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!