Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Rolling Along On Saturday Mornings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

You're Really From Murder Town USA?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Sandmen Are Gonna Getcha!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Just Love To Be Headed Down The Highway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 5, 2010

You Drive For Show and Putt For Dough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Chad And The Bonnie And Clyde Award

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 28, 2010

Keeping Busy At Mauthe Park

Mauthe Park in Struthers, Ohio was dedicated in the early 60's. A large park by small-city standards, Mauthe filled a niche in the west end of the city for a recreation area. Little League Baseball fields were created and the park became the focal point of Summer activity, sun up to sun down.

A large playground with the usual assortment of equipment was available. Teeter-todders, a Jungle Gym (better known as Monkey Bars), a Merry-Go-Round, and swings that were suspended from sixteen foot poles kept all the kids busy trying them all.

The city version of Horse Shoes, Ringers also was played there. The Ringers game for the uniformed, was similar to tossing horse shoes except large washers were used and thrown towards a five inch piece of pipe that was buried to ground level. I remember getting many a bruised shin bone from the washers bouncing off the pipe and banging into your leg. Many a boy derived extra pleasure in beating an opponent and causing a few bruises to their shins in the process.

During Struthers' good economic years when the steel mills and industry was going strong, the Parks and Recreation Department hired playground supervisors and held craft and activity classes. I'm sure there are still some Popsicle houses, plaster crafts, and vinyl braided key chains laying around some one's basement. I remember my dad using a key chain I made him well into his Golden Years.

The City Fathers acquired a retired fighter jet and mounted it on large concrete pilings in the park. Many a boy spent countless hours sitting in the cockpit pretending to shoot down enemy aircraft. Unfortunately, the jet fell victim to senseless vandalism and it had to be removed after a couple of years. I never did or never will understand the mentality of kids to destroy things for no good reason. I guess our high school principal was right when he said it the two percent that ruin it for everyone else.

Back in the 60's, I encountered one of my life's biggest disappointments at Mauthe's Baseball practice field. I was "cut" from the Little League team I tried out for, The Fifth Street Plaza Cardinals. I cried all the way on my bike ride home. It was tough to take as an eight year old. My father consoled me and immediately took me to the batting cages at Riley's Fun Spot to begin working on making the team next year. It paid off. I made the teams I tried out for every year after that. No one gets left off the roster in baseball these days. I can see both sides of it, but in my case, I thinking it created ambition in me I didn't know I had. Learning to live with rejection builds character, too. There was no coddling, just perseverance taught by our parents.

A new municipal swimming pool was built at Mauthe Park in the 70's. a rather non-descript Z-shaped pool with a nice size bath house. A lot of children learned to swim there with morning lessons and cooled off on those sweltering Summer days. Unfortunately, The pool was permanently closed when it developed large cracks in it and loss of water. Investigation revealed that the pool was built over abandoned coal mines and the ground had collapsed beneath it. I don't know if anyone took the blame for that mistake, but the kids of Struthers are now left with running through their sprinkler in the back yard.

All the neighborhood city parks have been closed. Economic factors and population shift is to blame. I'm so disappointed for the area youth. I spent many hours of my formative years in the city parks and it helped keep me out of mischief I'm sure I would have gotten in to if left to my own entertainment. The Mill Creek Park Commission of Youngstown took over ownership and maintenance of Yellow Creek Park which is the last vestige of nature left in my home town. I hope that the citizens of Struthers continue to use and appreciate the beauty of what's left in a once proud, thriving city.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Those Boring Summer Days

Contrary to popular belief, Struthers, Ohio, a suburb of Youngstown, was not always an exciting place to live. Especially for a school-age kid in the sixties and seventies. As much as we celebrated the end of a school year and the beginning of Summer vacation, within about two weeks, most of the kids in my neighborhood were bored to tears.

All of us kids seemed to go through spurts of different activities. Someone would come up with an idea and by acclimation, the group decided if it was worthy of wasting an afternoon doing it.We always had the old stand-bys of going to Fifth Street Park and hanging out and playing Washers or go hiking through Yellow Creek Park or maybe fishing at Hamilton Lake.

One boy's father made him a pair of stilts out of a split two by four with triangle wood wedges for footrests. We all faked admiration to his dad about what great workmanship he did on the stilts and before you knew it, he made a pair of stilts for every boy on the street that wanted them. For a good two weeks, we became Stilt- Walkin' Fools! Up and down the street, in and out of driveways, across yards, and even up concrete steps. After many scraped knees, bumps on the Noggins,(before Bike Helmets), and countless races, the stilts began collecting dust in the corners of our garages.

By the time I hit the junior high years, we neighborhood boys apparently had reached an intellectual phase. He started getting into board games every afternoon on some body's porch. Risk, Mouse Trap, Monopoly, and Scrabble were just some of the few we played. Jeopardy! was probably the group favorite with it's little "Cricket" clicker you used to signal you had an answer. Within a couple of weeks, everyone had memorized the answers and it wasn't fun any more. Time to break out a different game.

Many of us took up golf and learned the game while caddying at Tippecanoe Country Club. Many an afternoon was spent at Countryside Golf Course playing as much golf as daylight would allow. It was fairly cheap to play there. The course was in it's early days of being constructed and part of the hazards was an occasional cow on a fairway. I do remember bouncing a golf shot off a silo on the ninth hole and the ball landing about three feet from the hole. Every dime we made caddying was spent on green fees and golf equipment.

During our pre-driving years, most of the neighborhood kids walked to Struthers' Municipal Swimming Pool, better know as "The Birdbath", down at the bottom of Wetmore Hill. A huge circular pool with a fenced-in diving platform in the center. The chlorine was so strong that if you opened your eyes under water, they would sting and be red for days. All the Little Leaguers were forbidden to swim on game days and the red eyes were a dead give-away to your coach if you had been to the pool.

By the time we got our driver's licenses, the world became our oyster. All though most of us were restricted to staying within the city limits by our parents, trips to Cincinnati that was five hours away or a one hour trip to Pittsburgh, were not uncommon. We just pooled our gas money and hit the road. It was nice when gas was 32 cents a gallon. If our parents only knew we would still be grounded.

It's funny now, thirty years later when I bump into some one from the old neighborhood. Many a conversation begins with,"Remember the time...". Yes, I DO remember the times. Looking back on some of the best times of my life that I thought then, were the Boring Days of Summer. We made our fun and created memories we will always cherish and tell our kids about.

Friday, May 28, 2010

First Born And First Loved

It's hard to believe, but my First-Born, Jennifer Lynn is 32 today. Wait a minute! What's going on here? It feels like I just left The Expecting Fathers' Waiting Room at North Side Hospital in Youngstown. A glorious day that started out with not a cloud in the sky. I sat on the ledge of a huge window on the third floor watching the 1st shift trickle into work. It was starting to sink in that I'm now a father. Would I remember my vow as a rebellious teenager to never raise my child like my parents did? My turn now, to mold this kid into every thing I wanted her to be. As all of us parents know, easier said than done.

I was a young father. At 22, I was very energetic and excited about our first child on the way. My wife and I went to weekly Lamaze classes as I prepared to be the coach when my wife went into labor. I'll never forget, "Three Hees and a Hoo", one of the breathing techniques that we practiced religiously. My wife was in labor for 22 hours and was on the verge of needing a C-Section. After a dose of Pitosin, things happened quick. My beautiful daughter was born! 8 pounds, 9 ounces, full head of dark hair. Hell, the kid looked ready for first grade!

The television mega-hit, "Roots" was on the weeks leading up to her birth. I couldn't resist when the nurse handed me Jenny in the Delivery room. I kissed her on the forehead and lifted her skyward saying,"I Name you Kunta Kinta!", mimicking the scene in Roots when the lead character was born. I got a good laugh from The Delivery Team and a scornful look from my wife.

One of the first things I did when we brought Jenny home from the hospital was to go to a Nursery and buy a tree for her. A 5-foot beautiful Mountain Ash was planted in the back yard right next to where the Swing Set would go. At the base of the tree, I put in a small cement plaque with her name and date of birth on it. In later years, she made sure she told everyone that it was HER tree. The tree would also become first base for kick ball games.

When Jennifer turned two, I became a full-time Fireman. Working 24 hours on, 48 hours off, gave me a lot of time with my daughter in her formative years that most dads didn't have. I was able to attend a lot of pre-school field trips and events. I especially remember the trip to the Christmas Tree Farm. Being the only dad there, I was elected to cut the tree down the class selected. I think I still have bits of Pine Tar on my hands and arms, not to mention soaked pants from having to crawl under the tree. I can't imagine how many scores of pumpkins I carried back to the bus from The farm field Halloween trip.

Most Saturday mornings while my daughter was of pre-school age, It was "Mommy Time". My wife had the morning to herself to do whatever she wanted to do. Shop, visit friends or relatives, or just sleep. In nice weather, Jenny and I took off on my ten-speed bike with her strapped to the child carrier on the back. Our first destination was Casey's Restaurant in Poland for breakfast. All the folks there fussed over this adorable little girl and Jenny reciprocated with laughs and giggles. I do remember bringing home a free kitten from a house along our bike trail. The poor little thing scratched me from head to toe by the time I got it home.

One of our favorite things to do when Jennifer was about three was playing, "The Price Is Right!", her favorite show. Jenny would go to the top of the carpeted steps and wait for me to yell from the living room, Jenny Benny Rupe, C'mon Down!" she'd slide on her butt down the steps and ran across the floor into my arms, where I would lift her high in the air and say, "You are the next contestant on The Price Is Right!" She would always squeal in laughter. To this day, I Still call her Jenny Benny. She may be a mother herself, but she'll ALWAYS be my Little Girl.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

How Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down On The Farm?

Growing up in suburban Youngstown, Ohio, I didn't really learn too much about nature and the Great Outdoors other than my hiking in Yellow Creek Park out to Hamilton Lake. Sure, I did a lot of fishing in my youth and some hunting, but nothing prepared for for the rural life that awaited me in the late 80's, when I moved to North Central Ohio. Podunk wasn't a good enough name for this place. I think their were more dirt and gravel roads than motorized vehicles.

Other than The Canfield Fair, The Mahoning County's agricultural fair, I had never even seen any farm animals, up close and personal. outside of a vegetable garden in the back yard, I didn't know squat about crops and the effort it took to plant, fertilize, nurture, and harvest bountiful acres of corn, soybeans, wheat, and alfalfa. The only Alfalfa I knew was on the Little Rascals.

For about a year, I rented a small house that overlooked a five acre pond, set in the middle of a huge farm of several hundred acres. To me, it was an ideal setting. Previous to this place, I could always hear my neighbors flush their toilets. Ahhhhh, the peace and quiet! I had moved there in late Winter, little did I know what would befall me when the growing season commenced. I was surrounded on three sides by crop fields and by mid-March, the tractors were roaring by the house pretty much 24/7 until the fields were tilled and the crops planted. This usually took until late May.

About 5 feet from my bedroom window was a four foot high pasture fence. I never paid much attention to it or the large pasture that led to a barn about 300 yards away. One morning, I was blasted out of bed by the loudest MOOOOOOOOOOO!!!! I had ever heard in my life. Yeah, that's right, a cow was straining hard against the fence to reach my window to let me know it was time to get my City Ass out of bed! At first, all I could do was run around in circles in my bedroom. After the cobwebs cleared out of my brain, I finally realized what the hell was going on and had a good laugh. I proceeded to have a talk with the farmer who owned the pasture and he agreed not to let the cows into that pasture so early in the morning. Maybe my telling him I was from Youngstown and I'd hate to put a contract out on his cow had something to do with it.

Near the end of Summer, I noticed the same cow laying down in the grass about 10 feet from the fence. Gee, I thought, there sure are a lot of flies on that poor cow. I walked up to the fence and realized the cow was dead. I called the farmer up to give him the bad news and he asked me to jump over the fence and physically check to make sure the cow wasn't breathing. Apparently, he didn't trust this City Slicker. I obliged him and high jumped over the fence, only to land in a large cow pie that was plopped down right in my landing zone. This of course, made me lose my balance and I promptly fell on to my back, in you guessed it, MORE cow pies! Naturally, I had just got off work and still had my dress clothes on. There was even cow poop on my tie! I dutifully went over to the cow to make sure it was not breathing. I lifted it's front leg and was able to turn the cow over like I was using a long-handled jack. Yep, it was dead all right.

Don't get me wrong, the place did have it's charms. It was built in the 1840's and I actually saw the property deed that was written on sheep skin and signed my President James K. Polk. The support beams were cut with an axe and the floors were made of Ironwood, which can't be found today. I learned all about Ironwood after ruining two Circular Saw blades by cutting out a small section of damaged floor. The best part of the property was the pond. Heavily stocked with Pan Fish and Small and large-mouth Bass. There was nothing like coming home after a long, hard day, cracking open an iced-cold beer and "Dippin' a Line" for an hour or so. You were almost guaranteed to catch something, even though I never kept what I caught. It never failed to wind me down after a stressful day.


Tuesday, May 11, 2010

So, How's The Weather There?

Anyone who hails from Northeast Ohio knows the type of weather that is typical and unique to the area. We know that Oklahoma gets rain sweepin' down the plain. We get Gully Washers whippin' across the Mahoning Valley. Other locations get the publicity, like Tornado Alley. Sure, they get a lot of tornadoes in the Summer. Northeast Ohio gets severe weather year round.

Some of my earliest childhood memories are of playing in snow taller than I was. We didn't have to pile up snow to make a structure to play in. All we had to do was start tunneling. Our yard looked like giant hamsters had taken it over with tunnels in the snow going in every direction. There was a good chance that a snowman that was built in December would still be there in March. Kids were booted out of their homes to go play, when the parents had had enough of restless behavior. You quickly learned how to dress warm and stay warm for several hours in below freezing temperatures.

The boys in my neighborhood played football a lot in this weather. How fun it was to be tackled hard and never getting hurt in a foot of fluffy snow. No one could get up much speed while running. It was a game in slow motion. the only downsides were the football itself which would turn into a frozen rock and feel like it when you landed on it and when you would get your coat and shirt pulled up while being tackled and get snow in places where it definitely didn't belong.

You know it gets cold when the HIGH temperature for the day was MINUS 22 degrees f. We had a cold snap like that in the late 70's. Schools were closed for several days and the only happy people were the Tow Truck Drivers and the gas and electric companies. The poor guys that were on the water company repair crew were kept busy by a large number of waterline breaks. I was a Fireman at the time and we had to drag our fire hose back to the station behind the truck. It was too frozen to roll up. Now that's cold!

Spring rains often came in torrents. It wasn't uncommon for it to rain for a solid week. The ground would become totally saturated and sewers and creeks overflowed into many an unfortunate homeowners' basement. Construction methods weren't what they are today. You considered yourself lucky if your basement was completely dry. Little League games were played much later into the Summer than planned. So many Spring games and practices had to be cancelled, that it extended the season.

The first paddling I received in grade school was because of the heavy rains that flooded our school yard. During recess, I ventured off the blacktop into the forbidden section of yard that had a good foot of water in it with three other boys. Naturally, we all got soaked to the bone. Our teacher took us to the Principal's Office for three swats each (on a wet butt, to boot), then off to the Nurse's Office to disrobe and sit under a blanket while our clothes dried on a radiator.

The Summer brought many severe thunderstorms to our area. Fourth of July weekend of 1969 sticks in the minds of many locals. A brutal storm that rolled across the Mid-West, slammed particularly hard in Ohio with several inches of rain, hail, and 70 M.P.H. winds. The storm hit our area shortly after the dinner hour. My sister, brother-in-law, eight month old niece, and myself, being fourteen at the time, found ourselves in a pop-up camping trailer at Berlin Reservoir. The warning systems weren't in place like they are today and we had no clue a storm of this magnitude was upon us. We heard the forecast for rain, but what else was new?

At the height of this powerful storm, the trailer began rocking like a see-saw. It would literally touch the ground on each side, front to back, with us huddled in the middle. We unzipped a door flap to look out, only to see a large tent with a family in it, begin rolling across the campground. My brother-in-law and I ran out and laid on top of the tent until the worst of the storm had passed. I had no idea that rain could sting so bad on bare skin! Fortunately, everyone escaped with no injuries. Every town in the area was devastated with downed power lines and trees that blocked many streets.

In 1980, an F5 tornado, the most powerful, left a path of destruction of over fifty miles long. It was over a mile wide at times and never left the ground as it scoured everything in it's path from Warren, Ohio to Beaver falls, Pennsylvania. The only thing I can relate the images of the aftermath to were of pictures I have seen of Hiroshima after the atomic bomb was dropped. I saw first-hand what the power of Mother Nature can do. Steel corrugated building panels wrapped around the top of 100 foot tall Oak trees and semi trucks rolled into a corner of a huge trucking yard like bowling pins are just a couple of the scenes I observed. To this day, that tornado ranks as the most destructive in terms of it's length, width, and total property damage in U.S. history.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Tin Soldiers And Nixon Coming

Forty years ago, on May 4th, 1970, The Anti-War Movement against The Vietnam War came to a peak with the shooting of four students at Kent State University. America was forever changed that day. Anyone who remembers one of the blackest marks against our freedom has an opinion about who was right or wrong and who was to blame for the shootings.

I was fifteen years old when the shootings occurred at KSU. Kent was only an hour's drive from my home in Struthers, Ohio. One of the four students that was shot that day was a girl from Boardman, a suburb next to us in the Youngstown area, so it really hit home literally to anyone from our geographic location. I recall following the news intently on the television that day as grainy videos were shown of the mayhem that resulted from The National Guard firing upon students as they marched towards the Administration Building up The Blanket Hill Area of campus. I will never forget the photograph of a girl kneeling over a slain student and the horrified look on her face as she screamed for help.

Governor James Rhodes was vilified by the students for allowing the National Guardsmen to carry live ammunition and fire on the students if threatened. The Guard always claimed that the students fired upon them first. Even after years of scrutiny and debate, No one can definitively say exactly what happened. A lot depends on what side of the issue they were on. America became very divided over the Kent State Shootings and did hasten the politicians to taking great strides to end American involvement in Vietnam.

Because of my involvement and leadership in DECA, The Distributive Education Clubs Of America, I was offered a "Full ride" scholarship to Kent State. KSU was the only university that offered a Major in Distributive Education in Ohio. I declined the offer directly because of what happened there and the student unrest. I didn't want to be any part of it. At least, that's what my 18 year old mind was telling me. Three years had past and the U.S. involvement in Vietnam was winding down and The Draft had ended. I suppose I used it as a convenient excuse to stay close to home.

Ironically, my Senior year, we had a student teacher in Distributive Education that came from Kent State. He had the unique prospective on that fateful day on May 4th, 1970, to be a student AND a National Guard Soldier. Talk about conflicted. He told my class, no matter what, he knew he would not fire his rifle that day. If commanded to do so, he said he would have fired over every one's head. He took us for a tour of The KSU Campus and showed us Blanket Hill and a abstract sculpture that had two bullet holes in it. If you looked through the holes and lined them both up in your field of sight, you can see that it was in direct line with a fire escape on a student dormitory building. This supposedly supports the allegations from the Guard that the students fired upon them. Again, I don't think we will ever know the whole truth.

In the Summer of 1973, I had just graduated from high school and attended my first major rock concert at Cleveland Municipal stadium, called "The World Series Of Rock". Among the performers that evening was Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. They played their recently released anthem of the Anti-War Movement, "Ohio", a moving song about The KSU Shootings. Over 100,000 kids sang the song along with them while holding up their Bic Lighters. Chills ran down my spine and as I looked around, there were not many dry eyes to be seen. That was my first experience of the power that music can have on our lives.

In a perverse way, I suppose I'm glad I lived through those days. I learned a lot about how powerful a movement of people can be when supporting an issue. Our forefathers fought for our independence much the same way. America's heroes were those that stuck their necks out for all of us. This includes our soldiers and the protesters that believe the course our country is headed is in the wrong direction. That's freedom, like it or not. We all need to defend it to our last breath.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Oh, Danny Boy, I Miss You So

I guess I met my buddy Danny on the blacktop basketball courts of St. Nicholas Church in Struthers. We were in junior high in the late 60's. He went to a St. Nick's School and I was across the street at Fifth Street Elementary. He obviously, was Catholic and I was raised a Baptist. He had strong Irish roots, I had a Heinz 57 variety heritage of English, French, and German. By high school years, my older sisters had "left the Nest" and I was the only child at home. Danny's family consisted of six kids. Four boys and two girls. Despite all this, Danny and I became very good friends and shared many an adventure together.

To me, Danny's house was a place of fascination. It was like Grand Central Station at all hours of the day and night, especially in the summer time with everyone out of school. Dan's father was disabled and confined to a wheelchair. He was a very pleasant guy who was always happy to see you and was a permanent fixture at the kitchen table. You never knocked on Danny's door. You just walked right into the kitchen and his dad was there to greet you.

Dan had two older siblings, a brother four years older and a sister two years older. All of Dan's friends thought his sister was Hot. A brunette version of Susan Dey or Peggy Lipton from The Mod Squad. She was very friendly with us which of course, drove all the hormones just wild in all us teenage boys. Her group of girlfriends were just as pretty and we just loved them all coming by to see her. None of our group of boys was bold enough to ask an older girl out, but we certainly discussed the possibilities.

As our group of six or seven got our driver's licenses, the fun really began. Of course, wheels meant freedom and we practically lived in our cars from the time we were sixteen until we settled down after high school. Cruising the local fast food restaurants is a rite of passage for all American teenagers, isn't it? Dan and I spent a lot of hours in a car going to all the Hot Spots in the Youngstown area. I remember every one's fascination with seeing the Market Street Robot, as it was called. From Youngstown State University on Wick Avenue, if you looked south towards downtown, the street lights on the Market Street Bridge looked like the outline of a body and the head of the robot was the huge lighted Amoco Gasoline sign. Anyone new to cruising with us was asked if they ever saw the robot. If they answered no, we felt obligated to show it to them.

We befriended some girls from rival Cardinal Mooney High School. A group of about a dozen of us "hung out" together for the better part of two years. Many late Summer nights were spent at The Penn-Ohio Truck Stop enjoying mass quantities of French Fries and Root Beer. I do believe Danny hooked up with one of the red-headed sisters that frequented our group. I was never that lucky. We spent many evenings at The Sky High Drive-In Theatre watching the latest horror movie. Several of us would often hide in the trunk to sneak in if we were broke. We took the girls to Locust Grove Lake, a swimming hole in New Springfield. We had a lot of fun there, especially going down their huge slide. You were guaranteed a "Wedgie" each trip down the slide.

Growing up in The Youngstown Area, fights were common and you never knew when a confrontation would take place. Dan and I should have known when we accompanied our buddy, Greg to a function at New Springfield Local High School. Greg was dating a Cheer Leader from there and the local boys didn't like the idea of anyone cutting in on their turf. Once outside, someone started a fight with Greg and then all Hell broke loose! Three of us against probably twenty of them. Fists were flying and we each managed to handle anyone that came at us. None of us had a scratch! We were lucky to escape unscathed. Legends were born that night. For months afterwards, kids from both schools talked about the Big Fight where some Struthers boys put a whippin' on those Farm Boys from New Springfield. Needless to say, we never went back for an encore performance.

During our high school days, Dan and I worked in landscaping, preparing new yards for seeding or for sod. Often very long hours of back breaking work. We had blisters on top of blisters. We would ride in the back of a dump truck to a sod farm and fill it up with rolls of sod that weighed 70-80 pounds, ride to the job site and unload all of it into place in the yard. A large yard would take two sun up to sun down days to finish and we looked like Coal miners by the time we got done. The black silt filled every nook and cranny on your body. Danny began doing a lot of work in concrete construction and excavation, learning a lot along the way.

Not long after graduation in 1973, Danny headed to California to work in construction. He did really well for himself and started his own company. We talked on the phone pretty often and as many times as I told him I would come out to visit sometime, something always seemed to get in the way. He came back to Ohio several times for weddings, funerals, and reunions. It always felt great to reconnect and I miss our friendship. We all have had friends in our lives that have had that special bond. Danny was one of those guys. Always somebody I could count on.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Want To Buy Some Swamp Land?

The Summer of '66 found me on vacation with my parents to Florida. I don't remember why my sisters didn't go that year, but the back seat was occupied by Me, Myself, and I. Boring. Mile after mile, not much was said to me, except Mom's never-ending spiel on points of interest from the AAA Trip-Ticket Map. Gheesh! Summer vacations were suppose to be fun, not educational!

Finally, we arrived in Florida and set up our tent trailer at a campsite on the banks of the famous Swanee River. (I still hear Wayne Newton singing that song in my head.) One thing I clearly remember was the humidity. A swimming towel I hung up that evening to dry was even wetter the following morning. I can't imagine how folks dried their clothes before dryers were invented. Clotheslines were of little use. Talk about Jungle Rot, now I know what G.I.'s had to deal with in damp conditions.

We visited Silver Springs, the h0me of the Glass-Bottomed Boats. The tour of the river was amazing to a Ohio boy that had never seen a clear body of water. Through the boat's floor, you could easily see sixty feet down. There were Catfish six feet long and scores of other colorful species. A recent episode of "I Spy" was filmed there and props of a ancient ruins were left behind for tourist to "ohhh" and "Awww" over. Some Tarzan movies were also filmed partly at this location and monkeys hung down from branches looking for handouts from the boat operators. My parents bought an end table made of abalone shells encased in acrylic. It sure didn't go with our decor, but my dad loved it. It sat next to his recliner until the day he died.

One afternoon a man approached our campsite, dressed in a suit and tie, looking totally out of place. He asked my parents if they would like to go on a one hour plane ride, have a full course lunch and tour a resort development. Their only obligation was to listen to a one hour sales presentation on possibly buying some land to build a vacation home on someday. My father readily agreed and the man said a bus would pick us up in the morning to take us to the airport.

The man left and Mom looked at Pop like he was out of his mind. He eased her mind by telling her, "Don't worry. Buying property is the last thing I'm thinking of. I figured we would get to go on a free plane ride, have a nice lunch, and enjoy the afternoon, free of charge." Yeah, right...

We hopped on the bus for the short trip to the airport and boarded a beat-up silver Turbo-Prop plane to Lake Wales, Florida. This was my first plane trip, so my nose was glued to the window.

We arrived at the resort called River Ranch. The adults were ushered into a large conference hall and the kids were led away like Lemmings to a play area, stables, and marina. Everything was free of charge and I had a blast doing everything they had to offer.

My last activity was taking out a small motorboat with an outboard motor. The man at the marina asked if I knew how to operate the boat. I assured him my family had a boat and I drove it all the time. What he didn't know was I did it from my father's lap. I was only eleven, but he let me take the boat out on my own on Lake Wales. I lost track of time, zipping up and down the lake. What fun! When I did finally show up at the marina, several adults were standing there waiting on me. I was holding up the bus that was returning us to the airport. I thought I was in big trouble, but my parents said they were just glad I was back safe and sound.

My folks did buy property at River Ranch. Not one lot, but two. Two and a half acres. The sales people convinced them that property values would soar with Disney World being built soon, just a stone's throw up the road. This was a Ground Floor Opportunity according to them and streets and utilities would be put in soon to start housing. A "Convenient Payment Plan" enticed my parents and made it affordable to middle-class people like my mom and dad.

They began making plans to build a retirement home there. Months turned into years and no development was ever done at River Ranch. Finally, the property developers were nailed for committing fraud. It was learned that no one could build on this property because it was part of a Federal Flood Plain and no permanent structures could be built there. My parents along with thousands of others were Hood-Winked, Swindled, and just plain Ripped-Off. They were literally sold Swamp Land in Florida!

Many years later, as part of a Class-Action Suit, my parents were offered another piece of property in Cape Coral. They didn't bother following up on it and my dad thought it was just another swindle. After the time limit expired on this land swap, "60 Minutes" ran a story on "The Great American Land swindle", detailing what happened to these hapless victims. They said that at least a lot of the people got a fair deal by being able to trade their property for one in Cape Coral. My dad heard that and you could have knocked him over with a feather!

Long after I was married and had children of my own, my father told me that the property in Florida was intended as an investment for my college education. He was sorry I had to struggle on my own to pay for college. Property deed in hand, I went to River Ranch to see what was there in the 90's and to try and sell it. The land could be sold to campers or fisherman to use and have access to the local river. The past property taxes that were due was worth more than the value of the property itself. So much for trying to unload a White Elephant.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A Great Way To Spend A Summer Weekend

I was very fortunate that my family went on a vacation every year during my adolescence. My parents, two older sisters, and I packed up our big ol' Chrysler and Tent trailer and hit the open road. We saw most of "The Lower 48" and had some memories I'll never forget and cherish forever.

Now what's a family to do the rest of the Summer, after vacation is over? Why, buy a boat,too! My father found a good deal on a sixteen foot Ski Boat and decided we could all enjoy camping and boating weekends at Berlin Reservoir, a huge lake just south of Youngstown, Ohio. I don't know where my dad got all this money to buy all these extras to daily living. His adage was, "Live today, pay for it tomorrow." He was right. We had a ball! Every weekend from Memorial Day to Labor Day, we usually could be found at the Berlin Campground.

My oldest sister was recently married and my new brother-in-law would haul the trailer out to the campground on Friday night and Dad and I would follow behind pulling the boat. We would set up camp and launch the boat into the water. We took the boat about two hundred yards down the lake and beached it in front of our camp sight. We were all set for the weekend. Dad always had to work Friday night, so he would leave for work straight from the reservoir and return Saturday afternoon after a few hours of sleep.

Friends and other family members would trickle out to our campsite during the day on Saturday or even Sunday. It was understood to bring your own food and refreshments. Let the party begin! We skied and boated from sun up to sun down. I especially liked to water ski first thing in the morning when the lake surface was like glass. I tried to Barefoot Ski several times, but the boat just wasn't fast enough. By the time I was fourteen, I could slalom ski, (one ski), and actually touch my shoulder to the water as I cut back and forth across the wake of the boat.

We even talked my mom into trying to get on our hard plastic sled that we pulled behind the boat. Let's not say my mom was fat, we'll just say she was fluffy. we went into very shallow water and even with the help of my brother-in-law and me, we couldn't get mom on top of the sled to go for a ride. We all laughed so hard we cried. What a sight to see my mother flop from one side of the sled to the other! We all gave her an "A" for effort. What a good sport.

I had an uncle who thought he was a Hot Shot on Water Skis. He would play around with jumping real high over the wake and even skiing backwards. His Hot Dog antics finally caught up to him one day. His plan was to let go of the ski rope and glide quickly into shore and jump out of his skis as he hit land. However, his speed was way to fast and he hit the shoreline at probably twenty miles per hour. He was vaulted head over heels several times and separated his shoulder. We teased him about that stunt for years.

I was never bored when we went to the lake. Over the years, I made many friends there, who's families also camped there every weekend. Many late nights were spent in front of a campfire roasting marshmallows or making smores. My favorite campfire treat was dripping juice from hot bacon fat on to fresh Italian bread that was covered with onions. Talk about an instant coronary! Ahh, anything in moderation is OK, right? It wasn't uncommon for some of us kids to fall asleep in front of the fire while telling ghost stories.

All good things have to come to an end and our days at Berlin Reservoir slowly dwindled to rare occasions. My sisters were both now married and had little children and my high school activities and work cut in to my time to camp or ski. Mom and Dad weren't getting any younger either, so they decided to sell the camping trailer and boat. We all felt bad about it, but understood. We all resolved to do the same thing with our kids when they got older. Truth was, it never happened, for a variety of reasons. At least we all have the memories of some great times.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Working Until They Turn Out The Lights

Fresh out of high school in June 1973, within two weeks, I got hired at a steel fabrication plant in downtown Youngstown, Ohio called The William B. Pollock Company. This place had started in the middle of The Civil War in 1863 making items used in the steel mills and foundries.

I really had no experience or knowledge of factory life. My dad worked in a food warehouse and my high school jobs ranged from grocery stores to gas stations. The father of one of my good friends was a foreman at The Pollock Company and the head of personnel went to my church and knew my family well. Nepotism never hurts. My initial job there was a Helper, which was just that. Helping some one else in doing their job which could be assembly, welding, or a Fitter. A Fitter built steel fabrications and tack-welding things into place that were completely welded and/or machined by others.

After six months at mostly menial jobs, I was eligible to bid on other jobs in the plant, which were awarded on basis of seniority in this Union environment. I next became a Black Smith's Helper which involved heating an bending huge steel parts like rings that reinforced steel ladles that had a thirty foot diameter or putting rivets in hooks that were eight inches thick that picked up sixty- ton ladles full of molten steel. Many days I looked like a coal miner by the end on my shift. Fortunately, a locker room and showers were there and I didn't have to bring the dirt home with me. Because of the grease and grime, my work clothes needed to be replaced about every three months. That's when I learned about Goodwill and other thrift stores. They sold work shirts for fifty cents and pants for a buck. What a deal!

My next occupation I advanced to was the Burning Department. No, this wasn't where you learned about becoming an Arsonist, this is were steel parts were made by burning out patterns on a sheet of steel on varying thicknesses with a cutting torch powered by acetylene and oxygen.
My initial job was a Scrap Burner, where I cut left over steel pieces into to small sections to be loaded in a scrap box to be recycled. I still have scars where a hot spark shot down my neck, through an opening in my shirt, or the worst, down my boot. When a hot ember went down your boot, you grabbed anything liquid nearby to douse the ember that was now burning your sock. I then graduated to running a Burning Machine that looked like a toaster holding a burning torch. it ran on small portable tracks to burn a straight line on the piece you were cutting.

Bored with that job after a year, I bid on an overhead craneman job and got it. I began operating a small five-ton crane thirty feet high that ran on railroad tracks the length of a hundred yard building. I advanced to a eighty- foot high one, then a crane with two hooks, one capable of lifting forty tons, the other ten tons. It was scary using two hooks at once to flip over a steel ladle that was thirty feet in diameter and thirty feet high. The chains used for such a big lift were huge. One link was two feet long and four inches in diameter. I guess years earlier, a man was killed while standing behind a ladle as the crane man moved the chains to the far side of the ladle. They came together like cymbals, crushing the poor guy who was out of sight of the crane operator. Ever since then, a worker was assigned to guide the crane operator for large lifts.

My final assignment was in the Machine Shop as a Horizontal Boring Mill Operator. I felt at home doing this job. I had three years of Machine Shop in high school and learned how to operate everything. This humongous machine traveled ten feet high and bored holes in casting up to forty inches in diameter, up to eight feet long. It often took an entire eight hour shift to bore one pass through a large cylinder. When milling a large piece of steel with a rotating cutting head, chips flew off the work like red-hot Cheetos. These cuttings were hot enough to light a cigarette on and often found their way into the most inaccessible parts of your clothing, safety glasses, or bare skin. I quickly learned not to wear anything made of polyester or nylon!

My seven years there served me well. I was making over twenty bucks an hour in the late 70's. not bad for a young Buck, still wet behind the ears. It financed my college education and afforded me the chance to study quite a bit during slow periods on the job. This wasn't uncommon for a guy in the Youngstown area.

Making that kind of money was standard in just about any position in the Steel Industry. Most of the steel mills were out of business by the early 80's. No wonder. The strong union environment that was so necessary during the earlier days of organized labor became the downfall of many businesses that could not pay the high cost of labor and afford to modernize to keep up with foreign competition. Union officials will tell you it was greed of the corporations that kept them from modernizing. In any event, twenty three miles of uninterrupted steel mills that stretched from Warren to Struthers was no more. The Mahoning Valley was no longer the "Cradle Of The Steel Industry". We all moved on, but it will never be the same.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Ding-Dong, It's The Knife Man

Ding-Dong---Ding,Ding-Dong---Ding. When I was a little kid, the sound of those bells would bring me running to the street. What was it? No, it wasn't the Ice Cream Truck. It was The Knife Sharpener! That's right. A little old Italian man, authentic right down to his Beret and Bandanna around his neck with Half-Bifocals perched low on his nose. If I didn't know any better, I would have thought this was Gipetto.

He would push this humongous green cart up and down the hilly streets of Struthers. No easy task, given the terrain. I couldn't pedal my bike up some of the streets the Knife Sharpener traversed. I would follow him, usually with a collection of other neighborhood kids as he plied his trade.

The unmistakable sound of those loud bells would alert the housewives to bring their knives outside to him to be sharpened in the middle of the street. Quite a sight to see these women come flying out of their houses brandishing large Butcher knives, often waving them over their heads to draw the attention of the Knife Sharpener. I'm sure in this day and age, a Cop seeing this would have plugged them full of lead before they reached the sidewalk. So much for Zero Tolerance in the neighborhood.

Gipetto, as I'll call him, would pull his cart to a halt. I can't imagine how much it weighed, but it took him quite a few feet to stop the cart's forward momentum. The cart itself was ingenious. He had a metal stand he pulled the cart backwards on to, much like a large kickstand. The Covered Wagon size wheels would then be six inches off the ground. This stabilized the cart and he had foot pedals he pumped to turn the Grinding Wheel and operate the water pump that bathed the stone in water as he grinded away. He put a razor sharp edge on anything you brought him. Knives, axes, hatchets, lawn mower blades, scissors, and garden shears all were sharpened to precision. To demonstrate this, Gipetto would take a piece of paper and slice it with a deft stroke of his hand with the newly sharpened item.

Gipetto was a sharp business man. Knowing that crowds often attracted more business, he offered penny candy to the children hanging around his cart. he would sing or whistle Italian Opera while he worked and always had a smile on his face that was infectious. I can recall him being at one spot in a suburban neighborhood for hours, as mothers or their designated offspring lined up to get that precision hone on their item.

Eventually, Gipetto no longer appeared in our neighborhood. I don't know whatever happened to him or his business. Was it a lack of customers with so many moms now working? Did the electric can opener do him in with it's built-in knife sharpener? Did he simply retire with no one interested in taking over his trade? I'd love to know. It was sort of like Puff The Magic Dragon. Another childhood memory that vanished in the mist. Ding Dong--- Ding, Ding-Dong---Ding...

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

DECA And Another Dose Of Humble Pie

In the early 70's, Vocational Education was just coming into it's own in Ohio. The premise being to prepare students for a job, especially if they weren't necessarily geared towards going to college. I thought that would suit me just fine. I had no desire in high school to further my education.

I enrolled in Distributive Education and began classes my junior year. Distributive Education, better known as DE to those involved, had a tag line of "Developing future leaders for Marketing and Retail". We learned about a lot of facets of business and it was fairly easy if you paid attention. Another part of the program was obtaining a part-time job in the field of retail or marketing and your teacher would follow-up with your employer on your development.

I worked in a grocery store and my boss never saw my teacher. Too bad, I had a very young guy for a boss and I had him all primed for the visit from my teacher. He was going to tell my teacher what an excellent employee I was and what a fine example of today's youths I was. Yeah right, he wasn't going to tell him we split a six-pack in the parking lot some nights when we clocked out. I did learn quite a bit about running a grocery store, stocking shelves, ordering merchandise, preparing produce, and sweeping the floors. I pushed a pretty mean Dry Mop. We had contests to see who could do it the best and the fastest. It helped stem the boredom.

My class of about fifteen students was mostly a collection of misfits from the junior class. Better known as non-conformists, they could bring a weak teacher to the point of tears. The year before, the Senior DE Class caused the instructor to have a nervous breakdown and he quit half way through the school year. That's when Mr. Frank entered the picture. A burly, no-nonsense kind of guy, he quickly turned the program around and got students involved in all aspects of Distributive Education and got them to participate in DECA. DECA was the Club Portion of DE and had competitions on the local, regional, and state level.

Every student was required to select a contest to participate in. My choice was Job Interview, where a mock job interview was conducted with an area Personnel Director and you were judged on appearance,inter-personal skills, knowledge of the job, and aptitude. Apparently, I knew how to dazzle them and I made it to the state competition in Columbus. a couple of my classmates also advanced and had quite the weekend at a Sheraton Hotel in Ohio's Capitol. I won at the state level and I must have made an impression on the Head Muckity- Mucks of the DECA Program. They convinced me to run for Student President of Ohio.

I first had to be elected President of my Region. I won that one hands down, mainly because my competition of three others showed little enthusiasm. I gave a "Fire And Brimstone" kind of speech. One that Jimmy Swaggert would have been proud of.

Part of the responsibility of the job was to visit all the other Deca Schools in my region of Northeast Ohio at least once a month. I then had a monthly meeting with the adult DECA staff, including The State Director of Vocational Education. I complained at a meeting that my principal would not always let me out of school to visit other schools in my region. the State Director immediately placed a phone call to my principal and read him "The Riot Act". My red-faced Principal called me in his office to tell me I could leave school when ever necessary, I didn't even have to ask! Of course, I never abused the privilege, not me...all I can say is it's amazing how the golf courses are deserted on weekday afternoons.

I had to pass an interview with a panel in Columbus to run for State President. I was ill-prepared and arrogant with my answers. I didn't study about who all the Muckity-Mucks were by name and knew before I left I choked at my chance. Another dose of Humble Pie, served up hot and fresh!

My Senior year consisted of three regular classes of English, Math, and History and then I left school at 11:00 A.M. to go to my part-time job. Surprisingly, I was offered a full scholarship to Kent State if I would major in Distributive Education. At the time, I had no interest in doing that and turned it down. I had a full-time job waiting for me upon graduation, so I thought I was all set. Funny how life turns out, a year later I was enrolled at Youngstown State University, majoring in Business and EDUCATION.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

My Adventures With Uncle Jack

My Dad grew up in the inner-city of Youngstown, Ohio. The youngest of five brothers, he didn't have much time for outside activities or sports. Dad's father died when he was three, so any time outside of school was dedicated to supporting the family. He was a standout in Basketball. I found that out by accident when going through his jewelry box one day and finding a Bronze Basketball charm he was awarded as League MVP. Dad was never one to brag about his exploits.

I gave a little background to this story to explain why my father didn't have much influence into my endeavors in sports and the great outdoors. He never had much experience himself, let alone teach me the proper ways to do things. Enter my Uncle Jack. Jack was my Mom's youngest brother, by a lot of years and only twelve or so years older than me. I can't confirm it, but I do believe Jack was born with a fishing pole in his hand.

Jack grew up in Struthers, practically a stone's throw away from Lake Hamilton. Jack became an accomplished Fisherman and Hunter very early in life and spent every extra minute he had perfecting his craft. I was the first nephew Jack had, so by the time I was old enough to walk and feed myself, I became one of Jack's Fishin' Buddies.

Jack would frequently have me stay overnight at my grandparent's house on Omar Street. We spent hours hunting Night Crawlers by flashlight and he would wake me up before the crack of dawn to go fishing. Jack would often have to wake up Slim, the care-taker of the lake if he needed to rent a row boat or buy some bait. We would usually be the first ones on the lake for the day. I still remember the fog-shrouded water that was as smooth as glass and the sounds of the oars rhythmically plunging softly into the water for another stroke.

After Jack got his Driver's License, we often went to The Mahoning Valley Sportmen's Club at Crystal Lake. This small lake was stocked with tons of fish and I have fond memories of getting into Blue Gill Catchin' Contests with Jack off a small porch of a cabin that overhung the water. Jack let me win, of course, and I beamed with pride. As a young boy, Jack had me use a Bamboo Pole with about 10 feet of line and a round Bobber. Much to his surprise, I caught a huge Rainbow Trout with that Bamboo pole that Jack and his friend thought was a club record. I never enjoyed a fish dinner as much as that one. Jack was an expert at filleting and preparing fish, too.

On another occasion, I was fishing with Jack and his buddy, when I accidentally bumped a Fishing Pole and Reel that sat on the rail of the boat. Over the side and into 60 feet of water went a brand-new Garcia Rod and Reel! Jack could see the fear in my eyes and just told me to be more careful. A hard thing for fidgety five-year-old to do. Jack mentally marked the spot and he and his buddy Scuba-Dived for the fishing gear, retrieving it the next day.

As I got older and Hunting Season rolled around, Jack would pick me up to go hunting. He frequently took me to a Trap Shooting Range to hone my skills with a Shotgun. Carefully standing behind me, he'd coach me in the finer points of shooting. Slowly squeeze the trigger and line up your sights on the target. I had several perfect scores, thanks to Uncle Jack's guidance. What a thrill for a twelve year old!

Jack bought his first motorcycle when I was about fourteen. A Honda 750, that I spent many a Sunday riding on the back of, all over Ohio and Western Pennsylvania.
Again, there was Jack at the crack of dawn, tooting his horn in the driveway to wake me up to head out on another adventure. Riding in the early Spring in Ohio on a Motorcycle isn't the warmest. I recalling my hands aching from the cold and Jack stopping at a General Store ninety five miles from nowhere to buy me some gloves.

On another excursion, we stopped at Back Woods Bar far from home to warm up and catch a bite to eat. We played pool with a few locals for a pitcher of Beer to the winners. Naturally, Jack being good at everything, easily won. I drank my first Beer that day(and then some!), and only Jack and I ever knew. I figure the Statute of Limitations is up on that caper. I think Jack kept me at his house for several hours before taking me home.

About the time I graduated from high School, Jack moved to Georgia. I felt like Little Jackie Paper of Puff, The Magic Dragon fame, when the dragon left and Jackie lost his playmate. I was on my own, so to speak. Things would never be the same again. The guy that showed me so much and was my mentor, now had a wife and children of his own. I found out that it wasn't as bad as I thought it might be. I now knew enough to function by myself and even show others.

Admittedly, Jack gave me opportunities I never would have had and he taught me many skills I would use all my life. I got the Motorcycle Bug from him and have traveled most of the country on one, just about every year since. I've even taken my Grandchildren fishing, which any Grandfather would cherish those memories. Thanks, Jack for showing me the ropes. I treasure those days.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

When A Young Man's Fancy Isn't So Fancy

Another Valentine's Day has come and gone. I began thinking of my earliest forays into romance, all were met with limited success. Apparently, I watched way too many exploits of the love-lorn Alfalfa on The Little Rascals always pursuing Darla and considering himself a Ladie's Man.

Love has gotten me in trouble since the first grade. I was called into the Principal's Office for the first time for kissing girls at recess. After a stern lecture, the Principal sent me back to class with my promise not to do that again.

Valentine's Day in grade school was a great time to exchange cards with class mates to show them how much or how little you cared about them. Those fifty cards you bought for ninety nine cents were all you had to express your emotions. Of course, you would save the best ones for that particular someone who made your heart flutter. The cards with pictures of Skunks or farm animals were reserved for your buddies or the Nerd that's constantly picking his nose in class.

Each class spent Art Period for weeks, decorating shoe boxes or oatmeal containers with red construction paper and white hearts and lace. All the completed mailboxes were placed on the window sills that ran the length of the room. At the appointed time, each kid would pain-stakingly place a card in each box. So no one would be slighted, the rules were that each child must get a valentine card from each class mate. A party was held in the afternoon to open your cards and consume mass quantities of cookies, candy hearts, and heart-shaped cinnamon Red Hots. Much of the time was spent going around the room thanking one another for the cards or shaking your fist at someone for getting a not-so-nice one. The ultimate was getting a mushy card from that certain someone that made your heart go pitter-patter.

Relationships in grade school changed like the wind. No sooner would a boy write some girl's initials on his notebook, then she'd change her mind and like someone else. By the end of the school year, my notebook had every square inch scribbled out of some body's initials. Sitting with someone at a football or basketball game constituted a relationship. Walking home with them meant things were getting serious.

My first "Real" date was in fifth grade. We walked to the Struthers Bowladrome and bowled a few games. After my date soundly beat me in every game, we walked to the Isaly's dairy Store for Sundaes. After one bite, my date decided she wasn't hungry and didn't want it. I thought to myself how many yards I had to mow and driveways I had to shovel to raise money for this date. This couldn't be the girl for me if she wasted a perfectly good sundae without any thought to who was paying for this anyhow. I immediately walked her home and that was the end of that relationship. The nerve!

In seventh grade, I was one of three boys that were always invited to parties with girls in my class. Usually, eight to ten girls and the three of us boys. Not bad odds. We wound up playing Spin-The-Bottle in the dimly lit basements. After several rounds, it always seemed to break off into couples with each boy getting into a serious make-out session with a selected girl. It wasn't exactly the "Days of Wine and Roses", but I wasn't complaining.

I don't know why the mind-set developed in my class, but dating outside of our class was taboo. Everyone had nothing good to say about under-class men, over-class men, or people from other schools. I broke that mold in high school after figuring out it was a conspiracy by the girls to keep all the boys to themselves. I exhausted all the possibilities in my class anyhow. By now, a lot of the girls in my class were more like sisters.

I could go on and on about dates I had in high school. Maybe I'll write about some of them at some point. I just can't go into great detail. You know, hormones start to run amok in teen-age boys. The best piece of dating advice I ever got was from my Mom who told me that,"Gentlemen Never Tell Their Secrets." I always honored those words. Even all the locker room banter where boys often boasted about their latest conquests, found me strangely silent. I wasn't one to kiss and tell. It served me well. I always had a date lined up for the weekend.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

They'll Think That You Can Fly!

I was ten years old when I saw the made-for-TV movie, "Billie" starring Patty Duke. A goofy little predictable flick about a high school girl who wanted to join the boy's track team because of her amazing speed. She attributed her fast running to "Having The Beat", timing her strides to a fast Rock Music song she played in her head. Remember, this was way before I-Pods or even personal cassette recorders.

For some unexplained reason, this movie stuck in my head for a long time. To the city park or several friend's houses, it was several blocks. I often ran to where I was going. This is before we called leisurely running, Jogging. I thought of a tune in my head as I began to trot along. The beat would pick up and so would my pace. I was thoroughly convinced that this method made me extremely fast. Concentrating on the melody of the song made me less focused on my running and it DID actually seem to work.

I kept this little "secret" to myself, figuring it gave me an edge over any of my buddies in a race. Ten year olds frequently challenge each other to all sorts of physical skill competitions. Kind of like young Tiger cubs testing each other before going out on their own. Don't mess with me, Boys, I got The Beat! Never mind that my friends were always slower than me, before I had my new-found Super Powers, I now had great confidence that nobody could out race me.

About this time, the advertising assaults began for Red Ball Jets and PF Flyer Tennis Shoes. The media blitz touted these shoes with jingles that extolled the virtues of owning a pair that would "Make you run so fast, they'll thing that you can fly!" Needing new tennis shoes, I remarkably down-played the hype for these shoes until my dad suggested a pair in the shoe store. "Well, if you think they're a good shoe, I'll try a pair.", I said, as I held my breath. Dad must have been subjected to the Subliminal Advertising and agreed to buy them for me. Who could beat me now with my new Red Ball Jets? I felt invincible!

You would think these shoes were rocket-powered the way I began streaking through the neighborhood. I'm sure they didn't add one mile-per-hour to my speed. It was all a mind-over-matter situation in my head. As always, a dose of reality is necessary to bring someone back to earth. My dose was received one afternoon at the high school track. The track team was practicing after school and I began trotting around the track. Every time I caught up with someone running slowly, I'd run beside them for a few seconds, look over at them, then take off in a sprint. Obviously, these varsity team runners weren't accepting the challenge of this "Speed Racer" in his Red Ball Jets.

Finally, a guy realized what I was trying to do and began matching me, stride for stride. "C'mon, Rocket Man, stay up with me!", the kid said, " You can run faster than that!". He literally began to run backwards and began patting me hard on top of the head, while imploring me to run faster. I couldn't keep the pace and began to fade way back in the pack of runners who had now caught up to us to witness this spectacle. I felt humiliated. My fantasy of being The World's Fastest Runner was over. I had visions of being Bob Hayes, who just won the Gold Medal in the '64 Olympic Games in the 100 meter Dash and was billed as " The World's Fastest Human".

I lost my fascination with running after that episode at the track. All though I did my share of laps while conditioning for other sports, I never ran competitively. There were several boys that were faster than me during my school years, with or without Red Ball Jets. Regardless of my footwear or the tune I was playing in my head, some of these guys just whizzed right past me. Hmmmm, I wonder if I can get a refund on those Red Ball Jets? "...they'll think that you can fly!" Yeah, right.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

I Did Have A Basketball Jones

Athletics have always been a big part of my life. Growing up in Struthers, Ohio, a suburb of Youngstown, sports became an outlet for many and brought the community together. Football is king in the area. Stadiums are packed every Friday night to watch some very talented athletes apply their skills. Basketball became very big in my home town starting in the 60's, thanks to an undefeated high school team of the 1960-'61 season.

After that season, it seemed every kid had a hoop nailed up on their garage. I was no exception. Most days after school, if it wasn't football season or too snowy, I could be found out in the driveway practicing my basketball shooting prowess. I would pick out a spot on the driveway, usually an oil spot made from one of my dad's "Beater" work cars, and shoot baskets from there until I made ten in a row. I'd then move a few feet going in a semi-circle from one side of the court to the other. Make ten shots, move, make ten shots, move until I had completed the entire perimeter around the hoop. Sometimes this routine would take me fifteen minutes, some days hours, but I seldom quit until I completed the drill.

Public outdoor courts were few and far between in Struthers until St.Nicholas Church put up about ten hoops in their parking lot for use by the neighborhood kids. Six hoops were the standard ten feet high and were laid out so that three full court games could go on at the same time. Four hoops were at eight feet for smaller kids to practice on. St. Nick's became a Mecca for area Basketball Players. After school and on weekends, the courts were packed with boys of all ages trying to become the next "Doctor J" or Jerry West of NBA fame. I became a "Gym Rat" and was there most days, always available for a pick-up game.

My grade school had a team that played the other six elementary schools in town. I was fortunate enough to make the team but didn't play much. Boys in eighth grade usually started the games and a lowly sixth-grader like me only got in if the game was a "Blowout". In other words, I rode the bench unless we were killing the other team. Our "Gym" if that's what you could call it, was only forty feet square. Not even half of regulation size. We didn't care, we played like it was Madison Square Garden.

I tried out for our Freshman team in high school. I impressed our coach with my ball handling skills and shooting long-range jump shots. I guess those hours in my driveway were starting to pay off. a week before the season was to start, I got in a heated argument with our coach over some trivial matter I can't even recall. I quit the team. Being the "Hard Head" I was in school, I wasn't going to back down from this Squirrelly Math Teacher who called himself a Coach. Too bad my ego got in my way, I might have had a good career playing high school Basketball.

I played Intramural Basketball all through high school and led the league in scoring. I'd drop the news clippings from The Struthers News Journal on the Math Teacher's desk as I left his room, so he could see how well I was doing. It took me years to realize the only one I was punishing was myself. A clear case of cutting off my nose to spite my face. In all the sports I played all through my school years, that Math Teacher was the only coach I couldn't get along with, unfortunately. I needed a third party to teach me how to swallow my pride. I was selected as Student Athlete of The Year for my class in 1971. A very nice honor, but it didn't do a thing to reduce my over-inflated ego.

I continued playing Basketball at The YMCA after my high school days. It was fun playing pick-up games there against some very good area talent from all over Youngstown. Many of the guys I had a chance to play with and against, went on to successful college careers. I always thought to myself that maybe if I had my head on straight in my younger days, I too, might have got a scholarship. In any event, I truly enjoyed playing the game and it kept me in pretty good shape in my adult years.

Basketball had a resurgence in Struthers in the late 70's. The high school girl's team won the State Championship. The first state champions in any sport in Struthers history. Once again, Basketball hoops sprung up all around town as girls were now thinking they could be playing on a championship team someday, too.

About ten years ago, I was asked to coach a boy's team in Basketball for The YMCA. I had about twelve 10 and 11 year old boys to mentor in the basic skills of the game. It was a lot of fun teaching these kids and watching their faces light up when they mastered a skill I was attempting to teach them. I remembered all the boring practices I endured as a youth and I would frequently break things up at practice to let the boys have fun. After all, I wasn't coaching a Varsity Team and these kids just needed to enjoy the game and learn the basic skills. I kept thinking about that Math Teacher Coach in high school. Just learn to love the game and the rest will follow.

The comedy team of Cheech and Chong had a great routine on one of their albums of having a "Basketball Jones". A "Jones" being a irresistible urge for something or someone. I clearly had the "Jones" for Basketball in my younger days. I never passed up an opportunity to play a game. I STILL have that urge to dribble and shoot a three-pointer and hear that unmistakable "Swish" as the ball falls through the hoop. I still marvel at some of the players I've watched play the game over the years. Especially the ones that had more moves than a can of worms! Poetry in Motion!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Youngstown Makes My Mouth Water

I moved from the Youngstown, Ohio area in 1986 to Ashland, a couple of hours away. I visit frequently, now probably once a month, to see family and friends. While I'm there, I can't resist the urge to partake of some of the different foods that are available exclusively there or at least were when I was growing up.

Often noted, Youngstown was the melting pot of many ethnic persuasions, due to many Europeans immigrating there to work in the steel mills at the turn of the twentieth century. Almost every area had a specialty restaurant or store to supply the masses with their favorite food, reminding them of their homeland. It was understood by the local population of what side of town you were going to drive to for dinner depending on your palate that night.

Everyone has their favorite Comfort Food. I'll mention a few of mine and where to find it, if it's still available. I became partial to Italian food, which is the dominant heritage in Youngstown, hence the wide array of anything that came from Italy. Pizza parlors or restaurants that featured many Italian foods dominated the landscape of places to eat. My mouth waters just thinking about some of those dishes.

It's hard to declare my favorite pizza in the Youngstown area. It's like saying which one of your kids do you like best. Elmton Pizza on Fifth Street in Struthers stands as one of the best. Their huge, greasy slices are to die for, especially on Friday nights after a football game. It's a ritual for Wildcat Fans. Their meatball subs are spectacular, too. Wedgewood Pizza in Ausintown and Boardman probably serve more pizzas than the national chains in the area. Their deep-dish style is loaded with toppings and tons of mozzarella cheese that leaves a long string from your mouth to your plate. I usually pick one up on my way home from a visit. Wedgewood even ships their pizza anywhere in the country to those home-sick Youngstown folks that have a craving.

Petrillo Pizza that was on Powers Way in The Brownlee Woods Section of Youngstown, was famous for their "sheet" pizza. Four-inch squares of high-rise pizza that was plain on toppings, but loaded with flavor. Their sauce had a lot of garlic in it that stayed with you for hours. Our high school cafeteria offered Petrillo Pizza most Fridays and it always sold out. At twenty cents a slice, it was a cheap meal. I remember having a pizza eating contest with several other sixteen year old friends. I tied another guy for the win by eating fifteen pieces of pizza! Ah, the days when my metabolism could handle anything. Petrillo closed a few years ago. Wish I had known, I would have attended the Wake.

Another main-stay of Youngstown's foods was DiRusso's Italian Sausage. Starting out as a little Mom And Pop restaurant in Lowellville, many decades ago, it has evolved into a Major Brand. Be still my heart the first time I walked into a Sam's Club and found it available by the case in the Freezer Section! I've been a fan of DiRusso's since the sixties. They had opened a small restaurant in Canfield, but it has since closed. Until their national marketing in the last few years, the only place you could get an authentic sausage sandwich was at festivals or fairs where they had a trailer. Nothing beat a DiRusso's Sausage Sub made on a Hoagie loaded with grilled onions and peppers and topped with Marinara Sauce. Yum!

The Canfield Fair, the largest county fair in the country, is held every year for a week, ending on Labor Day. I've attended the fair most years since I've been a wee tot. Nothing temps your taste buds more than the area foods offered at The Canfield Fair. DiRusso's has several trailers there as well as Richardson's French Fries. Good "Fair fries" can't be matched. Long, golden-brown fries stuffed in a cardboard cup, covered with malt vinegar and salt with optional ketchup. Some wise entrepreneur bought the old malt machines from downtown Youngstown's Strouss's Department Store after it closed and had the original recipe for the frozen concoction. Any Baby Boomer from the area had to have one if they spotted their booth. I, of course, was one on them. Similar to a Wendy's Frosty, but ten times creamier and richer, Strouss's Malts were a must have if you were shopping downtown.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention Pirogi, available at many Catholic Churches in the area on Friday afternoons. The pronunciation varies as widely as the variety of filling they had available. Pa-row-gee was how I always said it. Close enough. They were thin dough squares folded over to about three inches square or in a half moon shape. Filled with potato, cheese, lectvar(prune), and/or onion. Boiled for several minutes and covered usually with a butter sauce. Once again, Yum!

One of the treats when I was on-duty at the North Side Fire Station in Struthers on Fridays was to drive the Fire Truck up to Holy Trinity Church. The sweet, old ladies making Perogi in the basement would fill my cooking pot to the rim at no charge. They loved their Firemen. We loved them back, especially on Fridays!