Excursions, The Road Ahead

Perfectly Timed ….

Behind these smiles are some stories, that, if you hold them close enough to your ear, you can still hear the beer-sticky basement floor of 311 North Richill Street in them.

That sacred address was responsible for us first colliding in our late teens, and, thus, gathering together last night at PNC Park, to celebrate one of our own NOT turning 50 (as the sign indicates).

That sacred address had a significant hand in at least four of us somehow convincing pretty college girls who totally should have known better to first dance with us, and eventually to marry us.

We solely owe last night’s gathering to an inspired idea from one of them (much love and thanks to Natalie).

Though it was intended as a gift to Popie, it was as much of one to the rest of us: a perfectly-timed reminder that no distance of time can diminish a good story’s ability to coax an on-demand laugh, head shake, hi-five, wince, or blush. And that we experienced each in equal and abundant measure in that golden (ZE) Chapter of our lives.

It was good to hear that my first college roommate’s high-pitched giggle is still in regular rotation (and still higher-pitched than my own). It was good to throw a hug around my last college roommate (and unapologetically go back for seconds). It was good to learn of (and meet) kids who are just blowing their parents away with the young men and women they are becoming, and also of children who are younger karma vessels for the ornerier among us.

It was good to see that Popie still lets his smile have the run of his face.

I think my new favorite game on the planet is to put the 19-year-old versions of us in the left column, and our, um, not-50 versions on the right, and to draw the connecting lines. I’ll let you figure out which column features at least one naked street bowler and which features at least one CDC-supporting, life-saving chemist.

Used to be Friday nights would not end until the clock was deep into single digits, or before our butts hit the beer-sticky basement floor of 311 North Richill for a communal rendition of the theme from Hawaii-5-0.

So it was telling that the majority of us were exchanging goodbye handshakes and hugs by 10:30 (and well before the post-game fireworks)… in deference to our drives home and long-week-depleted energy reserves.

But, as the above picture proves, the smiles will keep.

And as the years have proven, so will the stories … and the bond.

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Excursions

A boxfull of Sundays ….

 

To the outside world, it was a Sherwin Williams van.

During the workweek Dad used it to call on customers; hauling paint and carpet to businesses and schools all over Fayette County.

But on blue-sky-sunny-breezy summer Sundays just like today, that van became our magic carpet. And its cargo was simplified to an afternoon’s essentials: him, me, and the tall cardboard box that sat between us, whose contents I was solely responsible for.

It was my solemn duty to keep the box filled to overflowing with our basketballs, footballs, and, most importantly, our bats, balls and gloves.

Climbing into the van, we never had a destination mapped. That was always part of the adventure. We’d drive until we found a court with good nets and space to throw. Our drives might take us up the road to the Junior High, or over to Boyle School, or across town to Oliver playground, or sometimes up and over the mountain to Jumonville.

He always let me pick the location and the order of events. Whenever and wherever we’d arrive at a field, court or playground, I’d initiate the proceedings by dumping the tall cardboard box of its contents.

The majority of the time, basketball batted lead off. We’d warm up with make-it-take-it, then transition to Around-The-World, and then customized variations of H-O-R-S-E. Sometimes he’d let me switch the name to don’t-tell-mom-swear-words. “S-H-I-T” was our personal favorite … because the loser was obligated to say it aloud (ha).

In his day Dad was more of an underneath guy on the basketball court, more meat-and-potatoes than finesse. But he had a good hook shot in and around the paint, which, of course, I practiced and practiced and practiced when he wasn’t looking. I still remember this one Sunday afternoon at Jumonville when he chased down one of my missed shots to the other side of the basket, caught it in stride, and in one motion, spun his body and flipped the ball, no-look, over his shoulder with his right hand … kissing it perfectly off the backboard. The ball went in just as a car was driving past, prompting the passenger to spontaneously yell out the window, “Nice shot!” Yeah, that’s my Dad, I remember thinking proudly.

When basketball winded us, we’d break out the gloves. He’d let me pitch, humoring me by calling for curves, sliders, changeups and fastballs, though they all pretty much behaved the same coming out of my left hand. After I’d retire a side (thanks to a most generous strike zone), I’d back pedal to an outfield distance. “Make me run, Dad,” I’d command. He had this gift for aiming perfect pop flies just enough to my right or left to summon me to a full sprint and a leap, reach or dive. And whenever I’d rescue a ball inches before it sailed over my head or hit the ground, it was hard to tell who was more excited, him or me.

In those days, there was no greater feeling in the world than chasing down a pop fly and swallowing it with my outstretched, oversized, Reggie-Jackson-model Rawlings (“The Finest In The Field”) that Dad had bought, used, with the best $25 he ever spent.

Our Sunday afternoons seldom had a clock. Depending on our ambition and energy, sometimes we’d flee to another park or playground in the same outing. Sometimes we’d cycle through sports a couple times. We’d just play ourselves tired and hungry, then pile back in the van, re-filling the tall cardboard box that sat between us.

And, since Mom unapologetically never cooked on Sundays (she more than earned a day of rest with her efforts during the week), it gave us an excuse to make a pit stop before returning home. Among our favorite haunts was this deli-slash-convenience store on the other side of town, whose name escapes me. The ritual of our dinner menu, though, is forever etched in memory. We’d pull tall, glass bottles of Pepsi from the cooler, order a pound of Swiss Cheese from the deli, then retreat to our magic carpet, sipping and munching contentedly in the parking lot, while I’d crack open fresh packs of Topps cards in search of Pirate treasures. We convinced ourselves that the finest Swiss Cheese in the world could be found at this specific convenience store in Uniontown. For the record, I’d still testify under oath to that fact.

Around dusk Dad would whisk us home. As we pulled to the curb in front of our house on Mullen Street, our magic carpet transformed back into his Sherwin Williams van. I’d remove our tall cardboard box to make room for the week’s paint and carpet deliveries.

And patiently wait for the next sunny, summer Sunday.

__

We came home very late last night after a brief, but nourishing, family vacation. The good (and, these days, too-rare) kind, where the days didn’t have a clock. In her typically inspired, herculean, and meticulous packing efforts, Karry reserved room in a basket for our football, basketball and gloves. Surprisingly, I didn’t have to twist Peter’s arm (um, more than a couple times – ha). Honestly, he coaxed me on a couple occasions to throw some baseball (which, as he’s gotten older, we don’t do very often). I believe we actually passed ball three of the days we were away.

And without any prompting from me, he made a rule. Whenever we played ourselves tired or hungry, he’d direct me to aim a pop fly to his left or his right, so he could give chase and make a leaping, diving, or shoetop grab before we were allowed to call it quits. And when he’d rescue a ball from hitting the ground or from sailing over his head, it was hard to tell who was more excited, him or me.

We got in so late last night, we saved our unpacking for this afternoon. I found myself removing the basket with our balls and gloves, and thinking about that tall, cardboard box that used to sit between my Dad and me in our magic carpet.

And on our second Father’s Day since his passing, I find myself clinking a metaphorical glass Pepsi bottle with all those blue-sky-sunny-breezy, summer Sunday afternoons.
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Excursions

One small scoop for man ….

 

I’ve heard it said that great adventurers often had the sense that they were making history in the midst of their adventures.

Though I’m not sure why, I have the strong feeling that family history will want to record that on the glorious morning of June 17, 2017, we ate chocolate ice cream for breakfast.

And that history may have the kindest words for the one of us who didn’t even bother with a bowl.

Here’s to Saturday mornings scooped straight from the carton.

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Postcards

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.

81-607Fr

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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Rearview Mirror

Looking Up

As the youngest, by 10-15 years, of five kids, I grew up looking up.

My older brother and sisters were well on their way to doing adult things when I was at my most impressionable. Before I was 10, my oldest sister Kim had been a Marine, my sister Laurie, married. I held them all in some measure of awe, particularly my brother.

He baptized me at the altar of football. Taught me the sacrament of swearing at the Steelers on Sunday afternoons, Toughened me up (translation: beat the crap out of me) on hundreds of downs of goal-line drills in the living room (he= Jack Lambert; me = Preston Pearson). Ran me ragged running down-and-outs, down-out-and-ups, and posts on the street outside our house, coaxing me well beyond my appetite with pleas of ‘just one more,’ and ‘last one,’ which were seldom what they claimed.

He was responsible for my early musical education. The early lessons came packaged in the 8-track tapes sporting labels faded from wear, and in the FM radio, whose strains wafted from the basement where he lifted weights to the top of the steps where I sat and listened. From his example I learned every word of the hymns of my youth … Clapton, the Doors, the Doobies. The ceiling on early cool for me was riding co-pilot in his immaculate powder blue Buick on summer afternoons, windows down, stereo wide open, while he did his best Jim Morrison on the opening verse of LA Woman.

He was the first mythic figure of my youth. He had an ornery streak, a turn of phrase that pushed the boundaries of euphemism. He and his buddies found a lot of trouble in their fun in their rowdier moments. I remember him coming home one weekend night with a black eye, a sucker punch that, before the transaction was complete, he made sure the sucker regretted. I wish I could forget the aromas in our bedroom on Saturday mornings after his late Friday nights. His football buddies seemed larger than life, in character as well as stature. I hung on every word of his stories of adventure with his band of rogues, and committed them to memory just like the bits from the R-rated Steve Martin albums he let me listen to.

I was also on the receiving end of some of his ornery streak. I remember a school night in seventh grade when I heard him giggling downstairs (we share versions of the same high-pitched giggle when we get wound up). I didn’t discover the source of his mirth until I was at my locker the next morning, when Tom Rocks nearly doubled over in laughter while pointing at my winter coat. I looked down to find my lapel monogrammed with green felt letters spelling out, “Mr. Shitbar.” (I just high-pitch-giggled writing that). Though I initially feared expulsion if discovered, I wore it like a badge for a few days, until our Mom discovered it, ripping the letters off, and him a new one. In full disclosure, being on the receiving end of his ornery streak had its advantages, too. Exhibit A: the six-packs of Heineken I’d find under the Christmas Tree during my teenage years.

He taught me that there was a world beyond the streets of my neighborhood. Aside from our family’s epic Bicentennial excursion to Gettysburg, our family never went on vacation. During his grad school years at WVU, he always reserved a late-summer day for us to road trip to Morgantown to pick up Mountaineer gear. I considered those sacred pilgrimages.  Though I’m tempted to blush at the humble geography involved, I can’t overstate how magical those trips were to my pre-teen self, or how cool I thought myself wearing my WVU gear to junior high. After all, I had brought them back myself from exotic far-off lands (ha).

He made time for me even after he got married. When he and Maur got their first apartment in Hopwood, he’d invite Dad and me out to watch Steeler games on Sundays. I remember shooting .22 after the games in the back yard (which was a great way to burn off the frustrations of those mid-80’s Steeler teams.). I also remember one Saturday night when he gave me and a buddy the keys to their apartment while they were out on a date … and full access to his epic stash of video rentals he’d copied on his wickedly awesome two-VCR set-up. The epic-ness of the experience can only be appreciated when remembering that video rental stores were the only way to see movies outside the theater in those days. (Those were the years when HBO pretty much stood for, “Hey, Beastmaster’s On.”). I remember me and my buddy making our own nachos and watching my first screening of The Breakfast Club, with a Chuck Norris chaser. Saturday night boy cave nirvana.

I remember seeing my brother as a father for the first time. Remember Mom and Dad whisking me with them to the hospital to meet their first grandson. Remember awkwardly extending a handshake to my brother when he came out of the operating room to greet us. He ignored my gesture, and, instead scooped me up in the biggest big bear hug and said, “I’m afraid a  handshake’s just not going to cut it, bud.”

A version of that hug has marked our every greeting and goodbye since.

For The Win 

And I remember, a year later, on my 16th birthday, playing him one-on-one in our tiny, walled driveway. Since it was barely single-car wide, and since he had a good 40-50 pounds on me, the postage stamp size court heavily favored his girth over my moves.  For 15 years, I had been the Washington Generals to his Harlem Globetrotters, with him teaching me humility over and over (and over). But we hadn’t played each other in a while, with most of his time of late being soaked up by new parenthood. I’d gotten a little better since the last time we played … my shot a bit more practiced, his showing some rust. I got up on him early. Answered every one of his baskets with one of my own.  I was on my way to beating him for the first time in my life. I think we both felt it, and it pushed each of us harder. But his competitive streak always had deeper grooves than mine. He went full bore, contesting every drive, every shot. With the winning score within my reach, I drove left, and he moved quickly to cut off my path. As he did so, it forced me into the wall of the driveway, where my left hand met the corner of the top block, busting it open. It began bleeding pretty good, and the depth of the gash prompted a trip to the ER, where it earned a few stitches.

I remember Mom being super pissed at him for being too rough on me, a refrain she could trace back to those years-ago knee football contests in the living room.

I never blamed him for any part of it. He was giving me his best, and making sure my first win wouldn’t come cheaply. He was more than holding up the Big Brother end of the bargain.

For the record, since we didn’t finish, neither of us counted it as a win in my favor.

For the record, we never played again.

Though I was trying like hell to beat him at the time … looking back, I’m kinda’ glad that we never finished the game.

My brother was always, and in many ways still is, my hero. For all the reasons above, and a million reasons more.

I’m not so blind to believe that he was or is perfect. He’ll be the first to admit that.

But not many heroes get to retire with a perfect record.

Mine did.

And I have the scar to prove it.

On the occasion of his birthday, I suppose I could’ve just dropped a card in the mail. But, to borrow a phrase …

I’m afraid a handshake’s just not going to cut it, bud.

 

Love,

Mr. Shitbar

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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 ….

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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.

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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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