Memoirs -- fact and fiction, San Miguel de Allende, Writings

Christmas Eve, 1967–Hunting for Perry Como

To understand the significance of Perry Como passing through our town on Christmas Eve in 1967 – no, not just passing but actually stopping – you have to understand the insignificance of Brookville, Pennsylvania. 

The town that I fondly, though inaccurately, call my hometown, was in the middle of nowhere until the honking huge Interstate-80 was laid north of town and sucked up all traffic and little remaining interest in Brookville. Though you could see and hear thousands of cars and trucks pass by daily, Brookville was deeper into nowhere than ever before.

And, I think, most people seemed OK with that.

The Interstate was already there when my family moved to Brookville and kids my age were already earning bragging rights by traversing the maintenance walkway beneath the two towering bridges that span the heavily wooded valley that shelters North Fork Creek.

So, Brookville is best known as the county seat of Jefferson County. Its population when I arrived as a seventh grader was 4,500. That was only four times more than the population of my Catholic grade school in Western New York. At one time it had two weekly newspapers – The Jeffersonian Democrat and The Brookville Republican. (And you think political divisiveness is something new?)

By the way, the grade school I entered in Brookville, the Immaculate Conception, was a four-room schoolhouse with combined grades. Whereas at Sts. Peter & Paul in Hamburg NY, I never saw my eighth-grade brother, here we shared the same classroom.

There’s so much I can say about fitting in – or not fitting in – but I’ll spare you that for now. I just want to set the scene so that you can grasp the magnitude of Perry Como coming to town. 

I’ll say only this. On my first day of seventh-eighth grade, I was imagining that everyone, including my classmates, worked in coal mines. And that every one of them was ready to pounce and beat the shit out of me. I kept my head down.

A note landed on my desk.

Oh, no, my first death threat!

I gingerly opened up the wad of notebook paper.

“Do you smoke?”

“Sure,” I lied, passing the note back to the person with the most-expectant, least-hostile-looking face.

In short order, the note came back.

“Do you like Kelly ______?”

I paused to ponder the connection between the two questions and finding none, I played for time.

“Who is Kelly ______?”

“The girl in the very front seat of your row.”

I leaned out to my left to take a peek, just as “the girl in the very front seat” leaned back to case me out.

She was cute.

“Sure,” I replied. “I think so.”

(Weeks later, after tortuous third-party negotiation we’d set up a date. We’d go to the movies. Yes, the town had a movie house. Only we’d meet inside. The movie was something about Vikings battling … something. I just remember lots of axes swinging.

I panicked. I wasn’t ready to be dating. I went inside the theater and walked all the way to the back where I thought nobody would find me. And I sat down … right in front of Kelly and her girlfriend. When I realized the weakness in my otherwise cowardly plan I went in deeper. I pretended not to see them or hear them whispering my name. I may have invented ”ghosting,” I don’t know. 

On Monday I was like “Really, you were right behind me?” Curiously, I don’t think anyone else felt my behavior was half as weird as I did.)

If we were a drone pulling back from Brookville we would see … mostly trees. Lots and lots and lots of trees. Within a short ride are several state parks and the Allegheny National Forest. There is farmland and dairy farms but with each passing decade, it feels like the trees are winning back their stolen land.

The town itself is shrinking, too. The 2010 census shows almost 1,000 fewer people than when we moved there in 1963.

Brookville sits on seven hills like another more famous, more-connected city. I never figured out which were the exact seven but I lived on the most-populous, called Catholic Hill. The Catholic Church and elementary school held the highest ground and below them were families like ours, bursting with babies. We had nine – eight sons and a daughter. People across the street had 11 and their neighbors also had nine. Our one neighbor had five. The only ones who kept the propagation of the faith in check, it seems, were the Ferraro families that occupied several houses adjacent to us. They had no more than two or three kids each.

Our street was paved with bricks which are as prevalent there as cobblestone is here in San Miguel de Allende.

In the wintertime, my dad learned quickly to get his cars off the street on Sunday mornings. We’d watch the churchgoers inching down the steep, slick-brick road until weight plus force plus momentum – physics – would take over and the cars would slide, pinball, and sometimes crash into each other til they reached the bottom of the hill.

The other hills were occupied loosely by Baptists (wooden churches and houses), Protestants (impressive stone churches and homes), Methodists (unimposing houses, kick-ass church), the hospital, and others that I do not recall bore any other characteristic than residential.

There was not a Black section of town, or a Hispanic section. Only one Black family.

You begin to see how isolated it might be.

Main Street, of course, ran flat and straight and was bordered by stately brick mercantile buildings rarely more than three stories high housing banks, haberdasheries, hardware, and dry goods; the VFW had its own building. The stately courthouse and county seat with the green lawn, flagpole, and Civil War-era cannon sat at the main intersection. There was the YMCA with its indoor swimming pool, the drugstore with its wide selection of candy, and a real soda fountain where you could play scientist with a dozen different flavors of syrup and coke. There was DeMann’s where you could buy a hunting rifle or an out-of-town newspaper. We had a pizza joint and a couple of diners. My favorite in the last category was Hiltons, a real chrome-plated and converted-railcar-type diner with the best booths and the best banana cream pie.

I don’t recall any boarded-up storefronts in those days.  Of course, there was no Costco, or Amazon, or Walmart either. The highway intersection was just beginning to fill with truck stops, gas stations, motels, and fast-turnover restaurants but that wasn’t Brookville. Not really.

Brookville seemed to exist in a bubble. Or on an island. If a band ever toured through town, it was a tribute band. There was no Chautauqua tent or amphitheater, or live stage. There was a live stage, on the second floor of the hardware store but people seriously forgot it was there until the 2000s when it was re-discovered and restored.

The point is, anybody who was anybody, did not come to or through Brookville.  Heck, my buddies and I had to drive all the way to the Clearfield County Fair to see the up-and-coming psychedelic band The Electric Prunes and the opening act First Edition with a guy named Kenny Rogers. 

Heavy stuff for country boys – Prunes singing  “I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night” and Kenny’s “I Just Dropped In to See What Condition My Condition Was In.”

You could drive to Pittsburgh with your friend’s mom to go shopping for school clothes and see Steppenwolf from the very last row at the arena – which we did – but nobody came to Brookville.

Until Christmas Eve in 1967. 

By then I’d had two years in a Catholic seminary, dropped out just before being thrown out, and was successfully navigating my second year in a public high school. 

When I asked a girl, Carol, to attend midnight mass with me, I actually picked her up and walked through the front door of the church with her on my arm. She lived at the bottom of Catholic Hill, just one house up from Dan Smith’s Ice Cream and Candies, the place where I got my first job, behind the counter serving up milkshakes, sundaes, cones and … the Pig. The Pig was so big … how big was it? … if you could finish one you got a free button that said “I was a Pig at Dan Smith’s.”

Hardly anybody ever finished one. So much ice cream, so many bananas, so many different toppings, beneath an undulating sea of whipped cream and floating cherries like the debris of a bright red airplane crash into an alpine mountain top. …

So, Carol’s house was just up the hill. We ran in the same tribe. 

That was another nice thing about Brookville. We had more fun as a group than actually dating. We’d go out to somebody’s hunting camp – everybody had a camp in the woods and a house in town, it seemed – and hold birthday parties. We’d go to dances at Wes Kings to see cover bands from other towns. We’d go to junior proms and snowballs as a bunch.

All so innocent, until everyone started dating.

I’d spent so many summer evenings on Carol’s porch, just hanging out, listening to music, talking. We all did. Carol said it was because we all liked her mom. And we did. Her Mom served Carol and her older sister wine with dinner. So progressive. She said she’d rather her daughters experiment at home than in somebody’s car. So progressive.

So different from my own parents who would not even allow me to leave the house without socks.

Besides progressive parenting,  I learned the power of music on her porch. An out-of-town cousin was visiting Carol. The radio was playing and the Los Bravos hit “Black Is Black” came on. Good song. Heavy lyrics.

Black is black

I want my baby back

It’s gray, it’s gray

Since she went away, Ooh-Ooh

Heartbreak, longing, disappointment, regret, sorrow – so many things we only read about or saw in movies.

Carol’s cousin let out a sharp squeak, like she’s swallowed something bitter. She jumped up, tears falling down her face, and ran into the house.

Being a clueless teenage boy, I turned to Carol with an inquisitive look that probably could be interpreted as, “Was it something I said?”

“She just broke up with her boyfriend,” Carol explained. “That was their song.”

Only years later did I question the choice of such a depressing but highly danceable song as the musical love bond between two people. Somebody smarter than me could have predicted the imminent, inevitable doom of that relationship just based on one listening.

My response at the time was, “Wow. Music can do that to you?”

I decided to listen harder.

Meanwhile, while I was listening harder, all my free-range, non-committed friends were pairing up – some it turns out, for life. Which we did not know at the time.

I immediately looked toward Carol and just as quickly realized I have committed one of the most fatal errors a Beta Male teenager can do. 

I had designated her a Madonna. My Madonna.

A Madonna is the girl you place on a pedestal so high she becomes unattainable, even if she is interested in dating you.  It was unthinkable to sully her innate purity by taking her on a date, possibly kissing her, and maybe, possibly even … no, no, no. It was unthinkable.

I think we were in what today is called The Friend Zone.

A window of opportunity opened up with Midnight Mass. Surely you can ask the Madonna in your life to Midnight Mass and possibly cocoa and cookies afterward without risking hellfire and damnation and the ignominious shame of ruining a perfectly good Madonna’s reputation.

OK, maybe my social skills hadn’t evolved all that much from seventh grade.

I can say that Mass went well. Lots of decorations, bright lights, cheer, Christmas carols during the service, Father Cialoa restrained his usual cranky self – and of course, it had been snowing lightly all day.

Did I mention that Carol was not Catholic? I think she might have been Protestant or Methodist. Not Baptist. A Baptist girl had already been told she couldn’t date me because I was a Catholic. That hurt. But Carol said yes to Mass so that sort of said how open she was to exploring our relationship. Well, I didn’t think things like that back then.

I was just relieved she didn’t say “No.”

We walked out onto the snow-covered steps of the church and admired the snow falling down around the twin steeples, a balletic dance in the light. A car roared up to the curb with a few of our non-Catholic friends – non-Christian to the rest of the congregation pouring out behind us – and they were in a lather.

“You won’t believe what just happened!” shouted Jimmy the driver. “Hop in! Quick!”

Cocoa and cookies could wait. This sounded huge.

As we slid down the hill toward town Jimmy said, excitedly, “Perry Como just came through town. He stopped at Angelo’s and ordered pizza! He might still be there!”

Mind you, Perry Como was not our generation. The Beatles were. The Stones. The Animals. 

On the other hand, he was a TV pioneer. An icon with his own variety show which our parents watched without fail every single week. And because they watched and because there was only one TV in every household and because there was no Internet or video games – well, we watched, too.

Perry Como was also Christmas in a sweater. He must have had 400 Christmas TV specials and an equal number of Christmas albums. He was warm cocoa and a yule log and holly – Christmas catnip for our parents and grandparents.

And frankly, he was the biggest thing to hit Brookville, even if only for pizza.

Angelo confirmed that he had been there.

“One pie with everything. Had his wife and kids with him. They were heading home.”

That made sense. You could stay on the highway almost all the way to Ohio and make a sharp left turn onto another highway and head south through Pittsburgh to Canonsburg where Como grew up and learned the barber trade and sang in The Canonsburg Italian Band with crooner Bobby Vinton’s father.

Or… you could take two-lane Route 28 through Brookville and drop directly down to the Iron City – with a ton of abs-tightening twists and turns. Only those who grew up here know this way, so it made absolute sense that Como, a Pennsylvania boy would know the way.

We figured that he probably left New York right after filming his show with a car full of kids and packages all singing “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

And apparently, they made it. We saw no headline that said, “Crooner found stranded on backroad to Pittsburgh.”

We never saw Como either. We drove around for a while anyway, comforted in the impossibility that he would be hanging around in Brookville, knowing the possibility that we would not be hanging around in Brookville either. Soon. Soon enough.

Funny enough, there were cars driving all over Brookville that evening, dozens of them aimlessly searching for the undiscoverable, for the improbable, for the chance to pull up alongside Perry Como’s car and honk the horn and give him a thumbs up and wish him a Merry Christmas. And then, on Monday, be the one person in Brookville who could say they did such a thing.

But for now, it was Christmas day and it was still snowing and it was cold and if we didn’t get home to bed, Santa wouldn’t come.

I took Carol home. Gave her a chaste kiss on the cheeks.

And berated myself the whole way up Catholic Hill for not having the courage to show her how much more I really cared.

We stayed in the Friend Zone through high school graduation but I never saw my Madonna again.

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3 thoughts on “Christmas Eve, 1967–Hunting for Perry Como

  1. Linda Mellish says:

    Fascinating to find your blog. I was born and raised in Sugarcreek Twp in Armstrong county and graduated from East Brady Area High School. We had a scrappy but determined football team and I have memories of a sunny afternoon in Brookville after one of those games. We usually won. Brookville from a an earlier post about Woodstock, was upscale compared to East Brady, but we did have Jim Kelly the famous quarterback, he was in my brothers class. Lots of nostalgia but I knew I could not stay there. Degreed at Penn State University and spent my adult life in Philadelphia before moving to Mexico on 9/11/17. And now reside in SMA, hopefully until I die. Enjoying your posts. Thanks.

    Like

    • Ugh. I remember playing East Brady in football. Always tough games. I think the closer you got to Pittsburgh, the tougher the teams became. My brother played in Natrona Heights and their warm-up practices the day before a game drew more spectators than we ever did for a game!
      We came to San Miguel around the same time, after spending almost five years in Belize. I get back to Brookville on occasion and it is always sweet melancholy. Nobody would remember me but I remember the innocence of those days and it feels good. Thanks for reading the blog, Linda.

      Like

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