Saturday, 26 July 2014

That old summer treat: A salute to the slush

Long before the “slushee” was used as an instrument of torture and bullying on “Glee”, there was the simple slush.

There was nothing like it on a hot summer day in Coaldale. It quenched the thirst, cooled the temperature, and always seemed to hit just the right spot. Just don’t drink it too fast because it would freeze your brain.

Most of us call it a Slurpee, but that’s actually the trade-marked 7-11 version of the drink.

Slush machines are everywhere now, but once upon a time back in the 1980s they weren’t prevalent, and there were a few different kinds. Thankfully, the current slush won out, going on to satisfy the thirst of millions over the decades and into the next century.

The "Slush Cat" logo.
One of those "Slush Puppie" cups.
Fighting like dogs and cats: The original slushes
The first slush I ever had was called the “Slush Puppy”. It was soft ice poured into a cup with flavouring squirted on top, kind of like a mushier version of the snow cones we used to have at the fair or the circus. They had “Slush Puppies” at the Club Cigar Store in Lethbridge, where we used to stop to buy magazines (that store still has the best selection in the city) and at the Red Rooster in Coaldale.

Once, I went to visit my cousin Carl in Lethbridge, and we'd walked over to the 7-11 where they had this drink called a "Slurpee".

Then, one day in the summer, my neighbour Mike came over raving about a “Slush Cat” he had at this relatively new store in Coaldale. It was called Mac’s and, sadly, that Mac’s no longer exists in my hometown. So, the next time we went to Coaldale, I got my parents to stop at Mac’s so I could have a slush. It turns out, it was like the slushes I had had at the 7-11 in Lethbridge while visiting my cousin Carl.

The name “Slush Cat” was part of the brand that was Mac’s back in the ‘80s. The colours were like a brown and gold with some red thrown in, and the official logo was a big cat that I think was giving us all a wink. The staff wore these brown smocks with gold trim too.

Beyond that, slush puppies and cats were all behind the counter, poured by store staff members. A far cry from all self-serve, all the time now.

The Boston Bruins' collector's slush cup I sought for months.
Collector’s cups
Not much later, Mac’s introduced a set of collector’s cups. If you ordered a medium slush, you got a cup with a logo from an NHL hockey team. There were 21, but they were all mixed together. The cups sat in stacks on top of the slush machine and you just got the next one they chose. If you could see one you liked, you could ask for it, but the guy would not go digging through the pile to find a particular one.

I was – and still am – a huge Boston Bruins fan, so every time we went to town I convinced my dad to go to Mac’s. He had to buy his smokes somewhere, right? I really wanted that Bruins cup – and I eventually got it. But I am also a collector, and a completionist, so I wanted the rest of the set. Eventually I got that too. Like so many other fads in my life, they would sit in a corer in the house until we moved off the farm in 1991.

The modern slush and beyond
Eventually the “Slush Puppy” faded away, or melted away I guess, and the slush we all know became the norm at every convenience store – Mac’s, Red Rooster, 7-11, or whatever.

It was still a treat, because I rarely got to town more than once or twice a week. I remember one weekend when my brother was visiting with his new wife. They were going to town for a slush, and I jokingly asked if they could bring me back one. I figured it would never survive the ride home. But, sure enough, my sister-in-law was sipping on one, then produced one for me. It not only had survived, but it sure hit the spot on a really hot summer day on the farm.

When I got to junior high, we walked over to the high school once a week for shop class. That meant cruising downtown to get lunch or at the very least a slush. They were always really cheap too. Beyond that, at St. Joe’s we were not allowed to leave the school grounds ever, even at noon hour. When I got to high school, we could go wherever we wanted at noon. Like anything, the novelty wore off, and I rarely went uptown.

One spring, when I signed up to play soccer, our coach Jim Franz took us to Red Rooster after a couple games and treated us all to slushes. It was a nice thing to do for a man who really didn't know many of us personally, and didn't have a son or daughter on the team either.

The slush took on a more sinister tone in high school too, not for me but for many others. They started using it as mix and a cover, dumping vodka or rye into a slush, then walking into high school with it.

By the time I got to university, we had kind of a convenience store in res called the “Mini Mart” then later “The Marina”. It had its own slush machine. They hit the spot every so often, but I had moved on. Not only had the novelty worn off, but something had changed. Slushes, when drunk too fast, gave me a headache. By the summer of 1987, I had progressed to something else: the Coolossal Cooler from Mac’s, and its cousin the “Big Gulp” at 7-11. They were just big cups of pop and ice, but ended up being more refreshing than the heavier, colder slush.

I had moved on.

Parting thoughts
When the 1980s opened, the only really cool drink was pop. Then along came the slush. It was cool, long-lasting, and refreshing. As long as you didn’t drink it too fast and give yourself a headache. As time went on though, it was more than that. It was a social experience.

“You want to go for a slush?” was not just an invitation to get a drink, but to hang out, gossip, and socialize.

It was as much a part of life as going to the movies, playing video games, shooting hoops in the driveway.

I haven’t had one for years, mostly because they are sugar bombs after all, but whenever I do have one, I think about Red Rooster in 1983 or Mac’s in 1987.

I’d go for one right now, just to reminisce, but I gave up pop for one of my new year’s resolutions. But it isn’t really pop…

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Remembering Rubik's Cube

The scrambled Rubik's Cube
The solved Rubik's Cube
It was one of the most frustrating things I ever encountered – and I did it for fun – yet it kept me coming back. And it was a belly-button toy – everyone had one. After years of watching others do it, I never could. I still can’t. It’s been 40 years since the Rubik’s Cube came along and it remains one of those things synonymous with the ‘80s.

A new plaything
I first recall seeing it on TV. It was this six-sided cube, and each side had its own colour. What made it so confounding was that each side was made up of nine squares. Each row of three, whether a horizontal or vertical row, would rotate. Only the centre square of the nine on each side would never move. The goal, once it was all mixed up, was to solve the cube by restoring each side to nine squares of the same colour. (It’s harder to explain than to just demonstrate). It sure looked easy, but no matter how many hours I spent working on it in front of the TV, I never could muster it.

A belly-button toy
I was a purist, so I bought an actual brand name “Rubik’s Cube”, this after cheap knock-offs appeared everywhere. That’s how it became a belly-button toy. A few weeks later, after I bought my brand name cube (and in pretty much every other aspect of life I have never much cared for brand names), my mom even bought one for a couple bucks at the SAAN Store in downtown Coaldale. It was a cheap knock-off.

A phenomenon
Once it caught on, the Rubik’s Cube had become a pop culture phenomenon. Pretty soon the cube appeared on various TV shows, whether the news or elsewhere. There was a United States championship and it was featured on the magazine “That’s Incredible”. The champion, a teenager named Minh Thai, later appeared on the show “Real People” as well. He would go on to win the first world championship in Budapest in 1982. I also remember one of the people Minh Thai beat was a fellow named Jeff Varasano. Wikipedia revealed Varasano set the U.S. record later in 1981 for solving the cube.

By any means necessary
Other things also appeared. I saw one piece on TV of some people solving the cube in their own unique way – they took it apart and put it back together in the right order. I was a little reluctant to do that until a junior high classmate, a guy named Tracey, actually did it while I was watching during recess.

Another piece I saw focused on the frustration people felt trying to solve the cube. Consequently, someone invented a flat-faced mallet, with a graphic of a Rubik’s Cube on the face of it, to hit and smash the cube to bits. You could even send them the broken pieces in the mail.

At one point, I even bought one of the many books available at the time that explained how to solve the cube. Yet, as a purist, I never could bring myself to read it, because that felt like cheating to me. I needed to do it on my own.

The solvers
Personally, I knew a few people who could solve the Rubik’s Cube – for real. At the top of the list were two sisters, Mary and Katie, who were our neighbours on the farm. They were the most unlikely of people, because they were older than me, and they never played with toys on the bus or during recess at school. However, the cube was invented in Hungary and that’s where their family happened to be from. If memory serves, they learned how to solve the cube on a family trip to the old country.

Parting thoughts
The Rubik’s Cube is one of the cultural touchstones of the 1980s. At one time, there was even a Saturday morning cartoon called, “Rubik, The Amazing Cube”, although it never aired on peasant vision.

I bet you could ask anyone randomly, and they not only would admit to owning one, but having a story to go with it. For me, it fed my addictive personality. Although I never solved it, I came close, within two squares actually. If I’d had a camera back then, as teenagers do now, I would have taken a picture of that. It symbolized the frustration, as well as the endless possibility that anyone, even I, could solve the cube.

It was a great diversion, and a wonderful toy, especially while I watched endless hours of TV at night on the farm during long, dark winters.

It has had staying power too. There are still world championships and more than 350 million cubes have been sold. As it celebrates its 40th birthday, there is a giant, inflatable cube floating on a barge in the Hudson River beneath the Statue of Liberty to commemorate the occasion.

Check it out for yourself at:

So, to an old adversary, friend, and comfort – happy birthday Rubik. Can I call you Rubik, or would you prefer Mr. Cube? After all you are 40 now.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Chuck Noll: Who was a better NFL coach?

Legendary Pittsburgh Steeler coach Chuck Noll, winner of four Super Bowl championships in six years.

Recently, I heard about the passing of Chuck Noll, and it brought back a flood of memories. Through
the years I have come to really consider him one of the best coaches in NFL history but, like his peer and rival John Madden, he was always underrated. It was as if the teams coached themselves because they were so full of talent. Well, I don’t believe that was the case.

In fact, Chuck Noll has to be considered one of the best coaches in NFL history based solely on the fact he won four Super Bowls – and it was in a span of six years. Then, more than a decade later, with a team that no one could say was full of talent, he won coach of the year.

What more can you say?

The first time
When I first encountered him, he was the coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, a team that I never really liked at the time, but came to respect as the years went by. The first ever Super Bowl I watched featured the Steelers against the Dallas Cowboys. I took an instant liking to Dallas' quarterback, Roger Staubach, and the Steelers stood in his way. Worse, due in part to a dropped pass in the endzone by Dallas, Pittsburgh won that Super Bowl. I had bet my dad $5, and losing that made me dislike the Steelers even more.

The next year, the Los Angeles Rams upset the Cowboys in the NFC en route to the Super Bowl and faced Noll and the Steelers. I had started to cheer for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who LA beat in the NFC championship game, so I was somewhat ambivalent about who won the Super Bowl. Yet again though, Pittsburgh triumphed. And even then, I really didn’t like teams who won too much.

And then the Steelers kind of faded from view.

Stopping Elway
The next time I really took notice of the Steelers was in 1985. They were not a super-talented team, but qualified for the playoffs. Awaiting them was the Denver Broncos led by phenom John Elway. I really had no time for Elway after he blackmailed the Baltimore Colts into trading him to Denver. He threatened to play baseball instead, remain unsigned, and re-enter the draft the following year. That would leave the Colts with nothing for the first overall pick. I was not a Colts fan at that point, but Elway’s antics undermined the draft. It was designed to help bad teams get better by giving them first crack at the best young players. Elway threatened to destroy that. I have never liked anyone who considered themselves bigger than, or above, the game.

So, as the Steelers got ready to face the Broncos, I found myself cheering for Pittsburgh. By then, there was not much left from those Super Bowl teams besides receiver John Stallworth. They were an under dog now, and I always liked the under dog.

And they were still coached by Chuck Noll.

They had returned to the playoffs the previous year, finishing first in the AFC Central before being eliminated by my L.A. Raiders, who went on to win the Super Bowl. In 1984, they repeated as champions of the AFC Central, facing the Broncos, champions of the AFC West, in one of the AFC Divisional playoff games.

The Steelers were led by a good defence, as always, and quarterback Mark Malone, talented receiver Louis Lipps, and runningback Frank Pollard.

The teams met in Mile High Stadium in Denver. Before the game, broadcasters Merlin Olsen and Dick Enberg talked about Elway being injured. I distinctly remember Olsen emphasizing that without Elway’s mobility, the Bronco offence became “very ordinary”. Well, the Denver quarterback trotted out with his thigh wrapped tightly, so he likely was hampered a bit by injury.

The game went back and forth, with Denver leading 17-10 in the third quarter when Malone hit Lipps for a touchdown to tie the game at 17 with 15 minutes to play.

It looked very much like overtime loomed until, with about three minutes left, Steeler safety Eric Williams intercepted a pass and returned it deep into Denver territory. Pollard would go on to punch it in, giving the Steelrs the improbable 24-17 win.

The next week, Pittsburgh went into Miami for the AFC Championship Game. That was the first time I heard Steeler receiver John Stallworth talk about “One for the thumb”. There were still players on the team from those dynasty years who had four Super Bowl rings and were looking for an unprecedented fifth – one for the thumb.

It was not to be. Miami quarterback Dan Marino had set all kinds of passing records and, although Malone threw for 312 yards and three touchdowns, along with three interceptions, Marino passed for 421 yards and four touchdowns, both AFC Championship records, to cruise to a 45-28 win. The joy was short-lived as Marino was harried, harassed, and harangued by the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl. Marino would never play in another Super Bowl after that either.

Individual glory – at last
The 1989 season did not hold much promise. The Steelers had finished 5-11 in 1988, and there was not much hope for any improvement when they opened the 1989 season with a 51-0 loss at home to Cleveland, the worst defeat in franchise history. That was followed the next week by a 41-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, who were defending AFC champions.

However, the Steelers managed to rally, finishing with a 9-7 record, good enough for third in the AFC Central, and clinching a Wildcard berth in the last week of the season. Awaiting them in the AFC Wildcard game was the Houston Oilers who beat the Steelers in both regular season meetings, 27-0 and 23-16.

The Steelers would have the last laugh, shocking the Oilers in the Houston Astrodome, as Gary Anderson kicked a field goal in overtime for the 26-23 win.

Again, the clock struck midnight for Cinderella the following week, as the Steelers put up an amazing fight in the AFC Divisional Playoff Game, but fell 24-23 to Elway and the Broncos. Denver, however, would suffer the same fate as Miami five years earlier, advancing all the way to the Super Bowl before being blown out by those same San Francisco 49ers.

Later that year Chuck Noll, winner of four Super Bowls, finally was named coach of the year. What a way to end the 1980s.

Parting thoughts
Chuck Noll may well be the greatest coach in the Super Bowl era of NFL history, but he will seldom if ever even be in the conversation. No other coach in league history has won four Super Bowls. None of the Bills – Walsh, Parcells, or Belichick. Not Vince Lombardi, John Madden, or Joe Gibbs. And Noll did it in six years.

Yet, pundits chalk that success up to the talent. They never acknowledge the fact he spent countless hours on the road scouting that talent. Or that he coached the fundamentals and moulded that raw talent into all-stars and champions. Or that, had they not won all those Super Bowls, he would have been blamed for not getting his team ready.

If football is about results, no one achieved better results – and in a shorter period of time – than Chuck Noll. Add to that the fact that, more than a decade later, he took a team that had finished 5-11, and made them into a playoff team and a contender.

He was one of the best ever, without a doubt.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Tony Gwynn: A testament to loyalty, class, and performance

Tony Gwynn with that classic batting stance for the San Diego Padres.
He may have been the greatest pure hitter of his generation, but beyond that he was a gentleman, a class act, and a testament to loyalty. Sadly, Tony Gwynn died recently, far too young, the victim of cancer. He was 54.

Tony Gwynn played 20 major league seasons, from 1982 to 2001, earned eight National League batting titles, and did so much more. What struck me though was, in an era of open free agency, he played his entire career with one team – the San Diego Padres. He could easily have jumped to teams with better chances of winning the World Series, but he never did. Instead, he played in both World Series the Padres played in their history, 14 years apart. Unfortunately, both times San Diego ran into immensely talented juggernauts and never really stood much of a chance. But it never turned him off the Padres or motivated him to seek greener pastures.

Moreover, he played in an era where players began to use performance-enhancing drugs. As they grew stronger and their play stayed at an artificially-high level, Gwynn grew heavier as men who age naturally will do. Yet, he stayed at a high level, eschewing the need to use any drug to improve his performance. The fact he stayed clean, and still put up those numbers against peers who were cheating, makes his career even more remarkable.

By the numbers
For sure, he was the greatest Padre in franchise history, but his numbers make him one of the greatest players too. In addition to his eight batting titles, tied for the second most in major league history, he was a 15-time all-star, won five Gold Gloves as an outfielder, seven Silver Slugger awards, had 3,141 career hits and a career batting average of .338.

Tony Gwynn, speaking at his induction to the
Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in 2007.
He finished in the top 10 in batting for 15 consecutive seasons; led the league in hits seven times; hit above .300 in a National League record 19 straight seasons; hit above .350 for five consecutive seasons; won four consecutive batting titles; won four batting titles in each of two separate decades; had four of the top 14 best season averages since Ted Williams was the last player to bat .400 in a season in 1941; and he led the league in batting average and hits in the same year six times.

His son, Tony Gwynn Junior, would also make the major leagues, and currently plays for the Philadelphia Phillies.

He was inducted into the hall of fame in 2007, his first year of eligibility and just six years after retirement.

Parting thoughts
In the 1980s, there was nowhere near the amount of baseball coverage as we see today. I never saw Tony Gwynn play a lot, but once I saw him play, I immediately respected him for his behaviour and class. He was an ambassador of the game and, by never leaving the Padres, he put loyalty and team ahead of winning.

We don’t see a lot of that anymore.

Tony Gwynn had turned his attention to managing and teaching young players the game. It is sad he died so young, because he could have taught so much more to the next generation of players – about hitting and about life.

Thank you Tony.

* This video is of Tony Gwynn Junior's first game back
after his father's death. It is a truly touching moment.

Casey Kasem: Pioneering the charts

Casey Kasem with his wife Jean.
Casey Kasem, pioneer of the top 40 countdown.
Although I started listening to music in 1984 at the
beginning of Grade 10, I really got into it the next year when Grade 11 started. About that time every Saturday that I could, I listened to two
countdown shows. I’m pretty sure both were on CKXL 1140 in Calgary. One was a local show, the other was the legendary, “American Top 40” hosted by the iconic Casey Kasem.

I hadn’t thought much about that until recently, when I heard Casey Kasem had passed away.

America’s Top 40
There was something comforting about the voice. More than how he said it, Kasem added value to the countdown with a great turn of phrase and information on the songs and artists he was counting down. I listened to it in the living room on mom’s stereo, then at work when I started working for Gergeley’s Greenhouse. The jingle, “Casey’s Coast to Coast” became as familiar as the songs he was playing.

Jean Kasem and Dan Hedaya as Nick and Loretta, "The Tortellis".
Here they stumble into Cheers before getting their own show.
The wife
In the second season of “Cheers”, 1983-1984, Carla Tortelli, played by Rhea Perlman, is visited by her ex-husband Nick. He is getting married to a beautiful but dumb blonde bombshell named Loretta. Eventually, in January of 1987, Nick and Loretta got their own show, “The Tortellis”, which lasted 13 episodes.

Loretta was played by Jean Kasem, Casey’s second wife, who was married to him until the day he died. There was a fight in the last part of Casey’s life over custody of him between Jean and his children by his first wife.

Parting thoughts
The last time I heard Casey Kasem was in the summer of 1996. He was hosting a different program, but the voice and the style were still unmistakable. I was working for the Edmonton Oilers setting up “Breakout '96” and the semi trucks that hauled in all the equipment were blasting the radio. There he was, counting down the hits of 1996. I did not recognize a lot of them, as I had paid no attention to pop music the previous three years or so, but I got to know all about them thanks to Casey. I kept thinking, I hadn’t heard him in years, but the style was still the same.

There was something comforting and reassuring about the fact the countdown was the same, week in and week out, while so much else changed. It made perfect sense, because Casey Kasem pioneered the whole concept of the countdown show, back in 1970.

Thanks for everything you taught me about music as a historian and disc jockey. Now rest in peace – you deserve it.

* This video is the perfect countdown. It is for the week of Feb. 15, 1986. That was a pivotal week in my music-listening life. It was three days before my 16th birthday, and a couple weeks before I started working at the greenhouse. Plus, it better demonstrates what Casey Kasem was than anything I could write. I likely listened to it live.