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WACCOs find their places in the sun

August 06, 1987|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | The writer is a Chicago native.

To understand the mentality of a Chicagoan in Southern California, remember that the advent of good weather in Chicago makes people a little crazy.

When the first warm winds blow, the streets and stoops of Chicago fill with crowds. Cars with blaring radios cruise the lake front. People shout, drink, laugh, fight. People stagger through the night with beer bottles in hand, celebrating their liberation from months of Arctic misery.

Chicagoans who have moved to Los Angeles get to act like that all year. Consider the recent Sunday outing of the Western Assn. of Crazy Chicagoans and Others (WACCO).

The drinking started about 10 a.m. The meeting place was the parking lot of C. J. Bretts, a Hermosa Beach restaurant. After being issued white Frisbees, sun visors and beer cups, 150 WACCO members crammed into two yellow school buses bound for the Cubs-Dodgers game.

The buses were hot and crowded. People sat three to a seat and filled the aisles, pounding ceilings, hanging out of windows. War whoops, shrieks of laughter and the incessant popping of beer cans punctuated chants of "Beer run, beer run! Oo! Ah!" "More taste! Less filling!" and "Here we go, Cubbies, here we go!"

Pedestrians stared as if the buses were filled with escapees from somewhere. Which they were.

"I decided in 1978 I wanted to come to California," said Bob Lyons, who founded the group five years ago. He hails from Berwyn, Ill., a working-class suburb southwest of Chicago. "In Berwyn, people are working on the railroad, trucking companies, getting married, settling down. I didn't want to do that. I wanted to get away from all that and find something new."

Lyons ended up in Manhattan Beach, where he met a host of other Chicagoans who had arrived in the South Bay "with the same mission": a pilgrimage to the idyllic locales that spite Midwesterners from their TV screens. They found it easier to make friends with fellow pioneers who spoke the same language, who were somewhat overwhelmed by a clash of life styles and values.

"Chicagoans are down-to-earth, friendly, dependable," Lyons said. "That's the key word, dependable. " Hastening to add that he didn't mean to cast aspersions on Californians, Lyons said the Midwesterners also came together because they shared the same iconic animals: Cubs, Bears, Blackhawks and Bulls.

The group consists mainly of young, single adults who live in the beach cities and work for airlines and aerospace firms. Three years ago, after numerous outings to sports events involving Chicago teams, they chose the name Western Assn. of Crazy Chicagoans and Others (to include a handful of other Midwesterners with Chicago-style spirit). The mailing list has grown to 400; regular picnics, trips and softball games complement free-lance socializing.

"We have our own awards banquet every year," said Don Simon as he watched the Dodgers and Cubs trade home runs. "It's mostly just guys. We have the Outstanding Gentleman of the Year. Cutest Date. Most Likely to Succeed. . . . This year I'm striving for the Party Animal of the Year award."

Two years a WACCO member, Don Simon, says he adapted to California as if it were the Promised Land. But he's still convinced that Mecca is on the north side of Chicago.

"Wrigley Field is the best place to watch a ball game in the entire universe," said Simon, who works for Alitalia Airlines. "Chicago is a great city. It's like a big city with a small-town atmosphere. Hopefully, I'd like to have enough money someday where I could live in Chicago during the summer and Los Angeles during the winter."

During the seventh-inning stretch, Lori Garmon talked about the needs that WACCO fulfills for her and the others. The good times are plentiful, but Garmon said many of her friends face an unresolved conflict about where to spend the rest of their lives.

It goes deeper than irritants such as smog, traffic and freeway gunfire. They have an idealized picture of home as a tight-knit neighborhood, a house on a quiet street, a family. Los Angeles doesn't fit that picture.

"I'd never stay in L. A.," Garmon said cheerfully, a sentiment that others echoed. "I'd never raise kids in L. A. They do drugs too early, they have sex too early, everything's too fast. The bottom line is that you have to evaluate what's more important to you, weather or people whom you care about. There are parts of living here that I love. But you want to feel that you belong somewhere. People here move too much."

Of the 150 people on the Cubs outing, Garmon predicted that perhaps 30% will still live in Los Angeles in 10 years. Searching for "down-to-earth" surroundings and "warm people," the rest will move back to Chicago or to San Diego, "somewhere where it's more low-key, " Garmon said.

On the field, the Dodgers engineered a late-inning comeback and ended up winning by a run. In the upper deck, the loss was taken with dazed and philosophical good cheer. Cubs fans know how to savor defeat, figuring things could always be worse and probably have been.

"Everyone's in such a good mood," said Allesandro Grappiolo, a visitor from Italy and guest of Simon's.

"We're celebrating being together," someone shouted.

Back on the freeway, the party continued. A few people slept. Others looked out the windows as the buses sped westward.

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