The Lost Act of “Popping In”

Me with my brothers and sisters

Me with my brothers and sisters. I'm the one with the big nose and the receding hairline.

I originally wrote this piece for my other blog at: http://buffalo.yourhub.com/~Tiger. However, a snarky friend suggested I post it on Fire Fighter Nation as well. And now, it has ended up here on my blog.

At first I wasn’t sure how it tied into the fire service, but eventually even I was bright enough to see a strong connection.

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I had the good fortune of growing up in a neighborhood where regardless of which house you were at when the dinner bell rang, that’s the house you ate at.

It was by all accounts (at least ours), a great neighborhood. I grew up on a stretch of Bennett Road near Route 5 in Evans Center – the real center of life in the Town of Evans at one time.

At a time long before I was born, my grandfather Joe Baker owned from the corner to the top of the hill, about a quarter mile stretch. We lived in the house my mother grew up in.

Growing up there through the 1960’s, 70’s and into the 80’s was a treat and a tribute to simple town life. We had 8 kids in our family, our next-door neighbors, the Latimores, had 9 kids.

We jokingly referred to the Milks’ as the “poor family” next to them, because they only had 4 kids. But that didn’t matter because we lent them kids all the time. I was one of those frequently lent or borrowed kids. I was a frequent flyer at Mrs. Milks house, especially when she made pigs-in-the-blanket. I always brought fresh picked home-grown corn from our garden, making me a welcomed guest. With me being the youngest of 8 kids, they made me feel special when I went over to their house for there I was a bigger fish in a much smaller pond.

We spent so much time together and were so intermingled that I can remember on more than one occasion that an old timer would say to me, “I know you’re a Schmittendorf or a Latimore, I just can’t remember which.”

My oldest brother David once ran away from home and lived in Latimore’s basement for a few days, two doors away. Theresa finally noticed that her son Tommy was taking more than his share at the dinner table and called my mother to let her know where David was. He was eventually extradited back to our house in the open “child exchange program” our parents shared.

[Eight is Enough!]

For the record, there was a family that lived in a house situated between ours and Latimores but the double top secret code of the neighborhood prevents me from uttering their name. Perhaps I’ll write a blog about them after the statute of limitations has expired. Suffice to say, they did not see the advantages of having 21 kids in the neighborhood quite the same way that we did.

Nonetheless, my father taught us how to deal with people like them, alternating his lessons between “turn the other cheek” and “don’t take that crap from anyone.”

Actually, there are quite a few benefits of coming from a large family and a large neighborhood of kids. We always had enough kids for a sandlot baseball team or plenty of kids for a side yard game of football. And, there were always enough kids to do all of the chores that we often shared across the three households.

It was a simple exercise of the theory of division of labor. If one of us had a task we had to finish before we could go outside and play, we all chipped in to get the job done so that we could all play together. This was especially true if you were the one they were waiting on to be that much needed 9th man for baseball, an 11th man for football or to make an even number of players for a game of tag or hide-and-seek.

Much of our childhood activities revolved around Big Sister Creek (pronounced ‘crick’) which ran through our back yards. We would skate and play hockey on the creek during the winter, raft it when it flowed heavy in the spring thaw, and watch in amazement when they used dynamite to break up the ice jam at the Route 5 bridge.

We pretty much lived at the creek in the summertime. Saturday mornings would start by meeting under the bridge and planning our day together, whether it was just two or three or more than a dozen of us at a time. We would walk for miles up and down the creek bed which sometimes dried up completely in spots during the dog days of summer.

We left home early in the morning and frequently returned only at dinner time. We were cut off from the rest of the world for 6-8 hours straight with no communications link to home, except for one of our moms yelling our name throughout the neighborhood.

Imagine being able to let your kids do that today.

Fishing, catching crayfish, skipping rocks, playing army or just imagining another adventure was enough to pass the time until that cast iron dinner bell outside our back door rang.

It was a rare occasion that a Latimore or Milks kid wasn’t at our dinner table for a meal. After all, there were always 10 available seats and invariably one of my brothers or sisters were eating at one of their houses that same evening.

Rather conspicuously, my brother Steve always seemed to find his way to Mrs. Latimore’s house whenever she was cooking spaghetti. Under the guise of discussing the current standings or a pending trade in Major League Baseball, which was a common love they shared, Steve popped-in just at the right time to be invited to sit down at their table for Mrs. Latimore’s pasta and sauce, a love she shared with Steve.

Routine was the act of popping-in to one another’s houses to see who was home. More times than not, my best friend John didn’t even knock, but that was OK with us.

There was such a comfort level in our neighborhood that we didn’t even need to be home for our friends to stop by and visit. Many times I would come home and there would be one of the neighborhood kids sitting at our kitchen table discussing life’s events with my Mom, the two of them enjoying a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or just a glass of Kool-Aid. Or they would be out in the garage, investigating what my Dad was working on, or building or taking apart.

I admit life was simpler then. No cell phones, stay-at-home Moms. No pagers. No texting and no Internet. If you can believe it, we even shared a party-line phone with other families in the neighborhood.

Imagine such a life.

Our close-knit neighborhood blessed me with not one, but three mothers to care for me: my mom Kathleen (or Tater as the others called her), Theresa Latimore and Doris Milks. When my mother passed away when I was 13, the other two became more important to me than ever.

Team-parenting was the norm as the 21 of us kids roamed from house to house. It didn’t really matter where you were, as long as you could be accounted for at a 919, 929 or 933 address around dinner time or before it was time to go to bed.

Imagine that.

Despite many in today’s society missing out on all the other benefits of a simpler time, my concern for this blog is that we’ve lost the art – or act – of “popping-in.” It seems that people today are too busy, too polite or too concerned about perceptions to pop-in on a neighbor or a friend.

As we’re busy scripting and choreographing our own and our children’s lives, we lose the spontaneity of impromptu face-to-face communications.

Are our lives so busy, so contained, that current etiquette requires an appointment to be seen or have a discussion? Our kids wince at the idea of picking up the phone to call a relative or friend and will thumb-type away until all hours of the night to avoid real personal contact.

What does that say about us? What does that say about our society?

I on the other hand, often drive by a friend’s house to see if they’re home, if they’re available to speak with, essentially: if they can come out and play. But, even my wife suggests I call first.

I’ve told her that, “If I call first, there’s no real reason for visiting them, now is there?” I know I can discuss everything I need to over the phone – I just choose not to. I like the personal bond that real visiting offers.

Have we become a faceless society? Have our lives become so structured that we avoid visiting because we run the risk of interrupting someone else’s busy life? Since when did such a diversion become such a bad thing?

The further proliferation of texting and e-mail creates the potential for this situation to only get worse, unless we do something about it.

I’m sure we’ve all had horrifying experiences with uninvited guests visiting at precisely the wrong moment and ultimately staying far too long, like the Griswald’s Cousin Eddie and old Aunt Edna in National Lampoon’s “Summer Vacation.” However, the truth is that “popping-in” brings many benefits.

Popping-in allows us to re-connect with people who we’ve been out of touch with. Stopping by brings a friendly face to your doorstep, perhaps at a time when you need one the most. Dropping in can create a much needed diversion to our over-booked lifestyles. Swinging by reminds us of what made us friends in the first place.

Some of the best times and conversations I’ve ever had in my life were a result of an unplanned visit from or to a friend. And they are still my best friends today.

We now live in a nice village neighborhood where there’s more pedestrian than vehicle traffic during the summer. A lot of people pop-in. We often take a stay-at-home vacation during the Fourth of July week – and the front door and the refrigerator door become revolving doors. That’s one of the things we love about living in the village.

If you’re an old friend of mine and you stop by my house, look for me out front, hanging a sign that says “no appointment necessary.” You’re always welcome.

In the big picture of things, the act of “visiting” allows us the opportunity to regain our culture, our neighborhoods, our friendships and our community.

So, my suggestion to you is that you pop-in on someone soon and stay for a while – but not too long. Let me know how it turns out.

Imagine the possibilities.

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So you may still be asking yourself, where’s the connection to the fire service? Well, it should be obvious.If, as I declared earlier, the act of visiting friends is the foundation of our culture, our neighborhoods and our communities – and if we claim that brotherhood is the foundation of the fire service – then if we preach brotherhood, we should practice friendships.

Ater all, who can argue that the fire service is not the foundation of what’s right in our culture, our neighborhoods and our communities?

A lot of firefighters preach brotherhood, but how many really practice it?

Unfortunately, I see a lot of today’s firefighters who throw around the word “brotherhood” like it were candy that anyone can enjoy. Their brotherhood is not real brotherhood.

Their brotherhood is fashionable, trendy. Their brotherhood stops at the engine room doors. It’s a hollow hand shake or a one-armed hug or a pat on the back – and if you’re not careful, they’re even willing to stick their so-called “brotherhood” in your back, or somewhere else.

The extent of their brotherhood is just a bold-lettered phrase on a T-shirt, a word that rolls off their tongue as easily as an f-bomb, or something they wait until it’s too late to demonstrate – when their flag draped brother makes his final ride on the engine.

Early on in my “adult childhood” (which is the technical term for the phase of life I’ve been practicing for the last 30 years,) I was blessed to be surrounded by a great group of firefighters who practiced friendships and real brotherhood. Of course, back then, we didn’t talk about brotherhood (that wasn’t cool) – we just practiced it.

Our friendships, our brotherhood, extended well beyond the firehouse and into our personal lives. I’m proud to say that those same friendships stand steadfast today.

We demonstrated brotherhood by nailing a new roof on a friend’s house or carrying their furniture up flights of stairs into a new home. We helped each other strip and paint houses, chop fire wood, dig ditches or do whatever else required many hands to make light work. We work hard and we play hard too.We celebrate baptisms and birthdays together. We watch out for each other’s kids, keeping them out of trouble, or should we fail at that, we hand out the appropriate discipline in their parents’ absence, the way they would expect us to.

We take care of each other in the good times and the bad.

We live out the premise of friendship by getting together at least once a month. And, even if practice doesn’t always make perfect – we’re still committed to each other, to our friendship. We succeed together and sometimes we fail together. The key word is: together.

We’re brothers through thick and thin – not just when it’s popular or convenient.

Like the act of “popping-in” – I encourage you to exercise every opportunity to celebrate your friendships, create and work diligently to maintain the life-long bonds that make real brotherhood the fabric of the fire service, for the fire service is the fabric of what’s right about America.

Brotherhood takes commitment. Brotherhood takes practice.
With real brotherhood, we can accomplish much and overcome anything.

Imagine the possibilities.

 
 
 
 
 
  • champ

    Very nice,champ. I hope you are as happy as my G-ma and G-pa were on their 50th………

  • champ

    Very nice,champ. I hope you are as happy as my G-ma and G-pa were on their 50th………

  • David Peterson

    Hey Tiger,
    Very nice piece on our brotherhood! Like you, I started as a firefighter in 1980 so that qualifies me to say that our business has changed over the years. The closeness has left and that is for many reasons. One reason is there is no more residency requirement. That has spread us out and it makes it much more difficult to get together. Maybe the residency thing has been the design, and intent, of the city fathers. Maybe they wanted to subvertly break our strong bond up. The other reason is there is much more “me” in the world and in the fire service today. Still, there are pockets of closeness and the core business still has a soul and a caring for each other. So, brother, keep up the ranting! It is all good!
    Brother Dave
    Madison, Wisconsin, Fire Department

  • David Peterson

    Hey Tiger,
    Very nice piece on our brotherhood! Like you, I started as a firefighter in 1980 so that qualifies me to say that our business has changed over the years. The closeness has left and that is for many reasons. One reason is there is no more residency requirement. That has spread us out and it makes it much more difficult to get together. Maybe the residency thing has been the design, and intent, of the city fathers. Maybe they wanted to subvertly break our strong bond up. The other reason is there is much more “me” in the world and in the fire service today. Still, there are pockets of closeness and the core business still has a soul and a caring for each other. So, brother, keep up the ranting! It is all good!
    Brother Dave
    Madison, Wisconsin, Fire Department

  • champ

    I didn’t know that all of you Schmittendorf’s were adopted…You all look nothing like each other….

  • champ

    I didn’t know that all of you Schmittendorf’s were adopted…You all look nothing like each other….

  • Michael Whitby

    Preach it brother Tiger!

  • Michael Whitby

    Preach it brother Tiger!

  • julie

    Tiger,
    i just loved reading this article and seeing your pictures, i so remember just popping into your house with my parents. I was way too shy but i always loved to visit and see everyone in your household each doing something, playing cards, baseball,catching fireflys etc etc…….you always invited me to join in but (agian the shy thing)i usually just watched.
    Everyone in your family hugged hello and goodbye and i always felt so welcomed and was a bit jealous…..
    Your so right about how things are now days, our families always just “stopped by” went for sunday drives and kept connected. Thanks for the memories, lets hope we all take a little something from this ,your welcome over anytime, unannounced!
    Julie

  • julie

    Tiger,
    i just loved reading this article and seeing your pictures, i so remember just popping into your house with my parents. I was way too shy but i always loved to visit and see everyone in your household each doing something, playing cards, baseball,catching fireflys etc etc…….you always invited me to join in but (agian the shy thing)i usually just watched.
    Everyone in your family hugged hello and goodbye and i always felt so welcomed and was a bit jealous…..
    Your so right about how things are now days, our families always just “stopped by” went for sunday drives and kept connected. Thanks for the memories, lets hope we all take a little something from this ,your welcome over anytime, unannounced!
    Julie

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