THE BOYS WERE BACK IN TOWN
JUST LIKE BACK IN ’72
THE 2012 BUCKET LIST REUNION
It had been a long two days, although not quite as long as the gap in time between getting together. Aside from seeing Jim($6) a couple times in the last 10 years and having breakfast with Tracy and Mark on the way home from my golf trip last year, I have not seen my boyhood/young adult/coming of age buddies in about 35 years. The catalyst for this ‘bucket list’ reunion was finding each other via the internet which seems a bit ironic given the fact that our philosophical approach to life when young was modeled after the wisdom of the intellectual Stooge, Larry Fine, who so brilliantly captured the essence of the quintessential male in this statement, “We can’t help it, we’re morons.” Not that any of us is actually a moron, not even Chuck, but for this time together we were freer to be who we were. A sort of three day pass away from the realities of life.
As we gathered to say farewell after a day of basketball in Rick’s driveway, a few games of pool in a local bar and the time honored tradition of playing poker, Mark, who seems to only speak when profoundness is needed, stated, ‘One thing I noticed about this weekend, none of us has changed a bit.’ That bit of insight dominated my thoughts the next day as I drove the 850 miles back to Salem, MA. I’ve come to the conclusion that he was right, at least in the context of us being together. In the intervening years since our group split to live like adults, we have forged careers, reared children and in most respects lived normal, productive American lives. However, during our brief two day incursion into the past, we were able to recapture the silliness of youth, albeit in a much slower mode especially on the basketball court, in such a fashion that it seemed as if there had been no 35 year gap in our group dynamic. Physically, we all have changed, some with new body parts, some with missing, maimed or just plain achy body parts but the essence of us all is still there awaiting the opportunity to come to the fore. I was pleased with results.
THE REUNION CAST:
Tracy Justice – erstwhile-self proclaimed leader of this motley crew…can still shoot the daylights out of a basketball even with the mobility of drunken hippo…philosophical successor to Luster Justice of Greasy Creek, KY…You Are My Sunshine
Charles LeFurge – rambunctious, contentious right wing enthusiast can still pour cheap beer down in prodigious amounts…aka LaFong as in “I don’t know Charles LaFong and if I did I wouldn’t admit it!”…part of a nightclub standup comedy act featuring Bubbles the Clown.
Jim Irvine – $6 Man is now 66 but still going strong…still the King of cheap under the basket scoring has augmented his boxing out technique with pointier elbows.
Mark Winningham – in his youth a softball pitcher who couldn’t hit…has translated those skills into mind boggling basketball ability…profound and erudite, he hit the nail on the head at the end of the reunion, “One thing I noticed about this weekend, none of us has changed a bit.”
Rick Prince – still has the quickest hands around whether he is intercepting or deflecting a pass or just giving you a subtle but effective shove in the back as he goes by…has not lost his impish mischievousness.
Jim Shields – has learned to say the word “none” so has avoided any more stomach pumpings…on the court photographer for the first day – great job, by the way.
Dave and Tom Thielen – cousins to Chuck…welcome additions to the festivities as they helped keep Chuck in line the first day.
Paul Bennett – showed flashes of brilliance with his new moves on the basketball court and is still limping because of them…gold glove infielder in his youth, still has those reflexes as he gathered in at least half the bounce passes that came his way.
The start of my participation in this monumental event began at 3:30 a.m. in Manistee, Mi. as I headed east down M-55 after a four day golf hiatus in the upper Lower Peninsula, toward a breakfast rendezvous with the guys at a Clinton Township eatery. I admit to a bit of trepidation at the thought of us getting together after all these years. After all, what if it turned out that we couldn’t stand each other anymore? I arrived at what I thought was half an hour before the planned arrival but after calling Tracy realized that I was an hour and a half early. Fortunately, I had things to do and most of the others arrived shortly thereafter, well, except for Mark. In what became a breakfast theme, we would propose a time to meet and then without malice or forethought would start earlier. A vexing problem for Mark who would get there at the original time slot and find us eating, or worse. The second time we had already finished, not well thought out on our part and rude to boot but the even tempered, resilient Mark eventually forgave us and proceeded to take most of our money at poker later…revenge is sweetest with a full house against a measly three of a kind.
The Basketball – Day One
When we were young and limber, the Eastside Kids practically lived on one form of athletic field/court or another. You must remember that there were no attractions to keep us inside, unlike the couch potato activities that exist today. Whether it was Tuesday night roller hockey at Knox Church or a touch football game in the street, we honed our skills and hopefully learned our limitations. As time went on we entered the world of organized sports, mostly softball(fast and slow pitch) at Knox. I believe it was in 1966 that the Knox Boy’s Team won our league championship and was invited to a city wide tournament to be played under the lights. This was the year of Mark’s incredible duel achievement as he pitched that team to the championship while at the same time(and he admits this freely), going zero for the season as a batter. Like I said, we not only got better but learned our limitations.
Because of this affinity for sports, this ‘bucket list’ weekend needed to have some sort of sporting activity. Personally, I had not touched or shot a basketball in at least ten years and most of the others were in the same condition when we hit the outside courts at Masonic and Harper in St. Clair Shores on Friday. Before departing for this trip I received a crucial bit of advice from my MA friend Rick, who had recently shot some hoops after a long layoff. He said, and I quote, “The baskets are higher now”. Undaunted and fueled by the email trash talk of the last few months(I in particular had been boasting of the new moves I had developed in the ensuing years, to which Tracy quipped, “You didn’t have any moves in the old days!!”), we hit the court with a verve and desire only a bunch of sexagenarians can muster. Now it is important to realize that we were not as young and limber as before and therefore we issued the following edict:
- no diving for loose balls
- no diving for balls going out of bounds
- excessive running is discouraged
- jump at your own risk
- defense is optional
Another important pre-game item I should mention. There were those among us who brought a ready supply of Advil or other pain killers. Mark took it to the next level as he brought aspirin, a vial of nitroglycerin and his jumper cables….”CLEAR!!”
The combatants in this attempt to recapture old glory were, Tracy, Jim($6), Chuck, Mark, Tom, Dave and me. Jim Shields(because of recent shoulder surgery) did not play but was our roving photographer, an important job as now we can prove that we played and mostly survived. To warm up and to test muscles that haven’t been abused in this manner in decades, we started out with a game of 21; a sort of free for all/everyone against the shooter game. I figured if I survived that then all would be okay when the real games began. What I learned from this exercise was that I could sustain enough momentum for maybe two plays in a row at which point my strategy was to play defense by shouting ‘boo’ to whomever I was covering in hopes that would be sufficient. My offensive strategy during these periods of recovery was to miss any pass that came my way so that the ball would go out of bounds enabling me to gather enough strength for the next two plays.
We had a time honored tradition of choosing teams by shooting free throws…first three to make were teammates so that’s what we did. Of course, we would still be there if we had taken the shots from the actual free throw line, so we moved our shot line up about three feet which sped up the process….just another fine example of knowing our limitations. Teams chosen it was now time to see if any of us could stay the course without needing emergency medical intervention. The pace was more brisk than I had thought it would be given the sedentary nature of our lives in recent years. At first we were mostly content with letting whoever had the ball shoot uncontested but as we went along things started to heat up and get competitive. All of a sudden shots were being blocked, picks were being set, rebounding became a dogfight, vertical leaps were attempted and fouls were being committed.
We ended up playing at least three games. The scoring rules were simple:
- 1 point for a basket
- first team to 11 wins but you had to win by 2.
- check the ball beyond the free throw line on each change of possession
- and what became apparent early on – don’t let Tracy shoot uncontested(not that it mattered anyway as he sank everything he threw up there.)…he always was our Jerry West/Oscar Robertson.
There were seven playing participants so that meant we had a ready substitute, should the need arise, for any who were winded beyond immediate recovery or for anyone foolish enough to try to defy gravity by jumping and pulling a calf muscle, though after looking at the 233 pictures taken by Jim S. all of us were that foolish upon occasion(I am writing this 10 days later and my calf is still sore).
The most memorable game that day went to overtime because of that miserable rule about winning by two. I believe my team (Dave,Mark and me) came back from a considerable deficit to tie the game at 10 and then went on to actually win. We had an impeccable strategy that involved Dave and I wearing ourselves out as Dave harkened back to the old days and was leaping and shooting like a man possessed and I finally broke out my “new moves” and dazzled my unbelieving foes by driving to the hoop and unleashing my deadly scoop shot. Mark, meanwhile, was sort of on the fringe of the activity refusing to tussle under the basket or to even attempt getting any air under his feet, came alive at a crucial juncture when Dave ran out of energy and my scoops began to be returned to me by a no longer fooled defense. Mark was never very good at basketball and in the old days wasn’t really involved with the innumerable games that we played over the years but on this day he was Mr. Clutch as he hit three or four baskets at the end to seal our hard fought victory.
A brief interlude into the mind of Tracy Justice
Tracy, looking over the tenacious defense as he prepared to throw the ball in, suddenly noticed
a throng of very beautiful women getting out of on oversized van parked next to the basketball court. It seems that there was a special photo shoot going on involving Kate Upton, Bar Refaeli and a bevy of Hooter’s Girls dressed up in provocative cheerleader’s outfits. When they noticed us, they set up and began a rousing cheer promising intimate and carnal knowledge for the winning team. I was guarding Tracy at this point and was concerned for him as he had this goofy look in his eyes, a big grin and just a dollop of drool running down his chin. Afraid he may be having a stroke or something I said, “Tracy? Are you all right?” At which point he shook his head vigorously, looked over at the sidelines and groaned, “Damn, they’re gone.” “Who?”, I asked. “Oh never mind”, responded Tracy, “I must have seen a mirage…but what a mirage!”
Having left it all on the basketball court it was time to recoup. So we said farewell to Tom and Dave as they needed to head back to Lansing to prepare for a golf tournament on the morrow(this, in my opinion, is the only excuse for bugging out that was acceptable) while we repaired to our home for the next two days, the Microtel in Roseville. Lounging in the room that Chuck and I shared we talked and laughed and then laughed some more resembling the protagonists in Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Glory Days’ with our “boring stories of glory days.” During this respite a recurrent theme for the rest of the weekend arose when Tracy asked Chuck if he ever blew bubbles when he was a kid. The punchline for this seemingly innocent query is rather crude to say the least so I will not divulge it here in writing. Suffice to say that the correct answer is NOT yes. Despite the crude and shall I say lascivious nature of this joke, it took on a life of it’s own as we adapted it to suit our silly purposes, indeed as I write this, the topic is still being bandied about on Facebook and in emails. It will undoubtedly follow us to our graves and may turn up in various eulogies. – Thanks Tracy.
Dinner that night was eaten at one the more elegant establishments in the area. In fact, I have often wondered why this place has yet to be feted on such TV shows like Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations or Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods. I am, of course, referring to Hooters. This world class dining emporium features mostly mediocre food served up by mostly unclad beautiful women which by the way makes up for the quality of the food. In most restaurants you are served by the same person throughout your meal but here at Hooters we were subjected to the cleavages of at least five lovely ladies. That burger a little overcooked? No matter, the results of that girl’s push-up is a wonder to behold. So we gorged ourselves on wings, burgers and the like while quenching our thirsts with a couple pitchers of an American Industrial beer-like substance(more on the subject of beer later) while enjoying the finer points of the ambiance exuded by tight shorts and the aforementioned cleavage
Not all of our activities back in the day were relegated to the outdoors or on an athletic field. From time to time we engaged in all night poker games so it was appropriate and necessary for us to do the same during this halcyon weekend. The proprietor of The Microtel graciously allowed us the use of the breakfast room for the first night’s game. The only stipulations were that we couldn’t get too rowdy, always a possibility whenever you mix quantities of beer with Chuck in the group and that the game break up at a reasonable hour. The stakes were small so none of us was in danger of losing a whole lot but that did not deter Chuck from his main goal for the weekend which was to beat Tracy in poker. This was important to Chuck because he never won when we were in our twenties, in fact, we dubbed him “Beautiful Loser” from the Bob Seger tune of the same name. The games we played were dependent on the dealer and in the main were the normal ones like, 5-card stud or draw, 7-card follow the Queen and so on. Except when it was Jim($6)’s turn to deal. He has gathered a plethora of weird permutations of the game over the years each one with more rules and regulations than the U.S. Tax Code. Not that they weren’t fun but it took time to explain them to our slightly inebriated group.
The second night’s card games were played at the house of Rick Prince. He was unable to attend Friday’s activities and volunteered his place as the focal point for Saturday’s fun and frolic. The downside to having Rick join in was that Jim($6) had to explain the Tax Code rules all over again. Fortunately there was, as usual, a quantity of beer-like substance on hand to keep us focused. In the end it was Mark who was the big winner to the approximate sum of $20, however, and more important to Chuck was the fact that he won more money than Tracy did over the course of the two nights. This rendered him happier than a Republican Senator on an all expense paid lobbyist junket to Macau. No matter that the total he won was $1.15 as opposed to Tracy’s breaking even.
Towards the end of our game, Rick’s family arrived home to find that they had been invaded by a bunch of geezers intent on pulling every facial and abdominal muscle they had by way of continued, raucous laughter. The mirth and merriment in our last few hours together as a group was not only an acknowledgment of the strong bond between us but also was just plain fun.
“Mabel, another Black Label, Carling’s Black Label Beer.” For those of you who can remember that far back, this was a popular beer of choice for us back in the 70’s. Nowadays that worthy brew is only available, according to a Google search, in Canada and South Africa so in lieu of an old favorite, the group settled on some of the various American Industrial lite concoctions. These were ever present at the basketball games, the poker matches and at the pool hall we invaded on Saturday afternoon. While this arrangement was fine with the majority of the group, Mark and I have developed a more, shall we say, snobbish palette in regards to the beer we drink. Finally, at the pool hall we rebelled against the imbibing of American Industrial beer-like liquids and purchased a pitcher of Killian’s Red to satisfy our growing need for a beer with taste and substance.
The Basketball – Day 2
When I awoke on Saturday morning, the pain and stiffness of my legs made the thought of playing more basketball seem highly unlikely. However, by the time we finished breakfast(once again I apologize Mark) the Advil had kicked in sufficiently to fool the brain into thinking it was a capital idea. Rick has a nice basket/backboard combo situated at the top of his driveway so that is where we once more entered the fray. It seemed like a good place to play as the size of his ‘court’ was a little smaller than the regulation one we were on the previous day meaning less running or what passed for running. So much for appearances as the weather rendered that a moot point as the temperature and humidity rose to higher degrees than the day before meaning our stamina was taxed just as much if not more. Friday we lasted three hours, Saturday not so much, though we did manage an hour and a half before we succumbed to the heat and retired to the shade while Rick supplied us with cold/wet towels to alleviate the ravages of the sun’s punishment. Since Rick was unable to play on Friday, I was curious to see how he had fared the past three decades. He was a pest on defense and hit shots from everywhere whether there was anyone covering him or not. Some things never change, I guess.
The Pool Hall
Another of our favorite activities when we were young was shooting pool. Why I enjoyed this exercise in futility remains a mystery. I attribute my lack of skill in this sport to my ingrained lack of success in mathematics, particularly geometry but I played anyway despite the nuisance of this handicap. We played stripes and solids in two man teams with the winning team retaining the table. Amazed at how well the others were playing I decided that I needed to make some sort of statement anent my lack of proficiency with a pool cue. My time came when I was left with absolutely nothing to shoot at….all avenues to the holes were blocked ….all of my team’s balls were in such positions that I could not possibly sink anything. Hah!!! I showed them all by taking an impossibly angled shot that sank three balls….unfortunately two of the balls were our opponents and the third was the cue ball, but oh what a magnificent shot it was anyway. If memory serves, the team of Tracy and Rick(oh yeah, the choosing of teams was not a democratic process but rather the autocratic decree from our leader, Turtle the First), dominated the proceedings followed by Jim($6) and Chuck. Mark and I never won a match partly because we sucked but also partly because we finally had some decent beer to drink and felt it necessary to guard our pitcher of Killians against the depredations of the unwashed barbarians drinking swill.
They say in song and story that ‘all good things must come to an end’ and while that was true for this epic Bucket List Reunion it is not really the end of the story. While we all were of the same mind, it was Jim($6) who stated the true and obvious that we need to do this again, maybe even annually because we may not have many more chances. Our ties of friendship have withstood the ravages of time, distance and an overlong period of disconnect. So, while it is too early to plan next year’s event, the seed has been planted. We will not allow another protracted period of separation, indeed, we don’t have time enough left for that to happen. This group has discovered that our youthful bonding is stronger than ever even as we reach the twilight of our lives. Next year the “Boys are Back in Town just like Back in ’72” will reconvene, perhaps somewhere other than Detroit. I know from experience that The Rockies are a beautiful sight, so perhaps it will be Jim($6) who hosts the next gathering of geezers. His wife Janet will be pleased at that prospect, I’m sure. :-)
To sum up the weekend I turn to Gaius Julius Caesar from his Gallic Commentaries as I paraphrase his oft quoted, ‘Veni, Vidi, Vici’, I came, I saw I conquered. My version is thus:
‘Veni, Laffi, Ibuprofeni’…we came, we laughed our asses off, we took pain relievers. Until next year, my brothers from the Eastside.