I started to write this on June 14, 2012, a little while after the unexpected death of my longtime pal, Jack Ortbal. Jack is one of those rarest of all pals, the kind that you could call at 3 o'clock in the morning from the darkest hole in Hell to ask for help and he would instantly saddle up and ride at breakneck speed to save your sorry ass.
PRE-RAMBLE: THE FIRST MEETING - Jack arrived at Augustinian Academy about 3-months into our freshman year. Since we had both 5 and 7 day boarders, I assumed the new kid was just another late arrival from out of town.
I was soon disabused of that notion.
Jack had arrived from CBC, Christian Brothers College, the cross-town ROTC military prep school. It seems that a Christian Brother had sought to reprimand young Jack for some offense and when Jack tried to explain the situation to him, it evoked the predictable reaction, you see, The Christian Brothers' word was the law and no explanations from snot-nosed students was sought, desired or tolerated.
So the Brother applied immediate corporal punishment, which was par for the course in those days.
That was followed by Jack knocking the Brother out cold right in the hallway in front of God and everybody. Jack got the boot and that sent him our way to Augustinian Academy, a brand new (short of cash and students) Catholic Boys College Prep School that was just starting in 1961. The Augustinians were a much kinder, gentler and more tolerant Order, that "very rarely" laid one of their long and broad leather cinctures on a student...and no one ever knocked out an Augustinian monk, because they traveled in packs.
Suffice it to say, that legend had arrived in our midst... "Quick Fists" was here!
Jack was the youngest child of Muriel and Milton Ortbal, he had an older brother named Tom and a trail-blazing sister named Judy. Jack was a lad of normal size with blond wavy hair, a quick smile, happy laugh and piercing blue eyes. As I was to soon discover, he was also pound for pound, one of the strongest guys I would ever meet.
In 1961, I was in Section 11 and Jack was in Section 12, so it took a little while for us to meet. When we did, we hit it off. My memory is a little fuzzy on who the intermediary was, but it could have been Jay Giardina, Jerry Macchi or Dan Powers, who already knew Jack from grade school.
LET THE ADVENTURES BEGIN! The stories I tell are not in chronological order...just the way they came bubbling up to me. And I am NOT making this up or embellishing it. I'm also NOT going "everywhere" because Jack will come and get me!
1) KELLY'S BAR & SOCK THE OC!- I dropped off Joe Kuebel on Bunkum Road near Belleville and then got hopelessly lost coming back from the Cahokia race track. Then I had my car rear-ended by a butcher getting off work at some packinghouse. My VW was disabled.
Thank God, I was beneath the McKinley Bridge in East St. Louis, Illinois and I had $2.09 in my pocket.
There was a bar under the bridge with a neon sign that blinked: Kelly's. I went inside. The joint was filled with a lot of happy people and I was the only pale-face. I ordered a small Baby Bud and used the change to place a rescue call to Jack Ortbal.
"Jack, it's Birk. I need your help...I've been in a car wreck and I'm in a bar under the McKinley Bridge in East St. Louis, can you come get me? Yes, I know it's 3:00 am. Of course, I'm drunk...that's why I called you!"
Jack said, "I'm on my way!"
It would be at least 30-minutes before the 7th Cavalry arrived, so I sat silently at the very far end of the bar near the door and tried to be invisible.
I became entranced watching a man playing a kind of target-shooting pinball game. It was called, "Sock The OC!" The man was shooting a pre-laser light beam from a toy-pistol that was mounted on a post. He aimed the light at the tentacles on an revolving Octopus that was rotating back and forth. When the light hit a tentacle, he scored. I had never seen this game before and I have never seen one since.
When I had nursed my Baby Bud down to the last dregs known as the "itsy-bitsy spider," the game-playing man became very upset with his score results, so he complained to the bartender that the "Sock The OC" gun was not working properly and wanted his money back. The bartender gave him a few coin-slugs and said, "The game's fine, you just can't shoot straight when you're drunk."
The angry man went back and started playing again. After he spent the last complimentary slug, his results were still bumpkiss.
At that point he whipped a real revolver out of his pocket and emptied it into "The OC!" It was the ultimate "Sock" and "The OC" was blown into a flying display of electrical sparks, wooden splinters and glass flinders.
Me and everyone else in the joint hit the floor. The shooter turned and proceeded to walk calmly toward the door past me when the biggest and blackest man I have ever seen stepped out of the smokey darkness and hit him with one haymaker of a punch that dropped him like a bag of concrete across the threshold.
A half a split second later, Jack Ortbal nonchalantly stepped over the freshly fallen shootist, who was now doing a great impression of a doormat. Jack called into the inky darkness, "Hey Birk are you in here?"
I jumped up and over the shooter and raced out the door with Jack. As the sirens were wailing toward Kelly's, Jack pulled his 1949 Ford up behind and pushed my VW up to 10 mph. I popped the clutch and we were off!
Jack followed me all they way home, then he took off without a word, but with just wave like the old Lone Ranger! As I went up the front steps on the way in to my home by the dawn's early light, I met my Mother who was coming out.
"Where are you going Mom?"
She stared through the red-eyes in my numbskull with her Irish eyes that were NOT smiling and said, "Six o'clock Mass."
I went up to my room and hid out til Monday.
2) DOTTIE & LARRY'S - Dan Powers discovered this Eastside Bar near Granite City that was full of "easy girls." So off we went on a snowy night in search of romance or a reasonable facsimile thereof. I rode with Jack and Dan arrived later in another car.
Jack pulled into a snow bank on the parking lot at 20 mph, only to discover a steel post under the plowed up drift. That jolting crash put him in an ill humor. We went inside and sat at a table waiting for Powers. After a few beers, I drunkenly decided to make an announcement to the entire bar.
"My friend here can beat any man here in arm wrestling! Put up $5.00 bucks and try your luck."
Jack looked at me in disbelief as the Illinois boys lined up. Some looked like the man-bears of the Bigfoot tribe. They sat down one by one, gripped Jack's right hand and grunted. He'd hold them steady for a few seconds, then he's slam their arm down with one swift motion.
We were up $50.00 in no time flat!-Jack had put down 10 in a row in quick succession. The local ladies were impressed. But the boys were a tad peeved.
Jack confided in a whisper, "My arm's getting really tired."
One big boy with a full beard and a baldhead sat down and said, "Let's go!"
As the promoter, I said, "My friend's right arm is tired...do you mind if he switches to his left arm for $10.00?"
Jack flashed me that "I'll kill you Birk look."
But $10.00 was $10.00 bucks. The big boy gripped Jack's left hand and grunted. Jack slammed him down and then quickly stood up and said, "Show's over...let's go."
We made a hasty exit and Jack softly tossed me the car keys and said, "You drive."
I asked,"Why? I'm drunker than you are."
Jack said, "Because I can't move my arms...but, when I can, I'm gonna kill you."
I gave Jack the winnings and we rolled on from Dottie & Larry's over the icy roads back to Bishop's Place. Drunk as Lords and $60.00 to the good!
Powers stayed behind in pursuit of the "original objective" - I believe he found a warm spot in Smithton later that night.
3) KNOCK, KNOCK...WHO'S THERE? The gentlemen from the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department asked, "Does a John Ortbal live here?" Mr. Ortbal, invited the officers in and told Jack that the Police were here to see him.
"John, where were you last night," the officer asked?
Jack was still sleepy..."Le's see...Steak 'n Shake, Chuck-A-Burger, Steak 'n Shake and ahhh...Chuck-A-Burger." He had been making the circuit cruisin' the local burger joints.
"John, is this your wallet," the officer showed him a GENUINE CALFSKIN billfold, with his Driver's License in it.
"Yeah, where'd you get it," Jack was mystified?
The officer scowled, "In the backseat of a stolen car, John."
Jack said, "I don't know how it got there."
The cop asked, "John, were you in the backseat of any car last night?"
The light in Jack's sleepy head began to flicker and finally went on, "I was with LW and JD. But they picked me up and I didn't know the car was stolen!" (Initials used to avoid embarrassing the other boys)
Jack told the truth. JD and LW got arrested. It turned out they had stolen up to 10 cars in a single night on more than one occassion. Both were expelled from the Academy. One returned after a year to graduate with honors as a Senior.
One went on to lead a life of crime and ended up in the Missouri Stare pen. The other one became a distinguished military officer, who served on the White House staff.
Jack and he remained friends for a lifetime.
4) CASTLEWOOD HILTON - It was a party place at the end of Old Ballwin Road. It was the biggest of the old resort houses owned by Bob Fudge ( real name) the Mayor/Sheriff/Fire Marshal/King of Castlewood.
Jack and I were Sophmores at St. Louis University when we and 13 other morons rented the Hilton for $150 a month. I was the Treasurer and Jack was the Sergeant-At-Arms, we actually were stupid enough to co-sign the lease and that meant we had the nearly impossible task of collecting $10 a month from the other idiots.
The Hilton was so named because it had 11 small bedrooms surrounding a large central dance floor. A bar ran the full length of the back of the building and it had an indoor bathroom for the girls and a "Men's Tree" just across the foot bridge that spanned a creek/sewer/drainage ditch that was outside the back door.
Jack and I "fixed up" one bedroom - one of only two that had a window - which was to prove handy for entry and escape. Across the "sports field" in front of the Hilton was another party house that was rented by another St. Louis U group that called themselves "The Leasers."
I could write a book about what went on at the Hilton, and many very prominent men and proper women would probably pay me NOT to publish it.
Jack and I made the weekly trip to the Hilton every Friday around 3:00 pm to get the place organized for the weekend parties. Jack had a driving ritual that he always did to "save his brakes."
When he turned his '49 Ford onto New Ballwin Road heading South off Manchester, he'd get it up to 75 mph on the two-lane blacktop, when the car crested the last hill and the road turned downward winding into the valley, he would put the car in neutral, crack a beer and coast allllll the way down the hill past the old Roadhouse, through the little houses in the hamlet of Castlewood, past the volunteer firehouse and Bob Fudge's Bar and he'd turn the car into the Hilton driveway and coast across the field and stop the car by hitting a big tree stump at about 0.5 mph.
He had it down to a science. Then he'd laugh like hell!
Maybe someday I'll write the unexpurgated TALES OF THE CASTLEWOOD HILTON, my working title is: When Nighthood Was In DeFlower!
Who knows maybe they''ll "SEE LOUGH'S EYE HERE TONIGHT!"
5) POWERFUL PATIO PUNCH: When I had just started working at Ralston-Purina circa 1967, three batchelors - Leo Gieszelman, Jim Wadsworth and I had a two-story, full basement, 3-bedroom townhouse in Covington Manor.
One night we threw a party that got a lot larger than we expected. Word of the party attracted a lot of people - who knew who was a friend of who??
Jack was there and he had a broken leg, he was in a walking cast and leaning on a crutch. We were out back on the 10' x 10' patio having a drink and watching the action. There was a very small stockade fence dividing our patio from the one next door.
Things were sailing along when some character tossed a beer can out of the backdoor and bounced it across the patio and into the yard. I said, "Hey pick up that can!" The guy, whom I had never laid eyes on came out and said, "You pick it up."
I said, "Look asswipe, I live here...I don't know or care who you are, but I'm not picking up that can...that's what this is for..." - I pointed to a large trash can.
The next thing I knew I was on my back looking up at Orion's Belt. The guy had clocked me good!
Then it was like a Miracle at Lourdes, I saw Jack toss his crutch away as he hopped over me and across the patio slab on his one good one leg yelling, "You can't hit my friend!"
POW! Jack nailed the guy and sent him flying back into the stockade fence which went down into the neighbor's patio. Jack flew on top of him and began wailing on the guy.
When he got up, the guy had a bloody nose.
He looked at Jack and said, "I'm gonna sue you!"
Jack said, "Okay, here's someting to sue me about."
In rapid succession he popped the guy in the mouth 3 to 4 times like his head was a punching bag and knocked his teeth through his lips. The guy left...I retrieved Jack's crutch and the party resumed. No lawsuit ensued...whew!
6) THE SIDNEY STREET & FAILONI SINGERS - In later years I used to meet Jack and his sister Judy at the Sidney Street Grill for a drink or twenty.
Jack had a hidden talent - he was a great singer...and he knew a ton of songs. Some of my happiest memories of Jack are hearing him sing.
He also sang at Failoni's on Southwest Avenue on many occasions with his pal who sounded more like Frank Sinatra than Frank Sinatra did. What a pair!!
7) KOLPING HOUSE - I danced like a man possessed and had a ball at the Kolping House reception when Jack married Joan. Many years later, I watched a beaming Jack dance with his and Joan's drop-dead-gorgeous daughter, Nicole at her wedding.
Jay Giardina (winner of the Ben Kingsley look-alike-contest in The Sicilian Bastard Division) and Jerry Macchi reminsced that night about Jack and Joan's wedding...long ago, but as close as a thought.
8) WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY ROTC BUILDING GOES UP IN FLAMES: The ROTC Building at Washington University was actually a Quonset hut on Big Bend just north of Forsyth. Back in the late '60's a crowd of students burned it down as part of a Viet Nam War protest.
If you check the records of that event, you will find that the Campus Security Guard on duty that evening was Jack Ortbal. I once asked Jack why he didn't stop the mob of students.
He said, "What was I supposed to do...shoot 'em with my flashlight?"
Jack never told me where he went to call the University City and Clayton cops...but I think it was Santoro's.
9) MORTGAGE MAN & LPPRO - Jack had a long and successful career in real estate, sometimes hooking up with our old classmate Carwin Lindenbusch. Jack's office was on Hampton Avenue in those days in the building where my Uncle Frank's occasional partners, the Aboussie Brothers once officed. Jack helped me re-fi one of our homes...and he never sent a bill for his services.
Later I helped him and his wife Carolyn set up LPPRO, an Internet Back Office service for loan originators. The timing was bad as the housing market tanked just as they were launching. Jack and Carolyn worked very hard at it. I was happy to have helped them.
10) BARTALINO BUDDIES & LONG LUNCHES - Jack had to have had at least 9-lives and 16-balls. He bravely fought sudden onset cancer and he joked about looking like Mr. Clean when he lost all his hair and even his eyebrows (that is where the Mr. Clean resemblance ended). All throughout his struggles with health issues, he never complained about the curve balls, hard-hop grounders and sometimes self-inflicted injuries that came his way.
11) THE STUPID BUS - There used to be a clearly marked BUSES ONLY bridge that ran from Marshal Avenue over the drainage creek and into a BiState bus staging area that was behind an Industrial Park on Manchester Road. One night Jack and I had left a bar in Webster and were racing to O'Brien's on Brentwood. They had a piano bar at O'Brien's and Jack loved to go there and serenade the ladies 'til closing time.
On one full-moonlit night, Jack decided to take a short cut across the BUSES ONLY bridge. He sped onto the bus-width span at about 60 mph which was his standard speed in urban areas.
Good grief! Coming across the bridge toward us was a BUS!
I said,"Looks like you'll have to back up."
Jack ignored me and began honking his horn, flashing his lights and wildly waving his left arm out the driver's side window. As we approached the BUS he said, "Stupid Bus! Birk, lay over against the window and close your eyes. Go ahead...hurry up!"
The BUS and Jack stopped bumper-to-bumper.
Jack jumped out of the car and ran up to the bus driver's window. Seconds later, he returned and jumped back into the car. The BUS began to back up. It backed up at least halfway across the bridge and back down the on-ramp giving Jack just enough room to dart past it.
He was laughing like hell as we sped off toward O'Brien's.
"Jack, what did you say to the bus driver?"
He was laughing like the Devil... "I told the driver that your water broke and I was taking a short cut to St. Mary's."
"And he bought it," I asked incredulously? After all, I had a moustache!
Jack looked me in the eye and said, "I think the driver took pity on me when he saw how ugly you were!" Then he laughed almost convulsively.
Jack loved to talk about his kids, Kyle and Nicole and always kept me up-to-date on the shenanighans of his other Amigos. We had a lot of long and laugh-filled lunches in the year before he died, and frankly, he whipped The Big C's surprise attack before a stroke finally got him.
At Kutis I saw many, many pictures of a life lived well and large. Jack wrote his own lyrics, sang his own song and danced to his own tune.
He was a true friend and I really miss him.
I'M DOWN TO JUST TWO NOW. 3 O'clock in the morning pals are really hard to come by...I'm down to just two now...and GS and DS know who they are.
FOOTNOTE: One last memory, Jack's name was the ONLY name mis-spelled in our official class photo that once proudly hung as THE FIRST GRADUATING CLASS 1965, in the hallowed halls of the now long-gone Academy. It now hangs under safeguard in the Fortress of Liberty.
In the Official Photo, Jack's last name was spelled - Jack Ortbald - instead of Jack Ortbal. When he saw it, he said, "Good, that'll throw the IRS off!"
I'm hoping some of Jack's buddies will add their comments too.
To add a comment, like Greg Slack did...just click on COMMENT - below the blog and type away!