Under the Influence of Uncles

December 7, 2010 at 12:13 am (Uncategorized)

Uncles on all sides of the family played important roles in my early development. Many of the things I’m about to relate may seem trivial at first, but they made enough of an impression on me to remain permanently fixed in my memory. Here are a few good examples from among those that I experienced.

Uncle Dinnio Oliveri was my godfather. In addition to becoming my golfing partner later in life (which I covered in “The Hackers”), Uncle Din was my mentor in many other ways. When I was a sophomore in high school, I became interested in joining Our Lady of Good Counsel Band, which was primarily a marching unit. Uncle Dinnio and my father were already members of what was more commonly known as “Mazza’s Band” because of the many members of the Mazza family who belonged, or more humorously as “Mozzarella’s Band”. Uncle Din was a drummer, and Dad played the French horn.

The band used to practice every Wednesday evening at the American Legion hall in Inwood. I was a bit intimidated and unsure of myself the first time I went there, so Uncle Din seated me beside him in the percussion section behind my own snare drum. Now you need to understand that I may have been the worst drummer on Long Island, bar none. I had never taken a lesson, and couldn’t read music very well. But Uncle Din would quietly count out the rests and clue me in when it was time to play. During parades, he always marched next to me, calling out the cadences and other cues so I would know what was going on. He covered for me so well, in fact, that it was quite a while before the other band members caught on to how lousy I really was. This is the essence of what made him a great uncle. The fact that such deeds stand out so well in my memory is a pretty good indication of how much they meant to me.

Uncle Ralph Bevilacqua was another of my idols. Besides being a World War II veteran who had been wounded at the “Battle of the Bulge”, Uncle Ralph was an accomplished bowler and artist. When he and Aunt Fran were married, I served as a junior usher in their bridal party. I still have vivid memories of later watching him compete in the famed Newsday bowling tournament, where Aunt Fran and I would cheer him on from the audience.

Anyway, along about the time I was a struggling young baseball player, Uncle Ralph took an interest in helping me improve my play. One afternoon he brought me behind our house on Summit Avenue and very patiently began teaching me to bat left-handed so that I could become a switch-hitter like my idol, Mickey Mantle. He started me out hitting tennis balls and “Spaldeens”, gathering them up afterwards and repeating the process over and over until I began to get the hang of it. Then I took to hitting stones from the left side for hours on end, eventually becoming somewhat proficient at doing that. The stones chewed up my bat, but I thought that was a worthwhile sacrifice for what I was learning. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the athlete that Uncle Ralph was. About the only thing I accomplished was to become mediocre from BOTH sides of the plate! But the fact that I can switch-hit even to this day (although poorly) is a testament to what he taught me.

I once learned a valuable lesson in self-reliance from Uncle Pete Capozzi, Nonnie’s brother. When I first got out of the service, I occasionally saw Uncle Pete walking down Summit Avenue on his way to some destination. Now, Uncle Pete lived across Rockaway Turnpike in Lawrence, so that journey had to be several miles. Since he was in his eighties at the time, I was suitably impressed. Whenever I saw him, I’d call out, “Hey, Uncle Pete! Let me give you a ride!”

He’d just smile and respond, “No, no. Have to walk. Have to walk.” Then he’d go merrily on his way, leaving me staring after him in total admiration. I remember thinking, I hope if I make it to his age I’ll be able to do the same thing. I still wonder about that.

The athlete in the family was probably Uncle Bobby Bevilacqua. He had played football for Lawrence and was always after me to try out for the team. Alas, but I was somewhat of a late-bloomer. When I graduated high school I was a shade under six feet tall and 135 pounds, the epitome of a rail! It took the Army to add 50 pounds to my frame. Come to think of it, I’d be quite happy to get DOWN to 185 now! Anyway, I wasn’t much interested in having that skinny body crushed by those big Lawrence linemen, including my cousin Richie Mollo. So I made the bowling team, got cut from the baseball team (even though I could, wink-wink, switch-hit) and ran track in those days when I was actually pretty fast!

But Uncle Bob never gave up. I got my first real baseball glove from him, after he had spent many hours oiling it and breaking it in until it had a nice flexible “pocket”. And whenever I needed any kind of athletic equipment, he always managed to come up with it. Too bad I couldn’t have rewarded him by being a better player. He did his best, but as the old saying goes, “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear!” I haven’t seen Uncle Bob much since he moved to Florida, which I regret, but I’ll always be grateful for what he tried to do for me.

Uncle John Mollo wasn’t a blood relative, but he always treated me like he was. When I started high school at Lawrence, Uncle John was the head custodian there. He liked to roam the grounds carrying a big blue paddle with holes drilled into it that he used to swat any misbehaving kids. I was pretty well-behaved during my first three years there. It wasn’t until my senior year that I started to become a bit of a hell raiser and finally ran afoul of Uncle John and his paddle. He whacked me on several occasions, even though I pleaded, “But Mister Mollo,” (I would never call him “Uncle John” in front of the other kids), “I’m your nephew!” Unfortunately for me, that never cut any ice. And of course, I had to hide those little red circles on my rear end from my parents, or risk having to explain how I got them!

When I was discharged from the service, my friend Richie Vicario and I wanted to join the Spartans bowling team. Upon hearing this, Uncle John willingly gave up his spot on the squad for us. But he still continued to come down every Monday night to watch us bowl or to keep score for the team. And on Sundays, he was always at the Peninsula Golf Club, even though he rarely played, to laugh and encourage us as we blundered our way around the course. Now what better example of a true and caring uncle could you ask for? He was a tremendous role model not only for me, but for hundreds of youngsters who passed through Lawrence High School. You just can’t replace someone like that.

Uncle Sylvan Matland wasn’t a blood relative either. You had only to look at him to know that. He was blond, six foot five and towered over the rest of the family. Uncle Syl owned a small cabin cruiser and used to take my Dad and me fishing on occasion. In fact, I learned my first basic seamanship from him. After I got kicked out of college, I went to work for him as a carpenter’s assistant. Now I have to admit that I wasn’t much good at the job, a fact of which he constantly reminded me. Fortunately for both of us, I left after a year to go into the service.

When I got back from Vietnam, Uncle Syl was one of the relatives who met me at the airport. I’ll never forget how he would tell anyone who would listen that “You don’t get those medals for nothing.” I was very grateful for that, especially since I hadn’t done all that much to earn them. But thanks to Uncle Syl, I was a bit of a celebrity in the family for a while. And from that point on we always shared a mutual respect until he passed away at much too young an age.

Uncle Dominick Oliveri and his family lived in Havre de Grace, Maryland when I was a child. I only remember seeing him two or three times. Once, my parents took me on a trip to visit him and Aunt Sally when I was probably about ten years old. While we were there, Uncle Dom taught me a bit about marksmanship. He had several rifles and a shotgun, and let me handle them. He showed me how to disassemble them, clean the parts, and put them back together again. Afterwards we went out into the fields, where he let me shoot his .22 at some tin cans. I wasn’t very accurate at first, but I finally caught one of the cans in the lower right side. Uncle Dom slapped me on the back and smiled, “Next time you come here, I expect you to hit that can dead center!”

Sadly, that next time never came. But what Uncle Dominick taught me must have taken hold. When I went to basic training for the Army, I fired expert with the M-14 rifle, which was the highest marksmanship award you could earn. That in itself gave me a little extra confidence, particularly when I found out I was headed for Vietnam.

I learned how to knot a tie from Uncle Ernie Bevilacqua. It must have been the month before I reported to Fort Dix in September of 1963 that I was standing in front of a mirror at home trying to figure out how to put on a necktie. Uncle Ernie happened to stop by for a visit. When he saw me struggling with that blasted tie, he took me aside, and with great patience, showed me over and over again how to make a proper knot. He stayed with me until I could finally do it on my own. Quite frankly, that was the only knot I ever mastered, and I use it to this day. Now that may seem like a trivial thing to you, but it probably saved me a lot of grief in basic training. Those drill sergeants had ass-chewing down to a science, but thanks to Uncle Ernie, I never took any abuse because I couldn’t knot a tie. For that I’ll always be grateful to him.

Uncle Jimmy Bevilacqua introduced me to one of my favorite hobbies as a teenager… collecting tropical fish. I recall that when he got his first aquarium, I used to enjoy going to his house in Far Rockaway just to watch the fish swimming around the tank. My interest progressed to the point where I eventually had a dozen tanks in the basement at Summit Avenue. When I finally left for the Army, my Dad disposed of the tanks, as well as my Lionel train layout! That was the last of me keeping tropical fish as a hobby. After the service I was a lot more interested in chasing girls, until I met Maureen… and then that came to a crashing halt too! Oh, well. But I still have Uncle Jim to thank for getting me involved in the great pastime of raising tropical fish.

Uncle Bill Fearns was another early role model I admired very much who also had a great sense of humor. He was an air traffic controller and frequently encouraged me to consider pursuing that as a career. As a teenager I wasn’t quite ready for so much responsibility, but I did enjoy hearing stories about his experiences in the tower. As with many of the decisions I made in life, years later I wished that I had taken his advice more seriously.

When my Mom passed away, I had the unenviable task of going into the city to identify her body. I was planning to make the trip alone, but when Uncle Bill and Uncle Ralph heard that, they would have none of it, and offered to drive me there. Then they stayed with me throughout that whole unpleasant process. I will always be grateful for, and never forget, the support my uncles gave me at such a difficult time.

Uncle Alfred Bevilacqua taught me a lot about leadership. We both joined Kiwanis around the same time, but with different clubs. Uncle Al quickly rose through the ranks, first as President of the 5 Towns club, then as Lt. Governor of the Long Island SouthWest Division where he was responsible for 13 individual clubs, then finally as Governor of the New York District. That in itself was a major accomplishment. As Governor, he became the leader of 350 clubs with more than 12,000 Kiwanians throughout the State of New York.

Uncle Al and Aunt Rita were uniquely qualified for their roles as Governor and First Lady. Their duties required them to attend countless functions, both within the state and around the world. It was not a responsibility I would want, but they relished it. He always strongly supported any program I ran in Kiwanis, and there were many, even though at times our two clubs were intense rivals. I didn’t always agree with everything he said and did, but he invariably stood by his convictions, which is one of the characteristics of a true leader, and one that I admired about him. With his passing, Kiwanis International, as well as our family, suffered a huge loss that will probably never be sufficiently overcome.

I’m sure I’ve forgotten many more instances of “uncle-influence” that helped to shape me as a person. And writing these few anecdotes has opened my eyes to the fact that I haven’t really lived up to my responsibilities to my own nieces and nephews the way my uncles did for me. Life’s circumstances sometimes have a way of interfering with good intentions, and before you know it, too many years have passed. I sincerely hope there’s still time to remedy that before the final curtain comes down.

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10 Comments

  1. cliff55 said,

    You sell yourself short Uncle Jim. As your nephew I can assure you that you’ve had plenty of “uncle-influence” on me. As a professional, your public speaking first and foremost, and more recently your writing ability have inspired me to strive to be better at both, as they are both a big part of my profession on a daily basis. More importantly, at least to me, (and this may sound less than believable to some in our family due to my more “serious” exterior) is that ever since I was a kid you have given me the outlook that life is too serious to be taken too seriously. Those are just a couple of examples, there are plenty more.

    • yeeditor said,

      Thanks for the kind words, nephew! You’re a pretty good writer yourself!

  2. Bonnie Caporale said,

    Thanks again for another enjoyable piece of writing. The Bevilacqua’s are an interesting group to say the least. I’m sure your uncles in heaven are smiling proudly.

    • yeeditor said,

      Thanks for being a loyal reader, Bonnie. I’m glad you liked it. I really enjoy writing about the family. Yes, the Bevilacquas certainly are an interesting group (see: “Saga of the Missing Door” and “An Italian Childhood”, for example.)

  3. Lynn said,

    What an AMAZING Testimony Jimmy….THANK YOU for sharing this about all of these men who have touched our lives!

    • yeeditor said,

      You’re welcome, Lynnie! Glad you enjoyed it. Please share with Dad.

  4. John Capobianco said,

    As always a great story, you are gifted my friend!

    • yeeditor said,

      Thanks, John! The 5 bucks I promised you for a positive comment is in the mail!

  5. Jackie oliveri said,

    That was beautiful!

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