Prologue To A Book Never To Be Written

Happy, Happy Family!
Happy, Happy Family!

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 If I owned a reputation of any stature as a writer, I’d bequeath them all, along with my unpublished stories and jotted letters, to a literary executor who would be willing to ship them back to my ancestors in Sicily by way of the next luxury barge to depart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.

Gladiolas, Part I

Pink Gladiolas

This story isn’t about me, although I have a kind of curiosity inside my personality that my friends tell me I had even when I was a little boy.

And that’s what this story is about, really. Little boys and the bad things that can happen to them later in life.

Of more concern to this tale is one particular little boy who grew up to become in most ways a stylish man, but who killed his mother in a manner that I’d describe as a murder, but that a judge and jury decided was some kind of manslaughter by “reason of insanity.” Which makes no sense to me, not if you look close at the facts of the case.

And because I’m the curious sort, I always look real close at people and their problems. We all of us have our problems. That sure was true of this boy turned into a cold-blooded killer. And even more true, of course, of his dead mother.

I don’t mean that last remark, by the way, to sound like a joke, either. The boy’s mother, Mrs. Connie Varello was her name, had serious mental issues — as they say nowadays — way before things came to blows between her and her son and her husband.

But now I’m going on ahead of myself; and when I do that I become judgmental and surrender to my prejudices before I consider the black-and-white description of things as they are.

So let me back up just a bit.

What started me looking into this matter — I’d come right out and call it a crime, truth be told — was the fact that all of this tragedy occurred just two doors down from where I live here in Cedarville. And said tragedy began to take root more than half a century ago, back when me and the boy — Johnnie Varello — were mates at Linden Avenue Grammar School.

Back then Johnnie was the smart kid in class, the one who always had his hand waving in the air, because he always knew the right answer, or at least he thought he did.

Johnnie, he’d grab a crayon from the box at drawing time and say something strange like, “This is oily wax.” The rest of us, of course, would look at him and wink at each other and tell him it was just a crayon and he could stick it up his nose if he wanted to. Well, not up his nose exactly, but then I don’t want to put dirty words in this story, because it’s sad enough without them.

In any event, Johnnie didn’t seem to get our jokes anyway, or maybe he chose to ignore them. Because he’d just answer us with more of his intellectual approach to life’s simple objects and say something like, “No, the word crayon means chalk and earth. Really. I looked it up last night.”

Crazy kid, Johnnie was, even way back then, although none of us could actually see what was building inside that house where he and his parents lived, all squeezed up together with no room to breathe, much less express their disagreements in a respectful manner.

Always squawking and screeching and banging away at each other, they were. These arguments — I guess you’d call them arguments, if you want to be polite about it — showed up most clearly in summertime, when in Cedarville the air was hot and sticky and so windows were wide open and people’s voices traveled back and forth from one place to another. Heck, during summers in our town you could all but make out the details of conversations mosquitoes were having with each other, if you were the curious type and cared to listen real close.

Now to be fair to Johnnie Varello, the evidence I heard with my own ears during those prosperous years of the 1950s tells me that his mom beat him up real good and often, maybe especially in summertime, what with the pressure that heat tends to build inside a human being. Many were the evenings when I’d be riding my Schwinn ten-speed up and down the block, chasing after girls or just following the cloud of white smoke wooshing out from the back of a mosquito truck, and I’d hear Johnnie yelling things like, “Please, no, Mother! I promise I won’t do it again.” Or some such desperate plea.

Still, in those days most parents hit their kids when they were being bad. And I’m of the opinion that if more of that were true today, in Cedarville and in the nation proper, blacks and Puerto Ricans and low-life white trailer trash wouldn’t rule the streets they way they do.

But that’s going off track again; and I want to make my point and finish this story, and maybe even submit a summary of it to the Cedarville Gazette’s opinion section for the public’s approval, or not.

I attended most every session of the trial, as is my rightful duty as a citizen of this great country. And the way Johnnie Varello told it inside the courtroom . . . well, he wanted all of us attending to believe that he lost his mind that hot summer night just by staring at a cluster of cut flowers that were sitting in a vase on his mother’s dining room table. Now don’t that beat all? Doesn’t feel like a logical sequence of cause and effect events to me. Not at all.

But the defense lawyer, Arthur J. Schultz, a man I know sort of well because he was in that same grammar school class with Johnnie and me, called a psychiatrist to the stand to bear witness to the effects of what the medical professionals call something like Traumatic Stress Repressed Memories. Try saying that one real fast. Sounds poetic, sure enough, but kind of silly, too.

Still, Artie Schultz — that’s what we called him before he got educated up to university — well, I trust the fact that he knows things I don’t quite comprehend.

The specific memory in question was all about, according to Johnnie Varello, that is — and confirmed by the psychiatrist of record — a long ago summer day and night back in 1956.

Seems like the Varellos were making a day trip to visit Mrs. Varello’s mom, who at the time lived down in Cape Point, which is still to this day a beach town tourist type destination at the southern tip of the state, where the map let’s off deep into the Atlantic Ocean and people like to play miniature golf, and eat some blue-point crab, and just plain enjoy their families while the getting’s good.

The way Johnnie told it, he was sitting in the back seat of the ’49 Chevy Deluxe, staring through the rear window, when all of a sudden he noticed one of those flower stands that were so popular at the time along Route 53.

From that point on, if my memory serves me as well as it usually does after I’ve listened close and careful to a back and forth exchange between a lawyer and a witness, Johnnie’s recollection of that day sounded something like a short story buried inside a longer book, a book I’d place on a shelf with the rest of the mystery novels I prefer to read and even try to write whenever the creative urge fires up inside me.

“Can we go there, Dad?” Johnnie said.

Mr. Martin Varello tapped the brake pedal, eased in the clutch and put her in reverse. In most ways, Martin was a darned good father who always wanted to please his boy. He was just afraid of his wife, a coward as it turns out, if you believe what most folks say looking back on it all. But aren’t we all afraid of our wives from time to time, what with a woman’s scorn and some such?

“You’re going to kill us all, the way you drive!” screamed the boy’s mother. Johnnie was used to hearing his mother screaming at his dad, especially when the family took the day-long trip to Cape Point.

“Look here, Connie,” said Martin. He just wants to bring your mom a bunch of her favorite blossoms.”

“She’s not my mom. Now if you’re going to do this, hurry up. We haven’t got forever, you know.”

“I know. No one does.”

Martin opened the Chevrolet’s heavy passenger-side door. He tilted his wife’s seat forward gently against her back to let the boy out. Connie wouldn’t budge a bit, however, not until her pocketbook fell to the floor and spilled its contents, which in turn caused her to bend down and gather all her beautifying paraphernalia and her prescription medications.

Johnnie slipped outside the car real quick, before his mother had time enough to catch her breath and start yelling again.

“Let’s get the pink ones,” said Johnnie. “Mama Mary likes pink. She drinks out of pink glasses, and she paints her toenails the same color as those gladiolas over there.”

“Show me where the pink ones are, son. Fast now. You know how your mother is about waiting.”

Johnnie saw his dad smiling, and being the intuitional kind of kid he was, he wondered how his dad could do so inside the circumstance that was his life with Connie.

In spite of his dad’s warning, the boy dawdled. He liked the sound of gravel crunching underneath his feet as they walked the road’s shoulder. That and the sweet smell of the surrounding farmland.

Route 53 was a two-lane highway that ran north and south, all the way from New York City at its top to Cape Point at its final tip. Martin had just moments earlier steered the Chevy across the Ridley Bay Bridge — a narrow, wooden structure that featured a shack midway that served as a toll booth. The old man who collected twenty-five cents a pop — for cars or trucks, the difference didn’t matter in those days — wore a dark-blue cap and gave the kids candy and a wink of his eye. Sometimes Johnnie wished that man were his mother, even though he understood that mothers had to be women by definition of their role in the scheme of things.

“Why doesn’t Mother like Mama Mary, Dad?” Johnnie stared straight ahead when he asked the question.

“She likes her well enough. It’s just that Mary’s her step-mom; and I think she misses her real one.”

“Did her real one scream all the time like her?”

“Let’s just get the flowers. We can talk about this another time. I can even show you pictures in the album we have at home.”

Johnnie approached the sales table and pointed to the fullest bunch of pink gladiolas he could find. “We’ll take those ones there,” he said to the lady who stood smiling underneath the canvas awning.

“They sure are a pretty shade of pink,” she said. “These for your mama sitting over there in that shiny Chevrolet?”

“No, they’re for my Mama Mary. She’s my grandma. My mother doesn’t especially like flowers.”

“Oh, I can’t hardly believe that. All mamas appreciate such jewels of nature. That’s what I call them — Jewels of Nature. And I’m someone’s mama, so I ought to know what mamas like. Isn’t that right, Mister?”

“You sure are on to something true enough for most,” said Martin. Then, real quick, he followed that remark by asking how much they owed.

“Seventy-five cents for the bouquet, and here’s a single stem of red ones for your mama, free of charge.”

Back inside the car, Johnnie laid the flowers on the seat beside him. He picked up the stem of red blossoms and held it over the top of the seat in front of him. His mother was busy reapplying her lipstick. She moved her arm backward and fast, like a person does when she’s swatting away a fly. The red gladiolas flew from Johnnie’s hand and fell to the floor.

“Not now, boy. Can’t you see I’m busy?” said Connie.

Johnnie didn’t bother answering. Instead, he slid his body far enough toward the edge of his seat so his foot would reach down to the floor, and he stomped that foot down hard on the red blossoms. He watched a red stain smear and spread its way into the carpet, and he smiled.

As the Chevy picked up speed, Johnnie stared out the window and allowed his mind to become as one with the scenery. Barns and silos. Peach orchards and yellow tractors. Railroad box car diners and two-pump gasoline stations. The entirety of this universe reminded him of the painted pictures he discovered inside the books he read while lying on the floor inside Cedarville Public Library on Saturday mornings when most of the kids from school were outside playing sports and talking tough.

Johnnie Varello knew he wasn’t tough. He couldn’t make a football spin as it flew through the air, and he was so afraid of a hardball that the Little League coach kept him sitting on the bench during eight innings out of every nine, and all nine if the game was tied near its end.

But Johnnie knew he was smart. And although he oftentimes cried when he curled himself up and buried his body inside his bed at night, he knew that someday he’d escape. Maybe, he thought, maybe I’ll even sneak out of bed one summer night and walk across Ridley Bay Bridge. Then I’ll wait till sunrise and begin my journey back to Mama Mary’s place. She’d take me in. She’d understand.

“Don’t you go doing too much for her. She’ll take advantage of you the way she always does.”

The sound of his mother’s angry voice startled Johnnie. He realized that he’d fallen asleep sometime ago. The fact that he’d missed the better part of the trip left him feeling irritable.

But at least they were there. Johnnie sat up, rubbed his eyes, and again looked through the window.

His mother most times criticized Mama Mary’s house. She spoke of so-called better days. Days when her father, Papa Dominic, owned a milk delivery company. Back then his milk trucks were Model T Fords, and in the darkness before dawn Papa Dominic changed the paper caps on each quart bottle to reflect a later date. Days that existed before what grownups called The Great Depression, when Papa Dominic — and his first wife and their daughter — lived in a richer part of the world known as Highland Crest.

Now Papa Dominic was many years dead, and Johnnie’s memories of the man were vague and faded, like the black-and-white photographs that sometimes looked as if they bled rust where they hung on Mama Mary’s walls.

Johnnie loved this house. Maybe, he thought, I love it especially because she hates the place.

Johnnie loved the peeling paint, the wide front windows, and the three crooked wooden steps that led up to a wraparound porch where two wicker rocking chairs sat waiting for him and his dad to make them creak.

But most of all Johnnie loved the sight of Mama Mary’s shadow when it appeared behind the front door’s lace curtain.

To be continued . . .