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.