Friday, June 26, 2015

The Grave Digger’s Son 
In 1948 Booger McNulty's coal yard stirred constant gossip among the citizens who lived in the little bungalows on the narrow blocks in my far corner of Chicago. That was more than 60 years ago, a time when families took Sunday walks and went back home in time to hear Jack Benny on the radio.  A Sunday walk didn't cost a cent, a price my parents could afford.
My sister and I always had to tag along when my parents took their Sunday walk, and every time we'd pass Booger's place, I'd hear my mother ask my father what could possibly be on the other side of Booger's 10-foot fence. Hoping to avoid a conversation, my father would always say he didn't know but he believed it couldn't just be coal.
Back then, every kid in the neighborhood wanted to climb that fence and look around. But Booger didn't tolerate visitors. According to the boy whose buttocks caught a chunk of coal from Booger's slingshot, there was nothing on the other side of that tall fence except for pigeons and a lot of coal. 
In the bungalows surrounding Booger's place, immigrants from everywhere slept off beer and garlic when they weren't working, which was pretty often, according to my mother. My father always worked, digging graves with the other men, most of them, like him, from Ireland. He dug graves because in his previous profession some big Bulgarian broke his nose, after which my mother ruled no more boxing. He'd been undefeated until then.
I was ten in 1948 and I'd climb Booger's fence whenever I was certain he was gone for the night. Once inside the yard I'd climb the piles of coal until I got tired and then I'd go home and take a bath before my father saw me. My mother never let my father see me cloaked in the soot of Booger's coal and she always made me promise never to go back to Booger's again. 
But on Easter Sunday in 1948, I went over Booger's fence a final time. My mother had taken pains that morning to get me dressed for the Children's Mass and sent me off with a caution to be good. I always went to Mass, every Sunday, and I would pray and sing the hymns and usually I was good. This time the weather was so nice I decided to go to Booger's instead. He wouldn't be there on Easter. It would just be the pigeons and me. I was gone for hours that day, and since no one knew where I was, a family furor flared. 
At school on Monday, Timmy Duffy, unlike me a favorite of the nuns who taught us, told me that every other boy in our class had made it to the Children's Mass on Easter. 
"And where were you?" he asked. I told him I'd been sick and that I figured with all the polio going around, I didn't want to cripple anyone on Easter. Timmy accepted my explanation because we were all still praying in school for our classmate Mickey Kane, who had spent a year, so far, in an Iron Lung.  
"And so," said Timmy, "even though you weren't there to help, we sang as loud as we could on Easter," but that was something our class always did to keep the nuns in the aisle from paying us a visit. 
I may have sung no hymns that Easter but I probably looked pretty spiffy scrambling over Booger's fence in my new blue suit, white shirt and tie. I had a wonderful time in the sun with the pigeons careening in the air and my imagination soaring up there with them. 
I was free to climb my favorite pile of coal, toboggan down on my duff, and then climb a different pile and toboggan down again, far more fun than any sled in winter. Hours later when I got hungry, I went back over the fence and headed home for dinner.
Every Easter Sunday that I can remember, we'd have ham and yams, Brussels sprouts and rutabaga, favorites of my father from his youth in Ireland. But when I got home that day, we didn't eat right away after my father saw me. As I recall, his reaction was more Neanderthal than usual.
"Molly," he roared to my mother, with his hand gripping the back of my neck, "the little bastid says he went to Booger's! He never went to Mass!"       
And then, despite my mother's protests, he grabbed a belt from behind the attic door that had been hanging there for years, waiting for a felony like mine to occur. I knew right away what I had to do and so I dropped my pants and bent over at the waist as far as possible. Without a word, he stropped my arse.
I didn't cry, gosh no, since tears would have brought additional licks. We were Irish, don'tcha know, so we didn't cry and we didn't watch English movies on TV, either. The accents of the actors would remind my father of the Black and Tans, the English soldiers sent to fight in Ireland after the uprising. They imprisoned him on Spike Island, off the coast of Ireland, when he was just 16. They grabbed him barefoot in a stream sneaking guns to the IRA. In 1920, Irish boys ran guns for the IRA barefoot through the bogs and streams, provided they were big enough to carry them. 
Decades later in Chicago, a stranger, dressed like a Mormon on an urban mission, rang our bell and told my father he was from the IRA and had a medal for him in honor of his service 40 years earlier. The man said "It took a while for us to find you."
My father hung the medal in his closet next to the tan fedora he wore to Irish wakes. He always went to Irish wakes, even if he didn’t know the deceased, hoping to meet someone "from home."
So there I was that Easter Sunday, standing in our tiny parlor with my pants napping at my ankles, bent over at the waist and with my arse in the air, like a small zeppelin at moor. My predicament was the result of a wonderful morning at Booger's and a terrible afternoon at home. Now, 60 years later, when that Easter Sunday comes to mind, no matter where I am, I whisper, just in case he still can hear me, "Pops, I haven't missed a Mass on Sunday since I got that Easter stropping. I guess I learned my lesson."
And then I tell him, as politely as I can, that if he can get a pass from wherever the Lord has stored him, he can verify my Mass attendance with my wife and kids, the last of whom, a son, moved out on us last Christmas Eve, 2010, even though the boy had promised his mother and me a ride to Midnight Mass in his new Hummer. Two feet of snow we got that evening.
My father would have loved that snow. Back in '67, when we got 30 inches of it, some of it in drifts as high as Booger's coal, he was just delighted by the winter scene, so much so that he had the two of us shovel frantically for hours, albeit in our usual Trappist silence.         
When we got back in the house, he told my mother, with more than a dollop of flair, that the hairs in his nose were frozen. Thank God my mother had his tea ready, steaming hot, as it should be, in its cozy next to his favorite chair. And she gave me lots of cocoa, swirling hot with a zillion marshmallows floating on the top. 
Now every New Year's Eve at midnight (and this has been going on for years), I can see in the labyrinth of my mind those same marshmallows swirling when it's time for me to raise my glass and toast the past--Holy Week 1948, the week my butt survived Booger's slingshot and my father's belt. 
"Praise the Lord," I shout, "and pass the ammunition." 
As the years go by, fewer guests know what I mean when I offer my toast. But most of them never had a chance to hear Jack Benny on the radio. The young ones always ask where I got my old fedora. A couple of them have even said I should have it cleaned and blocked. But most of them, I'm certain, even though they went to college, never saw a relic. They think this old fedora is just a hat.

Donal Mahoney

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Missed Free Throws

Tim Murnane was born to parents who lived in a small brick bungalow in a lower-middle class neighborhood in Chicago. His father worked as an electrician for Commonwealth Edison Company and his mother stayed home, a not uncommon calling for a housewife and mother following the end of World War II. 

After a peaceful childhood, life for Tim as a teen-ager became more complicated. His father loved all sports, even those he didn't fully understand, and he encouraged Tim to play all of them, even the sports he himself had been unable to play due to an injury as a child.

In high school, Tim played baseball and basketball. It was basketball, however, that he really enjoyed. His father understood baseball because he followed the Chicago White Sox and used to take Tim to games. Basketball was another matter. His father didn't understand much about the game. But he always showed up for games that Tim played even though he never said anything after a game, win or lose. One particular game, however, sticks out in Tim's mind even to this day, many decades later. 

In Chicago at that time, there were park leagues to play in and if your team won its park league championship, your team advanced to the play-offs against teams from other park leagues. It was a very competitive environment.  

In 1954, Tim's team won its league and advanced to the playoffs. Their first game was far from their South Side neighborhood. It involved playing in a gym on the West Side and their opponents were a team of black teen-agers. Tim and his teammates had never been out of their neighborhood before and had never played against black kids. This was a time before black athletes began to make their definitive mark in sports.

It was a very close game, with the score going back and forth. There were no racial overtones--just two good teams trying to win. And the referees called a fair game.

At halftime Tim happened to look up in the stands and he saw his father. Tim knew that he must have ridden three buses for an hour-and-half to get to the game. As usual, he sat quietly in the stands, minding his own business and being careful not to "embarrass" his son by shouting or waving. 

This was before Little League gave birth to parents who today take an active interest in their child's athletic achievements. Today, some parents coach their kids' coaches during and after games. Tim's team had a coach who wouldn't have brooked parental interference. Besides, it wasn't his father's style to interfere. He just wanted to watch the game and see how well his son would do.

The second half of the game was as tight as the first half, both teams racing up and down the court and scoring. Defense wasn't a big deal back then. The team with the best shooters usually won.

Tim was having a good night, scoring and rebounding. So were his teammates. But the other team was doing well also. 

With 15 seconds left in the game, Tim was fouled and went to the free throw line. His team was down by one point and Tim had two free throws coming. He missed both of them and his team lost by one point. Tim was the high scorer for his team, scoring more than 26 points at a time when that was considered a lot of points.

After the game, the coach talked with the team in the locker room and did his best to make the kids feel better. Losing was not something they were used to. That night they had almost beaten a better team. The coach was proud of them. 

Tim was sitting on a folding chair by his locker when his father walked into the room. His father commiserated briefly with the coach. And he also said a few nice words to some of Tim's teammates as he made his way over to his son. 

Tim had no idea what his father wanted because he had never talked to him after a game before, whether the team had won or lost. Maybe he had been impressed by how many points Tim had scored although other aspects of the game would have been a mystery to him.

Finally his father was standing in front of him with a mystified look on his face. He bent over to whisper what he had to say. Tim can still hear his words today.

"Why did you miss those free throws?" 

Tim had no idea what to say. Some free throws go in, others bounce away. The tone in his father's voice, however, left no doubt that he thought Tim should have made them.

This was a major moment in Tim's relationship with his father. He knew now that his father would always expect the best from him. So a few years later when Tim came home from college with semester grades that were all A's and one B, he thought his father would be happy. College was tough back then--no cheap A's were handed out.

"Why did you get the B?" Tim's father asked after looking at his grades. He gave Tim the same mystified look he had given him when he had asked him about the missed free throws.

Tim thought for a moment and then offered the best answer he could muster.

"I guess I didn't study hard enough, Dad. I'll do better next semester. Just wait and see."

Donal Mahoney

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Strangers in a Bar

Sammy had been sitting in the bar for four hours drinking his usual gin and tonic, one drink after another, and even he would admit he was soused if he could put a sentence together. He didn’t have to talk, however, since he was the only customer left and there was an hour to go before closing. All he had to do was tap on the bar twice in front of his empty glass and the bartender would give him another drink. The service was wonderful.

Then two men in trench coats and fedoras walked in and sat down a few stools away from Sammy. They ordered a couple of beers. They seemed to be concerned about something and Sammy always liked to listen in on other people’s conversations.

“We need more room,” the big man said. “We can hardly take any more people. But they keep coming down and we can’t send them anywhere else. You would think we were Las Vegas and the drinks were free."

“Where will we get more room? We’re not talking real estate here,” the little fellow said. “No one thinks this place exists anyway. They think we’re a figment of someone’s imagination. New arrivals are always surprised.”

Then the big man said, “Oh, some people know we exist but they think we only get dictators and used car salesmen. The common belief is everyone else goes upstairs right away, provided there is an upstairs. More and more people think there may be nothing at the end.” 

The little guy thought about that for a moment and said, “Well, I heard two women arguing the other day about where cats and dogs go. I know we don’t have any cats and dogs. Where would we put them? Pretty soon we’ll be getting Boomers. They’re a fussy bunch. We need more room now!

Sammy didn’t know what to make of all of this. He wished he wasn’t drunk so he could join the conversation but all he could do was listen. The two men finally left and Sammy told himself he’d come back tomorrow night and ask the bartender who the hell those two guys were. Then he tapped on the bar twice in front of his empty glass.

Donal Mahoney

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Our "Anything Goes" Society?
     Our society's applauding the Bruce to Caitlyn Jenner gender transition,
A majority in favor of the nationalization of marriage equality,
     LGBT education for our children pre middle school!
Anything goes? Let's take a look and see.

     While for a long time older men with younger women have been accepted,
Cougars, liberated ladies, are now "behaving" the same,
     Today, we draw the PC line at selective protection of the kiddies,
For what most recently Josh Duggar and Dennis Hastert have been branded with blame.

     At the same time, we push the embrace of the Internet ever younger,
Growing lives awash in "plastic" and "porn" in so many ways,
     The more sex and violence polluting our "must" media, the better,
Slippery slope contours shaping how nascent generations will conduct their days.

     Logically, exposing a child to anything he or she is not ready to handle,
Can be as damaging as inappropriate physical contact between and adult and a boy or a girl,
     When we label one underage abuse and the rest an evolution in "normal," we're as confused...
...And complicit as those against whom pejoratives we currently judgmentally hurl.
Karen Ann DeLuca
Laura, What’s a Medical Intuitive?

The phone call came almost a year ago and Homer remembers it well. He had been out in the fields plowing and his wife came out and waved him into the house. His daughter was calling from the city. She had a good job there but she was calling with bad news. A doctor had confirmed she had stomach cancer. He said she should begin chemotherapy and radiation immediately but Laura wasn’t sure that was the right thing to do.

“After all, Dad, my medical intuitive said if I went on the Mediterranean diet, my condition could clear up and my hair wouldn’t fall out. It wouldn’t look good at work if my hair fell out.”

“Laura, what’s a medical intuitive? Is that a doctor of some kind?”

"No, Dad, a medical intuitive can tell just by talking to a sick person what’s the best thing to do. Sometimes they do it by phone, sometimes in person. They’re able to tune into your condition. Vibrations of some kind. They cost a lot but they're worth it. I’ve been talking to mine ever since I came to the city. She was right when I had a bad cough. I still have my tonsils. I hope she’s right again. I bought a book on the diet and I’m going to start on it immediately. Some good recipes if you like vegetables.”

Homer was not happy about the cancer or about the medical intuitive and he could tell that Laura had explained everything to his wife before she had called him in to talk to Laura. His wife was sitting at the kitchen table sobbing in her apron. She had been canning strawberry jam for the winter.

“Laura, this doesn’t sound too good to me,” Homer said.” I think it would be smarter to follow the doctor’s advice and maybe pray a little as well. Or eat the Mediterranean diet and follow the doctor’s advice at the same time. With cancer, chemotherapy and radiation are standard treatments. Your hair will grow back in. You can come back home and let it grow in down here. You’ve been working there long enough to get medical leave. Please think about it. There’s too much at stake here.”

Laura, however, didn’t want anything to do with chemotherapy or radiation. She was going to go on the diet and see if it worked. If not, maybe then she would try chemotherapy and radiation even if her hair fell out. And she promised her father if it did, she would come home to let her hair grow back. 

Homer never forgot that phone call. A year later, almost to the day, he repeated every word of it silently to himself on the ride from the church to the cemetery. His wife sat next to him crying. When they buried Laura, she still had all of her brilliant red hair.

Donal Mahoney

Friday, June 5, 2015

Kaleidoscope and Harpsichord

As I've told my wife too many times, the meaning of any poem hides in the marriage of cadence and sound. Vowels on a carousel, consonants on a calliope, whistles and bells, we need them all if a poem is to tickle our ears. Otherwise, the lines are gristle and fat, no meat.
Is it any wonder, then, my wife has had a problem, for decades now, with any poem I've given her to read for a second opinion. This is especially true when we both know the poem has no message and I simply want to hear the music, assuming there is some. Miles Davis made a living doing the same thing in jazz clubs. Why can't I have a little fun and give it a try even if my instrument is words?
The other night in bed I gave my wife my latest poem to read. I said it was fetal, not final. Afterward she said that reading this poem was no different than reading all the others I had given her over the years. She had thought I'd improve by now. Maybe I should switch to fiction or the essay, she suggested, or else stick with editing the manuscripts of others since I had made a decent living as an editor for many years. 
"You've been writing poetry for decades," she said, "but reading a poem like this is like looking through a kaleidoscope while listening to a harpsichord."
Point well taken, I thought, point well said. The nuns for whom I toiled all those years in grammar school would have liked my wife. They might have even recruited her to join their order.
Then I asked her what a man should do if he has careened for years through the caves of his mind spelunking for the right line for a poem only to hear his wife say that reading his poem was like "looking through kaleidoscope while listening to a harpsichord." 
Should I quit writing? Start drinking? After all I quit drinking when I started writing and I discovered that the hangovers from both were equally debilitating. 
The following morning she said, "You should never quit writing." 
At that moment, she was enthroned at the kitchen table, as regal as ever in her fluttery gown and buttering her English muffin with long, languorous strokes Van Gogh would envy.
"You should write even more,” she said, “all day and all night, if need be. After all, my line about the 'kaleidoscope and harpsichord' needs a poem of its own. It's all meat, no gristle, no fat."
Donal Mahoney