Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Summer in the City - Fun Under the Fire Plug

Here we are, more than halfway through July already. Summer seems to take forever to get here and it quickly goes by. If you haven't noticed, you can see that we're slowly losing sunlight at the end of the day, something that naturally happens once the solstice comes in late June.

One other thing I've noticed is that it isn't like it used to be on the streets. As I said in my ode to summer last year (see
http://phillymemories.blogspot.com/2008/08/close-door-youre-letting-cold-air-out.html) back in the 60s and 70s when we were growing up, we were out from midday through as late as our parents would let us stay out. We didn't hang around the house.

Getting back to fresh stuff - you don't want me telling you about what I wrote last summer - one of the things I hardly see anymore are kids getting soaked under the fire plug. For those of you scratching your heads, that's what is called a fire hydrant. When summer came around, we could not wait to find someone who had a hydrant wrench and could open the plug for us. Once they had it opened, they'd hide it in someone's house and we'd all have some fun for an hour or so, or as long as we could before the cops would come and turn the water off. And this wasn't with a sprinkler rig attached, this was with the fire plug opened full bore! The only thing close to a sprinkler in those days was someone pressing their butt up against the opening and causing the water to fan out in every direction. The only friction we'd ever get besides the cops was a neighbor who would complain (maybe he called the police) and said that the water would flood his basement. Every kid on the block and from other blocks would be out there having fun.

Somewhere in the 80s, someone got the idea that it wasn't a good thing for kids to be doing such things. It was easy to say that it didn't matter, that we were adults and there were more important things to do than play at the fireplug. But still, a part of our heritage started to disappear. Kids were told that it created a danger for firefighters because the pressure dropped low when the hydrant was opened. Why not use one of those sprinkler caps instead? You could get them at the local firehouse and no one would have to worry ever again about low pressure or water levels in a drought year or kids getting swept under car tires by the tremendous pressure of the hydrant. Hey, we never met one kid who that happened to, but then again we would always open them on side streets like our own Chadwick Street, not on the more well-traveled streets like Shunk Street or Oregon Avenue. We did have common sense! But still, the Eighties were the beginning of the end for that summer ritual of cooling down with water that didn't pass through the meter at home and everyone enjoyed.

This summer, I think I've seek kids using the sprinkler cap on a fire plug all of one time. Not once did I see a fully opened hydrant. Granted, it hasn't been a very hot summer like most are (please explain, global warming advocates), but it's been warm enough to go out in the street and get wet. Where are the kids at? Parents, let your kids go out and have some fun! I've been thinking about posting this for a week or so, then my brother who lives in Blackwood, NJ was telling me today that he doesn't see any kids around on the street, let alone under a hydrant. I just knew I had to post this. Anyhow, he said something that makes sense. When kids of today get older, what are they going to talk about when they reminisce about their childhood? "Hey, remember summer, when we got out of school and..." And what? And waited for the back-to-school sales in August so we could buy our pencils and copy books and uniforms? Get out there and do something already! You've got approximately six weeks left before the bell rings again. Go out and find someone with a wrench and have some fun, or do what some of the kids did and one out of a pipe wrench and section of pipe. If someone asks what you think you're doing, tell them an old coot with a blog told you it would be a fun thing to do. Just hide the wrench so they don't take it away and you can turn the hydrant on again when they leave.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Remembering Harry Kalas

It's never good news when an anchor breaks in to regularly-scheduled programming with a special report. A major accident, a school shooting, the death of a world leader or a legend. This afternoon, a legend passed away, and of the Phillies organization and it's fans, indeed, the entire Major League Baseball world, took a shot to the stomach that will be difficult - if impossible - to recover from.

Harry Kalas, longtime broadcaster of Phillies games, died in Washington, D.C., after being found collapsed in the broadcast booth before the start of the Washington Nationals home opener against the Phils. For me, it's impossible to write a blog about my memories growing up in Philly and not remember Harry Kalas, as my memories of him and of the Phillies go back almost as long as my lifetime itself.

The year 1971 was a banner year in Philadelphia. It was the year the Phillies moved from their North Philadelphia home of Connie Mack Stadium to their brand-new digs named Veterans Stadium, or The Vet to it's many fans and detractors. Along with their move to the new stadium came the addition of a new broadcaster to the ranks of two other legends in the field, Richie Ashburn and By Saam.

That very same year was the year that I was introduced to the game of baseball, and I've been fascinated with it ever since. Most young boys are made aware of sports by their fathers, but my Dad wasn't a sports fan. The only time he ever got near a game was when someone gave him tickets. Even then, they had to be good seats, no general admission or reserved seating. Dad's only business of going to see the Phils play was just that - business. He'd get tickets from various car dealers and sit an discuss the business of auto loans with them or kick back a few beers, forget that a game was going on before him. When The Vet added deluxe boxes, it was a boom to my brother and I. If Dad got tickets for any other seating, Mark and I would get to see a game and often, those tickets got us down to the Field Box seats along the first base line. That was okay with us, we had no business in the deluxe boxes anyhow. All the action occurred where the regular folks were, down below. So at the age of nine, Mom took us to our first Phillies game, and taught us baseball. Mom's a long-time Phillies fan, and to this day will spend an afternoon telling anyone who will listen about the 1950's Whiz Kids and her experiences at the games. Her favorite still is pitcher Robin Roberts, and it's guaranteed she'll beam a smile whenever she sees him on TV at a Phillies alumni game or some other special event.

I never got to hear Bill Campbell call a game. He was gone just before I started to understand why nine guys on a diamond smacked around a small ball with a wooden stick. I found out later that replacing him was a very unpopular move in this city that treats sports figures as idols, but that man who replaced him, Harry Kalas, didn't take long to endear himself to the fans here. His unmistakable voice and the way he called the games caught on quickly. And that's what hurts, knowing that the news we heard today will impact us forever. No more "struck him out", no more "outta here...!" No one will ever call the games like Harry, but then, that's the way it is with originals. They're sometimes imitated, but never duplicated.

What was great was that Harry called every game with enthusiasm, whether we had a winning team or not. My formative baseball years were during the era of manager Frank Lucchesi, when the home team couldn't seem to buy a win. But Harry kept the fans attention and we saw things improve during the reign of Danny Ozark. It was during his tenure that my brother and I saw the Phils clench their first-ever division title (in our lifetime), and we really started to understand the thrill of baseball. I remember Mark exclaiming, "Hey, Harry Kalas is crying!" when we took the division, not understanding until then how emotional baseball can be, for winners and losers alike. Since that game in 1975, we've shared two World Series victories with Harry and the guys in the booth, and a few attempts as well.

This afternoon, after watching the pre-game show on Comcast SportsNet dedicated to Harry, I watched the first-ever post-Kalas Phillies game. Sure there were other games in the past where he missed broadcasting, like last season when he was out for a few games recovering from eye surgery, but to know that ever game from here on in will be called without him in the booth leaves an awfully big hole that can't be filled. Just like it was eleven years ago with the death of Whitey Ashburn, the Phils lose a legend in broadcasting, and us fans mourn. It was said during the game today that many thought that Harry Kalas never recovered from the loss of Richie Ashburn. Lifelong Phillies fans still miss Whitey. But as much as we do, losing Harry Kalas seems harder still. We know we've been blessed with him calling thirty-eight years worth of games. And we grieve at the thought of him calling them nevermore.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Easter Ducks

Kids have far more fun on holidays than adults do. By the time we've hit our thirties, we've exhausted all of the simple ways of having a good time and we find the burdens of life weighing down on us. Most of you will probably look back on past Christmases, Easters, and other holidays and have a number of memories that will keep you smiling for the rest of your lives.

For a few years, we really looked forward to Easter coming. And that anticipation was for one simple reason - ducks! For a few years, every Easter season, my brother's godmother would bring us a gift of a couple of small ducks for us to have as pets. The birds were past the point of being chicks and were just starting to grow. For not being able to catch a ball or play with certain pet toys, they were really fun to have, especially for kids who still had some time yet before the teen years came upon us, when our interests shifted to different things. Anyway, some kids got rabbit, but we were the only ones who had ducks, which made us unique and all the other kids around the block thought it was cool. They wanted to come by and see them and pet them, and maybe some adults had thoughts of eating them - or not - who knows?

One thing we found out with experience is that ducks get too big for pets when you have only a small concrete patch for a yard and no where to house them. As they grew, the ducks sometimes escaped from the back yard because one of us would leave the gate open and give them their freedom. Once, the lady who ran the variety store around the corner, Mrs. Lenore, came running to our house and had my mom run with her back to the store. The birds made their way down the alley, waddled a few feet down Oregon Avenue, and up the two steps into Mrs. Lenore's store. My mom calmed her down and took the two of them back home and secured them, nervously waiting for us to again leave a gate opened, or give them some other way to get away again.
(See http://phillymemories.blogspot.com/2006/03/remembering-mrs-lenores-old.html)

Because ducks get too big as pets, we never had them longer than mid-summer. As they got too large to keep around, my grandfather would make arrangements for someone to take them "to the farm". We would take my parents word that the birds were going to some nice place to pleasantly live out the rest of their lives, as it would be much better for them than risk seeing them run into traffic or have something else happen to them. What my brother and sister and I wondered secretly is whether they were going to Shady Acres (or whatever nice name you want to give the "farm"), or if they were going to end up as someone's dinner. Probably they did find a nice home, but we had a curious suspicion of things like this.

After maybe three years of having ducks at Easter, my mom asked that my brother's godmother no longer bring them. As much as we were grateful for them, she knew we were heartbroken because the ducks would be gone in just a few months, and she didn't want to see us disappointed again. And so, that ended having any kind of birds as pets. A few years later, we'd get our first dog, but until then, we'd have to enjoy the memories of these waddling birds running around and pecking us.