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John Reuel Pappagallo loved his firstNmiddle names that honored his loving maternal Gramp’s, and he wore the well-healed surname of his paternal Grandfather, a savvy shoe salesman.
And, like his Mother, he was a lonely child, who played with toy soldiers and cowboys and Indians, solely. When American Natives were called Indians and Stanford U.’s mascot was a Red Man and Chief Illini hooped-whooped it UP at U. of Illinois’ basketball games.
And, he constructed a baseball scrapbook with newspaper and magazine clippings of his Jupiters, Aparicio and Fox, yesteryear’s Anderson and Moncada. And, mastered a baseball board game, selected its teams, maintained players’ batting averages and in his best Vin Scully voice announced All Star and World Series games for their sole fan, Sammy, his pet canary.
And, like a gun-slinging NYC-President, he BLASTED to boarding school for basic training. Where, two cadets BOO-WHO-tattooed him with a white-hot shotgun casing to enter their exclusive club of one. And, he was the first in his immediate family to go to college, where he MAJORED in A/n/a/l/y/t/i/c Philosophy. Then, earned GRADUATE degrees in two distinct disciplines and receive more than his share of b-ling.
And, he went to his Father’s favorite hangout, a shot-and-a-beer-for-a-dollar dive on Chicago’s Canal Street, in a stone-washed part of town way before stone-washed was Rush Street chic-chic. Where, he sat on a stool, like a squirrel monkey posing for a Picasso portrait among stale paints, haggard brushes and thirsty canvass.
And, he promised his Gramp he’d take his Gram to the Villa Scaramucci, if anything happened to him. And, when his Gramp passed, he called the Villa about admission and rued its endless wait list. So, he SOSd the executor of his Gramp’s will, “HELP!”
And, he talked with his Mother about her beloved hobbies especially playing word games, while she alluded, heartb-r-e-a-kingly, to a competition with her parents for his love and her trembling submission to their unpublished rules for the contest.
And, he shared all those stories, which I +++my heart and promised not to tell, unless 1) scientists cloned a goat, 2) Man landed on the Moon, 3) two guys discovered DNA’s double helix structure, 4) a retired pro wrestler served as Governor of Minnesota, 5) Amazon offered air drone delivery, 6) a reality TV program host with no military or political experience became Commander in Chief of the most powerful military in the world, 7) a pro boxer earned $285 million in one year, 8) a woman ref’d an NFL game, 9) gorillas sold their art online for BIG purr$, 10) a smart-ass kid from White Plains became one of the riche$t dudes in the world or 11) all of the ABOVE.
But, BINGO!, all of the ABOVE came, saw and conquered. So, I’m free as the whirling dervish to share them here and now and un-aBRIDGEd.
Oh, one story, however, is missing, souly. One about his best friend, the man he asked to be his Best Man and looked UP to, his loving Gramp, MANifestly. A tract that was, perhaps, his most conceited and mystical and difficult to put into words. But, more about it, what little I stored, logically & philosophically, later.
So, here’s his first-person/al story, a real HMMdinger.
One word pretty much sums up three years of my life from about 10 to 13 during the pimply grades at St. Vincent’s Grammar School in Father-Knows-Best, River Forest, Illinois.
For about 1001 Arabian days and nights, I talked, played, ate, drank and dreamed BASEBALL!
Devouring all Sox games on our black and white, 16 inch, Muntz TV was routine like skitching in Winter, yearning to forward clocks in Spring, meandering for a part-time job in Summer and counting down to my birthday in October.
My hard ball TV-addiction was only the nub of this Louisville Slugger’s passion. I constructed a baseball scrapbook with newspaper and magazine clippings of my Jupiters, Aparicio and Fox, yesteryear’s Anderson and Moncada. And, mastered a baseball board game, selected its teams, maintained players’ batting averages and in my best Vin Scully voice announced All Star and World Series games for their sole fan, Sammy, my pet canary.
Summer days began dewy at dawn with pick-up games at the Dominican House of Studies with buddies like Bobby Barcowitz, Jim Zita and Louie Greco. Then, I’d race home for a gooey P & J, devour nine more TV-innings, gulp dinner and prep for my 6 o’clock Little League fight as if a matador in pre-war Madrid. Post-game activities included updating my BA before falling asleep, listening for “Going, going, it’s gone” on my 3×5 inch transistor radio, cradled snugly under an ear-crunched pillow.
I made the South Elm Little League MAJORS when I was only 10 and coached a Minor League team just two years later, both cum laude. My first time at bat, I smashed a homer, and continued to s*t*a*r, I thought, for the next three years as a hitter, runner and fielder. Leading SE’s All S*t*a*r team at the end of my final season would be my Grand Finale. But, as it turned o-u-t, this slugger’s swansong would be bittersweet.
A special meeting to announce the All S*t*a*r team was scheduled for HIGH noon on a Saturday aTOP the pitching mound of our home field on the sun-scorched corner of 76th and Bloomingdale in neighboring Elmwood Park. When the names of the All Stars were heralded, Bobby and Jim and Louie were IN, and I was … O-U-T.
Crushed, I staggered off the bump
across second base to cleat-worn center field: head bowed, heart tHuMpInG, face wet. Bitter.
Why I didn’t make the team remains an Agatha Christie mystery like how to talk on an iPhone, chew Wrigley’s and ride a TREK all at once, without getting mushed by a tourist from Poughkeepsie behind the wheel of a compact AVIS.
I know I was a player, but must confess, I often talked trash like Dick Tracey’s nemesis, Flattop, to other players and their managers. So maybe, just maybe, the Brass wanted to teach this trash talkin’, self-promotin’, smart ass, war baby a bitter lesson.
Wasn’t Custer’s standing order, “Ride to the sound of the guns”?
The INs were scheduled to battle the OUTs the following Saturday morning. So, I asked Mr. Raines, the league’s Commissioner and his private country club’s poster boy for its line of monogrammed sportswear, if I could pitch. In the first inning with Commish keeping score behind me, I whiffed the side, flipped him the ball and asked (not so) sweetly, “Is that your All Star team?” Then, strutted off the field, mounted my black and chrome Schwinn Corvette and rode from the sound of the guns all the way home. Riding HIGH and dry. Sweet.
The Picasso on that poster boy’s face, when I tossed him that Official Little League, strike-three-weary Spaulding, hasn’t
faded to this day, 65 years later. And, his puzzled and puzzling reply still echoes from miles and miles and miles away, “Hmm.”
Now, some philosophers might contest his next story, but I’m gonna tell it anyway for reasonable readers to make UP their own minds.
Before I bare my soul, it’s important for me to disclose, UP front, that I’m not easily scared, don’t believe in ghosts and pray I had enough hair on my head to raise. But don’t.
A lover of Arctic haute couture, I might be haunted by my favorite penguin-nun, if I didn’t confess, however, that waddling 1, 2, 3 … 25 steps across the Michigan Avenue Bridge OVER the Chicago River, like metronoming to a telling Grateful Dead CD, leaves me really breathless, and fretting about Social Security always leaves me trembling and aghast.
Will kids be telling my story around campfires for years to come? How do I know? What I can tell you is this. The rules for “The Great Chicago Ghost Story Contest” may, I said may, have put to rest a haunting question for this aging kid.
My tale begins and ends with my lonely Mother and our curious relationship. You see, she was sometimes mistaken for my only-older sister, and we often challenged each other like dueling banjoes. And, after her untimely marriage and Stephen King divorce, she competed, perhaps contested, for my affection with her parents, who raised me.
Mentioned by name in the title of Eric Clapton’s favorite love song, Lala, she attended Chicago’s Santa Cecelia Grammar School on South Wells and Englewood High School at 62nd and Stewart. Although she worked for the Lill Coal Company in administrative posts, she most enjoyed her hobbies: puzzles, astrology and word games. She died on her 60th birthday, and was buried in Graceland Cemetery on North Clark Street.
An accomplished piano player and published song writer, my Mother performed in and around Chicago, and “Stardust” Greene recorded one of her songs, The Hard Way. She also subscribed to Dell’s Horoscope magazine and belonged to the American Association of Astrologers. Most of her free time, however, was consumed by word games including Jumble, Scrabble and Crytoquote.
On the day she died, we talked through her last breath. She told me stories about growing UP in Chicago, surviving my Father, enjoying her work and why she didn’t raise me, the hard way, like trying to use a spent can of air freshener. Most of all, she talked about her beloved hobbies especially playing word games, while alluding heartb-r-e-a-kingly to a competition with her parents for my love and her trembling submission to their unpublished rules for the contest.
Something else she said, spontaneously, like the alarm of a carbon monoxide detector, kinda scared me: “Johnny, after I die, I’ll haunt you.” I didn’t question her at the time. I thought I misunderstood. But, for years to come, I often wondered what she meant, especially after Googling her scary verb’s definition – HAUNT Function: verb 1 a : to visit often : frequent b : to continually seek the company of 2 a : to have a disquieting or harmful effect on : trouble <problems we ignore now will come back to haunt us> b : to recur constantly and spontaneously to <the tune haunted her> c : to reappear continually in <a sense of tension that haunts his writing> 3 : to visit or inhabit as a ghost.
As if a freshly lit campfire, my curiosity was inflamed by the impact of “haunt’s” language, especially when read aLOUD, totally. Did she mean she’d often visit me, have a harmful or disquieting effect on me, visit or inhabit me as a ghost, continually seek my company, recur constantly and spontaneously, reappear continually? Cryptically?
Sunday, October 18, 2009, my 60th birthday, broke drearily. About 6 a.m., I made coffee, fed my cat and trudged down the drive way toward the Chicago Tribune. On page 12 in the ARTS and Entertainment section to the right of my horoscope (Libra – “You know exactly what you want.”), I found the rules for “The Great Chicago Ghost Story Contest.” Demonically, a midnight downpour soaked through the wrap around the newspaper. Some words were bro-ken, and others were missing. Eerily.
Tell us a scary story
Breaking news: Rod _____________has _____________ the __________ office!
OK, now ________you’re really scared. Talk ghost story. The best ghost story in Chicago. A ________story that leaves you breathless ______ trembling ____ aghast. A _____ story that kids __________________ around campfires FoR years tO coMe. A real hair RAISER!
Who’s Going to wRite it? You Are.
The rules for “The Great Chicago Ghost Story Contest” are simplE.
Your originaL, previously _________________ must:
o Be _____________ Around ______Chicago _______.
o Mention ________________ Chicago-area locale or ___________. (____ example: “The Witches of ________” or “___ DemoN From Damen Avenue” or “The Ghost From the _______” or “From _______________ to ____ Tribune.”)
o Be no longer than _____ words. (Story _______________count toward your Word total.)
o Be _______ to prInt in __ family newspaper. (____ demons musT watcH their Language.)
o Reach __ by midnight ChicagO time, _________2009.
Only e-mail ______________ will be accepted. E-mail ______________ to________. No attachments, ________; paste ______________story into the body of your ___________________ are not eligible; howeVer, anybody Else ________ .
The ghostly L-E-T-T-E-R-S satisfied my curiosity like a handful of Lay’s potato chips. Temporarily. But, in time, my puzzled and puzzling question remained. And, a new question arose like a stubborn pimple after a failed two-finger squish. Was she trying to win my love by gaming her parents’ unwelcomed rules for their contest? I think I know. But, do I? Reasonably?
Whew, his next story was less ghostly, but lovingly special its own way.
My Mother and Father were goo-goo sweethearts at Chicago’s Englewood High School, Home of the Eagles, The Purple and White. In their ice box days and goombah neighborhood, “Pappa’s my protector,” cautioned other guys better not mess with her, lest they courted his RRRage and RRRoar, up close and personal, in their face, like a HUGE, bad-hungry, gRRRowling-bear.
They eloped right after graduation before he enlisted as a Seaman Recruit in the U.S. Navy. Packed light, my Mother boarded a heart tHuMpInG, tripleXXXpress to San Diego. Before he shipped out, they p-layed at the first VACANCY sign. Needless service refilled his starch, restocked her dairy during brief bre-aks in their actiOn … with CAPITAL “Os.” For 72 non-stop hours, musing what to name me nine months o-u-t didn’t command his full attention or her TOP priority.
When he returned from service two years later, he was not the same, sweet, loving bear-boy. Submarine duty in the South Pacific stress-sank him. No longer her protector, he modeled abusive drinking, concluding their divorce after countless, failed “I’m sorrys,” “I won’t do it agains,” “I still love yous.”
My Mother and I moved in with her parents, my Gram and Gramp, on the top floor of a Whew-walk up at 76th and Yates. Three stop lights from brain-freezing chocolate malts with whipped cream heads and cherry caps at Pinzur’s drug store. Two from slippery sliders at White Castle. One from double feature-features plus Bugs Bunny, What’s up, Doc? cartoons at the Shore Theatre.
My Father had visitation rights, and was ordered to pay child support, which he did. Occasionally.
One visit, in particular, POPS from memory like a frosty bulb crunched in a vintage flash-camera. Buzzer-buZZZing, I peek around the corner, spy my Gramp guard-gaiting the hall and catch his chilly, “Hi, Lo,” the way I’d greet the dentist. Then, “Johnny, your Father’s here to take you out.”
We share hazel eyes, lady lashes, last names. That’s pretty much all we have in common. What we’ll do, where he’ll take me, how I’ll feel, are divined in a faded, black and white, 3×5 inch photo I’ll uncover 60 years later. Cradled in a timeworn, BULGing, Alper-Richman Furs’ box, labeled “Family pict…+ clo… friends,” in my Gram’s best, as she would say, “chicken scratch.”
The photo shows me PROPped on a HUGE, stuffed, expresso-colored Grizzly at the Lincoln Park Zoo. Wearing a what-cha-ma-call-it, South-of-the-border, hat with s*t*a*r*r*y tassels, a galaxy of tassels, dancing all around its two-tone brim, I look light years from Venus about the zoo, the bear and especially … the hat.
“We’re going somewhere special,” he says. “Introduce you to my friends. Show you off. You’ll like it.”
PERCHed on a stool with my new KEDS dangling mid-air, I meet my Father’s buddies at a shot-and-a-beer-for-a-dollar dive on Canal Street in a stone-washed part of town way before stone-wash fashions Rush Street chic-chic. What are their names, Jack Daniels and Johnny Walker and…?
I feel (How can I describe it?) alien, derailed, bare-ass, homeless, hooky-spooks, pants-peed-creepy. Like a squirrel monkey posing for a Picasso portrait among stale paints, haggard brushes, thirsty canvass.
Somewhere special is where he said he’d take me, where he wanted to go. And somewhere special, to his mind, is exactly where we went, where he took me.
His next story was FORD-future, if you believe that greasing the skids helps slipping past policy and that his Gram couldn’t hoochie coochie.
It’s Dutch-Reagan-time. And, my Gramp asks me to take my sweet Gram, whom he called “Poochie,” to the Villa Scaramucci, a hoochie-coochie-inspired retirement home, if anything happens to him, which is Gramp 01100011 01101111 01100100 01100101 for pre-deceasing her. When his code c-r-a-c-k-s, I call the Villa about admission and rue its endless wait list. So, I SOS the executor of my Gramp’s will, “HELP!”
“I know a guy, a car dealer, who’s a heavy hitter at the Villa, Johnny,” he says. “I’ll call him and get back to you.” POuNdInG heart beats later, I’m given the guy’s number, and call him, jItTeRy.
“Call Armando Pelligrino at the Villa,” he grumbles. “Tell him Joey G. told you about all the wonderful dance stuff he’s doin’ and that you wanna make a donation.”
“How much should I donate?” I probe.
“Shock ‘em,” he gRRRowls, closing with “There’s a Ford in your future, Johnny Baby. There’s a Ford in your future. And, oh, add that your Gram’s on the Villa’s wait list, but that has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with your donation, capisci?”
Following my absolutely-nothing call, as if I were Pope John Paul II, the Villa calls me back quam celerrime, “When can your Grandmother come here?”
Now, you might think my Villa story ends here, but there’s another part, the spicey part, that zests its flavor.
When I breathlessly tell my Gram that I got her into the Villa, she screams, “I won’t go. I won’t go. I’ll kill myself.” Thinking, Fuck me, I promised my Gramp I’d get her into the Villa, I ask myself, who could sell gum to Wrigley, brains to Einstein, synonyms to Roget? There’s only one guy, my pal, Wilk. So, I call him, “Wilk, got a special request, understand if you’re not up for it.”
“She’ll know it’s me. I mean, I’ll do it,” he says, “but…”
Back to me, Wilk reports, “I called her, said that I was Father Pelligrino and that I promised her husband that if anything happened to him I’d invite her to live with me at the Villa.”
“What’d she say?” I gasped.
“She said, ‘That’s a bunch of bullshit, Wilk, a bunch of bullshit.’ ”
That’s my Gram, my spicy Gram, I thought. Next day, I drove her to the Villa. Where, she lived sweetly, or as sweetly as sweet and spice mix, among nuns, priests and prancing dancers, until she passed, after ’fessing up that the reason she wasn’t keen about going to the Villa was because – Would you believe? – she couldn’t hoochie-coochie.
Well, those are his stories, which I +++my heart and promised not to share, unless 1) scientists cloned a goat, 2) Man landed on the Moon, 3) two guys discovered DNA’s double helix structure, 4) a retired pro wrestler served as Governor of Minnesota, 5) Amazon offered air drone delivery, 6) a reality TV program host with no military or political experience became Commander in Chief of the most powerful military in the world, 7) a pro boxer earned $285 million in one year, 8) a woman ref’d an NFL game, 9) gorillas sold their art online for BIG purr$, 10) a smart-ass kid from White Plains became one of the riche$t dudes in the world or 11) all of the ABOVE.
But, all of the ABOVE came, saw and conquered. So, “It is what it is,” as homeless Tony replies, when I ask, “How’s it goin’?”
Now, about the one story that’s missing, souly. The one about his best friend, the man he asked to be his Best Man and looked UP to, his loving Gramp, MANifestly. He did allude to it, just once, conceitfully. Quoting the 20th Century a/n/a/l/y/t/i/c philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who wrote at Proposition 6.522 in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, “There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.”
Oh, and he added these focused words for me, his memory, again paraphrasing Wittgenstein’s conceit, “Perhaps my stories will be understood only by someone who has had the thoughts that are expressed in them or at least similar thoughts. Their purpose would be achieved if they gave pleasure to just one person who read and understood them.”