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!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

My Special Education

Funny how kids get Pigeon-Holed into group classifications in high school. Just about everyone was a member of one Click or another. Let's see how many I can remember: The Jocks, Hoods, Motorheads, Preppies, The A/V Boys, Special Ed. Kids, and The Future Teachers. I guess I belonged to a few of the groups at different times, depending on the events in my life.

When my athletic endeavors ended after my Freshman year due to permanent injuries, I drifted between groups for a while. Never really comfortable with any group initially, I was used to The Locker Room Mentality. You know, loud and boisterous, snapping towels at each other and making fun of other boy's misgivings in The Shower Room. Swearing wasn't optional, it was mandatory to fit in.

Fortunately for me, I befriended The Special Education teacher, who happened to be my Freshman Track Coach. He asked me to help out in his class instead of going to any Study Halls. All I did in Study Hall was play Table Football with a triangle made out of notebook paper anyhow. Little did I know, the next three years would change my life. This teacher and those kids had a profound effect on me.

To say I was energetic in high school is like saying Speedy Gonzales jogs down the road. I was downright Hyper, OK? Always looking for something to do and always asking the Special ed. Teacher for my next task. He finally became exasperated with me and said," Look, I brought you in here because I trust you. You can do whatever you want, within reason, if it benefits these students or the welfare of this class. If you bend the rules sometimes to get things done, don't worry about it. I'll back you up." That was Music To My Ears! An Adult, let alone a Teacher, completely trusting me! I promised him I would never let him down.

One thing led to another and we discussed the idea of taking the kids to Disney World, since most had never left the confines of The Mahoning Valley. After months of planning and fund-raising, four cars pulling tent trailers, left Struthers for two weeks in Florida, including two days at The Magic Kingdom. What an amazing trip it was with the kids being on their best behavior and we all had a Blast!

In retrospect, I learned a lot more in Special Education Class than the students. For the first time in my life, I felt proud of myself. I gained the respect of others and truly felt the warmth of volunteering to help others. More than once, I jacked up a kid in school for making fun of a Special Ed. Kid, telling them those kids were my friends. Hmmm...guess I wasn't the Hardened Bad Ass I thought I was.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Teenage Boredom: Driver Beware!

From about the age of 12 until I was 16, my circle of fellow Juvenile Delinquents would invent ways to harass motorists that happen past our neighboorhood. Needless to say, we thought this was totally harmless and that no one would get hurt by our antics. Of course, if our own children had tried these stunts, we'd have beat them senseless!

I suppose you could rate these acts from sublime to totally ridiculous! Let's start with an easy one. Several boys would stand on opposite sides of a street,facing each other in a straight line. When a car would approach within eye contact of us, we would pretend we were pulling on a rope from each side, like an imaginary Tug-Of-War. The driver would usually slam on their brakes thinking they were going to run into a rope. We'd bust out in laughter and cover our mouths with our hands and point at the duped driver. They would usually drive off, realizing they had just been made a fool of by some young Punks.

Next was our Dancing String Caper. We would tie a string across the street at about waist level, between a telephone pole and a sign or fire hydrant. All along the length of string, we would hang assorted items. Whatever we could find nearby: leaves, twigs, an old glove, a small potato chip bag, dog poop(don't ask!), etc. As the unsuspecting driver would approach, it would usually be too late to stop by the time they saw these things magically dancing in front of them on the road. Again, the sound of screeching tires usually ensued, often followed by a,"You Little Sons A Bitches!", yelled out a car window.

Winter in The Youngstown area was often brutal in the late 60's. Being on the edge of The Snow Belt and the famous Lake Effect Snow Storms, it wasn't uncommon to get a foot of the White Stuff at a time. Somehow, I seldom remember schools closing. You put on your boots and trudged up the street in the tire tracks of passing vehicles. The more adventurist members of our group would latch a hold of a rear bumper of a slow-moving car and get pulled up the street or more often, dragged untill he decided to let go. I know, I know! Stupid wasn't the name for that stunt!

The snow also created our favorite ammunition, Snowballs! Many a unsuspecting motorist was pelted by my fellow misguided youths from the confines of Fifth Street Park. The park was about the size of a football field and lead into a woods with many outlets on to different streets. A perfect place for The Old Hit-n-Run! Hit a car with a snowball and run like Hell through the woods if they stopped. The more inventive of our gang would wear Baseball Spikes. The better the traction when running on snow and ice.

If we REALLY wanted a challenge, we would move to a field near my house known as "The Pines", an abandoned nursery. Knowing that no one would catch us in our Baseball Cleats, all cars became Fair Game. even those full of older teenage boys. We knew we were "Dead Meat" if we got caught, adding to the thrill. Only this time, we would hide deep under the huge pine trees,instead of trying to out run the much older boys. We always did this at night, relying on the cover of darkness to conceal us. When we felt that our persuers were far enough away, we'd yell out insults making them even madder and more determined to try and find us. It was like a game of Chicken and we never did get caught. Too bad, somebody really needed to teach us a lesson.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Youth Football: Steel Valley Style

Friday Night Lights got nothin' on The Youngstown Area for the excitement football brings to the masses. Any self-respecting burglar knows he can rob just about any house on Friday evening during football season. Even 80 year old widows find their way to the local field for the community event of Fall.

Any even semi-athletic boy get exposed to the Recruiting Wars that started in grade school at age 8. All boys interested in playing, were intstructed to report to an area practice field for try-outs. Everyone was selected on a team. Such inventive team names! The Bob Cats, The Tiger Cats, The Wild Cats, and The Bear Cats. Every Kid was outfitted head -to -toe with new equipment. I can't imagine the fund raising necessary to raise the needed money. I know the local Grid Iron Club contributed to the cause. Afterall, these were their future high school stars they would soon worship!

Practices were daily, often until dark. Scores of photocopied plays were handed out with every position expected to know their assignment. I know my team had several plays that came directly from the Cleveland Browns. Remember, these were 8-10 year old boys being trained for The Grid Iron Wars that would carry on for at least the next 10 years!

Games were usually on Sunday afternoons at the local high school field. It wasn't uncommon for a thousand people to show up to watch. These games seemed to have all the hype of The Super Bowl. Complete with Cheerleaders and Ushers passing around the Donation Buckets. Oh, and don't forget the tape recorded playing of The National Anthem! I remember playing a scrimmage game on a blacktop parking Lot because the field was too muddy! The Coaches and Parents even pointed their cars towards the field and turned on their headlights so we could finish the game in the dark! That's what I call Dedication!

Terms like, "Don't be a Cry Baby!", "Rub some dirt on it!", "Give me 110 percent!", and "Losing means you didn't practice hard enough!", I think all originated in Youth Football. I came home bloodied and bruised many a night and more than once, one of my parents had me undress on the back porch because I was too muddy to come in the house. Funny, I wouldn't have traded any of it. I DID learn a lot about team work and dedication and had life experiences that stick with me to this day.

I was fortunate enough to be selected as an All Star every year I played and was All Conference as a Freshman. I still have a Biography I wrote in Third Grade where my future plans included playing in the NFL. Fate dealt me a cruel blow when I was fifteen. I was critically injured in a 10-Speed Vs. Car Accident that left me with a skull fracture and a shattered left knee. My Playing Days were over. I gravitated to coaching. Hey, somebody's got to carry on the traditions!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Working On The Turnpike Blues

When I was 17, I got a job at an Arco Gas Station, at The Mahoning Valley Service Plaza, on The Ohio Turnpike. I had a couple of buddies from high school that worked there and they seemed to like it. I figured it was better than bagging groceries. There also was a HoJo's restaurant next door, where I knew I could get hot coffee and a meal.

Looking back on it now, I miss those days. Work was never again that easy. Back in the early 70's, the gas station was full service. Checking the tire pressure, the oil level, fan belts, radiator hoses, air filters,etc. was part of the job. We were extremely busy during the Summer months, the height of the Vacation Season.

The beauty of checking all the stuff on a car was anything that you found that was in need of repair or replacement, you received a commission on. 10 cents on a quart of oil, 50 cents on belts and hoses, 5 bucks for a tire, and 10% of the price of any other item. I had commission checks over $500 a month! Not bad for a high schooler in the 70's! I became the station's best "Salesman" my first Summer there. This entitled me to a "Prime Hours Shift", Noon until Eight P.M., perfect for a kid to have a Night Life!

You meet people from every walk of life on The Turnpike. Oh, the stories I could tell! It's amazing how oblivious people are to where they are and what they are doing! A young guy pulled up to the pumps and I went to his car window to greet him. As I bent down to talk to him, I noticed a young lady with her head on his lap. Dare I say, she wasn't taking a nap, if you know what I mean! Wink, wink. She paid no attention to me and carried on with her "Busy Work".

I met celebrities, athletes, and Movers and Shakers from all over the world. I waited on a Cowboy one time in a White Cadillac Convertible, complete with Steer Horns mounted on the hood. I mentioned several things to him in need of attention. In his Classic Texas Drawl, he bellowed,"Boy, anything you find wrong, go ahead and fix it. I'll be at HoJo's catchin' a bite to eat." When finished, he pull out a roll of Bills big enough to choke a horse. He peeled out $1800 to cover the bill and a $20 tip for me! He never batted an eye. Geez, I needed more customers like him!

Everyone knows you don't buy anything on The Turnpike,unless you have no choice. Prices are usually twice of what you normally pay retail. I usually "Brown Bagged It" for my lunch. However, when HoJo's had their Salisbury Steak Sandwiches, I couldn't resist. An EXTREMELY heavy-set and unattractive waitress knew of my hankerin' for those sandwiches. She always brought two or three of them over to me at the service station at no charge. I guess she thought she could win this boy over through his stomach. She came close. Yazir! Dem was good eatin'!

My college schedule eventually interfered with my work schedule and I had to quit. It was probably just as well. within a couple of years, Arco was gone and the new gas station was self serve, only needing one cashier. Times were changing. We all had to get used to the idea of paying much more for gasoline and if you want your windshield washed...DO IT YOURSELF!!!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Group Dates and The Supernatural

As part of a Gaggle of about 8-10 high school boys, one of our favorite activities was to cruise The Struthers Burger Chef and see how many carfulls of Kids we could entice to go see some Spooky Attraction in the area. The Youngstown Area by itself was pretty spooky in the early 70's just by driving through certain neighborhoods.

What I'm talking about are those places often passed down through generations that brought down-right Terror to some SCF (Stone Cold Fox). A girl would be so petrified, she'd cling to you the rest on the night like a piece of Velcro. The problem in my GTO was that damn "Four-On-The-Floor, the gearshift always got in the way. Many of the places were very benign. Our commentary is what made these trips so suspenseful. Shall we say we exaggerated the details a wee bit?

For instance, we would pull into a country cemetery with our lights off. The grave of Elizabeth was a frequent spot to plot our scary scenario. In this cemetery somewhere off Rt. 422 near the Pa. Line, Elizabeth was known to roam, looking to avenge her murder many years ago. Unknown to any of our innocent victims, we'd send a car ahead for some guys to hide and jump out and scare the Beejebbers out of the group as they approached the grave. On one occasion. a girl fainted when we did this and all the boys said they weren't going to do that any more. That pledge lasted about two weeks.

Not far from Elizabeth's Grave on Skyline Drive, near Lowellville was The Eternal Flame. After driving miles along a very desolate, often muddy road, we would stop our cars in a densely wooded area at the bottom of a valley. About 200 yards away in the distance, you could see a very large flame burning in the woods. We would conjure up stories about what the flame was doing burning in the Middle of Nowhere. One guy would say it was the torch of a Headless Horseman searching for his head. Another said it was The Grim Reaper lighting the way for Lost Souls and we would ask if our victim would like to walk back there to check it out. Of course, we never had anyone take us up on it. In reality, The Eternal Flame was surplus natural gas from a pipeline being burned off so the fumes wouldn't collect and explode.

In a cemetery in New Middletown was "The Eyes" that followed you where ever you walked. These large red eyes were nothing more than a ring of big Rhine Stones on a granite ball, on top of a monument. The tales we weaved were similar to the ones about Elizabeth, but nobody caught on. Light reflection passed from one Rhine Stone to another as you walked and it truly did look like red eyes were following you at night. Another great moment for that SCF to snuggle up to you. I always wanted to say in my best Dudley Do Right voice," Don't worry, Nell. I'll save you!"

My favorite Scary Place was The Zombies in near Hillsville, Pa.. Supposedly a colony of people lived in this row of houses along the Mahoning River, that had Water On The Brain. They were called Zombies, Freaks, Light Bulb Heads, Etc. and after years of harassment, they would allegedly come after anyone who bothered their neighborhood. We never saw any of them, even though we'd hang out the car windows and holler insults hoping to get a response. Occasionally, a car would come up behind us and our tales would weave about seeing shotguns or baseball bats sticking out the windows of the car and we had better take off quick. The driver would fly down the road for a few miles finally assuring our victims he has lost them. On a dare one time, a carload of us actually walked up to a house and knocked on the door. A little old lady that, I swear, looked exactly like Grand Ma Ma on the Adams Family opened the door. Complete with black dress, long white bushy hair, and a far away look in her eyes, she shrieked,"Yes, What do YOU want?" Poof! We were gone in a flash, not stopping until we hit The Struthers City Limits! P.S. I checked my shorts when I got home...everything was fine!