A Heartwarming and Redeemable Deceit

When You Least Expect It

This spaceship-looking structure was home to Syracuse University Basketball from 1964 to 1980 and was the scene of a great juvenile escapade.

My friend Gary DeBaise and I are bosom buddies in the Norman Rockwell sense of the term. We grew up 2 years and 2 unspectacular houses apart in the solidly middle-class section of Eastwood in Syracuse, NY. We bonded over many shared interests: sports, girls and disbelief at the behavior of others. Our bond was further cemented when our parents both got divorced at roughly the same time in the early 70s. We were constant and curious friends; wondering what the hell we were doing in these bodies, but not philosophic enough to squander the opportunity to operate them in ways perhaps unintended by their creator. In the gentlest of ways we’d conspire, scheme and execute the most notoriously benign skullduggery kids can devise.

The kind of trouble we got into would warrant a stern talking to, or maybe the frowning of a lifetime – if we ever got caught (which we never did). Some of our exploits (immature shenanigans to some, bold feats to us) were suitable for a Steven Spielberg juvenile buddy film entitled something like EGT: The Extra Goonie Terrestrials. Our escapades were brilliantly hatched and stealthily executed operations, undertaken with Hogan Heroes’ precision, MacGyver savvy and Bondian sangfroid. Well, all that and maybe a dash of Wile E Coyote miscalculation. One time we repurposed (some might call it stealing) 24 wooden 2 by 4’s stored in an open shed in the backyard of a neighbor. Risk was minimized by undertaking the mission at 2 o’clock in the morning during a new moon. We dubbed this daring little act of espionage Operation: It’s Just Sitting There, Denny Dimwit Isn’t Using It and Besides We Need It for Our Fort. You don’t pull off this level of larceny unless you’ve got your neighborhood sh*t dialed in. And in that rotary age we had it very dialed in. 

This illustrative preamble brings me to one of the most satisfying operations Gary and I ever undertook. In fact, in a strange way, it was an operation we never undertook. Unlike the repurposed 2 X 4 operation, this geriatric caper was improbably sprung upon us by our crochety neighbor – mean, old Mr. DeSantis. Many men on our block were retired from “the railroad” and Mr. DeSantis, who evidently had “been working on the railroad, all the live long day”, was one of those retirees. He also seemed to be a curmudgeonly irascible man who often fumed at us neighborhood kids for interrupting his precious TV reception. In those pre-cable days (which nowadays are the cord-cutting post-cable days) whenever we played touch football out on our street and an errant pass hit the elevated street wires leading to his house, his TV reception flickered briefly. And out he’d march, barking the same tired and meaningless remedy, “Why don’t you kids go play in the park?” He might as well have said, “Blah, blah, blah, something, something park?”

Clearly we were never going to relocate. It was just too inconvenient to walk 3 blocks to our Jr. high school’s back forty, set up boundaries, play touch football and walk home again. We weren’t in the delayed gratification business. We wanted to play football now and the ready-made street field of telephone poles as goal lines, asphalt as the field and gravel to grass as the sidelines (no fussy curbstones in our rough and tumble ‘hood) was all the field we needed. Vehicles driving down the middle of our field with random regularity were our version of commercial breaks.

And speaking of breaks, we were about to have one bestowed upon us by this unlikeliest of source – Mr. Charlie DeSantis. Mr. DeSantis supplemented his New York-Pennsylvania Railroad pension by taking tickets and running security at Syracuse University Orangemen Basketball games in the early 70’s. This was the pre-Carrier Dome era, when the games were played at cozy Manley Field House – a structure that functioned as much as an indoor practice facility for football as it did a glorified high school gym for the then afterthought sport of basketball. Basketball was a sport of much interest to Gary and me and we often attended these games whenever we could get a ride.

Game Night

And attend we did. After a harrowing ride in my mother’s developmentally disabled 1969 Rambler, 12-year-old me and 14-year-old Gary D. were dropped-off outside Manley. “Don’t worry mom,” I said, happy to exit the car, “We’ll get a ride home from somebody here. Anybody here.” We then entered the buzzing pregame atmosphere of the ticket concourse where we bought our $4 general admission ducats and worked our way through a sea of Orange to the turnstiles. I remember passing the hallowed display of the Heisman Trophy won by star-crossed Ernie Davis in 1961 and a veritable museum of oversized silver chalices won by the football team who, in the late 50s and most of 60s, marauded the college gridiron like Atilla the Hun.

We moved with the crowd. Everything was keenly and subconsciously absorbed and we grew flush from the contact adrenaline high of pituitary gladiators preparing to clash. Both of us relished this anticipatory fervor. It was fairly earned and highly appreciated. As fate would have it, we got in the queue where our neighbor, Charlie DeSantis, was superintending a turnstile. “Hey Gary,” I alerted, “look who’s taking tickets – old man DeSantis.” Surprisingly Mr. DeSantis seemed genuinely pleased to see us during our brief transaction. “Hey,” he said, a little peeved, “why didn’t you guys tell me you were coming to the game?”

We didn’t quite understand his cryptic comment as we were ushered through the turnstile by the wave of fans behind us. Why would he care if we went to the game? The game was a satisfying triumph. Syracuse demolished Penn State on the strength of Rudy Hackett’s 18 points. As predicted we ran into an acquaintance at the game (Gary’s aunt and uncle) and they gave us a ride home in their high-functioning ’73 Cutlass Supreme. Syracuse was a small town, like fictional Bedford Falls, and you could depend on small favors like these happening.

Normally that would be the end of the story. And it was for us, but not for Mr. Charlie DeSantis. In his own Choo-Choo Charlie way wanted us to know that he could be instrumental in allowing us sports-oriented boys free passage to future games. Say what? But how would this arrangement work?

A Super Opportunity at the Supermarket

Gary worked as a sanitation technician (now there’s a euphemism) in the meat department at the local, one-off grocery store called MidState Market. He cleaned and sprayed down the meat locker in ways that would make a vegan blush, or maybe worse. Now a few days after the SU basketball game, Mr. DeSantis and his wife Evelyn went shopping at MidState, where he saw Gary working. He approached him and laid out the contours of a scheme worthy of the Thomas Crowne Affair. In other words he told him just how this particular deception would go down:

Mr. DeSantis (earnestly): I didn’t know you and Hardiman went to Syracuse basketball games. You should’ve let me know

Gary: Oh yeah, Dave and I have been fans of the Orangemen forever {bear in mind I was 13 and he was 15}

Mr. D: Look Gary (I imagine him leaning over the cube steaks in the meat case and lowering his voice), the next game is Tuesday against LaSalle. Are you guys going?

Gary: You bet.

Mr. D: OK. Listen Gary, don’t buy any tickets this time. Got it?

Gary: Whaddaya mean? How are we supposed to get in?

Mr. D: Don’t worry. I’ve got it covered. Just have in your hand a piece of paper or something that looks like a ticket. Get in my line and present it to me. You know, something I can tear to make a show of it and I’ll let you guys through. Got it?

Gary was bewildered – a proposition of such benefit coming from such an improbable source. Was this just another Soviet Union Cold War ploy to ensnare the youth of America, or had he better just shut up and not look a gift DeSantis in the mouth?

Gary: Ummm, yeah. Sure. Mr. DeSantis. We’ll be there with our tickets. Wow. Thanks, Mr. DeSantis. Tuesday night. I can’t wait to tell Dave.

Mr. D: Yeah, just keep it on the QT and make sure you hand me some kind of ticket.

 

Now what Gary didn’t say, but was thinking was, “And here I thought you were an *sshole the whole time.” When he got off work he dashed over my house and divulged the entire scheme to me.

Gary D: No kidding. DeSantis will let us in for free.

Me: Our Mr. DeSantis? The guy whose plastic statue of Cupid in his flower patch we accidentally beheaded with an errant punt?

Gary D. Yeah. I can’t believe it either. It seems out of character, but maybe we’ve been wrong about him the whole time.

Gary and I had taken quite the journey. We’d gone from unrepentant TV-reception disrupters to willing co-conspirators – and with an actual adult to boot. If this could happen, what else could happen. Life held such promise for 2 wide-eyed Eastwoodites. And so we launched into our arts and crafts ticket project, where we created just the right size, stiffness and coloring suitable for passing off as the real thing. We knew this counterfeit ticket would not withstand close scrutiny as the word Alka-Seltzer appeared several times on the card stock we’d cut from the box. Any cursory examination by the authorities and we’d be spending the night in Juvey. The stakes were high. Now we knew how Kinch, Newkirk and Col. Hogan felt in Season 4 ep.12 when they plotted to blow up the Manheim Bridge.

The evening of the game came and after mom dropped us off in “the little Rambler that could”, we entered the arena in the hopes of a major score: both for us and the basketball team. With larceny in our young hearts the paranoia ran deep and we could feel the sting of the thousands of disapproving eyes in attendance that night. Eyes that were all trained on us. Their owners seemed poised to pounce on and expose our sordid attempt at trying to pass counterfeit tickets. How is it that guilt always knows exactly where to find you?

And there was DeSantis at his post, cloaked in some kind of blue authoritative uniform with a shield-shaped patch on the shoulder indicating he was a keeper of the gate. Mr. D caught our eye with a knowing wink and nod that, in our unhinged suspicion, felt everyone else had also seen and understood. There was no question now. This was going down and we had to play our part – real nonchalant-like. We certainly did not want to appear chalant or manifest any other behavior indicating we were about to commit a Class D misdemeanor (tearing and entering?). Mr. D’s easily deciphered non-verbal cues meant either “the coast is clear” or, more aristocratically, “Boys it will behoove you to perambulate in this direction to activate our conspiracy posthaste.” Oh, the things that populate your consciousness when you’re stressed.  

In Cahoots and Shaking in Our Boots

We got into the mainstream of his turnstile queue as our telltale hearts began to pound with the insistency of an triphammer. We could hear the din of the crowd ringing in our ears. We were all atwitter as we nervously presented our ersatz tickets to our uniformed authority figure who promptly tore them in half with perfunctory aplomb; keeping the Alka portion of the stub and handing back to us the Seltzer portion. And faster than you can say “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz. Oh what a relief it is” it was over. We were in. We had entered the Orange City courtesy of the great Oz. Even at the tender ages of 13 and 15 we knew we’d just experienced a glorious and sweet memory. The kind of memory you might wistfully write about later in life, like when you’re 60 and retired.

Mr. DeSantis even arranged to drive us home after the game. His was a full-service deceit of which we were mighty grateful. So much that we subsequently rewarded him with a $1.99 bottle of Cold Duck Sparkling Wine – why not the best? It was straw-purchased by a 21-year-old friend who shall remain nameless. I’d tell you his name, but I really can’t remember who it was, so he’ll just have to remain nameless.

That magical season Gary and I lived large getting into big time Division I basketball games for free courtesy of our neighborly benefactor. What we saved on tickets we smartly reinvested into popcorn and soda. It was a heartwarming and redeemable deceit put over on the profitable institution of Syracuse University’s Athletic Dept. who could easily absorb such chump change.

As it developed, I became a rabid SU sports fan. So much so that years later I regularly purchased season tickets for both football and basketball. I even paid a seat license for the privilege of purchasing primo seats. I ended up reimbursing them for my youthful shenanigans many times over. Now I’m thinking this turnstile mischief was really a kind of gateway drug leading to a bigger and more expensive Orange habit – a thrilling and legal habit I enjoyed as much as anything.

I salute you Mr. D for your heartwarming and redeemable assistance rendered to 2 teenage boys who will never forget your streetwise kindness. And even though your train has long ago left the station, you are warmly remembered.

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