Saturday, October 23, 2010

So......What's the Big Deal about Steelers Football?

                        (Shared with you thanks to my friend Barb formerly from the Pittsburgh area.)
     Being a Steeler fan means so much more than football. It means being from a corner of the world unlike any other. It means being from a place where the people are so tough-minded that they have survived the Homestead strikes, the Johnstown flood and most recently the Etna Floods. These people have the DNA of hard work in mills and mines, without the necessity of complaint. They live simply, with no frills. They don't have movie stars or fancy cars. Instead, they have simple traditions like kielbasa, Kennywood, and celebrations. They live in distinctive neighborhoods like Polish Hill and the Hill District and all of the surrounding counties.
     These people are genuine.  They don't have chic internet cafes and cappuccinos, but they have The Original Hot Dog joint, Primanti's, Eat n' Park and Iron City Beer. People from Pittsburgh don't have sunny beaches or fancy boats, but the rivers roll gently, connecting the small towns of people whose histories have been built on strength and humility. People from Pittsburgh don't have the biggest shopping malls or the best nightclubs, but they'll take Friday night high school football and Steeler Sunday over anything. Steeler football means so much more than you think. It symbolizes a diaspora of generations who had the best childhood they could imagine.
     They ran free without a care or concern in the valleys of those Allegheny Mountains . Their blue-collar world was easy ... there was no one to tell them that they lacked material things. There was no one to tell them that they needed more.  As the steel mills closed and the jobs disappeared, some of these people had to leave. While the world benefits because they spread their Pittsburgh values, they long for their home where things were simpler and more pure. They teach their kids about Jack Lambert, Lynn Swann, Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Jack Ham, L.C. Greenwood, Joe Greene, and Myron Cope in hopes of imparting not just the knowledge, but the feeling that they represented.
     They are everywhere, those Terrible Towels. They wave, not just for the team, but for the hearts they left behind. They wave in living rooms in Fort Lauderdale and in the bars of Washington , D.C. They wave all the way to the Seattle Superdome! They wave for the Rooney family, whose values mirror our own - loyalty, grit, and humility.  They wave for football players like Jerome Bettis and Hines Ward, whose unselfishness and toughness have allowed sports to be about the game and the team.
     Make no mistake that Steeler football is not just about football.  I could not be prouder to be from the Pittsburgh area than I am right now!!  Even if you no longer live in the area, you have South Western Pennsylvania in your blood no matter where you go.  And deep down in your heart of hearts, you can still hear the Super Bowls of times past, the excitement in everyone's voices especially our fathers, cousins, and anyone else who gathered around the TV on Football Sundays!
     Make no mistake, its just as exciting right now! It's not just about rivalries and who is better than the other, it's about family, tradition and roots! It's more than football, but its football at its finest! If you now live in Arizona , Colorado , Ohio , Indiana , California , Florida , Nevada , or Texas , be proud of where you were born and who your FIRST favorite football team was!

Go Steelers

Picksburgh GO STILLERS! Ah yes! "Picksburgh"
Yunz is from the Picksburgh area or maybe you grew up there if: 

  1. You didn't have a spring break in high school.
  2. You walk carefully when it is "slippy" outside.
  3. You often go down to the "crick."
  4. You've told your children to "red up" their rooms.
  5. You can remember telling your little brother/sister to stop being so " nebby."
  6. You've gotten hurt by falling into a "jaggerbush".
  7. Your mother or grandmother has been seen wearing a "babushka" on her head.
  8. You've "worshed" the clothes.
  9. I ask you to hand me one of those "Gum-Bands" an' you actually know what I'm talking about.
  10. You know you can't drive too fast on the back roads, because of the deer.
  11. You know Beaver Valley , Turtle Crick, Mars, Slippery Rock, Greentree and New Castle are names of towns. And you've been to most, if not all, of them.
  12. A girl walks up to three of her girl friends and says, "HEY,YENZ GUYS!"
  13. You hear "you guyses" and don't think twice. Example: "you guyses hause is nice."
  14. You know the three rivers by name and under stand that "The Point" isn't just on a writing instrument.
  15.  Someone refers to "The Mon" or "The Yough" and you know exactly what they're talking about.
  16. You remember the blizzard o f 1993 (or 1976, or 1950, or 1939, or...) and remember not being able to go outside because the snow was over your head and you would have suffocated.
  17. Someone starts the chant, "Here we go Still-ers!" and you join in - in the proper cadence, waving the appropriately colored towel.
  18. Bob Prince and "There's a bug loose on the rug." hold special meaning for you.
  19. You've either eaten a Farkleberry Tart or know someone who has.
  20. You drink pop, eat hoagies, love perogies and one of your favorite sandwiches actually has coleslaw and French fries ON it.
  21. You know what a "still mill" is.
  22. You expect temps in the winter to be record-breaking cold and temps in the summer to be record-breaking hot.
  23. You know what Eat 'N Park is and frequently ate breakfast there at 2:00 AM after the bar closed and made fun of people.
  24. You order "dippy eggs" in a restaurant and get exactly what you wanted.
  25. You spent your summers, or a school picnic at Luna Park, Kennywood, Westview, Sand Castle , or Idlewild.
  26. You've been to the Braun's Bread Plant or Story Book Forest for a school field trip. We went to the Heinz plant and the Isaly's plant for Cub Scouts.
  27. "Chipped ham" was always in your refrigerator when you was growin'up.
  28. You refuse to buy any condiments besides Heinz unless a Pittsburgh athlete's picture is on the side of the container.
  29. When you call the dog or the kids you shout, "Kum-mere" and they come.
  30. Franco, Roberto, and Mario don't need last names and you can recite their exploits by heart.
  31. Food at a wedding reception consists of rigatoni, stuffed cabbage, sauerkraut and polska kielbasa.

     You'll send this on to family and friends who used to live in the Pittsburgh area as well as to those who have never lived there, just so they can appreciate how different western PA really is.  Wonder how many of yinz guys actually understood all dat?  Some folks just don't.....

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Vietnam Experience: A Musical Connection

The list of influences derived from my Vietnam experience could go on for days, but for today because the attraction was music, let me share this 'music' related story: My sophomore high school choir sang a song in concert called 'Russian Picnic' which was so popular with the choir that they selected it as their anthem and opened every concert with it - 1960.

Segue to Folk Polk, LA, 1967, for infantry training: I was sitting on my bunk in the barracks and could hear someone lightly singing/humming 'Russian Picnic' and jumped up and yelled, "Hey, who's singing Russian Picnic?" On the other side, RICHARD KROLIKOWSKI (name as it appears on the Vietnam Memorial) from Hamtramck, MI., acknowledged that he was the one.

At this point you need to know that Rich was the first member of a Polish family to be born in the United States after they had escaped Poland just ahead of the Nazi takeover. His sense of American Patriotism would put us all to shame, and there was no question in his family that he would serve and defend his 'new' country by membership in the army. The unfortunate part of the story is that except for his enthusiasm he was probably not army material. I have never seen lenses that thick on a pair of glasses before nor since I knew him. His shoulders were decidedly shorter from side to side than his hips - significantly so - and as a body type he tended to be perfectly round at the hips. Also, as a matter of additional interest, marching behind him was somewhat problematic because his legs did not seem to move to the same beat that the rest of the platoon was using. Rich was on his third - and final - attempt at passing his training. If he didn’t pass this time he was out. But all of that aside, he could sing ‘Russian Picnic.’

I went around to the other side of the barracks to tell him how amazed I was that one other person on the planet not from my high school knew that song. My jaw really dropped when I was tapped on the shoulder by the guy in the next bunk, SCOTT COOK, (name as it appears on the Vietnam Memorial) from Pacific, MO., who told me that he also knew ‘Russian Picnic’ and proceeded to sing it. Rich and I joined in and had a mutual good time - almost like barbershop quartet singing. The laugh is that in real life, Scott was a barber!

Needless to say, the lives and survival of all three of us in training was heightened by this unique friendship based on the one song (although we managed other barbershop selections as time went on.) On our last evening at Fort Polk when everyone was rushing around getting it all together to leave in the morning, I happen to be in the shower as Rich was finishing up shaving. When I came out, Rich had just left the bathroom, and one of our fellow trainees remarked that Rich wouldn’t last 30 days in Vietnam. I focused on the fact that he had passed training and hoped that he had retained enough to survive the upcoming experience. But I knew on some level, training was not the only element affecting one’s ability to participate in the infantry - I had the highest score in my infantry training company and was still unable to answer the question of whether or not I could kill another human being.

The following day started 30 days of leave for all of us: Scott, Rich, and I were all Vietnam bound and in fact Rich and I were assigned to the same unit in Vietnam. Thirty days later, we all arrived for transport to Vietnam. Rich and I landed at the Ben Hoa Air Force Base in Vietnam, and when the plane was surrounded by jeeps with 50 caliber machine guns, that’s when I was sure I ‘wasn’t in Kansas anymore.’ (Apparently, the day before, a Viet Cong soldier had exited the baggage department firing away. They were taking no chances.)

Over the next week, Rich and I arrived at the Redcatcher in processing unit for the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, and on Friday of that week, were due to be shipped to our assigned battalion. However, for me, Friday morning brought an unbelievable surprise: a finance sergeant interviewed five of us and asked if we would mind being switched to Finance. Well, of course, my dad didn’t raise any stupid children, and as soon as I was able to catch my breath, I said "Yes!" With that, I moved to the 7th Support Battalion and Rich moved to one of the infantry battalions - I’m thinking it was the 5th of the 12th. With that I settled into learning the ins and outs of the Finance Office and into a daily routine.

As it turned out, a part of the Finance Office routine was visiting the Personnel Office every morning to pick up the KIA (Killed In Action) list so that their finance records could be closed out and shipped back to the States. I glanced at it occasionally but never saw anybody I actually knew, although I recognized many of the names from having worked on their finance records and pays.

Then came November 8, 1967, with the KIA list including those who had died on November 7, 1967, - a date 30 days from the day Rich and I had arrived in country. On that list, was "Richard Krolikowski - Recoilless round to the head." I couldn’t move except to shake a little bit, but fortunately, one of the finance personnel who had been there for a while came over, took me into the back room, and said, "Take a deep breath and remember there is nothing you could have done. The first one is rough, but it gets a little easier." All I could think of was the comment made about Rich on our last night at Fort Polk: "He won’t last 30 days in Vietnam." But he did!

Beyond the occasional passing thought about Rich while I completed my tour in Vietnam, this story doesn’t continue until I returned home to McKeesport, Pa., just before Christmas, 1968. It took a month or so for the nerves to relax a bit, and that’s when I started writing to Scott to see how he was doing. Six weeks went by with no answer, so I wrote him again with the thought that maybe he had been injured or something and was in a VA hospital, therefore mail might be delayed. Six more weeks went by without an answer, so once more I wrote him with a touch of anger in my ‘written’ voice telling him I at least deserved the courtesy of a response of some sort. Several weeks later I received a letter from his mother telling me that she had hoped that by not responding to my letters, she would avoid having to write the letter I was now holding. Enclosed was Scott’s obituary - he had died in Vietnam.

At this point all of this fades into the background, never to be visited again - at least on the short term. Years went by and along the way people asked me if I had visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. I told them "No, I think I’ve put the whole thing to rest and it’s all behind me. In the meantime, however, I had developed a friendship with someone who lived in the Adams-Morgan area of Washington, D.C. which among other things presented a nice place to stay when I visited D.C. In spite of having the opportunity to visit the Memorial, I never did until one day as I was packing to leave, my friend asked me why I’d never gone to visit it. I said that it was behind me now, and he said, "Well, in that case, I’ll take you to see it the next time you’re here." - which was planned for two weeks from the current date. I said "Okay," and that in that case I guess I should prepare a memento to leave at the wall.

I returned to Pittsburgh, and contemplated what would be an ‘appropriate’ remembrance. It wasn’t until the following weekend that I figured out that I would leave two copies of "Russian Picnic" at the wall with a message for Rich, and a message for Scott. On Monday, I called Volkwein’s in Pittsburgh - the source for sheet music for many of the high schools in the area and many church choirs - in fact I don’t know where else you would go. I asked if they had any copies of ‘Russian Picnic’ and the guy checked and came back and said they did. I told him, "Good, I need two copies." He responded by telling me he only had one copy, but that he could order another one in by next week - the week after I needed it. When I told him why I needed two copies, he asked me to hold on while he checked it out. When he returned, he told me I was very lucky. He said that just every so often a copy of music falls into the folder in front of or behind the one you’re looking for and that he did indeed have two copies, so I set off to Volkwein’s for my two copied of Russian Picnic.

I wrote a message to Rich and to Scott on their respective copies, and other than a slight touch of melancholy, I was convinced that I was really over all of that and that my visit to the Vietnam Memorial was merely an act of honoring their memory. I rolled the music into a tube and tied it with a ribbon, also effectively tying up any loose ends I might have. And it would get my friend in D.C. off my back about visiting the memorial - I told him I was ‘over’ Vietnam and everything was fine.

Come Saturday morning in D.C., my friend was up early pushing me to get moving so we could go have breakfast, but reminding me to bring my ‘mementoes.’ He said we would hit the Vietnam Memorial after we ate. Well, we arrived at the wall and I got the panel locations for Rich’s name and Scott’s name, some tracing paper, then headed off in search of their names.

I found Rich’s name first, took a tracing, and laid the copy of Russian Picnic at the base of his panel, but as it turns out, I was totally wrong about having put it behind me. I nearly lost it, and my friend held on to me and helped me up, being supportive without being maudlin. He had to help me find Scott’s name because I could hardly keep my eyes clear long enough. I laid his copy of Russian Picnic at the base of his panel, but my friend had to help me complete the tracing....and then I totally lost it!

Initially, he just walked me to the far side of the walkway to give me time to compose myself, but it was apparent that I was now in fact totally mourning their deaths because I had never really done it before, and the pain was devastating. I told him to please help me up the walk out of here so I could just sit down and regroup! It took about an hour to ‘decompress’ from the experience and a little longer to comprehend and admit that I had been totally wrong about ‘handling’ Vietnam.

The attached photo of me by the reflecting pool with the Washington Monument in the background was taken about an hour an half after my experience at the Wall. My friend was able to get me to smile by playing on how foolish I felt when I realized I had suppressed so much for so long. The year was 1989. Also, I'm wearing white because later that day, I would be working as a volunteer on the Names Project Aids Memorial Quilt display where everyone actually working on the Quilt had to wear all white.

                                      At the mall in Washington, D.C. - 1989