Sunday, January 26, 2014

Hitler Youth?

My football days began on the afternoon when a precocious rookie quarterback, Joe Namath, shocked the sports world as deeply as Muhammed Ali years ago in guaranteeing a victory over the feared Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III that Winter of ‘68. My first teen romance with Christine Jurczak was in full bloom, and she and her chaperoning Mom were on hand along with Harold as we all began to realize that Joe Willie was leading the Jets to a world-class upset. Harold and I had been shanghaied into games from time to time but now, as adolescents, street football would soon become a new Butler Street tradition. For me, the Jets had become the Knights of the Round Table and Broadway Joe their Lancelot.

It was during the Spring of ’68 when my insecurity would lead to the manifestation of an exquisite self-defense strategy that would, unfortunately, resurface at different times throughout my life. Over the winter, having read all the Sherlock Holmes books in the Loughlin library, I began reading about Nazi Germany. Let me point out that, fundamentally, I was anything but a neo-Nazi. Our best family friend, Baron Sanders, who I would’ve given my life for, was a Russian Jew. Plus, the SS philosophy as dictated by Heinrich Himmler had become increasingly anti-Christian. My whole spin was on the Aryan ‘superman’ concept. It was just another way for me to be Superman.

What set the game in play was the return of Waldo Von Erich to the WWF. He had been one of my heroes when I first discovered wrestling, but as a Storm Trooper he became someone I loved to hate. After he left the WWF, it hit me with one of the ‘aftershocks’ I would experience throughout my life in picking up on concepts after the fact. I began channeling Von Erich and astounding both my schoolmates and friends in the ‘hood with this weird heel turn.

Paulie bore the brunt of this aberration, taking a few licks from the wooden spike I toted in imitating Waldo’s swagger stick. Ginny blew a fit and I got a dressing down from Bobby, but nothing came of it. In retrospect, I think it was comeuppance for their failure to intervene as Harold bullied me over the years. Up the block, most people thought I lost my marbles. Ismael fashioned a swastika lapel button for me which was not making friends or influencing people.

This angle played out at Loughlin, where the black kids were getting fed up with the racial overtones of my routine. One kid named Moorehead began baiting me in Maryanne Montesano’s class (fittingly enough!), and when we squared off, Mike Jensen rose to the occasion. He caught me in a headlock in the locker room after class and I tapped out, largely because the whole thing had ballooned way out of proportion. Mike and I made friends afterwards and my days as a neo-Nazi came to an end.

Maryanne was another one of my fantasy girls. She had just started teaching at Loughlin and came on as a real hardcase until the guys finally saw through her. After that, they put her through the wringer. My big angle, going back to Religion class, was being able to use class time for my ‘special project’, which was working on one of my manuscripts, Carole and Butch. I met with her on that and she agreed to let me work outside of class in the school newspaper office, The Loughlinite. They had even given me a key to go in and use the typewriters.

The novel was about a juvenile delinquent falling in love with a neighborhood girl and going off along with friends on an interstate crime spree. Maryanne would meet with me once a week after class and she would spend time editing the manuscript. She always wore dresses to class and had an awesome pair of legs. When she took off her shoes while reading my work, my heart skipped a beat! Of course, she was way out of my class but it didn’t keep me from fantasizing. I went back to Loughlin for a visit with Al Catraz when he first joined the Spoiler as a high school senior, and she seemed pleased to see me when I stopped by. Of course, I was as from another planet at that stage, so that was the end of my aspiration for more Montesano time.

Ironically enough, it was Maryanne who kept me from getting class honors in English upon graduation. When she came in playing hardball, I got hit with a mid-80’s score during my first semester under her. It was hard to believe that the one low score could have cost me so dearly, but when all was said and done, it was enough to drag my score down enough to lose the top ranking. It would have been overcompensation for her and the Department to have helped solicit my manuscript as an upcoming young author, but that didn’t happen either.

Looking back at the Jensen incident, it did a lot to help reconcile the xenophobia of my earlier days that I had mentioned. People tend to fear things they don’t understand, and in demonizing different races, religions and creeds they turn them into larger-than-life bogeymen. Once you start trying to understand the other person you start realizing how much you actually have in common with them. For one, the biggest bullies are the people who are the most insecure. They feel they have to overwhelm others in order to gain their respect. This is why lots of minorities group together in gangs, using the power of numbers to assert themselves amidst the majority. When white people feel threatened, they also seek out those of like mind in order to retaliate against those they are afraid of. Once I learned that black people were no threat to me, my xenophobia was cured.

Another altercation with a black fellow helped improve my perspective and self-image after the Jensen affair. Roddy Hasson, the son of the Negress cashier at the Cobble Hill Theatre, was making big noise one night after having words with Lea that continued on with Jesus Figueroa as the three were hanging out at the theatre. Apparently Jesus escalated the issue into a question of messing with Lea’s big brother, and Roddy announced he was more than glad to face the challenge. Needless to say, within minutes we were throwing down right in the middle of Butler Street. It was a matter of one being unable to fight and the other glad he couldn’t, and after about a half hour we agreed on a draw. It made me feel better about the Jensen loss and helped me improve my position on race relations. Guys like Mike and Roddy proved to me that young men of character came in all races, colors and creeds.

(To be continued...)

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Loughlin Days?

 Another new arrival on the block was the Galvan Family, and they would have an even greater impact with lasting repercussions. Ismael Galvan was a skinny little kid who I nicknamed Gopher during the Summer of ’68 because of his resemblance to a cartoon character who wore a baseball cap and sunglasses like he did. He liked to play catch with Mark and we soon began putting stickball games together. He had a short fuse, though, and one time he came at me and I ended up bitch-slapping him. He disappeared after that and I didn’t see him again until next summer, when he and I joined forces to create the Butler Street Jets football club as well as becoming the first BSWC Tag Team Champions.

By the time Fall ’68 rolled around I was in the midst of another personality crisis. John was going to John Jay High School and spoke little about it. Looking back, he may have been dealing with as much turmoil as I, and resorted to bullying and pranksterism back in the ‘hood as a way of coping. I was still channeling the Sheik (and sometimes his manager, the garrulous Grand Wizard) as one of the real ‘characters’ in my freshman class, with a fun-loving Irishman named John Hickey acting as my foil. On the home front, Harold and I were still friends but it was evident that we were beginning to drift in different directions as our tastes and attitudes grew more adolescent.

John Hickey and I hit it off from the beginning, but unfortunately our friendship didn’t develop any further than constantly ribbing one another. I also made friends with a black kid, Mike Hanson, who learned of my xenophobia during a couple of classroom discussions and backed off as a result. He embraced the black activist movement thereafter and left some disturbing remarks on his senior yearbook profile which I hope weren’t inspired by yours truly at any time. Ribbing was part and parcel of the growing-up process at Loughlin, and one of my fiercest ribbing pals, Ivan Zamora, also became a good friend. He actually came out to visit Butler Street once though he had his own life and the twain was not going to meet with us.

Two other good friends were Rich Mc Curry and Remus Labutis, both of who were hockey players at Loughlin. Rich came out and played a marathon game one afternoon with the Stars on Columbia Street. Remus invited me to his neighborhood for a highly competitive (though non-hitting) game, after which we watched the Rangers on TV with his Dad. I made quite a few friends during my time at Loughlin, and only wished I had been more involved with campus activities that would have created fonder memories and a richer history of scholastic accomplishment. Unfortunately, most of my time was consumed by the Jets, but my stardom on the street far exceeded anything I could have achieved at Loughlin. Looking back, I can see how the Lord made everything work out to perfection according to His purpose.

Another close friend was Pete Halpin, a second-generation Irishman who had a fantastic personality, an incredible character and a serious drinking problem. We got together during my senior year and he came to the house a few times for drinking sessions, football games and just hanging out together. Unfortunately, his problem was far greater than anyone suspected, and the last couple of times I saw him on campus he was totally plastered. I never knew what brought his demons on, and I only hope he found victory through Christ and is enjoying a happy and prosperous life.

(To be continued...)