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Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Reflections on my High School Reunion





  
Me Pete Pat


 Bishop Fallon High School

Class of 1966
50th Reunion
My Observations

When I was talking to one of my classmates at our reunion, I told him that for such a small school and graduating class,  ours was unique in the accomplishments of its’ members.  He told me that any group of 40 or so guys our age would have similar results.  I don’t think so, and here are a few reasons why:

One of my classmates joined the Air force and refueled bombers and fighters in the Vietnam War.  While we were in high school, he worked in a movie theater to pay for flying lessons.  Most of us were in the same boat economically-on the lower end of an emerging middle class.  He was an Air Force officer in the skies above Vietnam refueling B-52 bombers when his plane wouldn’t respond and went completely out of control.

My classmate and his copilot braced their feet against the instrument panel and, fueled with the strength of youth and flush with adrenalin, pulled back on the controls as hard as they could with no result.  He finally told the crew they were going to have to bail out into the ocean when he noticed his navigator looking at him with panic in his eyes.  The navigator told my classmate he couldn’t swim and was going to take his chances and go down with the plane. My classmate cancelled the bailout and he and his copilot managed to crash-land their plane in Okinawa without any injuries to the crew.  My classmate never said it, but in listening to him tell the story, I realized he made the decision that it was all for one and one for all and if the navigator was going to go with the rest of the crew, the rest of the crew was staying with the navigator. 

As a young officer, he assumed the mantle of command and performed admirably, even telling some high ranking officer in Okinawa where to go when he suggested the plane was airworthy.  My classmate became a commercial airline pilot when the war was over and recently retired. 
Another classmate of mine was an infantryman in Vietnam.  He volunteered for two tours and was a battle scarred veteran of 24 months of intense jungle fighting.  He showed me the pacemaker he has implanted in his chest-his health wrecked by the war.  He still has a great optimistic outlook even though the scars of Vietnam continue to haunt him.
                                                                     
One of my classmates had a heart attack in his early thirties.  He was in bad shape and a priest came to see him in intensive care to give him the last rites.  My classmate told the priest to get out before he could say a word.  He told the priest he had a young daughter who counted on him and he was not going to die.  His concern and love for his daughter was the fire that kept him alive. 

Another classmate of mine, and one of my closest friends, told me as a young child, he would run up the street to greet his Dad when he walked home from work.  One day, he noticed his Dad didn’t have the usual spring in his step and he knew something was wrong.  His Dad told him he had lost his job, but not to tell his mother and that everything would be okay.  The next day, his Dad found another job.  My classmate worked with another classmate of ours and they ran a multimillion-dollar company.  My friend had a heart attack a few years ago and actually died but was brought back to life by some outstanding medical personnel.  My classmate and I talked about our youth and our parents.  He reminded me how our parents would tell us we held the world in our hands and pushed us to succeed.  Our parents lived through a depression and the Second World War.  They worked long hours without complaint and sacrificed for their families.  Because of them, their example and guidance, the world was our oyster and any success we garnered in life was due to them. 

One of my classmates had a law enforcement career in the U.S. Navy and was so proud of his high school and classmates that he brought his son to the reunion.   His son is the youngest Chief of Police in the United States, following his father’s footsteps. 

Another classmate went to college in Oklahoma and played college football.  He was one of biggest and athletic members of our class and I admired him for the fact that he pursued his dream. 

While talking to one of my classmates, I noticed our class president saying goodbye to one of our members and kissing him on his cheek.  I always admired the way Italians could unashamedly show their affection to family and friends and still be tough guys.  Our class president started his own financial company and still retains the leadership qualities that we all recognized when we voted him our class president. 

Another Italian classmate, and one of my three closest friends, is an athletic director, and was the fullback on our sandlot football team when were were high school classmates.  He broke his collarbone in one of our games and didn’t complain or even exhibit the pain he was in.  He and I went to the same college and he would often give me rides to school and even lend me his car.  He is a generous and loyal person. 

I asked another Italian classmate-we had lots of Italians and Irish in our class-what he did when we graduated.  He told me he went to college, the same one I attended.  I told him I didn’t know and he told me he went to night school and worked full time in the day.  He married his high school sweetheart and worked in the mailroom of a radio station.  He recently sold his business and is a multimillionaire.  He is an unassuming guy, no vanity, just a classmate of mine.

One of my classmates told me he didn’t like college and dropped out to become a long haul truck driver.  He still drives occasionally and is one of the most contented and happy members of our class. 

When I arrived at our reunion, I looked into the room full of the Class of 1966, and they all looked like me-68 year old men.  I said hello to the room and they looked at me the same way I looked at them.  We did not recognize each other.  Once we started talking, the years fell off us and we were 17 years old again.  I was amazed at the turnout; guys came back to Buffalo from all over the country.  Everyone seemed to realize what a unique and wonderful time we had at Bishop Fallon, and what an outstanding group of young men we had in our class.  We liked each other and we took care of each other.  We were all from the same basic background and jealously and envy were unknown to us. 

I think all of us realized that this was probably the last reunion we would be attending and the last time we would see the classmates that played such a great part in molding us into the men we became.  We all found ourselves looking back with fondness, tinged with sadness, at the time in our life when we were, young, strong and invincible. 












Saturday, June 4, 2016

Adventures of My Youth

A Road Trip With Pop

Driving anywhere with Pop was quite an adventure.  The first trip I took with him was to the hospital because I had just gotten myself trampled by Charlie, the horse from down at the dairy.  I used to ride Danny, the Shetland pony all the time, and I had just finished riding him, took off the saddle, walked him around until he cooled off, and then left, leaving the corral gate open.  Naturally, Danny and Charlie bolted out of the open gate and took off.  I grabbed a rope and went out to catch the two idiots and return them to the farm.  I got a hold of Danny quite easily, but Charlie was having none of it and decided the best was to insure his continued freedom was to run at me full speed and trample me.  He broke two of my ribs and my Mom ran over to Pop and had him drive me to the hospital.
                                                                     

It was a great trip, Pop driving, me in the middle, and my Mom riding shotgun.  We were regaled with Pop’s constant comments to other drivers, pointing out their inadequacies in negotiating the highway.  I was stunned at the lack of swear words in Pop's comments, until I realized he had cleaned up his language because my mom was in the truck.  When we got to the hospital, I had to stay overnight, and they put this girdle around my chest.  When I went home, I had to restrict my movements and stay in bed a lot.  I did quite a bit of reading during that time, although I was sorely disappointed when my Mom gave me the Hunchback of Notre Dame to read and when it turned out not to be about a football player for Notre Dame, I was quite upset.  Much later in my life, I did an imitation of Quasimodo when I was staying at my brother’s house.  His wife had just answered the door and while talking to a neighbor through the screen door, I stuffed a t-shirt into a ball under my shirt to make an artificial hump, and was hopping around behind my sister in law, muttering and groaning. My sister in law ignored me and the lady she was talking to looked at me in horror.  I don’t think she had a close friendship with my brother’s wife after that visit.
                                                                               
On the other hand, fishing trips with Pop were the greatest.  We would get up early, put the aluminum boat on the back of the truck, load up the poles and can of worms, and off we would go.  We barely made it down our road to the main highway before Pop let loose with a stream of swear words that my friends and I would later test out on the school playground with great delight.  “Look at that imbecile, his mother’s probably infected with syphilis, mated with a moron, and that is their spawn.  God help us.  He’ll probably be elected to some high office in Washington and impregnate his entire staff, insuring a line of idiots for generations to come.”  I looked out the window at the object of Pop’s derision, a meek looking gentleman wearing glasses and a suit and tie, on his way to work.  I wondered at Pop’s ability to quickly read past the guy’s outward appearance and know he was not what he appeared to be- a normal guy on his way to work.  However, after looking at the guy, I doubted that his wife was anyone you would want to spend the rest of your life with, unless, as Pop used to say, she was rich bitch.


Pop always wore bib overall and I never wore shoes.  We would be driving down the highway, the smoke from my corncob pipe pouring out one side of the truck, and a steady stream of tobacco juice flooding out of Pop’s side. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Continuing Tales of My Youth (Poetic License Exercised)

POP




I met Pop when I was just a kid.  We had just moved from a small town in Pennsylvania to our new house in Delaware.  It was way out in the country, on a two-lane blacktop road that rode up a small hill off the main highway.  There were cornfields on both sides of the road, and very few homes.  Down the road from our house was a huge dairy farm, complete with a barn, silo, cows, horses, chickens, pigs and dogs.  To a young boy, it was nothing short of paradise.  Our house was one of the original SEARS homes, white stucco, a back kitchen, and a chimney with no fireplace.  It had a bathroom upstairs in the middle of 4 bedrooms, plus a little ½ bath off the kitchen.  You had to duck your head to get into the kitchen bathroom. It  was smaller than a closet and I soon discovered it was easier to relieve myself in the cornfields than contort my body into the tiny space.
                                                                            

Pop lived next door to us in a ranch style brick home with his son’s family.  He lived in a room in the attic and spent most of his time tending to chickens he kept in a coop at the back of his yard.  I ended up helping Pop with his chickens.  Every morning in the summer, I would get up, head over to Pops and fill two buckets with water from an outside pump.  I would then carry them down to the end of the yard and into the chicken coop.   I would fill up the water containers and then head up to Pop’s room in the attic.  He had a toilet paper roll fixed to the drawer on a bureau and he would sit in his chair and pull off a stretch of the toilet paper and blow his nose with it.  On his bureau was a small glass bottle filled with squares of chewing tobacco. Leaning against his chair was a 22 rifle he would later give to my older brother as a going away present.

He drove an old green Ford pickup truck that he had outfitted with a wooden frame to carry his aluminum fishing boat.  He used to take me fishing with him and he would chew his tobacco and I would smoke my corncob pipe and we would have some amazing conversations.  Mostly, I listened to him tell me what was wrong with the leaders of our country and most of our citizens.  I learned more swear words from Pop that I ever heard from my school friends and was constantly alert for a new word I could spring on my buddies.

Pop probably had at least 50 chickens and a mix of roosters at any time.  He even convinced my Dad to let him use the upper floor of our barn, which we only used as a garage, to raise a mess of baby chicks.  He would collect the eggs every day and take them down the road to sell them.  Every now and then, he would grab a chicken by the legs and kill it by smashing its head against the side of the coop.  I would stand by with a bucket of water and pluck off the feathers before Pop prepared his evening meal. 

Chickens are mean and uncaring.  They would gang up on the weak one and peck them unmercifully. Pop gave me an especially detailed soliloquy as I witnessed the chickens attacking one of their crippled mates.

Boy, that was what he called me, boy he said, chickens are just like the worst humans.


Monday, February 29, 2016

My Friend Willie





WILLIE
Another Piece of America Gone

My friend and barber Willie Cohen just died.  He was either 69 or 70, depending on which obituary you read.  I met him 6 years ago when I moved to Hilton Head, South Carolina.  I was driving out the back gate of my neighborhood and I came to a little combination barbershop and beauty salon sitting by itself near the traffic circle.  I slammed my brakes on and turned in, ignoring the guy behind me laying on his horn and calling me bad names.  I knew he saw my out of state plates and would chalk it up to just another confused visitor to Hilton Head.  Just to make sure he thought I was a tourist, I gave him a friendly wave and tried to look like I was lost.   

I walked into the shop and laid eyes on Willie for the first time.  He was an older black gentleman with balding black hair going gray, probably around 6 feet tall, shaving his lathered face with a straight razor.  There wasn’t a customer in the place and it appeared to be in a state of disrepair.  There were the ruminants of a beauty shop in the back of the shop, along with a set of steel drums.  One old time barber chair sat unoccupied in the front of the shop, along with a few chairs and an end table filled with an assortment of magazines that were at least 30 years old.  A few seemed to be rarely read, but the one Playboy was worn and tattered.

I introduced myself and asked if I could get a haircut.  Willie smiled and told me to have a seat in the chair and continued to shave himself, stropping the straight razor on an old piece of leather.  I watched in amazement, as he never looked in the mirror while he was shaving and still managed to carry on a conversation with me without cutting himself. 

Across from the chair there was a price list on the wall for different styles of haircuts.  A regular was the cheapest and the one I chose as I was almost bald and the most exclusive Hollywood stylist wouldn’t have been able to do anything with my hair but to cut it short and make his escape. 

Willie finished shaving and put on an old black barber’s jacket, grabbed an older electric clipper and went to work.  That day began a 6-year friendship where we saw each other every couple of months and ended with Willie’s death this February.

Early in our friendship, I discovered it was a stroke of luck that Willie happened to be in his shop the day I stopped in.  I soon realized his shop was never open and he only went there sporadically and, to the best of my knowledge, not to cut hair.  I would call Willie when I needed a haircut and we would arrange a time to meet. The first couple of calls, I had to identify myself to Willie as the old white guy until he finally recognized my voice.   He often showed up pulling a boat behind an assortment of old trucks.  We usually met around 7 or 8 in the morning, before I had to be at work.

Willie would open the shop, and depending on the season, leave the outer door open, shut the screen door to catch any breeze that filtered by and turn on the overhead fan or quickly shut the outer door and turn on a space heater that warmed the shop up by the time he was finished cutting my hair. He was always dressed in work clothes and old leather boots and usually would shave himself with his trusty straight razor before attacking me with his clippers. Then, he started cutting and we got down to talking.  And what great conversations we had, laughing like a couple of school kids as we reminisced about our pasts and the adventures we had in our younger days.  We talked about our children and our hopes for them, about ourselves and how our lives turned out, politics, religion, tourists, and the many jackasses we had suffered in our lives.  Willie and I had reached a time in our lives when we were looking back with fondness and no longer forward with anticipation.

Willie was a kind man.  He was generous to his family and friends.  One time, after I had been going to him for about a year, when he finished cutting my hair, he told me Pat, you don’t have to pay me-but I always did. He was always taking calls from guys he hired to help him with whatever work he was doing and I could tell from listening to the one-sided conversation that he was always lending them money or giving them an advance on their pay. 

Although Willie was kind and generous, he was also a shrewd businessman.  While I was waiting for him to show up the morning of the last haircut Willie gave me-it was about 7 a.m.-it turned out it was the day for an annual charity race here in Hilton Head.  The race began not far from Willie’s shop and runners were looking for parking spots.   I had parked my truck in front of the barbershop, listening to country music, and enjoying a nice dip of Skoal when I noticed cars starting to park in Willie’s lot.

 I got out of my truck and advised the drivers that this was private property and they didn’t have permission to park here.  One individual took affront with me for telling him not to park in the lot asked who I was.  I told him I was Willie’s brother he looked at me with disbelief and grudgingly left.  Willie arrived soon after I had sent a few cars on their way. When I told him what had happened, he stunned me by telling me, Pat, we have to pay it forward.   I settled into the chair when another car pulled into his lot. I suggested to Willie a small parking fee would enable him to pay it forward and pay Willie first.  We spent the next half hour collecting parking fees from the runners.    Willie would excuse himself when he went out to collect the $5 fee, and I spent the rest of my time getting my haircut and acting as his lookout for non-paying parkers.  Willie probably cleared $100 in parking fees that day. We had a good laugh over that day.

I have no idea what Willie did for a living but he was always working on something.  He loved our country and was very conservative politically.  He always had an eye for the ladies and even at his advanced age, was still in the game, regaling me with stories children shouldn’t hear.  One story he told me had about sneaking out of a residence in the early morning hours had us laughing so hard my haircut had to be paused for about 10 minutes. 

Our conversations bounced from one subject to another, sometimes commiserating with each other about situations that caused pain in our hearts, other times, having us laughing so hard we were crying.  The better I got to know Willie, the longer my haircut took.  Willie had to turn off the clippers so I could hear him and I would have to shout my reply when he turned them back on.

Willie was known locally for playing the steel drums in a band that regularly performed around Beaufort County.  Every local on the Island knew him and it was a young co-worker of mine who called me to tell me Willie had passed.  I had called Willie a few weeks ago and he told me he had been hurt.  I could barely understand him and told him to take care of himself and I would call him later.   When I called a few days later to see how he was doing, his son answered the phone and told me Willie had fallen down and hurt his head.  He was in a hospital in Savannah.  I asked his son how bad it was and he told me that Willie was going to be okay. 

When I asked his son if it would be okay for me to visit him in the hospital, he told me it was not a good idea as Willie would get agitated and want to leave.  I sent Willie a letter at the hospital and thought I would see him when he got out.  Unfortunately, Willie died soon after I wrote to him.

When my co-worker Kevin told me Willie died, a picture jumped into my head of Willie cutting my hair, laughing about some story he had just told me.   It saddened me to realize I would no longer see him, talk to him, and laugh with him.  I am thankful for that day I pulled into Willie’s barbershop and the six year friendship that subsequently developed between us.  I am sorry that Willie is gone for he represented the kind of man and business that is rapidly vanishing from our country’s landscape. Willie, you were a good friend.  Good-by my brother.