Thursday, December 27, 2007

Uncle John

My Uncle John, my father's younger brother, died this past November. He was close to 90 when he succumbed to congestive heart failure. His mother lived to be 102. Of the three brothers - Lou, Frank and John (in that order), Uncle John lived the longest. Their father died and my grandmother re-married when the three of them were little. She had two more sons, my uncles Steve and Joe. These latter two are still alive and both are in their late 80's.

I took three days bereavement leave from work and drove down to Baltimore to attend the funeral. I spoke at the funeral and said that it was better to remember Uncle John when he was alive and to keep those kinds of memories than it was to mourn his passing.

Uncle John was a big guy, probably 6'02" and around 210 pounds. He was a standout high school athlete and had been drafted by the New York Yankees. Unfortunately, his arm went up (which would have been a repairable injury today) ending his baseball career.

I have lots of fond memories of him. He was a kidder and loved to play small, non-harmful, practical jokes. He had an easy smile. Once, when my kids were little he asked them if they wanted some ice cream. Just a little bit, they said. So he put a teaspoonful of ice cream in a bowl and handed it to them, asking if that was enough. The looks on their faces was priceless. He then, of course, gave them as much as they wanted.

Uncle John had been a merchent seaman during world war 2. He was on the north Atlantic run. Supply ships made that run from America's east coast, especially out of Baltimore, over to northern Europe, throughout the war. These un-armed merchent ships were easy prey for the German U-boats and many were sunk. Uncle John was never on a ship that was hit by a torpedo but apparently saw other ships in the convoy suddenly explode. It must have been a horrific feeling to be out there in the middle of the ocean, knowing that at any unexpected moment he could have been sent to the bottom of the Atlantic.

After the war he worked at Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point plant but was blackballed for union organizing. He never talked about that but did talk about working there. One story I remember his telling was about the guys, and I'm sure him included, that worked in the open hearth.

The open hearth was where steel was made. It was where iron ore was heated to beyond the melting point. The liquid was then poured into molds and turned into ingots of steel. I'm sure it was hot beyond belief in there.

Uncle John would say that the men worked twelve hour shifts. Every week they switched from day to night shift, in order to be fair. On the day they switched shifts, I think it was on a Saturday, they worked twenty-four hours.

Often times the guys would pass out from the heat. They would be hauled out of the area in a wheel barrow and dumped outside in a field. If they could get back up and go back to work, they'd keep their jobs and get paid.

Later on he worked for General Motors in the maintenance department as a painter. He never talked much to me about it, except to say he was all over the plant painting walls while standing on or hanging off scaffolding.

I remember that he used to hang out at O'Connors a lot. He would go to a place, a club I guess, that was above the O'Connors bar. As kids we were never allowed to go there but I think it was a place where he and his buddies could go and drink, smoke cigars and play cards in peace.

When ever I think about Uncle John, there's a certain image that always comes to mind. I see him down in the basement kitchen of my grandmother's house in Highlandtown. He's standing there, seemingly as tall as the ceiling. He has a full head of silver-gray hair, a smile on his face and an unlit cigar in his mouth. He's wearing a flannel shirt, khaki pants and has slippers on his feet. He also has an apron tied around his waist and a dish towel over his arm.

All my life, it seemed, whenever I went to my grandmothers to see her and Uncle John, he'd say to me when I came down the steps into the kitchen of the house, cigar clamped firmly between his teeth, "Hey, Frankie. How are ya? How ya feelin'? Howz everyone? Okay? That's good. Yeah, that's real good. Ma, let him get his coat off first, then he'll have something to eat. Frankie, whaddya want to eat?"

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Snow: When To Pay Attention

This past thursday the folks I work with and I went out for lunch. We went to Emilio's, a local place in the South End of Boston, about four blocks from our office. We had a window table and, while eating, watched close to three inches of snow fall.

We all talked while we ate, but none of the conversation had anything to do with the snow outside. There was already well over fifteen inches of snow that had fallen the previous week, this being the third snow in the past ten days or so. We all pretty much ignored this most recent snow.

I casually remarked that in Baltimore, this three inch snowfall would close schools and shut down most businesses for the day. My co-workers, all long time New Englanders, looked at me incredulously. One of them said: "People would freak out about this? It's not even worth paying attention to!"

When I moved up here in February 2005, it was in between snowstorms. That winter, following the Red Sox' reversing the curse and winning the world series for the first time in 86 years, there was 88 inches of snow. I remember walking past snow piled up that was over my head and thinking in amazement - "man, look at all this snow!" Not knowing anyone yet, I figured all that snow was a freak of nature; even Baltimore got hit with about 18 inches in February 2005. Later on, reading the local newspapers, I came to learn that the average annual snowfall in eastern Massachusetts, which is where I live, was about 44 inches.

The winter of '04-'05 achieved twice the average snowfall, but what rankled most folks was just the continually having to shovel; it was getting old for them by the end of March. And, what was even more amazing to me was that their reference for measuring snow storms wasn't this one, but the big blizzard of 1978.

In talking to people up here in the Boston area about snow, I came to understand that folks don't start paying attention to snow until they hear that a single snowfall is going to amount to more than six inches. People don't even put boots on for three inches of snow.

A single accumulation of snow of less than a half-foot isn't even considered a snow storm and, therefore, not worth paying attention to.

Almost two weeks ago, when it snowed 10 inches in one day and Boston freaked out, there were derisive comments abounding. Boston Globe bloggers had headlines that questioned whether Bostonians had gone soft. That day, businesses and government were encouraged to close early so they did, all at once and at 1 p.m. There was a massive traffic jam. It took me 45 minutes to drive what normally took 5, and I wasn't even in Boston that day.

The other day while walking Dixie I was thinking that a snow blower up here is a necessity, not a luxury for people too soft to shovel. I was thinking that if I was a homeowner, or had rented a house, I'd already have a snow blower. The green kind to get now are electric ones. A woman I know calls hers Lady Remington.

Since I've moved up here I put an emergency first aid kit, two fleece blankets and a giant snow shovel in the trunk of my car. The shovel goes in by Thanksgiving and doesn't come out until close to the end of April. And, you know by then, it's already baseball season.

Up here, baseball season is something to pay attention to. Snow is just something to get through until then.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Dancing Before I Knew How

I recently received a reply from one of my posts and it got me to thinking; actually, reminiscing. One of my most favorite activities is dancing. I go dancing virtually every friday night. In fact, I took lessons for close to ten years: swing; waltz; foxtrot; and, the latin dances like cha-cha, meringue and salsa. I'm considered to be an advanced level swing dancer.

I prefer dancing east coast swing, which is close to jitterbug, but not close enough to Lindy for a Lindy hopper and an east coast dancer to jump, jive and wail in syncopation. I know this first hand because of dancing on friday nights.

Once, a few months after moving to Massachusetts, I went to a swing dance in Cambridge. Most of the people there were doing the Lindy. I had gone to a dance camp a couple years prior and learned Lindy but I didn't stay with it and forgot the stepping pattern. The evening turned out to be a bust for me when a dance partner remarked: You don't know how to Lindy, do you? It got me right in my ego.

I really started dancing about a year after my marriage broke up. I remember sitting in my apartment wondering what I was going to do for a social activity when I saw an ad for a class sponsored through rec. and parks. I learned how to do the jitterbug, cha-cha, Madison, and the Stroll. Dances popular during the years before I knew how.

In my early teens the only dancing I did was slow dancing, except that somewhere along the line I learned basic cha-cha. At the CYO dances there were chaperones who walked around with a ruler and would put it between you and your partner to reinforce keeping a distance. At that age, just being close enough to barely brush against a girl's body was incredibly sensuous for a young teen. The ruler, had it been able to measure sexual excitment, would have made an interesting calculation; as it was, its effect made an entirely different measurement.

In my senior year of high school a classmate, Maryln Kerner, got tickets to go on the Buddy Deane show and invited me to go with her. My two older sisters, jealous but also sympathetic, gave me a crash course in the Jitterbug, Pony, Watusi, and the Mashed Potato. All I got out of it was confusion and anxiety.

One afternoon after school, Maryln and I caught the #20 bus to Television Hill, the major bus line to the show. We sat quietly on the bus as it traveled from our high school, Patterson, in far eastern Baltimore to the City's north side; the bus in turn passing the stops for Poly, City and Eastern high schools. As each group got on the bus, catcalls and other verbal abuse would come forth about whether there were any "Deaners on the bus." Marlyn and I sat even more quietly and I know I tried to become invisible.

We got to the show, stepped into the lights, saw the cameras and met the various members of the Buddy Deane Committee. Marlyn was all excited and went right out and started dancing. I tried to hide among the bleachers set up along the side of the dance floor. But, wouldn't you know it, I was asked to dance.

I was asked to dance by none other than the most popular girl on the Committee, Little Eva. She took me out on the dance floor to do the Pony. I admitted to her I didn't know how. She then told me to just do the Mashed Potato. I told her I didn't know how to do that, either. She asked me what did I know and I said I knew how to cha-cha.

So there I was, on TV, being watched by just about every teenager in the Greater Metropolitan Baltimore Area, dancing with Little Eva. She was Pony-ing away and I'm there, on camera, under the big lights, doing the cha-cha.

At our last high school reunion just a few years ago, Marlyn and I talked about the day we went onto the Buddy Deane show. Interestingly, she and I had entirely different recollections. Hers was softer and more forgiving.

When we danced at the reunion, now that I knew how, I found myself somewhat wistful. If only I could have danced then the way I can now. I wouldn't have wanted to out-Pony Little Eva, but I certainly would have had more fun, as I now do, now that I know how to dance.