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.