Childhood in North Syracuse, Part 2.

In Part 1 of this post, I described some background of my life as a child, some Italian-American meal experiences that we shared as a family, and my growing love for music. Here in Part 2, focus shifts to what seem like basic travel experiences, and some unexpected twists and turns. Enjoy!

A return to the topic of travel (and more)

Some fortunate circumstances arose from our family structure that I believe led me to branch out of my comfort zone later in life. The long and short of it is that our parents divorced before I was old enough to remember them together. A remarriage quickly followed for my mother, while my Dad remained single for a couple of decades.

My step-father, Bill, was an avid outdoorsman. Journeying up and down the East Coast, Bill took us hiking, camping, backpacking, cross-country skiing, and more. I remember the fresh outdoor smells, the winding roads of the Shenandoah and Blue Ridge mountains, the leafy trails in the Adirondacks, and the omnipresent glow of a well-made campfire aside Bill’s perfectly assembled tents.

Time With Parents

He and my mother soon graduated our family to once-a-year vacations in Maine or Cape Cod. There were still hikes, but Mom was finished with tents. Her frugality allowed her to save enough for weeklong stays in humble oceanside cottages. These family excursions to the mountains and the oceanfront have gifted me with a lifelong love of both. The smell of smoldering firewood or of the ocean’s saltiness still washes away whatever negativity may reside within me on any given day.

Unlike my step-father, my Dad enjoyed being around groups of animated people and he loved crowded restaurants and bars. As almost all people in the Syracuse area did, he instilled in us a rabid fanaticism for Syracuse University athletics (Go Orange!) My Dad and I attended the last football game at Syracuse’s archaic Archbold Stadium and the first football game at the now famous Carrier Dome, which opened in 1980. These days, Syracuse sporting events are integral to my annual travel plans.

Maggie Jordan’s

Around this same time, Dad somehow saved enough money from his Wise Potato Chip sales route to open a successful business called Maggie Jordan’s. We all chipped in to renovate an aging German rathskeller with a rich history near Syracuse’s Tipperary Hill, the almost exclusively Irish section of town. Featuring a combination of traditional and adventurous-for-Syracuse food, the place had a good run.

Dad was proud that his was the first Syracuse restaurant to feature an outdoor dining patio. He also insightfully predicted that people would spend a lot of money on decadent desserts, which had an excellent profit margin. He was correct. The artsy crowd and at least one locally famous Syracuse University coach were regulars for drinks and desserts after their respective concerts and games.

The Cheers Effect

When spending days and evenings at his restaurant, I felt an uplifting sense of belonging. I wandered freely and without a care in the world throughout the two-floor establishment. The TV show ‘Cheers’ first aired in 1982. I don’t believe it coincidental that my Dad’s place promoted similar feelings in its patrons as the hit program’s theme song: “You wanna go where people know, people are all the same. You wanna go where everybody knows your name.”

There was no adventure in my food choices, but I loved the environment. Customers knew my Dad’s name and that filled me with the type of pride that Sons cherish with their fathers. I vividly recall the buzz of activity in the way-to-tiny kitchen, the percussiveness of the pots and pans, the scent of interesting foods that I thought I would never eat, and the joy that filled the dining rooms and bar at Maggie Jordan’s. As a side note, my Dad infamously fired my sister in front of the entire kitchen staff (sorry Kim!) As one might expect, that demonstrative spectacle had the desired effect on employee productivity.

Before Maggie Jordan’s existed, Kim and I also took two or three vacations with Dad. I specifically remember a trip or two to the lakes of the Adirondack Mountains and a short jaunt to Boston, where Dad conducted “research” for his soon-to-be restaurant. He was filled with life and we loved it!

A Sad Turn of Events

A few years after the restaurant opened, Dad suffered a highly traumatic ruptured brain aneurism. Thanks to an incredible surgeon named Dr. Hodge, my father survived. In my estimation, he has not been the same since. Lucky to be alive and able to recover fully enough to live with dignity, his demeanor still brightens when we speak of his days as a restauranteur. I feel a combination of joy and sadness when I watch him relive the times before his brain injury. I wonder what might have been.

Music Takes Over

My most influential teacher at Cicero-North Syracuse High School was band director Elliot Topalian, nicknamed Mr. T long before ‘The A Team’ became a hit show. Our diminutive Mr. T did not have a Mohawk or gold chains, but he did sport a rockin’ toupee! Mr. T struck fear in the hearts of many students, but that was not the case with me.

I obsessively practiced what I was assigned and hoped for the best. While maintaining an ‘A’ average in school, vague notions of becoming a lawyer came and went. State colleges were my only financial option, so I applied and was admitted to my top three choices. When it came time to select one, I decided to pursue music. At the end of August 1987, we packed our small family car and I began my collegiate journey at The Crane School of Music, SUNY Potsdam as a music education major.

Why ramble on about North Syracuse, music, and my family history?

It is my belief that being from what is unfortunately coined a “broken home” forged two separate family histories, both built around the simple, but differing experiences detailed above. With everyone working so hard to make ends meet, I spent a lot of time with friends, as well as several hours a day alone practicing my trumpet.

This resulted in an amalgamation of joy, confusion, accomplishment, anxiety, fear, and passion. There was no shortage of deep emotions, both positive and negative. This tapestry of feelings, the seemingly unrelated food and travel experiences, and the unchartered path that music was about to provide, left me with a much richer palate of possibilities than I realized. Maybe I wasn’t so provincial after all!

A catalyst was needed to spark my strong emotions and life experiences into a light reminiscent of those childhood campfires. My interactions with Professor Bill Crowder and a seemingly innocuous experience in a German restaurant (see my previous blog post) lit the flame in me that fueled the internal courage to fight through my inherent fears and board a plane to Texas in 1992.

Me and my shadow…

~Kevin

In My Unexpected Life: Travel, Food, and More, I will share stories, thoughts, and ideas to entertain and maybe even inspire others to engage with new food, travel, and more…no matter how big or small those experiences may be.

If my intentions do not produce the desired result, that is okay—please enjoy the blog!

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