A Great Adventure

Philadelphia, PA – 1977 – Spring

In 9th grade, I was a total loser. But even back then one of the few things I had going for me was my artistic ability. I found a friend at Fels Junior High named Robert Weichert. He was a quiet thoughtful boy. Good looking with amazing blonde curly hair like a young Robert Plant.

We were of like mind. We liked rock music and comic books. He would come over to my house and we would hang out in my room and listen to records and read comics together. I remember my times with Robert were amazing. He was one of the few people I had made a connection with. I remember laughing so hard with him that my stomach would hurt. Normally my stomach only hurt if I was having anxiety, some reaction to food, or I was being punched by some bully in school.

We both hated school and all of the animals we had to deal with in that zoo. Even the teachers.

Robert had a talent for writing and I had a talent for drawing. We would make up our own line of superheroes. He would write the little stories, and I would draw the comics. It was a perfect union of creativity that belonged only to us in our little teenage world.

I think his family was breaking up. He said he was going to take the name of the man who was now with his mother. I don’t remember many details but it must have been a rough time for him. The man’s last name was Ketterer and I noticed that Robert would write the name “Ket” on his record albums to identify them as his when he went to summer camp.

Boys didn’t really talk about feelings or family back then. We simply lived in the moment. If we were together laughing, reading comics, and listening to rock we were happy. It was these little moments of repose that were the only solace we had in the hellish existence in junior high school.

When I think about how my daily life was back then in 9th grade, I displayed all of the symptoms of someone who was profoundly depressed. A terrible student, and the thing my father always told me not to become… A victim. I was a victim every day. More like a target. Deal with the animals at school, and then come home and face the king of them all at home, when his car would pull up the driveway each night.

I was growing weary of being picked on and humiliated at school on a daily basis and also by some of the boys that hung up the corner from our house.

I remember gathering a couple of small empty green 7up bottles that I had taken out of our trash. I rinsed them out and filled them with paint thinner or some other accelerant we had in our basement. I tore up some rags and tied them around the necks of the bottles and capped them. I hid them under the sinks in the front of our basement. I was thinking if things got to a breaking point with this one specific kid that had it in for me, I would go to his house and throw those Molotov cocktails through his front windows.

It was a dark time. But I never acted on any of my ideas. But at least I felt a moment of comfort knowing that I could do something to end it once and for all. Instead of lashing out with words and hands, my depression was simply my rage turned inward on myself.

I think I eventually dumped them out, thinking if my mom found out that I was building firebombs in the basement she’d have me committed.

I remember going to my guidance counselor about this other kid that was torturing me for his own pleasure at school. The counselor knew this boy and his advice to me was to hit him back. The kid was a coward, and I should hit him back and he’d stop. That’s wonderful advice, sir. More violence. I am not a violent person. But back then I had a seething temper I later learned to control. When you’re 14 you’re at your absolute purest as a young killer. The hormones and chemicals firing in your brain make you act out. But I never did. But I knew if I ever did anything, it wouldn’t be a scuffle in the schoolyard where I could get my glasses broken and my teeth knocked out. I would simply end it with my attacker.

I knew I had to control that animal that lived inside my mind. I knew him very well and he was worse than any punk at school or the beast who lived down the hall. But I knew if I ever let him out, he’d do something that he could never take back.

You’d think I would have simply walked back to the lot at the end of our street and laid on the railroad tracks and wait for the train to take me.

But I’ve never had thoughts of suicide. Never. No matter how bad things ever got in my life I never wanted to do that. Nobody asks to come here. You should be able to leave when you want to. It’s your life. It’s really all you own. But you don’t really own it. Your soul inhabits a vessel that you rent until it expires and you’re gone.

I used to say that 9th grade was the worst year of my life. It was then, but I would have worse times in the future. But they all happened by my own device. My own bad decisions. Mostly on the people, I chose to have in my life.

But that’s not what this story is about.

At some point, Robert’s mother said she was going to take Robert out of school for one day to take him to Great Adventure. He wanted me to come with him. I had never been there but I had heard about it on TV. Wildwood had a bunch of amusement rides on the boardwalk, but Great Adventure was a big amusement park in New Jersey. I didn’t like the wild rides in Wildwood. Most of them were things that went up high, spun around, or went too fast. I wasn’t having any of that and preferred the more gentle attractions on the boardwalk like the Pirate Ship, Whacky Shack, or the Keystone Kops on Hunt’s Pier.

I have no idea how we got that trip approved. I was a horrible student basically flunking out of all of my subjects. Please tell me the last time you needed Algebra or Spanish in the last month. I remember my father giving me a small, sharp lecture on how he shouldn’t let me take a day off from school to go play in an amusement park with some friends.  Why should he let me go, or reward my poor performance in school by giving me a special day off to go play in a park?

I have no idea, but my parents let me go. I was having my usual low-level anxiety about getting in a strange car with Robert’s mom and his stepdad, but I sat in the back of their station wagon with Robert, and seeing him kept me calm. He was really sweet like that. He was my comrade. The writer and creator of our little comics. Deneb 6, Cestus, Midnightess, Prince Apollo, Captain Universe, Kid Universe, and the Prowler. I loved the Prowler. I designed a cool costume for that character in the comics we made.

Turns out his mom was a really nice lady and her husband was a good, chill guy. They looked like the type of folksy couple that would run a gift shop in some little village somewhere. I felt at ease with them as the car headed over the Tacony Palmyra Bridge into New Jersey.

We get to the park and Robert’s mom and stepdad are just lovely to be around. Just really cool people. They bought us both little bracelets that were all-day passes to the park. We could go on any ride as many times as we wanted, as long as we wore the bracelets.

Then the incredible happened. They cut us loose. They told us where to meet them and what times to check in, but they walked away.

It was a beautiful sunny day in a new world with my friend. His folks said they were going to probably get some food, and then go check out the wild animal safari. That’s where you drive your car through an animal preserve and look at wild animals. Monkeys jumping on your car, etc. I watched as his parents simply left us alone and we were two 14-year-old boys free to do whatever we wanted in the park. I was stunned and elated.

We walked around and explored the park. It was beautiful. Just me and one of my best friends, free for the afternoon in a wonderland. I don’t remember all of the things we saw and did, but I remember how I felt that one day with Robert. We were both free from school and everything else for a day.

We both loved girls at that point. What teenage boy doesn’t? There was plenty there, which surprised me because I thought they should all be in school. But I suppose most were tourists from somewhere else out with their families.

At some point, Robert asked me if I wanted to go on the log flume with him. I had never been on the log flume on Hunt’s Pier or any rollercoaster, due to my fear of everything.

But Robert gently coaxed me with his words.

“Come on, Chaz. It’ll be fun. Look, there’s a bunch of girls going on it. Maybe we can talk to them.”

“I’m afraid, Rob. I don’t go on rides like that. I’m scared I’ll get sick.”

“You’ll be okay. I’ll be right there next to you. No pressure. But we’ll have fun. It’ll be over before you know it.”

“Okay.”

I was terrified, and probably trembling as we approached the gate. The fear crept in. The worst part was when you committed and got in line. Once you were far enough in on the line there was no turning back. I didn’t want to wreck my friend’s day by running away and being embarrassed.

We finally got to the front of the line. The attendant steadied the log/boat and we got in.

“Just breathe, Chaz. Trust me.”

I did trust Rob. We were close. We shared a lot. I needed to steady myself and survive this scary ordeal. I knew I shouldn’t have done this! I’m probably going to puke!

The boat floated along for short a time and then grabbed the rubber rotating conveyor belt that carried it up the first hill. It was a small one so I held on tightly. I could hear Rob’s voice. He was calming me, but only a little. I was on high alert. I was in danger. But Robe was there. I’ll be okay. I’ll be okay, right? I won’t die. Look at all of these other people. They’re all happy and I’m terrified. They’re all having fun and right now I am living in the opposite. My whole psyche is upside down in this life. Why am I like this? Why can’t I be like everybody else?

We reach the top and the boat slides down the small hill with a splash!

I didn’t die. That was okay, and I’m nervously laughing in relief. That wasn’t so bad.

Then the next climb is a bit higher. Another hill. Again… up and then down. Splash! I somehow have survived again. It’s a miracle. The boat’s cruising along and two girls are sitting right in the seat in front of us. They’re giggling and looking back at us and… smiling.

I must be strong. The boat climbs an even higher hill. But for some reason, I’m not dying. Rob’s smiling and reassuring me. I can’t look like a loser in front of these cute girls. We’re low in the boat and I focus my eyes on the inside of the small craft. We’re pretty high up and I can’t look out, because I’ll die. But the way these little log boats are constructed we’re low in the seats to keep the center of gravity down.

The boat is at the top now.  But it doesn’t go right down a hill. It goes along on a straight line around the top. It’s making a turn now. I glance over. I can see the hill over to my left. That’s the hill we’re going to go down. We’re so high up. I’m scared but I have to hold it together, for Rob and for myself.

We get to the crest of the hill and down we go. I can hear the screams of delight from the girls in front of us, and as we land with an enormous splash I feel a sudden rush of relief wash over me (Along with a lot of water!)

That’s it. I did it. I went on my first thrill ride and I didn’t puke or die. It’s a gosh-darned miracle.

We exit the ride and are pretty wet, along with everybody else. It feels good. I experienced what exhilaration felt like for the very first time. I’m not athletic and don’t do any sports or anything risky, so my fear turned into relief and excitement. It felt good. I didn’t know it back then, but the dopamine was dropping. What a wonderful relief. What a wonderful feeling. The girls even talked to us a little bit after the ride. It was nice. For the first time, I didn’t feel like a leper mutant.

“See, Chaz. You did it. It was great, right?”

“Yea… yea… It was pretty cool. I was panting and feeling joy and relief.

I liked that feeling.

“Do you want to walk around a little bit?”

“No Rob. Let’s get back in line.”

We rode that log flume probably a dozen times that day. I was frightened, but I was with Rob. We did it together. I felt safe with him and liked the high I got from the ride. I had somehow turned my fear into excitement. I learned something about myself that day.

Nothing is ever as bad as you think it is, as long as you don’t let the fear in.

You can take that fear and turn it into something else. I was a long way from conquering my anxiety or my depression, but it was a step, albeit a small one.

But it was a step. The only thing holding me in my prison cell was me holding onto the bars. If I would just let go, the bars would fall away and I could walk right out.

It’s not that simple, but I learned that if you want to conquer something in your life, simply take a step. Any step. Just take the step. Then slowly walk toward the things you fear. Keep doing it over and over, and after a few years or decades in my case, you’ll rewire your mind to carry forth into tomorrow.

My life changed that afternoon in a small way. I thankfully graduated from 9th grade and went to the seashore for the summer. The summer of 1977 was the first great summer of my young life. Everything changed and I was on my way.

I rode every rollercoaster in Wilwood that summer.

The Supersonic on Sportland Pier, The Jumbo Jet on Morey’s Pier, The Flyer on Hunt’s Pier, The Wild Mouse on Marine Pier, and the glorious Queen’s Rollercoaster on Marine Pier West.

One evening I rode every rollercoaster on the island!

Life can be like a rollercoaster. There’s all that anxiety and fear as you climb the hill of your life. You slowly reach the top and you’re terrified. It’s too high. I’m going to die. Then the coaster zooms down the first hill and the fear turns into excitement. Every hill after that is never as thrilling as that first one. That long difficult climb to the top to face your fears is now behind you. Once the ride is over and the coaster roars into the station, you can only think about one thing.

I can’t wait to do that again.

Rob and I lost touch after Junior High because he went to a different high school than me. But I’ll never forget that boy, and that special day we got to play hooky from school and go on a great adventure together.

 

 

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Truancy – Part 2

Philadelphia, PA – Spring, 1977

We followed Martin’s Mill Road out towards Cheltenham. It was interesting to watch all of the N buses pass us by. We knew there were kids in there on their way to Fels and hoped no one who knew us would see us. Just paranoid I suppose. We crossed the bridge over into Cheltenham where I knew there was a train station. I only knew about it because that’s the station where my mom always took us to go downtown.

We went inside and all bought tickets to center city. We then went out to the platform outside to wait for the train. It would be along soon, so we discussed some of the things we wanted to do while we were downtown. We also concocted a story if anybody we ran into asked us why we weren’t in school.

The train arrived and we boarded and found some seats. None of us had ever gone into the city on our own, so we were pretty clueless as to what to do when we got there. The only time any of us had ever been into town was with our parents or on some sort of school trip.

We did end up chatting with a nice couple while we rode the train. We concocted a story that we were going into the city to meet with our parents. We were all cousins and our folks were staying in the city at the Ritz Carlton, and we were coming from our grandmothers. Just some made-up nonsense like that. I don’t know if the couple bought it, but they were nice and we figured if we could fool them, we could fool anybody.

The train soon pulled into Reading Terminal. This is way before it became a farmer’s market and a literal orgy of food and tourist destination.

Home

Today all of the incoming and outgoing trains use Suburban Station at 15th and JFK Blvd. But back in the 70s Reading Terminal was the spot. I remember it being a smelly bum pit of a place. As I walked through the station with my friends, I remembered something my father used to say. He’d tell me I needed to pay attention and do well in school so I didn’t end up like one of the guys in Reading Terminal. Which meant a bum.

Here I was cutting school and going against all that was proper. We didn’t care. We were living in the moment.

We decided we wanted to go visit Billy Penn. His statue stands atop City Hall and was once the tallest building in Philadelphia a long time ago.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philadelphia_City_Hall

The skyline back then was far different than the one you see on the homepage of this blog.

We went over to city hall and the admission to go to the top was free! They probably charge for it now but back then you could just get in line and head up to the top. We piled in the elevator with a bunch of other tourists and up we went. It was cool to walk around at the foot of the giant statue atop City Hall. I noticed they had a couple of those coin-op binocular-type machines up there to get a closer look, but we were happy to just be all the way up there with no parents and teachers in sight.

“If I drop a penny from this height and it hits somebody in the head, will it kill them?”

“I don’t think so Dave, but just in case, don’t do it, okay?”

I knew from my love of all things science that a penny wouldn’t have the weight or the velocity to hurt a person if it fell on their head from a great height. But I couldn’t risk us getting in trouble while we were cutting school.

Later, we were just walking around the city and stuffing our heads with soft pretzels. We got to 16th and Chestnut, we saw that there were these older girls standing on the corner handing stuff out. Everybody likes free goodies so we walked up to them. They proceeded to hand each of us little four packs of Merit cigarettes. It must have been a new light brand they were trying to introduce, so what better way than to randomly pass out little packs of smokes to a bunch of teenagers.

It was like the wild west back then. We all bought and smoked cigs and no one ever asked me who the cigarettes were for. EVER. We were always ready to say, “They’re for my mom.” but no one ever asked. They just sold us cigarettes in every store we ever went into. You could get a pack of cigs for .51 cents a pack at Rite Aid! So cheap!

We immediately opened the packs and started smoking the Merits. But when we got to the next corner, we saw a group of different girls doing the same thing. So we went up to them too. We realized that they were on every corner of that whole block so we just walked around the block a few times until we’d gotten around 20 packs of smokes. Yes!

We headed out the Ben Franklin Parkway towards the museum district. We noticed that there was some construction going on at the Academy of Natural Sciences. We all loved that museum because it was one of the fun ones. It had dinosaurs and stuff in it so we had to get in there. We saw that there was a door open on the side and workmen were coming in and out of there. So we waited until no one was looking, slipped under a bunch of ropes and barriers, and got in there.

We’d all been there before on class trips, but when you sneak in and do the museum with your friends it’s just better. You don’t have to stay with your partner, pay attention, stay in line, go over here.. .etc. You just wander.

We had a lovely time in there for a couple of hours looking at all of the exhibits. We checked out some brochures near the exit and noticed something called the Cultural Loop Bus. We decided to hop on that out front of the museum. That bus went straight to the Philadelphia Zoo.

We spent the afternoon looking at all of the animals and enjoyed a nice lunch of hot dogs, french fries, and sodas in the Children’s petting zoo. I remembered going there with my parents as a child. But this sort of thing is always better with your friends. Just absolute freedom. We even rode the monorail!

Remember these? If you had this key, you could put it in the lock on these little green metal boxes they had at each habitat and it would play an audio message about the animals. A brilliant idea for kids!

I think that was the first time I really thought about what the zoo was. When I was little it appeared to be the greatest pet shop in the world where none of the animals were for sale. But when I really thought about it, it seemed more like an animal prison. Here we were a couple of teenage boys who had broken free for a day to go on an adventure, and these animals had been kidnapped from wherever they really lived and dropped off in here. A place where humans can gawk at them while they waste the rest of their lives in cages and glass enclosures. I could suddenly relate to the sad-looking gorilla or the majestic tiger just lying on the equivalent of a bathroom floor behind a piece of tempered glass. It seemed like a horrible, cruel existence. Just knowing you will never escape. Your whole life just the same day over and over again. Not the majestic place in the jungle or the savannah. Just another inmate. It looked very much like Fels Junior High at that moment.

“Wouldn’t it be cool if we could unlock all of the cages and let all of the animals just run away?”

“That would be awesome, Dave but we’d probably get beaten by our parents and end up in juvenile hall.”

We left the zoo and hopped back on the bus. Once we’re back in the city we found our way back to Reading Terminal. But there were so many trains there. Which one should we get on to get back home? We had no idea.

But then I remembered my mom always said that we needed to get on the Fox Chase train to get back home when we were in town with her. I’m glad I remembered that because we would have ended up getting lost. We got on that train and off we went. I knew we were on the right route because when they called out the Olney stop, I noticed that the train was on a tilt. My mother had also pointed that out to me on one of our trips into town.

We got off at the Cheltenham stop and made our way back to Rising Sun Avenue to get our stuff from out of the bushes of that big house. Happily, all of our stuff was still safely stashed and we collected it. We said our goodbyes and all agreed it had been a great day off from school.

I walked home wearing my bookbag with my umbrella in hand.

“How was school today, Chaz?”

“Good. Happy it’s the weekend.”

“You can put your umbrella in the closet. I’m glad it didn’t rain today.”

Me too, mom. Me too.”

“Go wash up for dinner.”

So I got away with cutting school.

Sort of…

I went to school on Monday but had forgotten to bring the absence note my sister had forged for me. It was still in my desk drawer. But when I got to homeroom, I found out that my teacher had also been absent on Friday. Which meant there was probably a substitute there that day. Maybe no role was taken. Because my teacher never said anything about my absence. So not only was I in the clear, I still had the note that I could use the NEXT time I cut school. Sweet!

A couple of weeks went by without incident. But one day my mom was cleaning my room or looking for contraband and found the note in my desk. She called me out on it.

“What are you planning on doing? Did you get one of your little chippies to write this for you? It’s actually pretty good. They did a good job replicating my handwriting.”

Little chippies? I didn’t have any little chippies. Everyone hated me at school, especially the girls.

I told her she was right, and the note was something one of the chippies made for me if I ever wanted to cut school. I said I was sorry and that I’d never cut school. She confiscated the note and tore it up. Of course, I would never give up my older sister. That would have had catastrophic repercussions on my future in Frankford High next year.

So, technically I pulled it off.

Funny… you’d think a bunch of teenage boys who would cut school would take the opportunity to get into some deviltry. Maybe drink beer, shoplift or smoke pot somewhere. But we didn’t do things like that back then. Beer was for older people and pot was drugs and they were illegal.

We took a Friday off in April and went to the city. We did some sightseeing, went to a museum, and the zoo. Just normal, fun kid stuff.

 

Thank you for reading my blog. Please read, like, comment, and most of all follow Phicklephilly. I publish every day.

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Snow Day

Philadelphia, PA – Mid to Late 70s.

When you’re in school and there’s a threat of a snowstorm, it’s a joyous occasion. Nowadays, they’ll close the school for some flurries and a little bit of ice. But back in the 60s and 70s, you needed at least 6 inches for them to close the schools.

I’d be home watching TV the night before and I would head downstairs every hour or so to look out the front porch windows. I’d look up at the street lights to see if any flurries were starting to fall. If they had begun then there was a good chance the snow was on, but more times than not, it didn’t. We’d go to bed and hope for the best.

The next morning I’d wake up and look out my bedroom window. I couldn’t see much because I slept in the middle room of our house. All I could see was the house next door. So, I’d flip on the radio just like I did every morning to listen to music to start my day.

Listening to music on the radio is where we got most of our music back then. Two stations. WMMR and WYSP. It was all rock and it’s where I found about whatever was popular at the time. I remember hearing the song, Roxanne by a new band called The Police back in 1978. We Will Rock You, and We Are The Champions by Queen were also a pair of firsts on the radio one morning.

But today I would flip the switch on my clock radio to AM from FM to get the local news. KYW News Radio 1060 was the go-to station for all local and national news. Normally on a snow day, they would list all of the schools and state-run buildings that were closed that day. The announcer would read through a list of dozens and dozens of school numbers to say which ones would be closing due to the inclement weather.

But the one thing we wanted to hear was this statement: “All public and parochial schools are closed.”

When you heard those words, you went from a sleepyhead kid who didn’t want to go to school, to a completely energized youngster with sudden boundless energy and excitement.

We all usually played outside as kids, but when it snowed, it was as if our neighborhood was briefly transformed into a day with endless possibilities and fun.

I’d call my friends and we’d make our plans for the day. The schools were closed to keep children safe and off the streets during inclement weather. But we did the exact opposite.

I’d get dressed and come downstairs to have breakfast with my sisters. Captain Crunch cereal, bacon, toast, and a small glass of orange juice to start the day, all courtesy of mom.

After breakfast, it was time to suit up for the day ahead. Heavy coat, hat, boots, and gloves.

Within an hour I’d meet up with my friend Michael and we’d head down to Rising Sun Avenue. Trudging through the snow with our snow shovels. We’d inquire inside a couple of small businesses and ask to shovel their sidewalks. It was an easy gig because there were no steps or driveways to shovel. Quick and efficient, we’d make between $5 and $10 each. Then we’d stop at the little corner store on the corner of Rising Sun and Gilliam Streets, called Kushners. We’d buy some cigarettes and candy. Cigs back then were $0.60 a pack. $0.51 at Rite Aid! Super cheap!

Once we were finished shoveling a couple of walks we’d head back home and drop off the shovels with no thought of doing our own steps or driveways. I’d go into the garage and grab my sled.

I had recently gotten it for Christmas and it was a beautiful Flexible Flyer. An elegant vehicle you could steer that was sturdy and swift. To add to its ability to dash down a snow-covered hill, I’d take an old candle and rub it along the blades of the sled. This made it even slicker and faster.

My little sisters would be out in the driveway, completely bundled up and they would ride their little sleds up and down the driveway. But the older kids knew of a place where the real fun lived on a snowy day.

That place was the Melrose Golf Country Club. https://www.melrosecountryclub.com/

My friends and I would walk south on Hasbrook Avenue to Levick Street. We’d walk west until we reached the crest of the hill that bordered Cheltenham. Across the bridge, over the railroad tracks, and around the cyclone fence that led into the Melrose golf course. It was obviously closed this time of year because the whole place was buried under a blanket of snow. I’d only seen it once before not covered in snow.

Toy Boat

When we got there it was already full of kids and families from all over who also knew about our secret. The whole course was somehow built on an enormous series of hills. Easily a quarter mile to the bottom down to Tookany Creek. I don’t know about other parts of the country, but I’ve never seen a better place to go sledding in my life. The hills were enormous and steep!

The cool thing was, you saw everybody who knew about this place from around your neighborhood. There were no bullies, no victims, no school rivalries. Just kids all playing together with one goal in mind. Have the best day ever in this winter wonderland made just for us.

Folks were sledding down the slopes on everything imaginable. Mostly standard sleds, but there were some people going down the hills six-strong, on toboggans. The crazy brave on their plastic or metal disks, flying over the moguls sometimes backward!

I even saw some kids all piling onto an old car hood flying down the hill to certain disaster. It was insane!

Think of the exercise we were getting back then as kids. Sledding down huge hills and then dragging our sleds back up the steep hills to do it again and again. All-day long!

Top 12 Epic Sledding Hills

We’d immediately get down to the business of having a great snow day. There were several different hills of varying sizes, so there was something for everyone there. Technically it was private property but in all the years we went there, we never had any problems. We’d start off with some of the smaller, less busy hills and then move over to the one main area where most kids were playing. It was an amazing hill. It began with a steep decline so you’d build up speed rather quickly. Midway through the folks who had to build the course had cut a road horizontally through it for the golf carts to navigate along. So this road created the first jump, so to speak.

So when you hit it at high speed, you’d literally become airborne for a few seconds. You had to hold on tight.

Then the descent became even steeper and you flew down the final few lengths. Near the bottom was a couple of inverted moguls in your path. So, basically, you could go around them or be bold and run right through them. The spot was so famous it became known as The Nutcracker. Because if you hit those dips at high speed you dipped into the first one and then became airborne only to land in the second one with a bang. Hence the name coined by the boys in the area.

It was a large course so we were always looking for new hills to sled down. On one trip we happened upon a spot south where you could sled along the golf cart road they had cut through the hill. It zig-zagged down the hill diagonally and then continued on a sharp curve just as it came to a flat wooden bridge for the golf carts to cross over a small brook. The brook led down into Tookany Creek that ran north and south a quarter of a mile west of where we were.

The hill hadn’t been done before because there weren’t any footprints or sled tracks in the area. So we would be first that day. Me being the cautious one was apprehensive about traversing unknown and potentially dangerous obstacles. But fortune favors the bold and my fearless friend Michael on his tiny, lightning-fast sled said he’d go first. God bless him!

It was a small sled, and he had to lie on his belly, bending his knees, curl his legs back towards him. Not only did he have the guts to go first, but he also got a running start. Holding his tiny sled in his hands he dashed towards the edge of the slope. He threw it down, leaped upon it, and began his rapid descent down this uncharted hill.

We all cheered him on as he flew down the hill, zigging and zagging along in perfect formation. We watched in amazement as he perfectly navigated what seemed like a very tricky hill. He got smaller and smaller as his distance increased from the hopeful onlookers.

His ride was brilliant and we all couldn’t wait to take our turn.

That is until Michael reached the flat wooden bridge. You see, the thing about bridges is they are free-standing structures. The rain, snow, and wind whistle around them and they are not only colder in temperature than the surface of the land, they usually freeze.

So, Mike hits the bridge, and instead of going across it, the moment he exits the curve and his tiny sled hits the frozen surface, he flew right off the side of the bridge and disappeared.

It was a terrifying moment as we all ran down the hill to see what had happened to our brave companion. When we finally reached the bridge, there was Michael climbing up the other side of the embankment. He was a little banged up but no worse for wear. He had flown off the side of the icy bridge, didn’t hit the water, but was going so fast, crashed into the opposite side of the embankment. A brilliant “Evel Knievel” moment. We all helped pull him back up to safety.

The world needs kids like Michael. Those in the tribe who are willing to risk life and limb and leap forward to explore new ground. But the world also needs people like me, to stay behind in case something happens to him. I can live another day, to spin the tale of the great Michael around the fire to the surviving tribal members.

https://www.legacy.com/obituaries/name/michael-mitchell-obituary?pid=195833715

We’d stay on those hills and sled most of the day. Sometimes staying out in the cold for more than six hours. You started to know when it was time to go home. Your whole body hurt from being battered on the slopes, and your speech became slurred because your face was so cold. (Either that or we were in the early stages of hyperthermia!)

Sledding hill at Cascades packed as kids enjoy off day from school - mlive.com

We’d all trudge home and go to our respective houses to dry out and rest. I’d lie on the floor and put my stocking feet against the radiator in the living room. My feet actually started to itch from the blood and nerves returning to my frigid limbs.

But it was all worth it. A day off from school to spend with my friends going on a snowy adventure. Satisfied, I’d quietly reflect on the day and sip a mug of hot cocoa provided by my mom.

I miss Michael. He was a good friend.

 

Thank you for reading my blog. Please read, like, comment, and most of all follow Phicklephilly. I publish every day.

You can check out my books here: https://www.amazon.com/s?k=charles+wiedenmann&ref=nb_sb_noss_1

Home Economics and Shop Class

Philadelphia, PA – 1975

If life wasn’t bad enough for me at Fels Junior High, I felt that it was about to get worse. Puberty had erupted all over my body. I was a lousy student, had bad skin, hair, glasses, braces, clothes, etc. I should have just walked around with a target on me so that the bullies, teachers, and parents could always have a clear shot at me. I felt like such a loser.

But it wasn’t all bad. I still had my comic books, my friends, my art ability, and my music. Like everybody else, I’d just have to make the best of it.

But one of the interesting things that happened at Fels was that they finally broke a 20-year tradition at the school. For the first time in two decades, they decided to change things up when it came to certain gender-specific classes they offered at the school.

In 1975 they decided that instead of only boys taking wood and metal shop, now girls would be offered those courses as well. But, that meant boys would have to take cooking and sewing classes.

At first, the boys were outraged that they would be forced to do “girl stuff”. But once we got into it, somehow it wasn’t all that bad.

Former Fels HS building to be demolished - Northeast Times

But before I begin, let me just get a few things out of the way. I’ll tell you what I remember about a couple of the teachers at this school.

Mrs. Lipschutz was my homeroom teacher. When you pronounce her name it sounds like something else. Legend has it that one time she was reprimanding some kid for talking in class and his response was, “If your lip shits, my ass talks!” It’s a juvenile but clever play on words even for a 12-year-old kid.

There was another teacher there who taught algebra named Mr. Dordick. Can you imagine having that as a name working in a junior high school?

There was also a geography teacher there named Mr. Kubell up in room 318. The class was boring to me because all we learned about was Europe. I would always turn to the back of my textbook and read about Australia because it seemed way cooler than anything we were currently learning in class. There was also a story about how Mr. Kubell had been in the military and suffered from shell shock, but I don’t know if there is any validity to that tale.

I had a reading teacher named Miss Ruscoff that I really liked. I was always an avid reader and did well in her class. She actually got married and her new name was Mrs. Dembitzer. My favorite thing about that class was when she brought out an old reel to reel tape player. Every Friday we would listen to old radio shows from the ’40s and 50s. Shows like Suspense and X Minus 1. This was an art form that was before my time. I grew up in a world with television. But I LOVED listening to these old radio shows. They were all based on short stories and acted out in studios and played on the radio back in the day.  What I loved about this medium was that you had to use your imagination. Something I had a surplus of in my brain. On TV and movies, it’s all set up for you. But on the radio, you have to picture the scene using only the actor’s voices and the use of sound effects. To this day, I still tune into Radio Classics on Sirius XM satellite radio and listen to these types of old shows. They still hold up to this day and make you use your mind in a different way than you do to consume the entertainment we’re inundated with now.

Another teacher that was beloved at that school was a gentleman named Mr. DiDonato. I think my sister had him as a teacher but I never did. I just remember him being a really nice guy that had the only class that taught something groundbreaking in school. Computers!

I had a couple of good science teachers as well. Sadly I don’t remember their names, but I remember their words. Science class was always one of my favorites.

Anyway, back to the vocational switch.

The first class the boys in my grade were placed into was a sewing course. At first, it was odd to be in a class like that, and I think a bit unsettling to the teachers. But, once we got going on the fundamentals of sewing it was a really cool class. I think the guys would agree with me on this one. I remember the teacher passed out sheets of lined paper to everyone in the class. We all sat at our sewing machines and learned how to operate the motor and see if we could sew in a straight line along the lines on the paper. A solid exercise before touching any fabric.

She also taught us all of the parts of the sewing machine. Remember how you could lean your thigh against that little metal arm that came down and the motor would accelerate so you could sew like lightning? It was kind of cool.

What I liked best about that class was that you were learning something new and working with your hands. Not just sitting in a boring class listening to some old person talk and reading words in a book. Then being tested on the stuff you read. It was really all about memory and never generating any new ideas. Just boring to me.

But in sewing class, you worked through a project that had a beginning, middle, and an end. We all made shirts! I remember you measured and designed the shirt, then cut it into pieces. The final bit was to sew it all together and then turn it inside out so that all of the seams were on the inside. Boom! You just made yourself a shirt. I loved that!

I even enjoyed cooking class. It wasn’t as fun as sewing class but we made some cool things. Mostly baked goods, but it gave us some great fundamentals for life.

I kind of wish junior high had been more like this. Not every kid is suited to sitting in class after class of boring textbook memory stuff. What if it had been half and half? What if every kid was assessed to what their abilities were? If a kid wasn’t good with the schoolwork stuff, give him more classes where he can use his hands. Teach them the basics. Math, science, reading, and history, but lean their curriculum a bit more towards making things. I think the kids would have been happier and there would be less dissent in the classrooms in junior high. It’s a tumultuous time in every child’s life.

I realize now that most kids that were bullies to me were probably getting the crap kicked out of them by older siblings and their parents at home. Maybe if these children could be given the opportunity to have courses that were more suited to their needs they’d act out less. Give them support and activities where they could work out their negative energy and turn it into making something good. Something they could be proud of. Maybe a little hope that things could change for them. But I could be wrong.

Another class I had was ceramics. Everybody’s first project was a pinch pot. Just an exercise to get our hands accustomed to working with pottery. I had already had years of experience working with clay, so I immediately adapted to the task at hand. My second project was a cool ashtray that I ended up using for years until it finally broke.

I heard funny stories from kids in metal shop that worked on their assignments but also made shurikens. (Asian throwing stars) Which I thought was so cool. I loved the TV show, Kung Fu and would have loved to have made one of those things. What boy wouldn’t? I never had metal shop, but it seemed like another awesome class. It’s probably for the best because with my luck I would have ended up putting some kid’s eye out. I was in enough trouble on a regular basis without any lethal weapons on hand.

Shurikens - Silver | The Specialists LTD

I finally did end up in woodshop and I really enjoyed working on my projects. It was cool to work with such powerful equipment far beyond anything we had in our toolboxes in our basements. I really learned a lot in that class, and I think my peers would agree with me.

I actually still have the little creation I made in that class 45 years ago. It’s been nearly half a century, and it still looks just as it did so many years ago.

A few pieces of wood glued together and then sanded and planed into a  shark. Something I could be proud of that came from a time of such pain. The finished work, something elegant that had been carved by sharp, dangerous objects. It mirrored my own existence in junior high. 

So, even though I had a tough time in junior high, I’m glad I went through it. As painful and awkward as it could be at times, we all experienced it together. For better or worse, it’s all part of our collective history now.

Thank you for reading my blog. Please read, like, comment, and most of all follow Phicklephilly. I publish every day.

You can check out my books here: https://www.amazon.com/s?k=charles+wiedenmann&ref=nb_sb_noss_1

Dating When You’re $120,000 In Debt

I thought my six-figure student-loan debt was making me undatable, but was it really the numbers that kept me from reaching the fourth date?

Here’s one from one of my female readers.

A lot hinges on the third date with a new person. By this point, you’ve seen enough of this potential significant other to determine the direction you want this newfound relationship to go in. A casual fling, your next serious partner, someone you’re sure you never want to see again—that’s all decided by date three. It’s the date on which you show your cards, air your dealbreakers, and hold your breath, waiting for the person on the other side of the table to respond.

So when you do have cards to show, you dread this date—which is how I felt sitting across from a man with whom I could envision a future, my mouth dry and my palms slick, trying to summon the power to reveal what I thought made me incredibly undatable. It was the reason I believed I was still single after countless awkward encounters. But I could tell things were going to progress between us—I was already imagining what falling in love with this beautiful bearded man would be like—and I knew I had to give him a chance to bail. Gathering all my courage, I formed the words I hated saying out loud: “I have student debt.”

After four years at the University of New Haven, a private university I couldn’t afford, and two years earning a master’s degree in journalism from New York University, I was saddled with a $120,000 debt for a career that did not guarantee a hefty return on investment. Although I loved my chosen field, I knew there were less expensive paths I could have taken. On my worst days, I spent hours tossing and turning in bed, desperately wishing I could go back in time and persuade myself to go to a cheaper school. I wished I had understood the gravity of what I was getting myself into, but I am the first child in my family to go to college, and neither my parents nor I truly understood the enormity of the debt I would be shouldering.

I felt suffocated, like I was barely treading water in a storm. I had already cut back in every aspect of my life—living at home with my mom, bringing lunch to work every day, switching to water after only one drink on a night out with friends—and it was barely a life I wanted to live. I couldn’t fathom finding a partner to join me in this misery because, ultimately, who would want to marry that burden?

I started to equate my self-worth with my net worth—and I was in the red.

I always knew dating in New York City was going to be hard. I had never been confident—I was self-conscious about my hips, my laugh, the way I rambled when nervous—and I often thought of a first date as Judgment Day. The few minutes before coming face-to-face with a man I had swiped into existence were always the worst; my heart would beat in my throat as I imagined him sizing me up, mentally comparing me with the person he had imagined me to be.

Being both single and in debt conjures anxiety like none other. You’re already at your most vulnerable while playing the field. Now mix in the possibility of rejection based on your financial situation. I started to equate my self-worth with my net worth—and I was in the red. If you’re worth what’s in your bank account, then I wasn’t just worth nothing. I was less than nothing.

I began to think, Why bother? I felt even if someone liked me for who I was, my finances would send him running. Choosing me meant hitching yourself to my debt—and why do that when someone with fewer financial complications was only a few swipes away?

It didn’t help that those fears had been confirmed. When I casually mentioned to the law student with dark olive skin and bright eyes that I had taken out loans for school, he had all but done a spit take. His eyes went wide and his head jerked back, as though the thought of anyone but your parents paying for college was ludicrous. “For journalism?” he asked. “Good luck ever paying those off!” He laughed, then took a swig of his beer, and a hot wave of shame washed over me. There was no fourth date.

Then there was the tall bass player sleeping on a mattress on a floor in Brooklyn who, despite all better judgment, I was very into. He hadn’t finished school and politely nodded when I broached the subject. In the moment, I felt relieved, but a week later, as I obsessively checked my phone for new messages and racked my brain for reasons he had gone silent, I couldn’t come up with anything other than my debt.

Sometimes the topic would surface naturally in conversation, which makes sense considering roughly one in four Americans are paying off student loans, averaging $28,800 nationally, after graduating. This happened on my second date with a charming physicist. He mentioned how many of his classmates had six figures’ worth of debt. He felt bad for them, he said, but he couldn’t relate. His grandparents had footed his bill. I swallowed hard as my stomach sank to my feet. This time, I didn’t bother bringing up my story; I already knew how this would end. Before we parted ways, we made plans to see each other that weekend, but after two restless nights, I canceled the date, using a canned excuse. “I’m just really trying to focus on work right now,” I said. “It’s not you; I’m just not ready for a relationship.”

Choosing me meant hitching yourself to my debt—and why do that when someone with fewer financial complications was only a few swipes away?

So, in September 2017, with a montage of these memories playing on a loop in my mind, I placed both sweaty palms on the table in front of me, looked into the eyes of the man I hoped to call my boyfriend, and said, “I have student debt. A lot of it.” He blinked once, twice, waiting for me to continue. When I didn’t, he cocked his head. “And … ?” he asked. I blurted: “Like, so much that I’ll probably be paying it off until I’m in my 60s.” He looked at me for a while longer, then shrugged his shoulders. “That blows, but you’ll get through it. You’re a motivated person.” And that was that. It didn’t come up again because he didn’t care. He didn’t like me any less. He didn’t disappear. We kept seeing each other until eventually we decided to date exclusively. My debt wasn’t the dealbreaker I had set it up to be.

Although my debt does come up when we plan for the future, it doesn’t seem like a liability; rather, it’s a challenge we’ll face together when the time comes to make big financial decisions. Since my debt-to-income ratio is skewed, we’ve discussed the possibility of leaving my name off the mortgage if we decide to buy a house. Although my debt is mine alone to pay back, he’s made it clear that I don’t have to weather the mental stress of it by myself.

Months after I bared all, he pointed out that I had gotten worked up for no reason. And that’s when it hit me: Worrying that my debt was making me undatable was what was actually making me undatable—not the debt itself. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy that I was willing into existence by stressing about it. Looking back at each failed date, I see now that it’s a very strong possibility that I was letting my anxieties and the shame I felt when I thought of my debt color how I interpreted the way those men had reacted.

Unless I’m the recipient of some huge windfall, my debt is something I’ll have to hack away at slowly over time, not something that will change overnight. What I can change is the way I perceive it and how I let it affect the way I conduct my life. My net worth doesn’t define me; my actions, my personality, and the way I live my life do. Instead of being heavy baggage, the thing I let determine my dating life, it’s now just another part of who I am. Now, two years after that fated third date, I’ve stopped worrying about it so much. Instead, I focus that energy on the relationship I’m in with the man who sat across from me that night, the one who accepted me for who I was, debt and all.

 

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