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WAR IN THE RING--A unique book about boxing, Hitler, and WWII

WAR IN THE RING:
Joe Louis, Max Schmeling, and the Fight between America and Hitler—
by John Florio and Ouisie Shapiro
A BOOK WRITTEN FOR KIDS, BUT STIMULATING FOR EVERYONE
by Chuck Cascio
     Those of us of (ahem!) a certain age have heard numerous stories about World War II. Perhaps our parents or grandparents served in the military during those years, or perhaps our families were dramatically impacted by the hatred that spread around the world, or perhaps we have a specific, lingering image someone described to us about the world at that time. 
     I am sure many of today’s youth know the realities of that era--the living conditions in the United States, the surge of Nazism, and the attempts people made to "normalize" their lives—and I am sure many others do not. I am also certain that all could benefit from knowing more, especially if the history of that time is presented in a way that ties together the social, political, and sports worlds in a unique manner. Which brings me to the incredibly insightful, highly readable book, War in the Ring: Joe Louis, Max Schmeling, and the Fight between America and Hitler, by John Florio and Ouisie Shapiro.

war in the ring

     The authors combine the realities of racism, Nazi power, war, sports, and humanity in compelling non-fiction that stimulates thinking and curiosity about the era. The book is intended for middle-school students, but the writing does not talk down to anyone. As a former high school teacher, I can easily how the book could be used to engage teens in unique discussions of that time. By weaving the lives and profiles of the boxers—African American Joe Louis and German Max Schmeling—against the rise of Hitler and WWII, War in the Ring provides an intriguing look at history for readers of all ages.
     Louis and Schmeling fought twice—once in 1936 and again in 1938. With the turmoil rising in the world during those years, each man came to represent his respective country and each became a national symbol. The authors describe how Louis also carried the burden of being a black man in Jim Crow America. And when Louis, who was born amid the cotton fields of Alabama and raised in Detroit, lost the first match badly, it registered as a defeat for America. At the same time, Schmeling's win brought him lavish praise from Hitler himself and other Nazi leaders who saw it as a national victory. 
    Things changed dramatically two years later. Louis knocked out Schmeling in the first round and emerged as one of the nation's first African American heroes, a symbol of hope in the United States. In Germany, Schmeling was ignored by nationalists and ostracized by Hitler himself.
     While many books do a fine job of capturing the World War II era, War in the Ring stands out because it is written in a novel-like manner and ties historical fact with societal and personal realities. By describing two men who grew up in poverty and used boxing as an attempt to improve their lives as the backdrop for the realities of war and all its suffering, authors Florio and Shapiro succeed in creating a grim metaphor for various aspects of life in that era. Here’s an example from the Prologue of the kind of thought-provoking imagery found throughout the book:

     “As the two fighters climb through the ropes, the overhead lights beaming down on them, men and women across the United States lean in to their radios, hanging on the outcome.

     “In Germany, it’s the middle of the night, but millions of residents have their lights on and their radios tuned to the broadcast coming over the phone lines.

      “The bell rings.”
 
      On a factual level, those words provide a picture not generally associated with war, but on a metaphorical level, the words capture the world at the time…a world in which the United States was about to step “through the ropes” and the bell was, in fact, about to ring.
     Read War in the Ring for yourself, read it with your kids or grandkids or students you teach but, most important, take some time to discuss what it is saying beyond the world of sports and the world of politics. Take time to appreciate what it illuminates about striving to normalize daily life amid the turmoil of conflict.
THE END
Copyright: Chuck Cascio; all rights reserved.
 

ENLIGHTENED...by "BLINDED BY THE LIGHT"

ENLIGHTENED...by BLINDED BY THE LIGHT

By

Chuck Cascio

     My students were adamant: "You have to listen to this guy, Mr. C.! You love Dylan, so you have to hear this guy!" One young woman waved a cassette tape in my face.

     Me: "Whoever this guy is, he is not Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan is a poet, the voice of the heart and of the conscience."

     Students: "But, Mr. C., you always tell us to try new things! You always say: 'Trying new things broadens your thinking and creativity.' So come on!”

     It was 1973 and I was a young English and Journalism teacher at George C. Marshall High School in Falls Church, VA. I loved my students' reactions when I had them analyze lyrics by Dylan and apply them to the socio-political climate of the time, or when I would play a Beach Boys song and ask them something seemingly bizarre like, “Equate their harmonies with the textured flow of a Dickinson poem.” At first, they would look at me confused, skeptical, but gradually they would dig in and they would come up with analogies I never dreamed of. Now, they were convinced, it was my turn to grow.

     So I relented: “Okay, so who is it that you want me to listen to? This ‘Dylan Equivalent?' "

     They did not waste a second. A cassette player appeared, the  tape was snapped in, and the entire class stood in a circle, smiling in anticipation as they awaited my reaction.

     The first sounds I heard from the recording were surprisingly appealing--a couple of engaging guitar riffs, a subtle drumbeat, another guitar floating through, hinting at something different. A few seconds passed and I was interested--not yet hooked, but interested. Then I heard the raspy, almost whispered words…

     "Sandy, the fireworks are hailin' over little Eden tonight

     Forcin' a light into all those stony faces left stranded on this fourth of July..."

…and just two lines in, I knew I had to hear the rest. I listened intently, while my students nudged one another and some softly sang along with Bruce Springsteen's "Fourth of July, Asbury Park."

     My students did what they knew they could do--they hooked me on Bruce, and over the years I have thought often about that classroom experience (and many others)—and about how much we all have to learn by listening, looking, sharing. 

     That day, and those feelings, rushed back recently when my wife and I went to see the movie Blinded By the Light, which is based on the true story of a young Pakistani man facing the racism of late 1980s England. A friend turns the young man on to Springsteen, and his life is changed by The Boss's lyrics and music. 

     In the movie, Springsteen’s songs contribute to the young man’s development of personal strength. He experiences new insights into society. His thinking is influenced by many of Springsteen's lyrics, including one that especially hits home with him…and me… from the song "The Price You Pay": 

          “Now they'd come so far and they'd waited so long

         Just to end up caught in a dream where everything goes wrong

         Where the dark of night holds back the light of the day

         And you've gotta stand and fight for the price you pay…”

     I won't go into what are, to me, the rather obvious applications those particular lines have to life today. But it makes me think back to the 1970s when the kids I taught were experiencing a continuing era of overt racism, conflict over segregation versus desegregation, worldwide economic turmoil, a foreign war that was not formally termed a “war” by politicians of the time, talks of impeaching the president and more...and I wonder:   

     Exactly how far have we come? 

     Those kids in my classroom found a reality in the songs of Springsteen, and they shared that reality with one another and, fortunately,  with me. But they also heard and shared an element of change and a sense that life is fleeting, that people must determine what is right and what they want to pursue, and that the opportunity for personal or social change always exists…though sometimes with a price.

     Sure, they might metaphorically catch their shirts, as “Fourth of July, Asbury Park” says, on that "tilt-a-whirl down on the south beach drag" that "kept me spinnin'/I didn't think I'd ever get off…" but there is also this bit of hope at the end of the song:

          “…the aurora is rising behind us

         This pier lights our carnival life forever

         Oh, love me tonight and I promise I'll love you forever…”

     None of this is to imply that Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan or some singer-songwriter today has all of the answers to the looming socio-political issues we face or to the vast personal questions today’s youths confront. But the movie Blinded By the Light  emphasizes the importance of capturing the elements of hope and change, grabbing onto them, and not being afraid to “stand and fight for the price you pay.”

     Our natural instinct is to hope that the price we pay is not too high and that what we pay for will have a lasting positive effect for us and for all. As Springsteen warns in his song "Better Days," we shouldn't be "just sittin' around waitin' for my life to begin/While it was all just slippin' away." 

     I don’t know what happened to most of those students I had all those years ago, the ones who felt comfortable enough to have me listen to Springsteen, knowing that I would be captivated by The Boss. I do hope that they are all and that they still enjoy his music, that they also see how his words apply to today’s world, and that they have lived with this simple lyric in mind from Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark”:

          “You can’t start a fire without a spark.”

     If you want to rekindle that fire, go see Blinded By the Light. It brings back memories, but more important, it serves as a reminder that art can spark meaningful thought, and that we are all responsible for starting our own fires.

Copyright: Chuck Cascio. All rights reserved.

MY FATHER'S HOUSE--A posthumous 100th birthday tribute

MY FATHER’S HOUSE

By

Chuck Cascio

My father, Modesto “Morris” Cascio, was born on August 19, 1919 and passed away far too young.

This is my modest tribute to him in the month of his hundredth birthday.

     His house blossomed as he walked Brooklyn’s streets helping his father bring home meat, bread, and occasionally a small piece of cake from the Depression-induced lines filled with hungry people in a land that once held promise for them all. 

     Remarkably, the promise remained inside him in the form of the house taking shape slowly within his agile mind, a mind capable of seeing hope during the days and nights on those dark streets miles and years away from the home in the rolling hills of Virginia that gradually grew as real to him as the stench of beer billowing from the brewery near the tenement where he lived with his parents, a sister, and two brothers. 

     His house evolved out of the spirit of his mind and took shape through his own will and desire. But first, he fought in the Second World War and then, four years after it ended, he took his small, beautiful wife and me and moved us out of Brooklyn, leaving behind the tenements, the stale brewery odors, his siblings, and his parents as one life slipped forward and the other slipped into the past but both made up the man who left Brooklyn. 

     The move saddened his immigrant father whose greatest fear was to lose any of his four children. All three of his sons had returned safely to Brooklyn after the War, but their wartime departure and his fears for their safety had turned his hair gray and furrowed his brow. Now this son—the second eldest child, the son who loved jazz and opera and who could make his mother laugh by turning her through a new dance step and who read someone named Shakespeare and who showed kindness to his siblings through a tease, a taunt, or an embrace—this son said he would be leaving because he felt a new life and a house growing inside of him. 

     Before he left, he assured his father, “Papa, you will hear from me often and we will visit, and you and Mama will visit us too. You’ll see; it will be good—good for you and good for me and for my family.” 

     The house he built in that strange land called Virginia became him—solid brick, 

sturdy with quiet nuances of beauty, and a yard filled with trees and rolling emerald fields of grass. With dignity and simple elegance it faced the street—a street that began as dirt, eventually graduated to gravel and, then, finally to asphalt as the world around both him and his house began to change…a world that had graduated in stages inside him as he grew from a dreamer, to a man making dreams come true, and eventually to his fulfillment of a new life. 

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My father’s house—our house—just outside of Vienna, VA.

     Every morning I watched as just prior to sitting at the kitchen table he would silently glance outside at the backyard, a view unimaginably different from the narrow streets and alleyways of his youth. Sometimes he nodded quickly and seemed to smile at the contrast. At other times, with his ever-present newspaper folded tightly under his arm, he would open the back door and stand there for several minutes, carefully surveying what was now his—and ours from him—before quietly sitting down. 

     How many days did I watch him sit at the breakfast table already in his suit and tie, reading his morning newspaper, ready for office work…another thing he had once only imagined but now lived?  He would sip coffee and occasionally give me and my younger brother and sister subtle reminders about how to behave, encouraging us to work our hardest, helping us understand that we must have a dream and we must be willing to pursue it. 

    And there were those times he would call us all together, excited about some small idea that had emerged: 

      “How about if we nail a backboard to that tree way in the backyard so you can practice shooting baskets anytime you want?” 

      “Let’s have a cement patio put in right at the bottom of the back steps connecting to the carport; then we can all eat outside!”

     “Gotta get together this weekend to start raking up the leaves. Fall is here!” 

     And in those brief, informal family meetings, he made his house and his dreams a part of his reality, a part of us, a part of all that we would be.

     His father visited the house only once. I still can see my grandfather, a Sicilian immigrant, sitting on the cement patio by the carport on a plastic and aluminum lawn chair, looking confused, as if he had once again migrated to a foreign country…this place with trees and space and fresh air. Over several days, he gradually sat smiling comfortably as he smoked a short, crooked, black cigar, sipped wine, and looked up occasionally from his Italian magazine to glance at the sky. On the day he left, a tear formed as he held his son, and the son, being the kind of man who could kiss his father, did just that. 

     His father returned to the solid streets of Brooklyn, his  place, the place he  had imagined as a boy who left Sicily with a dream, but he had briefly experienced the air and space of his son’s house and had seen the man his son had become. Neither man had regrets and both men knew they would always share certain realities—the family, the bread lines, the beer stench, the War, the fear of detaching from where you are and losing the essentials of who you are…but the absolute importance of taking that step. 

       After his father left, my father again quietly surveyed what was his and what he had become…the foundation of his being. Through his house he had proved that there is no detachment where there is real love; there is only an emergence of things that at first exist in the spaces of the mind, then take root in the soul, and eventually blossom from the heart.

     I have wanted so much of what he had, but nothing has consumed me more than his house—not the structure or the eclectic décor nor the lasting irrefutable loveliness of its grounds—no, it is not the house itself  that I have wanted. It is his quiet pride, his brilliant vision, his deep courage, his belief that this was it! He had achieved his sense of place and he had fulfilled the hope that had grown from the depths of his heart and his mind. He had absorbed the risks, built a new life, and shared it all with those he loved. 

     My father had taken his dream to reality and, in doing so, he had planted dreams inside us all.

THE END

Copyright: Chuck Cascio, all rights reserved.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

July 4th in DC: Then and Now

July 4th in DC: Then and Now
by Marc Cascio

(Note my son Marc's thoughts on July 4 in DC as he recalls it...and now.--Chuck Cascio)

     I grew up going to the national mall for the 4th of July. It was awesome:

     The Beach Boys played, everyone chilled, some people overindulged, and the culminating event was always an incredible fireworks display. I always had a great time, but I always had this nagging feeling that something was missing, and now I know what it was: TANKS!!!

 

Tanks roll into our Nation's Capital for the July 4 celebration.     

     Nothing celebrates winning our independence from England in the 1700s like four gigantic tanks to tear up the DC roadways and possibly flatten drunken celebrants! Yes, the Founding Fathers would be thrilled to know that the taxpayers are footing the bill for giant death machines to navigate narrow roadways full of revelers to satiate the desires of a president who has wanted to play with his tanks since he saw the French do it in a celebration back in 2017.

     I mean, who better to model a military celebration after than the French? Rumor has it that most of the citizens there surrendered during the course of the celebration in a Pavlovian response. That won't happen here though! In fact, I don't see any possible way that massive tanks, abundant alcohol, meager roadways that are insufficient for bearing the weight and traction devices of war machines, and a president with a massive ego who is disregarding the wishes of DC representative could result in anything but a covfefe time for all! 

    Happy 4th! And I thought I had it good with the Beach Boys and fireworks!

copyright: Marc Cascio, all rights reserved.

UNITED BY THE WALL: A Tribute to Our Fallen Heroes

UNITED BY THE WALL: A Tribute to Our Fallen Heroes

In 1992, for the twentieth anniversary of the Vietnam War Memorial Wall in Washington, DC, I had the privilege of working with my friend Jonathan Edwards, the incredibly talented singer/songwriter, on a musical tribute to the Wall and to the soldiers who gave their lives in that war.

To watch and listen to "United By the Wall"--and to reflect for a couple of minutes on all the true heroes who have given their lives so we may live ours--please click on the following or cut and paste it into your browser:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CzQtJr3yrK4   

To all our veterans: Thank you for your service!

Copyright Chuck Cascio, all rights reserved.