It Takes a Village

Me and my maternal grandfather Carmelo during the war years.

I was a lucky boy.

I had parents who loved and cared for me and my two brothers. I was never hungry or homeless. We always had food on our table and a roof over our heads. Sure we had hand me down clothes but I always got the new ones because I was the oldest. We never went on vacation. We didn’t have a truly decent car until I went to work at 16, We never owned a home until I was well into my teen years. And as I got older I never had my own room, I slept in the living room on a Castro Convertible sofa. Comfort, Beauty and Style!

In spite of being on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder, I was lucky.

I grew up in a village. Not your village of quaint little cottages out in the verdant countryside; an urban village of three story tenement apartments populated by my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and an assortment of memorable friends and neighbors all living within 2 or 3 blocks of each other..

Growing up I got to know them all.

Hennie the bookie who would take a $2 bet on the horses from my dad now and then when poppa had a “hot tip.” Josie Baxter, a large, round faced woman who always had a smile. She ran the candy store / soda shop where momma would buy Pall Mall. The Palomini’s, who ran the grocery and would give my mom credit until payday when money was short. The local loan shark who would visit for his “vigorish” when poppa was out of work. David, a Jewish door to door salesman who would bring items directly to the house for mom’s inspection and sell on credit if she needed it. Mom bought my high school graduation ring from David and he introduced me to Tchaikovsky. Martucci, the druggist, who would give my epileptic father Phenobarbital and Dilantin without prescriptions to control his seizures. As a kid I would pick up the drugs. Nobody would suspect a kid..

My mom’s two girl friends, one in our building and one across the street, two sisters, both separated from their husbands and raising kids on their own.

My paternal grandmother had 5 of her own children (and 3 stepchildren) four of whom lived between 77th and 79th street on 13th Avenue in Brooklyn along with their husbands, wives and their children. My father was the youngest. Only Uncle Nicola, his wife and son lived elsewhere – in lower Manhattan at what we dubbed the “Avenue A Gardens.” Of course he was around for Sunday dinner at Grandma’s. The stepchildren also lived relatively close by and I saw them regularly.

Now with all these relatives and folks there was always somebody with an eye on us kids.

Mom had a better network than the NKVD and always knew what we were doing sometimes even before I knew what I was going to do.

And yet I was free. I had what one might today call a “free range” upbringing.

I walked to school. Rode my bike before bike lanes. Went to the park and the library. Went to the movies, locally and to the Brooklyn Paramount and the Times Square theaters. Went to rock and roll shows.  Saw the Isley Brothers at the Paramount. Attended baseball games at Ebbits Field and football at Yankee Stadium. Visited the American Museum of Natural History and the Hayden Planetarium often as well as the MMA. Saw Broadway shows and played chess at the Marshall Chess Club. Had summer jobs. Not bad for a kid. I didn’t grow up in a thermos bottle.

I played stick ball in the street. Handball at the courts. Enjoyed all the “seasons” with the rest of the boys – box scooter season, yo-yo season, carpet gun season, roller skating season. Learned how to kiss at Ravenhall.

I was baptized and married in the same church my parents married in.

In my village of two blocks were my grandparents, three uncles, an aunt and three cousins, all of us the same age. That’s not counting the aunts and uncles who lived just a short drive or subway ride away.

Who was there during those halcyon days of my youth? Well you’ve all seen my grandparents Francesco, Laura and Carmelo. Beetley Pete particularly liked the look of the  younger Carmelo.

The others I grew up with are here; the village people:

Uncle Nicola, my father’s oldest full brother. There were 3 older step-siblings. Uncle Nick was a big man, like his father. He worked for the NY City Transit Authority and lived for many years in lower Manhattan in a huge apartment with his wife Aunt Amelia and son Frank until moving back to Brooklyn later in life. I would see him most every Sunday. He was always ready to listen and give sensible advice.

Aunt Amelia, Uncle Nick’s wife. I last saw her around 2000 at my cousin’s home on Staten Island. She was a widow by then and lived on her own quite well given her age. Her son Frank still lives in Brooklyn in the old neighborhood.

My cousin Frank, son of Nick and Amelia. I didn’t even have to go into the Army alone! We went in the same week and did our basic training together during the winter of 63 – 64 at Fort Dix, N.J. My parents, my future wife and Uncle Nick and Aunt Amelia would visit us on weekends!

Aunt Connie, my dad’s older sister. She went back to work after her children were old enough and labored at Acme Quilting in the Bush Terminal Buildings in Brooklyn. I would usually visit her with dad on Sunday mornings. I recall being fascinated by her round washing machine with rollers for squeezing the water out of the clothes.. She also had a wonderful Zenith radio and a television. Her son Joseph served in Korea and was my sponsor at Confirmation. Her daughter Loretta still lives on Staten Island.

Uncle Saverio! Actually we called him Uncle Sam, Aunt Connie’s husband. He was the only Sicilian in our family and he was proud of it. He spent his life working for a toy manufacturing company and always brought nice presents for us kids.

Uncle Joe lived across the street from my maternal grandfather’s dairy story. He was a licensed welder nd was the first in the family to marry a non-Italian, Protestant girl. I’m sure it caused quite a stir. After all, Grandma would ask my dates “Eh, what town in Italy is your family from?’    🙂

A young Aunt Ruth, the non-Italian Episcopalian wife of Uncle Joseph. When I first moved to Florida I was shocked to learn that she was still alive and living with her daughter in Arizona. While speaking with my cousin whom I hadn’t spoken with in a very long time I inquired about her mother. “Want to talk with her? She’s right here!” Aunt Ruth was in her 90s and just fine thankyou. I made two trips west to visit with her sharing a few nips over lunches and dinners. I’m glad I went while she was still here.

Cousin Alice, daughter of Ruth and Joe. Currently living the retirement life with her husband Carmel in Arizona. We can thank them for the pictures. Carmel loves genealogy.

Uncle Angelo, besides my dad the youngest of Grandma Laura’s 5 children.  He too was in construction like my dad.  He was the first of the family to buy his own home, moving to Staten Island well before the bridge went up.  I remember riding the ferry to get to his new house.  He became a widower and moved to Arizona, close to his son Paul  He passed away before my trips to the west.

Aunt Tina, Angelo’s wife.  She would accompany my mom to the park with us boys.  Before buying a home she lived across the street from Joe and Ruth, Sam and Connie, my grandparents and parents.  Village people.

Cousin Paul, in his mustache phase. now retired in Arizona.

Now these are just the folks I saw every day.  My dad’s had two half brothers and a sister in addition whom I would also see during holidays or special occasions.  My mom had three brothers and a sister, all of whom lived in Brooklyn (but not on 13th Avenue) and they had wives, a husband and children.  Today my cousins are spread from Arizona to Dallas to New York and Charleston, South Carolina.

I grew up with all of them in my life.  The village shaped what you read here.

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Refugees

Well it certainly has been an interesting week here in America as we watched Donald Trump fold like a beach chair in the face of tumultuous protest over his policy of separating children, including toddlers, from the parents of “immigrants” crossing our southwest border illegally.

After trying unsuccessfully to blame the Democrats and telling more lies such that he was only enforcing the “Democrat law” and that he could do nothing without Congressional action, today he signed an executive order keeping “immigrant” families together at the border.  At least for now.  Moments ago the House defeated the first of two bills addressing the immigration issue.

A couple of facts from a retired old crank living in Florida should be presented here.

First, the vast majority of families or mothers with children arriving at the border are not Mexican.  They are from the murder triangle of Central America – Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.  The erstwhile “Banana Republics.”

Second, they are not economic migrants.  They are refugees.

They are fleeing their countries in spite of and in the face of the Trump policy, well known certainly in Honduras and to a lesser extent in Guatemala and El Salvador, that upon arriving at and illegally crossing the border, they will be treated like criminals, not as refugees.  They will be arrested, jailed, separated from their children and deported as quickly as possible.

This is the Trump zero tolerance policy, enacted as a deterrent and meant to keep migrant refugees in their place.

They are coming anyway, in spite of the dangers of making the trip, beset by trafficers bandits, assorted thugs and extortionists.

Why is that?

“Honduras has been recognized as the murder capital of the world for many years, with its homicide rate peaking in 2011 at 91.6 murders per 100,000 people.   , San Pedro Sula, Honduras, where the two biggest criminal gangs, which have memberships across the region in the tens of thousands, fight with automatic weapons. The city has become a war zone, with a murder rate of 193 per 100,000 (New York City’s rate is 5.1).   It also has the world’s highest rate of sexual violence.

Homicide rates in Guatemala have remained steady, but have more than doubled in El Salvador. After the late 2013 breakdown of a truce between the country’s two most powerful gangs (MS-13 and Barrio 18), homicide rates increased dramatically, reaching an all-time high of 104 murders per 100,000 people in 2015. Not surprisingly, research on the causes of migration from this region increasingly finds these high levels of crime and violence as a primary push factor in Central American migration.”

Courtesy of Congressman Henry Cuellar

“The most important single object that Esperanza Ramirez and her 3-year-old daughter brought with them on their thirteen-day, 1,200-mile exodus through Mexico was a tiny piece of paper with the telephone number of Esperanza’s sister on Long Island. She folded the paper to make it even smaller, and hid it among the few things they carried. Criminal drug gangs along the Gulf of Mexico have gone into a lucrative side business: kidnapping Central Americans from the stream of refugees fleeing north, and forcing them to call their relatives in the United States to wire ransom money. “I knew that you can’t let them find out that you have contacts up here,” she said as her exhausted little girl, Angelica, slept in her lap. “It’s better if they think you are poor and alone.”

The Ramirezes (their names have been changed to protect them from retribution) got through Mexico and crossed the Rio Grande just south of here safely, but Esperanza, who is 24, has had to live with violence her entire life. She and her daughter had just fled the most dangerous city in the world, San Pedro Sula, Honduras.”

Under both international and American law, Esperanza and Angelica Ramirez have a strong case for asylum in the United States. But the United States has a particular moral responsibility in the Central America refugee crisis that goes even deeper.

Americans, especially young Americans, probably know more about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda than they do about how their own government funded murderous right-wing dictatorships in Central America back in the 1980s.

The Reagan administration’s violent and immoral policy included $5 billion in aid to the military/landowner alliance in El Salvador, which prolonged an awful conflict in which some 75,000 people died—a toll proportionally equivalent to the casualty rate in the American Civil War. But once shaky peace agreements were signed in the 1990s, the United States walked away, leaving the shattered region to rebuild on its own.

In response to today’s exodus, our President is showing little concern for international law, and none at all for Washington’s own historic responsibility in Central America.

During the early 1980s, the United States established a continuing military presence in Honduras to support El Salvador, the Contra guerrillas fighting the Nicaraguan government, and also develop an air strip and modern port in Honduras. Though spared the bloody civil wars wracking its neighbors, the Honduran army quietly waged campaigns against “Marxist-Leninist” militias and against many non-militants as well. The operation included a CIA-backed campaign of extrajudicial killings by government-backed units, most notably Battalion 316.

In Guatemala in 1950, in a largely free and fair election, Jacobo Arbenz was elected President.  The historical view of him was that he was a moderate capitalist.  His most important policy was Decree 900, a sweeping agrarian reform bill passed in 1952.  Decree 900 transferred uncultivated land to landless peasants. Only 1,710 of the nearly 350,000 private land-holdings were affected by the law, which benefited approximately 500,000 individuals, or one-sixth of the population.

Despite their popularity within the country, the reforms of the Guatemalan Revolution were disliked by the United States government, which was predisposed by the Cold War to see it as communist, and the United Fruit Company (UFCO), whose hugely profitable business had been affected by the end to brutal labor practices.  United Fruit carried out a vicious propaganda campaign over the “communist threat.”

Plans were made under Harry Truman to overthrow Arbenz with the support of Anastasio Somoza, the Nicaraguan dictator but were aborted when details became public.  Eisenhower finished the job along with United Fruit, the CIA and John and Allen Dulles.

A free election to be held in 1963 was thwarted by the Kennedys.  Four decades of guerilla warfare, military coups and right wing dictatorships including death squads and murders of the indigenous peoples followed the toppling of Arbenz.

During the first ten years of the civil war, the victims of the state-sponsored terror were primarily students, workers, professionals, and opposition figures, but in the last years they were thousands of mostly rural Maya farmers and non-combatants. More than 450 Maya villages were destroyed and over 1 million people became refugees or displaced within Guatemala. According to the report, Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica (REMHI), some 200,000 people died. More than one million people were forced to flee their homes and hundreds of villages were destroyed. The Historical Clarification Commission attributed more than 93% of all documented violations of human rights to Guatemala’s military government, and estimated that Maya Indians accounted for 83% of the victims. It concluded in 1999 that state actions constituted genocide.

Such has been the behavior of the United States of America in the “Banana Republics.”

Today “gangs” control vast areas of these countries.

We should not call them gangs.  This in not West Side Story.

These are terrorist organizations.

If we wish to stem the tide of children and women showing up at our border asking us to protect them we should spend as much effort helping to make their home countries livable as we do to prosecute them as criminals.  They are fleeing the violence resulting from the slow institutional failure of government in their countries.

No amount of soap will erase the stain from our unclean hands.

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Duty Called – Poem #128

Soldier sitting by the door
riding the bus in ’64
just two and twenty he was then
going away till God knows when
riding a bus through Massachusetts
as the snow began to fall
the bus pulled in
to a road side diner
the soldier went in
and sat at the counter
where the coffee was hot
the bacon just perfect
the waitress was pretty
the atmosphere pleasant;
and he thought to himself
I could stay here forever.

He wanted to stay
where life was still beautiful
where his girl could come join him
in the corner for dinner
a night of loving
limbs perfect and trembling
He sighed at the driver
when the time came to go
trudging back to the bus
his boots crunching snow
the magic still with him
wanting to stay
but going away
missing a Christmas
missing two
missing her.

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Match Box Car – Poem #127

 

You find it when your old life is lost
while moving dressers, peering under the bed
trying to make some sense of it all
through the cobwebs, mites and cat hair.

Furniture and lamps
in a most familiar room
where someone else will live,
the house, it’s walls embracing strangers

Through the blinds, Apollo’s light
would lay it’s stripes upon our bed
waking us from each other’s arms
and dreams on Sunday mornings

but that is past;
for the procession of the living goes on,
those moments becoming like the dust
which you vaguely know was once your skins.

There are girl things,
dolls you carry by one leg
with hard rubber hands and dimples
and clothes you put on and off.

These things we take
for the girls will not part with them
but in his empty dresser drawer
a boy thing; a tiny match box car

solid metal
primary color
undamaged since that long ago day
when she had to put it away

now out of it’s dark place
you hold it, eyes brimming
it makes no allowance, makes no difference;
you leave it lovingly in the corner of his bedroom closet.

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Missing Nikita Khrushchev

“Ah America!  You would be hilariously funny if you weren’t so tragic.

Here we are, the world’s only legitimate super-power who always knows what’s best for the rest of the world, always ready to give copious advice to everyone on the planet, whether they ask our advice or not, dishing out our advice with a tone deafness which would be hilarious if it wasn’t so tragic.”

Take North Korea.

“The Americans and South Koreans,” wrote reporter Motoko Rich in the NY Times, “want to persuade the North that continuing to funnel most of the country’s resources into its military and nuclear programs shortchanges its citizens’ economic well-being. But the North does not see the two as mutually exclusive.”

Think about that statement.  The United States has commenced a trillion dollar upgrade of its nuclear arsenal and spends another trillion each year in the deep state defense and security apparatus while letting it’s own roads and bridges fall apart.  Our “defense” spending is still rising and is by far greater than the combined expenditures of the next seven powers on the planet.

“Yet we find it perplexing that an impoverished North Korea follows the same path we ourselves are on.  “Clueless” is not a word we usually apply to ourselves.”

Americans don’t have a clue about the rise and fall of empires.  Note the plural.   “It was never—not until recently at least—empire, always empires. Since the 15th century, when the fleets of the first European imperial powers broke into the larger world with subjugation in mind, it was invariably a contest of many. There were at least three or sometimes significantly more imperial powers rising and contesting for dominance or slowly falling from it.”

Prior to Gavrilo Princip lighting the match at Sarajevo The Brits, French, Germans, Russians, Habsburgs and Ottomans vied for dominance in Europe and across the globe.  The Ottomans were clearly in decline; the Habsburg’s were but didn’t know it and Japan was the rising star in the East.

After the Great War, the Hohenzollerns, Habsburgs, Romanovs and Ottomans were gone.  Revolution swept Germany, Russia was now a Soviet Republic, Austria a lonely independent state and Poland recreated.  New states  – Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Czechoslovakia, Serbia/Yugoslavia, Romania and Bulgaria came into being.

Nationalist states had been carved from the supra-national monarchial empires of the decade before.

Germany resurrected herself under Adolph Hitler, Japan sought dominion over the far east and Italy sought her rightful place in the world.

After World War volume II there were only two super powers in the world –  The United States and the Soviet Union.

“Of the two, the United States was always stronger, more powerful, and far wealthier. It theoretically feared the Russian Bear, the Evil Empire, which it worked assiduously to “contain” behind that famed Iron Curtain and socialist/commie/pinkos in this country, always modest in number, were subjected to a mania of fear and suppression. However, the truth—at least in retrospect—was that, in the Cold War years, the Soviets were actually doing Washington a strange, if unnoted, favor.”

Across much of the Eurasian continent, and other places from Cuba to the Middle East, Soviet power and the never-ending contest for influence and dominance that went with it always reminded American leaders that their own power had its limits.

It still seemed obvious then that American power could not be total. There were things it could not do, places it could not control, dreams its leaders simply couldn’t have. Though no one ever thought of it that way, from 1945 to 1991, the United States, like the Soviet Union, was, after a fashion, “contained.”

The Americans “lost” China to Mao, fought to a draw in Korea and eventually abandoned the effort in Vietnam.  Russia had to send troops into Hungary and Czechoslovakia and was forced to withdraw from Afghanistan.  Both super powers learned the limits of military power through experience.  Neither expected to “win” over the other and instead viewed the contest as one which would continue for centuries if not forever.

The collapse of the Soviet Union was indeed a shocker.  The initial reaction was not one of triumphalism (though that came soon enough) but shock and disbelief.  The phrase of the moment was “the end of history.”

Given the wreckage of the Soviet Union, it seemed that an ultimate victory had been won by the very country its politicians would soon come to call “the last superpower,” the “indispensable” nation, the “exceptional” state, a land great beyond imagining.”

In reality, there were a variety of paths open to the “last superpower” at that moment. There was even, however briefly, talk of a “peace dividend”—of the possibility that, in a world without contesting superpowers, taxpayer dollars might once again be invested not in the sinews of war-making but of peace-making (particularly in infrastructure and the well-being of the country’s citizens).   That didn’t last long.

There were  only a few “rogue states” to deal with – Iraq, Iran and North Korea.  The easy victory in the first Gulf War, driving Saddam’s hapless troops from Kuwait let the geo-political dreamers to a new way of thinking  in which a highly tech-savvy military would be capable of doing anything on the planet without serious opposition.

We learned nothing from Somalia and the black hawk down incident where  we were unable to impose on will on a war lord in what is still a near country.  Somalia frustrates the super-power to this day.  But we can blame Bin Laden for unchaining the empire.

“What followed was pure hubris.  There had never been a moment like it: a moment of one. A single great power left alone, triumphant, on planet Earth. Just one superpower—wealthy beyond compare, its increasingly high-tech military unmatched, its only true rival in a state of collapse—had now been challenged by a small jihadist group. “

The country was almost instantly said to be “at war” and soon that conflict even had a name, the Global War on Terror. Nor was that war to be against just Al Qaeda, or even one country, an Afghanistan largely ruled by the Taliban. More than 60 countries said to have “terror networks” of various sorts found themselves almost instantly in the administration’s potential gun sights. And that was just to be the beginning of it all.

In October 2001, the invasion of Afghanistan was launched. In the spring of 2003, the invasion of Iraq followed, and those were only the initial steps in what was increasingly envisioned as the imposition of a Pax Americana on the Greater Middle East. There could be no doubt, for instance, that Iran and Syria, too, would soon go the way of Iraq and Afghanistan.

In addition to imagining a political Pax Republicana in the United States, they truly dreamed of a future planetary Pax Americana in which, for the first time in history, a single power would, in some fashion, control the whole works, the Earth itself. And this wasn’t to be a passing matter either. The Bush administration’s “unilateralism” rested on a conviction that it could actually create a future in which no country or even bloc of countries would ever come close to matching or challenging US military power.

They had little doubt that, in the face of the most technologically advanced, bulked-up, destructive force on Earth, hostile states would be “shocked and awed” by a simple demonstration of its power, while friendly ones would have little choice but to come to heel as well. After all, as President Bush said at a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in 2007, the US military was “the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known.”

Though there was much talk at the time about the “liberation” of Afghanistan and then Iraq, at least in their imaginations the true country being liberated was the planet’s lone superpower and a “oneness” of the world that had never been seriously imagined.

One would think a modicum of caution might be in order.  But not George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and pals. In the face of what seemed like the ultimate in possibilities they proved clueless when it came to the possibility that anything on Earth might have a shot at containing them.

Who could have imagined that 16 years later, facing only lightly armed “terrorists” we control nothing at all.   Instead, from Afghanistan to Syria, Iraq deep into Africa, it would find itself in a state of “infinite war” and utter frustration on a planet filled with ever more failed states, destroyed cities, displaced people, and right-wing “populist” governments, including the one in Washington?

Despite what it looked like in Washington once upon a time, the disappearance of the Soviet Union proved to be no gift at all, but a disaster of the first order. It removed all sense of limits from America’s political class and led to a tale of greed on a planetary scale. In the process, it also set the United States on a path to self-decline while facing the rise of a new rival – China.

We now live in a world of infinite war, infinite harm, and in Donald Trump’s America where cluelessness has been raised to a new power and a fine art.  

I miss Nikita Khrushchev.

Nikita K., his wife and grandsons

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Magi in America – Poem #126

Did the Magi follow the star across the seas
to the new land, to America
seeking God who will reveal himself again
in a cave?

God in a cave; now so difficult to find
for the star is obscured by bright lights
big cities, ciphers of commerce;
even the angels are lost in America.

Shall they seek him
amidst the clouds of incense
the glow of censers
swung by aging priests

or perhaps he will lie
in a basket, God’s image visible
through the glass walls
of the Crystal Cathedral?

Will they find God
knocking on the doors of the rich
outside the gated houses of the Sadducees
inside the bank among the money changers?

among the hard of heart
sitting in the pews murmuring
“In God we Trust
All others pay cash?”

Or is it already midnight
with no star visible
with no hope left
of finding the child in a cave?

Alas, the star no longer visible
the Magi follow the sounds of laughter
going door to door in America asking
 “Where is the child?”

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Longest Night – Poem #125

This longest night
come stay  with me
I’ll meet you near the trees
out back

You always visit
in a dream
a soft sweet kiss
and then away

Consider this an invite
so fitting for the longest night;
expect you with the evening star
feel free to come just as you are

A solstice fire, a barren field
makes sure that you can find the way
I’ve dried the wood and kindling
hoping that this night you’ll stay

Look for me on the pretty blue rock
revolving ‘round the yellow star
See the fire in the yard
know that I’m expecting you

Dinner with a glass or two
Christmas like we used to do;
The children will be here next day
Of course I know; you cannot stay.

I’ll keep the fire burning bright
‘till dawning of the morning light;
I’ll build the fire just for you
this longest night; to see me through

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