A few years back, the 3 bedroom, 1.5 bath house that I grew up in sold for $28K. I'm pretty sure my parents bought it for around $80K nearly four decades ago.
Park Forest shaped me.
In that house (and we're talking '84-ish), vandals and thieves would come in the middle of the night to steal things like floodlights from the garage - literally sawing off the fixtures at the base and leaving the exposed wires. The tires on my parents cars would occasionally be slashed... and I'll never forget when my Dad had to use bicycle chains to attach light-up toy soldiers and candy canes to our fence during Christmastime... after one night where he ran outside with a baseball bat to ward off thieves who tried to snatch them.
When my Dad ran for public office, the teachers (one in particular) famously tormented me in ways that would find them unemployed if it happened to a kid today... a story I've told before.
When my parents split, my sister and I lived with my mother in "The Co-Ops," a section of "affordable housing" that in our case was a dark haven for the spawn of broken homes. It was there that my sister and I had to ward off the growing gang/mob culture (see what it's become over the years and what it's like in 2016), and because of it had to walk in fear from the bus stop every day after school... fear that came to a head after we finally got "jumped" one too many times. After I had my right hand smashed (which I still think about daily thanks to arthritis) while being beat by a group of kids (young thugs) for refusing to take part in their bullshit (lots of shoplifting and the like), I'd had enough. Those idiots went to court and had to pay a restitution pittance (doesn't make up for the pain I still deal with), but some of them went on to bigger exploits - like burning down an elementary school for fun. Yep, that actually happened.
In the midst of all the torment, the wonderful Park Forest Police Department provided me my first lessons in blaming the victim -- lessons I'll never forget, like sitting in a Detective's office and being grilled with questions like "What did YOU do to provoke them?" and "Why are YOU the odd man out?" After seeing where those other kids ended up in just a short period of time (jail/juvie), I think the answer is pretty clear, but the effect of shaming a victim is very damaging.
The next kid to take a physical jab at me on the school bus? His name was Andre, and I smashed his nose.
Park Forest is the town that taught me that no matter how kind you are... no matter how pure your intentions, there will always be someone who's trying to take from you... to use you... to cause you pain for their benefit. Park Forest taught me that no one is to be trusted by default... that trust is something that takes a long time to earn, and even then you must always keep an eye on things. It's important that I always remember that the people who caused so much grief for my family and I were welcoming at first. Evil smiles at you, and when you don't play the game, you become the enemy.
Park Forest infused my DNA with the instinct to listen closely at night - to react with unease and paranoia if it sounds like something... or someone.. might be outside. Anxiety.
For better or for worse, every day of my life has in some way been shaped or informed by growing up in Park Forest, from my default reaction that cops (Park Forest Police) and politicians (Village Board) are useless until proven otherwise, to eliminating all elements of faith and religion from my life (Faith United Protestant Church), to making sure that our kids have a better school experience than my own and can hopefully form lifelong friendships (District 163 did this thing where they bounced kids between schools, sometimes back and forth depending on grade - by 7th grade I'd attended five schools).
In certain situations, I used to think that I had a short fuse at times, but my friend Geno once told me that I have "a very long fuse with a really big bomb at the end." It was a perfect metaphor... It might take awhile, but do wrong by me enough, and you end up like Andre's nose. As an adult, this is why I'm so very protective of my immediate family, my business interests, and my true friends. There are certain people and things that I will always look out for as a man of integrity and principle.
I grew up in a town devoid of integrity and principle... a town that was founded with good intentions (first post-WWII planned community in the U.S.), but one that at some point early on lost its way and became one of the most despicable armpits of America.
And now Park Forest is National news.
Sure, there's some good people that have the misfortune of living there... and some might even enjoy it... but nothing will ever change my personal experience or the mental torment that came from living in that Hell as a child.
Fortunately, we got out in mid-1990.
Thing is, while the worst incidents amounted to just days or weeks in the grand scheme of life, they're the ones that I remember most... the ones that created the biggest lifelong impact. It was just a town full of jerks, and again, growing up in Park Forest even shaped how I coached my oldest daughter's Pee-Wee baseball team two years ago -- I remember being yelled at by red-in-the-face grownups while just trying to play ball, so I made a conscious effort (and involved the parents) in being mindful that our actions as adults at the ballpark will be what their kids remember decades from now. Encouragement, not yelling.
If I were to draw a line from growing up in Park Forest to becoming The Rock Father, the path would be a jagged and chaotic one, but with an end result of putting into the world the exact opposite of what I grew up in. A bright, positive, and hopefully fearless childhood for the daughters that my wife and I are raising, along with sharing some element of fun, adventure and entertainment for the world at large.
At the same time, there is a quote that is often attributed to Al Capone (though unproven that he actually said it) that I will appropriate because it fits here:
“Don’t mistake my kindness for weakness, I’m kind to everyone, but when someone is unkind to me, weak is not what you’re going to remember about me.”
Lessons from Park Forest.