Football lessons from the ‘71 Point Boro Dust Bowl

The 1971 Point Pleasant Borough High School Varsity Football team

When I was a little kid, I learned about the game of football from my father, Loren Donley. Among my earliest memories are watching NFL games with him on a black and white TV with rabbit ears in Point Pleasant, New Jersey in the mid-1960s. We watched the Green Bay Packers beat the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL championship game on January 1, 1967. Then, two weeks later, we watched the Packers win the AFL-NFL World Championship Game against the Kansas City Chiefs. This was before that game became known as the Super Bowl. 

I also watched The Ohio State University Buckeyes on Saturdays with my dad. He taught me about Coach Woody Hayes and what it meant to be a Buckeye like he was. This is something that kind of gets into your veins and doesn’t ever come out. Even though I graduated from Rutgers and have lived in Detroit for almost 40 years now—and attended my share of games at the Big House in Ann Arbor—I will always be a Scarlet and Gray Buckeye.

However, there was nothing like the thrill of going with my dad to the Point Boro high school football games on Saturdays as a little kid. Although I didn’t really understand all the rules, I knew when I heard the Panther marching band play “Hail to the Varsity” the Boro had scored another touchdown. As I recall, this happened seven or eight times a game every week in the 1960s.

By the time I was eight years old I was wearing the Black and Gold in my home town. I still recall the smell of those warm autumn afternoons during football season and what it felt like to drive home with my dad after another Point Boro win.

Like all the kids in my neighborhood, I was proud to be associated with a high school football program that went three complete seasons in a row without losing a single game. And, also like them, I was disappointed when the Panthers lost to Manasquan in 1970 and ended their winning streak at 34-0. We learned that being “undefeated,” like everything else in life, must eventually come to an end. 

Naturally, when I was old enough, I wanted to play competitive tackle football. I wanted to put on shoulder pads, pants, cleats and a helmet more than anything, so I practiced as much as I could. I played touch football in the street in front of my house with the other kids from the neighborhood. My dad would throw the ball with me and the other boys in the back yard. I wanted to be a running back like Cleveland’s #32 Jim Brown or the Packer’s #23 Travis Williams. Most of all, I dreamt of one day carrying the ball for the Panthers. 

In the summer of 1971, at age eleven—between the fifth and sixth grades—I tried out for the Point Pleasant Golden Elks Pop Warner Pee Wee football team. The program had two squads: 10-12 year old Pee Wees and 12-14 year old Midgets. The Golden Elks included kids from Point Beach and Point Boro and, since the number of players trying out exceeded the number of available spaces, the coaches had to make cuts.

Playing football as a youngster teaches you many things. For one, you get to figure out how tough you are and see quickly if you really have what it takes to play the game. Sure, you need athletic skills like speed, quickness and vision. You also need ball skills like throwing and catching a spiral. If you have size and strength, these are a big plus. But more than any of these other things, if you have heart and can handle the contact, you can compete. This is a quality that you cannot fake. You don’t get to make excuses; you can either take and make the hits or you can’t, period.

Anyway, on the final day of Pee Wee tryouts, my name was not called among those who made the Golden Elks team and I was completely crushed. It was a long drive home that evening in mid-July from the Point Beach Antrim School practice field, staring out the car window with tears running down my cheeks.

My dad understood my disappointment, especially since his parents did not let him play football when he was a kid growing up in Ohio. Just like many parents today, my grandparents were worried that my dad might get hurt. They didn’t want him to end up like his older brother Dale who broke his arm so badly playing high school football that he could no longer straighten it out … for the rest of his life. 

My dad Loren Donley and Coach Al Saner in 1971-72.

‘71 Panthers manager

So, my dad—who was the vocal music teacher at Point Boro High School—had a conversation with Panther head football coach Al Saner about my situation. Somehow, between the two of them, they hatched this idea that I should be a manager (a.k.a. water boy) for the Panther varsity squad in the upcoming season.

Well, that’s how I ended up, from early August to late October 1971, with Coach Saner and his staff—Mr. Spincola, Mr. Gilmore, Mr. Vancardo, Mr. Russell, Mr. Anderson and Mr. Leibfried—and became part of another Panther championship season. For me, this turned out to be an opportunity of a lifetime.

I remember those three months like they took place yesterday. I learned so many things—mostly to do with football that I can talk about and some other life stuff that I can’t really bring up because, well, they’re not PG—that have stayed with me to this day. It all took place in the team meetings, at the preseason scrimmages, in the locker room and equipment room and during the home and away games, including the bus rides to and from the other schools and especially on the practice field at Memorial School known as the Dust Bowl.

The players I remember most were the ’71 Panther seniors (front row, left to right in the team photo above): Butch Gordon (33), Ron Stone (46), Michael Swigon (32), Paul Ridge (86), Ken Stahlin (44), Jim Williams (14), Rich Leibfried (18), Tony DiVanno (95), Frank Bomenblit (61), Craig Bessinger (51), Geoff Lee (94) and Tom Chadwick (64). While there were many other players on the team that I got to know, these guys really took a liking to me.

Since nearly everyone on the team had a nickname, on the first day of summer practice they gave me one too: they started calling me “Harry.” This was because my last name was very similar to that of Harry Donnelly, the former Point Boro offensive coach who had left the district after the previous season. I’m not certain who gave me that name, but it stuck. They would say, “Hey Harry, go get me the ball bag” or “Harry, I need a mouthpiece” or “Harry, can you fix my chin strap?”

In addition to being at their side for every practice and running water bottles out to the field during game time-outs, I carried equipment kits, I fixed helmets and shoulder pads, I moved blocking and tackling dummies and other practice equipment and I made sure the water hose was running and available on the practice field (when they were allowed to drink from it).

Most of the senior backs and receivers had their own locker room up front next to coaches locker room. Although Coach Saner didn’t want me hanging around there—mainly because he thought I might hear some stuff that wasn’t meant for the ears of an eleven-year-old kid—I’d go in there anyway and listen to the conversations taking place. 

Sometimes there were rivalries like when Ron Stone and Paul Ridge debated who had more receiving TDs on the season. Other times, they talked about injuries like the time QB Rich Leibfried got knocked out with a rib injury in the dog-fight-of-a-game against Wall Township. And, of course, they also talked about their high school sweethearts.

Other times they would tell jokes. I remember a couple of these—although I can’t say who told them or how they went exactly—other than to recall that one was about a lady football player who got knocked out during a game and the other had to do with a field inspection of British Commandos. 

Anyway, when summer practice began, the first team meetings took place in the gym. The players all sat in one section of bleachers as the coaches introduced themselves. There was a chalk board where things were sketched out and gone over in detail.

When he took attendance, Coach Saner sometimes had a hard time with last names, especially those of the new JV players, and there were some laughs when he botched them up pretty good. While there were quite a few funny moments here and there, those meetings were dead serious, all about football and all about getting ready for the ‘71 season.

Three yards and a cloud of dust

There were also squad meetings in different classrooms in the high school to teach the offensive and defensive schemes and plays. Anyone familiar with those early Point Boro football teams knows that Coach Saner had a preference for the run game. My dad referred to it as “three yards and a cloud of dust.” The offense was not complicated and was based on grind-it-out strength and power strategy. Coach Saner was not a big fan of passing the ball and he was known to say, “When you throw the football, only three things can happen and two of them are bad.”

On most plays, the Panthers used the I-Formation with a wing back off the tight end and with one wide receiver on the opposite side of the power. The playbook consisted mostly of running off-tackle or between the guard and tackle with the fullback as a lead blocker. The QB would hand the ball off to the half-back who followed the fullback through the hole.

On the ’71 team, the fullback blocking responsibility was assigned to Ken Stahlin. He was probably the fiercest football player I had ever seen. I remember seeing him regularly take out linebackers left and right to clear the path for halfback Mike Swigon. Plus, when he got the chance to carry the ball, he did not try to go around would-be tacklers. Wham! 

Anyway, the Point Boro offense also had the occasional pitch to the halfback from the Wing-T. In those days, there was no shotgun, and the QB was always under center. On very rare occasions, the wing back would take an inside reverse hand-off with a pulling guard making a trap block or the wide receiver would come around on a reverse. This wide receiver reverse worked very well for the ’71 Panthers with Ron Stone taking the ball and sprinting down the sideline like lightning. Wow!

On every play, the QB Rich Leibfried always faked a bootleg after the handoff and, every once in a while, he would fake the handoff to the half back and bootleg around the right or left edge, usually for a long gain, since no one was expecting it. This could be tried once or twice per game because the defense always adjusted and started looking for it.

As I mentioned, football is a very hard game. The practices in those days were nothing short of agonizing, especially for the linemen. I remember how, after what seemed like hours of blocking drills in the Dust Bowl over by the trees next to Memorial School, the white practice uniforms of the linemen would be covered from top to bottom in dirt, blood and mud.

Those line drills were run by Coach Vincent Spincola. I think you could say Coach Spincola was a Jersey Shore Italian, but not the fake kind that was later made popular by reality TV. No, he was a real New Jersey Italian with a noticeable North Jersey accent and a vocabulary to go with it. He had slicked back dark hair with an M-shaped receding hairline. He smoked and his voice was really gruff and harsh.

Coach Spincola had this laugh that could be very embarrassing for a player who might be the object of his humor. He would drop his jaw wide open and a little bit to the side and release a deep and massive “Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha” from his diaphragm, kind of like the way Ray Liotta laughs in the movie “Good Fellas.”

Anyway, those linemen drills were probably the most grueling and violent thing I had ever witnessed. Coach Spincola was relentless. He saw his job as making a lineman tough or making him cry. Let’s just say it probably wouldn’t be considered politically correct today the way he coached those boys back then. On the other hand, he coached some of the greatest offensive and defensive lines to ever play Jersey Shore high school football.

I found myself staying over there with the linemen quite a bit because that’s where I was needed the most in terms of busted equipment and first aid gear. Plus, I got to learn some new words hanging around Coach Spincola. For example, I found out what “gonads” were. Although I didn’t know it at the time, it turns out this is a completely legitimate biological term. Coach Spincola illustrated the concept by placing his hands in a “V” shape in front of his groin area and explaining that this is where a lineman is supposed to put his face when properly making a block or a tackle.

“Hail, hail”

During those drills, Coach Spincola had this cadence he would call out that is something I will never forget. I am sure that those players will never forget it either. Coach Spincola used it to signal the linemen that it was time to come off the ball and make contact with each other in the drills. It was a two-word, rapid-fire thing with no space in between.

You might normally think of it as “hut one, hut two,” but instead with Coach Spincola it went something like this: “hail, hail.” Come to think of it, I’m not really sure if he was saying “hail” or “hell.” Either way, it was absolutely terrifying because immediately after this verbal command, all you could hear was the crashing of helmets and shoulder pads and some grunting noises.

Coach Spincola was extremely hard on those players. I heard him say many things during those sessions that I really can’t repeat. However, I also know in my heart and believe to this day that he really loved those boys like they were his own sons. He was always the first to congratulate them when they got their job done on the field during the games. In those situations, you were “perfecto” in Coach Spincola’s eyes. That is, of course, as long as you weren’t out there crouching around on your hands and knees at the line of scrimmage like you were “picking up quarters.”

One day—after the linemen had carved a pit on their side of the Dust Bowl from the one-on-ones, two-on-ones and three-on-twos for what seemed like hours—Coach Spincola gave these guys a breather. This break consisted of being allowed to remove their hats (he always referred to helmets as “hats”) and take one knee. Then, after a whistle blow from Coach Saner on the other side of the Dust Bowl, I remember how everyone looked up and saw the offensive backs and receivers come jogging by to take a lap. Seeing not even a single grass stain on their pristine practice uniforms, Coach Spincola shook his head and said, “There go the white knights!”

Although I was eleven and the Boro players looked like men to me, they were teenage boys who were often pushed to physical and emotional extremes during those practice sessions. Back then, there was no such thing as “hydration” and the manager staff didn’t have any Gatorade. Water was a luxury and a reward. If a player even asked for a drink before the approved water breaks as a group—usually from the end of a sprinkler hose—they were considered weak or worse.

In 1971, there was also no such thing as what we know today as an athletic trainer. If a player was hurt during practice, it was the job of the manager staff to provide instant ice-packs, tape, gauze, butterfly band-aids or whatever. We also had ammonia capsules to wake players up after they had their “bell rung,” we had salt tablets for guys who were suffering from dehydration. We had Atomic Balm for bruises and contusions. Meanwhile, we prepared ice baths and hot tubs in the locker room for players to soak in, especially after the games.

I saw enough blood, black and blue wounds, cuts and gashes for a lifetime during those few months. I witnessed more broken noses, shoulder and neck injuries, gouges that required stitches, severe bruises and limb joint and finger dislocations than I care to remember. I can still hear Coach Saner hollering out “manager” in a loud Tarzan-kind-of-way when one of the players needed attention from the staff. To the best of my ability, I was always right on it.

The first scrimmage of the season was held on one of the practice fields at the high school. I think it was on a Saturday. The players from Point Boro and the other team—I can’t remember who it was—wore their practice uniforms with no numbers on them. One side always wore colored bibs so you could tell which players were on what team.

One thing that really sticks out in my mind from that hot summer day, was the first offensive series by the Panthers. I was standing on the sideline with the coaches and the play was a handoff up the middle to Mike Swigon. He made it past the linebackers and broke to the outside along the sideline where I was standing and came running past me with a defender on his tail.

I saw the look on Swigon’s face up close and the look on the defenders face too. I could hear both of them breathing heavily out of their mouths and noses. There was this cloud of dust being kicked up behind them as they ran down the sideline. Swigon beat that other guy all the way to the end zone and everyone on the Panther sideline was really thrilled.

It was in that one moment, all at once, that I understood for the first time what football was really about; I realized that the players were basically fighting—like their life depended on it—with every ounce of energy and determination in their souls. To be a football player, you had to give everything you had on every play and this is what it took to be a winner.

Pregame speeches

Once the season started, I looked forward to the pregame talks from Coach Saner. Sometimes, he wouldn’t let me in the locker room because the speech he was about to make was meant for the team only. To my memory, Coach Saner had this way of addressing and connecting with the players at the deepest level.

His talks were always genuine and straight to the point. He would start off quietly and slowly and his intensity would build. He would periodically pause to let things sink in. And, on occasion, when you thought he might be finished—sometimes he even turned away like he was getting ready to walk out of the locker room—when, all of a sudden, he’d swing around and start right back up again. 

Even though Coach Saner earned a reputation for malapropisms and mixed metaphors, he always made a connection between football and life in general. His speeches were exceptionally inspirational and he got the players—and anyone else around there who heard him—fired up to the point where they would go out on the field and give everything they had regardless of who the opponent was.

Coach Saner was genuine and did not have a pretentious bone in his body. Somehow—even though you knew how important it was to him that the team win the game—you also knew that Coach Saner always had the bigger picture of life beyond football in mind during his talks. 

I also remember several speeches given by team captains in the locker room before the games and at halftime. In one instance, I recall Craig Bessinger’s talk before a home game (I believe it was the Manasquan game). He was unable to play due to a neck injury and he talked to his teammates about how important it was to him that they fight to the last. This was a game that he had been preparing for all season and he wasn’t able to participate. This was very emotional and inspirational; I learned first-hand about what it takes to be a leader in the face of challenges and disappointments.

During the home games, one of the Point Boro ambulance squads was always on hand in the event of a major injury that required hospital attention. We also always had the presence of Dr. Duwlett who would examine players after an injury with a peculiar kind of dispassion. His evaluations would almost always end with an agreement that the injured player was OK to go back into the game. There was no “concussion protocol” in those days and players regularly returned to the field even though they more than likely shouldn’t have. 

I remember the first game of the ‘71 season. It was a home game against Keansburg and it was a very hot day. There were a couple of kids around my age who showed up in the locker room that Saturday morning expecting to jump in front of me as water boys because they had done it before. However, Coach Saner knew that I had been there since day one of summer practice and he made sure I was first in line. It was a real thrill for me to walk out behind the team onto the field and hear the band playing and crowd cheering. Point Boro won that game 60-0.

The second game of the season against Central Regional was a different story. The Class D Panthers were routed by the Class C Golden Eagles by a score of 36-0. This was a shock and the team had to bounce back. The Boro won the subsequent three games 50-0 (Keyport), 60-8 (Point Beach) and 16-15 (Marlboro).

The biggest game of the season was, of course, against Manasquan. This was the opportunity for Point Boro to avenge the loss from the previous season that ended the Panthers 34-game winning streak. It was time for pay-back and the Panthers came out ready to play. However—due to some lousy calls on the field, in my opinion—we came up short and lost the game 14-12. The Boro finished out the season with three more wins against Wall (8-6), Tom’s River North (18-7) and Jackson (30-16) and were the undisputed Shore Class D champions with a record of 7-0 in the conference.

When the 1971 football season came to an end, as the weather got colder as fall turned to winter, I became a 12 year-old and moved on to the other things that kids in middle school do. I started spending time with my friends riding bikes, playing with HO cars and chasing after the beautiful young ladies in the sixth grade with my heart in my hand.

The next summer I tried out again for the Golden Elks Pee Wee squad. I made the team this time. I became a running back and got to wear #32 just like Jim Brown. I played one more season as a Golden Elks Midget the next year and, shortly thereafter, my football days also came to an end. Eventually, when I got to high school, I did get to wear the Black and Gold … as a member of the Panther marching band.

As I look back today on those months from August to October 1971, I realize now that my time with the Point Boro Panthers really turned out to be something of a coming of age experience for me. I have my father and Coach Al Saner to thank for making it possible.

Also, as I think back upon the experience, I realize that the summer of ’71 was something of a turning point in the world beyond high school football and the Dust Bowl in Point Pleasant. As the 1970s rolled on, somehow, it seemed like things started turning upside down everywhere and it was becoming clear that life would never go back to the way it was in the 1960s.

While football continued to be an important part of my relationship with my father over the decades, especially as my own boys played the game, I can’t help think that the lessons I learned during those few months in 1971 actually helped to prepared me for some of the harsh realities of life that I would face later on. Among these are: the necessity of hard work to achieve success, the importance of nurturing your natural gifts and talents, the life-long desire for self-improvement, the ability to always get back up when you are knocked down and the ultimate significance of being a team player. Hail, hail my friends!

Busboy lessons from Point Pleasant

Like a lot of kids from Point Pleasant, all of my early employment experiences were with jobs in the restaurant industry. Since we lived on the Jersey Shore, there were many summer jobs available on the floor as a server or in the kitchen doing food prep, dish washing or pot washing. If you were lucky enough to work in a restaurant that was busy all-year-round and you were on the service side of the business, you could make some decent money as a teenager. 

I got my first job at age fourteen working as a busboy in the restaurant and banquet facility at Kings Grant Inn on the corner of Route 70 and River Road in Point Pleasant. It was a physically tough job since you had to stay on your feet all afternoon and evening clearing tables, doing the setups and pouring glasses of water for the guests. I started the KGI job working part-time on the weekends in the spring of 1974 and then worked full-time hours that summer during the busy season.

I still remember the distinct odor of my clothes while working there. That’s something you can’t forget. It was an awful combination stench of grease, vegetables, cigarette butts and human BO that you wouldn’t ever want to smell like if you weren’t at work. We had to wear a sort-of uniform of black pants, black shoes and white collared, button-down short sleeve shirts. These clothes had to be washed after each shift and, no matter what, you couldn’t get rid of that stink. 

Anyway, one of the first things I had to learn was all about the different kinds of drinking glasses in the restaurant, most of which had to do with booze. As a fourteen-year-old I wasn’t permitted to serve drinks to the patrons. However, I was expected to know all the kinds of glasses because I often had to help stock up the bar or go find one or another glass for a waitress or bartender.

I learned the difference between a water goblet, a rock glass, a highball, a shot glass, a cosmo or margarita glass, a martini glass, a cognac snifter and the common beer glasses: pint and Pilsner. I also learned the different wine glasses—red, white, rose and port—as well as the champagne glass and the all-important Irish coffee mug. Fortunately for me, I was never a teenage drinker. I suppose I’d seen a lifetime’s share of drunks and inebriated stoops during those restaurant years and that helped steer me clear from alcohol until much later in life. 

There was one particular experience with excessive drinking that I remember vividly. It involved the decision by restaurant management to hire a man as Captain. The captain’s job was to work with the hostess at the front of the house to make sure that the customers were seated properly and all of their needs were being met.

Well, unfortunately, this young man—who was quite the handsome gent and started off doing really well with both the staff and customers—had a serious drinking problem. After about a week, we started noticing he was gathering all of the partially empty wine bottles and cocktail glasses in the back of the restaurant and was polishing them off one by one. By the end of the night, he was staggering around the place and babbling incoherently to anyone within earshot. I certainly didn’t see it as my responsibility to report the guy and I don’t think any of the other busboys did either. As a naive teenager, I thought it was kind of funny. After a few days, we heard that he’d been fired. 

Another thing that I learned was how to properly arrange a place setting and what the different plates and silverware were called. This is another thing that you never forget. Napkin in the center, forks on the left (dinner fork on the outside, salad fork on the inside), butter plate above the forks, knife and spoons to the right (knife first with blade facing toward the center, followed by the table spoon and the tea spoon). The water goblet is placed above the knife and spoons. If there is dessert ware, the fork (on top) and spoon go above the center in opposite directions, spoon facing left and fork facing right. 

Among the more physically challenging parts of the job was carrying trays full of dirty dishes and other table stuff that had to be returned to the kitchen. There was a knack to getting one of those fully-loaded oval aluminum trays up on your shoulder and balanced with one hand twisted back flat underneath it. You always had to have the other hand free so you could make your way through the restaurant floor and push the door open into the kitchen that swung both ways.

The best busboy never, ever dropped his tray. His skill was about getting that heavy tray up and completely balanced on his shoulder so that, even if things started to slide around on there, he did not lose it all to the floor in a huge crash. Unfortunately, this did happen to me on a couple of occasions because I had been hasty in loading up the tray or was moving too fast into the kitchen. 

Losing the contents of a busboy tray typically didn’t involve actually dropping the tray itself. It’s just that everything on the tray tips over to the floor and you are standing there stuck-on-stupid with the tray dangling vertically from one hand while everyone is looking at you before you dropped your head and walked swiftly toward the broom closet. Fortunately, when this happened, the other staff would always step in quickly to help you with the cleanup.

The experience of losing a busboy tray is similar to what happens in school when a kid drops the contents of his or her lunch tray. The crash of plates and glasses is followed by a half-second of dead silence from the otherwise noisy din of voice chatter and conversation. The one important difference between the restaurant and school lunchroom mishap, however, is that the restaurant crash isn’t followed by enthusiastic applause, cheers and laughter from the assembled diners. No, everyone in the restaurant just picks up where they left off on whatever they were talking about as though nothing ever happened. 

Pretty much throughout my restaurant working years—until I left Point Pleasant in 1979—I made something like $2.20 an hour in wages paid by the employer in a weekly paycheck. The rest of the money was approximately 15% of the tips that the waitresses collected from the customers during each shift.

We usually made more than $8 an hour with the tips we pulled in. One of the obligations of the newbs on the busboy staff was that you got your tip money in the smallest denominations from the nightly take. Of course, this was long before the widespread use of credit and debit cards, so the waitresses would turn over their 15% to the head busboy in cash and he would count it all up and divvy it out evenly to the number of busboys on duty.

The head busboy would always keep the biggest bills for himself and then on down the line in seniority until he got to me. If I was lucky, I got some singles and the rest in a bunch of loose change. More often than not, I went home with only coins. So, in that first year on the job, I would leave KGI after every shift with a big sack of change that filled both my front pants pockets. But I didn’t mind it at all. I just remember the feeling of accomplishment I had when I got off at 11 or 12 at night and got on my bike to make the 2 mile ride home.

It was so quiet riding down River Road toward Pearce Street at night in the dark. But you could hear me coming from a mile away with that load of coins jingling in my pockets. By the time I hit the top of Summit Drive, I could darn near coast all the way home coming down that hill with that heavy load of change in my pockets. 

Kings Grant Inn had a marina behind it on the Manasquan River. There were lots of people who loved yachting and boating and docked their watercraft there. Some of these folks were regulars at the restaurant and one of them, a shoulder-length blond-haired dude by the name of Clay, lived on his sailboat in the marina and worked at the restaurant as a busboy too. Clay was a late 20s-something beach bum with a fantastic golden tan. He had this sort of hippy way of talking that I had never heard before. I got to know him pretty well and he talked a lot about his sail boat and his girlfriend who lived on the boat with him. 

And speaking of being fourteen and girls, there was this young lady who was hired as the hostess during that summer that literally stands out for me. I remember hearing the other busboys talking about her and how she was, let’s say, front loaded. She would come to work with these tight tops on and I would find myself drifting over that way and standing there, staring at her without a word coming out of my mouth. 

Like on any job, there was certainly a pecking order among the busboys at KGI and, if you weren’t tough and ready to stand your ground, you might get hazed right off the job in your first week. The guys I worked with were all older than me, some by more than a couple of years. Some were local guys who I knew from school and others were some really worldly types that came down from north Jersey for the summer. There were definitely some pretty rough and lonely nights for me during my first few weeks there (I won’t go into the details).

I’ll just say that these guys were all really hard workers and they taught me how to do my job the right way. They were both testing me to see what I was made of and, most of all, they wanted me to know right out of the shoot that they weren’t going to put up with someone who wasn’t pulling their weight during those busy summer nights. It took me a little while, but I eventually made some really good friendships with my co-busboys at KGI and I learned many, many things from them both on and off the job. 

I also met some really great working people from the other departments at KGI. Since I was just a pimply-faced kid, there were many people—and some of them quite hardened by their experiences—who wanted to teach me all about the ways of the world. Back in those days, practically everyone was a smoker and you could smoke just about anywhere in the restaurant. I remember how some of the waitresses would light up a cigarette in the kitchen, put it down on an ash tray, run a customer order on a tray out to their table and then come back into the kitchen for another puff.

Anytime the staff had a break, they would light up and start talking to me in a very friendly manner while they blew smoke off to the side and made this face with one eye closed and their mouth only partially opened. The waitresses were some really tough ladies who went out of their way to keep me out of trouble. There were a few of them who took a liking to me and wanted to make sure I was on task and where I was supposed to be. They did not want me to have any run-ins with the KGI maitre d‘ named Fritz, who actually was the person who hired me. 

Fritz was an immigrant from Germany or Austria and he had a very thick accent. He would get explosively angry and give you an expletive-laden tongue lashing if you weren’t taking care of things. He was very tall, had a long hooked nose, slightly balding dark hair that was combed straight back, and a paunch that protruded from his cummerbund. Fritz was a task master and rightly so to keep the dining experience up to par for the customers.

He would swear at you in broken English with the F-word if you didn’t do precisely what he told you to do, even if you did not understand a word of what he asked you to do in the first place. There were a couple of busboys who could do a dead-nuts impersonation of Fritz that would make you laugh so hard you couldn’t stand up straight. 

Anyway, the others on the restaurant staff who were great people were the dishwashers, pot washers, the maintenance people and, of course, the chefs and other cooks in the kitchen. These folks all worked very hard all the time to keep things moving along for the customers even though it was always super hot in the kitchen.

Despite the fact that everyone who worked in there was completely drenched in perspiration, they had the most pleasant way of talking to a young kid like me. They would always ask me if I needed anything or if I was hungry. Because of them, I probably ate some of the best food I’ve ever had in my life during those few years at KGI like steak, lobster and, of course, chocolate mousse.

When we got a few minutes to talk about things other than work, especially on smoke breaks, the kitchen staff would always ask me about school and if I planned on going to college after high school graduation. They wanted more than anything to pass along the message that a life working in the restaurant business was very hard and that I needed to try and make something of myself.

I finished my career at KGI after two years and I have to say I was ready to move on to some other summer restaurant jobs at the Steak Shanty on Routes 35 and 88 in Point Beach and as a short order cook in the snack bar and later, again as a busboy, in the restaurant at the Bay Head Yacht Club. I even worked my senior year of high school at McDonald’s on Route 88 in Point. 

I truly believe that my first summer working experience at KGI taught me many important lessons: do your job and work hard and people will respect you, count your money and make sure you get your fair share, don’t smoke and don’t drink to excess, stay in school and go to college if you are able to and, for God’s sake, wash your clothes after every shift and never stare at anyone with your mouth open. 

Bicycle lessons from the Jersey Shore

I remember every bicycle I ever had as a kid growing up in Point Pleasant, New Jersey. Not that I had that many. My parents were frugal and, with four children, they didn’t often spend money on things like bicycles. When they did, it was usually for something special like a birthday or Christmas gift. So, from my childhood to my early teen years, I had a total of three bikes.

The first one was a hand-me-down from my older brother. It was a very plain, red boys bike with chrome fenders, white wall tires and a coaster break. As with most people, the day I learned to ride that two-wheeler stands out in my memory. With the help of my dad and some neighborhood kids, I peddled away miraculously on my own in front of our house at 1526 Treeneedle Road. It was the summer of 1967.

Having your own bicycle—especially one you were proud of—was one of the first things in life that got a kid going on being independent from their parents. Initially, maybe you were allowed to ride to the end of the block and back. Later maybe you were allowed to stay out past dark on your bike with the other kids from the neighborhood.

Then, once all of the rules had been explained, you were allowed to ride your bike all the way around the block. Back then, the rules did not involve wearing a helmet, elbow and knee pads, using hand signals to make turns or stops or even riding with the car traffic on the right side of the road. If those things even existed, we didn’t know about them.

No, the main thing was this: you were to only ride around the block and go nowhere else; you were to do this once and the next time you wanted to do it, you needed to ask again. Permission to ride around the block was a one-time arrangement.

For me, my first time around the block was a big deal. I road south on Treeneedle, east on Little Hill, north on Northstream, west on Apple Place and back south onto Treeneedle. I saw some kids I did not know; I saw other kids that I had heard about but never met before; I saw some kids I knew from school who lived in the next neighborhood over.

The feeling I had that day was like I was on top of the world. Even though the ride was just a half-mile and took around five minutes, it seemed to me to be a long trip. I was so proud that my parents trusted me enough to let me do what I really wanted to do. In that moment, as a seven-year-old, it seemed like all things were possible.

A short time thereafter, one of the older neighborhood boys showed me how to ride my bike with no hands. This was a skill that many boys (and some girls, too) learned and showed off. Normally, when riding a two-wheeler, your upper body is hunched over while holding on to the handlebars. When you ride with no hands, your body is upright and you can see everything quite nicely; there is no need to worry about anything. Also, when you rode in this position, the other kids could see you coming and knew immediately that you were peddling with no-hands.

Then one day, after ignoring repeated warnings that I was in for disaster, I took a major spill on Little Hill Road. I struck a driveway curb and toppled head-over-heels and landed square on my face. Worse than running home crying with my bike in tow, was the nasty scrape down the center of my forehead, nose, lips and chin. I looked in the mirror and thought to myself, “you really did it now.” That scrape took weeks to heal and was a constant reminder of the risks involved in dangerous bike behavior.

Anyway, by the time I got my first brand new bike as a Christmas gift, the style everyone wanted was inspired by the Schwinn Sting-Ray. These bikes had a banana seat, “ape hanger” handlebars and the all-important sissy bar. By the late 1960s, the Schwinn Sting-Ray was everywhere and all the other bicycle manufacturers were trying copy the low-rider, wheelie style. So, the kids who had a Sting-Ray with a high-loop sissy bar were the envy of the entire neighborhood.

My parents were concerned about the behaviors they feared would come along with these bikes. Being that they looked like motorcycles, they thought that Sting-Rays would bring a kind of “biker” culture to the neighborhood. Secondly, my parents knew that we were completely fearless and would try various dangerous tricks on these bikes like popping wheelies, brake skidding, ramp jumping and other stunts.

In the end, my Christmas bike was a three-speed, Sting-Ray knock-off with front and rear hand breaks. I’m not sure, but I think it may have come from K-Mart. Although I was disappointed, I was glad to have a brand new bike that had good colors and chrome and looked pretty cool.

One of the unique features of this bike was the way the handle bars were constructed. Instead of a continuous bar that slid through a clamp on the stem, the two bars were welded to a flat piece of metal that was bolted to the stem. While this design gave my bike a very distinctive look, it also created a problem.

As mentioned, one of the things we preteens did was build ramps out of scraps of wood and cinder blocks for jumping. This was around 1970 before BMX stunt riding and free-styling existed. I guess the kind of thing we were doing back then (along with other kids around country) eventually led to the creation of off-road sport bicycling and competition.

Well, a group of us put together a ramp made of a sheet of plywood laid on an angle to a stack of cinder blocks. We put the entrance to the ramp on the edge of our driveway and the lift-off point—which was about a foot and a half above ground—was in the front lawn. Since we knew there would be wipeouts, these would happen in the grass and not the pavement.

The object was to get your bike up to full speed and hit the ramp just right. At lift off, you’d yank the front end of your bike up just enough so that, when you came down, the rear tire touched first followed by the front wheel. We had a great time doing these jumps even though there were quite a few crashes.

After multiple jumps with my new bike, I started to notice a crack in the handle bar welding. I couldn’t imagine anything bad happening so I kept at it. On one jump, the bars snapped clean off the clamp and I went flying akimbo through the air onto the grass. You would have thought that my friends would have rushed to my aid or been concerned for the condition of my new bike. But no; we all burst out into uncontrollable laughter. This proved to be one of the funniest things that ever happened to me.

By the time I was in middle school, my parents began letting me ride my bike just about anywhere in Point Pleasant. For my thirteenth birthday, they bought me a black, 5-speed Raleigh Chopper Mark 2. This was a bike that I wanted more than anything. I remember the day my dad took me to pick it out at Point Pleasant Bicycle Shop on Arnold Avenue just this side of the border with Point Beach.

That Chopper was the envy of every kid because, even though it was not a fast bike, it was a wheelie bike that had a chunky, low-rider look: high-rise handle bars, a ribbed banana seat with sissy-bar, a T-bar gear shifter and redline sidewall tires. It was the signature smaller 16” diameter front wheel that really made the Chopper look different. I loved that bicycle more than anything I ever had in my life up to that point.

When I road it around town I was proud and told everyone that my parents bought it for me. I really took good care of it, too. We had a shed in the backyard where I kept it. I also had a bike lock to make sure it didn’t get stolen when I rode to school or other places around town.

I rode my Chopper everywhere: to the waterfront at Dorset Dock, over the Beaver Dam bridge onto the Princeton Avenue waterfront. There were many trips to the Manasquan River: out to the marina at Kings Grant Inn at Route 70 and to the beaches at Maxson and River Avenue. Clark’s Landing off of Arnold Avenue was also a regular meet up point.

Sometimes I would ride the full length of Bridge Avenue, from the end of the four lane extension all the way over the Lovelandtown Bridge and down through Bay Head to the ocean. I also made many trips in both directions across the old bascule lift bridge on Route 88. All the kids on bikes would line up at the stop barrier and wait for the gate to open after the bridge closed. We would get a running start and be more than halfway across before the cars could pass us.

And, since I had friends all over town, those Chopper wheels probably covered just about every road and street in Point Boro. Aside from the highways, I knew all of the main roads like Dorset Dock, Beaver Dam, Herbertsville, River Road and River Avenue, Bay Avenue and Arnold Avenue like the back of my hand.

Those were indeed some fantastic days in the summer of 1973. It seemed at the time like it would go on forever. But that kind of carefree biking would soon come to an end. I outgrew my Chopper when I started working summer jobs at age 14 and needed a more practical mode of transportation. By the mid 1970s, the Schwinn Continental 10-speed with ram’s horn handlebars, auxiliary break levers and two sets of derailleurs had become a popular bike among teens.

Nevertheless, the things I learned about biking during those early years will always remain with me: Be thankful to have a bike at all and be proud to ride it; Take care of your bike and don’t take dangerous risks when riding it; Get out and explore the world around you—you never know who you might meet or run into on your first ride around the block.