Our Home: As presented to the Buffalo Architecture Foundation

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Here’s an august Buffalo structure, a fine example of a turn of the century single family dwelling.

Nestled in a “Parkside” streetscape and neighborhood designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the American Four Square was designed by renowned Buffalo architect E.B. Green and built in 1909 and 1910.

And sometimes, even a house like this, is just a house unless someone comes along to tell its story.

My then girlfriend and I stumbled into this house’s story when we were house hunting in Kenmore. If you can remember all the way back to 1999, there was mostly the Home Finder and the weekend drive to find a house. We’d spent the better part of a few months worth of weekends cruising the streets of the Village of Kenmore; with it’s character-rich homes, friendly tree-lined neighborhoods, and relatively affordable prices.

But we were at wits end. We were willing to do some work on a house, mostly because we couldn’t afford one move in ready in the places we wanted to live. Until one day when we were stopped at the light right before the 33.

We’d traveled through the Parkside neighborhood dozens of times on our trips between Monica’s parents house and the village of Kenmore, but this time, a great old house– like the ones we’d been looking at, caught my eye.

We’d become accustomed to what to look for: Exterior nice, but not too nice, you pay for that. This house had it. And we found out, at a price that we could afford.

The bones of the house, as they say, were perfect, but there was little else (if anything) that was.

Lots of bleach and elbow work; not a single wall or window that didn’t need attention. No problem, though. My grandfather bought an 1880s house with no heat aside from fireplaces and no electricity in the 1950s. He updated it himself. As my grandma famously said, “They had their bedroom in every room” of their house on Hayden Street in South Buffalo.

Despite a ridiculous amount of work that needed to be done, we bought the joint for a song, and I figured, with my 22 year old wisdom, that if I spent all my free time working on the house, we’d have a completed “This Old House” looking home 6 months later. 12 years later, we’re just getting to the upstairs.

The house was built for Laura C. Geib, who had inherited the land. Her sister had already built a house just across the way and Miss Geib, who was a German and Latin teacher at Fosdick-Masten High School, watched her home, one of the first on the block, be built.

In 1909, being a school teacher was not among the better paid professions. In fact, a teacher’s salary barely allowed one to rise to the burgeoning middle class. You can see Geib’s lack of funds in the very sparce decoration. The house is probably the least of any home designed by E.B. Green, and the original elements that remain, like leaded glass windows, the dining room chandelier and sconces and some door hardware, all give the mismatched feel of a Home Depot bargain bin. Our own lack of finances during the remodel continued this tradition.

It may have been finances, or just not wanting to live alone in such a big house. Either way, in 1914, Geib sold the home to Fred and Lucy Walter, who lived there for the next 46 years.

The didn’t have any children, but Uncle Fred and Aunt Lucy were remembered as a “wonderful, cute little old couple” by a niece I was able to track down.

They also had some strange habits. One time working in the attic, I found about a decades’ worth of tax returns and Sisters hospital bills jammed into the wall cavity. The fact that our deed lists “Lucy Walter, invalid” as the seller of the home in 1960, leads one to believe that she may have been suffering from some form of dementia.

The O’Day family bought the home in 1966, and spent the next 34 years raising a huge brood of kids, and always throwing open the doors to cousins or friends who needed a place to stay. The house wasn’t a museum piece or cold “don’t touch sort of place during those years, it was full of life and well lived-in. Mr. O’Day seemed to be a nice enough guy when we bought the house, but I’d be lying it I didn’t admit to cursing at him as I toiled in breathing life back into the house.

Wanting to know more about the house that once stood on the empty lot next door was really the beginning of my exploration of the neighborhood’s history that culminated with the publication of my 2009 book “The Complete History of Parkside, ” which was mostly written at the dining room table in this house.

The dining room was our first living room, while the living room acted as a workshop staging area.

The photos show the walls having been de-wallpapered and re-plastered, the 4 layers of paint stripped from the wainscotting before 7 or 8 layers of finish were applied. The ceiling, so cracked and marred, that we turned to a trick my uncle told me about: We wallpapered the ceiling using embossed wallpaper. It really gives the look of an old fashioned embossed tin ceiling, but it does come at a price. Wallpapering that ceiling is as close as Monica and I have ever come to divorce over the course of our 11 year marriage.

You really get to know a building when you are essentially rebuilding it from within, piece by piece. We’ve never been really sure of what we’re doing, but always have had an eye towards what a house like this “should” look like, whatever that means.

Our kitchen remodel started with a really leaky faucet which was so badly damaged that it couldn’t be fixed. But I couldn’t put a new faucet in such a grungy sink… Nor a new sink in such a low-grade cabinet. My poor wife came home to her kitchen torn down to the studs, and about 6 months of doing dishes in the bathtub.

But luckily, those studs, the bones, are good. That’s amazing, given the number of beer bottles we’ve found jammed in walls and in crawl spaces before the were sealed up. It’s like a tour of the breweries in business in Buffalo around 1910. The craftsmen who built the house may have had a beer buzz for some part of it, but there is also proof of the workers pride in what they were doing.

Throughout the house, the blue-crayon signatures of workmen adorn the backs of wood work.

In the years that I’ve been working in the house, I’ve kept up that tradition with untold numbers of Sharpie signatures and dates, so some future caretaker can know by name who to curse at as he takes down a gerry-rigged something or other.

The last room of the downstairs portion of the house we completed just this past spring, working up to the moment our house was featured on the Parkside Tour of Homes.

One of the first things I did when we got the keys on Valentines Day 2000 was take all the doors down, and strip the paint off the cabinets in the original butlers pantry. Those doors sat in the basement for the next 11 years, again having just gone up this spring.

During our first spring clean up outside, we found a McDonald’s coffee cup that dated back to the 80s. It had been in the yard at least a decade, mixed in with the composted leaves and broken beer bottle bits.

80scup

We were slowly able to plant a few $5 plants, add a little each year, and watch it all grow. We were finally able to put a deck on this past spring, and now really enjoy another part of our home.

It’s a continuing story. It’s one we’re happy to be a part of.

Reformatted & Updated pages from staffannouncer.com finding a new home at buffalostories.com
Reformatted & Updated pages from staffannouncer.com finding a new home at buffalostories.com

Family History Mystery: Either ‘Truth Uncovered’ or ‘Stunning Coincidence’

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Every time I visit my grandpa in the nursing home, he wants to know if I’ve tracked down the “Cichons in Brazil” yet.The family legend is that three Cichon brothers eventually came to America, my great-grandfather and his two older brothers. My great grandfather stayed, his two brothers went on to Brazil.

For decades worth of research and genealogical digging, I’ve have found out exactly NOTHING about the Cichons. We have great family stories, mostly from my grandpa and his sister Mary, but no records, no documents. Don’t know which Polish towns my great-grandparents are from. Don’t know what their parents’ names are. Don’t have anything like the ship manifest that took my great-grandfather and my great-grandmother separately to the New World around 1913. The trail ends cold in Buffalo’s Valley neighborhood.

Cichon isn’t the most common name, but it’s common enough. Especially when you are looking for information on John and Mary Cichon.

The story is, they met and fell in love in Buffalo on Fulton Street, both having just arrived from Poland, and then got married. As far as I can tell, there is no record of their marriage. Not in the likely several churches I checked, not at Buffalo City Hall.

Great-Grandma Cichon’s maiden name is Pochec, a very unusual name. I contacted a guy in Canada with the last name Pochec and an obviously Polish first name. He says all the records of his family’s existence were destroyed in war… The world wars and any other number of wars that have marred that part of Eastern Europe for centuries. Pochec has been a dead end. She was half Polish, “half Turk,” as my grandpa says. Her dad was a baker in the Turkish army.

Great-Grandpa worked as a laborer for National Aniline in their railroad yard for about 40 years. Back in Poland, he was a cobbler. Gramps said his pa always kept the shoe making tools he brought with him from Poland, just in case.

This is about all I have to go on, so when I see some bit of information with potential, I get excited.

My great-grandfather told 3 or 4 different census takers and the World War I draft board that he came here in 1913, so that seems legit. Around 1913, there were no fewer than 8 or 9 guys named Jan or John Cichon taking boats to North America. Anyone of them could be my great grandfather, or none of them could be. One of those ship’s manifests really has set my mind to wonder, though.

It shows 20 year-old Jan Cichon from “Kurowa?,” son of Tomasz, sailing from Holland to meet up with a friend in Connecticut in October 1913. This has the right date, the right name, and this Jan is the right age, but there’s nothing for certain that points to “steerage passenger 13” on the SS Nieuw Amsterdam as being my great-grandfather.

But in going over this two page document, having to shift back and forth between two jpgs of this horizontally long ledger, something that’s just too odd to overlook caught my eye yesterday.

Passenger 21 is a 19 year old German young lady of Polish decent who is on her way to the New World as well. According to the ship manifest, Emilie Rakowska told Immigration officials that she’s on her way to rendez-vous with her brother Heinrich. Heinrich Rawkoski lived in Buffalo at 909 Perry Street. That’s about 10 houses away from the house that the Jan Cichon who is my great grandfather would buy and spent the next 60 years living in.

It’s either an amazing, colossal coincidence, that some other 20 year old guy named Jan Cichon from Poland got on a ship in Holland headed for the US in 1913, and just happened to be on a ship with a woman who was bound for the exact block where another Jan Cichon would arrive in the same year… or Great-Grandpa Cichon wound up in Buffalo chasing a single chick, his age, that he met on the boat ride over here.

I’m just about convinced that this is my dziadzia. How could it not be? I’m going to do some more research on the decent amount of information provided on the John Cichon who was on the New Amsterdam that day, and see if it fits into some of the family stories and lore.

History and genealogy really are cool. Sweeping the cobwebs off the front door is going to have to wait.

Here are the difficult to read documents (edited to make it a little easier):

cichonnieuwamsterdamedit1 cichonnieuwamsterdamedit2

Reformatted & Updated pages from staffannouncer.com finding a new home at buffalostories.com
Reformatted & Updated pages from staffannouncer.com finding a new home at buffalostories.com

It’s an internet column, not a blog

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

BUFFALO, NY – There are few things in life which give me more pleasure than translating into the written word the oddities which are constantly percolating through my brain.

I guess writing is now my hands-down top creative outlet, which is only pretty recently the case.

For many years, radio production was a creative outlet. As a producer of talk radio, you heard my audio fingerprints in the shows I helped put together. Small nuances helped set the mood of the show, made it a smidge more interesting. I did what I could with the limited role I played.

Back then, creativity was manifest in finding the right music beds, or sound bites, or editing together production pieces like show opens and station promos. The intent was to make it all a little more fun and interesting.

In my current job, that’s what I like to think my writing does for the news, as well. Make it a bit more fun and interesting. I’ve become more adept at writing in a style that’s all my own, be it for broadcast or print.

And in my world, writing is special. It’s something that’s all me; purely my voice, sharing my own thoughts in a way I’ve come up with myself.

No one ever showed me how to write, I never actively apprenticed myself to someone. That’s unique for me. I learned how to be a radio producer from John Demerle. Period. I took what I learned from him and made it my own, but it was him at the core of it.

Even way I sound on the radio, my delivery, is actually little pieces of other people. As I was learning to be an announcer, I’d like the way Ed Little or Mark Leitner or George Richert or Susan Rose or Van Miller or Dan Neaverth said something, and I copied that piece, and it became mine. It became part of who I am when my voice is coming out of your car’s dashboard.

Even after 20 years in radio, I listen to myself and know that I said something like George Richert. You wouldn’t know it. George wouldn’t know it. But I know it. And it’s why I think I am so proud of the written aspect of what I do. It’s more purely me.

People enjoy my “unique style” on the radio. And its often admittedly unique. But again, in a dangerous glimpse into my own mind, to me its little more than the sewn together pieces of my interpretation of what someone else has done before. It’s a quilt. There is beauty in a quilt, but there’s also that mutt, leftover scraps facet of a quilt, too.

True artistry isn’t about copying someone else’s style, it’s about reaching deep inside yourself to show the world something that is uniquely your own. That’s what writing is for me. I won’t call it artistry, but I am doing my best to give you a peek inside the chasm that is my brain.

So anyway, I’m writing. But what am I writing? There are certain things implied, I think, when one says, “I’m blogging.”

To me, most blogs, however literary and well constructed, feel like 30 years ago, they would have been written in beautiful long hand, probably in a nicely bound journal or diary.

Others would be lovingly crafted, mimeographed, and mailed out to the few hundred “subscribers” who read about the “newsletter” in the classified section of a magazine.

I imagine that 30 years ago, I would have been clanking away at a typewriter, maybe just putting what I’ve written in a box under my bed. Or trying to get the occasional piece printed in the newspaper’s Sunday magazine.

Its probably all the same thing. I don’t think what I write is any better than a blog, in my mind, it’s just different is all.

And at the end of the day, what I’ve got here is a blog. And I guess that makes me a blogger. I’d just kindly prefer you don’t remind me. Just remember, though, that its just that which is what this blog is about: The almost always different, and admittedly often stupid way my brain works, and the completely ridiculous things I waste my time thinking about. Self-introspection of my looney tune self.

Welcome.

Reformatted & Updated pages from staffannouncer.com finding a new home at buffalostories.com
Reformatted & Updated pages from staffannouncer.com finding a new home at buffalostories.com

Buffalo in the 20’s: Booze Bust in The Valley

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

dryraidelkst

BUFFALO BOOZE BUST… Wouldn’t it have been great if Irv Weinstein would have been around to write Prohibition stories? The papers were filled with them almost every day.

I like this one in particular– because it took place in a bar my ol’man would buy 55 years later.

The text is a bit hard to read:

The Buffalo Sunday Express Sunday December 27, 1925

Cleverly concealed caches of liquor were found hidden under the floor of the barroom in the saloon at no. 807 Elk street, owned by John Doty. A large copper tank, to which were attached two spigots and a siphon, was hiding places for two dozen quarts of rare old whisky.Under the floor and on the stairway were 100 quarts of alleged liquor. Doty will be arraigned on Monday.

In the late 1930s, the path of Elk Street changed as South Park Avenue was created out of several South Buffalo and First Ward streets. What was number 807 Elk –at the corner of Smith Street– in 1925, is now 207 Elk (sadly, a vacant lot.)

I’m a hoarder, but it’s ok: I hoard cool stuff

By Steve Cichon | steve@buffalostories.com | @stevebuffalo

There are two kinds of people: Those that save, and those that throw out. Me? Um, are you really asking? The problem is, I have bunches or really cool stuff that make other people jealous. Stuff that I don’t need, and would be happy to get rid of, until someone reminds me how great it is.

I really have a hard time watching TV shows like “Hoarders,” because I know I’m only a bad break in life away from being that way. Every piece of nonsense I own has a story, and a possible future use. Every once in a while, I get brave and do a little cleaning. I bring a few bags to the curb, a few bags to AMVETS, set aside another pile for future eBay sales.

As a junk collector of some renown, and having produced two books and millions of web hits to staffannouncer.com mostly through the efficacious use of my junk, I now not only find my own new junk, but have people bringing it to me. I’m like Oscar the Grouch… “I LOVE TRASH!!”

I use the pejorative junk, because that’s mostly what it is to most people. But just like some amazing people can turn utter refuse it amazing art, I can turn old magazines and newspapers and store receipts and slightly soiled napkins and other nonsense into memory joggers for people. I love it, but it’s dangerous. It’s like a heroin addict working in a methadone clinic.

I’m making light of it, but it really is a borderline problem. I have rules about what I allow myself to even look at, let alone buy. Paper stuff, as in two dimensional things are OK. And it has to be related to Buffalo. Local stuff only. These are all things that I can share with people on my website, and allow them to share in my love of my junk.

I’m slowly weeding out of my piles—err collection– anything that doesn’t fit into those categories. I have huge stamp, coin, and sports cards collections that someday I’ll get rid of… Doesn’t fit the profile, even though these collections date back to when I was 6 or 7 years old.

This was the stuff I wanted in 1st and 2nd grade. There was an antique store on Seneca Street near my Grandma Cichon’s house. Grandma Cichon, an unabashed garbage picker, junk collector, and total hoarder. Anyway, in the window of that antique shop, there was an Iroquois Beer light. It was $10, and I was saving up to buy it. I was 9 or 10. My grandmother bought me that light for Christmas that year. Major encouragement in junk collection. You losers were getting Transformers, GI Joes, and Barbie dolls. Me? Iroquois Beer lights. Old Buffalo stuff. I couldn’t have been more happy. Of course I still have it.

pepsimachineAll this came to mind as I thought about the old Pepsi machine in the back of my garage.

I was 12 or 13 years old, and had $20 or $25 burning a hole in my pocket. I wanted something cool to spend it on, and *the* place to look for cool stuff, aside from SuperFlea, was the SwapSheet. Should you not know, this was a weekly newspaper filled with classified ads from all over Western New York.

I remind you that we lived in Orchard Park, when I found the very sparse ad (they charged by the word) that said something like “PEPSI MACHINE. $25. (Wilson)” That’s the Town of Wilson, waay up north in Niagara County. I called, and made arrangements. He still had the Pepsi machine. It was soon to be mine.

I can very clearly remember sitting on the school bus on my way to Orchard Park Middle School thinking how cool it was going to be to have a Pepsi machine in my room. It was going to be like Silver Spoons, where Ricky Schroeder had all those video games in his living room. There were so many questions I forgot to ask. I was picturing a tall machine where the front was a light box, with some vintage illuminated Pepsi logo on it. He said there was a light. It’s all I thought about for days. Not that I did math homework anyway, but I’m sure I didn’t then.

What made me want to write about this was thinking about my dad in all this. He was generally an impatient man, didn’t know how to get anywhere, terrible with directions, and not very mechanically inclined. There weren’t many times in my childhood that all these obstacles were overcome solely for my benefit, but getting this Pepsi machine was certainly one of those times. I know my ol’man was probably just as excited as I was about getting this thing as I was; it was the only way it could have happened.

I know we had to pull the back seats out of our 1985 nightwatch blue Dodge Caravan. This almost certainly involved cursing by the ol’man. We then had to drive from Orchard Park to a farm in Wilson. I know we spent at least an hour getting there, and got lost at least once. More cursing. We pulled up to the garage, and the guy opened the door…

I was terribly disappointed by the short, ugly not all-that-lit-up 1965 Pepsi machine of which I was about to take delivery. But I really couldn’t say no, especially after the long ride— So somehow, this heavy, molding barn smelling, one-time automated purveyor of ice cold soft drinks was loaded into the Caravan, and was driven back home to OP with the back hatch open.

I tried to fill it with the then-available 16 oz glass bottles, but they were too long, wouldn’t fit. The way the slots were rigged, you can’t put cans in the machine. It was made for obsolete 8 oz glass bottles. I had an ugly pop machine which I couldn’t fill with pop. Neither the coin mechanism nor cooling system worked. I had fun yanking them out and taking them apart, and dropping the weight of the beast by a little bit, anyway. There wasn’t much else I could do it with it.

It was a cool enough thing to have in your room, a Pepsi machine, even if it was a dumb disappointing one. It was in my room until I moved out of my parents’ house. For the last dozen years, it’s sat in the back on garage, and I’ve given it very little thought.

Until today. Trying to be droll in explaining on Facebook that I have too much junk, I mentioned I even have an old Pepsi machine sitting in my garage. This was meant to leave people with a sense of, “My goodness! What massive amounts of total crap this guy has!”

Instead, it was met with, “How cool! Can I be you friend because you have a Pepsi Machine? I will buy it from you for millions of dollars!”

First of all, where were you people when I was in middle and high school and needed Pepsi machine friends. But second, it made me think, maybe for the first time ever, as this clunker as something more than a boat anchor and a net negative and drag on my life.

Yesterday, I probably would have given it to someone to take it out of my garage, which would have made my wife immeasurably happy.

But just like that, today, it’s a very nostalgic piece intertwined with my relationship with my dad, my relationship with junk collecting, and something I’m trying to figure out how to get restored to at least look (and smell) good.

It’s the problem with being someone who keeps things. When you want to get rid of something, you have to strike while the iron is hot. Because it doesn’t take much to decide that something you were just ready to get rid of has all the sudden become a treasured heirloom.

A Friend & Brother at 40

Hopefully this is better than a lightbox sign with the message “LORDY, LORDY, LOOK WHO’S 40!” on your lawn

By Steve Cichon | steve@buffalostories.com | @stevebuffalo

To call this guy one of my best friends just doesn’t feel strong enough. For months, as his 40th birthday has approached, I’ve tried to think of some fun or funny or nice or meaningful way to let him know that I love him… or at the very least, make him laugh and remind him of his own mortality on this day that he enters his fifth decade on this planet.It’s been tough coming up with something that has just the right feeling to it. Forty pink flamingos on his lawn would be perfect, but this is a guy who’d actually like that a little too much.  I had some ideas for “stuff” or “events” that we’d both probably think great, but our wives not so much.

steveandmartyHowever, like many things in my life, I was filled with intentions, but it only got that far. “Marty’s Birthday” appeared on at least a dozen to-do lists, and wound up like many other things on those lists– undone.

So here I sit, the day before that big day, with nothing to show for it, except for what I am about to write.  Now I fully realize that a blog post as a birthday present is really about the grown-up equivalent of a homemade card with macaroni and glitter glued on,  but it’s the best I’ve got right now.

I was a 16 or 17 year old board operator at  WBEN when we met; he was just finishing up college, and had joined the weekend news staff at WBEN.  We both thought we were pretty freaking cool, living the dream working at W-freaking-BEN.

There’s really no doubt that providence brought us together.

We share a love for news and politics, and seem to come at it from the same perspective.

We both shared a love for Buffalo and its history, especially it’s broadcasting history. We both had the same 1959 WKBW aircheck memorized when we met. Just ask him what happened at “the fire at the George Root, Jr. farm in the Cattaraugus County Village  of Randolph” the next time you see him.

We’re both Polish-Americans, interested in learning more about and celebrating our roots. We’re both garage sale shoppers, garbage pickers, and packrats, which has now helped up both celebrate Buffalo’s pop culture history on our websites. We both shared an interest in hearing the stories of people like our friend and co-worker Ed Little.

The kicker was, we both wore bow ties, at a time when Irving R. Levine and Pee Wee Herman were the only other two people in America doing so (even Charles Osgood was mixing in the occasional necktie then.)

I remember thinking then, “Wow! Radio’s great! A few months in, and I’m already meeting people who are just like me,” thinking that dorks like us grew on trees, and that I’d be meeting similar people left and right. Luckily for society, the day I met Marty almost 20 years ago, was the last time anyone has even come close.

Marty is like a brother to me, really the big brother I never had; a mentor and someone I have really looked up to since those weekend days we worked together at 2077 Elmwood Avenue.

He introduced me to many of my Buffalo radio and TV heroes for the first time. I’d met Danny Neaverth at Bells as a tiny kid, but Marty introduced me to him broadcaster to broadcaster. That same night, I met Irv Weinstein, John Zach, and Taylor & Moore, too. My head was spinning. He took me to tag along at great broadcasting events he’d been invited to, or to stop by Stan Jasinski’s show on a Sunday morning. Or over to Jack Mahl’s house.

Marty’d give me a call, and ask if I wanted to go to Cleveland or Hamilton to take some photos or check out the sites. We’d climb into his Honda Civic, and I couldn’t have thought of any better way to spend my time. Not as great, but still there for me; Marty also drove me home the first time I ever got drunk in that Civic. I was about 17 and it was at a WBEN Christmas Party.

He gave me an autographed picture of Ed Little as a high school graduation present. “JUDAS PRIEST,” says the inscription. I  laugh every time I think about what Ed must has said when Marty asked him to sign that.

It might not sound like much, but these were some of the great experiences of my young life. Discovering a friend with the same strange interests in the same weird stuff.

I wouldn’t be who I am today were it not for my brother Marty Biniasz, who continues to blaze the trail, inspire me with his passion and hard work, and nudge me when I need it. The guy has done more before 40 than most do in a lifetime.

So, this is a really crappy birthday present… a rambling essay just to let you know that I love you, brother. But it was either this, or a YouTube video featuring some really embarrassing audio that was at the end of a tape you dubbed for me once… I think it’s a 15 year-old Marty pretending to be Danny Neaverth introducing Perry Como records. You have to be pleased I chose this.  And of course, there’s always hope that Eddy Dobosiewicz will do something with flamingos.

So “sto lat,” and Happy 40th Birthday to my mentor, my friend, my brother.

Donuts & Booze: Happy Birthday 60th Birthday, Dad

By Steve Cichon | steve@buffalostories.com | @stevebuffalo

Today my ol’man would have been 60 years old. I miss him, but he’s really not that far away… He fills my heart and my brain.

For example, were he around today, it would’ve gone like this: We’d walk in the door, and he’d yell in an exaggerated voice, “WHERE’S MY PRESENT? DID YOU BRING ME A DONUT?”

He was racked with pain and depression most of the time towards the end, and it was always nice to see him happy and fired up.

Now as far as that present, I think he knew more often than not what I’d be giving him, but I don’t think he allowed himself to expect it. To add the gravitas of it all, I often brought it over unwrapped in it’s natural state.

The boisterousness would instantly turn to whisper, and his Marine Corps-bred instincts would kick in.

DAD DRINKING AN OLD MILWAUKEE TALL BOY, 1984
DAD DRINKING AN OLD MILWAUKEE TALL BOY, 1984

“Don’t tell your mother,” he’d much too loudly whisper, brown bottle in hand. As he’d begin to think of a good hiding spot, it would dawn on him.

“Why didn’t you get me the bigger bottle?,” he’d demand, back in that same tone as Where’s my present but at a hushed volume.

It was an ongoing discussion between Dad and me. He’d rather have a $7 two gallon jug of whiskey from the paint thinner aisle of the liquor store, but I’d always buy him one of those smaller, flat-plastic-flask-shaped bottles, like you find laying around the park on a Saturday or Sunday morning. The kind of bottles they keep behind the counter. The kind of bottles Kesslers or Old Grandad don’t usually come in.

Dad wanted more, and wanted it to be cheaper for me. I wanted to give my ol’man a taste, but not too much. He was a diabetic, was on about a million pills. The booze messed with his blood sugar and some of those pills. He didn’t care. He liked a little whiskey in his iced tea or diet ginger ale or diet lemon-lime.

The bottle also had to be plastic, because the diabetic neuropathy dad had in his hands was so bad, he could barely feel them. His hands didn’t work too well.

So it was a small plastic bottle, and I was happy to be the ol’man’s hook up. Of course you hope he’ll live forever, but if you told my dad that by giving up booze he’d live another six months, he would have comically shoved a glass in your face and told you to Fill’er up.

He smoked on and off from the time he was in grade school, and ate more donuts than any other diabetic heart patient in the history of man. Those were his choices. And though they made me sad, and I’d encourage otherwise constantly, I couldn’t make the decision for him. Same with the booze. The only thing stopping him from having a drink was his inability to get to the liquor store.

Now he wasn’t an alcoholic or anything, but he liked a drink. And didn’t care what it did to him. His rough physical state of well being was actually better than his sorry emotional state, so making him happy was important to me. And I’m pretty sure getting that bottle as a gift made him happier than the actual drinking did.

Also, inevitably would come the reminder that we had to be nice to him because it was his birthday, and because he was moving soon, and not going to tell us where he was moving to.

“Some honey just told your ol’man he looks like he’s about 28,” he’d say, just like he had at probably every birthday since he was 29.

Dad died way too young, but I’m glad not before at could laugh at his stupid jokes and the dumb things he’d say over and over again. I see a few people I’m close to finally appreciating their parents as people for the first time, and enjoying them with all their faults. It’s tough with parents, because it’s literally a lifetime’s worth of baggage we carry in dealing with them.

For dad’s birthday, please do him the honor of trying to accept some of the stupid stuff your mom or dad might do. And please give them a hug and tell them you love ’em.

I did that all the time with dad, and it still doesn’t feel like it was enough.

Happy birthday, ol’man.

Fathers Day 2011: Some Thoughts on All the Fathers in my Life

By Steve Cichon | steve@buffalostories.com | @stevebuffalo

I’ve been blessed with fathers in my life. I was lucky to have the best dad that anyone could ever ask for; which is what every son and daughter created in their old man’s image will say. I mean how can I not: from my stubby fingers, to untold numbers of personality traits both wonderful and not-quite-as wonderful, I’m a spitting image of my dad in so many ways, how can I deny it?

I’ve written a lot about my dad. Click on “The Ol’man” in the word cloud and you’ll see plenty about him.

I love and miss my dad every day, but what I’d like to talk about today is the other fathers in my life, and I’m lucky to have and to have had many.

I’m so blessed to have enjoyed the love and care of three grandfathers.

First, Stephen Julius Wargo, my great grandfather, after whom I was named. My mom’s grandpa. He lived a few blocks away from us, and when I had to go home for lunch in first grade, I would occasionally bring a can of chicken noodle soup over to Grandpa W’s house for us to share, with enough left over for his dinner. He also famously fixed my Dukes of Hazzard big wheel, when the piece between the handlebars and the big wheel broke. I sadly dragged the pieces down to his house, but triumphantly rode my orange plastic treasure home a week later. He was always smiling, kind of a troublemaker, and happy that as a revered old guy, he could get away with it. Like on Christmas, when he wouldn’t fully open a gift; but would only lift up the edge of the paper to see what was in there. A master aggravator!

Jimmy Coyle was my mom’s dad. He took over sending out cards and such after my grandma died, and I know I got at least one signed “Jimmy Coyle” from gramps. A big strong man, Gramps was the old fashioned kind of strong silent type that you might see in the westerns that he loved. When I was little, and we’d be there for dinner, he’d come home from work, and within moments be sharping the big knife in anticipation of carving up the big roast beef that Grandma just pulled out of the oven. I always felt an extra compulsion to behave and eat everything on my plate, with my regular seat next to Gramps. We would often be at Grandma and Grandpa’s house the night he did grocery shopping, and he would buy a special treat for us for ‘helping’ put away the groceries (I was no more than 5 or 6, and I’m the oldest… So I don’t think we were much help.) It was usually green Chuckles (like the spearmint jelly candies) and we earned ’em. I also remember going with him in his old green jalopy of a pickup truck (it was actually a van with the back some how cut off) to the hardware store, where I can remember him using his old wooden fold out measure to see how much wood he needed. I don’t think he ever used a metal measuring tape. As we all got older, you could tell how satisfied Gramps was when his house would fill on holidays. One of his last great thrills though, came on one of his saddest days. On the day of Grandma’s funeral, he took ‘all of June’s gambling money,’ and funded an impromptu Irish wake at a hole in the wall bar. He had so much fun drinking and really just hanging out with his kids and especially his grandkids, he talked about it with a smile until the day he died.

I’m blessed that Grandpa Cichon is still as loving and lovely a man you’d ever meet at the age of 85. If the world had a few more people like Eddie Cichon, there’d be fewer coupons to go around, but a lot more happiness and love. Gramps always delighted in whatever kids were around, especially any of us 20-something grandkids. When we were small, he’d take us to the park, and sit and watch us play until we wore out. One of his classic lines, Go catch grandpa a bird, would leave us kids sneaking up on birds seemingly forever. We never caught one. Dinner was a little different at Grandma Cichon’s. The table was completely set, everyone was in place, waiting for Gramps to get home from work. His seat was a direct shot from the front door, he’d sit right down, say the fastest grace on record, ‘BlessLordGiveBoutToReceiveChristLordAmen,’ and quickly add a ‘OK, let’s eat.’ And eat you did with Gramps. A child of the Depression, he clipped coupons, and stored them under a couch cushion. He’d try to use expired ones. And he’d buy it whether he needed it or not. “But Huns,” he’d tell Grandma, “It was on sale.” Then he’d try to make you eat it or take it home. For as hard a time as I have had with my Dad’s death, poor gramps not only lost a son, but a best friend. My dad used to bring him donuts to the nursing home whenever he’d visit. It had probably been at least a year since he had one, when I brought two up a few weeks ago. He’s blind, so when I told him what a I had there with me, he said, with all the gravity and earnestness you can imagine, ‘Stevie, donuts are as good as gold.’ And there’s no doubt he meant it.

September 29, 2001, I some how shanghaied my beautiful wife into saying ‘I do,’ and I gained not only a wife, but a whole family. I don’t even like referring to Howard Huxley as my father-in-law, because father is really enough. He’s probably tearing up reading this, and that’s what I love about him. He loves his family, and loves and appreciates that his family loves him.

He’s really the ultimate proud parent, traveling to just about everyone of my brother-in-law’s baseball games. And the games were an hour and a half away, at night, and he had to be up for work at 3am. And just this week, he was there shooting video of my well-into-her 30s wife, as she took the slide into Jell-O for charity, with no less excitement than when he was there taking pictures at her 1st grade dance recital. I know it’s tough on him that his other daughter and granddaughter are in Florida, but it really makes the times we’re all together that much more special for him and all of us. Personally, I’m thankful and blessed that all this love and pride has extended to me, too. Howard’s my biggest fan, showing up to all my silly events, always listening to the radio, and just being a good guy, good friend, and good dad.

Growing up, I also became close with the fathers of a number of friends, like Bob Cohen, the late Dr. Fanelli, and Don Brindle. Each of them cared for me not only like the friend of a son; but like a son, and I them like a parent.

I think I’ve made it pretty clear that I think Fathers Day is about more than just biological dads. We actually call our Catholic priests ‘Father,’ and two in particular have meant the world to me.

Msgr. Francis Braun was really the first priest I’d ever gotten to know and love on a personal level. He’s from the same no-nonsense old school as my Grandpa Coyle, has the heart of my Grandpa Cichon, and a lot of the ‘I’m doing what’s right-get out of my way’ attitude of my dad. I’m glad he’s enjoying his retirement with his fellow retired brothers in Christ, despite his having told me more than once that ‘old priests are a pain in the neck,’ and not always using the word ‘neck.’

Fr. Braun was the pastor at my church, so it’s pretty clear how he came into my life. But it’s a little less clear how Father John Mack did.

He is the little angel who sits on my shoulder,and helps shine the beacon of Christ’s love into places I didn’t know existed.

I’m humbled by his continued guidance and friendship, and I consider myself blessed to have a spiritual father to love and trust right here in the flesh. His presence in my life (and my Facebook life) “keeps me honest.”

Of course the big guy, the Father of all men, is also someone that I have to be thankful for; for blessing me with all these great men and great memories and great hope for the future.

Max the Dog: 15 Jun 2001- 14 May 2011

By Steve Cichon | steve@buffalostories.com | @stevebuffalo

maxfamily

As I begin to write this, I’m sitting here, typing with one hand on my phone, petting Max with the other, waiting for the call from the vet to bring him in. For the last time.He hasn’t eaten in 5 days, won’t even look at food. Can’t drink more than a few laps without spitting it up.

X-rays show a big tumor blocking up his belly.

Max came to us from the SPCA almost a decade ago. He was Monica’s first real pet, and the first pet I’ve ever had any real emotional attachment to…

We had dogs growing up, and they were ok, but in a house of 5, I was certainly less connected to Buckshot, Snoop, or Casey than my parents or brother or sister.

Casey fell in love with Monica when we were dating, and it was that literal puppy love which helped Monica get over the emotional scars of a dog bite from when she was a little girl (even though she’ll still tell you ‘Butch is in hell.’)

With Butch in hell,emotional scars healed, and us newlyweds in a big house, Monica decided she wanted a dog. When Monica decides she wants something, she starts researching.

maxtoysEarly research took her to the SPCA website, and the page featuring a friendly mutt named Max.

I don’t remember exactly what was in that write up, but he sounded like my kind of dog, and the photo showed he was a handsome and sweet looking character. It did mention that he was a mixed breed of unknown origin (they said shepherd/lab, but who knows?), and they said that though he showed some signs of abuse (his tail was chopped and his ears were cut), he was still very loving.

When we went to go visit this young man at the SPCA, Max was the only dog sitting quietly with anticipation, while the rest were barking and trying to get our attention.

I walked up to the chain link cage he was in, put my hand up to it, and he gave my hand a quick, dry lick. One of my big hang ups– any dog we got couldn’t be a slobberer.

maxpraysThat quick visit, and that dry lick, had me convinced on Max. In her heart, Monica was, too, but this was an early instance of a discussion we’ve had many times during our marriage. I always say, if you’ve found something you like, and it’s reasonable, just pull the trigger.

Even though Monica’s patience has saved us hundreds on airfares, for example, this time it cost us a dog we both wanted.

She really liked him, but said let’s think about, let’s wait. So, we didn’t get him that day.

When, a couple days later, we went back, convinced on Max, ready to sign the paperwork, we found his cage empty.

He’d been adopted. Very traumatic, especially for Monica who’d had her heart set on this creature.

We went home and regrouped. Scanned the SPCA website again, and were ready to go meet some more animals.

maxstevehaleyWe pulled in to the parking lot, and there, literally being taken out of a minivan and back into the shelter, tail wagging the whole time… None other than Max the Dog!

You wouldn’t have believed it if it was written this way in a Hallmark movie, but here it is playing out on Ensminger Road.

He was too energetic, said whomever it was that tried him on for a few days.

Clearly, divine providence brought this fur bag into our lives. I have believed this from day one.

There’s always that feeling out period for both the dog and the people… He was deathly afraid of the crate, so we blocked off an area in the front hall with baby gates. He was afraid of the baby gates, too, this 60 pound dog.

Eventually, though, he gained free roam of the house and our hearts.

maxcarwindowFor about two years, I woke up every morning to the sound of him killing the washcloth Monica had just washed her face with. Actually, I woke up to the sound of him thrashing the washcloth in his mouth about half the time. The other half, I woke up to Monica swearing about the dog and the washcloth.

We agreed early on that we’d keep him off the furniture, and I’d yell at him if he was found on the couch or on the bed. What I eventually found out, was Monica was letting him up on the couch and bed when I wasn’t home. All and all, it’s fair to say Max got more use out of my bed over the last decade than I did.

After he gave up the washcloth, this beast found a new way to wake me up. He’d repeatedly back his rump into the bed, until I reached over and gave the whole area around his tail a good scratching, then he’d hop into bed, and lay with his back stretched out against mine, laying like a human with his head on the pillow.

This dog really had a near perfect personality. He was always happy and hopeful. A bit high maintenance, but he paid it back. He’d just walk up, give you one of those dry licks on the hand and walk away. Nothing wanted, nothing needed. Just a hello.

maxporchHe was a great dog, but he had a pea sized brain. He knew quite a few words. There were three different words for outside.

Outside is where you went out the back door. Porch is where you went out the from door, and the side door, well, that’s from where you went for a walk. Probably half of his vocabulary revolved around walks. he knew the work walk, the word leash, and if you just said the word, “Go,” and left it dangling the right way, he’d think you were inviting him for a walk whether you were or not.

Other words he knew: Bowl, as in his food bowl; bed, as in it’s time for bed, so I’d better run upstairs and try to claim my place on the bed; he also knew toy; and Momma and Poppa, as in, Where’s your Momma. He’d always take me to Monica.

I tried to insist that I wasn’t a poppa, but a ‘male owner.’ Max never understood that.

His favorite word though, beyond a doubt: cheese.

He could hear the cheese drawer open from anywhere in the house, even the yard. He also knew the sound of American cheese singles being unwrapped, and could some how differentiate between that and other plastic wrappers.

maxbegHe begged for cheese in the same way he’d beg for at dinner. It wasn’t really aggressive, it was just passive and pathetic. Sitting at attention, eyes fixed on the prize, drips of drool in the corners of the mouth ands on the floor, and the occasional paw in the air or on the leg. He knew he had to ‘sit’ and give ‘paw,’ two more of his words.

Sometimes he wouldn’t beg, but use the tricks he’d learned to get what he wanted. Like ask to go outside, make a quick circle on the back porch, and head back in expecting a treat. He was funny with treats. He’d look in your hand; if it was empty, he knew to look in his bowl. For something extra special, you could tell him, upstairs… and he would run to the top of the stairs to wait for his treat.

Max was probably a world record holder in two categories. Number of photographs taken of a dog, and number of nicknames. He knew all of his nicknames. Most curse words he responded to, but also Stinky boy, smelly man, The Stinky Man on Campus, little man, Mr. Man (like the old lady on the Blues Brothers), young man, old man, gray beard, fur bag, fur ball, fur burger, MTD the PYT (think Michael Jackson), buddy, pal, really you name it. Many of these were also set to songs. There’s a third record. No dog has ever had more impromptu songs written and sang about him to him. Ever.

It’s also a little known fact that Max talked. It was through me,but he did have his own distinct voice. He mispronounced big words, and made a lot of jokes about Monica, but he always apologized. I think it’s comforting for both Monica and me that some how Max can still communicate with us from the other side.

Whenever we’d walk in the door, most times you’d see one of two things: Either him standing on the landing on the stair case wagging his tail, or, if we fumbled around outside enough, you’d see nothing but a tail wagging through the window on the door on the other side of the foyer. Maybe a nose sticking through if that door was cracked open.

maxwindowWhen I was home and Monica wasn’t, there wasn’t a sound he loved more than the sound of her car doors locking with that half beep. He’d be watching out the front window, nosing open the curtains, tail wagging– rear end wagging, actually, in anticipation of the whole family being together again. He get really excited at the notion.

When sitting in the living room, we often knew the other was home by the thump-thump sound of Max jumping off the bed in the bedroom above us. He was getting up to greet. Part of his job, along with sniffing and licking.

He’d stand on the porch and wiggle if someone’d open the front door. A greeting from Max meant you’re home.

He loved to sniff bags as we came home from shopping, and liked clothes and shampoo as well as food.

Good ol’ Max was a lover, not a fighter. Never bit anyone. Never. Not even playing. He’d growl pretty mean sometimes, look like he was going to bite, but then lick.

maxbedHe did this most nights, when it was time to leave our bed, go outside, and then go on his bed.

Just a ‘Hey, Max…’ and he knew what was up. Sometimes he’d go without a fight. Sometimes he’d try to be dead weight and not move…. Growl when I’d grab his collar… and then sometimes, if he really didn’t feel like going, he’d go and sit on Monica. Oh yeah, Max was a 60 pound lap dog.

He wasn’t tough at all. One time, on a walk, a big dog came running off a porch at us; Max got behind me.

Another time, a little bunny got stuck in between the rails of our iron fence. He was really jammed in there good. Max just sat there, in the rain, and whined.

There weren’t many rabbits in the yard, because that was Max’s territory. He walked the perimeter a dozen times a day on patrol.

In the winter, you’d look in the smallish square city backyard, and see paw prints all around the outside, but no tracks at all in the middle.

And though it was across the street, he also considered the walkway into the park part of his territory. Which meant a lot of barking, every time someone walked with their dog into the park. Dozens of times a day. It was a friendly bark though, more or less trying to get the other dogs to come over to play, tailing wagging the whole time. That is, except for the ugly dogs.

These three or four rare breeds live around the corner from us, and their owner takes them on walks, one right after another. Max’s fur gets up, and its an angry bark when these dogs use his path into the park. He did not like these ugly dogs. Not one bit. They may have been the only creatures on this planet Max ever hated.

maxwatchparkAside from warning us the 16 times the ugly dogs walked by everyday, Max did have one real watch dog moment in the sun.

One Saturday morning, Max was barking, strangely, out the back window very loudly.

We let him outside, and he was barking crazily with fur up at the garage door.

The lock was broken off, and some crack head looking for something to steal was still in there. My good boy barking like crazy sent the crack head out the back window into a neighboring yard, where he leapt over a 6 foot fence. Dude must have been high as a kite.

It’s still a popular debate whether Max would have licked or bit the guy had he run out the front door.

I could write stories for days, but the bottom line is, this bag of fur has brought more joy and left me more in awe of God’s wonder than few other other things in life.

The end came quickly. Tuesday we went for a great walk through the park and through the neighborhood.

Wednesday, we woke up to vomit all over the hallway. He didn’t get any better Thursday, and wasn’t eating or drinking. Still throwing up, and going to the bathroom in the house.

Friday, the vet does x-rays, gives some medicine, says let’s see what happens tomorrow. My heart sank. I knew what had to be done. Monica was texting me from work, asking what’s going on at the vet. I tried to be vague, but Monica is too smart for that.

His last day, that Friday night, he spent a lot of time laying in that yard he used to patrol. Listless. Trying to drink a little, only to spit it up.

Monica and I sat with him on the grass, and petting him, trying to make him comfortable, and at least happy that the family was together.

I know I was thinking of the times when he’d run in circles around the yard, started off with a ‘Hey Max!’ and taking an exaggerated step in his direction.

He spent his last night on our bed with us, a treat usually only reserved for thunderstorms or when we’d feel guilty about leaving him home alone too long.

None of the three of us slept really well; so we got up early that Saturday, and went to sit on the porch. Porch was probably Max’s third favorite word. He laid there, very weak after having not eaten or been able to keep down even water for 4 days as we waited for the vet to call.

We knew what was coming, but it was still like a sucker punch to hear the vet say euthanasia that morning.

He had been doing a little better that morning… Even though we knew better, we had hoped with the kind of hope that Max showed every time we put sneakers on (No Max, we had to tell him… We’re not going for a walk.)

But Max was happy when they brought in the fluffy bedspread for him to lay down on, another rare treat from the hard tiled floor at the vet’s office.

Monica and I were both crying. She sat in the chair petting him, I got on the floor and cradled his head on my leg and pet his neck. With his collar off. Man, he loved getting his neck scratched underneath his collar.

They sedated him, and when he was comfortable on that bedspread on the floor, as I held him, and Monica pet him, the vet gave the final injection. It wasn’t even 30 seconds when I watched my little buddy’s eyes roll up in his head. I’m glad I was there, actually, I owed it to him. But I really wish I hadn’t seen his eyes roll back. I’ll cry whenever I think about it for the rest of my life.

Once he was gone, my attention quickly turned to Monica, and we held each other, and pet our great friend one last time.

stevemaxThe thing about a dog is, it’s only his presence, his company. He doesn’t remember your birthday, he doesn’t help you move, he won’t do a lot of the stuff you hope for, or even expect from, a great friend.

But the one thing dogs are.. is there. They are there. Always. It’s never more stark than when they aren’t.

Right now, there are empty spaces in my heart that I never even realized were full.

And yes, I know I’m talking about a dog here.

Max laid with us when we were sick, relaxed with us, protected us, loved us.

The skeptical ask, love? And I say, yes; maybe not like on our human level, but yes.

What is love? The desire to be with someone; to feel safe with someone; to be willing to be vulnerable with someone; to lay your head in someone’s lap and sigh loudly, knowing you’re in a good place.

Now Max’s pea sized brain may not have been able to combine all of those emotions into the single, complex human emotion of love, but on his level, I know he loved me.

I know because I felt it every day, and still do.
maxtoy

maxcurly

Maxbabushka

Max the Dog: 15 Jun 2001- 14 May 2011

By Steve Cichon | steve@buffalostories.com | @stevebuffalo

BUFFALO, NY — As I begin to write this, I’m sitting here, typing with one hand on my phone, petting Max with the other, waiting for the call from the vet to bring him in. For the last time.

maxfamily

He hasn’t eaten in 5 days, won’t even look at food. Can’t drink more than a few laps without spitting it up.

X-rays show a big tumor blocking up his belly.

Max came to us from the SPCA almost a decade ago. He was Monica’s first real pet, and the first pet I’ve ever had any real emotional attachment to…

We had dogs growing up, and they were ok, but in a house of 5, I was certainly less connected to Buckshot, Snoop, or Casey than my parents or brother or sister.

maxtoys

Casey fell in love with Monica when we were dating, and it was that literal puppy love which helped Monica get over the emotional scars of a dog bite from when she was a little girl (even though she’ll still tell you ‘Butch is in hell.’)

With Butch in hell,emotional scars healed, and us newlyweds in a big house, Monica decided she wanted a dog. When Monica decides she wants something, she starts researching.

Early research took her to the SPCA website, and the page featuring a friendly mutt named Max.

maxprays

I don’t remember exactly what was in that write up, but he sounded like my kind of dog, and the photo showed he was a handsome and sweet looking character. It did mention that he was a mixed breed of unknown origin (they said shepherd/lab, but who knows?), and they said that though he showed some signs of abuse (his tail was chopped and his ears were cut), he was still very loving.

When we went to go visit this young man at the SPCA, Max was the only dog sitting quietly with anticipation, while the rest were barking and trying to get our attention.

I walked up to the chain link cage he was in, put my hand up to it, and he gave my hand a quick, dry lick. One of my big hang ups– any dog we got couldn’t be a slobberer.

That quick visit, and that dry lick, had me convinced on Max. In her heart, Monica was, too, but this was an early instance of a discussion we’ve had many times during our marriage. I always say, if you’ve found something you like, and it’s reasonable, just pull the trigger.

maxstevehaley

Even though Monica’s patience has saved us hundreds on airfares, for example, this time it cost us a dog we both wanted.

She really liked him, but said let’s think about, let’s wait. So, we didn’t get him that day.

When, a couple days later, we went back, convinced on Max, ready to sign the paperwork, we found his cage empty.

He’d been adopted. Very traumatic, especially for Monica who’d had her heart set on this creature.

We went home and regrouped. Scanned the SPCA website again, and were ready to go meet some more animals.

We pulled in to the parking lot, and there, literally being taken out of a minivan and back into the shelter, tail wagging the whole time… None other than Max the Dog!

You wouldn’t have believed it if it was written this way in a Hallmark movie, but here it is playing out on Ensminger Road.

He was too energetic, said whomever it was that tried him on for a few days.

Clearly, divine providence brought this fur bag into our lives. I have believed this from day one.

maxcarwindow

There’s always that feeling out period for both the dog and the people… He was deathly afraid of the crate, so we blocked off an area in the front hall with baby gates. He was afraid of the baby gates, too, this 60 pound dog.

Eventually, though, he gained free roam of the house and our hearts.

For about two years, I woke up every morning to the sound of him killing the washcloth Monica had just washed her face with. Actually, I woke up to the sound of him thrashing the washcloth in his mouth about half the time. The other half, I woke up to Monica swearing about the dog and the washcloth.

We agreed early on that we’d keep him off the furniture, and I’d yell at him if he was found on the couch or on the bed. What I eventually found out, was Monica was letting him up on the couch and bed when I wasn’t home. All and all, it’s fair to say Max got more use out of my bed over the last decade than I did.

maxtoy

After he gave up the washcloth, this beast found a new way to wake me up. He’d repeatedly back his rump into the bed, until I reached over and gave the whole area around his tail a good scratching, then he’d hop into bed, and lay with his back stretched out against mine, laying like a human with his head on the pillow.

This dog really had a near perfect personality. He was always happy and hopeful. A bit high maintenance, but he paid it back. He’d just walk up, give you one of those dry licks on the hand and walk away. Nothing wanted, nothing needed. Just a hello.

He was a great dog, but he had a pea sized brain. He knew quite a few words. There were three different words for outside.

maxporch

Outside is where you went out the back door. Porch is where you went out the from door, and the side door, well, that’s from where you went for a walk. Probably half of his vocabulary revolved around walks. he knew the work walk, the word leash, and if you just said the word, “Go,” and left it dangling the right way, he’d think you were inviting him for a walk whether you were or not.

Other words he knew: Bowl, as in his food bowl; bed, as in it’s time for bed, so I’d better run upstairs and try to claim my place on the bed; he also knew toy; and Momma and Poppa, as in, Where’s your Momma. He’d always take me to Monica.

I tried to insist that I wasn’t a poppa, but a ‘male owner.’ Max never understood that.

His favorite word though, beyond a doubt: cheese.

He could hear the cheese drawer open from anywhere in the house, even the yard. He also knew the sound of American cheese singles being unwrapped, and could some how differentiate between that and other plastic wrappers.

He begged for cheese in the same way he’d beg for at dinner. It wasn’t really aggressive, it was just passive and pathetic. Sitting at attention, eyes fixed on the prize, drips of drool in the corners of the mouth ands on the floor, and the occasional paw in the air or on the leg. He knew he had to ‘sit’ and give ‘paw,’ two more of his words.

maxbeg

Sometimes he wouldn’t beg, but use the tricks he’d learned to get what he wanted. Like ask to go outside, make a quick circle on the back porch, and head back in expecting a treat. He was funny with treats. He’d look in your hand; if it was empty, he knew to look in his bowl. For something extra special, you could tell him, upstairs… and he would run to the top of the stairs to wait for his treat.

Max was probably a world record holder in two categories. Number of photographs taken of a dog, and number of nicknames. He knew all of his nicknames. Most curse words he responded to, but also Stinky boy, smelly man, The Stinky Man on Campus, little man, Mr. Man (like the old lady on the Blues Brothers), young man, old man, gray beard, fur bag, fur ball, fur burger, MTD the PYT (think Michael Jackson), buddy, pal, really you name it. Many of these were also set to songs. There’s a third record. No dog has ever had more impromptu songs written and sang about him to him. Ever.

It’s also a little known fact that Max talked. It was through me,but he did have his own distinct voice. He mispronounced big words, and made a lot of jokes about Monica, but he always apologized. I think it’s comforting for both Monica and me that some how Max can still communicate with us from the other side.

Whenever we’d walk in the door, most times you’d see one of two things: Either him standing on the landing on the stair case wagging his tail, or, if we fumbled around outside enough, you’d see nothing but a tail wagging through the window on the door on the other side of the foyer. Maybe a nose sticking through if that door was cracked open.

When I was home and Monica wasn’t, there wasn’t a sound he loved more than the sound of her car doors locking with that half beep. He’d be watching out the front window, nosing open the curtains, tail wagging– rear end wagging, actually, in anticipation of the whole family being together again. He get really excited at the notion.

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When sitting in the living room, we often knew the other was home by the thump-thump sound of Max jumping off the bed in the bedroom above us. He was getting up to greet. Part of his job, along with sniffing and licking.

He’d stand on the porch and wiggle if someone’d open the front door. A greeting from Max meant you’re home.

He loved to sniff bags as we came home from shopping, and liked clothes and shampoo as well as food.

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Good ol’ Max was a lover, not a fighter. Never bit anyone. Never. Not even playing. He’d growl pretty mean sometimes, look like he was going to bite, but then lick.

He did this most nights, when it was time to leave our bed, go outside, and then go on his bed.

Just a ‘Hey, Max…’ and he knew what was up. Sometimes he’d go without a fight. Sometimes he’d try to be dead weight and not move…. Growl when I’d grab his collar… and then sometimes, if he really didn’t feel like going, he’d go and sit on Monica. Oh yeah, Max was a 60 pound lap dog.

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He wasn’t tough at all. One time, on a walk, a big dog came running off a porch at us; Max got behind me.

Another time, a little bunny got stuck in between the rails of our iron fence. He was really jammed in there good. Max just sat there, in the rain, and whined.

There weren’t many rabbits in the yard, because that was Max’s territory. He walked the perimeter a dozen times a day on patrol.

In the winter, you’d look in the smallish square city backyard, and see paw prints all around the outside, but no tracks at all in the middle.

And though it was across the street, he also considered the walkway into the park part of his territory. Which meant a lot of barking, every time someone walked with their dog into the park. Dozens of times a day. It was a friendly bark though, more or less trying to get the other dogs to come over to play, tailing wagging the whole time. That is, except for the ugly dogs.

These three or four rare breeds live around the corner from us, and their owner takes them on walks, one right after another. Max’s fur gets up, and its an angry bark when these dogs use his path into the park. He did not like these ugly dogs. Not one bit. They may have been the only creatures on this planet Max ever hated.

Aside from warning us the 16 times the ugly dogs walked by everyday, Max did have one real watch dog moment in the sun.

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One Saturday morning, Max was barking, strangely, out the back window very loudly.

We let him outside, and he was barking crazily with fur up at the garage door.

The lock was broken off, and the crack head was still in there. My good boy barking like crazy sent the crack head out the back window into a neighboring yard, where he leapt over a 6 foot fence. Dude must have been high as a kite.

It’s still a popular debate whether Max would have licked or bit the guy had he run out the front door.

I could write stories for days, but the bottom line is, this bag of fur has brought more joy and left me more in awe of God’s wonder than few other other things in life.

The end came quickly. Tuesday we went for a great walk through the park and through the neighborhood.

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Wednesday, we woke up to vomit all over the hallway. He didn’t get any better Thursday, and wasn’t eating or drinking. Still throwing up, and going to the bathroom in the house.

Friday, the vet does x-rays, gives some medicine, says let’s see what happens tomorrow. My heart sank. I knew what had to be done. Monica was texting me from work, asking what’s going on at the vet. I tried to be vague, but Monica is too smart for that.

His last day, that Friday night, he spent a lot of time laying in that yard he used to patrol. Listless. Trying to drink a little, only to spit it up.

Monica and I sat with him on the grass, and petting him, trying to make him comfortable, and at least happy that the family was together.

I know I was thinking of the times when he’d run in circles around the yard, started off with a ‘Hey Max!’ and taking an exaggerated step in his direction.

He spent his last night on our bed with us, a treat usually only reserved for thunderstorms or when we’d feel guilty about leaving him home alone too long.

None of the three of us slept really well; so we got up early that Saturday, and went to sit on the porch. Porch was probably Max’s third favorite word. He laid there, very weak after having not eaten or been able to keep down even water for 4 days as we waited for the vet to call.

We knew what was coming, but it was still like a sucker punch to hear the vet say euthanasia that morning.

He had been doing a little better that morning… Even though we knew better, we had hoped with the kind of hope that Max showed every time we put sneakers on (No Max, we had to tell him… We’re not going for a walk.)

But Max was happy when they brought in the fluffy bedspread for him to lay down on, another rare treat from the hard tiled floor at the vet’s office.

Monica and I were both crying. She sat in the chair petting him, I got on the floor and cradled his head on my leg and pet his neck. With his collar off. Man, he loved getting his neck scratched underneath his collar.

They sedated him, and when he was comfortable on that bedspread on the floor, as I held him, and Monica pet him, the vet gave the final injection. It wasn’t even 30 seconds when I watched my little buddy’s eyes roll up in his head. I’m glad I was there, actually, I owed it to him. But I really wish I hadn’t seen his eyes roll back. I’ll cry whenever I think about it for the rest of my life.

Once he was gone, my attention quickly turned to Monica, and we held each other, and pet our great friend one last time.

The thing about a dog is, it’s only his presence, his company. He doesn’t remember your birthday, he doesn’t help you move, he won’t do a lot of the stuff you hope for, or even expect from, a great friend.

But the one thing dogs are.. is there. They are there. Always. It’s never more stark than when they aren’t.

Right now, there are empty spaces in my heart that I never even realized were full.

And yes, I know I’m talking about a dog here.

Max laid with us when we were sick, relaxed with us, protected us, loved us.

The skeptical ask, love? And I say, yes; maybe not like on our human level, but yes.

What is love? The desire to be with someone; to feel safe with someone; to be willing to be vulnerable with someone; to lay your head in someone’s lap and sigh loudly, knowing you’re in a good place.

Now Max’s pea sized brain may not have been able to combine all of those emotions into the single, complex human emotion of love, but on his level, I know he loved me.

I know because I felt it every day, and still do.

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olmancoverAlso by Steve Cichon: 

My dad died at age 58. I’ve really become accustomed to dealing with grief by writing about the people and things I love, and what it is and why it is that I love them. Written in the weeks following my dad’s death on Palm Sunday, 2010, read the story of his last week alive, and a reflection of our relationship and time together here: The Real Steve Cichon: Me and My Ol’Man