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Monday, May 30, 2011

The Last Innocent Age...Heroes big and small

Growing up in the late 60's and early 70's, as I did, you had real, identifiable heroes. I don't know if the generations that came after us have them or at least have as many. We had them everywhere. I remember a time when the networks all had their own "Science Editor" and, with the Space Race in full stride, every time Gene Krantz at NASA burped it was the lead story. ABC's Science Editor was named Jules Bergman. He was the guy who sat at that desk with the launch pad in the background and explained to us the dangers of the flight. He talked us through the entire mission and explained what an "orbit" was with a model space capsule on a stick. He described the danger of re-entry and let us all know it was okay to let out our collective breath when he saw those three red and white parachutes in the sky that signaled the safe return of our three astronauts.
The astronauts themselves were like gods to a boy my age back then. Gordon Cooper, Wally Schirra, Buzz Aldrin, and of course...Neil Armstrong. I was 5 years old when he landed on the moon and took those first steps and said those famous words; "One Small Step for man...". All my friends could talk about nothing else for months. We would re-enact the landing and the moonwalk in our yards. We would walk around in slow motion and bounce from one foot to the other to simulate weightlessness. I was 5 years old and knew what terms like "Capcom" and "Flight Control" and "Mission Control" meant. I knew what a LEM was and I knew what "Tranquility Base" was. The words, "The Eagle has Landed" had special meaning for me.
We idolized race car drivers. This was the heyday of Formula one / Indy Car (back then it was called "USAC") and Nascar was a regional sport in the south. I knew names like Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, Gary Bentenhausen, Andy Granitelli, Parnelli Jones, and Jackie Stewart. I had a slot car track and the car everyone wanted was the black Texaco F-1 car of Andretti. There were guys who drove cars on Bonneville and set speed records. Guys like Craig Breedlove and Gary Gabelich who drove incredible rocket powered cars that approached the speed of sound. Mattel used to sell these cars with one big wheel in the center. They were called "SST"'s (Supersonic Transport) They came with this toothed strip with a T-handle on the end. You inserted the toothed end into the center of the car and it meshed with the gear that drove the wheel. Then you pulled that T Handle as hard as you could, it got the wheel spinning and you set the car on the floor and it took off like a bat. We all wanted the "Laker" because it was blue and looked exactly like Gabelich's "Blue Flame" car.
Of course...nothing provided heroes like sports did. Baseball was really the only game on the American consciousness back then. Football hadn't yet caught on and basketball and hockey were small venue sports. Baseball is what we all played and it's what we all watched. I had heroes like Mantle, and Mays and Dimaggio. Killebrew and Lolich and Koufax. The Oakland A's of the early seventies were an amazing team laden with talent. Reggie and Rollie and Catfish. I remember that October night when Carlton Fisk waved his 12th inning homerun over the Green monster and would become my favorite player of all time. When I was a senior in high school and our baseball team ordered brand new uniforms, I insisted on getting number 27, just like Pudge. There was that sad and terrible day in fourth grade when the news came over our transistor radios during Christmas break, that the great Roberto Clemente had died. I remember sitting in a fog in Wilmington Manor Elementary School, talking to my friend Mark Weidick, on the first day back from Christmas, and trying to come to grips with how this could be true. Not Clemente...not him! And to be doing humanitarian work...taking supplies to those poor people in Nicaragua after that earthquake. I didn't know where Nicaragua was, exactly, but it seemed like the dark side of the moon.
We were the last generation to have known "Wide World of Sports" and the wonderful Jim McKay. Because of that show, and it's knack for making the most bizarre and obscure sports interesting, my friends and I knew the names of guys who raced ice boats on Lake Michigan, or jumped barrels on ice skates. I knew all about Vasily Alexiev, the enormous Russian weightlifter. I knew who Al Oerter was. (The great 4 time Olympic discus hurler) Of course, we had the great Vince "Invincible" Papale who made our beloved Eagles as a walk on, and who had us all believing that one day we could do the same thing.
Those were the heroes everyone knew about. But my neighborhood had heroes of its own. The place was populated with them. Nick Caputo was two years older than me and an amazingly accurate pitcher. Where other kids our age used the catchers mitt as a target, Nick used the pocket of the glove. Sherm Johnson was bigger than anyone else our age and once hit a ball out of Stahl field (where our little league teams played) off the handle of the went about 250 feet. In fourth grade, my friend Jimmy Schnatterer was moving to Mechanicsville, PA. On the night of his very last little league game before the move, Jimmy got up in his final at-bat and told his mom he was going to hit a home run for her. he smashed one off the light pole in dead center field, circled the bases and ran right out of the ball park and into his parents car. My next door neighbor, Mr. Hainsworth, was younger than all the dads on the block. He was really like a big brother and he'd come out in the street with us and throw a football or a baseball. One time, he told me if I'd wash his car for him, he'd take me to the driving range to hit a bucket of golf balls. That was the first time I ever had been to a driving range and it more fun than anything. One neighborhood hero who stood out above a lot of others was Poppa John Iorizzo. Years later he would become a second father to me and his family is my family. But when I was 10 or 11, Pop was the guy who taught hunter safety. He was an amazingly smart man and knew more about hunting and firearms than anyone I ever met. One day I was talking to some friends in school who were describing watching this "guy at the skeet range" who was busting ten for ten, shooting two clays at once by waiting until the exact moment they crossed and hitting them with one shot. and even going 10-for-10 from his hip. (Shooting without bringing the gun up to his shoulder). I would find out years later, that was Poppa John. He was larger than life and full of wisdom and shenanigans.
Neighborhoods don't have heroes like this anymore. Then again, they might, but we'll never know because we don't bother getting to know each other anymore. On my own street we had Mr. Stuber who had been a tail gunner on a Lancaster bomber in WWII. Pat Ferraro was a naval veteran and Mr. Wilkins was an ex-Marine. They were heroic men who fixed our flat tires on our bikes with a real patch kit where you scuffed the rubber in the innertube then applied that glue and lit it with a match before adhering the square patch. They showed us how to change oil and how to gap a spark plug, and how to put a new roof on the house. They had scars and tattoos and war stories. They were grouchy and cranky sometimes, but they were smart and funny and they seemed like giants.
I think the world needs heroes like that again. Real men with opinions about things like war and politics and social issues. I could picture each man on my block growing up and probably tell you what party they voted for and where they stood on the issues of the day...and what they'd say about the issues of our time. We had families of legends like the Tiberi's who were all boxers, including my friend Dave who would become Middleweight Champion of the World. By the time they reached high school they were all giant killers whom you wouldn't want to even sit next in the cafeteria. The truth was they were as nice a bunch of kids as anyone we grew up with but they were the only boxers we knew and imagination got the best of some of the kids.
There were boys like Cliff Steed who set a state record in the 40 in 8th grade. Joe Pinunto who hit a ball in little league that may still be in orbit. Mr. Davis, the principal of George Reed Jr. High who was scary just walking down the hall.
It wasn't a politically correct time back then. I think that's what made these people heroic. You were expected to have an intelligent opinion and to defend it. Others disagreed with you but it remained civil. Now they have neutered all the voices of reason because somebody's feelings might get hurt.
That's sad...we need heroes. Our kids need people who make them dream of greatness, because they see greatness living in their lives. I hope I get the chance to be heroic to a kid the way these folks were for me.

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