Friday, March 11, 2011

New Math And Glory Days

Being a student in our educational system in the 60's and 70's, I was a Guinea Pig like my peers into some of the experiments are educators thrust upon us. New Math was probably the biggest fiasco in any school system. 1 + 1 was no longer 2. It was 1 + 1 = 2 - 1 = 1. All facts had to be proven. Forget a parent trying to help you with your homework. This fact strongly lead to its demise.

Administrators also tried to separate classes by grade point. In my 7th grade, there were 4 classes labeled 7A,B, C, and D. The theory being that the "Smarter" class wouldn't get held back by slower students. I was in the "A" class. Why? I don't know. I certainly wasn't a particularly smart student, nor did I have the attitude to become one. Our class had more misfits in it than any room in the school. They just got away with more because they knew the system better.

In my hometown of Struthers, Ohio, the schools were bursting at the seams with the large number of Baby Boomer Children. The steel mills were still going strong and the population was at an all-time high of about 17,000. Six elementary schools and one high school served the city's needs. An 8th grade building was used for a few years in the 70's to ease the overflow. Lyon-Creed School became notorious.

Kids entering 8th grade were hitting those famous years of Teenage Rebellion and hormones running amok. No longer were they bound by a class or two in a school of seven or eight grades. About 400 hell-raising 13 and 14 year olds were now in one building. It became a competition amongst the boys to see who could get the most paddlings, in the days of corporal punishment allowed in school. Three swats at a time were administered by the Principal or the teacher if they desired. The sound of the paddle and the subsequent yelp of a student as wood met pants bottom echoed in the halls, met with a snicker by all who could hear it.

I was the unofficial leader of getting the most cracks with twenty seven. The worst paddling I ever received was from a female teacher everyone knew as "Tootsie". Her years spent as a majorette, twirling a baton, gave her VERY strong wrists. Her swats about lifted me off the floor. Paddling did become a deterrent not to act up in her history class. Of course, to my children that attended the same school system, I disavow any knowledge of bad behavior.

The social experiment of a solitary 8th grade also lead to numerous altercations between students. Struthers was about 98 percent white and this was the first experience of many kids to share a classroom with black students. For those that inherited the bigotry of a parent, it was quite a learning curve to grant acceptance. More fights were between boys from different grade schools that didn't grow up together. The 8th Street Basketball Court was the usual gathering place for an after school brawl. about six blocks from the school that was far enough away that teachers were out of eyeshot to what was going on.

After much discussion, cajoling, begging, and down-right sucking up, our 8th grade was allowed to go to the high school on Friday afternoons for the Varsity Football Assemblies at The Struthers Field House. Football was King at that time and brought our community together. Struthers was undefeated for two seasons in a row. Standing room only was the norm at the home games and several buses took students to many away contests. One of my best memories was of us beating perennial powerhouse, Youngstown Cardinal Mooney, 7-6 at South High Stadium. Many of us "Boomers" reminisce about those days and wonder how we would have done if the state playoffs were held then. Each generation has their "Glory Days", I think those were mine.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Rolling Along On Saturday Mornings

Most urban areas of a decent size have roller skating rinks, Youngstown being no exception. In my youth in the 60's and 70's, The Boardman Rollercade was the place to go. What better place could mom dump her kids at on a Saturday morning to get a little peace and quiet?

My dad would give me a dollar to cover my day's entertainment. 50 cents admission, 35 cents for skate rental,(50 cents if you wanted "Precision"skates), and 15 cents for a soft drink. Any snacks or games of pinball came out of my allowance of a dollar a week.

I probably began skating regularly in third grade following numerous Cub Scout Outings or birthday parties there. I seldom missed a Saturday during the Cold Weather Months, which in Ohio is about eight months long. I usually didn't see any kids from my school and made friends with lots of the "Regulars" that were always there.

The session lasted from 9 A.M. until Noon. It was always structured the same way. It was started out with the mysterious man in the glass booth on the second floor playing the organ and announcing,"All Skate"! A stampede of kids would come flying out on to the main floor trying to be the first one to complete a lap. Naturally, there would always be a "Wreck" with numerous kids falling on the floor and others tripping over them. The dreaded Skating Guards would do their best to limit the pile-up by skidding to a halt behind them and blowing their whistles to alert everyone. The Skating Guards had ultimate power out on the floor and had boys sit for a period of time for horseplay, racing, tripping, and other stupid stunts.

The Rollercade played records most of the time of popular songs that were at least a year old. They must have bought them on sale at The Record Rendezvous up the street. I can still hear "Winchester Cathedral" and "Green Tambourine" playing in my head. After several songs a Couples Skate was called and all the boys scrambled to find a girl to skate with to the lame organ music again. I always sought out Debbie. She was a neighbor of my aunt and uncle and skated in a lot of competitions. She was cute and pleasant and all the boys watched us as we skated by.

About halfway through the session, everyone gathered in the middle for "Fun and Games". The Mexican Hat Dance led off followed by The Hokie Pokie. The Limbo Rock was played as some little squirt would win the competition and get a ticket for a free drink. The last event was racing with boys and girls racing separately by age. The same kids would usually win every week except the boys' races looked more like Roller Derby. More than one kid got laid out or "accidentally" got pushed into the wall.

By my junior high years, I switched to skating on Friday night, Teen Night. I met more girls from other schools which led to numerous altercations with boys from their school that apparently didn't like me moving in on "their" women. After an adjustment period of the boys putting their testosterone in check, girls seemed to be clamouring to skate with me. Of course, I was full of myself. Little did I know that the real reason they wanted to skate with me was: (A) To make another boy jealous or (B) Because I could skate well backwards and they could continue talking to a girlfriend beside them as they skated with me.

Business wasn't doing to well at The Rollercade. Competition from a modern rink and it's location in not the best part of town contributed to it's demise. The elderly brothers that owned the rink sold it to Schwebel's Bakery for a warehouse. I still drive by the place from time to time when I'm in town. I reminisce about a lot of good times as I rolled through the years.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

You're Really From Murder Town USA?

I am always truly amazed by the reactions from people, where ever I may travel in this country. Mention you're from the Youngstown, Ohio Area and usually they say,"Murder town USA" or "Is it still ran by the Mafia?" Old mystiques die hard. I moved away from Struthers, a Youngstown suburb, twenty five years ago. As soon as people hear I came from there, a comment ALWAYS follows.

I guess a little history is in order to give you a background why Youngstown became so notorious. The steel industry put Youngstown on the map. At one time, the area had twenty three miles of steel mills along the Mahoning River. It required a huge labor force to work at the hot, back-braking jobs that paid very well in a union environment. Thousands of immigrants flooded Youngstown and settled into neighborhoods usually of the same ethnic persuasion.

Just like in much larger cities like New York City or Chicago, "Turf Wars" often broke out with rival ethnic groups fighting over who controlled a certain part of town. After World War II, things settled down considerably. Tensions now were often directed towards individual "Families", especially those of Italian decent. Allegiance to "Families" stretched far and wide with one group loyal to their main family from New York and maybe another representing a family from Chicago.

Growing up there, it was second nature to know somebody that was in or connected to a mob. They had their hands into anything and everything to make a buck on. The mob touched every part of people's lives in Youngstown, whether they knew it or not. Many labor unions were controlled by "Wise Guys" with their hand in the coffers of the working men. Another business they took over was vending machines, Juke Boxes, and amusement games. Many merchants didn't have a choice but to put a machine in ran by a mobster, if he knew what was good for them.

The "Murder Town USA" acronym came from a survey that determined more murders per capita were committed in Youngstown than any other city in the country. Mob violence spilled over into the streets and gangland-type murders and bombings were frequent in the 1950's and 60's. One car bombing in the 60's took place in downtown Youngstown with a rival mobster's leg being found on top of the Lustig's Shoe Building. This generated many jokes for months to come just to show you how calloused people became to the violence.

Yes, many communities were controlled by The Mob. Many politicians had to answer to some mobster. It's amazing how deep they had their hooks into every facet of government,too. So many people are still in denial about the influence of criminals on communities. I assume these are the same folks who bury their heads in the sand at the first sign of trouble.

My first direct contact with a local Wise Guy was as a young teenager at my friend's apartment. This guy had a typical platinum-blond bimbo girlfriend that lived next door to my buddy. Seeing us outside the complex one Thanksgiving night, he insisted we come in and eat dinner with them. We protested to him that we just finished eating at our own homes. Wise Guy said he didn't care as he filled our plates with turkey and mashed potatoes with all the trimmings. "Eat!", he bellowed and we wolfed down the food as quick as we could.

After dinner, my friend and I just looked at each other and rolled our eyes, not believing what we just had to do. Wise Guy wanted to play around with us now and started to throw soft slap punches at us in the living room. He said, "Let's see how tough you are. Punch me in the stomach." I hit him without much force and he glared at me. "I said PUNCH ME!", he growled. I cranked up and hit him with my best fourteen-year-old Haymaker. He never even flinched. I sprained my wrist and it hurt for a month. Now I see how he got his reputation, tough as nails.

I was fortunate to come in first on the Civil Service Exam for Fireman in my home town and received the appointment. Right after the Swearing-in Ceremony, one of the older firemen told me to consider myself lucky. I asked why and he replied that I was the first Fireman appointed that wasn't approached to pay for his job. He said the going rate was $500. I let him know it would have been a cold day before I would have paid a dime. Maybe they knew that or the Wise Guy I knew just let me slide. I never said I was smart, but I did have honor.

I don't really know who gets the credit for it, but by the mid-80's, The Mob was all but eliminated in the Youngstown area. Some say it was the FBI. Some say it was a new breed of politicians. Some think it was just a poor economy after the steel mills closed. After all, It was pretty hard for the mob to function with so many businesses gone or struggling. I do know that the Wise Guy I knew disappeared, just like Jimmy Hoffa. Rumors ran rampant for years to come, but apparently he's still sleeping with the fishes. I think of him every time I get indigestion.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Sandmen Are Gonna Getcha!

Growing up in the 60's in The Youngstown Area, my "Must See" TV was "4:30 Showtime" on WFMJ-TV, channel 21, an NBC affiliate. Showtime always showed a Sci-FI movie usually the "B" type, that usually made you laugh more than be scared by the monsters, etc. that graced the screen. You could always see Space Ships flying across the skies and notice they were suspended by a string or see the zipper on an actor's monster suit. What a hoot!

Being eight or nine at the time, a few of the movies grabbed my attention and caused nightmares that reoccurred for years. Back in the Cold War Days, our parents were more worried about Nuclear War than what their children were watching on television. A family very seldom had more than one TV, a color set was a real luxury. Of course, my Dad controlled what shows we watched in the evening. After school until dinner time, I had my choice and "4:30 Showtime" was my favorite. I never dared telling my folks that some of the movies bothered me, knowing that I'd never get to watch Showtime again.

The movie that bothered me the most was, "The Sand Men". One of the corniest "B" movies ever made. Aliens landed in the outskirts of a small town and built an underground network of sand tunnels that unsuspecting locals walked upon and fell into the tunnels. The people were then captured and converted into Zombie-like creatures that were returned to their community. They slowly took over the town by attracting others to the sand dunes that swallowed up most of the town's people, including the Eight year old boy main character's father. Naturally, no one believed the little boy until it was almost too late. The military came to save the day, the boy was a hero, yadda, yadda, yadda...

Not long after seeing this flick, I had a nightmare that featured my aunt and uncle as the leaders of The Sandmen. They were always trying to capture me in my house by hiding in our furnace ducts and reaching through the grates to try and grab me. Our house actually did have huge furnace grates on the walls, being a converted coal furnace. The unmistakable sign that someone was an alien in the movie was two puncture marks on the back of their neck. This showed they had undergone the alien medical process of conversion. Never saying anything to anyone, I was always secretly checking adults for the tell-tale scars on their necks, especially my aunt and uncle.

I frequently was asked to go to my aunt and uncle's house after church on Sunday. I'd spend the day with them getting spoiled and knowing there would be special treats, like Dairy Queen. After the movie and my nightmares, I politely declined. I don't know what they thought about it, I just knew I wasn't going to become an alien! My days of visiting them alone were over.

Fast forward to 1973 when I was eighteen years old. Growing up in the Blue-Collar Steel Town of Struthers, I was a self-proclaimed Tough Guy. I admitted no fear and was always up for a challenge to prove my manhood. Then, I saw the movie, "The Exorcist". That movie scared the Crap out of me! When Linda Blair was spinning her head around and hurling Pea Soup, I was cowering low in my seat. Never appearing weak, I laughed along with my buddies afterwards proclaiming how lame the movie was. If my friends only knew then that the next day I moved my bed back upstairs after being in the basement most of my teen years.

I never trusted that dark, dank basement anyhow. When I was down there alone, I always had a feeling of someone was watching me. I'd race up the steps before anything could ever catch me. I heard enough hype about the Exorcist movie and some of the bizarre things that happened to the cast and crew. It was probably just conjured up to generate interest and help publicity. I just wasn't taking any chances. For all I knew, my aunt and uncle were still hiding in the furnace ducts!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Just Love To Be Headed Down The Highway

I don't know what first sparked my interest in motorcycles when I was a kid. It might have been an older neighborhood kid who was always tinkering with his broken down Harley in his garage. Living two doors away, we knew what time he came home every night. The loud rumble could be heard two blocks away. It became a standing joke in my family. We'd look at each other when we heard his bike and exclaim, "Paul's home!"

Mini-bikes were a big craze in the late 60's. They were miniature motorcycles with lawn mower engines on them for power. The problem with them was they weren't street-legal and there were very few places to ride one in Struthers, my hometown, a suburb of Youngstown, Ohio.

As much as I begged and pleaded, my folks never gave in to me to let me have anything on two wheels other than a bicycle. I did sneak a ride or two on some friend's mini-bikes and it instantly transformed me into feeling like Peter Fonda in the "Easy Rider" movie. Feeling the wind through your hair and enjoying the freedom of the open road. The Steppenwolf song, "Born To Be Wild" immediately began playing in my head....."Get your motor runnin', headed down the highway, lookin' for adventure and whatever comes our way..."

When I was thirteen or fourteen, my Uncle Jack got a Honda 750 and I immediately became his passenger for Sunday rides all over Northeastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania. I loved every minute of it and can recall many rides in detail. It seemed to awaken all my senses. A couple bucks worth of gas and a cheeseburger and Coke at some Greasy Spoon Restaurant gave us a whole day of enjoyment for less than five dollars. What a deal!

My parents remained adament about not allowing me to get a motorcycle. In the Spring of my Senior year, when I was eighteen and totally responsible for my own actions and debt, I purchased my first bike. a brand-new Honda 360 CL. It was a combination road and off-road motorcycle. High exhaust pipes and a lot of ground clearance made it possible to take it anywhere and I did. I really learned to ride well off-road before I put too many miles on it on a busy highway. I gained confidence and respected the power I had underneath me. I saw the results of what happened to a lot of kids I knew when they showed off or drove too fast for conditions.

That Summer, my buddy, Greg and I headed out on our motorcycles to Gainesville, Georgia, where my Uncle Jack and his family had moved to a couple of years earlier. We hit torrential rain the ENTIRE way down South. The cheapo rain suit I bought didn't last fifty miles. I bumped my leg again the hot exhaust pipe and a small hole was burned into the rain suit. The wind started blowing into the hole and before you knew it, the complete rain gear was ripped from my body at 60 M.P.H.! Shazam! We stopped periodically under overpasses to empty out our boots and wring out our shirts. We made it in one full day. A distance of about 750 miles. Ahh, to be young again! I could never drive that many miles on a motorcycle in one day today. I used my turn signals as foot rests from time to time, just to change my position.

Greg and I had many adventures during our week stay in Northern Georgia. I'll have to go into detail in a future post about that. We headed back home riding side by side. By now we were so attuned to each other's riding style, all we had to was nod our head in the direction we want to go in. We moved in formation like The Blue Angels, gliding in and out of the lanes on the interstate. We made it as far as Cincinnati and fatigue took over. we pulled into a Rest Area and slept on picnic tables for a couple of hours only to be awakened by a State Trooper tapping us on the bottom of our boots with his night stick, telling us we couldn't sleep there. We made the final push home, five hours of "White Line Fever".

Until recently, I've had a motorcycle. I moved up to bigger and better ones over the years. I've traveled to most of the USA on a Honda Gold Wing Touring Motorcycle. There's no better way to take in the country. A bike allows a panoramic view of your surroundings and you can always feel that rush of wind through your hair, albeit, these days there's less of it to blow around. Plus, you can always play that music in your head without a stereo, "Get your motor runnin'..."

Thursday, August 5, 2010

You Drive For Show and Putt For Dough

One of the great outlets in life when growing up in Northeast Ohio is the game of Golf. As a kid with nothing to do in the Summer, Golf filled that void for me all through my school years. My folks knew that they could drop me off at Countryside Golf Course near my home in Struthers and I'd be out of trouble for the entire day.

I bought my first set of golf clubs with the money I made caddying at Tippecanoe Country Club. I was twelve years old and purchased them at Strouss-Hirshberg Department Store in downtown Youngstown. An unlikely place to buy sporting equipment at an upscale store, but my sister worked there and I got them with her discount which made them affordable with my meager savings.

My early days of golfing was strictly trial and error. I learned basically by observation. I caddied for some really good golfers and some real duffers. I picked up all sorts of good and bad traits that others were all too happy to correct me about over the years, whether I wanted help or not.

Believe it or not, I refined my putting skills at none other than a regulation Putt-Putt course. I played there often and learned how to judge the speed and distance of putting a ball. My "Short Game", the part of the golf game from 100 yards to the hole, became my strong suite. There's an old adage in golf that says,"You drive for show and putt for dough.", meaning that a long hit off the tee might be impressive, but if you are accurate with your short game, you'll do much better.

I never was great at golf, but I could hold my own with the average weekend golfer. Because golf requires so much timing and repetitive skills, it's next to impossible to be a terrific player without playing several times a week. Those of us the had to hold down a job and had a family seldom had the time to devote to the game. Also, golf in northern Ohio in the Winter months is downright impossible, even if you do use orange balls. So taking a 3-4 month break from the game each year doesn't help hone your skills.

As a young adult, I played in a men's league at Tanglewood Golf Course, near the Pennsylvania border. A beautiful hilly course that was one of the longest in the area. Our League was divided into two groups based on Handicaps. Handicaps level the playing field, so to speak, and a certain number of strokes are deducted from your score based on your average. I think the best handicap I ever had was a six, meaning I scored an average of six shots over par for an eighteen hole round.

At the end of the golf season in our league, I was fortunate enough to play for the league championship against a much older guy that was close to retirement age. I began to lick my chops at the thoughts of beating the heck out of this guy on the course. After all, I drove the ball twice as far as he did. Our match commenced with "The Old Timer" hitting the ball 150 yards at a time, right down the middle of the fairway. I snickered at his feeble attempt and promptly put my first drive in a pond. This is how the rest of the day pretty much went. I "got my clock cleaned" by this old guy! I was beaten and humbled by a guy three times my age. I guess there is something to that saying, "You drive for show and putt for dough." I certainly learned my lesson.

Fast forward about 25 years. My oldest son, Matt and I are playing golf occasionally before he moves out of state. Matt was a gifted athlete and an excellent golfer, frequently shooting par and sub-par rounds. Talk about de javu all over again! I've seldom seen anyone hit a ball as far as Matt. He frequently hits it over 350 yards from the tee! When he cranks one out there that far his accuracy falls way off. Here comes dear old dad, 200 yards down the middle and my good short game. Amazingly, Matt has never beaten me in all these years. I guess I've learned my lesson. It's time to pass on my wisdom to my son.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Chad And The Bonnie And Clyde Award

I recently attended a four day all-class reunion in my hometown of Struthers, Ohio. It's been many years since I spent more than a few hours there. My family moved away as well as most of my friends. I saw so many people I haven't talked to in 25 to 30 years. What a Hoot!

I could probably write a post about each person I talked to and how their interaction with me affected my life. I'm sure a few stories will trickle out of me in the coming months, but the rest of this post I'm going to concentrate on my friend Chad and his impact on the man I have become. As an impressionable teenager, I don't think anyone had an impact on me more than Chad.

Chad was the Special Education Teacher at Struthers High School during my years there in the 70's. Special Education was really still in it's infancy in those years, at least in Struthers. Poor Chad had to struggle to get ANYTHING for his classroom, including the classroom itself. Originally, class was held in a converted concession room in the field house, know as Room 99. All students became known as "99er's" by the regular student body, a nasty acronym as bad as calling someone mentally-challenged "Retarded". The Principal decided the school needed that room for other purposes and once again moved Chad's class to a small coach's office up the stairs in a farthest corner of the field house.

I originally befriended Chad on the freshman track team, when he was a coach. He had and still has a very easy-going nature and an infectious smile that immediately puts you at ease. I complained to him one day how boring school was because of all the Study Halls I had, instead of real classes. He told me he could always use help in his classroom and invited me to become a Teacher's Aid for him. I readily agreed and for the next three years, I spent every extra minute at school helping out in his class.

For some unknown reason, the kids with special needs became like part of my family. Chad came up with "Special Projects" for me that he said would be a challenge for me, but thought I could handle it. I fell right into his hands. He knew my competitive nature and that I wouldn't let him down once he put his trust in me. Most of the "Projects" involved me working one on one with a student. Usually it was related to learning the "three R"s, where a student was having particular difficulty grasping an understanding. He put me one-on-one with someone to learn multiplication tables, for instance. It was very rewarding to me to see "The Light Bulb" go off when they understood a concept.

Sometimes Chad would give me a task with a student that had nothing to do with school work. One pupil had very poor hygiene habits and wore dirty worn out clothes. Chad told me to take this boy under my wing and teach him proper bathing and personal hygiene, including how to wash clothes. Chad gave me phone numbers of agencies and churches and said the rest was up to me. A daunting task for a sixteen years old. In working with the boy, he gave me every excuse under the Sun for not being clean and having dirty clothes. His family was Dirt Poor, that much I understood. I received a small amount of money from a local church to buy him some clothes. I think socks, shoes, underwear, and three changes of clothes was all we could afford. It was a start. I had him shower every day in the gym locker room when no one else was around. The poor kid had never used a wash cloth or washed his hair with shampoo. We kept all his clothes and toiletries hidden away at school and washed his clothes in the washer and dryer used for the basketball team. Within a month, the transformation was incredible. The kid looked good and brimmed with confidence!

The High School principal, long known as a tyrant to students and staff alike, fought Chad over everything. A simple request like a chair with rollers on it for the concrete floor in his class room was denied. Every time Chad moved his squeaky wooden chair, it disrupted his class. Knowing of his dilemma, I "borrowed" his chair over night and installed Rollers on it. It was sitting in it's usual place the next morning under his desk. The look on his face was priceless the first time he glided across the floor, smiling from ear to ear.

For deeds like that and other clandestine acts of daring to obtain items for the class room that Chad couldn't get through normal channels, another young lady and myself were awarded Chad's first "Bonnie And Clyde Award". A small plastic Precious Moments-Type statue of a little boy and girl accompanied Chad's short speech at the end of the school year, thanking us for our efforts. Our celebration included the ever-present Popcorn and RC Cola that I'd slide out of school to obtain down the street at Mike's Party Shop.

The System finally got the best of Chad a couple of years later and he left the school to begin his own successful excavation business. I don't know if Chad ever regretted his decision to leave teaching. I know He had a lot of impact on every life he touched and everyone was better off in life having known him. His influence on me propelled me into seeking a teaching degree in Special Education and being kinder and gentler to those less fortunate in life. Thanks, Chad.