|A gift to my wonderful grandchildren who always humored me by listening.
My most cherished memories are of the times that we sat around the campfire as an extended family and the grandchildren would invariably ask me to tell some of my famous stories. It didn’t matter that they and their parents had heard them many times before; they still seemed to enjoy them. So these stories are dedicated to my family with the hope that your children and grandchildren will continue to have a laugh on me.
I attest that these stories are true to the best of my recollection. I really was a lifeguard at the beach during my high school years. And I really was an Air Force pilot for a short time, but not for as long as I had wanted because I made mistakes. I was never a huge “success” by worldly standards. I had many and varied forms of employment. I was a salesman who sold medical supplies, contact lenses, barns and computers. I volunteered to teach at a Christian school for one year and was blessed to have Amy and Beth in my class. I didn’t make any money, but some of my sweetest memories are from that year and my class of all girls. God must have created me to shepherd girls because He gave me four of the finest that have ever lived. And He gave me the most wonderful wife that I didn’t deserve who even supported me from time to time. Thank you, Lord. And thank you, Sherry.
I planted and served as pastor for a great church for five years. It died young because I wasn’t wise about building a big organization, but I was obedient to God and He was done with it. It served its purpose. And so my greatest achievement has been trusting in Jesus and His greatest blessing has been my family.
Post script: Some of these stories took place while I was still young and had yet to give my life to Christ, so keep in mind, I wasn’t always a “good” boy.
“Curse at Me!”
I was a young man in high school and I was working my summer vacation as a lifeguard at a local public beach in West Islip, where I grew up. It was a small beach and only had a small staff of a few lifeguards to do all of the work, including security and safety. We had a single lifeguard stand which was roped off to keep the “public” out. A shift included one guard on the stand and another on the blanket inside the guard area. We also had a supervisor who usually hung out in the guard office which was inside the beach house. The beach house also had restrooms, locker rooms and a concession stand. Outside the cinder block beach house there were outdoor showers in full view of the beach and lifeguard stand. The showers had a concrete floor and only dispensed cold water. Besides being responsible for saving swimmers from drowning, the lifeguards were responsible for safety and security for the entire beach area.
There was one young boy, probably about junior high age, who came to the beach almost every day. I never noticed that he came with his mother because he never hung around her. This boy had a nose for trouble and seemed to enjoy terrorizing some of the young girls. On this particular day, I had to warn him several times about his behavior. He was dunking girls and holding them under water. He was running around the beach chasing girls, knocking over toddlers and kicking sand on young mothers. After warning him several times, I heard a girl screaming behind me. I turned around on the stand to see this bad boy lifting a girl over his shoulders in the outdoor shower. I was concerned that he might drop her on her head on the concrete floor. I blew my whistle to get his attention, but he either couldn’t hear me or he didn’t want to. I jumped off of the lifeguard stand while my backup climbed up to watch the swimmers. I had had enough of this boy’s antics for one day and told him that he had to leave the beach for the day. I did have the authority to ban unruly beach goers. The boy stopped and walked off to get his things. It was over, or so I thought. I returned to the guard area.
If you didn’t grow up in my home town you wouldn’t understand that Italian immigrants made up about half of the population. Many of the parents were first generation immigrants and they had a distinct accent, customs and even dress. Simply by their appearance one could say that they looked like they had just come off the boat from Italy.
Soon after I returned to the guard area this boy’s mother, who I had not noticed before, came waddling over. I say “waddling” because she walked like a duck since she must have weighed well over 400 pounds. She was dressed in a bathing suit with a skirt that was much too small for her huge body. She walked up to me and in a thick New York City Italian accent said, “Why’s he gotta leave da beach?” I told her about all of his dangerous behavior, which she must have seen for herself. After I finished explaining, she raised her hand and with a pointed finger asked again, “Yeah, but why does he gotta leave da beach?” I explained again that since he refused to behave, he was to leave for one day. Finally, my supervisor came over and got her to calm down and leave. Or so I thought.
It was probably less than an hour before she returned. This time she was not alone. With her came a man who was presumably her husband. He probably weighed less than one hundred pounds and was not dressed for the beach. He looked like one of Al Capone’s goons. He wore baggy dress pants that flapped in the wind. His feet were covered with dress wing tip shoes and dark socks. He was wearing a tank tee shirt and a Fedora hat. He threw his cigar on the ground as he approached the guard area. Marching ahead of his wife, he lifted his palm in front of his face, as if preparing to render a back hand slap. He blurted out, “Which one was it, which one?” His huge wife, waddling behind him, pointed at me as I was lying on the blanket in the guard area and proclaimed, “Dat one!”
Before I could get up, the man approached the roped off area and leaning over the rope with his backhand ready in front of his face he demanded, “Coyes (curse) at me! Gah ahead, you coysed at my wife, now coyse at me! I’ll break ya face!” I was shocked because I had never cursed at the woman. By now, my friend on the stand was laughing so hard that he fell off of the stand. I stood up and assured the man that I had not cursed at his wife and that as beach employees we were not permitted to curse at people. But then, being somewhat indignant, I added, “If you want to come back at 4:30 when the beach closes I can meet you outside the gate and I’ll curse at you all you want.” This only made the man more furious. Grabbing at the ropes he yelled, “Get outside dem ropes and fight like a man! I’ll break ya face!”
My supervisor was alerted by the commotion and rushed to intervene. After prolonged discussion he managed to get the man to calm down. He left with his wife continuing to yell threats at me as he left. I left work at 4:30 and half expected to meet him, along with a few button men, by the gate, but I never saw him again. I never forgot his invitation: “Coyse at me!”
Got Ya Birdie
When I was in high school I was pretty good at getting my friends to laugh. You could say that I was the “class clown.” Occasionally, my timing wasn’t very good. Teachers didn’t always appreciate me interrupting the class. Most of the teachers let me off with a warning which I was smart enough to take seriously. I had to be careful because my mom was the school nurse, so I didn’t get away with much.
One day I was in a large “study hall” class of about 50 students. It was in a large double class room. The teacher was the football coach, Mr. Skiptunas. He was a very tall and muscular man. Students were required to be quiet and study or do homework during this “study hall” period. Mr. Skiptunas would sit at his desk in the front and read the newspaper. I sat in the back row, as far from coach as I could get.
I remember that it was a beautiful spring day and the windows were open. There were no screens on the windows. I had developed a perfect bird chirp whistle which I could make through my teeth with my mouth barely open. Some of my friends sitting nearby knew my bird noise. I started with a few short chirps. Other kids began looking around the room for the bird. Coach Skiptunas looked up from his newspaper and I stopped with my head bowed and staring into my open textbook. I waited a few minutes and chirped again. This time my friends started to choke back laughter. Coach looked up and I stopped again, but my friends were still choking back their laughs. Coach stared around the room even longer. We all quieted down again. I waited a few minutes before I started chirping again. But, this time, before I could finish coach swung out a perfect quarterback bullet pass with a piece of chalk. The perfect pass hit me square in the middle of my forehead and knocked me back in my seat. Coach stood up and pointed at me and said loudly, “Got ya birdie!” The entire class cracked up. I just bowed my head in pain.
I left study hall with a big red welt on my forehead and I never disrupted coach Skiptunas’ study hall ever again.
Goober’s Pizza Sauce
When I was in college at St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY, I worked at the most popular pizza joint in the little college town. There were two colleges in Canton, St. Lawrence and Canton State where Gramma graduated. Like any college town, good pizza places are very busy any night of the week. I worked at Tony Zsa Zsa’s. It was so busy at night that there was no way with two pizza ovens that we could make all of the pizzas to order from scratch. So we would make up the pie crusts without the sauce and toppings earlier in the day, cook them for ten minutes, just long enough to make them stiff, and then freeze them until the evening rush. Once folks ordered their pizza, we would put the toppings and sauce on and then we only had to cook them for about ten more minutes. It was a successful strategy. We kept up with the rush and the people got a fresh cooked pizza in about ten minutes.
My job involved going in to the restaurant earlier in the day and preparing the pie crusts. Tony hired two “special needs” high school boys who only went to school for half the day in the morning. One of the boys was named Billy. Billy had a very short temper and had a tendency to be aggressive, especially toward the other boy named Goober. Billy would get upset about some of the stupid things that Goober would say and Goober said a bunch of stupid things. Billy would often threaten Goober. Besides saying some really dumb things, Goober had a cleft lip and had a speech impediment.
I would mix the dough in a giant mixing bowl. After the dough was mixed, usually about ten pounds worth, we would lay it out on a giant wood cutting board table. I would use a butcher knife to cut off a pie crust weight of dough and push it over to my helpers to knead with their finger tips to a size about a foot in diameter. I would spin the crusts up in the air like a true pizza maker to get them to full baking size.
We would chat as we did our work and I spent a quite a bit of time trying to keep my helpers from fighting with each other. One day as Billy and Goober were kneading the dough piles with their finger tips, Billy and I noticed that Goober was picking his nose and poking the boogers on his finger into the dough with the same finger. Billy went ballistic! He grabbed the butcher knife off of the table and began chasing Goober around the room threatening to kill him.
I had to think fast or Goober was going to be dead. I immediately remembered a refocusing exercise from my Psychology class. I screamed to Billy that we didn’t need to kill Goober because he was already dead. Billy stopped in his tracks and looked at me puzzled. I said, “Goober already died in a car accident.” Billy said, “But, I see him.” I replied, “That’s just his ghost and you can’t kill a ghost.” It worked! We went back to our work. When Goober would say something, Billy would stop and say, “I hear Goober.” I would remind him that it was just a ghost and he should ignore it. By the end of our shift, Goober was pretty frustrated because we wouldn’t answer him and pretended not to see him. I think Billy enjoyed the game. I felt sorry for Goober as we left and he kept trying to get our attention, saying, “I’m heya, I’m heya” with his nasal sounding cleft lip speech impediment. But at least he was alive.
One Christmas when Jodi and Suzanne were still toddlers and before Amy and Beth were born we visited my brother Bob in East Hampton, Long Island. At that time, East Hampton was still a rural area with farms. I remember that we had just finished a big meal when my brother and I decided to go outside for some fresh air. Across the road from his house there was a farm pasture with a very large bull in it. We crossed the road and stood by the fence admiring the size of this big animal as he chewed on the hay strewn about the pasture. The bull was only about fifteen yards away from us. Since it was cold out, we could see his breath. It looked like smoke coming out of his mouth.
Suddenly, we both noticed that the bull had a long string of snot dangling down from his nose. This big glob of thick snot must have hung down at least a foot below his nose. Both of us agreed that the giant, dirt strew bull spittle was very disgusting. Bob turned to me and said, “Wouldn’t it be gross if the bull sneezed and the snot hit you?”
No sooner had Bob said that and the bull lifted his head and looked at us. The bull shook his head back and forth with a loud grunt, his giant jowls flapping together. As he shook his head, the bull spittle flew out of his nose as if he was sneezing.
I often hear from people who have experienced a traumatic accident that time seems to temporarily slow down as if what is happening is in slow motion. This event with the flying bull snot seemed to be happening in slow motion. I remember seeing the snot coming toward me, twirling end over end through the air. I remember trying to dodge the snot, but suddenly the giant spittle slapped me right in the face. I let out a scream of disgust. I wiped the snot off of my mouth with my sleeve as I ran to the house. Everyone else got a good laugh over my accident, especially my brother.
Now, whenever I get near a bull, I’m careful to watch and see if they have a runny nose.
I graduated from USAF Pilot Training, earning my wings, in December 1972. At the time, the U.S. was still involved in the Vietnam War. There were almost 600 Air Force prisoners in the Hanoi Hilton who had been shot down over North Vietnam and captured. So, the Air Force sent all combat pilots to POW training at McCord AFB in Spokane, Washington state. I went for training there in January, 1973, in the middle of winter.
We spent two weeks in the classroom learning all about subjects like prisoner rights under the Geneva Convention, psychological warfare, and resistance techniques. Our classes ended on a Friday and our instructors told us that we would begin live training in a mock prisoner of war camp on Monday morning. Training would begin with a one and one-half mile obstacle course to simulate combat conditions. We would have to crawl on our bellies through ditches and barbed wire with blank ammunition being fired over our heads. At the end of the obstacle course we would be captured, starting out our prisoner training in an exhausted condition.
On Friday night, the guys in our training group went out to a bar. Most of us probably drank too much, expecting to be able to sleep in on Saturday. I recall that it had already started raining on my way home and it was cold. At approximately 3 am on Saturday, our group was rudely awakened by our training instructors informing us that the training exercise would commence immediately. I’m sure the surprise start time was part of the plan. It’s realistic that a soldier becomes a POW by surprise. It’s not the sort of thing that someone makes an appointment for.
So we packed up what little gear we were allowed and they trucked us out to the starting point of our obstacle course in the pouring, freezing rain. The course was ankle deep in mud. We crawled through the soaking wet ditches under the barbed wire in the pitch dark. Every few minutes there would be a flash of light as automatic weapons fired blanks over our heads. Even blank shells can seriously injure someone, so we were sure to stay on our bellies and crawl. We didn’t dare stand up and run. They issued us a stick to use as a fake rifle. We could use our stick to lift up the rolls of barbed wire and crawl underneath them.
After what seemed like a couple of hours, I reached the end of the obstacle course. It was a long course and I was tired, soaking wet, covered in mud and cold. I was almost glad to be “captured”. When I arrived there was already a line of prisoners waiting to be “processed”. I was ordered by the guards to put my “weapon” in a trash barrel. I was thrown a cloth hood and told to put it over my head and to line up with my arm on the shoulder of the prisoner in front of me. There were no holes in the hood. I could only see out of the bottom around my neck.
At first, with some spunk still remaining in my soul and remembering my resistance training, I just stood by the rifle barrel, poking my stick up and down. After a few minutes a guard grabbed me and threw me back in the line and re-instructed me to keep my hood on while hanging on to the prisoner in front of me. The guards all spoke Russian to each other. I could see a tent at the front of the line. There was yelling and screaming coming from the tent. It sounded like people were being beat.
After a few minutes, I lifted my hood and started looking around. I was spotted by one of the guards who yelled in English, “Igor, show that little man that we mean business.” Suddenly, this huge man approached me. He must have been a foot taller than me, at least 6’6” tall and 300 pounds. He grabbed me with two hands by my coat collar. He lifted me off of my feet and began shaking me like a rag doll, with my arms and legs flailing around. He then threw me to the ground. I felt like every bone in my body was rattling around. After that, I got back in line, pulled my hood down and never uttered a peep.
After we were processed into the POW camp they led us in a line, hoods on our heads and leg irons about our ankles, to our cells. We were put in individual cells, in solitary confinement. The cell only had a small window in the door that was covered with a flap on the outside so that it was pitch dark inside. There was a log to sit on, but we were instructed to remain standing at attention. As I was exhausted, after a few minutes I sat down on the log and dozed off. I awoke to a loud bang and sprang to my feet. Apparently, the guard had hit the door of one of the cells and began yelling at a prisoner that he was told to remain standing. It sounded like they pulled him out of his cell and they were beating him. He was screaming in pain. Much later, after the training was over, I learned that much of this was staged for our “benefit”.
Later, while still in solitary, they brought me a bowl of fish heads and rice for food. It was disgusting. I didn’t eat it. Now, I was cold, tired, wet, dirty and hungry. I have no idea how long I was in there. After some time the guards came back and marched us all off to what sounded like a large open hall. On the way there, as we marched outside, I could see through the bottom of my hood that the rain had changed to snow. Once we were in the hall, they made us stand at attention again. We still had our hoods on. We stood there for what seemed like an hour listening to the same country music tune over and over again. Eventually, the guards would take us, one at a turn, for interrogation with the commandant.
The commandant looked Vietnamese and spoke flawless English. He asked me if I was ok and if I was being fed. He said he could help me if I was cooperative. He said he understood me and that he had graduated from an American college. He asked me where I went to college. He even offered me a cigarette, which I refused since I didn’t smoke. I could sense that I was being drawn into a trap. In our training on resisting interrogation we had learned about the “good cop, bad cop” routine where one interrogator would be kind and the other would be brutal. He asked where my squadron was stationed. As I had been taught, under the Geneva Convention, I was only required to divulge my name, rank and serial number, which is what I did. With my response, the Commandant said, “Well, I guess I’m going to have to get Igor.”
Igor burst into the room, picked me up and threw me against the wall. He was standing over me getting ready to kick me when the Commandant yelled at him in Russian and he stopped. Igor left the room and the Commandant helped me up. He apologized for the rough treatment and allowed me to take a seat again. He handed me a flat board about 6” wide and 2’ long and asked me to hold it up and read the writing on it. It was some stupid nursery rhyme. He then took the board, turned it over and on the other side it said that, “Richard Nixon is a war criminal”. He then pointed to a small hole in the wall behind him and pointing at me. He said, “We have a camera in there.” He then turned on a small television and played a video recording of me with my lips moving but no sound holding up the sign that said, “Richard Nixon is a war criminal”. (Nixon was the President at that time)
After our interrogations, we were marched back to our solitary cells, being tired, hungry, cold, sore and discouraged. The next day they marched us out to the hall for interrogations again. Only this time, after an hour of standing at attention listening to the same song, they ordered us to get on our knees. We still had our hoods on, so we couldn’t see what was in front of us. They told us to get down on all fours and crawl forward. I could feel myself squeezing through a small unseen door. About the time that my head hit a wall, they gave me a boot in the rear and slammed a door on me. We were stuck in tiny animal cages curled up in a ball. It was no big deal at first, but after about 15 minutes we all started cramping up and guys began groaning and whimpering. One prisoner, known for being tough, yelled out, “I love it! I love it! I think I found a home.” The guards immediately pulled him out and began beating him. There was a lot of screaming and yelling. To this day, I don’t know if it was staged. The entire training was intended to break you down mentally.
After a few days all of the prisoners, including myself, were transferred into a group shelter. We were supposed to develop a prisoner command system, which was based on rank. And then we were supposed to come up with a plan to escape the compound and carry it out. The guards gave us chores to do around the compound. Some prisoners snagged some shovels and shears. The escape plan was to cut and lift the chain link fence after dark to sneak out. Before the escape was attempted, earlier in the afternoon, I was called into the commandant’s office. I was ordered to shine his shoes. So I knelt down and started to brush his shoes. I was taught in basic training how to spit shine shoes to make them sparkle. I little spit mixed on the shoe with polish makes it shine brighter. So, I thought it was a good opportunity to show some disrespect and spit on the commandant’s shoes. I sucked up a big wad of snot and let it fly onto the commandant’s shoe. He jumped up and screamed, “What are you doing? You idiot! Guard, take this dog outside and throw him in the hole.”
I spent the remainder of the afternoon in a small box buried in the ground. The bottom of the box had a floor of solid ice and the top had a lid so that it was pitch dark. After awhile my feet began to freeze. Every so often I would push the lid of the box up to see if there were any guards around and every time they were there. I was stuck in the box until late in the evening. I heard some commotion outside and was sure that my fellow prisoners were attempting their escape. I crawled out of the box and ran for the escape point. By the time I got there, it was too late. The guards had already headed off our escape. Somehow, they must have found out. They were herding the prisoners at gunpoint back into the shelter. We were ordered to remain in shelter until reveille (the sound of the morning wake up).
When reveille sounded, we woke up to a bright sunny day. The guards ordered the entire group of POWs to line up in formation outside. The commandant came out and spoke. He reminded us that our escape attempt had failed. He began yelling at us that we were the worst class to ever come through the training program. He told us that we were going to have to repeat the entire course, beginning with the obstacle course. I saw grown men begin to cry. Then they raised the American flag and began playing the Star Spangled Banner. When it was over, the commander said, “Congratulations soldiers, you passed. Dismissed.”
“Stew, You on Fiya. Man, You on Fiya!”
After completing POW training, I went right in to winter survival training. We had a week of classes at the same base where we were taught how to survive in the wilderness in winter. I suppose they were preparing us for a Russian invasion. We learned how to make shelter, catch food, cook food and stay warm. It was similar to preparing for a Bear Grills adventure. They also taught us navigation techniques for evading capture.
After a week of classroom training they shipped us out to a snow covered mountain wilderness area on the far northeastern border of the state of Washington, on the border of Canada. You can find it on a map if you look for the Pend Oreille Indian Reservation or Colville National Forest. In January, the forest and mountains were covered with several feet of snow. We were issued a 50 pound pack with food, clothing and survival equipment.
The first night, I was sent out by myself to simulate a situation where I had bailed out of my plane. I was given a map of the area showing my first rescue point. It was probably a 5 mile hike in waist deep snow over mountainous terrain carrying my 50 pound pack. I had learned how to navigate using a compass and fixing on targets. But, I couldn’t make a straight path because of the terrain and because I was supposed to avoid being seen and captured. The “enemy” was using helicopters to find people and if we were captured, we would be picked up and sent back to the starting point. After hiking all day, some guys would get tired and try to take a short cut through a meadow. They would get about half way across the meadow, in the middle where they could be easily spotted and you would hear the sound of the chopper coming over the ridge. They would try to run for it in the snow, but they always got caught. I took the long route and stayed under the cover of the trees.
There was no way that I could make it to my extraction point in one day, so I had to make camp over night. We had been taught how to make a lean to with bows and how to start a fire. So, I made myself a shelter and made a small fire. It was big enough to keep me warm for a while and to dry out my clothes, but it wouldn’t last the night. Thank God we were issued sub zero sleeping bags. I curled up snug as a bug in my bag.
Now, the instructors had told us all sorts of stories about the famous Sasquatch, a giant ape-like man, rumored to live in the forests of Washington. I never believed that such a monster existed, but there are numerous people in that area who claim to have seen one. Well, as it got dark and I was preparing to doze off in my sleeping bag, I suddenly felt the ground shaking and I could hear something pounding. I heard what sounded like heavy, labored breathing. I covered my head with my sleeping bag and prayed. I eventually fell asleep from exhaustion and fear.
The following morning, I was able to make it to my extraction point where I was met by my other class mates. It turns out, that we all had similar stories about hearing the Sasquatch, but no one saw him. I think our instructors had played another prank on us. I was glad to see my friends. A friend of mine from pilot training, John Stewart, was in the group. We all called him Stew.
That afternoon we were sent out again, only this time in pairs, with new directions to a different extraction point. It was another long hike through waist deep snow and we arrived at our destination late in the evening, tired, wet and cold. But, this night we were put up in luxury tents. Not really. They were 8 man tents made with nylon parachute material. There were 4 hay-filled mattresses on each side of the tent separated by a lane down the middle. There were 2 cut telephone poles down the middle to form an aisle between the mattresses. At the end of the tent and the aisle was a small pot belly wood stove to keep the tent warm. The fires were already stoked with plenty of wood when we got there which would keep the fire going all night. I was in the same tent as Stew, who snagged the mattress closest to the fire on one side. Across the aisle from Stew was a black sergeant whose name I don’t recall. I hadn’t met him before. I ended up with the mattress closest to the door of the tent and furthest from the stove.
We were all soaking wet, so we were glad to strip down and hang up our wet clothes in the warm tent. We climbed in our sleeping bags atop the straw mattresses. Before we fell asleep, one of the camp hosts came in to let us know that we had to put the fire out unless we took turns guarding the fire. We decided to keep the fire going, but no one wanted to stay awake. Stew assured us all that the wood stove was not a fire risk and we all fell asleep.
In the middle of the night I woke up as all of the men in the tent were coughing. There was thick smoke in the tent. The black sergeant suddenly yelled out, “Stew, you on fiya! Man, you on fiya!” The pole next to Stew near the fire was smoldering and smoking and was starting to ignite the straw in Stew’s mattress. Stew began pounding away at his mattress. But, no one was getting up to get out of the tent. That was probably because we were all buck naked and it was freezing out. I knew I had to do something before we all died of smoke inhalation or before the whole tent caught fire. So, I crawled out of bed, grabbed the end of the pole by the door and began pulling it out of the tent. I managed to get it out and freezing cold, I dove back into the tent and my sleeping bag. The next morning I awoke with blisters on my feet from the frozen ground, but at least I saved my buddies. I was so glad that the training was over and that I wouldn’t have to do any more hiking with my blistered feet. They sent a chopper to fly us all back to base. And that’s how I survived winter survival training.