DeJa Vu All Over Again

This week we hear from a guest blogger.


Those were the words from a famous comedian from yesteryear. I think it was Red Skelton. (It was actually Yogi Berra of the New York Yankees[jdw]) I hadn’t heard them for years, but they’ve haunted my mind for the last week. I couldn’t believe it was happening again.

The year was 1968. The month was April. The date was the 4th. I was an Assistant State’s Attorney for Cook County, Illinois. I was working on trial row in the felony trial division of the office. The near west side of the City of Chicago was up in flames from the rioting there.

ready or not

There were about 400 Assistant State’s Attorneys in Cook County. They all Blind Justiceworked hard. Maybe about 100 of them worked in the Criminal Courts. They worked really hard. They were on the firing line every morning. They were buried in cases all piled up waiting for trial. You never knew which ones would be continued to another date, or result in a negotiate plea of guilty, or actually go to trial when the judge told the bailiff to “call up the jury – we’re going to trial right now as scheduled”. It was hard on the State’s Attorneys and hard on their spouses. Working late was part of the deal. You had to get ready for anything by 9:00 am the next morning.

please don’t forget

Because I often worked late, my wife decided to take a trip to see her family in Minnesota so I could catch up with my preparation for trials. Hopefully then, we could have some time together when she got back to Chicago. The deal was I would pick her up at the airport when she got back and we would go out and celebrate our reunion. She said that all I had to do was make sure that Champagne was fed. Champagne was our cat and the proud new mother of five kittens. She said Champagne would take care of feeding the kittens. I told her have a good time with the family and say Hi! for me and I’ll see you in a week. Well, that’s my version. She claims she said to make sure Champagne was fed and be sure to clean out the cat box every night. I don’t remember that cat box part at all.

So off she goes to Minnesota and I’m working to midnight every night sorting out the cases that should be settled and preparing for trial on those that would probably be going to trial. I was really looking forward to picking her up and us having a night out together without murders, armed robberies and burglaries to be worrying about.

“We’re going downtown!”

But it was not to be. A big case broke that night and State’ Attorney, John Stamos grabbed me and said, “we’re goin’ downtown”! 400 Assistant State’s Attorneys and he grabs me. On our special date night! He starts yellin’ at people and called for a car to take us downtown immediately as we took off for the elevator of the Criminal Courts Building on the West Side of Chicago. I quickly raced to get into the elevator before the doors closed.

It was a big deal that out of 400 Assistant State’s Attorneys he picked me to go with him on this big case. But it was my date night! I promised her we’d go out, and, I’d had a week to clear my calendar for our date. Career big case with the boss man, or date night with my wife on return from her trip that was specifically meant to be our special night out? Telling her I was busy was not going to fly. Career or marriage? I pick —Marriage!

can this marriage be saved?

I tell him, as he’s chasing cars off the road driving downtown at well over the speed limit, that my wife is flying in from Minnesota that night and I have to pick her up at the airport. “Which airport?” he says. “Midway” I tell him. He grabs the police radio and shouts into it “Get me Flannigan and Flynn”. They are State’s Attorney’ Police Officers. (He’s got his own police department).

“What airline? “What flight number?” “ What time does it arrive?” I figure he’s testing me to see if I’m telling the truth so I give him the airline, the flight number and the arrival time after which he then shouts into the police radio and tells the operator to have Flannigan and Flynn meet the plane and take my wife into custody. Then he says to me “Where do you live?” I say Rogers Park. He stares at me and says “that’s a large area for Flannigan and Flynn to search. I mean what is your home address?” Oh! So I give him my address.

He then gives it to the police radio and says “have Flannigan and Flynn take the wife off the plane and take her home in the squad and don’t leave her until she is safely in the house and tell her you are on special assignment to me as of right now and we have no idea as to when you will be home because of this crisis and it may be days before she sees you again but Flannigan and Flynn will take care of you so we know you are safe.” I’m thinking of telling him “but its date night” but I think again, and keep my mouth shut. Chicken!

a slightly different perspective
Plane at gate
Photo by Erik McLean

Let’s look at it from my wife’s point of view. She has given me a whole week to swim thru all the murders, armed robberies, burglaries and other miscellaneous felonies I could handle and get them behind me so we could have a date night upon her return from Minneapolis. But instead of me meeting her at the gate, the plane lands and the captain announces that, “because of a police action, all passengers on board should stay in their seats until the police have taken a passenger off the plane!”

arrest the wife???

Whereupon Flannigan and Flynn come on the plane and come down the aisle to seat 28C where the stewardess points her finger and says “that’s her!” Flannigan says, “Are you Mrs. Ward?” She softly says “Yes” and Flannigan says “you will have to come with us.” Without further word, he helps her out of her seat, grabs the bag she says is her overhead bag and tells Flynn, “OK, let’s go.” With Flynn up front clearing the way and Flannigan protecting the rear, they escort Mrs. Ward off the plane, down the ramp to the gate and past all the people who had gathered to see what criminals they were taking into custody.

i’m going to kill him!

Meantime, Mrs. Ward is wondering what’s going on? She’s not entirely sure but she is pretty sure that somehow it’s my doing because, among all the airline passengers staring at her as she was being escorted to the squad car, she noticed that I was not there to meet her, like I promised. She didn’t know if something had happened to me, or, if she was going to “make” something happen to me because I had promised her that I’d be there and I wasn’t.

I was probably working late and skipping our negotiated date night out. Whereupon Flannigan says “Your husband says he’s sorry he can’t be here to pick you up but he and State’s Attorney Stamos are going to be working late tonight and so he sent us to pick you up and get you home safely.” So, finally she gets it. “I could kill him!” Flannigan and Flynn were protecting her husband from her!

breaking and entering

When they get her home, Flynn asks her for her key so he can open the door for her. She looks in her purse and realizes that she didn’t bring the key because her husband was going to be there to pick her up. So, she had left her key behind in the key drawer. At this point she’s ready to have Flannigan and Flynn commandeer a plane and to fly her back to Minnesota, permanently. She tells the cops she doesn’t have the key. They tell her their orders are to keep her in their custody until she is safely in her apartment. They ask her if any of her neighbors have a key. She says no.

Now Flannigan and Flynn have wives that are making dinner for them too and they get in trouble if they are late.  So Flannigan figures that the only thing between him getting home on time for dinner is getting Mrs. Ward safely in her apartment. So, he takes out his gun and breaks the kitchen window, unlocks the window, opens it and crawls in over the sink.

it gets even worse
Photo by Zetong Li

He notices immediately that something’s not right. The odor is overpowering. Is it a gas leak? No. Worse. He makes for the front door, opens it and rushes out into the fresh air. Mrs. Ward gets a whiff, takes a step back and says ‘the cat box!” “I told him all he had to do was feed the cat and clean the cat box!” Was that too complicated?”

So, to make a short story longer, he had his facts and she had her facts, just like most contested criminal cases. That’s what judges and juries are for. But we decided that day, April 4, 1968, that we didn’t need judges and juries, we just needed a date night every week even though we were already married.

Date night this week is Thursday, same as it was on April 4, 1968, the day that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated while standing on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. The day I promised my bride I would be there for her. And I wasn’t, I couldn’t, and finally, I shouldn’t have been there. I had a job to do.

city on fire

I was swept away by events way out of my control. All the law enforcement authorities were sending their bosses and top aides downtown to Chicago Police Headquarters at 11th and State. The Mayor’s Office, The Illinois Attorney General’s Office, the US Army and I don’t know how any other people wouldn’t be having dinner at home with their wives that night and for many nights thereafter.

By eight o’clock that evening I was high up in Police Headquarters looking down over the West Side of the City. It was burning out of control. Stores and businesses were being looted. It was chaos. All these governmental leaders were breaking down into smaller groups to handle problems on issues with which they had some expertise. The West Side politicians were trying to get their people to calm down and get off the streets so the fire trucks could get through to put out the fires that were burning down their neighborhoods.

this has to stop

Our assignment was to sit down with the leaders in the African-American community to work out a way to bring a halt to the shooting, the fires, and the looting. Stamos was particularly concerned because firemen were being shot as they tried to put out the fires. He understood that Dr. King’s assassination was nothing less than an outrage, but felt that right at the moment the heart of the problem was: “Nobody in Chicago murdered Dr. King; the people and merchants on the West Side who’s homes and business’s are burning are also African American. Attempting to murder firemen, who were risking their lives, trying to keep the community from burning to the ground, would never be condoned by Dr. King.” He warned the community leaders that anyone caught attacking police or fire officials trying to do their job would be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

His passion was terrifying. It broke up the meeting.


I don’t exactly know what happened after that. But the shooting at the firemen did stop shortly after that. The remaining fires were put out, but much of the  West Side looked like a war zone. The city would rebuild, just like it did in the years after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. But, like then, it would take years to accomplish.

Following the riots,  my courtroom cases were stacked up higher than ever.  My week-long sprint while my wife was away did not give me the hoped-for relief. But we came out of the incident with the tradition of having Thursday night  as date night every week, a tradition we still honor a half-century later.

For me the story of that day is a national tragedy, a love story, a comedy and a horror film of chaos and hell. That day was April 4th, 1968.

deja vu

As I write this, it is Tuesday, June 1, 2020. As I write this, the stores of the charming City of Minneapolis are shattered and the stores themselves are ablaze. The contents of those stores no longer hang on their racks but are now scattering down the streets in all directions in the arms of the mob. The destruction of Minneapolis particularly hits my wife and myself. Jule’s family still lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, Minneapolis’s sister city. They are a beautiful cities.

Is it possible that the theft of those inventories of goods and the destruction of those stores on top of a prolonged pandemic will mean the death of the Twin Cities our family knows and loves? Will it ever come back? The events of April 4th, 1968 were fifty-two years ago. Is it possible that nothing has changed? Will it ever change? Maybe we will have to give it another half century to find out.

Jay Ward