Welcome Home

March 13, 2011 at 7:08 pm (Uncategorized)

It hardly seems possible that so many years have elapsed since I returned home from Vietnam in the spring of 1965. The public attitude toward veterans of that growing war was not yet hostile then, as it was soon destined to become. People still tended to react with apathy rather than with anger toward our military. It was more a case of, “So you’re back from Vietnam, huh? That’s good. Say, did you see the Yankee game last night?” But that changed quickly, and not for the better.

Truthfully, no one ever spat on me or called me a “baby-killer” while I was in uniform, something many returning soldiers experienced later. In fact, the only “baby-killers” I ever saw were on the other side, and they were devastatingly efficient at it, as I was to repeatedly learn for myself. But when it comes to wars, some people can become quite irrational and deeply mean-spirited in their misguided opposition to those who must fight them.

Going off to the military is something of a tradition in our family. I was born while my father served in the Army Air Corps during World War II. My father-in-law flew 50 missions as a B-17 tail gunner over Europe and North Africa. One of my uncles fought at the “Battle of the Bulge”, and another in Korea. My son Jimmy Jr. was in the Army Military Police during “Operation Desert Storm”. In fact, most of my male relatives served “Uncle Sam” at one time or another in various corners of the globe.

We weren’t always good soldiers, either. I learned that during World War I another of my uncles was slapped into a ball and chain for desertion from the Navy. But the unspoken rule was that we had to show up. So when the growing conflict in Southeast Asia drew me in during the mid-sixties, I grudgingly shouldered my share of the burden in keeping with the family custom.

I arrived in the Republic of Vietnam in the spring of 1964 as an apprehensive 20 year old Army private. There were just 16,000 Americans in-country at the time, and I was not particularly enthusiastic about being one of them. That May, a one year tour of duty seemed like an eternity, with the end a lifetime away.

The Army immediately assigned me to an advisory team located in the I Corps tactical area, which comprised the provinces lying directly below the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Vietnam. I was based in the peaceful and beautiful city of Hue, but spent relatively little time there. My primary duty was to serve as a radio operator at the remote outposts along the Laotian border manned by the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). Most of them had little-known and exotic names. But vicious conflict in the coming years would soon make Khe Sanh, Lang Vei, and the A Shau Valley practically household words.

I was fortunate to have missed most of the heaviest fighting. Much of my combat experience consisted of brief sniping engagements or small unit actions. However, I was part of the relief force sent to secure the shattered Special Forces camp at Nam Dong after an eerie night attack by 1000 Viet Cong. It was at the battle for Nam Dong that Captain Roger Donlon won the first Medal of Honor awarded in Vietnam.

I also helped to build sandbag emplacements after North Vietnamese patrol boats attacked American destroyers at sea, precipitating the now-controversial Tonkin Gulf incident that led to a widened war. I saw the first Allied aircraft fly low overhead on their way to bomb North Vietnam. And I watched the initial U.S. Marine combat units come ashore, blissfully unaware of the fate awaiting them in the bloody days ahead.

Many have questioned the value of what we did in Vietnam. For me, there was never any doubt. I saw the relief etched on the faces of simple people who appreciated the security our presence provided. I delighted in the laughing children who followed the Americans everywhere, begging for money, food and cigarettes. I watched groups of primitive montagnards wait patiently in remote villages to be examined by teams of Green Beret medics. For most of them this was the first and only medical treatment they would ever receive. As a result, I’ve always taken special pride in my Vietnam service, even when it wasn’t fashionable to do so.

But during the late 1960s, public opinion of the military plummeted to such a shameful level that returning soldiers were cautioned to travel in civilian clothes instead of uniforms rather than risk ugly confrontations with protesters. The generally-accepted image of the Vietnam vet back then was one of a psychopathic drug addict. That bothers me to this day. I served for a year in one of the most prolific drug-producing areas on the planet, yet never once saw an American soldier using narcotics. Oh, I recognize that drug use became somewhat widespread later on as both the war and society deteriorated. Sadly, that left an indelible stain on the legacy of our fighting men in Southeast Asia. But it wasn’t everyone, and I still fiercely resent the commonly-accepted stereotype of the American Vietnam veteran as a drug abuser.

For 25 years after I left the Army, not one person outside my immediate circle of family and friends ever thanked me for having served in Vietnam. Then, appropriately enough on Memorial Day, 1990, I was shopping at the Roosevelt Field Mall on Long Island while wearing my “Proud Vietnam Veteran” cap. A young female clerk behind the counter glanced at the inscription on my hat and said rather shyly, “We’re proud of you, too.”

I was so taken aback that I choked up and left the store without even thanking that lovely girl. When I got home and told Maureen what had happened, all the pent-up emotions came pouring out and I burst into tears. That was a legitimate watershed moment in my life. It also marked the approximate point when America’s attitude toward our military began to undergo a dramatic improvement.

Several years ago, one of my clients who had been an avid protester during the Vietnam years approached me. “You know,” he said, “I owe you an apology for the way I behaved back then.”

I was touched. “You should never apologize for doing what you thought was right,” I replied. We remain good friends to this day, which in my view is a wonderful tribute to the concept of human understanding. And my own hostility toward war protesters is long gone now, with one or two notable exceptions.

Today, there’s rarely a day when I wear my “Vietnam Veteran” hat that someone doesn’t stop me to offer a warm “Thank you”. Maureen always laughs when that happens because I never fail to become a bit emotional. But I don’t mind. And it never gets old, I can assure you.

I’m so pleased to see how well our Afghanistan and Iraq veterans are now treated. Yes, I’ll confess to having a twinge of jealousy now and then. But gratitude, though offered late, is much better than none at all. Whenever I encounter active-duty members of the military, I always make it a point to thank them for their service. Sometimes I’ll buy them coffee or cigarettes, or even pick up their lunch tabs. That’s my way of showing appreciation for their sacrifices, which I understand only too well. The look of surprise and gratitude on their faces is the best reward I could ever hope to receive. God willing, we can all do something to ensure that our troops will never again experience the scorn or outright hatred the Vietnam veterans endured for so many years.

As the expression goes, “Freedom isn’t free”. In fact, it can be very costly indeed. We Americans today enjoy a way of life and countless privileges that were paid for with the lives of our soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen. So when you encounter a veteran, I urge you to offer a sincere word of thanks for his or her service. Or, as we Vietnam vets prefer, simply say, “Welcome home!”


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The Loser

March 9, 2011 at 10:17 pm (Uncategorized)

Gambling has never been one of my strong suits. I’m a terrible card player, and have yet to win a penny from a lottery ticket, scratch-off, football pool or the phony raffle tickets my friend John Capobianco sells. But it is at the casinos where my failings as a gambler have become most evident. You might say that I’m Donald Trump’s number one patsy, and it would be one of the kinder remarks made about my gambling prowess. Alas, I would be hard-pressed to prove otherwise.

Maureen and I have been regular casino patrons since legalized gambling first arrived in Atlantic City during the mid 1980’s. Since that time I have never come home a winner, and we’re talking about a losing streak that now has far surpassed 100 consecutive visits. Granted we only play the slots, which lessens your chances of winning, but wouldn’t you think the law of averages would come into play at some point? Yeah, right.

I clearly remember our first visit to the Golden Nugget casino. Maureen and I made the 150 mile drive with our friend Richie Vicario. The slot machines must have been more generous then, because I played all day and lost only $40. Maureen broke even, and Richie won about a hundred bucks. Little did I know that this would be the start of an extremely frustrating and fruitless pursuit of my first jackpot that continues to this day.

Now I’m not saying that I’ve never won anything at all. Once at the Claridge I hit for $400, which is the biggest win I’ve ever made at a casino. Unfortunately, it came within the first 30 minutes we were there, so that money quickly vanished over the course of the day, and I went home a loser, as usual.

I’ve still never won a jackpot despite determined attempts in New Jersey, Connecticut, Las Vegas, New Orleans, and now Arizona. I have friends who regularly win $1200, $1500 or even more on the machines, but inevitably end up giving it all back. To me the real measure of success has always been how much of the casino’s money you have in your pocket when you come back across the Verrazano Bridge from Staten Island. In my case the answer has always been ZERO.

Things have gotten so bad that most people now refer to me as “Mr. Loser”, “The Jinx”, or by several other less polite appellations. No one wants to go to the casino with me any longer because I’m perceived as a bad luck charm. And who can blame them? Maureen, at least, has won several good-sized jackpots over the years, but even she is now on an extended losing streak. I’m seriously beginning to wonder if that’s a result of associating with her loser husband.

To help turn the tide, my friends Carole Gerraputa and Marilyn Basile once made a “good-luck” kit for me. Kind of a reverse voodoo doll, if you will. They gave me a little white box containing a rabbit’s foot, a four leaf clover, a miraculous medal, loaded dice, an Irish blessing and some other assorted trinkets designed to bring good fortune. The next time we got to the Trump Marina I had that box in my pocket and was bursting with confidence. Two hours later I was flat broke! Have the gambling gods no mercy at all?

For a number of years, my Kiwanis club made regular bus excursions to Harrah’s in Atlantic City. For each trip, one of the members would bring along a movie to show during the ride. When my turn came, I asked Maureen what film the wives might like to see. She suggested “Shall We Dance?” with Jennifer Lopez and Richard Gere. Armed with this inside information, off I went to Blockbuster. Naturally, “Shall We Dance?” was out of stock, so I asked the female clerk what she would recommend as a good movie for women. “Try “De-Lovely”, she said. “It’s the life story of Cole Porter.”

Well, that sounded like it might be a good “chick flick”, so I rented it. Big mistake. “De-Lovely” turned out to be De-Lousy. It was so bad that when we showed it aboard the bus, the group booed me incessantly. As the film concluded, everyone broke into a derisive cheer. Thankfully we were near Atlantic City by then; otherwise they might have thrown me overboard. Needless to say, I was never again asked to provide a movie for our trip. In fact, I think most of them would probably have preferred that I not go along at all. I guess it was becoming readily apparent by then that not much winning took place when I was present.

But the crowning insult took place one summer day at the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. Maureen and I had been gambling throughout the morning and, as usual, I was losing. We decided to take a break and walked out onto the boardwalk. If you’re familiar with the Taj, you may recall that when you exit through the front doors, there are often several hot dog carts nearby. As we walked past one of those, I felt a sudden SPLAAAT! against my throat. Thinking some youngster had stomped on a mustard packet that then squirted up at me, I glanced around trying to locate the little urchin who had done this dastardly deed. But there was none in sight.

I put my hand to my throat and came away with – green slime! I glared upward and spotted the seagull that had dive-bombed me circling lazily overhead. Well, didn’t that just figure? Bad enough the casino was taking me to the cleaners, now this feathered fink was using me for target practice! I shook my fist at that belligerent bird. If there hadn’t been so many people standing around laughing I would have shouted, COME DOWN AND FIGHT LIKE A MAN!

Some woman handed me several tissues, snickered loudly, and walked away. I did my best to clean up the mess, which had begun to ooze down my shirt into the hair on my chest. Revolting!

An older man with sunglasses who had been watching all this chuckled and said, “You know, that’s supposed to be good luck.”

A light bulb went off in my head. Hey, maybe this was a good omen. I turned to Maureen, who was still giggling rudely. Glaring at her I said, “Come on. Let’s go try our luck again.” With that, we rushed back inside the Taj, where I promptly went bust! So much for omens.

Well, I’m still waiting to ditch that humiliating moniker of “Mr. Loser” as the seemingly hopeless quest for a jackpot continues. I suppose now I understand how Don Quixote must have felt, although instead of tilting with windmills, I’m jousting with slot machines. It’s a good thing “one-armed bandits” can’t laugh.

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March 8, 2011 at 9:17 pm (Uncategorized)

I’ve already addressed the subject of football weddings elsewhere in this anthology (see “An Italian Childhood”). Our children didn’t have them, but that doesn’t mean what we DID have was any less wacky.

Take Cindy’s marriage to Michael, for example. Her bridesmaids met at her apartment in Whitestone, Queens for photos on the day of the wedding. From there the limos had to travel to Inwood in Nassau County for the ceremony at Our Lady of Good Counsel church. Maureen and I and both sets of our parents had gotten married there. It was about a twenty mile journey that should have taken perhaps thirty minutes.

Well, the photography session went flawlessly, but then things began to slip. Cindy and I hopped into the white roadster that would transport us to the church. Another limo behind us carried the bridesmaids. It was a Friday afternoon and becoming overcast. We had anticipated congestion on the Cross Island Expressway, but were unprepared for what we found. Traffic was virtually bumper-to-bumper and barely moving. After ten or fifteen minutes of this we began to get a bit fidgety. A gentleman in a car alongside glanced at us in our wedding finery and called out, “I hope you get to the church on time!” So did we, believe me.

The two drivers communicated by radio and decided to change the route. We got off at the next exit only to find the highway blocked ahead as well. Our vehicles continued to inch along as the clock ticked steadily. I glanced at my watch. We were going to be late, but I said nothing. Cindy was becoming flustered, and I tried my best to keep her calm.

A trip that should have taken perhaps half an hour lasted an hour and forty minutes! By the time we pulled up to the church we were already more than an hour late for the ceremony. To make matters worse, it had begun to rain. As we exited the limos, I spotted the priest, Father Larry, pacing back and forth on the church steps. He looked hopping mad. “Where have you been?” he growled.

I tried to explain that we had been stuck in traffic, but he was having none of that and started shooing us into the church. I guess my last best chance of eventually making it through the Pearly Gates vanished that day. Anyway, after we finally got everyone inside, the service went just beautifully, with one minor glitch.

After walking Cindy down the aisle, I gave her the traditional kiss and then passed her hand to Michael. As they began to approach the altar, I turned to my left to enter the pew where Maureen sat, and almost stepped on Cindy’s train. The witnesses seated to my right let out a collective “NOOOOO!” After all that had gone wrong thus far, I guess they didn’t want to see any additional mishaps. When I realized what was happening, I did an awkward little tap dance to avoid stepping on the train until it was safely out of range and the service proceeded without further incident.

But as we left the church following the ceremony, things began to go south again. One of the limos bearing the wedding party now had a dead battery and wouldn’t start. The driver came over to our vehicle where the families sat waiting and informed us that he would have to call in for a replacement. Charming!

Poor Stephanie, Michael’s Mom, began to have a conniption. She started to rant and rave until her mother, Grandma Jeannie, quieted her down. By now I had also lost my patience and shouted to the driver, “Harvey, if we don’t get going soon, we’re going to miss our own reception!”

Fortunately, my daughter-in-law Lisa’s brother Andy was at the church. He had jumper cables in his truck and managed to charge up the limo battery so we could get on our way. But that was far from the end of the madness.

The reception was in lower Manhattan. It was now beginning to get dark and the rain was coming down in black squalls. Driving into the city any day during rush hour is no picnic, and bad weather only makes it even worse. Traffic was again very bad, so by the time we got close to our destination we were pretty well frazzled. Then it happened. Two blocks from the hall, our driver tried to make a turn from the middle lane and collided heavily with a taxicab. The grinding impact caused quite a bit of damage to the side of the limo, but amazingly, neither vehicle stopped! Only in New York, folks!

And that wasn’t even the strangest thing about that incident. When we reached the hall, we had to take an elevator to the top floor where the reception was being held. I waited for another couple to enter, and then stepped in behind them. As the doors closed, the elevator operator turned to the woman and asked, “So how is your night going?”

Much to my shock, she grimaced and replied, “Well, it was going great until some idiot limo driver crashed into our cab!”

Oh, Mamma! I rolled my eyes and tried to appear inconspicuous. Now what are the odds that in the big city of New York our limo would collide with someone going to the same wedding? I didn’t recognize this couple, and I was hoping they hadn’t seen who was in that limo. It was a relief to get out of that elevator, I can tell you.

We were now about forty minutes late for the cocktail hour. Fortunately, the caterer agreed to extend the session since so few guests had arrived as yet. But that still wasn’t the end of the madness. We had rented a bus to transport forty-three people from Long Island who hadn’t wanted to drive into the city. Somewhere along the route, the bus driver got lost! The passengers had to take over and direct him to the destination! We laugh about it now, but I have to admit that I wasn’t very happy to hear that particular bit of news. When they finally reached the hall, the food for the cocktail hour was being cleared away. What a fiasco!

I found Cindy in the hallway crying her eyes out. So far her wedding had been a disaster. I gave her a hug and said “Listen to me. This may have started out lousy, but it’s going to be great now that we’re finally here.”

And it was. I have never been to a reception where all the guests enjoyed themselves so much. The dance floor was packed the entire night, and people just seemed to be having a grand old time. Then the final farce of the day began to play out.

The announcer invited me as the father of the bride to say a few words. Big mistake. To be funny, I had made two “stone” tablets out of styrofoam and listed on them the “Ten Commandments of Marriage”. Beforehand, I had laughingly instructed my siblings and nieces and nephews to throw some debris at me as a joke when I began to read the “commandments”. To my chagrin, they not only complied, but went far, far beyond what I had asked.

As I started to read what I had thought were some pretty funny lines, the bombardment began. I had to dodge rolls, napkins, candles and pieces of fruit throughout my presentation. I think I even saw a rubber chicken go by! And later, everyone complained that I had spoken for far too long. I don’t know, I thought that half hour passed very quickly! The Maitre D tried to get me off a couple of times, and even had the band play some “traveling music”. All that was missing was “the hook”. But I managed to evade all that and finished my speech. At least I thought it was amusing if no one else did.

The rest of the night, barring my little talk, seemed just fabulous, perhaps because it had started out so badly. On occasion, people still compliment us on that reception, despite all the mishaps. I’m glad. Cindy had been such a beautiful bride and she deserved it. And it was almost as much fun as a “football wedding”!

Jackie’s wedding to Mike, on the other hand, ran flawlessly from beginning to end. The reception was scheduled to be held at a yacht club in Suffolk County with a marvelous view of the Robert Moses Bridge spanning Fire Island inlet. Jackie, not surprisingly, would prove to be just an absolutely stunning bride. Hey, we only produce beautiful girls in this family.

We changed the venue of the ceremony to St. Agnes Cathedral in Rockville Centre rather than run the risk of incurring Father Larry’s wrath again. That was most fortunate, because quite frankly, I couldn’t afford any more bad karma for the afterlife.

And the family gave me my marching orders: no long speech. Actually, after the last escapade, I hadn’t planned to say anything. But then Cindy came over and insisted that I offer a few words. Well, since she insisted… But by now I had learned my lesson. I kept it down to about five minutes. Even still, there was some incoming from the siblings table.

My reputation for being long-winded must have preceded me. When I put down the mike, everyone gave me a standing ovation – not for my speech, but because it had ended! Since then I have been barred from touching a microphone. Sheesh. I didn’t think I was quite that bad, but I’ll bow to the majority opinion.

And now there are no more daughters to give away. I’ll bet the family is very thankful for that.

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I’ve Been Working on the Railroad

March 6, 2011 at 4:17 pm (Uncategorized)

When I was a youth, my friends and I were avid model railroading fans. We competed among ourselves to build the best layout, and this rivalry could become quite intense. If one pal improved his train table, the others jealously followed suit. The competition usually peaked around Thanksgiving, when the new Lionel Trains catalog came out. Those of us who had accumulated some savings would invest in the latest equipment and accessories, while the less frugal ones had to wait for either Christmas or Hanukkah and hope that their parents would be generous.

This went on for several years until the individual sets became rather elaborate. Mine eventually occupied one entire corner of our basement. Unfortunately, the “J&O Railroad” met its demise while I was in the service, and my Dad decided that he needed the room for something more essential… like storing junk. My reign as a railway magnate seemingly came to an end.

Many years later Maureen and I bought a house in Arizona to be near our grandchildren. I then came up with the brainstorm of building a model railroad layout for my grandson, Giovanni. I had tried that back in New York, but he was younger then and never showed much interest. Now that he had grown somewhat, I was convinced that he was finally ready to appreciate a bigger and better version of “Poppy’s” masterpiece. So off I went to Home Depot in my quest for the lumber and hardware needed to begin my epic project.

When I had completed the framework and the table was safely tucked into a corner of the garage, I decided to incorporate a local theme into the scenery. Now completely motivated and with the creative juices flowing, I began to construct a replica of a nearby mountain as the centerpiece of what I knew would be an award-winning “Gavilan Peak & Anthem Railroad”. The finished product was a magnificent piece of work, if I do say so myself, although Maureen thought it looked a bit cheesy. Ah, she just doesn’t appreciate genuine art. When I was done painting the mountain and laying the track work, I brought Gio out to the garage to have a look. “That’s cool,” he said, and ran inside to play on the computer.

Hmmm, I thought. Maybe he’s still a little young to appreciate true genius.

I went back to work. Knowing he was interested in all things military, I labored for several weeks to construct a highly-detailed army base nestled into the desert. It was without a doubt the Pieta of the model railroading world. Anxious to see the awe on his face, I brought my grandson back again. He glanced at the table then asked with an accusatory glare, “Why didn’t you use a ‘Spiderman’ theme?” Off to the computer.

Encouraged by his unbridled admiration, I dove back into the project with a passion. I put in a railroad depot and a bridge under construction. I began making plans to build a massive mountain tunnel for the crowning touch. Then one afternoon, Gio surprised me by bringing over a friend to see the project. Now we’re making progress, I thought proudly, puffing out my chest. The two boys dashed out into the garage and ran the train once around the tracks. I heard his friend whisper, “This is boring.” They nearly trampled me on their way to the computer.

Now, after hundreds of hours of work and hundreds of dollars in expense, the “Gavilan Peak & Anthem Railroad” sits dormant in my garage, slowly gathering the dust that helps to make it look even more realistic. I’m torn between finishing it or simply turning it into a neo-classical workbench.

A curse on computers! I’ll bet Michelangelo never had to deal with stuff like this.

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An Italian Childhood

February 20, 2011 at 12:25 am (Uncategorized)

A strange thing about growing up in an Italian family is that it seems almost normal when wacky things occur. Sometimes it takes the perspective of middle age to look back in disbelief and ask, “Was everybody in this family nuts?”

One of my earliest memories involves the birth of my sister Suzanne when I was just seven years old. Sue came into the world while our Mom was sitting on the toilet! Having no knowledge of such things, it just never occurred to me that this was anything other than the norm. Didn’t all families go through this? I distinctly remember everyone running in and out of the bathroom while shooing me away from the door at the same time. I’ve since learned from my cousin Natalie that her brother Billy was one of those who not only assisted with the birth, but tied off the cord. Amazing.

It wasn’t until many years later that I began to abuse poor Sue with a deluge of lame jokes about her first appearance on the family stage (“No wonder you’re such a good swimmer!” and “We should have named you John!” were some of the least distasteful ones. Oh, and “When you were born you looked flushed!”) I don’t think she has forgiven me to this day. But considering what went on later in our family, Suzanne’s grand entrance was certainly an appropriate one.

My sister Denise’s arrival four years later was a bit less dramatic. I was playing next door at my friend Jody Lowens’ house when my grandmother called to tell me that I had a new sister. That didn’t particularly thrill me; I had been hoping for a brother. Unfortunately that would have to wait for another six years.

Somehow the wackiness grew exponentially as more family members got involved. Weddings were especially crazy. Have you ever heard of “football weddings”? I have no idea why Italians called them that, but they were quite unique. When two people got married, they would rent a hall and bring in barrels of wrapped sandwiches and pitchers of beer for the guests. That was the entire menu, except for the wedding cake! Everyone in the family came to the reception, including the kids. And there was always a table for the old grandmas in their black dresses. What a scene!

I remember sitting morosely during one of those weddings (I hated being dragged along by my parents). My older cousin, Gene Capozzi, was seated at an adjoining table, and appeared to be having a fine old time. For some reason, everyone called Gene “Pitzanotti”, or just plain “Notti”. Gene leaned across the table with a huge grin on his face and bellowed, “Hey Butchie!” (my childhood nickname, which I detested). “Toss me a cob-a-cole sandwich!” (Maybe the term “football wedding” came from the way sandwiches were tossed around. If that’s the case, why not “baseball wedding”? A sandwich is more like a baseball than a football. Ah, those crazy Italians!)

Anyway, I rummaged in the barrel until I found the right one and chucked it to him. Then I went back to sullenly watching a dozen kids running wild through the hall. Nobody seemed to care about that as they danced to the “Tarantella” and other Italian songs belted out by a live band. At these functions, every band always included an accordion player. The room was filled with enough foul-smelling cigar smoke to fumigate the entire building. The men usually removed their jackets and ties if they wore any, and occasionally one or two of the women took off a few things as well! That sometimes led to trouble. I don’t recall whose wedding this particular one was, but I believe it ended a bit early when the obligatory fight broke out. What fun!

In the late ‘40s and early ‘50s we lived in a big three-story house on Summit Avenue in Cedarhurst, NY with my grandparents. Grandpa and “Nonnie” Bevilacqua had the second floor along with my uncles Bobby and Alfred and aunt Marlene. We occupied the three bedrooms on the top floor. On the first floor were the kitchen, foyer, living room and dining room that we all shared, and which were the scene of so many of my childhood memories. I remember many a Friday evening helping Nonnie scrub the kitchen and foyer floors. Afterward, we would watch the “Friday Night Fights” on the unique television Grandpa Bevy had put together. The screen was inserted horizontally into the cabinet so that it faced the ceiling. In order to watch it, you had to look into a big mirror built into the top of the cabinet. Very unusual, but it worked. Anyway, back to the fights. Every time somebody got belted in the schnoz, Nonnie would exclaim, “OO-OO!” Come to think of it, that was her reaction whenever she got excited about anything. I’ll wager that’s something all her 17 grandchildren fondly recall about their beloved grandmother.

When I was 10 or 11, I began taking the bus two miles to Far Rockaway on Saturdays. There were two movie theaters on the main drag, the “Columbia” and the “Strand”, and another on a side street, the “Gem”, which showed mainly adult movies. We kids were never allowed to go there. But for a quarter at the other theaters you could see five cartoons, a newsreel, an adventure serial, two full-length feature films, and occasionally even an animated horserace that could earn you a prize if you held the winning horse’s ticket. And if you wanted to, you could stay and see the whole thing over again! My Dad used to give me a dollar, which paid for the bus (15 cents each way), my ticket (25 cents), a box of candy and popcorn (35 cents), and I’d come home with change! Can you imagine?

I remember going to the “Central” theater in Cedarhurst one Saturday with my cousin Natalie Oliveri to see “The Thing”, a horror film (we called them “monster movies”) about an alien being that lands near the North Pole and terrorizes a group of scientists. About a third of the way through, we got so scared that we ran out of the theater! Walking home, we whimpered to each other about how “they shouldn’t show such scary movies!” That film now seems incredibly tame compared to the movies made today. I guess we were all a bit sheltered back then.

Saturday nights we watched Nonnie’s favorite show, Lawrence Welk and his “Champagne Music” – “An’ a-one; an’a-two…” On Sundays I enjoyed watching “Picture for a Sunday Afternoon”, frequently starring one of my boyhood heroes, Errol Flynn, Gary Cooper or John Wayne. It was such a much simpler, slower-paced world in those days.

But that didn’t stop the silliness. Back then, Ronzoni pasta (we never called it that; it was always “macaroni”) had coupons on the boxes that you could clip and redeem for prizes. We kids used to help cut out those little cardboard tickets, count them into stacks of 50 and rubber band them. I think we must have sent thousands of coupons back to the Ronzoni Company, but I don’t remember ever getting a single prize in return!

When we weren’t using Ronzoni pasta, my Mom used to make her own cavatelli. She’d form the dough into long cylinders, cut it into pieces about an inch and a half long, then roll those across a macaroni strainer so that they’d come out covered with little bumps. They were so heavy we called them “bullets”! A plate of “cavadell” must have weighed about three pounds, but, WOW, was it good!

Food triggered other laughable family situations as well. One Saturday I returned from the movies to find my Uncle Jimmy Bevilacqua in the kitchen eating a calamari sandwich. I took one look at the tentacles hanging out of the bread and nearly barfed! It was more than 40 years before I could bring myself to eat fried calamari (which is quite good, by the way), but not unless the tentacles are removed. I guess I’m not a very good Italian (I also like ice in my red wine!)

On another occasion, Grandpa bought a pizza on his way home from work and laid it on the kitchen table. We opened the box to find that he had been carrying it upside down! The cheese and sauce were firmly stuck to the cardboard lid, leaving only a bare crust within the box. We all stifled our giggles, because Grandpa was definitely NOT a man you laughed at. So we dined on no pizza that night. Not our finest hour.

Even our family arguments had an amusing side. Once Mom and Nonnie had a brief spat. That in itself is hard for me to understand, since Nonnie was one of the most amiable people I ever knew. Anyway, I can’t remember what it was about, but Mom wouldn’t go down to the first floor for about a week. We didn’t have a refrigerator upstairs, so my parents hung an old bread box outside the window to keep our dairy products cold. It was the dead of winter, so this system worked pretty well – in fact, too well. But it also had its drawbacks. One morning Mom’s terrified screech brought us all running. She had opened the “ice box” and nearly fell out the window when a startled squirrel exploded from it! Thankfully Mom and Nonnie made up soon thereafter. I was getting tired of ice milk, hard-as-a-rock butter and frozen eggs.

Nonnie was the only grandmother I ever knew, since Grandma Angela had passed away before I was born. But my great-grandmother, Grandma Bevilacqua, survived until I was a teenager. Grandma was the proto-typical Italian grandmother, with her hair in a bun, the full-length black dress and high-top black shoes. I didn’t see her all that often, but when I did she always gave me a big smile and said, “Hello, Jeemy!” Grandma Bevy didn’t think much of my Dad, however. I recall one time she was sitting in a chair in our living room when my father came in. Grandma rocked gently back and forth, twiddling her thumbs, and mumbled, “OO-BUM!” Hilarious.

In 1978, Nonnie became ill and was hospitalized in serious condition. When she fell into a coma, we knew the end was near and the entire family gathered at the hospital. One by one, we went into her room, knowing we were probably saying goodbye. When my turn came, I sat beside the bed and held her hand. To my surprise, Nonnie opened her eyes, peered at me in confusion momentarily, and then smiled. I returned the smile. But before I could say anything, she slipped back into unconsciousness. That was the last time I saw my grandmother alive. At three o’clock in the morning, Mom called to tell me that my beloved Nonnie, who had been like a second mother to me all my life, had passed away. Even though I was expecting it, the news was a tremendous jolt, not only to me, but to Maureen and our children as well, who all adored this wonderfully giving and selfless woman. I still feel the loss to this day.

But that was not quite the end. Several weeks later, much of the family was gathered in Nonnie’s apartment for some reason. I noticed my daughter Jackie and nephew Cliffy, who were two and four at the time, playing under the dining room table. When I asked what they were doing, they answered in unison, “We’re talking to Nonnie!” Well, I can tell you, the hair on my arms literally stood straight up. Perhaps there really is something to the myth that children can communicate with the departed. I never believed that before, but after this incident I was no longer so sure.

And that was still not quite the end. For about a month after Nonnie died, my Mom and Dad would frequently hear the toilet flush in Nonnie’s apartment downstairs. This usually occurred around 7 pm, the time when it was my grandmother’s habit to visit the bathroom after dinner. Whenever my father went down to investigate, he never found anything other than a few ripples in the toilet. Then the flushes abruptly stopped. I can only assume that Nonnie’s restless soul had finally given up the connection to her home, and my beloved grandmother had at last been admitted through the Pearly Gates where she belonged.

That was not the last family encounter with the supernatural. After Aunt Marlene Matland died, her dear friend Anne told us a story that again raised the hair on my arms. Aunt Marlene and Anne had worked together at South Nassau Hospital in Oceanside, NY for many years. One day about two years after Aunt Mo passed away, Anne, who still worked at the Hospital, left the building for lunch. When she returned, a co-worker told Anne in a matter-of-fact manner that someone named Marlene had stopped by to see her while she was out. She went on to describe Aunt Mo perfectly, and concluded by saying that she asked her to say hello to Anne. Now, this co-worker was a fairly new employee. There was no possible way that she could have known Aunt Marlene or been familiar with her appearance. Poor Anne was so shaken by all this that she had to leave work and go home.

We never did come up with a logical explanation for these eerie events. I’m still not sure that I fully believe any of it. But I’m just not as certain about my beliefs as I used to be. Hey, in this wacky family I guess anything is possible.

Let’s shift gears for a moment and talk about my brother Augie and his football career. Augie was my Mom’s “change of life” baby, born when she was almost 40 years of age. I was going into my senior year of high school at the time, and not particularly thrilled about having a new brother at my age, or at Mom’s, for that matter. To look at him as a newborn, you’d never suspect that he would become a football player. Augie weighed in at just 5 pounds 11 ounces, and had one “bug-eye” while the other was completely shut. Who’d have thought that he’d grow up to become the biggest gah-voon in the family?

Augie was just three years old when I left for the Army, so we never had much time to develop an early relationship. Later, when Maureen and I started having children, our own sons weren’t that much younger than he was, so I guess there may have been some sort of generation-gap thing going on there.

After the Army, I began mercilessly harassing my little brother. Whenever I went to the house in Cedarhurst, I’d beat up Augie and his friend Gregg Magnifico, sometimes chasing them out onto the porch roof to hide. This went on for a number of years until they both got bigger than me. Then discretion became the better part of valor, and I quit hassling them.

Anyway, my brother loved football. He played junior ball with the Inwood Buccaneers, and later graduated to the Lawrence High School team, where he was an end and linebacker. Gregg was also on that team. I called him “Thermometer” because he was so tall and skinny that when he put on his football pants, the stripe running up the leg made him look like a temperature gauge. During their senior year, Augie and Gregg played their final high school game on Thanksgiving Day with most of our family, including Nonnie, in attendance. As luck would have it, “Evil Augie” caught the winning touchdown with just moments to go!

After that, I had a grand old time putting together a scrapbook of my brother’s exploits. I took some photos, press clippings and a lot of humorous stuff I stole from “MAD” magazine and assembled it all into a pseudo-epic of Augie’s season. That scrapbook drew a lot of laughs, especially from my cousin Richie Mollo, who was the head coach of the Lawrence team. I hope Augie still has it.

The following year, 1978, we all drove up to Iona College to see Augie play his first college game for New York Institute of Technology (NYIT). Naturally, my brother got hurt on the kick-off and never returned to the game. We had driven all the way to Westchester to see one play! Typical. That game took place on September 15th, the same night that Muhammad Ali defeated Leon Spinks to capture the heavyweight title for the third time. The date sticks in my mind because we listened to the fight in the car on the long, long drive home!

That wasn’t quite the end of my brother’s football career. Several years later he was playing for a semi-pro team in Brooklyn. Augie and the quarterback were the only two white guys on the squad. You can imagine the good-natured kidding that went on. Well, the team made it to the championship game, and Augie asked me to take some candid photos of the final clash. When I stopped by the house to pick up my brother and my father, Augie handed me a camera with a telephoto lens that he had borrowed. I checked it over and saw that it was on exposure number 4, which meant I had more than 30 shots remaining. I thought that would probably be more than enough.

Well, the game was a scoreless tie right down to the final minute. Like a dutiful brother, I was all over the field taking some great shots of Augie in action. There was one picture of Augie clobbering an opposing player so hard he never came back into the game. Finally, in the waning seconds, my brother’s team moved down the field and tried to kick a winning field goal. I went right out under the goalposts and took a great shot of the football passing through the uprights as the referees raised their arms to signal “Good!”

On the drive home I couldn’t help bragging about the great photos I had taken. When we got out of the car, I handed Augie the camera. He opened it up and found… no film inside! What the hell??? I had assumed when I saw the counter on exposure number 4 that there was almost a full roll of film inside. Well, you know what happens when you assume. I had made asses out of all of us, particularly myself. I wonder if Augie has forgiven me yet. Somehow it seems that I’m always waiting for forgiveness for some outrageous deed from someone in this nutty family!

I may have gone a bit beyond childhood years in this narrative, so I think I’ll halt here. Lord knows there’s enough craziness in this family to continue on with “An Italian Adulthood” section. We’ll see.

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Kiwanis Konnections

January 18, 2011 at 5:26 am (Uncategorized)

I joined the Peninsula Kiwanis Club early in 1969 with Frank Basile as my sponsor (I’m sure Frank came to seriously regret that). Through the ensuing years, most of my closest friends in life also became members. Being a part of this organization seemed a natural progression for me. Many of us came from the 5 Towns area. I had been childhood friends with several of them, and business associates of others. In time, I came to regard some of the Kiwanians as near-brothers, almost a part of my family. Thus their inclusion in this anthology.

Not long after I became a Kiwanian, I convinced my buddies Richie Vicario and Donny Leone to join as well. For the next twelve years or so we had an awful lot of fun in Kiwanis.

As service club members, we worked hard to do good things in the community, but there was also plenty of time for laughs. And much of the hilarity revolved around those two “stoonods”, Richie and Donny. I’ll give you a few typical examples, not necessarily in chronological order.

One night when we were meeting at the “Bounty Inn” in Hewlett, Richie and I were standing at the bar when Don Esopa came running into the building. “Hey, Rich,” he called. “Leone will be here any minute. Let me show you a trick you can pull on him.” With that he took out a big plastic funnel and inserted it beneath the belt on the front of his slacks. Then he held up a nickel, bent backward and placed the coin on his forehead. With one quick motion, he jerked his head forward and the nickel spun down into the funnel. “Bet you can’t do that.” he said.

“What, are you kidding me?” sneered Richie. “If you can do it, I can certainly do it.” He snatched the funnel from Esopa and placed it inside his belt. Then he bent back to put the coin on his forehead. With that Esopa poured a drink into the funnel!

While we roared with laughter, Richie fumed. Just then Leone came through the door. “Hey, Donny!” shouted Richie. “Come over here. I want to show you something!” As Donny approached, Richie shuffled toward him with the funnel stuck in his now-drenched pants. “I’ll bet you can’t do this…” He leaned backward, put the nickel on his forehead – and Esopa poured another drink into the funnel! We collapsed in near-hysteria as Richie spluttered and moaned. Eventually even he had to concede the humor in all that, but poor Richie never did get to pull that trick on anyone else!

I lived to play lame practical jokes on my friends. On another occasion when Maureen and I were attending a Kiwanis installation at the Bounty Inn, I knew that Richie had been assigned to collect money at the door. I used that opportunity to purchase a $50 bag of loose pennies from the bank where I worked. When we got to the Bounty, I presented them to Richie to pay for our admission. He actually thought it was pretty funny at the time. I don’t think he was laughing the next day when he went to the bank to deposit the installation proceeds and they told him he would have to put the pennies in rolls labeled with his account number before they could accept them!

Along about this time, when Frank Basile was club President, he and I got together and formed the Peninsula Kiwanis Softball League. We went out and purchased some really patriotic uniforms for our team, including red white and blue-striped pants. At our first game, someone on the opposing team said we “looked like clowns”. That irritated me, so the next game I showed up in uniform wearing an orange fright wig and a red bulb nose. I stepped into the batters box, pounded my bat on the plate and roared, “Who said we look like clowns?” I think our appearance may have lulled a few teams into a false sense of complacency, because we won a lot of games in those days. We had Don Gerraputa and Don Esopa as co-managers, with Frank “Pop” Basile Sr. and Al Basile Sr. as coaches. We were all mostly in our thirties then, and we had a blast playing ball for a number of years.

I recall once Richie Vicario struck out swinging twice in one game. If you’ve ever played slow-pitch softball you can probably appreciate how hard that is to do! After the second strike-out, Al Basile and I grabbed Richie by the hands and feet and deposited him into a nearby trash can. He squawked like mad because he was wedged in and couldn’t get himself out. In the process I think he made up some new swear words that we had never heard from him before!

The club was pretty active in sporting events during this period. We played charity softball and basketball games against newscaster Jerry Scott and the staff of WGBB, a local radio station. Then there was the basketball game against the Inwood Buccaneers. Whenever we replaced a player, Bob Basile and Butch Jackson would go out onto the court dressed as medics and carry the departing player to the sidelines on a stretcher. We played a charity basketball game against the Lawrence High School Alumni and thought we were being sly by bringing in a ringer. Frank Basile convinced a business associate of his who was six foot eight to play for us. Only problem was that he turned out to be a big gah-voon who couldn’t shoot, rebound, or dribble the ball. We got a butt-kicking, which is probably what we deserved for pulling that stunt. We even participated in a hilarious donkey baseball game, playing like a bunch of jackasses against the Long Island Lighting Company. All in good fun, and all for good causes.

There must have been something about our club that made it a magnet for zany situations. I remember one time when our own Sal Accomando was Lt. Governor of our Division. Sal had a brainstorm about bringing us all on an interclub to visit our Kiwanis buddies in Rockville Centre. So on a frigid, snowy night, twenty stoonods set out with Lt. Gov. Sal on icy roads to RVC, only to find out that the club wasn’t meeting that evening! Sal got an earful from a bunch of frozen, angry Kiwanians, and in fact, hasn’t heard the last of it to this day!

In those days the club used to hold an annual excursion to West Point every fall to take in an Army football game and experience the wonderful cadet pageantry. During one of those trips I discovered that there was an old Revolutionary War redoubt, Fort Putnam, atop a hill behind the football stadium. Since many in our group were interested in seeing it, I led about 25 Kiwanians, wives, and children up the steep rocky hill through thick woods, bramble bushes, and treacherous pitfalls. When we finally reached the top half an hour later, our legs ached and we were scratched, bruised, and filthy. As we stepped out of the woods, I was horrified to find that there was a road on the other side of the hill leading directly to the fort. We could have easily driven there in about a minute and a half! I can tell you that the group was not too happy with me after that!

On another trip, we didn’t quite sell out the bus, so Chris McGrath tried to “scalp” the remaining tickets outside the stadium. Unfortunately for Chris, someone reported him to the Military Police, who detained him for questioning. Unknown to Chris, Richie and I were the ones who turned him in! We figured that if anyone could talk his way out of a mess like that it would certainly be our resident attorney, Chris McGrath. We were right!

There were so many wacky times like these that I’m hard-pressed to decide which to include in this narrative. Maybe I should just limit myself to those excessively-nutty fiascos involving Richie Vicario and Donny Leone.

Now I know that I’ve spent quite a bit of time discussing pranks I pulled on Richie, but it was actually Donny who was my favorite patsy. Leone was just the perfect fall guy, and as a result I did some terrible things to him, often with the help of others. Due to his size, we even gave him softball uniform ½! Sometimes at the Bounty after Donny had downed a few drinks and was feeling no pain, I’d fill up his jacket pockets with silverware and bowls of peanuts or pretzels while he sat oblivious to what was going on. When he finally went home, he clanked like the “Tin Man” from “The Wizard of Oz”. The next day, after realizing what had happened, Donny would admonish me with a long, drawn-out, “Yooooouuuuu b*****d!” It was almost impossible to keep a straight face through that! With each successive prank, my goal became to extend Donny’s “Yooooouuuuu” even further than the last time!

As bad as I was to Donny, I probably wasn’t the worst culprit. That claim likely fell to Don Esopa and Vic Liotta, who truly tormented the poor guy. Leone lived in the first house directly behind the Bounty Inn. Some Wednesday nights he’d come to the meeting and say, “I’ve got to get home early tonight. My wife’s on the warpath.” So, of course, Esopa and Liotta would feed him drinks until poor Donny was sufficiently plastered, then they’d either dump him on his front lawn, or drive him out to Suffolk County and leave him there. Mod-awn, even I wasn’t that cruel!

Well, this one particular week, Don and Vic escorted an inebriated Leone to his front steps about two hours past curfew, rang the bell and ran. The next morning at my office, I got a scathing phone call from Fran Leone. Frannie roasted me up one side and down the other for leading her husband astray like that. I had no idea what she was talking about. “But…but…but…”, I spluttered. Finally, after chewing me out with the profane thoroughness of a drill sergeant, Fran slammed down the phone in a fury before I could even begin to defend myself.

I was flabbergasted. Now I’ll admit that I had done a couple of mean things to Donny, (well, maybe more than a couple). But this was one occasion when I was truly innocent. It was sort of like the situation where a criminal gets convicted of something he didn’t do because the jury felt that he’d probably done something else to merit being locked up anyway. I guess I got what was coming to me, however it wasn’t for the sins I’d actually committed. And those two jabonies Esopa and Liotta got off scott-free! I don’t think I’ve ever repaid them for that!

To digress for just a moment, the Bounty Inn was the scene of many fun nights during those early years of Kiwanis. Jerry Thompson, the owner, was also a member of the club, and he really went out of his way to cater to us. Jerry used to throw Halloween costume parties at the restaurant, and sing-alongs on New Years Eve. And we held all our installation dinner-dances there. Great fun. One snowy night during Christmas week the members and wives used the Bounty as a starting point for caroling on the back of a flat-bed truck with Butch Jackson driving. Butch somehow got us stuck in a snowdrift behind the 4th precinct in Hewlett, where we ended up having a snowball fight with the local urchins. Wonderful times.

Maureen and I went to the Bounty one night to celebrate our anniversary, and Jerry treated us like visiting royalty. He fussed over us, sent a bottle of champagne to our table, and generally made us feel like the most important people in the place. Unfortunately, our good friend Jerry Thompson was later killed in an accident, and the Bounty was never the same after that. The new owners never welcomed us the way Jerry had. Eventually the Peninsula Kiwanis Club moved to a different restaurant, and the Bounty Inn finally closed its doors, leaving us all saddened, but with some great memories.

We had so many good times while based at the Bounty Inn that it would be impossible to describe them all here. I remember one year the club was participating in the Memorial Day parade at Inwood. Troublemaker Liotta somehow located an old Army howitzer that he towed along in front of us as we marched. This thing was humongous! The wheels came up to my eyes! We hooked up a yachting starter cannon to it that fired shotgun shells. When I tell you that it was extremely loud, that would be a gross understatement. As we paraded along, we’d let loose a shot periodically that would stun unsuspecting onlookers and send them reeling backward. As we neared the end of the line of march, we turned a corner where a cop was directing traffic. When we got alongside of him, I triggered a blast that sent his cap spiraling away, and him diving to the ground! We got the hell out of there very quickly, I can tell you, before that poor cop recovered enough to chase down the perpetrators! Oh, by the way… After the parade, Vic drove to Leone’s house and left the howitzer in his driveway! I still don’t know how Donny eventually got it to the junkyard!

On another occasion Vic backed up his truck to Donny’s front door and unloaded an old player piano that must have weighed 1000 pounds onto his porch! How Donny got rid of that, or even opened his front door for that matter, remains a mystery to me.

One summer, Al Basile invited Donny and me to spend the weekend at his cabin upstate. We left on a Friday evening, toting coolers full of stuffed shells, meatballs, and other delicacies our wives had cooked up for us. Donny also brought along a case of beer that he began demolishing while we drove. One important aside: I’ve never known anyone who could drink as much beer as Donny and not have to go to the bathroom! It was mind-boggling to me that such a little guy, who stood just a shade over five feet tall, could hold that much beer! He had, in fact, consumed most of it before we finally reached our destination.

Well, the journey took a bit longer than expected. As we got closer to the cabin, Al stopped at several of the local “watering holes” to buy us a drink. By the time we got to his place, Donny and I were pretty well snockered. We stumbled into bed, only to be awakened several hours later at dawn by the sound of a tractor approaching. Al’s neighbor, old man “Hank”, was coming up the hill to say hello.

We all staggered into the living room, where Al and I were brought up short by one of the funniest sights we’d ever seen. As I mentioned earlier, Donny was a very short fellow. This morning, his eyes were blood-shot, and he emerged from his room wearing a pair of baggy boxer shorts that hung down all the way to the middle of his shins! Despite our hangovers, Al and I roared with laughter at this ridiculous sight!

Anyway, when Hank came to the door, Al introduced us as his friends. He told Hank that we were both “sick”. Hank just laughed. He said something about it being “bought sickness”. How right he was.

Later that morning, after we had downed several gallons of coffee, Al took us skeet shooting. Now I have to tell you, with the headache I had, skeet shooting was about the last thing I wanted to do. But it ended up being a lot of fun. And we laughed all weekend and for many years thereafter retelling the story about Donny’s shorts!

In the fall of 1983, Donny Leone died of a heart attack while driving home from work. One of my closest friends was gone just before he reached his fortieth birthday. The impact on Richie, me, and the rest of the club was devastating. At the first Kiwanis meeting after Donny’s funeral, we held a memorial service for him. There were a lot of tears that night, since Donny was one of the most beloved members of the club. We drank a toast to him – with beer – because that seemed the most appropriate thing to do.

Donny’s death was something of a tipping point for the Peninsula Club. After he died, Kiwanis didn’t seem quite as much fun as it had before. Richie especially took Donny’s passing very hard. He gradually stopped coming to meetings, and eventually resigned from the club altogether. I continued on as a member, but things were never again as carefree and light-hearted as they had been previously.

With Richie’s resignation, the club sustained another great loss. He was by far the finest natural agitator I’ve ever known. He could probably have made the Pope call him an SOB! Yet, Richie had a talent for aggravating people and making them laugh simultaneously. Sometimes he’d spot Chris McGrath on the road and flip him the bird or sniff the air and mutter, “I smell a lawyer!” Given the size of his nose, that was almost believable. Or he’d ride Jack Kelly, who was really French, not Irish, about his heritage. Richie would call him “Froggy”, or “Jacques Strappe”. Jack never got insulted, and always laughed heartily along with the rest of us. And Richie frequently accused Dom Sciarrotta Sr. of speaking “broken Italian”! He really kept us in stitches, and a good deal of that was lost when he left the club.

Richie Vicario died of cancer in 2009 at age 66. His passing marked the loss of the last of my closest childhood friends. I miss him and the others badly, and think about them every day. But remaining as a member of the Peninsula Club became very important to me in that it helped to sustain something of the connection I had to my lost friends. And I’ll always cherish the many wonderful memories of the fun times we shared in the early days of the Peninsula Kiwanis Club.

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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 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 schnoz from Donny’s rifle barrel! It was reminiscent of something from an Abbott and Costello movie.

I was flabbergasted. “What the %$#@ is wrong with you two %$#holes?” 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. Richie, Donny, and Cliff are long gone now, 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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