Playing “Shinny” in South Buffalo

Playing “Shinny” on Macamley St.

We didn’t have ice skates or an ice rink but we kids were blessed by the gods of hockey with the perpetually snow covered streets of South Buffalo winters. Heck, we had taped up hockey sticks, a puck (sometimes a tin can), and goals marked with old sneakers. What else did we need? We played with heart and a passion known only to eleven year-old boys crazy in love with the game of hockey.

It was the mid-forties. Our Buffalo Bisons Hockey team, American League farm club of the legendary Montreal Canadians NHL team, was burning up their league. Buffalo won the coveted Calder Cup several times in the forties.

We kids listened to every game on the radio (no TV yet) and would take turns sharing tear sheets from the sports pages of the Buffalo Courier Express newspaper. We’d pour over the stats of each game at school. “Did Pargeter get the hat trick last night? Wow! That’s twice this month already.”

My best pals, Dave Murphy or “Murph” and “Bones” Miller, Don and Bernie and myself were the hard-nosed ones. We played when Macamley St. was slick with ice or loaded with two feet of snow. We played in the sleet and the rain and right through some of Buffalo’s biggest snow squalls. Bring it on. We were ready.

Our uniforms were jeans and winter coats and earmuffs. Playing in our overshoes, we didn’t look much life hockey players but we played with the intensity of pros, right through the icy winds that blew off Lake Erie and the black and blue hurts on our shins. We checked our opponents into the snow banks that lined Macamley St. The only local rule we observed, in deference to our complete lack of protective gear, was no lifting the puck. Other than that, there was no quarter given or even asked for.

The only time we stopped playing was when a car made its way down the street and we had to stop and let it go by. Otherwise, our games went on for hours or until the street lights went on. That was our signal to call the game and return to the mundane world of family life, homework and cleaning up for dinner.

Two or three times a season, our gang managed to get the money together to take the bus downtown to see the Bisons play at Memorial Auditorium. Oh my god! We lived for those days. The “Aud,” as we called it was a first class indoor sports arena with seating for about 12,000 fans. We could only afford the cheap seats so we sat way up in the higher regions of the auditorium but we felt lucky just being part of the raucous crowd cheering on our Bisons.

Just before the breaks between periods of the games, we would hustle down from the cheap seats to the lower floor where the teams had their locker rooms. We’d wait down there and catch our team coming off the ice. Just to see our heroes up close was a thrill and a half. Sometimes, we’d get brave and yell out our encouragement. “Hey, Al way to go.” Or “Nice game, Pargeter”. If we were rewarded by so much as a grunt from one of the players, we felt graced by the Almighty.

But nothing prepared us for the time one of the Buffalo players came off the ice carrying a hockey stick that had a crack in the shaft. He apparently had just noticed the crack and was about to hand it to the manager for disposal. I was right there in front of him. Summoning up all the courage I had in my eleven-year-old body, I said, “Can I have it?” The player looked down at me for a second. “Sure kid, it’s yours.” He thrust it into my waiting hands. It was a miracle. I had me a real professional hockey stick.

OMIGOSh! Dave and Bones crowded around me. He GAVE it to you,?” exclaimed Bones. “Wow! Are you lucky.” Everything was a blur after that. We watched the final period of the game but I was lost in a haze of unexpected good fortune. My hands clutched the stick tightly but my soul was already in paradise.

We played shinny again at home but it didn’t take long for the already damaged stick to break into two pieces. I taped it up best I could and kept it for a while in the cellar of our house on Macamley St.

All too soon, our hockey crazy period ended as Murph and Bones and my friends grew into adolescence and went our separate ways to different high schools in the Buffalo area. Eventually, the Buffalo Bisons morphed into the Sabres of the National Hockey League.

I find myself living in California now, far from the snowy streets of South Buffalo. Ah! But the memories remain.

“Please Don’t Call Me a Foster Kid”

Just recently I was watching TV with my foster grandson when the mattress company commercial came on the screen…the one that asks people to donate money so that children in foster care might have warm clothing for the cold weather. I asked Tony if the commercial embarrassed him at all. He admitted that the company probably meant well but “it sort of gives the impression that we are all poor kids and need to be pitied.”
His comment reminded me of the stigma our foster children are made to bear in our society.

I am proud to be a foster parent but I find myself sort of dancing around the word when I refer to Tony as my foster kid. . He much prefers that I simply call him my grandson rather than his foster grandson. I’m good with that. I understand that teenage kids in the foster system don’t need to have their legal status branded on their chests. Just being a teenager is tough enough without attracting notice by having an additional label added to your name.

Foster kids already know they are different from their classmates. They are aware that their school trip permission slips and Medicaid authorization slips are signed by “guardian” not a parent. They are conscious that their teachers and school administrators “know” they are foster kids and that in some cases they are watched more closely than other students. Wanting more than anything to merge in seamlessly as just another normal kid, their legal status makes them stand out in a crowd.

It’s hardly a secret that many foster kids, even those whose foster parents would allow it, do not feel comfortable inviting their friends over for a sleep-over. This is especially true for kids who live in group homes but it is also true of kids in family homes. As Tony would say, “It’s just too awkward.”

Ironically, this “awkward” situation is made worse by the media, which throws a spotlight on the failure of our foster care system to produce successful outcomes for kids transitioning out of foster care. When the public sees headlines like “70% of incarcerated adults spent at lease some time in the foster care system,” it doesn’t give them much incentive to welcome foster kids in our communities or make it easier for foster kids to own up to their status.

No one seems to “get” that kids entering the foster system were admitted because they were deeply troubled kids already. By definition, they came to the system because they were abused and neglected by their birth parents. Of course they have attachment and abandonment issues. Of course they act out. Those early childhood years were traumatic. Granted that the foster care system needs improvement, it’s more than a little simplistic to blame everything on those trying their best to salvage kids when the kids have been deeply harmed before they were even placed in their first foster home.

I would like to see a dramatic change in the way we look at foster kids. Sure the system can improve. We need to invest in these children by providing better training for foster parents and by giving foster parents adequate resources to do their job right. We need to assure a more stable system so that kids are not bounced from one foster home to another. We need to make more of an effort to keep siblings together in care.

But, just as important is a change in attitude on the part of all those people who take care of children. From teachers to coaches to administrators, we have to begin to realize that the negative “tude” we have towards foster kids is part of the reason so many give up on life and waste their lives in prisons. When a kid says, “Don’t call me a foster kid,” he is already buying into the expectations that he will fail. That’s a tragedy for all of us.

I told Tony that I ’ll go along with his request not to referred to as a foster kid as long as he understood that there is nothing bad about being a foster kid, that he had done nothing wrong and that foster kids are perfectly capable of succeeding in life. “Is it a deal?” I asked him. “Yea, grandpa. That’s cool,” he smiled and gave me a high five.