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!