Saturday, March 29, 2014

My Hockey Life?

As it turned out, the worst was yet to come. I made some inquiries at St. Francis College during my senior year about their hockey team, and the guidance counselor hooked me up with their team which met weekly at the Long Island Coliseum where the Islanders played. Let me tell you, as badly as the Isles stunk in their pre-Cup days, they would do nothing compared to what BT Superstar would do during his tryout.

I’ll never forget it was Israel who drove me out there on an hour-long haul for which he asked not a cent. He watched in embarrassment as I went out on my figure skates and did my flip-flop rubber ankle routine. Unbeknownst to me, one of my schoolmates, Robert Lacey, was in the audience as well. He was a big strapping Irishman who reminded me a lot of Bobby Orr during our Loughlin hockey games. Lacey decided to inquire and, as in turned out, became a welcome addition to the Terriers’ hockey club.

The difference in my second coming on ice was the sheer desperation with which I approached. I was in my early fifties and knew that I had a snowball’s chance in hell of going anywhere, but realized that I had never had a chance to find out where the playing skill the Lord had provided could have taken me. The difference was that at 240 pounds, with a 350-pound bench press and a 485-pound squat, as well as two brown/black belts to my credit, intimidation was going to be a non-factor in my opponents’ regard. I would have broken anyone across my knee as easily as a hockey stick. Unfortunately, everyone saw me coming and decided they did not want or need that in their fantasy hockey microcosm. After a season and a half of play at the Waukonis Ice Center, both players and officials alike decided to blackball me from their Mickey Mouse league.

What will forever stick in my craw was the weasel who did me in, Joe Lynch. He had been sucking up to Islanders’ legend Ken Morrow, who lived in the area and came to the rink regularly. I was dying to meet Morrow, inasmuch as the Isles were our heroes during their Stanley Cup reign and I knew everything about them, even after twenty years. I also knew that Morrow could assess my skills and give me advice as to whether I could create my own miracle on ice just as he and the US Olympic Team did against the Russians in 1980. Unfortunately, Lynch was insanely jealous of my ability, largely due to our closeness in age. He was a beat-up bag of shit who could barely skate, while I had his entire crew hearing skates behind them when I was on the ice. Lynch railroaded me out of the league, along with any chances I had of meeting Morrow and fulfilling a possible destiny. Que sera, sera.

I always knew deep down that brute force is, was, and will always be the deciding factor in all sports. The bigger and stronger team or individual will always win provided there is not a major discrepancy in the level of skill. Back then, I knew that I would get my arse handed to me for playing the kind of hockey game I did on Columbia Street. One of Dad’s friends from the Veteran Boxers actually sat next to Bobby Orr on a plane trip. They hit it off well, and he later told Dad that he might have been able to arrange having me sent to one of Orr’s training camps. I realized this was not an option because I didn’t have the necessary skills or the muscle to back it up. Over two decades later, I developed both in my own time, at a point in my life when most of what I had left was time.

It was too bad as far as football was concerned. I was an above average quarterback in that I had developed the skill of my hero Joe Namath in reading defenses and calling audibles in a day and age when it was virtually unheard-of. I also had a great shotgun short pass that Manny had helped me refine out on the street. I was also a decent runner though not good enough to make the Loughlin track team. My long pass was average though I could always put the ball on the money within my range. On defense I played middle linebacker, and I could read offenses plus make people pay for coming down my lane as a headhunting tackler. I was also a great pass defender and was the one guy Ismael and Spook Guzman could not beat. Of course, it was not meant to be, but I’m sure I could’ve contributed heavily to any football team had the opportunity presented itself.

As a hockey player I had above average skills in every facet of the game. Regrettably, as time went on, my size and strength gains came in forfeit of my speed. When I returned to Columbia Street hockey in ’75 at 185 pounds, my days as a speedster were long over. I was forced to depend on my hitting ability and my skills as a shooter and playmaker to compensate. Unfortunately for all concerned, I was carrying forty extra pounds and they packed a brutal wallop. When I took my last shot at the game in 2009, I came in at 240 pounds and was the terror of the league. It was a different day and age, however, and this carnivore got tossed out on his butt.

Basketball was one game that helped us stay in top shape, even though we were far too short to make it count anywhere outside of the schoolyard. I fancied myself another Pistol Pete Maravich, having incorporated some of my hockey moves in eluding defenders while dribbling. We were all at about the same skill level, and our games were highly competitive though I daresay that Ismael and I won way more games than Israel and Mark did. In all fairness, Spook Guzman was probably the best of us, though I fought him tooth and nail in every game (basketball or otherwise) that we played.

(To be continued...) 

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Finding My Libido?

It was about this time that I came to terms with my manhood and my sexuality. Let me start out by saying that, as an artist, Manny was not ashamed of exposing the female body. He had one of his nude paintings over our living room TV set at 14 Butler, which was the first thing one spotted when they came through the apartment door. When we moved to our new house, Manny chose the small vestibule between the living room and kitchen to hang his Playboy calendar. Unfortunately it was just off to the left of the bathroom door (and I’m glad Pastor Phillips never needed to use the restroom during his visit one time!). He also kept a few adult mags by his bedside, which I eagerly flipped through when my parents were out. My Mom never had a problem with these, being quite liberal in the sex department in her own right.

I’m not placing blame here since, quite frankly, the Butler Aces contributed heavily to my education in the sex department, as did my advanced reading skills that allowed me to go through the entire collection of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. What I will say is that the home should be the sanctuary and the primary learning place where a child finds guidance in avoiding the evils of the wicked world. You can’t shield a child from what is on the street, but you can teach them the difference between right and wrong. You leave enough temptation lying around the house, and a kid will eventually go outside to find where the real deal is available.

 The Figueroa sisters were far too street-wise to let anyone get past first base. I had a brief interlude with a sweet Italian girl named Luann Pellegrino on my thirteenth birthday which got me to third base but, no cigar. Loaded with testosterone and surging with hormone imbalances, I was looking for female companionship and found plenty of it at the Freehold retreat. I came home with a couple of hot phone numbers, and within days the hunt was on.

Dinelia Cruise was Nitza’s older sister, and we took to chatting on the phone for long hours when I began calling the number given to me at camp. We arranged a blind date a couple of weeks later, and Ismael was delighted that he’d gotten the better of the deal, or so he thought.  Dinny was about twenty pounds overweight and had a faint darkening on her upper lip that stuck out to me like a sore thumb at the time. Unfortunately for Ismael, Nitza dropped him like a hot rock, and I tried to get back with her behind Dinny’s back to no avail.

Dinny and I started hanging out together and I spent lots of time ribbing her. She was dead serious about losing weight, though, and one afternoon she was at a Jets’ football game when suddenly it was pouring rain. Everyone ran home but Dinny and I, and I had my arm around her in a gentlemanly way. When we got home, suddenly I saw her in a way I’d never seen her before. With that long wet hair, that rain-scrubbed face and her sopping clothes hugging her figure, she turned into Isabel Sarli. At once our friendship evolved into a torrid affair, and we lost our virginity together one morning shortly thereafter.

Unfortunately Dinny’s conscience began bothering her, and she was distraught that I had told her I was destined to marry a German girl (which I did, twice). She had become friends with Lea, who invited her to spend a weekend that promised to closely resemble Goodbye Columbus. She called at the last minute to tell me she didn’t want to see me anymore, and I blew her off with injured pride without even asking why. We never spoke or saw one another again, and I can only surmise it was the Lord’s will. I’m sure she grew up to be a wonderful Christian woman and I pray all turned out for the best.

My athletic abilities were really starting to blossom though my big mouth (a byproduct of my chronic insecurity) tended to quench the admiration of more than a few onlookers. To be fair, I must admit that I had a realistic perspective on my limits and never pushed the envelope farther than I was able to. For one thing, I was painfully aware that at 147 pounds, I was nowhere near the competitive level at Loughlin that I was on Butler Street. In other words, I was the proverbial big fish in the small pond. I knew that my football skills were insufficient to pursue a career on any level, and I gave up my wrestling dream until fifteen years later. I had hoped that hockey would have been my salvation, but my hopes were dashed during a humiliating tryout with the St. Francis Terriers hockey team during my senior year. I would not resolve that issue until returning to the ice over thirty-five years later.

Actually, my first experience with ice hockey was quite paradoxical. First off, my Mom and I decided to buy me a pair of figure skates which I only got to use once or twice at the Prospect Park skating rink, which was the only place the Butler Street Blues ever got to test their skill. My ignorance was so comprehensive that I did not even know the skates needed to be sharpened. Somehow I got away with a couple of sessions at the Park, most likely due to the fact that the ice was so bad that any sort of blades would have sufficed. It was a couple of years later as the Osborns passed through our lives that I got a taste of pond hockey, and as I said, I had no idea what I would be capable of or could expect out on Long Island with the Terriers.

Susan and Pete Osborne bought the Sosas’ home at 16 Butler Street, and they were quite a sight indeed. They were prototypical yuppies, the type who had probably forsaken hippiedom in setting out on a vision quest in the business world. Lea got friendly with them and began babysitting for their son Jono, then their newborn daughter shortly thereafter. I got chatty with Susan as we had a couple of political conversations, though I quickly found we were on opposite sides of the fence. I made pals with Jono, and he soon became the new Blues mascot.

Susan had quite a pair of legs, a shapely figure and a sharp tongue to match. She spoke her mind on no uncertain terms and became a witch after Tabitha was born when loiterers made enough noise to disrupt the baby’s naptime. I recall Kenny Reyes wanting to throttle her on numerous occasions after tongue-lashings but nothing came of it. Nevertheless, the Osborns had enough of Butler Street in time and decided to relocate upstate to Garrison NY. They bought a beautiful home with its own duck pond on the acreage and invited me to come visit. I took the Amtrak out there and got my first taste of pond hockey that winter.

Let me tell you, on the Osborns’ duck pond my visions of hockey fame and fortune came to life with a vengeance. I was skating like a fiend, pulling all my twists, turns and pirouettes with little ado. A few of Jono’s friends playing with us were enthralled and could not wait to see what I would be capable of doing at the big neighborhood pick-up game on the frozen lake that next day. I went to sleep in fantasyland that night, ready to set their hicktown on its ear.

Let me tell you, pride goeth before a fall, and with my unsharpened blades causing my ankles to buckle, I did a lot of falling that next day. It was the best ice I had ever skated on, like a big sheet of glass, and my blades slid across them like butter knives. I wouldn’t look that bad again until over thirty-five years later in Kansas City, and it was about as humiliating an experience as I thought I could endure.

(To be continued...)

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Born Again?

BSWC came back to life in the summer of 1970. I had drifted away from the Wilkies during that time just as the Yodels had distanced themselves from me for our differences towards oncoming maturity. Once it grew too hot to play football, I had the idea of having a wrestling tournament to select a new Butler Street Wrestling Club champion. I can’t remember who came out on top between Mark and Ismael, but Israel and I made short work of them going into the finals. At long last I got to unleash the Iron Deathlock, and even Israel’s great strength was no match for my great and terrible hold. I had become the fourth BSWC champion, a title I would hold for thirty-four years until my father’s death in 2004.

Dean Street Baptist Church became our new gathering place as Samuel was determined to bring us into his new fold. There didn’t seem to be any way around it if we wanted to keep the Jets together; Samuel hauled the boys off for every church meeting, no questions asked. After my Catholic beliefs crashed and burned during my freshman year at Loughlin, I wasn’t against the idea of getting my religious beliefs back on track. Besides, my Mom was a Baptist, so my parents’ mixed marriage helped to facilitate the transition.

Pastor Earl Phillips was a pretty good fellow as preachers went, but I don’t think he was aptly suited to run a crew in a Brooklyn tenement area. He was a Canadian, and he had a passion for the great outdoors, which benefitted us on one great camping trip he took us on. He just couldn’t understand the urban adolescent mind, and though he tried hard he just couldn’t win us over. His help wasn’t much better, with Bob Fernandez (a borderline sissy) and Jack Wacker, an old-time Bible thumper, as his right-hand men. And, of course, Samuel, who was champing at the bit to start his own crew and be rid of Phillips.

One thing to remember was that Samuel had his own crew at Strong Place Baptist Church (the same street where I hooked up with the Wilkies). He was not happy to have lost his building for whatever reason, but he didn’t take it with the Christian spirit required of a pastor. Instead of deferring to Phillips, there was an undercurrent of competition that was not lost on the rest of us. We were Sam’s Kids, and in our shallowmindedness, we constantly poked fun at what we saw as the ‘competition’ at every opportunity. It’s easy enough to blame Sam, but I believe that Earl was just a bad coach on a bad team.

They certainly did try their very best, and at one point they succeeded far beyond their expectations. They set us up for a trip to a Youth Conference in Freehold NJ under the auspices of Daniel Hawthorne, who had invited a few other Spanish-speaking churches to attend. It was at this rally that I was ‘born again’ as a Christian soldier.

Hawthorne was a true leader and a figurehead in the Hispanic church network. Though he was an Anglo, he spoke good Spanish (with his American accent) and could deliver a strong sermon in either language. The way things worked out, Samuel had turned the Strong Place church (relocated to Court Street) over to Omar Reyes, who ceded it in turn to Hawthorne about a year later. At first we bumped heads with Hawthorne at the camp, but when he took over Strong Place Church we developed a mutual respect. He understood street kids much better than Phillips. He didn’t try to criticize or judge us, and we respected that. Moreover, he knew that change comes over time, and it certainly did for all of us.

Anyway, we went up there with our wise-ass Jets attitude, and quickly set ourselves apart from the rest. What turned into an enormous advantage was football. We began recruiting the kids in Cabin C where we were assigned, and soon we had a kickass team assembled. One thing in our favor that there was a large number of soccer players on board who had no problem running for long periods of time chasing loose balls. We taught them basic patterns and catching techniques, and soon I had an arsenal of weapons available for our pickup games.

Hawthorne had arranged a number of athletic competitions during the week, and closing them out with an American football game was a natural. I’m not sure how it came to pass, most likely because of my big mouth, but it turned out that they matched Cabin C against a team of recruits from the rest of the camp. This not only included campers but the adult counselors! I was so full of piss and vinegar I cared less, but at game time, I realized I was in for the challenge of my young career.

Poor Israel ended up the worse for wear at center, having to spend the afternoon blocking Oscar Reyes. He was one of the youth ministers, a lanky heavyweight who was after me like a cat on a rat. I spent half the game picking my ass off the grass until I finally decided the only way out was to put the ball in the air as soon as Israel hiked it to me. This enabled Ismael and my other high-flyers to go cherry-picking throughout the second half, giving us the game with a decisive scoring edge. Ismael and the team tossed me into the swimming pool afterwards, and I was quite the big man on the campground.

Being in a coed environment allowed my star to shine as never before, and soon there were girls around whose attention I could attract. One of these was Nitza Cruz, a beautiful Puerto Rican girl from Broadway Baptist Church who sat with her friends at our lunch table. Nitza and I got chummy, though she was very shy and not much on a conversational level. We exchanged numbers and made plans to hook up after the retreat, but as it turned out, I ended up with two romances for the price of Nitza.

Martha Suarez was a lovely Ecuadorian girl who had just come over to America along with her extended family, and was living in the Bronx where they attended Fremont Baptist Church. She was at the Youth Camp at Freehold NJ along with her sister, her cousin Clara, and other members of their church’s youth group. We got to talking one morning at prayer meeting, and it was almost a prelude to what would happen with Neysa Flores decades later. We ended up taking a long walk down the road together and ran smack into Mr. Hawthorne in his station wagon. He reminded us in no uncertain terms that camp rules confined us to the campgrounds, and, no parejas (pairs) allowed! Naturally, that didn’t keep us from bringing our groups together for the evening fellowship. I had Nitza sitting to my right and Martha to my left, and though I was the envy of every guy in the place, Nitza decided to bow out of the competition and left Martha as the last girl standing.

On the last night of the retreat, Julio Nieves delivered a tremendous sermon in a last-minute attempt to bring us to Jesus. He spoke no English, but whatever he said acted as a Holy Ghost-driven battering ram to the heart. I remember getting all choked up and asking Martha to help me along, and the next thing I knew I was standing before the bonfire giving my soul to Christ.

There are defining moments in one’s life that act as clear milestones along their charted course, and unquestionably this was the most important in mine. It was at this juncture that I considered myself born again, and though my baptism at Dean Street was somewhat of a charade, it was a confirmation of what had happened in Freehold. It would be about two decades before I underwent a truly profound spiritual transformation that actually surpassed it. At that point in time, however, I was on the rocky road and determined that I would not stumble to the wayside.

As you will see, there were quite a few pitfalls that helped define the journey of a lifetime.