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Monday, May 28, 2012

Remembering my special veterans on Memorial Day

It's Memorial Day, 2012, and of course, it's a day for families and friends, baseball and barbecues. It's the unofficial first day of summer and in northern New Jersey, there's definitely a summer feel, with the temperatures expected to reach 90 today.

But Memorial Day has another more important and lasting meaning. It's to remember all of those dedicated and devoted men and women who gave their lives to help make the United States the incredibly wonderful place it is to live. It's to reflect on those who gave of their time and service to maintain our freedom, to thank those who are still with us for having that fearless pride, to be willing to give of their lives for the benefit of the rest of us.

I know a lot about that sacrifice and service, because it's been a part of my life since I was born.

You see, my father, Jack Hague, served his country well in World War II as a part of the U.S. Army Infantry. He spent almost four years in France and Belgium and was involved with some of the most historic conflicts in history.

My father was not drafted into military service. As a young husband and father, he enlisted to the military soon after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He signed up for duty, like so many other men his age at the time, even though he had a wife and a young son at home to care for.

And my Dad certainly paid the price. While engaged in battle in Belgium, he was in a fox hole with 15 other soldiers. The fox hole was then blown up. All of the other soldiers that were with my father perished. He was the lone survivor. He was badly wounded, with schrapnel in his lower body and back and eventually was diagnosed with a broken back. He desperately tried to dig his way out of the destroyed fox hole to try to get to safety, but there was only so much he could do with a virtually paralyzing injury and only his bare hands to use as tools.

My mother received a telegram from the Army, informing her that my father was missing in action and presumed dead.

With her incredible sixth sense (almost eerie how my mother knew things), she insisted to everyone that her husband was not dead. As his family prepared for a memorial service in his memory, my mother refused to attend, which angered some of my father's sisters more than anything. It was bad enough that Jack Hague married Helen Rzepiejewski, someone of Polish descent. Now, the woman is refusing to honor her dead husband.

For three weeks, there was no word to report about the whereabouts of my father. It was assumed he was gone.

Until miraculously, he was located a full 22 days after the fox hole was destroyed. My Dad was airlifted to a military hospital in France to receive medical attention.

Incredibly, the saga doesn't end there. While recuperating in a full body cast in the hospital outside Paris, the hospital was bombed. He was thrown out of his bed, breaking the cast. Once again, he was injured in the war, thus the reason why he received two Purple Hearts.

Obviously, there was a happy ending to the story, because my father did get sent home after V-E Day and 16 years later, Jack and Helen welcomed their last child, a bouncing baby boy _ and a future sportswriter _ into the world. If Dad wasn't discovered and saved, I would have never been here.

As kids, we were instructed by my mother not to ask my father about what happened in World War II. It was obviously an emotional and troubling time. My mother said that there were times in the middle of the night that my father would be dreaming and be scraping at the walls of their bedroom, desperately trying to get out. The nightmares lingered for years.

My father's back was obviously never the same. He could not return to his job at General Motors in Edison, because he physically could not handle the pain. He would work for two days, then be bedridden for a week. He eventually took a job in the automotive department for the city of Jersey City and remained there until he died of cancer on New Year's Eve, 1971.

I was only 10 years old, but he's been such a gigantic and almost imposing influence on my life, someone who I adored, admired and longed to be like, even to this very day, as I approach the age he was when he passed away. I still long to be the man that Jack Hague was. He was easily the greatest man I've ever known and a day doesn't go by where I don't miss him.

My other special veteran is my big brother, known as Jackie to his family, but also known as Jack to his friends, just like his father. He enlisted and served for more than five years in the United States Marine Corps. He reached the rank of Lance Corporal and was one of the first Marines ever sent to Thailand before the Vietnam conflict started to become heated.

Although my brother's military career isn't as dramatic as my father's, he was a Marine through and through, Semper Fi every single day. Nothing in the world, other than the birth of his children and eventually the birth of his grandson, gave him more pride than being a Marine. He wore his Marine colors on his sleeve, much like his heart.

Unfortunately, my brother is no longer with us as well. He passed away in January of 1998. But he also is remembered today.

Two members of the same family who gave of their time for their country and served their country well. Yes, that's the true meaning of Memorial Day. Yes, I pause and reflect today on all of the wonderful people, both still here and gone, who served our nation. But I remember my two special veterans, who might be gone, but far from forgotten.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Complete turnaround with Torts, Parise

In covering the Devils-Rangers series, which has definitely been exciting, one amazing thing happened yesterday.

After the Rangers' 3-0 victory, the surly, abrasive and media-unfriendly John Tortorella was suddenly chatty and jovial in his post-game press conference. Gone were the one-word answers to questions. He waxed poetic over goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who was once again downright brilliant. He practically sang the praises of rookie Chris Kreider, who has gone from being a Boston College star to a goal-scoring machine for the Rangers in the matter of weeks. He went on and on about Brad Richards' contributions on both ends of the ice.

After the way Rangers head coach Tortorella handled the media in recent weeks, his behavior yesterday was beyond shocking. I sat there at the press conference, shaking my head in amazement. Why did Tortorella choose yesterday to become all of a sudden friendly? Did he receive a warning from the higher-ups in the NHL, saying that enough was enough? Did his attitude change because the Rangers finally won a game? Someone mentioned that might be the reason, but he was downright confrontational after winning previous big games in the playoffs.

His act of not answering questions was definitely wearing thin. It was not funny for anyone, not for Rangers fans, who want to know more, but also for the members of the media who need at least a little pearl of wisdom coming from the head coach. We don't have to quote every word, but we do need something after a game _ and before yesterday, Tortorella offered absolutely nothing.

Then, go over to the other side. Ever since he was a young rookie, Zach Parise has always been one of the more accessible and affable members of the Devils. In a locker room packed with really good guys who never turn down a single interview request ever (the best group of professionals I've ever dealt with in my 30-year career), Parise has always been the easiest to get along with, joking with everyone, answering every single mundane question under the sun.

Even last year, with his contract status in question and after having undergone serious knee surgery, Parise never once ducked a single question. You could joke with him. You could ask him personal stuff. Parise is nothing short of a sportswriter's joy. If Marty Brodeur is the first person I track down when I enter the Devils' locker room, then the captain is always second. It's been that way for as long as I can remember and I've been in the Devils' locker room about 200 times over Parise's career, maybe more.

That's why Parise's refusal to answer questions after yesterday's game was befuddling, almost as much as Tortorella's sudden injection of niceness. Parise was approached by a few reporters and he shook his head, said he wasn't answering questions and disappeared into the training room, not to return.

I actually shuttered as this took place. A member of the Devils actually saying no? Even Ilya Kovalchuk, who isn't a great interview because of his still-improving grasp of the English language, answered questions. The captain? The extremely likeable Parise? Needless to say, it was shocking.

Maybe Parise is frustrated with his play, but that never happened before. Maybe Parise didn't like the fact that his father, former Islander and Ranger J.P. Parise, told the New York Post that his son wouldn't mind playing for the Rangers and would consider signing with the Blueshirts during the free agency period this summer. Maybe Parise just had a bad day. Who knows?

The irony of the whole thing is that my good friend and colleague, Tom Gulitti of the Bergen Record, wrote a column on page 2 of the Record yesterday. In that column, Gulitti, also one of the most likeable people in the business, said that it was ridiculous that Tortorella should ignore the media as he has been doing and he should take a page from someone like Parise.

And then the turn of events that take place yesterday. Tortorella suddenly becomes the media darling for some reason and Parise becomes the media bad guy, equally as fast.

It made me leave the Prudential Center yesterday shaking my head, wondering if that all really had happened.

I'm heading back there in an hour or so. We'll see if Parise is still not talking to the media. My guess is that he'll be apologetic and be the wonderful young man he's always been.


Another team that I cover regularly is the New York Red Bulls and the team won their fifth straight game last night, defeating the Montreal Impact, tying the franchise record for consecutive wins in the process.

And the team won again without the services of international superstar Thierry Henry and fellow international disgruntled annoyance Rafa Marquez, who has certainly already worn out his welcome here.

It's astounding in a league totally dominated by Pete Rozelle-like parity that a team could actually win five straight matches. It's even more remarkable that the Red Bulls could do such with an injury-ravaged lineup with a still wet behind the ears goalie in Ryan Meara and a completely makeshift defensive backline filled with inexperienced players. Stop the season now. Head coach Hans Backe has to be the MLS Coach of the Year right this second, despite anything that happens the rest of the way.

However, one thing is for sure. The Red Bulls certainly do not need the antics of Marquez, who didn't play again last night, this time claiming that he had a sore Achilles tendon.

Let's see, Marquez started the season missing three games due to a suspension he got from last year after throwing the ball at Landon Donovan in the final game of the playoffs, comes back this season, plays a handful of games, gets another suspension for an ugly, dirty play that broke an opponent's collarbone, sits out the three-game suspension, misses the first game back because of an apparent ankle injury, plays one game, then misses the next with an Achilles injury.

This is one of your superstar marquee players? He's a disease. His level of play last year was mediocre at best and certainly not worthy of the $3.5 million salary he was paid. His level of play this year, supposedly at midfield instead of defender, can't be judged because he's either been suspended or injured for most of the season.

Marquez is also very good at playing the game that he can't speak English, but when someone asks a controversial question, his ears perk up and then he suddenly understands. Rey Ordonez used to pull the same crap during his days with the Mets.

The Red Bulls traded a teenage superstar-in-the-making last week in Juan Agudelo, who never had a chance to show his incredible skills. But Agudelo was never a complete malcontent like Marquez has been. The Red Bulls would be much better off showing Marquez the door, ship him to someone who can handle his antics. Right now, it's proof. They really don't need him at all. The five-game win streak proves it.


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Sunday, May 13, 2012

Remembering my mom on Mothers' Day

I first wrote this column on Mothers' Day 12 years ago. It was an award-winner and received more positive feedback in terms of cards and letters than any other column I've written in my 30-year career. It's also the only column I've ever written in my 21 years at the HUDSON REPORTER that was ever re-published, first on Mother's Day, 2003 and then again in October, 2006, after the subject of the column, Helaine Hague (my Mom) died.
I figured it was worthy to be republished again here on the blog today as a tribute to my Mom and to all Moms. Enjoy.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This column was first printed in The Hudson Reporter Newspapers on May 14, 2000, which was Mother's Day. At the time, the column received such a positive response (more than 40 letters and cards), easily the highest response total for any column written here over the last 15 years. It was reprinted in May, 2003 as a tribute to Moms everywhere.

This week, it gets republished as a tribute to Helaine Hague, who died Friday, Sept. 22, 2006.

It's Mother's Day, the first of the new millennium. It's a day to lavish Mom with gifts of appreciation, flowers, cards, candy, maybe a trip to her favorite restaurant. It's an occasion for children to truly remember what Mom really meant to them through the years.

Although it shouldn't take the second Sunday in May to think about Mom, we are all forced to do so on a day like this. And that's good. We should all take the time and remember Mom. After all, we wouldn't be here without her, right?

But it's far more than that. Every successful person - and for that matter, every successful athlete on any level, from Little League to the pros - has been inspired and touched by the dedication and love of his or her mother.

As a sportswriter, I've witnessed the importance of mothers on their aspiring athletic children so many times, both behind the scenes and in full view. There can not be a single athlete alive who said that he or she wasn't affected by the love and care and concern of their mother. Impossible.

Some people may have disagreements with their mothers and may not want to admit it. But here's a little refresher course, just in case you've forgotten.

Who was the one to wash the Little League uniform and make sure it was as close to lily white as possible for the next game? When practices ran late, who was the one who made sure that there was some semblance of a hot meal on the table?

When you were ravaged by cold and flu, who was the first one to come with the aspirins and cold compresses? When you had the upset stomach, who was the first to
offer the "old family secret?" When you had the little cut on the finger, who had the handy Band-Aid already opened?

When you needed a ride from
basketball practice to baseball tryouts to soccer games, who was the one who already had her keys in hand? And when that soccer game was being played in a steady downpour, who was the one standing on the sidelines with the bright, broad smile?

And who was the one who went to the football games to cheer you on, even when she had no clue what was going on? Sitting in the stands at those cold, frosty football games, closing her eyes with every opportunity that her "little baby" could actually get hurt? How about the endless baseball games they watched you play in the hot, summer sun, just to see your last at-bat in a 23-2 loss?

Sure, Dad was there, but no one loved you more than Mom. Dad might have been the inspiration and the one you wanted to prove something to, but Mom was there with her undying devotion and love, from cleaning the uniforms to cleaning the scrapes and cuts.

Being your mom was a thankless job, but someone had to do it. You weren't about to wash your own uniform and make it sparkle in time for game day. And face it, you always got the sticky end of the Band-Aid mangled and twisted.

I know about Moms, because I had one and still have one, although she's now a mere shell of what she used to be. But Helaine Hague is still my Mom. And today's her day.

Fate wasn't kind to Helaine Hague nearly 30 years ago, when cancer took her husband far too early, before Jack and Helaine could grow old together. Fate left Helaine Hague with the task of raising a moody 15-year-old daughter and a demanding 10-year-old son, without the man she had been totally devoted to for 33 years. She didn't plan on being both father and mother to two growing children, but she had no choice.

We all could have totally fallen apart after the death of my father. I mean, my father was the breadwinner and the backbone of our family. We all fed off him. His loss could have been devastating to the point of destruction.

But because of my mother's strong will and dedication to her children, she did her best to make sure that my sister and I never wanted for anything. She made sure that we received the best possible education (my sister's at Holy Family Academy and Montclair State and mine at St. Peter's Prep and Marquette). We weren't exactly rich and there were times where we wondered where the next dollar would come from. But we never wanted or lacked anything.

And that's a
credit to my mother, who did it all on her own. I adore my father and cherish his memory and what he stood for, but the reason why I have anything today is Helaine Hague. You read these words today because she was strict and loving and stubborn and unwavering and belligerent and caring. Although she never wanted that role, she was father and mother wrapped into one. And she did a good job.

My mother was a dutiful servant to the Jersey City Board of
Education for 20 years, serving as a teacher's aide at three schools, the last being Rafael Cordero School (P.S. 37) in downtown Jersey City. She looked forward to getting up every day and spending the day with the youngsters who made her feel young.

As a woman, she was one of the most active people I knew, volunteering her time for several organizations, like the Cub Scouts, Catholic Daughters, St. Paul's Rosary Society, St. Paul's Senior Citizens, the All Sorrows soup kitchen, the Columbianettes, et al. I mean, she was constantly on the go, going from one meeting to another. I marveled at her energy.

As a mother, she was always there for me, in everything I did. After my father's death, it had to be emotionally hard to return to the Little League fields where my father and I spent every Saturday, but she was there to watch her little boy. She remained that chubby kid's biggest fan throughout Babe Ruth and high school, always asking me to "make her a home run." There were some Babe Ruth games where she was the only parent attending the game - and she had no idea what she was watching.

She never wanted to watch football games or wrestling matches, for fear I would get hurt. More than often, that indeed happened. But she was there, probably closing her eyes and clutching the rosaries.

When I went off to college, she wrote me a letter every single day and sealed the letter with a dollar bill inside. Every single day. You have no idea how far those dollars went and how far the love traveled from Jersey City to Milwaukee. With every note of news from home, I felt like I was there with her.

When I came home after college, I had a job delivering meats for a meat purveyor, and received a good salary. After four months of the madness, my mother had enough.

One morning, she stood over my bed as I woke, and asked me one question.

"James, what you do every day, does that have anything to do with journalism? I mean, the bloody coats and stink, is that journalism?"

I answered with a stupid laugh, "Of course not, Mom. Why do you ask?"

"Well, I suggest you do something with your life in journalism," and she walked away. I got the hint. I quit the meat delivery job that week and started a new job writing obituaries for $100 a week, $600 a week less than what I had getting delivering meat.

That was 17 years ago. I've been involved in a life of journalism ever since.

For years, my friends have always given me abuse, saying that I was a "Mama's boy," because I lived with my mother for 34 years, until she was moved to a nursing home, when her battle with Paget's disease became too unmanageable.

You know what? They were right. I was a Mama's boy - my Mama's boy.

She's getting up in years now, spending her days in a nursing home 90 miles away. She's wheelchair-bound and can't hear much at all. Her eyesight, previously ravaged by cataracts, is poor. So is her memory on selected days. Helaine Hague deserved to live her golden years in better fashion. In that respect, fate has never been particularly kind to her. Cancer took her husband, and old age took her grace and dignity.

But she's still here and still my mommy. I miss the feisty, pain-in-the-rear Polack who drove me crazy and battled with me for most of my life. I have that as a memory.

I still have my mother, the one who made me what I am today, who gave me every opportunity to be able to express my opinion in words. I don't know what I would have done without her. I owe everything I have today to my mother.

Today will be her day, in whatever fashion that may be. I know I'm not going to have many more. It could very well be the last one. We never know.

To all those who have mothers and have the ability to enjoy the day, please do so. While you can.

And to all those mothers who have toiled behind the scenes, happy Mother's Day. You're appreciated in these parts. I know what you all do. And you do it well.