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3 Books, 3 Stories, 3 Local Authors Three books, united by a city

Book 1: Floor Burns by M.C. Antil

M.C. Antil is a man of many talents. Locals will know him as a marketer for the NewChannels that was; theatre fans and performers will remember his many starring roles on stage; and ultimately (after some stops here and there) the Windy City knows him as a “communications and marketing strategist in the competitive and often hyperkinetic worlds of television, new media and professional sports.” A particular fan of baseball, M.C. chose the world of Parochial League Basketball, c. mid-1967, as the center of his charming and thought-provoking history/memoir/exploration of a city, a sport, a league,  that were central to a time of change and turmoil.

Once upon a time, Syracuse was a test market. Our family realized this when we moved here in the early 60s from Buffalo, and were regularly invited to take part in testing this or that product – ice cream, hair spray, Popsicles or TV dinners. Syracuse was a small flash-frame of the larger Northeast, and a hint at the bigger nation-at-large. Anyone who lived here at the time will find Antil’s book particularly involving, using as it does Syracuse as a microcosm of the many changes, both radical and small, that America was experiencing in the late 1960s. Antil uses a particular year, a sport, and a league —suprisingly, the Parochial league— as his focus. A year, he contends, when it all changed, in so many different ways.

 

The events outlined in just one chapter will give you an idea of the larger scope of the book: in Chapter 21, Antil zeros in on a number of events which, in and of themselves, don’t seem that stunning – yet in the famous rear view mirror, meant so much more than we could have imagined at the time: Catholics were told it was no longer a sin to eat meat on Friday; Fred Hillegas announced one evening on the NBC local affiliate news that, starting tomorrow, the news of the Viet Nam war, the racial protests, and the Urban Renewal in downtown Syracuse would be reported in “living color;” The Monkees and The Smothers Brothers duked it out for the teen market as the yin-yang of pop culture – one cute, funny, and innocent, the other cute, funny, and slightly dark; Aretha Franklin cuts Respect, and The Beatles release the first two tunes of what will become Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

All of this, Antil suggests, marked a kind of tipping point for the story he has written leading up to this year of change: for the nation, the city, the people of Syracuse, and for the boys in the league which he chronicles. Other chapters delve into the individual boys, their coaches, particular games, and more personal angles on the story, yet a chapter like this one can bring even an outsider in as he ties people and events together in surprising ways.

In less accomplished (and less studied) hands, the conceit of linking the fates of a bunch of boys in a city church league playing basketball to a seismic shift in sensibilities in a nation might get old quickly. But Antil is, as he rightly claims, a “self-styled pop culture omnivore.” I always knew him to have encyclopedic knowledge of baseball, and a deep interest in country and pop music – its meaning, roots, and significance. But this book demonstrates his powers of observation go much deeper, and penetrate more thoughtfully, than mere “favorite subjects,” and get to the heart of the influences that moved a culture from one spot to another, seemingly overnight.

The book is still being written, and published chapter by chapter via the web:
www.FloorBurnsBook.com. You can follow progress there, and newly released chapters are linked to Nostalgic Syracuse and Reflections on the History of Syracuse, NY and Onondaga County groups on Facebook. And you can share photos, give feedback, and donate to the project.

Book 2: Building History in Downtown Syracuse by John J. Sposato

A paragraph from Floor Burns is perhaps an ideal way to segue into the second book of this three-part review:

Downtown Syracuse 1960’s

“Then on Thursday, January 5 (1967), a treasured Syracuse landmark, the venerable RKO Keith’s theater closed its doors for the final time. And it would be a mere weeks before that onetime show palace —arguably the most beautiful and ultimately tragic victim of Bill Walsh’s modernized Syracuse— would be reduced to rubble.”

Sposato’s book is a history, as well. In this case, not so much one of pop culture blended with personal memories, but the story of a city as reflected in one of its most enduring elements: its architecture.

Begun as an enhancement to guiding a tour of Syracuse’s many notable downtown theaters, and with a real estate professional’s rich knowledge of location, location and location, Sposato began collecting and cataloging – locations.

In the process, he has uncovered a city within a city – the city that was, that is, and what it might become. As Antil’s book features the collapse of the 15th ward as a home to so many for so many years (and what the destruction of that African-American neighborhood meant to individuals lived there was well as to the city at large), Sposato’s book focuses on the many and varied buildings that rose, and fell, and the ones that still stand —tracing the rise and fall of industries, retail, neighborhoods, and families— as told by the footprint of the factories, stores, churches, public buildings and grand homes that made Syracuse history.

His book is painstakingly researched. Old photographs are sited and cited —often juxtaposed with a current view of the same location, shot from the same angle, to share with the viewer how time has taken its toll— or sometimes spared the beautiful artifact of a time gone by.

He has dug into the stories of the people and organizations that created the need for a particular church or factory, and the fate of a grand hotel or theater that burned or was replaced or made way for a newer, more “modern” facility.


And of course, Syracuse is unique in one way that many cities are not: the Erie Canal once passed right through the heart of it. While today we view the canal as a pretty little stretch of water to walk along, or an abandoned lock as an interesting bit of history, the canal was once a bustling thoroughfare that opened the center of the nation to people, goods, and trade. Of course the country would have eventually been settled – but the canal sped the process up, and left in its wake dozens of towns and small reservoirs that today are memorials to the wonderful feat of engineering that was the Erie.

And of course, the canal helped define the shape —and scope— of Syracuse, sitting almost dead center to the state. Salt and water had drawn people to the Syracuse area for millennia, and both are evident in the story as seen from the buildings’ eye view in the book, as well.

Sposato’s book is, like Antil’s, still in the writing – though not yet available to read. But watch this column for news as early chapters will be ready for publication —and will welcome commentary— in the months to come.

Book 3: A Journey of Cancer, a Journey of Faith / Our Story and What I Learned by Robert Reid

As I wrote this review in my mind, my first sentence was “This was a very easy book to read.” And I recoiled from that, because of course, it should have been anything but. But I came back to it again and again: Robert Reid has made a painful story easy to read, both from the standpoint of his fluid way with words, but also because he has infused the recital of the too-early death of his wife with the faith he alludes to in the title. And though I find the word “journey” somewhat overused these days, in this case it was perfectly chosen, as this brief story is like a journey; the end point is perhaps inevitable, but the stops along the way, the views, the moments of peace, the moments of exhaustion, the glimpses of beauty – they’re all included.

The book is very much grounded in Syracuse – names and places you’ll recognize, and appreciate as loving human beings who joined Bob and Kris Reid, and their daughter, Sarah, for brief walks, or the entire journey, as the family moved along from Kris’s diagnosis of cancer, through her final, peaceful days.

The story is about the ups and downs of this pitiless disease, periods of respite and hope, and periods of relapse and grief. But never despair. For Kris, it would seem, much of that was due to her incredible spirit and strength; for her husband and biographer, much was due to his Faith – capital F.

Kris, even if this were not written by a loving husband, was clearly a woman anyone would want to know: courageous, fun-loving, energetic and unique. Her special bond with her daughter was matched only by the generous and loving relationship she had with her husband and life partner. All of this is simply blended into the pages of the book without being called out in so many words.

In writing this short volume, Bob Reid has done a great deal: told his story; shared his wife with all of us; given us a glimpse of courage under the most trying of circumstances; and best of all, seasoned the whole with little bits of insight and wisdom – “Never doubt what God can do through you.” “God answers what we pray for. Don’t low-ball your request. … ” “I wish more people would realize the joy a visit brings to someone who is ill.” “Take offered help … ”

Above all, Reid shares with us his Faith, and how, through a visit to Lourdes, healing services, and simple day to day prayerfulness, he, Kris, and their daughter were able to traverse this rocky terrain.

No-one can really prepare you for a journey of this type. But Robert Reid has given us his particular journal, and for that we can be grateful.

A Journey of Cancer, A Journey of Faith www.store.bookbaby.com/book/A-Journey-of-Cancer,-A-Journey-of-Faith

Other books by Robert Reid:

A Memorable Season in College Football: A Look Back at 1959  -Initially to be about SU’s National Championship year, I found 1959 to be pivotal in college football. A lot of history and stats, a detailed re-living of the season, it’s more reference book than casual read.

The Language Program and Other Stories -A short book of short stories covering adventure, sci fi, humor (hopefully), and an autobiographic story.

A fourth book,  A Memorable 10 Teams of College Football: Unanimous National Champions 1900-1999, was recently sent to a publisher. An overview history of the game during those 100 years with emphasis on 10 exceptional teams. “A much easier read than the first,” according to the author.

Nancy Roberts
Writer, voice over artist, information achitect, very curious person.