We weren’t kids anymore, that’s for sure. But we weren’t adults, either. We were just starting to work on that, some us further down the road than others. The two Mikes in our circle, Paradis and Shaughnessy, fell into this category. They may have been the only ones.
Most of us, except for months away at college or serving in the military, still lived at home. In those days, it wasn’t unusual for kids to live with their parents until they married. The year was 1969, but don’t let the free-love news footage you’ve seen of that summer’s Woodstock fool you. Most of us were still babes in the woods.
But not the Mikes. They shared an apartment with their girlfriends above the Salvation Army Thrift Store at the corner of North Main and Butler streets in Pittston. We were all headed there for a Christmas Eve party.
Mike Paradis and I had been friends since fifth grade. I always admired how, even as a kid, he took charge of his life. When he wanted a set of drums, he got a morning paper route, delivering the Scranton Tribune on his bike in all sorts of weather.
When we became freshmen, my admiration grew into envy. On the February night in 1964 when The Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, everyone who knew Mike Paradis shared the same observation: he was a dead-ringer for Paul McCartney. By then, Mike was coming into his own as a drummer. And we soon found out he could sing, too. I, like most of the guys, wanted to be him.
And if not him, then perhaps Mike Shaughnessy. I didn’t meet this Mike until we were seniors. He transferred from the Duryea building to the Pittston building of the new Pittston Area School District and we were well aware of his presence from day one. Salvador Dali said, “Life is too short to remain unnoticed.” Mike Shaughnessy never had that problem. He dressed in the style known as “Mod” in those days. You might see Mike in plaid pants with a striped shirt and a polka dot tie. A week later, you’d see all of us dressed like that.
By 1969 I had outgrown that look and presumably Mike Shaughnessy had too. I arrived at the party wearing a Christmas present from my girlfriend, a camel hair coat my dad’s generation called a topcoat. That was a baby step, I guess, toward becoming a grown-up.
The Mikes’ apartment was sparsely furnished and dimly lit. The table in their living room was a gigantic wooden spool turned on its side. Standing in the center was their Christmas tree. There wasn’t a single light or ornament on it, but somehow this made it perfect. The whole scene was the epitome of late Sixties “cool.”
At one point, I found myself alone in the kitchen with Mike Paradis and he took advantage of this brief moment of quiet to tell me his girlfriend was pregnant. Unlike today, such news was shocking. They planned to marry, he said, which they did, and not only brought a beautiful daughter into the world the next summer but also a fine son a few years later. That night in the kitchen, I reached into my pocket and pulled out the two $20 bills I knew were there and pressed them into Mike’s hand. He hugged me.
At around 11 p.m. we all stepped out into the cold to walk to St. John the Evangelist Church, a couple of blocks away, for Midnight Mass. Mike, who had been asked to play tympani drums at the service, led the way in a black top hat. He was still the coolest guy I knew.
We sat in the balcony at St. John’s just to the right of where Mike set up to play. His drums complemented the horns and violins and that spectacular St. John’s organ while the multi-voiced choir filled the church with Christmas majesty.
There’s a line in the book “A Gentleman in Moscow” that reads, “At this moment, this hour, this universe could not be improved upon.” That’s how it felt that Christmas Eve at St. John’s.
We never replicated that night and never tried and maybe that’s for the best. We could never match it. Mike Paradis was living in Wilkes-Barre the next Christmas Eve. I stopped by with a present for his baby and helped trim the tree. The next time I saw Shaughnessy was on a tennis court in Pittston. He was the best player on the court. And, of course, the best dressed.
Neither Mike made it out of middle age. Mike Paradis died in 1998, not yet 50 years old. Mike Shaughnessy in 2004. He was 55.
They were as bright as shooting stars, these two. And like shooting stars, they left a lasting impression. Particularly on me. And particularly that one Christmas Eve, as vivid in my mind today as when we all shared it 50 years ago.
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.