Christmas with the “A” Team

photophoto I had to take time out from my outdoor posts to tell you about the “A” Team which were my parents and their friends, especially at this time of year. My house growing up was always filled with people and my folks were the consumate entertainers. My mom was a wonderful cook and my dad was a great provider and helpful sidekick to my mom’s entertainment skills. When they built the house in Wexford, they upped the ante a bit and built a swimming pool which took the daily party to another level. A lot of people spent weekends and holidays at my parents home and it was not unusual for me to wake up and see a guy in a tux having a Bloody Mary after my mom had invited him to breakfast after a big night on the town. My mom sang with the orchestras at the parties at the University Club and Shannopin Country Club and usually made friends with some of the musicians. The party usually continued after hours with some strays eventually making their way to our house.

The big party every year was the annual Christmas Party. It started when I was a young lad at our house on Siebert Road. The preparations were amazing with the cooking, cleaning, stops at the liquor store, beer distributor, and bakery. This began weeks in advance of the party and it was all hands on deck. The first shift on Christmas Eve was usually the McCloskey clan with my aunt and uncle and my cousins. They came early and enjoyed themselves and when they left, the cleaning and regrouping began in earnest in anticipation of the arrival of my maternal grandparents and a steady stream of my mom’s relatives and their friends. I assumed the role of piano player, dishwasher, bar re-stocker and general cleanup guy along with my sister who had a habit of getting dishpan diarrhea and disappearing during the brutal pot washing scenes. Sally Rose, my mom’s good friend, assisted us with this role and it was amazing to see how many times the same pot came back to be cleaned again. Some real characters came to our house during this annual soire’ including one of my dad’s friends who had a habit of coming overserved and fell into the Christmas Tree. The party would not be the same if he did not make this spendid grand entrance. My dad made a hell of an egg nog which annihilated people after a couple of cups including my mother’s cousin who I always caught trying to put his ignition key into the side window of his car. I gently escorted him back to the house and eventually always took him home.

The house in Wexford was where the party began to get rather large because of my mother’s benevolence. It was a good thing that I learned to make a good Manhattan at age 10 and generally knew my way around bar service at our house. I assisted the bar tenders during off shifts at the piano and when I look at that piano today in my living room, I wonder how many Manhattans, beers, gin and tonics, and other alcoholic beveages have been spilled in the keys over the years. ” Play White Christmas…damn it” was a usual request as the liquid came cascading over my fingers and into the keyboards. The egg nog was rather sticky but I soldiered through and probably logged more hours than I care to remember keeping the music going at the party. If there ever was a Patrick Dennis it was me and my mom was surely Auntie Mame. I accompanied her on the piano and it was always a welcomed respite from the rather off key carols that resonated in our living room. I knew the party was eventually getting out of hand over the years when one guy who was a son of one of my folk’s casual friends pushed me out of the way going to the bar to get a drink. ” Who the hell are you?” he slurred. I expained who I was and introduced myself. He almost fell into me apologizing and telling me what a great party it was. He was a bit of a close talker and based upon his alcohol consumption, my face probably would have not passed a sobriety test after our conversation.

Usually the last of the revelers left at about 4:00 AM and after a huge day of entertainment, my sister and I sat down and looked at each other and said,” Well- 364 days until we do it all over again. My mom,” Christmas Carol” loved the holidays and even though the party was a collossal family effort, it was always fun and everyone had a great time. My folks invited a lot of people who had personal troubles, financial troubles, no one to celebrate the holidays with, and other various things that make Christmas a sad affair for some. My mom always remembered them and oftentimes they said to her that the party was the highlight of their Christmas. My folks were always generous and exhibited that wonderful Christmas spirit of giving and of love. After all, isn’t that what Christmas is all about anyhow? As I think back, my parent’s house was always an oasis for friends and especially friends who needed a friend. My mom always had two great sayings. ” Happiness is like a perfume, you can’t sprinkle on others without getting a little on yourself.” ” To have a friend is to be a friend.” Christmas Carol and her rather large benevolent elf- my dad, alway knew the meaning of being a friend. Perhaps that is why the Christmas party was always a hit. People liked to be with my folks.

Years have passed. My folks and most of their friends are gone. But when I go to that piano in my house in the quiet times, the Christmas Carols that come out of that old spinet bring me back to the days of Christmas past. Lots of hours have been logged on that piano and I keep it going for Janet, Jack and my in-laws. I get the keys rolling for our friends too but to date, none of them have ever fallen into our tree. Must be because we are not……………”The A Team.” Thanks for reading and have a wonderful and blessed Christmas and Holiday Season.

The Toilet Bowl

QCBFL_-_Snow_Game_2011_Vander_Veer_Park%2C_Davenport_IowaYou know, we all are really like a piece of malleable iron. Life’s experiences mold us, shape us, prod us, squeeze us, as we go through the refiner’s fire of life. This shaping process makes us what we are as adults and forms our basic personalities. A lot of this happens during the formative years of our lives. Take for instance when I learned to swim as a boy. I took lessons and was pretty good in the shallow end. When it came time for the test, I was afraid of the deep water. My mother who was sitting in the lounges with all of her girlfriends in hysterectomy row, as the lifeguards called it, was observing the proceedings. She instructed Don Geyer the pool manager to throw me in much to the horror of her friends. She said,” ladies- that water is going to get deeper and deeper every year.” Don threw me in and I swam to the side and with jubilation I said to my mom, I did it! My mom said,” Patrick- you can do anything you want to do in life.” With that, Don dropped me off the low board and eventually the high board and I passed the test.

A few years later, I swam in the winter for a team at the Northside YMCA and witnessed a lot of interesting happenings in the bowels of the city. One night while we were waiting to be picked up, two guys came running into the lobby where we were, wielding knives as two city police officers chased and eventually apprehended them. I told my parents what went on that night and my mom said,” Patrick- life is not the suburbs. It is good for you to see the other side of life and how tough it is in the city.” I would learn to appreciate that as I was bullied and had to defend myself with city kids. I held my own and usually was invited to their birthday parties after a few punches and pushes in the pool gained their respect. I was not a fighter but the refiner’s fire of the Northside forced me to defend my adolescent position in life. I worked most of my young life because my dad thought it was important for me to learn to be responsible to a job. Lots of molding, shaping, prodding, squeezing in those days.

Other lessons were learned by our daily routine at this time of year. Touch football on the Nicolette’s front lawn in our neighborhood. We had a posse of kids. Richard and John Nicolette, Cliff Forrest, Glen and Ron Zankey, Carl Shultz, and our hero- Rick Cuneo who was dating Jane Nicolette at the time and was headed off soon to Vietnam. Rick was an amazing athlete and every day after school, we all would play on the slanted, tight field which was the front yard of the Nicolette family. There we tested our athletic prowess every day with Rick proving to us all that he was the superior athlete much to the admiration of Jane as she watched the games. So, one day Rick goes off to Vietnam and we were a little shaken until we got a letter back from him stating that he was teaching surfing in Chu Lai which was a base on the ocean. Not too bad a duty for our star athlete. But Rick had prepared us for the annual challenge of the older kids from Woodland Road across the street from our neighborhood. Every Thanksgiving, we had the Toilet Bowl and the challenge was always paramount in the minds of all of us. The guys from across the street included the Rose brothers who skateboarded down a very steep Woodland Road on each other’s shoulders. They had a little screw loose which made them dangerous at bowl time. The Fisher brothers were good athletes and some of the other guys brought their friends who were freshman football players from Slippery Rock University. I remember clearly after all the trash talking, having a clear shot at the quarterback only to be knocked into the middle of next week by the pulling guard from SRU. As I sat dazed and confused, the plays went on and once again the boys of Richmond Circle were defeated by the Woodland Road gang. As we made our way back across Siebert Road, we were taunted by a couple of hoods- Buster Livingston and his sister. Both sported leather jackets and those cyclone fence climbing pointy shoes with the Cuban heels. They didn’t play but they made sure we knew they were badasses and that thier posse had beaten our posse.

The Toilet Bowl went on for a few years and then faded into the memory of all of us as we made our way to college.Thanksgiving football games are really popular and these days there are even official tournaments for Turkey Bowls and Toilet Bowls as we all prepare for the eating and the subsequent snoozefest that is the Thanksgiving feast. A lot of the games are a little too organized for me as I see these types of official tournaments, teams and leagues that are common among the youth of America. What happened to the old pickup games? Everybody today has to get a trophy, a uniform, and accolades from adoring parents and coaches. The old days of the pickup baseball games and football games seem to be fading like the setting sun. Some of that refining fire took place when you picked teams, learned how to take it if you were the last guy picked, got into scuffles, and played all day until your parents went crazy calling you home for dinner. Touch football in the neighborhood taught me how to take a hit, how to grin and bear it when you cut yourself and got stitches, and basically got clean fresh air until the time change forced the early ending of the neighborhood clashes on the Nicolette front lawn.Those guys from Woodland Road always got the best of us but we always were up for the challenge which taught us how to compete with older kids who relished taking their aggressions out on the younger guys from Richmond Circle. We gave them a run for their money one year after Rick returned from his tour of duty and they balked at his participaton. But all was fair when we brought Rick and they brought their testosterone heads from SRU to play. Even the hoods shut up on those days. Yes- the Toilet Bowl and the neighborhood games were another part of the molding of the 58 year old kid. I wouldn’t change a thing and I am happy the way that the refiner’s fire spit me out. Thanks for reading and get ready for the Bird. He is coming soon.