Sunday, February 25, 2018

Tales From Italy: The Great Snowstorm of 2001

Vicenza is just south of the Dolomites (Italian section of the Alps) and as such, occasionally receives snow however, it rarely is subjected to major snowstorms. I think in all my years I've witnessed only two or three of what I would call major snowstorms. The worst one I can remember just happened to hit while I was on guard duty in an austere little shack on the outskirts of town. I will recount the events of that fateful night for you now...

It was the winter of 2000/2001. I was a lowly buck sergeant working for SETAF in Vicenza, Italy. In those days, enlisted soldiers were responsible for providing security for various buildings and locations in the area. On this day, my name just happened to be on the list and so I gathered my cold weather gear, drew my weapon and dutifully reported to the garrison staff duty at 0600 to receive my assignment for the day; sitting guard at the transportation motor pool (TMP) in nearby Torri di Quartesolo. The TMP was basically a big lot where they kept civilian vehicles used by the base, mostly big white passenger vans and the like. As terrorist targets go it was probably way down near the bottom of the list, somewhere around a horse stable or a medium sized vegetable garden. The way the guard duty worked was that each location would have an NCO (usually an E5) and a lower enlisted (E1-E4) who would sit in a shack by the front gate and if, by chance, someone would pull up, you checked their ID and then opened the gate for them. You had your trusty M-16 rifle but you were not issued any ammo so on the off chance that you were attacked by someone who meant you bodily harm - or maybe just wanted to steal a van - you were apparently supposed to point your weapon at them and yell "Stop! Or I'll say stop again!" Ironically, there was a law in Italy that anytime weapons were being transported, you needed an escort from the Italian Carabinieri (sort of Italy's elite military/police force) and so, all the soldiers on guard duty piled into a huge passenger van (yes, the kind I would defending with my life that day) and we were delivered out to our respective assigned duty locations. 

The lower enlisted soldier assigned to me that day was named Private Votion, a short, scrawny Mexican soldier who weighed barely more than his M-16. Guard duty back in those days was sort of a blow off duty and you pretty much sat in the shack and read a book or something. You checked a few IDs during the day but for the most part it was boring. Many soldiers would actually bring a laptop and play games most of the time. There was electricity in the shack with an old space heater for warmth and luckily the shack was tiny so the little space heater was able to keep it just warm enough. For lunch we had an MRE (meal, ready to eat). You were supposed to sit at your post from 0800 until they closed at 1700 (5pm) after which time the escorted van would come retrieve and bring you back to the main base. As expected, it was a boring, uneventful day. 

Uneventful, that is, until it started snowing.

It started snowing shortly after noon that day. And then it started snowing harder. And harder. Somewhere around 1400 (2pm), the manager of the TMP lot stopped by the shack to tell us that the bases were all closing due to the weather and he was locking up so we could leave if we wanted to. Of course this was not possible as we had weapons and could not leave without an armed escort. I got on the radio and called back to the Sergeant of the Guard (SOG) to report this and asked if it was possible to get picked up early. The SOG responded "Negative TMP, stay at your post and await further instructions." And so we sat and busied ourselves with whatever we had available, fully expecting that we'd be picked up in a couple hours at the most.

But it was not to be.  

An hour passed. By now, accompanying the snow was a frigid wind that was whipping so hard that every so often it would violently rip open the door to our little shack. The diminutive space heater was doing everything it could to keep our small haven warm but was steadily losing the fight as the storm got more and more violent. 5pm approached and still no van. I called the SOG to inquire about our relief and was told "Stay calm and in place, we are trying to get chow out to you now". 

Ok, something is amiss here, I thought to myself. And indeed there was something amiss. Italy is full of crazy drivers. They drive like maniacs. Traffic signs to Italians are mere suggestions. And when it snows and the roads are icy and slippery...they do not amend their driving habits one bit. And so, the streets in and around Vicenza were awash with accidents. The Carabinieri, along with local police had more accidents to attend to than they had officers which meant that there were no Carabinieri available to escort the van in retrieving us. We were stuck there until God knows when. 

Two more hours passed. Around 7pm the van pulled up and for a moment we thought we were saved. Once again, it was not to be. With no Carabinieri escort in sight it seemed to the SOG that the next best thing they could do would be to deliver chow to us so we wouldn't go hungry at least. Of course, due to the condition of the roads along with the plethora of accidents and traffic, it had taken them over two hours to get to us which meant that chow consisted of ice cold "chicken a la king" and green beans. The driver told us to sit tight and they would get someone out to pick us up as soon as they could. 

Another hour passed. It was now 8pm. Votion was complaining about, well, pretty much everything. I told him to just be thankful that we still had electricity for his laptop and the space heater and less than ten seconds after the words came out of my mouth, the power went out. I got on the radio and told the SOG that we had no power and no heat and he responded "Roger, just keep the door closed and bundle up, there are still no Carbs available". I'm no mathematician but in my head I started going over various algebraic equation trying to figure out exactly how long it would take for the remaining heat we had to dissipate. After a few minutes Votion announced that he had to go to the bathroom. I reminded him that we have no heat and that opening the door would let the cold in but he would not be deterred. Desperately clinging to what little heat we had left, I told him to pee in the corner but the shack was only about 5 feet by 5 feet and apparent stage fright would not allow his little peen-ween to function properly. We reached a compromise where he quickly opened and shut the door as fast as he could but the cold that got in made things worse. I silently prayed for the electricity to come back on but to no avail. We had cold weather gear but no extreme cold weather gear. We could not remain in this shack all night with no electricity and no heat, we would surely suffer frostbite or hypothermia. 

As the NCOIC, I began to go over our options which were admittedly few. Perhaps we could grab our gear and try to hike back to the base on foot? No, it was not possible in that weather, we would never make it. Would we be stuck there for days? Would we even survive the night with no heat? Would I end up having to eat Votion to stay alive?

Thankfully, the answer to all these questions was a resounding NO. Sometime around 11pm, the sweet sound of vehicles pulling up outside shook me out of my shivering horror. It took nearly an hour to get back to the base due to the horrendous road conditions. I asked the driver to crank up the heat and he said "Sorry man, the heater is broken". Sigh. We got back to the base, turned in our weapons and I finally arrived at home sometime after 1am. I fell asleep straight away. 

I had survived the great snowstorm of 2001. 


Wednesday, February 21, 2018

We're Not In Caldogno Anymore, Toto...

It's been one full year now since we arrived back in bella l'Italia. So much has happened in the past year, it's hard to believe it hasn't been longer. We're now on our third tour here in this fairytale country (2000-2006, 2008-2014, and now 2017-?) and everything seems different this time around - so far the biggest differences are that I'm working for a different unit this time and also that we are living in a different city.

I'm fond of saying that before we went back to the US in 2014, "we lived in Italy for 14 years with a 2 year vacation to Germany in the middle". The town we lived in the entire time was called Caldogno and it was the perfect little town. We had everything we needed within a 10 minute walk; restaurants, bars, grocery stores, parks, pastry shops, wine shops, cheese name it, we had it. We were there so many years that we made close friends all over town, all of whom remain close to this day. With this in mind, we decided to try and find a place in our old town when we got back but alas, our old house was already occupied and we had trouble finding a place big enough for our needs. Eventually Virginia announced that she wanted to live in 'centro' - the historic center of Vicenza. Last time we were here, she was constantly going downtown to visit the markets, do some shopping, etc., and she always took the bus so it made sense for her to just live there this time around. It didn't take much to convince me. I absolutely adore centro, Vicenza's center is amazing with the city's celebrated history on display everywhere. However, large apartments in the centro district are few and far between so it took a long time to find a place to our liking which meant almost FOUR full months in a hotel. With three young kids who do nothing but whine and fight. It was not a pleasant time, I can assure you. Ironically we almost ended up in a massive villa in the city of Torri, close to the base, but once again fate intervened and it fell through which resulted in us finding a great apartment right smack dab in the Piazza di San Lorenzo in centro. The San Lorenzo church is magnificent; historic and beautifully rustic, it is the oldest Franciscan church in the world, built between 1280 to 1300.  

The magnificent San Lorenzo church. Our apartment is to the right of the church.

Perhaps the best thing about our place is that right at the bottom of our building can be found Café Terzi 1863. Café Terzi is basically a typical Italian café that serves coffee (espresso, cappuccino), pastries, brioche and such in the morning and throughout the day. But, they also serve lunch and on Fridays/Saturdays they do dinner as well. And let me tell you, their food is FANTASTIC. The menu changes daily but just about everything we've tried there has been phenomenal. My favorite has probably been their tagliatelle al tartuffo (long pasta with truffles), it's like a flavor orgasm in your mouth. They also do pizza and it's possibly the best pizza I've had anywhere in centro. Most nights after work I can be found there unwinding with a glass of vino and reading my Gazzetta dello Sport. Usually the kids will join me for a snack while they play on their tablets. There are three people who work there - Davide, Elena and Maria - and all three of them are the nicest people you'd ever want to meet and we are in there so often that they almost feel like family by now. Café Terzi serves another purpose for me personally - a chance to get out. See, our apartment is almost perfect. Almost. But there's one major problem with it in that there is no balcony or terrace. Now this may seem trivial to some of you but not for me. I'm an outdoors person. I NEED to be able to sit and enjoy the fresh air. Our house in Caldogno had several balconies and a huge terrace where we would often eat our meals al fresco. Our house in South Carolina had a big yard and a huge front porch, as well as a nice sun room. So not having a balcony or terrace is a major thing for me. As well, we are on the top floor of the building and as such, our windows are smaller than average and have huge bars on them so we do not get a lot of sunlight. To solve these problems, I simply go downstairs to Café Terzi. In the warmer months from April to late October they have tables and chairs set up outside on the piazza and that's where I spend most of my time.  The colder months suck as there are no tables and chairs but Vicenza has a very aesthetically pleasing old town so sometimes I just go walk around. When we moved in last summer, there were actually three bars/cafes on our piazza; Terzi, Café San Lorenzo and Mod Café. After Terzi, Mod Café was our favorite spot. They had tables and chairs on the piazza as well but they were right in front of the church so I loved sitting there with a glass of vino just admiring the beautiful San Lorenzo church. The owners were a hardworking couple named Pierangelo and Katia and I quickly became friends with them. Funnily enough, I started going to the place back in the early 2000's when it was known as the Art Café and was a popular hangout of American soldiers. It actually took me several weeks before I realized that it was the same bar. Sadly, the Mod Café had problems with the city and I guess running it got to be too difficult and they closed up for good last month. Losing them completely sucked as I really enjoyed hanging out there and every time I walk by and see the sign I feel a twinge of sadness. It's just not the same without them...

A few of our favorite dishes from Cafe Terzi; Tagliatelle al Tartufo, Gnocchi alla Sorrentina and their delicious pizza!

Overall, we love living in centro. We have everything we need (and tons of stuff that we don't), it's a convenient, quick commute for me. It's perfect for Virginia as the big outdoor markets are literally right outside our door and she can go to her favorite stores (H&M, Kasanova and Coin) anytime she wants and if she needs to come to the base it's a quick, straight shot by bus whereas from Caldogno she had to transfer buses and the whole journey took about an hour. Though I've been here almost continuously since 2000, I'm quickly realizing that I barely know the city of Vicenza. Living in centro makes it easy to explore and I often walk around in areas I've never been and usually end up discovering buildings and churches and other sights that I never knew were there. For those who are unaware, Vicenza is the home of one of the most famous and influential architects in history, Andrea Palladio. Regardless of whether you have heard of him, you are doubtless familiar with his style as it has been copied ad nauseum by the founding fathers in many of the public and private buildings in and around Washington DC. Thomas Jefferson even used Palladio's most famous villa as his inspiration for Monticello (it is often said that "in Vicenza, entire streets look like the back of a nickel"). Everywhere you go in centro you see Palladio's influence and it's nothing short of magnificent.  

Some examples of Palladian architecture that Vicenza is known for along with the man himself, Andrea Palladio.

I also bought bikes for me and the kids last year and they love going on bike rides although it scares me to death honestly, the way the crazy Italians drive. Normally centro would be the perfect place for bikes as it's a limited traffic zone so there are very few cars but most of the streets in the center are cobblestone which are painful to ride on. The kids love to ride their bikes around our little piazza while I sit outside Cafe Terzi:

Still, I do miss Caldogno tremendously. I lived there a total of 12 years and it feels more like home to me than probably any place on Earth. Occasionally we go up there for various reasons and whenever I get close to the town line, it just feels like I'm coming home. It's strange to be back here but not be able to see our old friends and neighbors all the time like we used to. Between work schedules and family commitments, there's just never enough time these days it seems. Part of me wishes we still lived up there but living in centro certainly makes things easier. One great thing about Italy is that when you frequent the same places a couple times, everybody there becomes your friend. And although we've only lived in our place for about 8 months, I've already become a local at several places around centro which makes living here more enjoyable. 

We do miss having a yard though - this past weekend I was out in our piazza throwing a football around with the boys when a police car pulled up and we were told we are not allowed to do that on the piazza, only in the nearby parks. Little things like that really annoy me here but whenever I find myself getting annoyed these days I simply tell myself "You're not in Scumter anymore, you're back in Italy now" and like magic, all is right with the world again...

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Today is "National Drink Wine Day"

Pop those corks and drink up everybody!

Thursday, February 15, 2018

The American Gun Problem, As Seen From a Foreigner...

I am loathe to get into the gun debate. It's too emotional of an issue to talk about with the majority of Americans and anyone who knows me knows that I am an emotionless lump. I learned long ago not to engage in internet debates because...well...most sane people have learned by now what a huge waste of time those are. So when a tragedy like a school shooting happens in the US, the last thing I will do is go on Facebook or Twitter to talk about it. Instead, I seek out people who I know I can have a rational discussion with. Ironically, the most rational friend I have who I can talk about anything with, without fear of being judged, labeled, or subjected to irrational fear or emotion, is a European friend. He is completely removed from the US yet he speaks very good English and is very astute on the dynamics of what makes our country what it is. Sometimes he seems to understand my home country better than even I do. I asked him for his thoughts on the gun problem in the US and, to be honest, I fully expected a strong anti-gun diatribe as he was born and raised in one of the most anti-gun countries in the world (The Netherlands). What I received, however, was some wise words that took me completely by surprise and really illustrated what a complicated problem guns are in the US. The last paragraph (upon which the emphasis is mine), in particular, really sums up the problem to me. Here are his thoughts...

"The way I see it, guns merely facilitate these insane killings. Access to the guns is not the cause. The root cause is something sociopsychological. 

The fact guns are so easily accessible in the US makes for some spectacular outbursts, obviously. If you take away the guns, you will somewhat limit the number of mass killings, I'm absolutely sure. But, for me the way more important and unsettling question is; What causes these people to go down a mental path which leads to this sort of behavior? 

That's something nobody cares to talk about it seems. All news agencies try to put their own spin on the news and "cover" the situation as a "gun rights" issue. A couple of days pass, the news drops the fake outrage about what happened (yes, fake, because shit, how often can something happen before it becomes the norm?) and the entire nation is back to waiting for this shit to happen again like a bunch of mindless drones. 

When I look at American history in general and the way you guys as a society arrived at this point where so much emphasis and importance is put on shallow things (Always bigger and better, always the most beautiful and best, always be part of our team or you are against us) and the, in my opinion, fake patriotism... That inevitably has to lead to people not being able to make the right choices. 

When you teach kids that kind of thinking, the kids that cannot fit into "the group" (for whatever reason) will fall harder and deeper than in other countries. Plus detecting and properly guiding those people is often times difficult to do because, well, we don't look at the outsiders, right? "They're out their out of their own volition. If you want to be popular (and check all of the boxes our society has deemed important) you can always try out for the team!"

Don't get me wrong btw, I absolutely hate equality of outcome philosophies. But I can see why the US (very hesitant to say 'your' here, because I feel you exist outside of US society despite of your American passport) society breeds people who commit these sorts of acts. Throw a bunch of guns at a group of socially neurotic people and how can you expect anything else than what we're seeing over and over again? 

Shit, even the fact that Americans are simply unable to distance themselves from this fake "Guns for all! v.s. Gun Laws for all!" issue enough to see how fucked up it is that this happens over and over again, is proof that the US can't think properly. It's sick. When you hit your mailbox everyday when backing out of the driveway, what do you do? Move the mailbox and thus remove the 'problem', or say you have a right to put your mailbox there and keep hitting it? 

.... I'd ask the question "What the fuck is wrong with you that you can't back out of the driveway without hitting something? Why don't we fix that instead."

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Friday, February 09, 2018

A Fatherhood Moment.

I am a horrible father. I'm impatient. I'm short tempered. I'm selfish. I'm everything that a father should not be and I'm nothing that a father should be. I accepted this fact years ago when Xavier came along. When Luca arrived I thought maybe I'd learned and would be a better father but nope...still the same. Knowing that I was not meant for fatherhood, I wanted to stop there but the wife badgered me into having another one and I gave in because we both wanted a girl so bad; along came Max and here we are. My parenting skills have not gotten any better but I have learned a valuable lesson: I love my kids more than anything in this world. And that means a lot apparently. Sometimes that's all it takes to be a good father I guess. You have good moments and bad moments and everything in between. Basically you just try to do the best you can...but sometimes you do something really right and it makes it all worthwhile. If you're lucky, you see it happen and when you do it makes all the bullshit you deal with worth it. Tonight was just such a night for me...

Basketball Jones Luca

So Luca is my sporty guy. He's an outstanding soccer player which makes me proud as soccer has always been my sport. But as he gets older, he is branching out into other sports. He is planning on playing flag football this summer, he's asked me if he can play baseball this year and he is currently playing CYS basketball. He has never played before but that didn't stop him. He excitedly asked if I could sign him up and of course I did so in a heartbeat because I am 100% in favor of ANYTHING that gets my kids away from their tablets and sports, to me, are the absolute best thing a kid can do. I played all the major spots growing up - baseball, basketball, soccer, hockey on the frozen ponds, football, I did it all, and I've been hoping my kids would follow in my footsteps. I've accepted by now that this will never happen but I'll take anything I can get. And so I'm thrilled that Luca is so interested in sports. THRILLED. But when it comes to Basketball, Luca is raw. Very raw. He goes to practice twice a week but with all the other kids, he only gets so much instruction and practice. And so a couple weeks ago, I took him to the gym on a Saturday and practiced with him, worked with him on his dribbling and shooting. That week he was decidedly the best player on the court as his team won their first game and he scored two baskets. The following week he played ok but he had several chances where he stole the ball and ran for what should have been an easy layup but he went too fast and lost control or threw up a brick. 

And so, without even realizing it,  I decided to be a father.

I took all three kids to the gym last Sunday and we had fun shooting hoops and such but I worked with Luca specifically on his layups. I put him through several drills to help him. At one point, I made him run full speed at the basket for a layup. I made him do it until he was tired but I didn't push him too hard. I could see him getting better better with each turn. 

Tonight was his 4th game of the year and his team lost by two points. But during the course of the game, he scored 6 points, all of them on layups. He had three breakaways and he scored on all of them - all of them on layups, exactly like we practiced them. I could not be prouder of him. I sat there and watched him and saw him do everything that I had practiced with him, exactly as I tried to teach him. And he did it. HE DID IT. 

When the game was over, he didn't care that his team had lost, all he cared about was that he had finally learned how to make a layup and he was just so proud that he'd done it in the game, that he'd scored six points. When we were walking out, he hugged me and thanked me for helping him. I didn't realize it at that moment but that's what it's all about. Teaching my kids. Being hard on them for their own good. Sometimes it pays off, sometimes it doesn't. 

Tonight it paid off. 

Thursday, February 08, 2018

My Favorite 80's TV Shows, Part II: Dramas (and one romantic comedy)

While SITCOMs were my favorite TV shows in the 80's, there were so many others that I enjoyed. Here's a list of my favorite dramas (and one romantic comedy) from the 80's...

MY TOP TEN 80'S DRAMAS (And one romantic comedy):

1. The Love Boat: I really don't how to describe my love affair with The Love Boat. The time period. The stories. THE GUEST STARS. I swear, anybody who was anybody was on the Love Boat in the 70's and 80's. I could - and probably will - do an entire blog post on my love affair with The Love Boat, although most people who have been my Facebook friends for several years already know of this...

2. The A-Team: This was a must watch for every testosterone filled boy in the 80's. It was tough for me because NBC put it on Tuesday nights at 8:00, the same time as Happy Days. I had to make a choice and, well, let's just say that Potsie and the gang lost by a mile...

3. Moonlighting: The one romantic comedy on the list; I was addicted to this show. I wanted to be just like David Addison, even bought the same sunglasses he wore on the show. And I had a huge thing for Cybill Shepherd as well.

4. The Greatest American Hero: It inexplicably lasted only three seasons. I never understood why as I never missed an episode and seemed like it should have had at least a five year run. Awesome show. Should have lasted longer. Hell, I probably could've written an entire season or two by myself. 

5. Dukes of Hazzard: I mean come on, what kid my age didn't fall in love with this show? The fact that a white bread kid from the extended suburbs of Boston could love this show about rednecks from Georgia so much spoke volumes of how good it was. And Daisy Duke...jee-zus. 

 6. Hunter: Fred Dryer Achieved semi-stardom in the 80's. A former pro football player, he never quite got over the 'superstar' line but he sure had his moments. His TV show Hunter was a great show and I loved it..."Works for me".

 7. Spencer: For Hire: By itself, this was a great show but the fact that it took place in Boston got me completely hooked. Avery Brooks as Hawk kicked ass. Great show, much better than Urich's "Vegas", but I digress...

8. Dallas: Full disclosure; my mom watched this show religiously and so we watched because of that. But we got hooked and caught up in the whole "Who Shot JR?" madness. Two words: Charlene Tilton. (Two more words: Kristen Shepard)

9. CHiPs: Ponch and Jon, cops on motorcycles, what was not to like? The Valley Girl episode still sticks with me after all these years.

10. Matt Houston: Just thought he was so freaking cool with his Texan ways and such. 

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

My Favorite 80's TV shows, Part I: SITCOMs

Anyone who knows me well or who has followed the blog in the past knows what an 80's fanatic I am. For me, the 80's will always be THEE perfect decade. Best movies, best music, best fashion, best...pretty much everything. Since I'm feeling nostalgic lately, let's look back at the best decade in the history of time and space, starting with the TV shows I loved...


1. Cheers: It was past our bedtime the first few seasons and I remember being excited when summertime came because it meant we got to stay up late and watch Cheers. Of course being the local Boston television market really made the show feel like it was "ours". My absolute favorite sitcom of the 80's.

2. Family Ties: One of my all-time favorite shows. Not sure why I loved it so much but it was appointment viewing for me growing up, every Thursday at 8:30, right after the Cosby Show. I wanted so badly to be Alex P. Keaton and what young boy didn't have a crush on Mallory in the 80's?

3. WKRP in Cincinnati: I actually never watched this one when it aired, I discovered it sometime around the mid-80's when it was on in reruns but man did I love it. The writing was just brilliant. I have bootleg DVDs of the entire series and I still watch them occasionally. Another one of my all-time favorites.

4. Cosby Show: I was hooked on this one from the very first episode. Sure it was groundbreaking, but mostly it was just plain FUNNY.

5. Happy Days: This was really as much a 70's show as an 80's show but we never missed it, Tuesday nights at  8:00. I think everyone my age grew up with Happy Days.

6. Silver Spoons: Ricky Schroeder and I were the same age and shared a first name (yes, I was known as Ricky most of my childhood) so I was jealous of him growing up because he had his own TV show. And he was living our ultimate fantasy - mega rich kid who had a working mini train, all the toys he wanted and arcade sized video games in his living room. 

7. Growing Pains: My high school years coincided with the two older siblings on this show so I related to it I guess.

8. Too Close for Comfort: Sort of a forgotten 80's sitcom but I loved it. Monroe was the funniest part about it but of course I'm sure that Sarah the voluptuous blond daughter had more to do with why I watched it...

9. Diff'rent Strokes: Regular Saturday night viewing when I was a kid. "What'chu talkin' bout Willis?" Then they ruined it by adding Sam the redhead since Gary Coleman's cuteness had long since departed and the show died a painful death.

10. Valerie/The Hogan Family: I started watching from the beginning when it was called 'Valerie" and found it ok but when she left after the second season and it reinvented itself as "The Hogan Family" it got much funnier and appealing.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Sunday, February 04, 2018

The New England Patriots...A Love Story.

With the Patriots playing in the Superbowl again tonight, looking for their 6th ring, I find myself reminiscing about how much things have changed since I started cheering for them as a kid. Growing up in New England - especially so close to Boston - you cannot escape the pro sports scene. Sports is practically a religion back home. I can't remember a time when I wasn't rooting for the "Big 4"; Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins and of course the New England Patriots. For most of my youth, the Patriots were awful, ranging from bad team to the laughing stock of the NFL. Our QB was a tough-as-nails journeyman named Steve Grogan who is perhaps best remembered for the big horse collar neck roll he wore during games because of neck problems. We had no superstars. Our best player was an offensive lineman, John "Hog" Hannah (seen by many as the best o-lineman of all time). We were so devoid of talent that for many years my favorite player was a little known Samoan running back name Mosi Tatupu. 

The Patriots of my youth: Grogan, Hog Hannah and Mosi Tatupu

The Patriots were so bad when I was growing up that many kids my age became fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Dallas Cowboys or San Francisco 49ers. But not me. My local teams were my local teams and I supported them through thick and thin. Of course, with the Patriots it was mostly thin...

In the 1983 draft, which became famous as the "QB Draft" with such names as Dan Marino, John Elway and Jim Kelly, the Patriots selected Tony Eason from Illinois. He turned out to be a bust but he did provide us Pats fans with one magical season in 1985 when the Patriots finished 11-5, made the playoffs as a wildcard and won three games on the road en route to their first Superbowl appearance. Unfortunately they had to play the '85 Bears who many consider the best team of all time. The 1985 season was the one that really cemented my love of our local football team. I was a freshman in high school and Patriots fever was at an all time high. The Miami Dolphins were our arch enemies at the time and we could never seem to beat them, especially in Miami. And so playing them in the AFC Championship game - in Miami - seemed an impossible task. But we believed. We adopted the motto "Squish the Fish!" and to our great delight, they did just that, winning an improbable AFC Championship in Miami's Orange Bowl. We were on such a high that we honestly thought we could upset the Bears and the battle cry turned from "Squish the Fish!" to "Berry the Bears!" (the play on words being that our head coach was Raymond Berry). I'll never forget starting the Superbowl with a fumble by the great Walter Payton which we turned into a field goal and a quick 3-0 lead. My dad's friend yelled "YEAH...WE'RE GONNA DO IT!"....then it was all downhill from there as the Bears Superbowl Shuffled all over the Pats 46-10, the lone Pats touchdown coming from Steve Grogan in garbage time. (The Bears beat the Pats on field but also off the field - their "Superbowl Shuffle" video became legend while this embarrassment was the best the Pats could muster).

The Patriots made the playoffs again the following year and quickly got booted by John Elway's Broncos. It got worse each year after that and by 1990 the Patriots hit rock bottom with a 1-15 season, the worst in franchise history. That was definitely the low point for me as a Patriots fan. The only bright spot was that the Pats had the #1 pick in the draft and "Rocket" Ismail was coming out. And then, in true Patriots fashion, it all fell apart again as Ismail ended up signing with the Canadian Football League and the Pats traded the #1 pick to the Cowboys for basically nothing. Typical Patriots. In 1991 they hired popular college coach Dick McPherson who wasn't much a coach but he brought enthusiasm, they rebounded to a 6-10 record and for a second we actually started thinking that the Pats were on their way back to respectability but then they completely self destructed again and finished the 92 season 2-14. Once again we were the worst team in the NFL and had the #1 pick in the draft. Even worse, the owner at the time, James Orthwein, was planning on moving the team to St. Louis and renaming them the "St. Louis Stallions". Sigh. Two major things happened that year (three, if you include the logo and uniform change); the Patriots hired Bill Parcells and they drafted gunslinger Drew Beldsoe with the first overall pick. These two events pumped excitement back into us fans but we watched the '93 season under a dark cloud as we all thought the Patriots were moving to St. Louis. I went to the last game of that season, an overtime win against the hated Dolphins, and I'll never forget it: after the game nobody left, we all stayed and cheered and cheered and cheered because we didn't know if it was the last Patriots game we would ever see. Parcells was so impressed that he walked around the stadium waving and shaking hands with the fans to thank us for being so loyal through all the bullshit. It was a great moment. Little did we know that fate was about to intervene on our behalf...

Hiring Bill Parcells and drafting Drew Bledsoe brought plenty of excitement

As I mentioned, Orthwein was planning on moving the team to St. Louis. There was one problem - and one person - who stood in his way. That person was Robert Kraft. Kraft was a lifelong Patriots fan and season ticket holder since 1971 (the year I was born. Coincidence? I think not) who had tried to buy the team a couple times in the past before getting outbid each time. Since he couldn't buy the team, he did the next best thing and bought the stadium. When Orthwein tried to move the team, Kraft refused to let him out of the lease which was locked in for almost 10 more years (Orthwein even offered him a whopping $75 million to let the team out of the lease yet Kraft refused, such was his devotion to keeping the Pats in New England). After trying to fight it, Orthwein finally threw his hands up, gave up and sold the team to Kraft for $172 million. At the time it was the most ever paid for an NFL team and we couldn't believe anyone would pay that much for the lowly Patriots...but we sure were glad he did! 

Things got better immediately. The Pats made the playoffs in 1994 (ironically losing to the Cleveland Browns who were coached by Bill Belichick) and then made another improbable Superbowl run in 1996. Of course the Superbowl was ruined for us fans by two things - the Brett Favre led Green Bay Packers and the fact that in the weeks leading up to the Superbowl word leaked that Parcells was leaving after the season to take over as coach of the New York Jets. It seemed like every time us Pats fans would start to get excited about the team doing well, something horrible would happen. It was like we were snakebitten, cursed by the NFL gods. Parcells left, they hired Pete Carroll who nobody was excited about, and they got progressively worse over the next 3 years. It was during this time that I re-enlisted active duty Army and left for Germany (1998). I flew down to Columbia, SC to do all my in-processing before going overseas and during a flight layover in Charlotte, NC I just happened to run into Drew Bledsoe in the airport. I actually got to chat with him for a minute or two, he was wicked friendly and told me I'd love Germany because of all the great beer (he was right!). It was quite a thrill for a lifelong Patriots fan like only regret was that I wasn't wearing my Drew Bledsoe jersey at the time.

In 2000, the Patriots hired Bill Belichick as coach, drafted Tom Brady in the 6th round of the draft and things were about to get a whole lot better for us Pats fans. We went 5-11 in 2000 and nobody expected us to do any better in 2001. How shocked we all were when Bledsoe got hurt and some guy named Tom Brady came in and led them to a divisional title and a first round bye! I was stationed here in Italy at the time and had to go to a field exercise in Germany for a couple weeks so I missed the divisional playoff game against the Raiders, famously remembered for the 'tuck rule' that saved the Patriots season. I remember waking up the next morning and calling down to the operations desk back in Italy on my cellphone just to get the score and how stunned I was that they'd actually won. I was able to watch the AFC Championship game against the hated Pittsburgh Steelers the following week in an MWR (Morale, Welfare and Recreation) tent and even though the Steelers were heavy favorites I knew we were going to win because their QB was Kordell Stewart. The Superbowl that year was a great memory for me. I HATED the fact that I wasn't back home watching it with my buddies but I made the best of it. I was working in the operations center of the base at the time and among other things, was in charge of setting up the videoteleconferences in the Commanding General's 'war room'. The game came on at midnight when the only person working was the operations NCO on duty so I went in and wired the VTC suite to AFN (Armed Forces Network), sat in the general's chair with a six pack of Sam Adams and watched my Patriots pull one of the biggest upsets in Superbowl history over the St. Louis Rams. I could not fathom that the Patriots had actually won a Superbowl. Little did I know it would not be their last.

2001: Beginning of the greatest dynasty in NFL history

Everyone knows the story from here. The Pats won three Superbowls in four years and became a juggernaut. As a fan it sucked being in Italy because I had to get up at midnight to watch the games but I dutifully did so. We were in the US for the last two Superbowl victories over the Seahawks and the Falcons last year. But here we are back in Italy for this year's game. Being back here getting ready to wake up again tonight at midnight to watch the Patriots in the Superbowl has me nostalgic and remembering how much things have changed for us Pats fans. Younger fans will never know just how tremendously awful the Patriots used to be. For us older fans, it has made us appreciate this current dynastic run that much more. What the Patriots have done in the last 17 years is unprecedented and may never be seen again. Bill Belichick is the greatest coach in the history of the NFL and Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback in the history of the NFL. Eventually the Pats will be bad again. Belichick and Brady will retire and the dynasty will end and the rest of the world will rejoice. I'm just glad I was able to witness it and will enjoy it until comes to an end.

The Greatest of All Time

Win or lose tonight, I will always be a Patriots fan!

Thursday, February 01, 2018

My Three Lions

Luca, Maximus & Xavier