I was surprised to hear my friend Mike Martin’s voice on the phone. It was mid-week and he should have been at Bloomsburg College — it wasn’t a university then — where he went to school. But instead he was at his mom’s house in Duryea. He wanted to see if I’d meet up with him for a beer.
He was already seated at the bar of an establishment that, even though this was 1971, a full 48 years ago, shall remain nameless because Mike was not yet 21. He had been drinking there, though, since he was 16.
Mike finished the beer in front of him and then ordered another for himself and one for me. He downed his second, and third, and fourth before I got through my first and I couldn’t help but wonder what this was all about. I soon found out.
When Mike had had a sufficient amount of alcohol in his system, he turned to face me and said, “Your girlfriend’s cheating on you.”
Actually, he used her name not the word “girlfriend” but there’s no need to mention it here.
The point is, Mike drove up from Bloomsburg, where my girl also went to school, to do me a favor. He knew it would hurt, and it did, but he also knew I needed to hear it. I had to admire Mike’s courage, even if it took a fair amount of beer to summon it. It reminded me of a quote from Oscar Wilde: “Friends stab you in the front.”
The next day, I skipped my classes at Wilkes College — also not yet a university — and drove to the Bloomsburg campus and basically set my girlfriend free. Paul McCartney was singing “Hey Jude” as I pulled away. I can’t listen to that song to this day without being right back there.
Mike and I reminisced about that experience and others, our wives patiently listening, when we got together for dinner last weekend at Arcaro & Genell in Old Forge, his favorite place for pizza. Mike was in town for the Luzerne County Sports Hall of Fame induction dinner at which his high school coach, Bob Barbieri, was to be honored. He was one of several dozen former Pittston Panthers and Pittston Area Patriots on hand for the occasion. Some, like Mike, who lives near D.C., had gone out of their way. Neil Ardoline drove in from South Carolina, Sandy Lamark from near Harrisburg, and Howard Fedden all the way from the State of Wyoming.
Mike Martin played on the undefeated 1967 Pittston Area team. It was the first year I wrote sports for the local paper. I was only 17 when the season started, turning 18 in November. Mike was a receiver on a team that rarely threw the football. As did most teams in that era, the Patriots relied mainly on the run. Still, Mike caught enough passes from quarterback Charlie Turco that both made All Scholastic. What made this even more remarkable is that whenever Mike was inserted into a game, the opposing coaches all started shouting “Pass! Pass!” But it didn’t matter. The defense couldn’t stop him.
Mike relayed a story over the weekend that left Coach Barbieri’s other former players in shock. Coach sent him into a close game with Scranton Central to tell Turco to call a running play. Instead, Mike called a pass play to himself. He caught it and took the ball down to the one yard line. When he trotted off the field, Coach Barbieri was waiting for him. “Martin,” he said, “you’re lucky.”
Off the field, Mike introduced me to a number of things, not the least of which was Benchmark bourbon and water, for which I never did acquire a taste. Another was studzienina. That’s the jelly-like substance pickled pig’s feet are packed in. Mike loved it. Unlike the bourbon, which I at least tried, I wouldn’t go anywhere near that studzienina. But when I mentioned it to my mother, almost retching just at the thought of it, she said it was one of the things she craved whenever she was pregnant. After hearing that, Mike liked her even more.
I liked Mike’s mom, too. Mike lost his dad, who was electrocuted at work, when Mike was only 11, so he and his mom were extremely close. She was a fabulous cook, with “city chicken” her specialty. City chicken is breaded cubes of meat on a wooden skewer thus bearing a resemblance to chicken drumsticks. Interestingly, the meat is rarely chicken. I believe Mrs. Martin used pork. After a weekend at home, Mike would often bring a big pan of his mom’s city chicken back to his frat house at Bloom where he’d find his brothers waiting on the porch chanting “Ci-ty chicken! Ci-ty chicken!”
I reminded Mike of something he had forgotten. The summer after Mike’s beer-inspired announcement about my girlfriend, he decided I needed a distraction. He showed up at my house with a couple of tennis racquets and took me to the courts at Pittston Area. He had no way of knowing it at the time, but that afternoon Mike presented me with a gift that has served (pun intended) me to this day.
Playing tennis with him was a lot easier to take than hearing about my girl.
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blogs during the week at pittstonprogress.com.