All posts by John O'Connell

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I’m the only About Men Radio member who is unmarried and childless, but I do have four godsons.

The first was born with some complications. I remember being in the waiting room with my brother reassuring him that everything would be OK and praying.

I may have also offered whatever was needed, such as blood or bone marrow, not really knowing then if they were needed.

My nephew and the incredible medical staff got his fever down and a few days later he left the hospital.

I guess that’s why I was chosen to be his godfather — because I would’ve given up anything to save him.

As time passed, I’d always thought of myself in that “protector” role.

Several years later, I was teaching him to ride a bicycle without his training wheels. I made sure that he had a helmet and pads and while he pedaled, I ran alongside to make sure that he would be OK.

My second godson was born on the evening of a nor’easter.

My sister-in-law, whose labor had started, asked me to go to New Jersey to watch the older two children.

It took me a few hours to get out there as roads were flooded. Cars were submerged on the FDR. I safely made it to their exit and to their home and a few hours later my nephew was born.

I had put the other two in their beds and told them a bedtime story until they fell asleep. They were afraid of the thunder and I kept reassuring them that it would be OK.

I conked out on the rug in their room because I was reading with a flashlight and didn’t want to wake them.

I awoke the next morning with a blanket on me. My brother said that the kids insisted that I had a blanket and stuffed toy because I had kept them safe.

A few months later, I was helping my brother paint their home and was behind a bookcase when I thought I heard my nephew say in a gurgle, “Where’s Uncle John?”

I popped out and said, “Here I am” and he began to laugh.

My sister-in-law looked puzzled and asked me if I knew what he said. I said didn’t he just ask, “Where’s Uncle John?”

Years later the kids wanted to go trick-or-treating and my godson dressed as Darth Maul.

My other nephew was Luke Skywalker, and my niece was Queen Amidala. I donned my Darth Vader costume and chaperoned them through the neighborhood.

My third godson was born to my ex-wife’s sister. I only had about a year’s contact with him because my wife and I divorced.

My fourth godson is the youngest and he’s the son of one of my fellow AMR posse members.

I haven’t had a great deal of contact with him apart from seeing him at family gatherings and on Christmas Eve. I hope this summer there may be some more opportunities to see him.

Although I don’t have the same day-to-day stories as my fellow AMR members, I have a few that I have shared with you on this Father’s Day.

 

Remembering Friends With an Annual Toast

Back in 1981, almost a month after we gathered at Silvio’s for New Year’s Eve, we were again together to celebrate my 18th birthday.

I was the oldest of the group and the first to hit the legal 18 mark.

I was also the first to register to vote as well as sign up for Selective Service.

The following year, Chris and I took driver’s education and we both got our licenses.

My dad sat me down about the awesome responsibility it was to be able to drive.

He didn’t mind me driving, but I could only use the car if there was a destination, such as to the movies and back.

He also said that if I was going to drive, that I couldn’t drink any alcohol, which wasn’t a problem for me. I was young and thin back then and a drop of alcohol would have brought me to my knees.

We lost a classmate later that year due to drinking and driving, so we made a pact that if we did drink, we would travel by mass transit, or if we did need to drive, then the driver could not drink. We’d comp his food and sodas instead.

We all were together at Rich’s house. Silvio had given me this bottle of sherry which came in a small sack, thus the name, Dry Sack, on my 18th birthday.

We each took about a shot glass full. I sipped mine.

My grandma used to drink sherry to warm her up. I didn’t much care for the taste.

Silvio thought that each year we could all get together and have a glass and toast the new year and my birthday.

It sounded reasonable as I thought that we’d always be near each other to do that.

The following year at Silvio’s parents’ house, he asked about the bottle. I told him that I safely tucked the bottle away in my parents’ liquor cabinet.

I didn’t think my parents had any and it seemed the safest place to store it.

So it pretty much sat there through the years, forming a ring through the sack.

Each year on my birthday weekend, I’d pour a little and toast my absent friends and wish them well. Warm thoughts would wash over me as I recalled the days of our youth.

About 10 years later, as most of us had gone our separate ways, I again recalled the fun we had.

One year my mom was feeling a chill and asked for a bit of it. I told her the story of how it came to be while remembering my grandma having her late-afternoon sherry.

A few months later, I lost my dad in the same month that the bottle had finally emptied. I kept the bottle in its sack for a few years afterward as a keepsake.

 

Back in the Trenches — Again

After college, I worked as a recreation director.

I would have a few children who came to the park that I mentored and taught how to dribble a basketball and hit and throw a whiffle ball: A level swing will always get you on base.

Others I taught how to play board games such as chess, knock-hockey and checkers. Each sector would have the best players participate in tournaments a few times a year and mine always won the most trophies. My girls were the double-Dutch champs.

The job had its rewards, but during the winter months it was slow.

I like being busy when I am working because it makes the day go by fast.  The Catholic New York had a call for foster care caseworkers that I answered.

The work was challenging at times but also spiritually rewarding.

So, for the last 26 years, I’ve devoted myself to helping youngsters and their families find permanence.  As a foster care worker, you engage one- on-one with clients.

The work is quite demanding, especially with caseloads of up to 21. Over the years, caseloads grew to more than 30, so direct time with the clients diminished. Caseloads have since come down quite a bit but the demand to have direct contact with the family has increased.

I was about five years into the job when some of my supervisors asked about returning to school for a master’s in social work so that I could become a supervisor.

In my seventh year I was indeed a supervisor and had an MSW degree.

The work changed as I was no longer making one-to-one contacts with the families but instead overseeing five case planners and 125 cases. Three of the case planners had no casework experience, so I was more involved with those cases as well as instructing the workers until they got it and then I could back them up.

For the next 20 years, I continued to oversee workers but came to a cross roads.

I began in the field to help people.

When I started, my first supervisor said you can’t save them all. But I thought that if I could save (rehabilitate) a handful, then I would’ve accomplished a great deal.

I had another supervisor who said we had nothing in common with the people we were trying to help.

I disagree. If I lost my job and a home and had no family or friends, I too could wind up in a shelter or on the streets.

Maybe thinking that we are one or two paychecks away from our clients can help us motivate them to overcome obstacles.

Rather than take another supervisor job, I decided to work with clients again. This is what attracted me to this field in the first place. So now I’ve started working with substance abusers, and even in this short time, seen progress.

Getting people the help they need to become clean and sober and getting them into vocational rehabilitation and working again — that’s the greatest challenge and the greatest gift.

Remembering Mom and Dad

Last week marked the 25th anniversary of my father’s passing and while it is an unhappy milestone, I am safe in the knowledge and faith that he and my mother are together in a better place free from suffering, pain, and surrounded by Jesus’ love.

I’m sure dad’s putting the greens in the Elysian Fields with his friends John and Mr. McNulty.

Mom’s probably shopping at Macy’s.

In either case, upon knowing that his time was near, he asked the four of us to stay together and help our mother until she joined him.

I remember back about 25 years on mom’s birthday that we got the news that dad wasn’t going to make it the week.

The four of us got together and put a plan together to get mom to the hospital every day.

Each of us would take mom over and then take her back to Beth Abraham Nursing Home.

Since Larry was the oldest, he took the burden of wanting to tell mom the bad news.

We were in Beth Abe talking and he was going over what he was going to say when I noticed that the room that he went into to collect his thoughts had a quarantine sign on the door. I quickly got him out before he touched anything, and sat him down in the cafeteria.

He was pondering what to say. Perhaps he was thinking what Galbraith or Drucker would say.

I walked over to mom and knelt beside her wheelchair and said, “Dad’s not doing too well.”

Mom said, “Is he going to die?”

“Yes, I said, so let’s get you over to see him before he passes.”

Mom turned to another resident, and said, “My husband Larry isn’t doing too well and my boys are here to take me to the hospital to see him.”

Wow, mom could always do that. Take a tragic event and let others know that it’s going to be OK and that we would get through this.

My brother Larry had finally composed himself and on our way out asked me why I told her.

It’s what I do, I’m the social worker.

I guess now when I look at my brothers, I can see their talents much better. Larry is the professor; Andrew is the businessman who dealt with the hospital and dad’s wishes; Francis, who was mom’s favorite, is the engineer with one foot on earth and the other reaching out to the heavens, and I’m the social worker.

We all pitched in to make mom as comfortable as she could be.

Those last three days were good for us as well. I recalled confessing to dad something that I did as a kid. My brothers joined in and when his time finally came we were unburdened with no regrets.

Live Jesus in our hearts…forever…Amen.

Cutting It Close With Sal the Barber

As a kid, I’d watch my dad put the can of Barbasol under hot water and then squeeze off a little golf ball-sized foam and spread it on his face.

He’d always dab me on the nose with it.

Then he would take out his razor, the kind in which he had to add the blade. Our apartment bathroom had a slot for disposing of the used blades. I never figured out where that hole went.

Dad also had one of those electric hair cutting kits.

Every couple of months, my brothers and I would sit in the living room for our haircuts with a smock around us. It was nothing fancy, just crew cuts for us all.

That high-pitched buzzing of the little gray electric razor seemed to make everyone’s hair stand upright and dad would just whisk it away.

I was 4 but my eldest brother was 14 at the time. Then we’d pose for a photo. I still have one of the four of us with freshly cut crew cuts.

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There came a time when dad stopped cutting our hair and we’d all walk over to the Korvette’s shopping center for haircuts. There was one barber, “crossed-eyed Joe,” who would be in charge of cutting our hair.

Getting a haircut from my dad was actually preferable at this point. The only added feature was getting a lollipop.

As a teen, I’d go to the local barber shop. I found this one gem on Olmstead Avenue that had dollar haircuts on Wednesdays.

It was a small shop with three barbers.

On Saturday, the line would be out the door because the shop had half-priced haircuts. Men would stand on line for an hour, go in and sit down for another hour and get to read the paper or magazines before they were up for their shave and cut.

One of the barbers was Sal. He was a thin fellow with a big bushy mustache.

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All you would hear is the clickety-click of scissors from the three barbers. I’d thought you could probably make a barbershop song from the noise.

I continued to go to Sal every couple of months until college. During college, my friends went to a stylist on Castle Hill Avenue. I went to her a few times but I’m guessing that my friends went for the ambiance: a well-endowed woman.

I just wanted a good haircut.

I only get my haircut every four to six months, so I’ll have it cut short and let it grow. The longest I’ve let my hair grow was five years and then I had it dyed and put in a ponytail to donate to Locks of Love.

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Somewhere in that time, Sal’s barbershop closed. The landlord wanted too much rent and it was just Sal. He used to be the only barber on the block, but within a few years there were more than seven salons on three blocks.

I caught up with Sal about six years ago at a candy store that had been remade into a salon that mostly catered to women’s hair braiding and waxing.

I saw a sign that read “Sal the Barber is here.”  Finally, I found him.

I’ve continued to see him since.

He still has a following, albeit no Twitter feed. Check out Sal Monday through Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

A haircut will run you eight bucks.

Now that’s a bargain.

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Getting the Band Back Together

I’ve always been pretty good at making friends in school and work, but none of those relationships are as close as the ones that I have with my About Men Radio posse.

As I look back, Pedro and I worked together in two different jobs as did Pedro and Chris.

Chris and I worked together briefly and I was his backup newspaper delivery boy when he went to Disney World with his family. Silvio and Rich also worked together on a neighbor’s food truck.

Oh the stories….

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Chris was the first to get married and moved way upstate. We’d exchange cassette tapes to give him an inkling of what we were doing.

Pedro was the next to take the dive.

Upon his breakup and with no place to go, he called me, and Father John’s chalet was open for him until he was back on his feet.

Pedro may have seen it as me helping him out, but he helped me through the grieving process of losing my dad.

Several years later, I was again cleaning out the apartment for my then-wife.

Joe McNulty, another longtime friend, helped paint and install some phone extensions in the house. Once the apartment was cleared out, my wife then thought it was suitable to move in.

The apartment was then redecorated with most of her things, which she took with her when she left.

What I didn’t realize is that Pedro and the guys would email me, but my wife (now ex-wife) was deleting the emails.

I eventually met Pedro for lunch and we re-connected. After my divorce, Pedro, Rich and I were driving around and I had a million questions of what I had missed over the previous three years.

Surprisingly, not very much.

Back in college hanging out with Pedro, Gary and Rich became relatively the same each weekend.

We’d get into the car and Pedro would say, “Rich, where do you wanna go?”

Rich: “I dunno. John?”

John: “I dunno. Gary?”

Gary would say that since he was driving that we could pick a place. Pedro would usually offer his suggestion, which was fine with us because we didn’t really have anything in mind.

Chris and crew-3

Years later when we reconnected, it was the same. It felt a bit like “Waiting for Godot.”

Godot never came and I thought in those three years that I missed out on things. Yes, there were moments that I did miss but rejoining the posse felt good.

The same thing happened over 10 years ago when I reached out to Carla, Chris’s then-fiancée, and Pedro and I drove out to Pennsylvania.

Upon seeing Chris, there was a feeling of no passage of time.

The band was finally back together.

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Liver: It’s What’s (Ick!) for Dinner

As a kid there was always one day a month that mom served us liver.

My dad loved it with onions.

I preferred mine back at the store — in the frozen food aisle.

During the ‘60s and early ‘70s we lived in the Castle Hill housing projects in the Bronx.

Pretty much all of your friends lived in your building. Living in the projects was pretty cool  because when I was told we were having liver, I could just say, “Oh I forgot to tell you mom, Michael downstairs invited me to dinner.”

Michael didn’t yet know it yet, but I would ask him when I would get to school.

And as it would turn out, he was having liver too.

So by school lunchtime, Michael and about three other prospects were all having liver.

Like me, they were trying to escape to another house.

I always had an ace in the hole, Robert, my best friend.

I probably ate at his house nearly every day. Like Rich’s mom, Mrs. R. always had people over. Robert had an older brother and sister around the same age as my older brothers.

Robert’s mom was a great Italian cook and even taught my mom how to make stuffed shells and lasagna.

My mom wondered why I’d always eat there and Mrs. R said that it was because of the sauce, pasta and cheese.

I loved that as they always had salad, pasta, fresh rolls and something with lots of mozzarella on it.

So on this liver-for-dinner day, I cornered Robert right after lunch and asked if I could eat at his house.

I had eaten there most nights anyway and this was a real emergency.

He said sure, that it shouldn’t be a problem. I asked if he knew what his mom was cooking and he said, “Yep, fegato alla veneziana.”

It sounded delicious as it rolled off his tongue with his Italian accent.

I got to Robert’s after telling my mom how I was invited downstairs for dinner.

I walked into their apartment. I recall smelling garlic and hot rolls and my mouth was already watering.

Robert’s older brother and sister were having dinner away at their friends’ houses this evening, so there was plenty for me.

I started with the salad and then the pasta. The main course was served to the table family style and when the lid came off, the smell overpowered me.

And then it dawned on me as I looked toward Robert, who was laughing: Fegato alla veneziana was liver and onions.

Well at least there was hot rolls with mozzarella.

More pasta, please!

liver

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Know “Star Wars” Think You Do? This Quiz Shall You Take!

This quiz, compiled by John O’Connell,  will test your knowledge of the “Star Wars” books, movies, cartoons and games. (For answers scroll all the way to the bottom.)

1.  Who restored balance to the Force?

2.  What was the name of Queen Amidala’s planet that she ruled?

3 . What elephant-like armored tanks were on Hoth?

4. Name the planet where Chewbacca is from.

5  He is after Ezra Bridges and Obi Wan Kenobi in “Star Wars Rebels.”

6.  Princess Leia insults Han Solo by calling him this.

7.  Anakin nicknamed Ahsoka Tano this in “Star Wars: The Clone Wars.”

8.  Who is the main character from the Jedi Knight series?

9.  He said, “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”

10.  He wasn’t dumb, he was Darth Plagueis the…?

11.  This planet gets destroyed by the Death Star.

12. From Star Wars Rebels, this is the planet that Ezra Bridger is from.

13.  Who co-wrote “The New Essential Guide to Alien Species”?

14. In “Return of the Jedi,” Lei, Han Solo, Chewbaca, C3PO and  R2D2 must take down the shield generator from this forest moon of? The inhabitants of the moon are named…?

15.  This planet is found in the outer rim near Tatooine.  There are several episodes about it in Star Wars The Clone Wars. It is the home of the Twi’leks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Answers

1  Anakin Skywalker
2  Naboo
3  AT-AT’s
4  Kashyyyk
5  The Inquistor
6  A Nerfherder
7  Snips
8  Kyle Katarn
9  Yoda
10 Wise
11 Alderaan
12 Lothal
13 Helen Keier
14 Ewoks
15 Ryloth

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A Recap of “Star Wars” With a Biblical Interpretive Twist

A co-worker said that she never saw any of the movies or cartoons. This conversation gave me an idea for this blog post.

So, a recap for all of you who haven’t seen any of the movies or cartoons or have read the books or played the Star Wars video games, you may have heard a similar story before: It’s as old as the Bible, good vs. evil.

It’s a story about a boy and his family.

We are introduced to a boy named Anakin Skywalker who was born to Shmi. Like Mary of Jesus, Shmi did not know man.

We later learn that there was a Sith Lord named Darth Plagueis the Wise who could use the Force (Holy Spirit for Mary) to influence the midichlorians (DNA building blocks for Mary) to create life.

He caused the impregnation of Shmi not unlike the Angel Gabriel (Luke 1:26-38).

Qui-Gon Jinn (a Jedi Master) encountered a tremor in the Force around Anakin.

His cells had the highest count of midichlorians he ever saw in a life form.

He wondered if it were possible that he was conceived by midichlorians.

He refers to the prophecy of the one who would bring balance to the force.

Shmi asks Qui-Gon if he was there to free the slaves. Was he the Messiah or was Anakin to be the savior?

Anakin had dreams about the future and returning to his home planet of Tatooine and freeing his mother from slavery. He met Padme and years later secretly married her and she told him of her pregnancy.

Chancellor Palpatine talks with Anakin about the Sith along with their powers to heal. He tells young Anakin a story of Darth Plagueis the Wise who could resurrect the dead and heal the suffering.

Anakin was plagued by dreams of his mother’s death and that of his wife, Padme during childbirth. He thought that if he could learn this Sith power that he could save them.

Anakin becomes Palpatine’s apprentice to obtain these powers as he is tempted by the dark side of the Force, which later led him away from his wife.

Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days tempted by Satan and he did not give in.

Chancellor Palpatine was elected through a vote of “no confidence” in Chancellor Valorum’s leadership.

Later, Palpatine becomes Emperor and dissolves the Senate.

Senator Palpatine told Anakin that in his anger, he had killed his wife Padme. This news made him very angry and Palpatine smiled at his pain.

Padme gave birth to twins named Luke and Leia. The twins were separated for their own protection as heirs to Anakin would have a higher midichlorian count.

Leia was adopted by Senator Organa and his wife. Luke was sent back to Tatooine to live with his aunt, Beru and uncle, Owen Lars. Padme still sensed good in Anakin on her deathbed.

Once Anakin turned to the dark side of the force, according to Obi-Wan, he essentially died and became Darth Vader. There are always two Sith, a master and apprentice.

There were many Jedi Knights in the Old Republic as they were the guardians of peace and justice. During the Clone Wars, the Jedi were killed.

The Emperor knew that any child with a high midichlorian count could be a weapon of the Force, so they were rounded up and killed — not unlike Pharaoh killing the first born male children in Israel for fear that a messiah or king may be born.

Leia grows up and contacts Obi-Wan Kenobi, an old friend of her father’s.  They fought together during the Clone Wars.

Princess Leia puts the plans for an ultimate weapon, a Death Star capable of destroying a planet, into a droid and jettisons it, R2D2 and another Protocol Droid, C3PO out of their ship as it is boarded by Darth Vader of the Galactic Empire.

The droids wind up on Tatooine with a young Luke Skywalker.  Luke retrieves the message that Leia needs help. R2D2 goes out in search for Obi-Wan Kenobi, while Luke and C3PO follow.

Trouble ensues and Obi-Wan comes to the rescue. Obi-Wan tells Luke that his father was killed by Darth Vader. The full message is played and Obi-Wan and Luke set off on an adventure to Alderaan.

Luke learns about the Force through Ben Kenobi’s teachings and later by Master Yoda’s.

Luke Skywalker along with Princess Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca, R2D2, and C3PO continue the adventures against the Empire.

They fight alongside the Rebels to destroy the Death Star and bring back peace to the galaxy. In the end, Padme was right about seeing good in Anakin.

Luke also saw that he was good and it gave Vader the chance for redemption in the end.

For Jesus, the cross symbolizes redemption for all of us. Has Kylo Ren picked up his cross fashioned into a light saber to provide redemption for us or to resurrect the evil that was gone for the past 30 years?

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” will take place some 30 or so years later.

Perhaps Han Solo and Princess Leia marry and have children.

Perhaps Luke, the sole Jedi of the galaxy becomes a teacher, like Master Kenobi and Master Yoda.

Perhaps Luke learns the ways of the Sith as well. A New Jedi Order is created under Luke’s leadership.

Out of the Garden of Eden or Paradise came evil. The Force works because of a balance of good and evil.

Perhaps Kylo Ren is the embodiment of the evil.

“Star Wars” is about a family with an absent father who leaves to take over the universe. Is Luke’s father dead or has he changed his name and began a new life and a New Hope?

The names of the Movies gives you a breakdown of the events:

Star Wars Episode I- A Phantom Menace: The story about Anakin.

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Star Wars Episode II-Attack of the Clones: War breaks out between the Empire and the rebels. Anakin grows up and begins to form a relationship with Padme.

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Star Wars Episode III-Revenge of the Sith: Anakin turns to the dark side and becomes Darth Vader and wipes out most of the Jedi.

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Star Wars Episode IV – A New Hope: Hope is restored through Luke Skywalker in the destruction of the Empires ultimate weapon, a Death Star.

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Star Wars Episode V-The Empire Strikes Back: The Empire, led by Darth Vader, fractures the Rebels. In the end Han Solo is encased in carbonite and everyone’s feelings are unsettling and unsure.

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Star Wars Episode VI-Return of the Jedi: Luke returns after rushing his training to rescue his friends and to restore order back to the galaxy. In this final fight, Darth Vader/Anakin kills the Emperor and dies upon seeing Luke with his own eyes. Luke brings his body back to Endor and burns it.

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The spirits of Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi and a younger Anakin are now visible to him.

Young Anakin was added as George Lucas said that when he became Darth Vader, he ceased being Anakin.

Everyone in the universe ends the movie in celebration with fireworks and frivolity.

Star Wars Episode VII-The Force Awakens: Takes place some 30 years after the end of Return of the Jedi. The Sith return.

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In one of the trailers, Kylo holds the burnt mask of Darth Vader and says, “Nothing will stand in our way. I will finish what you started.”

Kylo picks up his cross which also appears to be a lightsaber.

Jesus said, pick up your cross and follow me.

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What holds for the future of Luke and the Skywalkers?

We shall all know on Friday.

 

 

MacGyver and Other Tales of Improvised Engineering

My friends would call my little inventions MacGyverisms so I thought I would share a few.

If you’ve read my earlier About Men Radio blog, then you already know that I had an early start building radios out of broken components and older radio parts. (“Radio Shack: Real Family Fun.”)

As a kid we had Tonka toys that were utterly indestructible.

I’ll attest to that as we lived on the 9th floor in the housing projects and upon seeing that commercial of an elephant standing on a Tonka toy and it didn’t budge, I’d figure that to be thrown from the 9th floor would surely cause some damage.

So I opened the back window — making sure no one was sitting on the benches — and hurled my dump truck outside.

Then it was a race downstairs to look for the wreckage.

I got downstairs and to my surprise the truck was totally intact.

Not even a scratch or busted plastic glass windshield. I was very impressed.

As I looked at the fire trucks and ambulances in the neighborhood, I noticed that they had lights. So I took a drill that I made and proceeded to cut some holes into my ambulance.

There was a plastic piece where lights would go, so I removed it and created a housing underneath. I also punched some holes through the top of the cab and used white Christmas lights as my ambulance lights.

I had spliced the wires and added it to a battery pack and finally had running lights. Except they didn’t blink, so I had my handy Radio Shack kit, which had a flasher attachment, so I modified that to make it work

My dad was pretty inventive as well.

He could make pretty much anything out of metal. As a young boy, I wanted some kind of plastic toy but on Christmas I opened up the present and found this derrick.

Crane Boom Green

 

I didn’t play with it very much. It wasn’t until I had a friend over and he asked and then I showed him how it worked.

It had a structurally sound crane boom. For example, my dad wore 5-pound steel-tipped shoes to work every day and the crane picked them up and didn’t tip. It might have not been the most attractive vehicle in my fleet, but it actually worked the best.

MacGyver: You can do anything you want to do if you put your mind to it.

It wasn’t until high school and Pedro broke his glasses, that I thought about melting my pen to fix his them. It was a quick fix but it seemed to work.

MacGyver: A paperclip can be a wondrous thing. More times than I can remember, one of these has gotten me out of a tight spot.

I began a job and they didn’t give me keys to the desk, but with my trusty old paperclip, I got into my desk. It took about a month before they finally gave me a key.

paper clip

MacGyver: If I had some duct tape, I could fix that.

My ex broke a draw and I used duct tape to get it working again. She couldn’t understand how I fixed it so quickly. She did want me to fix it properly, so I had to run to the lumber yard and get a matching piece.

I glued it together and that chore was fixed that day.

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A Calling to Help Foster Children Started at a Playground

I recently was in the supermarket and ran into someone who said, “Hey, you look familiar. Haven’t we met before?”

Perhaps I look like a lot of different people. (I hate to think about that if I’m ever called in for a lineup.)

The person and I determined that it was 25 years ago when I worked in a park in the Bronx as a recreation director.

She said that I was one of the few who seemed to really help the kids. Her son is in his 20s now.

Some parents used us as free daycare. They’d drop their children off at 8:30 a.m. in front of the park and pick them up at 6 p.m. after work.

Many of the children didn’t have a lunch bag nor money to buy food, so a few of us would always make sure that we brought a few extra slices of pizza.

I never wanted to see youngsters go hungry.

The recreation job was busy during the summer months while we had daily activities.

During the school year it got less hectic. We had mostly seniors until 3 p.m., when the school-age children would come to the parks.

It was during one of those less hectic days I met a woman who had two children, Anthony and Jonathan.

Anthony was about 10 years old and I introduced him to some of the other youngsters his own age.

Jonathan was a few years younger but would try and keep up with his older brother.

Jonathan had trouble hearing and would turn his head to the left and try and figure out what someone was saying. I told his mother about this and she said that she would take him to the agency doctor.

I learned that Anthony and Jonathan were foster care kids and this was my first experience with foster children. Their foster parent gave me her contact along with the agency that the boys were with.

One time Jonathan was at the top of the jungle gym and fell. His foster parent was there in the park when it happened and Jonathan was rushed to the hospital.

He came back the next day with a cast on his arm and wanted to play on the jungle gym, but I taught him how to play checkers instead. Jonathan became quite the checker player and played in the summer tourney and won first place.

He was awarded a trophy for the accomplishment and a few months later he and his brother went back to his mother.

The foster parent had other boys afterwards but there was always a special place in her heart for Anthony and Jonathan.

A few weeks later, I was reading “Catholic New York” and there was a call for foster care caseworkers.

I answered the call and have been helping children achieve permanency ever since.

I’ve had my share of Jonathans during my work and will probably regale you with some stories again.

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Beer and Rain Make for a Memorable Camping Trip

Headshot 4 AMR

AMR contributor John O’Connell weighs in with his recollection of this epic camping trip. Here’s his account:

We took two cars up to the Catskills on a three-day weekend.

The participants were: Chris, Rich, Pedro, Gary and Andrew (Rich’s next door neighbor) and myself.

Rich had picked up a five-man canvas tent at Sears a few days before. Did I mention that there were six of us?

I recall Rich taking the tent and spikes out of the box. I sat on a folding chair and started to read directions for setting up the tent.

The first line in the instructions was that since the tent was canvas, it had to be watered down beforehand so that the material could stretch.

Since this wasn’t done, I wasn’t so sure that the tent could be constructed correctly with all the bars, etc. I resolved to just sit back and watch.

I grabbed a six-pack and plopped myself down and drank the first beer very quickly.

I never really liked the taste of beer and most times I would nurse one beer the whole night at parties.

I had just popped the second can, took a swig then figured I’d help get the fire started.

Rich and Andrew were trying to assemble the tent and there was a Catskill chill along with a threatening rainstorm.

I probably downed about three beers when both the fire was going and the tent was finally constructed. I took my sleeping bag, rolled it out in the tent and passed out.

I woke up in the morning sopping wet.

It had rained that evening and since the tent wasn’t pre-hosed, it didn’t have time to stretch out. Luckily, I had kept my overnight bag in the car so it, along with my change of clothes, were dry.

That Saturday it rained most of the morning.

The neighbors across from us decided that their camping weekend was over and packed up their new-fangled vinyl tent and left. They said that we could have their wood.

By late afternoon, the sun started to emerge and some of the guys decided to go on a hike.

Pedro and Rich played some tunes on a boom box that Rich brought. Chris came back holding Andrew, who twisted his foot on a rock or wet leaves.

On Sunday, the rain had stopped and we had a visit by the park ranger who we dubbed “Ranger Rick.”

Andrew had a small axe and was chopping a tree branch and the ranger wanted to make sure that we weren’t cutting any trees down. I walk toward him, assuring him that we weren’t as Chris motioned to Andrew to get rid of the axe.

We were fortunate to have a bathroom hut within a 2-minute walk of the campsite. It had a few stalls and a shower unit, but we were all smelling kind of funky by the end of the trip.

I think we actually made it to Monday before we left, because I recall having Rich drive Chris and I to a church in the area for Sunday Mass.

Most vacations you come back feeling relaxed. We came back smelly and wet and just wanted to go home, take a shower and sleep.

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Radio Shack: Real Family Fun

I was saddened to hear the news that Radio Shack was closing many of  its doors.

My first love with all things electrical began at Radio Shack.

When I was a boy, my dad and I would walk from the Castle Hill projects to the Korvette shopping mall and stop by Radio Shack.

He would get a little AM transistor radio that came with its very own white ear bud. Mind you, these were not like the ear buds of today, but something about the size of a broccoli spear.

Well, at home I would always have a few broken radios that I would take apart and try to glean how they worked.

Things really came together when I also had a pair of walkie-talkies.

I also discovered that if I used some wire attached to the antennae and fastened it to the riser pipe in my bedroom, I could tune into conversations farther away than most.

The transmitter was still weak, so I wasn’t able to communicate with anyone, but I am sure that I’ve said a few “rogers” and “over and outs” to the people on the other line that probably didn’t hear me.

Although one time I do recall having a conversation with someone from JFK, but it was probably just my imagination.

rsh

One Christmas, my brother Francis got a V8 engine which consisted of over 1,000  plastic pieces and metal pieces.

When it was finished, it had the power to push a small go-cart. Since I was the youngest and lightest, I got a chance to test it out.

Over the years, I continued purchasing the little kits where you could make an alarm or shortwave radio.

I still have a zip-zap car in its original box from about 15 years ago.

It is my reminder of the good old days of model car racing. We used to get parts from Radio Shack in order to build the HO Slot cars.

Those were a lot of fun times with my dad and brothers. Real family fun.

 

Dating Disaster Stories

Years before online dating services like Match and eHarmony were options, I placed a personal ad in the Penny Pincher.

The first woman that I went out with called and asked where I would take her. I said that she should pick a place.

Siobahn suggested a seafood restaurant. I liked seafood, so I didn’t mind.

During the meal, we engaged in conversation.

She was an au pair, someone who provides day care and light housekeeping while staying with a host family. The meal arrived. I had a nice salmon and she ordered lobster.

I thought when the check arrived, we would split it, but I kind of got the indication that au pairs didn’t get paid very much, so I shelled out the money and suggested that we walk across the street to a coffee shop for dessert.

She said that it was getting late and she had to be back to put the kids to bed. At that, she left.

I went across the street myself for cake and coffee.

I never heard from Siobhan again.

For my second date, Karen and I talked on the phone a few times. She lived in Rockland County and wanted to meet in a bar with a male friend as an escort.

Seeing how this was all kind of new to me too, it seemed fine.

I arrived early to the bar. I was dressed in slacks, a dress shirt and tie. Karen and Hank, dressed in leather and jeans, arrived a few minutes later; Hank sat at the end of the bar ordering shots.

Karen was a rather large woman with at least four visible tattoos. Hank had that “biker bar” vibe as he too was covered in tats.

Karen ordered a hamburger with a shot and a beer and wanted me to have a drink.

I got this nervous vibe that I was going to get rolled in the parking lot or wake up in a tub of ice without my kidneys, so I suggested that she and Hank enjoy a meal on me and I left.

The take-away? I left with all my organs and wallet. The only lingering question was who had more tattoos on them.

My last date from my personal ad was the most memorable.

We spoke on the phone and she asked if it was a problem that she was African-American. I said that I didn’t mind as my ad had all races and religions. She too lived in Rockland County and also was an au pair.

Kimberly asked me to meet her at a church. I thought it an unusual request, but figured why not.

I met her in the parking lot. Kimberly was this stunning, slender young woman. I thought we were going to walk to a restaurant nearby, but she invited me into the church auditorium instead.

There were chairs in a circle and coffee and cookies on a table.

The minister asked me to help myself. I sat next to Kim, and with that the minister began, welcoming everyone and asking if anyone would like to start.

Kimberly stood up and said, “Hi, my name is Kimberly and I’m a narcotic and alcoholic.”

Everyone clapped and welcomed Kimberly.

The minister then asked if anyone was new to the group and I stood, saying that my name was John and that I was here for the first time.

They asked me when I last used alcohol and I said about four months ago and they cheered. (I probably should have just sat back down, but I said that I wasn’t an alcoholic, which spawned a bevy of comments.)

After the meeting we walked to the foot of the Tappan Zee Bridge and sat on the rocks and talked. She was going to school for social work. I was a foster care caseworker.

It was actually kind of nice with the conversation, hot coffee and the lights glistening on the water.

At the end of the night she asked me if I could take care of her kitten because she was going out of town.

I said that I had a cat and wasn’t sure about introducing a new one.

She assured me that it was only for a day or two. My cat didn’t like the kitten and was hissing non-stop. The next morning, I called her to let her know that my cat was not having it and that she had to take her kitten back.

She gave me instructions to take the kitten to another woman’s farm somewhere in Rockland.

She took the kitten back and that was my last foray into personal ad dating.

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Santa’s Special Key and His Secret Helpers

As a kid, I’d walk around my neighborhood and there would be an endless array of Christmas trees and lights in people’s apartments.

It was beautiful going to sleep and miraculously finding presents under the tree the next morning.  Thank you, Santa!

But we didn’t have a fireplace for him to come down, so we apartment kids were told that Santa had a special key to get into all of our homes.  One year I heard a noise about two in the morning and crept out to peer into the living room.

I watched as my oldest brother and my dad played with some of the toys.

Santa must’ve come early, I thought, as I returned to bed. I awoke in the morning to find toys and clothes wrapped underneath the tree. I was told that Santa brought the wrong batteries and that my brother and dad had met him and they were appointed his elves that year.

I strained to stay awake the following year but again Santa had come and gone in almost an instant.

One year I was so excited upon getting a garbage truck. Perhaps my dad was preparing me for a city job?

One of my aunts would always give us clothes. One year it was socks, another year hats, and the following year gloves. By the fourth year, it was socks again.

I have 12 nieces and nephews. Although some are first cousins of my nieces and nephews, I consider them family. I guess that’s the true gift of Christmas: family, friendship and love.

About Cats: How One Kitty Adopted Me

I walked into the cafeteria as Rafael was in the middle of a story. I missed the valuable first part, but what I did hear had me in tears, and then, chuckling.

What I heard was, “We were in the hospital late last night and she was on dialysis…and the doctor said that she wouldn’t live through the night.”

He was distraught, so I asked if his mom was OK. He looked at me quizzically and said: “Sure, she’s fine. I was talking about my cat.”

I smiled inwardly. Cat, I thought. How could anyone get broken up over a cat?

A few months, later one of my client’s cat had a litter of kittens and they offered me the runt she had just been weaned off her mother.

She was this thin charcoal gray, black-and- white tabby with these beautiful green eyes and a very long tail.

I was holding her in my arms at the time, so I made a hasty decision and said yes. Mind you, I never had a pet before except for my stuffed green rabbit and a starfish that I found at Orchard Beach.

I took her home and set up a bed for her and a makeshift litter box, etc. I didn’t think that was enough, so I ran out to the store and picked up some “cat”aphernalia.

The next morning I woke and could hardly breathe. I had red eyes and my throat was swollen and I had chills and a fever. It
felt like the flu.

I called my doctor and described my symptoms and told him that I just received a kitten. He diagnosed me as having “Cat Scratch Fever” which, I said, I thought was just a song.

He said, yes, John they did make it into a song but something about a kitten’s scratch is worse than an adult cat because they have bacteria and dander in their claws. I thought perhaps I could wash the kitten but that could harm the cat at her young age.

He did offer me a few alternatives though:

  1. Get rid of the cat.  Seemed like a good idea.  Kitten makes me sick, find the kitty a new home.
  2. Get shots. Sounded simple enough as I was going to be taking her to the vet in a few weeks anyway. I asked my doctor ifthe shots would hurt the kitten because she is kind of small and scrawny.  He said, no, John, the shots are for you. Oh well. Then let me revisit option No. 1 or is there a third
  3. Keep the cat and eventually build up an immunity. So the wait-and-see option seemed to be the one that worked. In the time trying to locate an appropriate home for the kitten, I finally built up an immunity and ended up keeping her.

Kitty finally was named “Smokey” and she was mine. A few weeks later I took her to the vet for shots and to be fixed.

I understood Rafael’s pain and anguish when she came out of surgery and was sluggish and had that funnel around her head.

Although it was a normal procedure, I welled up and realized that I was now a cat owner and I wanted the very best for her.

About Food: An Autumn Staple

As a kid, my mom would make a lot of Irish and American dishes,  Meatloaf, potatoes, and string beans was a regular staple.  However each autumn, my mom would assemble the ingredients for beef stew. When I finally moved out on my own, my parents wanted to know if I was eating, so I decided to make Mom’s beef stew.  I used her recipe and it was a hit.  My parents minds were at ease because if I could cook that, they knew I was OK.

This multimedia piece was produced for the “Coming to the Table” series from Feet In Two Worlds.

The Best Cure For Insomnia is Getting Lots of Sleep

“Lazarus has risen,” to quote my Dad when I finally awoke from slumber.

Chris and Pedro would often call my house when we were teenagers and get my Dad on the line. He would say that “Lazarus was still sleeping.”

Getting me up proved harder than some realized.

As a teen, my mom would often stand at the door and yell: “John! Wake up! You’ll be late for school!”

Years later, school changed to work. One of the main reasons why it was difficult to get me up was that while I was dreaming, I would incorporate the outside stimuli into my dream.

I’ve had several dreams of sanitation trucks and cement mixers backing up.

My Dad would call me and get no response. His work bench was in my room and he would be hammering and sawing and drilling and would tell me that I didn’t even move.

However, when he would put on easy listening on the radio with 30’s and 40’s music that actually got me up.

My brother Andrew would throw cold water in my face. This worked 50 percent of the time.

Once my brother Larry decided to clean out the closet and just dumped all the clothes on top of me. I woke up at about 5:30 p.m. and couldn’t move. It took a while to realize that all the clothes in the closet were on top of me.

My mom thought I was outside, playing.

Years later, my cat also tried getting me up.

One time my radio was going off at 6:30 a.m. I got up walked across the room and turned it off (having the radio across the room actually does help me get up).

Fifteen minutes later it went on again. Again I got up and turned it off.

On getting back into bed, my cat ran in, looked at me, meowed then jumped up and tapped the buttons on my alarm.

She was waking me up to feed her.

I was always a tense plane passenger, but realized if I broke night (stayed up 24 or more hours) that I could get on the plane, fall asleep and wake up at my destination.

This did prove useful a few times, but once while going to Puerto Rico, I awoke after two hours thinking that we were safely in the air only to find that we were still on the tarmac awaiting takeoff.

Yikes!

Pedro also saw me one evening at Yankee Stadium for a Yankees vs. Red Sox game.

The night before I was up 24 hours working and when I got to my bleachers seat, I just couldn’t help but take a little nap.

Pedro said that he fended off Boston fans who threw batteries at me during the game.

Am I glad that I didn’t get hit with a homer? Not sure how that would’ve been incorporated into a dream.

We Are Definitely Not In Kansas Anymore

During college, I was invited to teach English as a second language in Guatemala.  My first experience that we weren’t in America came when my friend Oscar and I were in town.

I had just purchased a pair of cowboy boots and we were walking back home through the main square when a Jeep approached.  Soldiers jumped out with machine guns and rifles, ordering people, including us, to form a line.

We had been through the drill a few times before at various checkpoints but this was the first time that I had a machine gun aimed at my head.

A second ago I was happy about my boots and now I was thinking about my life.  Thank God for Oscar, who spoke Spanish fluently and uttered “Osvaldo.”

“Osvaldo!” I exclaimed while keeping my hands safely in the air.  Oscar had met Osvaldo on our flight to Guatemala and they had a nice chat.  Osvaldo was a colonel in the Guatemalan army. He spoke to his men and the machine guns were lowered.  Relief washed over me as my hands were still in the air. We walked back to our host family’s home.

You’d think I’d get the message.

But a few days later, we were in a marketplace and I had a “Frankie Goes to Hollywood” button that read “Arm the Unemployed.”  A man with a gun approached me and asked what it said.  He said: “Arm…Armas!” To which I replied, “No, Ayudele,” or help the unemployed.  My friends told me to lose the button. That’s just what I did.

We weren’t in America anymore!