The Harsh Teacher

“Experience is the hardest kind of teacher. It gives you the test first and the lesson afterward.”
— Oscar Wilde

In all candor, I have been unable to verify the authenticity of this quote. With that said, however, I do feel more than qualified to vouch for the truthfulness of the statement.

My son got into a rather nasty altercation with a laminate router he had been using last Sunday and as is usually the case, the router won. The blade ate into three of his fingers, causing a slight fracture in one and necessitating 18 stitches overall, along with a tetanus booster shot and a course of antibiotics. As I sit writing this, the full extent of his injuries remains unknown. There will be significant scarring. There may be some sensory nerve damage but he should retain mobility. He will be seeing a hand specialist, to get more answers and decide on a course of treatment. When he started calling people from an urgent care facility, he opened with, “First off, I haven’t lost any body parts.”

When a parent’s child is harmed, no matter how grown up they may be, the parent feels that. This parent does, anyway. The swell of emotions that I felt when I heard the news was extraordinary. In a single instant, I wanted to comfort my son, encourage the healthcare professionals who were treating him, and drag that sonofabitch router into a back alley to beat it into scrap metal with a sledgehammer.

He didn’t need to be told how much worse this might have turned out. He knew. A larger router would have taken the fingers outright, period. Fortunately, he makes his living as a craftsman and an actor. When we spoke on the phone, I half-jokingly told him, “Well, I guess you know you can kiss your career as a hand model goodbye.” But every half-joke contains a measure of truth in the other half. I quickly added, “but only three or four years ago, I kissed my own career as an Olympic weightlifter goodbye.” We both went with the wisecracks but we both understood. What’s done is done.

That incident as well as the conversation that followed brought back some memories, none of them happy ones. And each of them brought the same message: Life’s consequences are for life. Coming up on four years ago, as a result of my own foolish, careless actions, I traded my left shoulder for a prosthetic assembly of titanium and plastic that will never do the work of its predecessor. I can never again lift as much or as high and I may very well outlive the artificial joint that is now inside my body. Still, my recovery was better than 90% of those who have had this type of surgery. I chalk that up to sheer will. I was hellbent on riding my motorcycle and traveling with my pillion companion again, and for years to come.

During my college years and for one year after that, I worked for a packaging company that was headquartered in my boyhood hometown of Blue Island, Illinois. The closely held corporation ran four factories across the US, including the one I worked at just about every summer, and some holiday breaks, from 1979 until 1983. The place I worked at was a paper converting factory, filled with corrugating machines, slitters, die cutters, stampers, printing and embossing cylinders, macerators, and balers. Just imagine lots and lots of large, motorized cylinders and blades, all in motion 24 hours per day, six and a half days per week. Me, I was lucky. I was just passing through, a college kid working there only as long as I needed to. But over the course of four years, I met many wonderful people. And many incomplete human beings.

There were several middle-aged women, housewife types I guess, with one or more short fingers. I never noticed it right away because they were such positive souls, always hard-working and never showing any evidence of loss. There was an older guy with a southern accent. He knew every machine in the plant, so people would often take his advice on productivity matters. And he was so jovial, everyone was always glad to see him. I can’t recall his name but he was short a few fingers and, as he claimed, a couple of toes.

I had an aunt who was both a physical and occupational therapist by profession. She was the only college-educated member of her generation in our family and we were very close. I talked with her about the things I saw at that factory and nothing seemed to surprise her. The industrial injuries, she pointed out, were largely a matter of human nature, reflex reactions. “Your job is to run this machine. You’re working one day and suddenly something falls into the machine. Without even thinking about it, your gut reaction is to reach in and grab that object. The machine takes you in, too, but it’s too late.”

I saw that firsthand, working on a Sunday, when this kid — a young teen, probably working a summer job — was placing old newspapers onto a conveyor belt that fed into a macerator, which instantly pulverized the paper, to be used in the manufacture of insulated envelopes. The drive chain on the conveyor was a bit loose and always slipping off the gears, so at some point, the chain guard had been left off. You know, to save time. So the kid is sitting there, tossing old newspapers on the conveyor, when the drive chain slips off once again. He’d seen the maintenance workers put the chain back on, so he tries to feed it onto the moving gears himself, but his hand is on the wrong side and the chain draws his hand right in against the rotating gear wheel. He yanked his hand free at the last second and didn’t lose any fingers but his right hand was cut and bleeding badly. There was nobody on the limited Sunday shift to authorize anybody to do anything but work. Everybody is standing around trying to decide what to do. Blood is pouring from the kid’s hand. Me, I had nothing to lose, so I yelled, “Come with me!” I took the kid and one other guy to hold his hand up while I broke every law in the book to drive him to the local ER. No regrets. Nobody even questioned me about my actions the following week.

There was one guy, the sole member of the shipping department on the third shift (I heard they paid a buck-fifty an hour extra for people to work on that shift). He would have been in his twenties when I was there — older than me at the time but would seem like a kid to me now. Tall and thin, with thinning blond hair, he had a solitary digit remaining on one hand, which was always wrapped in a dirty whitish bandage. That lonesome appendage was long and judging by the way he used it, I thought that was his index finger. It was his thumb. A machine had taken the rest of his hand.

Some of my coworkers assured me that the guy I’m describing here had been guaranteed a job for life. I’m not sure how that played out, since the company was bought out the year I left and the Blue Island factory was shut down the year after. The kid drove a very nice Pontiac TransAm, metallic silver with the big firebird emblem on the hood. It was an awesome-looking car. I never once saw that young man smile, though. Not even once in four years.

These are the memories that flashed through my mind when I heard that my son’s fingers had gotten torn up on a Sunday afternoon. What’s done cannot be undone. Hopefully, though, we all learn from this harsh teacher called life, as we continue along. Thanks for hanging with me.


Land of Tee Shirts, Tattoos and Salt Water Taffy

It seemed like a mission of mercy. Despite being the same youthful age as me (stop laughing), and despite having been born and raised in Wisconsin, my longtime friend and pillion passenger of choice, Ann, had never been to the Wisconsin Dells. That’s right, never been there. Of course this meant we had to go there for a few hours of fun and adventure. So I bribed her with the promise of a genuine rubber tomahawk if she agreed to go there with me and on a beautiful Sunday morning, I motored up to her place on Miss Scarlett and we headed west on Wisconsin 16 to a place I have known since early childhood.


For as far back as I can remember, folks could always gauge how close they were getting to the Dells by the quantity and frequency of billboard advertising along the road. Down in the Chicagoland metro, for example, you might see one such billboard as you head from point to point, nowhere near the Dells. If you follow Interstate 90 out of Illinois and into Wisconsin, you’ll see more. And more. And more, until you finally arrive in a touristic frenzy to go and experience different ways to spend your money.


It’s like that along the state highways, too, only a lot less crowded and a lot more scenic. Also less stressful. Our fellow drivers/riders seemed happier and more courteous than did their Interstate-running counterparts. Even the billboard advertising seemed less aggressive, although they still increased in number and frequency as we got closer to our destination.

When we arrived, we weren’t exactly in a touristic frenzy, but I was anxious to show Ann around. We found an open parking space just off Broadway, which is the main drag in downtown Wisconsin Dells, shed our riding gear, and set out on foot. Ann had carried along a comfortable pair of walking sandals, which seemed like a really smart idea to me as I spent the day walking around in leather boots. In nothing flat we were assaulted by the sights, sounds and smells of downtown. Frenzied tourists scurried in every direction. There were many families, but also couples, young and old, and the occasional group of teenagers and twenty-somethings.

When I was quite young, I had an aunt who had never married and worked in a public school system. During the summers, she would regularly toss me and my sisters into her station wagon and take us places. Sometimes we would be gone for two or three weeks, but sometimes only for a day or two. Such were our trips to the Wisconsin Dells. We never went to the downtown shops or attractions, which my aunt collectively referred to as junk. Instead we always did three things: the Dells Boat Tours, the Tommy Bartlett Water Show (as I believe it was called then), and the Stand Rock Indian Ceremonial. Just about everything else was declared too dangerous (go carts, roller coasters, WWII Ducks, etc.) or fell into that junk category. The Indian Ceremonial was discontinued in 1997, but even if it hadn’t been, the show began at sundown, way too late for this Sunday outing.

I would really have loved to take Ann to the Tommy Bartlett Show, because even though she had never seen it, in a previous life Ann had known Tommy Bartlett. How cool is that! But alas, somewhere along the line, they stopped offering an early afternoon performance. The earliest show was at 4:30 PM, which after allowing for show duration, parking lot exit, travel back to Ann’s, eating something (one would hope), and traveling back to the other side of Chicagoland, would have had me getting home well after midnight. That wouldn’t have left me in very good shape for work a few hours later. So with that option gone, our agenda was fairly easy. We were there to eat, take a boat ride, and walk some of the downtown shops.


As it was already approaching noontime, we opted to start with lunch. I had heard good things about a place called Monk’s Bar & Grill. Well let me tell  you, those good things were well founded. The service is prompt, the staff is as helpful and friendly as any you will find, and the food is quite tasty. Ann and I both ordered the bacon cheeseburger. Hers was medium rare and mine medium well, but both were as juicy as all get-out, and flavorful, too. It’s nothing fancy, mind you—it is, as the name implies, a bar and grill—but I wouldn’t hesitate to go back or to recommend this place to friends.


With full tummies we headed out and began walking toward the west end of downtown, toward the Dells Boat Tours docks. We passed many tee shirt shops, candy stores making and selling fudge and taffy, arcades, tattoo parlors (I don’t recall seeing those when I was young), fun houses, haunted houses, and more. Most of the people we passed on the street seemed happy to be there. Some of the parents looked a little tired. I’m sure there was also an angry tourist or two somewhere in that sea of humanity. There always is.

The angry tourist hadn’t expected to spend so much money, didn’t think it would be so crowded at a major tourist attraction in the middle of summer, doesn’t know why they had to sit in traffic just to spend more money, and on and on and on. And it isn’t enough that they are miserable. They want everybody to share in their misery, too, especially the people who are working their tails off at all the establishments. I once watched a father with two small children in tow give a restaurant cashier the riot act as she rang up his bill—the food wasn’t worth the money; the rolls were stale;the service was slow—all at the top of his lungs, as his two very small children looked on and an entire restaurant full of people did their level best to pretend not to notice. Just go home, angry tourist. Thank God they are so few and far between.

We soon reached the west end of downtown, we bought tickets for the Upper Dells Boat Tour, descended a long stairway to the docks, and after a brief wait, we boarded our boat, the Red Cloud, for a two-hour tour of what had originally brought people to this area, the natural beauty of its land and water.


It seems to be the same at beautiful vacation destinations across North America. Wherever people flock to see Mother Nature’s greatest hits, somebody will be there to sell them tee shirts and a vast assortment of genuine souvenirs, many of which are probably made in China.Then come the fun houses, fudge shops, wax museums, water parks and so forth. Not that those things aren’t fun, but aren’t they the wholly fabricated polar opposite of why people began going to places like Wisconsin Dells, Niagara Falls, Gatlinburg, and Myrtle Beach in the first place?


We made our first shore landing at Witches Gulch. We walked through the cool air of the narrow canyon. Whirlpools and rushing water could be seen and heard beneath the walkway. There is a particularly narrow point that used to be called Fat Man’s Misery. The narrow place is still there, but the sign is gone. I can’t help but wonder if some fat person, or maybe an organized fat people’s rights group of some sort, got offended and embarked upon a crusade to have the sign removed and the name banished.

At the end of Witches Gulch lies a snack bar, souvenir stand and restrooms. People were lining up at each of them. When I came out of the men’s room, I spotted Ann leaning on a rail, looking across the way at a flowing stream and a sign that read “STAY out of the WATER!” She was smiling fiendishly and suggested that we needed a photo. I laughed nervously and offered to take the picture. For the record, her foot never actually touched the water.

Our second shore landing was at Stand Rock, a towering sandstone formation several feet away from a ledge. For years, tourists have come here to see a trained dog leap from the ledge to Stand Rock and back again. The photographer H.H.Bennett, whose photography of the Dells area first drew tourists—to whom he then sold postcard souvenirs—photographed his son making that leap, in order to promote his new shutter technology. As I understand it, that image is now in the public domain, and I share it here (below Ann’s video clip) with that understanding.

This photograph taken and published in 1886 by Henry Hamilton Bennett.


After seeing the dog leap, we followed a different and very beautiful path that led us back to the boat, but not before leading everybody to a snack bar, walk-in gift shop, and restrooms. By now you may be wondering whether or not I made good on my bribe and got Ann a rubber tomahawk. Truth be told, we never saw one. We saw plenty of rubber-tipped spears, but she showed absolutely no interest in those, so we just continued on.

All shenanigans aside, we enjoyed the Upper Dells Boat Tour immensely. Both Witches Gulch and Stand Rock are very beautiful places. I enjoyed seeing it all again, but even more so, I enjoyed bringing Ann to see it for the first time in her life. She saw things that made her smile and that smile just made my day.

By the time we returned to the downtown area, it was time for me to take Ann home, so that we could enjoy a quick bite together before I continued another 150 miles to my own home (for a round trip total of 461 miles for the day). In case you’re wondering, those miles mean nothing to me compared to what our friendship means to me. Besides, nobody shoots better photos and videos for me than Ann does.

Did she like it? Yes, Ann liked it, but she also said that she didn’t feel deprived for not having gone there as a kid, because the places she did go to in the summertime were (and still are) golden to her. But what about all that neat touristy stuff? I think Ann said it best.

“You know I loved Witch’s Gulch and Stand Rock, along with the boat ride. That boat ride is so much more than a tourist thing. It really brings nature to the masses.”

And she is exactly right. People originally came here to see the area’s natural beauty. The tourist trap components came later and have evolved over time. For many, many years now, the Dells Boat Tours have taken people to see why Mother Nature has drawn people there since the beginning.

It had been another awesome day of fun and adventure. Thanks for hanging with me.

My Loyalty Earned: What’s so Great About Angelo Caputo’s Fresh Markets


I want to tell you an interesting story involving a piece of cheese, but first I’m going to tell you about a local grocery/specialty chain called Angelo Caputo’s Fresh Markets. I’m not entirely certain when they began using the “Fresh Markets” moniker, but I can assure you I’ve been a fan since before that time. When I was young, my folks used to refer to them only as “Caputo’s” and to this day, I generally do the same.

What began as a small market in Elmwood Park has since grown to eight stores around Chicagoland. All carry the same things for which Caputo’s has become so well known: an incredible amount of fresh produce, fresh Italian bread and other baked goods, and a deli that not only carries a wide variety of Italian meats and cheeses, but also knows how to slice them, all at phenomenal prices. Me, I have shopped at three of their stores. While I lived in Bensenville, for roughly 14 years, I would visit the Caputo’s in Addison, which was their second location. During that same period, my commute to work occasionally took me past the original location in Elmwood Park, and I did stop there a few times—once just to be able to say that I had been there, and a few times after that to check the price, quality and availability of plum tomatoes by the bushel, for my parents, who made many jars of home-canned tomato sauce every fall.

For those of you who may not know, when I say “Italian specialties,” I refer to a category of foodstuffs that are uniquely Italian and that cannot generally be found in a typical American supermarket. And if you can find it there, odds are you won’t find an employee who understands what it’s for or how to slice it, cook it, or serve it. Examples include castagne (chestnuts, excellent for roasting if you know how, quite a big mess in a small package if you don’t), sopressata (one of many variations of salami), and baccalà (dried and salted cod, a traditional Christmas Eve dish, the smell of which can linger right on through Easter). Some non-Italian types get baccalà mixed up with baklava, a Greek/Turkish pastry made of phyllo dough filled with chopped nuts and drenched in honey. This is a mistake you will make only once, I assure you.

When I moved to Plainfield in 2000, much to my dismay, I discovered that I had moved miles away from the nearest Caputo’s location and just about any other Italian specialty market of consequence. Now this may seem like no big deal to you, but let me tell you, I felt the loss. I grew up in Blue Island, a town that borders Chicago and, at one time, was home to many Italian families. We had our own Italian specialty store, called Calabria Imports, from 1975 on. Before that, it was just a short drive to a place called Italian Cheese on 115th Street in Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood. For Italian pastries, there was (and still are) Naples Bakery in Evergreen Park and of course, the Original Ferrara Bakery in what remains of Chicago’s “Little Italy” neighborhood on Taylor Street. My point here is that when I was growing up in south suburban Blue Island, and again as a young(er) man living in far west suburban Bensenville, when I wanted Italian specialties, I didn’t have to go far to find them. But that all went away when I moved to Plainfield, tucked far, far away in southwest exurbia—a mystical land beyond the suburbs, where everybody moved to get away from it all, and then wondered why.


Until 2006. That’s when Caputo’s Fresh Markets opened their southern Naperville location, on the northwest corner of 111th Street and Illinois Route 59. The place is huge and features everything one has come to expect from Caputo’s—produce, deli, bakery, meats, wine, and more. My nose dances for joy when I walk into this place. Those who know me well know that I love to cook and when I plan on preparing something special for my family and friends, Caputo’s is generally where I begin. It’s not exactly next door to my home, but it’s close enough.

And now for the rest of my story. Ready? Say cheese!

Caciocavallo is a type of stretched-curd cheese produced throughout southern Italy, including the region from which my mother and father came. Similar to provolone, this type of cheese is typically found hanging in pairs of teardrop-shaped balls. The aged version has a unique flavor and a hard, edible rind. I grew up with this stuff and learned to love it. Whenever anybody in my extended family made a trip to the old country, they would return with caciocavallo strategically hidden throughout their luggage. If you have never tasted the genuine article, don’t judge.

Well, lo and behold, the deli department at Caputo’s Fresh Markets has developed an impressive offering of meats and cheeses over the years, including fresh and aged versions of caciocavallo! I’ve tried both, but prefer the aged version, because of my lifelong familiarity with it. Give me a piece of aged caciocavallo, some Italian cured meats, a loaf of crusty Italian bread, and a bottle of good wine, and I will be happy for some time—or at least as long as my treats hold out. So needless to say, every so often during my excursions to Caputo’s, if I wanted a special treat for me and/or my loved ones, I would pick up those very things.


A week before Christmas, my son and I were at Caputo’s in Naperville, mainly to pick up a few pounds of their mild Italian sausage and some fresh bell peppers. Because the weather has been so mild this season, I wanted to roast some peppers and grill some sausages, outside. But since we were there anyway, we also opted to make a detour through the deli, to pick up some lunch meats and cheese for the coming week. We rarely plan our deli purchases, but rather make them based on whatever is on sale or whatever we have a taste for at the time.

“Hey, Pop, what are we getting?”

“I don’t know, son, what do you have a taste for?”

“Well, if it were up to me, I’d get some salami and a little prosciutto.”

“Okay,” I agreed, “but what about some cheese?”

“Well we have to get some slicing provolone, right?”

He was thinking too small for the occasion.

“Okay, but how about a little caciocavallo? You know, just to nibble on.”

My son’s eyes lit up and he gave a hey-it’s-your-money shrug as he replied, “Sure!”

But we couldn’t find any, neither fresh nor aged. In fact we made three laps around the deli area, just to make sure they hadn’t moved it when they reorganized the packaged goods. Nope, nothing. So we went home with everything we had gone for, plus bread, Genoa salami, hot sopressata, and sliced provolone. And mind you, we ate well. But it bothered me that my favorite Italian cheese might no longer be available from my local source.

By the following day, my curiosity had gotten the best of me, so I wrote an email to a contact I had made some time ago at Caputo’s Fresh Markets corporate headquarters in Carol Stream. I explained my interest and just asked, “Please let me know if this item is only out of stock temporarily or if it has been discontinued.”

The answer I got back, that very same day, was heartwarming:

“You actually picked the right person to ask, I am in charge of all the deli departments in our company!

“The company that we get the cryovaced caciocavallo cheese from has recently cut down their deliveries so that particular product is harder to get hold of, but we definitely still have access to Imported caciocavallo cheese. Do you prefer the aged or fresh? I believe the imported only comes in aged form, but I can look into seeing if there is a fresh version available. Please let me know and I will make sure Naperville has it in stock.

“Thank you for reaching out to me, and Merry Christmas & Happy New Year to you and your family as well! As a family owned and operated company, we truly appreciate your support!”

CaciocavalloSeveral more emails were exchanged, but the long and short of it is that before the day was over, my son had gone back to the same store and returned with a small chunk of imported caciocavallo that tasted better than the (presumably) domestic variety that I had bought before. We have since then tasted the cheese and found it to be quite excellent.

CacioTasteBut product quality aside, what kind of corporate retailer answers an email from a nobody like me the very same day I send it? I’ll tell you. This kind of retailer. Still family-owned and still taking a family pride in all that they do. The kind of company whose General Manager—the gentleman with whom I corresponded—is related to the company’s founder, in this case, Angelo Caputo.

That, my friends and followers, is what’s so great about Angelo Caputo’s Fresh Markets. By all means check them out. You will thank me.

Until next time…

The Ups and Downs of Growing Fig Trees in Northern Illinois

Figs on a tree

Yesterday my son and I buried our fig trees for the winter. Well, we buried one and removed another that had been struggling for two years now. Most people look at me funny when I talk about burying trees. Some people look at me funny when I talk about growing figs where I live, because they don’t believe one can grow figs in this latitude. I can state from experience that yes, you certainly can grow fig up here, but it isn’t necessarily easy.

When I was growing up in the Chicagoland suburb of Blue Island, many of the “old Italians” kept fig trees. My father had kept three or four going at any given time. My grandfather across the street had a couple. My uncle “below the hill” (Blue Island’s east side, which was predominantly Italian at the time) had some, as did some cousins and assorted paesani. As you might imagine, fresh figs were abundant among my extended family during the growing season.

Wait. Can you imagine? Do you know what a fresh fig looks like? Perhaps I’d better back up a little.

Another maleFigs are a tree/shrub fruit that grow throughout the tropics, Asia and the Mediterranean. They have been around for a while. Indeed, fig trees are mentioned numerous times in both testaments of the Bible. If you are familiar with the book of Genesis, you know that after having eaten from the tree of knowledge, Adam and Eve used fig leaves to cover their nudity. The gospels of mark and Matthew include accounts of Jesus cursing a barren fig tree, which proceeds to wither and die.

FemaleFigs themselves (i.e. the fruits) are considered aphrodisiacs and their unique shape and characteristics are representative of both the male and female sex organs. Without getting too graphic here, the whole fruit is thought to resemble a man’s family jewels, while the cross section bears a resemblance to the female… um.. that is… oh, my. Well, anyway…

Presumably because of their thin bark and high water content, fig trees were not designed to withstand our harsh Midwest winters. I have no idea who first had the idea to preserve fig trees by burying them during the winter months, but the practice clearly works. As I said earlier, the process isn’t easy. It isn’t even particularly fun. And the larger the trees grow, the more difficult the process becomes, until finally it becomes impossible, at which point the tree remains standing during the winter months – and dies.

burialSo how does one bury a fig tree? I’m glad you asked. In mid-to-late autumn, after all the leaves have dropped and there is little to no chance of another warm-up before winter arrives, you prepare the tree for burial by pruning and bundling the branches into a narrow, manageable package. Then you dig a trench from the base of the tree outward. The length of this trench must be equal to or slightly greater than the height of your tree. I should also mention that each year (this is an annual process), the trench will be dug in the same direction.

The idea is to bend/pivot the fig tree at the roots level, beneath the soil surface. Mind you, the tree will not want to lie down. It will help to loosen the soil around the base of the tree and gently rock the tree back and forth until it is willing to lie down for a winter nap. I should also point out that in the spring, this same tree that resisted laying down will also not want to stand back up. Such is the stubborn nature of a fig tree.

buriedOnce the tree has been convinced to lie down in the trench you’ve dug, you must cover the trench with boards, corrugated metal, etc., forming a sort of protective tomb for the tree. Then you pile dirt on top of the covering, closing off air flow and providing an insulating layer from the harsh elements of winter. In order to let moisture escape, my father would fashion a breather vent from an old section of downspout and some window screen material. Worked like a charm, so I began using them, too.

The first time I tried this process, I failed. My father had given me a shoot from one of his mature trees and advised me to take it home, stick it in the ground, keep it watered and see what happens. The shoot took – under the right circumstances, fig trees are very prolific (must be all that sexuality with which they are associated) – but when it came time for winter burial, either the tree had not yet been established enough to withstand the process or my methodology was somehow off. In any case, the little tree died. I felt terrible.

The following summer, my dad handed me another shoot, its base wrapped in a ball of newspaper containing a quantity of the tree’s native soil. “Try again.”

“But Pop…”

“Try. See what happens.”

I’ll tell you what happened. I failed again. The shoot threw roots and sprouted a few new leaves, but did not survive winter burial. By this time I had become quite willing to give up and leave the fig tree cultivation to people who knew what they were doing.

My dad had other ideas. The following summer, he once again handed me another shoot, nicely wrapped in a ball of dirt surrounded by newspaper. “Try again.”

I could not refuse. I took the shoot home, stuck it in a patch of cultivated soil, kept it watered, watched it take root, etc. Then, when the last leaves had fallen, I dug a tiny trench, for a tiny tree, laid the little guy down, as I had been instructed, covered the trench with a length of plywood, covered the plywood with an ample amount of dirt, then crossed my fingers and waited until spring.

At the appropriate time, I unearthed the entombed little tree, my third attempt at a craft that my dad had made to look so easy. Weeks went by… nothing. Still I waited. More weeks went by. Then one morning I walked past my kitchen window and glanced out toward this stick standing up in the middle of my garden… and saw something green. Green!

I ran outside to confirm it. Yes, that speck of green was indeed the start of new leaf growth! Then I ran back inside and called my father just as quickly as my shaking fingers could dial.



“Pop! Guess what! The little sonofabitch is alive!”


“The fig tree! My fig tree!! It’s alive! I did it!”

“See? I told you…”

Thus began my love affair with the common fig tree. A month or so later, my father proved his faith in my ability by presenting me with yet another shoot from one of his trees.

“Here,” he commanded and he thrust the carefully wrapped bundle into my reluctant hands. “Take it home, stick it in the ground, keep it watered…”

early figsBy then I knew the drill. But even more importantly, by then I knew it could be done! A year later I had two thriving trees. At first they yielded only a handful of undersized (but delicious) fruit, but a few years later, I was collecting enough full-sized figs to warrant giving some away. I was happy. My father was proud. Life was good.

In the few years leading up to my father’s death in 2011, I began taking over the burial and resurrection of his fig trees, which were much more mature than my own. During those years, two wonderful things happened. First, my dad was able to watch and counsel me on the finer points of this craft. But at the same time, my son was able to begin learning, first by watching us and then by actively assisting my father and me.

Today, at the age of 22, my son knows as much about this process as I did when I was 20 years older than him. More often than not, we work the trees together. I believe my father would have been proud. I know I am.


Close Encounters of the Thanksgiving Kind

roast-turkey-1566802-639x479   My memories of Thanksgiving are not exactly the stuff of Norman Rockwell illustrations. Oh, there have been plenty of fond memories, just not your typical textbook Americana vignettes. For one thing, I didn’t grow up in a traditional American household. My mother and father were Italian immigrants, as was the overwhelming majority of my cousins. I was born here, but my first words were probably spoken with an Italian accent.

how-to-make-italian-food-2-1566265-1280x960The traditional American Thanksgiving dinner consists of roast turkey with cranberry sauce and dressing, mashed potatoes, green beans and other assorted goodies. My Thanksgiving dinners came with most of that, plus a steaming bowl of homemade pasta smothered in homemade tomato sauce and a huge platter of meat that had spent hours simmering in that sauce – things like homemade meatballs, braciole and salsiccia (aka fresh Italian sausage). There was always homemade wine and homemade bread on our dinner table. The insalata – a tossed salad dressed with vinegar and oil, plus a small plate of olives on the side, in case anybody wanted some – came after the main course and before the dessert, which may have included pumpkin pie, raisin pie (my father’s favorite), biscotti, and who knows what else.

On any Sunday or holiday, my mother would get up around 5:30 and start preparing dinner, which we ate at noon, or shortly thereafter. By 9:00 AM, if you walked anywhere near my mother’s kitchen, the aromas alone could cause you to gain two pounds. And if she was expecting ten people for dinner that day, my mother cooked for twenty. That woman would rather have died than see us run out of food. My father used to say, “If you leave my table hungry, you’re a damn fool.”

olivesWhen I was a child, back in the 1960’s, there were still a good number of live poultry shops in the Chicago area. And since my grandfather, who briefly shared ownership of a small restaurant, refused to eat any bird we hadn’t killed ourselves, the centerpiece of our Thanksgiving dinner was usually still walking during the wee hours of Thanksgiving morning. I still recall a particularly traumatic experience I had one Wednesday afternoon prior to Thanksgiving, when I ran down to the basement of our Blue Island home, probably looking for my father, and came face-to-face with a tom turkey that was every bit as tall as I was. Maybe taller. We both stood there for a moment, staring at each other in the dim light of what was remaining daylight filtered through a small basement window above our heads.Turkey

The turkey said nothing. I turned and bolted back up the basement stairs, yelling at the top of my lungs, “Mmmmaaaaaaaa!” In the decades that followed, for as long as that house remained in the family, I always approached the basement with caution.

As time went on, it became apparent that nobody in our family cared all that much for leftover turkey. So by the mid 1970’s my mother had discovered the perfect solution to this: She stopped making turkey for Thanksgiving and baked a ham instead. This went on for years until 1986, the first year my new bride and I had Thanksgiving dinner at my folks’ house. A few weeks before, my mother turned to my wife and asked, “Karen, what would you like to have for Thanksgiving dinner?” Ma was just was trying to be accommodating to her new daughter-in-law. And in a similar spirit, not wanting her mother-in-law to go out of her way, my new wife responded, “Oh, a turkey would be fine.”

We had a huge turkey that Thanksgiving, plus all the other stuff – even a small ham. When Karen found out, after the fact, that my mother hadn’t cooked a turkey for Thanksgiving in years, but in fact had prepared that trophy bird just to please her, she seemed irritated with me for some reason. “I’m gonna’ kill you,” she hissed at me as I drove us home. “Why didn’t you tell me?!”

“But dear, had I done that, you would have given an answer to please Ma, when all she wanted to do was please you. See?”

Let me tell you, my wife may have been small, but she could sure pack a punch.

I’ll never forget the first time my wife baked a big, beautiful ham for dinner. Within 30 minutes, the whole house was filled with this burning chemical stench. It seems my bride had removed the outer plastic wrapper without realizing there had been a second layer of plastic beneath it. I came running into the kitchen just as she was removing our slightly charred, plastic-glazed dinner from the oven.

I tried to lighten up the situation by exclaiming, “Oh, look, a laminated ham!” Man, that woman can really swat when she wants to.

So yeah, our Thanksgiving gatherings may sometimes be more suitable for a slapstick comedy that the cover of Life magazine, but they are no less memorable. And it’s still very much about family for us. Grandparents. Parents. Aunts. Uncles. Cousins. Brothers. Sisters. And always, always children. These have surrounded me on various major holidays throughout the years – and there have been a lot of them now.

One last thought: Traveling has become a little easier for me over the years. When I first got married, starting the Thanksgiving holiday with a full tank of gas was very important, because even the local gas stations were closed on major holidays. I can only speculate that this is because, being people, retailers back then had their own families with whom to spend their holidays – and hearts that made them want to do nothing less. I wouldn’t mind seeing more of that again.

To all of my readers, old and new, I wish a happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

A Matter of Life, Death, and Motorcycles: A Brief Glimpse into How I Got This Way

StevenHis grave is tucked away in a far corner of St. Benedict Cemetery in Crestwood, Illinois, not far from Blue Island, where I was born and raised. It wasn’t easy to find, but from all appearances, it hasn’t been neglected, either. Several youth-oriented Christmas decorations were left near his headstone the last time I stopped there, presumably by his mother (his father’s grave is now beside his) or perhaps his siblings. Regardless, the love and affection for this boy has withstood the decades.

His name was Steven and he died in 1975, exactly one month before his 14th birthday. Also just a few months before he and I were to graduate from the eighth grade. Steven and I had pretty much come through grade school together. I remember one time, when we were in sixth grade, he came from out of nowhere when some other kid had thrown a wild punch at me for no apparent reason – he was showing off his kung fu prowess or some stupid thing like that – and Steven basically came between us, asked the kid what he thought he was doing, and then proceeded to stare him down until he slunk back into the woodwork. Why had he done that? I don’t know for sure. I think I might have gotten him out of trouble once and he was repaying the favor. In any case, I appreciated what Steven did and still remember his gesture of friendship to this day.

My classmate died from what we refer to today as a pediatric brain tumor. A brain tumor diagnosis in 1975 may as well have been a death sentence. I do not recall all of the details, but I know that Steven’s troubles seemed to have come from out of nowhere, very quickly. I know that surgery was performed and I know my classmate did not survive. I’m not sure I believed the news at first, but was soon to be convinced.

His was the first wake I had ever attended, the first dead body I had ever seen in person. There Steven lay, a classmate the same age as me, whom I had known for about eight years and who by all rights should have still had an entire lifetime ahead of him. The top of his head was wrapped in a flesh-colored bandage, where his long, straight, black hair should have been. His skin had this unnatural pink hue to it, instead of the usual brown. He was dressed in his altar boy garments. None of this had a calming effect on me in the least. That kid showed up in my dreams for weeks afterward.

That was an ending, a rather unpleasant one, too. Forty years have gone by since then, but I have never forgotten about Steven. Through the decades, especially during some of the lower points in my life, I have found myself wondering why he was taken from us at such a young age and why I was left to continue on. The answer to that question has not yet been fully revealed to me.

Now there is no simple way for me to transition smoothly from what I’ve just told you to what comes next, but if you’ll just be patient and walk with me a bit, I promise you will see the connection. For the record, I went on to high school, then college; I graduated, got a job, got married, started a family, and so forth. Somewhere along the line, I took a fancy to writing. All of this is well and good, but there is a different beginning you need to know about, and this also originated in Blue Island.

Once when I was about four years old, my family had gone visiting my aunt, uncle and cousins, all older and cooler than me. Like many Italians at the time, they lived “below the hill” on the east side of town. The two families visited each other very often, but this time stands out in my mind because it turned out to be a pivotal point in my life. One of my teenage cousins had bought a motorcycle and was showing it to everybody. At some point he and several others present asked if I would like to go for a ride. I must have nodded or something, because I was suddenly lifted off the ground, placed in front of my cousin – more or less on the gas tank – and shown where to hold the sides of the handlebars. Then we turned around in my uncle’s driveway and headed off, among shouts of “Hold on tight!” and “Be careful!”

I can still recall the sound of that one-cylinder engine and the vibration through the handlebars as the engine rose and fell, going between first and second gears. At one point, we came to a stop and my cousin asked me which way I wanted to go. I pointed and off we went, cruising through the neighborhood. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before. A few minutes later, we pulled back into the driveway. People were asking me what I thought as somebody lifted me from the bike and set me back on terra firma. I turned around, pointed to that motorcycle and exclaimed, “I want one of those!” My mother began yelling something in Italian and I don’t think she stopped for another fourteen years.

In the years that followed, I went for many more rides with my cousins, as they acquired bigger and faster bikes. Every so often I would be foolish enough to utter the word “motorcycle” in my mom’s presence and she would begin hollering again. It was great fun. But then I went to college, got a job, got married, had kids… It seems I had neither the time nor the money to get that motorcycle. I’m sure my mother was very happy, at least for a while.

The year was 2002 and I had turned 41 years old. Chalk it up to middle age crisis – why not, my wife did – but somehow that long-dormant desire had reawakened and I decided to take the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s Basic Rider Course. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to afford a bike of my own, but I reasoned that it would be satisfying enough just to see that “M” classification added to my drivers license. So I did it… and I failed. That’s right. I had gotten a perfect score on the written exam, but lost my nerve on the riding range and gave up too many points to pass.

I was crushed. Didn’t these people know I was destined to become a motorcyclist? Apparently not, except for one particular instructor who had seen that gleam in my eye and understood how much it meant to me. On our way out, she pulled me aside and advised me to come back in August, because although all the MSF classes are booked solid by March, the end-of season classes end up with vacancies and I could likely just walk in and register.

I spent the rest of that summer mentally repeating the range exercises over and over again, until I was executing every maneuver flawlessly. When August came, I walked into one of the scheduled classes and was able to register, just as that instructor had said. I took the entire course over again, asking more questions and getting much more out of it than I had the first time. The range exercises were less intimidating, because I had performed then all hundreds of times in my head. When testing day came, I went first and came within one point of a perfect score. At last I was a motorcyclist!

Turns out I had been sorely wrong about one thing: Getting that “M” on my license wasn’t enough. The motorcycling bug had bitten me hard. Less than a year later, I had acquired a gently used two-tone Honda Shadow A.C.E. Like most new riders, I started out by riding through my neighborhood, gradually going farther and farther. But I was riding alone, and I am not a good alone person. Because none of my friends at the time were motorcycle riders, I began seeking out opportunities to ride with other people. After doing a little research, I came across a local event called the Chicagoland Ride for Kids®, a fundraiser for the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation.

It was like being struck by a lightning bolt. Pediatric brain tumor? Steven!

Back in ’75, when a tearful teacher told her classroom full of stunned kids what had caused Steven’s death, she hadn’t used the word “pediatric”, so it might have taken a second for me to understand what I had found – an organization formed to fight what had killed my classmate. I knew I had to do this. So despite having not one minute of group riding experience, I showed up at the Allstate Insurance corporate facility on July 14, 2003, for my first escorted charity ride. There we were, just me, my then-11-year-old daughter and roughly 3,000 casual acquaintances.

RFK_CHI2012Was I nervous? Not at all. I was scared. But we did it! And together with all the other motorcyclists, we raised $325,092 for pediatric brain tumor research that day. Thus began a new tradition for Teresa and me. My daughter and I have been raising money for pediatric brain tumor research by actively participating in the Chicagoland Ride for Kids every year since 2003.

Now a funny thing happened in 2005, when my son, then age 12, began expressing an interest in our efforts. A motorcyclist companion of mine learned of his interest and offered to carry my son on his bike at the ’05 event. I graciously accepted and in so doing, incurred the ire of my daughter, who had come to think of the ride as “our event.” Oh, the shame of it all!

Of necessity, for the sake of keeping peace in the family, our tradition then expanded and I began participating in two Ride for Kids events per year. Each July, my daughter and I would ride in the Chicagoland event and in August, my son would ride with me in the Wisconsin Ride for Kids, which was held in Middleton. Both of my kids were happy with that arrangement, an accomplishment in itself.

Last year, for the first time, the Chicagoland and Wisconsin Ride for Kids events were held concurrently, out of Lake Geneva. Lucky for me my son, now in his twenties, has a motorcycle of his own and his sister no longer sees it as a supreme insult for him to participate in the same event as us. Even my wife, who does not ride, showed up at last year’s event, making our endeavor a true family affair.

RFK 2015 Group ShotAnd so it continues, year after year. Me, I wouldn’t miss this for the world. And now you know why. Thanks for listening.

If you would like to support our efforts with a small donation, please visit my fundraising page at We would be grateful. I even have a No Shave November promotion going on, where the amount of my beard that gets shaved off will be determined by the donations made via my page this month.

Let Me Tell You Something About Joe

Joe died last week. I wasn’t expecting that.

image1This guy I used to know from Blue Island passed away suddenly and unexpectedly on October 30. His name was Joe Mangione and he was a close friend of my older cousins in town, whom I idolized when I was growing up. He was in the Army during the Vietnam era, as were a couple of my cousins. He also rode motorcycles, as did my cousins – they were the ones who got me hooked before I even started grade school. Our knowledge of each other would have been limited to that – seeing each other at my uncle’s house in the 1960’s and early ’70’s, and perhaps at a few of my cousins’ parties thereafter – except that Joe and I had the pleasure of working together for a short period of time.image2

It was the summer of 1978 and I was 17. That in and of itself was magical, but I was too young to realize it at the time. My cousin/godfather Frank had bought a small gas/service station on the east side of Blue Island and he brought me on to pump gas and do some light mechanical work, like fixing flats and changing oil. I got to move cars around, too. Joe was a full-time mechanic there. Just being a part of this scene was cool for a young kid like me. Besides learning my way around the engine compartments and undersides of cars, I got to meet interesting people, learn crude jokes, run errands around town (I loved driving) and, the east side of Blue Island being what it was at the time, learn how to carry myself like a young Italian American, which at the time had become a very cool thing to be.

This was where I got to know Joe, and vice versa. Joe was not taller than me, but he was about twelve years older than me, so I looked up to him. As far as I was concerned, Joe had been around and he was cool. He had served in the Army, although he didn’t talk about it a lot. He knew how to work on cars. He had a modified Kawasaki KZ1000 with a Windjammer fairing and Pioneer Super Tuner stereo. He had a steady girlfriend. Joe also had poise, a genuine smile, a calm demeanor and a warm, friendly tone of voice. And he was very good at doing the young Italian American thing.

image4I had none of the above. But between Joe, Frank, my other cousins and a handful of other east side regulars who frequented the station, I had my role models – at least for one magical summer.

We worked hard, but we had our fun, too. Like the time Frank had a car up on one of the lifts and had been working underneath it with a cutting torch, while wearing a brand new pair of work shoes with perforated tops, for better ventilation. Joe and another mechanic named Al, who only worked on Saturdays, were looking on as Frank did his masterful work. Sparks were flying everywhere from beneath the vehicle and as luck would have it, one such spark – apparently a really hot one – found its way into one of the vent holes atop Frank’s new shoes.

I was working in the next bay over when I heard a loud “AAAAaaaiii!” coming from beneath the car on the other lift. Pausing from whatever job I had been doing at the time, I turned to see Joe and Al clapping their hands in unison and beating time with their feet as poor Frank hopped about on one foot while simultaneously trying to hand off the still-lit cutting torch, so that he could then remove the one shoe into which that metal spark had flown – and was still smoldering. I may have learned some new English and Italian swear words that day.

FranksYes, that was pretty good, but let me tell you my favorite Joe story. If this doesn’t illustrate how cool Joe could remain under pressure, I don’t know what would. We had been bleeding the brakes – a necessary step to remove any air bubbles that may otherwise remain in the lines following a brake job – on an early ’70’s Chevy Chevelle. It’s a simple enough operation. I went up with the car on the lift, while Joe tended to the brake lines. He would tell me to pump the brakes or depress and hold the brake pedal, as he opened and closed each line accordingly. Once the job was done, the car would be lowered and started, at which point the brake pedal would need to be depressed and pumped up one more time, as the power steering pump restored brake pressure. Simple, right?

So after the brakes had been bled, Joe lowered the lift and once the car was back on the ground, I got out and headed back outside to whatever job I had been working on before. After a moment, Joe got into the car and went to start her up. I can still remember the sweet sound of that Chevy’s V8 engine cranking over, followed suddenly by a momentary roar of exhaust and the scream of peeling rubber. Then utter silence. I spun around to see the back of that Chevy, now a good two feet forward from where it had been, and Joe, still in the driver’s seat, with his left hand still holding the steering wheel and his right on the gear shift lever, which was now up in the “Park” position. I walked back in to see what had happened. The front of the Chevy had stopped less than an inch away from the red metal cabinets and the cinder block wall immediately behind them. In the space of maybe one full second, Joe and the Chevelle had come that close to going right through the shop’s back wall.

After another second or two, Joe released his death grip from the steering wheel and shift lever, eased himself out of the car and just looked at me. I could only think of one thing to say.

“What happened?”

“The car was in gear. The indicator said neutral, but it was in drive. I’m feathering the gas pedal to get her started, but as soon as the engine caught, that bitch was leaving town.”

“But the car won’t start in gear.” Joe just looked at me, apparently weighing my statement against the reality of what had just happened.

“The safety kill switch must be bad, too.” He continued, “I went to hit the brakes and the pedal went right to the floor. There was no time to pump it back up, so I grabbed the gear shift and threw it into ‘Park’. That must have killed the engine.”

I may be paraphrasing here, so forgive me. It’s been over thirty years. But still, pretty quick thinking in the space of a second, don’t you think?

I couldn’t think of anything else to say. I just looked from Joe to the car, to the wall, to the car, and back to Joe. Then I thought of the sight of Joe sitting there in the driver’s seat, rigid, and began laughing uncontrollably. I couldn’t stop.

“Not funny, Mike,” was all he offered. Joe never once raised his voice over the ordeal. In fact he was smiling at me the whole time, probably from relief that he had not created a new rear entrance to the garage. Such was the demeanor of Joe Mangione.

That summer had been a magical time for me, and Joe was a part of that magic. I saw him less and less in the years that followed, especially after I left Blue Island myself. But I never forgot the times that we shared and the few times that Joe and I did see each other over the years, we always smiled.

So you see, it’s not like Joe and I were long-lost brothers or really close friends. Nonetheless when I heard the news last week, it hit kind of hard. Maybe because I had fallen into that all too familiar trap of believing I would always run into him again, sooner or later. Maybe because a number of people who I love would surely be struck by this loss. Maybe because another part my distant past had just faded from view. Probably some combination of the above. But as the saying goes, it is what it is.

Joe died last week. I wasn’t expecting that. But I am damned glad that our paths crossed to the extent that they did. I am a better person for it. Thanks, Joe.image3