The Pets from Hell

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

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

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

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

“The little rat jumped me,” I whined.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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The Chronicles of Augustine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Great Stink-Bomb Escapade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Hackers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saga of the Missing Door

December 7, 2010 at 5:13 am (Uncategorized)

This probably happened around 1957, during the summer before I started high school at Lawrence. I was helping my father with deliveries from John Lombardo, the butcher. Dad had an old “Woody” station wagon back then that he used for work… you know, the kind with wooden planks along the sides. My father had a well-deserved reputation for salvaging old junk heaps, and the “Woody” may have been his piece-de-resistance. Anyway, he would drive and I’d jump out when we got to the customer’s house and run the bag in.

One afternoon we made a pickup, and at our first stop I hopped out with the order and slammed the car door. As I started to walk away, I heard a rattle and thump behind me. Turning to see what had caused the noise, I was shocked to find that the door I had just slammed shut had fallen completely off and now lay in the gutter!

Dad and I broke up in near-hysterical laughter. When we were finally able to control ourselves, my father said, “Throw the door in the back. We’ll take it to the dumps.” For some reason, that triggered another round of wild laughter. We drove to someplace in the back of Inwood, and I tossed the door into the weeds alongside the street. Then we resumed our route.

When we had completed our run, Dad said, “Maybe we should go back and get that door. I might be able to have it fixed.” So we drove back to where we had jettisoned the deceased door only to find that someone had already taken it! Once again we exploded into side-splitting laughter.

Dad drove that wreck around without a door for the rest of the summer. If you rode in the front seat, you had to hang on for dear life every time he made a left turn, or risk landing in the street. There were no seatbelts in those days to keep you secure. And my poor sister Sue was absolutely mortified anytime someone saw her riding in our “limo”.

In those days, we held a family picnic every year. That summer, we all piled into the “Woody” for the trip, Mom sitting in the “jump seat” up front while the rest of us kids climbed into the back with the food. We usually went to Belmont Lake State Park or Heckscher State Park, but I don’t remember which it was that particular time. I definitely do recall the incredulous look on the gate attendant’s face as we pulled up, with one door missing and a bunch of kids in the back seated on coolers and watermelons, surrounded by loaves of bread and bananas! The poor guy must have thought that the Beverly Hillbillies had just arrived!

I used to enjoy picnics back then. Not this one. The men challenged a neighboring group to a softball game at $1 per man. I remember they wouldn’t let me join in, even though I was a pretty good ballplayer in those days. I was forced to serve as a disgruntled umpire. I can still see some of our players: my Dad, Uncle Ralph, Grandpa Bevy, Uncle Jimmy, Uncle Bobby, Uncle Alfred, Uncle Albert Bevilacqua, Uncle Ernie, Uncle Syl Matland. Our team won, but that didn’t make me any happier. Then a cloudburst hit. I recall sitting on top of a picnic table under a big umbrella as the heavens opened, watching a bowl of hard-boiled eggs float by in the resulting flash-flood! Unbelievable! And you can only imagine the ride home, with water from every puddle splashing through the missing door and soaking us all!

That night I became deathly ill and couldn’t stop throwing up. The last thing I remembered eating was a veal cutlet sandwich. Somehow that affected me psychologically, and I’ve never been able to stomach that meat since. The mere mention of veal brings back unpleasant memories of violent nausea and bedraggled picnickers. And I’ve also never forgotten the doorless “Woody” that gave us so many laughs during that wacky summer a long time ago.

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Now Hair This!

December 7, 2010 at 5:11 am (Uncategorized)

My father had a highly-developed self-deprecating sense of humor, which was very fortunate, because hilarious things often happened to him. Many of those things involved his hair, or lack thereof. Dad lost much of his hair at any early age, so I really have no memory of him with any natural growth on his head. When I was a teenager he began wearing a toupee either through vanity or because he played in a dance band, and you just don’t see many bald musicians.

Anyway, in the spring of 1966 I was still living home after being discharged from the Army. Dad usually had band jobs on the weekends, and this one particular Saturday he prepared for his gig by shampooing his hairpiece. However, as the time to leave approached, his “rug” was still damp.

In desperation, my father decided to dry his toupee in the oven! Bad idea! Unfortunately, he set the temperature a bit too high, and after a few minutes smoke began pouring into the kitchen as the wig caught fire! Howling like a banshee, Dad snatched the blazing thing from the oven and tossed it into the sink. After extinguishing the flames under the faucet, he picked up the bedraggled mess. Parts of it were singed black, and there were a few bare spots in the “scalp” where the hair had been burned off. Lacking a spare, he had no choice but to wear it.

Dad grabbed a towel and a hair dryer and went to work. When he was satisfied that the toupee wasn’t too wet to wear, he positioned it carefully on his head. Good Lord! Sections of the hairpiece were charred, and to make matters worse, it had shrunk! Dad now had a half inch-wide part that ran completely around the side of his skull! He looked like he had a dead skunk on his head!

I was just coming in as he raced out the door. When I saw that ridiculous sight, I collapsed on the stairs in wild laughter. He just glared at me, jumped into his car and took off. Well, there was one good development that night: nobody took a shot at him!

On another occasion, Dad was visiting at my sister Suzanne’s house. After saying hello to my nephew Jason, he sat on the living room couch to watch TV while Sue worked in the kitchen. After a short while, he began to fall asleep. As his head drooped, his toupee slid off and fell to the floor.

About this time, Jason came back into the room. He had never seen his grandfather without hair before. In a panic, he went running into the kitchen to his mother. “Ma!” he cried. “There’s a man in the house!”

Sue dashed into the living room only to find Dad snoozing on the couch. She burst into uncontrolled laughter while poor Jason cowered behind her. “That’s your grandfather!” she finally gasped. The commotion woke up Dad. When Sue told him what had happened and he saw his hair lying on the floor, he picked up the toupee and slapped it back on his head. But the damage had been done. Jason avoided him like the plague for the rest of the day.

Another incident that comes to mind occurred while Dad was working as a school bus driver. One of his passengers was a young special-needs girl who was prone to violent outbursts. Dad’s matron, Rose Politano, had seated the little girl directly behind the driver where she could keep a close eye on her.

As they headed off down the road, the child erupted in a wild tantrum for some reason. Jumping to her feet, she reached across and tried to snatch Dad’s toupee from his head! I guess “wigged out” would appropriately describe her behavior, pun intended. Letting out a whoop of dismay, my father grabbed the “rug” with his right hand in an attempt to keep from losing it. And with his left hand, he continued trying to steer the bus.

Poor Rosie was laughing so hard that it took her several minutes to get the little girl to release her grip on Dad’s hair. By that time, they had traveled quite a distance, swerving back and forth along the street. Fortunately, no harm was done, other than to Dad’s ego.

To this day, Rose Politano can never finish telling that “hair-raising” story because she’s always overcome by an uproarious laughing fit!

Well, I’m sure Dad must have experienced other such ordeals. If you’re aware of any, please let me know and I’ll add them to the collection.

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Brawl on Summit Avenue

December 7, 2010 at 5:05 am (Uncategorized)

This must have happened during the summer of 1958, shortly after my freshman year in high school. I was a skinny 15 year-old at the time. It was a Friday evening, just around dusk, and I was sitting on the front porch of our house on Summit Avenue. Uncle Ralph had stopped by and was talking with my father and Grandpa Bevilacqua out on the sidewalk by the curb.

Suddenly a car full of boys who appeared to be in their late teens or early twenties came hurtling down the street. As they passed, my grandfather called out, “Slow down!”

The car squealed to a halt, then backed up slowly and stopped in front of our house. Out piled five arrogant young men who had taken exception to the remark. They said something rude, one thing led to another, and before long punches began to fly.

When I saw that, I jumped up, dashed out into the fray throwing wild haymakers… and promptly got my ass kicked! One of our adversaries put me in a headlock where we “danced” harmlessly for several minutes. From there I had a good view of the rest of the fight taking place under a streetlight.

Uncle Ralph had one of the troublemakers by the collar and was lining him up for a kayo when my father swooped in, knocked the guy for a loop, and continued on to belt someone else. Grandpa Bevy had already landed a heavy shot on another kid, who was now half-prone in the bushes. They made quick work of the opposition, except for the one who was fortunate enough to be tangled with me. When he saw all his friends taking such a beating, he let me go and raced for the car, his battered buddies in close pursuit. They burned rubber pulling away, screeched around the corner, and that was the last we saw of them. The whole incident had lasted only two or three minutes.

By this time my grandmother Elvira (we called her “Nonnie”), having heard the ruckus had come out onto the porch holding a dishtowel and exclaiming, “OOOH! OOOH!” It turned out that I was the only one in the family who had suffered any damage: two cauliflower ears and a slightly puffed lip. Nonnie fussed over me with some ice cubes in a towel to help keep the swelling down. I was kind of embarrassed about having lost my share of the fight, but for some reason everyone except my grandmother just laughed and treated me like I had won the heavyweight boxing crown. I’m sure Nonnie wasn’t too happy about her family getting into a street brawl, but she never said anything critical of us.

Even I had to smile eventually. That fight was the talk of the block for weeks to come. And I can assure you the version of the story I told my friends had me really kicking the hell out of that entire bunch by myself!

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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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