Super Adventure Saturdays

The Crawling Eye. One of the many mishaps of the dawn of the nuclear age…..

There was not a specific prompt for the Chatham Memoir Writing Group for last Friday, which means we can write about anything. My friend, and creative writing group colleague, John Chamberlain and I were talking about old movies, which genres we enjoyed and the fact that certain independent TV networks broadcast many movies of the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s on a nightly and weekly basis. I recalled when I was a kid how my friends and I would get together on Saturdays and play act the action movies we had seen. The more I thought about our conversation the more I liked the idea of writing about the fun we had. My memoir follows.

Super Adventure Theater/Super Adventure Saturday

When I was a kid, one of the advantages of living in close proximity to New York City was the fact that we could get seven TV channels.  In addition to the big three networks, there were three independent broadcasters and a public TV station.  One of the indie stations, Channel 9, would broadcast a Saturday morning program called Super Adventure Theater.  Hosted by a guy named Claude Kirchner, who for some reason dressed up as a circus ringmaster, he would introduce classic, and not so classic movies from the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s.  There was a type of rotation of genres – westerns, sci-fi, horror, comedy, war, adventure, crime, no romance films – hence the name Super Adventure.  

Claude Kirchner, host of many kids TV shows and Super Adventure Theater. Photo from WOR-TV, Channel 9, New York City

For us kids, a good Super Adventure movie led a super adventure Saturday of play.  We would analyze the channel guides on Friday to see what was going to be broadcast on Saturday morning then establish the scenarios we would re-enact.  “OK guys, it’s King Kong!  Dress the part and meet at the Cherry Hill woods at 10:30.”  Adjacent to the Cherry Hill playground was a large pie shaped wooded lot that would serve as the setting for many of our re-enactments, especially jungle or wilderness type settings.  Although we enjoyed the Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello and Olson & Johnson comedies, you just couldn’t re-enact a comedy sketch.  It was more fun trying to outwit a giant gorilla or bank robbers.  

For some reason the adventure movies of the ‘40’s and ‘50’s seemed to feature quicksand.  It had an influence on my grandmother because she always cautioned my brothers and I to be on the lookout for quicksand if we played somewhere other than in the backyard of our house.  Some of the trails through the Cherry Hill woods had sandy patches – not quicksand, mind you – but would suit the purpose in our imagination.  With the advent of the nuclear age, there were a plethora of movies released in the 1950’s that employed the gimmick of a nuclear accident being the catalyst for the creation of giant ants, giant crabs, crawling eyes, a 50 foot woman, melting glaciers that released carnivorous dinosaurs.  With the exception of the 50 foot woman, we encountered all of these things in the Cherry Hill woods.  

Horror movies were also fun to re-enact and it was fairly easy to recruit someone to play Wolfman or Dracula.  One of my friends wanted to be the Invisible Man – “pretend you don’t see me as I try to throttle you” – but that didn’t work.  It was hard to find someone to be Frankenstein though.  He lurched along slowly with extended arms, kids wanted to be something that ran or flew like a bat.  We tried to talk one of our friends into playing Frankenstein, we pointed out with his square head and peculiar haircut, he resembled the monster.  He took exception, got upset and told his mother.  No more Frankenstein re-enacting.

There was always that one kid who was so fixated on a single character that he always wanted to be that character.  That one kid was my friend Chris, who lived in the house behind my grandparents.  He loved Tarzan and always wanted to be Tarzan, no matter what the scenario.  It taxed our imaginations to fit Tarzan into unfamiliar situations; Tarzan and cowboys, Tarzan thwarting Al Capone, Tarzan fighting a T-Rex with a sling-shot and Bowie knife.  Chris would actually swing on a rope hanging from a tree branch and scream that Tarzan yell.  This never worked well and at times we would end our re-enacting in disgust and go play kickball or baseball.

This nonsense came to an end in rather dramatic fashion for Chris.  We were actually playing a scenario suitable for the Tarzan character, a jungle setting involving archeologists who discovered some ancient, bejeweled statues.  Chris, as Tarzan, was to swing in and rescue an archeologist, played by a friend named Kathy, from quicksand.  Kathy was on her knees in the middle of one of those sandy patches, pretending to be sinking.  Chris began his rope swing, emitting his Tarzan call.  The call became a scream when the branch his rope was attached to broke.  He landed on his back, still gripping the rope, a cloud of dust from the fake quicksand rising over his prostrate form.  Astonished, we stood with mouths agape.  The wind was knocked from him and he was gasping “Help”.  Regaining his breath he stood up slowly, a little shaky on his feet.  He muttered, “I quit, I’m going home.”

Although he continued to be part of our Saturday Super Adventures, he never played Tarzan again.  Instead he he became Robin Hood.  All the time, Robin Hood.  Robin Hood and cowboys, Robin Hood and gangsters in Chicago, Robin Hood and Wolfman, dinosaurs, martians, giant crawling eyes.  Robin Hood.  Robbin’ us of our fun on a Super Adventure Saturday.

Ernie Stricsek

Chatham Memoir Writers Group

May 26, 2023

First Real World Job

The prompt for the Chatham Writers Group last Monday was to write about a summer job. My story follows.

My First Real World Job

I started working my first job the summer after I turned nine, delivering the Bergen Record.  For the next five years, neither rain, nor snow, nor sun prevented me from completing my rounds, six days a week.  A stint at McDonald’s followed and that proved to be a fun job because just about all of the people working there were friends of mine from high school.  The only thing I didn’t like about working there were the days the Sergeant of the Lower Swatara Police Department would show up for his free dinner.  When I was first introduced to him, he shook my hand, looked me straight in the eye and said, “Boy, when you see my cruiser pull into the parking lot, there better be a Filet O’ Fish, an order of fries and a chocolate shake sittin’ on this desk (the restaurant manager’s) when I walk in.  Yeah, you do that and me ‘n you will get along just fine.” He was a real piece of shit.  Ironically, he would dress up as Santa Clause each year and greet kids at the Christmas Tree Farm, the farm that I frequented in the dead of night seeking trees for special clients, but I’ve already told that story.  My next job, and one that I would work at for the next three years, was staffing the booth of the Harrisburg International Airport Parking Lot.  I sat in air-conditioned luxury collecting parking fees, all cash, no charge cards yet.  On occasion I would have to let an inebriated businessperson know their briefcase was still on the roof of their car and sometimes I would have to call the airport PD when some scofflaw would race past the booth without paying.

My first real world job was the one that I worked the summer between my senior year of high school and freshman year of college, assembling 40-foot truck trailers for the Fruehauf Trailer Corporation.  I had been somewhat insulated from the harsh realities of the working world in my previous jobs, but the dog-eat-dog environment at Fruehauf made me feel like the proverbial deer in the headlights.  My job interview went well, the people who talked to me seemed pretty nice.  I was hired on the spot, most likely because I was breathing, and I had assured everyone that I was not going to quit in August to go to college. I was instructed to buy a pair of steel toe work boots and a hammer.   Reporting to work the following Monday, I shuffled into a small auditorium-like room with about 50 other people and took a seat in a folding chair.  The moment everyone was settled, a bowling ball with arms, legs, and a crew cut head barreled into the room.  After introducing himself as Mr. Geib (I went to school with his brother) he began to berate the new hires.  Anyone with hair longer than his was addressed as “Hippie”, recent high school grads were called “fresh meat”.  He especially doled out his malevolence on those he perceived as Hippies, accusing them of having their brains turned to mush by constant marijuana consumption and they better pin up their ponytails or suffer the consequences of them getting scalped by some piece of moving machinery.  He predicted by the end of the first week, of the 50 people in the room, only 15 would remain.  He was right.  I need to mention Mr. Geib was the HR manager.  Curiously there were no employee grievances. Everyone was so pleasant at Fruehauf.  A co-worker had strongly urged me to take my hammer home at the end of my shift.  I didn’t have a toolbox, if I left it laying out in the open, “Someone will rip it off, there’s a lot of assholes working here.”  As I approached the gates that exited to the parking lot, one of those “assholes” I was warned about told the security guard I was trying to leave the premises with “company property”.  I was supposed to have a note from my supervisor stating the hammer was indeed mine, a policy I was unaware of, and one I was now violating, as was stated on the deviant behavior form the security guard issued to me, “With a copy going to your shift foreman. You will be dealt with tomorrow.”  My hammer was clearly not one supplied to me by the company, I believe Fruehauf issued Stanley hammers to employees once they were past their 90 day probation period.  My hammer was an inexpensive TruTemper acquired from the Middletown Merchandise Mart, referred to as “The Big M” by us locals.  I was not dealt with severely, my supervisor apologized for not making me aware of the policy and gave me a tool pass the next day.

I was assigned to the refrigerator trailer assembly department as part of a two-person team fastening panels in the nose of the trailer.  There was almost no air movement in the nose and by the end of the second week I had sweated away 15 pounds.  I was supposed to report to my college football team in mid-August weighing between 220 – 225 pounds, but I weighed in at 198 on the first day of training camp.  198 pounds, I need to go back and work in the nose of a trailer for a few months.  But back to the work environment.  It was hot and loud, profane, medium profane and super profane.  Some people were very eloquent in their profanity.  In the employee caste system, the color of one’s hard hat revealed where they fell in the hierarchy.  White hard hats were the managers, from department level to executive level, shift supervisors wore brown hard hats, welders wore green, painters wore blue, maintenance staff orange, and the worker bees yellow.  All supervisors and managers had to wear white shirts and a dark necktie.  The manager of my department fell into the eloquently profane conversation group and would walk along the production line swearing at the teams toiling inside the trailers.  “Lazy bastards, lazy hippie bastards (it was 1972), lazy F’ing hippie bastards, dope fiends, and stupid asses” we’re his trademark berate lines.  His florid complexion and gin blossom nose stood out in contrast to his brilliantly white shirt.  When he finished verbally kicking all the yellow hats and went back to his office, our shift supervisor would come by and apologize for his boss’s behavior and tell us to pay him no mind, he was either drunk or “bad hungover”.  

I got pretty good at my job and earned the respect of my co-workers.  After missing one day of work because of the major flooding caused by Hurricane Agnes, they were glad to see me return and hoped my family didn’t experience any storm damage.  One hot, humid day in mid-July, my boss called me over and asked, “What the ‘f’ are you doing here?”  I thought I had done something wrong.  He clarified by telling me I didn’t belong there and that I better make enough money so I could go to college and not work in such a “shit-hole”.  My co-workers had begun to echo his comments.  Two weeks after my boss had queried me, I gave him my notice.  I would be leaving for college in mid-August to report for football training camp.

He smiled a wry grin and said, “You bastard.” High praise from my supervisor.

Hammer Post Script

My hammer drew a lot of attention on my first day at Fruehauf Trailer. In addition to being accused of stealing it, my team leader heaped a load of scorn on it. Just before we walked into the trailer to start attaching wall panels, he said, “Let me see your hammer.” I handed it over to him. He examined it like a jewelry appraiser and began to laugh, “Hah! What a piece of shit hammer! This won’t last two hours in here, and I ain’t gonna loan you one neither!” He proceeded to wave it at the other members in the work crew, who took turns expressing their opinions on the apparent low quality of the work tool. Well, they were right in a manner of speaking. The Big M, TruTemper hammer didn’t last 2 hours, it would survive many projects for the next 51 years and is still in use as of this writing, as evidenced below.

Ernie Stricsek

The Chatham Writers Group

May 22, 2023

Adventures in Yard Work

Weeding in Western Pennsylvania

Adventures In The Yard

I scramble over the crest of the hill, trailing a spool of electrical wire behind me and drop to the ground next to my wife.  I cut the wire and attach the loose ends to the terminals on a small box.  

“Clear?” asks my wife.

I raise my head to peer over the crest of the hill, “Clear!”

“Fire in hole!”, shouts my wife and twists a handle on the small box. 

There’s a muffled pop and we wait a few seconds for any dust to settle.  We stand and walk over the crest of the hill to survey what destruction we have wrought.  It’s heartbreaking.  There are a few cracks in the ground extending from the hole where the stick of dynamite had been placed.  Rising above the sparse patch of grass is the dandelion we had hoped to eliminate.  Swaying back and forth in the gentle breeze, it taunts us, like a symbolic middle finger.  “Hah! Is that the best you’ve got?”, it seems to say.  My wife and I look at each other, steely determination etched on our faces, “More dynamite!”, we both shout.

Okay, so maybe I am exaggerating a bit here, but the hard clay soil made doing any yard work at our western Pennsylvania home a daunting task.  We didn’t have to resort to dynamite to remove dandelions, in Pittsburghese “Dandy Lions”, or other weeds.  But one couldn’t just yank them out of the ground, you would end up with just a handful of weed tops. Even after a rainfall, the weed roots would remain steadfastly imbedded in the ground, essentially needing to be dug out.

Speaking about digging, the clay soil was near impervious to the sharp bladed spade.  Within a year of moving to our house, we began a series of landscape projects involving moving some existing trees and shrubs and planting new ones.  Compared to getting rid of the weeds, it was surprisingly easy to dig up an existing item, planting it was another story.  Once a new planting site was determined, the soil would have to be loosened by chopping at it with the blade of the shovel, then scooping up and dumping the loose clay.  I wore the point off of one shovel digging in this manner, turning it into a flat bladed spade.  I broke two other shovels. To make the job of digging easier we would loosen the soil with the sledgehammer end of a maul and a pointed pry bar, then scoop out the clay.  We eventually invested in a rototiller.  Before replanting anything, we would amend the soil with peat moss to encourage root growth.

Digging in this soil would uncover some interesting artifacts from the region’s past history.  We would find coal, ranging in size from small chips to large chunks.  When we closed on our house, we were urged purchase a peculiar item called “mine subsidence insurance”.  From the Bureau of Mines, we discovered our home rested about 350 feet above the abandoned shafts of the Penn Mining Company which had closed in 1923.  Coal mining had been so extensive in the region, there were abandoned mines everywhere.  On occasion, the old shafts would collapse, shifting the soil above it.  Roads would be closed and buildings condemned due to severe subsidence. We would constantly be on the lookout for big cracks in our yard or, even more ominously, in our foundation.  Between the clay and the coal, I believe we could have had a strip mining and pottery conglomerate.  

An interesting topographical feature of the region surrounding Pittsburgh is it is almost impossible to find any land that is naturally flat.  The nearby community of Level Green was anything but level.  Most of the flat areas of land were man-made creations, and these efforts sometimes had a deleterious impact.  For instance, our neighbors had decided they wanted an in-ground pool.  All of the homes at our end of the street had about a 20-degree slope so quite a bit of fill and leveling was needed to make the pool area flat.  When the project was completed, the new slope of their yard caused rainwater to flow down into our yard and give us a pool as well.  It also caused the roots of two trees and several shrubs to rot.  We were unable to plant anything in a 6’ x 15’ section of the berm we had created.  

It was tough work maintaining and caring for this hardscrabble yard, but we eventually had it looking quite nice.  After my wife had detailed the efforts in maintaining our yard to a co-worker, her colleague said, “Wow!  How many acres of land to you have?”  To which my wife answered, “Oh, about a quarter of an acre.”  Size wise, it was the smallest yard we ever had.  But work wise per square inch, it was the biggest yard we ever owned.

Ernie Stricsek

The Chatham Memoir Group

May 19, 2023

Ode To Joy

Wendy’s baked potato with shredded cheddar cheese. Plays a prominent role in my story.

Getting behind in posts again. This one was written for the Chatham Memoir Group prompt to write a story with a joyful, or happy ending.

Ode To Joy

It’s a Friday night.  My wife, Barb, asks, “What time is it?”

I look at my watch and reply, “11:45.” As in 11:45 PM.

“I’d really like a baked potato.  Would you like one too?  Do you think you can make it to Wendy’s before it closes?”

The answer to Barb’s question comes in the form of screeching tires as I zoom out of the driveway and leave a trail of burning rubber smoke as I race to get to Wendy’s before they close at midnight.  I’m exaggerating a bit here.  The car in this memoir is the 1981 Buick Skylark I wrote about previously.  The four cylinder, four speed stick shift model was an engineering marvel that was designed and built as the antithesis to the word “cool”.  The only rubber that would be left on the road for this car was if one of the wheels fell off.  But I did race, rather chug, over to the Wendy’s and arrived with 7 minutes to spare to get our baked potatoes.  The look on the faces of the crew members, who had begun to clean up before closing, was priceless, dripping with disgust.  I was happy to have parked the Buick in a well-lit area, or I may have been waylaid by a Wendy’s employee.

It was the Summer of 1984, Barb was pregnant with our first child and the pregnancy made her a real night owl.  The Stop & Shop near us was open 24 hours, it is amazing how few people are shopping at 4:00 AM.  Barb mostly shopped there alone I did tag along a couple of times.  The Pathmark grocery store was also open 24 hours, but it was quite the opposite of the Stop & Shop.  We made one 4:00 AM shopping trip there and felt like we had walked onto the set of a Fellini movie.  People were just around hanging around, talking in the aisles, not shopping.  There were a group of teenagers playing in the seasonal goods department, playing basketball with beach balls.  I never saw anyone dribble an inflatable ball so deftly, even to this day. I think they were all there to enjoy the air-conditioned store on a sticky summer night.

The craving of the Wendy’s baked potato with butter and shredded cheddar cheese also began that summer.  We became regulars at the one on Dixwell Avenue in Hamden, close to our home, and I made several visits in the minutes before closing.  The crew at the store began to expect my frantic entrance and began to greet me with smiles and ask how Barb was doing.  I think if Edward Hopper were still alive, he would have made another Nighthawks painting set in a Wendy’s.  

Through that summer into the fall the baked potato cravings led us to many Wendy’s along the I-95 and I-91 corridors in Connecticut.  On a mid-September trip to visit Barb’s parents in Vermont, a baked potato craving led us to a Wendy’s in Enfield, CT, right off the highway.  After satisfying the craving, we resumed our journey to Vermont, unaware of the drama yet to unfold.  Arriving at the home of Barb’s parents, we were just settling in to relax when she realized her purse must still be in the car and asked if I could get it.  The purse was not in the car!  We must have left it at the Wendy’s in Connecticut!  Using directory assistance, I got the restaurant number and spoke to the store manager.  He said they did find a purse and asked me to describe it.  It was Barb’s purse!  Happy, I hung up the phone and said I would drive back to get it.  My father-in-law cheerfully said he would go with me.  I managed to disguise my scream as a cough. I looked at my wife and she saw my entire repertoire of facial expressions: shock, horror, fear, despair, resignation.  I croaked out a weak, “OK.”  Four hours in the car with my father-in-law, I felt like I was going on a mission that I had small chance of returning from. 

The story has a happy ending.  The purse was, indeed, my wife’s.  The round-trip ride with Barb’s Dad was surprisingly uneventful.   The happiest ending was the arrival of our son Geoff 5 weeks later, on Halloween night. A true Ode to Joy!

Ernie Stricsek

Chatham Memoir Group

May 4, 2023

The Post-Outlaw Life

Christmas Tree Karma

Not all that long ago, I wrote about my very short life of acquiring Christmas trees via nefarious means.  Fortunately it did not lead to me living the life of a desperado.  I believe that there is the existence of a thing called Karma.  In the years since I was “scared straight”, Karma has ironically made its presence known when my family in I went in search of live trees to decorate for Christmas.  Let me assure everyone, these trees were obtained through the exchange of legal tender, we were not about to become a crime family.   Christmas Tree Karma struck a total of four times over 12 years.  Those four Karmic events were quite remarkable.

The first Karma Tree was one that was actually “selected” by my father-in-law” from a tree farm in Vermont.  I believe the search process took all of 5 seconds after he arrived at the farm.  Park – hey, there’s a tree – cut – leave.  It was difficult to be grateful for his efforts, the tree was one step above the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree.  The tree had obviously received sunlight on only one side as the branches were really long and thick on one side, and sparse on the other – it was a great “corner tree”.   On the verge of allowing the tree to spend its final days in a familiar setting – the woods behind our house – rescue came during a visit from my Grandmother and Uncle.  Peering at the tree with a critical eye, they laid into the tree with garden shears and a saw.  The resulting product was worthy of entry into “Extreme Makeover, Christmas Tree Edition”, had such a series existed.  The anemic side was still anemic, but pushed into the corner was barely noticeable after being decorated.

Karma Tree 2 was obtained after we moved to the NW hills of Connecticut.  There was a tree farm very close to our house and we determined that would be a good place to seek and cut a tree.  The week prior to us getting the tree was a stormy one.  Snow, followed by freezing rain, followed by snow rendered the tree farm a winter wonderland.  It was even snowing lightly the day we went to get our tree.  Like the Donner Party we trudged through snow that was knee deep and crusty.  We had to dig the snow in order to expose enough of the base to cut it down.  Trudging back through the snow, we secured the tree to our car and drove home.  However I neglected to pay attention to how much snow and ice covered the tree.  We decided that we would put the tree in our first floor bathroom until it thawed.  And it had to thaw a lot!  As flood waters burst from under the bathroom door and followed the course of the hallway to encroach upon our kitchen and living room, my wife and I scrambled to construct a dike of Beach and bath towels to staunch the flow.  

Karma Tree 3 was a surprise.  Going to another tree farm near our house with my youngest son, Jeremy, to cut another live tree began began well.  It was a cool, sunny day with no snow on the ground or in the forecast.  Arriving at the farm we were given a saw as well as a cart to bring the cut tree to a station where it would be bound in mesh.  The associates at the tree farm would even tie it or load it to your car or truck.  Good deal!  Jeremy and I discovered a beautiful blue spruce in a line of trees about midway up the hill in the farm.  I would have to crawl under the tree to cut it.  My plan was to cut most of the way through the tree trunk, then crawl out and push it over the rest of the way.  As I began to cut, I called from under the tree and asked Jeremy to just grab a couple of branches and hold firmly if the tree started to shift.  Jeremy replied in the affirmative so I resumed cutting.  About 2/3 of the way through, the tree toppled over on me, one or two of the needles poked my left eye.  Crawling out from under the tree, I spotted Jeremy grasping the tree next to the one we had selected.  Much surprised, Jeremy exclaimed “What are you doing under that tree Dad!?”.  We got the tree home without further mishap, but my eye was quite irritated from being spiked.  The next day, my game eye and I went on a business trip.  For the next few days, I would make everyone I met feel uncomfortable because I appeared to weeping at everything discussed.  I had to repeatedly clarify as to the cause of my runny eye.  That still did not improve their discomfort, because their eyes would twitch as though they could sense my ocular distress.

Karma Tree 4 would be the last live tree we purchased.  This tree was a pre-cut one we obtained during our first Christmas in Michigan.  We spotted it right away on the tree lot and our sons ran to claim it.  We were looking for a tall tree because we had a large open, 2 story great room.  The tree was immense!  Too big to fit on or in our car.  The manager of the tree lot said “That’s a big tree young fella, you better use my truck to get it home”.  That solved one logistical issue, but the next issue would manifest itself in the difficulty getting the tree through the front door.  Accomplishing that, through great effort, the ribbon on this package was yet to come.  The tree proved to be too tall and wide for the tree stand that we had.  My confidence that the tree was secured was dashed when it toppled over, gouging a wall, and knocking over and breaking a step ladder.  I was on the ladder.  Uninjured, except for my pride, I secured the tree using a couple of strategically place fasteners.  Decorated, the tree was glorious.

For the past 23 years our trees have been artificial ones.  As my wife and I began to prepare for Christmas 2020, we discussed getting a live tree.  We decided, “nah, Maybe next year”.

Ernie Stricsek

Chatham Writers Group

January 3, 2021

Corona Burana

The prompt for today was to write a ditty summarizing 2020.  I wrote lyrics that can be sung along to the melody for “O Fortuna” from the opera “Carmina Burana”.  What made me think of this was when I went grocery shopping at Shaw’s in Harwichport at the start of the pandemic.  Tuna fish was on sale but when I got to the section, every damn can of tuna was gone, even the store brand.  It made we want to drop to my knees, raise my hands to the sky and cry out “Oh For Tuna!”.  Trying to find a rhyme for tuna would have thrown off my whole pattern, unless I opted to write in Latin, but then nobody would have understood my ditty.  Oh, besides, I don’t know Latin either…..

So this is my ditty

And not too pretty

Some will dispute

Whether it’s a tribute 

Or an attempt to dwarf

A work by Carl Orff

I call it:

Corona Burana

Twenty Twenty

Not to envy

Plans we had to trash

Came a virus

Without any bias

Out of control in a flash

It is our task

To wear a mask

Something we should not dread

Our hands we wash

An effort to quash

The Covid of its spread

Stand six feet apart

It breaks our heart

To not hug the ones we love

Avoid a crowd

Don’t sing too loud

Aerosols we must think of

Comes the summer

What a bummer

 The Corona is still here

Shoppers limited in stores

Dining outdoors 

There is still much to fear

The good weather

Allows a get together 

Outside in the fresh air

Zooms and picnics

Are the best fix

For us to this pandemic bear

 The air turns cool

The news is cruel

The virus was not bucked

A vaccine brings the chance

In 2021 we will dance

Twenty Twenty you really, really sucked

(If one so desires, these words fit the melody for O Fortuna from Carmina Burana like a glove).

Ernie Stricsek

Chatham Writers Group

December 27, 2020

In case the reader is not familiar with “O Fortuna” from the opera “Carmina Burana” by Carl Orff, this is an excellent rendition. We saw this performed by the Huntsville Symphony.

The Outlaw Life

This is a true story, written to a prompt for The Chatham Writers Group. The prompt came from The Tiny Buddha website and involved being kind to a younger version of yourself.

Once Upon A Time In Middletown: A Christmas Story, Sort Of…..

There was a time in my life where I was a member of a group of desperadoes, engaged in the scheme of acquiring certain goods via dubious means and selling them for a profit.  We were a cunning bunch, wearing dark clothing and ski hats to render us nearly invisible in the dark, timing our capers to the phases of the moon and scanning local weather reports for overcast nights.  Our getaway vehicles were a 1957 Ford Fairlane and a 1965 Rambler Classic, the only two modes of transportation capable of carrying a team of brigands and their booty  from the scene of the crime.  The crime sprees were seasonal, occurring between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  We goniffs were high school students , our crime was pilfering Christmas trees to sell to sports coaches and several teachers. 

Our gang was formed over slices of pizza and pitchers of Pepsi at Marabella’s, a hangout in Highspire frequented by families and and any number of high school cronies.  A friend, who I will call Vince because, after all, that is his name, outlined his scheme.  Vince had overheard one of the football coaches puzzling over a question of logistics.  He needed to purchase two Christmas trees, one for him and one for his mother.  He was lamenting having to transport trees with a VW bug.  Vince volunteered to help.  Enlisting the aid of another friend, nicknamed “Mill” and owner of the aforementioned ’57 Ford, they were able to obtain the necessary trees for the Coach and his Mom.  They were handsomely rewarded.  Vince described the transaction as “Cash & Carry”.  Meaning he and Mill, in the middle of the night, carried the trees from a farm stand on the outskirts of town, delivered them and received cash for their effort.  Our career as purloiners of Tannenbaums commenced the following weekend. 

Having sizable vehicles were key to our operation.  Because two of us also drove VW Bugs, and two did not have a car, we had to rely on the big Ford and Rambler sedans.  The second part of this formula was to have vehicles that were reliable, something neither car was.   The Ford’s starter behaved erratically in cold weather.  If you turned off the ignition, sometimes you would have to rap the starter 2 or 3 times with a rubber mallet before it worked.  The terminals of the battery in the Rambler were prone to becoming caked with a white oxide layer that would also prevent the car from starting.  It was necessary to lay a screwdriver across the two terminals to jump start the car.  The effect of doing that would typically result in the person holding the screwdriver to either get flash blinded by the sparks, or knocked on their butt from being shocked.  Sometimes both would occur.  Despite these minor glitches, our acts of piracy earned us extra spending money over the Holiday season.

The following year proved to be more of a challenge as the Christmas tree vendors added bright spotlights and even dogs to protect their inventories.  History tells us that lives of outlaws eventually become fraught with peril and seldom end well.  Other students heard rumors of our nefarious deeds.  The Principal of our high school, who liked me and always addressed me as “Ernest my boy”, one day said “Ernest my boy.  I heard a rumor that troubles me, about you and Christmas trees.  Maybe you should seek employment at McDonald’s if you are cash strapped.”  I replied that I already worked there, his withering glare suggested I should probably look for more hours.  One of our heists resulted in us being chased.  But in 1971 it was still impossible for a human to outrun a ’65 Rambler on foot, even if it took 10 minutes to go from 0 to 60.  We decided, after that chase, that our careers as freebooters needed to end.

During our senior year of high school, another football coach approached two friends and I with a request that involved acquiring a balsam fir.  Reluctantly, we agreed to pull off one more caper.  I was no longer driving a VW bug, I now was driving a 1968 Pontiac LeMans.  It was very fast, but more importantly, it had a huge trunk.  I would be the getaway driver.  We cased several of our old haunts and found them to be as secure as the previous winter.  We decided on a snatch and grab from behind a grocery store in the center of Middletown.  A very bold move because the Police Dept. was nearby.  Dimming my lights, I drove down the alleyway to the back of the store where the tree stand was.  One friend took my trunk key and opened it, my other friend jogged over to grab a tree.  I sat behind the wheel, engine idling.  As my friend with the tree got close to the car, the boxy form of a Plymouth pulled into the alley behind me.  High beams flashed, my friend dropped the tree and sprinted off into the dark, my other friend flew through the open door into the passenger seat and shouted “Go”!  He slammed the passenger door shut as I floored it. The LeMans was not only fast, but highly maneuverable.  Turning on a dime, I sped down an alleyway to my right and burst out onto Main Street, my trunk slammed shut when I accelerated.  I left Middletown at a high rate of speed, losing my pursue, whether Cop or Security Guard I will never know.  Returning to Middletown from an entirely different direction than when I departed, my buddy and I went from lamenting the fate of our other partner in crime, to shitting bricks as a police cruiser pulled from a side street and followed us into town.  We breathed a huge sigh of relief when he turned a few blocks later.  A light snow had begun to fall.  I dropped my friend off at his house and returned to mine, spending a sleepless night as I expected the Middletown PD to kick in our door at any moment and lead me away in handcuffs.  That did not happen.  

At school on Monday, we were relieved to discover the third member of our party escaped unscathed.  A few hours later in gym class, the coach seeking the tree approached us and said “Thanks for the really nice tree.  But you put it in front of the wrong apartment”.  As he was opening his wallet to pay us, we told him of our failed attempt.  His head shot up, eyes wide as saucers and he blurted out “Shit! I stole my neighbor’s tree”.

Although I have recounted this story in somewhat humorous detail, it is a brief period in my life for which I felt remorse for a long time.  I was a thief, and I drove recklessly and could have endangered others.  It was was over 30 years before I told this story to anyone, and it was only after it was revealed by one of my partners in crime, in front of my wife and sons, at the wedding of his daughter.  Everyone thought it was a great tale.  In the end, no one was hurt, a lot of Christmas trees never do get sold and turn brown on the lot, I guess I could be kinder to a younger self.

My getaway car looked just like the one in the photo.

Light At The End Of The Tunnel

This is a true story, written to a Chatham Writers Group Prompt: “Light At The End Of The Tunnel”.

Lights at Both Ends of the Tunnel

Wednesday 24 July 2002, Lincoln Township Pennsylvania.  Eighteen miners of the Black Wolf Coal Company are working the night shift at the Quecreek Mine, 240 feet below the earth’s surface, drilling and removing coal from the rich Upper Kittanning Seam.  The miners are split into two teams of 9, working two portals on the left side of the  main shaft, one team in Left Portal 1, the second in Left Portal 2.  Both portals are about a mile from the mine entrance.  At 9:50 PM, the mine phone in Left Portal 2 starts to ring.  The team leader answers the phone and is stunned by what he is hearing.  On the phone is the team leader of the group working in Left Portal 1.  While drilling the portal 1 team opened a hole into the shaft of an unmapped, long ago abandoned mine.  Sixty million gallons of water are now flowing into Portal 1.  He is urging the Portal 2 leader to get his team out immediately, before the mine floods.  The team in portal 2 bolts for the main shaft.  An hour later they burst out of the mine entrance into the cool July night and turn to wait the exit of the portal 1 team.  Ten minutes pass and no one else leaves the mine.  A 911 call is made, 9 miners are either trapped or dead.  However the portal 1 team is very much alive and fighting against time to survive.  With the entrance to portal 1 flooding to quickly for them to exit, attempts were made to escape through 2 smaller tunnels that led to the mine entrance, both were flooded.  The team made its way back to the end of Portal 1 and settled on a ledge above the water to await their fate or rescue.

The scene on the surface is one of controlled bedlam.  Teams were established to set up pumps to begin pumping the millions of gallons of water that flooded the mine, and to begin drilling a 6.5” hole to provide air for the men below, not yet knowing if they were still alive. To create an escape tunnel, a huge 30” diameter drill was requested from a mine in West Virginia, it would arrive the next day.   The families of the missing men gathered at the local firehouse to console each other and to await any word from the rescue teams.  As word spread volunteers from other mines in the region rushed to Lincoln Township to assist in any way possible, to ensure that the rescue efforts would continue unabated.  When the 911 call was made, local news channels broadcast a breaking news alert.  By 11:00 PM, news crews were on site and began reporting the latest details, of which there were very few.  

The breaking news story about the Quecreek Mine spread rapidly.  For the next 3 days the eyes of the  world would be watching the efforts to rescue the group of men who were now being referred to as the Quecreek 9.  However, no eyes would be focused with more blazing intensity than the eyes of those living in Western Pennsylvania.  This drama playing out in rural Lincoln Township was deeply personal.  Everyone in that region knew someone – a family member, a neighbor, a friend, who worked in a mine.  There were virtually no degrees of separation from those trapped in Quecreek.  With televisions and radios always on and in close proximity,  Western Pennsylvanians were anxious for news from the mine.  The level of intensity is difficult to imagine, and there is only one way that it can be described.  Shortly after 5:00 AM on Thursday, July 25th, it was announced that the airline had penetrated into the portal where the miners were thought to be.  There were three solid smacks on the pipe from deep in the earth.  The collective sob that was generated in Western Pennsylvania caused the leaves to turn in one direction on the inhale, and blow back in the other direction on the exhale.  This scenario was repeated again at 11:30 AM that day when 9 clear, distinct bangs were detected on the air pipe, indicating all 9 were alive.  

The miners underground were not out of the woods however.  The 9 wraps on the pipe would be the last that would be heard from them as the rising water in the shaft prevented the miners from communicating further.  Drilling of the 30” diameter escape tunnel began that evening.  At 240’ below, the Quecreek 9 were able to sense the vibrations.  They also noticed that the water was no longer rising.  A lunch pail floated to the miners, now they had a corned beef sandwich, a Diet Coke and two cans of Mountain Dew to sustain them.  Over the course of the next two days, the tensions would ebb and flow.   A broken drill and broken pipe complicated the rescue process with repair delays.  The rescue efforts stretched through Friday night into Saturday.  There were no further communication from the men in the hole.

 Through the long evening and in to Saturday, all remained news starved.  Again, equipment failures prolonged the process and work continued through the day into the evening.  At 10:20 PM on Saturday, July 27, a news flash reported the rescue tunnel drill broke through to the portal, a phone line was dropped down the 240’ tunnel.  All of the TV stations had their cameras glued to the crowd and equipment around the escape tunnel.  At 11:00 PM the cameras caught the images of volunteers pumping fists in the air, cheering, crying, hugging.  The news reporters announced, voices breaking with raw emotion,  that all 9 were alive and over the next few hours would emerge into the electric light of life at the end of the tunnel.

The most remarkable thing that this near tragedy showcased was how so many people from so many different walks of life were able to join together in a crisis to serve the common good.  The metaphoric tunnels of personal biases and beliefs, all evaporated to the light of achieving a goal that was common to all.  People supported each other, offered what comfort and help that they could.  We have more in common with each other than not.  With each other’s help, we can emerge from any dark tunnel to the light.

Sources:  Pittsburgh Post Gazette and Pittsburgh Tribune Review from Sunday, 7/28/02.

Ernie Stricsek

Chatham Writers


Headline from Pittsburgh Tribune Review July 28, 2002 after all 9 miners were rescued.
Photo of rescuers greeting the Quecreek 9 as they emerge from “The Hole”.

Chatham Tornado 7/23/19

Somehow, and we are at a loss as to how, Alabama weather was packed away with our belongings when we moved to Massachusetts back in January. Since the official start of summer, the weather has been more “Alabama-Lite” than typical Cape Cod summer.

I say Alabama-Lite because we have never encountered the combination of heat and humidity that was common to the Huntsville area. True, for two weeks temperatures on the Cape were in the upper 80’s to low 90’s, but the breezes from Nantucket Sound, the Atlantic coast and Cape Cod Bay kept the temperatures lower than they were further inland. The humidity was high also, again almost like Alabama where the simple act of standing outside and talking to someone left you drenched in sweat as though you had just played 5 sets at Wimbledon.

The final act in the attempt to emulate Alabama weather came in the form of a tornado, which not uncommon for Alabama, is extremely rare for Cape Cod. It has been a week now since the tornado danced along the Nantucket Sound coast, wreaking havoc and damage from Yarmouth to Chatham. There were water spouts spotted just off shore from Hyannis, then landfall in Yarmouth, back out to sea where water spouts were seen off West Dennis and Dennisport, back on land at Harwichport, than back out to sea just off Chatham, finally tracking out into the Atlantic. Fortunately there were no fatalities. There were a few injuries, sadly from elderly Cape residents falling as they scrambled to get into their basements and tripped on stairs. There was some property damage, but not extensive, no buildings or homes were obliterated.

The storm did come quickly. I saw one warning posted on Facebook by a friend so we turned on the TV to see what that was all about. We were shocked to see that the tornado was approaching Chatham and we had about 10 minutes to get to safety. At about the same time my brother-in-law, who lives about 2 miles from us, texted that he and his wife were going into their basement and we should to. We were in our basement by 12:20 PM, within a minute we heard the howling of the wind through the trees in our yard. As quickly as the storm came, it passed through just as quickly. We were very fortunate, just a few branches down in the yard and we were without power for 30 hours.

Repair crews swarmed over the Cape during the next few days and by last Friday, power was restored to all consumers. I am certain that, given Cape Cod is such a tourist destination and it is the height of the summer tourist season, that the lost revenue and tax dollars to Commonwealth of Massachusetts had something to do with quick response. But the area affected was quite small, so resources could be gathered and concentrated for recovery actions.

Extent of storm damage in our yard, very lucky!
High winds flipped plane upside down at Chatham Airport. Very strange, 12 other planes nearby did not suffer same fate.
Trees & branches down in downtown Chatham park, 3 hours after storm.
What a difference a day makes. Same spot 24 hours later!
Downtown Chatham sidewalk, 3 hours after storm.
24 hours later, same view as above.
Tree on roof top, side street downtown Chatham.
Entrepreneurial spirit in downtown Chatham.

An April Fool

I joined a creative writing group at the Eldredge Library in Chatham when we moved here in February. This is one of the prompts we had to write about:

An April Fool

Wow! What a loaded prompt!  Have I ever acted like a fool myself?  What are SOME foolish things I may have done?  In only a thousand words no less?  I could end this story right here and right now by saying just four words: I AM A GUY!  I rest my case.

The Official Records of the War of the Rebellion consumes 128 volumes.  The Civil War lasted four years, on average, 32 volumes for each year of the war.  If I were to compile a similar catalog of my dubious achievements, taking a mulligan for my pre-teen years, beginning when I turned 13, and devoting the average 32 volumes per year, I would be at volume 1,664 now.  I am expecting to be honored with a Life Time Achievement Award in the near future.

Starting with the letter “A”, I will relate an incident that occurred on an airplane on April 1, 2000.  I was in Pittsburgh, awaiting a commuter flight that would take me to Knoxville, Tennessee.  The plane was one of those regional turbo prop jobs that sat about 70 people.  I had flown it many times before and it was a nice short flight.  I boarded the plane and took my window seat, pulled a folder of notes from my briefcase, stowed it under the seat and began to watch as others boarded the flight.  A woman working her way down the aisle caught my eye because she looked almost ill, her complexion the color of oatmeal.  She took the aisle seat next to me, I said hello and she nodded briefly.  My thoughts were that I am going to be sick before I return from this trip.  I surreptitiously looked to see if there were barf bags in the seat backs, there were.  But, my word, when did they get that small?  I hoped for the best and began looking at my notes for the meetings I would be involved in. 

The 30 or so passengers on the flight were all soon seated, pre-flight announcements made and the pilots began to start the engines.  The right engine sputtered to life and then the left engine.  After a very short time, the pilot shut off the left engine, which was odd.  When the prop stopped spinning, the pilot started the engine again, stopping it again after a short time.  Some men came to look at the engine.  The pilot started a 3rd time, then stopped the engine yet again.  The ashen faced woman sitting next to me asked if I could see what was happening.  Being April Fools Day, I thought I would answer with a cute joke: “There is a guy banging on the engine with a broom handle, after he hits it about 3 or 4 times, he yells to the pilot “Try it now””.  The ashen face turned to a brilliant white, as bright as sunlight on a glacier.  I had to squint because of the brightness.  In the middle of this glacier where two deep, blue pools like lakes, but they kept getting darker until they were almost violet.  Out of these violet lakes, a cloud of daggers began to fly towards my face.  Soon a crevasse opened in the middle of this glacier.  Sounds began to pour from the crevasse.  Speaking in a very clipped manner, as though there were periods after each word, the woman said: “”  I began to apologize, the glacier was replaced with a forest of soft gray and silver curls, the apology being addressed to the back of the poor woman’s head.

We were soon informed that we would have to leave the plane.  We were going to be placed on another plane within the half hour, when the boarding began we would be able to return to our original assigned seats.  Except for me.  Back in the gate area, I was asked to report to the gate agent.  I approached the agent, the flight attendant was standing next to him.  I was asked if I would mind being moved to a seat farther back, that weight adjustments needed to be made to balance the luggage placements.  I was startled and as I fumbled to question why, I noticed the flight attendant’s eyes shift in the direction of the person I offended.  I understood and answered “Of Course”. 

The new plane arrived we boarded, me earlier than most because my seat was in the back of the plane, last row before the bathroom.  The flight attendant came back to thank me for being understanding.  I said no problem, but I guess I am lucky that there are not seat belts on the toilets, or that was probably where I would be spending the flight.  My former aisle mate may have heard that exchange, because I noticed her head shaking.  I vowed to speak no more for fear that my next seat assignment would involve bucking and gagging and being situated in the luggage compartment.

Ernie Stricsek – Creative Writing 4/1/19