On my 80th birthday, some years ago, I realized that I was as happy as I’d ever been. How could that be? Maybe because I was in love. I not only loved Sylvia but I was in love with her. Still am. Being 80 and in love has got to be worth a lot of happiness points. Another factor is that our four kids turned out so well. In fact they are among the finest people I have ever known. (The grandkids are fine too but they are still a work in process. I haven’t been able to figure out millennials yet.)
But I think there is more to my happiness than love and respect. One of my birthday gifts was a book that our daughter Jill created and had published. It is a beautiful hard cover piece with loads of photos from across the years and comments from family and old friends. In a sense the book was a gift not only from Jill but from each person who described many of the events, experiences and people of my life. As I read it for the first time, and every time since, I had a feeling I was looking back on my life and I liked what I saw. Perhaps the ultimate of happiness is to be at the end of one’s life, looking back and saying, “You know it hasn’t been bad.”
So I’ve created a Looking Back page for the MichaelsThinkPieces blog where I will look back on the events and experiences of my life and people I’ve encountered. It won’t include accomplishments, positions held, opinions, advice, or even thoughts. Those are the substance of other pages of the blog. The page might sustain the happiness I feel. It might borrow from comments made by friends and family in Jill’s book. Others are invited to make contributions, but I’m not inviting them to. We’ll see how it goes. As always, I write mostly for myself.
Letter to My Granddaughter
A lot of my Looking Back can be found in a letter I wrote to my granddaughter Monica in 2003, when she was 8 years old. I was helping her with a class project to have grandparents describe what it was like for them when they were 8. Sylvia wrote one as well.
Think about that. Eight is pretty young. I was in the 3rd grade at St, Ambrose Catholic School. I don’t think I remember any of my life before that.
Well, here it is.
Dear Monica: May 10, 2003
What a neat idea to ask Grandma and me about our lives when we were 8 years old. For me, that time was between June 17, 1940 and June 17, 1941. That seems like a long time ago, doesn’t it? Well it was.
For example, television wasn’t even invented yet and there were no big supermarkets. To use the telephone we would pick it up and a lady operator would say “number please”, and we would tell her and then she would connect us. There were no dials or buttons to push. There were no area codes. If you wanted to call someone in another town, you would say, “I want to call long distance”. Then she would connect you to another operator who would complete the call for you.
The grocery stores we went to were about as big as your living room and dining room. Also, airplanes were much smaller and were driven by propellers instead of jets.
Our house was at 617 Rocket Street in Rochester NY. It was small with a kitchen, dining room and living room downstairs and 3 bedrooms upstairs. There was only one small bathroom. We had an attic that was reached going through the bedroom of my mother and father. We didn’t use it for much. There was also a basement, where my mother did the laundry and canned tomatoes for use in pasta sauce throughout the year. There was also a coal-burning furnace down there. Every day, when it was cold, my father had to shovel coal from the coal bin into the furnace. Every once and a while, a coal truck delivered coal, through a basement window into the coal bin. There was no air conditioning in those days.
We lived in a nice neighborhood and I had a lot of friends. Most of the fathers worked as policemen, firemen, bank tellers, and workers in factories. None of them were executives like your Dad. Very few of the mothers had jobs. They had a lot to do running the house and raising the children. There were no laborsaving devices like dishwashers, microwaves, clothes washers and driers.
We had the nicest lawn on our street, because my father, (your great grandfather), insisted that we mow it, rake it and mow it over again every week. He wouldn’t allow a single weed to exist in the lawn. We used to have what we called “Weed Wednesday”. That was when my brother Tom and I had to take small knives and remove the weeds by hand.
In the winter it was cold and Rochester was known for having a lot of show. Even at 8, I had to help shovel the snow, although my brother, who is 3 years older than I, did most of it. In the summer it was often hot and muggy and there were mosquitoes and gnats to contend with. We used to call gnats “no-see ‘ems” because they were so small.
My father was a detective on the Rochester police department. He worked weird hours, from 12 midnight to 8 in the morning. Then he would stop on his way home to work a couple of hours at the Rochester Public Market. This was a place where the owners of those small grocery stores came in the morning to get vegetables, fruit, and other items they would sell that day. Dad would bring home some fruit and vegetables, set them out on a little table and sell them to the neighbors for nickels and dimes. We needed the money, as little as it was. But then, in 1940 you could get a lot of things for only a nickel. A phone call, an ice cream cone, a ride on a bus. There was also penny candy and you could send a first class letter for only one cent. It costs 37 cents now.
I think that it took my father a whole year to earn as much as your dad makes in a day. In the summer, my friends would meet at our house and wait for dad to get home. Then he would take us to a nice, supervised beach on Lake Ontario at Durand Eastman Park. He would sleep under a tree for several hours. Then we would come and wake him and he would drive us home.
Because we needed the money, my mother also worked. She was a seamstress in a clothing factory. Like everyone else, we only had one car, so she had to go to work on a bus. My dad would pick her up after work most of the time. In fact, my mother didn’t learn to drive until she was 60 years old. It was difficult for my mother, because she was still expected to do everything that the other mothers that didn’t work did.
By the way, I don’t have any photos of me when I was 8. My parents never had or used a camera.
You may find it interesting to know that, when I was 8 I played Monopoly with my friends a lot. I always used the milk jug as my piece. We also played other board games, like Sorry and Parcheesi. We played a lot of sports and organized our own games at a local playground. There was no Little League or other leagues run by parents. I think it was much more fun that way. We even found other guys in other neighborhoods who had teams and set up games against them. We would get there on a bus, without parents being involved.
Like everyone else, I walked to St. Ambrose School and carried my lunch because mom wasn’t at home to feed me. The distance one way was a little bit shorter than the distance from your house to your school. It was a Catholic school and our teachers were nuns, young ladies who were devoted to God and sacrificed a lot to be out teachers. They lived in a house called a convent that was across the street from the school.
Thanks for getting me to do this. It was fun trying to remember. If you don’t mind, I will sent this to your cousins.
I love you,
My Mafia Connection?
In 1976 my brother Tom and I threw a 50th wedding anniversary party for our mother and father and of course all of the relatives were invited. While standing at the bar I overheard a couple of my cousins talking about our Uncle Joseph, someone I had not known because he died 5 years before I was born. They said something about Uncle Joe being in the Mafia and that he was murdered.
At that point in our lives, my Dad and I didn’t communicate very well. He would mostly grunt at me. But when we got home to my parents’ house, I asked Dad if Uncle Joe had, in fact, been murdered. He grunted “yeah”. I asked “what happened to the killer?” He answered “He had an accident.” Then he wouldn’t talk about it anymore.
Now I’m sure that my Dad was not involved in the retribution. He was a lifelong member of the Rochester Police Department, starting in 1926, and had a long distinguished career as a detective. He was a law and order guy; a right and wrong guy and I’ve been told that he hated his older brother for being a gangster.
So, for all those years since 1976, I made a joke of having a connection with the Mafia. But recently I decided to go on Google to see what I could find out about Uncle Joe in 1927, the year he was murdered. Here’s what I learned.
- There was an obituary in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle Wednesday, May 4, 1927 that was rather garbled. But it did say that Uncle Joe was survived by his father and mother (my paternal grandparents), four brothers, one of whom was my father (who was born Dominico, later used the name Tom, and still later changed his name to Michael), four sisters, a daughter Rosalie, (age 17) and three sons, (ages 9, 6, and 5). His wife died two years before he did.
- Uncle Joe had 8 siblings besides my father. His parents had more than 9 kids but some of them died young. I don’t think any of them finished 8th grade. My Dad only went to the 6th They had to go to work at an early age. But I don’t think they thought of themselves as being in poverty. They had gardens and chickens and raised most of their food. They would “can” fruit and vegetables.
- From The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: “Hostilities between the various (Mafia) factions began to arise somewhere around 1926. The shootings started in the night of April 13, 1927, when a gangster named Boscarino was ambushed and shot. Less than a month after the Boscarino shooting, his main competitor, Joseph Lodato, was shot to death. Lodato was said by police to have been one of the leading bootlegging racketeers in Western New York. Boscarino, according to police was a known enemy of Lodato, and several of his associates were questioned. Seven of Lodato’s associates were arrested as material witnesses. Among them was Pasquale Amico who had been a partner with Lodato in the bootlegging business, and was among Lodato’s co-defendants in his 1926 liquor trial. He had risen quickly among the ranks of the Lodato group, and would become an important figure in the Rochester Mafia in years to come.”
So that’s my “Mafia connection”. But there is more to the story.
I don’t know who took care of the 4 kids right after Uncle Joe’s murder. His wife had died 2 years earlier. About 10 years later, the sons – Frank, Carmelo and Harold moved into our 3 BR, 1 BA house on Rocket Street. I was about 5 at the time. That’s 7 people sharing one bathroom.
My parents were certainly not well off but my father had a steady job on the police force, making about $1,200 a year, and my mother worked in a clothing factory but earned less than Dad. The boys lived there until they went off to WWII, probably in 1940 or 1941. So they were with us for about 3 or 4 years. They distinguished themselves and fought in real battles including the Battle of the Bulge (Frank), the Anzio Beach, Italy invasion (Mello) and in the Pacific as a pilot in the Navy (Harold). They were three great guys who raised wonderful families. The daughter, Rosalie, being oldest by 8 years married a guy named Ray Cook, who I didn’t like very much. He ran a restaurant and made a lot of money and I thought he was snooty.
I also look back on the time I spent working on the NASA space program. Here is a story related to that.
January 17, 2017: Eugene Cernan Passes
I was surprised that he was only 82 – 2 years younger than me. I met him during my aerospace years, before I got into business management.
I managed a project for the Mitre Corporation at the NASA Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston. The project was about the application of computerized tools for flight operations. Keep in mind that this was in 1966 when computers were gigantic. In fact my iPhone has more computer power than all of the computers that together got our astronauts to the moon and back.
As part of the study, on Saturday morning, March 12, 1966, I sat in on a flight plan meeting of the astronauts for the Gemini 9A mission. I have a scrapbook that contains my hand written notes from the meeting attended by, among others, Tom Stafford, the Command Pilot making his second spaceflight, Eugene Cernan, the pilot making his first spaceflight, Jim Lovell, another astronaut, and others. Stafford later was the Command Pilot for the Apollo 10 mission that was the second to orbit the moon and first to send the lunar module to the moon. Cernan later made two Apollo missions and was in fact the last human to leave the moon. Jim Lovell is most famous as the commander of the Apollo 13 mission, which suffered a critical failure on the way to the Moon but was brought back safely to Earth by the efforts of the crew and mission control. You may have seen the movie. Lovell was also the command pilot of Apollo 8, the first Apollo mission to enter lunar orbit.
My notes of the meeting indicate that the Gemini 9A flight crew was meticulous in the detail about the upcoming flight and that they didn’t want to see changes to the flight plan.
The scrapbook also contains three security badges that allowed me to sit in the Mission Control Center for two Gemini and an Apollo Missions. Exciting stuff. Especially Gemini 9A, when during Cernan’s spacewalk he began tumbling uncontrollably. He eventually made it back to the hatch area and began the slow climb to the rear of the spacecraft. While he was disconnecting himself from his capsule and hooking up to the backpack, his heart rate rose to about 155 beats per minute
I remember that well.