Poor White Boy from South Camden Memories

I have referred to myself as a “poor white boy from South Camden” when describing my early youth (ages 0-10). I lived with my parents and grandparents in the same house. My sister was born when I was three years old. My grandfather died when I was six and my father passed away when I was seven. 

Camden was a different city than it is today. In 1960, when I was seven, “white flight” had not yet started. There were stores, bakeries, professional buildings and doctor’s offices on Mt Ephraim Avenue and on Broadway. I even remember a movie theater in the center part of Camden.  Crime and poverty were not as prevalent as it would become. I lived in a three bedroom, two level very modest home on Morton Street, located within South Camden, till I was eight or nine. The area was referred to as “Polack town”, where many Polish immigrants and their families settled.”With my mother, grandmother and sister, we moved to Sheridan Street which was about four blocks from the Morton Street residence. The house on Morton Street burned down sometime in the 70s or 80s I believe.

Listed below are some of my memories of living in South Camden (1952-1962):

Neighbors sweeping the streets and sidewalks with brooms of any trash or garbage. The streets were spotless. Everyone policed their own areas in front of their homes.

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Reading Sergeant Rock and Superman comics while waiting to get my haircut from a barber at Whitman Park.

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Walking home from St Joseph’s Grammar School located on Mechanic Street, about a 1.50 mile trip one way. My mother did not drive and there was no bus so I walked home all the time. No problem in nice weather. Problem walking in bad or snowy weather!

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I walked home from school during Hurricane Donna in 1960. Since my mother did not drive, I had to walk home through the start of the storm. I remember nurses from West Jersey Hospital stopping me on Mt. Ephraim Avenue trying to get me to come inside the hospital but I was concerned that my mother would worry where I was or whether I had gotten hurt in the storm. Scary walk as I was concerned about power lines coming down as the wind gusts were strong.

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Listening to Joe Niagara, Bill Wright, Sr, Hy Lit and other disk jockeys on  WIBG-AM on my transistor radio.

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Playing music on 78 and 45 RPM records.

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Very uncomfortable summer days and nights of heat and humidity. No air conditioners, just fans in the house.

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Buying and eating babkas and chruscikis from Morton Bakery down the street.

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Bottles of milk being delivered to a mailbox on the front porch by a Sealtest driver.

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Eating and enjoying cheese, sauerkraut and potato pierogis made by my grandmother.

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The horrible smell of my grandmother making kiszka (blood sausage) that literally made me gag and run from the house.

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Playing little league baseball at Whitman Park. My first team was sponsored by the PACC (Polish American Citizens Club). I remember the parade through South Camden streets when the baseball season opened up.

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Being taught Polish in school. (As an aside, I never learned the language though my grandmother spoke it all the time. Her English was very broken.) My grandfather did not speak any English.

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I vaguely remember being in some type of second or three grade play where I played Johnny Jump Up (?) Surprisingly my acting career never got off the ground.

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Parades on Red and White day down Mt. Ephraim Avenue from the grammar to the high school to celebrate St Joseph. I remember the St Joe’s High School cheerleaders dressed in their red and white uniforms and pompoms. I guess other events took place but I still remember the cheerleaders.

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First girlfriend—age 7: Robin. She had blonde curly hair and blue eyes. Year younger than me but she spoke Polish. Age difference killed our relationship.

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Pulaski Day parades with bands and other marching starting at the Radio Condenser building and going past my house on Sheridan Street.

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Watching St. Joseph High School football at Farnham Park. I remember a caravan of cars with red and white streamers honking on the way to the game and if St Joe’s won, honking after the game and driving through town to celebrate. Back then I rooted for St Joe’s when they played Camden Catholic. A few years later that changed.

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Buying and trading baseball cards with my school friends. A pack of cards cost a nickel and you got a stick of gum too!

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Buying Yum Yums (water ice) from the Yum Yum man. He was usually drunk when he biked up our street with his cart. Sometimes he forgot to get paid. I was partial to cherry and orange flavored Yum Yums.

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Walking behind a Mosquito Control truck as it went down the street fumigating the area with a cloud of dangerous chemicals. All the kids on the block did it. No one stopped us.

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While playing football with my friends at Municipal Hospital (off Cope Street), Jersey Joe Walcott, (who was Camden’s Director of Public Safety and former boxing heavyweight champion) pulled up to where were playing with four police cars filled with men carrying shotguns and other weapons. Scared the hell out of us as we were trespassing on hospital grounds but Jersey Joe and the police officers were looking for escaped convicts who were spotted where we were playing. Jersey Joe asked if we saw anyone. We didn’t. He and the police left. We resumed our football game.

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Playing half ball, wall ball, wire ball, wiffle ball, stick ball and box ball at Stanley Klish’s (classmate’s house. (Coincidentally, my future wife and her family lived on the street and my future wife may have even played in some of the games. We have no memory of each other though we remember the games. She also went to St Joseph’s but we were in different classes.)

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Another coincidence: My wife and I were both baptized and married by the same priest (Father Ed Korda).

First Communion Picture 1960: Me, Stashu (best friend) and my sister, Sandra–side of the Morton St. house

My Dad: I Hardly Knew Ye

Dad

My father, Edward A. Burleigh and me (Gloucester NJ)

I don’t remember a lot about my father. Memories of sixty years or more are very suspect. However I remember his last day…

He and my mother were going to a Valentines Day event in 1960 that night.  I was seven years old. My second grade class was asked to make personalized Valentine Day cards for their parents. I gave my mother her card early in the day. I vaguely recall that I was mad at my father. I don’t remember why. I did not give him his card. He may have wondered why. But as my parents were preparing to leave for the event, I had a change of mind and handed him the card. My father was not the sentimental type for cards and most expressions of affections. He opened the envelope, read the card, smiled at me and said “I’ll see you tomorrow morning.” However I did not see my father again. That night, he suffered a heart attack and died.

There is no consolation for a seven-year-old boy when he loses his father so suddenly. However, I was so glad that I gave him the card. I did not want my last contact with him to be of rancor. I wanted him to know that I loved and respected him. He gave me a wink and smile as he left the house. That’s my final memory of my father.

My father was not a big man. He might’ve been 5’6 in height and weighed less than 150 lbs. However he was a very tough man. I had heard stories from his brothers, other family members and people who knew him that he was good with his fists. My father noticed one day that I came running back into my backyard to avoid some bully out front. My father told me that I can fight the boy or that I would get hit with a belt by him. Not an easy decision for me but I went out and fought the bully (to the bully’s surprise). To the best of my recollection, the fight ended in a draw.

He was a devoted family man, not just to my mother, myself and my younger sister but also to his brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces.  He came from a large family, five brothers and four sisters. An example of his devotion to family was told to me by one of my aunts. My aunt was going through a bad and abusive marriage. She had three small children, no job and no alternatives to leaving. One night my aunt’s drunk and abusive husband beat her in front of her kids. That got my father involved. He confronted and “resolved” the issue with my aunt’s husband and found a place to move her and the three kids.

My father did not have a high school degree. He enlisted in the Navy at age 17 and fought in the Atlantic theater during World War II. I have pictures of him in his youth. He always had a smile on his face and an arm around a buddy or girlfriend.  I had heard he was a very good dancer. I guess those genes did not get passed to me.

I vaguely recall that he worked a number of different jobs and that his last one was working shift work at the New York shipyard in Camden. Not surprisingly, I do remember watching Friday night boxing fights with him. He enjoyed fishing with his brothers. This may have been the only recreation he enjoyed. I don’t recall him having any interest in football, baseball or basketball.

 I think he smoked to excess, drank too much and did not take care of himself very well and I think this led to his early death at the age of 35. I wondered how happy he was. He always talked of going to California. He had a brother, Elmer, who lived there and my father seemed to have a bit of wanderlust.

I often wonder how different my life would have been if he had stayed alive. My father was very personable and outgoing. I was quiet and shy, just like my mother. My young sister, Sandra, at age 3,  was starting to show her bubbly personality and verve. Sandra may have inherited his personality gene. My father did share one similarity—-we both lost our fathers early in our lives. His father also died early in his life. His mother ran a boarding house and did laundry to support nine children.

I would hope that my father would have been proud of how I lived my life. Like him, I took care of my mother and sisters and protected them the best I could. He may have appreciated how I handled his death and showed the toughness he had as life threw challenges at me. I hope so. I’m Ed Burleigh’s son, I would not have wanted to disappoint him.

 

 

I Hope You Danced!

About 50 years ago on a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon in June, I and about 480 classmates graduated from Camden Catholic High School. I don’t remember too much about the ceremony itself, I do recall feeling a bit anxious, excited and fearful as to what was coming next. It was not an easy time in our country. We were experiencing demonstrations and riots about civil rights as well as the Vietnam War. Students were shot at Kent State by National Guardsmen the month before. There were verbal and physical clashes between conservatives and liberals and there was a very unpopular Republican president. We had to deal with a lot of social and political turmoil. Some things never change, I guess…

So after 50 years, a few reminiscences…

Most of my memories at CCHS are pleasant. I enjoyed classes with Mr. Azores, Mr. D’Antonio, Mr. Budniak, Father Yorio, Sister Agnese, Mr. McDonald, Sister Victorine etc. I even survived a Latin class with Sister Wilfred. I also survived some good natured barbs from Mr. D’Antonio. I believed I got a very good education from CCHS.

I remember demerit cards, Father Rock, pep rallies, small lockers, Sadie Hawkins day (I never got picked) pizza in the cafeteria, Kathy Hennessey as my lab partner (RIP), The Paper, Kreskin show, Communication Arts, pink, green and yellow women uniforms based on graduation year, music appreciation class, Farnham Park, “River rats’, gymnastics exercises during gym classes, building of a baseball field in the back of the parking lot, excellent school plays…

I vaguely remember that our class was sometimes referred by some teachers as the “most ill behaved ever.” Due to some prank or mischief, we had to sit quietly in the school auditorium for a few hours reputedly perpetuated by a member of our class. We did enjoy a class where there were various personalities, temperaments and characters.

Yearbook

My most influential and favorite teacher was Father Walsh (Quince). Initially I rebelled at many of his views and I often challenged him and several classmates who shared his thinking. He was relatively patient with “Brother Burleigh” and welcomed our verbal jousts on topics including Vietnam, religion, politics, history, philosophy, justice and morality. Quince got me to think more critically and analytically. He was the epitome of a great teacher, one who inspires you for further learning.

I maintained and made a number of friendships at CCHS. Bob Chrzanowski has been a friend of mine since we were both 6 year olds from the mean streets of South Camden. Bob has retired and is enjoying his addiction to golf. Mike Mensinger and I have been friends for over 50 years. I was pleased to be the best man at his wedding. Mike and I had a “cut” contest (missing class) during our senior year at Rutgers. Surprisingly we both graduated. I don’t see Mike as much as I would like but I am attempting to perform a “political exorcism” online currently. I’m blessed to have Bob and Joyce Leonetti as friends. When my wife Chris was going through breast cancer, they were very supportive to the both of us. Bob had rented a bus for the Breast Cancer walk in Philadelphia years ago, which meant a great deal to Chris. Bob and Joyce have a number of charitable contributions. They epitomize the best from our class.  Bob was also my “go to” receiver when we played touch football in our youth. 

I did not know Kathy Murphy, now Caldwell though we had graduated St Pete’s, CCHS and Rutgers together. My friend Ken (graduate of some defunct high school in Willingboro) had the great fortune and judgment to meet and marry her and I benefitted greatly from having her in my life also through Ken. Kathy is a great wife and mother of three very smart children and seven grandchildren. Kathy is a great friend, confidant and support for me. Kathy’s husband Ken has often expressed his disappointment that he did not attend CCHS.

I am pleased when I hear how many of my fellow classmates have done well in academia, business, government service, writing, the arts and charitable work. Two of my classmates have inspired me lately. Joe Mussomeli has inspired me to write. I have read some of Joe’s published essays and columns on politics and other topics and they are excellent. Jean Riberio Lizzio is my inspiration for health and athletics. Jean is an accomplished triathlete and maybe our class’s best athlete, male and female. What she has been able to accomplish in running and competition at this time in our lives when a walk around the block is sufficient exercise for many of us is remarkable.

I have been able to catch up with Jean and Donna Segrest Aristone at the mini reunions that have been held at Dooney’s. (I am prejudiced but I always thought that the young girls I graduated with at St Pete’s were the most attractive and nicest women at CCHS and beyond.) I also enjoy seeing Dorina and John Szczepanski, Patty Corbett, Bud Crane, Bill Foster and Rick Caruso at these mini reunions.

I am sorry that we did not have the 50th reunion as I would have liked to say hello and catch up with those I share comments and likes on Facebook including Rick Boyle, Sandi Weisel, and Ginger Breen.

Happy 50th Graduation!

P.S. I can remember the first two verses of our Alma Mater. I can’t remember what I had for dinner yesterday.

P.P.S. I am also mindful of classmates who have passed away. Most I did not know well. I do have some good memories (and stories) of Joe Williams, a great guy. Kathy Hennessey was my Chem lab partner and a very personable young lady.

Hats

I was going through old work files to purge them. This effort triggered some memories from the early stages of my career that I have not purged…Some work memories make me smile. Some make me wince. I think I had good relationships with most people I worked with despite having an INTJ work personality. One of my friends in giving me a recommendation noted to a prospective employer that I “did not suffer fools gladly.” She was dead on.

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I’ve experienced a number of bad bosses. These were men (and women) whose ambition, greed and often stupidity made it tough to work with them. My worst boss came very early in my career. After college, I was part of a management trainee program for a financial company. I was doing very well after being there for 1 1/2 years. I got very good reviews from a number of managers and supervisors. But that would change. A new manager was coming in to the branch I was working. He came in with a reputation as  being rude to both employees and customers. I chose to be optimistic. All my previous managers were very happy with my job performance. On his first day in our branch, I came in early. He was there with our office manager. He was about 10 years older than me and much shorter. I came up after they finished talking and introduced myself while also extending my hand in welcome. He stared at my outstretched hand, ignored my greeting, spun and walked away. That awkward moment turned out to be the high point of our business relationship. He wound up either firing or having all the management trainees in the office quit. He terrorized the female clerks in the branch with his yelling and caustic remarks. I was the lone survivor. At 23, I wasn’t sure how to handle conflicts. I largely ignored his sarcastic remarks towards me until the one day I couldn’t.  One morning, he yelled something at me across the lobby floor but I couldn’t quite hear it as a print terminal was spitting out some paperwork. However he added an epitaph to his yelling he thought I would not hear. I saw the women close to him stiffen up. They hoped I did not hear it. I smiled, put down the files I had in my hand, walked over to where he was standing  and opened the branch door, “Let’s go outside and you can repeat to me what you said.” He turned red and glared at me.  I called his bluff. Wisely he chose not to go outside. Wisely I found another job fairly quickly…

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While I was in college, I worked for a retail store named S. Kleins’s. One of the things I enjoyed to do was to write promotions and sales ads and announce them over the store intercom. I think I just loved to hear the sound of my own voice. But I also was very clever with the ads at times and got shoppers interested in the sales I promoted. Store Manager loved it and gave me free reign to do them.

I also “fixed” the Miss S. Klein’s contest so that a young woman I was interesting in would win. She got the sash. But  I did not get the girl. I also earned the enmity of the HR Director who wanted her daughter, who worked in the Records Department, to win. This would not be the last time I pissed someone off in HR.

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My favorite corporate job was managing the Purchasing Department for a bank. I was basically brought in to improve the poor internal audit ratings and reduce the expenditures for technology, office supplies, forms and other supplies. I also merged two operations and improved efficiencies. I accomplished those goals fairly quickly and was pretty much left alone in how I did my job. One of the benefits of doing my job was meeting with various sales representatives. These sales representatives tended to be female, young, stylishly dressed and very pretty. The parade of these young women through the corridors of the bank to my office made me the envy of my male counterparts. One of my friends had asked me to set up a date with one of the women. The best I could do was set up an appointment so he could discuss copier needs for his area.  I made it a rule not to accept lunch invitations or socialize after work with anyone so no one could accuse me of being unduly influenced.

When I was offered a position in Marketing and leaving the Purchasing Department, I did agree to have lunch with one of the sales reps who I did business with. I enjoyed conversations with her. She was a bit flirtatious but it was the 1980’s and I was often amused. At the lunch, she wanted to show me pictures of her recent trip to one of the islands. I leafed through the pictures which were mostly beach scenes and her in a bathing suit. Until I reached one picture ,,, she was topless on the beach by a bar holding a drink. I reddened. She noticed my reaction and inquired with a smile, “What do you think?” I slowly handed the pictures back and smiled, “Wow those were big…the drinks I meant.”

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There are those people in life who cannot hold a job. And then there are people like me where a job can’t hold them. I got bored easily. I could never perform a job well where I did the same things every day. I was very poor, especially in my early career, of promoting myself. I felt that doing a great job was sufficient for moving ahead and getting appropriately compensated. Unfortunately I found out that many of my managers took credit for things I accomplished. I’ve given this piece of advice to those who are working, “to promote yourself within a company, promote yourself well outside it. Create your own personal brand.”

Hats

Picture above is me with Tere Hoyt Chattin. I worked with some very smart and great people. Tere is at the top of my list.

Whenever I Close My Eyes, I Still Can See Your Smile

You never forgot my birthday. I will never forget yours. (I still remember you getting diners at Cinelli’s to sing me Happy Birthday.)

It’s been a little over 25 years since you have been gone. The pain in my heart from your death is not as severe but there are always reminders of what I miss. Christmas has never been the same. I remember your unbridled joy for the holidays. You loved the lights, decorating the tree and playing all the Christmas songs (starting with Thanksgiving dinner.)  We loved counting all the presents under the family tree on Christmas Eve. However you always held one gift back for everyone—-the one that you knew would bring the most surprise and the most joy.

Even though I was four years older, you were the wiser. Yeah, I had the better grades in school  but you were so good and so loved by so many people. You loved life. You took chances. You traveled. You risked your heart. You always smiled. You had so many friends! You were an inspiration to me.

You and I did have some battles. We both knew how to needle one another and sometimes we would have huge verbal wars. But we always had each others back and woe to those who would say something bad about one of us if the other was present.

At my wedding, you happened to get lost finding the park where we were going to take pictures. The wedding photographer wanted to take pictures without you there and I refused to take any pictures till you showed up. It did not make my new wife, Chris happy. However, you did show up, a bit late and had started to party before the rest of us did. 

At your funeral service, one of your neighbors mentioned to me how you told them that there was no one else you trusted more than me. I told your neighbor that no one’s opinion or judgment meant more to me. We both leaned on each other for support and that support and love are what I missed so much the past 25 years.

You were my kid sister that I had to protect. I remember you calling me in my early 20s. You were working alone at a Dunkin Donuts, frightened from being harassed by some guys. I hung up the phone and sped to your job wielding a baseball bat and rushing through the store door like a scowling Buford Pusser. Fortunately for them (and me) they had left but you knew I would did my best to always protect you.

However I could not protect you when the nurses told me that you had died during your surgery to have a tumor removed from your brain. It was not an easy surgery. You had noticed my concern prior to your surgery and were even amused that you heard that I, a committed agnostic, had gone to mass. I would have made a deal with the devil if it would have kept you alive. You passed away 10 days after Christmas and a month before your 39th birthday.

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A Bit of Nostalgia

I have maintained a journal since college (1970). A reader may be amazed and amused by entries I wrote forty to fifty years ago about purchases I made or prices that existed decades ago. Below is a brief sampling of entries…

August 9, 1973

Pair of glasses cost me $44.

Friday, March 22, 1974

Bought an $85 suit on Monday. Pretty snazzy!

Tuesday, April 17, 1979

It’s very hard to find encouraging news. Gasoline prices are close to $.80 for unlimited, $.74 for regular. Many gas stations are gouging consumers and raising prices higher than what the government guidelines call for.

Tuesday, July 31, 1979

Prices:

Flounder $2.29 a pound

Eggs one dollar a dozen

Bread $.53 a load

Steak $2.49 a pound 

Pepsi 64 oz. $.99 

Lettuce $.59 a head

Milk $.86 for a half-gallon

Hamburger $1.99 lb.

Movies $3.50

Saturday, April 12, 1980

Price trivia:

Gas $1.27 per gallon unleaded

Egg McMuffin, hash browns, OJ $1.94

Sunday Inquirer $.60

Sunday Courier $.35

Gatorade $.69 a bottle

Thursday, January 15, 1981

I paid $1.49 for a 45 RPM record today. Only a couple years ago, you could buy a 45 for $.79.

The Kiss

“The best kiss is the one that has been exchanged a thousand times between the eyes before it reaches the lips.” Anonymous

She was a 4.0 in the classroom and a 9 outside it. Ginger was a pleasant shock to the eyes, a fashion model like figure on our college campus. Light curly red hair, big round blue eyes, lightly freckled face, the girl next door but with a bit of a flirty attitude. Her looks and personality reminded me of the actress Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night. Petite, always dressed smartly and perfectly coiffed, she was a classmate in a literature course during my sophomore year of college. She served as my visual and mental distractions to the monotone lectures about Beowulf and early European writers. She was the type of woman that I would hope to marry after I graduated college, worked my way up in a corporation and became CEO. 

Content to admire her from afar in class, our initial interactions involved some class discussion repartee but no social conversation. Maybe I could impress this young lady with my brain or knowledge of literature? But even though I was in a class with her, I never felt that I was in her class. She possessed a maturity, style and aura outside my area of expertise. I was simply content to see this vision of beauty in class twice a week for 90 minutes.

However much to my surprise, she made the first move for a more social introduction early in the semester. One morning as I studied alone at a long table in the bowels of the campus library, she dropped her books and coat on the chair next to where I was sitting. “Mind if I sit here?” she asked. I pushed a chair out so Ginger could sit, “Not at all, I quickly replied.” I would have pushed aside loaded bookshelves so she could sit next to me. Usually first conversations are a break in period with periods of silence. But we conversed easily, like old friends. She wasn’t stuffy or put on airs. She exhibited an interest in what I had to say and a wicked sense of humor. I do admit that I spent most of my time listening to her. It was a very comfortable beginning to what was a three year casual friendship and unusual relationship. 

Ginger had plenty of male admirers on campus and she regaled me with stories of her dates that were usually very lavish (theatre, concerts and expensive dinners.) She also had dreams of being in the theatre or singing professionally. Many of her suitors were from the law school who could afford her extravagant tastes. Every now and then, she would introduce me to another beau who would follow her around campus carrying her books. Her admirers came and went. 

I understood Ginger’s allure but I avoided the siren call of Scylla. The truth was that in terms of personality and social confidence that, in college,  I was much more like “Flounder” than “Otter.” (Animal House devotees will understand my reference).

During our friendship, she never called me by my first name. She would call me Poli Sci (my major), Clapton or some other nickname. I think she got the idea from watching Love Story where Ali McGraw called Ryan O’Neil’s character “Preppy.” During the summer, she sent me postcards and letters from vacation resorts where she had been staying that were addressed to Poli Sci with my home address.

There were times where she genuinely amused me with her concern. She once sat in the bleachers and watched me play a spirited pick-up basketball game in the college gym. I was the only white player among the 10 players. In one of the time-outs, one of the players asked me, “Is that your girlfriend?” Fearing he would approach her and not knowing what her reaction would be, I lied and responded “Yes.” He elbowed me and smiled, “Damn fine lady.” I wish! After the game, she came over and whispered to me, “Weren’t you afraid?”

Another time, I was playing volleyball outside the college center. It was a cold afternoon but I took my coat off in order to play more comfortably. She ran on to the volleyball court at the end of a point with my coat, shook her finger at me and yelled “Are you crazy, it’s 30 degrees. You’ll get sick. Put your coat on!”

I often wondered if she saw me as a challenge. I never expressed to her or displayed any interest about a date or upgrading our relationship to being more than friends. I never showed jealously from meeting any of the guys she dated on campus. Ginger liked to tease me. She found me too quiet and gently criticized my quiet social life. She would see me sitting with a coed in school and ask me later, “Is she your girlfriend? I’d answer, “No, she’s just a friend.” “Like me?”, she’d ask and I’d tell her, “No one is like you.” 

The truth of the matter is that I feared if I pursued her or answered the call of Scylla that I would lose her just like the other guys on campus who dated her. I was content to keep things the way they were.

Until one day a few weeks before our graduation…

Sometimes I would sit with a collection of her girlfriends and my friends in the College Center before class as she held court. I usually had my head in a book or newspaper and listened half heartedly to her conversation. Sometimes her voice would grow very soft and she’d smile in my direction. That’s when I knew she was saying something teasing about me. On this day, I heard her girlfriends giggle while looking in my direction. So I asked Ginger what was so funny. Her answer changed our friendship but ended a stalemate on how we may have truly felt for each other. 

Ginger replied, “I was just wondering, “what it would feel like to get a kiss from you?’

Ah, a shot across my bow! I know I was initially embarrassed. Normally she would say things to get some type of reaction from me and I would usually roll my eyes, shake my head and ignore her jibe. But this came across as a challenge I could not duck. Time was running out. Exams would start soon and so would our opportunities to see each other.

I tried to play it cool. I got up from my chair, went over to her and whispered, “Ginger, can I see you outside?” She slowly got up from her chair as her friends laughed and chortled “Uh-oh.” I held the doors open for her and found a quiet spot around the corner of the College Center. She stood with an amused smile and her hands by her pockets. “Your question deserves an answer,” I began…

I slowly moved in front of her and softly grabbed her hands. “School is almost over. We should satisfy our curiosities that we have left at school. Life is too short to have any regrets. I want you to have an answer to your question.” She listened quietly with a mischievous smirk on her face and a tilt of her head, almost daring me to act. So our three year dance led to this moment.

I pulled her closer to me. She showed no resistance, no hesitation. I half expected her to laugh and walk away. She didn’t. Time stopped. The world stopped. I was totally present. I felt the warm sun on my right cheek. I felt the softness of her hands, noticed the curve of her mouth, smelled her hair and a soft scent of perfume. Birds stopped chirping or I stopped hearing. The din of noise from the college center was white noise.

I moved my left hand behind her shoulder squeezing her closer. I leaned towards her, closed my eyes, and gently brushed her lips with mine and then kissed her. The actual kiss lasted maybe five seconds but I still feel the experience 45 years later. I released her lips and noticed her eyes were still closed as if she was evaluating her experience and her lips were a bit pursed as if she might be expecting an encore. When her eyes opened, a sly smile greeted me. She was silent but her smile seemed to express she won a small victory. I gave her hands a quick squeeze and then let them go. 

About a month later, I saw Ginger for the last time at the conclusion of our graduation ceremony. I did not have a chance to catch up with her before the ceremony as we had different class and exam schedules. We missed having our yearbook picture taken together. She quickly introduced me to her parents and I noticed that she seemed to have another prospective beau waiting for her. Our good-byes were brief. I had hoped that I could still see her but those hopes were dashed when she mentioned that she was relocating to the Midwest with her family. She hooked my arm, squeezed it and pulled me close to whisper “Good bye and Good luck.” She then turned to wind her way through the throng of graduates and their families to slowly walk away. I sadly watched her go about three steps when she stopped and turned around. She had one surprise left. She moved back slowly to me, grabbed my left hand, pulled me close and touched my cheek with her right hand.  She then ran her index and middle fingers gently over her lips, smiled, winked at me and whispered “I’ll miss you, Eric.”

My Early Sportscenter Moment

Every athlete or performer, no matter their level of skill, has an experience or challenge that was memorable. My moment came at Whitman baseball park in Camden New Jersey. I did not hit a winning home run; I did not pitch a no-hitter; my challenge was much more personal than athletic.

My father died suddenly about three months before. I saw my parents headed out the door late night to attend a Valentine’s Day party. The next morning, I awoke to find my house crowded with somber faces of family and neighbors. An uncle gently informed me that my father had passed away. I later found out that my father had experienced chest pains, went to the hospital but died in the waiting room. My uncle now told me that I was “the man of the house.” Pretty heavy message for a 7 year old boy! My grandfather who had lived in the house had died the year before. I now lived with a grandmother who spoke very little English, a mother who did not drive and did not work and a three-year-old sister.

Fast forward about three months and you found this shy, skinny and small boy playing shortstop in PACC minor league baseball. I had promised my father the previous year that I would go out and play Little League baseball. Even at age 7, I wanted to live and play as normally as possible. I learned one thing from my father. Don’t run away from challenges. He once saw me run from a kid who was looking for a fight. I thought I made it safely to my fenced backyard. However my father told me that I had to face the kid or face his belt. I faced the kid. I think our “fight” was a draw.

My baseball coach announced that he wanted to see our parents and families at the next game. My mother had no interest in sports and though I saw my uncles, aunts and cousins on occasion, I did not extend them an invite to the game. I was getting used to doing things on my own.

I don’t remember a lot about the game itself. I do remember that we had a much bigger crowd watching us play and that the coach was very happy to see how his players were being supported by their families. My mother did not drive and was not interested in sports. I was not particularly troubled that no one came out to see me. I was just happy being on the field with the opportunity to play.

In between innings, my coach asked me if anyone was here to see me play. I shook my head no. The coach knew my father and was aware of his passing. The coach and I had never really had a conversation about my father’s death. He had seen me walk home alone at times and offered to drive me home.

I don’t remember what inning it was or the score but I saw the coach speaking with the umpire and then strolling to the mound speaking to our pitcher and taking the baseball from him. He gestured for me to come to the pitcher’s mound. I figured that he was going to provide me some strategy or where I should be positioned. Instead, he placed the baseball in my glove and told me i was going to pitch.

I was both confused and panicked. I had never pitched before. “ Why are you asking me to pitch?”I stammered. I was perfectly content to avoid the spotlight and continue to play shortstop. The coach rested his hand on my shoulder and said “I knew your dad” and looking up at the sky, “I know he is watching and I want him to see you pitch.” I hated when anyone made a fuss about me about my father’s death. I did not want anyone’s pity and I did not want any special favors.

The coach walked back to the bench and I stood alone on the pitcher’s mound. The umpire asked if I wanted some warm up throws and I nodded nervously yes. I can’t remember how close my warm-up throws work to home plate. The distance between the pitcher’s mound and home plate seemed like the distance between two goal posts on a football field.

The crowd of parents along the fence became silent. Normally there is chatter by teammates to encourage the pitcher. My teammates were silent adding to my discomfort. As I finished my warm-up, I did hear one woman whisper from the crowd, “That’s the boy whose father just died.”

I felt like running away again. I did not have to worry about getting hit by my father’s belt. I yanked my baseball cap down to cover my eyes. I felt alone. I felt the same pressure when I went back to my second grade class after my father was buried. Trying not to look scared, trying not to show emotion, trying not to cry…

A batter came up. I took a deep breath, toed the rubber, and tossed the ball towards home plate. I don’t remember how well or badly I pitched. I just remembered that I did not run away and that if my father could see me, he would be proud that I overcame my fears and that part of him was standing on that pitcher’s mound.