Oohhhhh yeah.... a very reflective chapter for my Valley people! Enjoy!
Uncle Joey’s stay had only lasted three nights, but they were action packed for Sammy and the rest of the family. He had taken them to dinner at Chef’s on the second night, which was everyone’s favorite place for Italian food. Whenever they were there he would always challenge Sammy to an eating contest! Mother would then say, “Joey, you are going to get him sick. He’s only 12 for God’s sake and he barely weighs 100 pounds. He can’t eat all of that food!” He would smile and order two of the biggest plates of pasta available with 2 extra meatballs. When the food came, he’d wrap Sammy and himself in bibs and count to three to start eating. Forks would twirl and sauce would splatter all over the table as the two of them raced to put down the most pasta. The girls would chuckle and try to imitate them and mother would act completely embarrassed, but under her embarrassment was a smile she couldn’t hold back. Uncle Joey’s charm could soften anyone’s heart, no matter how bad his table manners were. After they had eaten all that they could, Uncle Joey would look up from his plate and smile at Sammy while rubbing his belly in satisfaction, proclaiming to be the winner. Sammy would smile back, the two of them carrying each a saucy mustache all around their lips. Mother would quickly dab their faces and scold them for eating so much saying, “There are starving children in Africa! Look at you two!” When the waitress came around Uncle Joey would have her go to the kitchen and weigh the leftovers to see who had “officially” won. Sammy found it kind of peculiar that despite almost always having more food on his plate than his uncle, he would be crowned the champion. The waitress always got a great tip from Uncle Joey.
While he was in town he also took them to the arena to watch the Buffalo Sabres play. This was a real treat since hockey tickets were expensive and hard to come by. The girls, who were only three at the time, knew most of the cheers for Sabres and were shouting, “Wets go Buffawo!!!” in their cute, three year old way, making the fans in the section laugh and cheer them on. It was a great game and a very happy time for all. Uncle Joey treated them very well when he was in town, but he also helped mother out very often with money. He would send a check every few months that would have a little note with it that said, “Take the kids to a movie or something ☺, Love Joey”. The money was far more than was necessary to go to the movies. It was his way of helping mom get through the tough times. She would always call him the minute one of those special envelopes came in the mail and say, “Joseph, you don’t need to do this. I’m sending this check back right away!”, but he would insist that she keep it. He had a heart of gold and was always sharing with others. The days spent with him were some of the best Sammy had in his life.
The night before he left, he and Sammy took a long walk behind the community center in the trails near the river. “Uncle Joey. Do you believe in magic?” Sammy asked while climbing a hill in the snow, just behind his uncle. “Of course I do Sam! Look at the river there in the distance. Every time I see it I am amazed at its beauty! This whole world is filled with magic. I love it!” “Well, I guess I meant the kind of magic where you can do things you didn’t think you could do,” Sammy replied. “I see. I believe there are many influences in the world and many powers that we won’t ever fully understand, but they are often there for us when we least expect it. I have done some things in my life that I never thought I would be able to do… I mean, I haven’t pulled a rabbit out of a hat or anything like that… if that’s what you are asking?” his uncle said. Sammy cast an unsure look to his uncle. He wasn’t sure if he could tell him about what happened a few days ago, but he really wanted to get it off of his chest. “Something happened to me the other day… and I’m not sure what to make of it. I can’t talk to mom because she will think that I’m on drugs or something. Plus, if she finds out she’ll just race me into church and plead Father Brown to shake the devil out of me” Sammy said quickly. Realizing he had let the cat out of the bag, he turned away and continued, “never mind Uncle Joey, it isn’t that important, just a crazy dream I had.” A few moments later, Uncle Joey put his hand on Sammy’s shoulder and said, “Don’t worry Sammy. You can tell me whenever you feel comfortable, or if you feel comfortable. I’ll give you my cell phone number before I leave tonight so you can call me anytime you want to talk about anything! You are old enough now that we can be buddies. I promise I won’t tell your mom or anyone else the things that we discuss in confidence.” “Thanks Uncle Joey. I really appreciate it!”
They walked the hills in the quiet night. A light dusting of snow was falling from the sky. Sammy knew the kind of magic his uncle was referring to. It was everywhere in nature. He always felt a special connection to the plants and animals in the fields behind the neighborhood, and he knew his uncle did too. All of the kids that grew up in the Valley had a great connection with that plot of land. For most of them, it was the only natural place they would experience in their lives. Every season cast a different hue on this place and a different glow in the hearts of the children who used it for their adventures.
Winters would offer a quiet walk, like the one Sammy was taking with his uncle. Then there were the weekend hockey games on the frozen pond, or “the swamp” as the kids called it. Often times, the older kids would climb the grain elevators just before a winter storm to watch it come in from the lake. This was an exhilarating and dangerous activity since the winds on top of the tall buildings could reach 60 or 70 mph. You could always find some driftwood and start a fire to warm yourself on a star lit night and sometimes kids would build an igloo out of the snow and ice to serve as a winter fort. Ah, forts were a mainstay in any weather! Who didn’t have a fort back there?
Spring would bring the wild flowers and trout fishing in the muddy river. The rains would pour down and you could sit on the old train trestle and watch the ice race down the river as it broke apart. It would make a crackling sound that could be heard around the neighborhood. The days would get a little longer and warmer, foreshadowing the coming summer. The pond would melt sometimes in one day and almost every year you would see a hockey net protruding from the muddy bottom until some intrepid explorer went in with his rubber boots and got it out! You could count on a host of kids sitting back there with old coffee cans and milk jugs capturing tadpoles to take home and raise into frogs.
Summer was the best. The break from school meant most kids would spend the entire summer back in the fields. You could sit on the end of Smith St., which was one over from St. Stephens, and fish for bass or walk the trails and catch snakes and frogs. Some kids swam in the river even though it was dangerous, and a spare inner-tube or barrel usually got converted into a makeshift boat to float down the river with. Besides the fishing and exploring, there was the endless games of hide n seek, bike races on the trails, rock wars, and the all-time favorite activity of any Valley kid (or any kid in general for that matter!) fort building! Forts were built in different spots every year and made from whatever materials kids found in the garbage or stole from their parent’s garage. Many neighborhood fathers would be perplexed during the summer months as tools and supplies from their garages and sheds would disappear and reappear everyday. You had to be sneaky about building forts. It was serious business; a constant mission, scouting, finding and moving goods and supplies back and forth. Plywood and good furniture were the most coveted items, along with tarps and hardware. The location of your fort was always top secret too, even though every fort was found, used and then destroyed by the bigger kids at some time or another. The worst was when they would set it on fire. A broken down fort could be fixed, but a burnt fort was history. Sammy and Eddie had built many a legendary fort when Eddie was still alive. The past couple summers, Sammy had been invited to a few forts to hang out, but it just wasn’t the same.
Fall would offer reprieve from the long days at school and a passing glimpse at the glory of summer. As the leaves would change and then fall from the trees, the kids would get to play less and less back in the fields, but they were always there for an adventure. Fall was a great time to see deer and fox and the occasional flock of wild turkey. Sammy finished the walk with his uncle that night and went to sleep with dreams of happy summer days in the fields. They were some of the most exciting days of a boy’s life!