Confessions of a Teenage Idiot

My boys standing around me again. A toast to the 1952 Pennsylvania state high school basketball champions! You were a legend in your time, boys. A legend. Never forget that, never.” – Coach in That Championship Season, 1972 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Jason Miller

I was an idiot in high school.

My whole world revolved around balls. The basket and base variety. And that rumbling set between my legs.

I entered Huntington High School in the fall of 1961 as a 14-year-old sophomore, a pre-pubescent moron whose only desire in life was to star on the Blue Devils basketball and baseball teams.

As the pre-pubescence wore offThen, puberty arrived and , apparently replaced by frightening volcanoes of acne, I expanded my desires goals to include winning the affections of a host of girls who recognized my existence as the equivalent of the amoebae they viewed under the microscope in Dr. Oakes’ biology class.

The purity of my love of the two sports devolved into a need to excel in order to escape the amoeba phase and become a “jock” worthy of the attention of the heretofore unapproachable temptresses who haunted haunted the halls and classrooms —and my dreams– of HHS.

My athletic dreams soon faded faded – like a corsage on the morning after the prom –, although I achieved just enough success to crawl from under the microscope.

I started in basketball for two years, but wasn’t good enough to lead the team to more than five wins a year. Girls would talk to me, however, because I was on the team.

I played on one successful team – the varsity baseball team in my sophomore year that went to the county finals – but we didn’t do anything in the next two years. By my senior year, I had lost my starting third-base job and was riding the pine in the final athletic eventseason of my high school career. But I had a girlfriend that spring, so that more than made up for the decline in my baseball career.baseball took a back seat to the backseat of our 1959 Plymouth station wagon.

And academics? As the Italian girls at Huntington liked to say, “Fuggetaboutit.” I wasn’t really dumb, just stupid and lazy. Wasted I wasted a lot of intellectual opportunities.

But the wondrous thing about the wonder years of high school is that they are eternal. You never get over who you were then. You grow, perhaps. Evolve, maybe. Mature, probably not. But often, in your mind’s eye, you’re forever young. Seventeen, going on senility.

And senility was the image that jumped into my consciousness on the flight from Denver to LaGuardia late last September as I headed back to my hometown for the 50th reunion of the Huntington High School Class of ‘64. I flashed back to 1968 and recalled sitting in Finnegan’s, the oldest bar in Huntington (continuous service since 1912), in my last summer home after college graduation. I was 21. A small group shuffled into the tiny tavern that somehow seemed to hold half the town. Someone announced, “Make way for the Class of 1918!”

Those people looked old – ancient, really – to me. I remember feeling pity for them. I had my whole life before me; they – hunched over from the weight of all those years, faces etched with the effort of surviving – were at the end of the line, lucky, it seemed to me, to survive the night.

Now, I would be the Class of 1918.

But I didn’t feel ancient and I was excited to be discovering what had become of old teammates and girlfriends. Of course, because high school is eternal, I would still be that same teenage idiot, the girl-crazy, half-baked jock.

The first activity of the reunion was golf or tennis at the Huntington Country Club, the blue-blood enclave that sat just above the neighborhood in which I grew up. I sledded on the golf course in the winter and in the summers, I’d sneak through the woods at the edge of the course and steal golf balls. that I threw against a cement retaining wall in my driveway until the covers wore out and I’d unravel the rubber bands inside the balls. BREAK UP SENTENCE…GETS WORDY.

My brother Bill caddied at the course but I had never stepped inside the club. I had to travel 1,800 miles to be welcome at a place that was a mile from my house.

I had highly anticipated this event because I’d learned that Lynn Klaffky would be playing tennis. I’d start where I left off—girls and sports. Lynn was the object of my junior high adoration in what was pretty much a one-way romance. She was definitely beautiful, lithe and blond with a smile that a mouth full of braces couldn’t dim. But what I loved most about her was that she was a real athlete who could almost beat me in ping-pong and H-O-R-S-E and could kill me in tennis.

A late-September, Long Island, Indian-summer afternoon is breathtaking, but nothing compared to Lynn Klaffky hitting ripping forehands on an impeccable sun-splashed country club court. If she was 68, I was Arthur Ashe. We played three sets against Tony Mele, a classmate who had ended up managing manages an Indian casino in Wyoming, and the girlfriend of another classmate who had immigrated from South America and was now a doctor in Rhode Island.

God, it was fun, and Lynn was as bubbly and competitive as I remembered. Her first and only husband (you knew back then that she’d marry well and long) watched from the sidelines.We all talked at changeovers and you could tell that Lynn’s husband was a great guy who was still nuts about her. That made me happy.

After the match, we four tennis players sat on the club’s veranda, had drinks and watched the golfers come in an hour-and-a-half after we had finished. One of the golfers who eventually joined us was Rick Klaffky, Lynn’s cousin.

Rick Klaffky was one of my closest friends in junior high. He was painfully shy and a good athlete and one of the smartest kids at Toaz Junior High. He lived in Bay Hills, a section of Huntington on the Long Island Sound. Its residents weren’t the Gatsby’s, but they were well heeled and spent the summers lounging on the beach at the Bay Club.

Rick and I played tennis on the Bay Hills Club courtsthere in our bathing suits, knocking the ball around in the brutal summer heat, until we couldn’t stand it any more. , tThen we’d throw down our rackets and sprinting to the beach and dive diving into the water. I was always hoping Lynn would be on the beach., always looking for Lynn on the beach.

I tried to remember what happened to our my friendship with Rick. By high school, we had quit playing tennis together and our contacts were limited to perfunctory hellos in the hall. I never talked to him after graduation. He was such a great guy; how do we let those friendships dissolve?

On the veranda, Rick and I talked, but it didn’t flow. I remembered mentioned how I never once beat him at tennis and he countered that he never beat me at one-on-one basketball in my driveway. He became a state singles champion and I used to beat him in my driveway. CLARIFY BASKETBALL (ONE ON ONE AT WHAT?)

That night, Laurel (who had made the trip but whom I asked to sit out the formal parts of the reunion) and I had plans to meet my best friend growing up, Darrin KIND OF READS ODD…OBVIOUSLY I KNOW, BUT MOST WILL SAY “WHO’S LAUREL AND WHY ARE YOU ASKING HER TO ‘SIT OUT’ …NOT SURE IF IT’S RELEVANT OR VITAL Berger, who lived up the street from me and shared my mania for games, at Finnegan’s. Darrin was two grades behind me in school, so we never played varsity ball together. His dad, Art, loved baseball and took us to Yankee Stadium, Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds, and he hit us flies and shot baskets with us. I had a great dad, but Mr. Berger was my athletic dad and always made me feel like a part of his family.

Art bought a catcher’s mitt and taught Darrin to pitch in their backyard. As Darrin got older, Art got some pretty good bruises from Darrin’s errant breaking balls. Darrin and I have stayed in touch over the years, but it’s always a reunion when we get together. And since we played games – whiffleball and canball (basement basketball with a coffee can and a tennis ball) were our favorites – from daybreak to bedtime growing up, we spent a lot of time remembering those games. Darrin went on to pitch at Arizona and I used to beat him in one-on-one in my driveway. I LIKE THIS LINE…GOOD ONE.

We joineI joined d Darrin and his ebullient wife of two years, Shell, and Darrin’s sister, Rae, at Finnegan’s. Rae was two years ahead of me at Huntington and had always treated me like a brother. When she came back on vacations from college, she sometimes brought a friend or roommate. Once in a while, she’d fix HOOK? SET? me up with an “older” woman. You don’t forget those things.

***

Heading into Finnegan’s from the back alley, we ran into an outdoor table full of blasts from the past. There was Ricky Fidgeon, with whom I played on a Little League team coached by his father, Bud, who had played basketball for Joe Lapchick (one of the original Celtics) at St. John’s and refereed basketball games at Madison Square Garden. Rick and I had spent a lot of time shooting baskets on his backyard dirt court. I kidded Rick that guys were his friend because Bud was a salesman for Rawlings and always had major league uniforms and all kinds of sporting goods in their basement. We couldn’t wait to see what was down there. He didn’t play high school basketball or baseball, but he went on to play college hockey, and I couldn’t beat him one-on-one in his backyard.

And there was Mary Tucker, my first love (again, unreciprocated) in third grade. Like Lynn Klaffky, Mary had an impressive set of braces through much of high school. When they came off, a bunch of us fell in love with her all over again. Mary’s brother, Tommy, a year ahead of me, was there, too, because he had married Mary’s best friend, Heather Fleming, who was also in our class. Tommy was an amazing 5-foot-7, 100-pound shortstop who got to all the ground balls that exceeded my limited range at third. Ricky Fidgeon and I also spent a lot of time shooting baskets in Tommy’s driveway. Growing up, it seemed like every house had a basket in the driveway and a ping-pong table in the basement. GOOD THOUGHT…FEELS VERY RANDOMLY PLACED THOUGH

Tommy, like his sister, was super smart and made a basketful of money as the chief of sales for Lehman Brothers. Because he was smart, he He got out before Wall Street consumed him, and in 1998, he plowed that basketful into the Fiver’s Children Foundation, which features a summer camp in Pooleville, N.Y. that has helped thousands of underprivileged kids turn their lives around.

It seemed like, growing up, every house had a basket in the driveway and a ping-pong table in the basement. GOOD THOUGHT…FEELS VERY RANDOMLY PLACED THOUGH
And there was Maris Johnson, who told me that I had set her up with a date that led to having her first boyfriend, an undertaker from Northport named Peter Nolan. I also later learned from Maris that she was best friends with my spring of senior year girlfriend, Enid Young, who lives out West and never comes to reunions. BECA– USE YOU SCARRED HER FOR LIFE? Not because of me, I hope.

Tommy Forte was behind the tending bar. That handsome Italian with gorgeous, black, curly locks and a welcoming face FRAGMENT. Tommy was a year behind me and we played baseball and basketball for the Norton A.C. Cats and then for the HHS Blue Devils. He remembers every alumnus and, particularly, every athlete. He takes ustook Darrin and I down the hall to look for our images in his gallery of photos of high school and Norton A.C. Tomcat and Bobcat teams. I found myself in a couple of photos. I was pleased in the mysterious way we all love to see ourselves in the past, infinitely younger, full of hope and guileless joy. He told us who else had been in and had news of dozens of classmates.
I think Tommy’s really mellowed since high school. I remember him as somewhat of a moody kid. He was the youngest of four brothers, all of whom had been good Huntington athletes, the best of which was Charlie who was the greatest athlete in Blue Devil history. Maybe Tommy felt some pressure. He was a helluva football, basketball and baseball player in his own right—fabulous hand-eye and razor sharp reflexes—but short and still carrying some baby fat in high school.

I said he was moody, but everybody liked him. He was funny as hell in that crazy high school sort of way. But nowTommy was an intense athlete as a kid, but now – and hell, what do I know since I see him maybe twice every five years – he seems so relaxed, graceful even. He made the place. And it sounds like a “Cheers” cliché, but walking into a bar at age 67 when you haven’t lived in the town for 46 years and having someone remember you and every team you played on is a remarkable event in an old man’s life. GREAT THOUGHT

In a town founded in 1653, it is surprising how little remains of the past, as Huntington has taken on an almost Hamptons’ feel of summer tourist chic and conspicuous consumption. Tommy Forte, who spoke of maybe retiring one day, and Finnegan’s remain aconstants CONSTANTS?? for those of us who have wandered far away from home.

Friday night buzzed on, as we hung out in Finnegan’s, soaking in the memories, running into members of the “new” Class of 1918 who now stood erect and didn’t seem to elicit anyone’s pity.

Our party had grown to eight and we marched around town until we found a restaurant that could handle the group. Laurel (NOTE PREVIOUS REFERENCE…IF YOU CHANGE THAT, THEN LAUREL NEEDS AN INTRODUCTION AND/OR TO BE NIXED. AGAIN, SHE’S SOMEWHAT IRRELEVANT TO THE STORY, SO IF YOU’RE CUTTING WORDS, I’D JUST NIX) and I sat with Rae, who remembered what a goofy kid I was. By the time we’d consumed platters of local seafood and flagons of Long Island wine, it had become too late to go to the “official” reunion bar where most of the alumni were to gather. We’d been to Finnegan’s and that was enough. We’d catch them at the big banquet on Saturday night.

***
(CONSIDER A “FORMAL” LINE/DESIGN BREAK HERE…SEEMS LIKE A TRANSITION INTO THE NEXT DAY

I was excited that Bruce Cushing, my co-captain in that dismal senior year of hoops and the one classmate I’d maintained contact with over the years, was coming in from Virginia and would pick me up at my hotel for the Saturday night dinner.

“Cush” had followed his dad into Eastern Airlines, then flew captain for United until his retirement in 2007. He was an enthusiastic but lead-footed 6-foot-1 rebounder, but maybe the best defensive catcher I ever saw. His problem was that the coach’s son was also a catcher, and you know how that goes.

Cush started for the freshman soccer, basketball and baseball teams at Colgate, but blew out his knee in the second game of the baseball season. The coach had him playing the outfield because the other catcher was on scholarship. His knee realized the injustice of it all and decided to end the possibility of repeating the farce of his high school catching career.

But no one mourned for him when his knee made him 4F during a time when college boys by the thousands were getting shipped off to fight in the fetid jungles of Vietnam.

The scene at the Huntington Country Club was surreal, a little prom-like minus the corsages and hormones. Cush had grown up in a house even closer to the club than mine, but this was also his first time inside. We were in a sizeable ballroom with an impressive buffet at one end and a DJ at the other. Tables for eight were set up to surround a dance floor for the swinging 60’s set. The bar, in a room off the ballroom, DOESN’T MAKE SENSE??, was very New York, nicking the Class of ‘64 for $8 beers and $10 wines. But you didn’t have to hang out long to have a well-oiled classmate, who had forgotten – or forgiven – your teenage sins, offer to buy you a drink. I tried to buy my share, but it wasn’t easy.

Cush, who kept referring to me as “his date,” and I hung out at the bar too long and ended up at a raised table for three at the periphery of the ballroom. We tried to get seats at one of the big tables, but ended up feeling like Forrest Gump hunting for a seat on the school bus.

But who cared? People kept coming up to the table, reliving, rehashing, laughing. Everyone had nametags with their yearbook picture on them and that helped ease some of the inevitable embarrassment for not recognizing someone.

Cush labeled the 50th reunion “the great leveler,” as everyone had either made it or not and was no longer trying to impress everyone with their career brilliance. He said everyone looked better than at the 30th or 40th. It is probably fair to assume that those who hadn’t aged well, those who hadn’t prospered and those who had suffered most 50 years ago from the cruel caste system that rules every high school never answered the emails and letters from the reunion committee.

Girls and athletics were still the primary theme for me. It seemed crazy at my age, but remember that we were all frozen in time. WERE OR ARE?

The cheerleaders were there: Bonnie Yujuico, still dark and alluring, but now approachable, along with her husband, John Williamson, a 6-foot-5 rival from South Huntington High School who was such a good guy you couldn’t hate him; Joanne Neumann, another junior high crush of mine, looked like she could still do the splits under a pleated skirt SOUNDS SOMEWHAT PERVERTED…COULD STILL DO “THE” SPLIT? NOT SURE…SOUNDS CREEPY THOUGH; Judy Voss, still with a determined smile that suffered with us through all those basketball losses; and Carla Russo, who lived three houses down the street from me, trim and fit.

The lacrosse players, the most successful athletes during our stay at Huntington, tended to hang out together. Hell, they had victories and championships to rehash. There was Gene O’Neill, a doctor in Denver whom I never see there, and Brian Driscoll, who along with Gene, starred in lacrosse at Ohio State and became a soap opera star. And Dennis Tully and Ricky Whiteman, who talked to everyone. Jay Cavanagh, who became a teacher on Long Island and one of the reunion’s organizers, once had a great basket at his house, was another junior high friend that I lost contact with in high school. The lacrosse players were still impressive and still a notch in status above the basketball and baseball players.

The football players were not so obvious. Russ Ciafone was a rock-hard blocker and linebacker who went on to Princeton and Columbia and a 42-year practice in cardiology. He also married my next-door neighbor, Judy Vetog, two years behind us at HHS. Judy and I had dated once or twice, but she didn’t mention that; instead, she reminded me that I kept the window open in our shower that faced her house. She could still hear me singing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”

There was an “In Memoriam” table at the reunion with pictures of classmates who had died. Several of our classmates were sent to Viet Nam, never to come home alive. Lou Pagano, our class Vietnam historian, noted that 40 men and one woman from our class served in the military. Of those, 30 to 35 served in ‘Nam and, remarkably, none died there.

Our two most famous alumni – Joseph J. Hazelwood and Robert “Hoot” Gibson – weren’t there, as has been their practice for past reunions. We knew Jeff Hazelwood as a quiet, likeable guy, a good gymnast and student. He gained international notoriety as the captain of the Exxon Valdez that struck the Bligh Reef and spilled 11 million gallons of oil into the Prince William Sound on March 24, 1979. I would liked to have seen him there, because he was one of us and deserved that opportunity to go back to being who he was in high school.

Most of us didn’t know “Hoot” very well. He came to Huntington in his junior or senior year and moved to California after high school. He would have been fascinating to talk to, though. He flew five NASA missions and spent more than 36 days in space. Many of our class spent much more time than that in space, but that was true of much of our generation.

The no-show that I missed most, however, was Carlo Colombo, with whom I had shared a bedroom during our senior year. Carlo was an American Field Service exchange student from Milan who gained enormous popularity for his wit and charm and his amazing progress in learning English on the fly. He would have been an excellent addition to the soccer team, but they wouldn’t grant him eligibility. They let him fence and he was damn good at that. He took Darrin’s sister, Rae, to the prom.

I visited Carlo and his family several times in the years immediately after high school. He visited me once in Denver. Then, we let things lapse for many years until I tracked him down five years ago and. Laurel, my brother and his wife Peggy and my sister Ann (PREVOUS NOTES) and I visited him in Rome and Milan in September of 2013. Maggie Glade had already begun sending reunion invitations and Carlo was excited about coming back. This past June, however, he had a serious stroke and had lost speech and movement on one side of his body. He had to miss the reunion and is now battling to regain the faculties decimated by the stroke.

Steve Mattheson and Paul “Rosie” Rosenack were two old friends I was particularly excited to see. Steve had a fabulous canball (coffee can basketball YOU MENTION CANBALL EARLIER, MIGHT BE GOOD TO OFFER THE DESCRIPTION OF IT THERE INSTEAD OF HERE)court in his high-ceilinged garage and we played a lot in the early part of high school, but we somehow quit playing together. He was another brain and received an appointment to Annapolis. Rosie ie (PAUL?) went to Otterbein in Ohio and was my brother’s little fraternity brother there. We remembered driving from Huntington to Ohio in his 1963 Austin Healy 3000. Paul had some wild parties in his basement during our college years and he said that his dad, a fireman, would have killed him if he knew what went on.

And there was Richard Proper, the smartest kid I knew, who took me and Jill Miller out on double dates because I didn’t have a driver’s license until halfway through my senior year. Richard’s ex-wife Kathy Aboff was at the reunion while he was now dating Terri Dancik, who lived a street above me and rode the same school bus with me for 12 years. THESE GET A LITTLE TEDIOUS…I THINK THEY’RE INTERESTING IF YOU KNOW THEM, BUT IF NOT, THEY EITHER NEED A BIT MORE DESCRIPTION/IMPORTANCE IN YOUR PIECE, OR COULD ALSO GET NIXED.

Jill was my first real girlfriend, cute and smart and classy. Her parents were great to me and had me over for dinner and let us close the French doors and make out. I was fickle and broke up one too many times before Jill had had enough. Not that we were talking about it, but she always told me that her parents really liked me, but that she was expected to marry a Jewish guy. She met that guy at the University of Michigan and they had kids and he became a very successful architect. He was there and you could tell they were happy. Jill and I got to talk a bit and remembered a lot of good times.
SEE, NOW SHE SEEMS MORE INTERESTING/RELEVANT

There weren’t many basketball or baseball players. Besides me and Cush and I, Herb Grote was the only guy at the reunion who had played both sports at HHS. Herb was a good football player, too, but a benchwarmer in basketball. As a junior, he competed with Cushing for the catching job, but the coach, Ray Borowitz aka “The Pole,” moved Herb to first base/pitcher in his senior year, where he was named best player in the county.

Jeff Dunnigan, a good left-handed hitter who still looked like he could rip it, and Richie Sangiovanni, who never got along with The Pole but who had the best car in school, a sunshine yellow 1962 Malibu Super Sport, were also there.

So the basketball/baseball group, unlike the lacrosse players, had little to relive. Cush and I continued a tradition of laughing at our seeming obsession with the two sports, mismatched with our general ineptitude. We didn’t think losing had scarred us. We moved on, lived productive post-high school lives. We didn’t spend any time reliving the glory days; there wasn’t much glory to relive.

***

In Miller’s That Championship Season, the fondly remembered “Coach” reveals himself as the fraud and bigot he has always been. The returning players, celebrating the 20th reunion of that state championship, are not exemplars of the “sport builds character” model, but have become drunks, cheats and philanderers. The highest point of their lives had been that championship; everything had been downhill from there.

The 50th reunion of the Huntington High School Class of 1964 was a glorious reminder of three of the most memorable years of my life. I was an idiot. I loved and lost. I played games and lost. And somehow, while retaining my high school identity for five decades, I won have managed to win a few more battles than I’ve lost.

I never haved to remind myself that I was a legend in my time, or any time. My 50th reunion reminded me of who I was and who I am.

SHARE