Category: Life

A Letter To M

Dear M,

I hope this letter finds you well. I was having a bit of trouble trying to find the right words to say as I wrote it. It’s not every day you try to put into words just how much an old high school teacher means to you. Yeah, I know, it’s been more than thirty-five years since I was a student walking those hallowed halls but believe it or not, you’re still the first person who comes to mind whenever I think about my high school experience.

Back then, you had a saying you liked to use whenever someone was having a problem. Whether it was something as simple as a homework assignment, peer pressure, or even trouble at home, whenever someone was having an issue, you’d pull that person aside and say, “Talk to me.”  Those three words became your mantra, and I guess in a way that’s what I’m doing now, talking to you.

I never told you this before, but you played a huge role during the most fragile and formative years of my young life. Like so many other teenagers trying to find their place in the world, I didn’t fit in well in high school, but your choir class was the one place I could go where I felt like I completely belonged. You taught me how to sing and how to release the song from inside my soul. Most of all, you made me feel valued.

I remember the awkward feeling I had walking into your music room every morning and seeing you surrounded by a gaggle of students. All of them eagerly asking you questions about last night’s music theory assignment or trying to get your opinion on a selected piece of music they chose for their district chorus audition. You seemed like a celebrity and the class was your fanbase. Sometimes I had questions of my own to ask but was too shy to do so. It wouldn’t be until after class had ended that I’d pull you side and tell you about my interest in majoring in music at the same state college as you.

I hadn’t seen you since the night of my graduation in 1987. If I’m being honest, I also hadn’t given you much thought at all, that is until almost two decades later when someone told me about the adult choir you were directing once a week in a chapel on the far side of town. This was shortly after you’d retired from teaching, and long after I’d given up on my own dream of becoming a professional musician. 

Call it nostalgia but I had an urge, a tickle in my stomach of wanting to be part of something special. By then, I’d already had a family of my own and was long established in a busy career in information technology. Something like the prospect of singing in a choir with you seemed too good to be true, but regardless of any scheduling concerns, I needed to make time, if only for myself.

I still remember the familiar feeling of awkwardness when I walked into church that night for that first rehearsal. As usual, you were already in conversation with a few people and didn’t see me approaching. I felt a knot in the pit of my stomach. Part of me wanted to turn and run, not because I wasn’t sure of what to say, but because I’d already started second guessing myself again. It had been years since I’d sung in a choir. Would I even know what to do?

I also wondered if you’d even remember me. I was one of thousands of students you had taught over your thirty-three-year teaching career. It had been decades and the skinny, introverted, long-haired student who once sat before you in the corner of the room was now a full-blown middle-aged man. Less hair on his head and, sadly, a bit thicker in the middle. Somehow, I was able to muster up the courage and nervously tapped my hand on your shoulder. 

“Hello, M” I said, meekly. “Do you remember me?”

I will never forget the look of joy on your face when you turned around and saw me standing there. It was as if the Prodigal Son, who had been through the confusion of life and adult responsibility, had suddenly found his way back home. Here I was, once again the fragile student now stuck in an adult body, and there you were, still carrying the age and wisdom of years just like me, but with the same wit and energy I loved while sitting in your music theory classes. 

“Oh my gosh!” you exclaimed as you shook my hand, firmly. “It’s been a long time.”

You told me to call you “Ed” that night because your name was Ed Milisits and we were now both adults. I did but truthfully didn’t want to. That bond of teacher-student was still very strong. For me, and I think for most everyone who ever had the pleasure of being one of your students, you were known as a single letter of the alphabet: 

“M.”

I spent the next ten years spending Tuesday nights in the choir under your direction. One year, I mustered up the courage to suggest a piece of music to do that we performed my senior year of high school. You were excited about the possibility but let me know that it was a bit of a long-shot because approval was needed by the music committee. It took a few more years but one morning, ironically thirty years after last performing the piece in high school, I received an email from you: 

“Thought you’d be interested to know that ‘Os Justi’ is on the Winter program list! We WIN!”

When the pandemic hit in 2020 and the world shut down, the choir went on hiatus. It was also a time when I was going through a lot of personal issues and you were facing your own challenges as well. Ones that made mine look small in comparison. Although I did email quite a few times to see how you were, I always respected your need for privacy. 

It’s hard to believe that today makes a full a year that you’ve been gone. Sometimes I’ll see a post pop up in my Facebook memories and read your comments about it. That will, inevitably, get me to thinking about you and our conversations in the high school choir room or the adult choir rehearsal hall. It puts a smile on my face but I wish there was a chance to have one more conversation with you. Until then, I suppose this one-sided letter will have to do. Someday, God-willing, I’ll have the honor of sitting in your choir again.

M, just know that you are missed dearly, not just by me but by the generations of people who had the pleasure of sitting in one of your classrooms or choirs. You taught us to believe in ourselves, to laugh and, most importantly, to raise our voices in song. 

Rest Easy.

Sincerely,

James Wood (Class of 1987)

Top Five Things of 2022

It’s sometimes hard to believe that we’re at the end of another year, let alone that we’re in the third decade of the 21st century. I still remember when I got my very first laminated school identification card back in September of 1981. On the back of it was a sticker that listed the year of what would be my high school graduation – 1987.

I remember staring at that card for a long time thinking about 1987 and, even though it was only six years, how far away it seemed to be. For some perspective – this past year, 2022, I attended my 35th high school reunion.

A lot has happened over the course of these last twelve months. I’d like to spend these next few minutes giving you a list of my top five events of 2022.

#5 – The Loss of Favorite Teachers. Hey, I never said this list was going to only contain good things. Not only did 2022 mark the 25th anniversary of the death of my father, it was also the year I said goodbye to two of my favorite teachers. First was my favorite teacher in all of my schooling; my high school music theory and choir teacher, Edward Milisits, who died on January 8th. I could easily write an entire book on how Mr. M and his classes affected my life. His influence was so popular that after his retirement from 30+ years of teaching, generations of former students (now adults) signed up to sing in his choir.

Then there’s my third grade teacher, Mrs. Tanzella, who passed away in November. Although I don’t have much recollection of her after I left the halls of Porter Elementary, I’ll never forget the day my brother and I rode on a float the Cub Scouts had made during our town’s annual Halloween parade. I had told Mrs. Tanzella how nervous and scared I was about riding and waving to people. As the route began and we made our way through town, I heard a woman’s voice calling my name. I looked and saw that it was Mrs. Tanzella, briskly walking behind the float; waving to me with a huge smile on her face. Seeing her put me at ease.

These days I can’t remember what I had for dinner last night, but 45 years later, I can still remember her doing that for me.

#4 – This one actually dates back to one year ago today, December 31st, 2021. The day I adopted Merlot, or Merle as he is known in my home. He had been part of a hoarding situation and I gave him a second chance at life. It took him nearly five days into 2022 to come out from under the bed. Today, he is my buddy.

#3Painting Holiday Watercolor Cards. As most of you know, I regularly watercolor. Most of them are 9×12 in size. For Christmas this year I was asked to paint a few 5×7 postcards to use as Christmas cards. I started out thinking I would only do a half dozen or so. Instead, I wound up doing 60 of them. I’m happy to say that, like Merle, all of the cards now have happy homes. Take a peek at them below:

#2 – Interviewing Barry Manilow. This one is surreal and sad because when I was growing up, my mother would play Barry Manilow records non-stop. There was hardly a day when I would come home from school and not hear “Mandy,” “Weekend in New England,” or “Copacabana” playing on the stereo. My mom loved Barry Manilow. And even though we’d always tell her that we believed he was gay (turns out, he was) she claimed he wasn’t and would have left my dad to be with him. In September of this year, I actually got to interview him. I placed a photograph of my mom next to me and looked at it as I spoke to Barry. I even told him the story about how much his music meant to my mom. I was sad that she wasn’t there to experience that moment with me. She would have lost her mind.

#1 Graduating from College – It was a journey that actually began after graduating high school. It was August of 1987 when I entered college thinking I’d become a music teacher. The road would lead me to Penn State, Northampton Community College and West Chester University. All fizzled out and in 1990, I reluctantly entered the work force. When Covid struck in 2020 and we couldn’t go anywhere, I decided to gather all of my transcripts and see what, if anything, I could get. I was told that if I passed five courses I would receive and Associates Degree in General Studies. The quest began, and over the next year and a half I took Environmental Science, English II, Geology, Developmental Psychology and Nature of Mathematics, In May of 2022 I passed my last final and became an honors college graduate almost 35 years to the day after graduating high school. Framing the degree and putting it on my wall was the biggest accomplishment of all for me.

So, another year is about to pass. Along the way there have been a few ups & downs. Some days to remember, and some days to forget. But there’s a New Year ahead and new dreams to collect. So, I wish you one that’s full of health, contentment and most of all….love. Here’s to 2023.

Happy New Year.

My Father

Where to begin?

There are so many things I remember about my dad. He was a tough guy, a south paw that everyone else in my family respected. He was a hard ass at times and someone you didn’t want to get into a scuffle with.

But beneath the exterior, dad also liked to have fun, too. Some of my best memories from childhood were of him taking our family on long camping trips with my other relatives every summer. One that particularly stands out was when we spent nine days at Knoebels Amusement Park and Campground, where it did nothing but rain day and night for three days. My brother had been given the title, chamber maid, and had to dump the contents of a large bucket outside. To do this, my mother and father dressed him up in an oversized garbage bag. A make-shift rain coat, if you will. I still have photos of him dressed in his work clothes.

I’ve heard more than one person say that having all of us crazy “Woods” in one place during the summer was a sure sign of the apocalypse. But there was no fire or brimstone raining down. Hell, all we ever did was play cards, fish, pitch quoits and burn marshmallows as we sat by the campfire.

Of all the times my father and I shared together, there are three moments I’d like to share with you today:

1. The Stop and Think Moment

2. The Drifting Apart Moment

3. The Prodigal Son Moment

The Stop and Think Moment is the one I’ll probably remember most of all. It all began, curiously enough, during a rain storm in summer.

It was late afternoon and I had just come home from playing a neighborhood game of tackle football just prior to the rain. I was upset at having gotten into a fight with one of the neighborhood kids (over what I can’t remember). Dad was sitting alone at the kitchen table, wearing his usual white, cotton t-shirt, drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette.

Our home didn’t have central air conditioning, so to keep cool during storms we’d open the windows just enough to let the breeze in while keeping the water out. We’d also use big portable fans to help vent the kitchen. The smell of the hot asphalt street outside cooling down from the steady stream of rain would often fill the room and, thankfully also allow a respite from the second-hand smoke.

It was on this particular occasion that Dad saw his dejected son and asked him what was the matter.

“So and So threw the ball at my head,” I said, or something similar to that effect. And for the next fifteen minutes Dad gave me a lecture on football, friendship and life. “Stop and Think…”, he’d say. “Did you do anything to bring on this situation?”.

Inevitably, there would have been something I had done to put at least some of the blame on myself. I’d usually start with a “but…but” and he’d always continue on. Telling me to just “Stop and Think” for a minute.

“Stop and think,” he’d say. “Do you think that person who thinks he’s so tough and treats you bad is your friend? He couldn’t fight his way out of a wet paper bag.” I still laugh to this day about that one.

On certain days now, when the weather is grey and rainy, I’ll sometimes sit at my table staring out the window and think of that day in the kitchen. I never forgot “Stop and Think.” Someday I’ll probably write a book about it and dedicate it to him.

The Drifting Apart moment came during the separation and eventual divorce of my parents in the mid 1980’s. By then alcohol, which has always been the Achilles heel in my family, had estranged me from my father. We spoke many times over the years on the phone and in person but rarely when beer hadn’t influenced him in some way to make conversations short.

My brother and sister would see and talk to him way more frequently then me. They were able to see past the alcohol. I couldn’t. Soon I was off to college and living on my own and the phone calls became less and less frequent. Sometimes months would go by where we didn’t speak at all and were lost to each other.

I eventually heard that he had remarried but the next time I would actually see him for any extended length of time would be at my own wedding in 1995. It was a bit awkward at first but I remember it being one of the best times of my life.

It’s not that I didn’t love him or anything like that. On the contrary, the love I had for my dad never changed. The separation was just a result of our going our separate ways and me not being able to deal with him in that condition. Especially when it got to the point where nothing was ever going to change.

Which brings me to why I decided to write about my dad.

My father died 25 years ago today, October 17th, 1997. Whenever I think of this day I inevitably think of The Prodigal Son Moment.

It was mid 1996 when I got a call from my aunt telling me my father was in the hospital. They had found a mass in his colon and were operating on it. The doctors thought they had caught it in time. They advised him to give up drinking and smoking if he wanted any chance of fully recovering and, surprisingly, he agreed to it.

The next 15 months were spent reconnecting with my dad. Ironically, the one thing I remember most is going to the bar with him and my brother for the first time (myself now also a legal drinker) and watching him play the poker machines and nurse a non-alcoholic beer.

One might assume that a bar would be the LAST place I’d want to take my father to all things considered. And truth be told I really didn’t want to go into the lion’s den either. But he was adamant about taking his sons to the bar with him. Maybe it was some kind of rite of passage that made him this way, kind of like working one a 1965 Ford Mustang in my uncle’s garage a block away. Maybe it was just to prove to me that he finally had control over his problem. Whatever the reason, and after everything he had gone through with his cancer treatment, he wouldn’t take no for an answer. So, off we went.

Sadly, his condition continued to worsen until he was finally hospitalized in August of 1997. A man who had just celebrated his 51st birthday was now lying in a hospital bed with tubes sticking out of him and morphine running through his veins.

I visited him almost every chance I could in between my full-time job and duties at home. Some nights when it was just he and I, we would have long conversations. Although I selfishly longed to have another Stop and Think session, at that point I was willing to take whatever I could get.

When October rolled around, his condition deteriorated. I remember sitting at his bedside while he was going in and out of consciousness, closing my eyes and asking God that if he was going to take him, to please not take him on my birthday. Any day but on the 5th. It was selfish but I just couldn’t bear the thought of living out the rest of my days knowing that my father died on my birthday. Looking back now, it wouldn’t have even mattered.

Yet someone on high must have heard me because I was able to spend my 28th birthday with him. The best gift I’ve ever received. And over the next ten days it seemed like he was actually coming around a bit. There was reason to hope even though the doctors had all told us he was the sickest person in the entire hospital.

October 17th, 1997 – 10PM. It was just me in the darkened hospital room. My brother and sister weren’t there. My father’s wife had stepped out of the room for a moment. The single light over his bed softly illuminated the gray beard on his thin face, and the beeps from the saline drip and morphine pumps were the only thing that stirred the silence.

Now I’m no expert on theology but I do believe souls can feel when another soul moves on. For as he began gasping for breath, something inside me told me the end was near.

At that moment, I felt the temperature dramatically drop in the room. So much so that I began to shiver. It was like being in a warm room and stepping into a freezer. And I’ll go to my own grave feeling this way but I swear, at that moment, I had this overwhelming feeling that someone was coming for him.

I told him I loved him and, although his eyes seemed to be fixated somewhere else, he was able to say that he loved me back. And that was when my father uttered the last word he’d ever speak. One that I had never heard him say anytime before.

“God”.

Silence.

Tears streamed down my face. A man who never so much as went to church and who, to my knowledge at least, never said a prayer or even read the Bible. The last word he ever spoke on this Earth was “God”.

What did he see?

The alcohol, the distance between us and everything that happened in the past was gone. All that mattered was that he was my dad, and I was there with him at the end.

25 years later I lament about so many things. Mostly of all the things I missed out on with him.

Cancer has done horrible things to my family. Things I hope no one ever has to go through. But in some odd way, with all the pain and suffering that it brings, there’s one thing I have to actually be grateful to it for.

Without cancer, I probably never would have gotten my father back.

Birthday Reflections at 53

October 5th, 2022 – my 53rd birthday.

This is my twelfth 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 few years, 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, eating cheese fries 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 young 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 (twenty-five years ago this month). As of today, I’ve outlived him by two years.

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 still 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 perhaps a collection of short stories — perhaps two novellas in one. Five years is long enough. It’s time to make it happen. More on that in the months ahead.

I’m also still 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. 

Young As I Want To Be

Some may say that I’ve crossed over. That the torch had finally been passed along to me from my father, much the same way as his father and his father before him had passed it down to their sons. Yesterday, much like the way that guy in the comic books becomes The Incredible Hulk, I came very close to metamorphosizing into that dreaded three-letter word—old.

The truth is, I’ve never thought of myself as that three-letter word that I will no longer mention to describe me. That word is reserved for people who are much more advanced in age then I am. Those are the people who grew up having their milk delivered to them by a man in a horse drawn carriage, or someone who once wore saddle shoes while playing hopscotch with her friends. The same people who listened to Buddy Holly or Peter, Paul, and Mary on the radio and were forced to watch Lawrence Welk on Sunday evenings at their grandmother’s house. The same poor souls who claimed to walk two miles to school barefoot in ten feet of snow and had parents who gave them enemas at the slightest inclination of a stomachache. That word is reserved for them, not one for someone as cool, and young, as me.

Sure, I may have grown-up but I still do most of the same things I did as a child: I still play guitar, not very well but enough to amuse myself. I still enjoy reading the box while relishing bowls of Lucky Charms and Cap’n Crunch cereal. I still play video games, though not as often as I’d like, and am still a big fan of superhero and Godzilla movies. I even continue to do chores like mowing the grass and taking out the garbage. I’m still fourteen years old if you really want to know. All that’s missing is a little more hair on my head and the loss of the forty or so pounds I’ve gained over the years.

Ok, unlike when I was a child, I’m forced to do my own laundry and make my own meals. I have to go to work every day but I make my bed without being told and fix things around the house when they break instead of leaving it for someone else to do. I do all the things a grown-up should do, but that shouldn’t put me in the same league as those three-letter-word people, should it?

And I confess, when I look in the mirror, I do see a little bit of gray in the beard, but no one has ever said a word about it to me. Besides, I’ve done a pretty good job at covering it up. Just for Men is working just fine, thank you very much.

Anyway, where was I?  Oh yes, the crossover to becoming that three-letter word. 

It happened yesterday when I was at my ten-year-old daughter’s softball league end of season celebration. It was a chance for a team of girls who had played hard all season to experience one final round of camaraderie together, along with some swimming and several slices of pizza. After dinner, the girls were even treated to a make your own ice cream stand supplied by their manager for a sugar rush farewell.

I’ve been conscious of watching what I eat, so I passed on the ice cream and sat down at one of the empty tables while my daughter and the others stood in line. I enjoyed watching the girls giggling with each other as trickles of soft vanilla ice cream from their waffle cones ran down their arms.

At one point, I recognized a woman who was standing in line for ice cream with her daughter. Someone I hadn’t seen in a very long time. It was a girl I’d gone to high school with, and I decided to go over to say hello.

It was a lot of fun catching up with my former classmate. We had a good time discussing what all of our classmates might be doing now, and the lives they all were leading. 

“Wasn’t it just yesterday that we all were in Mr. Kasperkowski’s science class?” I asked. 

“Oh, I didn’t have him,” she answered. “I had Mr. Opitz for science. I do remember both of us being in Mr. Siddons’ history class.” 

“That’s right!” I said, feeling a bit ashamed for confusing science with history. Then I asked if she could believe that next year was going to be our 25th class reunion. Looking back now, I think that might have been the precursor to what happened next, because once our conversation was over and I sat back down at the table, my daughter made a public service announcement to all in attendance. 

“All softball team members sit at this table,” she announced, pointing to the table where both she and I were sitting. A moment later, a stampede of ten-year old girls with half-eaten ice cream cones started sitting down at the table with us. It felt great to be enjoying a moment with my baby girl and her teammates. 

Unfortunately, one of the girls who joined us at the table thought something was a little out-of-place. The little whipper snapper pointed to another table where all of the parents were sitting. She measured me with her beady eyes.

“This table is for the girls,” she proclaimed. “THAT table over there is for the OLD people.” 

I quickly tried to think of something to say. You know, some sort of a witty comeback. Sadly, all I could muster was, “Hey, I’m not old, YOU’RE old!” But all that did was invite the rest of the girls on a sugar high to come to her defense. You’ve got to love the way teammates stick up for each other.

Realizing I was outmatched I finally conceded and slowly rose from the table to join the other men and women who were closer to my own height. But don’t think for a minute that me leaving their table is an admission that I actually am that three-letter-word, because I’m not. The truth is, I could have battled those girls all night with my grown-up rhetoric if I had more time. I just didn’t want to make them look bad in front of their parents. In my mind, I’m as young as I want to be, no matter what any ten-year-old girl thinks.

Later, on the drive home and while she was mindlessly looking out the window, I stuck the tip of my index finger into my mouth, moistened it with my tongue and then reached over and gently poked it into my daughter’s left ear. 

“DAD!! KNOCK IT OFF!” she screamed, as I manically laughed out loud.

There I go again, being childish.

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.

A Letter To M

Being filled with emotion, I was having difficulty deciding what to say. I mean, how can you put into words the passing of a teacher who meant so much to you? So, what follows is the Facebook message I sent to Ed Milisits on November 10th, 2021. It was shortly after a group of about 75 singers, composed of several generations of students and friends, got together for a last minute flash mob in his back yard. It was our way of telling Ed how much we loved him.

For those who may not know, Ed Milisits played a huge role during my high school years. He was larger than life and, at times, almost felt like a celebrity to me. Blessed with perfect pitch and a love of choral music, Ed taught this fledgling rock guitarist the ins and outs of music theory and life lessons. Even though I’d find myself struggling, Ed was always there with encouragement or to answer any question. Often times we’d have deep conversations about the rules of part writing, and how that stuff didn’t jive with the music I wanted to play. But Ed said something that still sticks with me: “I know part-writing doesn’t line up with rock music, but you’ve got to first learn the rules before you learn how you can break them.”

I was fortunate to have connected with Ed again many years after high school was over. This was after he’d retired as a teacher and began conducting an adult choir which, to no one’s surprise, was comprised mostly of past students. My best memory of those days was requesting a piece for us to perform called “Os Justi.” It was one we’d done in choir my senior year and one that really resonated with me.

When I first made the suggestion to Ed, he said he’d put it up for consideration. Then, in the Spring of 2017, 30 years after last performing it, I received this message from Ed:

“Hey Jim…thought you’d be interested to know that Os Justi is ON THE WINTER PROGRAM LIST! We WIN…hahahahahahaha!”

I don’t normally share private email messages but this one seems fitting. It’s our last conversation, and Ed ended it with a heart/love emoji.

Godspeed, Ed. The best teacher / maestro I ever had. Save a spot for me in the bass section of the heavenly choir.

Ottawa, Canada May 1987

Hi Ed –

When they asked if I’d be interested in being part of a flash mob for you, I just couldn’t say no. You mean a lot to so many people, myself included. You may not know this but you played a big and important role during my formative years of high school. It took me a long time to “find myself,” but the choir and music theory classes meant everything to me.

Your teaching style and encouragement [“Talk to Me”] helped me to not only learn theory but also how to become a better person. Even the old lady smoke filled bingo nights we used to work for the concert choir were fun — ok, maybe that’s pushing it… lol.

You were the main reason I wanted to become a music teacher. I even remember you letting me shadow you one day while I was a student at West Chester. Sadly, I never wound up finishing college at all because I dropped out. Then last year, I finally decided to go back. I started taking classes at NCC and now have only one more class to take to obtain a degree in General Studies. It won’t do anything to help me get a better job but at least I can finally say I finished.

I’ve attached a photo from our choir trip to Ottawa back in 1987, one of the best times of my young life. I keep it in a large scrapbook along with programs and photos of my musical achievements and bands throughout the years. It’s my musical biography. Something very important to me all these years later, and it wouldn’t mean anything without you there.

I hope you enjoyed our little mini concert and wanted you to know that I think about you often and how much I love you.

Ed Milisits – December 31, 1953 – January 8, 2022

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.