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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.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Last Innocent Age. Characters and Heritage...

I grew up in the Northeast. Right in the heart of the melting pot. I was born in Philadelphia and grew up about 15 miles south, in Wilmington Delaware. My street was populated by the wonderfully colorful characters that area is known to produce. If you were to ride up and down the block I grew up on, you'd find a last name for virtually every ethnicity that came through Ellis Island. Great Old-World sounding names like Ferraro, and Weintgartner and Riccio. Rubelmann and Savage and Jamison. Pennypacker and Lowman and DelVecchio. They came from various areas. The Ferraro's came to the area from the coal country of Pennsylvania, as did the Jamison's and The Wilkins'. The Pennypacker's were from Canada. Mrs. Riccio's father lived with them. His name was Frank Dobrowolski, but we all called him "Pops" or as his grandson Tommy called him..."The Old Crabber". My own grandparents on both sides were immigrants. I never met my father's parents but my mother's dad was born on the boat on the way here from the Ukraine. All my neighbors held onto their old world traditions with both hands. Mrs. Ric made kishka and Pizzelles for the holidays. Florence Rubelmann (who was Italian, married to a german) made homemade wine out of frozen Welch's Grape Juice. Mrs. Messick, (whose maiden name was Cataldi and who was pure Sicilian) made the best Italian food on the block. They all ascribed to the immigrants code of hard work. Mr. Riccio held two full time jobs. Mr. Ferraro was a wonderful craftsman who took advantage of every opportunity at the chemical plant where he worked, increased his education and became a plant supervisor. Kevin Messick and I worked at that plant briefly when we were both in our early twenties.
Mr. Wilkins was an ex Marine who worked for the power company. Mr. Messick was a union carpenter. They were our baseball coaches and volunteer firefighters. We didn't need a "Community Watch" program because we all knew each others families and if any one of us was doing something stupid and getting in trouble they'd just pick up the phone and call our moms. We didn't need a Community Watch program because we knew everyone, and anyone walking down our street who didn't live there, had 32 sets of eyes boring holes in them making sure they didn't stop where they didn't belong.
We were at each others houses all the time for the Holidays or birthdays or graduations. It was really like a family. They told us stories of the struggles they went through growing up and the struggles their parents went through just getting here.
If your family had a tragedy or an illness or a new baby, there would be a parade of food and well wishes for a week or more. Nobody visited empty handed. It was expected that you'd show up at every summer cookout. You were never formally invited...the invitation was extended when you moved in and lasted until you are gone from this earth.
Eventually my mother and step father decided to move to another neighborhood. They quickly found out how special that old block was. Nobody in the new place spoke to each other. Nobody cooked for a sick family or knew each others kids' names. They just came home, held cookouts for invited guests  behind their stockade fences and lived as strangers.
I don't know if neighborhoods like mine exist anymore, but I wish they did. I'd move to one if I could. It was a wonderful place to grow up. I had friends I made for life. I had about 10 different families I could almost claim as my own. It was an innocent age and I wish my own daughter could grow up in such a place. But I think it is a time long gone...and that is sad.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Sidebar: Celebrating the Life of Dr. Falwell, four years later

Four years ago today, I was sitting in my office and the news came on the wire that Dr. Jerry Falwell had passed. I sat there looking at the headline in stunned silence. They were words I couldn't even fathom...Dr. Falwell...gone. Four years later and his passing leaves a growing hole in the lives of the generation that loved him and answered his call to Liberty Mountain to become "Young Champions for Christ". He was a hero to us. We went to that school because of him. He was a man with a different vision than his contemporaries and that difference was what drew us to the mountain. When I graduated high school I had several options for college. I knew I wanted to attend a Christian College. My options were Bob Jones, Hyles Anderson, Pensacola, Tennessee Temple, and Liberty. Those were my options, but Liberty was my one and only choice. The other schools were marginalized by their bizarre legalism (except TTU which was fairly moderate for the day) and at least in the case of BJ and H/A they were run by some severely twisted individuals with such a self aggrandizing nature that they actually named a school after themselves.
But Liberty was different. Liberty was where you went if you had a huge dream and vision of doing something great for God and nobody there was going to chide you for it. Nobody was going to tell you to shut up and wait your turn and mop the floors and be happy. Nobody was going to deny you a chance to be the thing that burned in your soul every hour. The school had that attitude because Doc had that attitude. Doc had 18 year old freshman preaching on national TV. Doc would tell us that one day we'd be bigger than Notre Dame and we'd beat them on the football field right there in South Bend. Doc invited Ted Kennedy to speak on campus because being the man's friend opened a door of ministry to a guy that all the other Evangelicals reviled. Doc had the Arch bishop of the Richmond Diocese come to campus to speak because, while they might have disagreed about the Pope and about Mary, they agreed on the unborn and Doc knew which hill was worth dying on.
More than anything, Doc loved us. He loved us. He was funny and cantankerous and joyous and when he was on campus you could just sense it. He would sneak up behind you in his Suburban, cut off the engine drift silently up to you and blast the train horn he'd had installed. Then he'd laugh himself silly behind the wheel while you picked up your books or your girlfriend jumped into your arms.
Doc once stopped me in the hallway to ask me about a fight I'd gotten into the night before in a game against NC State. "What's it like to fight on the ice?" he boomed. (Doc's natural speaking voice was as thunderous as the one he preached with.) "Oh...pretty much like fighting anywhere Doc, except you have to watch your balance a bit" I replied. He laughed at that and then he pointed to (yet another) a scathing article in the Liberty Champion about what a bad testimony it was to fight in a hockey game if we were a Christian college. "Don't let 'em get to you" he laughed and walked away. It never did.
My favorite memory of Doc...and his son Jonathan...was during my freshman year. I had run out of money by Christmas break and I was not planning on returning for spring semester. Jonathan and I had a few classes together and we had become friendly. (I was a participant in the infamous "Andy Barrick Affair" where a simple game of touch football at Jonathan's house got too physical and the star recruits pitching shoulder was broken)  Jonathan asked me what classes I was taking next semester and I told him I wasn't coming back. He seemed incredulous. The following Friday, Doc preached in chapel and the entire sermon was about how "Nobody should ever leave Liberty because of finances. If they don't let you check in, you come see me!". After the service, Jonathan comes up to me and says "You heard what dad said, right?" I replied a muttered "yeah I heard" Jonathan grabbed my arm and said "No! You heard him right? You'll be back next excuses." I suddenly realized Dr. Falwell had preached that sermon for me. Jonathan had told his dad and Doc was letting me...and a lot of others in my situation...know that it was never going to be acceptable to not attend Liberty simply because of money.
That was Doc.
In October of 2009, I took my daughter to homecoming. She was 11 at the time. We had been at an art showing at the new exhibit hall in the Fine Arts building and we were walking across campus to the dining hall to eat. I stopped at the intersection across from the Reber-Thomas hall. I was taking in the vastness of the place. The things that weren't there when I arrived as a freshman in 1984. I told my daughter what it was like back then. the big hill alongside dorm 22 where we'd take trays from the dining room and slide down the hill when it snowed. How the DeMoss building wasn't even there when I got there. How the bald spot got it's name. (the annual spring fires) How there were about 2500 students there back then. We played hockey in Roanoke, and football at Lynchburg Memorial stadium.
I looked at the ice rink on campus, the Snowflex,  all of this... I told Morgan; "All is because of one man's dreams. One man who heard from God and went after those visions when everyone told him he was crazy to do so. Without Doc and his vision, none of this would be here. But with him...all this has come to be. When God gives you a go after it with all your might because this is what can come from that"
I was teary eyed when I spoke those words to her. I am teary eyed recalling the moment now.
I miss Dr. Falwell terribly. But his presence is all around. Carry on Doc. I know you are in that great cloud of witnesses, cheering on those "Jerry's Kids" who loved you so much.

The Last Innocent Age. Saturdays...continued

Saturday mornings were like a holiday when I was a kid. There was something wonderful about Saturday morning. It felt different. Breakfast tasted different. It even smelled different. It was our day. No school, no homework, at least until we got older, no worries. It was the day we got to do what we'd talked about doing all week. Saturday was the day for adventure. Saturday was the day for doing that thing that your friend double-dog-dared you to do at lunch on Tuesday.  Saturday was for baseball in the warm months and football in the cool months and hockey on those rare occasions when we had ice on the creek. It was for bike rides and cutting Mr. Smith's grass and earning the enormous sum of $5. It was trips to Wassam's 5 and 10 to buy waterguns and then hours-long watergun wars in and around our back yards. It was bike trips to Battery Park to try our luck fishing in the Delaware River. It was the day you waited for all week and you filled it with adventure and fun until the seams burst.
Friday nights were a close second to Saturdays for sheer childhood fun. On Fridays in the summer, Mrs. Messick would cram about 12 of us into her enormous Chevy Impala station wagon, (This is a REAL Impala...not the thing they passed off as an Impala a few years ago.) and we'd go to the drive-in movies. A mid 60's Impala wagon is about 37 feet long. You get in and walk to your seat. It has optional lifeboats. To say we "crammed" 12 kids into it isn't exactly true. We each had enough space for a small vegetable garden in case times got tough. The drive-in charged a dollar per person. My mom would give me $2 and I'd be set. You got in for a buck and for the other dollar you actually got a hot dog, popcorn, ice cream, and a drink. We watched classic Disney movies on the giant screen. Movies like "The Biscuit Eater" (which made me want a bird dog) The "Herbie the Lovebug" trilogy and classic scary movies like the original "Willard" and the endless parade of movies with the "Night of the..." tag. It was a trend in the 70's to make a horror movie and title it "Night of the...". I guess it began with "Night of the Living Dead". By the time I was a kid going to the drive-in, we actually endured something called "Night of the Lepus" about genetically altered gigantic rabbits. Rabbits! They had been the victims of some experiment gone amok and they were now the size of Volkswagons. Somewhere along the way, they decided that celery and clover weren't appetizing anymore and they developed a taste for flesh. They ate their way through town, chomping at the front doors and devouring the unwitting inhabitants. This was in a time before CG animation and they used real bunnies and small model houses for the panoramic shots. It was pathetic, but we were there in the drive-in with our friends and to be honest...the movie was second to the fun we were having just being there. We'd pile out of the enormous land-yacht and parade to the snack shop. Mrs. Messick hung the speaker in the window and told us to buy a couple of those curly mosquito repellant things. They looked like the coiled up burner on an electric range and you would light one end and it smoked and kept the mosquitoes away. We would spray "Off" on ourselves and plop down in a lawn chair to goof around and watch the movie. Somewhere during the second movie, (they always did double features) we'd all sneak off in the darkness to wreak havoc and annoy the other movie-goers. Then we'd hurry back to the car before Mrs. Messick knew we were gone.
In the winter, when the drive in was closed, I would sometimes find myself at the Messick's again. The youngest son, Kevin was my age and we were best friends. Kevin's mom was one of the funniest people I ever met. Kevin and I would make a run to The Doghouse on our bikes and get pizza for the gang and we'd watch a movie. Fridays were like that. Movies and decompressing from the week.
Saturday was the day you waited for. Saturday was like Christmas morning, 52 times a year. I have always been an early riser and I was generally up first in my house. Something about being awake before even the adults were...getting breakfast for myself. (Sugar Pops were my cereal of choice) Listening to the house come to life. Thinking about the day's adventure. It wouldn't be long before the day began. And it always began with a tradition...Tommy Riccio would come to my front door and he always did the same thing...he had his own "secret" knock. Five taps and one "ding-dong" it went like this..."Knock-knock-knockknock-knock...Ding Dong" (think of the tune for "Shave and a Haircut...two bits). That was Tommy. I think if I still lived on that street, he'd still come over and knock on my door that way.
...there's a big part of me that longs for exactly that.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Last Innocent Age...Saturdays...

Saturdays when I was a kid, were special days. Even though there was no school, there was still a routine. I was up and out of bed by 6AM. Bugs Bunny / Road Runner came on at 7. Once Bugs was over, you went outside...period. The only reason you'd be indoors when the next cartoons came on was if you were sick, or it was raining to hard to go outside. If you watched TV on Saturday long enough to see that funky train animation and hear Don Cornelius' deep voice announcing "Soul Train", it was pretty much a wasted day, because Soul Train came on at 11AM.
By 8 AM we'd be out the door and usually we'd congregate on our front wall to plot out the days adventure. If it was summer, we'd pick sides and then go behind the houses to Manor Park and play pickup baseball for the day. We'd have wooden bats that Frankie Messick got from William Penn high school's baseball team. They were cracked and we'd drive brads into the handles to hold them together. They were far too big for us but we never admitted to that. We were Schmidt and Mantle and Musial and Killebrew and Ruth and Aaron and Mays. Those guys used big bats and so we might as well get started. We'd play games that lasted 30 innings and we'd be dusty and dirty and sweaty when the day ended. But we'd be happy that we got to play our favorite game all day with our best friends. We'd come home and run through the sprinklers before dinner to wash off the days dust.
Saturdays in the summer often meant fishing. For me and Johnny Wilkins and Tommy Riccio and Richard Ferraro it usually meant pedaling our bikes through Chelsea Estates, the neighborhood next to ours, down the firebreak and out to our favorite secret fishing hole...Nonesuch Creek. Now, while that sounds like a name the local kids gave the place, it actually appears on local maps that way. Nonesuch is a small tributary that feeds the Christiana River. The Christiana, in turn, empties into the Delaware which runs out to the bay. Nonesuch was our little slice of fishing heaven when we were very young. Before we became avid bass anglers and outgrew the euphoria of just catching anything. The water was dark and smelled like diesel fuel most of the time. But you were guaranteed to catch something every time you went.
The trip was always planned out in advance. It was never a case of all of us deciding on Saturday morning that there wasn't anything else to do so we might as well go fishing. We would plan all week and decide on a departure time. The night before, we'd wait until it was very dark and then Johnny and I would go out in the fields behind the houses with flashlights and catch nightcrawlers. There is an art to this. You shine the light on the ground but the nightcrawlers are found in the perimeter where the light barely falls. Light makes them suck back into the ground so you have to find them in the fringe of the beam from your flashlight. We all had the same flashlights then. I was a paperboy and Radio Shack had been running a promotional ad where they gave you a free 5 cell flashlight. The idea was to sell batteries I guess. I took coupons out of my newspapers and gave them to my buddies. We were all carrying these grey plastic flashlights for a couple of years. So Johnny and I would fill our coffee cans full of huge slimy nightcrawlers, top them off with dirt and the next morning we'd set out for Nonesuch Creek. I had a knapsack from Cub Scouts and I'd pack a lunch and my tackle box. Then we'd jump on our spider bikes and head rods in hand.
Nonesuch Creek was a thick and dense jungle of weeds and scrub trees. It took some work to get there, but it was our spot and we were like adventurers. We were Jerry McKinnis and this was our "Fishin' Hole". We'd tie our hooks on the line, about 12 inches up from the sinker, and cast out into the dirty water. It never took long before one of us had a carp or a catfish on the line. We never caught anything you'd eat from this place. There were no tasty species in these waters, and even if there were, the pollution would have ruined them anyway. We would crack jokes and look for the perfect spot to fish from and dread how fast the day was flying by. We were maybe 9 years old and we were miles from home in a secluded wooded area by ourselves. And it never occurred to our parents...or to us...that there would be a hint of danger. There wasn't. It was a different world then. We never had so much as a whisper of a problem in all those glorious trips to Nonesuch Creek. We put worms on hooks, took nasty catfish off them, then wiped our hands on our jeans and ate our lunch and never thought once about bacteria. We picked ticks off each other and peed in the bushes like real men. We carried pocket knives we got from the Cub Scouts and we entertained ourselves by burning ants with a magnifying glass while we waited for the fish to bite. The sun was hot and the field smelled like grass and honeysuckle and water. We'd catch horrible cases of poison ivy and we'd look like whitefaced Vaudeville players with calamine lotion from head to toe. We wore our old Converse Chuck Taylors on these trips so the new ones didn't get ruined. If we got a flat tire, we all knew how to fix the tube ourselves and get back on the road. On one memorable trip, we had been talking about eating our catch for the week before. We decided this week was the week. My mother had just gotten a new set of "Revere ware" which was the copper-bottomed rage in the day. So I snuck up into the loft area over our garage and took one of her old enamel frying pans that was destined for a garage sale. I stuck it in my knapsack and we went fishing. Tommy Riccio and Me and another kid from the street named Jack Bodzo, Tommy caught an enormous carp and we decided to try cooking it. We built a small fire and broke out the pan I'd brought. Tommy gutted the nasty fish and we cooked it. When it was done, we tried a bite. It was about as horrible as you could imagine. It tasted like dirt, and oil and sewage. Tommy and I spit it out. Jack, for some strange reason, sort of liked it and ate a bit of it. We had no oil for the pan and the inside was scorched and the outside was covered in soot, so the pan stayed behind.
We never tried eating anything from Nonesuch again, but we can always say we had the experience.
As exciting as that sounds...that was a typical Saturday for me and my friends. Every day was filled with adventure and imagination and fun. We stayed busy. We played the games that kids now only play on computer. The days flew by.
As have the years...

Friday, May 6, 2011

Happy Birthday Morgan

An interlude in the "Innocent Age" series while I mark the passing of time once again...
Tomorrow my daughter, Morgan Wray Daliessio, will be 13. I can't believe the time has come and gone so quickly.
 She came into this world two weeks early, on a Thursday night at St.Thomas hospital. She was tiny, and dark haired and perfect. For 8 1/2 months I anticipated becoming a dad. From that scary moment in Pat's restaurant back home in Delaware when Holly took the pregnancy test in the bathroom, until May 7, 1998 I couldn't wait until she got here. I talked to her every night through a paper towel tube, pressed against her mom's belly. One particular night, I leaned over and said "Hi's your daddy...I love you!" and in an instant, she kicked. She recognized my voice and knew I loved her before she took her first breath. She has never doubted that one very important truth...that her daddy loves her.  When a child knows that to be true...when a child can trust that to be true...she will go far. When the world is against her and there are nothing but storm clouds and she has tripped and fallen on rocks she cannot even see...she will know, "My daddy loves me...he will be here for me, he believes in me...I can make it"
I can't think of a moment in the last 13 years that she hasn't brought me joy, given me hope, restored my faith, stoked the fire of faith, made me smile, and weep, with pride simultaneously, and fall to my knees more than a few times in thanks for the privilege of being her dad. She has shown me how a loving heart can make a difference. She has shown me that there is a love in this world that never fails, never abandons, and loves without limits.
She is talented beyond what I would ever have dreamed. She is caring and loving and tenderhearted in ways I have never witnessed. She wants to be a missionary or a school teacher. She wants to sing.
In the last 4 years I have lost so much. And in every loss, she lost as well because everything I have and am was founded in her and in my love for her and all those losses were her losses too. She has withstood them like a saint. She has never complained and seldom shown the sadness her heart surely contained...except when discussing her beloved pets. That becomes too much for her sometimes and the tears slip from her eyes.
My daughter is becoming a real godly woman. She has more love for Jesus than I have ever seen in a kid her age. It's sincere and real and genuine. She loves her family fiercely. She loves being a Daliessio. We talk of traveling to Montecassino one day to see my grandfather's hometown. She loves her Aunts and Uncles and cousins. She loves Seven Fishes at Christmas Eve with Toni and Nick and Uncle Franny.
She loves to sing. She sings all the time and everywhere she goes. Her voice gives me pause and makes me smile. She knows it is a gift and maintains such humility about it...I am proud of her.
She is 13 now. In five years she will leave and go to college and the return trips will be fewer and fewer. My little arrow has gotten another year closer to that sad and glorious day when God shows me, in no uncertain terms, where her intended target is. I will bend my bow with trembling hands...aim my sight through hot tears, and with a kiss and a smile I will let her become who and what she was put here to be. And her story will just be beginning.
...but tonight, she is my little girl, if only for a short time more. For all I have lost in the last four years, I have retained the only thing that really matters, and the one thing that gives me strength to try to get back all that has slipped away. I would breathe my final breath into her lungs to see her live. I would set my own dreams alight to see hers come true. For all else I may be...I am her dad and that is a blessing that I could not properly thank God for if I had eternity to say it and a thousand songs to sing it.
Happy Birthday Morgan Wray...You are the kiss of God on my tired lips and when you smile...I feel His smile as well. Your daddy loves you more than all his many words can ever tell.
Never forget that...

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Last Innocent Age...When Neighborhoods had Characters

The first neighborhood I really became a part of was Wilmington Manor. We moved to the house on Monroe Avenue when I was 7. We moved in February of 1971 and the morning we moved, my "uncle" John died in a car accident. He wasn't a relative but our families were too close to ever call him "Mr. Rulon". He was Uncle John and his wife was Aunt Brenda. His son Chucky was one of my best friends at our old house. I know I didn't fully grasp what it meant that he had died. Uncle John was a character. His father even more so. His dad owned a bar in West Chester and carried a cane with a sword inside it. He also had one with a shotgun built in.
There is always a rite of passage when you are the new kid on the block. Monroe Avenue was no different. The street was a dead end, and so the lack of traffic flow allowed the kids to play outside in the street a lot more than other kids would. The neighbors were all friendly to each other, for the most part. Everyone knew each other and they were all "family". Most of the families were original owners when the neighborhood was built in 1960. If you were the new kid, it meant that one of the old kids must have left. This was tough for the others and it made it hard to gain acceptance at first. In my case, the Efta family had moved away. They had three kids and the two boys were popular with the others on the block. So I was the new kid who lived in the Efta's house. Our house had a 4 foot tall block wall across the front yard and up the sides. The yards were all sloped and apparently Mr. Efta had desired a flat yard instead of a slope. So he built a giant retainer wall around the three sides of the perimeter of the yard, back-filled it and planted grass and two trees. The wall was a gathering point for all of us kids on Monroe Avenue. The day we moved in. our neighbor directly across the street. Mrs. Riccio, came over and introduced herself. Knowing how things were done on the block, I'm sure she brought us something to eat. That's what you did back then. You took food to your new neighbor, or your sick neighbor or your neighbor who just suffered a loss. Because you weren't strangers living on the same street, you were friends. You cared about each other...a great deal. I loved Mrs. Riccio. I still make it a point to go see her and her husband when I get home each year. She and her husband were the first family to buy a house on Monroe Avenue. They knew the builder personally. They knew everybody on the street and everybody knew them. Mr. Riccio is affectionately known as "The Mayor" because he has tenure over all the other neighbors. Their son Tommy was one of my best friends growing up. Their daughters Donna and Monica are too, and we all made the block a special place. But first they had to accept me...
"Mrs. Ric" (as I lovingly still call her) still loves telling this story: about a week after we moved on the street, her son Tommy came in the house and said "Mom, I think the boy who moved across the street is named "Newt". Mrs. Ric said "Well I met them last week and I'm pretty sure his name is Craig". Tommy replied "but I heard his dad calling him Newt". It's funny now and it took us a while to figure it out. My uncle Jack had sometimes called me "Craig-a-nooch"  and my stepfather had done so on occasion as well. Tommy had heard him call me that and thought he was calling me Newt. We still laugh at that today.
Sometime in the week or so after we moved in and got unpacked, it was time for my official appearance before the lodge. I would be accepted or voted off the island and this meeting would be the biggest factor. For a week or so, the other kids didn't congregate on the wall like they usually did. I guess they were waiting to see if my parents would be cool with it. Eventually though, they showed up. I think it was also a way of checking me out. They probably knew I'd come out to meet them after a while. The kids on Monroe Avenue were divided into three pretty distinct age groups. The "big kids" were the oldest. They were Franky Messick, Donna Riccio, and Mike Wilkins and Bobby Pennypacker. Mike and Bobby didn't really do much with the rest of us on the street. Ray Winegartner was older still and really never associated with us much. He was an only child who had really cool cars. Robby Miller lived across the street from me, next to the Riccio's. He was a stud athlete and we hardly saw him. The Miller's moved away about a year after I moved there.
Those were the "big Kids" The next group were my age. I was seven when I moved there. My group included Tommy Riccio, who was a couple of years older than me, Jack Bodzo, Ann Pennypacker and Frances Pennypacker and Billy Messick and  Patrick Ferraro who were also older. Then there were the guys my age. Johnny Wilkins, Richard Ferraro, and Kevin Messick.
 This particular day, all the kids on the block were playing touch football in the street. I came out and stood on the wall and they all said hello. We talked for a minute and somehow the topic of our fathers was introduced. I told Franky Messick that my stepfather was "7 feet tall". Now he wasn't of course, but when you are 7years old, a man 6 feet tall seems like a giant and 7 feet tall was about as tall as I could imagine. Franky laughed out loud and told me I was crazy. "Nobody is 7 feet tall...that's how tall Lew Alcindor is!" I had no idea who Lew Alcindor was at 7 years old. But I felt a little embarrassed and I think after that, they tossed me the football and we started playing. Over time, these kids would become my extended family and their parents would contribute to all of us coming of age on the street. Each of their dads were unique men who had very distinct personalities. The same for each of their moms. We went to each other graduations and birthday parties and weddings. We knew all the secret places in each others houses and cut through each others back yards. We slept out in tents and went sledding in the field behind our street. We hopped cars and had snowball fights and rode our bikes to secret fishing holes. We told funny jokes and ate Italian Ice and made up games that we played outdoors until very late on thick, humid summer nights.
...and the whole adventure began with that first big introduction on the wall.