How I Got to Madison Avenue. And beyond.

As with life, this blog is developing and changing. It began with a lot of stories that occurred on my career path from Albany to Madison Avenue and back.

There were some similarities to the AMC series "Mad Men," and then I went even farther back in time with a somewhat fictionalized version of growing up in Troy's Little Italy.

And now, a new development. As my free lance advertising and marketing career winds down, I'm becoming more interested in the theatre arts that my father and his 3 brothers helped instill in me as I grew up.

As a result, I've volunteered to help promote the Theatre Institute at Sage, and now, to continue a long-interrupted desire to be behind the proscenium, I've joined the newly formed Troy Civic Theatre, and was actually fortunate enough to appear in their first production.

So, I hope you'll enjoy the new stories that will develop from this latest turn.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Chapter 18: Backyard frolics and another farewell.

As life returned to normal after the war, and the abundant American lifestyle returned, family feuds and grudges were pushed below the surface at 13 Liberty Street, and the backyard once again became a joyous place. For children, adults, and child-like adults.

Uncle Luigi Ritorno (we were never allowed to call him Lou, or Louie) was an interesting case. He had been born in American, but, like many Italian families that were split between the new and the old world, the young were often sent back to Italy – either because there wasn't enough income to support them here, or because their labors were needed over there.

The Ritorno family owned a small olive grove and press somewhere in Calabria, near the “toe” of the Italian boot, and was brought back there when he was only a couple of years old, presumably to be brought up to be educated in the family business. So he grew up learning only Italian.

Before he was able to put his knowledge of the olive oil business to good use, however, the family lost their land, and he was forced to re-emigrate to the US, the land of his birth. But, returning to Troy as a teenager in the 1930's, he was one of those rare natural-born Americans who couldn't speak a word of English.

As a result, the little American English he did learn to speak was fractured almost beyond recognition, and he wasn't able to secure employment equal to his Italian training. He ended up having to settle for menial jobs, as a janitor in local factories, and as a busboy in local restaurants to supplement his meager day job earnings. And he didn't do much to debunk the Italian belief that the Calabrese are hard-headed.

Poor Uncle Luigi. Marrying into the Case family didn't improve his lot in life. The men in the family, victims of discrimination themselves outside Little Italy, now had someone in their own enclave on Liberty Street to take it all out on. Luigi became the butt of frequent practical jokes.

Later in 1948, it would get even worse for him, when a popular new radio comedy would debut about Italian immigrants trying to learn English. It was “Life with Luigi,” with an Irish-American actor named J. Carrol Naish caricaturing Luigi, and Alan Reed, later the voice of Fred Flintstone, playing his Italian landlord.

I remember The Case men playing a game called “Boss and Underboss,” and using it as a way to tease our Luigi. Following a series of bocce or pinochle games, the captain of whichever team won would be the “Boss,” leaving the captain of the other team as the “Underboss.”

They would empty a quart of Stanton's lager, from the brewery around the corner, into as many glasses as it would fill, and begin. It was over before the heads on the beer disappeared, but despite its speed, the game was intricate and entertaining to a little boy. And as I reflect on it, it was educational, too.

The Boss would open with a proposal, directed at the Underboss. “A glass for you and me, and a glass for all the members of my team,” he might say. He knew this was unacceptable of course, and the Underboss would make a counter-proposal. “A glass for you and me, and a glass for two of my team and two of yours.” A counter-counter proposal from the Boss would follow, and so on, with a little give here and a little take there, until, as I recall, everyone had a glass of beer in front of him except Uncle Luigi, who would rant and rave in his broken English as the rest quenched their thirst. Alternately, they would cruelly force him to drink the entire quart himself, and then tease him for being drunk.

Luigi always got to drink a normal amount eventually, of course, but he was singled out because they all knew that his frustration would always result in some outburst. When he had “gone dry,” they'd open another bottle, he would drink, and all would be forgiven. Until the next time.

Uncle Luigi loved to dance, especially the Italian folk dance called the tarantella – supposedly named after the gyrations that a victim of a spider-bite would be forced to undergo.

One late spring Saturday in 1948, when the family was gathered outside, enjoying a rare day of leisure, Vincenzo, my father's bachelor brother, the family prankster, played a different kind of trick on Luigi. Using a long extension cord, he set up a record player on the back porch, to provide Italian background music for the family. Luigi began dancing to a lively tarantella.

People were clapping and cheering, and Vincenzo took advantage of that to quickly lift the needle and place it back near the beginning of the record. He did this several times, until Uncle Luigi, gasping and sweating and finally realizing that this was the longest song in history, caught Vincenzo in the act.

Wiping his brow and plopping down on the cobblestones where he had been prancing furiously, he looked accusingly at his brother-in-law and uttered what has become the family motto:

"You thinga somebody don't know somathing? Somebody knows somathing!”

The laughter was cut short when the mailman came through the gangway into the backyard with a special delivery letter for my cousin “Coke,” the jeep driver in WW II.

He tore open the official looking envelope and gave us all the news – he was being called up to use his driving expertise on German runways, to help support the Berlin airlift.

©Copyright 2010 Frank LaPosta Visco

Next: The new priest fills the gap.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Chapter 17: Peace in the world, not at home.

On May 8, 1945, the day the Allies accepted the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany, the world celebrated. It was VE Day --Victory in Europe. Just over 3 months later, on August 15, we celebrated VJ Day – Victory over Japan.

Now, prosperity really was just around the corner, although things would never be the same as they were before the war. Many more women had experienced the liberating sense of worth of being the family breadwinner, and were resentful when the jobs they had been doing were taken away and given to the returning men. Was this the beginning of the equal rights movement for women?

There was still war on the horizon, of course – but it was a Cold War, as Soviet Russia, our ally in the war, began their land grab and swallowed up much of eastern Europe and a divided Germany.

At 13 Liberty Street, everyone did their best to return to the way things were, but the men who had been in uniform had seen and experienced too much to be the same as before. Of course, they were idolized as conquering heroes by the family, especially us kids, but we knew enough not to ask too many questions as they packed away their medals and souvenirs.

During the second half of the 1940's, as I got older, I sensed that the two Campobasso women who had married into the Case family, Esther, who was my mother, and Rose, her older sister, didn't seem as cordial as two sisters should be.

It's true that there were many years between them, but it didn't seem as though that was reason enough for some of the remarks that flew back and forth. Even though many of them were in Italian, which the children didn't understand, the adults couldn't hide the tone of the comments. Even though Italian is a beautiful language, there are angry phrases that can be spit out, and on several occasions, they were.

Children don't miss much of what's going on in the adult world, and even in the whispered comments and the attempts to cool down heated arguments, we knew there were things that kept our parents, aunts and uncles on edge.

Turns out that it wasn't just the sensitive nature of Italians and their easily offended sensibilities that caused the heating up of language and the icing over of relationships. There always seemed to be an uneasiness between the sisters, especially when they would take us – me and my double cousins – out for a stroll in the neighborhood. Since two sisters had married two brothers, I had the same grandparents on both sides as my cousins, Rose's children did.

So, I wondered as I got older, why both my mother and her sister seemed at a loss for words whenever people would look at us and assume that we were all beautiful siblings. I certainly came to understand their fear of the malocchio, or evil eye. The way I understood it, Italian superstition said that if a child is praised or envied by someone who doesn't invoke God at the same time, a curse is placed on that child, and it has to be removed. By a strega, the Italian word for witch. (You can read more about it, here.)

Luckily for us, we didn't have to go far to find someone empowered to remove the evil eye. Another one of my father's sisters, Philomena, lived with her husband Luigi and daughter Annamaria in a flat on Fifth Avenue, around the corner from Liberty, and across the street from Stanton's Brewery.

I remember Aunt Phil putting three drops of oil into water, saying some Italian words, then doing something with needles and scissors to remove the malocchio. What would happen if the curse weren't removed, I'm not sure, but there seems to have been the fear of sickness, or maybe even the secret ritual was performed when a child was already sick, in the belief that the sickness might have been caused by an inadvertent curse.

I'm not superstitious myself, but I firmly believe that when the malocchio is removed from a mildly sick child, the sickness will disappear in seven days. And that without the ministrations and mumbo jumbo of the strega, the cure will take a week.

In our family, it was said that the ability could be passed on only from mother to daughter, and only on Christmas Eve. I don't think Aunt Philomena taught it to Annamaria, and even if she had, Annamaria didn't have any children, so the practice – in our family – ended there.

But even when someone complimented the beauty or health of me and my double cousins and also invoked the name of God, the Campobasso sisters who became Case sisters still seemed uncomfortable, and often avoided each other for days. There was something they didn't want others to know. I was determined to find out what it was.

©Copyright 2010 Frank LaPosta Visco

Next: Backyard frolics and another farewell.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Chapter 16: Life on the Homefront

We called it the homefront, because it was everybody's war, not just those men and women in service who volunteered and were drafted and were committed to doing their part for the noble concept of freedom.

World War II was a war during which everybody did their part. It meant making sacrifices. Materials that were needed “over there” were rationed over here. Gasoline couldn't be bought without coupons. The same held true for anything made of rubber. If you were lucky enough to have a car, you had to make do with worn, patched tires and inner-tubes. Meat, butter and sugar were needed to keep our troops fit and fighting.

Every smoker saved the aluminum foil that lined cigarette packs, formed them into shiny round balls and donated them to the war effort.

Scrap drives were common, too. It seemed that nothing was wasted – if it was metal and no longer of use, it would be collected, melted down and turned into a weapon of war.

At 13 Liberty Street, the backyard garden was expanded, and even the venerable Italian custom of growing your own vegetables became support for the war – they suddenly became Victory Gardens, turning a tradition into an act of patriotism.

Eddie Case tried to enlist, but with a wife – Esther – and a child, me, and a heart murmur from his undernourished childhood, he was labelled 4F by the Selective Service, known as the draft board, and so kept his job at Cluett, Peabody & Company, now turning out army issue clothing, and joined the others in the Case clan in following the progress of the war on two fronts.

After dinner, the family would gather around the big console radio in the living room, and hear commentators like Edward R. Murrow, H.V. Kaltenborn and Lowell Thomas report from exotic locations, spewing names of places and battles that we had never heard before, but would become famous or infamous in future history books.

My father was an early graffitist – I told you earlier how he painted the romantic words of a song on our backyard wall to impress my mother when they were courting. Now, he turned the stone retaining wall into a kind of memorial of honor, listing the names and titles of our relatives who were serving overseas.

And as each of them came home – and as fate would have it, they all did – he would make a banner of letters that spelled out each name with a big “Welcome Home.”

The children of the Case family followed the lead of our fathers and uncles, and put on our own fund-raising shows. I was pretty young, but the older cousins always found a way to include everyone of us kids in our USO shows. We'd learn dance routines, songs and poems. We'd perform our versions of the popular musical stars of the day, like Al Jolson. I'm sure we didn't raise a lot of money in those days, simply because there wasn't a lot of money to be had, but whatever it was, we felt like we were doing our part, and it was a good feeling.

Trains ran through Troy's Little Italy in those days, and passenger trains were given over to transporting troops to the various training camps and points of embarkation. Those troop train schedules were noted by the families, and the women would pool their resources and make sandwiches and whatever sweets they could bake with limited ingredients, and hand them up to the uniformed boys as they eagerly reached out of the train car windows. Of course, the USO was always there, with coffee and doughnuts, cigarettes and smiles.

Keeping up the morale was important, because as prevalent as the propaganda was, the news from the front was not always good. The Allies – Britain, the US, Canada, Australia and Russia – were playing catch-up in troop strength and war machinery. Factories in American became dedicated to turning out tanks, jeeps, airplanes, guns, rifles, bombs and bullets. Shipbuilders turned out battleships, tenders, PT boats and landing craft.

We listened in early June of 1944 as D-Day was launched, and despite the terrible losses of so many Allied soldiers, we felt that the might of our forces and the rightness of our cause would prevail. There was hope building for success in Europe, and in the Pacific.

One by one, the welcome home signs went up, and all our cousins returned to Liberty Street sound of body and limb, but forever changed by the experiences we could only imagine, and the stories they were so reluctant to share.

Things were never going to be the same again, even though an era of prosperity was on the horizon. Tensions in the Case family had been put on hold for four years. But when the last bomb had been dropped overseas, the battles on the domestic front were just being joined.

©Copyright 2010 Frank LaPosta Visco

Next: Peace in the world, war at home.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Chapter 15: War Stories

(Author's note: Talk about timing -- these stories, although fictionalized, reflect the experiences of several of my cousins. The last of these heroes -- my personal, life-long hero, passed away this past week just after his 86th birthday. To Anthony G. Visk, I dedicate this.)

Once FDR declared that the US was at war, every American's focus shifted. There are always people opposed to war, but anti-war protests subsided, German sympathizers were stifled and if there ever was a unanimous national will, it came sharply into focus in late 1941.

Troy's factories were dedicated to providing our exponentially-growing military forces with clothing and other materiel. Underage boys pleaded with their parents to let them enlist. As men left their jobs to fight overseas, women who weren't already employed took their places in factories, offices and the local Watervliet Arsenal, which had been turning out cannon since the War Between the States. Women who were nurses, secretaries and language specialists were called into service.

The country's national symbol, Troy's own Uncle Sam, was once again pointing at each and every American, emphasizing the need for personal involvement in the war effort.

For four years, from 1941 to 1945, boys – and some girls – who were in high school one year were in uniform the next – forced into grown-up roles, facing the horrors of war, yet writing letters to their teachers, friends and families that hid the facts and bolstered our hopes.

Of course, there was genuine fear and conscientious objection to war. I remember hearing a story long after World War II ended, about a young man -- not from Troy --who was determined not to be drafted. He was so fearful of being shot by the enemy, that he shot himself in the foot, only to discover that he was too short to serve in the first place.

The story is apocryphal of course, because no one was “too short” to serve. In fact, two of Aunt Giovi's boys, who lived upstairs over Eddie and Esther Case and me, their baby son, were just over 5 feet tall, and the Army found important work for both of them.

Willie, known forever after to the family as “Smilin' Jack,” was recruited into the Army Air Corps (later the US Air Force) as a tail gunner. They had to be small – there was barely enough room in the tail of a bomber for a man and a machine gun. But it was a vital position, because once the planes took off from their bases in England, and were over German-occupied Europe, the tail gunner's life expectancy was something like seven seconds. The Luftwaffe fighter planes would attack from below and behind, as shrapnel – or flak – filled the skies ahead of our planes, protecting the industrial targets below.

Our “Smilin' Jack” was given a small stuffed creature, called a gremlin, by his beautiful little sister, Michelina – known as “Mike” – before he went overseas. He took it with him on every flight, held on to it even when his plane was shot down over the English Channel, and brought it safely home and later, gave it to his daughter. I remember hearing about other things he and his fellow flight crew members carried – false identification papers, currency and compact emergency rations – necessary for survival in case they were shot down and survived after parachuting into enemy territory.

Anthony, who was known as Kokomo, or “Coke,” from a popular comic strip of the time, graduated high school a year after Willie. Although even on tiptoe he barely reached 5 feet, he became a jeep driver in Patton's army. His legs were just long enough to reach the pedals, and his diminutive size left more room in the jeep for the mail he would deliver from mobile headquarters to the GI's on the front line.

Stories of amazing feats and heroic deeds mingled in the local newspaper with lists of dead, wounded and missing soldiers from all over the area. I still have a yellowing copy of a clipping about “Coke” when he was written up for disobeying orders, and took off for the front lines with “Victory Mail” from home for the fighting men on the front line, in the middle of a ferocious battle. Instead of being reprimanded, he was awarded a medal for bravery.

Vittorio, or Vic, another Case cousin fresh out of high school, found himself, in the last year of the war, slogging through Italy, pushing the retreating German Army northward, where the weary and mostly disillusioned enemy soldiers were eager to survive and return to what was left of their ravaged homeland. That didn't make them any less dangerous, of course, and incredible as it may seem, even today you can see film from the US National archives, on your home computer, of my cousin's unit rounding up German soldiers amid gunfire, as they liberate a northern Italian town!

The video was found and uploaded to the website of a resident of the town, Cornuda, whose main street has been renamed for the date of the US liberation. There are plenty of grateful Italians there, and no “ugly Americans.”

As I write down these family tales, and watch that black and white film, I find it hard to believe that, back then, boys just out of high school were forced to become men of such strength and courage and resolve. No wonder we owe them so much.

©Copyright 2010 Frank LaPosta Visco

Next: In Book 2, Chapter 5: Life goes on.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Chapter 14: A Date That Will Live in Infamy

I was almost a year old on December 7, 1941, so I really don't have a first-hand recollection of the shocked reactions on the faces of those around me. I'm pretty sure no one in Troy's Little Italy even knew where Pearl Harbor was, or what it was.

They just knew that it had been attacked, our Navy was in ruins, and that we were now at war – a war not just with Japan, but with Germany, too. A war against two countries, a hemisphere apart. Today, it's remembered and commemorated as an ancient and honorable victory over two evil empires, won at great cost to much of the world and to virtually every American family.

But try to imagine what it meant to those families – the instant change in attitude, in purpose, and the life-changing decisions facing the young men and women of the time.

World War Two was every American's war – even those whose grandparents had come from the very countries that were attacking us and our allies. Little Italy, especially the enclave of Tory Hill, which encompassed the part of Liberty Street across the railroad tracks, St. Mary's and Havermans Avenues, was a pretty closed community back then – but the Italo-Americans who made up the great majority of the population had to go outside its imaginary walls to shop, work and go to school.

Of course, it was easier for people of European backgrounds to blend into the general population. We didn't know anyone of Japanese extraction back then, but the wave of ugly propaganda was especially hard on them, and, frankly, the resulting focus on their incarceration in the western states probably brought some sense of relief to my relatives, as well as to those of German extraction.

Not that it was easy, even for a family whose name had been “Americanized” from Caserta to Case. Even though it had been an innocent enough change, there were people who suspected that the name had been changed to facilitate spying for the “Old Country.” Any communication with relatives in Italy – or Germany – was now suspect. Social clubs that had been founded to help equalize the ethnic communities were mistrusted and even reviled.

Despite that, the Case brothers helped rally the community and used their talents at organizing and producing plays and musical reviews to continue their efforts, redirecting the proceeds of their shows to the USO, the United Service Organizations.

Begun with foresight in February of 1941 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, The USO was – and is – a private, non-profit organization created to provide on-leave recreation for the rapidly growing United States armed forces. In response to the increasing world crisis, U.S. troops grew from 50,000 to 12 million between 1940 and 1945! USO clubs all over the world provided a touch of home – a place to dance, to meet, to watch movies, to find solace, to write letters home, and to enjoy free coffee and doughnuts.

Before the war would end, over a million and a half volunteers would work on the USO's behalf. Everyone in Little Italy pitched in. People who once played, sang and danced just for family gatherings, now brought their talents to the stage for the whole community to enjoy, and contribute to the war effort.

Everyone seemed to pull together back then, under the commonly heard phrase, “For the duration.”

Backyard gardens suddenly became “Victory Gardens,” and with rationing of tires, gasoline, meat, butter and other supplies needed for the war, cooperation was the watchword.

Blackouts were common, and men and women who were unable to fight became neighborhood Wardens, patrolling the streets at night, making sure no lights could be seen and used as targets by possible enemy aircraft. Children were trained to recognize and identify aircraft by their silhouettes, and to report any suspicious shapes in the sky.

Summertime lemonade stands now supported the USO, as did the traditional backyard “circuses” that the neighborhood kids put together, with performing pets and acrobatics. Breaking news of the war came from our radios, war action film was shown in newsreels at the movie theaters, and detailed reports of the fighting – as well as lists of the dead and missing in action – came from newspapers.

No one who was in the neighborhood at the time, in early 1942, can ever forget the screams of a mother on Havermans Avenue when she was told of her son's ultimate sacrifice in the very country she had left many years before to escape the hardships of life.

Her wailing sobs struck deep, and awakened the fears of every family with a member in service, or about to be.

©Copyright 2010 Frank LaPosta Visco

Next: War stories.