Chapter 2 Chinese Fire Drills


Driving home from Doctor Lemon's office, I started to think about my father's childhood.  His father had immigrated from Ribera Sicily. Ribera is a small community near Palermo. It was founded in 1630 by Prince Luigi Mogdano and named Ribera, his wife’s surname. My Grandfather Giuseppe Tallo was born in Ribera in 1888.  I was told that side of my family has been around since the time of Julius Caesar. The family historian and scholar, also named Matteo, traced us back to a Tallo that was one of Julius Caesar’s secretaries. No one before my grandfather or since has immigrated to the United States from Sicily. He seems to have been the only malcontent. The Tallos that stayed in Sicily did very well. My Grandfather migrated to the United States in 1920. He started a dry goods company. He went door to door delivering linens. He made quite a good living. Almost immediately after establishing himself, he married a woman named Petrina Polizzi. She was from a respected family from South Scranton. They bought a house on Pittston Avenue. After a few years of marriage, he realized his wife was not giving him an heir. I don't know if it was frustration or male ego, but he started having an affair. It was rumored to be with an Irish woman from Minooka. Unfortunately for her, she did become pregnant. At that time one of the only solutions was to put the child in an orphanage, Saint Joseph's orphanage in this case. It would have been a great scandal to keep the baby. First, because the father was an Italian and secondly because he was married. She later married a doctor and had two children. As my father tells the story, when he was four years old, his father then adopted him as his own. He named him Matteo and brought him home to his wife Petrina. She was not too happy. In one of my father's drunken monologues, he told me how verbally abusive she was. He was taught Italian by his father and spoke it fluently. One of the things she would say often was, “  andare a puttana chi ti ha cagato”. Remember, he knew Italian and the Sicilian dialect. He understood she was telling him to go back to the person that had birthed him, complete with profanities and intensity. My grandmother Petrina died in 1954. Although, I don’t remember her, I find it curious that she also was not an alternative to our stay at St. Josephs in 1953. Scranton was a big industrial booming metropolis at one time. Dad would tell us how he went to work in the mines when he was 8 years old. He was a canary boy. They used canaries in coal mines to detect carbon monoxide and other toxic gases before they went into the mines. If the canary became ill or died, that would give miners a warning not to enter or to evacuate if they were already inside. They also used children to go in first and open the trap doors that let in air. That's why they were called the Canary boys. When Dad got a little older, he made a shoeshine box. He would visit saloons and ask if anyone wanted a shoeshine. At sixteen, he started working at the Gold Star Pants factory and that’s where he met my mother, Antonette. He joined the U.S. Navy, but received a compassionate discharge after nine months citing family illness. He and my mother married in January 1948. Lucky for him a new factory, Capitol Records pressing plant hired him. He worked nights starting at 3:30 PM. My mother worked days until 4:30 PM and got home before 5. From age 10, I was the babysitter between 3 and 5 PM. I oversaw my younger siblings.  By then there was baby Ann, Matt 5 years old and Joe 9 years old. My father was the daytime parent. If there was an emergency with one of us that’s who would come. I was about 7 years old and my brother Joe 8. We were playing ‘Tag’ at recess in the James Monroe Elementary School yard. I am sure it was an accident, but Joe tripped me and I hit my head on the concrete wall right by my left eyebrow. I was bleeding profusely. When my father got there, he scooped me up and carried me to our family Doctor, Dr. Spaletta. The office was about 2 blocks away. The doctor stitched me up right there. I have a small scar at the edge of my left eyebrow. That scar reminds me that my father could be a caring parent. For some reason my father would not let us get a dog. My brother Joe would beg and promise to take care of it to no avail. My father liked uncommon and exotic pets. We had goats and chickens in our garage. The goats did not like my brother Matthew. They would take every opportunity to butt him when he was playing in the yard. I learned how to milk a goat but I would not drink the goat's milk. My father brought home a male Capuchin monkey and named him George. These are the little ones you see on the organ grinder's shoulder. Due to their energetic nature, they require an active lifestyle. George would be in his cage for hours at a time. My brothers hated him and teased him when my dad was not around. George got angry quickly and could hold a grudge. When he would be let out of the cage, he would be aggressive. He would go straight for Joe and Matt and they would run. I tried to stay in my room when he was let out of the cage. He would climb the drapes and relieve himself at will. George bit my father at least five times. Finally, my father donated him to the Nay Aug Park Zoo. We were not sorry to see him go. When Joe was about 10, he found and brought home a miniature collie. We named her Lucky. At first it seemed that my father was ok with the dog. One day he abruptly gave Lucky away to our neighbor. Unfortunately these neighbors mistreated her. After a few weeks, Lucky disappeared from our neighbors porch . We had no clue what happened to her. It was heartbreaking. Two years later, Joe and I were playing a game in the basement and we heard scratching at the back door. When we investigated, there was Lucky. If dogs could talk, she would have quite a story. Even my father was blown away at Lucky's baffling homecoming. We kept her until she died six years later. When I was about 15, I remember the morning he came home from working the night shift at Capitol and gave me a 45-rpm vinyl record of “I Want to Hold Your Hand" by the Beatles. That was one of very few fond memories of my chaotic childhood. I don’t know when it started, but we were made to endure “Chinese Fire Drills” quite often. "Chinese fire drill" is a slang term for a situation that is chaotic or confusing, possibly due to poor or misunderstood instructions.  Today, this term is considered offensive. Hours after we fell asleep, we would awaken to our father screaming our names. Rubbing the sleep from our eyes, we would stumble down the stairs. He would have us line up and begin the interrogation. It might be about something he found broken or missing. He would berate us until one of us broke. I suspect my brother Joe confessed even when innocent just to stop the interrogation. My parents were very strict. A decision I found unreasonable had to do with the Catholic Daughters at my church. As I said school, the library and the church were my safe havens. Catholic Daughters was the alternative version to the {Protestant} Girl Scouts. I loved being part of a group. We put on musicals and minstrels shows for the congregation. The minstrel show portrayed the Interlocutors as black men. Two older girls in blackface. I had no idea at the time how racist this was. Every summer the Catholic Daughters of St Johns Church held a sleepover camp. It was held at The Little Flower Camp in Tobyhanna, near the Poconos. I begged and begged to go with my peers to no avail. I was not ever allowed to do sleepovers at any of my friends’ homes. Finally, when I was 15, they let me stay at my friend Paula’s house. She was Italian and Catholic so she passed the test. I didn’t tell them her parents were gone away. Paula didn’t tell me that her boyfriend Slick was staying over. That night I "heard" them having sex. I laid in the bed in the next room auditing Sex Education 101. My father had to meet every boy I went out with.  That was a challenging situation. Not just for the boys, but for the embarrassment it brought me. At that time, the early sixties, there were dances held every Friday. Community approved places to stay out of trouble. Mechanics Hall, Workingman’s Hall, St. Mary’s, etc. Usually just playing popular records. Sometimes there was a live band. One of my nightmare memories was when I needed a boy to meet my dad before we could go to the dance. At the time my father was making his own beer, we had a bathroom on first floor and one on the second floor. He took over the claw foot bathtub on the second floor for his brewery. The first time I had a date with a boy, my father insisted on showing him the two dozen bottles of beer fermenting in the tub upstairs. After that I would just say I was going to one of the dances with my girlfriends.

" A happy childhood is the worst possible preparation for life." Kinky Friedman



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