Promise And Pain: The Year Of The Unforgettable

Image - Wikipedia
Image – Wikipedia

When John F. Kennedy made his now iconic address to the nation concerning the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, two young boys sat side by side, taking it all in. It was dramatic prime time viewing, in which nervous Americans were informed of missile sites primed to attack our shores just 90 miles off the coast of Florida.

My cousin (Little) Anthony along with my uncle (Big) Anthony watched transfixed as the President told them of “a clear and present danger”, and then spoke of initiated steps for the defense of our security from the Russian and Cuban threat.

My uncle’s response to the telecast?

“Well, there goes Christmas!”

My uncle was just a boy, knowing nothing of political strife, or wars between countries, or the madness of men seeking to rule the world.

He cared about his family, and about how this new situation with the President would ruin the holidays.

Their paths would converge again, in 1963, as darkness would fall and the world, and its history, would change in a profound way.

Nothing But The Pain

I was born in the middle of a ferocious snowstorm in March of that year, a new member of a family that was growing and becoming more prosperous. My parents hadn’t been married a year yet, and here I was already making my appearance.

The first child and grandson, I was new royalty, and these were happy times. The American Dream was being formed right in our household. An occasion to celebrate.

It was a time of celebration that was short lived. My uncle passed away only months after I was born, leaving a gaping hole in our family, and my grandparents wracked with grief and despair.

They had nothing now but the pain, and their adopted country soon followed suit. The year got no easier with America’s deepening involvement in Vietnam, escalation of racial tension in the south, and the final blow – the assassination of the President.

In the working class neighborhood where my family lived, the same shock was felt everywhere when hearing of the nature of Kennedy’s death. They had heard it on radio, read it in a special afternoon edition of the hometown newspaper.

If you were able to afford a television, you watched as Walter Cronkite gave you the timeline of events, wiping his eyes because he knew a promising young life had been cut short. The axis of history had been moved.

The Promise

Today, fifty years later, I find it hard to believe that my grandparents gave the President’s killing more than a brief thought. A life they held close, their Anthony, had already been cut short. There was no grief left to offer the Kennedys, or our country. They couldn’t have cared.

As my cousin said to me in a phone conversation, “It took them a really long time to get over it”. If they did at all.

1963 was my year, my beginning.

The year that began with much promise on a winter’s night took a turn down a wrong highway and could not turn back.

Our nation, with that promise of hopes and dreams to be fulfilled, became a bleak and bitter landscape. In Washington. In Dallas. On the edge of my town, in a house on a corner lot where my grandparents lived, there was sadness.

Fifty years later, there is remembrance. Our country was changed, our lives were altered. The promise was taken away, and we can never know what might have been.

We can only remember.

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What Inspires Me: One Relentless Man

My Grandfather, left, with brother Dominick, who was KIA in WWII
My Grandfather, left, with brother Dominick, who was KIA in WWII

On a cool summer evening in the late 1930s, my Grandmother stood on a neighborhood sidewalk, talking in Italian to a friend that lived on the same street. In the middle of conversation, the friend noticed a man walking up the sidewalk.

“Here comes your husband”, she said. My Grandmother replied that it couldn’t be him, that she didn’t recognize the silhouetted figure. A stunning moment later, she realized it was him, although she couldn’t see his face. The man she married was covered in soot and grime from a new job at the railroad yard, one of the first he held in his steadfast pursuit of their version of the American Dream.

Coming to America was just the first step at the bottom of the hill. He was relentless in his ascent up the mountain of the dream.

That dream must have looked impossible to a man whose English was rough, and came to the USA with primarily physical skills.

His was the story of thousands of Italians who emigrated to these shores, to the land of hope and dreams for sons and daughters to follow.

Joe DiMaggio turned to baseball because he hated the lingering smell of dead fish that stained his father’s fishing boat. Rocky Marciano ran straight into a boxing ring to avoid the factory life that crippled his father into a shell of his former self.

My Grandfather’s family came from the unforgiving terrain of Southern Italy for just a chance to chase something better.

His relentless nature proved to make a modestly successful immigrant life, and paved the way for the generations after him. We enjoy what we have in part because of the fruits of his labors.

He had to continue to be relentless with sadness and grief as a life companion. He lost a brother in our country’s Great War, a brother fighting for the nation he had just begun to call “home”. Fighting for the freedom we enjoy and take for granted in modern America.

He had to continue to be relentless after the death of a son who was barely a teenager in the early ’60s. His attempted therapy to make his sadness go away was cleaning the floors of the restaurant that would support our family. My cousin’s description of his demeanor was that of “a rock”, steadfast in the face of the worst tragedy.

He was relentless with old age and declining health, still coming to the restaurant although he, at times, had to drag one of his legs across the floor while walking. He never complained of physical pain or ailments. It was hard, maybe impossible, to know if he was feeling under the weather. There were no clues.

I try to make it a common practice that whenever I think I have a “problem”, I think of what my Grandfather had to go through. His courage and relentless nature are traits that are hard to replicate, deemed mostly unnecessary in our cushy and overly convenient society.

We can only admire, and try to scratch the surface of, the relentlessness that was ingrained into the hearts and will of the immigrants that dug through the mud and built the foundation of the Old School as we know it.

The Golden Rule Of Life: Keep Swinging

My favorite movie character of all time is Sylvester Stallone’s creation, Rocky Balboa. He was a nobody, a chump, a has-been of a boxer working part time for a loan shark. The only difference between Balboa and the other nobodies is that he never learned to stop swinging.

rocky balboaThat’s the crux of the movie’s plot – the main character gets an opportunity, and by being relentless in his training and the honing of his skills, he gets within a breath of the pinnacle of boxing’s most sought after crown.

What fascinated me after I saw the movie (and applied its principles to my own overweight existence) was how closely the storyline itself mirrored Stallone’s life. He was down to his last dimes trying to convince producers to shoot the film from his screenplay, with him in the leading role.

He was practically destitute, but never gave up on the dream of the film being made. While most of us would have quit and went out and got a job to pay the bills, he hung in there. He, like the movie character that would make him a global name, kept swinging.

We’ve all heard the stories of the winners that would never quit: Edison and his lightbulbs, Michael Jordan getting cut from his high school basketball team, Stephen King rejecting his own work by throwing the manuscript for “Carrie” into a trash can.

A Lifetime Of Swinging

Fame and Hollywood riches aside, you and I can see the no quit and “keep swinging” mentality everyday. If you look close enough, it’s right there in friends and family members, in big numbers.

My Godmother told my wife and I stories of her life as an immigrant, coming to America from Sicily. She, my grandmother, and other members of the family were mistreated, strip searched, degraded, and faced every form of racial slur.

Instead of crawling into protective shells, they kept swinging. They carved out inspirational lives in the country that they came to love with a passion, despite the rocky start. They were awash with perseverance, for the sake of their family and the new country that would eventually realize their worth.

My grandparents would live a hard, blue collar life that would eventually bring them financial success. Because they kept swinging. When they lost their son, my uncle, as a teenager, they turned insurmountable grief into a positive years later.

They built their house, built another business, and helped build the lives that came after. They never let us forget a boy named Anthony. They made a home where love was the key, and tenacity followed until their final days. They never stopped swinging.

Can You Keep Swinging?

Edison finally got it right after thousands of light bulb failures. Jordan put in hour upon hour of jumpshots to improve his game. You could say that Stephen King does pretty well in the publishing industry, too.

Stallone turned Rocky into a franchise that grossed millions of dollars and inspired many to chase their own heavyweight dreams.

It’s the small details and the ability to keep swinging that get you to where you want to be. One of my forged memories include a Sicilian immigrant, hunched over a plastic tub of ground beef in her kitchen, prepping a dish that would make her restaurant famous in our little town.

She was a little girl, without English speaking ability, a stranger in a strange land. She repeated habits and actions thousands and thousands of times, the actions that, as an older woman, would make her a household name in our city and multitudes of friends in the process.

How did she do it?

Keep swinging.

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Happy Birthday – P.S. The World Needs You Here

nonna & pop (2)It’s not just the first day of winter. The solstice – the day with the fewest hours of sunlight in the whole year. It’s not just another day creeping closer to Christmas.

It’s your birthday.

We all wish you were here to celebrate it, to once again complain about how this day was too close to the biggest of holidays, and how you were always “getting gypped” out of presents. Made us laugh every time.

You were a class act, yet down to earth at the same time. You practiced humility, and preached acts of kindness no matter what. Your focus was on God, family, and the country you were proud to be a part of.

You had ups and downs, multitudes of challenges, but you always seemed happy. Your extended family and wealth of old friends were always around, always entertaining. They were a happy bunch as well, with a good word for everyone.

It was always about love with you. And comfort. Especially with your prowess in the kitchen, oh that comfort! The coffee pot bubbling on the stove, chicken soup simmering away… My wife and still reminisce about your kitchen whenever we cook in ours.

The world has changed since you’ve been gone, and it seems to be for the worse. There’s barely any patience anymore, kindness is at a premium, and events that should shake all of us to the core have become sadly commonplace.

Yes, we should live “through the windshield, and not the rear view mirror.” Some will say it’s a sad day when you’re caught living in the past. But how can we not at least take a peek back?

Life was a lot more carefree, without much to concern us. There was Vietnam, and Watergate. Those events seemed to take place far away from us, covered by news programming maybe once a day. They didn’t feel like they were around the corner, waiting to burst out at you.

I like the idea of a time machine. A trip back to a simpler era would be nice, especially if I could take my wife and kids. We could lay on the floor of your living room on a Saturday morning, in our pajamas, elbows on the carpet, hands cupping our faces. Hanna-Barbera cartoons would be on, and we would be able to smell the aroma of frying meatballs coming from the kitchen.

What do we do? Finish that episode of Jonny Quest – or go for the fresh, crispy meatball?

Anyway, I’m getting off track. Most of your generation is gone, and the kind deeds and compassion they expressed may have gone right along with them. Except you did your best to pass them to us. It was a source of your pride. Your great grandchildren, in their earliest stages, are already the citizens you hoped they would be. Being up to me, they will follow in the footsteps of the great generation they came after, the one that you were part of.

Happy Birthday to you. Wish you were here.

We will celebrate this weekend with a glass of wine, a special dessert, and (your old standby) adding fish to a Christmas Eve meal. And by recalling a simpler time of life and looking toward a better future.

Tougher Than The Rest

The strong, silent type. Masculine, with a no bullshit attitude at all times, the kind that’s missing in these days. In arenas where men are constantly encouraged to get in touch with their feminine side, there used to be those that would have no part of that conversation.

A guy like John Wayne comes to mind, but I’d rather stick with the men in my family for purposes here.

My grandfather, Sebastian, (picture above) was one of those men. I think of him often, especially now near his birth month of October, and wonder what he would think of the myriad of ways that current events and attitudes unfold now.

I’m going to say he wouldn’t be pleased. He’d do what he used to, derisively uttering “God Bless America” in his sarcastic tone. And then I’d have to laugh.

Like most others of his generation, my grandfather felt he was entitled to nothing more than the opportunity to work multiple jobs to support his family. Factory worker by day, he became a bartender/restaurant worker by night. His customers did a lot of drinking, but he never did.

He simply had too much to do.

The Generation of “Non Complainers”

Sebastian did what he needed, without complaint. If he ever did complain, I never heard it. He was a grinder, working on tasks straight through until they were finished, no matter how long it took.

In partnership with my grandmother, Sebastian was a success as a business owner. When you run a restaurant, it’s like your mistress, and you spend most of your waking hours there. My grandfather had an incredible work ethic, one that he tried to pass down to all of us.

As an immigrant from southern Italy, my “Pops” sure as hell had his obstacles, and also more than his share of sadness. He had a brother, a soldier, killed in World War II, and his son, my uncle, died tragically as a teenager.

To have survived events like that are incredible feats.  I’m amazed by the man even now, years after his death. I rarely saw him display sadness, remorse, or regret. He was one tough cookie. Tougher than the rest.

I owe my grandparents quite a bit. They’ve taught me to focus on what’s important, keep it simple, and have a sense of gratitude for it all. I miss having them here. It seems the longer they have been gone, the more complicated things are. They had a way to set that straight. The path was clearer with them acting as mentors.

Forward, Always Forward

One aspect of following my grandfather around was his constant movement. Always going forward, working, making progress. He could be relentless. I recall mouthing off to my grandmother once when I was a kid. His belt came off his pants at lightning speed, and he chased me outside the house, right on my heels. I couldn’t believe such an older man could be so quick.

My grandfather reminds me of Rocky Marciano. For you youngsters out there, Marciano was a heavyweight boxing champ in the 1950s who retired undefeated. I had relatives that talked about him when I was a kid, and I became fascinated by him later. He was also a success symbol for Depression era Italian Americans, many who were immigrants. Marciano inspired hope to those who were downtrodden, and convinced America’s “streets of gold” were a fallacy.

Marciano never lost a fight because he never stopped moving forward. Even when he was hurt, rarely taking a backward step. Never stopped punching. Kept coming at you. Never relented.

Sebastiano DeGiorgio, throughout his life, was a lot like him. Short and compact, but quick. Relentless and persevering.  And tough. Tougher than the rest.

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