The Strangers Who Saved Me

From the mid-1960’s until 1987, one of the most popular shopping malls around Pittsburgh was Allegheny Center Mall in the North Side neighborhood of town.  It was a basic rectangular two-story design complete with an indoor, two-level parking garage directly under the mall.  I remember as a boy my brother Dan and I would tag along when our mother and our grandmother decided to shop there.  They had a variety of stores there, but one of the places I remember spending a lot of time in was Sears.

Even though I was very young in the 1970’s and 1980’s, I remember the vibe Sears had compared to the modern-day big box purgatory it has become.  The Sears of 35 years ago had the department store atmosphere of Target mixed with the product quality of Kohl’s.  It was a much nicer place to shop back then, and my grandmother loved to take her time and look at everything when she ventured out with us.

As a four-year-old in 1979, my grandmother’s appetite for perusing wore heavy on my level of patience, which of course back then was none.  I remember on occasion my mother yelling at me to remain close to her, fearing that I would run off and become lost in the store.  Around this time I developed an unhealthy habit of crawling under circular clothing racks and hiding in the middle of all the items on the rack.  Winter coats were my favorite; the added bulk allowed for a better hiding spot.

On one occasion just prior to Christmas in 1979, I decided to hide among the winter coats.  My mother and grandmother were apparently distracted by something and did not notice I was missing.  After a few minutes under the clothing rack, I noticed it became very quiet.  Upon crawling out of the fixture, I realized I was alone in that particular area of Sears.  Panicked and afraid of getting in trouble, I ran in between the clothes racks in hopes of catching up with my family before they knew I wandered off.  A good plan set forth by a four-year-old, but there was one problem:

I ran the opposite direction from them.

I can still remember vividly standing in a main side-aisle with the tile floor near the first-floor entrance to the mall from Sears.  I wondered if my family walked out into the mall to shop at other stores.  Completely terrified of all of the strange people around me and knowing that this was truly the first moment in my life that I was on my own, I stood there and started to cry.  A few seconds later, I heard a man’s voice:

“Hey little guy, it looks like you are lost.”

He was probably twenty-five but no older than thirty.  He had short, wavy brown hair typical of that era with a light brown coat and wore eyeglasses.  A woman was with him, presumably his girlfriend or wife.  She was about the same age, wore bell-bottom jeans and had long, straight brown hair.  I couldn’t convey my thoughts on attractiveness at the time, but I remember she was very pretty.  It was noticeable.

I confided to the man that I indeed was lost.  During this, I remembered him talking to me at my level, getting down on one knee to talk to me face-to-face.  It was unconsciously comforting and I remember reading from multiple stories through the years that children’s television pioneer and advocate Fred Rogers would do the same thing while talking to children.  Born out of this moment of fear, I have always tried to talk to children in the same manner when comforting them and to let them know that they have my full attention.

I never spoke to the woman, but I remember the three of us didn’t move from that spot right away.  I don’t know why, but it could have been they were hoping my family would arrive to see me, or the woman was informing an employee of my situation.  I only spoke to the man.  Apparently he learned from me that I became lost from my mom in Sears, so a plan was hatched to walk back into Sears instead of taking me out into the mall.

The man picked me up.  He stated that the three of us will go back into Sears, and when I saw my mom, I would point to her right away.  I calmed down a little bit at this point knowing that there was a chance I would get to see my family again.

The most vivid part of this tale is when we rounded the bend on the same side aisle I ran parallel to a few minutes earlier.  Looking ahead of us, I saw my mother, grandmother and my brother’s stroller with him inside of it.  It was one of the only times I remember my mom running.  My grandmother would have if she could, but she was pushing Dan in the stroller.  The man asked if this was indeed my mother, and I told him that it was her.

My mom expressed her thanks to the man and woman for bringing me back to her.  Mom told me many times over the years that this moment was one of the most frightening ordeals she encountered in her life.  It was ten minutes of time, but to her each minute felt like an hour.  She never got their names, but she will always remember them.


I hope that somehow in this universe there is a way I can personally say thanks to that man and woman who kept me safe in a time of complete vulnerability.  Maybe without knowing, I already crossed paths with them, helping them out in a time of need.  I know how old they would be now and I wonder if they stayed together, having a family of their own.

Without knowing it at the time of our encounter nearly forty years ago, I might have helped them at that very moment.  Perhaps, that look of sheer terror on my face stuck in their memories, and when it became time for them to have children of their own, they kept their kids close to them when going to public places.


The Colorless Life Of My Father

My parents grew up in Pittsburgh’s South Side neighborhood during the 1950’s and 1960’s.  Like many other ethnically diverse places in the United States at that time, city neighborhoods often were divided up between African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics, Italians, Poles, Irish, Jewish, German and many other ethnic groups, dating prior to World War I.  Racism was everywhere in Pittsburgh then, even between nationalities that shared the same skin color.

My father lived in the epicenter of it all, nestled in a double-brick row house along Carey Way near South 18th Street.  At the age of fourteen, Dad took a newspaper carrier job, delivering the Pittsburgh Courier for a few years before working in a butcher shop during his final years of high school.

The Pittsburgh Courier was one of the leading African-American newspapers in the United States during its publishing between 1910 and 1966 (New ownership has called the newspaper New Pittsburgh Courier since 1966-67).  Its customers on the South Side were on the east end of “The Flats” between South 26th Street and South 29th, and a few houses that snaked up the back half of “The Slopes” on Josephine Street.  It was quite a walk from Dad’s house, especially carrying 30 to 40 papers eight city blocks and then climbing the hill toward the end of his route.

Each week, he collected the money due from each customer and turned his receipts into his supervisor.  He also thanked his customers for the extra money they gave him during Christmas.  Dad never told me how my grandparents felt about his first job, but he did tell me about the reaction he got from some of his friends.  His friends couldn’t understand how Dad could work for a black newspaper publication, a black supervisor and interact “with all the blacks” on the back half of the South Side.

To Dad, his customers were people.  People like all of the Polish families he knew from church and school, smashed between South 13th and South 20th.  People like the thousands of mill workers that walked to their jobs at all hours of the day.  Dad had a very progressive attitude toward race relations, especially in the turbulent era that he was a witness to.

During his time in the United States Navy, Dad continued to encounter people that had a difficult time accepting others that were of a different skin color.  Dad did his best to avoid these individuals and went on to meet many good, hard-working, disciplined men while he was stationed at Pearl Harbor, San Diego and doing reserve work in Philadelphia.  All of the guys were from different economic and cultural backgrounds, but Dad just saw men.  Not black men, white men, Latino men, California neo-suburban men and men with a southern drawl, just men–his Navy buddies.


The most memorable story Dad shared concerning race relations occurred in 1969.  Racial tensions were at an apex in the United States and Pittsburgh had its share of police-involved fights and riots.  At that time and through the early 1970’s, Dad would occasionally travel to Philadelphia for four weeks to do reserve work and complete his duty to the Navy.

One particular summer day, Dad decided to leave the barracks in South Philly and walked north on South Broad Street.  He heard from another reservist that there was a small jazz club and bar not too far from base, and that they had live performances daily by local artists.  A marine happened to hear Dad’s conversation and insisted he accompany Dad to the club to catch a few drinks.  Dad didn’t mind the company, but he soon realized that the marine was a “tough guy”, telling him heroic tales from his time served during the ongoing Vietnam War and apparently doing his best to emasculate Dad on their walk to the club.

The two of them arrived at the club.  They paid a small cover charge and made their way toward the bar.  They each got one beer and found a spot to sit down.  As Dad started to take in the music, the marine pokes at him to get his attention.  Confused, Dad wanted to know why the marine had a scared look on his face.

“What?  What’s wrong?”

“Look around.  They are all staring at us.  We’ve got to get out of here.”

“Who’s they?  Who’s staring?”

The marine, who just ten minutes prior was telling Dad about his heroism and strength in combat was frightened of the fact that he and Dad were the only two white men among approximately fifty black men.  Annoyed, Dad told the marine to shut up, drink his beer and listen to the music.  After a few songs, it was clear to Dad that the marine was squirming to leave the club, so they left despite Dad’s wishes to stay.  Dad felt that the marine’s uneasiness was drawing more attention to them than the music.  Dad was pissed at the marine, and despite being fifty pounds lighter and six inches smaller, told him how he felt.

“So you’re a big, tough marine, huh?  We’re all in there for the same reason, to listen to music, and all you saw was a bunch of black guys that were going to beat your ass.”

The marine didn’t say much to Dad on the walk back.  Going to the club Dad said he couldn’t talk enough about himself.  The same, ugly preconceptions that some of Dad’s friends had instilled in them years before were shared by the marine years later.  Stereotypes that kept people apart instead of bringing people together.


Before going to preschool, when my son was home or being watched by my in-laws, he noticed that people were different but treated everyone the same.  Now that he has gone to school, he has learned some not-so-nice preconceptions about race, gender roles and class structure.  When pressed on where he obtained such “knowledge”, he has stated that his classmates tell him these things.  This is proof that parents can have influence on the lives of others beyond their children.

In the coming years, I will continuously teach my son what my father taught me:  Don’t see the person by their color, ethnic background or by how much money they have…see them for who they are as a person.  If a person is good, then be like that person…no matter what color their skin is, man or woman, rich or poor…follow their example.

On My 15,146th Day (In Iambic Pentameter)

Raised in a town known for steel and rebirth,

The product of parents who choked on its ashes,

Groomed to be virtuous among the broken and strife

Yet fell–engrossed in the fears of my home and its streets.


The awkward transition to grow mature and with purpose,

Wasting my youth in attempts to find manhood,

Searching six years beyond broken and lost,

A path was made clear through the trials and the errors.


The feeling of love brought forth a new passion,

True to my heart I pushed on through rough waters,

Intent on a life to expand my forced boundaries,

Content to pursue my dreams in tight quarters.


My son is my rock, my ground is kept stable,

His pursuits are now mine, my goals are left burning,

Purpose was found, my life loved while held down,

He will know my mistakes, shared space will bring triumph.

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.


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 boost 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 the age of fifteen 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.

December 7, 1966 — My Father At Pearl Harbor

Today is the 75th anniversary of one of America’s darkest hours, the attack on Pearl Harbor naval base by the Imperial Japanese Navy.  The attack killed over 2,400 Americans and wounded nearly 1,200.  It destroyed almost the entire American fleet stationed in Hawaii, which led to the United States entry into World War II.

My late father was in the United States Navy and was stationed at Pearl Harbor between 1966 and 1968, which allowed him to be there during the 25th anniversary of the attack.  Dad remembered that day to be a Sunday because he had no obligations at base during the early morning hours on December 7.  Being a history fanatic and understanding the weight of the day, he decided to walk alone around the base when the attack would have commenced in 1941. Dad didn’t think his fellow mates would show the same level of reverence as he did.

At 7:48 a.m., Dad looked out to the mountains to the north, where the first wave of Japanese planes were detected.  He then turned to the south toward Iroquois Point and Mamala Bay where many of the 353 planes approached when the attacks were launched in two waves.   Dad couldn’t believe that twenty-five years prior he would have been standing in the middle of absolute hell.  It was a sunny morning in 1966, a clear blue sky with the usual amount of activity that he became accustomed to there.

Dad told me he did a lot of standing around that morning, staring into the skies above and the land around him, trying to imagine the nightmare in his own mind.  He had three senior officers on base who were at Pearl Harbor on that infamous day when they just started out as seamen in the Navy.  They lived that nightmare.  Dad didn’t know them and he wasn’t going to search for them in hopes of hearing their own personal accounts of December 7, 1941.  It’s certainly a day to remember in America, but maybe those officers would have liked to forget that day.

Today we remember those Americans we lost 75 years ago.  I give thanks for the active military members we have today and the countless veterans that served over the years.  Their dedication to the United States, duty as a service member and their dedication to serving their communities post-military (Police, Fire, National Guard, etc.) is greatly appreciated by me and my family.

Sending E-mails To My Late Father

A few years back, my father suddenly passed away.  Compared to other father/son relationships we had a typical bond but we were certainly two completely different minded individuals.  Despite this slight disconnect and as I found out later a lack of transparency, Dad and I always had great conversations about the day-to-day activities in our lives.  In those moments, Dad gave me great advice and peace of mind even though he struggled finding his own peace of mind for most of his life.

In the first year after his death, I often found myself talking out loud to Dad about many different events that occurred in my life since I lost him.  I found it very therapeutic when I sought his advice even though I knew I wasn’t going to receive a straightforward answer from beyond.

Shortly after Dad died, my wife gave birth to our son, which would have been his first grandchild.  I always brought my son up in the conversations with the air around me, hoping somehow that Dad could listen to what I was saying.  Life became busier and tiresome when constantly attending to a newborn baby, so my conversations aimed at Dad waned.

Two years ago this month on the day which would have been his 71st birthday, I decided to send an e-mail to Dad’s old America Online account.  I loved how he hung on to that account years after we all had those ubiquitous AOL addresses in the middle of the 1990’s.  With an e-mail address like that one would think Dad had no idea how to transition into the digital age.  He shall not be judged; Dad was a “Napster Master” at the age of 56 and later in life he loved his fantasy football online.  Dad drove my mom nuts with his hours of roster moves every week during the NFL season.

In the e-mail I talked about how I love my family, that I was proud to be his son and a few personal family details that Dad and I could only have a conversation about.  When I sent the e-mail, I could still hear his voice offering advice on the phone or when I used to visit home more often.  It turned out the e-mail address was still active because I did not get a delivery failure message.  I’d like to think he still checked his e-mail somewhere close to my presence.

Since that first e-mail I’ve sent four more in the last two years.  They’ve all kicked back to me so it seems Dad’s AOL account has been taken off of the grid.  Unless ALL of AOL is off of the grid!  But it doesn’t matter to me if Dad can’t read the messages I intended for him, what’s important to me is the peace I get in composing those e-mails.  Collecting my thoughts and sending them to Dad remind me of the nights we talked in my bedroom about the challenges of growing up while watching the old 12:30 Late Night With David Letterman show on NBC.  They remind me of the phone conversations we had when I first moved out on my own.  They remind me of the time when he found out he was going to be a grandfather.  Tangible words on the screen that I would have said to Dad in person.  Words that were fading from my consciousness due to a lack of sleep, an increase in children’s television viewing and the inability to simply find time to relax.

I miss Dad, but I was blessed to have him in my life all of these years.  Occasionally I will get a hint that Dad is watching me from afar but at the same time close by.  Other times I don’t.  I assume he’s downloading free music somewhere when he’s not around.  Pretty soon I’ll send him another e-mail since his grandson is going to turn 3 in less than a month.  I’ll talk about a variety of topics and ask him a few questions about the problems I’m facing in 2016.

If I don’t get a reply to my questions I understand.  It’s the start of fantasy football season.

WARNING: Parenthood may result in “fluffiness”

(BLOG NOTE:  Since I’m watching my son more often over the next several days, I’ve decided to post a “fluffy” tale before delving into another mind-bending post of what the kids would call “awesomeness”.  You’re welcome.)

A year before my son was born, I was still pretty active despite venturing further into the dreadful 35-44 age bracket.  This age group is the transitional period between hanging onto your youth and the new challenge of realizing your body’s limitations.  Up until my early 30’s, I could go several days without exercising and not lose results.  I had no problem keeping up with where I left off.  Now at 40, forget it.  Now as a parent, really forget it.

I’m not a total mess.  Yet.  I still have three pairs of mesh shorts that I purchased in 1996.  They are now stretched out to the point that they won’t fit me when I lose the weight, but I have to say we had a good twenty year run (I have shorts older than some of my readers).  I still manage to follow the main guidelines of the Pittsburgh Yinzer diet, which consists of the following food groups:

Milk, Meat, Vegetable, Fruit, Grain, Fried Food, Soda Pop, Coffee, Beer, Wine, Spirits, Doughnut, Birthday Cake, Catholic Fish Fry Friday and Fire Hall Wedding (rigatoni with meatballs, fried chicken, macaroni salad, some type of potato dish and rolls with butter)

When my son was born, many healthy aspects of my life became a low priority, and rightfully so in my eyes.  Obviously sleep became fractured, I consumed WAY more caffeine, I chose snacking over having a real dinner and I also chose catching up on sleep instead of using any leftover spare time to exercise.  These four factors led to my chest becoming boobs, my waist showing a small beer belly, my legs becoming thin and my face looking a little rounder than before.

Even after two bouts of kidney stones (due to too much Mountain Dew soda pop) and all of the illnesses acquired from day care the last few years, I wouldn’t change a thing.  Being a dad is the best thing that happened to me.  My son loves it when I chase him all over the house, when I take him for walks around the neighborhood, when I pick him up if he needs a hug and when I sit with him reading, playing with toys or watching television.  He’s getting heavier and I carry him for at least an hour each day.  At least my arms and shoulders are still somewhat beefy.

I’m a new dad, recently unemployed, out of shape, scared about the future and frustrated.  To remain positive, it could be said that I’m a hipster stay-at-home dad who is weighing his options before embarking on a new career path.  I’m also self-aware of life’s everyday challenges and that the path I have walked until now has not been in vain.

Hey, whatever.  I’ll figure it out.  Somehow, I always do.