Wednesday, November 9, 2016

“Is it raining all across the country?”

For me, when it came time to cast my ballot, it all came down to one thing: my daughter.

For the past few weeks, when we were together, we’d often watch pre-election coverage on CNN. And though she is only nine years old, she was able to determine that Donald Trump was not a nice person. He was not, she said, presidential material. When the “Access Hollywood” tape story broke a few weeks ago - you know, the “I can just grab their p-ssy” story - I actually asked her and her little brother to step out of the room for a minute while I watched the report. And that saddened me. Families should be able to watch pre-election coverage together and not worry about such things. But Trump’s boorish comments clearly showed that my little girl was right.

Donald Trump was not a nice person. He was not presidential material.

The fact that Trump was still even in the race at that point was remarkable in itself. By that point, he’d insulted people with disabilities. He’d insulted veterans and POWS. (“I like people that aren’t captured.”) He’d insulted immigrants. Women started coming out of the woodwork claiming he had acted inappropriately towards them. He flirted with his own daughter. (Creepy.) He would not reveal his taxes. He behaved oddly during the debates. And in an interview which he had done about 10 years ago with Howard Stern, he talked with a sense of bravado about his sexist ways and basically freely admitted to doing all of the horrible things that he had been accused of doing. With his businesses, he had hired people to do jobs for him and then stiffed them on payment. He seemed to ridicule Hillary Clinton because her husband had affairs and he tried to paint it as a character flaw, against her, even though he himself had had affairs. And in doing so, he revealed himself as a hypocrite. He also said that if he didn’t win the election, he might not accept the results. I wasn’t even really sure what the hell that meant. Did that mean he’d whine about it for the rest of his life? Who cares? Eventually, if he lost, he’d just have to go away.

For two months, week after week, we learned more and more awful things about Donald Trump. The Clinton campaign team, to its credit, framed all of this well. One TV spot, which offered a collection of awful Trump sound bites, featured young children listening to his words. It was powerful. And it did exactly what it had intended to do. It made you think there was no way that a man like that could be our President. My daughter - who did see that spot on TV a few times - had already figured that out for herself.     

And yet none of it mattered. Trump would always dip in the polls for a few days after his latest snafu - and there were times when the revelations about him were so horrid that it looked like he might actually have to drop out of the race – and yet he just kept marching on. Even his own party was not behind him, but he kept hanging in there. How could it be? Politically speaking, the man was a joke. Like a child being punished, even his own campaign people had to take away his Twitter account. He could not even be trusted to communicate with the public on his own. How could this man be in charge of the free world?

Last night, he was elected the new President of The United States.

Today, everyone is trying to figure it all out. Hillary Clinton was a qualified candidate. We all know her resume. Yes, she misspoke a few times - “What difference does it make?” and “Deplorables” come to mind – but it was nothing anywhere near the foulness of Trump. So what happened? Everyone has theories and I'd certainly trust the opinion of an experienced political analyst much more than I’d trust mine. But, to me, a few things are obvious. Clinton, for some reason, had a likability problem. When she raised her voice at her rallies – which you must do when you’re speaking at a rally – it was sometimes painful to listen to. It was the proverbial nails on a chalkboard. I remember thinking, “Thankfully, when she becomes President, she won’t have to do that anymore.” She also, of course, came under fire for some of her work as Secretary of State and the decisions that she made that some feel cost people their lives. And then, of course, there were the e-mails.

But you know what? I don’t think Trump supporters cared so much about the e-mails. I doubt most of them really even understood it. What they didn’t like was that she lied about it. (She did lie about it. That’s a fact.) And they didn’t like the fact that, compared to others that had been involved in similar breaches of national security, she got off easy, though she was told, by the FBI, that her actions were reckless. And then there was that secret meeting on the airplane runway, which became not-so-secret, when her husband basically tried to get her out of trouble. At least that was the perception. And people didn’t like that.   

Wikileaks is another story, but in the end – even with all of the shady Clinton Foundation stuff - every time a new story broke about Clinton’s missteps, Trump would say something so dumb, outrageous or insulting that such stories never did nearly as much damage to Clinton as they should have if she was running against any other candidate. (Even Anderson Cooper admitted that on CNN one night, only about a week ago.)  And then, of course, there was the DNC scandal which clearly showed inner-party favoritism. And it came at the expense of Bernie Sanders, who was drawing huge crowds across the nation during the primaries and was exciting young voters.  Once it was revealed that the DNC had acted so unethically towards one of its own, and that Clinton was apparently the anointed one all along, the party was divided. Sanders tried to play nice afterwards and would later join the Clinton campaign, but the damage was done. His people were ticked off. Really, really ticked off. And many never got over it.

All of these things hurt Hillary Clinton. She scored very low on “likability” and “trustworthiness,” she was caught in lies, and she was involved in scandals. And yet I still thought she was going to be elected President last night.  And by a landslide. Hillary might have been a bit shady, but Trump? No way.

So, again, what happened?

Well, again, I really don’t think Trump’s supporters really cared that much about the e-mails. And though Clinton, because of all of the dark clouds around her, became an easy target and the Trump faithful took plenty of cheap shots at her, I don’t think they cared that much about her at all.  I don’t think most of them are bigots or racists. I don’t think they care that much about what restroom a transgender person uses. And, deep down, I really don’t think they feel democrats are going to take away their hunting rifles. (Sadly, some asinine NRA gun nuts still can’t see the difference between their right to own a hunting rifle or a handgun and not being able to own an automatic weapon. That, I will never understand.) The abortion issue always seems to come up, but I think even Catholics are now resigned to the fact that Roe v. Wade is not going anywhere and many are now willing to vote for a pro-choice candidate as long as they agree with that candidate on a majority of other topics. Where democrats lose many Christians is when they speak of repealing the Hyde Amendment. And until they realize that, they’ll always lose many Christian votes. And, in my opinion, rightly so. Democrats don’t like it when you tell them that, because either they don’t believe it’s true, or they simply disagree. Too many of them would just rather drink the liberal Kool-Aid. And that’s one of the reasons they lost last night.

Yesterday’s election, however, wasn’t really about those things as much as something much bigger. It was about the very disenfranchised segment of America’s blue collar former middle class. It was about people that are tired of working harder and harder each year, year after year, and getting less and less in return. What democrats and liberals don’t understand, in my opinion, is that the lower middle class doesn’t resent the wealthy. They resent people that work less than they do and seem to have more. They resent standing in line at the grocery store with a marginal order, hoping it will be enough food to get their family through the week, and then seeing someone in line in front of them getting a much larger order for free - an order that they, working two jobs, would never be able to afford. And they don’t resent immigrants. They resent illegal immigrants, because they feel that if 25-percent of their paycheck is always gone - because of taxes - that should also be the case for everyone. Taxes are good. They help pay for schools and fire and police protection and our military. Freedom is not free. And some people – and apparently many Trump supporters - are simply tired of seeing a lot of people getting a free ride. Democrats and liberals don’t like it when you tell them that either, and that’s another reason that they lost last night. And that's why I feel that Joe Biden, not Bernie Sanders, would have crushed Trump in last night’s election. Biden would have outperformed Trump in the debates, but without the federal investigations and trust issues of Clinton and, in the case of Sanders, without the specter of added socialism.

Trump supporters, simply put, were more angry about their own lives than they were concerned about anyone else’s lives. It's not that all 60 million of them hate other people. It's more that they hate what's happened to them. It’s really that simple. The fact that Hilary Clinton is a woman and could have been our first female President wasn’t even discussed in most conversations. And I saw that as a good thing. It meant that being male or female is not an even issue in modern politics. And should the right female candidate come along, she will win. The 60 million people that also voted for Clinton last night  – which was the majority of the popular vote - proved it.

Take a few minutes to watch this video. Cut and paste the link. And watch it. I’ve never been a real big fan of Michael Moore, but that’s mostly because he once went on “60 Minutes” to do an interview with Mike Wallace looking like he just crawled out of bed. I thought, if nothing else, he should have put a razor on his face and showed the legendary newsman more respect.  But here, Moore pretty much nails it:

I did not vote for Donald Trump. I found his behavior during the campaign - and apparently for most of his life - to be vile and repulsive. I voted for Hillary Clinton. Despite her many flaws, and despite disagreeing with her on one major issue which involves my faith, I found her to be the best candidate. She was, in the end, far more presidential and I do think she cares about people.  And I truly thought she would win. And a part of me wanted that for my daughter, who I took with me to the polls last night. On the way there, I asked her who we should vote for. Of course I knew what her answer would be, as she had determined, all on her own, that Trump was not a very nice man. Before we went into the voting booth, I got down on eye-level with her and told her that we were helping to make history and that there was nothing in the world that she couldn’t do in her life, and that tonight would prove it. I told her to always remember it. And when we went into the booth, I let her cast the ballot.

Later, as I watched the returns come in, and I could see what was happening in places like Florida, Ohio and Michigan, I knew where things were heading. And when I woke my daughter up for school today, I had to tell her what had happened. And all I could think about, before I did so, was that commercial, the one with the kids – the one showing Trump ridiculing people and saying horrible things about women. And now how I had to wake her up and tell her that he was her new President. 

When I gave her the news, she was a bit sad, and a little later, when we headed out the door on the way to her to school, we walked through the cold November rain. And, in a very thoughtful voice, she asked me if it was raining all across the country.

Think about that, coming from a nine year-old.

She knows nothing about Benghazi, or e-mails, or the DNC. But she had seen Donald Trump on TV. And that's all she needed to see.  

I told her we all need to hope that our new President can do good things, because that’s what's best for all of us. And I’m certainly not teaching her to dislike people that voted the other way. And that's because, whenever I found myself feeling stunned today about the fact that this actually happened, I thought of Michael Moore.

Perhaps now, everyone will pay more attention to what's really going on in this country and what a lot of people are really feeling. 

For my daughter’s sake – as well as my son’s – I hope so.

                                                                                                          Alan K. Stout
                                                                                                          November 9, 2016       

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Up Close & Personal … ALAN K. STOUT

Up Close & Personal … ALAN K. STOUT

Alan K. Stout is the community and resource development coordinator with Big Brothers Big Sisters of The Bridge. He also hosts a weekly radio show on 105 The River and, as a freelance journalist, he contributes stories to The Electric City, The Scranton Times-Tribune and The Westside Bulletin. Stout is a graduate of Wyoming Valley West High School, Luzerne County Community College and King’s College. He has two children, Mary Ann, 10, and A.J., 8. He lives in Edwardsville. 

How did you first get involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters? “For about 18 years, I worked at The Times Leader newspaper. I wore many hats there over the years, including reporter, features writer, music columnist, music editor, Newspapers in Education manager and Weekender editor. From 1999 through 2011, I helped organize a charity concert every year called ‘Concert For Karen/Concert For A Cause,’ and for the very last show we did, in 2011, we named the Big Brothers Big Sisters Anti-Bullying program as the benefactor. Through that event, I got to know the people at the agency, and they got to know me, and purely by coincidence, about six months later, they had a job opportunity that I was interested in. After 18 years at the paper, I was ready to move on, and I was fortunate enough to get the position with Big Brothers Big Sisters.”

Can you explain the work that you do there? “I’m very involved with all of our community relations, public relations and marketing. I also assist with all of the agency’s fundraisers and special events, as well as volunteer recruitment. And I help run our anti-bullying program and social media. The agency is a program of Catholic Social Services, so I also assist with some of their events and oversee the social media for the St. Vincent de Paul Kitchen and the St. Francis of Assisi Kitchen.”

What do you enjoy about it the most? “I enjoy getting the name of the agency out there. With Big Brothers Big Sisters, I’ve helped develop PSAs for radio and television, and have written guest editorials to the local newspapers about the need for volunteers. There’s really a great need for volunteer Big Brothers and Big Sisters, and I believe that the more exposure the agency receives, the more likely it is that we’ll attract new volunteers. Having a Big Brother of Big Sister can really change the life of a child, and I enjoy trying to help make that happen.”

Your radio show focuses mostly on local talent, correct? “Yes. My music column, which ran in the Times Leader and The Weekender for about 14 years, was called ‘Music On The Menu,’ and it often profiled local musicians. The radio show, which is now in its 10th year, is an offshoot of that. It’s fun, because instead of trying to describe music on paper, which can be very difficult sometimes, I can just play it for people. And the talent that we have here in NEPA is incredible. Music has always been a very big part of my life and will probably always be the thing that people associate with me the most."

During your time at The Times Leader, didn’t you also interview a lot of rock stars? “It was an exciting time for music in the region. The Montage amphitheater opened in 1994, and the arena opened in 1999. Combine that with The Kirby and the Scranton Cultural Center, and all of a sudden, the biggest stars in world were visiting NEPA all the time. And I got to talk to quite a few of them.”

Anybody stand out? “Billy Joel, David Bowie, Eddie Van Halen, Steven Tyler, Don Henley, Jon Bon Jovi, Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, Ray Charles … it was really a lot of fun, because they were all pretty fascinating people and incredibly talented. And when you could provide the readers with a story like that, they loved it. You can still listen to quite a few of them on YouTube. If you type in my name and the name of the artist, they pop right up.

What do you do in your free time to relax? “I'm a single Dad, and I work a few jobs, so I'm always on the go. But I try to hit the gym a few times a week. It’s a great way to clear your head out and get the endorphins kicking in. I also like working around my house. I played men’s softball in some pretty competitive leagues for about 10 years, but I haven’t played at that level in a long time. These days, when I’m not working, I’m often with my two children.  And we always have a lot of fun together.”

Favorite music? “The Beatles, as well as John and Paul’s solo material. Bruce Springsteen, U2, The Who, The Rolling Stones, KISS, The Badlees, Led Zeppelin and Robert Plant’s solo material. And I love Elvis Presley. I have about 90 of his songs on my iPod. Last year, I visited Graceland.”

Favorite TV show? “From the past, ‘Taxi’ and ‘M*A*S*H.’ These days, I like ‘Law & Order SVU.’

Favorite movies? “Field of Dreams, Dead Poets Society, Diner, Jaws, Caddyshack and The Breakfast Club. I also like Sleepless in Seattle and The Bridges of Madison County.”

Favorite color? “Black.”

Favorite food? “Italian. And seafood. But I also like bar food, such as burgers, wings and pizza. I could probably eat pizza four times a week.”

Follow sports? “I’m a huge fan of the New York Yankees and the Dallas Cowboys. I’ve probably been to Yankee Stadium about 75 times and I even made it down to Texas Stadium to see the Cowboys.”

Have you traveled much? “It’s funny, but my Dad helped give me my great love for baseball, and because of that, I’ve been to a lot of cities. Every summer, for the past 24 years, we go and see the Yankees play on the road somewhere. We’ve been to Boston, Toronto, Cleveland, Detroit, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Miami, Washington, Tampa Bay … all just to see the Yankees. I’ve also been to Dallas, Memphis, Denver and Charleston. My wish list includes Chicago and California. I’d like to drive down the coast from San Francisco to San Diego someday. And I’d like to visit England and Ireland.”

Favorite city? New York. No place else is even close. I just love the energy.”

Favorite vacation spot? Anyplace where there’s a beach. Long Beach Island, Cape May, Dewey Beach, Ocean City Maryland … I love them all.”

Favorite thing about NEPA? “The mountains, the Susquehanna and the people. And the pizza.”

Favorite books? “I’ve read dozens of biographies and autobiographies. I find the truth to be much more interesting than fiction. Right now, I’m reading ‘The Closer’ by Marino Rivera.”

Favorite quote? I have two: ‘Do Onto Others As You’d Have Done To You.’ It’s so simple, but it’s remarkable. Think about it. If everybody followed the simple golden rule, the world would be fine. There would be no crime. There would be no war. The other one I like is,  ‘It's amazing how much can be accomplished if no one cares who gets the credit,’ which is often attributed to either Harry Truman or Ronald Reagan, among others. I don’t know who said it first, but I do believe it’s true.” 

Favorite holiday? “Christmas. And the whole month leading up to it. I particularly like Christmas Eve.”

Guilty pleasure? “Soda. And a good gin and tonic on the weekend.”

Occupation you most admire? “Anything in the medical field. Doctors, nurses, paramedics … they are very special people.”

Biggest pet peeve? "Indecisiveness. When I make up my mind as to what I want to do, I pull the trigger. I just do it." 

First car? A 1974 Dodge Monaco. It was huge, which is probably why my parents bought it for me as my first car. They probably felt it was safe. I used to say that it had four rooms and a bath.”

Any nicknames? “The guys on my old softball team always called me ‘Mel,’ because there was a guy on the Yankees at the time named Mel Hall that I liked. And those guys, to this day, still call me that. Later, some of the guys started calling me "GQ" because I usually wear suits to work and, even with jeans, I like a nice blazer. And at the newspaper, they called me ‘AKS’ or ‘Alan K.’ "

What does the ‘K’ stand for? “Kent.”  

What might surprise some people about you?  "That's a tough one. I coached Little League one year. That might surprise people. And I guess some people might be surprised to learn that I have a degree in history and education. I taught high school social studies for a while and I really enjoy local history. One of the projects I'm still trying to complete, which began a few years ago, is a documentary film about the 'Agnes' flood of 1972. I really respect the field of education and I continue to teach in some ways. I am the class instructor with the Big Brothers Big Sisters anti-bullying program, which allows me to meet with kids in our local schools each week, and as recently as just a few years ago, I was an adjunct faculty member at Luzerne County Community College, where I taught English Composition. Another thing that might surprise people - though I guess some people might remember it - is that I had a little bit of a hit song on the radio back in 2003. It was on about 14 radio stations in NEPA that summer and was No. 5 on the local singles chart. It was definitely the most unique experience of my life ... to be driving in your car and hear your song on the radio, right in between Springsteen and The Rolling Stones. It's still somewhat surreal to me that such things actually happened.    

Most influential people on your life? “My parents, who were always there for me in every way. And my grandparents, who I spent a lot of time with when I was a kid. There is not a day that passes that I don’t think of them. I’ve also had some great bosses and supervisors over the years that I’ve learned a lot from and, in some ways, have tried to emulate. I also believe you can still learn from people that are younger than you. My daughter is the kindest person I’ve ever known. Not a mean bone in her body. And my son is hilarious. He always makes me laugh. They, in their own innocent ways, have had a great influence on me.”

What is your most memorable professional experience? “It was probably the 12 years we did ‘Concert For Karen/Concert For A Cause. It’s strange, because though I have great affection for that event, I also, clearly, wish it never happened, because it was first inspired by someone passing away way too young. But it was an incredible experience, and it was the most ‘pure’ thing you could ever imagine being a part of. There were so many people from the community that came together each year so beautifully … people from bands, people from newspapers, radio stations and television stations and sound companies, and there was no ego or any false agenda. Everybody got it. Everybody cared. And all that anyone wanted – every single person involved – was for the event to be a success each year. It was the most special thing I’ve ever been a part of. “

This month, you are receiving the “Lifetime Achievement Award" from the Steamtown Music Awards, which are a part of the Electric City Music Conference. How does that feel?  “It’s funny, because when I think of an award like that, I think of the 85 year-old guy that’s been nominated for the Oscar six times, but never won, so they toss him one before he checks out. Seriously though, I am very humbled and flattered, especially since it is coming from the community of local musicians that have been such an important and wonderful part of my life. I was very surprised when they told me about it, and I am appreciative.”

What do you enjoy about writing for the Westside Bulletin? “I moved to Kingston from South Wilkes-Barre when I was about nine years old. I grew up on the west side of the Wyoming Valley. I played Kingston sports – both baseball and football – and I’m a proud Valley West graduate. And I still live there. I know so many people on the west side, and so many businesses, and it’s fun to sit down with them and chat with them about either their personal life, or their business, or both. Sometimes, I might be interviewing somebody I’ve known for years. Sometimes, I might be interviewing someone I’m meeting for the first time. Regardless, I always learn something interesting about them, and I enjoy sharing that with the readers.”  

(Alan K. Stout is an award-winning journalist that has been voted NEPA's "Favorite Newspaper Columnist" seven times. He also earned a Keystone Pres Award for Excellence in Journalism. He has interviewed hundreds of people from throughout NEPA and now writes the "Up Close & Personal" feature for The Electric City, The Diamond City and He wrote a similar column for The Times Leader from 2009-2011 and, in 2015, for The Weekender. Since 2012, under the name "Coffee With ...," it can also be found each month in The Westside Bulletin. In this column,  published in October of 2014 in The Westside Bulletin, the interviewer became the interviewee, as Alan was asked to answer some of the same questions that he usually asks people in the "Up Close & Personal"  and "Coffee With" feature.)

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Eulogy for my Mom

 St. Aloysius Church – August 6, 2015

To my Dad, my sister and I, my Mother was our best friend. She was the one constant in our lives. Through all of the ups and downs, and the good times and the bad, she was the one that was always there. She was kind, she was strong, and she was wise.  And the three of us each had our own unique and special relationship with her.

Though for the past 38 years, the four of us were a family, my Mom and I actually go back a bit further. And I sometimes think of the five or six years that she was a single Mom, and it was just the two of us, living right here in South Wilkes-Barre. It was the mid -‘70s, and there was a popular song on the radio at the time called “You and Me Against The World,” and sometimes when it came on the radio when we were in the car, she would sing it to me.  Many years later, when I got married, I surprised her with it as our mother/son dance at the reception. And for the past few days, one line from that song has kept going through my mind.

“And when one of us in gone, and one of us is left to carry on, then the memories will have to do, our memories alone will get us through. Think about the days of me and you, you and me against the world.”

Some friends told me this week that my Mom was still with me, and that I should watch for the signs, but I really didn't want to do that just yet. I haven't turned on the radio or TV all week, and I wasn't looking for some heart-shaped cloud in the sky. I told a good friend, just last night, that if my Mom could ever send me such a gesture, I wanted to be walloped right over the head.

This morning, I stopped at the store to pick up some photographs of my children that I'd had developed and that I thought I might place with my Mom before she was laid to rest, and as soon as I walked into the store, that song  - "You and Me Against The World" - came on. It is not a song that you hear very often. It is not played very much. And I suppose the people in the store may have been wondering why I was walking up and down the aisle crying, saying "Oh, thank you, Mom. Thank you so much."

I thought all of you, who are also feeling great loss right now, might take some comfort in knowing that.

I have never forgotten those years with my Mom, and I never will, because she made what could have been difficult years great years. We had fun. And she was incredibly strong. Stronger than I can ever hope to be.

She was amazing.

My Mom married my Dad when I was nine. A year or so later, she had Susan, and for the past 39 years, we have been a family. And that’s how most of you here today know us, and that is how you’ve known her. And nothing mattered to her more than her family. She loved my Dad so much, and over the past few years, they really enjoyed retirement and travelling. He was just telling me the other night, with fondness, about some of their adventures, and I still have warm memories of being on family vacations, and looking down from the balcony of the condo, and seeing them going for one of their twilight strolls together on the beach. My mom loved the ocean. She could sit and just look at it for days. And my Dad always made sure she got there, often. Thank you, Dad.

Though Susan has lived in Philadelphia for 20 years, it’s really almost as if she never left. She visits home often. Very often. And she called my Mom and Dad pretty much every day. They had a special bond that can only be found between a mother and daughter, and my parents would also sometimes go and stay with her at her home in Philly for a few days. They also traveled together, visiting places such as Ireland and the tropics. They had fun. And if you noticed how perfect all of the arrangements for these services are, with everything so beautiful, that was simply Susan being her mother's daughter. 

Mom loved her family. And we loved her. And if the three of us thought there wasn’t even any more room for love in her heart, we were wrong, because once the grandchildren started to arrive about eight years ago, Mom seemed to take love another level. First was my daughter, Mary Ann, who shares my Mom’s name, her mother’s name, and her grandmother’s name. I know my Mom was proud of that, but probably not nearly as proud as I am. Then came my son, A.J., and then came Susan's and Matt’s son, John. My Mom loved Matt like a son, and she loved her three grandchildren with all of her heart. To say she spoiled them would be an understatement, and I know both Susan and I will find it to be very strange, over the next few weeks, to not be getting calls from her, asking us if there is anything the kids need for school. I know she would have been stopping by my house with a few bags of new clothes, and tablets and pencils and crayons, or, more likely she would have just taken the kids shopping with her and let them pick out some things they wanted and needed. Her grandchildren, all three of them, never wanted for anything. And nothing seemed to make her happier than bringing them joy.

Everyone here today, and those that we saw last night, had a unique and special relationship with my Mom. Her sister Joan, is here, who is heartbroken over the loss of who she still considers to be her baby sister. Other family members and friends, some from right in the neighborhood, some who have traveled a great distance to be here today, are also feeling great loss. Her former co-workers from King’s College, with whom she remained close with even after retirement, are feeling great loss. There were many times over the years that I talked with my Mom and asked what she was up to, and she said she was having dinner that night with the ladies from King’s. We met them all last night. She loved you.

Even before she retired, my Mom was also always busy at home. She enjoyed working in her beautiful yard and she was always tweaking something at the house. It seemed rooms that didn’t really need to be painted might be painted, or wallpaper that didn’t necessarily need to be replaced would be replaced, but her taste was always impeccable. At Christmastime, cars driving down her street would stop and compliment her on her holiday decorating.  Mom was always making things better. Mom liked things to look nice. And her home was immaculate. And today, when I have a guest at my home, or my sister has guests at her home, and we receive compliments on how the pictures are always hung perfectly and everything is in order, we both know - and we are proud to say - that we are simply a reflection of our mother.      

My Mom would be happy - and I know she is happy - that this beautiful church is her last stop here on this Earth. When the school next door opened in the 50s, she was among the first students to attend it for eight years. She received her sacraments here, she sang in that beautiful choir, and she enjoyed the May Crowings in the schoolyard across the street. Three months ago, she was joyous here as her granddaughter received her First Holy Communion. And now, she would want us to be strong. And she would want us to be joyous. She would want us, after a heartbreaking few weeks, to get back to our jobs and our work and to do good things. She would want my Dad to go fishing and spend time with us and his friends. She would want all of us  to enjoy our lives and our families. She never wanted us to worry. As recently as a few weeks ago, when she first began to have some setbacks with her health, and I would ask her how she was feeling, she would tell me not to worry, and that she was fine. Thinking back on it now, I think maybe she knew she was not fine, but she did not like to be fussed over and she always put her family first, and the thought of us worrying about her health was probably much more of a concern to her than her health.

In the end, my Mom simply showed us all the same strength that she showed me 40 years ago, when it was just her and me against the world. Back then, I didn’t have to worry about a thing. She made sure of that. And that’s what she still always wanted, for all of us.

About two weeks ago, I was with her at the hospital, and things were still looking OK. She was just starting to get some treatments, and she was sitting up in bed, and after a nice visit I was about to go home, and as I was leaving I told her that she was the strongest person I know. And she looked at me, and said, “Oh, I’m just doing what I have to do.”

And then she paused, and she looked right at me, and she said, “And you do what you have to do.”

It was one of the last conversations I ever had with her. And I have thought of it many times over the past two weeks.

We will all do what we have to do, Mom. We will be strong, like you, and we will always be here for each other, just as you were always here for us. We will still talk to you every single day, for the rest of our lives, until we see you again.

We will never forget you.

And we will never stop loving you.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Tom Lahart and ‘The Big Red Machine’

The Reds: 1979 Kingston Little League National League Champs. Coach Tom Lahart is at far right.

Kingston Little League coach left his players with lasting memories

My old Little League coach, Tom Lahart, passed away last week. I played for him in Kingston from 1978-1980. That’s a long time ago, but with his passing, he’s been on my mind a bit over the past few days. He was a good guy, a fine baseball coach and someone that had a lasting impact on my life.

I was 10 years old in the spring of 1978 when I found out that the Kingston Little League team that had selected me to play for them was the Dairy Queen Reds. I had moved to Kingston from South Wilkes-Barre in 1976, and though I had played one year of baseball at St. Therese’s, I was not by any means a polished baseball player. I was a quiet and shy kid, and though - because I had a “Johnny Bench Batter-Up” pitching machine in the backyard - I could hit OK, I could not for the life of me catch a fly ball.

Mr. Lahart taught me how.

The Reds practiced often. We practiced on cold spring days on fields all over Kingston. When he was teaching his outfielders how to play the position, Mr. Lahart would put us in the outfield and he would stand in the batter’s box. He’d then point to you with his bat, to let you know this one was for you, and he’d then toss the ball in the air and hit it in your direction. He was good at it, and he’d always loft you a nice, soft, high fly ball. I, however, was much too eager.  As soon as he’d hit a ball towards me, I’d start charging in for it at full speed. And it would always land about 30 feet behind me.

1978 Kingston Reds 
Mr. Lahart fixed that. He taught me how to hold my ground, read and track the ball, and go catch it. Two years later, in my final year of Little League, I was the starting left fielder in an All-Star game.

Thank you, Mr. Lahart.

One of my fondest memories of my All-Star season does not involve a game, but a practice. Once the All-Stars had been selected by the coaches in the league, the practices were pretty intense. There were about 15 kids competing to be one of the nine starters, and at the final practice before the big game, one of the assistant coaches who was pitching batting practice was really dealing. He was challenging us with some serious heat in what was essentially a simulated game, and as I stepped into the batter’s box with two strikes, my teammates started busting me that I was about to whiff.

1980 Kingston Reds
I launched the next ball not just out of Kingston’s Memorial Field, but into Janjigan Field, which sits behind it.

I was the only one on the squad to hit one out during all of the All-Star practices we’d had, and with that swing, I had made myself a starter. But what I remember the most about it was walking away from the field with Mr. Lahart after practice. It was just the two of us, and I think he was proud that one of his Reds had shined. I’d actually, at that point, never hit a ball over the fence before – I just don’t think I was quite strong enough at the time – but he told me he thought I was quite capable of it, and that I probably could have done it many times. Perhaps it was the competition at the practices that raised my game. Or maybe, as I was playing my final games as a Little Leaguer, I was finally developing into a better player. All I know for sure is that my coach believed in me. And that meant something.

Thank you, Mr. Lahart.

1980 Kingston National League All-Stars, managed by Tom Lahart  
In my first year with the Reds, Mr. Lahart taught me how to play. In my final year, I was one of his best players. But neither of those seasons is the season that I remember the most. It was my middle season playing for him, in 1979, when we had the best team. We were led by Mr. Lahart’s son, Eddie, who was not just the best player on our team, but probably the best player in the league. He was only a year older than me and he was my teammate, but I looked up to him. We all did.  If Mr. Lahart could take a skinny and clueless kid like me and turn him into a decent player, you can imagine what he was able to do with his own son. Eddie was our star and he led us to a 15-5 record and the Kingston National League Championship. We were a pesky, scrappy team, and when we squared off in the Kingston World Series against the undefeated 20-0 American League Champion Yankees, nobody gave us much of a chance.

Except Mr. Lahart.

He believed we could win and he certainly made us think so. We were Kingston's version of the “Big Red Machine,” we were not intimidated by anyone, and in Game 1 of the best of three series, we beat the mighty Yankees. It seemed like the whole town was there watching those games, and thinking back, it still feels pretty good to have stunned them all. They were good times. Our moms became our biggest fans, the “Radical Reds,” and they all arrived at one of the games on a float. Our dads watched with appreciation, trusting in their sons under Mr. Lahart’s guidance. I can still remember in the dugout before Game 2, he told us that the Yankees were probably still pretty shocked that we beat them in Game 1, and that if we could come out and get an early lead in Game 2, they might panic and fold, and we could wrap things up that day. But it was not to be. The Yankees were not 20-0 for no reason. They had some fine players and they were also well coached, and they beat us to even the series.

Game 3 would be for all the marbles.

I remember it like it was yesterday. “Are you nervous?” asked my Dad, as he drove me to the field. “No,” I said. “Good,” he said. Mr. Lahart had us ready to play, but what happened on that warm summer night is still to this day the most heartbreaking loss I’ve ever been a part of on any field.

It was the bottom of the sixth inning, which in Little League is the equivalent of the bottom of the 9th.  We had a one run lead. There were two outs. The Yankees had runners on second and third. There were two strikes on the batter. The crowd was loud. A strike, or any type of groundout or pop out, and we were the champs. A base hit, and the Yankees were the champs. It was about as good of a baseball game as you will ever see. I was in left field, fully anticipating a strikeout. I was expecting to be tossing my glove high in the air and running into the infield and mobbing my teammates, just like you see MLB players do after the final out of the World Series. But that’s not what happened.

The pitch got by the catcher. The tying run scored from third.

The catcher could not find the ball. It had gotten stuck under the backstop. He frantically looked around for it as Eddie, our pitcher, ran in to cover home while yelling and pointing to where the ball had lodged.

Too late.

The winning run scored. All the way from second base.  

We lost the World Series. On the last pitch. Because two runs scored on a past ball.

We were heartbroken. And, because we were still just little boys, we cried.

Base of trophy from the 1979 Reds, Tom Lahart's best team
Sitting in the dugout after the game, Mr. Lahart could see our pain. He was disappointed, too, especially since he knew that we had played well enough to win, but that we had lost on a freakish play. He told us all how proud he was of us, and that we should all be proud, and then he walked off to his car, came back, and gave us all a gift. It was a patch for our jackets that read “Reds – 1979 Kingston Little League National League Champions.” I still, to this day, wonder if he had patches in the car that said “World Champs.” He probably did. But the way he handled things that day, and they way he treated us, in such a sad little moment, is something I have never forgotten.

My son played t-ball this year, and though he played his home games in Larksville, he had a few “road” games on the fields in Kingston – the same fields that I played on more than 30 years ago. And every time we went there, I thought about the things I have written about here today. I thought of Mr. Lahart.

I have been asked if, next year, I would like to serve as a coach on my children's team, and I have already said yes. I think it will be fun to help teach young boys and girls how to play the great game of baseball, and I know that if I’m ever stuck on something, I can draw on some of the things I learned from my old coach: How to track a fly ball. How to prepare for a big game. How play with confidence, but not cockiness. And how to display good sportsmanship. And I will know that the many hours spent, volunteering time with those kids, is not being done in vain, and that decades later, some of them still might appreciate it.

I know I do. And I always will.

Thank you, Mr. Lahart.


Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Remembering “Buddy”

The two pictures were always in my grandmother’s home, properly framed. One, I clearly recall, contained a small locket of hair. They were of a young boy.

I was about the same age as the child in the photos when I first asked my grandmother who he was. And though she was gentle in the way that she told me and offered few details, she explained that he was her son and that he had died long ago.

“He came home from school on Friday not feeling well,” she said. “And by Sunday, he and four of his classmates were gone.”

This was in 1933. His name was Edward Roberts, but everyone, including my grandmother, called him “Buddy.” I would later learn, when I was much older, that Buddy died from diphtheria. It was, unfortunately, common at the time. And obviously when it went through a school, it was devastating.

My grandmother, with her second marriage, went on to have two daughters who she loved dearly. Buddy, however, remained somewhat of an enigma. Neither my aunt Joan nor my mother knew him. He had passed away before they were born. And since my grandmother’s first husband had also passed on, it seemed he only lived on in her memory and her mother’s memory. Buddy, we were told, loved his grandma and she adored him. They are in some ways still together, as they are buried side by side.

Buddy was a blonde-haired little boy, and when I was his age, so was I. My grandmother and I were very close, and as I think back on all of the time I spent with her, she never seemed to mind having a house full of my friends. Sometimes I now wonder if, on some of those days, when her home was filled with the laughter of little boys at play, her mind didn’t drift back to 45 years earlier and to the son she had lost.

A few years ago, I began to do some ancestry research and was able to learn quite a bit about how and when my family came to America. I even learned a little bit about some of our family history in Europe. But Buddy’s story, which was only about 80 years ago, was the one that got to me the most. And perhaps that’s because there were also some odd coincidences that paralleled his short life and the life of my family today. He originally lived in Pringle, but moved to the Lynwood section of Hanover Township. My mom originally grew up in Hanover Township, but now lives near Pringle. I also now live near Pringle, but because of some recent changes in our family life, I have found myself spending quite a bit of time in Lynwood. There is a long Pringle/Lynwood connection to my family which goes back more than 100 years, and I find it ironic that I now find myself driving down Buddy’s old street a few times a week. And then there is my son, who is now five years old and who is also a blonde-haired little boy. Though it was not at all by design, I often call him “Buddy.” 

There is no one alive in our family today that actually knew little Edward Roberts. He passed away on this date - September 24 - 81 years ago. But my sister and I have decided to be the keeper of his flame. We do this to honor his memory and we do it out of respect to our grandmother. And so today, if even just a few of my friends took a few minutes to read this little blog, his memory has been passed on.

Rest in peace, sweet boy.

You have not been forgotten.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

‘In ways we cannot be … even in memory'

Anyone that knows me knows that I had a very special relationship with my grandparents. Though they passed on many years ago, I still speak of them often, and there is not one day that goes by that I don’t think of them. When I was a young boy, their home was my home.  I was there five days a week after school, from about 3 to 5 p.m., when my Mom would pick me up after work. And in the summers, she’d drop me off at about 8:30 every morning and I’d be there all day. I probably spent just as much time there, if not more, than my own house. I even had my own room there.

And I loved it.

I always felt complete love there. My grandparents didn't seem at all burdened with the fact they were essentially babysitting a young boy everyday during their golden years. They seemed to love having me there. My friends from the neighborhood were all welcome there. We’d play in their yard and all throughout their house all day. Lemonade was always there for everyone. Lunch, too. They even put a pool in their yard, just for me and my friends, which came with only one rule: nobody goes swimming unless grandpa is in the yard supervising.

It was good rule.

And they were good people.

I could probably write a mini-novel about my memories of that house. And though I haven’t been in it in more than 30 years, I can still remember everything about every room in it. From the pattern of the linoleum on the kitchen floor to the sound the back screen door made when it closed, it is all as clear to me today as when I was eight years old.

And the nice thing is, sometimes, I go back.

Not literally. But in dreams. They don’t come as often as I’d like, but when they do, I always wake up feeling like something special has happened. Sometimes, I’m a young boy again, and it’s summer, and everything is as it once was. Sometimes, I’m the age I am now, and I go inside, and my grandparents are still there, and we chat. I call these dreams “visits,” because that’s really what I like to believe they are.

I can still recall the first time I had such a dream. It was around 1986, which was eight years after my grandpa had passed and only two years after my grandmother had passed. I was about 18, and I must have not been feeling well, because I had never been one to nap, especially at such a young and vibrant age, but for some reason, on a beautiful summer afternoon, I fell asleep. And, for the first time in about five years, I found myself back at my favorite place: my grandparents’ home.

I still remember the feeling I had when I woke. It was wonderful.

Sometimes, the visits are in full color. Sometimes, they have a sepia tone to them. Regardless, they always feel remarkably real.

Some years ago, one of my favorite bands, The Badlees, recorded a song called “A Fever.” The first time I heard it, it resonated with me. It reminded me of my visits.

Some of the lyrics:

“I dream of you
In light as blue as neon when it's blue
Past visions of rolling hills
In movie stills
A panoramic stew ….

A fever's brought me close to you
In ways we cannot be
A fever's brought me close to you
In ways we cannot be
Even in memory”

I have made a little slideshow here of some photos of my grandparents, set to the song:

I share this today with some family and friends because it was 30 years ago today that my grandmother passed. It is hard for me to comprehend that it has now been three decades since I have talked with her, and even longer since I've seen my grandpa.

I hope to see them again someday.

But for now - in ways we cannot be - I'll take the visits. 

Friday, July 25, 2014

Blessed to have two ...

Those that know me best would probably note that I have always been a very reflective person. I often tend to look back on things from the past, but with today’s perspective. It is actually something that I enjoy. When I'm not doing that, I'm usually looking ahead and preparing for what’s next. That’s fine, too, but by doing both of those things too much, you can sometimes lose sight of the present. And you might not appreciate it. And though I recognize that living in the moment has never been something that I've been particularly good at, I can honestly say that such is not the case when it comes to my two children. When I am with them, I am very much right here, right now.

And I consider this a gift that they have given me.

Driving home from an amusement park last night, just the three of us, I realized that these days - right now - are some of the best days of my life. Putting my arms around them and holding them tight as we went on some of the park’s more adventurous rides is something that, well … I know these are things that will not last. My five year-old son telling me he would like to ride the mini roller-coaster, but only if I rode with him, are moments that, even while they are happening, are very special to me. And, thankfully, I was well aware of this as I held him close as we rode. The joy on my seven year-old daughter’s face as we emerged - completely saturated - from one of the water rides is something I will never forget. Her eyes - like the Irish girl that she is - seem to gleam even more when she smiles.

Taking them both to Yankee Stadium last weekend to their first MLB game provided for another moment, or series of moments, that I will never forget. The thrill in my daughter’s voice as we pulled into the Bronx and she spotted the stadium for the first time will stay with me forever. As will her funny but astute observation about the place, which she made from her seat in about the sixth inning:

“This is big.”

Every time I go back there, for the rest of my life, I will also always think of my son’s favorite part of the ballpark: the escalators, which he pronounces “excavators.”  He seemed happy to see Derek Jeter play baseball, but I also think he would have been happy to simply ride the stadium “excavators” all day. I suppose I could have saved a few hundred bucks and just taken him to Boscov’s. The boy always makes me smile.

Parents with older children often tell me to “cherish these days.”

Trust me. I am.

Though life often twists and turns in many directions, and though change is always in the air, I am – when it comes to my precious Mary Ann and A.J. – well aware that these are some of the best days of my life, and that these are days that I will someday look back upon and perhaps long to revisit. I am also well aware that being their father is the most important thing I will ever do, and that I am blessed beyond words to have them in my life.

Some people wish they had but just one thing to live for.

I have two.