Citizens Police Academy: Anti-Terrorism

When you attend your local Citizens Police Academy – and you should – you will learn a lot about the mundane and terrifying aspects of being in law enforcement.  Much if it is interesting, some of it only in the sense of appreciating a difficult job.  But some of what you will learn can be fascinating.  And that was the case when retired FBI Agent Jeffrey Tomlinson stood in front of us to address the topic of Anti-Terrorism as a law enforcement function.

police-academy-banner

… and in Winston-Salem, North Carolina

Mr. Tomlinson spent 20 years in the FBI, beginning in 1990.  He was a local kid, who attended William Tenet High School and graduated from West Chester University.  In a unique twist. Tomlinson followed up 20 years of FBI service by giving back to local communities, as Safety Director for the Hatboro-Horsham School District and as a patrol officer in Hulmeville Borough, Bucks County!

He currently teaches Law Enforcement Management and Terrorism at DeSales University, where he earned his Masters Degree in Criminal Justice.

His first assignments took him to New York City, working organized crime.  He was part of the FBI team that investigated the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993.  In 1998 he was transferred to Philadelphia, where he worked anti-terrorism.  On September 11, 2001 he was – bizarrely enough – one of many law enforcement types attending an anti-terrorism workshop in Quantico, Virginia.

Mr. Tomlinson’s began his presentation with a look at where international terrorism has originated.  There are three primary sources:

  • Fallout from the Israeli-Palestinian
  • intra-Muslim competition (i.e. ShiaSunni conflict)
    • Roughly 85-90% of all Muslims are Sunni
  • Political groups within both competing brands of Islam (al Qaeda vs. ISIL, Hamas vs. Hizbollah vs. PLO)

The largest confrontation seen today is that between those opposing brands of Islam and their attempts to dominate the Muslim world through competing caliphates.  Currently, the Shia sects, aligned with Iran are pushing to control and confine the Sunni attempts to establish a caliphate in Syria and Iraq.

This has led to much violence between Islamic sects as opposed to conflicts between Islam and the outside world.  Of particular consequence is the recent declaration of a caliphate that challenges Iran’s ruling clergy’s very purposeful march to establish their own.  One that could someday occupy the lands from the Arabian Sea, through the entirety of Iran through Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean Sea.

Iran-sponsored shia caliphate could cover all of Iran from the Arabian Sea to the northern part of Iraq and through all of Syria to the Mediterranean

This becomes more dangerous when one also considers the recent advances of the Houthis, another Shia sect, in Yemen.  A quick look at the map presents a picture of Saudi Arabia, home of the Sunni religion and its most precious religious sites, surrounded on three sides by Shia interests.

This development gives perspective to recent Saudi military action against the Houthis in Yemen.  Obviously, the Saudis are very concerned with the advance of Shia interests.

Mr. Tomlinson then took a look at how the U.S. became one of the favorite targets of Islamic extremism leading up the disastrous attacks of September 11, 2001.  I found this portion of the presentation most interesting, though most of the information was quite familiar to me.

As one who was present in NYC for the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, Tomlinson related how the 1990 Iraq invasion on Kuwait led to Osama bin Laden’s crusade against America.

This had always baffled me, how the U.S. went from friend of the insurgents fighting the Russians in Afghanistan to “infidels” despoiling the holy lands of Saudi Arabia in our allied defense of the Saudis from Saddam Hussein, a fellow Sunni.  When I read The Looming Towers, I learned how the U.S. became The Great Satan.  Itself a transformation of Islam’s portrayal of the Soviets as such in an attempt to consolidate Islamic forces and foment their return as a global power.

homeland-security-ctu-counter-terrorist-unit_v105_400xFrom here the discussion turned to the different approaches to terror taken by consecutive U.S. administrations.  After the ’93 WTC attack, the Clinton Administration viewed terror as a crime, where law enforcement efforts were considered the primary response.  Find the bad guys and bring them to justice.  After the 9/11 attacks, the Bush Administration sought a military response, which was not surprising, given the immensity of the attacks and the fact that a nation-state could be closely linked to a terror presence in Afghanistan.

Other topics of discussion included:

  • 9/11 Commission finding that the biggest intelligence failure was a lack of imagination
  • anti-terrorism (active fight against terrorism) vs. Counter-terrorism (prevention and disruption)
  • authorizing environment (US Constitution, NSA Act 1946, Executive Order 12333, Patriot Act)
  • fighting international terrorism vs. domestic sources (e.g. McVeigh – Oklahoma City)
  • implications of data mining used to gather anti-terror intelligence
  • workings of FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) courts

From a counter-intelligence angle, I found the discussion of how our domestic law enforcement agencies attempt to penetrate local cultural concentrations and organizations to be very interesting.  Much of this discussion concerned the use of profiling in identifying terrorists coming into the country, as well as those already living here, who may be predisposed to joining terror organizations or acting as lone wolf attackers.  As bad a rap that profiling receives when it comes to everyday criminal activity, it is crucial in disrupting potential attacks from within.

How suspicious did they look before the Boston Marathon bombing?

How suspicious did the Tsarnaevs look before the Boston Marathon bombing?

Profiling looks at what they look like – demographically not racially (for example, 2nd generation immigrants or restless youth), where do they come from, recent travels, predisposition to extremism, etc.  This brought to light several keen observations, such as the large concentration of 2nd generation Palestinians in Northeast Philadelphia or the size of the Syrian community (3rd largest in the U.S. though mostly Christian) in Allentown.

Being aware of such demographics allows law enforcement to identify potential problem areas – terrorism wise – and community sources of intelligence.

This led to an interesting discussion of how counter-terrorism (prevention and disruption) efforts gain access to local community groups and individuals who would be distrusting of law enforcement encroachments or who might simply be scared of potential community backlash.

Terrorist actors, if active locally, will be ensconced to a degree within the anonymity of what otherwise could be a perfectly law-biding cultural community.  The problem of course is that most law enforcement types will stick out like a sore thumb in most such cultural communities.  The secret to finding them; collecting necessary intelligence; and infiltrating or arresting them is to penetrate the community and develop reliable sources (e.g. confidential informants) that will keep an ear to ground for trouble.  Investigators most work from the outside in.

One method for counter-terrorism investigators uses outstanding “wants and warrants” for individuals that might fit the profile of potential threat.  These warrants are prioritized within the cooperating law enforcement network; and an C-I agent might request to go along on any attempt to serve said warrant.  This gives the C-I types a chance to get inside for a look around, survey the subject’s immediate environment; evaluate potential sources for information or surveillance; and develop possible leads from the interactions.

fbi-seal-plaque-mMy major concerns prior to the Anti-Terrorism brief were improvements made to intelligence sharing that was a significant breakdown in the 9/11 attacks.  Former Agent Tomlinson addressed the improvements made since that fateful day.

  • Patriot Act did away with the “stove-piping” of terrorism information between sources of foreign intelligence and all levels of law enforcement.
  • Congress now requires annual presentations on how such intel is shared among the responsible national and local agencies.
  • Stronger relationships with the financial and banking communities has improved as a way to identify financial backers of terrorism.
  • Local law enforcement is a more active player in counter-terrorism.

The anti-terrorism presentation was one of the most fascinating sessions of the CPA thus far.  Other important takeaways from the seminar were:

  • Terrorism continues to be a serious threat across the globe.
  • Despite relative inactivity in this country, largely the result of improved intelligence and counter-terrorism operations, the potential for terrorism – both foreign and domestic – occurring here cannot be ignored.
  • Always pay attention to your surroundings.
  • Citizens can be the first to notice something amiss and are the best sources for local conditions and information.
  • Never be shy about reporting suspicious activity or potential evidence of such to law enforcement.  Let the experts decide what constitutes a legitimate threat.

Overall the most important message from the evening was that the successful fight against those who want to do us harm – regardless of where that threat originates – is heightened awareness, improved communication from the individual citizen all the way through the highest national authorities, and self-less cooperation among all those involved.

Breaking up is hard to do

Mashed-heartDear Chuck,

I know this will come as a shock to you, but it’s over!

Breaking up is always hard to do.  And I’m certain you will be surprised at this unfortunate turn of events.  But you have to ask yourself how you missed all the changes.

You should have noticed that I wasn’t coming around as much.  You should have noticed that I rarely ever called.  You should have noticed how quiet and unsettled I was around you.

To be honest … it’s not you, it’s me.

Every other month simply does not a relationship make.  And yes, I’m sorry.  I have been cheating on you!

It didn’t start out that way.  At first, I was just being lazy … not wanting to put in the time or effort for our usual thing.  I was desperate once and needed a quickie.

From there it progressed so rapidly, I was – I think – caught off guard.  It was too simple, too easy, too addictive.  And once I started, it seemed impossible to return to you.

Ours has been a healthy and productive relationship.  We have been through so many life events, personal problems … Good times and bad.

You were always there to tell me I looked nice.  And I was always happy to give you my advice, although frankly, I suspect you very rarely took it.

I heard you on the phone one time after I pleaded with you to follow your heart.  I heard you on the phone with that other guy … in the other room … whispering so I wouldn’t hear.  That time it hurt, but it convinced me that all I was to you was a means to an end.

Well, let’s not rip the scabs off old wounds.

Fact is, I really don’t need you anymore.  I really don’t need anybody!  I can do all this myself.

norelco_kitWhen you offered me the Low Volume Hair Discount, I knew it was over!  So I jumped into a relationship with a damn fine Norelco …

And the next time you need a tip on a football bet, go ask that idiot who told you to take the Cowboys and the points!

I hope we can still be friends …

Mike

Little red-headed Girl

208babc8bed09fe3b5b9e6ed7b733c92One a recent trip down memory lane  …

Those trips you enjoy with your children once they have grown.

… found us recalling an episode in Parenting of which I am not particularly proud.  Fact is, the story – told and retold numerous times over – has provided us more than a few good laughs over the years.

It was Spring, and though I forget the year, I put it around 1996.  Spring brought us Little League baseball at the Liberty Bell fields in the Far Northeast section of Philadelphia.

As was my fate this evening, I was coaching a team on which my eldest son was playing.  Yet I had additional company in the form of our precocious middle child, Brian James; all of six years old and quite popular with those in his first-grade class at St. Martha’s Roman Catholic School on Academy Road.

Having Brian around always seemed to add an unexpected twist to the day’s activities.

It was not unusual for me to have an extra child around since we had three boys to ride herd on divided by two parental units.  How I ended up with the family’s mischievous character as a “plus one” (Mistake #1) escapes my memory.  With the distractions of coaching however, it’s not hard to figure out the direction in which this story is heading.

At some point during my harried coaching activities, I may – or may not – have granted permission for Mr. Mischievous to set off for the playground, bored as he most certainly was with watching his older brother playing baseball.  This was not a huge problem – normally – since the playground was located within easy viewing distance (Mistake #2).

SuperStock_500-135222Did I mention I was coaching 9-10 year-olds in the basics of baseball with wooden bats and rock-hard baseballs?

Needless to say, one’s focus and attention to detail, like a spare non-playing child cavorting on a pleasant Spring evening, tends to suffer under such conditions.

Now none of this was humorous in the moment.  We have been able to laugh in hindsight, and only because it obviously turned out well and the climax of the incident was … well, priceless.  You see, Brian was a character then … truly an unpredictable element in both the family and school environments, which made him very popular at school though somewhat less so within the realm of Parenting.  He was all free spirit and little in the way of cautious or with any genuine concern for the roles and responsibility of being a Parent.

Shocker, I know …

Needless to say, when it came time to pack away the bats, balls, and gloves; Brian is nowhere to be found.  I sent my eldest son, Mike – the baseball player – to the playground to find our little pride and joy.  “He’s not there.”, Mike announced when he returned.

A distracted “What … ?” was all I said … until the consequences of this all too predictable development hit me.

imagesPanic was the first emotion.  Quickly followed by Dread … dreading, that is, the phone call home to Mama Bear.  (Trust me … You NEVER want to have to make that call!)  Let’s just say the conversation was mostly one-sided and not suitable for audiences with tiny ears.

After placing a reluctant call to Philadelphia’s finest, I got our first and only lead … an older girl who saw our pint-sized MIA accompanying a trio of like-sized females towards a nearby neighborhood.  And I set out on a widening arc of street searches by car.  Michael watching one side as I scanned the other.

These neighborhoods – for those not familiar with the streets of Northeast Philly – were a tightly packed collection of row homes and duplex apartments for block after block after block.

Trying to maintain calm in my panicked state of mind, I was certain our wayward wanderer was somewhere in the area.  Then I saw the weirdest, most welcoming sight a parent in such dire circumstances would want to see.

As we rounded a street corner I spied a familiar silhouette!

Hitchcock's famous profile

Hitchcock’s famous profile

Seriously … It was just a silhouette!

Think Alfred Hitchcock‘s famous back-lit outline that graced the telly at the beginning of each episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.  Just a shadow, but an amazingly well-lit shadow in a row home’s front window.  The silhouette so remarkably sharp and clear, that he was instantly recognizable.

The scene was so odd that at first it didn’t quite click.  I turned to Michael and asked him, “Doesn’t that look like Brian?!?”

What really floored me was that the silhouette was obviously singing, maybe performing would be the better term, and with a hand-held microphone at that!

That has to be him, I thought.  Who else could it be?!?

As I knocked on the door of the house to retrieve my wandering troubadour, I found him singing in front of a small female audience, spot-lighted via a strategically aimed lamp, held by one of his female accomplices, that provided the super sharp silhouette.  He was singing some popular song from the day to a rather fascinated group of fans.

51E8gRiIMKL._SL1500_It took a few seconds to shake off my fascination, even admiration for such a bold performance before Parent Mode kicked in and the fire and brimstone came raining down.  (OK … Admittedly, I was never very good at that.  Mama Bear on the other hand …)

As I dragged the thoroughly embarrassed, admonished, and totally puzzled crooner from the house, and I ask him what he was thinking; how could he do that to me; why would he simply wander off without telling anyone???

His answer was simple, “Dad, I really like that little red-headed girl!”

Sigh …

It’s always a little red-headed girl …

That Summer of ’79

He had just gotten discharged from a 4-year stint in the U.S. Air Force.  I had finished my Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology at LaSalle University.

He was looking to spend a few months enjoying his freedom from the rigors and discipline of military life.  I was frustrated with searching for a career path while still working my old high school/college job with Acme Markets.

It was the Summer of 1979.

Rich and I had known each other from our latter years at St. Jerome’s parish school on Holme Avenue in Northeast Philadelphia.  We attended Father Judge High School (Class of ’74) together with a boatload of neighborhood friends.  Our neighborhood clan matriculated in typical middle class fashion through the hallways of Abraham Lincoln and Archbishop Ryan high schools in addition to Judge.

As we prepared to leave high school, I knew I wanted to go to college.  Rich wasn’t sure what he wanted to do in Life, so the discipline and focus of a military hitch appealed to him.

When he was discharged in early 1979, Rich was ready to enjoy Life a bit.  I was tired of the pressure of job searching and the possibility that maybe I hadn’t sufficiently thought through what Life after college would look like.

So I was an easy mark for Rich’s subtle suggestions to blow off the job search and spend the Summer doing nothing more than enjoying the freedom to do whatever we felt and – in the end – prepping ourselves for the decades-long haul of adult responsibilities.  There would follow many days of unproductive activity followed by nearly as many nights of unproductive activity.

In the wee hours of the morning, we often found ourselves sitting outside Rich’s parents’ house with a six-pack, after the bars had closed, just talking.

Rich always had his head screwed on right … though maybe just a tad too tightly.  He knew – maybe professed would be the better term – that once that Summer of ’79 was over it would be time to buckle down, settle down, and get on with the Serious Business of Life.  He already has his girl picked out, and his plans included marriage and family which – experience would show – he pulled off quite successfully.

He planned to work as hard as he possibly could, but openly expressed his optimistic goal of retiring at age 45.

Eventually that Summer of ’79 ended.  There is so much more I could share about what we did and how we essentially wasted the good part of a year doing little of value.  But much of that I will keep to myself.

Some of those memories have lingered between us over the 3-plus decades that have passed.

  • His greeting of “Michael, man!” whenever we got together
  • That night at the Play Pen at Diamond Beach on the Jersey shore, waiting for David Bromberg to take the stage while we struggled to segregate enough cash to buy gas for the ride home.  (As it turned out, Bromberg never took the stage that night due to audio problems.)
  • Him witnessing my first hole-in-one … (OK … Yes, it was only pitch & putt, but still!) … a shot that could have just as likely ended up 20 feet short of the green.
  • The night I drove my father’s car into a gaping hole on Delaware Avenue in Philly the size – I am not kidding – of a cargo container.  (“Dad, I only hit a pothole!”)
  • Space Invaders … constantly …
  • Laying around his future in-laws’ pool while they were at work
  • Spending the ’79 Eagles Superbowl season dutifully watching every game in Jim Pistory’s basement

As our adult lives progressed, we drifted apart and were never as close as we were that Summer.  That’s certainly not all that unusual.  Life tends to pull you in different directions.

The important thing is we were both successful in the truly important things in Life.  That’s the way it’s supposed to be.

My most poignant memory though is those long, late-night conversations.  Rich was full of plans and dreams, but we disagreed – rather agreeably – over the level of intensity needed to live all those meaty adult years, where marriage, family, and hard work would hopefully set the stage for those peaceful and plentiful Golden Years.

Rich was adamant that the nose had to be kept hard to the grindstone, once the fun and frivolity of that Summer of ’79 had passed.  I used to challenge him by suggesting you had to stop and smell the roses once in a while (Yes, I may have actually used that phrase!), because you never knew how things might work out later.

Rich didn’t agree much with that.  And from what I know, he kept to this viewpoint from the day that Summer ended.  Even when dealt an unfair employment termination in the wake of the ’08 financial crisis, he didn’t let up.  He simply started his own one-man handyman business.  Doing what he needed to support his family to the quality-of-life in which they had become accustomed.

richardI tended to be much more circumspect in my approach to Life as a grown-up.    And now I have never been so depressed over being so right.

Richard G. Tomaszewski left us suddenly on June 17, 2014 at the way-too-early age of 57.

A Primary plan

primary-electionPrimary days … I hate them.

Off year elections can at least be interesting.  The upcoming November ballot will be much more intriguing with Pennsylvania Governor and mid-term Congressional elections to be decided.

That one will be fun.

Primary elections?  bleah …

As a Republican committee representative, it’s always a long day at the polls.  What makes it most interesting however, when the political conditions are right, are the interactions and discussions you can have.  People who make sure they get out to vote are those most likely to be keeping abreast of the political news.

The greater the interest, the more voters show up, the better the day …

Tomorrow, with only one significant Republican race (PA 13th Congressional District) in my district (Horsham 1-3) and a slate of State Republican committee nominees to select, there’s not a lot of sexiness to attract much attention.  I guess I’ll pass the day baiting what Democrats turn out for their primaries for Governor and the PA 13th, which is like trying to pick The Golden Ticket out of a bag of lemons.

For those waiting patiently for my PA 13th Congressional Republican endorsement, you won’t find one.  I am disappointed in what little I have heard – which is nothing – from Beverly Plosa-BowserDee Adcock put me to sleep in 2010.  To win the 13th, you must have the connection and the energy to make inroads into the Northeast Philly chunk of the district.  Neither has convinced me they will have what it takes, so let the voters decide!

I will be at the Horsham firehouse on Meetinghouse Road for most of the day tomorrow.  Stop in and keep me from falling asleep!

Allyson Schwartz a distant 2nd to State Dems

Watch out Rob McCord!

Watch out Rob McCord Democrats!
Allyson wields a Big Stick!

In news sure to warm the hearts of those who constantly wonder, “Where is Allyson Schwartz? What has she done for us lately?”, Pennsylvania Democrats not only failed to agree on an official endorsement for the April Pennsylvania gubernatorial primary, they dealt a significant blow to Schwartz’s expectations for wide-spread Party support.

In a showdown in Hershey on Saturday, Schwartz finished a 2-1 underdog to Treasurer Rob McCord (154-77) after two rounds of balloting.

In fact, Schwartz barely beat out York County businessman Tom Wolf, who garnered 59 votes!

Bummer …

Certainly, Allyson has been distracted lately, working hard and long into the night to get her 13th Congressional District constituents plugged back into the power grid, right?  I mean you have all seen and heard of her efforts, haven’t you?

Yeah, didn’t think so.

Maybe it was her vote in Washington, D.C. to cut food stamp subsidies by an average of $65/month per recipient that did her in.  Heck, even Senator Bob Casey saw the light after initially supporting the bill that included farm subsidies!

Needless to say, there are a lot of Pennsylvania Democrats now on Allyson’s Naughty List.  Just ask Nate Kleinman how much fun that’s gonna be!

My Philly wage taxes “at work”

imagesWhenever a big snow storm hits, I receive a rude awakening in what my Philadelphia City Wage Tax dollars accomplish for me as I travel to my Philly-hosted, U.S. Navy employment site.

The Navy installation I work at (Naval Support Activity Philadelphia) is located on Oxford Avenue maybe a mile inside the City from Cheltenham Township, my usual route into work.

This means I use maybe a mile of City streets each day (two miles roundtrip) to reach my work desk, which itself is situated on Federal property.  And for the pleasure of this jaunt along the pristine streets of Philadelphia I pay roughly $3900/year!

So unless I throw an embolism arguing with my boss over some inane minutia, requiring a police response or a stat med-evac, my lone benefit from that $3900 investment are those grand vistas along that mile stretch of Martin’s Mill Road.

Life don’t get any better than that!

So whenever it snows significantly and the region works hard to shake the white stuff from its broad shoulders, I notice – as I travel from my Horsham residence – the snow-cleared and salted streets of Horsham, Hatboro, Upper Moreland, Lower Moreland, Abington, and Cheltenham townships.  And I anticipate the glorious mess the Philadelphia streets still will be two full days after an annoying though thoroughly manageable snow fall.

The clean, salt-laced salted roads of the suburban Townships, those that get to enjoy nothing but my hometown income tax offset for suffering the Philadelphia Wage Tax, transition to the slushy, icy, still full-of-snow streets of a City that struggles to provide its tax-paying citizens bare, essential services.

And they wonder why the schools of Philadelphia are such a monumental mess!

If you cannot manage the simplest of services, how can you possibly do any better with such complex activities as education … regardless of how much money the State might pump in?!?  And how does that make YOU feel about what you might be paying in Philly wage taxes and the prospect of future demands for more of it?

Me?  I feel all slushy and iced over.

Cranky Man’s Lawn ’13: Cold Spring Stupor

lawn1Spring was still a rumor here in Southeast Pennsylvania up until this past Sunday afternoon.  Yet I remained skeptical until Monday, when I could actually feel Spring’s warm caress on my hair-challenged head without the benefit of three layers of insulating clothing.

Last Spring was recognized as one of the warmest in recent history.  Good if you like warm weather in March, not so good if you’re a climate alarmist.  But there was no problem this Spring worrying about frantic warnings of rising oceans, melting ice caps, and dying forests.  Everybody was too busy trying to keep warm … on Easter Sunday … in Southern Florida …

So, with Spring delayed what’s a Lawn Junkie to do?

For one thing, hopefully you didn’t jump the gun!

Observed several neighbors putting down lawn treatments LAST WEEK!  Way, way too cold for that to accomplish anything.  Few but the hardiest weeds have appeared and crabgrass season was still weeks away.  A little bit of rain and anything that rotary spreader was meant to accomplish was a wasted effort.

Such is the price of not paying attention.

The only piece of data to pay attention to this time of year is ground temperature, not air temp.  The only treatment you should even remotely prepare for – right now – is crabgrass. And it is still too cold for even a pre-emergent application.

Quite possibly, this weekend will be the first where a pre-emergent will be effective.  Look for the blooming of the forsythia!

lawn2Get your lawn clean-up done!  This is what my lawn looked like pre-cleanup.  The picture heading this post shows how it looked after three hours of raking, mowing, and trimming.

Found some weed infiltration along the edges of the lawn, which is common since the edges of a well-fertilized lawn is the only place generally where a weed seed can gain a foothold.  It’s best to try to eliminate them early to deny them the opportunity of spreading.

But it’s still too early for an effective weed ‘n feed application.  Let that go until the end of April at this point.  Instead, I expect to find a good weed product in spray form to hit those edge areas where weeds have popped up.

Just make sure whatever product you grab will not affect the grass around it.

602097_628034453876978_1726053180_n

Note brown lawn across street. Just sayin’ …

The Wiffleball Kings

Tools of Happiness

In the late 1960’s Philadelphia Steel & Wire, a small steel processing company located on Belfield Avenue in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, decided to move its operations to a larger, newer facility to be built near the North(east) Philadelphia Airport in Northeast Philadelphia.

So, in 1966 our family moved from a twin on Penn Street to a brand new rowhouse in the Holmesburg section of the Great Northeast.  Our old house, which was just across Penn Street (now Penn Boulevard) from the quaint red-brick buildings of Germantown Hospital, is long gone.  Just a parking lot now; devoured at some point by the growing hospital.

The relocation was the end of the old; the beginning of the new.  And for a 10-year old, barely familiar with the world outside of the five-home Germantown enclave he lived in, it was an anxious, unsettling move.

Much of our new rowhouse was still in its proverbial cellophane wrapper when this Germantown refugee walked outside to explore his new environment.  One of my first memories of the new ‘hood was watching three brothers from down the street pour out of their brand-new rowhouse in a cacophony of harsh words and flying fists.

Great, I thought, I moved into a Three Stooges episode!

In minutes I was the unwitting ally in a fraternal civil war fought with stones and insults.  But when the dust cleared, it was the beginning of a new stage in my young life.

For some reason, these three brothers, who were always at each others throats – or so it seemed – could do one thing without reaching for the Missile Launch Codes.  They could play Wiffle ball!

imagesWiffle ball – for the uninitiated – was one solution to a city boy’s dream of playing ball in tight quarters without causing property damage.  Played with plastic bats and relatively short-flight plastic balls with perforations engineered for the purpose of throwing junk pitches, it joined the ranks of half-ball, stickball, hoseball and boxball as urban versions of baseball, the game played by boyhood Heroes.

No need to find an open basketball court.  No requirement to round-up six or eight compadres in order to cover a full football or baseball field.  Just find a vacant lot suitable for a field and choose up sides!

Like all neighborhoods in large cities, our games were dictated by the surrounding geography.  And although we had the luxury of the playground at Robert B. Pollock Elementary School roughly a quarter-mile away, the convenience of playing smaller games just a few houses away from the comforts of Home was hard to beat.

Our house sat directly across from a PECO (Philadelphia Electric) substation on Ashton Road.  In later years our house and the fenced substation would serve as Home Field for our half-ball games.  Homeruns most obviously defined by hitting one over the substation fence; triples up against the fence or falling on the sidewalk across somewhat busy two-lane Ashton Road; and doubles – if the fielder chose not to dodge the traffic – were those halfies that landed in the roadway.

But it was our wiffle ball field (Let’s call it Duplex Field, since it sat next to one of the two-apartment duplexes that framed each set of rowhouses.) was the only field of play that FELT like real baseball.

As with all great baseball venues, our wiffle ball field had its little quirks and unique characteristics that went missing when legendary baseball cathedrals gave way  to the cookie-cutter, all-purpose stadiums that became the rage in cities like Philadelphia (Veterans Stadium), Pittsburgh (Three Rivers Stadium), and Cincinnati (Riverfront Stadium) in the 1970s.

Petco Park's homage to Duplex Field

Petco Park’s homage to Duplex Field

Our long ago Field of Dreams was much more like present-day Citizens Bank Park and Camden Yards.  It had features that rivaled images from Connie Mack Stadium, Crosley Field (Cincinnati) or Ebbetts Field in Brooklyn, New York.  Or at least it did for a bunch of 10-year-olds.

The physical characteristics of Duplex Field included a Petco Park-type brick building, the duplex running the length of the 3rd base side; jutting precipitously into the left field corner; and offering an imposing challenge to the dead-pull right-handed hitter who wanted to yank one down the left field line.

The outfield “wall” was a chain link fence (Aaron Rowand meet Citizens Bank Park!) protecting the outfielders from a nasty plunge into the sunken yards of the row homes of Ryerson Circle.  The right-center field portion of this fence was fronted by triples-producing trench (a Bizarro World reversal of those famed warning track mounds at Crosley and Ebbets Fields), usually full of leaves and discarded paper that made retrieval of in-play balls a slapstick farce of flailing arms and flying trash.

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Crosley Field had The Terrace hill. Imagine instead a trash-filled trench …

The most endearing feature of Duplex Field was the rock strewn diamond itself.

Real estate limitations and the flight dynamics of the plastic wiffle ball made a true outfield totally unnecessary.  We could barely fit a reasonably sized infield into our bandbox ballpark; so the rough dimensions of our diamond made up almost the entire playing surface.

Second base sat maybe four feet from the centerfield fence.  First base crowded the guardrail boundary of the neighboring gas station (at Ashton & Willits Roads), and third sat on a slight incline bordering the lawn on the duplex property.  Homeplate enjoyed its own green space backstop where the at-bat team could loll about in semi-suburban luxury.

And that’s how we spent the two or three summers when there was little else to worry about other than how to fill up those idle summer hours.  We were Wiffleball Kings!

In a time when parents would see their children – especially their sons – at breakfast and not again until dinner time, there were no video games, no cable TV (three channels unless you had a UHF-capable set), no internet, no DVDs in stacks by an entertainment center.  As kids we found all sorts of distractions and activities to fill those long summer days.

For us in the middle years of the 1960s, before we were pulled away by the semi-grownup responsibilities of newspaper routes, part-time jobs, and – gulp! – girls, we did little but play wiffle ball.  We would start at 9:30 or 10:00 in the morning and play all day, or at least until the woman running the developer’s office in the basement of the duplex had enough of the noise and chased us off!

And when she climbed into her pink Mustang and went home for the day, we played until dinner, then played some more until the dark chased us on to other idle meanderings.

At times we went a bit too far in trying to emulate our real-life baseball heroes.  Keeping records and statistics that rendered our games more adult and serious than they should have been.  But our games were also a doorway that opened up our own little world to the larger neighborhood we would live in as teens.  Challenges received  and issued with other neighborhood clans expanded our circle of friends and introduced us The Outside World.

In the end, wiffle ball was a portal to relationships that would blossom in the years to come.

Our field became the preferred wiffle ball venue, our own version of the old, original Cathedrals of Baseball.  It was the perfect melding of the grown-ups game with that of the kid’s size game.  The grown-up world with the life of a kid.

It was the kind of life we took for granted as all kids do.  The kind of life you never thought would end, would never change.  The kind of life that in later years you looked back on with nostalgia and – maybe – a touch of envy for the carefree existence you wish you could recapture if only for a day … maybe even for just a few hours.

It was a time when there was no bigger aspiration to live up to than being a Wiffleball King!

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PRUPDATE:  (Kind of an pre-update since I haven’t even posted this yet; hence the term prupdate.)  

I was going to include several pictures of the old wiffle ball field in this post.  Even drove down to the old ‘hood to take pictures like some creepy tourist.

But the pictures of Duplex Field suck (a technical photography term) from the point of view of giving you a true appreciation of our once semi-magnificent field.  I post them below, just to back up my earlier “teasing” up of this story on Facebook.

I was shocked when I saw the old field, really just another yard.  I said to myself, “Where the hell did all these trees come from?”

Oh yeah … That was almost 50 years ago.  Then I uttered the “C” word …

That was almost half-a-Century ago.

No … Not a very good moment.

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Joe Rooney vs. 1% Allyson

Joe Rooney – PA 13th Congressional District

It’s almost over, really it is!  And it’s taking everything I have to write just one more Election 2012 post.  Not sure I can make to the end, but the importance of this election mandates not only a change in The White House.  This election calls for wholesale changes at the Congressional and Senate levels as well!

I have given you my reasonings for both Mitt Romney and Tom Smith for the Pennsylvania Senate race against Bob “Senator Zero” Casey.  Now let’s take a look at the race in the Pennsylvania 13th Congressional District.

I met Joe Rooney in February of this year as he made the rounds of the GOP establishment trying to drum up support for his primary candidacy.  I was immediately impressed by Joe’s honest, straight-at-you demeanor and his grasp of the important issues facing us.  My reaction to his visit and remarks were that he was head-and-shoulders over the entire field that vied for the same primary endorsement in 2010.  There were 5 …. or 6 candidates back then; and none of them seemed strong enough to shine their lights through a brown bag, let alone in competition with Allyson Schwartz.  (Joe Rooney for Congress website)

But all that changed once Joe began laying out his background, experiences (including service to this Country as a Marine pilot flying F-4 Phantoms and F/A-18 Hornets, the mainstay of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps air fleets), and goals for Congressional service and the interests of PA 13th constituencies.  Like many well-rounded military officers, Joe Rooney had his political game wound tightly and focused.  He has confidence in his understanding of what the Country needs to be successful domestically, internationally, and Economically.

Joe Rooney is an American Optimist.

 “The American economy can be the engine that drives the rest of the world out of the economic hole that currently exists.”   –  Joe Rooney

His message resonates with Everyone, whether you are hard-working mother or father trying to get your take-home pay to at least wave at your Budget, if not actually try to meet it!  It resonates with retirees on fixed incomes, with students who will be out looking for Jobs in the years to come.  Joe’s message will especially resonate with those who have been victimized by an Economy mired in 8% Unemployment, 12.3 million people out of Jobs, mounting debt both National (up from $10 trillion to $16 trillion during the Obama/Schwartz years) and personal.

One thing about Joe Rooney really impressed me.  He was ready to take on all comers to earn the right to face Allyson Schwartz in this crucial election.

Allyson Schwartz swings a big stick when it comes to Democratic competition

Allyson Schwartz of the 1% had an entirely different approach to entertaining an opposing voice in the Democrat primaries.  She very coldly forced one Occupy Wall Street candidate, Nate Kleinman out of the primary race through dirty tricks (making a staff-less Kleinman sit with a team of Schwartz operatives to verify each individual nominating petition) and through financial intimidation (filing lawsuits intended to make Kleinman responsible for the legal costs incurred by the Schwartz campaign).

Not exactly the kind of free and open Democracy we are used to, eh?  Why, it was downright Nixonian!  Yes, Richard Millhouse would be very, very proud!

But that’s what happens when The Queen rules the roost.

Schwartz has benefitted mightily from a wide array of political benefactors in the form of large dollar corporate donors and Political Action Committees.

Schwartz’s funding for the 2011-12 election cycle came primarily from large individual contributors (57%) and Political Action Committees (38%), only 3% came from small individual contributors.  Her biggest corporate and association sponsors include Comcast Corp, Teva Pharmaceuticals, and the American Association of  Orthopaedic Surgeons.  Her top industry support comes from lawyers, health professionals, pharmaceutical and insurance companies.

Not exactly residents of the 99% …

Now no one really knows how the headline political confrontation will end up Tuesday – or whenever the last Electoral College votes get cast; but certainly it’s easy to see which candidate in the PA’s 13th Congressional District is more like you and me!

It’s Joe Rooney for Congress!