Monday, March 27, 2023


from Like a Flower in the Field


Eddie walked up to home plate, his eyes focused on me all the way. I stood in the third base coach’s box and looked in at him—all five feet and ninety pounds—and tried to think of something I could say as his coach, something that might actually help. It was the bottom of the sixth, two outs, bases loaded, and we were down by one run.

Eddie was small for a twelve-year-old. Several of his teammates towered over him and outweighed him by thirty pounds, but he was a good kid, a good teammate, always smiling, full of fun. It had been a pleasure to have him on my team. We’d had a good year, good enough to play in this post-season Tournament-of-Champions. And now here we were: our last at bat, one run to tie, two to win, or we could simply go home, the season over for another year.

I motioned for Eddie to come to me, and I met him halfway. I put my right hand on his shoulder and bent down to talk to him, mouthing the clichés that have served coaches so well since the time of Abner Doubleday.

“Okay, Eddie, just relax, take a deep breath, get a good pitch to hit, put your best swing on it. Okay? No worries. Hey, it’s just a game. Right? Have some fun—”

At that moment, in the middle of my inane monologue, I put my left hand on Eddie’s chest. His heart was jumping into my hand—thump, thump, thump—like someone beating a bass drum. It stopped me cold.

I’d grown up playing baseball from the time I was seven years old, and I knew what the pressure was like, especially when the adults tell you it’s a “big game,” and your parents are in the stands, and there are hundreds of people watching, yelling, shouting your name. I knew all of that. But I’d let myself forget. That is, until Eddie’s heart was in my hand. I said the only thing that came to mind.

“Hey, just give it your best. Whatever happens, it won’t change the way I feel about you.”

Eddie turned and headed back to the plate. I’m sure his heart rate was accelerating.

I wish I had a happy ending for you, a miracle line drive to left center bringing in two runs for the win. But that’s not what happened. Eddie struck out.

I trotted in to scoop him up and carry him the few steps to the dugout, tears beginning to well in his eyes and mine. I can’t remember what I said, but I know it didn’t help. Nothing would have helped.

That was a long time ago. A lot of seasons have come and gone since then, for me and for Eddie. He grew a little, packed on some muscle, and became an all-conference rugby player in college. But I would bet Eddie remembers that baseball game like it was yesterday, just as I will always remember his heart leaping into my hand.


Thursday, March 9, 2023


Weekend Warriors

Excerpt from Bro. Dick … a remembrance


I went to a play recently. It was the Sacramento Theater Company’s production of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. There was no curtain to raise for the opening scene.  Instead, the houselights dimmed to black, the stage lights came up, and George and Lenny entered stage left.

That’s sort of what it was like for Mom and me when we knew my brother Dick was coming home for the weekend. On Thursday after school, I would go into what wife Barbara calls my Suzy Homemaker routine: vacuuming, dusting, scrubbing the bathroom and mopping floors. Mom would make a long list and head off to the commissary on the shipyard to shop for the weekend. She’d stock the house with fruits and veggies, snacks and drinks, and all the fixings for a special Sunday dinner. By the time Friday evening rolled around, the house was in tip-top shape and the cupboards and fridge filled to overflowing.

My brother would arrive from Sacramento around 7:00 p.m. Mom and I would be sitting in the living room, trying to act nonchalant, but glancing out the window every minute or so to see if he was safely home. Dick would come up the walk and into the house, and then it was like the stage lights coming up: our weekend could begin.

Through the daylight-saving months, he’d drop his bag in his room, grab a cold Hamm’s from the fridge, and we’d go outside to inspect the yard. Landscaping became our ongoing project after our father died. Dad had kept about three quarters of the backyard for his vegetable garden and there was no way Dick and I were going to maintain that tradition. So, we planted grass, which came up thick and green, a tribute to the thousands of yards of steer manure Dad had worked into the soil over the years. We built brick planters around the foundation at the back of the house and filled them with exotic plants from the Vallejo Nursery over on Springs Road. We kept some flowerbeds for annuals and rotated them according to the season. As I said, it was our project.

The purpose of the Friday night inspection was to see how things were going and to map out the work that needed to be done. Saturday was generally devoted to yard work: mowing, trimming, pruning and planting. One favorite thing to do was to cruise over to the nursery and browse through the rows of trees and shrubs and flowers. We tried lots of things that didn’t work out, but it never dimmed our enthusiasm. I have to say we kept the place looking pretty spiffy. And we had pet names for our favorite plants. A fruitless mulberry tree became a mulless fruitberry. We couldn’t remember the name of one of the plants, but the tag on it said, “prune heavily,” so we just called it the prune heavily. You get the picture.

I would go out with my friends on Saturday night, to a movie or bowling or a dance at the High School. Dick occasionally had a date with a girl in town named Laurie. She was very pretty and the family got its hopes up that this would be the girl, but I don’t think it ever went beyond casual dating.

We’d wind up back at the house around midnight and then the fun would begin.  We’d hustle over to a place called Red’s on Solano Avenue to pick up a pizza and then gather around the table in our dining room. My friends Dillon Mini, Bruce Bigelow, and Jim Decious would join us. Mom always had something fresh-baked for us to chase down the pizza. Then we’d clear the table, break out the Tripoli board and launch into a spirited game. Tripoli is a board game that I guess can be described as part poker and part gin rummy. Anyway, the game would rage on until 2:00 or 3:00 a.m.

I’d take a break from the game at times and go into my bedroom, which was right off the dining room. I’d turn on the radio real low and pick up an all-night jazz station out of the Bay Area. But I always left the door open. It gave me a good feeling to see and hear my mom, my brother, and my friends talking and laughing and having a good time, with Dizzy Gillespie or Gerry Mulligan & Chet Baker providing the soundtrack.

A typical Sunday involved going over to the high school courts to play hours and hours of tennis. Usually this was just Dick and Bruce and me, but sometime the other guys would join us. My brother was a good tennis player, gliding around the court with that long stride of his. In fact, we were all pretty evenly matched which made for good competition.

After tennis, we would head home to shower and clean up in time for Sunday dinner. Mom’s specialty was a sirloin tip roast with mashed potatoes, pan gravy, lots of fresh veggies, and chocolate devil’s food cake for dessert. After that we’d collapse in the front room and wait for the Ed Sullivan Show to start.

That was a typical weekend with the Spooners.

            When Ed Sullivan said goodnight, it was time for Dick to pack his car and head back to Sacramento, and time for me head for my desk and make a half-hearted attempt to do the homework I’d been putting off all weekend. As he left the house and went down the walk to his car, it was like the stage lights dimming in the theater. For Mom and me, it wouldn’t be as bright again until the next time he came home.


Thursday, March 2, 2023

Note: Frank A. Bodie and I met in 1952 when we were drafted onto the same Little League team. We reconnected in 2008 and became close friends. The two of us collaborated on this story, which revolves around the question: did my uncle, Pat Pieper, know Frank’s grandfather, Ping Bodie? They were part of the Major League Baseball community in Chicago at a time when that community was very small. With fiction, anything is possible. And so we decided they not only knew each other, they were good friends. My dear friend Frank passed away in March 2017. This story is dedicated to his memory. 

Pipe Dream

from Like a Flower in the Field


 What?! You met Babe Ruth?”

“Yep. Met him twice.”

My grandfather sat back in his favorite chair, his legs up on the ottoman, puffed on his pipe and gave me a wry smile. I had just mentioned that I’d met Bill Gates once, at a bridge tournament in Sacramento. I’d played my Bill Gates card and Gramps topped me with two Babe Ruths.

“Grandpa, why haven’t I heard this story before?”

“Well, Lonnie … I guess you never asked.”

He smiled again, obviously enjoying the moment. My grandfather, Alton Blaire Jacobs, was a storyteller. He loved nothing more than to hold you spellbound while he spun a good tale, and he loved to take his time, every sentence punctuated by a few puffs on his favorite pipe. In fact, when you see “…” below, you can read “puff puff puff.”

Now I was hooked. I had to hear this story. But Gramps was having fun, toying with me, waiting for me to ask.

“Okay, Gramps, you’ve gotta tell me. I’m all ears. How did you meet Babe Ruth?”

“Well … the first time was in Chicago, October 1, 1932. I remember that date because it was the evening after the third game of the 1932 World Series. I was just a kid, working as a busboy at a restaurant called The Ivanhoe … It was just a few blocks south of Wrigley Field at Clark and Wellington.”

“Yeah? So what happened?” It was clear that breaks to puff on his pipe were going to be a major feature of this yarn.

“Well … I was near the front desk, it was still early, the dinner crowd wouldn’t start showing up till seven or eight, and this man came through the front door with a big grin on his face. He was about five nine with a powerful build, wearing a dark suit and a gray fedora, and he clapped a hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Son, is Frank Pieper here?’ You see, Frank ‘Pat’ Pieper was the maître d’ at The Ivanhoe … He was also the field announcer for the Chicago Cubs and the Cubbies were playing the Yankees in the ’32 Series. I said, ‘You mean Pat Pieper? Yeah, he’s in the back. Can I give him your name?’ He grinned and said, ‘Yeah, tell him Francesco Pezzolo is here to see him.’”

Gramps paused again.

“And? What then?” I felt like I was pulling teeth.

“Well … I went into the back room where Pat was getting ready, going over the reserved tables and such, and I said, ‘Mr. Pieper, there’s a Francesco Pezzolo here to see you.’ He said, ‘Francesco Pezzolo? Well I’ll be damned, it’s Ping! Ping Bodie!’ Pat hurried out to the front, me right behind him, and he and Ping hugged each other like long lost brothers. They were laughin’ and cuttin’ up and I couldn’t help but smile to watch them … It turns out that Ping started his major league career across town with the White Sox back in 1911. He was with the Sox through 1914, and the two of them, Pat and Ping, got to know each other. Pat started with the Cubs as a vendor at the West Side Grounds in 1904.”

“But wait, who was Francesco…whatshisname?”

“Ha! You see, Ping was born Francesco Pezzolo and grew up in San Francisco. Now, Bodie, California, was a rowdy mining town in the eastern Sierras with nearly as many bars and brothels as citizens, a real tough place. Apparently this made a big impression, because Francesco Pezzolo changed his name to Frank Bodie. ‘Ping’ was his nickname for the sound of his fifty-two ounce bat when he connected with a baseball.”

“Okay. So where does The Babe come into this?”

“Be patient, Lonnie. I’m gettin’ there.”

My grandfather’s pipe had gone out, and he took a minute to refill and light it. He always bought a special blend of tobacco from a local shop and it had a sweet, pleasant aroma that filled the room.

“Where was I? Oh … so, it turns out after Ping left the White Sox, he eventually signed with the Yankees. Played with the Yanks from 1918 to 1921. He was Babe Ruth’s first roommate. His first roommate, Lonnie! And Ping’s the one who gave him the nickname ‘Bambino.’”

“That’s amazing.”

 “So … Ping was in town for the World Series as Babe’s guest, and he was at The Ivanhoe looking for a place where Ruth and some of the guys could take their wives for drinks and dinner. Ping wanted to know if Pat could handle a group of eight or ten later that evening.  Remember now, this was right at the end of Prohibition and alcohol was still illegal. But … The Ivanhoe had a cellar speakeasy known as The Catacombs, one of the best stocked joints on the North Side.”

“Geez, Gramps! You worked in a Chicago speakeasy during Prohibition?”

“Yep. Served everybody from the mayor to the police commissioner at one time or another … So, Pat said, ‘Hell yes, tell The Babe to come on down. I’ll take good care of ’em, even if they are the Yankees.’ They had a good laugh over that one, talked for a while longer, and then Ping said goodbye … Well, Pat sent me off to make sure we had plenty of the best Canadian whiskey and good local beer, and to set up a private room down in The Catacombs where Babe’s group wouldn’t be bothered.”

Gramps took a few puffs and looked off into space. I was on the edge of my chair. “So? What happened then?”

“Well … It got to be nine, nine thirty, and Pat was gettin’ worried. We were primed and ready. The kitchen was alerted. Pat had his best waiters standing by. He’d even called the Sun Times to let their man-about-town columnist know that the Yankees would be coming to The Ivanhoe. Finally, a little before ten, there was a big commotion in the foyer. The Babe and his group came on like Gang Busters. I’ve never seen an entrance like that, before or since. I tell you, Lonnie, it was something.”

“Is that when you met him?”

“No … that came later, when Babe was looking for the men’s room and I showed him the way. I told him I was a big fan, even though I was for the Cubs in the Series. He was in a great mood, with the Yanks up three games to none, and he just laughed and shook my hand, asked me what I was up to besides working at The Ivanhoe. I told him I was a student at Northwestern, working my way through college. Boy, was that the right thing to say. After that, every time I came near their table, to refill water glasses or pick up plates or something, they were stuffing my pockets with dollar bills. It turned out to be the best payday of my young life.”

“So who was there, in Babe’s party?”

“There was Babe and his wife Claire. And Ping Bodie, of course. Lefty Gomez, Tony Lazzeri, Frankie Crosetti, and their wives. Bodie, Lazzeri, and Crosetti were all from San Francisco, and Gomez was also from the Bay Area. Those guys all came up through the Frisco Seals in the Pacific Coast League.”

“That’s some group.”

“And ya know, for all the stories about Babe Ruth and his shenanigans, they were a well-behaved bunch. Oh, they were tellin’ stories and laughin’ loud, but nobody was out of line, Lonnie. Not a one.”

“But didn’t they have a game the next day?”

“Oh, yeah. But that didn’t bother ’em. And you know, the Yanks won the fourth game to sweep the Series. But I’m just getting to the best part, Lonnie … There were some guys from the press that dropped by during the evening to have a drink and hang out with The Babe. One of ’em was Joe Williams who was with the New York World Telegram. He came over to talk with Pat, and I was there stacking plates. He said, ‘Hey, Pat, what about Ruth’s home run in the fifth?’ Pat said, ‘Hardest hit ball I’ve ever seen at Wrigley, Joe.’ Williams says, ‘Yeah, but did you see him point to the stands before the pitch?’ ‘Hell yeah, I saw it! I had the best seat in the house. I not only saw him point, I heard him barkin’ at Guy Bush in the Cubs dugout. That’s two strikes, but watch this, you s.o.b. Charlie Root came in with a fat one and wham, it was gone.’ Williams said, ‘Wait till you see my write-up tomorrow morning, Pat. Ha! I tell ya, this story has legs.’”

“So what did Williams write, Gramps?”

“The headline was ‘RUTH CALLS SHOT AS HE PUTS HOME RUN NO. 2 IN SIDE POCKET.’ And that’s how it was christened the Called Shot Home Run. I picked up the World Telegram at a newsstand near the ballpark the next day, and if I had any sense, I would have saved it, Lonnie. There’s always been controversy. Some folks say Babe called his shot, others say he didn’t. But I’ve always believed Pat Pieper’s account. You know his station with the brand new public address system at Wrigley was on the field, next to the backstop on the third base side. He really did have the best seat in the house.”

“So that was the first time. When was the second time you met The Babe?”

“You know, Lonnie, all this talk is makin’ me thirsty. There’s some Canadian Club in the cabinet over there. Will you join me?”

“Sure, Gramps. How do you take it?”

“Two fingers, three rocks. Glasses are in the kitchen, ice is in the freezer.”

He smiled as I hurried away to fix the drinks. It wasn’t surprising that I hadn’t heard this story. My grandfather finished his career with McDonnell-Douglas in St. Louis in the late seventies. He decided that Chicago was home and that’s where he retired. I’d grown up in Southern California, and though we saw him and Grams two or three times a year, I’m sure there were a hundred tales I hadn’t heard.

I brought the drinks into the living room and settled in to hear the rest of the story. He raised his glass to me and did his Bogart impression, always good for a laugh.

“Here’s looking at you, kid. Now, where was I?”

“You met Ping Bodie and Babe Ruth on October 1, 1932, Joe Williams coined the phrase Called Shot Home Run, and Pat Pieper swears he not only saw it, he heard it.”

“Yep, that pretty well sums it up, all right … So, move ahead to March 1948. The Babe had been retired for a dozen years or so, and he’d been diagnosed with throat cancer. Hollywood was rushing to make a movie of his life, The Babe Ruth Story, starring William Bendix. I was working for Douglas Aircraft in L.A. at the time and I’d kept in touch with Pat Pieper over the years, birthday cards, Christmas Cards and the like. Pat was taking a vacation trip to California before the start of the ’48 season and he got in touch, invited me to join him for lunch at the Brown Derby on Wilshire. And guess who else was coming to lunch?”

“Yeah, go on.”

“Ping Bodie, who was working as an electrician at Universal Studios, and The Babe himself. He was in L.A. to visit the movie set.”

“Geez, unbelievable.”

“Yep … Well, we met at the Brown Derby and Pat and Ping looked great. Healthy, full of P-and-V. But Ruth looked bad. He was a big man, you know, six two, two fifty. But he looked smaller, he’d lost a lot of weight, and his voice was just a rasp. Still, he had that mischief about him, always ready for a laugh. I mostly kept my mouth shut and listened to the three of them tell stories. But I did get in a question. I said, ‘Babe, what do you think of William Bendix playing you in the movie?’ He laughed and said, ‘Hell, they got the homeliest guy in Hollywood to play me. Am I that ugly? Don’t answer that!’ We were all laughing then.”

“Go on, Gramps.”

“Well, The Babe left the table for a few minutes and I asked Ping what it was like to be his roommate. Ping said, ‘Oh, I never saw much of the Bambino. He always had somewhere to go, somebody a lot prettier than me to be with. Hell, I mostly roomed with his suitcase.’ That’s a great line, eh Lonnie? I laughed hard at that one.”

“And then?”

“That was about it. We were standing on the sidewalk out in front of the Derby and Ping said, ‘Where you headed now, Pat?’ Pat said, ‘Up to Northern Cal. I’ve got three sisters living up there in a shipyard town called Vallejo.’ Ping said, ‘The hell you say! My son and his family live there. He works on the shipyard.’”

“Wow. What a small world.”

“Small indeed, Lonnie … We said goodbye to Ping and Babe and watched them walk away toward the parking lot. But I had one last question. I said, ‘Pat, did Babe really call his shot off Charlie Root back in ’32?’ ‘Oh hell yes, Alton. Just like I’ve always said. And don’t let anyone tell you different.’ Then Pat turned to look at me. He winked and said, ‘Ya know, if you want to be remembered, it’s best to be on the right side of a great story.’ Well … I walked Pat back to the Ambassador Hotel, which was just down the block, and said goodbye. That was the last time I saw him, though we stayed in touch. He was with the Cubs until he passed away in 1974.”

“That’s quite a tale, Gramps. And it’s all true?”

“Just like I told you, Lonnie.” He smiled and winked. “The right side of a great story.”


That visit with my grandfather took place in 1999 when he was eighty-seven years old. I’ve checked everything he told me and I can’t find any holes. It’s all plausible. Just four guys—Ping Bodie, Pat Pieper, Babe Ruth, and Alton Jacobs—and some shared history. So I tell my grandkids, “You know, I met Bill Gates one time, at a bridge tournament in Sacramento. But your great grandfather met Babe Ruth. Twice!”

Believe me, they were impressed—with Bill Gates.



Saturday, February 25, 2023



from Children of Vallejo


Before there was Little League, there was sandlot ball, played at the schools and playgrounds around town run by the recreation district. Jake Catado was our sandlot coach and we all loved him. He was a college student in his early twenties, and you will never meet a guy with a sunnier attitude. With Jake, it was all about having fun. He’d just roll out the bats and balls and let us play.

           We’d hang around the playground on summer days, playing ping pong or paddle tennis, or just goofing off. If enough guys showed up, we’d head out to the baseball field to play over-the-line, or workups, or three-flies-up, all just games we made up.

The best part was traveling across town to play some other school. We’d all pile into Jake’s old Chevy sedan, about a dozen of us, including two in the trunk, and hit the road. It wouldn’t be long before we’d be singing at the top of our lungs: “Ninety-nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” or “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt.” We’d even sing on the field:


Good morning to you / Good morning to you

We’re all in our places / With sunshiny faces...

On the way home, we’d stop somewhere for Cokes. God, it was fun.

Then came Little League and our coaches didn’t want us playing on the sandlots anymore. Now we had uniforms, and batting helmets, and rubber spikes, and official umpires, and parents, parents, parents. We were up to our eyeballs in parent involvement. You rode to the games with a knot in your stomach, afraid you’d mess up, maybe disappoint your dad.

It made you wish you were back in Jake’s old Chevy, singing “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt.”



Monday, February 20, 2023

 A long way back to the top…


Excerpt from Bro Dick – a remembrance



I don’t know precisely when my brother Dick discovered skiing, but I do know where. It was at Strawberry up on Highway 50. I know this because he immediately stuck a picture postcard of Strawberry Lodge in the corner of the mirror in his bedroom, right across from the picture of Teresa Brewer, his ideal woman. I doubt that they still have an operating ski lift at Strawberry, but the lodge with its gables all along the front roofline is still there. It didn’t take long for my brother to figure out that there were far better places to ski, resorts like the old Sierra Ski Ranch and Sugar Bowl, or Alpine Meadows and Heavenly Valley. He was hooked.

We should have saved his first set of skis because they would be considered antiques today. They were made of wood—I think it was hard maple—and the bindings were a lever and cable contraption where the cable wrapped around a deep groove in the heel of your boot. It was amazing that anyone could ski with this equipment and not end up with knee surgery.

As technology progressed, Dick upgraded his equipment and spent all the time he possibly could on the ski slopes. He once told me that when the snow was good, the weather decent, and the crowds small, skiing was the purest form of fun. Experience taught me that he was right.

I had my first taste of skiing on the bunny hill at Heavenly Valley with my friend Dillon Mini. He had tried it a few times and told me that all I had to do was bend my knees, lean forward a little, and try not to fall down. And that’s exactly what I did, zooming from the top of the lift to the bottom in a perfectly straight line. No one said anything about turning.

I’ve never taken a lesson, but when I started tagging along with Dick, he took me aside at the bottom of the hill and gave me a few pointers on some fundamentals, like side stepping, and snowplowing, and how to make basic turns. Then he took me up to the top of the hill and said, “Just follow me and do what I do.” My brother was a smooth, controlled, elegant skier. He made it look easy. It seemed like he was always in control, and I can’t remember him taking a bad fall, though I’m sure it happened. I did my best to keep up with him.

Our favorite place to ski was Heavenly Valley. The hill is so massive and the view from the top of the main lift is breathtaking. We never tried to ski the face, mainly because I wasn’t up for it, but there were numerous trails to take from the top that provided all the challenge we needed. The great thing about Heavenly as far as I was concerned was that you spent most of your time on the hill and less time in line for the lift. It could take a half hour or more to ski all the way down from the top before you had to queue up for the lift.

I have to confess that we got into the habit of doing something that is a no-no. We’d drop down off the groomed ski run and blaze trails down through the trees and the virgin snow. More than once we got ourselves way down into a canyon and had to come sidestepping back up to the main trail. Dangerous stuff, but man was it fun.

We were skiing at Heavenly one very clear cold day and after several runs down the mountain, we went into the warming hut at the top of the main chairlift to thaw out for a few minutes. We ordered cups of steaming hot chocolate and sat down at a table next to a window on the west side of the hut. The afternoon sun was streaming through the window and the chocolate was delicious and before I knew it, I felt my eyes growing heavy. I looked across the table at Dick and he was nodding off too. He grinned at me and motioned toward the door. We finished our chocolate and headed back out to the mountain. If we’d stayed there another five minutes, we’d have been sound asleep. That was nearly fifty years ago, and I can still see my brother sitting across the table from me in that warming hut. It was one of the best days ever.

Dick had a couple of dreams, all wrapped around his love of skiing. The first was to finish his bachelor’s degree and I think he lacked about sixty units to reach that goal. He worked out a plan to attend the University of Utah in Salt Lake City where he could live with our Aunt Teresa and Uncle Dude. Aunt Teresa adored my brother and was excited to have him stay with their family. The skiing tie-in was the magnificent powder snow at resorts nearby such as Alta. For my brother, it was like going to school in paradise. Unfortunately, he could never convince the good folks of Utah that he was a resident, and the out-of-state tuition was a deal breaker. He completed one year at Utah and then returned to California.

The other dream was to have a neat little A-frame ski cabin somewhere in the Sierras. In the mid-sixties, my brother got really close to realizing this one. He bought a lot at a newly developed ski resort called Bear Valley and started pouring over plans and architectural drawings. We even took a late summer trip to Bear Valley to check out the site. Some of Dick’s friends from work came along and we camped at a lake near the resort. On one of the days we were there, we found ourselves standing at the top of what would be the main chair lift and we decided to hike all the way down the hill that would be the primary ski run. As we started down the trail, there was a neat little sign that said, “It’s a long way back to the top.” We just laughed and went on.

If memory serves, it took about a half hour to get to the bottom of the hill, and about two hours to work our way back up. The sign wasn’t kidding. When we got back to the top, Dick popped the trunk of the car and unloaded what he liked to refer to as a skier’s lunch. He had packed salami and crackers and two kinds of cheese. There were grapes and plums and nectarines. There was a cooler filled with ice-cold soft drinks and beer. And, of course, Mom had sent along homemade chocolate chip cookies. I swear food never tasted so good.

Dreams have a way of changing. My brother never did build that cabin and he wound up selling the lot, but it was a sweet dream while it lasted. Our cousin Margie was an accomplished artist and Dick asked her to paint a picture of the Bear Valley ski run from photos he had taken. That oil-on-canvass hung on the wall of his home for many years. I’m sure it’s still around somewhere.

We should have had Margie add that little sign: “It’s a long way back to the top.”


Tuesday, February 14, 2023


Remember the Firebirds

The patio table was loaded with chips, dips, salsa, bite-size veggies, and a fresh guacamole that was very special. A large cooler held a variety of beverages on ice. A local pizza parlor was standing by, ready to deliver its finest when halftime rolled around. It was Super Bowl Sunday and a half-dozen friends were gathered to enjoy the spectacle on large, flatscreen television sets, including one outdoors on the patio. Nick Shane sat at the table, an ice-cold lager in hand, enjoying the guacamole and the California sun peeking in and out of puffy clouds.

“Got everything you need, Mr. Shane?” Ted smiled and clapped a hand on Nick’s shoulder.

“I’m good, Ted. You’re a stellar host. Thanks for having me.”

“Hey, mi casa su casa. Know what I mean?” The young man laughed and scooped salsa onto a tortilla chip. “You and Del are always welcome.”

Nick’s son, Del, approached the table. “You okay, pops? Behavin’ yourself over here?”

“Yeah, just sitting here trying to remember a Super Bowl from a long time ago. I think it was 1971. What was that, Super Bowl V?”

“Really? What’s up with that?”

“The pregame hoopla was different back then.” Nick paused to sip his beer. “I remember they played a documentary film, about an hour long. I’m pretty sure it was 1971.”

“Yeah? What was it about?”

“All about the Pottstown Firebirds.”

Del and Ted laughed and glanced at each other. What was Del’s old man conjuring here? Several guys came to the table to fill small plates with snacks and join the conversation. They were all in their forties. Nick was the odd man, having recently celebrated his eightieth birthday.

“Is this a real thing, Dad? Or are you spinning some fiction here?” Del smiled, wondering how many beers his father had downed. Game time was still thirty minutes away.

“Oh, it’s real all right. The Firebirds were a minor league football team in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. They played in—I’m trying to remember—I think it was the Atlantic Coast League. I think that’s right. Can’t remember how many teams, but they were made up of former NFL players, former high school and college kids hoping to move up, and guys who just couldn’t give up the game.”

“Minor league football? Really?”

“Yeah. Anyway, the Firebirds were a colorful bunch of misfits, led by a head coach—can’t remember his name—who didn’t wear sox or underwear. There was a defensive lineman who was a hippy and lived on a commune. Another lineman who was a poet and had a drug problem. And a quarterback who called himself The King. Jimmy ‘The King’ Corcoran.”

“And all of this was in a documentary?”

“Yep. Produced by NFL Films, if I remember correctly. So, the Firebirds were having a great season in 1970, fighting to go undefeated and win a championship. At that time, no pro team at any level had gone undefeated.”

“Need another beer, Mr. Shane?”

“Sure. Thanks, Ted. So, here’s the conflict—The King was almost un-coachable. He was a total narcissist. Had to be the center of attention at all times. And he and the head coach were in a constant battle. The coach wanted a disciplined offense, primarily a strong running game. The King wanted to open it up and pass, pass, pass.”

“But they’re undefeated?”

“Right. I think it was the final regular season game, very close, right down to the last minute. The Firebirds were deep in the other team’s territory, and they just needed to keep the ball on the ground for one more play, then kick a field goal for the win. Coach sent in a running play. The King thought he saw a crack in the defensive alignment. He called an audible at the line of scrimmage and threw a pass. It was intercepted. The Firebirds lost. The undefeated season was gone. Even though they went on to the championship game and won, they finished the season with one loss.”

“Wow! How did the coach take it?”

“He went nuts. It was his chance for immortality. The first undefeated season ever in pro football, even if it was minor league. He benched The King for the championship game. They won with a backup quarterback. I think I remember the coach’s name. It was DeFillipo. Don or Dave DeFillipo.”

“Dad, are you sure this isn’t some dream? You know you need to lay off the spicy food.”

“Yes, I’m sure. The NFL should replay the damn thing. It was a great film. But don’t take my word for it. Remember what Casey Stengel used to say…”

“Oh boy. Casey Stengel? And what did Casey say?”

“He liked to say, ‘You could look it up.’”

“Okay, Dad, we’ll ask Siri. I think I’m switching you to water.”

It was time for the coin flip, followed by kick off. The group started to move inside, fresh drinks in hand, excited for the start of the game. Super Bowl Sunday. Almost a national holiday, even in Pottstown, PA.




Wednesday, February 8, 2023


Ghost Ship

 from Children of Vallejo


There were lots of places to fish along the shoreline that wrapped around Vallejo, but the Old Destroyer was by far the most fun. We’d study our tide tables and look for a high between 8:00 and 9:00 in the morning. The plan was to fish a couple hours either side of high tide. We’d stop off at Parmisano & Sons fish market down on lower Georgia Street and buy several pounds of fresh sardines for bait. Then we’d get dropped off on the edge of a western subdivision and hike west on the levee that bordered the salt marsh, all the way out to the bank of the Napa River.

             Sometimes the fog would be so thick you could barely see where you were going. We’d find our favorite spot on the riverbank and go to work, rigging up our poles, cutting bait, getting ready to cast into the brown, brackish water. Then the sun would start to take charge and the fog would begin to lift and slowly, about a hundred yards to the north, the Old Destroyer would appear like a vision.

No one ever explained how she got there, a Navy ship lodged against the bank. She was just there. There was a plank that ran from the bank to the deck of the ship. If the fishing got slow, we could go aboard and explore. There wasn’t much to see. The superstructure was gone and only the hull remained.

Fishing was always great at the Old Destroyer. It was nothing to catch twenty fish in a day, mostly undersized striped bass. The size limit in those days was twelve inches and we’d usually catch three or four keepers to bring home and show our parents. The fun part was a running contest to see who could catch and release the most fish.

If the bite slowed down and there was no action, you’d sit and look at the old ship and wonder. Of course, you could make up your own version of her history:


            She was the USS Shane, a proud veteran of World War I, having served in the North Atlantic protecting convoys of merchant vessels heading for North Sea ports, fighting off the German subs that preyed on merchant shipping like a pack of hungry wolves. The Shane had six confirmed kills and survived many a battle with the Germans. At the close of the war, she was reassigned to the Pacific Fleet and sailed through the Panama Canal and up the coast, all the way to Mare Island for a complete overhaul.

With the work completed, the Shane was scheduled for a shakedown cruise, out into San Pablo Bay, then about-face and back up the Mare Island Strait and the Napa River channel, then back to the dock at the shipyard. On the way upriver, a cold front moved in and the temperature hit the dew point and the fog bloomed so thick that visibility dropped to zero. The crew missed a bend in the river and steamed onto the mud flats, hard up against the riverbank. All efforts to free her failed, so the Navy stripped her down, sealed her up and left her there, a proud warrior with no war to fight, an old sailor dumped on the shore for the last time.


           No doubt there were gaping holes in that story—a little truth, a little fiction, a little scrimshaw carved to fit the occasion—but in a Navy town like Vallejo, there were a thousand stories just like it.


Note: The Old Destroyer was actually the USS Corry (DD334), launched at Bethlehem Shipyard in San Francisco in 1921. In the aftermath of World War I, the Navy decided to reduce the size of the fleet. The Corry was decommissioned at Mare Island in 1930 and towed a few miles to a spot on the east bank of the Napa River. The rotting hull is there to this day.