Category: Childhood Memories

Lightning Bugs

It was early in the evening of June 9th, 2022. I’m going to have to mark it in my journal so I don’t forget. I’d just spent the day working in the yard and doing everything possible to make it look presentable for another week. The truth is, no matter how much you mow, how much you edge, or how many weeds and dandelions you pull from the earth, you’ll inevitably have three to five days respite before the process will need to be repeated. Nature waits for no man.

As twilight was settling in, I slowly pushed my green John Deere lawn mower back into its usual place in the garage. Residual grass clippings, which had been pasted to the chassis of the machine for most of the afternoon, now began falling onto the concrete floor in small bushy clumps. By that point I was too lazy and in no mood to even think about sweeping them up. I was much too tired and they would have to wait until morning. Despite the thought of having to clean up the excess grass and being completely drained from today’s labor, the smell of sweat and gasoline that permeated my senses gave me a wonderful feeling of accomplishment.

I went inside, grabbed a beer from the refrigerator and walked out on to the patio to admire my handiwork. As the first drams of alcohol hit the back of my throat, I could already feel the weight of the day leaving my shoulders. Tomorrow there would be sore muscles and excessive sunburn, but for now it was time sit at the patio table and enjoy the warm summer breeze that had picked up as the day was drawing to a close.

That’s when I saw them for the first time this year – June 9th, 2022.

 Lightning bugs.

I believe the correct term for them is Photuris lucicrescens. Some others might use the word “fireflies” in their vernacular, but here in the Northeast portion of the country, we refer to them as lightning bugs. A bug that even the person with a severe case of insectophobia will usually find attractive. Sure, the butterfly is beautiful and the ladybug is often considered a symbol of good luck, but as far as I’m concerned, nothing compares to the majesty of the lightning bug, and I’ll be happy to tell you why.

You see, there are certain things in life that remind you of the different seasons of the year. We all know that when crisp leaves begin to fall from the branches of trees, autumn is here. The first snowflake that appears in the cold, milky sky means winter is on its way, and when flowers begin to spring up from their deep sleep, we know that spring has indeed sprung. But when we see the first lightning bug of the year, it’s magical. Like welcoming home an old friend. One who’s been gone for months and has now suddenly come back with word that summer is finally here.

Long before I became experienced in the art of the lawn mow, my early summer evenings as a child were spent catching these illuminated creatures. Nothing could compare to spending an entire day swimming with friends from the neighborhood and then seeing how many of these flying creatures we could catch as dusk settled in. 

If I close my eyes now, I can still picture it. Me, running barefoot through the dark back yards of my neighborhood, wearing nothing but shorts and a tank top. My youthful skin glistening with chlorine-riddled sweat, the smell of crisp honeysuckle in the air, and without a single care in the world except for the task at hand. Summer had just begun and the arrival of the first yellow bus calling children back to school was a long way away. It was pure freedom. 

There was always a feeling of wonder after you’d caught one of God’s miracles of childhood. Then, as you slowly open your cupped hand, you watch its blinking body escape your palm and climb to the highest point of your extended index finger, where it would spread its wings and fly off into the night.

Sometimes my friends and I would poke holes into the lid of an empty mayonnaise jar and fill it long blades of freshly cut grass to contain our electric treasures. Then we’d all take turns marching through the yard with our makeshift lantern. When the lightning bugs became lethargic from being trapped inside of our glass house, we’d release them back into the sky to rejoin their winged friends. 

The most fun of all though was during what I liked to call the “magic hour.” This was usually around 9 p.m. and right before my parents would call me in for the evening. You’d notice the frenzied firestorm of lights in the yard as the lighting bugs danced in unison to nature’s song, but soon one bug would seem to burn bigger and brighter than the rest. It was the granddaddy of all lightning bugs making an appearance. 

Granddaddy was the coolest bug of all and, as you might imagine, was almost impossible to catch. Every time he’d land on a bush and you’d get close enough to grab him, he’d take off and hover just out of reach above your head. It was as if he knew the measurement of his assailant. I’m sure he was thinking, “Ok, this kid is four feet eight inches tall, so let’s hover six feet five inches off the ground.”  But if you were lucky enough to capture a granddaddy when he let down his guard, you were always the winner of the evening’s festivities. It was childhood summer at its finest.

I’d just finished my beer when the real firestorm of lights began. It was just as I remember from childhood but something I hadn’t so much as thought about for at least forty summers. 

Then it happened.

There, out of the corner of my eye, I saw granddaddy flying slightly above my head. I stood up and used my now adult-sized hand to make a grab for him. Still smart as ever, he calculated the precise distance of my five feet eight-inch frame and rose just high enough to be out of my reach.

I sat back down in my chair and smiled. The adult duties of lawn mowing vanished and I continued to think about those carefree summer nights of childhood. Then I wondered how there could possibly be any interest in watching television or playing video games during this magical time of year.

Especially when there’s so much entertainment right in our own backyards.

The Phone Call

Chicago has always been my kind of town. I’ve been there several times, mostly on business, and did not regret a single minute of it.  From the moment I enter the subway at O’Hare and take the Red Line south, there’s a familiarity about it that almost feels like home.

Here I am again, arriving alone for more training on a software application the hospital I work for uses. No one from work ever goes to conferences with me and, quite frankly, it doesn’t really bother me. I actually like flying solo on my business excursions, but never expected this visit to Chicago would change me in a way I never thought possible.

I had just finished eating my usual deep dish pizza at the original Uno restaurant when it happened. Yes, the Uno that started it all. Don’t even waste your time going to the chain ones you see. Those just aren’t the same. Corporate always has a way of ruining things. But I highly recommend the original Uno if you’re ever in town. For me, I like to sit at the bar and order the Chicago Classic. That and a Goose 312. The deep dish and beer is more than enough to put me into food coma for the rest of the night.

As I waddled outside into the evening twilight, I began to take in the whole Chicago vibe. The lights on the Harley Davidson store down the street caught my eye immediately, and although they don’t actually sell motorcycles there, it was a cool place to go to get some swag. A way to be biker even if you didn’t ride. I began to wonder how a store like that could stay in business in downtown Chicago. I surmised that just the presence of Harley Davidson in a big city is more than enough reason for a company to pump endless amounts of money into an unprofitable store.

I looked north and thought about the possibility of taking in a Cubs game this week if the software conference sessions got out at a reasonable time. That is, unless the sales guy decides at the last minute to take a bunch of attendees out to dinner. One look at my mid-section will tell you I’m not one to pass up a meal. I could easily find time to hob nob and chat with people from different hospitals all over the country, provided of course, that a free steak was involved. 

And that’s when I really noticed it.

It was something all too familiar but something I hadn’t seen for a very long time in it’s natural habitat. I found myself standing next to what was probably the last phone booth on the face of the Earth. One that has the word “Telephone” prominently displayed across it. One that Clark Kent might use in order to change into Superman. The ones I thought had gone the way of the dinosaur ever since mobile phones became all the rage was right in front of me.

As a child, I always loved using the old school phones. Even when I was around eight or nine and would occasionally receive a call from the neighbor kid across the street, the whole “telephone” process fascinated me. I loved how you just could pick up a receiver, plug your index finger into one of the small plastic holes and begin rotary dialing (remember, we’re talking old school here) a combination of numbers until someone on the other end of the line would answer. My aunt even had one of the first new-fangled, push button versions. She was really living large.

I suddenly remembered some of the fun things I used to do during my phone touting experience while I was growing up, like dialing zero for the hell of it, just to reach this person called an operator. Of course, when she would answer, I’d always giggle and then hang up. After about the third or fourth time doing so, my father would soon receive a phone call from the frustrated woman scolding him for allowing his children to dial the operator. Let’s just say that it didn’t end well for me but, sure enough, a month or so later I’d be right back it. Just like Dad’s Playboys hidden in the nightstand next to his bedside, there was something taboo about dialing zero that was too good to pass up.

And don’t even get me started about those old “Dial a Joke” Jim Backus commercials I’d see on television. “Just call 976-JOKE for today’s joke… CALL NOW!” Mr Howell would plead, and who was I to say no when the guy who also played Mr. Magoo told me to call him? I think at one point my bottom was red for a week when the phone bill had an extra $25 on it from me half listening to the stupid, pre-recorded jokes at 99 cents a minute.

Funny now, not funny then.

Even before Dad had passed away three years ago, I still remember us having a good laugh about my phone adventures at his bedside. As the IV’s slowly pumped morphine into him and despite his pain, something about me telling him the red ass phone stories made us both laugh out loud. And for a moment, I wondered if laughter could possibly be the unknown cure for cancer. It sure seemed possible.

But yeah, me and the phone go way back.

This particular booth actually still had the tattered phone book dangling from a small metal chains. I imagined how many people had let their fingers do the walking through it over the years. I had a strange urge to see what year the phone book actually said. My guess was somewhere in the late nineties, but before I could verify and claim a mental victory, the phone abruptly started to ring. Ringing and no one standing there to answer it. No one but me.

Ring one.

Maybe it was my childish subconscious telling me that it was Jim Backus calling that made the deviant young kid who liked to have his phone fun start making his way forward. Here I was in a big city, with no possibility of receiving a red ass and with absolutely nothing better to do until my software conference starts tomorrow. As I trudged towards the booth, I began thinking of interesting ways I could answer the phone.

Would I say something like, “Dave’s Pizza – We Deliver?” Nah, too predictable. Maybe I could talk in a Chinese voice and pretend to be the dry cleaner down the street. That was a possibility, but I wasn’t sure I’d be able pull it off without laughing. Either way, if I grew tired of the game I could just hang up the phone and head back to my hotel.

Ring two.

Just to be sure I wouldn’t be caught, I quickly looked around to see if any legitimate phone answerer was there waiting for a call. I realized I was alone and slowly stepped into the booth. I could immedialtey feel the claustrophobia and could smell the old paper, cheap beer and stale cigarettes from years of calling and receiving calls.

Ring three.

I placed my hand on the black receiver and, as carefully lifted it up to my ear, decided I was now a gainful employee of Dave’s Pizza on the south side of Chicago.

“Dave’s Pizza – We Deliver. Can I take your order?” I said, confidentaly.

That’s when my heart lurched inside of my chest. It felt like a vacuum had sucked all of the air out of the booth. There was a rush of vertigo and it became hard for me to breathe. I quickly realized Dave’s Pizza was out of business.

“Jimmy? Jimmy it’s me,” a weak voice on the other end of the line said.

Chicago faded into darkness as the whole world turned dull shades of black and white. Of all the things I could say, only one word came to mind.

“Dad?”….

Graduation Day (Part One)

After thirty-five years of trying, and subsquently putting it off for various reasons, today I finally graduate from college. There are so many emotions I’m feeling right now. Not just about the achievement, but my life’s journey over these last three and a half decades and how a global pandemic became the spark that would ultimately bring me to this day.

Me graduating from high school on June 11, 1987

In order properly tell this abridged version of the story, I first need to go back to April of 1987, when I was a senior at Easton Area High School and met with my guidance counselor to discuss my future plans. Plans which, as far as I was concerned, only included world domination as a rock star.

By that point, I’d already been playing guitar for two years and knew that it wouldn’t be long before Atlantic Records would be knocking on my bedroom door at home with a six-figure recording contract. Of course, that wasn’t going to happen, and before graduating high school, I ultimately decided to pursue a degree in music education.

I started out at Penn State, going to classes and getting all the student loans they would give me. Back then, they pretty much wrote you blank checks, and I used the money for important things, like guitars, amps and taking my friends out to expensive dinners. Side note: It took me until 2010 to finally pay off all of my student loans.

I dropped out of Penn State halfway through the fall 1987 semester for a reason now that escapes me. Although I bet it had to do with wanting to be a rock star. A year later, I decided to give it the old college try again, this time enrolling at Northampton Community College, before transferring to West Chester University. I received all A’s at NCC and made the move south in the Fall of 1989, where I continued to rack up every loan they handed out.

In the Spring of 1990, with $1.37 left to my name, I bailed West Chester to start a job at Easton Hospital, and by bailed I mean I just left. Didn’t tell anyone and didn’t even officially drop out. I guess you know what my WCU transcript says about that. If not, keep reading.

In the mid-90’s I went back to NCC to take a few science and computer programming classes but, that too, eventually went no where. Although I passed those classes I didn’t continue, and I wouldn’t even think about college again for the next 25 years

Fast forward to the fall of 2020. The world is in the early stages of lockdown for Covid-19, a pandemic that was killing thousands of people every day. I’m sitting at my dining room table recalling all of the terrible things that had happened in my life recently – mostly, the loss of my mother in March and being let go from my job just a month later. There was a lot of uncertainty.

My daughter, herself a recent Easton High School graduate, was looking into taking a virtual course at Northampton Community College and I helped her go online and schedule. As I was browsing the college website a strange thought popped into my head. I wondered how many classes it would take for me to get a degree — any degree at all.

It took some work but I was able to gather transcripts from Penn State and West Chester, the latter one allowing me to see all the F’s I’d earned thirty years earlier. I took all of the information and forwarded it to NCC. A few days later an advisor contacted me and told me that if I took five classes: Environmental Science, Geography, English II, Developmental Psychology and Nature of Mathematics, I would be able to graduate with an Associates in Arts degree in the Spring of 2022.

“Spring of 2022?” I thought to myself. “Who the hell knows where any of us will be by then?” Then I thought about it some more and said, “You know what? Fuck it. Let’s go!”

I enrolled in the Winter of 2020 and, fortunately, was in a position where I wouldn’t need student loans. I’d take things one class at a time.

These last 18 months weren’t easy. I mean, how could they be, I’m a 50+ year old dude who hasn’t picked up a college textbook in 25 years, and also had to continue to navigate a full-time job, take care of a house and pay bills. Environmental Science and Geology were eye openers, Developmental Psychology was interesting and English II, which is right up my alley as a writer, was a piece of cake.

The last class though, Nature of Mathematics, nearly killed me. Believe it or not it was so hard that at one point I actually considered dropping out. But I’m so glad I was able to bury that give up attitude I had as a young adult because — well, today is the day I’m graduating from college.

Birthday Reflections at 52

October 5th, 2021: My 52nd Birthday

This is my tenth entry in this series of birthday posts. Something I started shortly after I began my writing journey in the fall of 2011. 

To be honest, and especially with everything that’s happened over the course of the last eighteen months, I didn’t feel like posting anything at all, but instead of rehashing all the gloom and doom about viruses, failed leadership and elections, I’ll try to remain upbeat. After all, it IS the greatest day of the year:

Birthdays are the one day where we, collectively, celebrate the individual, and by that I mean we don’t use the day as a reason to inundate social media with over the hill jokes, pay for lavish lunches, or give someone a number of spankings equivalent to their new age, plus an extra one to grow on. Although I do remember that was the best part about attending birthday parties as a kid in the 1970s, so long as you weren’t the one on the receiving end.

No, the real reason people blow out candles, consume large quantities of cake, receive greeting cards (hopefully, with a few greenbacks in them) and open whimsical presents is to commemorate the day you arrived on Earth.

You’re alive, and that’s reason enough to celebrate.

For me, it seems like it was only yesterday that I was a youthful teenager; driving me and my buddies around in a beat-up, 1972 Toyota Corona (honest, there really was a car named “Corona”). Going to the mall on Friday nights after school, pouring my hard-earned, summer lawn mowing earnings into video game cabinets and drinking gallons of Orange Julius and wishing I could somehow muster up the courage to go over and talk to the cute girl who was standing with her friends outside of the Listening Booth record store. Ah, youth.

Wasn’t I the one who was able to go to rock concerts and stay up til the wee hours of the morning? Sitting in some dingy diner; smoking cigarettes and drinking gallons of coffee while talking to friends about what would happen when we took on the world and made all of our dreams came true? Now, I’m lucky if I can stay up til 10 p.m. most nights.

There’s an odd sense of immortality you have when you’re young that makes you believe time will always stand still, and that you’ll never be as old as your parents. But then, one day, you take a nap and wake up in their role. To give you some perspective, my father died at the age of 51. As of today, I’ve outlived him.

I promised I would keep things upbeat for this post so I won’t continue to rehash the past. Instead, I’ll talk about the future. In addition to continuing to do interviews for The Morning Call newspaper and Guitar World magazine, I’m also heavily in the writing process of several books. Something that has been put off for quite a while but something I am extremely excited about. I am thinking more of a collection of short stories — perhaps two novellas in one. More on that in the months ahead.

I’ve also been dabbling a lot in watercolor painting. Not only has it been a great stress reliever but it’s something you can do that doesn’t cost a lot of money and where you can literally see your progress every day:

I called this one “The Road Beyond 50.” If you visualize yourself in it, the painting is a metaphor for life. You can’t see where you’ve been (the past) or the scars that you carry. All you can see is where you’re standing now and the road to what lies ahead of you. As in life, there is beauty all around us and a brave new world just waiting to be explored. I plan on doing a lot of exploring in the days, weeks and months ahead.

I hope my next trip around the sun, and walk down this path, brings all of us a sense of hope, peace and most of all, love. 

Pierogie Phobia

I only have two fears in my life. Oh sure, we all have aversions to familiar things: heights, creepy bugs and other slimy critters, drowning. The list goes on. But the ones I’m most afraid of are not of the ordinary nature: one of them being Coke Zero. But the one I really want to discuss with you today is my fear of pierogies. Laugh if you must, but let me explain.

Thirty years ago I was a pierogie connoisseur. My semi regular routine was to pan fry each little doughy, cheese and potato filled manna in a half-gallon of vegetable oil, drown them in salt and then make a bee line for the couch to watch TV and indulge. My average intake was between six and eight during a binge. I did my best work solo. And I was immortal. But that all changed very quickly one particular Sunday afternoon.

It was a hot summer day at my Mom’s house. I was still living with her as dead beat sons often do when home from college. She had driven with my brother and a few other people to the NASCAR race at Pocono Raceway. I decided to stay at home to watch the race and partake in Pierogie-Palooza.

I followed my customary routine of pan frying eight pierogies and drowning them in the aforementioned salt. Filling a large glass with Diet Coke (as I had not yet progressed to Coke Zero, but that is a story for another time), I sat on the couch and turned on the race.

I couldn’t tell you about the race. All I recall was the wonderful combination of carb, fat and salt as it hit my tongue. The smell of golden goodness. The taste of empty calories and the age mass that would eventually haunt me in the years to follow. I finished them all, then fell into a pierogie high. It was true Zen.

Suddenly, there was another smell that infiltrated my sacred space. It wasn’t one I was familiar with and for a second I thought about just ignoring it, but quickly realized I could not. A feeling of helplessness washed over me as I knew my world was about to change. Because that’s when I saw the smoke coming from the kitchen.

You see, in my haste to reach the ninth plane of starch and fat heaven I forgot to turn off the pan containing the half-gallon of vegetable oil that cooked the pierogies. I managed to get to the kitchen in time to put the fire in the pan out. Disaster averted. That was a close one I thought to me self, but then I looked around the kitchen…

Oh shit….!!!

The smoke from the grease fire had painted a nice black film on the white walls and cabinets in the kitchen.

Oh shit…..she’ll be home soon!!!

That’s when the humorous side of my brain made light of the situation. “Well Son, at least you’re not a young kid anymore or you would have gotten the ass beating of your life for this one”…..Ha-ha. That humorous side….I love him sometimes….But this was serious. And for a moment, I really did wonder if Mom would beat the shit out of her 21-year-old son. (looking back now, I think I could’ve taken her but at the time, I didn’t want to find out). I had to clean this up before she got home. I could do it. Clean it all up. She’d walk in and it would be like nothing ever happened.

I grabbed a bucket and filled it with water and some cleaning agent. I think it was the second or third pass on the wall when reality really hit. This shit on the wall was NOT coming off. And then I rationalized why this was happening to me. Could this be payback for the time I “accidentally” put my car in neutral and rolled it into our house on South Side? Sure, everyone was glad I was ok afterwards but I never really got punished for it. My heart started racing.

Oh yes, this one was going to be my legacy. The joke of family events for years to come… “Jimmy almost burned the house down cooking Pierogies”….Pierogies and Jimmy were going to go together forever. I thought about going on job interviews and being asked about my pierogie ordeal. Getting married and every one throwing pierogies at me instead of rice….And worst of all,  I just knew my Mom was going to have the Mrs. T logo put on my tombstone.

So, what did I do? I dumped the water bucket in the sink and opened the windows to let the remainder of the smoke out. Sat back down on the couch and finished watching the race. Haven’t touched a pierogie since. I can’t look at them without going back to the helplessness of that day. Yes, I AM afraid!

Rightly so I am still the butt of jokes at family get togethers. But I’ll never forget the look on Mom’s face when she walked in and saw the end result. There was so much I wanted to say, but all I could muster was:

“So, how was the race?”….

Birthday Reflections At 51

October 5th, 2020: My 51st Birthday.

This is my eighth entry in this series of birthday posts. Something I started shortly after I began my writing journey in the fall of 2011. 

To be honest, especially with everything that’s happened over the course of the last twelve months, I didn’t feel like posting one at all. But instead of rehashing all the gloom and doom about viruses, failed leadership and elections, I’ll try to remain upbeat about it. So here goes:

Birthdays are the one day where we, collectively, celebrate the individual. And by that I mean we don’t use the day as a reason to inundate social media with over the hill jokes, pay for lavish lunches, or give someone a number of spankings equivalent to their new age, plus an extra one to grow on–although I do remember that was the best part about attending birthday parties as a kid in the 1970s, so long as you weren’t the one on the receiving end.

No, the real reason people blow out candles, consume large quantities of cake, receive greeting cards (hopefully, with a few greenbacks in them) and open whimsical presents is to commemorate the day you arrived on Earth.

You’re alive, and that’s reason enough to celebrate.

For me, it seems like it was only yesterday that I was a youthful teenager; driving me and my buddies around in a beat-up, 1972 Toyota Corona (honest, I’m not talking about the virus. There really was a car called a Corona). Going to the mall on Friday nights after school, pouring my hard-earned, summer lawn mowing earnings into video game cabinets and drinking gallons of Orange Julius. Wishing I could somehow muster the courage to go over and talk to the cute girl who stood with her friends outside the Listening Booth record store. Ah, youth.

Wasn’t I the one who was able to go to rock concerts and stay up til the wee hours of the morning? Sitting in some dingy diner; smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee while talking to friends about what would happen when we took on the world and made all of our dreams came true? Now, I’m lucky if I can stay up til 10 p.m. most nights.

There’s an odd sense of immortality you have when you’re young that makes you believe time will always stand still and that you’ll never be as old as your parents. But then, one day, you take a nap and wake up in their role.

I promised I would keep things upbeat for this post so I won’t rehash the past. Instead, I’ll talk about the future. In addition to continuing to do interviews, I’m also heavily in the writing process of my next book. Something that has been put off for quite a while but something I am extremely excited about. I am giving myself to the end of the year to finish. More on that in the months ahead.

I’ve also been dabbling a lot in watercolor painting. Not only has it been a great stress reliever but it’s something you can do that doesn’t cost a lot of money and where you can literally see your progress every day:

I called this one “The Road Beyond 50.” If you visualize yourself in it, the painting is a metaphor for life. You can’t see where you’ve been (the past) or the scars that you carry. All you can see is where you’re standing now and the road to what lies ahead of you. As in life, there is beauty all around us and a brave new world just waiting to be explored. 

I hope my next trip around the sun, and walk down this path, brings us all a sense of hope, peace and love. 

 

A Silver Lining

2020 has been the absolute worst year of my life.

I know, it probably has been for you as well. But my streak of bad started way before the corona virus and debating the usefulness of masks while hating each other. For me, the black cloud hovering over my head began last October when I lost my beloved dog, Doodle, three days before I turned 50. That single event set the wheels of gloom in motion.

It really began in early March of this year when my mother suffered a fatal stroke and, a week later, the Covid-19 lockdown officially began. I do writing on the side and was grateful to be able to continue to work from home with my real job in IT.

Unfortunately, one month after quarantine began, I was told that my position had been eliminated, effective immediately. My company offered to pay me until the end of the month. This was contingent upon them overnighting all the things at my desk along with a box for me to return my laptop and other company equipment.

I used those two weeks to secure a contract position at another company. The bummer of it was, the new job didn’t start for eighteen days and there would be no pay coming in. So, like thousands of other people, I applied for unemployment benefits to fill the gap and was accepted. I won’t go into great detail about my experience with the Department of Unemployment other than to say that as of this writing, I still have not received one single penny for the two-weeks unemployment they owe me. I tried calling, emailing, voicemails… all met with constant busy signals or completely ignored. I had to dig into savings in order to pay bills. The fact they still owe me for two-weeks unemployment is unsettling, but I cannot even begin to imagine what it must be like for others who are going through a similar process and still haven’t found a job.

Just when I thought there might be a break in the storm, this past week I had to say goodbye to another one of my dogs. Ginger Snap, a senior pup we adopted after she was rescued from a kill shelter in 2011, and who had spent the next four years living a life filled with love and luxury, told me it was time. She had been diagnosed with Cushing’s Disease a few weeks ago and I was giving her medication that was supposed to alleviate the symptoms that were ruining her quality of life. I came downstairs on Saturday morning to find her unable to get up. It will take me a long time to get over the thought that I failed her.

So, during a period of ten months, I’ve not only become mired in this pandemic but also lost my mother, two dogs and my job. Which kind of leads me to the title of this post – The Silver Lining.

The day after Ginger went to the rainbow bridge, I went to visit my brother, who had lived with my mom in the house we all grew up in. He had recently installed windows in places of the house where none previously existed. I marveled at the sun, gleaming through the new windows and showering the space that was once our childhood bedroom in bright, summer light.

As I admired his work, he mentioned how he should’ve installed the windows twenty-five years ago and how he wished our mom would’ve been alive to see them. I agreed.

After I left the house to go home, I walked past the huge blue spruce tree lumbering in the yard. Its towering branches reaching high to the heavens like it had always done even before I was born. I suddenly remembered how deathly afraid I was of that tree as a child, and how I would often have nightmares about it coming out of the ground at its roots to get me.

I decided I wanted to have a piece of that big tree to stick in my curio cabinet at home. It’s a place where I keep all of my childhood knickknacks of times gone by. I bravely reached for a low hanging limb and plucked off a tiny piece of branch. I held the small stem to my nose and breathed deeply, inhaling the faint scent of pine from something that forty-five years ago scared the living shit out of me.

That night as a lay in bed, I had a dream that I was back at my brother’s house. I can’t recall all the details, but I remember my brother and I were standing in the kitchen talking about something when in walked my mom. In the dream, she looked exactly as she did as when I was a boy, but in my heart, I knew she had died. You would think that I would be terrified at the sight of a ghost, but I wasn’t afraid to see her at all. Instead, there was something I wanted to know.

“Are you all right?” I asked. Meaning, is it ok when you die.

She nodded her head. “Yeah, I’m fine,” she said. “Everything is ok.”

The dream quietly transitioned into something else I can’t remember, but that revelation of seeing her still haunts me. It’s been years since I’d dreamt about my mother, and even when I did there was never a conversation that felt so visceral.

I’m not sure if what I experienced was the culmination of visiting my brother and all the things that have been happening to me in 2020, or that my mother really was trying to tell me that everything is going to be all right.

But if I had to make a choice, I like to think that it was the latter.

33 Years of Employment

Me, June 11, 1987

Who would have thought how much could change in a thirty three years? To think that at the time since I received my high school diploma in June of 1987 the world has become such different place.

I’ll be honest, when this picture was taken I figured it would probably only be a year before I’d be on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, talking about my band’s debut album and world tour with Def Leppard. I had high hopes and wasn’t going to let anything stand in my way.

Thirty-three years ago the only thing I wanted to do was rock. I’m serious. I mean that’s ALL I wanted to do. I really didn’t want to go to college, and I sure as hell had no interest in doing anything that resembled actual work.

On the contrary, my days were usually spent sleeping til around noon, noodling on my guitar and mooching money off of my mom and grandmother for such things as gas for my car and coffee and cheese fries at Perkins. After all, a man’s gotta eat, right?

“Borrowing” money from them soon began to get old and my options for disposable funds was starting to run out. I was worried that I might be completely broke before fame came knocking at the door.

What to do?

It wasn’t until I discovered that student loans were readily available that I began to have second thoughts about going to college. I mean, who wouldn’t want some free money? Money you wouldn’t have to pay back until after you graduated college!! Hell, that could take YEARS!! I quickly signed the first promissory note I saw and still have vivid memories of running down to the bursar’s office every day at Penn State Allentown to see if there was a big check for me. And what did I do with this windfall of cash you ask? The money I was supposed to use for books and tuition? I bought a guitar and amp and wound up dropping out.

This cycle inevitably repeated itself over the next few years as I applied to community college and eventually, West Chester University. I discovered that as long as I was enrolled in school I was “off the hook” as far as paying back the money. At least in the short-term. It wasn’t until I woke up one morning in my dorm, dug into my pockets and realized I had $1.37 to my name that I had an epiphany. I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing. Here I was, twenty years old with $1.37 to my name and nothing more. The friends I’d graduated with were now halfway done with college and most were well on their way to bigger and better things. It was my wake up call. Rock and Roll would have to wait.

On May 29th, 1990 (thirty years ago as of this writing), I started working full time on the 4-12:30 am shift as the head garbage man at Easton Hospital. That’s right, I literally started at the very bottom. Any gum wrapper, cigarette butt or operating room bio hazardous waste was handled by me. I hated it with a passion. They even fucked up and spelled my name wrong in the company newsletter. Despite all of my self-doubt and embarrassment of being a garbage man, something inside kept me going. I knew better days were ahead.

A year later, a position opened up in the pharmacy. It was a 2:30-11pm shift but was the perfect chance for me to get out of garbage. I worked that position for eight years.

Eventually, I made the decision to go back to school and get my degree in computers, married, bought a home and became the father of a beautiful daughter. It took me fifteen years but I eventually paid back every cent of my student loan debt.

Perhaps the best thing of all was that my own rock star dream didn’t die. I now live it vicariously through my writing. The point being, we can do anything we want to do. Be anything we want to be. We just need to make a plan and do what it takes to get there.

As I look back on this picture, three decades after it was taken, I see someone who had big dreams. And someone who, thirty-three years later, found a way to make them come true.

A Different Perspective: Why You Should Take Covid-19 Seriously

Whether I’m out walking my dogs from a safe social distance or driving to pick up much-needed groceries, I can’t help but see members of my community assembling in large numbers at places like parks and shopping centers, despite government and medical professionals advising us to the contrary. It’s become apparent that a vast majority of people are still not taking the Corona Virus (Covid-19) seriously.

Perhaps there’s a reason for this disconnect, because I’ve also read dozens of news articles and listened to a bunch of so-called experts bloviate their opinions. Casting blame for this “virus” pandemic we’re experiencing on everything from a person in China eating a bat, to a biological weapon experiment gone awry, to the new 5G frequency that’s being used for our smart phones. Some are even suggesting that it’s not a virus at all and that the whole thing is nothing more than a crude hoax. In every case, the misinformation given is being shared through various social media outlets where many recipients, who are already unsure and in fear, eagerly accept it as fact without bothering to research it on their own.

The reason I’m writing this is not to fuel debate or cause heated tension. Quite frankly, I’m in no mood to argue. I’d just like to share with you a story that I hadn’t really thought much about until my mother passed away on March 7. I’ll preface what follows by telling you that my mother died of a stroke at the age of 73, and not from Covid-19.

My mom’s mother, Helena (Lyons) Appleman, was born in Easton on April 19, 1914. She was one of eight children from a relatively poor family who grew up to become a wife, mother, seamstress and homemaker, before spending the last nine years of my grandfather’s life being his primary caregiver after he, ironically, also suffered a severe stroke.

Shortly after my brother was born in 1967, when my newly married mother and father had nowhere else to go, my grandparents invited them to move in with them into their small, three-bedroom turn of the century colonial. I came along two years later and was followed by my sister two years after that.

My connection with my grandmother during my formitive years growing up remains my most treasured memory. For, in addition to taking care of my disabled grandfather 24/7, she was also the one who cared for me and my siblings whenever we were sick because our parents were away at work. I remember those days fondly because she’d always have me lie on the soft lumpy couch underneath a mountain of warm blankets; feeding me hot chicken noodle soup and sitting with me to watch shows like “The Price is Right” and “The Joy of Painting,” while getting a much-needed respite from my grandfather, who was taking an afternoon nap.

Every day, unless she was feeling under the weather, she would make supper for my family and would always have extra for any of our friends and relatives who happened to straggle in while we were eating. If I think back now, I can still smell the Sunday roast beef and the Thanksgiving feasts she used to prepare.

My grandmother loved everyone and would go out of her way to do anything to help someone in need. In short, she was the foundation of our family and I remember sitting in wonder as she told me all kinds of stories about what life was like during The Great Depression and World War II. Things I’d give anything to be able to hear from her again because I miss her dearly.

The stories part is where I’m going with all of this, because there’s one story she never told any of us. One that she kept to herself her entire life, and didn’t reveal until she was on her death bed in December of 1996.

One evening, not too long before she passed, my cousin’s husband was at the nursing home visiting her. At the time, he was taking an English course on interviewing and was asking my grandmother pointed questions about her life. Things she always discussed openly. I’m not sure if it was because she was fully aware of her own mortaility, or because she just wanted to get something out that she’d kept bottled up, but she used the opportunty to reveal a little more with one of the questions that was asked.

The question was this: “What was the worst moment of your entire life?”

Without hesitation, she answered. “The day of Clara’s funeral.”

“Clara?” he asked, curiously. “Who’s Clara?”

My grandmother explained that Clara was one of her sisters who had contracted the Spanish Flu during the pandemic of 1918 and died shortly thereafter. Clara was ten-years-old at the time and my grandmother was four. We all knew that my grandmother had lost a sister at a young age but were never offered anything beyond that. She never told and we dared not to ask.

My grandmother then went on to tell him that because the funeral parlors were full due to the large number of deaths, they needed to have Clara’s funeral service inside their home. For some reason; one that even I can’t begin to understand, they were unable to get Clara’s casket out of the house after the service, and several men had to work together to lower it through an open window in order to take it to the cemetery for burial. So, in addition to already being grief stricken over the death of her beloved sister, my grandmother had to witness this entire emotional scene of despair and confusion play out in real time.

Let me say this again in a way that’s more easily understood. My grandmother, who was four-years-old when her sister died, lived almost eighty years after the pandemic of 1918. She lived through a Great Depression, a World War, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Vietnam and many other horrific things in our world, in addition to having to be a caregiver to my grandfather and taking care of my family. Yet the absolute worst day of her entire life was when her sister died of the Spanish Flu. The Pandemic of 1918.

So when I see people, a century later, not taking what’s going on seriously, it’s very concerning. My grandmother’s generation never had access to all the information we do today about what’s going on. Even something as simple as washing your hands thorougly and keeping a safe social distance. In 1918 there was no radio, television, smart phones or social media. Heck, you were lucky if you had access to a newspaper. All you had to rely upon was hearsay. Which is why I can only imagine how scary it must have been for her back then, not knowing what was going on.

The truth is you can believe all the hyperbole and conspiracy theories you want because you have that right. But you’ll never be able to convince me that what we’re going through right now is not something to take seriously.

Here’s a little epilogue to take with you. Something that happened on the night of December 31st, 1996. The night my grandmother died.

My grandmother had shared a room for the last month of her life and, on the day after her death, my mom was talking to my grandmother’s elderly roommate.

“Can I ask you a question?” the woman asked my mother, sounding a bit confused.

“Of course,” my mom answered.

“Do you know anyone named Clara?”

My mom looked at her with concern. “Yeah, as a matter of fact I do. Clara was my mom’s sister. She died when my mom was four.”

“Oh, maybe that explains it,” the woman replied with relief. “Because last night, I kept hearing your mother calling out that name in the dark. She said it over and over, and then she was silent.”

Goodbye Palmer Elementary

It was the suddeness of the hypnagogic jerk that roused me from my sleep. It’s centrifugal force igniting every molecule of my brain back into consciousness. My eyes opened to the sight of the ceiling fan gently rotating above my head. Nearby, the metal vents on the floor rattled with a soothing clinking sound as cool, conditioned air made its way from the basement into the living room where I lay.

I’d been power napping on the couch for a little more than five minutes. Something I tend to do frequently on weekends these days, especially when I’m out late the night before. Although I do enjoy these afternoon breaks from reality they rarely last longer than fifteen minutes. What can I tell you, I’m old. Not “Hey you kids! Get off my f#cking lawn” old, but more of a “It’s Saturday afternoon and I feel like taking a nap” old. There’s a difference.

I gazed over at the clock and noticed the time: 2:00 p.m. I sat up quickly and pursed my lips. “There’s something I need to be doing today,” I thought to myself. “Somthing important and, if I don’t act quickly enough, something I’m going to miss.” I fished the cell phone from my pants pocket and glared at the calendar app, where I saw the overdue notification blaring on the screen:

“Walk Through.. Palmer School”

I rose from the sofa with all the energy of a grizzly bear that’d just woken from a winter hibernation. With cracking knees and slight disorientation I grabbed the keys from the kitchen counter and made my way to the car.

Palmer Elementary is part of the Easton Area School District and, if memory serves me correctly (remember, I said that I’m old), it’s the oldest one still being used under the same name. The school is unique because it’s actually two buildings in one. The original one is called The Cole building and the other attached structure, built a few years later, is referred to as The Auld building. About the only thing I remember about Palmer Elementary was its odd, sprawling shape, and the green-tiled walls and wooden stage that were now riddled with the ghosts of generations of students who’d spent kindergarten through fifth grade roaming it’s corridors from September until June each year.

The school is now scheduled to be demolished and replaced with a new, state of the art strucuture, but the district was kind enough to let people walk through its hallowed halls one final time before it’s leveled into dust. I only attended Palmer for one year, fifth grade, back in 1979. A mind boggling thought to consider forty years later.

All Purpose Room

As a fifth grader, I was confined to The Auld building and as I entered the door to that part of the school again I felt a wave of emotion rush over me. My biggest fear was that I wouldn’t be able to find the homeroom class where I’d spent most of my time. Heck, I couldn’t even remember the room number, even though I suddenly recalled it was something familiar that I could easily associate with.

As I trudged through the corridors I found myself walking in a certain direction. I passed something that was once called The All Purpose Room; a large room with filing cabinets, chairs and even a stage for talent shows. It was there that I recalled it’s significance. On June 5th, 1980 this room served as the location for Palmer’s Silent Spelling Bee where me and a bunch of my teammates came in second place.

It was the most exciting thing that ever happened to me at school up to that point, because the entire Spelling Bee was being filmed live on this crazy new contraption called a video recorder. Our tiny little selves could actually watch our performances on the television screen almost instantly after it happened!

As I walked out of that room my thoughts raced back to the Second Place ribbon I’d kept from that day. One that, almost 40 years later, still resides in a curio cabniet is my office.

I exited the all-purpose room and into another winding corridor that led past the gym, where the smell of old wood and the blood, sweat and tears of youth still lingered heavily. It was then that my strides began to come more in earnest, as if I knew there was some place I needed to be. I walked past doors with signs printed on them that said “Janitor,” “Teachers” and “Boiler Room,” along with black, scuff-marked floors from decades of abuse by children’s boots and shoes. Each sign and scrape as oddly familiar as the nose on my face. Finally, I came to the beginning of a single long corridor, and my heart skipped a beat.

“It’s down here,” a youthful voice inside my head said. “Down here on the left! Take your time. It’s not the last room, but the one just before it.”

Room 409

I started doubting myself. Could it be possible that I’d actually remember the exact location of my homeroom? A school that I’d only spent one year of my life in? I trudged the corridor, peeking into each room on the way down as I slowly made my way toward the end.

Finally, with my heart still racing, I came to the second to last classroom on the left. I peered at the number that hung above the door and laughed out loud. It was Room 409. The same number as that f#cking cleaning product, Formula 409. THAT was how I’d always remembered my 5th grade classroom!! I stood there, staring at those three digits for the longest time, remembering the ten year old boy who regularly walked through it’s archway and into learning. Although I was hesitant about entering nearly forty years after I’d last walked out, I nonetheless forced myself inside.

Room 409, just like all the other classrooms in the building, was completely empty, but my mind quickly filled in the blanks. I could once again see the desks that were occupied by me and my classmates. I could see my teacher, Ms. Reiersen, with her dirty-blonde bob, standing at the blackboard near her desk lecturing. I remembered looking out the window at the monkey bars and longing for recess. I recalled the hottest of days in May when the open windows did little to relieve the unbearable heat. It was in this room where I learned about reading and social studies. It was also where me and my friend Steve came up with the idea of auditioning for the school talent show by wearing paper bags over our heads and doing a skit called “Unknown Comic News.”

If you don’t know who The Unknown Comic is, look him up on YouTube.

I walked the room very slowly taking it all in, running my fingers softly along the walls and reading the memories people had scrawled on the chalk board. I pushed on the closet doors to see where my childhood coat once hung. Yes, it still took a herculean effort to open them. I thought about all the kids that went to school with me at Palmer and how forty years had passed by in a blink of an eye. That’s when it hit me that all of us will be turning 50 this year

Well, they are, I can’t possibly be THAT old.

After what seemed like a lifetime (in reality, it was) it was time to say goodbye to Room 409, Palmer School, and that long ago part of my life. I’m not afraid to admit that I looked back several times through glassy eyes to see if time would stop. Of course, it didn’t.

I’d taken a lot of pictures to remember this day but something still felt missing, and then I realized what it was. I walked back to the board, grabbed a chunk of chalk from the tray and, the same way I would’ve done forty years ago, scribbled a final message.