It seems to me, kids today are a lot more spoiled than we were. I say this knowing it may be a generational trait, that our parents said the same things about us.
I am only a couple generations removed from the “I had to walk five miles to school every morning.” Grandpa Murphy, as legend had it, worked at a farm at the crack of dawn for an hour and then walked to school afterwards.
Some of the old-timers embellished their stories even further. They wrapped newspapers around their feet because they couldn’t afford shoes and walked in two feet of snow, and so on.
I never believed any of that stuff, but what is true is that my generation seemed tougher than this one. My mom went to Pierson in Sag Harbor and she said the school never closed and she never missed a day. Kids got sick, just like today, but they got up and went to school. “That’s because it was a privilege to go to school,” she related. As an immigrant’s daughter, there was tremendous pressure on her to succeed. That meant she had to deal with Papa, who was a Sicilian, or go to school. School was easier.
I wasn’t a tough kid, but I had smarts. I wasn’t very pugnacious, but I became a very fast runner and befriended the biggest kids. Once in a while, though, someone would accuse me of being a bigmouth (how dare they?) or even worse, being obnoxious (me?). That meant I’d have to duke it out.
I was enamored with Muhammad Ali (then known as Cassius Clay) and I took my fighting style from his playbook — weave and jive and all that. But once I got through floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee, the other kid would beat the crap out of me and that would be that.
I’ll never forget the time I went home with a really ugly shiner. I marched in and asked when my mom was going to put a raw steak on it. Everyone laughed: It seems that getting steak for a black eye never happened in real life.
“Do you really think if we had steak we’d waste it on you, Klumpus? I’d be chewing your eyeball!” My big brother howled. The point is, no one was overly concerned and I could be blind now.
My big sister and brother called me, the baby of the family, Klumpus. That’s because I must have been a little awkward. They would set me up to fail. Once, during a crowded Thanksgiving dinner, my sister asked me to get her soda with ice. I went to the kitchen and then my brother wanted one too, and then someone asked for milk. This went on until both my hands were full. I started the walk back into the dining room and my hands starting shaking. “Watch out!” my sister shouted. “You’re gonna spill the milk!” my brother yelled. “Watch out for grandma!” They both shrieked. I fumbled and stumbled and dropped everything all over the table.
“Oh Klumpus!” Grandma was clutching her eye. It was bleeding. “Better put some steak on that,” I said, but no one laughed.
My maternal grandfather, Enrico Forucci, didn’t walk 10 miles to school because he probably didn’t go to school for long. By the time he was 14, he had been “enlisted” in the Italian Army. That meant he got dragged onto the front line by an uncle who got paid a couple bucks for the fresh meat. After a stint in the Balkan War, he came to the United States in search of work. A cousin in Sag Harbor found him space in a room over Main Street where other young Italian men slept when they weren’t working. Many of those men, with names like Lattanzio, Ficorelli, Schiavoni, DiSanti, Santacroce, and so on, eventually prospered.
Papa worked to become a citizen only to find out he was being drafted in the Army — this time the U.S. Army. He was sent back to Europe to fight and must have seen his share judging from the weapons he brought home and kept in the attic. His name is on the big rock by Otter Pond across from Mashashimuet Park with the other VFW members.
He left a wife and daughter in Italy and came back to Sag Harbor after the war, eventually buying the little white house at the foot of Howard Street that was split in two and shared with another Italian family. Then he sent for my grandmother, Fillippa, and my oldest aunt, Adelia. He had two more daughters, Lucille and my mother, Elenora.
He started clearing the land and eventually had a farm, chickens, a cow, goats, fruit, yes, a fig tree, and grapes — lots of grapes. He purchased oak barrels and dug out the earth beneath the house by hand with the help of some of the other Italian men, until a small a basement big enough for the three wine barrels and shelves for preserves still sit today.
He was Big Rico, so of course they called me Little Rick. He took a shine to me. I outgrew Klumpus after I punched my brother in the eye for calling me the name. “Better put a steak on that,” I sneered.
I never dropped a glass of wine.