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Grateful American: A Journey from Self to Service

Grateful American: A Journey from Self to Service

by Gary Sinise


Learn More | Meet Gary Sinise

Chapter 1

Yearning to Breathe Free

Let me take you back to old Italy, to the little village of Ripacandida in the province of Potenza. I want to look at how certain decisions, moments, and events in the past can shape and mold the present—and even the future—in uncanny ways.

While I’ve yet to travel there myself, I’m told that in Ripacandida you can see lush valleys and large cliffs, bright sunlight on the whitewashed houses. You smell fresh-baked bread and catch in the air the fruity tang of grapes. In the late 1880s, my great-grandfather Vito Sinisi (spelled with an i at the end) lived in Ripacandida with his family. My last name was pronounced Sin-NEEZ-zay. Say it out loud like a good Italian would.

The land was beautiful, the people vibrant and industrious, yet times were tough for Vito in the old country. So he traveled to Brazil and settled there for a while to try and make a buck working in the coffee fields. He then headed back to Italy, and when he was twenty-three, on January 22, 1887, he married a sixteen-year-old from the village named Anna Maria Fusco. They were happy, but times were still tough. He needed a land of opportunity. He needed a land that welcomed the tired, the poor, the huddled masses. Four years and two children later, in 1891, Vito and his young family came to America. They sailed past Lady Liberty, headed through Ellis Island, and when the American clerk who stamped forms saw the last name, he mispronounced it, saying it softer, like a whisper—Sineece. Rhymes with niece. Vito figured that’s how good Americans say his last name, and Vito wanted to be a good American, so the i was changed to an e, and ever after the Sinise family has said its last name the way that nameless clerk did.

Vito and his family wound up on the south side of Chicago, where he was soon able to buy a little house with a bakery and store out front. He created his own job, running his little grocery store and baking Italian bread twice a day. He sold his bread for ten cents a loaf as fast as he could bake it. Vito had nine children—the first two born in Ripacandida, and seven born in America. My great-grandmother Anna passed away in 1918, and after a period of mourning, Vito met and married Adiela Labriola, who had immigrated to Chicago from Italy in 1910. Adiela went by the more American name of Ethel. Sadly, a little over eighteen months after their marriage, she also died, so Vito returned to Italy in hopes of finding a new wife, this time meeting Maria Lucia Giambersio. They married in Ripacandida on December 30, 1920, and returned to America. Neither Adiela nor Maria Lucia had any other children with Vito. In later years, Vito worked in Rock Island, Illinois, as a crossing watchman, the person who flags automobile traffic when trains run through crossings, then for the city of Blue Island on a horse-drawn garbage wagon before he retired in 1940. He died in 1946, old and full of years in this new country, his family welcomed by the mighty woman with a torch.

My grandfather Donato Louis Sinise was called Daniel by everyone. He was one of Vito’s kids born in Chicago. Grandpa Dan arrived in 1900 and quickly grew into a hardworking kid who sold newspapers and peddled bread. He left home at fifteen to work in a glass factory. In 1917, Grandpa Dan joined the US Army to fight in World War I, and at eighteen found himself on the front lines in France in the Battle of the Argonne Forest. This huge, bloody battle saw some 26,277 American troops killed, more Americans than were killed in the entire Revolutionary War (25,324), or about six times the number of American troops killed on D-Day (4,414 killed on June 6, 1944).

After the war, Grandpa spoke little about his battle experiences except to tell one story. He served for a time as an ambulance driver, shuttling wounded from the front lines to the hospitals. You’d think that would be a safer job in a war, but the enemy targeted the big red crosses on the ambulances while Grandpa drove in convoy, and the shells began to whistle in. Kaboom! The ambulance in front of Grandpa blew up. More shells whistled in. Kaboom! The ambulance behind Grandpa blew up. More shells whistled in. Grandpa braced for the inevitable. But somehow—miraculously—Grandpa Dan’s ambulance wasn’t touched.

In 1920, during a second epidemic of flu at US Army Facility Camp Grant in Rockford, Illinois, a young registered nurse named Vesta Lambertson worked at night in the pneumonia ward. Grandpa Dan became night supervisor and met her. Bells went off and they married three months later on April 23, 1920. Whenever Grandpa told this story, he said jokingly, “It was either marry me or else,” but he never explained what the “or else” meant. It cost two bucks to get married. He remembered that. A buck fifty for the license and fifty cents to the judge.

In August 1920, Grandpa Dan became a switchman on the Indiana Harbor Belt railway line and a year later was promoted to conductor. He was a hardworking heartland railroad man until he retired, when he gave me, his firstborn grandchild, his pocket watch. On the back he had engraved a simple inscription: “To Gary from Grandpa, June 1969.” I treasure that watch to this day.

By the time I knew my grandparents, everybody called Vesta “Grandma Betty.” Grandpa Dan and Grandma Betty had three children: my uncles Jack and Jerry, and my dad, Robert. During World War II, Uncle Jack flew thirty missions as a navigator on a B-17 bomber over Europe, while Uncle Jerry, at just eighteen years old, served on a US Navy ship—a landing ship tank (USS LST-811)—in the Pacific, arriving just after the battle for Okinawa ended in mid-June 1945. After Imperial Japan surrendered, Uncle Jerry traveled to the Palau Islands to pick up Okinawan families to return them to their homes. Mostly women and children, they’d been used by the Japanese as slave labor. He fed Hershey bars to the kids and on the ship bought them everything he could think of. The children sang for him in return, and years later he still said they were the most beautiful voices he’d ever heard. He spent that summer and fall traveling between the islands of Okinawa, Iwo Jima, Guam, Saipan, Leyte, and Tinian, and took part as a member of the occupation force of mainland Japan.

Uncle Jerry was remarkable. He signed up for the military right after high school graduation in 1944 but was told he was 4F because his ears were badly scarred from the scarlet fever and chicken pox he had simultaneously as a child. But Uncle Jerry convinced the recruiters he was fit for service. When he reached boot camp in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, doctors examined him once again and told him to get back on the train and go home. Uncle Jerry refused. He insisted on doing his duty. They let him stay. After the war, he would be discharged in June 1946, only to be drafted back into the navy again during the Korean War. In January of 1951, he began serving aboard the USS McCoy Reynolds until being discharged on February 14, 1952.

By the time I was old enough to understand and appreciate what my grandfather and Uncle Jerry had experienced during their war years, their service was long behind them. They also never spoke much about their military days. I did talk to my uncle Jack about his service during WWII before his passing in 2014, but this only came after I was an adult. I regret that I was never able to ask my uncle Jerry and my grandfather more about their service days before they passed away.

Dad was still a young teenager when World War II ended. After he graduated from high school, he tried college for about three months before deciding it wasn’t for him. He joined the navy and in 1951 went through boot camp at Naval Station Great Lakes near North Chicago. He then trained at Naval Air Station Jacksonville in Florida where they asked him if he wanted to go on a ship or if he’d like to take pictures for the navy. Dad chose the camera, so he was sent to Pensacola for more training, and then to Naval Support Facility Anacostia near Washington, DC, during the Korean War. Dad’s job was to develop the film and photographs that came back in cans from the war zone. The film and photos were sent to all the high-ranking generals at the Pentagon for analysis, so Dad had top-secret clearance. This was where he learned the film business.

Dad had met Mom back at Dwight D. Eisenhower High School in Blue Island, Illinois. Mom’s name was Mylles Alsip. Her parents had come up with the name Mylles when they combined her mother’s name, Mildred, with her father’s name, Leslie, throwing out the i and spelling it with an artsy y instead. We never knew much about my grandpa Les’s side of the family, as he and my grandmother divorced when I was young, and we didn’t see him much after that. I do know he didn’t serve in the military because of medical reasons, but his father, Walter Alsip, served in WWI, as did my grandmother’s father, Elmer Percival Blomberg.

After Mom and Dad tied the knot, I was conceived on the naval base Anacostia. A few months before I was born, Mom, pregnant with me, went home to stay with her mother and father on the south side of Chicago because she didn’t want to give birth on base. I was born at Saint Francis Hospital in Blue Island on March 17, 1955, eight days before my dad was honorably discharged from the navy. Does that mean I’m a navy brat? Well, just barely, I guess. Mom and Dad soon moved into a rental on the south side and eventually had two more kids. Three years after me came my sister, Lori Allyn, and a year later came my brother, Craig Randall. We called him Randy growing up, though today he goes by Craig.

Having served his four years in the military, Dad wanted to do something different, so right after I was born he went into the film business. Filmmaking was then a burgeoning industry in Chicago, with an entrepreneurial and forward-thinking workforce. The great Bob Newhart started in Chicago. So did Bill Friedkin, who won an Oscar for directing The French Connection. And today, the Chicago International Film Festival is the longest-running international film festival in North America.

Dad worked for other people as a film editor before launching his own company, Cam-Edit, when he was about thirty years old. He was the first person in Chicago to have his own editing business, and years later he was inducted into the Chicago Editors Hall of Fame. But in those early days, he edited documentaries, commercials, and industrial films—whatever came to him—and found himself immersed in the real-time Mad Men culture of the era: the 1960s, hard-driving, wisecracking, three-martini lunch crowd. Dad left home at seven most mornings and returned late, sometimes at midnight. And he worked many weekends. I knew Dad loved me, but in my growing-up years he simply was not around much.

My mom’s sister, Aunt Nori, married Bill Smith, an army guy. Bill was stationed in Japan, and when I was about five years old, Bill brought back a little army uniform for me to wear. My eyes widened when I saw it, and I put it on immediately. I loved it. I wore that uniform as much as Mom allowed. To the store. To kindergarten. On Halloween. I even slept in it. Whenever, wherever—I wore that army uniform.

When I was just a little kid, I visited Dad in his office where he cut films on the old Moviola editing machines. Dad was working on the World War II documentary series Victory at Sea for NBC, and had also been hired by a director named Herschell Gordon Lewis, who shot very low-budget horror films, “splatter films” my dad called them. I couldn’t read yet, so Dad told me the titles: Color Me Blood Red, Two Thousand Maniacs!, Blood Feast. Dad showed me a clip of a Lewis movie where a monster came out of a swamp and chased two hunters down the road, and he later pointed out his name on some movie posters. Dad told me once that the film was so low budget they would just run down to the local meat market for some cheap special effects to use for the blood and guts. So I imagined a director yelling at the people around him, ordering them what to do: “We need some more gory stuff—go down to the store and get some hamburger and lots of ketchup! Get tons of ketchup! This movie is called Blood Feast for cripes’ sake.” I looked on as Dad ran the inky film through a machine about the size of a breadbox and pressed a button, and I watched the film on the machine’s little screen. He would stop the film often, tamp down on either side of the film, cut it with a blade, and put a piece of tape over it.

“There,” Dad said. “That’s how you edit film, Gary.” I took note and grinned.

Years later, Mom and Dad moved out to California where Dad opened a West Coast office of his new editing firm, then called The Reel Thing. Mom came up with the name. Among the many TV series he worked on were Miami Vice, Hart to Hart, Dawson’s Creek, Baywatch, and Michael Mann’s Crime Story, which happened to be the first time I directed episodic television. In 1992, my dad edited Of Mice and Men for me.

I think it’s very cool that he was so deeply involved in an industry so new in Chicago. When Dad started out, television had only been around for about twenty years—and already the industry was exploding. What’s more astounding to me, though, is when I think how Dad got his start in the business by developing film for the navy, which means in some ways my roots in film go all the way back to the United States military.

• • •

When I grew up in Chicago, the North Side / South Side rivalry was as old as the city itself. Depending on who you talked to, the rivalry might be serious or only a chance for some good-natured ribbing. Even then, few people agreed completely on what the rivalry was about. The White Sox came from the South Side, Comiskey Park. The Cubs played on the North Side, Wrigley Field. The South Side of Chicago, where I was born, made its mark in industry. Railroading. The blue-collar working stiffs. The North Side, or northern suburbs, had more money. More white-collar business types. This part of Chicago was right on the lake, so folks from the North Side liked to go to the beach in the summer. The South Side suburb of Harvey, where I first lived, was actually so far south it was south of the South Side. But it was still gritty as could be. The address of the two-bedroom, one-bath, one-thousand-square-foot house my parents owned in Harvey was 14419 Sangamon Street, and my folks beat that address into my brain so I didn’t forget. As a kid I was free to roam the neighborhood, and they didn’t want me lost.

My grandpa Dan was a South Side man—a big-framed, tough Italian guy who’d been through the war and worked for the railroad. Not a cuddly grandpa at all. He was never mean. He was just tough. And a little scary. As a kid, I was a little afraid of Grandpa Dan whenever my parents took us for a visit. But years later, when I started acting in high school plays, Grandpa Dan and Grandma Betty came to see me in the restoration comedy Tartuffe by Moliére. I was playing the title character and had all kinds of makeup on, a funny nose, and a crazy wig, and from the stage I could clearly hear one voice in the audience. Grandpa Dan wasn’t the kind of guy who laughed a lot. But I heard this bold belly laugh from the crowd, and I knew it was Grandpa Dan—strong, rich, and vibrant. Hearing his laugh was so affirming. I thought, Well, if I can get Grandpa Dan laughing like this, then maybe I’m not half bad as an actor. Maybe I’ll keep going.

For first through third grades I walked to school by myself. Every morning, I passed a big mound of sticks, dirt, weeds, and thorns that beckoned to me. I liked to climb that mound and stand on top like a king. One morning I was messing around on top of the mountain and tumbled off. A thorny bush broke my fall, driving a huge thorn into my leg. Bloody, I got to school where they patched me up. My leg healed, and I forgot about it. Two years later, I looked down at my leg one day and saw something sticking out. The tip of a sliver of wood. I reached down and yanked it out. My eyebrows arched in disbelief. I had pulled out a two-inch-long piece of thorn that had lived in my leg unseen for two years. The scar is still there, a little indentation in my left calf muscle, to remind me. Perhaps it was some sort of life metaphor. Something dirty and thorny can live unnoticed in a person for a long time. Little by little, you hope, it works its way out, never to return.

This was the height of the Cold War. The nightly news didn’t mean much to me as a kid, but I frequently heard about the tensions between Russia and the United States. In elementary school we had atomic bomb drills where we were all ordered to “duck and cover” underneath our desks. On the news, I heard about the Cuban Missile Crisis, a serious standoff between Khrushchev and Kennedy, and everybody prepared for nuclear weapons to land. I didn’t understand all of this, and I wasn’t fearful—but all the adults around me sure looked concerned. Even paranoid. What’s the big deal? I thought. If an atomic bomb explodes over your city, you just duck and cover under your desk.

On November 22, 1963, I was walking to school near that same mound with the thorny bush, and another kid was climbing on the mound. He had a strange look on his face, and he chanted something over and over.

“Kennedy’s dead. He got shot in the head.
Kennedy’s dead. He got shot in the head.
Kennedy’s dead. He got shot in the head.”

The little kid was chanting naively. I thought he was just sing-songing nonsense. When I reached school, the teachers sent us all straight home again. Now I knew something big was up. We watched the news on our little black-and-white TV on Sangamon Street. Lee Harvey Oswald had shot and killed President Kennedy, and everybody in my family was sad. I walked outside; everybody was sad. We went to the store; everybody was sad. The whole country was grieving. I didn’t know anything about politics, but I knew that my president had just been shot. I was sad too.

Not long afterward, Jack Ruby killed Oswald on live TV, and I watched the violence unfold in front of my eyes. As an eight-year-old, I didn’t know what to think about what I’d just seen. About all the turmoil in my country.

About all the changes happening to America.

• • •

Life wasn’t all sad. At the end of third grade, we moved from the South Side to a big old historic house in Highland Park, the north suburbs of Chicago, and in the fall of 1964, I started fourth grade at a new school called Indian Trail Elementary School. For Christmas I received my first guitar. Acoustic. I had no idea how to play, but I loved it. The Beach Boys had become my favorite band. My first record was Beach Boys Concert, a live record, and as the songs spun on my record player, I loved to hear the crowd cheering in the background.

We lived four blocks from Lake Michigan, with a park at the end of our street. A lot of neighborhood kids went to the same school, so some of the guys and I grabbed our guitars and formed a band. We called ourselves the Beach Dwellers, an homage to my favorite band. We tacked up cardboard signs around the neighborhood and invited all the little kids to our first concert in my living room. None of us Beach Dwellers knew how to play, but a grand total of six kids came to the show (standing room only for a living room), and we put my Beach Boys Concert album on the turntable, wailed away with our guitars in our hands, and lip-synced along with the tunes. By the time we reached “Little Deuce Coupe,” everybody was dancing like crazy.

Mom and Dad eventually invested in guitar lessons for me in fourth and fifth grade. My teacher played an electric and always dangled a lit cigarette from his mouth, and I emerged from each lesson with a headache and reeking of smoke. But he taught me scales and chords, and in sixth grade I formed another band, a real band this time. With a drummer. We played for some kid’s birthday party in my backyard, and we weren’t lip-syncing anymore. Performing felt fun and cool, and we sounded terrible, but at least we were actually playing. In seventh grade, I realized everybody and his dog plays the guitar, so I picked up the bass instead. As a bassist, you’re always in demand. We played the Kinks and the Yardbirds. I took to the bass naturally.

I’ve always had curly hair, but all the cool kids in school—not to mention my musical idols, the Beach Boys—had straight hair. Cool straight hair. I began to hate my curly hair and felt like a dork, so I tried plastering it down with gel. That didn’t work. My hair looked frozen like plastic, but it still curled up on the ends. I noticed that after I wore a baseball cap during a ball game and took it off, the hat hair was there, but the curl was minimized. One morning Mom woke me for school and there I was, sleeping with a stocking cap on. I jumped up, took it off, and looked at myself in the mirror. Ha! The curl was gone! I felt just a little cooler at school that day.

In sixth grade I went to another new school, Elm Place, across the street from Indian Trail, and right away earned a name as a terrible student. Every report card I brought home stunk. This had been going on since the first grade. Reading and writing didn’t come easily to me, and my handwriting was a mess. In fact, my handwriting remained a mess all the way through my teen years and into my twenties. Today, they’d probably diagnose some sort of learning disability. But maybe I just never learned the fundamentals. Mom was always kind, fun, and loving, but she carried a load at home, not only raising three kids, but also taking care of her mother and her sister, who lived in a couple rooms in our basement. Mom was very pretty, and at one time—while we were living in Harvey and I was still really young—she even worked as a part-time model. I remember seeing her on our little black-and-white television set on a show called Queen for a Day, walking out wearing a cute little outfit and displaying one of the prizes, a toaster or a blender or something similar. Dad, meanwhile, was always at work downtown in the city. Our house in Highland Park was a larger house, and I think Dad probably overextended himself financially, and that’s why he worked all the time. He loved us as a family. He just always needed to work to pay the bills since moving up to the northern suburbs was more expensive. So with Mom and Dad having their hands full, it was a rare moment that anybody was ever able to sit and do homework with me. At school I had trouble paying attention. I was always daydreaming, looking out the window, but somehow, I kept passing each grade with something like a straight D average.

A big Jewish community lived in Highland Park, and lots of my friends went to synagogue on Saturday and had bar mitzvahs and things I didn’t quite understand as a kid. Summers, the older kids traveled to Israel to work on a kibbutz. Israel was less than twenty years old as a state then, and all the Jewish families I knew wanted to be connected to the Holy Land. But I wasn’t raised with any sort of strong religious faith. We went to Sunday school until I was about six, but that was it. My great-grandfather Vito Sinise was Catholic and had raised his family Catholic, but when Grandpa Dan married Grandma Betty, she was Presbyterian, which caused a bit of a stir. I don’t remember having any big thoughts of God at a young age. God, faith, service—the things that became so important to me later in life—weren’t on my radar as a kid.

Halfway through my seventh-grade year, my parents moved us to Glen Ellyn, a western suburb of Chicago. Dad’s business partner, Frank Romolo, and his family lived in Glen Ellyn, and Dad and Mom had fallen in love with the area. Dad’s business kept growing, and I was surprised to learn the big house we moved into was once owned by the Morton family, of Morton Salt fame. But the move felt rough to me. I was a lousy student in a new school where I didn’t know anyone, and I felt very out of place. I found some kids who played guitar, and we formed a band where I played bass, and music helped me make the adjustment. Music always helped me cope, and I played in a string of different bands: the Olde Molde, spelled in the Old English way; Uproot Confusion; and the Dirty Brain, named for a piece of brain coral I found while snorkeling on vacation with my family in the Virgin Islands. I brought it back home as a memento of the trip, and during our concerts we placed the spherically shaped coral on top of our rock organ and shined a spotlight on it. With its grooved surfaces, it looked just like a human’s brain, and after thousands of years in the ocean, it stunk like a dead fish.

My future lay in either music or sports. I could have tossed a coin. I loved sports. In Highland Park I played baseball each spring. Winters, they’d freeze over the parking lot at my school, and we all played hockey. I was a huge Blackhawks fan, and Bobby Hull was my favorite player. I also loved football and rooted for the Bears. We organized a local football league for kids and played each other on weekends. I was a fast runner, always the quarterback or one of the halfbacks, and I was usually the kickoff return guy, running for a touchdown every chance I got.

I played football through eighth grade in Glen Ellyn, but I was an undisciplined kid and never showed up for practice, so I never knew any of the plays. The coaches would just put me in to return the kickoff because of my speed—and nine times out of ten, I’d get a touchdown. When I reached high school at Glenbard West in 1969, I tried out for the team but realized every kid was twice as motivated as me—and twice as big, so that ended my football career.

I played baseball in school through eighth grade too. Ron Santo, the third baseman for the Cubs, was my favorite, and the Cubs were in the playoffs in 1969. Even though I was born on the South Side, I’ve been a Cub fan since I was five years old watching them on WGN on the little black-and-white television in our living room. I dreamed of being a Major League Baseball player someday and wanted to play second or third base. But all that changed during the summer of ’69 after my eighth-grade year when I blasted a double into the outfield and rounded first, heading for second. Sprinting hard, I slid headfirst, my arm stretched long. The second baseman saw me coming, and right when I dived into second, he caught the ball and came down hard on my back with his knee. Thud! When the dust cleared, I couldn’t get up. They carried me off the field, and my dad took me to the ER. I was bruised, not broken, but for weeks it was hard to walk, and I didn’t play baseball anymore after that.

That left music and my dreams of being a rock star. And I figured musicians all needed to be hard partiers—right? Woodstock! Rock and Roll! My parents liked to entertain and kept a bar stocked with various bottles of liquor. At the end of eighth grade, I decided to experiment. I had a metal box with a latch on it, so I gathered empty peanut butter jars with lids, cleaned them out, and stashed them in my box. When no one was looking, I sneaked small amounts of liquor out of my parents’ bar. Whiskey into one jar. Vodka into another. Vermouth into another. Wine into another. Always just a bit, so Mom and Dad didn’t notice.

One Saturday night I decided it was time. Randy and I shared a bedroom, but there was a small attic room connected to our room that was private where I kept some of my music gear. When Randy was asleep, I went into the attic room with my metal box full of jars, shut the door behind me, and tasted the vodka. The whiskey. The vermouth. The gin. The wine. Next thing I knew, I was plastered, sick as a dog, puking into my metal case everything I’d eaten for the past month. My head spun, and I wanted to lie down somewhere, but thought I’d better clean out the box so no one would find out what I’d been up to. I bobbed and weaved down the front stairs, heard the TV on in the other room, and figured the coast was clear. I crept into the kitchen and started dumping the vomit into the kitchen sink. I was dizzy and nauseous, and as I looked up, suddenly my mother was standing next to me, her arms folded. She looked puzzled and concerned and angry at the same time.

“Oh, hello, Mother,” I said, my voice sugary. “I’m just cleaning out my box. It was a little messy. How are you this fine evening?”

The room started to go dark, and I realized I was passing out. Next thing I knew, Mom and Dad were wiping off my mouth, putting me to bed. I was grounded for a week. And no more box.

You’d think I would have learned my lesson. But that was only the start for me. The times were changing, and the drug culture had begun its rise. America was exploding in a million different directions just as I entered my teen years, and it felt like the entire country couldn’t contain itself. We were at the peak of the Vietnam War, and it was going badly. We found ourselves in the age of revolution, the rise of the hippies. Everybody was anti-authority. Antiestablishment. I heard about Woodstock. The sexual revolution. Pot was everywhere, and by the end of eighth grade, although still on the football team, I felt caught between the athletes and the pot smokers.

At thirteen, fourteen, I went to parties where the drug scene was “happening.” Kids sprayed oven cleaner into plastic bags and sniffed it, so of course I figured I needed to try. It’s a wonder anyone survived. Kids dumped spot remover onto rags and walked around sniffing wet rags, so I tried that too. Snorting spot remover gave me a crazy buzz. And since older kids were at these parties too, beer flowed everywhere, and the air was thick with pot smoke. But at that time, I stuck to taking a few sniffs on my wet rag and that was it.

For a couple of years, I went crazy. When we lived in Glen Ellyn, this buddy of mine told me how his dad drove his car to the train station, parked, and rode the train to work. My buddy knew his dad kept a spare key inside the engine compartment. So I hiked over to the train station, lifted the hood, found the key, and took the car. I didn’t have any particular place to go. Like an idiot, I made a left turn next to a sign that said, “No Left Turn,” with a cop right behind me. Red lights flashed in the rearview mirror and I pulled over. The cop came to my window and said in a low voice: “Driver’s license.”

“Oh, yes sir,” I said, my voice as proper as a lieutenant’s, and I handed him my license. A fake. The name on the license was Carlos Huizinga. Age twenty. I was fourteen, looking twelve.

“Well, Carlos,” the cop said. “This driver’s license has expired.”

“What? That can’t be right.” My heart pounded.

“Let’s leave the car right here.” He opened my door. “We’ll go down to the police station and figure out what’s wrong.”

He took me down to the station, put me in a room, and stared straight through me. Clearly he knew I was full of crap.

“Carlos. Is your name really Carlos?”

“Oh yes, Officer. I had no idea my license was expired.”

“Carlos. Can we call your mom and dad?”

“Um. I don’t think they’re home.”

“Carlos. What’s their number?”

I broke, and my words tumbled out in a rush—“Officer, I’m so sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. That’s not my name. It’s Gary. Gary Sinise. And that’s not my license. It’s not even my car. It’s my friend’s dad’s.” I was wailing now, my voice cracked and pleading. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry . . .”

They called my dad. Dad came to the police station. Dad drove me home. Dad wasn’t happy. I was grounded for a long, long time.

I mean, c’mon. What was I thinking? Did I look like a twenty-year-old Carlos?

• • •

Not all my shenanigans contained even an element of humor. Dad had a big Buick Electra, and when I was fourteen I regularly lifted the keys, crawled out my window at night, and drove the Electra around town. One time a buddy said, “Hey, my dad owns a music store. We could use some speakers for our band.” So one night I sneaked out and picked up my buddy in the Electra. We drove over to his dad’s store. My buddy opened it with a key. We stole some big column speakers and put them in the Electra. I dropped him off and took the equipment back to my house. It was five in the morning when I unloaded the speakers into our garage. I’d just closed the trunk of the Electra and was walking into the garage for the last time when my dad came out.

“Gary. What are you doing?” His voice boomed.

“Uh. Oh, good morning, Dad. Um, my buddy was moving. We needed to get the equipment out of his house.” I talked fast, caught in a web of deceit.

Dad took one long look around his garage. He didn’t ask how I got the speakers from my buddy’s house over to our house. He just shook his head and walked back inside.

Eventually I carried the speakers up to my room, hooked them up to my record player, and blasted music through the house. I’d become a thief and a liar and a near-failing student—and as a fourteen-year-old I couldn’t care less about any of it.

Today, I know I was heading down a dark path. My mom had her hands full, and my dad was often gone, so I usually had to figure things out on my own. Sometimes my conclusions weren’t so great.

At my best, I developed initiative as a kid. I don’t mean by stealing stuff. I mean by forming my own bands, by drawing people together. I was often the neighborhood organizer, and if I wanted to play baseball, football, or hockey, I simply gathered some kids together and we’d play. I developed a mind-set that if something needed to get done, then I needed to do it; otherwise, it might not happen. It’s a mind-set that’s carried me a long way. If you can think it up, if you can dream it up, then get off your butt and make it happen. Good things come from focus and effort.

At my worst, I learned lessons the hard way. When I look back, I see how I did stupid and even dangerous things like sniffing oven spray and stealing cars (well, borrowing cars, just without asking to use them), and I wonder how that stupid kid doing stupid kid stuff ever survived. It’s no excuse, but the country itself was going crazy in those years. In the late 1960’s climate, if all the tie-dyed rock stars I knew were blowing weed and doing drugs, then it felt easy as a kid to conclude that I’d better do drugs too. That’s what was going on in America in those days, and even though for a time I went back and forth trying to avoid it, like a lot of teenagers, I got caught up in all that craziness.

Later in life, I would grow to realize that I’d been born into a land of opportunity, just like Vito Sinise envisioned when he came through Ellis Island and arrived at America’s sea-washed, sunset gates. The true freedom I eventually discovered in my later youth wasn’t a license to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. The true freedom acted as a force beckoning me to do something meaningful with my life. All I needed to start on that path was a push in the right direction.

But all that would come later. Midway through high school I was still caught. Thankfully, I would begin to channel my energies differently during my junior and senior years. I’d find a new road thanks to an incredible teacher named Barbara Greener Patterson—and thanks to a moment I’ll never forget with Bernardo, leader of the Sharks.


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