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!