Sunday, February 23, 2014

A Memorable Winter Meeting

In 1977 the legendary 400 Club softball team was formed with yours truly calling the shots as the manager. We started out playing teams like Kerry’s Kritters. Before long we were competing with the likes of Tirabassi’s, Finney’s and Pitt’s Decorating. Over the years, our team had its moments of glory, at one point winning 38 consecutive city league games. In addition to league play, our team also did well in tournaments, filling the trophy cases of tavern owner and sponsor Vern Ekern. The 400 Club was a successful team that had made a name for itself.

While the team made a definite mark on the Kenosha softball scene, it should be noted that it wasn’t only for their triumphs on the diamond. The 400 Club also had a reputation for being rowdy renegades.

We were the proverbial square peg in a round hole. There were several colorful characters on the 400 Club. We weren’t always the nicest team and had gained some notoriety as the Oakland Raiders of the softball world.

That being said, there was a reason our team was successful, it was well organized. That was my job. I made sure entry fees were paid, that uniforms were ordered, that beer busts were scheduled and, most importantly, made sure we had players that were of 400 Club quality.

Because of our rebellious reputation, it wasn’t always easy attracting new talent to our squad of misfits. Not everyone was comfortable being a part of a team with a bad-boy image. The ideal 400 Club candidate had to have skills at the bar as well as on the diamond.

Acquiring just the right guy was much too big a job for just one man; it was a team effort. Since I wanted everyone’s input, this was a subject that was discussed at our annual Winter Meeting. 

That’s right, the 400 Club had a Winter Meeting each year. Typically, it took place near the end of January, but no later than the first weekend of February. After all, our beer bust had to be scheduled before the season started.

As you might suspect, the 400 Club Winter Meeting wasn’t all business. Adult beverages were being consumed while team concerns were being discussed. Then, once it was decided what new players we were going after and the date for the beer bust, it was time to start doing some serious drinking.

Given the track record of our group, it should come as no surprise that the Winter Meeting could turn into a raucous evening of partying. However, by 400 Club standards, most of these get-togethers were not very memorable.

However, one particular Winter Meeting does stand out from all of the rest.

There was about a dozen members of the team in the 400 Club on that Saturday night in late January. The only other customer was a guy who rented a room above of the iconic tavern. He was known as “Larry D” and sat in his regular spot at the far end of the bar and was nursing a tap beer.

It looked like a relatively quiet night for the bartender, Skip. He liked it that way. Skip wasn’t what you would call energetic. The less excitement, the better. He liked it quiet. Unfortunately for Skip, it wouldn’t stay quiet.

Not by a long shot.

The “business” portion of the meeting had concluded and the guys from the team were relaxing with a few cocktails. For a 400 Club team activity, it was relatively subdued. That is until the front door suddenly exploded open and Mark Ekern burst in. Without any warning, he jerked Larry D from his bar stool and threw to the hard tile floor. 

As a team, our jaws collectively dropped in astonishment. Mark was the brother of 400 Club stalwart, Glen “Munk” Ekern. Despite the fact that they were the sons of our sponsor Vern, they had nothing in common. Absolutely nothing.

Munk was, hmm, let’s see, I need to put this nicely. Munk was aggressive and loved confrontation. He was a big reason the 400 Club had the image it did. On the other hand, Mark was mild-mannered, unassuming and generally kept to himself. He didn’t seem to have a hostile bone in his body.

That was the reason we were so astounded. What could have possibly happened to provoke Mark’s physical attack on Larry D?

We got a clue when Mark hollered, “I told you to stay away from Bonnie, but you wouldn’t listen!” Bonnie was the eldest of Vern’s six daughters and a very sweet girl. Evidently, Larry D had persisted on hitting on her even though he was warned against it.

Mark had taken exception to this and let him know it in a very violent fashion.

The manner he used to express his displeasure with Larry D wasn’t for the faint of heart. He used his fists. He used his feet. He used tables, bar stools and anything else he could get his hands on. The enraged Mark didn’t give him a chance.

Larry D was helpless and could do nothing to protect himself from the onslaught. He was bounced off of walls and the bar, knocked to the floor, then picked up again so Mark could repeat the process.

It wasn’t pretty.

In fact, at one point, it got so ugly it prompted Red DiCello, no shrinking violet himself when it came to fighting, to ask me, “Shouldn’t we stop him, Paul?” Having a soft spot in my heart for Bonnie, I said, “No, not yet, let him go.”

Finally, when Mark began to ram Larry D’s head into the heavy wooden base of a video game, I told Red and the rest of the guys that now was the time to put an end to the vicious beat down.

After things had settled down, Mark left, but not before reminding Larry D in no uncertain terms that he had better “stay the f*ck” away from his sister. Larry D, broken and bloodied, could only nod his head as he slowly crawled up the stairs to his room located above the bar.

While we were picking up bar stools and getting the bar back in order, a visibly shaken Skip answered the phone. After a brief conversation, he hung up the phone and announced, “Vern said to get the guys a drink.”

The team roared its approval. Behind the bar, Skip just shook his head as he started setting up our drinks. Above the bar, Larry D tended to his wounds.

Yes, even by 400 Club standards, that was a memorable Winter Meeting.

Until next time…from the booth.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Remembering A Real Hero

Today is Super Bowl Sunday. The Denver Broncos will take on the Seattle Seahawks at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey at 5:30pm. The game will undoubtedly produce one or more heroes. It might be Peyton Manning, Marshawn Lynch or even, gasp, Richard Sherman. Past Super Bowls have produced heroes like Bart Starr, Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana. But the hero that I am remembering never played in the Super Bowl. This man was a real hero.

My Dad, My Hero
Tomorrow, February 3 is the anniversary of the day my Dad passed on to be with God. Evidently God needed him “up there” more than we did down here. It has been 1460 days and I have thought about him every one of those days. Some of those thoughts cause me to smile. Great big smiles. Other times they bring tears to my eyes. Great big tears. I guess that’s what happens when you love someone as much as I loved my Dad. I still do. I miss him a lot. 

I know that I am not alone in missing and loving Dad. That goes without saying. Just the other day, Mom was talking to me about the time Dad bought her a stuffed hippo for Valentine’s Day. It got quiet for a while as we both wiped our eyes.

While, he might have been a bit reserved when it came to public displays of affection, be assured that Dad deeply touched the hearts of all those close to him. Just ask his wife and children or any of his brothers. Ask his sister-in-laws, nephews, nieces, grandchildren, cousins, and friends…

You get the picture; he touched the hearts of many people.

Dad never did things just for show; he wasn’t trying to impress anybody. But he certainly impressed me. I marveled at how he would do whatever it took to make his family happy. Dad did things because he cared. He was brought up that way. He didn’t know any other way.

We were all so blessed.

If Dad wasn’t touching you with his actions, he was doing it with a corny joke or that silly look that he inherited from his Pop, my Grandpa ‘Noni. Dad had an exceptional ability to express his love without uttering a single word. You just knew he loved you. It was a wonderful thing.

Although he wasn’t trying to, Dad made a lasting impression on all those who knew him. This was evidenced when my folks, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary on June 30th, 2006. After they renewed their vows at a 5:00 mass at St. Peter’s Catholic Church, the celebration moved over to the Moose Lodge.

Before the dinner, Uncle John, Dad’s brother and my Godfather, made a toast to the guests of honor. Uncle John, not known for his public speaking, delivered a memorable speech that was both eloquent and heartfelt.

During his touching talk, he mentioned that Dad had always been his hero. As he explained why he considered Dad his hero, tears began streaming down my cheeks. There weren’t a lot of dry eyes after Uncle John finished his moving tribute.

1461 days ago, tears were again streaming down my cheeks for Uncle John’s hero. This time for a much different reason. That is when my Dad passed away. It was February 3, 2010.

That same February 3, 2010, I phoned Uncle John and wished him a happy birthday. It was kind of tough and emotional. Despite the circumstances, I knew that it was something should do. I wanted to. His hero would have wanted me to.

I plan on calling my Uncle John up tomorrow to wish him a happy birthday. It will be a little easier this time; we have a hero praying for us. I really miss that hero.

I love you Dad.

Dear God, please remember our brothers and sisters who have gone to their rest in the hope of rising again; may you bring them and all the departed into the light of your presence.

Until next time…from the booth.