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Another Pair of Dice by the Dashboard Light by
(5 Stories)

Prompted By My First Paycheck

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Stan in Shades Today

During our junior year in high school, Stan and I worked as busboys at the Twin Coaches, a club outside Pittsburgh that billed itself as “one of the nation’s largest and most beautiful supper clubs.” Large it was, seating 1,200 and booking the biggest national acts; beautiful, not so much. Rose, the hard-nosed and connected owner, paid us fifty cents an hour while the waitresses pooled their tips and gave us a cut according to some undefined formula.  On a good night wages and tips would get us close to1963’s minimum wage of $1.25, not enough for a college fund but enough to put gas in the car and cruise with the guys or take a date to the movies, maybe even splurge on a burger afterward.  As the year drifted into summer, when we had more time and ways to spend our money, we found our hours at the club dwindling, summer being the low season there.  Grass cutting jobs were scarce because those damn 13-year olds were happy to underbid us.  So we were always on the lookout for temporary work, which we found from time to time.  I remember selling tickets door-to-door for a pro wrestling match coming to our town featuring Bruno Sammartino, the world champion at the time, at least in the world within the range of the Pittsburgh TV channel. I loaded and unloaded beer trucks for the local beer distributor; it didn’t pay much but had some nice perks.

“Twenty-eight dollars!” I screamed.  “We put in 100 hours between us and we split twenty-eight dollars?” 

With the work we got, we were able to remain reasonably active in the social scene.  One of our regular stops was Bill’s Dairy, which sold the fast food and real ice cream of the day.  Bill’s employed young women who were as happy to talk to us, as we were to them. They were all from another school district, lending an air of exotic mystery to the discussions.  Stan was the most outgoing member of our group, a natural stand-up comedian who could make anyone laugh.  He and one Sara Jones [not her real name] fell under each other’s spell and began dating fairly regularly.  It was all about love, or properly, desires. You can probably guess what Stan’s short-term desire was but it seemed he could never get past second base before Sara Jones’s defense would retire the side.

Sara finally came through financially if not romantically when she told us her dad, who managed a horse farm for a Pittsburgh lawyer, needed two helpers for a week. We were both bigger than average guys but Mr. Jones towered over us as he told us in his no-nonsense manner what he expected of us.  Bring in the hay and then lay out a fence for the new racetrack; sounded pretty simple, right? Well, that week on the farm made us yearn for the smoke-filled but air-conditioned Twin Coaches.  The bales were still semi-green and weighed close to 100 lb. each, a bit more than a tub of dirty dinner plates.  We had to pick them up, hoist them onto the wagon, and then stack them on the wagon in a ten-high pyramid.  Then, unload and re-stack in the barn.  Simple, yes but easy, no.  While the sun cooked us, the hay bales broke our backs and rubbed us raw.  By the second morning everything hurt and by afternoon our blisters had blisters.  I think we finished on day four whereupon Mr. Jones put us on fence duty.  God, how I longed to fill salt and pepper shakers again.  Those fence posts put splinters in my blisters as I dragged them to their anointed positions.  Mercifully, we finished Saturday and Mr. Jones gave Stan a check, saying, “Share this with your partner.”  [He never bothered to learn my name.]  Stan thanked him, looked at the check, folded it and put it in his shirt pocket, and said goodbye.

We jumped into Stan’s car and left the farm for the last time.  Stan had a big grin as I badgered him about our paycheck.  “How much?  How much did we make?  Let me see it!”  Stan didn’t say a word as he pulled the check out of his pocket and handed it to me. I was psyched, with visions of the good times beginning to roll as I unfolded the check.

Stan’s grin turned into a giggly laugh, as he looked me in the eye.  All he said was, “ I guess so, Dave.”  I wanted to be angry, very angry, but I could do nothing but join him in his now roaring laugh.

We laughed until we cried until finally I howled, “ Well, Stan, you finally got screwed by a Jones, just not the one you wanted.”  Then we laughed some more.  Stan and I still tell this story to each other every year and I’m reminded again that life’s lessons don’t all come from books.

My Favorite Uncle by
(5 Stories)

Prompted By Aunts & Uncles

/ Stories

My Uncle Alec was my mother’s youngest sibling, one of twelve first-generation American children, and one of eight who survived infancy. He became Abbo to our family when my younger sister couldn’t pronounce his name. Single all his life, he shared an apartment with his single sister, my Aunt Mary. They lived in Donora, a dying steel mill town south of Pittsburgh and about eight miles away from our home in the even smaller town of West Newton. That is, they usually lived together except for the many times they got on each other’s nerves and one or the other would move in with us for a few days during the cooling off period. Being a grade schooler, I was never sure what caused the fights because my mother and Aunt Mary told all their secrets in Ukrainian and Uncle Alec would just stomp around muttering, “Th-that d-damn Mary….”

“I’m fine. Don’t tell your mother; she worries too much. That’s why, you know.” And I didn’t tell. What ten-year-old would squeal on his favorite uncle?

Uncle Alec worked in the steel mill and though he had over ten years of seniority, I don’t think he ever got through a year without being laid off. During some of these periods he would also move in with us, sometimes for weeks at a time and when he did, I had a fulltime pal. He taught me to play checkers and showed no mercy once I got the hang of the game. After that he taught me blackjack and then poker, complete with odds, raising and calling, and bluffing. Of course, we eventually played for pennies but I rarely lost much; later I realized he was funding my piggy bank by folding some good hands.

We’d play catch endlessly in the backyard every summer. He could catch my best heat barehanded for a few years until my ever-increasing testosterone forced him to buy a glove. One day I threw a wild pitch through the living room window. He immediately blamed himself and set off to the hardware store to buy a replacement pane, which he installed and glazed all before my dad got home from work.

We had other secrets too. The summer after I got a BB gun for Christmas was a bad time for the birds in our neighborhood and not my proudest time, looking back. But my dumbest shot was the time I spotted a fly on my uncle’s back. “Abbo, I’m going to shoot this fly on your back. Don’t move.” He warned me not to do it, was certain I was kidding but I was certain I had a clean shot. Pop! Abbo leaped into the air, howling and swatting at his shoulder. His white tee shirt was torn and his back was bleeding. He gave me a lecture and a well-deserved chewing out but my dad never found out about this either.

Often we’d take a drive in his ’51 Chevy to one town or another, stopping at several bars in each town where he’d treat me to a soft drink and potato chips or peanuts, whatever I wanted. On one of these mid-day jaunts, I recall us getting back into his car when he flung open his door and threw up violently on the street. When he regained his composure he said, “I’m fine. Don’t tell your mother; she worries too much. That’s why, you know.” And I didn’t tell. What ten-year-old would squeal on his favorite uncle?

When I was 16 or 17 we had a little black mutt named Tuffy and when Abbo stayed with us, he and I, always at his urging, would take her for an evening walk after dinner. One cold winter night I dug in my heels and refused to go so he went without me. Ten minutes later there was a loud banging on the back door and Uncle Abbo ran into the house cradling Tuffy in his arms. Her side was ripped open and she was gasping and bleeding badly, her blood already covering his arms and dripping down onto his pants. Abbo was shaking, stuttering, apologizing and my sisters were screaming. We were all screaming. “We gotta go to the Vet!” I yelled and grabbed the car keys. We sped the mile to the Vet, who needed no detailed exam to tell us what we didn’t want to hear. No hope…out of her misery…only thing we can do…. There were other words but these were the ones that stuck. Abbo and I were both crying as he laid her on the cold metal exam table. When it was over and we drove home, Abbo kept apologizing and I kept telling him it was not his fault but inside I felt in some way maybe it really was his fault, maybe a little bit.

My mother did worry about her little brother. He seemed to get sick a lot and was sick enough to be hospitalized periodically. I can remember her more than once stripping his bed sheets in the morning because they were wet. Was this part of his sickness, I wondered? As I got older I visited him during his hospitalizations, which were increasing in frequency while his stays at our house had ended because Aunt Mary had moved out west and he had the apartment to himself. He got sick again the summer before I left for college and I went to the hospital alone. The doctor was there when I arrived, probing my uncle’s bloated yellow stomach. Abbo’s wrists and ankles were strapped to the bed, something that hadn’t happened before. Shaken, I greeted him after the doctor left.

“Unstrap me. I’m not staying here. There’s nothing wrong with me,” he said.

“Abbo, I can’t do that. You need to stay here until you get better.” We went round and round until he realized I was not going to do what he asked. He turned away, staring at the wall.

“G-get the hell out of here! You’re n-no friend of mine. G-get out,” he stuttered. He wouldn’t turn to look at me and after a long silence, I left.

It was November; but which November? I think it was 1970 or maybe ’71. I was married and living in Reading, at the other end of the state, when my alarm went off, too early it seemed one morning. But it wasn’t my alarm; it was the phone and my mother was on the other end. I still remember her first words. “Abbo’s gone,” she said in a near whisper. The demons had won, finally taking my favorite uncle away from me, leaving me only with memories…and so many unanswered questions.

Valentine by
(5 Stories)

Prompted By That Night

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Valentine was two years behind me, majoring in chemical engineering and taking organic chemistry with Bob, one of my apartment mates. During open periods when students congregated in the Great Hall to socialize, she’d gravitate to our corner and ask Bob questions about assignments or homework problems. The word on the street was that she had the hots for Bob and really didn’t need any help with her homework. Bob had no interest in her, though, as he was feverishly pursuing someone else. I, on the other hand, found her quite attractive, both physically and intellectually. The physical part was easy to understand and was my main driver early on in this one-sided relationship. And the fact that she was a chem eng major, probably Drexel’s toughest program, said a lot for her mental horsepower.

But that night was the love scene I’ll always remember.

Bob continued to rebuff her advances while I had to be content with sweet smiles and pleasantries. While Valentine was trying to get to first base with Bob, I couldn’t even get a call as a pinch hitter. Then one night at a fraternity party as I was chatting on the large front porch, I saw Valentine come out of our apartment across the street. She seemed to be crying and I asked her to sit down with me and tell me what was wrong. She said something about being in the bedroom closet with Bob and Bob punching her in the stomach, telling her to stop chasing him and go away. As she calmed down she acknowledged that Bob may have just pushed her away, not punched her. I felt obliged to make it clear to her that Bob was interested in someone else, a friend of hers, actually. And then we just talked.

Val told me she was born in Belgium to Ukrainian and Lithuanian parents, who had met in a DP camp after WW2. They then moved to Germany and lived in low-income ziedlunge housing. When she was nine or ten they were able to come to the US, where they became citizens. I told her about my mother, a first generation American to Ukrainian immigrant parents and my father, who fought in Germany and claimed his German ancestors came to the US in the mid-1800s to escape the Prussian draft. Her father had deserted the Soviet army to avoid going back to Ukraine. She spoke five languages while I was fluent in Pittsburghese, a painfully nasal dialect of English. We were both first-borns with younger sisters. We talked about hopes and dreams; we talked about everything. We talked for hours, long after the party was over, and I took her back to her dorm where we talked some more. This probably doesn’t sound very romantic but I was falling seriously in love. Luckily for me, so was Valentine. As we got to know each other, we’d have our share of heavy breathing and writhing, sweaty bodies. But that night was the love scene I’ll always remember. She’s sitting right next to me on the terra cotta balustrade on that front porch in Powelton Village, Philadelphia and there was nobody else on the planet except us. A half-century later, she’s still right here next to me.

(5 Stories)

Prompted By The Road Not Taken

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I’d put a lot of thought into military service long before it was time to sign up for the draft when I turned eighteen in 1964. All that thinking led me to the conclusion that it wasn’t for me. Not because I had some deep-rooted opposition to all wars, if I’m being honest, but simply that it wasn’t in my strategic plan. I couldn’t see putting my life on the sidelines for two years while I got the chance to build character marching in formation and sweeping out barracks, or whatever other plans the army might have for me. Then, there was this Vietnam thing slowly heating up, which clinched my decision. The whole thing made no sense to me. The French had been there forever and finally threw in the towel; wasn’t this just a civil war in some tiny Asian country a half a world away? I remember our 8th grade history teacher telling us back then that every generation had to have its war and while there was nothing solid on the horizon for us, he was confident that we’d get our chance. This was just before the first US military advisors were killed in Vietnam. My plan was to go directly to college to get my 2-S student deferment in the fall, no year off to bum around Europe or contemplate my navel.

I remember our 8th grade history teacher telling us back then that every generation had to have its war and while there was nothing solid on the horizon for us, he was confident that we’d get our chance.

Five years later, while Washington was sending more poor kids to the jungles of Asia, I was preparing for on-campus senior job interviews. My search criteria were clear: I had to be assured of a 2-A critical industry draft deferment, the job had to be reasonably interesting, and it had to be within striking distance of Philadelphia. I went with a firm seventy miles to the west after their HR guy boasted that they had never been turned down for a deferment request. I broke that streak for them.

Shortly, I got a letter from my draft board back in the Pittsburgh area stating that I was to be reclassified 1-A, available for military service, pending a physical exam. Next came the letter to report for a physical as the clock began to tick LOUDLY. I hooked up with an anti-war group in Philadelphia to see what options I had. With no obvious [well, not obvious to me] physical or mental flaws, my options were limited. I declined to establish Conscientious Objector status on principle and also took the reserves off the table. My opposition to the war had perhaps grown stronger than my army-less strategic plan or maybe it was my nightmares about dying in a faraway jungle for a cause I didn’t believe in but I began to take a hard look at the land up north. I bought a few months by switching draft boards but the notice to take my physical eventually came and a few weeks later the mailman told me I had passed the physical and was deemed ready to serve.

A steel company just across the border in Hamilton, Ontario had openings for engineers and I decided I would head that way if I got a draft notice. Next came tearful letters and phone calls with my parents. My dad, a WW2 vet, said he’d support my decision if it came down to that. Looking back, it was probably naive of me to think I could walk into a steel mill in Canada and be offered a job on the spot. Maybe I’d have driven a cab instead; who knew where a draft dodger would end up?

On December 1,1969 the government held a nationwide draft lottery in an effort to make the system fairer for all. Each of the 366 birthdates was given a number and I listened in my car radio to KYW as they were pulled out of a cage one by one. The expectation was that anyone below 130-150 would be drafted. I drew 351.

It was at last over for me, but was it really? All these years later I still think about it and even write about it. Do I ever worry that my personal battle caused somebody else to take my place, perhaps coming home damaged or in a box? Absolutely, to this day. Were my motives all righteous and pure with me standing up for exactly what I believed at all times? Probably not. Yes, I had my convictions but I gamed the system and won. Did I ever disrespect anyone who was drafted or enlisted then or now? Absolutely not. I visited Normandy a few years ago and was fortunate enough to shake the hand of a Vet at one of the cemeteries there. It was a deeply moving experience for me.

We all have to make our own decisions based on the information and options we have at hand. Would I have gone to Canada if it had come to that? I’m reasonably certain the answer is yes. Where would I be today as a result? I wish I knew. That’s as black and white as I can get on this one.

Hitchin’ a Ride by
(5 Stories)

Prompted By Hitchhiking

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I went to college at Drexel in Philadelphia, some 280 mostly turnpike miles across the state from my home south of Pittsburgh. Early on, I used the train or bus if I couldn’t find a ride home from someone at school. The bus cost around $11 and the train $15, a fortune to a starving college student, and they both took too long with all the stops across the state. My solution was to try hitchhiking. I knew my parents wouldn’t approve so I didn’t tell them at first. I established two rules for myself. First, never take a part-way ride that dropped me off at a low traffic turnpike exit and second, never accept the ride if there was a bloody hatchet on the front seat. Otherwise, I was in. After all, I was young and invincible.

I established two rules for myself. First, never take a part-way ride that dropped me off at a low traffic turnpike exit and second, never accept the ride if there was a bloody hatchet on the front seat. Otherwise, I was in. After all, I was young and invincible.

My first ride was with a well-dressed middle-aged guy who said he worked in the men’s clothing department at Sears. He went on and on about clothing selection and how his pension plan was going to let him retire young and rich. Then the talk turned more personal and I got a bit uneasy. I didn’t want to be his new friend; I just wanted a ride. Was this guy gay or just lonely? I never found out and, looking back, it didn’t matter.

The one time I broke my rule-the exit rule, not the hatchet rule- I paid the price. I was headed east, back to school and decided to accept a ride that would end at a sleepy exit east of Harrisburg, the state capitol. Maybe it was because it was past Harrisburg, my half-way point, that I talked myself into taking it. I’d never gotten off at that exit so I wasn’t sure how busy it would be but when I got dropped there at 2 PM I had a bad feeling I’d made a mistake. No restaurants, no gas station, no traffic, just cows, quietude and me. The weather was cool and after sunset it was cooler yet. The later it got, the fewer cars got on the turnpike. Well, at least it wasn’t raining, I thought. Then, of course, it started to rain, a cold rain, a penetrating rain. At this point I really had no Plan B; I was at the mercy of the road. A little after 10 PM a station wagon stopped and I sprinted to it. The driver was a woman and there were two small children in the back seat. She stared at me for a moment and said, “I’m probably crazy for doing this but you look pretty bad. Get in.” It was around midnight when she dropped me off at my doorstep in West Philly. Angels come in many forms, it seems.

Once, I agreed to hitchhike with a stranger. I was in front of him and he asked me if we could hitch together. I figured it would be simpler than playing the game where you each kept walking fifty yards in front of the other guy and so agreed. A guy in a big car picked us up and I took the back seat. We exchanged the usual pleasantries and the driver, Phil Savarino [not his real name], said he was headed to downtown Pittsburgh on business. I told him I was a college student heading home for the weekend and my new traveling companion, Eddie, gave a vague answer about heading west. Around mid-state Eddie began fiddling with the glove compartment. Phil told him to stop it; it was locked because there was a gun in it. “ If you don’t stop that, I’m going to take my gun out of there and I’ll have to shoot you,” Phil said. Whoa, this trip just got a lot less boring.

Phil then opened up and told us he was a convicted counterfeiter out on bail and on the way to see his lawyer in Pittsburgh to discuss appeal options. He said his crime, counterfeiting of postage stamps, had taken place over five years ago and he thought he’d fallen through some legal crack because no trial date had ever been set or something like that. His [ex] lawyer advised him that the government was probably going to drop the case so he went on with his life, staying on the right side of the law, marrying and having a child. Then, out of nowhere, he’s arrested, tried, and found guilty. His future was prison unless he could file a successful appeal. He then reached under his seat and pulled out his trial transcript. There it was: The People v. Philip Savarino. He was definitely not bluffing us. At this news, Eddie perked up and excitedly told us he’d beat up his father the previous night, putting him in the hospital. The police were looking for him and he was putting miles between himself and Philadelphia. Great, I’m in a car with two guys fleeing from the law. A hatchet on the seat is starting to sound like a good alternative scenario. Phil, though, was truly repentant and repeatedly told us how stupid he was and how we should heed his advice. He asked Eddie how much money he had, which was none, and gave him $10, telling him never to spend it all so as to avoid being arrested for vagrancy. Then it was time for my exit so I wished Phil good luck and they were gone.

On another trip home I was hitching with a friend from school and two sailors in a VW Beetle stopped for us. “Cost you six bucks each, Joe College.” Reluctantly, we paid up and crammed ourselves in the back seat, where, to make matters worse, we had to hold our suitcases in our laps. I guess it beat the bus but not by much.