Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Do We Really Need To Celebrate New Year's?

With another year coming to a close, I've been sifting through my memory banks of past New Year's Eves and reminiscing on the good ones and the "What The Hell was I Thinking" ones from my past. I've decided the bad ones have won out in my recollections. I can use alcohol as an excuse, only in my adult years.

The earliest remembrances of New Year's Eve I have is of straining to stay up until Midnight with my older sisters and our baby sitting grandmother. Everyone would be watching Guy Lombardo and The Canadians usher in the new year on television. At the stroke of Midnight, we would run out on to the front porch and bang on a huge cooking pot with wooden spoons. What excitement, eh? Five minutes later, I was sound asleep. This apparently would become a trend of future celebration. Woo Hoo! Happy New Year! Ok, let's go to bed, I'm tired. I was not one of the original Party Animals.

New Year's Eves during my grade school years were pretty non-eventful. I recall a few sleep-overs at a friend's house. We would have pizza and play board games until the wee hours of the morning. This was before Mr. Microphone was invented, so I mean really, how much fun at a party could you have? We would make some obligatory crank phone calls to unsuspecting businesses or people. We even asked the classic question to a drug store," Do you have Prince Albert in a can? If you do, you better let him out before he suffocates!" Ba-Rump-Ba! Rim Shot please! We would just crack ourselves up! Thumbing through the phone book, I found the name of "some ethnic-type person" and called him. In my best "ethnic-type" voice I asked,"Is Louis there?" The man replied, "No. He went in The Service about six months ago!" I hung up and we rolled on the floor in laughter! I don't really know why we thought this was SO funny, but to this day, forty years later, when I see my friend who was my co-conspirator, I'll asked him if Louis is there. It STILL generates a laugh between us.

I think I was a freshman in high school when I went to a buddy's house for New Year's Eve with the parents gone for the night. There had to be a mix of twenty boys and girls. By Midnight, EVERYONE had "hooked up" with someone else, but me. Here's all these kids swabbing each other's tonsils and I'm sitting there pondering my obvious inadequacies. Did I have bad breath? Am I dressed funny? Is my teenage acne really that bad? I left the party extremely depressed and vowed to myself not to go to a party without a date again. It can scar a fifteen year old boy for life by seeing his friends score and he's left on the bench.

In my early 20's as a newly married adult, we went to a huge Buffet and Champagne Party at The Youngstown Country Club. This was open to the public and heavily advertised in the local paper. Riff-Raff from every walk of life attended this party. We had gone with several other couples and I was trying to keep up with the guys on consuming my fair share of the free booze. I've never been known as a heavy drinker. Hell, let's face it, I was a light-weight. Within an hour and a half, I was totally Snookered! I passed out with my head on our table before the food was even served. I'm sure the food would have helped me with the absorption of alcohol. I had drunk on an empty stomach. A deadly sin of being able to handle hard liquor. I was carted off by my friends to the back seat of the car to sleep it off. Everyone else partied the night away while I was heaving my guts out through the window of some body's Monte Carlo. Another of life's lesson learned the hard way.

I always have wanted to go to Times Square in New York City for the famous Ball Drop on New Year's Eve. The closest I've ever come to that is The Great Walleye Drop at Port Clinton, Ohio on Lake Erie. It's a tongue-in-cheek take-off of Times square with a five foot Paper Mache fish lowered down a flag pole as the final seconds of the year are counted down. A huge heated tent is set up downtown with a live band entertaining the crowd. Unfortunately, the year I went was a total disaster. My date and I got a late start for the one hour drive and had to park about a mile away from the event. The temperature with wind chill was MINUS 22 degrees and the wind was howling off the lake. By the time we reached the tent, it was completely full. People were shoved in there like cattle and no one could move. I'm not quite an Old Foogie yet, but I couldn't handle the Head-Banging Music the band was playing. We stood there for maybe five minutes, longing for some of the heat that we knew was inside that tent somewhere. A quick glance at each other confirmed our misery and we decided to leave. I think the only place we could find open was an Arby's fast food restaurant to get something to eat. Nothing but the best for my dates!

I celebrated the New Millennium at a party at the local Eagles Club. A nice dinner was served and each couple received a magnum of Champagne and commemorative glasses etched with "Happy New Year 2000" on them. Things were going pretty well until my girlfriend of a couple of years started to get a little tipsy. She began crying and telling me she wanted to go home. I asked what the problem was and she informed me she longed for her married internet lover in Texas! WHAT? I was clueless about this and thought things had ended between them before I was in the picture. Needless to say, I was deceived and honored her wishes and immediately took her home. For good.
What a great way to start the next one thousand years!

Given my track record for New Year's Eves, who can blame me for wanting to stay home. I can stay home and count my blessings for all that I do have and my family and friends that remain dear to me. I don't need to go out in public and make a spectacle of myself or others I am with. Given my unlucky past, it's bound to happen. Being the eternal optimist, NEXT year will be the best of my life!

Monday, December 28, 2009

A Friend In School Is A Friend For Life

I recently had Dinner with a half dozen of my classmates from Struthers High School. Wow! What a flood of emotions and memories came back to me. Some of these folks I've known since Kindergarten, a mere six year old at the time. We're almost talking Ancient History here, given that I graduated one score and sixteen years ago.

Growing up in the hard-scrabble suburbs of Youngstown, Ohio, like it or not, we were in it together. Relationships evolved over the years. Those you became close to in elementary school or junior high, didn't necessarily remain in high school. On the other hand, I've had friendships with people that have been unbroken for almost fifty years, that I could never replace. I was reminded of that over Dinner.

Sure, physically we all changed and now look like our parents.(Gasp!) Inside, we're all pretty much that same kid you were in your formative years. Intelligent, humorous, mischievous, lethargic, or goal-oriented, I firmly believe you set your path before you ever realized you did. I'll bet at ten years old, you could have written down the names of five people in your class you thought would be successful. Pull that paper out fifty years later and chances are you would have most names right. Nobody is a better judge of character than your peers.

I've learned over the years that most of the people that attend class reunions are comfortable in their own skins. These were your classmates that loved to interact with others, enjoyed the company, and didn't harbor resentment towards someone for things that happened in their youth. I was fortunate that I mingled within all groups in school. I could relate to everyone equally well and never felt out of place. That was a tribute to the character of the kids I associated with. No one was aloof and acted like they were a cut above anyone else. It was impossible to "put on airs" in Struthers, anyhow. Chances are your Dad worked in one of the steel mills or supporting industries and we were all middle-class.

I certainly can recall a lot of triumphs and tragedies during my school years. Undefeated football teams and exciting wins in many sports events on the plus side of life, death of a classmate or their parent by injury, illness or accident, on the negative side. We endured these things in a simpler time. No one worried about staying politically correct. We genuinely cared about "our own" and it wasn't uncommon for a teacher to lead us in a prayer over some adversity.

Being from a small town had many advantages over bigger cities. Sure, everyone knew your business, but if you haven't done anything wrong, who cares? Parents kept an eye out on all the kids in a neighborhood and would actually talk on the phone to the mother of a kid who was misbehaving. I learned that lesson many times the hard way. I couldn't get away with anything! In reflecting back, it probably helped to point me in the right direction, knowing any wrong-doing would catch up with me, sooner or later.

Our teachers were great for correcting us. I had to write," I will practice acting more like a fourth-grader and not like a kindergartner.", five hundred times when I acted up in class. The teacher looked at my finished work, noticed I misspelled "Kindergartner", tore it up, and had me write the sentences all over again. In eighth grade, I led the class in number of swats with the paddle at twenty seven. I did eventually learn my lesson. Well, sort of...I had my moments.

What eventually has become very clear to me is the lasting memories of all the kids I went to school with, some for thirteen years. We shared so much together it like being of one mind on so many topics. We were like one big blended family sharing common values of our community. We developed pride for a cause we believed in, not realizing then that this would forge us into the adults we would become. Struthers...Thanks for the memories, I'm proud to call you home.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

I Never Could Shake The Fat Guy With The Beard

Back in the 60's, Santa Claus was everywhere! In Youngstown and most other vibrant suburbs at the time, Santa seemed to be on every corner and in the Mega Department Stores that dotted the landscape.

Of course, The Thanksgiving Parade marked the start of the Holiday Season. We all turned out to see the floats of local merchants, bands, scouting groups, and military organizations. The highlight was Santa always at the end, sitting on top of the Fire Truck. He would toss handfuls of candy to youngsters that were darting on and off the curb, risking life and limb for a Jolly Rancher. The Firemen would keep the siren wailing at full blast, creating a decibel-splitting shriek to cause everyone to cover their ears. No wonder a lot of Dalmatians are deaf!

On shopping trips to Downtown Youngstown with my mother and older sisters, I was allowed to roam anywhere I wanted to. Before the days of cell phones, we just had to check-in every half hour, usually just going to where we parked the car. I knew better than to miss the appointed hour or half-hour, mom was a firm believer of "Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child."

On many of our excursions, I would visit Santa Claus At Mc Kelvey's and Strouss' department stores. I was in First Grade and somebody in class broke it to me about the real deal of Santa Claus. I suspected it for some time, but figured if I kept believing, I'd get more presents. In any event, I went to see Santa and usually there wouldn't be much of a line. I'd spit out my usual banter of what I wanted and he would hand me a large candy cane and a coloring book when we were done. I then headed to the competing store and went through the same process. If the lines were busy I would go two or three times to each and collect a bagful of candy and coloring material. I had it down to a science.

Quite often in my hometown of Struthers, the local merchants would sponsor Santa to appear nights and weekends at The Fifth Street Plaza. Fat, old St. Nick sure sounded like the policeman I knew that my buddy had just yelled, "Come and get us, Fat Ass!" to a few weeks earlier when we were exploring sewers, not far away. I had visions of Santa slapping the cuffs on us. Needless to say, we avoided this particular Santa on our many trips to Isaly's and Ben Franklin's Five and Ten.

Funny how things go Full Circle in life...Fast Forward 25 years, I was now a Full-Time Fire Engineer on The Struthers Fire Department. Guess who has to drive the Fire Truck in The Holiday Parade? Yup, you guessed it! My instructions to Santa Claus were pretty simple: Throw the candy far on to the sidewalk,(I didn't want to run over a Rug Rat!), and if he touched the siren, he wouldn't need a wink and a nod to get down the chimney, I'd be helping him with a Firemen's Boot!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Wait Until Next Year!

My earliest memories of The Cleveland Browns were of sitting "Indian-Style" with legs crossed with several other buddies on a concrete slab front porch, listening to the play-by-play on a small transistor radio. The volume on the radio wasn't loud enough for everyone to hear clearly, so the owner of the radio would hold it up to his ear and mimic the announcers.

I can remember all of us listening to the 1964 NFL Championship Game and hootin' and hollerin' as The Browns won their last title since I've been alive. Imagine, it has been almost 46 years since I've been able to claim MY team is the best in football. I have never wavered in my allegiance to the Browns, even though my heart has been broken several times by their last-second losses with legendary plays simply referred to by names like, The Drive, The Fumble, or Red-Right 88. Any Cleveland Fan knows what you're talking about when you mention these plays and The Browns remarkable record in futility.

Back in The Browns' Glory Days of the sixties, a lot of advertising promotions featured the team or one of their stars. Coca-Cola had a promo of collecting "Specially marked" bottle caps with a player's picture on the underside. I spent every day after school making the rounds to all the Coke machines I could find. Every gas station, grocery store, and pizza joint was fair game on my mission. I used a small magnet tied to a string to retrieve bottle caps from the built-in bottle opener bin on the front of the vending machines. Displays in grocery stores offered free Browns Posters showing all the players and the silhouette of the particular bottle cap you needed to collect.

Many prizes were available including autographed footballs, jerseys, and pendants. Despite my efforts, I wasn't able to get my hands on a few of the more elusive caps needed to complete the poster for a particular item. Jim Brown, Paul Wiggin, Frank Ryan, Gary Collins, Lou "The Toe" Grosa, which Bottle cap was it that I couldn't find? I was green with envy the day my friend came over and showed me the football he won in the contest. He had extra bottle caps of the ones I needed and graciously gave me the missing caps I needed. I begged my Dad to take me to the local Coke distributor to claim my prize. We were too late! The contest had ended! Once again, something involving The Browns had broken my heart. Too bad I didn't hold on to that poster and bottle caps. It would have been worth more than all the prizes today.

Being a Cleveland Browns Fan is not much different than a lot of other fans that root for a team that hasn't had much success in recent years. We've all had our highs and lows, mostly lows, but we still cheer on our team and are forever an optimist. We tell everyone, "Wait until next year!" and repeat that phrase each season for decades. We're not "Fair Weather Fans" that hop on The Band Wagon when the team does well. We're in it for the long haul, no matter what.

Growing up in The Youngstown, Ohio Area, we were exactly half way between Cleveland And Pittsburgh. Fans were divided pretty equally between The Browns and their bitter rivals, The Steelers. Many a friendship was affected by the rivalry between these teams. Many legendary games were played between the two and the outcome often determined which team advanced to the play-offs. My reasoning for being a Browns Fan was pretty simple. I lived in Ohio, The Browns were in Ohio, and I was always proud to be part of The Buckeye State. The attraction to Youngstown folks to The Steelers was their team name being tied to the steel industry, which Y- Town was a big part of until the 80's.

Art Modell, the owner of The Browns, moved the team to Baltimore in the mid-90's when he couldn't get a new stadium deal. He was and still is vilified for taking the beloved football team away from Cleveland. The NFL let Cleveland keep the name, team colors, and history and awarded them an expansion franchise in 1999. Yes, The Browns were back, but it hasn't been the same. A revolving door of coaches and players has kept The Browns out of the hunt for the play-offs in all but one year since they've been back.

I became President of The Ashland Browns Backers, where I live now, an hour's drive south of Cleveland. The Browns Backers Organization is the world's largest fan club with hundreds of chapters all over the globe. As you see, apparently I'm not the only one who still roots for The Browns and believes they'll once again have their Day In The Sun. After all, "Wait Until Next Year!"

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

It WAS Fun at The YMCA

It is hard to believe in these modern times that as a ten year old, I was allowed to take the city bus by myself from Struthers to Downtown Youngstown, Ohio, about a half hour trip. I caught the Buckeye 16 Bus, as the route was called, a block away from my house and it dropped me off on Champion Street in Y-Town at The YMCA.

The YMCA had a cleaver campaign at our grade school offering memberships at a discounted price. I brought home the literature all excited about the possibilities of joining and attending The Gym and Swim Program on Saturdays. My parents immediately squashed any hopes I had of getting a membership by saying they couldn't afford it and they couldn't spend their Saturdays ferrying me back and forth to the Y. Even though I suggested taking the bus, I resigned myself to the fact that it wasn't going to happen.

Lo and behold, on Christmas Morning, I opened an envelope and stared at my powder blue membership card to The Youngstown Young Men's Christian Association! I guess my whining and moping around the house for weeks paid off. I couldn't wait to go! I asked Dad if he was going to take me on Saturday. He said no, that I'd be taking the bus. To me, that was like an additional little bonus. The bus? Cool! How do I do that?

That first Saturday, my father handed me two dollars for bus fare and lunch and gave me the a thirty second speech on safety and how to catch the right bus home. "Look for the sign of the front of the bus that says Buckeye 16, Stupid!" Ok, directions understood. I was on my way, Gym Bag in hand. At every stop along the way, the bus folding doors would swing open and I'd look to see what classmates might be joining me on this adventure. Nobody! Not one single kid from my school had gotten a membership! I can't remember if I felt privileged or lonely.

Arriving at The Y was a Ball of Confusion! Scores of vehicles dropping boys off and the running and screaming in the front lobby was unbelievable! Finally, a Staffer let loose a loud enough whistle to wake the dead and restored some semblance of order. Too much high sugar cereal for most of those boys, I guess. We were taken as a group on a brief tour of this huge five-story facility. I was in awe of what was there to use. I especially was enamored with the indoor track above the Basketball Court. Banked sides and 29 laps for a mile. I thought it was soooo cool to run as fast as you could around the banking and be almost parallel to the ground! We played the typical Gym Class games along with Dodge Ball and Basketball. The Olympic-size Swimming Pool was ours for two hours. I made new friends quickly and looked forward to seeing them each week.

The Cafeteria at The YMCA was my first exposure to a Buffet. Food was healthy, plentiful and cheap compared to any nearby fast food joints. By the time I finished with Gym and swim, I was famished. I recall filling my tray full of food and gobbling it down and going back for more. No parent to tell me to slow down or to say that's enough. If it wasn't too late in the day, I'd walk a few blocks to Strouss' Department Store and buy one of their famous Chocolate Malts at their basement Malt Counter. Ten cents for a small, a Quarter for a large one! It put a Wendy's Frosty to shame for it's creaminess.

I suppose my experiences of going to and attending The Y, taught me a lot of life's lessons. I found I could have fun with others, not necessarily my friends. This was my first experience of meeting people of a different Race. White Bread Struthers had no "Ethnic Diversity" on my side of town. I learned independence as well, I could come and go as I pleased without dragging a friend along. My life-long attraction to athletics started there and I managed to stay in pretty good shape well into my adult life. Maybe The Village People were right...Listen to the song.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Get Your Kicks on Route 66 Or In Struthers

As previously mentioned, Struthers Field House was the largest covered structure in our county and was host to many events that attracted a large audience. In the Fall of 1960, the television series, "Route 66", filmed an episode there, which was a block away from my house.

Being 5 1/2 years old, I was pretty clueless about what was going on. I do know my older sisters were awfully excited about having the stars, George Zaharis and Martin Milner appear at their high school. The community was encouraged through the newspaper and television news to attend the filming, as a large crowd was needed for the prize fight scene that were staging there. "Attend and you just might appear on the episode" was the claim of the advertisements. Hundreds of Camera-Hungry Citizens showed up on a daily basis during the week of filming.

Between scenes, Zaharis and Milner were more than gracious with signing autographs in the lobby of the field house. They would usually perch on a railing at a ticket window and all the Teenie- Boppers in their Saddle Shoes and Pony Tails would encircle them. Marty Milner got very upset I remember at one point, because in all the flurry of activity, someone stole his shoe laces.

At my young age, the only reason I knew what an autograph was, was because of one of my sister getting an "Autograph Hound" for Christmas. A stuffed fabric Dash Hound that you had your friends sign their name. I began collected autographs from the two stars, being patient and polite and besides, who could resist a cute five year old!

Word traveled around the event that I was able to obtain autographs at anytime, from my now perceived buddies, George and Marty. People actually began to come up to me and offer me money if I would get the stars to sign something for them. Never passing up the opportunity to make a Buck, I obliged them. I must have got fifty autographs that week. The ultimate signature I requested was between takes in the Boxing Ring that was assembled three feet above the middle of the field house floor.

When they stopped filming a scene with George Zaharis dressed as a Boxer, I went to his corner where he was resting on a stool. I yelled up to him to get his attention. He looked down, smiled, but shouted he couldn't hear me because of the crowd noise. I held up a piece of paper and a pen and he reached down and lifted me by one arm up into the ring with him! Everyone was laughing as he remarked he couldn't sign anything with Boxing Gloves on. I told him to do the best he could. He cracked up, grabbing my pen and started signing my paper. "Your a persistent Little Bugger, aren't you?", George exclaimed. I got my autograph and off I went.

Unfortunately, the TV series was filmed long before the advent of video tape. I'm sure the Nielsen Television Ratings for "Route 66" were off the charts in our area, the night they showed that episode. I recall seeing several neighbors in the background. I was miffed George and Marty didn't include me in a scene! Recently, I received an E-mail with about a fifteen second snippet of the famous Corvette from the show tooling down Poland Avenue in Struthers with the long-closed Steel Mills billowing smoke in the background. George and Marty had the Convertible Top down that day. I hope that white interior didn't get too much soot on it.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Build It And They'll Destroy It

I guess it starts with boys at pre-school age. The need to build a structure of some type. Call it a fort, tee pee, lean-to, cave, or a hut. We started with the couch cushions and blankets. Making our own special fortress to an imaginary place seemed like an inherent need in all boys growing up in our area.

By the time I was out of the primary grades, I had taken my fort building to a new level. Several of my friends and I had converted an old shed into a Club House, Complete with sheets for curtains. It was a place to hang out when the weather was lousy, which in Northern Ohio, is a constant six months of the year.

Fast Forward to 7th or 8th grade. Fifth Street Park became the location for the ultimate in Fort Building. The park was about six square city blocks, but seemed as big as Yellowstone to our little gang of Hellions. Away from the playground, the park emptied into a narrow valley covered with trees, Brier Bushes, and those damn bushes with the brown burrs on them that stuck to absolutely everything, including your hair.

We had graduated into Master Builders in our opinion. We developed different techniques depending on the materials we had at hand. Lumber, nails, and tools were often "borrowed" from some body's father's workshop. Our group was a democracy on deciding how to build a structure. Any conflict was settled by majority rules. Location was decided by drainage factors, often without too much thought into it.

The main design we used was a combination of half below ground and half above. We would start with everyone bringing a shovel and digging a pit all day. Usually, we quit at about four feet deep or when we hit a humongous rock that we couldn't remove. On top of the pit, we would build walls and a roof about three feet high. The large support beams were made of 2 x 12 scaffolding, "Courtesy" of a construction company up the street. We complimented the interior with carpet remnants and furniture that was put to the curb.

We had rules that helped hold us together for the common good: 1. You had to have helped in building or contributed material in order to enter the fort. 2. No girls were allowed inside. Not that we were "He-Man Woman Haters", we just knew that it would bring trouble if anyone knew we were letting girls hang out there. 3. No skipping school and staying in the fort. We didn't want the police or others looking for truant kids in our place.

Because we were building on public property, had no permit, of course, were using some material that was obtained without permission, our structures lasted until the city workers found them and destroyed them with a back hoe. Just like a Beaver who's dam is wrecked, we would build another one. Using past experiences, the new one would be an improvement on the previous one.

When most of us were about fifteen, we built what many considered the ultimate in Hang-Outs. This place was built completely underground. About twelve feet square and eight feet deep, we even "carved" chairs into the walls and had a 55 gallon drum with vent pipe for a stove in cold weather. The roof was covered with one-inch plywood that was covered with sod, so you couldn't even tell it was there. It seemed like every guy in my class was involved in that project.

As fate would have it, one of the boys broke our rules in a BIG way. Not only was he playing Hooky, he had a girl in the Fort. He was "caught in The Act" by the police. Our "Taj Mahal" of Hang Outs was torn apart the following day. Before the Back Hoe moved in for the Kill, a local TV station came to the scene and filmed the fort inside and out. The reporter actually focused on what a marvel of construction this place was, not The Den of Delinquency it had become. We were so proud!

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Christmas That Almost Didn't Happen

Things had slowed down considerably around 1970 in the Youngstown Area. A recession was well under way. My mother lost her job at a car dealership when they went out of business and my father was laid off from the food warehouse he worked at.

Of course, as a fourteen year old, I didn't pay too much attention to things. All I knew was that food was always plentiful in the house and I was enjoying the fact that both of my older sisters had moved out of the house and the entire upstairs now belonged to me. I guess my folks shielded me from the fact that we were broke and tough times lay ahead for our household.

Mom found another job as a Switchboard Operator at Cafaro Hospital. Dad was called back to work on and off for the remainder of the year. Things were improving. Dad even reinstated my two dollar a week allowance. I could continue blowing most of my money at Ben Franklin's Five and Ten Store buying Comic Books or at Isaly's Dairy Store, buying Skyscraper Ice Cream Cones, White House Vanilla, of course.

Right around Thanksgiving time, I asked Dad when we were going to get our Christmas Tree. I relished the Annual Rite of going to the local vacant lot on Youngstown-Poland Road with Dad to watch him barter for the fattest tree he could find.(Yep, right out of the "A Christmas Story" movie.) He always got a tree a foot too tall for our Rec Room ceiling and would have to whack off the base with his Carpenter Saw. Dad said since I was the only kid left at home and financially things weren't good, we were not going to get a Christmas tree this year. Ya could have knocked me over with a feather! I was devastated! As much as I whined and pleaded, the answer was NO! In Fourteen year old rage, I said I would get a Christmas Tree by myself! I think my father's reply was, "Knock yourself out!".

Our house was Party Central for my Mom's extended family of about twenty people at Christmas time. I couldn't fathom everyone gathered in our basement, passing out presents that were stacked on our Bar or piano and not under the tree. I had to come up with a plan to acquire a tree and defy my father. My mom of course, wouldn't get in the middle of this "Christmas Tree Feud", so transportation in the Family Car was out of the question. Then, The Light Bulb went off in my tiny, little head! Eureka!

Beside our house was a large, abandoned plant and tree nursery that belong to a neighbor several door down. This nursery was bigger than a football field with huge craters in it from bushes or trees being dug out and the empty hole not being filled in. Weeds and sapling now dominated it's rows. Around the perimeter were Blue Spruce Pine Trees, 25-30 feet tall. A tree hadn't been sold in that nursery as long as I could remember, so I figured what could it hurt to "Trim" one of those Blue spruces about seven feet from the top.

Next problem was no ladder. Dad's old wooden extension ladder weighed more than I did, so that was out of the question. I climbed many a tree in my youth, so I figured I could shinny up one of these with a good pair of gloves. Dad's cowhide work gloves did the trick, so up I went with his hacksaw hanging from the crook of my elbow, as I climbed. It must have taken me twenty minutes to lop the top off of that tree, while balancing on a swaying branch. The top fell to the ground and I slid most of the way down with sap covering any body part and clothing that came into contact with the tree. I dragged the tree to our back door through about six inches of snow. I made my Dad's mistake and miscalculated the height I needed. I grabbed the saw again and cut off about a foot. I pulled the tree down the basement steps, put it in it's stand, and placed it in it's proper Place of Honor in our Rec Room.

I spent the rest of the afternoon decorating the tree. What a chore alone! I got poked numerous times, reaching around the tree to string the lights. Blue Spruce Needles are pretty unforgiving. I added the Silver Traditional Icicles and even put the train set around the base of the tree. I liked the fact that since I was decorating the tree myself, I could put my favorite ornaments on any branch I wanted to. I finished just before my parents got home from work and waited in the front window in anticipation.

My folks came in the house and said hello. I gave them a few minutes in their normal routines after work, then asked them into the Living Room. I must have had the look of The Cheshire Cat as my Dad asked that all-too-familiar question," OK, What happened?" I told them I needed them to follow me down the Basement. "Geez, what the heck did you do now?", Dad asked. With no reply, I made sure I went down the steps ahead of them, so I could see the looks on their faces. It was a look of Wide-Eyed Wonder is all I could say. My Mom gasped, "Oh, My Stars...!", something only my Grand Mother used to say. Dad just said," What The...!" He would never admit it, but he definitely had a tear in his eye. Christmas would go on as usual.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Chicken Dumplings And Sugar Cookies

Some of my earliest childhood memories were in my Grandmother's kitchen. It seemed to be the center of my universe and place of security. Grandma was forever making her giant Sugar Cookies.

To this day, no one in my family can come close to duplicating her unwritten recipe. She rolled out a large batch of cookie dough that took up at least half of the kitchen table. Using a large upside-down coffee cup, she'd stamp out the cookies and put then on huge cookie sheets. My job was to grease the sheets with Crisco by using a wadded up piece of wax paper. About twenty minutes in the oven and Viola! Nothing was better than her steaming hot Sugar Cookies with an ice-cold glass of milk!

It was understood that any family member walking into my Grandparent's house was always welcomed to head right for the Cookie Jar and help themselves. Whoever took the last cookie was required to let Grandma know and she would immediately get to work on making a fresh batch. Since her house was Grand Central Station for her five children, spouses, and Grandchildren, she was baking cookies daily. All cookies were put in The Little Red Riding Hood Cookie Jar that my cousin still has and is probably the most cherished family heirloom.

My Grandparent's house was a large white stucco two-story on Omar Street in Struthers. Everyone was expected to go to their house after church Sunday for dinner. I never did graduate to the Big Table where the adults sat in the main dining room. I was relegated to the Kitchen table or a TV tray positioned at a chair in the living room. Before dinner, we would all sit outside in nice weather on their large front porch. Conversation was sometimes drowned out by the big Matlack Ashpalt Trucks droning up Poland Avenue, which was State Route 616, three doors away.

Dinner was quite often every one's favorite: Chicken and Dumplings. Again, one of those recipes that Grandma took with her. Her dumpling were thick and floury and about two inches square. I NEVER remember there being leftovers. A typical side dish was String Beans that I recall snapping with her out on the porch. She would snap the beans and drop them into her apron. She'd gather up the edges of the apron and walk into the house, dropping them into the sink to wash them. Cornbread was a mainstay of Grandma's Southern Cooking and upbringing. I think a dollop of sugar was her secret to the "To-Die For" Cornbread.

After dinner, many activities took place in the yard and in the house. Croquet was a main stay for the men. I thought it was a real treat when I was allowed to play with them, even as a teenager. Most of the women and girls gathered around the piano and sang all kinds of tunes throughout the afternoon. My sisters and cousin sang as a Trio at church on many occasions and my Grandmother just loved when they would sing her favorite hymns. "How Great Thou Art" is still ringing in my ears.

As all good things must come to an end, so did our family gathering on Sundays. My Grandparents decided after Grandpa retired,that The Ole White House was just too big for them and too much upkeep. They moved to a tiny one-bedroom home with a very small kitchen and living room. Besides, most of their children's kids were older and starting families of their own. My folks and other Aunts and Uncles tried to keep up the gatherings, but it just wasn't the same.

I truly feel sorry for you if you didn't get to experience large family gatherings in your younger days. I really learned the meaning and love of family. It never hurt one bit to know my place in the Pecking Order. Respect for your Elders is unheard of today. Most of our kids think it's a God-given rite to act like an obnoxious Brat and not offer consideration to any adults. I know I sound like my Father and it's scary. Guess the Old Man made sense after all...

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

There's One in Every Neighborhood

The Law Of Averages says that if you grew up in an urban neighborhood, chances are that there was at LEAST one person or family that was different from everybody else.Some were Non-conformance Hippie Types, Deeply Religious Fanatics, Anti-Social Introverts, or just plain NUTS!

We had the latter. We called him Uncle Willy. My Dad thought he was one of those guys who came back from the war strangely delusional. Uncle Willy was about my Dad's age, big and kind of chunky. He ALWAYS had a pipe in his mouth and talked with it clenched in his teeth. He had a wife he drove to work every day at a local department store. She looked normal except for her lipstick. I think she circled the outline of the outside edge of her lips and then colored it in like you do in a Coloring Book. Her glasses were vintage 50's with white frames that came to a point in the corners.

Willy had two kids, both that looked like cartoon characters. a little girl that reminded me of what Orphan Annie would look like after electrocution and a boy that was a year older than me, but a foot taller. He was a String Bean with a Unibrow.

Our house was three houses up the street from Uncle Willy's and none of the kids walked on the sidewalk in front of his house. The fear was he snatch you up and God knows what horror might befall you! He never harmed anyone, but you know the stories kids can conjure up. My sisters swear he threatened a girl in the neighborhood who had an artificial leg, the result of club feet. Supposedly, Willy said if she walked across his sidewalk again, he would cut her other leg off! Hence, everyone avoided his house like the plaque.

Other stories emerged over the years about Uncle Willy. Again, none ever proven to be true or by the result of his handiwork. Allegedly, he was said to have cut up the garden house in one inch pieces of the 90 year old widow that lived next door to him and no evidence could be found that he poisoned her cat. We took the poor widow's cat to the Vet to be put down. Through her tears, she promised to, "Shoot that Son-Of- A- Bitch"if he ever came in her yard again. I wouldn't have doubted that spry old lady. She never got her chance, she died shortly after that incident.

My biggest run-in with Uncle willy was one I provoked. I was fourteen or fifteen at the time. My next-door-neighbor Stew that was the same age,had just got a Pellet Gun. We decided to put it to good use and waited until dusk. We climbed into Stew's attic that was two doors away from Willy's house. We opened his attic window and began lobbing shots onto the top of Willy's slate roof. The pellets would tinkle down the roof, go into his gutter, and clang down the downspout. What Fun! It made such a racket and we figured he would never know where the noise was coming from! Yeah! Take that Willy! We got bored after about fifteen minutes of this and went outside to Stew's back yard, laughing about our prank.

All of a sudden, out of nowhere, a rock the size of a bowling ball came hurtling through the air from the other side of Uncle Willy's hedge. It travel high into the air and smashed through the large rickety deck attached to the back of Stew's house. Ka-Boom! Wood splinters and dust flying everywhere! How the heck did he launch such a projectile? A cannon? A catapult? A giant slingshot? We didn't stick around to find out! It had to travel at least 100 feet. To this day, I don't know how he did it.

My Mom often ran around the house in her slip, in the evening, after a long day at work. She walked into her darkened bedroom one evening and looked out of the Venetian Blind she parted in her window. Under the street light at a guardrail about sixty feet from our house, stood Uncle Willy, smoking his pipe. He turned towards our house as my Mother peered at him. For some unknown reason, she waved at him. He cupped his hands as if looking through Binoculars and waved back! Mom got a severe case of "The Heebee Geebees" and had a shiver go up her spine! She never understood why she waved at him or how he ever saw her through that slit in the blinds.

Creepy things like that continued with Uncle Willy all my adolesencent life. Willy's wife eventually divorced him, took the kids, and moved to California. He died a lonely death, apparently of a heart attack. He was found by a Meter Reader after several days, lying on the floor of his house. Neighbors found a lot of their Garden Tools, Sprinkling Cans, Bird Houses, and other outside yard items in Willy's garage after his demise. My Dad found several Albino Rabbit Pelts tacked up on a wall. We raised rabbits when I was a little kid. Now we know what happened to many of them. I hope Willy enjoyed the eating, tastes like chicken, But Makes You Nuts!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Fun At The Field House

Growing up 100 yards away from Struthers High School, I spent a lot of time there when school wasn't in session, but something was going on. The school had a huge auditorium, better known as a Field house, that held the largest seating capacity at time of any other place in the county.

Being on a first name basis with all of the Janitors at the school, ensured me of easy free access to any event that was going on. I just had to learn which door to go to on any given day. Occasionally, I was asked to hold "The Crowd Control Rope" at Basketball games. This was a long clothes line they strung around the perimeter of the court to keep people off the precious hardwood floor that was buffed to a mirror-like finish. The Principal, Howdy, was fanatical about keeping street shoes off of the hardwood. Detentions were given out for student violators!

Before Youngstown State University did their major expansion and built The Beegley Auditorium, they held all of their events at The Struthers Field House. I got to see a lot of concerts including: Kenny Rodgers and The First Addition, The Fifth Dimension, The Letterman, The Four Seasons, Blood, Sweat, and Tears, and Alice Cooper, to name a few. All YSU home Basketball games were there. That was in the days when they fielded some great teams under Coach Dom Roselli and were nationally ranked.

Every year for decades, brought The Aut-Mori Grotto Circus to SHS Field house, for four days in March. The students had to tolerate the stench of Tiger urine in the hallways and piles of manure from all of the circus animals on the practice fields behind the school. During my high school years, I was hired as one of the student workers to help with clean-up after each performance. It's amazing how much trash is generated at a circus! From Cotton Candy to Giant Suckers and basically anything that was sticky, had to be shoveled and swept from the Grandstands. Soft drinks were never permitted in Howdy's Field house except during the circus. I understood why, afterwards. It seemed everything was coated with a syrupy goo. Floor, bleachers, and Seats all had to be mopped and wiped down with hot, soapy water.

A tradition of sleeping at the school on Saturday night was popular amongst all of us Student Workers. We brought our sleeping bags and slept on the stage of the high school auditorium. We got permission because Saturday's show ended well after Midnight and the first show Sunday was at 10 A. M. The excuse was having to travel back and forth and not being able to get enough rest.(Right, remember, I lived across the street!) Of course, most of us didn't sleep a wink and partied with a lot of the Circus People. Some of THOSE stories can be left untold!

I started attending most practices of the football team when I was five or six. Most of the players knew me because of my older sisters and didn't mind me hanging around. I remember the the coach embarrassing some players that had a hard time catching a punted ball. The coach would have me stand fifty yards away and punt several balls to me. I seldom missed catching one. I guess I had a knack for it. The coach would say that if a six year old could catch a ball, he was sure his players could. Glad I could help! Now I know why I got some dirty looks.

I was pretty much a fixture at the school until I got out of the primary grades. Most of the kids knew me and I loved the attention I got from the older kids. The Cheerleaders and Majorettes would shower me with hugs and kisses. Not being the least bit shy, I enjoyed every minute of it. One of the Majorettes remembered me when I was in her eighth-grade History Class, years later. It didn't help. She wound up paddling me for acting up a couple of times. Believe me, she still had strong wrists from twirling that Baton all those years!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veterans Of The Greatest Generation

If it wasn't for my Father's love of coffee, I wouldn't be here today. Let me explain. The time was June 1943. My Dad was in The US Army during World War II. His Regiment was on a Troop Transport Ship docked at a port in Leyte in The South Pacific.

My Dad was up in the enclosed Bridge, playing Poker with six other Servicemen in his Troop. He decided he needed a break and went below Deck to get his frequent cup of coffee. No sooner had my Dad reached the Galley, when their ship was attacked by several Japanese Kamikaze Airplanes. The first plane registered a direct hit into the ship's Bridge. All personnel on the Bridge were killed instantly. Massive explosions and fire ravaged the ship, but my Father was able to escape with minor injuries and shrapnel wounds all over his body.

Like so many other GI's, Dad returned from the war to The Youngstown Area. He got married and started to raise a family in Struthers. I was the third child and baby of the family and only boy. As most Veterans of wars, Dad didn't talk about any specifics of The Hell of War, nor the hardships he endured during that time.

Growing up 100 yards from our high school, Every Veteran's Day, Dad and I would walk through the field adjacent to our house to the Veteran's Memorial in front of the school. Dad would stand at rapt attention as a short speech was delivered honoring our Veterans. The Honor Guard made up of Veterans from the local VFW fired their rifles in the customary Three Shot Salute. "Taps" was played by a lone trumpeter. At the conclusion, we would walk back to the house in silence. Dad, I'm sure, was reflecting on those that died for our freedom during that horrid war.

Over the years, I would glean stories and information from Dad about his days in the war. He served most of his time in Australia in The Motor Pool, repairing vehicles. During his off hours, my Dad tinkered in the Motor Pool Shop and made several items he eventually brought home. An ashtray made out of different size bullets, a mortar shell, and Australian coins, and a vase made out of a small mortar shell pounded into a unique shape. Other mementos were a Kangaroo hide and an authentic Aborigine Boomerang. I still proudly display those items I inherited.

I can recall several times, my Mom or one of my sisters performing minor surgery with a sterilized sewing needle on Dad when he would find a piece of shrapnel in his scalp, limb, or torso that would work itself up to his skin surface and cause him discomfort. We're talking some that had been in his body over forty years! My Father did receive The Purple Heart for his injuries. I never knew that until he died in 1993. Just like Dad not to mention it.

Patriotism and love of country didn't have to be taught to my generation. We were the Sons and Daughters of so many that we knew who sacrificed before us to give all Americans their freedom. Patriotic songs were a popular choice in music class in school. Hell, truth be told, I still well up when I hear,"God Bless The USA!"

Monday, November 9, 2009

We Didn't Start The Fire

Like many people in The Mahoning Valley in Ohio, I too lost my job, when the Steel Mills closed in the late 70's. Many were affected in "Satellite" businesses that were dependent on the Steel Industry for their livelihood. I worked in a steel fabrication plant as a machinist and the company I worked for closed not long after the steel plants in Youngstown began closing.

I "Joined The Club", along with thousands of others unemployed at the time. A good resume and skills didn't matter. There were very few jobs available at the time. I was married with two young children and had very strong ties to the area at the time. Moving was a last resort.

Probably one of the most traumatic events in my life was having to apply for Welfare. I thought Welfare was for losers and people who just didn't want to work. If we wanted to feed our kids, we had no other choice. The WIC Program,(Women and Infant Children), provided us with a more than enough staple items to get us through those Lean Days.

I had taken The Civil Service Test in my Hometown of Struthers for the position of Fireman,I was fortunate to come in first on the test. I had also had been a Volunteer Fireman for several years before the test for a full-time paid position. I was appointed to a Fire Engineer position in 1980. Finally! I thought I had achieved a secure position, a good job, and security for my family.

Things went well the next few years. We added another boy to our growing family in 1982. I worked 24 hours on/ 48 hours off, the typical Fireman's Schedule. This allowed me to work a part-time job on my off days, that most Firemen did. For a while, I didn't know which job I was going to on any given day. Between both jobs, I was working about 100 hours a week. "Make Hay While The Sun Shines", my Dad used to say.

One of the great things for me being a Fireman was the flexibility I had on my off days to attend school and pre-school events for my children. Even if I was on-duty at the Fire Station, another Fireman would often come and cover my position for a few hours to I could be there for my kids. I'd just give the hours back to the same guy, at another time. I was one of the few Fathers on the class field trips. On the down side of that, I was the lucky guy that got to crawl on the muddy ground to cut down the Class Christmas Tree and haul all the pumpkins from the Farm Field Trip at Halloween.

Unbelievably, due to finances, I was laid off from the Fire Department for several months. Struthers' infrastructure was sliding downhill fast. The tax base they had depended on all those years when the Steel Mills were booming, had suddenly dried up. The largest employer in town was The Board of Education, compared to several thousand that worked in Struthers in the steel industry at one time. A levy was passed and I was brought back to the Fire Department.

I became uneasy with my employment position. I figured it was only a matter of time until the axe would once again fall. The Fire Department was all ready operating at minimum manning levels. Quite often, only one Fireman was manning each of our two Fire Stations. Because of a major railroad line dividing our town, two stations were necessary. We were dependent on Volunteers and off-duty Fireman to assist if we had a Fire Call. Other area Fire Departments could not believe we operated that way. Many had a policy that required four Firemen on a truck before they could respond to an emergency. Some how,we muddled through.

Every young boy has dreams of becoming a Policeman or a Fireman. The excitement, the reward of helping others, and the respect within the community, are unmatched in Public Service. Unfortunately, in the Rust Belt, so many services that were once taken for granted, are reduced to dangerous levels. I left Struthers for "Greener Pastures in 1986. I miss my days on the fire department and the camaraderie. I just wish someone could come up with a plan to fairly tax people and provide the basic services we all need to live The American Dream.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Blue Collar Beatlemania

Like the rest of the country, The Youngstown Area got caught up in the British Invasion that was started by the Beatles in 1964. I was in third grade the first time I saw them on my Grand Parents big console TV with about 20 other family members. They appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and of course, it was hyped for weeks.

I can remember it like yesterday, my older Sisters screaming when they appeared. All the adults were laughing at their hysteria. Of course, they ridiculed The Beatles' haircuts and outfits. Can you imagine, the Bowl Haircuts they had that covered their ears, causing such outrage? We didn't know it then, but things were about to change.

Within no time, all the retail stores in the area were stocking some type of Beatle merchandise. I can remember all of the kids begging their parents for anything they could get their hands on that was associated with The Fab Four. Beatle Buttons, notebooks, pencils, trading cards, and T-shirts were flying off the shelves. Not to mention the clothing like CPO Jackets and the Mop Top Haircuts a lot of the boys were sporting. I remember asking for Beatle Boots, OK, Begging. I got the famous," Not while you're living under this roof, young man.", from my Dad. I do recall collecting the Beatle Buttons from the Gumball Machines at Ben Franklin's 5 & 10. Everyone wanted Paul McCartney's button and you might as well throw away Ringo Starr's button.

It seemed like Most British bands were making a foothold with main-stream kids everywhere. Gray and White Plaid Pants were popular with boys emulating The Dave Clark Five. What self-respecting kid didn't want a Rolling Stones "Tongue" T-shirt?

This is one of those Forrest Gump Part of History Moments you will find hard to believe, but I swear, the following is TRUE!: I was in Philadelphia the Summer of 1964 with my parents, who were visiting some friends. We were out sight-seeing with our friends that evening in my Parent's car. As we approached Shea Stadium, we could here this unbelievably loud screaming coming from the Arena. My Mom's friend remarked that it was a Beatles Concert that was going to start shortly at the stadium. Three lanes of Traffic came to a halt and we noticed some people in the back of a White Florist Truck waving to us. We waved back, figuring it was just somebody being friendly in the "City of Brotherly Love". Traffic started to move and the Florist Van darted across the lanes and into an open stadium gate. My Dad cussed 'em out for almost causing an accident.

On the news the next day, The Beatles were being interviewed and asked how they managed to avoid the crowds and get into Shea Stadium. John said, "Some Genius put us in the back of a Florist Van. It worked like a charm!" To think, we were waving at each other! The closest I ever came to Rock and Roll Royalty.

Most people my age were influenced by The Beatles in some way. Everyone knew their music and can identify with certain songs that defined a period in their life. My daughter can still remember me singing "Rocky Raccoon" to her as a Lullaby. I can't help but smile whenever I see a young person discover their music for the first time. Their music will be as timeless to the next generation as it was to ours. To use one of our expressions from the 70's: ROCK ON!!!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Family Vacation, Like It Or Not

Coming from a middle-class upbringing, I was very fortunate to go on a family vacation just about every year of my youth. Mom and Dad would take two or three weeks off and spend at least that much time getting everything ready.

You see, this wasn't a "Pack Your Suitcase and Hop In" type of vacation. This was "Let's Carefully Pack The Tent-Trailer, Coolers, Trunk, Luggage Rack, Wooden Boxes, Camping Equipment, and Kids" type of vacation. A place for everything and everything in its place! My Father was very laid back except when it came to packing. He became very Anal Retentive. "Don't even think of putting the lantern there!" or "We have to balance the weight over the axle!", were a couple of his common statements.

Even my place in the car was permanently assigned. Being the youngest child and only boy of three kids, I got stuck crammed in the middle of the back seat with my feet on the "Hump". If a foot ever slipped on to one of my sisters' sides, I'd often receive a punch in the thigh causing a Charlie Horse or a elbow in the ribs that took my breath away. My view was usually blocked by all these taller people around me and usually I couldn't wait to get to our next destination.

Yellowstone National Park sticks in my mind as a favorite vacation. For a kid that grew up in cramped city life of a smoky Steel Mill town, I was in total wonderment of The Great Outdoors and the wildlife I got to see. Previously, my only exposure to nature was Mom's National Geographics and I was disappointed I didn't see any naked tribal ladies. I remember being stuck in a long line of traffic within the park due to everyone gawking at several bears that were on the road. It was a hot Summer day with no air conditioning in the car. All of a sudden, my Dad started yelling for everyone to put up their windows. No sooner was this done, when a huge Black Bear raised up on his hind legs and put his front paws on my Sister's window looking for food, of course. My Sister immediately vaulted over me into my other sister's lap, fearing she was going to be attacked. I do think her seat was wet afterwards. The Bear's paw prints were still on our car window, well after we returned home.

Camping on vacation was always an adventure. Dad would usually drive much longer than Mom thought he should. Everyone was Dog-Tired by the time we found an open camp ground. Mom insisted it had showers and flush toilets. Her reams of atlases, maps, and AAA camp ground directories and trip-tics pointed us in the right direction usually. The directories had little legends in them to tell you what amenities each place had. Flush toilets and showers, yep! Pull in here!

I was the lucky one who got to crawl under the trailer each night and morning, placing or retrieving the large wooden blocks Dad used to level the trailer legs. Camping wasn't such a great deal for Mom. She still had to cook and do dishes, but she never complained. I recall a boy at one of our campsites showed me how to take Cat-O-Nine Tails form a nearby pond and dip them in Gasoline, light them, and they would burn for hours. Unfortunately, I didn't ask for help with this and proceeded to dunk the Cattails in the White Gasoline Can my Dad had for the Cook Stove and Lantern. He was muttering to himself upon discovering this and having to strain the gas with one of my Mom's Nylons. I think I got cuffed in the back of the head for that one!

Over the years, we traveled most of the Lower Forty-Eight. I had plenty of experiences for all of those dreaded oral and written reports we had to do in school describing our Summer Vacation. I found a lot of Pen Pals,(remember those?), to correspond with over the years from every corner of the country. One girl I befriended was Maxine Bond from New England somewhere. Yes, her Father Was James Bond. I had to ask, I was a big 007 Fan. We wrote each other all through school, but never met again.

My folks might have had to put some of the expenses on Plastic. They thought it was important to have a Family Vacation every year, regardless of current finances. We all needed the break and change of pace. We didn't realize it then, but it brought our family together and gave us experiences we'll always remember and talk about for years to come. I still love to take vacations. Except now, NOBODY is going to make me sit on the Hump!

Monday, November 2, 2009

I Want To Ride My Bicycle

My love affair with bicycles began in the early 60's. The hilly streets of Struthers, Ohio were my main roadways and I wish I had a nickel for every mile I pedaled in my youth. A bike became independence for me. No longer did I have to stay in my neighborhood. I now had the freedom to travel miles away and explore my city and region that I didn't know existed.

I learned to ride at the age of six on my neighbor boy's hand-me-down girl's bike. Forget the training wheels, I mastered my balance by rolling down my friend's steep driveway out into the street. Several scraped knees and one dented parked car door later, I was riding on my own!

My first bicycle was a used blue 20-inch model with Butterfly handlebars. I bargained with a kid to sell it to me for nine bucks. I begged my Dad for the money with the promise of doing extra chores. It worked and I was the proud owner of my first bike. I was told I got ripped off. The kid who sold me the bike had payed seven dollars for the bike, a week earlier. Who knew the kid I bought the bike from would wind up selling cars? I saved my money and soon bought a Banana Seat at Tip Top Sales in Struthers. Wow! Now I was REALLY cool! I even added streamers to the ends of the handlebars. Baseball Cards held in the spokes with clothespins was a frequent optional accessory.

My folks surprised me with a Brand-New Columbia 26" Bicycle on Christmas Morning. This bike had lights and a horn and even a Vroom Motor. The Vroom Motor was a Mattel Toy Co. MUST HAVE for all boys that Christmas Season! A plastic motorcycle-looking engine that clamped on to the frame of your bike. "Twist the dial for that realistic motorcycle sound and watch everyone get out of your way!", so the commercial stated.

It was mild that Christmas Day with no snow and I couldn't wait to take my shiny Red Bike for a spin. A 26" bicycle was still a bit of a challenge for my inseam, so I had to start and come to a stop with one leg touching the ground. I cranked my Vroom Motor up to full volume and whisked my way up the street. I felt like I was flying! Everything was going fine on my Test Ride until I came to a Traffic Light Intersection at Wilson and Garfield Streets. I was stopped at a Red Light with my Vroom Motor blaring out it's loud Vroom Sound. A Police Car pulled up to the light to my immediate right as the light changed. I became flustered by the presence of the Cop, the noise of the motor, and my lack of experience of starting out on such a large bicycle. I promptly put my right foot right through The Vroom Motor as I attempted to start out! Oh, The Horror! I was devastated! The Policeman saw what happened and just shook his head with a smug look on his face. You don't know how bad, even as an eight year old, I wanted to flip him off or tell him to "Go Eat a Donut!"

The terrain in and around Struthers wasn't exactly ideal for a bike with no gears. At the time, very few kids had bikes even with 3-speeds that had a small lever mounted on the handlebars. I walked my bike up many a hill in town, especially Wetmore Drive by the Old Bird Bath Swimming Pool. I heard many tales of kids loosing their brakes or a chain while going down that treacherous hill with curves. I witnessed it first-hand once. A Teenager had "Road Rash"from head to toe from being unable to stop after his chain came off his bike. he finally stopped sliding in the Cinder Parking Lot at the bottom of the hill. Everyone from Struthers knew what Cinders were. An ash by-product of The Blast Furnaces that was used on parking lots and on streets on a snowy day.

In my later grade school years, my buddies and I would often venture to the neighboring towns of Poland, Lowellville, Boardman, Campbell, and Youngstown. Traffic was nothing like it is today. We would leave early in the morning and be gone all day. Most of our Parents had no idea where we were, I'm sure they wouldn't have approved. I think the farthest we ever traveled was the Boardman Plaza. A good twelve miles mostly on Route 224 when it was two lanes. ( Am I that old?) Putt-Putt was another popular destination, along with the Giant Slide, until they tore it all down for the Route 224 Widening Program.

Bicycling was eventually replaced by me getting my Driver's License. I did borrow a friend's 10-Speed for a spin, not long after they became popular and affordable. At sixteen, I could really crank up the speed on that bike, easily doing 30 M.P.H. Unfortunately, as I reached top speed on Fifth Street, a car hit me head-on that was turning. I was launched off the bike into the Car's windshield. From there, I bounced off into a huge Maple Tree 25 feet away, hitting the trunk about 10 feet off the ground. The worst injuries were a skull fracture and shattered left knee. The bike looked like an Accordion.

That was the last time I was on a bicycle until my daughter was born years later. I had a 10-Speed with a Carrier on the back. I took my pre-school Daughter on many leisurely rides. Often for Saturday Morning Breakfasts that was Our Time together. Hmmm...guess its time to start taking the Grand Kids for a ride....See Ya later, got to go shopping for a new bike!

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Legacy Of Cousin Rick

I recently lost my Cousin Rick to a debilitating tumor that took away so much of who he was and what he was. Why my heartache is still fresh, I thought I'd reminisce about my times with him. Knowing this humble man was the pleasure of all who crossed paths with Rick. I don't think I was the only one who left his presence feeling special. He was always genuinely happy to see you.

Rick was six years older than me. He had two older brothers and one younger brother that was my age. They grew up in The Kirkmere Section of Youngstown, Ohio, about twenty minutes from our house in Struthers. Fortunately for me, our Dads were very close brothers and saw each other pretty frequently. usually at their house. That was sheer Heaven for me! Growing up with two older sisters was a drag compared to hanging out with four boys!

At least once every Summer, while growing up, I spent at least a month at my Cousins' house. My Cousin Ron and I were the same age and spent the Summer days getting into all kinds of mischief in the area. Because of the age difference, the older brothers weren't around much. When they were, some good-natured teasing ensued towards me with Rick usually being the ring leader. It actually made me feel special as a little guy, someone paying attention to me.

Rick would let me help him on his paper route and my reward would be a Popsicle at the corner grocery store. He bought a Lambretta Motor Scooter when he was sixteen and took me for rides around the block almost every time I asked. We all know how persistent a ten year old can be when they want something. Rick never told me to, "Take a Hike!" or "Get Lost!", as a teenager might be prone to do. He always had patience with me and he never had a mean streak towards anyone, even as a adolescent.

The late 60's found Rick in the Army in Viet Nam. God had more good things in store for him to do and brought home home safely. The only time I remember Rick being angry or upset was at a family gathering after his homecoming. Uncle Bob, Rick's Dad, told Rick he didn't fight in a REAL WAR like he did in World War II. That was enough to set Rick off in a tirade, rightly so, and telling his Father," Funny, they used REAL bullets!" I never forgot their argument and it spelled it out to me as a teenager how both side felt about the war. It was so unfair to the Vets.

Life and the years rolled by. All of us cousins moved on, had families, and many moved away from the Youngstown Area, including me. Cousin Rick stayed in Y-Town and found his true Calling as a teacher in the city schools. He became a very talented self-taught carpenter and used those skills in the Summer and weekends to supplement the family income. Many additions and decks in the area have his mark on them. He was the first to show up at my Father's house to build a first floor bathroom when my Dad became disabled.

Rick had married his beautiful blond high school Sweetheart. They raised three extremely attractive and talented children. Family members jokingly called them The Keatons, based on the 80's Sitcom, Family Ties, of an over-achieving funny family. Rick doted over his kids, as well he should have. He was the type of Father every man wishes he could have been.

I suppose I looked upon Cousin Rick as the big brother I never had. My experiences with older siblings and even some cousins for that matter, paled to how Rick always treated me and even stuck up for me, on occasion. I guess the best thing I can do to honor his memory is to be kinder and gentler to everyone I encounter.

Rick regularly read The Bible and practiced what it preached. He was never one to instill religious values upon anyone. However, he taught Bible Classes and counseled many young people on the difference between right and wrong. What a wonderful World we would have if we could all conduct our lives like Rick lead his life: Energetic, Loving, Honest, and Dedicated to Helping Others.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Card Games For Fun And Profit

With all the craze these days towards Texas Hold 'Em Poker, myself included, It got me thinking about when and where I started playing cards for money. Besides the occasional game my Dad would have with my uncles of Penny-Ante Poker at the dining room table, I guess it started at Tippecanoe Country Club in The Youngstown Area.

Not that I was the Son of The Privileged, playing in a back room there against other Ne'er-do-wells, playing for the keys to Father's Jaguar. I was a Caddy playing Tong on a Picnic Table in the Caddy Yard. I often made more money playing cards than I did caddying on any given day.

Tong was a fairly simple game that had the objective of having the highest or lowest point total or both. Having both meant you needed a lot of Aces to beat everyone else. I started Caddying at the minimum age of twelve. Most boys had hours to kill while waiting to be selected to haul some one's bag. I began studying other boys playing Tong and learned strategies. No one seemed to mind if you looked over there shoulder. On a slow day, somebody started a game. I took a gulp and said,"I'm In!".

Over the weeks of that Summer and the Summers until I was Sixteen, Tong put as much money in my pocket as Caddying. My Folks never wondered I guess why I would come home with a pocketful of change. They must have figured the Golfers paid me in coins, the Cheap S.O.B.'s!

Poker started in my early teen years in the basements of a couple of buddies' houses. we either played on a rickety Card Table at one's or on a felt Pool Table at another's. Stakes were nickels, dimes, and quarters. The big winner on any given night might have won twenty bucks. Still, not bad for a teenager in the 70's. On the weekends, we had Poker Tournaments with maybe ten guys playing. We would sometimes raise the stakes to a Quarter and fifty cents. We thought we were Big Time! Playing all night wasn't uncommon and we'd go to The Truck Stop in North Lima for Breakfast.

My gang of high school buddies continued playing Poker after graduating, until one-by-one, we all got married. Nobody could afford to lose twenty bucks at Cards when we had house payments and a Wife to answer to when we got home. After most of us had kids, we began getting together again to play Tripoly or Shanghai Rummy. No money involved or Baby Sitters. Everyone brought their kids and they crashed on the Living Room floor until it was time to go home. Cheap entertainment for young families on a budget.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

I'm From Y-Town, What About It?

It seems like Ancient History to me now, having moved from the Youngstown area over twenty years ago. Aggression was as much a part of daily life as breathing for most red-blooded males growing up in the gritty Steel Mill Towns along the Mahoning River.

Maybe it was because Youngstown was such a melting pot of different ethnic persuasions. At the turn of the twentieth century, immigrants came by the droves to work in the Steel Mills. They usually settled in all ready established neighborhoods of the same culture. Youngstown still sports many clubs and organizations dedicated to a particular country. Contrary to Rodney King of the L.A. Riots fame, we CANNOT all get along!

I don't think a week went by all through my school years in the 60's and 70's that there wasn't a fight after school. In elementary grades, these fights usually consisted of nothing more than a wrestling match. Punches weren't usually exchanged. It sort of reminded me of young Lion Cubs fighting for their position of rank within the Pride. Somebody would holler, 'I give!", after being put in a painful hold and that would be the end of it. Not saying that the same participants would engage in another fight a week later.

My personal experience resulted in my share of fisticuffs. I know I fought the same kid in grade school at least five times! My Dad's Old School Philosophy was the classic," Don't ever start a fight, but don't ever walk away from one." I abided by that rule and still got into a lot of scrapes. I wonder if you would forever be branded a Coward if you walked away from a fight? I developed a reputation as a "Bad Ass" by my Junior High Years. This inspired a lot of guys to want to fight me. Kind of a King-Of-The-Hill mentality. No one ever got seriously hurt and usually the worst outcome was a bloody nose or a black eye.

I was fortunate not to ever lose a fight and really get my butt kicked. Maybe I should have endured a whippin', it would have taught me humility at a younger age. The only fight I remember not finishing was when two brothers "jumped into" a fight I was in and kicked me in the throat. They continued to kick me when I was down and the guy I was fighting stopped them, knowing it violated the unwritten rules of a "clean" fight. I never forgot that and all through my "Greaser Days" I looked for the opportunity to even the score. Thankfully, those days past and I learned how much better it was to forgive my enemies.

How far I've evolved in the last quarter of a century! I frequently tell people how different it is living in semi-rural Ohio verses Y-Town, as I call the area. My analogy is two guys walking down the street towards each other and make eye contact as they get close. Where I live now, they would exchange pleasantries and say,"How Ya Doing!". In Y-Town IF they made eye contact, one guy would say," Wadda YOU lookin' At?". The other guy would say, "Nothin' much, wanna do somethin' about it?" That pretty much describes the mentality I grew up in. It takes years of maturity to understand that not everything should be settled by the sword.

What I deemed harmless in my youth would now get you killed. Even the greasiest of the Greasers would not carry a weapon in my heyday. Today, kids shoot each other over trivial matters with no guilt or remorse. It scares me to death for my children's and grandchilren's sake. That Old School saying that was meant to defend your honor, needs to be replaced with,"Feet, Don't Fail Me Now!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Yellow Creek Park: A Hidden Gem

Struthers, Ohio contains a Gem that most people outside of Struthers aren't even aware exists, unless they're History Buffs of Ohio and the region. It's Yellow Creek Park. Yellow Creek run from Hamilton Lake to The Mahoning River within the Struthers city limits. Total length is only about two miles and some parts are less than a city block wide.

The First Blast Furnace, West of The Allegheny Mountains, The Hopewell Furnace, was started along the banks of Yellow Creek. Enough of my history lesson. we'll leave that for the experts. I'm going to relate some of my experiences of Yellow Creek, growing up near there in the 60's and 70's. I spent many hours there and "communed with nature" on a regular basis with a lot of my buddies.

In the Winter, Ice Skating was a frequent activity, weather permitting. The creek was enlarged to about the size of a football field and had a small Spillway about four feet high. This was at the playground and pavilion area near downtown. Burn Barrels provided some heat once we became sufficiently frozen and I recall the steam rolling off my soaked pants if I got to close to the fire. We played Crack The whip and did our own version of Barrel Jumping, often using kids in place of barrels.

Steep hills led down to Yellow Creek Park which sat in a valley. We would take buckets of water and pour them out on a selected path that went down to the skating area. In a matter of hours, we would have a "Suicide Hill" that the crazier members of our group would attempt to skate down. I don't remember anyone making it all the way down, but I do recall several bump and bruises and broken arms. For more adventure, some of us would skate on the creek all the way out to Hamilton Lake. Occasionally, somebody would break through thin ice and plunge into the water. The water wasn't deep enough for you to drown in, but a cold dip sent you running for the comforts of a Burn Barrel to warm up and dry off. You didn't dare go home all wet, knowing that your folks would bar you from Ice Skating again.

After Winter released it's grip on Northern Ohio, exploring the rest of the park was in order. We caught Crayfish by the bucketful and often got a nasty pinch from them if we didn't avoid their surprisingly strong claws. a prank we pulled on each other was to sneak up behind someone and let the Crayfish grab them on the Butt or the Earlobe. Yikes! Of course, you'd let the Crayfish go and watch your Buddy scamper about trying to shake it off of him. Great Fun at their expense!

Africa Rock was another landmark in the park. Shaped like, you guessed it, Africa, this huge, flat rock was at the bottom of a cliff face on the Nebo side of the park. Nebo was the east side of Struthers. A few boys with far more guts than brains, jumped off of this cliff while holding an umbrella! I witnessed one of these idiots attempting this stunt and he made it to about ten feet from the ground before the umbrella collapsed! He escaped with a few bruises and "The Big Stones" Award from us!

Off of Wetmore Drive on The Upper Trail was a Waterfall. The water came out of the middle of a small rock formation about eight feet higher than the trail. The flow was about that of a garden hose, but on a hot Summer day, we welcomed a drink and the cold water bath we would splash on ourselves. We never did determined if the water came from a natural spring or was run-off from somewhere else. I guess we chose not to think about it.

The Ecology Class at the high school labeled all the Flora and Fauna in the park in the 70's. They marked a trail going all the way to where The Hopewell Furnace stood. nothing much remains there now, vandalism and the erosion of time taking their toll.

Eventually, Yellow Creek Park became part of The Mill Creek Park System of Mahoning County. Struthers could no longer afford to maintain the park and this was a good alternative to preserve what little nature there was locally. The closing of the Steel Mills had a direct impact on everything in The Youngstown area. So much we took for granted in our youth, we realize now was a privilege we had of a bustling economy at the time.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Scouting For Delinquents

I was developing quite the reputation in grade school as a boy who needed direction, a Trouble Maker, a Hellion, a Delinquent, and other adjectives the teachers could think of calling me. My parents were becoming pretty exasperated with me, as well. My energy and stubborn nature usually exceeded their will and it was time for action to straighten out this Wild Child from The Sixties!

My Dad told me he was going to sign me up for The Boy Scouts. He said they had a fine program for developing boys into young men. He assured me it would provide structure and expose me to a huge array of Character-Building activities. Naw, he said NONE of that! He said," You'll go and it will straighten your ass out!" Like it or not, I was now a card-carrying member of Troop 86.

It took me about three months of weekly meetings to actually begin to like scouting. What my hardened Steel Town Mentality believed was it was for Dorks and Nerds. Ok, There were some of those, but you ignore them and they go away. I kind of looked at scouting like a version of The Little Rascal's "He-Man Woman Haters Club". I could play as rough as I wanted to and didn't have to worry about getting a lecture for upsetting Suzie.

Beside a few knots that I learned that I used on my headboard in my adult life, I did learn the basics in a lot of life skills. The highlight of the scouting year was going away to camp. There you really learned things,like SURVIVAL! You must know, outside of sleeping in a Tent Trailer on family vacations, this City Kid really had no exposure to true wilderness and animals that COULD EAT YOU!

On a Friday night, in the Dead of Winter, our troop headed out for Kane, Pennsylvania, in the western part of the state. We packed several pick-ups and trailers with enough gear and supplies to outfit a small army for a year. From The Youngstown Area, I guess it was about a three hour drive. To this twelve year old, I thought I was traveling back to the time of Daniel Boone. No electricity or running water, a Pot-Bellied Stove for heat, and the highest mountains I had ever seen. The Hunting Cabins we stayed in had snow blowing through the clapboard. Dehydrated Plastic Bags of Whatever, was our only food that we boiled in pots on the stove.

Several scouts were actually sleeping outside in Pup Tents to earn their "Polar Bear" Merit Badge, nude in their Sleeping Bags! No thanks! My testicles were all ready clanging together like Brass Bells and I was suffering from a severe case of "The Turtle Syndrome", That's where your Winky retreats backwards. think of it as a reverse erection. I have NEVER been that cold, before or since!

As we were packing up to leave late Sunday afternoon. I actually saw a White-Tailed Deer for the first time. It bounded up a hill in a clearing about 100 yards away. I thought it was so majestic! I can still recall that mental image of that Big Buck with a huge rack of antlers. Just like the silhouette on the Deer Crossing Sign! I told you I was a City Kid. Until that weekend, my extent of seeing wildlife was Squirrels, Rabbits, Raccoons, and an occasional possum.

Scouting in my area became a victim of Modern Times. Due to lack of interest, our troop had to disband. No adult leader could be found and our group of about 30 boys was down to six. I obtained the rank of Star Scout and was working towards the ultimate Eagle Scout Award when the troop folded. My Mom said she'd rather see me as an Eagle Scout than President of The United States. I was sorry to disappoint her. Any Boy Scout Troop out there want to adopt me and help me get my Eagle Award?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Hail Team! Hail Yes!

Not only was I born and raised in "The Cradle of The Steel Industry", The Youngstown Area was known as a Hotbed for High School Football. I was fortunate enough to attend school in the late 60's and early 70's at Struthers High School. At that time, they were a State Powerhouse in Football. At one point, they had won 22 consectutive games in a row. It was Standing Room Only at their games.

I don't think I ever missed attending a game from first grade until I graduated. I guess it was in your blood. Most students did attend the games and cheer on our beloved Wildcats. Many Art Classes in grade schools were spent decorating windows and rooms with things made in the school colors of red and black. "Spirit Ribbons" were sold each week for girls to wear with a catchy slogan printed on them directed at our foe that week. Phrases like,"Ground The Eagles" or "Spear The Spartans" were proudly displayed.

Because an injury prohibited me from playing, I became an avid follower and unofficial leader of our cheering section at games and assemblies. I guess I inherited the job from another older classman, who also was a injured former football player. Maybe I got the job because I had the loudest mouth. In any event, we kept things lively at all events we attended.

During Struthers' Glory Days on the Gridiron, it wasn't unusual for several buses of students to travel to away games. The team's followers sometimes had more fans at an away game than the home team! Friday Night Fever at it's best! Struthers would often have huge Bonfire Rallies at the high school. The Stars of the team would speak over a Bullhorn and an effigy of the opposing Quarterback would be burned at the stake.

A famous cheer we often screamed at assemblies, went something like this: I would yell,"Hail Team!", the crowd would respond the same,"Hail Team!". I'd shout, "Hail Cats!", getting the reply,"Hail Cats!". I'd bellow,"Hail Falcons!", the students would hysterically shout,"HELL NO!". Our Principal, affectionately known as "Howdy" to everyone, would grab the microphone every time and admonish us with, "Ok, people, saying Hail is one thing, saying that other word in not! Understand?" Of course, we would totally ignore him and do it again the following week. You could just see the red move up his neck and the veins pop out!

Struthers and most public schools' athletic programs went downhill after the Steel Mills closed in the early 80's. Many folks pulled up stakes and literally moved to greener pastures. Along with the population, the tax base left with them. One of the first cuts to the education systems were their athletic programs. My kids attended Struthers schools and only have heard tales of what The Steel Valley was REALLY like. Football was The Heartbeat of all of it.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Sales and Stanley And The Three Stooges

I certainly missed my Calling, Ive been told many times. From the age of a First Grader, I've had a knack for sales. I was the one who finally sold that refrigerator to the Eskimo. I guess I could always dazzle people with my brilliance, if I couldn't baffle them with my bullshit. I have a natural gift of Gab and enjoy talking to people. Maybe I would have been better suited to being a politician, come to think of it.

Most schools in The Youngstown Area had fund-raising events to help make ends meet in a depressed economy. Seeds were the first thing I remember selling. A nickel a pack for some, a dime for the rest. I know every flower bed and vegetable garden in my neighborhood were planted with seeds I had sold them. To heck with the homework, I had seeds to sell! I remember selling the most in my class, but forget what I got for a grand prize. It was probably more seeds or a garden trowel! I found packs of seeds years later in drawers all over my parent's house.

The dreaded Magazine Drive became an annual event in my elementary school. Again, I was first to hit every house on my street. A lot of kids were mad at their parents when they found out I had sold them subscriptions all ready before they even mentioned it. I pleaded with friends, family, and neighbors that I only need to sell three more magazines to get that Mother-Of-Pearl Pocket Knife I had my heart set on. I did indeed get that knife. In fact, several of them. I gave one to my Dad that he carried the rest of his life. Can you imagine that in schools today? Pocket Knives in these day of Zero Tolerance?

I won a beautiful German Cuckoo Clock for selling the most Rohrer's Chocolate in The Cub Scouts. My folks proudly displayed the clock in their living room and even into my adult years, told guests how I won it. I never became an Eagle Scout, but how I could sell candy! I even got a personalized tour of the Candy Factory, which was in Struthers. Woo Hoo! The entire "Factory" was about the size of a two-car garage.

The Pinnacle of my selling career was selling used comic books on the curb in front of my house. It ranked right up there with hawking Kool-aid or Lemonade to passer-bys. I think my total sales was about two bucks. My Mother sent a letter to WKBN-TV about my enterprise. I was selected as "The Junior News Reporter of The Week". I appeared for an live interview on "Stanley and The Three Stooges", a local kid's program with a guy in clown make-up, kind of a knock-off of The Legendary Barney Bean. Thanks to my Mom, every relative and person in Struthers saw that interview, my Fifteen Minutes of Fame. As a Guest on the show, I did get a six-pack of Seven-Up and a toy rocket that I almost put my eye out with, but that's another story.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Hush Puppy That Ruled The World

Maybe it was The Hush Puppies commercials or the fact my Dad's eyes and neck began to sag as he got longer in the tooth, as they say. In any event, Pop had a fixation with Basset Hounds. Any place we would go in the family car, you had to be prepared for a sudden stop if Dad spotted a Basset. He always had to ask the owner questions and pet the dog, regardless of how the dog felt about the idea.

The Christmas of 1966, Mom gave Dad a Basset Hound Bank that he adored. She told him to open it at the bottom, which he did. Inside was a note wrapped around a roll of money. The note told Dad where to pick up his Basset Puppy. The money was the exact cost of the Pup that Mom had Squirreled away through many months of saving. The tears flowed from my Father's eyes. You'd think she gave him a new Cadillac! I never saw tears of joy from my Dad. We had no idea what we were in for when he got his new Bundle of Joy!

Candy was the chosen name of Dad's Basset Hound Pup. A Red and White female who's AKC Name was Princess Candy Of Creed.(Creed being the street we lived on.) He was so proud when he got her Papers, he framed the certificate! Dad just doted over the dog! A special diet recommended by the breeder, Daily Vitamins, and a bath once a week. I started to become jealous of the dog, She spent more time with my Dad than I did. Nothing is cuter than a Basset Puppy, always tripping over their long ears, I was afraid Candy was slowly replacing me as the Apple of my Father's Eye.

Candy quickly became The Star of the Neighborhood. She made her rounds everyday to people's houses she knew that would give her a treat. She helped herself to snacks from garbage cans she happened to knock over, while walking by. Middle School Boys would hide their lunches in The Pine Lot near my house and come back later to eat and smoke in hiding. Too bad, Candy would sniff out their lunch bags and have a feast! By the time she was 3 years old, Candy weighed 80 pounds. She looked like a long-earred Pot Belly Pig! Dad couldn't understand why that Breeder's Diet wasn't working!

Dad took that dog everywhere he went. It was so damn funny to see Candy riding in the car! She would put her front paws on the armrest and sit up with her back against the seat like a human. On a hot day, she'd hang her head out the window and those long ears would flap in the breeze like a flag! The girls at the Bank Drive-In would always give her a sucker and Dad would promptly put it in her mouth. There they were, tooling down the road with Candy sitting back, sporting a sucker hanging out of her mouth. I think Dad lost a few friends because of the dog. He wouldn't visit some folks if Candy couldn't come, too. At least he was loyal to her.

Dad decided to breed his Basset and proceeded to cut up my Ping Pong Table to turn into a Whelping Box for the Pups. Thanks, Dad. Anything for Princess Candy, The Wonder Dog!

She did produce the most beautiful litter of eight puppies that Dad sold for a tidy profit. I remember him hand feeding her a raw steak after birthing the last pup. He must have had dollar signs in his eyes! All the pups were sold the week they were available.

Candy met her demise one Sunny Summer Morning. As was her usual practice, she would lay in the street on the cool concrete until the Sun rose high in the sky. All the neighbors knew to watch out for Candy, except the teenager flying up the street in his Muscle Car ...she never had a chance. She was killed instantly and my Father was heart-broken. Years after her death, Dad would get choked up talking about his pride and joy.

P.S. Guess what my wife got me for my 50th Birthday? Yep, You guessed it! A Red and White Female Basset Hound! Gracie is her name...The Legend continues!

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Little Rascals Made Us Do It !

I guess we all got inspired by those episodes of "The Little Rascals" we often watched on "4:30 Showtime", a Youngstown Television Kid Show. Hmmm...or was it "Our Gang Comedies"? I could never keep the two straight. I do remember Spanky, Alfalfa, Darla, Froggie, Weezer,and others getting into all kinds of adventures.

The episode of The Gang exploring a cave for hidden treasure was a good basis for our Band of Pre-Teen Mischief Makers to explore the Storm Sewer System of Struthers. From Fifth St.Park,a 5 ft.drainage pipe emptied in a creek. This was our point of entry. Some of us had candles or flash lights, the latter usually swiped from the family car's glove compartment. We traveled about 100 yards and turned right into a huge concrete cavern that was maybe ten feet below the streets. Definitely no treasure chests here! An occasional rat or Raccoon scurrying by was enough to make us head the other direction until we were sure it was gone. The Sewer went all the way out to the Fifth Street Plaza and then narrowed into a 24 inch line.

We heard a couple of guys used Mechanic's Creepers taken from their Dad's garages to go through that smaller line all the way to Hamilton Lake. I doubt that was true, but ten year olds never confirmed their sources. Whatever another kid told you was considered Gospel. Every block or two, a vertical shaft went up to street level. Steel bar ladder rungs were cast in the concrete walls to enable you to climb in and out of the sewer. The trick was to NOT lift a Manhole cover up from the inside if you heard traffic coming! More than once, I remember a kid almost getting picked off by a car speeding by.

As it was stated in many Gangster Movies in the day, "The Jig was Up!" Some Do-Gooder,Busy body,Concerned Citizen would call the Police to say we were in the sewer. Of course, In Struthers, this was right there below a National Emergency. Two cruisers with sirens blaring, promptly showed up. One of the cops who was much too large to fit through a manhole, yelled down for us to,"Come up out of there!" We recognized his voice and knew who it was. Much to my horror, one of my co-conspirators replied, "Come and get us, Fat Ass!" I had visions of guns blazing and trying to escape a hail of bullets! Now what the heck do we do? Run like Hell! That's what you do!

David Jansen would have been proud of these Fugitives! We back-tracked through that sewer system as fast as our little legs would carry us! Rats, Raccoons, flashlights, candles, and ten year olds all came tumbling out of the outlet pipe and into about three feet of water in the creek. After we beat the snot out of The Big Mouth in our gang, we all headed to our respective homes for a hot bath with plenty of soap!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

I Was A Teenage Motor Head

In the Spring, a young man's fancy turns to...CARS!(You didn't think I was going to say Love, did you?) Not long after the last of the Winter salt was consumed by the Street Sweeper, every guy in town that could afford it, was looking to upgrade his "Ride". I was 18, had a good job, and was a few months short of Graduation in 1973. It was time to replace "Ol'Bessie", my 1962 Red Dodge Lancer that I bought off my uncle for $125.00 that got me all through high school.

As luck would have it, I went to Kent State University on a Field Trip with a bunch of Struthers DECA Students for a tour. Our Student Teacher conducted the tour and introduced us to two room mates who pulled up to us in the Most Beautiful Car I had ever seen. A 1971 Pontiac GT37, Royal Blue with Silver Racing Stripes down each side. This was a Limited-Edition GTO with a 350 Cu. In. Engine and 3-Speed Manual Transmission. I could hardly contain my saliva as I walked around this Masterpiece of Muscle Car Design! I asked the owner a million questions about the "Goat", as they were often called. He lamented that he was graduating and he was going to have to sell it.

Trying my best to control my emotions, I asked how much he wanted for the car. He said he needed $2000.00 for it. I stammered as I told him I'd take it off his hands if he could wait until I got home and worked out financing. He agreed and I remember nothing else of that day until I got home. Running into the house at 90 M.P.H., "Dad! Dad! Where is Dad?", I yelled in every room in the house. There he was, puttering around in his garden in the back yard. I slid to a stop in front of him, totally out of breath. Nothing rattled My Old Man. It was time for The Sales Pitch of My Life!

Explaining every possible detail to my Father and appealing to his sensible nature, I actually convinced him that this was a good deal. He co-signed my first loan at Mahoning National Bank. Little did I know that someday they would have the paper on everything but my First Born! The Boys from KSU dropped the car off and my Dad and Brother-In-Law brought the car to me at work. How nice of them! They asked for the keys to my old Jalopy and I asked for the keys to the GTO. After checking all their pockets, they realized they locked 'em in the car! A coat hanger, a removed back seat, and more swearing than a Sailor's Convention, the keys were found in the trunk.

I felt immediately, I had The Sharpest Ride in Struthers High School, if not the entire Youngstown Area! My buddies had their Cameros, Fire Birds, and Mopars. I had A "Goat", Baby! I went to work adding all the extras to really make it a Muscle Car. Mag Wheels,(Craiger S/S, of course), Air Shocks, L60 Wide Tires, and a Killer Sound System, complete with a Mini 8-Track Player.

My buddy's famlily owned a local body shop. After drinking a six-pack to steady his hand, he did the most beautiful Paint Job ever! He used 18% Metallic Paint which is very difficult to work without creating sags. We checked it over with a Fine- Toothed Comb, not a flaw anywhere! He got a lot of work by people seeing my car.

I blew the engine in the Pontiac. Pistons and Rods flying everywhere! A Good Ol' Boy I knew, put in a 455 Cu.In.,4 Barrel Carb., with a Hurst competion 4-Speed. and a 411 Rear End.(how's that for Motor Head Talk?)The GT37 was now so fast, it would literally come off the ground in first and Second Gear! I had the car for a couple of more years. Before I got carried away some night on Rt. 422 and wrapped it around a Telephone Pole, I traded it in on a Little Fiat X19. My Motor Head Days were over!