Archive for the 'Reflecting' Category


And suddenly, he was gone

It was during a fall rush event that I met him. Initially, there was nothing that stood out about him … he was just another awkward freshman in a sea of awkward freshman, visiting fraternity houses, looking to find a house that was right for him. But he had come around a couple of times — and I had talked to him a lot. His name was Sam Gresock. He was from Punxatawny, land of the groundhogs. He was obscenely quiet, but when he spoke, he spoke quickly and with an obvious intelligence. I didn’t have to explain the banter or the more obscure jokes that I threw out — he got it right away. And in an era where I didn’t really like a lot of people, there was something I just liked about the guy.

The Classic Sam pose.

He showed up to every single rush event. When I talked to the other brothers about the possibility of him getting a bid, most of them were uncertain. It turned out that many of the guys had never really met him. So the next day at an event, he took up his usual wallflower post in the basement and lit up a cigarette. He had a certain Sam pose … usually a drink in his left hand, right hand hooked into his jeans pocket, usually with a cigarette, head slightly cocked to one side. He always looked like he was just a good ole country boy waiting for stuff to happen so he could amble on over and join in.

So, the rush chairman (Brian Coyne, damn glad to meet you) and I pulled him aside. We told him he needed to get out there and talk to people. He needed to open up a little bit more. He can’t be so quiet. The guys who he had met and chatted with liked him, but he needed to talk to more of the brothers — as we were sure once he did, the others would vote to let him into our house. He listened to us intently, eyes wide open, and simply nodded his head and said, “I can see that. OK.”  We joked and laughed a little to make sure he knew this wasn’t life or death, but this really was something he needed to do.

After that, he left his wallflower post and never looked back.

Sam went on to be one of the great brothers of the fraternity. He became one of the great mixed-tape makers for the party music (which, in those days, was a true artform). When he heard the phrase “… if it was up your ass, you’d know,” he used it so often that when ANYONE said it, the proper comeback became “OK Sam.” As we all got to know him better, you realized how funny he was, and how creative he was. He and others would write spoof lyrics to songs, and they were great. He had the unfortunate habit of having all of his worst, stupid drinking nights become hilarious stories — none of which I will put in here — but whenever the brothers got together, they would be told and we would laugh so hard that we would be on the verge of crying.

Those were some great days, and let’s face it, we were all pretty stupid.

Like pretty much everyone in my life, I lost touch with Sam when I moved to Florida in 1993. But before I left, Sam pulled me aside at a party and thanked me. He said without me, he didn’t think his life would be the same as it had become. I wasn’t exactly sure how I had impacted his life in such a way. I mean, I was just one of the guys who held the door open for him — and I wasn’t exactly role model material. Clearly, he took it upon himself to become the man he was. But instead of telling him that, I simply told him the best way to thank me was to remember it and return that same favor to someone else. We toasted with our cans of beer, laughed and rejoined the fun.

When I would return to Pittsburgh for vacation, he was always among the guys who would come out to see me. He had become a journalist. In time, he got married to a woman named Billie, who I never had the opportunity to meet (honestly, I was too poor to fly up for the wedding). And by the time I had moved back to Pennsylvania, life had taken them to South Carolina where he continued his career in journalism. But with the advent of social media, I was able to reconnect and chat with Sam almost daily. We rolled laughing like the old days in the fraternity basement, so much so that other folks who I know friended and chatted with him, too. Honestly, despite it being years of being apart, conversations flowed as they always had. Our lives may have taken us in different directions, but nothing had changed. He was still the same great guy I had known from college.

In fact, just on Saturday, I was having beers with friends, and a few of them and I were chatting about Sam. They told me how hysterical they found him to be. I told them some of the old stories, he tweeted us back, and it felt like Sam was there, laughing and drinking with us. We told him that the next time he was in Pittsburgh, we were going to get together, to which he whole-heartedly agreed. Later, I told them about what a great guy Sam is, and how out of the many friends who have come and gone over the years, Sam was one of the guys I wish lived closer to us. He was one of the few really good friends from the old days that I never got to physically hang out with in the past 15 years or so.

That was the same night that Sam passed away from a heart attack.

I got word around 9pm Sunday from my friend Corey, in the middle of my shift at work. I sat stunned, thinking this had to be a cruel hoax. I listened to the message 3 times before it actually sank in. But as the word of his death spread and I got an email from his wife,  I knew it wasn’t. Suddenly, in all of our lives, Sam was just gone.

But as the Sam tributes and stories started popping up among the folks who knew him, I realized something about Sam: He hadn’t forgotten that lesson that I had somehow imparted to him along the way. He had indeed passed it on to others — and not just one or two — but to a great many people.

Sam was a rare individual, an outstanding brother and a great friend. I will miss his banter, his laugh and his chats — as will a great many people.

Rest in peace, my friend.


Still proud

As I’m sure we all know, the Steelers lost the big game. And right now, there’s many people playing the blame game, or throwing “their team” under the bus.

Not me.

In fact, this could be one of my favorite Steelers seasons.

Bear with me here.

See, this season played out like a movie. The embattled jerk QB getting suspended, but coming back to lead them to a winning season. The injuries and the players stepping up to fill the shoes of the starters. The commissioner seeming to have a grudge against the team and the double-standard that ensued after that. Seriously, if a writer wrote this season up, he’d be told there was no way that all of this could actually happen.

And yet it did.

So, here’s what I loved about the season in a nutshell: How the team handled the adversity. From the coaches (who can forget Tomlin’s “The standard is the standard” line) to the players who did whatever it took to help the team (Doug Legursky is a prime example) to the guys who kept their heads up when everything seemed to be going against them (James Harrison being fined for touching opposing players). And let’s not forget the injuries — not only on the Offensive Line, but to Troy, Keisel, Aaron Smith, McFadden, Dixon … lots of players down or playing hurt. And let’s not forget about the early distractions — Ben accused of rape; Holmes failing a drug test and being traded, and Skippy Reed being traded in mid-season for a kicker who had been out of the game because he didn’t play all that well.

This team had every reason to quit or play under their abilities; but they didn’t.

In fact, they came together as a TEAM and played well enough to win games that they had no business winning. Hell, I find it remarkable that despite all of their fuck ups in the Super Bowl, they were still in a position to win with that last drive. To be honest, I was fully expecting them to come back and win the game by 1 point, because they’ve done it so many times in the past.

This season made me a bigger fan of Coach Tomlin. It actually made me a fan of Big Ben (as a player … I hope he is truly a changed man in his personal life), and you can guarantee that if I can get a hold of a Legursky jersey, I’m wearing it.

I really don’t know what to expect next year … but with this team’s work ethic and professional attitude, I can think of no reason why they won’t be Super Bowl champions in the future.


Dad’s food for thought

I’ve been jonsing to talk to my dad again. For those of you who don’t know, he lives in Florida — and has for almost 40 years now. Dad and I don’t talk often … not because of any drama or anything … but simply because we’re just different people. For example, he’s a carpenter, I’m in journalism. He’s a hunter/fisherman, I’m a hiker and mountain biker. Computers are scary for him, I build them. You get the idea.

But after my recent trip to the LST 325 (and there was about 18,000 people who visited the ship while it was here, and that’s awesome), I wanted to talk to him to see if he served on one of them while he was in the Marines.

Turns out he had. I said, “Yeah, I was on an LST that came to Pittsburgh…” His response? “Been there and done that!”

Now, a few years ago, Dad tracked down his best buddy from the Marines days, and he’s been a lot more talkative about his time in the Corps. Dad was a truck driver in the Marines, so naturally he had been on the LSTs. He apparently had been on all kinds of different ships … from the LSTs to the big troop ships to the boats that you had to climb down the rope ladders over the side and into the landing craft. “And then you’d bounce around like a damn bobber for 20 minutes while everyone piled in.”

Dad had lots of insight that I hadn’t thought of. For example, when he talked about the bunks, he talked about how there were no ladders on the side of the bunks, so the guys on top just climbed up them on the sides. So, if you were asleep in your bunk, someone could step on your hand, or leg, or whatever as they climbed. He also talked about what could happen if the guy on the top bunk got sea sick … yeah, that’s right … if he puked, it was likely gonna splash on every guy on the way down.

He also talked about how hot it would get in those ships. Now, at this point, he was talking about his time spent on the big troop carriers, but I imagine it would have been the same on the LSTs. He said, “It was hot as hell, and you could only imagine the smell of a couple hundred guys stuck in there. We were like livestock.” He said after PT (physical training), most guys would stay on the deck because the “hole” (as the called it) was really pretty awful.

Are you thinking what I'm thinking?

He then asked if I got to see the bathrooms. I said no, because there was still crew on board, and they likely had that off limits so that if the crew had to use the head, they could do so without worrying about visitors popping in. So, dad went on to describe the shitters on board the bigger ships.

Apparently, they were one big trough that was at an angle. Water came in from the top part and, with the aid of gravity, pushed all the waste to the low part. No big deal right?

Well, it was if you were the guy on the low end of the trough. Apparently, the toilet paper or water could hit your but on it’s way out. He laughed as he told me that, but again, he said, “Hey man, we were nothing more than animals on those boats. They weren’t made for comfort.”

He talked about the trucks he drove, how the exhaust came out the top, how each one was made “waterproof” so they could drive through water. He could still recite his serial number, and the number of his gun that he was assigned in boot camp. He talked about the DIs. And I was just amazed at how much he remembered, and how simply he got the images across.

Eventually our conversation went to a different topic … his girlfriend’s brother was visiting from Cuba. Apparently it was his first time in the U.S., and apart from some time spent in Russia (he was an engineer), he had never been off the island.

Now, some of you will remember my Independence Day post, in which I talked about my mom’s trip to China back in the 80s, and how an old man asked her if we really fed the birds in America. Well, what Dad talked about next was eerily similar.

See, Dad doesn’t speak Spanish, and his girlfriend doesn’t really speak English. Somehow they manage to communicate (and have for years), but when you’re not a part of their little language, you’re perpetually on the outside.

Well, Dad had no idea of what her brother liked to eat, and he hated trying to figure it out through his girlfriend. So, he figured they’d go to a Golden Corral (as he said, “A lot of them are shit, but this one is really good for some reason.”). And, they got him a buffett, so he could pick what he liked.

They ate, and after they had their first plate, she turned to her brother and said, “Are you ready to go?” He said “Yes,” and got ready to leave the restaurant. She said, “No no no, are you ready to get more food?”

He was absolutely shocked. “More?”

She told him he could have as much as he wanted. And then his eyes welled up with tears, because he could only think of his family, and how he wished they were there to share in something so wonderful, so that they wouldn’t have to worry about being hungry.

Don't look for this in Cuba.

To put things in perspective, Dad also said they took him to a grocery store to get food for a little Labor Day cookout. He couldn’t believe that so much beef was available. According to the brother, beef is highly valued in Cuba. If you’re caught eating it or having in your possession, you’ll be arrested. The only way you really get it is if you’re on your deathbed, and they’ll give you a little bit before you die. So the fact that my dad could buy beef — in steaks, hamburgers and hot dogs — he thought he had died and gone to heaven.

They also took him to a casino. They had him open a club account, and the casino gave him $50. He played, but spent very little. After the third day, he walked out of the casino with $30. He apparently said that that was the most money he ever had carried in his pocket. His government pension, for being an engineer, was $10 a month.

It was just an amazing conversation. I hung up, and felt completely blown away. I still can’t fathom being jammed in on one of those troop ships, or finding the Golden Corral to be a little piece of heaven, or even marveling over the amount of food we have available to us. But maybe I should try. Maybe I should be a little more appreciative of what I have and the people who surround me.

And yeah, I think I need to call Dad more often.


New appreciation

So, yeah, I’ve been rather … absent … on the blogging front recently.

Well, to be fair, I’ve had a lot of stuff on my mind. And I tend to work through those things by working on a project. It’s like as I become focused on the project, my mind sorts itself out. This is also true when I mountain bike or weight lift, which is why I enjoy doing both of those things.

This time, however, I put all of my energy into home projects.

I’ve had a guest room that has remained undone for like 2 years. Without going into a long story about it, let’s just say it’s been a nightmare. So, I finally opted to just nuke that bastard and go all out until it was done. This took on a new sense of urgency because when Cali moved back to California, I bought her bed and some furniture specifically for that room. And I that stuff was just all over the house. So, for better or worse, that room had to get done — the clutter was killing me.

Well, as you all know, the summer weather has gotten pretty brutal at points. And working in that heat was rough. Literally, I was working half naked, fans on high, and I was still dripping sweat. But whenever I hit the “Oh, fuck it” attitude, I remembered one thing — my dad.

Now, most folks who know me rarely hear me talk about my dad. There isn’t any real reason for this other than my dad lives in Florida, and he and I are very different people. We share a lot of traits, and I look almost exactly like him. But I’m a computer guy. He’s a carpenter.  We just don’t share a lot in common except our genetics.

But as I said, dad is a carpenter. A Florida carpenter. And as I worked, I had tons of flashes to him when I lived down South. When I was a kid, I never understood why he had no energy when he came home. Basically, he’d eat dinner, read the paper, watch a little TV and he was out cold on the couch by 8 or 9 p.m.

After working in similar conditions for about a week or 2, I understood why.

So, the other day, I gave him a call.

“Dad, I’ve been doing a bunch of renovations on the house, and it’s been hot as hell. I want you to know that I have no idea of how you’ve been a carpenter down there for so damn long. What’s it been, like 30 years?”

He laughed. “Nah, closer to 40. And apparently I can’t do that shit no more.” He had only recently been sidelined with a shoulder injury that doctors told him would take a year to heal. He was back working like 6 months later. But now he has to rest more often because that time off took away his heat endurance. Did I mention he’s 67? Well, he is. And he’s a beast.

And as we talked, he gave me tips: Wake up early, do the heavy stuff on the West side of the building to stay out of the sun. Knock off around 10. If you have to work in the afternoon, move to the East side so the sun won’t be beating down on you. Just do light stuff from 10 to 1 if you still have to work. Drink lots of Gatoraide.

As we wound our conversation down, I came away with a new respect for him. I kinda always understood why he did the job he did — he’s not a man that could sit at a desk — and carpentry runs in the family. But to be able to do what he’s done for as long as he has no matter what the conditions outside … man, that says something.


Independence Day

“Do you really feed the birds in America?”

That’s what an elderly Chinese man asked my mom years ago, when she was in China as a visiting nurse. It was around 1985.

She told him yes. She told him a story of our neighbor, who used to feed the birds every morning, without fail. He would tear apart a couple pieces of bread and throw the crumbs out to the birds, and watch as they flocked to eat.

Apparently, the Chinese man thought that this was one of the most beautiful thing he had ever heard.

When mom told my sister and me the story, we were confused. “What did he mean ‘Do we feed the birds in America?'”

She explained to us that there are places in the world where food is too precious to give to animals that weren’t livestock. Seeds would be put to use for other things — but feeding the birds was a luxury these people just couldn’t afford.

At the time, that was just inconceivable. It’s not that I grew up wealthy or anything … in the early 80s, we used food stamps, we ate generic-label food, I had a lot of hand-me down clothes — hell, we were all in the same boat in Western Pennsylvania when the steel industry died. But even growing up with all of that,  I still had a hard time imagining not having enough to feed the birds, should I want to.

Obviously, we can thank our ancestors for our life today. They put in a lot of work to enable us to have the kind of life that we have. We are in the land of plenty. Instead of wondering if we’ll eat, we think about what variety of food we’ll eat, and if we’ll keep the leftovers or not. Some fret over whether a meal is meatless. Others care not so much that they have the food in front of them, but how that food was grown and how it was prepared. And still others care not so much that there’s meat in front of them, but how that animal lived before it was butchered.

Our choices and options are staggering, if you stop to think about it.

And I think back to that elderly Chinese man. I wonder what he would think if I took him into an American grocery store. The variety that we see everyday was probably unimaginable for him.

If you’re an American celebrating Independence Day today, at some point, take a step back from the grill, look around you and listen. When you hear someone ask for wheat bread instead of white, or a Boca burger instead of a hamburger, or states a preference for one beer over another … look at Old Glory and smile.

You, my friend, are living the dream.

Happy birthday, America.


Memorial Day

So, it’s Memorial Day. And you’re probably being bombarded by people telling you to remember the men and women who have served — and continue to serve — our country in order to ensure our ability to enjoy our life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. So, this really won’t be a blog about that. This blog entry will probably be a little more selfish — it will be about how those who serve/have served have affected my life — directly and indirectly.

For those who have reading since I first started blogging on myspace years ago, my family has been involved with the military for a long, long time. If the records we’ve traced back are accurate, parts of my family have served since the War of 1812. We have pictures of one of my great-great-grandfathers who served in the Union army during the Civil War — not once, but twice. (He was captured initially, traded in a prisoner exchange, discharged and re-enlisted.) One of his brothers served in taming the West, and his unit was the first in after Little Bighorn. My Uncle Fred died during the invasion of Normandy, and is buried in France. My Uncle Joe was awarded for actions on board a ship that torpedoed during the Normandy invasion, and he apparently saved the lives of more than 30 others. My father is a retired Marine who served during the Cuban Missile crisis, and was the last man out of his unit before it shipped to Vietnam. I had 2 uncles serve in Vietnam — both lived, but my Uncle Frank, who served 2 tours there, committed suicide from the severe post-traumatic stress that he could no longer bear. (My family still doesn’t like to talk about that, and getting information about Frank is like pulling teeth.) And there are many others that I know I’m missing … my Slovak grandfather (Merchant Marines), my Uncle Kenny (Navy), my Aunt Dora (Woman’s Air Corps), and Bernie, the grandfather of my nephews, who was a Korean War veteran and served as a DI at Parris Island.

And there are my friends — the people who helped shaped my life. Most of them are Marines. There’s the Marine Sgt. who doesn’t like to be mentioned on the Web, so I keep him anonymous. But I’ve learned my persistence and gung-ho “let’s do this” attitude from him. There’s a former Captain who I went to college with who helped keep me focused by leading by example. There’s countless others — Gulf War vets and those that served in peace-time — that I am friends with now. I’m truly blessed to have them around. All of my friends that went to Iraq and Afghanistan have come back (physically) in one piece, including all the people who I played Warcraft with — and there were a lot of them.  However, not everyone has been so lucky.

My friend Doug recently received news that his brother was killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan. Reading his Facebook feed regarding his brother’s death, and the people who showed up at his funeral to honor his memory, has been an eye-opener.

Another friend of a friend had her son severely wounded in Afghanistan. I think I met her once briefly before he enlisted — I was walking in to my friend’s home as she was leaving, but you can read her blog about her daily struggle to help her son here.

But her story opens another door to Memorial Day. We always talk about the pain we endure when we lose a serviceman or woman who we know, and their sacrifice for the rest of us … but there are so many that come back permanently wounded. The Gulf War alone has seen tens of thousands of our servicemen and women come back as amputees. Brain injured. Blind. Mentally scarred. And yet, a lot of them still manage to find a way to inspire or affect our lives in positive way by the example they put forth.

Today in the Trib, there is a story about another veteran — Jeremy Feldbusch — well, his story is on internet lockdown today, but I’m sure it’ll be available soon. Read it if you get the chance. This man, despite being blinded and having brain damage, continues to live his life as normally as possible. He hunts. He rides a bike. He volunteers to help other wounded veterans through the Wounded Warrior project. If his story doesn’t inspire you to be better than what you are, I really don’t know what will.

So to the men and women who serve: I know in your minds, you’re simply doing your job — what you’ve been trained to do. And likely, you’re focused on completing your mission while doing your best to keep the men and women you serve with alive. But in the larger scheme, your actions and sacrifices — whether it be judged in lives, quality of life, or just time away from your loved ones while deployed — will always be remembered. Your actions, service and stories affect us all, now and always.

Thank you.


Reasons to love W.Pa., Vol. 3


Ah, winter bliss

PHOTOS: Tribune-Review News Service

This is picture taken from out Somerset way, and for most people, it portrays something they dread — winter.

But for me, this is sheer beauty. I love the cold and I love winter. And this is simply a beautiful picture.

OK, technically, winter isn’t contained to Western PA, nor is the effect of “hoarfrost” limited to only here. But after tramping around out in the woods in the snow, this picture makes me smile and take a sip of hot cocoa while bundled up in my “Walk the Slank” Slanket.

I’ve sat for hours looking out the window at falling snow, and I always  drift into an extremely peaceful state of mind. It always seems so quiet when it snows, like society just grinds down to halt and notices that it isn’t completely invulnerable to the elements. People hunker down and ride it out, kids rejoice in it, and it’s like it gives us a reason to catch our breath and enjoy the little things — like kids playing or sled riding or holding your loved one for warmth — before resuming the hectic pace our lives.

Related to Western PA winters — the annual blessing of the rivers.


Let us pray...

To be honest, I’ve seen this picture a zillion times. The Eastern Orthodox Grand Poobah comes out with his spiffy hat and nifty beard to lead a service with the faithful to bless the rivers, which are a huge part of life throughout the region.

But you know, every time I see it, I also get a huge smile on my face and chuckle, because for whatever reason, it reminds me of a scene that you think you’d see in Nepal. Some religious figure with a funny hat in a small village nestled in the mountains blessing a river or a mountain or whatever in some centuries old ritual.

But it’s not. It’s right here, maybe 40 minutes to an hour from where you live.

And that’s pretty freakin’ cool.

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