Thursday, November 8, 2007

The Mermaid Parade

NOTE: Coney Island's Mermaid Parade began in the 1980s when Brooklyn's storied amusement park had devolved to a sorry skeleton of itself. 

Today the parade is a huge celebration of the summer solstice and a major Brooklyn event. For me, the Mermaid parade is a roller coaster ride back to my youth.

For more on the parade history:

©2007 by LeeZard

I went with my brother,
To the Mermaid Parade.
Oh, what a parade it was.

There was Ethel Mermaid,
And Kool-Aid Mermaid,
A bearded mermaid,
And bearded mermen.
There were mermaid kids,
And mermaid maids,
Mermaid dudes,
And mermaid nudes.
So many mermaids,
To stir the mermories,
At crazy crowded Coney Island.

It was a searing Saturday in June,
A steamy New York City Scorcher.
A perfect day, a perfect way,
To open the Coney Island season.

It was hot,
So sweatifyingly, humidifyingly hot,
That riding the “F” train from Manhattan,
Was an air-conditioned relief
From the sweltering sidewalks
And the steambath subway station.

The long ride from midtown
Was a time warp to our Brooklyn roots,
To the days when the Parachute Jump still jumped
And the Bobsled was the fastest coaster in the world.

Now, the jump is an abandoned hulk,
A towering, parachute-less relic
Silently standing guard,
Not far from the burned out skeleton
Of the sled that bobs no more. 

But, the throngs still throng
To the sandy white Coney Island beaches.
And, oblivious to history and mermory,
The mermaids ride, march, swish,
Float, wiggle and jiggle down Surf Avenue.

Surf Avenue, a block from the beach,
A lifetime from reality,
That storied Coney Island main street,
With side shows on the side streets,
Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs,
And the bumper cars still bumping.

Yes, it has that enjoyable,
Sleazy Coney Island feeling but,
This Coney Island will never be
The same as my Coney Island.

It seemed, when we were kids,
Coney had rides found nowhere else.
There was Steeplechase Park,
An indoor/outdoor mishmash,
With huge slides
And spinning metal discs
Daring you to walk
Across the beaten wooden floor.

The main attraction at Steeplechase,
The scariest attraction at Steeplechase,
Was the Steeplechase race itself.
Six steel horses on wheels,
Each horse on its own rail track,
Running wild ‘round the hippodrome roof.
They could have been merry-go-round ponies,
Except, once you were strapped on,
Off you went in the steeplechase race.

Faster, faster, faster,
The younger you were
The faster it seemed,
And you held on for dear life,
With a leather belt around your waist,
Securing you to your mount.
One thin, leather belt,
Between you and certain death.
God, how we loved it!
The horse on the inside track
Almost always won,
But, who cared.
We lived through the ride,
And scrambled back for more.

Coney Island is a bumper car
Full of memories,
And the Mermaid Parade.
Oh, what a parade it was.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Stonewall & Me

©2007 by LeeZard

It was just Stonewall and me, only he wasn’t saying much; Stonewall Jackson has been dead for 144 years. But there we were. Well, there I was, standing by myself at the Stonewall Jackson Shrine in the small rural town of Guinea Station, VA where General Thomas J. (Stonewall) Jackson died at the Chandler Plantation on May 10, 1863.

The great general himself, or most of him, is actually buried across the state in Lexington, VA. I say most of him because, believe it or not, the general’s chaplain took Jackson’s left arm, amputated eight days before his death, from the Chandler Plantation to a field hospital several miles away - and buried it.
That’s where the general was first treated after he was accidentally shot in the arm by his own troops during the Battle of Chancellorsville. So, if Stonewall Jackson wasn’t actually with me on that quiet southern morning, even in spirit, at least part of him was nearby.

Nonetheless, I stood transfixed, staring at a small, lonely marker near the plantation outbuilding in which Jackson died. Why, you might ask, would a nice Jewish boy from New York be standing – in awe no less – at the shrine honoring one of the Confederacy’s greatest generals? I don’t know, but I’m glad I stopped by. It’s one thing to learn about history. It is much more graphic when you can actually feel it.

I was driving a company car from Richmond to Washington, D.C. and decided to avoid the interstate and meander through the green rolling horse country of northern Virginia. Along Rt. 2, just outside of Fredericksburg, I saw a brown National Park Service sign pointing down a side road toward the Stonewall Jackson Shrine at Chandler Plantation. I’m certainly no Civil War buff but, I am innately curious and a mild student of history, so I took the left turn and followed a winding two-lane blacktop to the tiny village of Guinea Station.

I didn’t really know anything about Stonewall Jackson, other than the fact that he was a Confederate hero and had a great name. It turns out that, after Robert E. Lee, General Jackson was the most revered Southern commander. In fact, according to Wikipedia, “His Valley Campaign and his envelopment of the Union Army right wing at Chancellorsville are studied worldwide even today as examples of innovative and bold leadership.” But that is not what struck me silent on that cool cloudy day in Guinea Station, VA.

Maybe it was the early hour and the silence of a country morning broken only by the musical chirping of the nearby birds. There were no highway sounds – there wasn’t a highway within miles. Mine was the only vehicle in the small parking lot and I was surrounded by acres of green grass and a peaceful but eerie solitude. Was I really alone?

Off in the distance was a small building, the only remains of a once grand plantation. At my feet was the small stone marker noting the death of Stonewall Jackson. I snapped off several shots with my trusty digital Nikon and climbed back behind the wheel for the rest of my journey to D.C.

(General Stonewall Jackson's attack at the Battle of Chancellorsville, Virginia, May 2, 1863; colour lithograph.)

I’ve heard and read that for many folks below the Mason-Dixon Line, the Civil War never ended. I always thought it was merely old politics in the New South. Now, I’m not so sure. As I drove away from the Chandler Plantation, the eeriness I felt while standing at the shrine marker seemed to follow – no, stealthily creep into the car and settle in the passenger seat beside me. I slowed from the 40 MPH speed limit to 25 and let my eyes sweep the rolling fields on either side of the road. I could sense, more than see, tattered grey Confederate troops boldly and bravely surrounding the dusty blue Union Army.

In the spring of 1863, nearly 200,000 Americans fought each other here in the Battle of Chancellorsville. Despite outnumbering their Southern brethren by two-to-one, the seven-day struggle ended with another humiliation for the Northern forces and the ultimate death of the South’s Stonewall Jackson. Historians call it a “lesser battle,” but nearly 30,000 were either wounded or killed. If the Civil War still rages in the fields around Guinea Station, VA, it is a war fought by the ghosts whose acquaintance I made at the shrine of General Stonewall Jackson.

Monday, November 5, 2007

DON'T Kill the Umpire

©2007 by LeeZard

Here’s my theory on youth sports:
* Coaches, referees, umpires and league officials: paid professionals.
* Parents: barred from all practices and games.
* Games and practices: videotaped.
* Videotapes: sent home for private viewing.

It started with my son in Little League. The parents running our local Little League had been around for eons and ran it like a private club. They favored their own kids and their own friends. The fields and the equipment were in disrepair. Many of the coaches were untrained, screaming negative demeaning commands to the kids.

The same 10 or 12 people showed up at the annual meeting each year to elect officers. It finally took a massive phone campaign and countless hours of political maneuvering to draw almost 100 people to an annual meeting to throw the rascals out.

After my kids outgrew little league I joined the local umpires association. Standing behind home plate is the best seat in the house. I umpired everything from Senior Little League to high school varsity, American Legion and some community college.

I loved it; worked a lot of high school games. I saw some good baseball. The coaches and players usually treated the umps with respect. Summer youth leagues are a different ball game. Parents are a little wilder, the coaches less restrained. I recall two particularly ugly incidents.

Early in my rookie year, I was teamed with a 20-year veteran to umpire a tournament for 16/17 year olds. The game was uneventful until the third inning. Then, a runner from third slammed into the catcher in a play at the plate– an automatic out in youth ball. My partner immediately called the runner out and all hell broke loose.

The team, led by the coaches, stormed out of the dugout and rushed my partner. I ran from my infield position and tried to head as many of them off as possible. At the same time, parents poured from the stands and gathered behind home plate screaming insults and threats. It took 15 minutes to restore order and sort out the player and coach ejections. Throughout the rest of the game the insults continued from the stands and, at game’s end, my partner and I needed a police escort to get to our cars.

The following season I was working what started out as a lazy Sunday morning game for 17/18 year olds. About halfway through the game one of the players began cursing at the opposition – and the umpire! I ejected the player. His coach exploded from the dugout screaming that he had nobody on the bench. He charged me and bumped me. Ejection; game over.

Afterwards, as I was changing out of my gear in the parking lot (the umpires’ ‘locker room’), the players AND THE COACH, began lobbing rocks at me from about 50 feet away.

So, here’s my real theory on youth sports. There is so much pressure on kids to compete – in life and in sports. Even as they learn some of life’s lessons through sports, the playing field should still be a safe and fun haven for them. But, moms and dads, if you must go to practices and games, please leave your egos at home. Let the coaches coach and the umps ump. Let ‘em just play.