By Bruce Mastracchio
“I always thought we would have tomorrow. But, tomorrow’s gone away. So sad to say goodbye to yesterday.”
I am sitting in my study right now listening to music from the ‘50s. It is the way I like to write. Gives me inspiration.
I am dedicating this story to the mother of a friend of mine. Her name was Dorothy Czerno, “Dot” to most of us. She has since passed, but was one of those feisty, salt of the earth people who made a mark on you. She was always one of my biggest supporters (I think she liked me better than her son, Stanley) and staunchest defenders. She knew all the ins and outs of things that happened in my life and she brokered no BS, standing up to some of the “big” people in town in my defense. She knew the stories, and she knew where the skeletons are buried (as do I), and she always stood by me to the hilt. I don’t think she stood 5 feet tall, but you didn’t want her on your case no matter what the reason. She could burn you at the stake with just a stare. So, you little Irish pepper pot, wherever you may be, this one’s for you. Hope God is on your right side.
They say some people come into your life for a reason, a season, or forever. Some leave footprints on your soul, and you are never, ever, quite the same again.
Reverend John L. Pickells, the rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church here in E.G., and the father of one of my best pals, the oft-writ about “Picks,” was one of those people.
You know, growing up here I only knew four kids who lived in one-parent homes.
Besides myself, one other boy I knew had lost his father, and two others, Picks included (the other being the Deacon) lost a mother. As much as I have read on the subject over the years, that loss, at an early age, has a profound effect on you, and you are never quite the same again. It leaves a hole in you that does not go away, and the best you can do is cope. (In the case of fatherless boys, they are 75 percent more apt to end up in jail, on drugs, alcoholics, or with societal problems ).
I think I have coped well. Reading books on the subject really helped. They let me know that I was not alone in what I thought and did, because when you are 12, and going through that loss, you think your thoughts are strange, and that you are also.
People have their take on the matter. Everyone has their opinion on it.
(In the Marines, my DI, Sgt. D. used to say, “Opinions are like anal orifices, everybody has one.”). I have been sliced and diced about. Even recently in my ‘60s. Mostly it is behind my back and I hear of it. Wish these people had the cajones to talk to me face to face so maybe I could enlighten them some.
As the people say: “Walk a mile in my moccasins.” I can not speak for the other three boys except to say that I do know that the death of their parent had an effect on each one. Each one of them handled it differently.
In my case, there were some people who tried to step up to the plate, but not too many took the full count, and no one took the sixth pitch. Of course, I was not easy to handle, and I know that. I know I looked for awhile for someone to be there, but it never really happened.
I did learn this. Hero is just a word. All mine had feet of clay. Some people that the town looked up to were not that much. It didn’t mean they were bad. They just never measured up to being a “hero.” What appears on the surface, the looks, the carriage, the image, is not always what is really there. You have to be your own hero. So I became mine. And you know something? It worked out fine. I like the guy I see in the mirror every morning. Though, God, he has gotten old!
But like I said … though no one took the sixth pitch, some people saw things that needed to be done, and made an attempt.
Reverend Pickells was one of those people.
I really didn’t know much about John Lovell Pickells. I lived in a world of kids. He was from the adult world. There was not much mixing back then.
However, I learned that he was born in Edgartown, Mass., on Martha’s Vineyard on Nov. 2, 1904 (same year as my father). This might explain some of his mysticism as Martha’s Vineyard is a magical place; and also, his love of fishing and the sea.
At an early age he moved to Pittsburgh, Penn., and later to Freeport, Illinois, which is next to Chicago.
I learned that he went to college at Hobart in Geneva, New York, where he met Edna Belle Ferguson, called “Polly” by her family and friends. She was attending Hobart’s sister school, William Smith College.
After graduating from Hobart he attended Episcopal Theological Seminary at Harvard while Edna did her graduate study in social work in Boston.
John Lovell Pickells married Edna Belle Ferguson (don’t you just love those three segment names. I always used to tease that it was a Protestant – or WASP – thing) on June 19, 1929, at Amenia Union Church in New York.
The couple than did mission work in Burns, Oregon, and then the Hood River in the same state. From there they went to Steubenville, Ohio, then Webster, Mass., before settling in at the Pastor’s house on Rector Street in East Greenwich, where the rector took over the reins of the Episcopal flock. The year was 1942. It was a very good year.
By then the couple already had three daughters, but in 1942, there were two blessed events! John Lovell Pickells Jr., my buddy “Picks,” was born. And so was I!
John’s mother died when he was six. From there on it becomes things I know. I am not sure what started it. Maybe the reverend thought John, who had three older sisters, Sally, Marguerite (Gyppy) and Betsey, needed a brother, and for some reason he picked me. It could have been my sparkling personality or my aura. I really am not sure.
But suddenly, Picks and I were exchanging house visits and supper invitations.
I would go up to that intriguing house on Rector Street, with its grandeur, a big library room and study, four bedrooms, secret passageways and a trap door to the roof, and we would eat meals prepared by the Pickell’s housekeeper, cook and babysitter, “Greenie.”
Mrs. Greene was her name and she was part Micmac indian. You know she and I hit it off right away.
Remember this is The Catholic Boy talking. I was visiting an Episcopal enclave, and in those days religions didn’t mix that much outside of school and politics. On top of that I was devout Italian Catholic, fearful of God, confession and Irish priests.
The good reverend and his family used to join hands before meals and pray. Despite my Mother being a saint, I had never experienced such a thing on that constant a basis. Soon I became used to these strange Episcopalians and their ways.
Picks got exposed to my family, my father and mother, and the ways of Catholic Italians. He especially loved the food. Greenie was a good cook, but most meals were staples. Medegone stuff: meat, potatoes and green beans.
Picks lived for his visits to our house. He loved the Italian cooking. Remember, this was the ‘40s. We did have a TV in 1948, but we still listened to the radio. Catholics did not mingle much with other religions.
A lot of Picks’ ways were strange to me. And mine to him.
One time he brought me into St. Luke’s back into the vestry. I saw that the Piscopo altar boys wore red vestments while Catholic altar boys wore black. I thought that odd and, on top of all that, I was scared for a week, waiting for God to strike me down for daring to go into a Protestant church. Maybe I should have been even more scared of the priests finding out.
Then on my saunters back home after supper at Pick’s house, I had to go by the St. Luke’s cemetery, which was adjacent to the sidewalk at the back of the church. The night, the shadows, the foreboding, old granite gray walls and iron gates and eerie noises put the fear in this Catholic boy and I usually slid to the other side of the street when going by there. I didn’t want any of those Protestant ghosts jumping out of that cemetery and making a run at this Catholic boy.
Strange how we thought back then in the ‘40s and ‘50s. We have come a long way since back then. Especially me.
Then six years later my Father died suddenly. It was at this juncture that the reverend quietly entered my life on a more permanent basis.
He started inviting me to some of the events at St. Luke’s Church.
The most notable were the Father-Son dinners that occurred on a pretty regular basis of once a month or so. I really didn’t have the reasoning power then to think about what he was trying to do. But I always seemed to be paired up with some 80-year-old guy who kept falling asleep, one time going head first into his soup. Reverend Pickells was well intentioned (something I didn’t realize until later, as I matured), but at the time those nights were a trial for me.
Here I was with this old guy, with whom I had nothing in common, in a room full of Episcopal men, who acted in a manner I was not accustomed to, especially the bonhomie, the backslapping and meaningless chatter. Meaningless to me at least.
Then when the meal started I was faced with two forks, two knives, two or three spoons, maybe a pick or nutcracker or some such and more than a few extra plates, glasses and bowls.
At home it was a napkin, one fork, one knife, one spoon, one plate and one glass.
The guest speakers were always interesting though and I will never forget the night I met Coach Hal Kopp, the URI coach, and told him I wanted to play for him someday.
Still, Reverend Pickells was well intentioned, and now I look back on those nights fondly.
I also know that he bought me my only real pair of football shoes. The ones with the screws on the bottom and the aluminum cleats, later to be hard rubber. They were high tops, and I wore them through five years of high school (EGHS was grades 8 through 12 back then) and my first two years of college. I wanted to have them bronzed, but somehow that never happened. Eventually, they probably ended up with a less fortunate kid or on a scrap heap.
Picks and I were going out for football in the eighth grade at the high school, which was located at Swift Gym. It was a nice campus-style setting with 5 to 6 buildings and they also used the library and Kentish Guards Hall.
Picks wanted me to come when he went to get his shoes. The good reverend asked me if I was going to get a pair. I really didn’t know what to say. The shoes cost $12. At the time that was not in my mother’s budget and I told him I was going to have to wait.
The Reverend would have none of that! He had me pick out a pair and try them on. Then he paid for them!
I never forgot that. When my mother tried to reimburse him he would have none of that. Funny people those Episcopalians!
Picks and I played together at EGHS for two years. It was then that Reverend decided he wanted Picks to go to Groton School up in Massachusetts. It was an Episcopalian preparatory school and one of the best in the country. Picks did not want to go and that caused some strain between them which lasted a while.
But Picks went and on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, when my team was off, Reverend Pickells would put me in his VW and cart me up to Groton to see Picks play for the orange helmeted, black-and-white striped-jersied (looked like prison shirts or zebras) Groton School against their arch-rivals, St. Marks. Picks was always the star of the game and made All New England Prep his senior year.
After the game there was a libation (don’t ask me) in the home school’s library or meeting room, where they served dainty looking finger sandwiches and punch. I had never seen anything like it.
Those Episcopos again!
Picks’ new friends really got a kick out of me. Of course always wanted to know what was going on in EG. About swimming ‘BA ” in the Bleachery, or stealing pumpkins, or whatever latest adventure I was in to, and his new friends gathered around to hear what this “strange” person had to say,
Of course, these boys were strange to me. I am talking about the sons of the elite of this country. Peabodys, Vanderbilts, Roosevelts and the like. Almost all of them had three or four names! Or had a III or IV or esquire, or some such tacked on. One of Pick’s classmates was TR3, Teddy Roosevelt’s grandson!
They got a kick out of me, these silver spoons, and I got a kick out of them. They were strange though!
After the libation, the reverend would take Picks and me to a place that has become one of my favorite restaurants. The Bull Run Tavern in Shirley, Mass.
Later in life I ended up teaching and living not too far from Groton and The Bull Run.
It was there I got exposed to The Egopantis and dinner theater. They served peanuts for an appetizer and you were encouraged to throw the shells on the floor, which was also layered in sawdust!
Then Snidely Whiplash would terrorize Pearl Pure Heart as Dudley Do Right came up to save the day. It was GREAT! I had never seen such stuff!
It was quite an experience and the beginning of my awakening to other things in this life.
Of course, it didn’t end there. Like other EG kids (I learned later) I was eventually invited to the Pickells cabin by the Nauset Light in Eastham on Cape Cod.
Picks and I had a hell of a time there. Running full tilt off the cliff by the cabin and bounding down to the beach, swimming in the frigid waters of the Atlantic, double dating with the waitresses from Poits’, a local clam shack, taking in the sights of P-Town, and other adventures.
It was an existence they portray in movies. The only difference is, we lived it and loved it! Our own magical, mystery tour!
End of Part One
Bruce Mastracchio grew up in East Greenwich, where he experienced those 28-hour days and 8-day weeks that contained the magic that made his hometown so special. Included in all that were the numerous characters that added color to the local life and produced many of Bruce’s remarkable stories.
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