The Bar Chronicles: #2, Coal Was King

Bar Night 2

‘Coal Was King’

It was coal country and there were bars on every corner. My dad came home from work, black face, sometimes unrecognizeable. I had to get outta there…and I did.” (A friend)

We had our second ‘bar night’ recently, my friend and I, leaving the house for a couple of hours of ‘senior bonding’.  Two beers, this time. The choice, again, Guinness, and the setting, Thirsty’s, a small but vibrant ‘watering hole’ in the heart of Pittsford, NY, across from Starbucks and steps from the Erie Canal.

Thirsty’s doesn’t have a sign over its front door, doesn’t need it. On a week night in December, business was brisk, with patrons of all ages in good spirits, days before the Christmas holiday.

It was unusually mild weather for the start of a western New York winter and the crowded pub was warm.  We arrived just as two barstools were vacated.  With dark beers in hand, we raised our mugs to the other’s good health and the conversation began.

Personal stories that take us well back in time are often fascinating. Telling them with the background din of other ‘spinners’ and patrons reaching between us for their beers, added to our evening experience in this iconic village bar.

My friend’s narrative was no exception and the pictures he painted are still unfolding in my mind’s eye. He took me deep into the coal mines of eastern Pennsylvania while offering a glimpse of a young man’s life in a mining family. All of this ‘time travel’ while perched on wooden stools, a beer in one hand and the other stretched out and anchored on the bar to mark our borders from the pressing crowd.

Coal was king in eastern Pennsylvania in the 1930s. The mines flourished while the earth gave up its mother lode of solid black gold, albeit reluctantly. Miners, often immigrants, worked tirelessly in an environment fraught with danger, scraping and shoveling, removing coal layer by layer, loading it into ‘cars’ to be hauled above ground.

In the shortest days of winter, workers entered mines in early morning darkness, leaving their frozen breathes at the ‘drift portal’, like a gentleman checks a coat. At day’s end, the pitch darkness welcomed them out, camouflaged as they were with dust, black coal dust, on them and in them.

“Another round, fellas?” The call snapped us back. Without a word, we threw down the last bit of beer, paid our ‘cash only’ tab and relinquished our prime seats. It was late, two beers down and our eyelids were heavy. I reached back for a last handful of bar snacks as we put another good evening behind us.

The streetlights cast feint shadows over the historic canal, empty now, reduced to a mere ditch in winter when it’s murky waters are drained.  As we walked, I looked at my friend through tired eyes and thought about the different paths we’ve traveled. Life is an adventure and it makes for good stories, good bar stories.

srbottch

Dedicated to my friend, Steve P, and story tellers everywhere.

The Prettiest Christmas Tree Ever…a Holiday Tradition

Christmas Tree 2    I have fond remembrances of our family Christmas trees and the tradition of selecting and decorating one every year . Odd, but they always seemed bigger at home than in the field.  Often, it was challenging just getting it through our front door and into the stand.  Invariably, the very tip of the evergreen would brush the ceiling, leaving sticky sap spots on the flat white finish, a convenient reminder for the exact placement the following year.

Our adventures began with a chorus of Christmas carols while driving to the tree farm. There, we scattered about, sometimes laboring through snow in our heavy winter boots, or catching snowflakes from a sudden squall with the tips of our tongues, as we weaved among hundreds of evergreens in search of the perfect one to take its place in our home. If ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, our choice was more difficult because we had four sets of eyes, each with its own sense of beauty. But in the end, we’d agree on one and tag it as ours

.Christmas Tree 4

The back and forth sawing quickly heated my body and I would shed my jacket and hat. Surely, I silently cursed the sharp needles pricking my cheeks while kids and mom laughed and threw snow. After the “timmmber’ stage, came dragging, hoisting, and tieing it to the rooftop with enough rope to hold down a ‘big top’, then driving it home slowly, every knot I made pulled taut by the challenging headwinds.

Our efforts produced a beautiful Christmas tree each year and we would proudly gather to admire it with wide open eyes reflecting the twinkling of the lights and ornaments.  As we enjoyed the beauty of the moment and our traditional ice cream Yule log, the annual declaration was made…

“This is our prettiest tree ever”

And it always was, ‘the prettiest tree ever’.

Christmas Tree

Times change, children move on, traditions wain, but the Christmas tree remains the centerpiece of our decorations. It brightens our spirits and sends a joyous message of the season to passers bye who see our window.  It stirs fond memories earlier Christmases, growing up with my large family and our different traditions.

And while this year’s tree is an artificial one that has no sticky sap, it still gets turned one way and then the other until just right. And I still hear the words, “It’s the prettiest tree ever”, and it always is.
Christmas Tree 5

Do you have memories of Christmas trees and family traditions that are special?  Its fun to share them…

srbottch

Dedicated to my wife and children who helped make our Christmases special.

Christmas Tree 3

My Father’s ‘Pearls’, a String of Old-fashioned Wisdom and Advice

“Flush the toilet while you’re going, so others don’t hear it”

Pensive Dad

My father had a way with words. He wasn’t eloquent. He wasn’t flowery. He didn’t mince them. He was a plain talker who chose his words randomly, then delivered them firmly. Sometimes, they revealed his temper, but more often they reflected his wisdom. Many were gems that I still recall. Not sure if that’s a good thing but on the whole, I think, yes, it is.

While funny now, the bathroom message was a poignant commentary about life in a large family, living in tight quarters and being considerate of others.  I never questioned him and followed his direction by emptying accordingly.  Today, I chuckle about it ‘a few times a day’.

Like many men of his ilk, he didn’t subscribe to ‘there are no stupid questions’.  He was ‘old school’, and would tell you if it was a stupid question.  He was blunt sometimes. Yet, there was a side of him that espoused his ‘old school’ philosophy as a life lesson, to pass on to me and others.

“Walk on the outside when escorting a woman”
(Lesson: be a gentleman)

“Watch me, some day you’ll have your own house and can do this yourself”
(Lesson: be self reliant)

“Go to school. You want to be a painter the rest of your life, like me?”
(Lesson: education is a stepping stone to success)

“Don’t smoke, drink, go in debt or lie”
(Lesson: be healthy, physically and financially, and be an honest broker)

“Don’t fish in another man’s waters”
(Lesson: be respectful of others)

“Life is hard, don’t add extra baggage”
(Lesson: make good decisions)

Having a limited formal education didn’t handicap my dad, or prevent him from improving himself, and he always strove to do that, whether at work or play. He gave his best daily and expected the same from others, especially his children.  He followed his own ‘rules’ and over the course of his life, became a better man to himself, his family and friends. This is his legacy, and it’s reflected in the words he spoke and how he spoke them, his ‘pearls of wisdom’.

Do you have one or more ‘pearls’ from your dad?  What was the message, or lesson, in his words?  I invite you to share them in the comments.

srbottch

Dedicated to dads everywhere and their ‘words of wisdom’, their pearls.

Today, I Smell Gingerbread…a Holiday Story

Bread

It’s not just the calendar that puts celebrators in the Christmas and Hannuka spirit. It’s a host of sights and sounds that makes these holidays special: the change to wintry weather; the hustle n’ bustle of gift shoppers; colorful decorations and lights illuminating neighborhoods, windows and shops; the gaiety of passersby offering holiday wishes; quiet moments spent in reflection and prayer. All help create a festive mood.

One of my favorites is the aroma of freshly baked desserts and treats filling our home and signaling the start of this special season. Yesterday, it was almond crescent cookies. The day before, I sniffed roasted walnuts and candied bark, white chocolate with craisins. Tomorrow will bring something new that tickles my senses and rewards my taste buds. But, today, I smell gingerbread.

What a pleasure to be awakened on a brisk winter morning with the smell of ‘just from the oven’ cranberry bread or molasses cookies wafting down the hall and finding me stubbornly stirring beneath the cover of a cozy quilt. My wife, an early riser, is eagerly preparing delicate desserts to be shared with friends and enjoyed with our meals. Yes, I know, I’m spoiled.

Walnuts

Later, the chilly air on a new December day welcomes those escaping kitchen aromas that intoxicate me with spices and sugars, as I finish some outside chores. My work can wait, I decide, and hurriedly make my way inside for some hot coffee and a sampling of today’s treats. Ahhh, I smell gingerbread.

These holidays have a ‘baking season’ like no other, where the kitchen is the arena and the clashing of the cookie sheets, muffin tins, bread pans and mixing bowls tells us that it’s ‘game on’, while the cook builds up to the highly anticipated call, ‘Bon Appetit’. It’s a race to blend, stir, beat and mix ahead of the beginning of the Hannukah and Christmas Day deadlines. The desserts and special dinners seemingly roll out of the kitchen and onto the dining table in a tsunami of meats and greens, biscuits and breads, truffles and spritz.Dishes

When the calendar turns to January, the cooking slows, the menus change, and the emphasis is on dietary needs to help our bodies recover and prepare for spring. Is that possible? Yet, through the dark, cold winter months, I still yearn for the smell of gingerbread.

Pumpkin Pie

Spring rains roll into summer heat, and a warm kitchen loses its appeal. Quite unnoticed, the oven begins a period of involuntary hibernation. Delicacies are not a priority and a cold beer on a hot day will suffice. But nature is a wonderful thing. In a matter of time, the baking season will return in all its glory, and, once more, I will savor the smell of gingerbread in our home…

srbottch (11/23/2015)

Dedicated to my wife, who keeps our shelves filled with wonderful desserts during the Christmas holiday, and to cooks in their kitchens, everywhere.

Today, I Touched My Father’s Hand

1951 Dad at Ptown

My father lived an active life of 76 years. There are days when I think of him deeply and feel as though I’ve ‘touched’ him.

His life can be seen in a collection of pictures in a box: a young, single man sporting a shotgun; a stern looking father standing behind his children; a rugged outdoorsman proudly displaying a day’s catch; an adored husband; an aging, pensive man, appearing to be planning his next project or adventure. I shuffle through these pictures and for a moment, ‘touch my father’s hand’.

I’m surrounded by reminders of my father, keeping alive my memory of him and the times we shared. At my workbench, I hold the tools he left behind and sense the touch of his strong, calloused hand, a hand toughened on the instruments of his trade and his handyman skills: a hammer and hand crafted wooden box, still full of his selection of nails; old hand saws in need of sharpening; chisels and broad knives; a duster that outlived its usefulness as a pure bristle paintbrush.

In a storage room, a wallpaper board he gave me warps with age. Always the teacher, I’m sure he was hoping that I was watching and learning some of his decorating skills.  I was. I move my hand slowly across its paste stained surface and ‘touch my father’s hand’.

Under my desk lies his rifle that we sighted at the range each year in preparation for hunting season. I never saw him shoot a deer. Unlucky, a poor shot, or just a man who enjoyed the woods without the gaming, Now, I feel the cold steel of the tarnished barrel, the etched wood of the worn stock, and the smooth, shiny finish of the trigger, and I ‘touch my father’s hand’.

A once classic set of golf clubs stands alone in the corner. We woke early on Saturdays to meet my brothers for a morning of serious, but fun, golf. Good shots were applauded, poor shots were cursed, and loose change went to the winners. Once again, the time together presented him with great teaching moments about golf, life and friendship. Today, I pull a club from the worn golf bag that has stiffened with age, grip it and give it a waggle. Almost seems like Saturday morning.

An array of fishing rods lay against the cellar wall. Old reels, pitted by ocean salt, collect dust and spider webs while looking down at me from an overhead shelf. Homemade lures hang by their treble hooks on a nail. I brush away the webs and give one of the reels a crank or two. For a fleeting moment, I see him casting in the foamy, white surf along a sandy Massachusetts beach or rocky Rhode Island shore, places where we fished, side by side. I feel the stiff wire leader run between my fingers, as I close my eyes to a carefree time, a ‘once upon a time’.

l have many wonderful memories of my father. I have things of his that depict him and his life. Yet, I don’t have him, anymore. It’s the natural progression of life, isn’t it?  But today, when I reached out and held those things that once were his, I ‘touched my father’s hand’…..and it was wonderful, again.

Mother & Dad

srbottch

Dedicated to my father,

November 13, 1905 – November 5, 1981

The Bar Chronicles: #1,  A Night At The Bar 

Guinness

A mild evening in late October found me in a bar with a friend. I don’t frequent bars and haven’t been to one in years. But this night seemed to be a good time to go. And we did, a spur of the moment decision following a public meeting on our town’s master plan for future development.  At first chance, we made a beeline to the local watering hole, a sports bar.

Inconveniently, the only tandem stools available were under two televisions blaring out hockey and football action. Throughout the bar, patrons sat with one hand wrapped around an ale and their heads tilted back and up to see the games. I was expecting to see a chiropractor’s contact information scribbled on the men’s room wall, ‘Sore necks? Call this number…!’

No TV for us. We came to relive a snippet of days gone by when ‘bar nights’ with the boys was a more common occurrence.  A cold one and some ‘BS’ was on our agenda.

“What’ll it be gentlemen?” That would be us, ‘gentlemen’, not ruffians, but a couple of senior citizens on a weeknight escape. The barmaid could see it immediately, this wasn’t our ‘first rodeo’.  “Two Guinness, 12 ounce”, I bellowed, like a bar night neophyte ordering his first drink after turning legal, promising my friend a dark beer with a frothy head, thick enough to leave a sudsy moustache on his lip.  “An import?”, he quipped.  The profundity was beginning already as we debated the virtues of imported Irish stout versus American light.

Here we were, two friends, far from ‘over the hill’ but getting there, done with our careers, wiser than a wise owl and older, neither trying to impress the other, content only to have a night-cap at a bar and talk about the four Ps of life: politics, portfolios, pills and the past.

We briefly gnashed politics around, then abruptly shifted to something slightly less daunting, the economy and our portfolios. The embellishment of our ups and downs surely eclipsed the highs and lows of the ‘big board’, itself. We toasted our own moderate successes and moved on to health issues, always a big topic among Seniors.

“Another round, boys?” What a segue. It’s been reported that a little alcohol each day can be a healthy regiment.  But another round? We’re only 6 ounces into our 12 and it’s been more than an hour. “Check, please.!”

We gulped the last of our beer without getting to the ‘past’, agreeing to do it next time, or the time after that, and headed for the exit. I slid a quarter into the gum ball machine by the door, cranked the handle and watched the purple sphere slowly spiral its way to the bottom. I looked down at it, and left.  Who the hell can bend over that far to retrieve a gum ball after filling up on beer, albeit one 12 ounce Guinness?

srbottch

Dedicated to my wise friend and namesake, a model Senior, Steve P.

To Dance…

To dance is to love… (srbottch)

Dancing Shoes

What is it about men and dancing ? While women flourish on the dance floor and enjoy the spotlight, many men seem reticent to join them.  I was one of them…

It began with the Swing, ‘it’ being pressure. “Change partners”, instructed the instructor. I felt it…palpitations…perspiration… pressure!  I was petrified.

I had agreed to dance lessons with my wife, a natural dancer. Me, I’m a natural wallflower, a slug on the hardwood. And while I was willing to learn, I wasn’t expecting to dance with other women, even if it made me a better dancer. Dancing, not better dancing, was my objective.

Understand, I had never danced with another woman since our marriage more than 25 years ago.  I rarely danced with my wife. This was virgin territory. I wasn’t resisting, but I wasn’t just jumping in feet first, either.

We conquered (my words) the swing and other dances; waltz, foxtrot, cha-cha, and the ‘dance of love’, the rumba.  As our confidence grew, so did our repertoire, we added some samba, a little mambo, and the always exciting and fast paced polka. We only sat out when they played a tango.

Now, we were hooked and looking pretty good on the floor, at least in my mind’s eye. I bought dance shoes and took compliments seriously, while my wife’s ‘eye rolls’ kept me grounded.

But, like anything, if you don’t use it, you lose it. Some fractures, a fall, and some inconvenient surgery interfered just enough to upset our skill sets. Did I forget to mention memory? We just plain forgot stuff, too. But we persevered.

Now we’ve discovered ’round dancing’.  Unlike square dancing, we dance to  traditional ballroom rhythms, moving in a circle, not a square, to a ‘caller’, and we don’t change partners. I’ll repeat, I only have to satisfy one woman, my wife. How hard is that?  Even the ‘caller’ tells me what steps to do. So simple! No sweat!  No pressure!

Of course, I do have to know the intricacies of the steps. After all, it’s dancing, and that can be problematic for me at times. Sometimes, I go left when she goes right, I step back when she goes forward, I turn when she doesn’t.

We’re having fun, laughing, oftentimes at ourselves, enjoying the social mixing, and the challenge of learning something new. We’re getting exercise, physical and mental, both important to us.

And just as the dance moves in a circle, a symbol of eternity, so do we, one couple, in love with the dance, and each other.

Go dancing, men.  Take the ‘lead’…

As entertainer Craig Ferguson quipped,

“If a man doesn’t know how to dance, he doesn’t know how to make love!”

srbottch

Oct 2015