Feature Writer Roger Cicchese

Feature Writer Roger Cicchese – They Named It After Me

Those who know me well are aware that I love to eat. In fact, I thoroughly enjoy the entire gustatory experience.

Several years ago, while living in a working-class community west of Boston, Massachusetts, I visited and sampled the extensive variety, including many ethnic foods, at numerous local eating establishments.

One favorite hangout was called Harold’s Truck Stop. It had the usual bill of fare: all sorts of burgers and sandwiches for the crowds of truckers that flowed through its doors on a daily basis.
I can still recall those burly men with their rumbling voices, laden with unfiltered cigarette smoke, and the loud back and forth calling of the short order cook and wait staff as they rang up the fast-paced orders constantly being placed by hungry customers in a hurry for their food.

As you can tell, I really took immense pleasure in the atmosphere and the environment of that multi-sensory eatery. The wait staff was very funny and the employees and customers treated me with humor and made me feel quite welcome. This was perhaps because I was a regular customer and that translated into dollars spent on lots of sandwiches and drinks. I was also a bit of a contributing jokester myself.

Now, readers beware! I have somewhat of an odd taste in food combinations. When I started visiting Harold’s I would order my favorite sandwich combination. The wait staff would always ask me if I was sure if I really wanted to order such a strange mixture. They would always warn me that it would cost extra because it was really like ordering two sandwiches in one.

They initially seemed reluctant to fulfill my request. But since I was insistent and always willing to pay extra for this rather strange combination they acceded to my demand.

After visiting this establishment for several months and ordering my favorite sandwich combination over and over again they stopped making fun of me and when I’d walk through the door they would simply say “the usual Mr. Roger?”

This continued for several more months. Finally, after about a year I walked in one day and was told “we’ve revised our menu and since you’ve made your signature sandwich so popular among our staff and customers we’ve named it after you and placed it prominently on our new menu. It’s called The Roger Special Sandwich.” What is in this fancy sandwich, you might ask?

Thickly sliced apple-flavored bacon, Boston lettuce, tomato on the vine, home-made cranberry walnut chicken salad, melted mild cheddar cheese on sour dough toast with lots of mayo. It comes with a side of steak fries and a large soft drink. The pickle is optional!

To this day, it is still one of my most favorite culinary delights. Give it a whirl and perhaps you will agree. Having a sandwich named after me was quite an honor and for at least a while I was famous. What a way to be famous. Well, they did name it after me!!! Since I never had a son I guess a sandwich will have to suffice!

Feature Writer Roger Cicchese – Learning to Laugh

Everyone appreciates a good joke now and then. A humorous true story from the book of life is even better. As a kid, and as a high school student and even as a college freshman, I took myself and life way too seriously.

I found the adjustment to college life a mixed blessing. Academics, for which I was not adequately prepared, required considerable adaptation. The social climate was also difficult. Being the only on-campus totally blind student in the midst of over 2,000 sighted students at a college going co-ed, was quite a shock for everybody.

I found myself in the middle of many strange, awkward and often uncomfortable situations. Lacking a suitable sense of humor made things even more challenging for me at that time.

After my first semester ended, I wondered, seriously, if college was the right place for me. Not so much because of the difficult course work, I thought I could manage that, but rather because the other students seemed to have something I was missing. I just didn’t quite know what it was.

Finally, I visited the student support services center. There I was introduced to an amazing mentor. She talked with me and tested me on intelligence, aptitude, personality and much more. I’ll not bore you with those details. It’s what happened next that matters.

Mrs. Mason sat me down once all of the testing was complete. She told me: “Roger we will work together during the next several weeks to help you find what is missing.” I sat silently, attentively listening, perhaps a little red-faced.

I inquired: “What’s missing?” She gently said, “I never see you smile and I have never heard you laugh. Now if you plan to be a professional poker player this may stand you in good stead, but in your relations with most folks this won’t work very well, especially if you plan on working as a counselor.”

This made me feel very uncomfortable. What to do? She said: “I feel that you probably take yourself much too seriously and carry too much of the world on your shoulders.” “Each week, from now on, I’d like you to keep a detailed journal. Sharing the contents of your journal with me will help us work together. In your journal consider including the following information: Each day you will seek out 3 funny situations. Start with comedy albums, television programs or radio shows. Find them, seek them out. Eventually we will graduate you into integrating what you are learning about the funny side of yourself and humor. You will discover how to seek out funny aspects of conversations and look for ways to integrate jokes and genuinely funny stories into conversations with other people.”

I was dumbfounded. She, a woman, was going to teach me to smile and laugh. Right!!! After I recovered my embarrassment and wits, I wondered if maybe she had a point. Well, I’d give this comedy thing a try. It seemed a bit contrived, but… what the heck.

How does one seek out funny stuff? I began by visiting my favorite record store in Central Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Ironically, the store was called “Cheap Thrills.” Instead of sorting through protest music and rock albums, on vinyl records in those days, I sought out comedians.

Back at school, wearing headphones so no one would know what I was doing, I began my adventure. Names like Fire Sign Theater, The Credibility Gap, Second City, and Congress Of
Wonders lead the charge. While I was at it I got Newhart, W. C. Fields, Abbott and Costello, Mort Sol, Lenny Bruce and of course Spike Jones and his City Slickers and Jonathon Winters to name a few. It wasn’t long before I started looking forward to my weekly sessions with Mrs.
Mason. Something funny was beginning to happen. I was falling in love, no, not with Mrs. Mason, but with comedy and the feeling I got from laughter. To me, even though the academics continued to be a real grind and most everything else seemed outwardly the same, I was starting to feel different.

I brought a small television to school and each evening around 11:30 I’d sneak away to my dorm room and plug in my headphones and secretly listen to the Johnny Carson monologues. My mom and sister had always possessed wonderful senses of humor, but I always accused them of being silly and wasting time on crazy superficial stupid laugh tracks.

They began to notice a change in me. It was barely visible, at first. But sometimes, at the dining room table when the 3 of us were sitting around talking and my mom or sister would say something silly, instead of my shaking my head in disgust, they occasionally caught me with a little grin on my face. This was very new territory for all of us. This is not to say I never laughed, but those times were few and far between.

Mrs. Mason and I kept at it to the point where we began to role play the kind of situations that might happen on campus with myself and other students which could involve humor. Lots of the guys used extreme profanity and I couldn’t exactly role play that with Mrs. Mason, but we got pretty real. By the time that second semester ended I had a foot hold on a brand new aspect of my life. The nickname my mom and sister used to call me began to be heard less often. They called me “Mysterious Wysteria.” I kept so much to myself and so much inside, hardly laughing, barely smiling. By that summer I wasn’t winning any comedy contests around the house, but I was beginning to become liberated as they say.

Upon returning in the fall for my sophomore year, everything seemed different. I still had many serious times, but I was finding humor in diverse places. It might surprise you to learn that life has taught me a most valuable lesson, how to laugh at myself.

When I was 54 I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. The oncologist informed me that if treatment was not started promptly, and with vigor, I’d probably be shuffling off this mortal coil within a couple of years. Well I’d heard about Norman Cousins remarkable recovery from a terrible, apparently incurable, illness by using humor combined with other treatments. I figured, why not, what did I have to lose except my life?

The treatments would take 7 months. I spent about 10 hours per day doing little else during those long months but getting my treatments and inhaling and digesting lots of comedy recordings. Real food didn’t have much appeal.

When I was driven to the treatment center I told funny stories to the patients and doctors and technicians. I usually left the place in somewhat of an uproar with at least a handful of the folks laughing. Their laughter made us all feel better somehow. It’s eight years later. I’m still alive and laughing more than ever.

I’ve often wondered of the whereabouts of Mrs. Mason. I’d sure like to tell her how, because of our work together back in 1970, laughter plays a central role in nearly everything I undertake. Even the hardest times, for the most part, are made easier with a chuckle or two. Once in a while there’s a real belly laugh. I like those best of all.

Feature Writer Roger Cicchese – Fools Rush In

Sounds in the subway station at Park Street in downtown Boston, Massachusetts are extremely loud. The trains rushing to and fro roar like huge lions. When the drivers apply the air brakes it sounds as if a large dragon is releasing hot, ozone-scented, rancid breath.

Even though this all happened nearly twenty years ago, I recall every detail as if it happened just yesterday. On that day, the crowds of travelers were somewhat lighter than usual. I was in the station because I was returning to visit a friend down in southern Massachusetts which required me to transfer trains so that I could get to the commuter rail at another station. All of this explanation is necessary because of what occurred at the transfer point.

I used to use the subways a lot for years. As time passed however, I felt less safe in the trains and stations, and so, I found other means to get where I wanted to go. On this particular day, I had no choice. I really wanted to visit my friend and the subway and commuter rails were the only option.

As I moved through the station I must have appeared to have been unsure of where I was going. A nice young woman came up to me and asked if she could assist me in any way. I was glad for her offer. She was also quite appealing in her own way and so her company would not be hard to take. I explained where I wanted to go and she informed me that she was going in the same general direction. I gently took her arm and we began to walk toward our destination. There are several sets of up and down stairways in this station which must be navigated depending on where one intends to travel. It would be such a set of stairs we would have to traverse soon going down.

I was totally engaged in conversation with my very feminine guide. She told me her name was
Lisa and she was traveling in a similar direction. I thought to myself, “nice woman, but she’s too young for me. Besides, there’s something sort of distant about her.” Even while she seems very present with our conversation, her manner was somehow distracted or as if she was paying attention to other things as we walked and talked.

As we advanced toward our goal, I became totally enthralled with our back and forth chatter. It was due to my complete inattention that I didn’t recognize that we were entering what was the landing at the top of a long stone staircase going down. I didn’t realize that we were at the stairs until my foot suddenly was no longer touching solid ground. All at once, neither foot was on the floor. I was now airborne. Instantly, I knew this was my ending. Falling down a long flight of stone stairs through the air would spell certain disaster. I also realized that, amazingly, my fingertips were still in contact with Lisa’s arm. I managed to keep them there, I know not how.

Everything seemed to go into slow motion. I was falling. No part of my body was touching any part of the stairs. It felt as if I was floating more than falling. I guessed that my life was probably coming to an end and that’s why everything seemed to be floating in slow motion.

Finally, it seemed like several long minutes later, we landed. The first thing I discovered was that I was on my feet. I had no pain or twisted limbs. Lisa was there too. She began to cry softly. She asked me if I was okay. I was shaken up, but no other injury of any kind. I inquired of her well being. She said: “Oh, I’m fine and wow did we have a ride.” I also recognized that we had both fallen straight down the long stairway without ever touching railings, or stairs. Not even a bump or scratch. We had dropped straight down. What were the chances of that? Lisa asked once again if I was okay and when I indicated everything was fine she said: “well I really have to go now or I’ll be late for my next appointment.”

I felt a little bit guilty about the whole incident and wanted to do something to reassure her and to thank her for her kindness and help. It was my total negligence that had caused this dangerous situation. When I turned to thank her once again, she was gone. People are sometimes like that so I just wrote it off to a stranger not wanting to hang around or get more involved. I just stood there, at the foot of the stairs reviewing the series of events that had just happened.

As I stood there a man walked over to me and inquired if I was all right. He told me that he worked for the Transit System. He said: “I was taking a break and suddenly I looked over at those stairs and saw you falling. It startled me so much that all I could do was watch the disaster unfold.” He informed me that he expected that at any minute I’d smash my skull or something on those stairs. Or, perhaps I would do a somersault, over the railing, as I was falling, drop and crash to the cement floor far below to a horrible death. When he saw me land on both feet at the bottom of that long stairway he, too, was in shock. Neither he nor I could believe my good fortune.

I then asked him: “what can you tell me about the woman who was falling down those stairs with me? What happened to her? What did she look like?”

There was a very long pause from the subway worker. He said:”What woman?” I said: “you know, the one I was hanging onto as I was falling.”

He responded quickly: “Buddy, you feeling alright? I have been standing here for the past ten minutes even before you came down those stairs. There was nobody man or woman, with you before, during or after you fell, or should I say floated, down those stairs.”

I said: “Her name is Lisa and I’d been walking through the station for several minutes prior to our adventure on the stairs.”

He was vehement! “Nobody with you, you were alone friend.”

So I asked what happened to Lisa? He told me I must really be more injured than we thought because no one was there, except him, watching the disaster unfold. I concluded that Lisa probably slipped away in the usual passing of human traffic in the station.

The Transit Worker quickly set me straight on that one: “Nobody down here for quite a while now. I’ve been standing here and the place has been eerily empty. So there’s no way anybody could have been here and gone without me seeing them.”

It was time to go and I got the next train. As it pulled out I wondered, “Who was Lisa? Where did she come from? Where did she go? What was her next appointment?”

I think I know who she was! What do you think?

It is said “Fools rush in, where angels fear to tread.” If I was a fool on that fateful day, then who do you suppose Lisa was?

Feature Writer Roger Cicchese – Real to Reel

When you’ve just turned eleven and all you can think about is your upcoming vacation marking the beginning of the holiday season, it’s a wonder you can sleep at night.

I was halfway through sixth grade. My interests were imitating the voices of my favorite radio announcers, actors, fellow students and, of course, some of my more fun-loving uncles.

Once in a while, I could convince my dad to borrow a friend’s reel-to-reel tape recorder for a few days. As he operated the complicated machine, I got a chance to play radio announcer or conduct man-on-the-street news reporter interviews.

We didn’t have much money as I was growing up, so owning such a piece of expensive equipment was totally out of the question, but I could dream. Boy did I dream!!!

It all began when my cousin Billy took me to visit a Boston area radio station in 1959. They had a machine that could record your voice and put it onto an actual long-playing record. This was just like the kind you could purchase at the record store except this one had my voice on it and those of the other people at the radio station.

From there I learned about something called a tape recorder. This machine allowed a person to capture voices, sounds and music. They could listen to it over and over again. This recording could be erased or recorded over and re-recorded. It was even more magical than the radio, which I already figured out was pretty fantastic.

When we borrowed my uncle Mike’s recording machine and I sometimes recorded the sound of radio or television programs, I simply placed the microphone near the speaker, then sat back quietly while the program played. It was only later that I learned about connecting cables to get clearer sound without background room noise.

But, as often happens, my uncle’s tape recorder was very old and it eventually developed some sort of technical problem which he was unwilling to spend money to have repaired.

Needless to say, I was very disappointed. I schemed and connived as to how we might find a way to get that Magic Recording Machine fixed. No Luck!!!

In fact, I drove my parents crazy with the subject and finally they had to tell me to quit talking about it because there was nothing they could do. To make matters worse, my mom quietly sat me down and explained that she’d talked with my dad and they’d tried to figure out every possible way to see if they could somehow maybe afford to purchase a recorder for our family. She sadly said: “Roger, they are just way too expensive. We don’t have that kind of money to afford this sort of thing.” It wasn’t like they didn’t care or understand. They were just too poor. That’s the way I heard it. My heart was twice broken.

Uncle Mike’s recorder would cost too much to fix. My parents were too poor to buy one. The prospects were about zero that this situation would change any time soon. My dad had a secure job, but it paid a consistently low wage.

I had to face facts. Deal with reality, dream about the good times I’d already had, and maybe someday, when I get a job things would be different.

Let’s see, I got 50 cents per week allowance. A new, inexpensive tape recorder cost around $175. How many weeks would that take? 350 weeks. That’s how many years? You figure it out. I’m too depressed to do the math.

So vacation arrived and I realized that what little money I had saved toward my future tape recorder was going to be needed to obtain holiday gifts for family members. Now my plans would be set back even further.

I realized I was being rather selfish about this whole thing and so I put the matter aside for a while and concentrated on trying to guess what I could get for my brother, sister, dad and mom for the holidays that they would actually like and that I could afford.

By the time I’d made appropriate gift selections every penny which I had saved over many months, toward my dream, was gone. I took some small comfort in knowing that at least the other family members would get a gift from me they would like even if I’d have to start all over again in my quest for the recording machine.

In our household there is a tradition that began some years ago. Each family member gets to select and open one gift on Christmas Eve. I don’t know where this idea came from, but it continued that year. Wouldn’t you know that year every member of the family chose to open the gift I had gotten for them. Well, they were very pleased with my thoughtful choices. I felt happy about that, but inside I felt even sadder because I had brought them a degree of happiness while
I felt somehow miserable. We know as adults this does not express the true nature of giving, but gee I was just an eleven year-old kid!!!

Finally it was time to go to bed. As I was falling asleep I wondered how many times 52 went into 350. I fell asleep without ever getting the answer.

Christmas morning arrived. The scent of freshly brewing coffee and wonderful hot chocolate filled my nostrils as I awoke. I heard traditional carols playing on mom’s HI-FI with “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” booming out in the voice of Nat Cole. I heard my sister wishing everybody “Merry Happy.” I heard my mom’s slippers sliding softly across our living room floor over to the tree where she clicked the switch to turn on the tree lights.

We all gathered around to share holiday gift giving and a wonderful morning of laughter and merriment. I temporarily forgot my sadness of the night before, and my selfish feelings about wanting and not receiving because I took so much joy and pleasure in the expressions of glee and celebration with my family on that Christmas morning.

All too soon, however, the boxes, piles of paper, bows and ribbons lay in scattered heaps on the living room floor. You know that funny empty feeling you sometimes get when the frenetic pace calms down? Suddenly, it got very quiet. The holiday music was all I could hear. No one was talking. We were all seemingly preoccupied with the examination of our gifts.

Then, I heard a very strange sound. It was like chipmunks chattering or a whole bunch of mice squealing all at once. It was as if a squad of window washers had suddenly descended on our living room walls and were making a very loud racket with their squeegees. It made me jump. I was not sure what the sounds were or what made them. Nobody said anything to give me a clue. So I said aloud “Did something awful happen to the dog”? Everyone burst out laughing. In answer, my dad took my hands, and gently guided them to something that was slowly moving around and around just beneath my fingertips

I could scarcely believe what I was touching. I exclaimed exuberantly. “You somehow got Uncle Mike’s tape recorder fixed so we could use it today to record the festivities, wow that’s really cool dad.” My dad surprised me when he informed me that the answer to that question was no!!!

I was stunned and lost for words. I didn’t know what question was left to ask. There was one very remote, but impossible question I dared not even contemplate so I didn’t. My dad provided the answer to the unasked question. “This, Roger, is a brand new reel-to-reel tape recorder. It now belongs to YOU. Take very good care of it. We believe it will change your life and that’s why we got it for you. The strange noise you heard a couple of minutes ago was the machine rewinding the recording I’ve been making this morning.”

Because of that one Christmas gift the doors and windows to a long life in the world of communications possibilities opened wide.

My life, ever since, has been all about that one gift. My parents had an understanding far beyond my years and perhaps their own, as well.

I wonder how my life would have been different if not for that gift. Just when I thought the giving had ended, little did I know then, that my life of giving had just begun.

This article was based on those original Christmas morning recordings made over 50 years ago.

I marveled and contemplated what my future might hold, as the reels turned around and around.

Feature Writer Roger Cicchese – Thoughts On Some Funny Holiday Food Experiences

Growing up in a home where most of the activity centered around the kitchen meant lots of family interaction. When the various major holidays came around, things tended to reach a fever pitch and sometimes funny events occurred.

One year, my mom, who made the finest squash pies around, had pulled a couple of them out of the oven to cool. There they were, sitting on the counter top just waiting for attention. My brother came into our quiet kitchen where he began sniffing around those pies. I imagine he was salivating over their wonderful aroma. He was probably thinking about how good they would taste later that day at The Big Meal. He leaned down to get a closer look at those lovely pies and a close-up scent. Unknown to him, my dad had silently moved up behind him, and the next thing you know, my dad had pushed my brother’s face fully, deep, right into that warm once beautiful, perfect pie. Needless to say, mom wasn’t pleased at all regarding the result. We did not get to eat that squash pie for holiday dinner that year as you can well imagine!

During the next couple of years she took special care in protecting her prize pies around the holidays. However, as the years went by we kind of forgot the incident. As luck would have it the pies were resting on the counter top once again and as they cooled with the sweet scent of squash filling the kitchen air my dad just happened to walk into the room. He began sniffing around a lovely-looking confectionary and as he did so my brother suddenly snuck quietly up behind him and finally, got even by pushing my dad’s face fully deep into that wonderful once perfect desert. I think the result was that mom never again made squash pies either for the holidays or for any other occasion from that time onward.

On another occasion, my mother had made a very special treat for the holidays. It was a recipe known as No Bake Cookies. This required, as the final step, that the cookies needed to be placed on cookie sheets and left in a cool location to “set”. She placed them downstairs in our unheated under-the-house garage where they would be out of harm’s way. So she thought.

I happened to visit the basement for something or other and sniffed out the essence of coconut and chocolate. My favorite combination, at the time. Under the cover of darkness and with utter silence I began wolfing down those fantastic confections. I really couldn’t help myself. I kept on cramming them into my mouth as fast as I could. Before I knew it I’d eaten over 60 of those little gremlins. Okay at the age of ten I should have known better, but boys will be boys. Not saying a word, life went on until mom went down there to retrieve those delicious cookies. Oh boy we heard the exclamations all the way upstairs in the living room, as we blithely sat around the Christmas tree.

She arrived back up stairs with the empty cookie sheets, covered with little mounds of crumbling coconut, Breathing hard, demanding to know “where are my five dozen cookies?” No one answered. Finally I told her, sheepishly, that I’d somehow managed to lose track of how many I had eaten while testing them to see if they were ready or not for prime time consumption.

I knew that I was in big trouble for having done this very naughty thing, but what she said ended up being a much worse punishment than I could have ever imagined, considering my crime.

She took me by the hand, very gently, and guided me out of the room away from the rest of the family. She said “you did wrong and for your punishment if you get sick, which you most certainly will I don’t want to hear about or know about it. It will be your entire responsibility. I wouldn’t want to be you for the next few days.”

For a couple of days thereafter my digestive tract was in the worst uproar I could remember. I suffered in silence, but the worst part was yet to come. For the next three years if I even thought about coconut and chocolate together I’d start feeling very nauseated and lose my appetite for food for several hours.

Finally, one year, shortly before thanksgiving, we’d gotten a new puppy. She was a Toy French Poodle. A very small, frisky dog with lots of enthusiasm and curiosity. The day before Turkey Day my mom placed the frozen turkey in the sink to thaw out for a while before she began to prepare it for cooking. The family retired to the living room to watch something on television. The dog was free to wander about the house as usual. After a while she began to bark. Normally, she only barked at other dogs or if someone came to the door. We listened for other barking dogs. No sound was heard. We couldn’t hear anyone ringing our door bell or knocking on either front or back door. The barking continued, so much that the dog began hyperventilating. She was almost choking on her barks. She seemed to almost be gripped with a kind of doggy madness. We just couldn’t figure out the source of her agitation, but, soon enough, we discovered her problem. She was running back and forth and then around our kitchen. She kept looking up at the sink. You guessed it. It was that thawing old turkey. As soon as my mother covered up that old Tom the barking ceased.

These are but a few odd holiday food anecdotes I hope you have found amusing. Are there some you’ve experienced yourself that have been triggered by these remembrances?

Feature Writer Roger Cicchese – The Last Bell Ringer

I felt the solid pressure of his firm, insistent hand on my right shoulder. A tremor of fear coursed through my veins. I imagined that an upper classman was going to demand something of me and I’d have to do without complaint or objection. The voice was gentle but insistent in my ear. It said: “Meet me alone upstairs, in practice room 3 in the music department at 4:30 this afternoon.” I didn’t ask why, I simply acknowledged with a simple yes and nod of my head and he quietly moved off down the long line which was already forming for morning assembly service.

All day long I wondered what he could want. Why would this senior guy, who was so well liked by most other students want to speak privately with me? This well liked student was a tenor in the school chorus. He sang in the prestigious glee club. His exploits were legendary as an organist. He was also a well favored actor in the school’s drama club. What could he want with me?

I, on the other hand, was kind of rough around the edges. I had just returned to school after being away for a year while recovering from injuries incurred in a serious automobile accident. I was certainly not very popular and was considered, by some, as brash, outspoken, egotistical and perhaps even a bit of a bully at times.

4:30 arrived and I found my way to practice room 3 and my appointment with this senior student. He got right to the point. “I have been ringing the chimes in the school’s bell tower for the past few years at Christmas time. This, as you may know, is accomplished by pulling ropes by hand to ring carols which are heard by students, and staff on campus and many thousands around town. When the wind is right, folks in the surrounding communities can hear the bells as well. I will be leaving in June. I must select someone to take my place as the ringer.” I said “well what does that have to do with me?” I was informed that if I was interested perhaps I could be the next bell ringer. I could hardly believe my ears. Me a bell ringer!!! Was I bats in the belfry? Why me? He suggested that he had the latitude to choose the next bell ringer and he thought it would be interesting to give someone a chance who might otherwise not get such an opportunity.

I thought about presenting all the objections I could think of as to why I wouldn’t be a very practical candidate, but I kept silent. “Okay” I said. “When do I begin?” He told me that in a week or so he’d take me up to the high tower for a tour and history lesson and then the training would commence. Then he laughingly informed me that if I didn’t work out he could always throw me off of the top of the over 300 foot tower pinnacle! Ha Ha Ha.

I had no idea what lay in store, or I might never have taken up the challenge. Climbing the hundreds of winding stairs, which lead up to the bell ringing room was a rather daunting task in itself. We arrived there and I was greeted by smells of dampness and a profound feeling of emptiness. The real surprise however, occurred when the automatic bells rang out on the hour. The sound was so loud as to be almost deafening. I could literally feel the vibration of each note and reverberation through my entire body. It was a truly singular sensation.

After the orientation and history lesson, he began to explain about the 8 ropes which corresponded to the eight bells. He told me that each bell represented a separate note of the scale. Here is where I got completely lost and scared. You see, I am a quick study in learning music. Even my choral director didn’t realize that I actually could not read music because I was so fast at learning. But my bell ringing teacher assumed that I had a firm grasp of music reading when he handed me the sheet music to memorize for our next session.

Next thing I knew it was time to get down those hundreds of winding tower stairs. I couldn’t walk forwards and down. This was due to residual pain resulting from my auto accident. I didn’t feel sufficiently safe with my balance to go down those steep stairs walking forward like he did. I stood there terrified and unsure of what to do. I realized that if I attempted to walk down those spiral stairs I’d fall a long way to my premature death, if I was lucky. If not, I would experience terrible bodily injuries equal to or greater than those sustained in the auto accident from which I was still recovering. What to do?

Only one choice; do the unconventional. Go down backwards. So that’s what I did. It worked. From that day on I always went backwards down those stairs. My teacher used to tease me about this strange behavior each time, but we laughed about it, after a while.

Unfortunately, when we next met he discovered that I couldn’t really read music. I thought he would throw me off the tower heights for sure as he had earlier hinted. His voice got very soft and he spoke slowly and out loud as he wondered what to do. With a sigh he said: “I suppose I got you into this and now it’s too late to back out. So, how about if I translate each note into the corresponding rope pull?” I was speechless. I said that would work for me, but I knew it would be an enormous amount of work for him.

He completed this task for several of the most popular carols and when we next met he handed me the translated music sheets and held his breath while I examined the results. I heard him exhale when I informed him that the conversions would probably work just fine. I privately didn’t have any idea if they would actually work or not, but I was too embarrassed and ashamed to admit this to him. I was also afraid of the possible consequences that might result if I admitted one more flaw or lack of capability to my teacher. I studied the sheets he had given me like mad for a few days and about two weeks before Christmas we started back to the tower for the real thing.

You should know there is really no way to rehearse on bell ringing. When you get it right everybody hears it. When you get it wrong…

He began playing or should I say ringing the chimes. The sound was thrilling, amazing, frightening and overwhelming, all at once. I felt intimidated by his self-confidence at this very public demonstration. It became far more so when, after about 15 minutes he said “okay Roger
I’m tired, it’s now your turn, get your butt over here and make me proud.”

I would have crawled under a rug if there had been one available, but, unfortunately, the bell tower room had only a dirty cement floor and nowhere to run or hide. I crept up to the ropes. Both hands are required to handle the bell ringing task. I could not consult my notes. It was, do or die, in front of my teacher and in front of students, staff and potentially thousands of listeners who had been informed that I was being trained as the new bell ringer.

I made a couple of very tentative tugs on the ropes. We heard soft bell sounds. He came over and placed his strong firm hands over mine and, gripping firmly, pulled with conviction. He quickly moved our hands to the next and then the next rope and continued dramatically pulling with vigor. The sounds were astounding! He told me that I better take things from here because he’d worn himself out doing this part. I submerged myself in the task. As it turned out, I soon got the hang of it and Christmas time was never the same for me, after that.

For the next 3 years I rang the chimes at Christmas time in the tower at Perkins School For The Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts. In my senior year, I selected a younger student to become the next bell ringer who might not have had a chance ordinarily, kind of like me.

While the tradition continued I must admit that the gentle teacher who literally showed me the ropes, David H Baharian, graduate 1967 will, always be considered, by me, as “The Last Bell Ringer.”

Feature Writer Roger Cicchese – The Day the Music Died

It was a typical Friday afternoon in late November, just a week prior to the eagerly awaited Thanksgiving holiday. At the time I was in the seventh grade and in three weeks or so I’d be celebrating my twelfth birthday. Early in the afternoon we got really hot and sweaty in gym class during the first two periods. I was really exhausted when the bell finally rang, signaling the end of our weekly exercise in physical education. Somehow I never felt more educated after those double doses of teacher guided running, jumping, falling down, and being yelled at, for 90 minutes.

As I emerged from the lower regions of the boys locker rooms and came racing up the stairs, too fast, like so many rowdy junior high boys, I heard a sound that just didn’t make sense. I was frozen cold in my tracks because the sound was one that totally demanded and consumed my attention like something you never want to hear, especially when you are a kid. The sound was a woman sobbing. I followed the sound. The sobbing was somehow familiar in a way. The woman’s voice seemed recognizable, even familiar. Though I’d never heard her cry or sob before and I hope never to hear that again. I was lead to the large and cavernous science lab where we had our weekly classes and many other students were schooled in biology.

When I arrived I found my science teacher sitting alone at the front of an empty classroom with a small television nearby. It was tuned to the local NBC affiliate where a reporter was providing emerging details: “The flash from Dallas, Texas… President Kennedy has been shot,” and shortly thereafter: as I stood there spellbound, he announced: “The president is dead.”

I attended a residential school for blind and visually impaired students during the 50’s and 60’s and the school didn’t have a public address system to coordinate situations such as this with students and staff. So we were kind of on our own. Needless to say I was speechless at the news. I recall drifting out of the science lab as if in a dream, not knowing what to do next. It felt as if my world was falling apart. You see, the previous year I had acted the part of President Kennedy in a sixth-grade stage play and even got to do my young imitation of his famous Boston accent for the part. Until his untimely passing, my favorite comedy record was “The First Family” presented by Vaughn Meader, another Kennedy mimic.

The rest of that Friday afternoon recollection is strange because teachers acted like nothing had happened. Classes went on as usual. Most students were aware of the events unfolding, but teachers seemed to feel that keeping us busy was more important than helping us cope or talking with us about what was occurring.

Finally the school day ended and transportation arrived to take me and a few of my mates home to our families. As we rode together we imagined various scenarios of what we’d do to the person who had done this terrible thing to our beloved president. Each cruel and terrible punishment we came up with was worse than the previous one.

As you can imagine, the next several days were spent camped out by the television or by the radio. I was so enthralled by this history in the making I not only listened all day, but at bedtime I plugged in my earphones and fell asleep wearing the news coverage into my troubled young dreams.

The events of that time 50 years ago in November 1963 forever changed my life. The changes had little to do with politics. It was then that I determined that some time during my life I would work in radio news. I realized that even an eleven-year-old boy could cry for a perfect stranger. I came to understand that we learn about history, not only from books, but sometimes we get to live it. Once in a while we even get to make history ourselves. Most of all I realized that a person who does not have the sight of his eyes had perhaps started to develop what would eventually become insight.

I agree with the song writer of “American Pie,” Don McLean, that November 22, 1963 truly was “the day the music died.”

Feature Writer Roger Cicchese – The Emergency Room Visit When You’re Totally Blind

These stories are offered to illustrate experiences, opportunities, knowledge, and wisdom. We may feel a sense of connection and camaraderie when reading them.

The thundering pain in my temples, forehead and neck was tremendous. My eyes were fountains of unbidden tears. My conscious world was filled with the highly amplified sounds of human voices. Common odors had grown to horrific proportions, and the ringing in my ears just wouldn’t quit.

I was not fit company, even for myself. My at-home medication was no longer working and I knew that this was probably going to require a visit to the emergency room for treatment of one of my severe migraine headaches.

You can imagine feeling like this, I was in no mood for shenanigans once at the hospital, but I was in for something worse than a migraine headache.

No one likes the ER and no one should. I arrived and was presented with paperwork to fill out which was not accessible, which staff would not or could not read to me, yet they expected me to fill out and sign.

Next, after an extended wait I was escorted into a small triage area where I was questioned at length and then sent back out to wait again. This is all pretty standard operating procedure and many of us are familiar with the drill.

It starts to get interesting now.

My name gets called. Now I’m a bit confused because of my condition and they call me by my first name. My middle name is the one I use and I’m not sure they are referring to me when they call it. My last name is rather a tongue-twister so most people usually give up and simply say just my first name and visually point at me, but since I can’t see them pointing and in my present painful condition I am a bit unsure so I say “are you calling me?” and I say my name.

The nurse says: “Well of course I am. Can’t you see me pointing?” I have an unfolded white cane in my hand and it is quite obvious that I am a person who is blind.

When we finally get verbally connected she says: “Follow me.” and begins to walk off in an unknown direction. I am aware from past experiences with other situations like this so I say: “Wait a second why not let me take your arm so I can more easily follow you.” She says: “oh I would have never thought of that.”

We get to the exam cubicle and the fun really begins. Without preamble or warning a thing is slapped against my forehead to take my temperature and I jump nearly out of my skin. This is immediately followed by a glove-like vice tightly wrapped around my arm being pumped up by a noisy machine. No words were exchanged. No explanations or warnings given, just automatic actions like robots without feeling.

I felt like a piece of meat and while I didn’t think it could get worse I was beginning to realize that things seemed to have somehow gotten out of control. I managed to blurt out: “Have you ever treated a patient who is totally blind before?” The nurse said: “Not really… gee you can speak?” The nurse figured that I was not only blind, but I couldn’t speak or understand or communicate much beyond my own name.

I explained that I was there for treatment of a severe migraine headache for which I had a long history of treatment. I explained my medical background succinctly and talked about my medications and she stopped and exclaimed: “wow you blind people are really something.” I asked her what she meant and was told that her grandfather who was 86 years old was blind and couldn’t do much for himself and she was surprised about all the things I could do for myself.

This was turning out to be a class involving explanations about people who are blind and their capabilities rather than about my emergency treatment. I was discovering that more training was sorely needed by the ER staff that I was depending upon.

When the doctor arrived he wanted to have a look into my eyes. He kept looking into my right eye and said: “okay now let’s have a look in that left eye.” He kept saying: “open that eye and look up.” He was getting angrier by the minute at me, but I didn’t quite know why. Finally he said: “what’s the matter with you? I know you have a blind right eye, but your left eye looks perfectly normal. Why won’t you follow my direct instructions regarding that left eye?”

Without a word I reached up and removed my prosthetic eye and handed it to him and said: “that’s why.” While I’ll not cover all the gory details of this visit I will tell you how things ended. It’s funny and you should hear about it.

At the hospital, when a person in my condition has a severe migraine headache, there is often a prescribed protocol for treatment. Such is the case with me. This involves the administration of some very powerful medication which requires the admonition: “Do not drive or use machinery while under the influence of these medications.” I generally go home and sleep for at least 24 hours before the medication wears off.

So it was that I was finally feeling somewhat better and discharge paperwork was being prepared. The first nurse came in and said: “we cannot release you until and unless you promise not to drive your car home.” Naturally I thought she was joking. I said I didn’t drive. She insisted that I hand over my keys just to be on the safe side. I refused. A second nurse came in and informed me that they wouldn’t let me leave unless I could guarantee that I’d promise not to drive home. I said I didn’t drive there so I couldn’t drive home. It finally took six staff members before we came to a compromise that a friend would come to the hospital and enter the emergency room, come to my cubicle, sign me out, and walk me out pushing me in a wheelchair followed by a staff person to the car where they could see the other person actually drive me away. Of course, this was my plan all along.

I have been back to that same emergency room several times during the past seven years and things have improved somewhat. But considering that we might think a hospital would be the logical place where sensitivity and understanding and training and awareness would be top-notch it is always a surprise to discover when it is so lacking.

We can complain or we can see the sick humor and do our best to educate even in adversity. It is our choice. Let us choose wisely without eyesight and demonstrate a little insight.

Feature Writer Roger Cicchese – I Always Wanted a Fan Club

There came a heavy pounding on my flimsy front door. It was the superintendent housing inspector. “I’m here to make sure that you don’t have any ceiling fans in your apartment which we haven’t installed.”

Well I had two of them and they’d been up for over ten years, through many previous inspections, without complaint. He found them both and said, “You’ve got 15 days to get rid of them and replace them with standard issue ceiling light fixtures, at your expense.” I learned if I didn’t comply, the superintendent would bring in an electrician who would get the job done properly and I’d have to pay the bill.

After they left, my wife and kids gathered around and sat there in a stunned silence. We couldn’t afford to hire an electrical contractor and purchase the new fixtures, not to mention the loss of our wonderful ceiling fans that brought us so much comfort.

Well, I should mention here that my dad, while living, was a master electrician and I learned much theoretical and practical wisdom from him over the years. A totally blind person since birth, my lack of eye sight has generally not stood in the way of my insight, but a project of this magnitude?

After examining my limited options I was determined to make this a do-it-yourself project and visited a local electrical supply store for the requisite materials. The salesman asked me why the guy doing the job wasn’t picking up the supplies and when I told him I was the guy doing the job he simply said he didn’t believe that was so and if I thought I could do something like remove ceiling fans and replace them with light fixtures I should probably get some help from a professional who knew what he was doing. When I asked what he thought the problem was he said: “Well it’s not like you can see or anything to know what you are doing.”

Well, I got home with the supplies! The project was undertaken with the girls and my wife safely out of the house and the electricity temporarily turned off. It took the better part of a Saturday afternoon to remove the old ceiling fans and wire up and permanently install the new replacement light fixtures.

I must admit I tried them out before the family got home so to be sure things worked okay so when they arrived I could be assured of being able to demonstrate success.

But this was not the real hurdle. A week later, “bang! bang! bang!” the super returned, as mean and ignorant as before. “Where’s those new lights? Let me see ‘em.” I escorted him into the two rooms formerly occupied by the old ceiling fans and flipped the switches to activate the now new replacement lights all without a word.

He wanted to see the bill or receipt from the electrical contractor who had done the work. I momentarily panicked, because I had done the work myself. Then I got an idea. I went to my Perkins Brailler, inserted a piece of paper and wrote a bill in braille.

I handed it to him and said: “Here is a copy of the bill.” He was silent for a minute and then said, “What’s this thing?” I informed him that it was a copy of my bill and that the bill was written in braille because I had contracted with myself to do the work.

I was not certain how he would react, but I was sure that he would react and I was not disappointed. He said: “You must be joking because a blind guy could never have taken down those old fans and even if that were somehow possible, putting up new fixtures requires matching colored wires and dealing with live electricity and one has to really know what you are doing with this kind of stuff.”

I casually wondered out loud if he meant that a totally blind person couldn’t possibly know how to deal with this kind of stuff? He answered in the affirmative. I asked him if he would like to drag up a chair and watch me uninstall both lights and reinstall them again just to satisfy his curiosity. He stopped right then and said, “If you are willing to do that just to prove to me that you can do this I guess I have to believe you.”

He just had one question as he was about to leave. “How did you come by the knowledge, expertise and confidence to undertake such a complex task, which even most sighted people won’t attempt?” I told him about my dad and said I am without my eyesight, not without insight.

As a young man singing and performing in coffee houses and concert venues around New England I always wanted to have a fan club, and now I do.