THE GODFATHER THROUGH A DIFFERENT LENS
by Shaun Costello
In a recent trip to my local library, I came across a crisp, new paperback edition of The Godfather. I have seen the movies (I and II) an embarrassing number of times, but read the book just once, in 1969 when it was first published. So I took it home, curious to know if it still packed the original wallop that made it a blockbuster best seller. The opening pages contained two introductory pieces. The first was headlined A NOTE FROM ANTHONY PUZO, SON OF MARIO PUZO, and it was in caps, as I have written it here. It was two pages of unreadable gibberish, intended, I suppose, to give this volume some kind of familial, folksy varnish, an idea probably hatched in the eager mind of an underpaid, over-confident wannabe in a cubicle at Penguin Random House, where ideas like this one flourish until they flounder of their own mistaken value.
Next came an Introduction by Robert J. Thompson, who turns out to be (I’ll insert this verbatim) The Founding Director of the Center for Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, where he is also the Trustee Professor of Media and Popular Culture at the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.
Well, that’s a dizzying title indeed. I wonder how it fits on his business card. It seems that this worthy academic has published five volumes, all about television, and is now busy finishing his sixth, a history of the medium. The introduction, entitled Introduction, was eleven pages of hyperbolic hipster speak, the pages numbered, as intros so often are, in Roman Numerals. Eleven glib and wittily urbane pages seemingly designed to place Mr. Thompson somewhere between being the lost Corleone son that Puzo left out of the book, and someone you might bump into para-gliding at Club Med, wearing an ill-fitting speedo. And certainly, someone to avoid, should you find yourself behind him on line at Starbucks.
Publishers mystify me. Can there be a book, other than Mein Kampf or The Bible, that has reaped higher revenues for its imprint, down through the years, than The Godfather? I’m guessing not. Yet, at a new projects meeting, in the conference room at Penguin Random House, as ideas were suggested around the table, some young literary Turk spoke up and said, “Maybe it’s time for another go-round with The Godfather”, which was probably received, in equal measure, with the appropriate grunts and moans. To which our young hero responded, “No wait, it might work. Provided we package it correctly. Let’s get someone who knew the author well, maybe a Puzo family member, to write a short introductory piece. And then a project narrative by a media writer. God knows, there’s no shortage of them. We include them as ‘extras’, like a director’s commentary track on a DVD. Packaging. That’s the ticket”.
Ideas like this are not necessarily suicidal, provided somebody rides heard over them, supervising quality control over who is chosen to write the ‘extras’, and what is written. But, more often than not, corporate auto pilot takes over, and important details are ignored. Hey, it’s The Godfather. They’re going to buy it no matter what. So, an intern was tasked with going through all those dust covered rolodexes in the storage room to come up with a willing Puzo family member. This process yielded Anthony Puzo, the author’s son, who gladly agreed to write a few pages about the pain his father went through in struggling to create his masterpiece. And a quick Google search revealed an unlimited number of media writers, with Robert J. Thompson’s name up there at the top of the list. An academic with a title a big as the Ritz. Thompson quickly agreed to deliver eleven pages on The Godfather’s impact on Pop culture over the 48 years of its existence. Hey, the guy’s a Trustee Professor. Whatever he writes will be just fine. Even if it’s eleven pages of self-indulgent clap trap, constructed to portray Thompson’s awareness of the impact of the Godfather on pop culture, rather than the impact itself, and as a result, exuding the coolness this academic feels is his due.
The packaging aside, let’s get to the book itself. It still works. It’s a well-constructed story, with colorful, memorable characters, a brisk pace, and a satisfying conclusion. The only real fault I could find with it is Puzo’s prose. While his descriptive narrative is fine, the dialogue is sometimes awkward and forced. Also, the male-female relationships seem a product of the era (the 1940’s), and the characters (depression era Italian Americans). That said, many of the conversations between the sexes are cringe-worthy. The addition of Francis Ford Coppola, as co-writer for the movie screen plays vastly improved the dialogue, and cleaned up much of the book’s murky areas.
This brings us to a question I have asked myself many times over the years. Could Mario Puzo have written The Godfather, had not Peter Maas written The Valachi Papers? Although published in 1968, Maas wrote most of his book between 1963 and 1965. Valachi’s starling revelations about organized crime in America, before Senator John McClellan’s Senate Subcommittee in 1963, proved to be an embarrassment to J. Edgar Hoover, who had insisted for over thirty years, that the Mafia did not exist in America. Between 1963 and 1965, because of his friendship with then Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Peter Maas was given unlimited access to interview Joe Valachi in his prison cell. These extensive interviews would eventually yield Maas’s book, The Valachi Papers. But Hoover was dead set against the publication of a book, the contents of which would make him out to be a fool. After Kennedy left office, in 1965, Hoover put pressure on Lyndon Johnson to lean on Kennedy’s replacement at Attorney General, Nicholas Katzenbach, to prevent the publication of Maas’s book.
For over two years, Maas negotiated with Washington to get some version of his manuscript published. He finally succeeded in getting approval to publish a heavily censored version, and The Valachi papers was finally published in June of 1968. Much of Valachi’s elaborate testimony before Congress in 1963, was revealed and expanded in Maas’s book, and America became aware of the details surrounding the enormous criminal enterprise that J. Edgar Hoover had repeatedly insisted was non-existent.
The details, and the history of La Cosa Nostra both shocked and fascinated the world. Joe (Joe Cargo – shortened to Joe Cago) Valachi was born in 1904, in East Harlem to an impoverished Italian American family. He ran with a gang of thieves, committing small burglaries until finally being inducted, in a formal ceremony, into The Genovese crime family. The book revealed his involvement in The Castellammarese War in the early 1930’s. This war pitted the two most powerful crime bosses of that era against each other. Joe (The Boss) Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano would battle for supremacy in New York’s criminal underworld. These were two old time gangsters, called by the younger soldiers “Mustache Petes”. They would compete in deadly combat for the title of Capo di tutti capi (Boss of all bosses). After the death of both gangsters, an organization was formed by this criminal society’s rising star, Charles Lucky Luciano, who would consolidate New York’s criminal gangs into the Five New York Families, overseen by an organization known as The Commission, that would resolve disputes between the Families peacefully. This organization would become known, among its members as La Cosa Nostra or This Thing of Ours. Details were revealed in Maas’s book, like the oath of Omerta, or silence, adhered to by members under penalty of death. The sacred ceremony of admission to La Cosa Nostra. The structure of the society, imitating the hierarchical fundamentals of the Roman Legions. Details about the characters, the language, and the structure of this criminal society were now public knowledge, due to Valachi’s testimony, and Maas’s book.
A year later, in March of 1969, The Godfather was published to rave reviews, and quickly became the best selling novel in the history of publishing. And what was contained on the pages of The Godfather? The oath of Omerta, The Five Families. The Commission, the language of this criminal society; all originally revealed a year earlier in The Valachi Papers. Could this be coincidence?
I knew Peter Maas pretty well when I lived in The Hamptons. Many of us played tennis on Peter’s har-tru court, at his house in Bridgehampton. So, one day I asked him. Did Mario Puzo ever call him up to thank him? He took the high road, which was typical of Peter. He told me that he knew Mario, and liked him. The Valachi Papers, while not yielding the fortune Puzo had made with The Godfather, had also been a best seller, making Maas quite a bit of money. He was sanguine.
My conclusion, from all that is written above, is that The Godfather could never have been the iconic literary conflagration it became, without the publication of The Valachi Papers, a year earlier. Peter Maas had supplied Mario Puzo with the historical events, the characterizations, the language, the structure of La Cosa Nostra, and the every-day experience of ‘life in the mob’, without which, The Godfather could never have been written.
© 2018 Shaun Costello
ASSOCIATED PRESS September 26, 2011 In a shocking revelation today, former CNN anchor Lou Dobbs dropped an emotionally charged bombshell on the already fractured landscape of Republican politics. In a sometimes tearful recounting of his four year affair with Right Wing Barbie Doll Ann Coulter, which evidently began during the Iowa Caucus in 2007, and ended at that same political venue four years later, Dobbs went into great detail about his fatal attraction for Coulter’s bellicose beauty, and the eventual, and inevitable break-up that occurred in Des Moines last month. “When I found out the truth”, said Dobbs, “I tried to stay the course. I mean, I loved this woman, or whatever she turned out to be. I knew I couldn’t go on without her. But there is only so far a man can go when confronted with circumstances beyond the pale of any acceptable form of human behavior. When I found out the truth, I was devastated”.
Dobbs recounted the early blissful days of their affair. “Love sometimes makes you blind. I knew there was something different about Ann, that she was not quite normal, but I let it go. Then that night in Wilkes Barre, well, that’s when Ann’s charade ended, and my world turned into a living nightmare”. Dobbs and Coulter were attending a fund raiser for then Senator Rick Santorum in Wilkes Barre Pennsylvania in October of 2009. “We shared a room at the local Holiday Inn. I was awakened by an odd noise in the middle of the night. I instinctively reached for Ann, but she was not in bed. As I sat up, I noticed an intense light coming from under the bathroom door. As I approached the door, the sound grew louder – like a thousand voices speaking a hundred different languages all at once. Not speaking really, but kind of chanting. Chanting in a hundred languages, rhythmically, like some kind of pagan ritual. I quietly cracked open the door just a half inch or so, just enough to see inside. And that’s when I saw it. That’s when my life came crashing down around me”. Dobbs claimed that the bathroom was filled with smoke, and bright flashing lights. “And there she was, or it was, right there in those bright lights. It was Ann, and then it wasn’t Ann.
She kept changing shape, and shifting into different colors, and then it happened. Her head changed shape as the chanting grew louder, turning and changing until it was unmistakable. I stood there, frozen with shock and fear, but there it was, right on Ann’s unmistakable body – it was the head of J. Edgar Hoover. And his mouth was moving – the chanting sounds coming from somewhere inside. And then I heard a voice in the middle of all that babble. A voice singing in English, and the head started changing shape again, and the flashing lights like strobes in a disco became even brighter, and the song became recognizable. It was God BlessAmerica, and suddenly the head morphed into, it was horrible, and yet it was so familiar, and right there on Ann’s beautiful, slender body was the head of Kate Smith singing God BlessAmerica. And I was so horrified that I must have moved and somehow pushed the door open, and in a furious nanosecond of rearranged reality, the lights disappeared, and the chanting too, and the form in front of me changed shape rapidly right before my eyes, until all that was left was Ann. She was naked, and covered with sweat, and breathing heavily, like someone who had just run a marathon, and we just stood there, me in the doorway, and Ann in the center of the bathroom, and the only sound was Ann’s gasping for air”.
Boggs claims that Coulter revealed everything to him that night, at least everything she knew. She told him of her earliest memories, as a child-like form, without structured memory or familial connections, who was from another world, but she didn’t know where. She wound up in foster care and was then adopted, never revealing her true alien indentity to her new family. At a young age she had discovered that she had the ability to shape-shift during certain lunar cycles, and morph into those people she found heroic. She told Dobbs of her great loneliness, longing for someone to know the truth, and love her in spite of it. And then they met that night in 2009, at the Iowa Caucus.
“She wanted to tell me the truth, but she was afraid of my reaction. So that night in Wilkes Barre, I found out everything. But I loved the girl, so what could I do? I know this sounds crazy, but I decided to try and stick it out. I mean, she didn’t look like an alien most of the time. Just every so often she got all smarmy and noisy and morphed into her heroes. So what? Nobody’s perfect”.
According to Dobbs, her morphing habits changed abruptly about six months later, when she dissolved into Ronald Reagan during the act of sex. “I’ve never been so horrified in my life. I mean, there I am porking the woman I love, and right at the best part, I mean just when I’m about to come, she morphs into the great communicator, and Ronnie starts sticking his tongue in my mouth. Hey, there are limits, you know?” Coulter’s sexual changeling conflagrations became more frequent, yet somehow Dobbs managed to remain intrepid. “It was humiliating. Ann’s need to become her heroes now happened every time we had sex. One night I’m boinking Dwight Eisenhower, and the next night it’s Roy Cohn. And then the dressing-up and acting-out started. I’ve got to admit, Ann was pretty hot in black leather, but not when she turned into Richard Nixon, and made me crawl around on all fours on the floor and eat a can of Alpo while he told me how he had been unfairly crucified by an unfriendly press, most of whom were employed by the Kennedy’s. I guess I must have boffed just about Ann’s whole heroic line up: Joe McCarthy, Genghis Kahn, Ted Bundy, Donald Rumsfeld, Margaret Thatcher, Al Capone, Vlad the Impaler, Torquemada, Ma Barker, even Dubya, and each one with their own particular quirky sexual needs – boy, it was exhausting.”
Dobbs then talked about events at this year’s Iowa Caucus, events that would bring his extra-terrestrial love affair to a sad end. “And there we were, in Des Moines for this year’s caucus. In the same hotel where it all started four years ago. Seems like yesterday, but then again it doesn’t. I had just hung up on my editor, a little difference of opinion on my new book, “In God’s Way”, when Ann came out of the bathroom in some silky thing that clung to that luscious, tight body of hers like nobody’s business. Well, one thing led to another, and we were going at it hot and heavy, and all the while I’m thinking, ‘Please don’t turn into Mussolini’, but it keeps getting better and better, and Ann’s all worked up like she’s been stuck between floors for an hour in an elevator filled with Democrats, and I’m just about ready to unload when, all of a sudden Ann’s head starts growing and growing, and splitting in two, and I start hearing music and, low and behold, growing out of Ann Coulter’s delicious body are two heads in cowboy hats, singing, ‘Happy trails to you, until we meet again….’, and I realize that I am staring into the faces of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. And I’m still boinking away, as unfazed as possible, under the circumstances, when I hear the unmistakable sound of a horse whinnying. And old Roy looks me right in the eye and says, ‘Ok Lou boy, time to turn yourself around and make Trigger one happy Palomino.’ Well, that was just about all I could take. I loved this Coulter woman, or whatever she was, but I’d be damned if I’d give it up for Trigger”.
Dobbs claims that he got dressed, and stormed out of that hotel room, made a call to the AP, and arranged this Press Conference. “I wanted to get out my side of the story before Coulter made with the extraterrestrial machinations to the Press as these alien creatures will do. It’s weird story I know, but the God’s honest truth. Why, I’d stake my reputation on it”. Calls made to Ms. Coulter, as well as NASA were not returned. Both the Republican National Committee and Fox News refused comment.
© 2011 Shaun Costello
SIC SEMPER TYRANNUS
Surviving Catholic Education
By Shaun Costello
This story is excerpted from my childhood memoir
THE LAST TIME I SAW JESUS
Surviving God and Elvis in the time of ‘Duck and Cover’
I suppose I could blame all subsequent events, and ill advised decisions I made in my life on the eight years I spent as a victim of the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, but I don’t. I sensed, even as a child, that they were no more or less than a necessary evil (at least my parents thought they were necessary) placed in my path to overcome by what whatever means was at my disposal. Back then little thought was given by Catholic families regarding their participation in the selection process available to them in choosing a primary school for their children. They just found the nearest Catholic school, packed a lunch, and off we went. Off to the welcoming arms of a sociopathetic cult of psychological misfits who had been cloistered away from the evils of an all too real world that, even on their best days, they seemed powerless to inhabit. During my eight years of ecclesiastical incarceration I never saw anyone who remotely resembled Ingrid Bergman, not to mention Father Crosby.
Early on, I came to the conclusion that the two most important elements in a Catholic education were penmanship, and lining up in silence. Ball point pens were strictly forbidden, because only a true fountain pen could produce the perfect script demanded by the good sisters. As for the silent line up, the merry cacophony of lunchtime playground mischief came to an abrupt halt the moment the dour penguin shook her hand bell. The shuffle of feet was the only sound as the children found their classmates and silently lined up, awaiting the signal to march off to an afternoon’s lesson in history, which probably included the torture and martyrdom of Saint Isaac Jogues at the hands of the evil Huron Indians. They pulled out his fingernails, and he would not renounce his faith. They pulled out his toenails, and he would not renounce his faith. They gouged out his eyes, and he still would not renounce his faith. Finally, an exasperated Big Chief Huron, fed up with Isaac’s saintliness, cut out his heart and ate it, hoping to ingest some of the holy man’s courage. And old Isaac stood there, bound and gagged, without fingernails or toenails, a big hole in his chest where his heart used to be, and Big Chief Huron, picking pieces of Isaac’s aorta from between his teeth, again demanded spiritual surrender. Not this time Tonto. The old man simply shook his head in a bold expression of saintly triumph over the heathen redskin. Tears in her eyes, Sister Immaculata stopped reading and put down the third grade American History text from which she had read this lesson in God’s victory over the great unwashed.
It was at this point that she noticed the behavior of three arch criminals; myself, Jim Freeney, and Joe Arrico, who had obviously paid no attention to this valuable lesson and instead, had been engaged in spitball wars in the back row. With these three felons in tow, Sister Immaculata made haste for the music room, where every afternoon the Fur Elise was played badly for hours. The music room doubled as punishment chamber during school hours, and was the only room in the building where nuns noticeably smiled. The young hooligans were instructed to lean against the wall with the backs of their legs extended, awaiting Sister’s caress. Reaching into the closet, Sister Immaculata took out a pointer. It was 36 inches long, round, and pointed at the tip, resembling almost exactly the canes used to administer corporal punishment in the third world, much to the horror of self righteous Americana. It came down with a loud whack on the back of poor Joe Arrico’s thigh, as he screamed in pain and begged her to stop. She ignored his screaming pleas and promises of good behavior, and the pointer came down again. I’m not sure how many times she hit him, but it was several, and all the time she smiled. Her screaming, pleading victim was nine years old. Jim Freeney was next with the same result. When it came my turn I was half way to the door before she caught on to the fact that I was not going to be this woman’s pointer fodder. Safely through the door I ran down the hall and all the way home.
Out of breath, I told my mother what had happened, and her reaction was puzzling. She told me that Sister was always right, and that I must have done something to deserve the punishment I had escaped, and that the only course open to me was to go right back to school, lean on that music room wall and take my punishment like the little criminal I undoubtedly was. I refused. This resulted in a tumultuous few days between my family and the school which, after some posturing, was legally bound to take me back, even though I had not behaved up to the standard of the church’s willing martyrs. Isaac, eat your heart out, or someone else will.
The daily routine at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs school began at 8:30AM, as children began assembling in the school’s playground. At precisely 8:45, each and every morning, Sister’s hand bell would announce the end of playground hi-jinks, and the beginning of the serious business of lining up in silence. The children lined up by class, and began the silent shuffle into the school building, with the little ones entering first, and the eighth graders bringing up the rear.
There was a uniform dress code at the school. Boys wore navy blue trousers, a white long sleeved shirt, and a navy blue tie, usually restrained by a tie clasp. Competition for the coolest tie clasp was intense. Girls wore blue jumpers, a white short sleeved blouse, and navy blue knee socks. The supreme beings at the school, the eighth graders, were distinguished from the rest of the lower flotsam by the addition of blue blazers for the boys, and some kind of pin, probably something like “The Order of the Eternal Virgin” for the girls. Eighth graders were looked up to by the rest of us as perfect examples of children who, through diligence and prayer, walked in lock step with the Holy Trinity. They were also bigger than we were and stole our baseball cards and lunch money, but I guess that’s another issue.
Children at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs were divided into three separate and distinct groups. The first were God’s favorites. These kids all had 98 academic averages, spotless uniforms, heavenly singing voices, inkless fingers, wrote in perfect script, got the best parts in the school play, made speeches at school assemblies, and were generally thought of by the faculty as, “Saints of the Future.” The second group were the kids that God tolerated. They were probably not heaven bound but, through hard work and sacrifice, they might just make it to the next level; even though they had ink stained fingers, couldn’t remember latin lyrics, spent too much time looking out the window, wrote illegibly, occasionally suffered from “ring around the collar”, were easily confused by the rituals of the Catholic Liturgy, and would probably wind up mowing the lawns of the “Saints of the Future.” Then there was the third group. These were the kids to whom God’s back was turned. The lepers of the Liturgy. They had no shot whatsoever at salvation, and were destined for the big barbeque, to burn in the fires of hell for all eternity. They had dirty finger nails, unkempt hair, ink stains covering their hands and clothes, had close relatives who spoke a foreign languge, ate paste in art class, threw up in hallways, had no reverence for the sainthood, and were to be generally pitied as hopeless creatures, destined for a life outside of God’s plan.
I guess that I was a member of group number two; tolerated by God, a distant possibility for salvation, a perpetrator of the ink stain, a barely average student, and a liturgical numbskull, but if I played my cards right I just might make it to the next level, wherever that was.
As kids filtered into their classrooms, the first stop was the Cloak Room. This was a large closet in the back, the full width of the classroom (about thirty feet) and about six feet deep, lined with shelves, under which were coat hooks, and plenty of space to deposit lunch boxes, galoshes, and whatever else kids brought to school. No one wore cloaks of course, but that’s what the sisters called it, so we did too. The hanging up of hats and coats was followed by a short but robust period of hair pulling, name calling, tripping, strangling, head locking, eye gouging, and general mayhem, after which the little innocents would emerge from the cloak room ready for a morning of inspiration and enlightenment, much to the delight of the good sisters.
The school building, a kind of quasi American gothic structure, had eight classrooms of identical size and layout. The classrooms were large, about 60×30, with three walls covered with blackboards and one with windows. About six rows of desks, ten deep, all faced Sister’s large wooden desk, which was centered in front of the class. A student/teacher ratio of 60 to 1. Tough numbers. The student’s desks had hinged tops, allowing for storage inside, an indentation at the front where pencils and pens could lie undisturbed, and a working inkwell. No one really used the inkwells, other than for pranks, but they had always been there, so there they would stay. Until the day when Petey Cataldo, a kid who didn’t talk much and threw up a lot, pissed in each and every inkwell in our class. Sixty inkwells is a lot of piss, and there were many versions of Petey’s triumph. One had Petey sneaking in after school and actually pissing in all our inkwells. The other, and generally accepted version, had Petey peeing in a container for a week. Then when he felt he had enough for the job at hand, he slipped into school after closing, and filled all the inkwells with the product of his efforts. Anyway, no one ever saw Petey again. The rumor was that he had been sent to some kind of special school for kids who threw up a lot. Another rumor had him incarcerated in an institution for recalcitrant Catholics, but no one really believed that. His image lived on in the folklore of the school as a revered personage, a crusader, the boy who had an answer. Of course none of us knew what the question had been, but that didn’t matter. Petey had guts, and for us that was enough.
Throughout the morning the subjects taught by Sister would change at Sister’s whim. In the middle of a History lesson, Sister would suddenly announce,” We will now take out our Arithmetic textbooks.” And this was sister’s segue to the world of mathematics. As the big institutional clock on the classroom wall neared 12 noon all eyes followed the second hand, until that magical moment that happened each and every school day at exactly noon, when the opening chords of the most famous of all John Philip Sousa Marches would play at a decible level that could have awakened the Saints from their eternal sleep, the classroom doors were thrown open and the lunchtime march of the children would begin. Three hundred little kiddies for Christ would stomp down the stairwells and hallways of the school until they were deposited, music still playing, outside the huge front doors, to the delight and chagrin of the terrified lunch counters of Austin Street.
Austin Street was the main commercial drag in Forest Hills. Supermarkets, clothing stores, Woolworths Five and Dime, the Cameo Bowling Alley, drug stores, florists, Pinsky’s Stationary, a travel agency, Glindermann’s German Delicatessen, Vincent’s Shoe Repair, and various spots where lunch could be had cheaply, if you knew what to order. Most kids brought their own lunch to school in little metal lunch boxes. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and a banana, or maybe a few cookies, was pretty typical. The school provided half pint containers of milk, free of charge, to kids who brought their own lunch. If you had some money in your pocket, Austin Street’s menu was varied. The Sutton Hall Pharmacy offered an order of rye toast for 10 cents which could be washed down with a lemon coke, also priced at 10 cents. The newly opened Pizza Prince offered a slice for 20 cents, but kids were still suspicious of pizza. The various lunch counters along the Street offered a variety of cheap filler. An order of french fries was 20 cents, cream cheese on date nut bread could be had for as much as 40 cents, a burger with a hole in the middle from White Tower was a quarter, and various other offerings were priced accordingly. If you were really flush, and I’m talking over a dollar here, and you were up for some serious adventure, Austin Street offered “Hamburger Express”. A huge success from the day it opened, “Hamburger Express” delivered your Burger DeLux Platter right to your hungry little face on the flatbed rolling stock of Lionel model trains. The walls were covered with train posters and train photographs, and along the inside part of the counter ran the tracks themselves. The tracks that carried the trains that towed the flatbed cars that brought your lunch. The waitresses wore little train engineer caps that said “Hamburger Express” across the brim, and train whistles and bells and authentic trainlike noises of all sorts could be heard throughout the place. If you could afford it “Hamburger Express” was definitely the lunchtime venue of choice.
The boys at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs knew about trains. They knew from their earlier days in The Painted Mountains, where they buried their compadres in the Cemetery of unnamed men. They lived without food and water, and became tempered like steel; sinewy leathery boys, whose sole purpose in life was blowing up trains for Pancho Villa, and the glory of the revolution. They knew just how many sticks of dynamite it took to blow a munitions train to hell and gone. And just how many toothpicks it took to cause a derailment that would dump a Cheeseburger DeLuxe into some unsuspecting woman’s lap. These boys knew about trains. And how to stop them.
Finally, “Hamburger Express”, in an effort to keep their trains on the tracks, and to put a stop to the mischief of the boys from the Painted Mountains, hired its own security guard. They dressed him up as a train engineer, and although he greeted customers as they came in, and his demeanor was friendly, even jovial, he was definitely railroad security. This new addition created a more challenging atmosphere. And if that wasn’t enough, possible anti railroad weaponry; ketchup, mustard, toothpicks, pickles, were all removed from the counter until the arrival of your meal, and scooped up the minute they were used. These, and other counter-revolutionary tactics were employed by management in an all-out effort to put a stop to the work of Pancho Villa’s little heros. Additional security didn’t stop Butch and Sundance, and by God it wouldn’t stop Villa’s boys. So, like their days back in the Painted Mountains, they simply brought their own stuff. Toothpicks, gum, silly putty, pencils were all imported from home. And with the advent of watchful railroad security, diversionary tactics were required, usually in the form of a vomiting boy. A kid throwing up in a restaurant was very bad for business, so the boy who was assigned the job of “Diversion Puker” was picked up by the railroad security guy the minute he pretended to throw up on the counter, and carried outside to the sidewalk. With security outside, the bedlam of the entire revolution was free to take place right there inside “Hamburger Express”. Four to five derailments could happen in a matter of seconds, with burgers, milkshakes, banana Splits, and lemon cokes all flying helter-skelter, from their respective flatbeds to the laps of unsuspecting and shrieking customers, as total chaos reigned supreme in the little restaurant. Villa’s vigilantes had struck again.
With the revolution going well, it was time to return to Our Lady Queen of Martyrs for an afternoon of guessing just how many arrows Saint Sebastian was stuck with, and what it all meant anyway. At exactly 3 PM the Sousa march would begin, the classroom doors would be thrown open and the afternoon version of “The March of the Children” would take place. The daily schedule at OLQM was identical except for Wednesdays. On Wednesdays class would end at 2:30 and the entire student body would be marched a short distance to the church, where something mysterious called Benediction took place. This was a wealthy parish and the church looked it. The building was a kind of neo gothic mini-cathedral, with pictures and statues of people with their internal organs revealed, and candles burning everywhere. The shared public Catholic ritual is a theatrical assault on the senses, and Benediction was a perfect example. The church’s altar was fronted by a large proscenium, pretty much like the stage at Radio City Music Hall, where men wearing colorful satin outfits spoke, chanted, and sang in a dead language, and shook ornate little balls filled with incense (usually frankincense or myrrh), as the organ began the prelude to yet another hymn in Latin. I have no more clue today, than I did back then, as to the meaning or significance of Benediction, but I never forgot the music. The main hymn was something called “Tantum Ergo” and, although, at the time, I have no idea what it meant, it was a catchy tune that seemed to go well with the accompanying visuals and incense. In Latin (the only way I ever heard it) it went like this:
“Tantum ergo Sacramentum Ve-ne-remur cernu-I
Et antiquum documentum Novo cedat ri-tu-I
Praestat fi-des supplementum sensu-um de fectu-I”
(exotically entertaining in a dead language kind of way)
The English translation of this stanza goes like this:
“So great a sacrament, therefore let us worship
Bowed down; And let the ancient example give way
To a new rite; Let faith bestow a support
To the defect of the senses.”
Not much better in English, is it? Anyway that was Benediction, and when it was over we silently filed out of the church and back into the community.
I want to go on record here as having hated Richard O’Leary. I hated him then and I probably still do. In between the end of the afternoon March of the Children and the beginning of whatever came next, there was a certain amount of after school lingering. I was never privy to what girls talked about, but boys talked about gory stuff like beheadings and general human dismemberment, fights they had heard about that were really bloody, movie star suicides they learned about listening to their parents, local gossip like somebody’s mother who was arrested for shoplifting, and when they ran out of the juicy stuff there was always sports. Richard O’Leary was one of these kids who wanted you to think that no matter what you knew, he knew more. He always knew more, and it really didn’t matter about what. I liked sports. I liked to watch sports on TV. I liked to go Yankee games. But I was just not one of these kids who memorized stats. I knew that Whitey Ford was a good pitcher, but I didn’t know his lifetime record against lefty hitting. And, for the record, I have to confess to not caring. But Richard O’Leary knew, or at least pretended he did. Anyway, on this particular afternoon I had been accidentally equipped with a valuable statistic, Willie Mays’ career batting average. I read it in a magazine the day before, and knew that it was 321. Valuable information to have at my disposal, in between beheadings and shop lifting arrests. So when the opportunity presented itself, and I spoke right up, “Mays has got to be the best pure hitter in baseball, his career batting average is 321.” And without skipping a beat that rotten Richard O’Leary jumped right in. “Not against right handed pitching it’s not. Against righties he only hits 289. The man is a loser.” I had suffered a moment of psychological castration. I went from a kid who knew something to a kid who knew nothing. And not only that, but Willie Mays was now a loser. By the time I was wondering if I had anything in my pocket sharp enough to gouge out O’leary’s eyes he was already correcting some other kid on some other statistic. Another psychological castration. Another disappointed kid. Another triumph for that little weasel. Later that night, in between the light’s going out in my room and falling asleep, I fantasized about a proper vengeance. About an appropriate fate for that little know it all. About justice.
Death Row at Sing Sing Prison is in a separate and cloistered part of the facility. A long dark hallway where only one cell is lit. Outside the cell is the head guard and Father Spinelli, the prison Chaplain. Inside that one lit cell is a kid in striped prison garb, shackled hands and feet, and a terrified look on his face. It’s Richard O’Leary.
The guard speaks as he puts a key in the door, “Its Time son. Get a hold of yourself. Father Spinelli is here to hear your confession.”
“Son, are you sorry for all the sins of your past life and……”
“What confession? I’m not confessing anything. This is someboby’s dream. I’m a kid. You can’t execute kids. You can’t do anything to me.”
“Et ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis in nomine…..”
“Te absolvo a peccatis tuis….”
“I’m a kid, you jerk. You can’t do anything to me.”
“Ordinarily I’d agree with you son, but not after what you said in court.”
“Deus Pater misericordiarum…..”
“What do you mean? What are you talking about? What did I say in court?”
“About Willie Mays.”
“In nomine Patris, et filii………”
The guard, the Priest, and O’Leary are now slowly walking down the long dark hallway toward the brightly lit execution chamber, where the Warden stands, with a paper in his hand.
“About Willie Mays being a loser. About his average against right handed pitching.”
“ego te absolvo a peccatis….”
“So?….I’m right. He IS a loser.”
“You forgot about the judge son. Big Giants fan. Huge. Big Mays fan. You shouldn’t have said that son.”
“In deus Pater nostrum tuum…….”
“I’m a kid. I can say anything I want.”
“The Warden will ask you if you want your head shaved, son. I’d do it. The last kid, Old Sparky set his hair on fire. That was just before his head melted. What a stink. Two of the witnesses puked.”
“In Nomine Patris, et filii, et spiritus sancti……..”
The threesome is now passing the Tombstone Shop on their way to the Execution Chamber, and O’Leary’s eyes are as big as half dollars as he sees the worker carving an epitaph on a Tombstone that reads; “HERE LIES RICHARD O’LEARY WHO KNEW WILLIE MAYS’ BATTING AVERAGE AGAINST RIGHT HANDED PITCHING. LOOK WHERE IT GOT HIM.”
“Te absolvo a peccatis….”
“Mommie……I want my Mommie………Mommieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee..”
“You Richard O’Leary, having been found guilty of crimes beyond the pale, are heretofore to be put to death by means of electrocution, on this day……
In excelsis deo ordo paenitintiae…..”
“Get a hold of yourself son……..Ohhhhhh, he pooped his pants, What a stink…….”
As the clock strikes midnight the Warden nods to the Executioner, who throws the switch that sends the room into a tumult of buzzes and screams and shrieks and stinking hair, while outside house lights all over Dutchess County dim slightly as the life is fried out of Richard O’Leary’s melting body, leaving his lifeless form hanging, suspended by “Old Sparky’s” leather straps. Dead, and finally silent.
My bedroom ceiling never looked so good. Smiling, I could feel my lips moving before I heard the words. Those appropriate words. Those final words – “Sic semper tyrannus”.
© 2008 Shaun Costello