Family Life

World's 1st Heart Transplant Stirs a Christmas Memory

Charlie.brown.christmas.treeThe first successful transplant of a human heart took place in South Africa on Dec. 3, 1967 (the recipient was 54-year-old Louis Washkansky).  Whenever I hear mention of this medical milestone it brings back memories of a trifle of a Christmas play I appeared in when I was in the 5th grade.  I played the role of the Christmas tree and I had a monologue in which I extolled the virtues of the tree.  Rather than holding a little cardboard tree in front of me I insisted my mother create something elaborate, a tree that completely covered me.  It was made out of a shimmering green material that resembled Astroturf, and then little cut-out ornaments were attached.  While Mom was constructing it and fitting me I watched How the Grinch Stole Christmas.  When I tried it on I felt like Charlie Brown's tree after it was transformed by his friends.


Thanks to my mother's creation I was the star of the play (much like the falling chandelier in the Phantom of the Opera).  After the play was over (just one performance, mostly for the benefit of the student body) my teacher gushed to my mom about the tree and confided that she was just expecting me to stand behind a small hand-held paper tree.  (Mom was flabbergasted.)  She asked if the school could have the tree, but I wouldn't hear of it - and it languished in our basement never to be worn again.  And for whatever reason no photographs were taken of me wearing it. 


Back to matters of the heart, Mr. Washkansky died 18 days after his historical operation, from pneumonia.  Just three days after his transplant the first pediatric heart transplant took place, in the US, on an 18-day-old infant (who lived for just six-and-a-half hours).  And a month later the first adult transplant was performed in the US.  That recipient lived for fifteen days.



The Boy Who Cried "Kidnap"

PinocchioI don't know what came over me, but the words just came out of my mouth.  It was 1966 and I was in the third grade at Fenton Elementary School in the Pittsburgh suburb of McKees Rocks when my friend Diane casually told our teacher, Mrs. Shaw, that someone had tried to lure one of her brothers into his car.  For whatever reason, perhaps because I noticed the attention Diane's statement generated, I blurted out that the same thing had happened to me - and suddenly the attention shifted.  My mother was called as were the police.  I provided a name (R. Ziegler) and a license plate number.  No one thought it peculiar that a 9-year-old child was savvy enough to notice a license plate number, or that a kidnapper would reveal his last name.


LiarliarIn response a stakeout was organized.  For a week a police officer sat in an unmarked car parked in a driveway on my block and I was instructed to walk home from school, alone, down the alley.  I realized this was spiraling out of control but I was too scared to admit the truth.  A few months later after it appeared my lie was dead and buried, we were in church when my mother saw the name Ziegler in the church bulletin and pointed it out to me.  Thankfully, that would be the last time my fabricated story was mentioned.


LiedetectorMy lie went undiscovered for about a dozen years.  But then, as a sophomore at Penn State, my American History class was given an assignment to write a personal history.  In mine I decided to come clean and reveal my fabricated kidnapping attempt.  Then four years later, after I had moved to New York, my parents were going through my things as they packed them away and they came across my project.  Of course, they were stunned at what they read.  (They also discovered literature that suggested I was gay.)


Although my troubling fabrication didn't become a Crucible-like witch hunt, my first-hand experience made me very skeptical of accusations made by a child.    

Recalling the Big Snowstorms of My Pittsburgh Childhood

Winter.1960.pittsburgh.robfrydlewiczAs an adult who is six feet tall I often think that if a foot of snow seems like a lot to me just imagine what it seems to a child who is two or three feet shorter (or to a toddler, like me in the photo during the winter of 1960).  Which brings back memories of some of the big snowstorms of my childhood in the Pittsburgh suburb of McKees Rocks, four of which were around 14 inches and are recounted below.


JANUARY 12-13, 1964 (First Grade)

This storm moved in on Sunday night and continued through the next evening.  I remember excitedly turning on the porch light throughout the evening to look out as the snow accumulated on the porch steps.  For the entirety of the storm temperatures never got out of the teens. 

Nearly 16 inches fell and there was no school on Monday.  Then on Tuesday we woke up to a morning low of six below zero.  Despite these frigid conditions I was looking forward to going to school because it meant spending a good amount of time to walk through the mountains of snow along the way.  (My school, Fenton Elementary, was within walking distance.) 


Me (right) with my big brother on our way to school the day after the big snowstorm of Jan. 12-13, 1964


JANUARY 22-23, 1966 (Third Grade)

It was Saturday and me, my brother, sister and mother had our check-up with the dentist that morning.  Afterwards we did some grocery shopping at  Kroger just as the first flakes of snow began falling at a little past 12:00 noon.  When we got home we watched American Bandstand; the Mamas & the Papas were on and they sang Monday Monday and California Dreamin'.  Snow fell heaviest between mid-afternoon and midnight and ended shortly after daybreak on Sunday.  My brother, Darrell, was allowed to go out and help mom and dad shovel but I had to stay inside because it was too much trouble getting me put together.  In total nearly 15 inches fell. 

Although it was a Saturday event and didn't impact school, we didn't go to church or Sunday school (a consolation prize).  On Sunday morning I got to go out and help shovel out the driveway and I remember how high the snow was and what an effort it was to throw the snow up to the side.


MARCH 6-7, 1967 (Fourth Grade)

It was a Monday and rain in the morning changed to heavy, wet snow in the afternoon (the temperature hovered around freezing).  After dark the snow really came down heavily and high winds kicked in - there was even some thunder/lightning.  Amazingly, my parents went out shopping and my brother went to his evening trumpet lesson.  My older sister and I stayed home and watched I Dream of Jeannie and The Monkees.  14 inches piled up and school was cancelled on Tuesday.




DECEMBER 1-2, 1974 (Senior Year)

Snow fell off and on in heavy bursts during late afternoon on Sunday through the evening and into the overnight hours.  The temperature hovered around 33 degrees throughout so it was a heavy, wet snow.  I had a morning paper route at the time and it was a challenge walking up some of the driveways that were on an incline because of a coating of freezing rain/sleet that had fallen on top of the snow. 

School had a delayed opening but there were no buses operating so most of my classmates didn't come in.  (And as he did during the other storms, my dedicated dad drove to his job as a foreman at Pittsburgh-Des Monies Steel Company on Neville Island).  Power outages were widespread because so many tree branches, weighed down by 14 inches of wet snow, snapped and brought down power lines.


The next bit snowstorms came in the winter of 1978 when two big ones came within a few days of each other in mid-January and dumped a total of 27 inches.  At the time I was in my junior year at Penn State in State College.  I've experienced my biggest snowfalls while living in New York City.  Between 1983 and 2011 there were seven storms that dumped 18 inches or more, the biggest being 26.9" in February 2006.


The great blizzard of Jan. 7-8, 1996 buried New York under more than 20" of snow.


Kent State Shootings: 4 Dead in Ohio (May 4, 1970)

Kentstate_shootings It was a mild but sort of hazy Tuesday afternoon.  Rather than take the bus home from school (7th grade at Sto-Rox Middle School) I walked because I stopped off for a haircut.  When I got home I saw that morning's paper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, on the hassock in the living room.  On the front page was a photo (now iconic) of an overwrought young woman kneeling over the body of a student shot dead at Kent State University by the Ohio National Guard.  The shootings occurred the day before during an anti-war demonstration protesting the US invasion of Cambodia at the end of April.  Guardsmen opened fire on students, killing four and wounding nine.  Although it was in neighboring Ohio, I had never heard of the university. 



The four students who were shot dead


Perhaps because I was just 12 at the time (and somewhat preoccupied by the onset of puberty) I don't recall there being much talk about this incident among schoolmates or teachers, and at home we usually didn't discuss news events at the dinner table.  But the constant coverage of the Vietnam War was plenty worrisome for my parents since my brother, Darrell, was nearing draft age.  (A lasting memory of the war was hearing the weekly casualty report on the radio while I was getting ready for school.)  




However, once the anti-war song Ohio by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young became popular during the summer the shootings had more resonance with me.  The song begins with the line: "Tin soldiers and Nixon's coming, we're finally on our own.  This summer I hear the drumming. Four dead in Ohio." (The CD Steal This Record provides a collection of some other notable protest songs from the 1960s).  By the time I turned 18 in 1975 the US was out of Vietnam (the fall of South Vietnam to the Communists occurred two weeks before my birthday) and teen boys were no longer required to register for the draft.




Hitler Seizes Czechoslovakia (March 15, 1939)




My grandmother, Margaret Cerovski (nee Revay), arrived in the US from Czechoslovakia in September 1920 (she celebrated her 21st birthday while crossing the Atlantic).  After being processed at Ellis Island she continued on to Pittsburgh where her brother Michael lived (their 11 brothers and sisters remained back in the "old country"). 


After she and my grandfather (from the Croatian region of Yugoslavia) became citizens in the 1930's Grandma thought about visiting her family because her mother was in declining health.  She also wanted to take my mother and uncle, who were teenagers, with her.  However, Czechoslovakia was being slowly partitioned by Nazi Germany and Slovakia, the eastern region of the country my grandmother was from, was agitating for its independence.  For these reasons my grandfather wouldn't allow Grandma to take Mom and Uncle George.  And then on March 15, in 1939 Czechoslovakia's beleaguered president (pictured with Hitler, below) signed over the country to Hitler, and the thought of Grandma even visiting by herself ended.  WWII would begin six months later.




Although she never visited her homeland, Grandma kept in touch with her brothers and sisters.  She was the middle child but managed to outlive all of her siblings and died in 1999 just six months shy of her 100th birthday.





(I've also written about the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovkia: Soviet Army Crushes Prague Spring.)  


The Beatles Perform on "Ed Sullivan" (February 9, 1964)




Anyone who had a teenage sister probably has memories similar to mine when the Beatles made their first American TV appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, i.e. shrieking, screaming, perhaps even sobbing.  I was in the first grade at the time and on that Sunday night (February 9, 1964) I was sitting in the living room behind my 13-year old sister, Linda, who was seated on the floor in front of the TV set.  Occasionally I'd look up from my coloring book.  Even if I wasn't interested how could I not look up to see what was creating such a commotion?


Even before this telecast I was aware that the Beatles were a big deal.  (I remember my mother returning from a shopping trip to downtown Pittsburgh and bringing back the Beatles' first LP, Meet the Beatles, for Linda.)  I was 6-years-old at the time and completely unaware of any same-sex inclinations, yet I remember thinking that Paul was cute.  (When I turned 13 and preparing for my Confirmation I wanted my Confirmation name to be Paul, but instead I was talked into choosing George, which had family significance.)




Of course, the telecast drew a huge audience.  Today, 50 years later, its 45.3 Nielsen household rating still ranks as one of the 25 highest rated telecasts of all time.  (Nowadays only the Super Bowl gets that kind of rating.)  The following week the Beatles made a second appearance on Sullivan's show and it provided another ratings bonanza.  (The complete telecasts are available on Ed Sullivan: The Beatles' Telecasts.  Additionally, a documentary by Albert & David "Grey Gardens" Maysles, The Beatles 1st US Visit, is also available.)     







Growing up in the 1960s & 1970s - Living in Primitive Times

DarkAgesThose of us born in the generation that came before the introduction of today's whiz-bang gadgets may appreciate them the most since we know what it was like to have "suffered" the various inconveniences of life without them.  However, today's advances aren't always viewed as enhancements.  With that in mind, the following list offers younger readers a glimpse of what life was like back in the Dark Ages of the 1960s and 1970s:


  • Pringles, Cheerios, Oreos, M&Ms, Ocean Spray cranberry juice and French's mustard had just one variety - and drinking water wasn't filtered by Brita, it came directly from the tap.
  • Major League Baseball often scheduled doubleheaders on Memorial Day, 4th of July and Labor Day.  And the World Series was played in the afternoon.  Additionally, in the years before the first energy crisis in 1974, night games started at 8:05 not 7:05.




  • When the phone rang you answered it without knowing who was calling - at home or work.  And your pointer finger got regular exercise from dialing the telephone.  Additionally, long distance calls were considered a luxury because of their expense.
  • Before violent video games, the most raucous game was Rock'em Sock'em Robots.




  • Baggies were an advance in storage.  There was no such thing as Ziploc anything. 
  • When the weekend approached you'd go to the bank and estimate how much spending money you'd need to withdrawal.  Unless you kept money under your mattress.  And you stood in line inside the bank for all banking transactions.
  • Bottles and containers were a cinch to open since they weren't designed to be child-resistant or tamper-proof.
  • Guests on the Tonight Show stayed put when other guests came on.




  • There were no signers for the deaf at public events/news conferences.
  • Fireworks exhibitions happened only on the 4th of July.  (And sometimes when your neighbors had a fight.)  Jellybeans and marshmallow peeps were sold only at Easter time.
  • Going to church, school or Broadway shows were all "dress up" occasions.  And sneakers and flip-flops were worn only during gym class, play time or vacation.




  • Diet soda tasted like a witch's brew of chemicals. (Here's to the advanced chemical formulas of the 21st century that made Coke Zero possible!)  
  • Dentists/dental hygienists didn't wear masks, cashiers didn't wear protective gloves.  There was no such thing as hand sanitizer and yet we somehow survived.




  • If a classmate met with "misfortune" no therapists were called in, you went to school the next day just like any other day.
  • Neopolitan was about as gourmet an ice cream flavor you could get.  And before Starbucks there was was only General Foods International Coffee.




  • Morning paper boys went out before sunrise by foot and their parents didn't worry (except, perhaps, about the occasional ferocious dog).
  • You either turned a room light off or on, there was no dimmer switch (or ambient lighting).
  • To do school work students thumbed through an encyclopedia rather than Wikipedia and never doubted the verity of the information it contained. 




  • During snowstorms ashes were tossed onto roads from the back of dump trucks.
  • Adults knew that Liberace, Charles Nelson Reilly and Paul Lynde were "funny" but it wasn't mentioned in front of the children.




  • Instant potatoes were a time-saving advance in dinner preparation.  And Pop Tarts were an advance in breakfast food.




  • Suburban households sorted their trash and then openly burned what was made of paper.     
  • When taking a trip you unfolded an unwieldy paper document called a "map".
  • People who suffered from allergies were alergic only to tree pollen or ragweed - no one knew they were lactose intolerant or allergic to wheat.




  • Divorce?  What was that?
  • In the winter and summer you went outside without the benefit of a wind chill factor or heat index.
  • There was no such thing as a bike helmet.
  • In anticipation of winter, two rituals for my dad in October and November were putting up storm windows on the house and putting snow tires on the family car.





"All in the Family" Debuts, Changes Primetime Forever (January 12, 1971)

All_in_the_family I was suffering from a bad cold the night All in the Family debuted on CBS.  For much of the show I was in the kitchen making hot tea with honey and preparing a somewhat flammable throat wrap coated with Vicks VapoRub which I heated over one of the burners of the stove.  Because of these preparations I wasn't paying full attention to the program.  However, I do remember the warning that came on before the show began about its content.  Although I was 13 at the time I didn't worry about my parents changing the channel since Tuesday was my mother's bowling night and dad was dozing in his recliner.  


All_in_the_family.tvguide During its first season All in the Family aired on Tuesday but in its second season the show moved to Saturday where it ran for four seasons.  It was part of Saturday's legendary lineup along with The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Bob Newhart and Carol Burnett.  Some lasting memories I have include Edith going through menopause (a new concept for me) and hearing Archie refer to blacks as "jungle bunnies" (also a first).  I watched the show regularly during its first four seasons but that ended once I went away to college.  However, this spared me the pain of watching the episode in which Edith died.



The show ushered in a new era in TV in which controversial and political subject matter was addressed.  And viewers embraced it - All in the Family became the first TV show to be #1 in the ratings for five consecutive seasons (later joined by Cosby and American Idol).  It also begat Maude and The Jeffersons.  Indeed, those were the days! 

The "Immaculate Reception" of Franco Harris (December 23, 1972)

Until 1972 my hometown Pittsburgh Steelers had a long history of losing.  This season, however, they finished with a solid winning record (11-3) and made it to the playoffs.  On Saturday, Dec. 23 the Oakland Raiders were in Pittsburgh playing the Steelers in the AFC Divisional Playoffs.  That afternoon, while the game was being played, I was out collecting payment from customers of my morning paper route (the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette).  Since it was Christmas, instead of the usual 25 or 50 cent tips, I was collecting tips in the stratospheric $2 to $5 range.




When I returned home the game was on the radio, and it didn't look good as the Raiders had a 7-6 lead very late in the game.  Then in a flash the tables were turned as a pass by Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw bounced off the intended receiver and landed in the hands of Steelers rookie (and NFL Rookie of the Year) Franco Harris just before it reached the ground.  He scooped it up and scooted 60 yards for the game winning touchdown with less than 20 seconds remaining.  However, it took five minutes before Harris' catch was confirmed by officials as a legitimate reception.  It was even more confusing if you weren't watching on TV as was our case since the game was blacked out in Pittsburgh. 






Pittsburghsteelers_book Even today it seems unbelievable that this catch happened.  And although the Steelers season ended the following week, when they lost to the undefeated Miami Dolphins, it was the beginning of the Steelers becoming one of the most successful and widely followed teams in the nation.  (To immerse yourself fully in "Steelers Nation" lore the book The Good, The Bad & The Ugly Pittsburgh Steelers is a good starting point.)  

Bridge Disaster Mars Holiday Season (December 15, 1967)




It was early Saturday afternoon on Dec. 15, 1967 when I brought in the afternoon paper (Pittsburgh Press) from the front porch and saw the headline about a bridge disaster the previous night in nearby Point Pleasant, West Virginia.  The Silver Bridge fell into the Ohio River during evening rush hour, killing 46.  It still ranks as the nation's deadliest bridge collapse. 

Although I was just 10 at the time,  the tragedy resonated for two reasons: 1) It was incongruous to my young brain that such a tragedy could occur at Christmastime, and 2) because of its famed three rivers, Pittsburgh is a city of bridges, and every Sunday we traveled over one (the Wind Gap Bridge) to pick up my grandmother for church.  For some time after the Silver Bridge disaster I'd become nervous whenever we'd be stopped on the bridge because of traffic.




Of course, all disasters are unfortunate, but those that occur during the Christmas season are particularly tragic.  Some of the more high profile in the past 60 years include:

Dec. 16, 1960 - Two planes collided over Staten Island, killing 134.

Dec. 29, 1975 - A bomb exploded in a locker at LaGuardia Airport, killing 11 and injuring 75.

Dec. 21, 1988 - Pan Am flight 103 bound for New York exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 on board and 11 on the ground.

Dec. 26, 2004 - The great Indian Ocean tsunami (pictured below) killed 230,000+ in multiple countries, many of them tourists on Christmas vacations.

Dec. 14, 2012 - 28 persons were shot to death at an elementary school in Newtown, CT, twenty of whom were children between the age of 5 and 10.   

Dec 17-18, 2021 - 88 persons were killed during a nighttime tornado outbreak in six states in the South and Midwest.  Most of the deaths were in Kentucky.