The Family Pastime

December 19, 2010 at 4:11 am (Uncategorized)

As I grow older, I have a tendency to look back with increasing nostalgia at certain things that have influenced my life and family relationships. Baseball is one of those things.

Ah, baseball. Sitting behind third base with your dad on a sunny afternoon. Hot dogs and peanuts. The crack of the bat. Praying for a foul ball. The crispness of the air as the calendar turns toward October and the World Series. Memories of Mickey, Yogi, the Scooter, Whitey, and the Moose. Mel Allen screaming, “That ball is going, going, it is gone!” The Yankees win! All is right with the world. What could possibly be better than that?

When I was a child, baseball was the ONLY game. Professional football was just coming into its own, basketball was a minor sport, and nobody watched hockey. We couldn’t afford golf or tennis in our family, and we never even heard of soccer or lacrosse. Baseball was the sport to watch… so much going on at once if you just knew what to look for. And it had a leisurely pace to it so that you could carry on a conversation or argue over who the best players were while you rooted for your favorite team.

My first real exposure to this wonderful game left memories so vivid that it seems like only yesterday rather than almost seventy years ago. In those days, Italian families always enjoyed Sunday dinner at Grandma’s house, which, in our case, was on Summit Avenue in Cedarhurst. After eating, the women would clean up while the men went into the living room to watch the ballgame on an eighteen-inch black- and-white TV. Now I know that’s no longer considered politically correct, but that’s just the way it was. Anyway, one particular summer afternoon, when I was just becoming aware of baseball, my uncles, my father, and my grandfather sat down to watch the Yanks play. They were all devoted Yankee fans except my Dad, who, for some strange reason, was a misguided Giants fan. And nobody, but nobody, rooted for the Brooklyn “Bums”.

 This probably took place in 1950, when I was about seven years old. My male relatives felt that it was time I learned the game of baseball, so I reluctantly settled down with them after dinner as the Yankees broadcast began. I remember that the immortal Joe DiMaggio was at bat. The “Yankee Clipper” was a big hero in our family, but he was near the end of his career at the time. A restless seven year old watched impatiently as DiMaggio fouled off one pitch after another from that wide stance of his. Finally I could bear it no longer and dashed outside to play. As I passed the living room window, I heard a loud commotion. Grandpa Bevilacqua was shouting, “He did it! He did it!” After fouling off half a dozen pitches, the great DiMaggio had hit a home run! This was the watershed moment that propelled me on my way to becoming a devout… no, make that fanatical, Yankee fan.

I should add that in the late nineteen-forties, my grandfather ran the public address system at Yankee Stadium for several years. He often pestered me to go to the games with him and meet the players, but sadly I wasn’t yet interested in baseball at age four or five. You can imagine how many times since that I’ve kicked myself repeatedly for missing the chance to go into the locker room and say hello to DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, and Phil Rizzuto among others. By the time I developed my love for the “Bronx Bombers”, Grandpa no longer held the Stadium job.

In 1955, when I was eleven, Mickey Mantle was in his prime. One night I was listening on the radio in my bedroom as “The Switcher” hit TWO home runs in one game. I had never heard of such a thing! Mickey immediately became my favorite player, and remains so today, although Aaron Judge is slowly gaining on him. Every year near my birthday, my Dad, my godfather Uncle Dinnio Oliveri, and Grandpa Bevy would go to Yankee Stadium, where I’d keep my eyes firmly riveted on my idol. We always got tickets for a Sunday double-header so we could see two games for the price of one.

In 1956, we watched the Yankees beat the White Sox handily in the first game. During the nightcap, Mantle hit a homer left-handed, but the game was tied going into the bottom of the ninth inning. Mickey came to bat and promptly hit a second home run right-handed to win the game. The roar of the crowd was deafening. When the umpire signaled “Fair Ball”, I was in hero heaven! As we were leaving the stadium, someone tossed a drink cup from the upper deck that landed squarely on my head with a resounding “TOINK” and raised a nice lump, but even that couldn’t spoil what was to me a perfect day.

That afternoon is seared into my memory, never to be forgotten. My Dad, Uncle Din, and Grandpa Bevy are all gone now, but they live on in the glorious images of that day carefully preserved in the recesses of my brain.

During the World Series, when the Yanks always seemed to play the Dodgers, our teachers at Number 5 School would let us listen to the games on the radio. Since the Series was only played during the day back then, we had to run home at 3 o’clock to catch the last few innings. The Yankees usually won, but then came that black day in 1955 when the “Bums” finally beat them for the first time! I was in shock. How could that happen?

Many of you probably have your own baseball memories to cherish, and the game is nothing if not a statistical paradise laden with seminal moments like those I recall with such pleasure. Records are kept for hundreds of different accomplishments. And, yes, the records are made to be broken. Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs in one season (broken). Lou Gehrig’s 2130 consecutive games played (broken). Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak (not yet broken). In no other sport are statistics revered so much as in baseball. And the stats continue to fuel our fervent arguments over who the best players of all time were.

So treasure our national game, folks. Someday you, too, may have the pleasure of telling your grandchildren about the exploits of the great Derek Jeter, when baseball was played exposed to the elements before the new domed Yankee Stadium was built. There’s a certain comfort in knowing that the lore of the game is passed on this way from generation to generation, and that the grand old sport of baseball remains relatively unchanged over the last 100 years. It’s difficult to explain, but to me the game fosters a sense of security that all will be well and life will go on. Baseball has kind of an eternal feel to it, especially when the last icy vestiges of winter fade, the world begins to turn green, and pitchers and catchers report to spring training.

Play ball! Lord, how I love it!

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Losing Mom

December 18, 2010 at 4:24 pm (Uncategorized)

My mom, Jennie, was diagnosed with an aortal aneurism late in 1987. She was 65 years old at the time. None of us were familiar with what an aneurism actually was, but we learned that it’s an abnormal bulging of an artery. Such a bulge is extremely dangerous, since it can burst at any time. Mom’s was particularly worrisome because it was located in the aorta, the main artery coming out of the heart. According to her cardiologist, this was the worst possible place for an aneurism. If Mom underwent surgery to repair the bulge she would probably live to a ripe old age. Without an operation there were no guarantees.

Several of us sat down with our mother and discussed the situation openly and frankly. My sisters and brother were not in favor of the surgery. Too risky, they believed. I felt otherwise. “Mom, I have to be honest,” I said. “If you want to have a normal life there’s no other option.”

I could see that she really didn’t want to do it, and who could blame her? This was not some minor elective surgery we were talking about. She thought it over for a couple of days and then decided to have the operation. That decision has haunted me all the days of my life since.

Mom’s surgery was set to take place at St. Luke’s Hospital in Manhattan. She was scheduled to be the first procedure in the morning. We all gathered there early and waited. For some reason, the surgeons kept pushing back the time for her operation. In the meantime, my sister Sue, Maureen and I and my father took turns keeping her company in her room. Aunt Marlene Matland and Cousin Mary Olivieri were also there to lend their support. As the day dragged on, we felt that the long delay was cruel, and we were beginning to become agitated.

Late in the afternoon, the attendants finally came to take Mom to the OR. As they wheeled her away on a gurney, I walked beside her to the elevator. In a lame attempt to lighten the mood I joked, “Make sure you don’t get off at the Maternity Ward!”

Those were the last words I ever spoke to my mother. She glanced blankly at me through drug-glazed eyes and said nothing. The elevator door closed and she was gone.

The group of us sat nervously in the waiting room watching the hands on the clock move ever so slowly. I’m not sure how much time passed, but it was probably several hours. Then Mom’s cardiologist, a woman, came out to speak with us. She had just assisted with the surgery. “Everything went well”, she said. “We’ve got her resting in recovery.”

With that, I thought we should all go home and get some rest. It had been a long day. My father, especially, looked exhausted. Sue said, “Let’s stay until we can see her.” So we sat down again to wait. As it turned out, that was a wise decision.

Another hour passed, and the cardiologist reentered the waiting room. Her face was grim. “Something went wrong,” she said. “We’ve got to go back in.” With that she retreated to the OR, leaving us in a very fearful state.

Again, I’m not sure how much time went by. We hadn’t said much to each other while we waited. Then the cardiologist returned again. From the look on her face, I knew she didn’t have good news. Since I was the nearest to her, she grasped my hand gently. “We did our best,” she said. “But your mom didn’t make it. I’m so sorry.” Then she reached up and patted my arm.

We were crushed. After believing that everything was going to be fine, this news was devastating. Sue and Maureen began to cry. Dad seemed disoriented. He blubbered, “I lost my buddy.” It was a terrible scene.

My brother Augie and sister Denise hadn’t wanted to come to the hospital and remained at home waiting to hear from us. The awful task of calling them fell to me. When Augie answered the phone and I told him what had happened, he just hung up without saying a word. We then left the hospital, Maureen and I driving home to Baldwin in one car while Sue took Dad back to Cedarhurst with Cousin Mary driving. It was a bad night for everyone.

The next morning the hospital called. New York City law required that someone come to identify Mom’s body. Dad was in no condition to do it, so I offered to go. Fortunately, Uncle Ralph Bevilacqua and Uncle Bill Fearns, God bless them, heard about this and volunteered to drive me there. When we got to the hospital, they showed us all into a small room where Mom lay covered on a gurney. The attendant drew back the sheet. I won’t go into detail because it wasn’t a pleasant sight. I simply nodded and we left. It was over as quickly as that.

We all got through it somehow. I gave the eulogy at Mom’s funeral, although it was a very difficult ordeal. Afterward, my brother-in-law, George Petri, shook my hand. “You chose the perfect comments,” he said. I was very appreciative of that. But little did I realize then that it wouldn’t be the last time such an awful and unwanted responsibility would fall to me.

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Meet the In-Laws

December 17, 2010 at 12:25 am (Uncategorized)


I first met Maureen Ford in the summer of 1966. At the time I was working as head teller at a local bank in Cedarhurst, NY after having gotten out of the Army the previous fall. Maureen had just graduated from high school and taken a job as secretary to the bank’s chairman of the board. The first time I saw her, I confided to my friend Gene Costanzo, “That’s the girl I’m going to marry.” For some reason, Gene seemed very skeptical about that.

I plotted for several days how to meet this lovely lass who seemed a bit shy. Then one afternoon I bumped into her in the lunch room. I blurted out, “Hi Murine. You’re certainly a sight for sore eyes!”

Brilliant tactic. That had to be the worst pick-up line in the history of mankind since the first Neanderthal grunted, “OONK, GORK!” to the object of his affections. Not surprisingly, it didn’t work. Maureen simply flashed a forced smile and left the room without responding.

Realizing that I had made an utter fool of myself, I avoided Maureen for the next few days. Fortunately, Cupid, in the form of a wonderful woman named Helen Carnevale, intervened. Helen was the bank’s switchboard operator, and she had taken a liking to both Maureen and me. She eventually brokered a date between us, which must have required enormous effort on her part considering the first impression I had made. I’ll always be grateful to Helen for that.

Anyway, for our first date we went to a party held by Beatrice Kontanis, who was the vault attendant at the bank. You have to understand that this was a small neighborhood financial institution where everyone knew just about everybody else. Attending parties hosted by other employees was a common practice. When I picked up Maureen she had a pretty flower in her hair and looked stunning. I thought the date went fairly well, but I later found out that Maureen didn’t like me very much. After all, I was five years older than she was, and of course, had been less than suave in our first meeting. But things improved, and we began to see each other on a regular basis.

Along about this time I decided to bring Maureen home to meet my family. Many years before anyone ever dreamed of “The Fockers”, we sat down uncomfortably at the dinner table. Maureen later told me that as she stared across at my father’s devilish face, she could have sworn she saw little horns protruding from his forehead! Anyway, just as my mother was putting the food out, one of the table legs collapsed, sending dishes, silverware and dinner crashing to the floor in a grotesque heap!

While Dad and I roared with laughter, Maureen sat in stunned silence. Mom reached across and began smacking my sister Suzanne, who was sitting nearest to the broken leg. “But I didn’t do anything!” wailed poor Sue. This caused my father and me to guffaw even louder. My sister Denise and younger brother Augie bolted from their chairs and ran for cover from this madness. I can only imagine what poor Maureen was thinking!

During a subsequent visit, a mashed potato fight suddenly erupted in Mom’s second-floor kitchen. Covered with potatoes and laughing uproariously, I dragged poor Maureen outside into the yard. Mom had previously cut up a watermelon, and began throwing slices down at me. Not to be outdone, I picked up several and tossed them back. One of the slices ricocheted off Mom’s head, through the open window, and splattered on the kitchen floor. What a mess! By now Maureen must have been wondering if she had gotten involved with a family of lunatics!

Somehow, despite all the wackiness, our relationship persevered. My future wife fell in love with my grandmother (Nonnie), who lived downstairs. There was nobody like Nonnie. Whenever we stopped in to see her she’d serve tea and buttered Uneeda biscuits, and we’d just enjoy chatting for long periods of time. My grandmother adored Maureen too, so those visits were very special to all of us.

After dating for about eight months, we became engaged the following Easter. Aunt Amelia Piccione had recommended a jeweler in Brooklyn, and we found a beautiful marquis-cut diamond there. I don’t actually remember asking Maureen to marry me, come to think of it. I guess we had just grown together to the point where it was simply assumed, and no words were necessary.

We were married that November, appropriately enough on Veterans Day, at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Inwood, where both sets of our parents had also been united. I was 24 and my new wife was just 19. Donna Fischetti served as Maureen’s maid of honor. She was the fiancé of Maureen’s brother Tom. Her bridesmaids included her dear friend Rosemarie Italiano, my sisters Suzanne and Denise, my cousin Lorraine Sarullo and Maureen’s cousin Susan Muglia as flower girl.

For me, Richie Vicario was best man, joined by my friends Joe Parlo and Gene Costanzo, my new brother-in-law Tom Ford, my cousin Ronnie Bevilacqua, and my brother Augie as a junior usher.

It was a storybook wedding that brought out half the bank to witness the social event of the year. Father James DeVita, who became a good friend of our family, officiated at the ceremony. We laughed then and still do now about the good Father reading us our vows, and then asking maid of honor Donna if she took me as her husband! And as we walked away from the altar, I recall glancing around at all the happy faces. Sadly, many of those people are no longer with us.

From the church we went by limo to the Luna Continental restaurant in Elmont, NY for our reception with 240 family members, friends and guests. Upon arrival, the family tradition of wackiness continued. I had forgotten to put my wallet in the pocket of the tuxedo when I dressed, so I had to run inside to borrow money from the maitre D to pay the limo driver! Recently I found the bill for that reception. It came to $2300, not counting the 60 bucks I owed for the limo! Can you believe it?

The rest of the reception is a blur. I do recall that the party was in full swing when Maureen and I said our good-byes and made our escape. We spent our first night as husband and wife at our apartment in Cedarhurst, laughing as car after car containing some nuts from the wedding passed by, horns blaring and headlights flashing.

The next morning we headed out for our honeymoon in Niagara Falls. Now I ask you, what sane man takes his new wife to Buffalo in the wintertime? After what seemed like an endless drive, we finally arrived, only to find that the falls were frozen and much of the town was closed up. Of course! What else would you expect?

We finally found a seedy restaurant that was still open and ordered dinner. I shook my head in resignation as I glanced into my water glass and spotted a fly frozen into the middle of an ice cube. Funny how you remember ridiculous little things like that. I suppose that’s a product of growing up in a family constantly surrounded by swirling craziness.

Anyway, we decided to cut the honeymoon short. Maureen was homesick, and the weather was lousy, so we headed back to Long Island. Our marriage had begun with such great promise, and we were anxious to get started on our new life together. Someone at the reception had written “JUST MARRIED” in lipstick on our rear car window. Now driver after driver honked at us in congratulation as we made our way home. As yet, we were blissfully unaware of the trials that lay ahead.

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F Troop

December 16, 2010 at 4:37 am (Uncategorized)

Those who know me are quite familiar with my intense loyalty to our flag, the military and our veterans. In fact, in recent years I’ve become a strong advocate of veterans causes, writing articles for the promotion of the new Veterans Memorial here in Anthem, Arizona, and serving as Public Relations Chairman for the Parade Committee. All of these actions evolved from some commitments I made back in the ‘60s.

When I first got out of the service, the local Lawrence-Cedarhurst American Legion Post invited me to become a member. According to Past Commanders Charlie Heine and Joe Breitstone, I would be the first Vietnam veteran to join. At that time I was much more interested in chasing girls, but they were persistent, so I eventually relented.

Shortly after my induction, I persuaded my friends Richie Vicario and Donny Leone to join as well. That was my first mistake.

The American Legion used to run a Memorial Day parade back in those days. During the late ‘60s my friends and I came up with the brainstorm of putting together a color guard and firing squad to march in the parade. I recruited my brother-in-law Cliff Catropa and my friend Frank Basile to round out the group. Our intent was to include a representative from each branch of the four major services. Richie was Air Force, Donny had been in the Navy, Cliff was our Marine, and Frank and I represented the Army.

Richie, Donny and Frank were still able to fit into their military-issue clothing. Cliff insisted that he could as well. As it turned out, that was a bad decision on his part. I, on the other hand, having gained a pound or two since Vietnam, wisely purchased a whole new khaki uniform at the local Army-Navy surplus store.

We found some old Springfield rifles and a carton of blank ammunition in a closet at the American Legion building. I ordered some white helmets with the Legion insignia on them from a mail order catalog. When all of the equipment was finally assembled, we gathered at the Legion hall, intending to practice our marching and rifle skills. Well, as you probably know, the road to hell is paved with good intentions!

After a fair amount of joking, insults and general grab-ass, I called the group to attention. We went through some basic maneuvers including “right shoulder arms”, “present arms” and “order arms”. They were actually fairly good at that, so I was beginning to feel somewhat encouraged about the whole idea. Well, it didn’t take them long to change my mind.

I felt we also needed to practice our close order drill, so I lined them up and we prepared to march around the hall. Richie and Donny were standing beside one another. They were a comical-looking duo to begin with. Richie was skinny, balding and had a pronounced nose, while Donny stood just a shade over five feet in height. When I called “left face”, they turned in opposite directions and collided. The impact sent Donny’s helmet spinning across the floor, and Richie took a whack in the nose from Donny’s rifle barrel! It was reminiscent of something from an Abbott and Costello movie.

I was flabbergasted. “What the %$#@ is wrong with you two %$#@ morons?” I bellowed. We glared at each other for a moment, and then the entire group broke up in riotous laughter. We didn’t realize it at the time, but that was a clear omen of what was to come.

On the morning of the parade, we assembled at Lawrence Station with Frank anchoring one end of the formation and me the other. I thought we looked pretty sharp in our dress uniforms and white helmets. The plan was to fire a volley at the memorial there, march to the Lawrence-Cedarhurst firehouse to fire again, and finish up at the Cedarhurst memorial with another volley. It seemed pretty cut and dried. Then things began to slip.

At some point while we were lining up for the first volley, Cliff bent over and split his much-too-tight pants from stem to stern. As we raised our rifles to fire the first salute, his jacket lifted up and he unintentionally “mooned” the crowd! Poor Cliff then marched the full length of the parade with his drawers flapping in the breeze, and mooning bystanders with each shot we fired! The rest of us could scarcely maintain our composure.

When we reached Cedarhurst, I marched the group onto the grass at the memorial and gave them an about face. As the first flag neared, I called “Present arms!” After it passed, I followed up with “Order arms!” Hapless Donny then lowered his rifle butt to the ground – right into a fresh pile of dog poop! Richie practically collapsed on the ground in near hysteria. And I’ll always remember the ludicrous sight of poor Donny holding his rifle awkwardly off to the side each time we fired a volley so he wouldn’t have to put the butt against his shoulder!

Thus ended our first Memorial Day parade together. We continued the tradition for a number of years, fortunately without any further zany happenings. However, interest in the parade eventually waned, and the Legion quit running it. But I have never forgotten what took place during that first landmark event. Neither, I suspect, have any of the people who witnessed the farce played out by “F Troop” so many Memorial Days ago.

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The Pets from Hell

December 10, 2010 at 8:57 pm (Uncategorized)

All my life I’ve had kind of a love/hate relationship with animals. Mostly hate. When I was about five years old and living in Cedarhurst, my first pet was Salty, a white mongrel dog with black markings. Salty was very protective of me. One time an older neighbor, Daryl Burke, threw a stone at me. Salty chased her down the block and bit her in the butt! I think that may have been the last time I had a good relationship with a pet.

When I was discharged from the Army in 1965 and returned home, I found that my 11 year-old sister Denise had somehow acquired a scruffy-looking squirrel monkey named “Charlie” who she kept in a cage in the den. Now you have to understand something. I had just gotten back from Vietnam where I had spent a year chasing and being chased by the Viet Cong, an enemy we called “Charlie”. So this miserable little SOB of a monkey had one big strike against him from day one. It didn’t take him long to ring up more strikes than a cross-eyed umpire.

My first night home I fell asleep on the living room couch. At some point Charlie got out of his cage and jumped on my chest. Since I still had the alertness of the soldier, I immediately leaped to my feet and went on the offensive. I chased that little bugger all over the house, knocking down chairs, smashing picture frames and anything else that got in the way. In the process I woke the entire family. Mom wasn’t too happy about that. “What in God’s name is going on?” she demanded.

“The little rat jumped me,” I whined.

I finally cornered Charlie in the bathtub, where he lay on his back, lifted his arms in surrender and screeched bloody murder. It was such a ridiculous sight we could only laugh. By this time Denise was awake, and put the monkey back in his cage.

Things went steadily downhill from there. Charlie was really a vile little creature. If someone came into the den that he didn’t like (and Charlie liked very few people), he’d fling feces at them. One time Uncle Dinnio Oliveri ventured too close to the cage, and Charlie propelled a stream of urine all over him! He did other revolting things too, but since this is a family website, I can’t go into detail. Use your imagination.

Charlie could be violent as well. Once my friend Richie Vicario made the mistake of innocently walking into the den. Now if you knew Richie, you’re already aware that he had a “Jimmy Durante” nose. Unfortunately that poor schnoz became a bit bigger after Charlie clocked him right in the beak with a walnut!

Eventually my parents got fed up with Charlie’s antics and banished him to the dungeon – our basement. Charlie didn’t like it down there; it was dark and quiet and he had very few visitors to degrade. He pined away and finally kicked the bucket. I could scarcely contain my glee, but my sister was heartbroken. I think she then began plotting how to use her animals to get even with me.

Some years later Denise bought a Shetland pony named “Velvet”. Well, despite her name, Velvet was about as soft and fuzzy as a two by four upside the head. By this time, Maureen and I had four children including two daughters, Cynthia and Jacqueline. Ironically, Velvet was born the same week as little Jackie. But at age three, Jackie was still a baby while Velvet was quite lethal.

On weekends Dee would take my daughters and my niece Jennifer out to the barn to learn how to clean stalls and ride Velvet. Naturally, on many occasions I drove them there. The first time I went to see Velvet in her stall, she turned her rear end to me and landed a heavy kick on the wooden stall door near my head. Wherever I moved, she kept her backside toward me, ready to flatten me if I got too close. For some strange reason I took this as a sign that she didn’t like me!

The next time we went to the barn I was careful to stay in front of Velvet. Good idea but bad result. This time she charged out of her stall, knocked me right on my keister, then ran me over. I must tell you that there’s nothing quite like being stomped by a 600 pound irate pony. When I was finally able to get up, I had hoof prints on my chest, hay in my ears, and thought I had been clobbered by the equine version of Lawrence Taylor.

I had no idea how to deal with this demon from hell. Then I discovered that Velvet was terrified of Jackie. I guess she didn’t know what to do with someone that small. Armed with this valuable bit of information, I marched my daughter over to the corral. As soon as Velvet spied Jackie she took off for the far reaches of the enclosure at a gallop. I used the opportunity to jump up on the railing, shake my fist at Velvet and bellow, “Who’s the man now, huh? Who’s the man?”

I finally got smart and stayed away from Velvet thereafter, and had only one further incident with Dee’s horses. One of a pair of white ponies named Blue chomped my thumb as I was feeding him a carrot. I had to punch him in the jaw to make him let go. But it’s Velvet who sometimes appears in my nightmares, and I break into a cold sweat as that big fat horse’s rear end swings around and those iron-clad hooves flash toward my head!

Denise’s malevolent minions probably scored their ultimate triumph in the summer of 1995. Dee was living upstate in Ossining at the time. For some reason I can’t recall, I had to drive up there to bring my nephew David back to Long Island. My sister was raising Jack Russell terriers then, and had half a dozen of those little Pac-dogs led by the alpha male, “Spike”. She also had a Rottweiler named “Humphrey” who certainly looked the part of the hound from hell.

Now you have to understand how vicious these mutts really were. When I got out of the car I tripped on something. Looking down, I spotted a possum’s head. Nothing else… just the head. The dogs had eaten the rest. And they had previously ambushed a neighbor’s Guinea Hen, plucking out all its feathers until the poor thing finally escaped and ran off naked as a rotisserie chicken!

Well, I walked into the house unconcerned about the dogs, because they were familiar with me from previous visits. They all gathered around, sniffed me for a moment and walked away. I said hello to my nephew and then made the mistake of going into the bathroom.

When I opened the door, the dogs spotted me again. Apparently now thinking that I was a different person, they came after me in a mad rush reminiscent of the charge of the Light Brigade. Spike sank his teeth into my slacks just below the hip and tore the leg right off! The others swirled around me, snapping and snarling in a wild frenzy. Stunned, I backed away, only to bump into Humphrey, who promptly bit me right in the ass! I guess he wasn’t quite sure I was really the enemy, because he didn’t clamp down all that hard. But he did draw blood.

In a panic now, I tried to retreat into the kitchen. Another mistake. That’s where my sister kept her parrot, who she allowed to remain free on a perch. As soon as I burst into the room trailed by the pack of mad dogs, the parrot squawked and launched herself from the perch. She circled my head like an avenging angel, trying to peck at anything I couldn’t protect with my hands. I raced desperately for the front door, pursued by the howling dogs and the screeching green devil! Fortunately, I was able to get outside and slam the door behind me, locking those diabolical creatures inside. I then limped to the car to nurse my wounds while the cacophony in the house continued unabated.

About ten minutes later David came outside toting his bag and sporting a huge grin. I could have strangled him. He’d sat laughing on the couch through the whole incident and had done nothing to stop that miserable mob of mangy mutts plus the parrot from trying to tear his poor uncle apart (see photo: “David & the Devils”). He climbed into the car, ignoring my glare, and we took off.

As luck would have it, we needed gas, so I pulled up to the first service station in town. I was a bit hesitant about getting out of the car looking the way I did, but there was really no alternative. Then things continued to go downhill. As I was pumping the gas a gust of wind blew off my Yankees cap and sent it spinning down the street. The poor residents of Ossining were now treated to the incredible sight of an escaped maniac dashing through town in pursuit of his hat with one leg missing off his pants and a big blood spot on his can! It’s a wonder that someone didn’t throw a net over me and transport me to the town’s most noted landmark – “Sing-Sing” Prison!

When we got home, nobody would believe my story. But I had a material witness. David eventually confirmed my report after he finally stopped laughing. I’m gonna get that kid one of these days! And I still say Denise taught those devils to go after me as retaliation for Charlie.

Not all the animals that have tormented me belonged to my sister. In 1989, my son Jimmy brought home this cute little puppy we christened “Samson”. But as he grew older, I began to have second thoughts about the mutt. “Sammy’s” back legs were longer than his front ones, so when he ran it looked like he was about to slide nose first into second base.

Sammy was without a doubt the dumbest dog I’ve ever known. He also became Jackie’s pet. We had him for 19 years, and in that time he was never housebroken. He would only go on newspaper in the laundry room. Poor Maureen usually ended up cleaning the floor tiles every day with bleach and detergent. If we let him outside, we’d soon see him jumping up and down outside the door as if to say, “Let me in! I’ve gotta go!” Sounds funny now, but we didn’t think so at the time.

Well, as Sammy aged, his physical condition steadily deteriorated. He began to lose control of his bowels and his rear legs. His sight and hearing were beginning to fail. And he hated to be alone. If we went out, he would stand in a corner and howl until we returned, sometimes spraying diarrhea all over the house. What a mess! I have a feeling Denise used to sneak in when we weren’t home to train him for maximum collateral damage!

Anyway, it got so bad that I had to build a dummy to keep Sammy company every time we had someplace to go. I’d take some pillows, a hat, one of my jackets, a pair of pants and my shoes and assemble them on the couch. Sammy would come by and sniff his “companion” and then quietly return to his bed. Then we’d have to sneak out one at a time so he wouldn’t catch on. This worked for quite a while.

Just before we moved to Arizona, we were living in an apartment behind my daughter’s house in South Hempstead, and we knew the end was near. Poor Jackie arranged for the vet to come to the house to put Sammy to sleep. She wanted to spare him a last trauma of going to the animal hospital, which he hated. On the morning the vet was scheduled to arrive both Jackie and Maureen went to work, so I was home alone with Sammy. I cooked him a nice steak for his last meal and he ate every bit of it.

When the vet and her assistant arrived I couldn’t bear to watch, so I went outside. When they finally came out the vet said, “We had to do it twice. His heart wouldn’t stop. He didn’t want to go.”

Hearing that broke my heart. I went out into Jackie’s garden and dug a deep grave for Sammy. My daughter didn’t want me to bury him until she got home and had a chance to say good-bye. After that was done, we interred Sammy in a quiet corner of the yard surrounded by shrubs beginning to show signs of spring bloom. Despite the misery he had put us through, his passing left a huge void in our hearts.

We’ll be visiting New York soon and, against my better judgment I hope to make a trip to the new farm Denise recently bought in Connecticut. She still has Spike and that blasted parrot as well as several new horses and a goat named “Jimmy” (Jimmy? Hmmmm.) My sister claims that they can’t wait to see me! I’m sure the spirits of Charlie, Velvet and Humphrey are also licking their chops in anticipation. I think I’d be wise to enlist the services of an exorcist and rent a suit of armor before going anywhere near that abode of the damned and its denizens of evil!

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The Chronicles of Augustine

December 9, 2010 at 1:31 am (Uncategorized)

No record of our family would be complete without a section on the misguided adventures of my father, Augustine R. Oliveri. The fifth of Angela and Eugenio Oliveri’s six children, Dad was born in 1915, although he deceitfully claimed later in life that his birth year was actually 1918 (more on that to follow). He had a bit of a devilish reputation, so that to this day, when anyone asks me if I’m related to Augie, I always answer, “Why do you want to know?”

My brother, Augie Jr., still has to deal with questions about his namesake. “Why didn’t they name you Augie?” he complains to me. “You were the first son.” Sorry, Aug. Better you than me!

Anyway, for some reason Dad had a penchant for becoming involved in hilarious escapades, some of which I’ve recounted in other stories. Many of those misadventures involved cars and driving (see “Saga of the Missing Door” and “Now Hair This”). What follows is a multi-act play in the Theater of the Absurd.

Dad once told me that when he was a child of about ten, his father had a Model-A Ford that he kept in the garage behind their house in Inwood. One day my father, being the mischievous soul he was, climbed behind the wheel of the car to play. Somehow, he was able to start the engine, sending the ill-fated Model-A lurching forward and through the rear wall of the garage! Dad said he spent the rest of the day in a tree hiding from his father! Thus began his life-long affinity for motorized mishaps.

His next fiasco also may have involved the very same Model-A. Apparently a handle on one of the car’s windows was broken. Someone, I’ve forgotten who, was trying to lift the glass with a screwdriver. My father, bursting with curiosity, leaned inside the open window to see what was happening. At this point the screwdriver slipped and shot upward, burying itself in the bone beneath one of his eyes. Dad had to be rushed to the hospital, where the first nurse to see him with the screwdriver embedded in his face fainted dead away! Doctors were able to remove the tool without damaging his eye, but the accident left a sizable scar that he wore for the rest of his life.

My father had a unique talent for acquiring broken-down cars, one that I’ve never seen matched by anyone else. Whenever he came across someone who was about to junk an old wreck, he would take it home and squeeze the last few miles out of the vehicle until it finally gave up the ghost. One in particular I remember was an ugly old green panel truck we christened “The Flying Shillelagh” due to its color. Its brakes didn’t work very well, so if you were riding with him, sometimes you had to open the door and stick your heel out to try to slow the truck at a stop sign! And that heap was missing some floorboards. Whenever he drove in the rain and splashed through a puddle, water sprayed up into the cab, soaking everyone within. What a bomb!

My sister Sue was mortified anytime she had to ride in that wreck. When Dad drove her to school, she would make him let her out two blocks away so that none of her friends would see them. But Dad got even with her by putting a sign on the side of the truck that read, “SUZANNE OLIVERI’S FATHER!” Hilarious, maybe, but not to Sue.

One time my sister Denise’s car broke down in Woodmere, so Dad went to tow her with his latest “bucket of bolts” featuring a missing side-view mirror. He carefully wrapped a chain around her bumper and attached it to his car. Then he instructed her on what to do as he towed her home: “When I go like this, step on the brake; when I go like that, turn right”, and so on. They then took off, and hadn’t gone a block when the chain broke. Dad drove the rest of the way to Cedarhurst making hand signals to my sister, unaware without a mirror that she was no longer behind him! He finally realized what had happened when some guy called out from the sidewalk, “Hey, do you know you’re dragging a chain?” You can’t make this stuff up.

Dad’s neighbor across the street had only one arm (you’re smiling already, aren’t you?) One morning he and my father were both backing their cars into the street at the same time. Unfortunately, their driveways were directly opposite one another, which, as you can imagine, resulted in a roaring collision in the middle of Summit Avenue. Dad jumped out of his car, thinking his neighbor might have been hurt. However, they both burst into riotous laughter when my father asked him, “Do you need a hand?” Sorry… that demented sense of humor obviously runs in the family.

Dad drove a bus for a senior citizen center until he was 75 years old. He would come home at night and complain, “I hate driving those old bags around!” Meanwhile, most of them were younger than he was! And then he did something that finally forced us to take away his license. He was driving down Peninsula Boulevard one morning when he spotted a woman bending over on the sidewalk. Dad turned to glance at her rear end… and promptly plowed right into the back of a Long Island Lighting truck. Those poor guys were diving for cover to get away from this maniac! Only the grace of God and access to an open manhole saved them from serious injury. The woman escaped with her dignity intact.

Well, a couple of years later he talked me into taking him for a driving test so he could get his license back. Big mistake on my part. He got in the car with the examiner, took off like a bat out of hell, did a wheelie, blew through a red light and careened around the corner on two wheels! They returned about a minute later and screeched to a halt. The examiner’s eyes were like two saucers. The poor man wobbled out of the car with a big wet spot on the front of his pants. He staggered away and was never seen again. Needless to say, that was finally the end of my father’s driving days.

Driving wasn’t all that brought Dad grief. Animals did their part as well. Once my father was out in the backyard with his new kitten when his dog (Moe) got out of the house and came running toward them. Of course, the kitten dashed up a tree and refused to come down. Dad went inside, patiently put on his lumberjack gear and hard hat, climbed the tree, got clawed by the frightened cat, but managed to return it safely to the ground.

Naturally, the dog immediately went after the kitten, which quickly returned to its previous perch in the tree. So Dad repeated the whole process and brought the cat down again, where – you guessed it – the dog chased it up the tree a third time! It never occurred to “Paul Bunyan” to lock up the dog first, so next he went back up that tree with a burlap sack and a rope. He stuffed the cat in the bag and lowered it to the ground where, of course, Moe tore the sack open. The kitten passed Dad as he made his way down from the tree. At this point he finally wised up, put Moe in his pen and left the cat to climb down by itself!

On another occasion, two of Dad’s Jack Russell terriers got into a furious fight in his kitchen. My father jumped in to separate them. Bad move. A wild melee ensued, much like the swirling battles you often see in cartoons with arms, legs, dust, tails and fangs spinning in all directions. When it was finally over, the floor was covered with blood – Dad’s! The dogs were unhurt, but my father had to go to the emergency room for stitches and a tetanus shot.

Yard work also seemed to invite disaster for “Lumberjack” Augie. One time he was trimming some branches from the very same tree his cat had ascended repeatedly. Incredibly, he was sitting ON the branch that he was sawing OFF! I can’t even begin to describe the resulting howl of terror and ear-shattering crash as both Dad and the limb reached the ground simultaneously!

As I mentioned earlier, my father wasn’t always entirely straightforward when it came to admitting his age. Toward the end of his life he suffered from bouts of congestive heart failure. One Christmas Eve he wasn’t feeling well, so I drove him to the emergency room. While Dad sat quietly, I gave the receptionist some basic information about him. When she asked for his date of birth, I responded that it was 1915. Well, Dad hit the ceiling. It seems he had a girlfriend at the time (hooray for him!), and he’d told her that he was three years younger than he actually was. Instead of worrying about his condition, he was more concerned that his lady friend would find out his real age!

“Dad, listen to me,” I said, somewhat defensively. “At your age, what the hell difference does it make if you’re off a couple of years?” But he was having none of that. In fact, he wouldn’t speak to me for weeks afterward!

My father passed away three months later. Fortunately, he had forgiven me by then, and as far as I know, his girlfriend never learned his true age! With his death, we lost the most powerful natural magnet for comic disaster I have ever known. One of Dad’s favorite TV shows in my youth was “The Life of Riley” with William Bendix. As Chester A. Riley might have said about my father’s passing, “What a revoltin’ development this is!”

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Autumn

December 8, 2010 at 9:50 pm (Uncategorized)

As long as I can remember fall has always been my favorite season. It’s a gorgeous time of year, what with the green leaves changing into a kaleidoscope of vibrant hues, and autumn flowers finally bursting into riotous bloom. It’s almost as if Mother Nature seeks to overwhelm us with a last explosion of color before finally drawing a frosty white veil across the landscape.

Lengthening shadows can lend a somewhat different look to crisp fall afternoons. There’s a touch of sadness in the air too, as many forms of life rush to leave the scene before the snows of winter inevitably overtake them. We humans refer to our later years as the “autumn of our days”, and for good reason. If spring represents nature’s rebirth, then surely fall is its long, slow journey to oblivion.

Today I felt a bit of a chill in the air for the first time this season. It brought back memories of all the wonderful things I was fortunate to experience in autumns long ago. I remember how I envied my cousin Natalie, who had a fireplace in her house across the street. Sometimes she’d invite me over when her dad, Uncle Bill Oliveri, lit the first fire of the fall. We’d sit quietly just watching the dancing flames and listening to the snap, pop, and hiss of the burning logs. It was mesmerizing, and there was no need for conversation.

I recall as a child raking leaves into large piles in the backyard. Sometimes we would jump into the mounds or even bury ourselves in them. Eventually we’d light the piles on fire – until that was banned by local ordinance. We would watch in awe as the leaves transformed quickly and furiously into plumes of curling white smoke, soaring orange sparks, and swirls of grey ash. I can still smell that pungent scent. Sometimes I’d even help our neighbor, Mr. Fyfe, (yes, that was really his name) rake his leaves just because I enjoyed burning them so much. Simple pleasures by modern standards, perhaps, but memorable nonetheless.

With the odor of burning leaves in the air, could Halloween be far behind? My second-favorite holiday next to Christmas, Halloween evokes so many wonderful memories. We always cut our pumpkin into a jack-o-lantern the night before, but never lit the candle in it until the next afternoon. There were parties to plan and cardboard skeletons to be hung. I must confess that I never had the knack for apple-bobbing. I always came closer to drowning than to actually snaring an apple. Oh well.

My friends and I began walking the neighborhood right after school, and we sometimes wouldn’t return home until 9 or 10pm. Halloween was much less commercial then. Usually we wore only rubber masks purchased at the 5&10 cent store, and warm jackets. We carried our goodies in brown paper sacks, and none of us ever said “Trick or Treat”. It was “Anything for Halloween?” People gave out cookies, muffins, bubble gum, and pieces of fruit with nickels pressed into them. Sometimes we would switch masks and go back a second time. Oh, we played an occasional harmless trick now and then when someone refused to answer the door, but there wasn’t much need for that sort of thing in those days.

And how about the World Series? The Fall Classic was played only in the daytime back then. The home team’s announcers called every game, unlike today. You knew it was special when you heard someone other than Mel Allen behind the mike. And it was usually Yankees and Dodgers, with the Yanks always prevailing, except once. I remember our grade school teachers would let us listen to the games on radio during class. Then we’d run home at 3 o’clock to catch the finish on an 18 inch black and white TV. Mickey, Yogi, Whitey, and the Moose. Duke, Campy, Jackie, and Scoonj. How great was that? Everyone in my family rooted for the Yankees except my father, who was a Giants fan for some strange reason.

In high school, Lawrence football games dominated every fall weekend. My friends including Richie Vicario, Donny Leone, and Joe Parlo, who are all gone now, would sit in a group at the top of the stands, rooting for our team and laughing uproariously when the band played slightly off-key. We usually won, but in the instances when we didn’t, the final gun often precipitated a wild brawl. Oddly, no one ever seemed to get hurt. Afterward we’d meet at White Castle to devour mountains of 5 cent hamburgers. Today, try as I might, I can’t seem to down more than three of those “belly bombs”! And, needless to say, they no longer cost just a nickel.

Richie and I looked forward to the fall for another reason. The new TV season began in September. Our favorite program was “Shock Theater”, a show that went on at 11pm on Friday featuring some nut named “Zacherley”, who dressed as a ghoul and played cheesy horror movies. Zack, as we called him, had a wife named Isabelle and an assistant, Igor who were never seen. Another assistant named Gasport hung motionless from the rafters inside a burlap sack.

Richie would come over on Friday evenings and we’d watch Zacherley together. Sometimes my father would join us and we’d roar at Zack’s wild antics. He had a talent for cutting into scenes from movies like “Frankenstein’s Ghost” or “The Mummy’s Tomb” at critical moments and doing something ridiculous. We loved it! Even today, the first days of autumn still trigger zany memories of my old friend (fiend?) Zacherley.

Finally, signaling the end of fall to me was Thanksgiving. Always at my grandmother Bevilacqua’s, and always with a large segment of the family in attendance. Often I scarcely recognized some of the relatives. The dining room table opened up to accommodate probably two dozen people. I smiled proudly when I was finally invited to sit with the adults, and then laughed rudely at my sisters, who remained banished to the children’s table. The menu was always the same – lasagna followed by turkey and roast beef. I don’t know why, but that’s the way it was, and that’s the way we wanted it.

Much of that family exists only in the recesses of my mind now. But the first crisp breath of autumn always triggers many warm visions of years gone by. I think fall stands out in my memory from the other seasons partly because it’s such a beautiful time of year. I wonder if people today appreciate autumn as much as we did when the world was a simpler place. It’s still there, and in glorious full color, if only one would just take the time to look at it.

For me, at least, fall always conjures up both joyous and melancholy memories of lost youth and lost family. I suppose in many ways that’s the essence of autumn: recalling happy experiences that can never be reclaimed while trying desperately to create new ones as the calendar ruthlessly counts down our remaining time. Yes, fall is a beautiful season, but with a tinge of sadness to it. No one understands that better than those like me who have reached their “autumn years”.

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Daughters

December 7, 2010 at 7:14 pm (Uncategorized)

The fiend who invented daughters obviously intended to cause fathers gray hairs in bunches rather than just one at a time. My two girls were no angels, I’ll admit, but they could have been much worse. Thankfully, my wife and I never had to deal with the horrors of drug addiction, or the heartbreak of teenage pregnancy. But my daughters certainly did their best to put extra snow on my roof.

Take Cindy, for instance. She was three years older than her sister, Jackie, and as strong-willed as they come. Her mother liked to call her “determined”. I called her “hard-headed”. Perhaps we were both right.

Cindy taught herself to ride a two-wheeler at the tender age of three. Somehow she convinced me to remove the training wheels from her bike, a decision that I made hesitantly. Then, while I watched with concern from a living room window, she began to practice her riding on the front sidewalk. Her first half dozen attempts ended in failure within seconds. But Cindy just gritted her teeth and kept trying. She finally wobbled the full length of our driveway, terminating her solo flight by smashing into the garage door and crumpling to the ground. She immediately leapt to her feet and exclaimed, “I did it!”

Carefully concealed behind a window curtain, her proud father pumped his fist and offered an emphatic “YESSSS!”

As the girls entered their rebellious teens, they soon found other ways to assert their independence. One of their favorite tricks was to sneak out of the house after we went to bed. They would climb through their second story bedroom window, crawl up and over the roof, and down the opposite side of the house where there was less chance of us hearing them. A mad dash to the schoolyard on the next block followed, where their friends were usually waiting. They would share a forbidden cigarette, and then try to figure out how to get back into the house without being caught. I only learned of this recently, which probably saved me many gray hairs and possibly an ulcer or two.

Cindy’s crowning achievement took place in the spring following her sixteenth birthday, shortly after she got her driver’s permit. My daughter hated to practice driving with me. I must admit, I tended to yell a bit. Well, maybe more than a bit. After a couple of weeks of this, she’d had enough and decided to take matters into her own hands.

Without anyone’s permission, Cindy borrowed her brother’s car when no one was home, and took off around the corner. I’m sure she was feeling pretty darn cocky at the moment. But she hadn’t counted on seeing me driving down the street toward her with Jackie riding shotgun. That’s when disaster struck.

Cindy ducked down beneath the steering wheel to hide. As you can imagine, it’s pretty near impossible to drive safely from there. She never saw the fire hydrant that suddenly dashed out from the curb and swan-dived into the side of the car. Ironically, we had passed by without noticing who was driving. But we certainly heard the crunch. Jackie turned to look. “Was that Cindy?” she asked incredulously.

I rolled my eyes and pulled over. Cindy quickly backed away from the mortally wounded hydrant, which was now about three feet out of the ground and bent at a weird angle, spraying water in all directions. Cindy screeched around the corner and disappeared. I continued on home, steam whooshing from both ears. Within minutes, the phone rang. Hysterical Cindy was calling from a friend’s house. Maintaining my usual cool, I bellowed, “Get your rear end back here right now!” and slammed down the receiver.

The badly injured car soon limped slowly down the block and wheezed painfully into our driveway. A five foot gash through both doors on the passenger side attested to the ferocity of the hydrant attack. Good grief! The Titanic hadn’t suffered that much damage! I waited with hands on hips, ready to administer the mother of all groundings. Cindy rushed into my arms, trembling and crying uncontrollably. I melted. “Well, as long as you didn’t get hurt…”

But I wasn’t a total pushover. I made Cindy pay for the repairs from her Sweet Sixteen money, even though my heart ached to do so. It was an expensive lesson, to be sure. But a valuable one. I like to believe that all this had some influence in producing the responsible adult woman Cindy became.

Several years later, Jackie turned sixteen. Yes, she also got her permit. What was left of my hair immediately turned white. So did the hydrant around the corner.

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The Great Stink-Bomb Escapade

December 7, 2010 at 5:25 am (Uncategorized)

My grandfather Bevilacqua was a strong, stern, somewhat humorless man who served as an excellent early mentor to me. Unfortunately, he passed away much too soon at age 59, just after I graduated high school. Had he lived longer, I think that he would have had a profound influence on my later life.

Grandpa Bevy was also a very talented person. The basement of the house on Summit Avenue in Cedarhurst that we shared with him and my grandmother (Nonnie) attested to that. On one side, was an electrical shop where he repaired TVs, radios and other electronic equipment. He was an excellent photographer too, and maintained a full darkroom right near his shop. When I first started taking photos with a Brownie 620 camera sometime during my elementary school days, Grandpa would develop them for me, and then critique my work. In addition, he was a very good musician, and played the electric guitar and banjo.

At some point he tried to get me to learn Morse code and become a “ham” amateur radio operator. Unfortunately, I wasn’t much interested in that at the time. Ironically, I later became a radio operator in the Army, taking easily to the skills and knowledge he had always wanted to teach me.

When I was five or six years old, Grandpa ran the sound system at Yankee Stadium for a short time. I don’t remember this, but I understand he often wanted to take me along when he worked there. Apparently I had no interest in baseball yet, and never wanted to go. For decades afterward, I kicked myself repeatedly for having missed an opportunity to meet some of the ballplayers who would later become my idols.

Grandpa Bevy was an inspector at the Republic Aviation plant in Farmingdale along about the time I was eight or nine. At that age I was blessed with a developing sense of humor and a blossoming penchant for playing practical jokes. These were probably not attributes that I acquired from my grandfather. Maybe I would have been better off in life if I had inherited more of his talents.

Anyway, one day after school, I picked up a box of stink bombs at the candy store that were designed to be loaded into cigarettes. Anxious to test them, I found a pack of Grandpa’s Camels lying around that night, and pressed one of the little black “loads” into the tip of each cigarette. Chuckling to myself, and quite satisfied with my underhanded maneuver, I replaced the pack and awaited the results.

When I got home from school the next day, Mom warned me that Grandpa was on the warpath. Apparently he had been called into the office at Republic, where he was introduced to some prominent people, including two Air Force generals and several high-ranking company executives. As you’ve probably guessed, Grandpa offered them all a cigarette. When they lit up and a noxious, foul-smelling cloud began to fill the room, poor Grandpa had a lot of explaining to do! Thankfully, he was able to talk his way out of trouble by describing what a practical joker his grandson was. In the end, the dignitaries actually found the incident quite amusing!

Well, I made myself scarce for the rest of the day, fearing my grandfather’s wrath. But truthfully, he was never angry with me. In fact, whenever anyone subsequently mentioned the subject, it always brought a smile to his face. And I think the success of that escapade encouraged me to continue refining my skills as a practical joker for years to come, much to the chagrin of my family.

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The Hackers

December 7, 2010 at 5:19 am (Uncategorized)

Six months after I got out of the service, my pinhead friend Richie Vicario signed up the two of us to play in a golf tournament with the Spartans at the Peninsula Club in Massapequa. This was during the spring of 1966. In my usual respectful and understanding manner, I said to him, “You %$#@ moron! We’ve never played golf in our lives! What the &@%$ were you thinking?”

Richie just laughed. I could talk to him that way without hurting his feelings. Truth be told, he actually LIKED it. Richie was one of those guys who got insulted if he didn’t get insulted!

Anyway, we scrounged up golf clubs somewhere and drove out to Massapequa the following Sunday morning. Somehow we managed to play through an entire round without killing anybody, finishing the day dead last with a score of about 160, including mulligans, hand-mashies, foot-wedges and several other forms of cheating. But the die was cast. We had so much fun we decided to play again.

We quickly formed a foursome with my father and Uncle Dinnio Oliveri (Richie called him “Gunga Dinnio”). The next Sunday we headed back to the Peninsula Club, where Richie and I challenged Dad and Uncle Din to play for breakfast. Now my father was as bad, and probably worse than we were, but Uncle Din played a fairly decent game, so setting up a match was, in retrospect, a really dumb idea. By the time we finished nine holes and sat down to eat, Richie and I had lost by a good twenty strokes.

While Dad and Uncle Din gorged themselves on steak and eggs, washing it down with a glass of Grand Marnier, we two stooges sat silently and fumed. When the bill came, I thought Richie was going to have an apoplexy attack. This went on for the rest of the spring, and I don’t think my father and Uncle Din ever paid for breakfast.

Along about this time I invited my future father-in-law, Tom Ford, to play with us. Richie, Pop Tom and I matched our two best scores against Uncle Din and Dad, and this evened things out a bit. We even won occasionally, sometimes with the help of some creative math or just plain cheating, which made the whole experience a lot more enjoyable.

On Sunday mornings we’d start out at about 5:30 am. Often when we picked up Richie he’d still be asleep and I’d have to throw stones at his window to wake him up. Then when he finally came down, we’d all give him the business in the car on the way to the course. Come to think of it, we usually gave him the business even when he wasn’t late.

One Sunday I was standing to the side as Richie teed off for the second nine holes. I burst into raucous laughter as the ball went far to the right onto the next fairway and his club flew way out into the left rough. Turning back, I was astonished to see Richie writhing on the ground. Somehow he had dislocated his kneecap while swinging and now lay in agony on the tee box. Jimmy, the starter, sent for a doctor, who was out playing the fourth hole. While we waited for him to get back to the first tee, we alternated between feeling sorry for Richie and laughing rudely at him. In the meantime, he was blocking play, so Jimmy moved the tee markers up a couple of yards. Every Spartan who came by to tee off looked down at Richie, asked how he was doing, and then hit his drive. Hilarious.

Well, the doctor finally got there, took a look at Richie and said, “Oh, a displaced patella.” With one quick motion, he popped it back in, and Richie rose painfully to his feet. That was the end of golf for the day, because “Pinhead”, as we called Richie, was in no shape to continue, and the rest of us couldn’t stop laughing long enough to hit a ball anyway!

On another Sunday, we were teeing off on the first hole, and Uncle Albert Bevilacqua and his foursome were finishing up on the ninth hole. For those of you not familiar with the Peninsula Club, the two fairways are parallel, one going out and the other coming in. Uncle Albert was about fifty yards down the left rough and heading our way. As he lifted his arm to wave at us, Dad hit a wicked slice (he played left-handed) that headed straight for Uncle Albert’s head.

Richie roared, “Incoming!” and Uncle Al performed a magnificent swan-dive to the turf just as the ball whistled by a few inches above his prostrate form. When the sonic boom died away, poor Uncle Albert rose shakily to his feet. His face was white as a sheet. He just shook his head and continued on his way, keeping a wary eye on us until we passed safely by, still struggling mightily to conceal our near-explosive laughter. I don’t know if Uncle Albert quit for the day after that, but if so, who could blame him? He wasn’t the only one we sent racing for cover!

Things got so bad that Dad started wearing a hard hat on the course. Of course, we gave him the business about that. “The way you play, WE should be the ones wearing hard hats, not you!” Once as we were teeing off, I stealthily switched his ball with an exploding one while Richie distracted him. He swung and sliced the ball onto the next fairway, producing a huge stream of purple smoke. Several startled Spartans yelped in surprise and scattered as we – you guessed it – laughed ourselves silly! Frank Capobianco said to us afterward, only half-kidding, “I thought a plane landed on the fairway!”

At some point during that summer, Dad took to carrying a three foot long black plastic “Batman” horn in his golf bag. Instead of merely shouting “Fore!” to warn other golfers when we teed off, he often gave a blast on the horn to announce our presence. Now everyone on the course knew exactly where we were at any given moment, which allowed them to take the necessary safety precautions! I still chuckle at the thought of Andy Renzullo, Pete Stamile, Fred Mollo, Gene Panariello, Mike Vignola, Pete Napolitano, Mike Perrone and many other Spartans cringing at the sound of that ridiculous horn.

We may have been the worst golfers on the course, but nobody had more fun than we did. Richie was the world’s premier agitator – bar none. He delighted in getting under everyone’s skin, but Pop Tom was his favorite patsy. One of Richie’s most effective ploys was to whisper something outrageous just loud enough for us to hear as we were teeing off. This always upset my father-in-law. Once when he hit his drive, Richie kept quiet. Pop hooked the ball into the trees, and then sent his club sailing after it. Turning to Richie, he bellowed, “Why didn’t you say something???”, and stormed off the course. By then we had collapsed in helpless and uproarious laughter – again. Uncle Din was by far the worst. Once he started cackling, you had to kill him in order to make him stop. This earned him another nickname from Richie – “The Hyena”.

I must admit that I occasionally took advantage of the situation to pull off some mean practical jokes for which Richie got blamed. For instance, one time I wired two firecrackers into Uncle Dinnio’s golf bag so that they exploded when he pulled out his driver. Then I stood smugly aside and snickered as my godfather harangued poor Richie with a blistering tirade! That particular stunt was one of my all-time favorites.

Dad and I were somewhat immune to Richie’s gibes. We already stunk so bad as players that there was little he could say to insult us further. Uncle Dinnio pretended that Richie didn’t bother him, but you could always tell when the byplay was beginning to touch a nerve because he would start to sweat. Poor Uncle Din did a lot of perspiring that summer.

Richie wasn’t immune to harassment either. With his skinny frame, over-sized nose and balding head, he resembled a buzzard and was a convenient target for abuse. Whenever he hit a bad shot, which was pretty often, Richie would swear a blue streak, throw clubs, give the “Italian Salute” and kick anything within reach. Of course, we capitalized on those moments to egg him on further. Uncle Din would exclaim, “PEE-LAH-MOD-AWN!” in a disbelieving tone that always riled up Richie to an even greater extent. The more we needled him, the wilder he became.

The topper came one morning when we were playing the ninth hole, which runs directly alongside the street. Richie stubbornly kept slicing shot after shot over the fence and out onto the road. All in all, he lost a dozen golf balls on that hole alone. Each time one disappeared out of bounds, we would laugh uncontrollably while smoke poured from Richie’s ears as he teed up another ball. His last shot bounced off a stop sign, a car bumper, and finally the metal guard on a telephone pole. The resulting “bing-bong-CLAANNG” sent us and the next foursome to the ground in hysterics. Naturally, that was the end of play for the day – again. Just as well, because Richie was out of golf balls anyway. We must have had some reputation at that course!

Keeping score often resulted in some savagely profane arguments. “What did you get on that hole?” “Six.” “SIX??? You’re full of %$#@! You took five %&$# shots just in the trap alone!” “Get the %$#@ out of here! You must be %$#@ blind!” “No wonder you always win, you lying %$#@!” And so on and so on. Once Richie accused me of dropping a ball to replace one I couldn’t find (which I HAD done). In one of his more serious moments, Uncle Din said, “Jimmy would never cheat.” Meanwhile, I was standing on HIS ball!

About halfway through the season, I began carrying a Super-8 camera in my golf bag to film our hilarious antics. At the end of the year I edited all the film onto one reel, titled it “The Hackers”, and showed it at the Spartans Installation. Not surprisingly, it brought down the house. The image of Uncle John Mollo bent over with laughter and slapping his knee as he watched our ridiculous escapades is still vivid in my memory.

That film is one of my most prized possessions, especially since I’m now the only surviving member of our fivesome. Thinking about that sometimes brings a touch of sadness to my day. That season of golf was probably the most fun I ever had in my life. Thankfully, much of it still exists on film rather than just in the recesses of my mind. When I get to the point where I can no longer remember all the details of our great golfing days, “The Hackers” will still be there to remind me of those wonderful walks in the sun (and sometimes rain). I’m planning to transfer it to a video disc eventually, so if you’d like to see it, please let me know. I can assure you that you won’t be disappointed!

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