grandfather.

“He was an agnostic,” Dad said.

Dad would lector—read Bible passages aloud at early-morning Masses before the gospel—and usher, which meant he would go pew by pew with a basket attached to a long pole and extend it to people during collections. Dad always supported the Catholic Church with his time, talents and treasure.

But when it came to singing along with hymns, he wasn’t very talented. That didn’t deter him from singing in his low, deep voice—usually off key but memorable in its richness.

One Thanksgiving, I remember walking with Dad to early Mass. It had snowed a lot the night before, which was unusual for late November. There had to be 6 to 8 inches on the ground. As we walked across 55th Street and Plainfield Road, there wasn’t a car in sight in either direction.

My memories of Stan, Tom and Jim—the third oldest—in the late 1960s and early 1970s are few. They were out of the house by the time I was born. My parents’ 12 children were born during 19 years between 1946 and 1965. As best I can figure, the most that lived at home at one time was 10, between 1965 and 1967. I would have been about 2 when Jim went off to college at Southern Illinois University, though I don’t have any memory of that.

I do recall going with my parents to deliver one of my older sisters to college. It was probably Judi, who went to Western Illinois University in Macomb. Jo Marie also went to WIU but remembers only Mom and Dad driving her there. I have a vague memory of riding with my parents and moving Judi into her dorm one sunny September Saturday, probably in 1970 or 1971. I remember seeing college students wearing hippie fashions, bright hand-made tie-dye T-shirts and bandanas with peace signs. I was too young to remember much of anything about the ‘60s, but I was there. Or I should say I was around then, for the latter half of the decade, anyway.

Once when I was 5 years old, I was home after morning kindergarten on a beautiful day in May. It was just Mom and Tom at home with me—the others were all at school. After lunch Mom made Tom drive me in his sports car to the end of the block. He turned around at the corner and drove back up the road, still gravel at the time. I want to say the car was a Triumph but I can’t be sure.

Tom wasn’t in Illinois when my oldest sister Jo Marie married Mark Robbins in 1972. They have two kids, Colin and Kate, and live in Minnesota now. Mark spent 20 years with the Naperville Police Department and retired as a lieutenant. He now teaches criminal justice at Mankato State University.

For their May wedding when I was 7 years old I remember walking to a field a few blocks away and picking bunches of lilacs. The reception was at our house. The couch was moved from the living room out to the patio for the occasion.
Mark drove a cool Oldsmobile Cutlass. He hurt his knee pushing it out of the snow. When they were first married they lived for a time on the top floor of a house in Hinsdale, right along the Burlington Northern railroad tracks. We visited them there once. Jo Marie served sandwiches and Fritos corn chips for lunch, which was a real treat. I hardly ever had potato chips or snacks like that as a little kid.

We would get McDonald’s once a year, when they had their big anniversary sale and sold hamburgers for 15 cents a piece, or whatever it was.
Nor was Tom present when Stan, the oldest, married Rhea Chandler in April 1974. Stan and Rhea have three boys—J.J., Joey and Damien—and live in Colorado. There wouldn’t be a picture taken of all 12 kids and Mom and Dad until Bud’s wedding, in 1977. So I guess in the summer of 1974 Mom and Dad were wondering what Tom was up to and decided to visit him.

Bud is the sixth child. Before I get too far, I should run down the names of all of us, from oldest to youngest: Stan, Tom, Jim, Jo Marie, Judi, Bud, Liz, Frank, Mike, Sue, Jeanne and Ted.

Dad had taken the kids camping plenty of times before. Dad had taken groups of kids on two-week trips before I was old enough to come along. Summer was the best time of the year, and vacation was the best part of summer. Mom would stay home. She would tell me that was her vacation, when Dad would take us camping and Mom would have two or three weeks to herself without the kids.

Once in the early 1970s I was along on a camping trip that included Bud, and I remember him teaching me how to light a campfire.

“Start with a little bit of dry stuff and small sticks,” he told me. “Light it, and when it gets going, blow on it.”

He lit the fire, and I blew on it, and the flames went out.

“Not that hard,” he said.

Bud was a good teacher. Many years later, when I worked concrete for him, he’d show you how to “fluff up” three-quarter inch gravel when covering drain tile around a foundation. You wouldn’t think you could “fluff” something heavy like stone, but sure enough you knew what he meant when he said it.

Stan and Mom told me recently that Dad would take the oldest boys camping with a friend named Mr. Johnson, and he would bring his boys. They’d go all over—to Table Rock Lake, the Ozarks, Mirror Lake in Wisconsin, sometimes as far as the Boundary Waters on the Canadian border. Dad had a canoe—a long, heavy, aluminum craft made by Grumman, which also made airplanes. I remember the rivets on the canoe, and thinking it was as sturdy as a battleship.

The canoe was secured to the roof of the Travel-All with ropes during vacations, including the 1974 trip to California to find Tom, the prodigal son. Tom told me he wrote frequent letters home to Mom and Dad in the six years since my parents had last seen him, explaining why he went away and why he was never coming back. He’d write to me, too, and I’d write back. That’s how I knew my brother Tom, as a pen pal.

We left home to find Tom in July, when the days were longest. It was a hot summer. There were six of us on the three-week trip—Mom and Dad and the four youngest: Mike, Sue, Jeanne and me.

Dad always drove the speed limit. He did nearly all the driving. Mom might have taken the wheel for a couple hours. Dad taught her how to drive, sometime in the 1950s, when they already had several kids. And where do you think the kids were while Dad was patiently teaching Mom how to drive? In the backseat, of course. Can you imagine? Both our parents had the patience of saints.

I don’t know the exact route we took to California. Maybe we drove west on I-80 through the monotonous cornfields of Iowa and wide plains of Nebraska. Or maybe we drove down to St. Louis and headed west on I-70 across Missouri and Kansas. I remember “collecting” state license plates along the way, or playing the alphabet game with the road signage.

I remember at one point I was sitting directly behind Dad. I must have been bored, or craving attention, because I don’t really remember being angry at him, but I was kicking the shit out of the back of the driver’s seat. Dad never got mad. He never turned around or said anything. Eventually, after five minutes or so, I just stopped.

I imagine we made no more than 450 miles a day at best. We’d have to find a place with at least an hour or two of daylight left to set up camp, and every morning we’d have to break camp and pack up before departing, so I suppose that left seven or eight hours a day for driving.

When we made it to Colorado we stopped and saw Stan and Rhea in their new home outside Evergreen, about 40 miles up the mountains above Denver. They had just moved in, and their home was new and modest. Over the years Stan would build several additions, but at the time there weren’t even stairs leading from the house to the unfinished basement, where us kids were sent to sleep. We rolled our sleeping bags out on the smooth concrete floor. Later, my brother Bud and one of his friends would take a trip to Colorado and build a set a basement stairs for Stan.

We had a lot of ground to cover, so we didn’t stay long at Stan’s. We sure saw a lot of the U.S.A. that summer. After leaving Stan’s, we drove up to Yellowstone. I remember Old Faithful, the colorful hot springs and the ever-present smell of sulfur.

While we were camping at Yellowstone a bear got into our cooler, a green Coleman. Dad reinforced the cooler with extra latches after that. My brother Mike was sleeping in the Travel-All the night of the bear attack. Jeanne remembers looking out the tent and thinking, “Cool, a bear!” Mom was worried about Mike.

For us kids, recreation on the trip consisted mostly of swimming. We had inner tubes, which were actual black, rubber tubes from the insides of car tires that you’d inflate and they’d be a few feet in diameter. At Yellowstone, Jeanne remembers a guy hollering at us because we were swimming upstream, and he said campers drank the water downstream.

It must have taken a full week just to get out to California, crossing Idaho and Nevada after leaving Yellowstone. Maybe we stopped at Yosemite. We made it to San Francisco, and there are photos of us at the Golden Gate Bridge. I remember we drove down “the crookedest street in the world,” the famous landmark that zig zags down a steep hill.

Eventually we found Tom. Mom and Dad must have been relieved to know he was OK. That log cabin in the woods near La Honda was basically a hippie commune. One of their neighbors at the time was Neil Young. Tom would tell me much later that he didn’t like Mr. Young because he wouldn’t give him any wine.

Stan was a cool big brother who made me feel special during his frequent visits home, but Tom was a mythical figure to me. We’d exchange letters and postcards. I longed to go to California and dreamed of living there when I got older, in a trailer in a parking lot next to a beach, like Jim Rockford in “The Rockford Files.” I’ve visited California five times and had a great time every trip.

What was Tom doing in California? He told me recently the reason he had to get away was because he just couldn’t talk to Mom and Dad. He said back then it would be unthinkable to have conversations with our parents about serious subjects. After he said that, I got to thinking, Mom and Dad never talked to me about the birds and the bees, or other intimately personal stuff like that.

Tom told me when he first got out to California he had a job cleaning restrooms in parks, and he would spend the money on wine. He was a hippie, a partier. He was living the carefree life that as a kid in the 1970s I emulated, like so many of my favorite rock stars.

Southern California meant Los Angeles, and to me that meant to palm tree-lined boulevards pictured on the center on Warner Brothers albums. Artists like The Eagles, Jackson Browne and Fleetwood Mac represented a life of which I wanted to be a part. I didn’t dream so much of being a rock star myself, but I wanted to be a roadie or a writer for Rolling Stone—something close to the action.

Whatever serious conversations transpired between Tom and my parents during that visit, I have no knowledge. In fact, I didn’t realize at the time that the purpose of the trip was to find Tom, and see how he was doing. To me, it was just a vacation, and the most exciting destination was ahead: Disneyland.

To get to southern California, we drove down Highway 1. It was scenic and beautiful driving along the coast, but also curving and nauseating. I got carsick on the way. There was no time to stop, so Dad rolled down the back window of the Travel-All and I heaved from my place in the way back. When we got to L.A., we camped that night on a stretch of old freeway along the ocean.

My favorite part of Disneyland was the Autobahn ride. As a 9-year-old kid, I had the greatest time “driving” the course of overpasses and turns. I rode during the day and again at night. If I rode roller coasters or other rides, I don’t remember. All I remember is the Autobahn.

From L.A., we drove east across the desert and camped at Lake Mead near the Grand Canyon. Nothing much eventful happened there, but on our way home Jeanne broke her arm while we were in Texas. We were at a campground, and there wasn’t much to do, so she and I climbed a rocky hill. She was running down it. I remember her flying past me, going fast and losing control as she stumbled. Dad could recall the name of the doctor who set Jeanne’s arm until the day he died, Jeanne says.

After that, Jeanne would wear a plastic bag over the cast on her arm when we went swimming. Finally, after driving about 5,000 miles through at least 12 states in 21 days, we made it home.


This is the first chapter of a memoir. Here’s a link to a video of a song I wrote about my family: