When I learned that Yankees owner George Steinbrenner passed away a few weeks ago, my mind instantly traveled back to the notorious summer of 1977 in New York City. I was only ten years old but "The Boss" was a most captivating -- and even intimidating -- figure to young Yankee fans like me. Inner city kids worshiped the ground that Reggie Jackson walked on. To us he was Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle rolled into a delicious eponymous chocolate bar that was layered in peanuts and caramel. With every bite we chanted, "Reg-GIE! Reg-GIE! Reg-GIE!" and danced around in blissful circles on the sandy shores of Rockaway Beach, Queens.
The memorable headlines from the Daily News and the New York Post took turns roping Jackson and Steinbrenner to the media's whipping post, but somehow true die-hard Yankee fans never came away despising either one of the larger than life sports figures. The press loved to hate Mr. October for allegedly saying he was the "the straw that stirs the drink." And they also lampooned Steinbrenner for his very public rows with manager Billy Martin. But, truthfully, as long as the Yankees delivered, which they did, I adored the famed ballclub -- warts and all.
But it was the other craziness that defined the summer as New York City exploded in a frenzy of madness in 1977. From the city's financial collapse to the rumble at Yankees Stadium as the boys in pinstripes chased the championship ring, all New Yorkers, even my dad, a New York City firefighter, seemed to be coming unglued. It seemed to me that every kid's dad walked on the wild side that summer -- and mine was no exception. Was it something in the city's water supply or what? My dad usually spent about half of the week at home and the other half at Engine 1 in Midtown Manhattan. But, suddenly, he was spending as much as six days, allegedly, at the firehouse, and barely one day at home. Things usually got ugly when he finally brought his smoky butt home.
If that wasn't enough drama in 1977, we were all afraid of a madman on the loose with a gun. I was scared out of my wits of Son of Sam, David Berkowitz. Most of my friends called him the "44 caliber killer" because he had murdered a young woman with a 44 caliber pistol in Forest Hills, Queens, which was not too far from our apartment complex called Ocean Village in Rockaway Beach. He then followed up with two murders in the Bronx, also nearby. When Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin released the letter from this nut job, none of us happy-go-lucky kids in Queens were able to play outside for a while. The letter said, "I am the Son of Sam. I love to hunt. Prowling the streets looking for fair game -- tasty meat. The women of Queens are the prettiest." We lived in Queens, I was just shy of my eleventh birthday, and we were sure this monster was going to pluck us from the playground and eat us all alive.
Then the lights went out! On July 13th, a Wednesday I will never forget, lightening struck a bunch of power lines, and the city was in the dark for what seemed like the entire summer; but it was actually just a couple of days. Amazingly, our lights didn't go out because Rockaway Beach was the only city neighborhood that got its power from Long Island Lighting company system. But my mother still sealed all of the windows closed with sticks and put furniture in front of our door -- because looters in Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens turned the city upside down. They stole everything in sight whether it was nailed down or not. Our apartment was as hot as hell and our fans only circulated hot hair. We just suffered through the blistering heat until my mother allowed us to open our windows and get the fresh breeze from the Atlantic Ocean once again.
After a few more attacks that summer, a crazed David Berkowitz was finally busted by police in mid-August. Our parents let us go back outside and play for what was left of the weirdest summer of our lives.
And let's not forget the infamous fiscal crisis. Social services were being cut left and right. Even my dad was laid off from the fire department for two days before he was reinstated. New York's political establishment hated President Gerald Ford for not rescuing the city from its doldrums, and union workers were threatening to walk off the job. Embattled Mayor Abe Beame was up for re-election and had fierce competition in the form of a flamboyant congressman, Ed Koch, and a future democratic icon, Mario Cuomo. Koch won and Mr. "How am I doin?" became just as popular as Mr. October and The Boss.
And where was my firefighting father during this time? He was literally riding high and acting like the headline grabbing motorcycle stuntman Evel Knievel during his days off from the firehouse. My father must have hired a professional photographer to capture a picture of him driving his motorcycle up a slender steel beam as the amateur daredevil jumped about twenty feet. In the summer of '77, my daddy lived like a free-wheeling bachelor in the hell zone that was New York City. He had five small wide-eyed children at home but this kooky summer gave him a license to sow his royal oats. He lived to regret it, unfortunately.
A ferocious ball club owner, a city on the brink of financial collapse, a blackout, a free-wheelin' dad, and The Reggie Bar... that was the summer of my youth. And like any tough-as nails dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, if I could do it all over again, I would. I swear I would.
Thanks for the memories George. RIP.