summerbikes

Made Glorious Summer

Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer…

William Shakespeare, Richard III

My apologies to the Bard, but anyone who’s experienced a Western Pennsylvania winter knows that “discontent” just doesn’t cut it.  Frigid temperatures.  Towering mounds of snow.  1970s oil embargos that meant less heat in homes, churches, and schools.  We weren’t just discontent; we were driven nearly mad with advanced cases of cabin fever.  Considering the snow could start falling in October and continue all the way into May, “winter” is a relative term where I come from.

summerbridgeMr. Shakespeare gets the “glorious” adjective right though.  Boy were the summers glorious. As we slowly emerged from our winter hibernations, we rediscovered our neighbors and our street, which, to me at least, was the center of my universe in my adolescence.

We saw our neighbors unburdened by heavy winter coats, boots, gloves and Steeler hats.  “I never realized how bowlegged Mrs. Butler is,” my mother would muse about our across-the-street neighbor as she watched her cut the grass while wearing shorts.  Funny thing is, my mom made this exact same observation about Mrs. Butler every summer.  Winter must have given mom some sort of cold-born amnesia.

The bright summer sun allowed us to evaluate how our neighbors had fared during their winter exile.  Who gained weight.  Who lost weight.  Who grew taller.  Who was pregnant. (Winter coats hide a lot.)

The desire to do everything outdoors overtook us.  Laundry now dried on clotheslines in the back yard.  That gave us very valuable clues about the people who lived on our street.  Mrs. Shaffer’s bloomers could be used to propel a small sailboat.  And the divorcee two doors down wore leopard print bras.  “Can you imagine what goes on in that house,” my mother said with insatiable curiosity.  My shy dad got so flustered he couldn’t mow our backyard lawn until her laundry came down.

The houses on my street were on average between 50-to-70 years old in the 1970s, which meant they were not air conditioned.  If you could afford a window air conditioner it didn’t cool more than one room, drove your electric bill sky high and was so loud you couldn’t watch TV or sleep when it was on.  Instead, most of us kept our windows wide open to catch the occasional cooling breeze.  Open windows also meant open ears — we were able to hear our neighbors, not just see them.  We heard the sound of dishes being washed in the sink.  Of tired mill workers snoring while they caught an afternoon snooze.  Of heat rashed babies crying.  Sadly, of couples fighting.  Our neighbors heard the sound of our TV, and knew exactly what shows we watched.  It came in handy when the mom next door would remind us that “our show” was coming on and we better scoot home to watch it.

For our family there was one summer ritual my dad never missed.  That was the annual summertrainingcamptrip to the Pittsburgh Steeler training camp at St. Vincent’s College and Seminary in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.  My dad would time it perfectly so he’d be there to see the “Oklahoma drills’ which tested rookie linemen against the veterans.  He swore he knew Mike Webster and Jack Lambert would be Hall of Famers the moment he witnessed the drills at their rookie camp.  I’ll never figure out why Steeler coach Chuck Noll just didn’t put dad on the payroll.

My sisters and I were thrilled to see the players up close and get the occasional autograph.  I can tell you that Franco Harris has the most beautiful complexion of any man I’ve ever seen.  You can’t tell me he wasn’t exfoliating in the locker room.

summergliderMostly, though, our front porch  replaced the kitchen (and TV) as the center of our home.  My sisters and I played Barbies there.  We read books sitting on the metal glider with the plastic pillows that stuck to our sweaty legs.  We took long midday naps and sat on the front steps watching our neighbors come and go.

It was at night, however, that the porch and our front yard became a magical, mysterious, moody retreat.  Everyone in our neighborhood sat on their front porch at night to cool off.  Because we lived on the side of a large sloping hill at the base of a low, rounded mountain, we could always count on a breeze at night, no matter how hot and humid the day had been.  We had only one streetlight on our block, almost directly in front of our house, so both ends of the block were shrouded in darkness.  Cars, bikes and people walking their dogs slipped from one blackened end into the pool of light then disappeared again into the darkness.  The only way we knew if our neighbors at either end of the block were outside was to watch for the red glow of their lit cigarettes.

As in the daylight, we listened for the sounds emanating from the quiet night.  Everyone knew the squeak of our glider.  We heard dogs bark.  Baseball games listened to on transistor radios.  The hum of electric fans being used to cool the night air even more.

summerrootbeerOn Saturday nights, after we’d had our baths, my mom would treat us to ice cream floats.  Don’t judge, but it’s a particular delicacy in Western Pennsylvania to make your float with Pepsi, not root beer.  I can still remember the scent of Dial soap, baby powder, and vanilla ice cream perfuming the air.  If my dad wasn’t working a night turn at the mill, he’d get his float in the biggest glass we had, a chunky, heavy mug.  That mug remains in my mom’s kitchen 40+ years later.  We still refer to it as “daddy’s glass.”

My older sister preferred to stay inside and watch TV most nights, but my younger sister and I were more adventurous.  One time we rode our bikes through the woods at the end of the street.  It was super cool, until we saw the bats flying out of the pine trees.  We bolted home screaming as fast as our Schwinns would carry us.  We’d do cartwheels in the yard despite the mosquito bites we’d be covered in the next morning.  “Don’t scratch” was my mother’s summer mantra.

Best of all, we caught lightening bugs.  (AKA fireflies to the rest of the world.)  My sister andsummerfirefly I would compete to see who could catch the most.  My mom gave us old jelly jars to keep them in captivity.  Uh, that didn’t go well.  I’m ashamed to confess that my sister and I both tortured these poor insects mercilessly.  We’d put them in water to see if they could swim.  (They can’t.)  We’d “race” them across the porch where they invariably got stepped on.  We even went so far as to see if we could transplant the light from a bigger bug to a smaller one.  (You can’t.)   I guess the darkness of the summer night brought out the darkness in our souls too.

summerstreetlightToo bad William Shakespeare didn’t live on my street.  Romeo and Juliet couldn’t hold a candle to lightning bugs and ice cream floats.

I’ll let the Bard of Avon have the final word:

Summer’s lease hath all too short a date.  But thy eternal summer shall not fade.

nbc peacock

Living Color

I was 10 years old at the start of the 1970s.  My older sister was a little older; my younger sister a little younger.  We were typical kids in a typical western Pennsylvania steel town. We went to Catholic school.  Rode our bikes up and down hilly streets.  Played with Barbie dolls.  Wore pigtails.

We were also TVaholics.

We watched a lot of (OK, way too much) TV.  We’d lay on the floor in front of the screen leaning on the giant “TV pillows” my mom bought for us.  She was an enabler.

Unlike some of the cooler kids on the block, we had a smallish black and white TV set.   We’d relish visits to our playmates’ homes so we could catch a glimpse or two of shows in color.  Our across the street neighbor, Margie Fritz, was especially hip.  She had her own room, a record player and a color TV in her living room.  We relied on her to give us details about the programs we were only able to see in black and white.

“What color was Miss Brazil’s evening gown?” I remember my sister asking after the Miss Universe pageant.

“It was green and blue,” Margie revealed.  We gobbled the information Margie fed us like it was a sugary pack of Smarties candy, to which we were also addicted.

color tvThen, in 1973, we got our very first color TV.  A big Zenith console.

Finally, Lord.  Finally.

Our initial euphoria was short lived.  The first afternoon we turned it on to watch our favorite soap opera just happened to coincide with the start of the Senate Watergate hearings.

These proceedings were deemed so historically important they were broadcast on all three networks simultaneously.  All the scheduled soaps, game shows and talk shows that aired in the afternoons were canceled.  Bummer.

watergate greenMy very first memory of our first color TV was the green cloth covering the table where Senator Sam Ervin held court in the trial to impeach President Nixon.

Of course, once we got to the prime time hours we were transfixed, seeing the world of our favorite TV characters with new eyes.  The Brady Bunch kitchen is orange!   Rhoda’s attic apartment has pink walls!  Paramedic John Gage uses a green Bic pen on Emergency!  These were important facts for us to know.

miss universeWe even got to watch the Miss Universe pageant in color.  We dropped Margie Fritz as our supplier of color commentary in a heartbeat.

Of course, for my dad, the color TV meant he could finally see the Pittsburgh Steelers in all their black and gold glory.  Sunday afternoons, the TV was his.  I recall my amazement at how blue Chuck Noll’s steely eyes appeared in close up.   Truth be told, his gaze was pretty intimidating even in black and white.  Luckily, the TV arrived in time for dad to see all four of the 70s Steeler dynasty Super Bowls in living color.

johnnyThere were two shows, though, that we just had to experience in color.  The first was The Tonight Show.  Yes, my mom let us stay up late – even on school nights – to watch Johnny Carson.  At first it started so we could welcome my dad home after the 3 pm to 11 pm turn at the mill.  Pretty soon, she couldn’t pry us away from Johnny, Ed, Doc and the gang.  We were absolutely astonished the first night we watched Johnny emerge from the curtain to do his monologue.  It was a revelation. The curtain was a Technicolor dream.  A glamorous rainbow. We talked about it for days.  We had never imagined how wonderful that curtain was when we watched in black and white.

aw logo.pngOnce the Watergate hearings ended, the networks returned to their regular programming.  The soap operas were back.  We could barely contain ourselves the first afternoon we watched Another World!  Steven Frame.  Alice Matthews.  Rachel Davis.  The juiciest love triangle on afternoon television.  And here they were.  In color.

We’d run from the school bus stop to get home in time to see the show.  It started at 3 pm, so we’d often miss the beginning of the then-half hour episode.  But the steamy, sordid goings on of the denizens of Bay City were all the more addictive now that we could see real human beings, not shadowy black and white specters.

alice frameI was Team Alice all the way.  With her long blond hair, frosted pink lipstick and super stylish blue eyeshadow, she was the embodiment of the all American girl.  She was engaged to the resident hunk, and millionaire business man, Steven Frame.

My mom and sisters were Team Rachel.  The dark haired, dark eyed bad girl, who was married to Alice’s brother, Russ, but pregnant with Steven Frame’s child.  Everything seemed more melodramatic in color.  We were hooked all over again.

Now that we were seeing shows in color, my sisters and I started aggressively jostling for whattv dials.png shows we would watch.  Some nights it was a tug-of-war.   Whoever was closest to the TV had to turn the dial to change the channel.  My little sister figured out pretty quickly that being the one who changed the channel also meant being the one who picked the channel to watch.  Somehow she always took the prime position next to the control panel.

In a fit of pique, I’d often turn the dial back to the show I wanted to see whenever she got up for a snack or to go to the bathroom.  One night, she got so frustrated with the back and forth she bit me on the arm.  Hard.  Who knew that our color chromatic Zenith would lead to bloodshed?

As the 70s came to a close, we replaced the Zenith console TV with a newer model.  The channel changing dial was gone.  The new TV came with keypad buttons and a digital channel display.  We were movin’ on up to the big time!

My younger sister once again gained control over the channel selection when she learned how to use her big toe to press the channel she wanted on the keypad.  She didn’t even have to move from her perch on her TV pillow.  Genius.

The good news for my older sister and I was that my little sister could be bribed.  A pack of Smarties here, a bag of SweetTarts there, reinforced with some Bazooka bubble gum, were the contraband we slipped her if we wanted to watch Dallas over Fantasy Island.  It was cutthroat.

We just couldn’t get enough of the dramatic, funny, crazy, memorable moving images that appeared in color on that rectangular screen.  We had to get our fix of Match Game in the afternoon, and The Love Boat at night.  Once we had a taste of the wonderful world of living color, we weren’t going back to black and white ever again.  We were high in the 70s alright – at our Zenith.

digital tv

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

rocky1976screentitle

Rocky (1976)

Growing up in a small, dying mill town in western Pennsylvania didn’t afford us many luxuries, so family night at the movies was a real treat. My dad was a steelworker, and a rather eclectic movie fan. He cheered for John Wayne in True Grit, and grieved with Sophia Loren in Two Women. He loved discussing the movies we saw and prodding my sisters and me for our opinions.

Throughout the 60s, the boom years for steel towns throughout the region, there were lots of movies aimed at the family audience. But by the 1970s, movies were changing. Swear words, nudity, and violence were things my devout Catholic parents were not going to pay for us to see. Especially with layoffs looming and money becoming tight. Paying for five people to see a movie meant not paying for something else.

One night my mother suggested we go to see Cabaret. It was a musical, so I’m sure mom thought it must be wholesome family entertainment. We piled in the car and went off to the movie theater at the mall. I remember sensing my dad’s uneasiness early on in the movie. My sisters and I grew even more uncomfortable with the decadence and sexuality, eventually slinking down in our seats. My mom was silently praying for Julie Andrews and singing nuns to somehow show up in the Kit Kat Club in Berlin.

The ride home was stony silence. My dad shooting “what were you thinking” glances at my mom in the front seat, my sisters and I trying to figure out what we had just seen in the back. I had nightmares of Joel Grey’s false eyelashes for months.

It would be years before we saw another movie all together.

One day, at the dinner table, my dad commented that he’d read about a little movie that sounded interesting. “It’s about a boxer,” he explained. “It’s called Rocky and I think I want to see it.” Apparently Newsweek magazine had run a blurb about its word of mouth momentum.

The movie hadn’t yet caught on nationally so it wasn’t playing at the big theater at the mall. Instead, one frigid night, we drove to a deserted downtown to see it. The small theater was not quite half full. I was wearing my fake rabbit fur winter jacket with my black and gold Steeler pom pom hat. I remember being annoyed that my mom wouldn’t buy me Milk Duds or Ju Ju Bees because they’d get stuck in my braces.

After the Cabaret disaster, I was especially tense about whether or not my dad would sit through the movie, let alone like it. I spent the first part of the movie watching it out of one eye and my dad out of the other. I was monitoring his reactions, waiting for the first f-bomb or naked breast that would cause him to pull us out of our seats and take us home in disgust. He’d not only settled in; he was watching intently.

I relaxed and turned my full attention to the screen. Rocky was sitting in the fight promoter’s office, with people urging him to accept Apollo Creed’s unbelievable offer for an unknown boxer to fight the champ. The camera stayed on Rocky’s face. I felt how he was both afraid to take it and afraid not to.

I never looked away from the screen again.

rockydecisionMy favorite scene in the film. Perhaps the last time we saw Stallone underplay a scene until Creed.

Rocky is not a great film. It is a very, very good one. There’s a reason it became a box office smash and a modern classic. It is hands down the most memorable and exciting movie going experience of my life.

The story is simple. A down on his luck, no-name boxer in Philadelphia is given the chance of a lifetime to fight the flamboyant World Heavyweight Champion. At the same time he is starting a tentative, tender romance with the introverted sister of his best friend. He discovers his dignity and realizes he finally has something to fight for.

When the film came out, many sophisticated critics ridiculed it as a derivative fairy tale, some sort of rehash of a lesser Frank Capra movie. Sylvester Stallone, who starred as Rocky, wrote the screenplay and took the brunt of the criticism. They had a point. It was 1976, and compared to the cynicism of Network, the paranoia of All the President’s Men and the nihilism of Taxi Driver, this little movie seemed like a naïve fantasy.

But Rocky is full of anger, rage and sadness. The story’s innate sentimentality is grounded in drab, raw realness. Nothing is “pretty” in Rocky.  The movie looks lived in. Characters wear clothes, not costumes. People yell at each other. A lot.

rockystreetThe street where Rocky lives. He may have been from Philadelphia, but his story echoed with working class folks in the western part of Pennsylvania too.

Because he was an unknown, and his script had made the rounds in Hollywood for a while, Stallone had to fight to get Rocky made and fight to star in it. The trade-off was the studio insisted on a low budget and quick filming schedule. The entire movie was shot in 28 days.

Perhaps the two best things that happened to the movie were the budget restrictions and the studio bringing in a journeyman director, John G. Avildsen.  One reviewer called Avildsen “lazy.” He wasn’t. He simply got out of the way of a great story and cast the movie with actors who were either unknown or barely known to audiences. It’s telling that the biggest “name” in the cast was Burgess Meredith. (“Well he’s always good in movies, isn’t he? He wouldn’t be in a dirty movie, would he?” my mom sweetly asked my dad on the way to the theater.)

There is a plainness and lack of self-consciousness in the performances that made me feel I wasn’t watching actors, I was somehow eavesdropping on real people at the most dramatic moment of their lives. Stallone is undeniably appealing. He wasn’t handsome, and in truth, he looks meaty, lumpy and pale. You can believe he is a third-rate fighter. Rocky was his creation, and he brings genuine humility, humor and heart to the role. One wonders how Avildsen was able to reign in the self-reverential preening that Stallone displayed starting with the first sequel and perfected over his 40 year career.

winrockyThe Rocky who won our hearts, before faux tan, hair mousse and plastic surgery turned him into robotic imitation.

Rocky’s love interest, Adrian, is the repressed, frightened, old maid sister of his best friend, Pauly. Talia Shire, who was cast after Carrie Snodgrass turned the part down, brought both sensitivity and ferociousness to a woman who had never been valued in her life. Her bitter confrontation with Pauly is achingly painful to watch. Even her “makeover” is believable. It looks like a prettier, younger cousin took her to the beauty counter at Wannamaker’s in downtown Philly and then bought her some new clothes. The pantsuit she wears at the end of the film doesn’t even fit her properly. Similar to Bette Davis’ brilliant transformation in Now, Voyager, Shire’s Adrian blooms from within.

adrian.png

Talia Shire was one of the last principals cast. Susan Sarandon was screen tested but deemed “too attractive.”

Burt Young, as her loser brother Pauly, is used mainly for comic relief, until jealousy of his friend’s luck begins eating him alive. He knows he may soon be abandoned by both Rocky and Adrian, and erupts from years of frustration, loneliness and hurt.

pauly

Burt Young’s Pauly ruins the holiday. I can still hear my mother muttering “poor Pauly” for days after the movie every time she passed our Christmas tree.

A former professional football player turned actor, Carl Weathers, plays the champion Apollo Creed, who Stallone obviously based on Muhammed Ali. Weathers’ handsomeness, athleticism and crisp diction make him not only Rocky’s opponent, but his better in every way – he looks better, fights better and sounds better. Rocky knows he’s outclassed not just in the ring, but in life too. Creed could have easily been a “villain” of sorts, but Stallone and Weathers make Apollo smart, savvy and completely in control of the “spin” surrounding the fight.

apollofindsrocky

Apollo Creed looks for a small time fighter to face in an exhibition bout. He finds “The Italian Stallion.”  Real life boxer Ken Norton declined the Apollo role.

If there is any false note in the film, it’s the veteran Meredith as Rocky’s trainer, Mickey. Maybe it was because he was the biggest “name” in the film that the familiarity makes him seem less “authentic” compared to the revelatory turns by Stallone, Shire, Young and Weathers. When he first appeared in the film, my sister was waiting to hear him do the Penguin laugh from Batman. It’s the one performance in the film that, well, feels like a performance.

mickey.jpg

The producers wanted Lee Strasberg for the role of Mickey but couldn’t meet his asking price.

Avildsen cast the supporting roles with meat and potato character actors who looked like he grabbed them off the street in Philadelphia. He generously gives Thayer David (the fight promoter), Tony Burton (Apollo’s manager) and Joe Spinell (Rocky’s small time gangster boss) moments that do much to create the gritty, small, ordinary world where Rocky knows his place. It’s a harsh, grimy place, as are the people who populate it.

rocky gazzo

Spinell had an asthma attack shooting his first scene, and used his inhaler. Avildsen used that take in the final cut.

Rocky was just the second film to use a Steadicam, which enabled the breathtaking shot of Rocky mounting the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art as well as the climatic fight scene. For the famous training sequence, much of the footage, including Rocky’s run through the street market and on the quay by the boat, were shot on the fly – Avildsen and crew couldn’t afford to pay for the film permits. Instead, they drove around in a van filming Stallone in improvised locations. That type of montage is now such rockystepsa staple in movies, it’s hard to remember how fresh it was in Rocky. So many post-Rocky “underdog” films have copied it (including Avildsen’s own Karate Kid) that you can’t believe it was never a cliché.

The inventor of the Steadicam first tested it with his girlfriend running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Avildsen saw the footage and it inspired the movie’s most famous image.

Many film critics grumbled when Avildsen won the Oscar over other more well-regarded directors. They blamed the win on the out-of-touch Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (sound familiar?) The fact is, though, that the hipper Directors Guild gave their prize to Avildsen too.

avildsen

Avildsen collects his Oscar. He beat Ingmar Bergman, Sidney Lumet, Alan J. Pakula and Lina Wertmuller.

Whenever I talk movies with fellow movie buffs, I see them roll their eyes when I bring up Rocky. Their perspective of the original film is skewed by its association with the sequels that followed. If only the story of Rocky ended when the film ended, with Rocky and Adrian frozen in a triumphant embrace. Instead, Stallone, the producers, and the studio cashed in and pimped the characters out. The newly trim, bronzed and blow-dried Stallone made Rocky into a cartoon, and threw the supporting characters to the side. The sequels were overacted, overproduced, overblown, yet strangely underpopulated. Rocky now lived in a vacuum. He was the only character that mattered. And don’t even get me started on the red sweat band in Rocky II. It’s more frightening than Joel Grey’s false eyelashes.

rockyno

Just all kinds of wrong.

It’s a shame that the sequels exploited and cheapened what made the original so stunning, and such a visceral experience 40 years ago.

It was deep in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, Jimmy Carter administration malaise. We were worn down by inflation and oil embargos. In small towns like mine, an entire industry was collapsing. Steel mills, coal mines and manufacturing plants were lumbering dinosaurs on their way to extinction. Anti-heroes and emancipated women were the darlings at the box office. Hard-working, decent guys like my dad were just looking for a break. They weren’t seeing who they were – or who they wanted to be – on the screen.

whitetrunkswithredstripe.png

 

The night before the fight, Rocky sees that a banner has the color of his trunks wrong. (An actual mistake made by the props department.)

 

doesitmatter

“Does it matter?” says the fight promoter, in a line that Stallone wrote on the spot.

Back to my parents and my sisters and I in a small theater on a freezing western Pennsylvania night. My dad and mom likely entered the theater that night with lots on their minds – car payments, mortgage, saving to send three girls to college, the nasty chronic cough my dad had from smoking too many cigarettes. They were probably prepared to have another movie disappoint them, and embarrass their daughters.

With Rocky clutching Adrian in freeze-frame (it was the 70s) and the strains of Bill Conti’s iconic score playing over the final credits, someone in the audience began clapping. Soon everyone was on their feet applauding, which then turned into cheering. I heard the man behind me tell his date “I feel like I could lift this theater on my shoulders right now!” I did too. More importantly so did my dad. He was literally out of breath and invigorated when the movie ended.

Walking to the car, my family was excitedly replaying scenes and dialogue. They were already planning on telling others at work, at church and at school to be sure to see Rocky. I wasn’t. In some strange way, I didn’t want Rocky to be a hit. I wanted it to remain something special that had happened just to us. No one will ever know or love these people like we did, I thought. Somehow, keeping the movie a secret meant being able to hold onto the joy forever. One of my sisters suggested that we come back the next night and see it again. For a moment my dad considered it. I’m glad we didn’t. While I’ve enjoyed seeing the movie again over the years, nothing will ever top that first time.

As we were driving home, my mom, sisters and I were arguing about whether or not Rocky had actually won the fight. “What difference does it make?” my dad said from the front seat. “He was a winner either way. All I know is when he ran up those stairs, I was right there with him. What a movie!”

Yo, dad, you were right. Rocky was a winner. And a knockout.

rockyend

 

 

1979bucs

Willie’s Way

My blog is about my nostalgia for growing up in western Pennsylvania in the 1970s, so of course a lot of my memories concern the Pittsburgh Steelers.  How could they not?

But as we’re now on the cusp of a new baseball season, I can’t help but think of my other true love — the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The 1970s were a melodramatic decade for Pirate fans.  We had the joy of two World Series championships and the heartbreaking tragedy of losing Roberto Clemente.  Roberto should be, and will be, the subject of a future post.

The start of a baseball season is always about hope.  This could be our year, fans say, whether they actually believe it deep down inside or not.  But in April 1979, I really did have that feeling.

It didn’t start out well.  The Pirates faltered out of the gate, after having finished the 1978 season strongly.  Doubting Thomases popped up everywhere, including my Dad, who concluded that the previous season had been a fluke.

I remembered, however, that Willie Stargell had been quoted at the end of the ’78 season saying the Pirates would win it all in 1979.  And I believed him.

Many sports fans are superstitious or swear that they have premonitions of great plays or victories.  (Funny how no fan ever seems to be able to predict defeat.)  I plead guilty on both charges.  But in 1979 I experienced something new:  I actually had three omens that the Bucs were a team of destiny.

The first one happened early in the season.  I was so proud to be the only girl in my class with her own subscription to Sports Illustrated, and I read it from cover to cover every week.  A while before 1979 I read an article about an eccentric, hot-tempered shortstop for the Montreal Expos named Tim Foli.  Never forgot the article.  Not sure why, but it may have been the anecdote about him sleeping overnight at second base after mishandling a double play.

Much to my surprise, the Pirates acquired Tim Foli and he became their starting shortstop.  I still can recall the hair on the back of my neck rising as I read about it in the Post Gazette.  Foli.  In Pittsburgh.  This means something, I thought.  Omen #1.

Sure enough, the team seemed to gel shortly after his arrival.  The infield had depth.  The outfield speed, grace and power.  The bullpen solidity.  Something was happening.

The Pirates have long had a reputation as being a warm weather team.  They start flat and catch fire after the All Star break.  The ’79 Pirates surely got hot once spring faded into summer.

One afternoon my Dad and I were watching a double header against the Phillies.  Out of nowhere he remarked “You know, these Pirates are a good team.  They’re winning the close games.  One run games.  That’s the mark of team that can go places.”  And I believed him.

Sure enough, the Pirates found themselves in a thrilling pennant race down the stretch.  I was listening to the radio one September night while doing geology homework.  A crucial game against the Expos in Montreal was about to start.  The Pirates could clinch the division.  Just as I reached for the dial to switch stations to KDKA for the game, a song started to play.  The opening lyrics gave me gooseflesh.  “I remember all the nights in Montreal…” crooned the singer.  I knew he wasn’t singing about baseball but if he said the nights in Montreal were going to be memorable, I believed him.  I knew this was a sign that  I could relax and the Bucs were going to win the NL East.  Omen #2.

The Pirates, of course, found themselves in the World Series.  Once again they had an inauspicious start.  Down 3-1 against the Baltimore Orioles (with their great pitching staff) sportswriters, commentators and even my Dad were pronouncing their demise.  I was so upset after the fourth game loss, I stormed out of the living room and slammed a door.  My Dad rightfully yelled at me and called me a poor sport.  In order to cool me down, he told me to take out the garbage, a chore I hated.  I was steaming as I gathered up the bag and began walking down to the trash cans at the end of our back yard.  It was a gray and gloomy October afternoon.  I was pleading with God the whole way, asking Him why He had allowed the Pirates to go this far only to have them lose.  Why can’t He help the Pirates the way He helped the Steelers?

As I turned to walk back to the house, I looked up to the sky.  And I saw a large cloud in the shape of the number 7.  I swear on a stack of Bibles.  Suddenly I was calm.  My heart surged.  I walked into my kitchen and announced to my parents that the Pirates were going to win the series in 7 games. Omen #3.

Right after my pronouncement my Dad informed me that Jim Rooker was set to start the pivotal Game 5.  Rooker had been struggling the entire second half of the season, and seemed to be a dire choice from the tired Buc bullpen.  But I swallowed hard and reasserted my faith in ultimate victory.  God told me the Pirates were going to win and I believed Him.

Rooker had a strong enough outing in the game, with Bert Blyleven coming on to get the win.  And the tide had turned.  The Pirates won.  And won.  And won.

It was a magical run by a team full of sass and vinegar, personality and utter joy in playing the game.  Above it all stood Willie Stargell, the captain, heart, and soul of this team of destiny.  Seems he was a bit of a soothsayer too.

My Dad turned to me at the end of game 7 and said, “you stuck with them kid.  I never believed they were going to come back.”  I just smiled.  Willie and God made me know better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

oscar

The Black and the Gold

When I was first thinking about the subject for this entry in my blog, it was to be an appreciation of the movie, Rocky, on the heels of Sylvester Stallone’s nomination for the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for recreating the famous boxer in the movie Creed.

I was going to rhapsodize about Rocky, which is a personal favorite, and examine how the Rocky Balboa character became an enduring hero to working class folks like my dad in the 1970s, a time when they needed heroes.  I had photos of my favorite scenes selected and was going to discuss the nuances of the acting, the impeccable capture of a Pennsylvania sunrise by the cinematographer, blah, blah, blah.

This is not going to be that post.

Instead, I find myself in a more contemplative mood due to the #OscarsSoWhite discussion.  What does this have to do with growing up in western Pennsylvania in the 70s, readers may ask?  I’ll tell you.

Growing up in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, I did not encounter many black people.  That’s just the way it was.  My parents, who came of age in the 1940s, still referred to them as “colored,” not in a hateful or disrespectful way.  That was just the word they knew.

In their youth, coming from the Swissvale neighborhood in Pittsburgh and the town of Aliquippa, my parents had more interaction with black people.  I’m sure their views were influenced by the times and their limited ability to imagine people different than themselves.

Their biases were more directed at people of different nationalities that they considered “foreign” to their English, Irish roots. If you grew up in western Pennsylvania, there are a lot of connotations associated with the word “hunky.”

Despite their multicultural unawareness, my mother and father were decent people.  They accepted all who played by the rules, were courteous and neat, minded their own business, and worked hard.  Period.

For the time and place, they did a pretty good job of raising enlightened offspring.  I remember my mom sitting me and my sisters down to explain why Martin Luther King was important.  She wasn’t going to be leading any civil rights marches in the mines and mills, to be sure, but she responded to Dr. King as a fellow parent.  She showed us a picture of Dr. King’s children.  They were about our ages, maybe a bit older, and were dressed in their Sunday best.  They looked like us.  Except for the color of their skin.

“Look at these darling children,” she started.  “There are people who won’t let them go on a ride in an amusement park just because they’re colored.”  I can still recall my horror that such a thing could happen to girls who wore pretty dresses to church like I did.

My parents were genuinely open minded, considering the era and their backgrounds.  They were colorblind when it came to appreciating talent.

My mom always cried at Hattie McDaniel’s staircase speech in Gone With The Wind because it is a brilliant piece of acting by a wonderful actress.  Is it a shame she’s playing a mammy?  Yes.  But my mom would also have enjoyed Ms. McDaniel playing a lawyer if only she had the opportunity.

My dad had a hidden desire to be a dancer.  Fred Astaire was an idol, but so were Bill Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers.  Years later, when he discovered the great Gregory Hines, he was added to the list.

No one in our house batted an eye when my sisters and I thought of Sidney Poitier simply as the matinee idol he was.  (Still is. Google him. He looks great.)

For many people in the region, I think the great Pirate and Steeler teams of the 70s helped open the door of understanding and tolerance a bit wider.  White people like my parents were lifted up by the glorious talent of players like Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Joe Greene, Mel Blount, etc.  For many of them, a highlight of their lives was to meet one of these African American athletes.  If they were lucky enough to do so, they are still telling their grandchildren and great grandchildren about it.

Don’t get me wrong.  Western Pennsylvania wasn’t then and isn’t now the epicenter of racial unity.  But many second, third and fourth generation fans can bear witness to how much our parents and grandparents were able to love a group of men with dark skin.

So, how does this relate to the Oscars or Rocky, you’re asking?  Here’s the connection in my mind.

Sylvester Stallone’s only previous Oscar nomination for acting came when he created Rocky Balboa 40 years ago.  After the mammoth success of the original film, he began directing the Rocky sequels.  The sequels became increasingly bloated, thinly disguised vanity projects for the star.  His career became about being bankable.  He went from one schlocky blockbuster to another.  Whatever gentle lesson the third rate fighter from Philadelphia had to teach us about humanity was drowned out by the clanging sound of cash registers.  Mr. Stallone himself has alluded to his awareness of being considered a joke in Hollywood.

His redemption came in the hands of an African American writer-director named Ryan Coogler.  Mr. Coogler took the Rocky mythology and infused it with his mind, heart and voice.  His diverseness breathed new life and dignity into a white cliché.  Creed is an excellent movie and Mr. Stallone is excellent in it.  But he would not have been nominated without Mr. Coogler’s artistry.  Two men, of different races, different ages and different backgrounds, armed with talent and a desire create something  great, did exactly that.

I think that’s why the Pirates and, in particular, the Steelers, spoke truth to some wary white hearts in the rust belt. We wanted our teams to do their best, and play with their hearts, minds, and muscles.  Those great teams taught us not to care about the color of the skin they came wrapped up in.  It was a small step toward brotherhood, peace and understanding, but it was an important step forward for us all.

Sometimes God knows exactly how to answer our prayers.  Think of it Steeler fans the man who picked that football off the turf of Three Rivers Stadium on December 23, 1972, and ignited our regional pride was both black and white.

Turns out he helped make us all black and gold too.

 

 

 

 

percyfaithjcs

Keep the Faith

Growing up Catholic in Western Pennsylvania in the 1970s meant growing up really Catholic.  The melting pot of Irish, Italian, German, Slovak, Polish, Serbian and Croatian versions of the Roman rite mixed conservative dogma with ethnic superstitions.

My parents followed the hard core focus on humility and modesty.  A young lady’s place was to do as she was told and not attempt to stand out from the crowd.  Controlled intellectual curiosity was encouraged, although always followed with a lesson on the dangers of pride and indulgence.

This view tormented me as I harbored desires to act and write and embrace my inner creative spirit.  I can remember one time lamenting the prohibition of appearing in plays.  “Do you want to end up like Elizabeth Taylor?” my mom warned me referring, of course, to Liz’s scandals, 7 divorces and recent unsightly appearance.  Um, yeah, I thought silently to myself, thinking only of her 2 Oscars, Krupp diamond and opportunity to have once kissed Paul Newman.

The 1970s were a hotbed of rock n roll music.  There was folk rock, pop rock, progressive rock, punk rock and heavy metal rock. Somehow an equation developed in my mom’s mind that rock ‘n roll music lead to drinking beer which inevitably lead to illegitimate children.

As a result, our family record cabinet brimmed with my dad’s big band music, Broadway cast albums, movie soundtracks and the easy listening albums of people like  Mantovani, Henry Mancini and Jackie Gleason.

Somehow, inexplicably, an instrumental Percy Faith album of the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar ended up in our record collection.

Percy Faith was king of the middle-of-the-road easy listening genre that peaked with his monster hit recording of the “Theme from A Summer Place” back in the 1960s.

I’m sure Percy’s respectability made the album seem safe when my mom saw it at the record store (remember them?), and the lack of blasphemous lyrics from the irreverent musical of the life of Jesus sealed the deal.

The album is very uptempo with typical 70s emphasis on percussion, horns, tambourines, organ and that instrument of the devil, the electric guitar.  Think Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice scoring a chase scene for an episode of Starsky & Hutch.

I became obsessed with the album playing it over and over on our stereo which was a big piece of furniture that provided a place to display framed family photos on carefully positioned crocheted doilies.  Oh, and you could play records in it two.

For some reason this brassy instrumental take on the controversial rock musical made me feel like a gentle Catholic renegade.   For all I knew it could lead me to swinging my hips, growing my hair long, wearing bell bottomed jeans, drinking beer and, well, you know the rest.

I confess it did begin my road to musical perdition.  I next listened to Simon & Garfunkel’s Mrs. Robinson on Margie Fritz’s record player in her bedroom.  We couldn’t help feel we were doing something, well, dirty as Paul and Art sang “Jesus loves you more than you could know” to the original cougar.  I crossed over to the dark side next when I asked for the Carpenters album for Christmas.  Poor Karen and Richard were considered “rockers” in our house.

I’m not exactly sure why Percy Faith’s version of Jesus Christ Superstar spoke so loudly to my 14-year-old soul.  It had no lyrics, with just the song titles listed on the album jacket.  I had to make up my own lyrics based on the song title alone.  Lyrics that related to what a  shy, plain teenage girl with braces was feeling during those perilous junior and senior high school years.

I know that my mind was certainly asking “What’s the Buzz,” and my version of the lyrics centered on figuring out who I was.  “I Only Want to Say” (“Gethsame”) became a song about teenage angst in my imagination.  And my crush on the blue eyed boy in Algebra class came alive in “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.”  Ironic that a song sung by a prostitute in the play became a tribute to chaste love for me.

When I listen now to the hard-to-find CD version of the LP, I see Percy’s staid, middle aged, leisure-suited musicians letting go with some snappy licks and pulsating riffs that were not typical of their usual vanilla “music for lovers” fare. The recording studio atmosphere a mix of coffee, cigarettes and Old Spice cologne.  And Percy bopping with a long collared shirt open at the neck displaying a carefully knotted Pucci scarf.  Rock on, dudes.

The album seemed to open up our family’s musical taste as well, when a short time later, my mom actually purchased a copy of Billy Joel’s The Stranger.  She had taken a liking to his “Just The Way You Are” single on the radio.  I think she figured he sounded like a nice Jewish boy from Long Island. What harm could it do?  Even more remarkably she bought the double record set of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack for my sister’s birthday.  Disco and John Travolta in tight white pants?  Was my mother finding her groove?

I’ve grown to appreciate the album over the years, as a fun break for the musicians and the softest rock revelation to me.  Either way I consider it a creative watershed for us both.

That album proved to be a portal of sorts for me as I grew more independent and creative. As the 70s went on, it even led my mother to walk a little closer to the edge of hipness.

All because we kept the (Percy) Faith.

 

 

 

ballcomingtofranco

Out of the Air

When I decided to start a blog, I envisioned myself chronicling what it was like to grow up in Western Pennsylvania in the 1960s and 1970s.  Write what you know, I thought.  So I cleverly named the blog “Steel Town Girl,” and waited for inspiration to strike.

And waited.

Then I realized what every Steel Town Girl would know.  It had to start with the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Specifically, the miracle they brought us on December 23, 1972.  The Immaculate Reception.

It may sound funny but I didn’t see it.  My Dad and I heard it.  On the radio.  Back in the early days of cable TV, local games were “blacked out” for a variety of arcane reasons I no longer remember.  Anyway, we had to listen to the game as called by Jack Fleming the Steeler’s radio announcer.

It was the first time that the Pittsburgh Steelers had ever made it to a post season playoff game in the franchise’s long history.  For many fans, like my father, there was a mix of excitement, skepticism, fear and hope that blew through the gray winter skies of the region that December.

Excitement because these were “new” Steelers.  A young coach.  Untested rookies, untapped younger players and seemingly unwinnable veterans.  Even Three Rivers Stadium was practically new.  The Steelers were like the kid you have a crush on in class.  You’re excited to see him, excited when you think he sees you, excited just to be excited because you have no idea where these longing glances are going to go.

Skepticism was a survival mechanism for Steeler fans up to then.  They were used to promises of “wait til next year” turn into “never in my lifetime.”  Storied draft picks gone bust.  Coaches arriving through revolving doors.  They weren’t ready to fall in love until they were sure.

The fear was unavoidable.  I think my Dad was so nervous that day because he feared this was their only chance.  I mean ONLY chance.  EVER.  Fans like my Dad wanted to believe.  Oh how they wanted to believe.  But they didn’t want to get their hearts broken.  What if the kid you had a crush on didn’t like you back?

And there was hope.  It was as if all season long a picture had slowly been coming into focus and we knew – somehow we knew, dammit – that this was the moment.  The blue eyed boy in Geometry class was going to ask you out.  It was gonna happen.  Wasn’t it?

Sure enough, the game was a close one.  The Steelers opponent was the Oakland Raiders, a flashy, tough, dominating team with a reputation for having a “take no prisoners” attitude.  Their motto, was, after all, “Just win, baby.”

Late into the fourth quarter, the Steelers were down 7-6.  There were just 22 seconds to go.  It was fourth down and 10.  This was it.

Here’s how Jack Fleming described it.  “Bradshaw’s running out of the pocket.  He’s looking for someone to throw to.  He fires downfield.   And there’s a collision …  the ball is caught out of the air!  The ball is pulled down by Franco Harris!  Harris is going for a touchdown for Pittsburgh! “

At that moment, at that one moment, I saw something I had never seen in my Dad for the  12 years I’d been alive.

Joy.  Pure joy.  Just joy.

We hadn’t even seen the play.  We didn’t have to.  We heard the shouts and cries of neighbors who were also listening.  They won! They won!

I can’t remember if my Dad cried.  He may have.  I sobbed.  The heavy, gasping tears that only come when something indescribable and unattainable finally happens to you.

Yes, the Immaculate Reception happened to me.  Franco Harris caught it.  But it happened to all of us.  We were the Steelers, and they were us.

The beaten down, gnarly handed steelworkers scarred from the sparks that cascaded out of the blast furnace.  The beehived, cigarette-voiced wives working at the grocery checkout line or the beauty parlor.  The town drunks.  The brittle, grizzled War II vets.  The Vatican II recently unrobed nuns.  The rich.  The poor.  The toothless grandmothers in their babushkas and me, the skinny, shy, buck-toothed teen girl about to get braces her family could ill afford.

WE won.

The roar of the crowd at Three Rivers, and the roar from towns all over that rusty part of Pennsylvania, become one giant prayer.  Thanking God for sure; asking Him for more, you bet.

I once heard Franco Harris say he didn’t hear anything after he caught the ball and ran it in for the touchdown.  If he had, it would have been the sound of all those hearts bursting with pride.

With that catch, in that instant, we started to believe we were smart, and beautiful, and strong, and lucky.  If this wonderful thing could happen to us, other wonderful things could too.

All we had to do was reach and grab them out of the air.