Sunday, July 15, 2007

Eric Lill comes home

Eric Lill, a proud son of Bridgeport, came home this weekend from Iraq, just not the way he always promised his mother.

A police escort and honor guard led the hearse carrying Lill's casket from Midway Airport back to the old neighborhood Saturday morning where Lill loved to Rollerblade, follow the White Sox and eat Connie's Pizza -- and where he'd planned to return once he left the Army.

"He'd always say, 'Don't worry about me. I'm coming home," said his mother, Charmaine, fighting back tears at the thought as she and her husband, Anthony, sat out front of the family's Canal Street two-flat one evening last week.

We sat across from each other in plastic lawn chairs, yellow ribbons in the trees, as a steady flow of neighbors and relatives dropped by with condolences and food, a show of support that reminded Anthony Lill more of the small Tennessee town where the couple now live than the brusque big-city neighborhood he left only recently.

"It's something I haven't seen in Bridgeport in a long time," he said.
But it's something Bridgeport has seen many times, as Eric Lill takes his place with James Humbert, Florian Jacolik, Joseph McKeon Jr. and Gregory Sintic among the many sons of Bridgeport who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

I mention those four only because each is memorialized with a local playlot named in his honor -- Humbert and Jacolik from World War II, McKeon and Sintic from Vietnam -- and some such honor will surely be found for Lill.

But there were others, young men who went off to war and never returned alive to this cradle of mayors.

While Bridgeport is known for its politics, not everybody who lives there is political, the Lills being a case in point. And many longtime residents think their neighborhood is as much distinguished by its history of patriotism: One of Bridgeport's two World War II victory gardens is just down the street from the Lills.

Eric Lill always insisted, though, that patriotism wasn't what motivated him and a buddy to enlist in the Army in October 2001, even though his decision came just a month after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"He just said he wanted to do it for his own self. He thought he needed it," said Anthony, indicating he wasn't sure he believed his son. "They never talked about it before that."

But joining up wasn't as simple as Lill expected. The Army initially rejected the former St. Laurence High School and Marshall University hockey player because he was overweight.

Rather than give up, Lill started working out on his own, and by the following February he had dropped from 245 pounds down to 198 on a 6-foot frame. When he reapplied, the Army took him, but Lill no longer had the option of joining the military police, as he had originally intended in hopes of parlaying the training into a future in law enforcement.

A police career had always been Lill's goal. When he was younger, he talked about joining the FBI but dropped out of college after a year to return home to marry his sweetheart. He took a job at the same Northlake food-packaging plant as his father and was planning to return there when he was discharged next year. But in one of their last conversations, Anthony Lill said his son was still talking about trying to join the Secret Service.

Eric Lill's wife divorced him in March while he was in Iraq, a source of lingering bitterness for his parents. Lill, 28, was on his second tour of duty when he was killed July 6 by a roadside bomb in Baghdad. He leaves behind two children -- Cody, 6, whom he called "Bug," and Mikayla, 4, who goes by "Lala."

Anthony and Charmaine Lill were both born and raised in Bridgeport. The home in which they brought up Eric is just across the street from her mother, Marlene Alvarado, who still owns both buildings. Anthony grew up on "the other side," which is what they say in Bridgeport when you're from the opposite side of Halsted Street.

The couple now live in Lawrenceburg, Tenn., a move they say was necessitated by Charmaine's arthritis and her need to escape Chicago's winters. Just the same, the Lills welcomed the cool lake breeze on this night.

A neighbor, "Uncle Sam" Conte, stopped by, introduced himself and told the story of enlisting on his 18th birthday during World War II, but allowed that he wouldn't advise anyone to sign up for this war.

I told Conte I'd heard there was another young man from this same block who had died in Vietnam.

"Larry Strum," he recalled wistfully. "He was just a kid, too."

The talk reminded Anthony Lill of Jackie Norcross, a childhood pal from "the other side" who went to Vietnam.

"He got killed, too," Anthony Lill said. "He was a friend of mine."

More relatives stopped by with platters of food. Anthony Lill said he appreciated the support the family had received.

"It makes me proud to say that Bridgeport was my home," he said.

But before he could finish the sentence, he was crying, too.

From the Chicago Sun Times

Related Link:
Eric Lill remembered by father

Related Link:
Eric Lill reported killed in Iraq