Tag: 1980’s

What If?

EAHS Class of 1987

This week will be interesting. In just a few short days, I’ll be attending my 25th high school reunion.

The last time I was in the company of many of these people, the world was a much different place. Back then, it was all about sneaking out of restricted study hall at lunch to head over to the nearby Burger King.

It was a time when the only thing that really mattered was getting through the week so we could all go hang out at the mall on Friday night, drink Orange Julius and play Dragon’s Lair.

For me, it also included choir trips, endless hours of practice on my black Gibson Explorer guitar, the longing for unattainable love and of course, a heavy dose of hair metal. I’m actually tearing up right now just thinking about it; the hair metal part that is.

But, I’m looking back now, a quarter century later and am feeling pretty good about how I turned out. Especially when you consider what my original goal was.

Back then, my dream was almost laughable: In a “lather, rinse, repeat” cycle all I wanted to do was write music, record and tour. Pretty much in that order. If I had to sleep on the floor in some stinky tour bus on the way to Small Town, USA or pan handle on the streets for money to buy guitar strings I didn’t care. Music was going to be my life. I wanted to be the opening act for Bon Jovi; at least just long enough until he became the opening act for me.

It wasn’t until the day I woke up in my college dorm room; a twenty year old man with literally nothing but the black guitar and $1.37 to my name that I had an epiphany. And thus began my entry into the work force.

Don’t get me wrong, over the years I was still able to live the dream: I was part of several bands that achieved great things; even playing in front of crowds of 6,000 people. But, there are times that I still think about what might have happened if I had stuck to my original vision.

If things had worked out as planned well, you all would have seen me on the cover of Rolling Stone at least a few times by now. I probably would have also “guest starred” on Adele’s Grammy winning album and who knows; it might have been me in the judges panel on American Idol instead of that guy from Aerosmith…what’s his name again?

Anyway, as I’m typing this entry, over to my right; still hanging on the wall is that very guitar. The same one I put all those endless hours on. The one that contains all my feelings and the one constant that reminds me continually of those days and that dream. It’s still as great as ever 25 years later. I think we all are too!


I believe things happen for a reason. And I’m looking forward to hearing how everyone else’s dreams turned out at the reunion.

My How Times Have Changed: Music

I’m getting on my soapbox.

You kids today don’t know how good you have it. Why, back when I was growing up thirty years ago….

Music was so much different. We didn’t have all these new fangled contraptions like eye-phones and you-tubes. We got our new music in one of two ways: radio or attending live concerts.

I remember we used to have to walk miles and miles (sometimes in a foot of snow in our bare feet) to the local record store to pick up a copy of our favorite artists’ new album. Then we’d spend the next few days wearing out the vinyl while absorbing the sonic nirvana.

Sharing music with our friends in those days was usually done via word of mouth. There was none of this copying files onto a CD or emailing an mp3. We’d much rather say: “Hey, so-and-so’s new album is awesome. You need to go buy it”.  And if your friend trusted your musical judgement chances are they DID go buy it!

It was an extremely rare event for someone to lend someone else their new album. Our music was sacred. If you want to hear my new music and you didn’t get your allowance yet, then come over to my house, sit in my bedroom with me and listen.

The alternative to our version of “file-sharing” was taking a portable cassette player (if we were lucky enough to own one – Who knows? maybe your Dad was a doctor or something) and copying the music coming from the speakers onto the blank tape. Sure, the sound quality went down tremendously but at least the song was there.

Most of the time though, going to concerts was the best way to hear our new music. A time when you could see four or five bands over the course of the summer for the same price it costs you to see just one of these new acts now. Don’t get me started on Ticketmaster.

And another thing….

You kids are over saturated with new music! Every time I turn on that damn local radio station they are playing the exact same six songs over and over again.

Why I remember you considered yourself LUCKY if you heard the big “hit” from the band you loved thirty years ago played in its entirety on the radio. Most of the time you caught it halfway through. I can’t tell you how many times the DJ would announce my “song” was coming up and I’d be glued to my radio (or sitting out in Mom and Dad’s car) waiting for it to come on.

And you could forget about calling them up and asking them to play it again if you missed most of it. They’d laugh you to scorn. But if they just got done playing a Katy Perry tune today and I called and asked them to do it again my gut feeling is they’d be more than happy to oblige. Either that or tell me not to worry because it’s scheduled to be played again in an hour.

And what’s with all of these artists collaborating with each other on songs? Seems like every new song title has the word “featuring” next to the artists’ name. What happened to the days when you rocked out all by yourself?

But you kids can take your Justin Bieber (Boyfriend), Nicki Minaj (Starships) and Katy Perry (Wide Awake) and stick it where the sun don’t shine.

I’ll take Survivor (Eye of The Tiger), Asia (Heat of The Moment) and Joan Jett (I Love Rock and Roll).

We’ll see which ones we’ll still be talking about thirty years from now when you whipper-snappers are taking care of me in the old folks home.

Making Movies

The other day, while doing some “pre-spring” spring cleaning I stumbled upon a bunch of old 8mm film equipment and movies down in my basement. You know how you have some things in your possession that are, for all intents and purposes, useless but yet you still can’t bear to part with? Well, this equipment is one of those things for me. Something I should have thrown away long ago but still managed to find a place for every time we moved into a new apartment or house over the years.

I don’t really know why it never made it to the landfill but I would soon be glad it didn’t reach its final destination.

Even though the high tech gadgetry that’s available in today’s video equipment has sent my 8mm camera and film projector the way of the dinosaur, I was intrigued to see what kind of treasure was still being held on those old reels. So one night, I decided to go old school and set it all up.

There’s a certain odor that comes from things that have sat idle in a basement or attic for two dozen years. The smell of which seems to get stronger as you start un-boxing them from the places where they’ve sat in silence. Most especially when they’ve sat in an old attic with the extreme hot and cold seasonal temperature changes like these things did. It tattoos an odor on every piece that can best be described in one word: Old.

I suppose it was sometime in the fall of 1984 when my friend Mike and I made our first 8mm movie. I’m sure we would have liked to have made hundreds of them but we weren’t able to due to the high cost of film and processing. I’m sure a lot of it also had to do with the frustration that went along with making them. Unlike today, where you can take anything you can film and edit the video to death, with our 8mm camera you had only one chance to get it right. Every scene had to be done in one take. There was absolutely no going back.

The movies we made were nothing like the caliber of the Steven Spielberg/JJ Abrams blockbuster from last summer. Ours didn’t have zombies, train wrecks or even aliens. Heck, our movies didn’t even have sound at all. And where as the kids in that movie chose to go the romantic route and even include <GASP!> girls in theirs, we chose to go the manly route and make our movies about the greatest superhero of all… Spiderman.

I like to think that in some way the Spiderman movies we made gave inspiration to the three Tobey Mcguire films and the new Amazing Spiderman movie that’s coming out this summer. As you’ll see, considering the technology available to 15-year old boys, our budget and time constraints, I’d say we did a pretty good job. Especially for only getting one take to shoot each scene.

So let me set the scene for you: The setting for this clip is at my house. Spiderman (my friend Mike) has just returned from searching the city for Mime, the evil villain (played by yours truly). Mime is a Dr.Jekyll/Mr. Hyde type character that transforms from good to bad. He has issues (much like the guy who portrays him).

As Spidey is taking off his costume he gets blind-sided by Mime. Spidey quickly recovers and tries to capture Mime by spinning a web around him but Mime is able to escape and bull rush him.

Spidey uses his super jumping ability to leap onto the roof of a nearby house.

As Spidey makes his way across the roof top and back down to the ground Mime has transformed back to his normal self and makes his escape.

Academy Award of Golden Globe nominee? I think so. And now, without further adieu, I give you, Spiderman:

Some classic 1980’s references: My Quiet Riot t-shirt (told ya I was a metal head). Also, if you look at Mike’s sneakers after he jumps off the roof you’ll notice they are different colors. Remember when changing your shoe-laces was all the rage back in the 80’s?

I found myself laughing over and over watching this and remembering just how much fun it was to make. Mostly, I enjoyed the stunt of having Spiderman jump from the ground to the roof. This was actually a dummy that I had spent two hours making before filming. I tied jeans and the costume together with twine and stuffed the entire thing with crumbled up newspaper to fill it out. For only getting one take to film it turned out ok. It reminds me of something you’d see in an old Three Stooges short when they’d fall off a building.

In an age when anyone can post a You Tube video we sometimes take for granted all the technology that’s available to us. I  can, and have, video taped the world around me with HD cameras. I’ve recorded my daughter’s school and sporting events without batting an eye. The technology is even available on the cell phone I carry every day (just in case the moment strikes me). Back then, it was a whole process.

Our children can have a video of their entire lives if we so choose. A living, breathing memoir if you will. And yet, these half-dozen or so 8mm movies Mike and I made almost thirty years ago are the absolute only recorded things I have from my childhood that are not a still picture.

But thanks to that same modern technology, I’m able to extract these precious moments from the film and put them on to a digital DVD before the oxidation process completely destroys them.

It’s amazing to see just how I looked, moved and thought back in a time when the only responsibility I had was getting up for school every morning.

Friday Night At The Mall

Long before Katy Perry sang about dancing on table tops and getting kicked out of bars I was mastering the art of Friday night. And there’s one particular one that I’ll always remember.

It’s a Friday night in the early 1980’s and my friend Mike and I are hopping into the back seat of his Mom’s old blue station wagon and being chauffeur driven to the Palmer Park Mall. Thirty years ago, being a teenager at the mall on a Friday night was on par with going to the “Dip-and-Dances” at the Palmer Pool in the summer or hanging out with a bunch of classmates after a school event at Penn Pizza. Even if you weren’t popular, if you made it to the mall on Friday night you were part of the in-crowd.

You see getting dropped off at the mall and left alone by your parents moved you up three notches on the coolness meter. Personally, it was also the perfect opportunity for me to showcase my chiseled teenage abs and Sylvester Stallone looks. My red Members Only jacket and my Jordache jeans. Ok, I made up that last part. I really didn’t wear Jordache jeans.

But a typical Friday night excursion to the mall was always exciting for me. It was a chance to see all the kids from school outside of the element. No teachers, pencils or homework assignments. More importantly, it was also a chance to see the hottest girls from school too. Oh sure, I’d always see a few of them here or there roaming the halls all week but in the mall environment they ALWAYS gathered together in some kind of sorority. And although I knew my shyness would inevitably hinder any chance I had at any real conversation with those of the female persuasion, I’d still be polishing up my “Hey Baby” lines as we’d pull into the parking lot.

It wouldn’t be long now before the smell of pizza and feel of Orange Julius running down my arm would put any thought of romance on hold as there were more “male” dominated matters to attend to. Mike’s mom gave us the usual time and rendezvous point to meet up with her for our journey home and at this point, the entire mall was ours.

With no I-Tunes or Internet access of any sort, unless you consider the useless modem that I had for my Commodore Vic-20 computer, being at the mall was the only chance I had to stop into the Listening Booth record store and seek out new music. On good days, today being one of them, I had extra money and with that, the opportunity to buy my very first record album which I eagerly did.

With new music now in hand, Mike and I made our way down around the furthest corner of the mall. Well past The Gap, Pearle Vision Center and Waldenbooks store. A place that was always dark and mysterious. Kind of like some seedy back alley. One of those places where there might be a bunch of people playing an illegal poker game in some smoke-filled back room and you needed a special knock just to be allowed entrance.

Only one thought came to mind as we approached: My pockets have gone through six days of pregnancy with quarters and it was now time for delivery.

I could not wait for the chance to open a can of whoop ass on Mike again playing Space Invaders or Pac-Man. I was feeling particularly lucky this evening which wasn’t a good thing for Mike. Tonight was going to be a good night. I pictured my initials being emblazoned upon all of the top spots of the machine. I was more than ready to place my quarter on the console while someone else was playing and reserve it. You see, there’s a certain unwritten rule about strategically placing your two-bits on the machine that even the meanest of children abide by. It’s the customary thing to do to indicate to the kid currently playing that: “Dude, once your ass is dead, this machine is mine!”

As we slowly entered the darkened Fun Attic arcade it sounded like a scene right out of The Empire Strikes Back. Machines beeping and flashing as far as the eye could see. Teenage Boy Nirvana. Nothing but kids congregating with each other around machines in an attempt to dominate at Pole Position or vanquish the evil Donkey Kong once and for all.

I was always conservative when it came to my video games. Although most kids were now on to bigger and better things I relished being one of the last old school players who much preferred dominating on mindless games like Space Invaders. So you can imagine the shock when I discovered that the Space Invaders machine had been replaced. Apparently, the brilliant minds at Fun Attic had decided to take away the only game I’d ever love.

But that’s when I saw it: Dragon’s Lair.

It sat alone in the middle of the arcade, right where Space Invaders once sat. Beneath a single spotlight that I’m sure was always there but some how never noticed before. It was almost as if it were the Hope diamond on display in some museum.

The machine read “50¢ a play” – fully DOUBLE the cost of three lives on a traditional machine. But as I stood there in awe watching the movie preview enticing me to dump Mario and Ms. Pac-Man to save Daphne the princess and defeat the dragon, I realized I had no choice.

I spent every last quarter I had on that game and loved every minute of it. As I progressed through the levels I took notice that a gaggle of girls from the Palmer Mall Sorority were now lining up around me to watch and cheer me on. Something that never happened while I was playing those “other” games, or at all for that matter.

It didn’t take me long to realize that in addition to this game being the coolest thing ever, it was also a chick magnet. I felt like a rock star maneuvering through the catacombs of the dungeon to the delight of those observing.  Even Mike, my loyal compadre, who normally would have beckoned me over to play pinball by now still stood by my side: my wing man.

When the last of my quarters was gone without rescuing the princess and the girls went back to doing whatever it was girls did my life suddenly had new meaning: I needed to defeat the dragon and impress the ladies.

We soon met up with Mike’s mom at the rendezvous point and were en route back home. And although I had originally planned to just listen to my new music all weekend I couldn’t help but also think about how I needed to double my quarter intake in six days.

Because next Friday night, we were going to do it all again.

Night Ranger Still Rockin America

I still remember the first time I ever heard Night Ranger. My neighbor Mike, who lived next door to me growing up, called me up one Friday night and asked me if I wanted to go to the Palmer Mall. Back in the early 1980’s, having your parents drive you to the mall was all the rage. I suppose it still sort of is today but not like it was back then.

On the drive over in his parents big blue station wagon Mike asked his Mom to put in this beat up white cassette tape that he had. Mike had copied the tape from someone else and it was old school music piracy at it’s finest. “Jim, Wait until you listen to this band” he said.  And from the time the first sounds of “You Can Still Rock in America” started coming over the scratchy speakers I was hooked.

“Who is this?” I asked Mike. I had no idea who this group was but it was different from anything the two of us had ever heard before. We had always been more of a Cars, REO Speedwagon and Rod Stewart type of fan that never let anything “new” enter our musical world. But this was different…and exciting.

“They’re called Night Ranger and they are friggin awesome!” Mike responded and I couldn’t agree more. All the way from our homes on South Side to Palmer Township we listened to that bootlegged tape. Hearing “Sister Christian”, “When You Close Your Eyes” and “Rumors in the Air” for the first time was thirteen year old male audio euphoria.

Upon arriving to the mall our first stop was to the Listening Booth, the only place in town to buy records. That’s where Mike redeemed himself and purchased the full on copy of the vinyl “Midnight Madness” record for us to enjoy as we played video games in his basement.

A year or so later I made one of  my own very first vinyl album purchases. A copy of “Seven Wishes”, which was the follow-up to “Midnight Madness”. I remember Mike and I wearing that album out as well. We were so hooked on this band and were fortunate enough to see them live in concert at Stabler Arena. One of the best shows ever.

So now fast forward a few decades. Adult life has taken over for me and I’ve  become the one listening to my daughter’s music as I drive her to the mall. As for Night Ranger? Well, they are still touring on occasion and releasing albums every so often. Some of it really great music although sadly, nothing on par with the success of the ones I mentioned earlier. The music industry has changed so much they’re just not welcome in the mainstream any more.

In March of this year, I discovered they had released another new record and were coming to my hometown for the first time in twenty some odd years and knew I had to be a part of it.

Additionally, they were offering ticket packages that included an awesome seat and a meet and greet with the band. In 1985, I probably couldn’t get anywhere near these guys. And now, for a C-note, you could get up close and personal. Which was right up my alley.

Seeing Night Ranger perform this past Wednesday night in Allentown was surreal. Most people today would have no idea who these guys are. Unless you play them a few bars of “Sister Christian” which has become they’re trademark. I found myself being taken back in the 80’s watching them perform those songs. I thought about Mike and that Friday night drive. Listening to this music for the first time. We were young, and everything was new.

Suffice to say, I was ecstatic to be ushered back to meet the band. Even though they had no idea who the hell I was, it was an emotional experience to shake hands with the guys that were indirectly a part of my teenage years.

I still had my “Seven Wishes” album that I managed to dig up from an old box in the basement. The album had sat in silence for years collecting dust. But now it too has become new as the three original members who played on it autographed it for me. The album will now be framed and adorn my wall to always remind me of that night.

The meet and greet also included one photo opportunity with the band and it was at that point that I made an odd request. I didn’t want the photograph to just be a pic of me smiling with the guys in the band. That would be too typical. No, I wanted it to be different. Something to remind me of my childhood. So in the end I brought along an empty box of Count Chocula, my favorite cereal growing up.

The band was very receptive to having the box in the picture with us. In reality though, I suspect they probably thought I was crazy because everyone I’ve shown the picture to tells me so. But the more I think about it, it’s probably a good thing if they think that way.

Because somewhere down the road, someone is going to interview them about their long, stoic career and ask them what was the oddest experience they’ve ever had with fans. And I can just picture them laughing and saying to each other:

“Hey, do you remember that guy that wanted his picture taken with a box of Count Chocula?”.

Dungeons and Dragons

A lot of people have come up to me and asked me how I used to spend my summers growing up. Well, actually no one really has but I feel like telling you about it anyway.

While most youthful teenagers of the 1980’s were spending warm sun filled days going to camp, listening to some guy named Michael Jackson or going to Dip-N-Dances at the Palmer Community Pool I was hard at work with my friends creating characters on sheets of paper, rolling dice and saving the world from utter annihilation playing Dungeons & Dragons.

For those of you who’ve never donned the helmet of a Paladin or put on a Cloak of Invisibility let me explain. Dungeons and Dragons (or D&D) is a role-playing game where players enter realms where monsters and magic are real. Without boring you with too much detail and taking away the heart of this blog post think of it this way: You get to pretend to be a character from Lord of The Rings.

My friends and I used to play D&D for hours. Starting usually around mid-afternoon and going deep into the night gorging ourselves on greasy pizza and Coke. We were so into it.

My brother and all of his friends all thought I was a dork for playing but that didn’t bother me. They didn’t understand that I didn’t need my Atari 2600, M-TV or Madonna. All I needed were my “boys”, some stale pepperoni pizza and my 20-sided dice.

I still remember the frustration we would feel when nature called and we had to take a leak during an important encounter.  No one wanted to leave the table and I think if there were Depends lying around, we might actually have considered using them on more than one occasion.

But the one thing I always remember the most from those gaming sessions wasn’t the food or the battles we had against Goblins, Trolls and Giants. Although those things were very important, the thing that always sticks out for me were the conflicts we used to have with each other.

For without fail, in almost EVERY game session two or more players would start arguing with each other over the course of play and sometimes almost coming to blows. We should have called it D&D Fight Club. And woe to any one when the argument included the Dungeon Master.

The Dungeon Master (DM), is the one chosen to control the world the players adventure into and was a job each of us alternated doing. The DM’s world is based upon a module, a book that has the entire adventure outlined including every creature encountered.

It’s the DM’s job to keep the game flowing based on what the module dictates and controls everything from describing the surroundings to random monster encounters. Essentially, the DM is God. And this appointment to deity status usually posed a problem if the DM held a grudge against fellow players.

Maybe his Mom didn’t give him his allowance that week. Or maybe it was because he had his Underoos on too tight that day.  In any event, whatever it was that caused someone to pi$$ on his cornflakes that particular day, it wasn’t going to be good.

The start of the arguments always began the same way: accusations of cheating on dice rolls. A quick hand to cover the results before the DM could verify was always seen as the primary cause. “You didn’t roll that!”….”Yes I did”….”You LIAR”….(do you see where I’m going with this?).

Most of our DM’s could keep it together. Kind of a hard thing to do considering it was always the players against YOU. The players all had characters and were on the same team. The DM pretty much role-played every thing else in the world from the monsters to the townsfolk.

It was easy to see how battles could ensue. A DM who came into the game session with a chip on his shoulder and having already made accusations of cheating would inevitably lose his cool when his Frost Giant got walloped by a bunch of rogues on the first roll of the dice. Something that was very hard to do.

You could see his blood pressure rise as the players each gave each other high fives. It was kind of like a slap in the face. For most  it was just a game but our DMs always seemed to take it personally and use his God-like ability to make things difficult for everyone. What would start out as a quest for treasure and glory quickly turned into the DM’s desire to wipe out the players as quickly as possible.

So before too long that single  Frost Giant was somehow able to  “magically” summon a half-dozen of his brothers and sisters to join the fray before dying. Ones that I highly doubt were part of the module. That’s when the gloves came off and the dice rolls became more intense.

In the end, the players were victorious most of the time. Tears were shed and on more than one occasion friendships were lost as disgruntled warriors gathered up their Coca-Cola stained sheets of paper and stormed out.

But youth was a wonderful thing and even Dungeons and Dragons couldn’t ruin friendships for long. Usually by the next day all was forgiven and not another word was spoken. Not to siblings or parents. Because when you role-played with us there was only one thing you needed to know: The first rule of D&D Fight Club was, you do not talk about D&D Fight Club.

As seasons change so did my affection for D&D. And it wasn’t long before girls and guitars took the place of giants and dice and D&D became a thing of the past.

Today the game is still as popular as ever. You can even play online with people from across the street or around the world. For a die hard D&Der like I was, you’d think I’d be all over that right?  But truth be told, I haven’t so much as rolled the dice in almost 25 years and have no plans to.

I treasure my friendships too much.

Ten More Things I Think: South Side Edition

Here are ten things (actually places) I think you should know about. Places that I think show you why it was so cool to grow up on South Side Easton.

These are in order of my favorites but please feel free to comment below and add your own or indicate any of your own favorites that I may have missed. (I know one of them being the pretzel factory that for the life of me I regrettably do not remember having patronized).

Sadly, if you were one of the unfortunate souls who didn’t grow up on South Side, please tell me about your favorite places growing up.

10. Lackenor Heights. I know I probably spelled it wrong but that shouldn’t diminish how cool this park was. Huge swing sets, lots of basketball courts and a large field I’d spend many days at playing softball or tackle football.

09. Laundromat. Long before we could afford a thing called a dryer my Mom and Grandmother used to drag the kids here. This was the place to go to dry the wash if inclement weather prohibited the use of hanging it on the clothes line in the yard.

I loved putting dimes in the machine and twisting the knobs or playing video games while the clothes dried. Also a good time to head over to Food Lane and peruse the toy aisle knowing full well that whatever toy I wanted Mom would never buy.

08. St Mary’s Carnival. Held religiously (of course) every summer. The fair consisted of the usual spinning wheel games and bingo. To me, the games of skill paled in comparison to the way the little old ladies made fried dough. The ultimate comfort food for a pre pubescent boy on a hot summer night.

07. Porter Elementary School. I spent the first five years of my schooling here. Still recall the big 1876 numbers that adorned one of the eaves indicating the year it first opened it’s doors. The school was closed in 1979 and torn down shortly there after.  

06. Food Lane. Can’t say enough about this place. This was where my first bowl of Count Chocula came from and will always hold a special place in my heart. Aside from actual food there was a toy aisle as well that I always made a bee line to on every visit.

05. Huck’s: Located right across the street from the Delaware Terrace, a housing development for low income families. Huck not only made a decent cheese steak but he was rumored to have Mob connections. He had a big black German Shepard dog that used to sit outside and watch patrons come and go. I loved his home made fries. Of course, I now wish he would have used a proper fry scoop instead of a make shift one he made out of a liquid bleach bottle.

04. Pino’s Pizza. Located in the same shopping center right next to Food Lane, this is actually the only food establishment still open to this day. So many wonderful memories of slices and companionship here. I don’t care if it is under new ownership. The name remains and the pizza is still killer.

03. Brother Bright’s Soul Food Store. Located two blocks from my house, this was the place to go in the early 80’s as I was bussed to Palmer and the Easton Middle Schools. Brother Bright and his wife were two of the nicest people you’d ever want to meet.

02. Lucy’s Store. A staple of Easton. THE place to visit before and after Porter school days. I used to love going there and getting penny candy.  Mr. Lucy always knew to fill my little brown paper bag with more red fish and purple raspberries than Tootsie rolls. My man knew how to hook a brother up.

Although I’m sure he served his candy to many a generation in his time, I’d give anything to have had the chance to have him fill a bag for my daughter too before he passed.

01. Barney’s Lunch. The sign as you approached said it all. It read “We Serve The Best Steak Sandwiches in Town” and was dead on. Barney’s was the ultimate destination. At night, the red neon light was lit up and you knew if you were a hungry traveler the welcome mat was always opened.

Where else could you get the ultimate cheese steak, a bottle of Pepsi and the chance to rap with Barney himself? Or, if he was busy filling orders, you could always sit at a table or play Space Invaders or Vanguard.

And when Barney was blaring Foreigner Four on the jukebox, man you knew you were in the right place. Nothing compared to tearing into a Barney’s cheese steak while jamming to “Waiting for A Girl Like You” with your buddies.

It was the 80’s and it was wonderful.

Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’

WBSSinstigator (noun) – someone who deliberately foments trouble

It was a warm day in June when I was finishing up mowing the lawn. A chore I seem to have been relegated to do every week. Even though this day also happened to coincide with Father’s Day, it made no matter. As a father, it is my sworn duty to uphold the length of the lawn. And I would not fail in my duty.

The neighborhood was alive with the sound of picnics and reverie. Boys and girls giving their fathers home made art work proclaiming their love. Families gathering together to pay honor and celebrate Dad with steak, rib and beer. If you have children, it is indeed a good time to be one of those people with the Y chromosome.

As John Deere and I made our final pass on my property, I noticed a car pulling up outside the neighbor’s house across the street. A tan, late-model Cadillac CTS with tinted windows came to a stop and out he stepped: a tall, well-respected African-American man. I recognized his face immediately and guessed by now he must be in his mid to late 60’s. Still looked very much the same as I remember though, no worse for wear. The only difference being he was a little more gray than normal but age will have a tendency to do that do you. But Bill Houston took age in style. Much like everything else from what I remember about him.

Bill had come to visit his daughter, whose been living across the street from me since I moved into my house eight years ago. I’ve seen him there on occasion, but as usual, this time seeing Bill (or Mr. Houston as I know him) emerge from the car had me thinking about the time our paths crossed thirty years ago. Back when I was a bad ass.

It was ninth grade at Shawnee Intermediate School. I was sitting in the cafeteria breaking bread with my homies when HE sat down next to me. That “he” was Jeff, or the Jersey Bomber as he was known in circles around school. How he got that nickname I have no idea. But he was a hard-nosed kid with a permanent chip on his shoulder that hung out with the dudes that were regulars in detention. Most of the time, the Jersey Bomber would joining them there for a variety of incidents he was involved with.

I think he must have flunked ninth grade a hundred times and I even heard rumors that he even smoked cigarettes. I’m sure he could’ve kicked my ass at will but for some reason I wasn’t afraid that day.

As I gulped down the last of my quarter pint of milk the opportunity began to present itself. I noticed another malcontent named Tom emerging from the lunch line carrying a tray with a slice of rectangular pizza and tossed salad. Tom was a bit of a geek who always seemed to be getting into fights with other kids for no apparent reason. He didn’t even care if he would win or lose. I think he just liked to fight for the sheer enjoyment of it and didn’t care what the consequences might be.

I began to laugh to myself when I thought of some of the battles he waged over the course of the school year. Silly “fights” that consisted of noogies, wedgies, hair pulling and the literal kicking of asses. Suddenly, the little devil on my shoulder popped up and whispered into my ear. What happened next became a blur.

I quietly leaned over and told the Bomber that Tom had been talking about his Mom and saying all kinds of bad things. I’ve never seen a kid get up as quick as Bomber did. It takes a strong man to just leave a slice of school pizza sitting on the tray. School pizza is the pen-ultimate of meals. I would have at least finished it first.

But the next thing I know Bomber and Tom are doing battle in the middle of the cafeteria. Tossed salad is covering the floor and the two are slipping and sliding on the lettuce while the other kids cheer them on.

Within seconds the lunch duty teachers had separated the boys and dragged them out to parts unknown. Well, by unknown, I mean Principal Houston’s office. That’s where all malcontents went to face the judge and jury and be punished for their actions. I thought nothing more of the battle that had just been waged. I disposed of my garbage and headed back to class an extra slice of pizza fuller than usual.

While sitting in English class a short while later the teacher got word that my attendance was required at the ninth grade office. “Me?”, I thought. “Surely they must be honoring me with a Coolness Award or something. Maybe Mom and Dad were picking me up to go get the Atari 2600 I was asking for”. But when I walked into Mr. Houston’s office my dreams of playing Combat and Missile Command were gone as I saw Tom and The Bomber sitting there.


In a nutshell, Mr. Houston put the bad boys in detention. Then he told me for instigating the fight, I would also be receiving three days detention after school. I was in shock as I left the office. What the heck does “instigating” mean anyway? Why should I get detention for something I’m not even sure I am guilty of?

When the first day of detention came I decided I wasn’t going to go. I would fight this. Take it to the Supreme Court if I have to. I am not guilty of this charge. I couldn’t wait to confront Mr. Houston again and tell him so. Heck, he might even forget about it and I’d be off the hook. But sure enough, the very next afternoon he called me in to his office again. This time it was one on one. Mano-a-mano.

Mr. Houston asked me why I didn’t go to detention and that my punishment for not showing up was now five days detention. I told him that there was no way I was going to go. He then informed me that if I did not show up, I would be suspended for three days.

Suspended??? The thought of me being in the same category as the Jersey Bomber was most definitely NOT appealing. I saw myself standing on the street corner while the other kids were in school. Maybe even attempting to light up a cigarette of my own and then choking on it. Yeah, I’d be REAL cool.

I pleaded with Mr. Houston and asked him why he would do this to me. “I’m innocent of this thing called instigating” I told him. That’s when he handed me a dictionary and showed me the definition of instigator and asked me “Was this you?”

I was silent. He had me, guilty as charged. I HAD started the fight and needed to accept my punishment. James Wood in detention for the very first time. Who’d have thunk it?

Those five 90-minute detention periods after school were some of the longest of my life. As a kid, coming home from school on the bus at 5:30 p.m. is not something you look forward to. But I accepted it. I paid the price.

As reality came back, I noticed I was still day dreaming about school and forgot to power off the lawn mower.  Mr. Houston, now long retired from doling out advice and detention, was already inside celebrating Father’s Day with his daughter.  I wanted to go over there and knock on the door but thought it might be kind of strange to thank a man thirty years later for the life lesson and teaching me the meaning of a new word.

One that will always stick with me.