Jim Merriman, a retired detective/police officer who resides in Michigan, spent many years as a young boy at Angel Guardian Orphanage in Chicago. He sat down one day to write a letter to his children about his unusual childhood. This is Part Two of Jim’s detailed account of his struggles and triumphs, acknowledging Sister Lucy Megaro, PHJC, and others who have played key roles in his life. Part One was published in the winter edition of Word Gathering and is also available online at www.poorhandmaids.org.
Summary of Part One
A s the little boy of an alcoholic father and a mother who died young, Jim Merriman was shuffled among relatives and orphanages until, at age 10, he was taken to Angel Guardian Orphanage in Chicago where he spent his most formative years. With gratitude to Sister Lucy Megaro, PHJC, other role models, and the companionship of Angel Guardian peers, Jim made his way in the world, all the while saying, “Life is good.” The story continues with Jim’s first night at Angel Guardian, after Sister Lucy, moved quietly with Jim to his bed among the rows of dormitory beds where other boys already slept. Watching as Sister Lucy turned off the light in her room, and alone with his thoughts, he wondered what the next day would bring.
The City Within a City
“Get up! Get up! Get up!” Sister Lucy said, as she walked the perimeter of the dormitory raising the shades as she passed. Boys were jumping out of bed, putting on their slippers, and I followed as they raced toward the lavatory. Soon they were dressing, going to the bathroom, washing, brushing their teeth and combing their hair. The last task was finished with a flourish of Brill Cream (“a little dab will do ya.”) to create that front wave in the hair. Even inside the orphanage, we were cool dudes of the ‘60s.
Organization ruled at Angel Guardian. Each cottage consisted of kids from first through eighth grades. Each older kid was assigned a younger kid so they would help with the daily routine starting with bed-making and continuing throughout the day’s activities. These pairs were known as My Little Guy or My Big Guy. Angel Guardian also included its own school, church, gymnasium, pool, large playground and auditorium. In nice weather, we walked outside to church, the dining hall, and the school. At any given time, Angel Guardian housed 500 children.
After daily Mass, we headed to the mess hall. Each cottage ate in its own dining room, and the meals arrived in a large heated stainless container on wheels. After we ate, we would do the dishes and reset the tables for the next meal, then head down more hallways to the school that was taught mostly by nuns and a few secular teachers.
Once I came down with a bad case of the chills. Sister Lucy made me go to bed early that night. I was absolutely freezing and shaking uncontrollably. She kept piling the blankets on me. The chills stopped and fever replaced it. Never, before or since, have I suffered so. I was literally on fire; the sheets were soaked. Moaning, I fell asleep and when I woke several hours later, Sister Lucy was sitting in a chair next to my bed. She was dipping a washcloth into cool water and dabbing my forehead. Since all the other kids were sleeping in their beds, I knew it was early morning. I drifted back to sleep. When I woke the next morning, Sister Lucy was gone. The fever was gone. From that moment, I knew things would be different between me and Sister Lucy. I knew in the past I was a “handful” for her, but that would happen no more. That night changed my attitude on life. From that day forth, I became her best helper. It didn’t matter to me anymore what the other kids might think. I was older now and a leader for the rest of the cottage. Sister Lucy changed my life. And life was good.
Summertime in Chicago was my favorite. The huge boys’ play area included a gravel yard the size of a football field with four baseball diamonds. We played baseball at every chance, including yearly tournaments between the cottages. Spending over eight hours a day in that yard, by summer’s end we were tanned and excellent baseball players! Autumn brought football and basketball. Playing other schools throughout the area, we were the school to beat.
A Life Coach
The weeks turned into months, and the months turned into years. In 1967 Father McCarthy introduced us to a coach, Strat Barrettsmith, who volunteered his time to help us grade school kids. Strat was in his mid-twenties and built like an athlete. It turns out that Strat was a very influential person in my life. He coached us in all sports. He taught us how to wrestle, play football, swim and do gymnastics. Most of all he taught us how to give 100% when doing anything, and according to Strat, anything was possible. Strat taught us by example. He was there for us, day in and day out. I remember that he injured his knee and required surgery. It was obvious to us he was hurting, but he continued to come to Angel Guardian to work with us. Even at our young ages, we knew Strat wasn’t doing this for the money. He was doing this for us. I wanted to be just like him, and I learned ethics from him that would carry me through my life. From time to time I have thought of Strat and wondered what had become of him. I miss him.
In 1968 I graduated from eighth grade. That was a big deal at Angel Guardian. The boys and girls were taken to Sears where each boy was able to buy a sport coat, shirt, pants, shoes, and a tie. We all felt a true sense of accomplishment. I was ready to move into the high school cottage, and I felt good about myself.
Nothing prepared me for that summer day in 1968 when Sister Lucy came to me and said those five words: “You’re going home for good.” I just about dropped to the floor. I thought she was kidding until I looked her in the face and could see that her eyes were watery. Then I knew I was really going “home for good.”
During the next two days, I cleaned my locker. The younger kids were all hanging around me. I was giving them all my little plastic army men and all my models built over rainy nights and days in the playroom. I also possessed the most wanted large model of The Star Ship Enterprise. I made many little guys happy that day.
On my last night, I sat alone on that bench in front of Cottage 27, reliving my life at AGO. The years saw many brothers and sisters come and go. You left as fast as you came. One day you were gone. Rarely did kids say goodbye, but we all felt the common bonds. We came from broken families and many came from worse situations than mine. Some came as babies and didn’t leave until they graduated from high school. I knew I would miss the winter Saturdays that we spent building models, playing board games, and at night watching television programs like The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Dean Martin Show. Dean Martin was one of Sister Lucy’s favorite shows.
The big day arrived. I said my goodbyes to my cottage brothers, and I gave Sister Lucy a hug. No words were exchanged because I’m sure our voices would have cracked. Later I learned that Sister Lucy was also an AGO kid when she was young. No wonder she always knew just how to treat us, and no wonder we could never get anything over on her. She was one of us.
Unlike my arrival at AGO, this time I walked myself to the lobby. This time it was daytime. The hallways were still very long, but for some reason it didn’t take so much time. I left AGO the same way I came: I carried only the clothes on my back, but with one addition – a Stingray banana seat bike that was mine. I was happy. I was going home for good. As I walked that same corridor toward the lobby where five years earlier I first saw Sister Lucy, I now saw Dad and (my sister) Donna watching me come toward them. Life was good.
You Can't Go Home Again
We took a Yellow Checker cab to my dad’s and Donna’s new second-floor apartment, across the street from my new public high school, Amundsen High. I walked the neighborhood and returned home just before dark. Dad was sitting at the kitchen table with a pint of Jim Beam and a glass of water. I sat there for hours talking with him. He didn’t make much sense. Then he went to bed.
I quickly realized this was not at all what I dreamed “going home for good” was all about. I would sit across the street in the open field of the high school. My thoughts would take me back to AGO. I was accustomed to playing with a bunch of kids and there was always something to do. Strat would always be there pushing me to be better. Soon I wished I was back with my brothers and sisters at AGO.
One afternoon, I decided to ride my bicycle and find AGO. Once there, I leaned my bike up against the brick wall, climbed up and stood on the banana seat. I was just tall enough for my head to reach the iron bars. I stood there with my hands gripping the bars, my face wedged between them. I was about 25 yards from the yard and out of range for any kids to hear or see me. I stood there for hours, watching, until the dormitory lights began to go out one at a time. I felt a chill come over me. It was after 11 p.m. and very dark on this side street. It was a long ride home and shortly after midnight I arrived. The apartment was dark; Dad was already in bed. I noticed an empty bottle of Jim Bean on the kitchen table. I cleaned the kitchen and went to bed. I lay there going over in my head all I had seen at AGO that day. A smile came to my face as I faded away to sleep thinking of my AGO family. This would be the last time I would return to AGO as a child.
At the age of 18, Jim was inducted into the Marine Corps for three years where he served in Okinawa on board a submarine and in North Vietnam on P.O.W. rescue missions. He never returned to Amundsen High School but completed high school requirements in Michigan where he also landed a job with the Cassopolis Parks Department and met his future wife, Terri. The 1970s brought the birth of two daughters and his father’s death. He was also hired as a law enforcement trainee, beginning a longtime career that included the love and trust of his K-9 friend, Billy.
In 1995 computers invaded the detective bureau. Jim, with no training except a desire to explore the new equipment, clicked on a search for Angel Guardian Orphanage. There on the AGO website he learned of AGO friends who would be attending an upcoming reunion of St. Henry’s, the AGO church. He told no one of his drive to Chicago to join them that day, but arrived to see if anyone would recognize the older, gray-haired, mustached Jim Merriman. When an AGO group formed after Mass, Jim stood there, looking at those who were trying to identify him.
“Well?” Suzie Jacobs said.
“I thought you might want to guess.” I countered.
And then Betsy Waffel came forward, “I will never forget that voice. It’s Jim Merriman.”
I shook my head, yes, and we all yelled and the hugging commenced. Soon, as a few kids looked over my shoulder, I turned to see two nuns walking toward us. I immediately recognized one of them as Sister Lucy. My knees almost buckled. As our eyes met, she said, “Jim Merriman.” To be remembered first by my former classmates, and now by Sister Lucy! This was a moment. After the lunch-in, we sat and talked for hours. My drive back home to Michigan was full of memories of the old days. Life is so good.
In my many investigations and detective encounters, I have learned that life is not always fair, but life is still good. Life is worth it. When it comes to that murderous guy who sat before me lamenting his “hard” life, I guess he was speaking his truth. But what he was missing were the people who intervened in my life – aunts and uncles, my sisters Donna and Fran, Strat Barrettsmith and Sister Lucy. He never met a girl like Terri. He never had daughters like Tammy and Jamie. He never got the chance to be part of a real family. Chances are he never felt the love and trust of pets like Pal or Billy.
So, when Terri and I attend Mass every Sunday, I make it part of my prayers to say: “Thank you God for my life, just the way it was.” Life is good.