For about ten years, spanning the last decade of the twentieth century, I visited numerous branches of local libraries, and browsed the shelves of many used-book stores — close to where I lived and while on the road — combing through stacks of magazines that were printed in the 1940s, the 1950s and the first half of the 1960s. Along the way, I purchased many copies of Life, Look, Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post, and the like.
My most fortunate acquisition — although outside the time frame that piqued my initial curiosity — is a 1919 edition of Vanity Fair that includes articles by P.G. Wodehouse and Dorothy Parker. Wodehouse insists that H.G. Wells cheated him out of the $1.50 he paid for Wells’ latest book because the book turned out not to be a novel, but instead to be a treatise of some sort. Wodehouse claims that a novelist should remain faithful to his reader’s expectations by writing only novels. Today’s reader might well wonder whether or not Wodehouse — being Wodehouse — was joking.
In any event, this treasure trove of old magazines nowadays sits, protected and stored, inside my office, awaiting rediscovery by a younger soul well after my death. If I owned a reputation of any stature as a writer, I’d bequeath them all, along with my unpublished stories and jotted letters, to a literary executor who would be willing to ship them back to my ancestors in Sicily by way of the next luxury barge to depart Atlantic City, New Jersey.
My original plan was one day to write a book about what I conceived of as the visceral reality — that is to say the story of how I breathed, smelled and felt upon my skin the stain and sweat and sometime sweet perfume — of the years following the end of World War II through the years immediately preceding the cultural upheaval that took place in the USA and beyond, beginning in about 1964. I’d long considered — and still do now — that this time period is of one piece in terms of story arc.
Other writers, writers who own more talent and more standing than I will ever earn, had already penned competent historical accountings of the period, accountings well researched and well-documented. Most notable, and perhaps most current during the years of my shuffling about through mustiness and yellowed pages, was David Halberstam’s book The Fifties (1993). I forwent reading Mr. Halberstam’s work until just three years ago, long after I’d abandoned the notion that I would complete my own book.
My book, by the way, would have been neither factual nor historical at its heart. I planned my work to be based in blood, bias and suspect speculation. At best, I thought, readers might consider my series of tales journalistic in its original and most literal sense. At worst, they’d think the work a far-flung fantasy.
I would base my book primarily on the thoughts, feelings and memories provoked by my review of the advertisements inside the magazines I’d collected. The textual articles within those same publications; yes, of course I would read and reflect on what the authors said. But the pictures would come first.
That those illustrations were intended to sell products I well understood. But those same illustrations held within the curves, turns and angles of their lines; the depths and shadows of their colors; and the textures of their brush strokes the story of a culture born inside the womb of war. I was born inside that same womb.
I risk sounding trite by saying this, but if a picture can be worth a thousand words, then that same picture can be worth a million memories. And our memories, although perhaps less precise than our well-chosen words, cling closer to the tender nature of humanity that we admit when we aren’t busy trying to impress each other.
As a young man I’d read hundreds of thousands of words that attempted to tell the so-called factual story of World War II and its aftermath. The reason for my interest? My father was a WWII veteran, an army PFC who served in North Africa. As well, he was a storyteller.
Together Dad and I sat in front of the Motorola and watched Bogart, Bergman and Henreid conquer misery, fear and cynicism by way of love and loyalty in Casablanca. Dad told me what that desert city was like for him when he was there in uniform. He owned none of Bogart’s sarcastic barroom bravado, and he never understood the subtleties implicit in Henreid’s fictional character, but my father loved the African sand and sun and dark-skinned women. (Ingrid Bergman held no appeal for him or me; her approach was far too indirect and her manner much too weak and weepy to please an emotional Sicilian.)
Dad broke his leg while on a training exercise and landed in a Casablanca hospital just before his unit (part of General Patton’s Seventh Army) was ordered to sail across the Mediterranean and attack Sicily (July 1943), then move on and up the Italian peninsula. One of the Americans’ main missions was to protect the left flank of the British Eighth Army.
Patton was successful at capturing Palermo and then reaching Messina before Montgomery, but the Germans dug in and defended Italy proper with fierce determination. Many soldiers of my father’s unit were annihilated.
So in a quirky, nonsensical way, I’ve oftentimes imagined an “alternate,” “parallel” version of this universe, the one inside of which no brilliant, unsung author named Anthony V. Toscano ever wrote a word. Would hungry intellectuals then and there experience a vague and nagging sense of loss for a voice they never read? Or would they rather thank the God of Academic Snootiness for not insisting that their sagging shelves pay heed and bear the weight of yet another wordsmith’s diary of dust and bones?
I own the diary my father kept while serving in Casablanca. The book is small enough to fit inside the palm of my hand. Its cover is made of black leather. Its pages are now brown and brittle. My father’s pale ink scrawl looks to have come from a fountain pen. His notes are short and to the point, a simple record of thoughts and events. As I turn the diary’s pages I must fill in gaps in order to find the story; either that or refuse to entertain my practiced insistence that a narrative of my creation is the one he lived.
Rosario V. Toscano tells his unknown reader that he is in a lot of pain. As well, he says that medication to ease the constant ache and throb was scarce, that the doctors thought it better to distribute to soldiers on the front lines what anesthetic drugs were available than to inject them into GIs lying almost safe in hospital beds.
Still, suffering a shattered leg in the wartime African desert of 1943 was a matter much more fraught with dangerous ramifications than a similar wound might incur in a peacetime town or city in the USA. Dad’s scribbled notations reveal his fear and his loneliness, and thus his words convey to the old man I am now the sense of vulnerability he never would have included in the stories he told to me when I was a child and he wanted to be my invincible hero.
And indeed I was a child when my father told me his tales of the Last Great War. Like many — if not most — young children, any story told to me about the nebulous “past” belonged to an ill-defined and borderless period called History. The Egyptian pyramids inside of which The Mummy rose in response to incantation. The Old West, home to whiskered outlaws chased by The Lone Ranger. The nighttime alleys traveled by James Cagney and George Raft. Even the Antebellum South of Eli Whitney, or the blood-splattered guillotines of nineteenth-century France, that I read about in books I borrowed from the neighborhood library; all of these events converged, conflated and became for me one wild adventure titled, It Happened Before I Was Born.
Nowadays I realize that my concentration on a backward glance as backdrop to most of what I write is tethered to my search for the man who was my father. When I was in my mid-twenties I sat on bus stop benches drenched in California sunshine, and I read Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel, Of Time and The River and You Can’t Go Home Again. Those tomes contain much richness with regard to the lure of love and wanderlust. A train’s whistle rips through the dark of night and tempts a young man to follow the echo of its song, to defy the shiver of menace that runs inside his veins, to leave his father in order to find his father a second time inside himself.
I read Thomas Wolfe, and although I had left my own father a short while before (I’d moved from east coast to west), I believed that my life would be defined by that separation, not by rediscovery of the past.
Not until that sensation of physical separation became permanent and undeniable did I begin to comprehend Thomas’ compulsion to swim against the river’s current and next attempt to ride the nighttime train back toward home.
My father collapsed into his favorite chair and died of a massive heart attack on August 11, 1986. I’m glad that I wasn’t there to see him die. At the time, I couldn’t cry; and that fact left me feeling disgusted with myself. I thought my heart was cold. It wasn’t. I was strong for my brothers’ sake, but as well I was a coward. Now that I am old, I’m not so strong, and I’m even more afraid of dying. I don’t believe people who say they do not fear death. I just don’t believe them. Neither do I blame them for trying on masks. Masks and costumes such as religion and madness are a matter of self-preservation. We all want to live, until we’re so damned tired — or suffering so much pain — that surrender is our only course of inaction.
Just a few weeks before that August morning in 1986 I’d moved again, this time northward, from Los Angeles to the Central Coast of California.
The telephone rang early on that hot summer morning. For sake of originality, I’m told, stories shouldn’t begin that way, but then certain stories are insistent on breaking the rules that are handed to creative writers by those who would be gurus.
The telephone rang and jangled, and so I rolled out of my sleeping bag. Most of my furniture that day sat inside a truck’s trailer traveling slow up the 101 Freeway on its way to meet me.
The night before, I’d drawn the drapes across the sliding glass doors to my right. A loud knock that moment sounded repeatedly behind those curtains. I pulled back on the long, plastic rod that hung near the middle seam, and discovered my cat, Bomboli. She was frantic to reach the roosters who climbed down the grassy hill that backed the apartment building. She didn’t understand or respect the impenetrable boundary that glass imposes between the inside and outside world.
I tossed Bomboli — who scratched my arm deep enough to draw a trickle of blood — into the bathroom, closed the door against her howl, and answered the phone.
“His eyes rolled back, and I can’t wake him,” said my brother.
“Brother, I love you. Dad is gone. I’ll come home soon.”
I vomited into the bathroom sink while I shaved, packed whatever dark clothes I had hanging in the closet, grabbed a taxi to the airport, and traveled Thomas’ time and river back toward home again. I helped to carry my father’s coffin to his grave.
A few years after all of that, I began the writing project that at the outset of this article I described. I did not then consider that a connection existed between my desire to write this particular book and an equally strong desire to understand my father.
The book I planned to write will not be written. Over the course of those many years spent haunting libraries, bookstores and my writing rooms, I discovered that I do not own the talent or the skill to tie the results of my research together with the outline of a book. I am a writer, but I have no book inside me. Just words, strings of words that sound to me sometimes like music.
I was, of course, a younger man when I began to collect those old magazines, and to jot down my reflections.
I am an old man now, so insufficient time remains. Believe what you will, but sometimes it is too late.
Still, the energy I invested in this particular writing project gave me joy and benefit. And those notes and magazines, along with the mind that tried to make sense of them; I think they all deserve a record of themselves.
So on occasion here I’ll place the images that impressed me and the words that strung together make for suspect speculation about my time on Earth. Those images are either scanned or photographed from primary sources.
Unlike so many of today’s revisionist historians and prejudiced talking heads, I do not believe that the time period between 1945 and 1964 in the United States of America was all about the suppression of volatile emotion or the oppression of certain classes of people by gender, race and economic status than is our society today. We are perhaps more self-aware and cautious now than we were then. It’s certain that today we have in many ways made hatred and envy more a private matter than a public one. The naked and exposed expression of our urge to inflict pain on other people in order to rid ourselves of the same is nowadays suppressed somewhat by force of law. We have made progress.
But in essence we are just as pretty, and just as ugly, now as we were then.
I am a man who enjoys nostalgia. I am a person who understands that there was a lot of good in the good old days.
I should know. I’m a good man, and I was born in the good old days.