Category: &c, &c, &c: reflections from Steve’s desk
By Steve Cichonsteve@buffalostories.com@stevebuffalo
While my primary focus for this site is sharing about things that make Buffalo wonderful and unique, sometimes I have other thoughts, too. I share those here, along with some of the titles from other categories which I’ve written about in a more personal manner.
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It’s one of those phrases that we throw around. Most of the time, the words fall out of our mouths without even realizing what we’re saying. But even when we are really interested in how someone is doing, how interested are we, really?
I have learned through the years that there are some people of whom you can’t ask that question, because they will tell you, in painstaking detail, exactly how they are.
Even worse, is when you ask someone you love “How ya doin,” and you really want to know, but that person won’t share their pain or their joy with you.
When someone responds FINE because they don’t want to burden you with their troubles, or even worse, when they don’t want to seem too prideful and won’t share their jubilation… that hurts.
Having someone be willing to listen to what really vexes you is a great gift. Having someone trust you with their inner most thoughts is a great gift, too.
But what made me really think about all this, was a friend — closer to acquaintance than BFF– asking me with care and sincerity how I was doing. A blanket ask. Open ended.
Not overly concerned, or concerned for the sake of drama, just honestly interested in my well-being. No strings attached. Beautifully simple.
I was taken aback a bit. Here’s someone who doesn’t know, but cares about whatever it is.
Asking that question, and meaning it — for my benefit — is a big commitment.
It was wonderful. It was powerful. It was the sort of reaching out that I have to imagine happens less and less in an age where more and more communication and more “being a friend” is done through fingertips on the glass face of a smart phone. But there is was, honest to goodness, real human care and compassion.
Like everyone else, I have all kinds of troubles and concerns. Piles of nonsense vexing me. This to worry about, that to be angry at. All that was true at that moment as well.
But you know what? I answered, honestly, “I’m doing pretty damn good.”
Although I didn’t, I should have followed it up with, “Because you care.”
BUFFALO, NY – Lately, I’ve been keeping a closer ear on people’s eyeballs.
We’ve all trained our mouths to be our servants.
They express what we want them to express. We chose and use our words, our tone, our volume very deliberately, if not consciously.
Quite often, for the sake of appearances, the sake of making it through life, our mouths don’t match what we feel at our core.
When your mouth starts matching your heart, chances of trouble greatly increase. Especially when for one reason or another, what’s in our hearts is something disruptive to the fabric of our life or being. What our heart truly wants may be even forbidden.
So these inner most thoughts aren’t allowed anywhere near the lips. The words are never spoken.
But, again, I lately find myself listening more and more closely to eyeballs. Most of us allow our eyes to say things we’d never let our mouths say.
We don’t even realize what we let our eyes say before its already all out there.
The thing about eyeballs is you don’t need much time. In less than one second, I can see down to your very soul. Thousands of words just poured out of those peepers, and there’s no pulling them back.
It’s often fast and accidental, but its done. And you both realize it. It’s a new reality, this hundred chapter conversation in a glance…
But for the same reason our mouths don’t say the words, we go on as if this pupil to pupil transfer of knowledge never happened. But it did. Instead of discussing with someone that we just stood naked in front of each other, we desperately search for something comfortable to talk about.
In spite of our basic elemental human desire to discuss this new extraordinary deep connection, at a time when real connections with people are so rare, we don’t dive in. We desperately grasp at anything else to talk about. “Wow, look at the rain.”
As much as we need these connections in our lives, I guess we need even more that it not get weird. To avoid the weird, I think many people have just tuned out eyeballs, for fear of making such a powerful connection. I think it’s part of the reason why people’s guards are down. I guess most folks just don’t need that in their day.
But listening to those eyeballs, I find life richer. Weirder but richer…. also more fulfilling and less fulfilling at the same time. Closer yet never more distant now. I’m sure I could say it all better in a half second glance.
BUFFALO, NY – It’s one of those opinionated days, and all of my opinions are on my friend Larry Felser today. Larry used to weave silly observations into gold in columns that started this way. I’m just writing down a bunch of memories of my old pal and sharing some great audio clips.
For about a decade, I got paid to hang out with Larry Felser on Mondays for an hour. I produced his radio shows on WBEN and WNSA Radio. Larry was one of those special guys who was able to move comfortably among millionaire athletes and sports owners, and just as easily among 16 year old kids who worked in radio and loved hearing his stories. Well, at least this 16 year old kid.
My friendship was cemented with Larry the day his car broken down a few blocks from the station in the middle of the Elmwood/Hertel intersection. He called from a payphone saying he’d be late, so I drove down there, let him take my car to the station, and waited for Triple-A with his car. He mentioned that all the time, never forgot it. I think he may have even mentioned it the last time we spoke.
He was like that. Those were the kinds of stories he’d tell you about people. He could sum up a Hall of Famer by describing the time he had breakfast with him in a hotel lobby.
To know Larry Felser was to know the heyday of print journalism. He was a Buffalonian in the way we used to mean it. He was the smartest, best mannered lunch bucket guy, but he knew he was no better than the kid he went to Canisius with, who was working at the mill. And while Larry wasn’t throwing around 100 pound bags of feed, he was one of the hardest working guys I ever met. Even after he was “retired” from The News.
“Now here’s a guy….” as Larry would say, who just loved to talk and listen. Larry is the only person I’ve ever met who I could imagine, 1940’s movie style, get on the phone, and tell an editor, “Stop the presses! Have I got a Cracker Jack story for you!” He had that gutty old school newspaper man feel about him, even though he was at least a generation removed from working in that old, old school environment.
Some quick hit Larry memories::
“Fast as wood.” It was fast as wood, or skates like wood… This phrase was written by Larry about Dave Andreychuk, I believe. But I know for a fact it was one of Jim Kelley (the hockey writer)’s all-time favorite line, and as he repeated it so often, it’s become a favorite line among those of us who loved both Jim and Larry… namely Randy Bushover, John Demerle, and me.
Larry was one of the best storytellers around. His delivery was plodding, but he made up for it with his keen and scathing observation skills, and his ability to turn a phrase. The best stories, of course, came during the commercial breaks. I don’t remember what precipitated it, but one day Larry went on the most wonderful, colorful, captivating description of how he used to sneak off to “The Palace Burlesk,” and give a very vivid diatribe about why “Rosie La Rose” was the favorite dancer of him and his friends.
I remember word for word the 1940s slang phraseology used in that discussion of Ms. La Rose, and supplemental offerings she’d provide above and beyond the other entertainers at The Palace. For Larry’s sake, I’ll keep it to myself right now, but I’ll never forget it. In fact, I use the line often. In 1945, it was almost certainly vulgar. Today, it simply makes people laugh.
Another line I heard Larry say often, one which I almost always credit him when I use it.. “My most creative moments in front of a keyboard are when I write my expense accounts.”
I’m picturing Larry’s whole face smiling as he’d say that. Larry’s whole face smiled. It filled a room with warmth.
Toward the end of his career at the News, he grew a full beard. The line I heard him use on more than one occasion… “When I started growing the beard, I was going for Hemingway. It’s come out more like Box Car Willie.” He had the beard for quite a while before The News updated his photo.
One year, he gave me a book for Christmas, and told me that if I wanted to be able to picture what football used to be like in Buffalo in the 40s, that it was just like this book. I’ve read this book about the Baltimore Colts and their fans about 10 times. I wish I asked Larry which other books I should read.
One book I decided to read was Larry’s on the AFL. I bought it and took it with me on vacation one week, and loved it. Read it cover to cover very quickly, and I still can’t put into words what happened when I got to the last page. Larry went through a list of thank yous. NFL and AFL owners (all his friends). Hall of Fame players (all his friends). Some of the greatest sports writers of the 20th century (all his friends). Some of the great sports writers and broadcasters from Buffalo (all his friends). And me.
I was just thunderstruck, and to this day, I don’t know what to say. While he has the ear of most of the most important people in sports; that Larry even knew the name of some chump kid from a radio station really shows something about the man. That he’d memorialize our friendship on the same page that he did with Lamar Hunt and Will McDonough is still beyond comprehension to me.
But Larry is beyond comprehension to me. I’m better at an awful lot of things for just having been in his presence. Thanks, Larry.
It’s nearly inconceivable to me, but it was twenty years ago today. The letter that started my career at WBEN.
Update, April 20, 2018: marks the start of my 25th year in radio, and I’m so happy that it’s at WECK… what we do there feels a lot like the old full-service radio I grew up with… good music, straight forward news, and happy on the radio.As a 15 year old high school sophomore, I would have been happy getting a job at Tops.
But neither Tops nor Bells would hire someone under 16. My birthday wouldn’t come until the end of summer. I needed something to do for the vacation.
I’d been earning money for years already. Helping out at a used book shop. Helping a farmer down the street pick potatoes. Cleaning up cigarette butts and cutting curly fries at a nearby hot dog stand.
I liked working and I liked earning money.
But radio? Why not, I guess I thought.
I had always loved radio, and for the few years my dad’s job took us to Massachusetts, I had a friend whose dad worked in radio. We used to go to work with him when he was the Saturday morning jock on a big station in Boston.
As an 8 year old, my first real taste of living a life in radio came when I had to be ready for Mr. Bob to pick me up at 5am to head into WHDH. No problem. Loved every minute of it.
On those Saturday mornings, My friend Jarin and I would “do production” for the “station” we ran in his basement, made up of real, but cast-away decades-old radio equipment.
When my family moved back to Buffalo, and Jarin’s moved to Maryland, he gave me some of the castaway equipment, and I built a “radio station” of my own in my bedroom.
We’d each “do shows” on cassette and mail them back and forth to one another.
I was 7 or 8 years into that “radio career” when, during my “job search,” I was struck with an idea.
I have no idea from whence the thought of an internship came, but I loved radio, and wanted to work in radio, and that’s what I set out to do.
I opened the phone book, and called every radio station listed, asking for the station manager’s name.
When I say every radio station, I mean every single one. Buffalo. Springville. Lockport. Niagara Falls. Batavia. I just wanted to get in. Anywhere.
With those names in hand, I knew to whom I should address the letters I was about to write on our Tandy 1000EX computer. The one with 256k of memory.
It was quite a few 29 cent stamps.
The letter I wrote had to have been a classic 10th grader essay on my love for radio, and my knowledge of radio equipment, with, of course, some big words thrown in for good measure (because that’s how I’ve rolled for years now.)
So, somewhere between 15 and 20 of these letters went out. And I waited.
At the mail box everyday, I’m sure I looked like Ralphie looking for that Little Orphan Annie decoder ring.
If you think about that scene in a Christmas Story, when Ralphie excitedly says “My ring!!” and runs in the house, syrupy violin music comes in to set the scene.
In my mind, that same hokey musical accompaniment plays when I opened the mailbox to find that gleaming white WBEN stationery staring at me, with my own name typewritten on the front.
It was providence. The station I listened to, the station I loved, was the only station to respond. At all. The only letter I got.
Its really almost unfathomable.
Think of some bad sitcom where a kid has a dream about pitching for the Yankees.
The focus is soft and fuzzy around the edges.
The kid’s sitting on the bench when Billy Martin, wearing a blue hat (but without a Yankees emblem) points at him and hands him the ball.
But, instead of the Yankees manager saying, “You’re in, kid!” in a dream, I got the real deal.
There really couldn’t have been anything better than getting a letter from Kevin Keenan inviting me to WBEN. And there was that letter, right there in my hands.
I’ll never forget that first day. Kevin looked like a 1993 radio newsman from central casting; white shirt, tie, suspenders.
We talked about WBEN, and I can’t imagine how hilarious it was to have a 15 year old know your programming inside out, talking about how my alarm clock was set for 6:23am, so I could wake up to the Osgood File.
He loved that I had called “Ask the Mayor” only a few days before, and had talked to him and Mayor Griffin about one of the big issues of the day: The debate over whether Jay Leno or David Letterman should replace Johnny Carson.
I showed him I knew how to put up a reel of tape, and how to bulk erase a cart.
On the tour around the station, I met sports man Rick Maloney, and sat in to watch a Craig Nigrelli/Helen Tederous newscast.
I was floored when Kevin offered me the chance to intern during the summer.
What a summer of triple bus transfers from Orchard Park to North Buffalo… And my dad acting as my radio chauffeur.
Eight or nine hour days, every day, all summer. I learned from everyone I met. Busted my hump with a smile. Loved every minute of it.
When I went to help set up WBEN’s remote at the Fair, Kevin gave me a WBEN t-shirt. I had earned it, and I loved it. I don’t know that I’ve ever been more proud to receive anything.
As I headed back to school, now a well-heeled Orchard Park High School junior, I was offered a weekend board operator job. Best of Limbaugh on Sundays.
Screw Tops. I was pulling in my $4.25 an hour working in radio. My heart is racing right now, thinking about the pride and satisfaction I felt.
I was living the Doogie Howser dream. And it’s continued from there.
That day in Kevin Keenan’s office 20 years ago today was my last job interview.
I’ve been tremendously blessed to have had so many mentors who’ve looked out for me, taught me their secrets, looked out for me, and allowed me to coattail along on their rides.
I feel a lot like a kid who went to bed waiting for one of those radio stations to respond to my letter, and woke up News Director at the radio station I really hoped would answer.
Everything I know about broadcasting, about radio, about TV, about journalism: I was taught either by direct instruction or by example from the tremendous people I’ve worked with at WBEN, Channel 4, and the Empire Sports Network.
I’d love to write about a few of the people, but it just wouldn;t be fair, because the list really has hundreds of names on it. I’m not sure how or why I’ve been so blessed, so lucky, to have so many amazing, talented people take an interest in my life and my career.
There’s not a single task I do every day that doesn’t carry along with it the embedded lessons of those people who’ve taken me in as an apprentice and son.
I’m like an orphan that was raised by the community. So much of any success I’ve had is because so many people own a piece of my success, but it couldn’t have happened without each on of them.
Twenty years of incredible luck and love. I’m not sure it’s fair that one person should be so blessed… But for two full decades now, I’ve been indescribably thankful, and mindful to never waste even a little bit of it.
For sure, in life, the cards don’t always dance at the end. So is solitaire really so hard and frustrating that we need to play with the “winning deal” option?
I was terribly, actually mad when I realized that the setting on the solitaire game on my iPad was changed (probably during a software update) to “winning deal” instead of “random deal.”
Solitaire can be a boring and mind numbing game, but I like to play as if there is something real at stake. Nothing specific, but something important. Even if my score is down to zero, I keep going until there’s absolutely no way for me to solve the puzzle. Move cards from the top piles back down to the stacks to be able to move over that 4 with three cards underneath it. Go through the pile of flip cards an extra time.
Of course, even with all the effort, about half the time, I lose.
But losing is a part of the game. Its not that I don’t always want a win any less, its just that sometimes, a win isn’t in the cards. You do everything you can, and you lose a lot. As often as you win.
For me, a hard fought loss is always an inspiration to hit shuffle immediately and keep on playing until those cards dance across the screen. When you’ve lost two or three or seven games in a row, and you really should be going to bed, or getting back to work… Man, those dancing cards are great.
It’s a completely different mentality when your dealt a hand you know you can win. It’s boring. The thrill of “I’m going to try everything, because I don’t know what’s under that 4” is replaced with, “c’mon, idiot. Why can’t I get this.”
In the end, the temptation is to hit that help button to see where you went wrong, and to see the cards dance, even if you didn’t really earn it all yourself.
But you know what? If I’ve just done the best I can, worked on the game til I felt like I couldn’t work on it anymore, and decided I had to stop because there was no where else to go, I don’t think I want to know where I screwed up.I certainly dont want the big card locomotion party for all my hard work.
I know all the rules of solitaire inside and out. Been playing it for years. Even with actual real cards back in the old days, sometimes with cards missing… Talk about NEVER WINNING!
And whether you’re being dealt a winning hand or a random hand, sometimes you miss putting the red 5 on the black 6. You perfectly damn well know that’s the right play, and you missed it. Sometimes you can go back and fix it, sometimes you can’t. Sometimes you get lucky, and despite a mistake you can make the cards cha-cha across the screen. Sometimes a mistake costs you, and all you can do is start over and try again.
I accept that sometimes I’m going to lose, and I often enjoy a hard fought loss. I don’t know that I’d enjoy solitaire so much with the burden and expectation of winning on my shoulders every time.
Don’t hit the “always win” button. Life’s experiences are greater when you take a chance on losing.
“I’m cleaning out my friends list. If you’re reading this, congratulations, you made the cut!”I’ve cringed every one of the hundreds of times I’ve seen this or similar messages on Facebook.
Walter Cronkite once bawled out Stuttering John for using the word “friggin'” when asking him a question in one of those set-up interviews he used to do for the Howard Stern Show.
“Frigging, now what does that mean,” bellowed Uncle Walter condescendingly.
“It-it-it-it-AAAAUUGHit gives, ya know, augh, emphasis,” said John.
“But what does it mean?,” drilled Cronkite. “A word should have meaning, shouldn’t it?”
That’s the long way of saying “Defriending” someone means something. You’ve said something there, whether you like it or not. You know that. You’ve been defriended, or “unfriended” as Facebook puts it. If you weren’t hurt, you were at least indignant. “Well, I never liked that sonava– anyway,” you might say. Even if that’s true, you don’t want someone putting up that “Add as Friend” hand in your face without provocation, or at least not knowing why.
In olden times, maybe people dropped off your Christmas card list when you’d lost contact or interest. I’d say that’s akin to hiding someone’s feed on Facebook.
Defriending someone, however, is like ripping their address out of the little book you keep in drawer by your phone, and, when they send you a Christmas card, you scrawl an Elvis style “Return to Sender” across the the pretty red envelope.
We wouldn’t have ever thought to do that in olden times, but we’re generally less considerate these days.
People make all sorts of excuses for why they defriend people they know, but they are just that– excuses. Just like most things in life, if you need an excuse… Deep down, you know it’s not wholly right.
To me, finding I’ve been defriended almost always comes with some bit of sadness. I don’t do a lot of “stalking” on Facebook, so I usually find out when I try to send someone a note. Usually a congratulatory note, or a “hey, thought of you–” note, or maybe I found an old photo or piece of audio I know they’d like.
So it’s not just “you defriended me,” but “here I am looking to rekindle an old friendship, which you found worthless.”
I had worked on a few assignments with one young lady a few years ago. Didn’t really know her well, but we hung out with each other and helped each other quite a bit on a project. We got along well, and were Facebook friends. I recently saw some of her work in the national spotlight, and was going to write her a note, but— yep.
In this case, I was more perplexed because she doesn’t get it. Nor do the braggart defrienders. To me, that sort of relationship is what social media is about. Contact with people I will likely never go to lunch with, never see, never call.
Life is about relationships. So much happens when you are willing to explore those relationships, or at least not cut them off. Today’s superficial Facebook friend could be tomorrow’s next job referral. Or he could be the guy who says, “oh yeah, I knew him.. Jerk defriended me on Facebook.”
Selfishly, if not for the greater good, is it really worth pissing someone off or hurting their feelings for no reason other than you’re clearing deadwood? Your Facebook account isn’t a forest. Deadwood doesn’t increase the risk of fire.
Have I thought about this too much? Probably. Have I defriended people? You can count the number on one hand, in 6 years. A few were people who came to my page to agitate. Only one I knew personally.
I always say, “if I offend… Defriend.” But in this self-centered, consequences be damned culture we live in, I hope you think about it for a moment before you do. And I hope you don’t try to be all friendly with me in the grocery store, and act like you didn’t open my photo and click defriend.
Originally appeared on WBEN.com, February 18, 2013
I’m a Buffalo guy, born and raised. All of my great grandparents called Buffalo home. My Buffaloness runs deep, which is probably in part why I was having a familiar conversation just last week…”Man, this winter’s been pretty easy!”
Not easy like last winter when we didn’t really have winter, but an easy real winter. With plenty of real snow and real cold. And there I was on Valentines Day, like, “Meh! No problem!”
But the temperatures last week were in the high 20s and mid 30s, and there was still snow on the ground. Conditions that are truly winter, but– the best case scenario winter. You can’t get much warmer or get much less snow and still feel wintry.
And though it was certainly subconscious in my case, I’m certain now that there was some element of, “Well, the worst has to be over now!”
Of course, it wasn’t. My pleasant winter of 2012-13 came to an end at 8:36am on Sunday. I saw a little snow on the car out the window, but I wasn’t concerned. Weeks of non-stop snow can be annoying, but generally, snow doesn’t bother me. Certainly hasn’t this year. The end of the cheery face about this winter came as I cracked open the opened the front door and was sucker punched with a windy 16 degrees.
I didn’t expect this rage against winter to happen, but it happens every winter. You’d think after 35 Buffalo winters, I’d be standing square, ready for that haymaker right from Ol’man Winter. It’s true every time. I can stand in for 7 or 8 rounds, but winter just waits for that moment my guard slips. KO. Glass jaw shattered.
Every year, I’m like the President of the Chamber of Commerce until that day arrives. I’m our winter’s biggest backer from the first snow of November through sometime into the New Year.
I’d rather have warm, but, “Hey, this is Buffalo.” I snow blow my whole block. I wear warm-but-silly hats. I poke fun at ex-pats and out-of-towners on Facebook gripping for when 2 inches of snow shuts down their non-WNY communities.
But this time, since I got through January and half of February, maybe I was being a little cocky. I’m not sure. But all I know is right now, I can’t write the words I have for winter on a family friendly website.
And yes, I know, I know. Spring is technically one month from today. “Just around the corner.” Well, what’s here right now is my desire to leave winter behind. I want spring Veruca Salt style. NOW!
I’m done. Get me outta here. I can’t take it. I’m a cold, broken man. At least until April or so.
I’ll probably take it in Buffalo stride when that inevitable Bisons home game gets snowed out. By May, you’ll probably hear me reflect on Buffalo’s great four full seasons of weather. Come November, you’ll probably even see a smile on my face as I yank the pull start on the snow blower for the first time.
Until then, however, shut up. I’m done with “our beautiful winters.” And please be kind, because if your break hasn’t happened yet, it’s probably right around the corner.
I freely and openly admit it. I often share terrible and ugly and embarrassing things on social media that at the heart of it, even I would rather keep to myself.
The latest example: Kidney stones. After laying in bed writhing and screaming for about two hours, I started to think about what good could come of it. That’s usually how it happens, these TMI moments. Now I can scream and not sleep and annoy my wife (who was, as always, an absolute sweetheart), and just be miserable, or I can try to A.) in some small way cheer myself up by being stupid about this awful predicament, and B.) more importantly, maybe help someone by sharing my experience.
I’m not a whore for attention. Believe me. You should see some of the crap I don’t put on Facebook. But, if something I’d really rather keep private might help someone, I have to share it. We all have suffering in life. It’ up to you what you are going to do with it.
Putting up a photo of a kidney stone is gross. People I don’t know, some of whom I don’t want to know, are now privy to my most personal business. But I gotta tell ya, every time I talk about something that doesn’t come up in polite conversation, I wind up talking someone through something similar. Or pointing out a red flag to someone. Or make something gross and impolite a little less so, so that people address problems in their lives that are easy to avoid because no one wants to talk about them.
So I talk about kidney stones. And poop. And colonoscopies. And you should see the private messages I get. You can’t talk about Celiac Disease or Gastritis without talking about bum problems. Apparently, given the crap I write (get it?), people are willing to talk to me about ways to makes themselves healthier. And if my shitty health (again, hilarious) and my experiences in trying to be healthier can help someone from making mistakes I made, isn’t that worth offending the sensibilities of some Victorian wannabe.
You should be talking about your pains and poop and craziness, too. It could literally kill you.
Physical pains and problems got much easier to talk about when I took pen to paper and laid out feelings about death and relationships here. It’s something else I’ve found to be helpful to me and to others. I don’t know how I could have gotten through some of life’s biggest traumas without writing about them, sharing them, having others learn from my pain, and drawing an amazing amount of strength from that.
Maybe about 10 years ago, when my dad was in the ICU at the VA Hospital, I was sitting in the waiting room as they were doing something that necessitated me being out of the room. As you may remember, in the days before smartphones, people would read magazines in waiting rooms. Remember?
Well, this time, I read a long story by Mike Wallace about his long struggle with depression. As someone who has struggled in a small way with depression for as long as I can remember, this was the first time I’d ever read about someone struggling with it. And nearly losing to it. And coming back again, only to be beaten down again. Mike Wallace, the peppy guy I’d been watching on TV every Sunday for my entire life, felt the same way I felt sometimes.
What a freaking revelation. I read that at a time when I really needed it. I haven’t thought much about what I’m about to say, but I think it really changed my life. For the better. I don’t know what would have been had I not read that.
I’m thankful that Mike Wallace wrote about the most painful chapter in his life to make my burden a little lighter to carry.
Everything that sucks in life sucks a little less when you’re experiencing it with someone else. I draw strength from those who’ve been there and encourage me, and I draw even more strength from those who look to me later for encouragement.
And, just like finding a dead body on the streets of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina or having my union locked out of my job at Channel 4, there are some life experiences that you’d just rather not have… but when you have them, you’d better learn from them. And if you learn and don’t share, what they hell is wrong with you?
TMI? Sure. But share something that matters to you, no matter how personal, and you’ll reap the rewards, I promise.
Since the beginning of November, many of my friends have taken to Facebook and Twitter with something they are thankful for each day.
This is all very nice, people thankful for their spouses and jobs and children and blue skies and flowers and candy.
I don’t diminish that, and I am genuinely thankful for those things everyday. I tend to think most people who are writing about them are, too, but the way it’s written makes it sound to me like “I’ll spend the next 24 hours being thankful for the gift of sight. Then at midnight, I’ll forget that and be thankful for my favorite Keurig K-cup flavor.”
And since I, too, have a tremendous feeling of thanks for “Donut Shop,” I might have kept my misgivings about these thanksgivings to myself, had my wife not at one point said to me, “I’m thankful for this stuff every day! What the heck!!” I was never more thankful for her than right then and there. Or maybe I was sad that my cynicism is rubbing off on her.
I began thinking, though, about how I could put together a list of things I’m thankful for, while still passing my own pretty difficult test of triteness.
I think Thanksgiving is about “thanks with no buts.”
We have buts for everything…. however, for the rest of the way here, I’m working my “buts” off, and explaining why I’m thankful for even some of the bad and terrible parts of my life.
One of the saddest times of my life also offered me some of the most strengthening and reassuring lessons of my life.
I’m thankful for my dad’s death, which of course left some parts of my heart hollow and empty, but the resulting caring and love from so many helped me to understand that there’s a tremendous amount of love and support from so many people for me always, and that all I have to do to take it in is be open to it.
I’m thankful for having people I have wronged as friends and Facebook friends. Even with their forgiveness, their faces serve as a humbling constant reminder of how not to behave, and how to forgive wholly, and how sometimes the hardest person to forgive is oneself.
I’m thankful for people who hate me and tell me so or make it pretty clear one way or another. It hurts, but makes me strive to be a better person. It also reminds me even in dislike, to never hate and always forgive.
This one’s hard, but its true. I’m thankful for the deaths of two little babies I never met, for the understanding their lives and deaths brought to me about life and living. They may have never breathed a breath, but their lives and the joy and pain they brought were not in vain.
I’m thankful for the daily, nagging pain in my joints and eyes, caused by autoimmune disorders. My achy inconveniences give me a distant view of the terrible and deadly illness so many deal with, with a lot less bitching and complaining than I do.
Similarly, I’m thankful for the occasional panic attacks I’ve endured that I better understand and grow in compassion for my brothers and sisters who from time to time lose some ability to control their minds.
I’m thankful for “friends” who’ve let me down… For showing me how special real friends are.
I’m thankful for those relationships that are almost entirely fake– where someone says the right things, but quite clearly doesn’t like or want anything to do with you. Again, very painful, but I find these people carry a certain measure of pain in their lives, and generally need kindness and compassion more than the rest of us.
Many of these awful situations have given me new insight, and made me, I think a better, less judgmental, more loving person.
Maybe I’m most thankful for people who without some terrible circumstance are inertly good and accepting of people…. I’m working on it, but in so much in life I am doubting Thomas. That is, I cannot accept or know until I see it somehow.
“Blessed are those who have not seen and believe.”
I knew what a veteran was from the earliest of ages.
I’m sure I started asking my dad about his tattoo as soon as I could talk. “STEVE,” it said on his forearm, in sloped writing, with a Celtic cross underneath. To say Celtic cross makes it sound better than it was. It was a stick figure cross with a circle where the horizontal and vertical parts of the cross met. It was actually a pretty horrible tattoo, which he said he gave himself when he was a Marine. I never heard the full story of the tattoo, or whether he actually remembered giving it to himself, or if a buddy told him he did it.
Dad always told us not to get a tattoo, but it was more like advice than an order. He didn’t like his tattoo, but I don’t think he considered it a mistake. He never hid it, either. I think in some ways that sums up the way he felt about his service in the Marine Corps. He was quietly proud of it, but didn’t like it.
I know he joined the Marines in 1969 as a way to “get out of the Valley,” the poor working class neighborhood he grew up in. He saw the world as a Marine, and had his education paid for by the GI Bill. But he was also struck with illness that initially almost killed him, but that also started downward progression in his health that culminated with his death at the age of 58.
My dad had few heroes and people he looked-up-to in his life, but one was his big sister Tricia. He was a Marine when her kidney disease came to the point of needing a transplant. Dad was on his way home to see if he could be a donor when she died. I don’t know that he ever loved anyone more than her. She took care of him and understood him. He didn’t get to say good bye to her because he was half a world away.
To make it worse, he had one of those awful Vietnam era welcomes. Walking down the street in his uniform, he was taunted and sneered at. Having heard this story dozens of times since I was very little, the image that pops into my head is my father walking down Seneca Street in front of what used to me Grandma’s Donuts (now Abbott Pizza, I think) with people throwing bottles and trash at him. That’s not what happened, but that’s the image my dad’s telling of the story put in my head.
He was proud of his service, but wasn’t about to join a club or line up for a parade. He was the most humble veteran at the VA Hospital, always thanking roommates, nurses and doctors for their service to our great land.
Dad’s instilling in me such a high level of respect for men and women who have served has made me keenly aware of those who’ve been a part of my life who have given of themselves for our common good.
Dad’s grandpa had two brothers die at sea during World War I. Grandma Cichon had pictures of Uncle George and Uncle Gordon and kept her uncle’s memories alive. Gordon was in the British Mercantile Marine on the SS Trocas when a German U-Boat torpedoed the tanker. George was a seaman aboard the SS Hazelwood went it hit a mine. The internet has helped fill in some of the details, but my dad knew these stories, and while was proud of his service, looked at his great uncles as heroes.
But Veterans Day is about remembering those who went through hell and came home. Or even put their time in in New Jersey or Kansas, saluted one last time, and never looked back.
As a kid growing up on Allegany Street in South Buffalo, we had a few proud veteran neighbors. Pops was an ancient, tiny liver-spotted old man who used to stand in the driveway, chew tobacco, and tell us about his service in World War I and his fear of “the gas,” which I now know to be mustard gas Germans used on American troops. It filled the trenches, and ruined the lungs of soldiers, painfully suffocating thousands.
Further up Allegany, on the other side of the street in the big light green house, Mr. Smith used to give us cookies and hard candy, a very kind old soul who was retired from the railroad. Occasionally, he’d proudly show us his perfectly preserved US Army uniform from World War II, or the box filled with medals and ribbons. I know I thought it was “cool,” but I hope i was properly respectful and reverent, too, as a 5 and 6 year old.
A few years later, when I was in third grade, my school bus driver, George, was finally awarded a bronze star, over 40 years after his heroism saved some of his fellow soldiers from Japanese attack. He cut out the photo of him holding the award that was in the local paper, and taped it up in the front of the bus. I was proud of him, and I wish I remember more about his story.
My Grandpa Cichon was one of 8 brothers and sisters who served in World War II and Korea. Even my twin great aunts, Olga and Mary, were nurses in the Navy and Army respectively. Gramps was an engineer in the Army at the end of World War II. He was in the Philippines, and likely saw some pretty terrible things there that he doesn’t talk about.
Great Grandpa Wargo was a plane mechanic in Guam during the Second World War. Indirectly, because of his service, I met one of my favorite vets ever. Grandpa W was in the VA Hospital, and my dad had little use for the rule that kept kids under 15 out of most hospitals. He’d take us to visit everyone, because who doesn’t love seeing a little kid, right?
Well, as recently as the early 80s, when this happened, there were smoking lounges on every floor right next to the elevator at the VA for the guys who were in there. Dad would ditch us in there, and bring great grandpa down to see us. One time, there was an ancient, ancient hunched-over man in there smoking. He was wearing a bright red bathrobe, had the darkest black skin you can imagine set off against his crazy sprouting bright white hair. Dad flippantly asked the guy to keep an eye on us, because he was going to get gramps. Well, apparently, this was just about the best damn thing that had ever happened to this guy.
He offered to hide us in his bathrobe if the nurses got close, his face lively and excited at not only being able to play with a couple of kids for a few minutes, but also to be a party to this rule breaking. We sat down, and he stood up with his back to us. He spread open the robe, so that we couldn’t be seen from the door. He was laughing and giddy about it the whole time, til gramps walked in.
A few years ago, I interviewed a friend’s dad about his role in the D-Day invasion. Michael Accordino described in vivid, terrible detail, sitting in the water, and watching guys run ashore, and watching many of them be shot dead on the beach. And waiting for his turn to go. And watching his buddies die around him.
My friend Ed Little always spoke in a sort of blasé way about his service in the Army Air Corps during WWII, but what he did was nothing short of spectacular and heroic. He would flying along on bombing runs in the Pacific, and using 1940s technology, record play-by-play of the bombings that were taking place for playback on radio back home. Another broadcasting friend, Fran Lucca was radio man in the Navy. His ear saved thousands from U-boat attacks, and his incessant record keeping has made the war much more real for his dozens of grandchildren and great grandchildren. Letters between him and his mother, official documents, dozens of pages of wonderful material for his years at war have been collected and preserved, and I’m honored that he’s allowed me to learn from and make a copy.
Tom Kane was another friend in broadcasting. He was the security guard at the WBEN/Channel 4 building. One day, I noticed that he went from wearing sergeant stripes on his uniform to lieutenant bars. I congratulated him on the promotion, and he told me that after almost 50 years, he’d finally become an officer. He told me about his time in Korea, and how he’d never been so cold in his life. So wet and cold. For almost a year. Being freezing and afraid of freezing to death, but having to jump into the water or be killed. Tom earned the commission, for sure.
Once in a conversation with my friend and broadcaster Mark Leitner, something about the horror of Vietnam came up. He said nothing with his mouth, but in two seconds his eyes told a wretched story leaving detail unnecessary.
My friend Pat Kavanagh, talks about the fact that he and the men he went to war with were really just about children, and that they used to call their 25 year old Sarge “Pops” because he was so old, and really felt like a father figure. Pat turned his sense of unfinished business with the war into a project to honor those who never came home: He collected the obituaries of every Western New Yorker who was killed in Vietnam during the war. Dozens of visits to libraries, historical societies, and private homes later, Pat’s work is another step in insuring that their sacrifice will never be forgotten.
My dad’s big brother, Uncle Chuck, is also a Vietnam veteran, and also lives with the lasting effects of Agent Orange. I hold a lot about Uncle Chuck’s service in my heart, and knowing that he wouldn’t want it written about here, I won’t. Suffice it to say, he’s the best brother man could ask for, a great uncle, and hero.
I don’t know that Uncle Chuck or any of the men and women mentioned above are comfortable with that label “hero,” especially when each of them can clearly see the face and hear the voice of someone who didn’t make it back to the rest of their lives.
Many heroes are like my friend Len, who has told many great fun stories of his days in the Air Force. Clowning around, having fun, traveling to exotic locales for a day or two just ’cause he could. What Len doesn’t bring up is the weeks he spent in New York City following 9/11, and the problems that he and thousands of others are fighting because of it, whether our government admits it or not.
Len, Uncle Chuck, and all these folks are heroes. They were all willing to kill or be killed for not only the common good, but for every American alive while they served, and every American who’ll ever live free.
I know so many newer, younger veterans, too, and their close friends and family. Their sacrifices are much more present in our lives, and in some cases, still open and bleeding. Because the final chapter hasn’t been written in most of their cases, it’s hard to write about them in the same way as I do some of the sacrifices of the more distant past. For most of the older folks, I think while the wounds are forever tender, they’ve healed up a bit, and have, upon years and decades of reflection, become a part of who they are, and in some fragile way, accepted.
My prayers are most with our most recent vets, and really all of those, who are still coming to terms with the hell they’ve endured while proudly wearing our flag on their shoulder. I pray that the final chapter on your service is one of acceptance and an ability to move on with your life, with the memories and realizations of your time spent in harm’s way woven productively into the fabric of who you are.
I have many more friends and loved ones who have served our great nation who’ve I’ve failed to mention here. To each of you: I beg that you please know that while I don’t know firsthand what you have endured for our country, I am proud and humbled to carry some part of your pain and sacrifice on my own heart. You have done what I haven’t. You needn’t have served in war to have sacrificed; you needn’t have never come home to be a hero.
To all veterans, though it’s not enough, please accept my humble thanks this Veterans Day, and every day.