Mozzarella’s Band

January 23, 2012 at 10:08 pm (Uncategorized)

During my junior year in high school I became interested in joining the Our Lady of Good Counsel marching band. My Dad and Uncle Dinnio Oliveri were already members, and I had often enjoyed watching them play in local parades and concerts. When I was about ten, Dad tried to get me to learn piano, but I was more interested in playing baseball. Later I took a few snare drum lessons, but they didn’t do a whole lot of good. You have to understand that I was probably the worst musician ever to try out for the band. The Good Counsel members were first-rate musicians, with one notable exception, of course. But I hoped to offset that by being a pretty good marcher. Hey, my playing may have been terrible, but at least I could look sharp doing it.

Now that I think of it, my lack of musical skills is a bit surprising. Almost everyone in my family played at least one instrument. In fact, we even had one of those ancient upright player pianos in our basement along with a good supply of music rolls that resembled old window shades. You could insert one into the big black piano and then sit at the keyboard pretending to play while laughing uproariously as the badly-tuned instrument belted out some sour melody. Maybe that experience had more of an influence on my embarrassing music career than I care to admit.

Anyway, the ranks of the Our Lady of Good Counsel band were dominated by the Mazza family, hence its unofficial secondary name, “Mazza’s Band”. In more humorous moments, we referred to it as “Mozzarella’s Band”. John and Ralph Mazza served as conductors, with Frank Mazza Sr. on trombone, Frank (Butch) Mazza Jr. on trumpet, Mike Mazza on bass drum and a host of additional Mazza family members on various other instruments. My Dad played French horn and Uncle Dinnio was a drummer, which is what I aspired to be.

The band rehearsed every Wednesday night at the American Legion Hall on Wanser Avenue in Inwood, NY. For my first rehearsal, I sat between Uncle Dinnio and Mike Mazza in the percussion section. Uncle Din showed me how to follow the music, and would silently count out the rests for my benefit. I could read a little music, but I relied on him to keep me on track.

We laughed a lot in those days, especially when someone hit a sour note. Uncle Din would start giggling, and before you knew it, the whole band was in an uproar. When the musicians rose to leave at the conclusion of the final number, Uncle Din always shouted, “One more!” Sometimes John or Ralph Mazza would humor him and let us play an additional song.

For parades the band members wore white dress shirts, black slacks, and white hats. Later we switched to tailor-fitted blue uniforms with matching caps. They were actually quite snazzy. My first parade was a firemen’s tournament in Oceanside, NY. As would become our habit, Dad, Uncle Din and I arrived early and found a diner where we had breakfast before forming up at the assembly point.

There were thirty-five musicians that day. The number varied from week to week depending upon who was available, but that was about average. We lined up in seven rows of five. The percussion section made up the last row. I occupied the middle spot between the cymbals player and my godfather, Uncle Din, so he could keep an eye on me. Joe LaRocca was the drummer on the outside. When we were ready to step off, Ralph Mazza, who was in the row ahead of us, called out “On the drums!”

We began belting out a 2/4 beat. Ralph grimaced and covered his ears. The band had never used three snare drummers before, and we were making quite a racket. As we started to move off, Ralph again called out “Roll off!” That was the signal for the band to begin its first number.

Our signature march was “National Emblem” (“Oh, the monkey wrapped his tail around the flagpole”). When people saw us coming down the street and heard that song, they knew immediately that it was the Good Counsel Band approaching. This morning the crowd lining the street started clapping and cheering before we even came abreast of them. I thought we sounded fantastic. The stirring music sent goosebumps down my spine and made me stand a little taller as we marched along. Even now, writing this so many years later, I still find myself sitting up straighter in my chair at the thought.

But I soon realized that I had made a serious tactical error. Since this was my first parade, I didn’t know that most snare drummers protected themselves from the constant pounding of the drum against their thighs with leg guards. Uncle Din didn’t use one, so it never occurred to me to do so. By the time we got to the end of the line of march, my leg was swollen, red, and sore. The next day I had a bruise the size of a cantaloupe on my thigh. It kind of looked like I had been run over by a horse (which would actually happen years later. See “The Pets from Hell”).

But despite the pain, I couldn’t get enough of parading. The band participated in probably a dozen parades that year between Memorial Day and Labor Day, and I made every one of them. To make matters even better, we were paid a small stipend for each job, usually between six and ten dollars. The band accrued these payments and issued one check at the conclusion of the season. That was certainly a nice bonus for doing something I enjoyed so much.

One time we had too many drummers, so I borrowed a French horn from Dad and marched the full length of the parade pretending to play it. Naturally, I positioned myself at the end of the row so I could check out the girls along the line of march, and hopefully they would do the same to me. I can’t recall now if that actually worked, but it was fun at the time.

Our last parade that year was the New York State Fire Tournament in Hicksville on Labor Day. That parade was so large we were able to play for three different fire departments, one near the front of the parade, one in the middle and one near the end. After completing our march, we hopped on a bus that transported us back to the beginning where we started off again. By the end of the day we were pretty well spent from traversing the parade route three times. But we were all financially better off as well, with credit for three separate jobs in the books.

That year there was a band competition after the parade to determine who played the best music. Our biggest rival back then was Bill Dayton’s Freeport Fire Department band. We considered them the strongest challengers to our chances. As luck would have it, we were the first to perform, followed by Dayton’s group.

The competition took place in a large field, with the judges in the stands at one end. We had to march to the middle of the field, swing around toward the judges, play our one number, and then march off. When Ralph Mazza gave us the signal, the drummers set a brisk beat and we moved out into the open grass. We paused there briefly before beginning our presentation of, naturally, “National Emblem March”. As we finished and marched off to loud applause, I felt we had done quite well. But we had to wait for another dozen groups to compete before we learned the final results.

I thought Bill Dayton’s red-clad band, immediately after us, did very well also. None of the other participants seemed to be in our class, but you never knew what the judges were looking for. When they finally announced their decision, we were named the winners, with the Freeport Fire Department placing second. We received a big trophy and a collective feather in our caps to end the marching season.

While the parades may have concluded for the year, rehearsals continued throughout the winter. Sometimes the drummers would goof around after concluding a number by continuing to play a march beat until the rest of the band joined in, ad libbing whatever music they felt like playing. We had much fun doing that.

We engaged in a lot of practical joking back then, much of it instigated by me. One time I bought a smoke bomb that you could hook up to the spark plugs on a car’s engine. When the driver turned the ignition on, the bomb would let out a piercing whistle and a huge cloud of smoke. I made a point of arriving late that night so I could wire the device to Frank Mazza’s car before going inside.

Well, after rehearsal, Dad, Uncle Din, and I rushed out to our car to wait. Frank came through the door several minutes later with three or four of the younger kids who needed a ride home. We chuckled expectantly as they all piled into the car. When Frank turned the key, the whistle went off with a deafening screech, and smoke poured from under the hood. All the car doors flew open, and kids scattered frantically in every direction. Frank stepped out of the car, glanced around, and saw us sitting there laughing hysterically. He glared at Dad and growled, “I know you did it, Augie!”

This was great! Here I had pulled off the stunt of the year, and I wasn’t even getting blamed for it! Hilarious!

Every summer, the parishioners of Our Lady of Good Counsel Church would parade the saint through the streets of Inwood during the Santa Marina Feast. Our band always preceded them, playing march music and Italian songs as we moved slowly along while people pinned money to the statue. One year Uncle Din couldn’t make it for some reason, and I had to play alone. My drumming was so bad that Ralph Mazza put his fingers in his ears and just shook his head. I laugh about it now, but I was pretty upset at the time that I wasn’t capable of doing better. The Good Counsel members were genuinely first-rate musicians… except for me, of course. It amazes me how one incompetent hack can sometimes make an entire band seem like a drum and bungle corps.

In September of 1963, I put my civilian marching program on hold to take up the military version at Fort Dix, NJ. It would be two years before I again donned the uniform of the Good Counsel band.

On the day I returned from Vietnam, Uncle Dinnio came by the house to see me. Now, Dad and I used to laugh at a story he often told about meeting a little old Italian man at a funeral. This gentlemen squinted up at him with one eye closed and muttered, “Don’j I know you?” The way Uncle Din told it with emphatic gestures and uncontrollable laughter never failed to break us up. But now when I answered the door and exclaimed, “Don’j I know you?” he immediately burst into tears. I guess I inherited some of his emotion, and I make no apologies for that.

My first band job after returning from overseas took place on Memorial Day, 1965, in the Lawrence/Cedarhurst parade while I was home on leave. The band was supposed to form up at the Lawrence railroad station. I was dating an attractive girl then who owned a convertible. Being the “skootch” that I was, I had her drive me to the spot where the band members were assembling, arriving fashionably late, of course, with the top down. As we pulled up right next to them, I could see eyes popping and jaws dropping at the sight of my buxom date in her low-cut blouse and Hollywood sunglasses.

I took my sweet time climbing out of the car, smoothing the wrinkles from my uniform, putting on my hat and removing the drum from the back seat while my fellow band members watched jealously. Someone started playing “Hail to the Chief” on his trumpet, and others quickly joined in until the entire band was blaring away. I strolled casually around to the driver’s side with a smug grin on my face and kissed my date good-bye as the perverts in the band hooted and whistled. I caught an awful lot of grief over that escapade, I can tell you, but, man, it was worth it!

Several years passed, and Dad and Uncle Din decided that the rigors of marching were becoming too much for them, so they stopped parading. Playing in the band didn’t seem quite as much fun anymore without them. Besides, I was married to Maureen by then, and we had two sons, Jimmy Jr. and Kenneth, to keep us busy. My days of playing in “Mazza’s Band” came to an abrupt end.

A few years ago, I took my granddaughter Alexandria and grandson Giovanni to see a firemen’s parade in Baldwin, NY. Glancing up the street, I saw a familiar-looking band approaching. When they broke into a rousing rendition of “National Emblem”, I knew right away that it was the Our Lady of Good Counsel Band. I began to applaud. The group was only about half the size of the earlier version I had played in, and I didn’t recognize a single face. But the sound was eerily similar to what I had known. The sharp rattle of the snares and boom of the bass drum in the heavy evening air combined to bring back many fond memories.

As I clapped in appreciation, I thought about Dad, Uncle Din, the Mazzas and so many other band members I had been privileged to share such great times with who were now gone. “Look, kids,” I said in a voice husky with emotion. “Here comes ‘Mozzarella’s Band!’”

They thought I was joking at first and began to laugh. Then as the band passed by, my very perceptive granddaughter peered up at me and asked, “Poppy, why do you have tears in your eyes?”

I brushed away some dampness from my cheek. “Just remembering some old friends, sweetheart,” I replied softly. “Just remembering some old friends.”

Alexandria put her hand gently in mine, and together we watched “Mozzarella’s Band” march briskly off down the road into the gathering dusk.

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The Futile Feud

January 19, 2012 at 1:26 am (Uncategorized)

As I was scrubbing down the bathroom in our master bedroom recently (my punishment for not having a job), I was struck by the sheer volume of bottles, jars, tubes, cans, grooming aids and other paraphernalia to be found therein. Hardly any of this belonged to me, mind you. I could claim ownership of just 6 things: a razor, a can of shaving cream, toothbrush and toothpaste, a deodorant stick and a hairbrush. And the way things are going, I probably won’t need the brush too much longer.

My wife, Maureen, on the other hand, had 411 items by actual count, only 9 of which I could positively identify. Truth be told, the place is starting to look like Fibber McGee’s closet. I can hardly squeeze into the shower these days with all the baskets, racks, medieval torture devices and something resembling the fuel tank from an intercontinental ballistic missile jammed in there. I’m not exactly a ballerina, you understand, who can pirouette gracefully through this bizarre obstacle course in order to reach the barely-visible showerhead. Believe me when I tell you that I have recurring nightmares about the bulging walls of that bathroom suddenly exploding outward during the wee hours and washing me down the stairs and out onto the street in a tidal wave of creams, lotions, sprays and fluorescent goo.

We have an oversized walk-in closet in that bathroom as well. Or, more accurately, SHE has one. That thing is packed to the rafters with skirts, dresses, slacks, blouses and shoes of all styles and colors. There’s no possible way Maureen can cram another piece of clothing in there without borrowing my crow-bar, which, come to think of it, I haven’t seen lately. And what really blows my mind is that she buys more hangers almost every month!

Conversely, my extensive wardrobe of four shirts and three pairs of slacks has been relegated to a small corner of my office closet behind the excess Christmas decorations. I was flabbergasted recently when my wife suggested with a straight face that I should donate some of my old clothes to Goodwill in order to open up a little space in there. Hey, I’ve already moved my suits, ties, dress shirts and oxfords from a previous life into a box in the garage. I even threw out a “golf” sweater (it had 18 holes in it) that she hated. How much more can I give up and still comply with the public decency laws? Is the neighborhood really ready for a revival of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”? Meanwhile her wardrobe could outfit half the population of Kazakhstan. Where is the justice in all this?

And somebody please explain to me why a woman has to use FIVE towels when she showers. Meanwhile, environmentalists adore me because I usually just grab one of the slightly damp ones she left behind, dry off with it and then hang it up to be recycled the next day. In fact, my towels were the original inspiration for the term “going green”! Now, I understand that we men can be somewhat insensitive Neanderthals at times and often fail to appreciate some of the more subtle nuances of feminine behavior. I’ve never been particularly adept at reading female signals, which has gotten me in lots of trouble through the years. It usually takes something more overt, like a 2X4 upside the head, to create my “AHAH!” moment with women. But does she REALLY need four vases of artificial flowers and seven candles on the bathroom counter? With a little organ music piped in we could hold a funeral in there, for cryin’ out loud.

OK, maybe I’m exaggerating slightly, but I’ll wager that many long-suffering husbands out there are nodding vigorously in agreement with me. Unfortunately, the reality is that it’s unlikely we men can come out ahead in this battle. In fact, I may very well be one of the first casualties in the War of the Water Closet. Oh well, I suppose if I wasn’t so pig-headed I could always use the guest bathroom. Then I wouldn’t have to listen to Maureen’s daily admonitions about my failure to put down the toilet seat. What fun would that be? So to get back at her, devil that I am, I now squeeze the toothpaste tube in the MIDDLE! Take that! Heh-heh.

Yes, there may very well be some advantages to boasting of a few Neanderthals in the family tree, but having control of the facilities probably isn’t one of them. I’m afraid that I’D be the one clubbed over the head and dragged out the door by the hair. Unfortunately, just as with the GEICO caveman, I simply can’t win.

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History of the Bevilacqua Family

December 3, 2011 at 11:36 pm (Uncategorized)

I don’t know a lot about the genealogy of the Bevilacqua family, so if any of you reading this have information you’d be willing to share, I’d be grateful to receive it. My maternal grandfather, James Bevilacqua, was born in 1902 and died in the summer of 1962. His wife, Elvira Capozzi, my beloved “Nonnie”, was born in 1904 and passed away in December, 1978. They had seven children: Giovanna (Jennie), the eldest and my Mom. The others are Gloria Bevilacqua Fearns, Ralph, Marlene Bevilacqua Matland, James, Alfred and Robert. Since we grew up in the same house in Cedarhurst, NY, and they were only a few years older than me, Alfred and Bobby treated me more like a younger brother than a nephew.

My grandfather’s parents were Ralph Bevilacqua and Giovanna Giancotta. I believe both were born in Italy, but I don’t know much more about their genealogy. Besides James, their other children were Ernest, Albert, Joseph, Ines Bevilacqua Gregorace and Amelia Bevilacqua Piccione. Great Grandpa and Grandma Bevilacqua are buried in Holy Rood Cemetery in Westbury, NY, as are Grandpa and Nonnie Bevilacqua, both my parents, Uncle Ralph and Aunt Marlene.

“Nonnie” was the daughter of Genaro Capozzi and Carmella Auchino. Again, both were born in Italy, but I have no information on when they migrated to the United States. Great Grandmother Carmella is listed on the 1930 U.S. census as being 68 years of age at the time, and was living with my grandparents in Inwood, NY.

Elvira’s sibling history is a bit more complicated, and with so many family members who could have offered details now deceased, I’m not really certain that I have everything correct. Nonnie had a sister, Angelina, and two brothers, James and Pelagrino (Pete). After Genaro Capozzi passed away, Carmella married Oreste Rizzolo and bore two more children, Pasquale and Michael. Unfortunately, I’m not in touch with anyone on that side of the family who can provide further clarification.

Some anecdotes about members of the Bevilacqua, Capozzi and Rizzolo families can be found elsewhere in this anthology, notably within Under the Influence of Uncles, The Hackers, and Saga of the Missing Door.

Besides me and my four siblings (one deceased), my grandparents had fourteen other grandchildren and numerous great-grandchildren. The extended family of first and second Bevilacqua cousins is quite large. I’ve never met some of them, and have had little contact with others through the years. I find this regrettable, but as I often say, life’s circumstances prevented us from being closer. Maybe we can all remedy that one of these days.

That’s about the extent of the data I have on the Bevilacqua family. If you know anything to add to this history, I would very much appreciate hearing from you.

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Lawrence High School

November 5, 2011 at 8:58 pm (Uncategorized)

I entered Lawrence High School in September of 1957, a shy, skinny 110-pounder who kept to himself and said very little. Odd. Today, most people wish that I would just shut up. And I certainly don’t weigh 110 pounds any longer! Truthfully, I was a late-bloomer in many ways. It would take the Army to finally make something of me, but I would have to wait six more years for that.

Back then Lawrence High was located in a beautiful brick building on Broadway in Lawrence that has housed the junior high school since 1960. There was no junior high in the district in those days until construction of the new high school on Peninsula Boulevard in Cedarhurst was completed. Then the sophomore, junior and senior classes relocated there.

I was a member of the first graduating class from the new Lawrence High School in 1961. That turned out to be a rather unique year. If you flipped our class ring upside down, the 1961 on it still read 1961. We heard that it would be thousands of years before you could do that again. I tried figuring out the exact date before I wrote this, but quickly gave up. I guess I didn’t develop very good math skills while at LHS. Anyway, that’s just a curious bit of useless information that seems well-suited to a wacky class that included me, Richie Vicario, Donny Leone, Joe Parlo and a host of other off-beat characters.

Richie and I walked to school together every morning, meeting at the corner of Rockaway Turnpike and Pacific Street in Cedarhurst. Then we’d cross the tracks and hang a right onto a dirt path that paralleled the railroad. We followed that to Lawrence Station, which was sort of the mid-point of our daily journey. In the winter time especially, Richie and I sometimes stopped there to warm up before resuming the trek to school another half-mile along Lawrence Avenue. Often the building would be deserted, and we’d sit there for five or six minutes listening to the soft ticking of the station clock and the gentle hissing of the radiators while we recovered from exposure to the elements. Reaching the comfort of Lawrence Station during a blizzard was like finding an oasis in the snow. I think that probably saved us from a couple of cases of frostbite over the next four years.

One evening, I called Richie and told him to meet me at the corner and we would walk up to the village to get an egg-cream, as we often did. I had just purchased a gorilla mask, and I ran ahead to hide in the bushes. Peeking out, I saw Richie approaching. When he came abreast of me I jumped out with a roar. Poor Richie turned in mid-stride and raced several blocks up Rockaway Turnpike before he heard me laughing uncontrollably and stopped. He was not happy with me, to say the least.

We quickly learned that autumn Saturdays were THE days for LHS students. That’s when football ruled, with home games played at the magnificent brick wall-enclosed Horn Stadium behind the high school. I remember at the end of the first game Richie and I were sitting in the stands when a fight broke out across the field. We rushed over to get involved, but it ended before we got there, which was probably fortunate for us. I mean, it took a lot of gall for two runts like us – Richie was even skinnier than I was – to do that. We almost certainly would have gotten a serious butt-kicking (see Brawl on Summit Avenue).

After being a good student in elementary school without working all that hard, I soon learned that I actually needed to study in high school if I expected to do well. That was a problem. I had virtually no study habits and didn’t care about developing any. I was much more interested in playing baseball or working on my technique for chasing girls. Unfortunately, I wasn’t very good at either, and my academic career suffered accordingly. I received good grades in the courses that interested me, but seldom cracked a book for the ones that didn’t. As a result, my record at Lawrence was sort of boom or bust. My idea of studying was merely to cram on the night before the finals. That was a liability that plagued me throughout high school and my brief stint at college. Looking back now, I wish that I had applied myself more vigorously.

My freshman year was, typically, a mixed bag. I got great grades in English, Science and Geography, but bombed out in Mrs. Costello’s algebra class. I never did take a liking to any of the math courses in high school. It’s amazing to me that I eventually went on to a banking career, of all things. I don’t really remember much else about that year, except that we had several big snowstorms. I recall sitting in study hall daydreaming while I watched the snow come down instead of finishing my homework like I was supposed to be doing.

That snowy winter turned out to be a blessing in one way. Richie’s sister, Barbara, worked for the St. Joachim’s parish in Cedarhurst. Every time it snowed, Barbara recruited the two of us to shovel out the church grounds. The job paid $10 a day, which was pretty good money back then. In fact, we almost felt guilty taking our pay from old Father Flanagan when we finally finished. Almost. After we collected, we usually walked down Central Avenue to Alfredo’s Italian Restaurant and ordered a pizza.

Well, this one particular snowy day we were doing our usual job digging out the sidewalks and the church parking lot. It was a heavy, wet snow, and while we worked a steady drizzle began to fall. By the time we were done, both Richie and I were soaked to the skin. We went into the church to warm up. As we sat shivering in one of the pews, I got the bright idea to strip off our wet clothes and hang them on the radiators to dry. So there we were dressed only in our underwear, nervously glancing about as if half-expecting to be struck by a lightning bolt for this blatant show of blasphemy. Fortunately, the powers-that-be must have taken pity on two freezing nitwits and left us alone. And thankfully, we had no embarrassing explanations to make, since the miserable weather kept any potential church-goers away.

The summer before my sophomore year was a bit wacky as well. I was working part-time at Wenmore’s Market stocking shelves. On my off days, Richie and I played baseball at Cedarhurst Park or went fishing at either Woodmere Dock or off the rocks at Rockaway Beach. One afternoon in the park, Richie was hitting flies to me while another group of kids was playing a softball game on the adjoining field. Richie hit a towering foul ball so far to his right that I didn’t even bother to chase it. Playing left field over there was a kid named, I think, Billy Froemmer. He just stood there, oblivious to the heat-seeking missile that was racing toward him from behind.

But Richie knew what was happening. He watched that fly ball arc gracefully out of the sky and saw immediately where it was going to land. Richie started to yell out, “Hey, kid…”, but just then the ball landed square on top of Froemmer’s head with a resounding thud. The poor guy’s hair flapped violently up and down, and he sank slowly to his knees. It was like a scene from The Three Stooges.

While I roared with laughter, Richie snatched up his glove and took off running before his victim could recover. That was obviously the end of baseball for the day. Laughing convulsively with tears streaming down my face, I waited until I was sure that Froemmer wasn’t dead. When he finally staggered to his feet with a huge lump on top of his gourd, I headed for home two blocks away. By the time I reached the front door, my sides hurt so much from laughing that I thought I had done some serious damage to myself. As for Froemmer, I don’t think he ever found out who had cold-cocked him, which was probably a good thing for Richie.

We used to hang out at my house a lot during the summer, and sometimes one or another of our friends came by as well. I remember once Richie and I were up on the third floor when Schuyler Townsend came looking for us. Nobody else was home to answer the door, so he walked around to the back yard to see if we were there. We had the window open and I heard the gate slam. Looking out, I spotted Schuyler, and another brilliant scheme popped into my head.

I dashed into the bathroom and filled a wastebasket with water. Returning to the window, I called out, “Hey, Sky! We’re in the front!”

With that, poor Townsend opened the gate and came back out. As he passed beneath the window, I emptied the pail toward him. That water seemed to take forever to fall three stories, but the timing was perfect. It exploded onto Schuyler with a hissing splatter, freezing him in his tracks. Richie and I raced into the next room, where we climbed through a closet into the space behind the walls to hide. We stayed there trying desperately to stifle our near-explosive laughter until we were sure that our bedraggled and angry friend had gone.

During my sophomore year I met my nemesis, a tough, sarcastic young Irish woman named Noreen O’Sullivan, who taught Latin. Since I thought at the time that I wanted to be a scientist, I figured learning Latin was a good idea. Yeah, right. The logic seemed sound, but somehow it just didn’t work out.

Although I was quite proficient in English, that talent didn’t carry over when it came to learning Latin. And I wasn’t about to actually study, so I soon floundered. The red-haired Miss O’Sullivan seemed to delight in embarrassing me in front of the class by demanding that I decline some obscure Latin verb or other such nonsense. Naturally, I seldom got it right.

My modus operandi was to fail all year long and then pull out a barely-passing grade on the regents. After two years of misery, I finally decided as a senior to drop Latin. Miss O’Sullivan had gotten married by then and become Mrs. Gough, but her temperament didn’t improve. I suspect that she may have regretted losing her favorite patsy; however, I’m sure she soon found another.

Throughout our time in high school, Richie and I were deeply involved in bowling. On Saturday mornings you could usually find us at Falcaro’s Lanes on Rockaway Turnpike. A line of bowling was only 25 cents back then, so you could stay and bowl most of the day for just a couple of bucks while enjoying a basket of French fries to boot.

We participated in intramural bowling all four years that we were at Lawrence. In fact, as a sophomore, I volunteered to serve as secretary. My job was to collect all the score sheets after each session, figure the averages for each bowler, print a schedule and assign lanes. It paid two dollars a week, which figured out to about twenty-five cents an hour considering how much work was involved. Mr. Frank Whitman, who administered the activity, was quite happy that I took the job, since otherwise he would have had to do the grunt work.

I attended my junior prom at Carl Hoppl’s in Baldwin, and it turned out to be quite a farce. Since none of us were old enough to have a driver’s license yet, my date and I had to be driven there and picked up afterward by a family member. How humiliating is that? And even worse, disaster struck when I ordered lobster for dinner. About half an hour later I began to feel a tingling in my cheeks. I ended up having a full-blown allergic reaction that resulted in huge red welts covering my face. I have a photo of the group hidden someplace that shows a hideous creature in a white tuxedo jacket who bears a strong resemblance to Frankenstein. Not my favorite memory of high school, I can assure you.

Also during my junior year, Richie and I made the bowling team under Mr. Whitman, along with our friends Butch Mazza, Donny Player and several others. We thought we were really hot stuff. Every Saturday we’d gather at Falcaro’s to practice, wearing our Lawrence shirts. Those were fun times. In fact, I recall having the high game that season, 238.

My uncle, Ralph Bevilacqua, was at Falcaro’s several times during our practices. Uncle Ralph was a highly-accomplished bowler who participated in all the local competitions and eventually was elected to the Bowling Hall of Fame. He often spent time watching me and offering some good advice. I thought I was well on my way to a distinguished bowling career. Well, as they say, pride comes before a fall.

In our senior year, Richie and I figured that we were a shoo-in for the bowling team. Mr. Whitman had turned over the program to Mr. James Mattison by then, but with Butch and Donny having graduated, we were the most experienced keglers to try out for the team. Much to our shock, Mr. Mattison didn’t select us for the squad. That remains one of the greatest disappointments of my high school years, and from that point on my bowling career floundered.

We had moved over to the new high school on Peninsula Boulevard in September of 1960. Richie and I continued to walk to school every day, only in the opposite direction. That same month, Hurricane Donna tore north up along the eastern seaboard and passed right over Long Island. I recall how we were buffeted by high winds and wild rain squalls as we walked to classes both in the morning and afternoon. Why they didn’t close the school that day is an enduring mystery to me.

That winter I became interested in joining the track team. I could run pretty well in those days before I began to gain some weight. But I was never able to find my niche. I wasn’t quite fast enough for the sprints, and I lacked the stamina for the longer races. My coach, Mr. Irv Mondschein, wracked his brain trying to figure out what to do with me. Eventually, as was my pattern in high school, I became bored with track and dropped off the team.

During our senior year, Richie, Joe Parlo, Al (The Kraut) Habersberger and I, along with one or two others, often hung out together after school. Joe was the only one with a driver’s license and a car, so we spent a lot of time cruising the streets of the 5 Towns in his old Buick looking for girls to pick up. For some strange reason, we never seemed to find any.

We continued to attend the football games every Saturday. Somehow, Donny Leone had managed to make the team despite his diminutive size. He even got to play in the final game, much to our delight. Joe was also on the squad, but had broken his arm early in the season and didn’t play much. After the games, we all usually ended up at White Castle in Lynbrook, where they still had waitresses who came out to the car with the 5 cent hamburgers. We’d each order twenty “belly-bombs”, laughing uproariously as the poor waitress staggered out to the car with more than 100 of the accursed things. If we couldn’t finish them, we’d drive around flinging hamburgers at each other in some half-assed competition. Life was lots of fun back then before reality began to set in.

As a senior, I prospered at LHS. Without Latin or a math course to drag me down, my grades were quite good. Later in the year I also did very well on the college boards, earning a regents scholarship. My goal then became, if you can believe it, to study meteorology. I applied to New York University, which had a science department at its Bronx campus and was the closest facility to home that offered a weather curriculum. In February I received an acceptance letter from NYU, prompting me to feel that my future was now assured.

During the latter part of June, 1961, my class graduated from Lawrence. The ceremony took place on the football field behind the school, and it was a blazing hot day. I couldn’t wait to get out from under that sweltering robe. Our high school career had finally ended. Richie headed for Texas after joining the Air Force, Donny Leone enlisted in the Navy and my transition to a collegiate environment would soon begin. Unfortunately, my stay there would be a short one. My military obligation now hung over my head like the “sword of Damocles”, but that’s a story to be found elsewhere on this site. I guess John Lennon was right when he said, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”

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The Soldiers of the Sky

September 15, 2011 at 7:01 pm (Uncategorized)

I knew when you became my wife
The Lord gave me his best,
so when I reach the end of life
I have but one request.

Please bury me where soldiers lie,
in earth that’s rich and warm,
where veterans guard the distant sky
through wind and rain and storm.

For I was once a soldier too,
so young and filled with pride.
I grasped the torch of war and drew
my strength from those who’d died.

For God and flag we went abroad,
the Yankee was the stranger.
We met the cruel and deadly horde,
and faced the guns of danger.

We bore the heat, the blood and tears,
endured the shot and shell.
We carefully concealed our fears,
and plumbed the depths of hell.

When at last our time was done,
we left the land of fire,
changed forever having known
the bones upon the pyre.

Wiser, stronger, sadder men,
no gratitude we knew.
We felt unloved, but gladly then,
the good Lord sent me you.

And soon came children of our own,
through sickness and in health.
What they’ve become and how they’ve grown
means more to me than wealth.

My comrades met the final call,
the years have whispered by,
their names upon a marble wall,
now soldiers of the sky.

And when it’s time for me to rest,
my duty here well done,
please let me lie among the best,
their battles fought and won.

Find for me a sacred garden
sown with boots and caps,
where none within have need for pardon,
and buglers still play “Taps”.

Names and faces matter not,
nor heritage, not color.
We’ll share the honor of our lot,
our strength and deeds of valor.

If I should come to God’s right hand,
perhaps He’ll pause to tell
why He permitted me to stand
while those around me fell.

I’ll be with you as I am now,
no man could ask for more,
eternal love my silent vow,
the guardian at your door.

And so, my love, we’ll meet again,
of that you can be certain.
Perhaps you’ll lie beside me then,
when God brings down the curtain.

For on that day we’ll be together
as bright flags snap nearby.
We’ll rest in peace, protected ever
by the Soldiers of the Sky.

– James A. Oliveri
Copyright 2004

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August 27, 2011 at 3:46 pm (Uncategorized)

The morning of September 11, 2001 was sunny and mild as I opened the doors to my office, a branch of a local bank in Long Island, NY. It was a beautiful late-summer day, but everything about it would soon turn incredibly ugly. I was playing host to a new manager from another area who had been sent to me for an orientation. As we stood at my desk chatting about some procedure or another, my friend and customer, Frank Gandini, came into the office looking grim. “Did you hear about the plane that hit the World Trade Center?” he asked.

I stared at him for a moment and then said, “Was it terrorists?” Under normal circumstances that probably would not have been my first thought. More likely I would have presumed it to be an accident. But an unsuccessful attempt to blow up the Trade Center had been made several years before, so now my suspicions were aroused.

Frank shrugged. “They don’t know yet.”

Just then another customer came in and announced that a second plane had impacted the Twin Towers. With that we all concluded the obvious. This was no accident. The only question in my mind was whether it was an isolated incident or the opening salvo of a new war against America.

I was no stranger to the Trade Center. When I worked in Manhattan some years earlier, I had spent many a day prowling the cavernous halls of the Towers and calling on numerous businesses there. Riding the elevators, which could transport you fifty or sixty floors within a matter of seconds, was a breath-taking experience. And lunch at the famed “Windows on the World” always included spectacular views of the city. I found myself reminiscing about that as I tried to imagine what sort of hellish things were now happening in those buildings.

There was no television in the bank, so we had to solicit news from customers as they came and went. Occasionally I ran outside to listen for updates on my car radio. At some point one of my tellers approached me with tears streaming down her face. A family member had called to tell her that the World Trade Center had collapsed. “My cousin is in there,” she stammered. I didn’t know how to console her.

Not much work got done that day as the reports grew progressively worse. When word came that both World Trade Center buildings had fallen, a virtual pall hung over the office. At 5 o’clock, I left my assistant manager to close up and headed home. Driving west, I peered toward where the Towers had stood and saw an eerie sight. With the setting sun behind them to provide color, two large clouds had intersected at right angles to form an upright red cross in the sky. It was almost as if the heavens mourned for the thousands of innocent souls who had been brutally murdered that day. The spectacle sent a chill down my spine.

At home, my wife Maureen and I remained glued to the TV, watching in horror as the awful scenes of desperate people jumping from the Towers rather than being burned to death were played over and over again. The images of two huge mushroom clouds billowing upward as the buildings disintegrated and disappeared not only shocked us, but were seared into our minds forever. This must have been what Americans experienced on December 7th, 1941, although the news then of the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor had been far less graphic and not nearly as public.

We didn’t yet know it, but our son Kenneth and nephew Tommy Ford, both NYPD officers, were already on their way to the scene of the disaster as first responders. They would spend weeks at “the pile”, digging for survivors they knew they would not find, and for bodies that no longer existed. It must have been terrible work. Having lived through some similarly horrific experiences in Vietnam, I knew what they were facing. I worried for their well-being, both physically and psychologically. My concern turned out to be well justified.

As luck would have it, our daughter-in-law Lisa was visiting relatives in Florida with our grandchildren at the time of the attack. Alexandria was three and a half then, while Giovanni was just a year old. When the government shut down all airline travel in the country, they were virtually stranded. We began discussing among ourselves what we could do to bring them back home. It was suggested that someone drive down to Florida to pick them up. Since it was obvious that Kenny would now be working long shifts at “Ground Zero”, we concluded that I should be the one to make the trip, so I began setting plans to take off from work for the journey. However, the drive became unnecessary when the airline restrictions were finally lifted, and Lisa called to tell us that she had booked seats on a flight the following morning.

The next day was extremely stressful. Once we knew that the plane Lisa and the children were on had departed, the nervous countdown began. There was still considerable concern over the possibility of further airplane hijackings, so we waited anxiously for news of their arrival. To make matters worse, the plane was barred from going to New York City and rerouted to some undisclosed destination upstate, from where the passengers were to be transported by bus to JFK Airport.

I waited at the arrivals center for what seemed like ages. When the bus carrying Lisa and the kids finally pulled up, I was almost giddy with relief. Understandably, Lisa looked quite worn when she stepped down carrying Gio and holding Lexie’s hand. She had tears in her eyes as we embraced. Fortunately, the kids seemed quite oblivious to all the fuss. It was a happy ride home, I can tell you.

Some days later, President George W. Bush arrived at “Ground Zero” to speak with the firemen, police, and other first responders working on “the pile”. It was a great moment when he announced that the people who had brought down the Towers “will hear all of us soon.” We became quite emotional as construction workers amid the still-smoldering debris responded with wild cheers of “USA! USA! USA!” It was a scene I’ll never forget. For weeks afterward, American flags flew everywhere on houses, stores, and vehicles as America came together against a common enemy. Sadly, it didn’t last.

The world changed forever the day the Twin Towers fell. Our family changed as well. No longer would we be safely isolated from the rest of the world’s problems. And now we bore the added burden of worrying about our loved ones being attacked right here at home. That realization was not a pleasant one to accept, and it still concerns me. The old soldier in me ponders the dilemma of how to protect the family, if need be, from those who would cause them harm. The solutions may not be simple, but one thing is crystal clear: We cannot be complacent again. Vigilance and preparedness must become a way of life if we are to ensure that the horrors of 9/11 are never repeated.

As Americans, we can all take inspiration from the USS New York, the Navy vessel that was partially built with steel salvaged from the World Trade Center. The ship’s motto: “Never Forget”.

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Number 5 School

April 3, 2011 at 5:00 am (Uncategorized)

Doesn’t everyone remember his first school, usually in great detail? Mine was P.S. Number 5 in Cedarhurst, NY. I started kindergarten there during September of 1948 when I was five years old. The school was an imposing (to a five year old) brick building occupying a small plaza about four blocks from my house on Summit Avenue. There was a black-topped playground behind the structure, and the entire property was surrounded by a black wrought-iron fence of spear-shaped pickets.

The principal was Mr. Nicholas Farina, a balding, bear of a man who had been my father’s high school football coach. According to Dad, Mr. Farina had a bit of a temper. Whenever something went wrong, he would kick a wastebasket and bellow “Confound it!” To tell the truth, I was terrified of him, and throughout my elementary school years I did my best to keep from being sent to his office, not entirely successfully. Many years later, when we were in Kiwanis together, I would occasionally call him “Nick”, but I was never comfortable doing that. He still bore, in my mind at least, the mantle of authority that discouraged familiarity. Now that I look back, Nick Farina was, in effect, my first drill sergeant.

The school secretary was Mrs. Evelyn Burke, a tall, blonde, somewhat aloof woman who lived two doors away from us on Summit Avenue. There was also a school nurse in the office whose name I couldn’t recall at first. But cousin Mike Mollo came through and reminded me that it was Mrs. Abrams. Thankfully someone’s memory is still working properly.

I don’t remember that much about kindergarten. Back then we had those old fashioned wooden desks with inkwells in them. I don’t know who the little girl sitting in front of me was, but she had long pigtails, and I got into trouble once for dipping them into the inkwell. Perhaps surprisingly (because of my angelic face?), that didn’t earn me a trip to Mr. Farina’s office, but it may have been my first official act of mischief at Number 5. All in all, I didn’t have that many.

The world was a different place in those days, so even at an early age I was allowed to walk to school alone. From my house, I would go up to the corner, turn left, and walk three blocks to 5th Avenue. Jim the cop was usually at the intersection during school hours to cross the kids. I’m not certain, but I think his last name was O’Malley. Weren’t all cops named O’Malley back then?

Anyway, from there the school was one block to the right. I remember coming out the wrong door at 3 o’clock one day and finding myself in unfamiliar territory. I had no idea where I was and started crying. Luckily, Mrs. Burke happened along and asked what was wrong. When I told her I was lost, she walked me around to the side of the building that I was familiar with, much to my relief.

While I was at Number 5, I almost always went home for lunch. Some of the kids would go to “Charlie’s” grocery store on Washington Avenue for a hot dog, or to “Sam’s” luncheonette on the corner of Fifth Avenue. Others who lived too far away or whose parents weren’t home during the day would bring lunch to school and eat in the “Long Room”, so-called because of its lengthy, narrow configuration. The Long Room was a multi-purpose facility that also served as meeting room, and occasionally a gym. After eating, students could watch movies in the auditorium until it was time to go back to class. I rarely stayed around to do that, preferring to walk home where Mom would have tuna or egg salad sandwiches and a bowl of tomato soup waiting for me.

Teachers were a different breed then. For instance, in first grade I had Miss Grace Upstyle. Talk about the stereotypical school marm. Miss Upstyle was probably in her fifties when I was in her class, although we kids always thought of her as really ancient. She had gray hair pulled back into a bun, and wore wire-rimmed eyeglasses. Her shoes were the high-topped black leather ones like I was used to seeing on my great-grandmother. But she was an outstanding instructor, and probably could have served as a model teacher – for the year 1880! Anyway, I can thank Miss Upstyle for bestowing rudimentary reading and writing skills upon me and starting me on the way to becoming an essayist of somewhat ill repute.

In fourth grade I met my first true love – Miss Lois Dzuris (pronounced Juris). Miss Dzuris was a tall, young Dixie belle with a southern accent. What made her especially unique was the fact that she was the only female teacher in the school under age fifty. I simply adored her. One time she brought us some “shoo-fly” pie that she had baked using an old recipe from back home. I didn’t particularly like it, but I asked if I could bring some home to my Mom. Miss Dzuris made sure that I left at lunchtime with a large slice of pie wrapped in wax paper. I can’t recall what became of her. I think she may have gotten married later and left the school, but I probably blocked that out of my mind due to a severe case of puerile jealousy. I really wish I could remember something more.

In eighth grade I encountered my first and only male elementary school teacher – William Davis. Mr. Davis had just recently graduated from college, and this was his first assignment. We kids knew that, and sometimes took advantage of his inexperience to make his life miserable. We weren’t exactly hellions, you understand. Students simply didn’t behave like that in those days. But we were just rambunctious enough to plant a gray hair or two in his head.

One time my friend, Leslie Krause, who was the class clown and sat in front of me, turned around and said something that started us both laughing. Mr. Davis caught us and sent Leslie to the office for disrupting class. As he left the room, I got up and followed him. Mr. Davis eyed me with a puzzled look on his face. “Where are you going?” he demanded.

“I was talking too,” I stammered, and continued out the door, even though my knees were knocking at the prospect of appearing before the principal. Mr. Davis was so astonished that he never said a word. I guess my idealistic nature took root at an early age.

At Thanksgiving time he asked us all how big our family turkeys were. I think I reported that ours was twenty-five pounds, and the smallest I recall weighed in at a svelte eighteen. Mr. Davis drew a big laugh when he stated that he and his wife shared a two pound bird! Many years later, my wife worked for Dr. Lester Ploss in Freeport, NY, who had Bill Davis as a patient. I was pleasantly surprised when he told Maureen that he remembered me very distinctly. I guess you never forget your first class or your first batch of trouble-makers.

Mr. Stanley Weingold was the school’s physical education teacher. He was always after me to become a more aggressive athlete. Unfortunately, I was rather shy throughout most of my time at Number 5 School, even though I was a fairly good ball player. It wasn’t until my final year there that I began to gain some confidence in my ability, partly due to the efforts of Mr. Weingold. I played one season on the Number 5 softball team, competing against other elementary schools in the district. I remember one game in particular against a bunch of tough kids from Inwood. They not only trounced us on the field, but beat us up afterward as well. To tell the truth, I don’t recall winning a single game that year, no doubt much to Mr. Weingold’s everlasting chagrin.

My friend Jody Lowens and I were assigned to supervise the Audio/Visual room at the beginning of eighth grade. That was exactly what we two lascivious thirteen-year-olds had been praying for. Jody and I knew that there was a film strip there entitled “Reproduction among Mammals”. We both envisioned it as a hot sex education film. Therefore, we wasted no time dashing down to the A/V room after 3 o’clock the first day to find it. When we finally located the small metal canister labeled with that title, we practically fought each other in our haste to get it out of the can and into a projector.

Surprise, surprise! What we saw on the screen was “Volcanic Activity in Mexico”. How the devil was that possible? Well, it seemed that the two students who had run the A/V room the previous year, and who had since gone on to high school, had perpetrated a cruel joke on us. Every filmstrip in the inventory, and there were hundreds of them, had been switched into different canisters! We had to shelve our lewd thoughts until we managed to get all the filmstrips back into their proper containers.

Several days later, Jody opened a canister, and there it was: “Reproduction among Mammals”! Oh, thank you, God! We almost wept with joy as we slapped it into a projector. What a disappointment! The subject of the film was a pig! We groaned through some sketches of a female swine’s sex organs, and the next frame began, “After the male and female have mated…” Following a year of hopeful expectations, that’s what we got. Oh well, I guess we deserved such a letdown for our less than immaculate thoughts. But I don’t suppose we differed much from most young teenage boys of that era who struggled to control their raging hormones.

In June of 1957, my class graduated from Number 5 School. I remember that it was stifling in the auditorium where we held the commencement ceremony, even though a few old-fashioned ceiling fans labored to generate a cooling breeze. I recall watching from the stage as my friend, Richard Muller, marched down the aisle while “Pomp and Circumstance” played. Little did either of us suspect that in just a few short years we would both be at war in Vietnam. It was also one of the few times in my early life that I had worn a suit. After nine years in that magnificent building, we would all be moving on to Lawrence High School in the fall. In many respects it was almost like leaving the security of the womb. With diplomas now in hand, our first feeble steps into the early stages of adulthood lay just ahead. It would prove to be an interesting journey.

Several years ago I had occasion to drive past Number 5 School. I couldn’t believe how much smaller it now seemed. Very little had changed. The black wrought iron fence still surrounded it, and children were innocently scooting about on the playground as I had once done so long ago. I lingered for a moment remembering one detail or another about my early days there. Then the traffic light changed. Stepping on the gas, I glanced wistfully in my rear-view mirror and watched as Number Five School quickly disappeared from sight, leaving me again with just many wonderful memories of my youth.

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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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