Postcards

Bookmarking 47 ….

 

Facebook reminded me of the post below from two years ago, and it brought the requisite smile (it’s one of my favorite scribbles).

Sept. 13, 2015

A RANDOM ACT OF MAGIC — Was kinda’ a rough school/work week for my daughter and me. So we made plans after we finished our Friday to go for tea in the morning at our favorite place down the road.

Got up to a beautifully gray, autumn-crisp, drizzly, no-hurry Saturday (the BEST kind). She changed her mind about eating breakfast at home (so we could leave earlier) and was dressed and ready by 8:45. She had her Harry Potter shirt on, and after seeing me grab my Star Trek tee off the floor, informed me that that just would not do. She walked over to my closet and handed me my Potter shirt, the one she bought for me a few months back.

I’ve learned not to argue with any woman bent on dressing me.

Me: I need a hat.

She: Yes. Yes you do.

Earlier in the week the teenager decided to appropriate the purple hand chair from the game room to his pending-manhood cave. The purple fingers had served as the downstairs hat rack. Fumbling, I couldn’t find where he’d parked the displaced hats.

Not wanting to keep my girl waiting, I was forced to leave the house with my ‘fro unkempt.

I’ve also learned not to keep the lady waiting.

Me: Got the book?

She: Check.

Halfway there …

Me: Didn’t bring the cups?

She: (nonchalantly): Not this time.

The full ritual consists of her bringing the truly awesome set of Alice in Wonderland tea cups and saucers that her former baby sitter gave us in the spring, into which we pour the hot tea the young baristas serve us.

As an aside, I always wanted to be the guy who brought his own pool cue into the bar.

I turn as many heads, though, being the Dad who brings his own teacups into the coffee shop.

There were a couple people in line when we got there, giving us ample time to peruse the case displaying the rows of fresh cookies and muffins.

Iced green tea for Em. Toasted bagel. She laid claim to their last two pumpkin cookies (one each to bring back for her mom and brother. She’s the family’s thoughtful one.). Small coffee for me, and a breakfast sandwich that they panini press with love.

She asked me to read while she sipped and snacked.

We’re just past halfway into the fourth book in the H.P. series (The Goblet of Fire). A good number of the pages have been joyously read aloud Saturday mornings (and perhaps more than a few with our ever-improving British accents) at the tea shop’s tall table. It’s a common enough occurrence that when I recently popped into the shop solo, Emily, one of the regular baristas, asked me where the “little muggle” was.

As far as the book goes, the 44-year-old and 10-year-old unanimously agree it’s the best entry so far.

It’s the one where the main characters start to notice that they are boys and girls, and Rowling does a really nice job of re-creating the first awakenings of all those awkward and exhilarating moments (for which I unapologetically remain a complete sucker).

Em and I are so into it that when Hermione appears at the ball for the Tri-Wizard tournament, revealing the date that she had so suspense-fully kept a secret from Ron and Harry, I turn from the book to say the name directly to Em. “No way!” she says. And we gossip for a good minute before returning to the pages.

We finish the chapter and Em decides it’s time for us to sample the pumpkin gelato. We share a taste off the tiny plastic white spoon and Em decrees that, while good, it can’t hold a candle to the salted caramel.

I’ve learned not to get in the way of the lady when it comes to sweet things.

We resume reading, and are so sucked back in to the story that we barely notice Emily (the barista) leaving the counter and crossing in front of us to climb on top of the shelf behind the more comfy recliners in the back of the shop to adjust the sound system.

I’ve been at the shop in the past where the satellite radio craps out and the girl or woman at the counter has to literally scale the wall to adjust the receiver, which is a good 12-14 feet of the ground. Just adds to the local shop’s character as far as I’m concerned.

It’s a regular enough occurrence that Em and I didn’t think twice about it.

Until a couple pages later, when Emma looks up from her pages, her eyes wide as our ceremonial saucers. She turns to me with just the biggest grin on her face.

“Listen!” pointing into the air.

“You know what that is?”

I’m my typical two steps behind her.

“That’s the music that they play at the beginning of every Harry Potter movie!”

Sure enough, my ears register the epic score.

We about fell off our broomsticks.

I’m not sure I can conceive of a more thoughtful gesture than Emily climbing the wall to add to what I had been convinced was an already perfect ritual.

I walked up to the counter, and exchanged knuckle touches with our new favorite barista.

Emma was still over the moon. “How did you do that?”

Emily: “It’s a playlist on Pandora. I went with Chamber of Secrets. A little more upbeat than the Deathly Hollows.”

To have a waiter or waitress know your order when you walk in is one thing. To have one curate a soundtrack for you?

Returning to our chairs, the music made the next couple chapters pass by in cinematic fashion. We lost ourselves in the pages.

In a word, it was magical.

One of those moments that I knew on the spot that I will never forget.

Just to be safe, though, I napkin-sketched it for posterity.

It’ll make for a pretty decent bookmark.

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But I didn’t need the reminder, because two years hence, the hasty Pen-Sketch spell I cast that day that transformed a napkin into our bookmark is holding strong.

Each and every time we’ve cracked open the sacred text since, we’ve been reminded of ‘Emily’s Righteous Move’ marking our place. As an aside my daughter and I are proudly pursuing the Guinness World Record for the slowest progression ever through the Harry Potter series. We are presently savoring our way through the final installment, The Deathly Hallows. Knowing the end is approaching, we are treating it (in advance) like a victory lap. We read aloud to each other mostly in small doses these days. A few pages here. A chapter there. On rare occasions, she’ll beg for a stretch beyond a chapter when we catch a groove. She doesn’t have to twist my arm.

I’ve grown to love scarcity. Finite amounts. Beginnings and endings. As a counterweight to my deep desire for things I love to last forever, I’m learning to look forward to things, to appreciate things in the moment, to enjoy them as long as possible, and to kindle and cherish their memories.

There is only beauty because of death, the poet wrote.

Knowing the clock is (always) ticking intensifies and focuses our emotions, ensuring we invest them preciously, intentionally.

Kids, anyone?

That’s why I love the seasons. Even though I lament their passing from one into another.

So, on the occasion of my birthday, I find myself thinking about bookmarks.

I love the work of a bookmark … marking the place where you left off … so you’ll know where to pick up and move forward.

But I’ve also been known to use a bookmark to mark a place I know I’ll want to return to. I recently violently edited my bookshelf downstairs, during which I came across the various journals I’ve kept from different points in my life. Looking back, I see those journals as bookmarks … places where I’ve left off along the journey.

So, it is in that spirit that I hereby bookmark 47 … with 47 things that I find myself in love with on Sept. 17, 2017, in no particular order.

  • The little nook in the back yard where we never find enough time to build a fire and just listen to the night and what the world has to say to us.
  • Making Karry laugh spontaneously.
  • The friends I’ve had since elementary and middle school that I don’t see often enough, but, when I do, instantly close the gap of the years and distance between us. The folks who love you both because of, and in spite of, where you came from.
  • Speaking of, I found myself (out of nowhere) yesterday, thinking of one of the best mix tapes a friend ever gave me, and downloaded the tunes to a playlist that I made the official soundtrack of my weekend.
  • My oldest sister Kim, who just called and sang Happy Birthday to me, like my Mom and Dad used to. We both could hear Dad’s harmony in her rendition.
  • Sending and receiving hand-written cards or notes in the mail (hint).
  • A Poorboy without tomato with a side of fries washed down with a Pabst draft at Potter’s.
  • Meloni’s bleu cheese dressing drenching a salad with unapologetic beets and anchovies while Sinatra and Dean croon in a crackle overhead.
  • Drover’s fried-to-perfection hot wings enjoyed at one of their outdoor picnic tables in the cool sundown cricket-crisp of late summer.
  • Two with everything at Shorty’s, and a large shared large fry with gravy while sitting at the table in the back where the floor slants under the dripping air conditioner.
  • Falling under the spell of Emma’s killer British accent when we read at the coffee shop or before bed.
  • Holding hands with Karry down the driveway after we put the garbage cans out on Thursday nights.
  • The poetry rendered in calligraphy by my friend Jim Little.
  • When I stumble across a word whose meaning I don’t know, and, out of respect for Dr. Bower, my old college professor, I write it down in the margin or a journal and look up its meaning.
  • When my neighbor up the street, Mr. Engel greets me with a wave, an encouragement, or an appropriately snarky comment when he sees me huffing my way around the block.
  • Knowing I can ask Karry anything and that she will shoot straight, regardless of whether it’s what I want to hear.
  • Being my son’s passenger in the old Subaru. Without headphones on his ears or a screen in front of his face, it’s about the only place where we just talk. And it’s awesome. I will miss the heck out of this when he gets his license.
  • Any time and every moment I get to spend with my brother.
  • The motley crew of sweet souls I’ve met over coffee and our love for good writing at the coffee shop.
  • Friends and co-workers who inspire me towards my better self.
  • The exhale of eating weekday dinner at the dining room table with the family.
  • The view from my seat at the dining room table of one of my framed favorite photographs, which sits over Karry’s left shoulder when we’re having dinner. It’s a photo I took years ago of the windowsill of Karry’s mom’s dining room, where Mam used to place a new Hot Wheels car for Peter every time he’d visit. Once he finished the top of the steps, he’d run over to the window expectantly to see what she had left for him. The picture captures a blast of sunshine pouring through the window. It symbolizes everything I want to remember about Betty’s house.
  • When a member of the family seizes a moment to quote one of my Mom’s old sayings. Like when we’re enjoying a meal and one of the kids describes it as “luscious.” Or, when someone explains a mistake they made by saying, “I thought ….” which triggers, in response, my favorite all-time saying of my Mom’s. “You know what ‘thought’ did? ‘Thought’ shit his pants.”
  • Listening to Pirates games on the radio outside, regardless of the score, for the sheer pleasure of listening to Bob Walk or Steve Blass (Greg Brown, too).
  • Saturday mornings.
  • Drives out to Amity or along old Route 40.
  • The back-and-forth conversations I have with our cat Victor, who I am confident is thinking to himself during the exchanges: “He thinks I’m really communicating with him right now, when in fact, I’m plotting your ultimate conquest, and really the only thing left to decide is whether there will be room for you in the new world order as a servant or not.”
  • How cute Karry is when she brushes her teeth, and how much it pisses her off when I remind her of this.
  • Reading what my daughter writes.
  • Listening to the Pittsburgh Symphony on WQED-FM Sunday nights as a balm to the prospects of Monday.
  • The t-shirts hanging in my closet that are older than my kids.
  • The humbling and appreciated proactive phone calls and letters from each of my three sisters, who make time in their busy lives to let me know they are thinking of me.
  • Waking up in the middle of the night thinking it’s 5:30 when it’s only really 3.
  • Sitting in the driveway with the car running, or driving an extra lap around the block, so the song can finish.
  • When Karry puts on a color that is her color and it just stops me in my tracks.
  • The empty journals that I’ve collected over the years patiently waiting for me on the bookshelf.
  • My son doing better and going farther than I did.
  • The Podcast portion of my current commuting-survival-guide, featuring The Moth, This American Life, Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, Rolling Stone Now and Revisionist History.
  • Hard guitars paired with a sloshy hi-hat. Currently in love with “Monster” by Soraia from their soon-to-be-released album.
  • Walks around the block with my daughter when she wants to tell me about a book she’s reading or just finished. She gushes. I listen. Sometimes when she’s really fired up, we take an extra lap.
  • When Karry and I divide and conquer a Sunday and go to bed exhausted, but ready to face the next week.
  • My Vitamix blender.
  • All the songs that make me think of my Dad.
  • Pie. (Karry got me an Apple one for my birthday). I love pie.
  • Dating different books until I find one that keeps me looking forward to our next date. Currently in a relationship with The Great American Novel by Phillip Roth. His wielding of the vocabulary and ear for dialogue is delicious and absolutely unfair.
  • The fearless and undaunted among us who remind that This too shall pass.
  • Whenever folks remind me how awesome it is when you reserve a kind thought in the day for someone else.

Thanks, guys.

 

 

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Postcards

Postcard …

Felt like sitting down and writing a postcard from 21 years down the road to the two 20-somethings in the enclosed pic, on the anniversary of their exchanging I Dos inside beautiful Trinity Church on a sweltering hot August Saturday afternoon ….

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I don’t want to freak you out, but you’re betting yourselves against a big world, and, at the risk of stating the obvious, you don’t have many chips in your pocket.

I also don’t want to spoil it for you, but it will only get better.

Not easier. Just better.

Pete … Karry will do everything in her power to make sure you don’t get lost. She’ll even ride with you to make sure of it. I’m speaking literally and metaphorically, here. She’ll make sure you survive grad school. She will give you confidence when your supplies run dry. And, she’ll make a mean fish stick and mac-and-cheese dinner, and sit with you on the floor of the world’s tiniest apartment and watch the Six Million Dollar Man with you. Trust me, it will be awesome.

Karry … marrying a guy without a full-time job is a big leap of faith … but your patience will pay off in ways you could never predict. In the meantime, you’ll be great at what you do, and you’ll do just fine for the both of you.

Pete … don’t worry that you don’t quite know what you want to be when you grow up. Don’t worry that you may never know that answer. You’ll do OK in the searching.

Though you may think that right now, in each other, you have everything you will ever need in the world, you are totally wrong.

Kids will change everything.

Moments after a screaming baby boy enters the picture, you will realize that you haven’t a clue, have no idea what you’re doing, and could not be more unprepared for what’s about to come.

But you won’t be alone. Your parents have been waiting for this moment all their lives. Karry, your Mom will reveal her true superhero identity. She will blow your mind. She will paint your living room when you are not home. You’ll grow more close than you ever thought possible. You’ll survive the sleepless nights. You’ll survive going back to work.

And your son will bring you so much joy you won’t be able to resist giving him a sibling, though it will take him a good 16 years (minimum) to warm up to that idea.

You will learn early and often that your hearts have the capacity and resiliency to both explode and break with love.

You’ll have front row seats to the two most beautiful babies you have ever seen. Then you’ll blink and they’ll be young adults.

You’ll read them The Kissing Hand on the first day of elementary school. And every first day of school after that. You’ll make them pose against their will in the driveway, then you will cry when the yellow bus takes them away to kill summer after summer.

You’ll get to be Santa Claus. Then you won’t.

Karry, Pete will consistently drive you speechless by doing the same damn things over and over. He will also  pioneer new and surprising ways. On the other hand, he’ll occasionally make you laugh until tears stream down your face. And, Pete, you will never grow tired of being responsible for making Karry smile.

You’ll get on each other’s nerves like you can’t imagine. Then you’ll wake to a new day and realize that, whatever it was, it wasn’t such a big deal.

Karry, you will learn that there are far more important things in life than work. And that it will still be there whenever you decide to return. Pete, you’ll have a chance to reward Karry’s patience and sacrifices.

Your parents will stay with you only for as long as you need them, though you will wish it was so much longer.

You’ll see the years start to take their toll.

You’ll give thanks every day, and curse time with the same breath.

You will remain each other’s biggest fans.

And when everything else fails, you’ll bang on God’s door in the middle of the night demanding him to open up, that you know he’s in there.

Twenty one years later, you’ll find yourselves still betting against a big world without many chips in your pocket.

And you will realize that you still haven’t a clue, have no idea what you’re doing, and could not be more unprepared for what’s to come.

And though you’ll long for the days when you didn’t know what you didn’t know, if you knew all of the above while you were standing at the altar of Trinity Church on a sweltering summer Saturday afternoon ….

You’d do it all again.

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Postcards

Be Back Soon ….

I got there early to try and grab a table ahead of the Sunday Church crowd, since we were expecting 10 or so.

But before going in I just had to check the wall outside.

Yep, still there.

Scrawled in green kids-menu crayon on the wall next to the steps, in my son’s eight-year-old hand.

Be Back Soon!

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I still remember giving Peter crap when he committed the act of vandalism so many years ago, during one of our family’s legendary long goodbyes on the back porch of Meloni’s Italian Restaurant. Feels both like yesterday and a lifetime ago.

For decades, young children and in-laws alike have grown restless on Meloni’s back porch, waiting for the family’s extended farewell scenes to fade to the blacktop of the parking lot. Mom was never in a hurry to let a celebration end.

And when it came to family goodbyes, no one could filibuster like Anna Margaret Riddell.

The process would begin inside the restaurant … with the Table Hugs, which, to the untrained eye, read like actual Goodbyes. In reality they only marked the initiation of the “Fixin’ to Leave” phase — kind of like a stretching of the goodbye hamstrings. In the classic version of the ritual, Mom, blood pressure freshly elevated from the family fistfight to pick up the check (she hated to lose, and swore vengeance when she did), would initiate a deceptive first round of hugs at the site of the first person arising from their chair. Owing to the mastery of her craft, she’d sometimes manage a second loop around the table before she escorted, or was escorted by, the last to leave.

Once we got Mom to the porch, the goodbye clock didn’t formally start until she had her post-meal cigarette, which she took on one of the stone benches to the side of the awning. In an effort to move things along, the family was not above deploying Operation: Grandchild Sacrifice … where we’d order one of the grandkids “to go smoke with Grandma,” when we sensed the table was itching to break up.

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Ever since I can remember, back to the days when I played the roll of the family’s restless eight-year-old, Meloni’s was always THE PLACE for family celebrations.

Whenever we had a reason to celebrate, no discussion was ever needed. And no one ever argued the choice.

Our family has gathered around one of their signature long tables to celebrate visits from relatives (where the fistfights over the checks rivaled Ali-Frazier), light birthday candles, cut anniversary cakes, and open graduation cards. My nieces and nephews and I literally grew up around the long table immediately to the left of the restaurant’s side entrance.

A long Meloni’s table was always the perfect (and safest) place to introduce new boyfriends and girlfriends to our loving, idiosyncratic family. As years passed, we’ve table-hugged those boyfriends and girlfriends into husbands and wives, and eventually, into parents of their own.

It’s where Karry and I announced our wedding plans to my family.

It’s where Mom and Dad celebrated their 50th anniversary.

It’s where the family gathered after Mom’s memorial service.

It’s where my sisters and brother gathered in June on what would’ve been my parents’ 67th wedding anniversary.

A major reason it’s remained so special to us over the years is that is has changed so little. It first opened in 1950. And it’s to the credit of the previous and current owners that they recognized a good thing when they tasted it.

It’s the kind of place every small town worth its red sauce has, had or should have.

Red checker cloth tables. Stenciled Italian scenes running along painted white walls that meet wood paneling. Dimly lit wooden bar lined with tall red stools and flanked by classic green booths along a wall blooming with old photos.

Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra supplying a crackly soundtrack. The smell of an old social hall scented by decades of home made boiling red sauce.

The atmosphere nourishes every bit as much as the food.

The menu might as well be carved on stone tablets, as it hasn’t had reason to change in years. It reads like a Shakespeare sonnet (no wasted syllables), and each of us has memorized our favorite parts.

Salad is a given for just about everyone, either as a side or as an antipasta entre. Technically speaking, Meloni’s homemade bleu cheese dressing is the true given. The salad part is merely a conveyance for the dressing, which is so sublime, I must now pause for a moment of silence out of respect….

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mom would always insist that I order the Veal Parm, though I seldom needed the nudge. Tuesday Night Veal Night is a Uniontown institution. For years, one of my favorite parts of Facebook has been seeing an old friend from the neighborhood post ritual checks-in with his Dad for Veal Night.

Dad swore by their spaghetti with meat sauce and meat balls. He swore more loudly on takeout occasions when he got home to discover they gave him marinara or dropped a ball. Speaking of takeout … back in the day, you could bring your own pot from home for Meloni’s to fill with pasta and sauce. Raising four young kids in the early 60’s, Mom and Dad brought home more than a few pots. Dad also lovingly recalled the years when Meloni’s served as the place where the local dance musicians would gather in the wee hours after weekend gigs … to talk shop and tell stories before heading home.

I can remember my first memories … the ritual of parking in the Sherwin Williams lot (where Dad was the store manager), and walking across the street so we could enter through their magical side entrance. The climb up their long, narrow, low-ceiling corridor felt like a secret passage. The olfactory crescendo that built as the hallway elbowed left (allowing you to steal a glance through the kitchen window to your right). The door that spat you out at the front of the restaurant, where the early arrivers announced your presence with a yell, triggering Opening Hugs.

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I was the early arriver last Sunday. Succeeded in grabbing us a long table ahead of the church crowd. Kissed my three sisters and hugged my brother upon their arrivals. My nephew Kenny was, fittingly, the last to arrive. A former restless-eight-year-old himself, he accompanied his beautiful wife, Maria, a former new-girlfriend-at-the-table, and their indescribably adorable 11-month old son, (Little) Kenny, who will become a big brother himself next year.

We were in no hurry to order, though perusing the menus was little more than a perfunctory act. Salads, antipastas, pastas. I debated for a hot minute, and waited for Mom’s voice in my head to encourage me to order the Veal Parm.

There was an extra seat at the long table, allowing us to switch seats so we could catch up with everybody throughout the meal. Whenever there was a lull in the conversation, we just ogled over Little Kenny.

We were in no hurry to leave. Conversation was dessert.

Laurie mitigated the fistfight over the check by picking up the bill when no one was looking. I gave her some crap for it, like Mom might have (minus the swear words). It felt like quoting a scene from a favorite movie.

Laurie then asked everyone to raise their glass, and we leaned them across the table to clink to Mom and Dad.

Then came the table hugs, before we made our way through the mostly-empty dining room, having long outlasted the post-church crowd.

And we paused on the porch, initiating another round of hugs that, by my calculations, lasted exactly one cigarette long.

As the scene unfolded in front of her, Maria spoke for generations of in-laws and young children alike, when she said quietly to herself, “Oh, I thought we already said goodbyes inside.”

It’s nice to know that, after all these years, the filibuster can still sneak up on the unsuspecting.

Before the scene faded to the blacktop of the parking lot, I checked the wall again. Brushed my hand across the fading kids’ menu green crayon graffiti, allowing the eight-year-old version of myself to exchange a high-five with my former eight-year-old.

Unconsciously, I spoke the words aloud, and they came out as a prayer … for hopefully generations to come.

Be Back Soon.

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Youngblood ….

Ninety-nine cents, or two dollars?

That was the biggest financial decision that that the nine and 10-year-old boys from our neighborhood faced on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis in the summer of 1979.

Which rubber coated baseball to buy?

Option A: The 99-cent K-Mart special … which, candidly, possessed few redeeming qualities beyond its price tag. Had a cork center that, when you bounced it, made a harsh sound that pretty much expressed aloud its lack of interest in returning to your hand. Had maybe had three or four good swats in it before it would go completely lopsided.

Option B: The $2 Wilson Comet … the Cadillac of Rubber Coated baseballs … consistently produced the truest, juiciest, hops in the universe, of which Areford playground was indisputably the center of, in that magical summer of ‘79. You could mash a Comet forever and it never lost its shape. I can still remember the sensation of this one time I met the Comet with the sweet spot of my trusty, 28” aluminum bat just right … barreling it back through the box for a ground rule double before the centerfielder even had time to turn and give chase. That feeling still lives in my wrists … and, not only that, still jockeys for position in my top 10 all-time physical sensations.

So, on the surface, the choice might seem like a no-brainer … pay the extra buck and call it a long afternoon. But on the surface of Areford playground, which was pure, unadulterated asphalt, it was a surprisingly nuanced decision.

Really, the choice between the indestructible Wilson and the very combustible K-Mart special came down to who was going to be playing that day.

If the lineups were going to be full, the K-Mart special was the rational choice.

A fuller lineup meant more of the older boys, and by older I mean older than my nine-year-old self. More of my elders meant more home runs, meaning a greater probability that the ball would get lost. See, a lot of bad things could happen to a ball once it cleared the straight chain link fence that bordered the outfield.

In right, it could roll under the locked fence of the football field. And though a fence was far from a deterrent to any upstanding citizen of our neighborhood, we’d proved that point often enough at Areford for the township to emphasize its preference by stringing barbed wire across the fence top.

In center, it could get lost in the tall weeds in front of the old gym. And Jeff Hughes said he once saw a snake over there, and once was enough to dampen our curiosity in disproving his theory.

Down the line in left, we’d have to root through the neighbor’s yard. And our having plunked a few off their house rendered the adult inhabitants slightly less hospitable than, say, the bleacher bums in Wrigley field who graciously tossed home runs back onto the field.

Conversely, if the lineups were going to be thin, thin enough where we’d have to play pitcher’s hand, or opposite field out (translation: if we couldn’t fill out the right side of the infield and outfield), we’d be inclined to spring for the Wilson. Thinner lineups meant fewer older boys, which meant fewer home runs, increasing the likelihood that a $2 ball might survive until we’d have to head home for supper.

But the $2 for a Wilson got you more than just the ball. See, you couldn’t get the Comets at K-Mart. For the Cadillac, you had to make a pilgrimage to the baseball room in the back of Dice’s Sporting Goods store on the corner of Main and Morgantown in downtown Uniontown. Dice’s was as close to heaven for a nine year old as Kevin Costner’s cornfield was to his character in Field of Dreams.

After tingling the bell on the front door, and subsequently unsuccessfully petitioning one’s Dad for a cold glass bottle of soda from the pop machine just to the right of the entrance, one matriculated through the front of the store, past the apparel and paraphernalia of all the other incidental sports (you know, like football) to the back room — The Inner Sanctum. Where one was greeted with the leathery smell of gloves stacked higher than cornstalks all along the right side. While my dad chatted with the owners, I’d fish out all the left handed models and try ‘em on, pound my fist into the Reggie Jackson or Steve Carlton autograph in the palm of it, and draw a deep intoxicating whiff.

The whole left side of the room was nothing but bats — real wooden bats – laid horizontally in boxes on shelves, their length in inches numbered on the handles that peeked out from their cardboard box containers. I can remember the summer when I graduated from 27” … to where a 28” felt just right in my hands … you’d slide one out, sometimes just to hear that glorious sound of wood sliding against wood, just like a big leaguer pulling one out of their personal shelf. And the first thing you’d do is check to see whose name was scrawled into the top … as if the name testified to the quality of the lumber. For the record, I still have my 28” Pete Rose.

Ninety-nine per-cent of the time, I’d be lucky if I had the $2 for the ball, so would invariably have to put the gloves and bats back. But on the rare occasion where I might have enough loose change from that week’s lemonade sale, I’d open up the magical un-marked drawer that contained a compliment of resin bags.

Didn’t matter that we played slow pitch with a rubber-coated baseball on an asphalt playground. The chance to procure a powdery plumb of powder bouncing a resin bag on your hand before breaking into the windup of whatever pitcher you happened to be that day … just added to the fantasy.

Because we didn’t play as ourselves.

This was ’79.

Are you kidding me? One through nine, we were The Antelope. Tim Foli. The Cobra. Captain Willie. Mad Dog. The Hammer. Scrap Iron. Ed Ott, and The Candy Man. And wherever we were in the lineup or on the field, we considered it our solemn duty to faithfully recreate their every tick and mannerism.

From Stargell’s signature windup, Parker’s threatening coil, or Milner’s stoic, stone-faced, presentation to the pitcher… to their defensive equivalencies — the way Moreno glided under a pop-fly to squeeze it textbook with two hands, or how Parker defiantly, non-chalanted his putouts one-handed, sometimes with a snap that left our fathers cussing his show-boating while secretly revering his athletic brilliance.

We even took the opposing teams seriously. Between the hundred of packs of baseball cards we procured from the Dairy Mart, and WWOR Channel 12, which carried the Mets (and, more importantly, Saturday morning WWF Wrestling), we knew opposing teams lineups almost as well. We’d meet on Mullen Street and walk the two blocks up to the playground, which gave us just enough time to carve up the opposing team’s lineup. I remember one summer weekday walking past a neighbor’s house while choosing from the Mets roster. Since I was a mere fourth grader, most of the good players were picked by the time I got to choose. So on that day I announced I’d be Joel Youngblood, the Mets catcher. Old Jack Simenna, who lived a few houses down from us, heard me, and from that day forward, even into my adulthood, called me Youngblood every time he saw me. I don’t think he ever knew my real name. It was always, “Heyyyyyy Youngblood.”

But when my team got to be the Pirates, I was always Omar Moreno, mostly because the older kids picked Stargell, Parker and Madlock … and I had zero power. For the record, I didn’t hit a single home run over the home-team-friendly fence that year, but I did hit 13 inside-the-parkers and batted a robust .625 out of Omar’s crouch. I know this because after returning home, but before washing my hands for dinner, I’d write down my statistics from every game we played in a spiral notebook. While cleaning out my old room at my parents’ house earlier this year, I found my stat sheet. As Casey Stengel might say, you could look it up.

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An although very few K-Mart specials or Comets were harmed in the pursuit of my batting average, my teammates were not as kind with our investments.

See, there were a shitload lot of home runs hit in the summer of 79. The home run chase, the only officially recognized statistic on the asphalt, was really a four-horse race between the fifth grade regulars: Kevin, Jeff, Brian, Scott. I watched with awe and reverence as their totals climbed in excess of 200 apiece, or so they claimed. It was a self-reporting system that technically relied on, though didn’t expect too terribly much from, the honor system. And as history records, the 1970’s were far from immune to inflation. As home run totals skyrocketed and the race tightened the deeper we got into summer, the fuller the rosters became. This was due in no small part to the desire to keep your competitors from claiming they hit 12-home runs the day you weren’t there. As the race got more serious, we found ourselves procuring, and, therefore losing, a lot more Wilson Comets. And subsequently bumming from our parents in $2 increments with greater frequency, knowing we’d need at least two or three balls to get us through an afternoon. As I recall, Kevin and Jeff distanced themselves from the rest, benefitting from the fact that their families didn’t go on extended summer vacations, while Brian’s and Scott’s did.

For the record, in the days when one could count on a field full of buddies and an ample supply of Comets, one really didn’t care that one’s family never went on summer vacation.

The summer of 1979 was not only the last time the Pirates won the World Series, but it was also our last glorious summer on the asphalt.

As fate would have it, the following season the community baseball league widened its geography to pull from our township, and so we were all swept into Little League.

Uniforms. Baseballs with seams. Fields with dirt and grass. Umpires. Parents. Coaches.

The first thing that Mr. Meadows did was break me from my Omar Moreno crouch.

For the record, I never hit .625 again.

But I’ll bet you two dollars and whatever lemonade stand change still jingling in my piggy bank that if we met on a summer afternoon on Mullen Street … I could still carve up two 1979 rosters in the time it would take us to climb the two hills to the asphalt of Areford playground.

Memories like that bounce back as true and reliable as a Wilson Comet.

 

 

 

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Postcards

Best Pizza Ever ….

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It’s probably slightly north of coincidental that the best pizza I can ever remember tasting in my life is associated with a last-day-of-school memory.

I was 11 years old.

And within minutes of the #12 black and yellow bus spitting us out for the last time as sixth graders at Hatfield Elementary, my buddies and I were mounted on our bikes … report cards in our back pockets and the whole of summer laid out before us (exactly) like an open road.

We left the neighborhood by way of Dawson Street (the sweetest, straightest avenue on our hill) down to Jamison, to minimize our time on busy Dixon Boulevard. Then, practicing a patience paid for in countless quarters at the Frogger table, we waited for the traffic to quiet enough on Dixon to allow us to skooch across the short bridge over Jamison Creek so we could hug the right side of Lebanon before ducking into its calm side streets. From there, it was just one single traffic light across Morgantown and a handful of stop signs before sneaking up behind the Uniontown Shopping Center and our pilgrimage’s DUAL destinations.

We locked our bikes together outside the Station Arcade and opened its door to let the glorious 8-bit symphony of all those beepy soundtracks wash over us. Without a hint of hyperbole, it was the 11-year-old, early-80’s equivalent of the Pearly Gate’s trumpets.

Pulled our report cards from our back pockets and presented them to the owner for inspection. He was a tall, black t-shirt wearing middle-aged mustachioed man with a receding hairline and a fat jangly ring dangling from his back pocket that held the keys to The Kingdom. As far as we were concerned, he was also The Most Powerful Man In The Universe.

Get this: for every single A on our report card, he rewarded us with a token. Doing the math, four nine weeks + a final grade = 5 possible tokens per class. So, a conscientious, black-and-gold-with-Mag-Wheels-Huffy-riding-straight-A-student could fill both front pockets of his (proly) Ocean Pacific shorts with 40 or so tokens.

To this day, I’m not sure I’ve come across a more powerful illustration of the importance of hitting the books than the sweet jingle of two pocketfulls of Station Arcade tokens.

Far from amateurs on the arcade circuit, we could more than make those tokens stretch across an entire afternoon. Galaga and Dig Dug were among my drugs of choice. I’d camp out at one until I wearied of it, lining up quarters on the bottom left of the screen to secure my spot for the next ½ hour or more. In my 11-year-old-prime, leveling up was as much memorization as hand-eye coordination.

After a few hours carving our initials across more than a few leaderboards, we pressed pause on our assaults and made the short walk across the alley (location, location, location) to the day’s other main destination: Pizza Town.

Owned by an Italian husband and wife who spoke broken English and exquisite pie, the humble establishment was little more than a counter, a handful of non-descript tables and a wise-old pizza oven that breathed piping hot crusty truth by the slice.

New York-style. Generous triangles served on tiny paper plates that made the pizza seem bigger and more appetizing. They made the pizza in advance, then added the toppings fresh before the husband slid the slices into that magic oven on The Big Wooden Paddle with a whoosh followed by the reverberating smack of the oven door closing behind.

I was and remain such a sucker for the human mastery of actions performed in daily repetition. (Washington peeps …  tell me there’s a more mesmerizing sequence than the lunch guy at Shorty’s dropping toppings in perfect measure onto the hot dogs lining the length of his forearm).

As an 11-year-old, I remember marveling at how the owner didn’t need a timer to know the precise moment to pull the pizza so the cheese was bubbly perfect, never burnt. And how he wielded his paddle like a ninja — sliding it one-armed under the pizza to rescue it from the oven and then, in the same motion, yanking it from under the crust to leave a single triangle perfectly squared on its tiny paper plate. Evidently, the owner knew from memorization and hand-eye coordination, too.

I can recall my exact order that day: two slices with pepperoni and the anchovies my parents would never let me get; large Coke served in an eponymous paper cup (the kind that always made the Coke taste better) with the tiny, chewable, kind of ice-machine ice chunks. Paid for with allowance money pulled from my back pocket, since both fronts were still token-stuffed.

While decades have fogged my recollection of the precise flavor profile of that exquisite pie, I can tell you with 100% certainty exactly what it tasted like to my 11-year-old self: freedom.

Achieved only via riding our bikes across town. Earning an afternoon’s worth of tokens. Paid for from money pulled from my own pocket. With toppings of my own choosing.

The experience is as vivid in my memory as it is incongruous with the present moment … Peter and Emma’s last day of 10th and 6th grades, respectively.

When I shared the above recollection with my wife Karry, she couldn’t believe our parents would ever allow us to do such a thing. I could’ve explained it a million different ways, but I just told her that we feared our parents exponentially more than any evil that might have befallen us on a cross-town bike ride to the Shopping Center.

I’m not sure we were any safer in those days. We just didn’t have as many digital media sources scaring us into believing we were in any appreciable danger.

Ignorance? Perhaps.

Ignorance as bliss? I’ll order it off the menu every day.

I don’t spend much time wishing my kids could have experienced my childhood (really I don’t).

But, if I could give them just a taste … I’m pretty sure I’d offer up a slice of Last-Day-of-Sixth-Grade-Biking-to-The Station Arcade-With-Your-Best-Friends-From-the-Neighborhood-To–Spend-a-Report-Card-Earned-Afternoon-Topped-Off-With-Paid-From-My-Pocket-Pizza-Town-Pizza.

To summer vacation.

And hoping the present generation carves their initials on its leaderboard as indelibly as their parents did.

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Postcards, The Road Ahead

Encore

 

I get this little tinge of expectation every time I go to the mailbox. It’s a dog-level expectation. No matter how many times I walk away disappointed, I still return the next time with a measure of hope.

Much like our old black lab, Sadie, who for years, and in vain, chased the chipmunks in our back yard. Though the chipmunks would always have a head start, always accelerate faster over short distances, and always make it safely back to their headquarters beneath the base of the basketball hoop, Sadie would invariably gather her poundage (which ranged between 80-102.5 in her mature years) into a full sprint, chase them back to HQ, and then feverishly paw and snort while the chipmunks mocked her from a safe distance (because chipmunks are, you know, punk bastards). She’d scratch at the base for literally minutes, oblivious to our calls, until we’d have to drag her away by the collar as she craned her head over her shoulder, let-me-at-‘em-style, all the while dog-growling the equivalent of “You wait. Next time, f*ckers. … next time.”

Like Sadie, no matter how often I return empty-pawed from the mailbox, I still think, there’s always a chance, as I stroll across the sidewalk and open the latch.

A chance for a letter, or a card. Or just something that catches my eye.

It rarely happens. And, it doesn’t take much. Karry will confirm that I’m nearly giggly when the Clipper Magazine arrives every month.

Couldn’t tell you the exact day, whether it was a weekday or weekend, but I do remember it was February 2016 … when I spied … THE CATALOG.

I remember plucking it from the bottom of the daily pile, and mindlessly scanning its pages looking for a single listing … from a lifetime ago.

That had no business still being there.

But, I’ll be damned … there it was.

Sanders: Intro to Ballroom.

A smile took over my face. Not the immediate, in the moment, oh-that’s-funny grin that burns off as spontaneously as it erupts. But the one that kindles itself from a sweet memory triggered unexpectedly. The kind that sort of wells, then breaks gradually and stretches wide … hangs around for a little bit, and leaves its warm echo even when your cheeks return to their normal resting position.

And, just like it did when I first spotted the very same listing in the community college winter catalog twenty years ago, it sparked an idea ….

___

The late-90’s version of the idea was to twist my then-new bride’s arm (a precursor to my stepping on her toes) into signing up for the once-a-week evening course at Trinity High School.

My reason went deeper than trying something new and fun with my best friend, though that was a piece of it.

I wanted to ceremonially close a chapter.

I’d just relinquished the drum chair of the 10-piece, little-big-band style group that I’d played with, alongside my trumpet-playing father, since I was 14 years old.

Without exaggeration, it was my dad’s lifelong dream to raise a dance musician.

He’d tried hard with his first four children, producing two tremendous piano players, but wasn’t able to coax either of them onto a bandstand. Though I never confirmed this with him, I’m inclined to believe that among my Dad’s first thoughts when my 39-year-old mom gave birth to me, 10 years after the birth of my closest sibling (I was, um, a bit of a surprise), was, “yep, a drummer.” A secret that I believe he kept to himself until I came home one day from seventh grade and he summarily informed me that he’d signed me up for lessons. And not only that, he’d already given the teacher marching orders that I was to be taught a myriad of styles, ‘not just rock.’ My curriculum was to include foxtrot, cha-cha, rhumba, waltz, samba, bossanova, and swing.

And that was that.

For the record, I’d never expressed any previous interest in the drums.

Yet a couple years later, I found myself spending my weekends riding in vans with musicians 40 and 50 years my elder, and entertaining senior citizens in dancehalls across southwestern Pennsylvania playing selections from the Great American Songbook.

And pretty much loving every minute of it.

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I still loved much of it when I finally quit 14 years later, after I’d started playing with a couple rock groups. I just wanted to try something different.

Dad was cool about it. He understood. He’d played with countless bands throughout his life. Knew the feeling when it was time to move on.

I had no intentions to even look over my shoulder, until one day I was mindlessly thumbing through a community college catalog when one listing in particular caught my eye.

Sanders: Intro to Ballroom.

And I knew on the spot that there was one thing I had to do before closing that chapter in my life.

Karry was a trooper.

We were horrible (at first), but it was a blast.

In no small part due to our instructors, Ron and Ruth Sanders. To the 20-something version of our selves, they were this totally adorable older couple. It was obvious that they’d been teaching the course for some time. Their teasing, corny jokes were well-rehearsed and in the fashion of an old married couple … about the female always following the lead of the male, about trusting the male’s sense of direction around the dance floor, about the perils of ‘spaghetti arms.’ But, man, were they something to watch. I believe Ron was a stone mason (or did similar hard labor with his hands) for a living. Yet his dance posture was impeccable. He was the picture of elegance and grace as he rose up on his toes and led Ruthie (as he called her) and her signature high heels across the high school cafeteria’s floor. It was obvious that they just loved dancing with each other. The highlight of each class was during break, when they’d put on a song and show us how it was done. We’d just watch in awe and with the biggest smiles.

But they were most gracious instructors, too, and coached us up on our foxtrot, cha-cha, rhumba, waltz, samba, bossanova and jitterbug. The toughest part for Karry was following my lead. She likes to be in control of things. Plus, she knows I have no sense of direction, and was (rightfully) dubious of my ability to navigate a circle.

It only got a little oogie those couple lessons when Ron and Ruth broke out the Lambada (the ‘forbidden dance’). I remember Karry and I dissolving into tears of laughter seconds into our first attempt, after I tried to look seductively into her eyes.

But gradually we got better and a bit more comfortable with all the (other) styles, deepening our arsenal with enough moves to soften the more mechanical edges of our technique.

Until we deemed ourselves more or less ready to take it to a real dance floor.

And dance to a certain little big band.

And, for me, to experience my Dad’s playing from the civilian side. For once, to be among the entertained, and not the entertainers.

I remember we picked a Saturday gig in Monessen. Can’t remember if it was a VFW, or an Elks, but I distinctly remember it bore that indescribable scent that all those old great halls have … that remains to this day among my favorite smells in the world (it’s like a built-over-decades building cologne of beer, smoke and men over the age of 50).

I didn’t tell my Dad we were coming.

I remember how happy he was to see us (incidentally, I don’t think there was ever a time when he was not happy to see Karry). How big a kick he got when we told him we’d been taking lessons for the sole purpose of coming to a gig.

I remember being the youngest ones on the dance floor.

I remember the band’s repertoire giving us ample opportunity to try out (read: exhaust) every step in ours.

I knew every song by heart.

I remember time standing still as Karry and I swooshed around the floor to Dad’s Harry James solo on “You Made Me Love You” … remember Alice, the singer, dedicating Nat King Cole’s “Love” to us, and working up a jitterbug sweat to “Woodchopper’s Ball,” which I discovered was just as fun to dance to as it was to play.

I remember kissing Karry a thank you on the night’s last foxtrot, ‘C’est Si Bon,’ before the band broke into their theme song, “I Still Get A Thrill.”

I remember a great Saturday night spent dancing with my best friend to my Dad’s horn.

I couldn’t imagine a more perfect close to that chapter in my life.

___

I hadn’t had occasion to recall that sweet memory until that cold afternoon in February, last year.

I was taking a few days off in the aftermath of Dad’s funeral, and couldn’t separate the flood of memories from the music he taught me to love. The daily walk to the mailbox had suddenly become bittersweet, as my dogged expectation was now rewarded with handfuls of cards and handwritten letters of love and condolence (that I’ve kept ever since in a drawer next to my bed). Until one day I spied a community college catalog peeking from beneath the pile, and, mindlessly began thumbing through the pages.

Sanders: Intro to Ballroom.

Couldn’t believe it.

And just like it did decades before, it sparked an idea.

I knew on the spot that there was one thing I now had to do before closing another chapter in my life.

But it didn’t feel right to ask Karry for an encore. It simply wasn’t a practical idea in the present circumstance, given schedules, given everything else she juggles in the unrelenting, herculean effort to keep the machinery of our existence functioning.

But …

… I had a daughter.

And, like my father before me, a responsibility — to ensure my child’s education included the finer points of the foxtrot, the cha-cha, the rhumba, the waltz, the samba and the jitterbug.

A little arm-twisting ensued (a precursor to my stepping on her toes).

But, like her mother before her, Em was a trooper.

And it was a blast.

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In no small part due to Ron and Ruthie. For the record, the intervening years had only added to their adorable-ness. They were telling versions of the very same jokes, still poking fun at the man’s sense of direction, still warning against the perils of “spaghetti arms.” And aside from Ron having a slight tremor in his right hand, and Ruthie occasionally having to pause to rest a sore knee, (though still defiantly rocking her super high heels), they remained a sight to behold in each other’s arms gliding across a cafeteria floor.

We were the youngest couple in the class (Emma, of course, by decades).

Though she’s a five-night-a-week dancer, Em found herself a bit out of her comfort zone. When it comes to her dancing, she’s used to being in control. Letting me lead took a little getting used to. Nonetheless, she was very patient with me.

However, I was surprised at how much I remembered, with a little refresher.

Her skill and my recall made us pretty quick studies, not to mention the darlings of the class.

The only slightly oogie part was the one session where Ron and Ruthie made us switch partners, and Em found herself coupled with a 50-year-old dude, an exchange that could not end quickly enough for her.

Aside from that … by the end of the class, we found ourselves fluent in Foxtrot, and cutting a reasonably mean jitterbug (our favorite).

And I’m proud to say, when it comes time for her wedding reception, my little girl will be able to educate her newlywed husband on the fundamentals of the polka.

The experience was the perfect reminder, with the perfect company, at the perfect moment, that loved ones who leave us never (ever) leave us. And that what they’ve planted in us are seeds for us to plant in others.

And so the best lives on.

The Great American Songbook.

Fathers and sons.

Wives and daughters.

And a chapter I now plan to keep open, and adding to, for years to come.

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Postcards

Mother’s Day, 2017

Mom never took a good picture. She either threw her hands in front of her face, or when the camera was too quick, found herself with her mouth open. But the world melted around her when she was with children (such as in the enclosed pic, when she met her Grandson Peter for the first time).

She taught me poker in the mornings before kindergarten … cheated, too. Couldn’t throw a baseball to save her soul, but didn’t let it stop her from grabbing a glove and a ball and ordering me outside one time when I wanted to play catch and none of my friends were around. She could bring entire civilizations to their knees (especially my father) with The Silent Treatment when she was pissed. She didn’t let rain, sleet or dead of night get in the way of stealing a smoke on the porch, though you were more than welcome to join her.

She believed you could accomplish anything if you put your mind to it.

Goodbyes used to take FOREVER at her house. You’d have to bake at least an extra 15 minutes (or longer) into your departure time at the front door when making your exit. Multiple rounds of hugs and kisses mixed with efforts to send you home with food or other mementoes. We used to call that intermediary phase, “Fixin’ To Leave,” which was a completely different animal than the actual leaving.

She had an ornery streak and a wicked sense of humor that were perfect around her kitchen table, if not for polite society.

One time she commented how the obituaries and the memorials in the Herald-Standard made the deceased sound like angels. She called B.S. on the practice.

My brother promised her when she passed, we’d write one about her saying, “You thought we’d miss you … but you were wrong.” We all laughed (Mom, included) FOR YEARS about that.

On the third Mother’s Day since her passing, I think she’d be pleased to know the remembrance still coaxes an ornery grin.

And also that her baby boy still finds himself saying his goodbyes.

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