Long Island Rail Road Moments That Tug At The Heartstrings

BY BRIAN PATRICK HARMON

The electrician and the sleepy attorney have commuted home on the train to the same station for some time — probably for years — but I doubt they had acknowledged each other before this moment:

“Hey, pal. We’re in Bay Shore,” the tough-looking contractor says in a soft but assertive tone while alerting the napping litigator with a gentle nudge on the arm.

For four years, I spent over three-and-a-half hours a day riding the Long Island Rail Road to work in Brooklyn. Riders always had plenty to whine about — what with the delays, the shutdowns and the steep ticket prices that always seemed on the verge of being hiked. But for those riders who pick their heads up from their smart phones now and then, there are plenty of feel-good moments to be seen and heard.

I once watched two riders team up to map out the quickest way to reach Jamaica via subway from Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn, after word spread that railroad service west of Jamaica was shut down “indefinitely.” Believe me, I have tried this, and it’s no picnic.

The two men analyzed the giant subway grid on the wall, then weighed the friendly and a bit too ample advice of a disheveled passerby. Finally, they walked to the Lafayette Avenue subway station.

There, they chatted about work and commuting before catching an A train to Broadway Junction, where they ambled up the steps to the elevated platform and soon boarded a J train bound for Jamaica. The two stayed by each other’s side until they boarded a LIRR train in Jamaica.

Romance — depending on its form — is nice to witness on the train. One rainy evening commute home, I caught a glance of a smartly dressed middle-aged man standing under an umbrella on the Islip station platform.

My train crept to a stop and I got a little choked up as the train door slid open right in front of where the man was standing and a woman stepped out into a warm embrace with the man before the two clasped hands and walk down the platform stairs. As the train pulled away, I watched the man gently guide the woman to the passenger door of his car. In a flash, they were out of sight.

What made this so heartwarming was that it was clearly a daily routine. How else would the man know just where to stand on the platform to greet his lady friend?

On another commute home, it was sure nice to find a $20 bill on the floor of the train, even though I may have pounced on it a little too fast. Out of guilt, I asked the nearest person, “Does this belong to you?”

He said, “No.” That was good. Good to find the 20 bucks, good to keep it and good that the man was honest.

The train was always good for chance encounters with old friends. For me, it was bumping into a former Daily News colleague, a high school football teammate or a fellow parent from my time living in Bethpage.

It was always a pleasure bumping into the coach of my daughter’s soccer team on the ride into work. Bob and I boarded in Patchogue, but Bob would hop off the train 20 minutes later for work in Babylon.

Commutes with Coach Bob represent the best of both worlds for me. I get just enough stimulating conversation before Bob’s stop. Then, when he’s off, I’m able to kick back, read the paper and tinker with my iPhone.

It was a pleasure watching old friends meet and hug. And it was nice to see a young family board the train together, embarking on an exciting trip to The City. They worry about things most commuters don’t: Should we sit in a seat facing the direction we’re traveling in? Do we change in Jamaica? What time do we arrive at Penn Station?

I frequently saw regular riders switch their seats on the train to make room for a couple or a family to sit together.

It was wonderful to see a regular rider who speaks fluent Spanish step in to serve as translator between a conductor and an elderly Hispanic man who had boarded a train without a ticket. The Hispanic man clearly did not understand the conductor’s English – even when the conductor spoke very loud and very, very slow.

From what I could tell, the amateur interpreter asked the man in Spanish, “What station are you getting off at?” I was able to make out “qué estación.”

The man replied, “Jamaica.” Then she informed him — in Spanish of course — that if he didn’t have money for a ticket, the conductor needed to see “identificación.”

The man quickly dug up his I.D. and the last I saw of him, he was on the platform filling out paperwork.

It was especially good to see common sense prevail on the train, like when a regular rider realized it’s a new month, but was already on an evening train back to Long Island and hadn’t purchased his monthly ticket. When the conductor came around to check tickets, the rider barely uttered the syllable “for-” in the word “forgetting,” before the conductor recognized him and quietly agreed to give the guy a pass for the ride home.

What makes the LIRR good — even great — on many days are the riders. Sure, they can be cranky and gruff and want their quiet and their space, but given the opportunity to reveal their goodness, they rise to the occasion again and again.

*This an updated version of my column that ran in the Riverhead News-Review on April 7, 2012.*

Photo credit: Emmanuel Nicolas

Royals Run Recalls Memories of Rooting Against the Dreaded New York Yankees

BY BRIAN PATRICK HARMON

Their center fielder introduced me to the beauty of an inside-the-park home run. Their submarine closer seemed to scrape his knuckles on the mound with every pitch. And one of their shortstops played with a toothpick dangling from his mouth.

They were the Kansas City Royals of the late 1970s and early 1980s, a talented and character-laden team that hit, ran and pitched their way to six division crowns in a 10-year span, ultimately winning the franchise’s first World Series in 1985.

Often, these Royals were the last team standing in the way of yet another World Series appearance for the New York Yankees. And as such, in my family, they were a team worth rooting for.

It was a drag being a young diehard New York Mets fan during the Carter Administration – back when Joe Torre was cutting his eventual Hall of Fame skipper’s teeth as the Amazins’ manager. For seven consecutive seasons, the Mets finished last or next-to-last in the National League East.

So come October – certainly if I wanted to stay in the good graces of my grandfather – the team to pull for was whichever team was facing the Yankees in the playoffs.

It certainly didn’t seem like such a good idea in 1976. That was when I watched with my little mouth agape as Yankees first-baseman Chris Chambliss slugged a walk-off homer in the decisive Game 5 win over the Royals in the American League Championship and somehow made it around the bases in spite of the thousands of frenzied fans that had stormed the field at Yankee Stadium.

It didn’t get better in 1977 or 1978. The Yankees eliminated the Royals in the playoffs those seasons too. Kansas City finally defeated the Yankees in a playoff series in 1980 and reached its first World Series.

So embarrassed by the loss was Yankees owner George Steinbrenner that he fired his manager Dick Howser, even after the team won 103 games during the regular season. Stuff like that made it easy to root against the Yanks.

A bit of irony: Howser managed Kansas City when they defeated cross-state rival St. Louis in the 1985 World Series.

I certainly hadn’t given those Royals teams much thought over the last three decades, not with the Royals holding court at the bottom of the American League standings season after season. But the team’s rocket ride through the playoffs this season got me thinking about the players on those consistently good Royals teams.

At the top of the list is Willie Wilson, the Royals fleet-footed center fielder from 1977 to 1986, whose blinding speed turned some games into track meets. I still see him in my mind lacing one in the gap at the then-Royals Stadium and whirling around the bases for a game-winning inside-the-park home run in an extra-inning game with the Yankees. He hit a total of 13 inside-the-park homers.

It’s easy to recall watching reliever Dan Quisenberry – the perennial Rolaids Relief Man in the American League – closing win after win with his submarine delivery.

U.L. Washington was the Royals shortstop who played with a toothpick in the corner of his mouth at the plate and in the field. He switched to a Q-tip when parents of youth players complained.

But who can forget that? I still have baseball cards with U.L. slyly grinning and chomping on a toothpick.

I challenged myself to remember the regulars from the 1976 team. I came up with seven of the nine regulars and managed to accurately name four starting pitchers, Paul Splitorff, Dennis Leonard, Doug Bird and Andy Hassler.

I thought for sure that Darrell Porter was the Royals catcher that season, but my research at mlb.com revealed he didn’t arrive in Kansas City until 1977. As it turned out, Buck Martinez and Bob Stinson shared time behind the plate in 1976.

Right field was the only other gap in my memory for the starters on that 1976 team. Al Cowens, who finished second in voting for the American League MVP award in 1977 was Kansas City’s regular right fielder from 1974 to 1979. Missing his name smarted.

Of course, it was easy to remember George Brett — who hit .390 in 1980 and seemed to win the American League batting title every year Twins and Angels star Rod Carew didn’t — being the heart and soul of the team. He was Kansas City’s third-baseman for 21 seasons.

The 1976 team was solid up the middle with center fielder Amos Otis; shortstop Freddie Patek, who standing 5-foot-five was the shortest player of his time; and longtime Royals second-baseman Frank White.

Big John Mayberry was the slugging first-baseman, Hal McRae was the clutch-hitting DH and Tom Poquette was the journey-man leftfielder for the 1976 squad.

Brett, White, McRae and Wilson, who played sparingly as a rookie in 1976, were still key contributors on the 1985 team that won it all.

Here’s hoping their re-appearance in the World Series this year is an omen of things to come in the 2015 season for my Mets, who won the World Series in 1986.

With Football and Hazing, History Repeats Itself

By BRIAN PATRICK HARMON

It was theater in its ugliest form:

Two half-naked freshman football players being forced by teammates twice their size to lick each other’s nipples.

An audience that by most accounts exceeded a dozen players eagerly watched the degradation – and cheered. It only got worse – far worse – for the pint-size 13-year-olds.

Next came demands to simulate oral sex on a banana held against the groin of one of the three attackers – much to the delight of the ogling crowd. Then, the ringleader in this varsity trio lowered the hazing attack to new depths.

Witnesses said that with rock music blaring and duct tape at the ready to drown out the screams, a hulking 16-year-old lineman grabbed a broomstick and dipped it in Mineral Ice.

This was part of the horrific pre-season football camp scene in August 2003 that landed three upperclassmen from Long Island’s Mepham High School in jail and led to the cancellation of Mepham’s football season. The depiction above – describing one of the many attacks on Mepham freshmen inside a cabin at a sleep-away camp in Honesdale, Pa. – kicked off a story I wrote back then, as a reporter for New York’s Daily News.

The paper, committed to being the first media outlet to identify the teens accused in the attacks, wanted to deliver a strong, compelling story. Editors said the writing and reporting were fine, but what I submitted was too strong. What did get published was a version that toned down the details and pulled back on the drama, but was nonetheless influential in that it named the accused.

2014-10-11-mepham3.png

Daily News Dec. 21, 2003

The details that began to emerge last week of the alleged hazing attacks involving members of New Jersey’s Sayreville War Memorial High School football team are no less shocking. This fall – before school district administrators appropriately cancelled the remainder of the season on Oct. 7 – freshman football players were routinely subjected to sexual attacks carried out by seniors during a locker room ritual, police said.

Seven players – aged 15 to 17 – were criminally charged Oct. 10 for their involvement in sexual assaults on younger players. One parent, informed by his son, told a reporter with NJ Advance Media for NJ.com that a victim would be held by multiple older players while a finger was inserted into his rectum. The same finger was sometimes placed in the freshman’s mouth, according to the NJ.com report.

At the time of the arrests, the coaches – except the assistant arrested for steroids possession a week before the hazing story broke – still had their jobs.

Hazing – in varying degrees of severity – exists at all levels of team sports. In the NFL, summer camps each year yield images of rookies wrapped and immobilized by yards and yards of athletic tape.

Last month, rookies across Major League Baseball were encouraged by the veterans on their respective teams to carry out goofy public acts. On the team’s website, the New York Mets proudly posted embarrassing photos of sheepish-looking rookies pushed into parading around the clubhouse dressed in feminine super hero costumes.

Given how widespread hazing is, it cannot be eliminated. And nor should it be – so long as it’s all in good fun, it’s not dangerous and the participants are willing. However, it should be carefully monitored and contained, particularly at the high school level.

Coaches may want to rein in the seemingly good-natured hazing that calls on freshmen to clean the field or carry off all the equipment after practice. Simply because this type of delegating makes an impression on young minds that the lowerclassman is something lesser than the rest of the team.

Another factor to consider is that when a school team’s hazing customs go unchecked, the bullying will grow more degrading every season. In many instances, each class looks to top its predecessor.

Consider that during Mepham football’s 2002 pre-season camp, the worst hazing act was a swirly, which involves holding someone upside down and dipping the person’s head into a toilet bowl as it is flushed.

Seems mild when you look at what happened at their camp in 2003.

With one 250-pound lineman sitting on top of the fully-naked victim, the equally beefy ringleader of the Mepham hazing attack began violating the freshman with a broomstick that had been dipped in Mineral Ice. Duct-tape muffled the screams. Laughter from the spectators and the beat of the music took care of the muffles.

Back and forth, the attackers bounced between two freshmen. Friends since kindergarten, the two teen victims were now linked as objects facing bizarre brutality.

Similar attacks were repeated throughout the five-day camp, with the attackers adding beatings and pine cones and golf balls to their sadistic repertoire. Those objects were also dipped in Mineral Ice.

By some accounts, the attackers grew tired of the assault and allowed the victims to return to their bunks with golf balls still inside them.

2014-10-11-mepham1.jpg

2014-10-11-mepham2.jpg
Wayne County, Pa., court documents

Photo: By trowel317 via Flickr

High School Football Deaths Stir Disturbing Memories of Youth Football

BY BRIAN PATRICK HARMON

What follows is a true American football moment. It happened on Long Island.

“Break his leg! Break his f—ing leg!”

It was the waning moments of a damp September fourth quarter, and football, as it often does, had brought out the ugly side of one of its fans. In this case, the red-faced rooter was a 30-something dad imploring his son, an outside linebacker, to maim the opposition’s running back.

The boys playing were nine and 10. Fifth grade. Pee wees.

The father wasn’t a coach. Nor was he one of the three volunteers holding the yard markers. But there he was, stomping along the sideline, ensuring junior could hear dad’s commands.

2014-10-04-footballphoto3.jpg

Credit: Eileen Torres


I can only surmise that this man’s sideline presence and profanity were permitted because his place of business hosted end-of-season award parties for teams in the local pee-wee league. Perhaps, his bulging biceps and the veins popping from his neck also played a role.

Similarly boorish was the head coach of the team this father was pulling for. His own son had an intense fear of football’s most basic requirement – hitting. To remedy this lack of meanness, the coach took several drastic measures.

Two were especially disturbing.

During practice, he routinely would sic the two most aggressive players on the team against his son during full-contact drills. “Again,” he shouted, each time his son wound up on the wrong end of a ferocious pummeling. Yes, some 10-year-old’s hits are ferocious.

“Don’t help him up,” the coach would add. Only after the tears flowed from his son’s eyes did this moronic exercise cease.

As if this wasn’t enough to encourage his son to hate him (and football), the coach had the same two boys come to his home to engage in hitting drills with his son in the backyard. This time – the coach bragged to me – the drills continued in spite of his son’s crying.

The coach wasn’t much nicer to the rest of his players. Random and nonsensical screaming were the norm during practices. And his sideline griping at games was legendary in its filth, particularly those times when his team fell a “c— hair” short of reaching a first-down.

Taught and played correctly, football is an incredibly violent game, where the threat of serious injury hovers over every single play. Even the kookiest football parents – the ones that spew blood-curdling screams and howl like wolves when their sons do them proud with big hits and long runs – fear the worst during games and are thankful after every play that their son doesn’t need to be carried off the field.

So when you add irresponsible parents masquerading as coaches to the sport, the results are frightening.

From youth leagues to the National Football League, inspiring, compassionate and sensible coaches are abundant at every level of the grid-iron food chain. But so are the ignorant, selfish and immoral ones.

Coach Brady Hoke at the University of Michigan has been widely criticized for allowing his wobbly sophomore quarterback Shane Morris to remain in the Wolverines’ home game Saturday, Sept. 27, against Minnesota after a crushing hit that left him stumbling, dazed and obviously concussed.

Students and other fans are calling for Hoke’s job. Though, sadly, they really want Hoke axed more because his team is lousy than because of the way he handled his quarterback. Still, a team as big as Michigan’s has dozens of coaches and trainers. Someone should have acted fiercely enough to keep the injured Morris off the field.

When the news flashed on my phone Wednesday night that 16-year-old Tom Cutinelladied after a violent collision playing football for Shoreham-Wading River High Schoolin Long Island, New York, I was horrified. My thoughts quickly raced to my teenage son, sleeping in the bedroom down the hall. He wasn’t yet five and barely 40 pounds when he started playing tackle football.

2014-10-04-harmonblogpost1.jpg

Credit: Eileen Torres

Outwardly, he enjoyed the game, getting high praise for wild touchdown runs and earning monikers like “assassin” and “terminator” for big hits. But after 10 seasons in helmet and pads, this summer he asserted he would not be playing this fall.

I was quite concerned with what he’d do with his time after school, but my gut reaction was relief – intense relief. Join the golf team, I suggested.

I helped coach my son’s youth league teams and I shake my head at some of the tackling and blocking drills I ran my players through. Looking to instill a toughness in little kids who wanted no part of colliding full speed with another child, I reasoned that I was protecting them – that they would be more likely to get injured if they played with fear.

I should have suggested their parents pull them from football and ask for their money back from the league.

Many people are reasoning that deaths like Tom Cutinella’s are random. But can it really be a surprise that now and then a child is killed playing a sport where players are dressed like modern day gladiators and success is predicated on which team hits harder? Also, consider that NFL teams erect statues of legends who were essentially paid concussionists, i.e. the Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Lewis.

There’s a magic in playing football. The game offers discipline and serves up powerful lessons in perseverance. And then there’s the camaraderie that you cherish for a lifetime. There’s a one-of-a-kind adrenaline rush that comes from battling with all you have alongside your teammates.

Whether we won or lost, I wouldn’t trade my football teammates from high school or college for anyone else.

2014-10-04-harmoncollegeball.jpg

This is from 1990 when I was a senior outside linebacker for Buffalo State College. I am #48 chasing down the Hobart quarterback. Source: Buffalo State College

As a player and as a coach, I was under football’s spell for a long time. But the mounting data documenting the sport’s adverse health effects, along with the NFL’s handling of domestic abuse cases and the fact that college athletes still get no share of college sports’ $11 billion in annual revenue has broken the enchantment.

Clearly, with hundreds and hundreds of billions tied up in television contracts for college and pro football and with millions of fans attending games at all levels each week, football doesn’t need me.

But for the sake of its players, young and old, it needs some change. Here are some suggestions:

  • Mandatory training for youth football coaches.
  • Be certain youth players have properly fitting equipment, including a molded mouthpiece.
  • Require that certified trainers be present at every game played.
  • Ban tackle football to children under 12.
  • Eliminate for-profit youth football leagues.
  • Compensate college players financially – with at least something. Whether they’re a practice squad player or a Heisman Trophy winner, they’re all sacrificing blood, sweat and untold physical damage, while their coaches earn millions in salaries and endorsements and their schools rake in billions in revenue.

theharmonizer@gmail.com

@theharmonizer

Continue reading