Saturday, December 22, 2012

'Santa Rescue' gives St. Nick-knacks a happy home


For as long as I can remember, I have always loved Santa Claus. And by that, I mean pretty much anything that has anything to do with Santa Claus. And I think I might even be able to pinpoint the exact moment that it all started ...
It was Christmas Eve of 1971. I was four years old, and I guess, as children often do on that magical night, I was resisting my Mom’s reminders that it was time for bed. Of course, she told me what we all now know: If you are not in bed on Christmas Eve when Santa tries to visit your house, he will not come. And JUST AT THAT MOMENT as my Mom was saying those words – and this ACTUALLY HAPPENED – I looked out the front window of our second floor apartment in South Wilkes-Barre, and would you believe who was walking down our street?

Santa Claus.

I am not kidding. Apparently “Santa” just happened to be visiting a holiday party on our street, and just at the moment that my Mom was telling me that I better get to bed or he wouldn’t be visiting us that night, there he was.

Mom seemed to be just as surprised as I was, and I can't tell you how fast I ran down the hallway into my room and jumped into bed. It was such an incredibly magical feeling, I guess it’s still there inside me somewhere.
Throughout my childhood, I continued to love Santa. I absolutely loved - and still do - when people have big illuminated Santas on their front porches or rooftops and I always looked forward to watching the “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” TV special every year. And because my sister was 10 years my junior, we were able to have the magic of Santa in our house all throughout my high school years. Today, I share my love for all-things-Santa with my two children, Mary Ann and A.J.

As you might imagine, we have a few Santas in our house, including a big ’70s-style illuminated Santa on the front porch. It's the same kind I remember seeing around the neighborhoods when I was a kid, and whenever we put it out, it takes me back to those times.

This year, I decided to start a new Santa tradition with my two children. We call it the “Santa Rescue.”  Though I don't often frequent stores such as the Salvation Army or The Goodwill, whenever I do find myself there – usually looking for an old cassette deck or something to do with vintage music – I always notice one thing:
Santas.

They always seem to have a lot of cool little Santa knick-knacks for sale. Even if you go to one of those stores in the summertime,  you see Santas. Every August, my church holds a bazaar and flea market, and there is always a Christmas table at the flea market, and one of the things I’ve always noticed is that there are also usually a few Santas.
Well, starting today, some of those Santas are getting a new home. Today, Mary Ann, A.J. and I went out on our first “Santa Rescue.” We went to a few of those stores, all within just a few miles of home, and we bought five nice little Santas. They are of good quality, they feature nice detail, and they looked like they needed a good home for Christmas. We spent about $3 dollars.

Under the base of each Santa, I wrote a number “12,” so that we will always know that 2012 was the year when that particular Santa joined our own mini North Pole.  I told the kids that this is something that we’ll do every year around Christmastime, and that over the years, little by little, our collection will grow, and that when it’s time to decorate for the holidays, we’ll always find a shelf or a nice place in the house to display our Santas. I also told them that, even in the summer, at a place like the church bazaar, it was OK to rescue a Santa. If we find one or two next year, we’ll just write a “13” under the base and, at Christmastime, we’ll add him to our collection.
Like most families, we have quite a few nice holiday traditions. There are people and places that we visit and customs that we enjoy. This year, we started a new one. And though it only took about an hour or so and it came with no great expense, I think it’s something we’ll come to look forward to each year. It feels good to rescue a Santa, and perhaps return to him a little of that special Christmas magic that he gave to me on that memorable Chirstmas Eve all of those years ago.

Someone told me once, many years ago, that there is no greater compliment than when someone feels welcome in your home. And, through another holiday story - which I will share as we get a little closer to Christmas - I've learned that welcoming someone into your home, though a simple gesture, is one of the kindest things that you can do for someone.

Santa – or, should I say, Santas – will always be welcome in ours. As will everyone that we know and love. 

Merry Christmas.








Thursday, December 20, 2012

NO EXCUSES.
 IT'S TIME TO BETTER REGULATE
SOME OF THESE GUNS

The flag flies at half-staff at the Wyoming Valley West Middle School in Kingston, PA. When I attended the school in 1980-81, we didn't  think about things like what happened last week in Connecticut. Times have changed. 

It's now been almost a week since the tragic and devastating shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. It's been a week of numbing newscasts and heartbreaking  headlines. There's been a lot to digest. Here are some of my thoughts:
I am 45 years old. And I have never held a gun in my life. Why? Because I am not a soldier, I am not a police officer and I don’t hunt. Therefore, I have never had any reason to hold a gun. I would like to go to my grave, hopefully quite a few years from now, being able to say that I never held a gun. At the same time, growing up in Pennsylvania, where kids now actually get the first day of hunting off from school, I have had many friends that enjoy hunting. Please let it be clear that nobody cares about that. Nobody wants to take their guns. As long as they are registered properly, and they keep them locked up at home in a very safe place away from their kids, nobody cares if somebody takes a rifle out a few times a year and goes hunting. I personally couldn’t shoot an innocent animal simply going about its day out in the woods, but in fairness to the hunters, most of them do eat what they hunt, and it would be hypocritical of me to condem them when I enjoy a good steak or cheeseburger as much as the next guy.

What irritates the hell of out me is when things like this happen in Connecticut, or Colorado, or Arizona, and people start talking about getting some better legislation and laws on gun control, and some of these pro-gun zealots get all up in arms. (No pun intended.) They start crying about how the government is going to take away their guns, and how much they need their guns, and how it is their “constitutional right to bear arms.”


 Really?

You’re going to cite the constitution as the reason you have the right to own an automatic weapon that was probably designed for warfare?

 Do they know that when the constitution was written 230 years ago, guns were carved out of wood and shot one round at a time? Do they know that when the constitution was written women could not vote, and that you could actually go to an auction somewhere and actually purchase another human being to work your farm or be your servant? Wake up, gun nuts. Things have changed. And for the most part, new laws and legislation usually make things better and safer for everyone. For the last time: Nobody wants to take away your hunting rifle. And if you’re as good at shooting that thing as you probably think you are, that should be plenty to make you feel safe in your home.

The President is only person in the country who has personally gone and met with the families of all of these victims in all of these towns and cities, and he is the only one who has hugged all of them and has seen the heartache in their eyes. And if he has promised them - when they have asked him, which you know they have - that he will do something about the regulation of handguns and automatic weapons, then we all better just step aside and let him do what he has to do.

And yes, I understand mental illness is also an issue here. But unfortunately, that is a part of the human consdition that dates back to the beginning of mankind. Some people, unfortunately, will always suffer from it. Always have. Always will. All we can do is try to help them as best we can. We can’t legislate them. But we can legislate the guns.

There. I vented. Now I will go back to tearing up every time I see a picture of one of those little kids and praying for their families.

 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

 

SEPTEMBER 11: A SURVIVOR'S STORY




September 11, 2011

By Alan K. Stout
The Weekender

The United States notes the 10th anniversary this week of the Sept. 11 attacks, and with those reflections come personal memories. Where were you that day? How were you affected? What were your thoughts? I’ve already had this conversation with a few friends and family members, and I thought I’d share them with you as well. And not so much because of anything significant that happened to me on that day, but because of a story that I was told — on that very day — that will stay with me forever.

I had just arrived at work at The Times Leader when I first heard that a plane hit the North Tower of The World Trade Center. And frankly, I didn’t think much of it. As a kid, I had been to the top of both the Empire State Building and the Twin Towers, and I distinctly recalled, when visiting the Empire State Building, hearing about how a small plane had once hit the structure decades before. Apparently, it was a foggy day, and the pilot had lost his way. Sad, in that I believe the pilot was killed, but the loss of life was minimal, as was the damage. And for some reason that’s what I figured must have happened at the Twin Towers on Sept. 11.

We had a meeting at 9 a.m. that morning. It was not a newsroom meeting, where I worked, but rather one attended by members of all departments. As we waited for the meeting to begin, most everyone was chatting about the situation in New York. If I recall, I shared the Empire State Building story with some co-workers, trying to reassure them. It was a gorgeous morning here, but who knew what the weather was like in New York? And we hadn’t yet learned that it was a jet. Maybe it was another small plane in the fog? Or maybe the pilot had a heart attack? Our community news editor, however, already sensed something much worse. She was the first one that I can recall speculating that it was terrorism. And just a few minutes later, our managing editor came into the meeting, told us there was a significant event happening in New York and that another plane had struck the towers. He asked all members of the newsroom staff to return to the newsroom immediately. It would be the only time in my nearly 20 years at this company that we would publish a special afternoon edition.

Soon, we were all given assignments. Mine was to investigate whether or not any of our local federal buildings were being evacuated. Truthfully, I didn’t understand the assignment at first. Did anyone really think any buildings in Northeastern Pennsylvania would be targeted? Regardless, I had my assignment, and off I went. My first stop was at the Federal Courthouse on South Main Street in Wilkes-Barre. And as I arrived, I admit I was pretty shocked to see that it had already been partitioned off to the public by yellow police lines and that the people that worked there were indeed being moved out. And as I stood there, looking at that yellow tape, it occurred to me that nobody really had any idea what was happening. Maybe there were cells of terrorists all over the nation. Maybe any federal building was a target. To be standing in the middle of my hometown and have that odd and uneasy feeling is something I will never forget.

My next stop was the Stegmaier Building on Wilkes-Barre Boulevard. Though not technically a federal building, it was the home of some federal offices and the office of U.S. Congressman Paul Kanjorski. And it too was being evacuated. When I got back to the newsroom, I called the federal courthouse in Scranton. They were also being moved out.

Amid all of this, everyone was monitoring what was happening in New York. I was so busy, I don’t recall when I found out about the plane hitting the Pentagon or the crash in Shanksville, Pa. I know I was on my way back from the Stegmaier Building in my car — at the red light the intersects E. Market Street and Wilkes-Barre Boulevard — when I heard on radio that the first tower had fallen. And I was in the newsroom watching the coverage on TV when the second tower fell.

Soon, it all got a lot more personal.

My sister called. She was crying. Her fiance’s best friend was missing. He worked on about the 102nd floor of the South Tower, and no one had heard from him. All anyone knew was that he was in the building at the time of the attacks and that his office was well above where the planes had hit. With cell-phone service overloaded, the anguish of his family and friends would go on for several heartbreaking and excruciating hours before he was finally able to reach them and tell them he had escaped. Later in the day, sometime around 3 p.m., I asked my sister if she thought he might be willing to talk to me about it. When I think back on it now, I don’t know how many reporters anywhere in the country actually interviewed anyone on Sept. 11 that was actually inside those buildings on that very day, but when he agreed to get on the phone with me, I realized that neither of us had fully realized the magnitude of what he had been through. He was calm and collected, but his story was memorable:

He was at his desk at about 8:45 a.m. He and one co-worker, an older woman, were the only ones that had yet arrived at their office. She saw smoke coming from the North Tower and suggested they leave. He resisted and said there was nothing to worry about. And who could blame him? If you ever saw the Twin Towers in person, you could see that there was actually plenty of distance between them, and that if one had somehow caught fire, the other wasn’t really close enough to be affected. But she had worked there in 1993 when terrorists first hit the buildings, and she insisted that they leave immediately. And rather than take the elevators, she insisted they walk down more than 100 flights.

And by doing that, she saved his life.

He explained that when they got down to about the 50th floor, they felt the whole building shake. It was the second plane hitting their building. And most everyone above that floor died.

I also interviewed his girlfriend that day, who was a native of Larksville and was my sister’s best friend. She was still stunned, yet as you would expect, incredibly relieved. The following summer, they were both in my sister’s wedding party. He was the best man. And when he gave the toast, I wondered how many people in that crowded room even knew his story.

Unfortunately, there were many such stories on that horrible day. Nearly 3,000 of them ended much worse. His was one of the better ones, and while I was just a working reporter, I was glad to hear him tell it. I saw him again three months ago. My sister and her husband had their first child, and he was at the christening. And as I looked at him from across the room, 10 years later, I thought the same thing as I did at that wedding. I wondered how many people there knew his story.

I am told that he never talks about Sept. 11. And who can blame him? He lost many co-workers and probably some part of himself. But what I hope he knows — and what I hope all Sept. 11 survivors, widows, widowers, grieving parents and siblings and orphans know — is that what we all said 10 years ago wasn’t just lip-service. It wasn’t just patriotism brought about by tragedy. When we said it, we meant it.

We will never forget. And you will all remain in our thoughts and prayers. Always.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

PASSING ON THE HOT WHEELS ...




About two years ago, I retrieved my old collection of Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars from my parents’ attic. They'd been up there for more than 30 years, but I thought I might want to pass them on to my son someday, so I brought them home and stored them in a safe place until the day came when I thought he might be old enough to enjoy them. And though I didn’t think that day might come for another year or two, it ended up being yesterday.

Here’s how it all went down:

On Sunday afternoon, I watched with amusement as my daughter, Mary Ann, who is 5, and son, A.J., who is 3, played with their collection of miniature cars. They're really my son's cars, but they both play with them. They keep them in a nice Hot Wheels case and they have about 25. And though they’ve had the cars for a while, they seemed to be getting a little more attention this week. For some reason, they’ve moved up a few notches in stature amid their room full of toys and have been played with quite often. Intrigued - and simply in the mood to play with my kids - I sat down on the floor beside them and asked what they were doing.

And, for the most part, I was ignored.

My daughter briefly explained what they were doing with the cars - something about how all of the cars were "getting ready for school" - but as I sat down on the floor with them and looked on, they paid me little attention. And that’s when I got the idea:

It was time to unveil my old collection of Hot Wheels and Matchboxes.

I left the room, went down to the basement, and casually returned with my old car carrying case, full of vintage ‘70s-era Hot Wheels and Matchboxes. (And hey, let’s face it: the cars from back then were much cooler-looking than the cars of today.) I didn’t make a big deal about my return to the scene of where the two were playing. They were still absorbed and engaged in their own play, so I just nonchalantly sat down a few feet away with my old cars in tow.

“That’s OK you guys,” I said. “I don’t need to play with you. I have my own cars.”

This, as you’d imagine, got their attention. And they pretty much snapped out. They came rushing over, awestruck at what old Dad had just plopped on the floor.

My old carrying case was in great shape, as were some of the cars. Inside was an old ranking sheet that I had made as a child which told how fast each car was. This was once used as a guide for when we raced our cars on a speed track at my friend's house. Also inside was an American flag “Free The Hostages” sticker. These items had no meaning to my kids, but they were pretty transfixed by the coolness of the cars themselves. And why wouldn’t they be? One old blue pick-up truck, the “Baja Bruiser,” was still in racing shape. And my personal favorite, the 1957 Chevy, was completely intact.

Simply put: Daddy’s cars were cooler than their cars.

And I was no longer being ignored.

My daughter, who is very organized and thoughtful, began introducing “their cars” to “Daddy’s cars” and seemed to enjoy bringing the two eras of Hot Wheels together. My son seemed to be very respectful of the fact that the old cars were mine, and though he loved playing with them, he liked to keep them separate.

I simply got a kick out of the whole thing.

Later, when I was leaving and had some errands to run, I began to think that while it was fun to show them my old cars, they still might be too young to have them as their own. Some of them, after all, were 40 years old and I’d had them my whole life. Kids their age are not always careful with their toys, and I really didn't want to see the wheels being ripped off of these old gems. But when I packed them back up and was about to put them away, my son looked very sad. He wanted to keep playing with “Daddy’s cars.” And so, of course, I let him. And now I guess the torch – and the cars – have officially been passed on. When I was leaving for work this morning, both Mary Ann and A.J. were once again playing with “Daddy’s cars,” and as I walked out the door, I looked at them and said, “You know, those cars really aren’t mine.”

“Whose are they?” asked Mary Ann.

“Yours,” I replied.

Wait until they see my old Star Wars stuff ....


Sunday, June 24, 2012

ROLLIN' ON A RIVER

Sojourn on Susquehanna provides for memorable day




For the past few years, I've wanted to ride a kayak down the Susquehanna during RiverFest. And for whatever reasons, I never got around to it. I have a busy life with two young children and a wife that also works some weekends, so sometimes the time required just wasn't there. One year, the event sort of snuck up on me, and by the time I realized it was happening, I assumed it might be too late to register.

This year, I made the time. I called a few weeks in advance to make sure I was signed up. In 2012, a sojourn on the Susquehanna at RiverFest was a Father's Day gift from my wife. And it was one of most memorable days of my life.

I've always loved the river. I enjoy walking along the levees and the River Common, and as a person whose earliest memories of life include the "Agnes" flood of 1972, it's just something that has always interested me. I think kids that grew up around the time of "The Flood" were made to think that the river is bad: "It's dangerous. It's dirty. Don't go near it." This, unfortunatley, still seems to be how a lot of people think.

It's nonsense. As my friends and I used to say back in high school: "The river is good." It's absolutely beautiful. And I've always loved to look at it.

My cousin West, who loves the outdoors, agreed to join me on my kayak journey. His brother-in-law, Dave, also joined us. And though I've always enjoyed the Susquehanna, it wasn't until RiverFest 2012 that I took her for a ride.

More than 200 people also took the ride. Many of us were picked up near Nesbitt Park in Kingston, the site of RiverFest, and were taken by bus to Harding. Our transportation came in the form of school buses, and since I don't think I'd been on one since 1985, that in itself was kind of fun. Once we arrived in Harding we were given kayaks, as well as some safety and paddling instructions, and then off we went on a 14 mile journey.

It was remarkable.

Up North, near the Harding area, the scenery was gorgeous. We had picture-perfect weather, and while enjoying the tranquility of the water and the surrounding mountains, one couldn't help but think of how some of this journey - at least where each side of the river was undeveloped - probably didn't look much different than it would have to an American Indian making the same trek 300 years ago. Later, when we came into the Pittston area, you could see more familiar landmarks, and I joked with my cousin as we passed Brews Brothers that we should pull in for a beer.

Ironically, our sojourn took place on the 40th anniversary of the "Agnes" flood, and though the river was calm and mostly shallow on our journey, we did have a few reminders of just how mighty the Susquehanna can be. Trees, from last September's flooding, could still be seen lodged against a few bridges. A demolished house sat in some trees near the river's edge. And when I came around a big bend near the Forty Fort Cemetery, I certainly thought about how - 40 years ago to the day - the levee had broken in that exact location.

Still, I found the entire experience to be relaxing and enjoyable. It was fun to see the Luzerne County Courthouse and the Wilkes-Barre skyline from the perspective of being on the river itself, and to pass underneath bridges that I'd been driving over my entire life.

At the end of our journey, when we pulled in near the Market Street Bridge, my wife, kids and sister-in-law were waiting. I could see them smiling and waving as I got closer to the docking point. We ended up staying at RiverFest for quite a while. We had lunch and enjoyed the music, vendors and the activities for children. My daughter even went on a pony ride.

I've put together a little slideshow of some photos and video of our ride down the Susquehanna, set to some music. You can check it out here. I hope you enjoy the photos:



Did you know that "Susquehanna" is considered to be one of the most beautiful words in the English language?

Well, after spending four hours with her yesterday, I can say that, in some spots, it's also one of the most beautiful places I've ever been. I am glad that I finally made the time for her. And I will be going back.

Thank you, RiverFest.

Monday, February 20, 2012

'HAIL TO THE CHIEF' ON PRESIDENTS' DAY


Today, in honor of Presidents' Day, I'm posting a picture that my daughter drew last year in her pre-K three class. Perhaps you recall doing similar sketches when you were in school? It's a nice tradition and I'm glad that Mary Ann is learning about the history of her country at such an early age.

I have lived under many Presidents: Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II and Obama. And I think all of them did something important - even the ones that might not be as beloved as some of the others. President Johnson was very supportive of Civil Rights and President Nixon, for all of his many flaws, greatly helped relations with China. President Ford offered calm and healing when the country needed calm and healing, President Carter brought people together in the Middle East, President Bush (the first) was a man of his word during the Gulf War and President Clinton let the good times roll with a thriving economy. And President Bush (the second) kept us safe for eight more years after 9/11. He declared war on terror, and though that war took some odd twists and turns under his office, there has never been another attack on U.S. soil.

I think this is what we should do on Presidents' Day. We should look at what each leader brought to the table. My favorite quote from a President in my lifetime came from Ronald Reagan, who pretty much ended the Cold War and who said, "You'd be amazed what can be accomplished when no one cares who gets the credit." I have thought of those words many times in my life, especially when a team of some 100 people worked on "Concert For A Cause" for 12 straight years with no other motive than to try and help others. And I think of it now in my work with Big Brothers Big Sisters.

Obviously, the two men that my daughter drew in this picture also made significant contributions to the presidency. And this is really their holiday. One was "The Father of Our Country." The other was "The Great Emancipator." And I'm glad that my daughter - through her little drawing - helped remind me of that today, and helped remind me of some of the others that came later. I thank Teddy Roosevelt for our national parks. I thank Dwight Eisenhower for the American highway system. I thank John Kennedy for putting a man on the moon, even if he didn't live to see it. And I thank Barrack Obama for helping fulfill MLK's dream.

Happy Presidents' Day, America.

Some have been great. Some have not. All tried their best. And, most importantly, all were elected by the people. We don't say "Long live the king" in the United States. We don't care for kings very much.

But we do say "Hail to the Chief."

Sunday, February 5, 2012

14 REASONS WHY I'LL ALWAYS LOVE THE SUPER BOWL


Fortunately, because I'm not trying to promote anything, I believe I'm allowed to use the term "Super Bowl" on this blog. Perhaps you've heard some of the recent fuss about "trademark" issues and the term "Super Bowl," and how places such as supermarkets and bars aren't allowed to use the term "Super Bowl" in their advertisements.

Having a special sale on snacks for the Super Bowl? Showing the Super Bowl on a big screen at your club? If so, you've got to refer to it as "The Big Game," or whatever else you can come up with to let people know that you are, of course, simply referring to the Super Bowl.

It's silly. And for a league that always does everything smart and markets itself so well, it's one of the dumbest things the NFL has ever done. The Super Bowl is pretty much a national holiday. Everybody should be allowed to refer to it by its proper name, and the league should be grateful for the added exposure and that there is always so much interest in its championship contest.

There is no question that Americans love the Super Bowl. We always have. My favorite team, the Dallas Cowboys, has played in eight of them and won five. And as has become my tradition every few years, I'll share some of the reasons why I will always love Super Sunday, and why even though I'm on the sidelines as a fan this year, I still can't wait for Super Bowl XLVIII.

1) For men, it is generally accepted that we are completely sovereign on Super Sunday. If the women in our lives would like to watch the game, great. They are more than welcome. We enjoy their company. But if not, who cares? Go to the mall. Shop. Do whatever it is that you do. We men appreciate the fact that on this day, you understand that we will be fairly consumed by this event. If we want to start watching the pre-game show 10 hours before kickoff, you will understand. We will eat. We will drink. And if it's just the guys and not a family-style gathering, we will swear. And, we may gamble. You will simply accept it.

2) During the Super Bowl, if our own favorite team is not playing, we may torment people whose teams are playing. My rule is this: If you are my friend, and you are not a Dallas Cowboys fan, but you once rooted for them in the Super Bowl anyway, simply because you wanted me to be happy, then I will return the favor and root for your team. But, if you taunted me all week before the game about how my Boys were going to get dusted, I will hope that your team is completely humiliated and loses by a margin of at least 45 points.

3) The Super Bowl allows us the chance to revel in past glories. Almost always, on the day of the game, one of the ESPN networks will show a marathon of the official "NFL Films" Super Bowl highlights. These 30-minute gems have always been shot on real film, not the cheap stuff, so even if you're watching highlights from the very first Super Bowl, the picture is always perfect. In just 24 hours, you can get yourself one hell of a Super Sunday history lesson, and since they're always run in order, you can usually figure out what time your own team's triumphs will be shown, and when you'll need to tune out and switch channels to avoid the retelling of painful defeats.

4) The Super Bowl allows you to succumb to superstition. You must wear your "lucky" jersey. You must sit in "your spot." You must stick with the same snacks and beverages, especially if your team won when you had them last. During one Super Bowl, I decided to do a shot of Jack Daniels every time Dallas scored, and every time they kicked off. They won 52-17. Not good. That same year, I did not shave on the morning of the first round of the playoffs. Dallas won that day, so I didn't shave all week, until the NFC Championship Game. They won that game, too, so I didn't shave for two more weeks, until the Super Bowl. By the time the game came around, I had a beard. My friends actually took a picture of me shaving it off about an hour after the game, as we continued to party in victory. Laugh as you may, but I know the beard was a big part of the win.

5) The Super Bowl allows us the chance to use Roman numerals. Roman numerals are cool.

6) The Super Bowl sometimes allows us the chance to not fully recognize the current Super Bowl. A few years ago, I was invited to a Super Bowl party, so I took a cake with the a big blue star on it and the Roman numerals VI, XII, XXVII, XXVIII and XXX. These were the Super Bowls the Cowboys had won. The fact that Dallas was not playing in the Super Bowl that year was completely irrelevant.

7) The same concept applies to what we wear to Super Bowl parties. Many of us will wear our team's jersey to any such gathering, even if they are not playing in the game. Frankly, I believe this is how it should be. Yes, it's the day we crown a new champion, but it's also a day for us all to celebrate the greatness of the (insert Howard Cosell voice here) National Football League.

8) Those that are perceived as "bandwagon fans" during the Super Bowl will be unmercifully ridiculed and vilified. If you went out this week and bought a Broncos or Seahawks jersey, and you have never mentioned any allegiance to these teams before, you will no longer be respected by any of your friends.

9) The Super Bowl allows us the chance to gain perspective on greatness and to appreciate people that we once disliked. Example: When I was a kid, I hated Terry Bradshaw because he thumped Dallas in the Super Bowl, twice. But, thinking back, the guy was simply excellent. Same goes for Joe Montana. Two guys. Eight rings. Respect.

10) The Super Bowl allows us the opportunity to strike revenge and purge ourselves of old demons. For example, I always hated the old disco song "The Hustle" because it reminded me of when, in 1976 , Dallas lost Super Bowl X to Pittsburgh. It was a huge hit at the time, and I think they actually used the song during the broadcast of the game. Though I was just a kid, the tune always bothered me, and every time I heard it over the years, it put a little twinge of pain in my heart. Flash ahead to 1996. Super Bowl XXX. Twenty years later, Dallas gets its rematch with Pittsburgh. A few days before the game, I go out and buy one of those disco compilation CDs that contains "The Hustle," and when Dallas wins the game - which I knew they would - I blast that baby all though my apartment, dancing in joyous victory. Closure.

11) The Super Bowl is the time to observe proper Super Sunday etiquette. Some may need to be reminded that this is not a social event for everyone. This is World Championship football. Some people's hearts are on the line. Here are some tips:

a) If anyone at the party you're attending this year is a fan of the Broncos or Seahawks, you must show them courtesy and respect. This is their day, not yours. They get the best seats in proximity to the TV. Period. This is not debatable.

b) Do not ever - ever - stand in front of the television. If you do, you risk being sworn at and pelted with flying objects, which you fully deserve.

c) Do not try to chitchat with those focused on the game. If you're just at the party to hangout and socialize, go into another room. Or, even better, take it upon yourself to serve food and drinks to those watching the game.

d) If you don't know a damn thing about football, Super Sunday is not the day to learn. Don't ask a bunch of folks glued to their seats how many home runs Peyton Manning hit this year or what a first down is. You will be ignored.

e) Don't ask anyone who cares about the game to run and pick up the pizza. They will not. And if you have it delivered, tip the guy big time. Remember, this poor dude is missing the game.

f) Appreciate the well-intended contributions of the non-football people. If someone who doesn't care about the game shows up with a big bucket of wings and a case of beer, gladly accept it. This is their way of trying to get involved. Always thank these people accordingly and encourage them to run back out and return with more food and drinks if they'd like.

12) The Super Bowl allows us the opportunity to buy cool stuff during the weeks after the game. If your team wins, it's going to cost you some money. You'll need the obligatory boisterous championship t-shirts and pennants, which are usually in stores just a few days after the game, and later, you'll of course need the required commemorative championship steins and plaques.

13) The Super Bowl allows us the chance to show off to our friends all of the cool stats that we know about the Super Bowl. For example, Dallas lost three Super Bowls by a total of only 11 points. Even in defeat, they have never embarrassed themselves, and with a little luck, they could have won eight championships, not just five. Other stuff I know: The '85 Bears, at the time, put the worst beating on somebody in the Super Bowl, walloping the Patriots 46-10. The greatest whipping ever was San Fran's 55-10 lambasting of the Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV. Pennsylvania teams? The Steelers have won the most Super Bowls with six. The Eagles are 0-2. I could go on, but that would probably get annoying. It's cool to throw out a few of these during the game, but don't overdo it.

And finally ...

14) The Super Bowl allows us the chance to put down the remote control. For four hours, the station stays set. Sometimes it's a great game, sometimes it's a blow out. But for fans of the winner, it's a day they will always savor. Even the commercials are fun, and in recent years, everyone from Paul McCartney to Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Madonna, Tom Petty and Prince have performed at halftime. This year, it's Bruno Mars. He's good. Really good.

Again, I give you my big-five: VI, XII, XXVII. XXVIII and XXX. Tom Landry, Roger Staubach, Tony Dorsett, Jimmy Johnson, Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith ... these are the men that, on those days, made some and my Super Sundays most super, and for that I am still very grateful.

It is why I will always love the Super Bowl.

Now, who's running for the pizza? ...

Thursday, February 2, 2012

A 'GALLERY' OF MEMORIES


When the Gallery of Sound recently announced that it would be closing its store at the Gateway Shopping Center in Edwardsville, I was both saddened and reflective. I was saddened because I’ve come to know both Joe Nardone Sr. and Joe Nardone Jr. pretty well over the years, and I know how dedicated they are to the record business. I’d done quite a few stories about them, I’d worked with them on a few projects, and in this age of generic superstores and digital downloading, I was pulling for them to weather the iTunes and Walmart storm and survive.

Fortunately, they’ve still got a few more stores in the Gallery of Sound chain, which I hope are around for a long, long time.

Other Gallery of Sound stores have closed in recent years, including locations in Pittston and Dallas. But the closing of the Edwardsville store hit me the hardest. For as long as I can remember, it was my spot to buy records. And even though it had moved within the shopping center a few times, I still felt l like I grew up there. And thus, I became reflective.

I thought of the time, in the fall of 1982, that I went in to buy the new KISS album. It was $8.95, and I can still recall pushing my last nickel across the counter to pay for it. I can still remember the clerk and what she looked like. It’s hard to believe it was nearly 30 years ago.

The store was also a place of discovery. It was a place where you could easily learn more about your favorite artists simply by browsing around. In the early ‘80s, when I was in my early teens, I was just discovering the music of acts such as The Who, The Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen and was delighted to learn that by that time, they each had a great catalog of material. I’d leaf through their albums, taking each one out of the bin to read the songs titles and examine the artwork. I’d check to see what year they were first released, and eventually, I started to buy them all. I built a record collection. Later it was cassettes, and then CDs. The format didn’t matter. The fact was I learned a lot about music in that store.

And I know I’m not alone. Thousands of kids that grew up on the West Side did the same. We even got to know most of the clerks by name, and they knew us. And we were always made to feel welcome. Sometimes, they'd be playing something so good when you went into the store, you'd end up buying it.

At one point when my friends and I were about 16, we would make an entire afternoon out of visiting the record store. We’d save up our money until we had about $25 bucks, then we’d walk over to the shopping center, have lunch at Antonio’s, and then go buy two or three albums. This was a big deal. Buying more than one album on one day was almost magical, and we’d take our time while browsing through the store and choosing between bands such as The Police and Van Halen. For me, an old Who album was almost always on the agenda. I really didn’t discover the band until its 1982 “Farewell Tour,” but thanks to the Gallery of Sound, I learned all about them pretty fast.

Of course, there was more than just music at the store. Rock posters, pins, t-shirts, videos … it was all there. There was an image to music – a vibe, if you will – that doesn’t exist today. These things also added to the simple fun of a record store and the “Gallery Of Sound” was indeed very well-named. Later, in the '90s, the "midnight sale" became popular for major releases, and it was not uncommon to see a long line of music fans standing outside the store late at night, often talking with one another about their favorite artists. You must admit, there's something pretty cool about that.

My last visit to the Edwardsville Gallery of Sound came just before Christmas. I was looking to add to my collection of classic holiday music and was looking for a few CDs by Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. Of course, the store had both albums I was looking for and I was not surprised. If I knew at the time it would be my last time there, perhaps I would have the perused the aisles a bit longer.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve downloaded some songs from iTunes and I love my iPod. But I just don’t understand why anyone would rather download a CD instead of just buying it. The cost is about the same, and it’s easy enough to take the music from the CD and add it to your iPod, so why not own the actual product, complete with artwork and liner notes? Why not have the actual recording just in case your hard drive crashes? Should I ever lose my iPod or crash my hard drive, my music collection will remain intact. And that’s because it's mostly on CD.

There’s a new Springsteen album coming out next month. And though I plan to upload it to my iPod, the first thing I’ll need to do is go buy it. Not download it. Go get the record.

Thankfully, right around the corner from my office on Public Square, there’s still a Gallery of Sound.

Friday, January 27, 2012

REBUILDING ON FRIENDSHIP


Sometimes, even your best friends can still surprise you with their kindness. And when it happens, it makes you appreciate what you have even more.

My home, for some reason, has always been the gathering place for my friends and I to watch major sporting events. If the Yankees are in the playoffs, which they usually are, I can usually count on a room full of guys to be watching the games throughout the entire month of October. I’ve got a finished basement, which serves as our official sports room. It’s decorated with some nice memorabilia, it’s got plenty of seating, a big TV, a fridge, plus its own restroom and entrance. I can’t even tell you how many games we’ve watched down there over the years or how many laughs we’ve shared. We call them our “gatherings,” and we’re good for about a dozen a year.

Recently, however, my basement wasn’t up to the task of hosting a “gathering.”

I’d had a bit of a groundwater problem in one of the basement's rooms for years. Usually, it would only happen about twice a year after a major monsoon, but the excessive rains of 2011 had made it a more prevalent problem. In late summer, when hurricanes and tropical storms seemed to visit us on a weekly basis, I decided to finally get the problem fixed. After consulting with several professionals, it was clear that I needed a French-drain and sump pump, and that it was going to be a pretty big job. They’d be lifting the carpet, jack-hammering the floors inside the house, ripping out some of the drywall, pouring concrete and generally making a big mess of the place. The upside was a lifetime guarantee of permanent dryness. The downside was that once the drain and pump were installed, the company’s work was done. Getting the room back together would be my responsibility. I’d have to find another contractor to replace the drywall and do all of the other work to get the place back in order.

It was a bit daunting, but I had no choice. It needed to be done.

I hired them.

This was back in October, and because the company was still so busy with all of the September flooding, they said they wouldn’t be able to do the job until early December. I said that was fine, and one day, shortly after I’d signed the contract, I was riding out to Yankee Stadium with a few friends when I told them I was finally going to get the water problem in the basement fixed. I told them all that what was involved, and that even after the drain and pump were installed, I’d still have lots of additional expenses in fixing up the room. We were just chatting. I wasn’t seeking any help. And I had no idea that some of my friends knew how to do such work. I was just venting about what a mess I was going to have in my basement and how expensive it was going to be.

“Dude,” they said. “Don’t pay somebody to do that extra stuff. We know how to do it. We’ll help you.”

They explained that dry-walling was easy, and that what might cost me a few hundred bucks to have somebody come in and do could actually be done for much less. I graciously accepted their offer, and told them that after the holidays, I’d be ready for their help.

The big day came about two weeks ago on Saturday. The drain and pump had been installed and my basement was indeed a mess, but I was not surprised at all that the guys that had told me they’d help me three months prior all showed up. I put out some donuts for breakfast, ordered some pizza for lunch, and the plan was to get the project done in one day.

Not happening.

We continuously hit one snag after another. The drywall that was removed while installing the drain was not cut evenly, making patching in the new material much more difficult. The support beams that were partially removed were also not cut evenly, making attaching and securing new wood much more difficult. Even the new concrete over the new drain was not smoothed evenly, which made everything more difficult.

“Those guys,” said my friends, “did a hack job on your house.”

This was frustrating. But through it all, I also I saw what type of friends I had. Clearly, this was going to be bigger job than they’d bargained for. An expected trip to Lowe’s turned into four or five as new obstacles were encountered and new materials were needed. My driveway looked like a lumberyard, full of fine tools that were not mine, but theirs. Some of the guys were back again on Sunday, and even during the week in the evenings. And yet amid it all, we had lots of laughs. Whenever a new unforeseen problem was encountered, we called it a “Funt,” in reference to the late Allen Funt of the show "Candid Camera." And there were lots of “Funts” throughout the week. Too many.

Laughing, occasional swearing … it all happened in the basement as boards were cut, walls were replaced and the radio played. And the conversations were engaging. Who knew that one friend was so disenchanted with Alex Rodriguez that he wished the Yankees would ship him out? Who knew, until an AC/DC song came on the radio, that the same friend preferred Bon Scott over Brain Johnson? Both of these topics led to spirited debates.

Finally, after a week of sawing, nailing, spackling and sanding, the dust settled, both figuratively and literally. And last Sunday, we all sat there in our usual seats comfortably watching the NFL’s Championship Sunday. We had set Championship Sunday as our goal to complete job, and we did it.

Well ... my friends did it.

Throughout the week, I frequently thanked them for all of their help, to which one flatly replied, “This is how America was built. People helping each other out.”

Maybe it is that simple. But their gesture was not. They gave me a lot of their time and put in a lot of work. And though I wasn’t around when America was built, I do know how my basement was rebuilt.

It was done with friendship.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

TWO 'BUZZES' ARE BETTER THAN ONE


Though the “Toy Story” saga has been entertaining children since 1995, our family is relatively new to the Disney-produced animated gems. Our daughter, Mary Ann, is only four years old and our son, A.J., is only two. And thus it was the summer of 2011 when we first began to watch the three “Toy Story” films on DVD. And truthfully, it was Dad here who was the last to sit down and watch them. My wife and the kids had been enjoying them for quite a while before I finally got around to sitting through the first one, but once I did, I was just as eager as everyone to see the two sequels. They’re wonderful movies for kids and they come with just enough wit to also entertain adults.

Simply put: I like “Toy Story.” And my kids love “Toy Story.”

At Christmastime, the children let it be known that they would like Santa to bring a little “Toy Story“ to our house. They wanted a “Buzz Lightyear” action figure, as well as “Woody” and “Jessie.” They were told that if they were good, Santa would probably grant their requests, and once my wife and I decided to start our “Santa” shopping, we planned to get them the three “Toy Story” characters that they liked best. At least that was my plan. My wife, however, had another idea.

“We'll need to get two Buzz Lightyears,” she said. “One for each of them.”

“Why?” I asked. “I thought they’d share them.”

“They won’t,” she said. “At least not the Buzz Lightyears. They both love him. And they'll each need to have their own. If they don’t, they’ll fight over him.”

“Well," I said. “We are their parents. Isn’t it our job to teach them to share?”

“Trust me,” she said. ”It won’t happen. It will be a nightmare.”

Knowing that my wife was the one that was usually at home with the kids during the day and that she would be the one that might have to serve as referee in this daily tug-of-war over Buzz Lightyear, I agreed that Santa would bring one to each of them. There was one problem, however. Once we started our holiday shopping, we noticed that some of the “Toy Story” characters were pretty hard to come by, especially the incredibly popular Buzz Lightyear. And though we briefly panicked, I was able to order them online. Two Buzz Lightyears were on their way. Our kids were in fact very good. And Santa would reward them.

And that’s when things got complicated. In fact, that’s when the whole wonderful vision of Santa through a child's eyes was nearly destroyed in our home.

One afternoon, just a few days after we ordered our Buzz Lightyears, my wife pulled the car up in front of the house with the two kids in tow. She parked, unbuckled them from the seats, and as children often do, they ran off ahead of her to the front porch. And that’s when she heard exclamations of sheer joy.

“Buzz Lightyear! Buzz Lightyear!”

Though it took my wife only a few seconds to get there, the damage was done. The Buzz Lightyears had indeed arrived and, inexplicibly, the delivery box was wide open on the front porch. And the kids had them. To say my wife was not only disappointed but also angry would be an understatement. A few days later, she asked the UPS driver how this could have happened. He explained that drivers are supposed to re-tape all boxes that are accidentally opened during delivery, but he said that not all of them do it. Great. Just great.

We had ourselves a Christmas crisis.

Fortunately, she thought quickly, right on the spot. She told the kids that these toys were not ours and that they must have been delivered to our house by mistake. She even went as far as to tell them that they must have been meant for our neighbor across the street, and that our neighbor must have ordered them for her nieces and nephews. And, in full damage control mode, we later asked our neighbor to come over to our house and – in front of the kids - inquire if we had mistakenly received her delivery. We told her that indeed we had and the Buzz Lightyears were "returned" to her.

That seemed to solve at least a part of the problem. But our daughter is now almost five years old and is as sharp as a tack. She doesn’t miss a trick, and we still felt that if the Buzz Lightyears were under the tree on Christmas morning and were “from Santa," she still might somehow connect them to what she had seen on the front porch a few weeks prior. And so we decided that the Buzz Lightyears would be gifts from Mommy and Daddy, and Santa would bring other gifts. And the truth is, once Christmas morning arrived and the hasty unwrapping began, the nametags seemed pretty obsolete. There were lots of gifts under the tree, and that’s all the kids seemed to care about. Of couse we still made a point to emphasize that the Buzz Lightyears were from us, not Santa, and thankfully the kids made no mention of the opened-box incident.

We did it. Was saved the magic of Santa. At least, hopefully, for a few more years.

As far the two Buzz Lightyears go, my wife was right. We needed two. In fact, since Christmas, my daughter has already told me that ”My Buzz Lightyear is the real Buzz Lightyear. A.J.’s isn’t the real one.” I can’t imagine what it would have been like if we only had one. Mommy knew best.

Two Buzz Lightyears are better - and smarter - than one.