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Big Chuck

July 5, 2011

I Was Just Thinking: Small-town memories have universal appeal

This Friday, July 8, I will be presenting my one-man show, "My Town is a Cathedral," at the Oneonta Theatre. It is sponsored by the Green Toad Bookstore and is a benefit for the Catskill Area Hospice and Palliative Care. The show is a gentle look at growing up in Smalltown U.S.A. in the black-and-white days of the 1950s and 1960s.

My vantage point to that era was the front window of my parents' little two-shopping cart grocery store on Main Street. I found out something funny (and special) about doing this show, which is basically a live presentation of my book of the same name: Everybody has similar memories from their youth as I did. Only the names are different.

About a year ago, I got a phone call from a lady in Rochester who asked me if I would come to her historical group and do a presentation of my "Sidney stories." I was taken aback by this request. I asked her if she had ever heard of or been to Sidney before.

"Why, no, I haven't," she said. "But I got the book on Amazon, and it just rang so true to small towns everywhere that I thought I would invite you to come and talk."

What the heck, I thought. I went, and it was great fun.

Every small town (or, in the case of a large city, every neighborhood) has similar stories that live with us forever. The favorite (and not so favorite) teachers, the old Main Street stores, the best place to get a hamburger or slice of pizza, the swimming hole with the Tarzan rope hanging over the old oak tree, the tragedies and triumphs of life in a small town. The eccentric old-timers who drifted in and out of our lives on a daily basis. Each was a composite of a place and time.

Oneonta, Cooperstown, Milford, Delhi. It matters not what town it is, the stories are familiar everywhere. In Cooperstown, you can still see the ghosts of the kids going in the front door of the Smalley's Theater on Main Street to catch the latest Disney flick in the 1950s (it is now a baseball store). Talk to an old-timer in Delhi about some of the great parades of yesteryear that blared down Main Street and past the old courthouse. What a time that must have been!

Milford and Unadilla had some of the best swimming holes in the area years ago. Stamford had its great "painted ladies" along Main Street welcoming "downstate" guests to their cool, wide porches in July and August. Great memories. And many of these places and events are still with us, in various forms, but they are different than what we saw through the eyes of a 12-year-old kid.

As for me, there will never be another hamburger like the one Ceil Moore made at the long-gone Welcome Inn between Sidney and Bainbridge. There will never be anything quite as exciting as when my friends and I attended the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 1962 and saw Jackie Robinson and Bob Feller enter the Hall together. And this was when the ceremony was held on the crowded yet fan-friendly lawn of the Hall of Fame itself.

There will never be spaghetti sauce like Molinari's had ("that's sauce the way it was supposed to be made," my Dad always said). And there will never be a "thrill ride" quite like your first childhood trip up the "moving stairs" at Bresee's. Yes, we actually drove up from Sidney just to do that!

All of the above comes from the perspective of a kid. We all have memories like that. In Ithaca, or Schenectady or Kingston. Just the names and places have changed. Youthful memories are universal.

I am not a Pollyanna and recognize that one cannot always dwell in the past. And I adhere to that. I live very much for the present and breathlessly look forward to the future. My kids keep me young, my work keeps me busy and my wife keeps me honest. Life is fast and fulfilling.

But, still, it is always fun to go back to 1959 just once in a while.

And that's what I intend to do this Friday night at the Oneonta Theatre.

Catch you in two ...

'Big Chuck' D'Imperio can be heard on weekdays beginning at 6 a.m. on WDOS-AM 730 in Oneonta, and also on Thursday nights from 7-9 p.m. on WSRK-FM 103.9 for his "Oldies Jukebox Show." You can find "Big Chuck" on Facebook under Upstate New York Books. He invites you to contact him at wdosbigchuck@aol.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/bigchuck.

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