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Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Last Innocent Age...R.I.P Clarence Clemons

It took me all night last night and all of this morning to even begin to come to terms with last nights news. I considered changing the title to this post because this is, in many ways, a departure from the fun, warm, stories of growing up I have been sharing. But it occurred to me that in the most profound way of all...yesterday punctuated what it means to be a part of the Last Innocent Age in a way that crystallizes the aspect of innocence lost and innocence never again to return.
Last night, at 7PM, The "King of the Universe" the Great Clarence Clemons died. Clarence was the sax player for Bruce Springsteen's beloved E-Street band since it's inception. The temptation here is to write about the musician and the music. But others are already doing that and doing it remarkably well.  My thoughts went in another direction this morning after digesting this news all night. Clarence's passing is, for me, another marker on the highway of life that means time is passing and another age has ended.
The first time I ever heard Clarence's incredible sax was walking to school in 1975 with my friend Tommy Riccio, listening to his transistor radio. "Born to Run" came on and from the opening drum roll, I was captivated. There are about a thousand brilliant moments within "The Greatest Rock and Roll Song Ever" (IMO) and many of them came from that incredible sound that Clarence forced from his sax like a hurricane.
By the time that song reached it's amazing crescendo, I was hooked. I was a Bruce fan and I was never going back.
The music speaks for itself. It's the moments I want to talk about. The magical, wonderful, incredible, indelible moments that this amazing music was providing the soundtrack for. I've been asked by my friends, "If you ever met Bruce, what would you tell him?". I joke about saying;  "Please stop the stupid politics and write like you used to..."  But I know that I would look him in the eye, and blink back tears as I said, simply..."Thank you for all the times you said the things I was holding in my soul, but could not find the words to say." Beyond that, I think I would thank him for all the friends I have made because of the music and all the wonderful memories that I associate with every album he has made.
Clarence was the one integral part of all of that. The lone irreplaceable piece. My pastor used to say "If you think you can't be replaced, go down to the river and put your hand in the water. Pull it back out. If you leave a can't be replaced." 
Clarence Clemons leaves a hole.
He leaves an obvious hole on stage because of his size, his charm, his immense talent and self awareness. Clarence always knew exactly how to play to the crowd and to Bruce. He was larger than life and he could render his voice so amazingly soft that you wondered at how it came from such a giant.
Clarence was part of the greatest moments I have ever had involving music. Moments that go beyond the notes on the sheet and the sound coming from the speakers. Moments that link friends and time and space and eternity.
I was a freshman at Liberty University in 1982, in the days when possessing a rock record at LU was grounds for weekend detentions. I was one of four people jammed into in a dorm room built for two people. We each shared a closet and a desk with another person and we each brought a footlocker with us for extra storage. You kept your valuables in this and for some of us...your contraband. One of my room mates that year was Jim Freeman. Jim is a couple of years older than me and I came to see him as a big brother and one of the best friends I have ever had. Our friendship began with an interesting exchange that still makes me smile.
I was having a discussion about the "evils" of rock and roll with another of our roomies and I happened to quote from Dave Marsh's brilliant book "Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story" Jim was laying in his bunk, studying, but apparently he was at least listening casually to his two freshman room mates debate. Upon hearing my quotation of Marsh's book, Jim sat up, looked at me analytically, and in his inimitable, deep, thoughtful tone said "You're a Springsteen fan?" I perked right up...Jim was imposing to me and I was hoping for that whole first week of school that we would become friends. He was quiet and thoughtful and trying to get to know him can be a bit daunting. When he spoke those words to me...the "S" word...I was elated. Jim got up from his bunk...locked our door...pulled out his key...unlocked his footlocker and produced a copy of the book I had been quoting to our room mate. Then we began what became at least a three hour discussion about Bruce, music in general, life, great rock and roll, God, love, parents, churches, politics and about a thousand other vital matters.
Jim and I would go on to become dear friends as we are to this day. And I was with him when he saw Bruce for the first time. We caravaned to Greensboro to see Bruce at the Coliseum. We missed Bruce walking unnoticed through the crowd in the lobby during soundcheck and we stayed up to the wee hours after the show talking about what we had just witnessed.
Just a few weeks ago the thought occurred to me that they won't be touring forever, and I had been thinking how Jim and I really need to see them together one more time. My daughter just turned 13 and has become a huge fan of the band as well and I wanted her to come with us and experience the greatest show on earth for herself. She is an aspiring musician with a truly remarkable voice and I want her to feel the inspiration and spirit of a Springsteen show. I wanted her to feel the bond that built a friendship like I share with Jim.
Back in the day...Jim and I were sure to be on the phone as soon as we heard even a scant rumor of a new album. In the days before the Internet took off, real Bruce fanatics stayed in touch with each other and shared bits and pieces from mags like "Backstreets" and traded bootleg records. This band...this family of great music makers...was everything to us.
Now there is a palpable hole where the magic used to be. Clarence is gone. Maybe too, the magic is gone as well. Bruce's sound has changed over the years and to be really honest I haven't loved it. His new albums don't inspire me like everything up to and including Tunnel of Love did. But the live shows are still the best concerts you will ever see, Bruce knew instinctively what his fans came to hear and more importantly...what they came hoping to feel. In 2000, Jim and I saw Bruce together twice in a 6 week period. Once in Nashville and once, through a connection I had at Sony, stage right, about four rows back, in Atlanta. I was one year removed from a heartbreaking divorce. I was hurting. I was living in a town where I knew precious few people and I was trying to succeed at a whole new career I had never planned on. I was in many ways, a lost man and yet for four hours on both of those nights, I was sitting with the closest thing I will ever have to a big brother, watching the greatest Rock performer who ever lived, singing songs that each had special, vital, life changing meaning to us both. I needed them then and I think I never stopped needing them.
I can be in the midst of turmoil or heartache and when I hear the opening lines to "Thunder Road" I am instantly thrust back to 1981, cruising Newark DE in my '69 Chevelle with that wonderful record blasting from the tape deck. The same holds true for Born to Run, or Backstreets, or Hungry Hearts, or Jungleland, or Rosalita etc.
The E street band held me captive. I miss the way that feels. I miss going to a record store and buying Bruce's new record, or Southside Johnny's, or that amazing first Little Steven record...on real vinyl. I really, really wish my daughter could have seen this band together, whole, intact and as magical and powerful as I have over the years.
That can never be now, because Clarence is gone. The Big Man has fallen silent and the echo of his soulful sax is still reverberating in my heart. I never met him but he was my friend. He elicits such powerful memories. He is the "Ho Ho Ho" at the start of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" that officially starts the Christmas season for me. He is the beautiful flowing solo that begins "Spare Parts" when played live. His ripping sound on BTR means only one thing...the crescendo is coming. His cry on Jungleland can reduce a man to tears at it's beauty. He is Bruce's foil, his friend, and his anchor.
Now he is gone.
The E Street band gave me the chance...whenever I saw return to that blessed Last Innocent Age, if only for a few hours every few years. But the return was wonderful, complete, and restorative. I miss The Big man already. My soul misses him.
If there was ever a group of people I need to live forever it would be this band of brothers who make the greatest music in the world. That cannot be, and this one of a world without Clarence Clemons dawned to find millions of broken hearts, all along the path that runs from today, back to the Last Innocent Age.
R.I.P. Clarence Clemons 1942-2011

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Last Innocent Age...How many people can you cram in a Beetle...

When I was a kid my mom drove a VW Beetle. Not the new was a 1968 model. It was the real Beetle with a rear mounted, air-cooled engine and the trunk in the front. They bought it new in 1968 and drove it until probably 1975. It was a standard run-of-the-mill air conditioning, so you opened the wing windows and pointed them out so they acted like air scoops. It had the trunk up front and a storage area behind the back seat that we called the "well". Once or twice a year my mom would be backing out of my grandmothers steep driveway and bottom-out and drive one of the tailpipes into the muffler. That was a trademark issue with Beetles. The thing was great in the snow because the engine was right over the rear wheels. It was white and I think it had a black interior if I remember correctly.
What was really amazing about the Beetle was how much we could cram into the thing. We had discovered Elk Neck State Park on the Chesapeake Bay when I was about 8 years old. You could get in for $2 a carload and swim all day. So we would load the car up and head down Route 40 into Maryland. As best as I remember, here is a list of who and what would make the trek to the Bay...
My mom drove...obviously. I rode in the front seat because I suffer from intolerable carsickness (still do to this day) Tommy Riccio usually sat on the front seat with me, sometimes we'd jam someone in the tunnel where our feet went on the passenger side. Now these were bucket seats mind you...not a bench. Wedged in the middle leaving enough room for the shifter, was usually Donna Riccio or Sheryl Messick. In the back seat would be Kevin Messick, Monica Riccio, Sheila Messick, My little sister Beth who was a baby at the time (no car seat) and my brother Tommy would be hidden in "The Well"  like a contortionist, along with a playpen for Beth, a cooler for food, and assorted bags for changes of clothes.
We'd load up towels, suntan lotion, and cheap plastic diving masks and snorkels and be off to the beach for the day. If anything had every happened to that car on the way down or back, they never would have untangles the bodies. We would have had to been buried together in a piano crate. Mrs. Riccio used to crack up laughing at us when we'd get home at night because she said it was like watching a clown car at the circus...people just kept getting out of the thing for about 12 minutes. That's not an exaggeration...we usually jammed eight people into a car meant for four. It was hot and uncomfortable and rough riding but we were going to the bay for the day and it was great fun. The water was murky, the crabs would nip at your feet sometimes. But we had a blast.
My friends and I have been reminiscing behind the scenes since I started writing this series. We have unanimously decided that we all wish life was like it was back then. I wish my daughter could know the happiness of riding to the bay with every kid on the block and not one of them was a stranger. I'm all about child safety, but it does come at the expense of funny stories like the number of people we'd get into that little car.  Mrs. Messick used to joke that as we drove past her house on the way to Maryland, she saw flesh pressed against every window in the car. We have all remarked how well we really, truly, knew each other on that street. How we really did love each other like a big family. How we really still do...
We all wish our own kids could grow up in a world where it was okay to have that sort of lifelong friendship with people. People don't really love each other like that anymore. We fought...of course we did. There were disputes on the block and parents who would sometimes stop speaking to each other for a while. But almost invariably, enough time went by, and spring would return, and we'd be outside and they'd see each other and just start talking again like nothing it suddenly dawned on them how trivial the argument was compared to how much we all shared and how deeply we loved each other.
I miss that the most...

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Some thoughts on the love of God.

Taking a break today from The Last Innocent Age. I was thinking about this topic today, and on my way to my office this morning I guess I wrote this entry in my mind. Once again I have been thinking about, and considering the love of God. How much He loves us. How we can't outrun that love, out wrong that love, fall outside the bounds of His grace, or ever push Him so far away that He won't come rushing back, even more determined than ever to love us relentlessly.
We live in a world that is increasingly lacking in open demonstrations of love. Especially when you are a little older, have been through the minefield-laden holocaust of a divorce, failed your hyper-religious upbringing a few hundred times and slowly...over a period of time that somehow rushed by while you were fighting to catch your next breath...became something or someone you never thought you'd see looking back from the mirror.
I get accused of being a bit too honest on this blog from time to time and I know it's often true. But I do that because I realize that inside of us we all carry something...or several things...that we would love to unload and bare for the world to see, if only someone else would do it first. If we could see someone with problems like ours, coming clean and being honest and finding redemption and hope and happiness...maybe we could open up about our dark secrets and the things that haunt us and the things we can't seem to forgive ourselves for. The pictures that are emblazoned on our memories that we can't make go away. The voices that keep screaming in our ears.
There has to be an icebreaker, it seems, and sometimes thats me.
The last few days I have been wrestling with my own relationship with Jesus Christ and with how I think I've failed Him, and disappointed Him, and betrayed Him, and let him down.  I get so mad at myself for being so darned human.  I feel like the worst Christian in the world, and maybe I am, but compared to who? For every Billy Graham or Mother Teresa, there has been a Craig Daliessio. A scoundrel with dirt under his nails and a sack of shame and doubts and regrets slung over his shoulder. For every Terry Chapman, Paul Walters or Steve Allen or Jerry Falwell or Steve Berger or Dave Lewis, (men whom have been my pastors and my biggest spiritual influences at one point or another in my life) there are ten Jim Bakkers' or Brennan Mannings. Men who loved God deeply, but who couldn't find the release from the voices that screamed at them in the wolf hours when their honest mistakes turned to serious consequence, and their well intentioned dreams shattered like glass.
To talk about others would be here-say so I speak only of my own experiences. I know I love God. I know I don't like living that love for God the way a lot of other people do. That's part rebellion and part common sense. I'm not like others. Now granted, there are elements of living my faith that are universal. But most of my walk of faith will be uniquely mine and strictly between God and me.
Again for the last few weeks I find myself wrestling with the question of whether God really loves me, really forgives my mistakes, really wants the best for me, really sees nothing of the failures, sins, faults, shortcomings and broken pieces that make up my character. Does He really only see a child He adores? Does He really forgo the judgement for the stupid, rotten, selfish things I've done in my life because He already punished Jesus for them? Is the consequence of my actions really all the punishment there is for a believer? Is God really broken hearted over the distance I have allowed to come between us?
I have learned the answers to all these questions is a simple yes.
I learned it I so often do...through my parenthood.
I was showing a friend of mine a video of my daughter singing at her talent show and the whole truth was illustrated there for me. Here is the link: Morgan Singing at her Talent Show  When you open it up and play it, you will hear...immediately after she is introduced...a very loud "YEAH!!" in the background. That would be me. I was thinking about this today. Is my daughter perfect? Nope. Does she have issues? fact right now my little girl is wrestling with some things I never thought she would be wrestling with. Things far too complex and confusing for a 13 year old girl. Has she done things that disappointed me? Yes, of course. But I realized something as I was writing this today...she has done things that have disappointed me...but she is not a disappointment to me. She can never be. She is my daughter. She is the love of my life. She is my reason for getting back up when the world knocks me down and she is the fire in my breast that burns in the darkest night and makes me press on. When you watch the video and you hear me yell...that is what God does for us. I thought about this today. God is wildly, passionately in love with you and He is your biggest fan! He is not like an earthly Father. He cannot turn His back on us. He turned His back on Jesus instead. He does not punish our sin...(assuming we are believers) our sin is punishment enough. The awful loneliness and isolation of separation from the only Father who loves us perfectly is more punishment than most of us can bear. Do I get upset with my daughter? Do I feel let down or saddened sometimes? Yes.  But I never ever stop loving her!  In fact, because I know her, and I know her heart and I know how demanding she is of herself...I am usually broken and sorrowful because I know there is no punishment I could ever dream up that would be more harsh than the one she is dishing out to herself immediately.
I have a friend whose eldest child is going through a period of extreme rebellion. He has become someone and something my friend never saw coming and my friend has spent a lot of nights in tears and sleeplessness over his wandering son. The young man won't talk to his mom but for some reason he has begun opening up to his dad. His dad is infinitely tougher and more strict than the boys' mom, and for a while the boy hid behind his mothers' leniency. But over time, the young man realized that he actually wanted some structure and he started gravitating towards his dad. We were talking about it once and my friend told me he thinks it's because, despite his being tougher...his son never once doubted that his dad loved him.
I wish we could get to that point with God. I wish I could stop stiff-arming Him and rejecting Him so that He doesn't get to reject me like I think He will. I wish I could stop fighting with Him over things He doesn't want to fight over.
I am going home Friday after 3 weeks away. I am going to see my daughter for the first time since the middle of May. I won't ask her what trouble she has been in. I won't check to see if she has clean clothes on or whether she has brushed her teeth. I won't check the condition of her bedroom or of her heart. I will simply smile as big as I am capable of, grab her in my arms, kiss her head about a thousand times, tell her I love her over and over again, and love my daughter as much as I am able to express.
That's what God wants to do with us. We all run from Him. That's our nature and if you doubt me, look no further than Adam. As soon as he sinned he covered and hid. God had never been mad with Adam before. Adam didn't even know God could get mad. But as soon as he failed, and he heard God walking through the neighborhood for a visit...he ran and hid.
If you are running and hiding...stop. Your Father doesn't care what you've done. Let me emphasize that. He does not care what you've done. David was an adulterous, murdering, liar whom God called "The Apple of My Eye" and described as a "man after my own heart". Peter was a foulmouthed, impulsive, reckless, fisherman who quit under pressure more than once. But God loved them both. God loves you recklessly, wildly, unselfishly, unconditionally, passionately, and without limit.
God doesn't care what you've done...He misses you terribly. He is that voice yelling loudly when you attempt your dreams. "YEAH!" He wants you to come home to Him and just be yourself. He doesn't want you to follow anyone else's prescription for repentance. Just come home. If you could listen closely for just a minute...that's what He would be saying..."Just come home. We can't heal this if you're over there and I'm over here...just come home to me"  Just let your Daddy love you. He misses you more than you realize.
He has never stopped loving you...

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Last Innocent Age...25 Hours in a Day...The Games we Played, the Things we Did

Every neighborhood...probably every region of the world for that matter...has their own games that the kids played growing up. I'm not talking about playing baseball or football...we certainly did that. I'm talking about the funny things we did to entertain ourselves when we weren't playing sports. The games we made up on cottony-thick summer nights when we needed to run to avoid the mosquitoes that were so big they had landing lights. The tales we told, the hobbies we engaged in. The innocent practical jokes we played on the neighborhood.
Monroe Avenue was built in 1960, and as such it was an "old school" neighborhood with telephone poles. Since about the late 70's, they bury all utilities, but back then they used telephone poles. It might seem like a nuisance and an eyesore...and it probably is. But a good portion of the fun we had on that street revolved around either the poles that stood on the curb at every third house, (and only on one side of the street) or the wires that were strung across and between them like a giant web. We played wire ball almost daily. This is were you throw the ball up in the air and you try to hit the wire. (We used a "pimple ball" or a tennis ball). If you hit it and your opponent dropped it, it was a single. Hit it on the way up and it counts regular, if you hit it on the way down and your opponent dropped it, it was a HR. We tied old Converse "Chuck Taylors" together and threw them over the wires. Johnny Wilkins, Richard Ferraro and I lost a sinker or two wrapped around those wires while we were practicing our casting techniques on winter evenings when it was too cold to go fishing.
The poles themselves were the most user friendly things on the street. The were a pole for a basketball backboard. They were the backstop for stickball games after we took the cinderblock wall down. And they were "homebase" for about a dozen different versions of tag or capture the flag that we made up as we went along. They were the end zones for legendary touch football battles in the street.
Probably the one game we played the most using the poles was "Up and Down Tag". The poles defined the base. The object was simple. Whoever was "it" was in the middle between the pole at the Riccio's house and the one at Mr. Lowman's house. A distance of about 50 yards. All of us would spread out behind the imaginary line that ran from the pole across the street. Behind the line was safe. Once you crossed the line, you couldn't go back, you had to run down to the other pole and cross that line to be safe. The guy in the middle would try to tag you. if you got tagged, you stayed in the middle with the original "it" until everyone was caught. then the first guy who had gotten tagged became "it" for the next game. We would play this game for hours. Sometimes we played a version of it with a wiffle ball where the "it" could throw a wiffle ball at you and that was how you were tagged.
We played a version of capture the flag that they called "Relievio". We were all divided up into two teams. The two poles represented our home base and the "jail" where we kept the prisoners we captured. We designated one jailkeeper each, and the rest of us ran and hid behind the houses. (This was in a day when virtually nobody on our street had fenced-in yards. A few families did because we had dogs, but mostly we all ran through each others yards at will and nobody cared) The object was to capture opposing teams players and take them to your base where they were now in jail. When you caught someone, you had to say "caughty-caught jailbreaks!". That was the official lingo and that meant the person had to stay in your jail until his team mates came to set him free.
 This was going on simultaneously on both ends and it was a lot of fun that lasted deep into the night. It was nothing for us to be out in front of the houses playing beneath those street lamps until 11pm and our parents never gave it a moments thought. They knew we were out there, they knew all the kids on the street, it was as safe as anyplace else. We played "Buck Buck" which has it's origin in Philadelphia. We played wall-ball. We played a game that had no rules and no real intention except to scare us all. The game was created by Frankie Messick who was older than most of us. A little history is in order to introduce this one. Behind the houses across the street from mine was an area of public space. It stood between the backyards on that side of the street and the public park. It was a no-man's land. The county owned it and they cut the grass once a month, but it was really ours to run wild in. There was a big creekbed that ran through it where we had enormous fun. The creek was dry most of the time except when we had big rains. At one end of this area was a grove of trees we called "Heinyaland". They were calling it that when I moved there so I have no idea where the name originated. I do know it was really nice by day and creepy as can be by night. On those thick summer nights, sometimes we'd go back to Heinyaland and play a game called  "Heinyaman". Frankie Messick would go back there first and hide in the darkness...usually inside the boughs of the willow tree. Then we would all go marching in to face his inevitable attack. He would come running out of the darkness howling and menacing and we'd be scared witless. We knew he was there...we knew he was coming...and he still scared us.
We played wiffle ball and we held our own roller derby. We all had those noisy steel-wheeled roller skates and we made an oval in chalk out in the street and we re-enacted the roller derby we watched on TV. 
Tommy Riccio, Johnny Wilkins and I would take a trip down to the "Chelsea Swamps" where our beloved Nonesuch Creek was, and bring back dozens of cat tails. Or "punks" as we called them. We'd let them dry for a week or so and then we'd light them at night, convinced the smoke kept the mosquitoes away. We pretended to be smoking cat-tail cigars and we would blow the smoke at each other. each summer we got fireworks and we'd use the punks to light the fuses. They have a unique aroma when they burn and I can still smell them if I think about it.
We built models. Models of dragsters, and battleships and airplanes. We collected butterflys. In fact that was a big hobby for most of us on the street for a lot of years. We knew all the species and which ones were the hardest to find. Johnny and Richard and I always sought the elusive Zebra swallowtail and the Mourning Cloak.
We had chemistry sets and microscopes. We had erector sets. We built elaborate tree houses and ground forts. One fort even had a working fireplace. We built a 9 hole golf course in the public ground behind the houses one summer. We built goal posts for our football games. When the summer rains would come, we'd take my 2 man inflatable raft and float down the creek in the rapids that suddenly developed.
We had lemonade stands in the summer and snowball fights in the winter. We would hide between parked cars and hop the bumpers of those who drove down our street in the snow. You'd run out, grab the bumper and let the car pull you along.
We were fascinated by UFO's back then. It was the rage in the mid 70's. Me, Tommy, Johnny and Kevin would lay out in the big park on a blanket at night and watch the stars to see if anything strange happened. it never did, but we never lost the wonder of looking up into space.
We ran and laughed and imagined and dreamed. And the last thing we wanted was for the nights to end and to have to say goodnight and go inside. They don't make video games that capture what we had back then.
...we packed 25 hours into a day. We'd sleep, and dream, and wake up to do it all again the next day.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Last Innocent Age...The Fond Farewell...

There is no particular sequence to this series. I am writing stories as I remember them and so one day I might be recalling something from when I was seven and then next from when I was 20.
I say that because this morning I was moved by a particular memory of an event that I hadn't thought about until it suddenly burst on my heart this morning. It was the last night we lived on Monroe Avenue...I guess it was the actual end of the Innocent Age.
I don't recall the exact date but I would guess it was around the end of June. We moved to the new house on July 7, 1986. The week before the move, my mother and stepfather decided to host a party on the big deck we had in our backyard. It was an open invitation, come as you are, bring something if you want, stay until you feel like leaving. Pretty much the way all get-togethers on Monroe Avenue were since the day I moved there.
By now we had lived there 16 years. The neat thing was that in all that time, nobody on the block had left. All my neighbors...all my childhood friends were still there. Some of the older kids were married and gone but their mom's and dads and younger siblings remained. The whole gang showed up, including a few surprises. The Riccio's, of course, were there. (Of all the families on my street, it's the Riccio's and the Ferraro's and the Messick's I miss the most. They were the ones who I had a relationship with everybody in the house, not just the kids.)
The Ferraro's were there, Mr. Messick had passed away by this time but Mrs. Messick was there. The Campbell's showed up.
Mr. and Mrs. Savage came out. That was a treat, because they didn't do as much on the block as other families did but by this point they had suffered a few hard blows in life and I think they had drawn much closer to all the rest of the families than previously.
Mr. Wilkins stopped by. He was a big, gruff man and had been a widower a long time. But his youngest son Johnny was amongst my best friends and Mr. Wilkins had softened a lot in recent years. It turns out he was a really nice man under that gruff exterior. Our neighbors from behind us, whom we shared a fence with, The DeMattea's came out. Mr. Smith, whose grass I cut in the summers came out briefly. Dwight and Nancy from next door showed up.
They were all there and we enjoyed each others company until late into the night. We ate and swam and laughed at stories about what we did when we were kids. Our parents took turns embarrassing us...all adults by now...with "Remember when you and Tommy / Richard / Johnny / Monica...did _______? " stories. We cringed and we turned red...and the truth was we loved it. The night was sweet and it was more fun than we'd all had together in a long time.
Many times during the evening the parents would remark "We should have done this sooner...". But life is hectic and families take time. Sadly we seldom gathered all in one spot except to say goodbye, either temporarily like that night, or permanently, when we lost one of the family on the block.
We laughed and listened as The Riccio's told us stories about what the street was like when they first arrived. They were the first couple to buy a house on Monroe Avenue. They watched us all arrive over the years and they are still there..."The Mayor" and the "First Lady"'s comforting to me to drive down that street when I go home and know the Riccio's are still in charge.
They told us stories about all of us kids...the day I met the other kids on the block. The day my sister was born. The hysterical practical joke that Kevin and Johnny were playing that backfired when the cops were called. The trips to the drive-in and the beach and the haunted houses at Halloween.
My whole childhood...or at least the greatest part of it...was gathered there that night on our deck.
Toward the end, my mom got a radio and brought it out on the deck. They tuned to an oldies station and everyone started singing. It was wonderful. Then, in one of those moments that seem simple and yet you realize how deeply they touch you only years later, everything I loved about Monroe avenue was summed up in a five minute stretch.
The most surprising guest of the night was Ray Weingartner (Sr). Mr. Weingartner was older than the other dads on the block. I don't know how much older, but substantially. Maybe 10-15 years. By this point he was probably approaching 80 years old. He was a tall, long legged man whom the other dads christened "The Goose". He had been a widower for a number of years when his beloved Maybelle passed some time before. His only child, Ray Jr. was married with a young family and he didn't come around a lot.
Mr. Weingartner wasn't a recluse, but he kept to himself. He spent his evenings in Mr. Ferraro's garage and Mrs. Riccio checked on him every day. The Riccio's were on one side and the Ferraro's were on the other so he was never really alone. But I think sometimes he was lonely and I know he missed his wife. I know this because of what happened when the music started playing. Mr. and Mrs. Savage decided to dance together. They danced a wonderful waltz. I had forgotten how good they were until I recalled watching them dancing at Tommy Riccio's wedding some years before and thinking how they could have been on the Lawrence Welk show. They were terrific together.
At some point a few other couples danced together and Mr. Weingartner was singing along and getting teary eyed. My mom got up and asked "The Goose" to dance. And he did. It was special...even to a 22 year old young man like me who was only beginning to understand what all this meant and how much this neighborhood had shaped me and how much I loved it.
Mr. Weingartner danced with my mother and I think in his heart his was dancing once more with Maybelle and he was crying openly when it was done.
...And everybody thought it was magnificent.
He passed away a few years ago, and I like knowing that his later years held some happy times with his extended family on that street.
I don't know if places like this exist anymore. I don't know if neighbors still gather without pretense or agenda or unnecessary gossip. I don't know if the residents of entire streets remain in one place for a generation or two and really, truly, deeply love each other. But I know mine did. I know I had a place growing up that was special and wonderful and amazing and it left it's mark on my soul. I don't know one kid I grew up with who hated that street and doesn't have fond memories. There are precious few places like that in the world anymore. In the end...the street didn't change...society did.
What the world needs now...more than politicians and programs and for people to care about each other to the point that they feel like family. I wish my daughter could have grown up on Monroe Avenue.
Heck...I wish the whole world could have...

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Last Innocent Age...We Entertained Ourselves

Part of watching my daughter grow up has been sorting through all her old toys that I have in storage. I am a bit of a pack-rat when it comes to her. I guess it's because having been divorced since she was about 2 years old, my time with her has always been so broken. Once a week and every other weekend and two months in the summer. It always feels like I am running against the clock with her and I guess I held on to anything that reminded me of her childhood, even as I watched it speed by me like the shadow of a sports car.
I was looking at the boxes and boxes of toys she used to adore, and reminiscing about the toys I had as a kid. I was surprised to recall how much of the great fun my friends and I had, was a result of making it ourselves.
We all had bikes. Back then, the bike to own was a "Spider Bike" It had long "Ape-Hanger" handlebars and a "Banana seat" and a "Sissy bar". The taller the sissy bar, the cooler your bike was. Gary Savage, who was much older than the rest of us on the street, had a Schwinn version of this bike. But Gary's was modeled after a dragster. It was a five speed...almost unheard of back then...the shifter looked like a stick shift in a race car. It had a fat "slick" on the back and wheelie bars. It came right from Schwinn this way. It was the coolest bike any of us had ever seen.
We would take Testers model paint and customize our bikes, and we all went up the street to Pete's Citgo station and got an STP sticker that wound up on our chrome fender. The only plastic these bikes had on them were the seat cover and the handlebar grips. They were tough as nails. We built ramps in the street and jumped them. We rode down hills that defied gravity. We rode miles to Nonesuch creek and they laid in the sun all day while we fished. I delivered thousands of newspapers from my bike. We rode "no hands" and inevitably crashed once or twice when the "killer wobbles" got the best of us. And of course...we all put baseball cards in the spokes with clothespins. It made the bike look like a roulette wheel but sound like a Harley. You clamped the cards to the braces on the fender and they clicked the spokes as they went by. You could get 2 cards on each side, front and back. Eight cards per bike. We sounded like the Hell's Angels riding up and down our street all day and into the night.
One particular summer, Tommy Riccio, my neighbor across the street, found an old bike in the trash. He was always amazingly creative, and he cut the front forks off the bike, slid them onto the ends of his front forks and made the first real "chopper" we had ever seen. Tommy's front wheel was a good two feet further out than the rest of us. It was Easy Rider!
The only video games we ever saw were in arcades. Arcades! Remember those? We played pinball. That's it...Pinball.
We read comic books religiously. My favorites, beside the superheroes, were the "Creeper" comics. Tales from the crypt, the dark side, etc. I loved comic books. I loved the ads inside. I always wanted to order a bunch of the "Army Surplus" weather balloons they were selling in the back, tie them to a big garbage can and float away. I never ordered the balloons but I did buy the "1001 plastic army men" in the footlocker. The footlocker was much smaller than it appeared in the ad. It was about the size of a shoebox, and while I never actually counted...there weren't 1001 army men in there. But they were enormous fun no matter what. We staged epic battles in the sandy banks of the creek behind the houses. We made handkerchief parachutes for them and threw them out of our upstairs windows and they became part of the "101st Screamin' Eagles". And of course...we sent most of them to a horrible, deformed, fiery death under the power of the enemy death ray, which looked remarkably like my grandmothers magnifying glass complete with sound effects of us voicing the pain of the dying soldiers claiming "It BURNS!" and calling for their moms.
When the plastic army men twisting and melting grew old...we found an ant colony and cooked many an ant. Picnic goers may never know how deep a debt of gratitude they owed us.
We were creative. One summer evening, Tommy Riccio came outside holding about 10 feet of thread. My mom asked him; "What are you doing Tommy??" he replied..."I'm taking my beetle for a walk." He had found an enormous June Beetle and tied thread to it's leg. The thing was flying around, tethered to this thread. It was the funniest thing I'd ever seen. We caught lightning bugs and put them in glass mayonnaise jars, with holes puncture in the top. That became our nightlight. We used to go behind the houses and "Fight the Bats". There were common house bats back in the fields and being knowledgeable about wildlife, we knew they responded to high pitched sounds. So we'd go back there at dusk and click rocks together, convinced we were driving them to dive at us. Tommy Riccio had a Crossman 760 BB gun and he'd try shooting the bats. We never hit anything and never realized until we were adults that the bats were diving at small insects and the rock-clicking thing was of no importance.
We read a lot. I read the entire Hardy Boys series. I read Sherlock Holmes. One summer I decided I wanted to be a detective and I took two old baseball hats and made my own "Deerstalker" cap. (A Deerstalker is that hat that Holmes wore, with a bill pointing forward and one pointing back) I put the magnifying glass to a use much different than melting down invading plastic forces or making the picnic world a bit safer. I don't think I solved a mystery or avenged Holmes' honor against Moriarity, but I had a lot of fun.
We listened to baseball games on transistor radios. AM stations only back then. WAMS played Top 40, WFIL was Top 40 until it became "Oldies". WCAU was all news. I was walking to school in the fourth grade, and Tommy Riccio had a transistor radio with him. "Born to Run" came on for the first time. When Bruce hit that crescendo at the end, the hairs on my arms stood up and I got chills. From that day forward I was a fan.
We slept in Kevin Messicks backyard in a pup tent. Slept was using the term loosely...we stayed awake all night, telling jokes we'd heard our dad's tell and would never tell with an adult around. We told scary stories and argued about who the best baseball players were.
We decided, one particular summer, to hold our own Olympics. We made weights out of some rebar and cinder blocks. We used a hubcap for a discus, and a softball for a shot-put. We wrestled and ran and swam and fished and played. We had BB gun wars and never shot our eyes out. One summer they were building a freight Depot across the park in a field were we used to cut trails and ride our bikes. We would stand there for hours watching enormous machines transform the earth into a flat square. We stole matches and lit fires from the dry grass in the fields and we never burned anything down. We played stickball, wallball, Buck-Buck, up-and-down-tag, and Relievio. We rang doorbells and ran away to hide and watch the neighbors answer the door, convinced they had no idea who it was.  Of course they did...but they played along and acted angry but probably laughed at us when they closed the door. ...and maybe they were just wistful for a moment when they remembered doing it themselves many years before. We soaped windows on Mischief Night and trick or treated with pillow cases. We did everything together because we really, deeply, loved each other. I think, of all the things I see different in my daughters' world...that is the thing that hurts the most. Neighborhoods aren't like Monroe Avenue was back then. Lifelong friends are so much harder to develop and maintain. It's such a different world. We didn't have half the toys and devices they have now, but we had creative minds and we had love for each other and we had fun. We made our own fun, and it was ours and we loved it.
...sometimes I wish it were still that easy