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  • Choosing the Right College...and a Glimpse of Wagner College

    Choosing the Right College…
    and a Glimpse of Wagner College
    by
    Chuck Cascio

    chuckwrites@yahoo.com

         
         As a former high school and university level teacher, I am sometimes asked for my thoughts about how high school students should conduct their college search. Considerable stress is often evident in the inquiry, as parents and grandparents worry about the increasing emphasis on “name” schools as prestige takes priority over other essential considerations students should be making. 
     
         What are those considerations? Well, based on my own experience in searching for a college and from what I have heard from students over the years, a successful choice largely boils down to three criteria:
         >Comfort
         >Enthusiasm
         >Personal Development Potential
         
         Here is my own story:

     

    Unknown

    Main Hall on the oval as you enter the campus of Wagner College, Staten Island, NY.
         My father drove me to New York to visit Wagner College on Staten Island, a small school I had only read about. I wanted to go to college in or near New York City, where I was born and where I had spent a great deal of my childhood despite having moved to suburban Washington, DC, when I was about five years old. So the trip to New York was a familiar one, a trip that always filled me with energy.      
         
         Wagner College was certainly not a “big name” school. I had discovered it in one of those gigantic books containing details of hundreds of colleges (Those of us of a certain age remember well what it was like to plow through those books!). I requested and received a catalog from Wagner and liked what it featured, especially the 15:1 student-to-teacher ratio. Even at age 17, one thing about which I was certain was this: Although the excitement of a large school environment appealed to me, large class sizes and too many other distractions would scatter my attention, which would undoubtedly negatively impact my academic performance.
         
         The details and pictures of Wagner intrigued me: Located on a scenic section of Staten Island called Grymes Hill, 400 feet above sea level—the highest natural point on the Eastern Seaboard south of Maine—several buildings on and around the campus had once been “vacation” residences of wealthy New Yorkers who used their picturesque Grymes Hill homes to escape the hectic city life. 
         
         When the school invited me for a visit and an interview with an admissions officer, my father and I made the trip together. My dad, a native of Brooklyn, knew all of New York well, including Staten Island, but he had never previously driven the steep road up Grymes Hill. At the top, both of us were mesmerized as we entered the isolated campus via a tree-lined oval with stunning glimpses of New York's waterways, bridges, ships, and the Statue of Liberty visible between lovely trees and buildings. A feeling grew inside me, one I could tell my father shared: This place was different; it vibrated with a quiet energy, a sense of individuality.
         
         During my interview, the attentive admissions representative asked about my interests and what motivated me to learn and why I thought Wagner might be right for me. I responded with insights that surprised me…and I noticed that the interviewer actually listened as I explained my need to feel engaged while in a classroom, my desire to hear from other students as well as from instructors, my description of learning as a participatory process.
         
         When I returned to the car, my father stood outside intently taking in the sweeping views of New York’s other four boroughs in the distance. "So what do you think?" he asked. 
         
         To this day, I remember exactly what I said to him, "If they will have me, Dad, this is where I am going."
         
         Somehow, a few other schools with student populations several times larger than Wagner's 1,500 students accepted me. But the image of Wagner, the small classes, the proximity to the energy of downtown New York, the closeness that I could sense on my tour of the campus, overroad what other schools had to offer. And when the acceptance letter from Wagner finally arrived, I said, "This is it!" 
         
         My parents were happy because I was happy...and I was happy because somehow I could feel what I believe is most important in making a decision about which college to attend: The fit was right. In Wagner, I had found a campus that made me comfortable, surroundings that made me feel that I could engage in academics and perhaps discover new things about myself. I was right...and attending Wagner remains one of the best decisions I have ever made. Classes were small, instructors were dynamic, students had interests similar to mine, and the opportunities on campus and in the city were endless.
         
         Today, Wagner has grown a bit with 1,800 undergraduate and 450 graduate students, but it maintains a 15:1 student-teacher ratio. Following are a few of the numerous accolades Wagner has received from various college evaluation services:
       
         >It is ranked sixth in the nation on the New York Times' list of “value added” colleges.
         >100% of its students work at an internship or practicum.
         >Its “Learning Communities” programs emphasize experiential learning applied to the real world and supported by deep research.
         >Its theater arts program is ranked fifth in the nation by Princeton Review.
         >Salaries of Wagner alumni rank in the top 14% nationally.
         
         Just as when I attended, the school reaches out to the vast resources of New York City to attract teachers and guest lecturers, to provide internships, and to establish partnerships. And the school has maintained its beautiful surroundings and classic buildings while carefully adding new technology and structures. In short, it still says to me, "This is a place to learn...about academia and about yourself."  
         
         Is Wagner College the right choice for every student? Of course not; no one school is right for everyone. But I firmly believe that the key to making the correct individual college choice is not to be overly focused on prestige or size or name recognition. Rather, students should visit schools and, while visiting, sit in on a class or two, get a sense of how they would fit in, and ask themselves, "Will I be comfortable here? Will I be enthusiastic about learning here? Will this school’s environment help me develop my skills, my relationships, and my unknown talents?”
       
         If there are positive answers to those questions, then I tell students this: 
         Make your decision. Go to your college and enjoy the full scope of learning.

    THE END

    Copyright: Chuck Cascio. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint or quote all or segments, write to chuckwrites@yahoo.com.
  • Free Previews of THE FIRE ESCAPE SERIES

    Summer's gone. Fall's looming. Time to find some moving, thought-provoking books for the months ahead. Allow me to humbly suggest that you do this for FREE:

    TAKE A WALK ON A BROOKLYN FIRE ESCAPE...SEE WHERE IT LEADS!

    With more than 100 5-star reviews on Amazon and Goodreads combined, the three books in THE FIRE ESCAPE SERIES will make you laugh, cry, and remember. You can purchase just one book or two or all three: For a limited time, the entire package costs less than $10, including the Indie Award for Excellence Finalist, The Fire Escape Belongs in Brooklyn. To help you decide, here are links to FREE previews of all three books in the series:

    >The Fire Escape Stories, Volume Ihttp://a.co/84dhMFd

    >The Fire Escape Stories, Volume IIhttp://a.co/53BnS1G

    >The Fire Escape Belongs in Brooklyn ( A novel based on The Fire Escape Stories)http://a.co/5hV5Z0G

    Two cousins. One fire escape. Can it save them both? 

     

  • JFK Assassinated: A Friday Never Forgotten

    Episode #21

    "THAT FRIDAY"

    AN EXCERPT FROM THE FIRE ESCAPE STORIES, VOLUME II,

    AVAILABLE IN PAPERBACK OR E-BOOK AT 

    https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01M8K27KF

         On that Friday in November 1963, the final high school football game of the season was canceled.

         On that Friday, Ginny wept out loud as she sat next to me on the bus ride home from school; except for her cries and a few other kids sniffling or whispering, the bus was silent.

         On that Friday, my mother and I watched the nonstop news from Dallas in disbelief, in quiet, in fear, wondering what it meant for our country, our president shot, reaching for his throat, gasping for life, his wife standing in the accelerating convertible groping for something—her husband? her safety? her future?

         On that Friday, my father called from work to say that he did not know when he would be home again, that we should be careful but strong, that we should pray, that we should know that he was thinking about us, loving us, even as he did whatever his job demanded to help deal with the situation, to help settle the country, to help provide some degree of sanity to a world suddenly gone mad.

         On that Friday night, our phone rang again. My mother and I looked at one another, wondering who it could be. Edgidio and Marianna had already called, and my mother had already shared her horror and grief with her other friends in Virginia and New York, so she said, “See who it is, honey.”  I picked up the phone, said, “Hello,” and heard a voice I did not know, nor did I immediately recognize the name that was uttered until he said it for at least the third time: “It’s Harry, Mike, remember me? Are you and your Mom and Dad okay? This is just awful stuff. Awful.”

         I finally collected myself and said, “Oh yeah, yeah, we’re okay, Harry.” My mother looked at me and mouthed, “Harry?” and I nodded. She blew a kiss in my direction. 

         “I just wanted to check, Mike,” Harry said. “I’ve been so busy working on a big project in DC that I have neglected to call you and your folks. I am sorry. Sometimes it takes a tragedy like this to make people remember what is important in their lives. We are family. I have to do a better job of keeping in touch.”

         I didn’t know what to say, so I mumbled, “Well, yeah, we’re all okay. Dad’s not here. Would you like to speak to my Mom?”

         “Sure, Mike,” Harry said. “Sure. And when things settle down, I would like to visit with you to catch up, see what you’re up to. Okay?”

         “Yeah,” I said. “Here’s Mom.”

         While they talked, I looked out at the back yard blanketed in darkness. A small light shone on Ginny’s porch, so I went outside to see what it was. Someone moved in the narrow stream of light. “Ginny?” I called softly across the yard.

         “Yes, Mike, it’s me,” she said, shining a flashlight toward me. “Meet me.”

         We met where our yards touched.

         “You okay?” I asked. 

         She had been holding the flashlight toward the ground, but now she turned it to her face, revealing a bruised, swollen eye. “He did it,” she said. “Randy. He said I was a ‘queer’ for cryin over a dead president, one who ‘loved niggers.’ When I didn’t stop cryin, he punched me. I got one good scratch on his face ’fore Paw grabbed him and threw him out the house. Maw, she started cryin and put ice on my eye. She tol’ Paw he’s gonna have to do somethin ’bout Randy, else she’s gonna take me and move out.” Ginny looked at me, the flashlight’s beam illuminating the colors of her bruise like a flashing pinwheel. “I don’t want to move, but I jest can’t keep gettin punched. I don’t want to fight like a scared animal ’most every day. And I don’t want the president to be dead, Mike. It’s jest not right that he’s dead.”

         I brought Ginny into my house, where my mother put more ice on her eye and talked softly with her, promising that everything would be okay. After a while, my mother walked Ginny back to her house.  I stayed at home, thought about Randy, wondered why he would think it was okay to punch his sister, wondered what Sally-Boy would do with someone like Randy, wondered what I should do.

         The Thursday following that Friday in November was Thanksgiving. My father still had not been home, so my mother and I rode a quiet train from DC to New York and then took the subway to Brooklyn. In the small tenement apartment with Uncle Sal, Capricia, and Sally-Boy, we ate turkey and sweet potatoes, none of the Italian fare we normally consumed. Nor was there the usual noise and loud talk that went along with our dinners together. The world was still somber, contemplating what it had witnessed, the assassination, the swearing in, the arrest, the murder of the president’s assassin on live television while in police custody, the new president, the unanswered questions. 

         Still, during the Thanksgiving dinner, an occasional laugh slipped in, a warm gesture, a kiss.  My father called in the middle of dinner to say that he would be home when we returned to Virginia that weekend. He had my mother give the phone to each person individually, and he told everyone, including Sally-Boy, that he loved them and gave assurances that things would be okay.

         On the fire escape after dinner, Sally-Boy and I each nibbled a piece of Thanksgiving pumpkin pie.

         “I like Italian food a lot better than this shit, don’t you?” he said.

         “Sure,” I said. “I mean, this is good, but it’s not tiramisu.”

         Sally threw his piece of pie into the night. It splatted like one of our water balloons when it hit the street.

         “Sally, it’s not thatbad,” I said, a laugh slipping out. “You really need to stop throwing things off this fire escape.”

         “Yeah, it is that bad,” he said. Then he held up his hands as though he were holding a rifle. He squinted down his arm, focusing on the street, moving his hands slowly as if he were following something.

         “What are you doing?” I asked

         “I don’t get it,” he said. “He’s up in a building. He sticks a rifle outta the window. He spots the president’s car comin. He makes three shots. Boom! Boom! Boom! President’s head blows apart. That guy was a hulluva shot. I don’t get it. Wish I could shoot like that.”

         “Why? What are you going to shoot?”

         “I don’t know. Not the president. Some bad guys. There’s always some bad guys to fight.”

         “Did you like the president, Sally?”

         “Yeah, sure, I guess. I mean, I don’t really give a shit ’cause the stuff the president does, it don’t really matter to me. Tomorrow it’ll be a week since he got blown away. It’s too bad, sure, but, hey, I’m still here, and I got stuff to do.”

         “We all do,” I said, wondering if that Friday in November actually changed the world at all, the Friday that I thought affected everyone, the Friday that brought daily life to a halt, the Friday that channeled horror directly into our homes, the Friday that would eventually merge into a lifetime of other Fridays.

         That Friday.

    End of Episode #21

     

  • Named as an "Amazing Read" for August!

     
    MIKE’S ‘FIRE ESCAPE CONFESSION’—
     
    An Excerpt from the novel, THE FIRE ESCAPE BELONGS IN BROOKLYN
     
    Named by BooksGoSocial as an "Amazing Read" for August!!!

     

    Untitled_design_7.png
     

         

         You knew it, Sally-Boy, you knew it all those years ago, and you said it into the hot, black Brooklyn night on the fire escape we loved, the fire escape that reeked of rust and iron and our own sweat from wrestling on it, drinking on it, pumping iron on it. You knew it then, before everything changed, before the last boosted beer was drunk that night, before I left you and you left us all. You always seemed to know so much and you knew it then, and you said it, Sally, as we swigged the last can of Schaefer we shared:      

        

         “Remember this night, Mikey,” you said, mysterious Brooklyn noises swelling around us like a concert of benevolent memories, “remember it because it won’t ever be like this again, never—too much going on, too much is, like, confused and gettin worse. So, my cousin, my brother, take it from me, take it for what it’s worth and sip that beer real real slow…’cause Mikey, it ain’t never gonna be like this again…never, not ever ’cause everythin changes…it just does.”

         

         In my head, I see him sip, burp, smile. I know what is coming next, and I hear myself saying, Don’t say it, Sally. You scream it out, it means ‘fire,’ and the lights go on all over the neighborhood.

       

         I hear his laugh, his voice rising: What the hell, do I know, Mikey? I am just Salvatore Fuoco!!! Fuck-a-you! Salvatore fuck-a-you!!! Salvatore Fuocooooo!!!  Lights flick on. People shout, “Is there a fire? What’s goin on, for crissake? Shut the hell up!”Then I laugh and say, “You always do it…”but when I turn to see him, Sally-Boy is gone. The neighborhood slowly turns dark again.

         

         Still, every dawn, the thought of Sally-Boy leads me to my Fire Escape Confession:

         

          I committed a crime, but I know it was right.  

        

          I went too far, and then I stopped short.  

        

          I failed to speak, when words were needed.

         

          I spoke, when words meant nothing.  

         

         I let people disappear, because confusion overwhelmed me.  

         

          And now all these years later, I still talk to you, Sally-Boy. You, who gave me fear and courage; you, who somehow knew when everything had changed for you, when nothing would ever be the same; you, who disappeared. And now I know when everything changed for me…and nothing has ever been the same…

         

         For me, the changes began in January of 1968, the second semester of my sophomore year at Sinclair College. I can now see how the new me emerged as I left the old me behind, a time and a change that I could not have predicted…but that’s how it happens, right, Sally-Boy?

    To order, go to www.amazon.com/dp/B074V8CRGX

    Copyright chuck cascio all rights reserved. 

  • One Step to the Next Question

    Ten-year old Mike Burns remembers at the beginning of THE FIRE ESCAPE BELONGS IN BROOKLYN...the fear...the questions...decision about whether to take that next step. He looks down the fire escape, through the mysterious gap between him and the sidewalk below. One step is all it takes to move from one question to...what?

    Dangling from the last rung of the fire escape, staring down at the short drop to the scruffy Brooklyn sidewalk below, afraid

    to let go, my ten-year-old brain raising fears in the night (Suppose I slip when my feet hit? Suppose it’s further down than it

    looks? Suppose I land on my face?), my twin cousin, Sally-Boy, calling to me from below (“Come on, Mikey, I done it, so you

    can do it! It’s easy! You just gotta let go, you drop, you land. Let go, Mikey! Let go!”), so I finally do it, I reluctantly release my

    fingers, I feel the brief emptiness of space and summer’s suddenly cool air, I fight back a brief gasp when I fear the sidewalk

    has disappeared, and then my sneakers absorb the impact of the concrete, my knees bend slightly, I hold my balance, and

    Sally’s laughter echoes, “Hahahaha! Mikey, we did it, Mikey, we did it! We made it all the way down! Hahahahaha! I knew we

    could do it, I knew it!” and I laugh with him as we punch each other lightly, and then the haunting blackness of the street

    hovers except for a few flickering lights in the tenements surrounding us and a distant street lamp shining its yellow-tinged

    glow, so I sit on the warm sidewalk with him, doing nothing, talking the idle chatter of two ten-year-olds enjoying the rush of

    having broken yet another rule, and I look up at the fire escape lining the outside of the apartments, all the way to the top

    and beyond into the starry sky, and suddenly I think, but I do not ask, “Where do we go now, Sally-Boy?” 

    THE FIRE ESCAPE BELONGS IN BROOKLYN in paperback and ebook: 

    copyright: chuck cascio; all rights reserved

  • Prof. Staunton Speaks on the Day of the MLK Assassination-1968

    Prof. Staunton Speaks on the Day of the MLK Assassination-1968:

    An Excerpt from the novel THE FIRE ESCAPE BELONGS IN BROOKLYN by Chuck Cascio

         “Langston Hughes asks us if dreams deferred dry up like raisins in the sun or if they stink like fetid meat and, of course, he must know the answer is yes to both—we know both are true because we see those truths in people every day, people who dry up with their dried up dreams, shrivel with their emaciated love affairs—and yet Hughes tries to convince us that it is wrong to give up on dreams because if we do, as he puts it in another poem, ‘Life is a broken winged bird that cannot fly.’

         “So the same man who poses the question in one poem, ‘What happens to a dream deferred?’ warns us in another that without dreams our lives will not fly. If you are writers, you are dreamers by definition, so you must wrestle with Mr. Hughes’s thoughts—some of you will, some won’t, some will be haunted by dreams deferred, some will forget about dreams altogether, some will look around and dream of outrageously ostentatious houses—the measure of opulence today being size and amount whether in square footage of homes or horse power or number of cars—and exotic vacations and perhaps beachfront mansions and cabin cruisers.

         “So many of you will be fickle to the dreams and words and passions that move you now, and by letting it all dry up or trading it all in, you will become vulnerable repeatedly to what we should have seen coming:

        “The squeezing of the trigger of the rifle whose scope was focused on Martin’s round black head, the assassin waiting, holding steady, calm, a horrifying distortion of Hemingway’s grace under pressure, slowly focusing on the hairs that covered the epithelial cells drawn tight across the cranium that stored one man’s extravagant and bold dreams—the perverted assassin turning his perverted dream into reality as he fired and felt the powerful kick of the rifle butt warm against his shoulder, and in the instant that he blinked from the explosion and smelled the acrid odor of gunpowder, he watched through his scope Martin’s exploding head, while inside that broken head confused and gasping dreams now spun madly in milliseconds into blackness and then hurtled out the exit wound or dripped out of the entry wound.

         “The assassin ended those dreams, betting that all of us will let them all dry up along with our own dreams, which we will trade in for comfort; in so doing, the assassin hopes to turn you all into assassins, murderers, killers, hypocrites. After all, he had the courage to act on his perverted dream and to gamble that we are not as courageous about pursuing dreams as he is. So what happens, I ask you, to a dream deferred and deferred and deferred and deferred…” 

         Staunton repeated the word, banging his fists on the podium while we sat in a silence only death itself could duplicate, until, finally, after screaming the word “deferred” one more time, his voice cracked into falsetto, and the blue veins in his neck bulged like tree roots, and his face shone like a beacon, and he looked up, panting, into the face of the tall woman with the long hair, who was noiselessly crying, and extended his arms to her. She embraced him, his white hair touching just below her mouth.

    Copyright Chuck Cascio; all rights reserved
  • Sally-Boy, Mikey, and Robert Frost

     

    In my books, The Fire Escape Stories, Volumes I and II, neither Sally-Boy Boccanera nor Mike Burns is likely to wax poetic. However, in Volume II, as they grow and become more aware of the world swirling around them in the early 1960s, the political turmoil, the overt racism, and the drumbeats of war, they might well relate to the concerns some people feel today. And perhaps, while sitting on that rusty Brooklyn fire escape trying to make sense of the world, this final stanza of  Robert Frost's poem "Reluctance" might help the boys identify something that is emerging inside them. Does it do the same for you? Let me know your thoughts at chuckwrites@yahoo.com 

    Ah, when to the heart of man
       Was it ever less than a treason
    To go with the drift of things,
       To yield with a grace to reason,
    And bow and accept the end
       Of a love or a season?
  • THE FIRE ESCAPE...IN MY MIND by Mike Burns

         
    THE FIRE ESCAPE...IN MY MIND
      by Mike Burns         
         Yes, it is hazy, that fire escape, but it is real. The smell of the grates is real. The rust that stuck to our shirts is real. The rickety stairs leading to...who knows? The street? Trouble? Danger? Safety? I never knew for sure. I still don't know. But it is real. Hazy...but real.

         I still visit it...in my mind. Still scan the blocks of the neighborhood from it. Hear the a cappella voices rising from the corner. Wonder about what was said, what we did, why we did it, how we laughed, how we argued, how long innocence lasted, when it left exactly. The stairs shook when we walked on them. They creaked, they felt as though they might give way at any moment, a structure meant to protect could destroy with a single step. But it was, ultimately, our step to take or not to take. Hazy even then, I guess.

         We leave people and things behind, but some remain. They are not always clear. They are not always exact. They are often flickering replicas of what we once knew. But they are real. The people. The decisions. The results. The remnants.

         Hazy...but real. Like that fire escape in my mind.

    Read The Fire Escape Stories, Volumes I and IIamazon.com/dp/1537411128 

    © Copyright Chuck Cascio. 2016. All rights reserved.

     

  • THE LIGHT OF BROOKLYN (a reflection)

    THE LIGHT OF BROOKLYN

    (a reflection)

    by

    Chuck Cascio

         At first the only light would be the final ivory beams of moonlight, blurred by my still sleepy eyes, and then came the traffic lights of Washington, DC, flashing yellow because it was too early for traffic. Maybe dawn's first light or the roar of a truck or my parents' whispers in the front seat of the car would eventually fully awaken me, and then I’d remember with a rush of excitement that we were headed for New York—Brooklyn to be precise.

         Brooklyn, where the talk was tough and the hearts were tender, where bagels were soft and pretzels were hot, where porches were "stoops" and base­ball was "stickball'' and where the "yard" was no half acre—hey, what half acre? who you kiddin’?—it was a fenced lot behind an apartment building, just a short drop off the fire escape steps.

         Trips to Brooklyn, where I was born, were filled with so much. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, and so many cousins who taught me the games of the street like stoop ball, stick ball, and fire escape jumping, and, when I was a little older, dance steps that were almost suggestive enough to get me expelled from school back home in Virginia.    

         I could always find a cousin to ride with on the subway to Ebbets Field or Yankee Stadium, or to rate lemon ice shops, or to pick up a “slice” on almost any corner. The reunions with relatives, all of whom spoke at the same time at staggering volumes in a combination of Italian and Brooklynese, were festivals of laughter, lasagna, cannoli, chianti (which you took at least a sip of no matter how young you were), and stories of questionable origin and veracity.  But I ate and I sipped and I played and I listened…and I believed it all.

         We'd arrive in Brooklyn at mid-morning. Daylight always exposed the city's scars—overflowing trashcans, multi-lingual graffiti, and odors so distinct you could taste them.  But none of that bothered me, because I chose to delight in Brooklyn’s charms—the gesturing people, the corner candy stores, and the sense that every resident of every block was part of a family.

         The corridor to the old first-floor apartment where my mother's parents lived was always dark. I'd knock on the door and listen for the comforting sound of Grampa's slippers scuffing across the floor, and then I'd hear his asthmatic cough and his familiar wheeze grow closer.  Grampa unlocked the door, and the apartment light sliced through the hallway's darkness.

         The thin little man with the sleeveless undershirt smiled. He spoke sparingly because his English was still awkward despite his years away from Italy, and the effort to speak was especially great on days when the asthma was bad. But the smile on the well-creased face was genuine, and so was the surprising strength of the hug. Then he would return to his seat at the table next to the window where he would smoke, sip vermouth, cough, and call out in an Italian rasp to friends who walked by.  If the asthma was bad, he would just wave.  But everyone stopped at the screened-in window to say “buongiorno” or “buona sera” or just to tip their hat.

         I would stare at Grampa—his little chest heaved as he sat.  I knew of no one else like him, no one so frail yet so essential to everyone and everything.  There were never any easy, involuntary breaths, only what seemed like conscious efforts to suck in air. Often, his Italian words would come in barely audible snatches, but no matter how noisy the room was, when Grampa spoke, people listened. He could start my parents and aunts and uncles talking by uttering just one throaty syllable. But then he could stop an argument with one gesture and a stare.

          Despite the visible strain of every breath, Grampa was steady with his hands. He would take a pencil and make strong delicate lines freehand on any nearby piece of paper—a napkin, a shopping bag, or the back of an envelope would do. I would watch him as he looked upward at the cracked ceiling, his mind creating a distant picture, and then his pencil would duplicate that private vision. Sometimes it took a few minutes, sometimes many, but he would eventually motion for me to come closer to him. He would then hand me the drawing—a clown or a cathedral from his beloved Italy or a smiling boy on a bicycle—and he would smile, his face a roadmap of lines, hug me, and dismiss me with a kind look or a squeeze on the shoulder.

          When the asthma wasn't bad and his stamina was good, he would make paper puppets for me, clever ones with sharp faces and clothing drawn in detail.  He would cut out the arms and legs and magically arrange threads so the puppet's parts would move. Sometimes he'd play with me by being the puppet's voice in Italian. I couldn't understand the words, but I understood the affection.

          Grampa combed his straight, thin hair with a tortoise-shell comb about three-inches wide and three-inches long. His clothing hung in an old wooden wardrobe where he also kept mints that he shared with me. Sometimes, after I had gone to bed at night, he would leave a stack of coins on top of a piece of paper with my name on it so I would find them in the morning when I awoke. They were mine to keep and to take and spend at the corner candy store.

         Grampa was the first to die. I was eight. We had been to Brooklyn for Christmas and a few days after returning to our home in Virginia, we received the phone call. We traveled back to Brooklyn by train instead of car. The train smelled musty, and the frost on the windows allowed me only a few glimpses of the water, tenements, and towering buildings that comprised the East Coast landscape.  My mother, whose was known as Blanche but whose birth-name Bianca, didn’t speak or cry during the entire trip, staring straight ahead, saying a rosary quietly. My father sat with his arm around her the whole way. 

        When we entered the little Brooklyn apartment, my beautiful Aunt Anna opened the door, and my mother, the youngest in her family, wept openly in her sister’s arms as we stood in the dark doorway.  Aunt Anna kept repeating through her own tears, “What will we do, Bianca, what will we do without Papa?”  Their brothers, my Uncle Joe (actually “Giuseppe”) and Uncle Gig (actually “Luigi”), discretely dabbed at their own red eyes as they attempted to console their mother, my wailing Nana Emma.

         Years later, Nana Emma described Grampa’s death to me, struggling with her English:

         "You Grampa, he sitting on his chair by his window, and he say to me, ‘Emma, where are you?’ I say, 'I’m-a right here, Michael.  But why?  Can you no see me?'  He say, 'But where? Everything is dark, Emma, I no see nothing.'  You Grampa, he’s-a breathing so hard, so I run out of the house; I looking for help; when I coming back inside in one minute…he's-a dead."  Confusion and loss and the resignation that life somehow moves on through death flashed across her kind, round face as she reached for my hand.

         I continued to go to Brooklyn until almost everyone else had either moved or died.  But I was growing up a child of the suburbs, and very gradually over the years, Brooklyn became a world apart, a world where apartments shrank, sky disappeared, and some family stories became too awful to believe…even though they were true. Then there was the car ride—it grew longer as I grew older and there was definitely no more thrill in starting the trip in darkness. Especially when I knew it would end that way too.

    © 2016 Chuck Cascio.  All rights reserved. 

  • This Is My Father...

    dad

          This is my father, Morris (Modesto) Cascio. He was born on August 19, 1919. He passed away far too young in 1994. I think about him every day, but recent events in our country have brought him more to mind than usual. Why? Well, I keep imagining how he would be reacting, what he would be saying, what his hopes and fears would be for the lovely great grandchildren that he never got to know.

         See, he was an Italian kid off the streets of New York whose name was changed from Modesto to Morris by the school system as a way of assimilating immigrants in those days. Along with his siblings, Dad stood in bread lines during the Great Depression to bring food back to the tenement in which his family lived. Once a week, the family shared a dessert--a tiny cake that my immigrant grandfather would cut into six equally small pieces so each member of the family could enjoy a bit of sweetness.

         World War II was swelling when Dad graduated from Grover Cleveland High School in Brooklyn. There was no money for college, so he did some work as a photographer, and then just before entering the Army, he married my mom, a woman he had know for several years, the younger sister of two guys who were friends of his. The story goes that he charmed her by approaching her when she was sixteen and asking her suavely, "Feel like a soda?" That was a line she never forgot, and in later years she admitted that her instinct was to provide a smart-aleck response, but she was enamored at the time and said, "Sure." The rest, for our family, is history.

         Dad entered the army, was trained in communications in various locations around the country, my mother traveling with him--two kids off the Brooklyn streets finding themselves in places like Kansas, Texas, and California. But then my father was sent overseas to the "Burma, China, India Theater," stationed in a remote outpost in the Himalayan Mountains, channeling secret communications with a small group of other soldiers. He sometimes flew with the Flying Tigers, delivering important documents to various outposts.

         Many years later, when talking with me or my brother or sister or anyone else about his army experiences, he never bragged, he never complained about the emotional pain of being removed from his young wife, he never spoke of the hardships of being as removed from the busy streets of his youth as he could have ever imagined.

         No. Dad, like thousands of others, did what he had to do. He fought for democracy. He fought against hatred. He fought the dictators who were trying to mold the world in their image when, he knew from personal experience, that the world is made of many images, many colors, many beliefs. Dad believed instinctively that all that matters in the end, whether in a Brooklyn tenement or the Himalayan Mountains, is how you carry out your beliefs, how you treat others, to what degree you value fairness, equality, opportunity.

         After the war, my dad, one of my uncles, and two of their Brooklyn pals all took jobs with the government in DC, careers they valued, work they saw as important, roles they took pride in. Dad was no fool--he was not afraid to question those in power, but he also knew that in that post-War era, many of the people in power were inclined--for whatever reason--to listen. Dad, and others who experienced life events similar to those he experienced, had an instinct about what was essential to maintain the joys of life for all--joys such as the opera music that floated through our home every Sunday as Mom prepared an Italian dinner, or the dancing that he would do with Mom complete with moves that made others on the dance floor stop and applaud, or the powerful affection he was not afraid to display openly for his family, friends, and anyone he felt was helping to move the world in a more understanding and equitable direction. He did not judge by political affiliation, race, creed, or any societal designation. He valued actions.

         Once, when a friend of his criticized the fact that an African American family had moved into an all-white neighborhood of Vienna, VA, my father calmly looked at his friend and said, "That man is moving into a bigger house than you or I have and in a better neighborhood. Instead of asking if his neighbors will associate with him, you should be wondering if he would want to associate with us."

         So these days, as I read the childish tweets of a vindictive, small-minded president whose actions fuel the hatred that lingers in our population, a president who denigrates the very people who work diligently day and night in the interest of all people in this country (as my father, uncle, and their Brooklyn pals did), a president who does not have the courage to acknowledge that he was born with a sliver spoon in his mouth but not everyone was, I think increasingly of my father and the men and women of his generation, the ones who helped save the world from the very dictatorial actions and societal hatred that we are now seeing arise in our own country.

         Dad was not one to make big pronouncements, so he would probably not have said, "This is no time for silence," but he was a man of action and belief and he would have helped figure out a way to promote equity, empathy, sympathy, and understanding, even if it was just on an individual, personal level. Even if it just meant saying, as he sat with friends listening to opera or jazz, or as he rested from a dance with Mom, or as he toiled into the wee hours of the morning in his CIA office, something along the lines of what he said to his friend that day about the African American family. Dad would have helped spread the word of fairness through modest, meaningful actions, actions learned from a life whose roots he never forgot, always valued, and used as a way to direct his own life.  

         Sitting in his backyard just a year or two before he was diagnosed with lung cancer, Dad was savoring the last bite of a steak he had expertly cooked on his grill. My mom, my wife, and I chuckled as he made a show of slowly savoring it, swallowing it, and sipping the last bit of his wine. When finished, he pushed gently away from the table, looked at his empty plate, and said, "That steak was so good, I hated to see it end." 

         I thought then, as I think now, "Yes, Dad, exactly...it was too good to end."

     Copyright Chuck Cascio. All rights reserved.