Hot Air: A Loving History

I just happened upon this pic of Muhammad Ali standing outside the Museum of Science and Industry in Chi. in 1966:


The MSI was my favorite place on Earth when I was a grade school kid. It was a long car ride from my home on the Northwest Side of the city down to Jackson Park, where the museum stood at Lake Shore Drive and 57th Street. When I was seven or eight, the trip seemed to take days.

Kids loved the MSI mainly because it was chock-full of exhibits that allowed us to press buttons, turn cranks, lift levers — all activating demonstrations of flight, chemical reactions, beating hearts, rockets lifting off, and every other cool thing we could imagine. I recall a long room with two huge Plexi-glas clamshell-type thingies at either end. The shells were about 50 yards from each other but they were curved and positioned in such a way as to allow one kid (or adult) to stand within it and whisper as softly as humanly possible while her/his friend would stand within the other and actually hear the whisper as if the first kid’s lips were an inch from her/his.

Spending a day at MSI — and a day was never enough; it was probably the only museum on Earth where parents and teachers had to drag kids out — afforded the visitor the opportunity to hear Aw, cool!, and Oh, neat!, and Joo see that! blurted out upward of a thousand times.

Perhaps the most memorable exhibit for me was in a grand stairwell, case after case after case containing sliver-thin slices of a cadaver, some poor old homeless man who’d been found frozen to death one winter. It was my first lesson in anatomy. Here’s the best image of it I could find:


The best thing about the exhibit was it filled me with curiosity:

  • Who was the guy?
  • How did they cut him?
  • What kind of saw did they use?
  • How did they get through the bones?
  • Where’s his blood?
  • Why is there green in his lungs?
  • Why is he so hunched up?

And so on. And isn’t that the whole point of education — to get a kid (or an adult) to wonder?

Anyway, Ali in the late winter of ’66 was in Chicago preparing for a bout against heavyweight champ Ernie Terrell. While in training for the fight, Ali’s local draft board in Louisville had reclassified him 1-A, meaning people in high places were eager to have him shipped off to a place called Vietnam. That surely was preferable to having him hanging around this holy land, being successful and outspoken, and — horrors — railing against racism. Ali hinted to reporters he just might not go to Vietnam if drafted. “I ain’t got nothing against no Viet Cong; no Viet Cong never called me nigger,” he said. He was summoned to report to his induction center. He went, but refused to step forward when his name was called, leading to the cancellation of the Terrell fight and a total ban from boxing in the US for four years.

Interesting tidbit: When he registered for the draft upon reaching the age of 18, Ali (then Cassius Clay) was classified 1-Y, meaning he’d only be called up to serve in the event of a national emergency. The lower classification came about because — get this — he was essentially illiterate. Who’da thunk it?

Funny story: I recall seeing Ali step out of a limousine on Wabash Avenue one spring morning sometime in the mid-’70s. He’d regained his championship title by then and was probably the most recognized sports figure in the entire world. He was trailed by a retinue of hangers-on with passersby adding to the crowd with each step he took. A bunch of guys hectored him. “You ain’t so tough,” they yelled. “C’mon, big man, I’ll kick your ass right here on the street!” The jeerers high-fived each other and roared with laughter. Ali simply ignored them.

While double-checking my dates for this post, I came upon this: Ali, back before he converted to Islam and still went by the name Cassius Clay, visited Las Vegas not long after his Rome Olympics triumph in 1960. There he met the most famous pro wrestler at the time, a fellow named Gorgeous George. The wrestler counseled him on how to be a showman. Clay, clearly, was an eager student.


Light-heavyweight Champ Clay At The Rome Olympics

Back to the Museum of Science and Industry: I’d always figured the statues of robed women that served as columns were of some goddesses or other demi-divinities from Greek mythology. Turns out they’re just robed women.

The home of the MSI originally was built as the Palace of Fine Arts for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Unlike the vast majority of buildings erected for what was referred to as the White City, the Palace was built to last. The other grand-appearing structures of the White City were built with a mixture of plaster of Paris, glue and hemp fiber applied to wooden frames. The Beaux Arts-style Palace was constructed on a steel and brick sub-structure to ensure a safe spot for the priceless works of art on display. After the world’s fair the structure housed the Columbian Museum which was later moved to its present home just north of Soldier Field and renamed the Field Museum of Natural History. A quarter of a century after the fair, Sears, Roebuck and Co. big boss Julius Rosenwald financed a rebuild of the Palace’s exterior walls, using 28,000 tons of Indiana limestone to replace the plaster/glue/hemp composite. Now the structure was truly permanent.

The Museum of Science and Industry opened in 1933. I haunted the place from the mid-’60s until I left Chi. in 2007. I guarantee you this: Next time I’m up in my beloved hometown, I’m dropping by the museum for old times’ sake.

One thought on “Hot Air: A Loving History

  1. Chris P. says:

    I, too, remember seeing the sliced cadaver when I was a kid. How did they do it? ?? Maybe it’s a question for Hotline. BTW, Happy New Year!

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