Chuck E. Cheese’s 1984: Where a kid can fight off teenagers to play arcade video games

For my 9th birthday in 1984, my parents took me to an establishment new to the Pittsburgh area that had plenty of games for kids and plenty of pizza for kids to eat.  Chuck E. Cheese’s was my funhouse as a child, and it looks nothing like the place I knew growing up over thirty years ago.

Each location in Pittsburgh had different activities for kids, and I appreciated the location west of town near Bridgeville.  Sure, they had an awesome ball pit and they had a cool and scary twisty slide (It would have been deemed unsafe in 2017, that’s for sure), but the real draw for me was that the Bridgeville Chuck E. Cheese’s had the best selection of arcade games to play under one roof.

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My favorite arcade game

The original Chuck E. Cheese’s had the same types of games that are found in today’s locations–skee-ball, whack-a-mole, wheel of fortune and other games where the object is to earn tickets which are then redeemed for cheap toys.  Toys that might cost a few dollars elsewhere, but at Chuck’s they could be obtained with the tickets earned from $10 worth of skee-ball games.  Today’s locations have many more of the “ticket games” than actual arcade games.

At my old age, I was curious as to why the old Chuck’s had so many cool arcade games.  I discovered that Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari, Inc. was actually one of the original owners, and wanted the video game arcade to showcase many of the titles that Atari and its parent companies released.  What transpired in the arcade section of Chuck’s in the mid-1980’s was wonderful chaos.  In a place that was marketed to children ages 3 to 12, teenagers and college kids were lining up to play video games.

The arcade section was set up the same as other arcades in the 1980’s.  They were usually found at malls and amusement parks all across America.  Token machines were stationed throughout Chuck’s.  One token was worth twenty-five cents, and the majority of people playing the arcade games at Chuck’s would simply walk in, bypass all of the pizza and dinner theatre themed areas for the kids and spend $10 to $20 on the thirty to forty arcade games lined up in a U along the walls on one side of the main play area.  Some of the bigger cockpit-style video games were in the center of the floor, including two (TWO!!!) Pole Position games.

All of the games were not Atari games.  It seemed that Bushnell wanted whatever was hot to increase traffic and boot profits.  Many of the companies I remembered were very big names in the video game industry then and well represented at the Bridgeville Chuck’s.  In addition to Atari, they had Nintendo, Data East, Midway, Konami, Sega, Namco and Gottlieb.  Gottlieb was the video game equivalent of a “one hit wonder”, being responsible for the legendary game Q*Bert, which is pictured above.

By 1986 traffic declined at Chuck’s due to the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).  Previous home systems were mostly crude  versions of the arcade games, but the NES combined fun games with better graphics.  Teenagers and college kids could buy an NES, play games at home all day and not have to worry about running out of money to play the machines at an arcade.  Even though there were less people playing the games, for a few years the machines stayed at Chuck’s.  Toward the end of the 1980’s, the Bridgeville Chuck’s had the following games in one location:

Donkey Kong, BurgerTime, Bump ‘N’ Jump, Rampage, Defender, Joust, Gauntlet, Space Invaders, Ms. Pac-Man, Pac-Man, Galaxian, Galaga, Dig Dug, Pole Position, Q*Bert, Frogger, Centipede, Paperboy, Marble Madness, Zaxxon, Out Run, Mario Bros. (The original, not Super Mario Bros.)

Chuck’s had other arcade games besides these, but I remembered these games well.  They were fun to play and I even enjoyed watching the older kids play them because I would learn the game before spending my money.  The 13-25 age group that hogged most of the games taught me which ones were the best to play so I could spend my $5 a little more wiser than I would have.  And sometimes, the older kids let me in on the action.

At my brother’s 8th birthday party in 1986, the Bridgeville Chuck’s got a multi-player Gauntlet machine.  It would allow for up to four players to run the game at once and team up to beat the enemies on each level.  I was 10 at the time and while I was walking through the arcade, a teenage boy about 15 years-old asked me to be player four on Gauntlet.  I agreed even though I had no idea what I was doing.  The two other players with us were his friends, also around high school age.  During the game he taught me how to use the buttons and what areas to focus on attacking.  By the time we completed the game (We got about halfway through the game before we all ran out of money), there were a few other teenagers watching us run through the beginning levels.  Before the next batch of guys tried the new game, they were asking my new acquaintance and I about the game play features.  Not him and his friends–him and I.  Me, all of age 10.

The Gauntlet experience at Chuck E. Cheese’s taught me not to be afraid of unfamiliar environments.  Sometimes the people that seem intimidating end up being helpful, kind and welcoming.  If I would have said, “No, I don’t know how to play”, an early shred of confidence gained would have been missed out on, and it would have affected me going forward in life.

That fall, my friends at school wanted me to go out for the basketball team.  I never played before, but I remembered playing Gauntlet with the older kids, finding my place on a team and learning that new experiences didn’t have to be scary, unappealing situations.  I tried out for the team, made the team, and by the end of the year had become one of the better players.

So as you can see reader of this post, there is a lot to be learned from playing video games.  Happy 40th birthday Chuck E. Cheese’s, and thanks for the awesome place to learn the meaning of confidence.

Soothe: Nintendo lullabies, Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake and my young son’s love of them

There’s the old adage, “Write what you know.”  Many writers over time (Including Twain and Hemingway) have given this advice.  This tale can be titled Sing What You Know and/or Put On Music That Calms You Down When Calming Your Baby Down.  

My wife and I have one son who is age three right now.  When he was a newborn, he did the usual things a baby would do in its first year.  He woke up at night many times, pooped six times a day, required burping after bottles and wanted to be held the majority of the time.  We both worked during this period of his life so trying to get enough sleep was becoming more difficult.

I have a brother who is eight years younger that me, so I remember observing what my mother and father would do to calm my little brother down when he was crying.  Some would obviously work (Giving him a bottle because he was hungry) and some would not (Taking off/adding clothes when he just wanted held).  Over time my parents learned his cues and my brother didn’t cry as much as he got closer to his first birthday.

During those early desperate nights when it seemed we could not get enough sleep before going into work for a full day, we tried to understand our son’s needs in an attempt to get him back to sleep.  When it came time for me to take my turn in the waking up rotation, I wanted to sing my son back to sleep but I didn’t know any of the traditional lullabies people would sing to babies.  I wanted my wife to stay asleep, but I didn’t want our son to keep crying for thirty minutes.  I needed something to hum or sing that was repetitive, and there was only one type of music that came to mind in my state of sleep-deprived delirium:

Video game music from my old Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).

The first night I tried using NES music, I slowed down the background music used in the above-ground levels of 1986’s The Legend of Zelda.  It worked!  My wife would get so pissed that I could sing him back to sleep with the silliest method that would never be found in parenting advice books and blogs.  When our son didn’t want to hear the Zelda music, I slowed down the following music from other games (I challenge others to try this method to see if it works on other babies):

The podium win AND the “kick the can” music from Excitebike, above-ground music from Super Mario Bros., the game introduction/general background music from Bases Loaded and the count out/winner music from Mike Tyson’s Punchout.  I added a few from other platforms, including the original “hammer” music from Donkey Kong.

As my son got older and started going to day care, I had a problem keeping him happy in his car seat on the way home.  I always had CD’s of Nick Drake and Leonard Cohen in the car, so I would pop one in to see if the mellow folk music of Drake or Cohen would calm him down.  I could tell he was listening to the different instruments and the words being sung in the songs.  It was a sound completely different from what he heard in his early life.  After a few tracks, he would go to sleep.  If I knew he didn’t sleep well during the day, I would keep the music on and drive around for an hour to let him rest.

Even at three, my son remembers some of those drives home and knows their music well.  He has his own special names for each of his favorite tracks and when I pick him up from day care, we usually have Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left on when we drive home.  Instead of tossing a child’s DVD in the car and my son blankly staring at a small TV screen while we drive home, my son and I sing “Time Has Told Me”, we listen for the strings to kick in on “River Man”, all while looking out the car windows, seeing the birds fly, viewing the turkeys pecking at last year’s corn crop remnants and marveling at the big construction trucks when encountering road work being done.

I loved my old NES and when I have time again, I know I will eventually purchase the recently released Nintendo NES Classic Edition.  I love the music of Nick Drake and Leonard Cohen because their poetic songs bring calm to my worrisome existence.  The games and songs that have soothed my soul over the years have provided my son with the same feelings of comfort and familiarity in a unique form.

 

Carrick Classic Lanes: A south Pittsburgh relic immortalized by Hollywood

On a congested section of Brownsville Road in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Carrick, there is a simple double door tucked away just a few steps down the street from a local tavern.  Hundreds of people walk by this door every day, unaware that beyond the inner vestibule an old American “bowling house” awaits.  Alleys that hold precious memories in the hearts of many south Pittsburgh residents and were triumphantly portrayed in the 1996 film Kingpin.  Alleys that remain but are not in use like they were throughout the last half of the 20th century.  The name of this hallowed place?  Carrick Classic Lanes (CCL).

In 1995, the present day Roosevelt Elementary school along Brownsville Road was a vacant building.  The upper parking lot was only in full use when the patrons of Saint Basil’s Church used the lot during Saturday vespers, Sunday services and their annual festival.  So it was very surprising at that time when one dozen mobile-home trailers occupied that very lot for a week along with numerous box trucks scattered between West Cherryhill Street and CCL.  Eventually people in the neighborhood found out that parts of a movie were being filmed inside CCL with Woody Harrelson (Roy Munson) and Randy Quaid (Ishmael).

The two images above are from the downstairs of CCL.  Lanes 1-12 are upstairs when walking in the front door and the staircase just inside the front door to the left lead down to lanes 13-24.  In the movie, a fictitious exterior was used when Munson ventures into “Lancaster Bowl”.  After Roy enters the building, the next clip shows  Munson descending  the very same steps I walked down as a young city boy.  Here, Munson witnesses Ishmael bowling for the first time, and the partnership that is the foundation of the movie is born.

CCL not only had the look of an old-school 1950’s bowling house, it was a 1950’s bowling house that did not “modernize” their equipment or the aesthetics since its heyday.  My bowling ball would return to me with an occasional slice or gouge in it.  The ball returns were at alley level, whereas the newer bowling centers had their returns dropped below the lanes.  There was no computerized scoring at CCL and there wasn’t even overhead scoring projectors that were common in the 1970’s and 1980’s.  Scoring was done on paper and pencil.  From an insider’s perspective, I could understand the appeal of CCL to Hollywood. It was one of the last truly authentic bowling alleys in Pittsburgh.

When viewing Kingpin, the generations that are younger than my Gen-X self will have a hard time understanding how important bowling was to many Americans.  Professional and amateur leagues were far more abundant than the recreational, “cosmic bowling” participants that are fast becoming bowling’s majority moneymaker.  There were many fun characters that I used to encounter at each bowling house I rolled at and the old pro league on ABC and ESPN had just as many goofballs throwing strikes on TV.  Kingpin captured the essence of bowling’s finest hour:  It proves that bowling can be entertaining in its purest form.

In Pittsburgh and across the United States, some old-school bowling houses remain but many are gone.  Suburban bowling centers with a high amount of lanes, a high amount of gimmicks and high prices (To help pay for the gimmicks) continue to alienate the people who JUST WANT TO BOWL.  Even if my bowling manifesto fails to reignite a movement, a resin ball re-enlightenment, it gives me great joy that I can revisit my childhood bowling house, a place where bowling mattered, just by watching Kingpin.

My father used to tell me wonderful stories about his old bowling house on the South Side of Pittsburgh, which was Alvin’s Lanes.  I had to imagine what the place looked like since it closed in the mid-1970’s.  Hopefully one day when my son gets older, I can not only share my goofy bowling stories with him, but I can ACTUALLY SHOW HIM what CCL looked like.

In Kingpin, there is a scene where Munson is sitting with his legs open on an above-alley ball return at CCL between lanes 11 and 12.  Not paying attention, a ball rolls up to him, hits him in the nuts, and he collapses to the lanes below.  At the age of twelve in 1988, my 128.6 average self rolled a 212 on lane 12 at CCL in my catholic school bowling league.  It was my first 200 game and one of the fondest memories I have from that time in my life.  No matter what happens to CCL in the future, I am grateful that Kingpin will always grant me the opportunity to revisit the bowling house that I knew growing up in Pittsburgh.

***

Movie images are property of MGM Studios, Inc. and were found via Google Images

A great example of a classic bowling house with 21st century equipment/technology is Arsenal Lanes in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood.  Google Image THIS place!  Well done.

Alvin’s Lanes resided on the second and third floors of what is now Nakama Japanese Steakhouse on East Carson Street in Pittsburgh’s South Side.  One floor had ten lanes of duck pins, the other floor had ten lanes of ten pins. 

Thunderbastard: My word for 2017

Since I’m an American that grew up on our own brand of football, I am new to a word that is used in soccer to describe long-range, high speed, curving soccer kicks that leave everybody standing in absolute bewilderment.  The word?  Thunderbastard.

For 2017 and beyond, I simply want to find ways to use the word thunderbastard in conversations that don’t involve a soccer match.  I don’t know if this counts as my New Year’s resolution, but I am up for the challenge to introduce this word into my lexicon.

Concerning the weather:

“That snowstorm was a thunderbastard.  The road crews couldn’t keep up with it.”

Upon receiving shocking news from a friend:

“They are getting a divorce?!?  That’s quite the thunderbastard!”

After eating a surprisingly great sandwich:

“That catfish po’ boy was a thunderbastard of a meal.”

Getting a finger pinched in a kitchen drawer:

“THUNDERBASTARD!!!” 

It is my belief that this word has yet to tap into its potential for cross-cultural appeal.  Why to we only use this term to describe the amazing goals scored by such soccer players as Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Wayne Rooney?  Going forward, let us all try to incorporate this absurdly hilarious word into our everyday lives.  I know I can’t wait to sneak this word by an unsuspecting co-worker or the lunchtime counter workers at Chipotle.

For me, it would be a rare treat, just like a Charlie Adam thunderbastard from the other side of the pitch.  Exactly.

1917: A Discrimination Tale

 

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All of my ancestors that decided to come and start a new life in the United States during the early 1900’s came from Poland.  Yet, I have a German last name.  This is the story of how my great-grandfather created an alias to attain better job opportunities and avoid the overt discrimination that dominated American life during his time as a steelworker.

THE ARRIVAL OF “FRANK”

Between 1892 and 1909, my ancestors passed through Ellis Island on their way to the South Side of Pittsburgh.  With Polish diacritics in their surnames, they settled in the same pocket of town, married and started families.  My great-grandfather Frank Golebiewski arrived sometime in 1904 or 1905, and I’ve never heard of somebody calling him anything other than Frank.  Coming from Poland, there was no way his birth name was Frank.  My family was never sure if it was indeed Francizek.  Even before he settled into his new life across the Atlantic Ocean, Frank was creating a new identity for himself.

Upon arriving in Pittsburgh, Frank went to work in one of the many steel mills on the South Side.  In 1904, there were at least six that sat along the Monongahela River in the city limits and many more just outside of the city.  Frank worked for two mills: Oliver Iron and Steel Company and another owned by Alexander Byers.  The mills sat three city blocks apart and produced piping, nuts, bolts, rivets and many other specialty parts used in construction projects.  Working in these mills required a higher level of intelligence than most of the South Side factories.  Many machine operators had to have a basic understanding of math to create dies (metal forms), molds, production tools and other site specific items used in the manufacturing process.  Frank started out at Byers and basically held the same position for about a dozen years.  He was a ground level production worker with no authority.

Over the years Frank noticed that all of the higher level positions in the steel mills were controlled by mostly English or German men.  When job openings would be posted for such titles as, “Crew Foreman Wanted”, somewhere under the heading would read, “No Poles Need Apply”.  Other select ethnic groups would also be shunned in these advertisements, but the Poles were always included on these posters around the South Side.  Frank knew he was qualified for a supervisory role, but he also knew his last name was hindering his ability to earn more money for his growing family.

All of the Catholic Polish families attended church at Saint Adalbert parish and were members of the Polish Falcons of America, which is a fraternal society that has had its national headquarters in Pittsburgh since the 1910’s.  For years, “Falcons” (As my grandparents called it) had two buildings in the heart of the South Side.  Many of Frank’s Polish co-workers were also friends to him.  They drank, smoked and played the card game euchre with each other at Falcons or at their houses when they weren’t working at the mills.  Over time it became apparent to his friends that Frank wanted to move on from Byers, but he didn’t know how.  Even in 1917, “glass ceilings” existed at the workplace.

A CARD GAME, A NEW NAME

One Saturday night during the usual euchre game between the guys, a close friend and co-worker of Frank’s–a person that I have never learned the identity of, came up with a plan for Frank to get a promotion:  Frank had to get a foreman’s job at a different mill but with the German last name of Kress.  Employers didn’t check for proper identification until they were forced to by law in the 1930’s, so Frank simply could use the surname Kress as an alias.  Of all the surnames Frank could use, why was he instructed to use Kress?

I don’t know if it’s a generational trait or if my family was very uninterested in their family history, but I never got a straight answer as to why Kress was the consensus pick to obtain a job promotion.  Over the years I pieced together some facts about Frank, the name Kress and what the name meant to “Millionaire’s Row” on the other side of town in Pittsburgh’s North Side:

Kress wasn’t as common as other German names in Pittsburgh.  If Frank chose “Miller” or one of the many spellings of “Schmidt”, eventually one of the higher supervisors who did have the last name of Miller or Schmidt would have found him to be a phony.  In traditional German, Kress is spelled Kreß, with the eszett (ß) representing the “sharp S” and replacing the “ss” at the end of the name.  So if Frank was to be German, his friend sure picked a hardcore, badass southern German name for him to use.

Frank knew how to speak the German form of broken English.  Over the course of twelve years at Byers, Frank heard his German supervisors speak to the English heirarchy in English when the production process was discussed on the floor of the mill.  Frank had to have some experience with German culture when he grew up in Poland as well. Poland and Germany shared a border then (Poland was a territory of the Russian Empire) and they still do in 2017, so being exposed to German culture as a boy gave Frank confidence that he could portray being German in the “theatre” of steel mills.

Early automobile owners on Pittsburgh’s North Side relied on the Kress name to keep their cars moving.  The North Side and South Side of Pittsburgh are less than four miles apart, but to the people of 1917 Pittsburgh, they were very far from each other since automobiles were only owned by the upper class.  Many of Pittsburgh’s wealthiest families resided in what was deemed, “Millionaire’s Row”, a few blocks of very large mansions on the North Side that were primarily built along Ridge Avenue and North Lincoln Avenue (Many of them still stand today).  When the automobiles of the wealthy needed work done on them, servants were dispatched to handle the problems. The rich rarely interacted with the working-class, especially immigrant workers. For car tires, a man (Or a few men) with the last name of Kress provided good, affordable tires to the people of the North Side.  Their reputation grew and they eventually got their own garage in the 1920’s. Pittsburgh’s elite might have not interacted directly with their tire repair and service shop, but the name Kress represented hard work and provided a good product on the other side of town.

DEEMED QUALIFIED (EVEN THOUGH HE LIED)

A few months after Frank’s promotion plan was outlined, he secured a foreman job at Oilver Iron & Steel as Frank Kress.  He kept this job until the mid-1930’s, when employees were required to provide legal documentation for work due to the Social Security Act of 1935.  Poles in 1930’s Pittsburgh did not suffer from the same level of discrimination as their ethnic group did twenty years prior, so Frank found suitable work as Frank Golebiewski until he retired after World War II.

I theorize Frank’s friend knew about the Kress family and their budding business on the North Side.  He also knew that the owners and higher managers would never strike up casual conversations with Frank.  Frank’s secret would be safe, and his plant supervisors could see that he was capable of supervising workers while delivering quality products.

Frank must have been well-respected by his friends and fellow co-workers, because I’m sure there were plenty of people that worked under him that could have “ratted him out”.  I guess all of the Poles that worked for him didn’t mind working for their “German” boss.

THE ALIAS AND MY FAMILY TREE

My grandfather (Pap), Frank’s son, was the only one in the family to legally change his last name to Kress in 1953.  I think Pap might have pissed his dad off when he made Kress his real name, because Pap never really gave me a good reason why he did it.  Personally, I love that Pap changed the name because it preserved this story about his dad and what he had to do to succeed in America.

Many other families around the world have similar stories to mine.  I even have a few more examples within my own family.  Solarczyk is another name throughout my family tree.  My grandfather who had this name had step-brothers who legally changed their name to Solar.  They also changed their last name to attain better job opportunities.

DIFFERENT ERA, DIFFERENT COUNTRIES, SAME STEREOTYPES

In 1917, immigrants that resided in the south neighborhoods of Pittsburgh came from many different countries in eastern Europe.  In 2017, the same south neighborhoods I grew up in still have an immigrant population, but from entirely different parts of the world.  Today, former citizens of Nepal, Bhutan, Mexico, Laos and Somalia seek the same opportunities that my great-grandfather Frank did.  The discrimination might not be as overt, but long-time residents seem to have a hard time accepting foreigners into their communities.  Long-time residents who have apparently forgotten the fact that their ancestors were the target of the very same abuse that they shell out on our 21st century newcomers.

The United States of America is known as a melting pot.  It was in 1917 and it is in 2017.  Hopefully in 2117, there will be another third-generation American sharing a tale about how their great-grandfather arrived in New York in 2004 or 2005 and found a way to succeed in an foreign country in search of a better life.  A third-generation American that is not a victim of discrimination, but remembers the stories from his family of when they endured it on a daily basis.

***

Thanks great-grandpap Frank.  The story of your drive to succeed, your emphasis on family and your courage to take risks to benefit your sons and daughters in the future is not lost in time.  I’ll make sure my son knows your story too.

Your great-grandson,

Larry Kress

(Image found via Google, traced to an advertisement found in “The Daily Free Press”, June 19, 1910.  Carbondale, Illinois had a newspaper under this name in 1910 and they have a rich history in coal mining.)

The Glance: An unexpected source of compassion

In late 1997 I decided one night to drive across town to drop in on my girlfriend at the time, the aforementioned “Peach”.  Peach was working an 11-8 shift at a local restaurant where she was a hostess.  At this time she started her sophomore year of college, and it seemed she was taking less interest in me.  She claimed she was just busy with work and school, and I didn’t question her reasons for ignoring me during the end of the fall semester.

When I arrived at her job, another hostess who I did not know asked why I wanted to talk to Peach.  When I stated I was her boyfriend, the girl had a stunned look on her face and immediately turned around to find Peach.  I overheard her say to another girl that she didn’t know Peach was seeing “other people”.  Hmm.  We’ve been dating for almost four years, so what was the other hostess talking about?

Peach saw me and immediately became agitated.  She was angry that I arrived unannounced and told me to come back when she was done at 10.  I told her I thought she was done at 8, but she claimed she had to stay a few extra hours.  In my head I thought she was full of shit but I could see she wasn’t happy and very uncomfortable, so I agreed to leave without saying another word to her.  You couldn’t tell me that a restaurant with minimal bar traffic needed extra help seating people after 8 p.m.  She was planning on being somewhere after work and she needed to weave her web of lies before seeing me again.

I was too far away from my parents house to go back and return at 10, so I decided to head to the local shopping mall to burn off the two hours I had to wait for Peach to “finish up at work”.  After parking the car I headed to the food court since I didn’t eat for several hours.  I got my food and sat alone at a small table, wondering why my relationship with Peach looked to be in jeopardy.  I barely touched the food and people-watched for the majority of the time.  It hurt that I was being lied to by the girl I loved, somebody who I gave the last four years of my life to without hesitation.

Around 9:15, just before the mall closing at 9:30, a group of three teenage girls sat a few tables away from me.  They were all about 14 or 15 and they were creating the typical laughter and early high school conversations that one would expect from girls of this age.  I continued to people-watch and didn’t look their way.  It was an awkward spot to be in since I was 21 going on 22, but I didn’t have the mental energy to stand up and go somewhere else.

Right around 9:30, I noticed the girls got quiet, and I assumed they were probably getting ready to meet whoever was taking them back home.  I took a glance over at their table and one of the girls was staring right back at me with intent.  Going by the look on her face, it’s like she could feel the pain I had in my heart.  She must have been watching me for a few minutes while her and her friends sat there, taking notice that a soulless older guy was a few seats away.  We exchanged hellos and smiles for a few seconds, and we both looked away from each other.  She continued on talking to her friends and I found some energy to finish off the rest of my food.  I was waiting for her friends to make fun of her for talking to an older guy, but that never happened.

About five minutes later, the girls got up from their table and the same one made eye contact with me again.  This time we exchanged goodbyes and smiles, and they walked out of the food court.  I remained there for some time trying to assess the situation, and I still think to this day the outcome of that moment with that 15 year-old girl went the way it should have.  And I think she knew that to be true as well.

Somehow, my 21 year-old self had a cerebral, esoteric connection with a 15 year-old high school girl, and we both knew in our hearts that we bumped into each other eight or nine years too early.  No matter what she wanted to say to me when I glanced up at her table, she already knew at her young age that it wasn’t going to create the possibility of a relationship with me.  The fond look on her face was telling, but in the end we told ourselves this will be our final meeting, at least for now.

Over the next two years Peach and I were on and off as a couple and I finally had enough of the instability.  Throughout my 20’s I wondered what my life would have been like if those three girls were college age at the mall.  We would have spoken to each other and maybe I would have started dating the girl I exchanged that moment with.  Instead, the outcome was something that Russian author Anton Chekhov would have written in the late 1890’s.

In the present, I’m happy, married and I have a young son.  I’m sure that girl I glanced upon at the mall found happiness somewhere out in the world as well.  When we meet again, we’ll have the same exchange and go our separate ways.  This time we’ll have spouses, kids, smart phones and many more responsibilities in our lives.  Lives that could have been interwoven into one if we met around 2005.  Reflecting on this moment in my life reminds me of what words Kurt Vonnegut wrote many times in Slaughterhouse-Five:

So it goes.

 

“Ode to a Nightingale”: A Contemporary Analysis

In early March of 1997, my English 102 junior college professor assigned everyone in the class a poem that we had to interpret, give a presentation based on our interpretation and finally submit a short overview of our interpretation.  I was assigned “Ode to a Nightingale” by the poet John Keats (1795-1821).  What started out as an impossible task of interpreting Keats turned into one of the best papers I wrote in college.

I was a terrible writer all the way through high school and it carried over into junior college.  I went to junior college in the beginning of my undergraduate studies because I was immature, a terrible student, too poor to afford traditional college and not sure what I wanted to go to school for.  At 21, I was just starting my march toward my degree when many of my high school classmates were preparing to march for graduation.

When receiving the news on drawing one of Keats’ famous odes, I quickly informed my professor that I needed another poem to work with since I did not understand much of the language that Keats used.  She informed me that I could not change the poem I was assigned and that she believed I could complete the assignment with good results.

The presentations were to take place later on in March so I started reading interpretations from professional writers on the subject of Keats.  They did not resonate with me and I thought they all sounded the same.  It seemed like nobody knew how to truly interpret Keats’ ode to a bird he witnessed in a tree, and I was about to be dumb enough to use their reviews as my own.

When it became my turn to give my presentation on Keats, the results were the worst I ever experienced as a student.  My professor actually left the room during my time at the podium.  When everyone noticed she left, my one classmate told me I could stop now in the nicest way possible without embarrassing me any further.  Ten days away from submitting the written part of this assignment and I had zero hope of turning in any credible work.

Two days after my most gut-wrenching moment as a student, I came to the conclusion that I had to put aside all of the professional interpretations and create an interpretation that represents my own, unique opinion as to what Keats was really saying in, “Ode to a Nightingale”.  I submitted my final draft with no expectations of a grade higher than a B- since my interpretation was far different than anything I ever read about that poem.

When I got the results back in early April, I couldn’t believe my final grade and what was written underneath the grade:

A

“A superb interpretation of a grand classic–well developed, much insight and well written.”

I only let one person from my class read that paper.  It was the student who told me to stop my presentation when our professor left the room.  She couldn’t understand how I crafted this unique take on a Keats classic after I completely screwed up during the presentation portion of the assignment.  She claimed that my paper was the best class paper she ever read, but since we were both walking in circles at a Pittsburgh junior college, I didn’t think her complement had a lot of weight attached to it.

Nineteen years later, I have decided to share this same paper with anyone who is having trouble crafting an assignment on Keats.  It is my own view on what Keats was actually expressing in “Ode to a Nightingale”.  Since I prepared this for an introductory course, the length is under 1,000 words.  At the end I included my works cited, and yes, one of the books I acquired information from was written in 1899.  Holding that book in my hands was a delicate process since I feared the spine of the book would peel away from the pages.

Before reading my interpretation, here is the poem. Read the first four stanzas on the left, then move to the top right:

ode-to-a-nightingale

*****

(Written on March 31, 1997)

In 1819, a friend of John Keats named Charles Brown described how Keats created “Ode to a Nightingale”.  Brown claimed that upon one sunny morning in the spring of 1819, Keats took a chair from his breakfast table out into the backyard and sat under a plum tree with pen and pad in hand.  Up in the tree was a male nightingale resting, for his day (which was night) was coming to a close.  By observing the bird, Keats was reminded of its graceful song and its carefree lifestyle, a life Keats wished he could lead.  From this wish “Ode to a Nightingale” was created.  The only way Keats could escape into the world of the nightingale was through his poetry as stated in lines 31 through 33:

Away! Away! for I will fly to thee,

Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,

But on the viewless wings of Poesy,

 In stanza one Keats tries to forget about his painful life caused by the early death of his brother Tom in December of 1818, and his discovery that he contracted tuberculosis from Tom while he was dying.  Keats uses words such as opiate (opium) and Lethe-wards (river of forgetfulness in Greek mythology) to symbolize forgetfulness.  At the middle of stanza one Keats shifts his attention to the nightingale in the tree.  In line 9 the nightingale is described as having “shadows numberless” and in line 10 he sings in “full-throated ease”.  These two lines create an impression that the nightingale’s world is full of life and health.  These two qualities that the nightingale possesses are the same two qualities that Keats wishes for.

In stanza two Keats imagines that he can enter the world of the nightingale.  In lines 11 through 20 Keats would love to taste (experience) the countryside as much as he loves to drink a well-aged wine.  Keats continues this fantasy into stanza three, and at the same time reminds the nightingale in lines 21 through 30 why he wants to follow him into the countryside.  In line 26 Keats is believed to be talking about his deceased brother Tom, further emphasizing his need to release himself from his worrisome life.

In stanza four, Keats comes back from the imaginary world and back into reality.  Stanza four is simply the setting for stanzas five and six.  The moonlight in line 36 symbolizes Keats’ imagination toward the life of the nightingale at the twilight of the night.  The darkness described in line 38 symbolizes Keats’ belief that death will be upon him very soon in the future.  In stanza five Keats describes a funeral scene that may resemble his brother Tom’s ceremony.  In stanza six, Keats admits his preoccupation with death and calls upon spirits to take his soul away.

Keats enters the world of the nightingale for the final time in stanza seven.  Keats reminds the nightingale that humans do not hunt them for food (lines 61 and 62), but have enjoyed their song throughout the ages, especially in times of despair as Keats expresses in lines 63 through 70:

The voice I hear this passing night was heard

In ancient days by emperor and clown:

Perhaps the self-same song that found a path

Through the sad heart of Ruth, when sick for home,

She stood in tears amid the alien corn;

The same that oft-times hath

Charmed magic casements, opening on the foam

Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

For the eighth and final stanza, Keats returns to reality as stated in lines 71 and 72:

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell

To toll me back from thee to my sole self!

Lines 73 and 74 conjure up a belief that Keats’ long time love Fanny Brawne, is having sexual relations with another man:

Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well

As she is famed to do, deceiving elf.

Keats believes that she is not in love with him anymore.  Because of the tuberculosis, Brawne cannot receive the love she desires from Keats.  Keats is confident that this belief is true, and reflects this in lines 75 through 78:

Adieu!  Adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades

Past the near meadows, over the still stream,

Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep

In the next valley-glades:

The nightingale’s fading song symbolizes the slow loss of life in Keats.  This is caused by Keats’ belief that Fanny Brawne has a relationship with another man and his bout with tuberculosis.  Keats now believes that he has no reason to live, so he shows this by the nightingale’s long journey to the forest (the symbol of life now far away).  In the final two lines of the poem (79 and 80), Keats wonders if the nightingale he saw in the tree was real or in a dream that he was having:

Was it a vision, or a waking dream?

Fled is that music:–Do I wake or sleep?

In line 80, Keats asks how he can hear the beautiful song of the nightingale once again.  If the encounter was in a dream, then Keats will go out and seek the nightingale’s song.  If the encounter was real, then Keats will dream about the beautiful song of the nightingale.

Stanza eight unveils the stage of Keats’ illness at the time he wrote “Ode to a Nightingale”.  Keats now accepts that he is losing his lady love and his life because of tuberculosis.  Keats enjoyed observing anything that reminded him of his wondrous, romantic lifestyle before his illness, including the beautiful melody of a nightingale’s song.

*****

Works Cited

Abrams, M.H., et al., eds. 20th Century Interpretations of Keats’s Odes.  Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey:  Prentice-Hall, 1968.

Bate, Walter Jackson.  John Keats.  Cambridge, Massachusetts:  The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1963.

Jacobus, Lee A.  Literature:  An Introduction to Critical Reading.  Upper Saddle River, New Jersey:  Prentice-Hall, 1996.  844-846.

“The Complete Poetical Works of Keats”.  Cambridge 7th ed.  Cambridge, Massachusetts:  Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1899.

The Haunting At Green Man Tunnel

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The man pictured above is “The Green Man” and is not “The Green Man”.  Thousands of people in the Pittsburgh area have combined two “Green Man” legends into one semi-true story.  This tale aims to set the record straight on both stories and I will add my experiences with the Green Man Tunnel (pictured with the road salt stored inside) and Corvette Tunnel (the picture with the one lane road proceeding through the tunnel).

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE REAL “GREEN MAN”

Raymond Robinson (1910-1985) will always be the true “Green Man”.  The photo I am using of him in this tale was obtained from his Wikipedia page!  Robinson’s story is a sad and very fascinating one.  Before the age of 10, Robinson was climbing a post connected to a trolley bridge when a trolley came across at the same time.  These bridges were not grounded in the early 1900’s, so the line with 22,000 volts attached to it shocked him, melting his eyes and nose off of his face and also causing the loss of one arm.  The local newspaper reported on the story, and part of the caption read, “He will die”.  The shock also caused his skin to appear green or yellow on parts of his body, hence the ill-fated nickname given to him by the local residents.

I have met two people that have seen Robinson with their own eyes.  They, like many other people over the years, came across him while he was walking alongside Pennsylvania state route 351 in the dark near the town of Koppel.  Koppel is about 40 miles northwest of Pittsburgh near the Ohio border.  Robinson walked at night to avoid attention and since he was blind it didn’t matter if it was light or dark outside.  In each encounter the two people I knew saw Robinson talking to teenage or college age boys who provided a few cigarettes to him during his nightly walk (Robinson was known to accept a few beers as well).  Not all of the people that Robinson met were as nice, but he continued walking that patch of road well into the 1970’s.

GREEN MAN TUNNEL & CORVETTE TUNNEL

On the south end of Piney Fork Road in South Park, Pennsylvania sit two old tunnels that are side-by-side and run underneath a railroad line.  Green Man Tunnel is an old coal car tunnel that sits a few feet above Piney Fork Road.  Corvette Tunnel has one lane for car traffic and the other half allows Piney Fork Creek to flow through the tunnel and into nearby Peters Creek.  These two tunnels are 10 miles south of Pittsburgh.  I have heard stories about ghost trains at this site in relation to both tunnels, but the only line that runs full size trains is the line ABOVE BOTH TUNNELS.  Before South Park Township used Green Man Tunnel for road salt storage, I walked around inside of it and there was no way a locomotive could fit inside that thing.

There have been many different ghost stories concerning this site, but there is no historical information that identifies a real tragedy taking place at the bottom of Piney Fork Road.  One common detail with many Green Man Tunnel ghost stories is the presence of what appears to be a man with a slight glow to the outline of his body.  The glow is usually described as a green color, so when people around the South Hills of Pittsburgh started speaking of the incidents, the name “Green Man” kept coming up in conversations.

The story behind the name for Corvette Tunnel is just poppycock.  The usual story I heard over the years is that two Chevrolet Corvettes were speeding down Piney Fork Road to get to the single lane tunnel first.  One Corvette made it, one crashed into the creek.  Some stories have the wrecked car melting into the walls of the tunnel and the driver never to be seen again.  Yeah, really.

The road has many bumps and bends in it and its width can barely accommodate two cars trying to get by one another.  Nobody would be able to race at a high rate of speed in that area of South Park.  And if there was a true race that happened here years ago, the speed probably never exceeded 30 miles per hour and the cars taking part were actually an AMC Gremlin and a Ford Pinto.

These two tunnels are 50 miles from the area that Raymond Robinson resided.  Green Man Tunnel is linked to Robinson because people around Pittsburgh assume that the ghost stories and Ray’s story are about the same topic.

MY FIRST GREEN MAN TUNNEL EXPERIENCE

In my junior year of high school in May of 1993, I decided to cut school with my friend Eric and Eric’s friend John.  Eric had an old car and he wanted to drive around since this particular Friday was very nice.  Eric and John came up with the idea to visit the inside of Green Man Tunnel.  At the time, I wasn’t aware of the stories behind it.

We arrived around 8:30 a.m., and the temperature was around 55 F.  It was a nice sunny morning and there was no wind.  We entered Green Man Tunnel and it was clear that many people used it as a party spot.  There was graffiti all over the inside and outside of the tunnel, empty beer cans and cigarette butts were strewn all over the ground, old tree branches and stumps were used as seats and a fire pit was closer to the entrance.  About halfway back the tunnel, huge wooden boards sealed off the other end of the tunnel.  The other half was filled in with dirt and rocks.

After we looked around inside for about fifteen minutes, the three of us took the thirty step walk back down to Piney Fork Road to check out Corvette tunnel.  John hopped down closer to the creek side of the tunnel to see if there were any fish in the water.  Eric and I checked out the graffiti in this tunnel as well and we were shouting to hear our voices echo through the tunnel.  John was annoyed because he felt we were scaring the fish out of the tunnel portion of the creek.  The echo was pretty loud!  Only a few cars came through Corvette Tunnel while we were there, and we didn’t experience any paranormal activity.  We left the area right before 10 a.m.

MY SECOND (AND LAST) GREEN MAN TUNNEL EXPERIENCE

My high school girlfriend “Peach” wanted to check out the tunnels one Friday evening in April of 1994.  Peach’s friend Deanna came with us, and we arrived at sunset.  It was warm for April that day, around 72 F, overcast and no wind.

On the way I informed the girls about the current use of Green Man Tunnel, so when we got there we decided just to check out the inside of Corvette Tunnel.  We didn’t know who was in Green Man, so just in case we would encounter trouble we stayed on the main road.

Peach and I were holding hands when we decided to start walking toward Corvette Tunnel.  Deanna was about twenty steps behind us because she decided to throw her small purse back in my car.  Right when Peach and I hit the threshold of the tunnel, four paranormal characteristics occurred at the exact same time.

The temperature dropped at least twenty degrees when we entered.  I remembered the first time I was in Corvette and it wasn’t that cold, and that day it was around 55 F.  We heard a loud guttural moan from a male voice that echoed throughout the tunnel.  That moan was much louder than anything that Eric and I produced while we shouted in there.  A light wind blew in different directions inside of Corvette and there was a pulsating glowing white aura that was all around the inside of the tunnel.  No definite shape, but very visible.

And then within ten seconds, everything went back to normal.  I turned to Peach, and all she said was,”I think we better go.”

“Yeah, let’s go.”

Deanna, who was just about to enter the tunnel, heard our brief conversation and was wondering why we wanted to go.  She didn’t hear or see anything!  Deanna was fifteen steps from the entrance.  When Eric and I were shouting in Corvette the previous year, the neighbors up the road could probably hear us shouting!  She thought we were trying to scare her, and we insisted we were not.  Peach was the first to bring up the details of our incident.

“Did you hear that Larry?”

“Yeah, what did you hear?”

“A moan.  It sounded like a man.”

“Yes!  It was so loud!  Did you get ice cold when we entered?”

“YES!!! I thought that was me being scared!  It happened the moment we walked in!”

“I know!  Did you see the misty white lights swirling around?”

“YES!!! I can’t believe that just happened!”

Deanna thought our little joke was going too far and she wasn’t buying any parts of our story.  She thought we made up the story just so we could scare her and leave before it got really dark.  But it was true.

MY TALE COMPARED TO OTHER STORIES ON GREEN MAN TUNNEL & CORVETTE TUNNEL

Most of the ghost stories that are found on the Internet about these tunnels reference Green Man Tunnel, but after my experience all those years ago I can’t help but wonder if most of those stories involved Corvette Tunnel.  Before the ghostly encounter that Peach and I had there, I never heard someone share details of a similar event, and to this day it seems our haunting was a unique story that doesn’t come close to previous documented accounts.  I interpreted the haunting as the ghost’s way of saying, “Get out of here”, and I will respect that command by never returning to that stretch of Piney Fork Road.

I know Raymond Robinson did not scare Peach and I that night in 1994.  I just wish the rest of the Pittsburgh region was aware of this fact.  So “The Green Man” does exist in South Park, but he doesn’t have a Wikipedia page or a Twitter account.  Not yet anyway.

Living In World #26,734,378,450

In our early years other people decide our direction in life.  What to eat, what to wear, where to go to school and many other choices are made for us without a lot of input from us.  As we grow older, most of us gain the responsibility to make decisions for ourselves.  The outcome of these decisions can be both good and bad, which shapes our being going forward.  According to one interpretation of quantum mechanics, all of our outcomes still exist in alternate or parallel universes that are equal in reality but do not come into contact with one another.

Hugh Everett (1930-1982) was an American physicist who first proposed what he called the many-worlds interpretation.  He grew up in Catholic school and received his undergraduate degree from Catholic University of America before moving on to Princeton.  He is the father of indie rocker Mark Oliver Everett, who is known as the lead singer for the band Eels.  Everett enjoyed reading science fiction and he actually read Dianetics before the church of Scientology was formed into what it is today (Everett did not become a follower).  Later on in life Everett became a devout atheist, which is an awesome oxymoron.

Since this is a schmoey blog and not The New Yorker, I will explain Everett’s theory quickly before jumping into the more entertaining stuff.  When Everett measured a particle, there were two possible outcomes: It was either measured as a particle or a wave.  The universe is actually duplicated, splitting one outcome (particle) into one universe and the other outcome (wave) into its own distinctive but parallel universe.  When this theory is applied to our everyday lives, Everett states that even before we carry out (or not carry out) a decision, two outcomes have already been determined.

As for our outcomes, scientists have many different interpretations on Everett’s theory but I feel the most entertaining and easiest way to chart outcomes is with a Bell curve.  The first Bell curve in 1994 was a chart that reflected the correlation between class structure and intelligence in the United States, but many different disciplines have generated data that produced a chart like a Bell curve, which, yes, is shaped like a bell (or almost like the Snapchat logo).  So let’s make an X-Y axis and chart what I’m up to in my other 26,734,378,449 universes.

In 10% of my universes, I’m either dead or infamous.  At age 10, I got hit by that speeding car through the alley instead of narrowly escaping injury.  At age 34, I didn’t notice that truck blowing through a red light and I turned left into the path of it.  In college I got hooked on heroin and never recovered.  Growing up in a broken home I was subject to many forms of abuse and I evolved into a violent criminal.  The first two sentences I wrote were based on real experiences I remember.  The last two sentences are fiction but if I experienced different outcomes during the course of my life, these events could have happened.

In 20% of my universes, I’m worse off than my current self.  My wife realized she was married to a schmo, so she divorced me.  I have involuntarily lived at my parent’s house all my life, so I’m the real life 40-year-old virgin.  I married the wrong woman and we live in poverty.  I can’t find meaningful employment because of my past criminal record.

In 40% of my universes, I’m living about the same.  My wife and I bought the house that we viewed prior to the one we live in now.  We had a daughter instead of a son.  I’m typing this post on Blogspot.  I graduated from a different college but with the same degree.

In 20% of my universes, I’m better off than my current self.  I landed a great job when my wife and I moved back to Pittsburgh in 2008, which evolved into two promotions and a vice president position in 2014.  We didn’t do the “lease to buy” option on our Nissan.  I paid off my college loans instead of refinancing them twice.  Dad is still alive, and I get along with my side of the family.

In 10% of my universes, I am famous and I have great influence on the masses.  I was the first rap/hip-hop artist from Pittsburgh to make it big on a national and/or world stage, Wiz Khalifa came along years later.  You follow me on Twitter and I tweet WAY more than Kayne West.  Last year I was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame after an accomplished college and professional career.  There is one particular universe that has an absurd but beneficial outcome.

In universe 18,326,817,904 famous astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson hates my guts.  In 2011 I convinced the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to reinstate Pluto as the ninth planet, and during this time I discovered planets ten, eleven and twelve in our solar system. I also convinced the IAU that they should allow any business or individual to submit a bid request for naming rights to one of the planets.  The proceeds would go to a charitable endowment fund which would benefit children around the globe.  The bids generated $2 billion.  The tenth planet is called Nike, the eleventh Sir Richard Branson and the twelfth iPlanet.  Sir Richard Branson is on the board of directors for the endowment.

One life.  That’s life as we know it.  Some of us believe when we die, nothing happens.  Some believe we go to Heaven or hell.  Everett’s interpretation of life sounds absurd, but what I believe as a current Methodist and former Roman Catholic sounds absurd to a few billion people around the world as well.  Everett’s theory states there are two outcomes to each decision.  If we all make good choices that benefit others, maybe all of us can experience more peace than pain in this universe that we all share.  That’s something we should all believe in.

 

1968: My conservative Dad in San Francisco

During his time in the United States Navy, my late father was stationed at Pearl Harbor in 1966 and 1967.  His best friend from his time in Hawaii was a guy named Ron, who was from the Los Angeles area.  Ron found out that my Dad was stationed in San Diego for a short time in 1968, so he asked Dad if he wanted to go on a one week road trip when he had some down time.  Dad agreed since it sounded more fun than flying home to Pittsburgh, staying in town for a few days, then flying back out to San Diego.  I think in the back of his mind Dad knew he would never make it back out to San Diego after the Navy, so every day in the California sun was a blessing and he was going to take advantage of it.

Ron had a newer car and this was his first opportunity to take it out on the open road, so he was looking forward to running it.  The weather was cool enough in May where he didn’t have to worry about the car overheating on the highway (Even new cars were prone to mechanical issues in this era).  Ron mapped out the road trip since he knew of many places to see around the west coast, and he drove down to San Diego to meet Dad.

DAY 1

Since they were so close to Mexico, they decided to drive over the border.  Ron didn’t drive too far down Baja California.  They went as far as the Ensenada area, turned around and came back up to Tijuana.  After drinking most of the day, they cooled off and stayed in Mexico for the night because Ron knew he had a long drive ahead of him tomorrow.

DAY 2

The next morning, Ron and Dad set out for a quick drive through Los Angeles, then up the coast to San Francisco.  When they made it up to Los Angeles in the late morning, Ron drove around to the usual tourist spots, stopped by his place to show Dad where he lived, drove toward the airport to catch the Pacific Coast Highway (California highway 1) and took off north to get to San Francisco by the evening.  They drove highway 1 as long as time would allow.  It’s a more scenic drive and the road does not allow for cars to go very fast.  When they got up to the San Luis Obispo area, they jumped on U.S. highway 101 and got into the San Francisco area around 10 p.m. that night.

After they got their hotel room in the current financial district, they ran over to check out Chinatown since they were close by and then got ready for the next day.  That night at the hotel, Ron told Dad that after they drove over the Golden Gate Bridge, rode on the cable cars and got other typical tourist sites out of the way (Lombard Street, Fisherman’s Wharf), he wanted to take the bus around town and check out a neighborhood called Haight-Ashbury.  Ron heard from a few friends that a lot of strange sights were to be seen in this area of San Francisco.  What Ron and Dad didn’t know at the time was they were about to experience ground zero of an American counterculture revolution.

DAY 3

They got on the bus near the hotel and it took about a half-hour to get there with all of the traffic and stops the bus had to make.  They didn’t jump off at the intersection of Haight Street and Ashbury Street because Dad wanted to see Kezar Stadium, which was only a few blocks down from that now-famous place.  American football’s San Francisco 49ers played at Kezar until 1970 before their move to Candlestick Park.  FROM THE MOMENT Dad and Ron got off the bus around Cole Street, they knew they entered another world.

Greeting them upon their departure from the bus was a man in his early 20’s.  He had short but messy black hair, a slick white suit on with shined black shoes, white shirt, black tie, sunglasses and he was smoking a cigarette.  It was hipster Colonel Sanders with a question for the guys:

“Hi guys!  Need any speed?  Acid?”

Dad quickly shut him down.  “No, we’re fine but thanks man.”

“OK guys have a good day now!”

“You too man.”

Back in Pittsburgh, if somebody wanted illegal drugs in 1968, you had to go to a secret meeting place in the middle of the night and obtain the product from a trusted source.  In Haight-Ashbury in 1968, a college age kid was selling drugs on a street corner to total strangers in the middle of the afternoon like he was pushing Girl Scout cookies.  The audaciousness of the kid even surprised Ron who thought he experienced many odd encounters in Los Angeles.  After they walked down to see Kezar, they backtracked to Haight Street to see what the neighborhood had to offer.

From the accounts of Dad and from what I’ve read and heard myself over the years, Haight-Ashbury at this time was a precursor to Portland, Oregon.  In the United States in 2016, Portland is viewed as a very progressive, alternative way of life compared to other major U.S. cities.  It’s not a bad thing, it’s just a culture that many Americans have difficulty understanding and/or adapting to since many Americans come from conservative households and communities.  I consider myself very open-minded and I would have a hard time adjusting to life in Portland, based on the strict Roman Catholic house I grew up in (I’m convinced that my mother thinks I’m going to hell for not being Catholic anymore).  I’m not saying Portland has drug peddlers on the streets like the guy my Dad encountered, but if that happened anywhere in the U.S. now, I would guess Portland!

When they approached the Haight and Ashbury Street intersection, Ron and Dad had their last two memorable encounters in the neighborhood.  The first was a man dressed in a full cavalier uniform, complete with a large white feather in his hat, big black boots and A REAL SWORD.  Nobody, NOBODY even showed concern that a grown man was walking down the sidewalk with a deadly weapon in plain view.  After talking with a local resident, they found out that this man walked around the neighborhood in full uniform EVERY DAY, no matter what the weather.

The second encounter was more Dad than Ron.  There was a woman with two HUGE braided pigtails that came down her back beyond her behind.  Holding on to the two pigtails was a young girl about three, smiling and laughing, swaying side-to-side like she was on a swing.  It was the hippie version of the modern Baby Bjorn.  Ron yelled at Dad repeatedly for an entire city block because Dad was running behind the woman with his hands under the girl in case she let go of the pigtails.  The best part was that the woman didn’t even know Dad did that because she was too busy talking to another woman that was walking beside her.

Ron and Dad enjoyed their time in Haight-Ashbury since the neighborhood was so culturally different than anything they’ve ever seen, but they were eager to get back to the hotel since they had many more places to see on their road trip.  The plan was to drive to Lake Tahoe and Reno, Nevada in the morning.

DAY 4

They got to Lake Tahoe by the late morning and were surprised how cool the weather was for late May.  They knew there would be a huge jump in elevation, but they were not ready for high temperatures in the 50’s.  The area was picturesque and the air was so clean compared to L.A., but since they didn’t ski and were poor Navy buddies, they made their way over the Nevada border to Reno, where they found some cheap places to drink (Cheap compared to big city California prices) and to get some food.  They grabbed a hotel room and briefly went to a few places around Reno and Carson City, but Ron and Dad were going to sleep most of the evening since they were driving to Las Vegas in the middle of the night.  The temperatures were supposed to climb well into the 90’s, and Ron didn’t want to break down in the middle of the desert under the unforgiving heat of the sun.

Dad told me Lake Tahoe had a vibe that it was for rich people and honeymooners, and he knew that he and Ron weren’t going to pick up any “ski bunnies” that were enjoying the beginning of the summertime season at the resorts.  Reno was fine, but they weren’t big gamblers (Remember: Poor Navy buddies) and were basically passing through to continue on their road trip.  When Dad saw pictures of Reno years later, he told me that it resembled what Las Vegas looked like in 1968!

DAY 5

Ron and Dad left Reno around 3 a.m. to drive to Las Vegas.  To this day, there is not a major interstate highway that runs between Reno and Vegas, so they sped down US highway 95 during the night.  Despite frequent stretches of speeding along the 450 mile journey, they didn’t arrive in Vegas until late morning.

In addition to their Haight-Ashbury experience, the timing of their arrival in Las Vegas was historically significant.  1968 was the final year of the first boom of movement to the desert town.  Most of the activity accelerated in the 1950’s, and when Ron and Dad arrived, there were about a dozen hotels and casinos along the main strip.  They had other forms of entertainment besides gambling, but the population was nowhere near the current metropolitan mark of 2,000,000.  They checked out a few casinos, ate at a few cheap restaurants and tried to stay cool in the desert heat.  Dad said that the high temperature on the day they walked the strip was 98 degrees.  Again, they didn’t gamble much but Ron and Dad wanted to experience Las Vegas while they had the opportunity to do so.  They missed the atmosphere of Elvis Presley’s 1969 Vegas-centered comeback by six months, which spawned the second phase of growth in Vegas.  In 1968 Las Vegas was about to become a mainstream entertainment destination, creating the blueprint for the current identity of Vegas in 2016.

DAY 6

The next morning, Ron and Dad drove out of Vegas early to avoid the heat again, and made it back to Los Angeles around noon.  They mainly stayed at Ron’s apartment when they got back, except for a few stops at Ron’s local bars that he liked to visit.  Dad said they were both beat from all of the driving anyway, so he didn’t mind just hanging out in L.A. for the day.

DAY 7

Ron drove Dad back to San Diego and they went out for a few beers before saying their goodbyes.  They didn’t know it at the time, but this was the last time they would actually see each other.  Dad spoke to Ron on the phone a lot before I was born, but they lost contact over time, especially when Dad married Mom in 1973, and I came along in 1975.  I remember Dad got a random phone call from Ron on Christmas morning in 1984, and that was the last time Dad spoke to him.

What I learned from Dad

I had many talks with Dad before he died, especially when I still lived at home.  Dad would have loved to make that road trip a month-long excursion, but he knew he was limited by how much money he had.  Even if it meant being somewhere for hours instead of days, Dad still wanted the experience of visiting places and meeting different people.  He made the most of his time in the places he visited.  Fast forward to the present, and I find myself in the same situation as my father.  I might not have the means to take my young son to numerous places around the world, but I will discover activities for us to build memories upon and share my stories of the past with him.  Hopefully my son can learn from the experiences I had growing up and the unique experiences he will have going forward.  I like to think I’m a better version of Dad, and I believe that’s what Dad set out to accomplish through me.  If my son becomes a better version of me, then that will confirm that I am a good father to him as well.