Bruno Sammartino, the Italian born professional wrestler who defined the sport in the days when the matches were for real, died this week.
Though he was the world champion for 11 years here in America, you probably had to be Italian to understand how beloved he was by his countrymen.
I know because my grandfather, Enrico Forcucci, idolized Bruno. Bruno was must see TV when his match came on. My grandfather would make the entire family watch it with him. Oftentimes my pal Bobby Vacca, who lived on the street behind our house on Howard Street, would amble on by and get stuck watching as well.
Papa used to say Bruno was born in his hometown, Abruzzo, Italy, and that he remembered Bruno performing extraordinary feats of strength when he was just a boy. I’m pretty sure Papa believed his stories, but I doubt they were true.
For example, once I said, “Bruno Sammartino killed a bear when he was only three!” And Papa said, “That’sa right!” But then I told him it was really Davy Crockett who killed the bear and papa replied, “He was from Abruzzi!” I could see we were going in circles.
Still, we had no reason to doubt Camilo Pascual was from Italy. Back in those days, we only got one channel on the TV, channel eight. Every Saturday there was a New York Yankees game on. The Yankees played the Washington Senators regularly and Pascual was their best pitcher.
Papa insisted the righty with the big curve was from Abruzzo, and Pascual looked the part — in fact, he resembled Sammartino a great deal. “He looka like Bruno, no?” Papa would ask. “Yeah, and Davy Crockett!” I would reply.
One day, Bobby and I were reading our baseball cards. “Oh man, you’re not gonna believe this.” There it was: Pascual was born in Havana, Cuba. We spent a few more restless years before Papa passed on, watching games and hoping Phil Rizzuto or one of the other announcers didn’t blurt out the terrible truth.
We got up at the crack of dawn and headed to Mashashimuet Park to play baseball. One day we stopped by the house after the game because we wanted to play sponge ball. The trouble was, the ball cost a quarter and we had no money.
Papa, though, had a giant jar of change on his bureau. Bobby talked me into taking a quarter from the jar. (OK, OK, everyone knows I didn’t need any prodding to borrow small amounts of cash from our loved ones.)
Just as we were leaving, Papa’s voice bellowed: “You hava lunch or no go out!” It seems my mother, that pesky parent she is, wanted to make sure her youngest didn’t starve to death while she was away.
We were trapped. We sat at the kitchen table and in due time, Papa brought us steaming plates of elbow macaroni and red sauce. For a moment we were elated — until we tasted it. Those chunky things in the sauce were big pieces of conch, the giant snails Papa no doubt got right out of Sag Harbor Cove. We blanched and belched and wiggled like eels.
We cajoled Papa this way and that, but the edict was firm: we don’t leave until we clear our plates, a rule in his household that was never broken. The sponge ball game was slipping away from us, so Bobby did something drastic. When Papa turned the other way, he funneled the yucky stuff into his napkin and shoved it down his pants. I followed suit.
The game was midway through in the sweltering sun at St. Andrews Church parking lot. The other guys started noticing the odor before we did, but it was unmistakable: the conch was all over the place and most noticeably on our pants and it was coagulating quickly.
When I was changing for bed, Papa quietly walked in my room. He had a hurt look on his face, a vulnerable look as if he had a lost a piece of his own innocence. He just shook his head sadly and mumbled goodnight. I wondered if he had stumbled upon the terrible truth.
Years later, I found out that right before he went to bed every night, Papa, who knew great poverty as a young man, would count every coin in the jar.
Rick Murphy is a six-time winner of the New York Press Association Best Column award as well as the winner of first place awards from the National Newspaper Association and the Suburban Newspaper Association of America and a two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee.