Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Finding 1969

It's taken me almost fifty years to make peace with "1969". We've been fighting a long depressing battle for so, so long. Never looking at one another in the eye, and never speaking about our pain. We just try to forget who the other is, and try not to ask why we hate the other so much after all this time. Just sitting at opposite sides of the room and dare not to raise our heads up to speak. Silence and more silence, that's how we deal with our problems. Yes 1969, you made me hate you so much.

Once while cleaning out my mom’s apartment I found one of those old time kitchen towel calendars buried in the back of the closet. Scrawled on it right in the middle were those dreaded numerals "1969". I quickly tossed it in a black garbage bag and covered it up with old shirts and material that belonged to my mom. But somehow that didn't work and instead the old dirty towel calendar made its way back to the top of the trash and right back in my head where I've been fighting it from going. Right back to where it belongs, enter the nightmares, enter the crying, 1969 is back again and it's never going away.

You see 1969 started like every other year here on East Fourth Street - with my family's yearly New Years Eve party at my grandmother and grandfathers apartment right below our place. With dozens and dozens of relatives and a celebration for my cousin Pete whose birthday falls on the 31st of December. There was nothing that seemed different than any other New Years Eve, no it all seemed to be just right and nothing different from before I thought.

December 31st 1968
It must have been a Guy Lombardo special that night too in 1968, being broadcast from the Waldorf Astoria Hotel about ten miles away on a cold winter's evening in Manhattan, the same hotel where my parents spent their honeymoon night.

Standing around the television everyone was getting ready for the traditional countdown and had either a horn or a twirling gear noisemaker in their hand. And as the frigid wind blew against the old wooden windows of my grandparent’s house you could hear them gently rattle and whisper a sweet goodbye song to 1968.

Then it started like every year, those same spoken numerals and the familiar countdown on the television.  "Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one...Happy New Year!!!!

With hugging, kissing and the usual crying my family all did their best to say goodbye to one year and bring in another as they have done many times before.

January 1st 1969 12:01 am
For me 1969 has just begun and all its nightmares will live with me forever, and for my brother Joseph they will all soon end.

February 1969
"Hey Joey why are you walking so funny? Are your shoes too tight? Because if they are we can go to Mays this weekend in downtown Brooklyn and buy you a bigger size".

I vaguely remember my brother complaining to me about his legs or feet, but somehow I remember something wasn't right because my brother was doing a lot of sitting and lying around the house rather than being outside and running around with his friends and especially Steve McNally who lived next door.

"Hey Joey are you feeling ok?"
"Get away from me you idiot"

That's ok, older brothers always speak to their younger brothers that way and given the fact that he seemed to be not feeling well I really didn't mind anyway.

April 2016
Now it's all making sense
Last year in 2016 I found a box of old photos in my closet here in Brooklyn. They were ones that we took upstate all during Easter of 1969. As I looked at each photo I noticed something quite consistent in each one. The expression on my brother’s face. In each and every photo Joseph had a pained expression. He wasn't smiling and in fact almost looked like he was ready to cry. It was his knees, it had to be.

Easter upstate in the Catskills
April 6th 1969

“Hey Ronnie just stop for a minute, my knees really hurt”.

I remember looking at my brother that day and seeing the pain in his face. We were fishing with my grandfather Paco down by the stream alongside the Hollow that lead to our house in the Catskills.

My brother Joseph stopped behind me, in his left hand he held a fishing pole, in his right hand a white plastic bucket with two small brook trout swimming inside. The water was brown because we just scooped it up from the brook minutes before. I remember it just finished raining that day and the grass was quite wet too.

I took my brothers fishing pole and bucket and helped him walk to our Rambler station wagon parked alongside the road. He just cried all the way to the house while rubbing his knees with his hands.

My mother’s solution for many of life’s woes was a warm compress with Bengay. As my brother lie in bed that night the relief of a warm washcloth on his knees would only be temporary. Because when we got back to Kensington there would be doctor visits, new shoes, knee braces, questions about tendons and then finally blood tests.

Apparently the knees are where a lot of bone marrow is produced, and when you have “acute childhood leukemia” at 13, they are bound to hurt.

June 7th 1969
“Who are you here to see young man?” “You know its way past visiting hours and you don’t belong on the floor”

The doctor spoke to me with authority while I was washing my hands in the men’s room at Maimonides Hospital that night.

“Oh, I’m here visiting my brother Joseph Lopez in room 523”

The doctor’s face just melted before my eyes and he looked almost apologetic now. He rubbed the top of my head and just said; “Oh that’s ok, you just spend some time with your brother young man.”

You have to remember that although I knew my brother was sick, no one really told me how serious it was. But that few moments with the doctor in the men’s room told me something very different. I knew my brother was going to die, no matter what my mom said.

All my brother Joseph did was just lie in that bed at Maimonides Hospital in Boro Park. Never smiling and sometimes sleeping. I hated the smell of that hospital, I hated everything about it. Now the wing he was in we called it the “round building", because from Fort Hamilton Parkway it somewhat looked like a Maxwell House coffee can. From his window you could see Kensington, 310 Beverley and PS 179. On the wall of his room was a card from his seventh grade class at Ditmas JHS.

Joey also had a collection of hospital toys, toys that my mom and my family brought for him to play with while he was sick. There were little cars, trucks, comic books, and a model of the Mayflower. But there was one toy in particular that I will never forget. It was a small plastic white Jeep with a silver chain underneath that powered the four wheels. I would sit next to him and with his hospital bed on an incline we would just run the Jeep up and down the linen hill. My brother never really smiled in Maimonides you know, but that Jeep was the only toy that brought a little glimmer in his eyes.

The nights at 399 East 4th were really awful too. When you always have an older brother either sleeping above you in a bunk bed or next to you in a twin bed, the thought of going to sleep without anyone there with you really hurt. And all you wished for every night was to wake up in the morning and see your brother beside you.

Sometimes late at night I would hear my mother talking to her sister Beatrice who lived in Queens Village. My mom actually spoke fluent Polish, and most of the time that’s how the conversations started. But somewhere along the line they both broke down and it turned to English. When my mother described the bone marrow tests my brother had to take, and his screams that even made the nurses cry, that’s when I shut the door and tried not to think about it anymore.

June 11th 1969
I was in the 6th grade class at PS 179 on June 11th 1969. Mister Bernstein was my teacher and everyone was just so kind to me that day. From the sixth floor window you could see all of South Brooklyn, including Coney Island. I couldn’t concentrate on my work that day, and I kept repeating “Hail Mary” and “Our Father” over and over in my head as I looked at the Parachute Jump in the distance.

Some of the kids walked over to me and just said “I hope your brother gets better”, even Michael McCall who used to break my pencils all the time. I never told anyone in class that my brother was even sick, so I was somewhat surprised that everyone knew about it, especially today.

As the bell rang at three and I left school, I was surprised to see Clair McNally, my friend Paul’s mom waiting for me outside of the school on East Third Street.

“Hi Ronnie. I just wanted to make sure you got home ok”

I was kind of surprised because I was eleven and have been walking home alone for a while now. But Clair was very kind, so I don’t question her. As we walked up Avenue C towards East 4th, I started to feel a little sick, something just wasn’t right and Clair really didn’t talk to me either.

As we made the left on East 4th and started getting closer to our house I started to feel real anxious and my heart beat faster. There were strange cars in my driveway and the whole thing didn’t feel right. Clair held my hand and walked me up the red brick stairs. Instead of opening up the left hand side door that lead up the stairway to our apartment, she opened up the heavy wooden door to the right that was my cousin Pete’s apartment.

Clair made me sit down on the couch by the front window.
As I looked up I saw my entire family sitting at the dinner table in the next room. They all just sat there quietly with looks of loss and sadness in their faces.

My mom was there too.

Why wasn’t anyone with my brother at the hospital?
Why is everyone here?
Why? Why? Why?

As my mother got up from the table and started walking towards me, she started crying. She sat on the couch next to me and wrapped her arms around me. She just hugged me as hard as she could and then softly whispered in my ear; “Joey died”

Suddenly it felt as though the floor fell through. Like I was floating through the air. Falling, falling, falling. I was hoping to hit the ground and just die so I could be with my brother Joseph.

Then all of a sudden I heard the front door open. It was my cousin Pete coming home from Ditmas. My uncle Pete pulled him aside and also whispered in his ear. Pete just ran into his room in the back of the apartment. He was crying as he closed his door.

Then a few minutes later my little cousin Denise walked in, and it was the same whispering and the same crying.

And before you knew it the door just kept opening, more of our family had arrived. More crying, more whispers, more sad faces.

No it wasn’t a dream, my brother really died that day.

Pitts's Funeral Home
June 13th 1969

The Nightmare is over for Joseph
The young boys smile looked frozen and awkward as he slept. In-between his folded hands were a dark red rosary. His face was white as milk, and his hair jet black, combed backwards. Under the powdered make-up on his face you could still see freckles, they were dark brown and looked as though they were gently sprinkled on his cheeks.
He wore a white shirt and white jacket. I think it may have been the one he wore for his Confirmation at IHM on Fort Hamilton Parkway.

Above him were two freestanding lamps, with bright yellow lights shinning on his face, his eyes stayed closed. As an eleven year old I still clung to some miracle that Joseph would open them, just a crack is all I wished for. But my mother’s tears told me something else.
I got up from the folding metal chair and walked to the back of the room and sat next to my cousin Pete and Denise. With tears streaming down both of their faces, I knew this wasn’t a dream
Or nightmare.

It was a warm June night at Pitta’s on McDonald Avenue in Kensington, Brooklyn. My brother Joseph was laying in a dark brown casket and was never ever going to wake up from his eternal sleep.

No, my bother Joseph was dead.

Time moves on and it's back to the Catskills
June 30th 1969

I never really ever took any kind of medication in my life and even at the edge of 60 I'm still trying my best to keep away from anything that comes in a little plastic bottle that sounds like a baby's rattle. Yet, to solve my 1969 issue I think I'm willing to try anything.

The summer of 1969 found me once again up in the Western Catskills on our 200 acres by Huntley Hollow. And although my brother just died a few weeks before nothing in the world will keep my grandfather Paco from spending the summer up in the country.

"This is Heaven Ronnie, this is what you call paradise". My Grandfather would always repeat these words with his wonderful Spanish accent too. Which made it that much more convincing and at the same time sweet.

And maybe for my Grandfather Paco the Catskills were his little bottle of medicine too. Because just four years prior to my brother dying his own son Joseph Lopez Sr., my dad, passed away over at Delaware Valley Hospital over in Walton about fifteen miles away on a hot August night back in 1965. He was only thirty-nine years old at the time and lost his battle to lung cancer. But just like all of the Lopez family, the Catskill house was probably my dads little bottle of pills too. Because instead of spending his last few weeks at a hospital he chose instead to spend them at our house upstate looking at the mountains and the blue skies above. Yes this place is heaven and it always seems to draw us back no matter what the tragedy. So yes, nothing would stop my grandfather Paco from pointing our 1963 Rambler Classic station wagon Northwest from Brooklyn New York and driving 155 miles soon after the last candle was blown out at the funeral mass. No nothing.

And don't get me wrong because I loved going upstate each summer. We owned over 200 acres and the view from our house couldn't be prettier. In the mornings it was a beautiful sunrise from right behind our pond and the sunsets were so very spectacular setting over the mountain ridge right across us by the Newbert's house about a half a mile away. Plus we had the most beautiful view of Bryden Hill right in front of the house, which was more like a mountain to most of us.

Yet with all the beauty nature could offer along with all the support from my family nothing could help me from missing my brother Joseph who was with me each and every summer since 1957.

Not one Sunset, not one Sunrise, not one trout I caught with my Grandfather down by the brook at the end of the Hollow.

No, nothing was working, nothing.

And I dare not ever ask my mom if I could go back to Brooklyn and be with my friends and my cousins rather than by myself in the Catskills. No, that would have been blasphemy taken to its deepest level. Because once you were upstate for the summer you were there for nine weeks straight without ever going down to Brooklyn even for the weekend.

Plus it would have been the greatest insult to my grandfather Paco and no one would ever think about crossing that line.

So each day in July the sun rose behind the pond and set across the ridge by the Newbert's little White House. The grass grew and then was cut, crickets sang at nighttime and the swallows built their nest on our house just like each summer before. And slowly and very slowly the days and then weeks rolled by, June turned the page to July and then to August.

Yes there were weekend visits from my cousins and everyone did their best to comfort me and themselves from remembering that my brother was buried down at Paige Cemetery just about six miles away by Downsville.

But still no, nothing was working.

Constant sleepless nights up on the Hollow waking up from nightmares and imagining what would happen if my brother somehow woke up in his casket and tried to call us for help to get him out of there. Frantically scratching the silk cloth above his face and screaming at the top of his 13 year old lungs to get him out of there.

"Mommy, Mommy, Help!!!! Ronnie, please Ronnie get me out of here!!!!!"

Now let me tell you, the fact that my grandfather and grandmother wanted to visit my brother and dads grave every day that summer didn't help the situation either. I would always hope that every time we passed the Paige cemetery down by Downsville my grandfather would just drive by, but no each time we were on 206 and headed into Downsville I would hear the dreaded "click, click, click of the turn signal and my heart would start to sink,

Just start shaking that little plastic bottle of pills for Ronnie, here's a glass of cold spring water and get ready to swallow.  No that kind of medicine just did not work with probably made things worse.

But please don't blame my grandparents because they were trying their best and in fact were mourning the deaths of both their son and their grandson named Joseph.

And still time moves on.
I remember it was a Monday in mid August, my grandfather and I were sitting on these homemade versions of the Catskill chairs that he built and we were just looking at the mountains around us. And my grandfather Paco loved looking at the mountains he could just sit there are stare at the mountains and the deep blue sky all day.  "Ahh, fresh air, you never get this fresh air in the city Ronnie, this is paradise Ronnie, this is Heaven".

And then out of nowhere the familiar sound of a cars engine way in the distance broke thorough the silence of the green mountains and the blue skies above.

"Hey Grandpa, a car, I think I hear a car?"

Now seeing a car coming up our Hollow was certainly a special event, because during the course of any given day back in 1969 you were lucky if you ever saw one car coming up the hollow.  Because up in the Hollow nature certainly ruled over humanity and hearing the sound of a cars engine straining its way up the ever so steep incline of the Hollow meant that there was certainly the possibility of seeing another human being.

Which for me would have especially been a very good thing,

As the sound of the engine echoed through the tall maples surrounding Huntley Hollow I could just make out a red car with a shiny chrome bumper climbing up the steep incline of the roadway down by mister Laidlaw’s house about half a mile away.

As the car rumbled up the road and closer to our house I could make out it was a 1967 Red Ford Fairlane.

The same kind of car my uncle Frank used to drive down in the city.

As always we were expecting the car to pass our driveway and make it's way to the top of the mountain like every other car usually does.

Now back in 1969 the entire Hollow was paved after years of being a dirt road. The end of our driveway, which was about a tenth of a mile long, was exactly where the blacktop ended. Usually cars would either turn around right there and or just hit the dirt part of the road going about 45 mph and create a gigantic cloud of dust in their wake.

But instead of using our driveway as a turnaround or creating a gigantic ball of dust the Red Fairlaine turned onto our road and headed our way.

"A car is coming, a car is coming, mom a car is coming!!!"

Now just close your eyes and imagine seeing an airplane fly way overheard while you were stuck on that desert island way out in the Pacific Ocean. You start screaming and waving your hands, jumping up and down and hoping the pilot will see you. Well, this is kind of what it was like whenever a car drove up the Hollow back in the 60s.

As the car drove up our driveway I could make out two arms dangling out each window of the front seats. The sound of the tires making a crunching sound the entire way along with a occasional brush of an over hanging blackberry branch scraping its bright red sides.

As the car made a gentle stop by our house I could make out someone inside the car who looked familiar.

It was my first cousin Frankie.

"Frankie! Frankie!!"

My cousin Frankie smiled and got out of the old Ford Fairlaine with his friend Dexter who I remembered from our visits to Queens Village. Both Frankie and Dexter had long dark hair, bell-bottom jeans, cowboy boots and beards. Just looking like the typical "Hippie" types that my grandfather Paco always seemed to despise during his rants whenever we watched the channel four news together at 399 East 4th.

I sometimes think that my grandfather Paco may have been a fascist too . Whenever we would see hippies protesting on TV back in the late 1960's he would start telling me that they should all be sent to jail and have their heads shaved.

"In a Spain Franco would never let them walk around with hair that long, he would have them all put into work camps and shave their heads".

Along with his rants about having someone with an ax chop your finger off for stealing an apple I sometimes pondered the old saying that you can "take the boy out of Franco but never take the Franco out of the boy".

But still I loved my grandfather Paco to death and always smiled when he told me to cut my long hair.

"Mister Lopez, Mister Lopez are we so glad so see you!!" "This is my friend Dexter from California and we're looking for a place to spend the night".

"My grandfather Paco shook my cousin Frankie's hand along with Dexter’s and assured them that they would be more than happy for them to spend the night.

Paco 1, Franco 0

My cousin Frankie then looked at me with the biggest smile ever. "Hey Ronnie, how are you? You're never going to believe where Dexter and I have been for the past four days, it's was totally insane, totally crazy! What a trip you're never ever going to believe it".

Now my cousin Frankie was about five years older than me and had the most contagious laugh. He always seemed to make me feel better because he never seemed to let anything bother him and always seemed to laugh off any problem he may have had.

And seeing him on a Monday in mid August was just what I needed to make me feel a little better after my cousin Pete left the night before on a Sunday.

"Misses Lopez, aunt Stella, Isabel" my family slowly filed out of the house to greet my cousin and his friend Dexter.

"Frankie, where the heck were you? Where you sleeping in mud? You're all filthy, wait till I tell my sister". 

"Don't worry aunt Stella I called my mom already and she knows all about it, in fact she's the one who suggested that we come up here instead of trying to drive back to Queens Village".

My mom was smiling the whole time while looking at my cousin and Dexter, which made me feel better because it's been a while since I've seen her really smile.

"Well, Hippies are welcome here right Frank?"
Said my Mom to my Grandfather

Holding back his inner "Franco" my grandfather Paco smiled and said his best "Yes Sir". Which was another one of his favorite sayings.

"So where were you two Frankie?" Said my mom? Come on and let's let the cat out of the bag".

"I don't know if you heard about it on the news but there was a crazy concert down by the Monticello race track off 17B."

"The crazy Hippie fest? We saw that on the news last night". Said my mom.

"Yes aunt Stella, we were at the Woodstock concert and it was insane".

"Totally insane and totally nuts".

And of course my cousin Frankie was laughing while he told us about the whole concert at the dinner table with Dexter by his side. Looking like the Jesus twins they told us all about the music, the rainstorm, the sunrise and the sunsets. The traffic, the dancing, the drug scene and the helicopters bringing the musicians in and out for the entire concert.

Standing in front of our house later that evening my cousin pointed towards the mountains looking towards Roscoe and Monticello.

"You see those mountains way down there?
That's where the whole thing happened ".

It was Monday night, August 18th 1969 and somehow a very thin ray of light was starting to shine though the darkness and depression of 1969.

Maybe someday it won't be so bad after all I thought to myself, someday it won't.

Well my cousin Frankie and Dexter slept at our house that night and got all washed up and headed back to Queens Village the next morning right after a big country breakfast.

Watching their car drive away was the hardest part, but the stories they left with me about their four days down at Bethel weren't going anywhere and were never leaving.

Well for the rest of the Summer up on Huntley Hollow all I could think about was the concert that they spoke about and all the crazy things that went on there for those four days.

Looking every chance I could at the mountains towards Roscoe and imagining being there for those four nights just a few weeks before.

The Woodstock concert, wow, that must have been so cool I thought, something oh so different from what my own version of 1969 was. And something that brought such joy to so many people. It must have been a real "trip" as my cousin Frankie would say, a real trip indeed.

2016 and finally coming to terms with 1969
Well it's taken me almost fifty years to get over my brothers death and the darkness that the numerals "1969" bring to me. And somehow I have learned to use the "Woodstock Concert" as a form of medication and revenge against that year.

Because while I was crying and feeling ever so alone up on Huntley Hollow during July and August of 1969, something magnificent and magical was happening about forty five miles away over the mountains that I looked at every Summer day from our house.

Something that was legendary, something that wonderful, something that defined 1969 and in fact an entire generation.

Finally something about 1969 that didn't involve my brother Joseph getting bone marrow tests at Maimonides Hospital.

Finally something about 1969 that didn't involve my family all sitting around my aunt’s dinner table too afraid to tell me my brother died.

No finally something about 1969 that I can think about without feeling sad.

I know it's strange but somehow the Woodstock music and Arts Fair became that little white plastic bottle of pills that I've always been looking for. Something to take away the pain, something to take away the bad memories.

True I was only eleven years old when it was going on and there was no way in Hell that my grandfather Paco would have driven down route 17 to see it. Being surrounded by all the long-haired peace loving Hippies that his inner Franco so disliked. Wishing to grab each one and have their heads shaved and then put them in some kind of work camp. No, I'm not feeling bad that I couldn't be there because there was no way I ever could have gone.

But still I guess just knowing that it was all happening just about an hour away down in Sullivan County while we were up in the mountains over the border in Delaware county that same Summer of 1969 makes me smile.

Maybe it's finally coming to grips with the fact that after something awful happens it's possible for something else positive and beautiful to occur not long after. I don't know.

So as I rode the F train once again this morning I clicked on the little iTunes move icon and once again started watching the Woodstock documentary that I downloaded last year. Sometimes seeing mountains in the distance during different parts of the movie and wondering if that's where my grandfather Paco and I were sitting by our house and looking at the beautiful blue sky and other mountains in the distance towards Roscoe and Monticello and maybe even the concert itself.

Yeah I know it's all a long shot and maybe just a pipe dream but it's ok. Because 1969 isn't as bad as it used to be and after all these years, and maybe just maybe now I can finally hang that old 1969 linen calendar back up on our kitchen wall where it really belongs. And look at those four dreaded numerals and finally smile.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Save Avenue F

Ok guys I’m going to do my best from my old puck hit memory to explain the birth and history of hockey at Avenue F from 1972 to the early 80’s when I played there.

The 70th precinct PAL had two roller hockey teams that originally played at the playground up by East 5th and Fort Hamilton Parkway. They played without boards and the games were usually on Saturdays and Sundays in the late 60’s through very early 70’s. They were the Ryan’s Northstars and the Terrace Rangers. Local bars sponsored both teams.  Which in hindsight is actually funny because we were just kids. The guys who ran the league back then were; Fred Allen, Bill Webster, Jerry Cartalano, Mr. Pierce, Joe Romano, Louie DeBiasi, Richie Kenna and many that others I forgot.

These men were all pretty much tough “blue collar” guys that didn’t take shit from anyone including us teenagers.  They also did more for us than anyone else because of the time and devotion they put into the league.

On any given Saturday or Sunday back then there were probably around a hundred people either watching or participating in the games up by the playground on Fort Hamilton and East 5th. Especially when IHM let out after mass, that’s when the place would fill up and it was standing room only!

Now a couple of the older guys who ran the league either worked for the Parks Department or had some kind of affiliation with the city. So when we heard there was going to be an actual rink being built down by McDonald Avenue near Avenue F we were all quite excited.  We also knew that it would happen much faster than normal because they worked for NYC Parks and oversaw the McDonald Avenue Park before the rink was actually there.

No back then you just got things done period.

My cousin Pete has a vague memory of some Italian construction company doing the paving work down by F during the summer of 1972.  The fence piping and the plywood were all put up by the guys who ran the league back then and also with the help of some of the older teenage players who were skilled and strong enough.

Ok, I’m going to say that the original Avenue F was built in the Fall of 1972.

The cool thing about Avenue F from what I recall is we were the first roller hockey rink in Brooklyn to have curved corners vs. the angled corners that both 53rd and Kings Bay had.  And the guys that ran the league were quite proud of that too!

I think they held some kind of painting party and many of the boys that played in the league helped paint the boards, the blue lines, face-off circles, goalie creases, etc.

The original nets that were lightweight aluminum were given up for much heaver steel nets that could not be blown down by the wind. I clearly remember our original nets being held by sand bags up on East 5th when we played there. And for the record I still have one of the original nets and my cousin Pete has the other. Patty DeSimone traded us the two nets for a motor scooter back in 1971 or so.
Patty no longer has the motor scooter but we have the nets!!! I still use the net today to shoot into on my block here on East 4th.

The rink was originally named the Billy Powell Memorial Hockey Rink after a young player was killed by a car on the way to one of the games early one Sunday morning. Billy was killed by the circle by Prospect Park down by the Coney Island Avenue/PPSW/Ocean Parkway merge. We were all in shock that morning to learn that he was killed on his way to the game. We had a ceremony one day before a game and there was even a sign erected on the fence outside the rink.

It was never known as the DiGilio Playground when we played there.

Well, we had refs, score boards, dozens of fans and the action was always quite intense. There were fights galore, playoff games, crowds cheering on the park benches, rivalries, hockey dinners, trophies, crying after a tough loss and celebrations after you won the coveted “Kenna Cup”. The Kenna Cup was our equivalent of the Stanley Cup and you better believe that when my team won it we skated around the rink and held it up to the sky just like any other NHL Pro team would.

We had our annual hockey dinners at the Farragut Terrace and one time we even had Bill Chadwick appear in person to speak.

We even once had a nighttime Roller Disco party down at the rink around 1975 or so. There was music, food and hundreds of people enjoying a night out by the rink. The Parks department even brought in floodlights to make it well lit at night. There was even talk of installing floodlights for nighttime games like at 53rd street.

Those were the Glory Days at Avenue F and we thought it would never end.

The 70th Pct Pal continued to run the league down by F into the early 80’s from what I recall. I “retired” at 17 but then came out of retirement at 19 to play again for another team at F. They were Richie Kenna’s Flyers and once again there were fights, friendships, intense playoff games and the same feel that we all felt 10 years before.

But then things changed for many of us, we were too old to play, some guys got married, some found girlfriends and hockey started to take a back seat to other things.

I think the wave of us “Baby Boomer” guys took over Avenue F and then left just like we arrived.

I remember coming out of “retirement” one more time when I was 33 years old. I remember going down to F in 1990 and looking at a wasteland of what were the best years of my life. My goalie crease had a giant crack in it and my roller blades were constantly getting stuck in it. Making saves were difficult because of the bumpy goalie crease and the large fault line-like crack. I came down one day after we played and fixed the crack with some automotive bond so I could glide over it smoothly. We started to play on Sunday mornings at 8 am and we brought down our nets. There were regulars that played there and we had a great time just playing “choose-up”.

But then again things changed and hockey again took another back seat to children and marriage.

But then one day in the late 90’s I remember seeing that the court was totally redone. The surface looked awesome and the boards were actually real ice hockey boards as opposed to the plywood that I always remember. There was a banner that said “South Brooklyn Roller Hockey” and I was so happy to see the court being used again.  I knew some of the guys running the league and even thought about getting involved again. But sadly I never did.

I’m not sure what happened to that league but what I always did notice was that the court was constantly being used on the weekends. There were young guys always down there and it was nice to see the court in action. From what I understand the court was even being cared for by these kids and they went out of their way to make sure they were maintaining it while NYC Parks was not.

Councilman David Greenfield should know that the rink is being used as much as it was when I was a kid. Although there is not a league there the rink is being skated on by humans and the fun and laughter is still what I remember when I was 17. The guys by playing there keep a lot of riff-raff out of the park and without them it would probably look like a wasteland.

There is plenty space in that park to accommodate both hockey and a nice renovation. Tear out the grandstand behind the rink and do as you please. The guys don’t use the grandstand anyway.

But more important is maybe, just maybe young kids will start using the rink again if the rest of the park is more palatable.  Because right now the rest of that park looks pretty scary and yes it can use a sprucing up.

It is also important to remember the history behind the Avenue F Roller Rink. The blood, sweat and tears that were shed there. The hundreds if not thousands of people that played there and still do today including me.

Please Councilman Greenfield, try to make a compromise of some sort and be a hero to all, don’t let the memory of so many men who put so much time into that rink go to waste. Because the Avenue F rink is more than just an open space looking to be replaced by adult exercise equipment and a few trees.

Avenue F rink has been a local institution since 1972 and is still an active rink in 2015. Being used today by many people to enjoy the same way we did as young adults in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Building friendships and memories that will last forever while playing a sport you love so very much.

That’s something an adult exercise area will never ever do while a hockey rink can. Please consider that thought before destroying the rink.

Thank you,
Ron Lopez
399 East 4th Street
Brooklyn, NY, 11218

Thursday, September 18, 2014

As I sat in my third grade classroom in PS 179 I could hear them roaring towards us. From my desk I could look out the window and see their long yellow roofs. They parked in front of the school entranceway on Avenue C. With their diesel engines just clattering away, I knew it was my time to go. On every Wednesday at 2 o’clock my stomach would start to hurt. It was time for the public school Christians to leave our sanctuary of bliss and head North up East 3rd street to The Immaculate Heart of Mary school. It was time for “Religious Instructions”. As I gathered my books and headed out the door I looked back and said good bye to Miss Saltzman. She just smiled back at me looking as beautiful as ever in her white go go boots. As I started to walk down the battle ship gray stairs I really started to feel nauseas. But you see I wasn’t alone, about four other
children followed me down. All of us silent, no words ever spoken. “Ronnie are you feeling OK” asked the school bus matron. A friend of my Mom’s whose name always escaped me. I tried to smile at her, but my lips always had a problem arcing up on the sides on a Wednesday afternoon. I always sat in the back of the bus too. Right under the “emergency exit” sign. Maybe hoping it would open up one day and I would just fall out. As the bus driver closed the doors, I closed my eyes. The bustling clatter of the diesel engine got louder as we pulled away and made a left onto East 3rd street. The ride up East 3rd street was the greatest torture. Especially as we passed Church Avenue, because everything I loved was right outside the school bus window, almost within reach. Kennys Toy Store, Lee’s Toy Store and a brand new Pizzeria called “Korner”. All the places I loved to visit with my Mom, yet here I am sitting on a cold school bus seat heading towards my doom. Church Avenue just vanished in the distance behind me. The bus made a left on Fort Hamilton Parkway and gently stopped in front of IHM School. We all silently gathered our belongings and filed out the bus. At this point I would really start to dread them. With my stomach feeling worse I was hoping to start throwing up this time before we got inside. One of them opened a heavy red metal door, dressed only in black, she just stared at us through her little round eyeglasses, not saying a word. The
public school heathens had just arrived. We sat in the classroom, all silent. One of them stood in front of the chalk board, she too was dressed in black with something white around the top of her head. Some kind of hat. Right below her head was a large white disc that looked like it was sawed in two. She held a long wooden yardstick in her wrinkled old hand. She just stood there glaring at us. I could make out her bee bee eyes behind her glasses, they were dark blue. She started to speak, “Now who can tell me about Jesus......And then it happened like it always did. There she was standing in front of the class. She had to be the most beautiful teacher at 179. Miss Saltzman, with beautiful dark eyes and long silky black hair. She had to be a dream, because when she spoke to me I just melted. When I’m old enough I’m going to marry Miss Saltzman, my third grade teacher. And even when she handed me my test papers that usually scored no more than 65. I just stared at her beautiful milky white hands and then her beautiful face, then down her neck to her tight pink sweater and then at her two beautiful full......Wack!, Wack!, Wack!, the tip of the wooden yardstick slammed hard on my desk, just barely missing my little fingers and almost hitting my Timex Dumbo watch that my Mom just bought me for Christmas. “I said wake-up and pay
attention young man!” “Don’t you care about Jesus?” At that point I was too scared to look up at her, I could only stare at the cross that was hanging on her waist with some sad looking skinny man with a long beard nailed to it. “I said look at me when I speak to you!” Now she was screaming at the top of her lungs. “I said look at meeeeeeeeeee.........and that’s when it happened. Without warning it just burst from my stomach, hot and steamy, with little pieces of the hot dog I just had for lunch. And it was all over her black dress, with some of it hitting the little man on the cross. I had just vomited like so many times before, and the “nerve medicine” my Mom gave me every Wednesday morning failed to work, again. I just sat
there frozen and she just stood there silent. “Now go to the boys room and clean yourself up”. I got up from my desk, I could feel evey ones eyes staring at my back as I walked out the door and down to the Boys room. I tried my best to wash myself off and I must have been there for a while, because when I walked out I could see my Mom talking with the Nun outside the classroom. My little sister Isabel was there too, just sitting in her stroller staring at the Nun. We left early that day and as we walked along Fort Hamilton Parkway towards East 4th the Church bells started ringing.
“Mom do I have to go back?” “You know what you have to do Ronnie”
is all my Mom said. Well, I did somehow manage to survive “Religious Instructions” and even made my Communion and Conformation at IHM. All because I knew “What I had to do”, Something thats just in your blood when you’re from Brooklyn. But the truth is even today some 43 later, I still can’t help but feel a little nervous when I see a Nun. The memories of “Religious Instructions”, the bus rides and the vomiting just come back to me like a nightmare. Because you see, even at 50, Some Bad Habits” are just too hard to forget!

Ron Lopez

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Thursday, May 8, 2014

Freddie's Stoop.

On any given August night back in 1975 you could find me down the block on Freddie Schefferman's stoop. But not just me you know, the rest of the boys also made Freddie's stoop their perpetual brick and mortar home. Glen Gruder, Robert Brennan, Neil O’Callahan, Jimmy Spinner and my cousin Pete Liria.

Now most of us were anywhere from fifteen to twenty at the time, and Freddie was much older. Freddie could have easily passed for Jesus or Tommy Chong from “Cheech and Chong”. With long wavey black hair, a beard and little round glasses. It was hard to imagine what Freddie really looked like too.

Freddie may have been 35 years old at the time. His mother and father owned the house he lived in. And from the stories Freddie told us all the time, we were pretty sure that he grew up on the block too. I know Freddie graduated from Pratt in Brooklyn and did work “freelance” from time to time. Hey, he even owned a 68 Triumph Spitfire convertible, so he had to have some kind of dough. But most of the time Freddie just loved to “hang out” on the block. Just looking like “Jesus” in his bell-bottoms, sandals, and yellow and white striped shirt. Leaning against the white picket fence of his house talking to anyone who wanted to “hang out” with him.

Freddie did spend some time in Vietnam too; I think he told us he used to make maps there. But we never pushed it because who knew if he would “Freak out” about it. And Freddie knew just about everything you know, politics, art, religion, history, philosophy, and most important, Brooklyn.

“You kids should have been around here when the Trolleys ran on Church Avenue. You couldn’t imagine the shit we used to do with the Trolleys”

Freddie did share many of his Church Avenue Trolley stories with us. From squashing pennies on the rails to making late night explosions on the high wires by throwing a metal pipe up at the lines, hoping to arc them both at once, and causing something to blow. I guess it did work sometimes, because Freddie told us many stories about being chased by the cops up our block too.

“What the hell are you guys doing here with me?”
“you should be out getting laid somewhere,
you guys are really schmucks!”

Now we never asked Freddie the same question, because it was
still a Saturday night, and the clock just struck midnight for him
too. But we just took his insults in stride, and just listened to
more of his stories.

“Did you guys check out that new program “Saturday Night Live”, now that’s some funny shit. Hopefully NBC won’t cancel it next year like they always do. Bunch of schmucks!”

Freddie was a Jewish 60’s flower child with an edge.

“You guys are little assholes, didn’t you see
that girl walk by and smile at you?”

“Why don’t you talk to her and get her number?”
“When I was your age I had a girl on each arm every night”

No one ever dared to ask Freddie what happened,
because we never saw him with anyone on the block.

No, instead of a beautiful girl on each side of his shoulders,
Freddie had us instead. And let me tell you, we were far
from being beautiful.

Freddie hated the establishment too,
every President sucked,
every Governor sucked,
every Mayor sucked.
But then again we never asked Freddie if he ever voted.

On very rare occasions Freddie would let us down into his basement to see all his photography equipment. Freddie knew all about mold making and casting too. In fact he made me my first fiberglass goalie mask that I still have today. We may have even seen “pot roaches” in empty cat food cans down there too. If Freddie did smoke pot, we never knew it, because he kept his personal life in the basement. 

Sometimes some of my friend’s dads would playfully rib Freddie about the fact that he seemed to be blissfully un-employed. Especially my friend Robert’s dad Bob Brennan.

Now Bob worked on the World Trade Center and told us countless stories about being up on the tower crane some 110 stories up. About how it swayed back and forth and almost got him sick on windy days.

“Hey get a job you bum”

Freddie would just laugh with all of us sitting around him.
Like overgrown Santa’s elf’s around our spiritual leader.

“Hey, I am working” “I’m teaching these kids about life,
including your son” “I’ll send you the bill next week!”

Sometimes another great Brooklyn philosopher and storyteller, Freddie’s downstairs tenant “Bobby Wilson” would join in on the conversation. Bobby Wilson was stocky and stood about six feet tall, with a big square jaw, dark blue eyes and midnight black hair. Bobby always looked like he was on the verge of murdering someone. He drove a tow truck for “Al & Leo’s” collision on 36th street near Fort Hamilton. In fact the place is now called “36th Street Collision” and Al is still the owner. Bobby always wore a dark blue jump suit with red script letters “Bobby” on his left chest, With the police scanner blaring and the volume up high, you always knew when Bobby was on the block. And don't forget, he had his name painted on the truck also, so you just couldn't miss him.

I think if Bobby didn’t know Freddie, he may have just beaten him up because of his long hair. Bobby hated hippies, freaks, the un-employed, the protesters, and the left-wingers. I think you get the picture. Yet together they were our own "Curtis Sliwa and Ron Kuby" right on East 4th street. Just arguing about everything and taking opposite sides on any subject. And of course Bobby’s solution for everything if conversation and debate didn’t work was to just “kick their asses” Most of Bobby’s stories were about his adventures driving his tow truck for Al and Leo. And usually when he was the first person to get to some horrible accident somewhere before the cops.

“Now who has a weak stomach here?”
“Because if you do, I don’t think you want to hear this one”

“OK, I heard this call on the scanner about a roll-over on McDonald and avenue C. It was late at night and I’m just a couple of blocks away. I get there and the car's totally in flames. It looked like a 69 Charger but I wasn’t sure. And the guys still in it because I see his head. So I try to pull the guy out of the car and the only thing I can grab is his head. So I’m on the ground squatting like this, just pulling and pulling. And them “Boom”, I fall backwards and the guy’s head comes off right in my hands. I’m on my back just looking at his head in my hands. I think he was even trying to talk to me too cause his lips were moving”.

At this point Freddie would be looking up at the
sky above East 4th, just rolling his eyes.

“Hey Freddie you think I’m bullshittin?”
“Cause if you do I’ll go upstairs and show you the guys ear,
I cut it off as a souvenir”

Freddie would just shake his head.

And the stories just went on and on, and the hot summer nights just rolled on by. I guess our parents were torn, on one hand they wanted us to be going out more, but then on the other all my mom had to do was poke her head out the window and see us all on Freddie’s stoop.

But just like everything when you were young,
you thought it would never end.
Until one day our nightmare came true.

Freddie told us he found a job and was going back to work.

Well, back to work, that’s ok. Because I worked too, and went to college also. So maybe Freddie couldn’t hang out till 2 AM anymore.

And then it hit us like a brick, my heart sunk, my world ended. Freddie told us his job was in Alaska, and he was leaving within a week, and would not be back for years.

We left the stoop that night feeling very depressed, but still held out some hope that Freddy was full of shit.

But then the day came that would be etched in my mind forever. Just a few days after Freddie told us the news I was sitting on my porch with some of the guys. Across the street was some guy walking with a clean white shirt and kacky pants. He crossed the street and started walking towards us. He had short black hair, clean smooth skin and a big bright smile. He also wore little round glasses.

“Do you guys know who I am?”
We just looked at him perplexed and said “no”
“You’re kidding, you don’t know who I am?”
“Sorry” we said, “we have no idea”
“You schmucks” the voice sounded familiar, yet the face wasn’t.
“I’m Freddie, you assholes”

Oh, my god, it was Freddie, he cut his beard, hair, and was wearing a white button down shirt and dress pants.

We all just stared at him in shock.

“I told you guys I got a job,
what did you think, I was full of shit?”

I guess maybe for once Freddie wasn't
full of shit, no he was really leaving the
block, and wouldn't be back for years.

I don’t remember the day Freddie left,
I may have been working or in college at the time.

We tried to pick up the pieces with Bobby Wilson and his tow truck stories, but it wasn’t the same without Freddie. Then tragically Bobby’s son Bobby jr. got real sick and died of a brain tumor. And Bobby just wasn’t the same anymore.

From what I heard he just stayed inside
his apartment and did a lot of crying.

The stoop in front of Freddie’s house was empty, yet there
was still hope that at least Bobby would be back someday.

But then one day when I got home from work I remember seeing a NYC morgue truck in front of Freddie’s house. I figured it was Freddie’s mom that died because she was quite old. As the black body bag was being carried out of the house, Bobby’s wife Eileen was holding on to it and crying. It was Bobby Wilson.

The doctors said it was an aneurism,
but we knew it was just a broken heart.
Because Bobby just could not live without his son.

I remember the funeral at Pitta’s on McDonald Avenue.
The whole block must have come that night.

And there was Bobby in the casket.
With a cigar in his pocket, and still looking like he could
kick someone’s ass, even in death.

Yeah, it was over.
Everyone was gone.

So the stoop remained empty forever at 418 East 4th.
And after Freddie’s parents died he sold the house.

We moved on with our lives. Found girlfriends or got married.
Some of us even moved away far from the block.

I heard Freddie finished his work in Alaska
and finally did get married.

In fact, rumor is he still lives in Brooklyn.

But truth is, I haven’t seen him in almost 30 years,
and neither has anyone else.

And I hope that some of those late night stories
about Brooklyn and life rubbed off on me too.
Because I grew up with some of the greatest storytellers
in Brooklyn, although at the time I don’t think they had
a clue that they were just that, “story tellers”.

And Freddie, wherever you are.
Thanks for all those great nights on your stoop.
Just hanging out and passing time,
and giving me a "gift" I will never forget.

Ron Lopez

Monday, December 2, 2013

Bob Brennan (Last night I lost a friend)

Bob Brennan Sr. passed away last night in Brooklyn at the age of 83. Today a big part of my heart is missing, for I will miss Bob forever until the day I die.

Below is a story I wrote about 6 years ago, I am re-publishing it today in Bob's honor...

The greatest storyteller Brooklyn has ever known is my friend Bob Brennan. At 78, Bob is a Brooklyn original you know. From sneaking into Brooklyn Dodger games at Ebbetts field to climbing the wall outside Kings County Hospital to see a live autopsy. Bob just always had what seemed like a novels worth of stories to tell at any given moment.

“Oh, do I have a good one for you Ronnie” said Bob. “You know my brother Joey wasn’t one for doctors, and one day he hurts his arm real bad playing baseball down on Brooklyn Avenue. So after about a week he goes to the doctor. Well, he comes home with a cast on his arm, and there’s my brother going crazy every night with this cast. Its itchy as all hell, he’s sticking wire hangers, ice cream sticks, almost anything he can find to shove up the cast and scratch himself. Well, finally after six weeks he goes to the doctor to get it off. So when the doctor takes a small hammer and cracks it open, “Bang!”. He breaks open the cast and hundreds of roaches come running out.
The doctor gets up and runs the hell out of the room.
And there’s my brother just sitting there screaming with
all these roaches all over him”.

Besides being a wonderful storyteller, in many ways I felt like Bob was the Dad I never had also. When my dad died when I was seven many of the fathers on the block pitched in to either show me how to hold a hockey stick or catch a hardball. And of course Bob had the best arm on the block, he was even called for a tryout for the New York Giants Baseball team before he was drafted and went to Korea. So there I am just standing in front of my driveway at 399 East 4th with my new Rawlings mitt. “OK Bob, I’m ready”. With the gracefulness of a pro-ball player, Bob throws the hardball towards me. Like a streak of white it flies through the air crossing East 4th and hits the newly oiled palm of my glove, “snap”. I just stood there with my fingers and hand feeling like they got run over by the B35 bus on Church Avenue. “You OK, Ronnie?” Too embarrassed to say no, or even cry in pain. I dug the ball out of my oil soaked glove and threw it back to Bob. With the gracefulness of the “Tin Man” before he got oiled, the ball flies through the air, totally missing Bob’s glove. It ricochets off the hood of a 70 Plymouth Duster and lands in “Frank form Italy’s” tomato garden. Instead of laughing or being upset, Bob just retrieves the ball from the tomato garden. He walks over to me, “OK, now I’m going to show you how to throw the ball”. Yeah, that was Bob.

You have to understand that Bob’s stories and his personality were almost medicinal too. In some of the darkest days of my life I could always count on Bob to help me forget my pain. All without him ever knowing that he was doing just that.

After my little sister died at 33, I had to go to Kings County Hospital and identify her body. Without a moments hesitation I asked Bob if he could come with me. And without any hesitation on his part he just said “yes”. “Hey Ronnie, did I ever tell you about the time me and my brothers climbed the wall outside the morgue wing to watch them do an autopsy?.” Although I heard it before, I would rarely say yes, and especially not today. “No Bob I haven’t.
When I had to pick out a casket for my sister the next day at Pitta’s on McDonald Avenue. There was Bob with me in the “showroom” down in their basement. “Hey Ronnie, did I ever tell you the time I was at a funeral over at Cypress Hills Cemetery?” The ground is totally covered with ice, and here’s these two guys pulling the casket up a steep hill. Well one of the guy’s falls and the casket comes sliding down the hill like a toboggan at Prospect Park. It hits a tree and the stiff comes flying out of the casket". "What a mess I tell you”.

The Casket cost me fourteen hundred dollars,
but the therapy was free.

And the stories went on and on, from a baby eaten to death by rats in Brownsville when Bob was a kid. To the midget that fixed his oil tank in his basement, because he was small enough to fit inside it to do the repair work. Yeah, Brooklyn through and through, that’s Bob.

You better believe that Bob was one of the first people I saw after 9/11 too. Bob was a tower crane operator and worked on the World Trade Center back in the early 70’s. He used to tell me stories about sitting up in the cab some 110 stories up in the sky. “With the wind blowing it felt like you were on a ship, just rocking back and forth.” Bob pulled a lot of steel from the street to help build those buildings. And on 9/12 there I was, just sitting at his kitchen table. Looking at old photos of him standing on the roof of Tower 2 while the building was still a skeletal frame.

In many ways I feel bad that everyone doesn’t have a “Bob Brennan” in their life. Or maybe the entire Brennan family for that fact. There certainly would be a lot more laughing and less prescriptions being filled out at “Walgreen’s”. Yeah, that was my anti-depressant, a quick trip to 422 East 4th.

The other day my company was splashed across the business section in the “Wall Street Journal” another 2500 layoffs in 2008. So what’s a grown man to do? worry you say? No, just call Bob Brennan for that quick pick me up. “Hey Ronnie, did I ever tell you about the wedding I went to, here’s this guy standing over the bar like this. He has his eyes closed and just looks real stiff. When his wife tries to grab his arm, he’s cold as ice. This guys dead, standing up right over the bar, looking at his martini”.

Yeah, the greatest storyteller I have ever known lives on my block, and his name is Bob Brennan, and I’m proud to call him my friend.

Ron Lopez
(Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction.)