In talking to a very close friend this week, we talked about blogging and journaling. Why do we do it? I look at as the “book I have always wanted to write” and the blogs are the chapters. What I am finding is that with each blog I write, I find new topics to jot down on my “things to include in my blog” list. Birthdays and anniversaries easily remind me of people in my life who deserve “a chapter” in my “book”. Today’s chapter, is about my uncle – my Godfather. Since yesterday was his birthday, it’s a good time to share this.
In the movie The Godfather, Tom Hagen visits a movie producer to ask him for a favor. Don Corleone’s Godson is Johnny Fontane, and he wants a part in a movie. When discussing the favor, Tom describes the relationship between a Godfather and Godson by saying “Now Italians regard that as a very close, a very sacred religious relationship.” As an Italian, I can say that my Godfather and I had a great relationship for sure, but I don’t know that I would go as far as to say it was “religious”.
My Uncle Tom was one of the coolest people I have ever known. He was my dad’s best friend since elementary school. They were the kids in the neighborhood who were always causing trouble. The stories that they told me growing up still make me laugh today. They once told me how they stole Christmas lights of their own houses! You know, as a kid, I toilet papered houses, but never once did I think it would be funny to TP my own house! They did! I heard stories of how they changed the grades on their report cards, how they got kicked out of band class together, and how they both went off to serve in the Vietnam War. As I heard their story of friendship, I remember hoping that I would have a friend just like that! I was lucky enough to do just that. My oldest friend, Jeff, has been my friend since 2nd Grade. He and I are like my dad and Uncle Tom.
I always knew when dad was talking to Uncle Tom. I NEVER saw or heard my dad laugh as loud, or as much as when they talked on the phone. It was the same when they were together. There was always storytelling and laughter. They had the greatest stories! I loved listening to them, and many times, I had to listen from another room. The profanity level rose about 500% when they were together, so us kids were often shipped off to another room to play. Another reason they would move us to another room, was that they would often sit and listen to Redd Foxx albums on the stereo – certainly not kid friendly. Both of them had a collection of albums from comedians like Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx and others. They would sit and listen – and laugh.
Sometimes, Uncle Tom, Aunt Jane, Dad, and Mom would sit at their kitchen table and play pinochle. We’d watch TV and again, I’d listen to the stories that were exchanged from one side of the table to another. It was magical and I was all ears. I know there were times I would ask what a word meant and dad would make up something. Those words were probably profanity or something that a young boy shouldn’t repeat at school.
Uncle Tom and my dad had so many things in common, their sense of humor, the TV shows they watched, the music they listened to and the fact that they both played in a band. I remember them talking about shows like Sanford and Son, and movies like Smokey and the Bandit and Blazing Saddles. I remember after I got older, I would join in on those conversations because, I also came to know and love those shows and movies. It took our relationship to a whole new level.
My dad served in the Army, while Uncle Tom served in the Navy. I remember I asked him what was better about the Navy, and his response was that he always had a warm bed to sleep in. Some of my favorite family pictures are those of my dad and my uncle in uniform. Growing up, I don’t remember either of them talking much about their time in the service or in battle. I do recall later in life, seeing them interact with their military brothers at the VFW hall. I used to love going up to the VFW for “steak outs” or New Years parties. Loved getting the chance to sit and listen to “their music” and rehashing those great stories.
My Uncle Tom is responsible for “the handshake” that all of my friends and I use. I remember the first time he shook my hand and did it, I was caught so off guard. He started to laugh and so did I. He used the same handshake on my friends and we adopted it as our own.
There was never a shortage of laughter when my dad and uncle got together. There was also never a shortage of alcohol. They often drank beer and told stories and sometimes they would just get crazy. Here is an example. I think it may have been the day of my brother’s confirmation or something. We had gone out to eat, and then we all came back to our house, where the stories continued. TVT records had put out two record sets with old TV show themes on them. All it took was for dad to start playing theme songs and the fun began. They began to adlib scenes from the shows, all while on video. Yeah, what I wouldn’t give to have this tape today! They acted out scenes as Desi Arnez and Lucy, Perry Mason, Johnny Carson and Ed MacMahon, and sometimes the jokes were just written on pieces of paper. I remember my dad was playing the theme to My Three Sons. My uncle said “hold on a minute” and ran and got a piece of paper and wrote something in marker. He told my dad to play the music again and as it started to play, he held up the paper in front of the camera. It read simply “My Three Sons-a-Bitches”. As these two grown men adlibbed and cracked each other up, it was like watching two teenage boys. It was priceless and I learned a couple great lessons – (1) you are never too old to have fun and (2) laughter really is contagious.
One time, we were at his house. I do not recall the occasion, but it was some sort of family party. Somehow my brother and I got ahold of the video camera and we were taking forks and putting it in front of the lens to make it look like it was poking people. We had some dinosaur toys that were obviously his son’s and we made it look like people were being attacked by it. You know, childish stuff. The best moment of the video though is one of those moments when everything aligned to fall into place perfectly. We were panning around the backyard and driveway, when the sounds of many beer bottles falling on the ground was heard. As the camera reaches the garage, here comes Uncle Tom waltzing out. I am laughing as I think about it, and no doubt, you are reading this wondering “why is that so funny?” and my only response is the old standby – you really had to be there!
Some accuse me of being a pack rat. This may be true, but I tend to save things that hold special meaning to me. One of the things I saved was the graduation card I got from him when I graduated from high school. He had written a whole bunch of stuff on the outside of the envelope, many of them I had to ask him about. I remember he wrote: Uncle Leroy, Rozmo, Joe Dabbish, Bite the Bag (I will explain that in a minute), as well as punch lines from jokes and movie lines. Inside the card was his tremendous advice to a newly high school graduate: “Stay at home and live off your old man!”. I still laugh out loud when I think about it! Good advice too! LOL
All of my friends loved to chat with him. He was damn funny and he was cool to all of them. He’d always make them laugh and tell silly stories to them too. At my graduation party, my dad gathered a few old band members and they played music at the party. It was awesome. I remember at one point, dad was on bass guitar, my cousin Kenny also playing guitar, my cousin Pat was on the drums and my Uncle Tom was singing some of those songs they loved – the one I remember the most was him singing “Baby What You Want Me To Do” by Jimmy Reed. My party was SO cool.
When I was working overnights at Kiss-FM, the station was “all request”. Granted we had some rules and some restrictions on what we could and couldn’t play, but for the most part, we always found a way to play the requests if we could. I remember Uncle Tom would call up and ask for songs all the time. He’d often ask for something he knew we couldn’t play and then laugh like hell. One time, however, he called up and asked for You’re So Fine by the Falcons. He did not call them by the right name however, He asked for the “Falcoons” and somehow, despite the slightly racist remark, that clip of him ended up on a station promo. How it made it there, I will never know, but I know he got a kick out of it.
In the days before voicemail, everyone had an answering machine. My uncle was famous for leaving one sentence voicemails that were insane. Sometimes he’d go off into some silly rant about how “Uncle Leroy needed a call back” about a suit or some money or something. One time I was checking messages and all he said was “Bite The Bag” followed by his laughter. I don’t know if it was a movie line or what, as a matter of fact, I don’t think HE knew what it was from. All I know is that it was a phrase that began to show up in the vocabulary of me and my other high school friends because of how silly it was.
I DJ’d for his daughter, who is my dad’s Goddaughter, a couple times. I did one event for a work party, and then I did her wedding. I remember him coming in to the hall as I was setting up for the gig and hearing him yell, “What’s up, Holmes?!”. Nothing too funny about that, but it still made me laugh. We talked for a while and he spoke of how even though he’d done this once before (at his oldest daughter’s wedding), he was still nervous he’d mess up his dance. I laughed and told him if anyone could make it look effortless, it was him. I think he was worried he’d cry, and maybe he didn’t want anyone to see that.
I only saw him cry once – when his dad passed away. He asked me if I would be a pall bearer for him and I was honored to do so. It was probably the only time I spent with my uncle that he didn’t seem like himself. Even when he was in the hospital due to some kidney issues, he was laughing and joking.
I remember that hospital visit well. I wanted to surprise him. He was off somewhere for some test and the nurse said he’d be back shortly. I remember going down to the cafeteria and grabbing a coffee and coming back to his room. He was there by then, and when I walked in, he was genuinely surprised. He said, “Hey, kid, how’s it hanging?” and hugged me. I quoted a Sanford and Son episode when I saw him and told him to get outta the hospital, cause “people are sick here”, which made him laugh. We talked about dad, me and my sons, and other stuff. It was a nice visit and I was glad I got it, because I had no idea it would be the last real conversation I would have with him.
The next time I saw him, he had had a stroke and was on a ventilator. His family was there and the mood was somber, as you can imagine. My aunt was asleep in a chair when I arrived. She was so happy to see me, and I was happy to see her. We talked briefly and I told her to go back to sleep. When she fell asleep, I walked over to his bedside. I know that despite all of the equipment and medications, that he could hear me. I thanked him for being such a special part of my life. I thanked him for the years of laughter. I thanked him for always being there for me. I told him I loved him one last time and left the room.
Today, I salute my Uncle Tom. The world is a bit quieter without his laughter, parties and weddings are lacking great music due to his requests, and those who knew him will forever look back on the times we shared with him fondly, remembering just what a special man he was. Was our relationship as Tom Hagen described it in the Godfather “as a very close, a very sacred religious relationship”? Not entirely. As I said, I wouldn’t call it religious. Beyond a doubt, though, it was a very close relationship. It is a relationship that I was blessed to have.
He is buried in the same cemetery as my mom, Great Lakes National Cemetery. A beautiful place where so many heroes are laid to rest. It seems that I have more and more people to visit every time I go there, as many of my friend’s relatives are also being buried there. Sometimes I don’t get the chance to visit them all, but I always make sure that when I go visit mom, I stop by and say hello to Rozmo. I wish I could hear him tell me one more joke…..