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Friends with flags welcome dawn’s early light

Members Calumet Park Beach Bums watch sunrise Calumet Park Beach Chicago IL Monday September 3 2012. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media

Members of the Calumet Park Beach Bums watch the sunrise at Calumet Park Beach in Chicago, IL on Monday September 3, 2012. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: October 5, 2012 6:08AM



While most American laborers were taking advantage of Monday’s hard-earned holiday to sleep in, Frankie Caporale and friends were unfurling American flags in the pale light of dawn.

The sun, which had been playing hide and seek all weekend, seemed to shine its approval.

“This is a combination Labor Day and 9/11 commemoration ceremony,” said Caporale, as he greeted early risers to Calumet Park Beach, something he’s been doing every Sunday morning for the past two years. The Monday get-together held special meaning for the group of longtime friends, many of whom are union workers, all of whom have seen the devastating effects the economy has had on the job market.

“This is to show our love for our country,” Caporale, 51, said. “No matter what we are up against, there is no greater country in the world.”

Caporale immigrated to Chicago’s East Side from Italy when he was just 10. He didn’t speak a word of English, and he has fond memories of good friends helping him assimilate.

Though many of his Washington High School companions moved away from the neighborhood after graduation, Caporale still returned regularly to their favorite hang out, the cement steps that front a portion of Cal Park Beach, a place they lovingly called “the rocks.”

One day a few years ago, Caporale, who drives for Chicago’s Streets and Sanitation Department, snapped a photo of the horizon and posted it to his Facebook page. Soon after, he posted another and then another. He accompanied each day’s picture with a warm greeting, “Have a great day,” “Happy Sunday, my friends.”

Mike Emerson saw the photos and decided to reconnect with Caporale, in person. “We’d been Facebook friends but one day I thought, I’m gonna go see him,” Emerson said. “So I showed up here at the rocks on a Sunday at 5 a.m.”

Susan Green, John Koziarski and Laura Foote all tell a similar story, of turning Facebook’s virtual get-together into real-life hugs and conversation. Now they come regularly on Sunday mornings, to watch the sun rise over the water, to catch up and, in the case of Monday’s flag tribute, to acknowledge their blessings.

“The bonds made in childhood are strong,” Caporale said. “These are the people we grew up with. It’s important to see each other.”

Ken Laski said, “This is a special thing, to be able to get together. It brings a tear to my eye. We’ve all made it this far and we’re all still together.”

Craig Janota said the opportunity to celebrate workers is reason enough to get out of bed before dawn on the very day he should be resting on workers’ laurels.

“I’m happy to have a job,” said Janota, a Ford Assembly plant employee. “Unions are important to me. We fought hard to get you your weekend, your paid holidays. Unions are the reason there is a middle class today.”

Ely Garcia, who now lives in Burnham, said he joined the Labor Day tribute because he has cause to celebrate. He has been able to find construction work as a general contractor.

“But many of my friends are down and out,” he said. “We need more jobs. The economy is not progressing the way it should be.”

Much like the unions they honor, Caporale said the friends show solidarity when they rise at dawn and join forces along the shore, whether they’re waving coffee cups or American flags.

Linda Wisniewski brought a flag that was used by her friend, a search and rescue crew member, at ground zero after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“After she passed away from cancer, her husband sent it to me,” Wisniewski said. “It only comes out on 9/11.”

Wisniewski went to Washington with Caporale. Today, she lives in Lansing and is a nurse for University of Chicago Hospital.

“The older you get, the more you realize how important it is to stay connected with good friends,” she said.

Debbie Melcarek met Caporale and the gang through her husband, Chris Melcarek, who was a student at Washington.

“Since we reconnected a couple of years ago, we’ve been coming out here five or six times a summer,” she said. “We’ve met so many more people. We just love it.”

They have Caporale to thank for that.

“We call him the mayor of the East Side,” she said.



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