Saturday, February 27, 2010

Grandma and Grandpa's Great Adventure

My family originally came to America in 1912 from a little hill town in Southern Italy called Grassano. It is situated down near the heel of boot-shaped Italy, sandwiched between Puglia to the north and Calabria to the south. Both my maternal and paternal grandparents came from Grassano in the same year, the former in May, 1912 and the latter in October, 1912. My wife's grandparents come from southern Italy too, the maternal side from around Naples, and the paternal side from the seaport town of Gaeta (Grandma) and from Calabria (Grandpa). As I grow older I think about all of them a lot. What must it have been like to leave all that was familiar to cross the vast Atlantic in the steerage section of crowded ships, sometimes not knowing what fate awaited them in America. For many, their first stop was Ellis Island.

Ellis Island was a unique and a remarkable place. From 1892 to 1954, over twelve million immigrants entered the United States through the portal of this small island in New York Harbor. This gateway to the new world was enlarged from its original 3.3 acres to 27.5 acres mostly by landfill obtained from ship ballast and excess earth from the construction of the New York City subway system. Immigrants from around the world arrived, often carrying all they possessed. They were screened here for diseases and some were quarantined or sent back home. Things must have been truly horrible in the countries they came from for them to leave and endure the hardship of the perilous crossing.

Thankfully, immigration records at Ellis Island were kept pretty meticulously. I was able to look up the actual ship's manifest that recorded the entry to this country for both sets of my grandparents. The ledger page shows many passenger details including their names, place of birth, marital status, with whom they were traveling, how much money they carried, a general physical description, health status and where in the United States they were bound. For me it was very moving reading these details about my grandparents, people I never thought of as adventurous, but who had the courage to make this dangerous journey for the sake of their family. It helped me see Grandma and Grandpa in a whole new light.

We were less fortunate finding any kind of paper trail for my wife's grandparents. Many Italian immigrants came to America through different channels, for example by crossing the lightly secured Canadian border and simply walking into the United States. My wife says that her paternal grandfather worked as a ship's cook and eventually took up residence in the U.S. Her paternal grandmother's story is a more poignant one. Grandma Gelsomina (pictured left at our wedding) was sent to America by her family at the tender age of 13 to work as a domestic for a family they knew who had already set up house in America. Imagine how frightened she must have been, and the desperation of her family in Italy who were too poor to support their daughter.

The American immigration story is a compelling one. The country was growing and men were needed to do the hard labor on roads, subways, bridges and tunnels. Many places around the world like Italy and Ireland were dirt poor, and families broke away from their ancestral lands to find a better life. The contribution these immigrants made to the building of America cannot be measured. They arrived with not much more than strong backs, improbable dreams and a determination to succeed, and America welcomed them, if not always with open arms. I am proud to be the grandson of Italian immigrants. Last year we vacationed Italy, and in a way, it felt like going home.

I've written before about what it's like to visit Ellis Island (View "Those Who Came Before"), to sail into that harbor, to walk in the great halls that your grandparents passed through, to see the photos and hear the stories of these remarkable people. It is an experience I will never forget because it helped me understand who I am.


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Monday, February 22, 2010


Why are kids so fascinated by fire? I was a budding arsonist as a ten-year old, setting fire to anything that would burn.

Around Christmas time, folks on our block would set out their trees for the garbage man to pick up. My friends and I would drag them into the vacant lot on the block and pile them up. The trees by this time were dried out and ready...all it took was a single wooden match and a little wind, and viola, an inferno in the middle of a residential street. It's amazing how high the flames from 10-15 Christmas trees will climb. Strangely, nobody bothered to stop us. The residents had probably burned trees in the same lot when they were kids and saw nothing to get excited about. The cops would cruise by and wave, no big deal. Today it would become a four-alarm circus with fire trucks and reporters responding from miles around.

Another fire-related activity involved "borrowing" a neighbor's garbage pail, not the plastic ones we use today but the galvanized iron ones that weighed a ton. We would then round up brush, scrap wood and newspapers, fill up the pail and ignite the whole mess. Then, using potatoes someone had liberated from the fruit store or his mother's refrigerator, we'd spear the potatoes with sticks and char-cook them over the fire. For some reason, these street treats were called "Mickeys". If you're waiting for me to tell you they tasted great, I can't. They tasted like a combination of raw potato and ashes, but it gave us the opportunity to burn something and after all, that was the point.

A rather unique fire pastime required a wooden thread spool, a fat rubber band, and the long wooden matches that were used to light gas stoves before pilot lights were common. You cut the rubber band in half, attached one end to the side of the wooden spool with a small nail, and wrapped the other end of the rubber band over the hole in the top of the spool and attached it on the other side. This little device acted like a mortar. You slipped the plain end of the wooden match through the hole in the spool to the other end where you grasped it with the rubber band. You then lit the phosphorus end on the match, pulled the rubber band back, and launched the flaming match at your intended target. Neat.

While doing this in my back yard one day, I accidentally shot a lighted match into an old sofa we had standing against the back of the house. I didn't realize my folly until I saw the flames shooting out of the sofa and licking the sides of the house. I began running into the kitchen for glasses of water to douse the flames. After the third trip, my Mom got suspicious. She ran out and grabbed the hose, which was there in plain sight, and put out the fire. I guess my ten-year old brain didn't register that a hose would be more effective than multiple glasses of water for putting out a fire. My mother was furious and used the wooden spoon to good effect that day. She didn't rat me out to Dad though. Mom was a stand-up guy.

Finally there was the fake dynamite incident. In another post I talked about how my Aunt Anna had made me a horse out of an old trestle table. Cowboys were all the rage in the fifties, and I would play in our cellar for hours with my trusty steed. One favorite plot was to tear off thin strips of newspaper, stick them into the whitewashed cellar walls, and pretend they were dynamite fuses. I would light the fuses, and then run like hell, leaping onto my horse to make my getaway before the explosion. Usually if I was quiet, mom left me alone, thankful I was not pestering her. One day she got a whiff of the burning 'fuse' and went ballistic. "Are you trying to burn down the house" she hollered. "Do you know what your father keeps down here?" Tony Boots, my dad, had an old wooden dresser full of turpentine, paint thinner and other flammables. Needless to say, my dynamiting days were over.

In the days before video games, we had fire. Like Early Man, we were drawn to the flames...trying to ignite dry leaves with only a magnifying glass and sunlight, heating a penny to see if it would melt, or tossing cherry bombs into an open fire. In school they had a fire safety campaign with a mascot called Little Hot Spot. We could have been featured prominently in that campaign under the heading: "Where There's Kids There's Fire".


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

Thursday, February 11, 2010

"Yea, It's Snowing"

We had about 14 inches of hated snow from this latest storm, and I shoveled twice yesterday trying to keep up. I dragged myself out this morning with an aching back dreading another shift, this one even worse since the snow had become crusted and icy overnight. The Lord above showed his goodness when four strong young men with shovels showed up and saved my old body from further abuse. It cost me a few bucks but it was the best money I'll spend this winter. I didn't always hate snow, in fact as a kid I would pray for it because that meant the start of our version of the Winter Olympics.

I've stated before how kids with no money and time on their hands will be much more creative than rich kids in finding ways to amuse themselves. Playing in the snow was no exception. Our mothers were glad to have us out of the house. After dressing us in bulky snowsuits, galoshes (boots that used metal snaps to close), hats with ear flaps and mittens pinned to our coat sleeves, we were ready to hit the streets. To get out the door we first needed to shovel a path to the sidewalk. (I now see how our mothers counted on our eagerness to play to get the sidewalks cleared,) Once that was done we sprinkled coal ashes from the furnace onto the icy walkways to help people walk without slipping. Not pretty, but effective.

All the snow shoveled from the sidewalks was piled near the curb. After a bad storm the mound could be four or five feet tall, and since the houses were attached, the mound ran all the way down the block. This offered the perfect opportunity to make a snow tunnel. We would dig out the snow to make a main tunnel running the length of maybe half a block, and then create different entrances perpendicular to the main tunnel so that you could enter in front of your house and exit five or six houses down the street. You may say there was no real purpose to all this hard work since we could easily travel the same distance by just walking down the cleared sidewalk, but we were kids with nothing to do and more energy than you can imagine.

Another favorite snow day activity was sledding. Most of us had those big Flexible Flyer sleds with the metal runners. Unlike the plastic junk they sell today, these were made to hold three or four kids piled on one sled. There was a vacant lot in the middle of our block that was elevated maybe ten feet above street level. It was just enough of a hill to ride a sled down, the only problem being we needed a lookout to check for traffic since the path down the hill took your sled right into and across the street. Sometimes we daisy-chained sleds together and came down the hill in groups, collapsing in a laughing heap in the snowbank that served as our brakes. This was a risky game to be sure, but we never lost anybody.

Snowball fights were a must. Parents today would probably frown on the idea of their kid getting into a snowball fight, but they were mostly harmless. Really nasty kids (who probably grew up to be lawyers) would put rocks inside the snowballs they packed, but we discouraged this practice by beating the crap out of any kid caught doing it. We would take cover behind the cars on either side of the street and let fly. There was a certain snow consistency that was perfect for making round, firm snowballs; powdery snow didn't work as well. It wasn't easy throwing with all those layers of clothes, but we managed well enough.

Around lunchtime, when we couldn't feel our fingers and toes anymore, we retreated to our respective houses for a break. Off came the wet gloves and hats to be placed on the hot radiator in the hall to dry out before the afternoon games. The galoshes and soaked clothes would come off, and I remember my mother rubbing me down with a towel before feeding me my favorite wintertime lunch, Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup with Uneeda Biscuit crackers crushed into it. I found out later in life that this soup has enough salt in it to drive your blood pressure through the roof, but back then it was pure ambrosia. After lunch, suit up and repeat.

I think of snow as a four-letter word. I wish I could recapture that love of the snow that I had as a child, but as long as I have to shovel it and not be able to drive around in it, I flatly declare to the world that ...I HATE @#$%&* SNOW!


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Wednesday, February 3, 2010

What's That on Your Head?

On Wednesday we went to have our throats blessed. This Catholic ritual is one I remember clearly from my childhood. Every year on the feast day of St. Blaise, our teachers would march us into church for the annual blessing of throats. The priest, holding two consecrated candles in a crossed position at your throat, would utter the following blessing: "Per intercessionem S. Blasii liberet to Deus a malo gutteris et a qouvis alio malo." ("May God, at the intercession of St. Blaise, preserve you from throat troubles and every other evil.") Today the blessing was spoken in English since the church long ago abandoned Latin, a mistake in my opinion, but Pope John XXIII disagreed. Anyhow, since my wife tells me I eat too fast, I'm hoping the blessing of my throat will prevent the need for a Heimlich maneuver somewhere down the road.

I didn't know much about St. Blaise so I looked him up. According to legend, Blaise was a Catholic bishop in the city of Sebastea, Armenia, in 316. He, worked hard to encourage the spiritual and physical health of his people, but as a result of religious persecution, was forced to flee to the back country. There he lived as a hermit in solitude and prayer, but made friends with the wild animals. One day a group of hunters seeking wild animals for the amphitheater stumbled upon Blaise’s cave. They were first surprised and then frightened. The bishop was kneeling in prayer surrounded by patiently waiting wolves, lions and bears. As the hunters hauled Blaise off to prison, a mother came with her young son who had a fish bone lodged in his throat. At Blaise’s command the child was able to cough up the bone. This act established St. Blaise as the protector of throats. Ah ah, don't thank me, it's what I do.

Another church ritual I remember is the annual dispensing of ashes on Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday gets its name from the practice of placing ashes on the foreheads of the faithful as a sign of repentance. The ashes used are gathered after the Palm Crosses from the previous year's Palm Sunday are burned. The ashes are mixed with oil and used by the priest who presides at the service to make the sign of the cross on the foreheads of the congregants. The priest then recites the words: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." As kids we didn't think much about the cross of ashes on our heads since everybody had one, but I remember when I got older and went to work, I got some funny looks on the subway.

We had other religious traditions we followed like the wearing of the "scapular". A scapular (from Latin, scapula, "shoulder") is a religious pendant of cloth worn under the clothing, which is usually adorned with the picture of a saint as a part of Roman Catholic devotion. Scapulars have their historical origins in larger, tunic-like garments that were once worn by Roman Catholic monks, and later adapted for the use of the Roman Catholic laity. Reduced versions of these scapulars are worn by lay persons with a connection to a particular religious order. By far the most common scapular is the Brown Scapular of Mount Carmel. I wore one that my Aunt Anna gave me. She was the head of the local Mount Carmel Sodality at Our Lady of Loretto church. It got grungy after me wearing it to too many basketball games and my mother threw it out.

Another ritual they took us out of school for was to perform the "Stations of the Cross". (I don't know how we ever learned anything with all the time we spent in church.) Also known as the "Via Delarosa" the Stations of the Cross are a series of pictures or tableaux representing certain scenes in the Passion of Christ. Each scene corresponded to a particular incident that culminated in the crucifixion of Jesus. The object is to pass from station to station (there are 14 in all) saying certain prayers at each, and to meditate on each incident in turn. I can remember so clearly the beautiful marble recreations of the Stations of the Cross mounted around the perimeter of Our Lady of Lourdes church. I think there was a reward for performing the Stations...probably a plenary indulgence. Mine probably expired.

One of the things that always impressed me about Catholicism was the rituals. The pomp, the costumes, the smell of incense, the chanting, and the gravity with which the priests conducted these ceremonies had a powerful influence on me as a child. Because of that, I feel at home in church, and although I might wish for less singing and speedier homilies, I do find peace there.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

One Small Step for Man...

As a kid sitting in the Colonial Theater in Brooklyn, I was mesmerized during the showing of the ongoing adventure sci-fi serial "Flash Gordon" featuring Buster Crabbe as Flash, and a cast of great characters like scientist Dr. Zarkov, space babe Dale Arden, and Ming the Merciless, evil ruler of the planet Mongo. In every episode, Flash and his companions would get into another fix, usually involving Ming's futile attempts to destroy them, and the nail biting audience audience would always be left hanging on the outcome until the following week. Looking back, the special effects simulating space travel were not so much special as they were comical. The notion of traveling into space was pure fiction back then, that is until the era of space exploration and the space race began in earnest.

World War II provided the impetus and motivation for the development of long-range rockets. The U.S., the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and Germany simultaneously developed rockets for military purposes. The most successful were the Germans, who developed the V-2 (a liquid-propellant rocket used in the bombardment of London). At the close of the war, the U.S. Army brought back a number of the V-2s, which were then used in the U.S. for experimental research in vertical flights. Some German engineers went to the USSR after the war, but the leading rocket experts went to the U.S., including the father of rocket science, Wernher von Braun.

The dream of space travel took a big step toward reality when the USSR launched the first orbiting earth satellite, Sputnik 1, Oct. 4, 1957. The second artificial earth satellite was also a Soviet space vehicle, called Sputnik 2. It was sent aloft on Nov. 3, 1957, with a dog named Laika aboard, and it relayed the first biomedical measurements in space. I can remember the uproar in America when the Russians beat us to the punch at being the first in space. President Eisenhower did not see the necessity to explore space or even land on the moon in order to surpass the Russians. Eisenhower labeled a lunar space race as nothing more than an "extravagant stunt." The Kennedy administration did not want the world to view the United States as a country lagging behind Communist Russia, and began to push the race to the moon after the Soviets first manned (Yuri Gagarin) orbital flight that encircled the earth on April 12, 1961.

NASA had been established just before Kennedy took office in 1960, and with von Braun's help, the U.S. began catching up. On May 5, 1961, Comdr. Alan B. Shepard, Jr., of the U.S. Navy became the first American in space in the Mercury spacecraft, named Freedom 7. On Feb. 20, 1962, Lt. Col. John H. Glenn, Jr., of the U.S. Marine Corps, became the first U.S. astronaut to orbit the earth, in a flight of three orbits. Every schoolchild knew the names of the seven original Mercury astronauts: Alan Sheppard, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, Gordon Cooper and "Deke" Slayton. They were the new American heroes whose courage in the face of the unknown soon helped the U.S. surpass the USSR in the race to the moon. (Sadly, Grissom was killed in a launch pad fire aboard Apollo 1 on January 27, 1967.)

Despite a slow start, NASA administrators finally reached the goal they had set nearly a decade earlier. On July 20, 1969, American Neil Armstrong was the first man to literally step foot on the moon. It was a historic achievement by the United States. Who can forget huddling around the television to hear Armstrong's first words broadcast from the surface of the moon: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." Anyone who lived through that moment will never forget it. The United States landing on the moon ended the lunar race with the Soviets. The United States regained the lead and citizens swelled with pride at the momentous occasion.

The leap from Flash Gordon's fictional space trips to the real flights made by brave men and women from all countries came at a cost. In all, twenty-one astronauts, 16 from the U.S., four from the USSR and one from Israel, perished in space or on the launch pad. As much as we remember Armstrong's first words from space, we also remember the horror of the Challenger explosion in 1986, and the Columbia breaking up on reentry in 2003. Man has always looked for new frontiers, and like the brave explorers who boarded wooden ships to sail into the unknown centuries ago, the astronauts took up the mantle and pressed the limits of man's knowledge, sometimes paying the ultimate price. The more timid among us can only express our gratitude to the adventurers who take the risks and push the envelope.

(Information from websites: "John Kennedy and the Space Program" and "History of Space Exploration")


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