Saturday, February 27, 2010

Why aren't we all in jail??

So you had a rough upbringing? Got hit with the "korbatch" one too many times? Too many trips to the woodshed or the basement? Oh yeah, we've all been there and done that. Or have had it done to us.

We watched our parents disagree to the point where they needed armor to defend each other. Or how we watched the dog or cat go sailing over the back porch railing when they decided to "christen" the new living room carpet.

And kids are supposed to emulate their parents, right? They're supposed to be like Mom & Dad? So why aren't we in jail by now for crimes of spousal, child and animal abuse?

I'll tell you why. Reverse psychology. "If you take up smoking, I'll beat you to within an inch of your life", spoken by a concerned Mom with that Lucky Strike hanging from the corner of her mouth. Or, "I brought you into this world and I can take you out of it", spoken by a father after 5 rounds of a "beer and a bump" down at Bortz's. Do as I say and not as I do. But how do you STILL explain the "I wanna be just like my Old Man"?

Even in a child's tender and mixed up mind, we see things that impress us and we see things that scare the pants right off of us. We knew that our parish priest didn't need to be married to have kids to slap around. But we knew that if we went home and told Mom or Dad that Father Steve gave a little "size 12" discipline or that Mrs. Butler cracked us with a paddle, we'd get twice as much for just saying so.

So where's our own Easter Rebellion or Tea Party? Why haven't we gone back and beat the living daylights out of Mom, Dad, Father Steve, and Mrs. Butler? Why don't we we just snap when we've heard "Why can't you act like Piwowar's kids?" for the nine hundredth time?

Maybe there's a reverse psychology going on? We had front row seats to our own special brands of discipline. But we're missing the point. We WERE disciplined. We were threatened with death. OR WORSE. "You just wait until your Father comes home". A minor stay of execution.

In my own case, my parents did not set a good example. But they TAUGHT one. And those of you who are reading this can probably say the same, unless your name is Beaver Cleaver or you're one of those "Three Sons". Man, they had it good. Or did they?

Most importantly, even though we were threatened with death and dismemberment, we survived without too many physical scars. Or even without too many emotional ones. I find that the typical Smock kid who is now in his or her 50's or 60's is well grounded, fair, and genuinely loving toward any offspring they created. It's love. But where in all of that violence did we find love?

It was there. We just chose to look at the bad side. We just chose to concentrate on the welts on our collective dupetchkas. But somewhere beneath the curse words and threats, there was love. True and honest love which stays with us to this very day. Love that causes us to stop short of things that would possibly land us in prison. Love that is taught by a coal miner with a 5th grade education.

Why aren't we all in jail? Because if we were, Mom or Dad will find us and boy, we'd have hell to pay.

We aren't perfect. Unless you asked our parents about us when we weren't around. Then suddenly, we'd grow a halo.

Go figure.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

You're from Smock? SO WHAT?

If you are looking to find Smock, PA on a map, good luck. And if you find it on a VERY detailed map, you'll see that there's only one road in and one road out. Unless you know the less traveled other road that took you past the farm where people like Joe DiCosimo lived.

So you're the kid of a coal miner. Or a steel worker. Or a farmer. And yeah, you went to a school that maybe had more than one grade in a classroom. Or you ate lard sandwiches during the depression. Or you can trace your entire history in the record books of St. Hedwig's. So you hung around in a gang. Or had to ride an hour on a drafty bus just to get to school. Or maybe your bathroom was 30 yards or so behind your house? Maybe you learned how to cook on a coal stove? Or your clothes dryer was a piece of rope that connected your home with that other "house" where you weathered all temperature extremes? Maybe you were the brunt of ridicule by those "cake eaters" from the big town?

So life wasn't so easy? SO WHAT??????

Every kid I grew up with graduated from high school. A major percentage of them went on to college. Some of us held down simple jobs but we held them nonetheless. We were never fired from work. No one accused us of being lazy.

Mom washed clothes on Monday. So what? Well, if you did the wash on any other day, you'd be wearing clothes covered in black soot. The coke ovens had to run if we were going to make steel. Mom also kept the dust and soot to a minimum in the house. Do you know how "stable" a coal fire is in a stove? Baked goods which were highly dependant upon constant, stable temperatures just flew out of those ovens. No one complained, but if anyone had the notion, you were told to button your lip before you get it smacked. Yep, we had child abuse, if that's what you wish to call it.

Dad was quiet and said little. When he did speak, many of our fathers talked with accents that were the target of impersonation. "You don't behave it, I'mma send you to the GYPSY." (There were the threats but I don't remember one child who actually was sent to this mystical cult.) And why did Dad always have to go to the bathroom when the National Anthem was played? So what?

Why were we threatened with violence if we missed church on Sunday? And why, after church, did the whole town smell like boiled cabbage? Why didn't people tie up their dogs and cats? And why, OH WHY did our parents treat those dogs and cats better than us?

Two words immediately come to mind; character and integrity. The Bible teaches us that steel sharpens steel. And a tough upbringing taught us that adversity is also a gift from God if we choose to look at it that way. Of course, John Hovanic would say "What doesn't kill you will make you stronger." Good one, John. Deep within those hard times were lessons learned. No one I knew that cleared three feet of snow with a Number 2 shovel ever had any permanent back injury. But you needed that path to get to that tiny house in the back yard. And how many of you who shared a duplex house can remember those outhouse conversations? They sure took away our inhibitions and made us appreciate the luxury of a porcelain throne.

We faced tough times with tough people. People who could shake off the chiding of others while they put on their hard hats. People who learned that God was first and family a close second. Honesty wasn't even talked about since the only people who practiced deceit were those of us who stole tomatoes on moonlit nights. But hey, we only stole enough to eat.

If I owned an industry today, I'd hire the people that I grew up with in Smock. They'd be loyal, honest, chock full of integrity, and would only call in sick from a hospital bed. They'd give you a solid eight hours a day and not complain if the temperature went up or down a few degrees from 72. They'd sing while they worked and would never forget where they came from. They would respect everyone, every day. They'd care for their families and for each other. Integrity and character weren't words in a dictionary. They were a way of life. And parents and grandparents would pass this down to the next generation and guard these virtues as if they were gold.

And on Sundays, we'd all eat boiled cabbage.

So what? So there!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Valentine's Day

Valentine's Day was a day full of mystery and suspense when I was growing up. In the single-digit grades, I remember getting a whole fistful of valentine cards and sending them out to all of the girls in my class. Every one heard from me. Friend to all, boyfriend to none, scared out of my pants. The teacher doubled as a mail sorter and delivered all of the cards to each person. And every year up until about 6th grade, I got a pile of cards that warmed up the most frigid February day.

What you must understand is that all of the girls would just sign their names on the cards with no emotion and send them up to the mail-sorting teacher. Each boy's name was on an envelope and so the sorting was pretty easy. But there I'd be with a strangle hold on about 15 Valentine's Day cards.

Sure, the cards said many things but one of the more common denominators was the word "love". Wow, a four letter word that you could say and not have to go to confession. Say it as a kid and you may see someone blush. But say it as an adult and well, that's another story.

In Smock, everyone had experienced tough love at one time or another. It may come at the end of a ping pong paddle or a hickory switch or it may come wrapped up like a pierogi. But one way or another, most of us were told that we were loved in a very indirect sort of way. The only person who used the "L" word openly was the priest, but all of the altar boys knew that he really didn't mean it when it came to treating us nicely. Or did he?

And when it came to our parents, sometimes we were just sat down in front of a plate of mystery food and were told to "EAT" and that was that. Parents sort of let us get away from some of the ablutions that the cake eaters did in Uniontown. Maybe that was one of the ways that they "loved" us?

And unlike the germophobes of the 21st Century, we didn't always wash our hands or faces. Have any of you seen this new ad for this soap dispenser that squirts it's product into your awaiting palm without having to touch a disease-infested plunger? Come on. The kids from Smock probably have enough antibodies in their blood to ward off swine flu AND leprosy.

Outward signs of affection were not the norm in Smock. If you had the courage and moral fortitude to kiss someone, it was probably on the ramp that led from the company store up to Smock Hill. It was conveniently dark and so you could peddle your devil-inspired romance with nary a witness except for the odd cricket or toad.

Parents didn't show any PDA's (public displays of affection) either. Maybe they didn't want to give their children any "ideas"? Well if we were old enough, we pretty well knew that Mom and Dad HAD to do something since we had seven brothers and sisters? But that's why the bedroom door had a lock on it. And no one dared violate the secrecy that was inside without paying dearly.

So why was Valentine's Day so special to me? Many of you who read this know that this was one of the only days of the year that anyone showed me affection. If you know me, you know why. If you don't know me, suffice to say that my parents held a rather dubious honor of being one of the first married couples in Smock to file for a divorce. They were having too much fun hurling insults and shoes at each other. And for many years, I felt that just my existence was a terrible reminder to them of days that would sooner be left forgotten.

But HEY, those days are gone and I'm no worse for the wear. There were other kids from Smock that came from families where the parents weren't exactly Ward and June Cleaver. But you know who you are and your secrets are safe with me.

But we all lived for that day in mid-February when a white envelope would arrive at our desk and the card inside said "Be mine" or "You're the one" or even mention that four-letter "L" word. And you cannot deny that we felt better about ourselves and others in those tense moments when we'd open those envelopes and read the card inside. Maybe they were lies?

Maybe not.

Monday, February 1, 2010

A Belated Thank You


PFC - E3 - Army - Selective Service 4th
Infantry Division Born on Friday, October 10, 1947 From SMOCK,
PA Length of service 1 year. His tour began on Jul 21, 1968. Casualty
CASUALTY MISADVENTURE Body was recovered Panel 39W - Line 33

Everybody in Smock knew Tommy Kubica. He lived in the house right across the street from St. Hedwig's Church. If you went out the side door of the church, you'd end up on Tommy's front porch. So as an altar boy, his "commute" to the church was a snap.

Tommy had several sisters, Irene being the oldest and the same age as me. He also had two younger sisters who may have qualified for the "whoops" award since they were so much younger than Irene and Tommy.

All the kids had black hair. And Tommy used to put some kind of "product", to use a 2010 word, in his hair which made it really shine and stay in place.

Like all of the wives who lived on Smock Hill, Tommy's mom stayed at home and worked as a housewife, which is a pretty major job. His dad worked in the coal mines, like so many of our fathers.

Tommy was two years older than me so he was considered one of the "big kids". He ran fast, could play excellent baseball, and was a very kind boy. Mostly. I remember the time when Tommy provoked our even bigger friend, Jackie Rafter, who chased Tom for over a half hour. "Kubba" was able to evade a pretty strong whipping from Jackie by hiding in some tall grass which allowed Jackie to miss stepping on Tommy's head by about 2 feet. (It was dark.)

To paraphrase John McCutcheon's great song Christmas in the Trenches, the Vietnam war was waiting for Tommy after graduation from Uniontown High School. And his rather low draft number didn't help either.

I remember when Tommy came home from the Army all decked out in his dress uniform. I looked into the Sunday morning church crowd from my altar boy perch and saw this handsome man in uniform, black hair now virtually gone. He even looked taller. It was after church that he told me of this place that he was being sent. I said good-by and thought how I might look in a military uniform.

He wasn't gone more than a few months when word came that Tommy was killed by friendly fire. "Friendly" fire? I remember attending his funeral. And on each visit I make to Smock today, I stop by and say hello to Tommy and everyone else that I miss.

Tommy got his "welcome home" but a welcome that was draped in black with an honor guard. But for many returnees from that awful war in Southeast Asia, our welcome home was different. Some of us were spat upon and were called baby killers. Some were denied membership in the Uniontown VFW because Joe Vicites, their Commander, thought that Vietnam wasn't WORTH membership in the VFW. Soon the Uniontown VFW will be closing their doors because of lack of membership funds and donations. One guy told me that they don't even have enough to pay the electric bill. My suggestion is to go dig up Joe Vicites and ask him for a loan.

But people who were in military uniform were respected in Smock. I think that the reason is because so many of the old timers wore similar uniforms at one point in their life. And they realize that our freedom came at a price.

Too much of a price for Tommy Kubica and all of those people in the Smock cemetery who get a flag on their headstone twice a year.

What do we say nowadays? "Thanks for serving"?? I even attended a free dinner at Applebee's on Veteran's Day for people from all branches of the armed services. The looks of anguish and stress on the faces of those who may have gone to Desert Storm were sad. "Stress acquired disorder". Also there were the faces of the people of my generation who knew about jungle warfare and also knew that at any instant, they could be blown to bits by a hidden land mine. Faces that are still back there and have yet to return.

But the curious ones are those faces of Korea and even a few from World War II. They appeared relaxed and uncommonly content. Maybe it was because they knew who their enemy was? Maybe time does heal all?

Time will never erase my memory of my down the street neighbor. Or my grandfather who proudly wore his World War I campaign hat on "Decoration Day".

One of the few memories that I have from my military service that my father's "new" wife didn't throw away in the trash was a tiny badge that states the purpose of all pararescue specialists everywhere; "That Others May Live".

I sure wish I could have saved Tommy.