He makes it look easy
Thomas Smolinski (1937- ) was an unusually handy boy, learning at the feet of the master, his father Eddie, the man we called upon to install and fix appliances that revolutionized our standard of living in the 1950s. They were products designed to make our lives easier — provided you could get them to work — but there was something intimidating about them. But not to Ed Smolinski or his son. To this day I'm not sure what better served Eddie and Tom, aptitude or attitude. I never saw either one of them flustered. (The closest Ed came was when he and his brother Bill disagreed their way into an Abbott and Costello-like routine while installing my mother's gas dryer. The job was finished successfully, although I took the precaution of going outside and retreating to where I felt I might be safe in case of an explosion.)

Ed Smolinski and his family were always ahead of us in that grand parade into a brave new world. They had television about two years before we did, but invited us over every Saturday night. One of my fondest memories is going there to watch Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. My mind may be playing tricks, but I believe I also stopped at Tom's after school on Wednesday, October 3, 1951, to watch the last inning or so of the classic Brooklyn Dodgers-New York Giants playoff game decided by Bobby Thomson's home run.

By then Ed had more or less finished his house on Tarolli Drive, halfway between Russet Lane and the high school Tom and I attended. That school building has since been torn down. Also gone, as I noted on a Google map, is the path used by most East Solvay students who walked to high school. The route took us past Tom's house.

That path also was the scene of a dumb stunt that might have had a tragic ending. One winter's day we decided to forgo sledding down the small, safe hill at the end of Russet Lane and try it from the top of the hill near the Smolinski home on Tarolli Drive. This would give us a much longer ride, plus the opportunity to be briefly airborne after we reached the bottom of the path and crossed Barclay Street, which would launch us, ski jump style, onto the slope that along the edge of the field adjacent the old Intermediate School. We posted a lookout on the street to shout warnings if any cars were coming, but you know how it is with young lookouts. Kids are so easily distracted. We had a lot of fun that day, which ended without incident, but we never tried it again.

Most of our sledding was done after dark from the end of Russet Lane to the outfield of the old baseball field at Woods Road Park. In daylight, even during the snowiest months, we usually played basketball on one of the four Russet Lane driveways equipped with backboard and rim. Freezing weather and a stiff crosswind were merely challenges to consider while taking shots.

LIKE MANY Solvay youngsters, it was on those driveways that Tom discovered basketball, learning the game under the influence of his older cousins, Bimby and Bobby. Tom was the first boy in my memory who was picked for teams because of a defensive ability that had him assigned to guard the opposition's best player. A persistent devil was Tom.

Ed Smolinski and his siblings — my mother, my Aunt Wanda (Kaldowski) and my Uncle Bill (Smolinski) — were a close-knit family. We all lived within walking distance (Bill's family was next door) and walked freely into each other's homes. Because Tom and I were only a year apart, we shared a lot of interests, friends and experiences. The older we got, the more we saw of each other, particularly during our high school years. The summer after I graduated Tom and I both worked at the nearby State Fairgrounds, helping to clean the buildings and the grounds for the annual fair that began in late August and ran until Labor Day. (We did such things as clean horse stables and walk the mile-long race track picking up stones. Interesting work, needless to say.)

There were marked differences between the Major family and the Smolinskis. One noticeable difference was in our eating habits. Majors (my mother excluded, of course) were notoriously fussy, my father being the extreme example. Smolinskis, on the other hand, always seemed to be looking for new and different things to eat. Thus Tom Smolinski was an ideal dinner guest. (He had a special fondness for the polenta served at the local Tyrol Club. I had no idea what it was and wondered why Tom was so happy at the prospect of eating it. Many years — and a lot of TV cooking programs — later even I have tasted polenta, which has gone mainstream.)

ANOTHER SMOLINSKI trait is the ability to make friends. Tom took it to a new level — after he broke up with high school girl friends he'd remain friends . . . not only with the girls, but moreso with their parents. Had he spent his adult life in Solvay he could have been a successful politician.

But as much as we all loved our hometown, we belonged to a generation encouraged by parents, most of whom worked at the Solvay Process Company, to pursue a college education that would lead to job opportunities elsewhere. Just as Pennsylvania families wanted their children to escape the coal mines, Solvay families wanted their children to escape the Solvay Process. (It's ironic, I guess, that the option was removed in 1985 when the Process — then a division of Allied Chemical — closed its factory and left town.)

Old family photos show Ed Smolinski spending a lot of time with my parents. He was my father's best man, just as Tom would be my best man at my first wedding, and I best man at his wedding a few years earlier.

Like my other Smolinski cousins, Tom was outgoing and sociable. (I was the oddball who spent many hours cooped up at home by myself playing my baseball game).

Still Tom and I often double dated and occasionally would find we had dated the same girls. Each summer we spent a lot of time at Sandy Pond, though it was Tom who discovered, then introduced me to the beach at Port Ontario, a few miles south of Sandy Pond. It was a great beach, but we were trespassing when we used it. One day Tom and I and our dates were almost stranded there when my car got stuck in the soft sand. I can't recall exactly how we got out of that mess, though I think we owe our escape to a beach towel we jammed under one of the back tires.

TOM WAS the first child of Eddie and Sally (Eldridge) Smolinski, who then had three daughters – Sandra, Linda and Kathy. Sandra (aka Sandy) lives in Bluffton, SC, with her husband, Paul Grecco, and two of their three sons. It's when Tom visits the Greccos that we get together these days. Linda, the one family member who remains true to Sandy Pond, occasionally flies south from Syracuse to join her brother and sister.

Hard to believe it was almost 60 years since those days in Solvay when the Smolinskis and Majors saw each other a few times every week. For two weeks during the late 1940s we vacationed together at Sandy Pond, along with Bill and Gert Smolinski and their sons, Bimby, Bobby and Jimmy. (I don't think their youngest son, Phil, was born until after they stopped going to Sandy Pond.)

It was in 1955 that I graduated from Solvay High. That fall Tom accompanied me and my parents to Kent State University when I started my freshman year. Tom graduated from Solvay High a year later and went off to what we always called Oswego State Teachers College (now the State University of New York at Oswego).

During the winter of 1957-58 I thought Tom might have wished he had followed me to Ohio. That was the winter Oswego seemed to be hit with monster blizzards every week. Even the Cleveland newspapers made a big deal out of the snow in Central New York. Tom and I always enjoyed snow while we were growing up, but the amount piling up in Oswego that winter seemed ridiculous.

Tom told me later the winter wasn't all that unusual. To get from dormitories to the main dining hall students often had to rely on a guide rope set up along the walkways. You simply had to trust that you were headed in the right direction.

GOING TO Oswego turned out to be the smartest thing Tom ever did because that's where he met Edie Fiske of Bemus Point, NY, who became his wife on June 23, 1962. She graduated in 1961 and spent her first year teaching at Lake Shore Central School in Angola, south of Buffalo. Tom, who graduated in 1960, was several miles away, teaching at the State School for Boys in Industry, NY, south of Rochester. The 1996 movie, "Jerry Maguire," turned the phrase "You complete me" into a cliche that has since been used in countless comedy skits. However, that phrase appropriately describes the relationship of Tom and Edie, who are a wonderful team.

Their wedding took place in a church on the shore of Chautauqua Lake near Edie's home. They settled for awhile in East Aurora, NY, where they started a family that would later find a permanent home in Falls Church, VA.

They enjoyed living in East Aurora, but a better opportunity awaited in Virginia. Tom became director of the Arlington Career Center where he remained for almost 30 years before retiring in 2000 when he was a winner of the Washington Post's prestigious Distinguished Educational Leadership award.

Edie was a middle school math teacher, counselor and director of guidance, all in Fairfax County schools. She, too, retired, but remains busy with League of Women Voters of Falls Church and Arlingtonians Meeting Emergency Needs, Inc. (While Tom has been active with the Falls Church Democratic Committee, it's Edie who seems much more involved in politics, which enter many of the conversations I've had with her . . . which is okay because we're both on the same side.)

Their four children — Scott, Tim, Mary and Sarah — have their own families, but live close by. Seven grandchildren are among the other reasons things are never dull for Edie and Tom. (That plus Tom's apparent inability to say no whenever he's asked to serve on a committee or board for various organizations in the Falls Church area.)

THEY SPEND their summers in their home on Chautauqua Lake at the well-known Chautauqua Institution, which keeps them on the go with a variety of activities, including classes and lectures from a wide range of experts and celebrities. They also do a lot of traveling both in the United States and abroad.

However, each December you'll find them in Falls Church. Tom has turned into a regular Mr. Christmas. What he and Edie do to their home made me recall that wonderful time from our childhood when there were downtown department stores and their eye-catching Christmas displays.

And speaking of childhood . . . those who knew Eddie and Sally, or Tom and his sisters, all seem to recall the merry-go-round horse that Eddie mounted as a motorized toy in the Smolinski backyard on Freeman Avenue in Solvay. Turns out there were two such horses, and you'll find one of them, looking as good as ever — maybe better — in Tom's home in Falls Church.

Like I said, Tom's a handy guy. And the tradition continues through his children.