I was sitting in front of the television getting a last look at Captain Kangaroo before heading to school. It was a damp fall morning in Baltimore in 1961. My father had just gone out the door, and I could hear a familiar sound—the dry heaves of his ’58 Plymouth Belvedere as its engine struggled to turn over.
After a minute he reappeared, his Sorrentine nose crinkled in irritation. “That car is so sensible!” he cried, dashing across the living room. I could soon hear him rummaging around in the basement, looking for something—a pair of pliers, a banana knife—to prod the Plymouth into catching the vital spark.
Most people would agree that that Plymouth—chrome flanks, china-red body paint, tail fins outflung like the marble wings of the Nike of Samothrace—was anything but sensible. But for my dad, that was the very word: sensible, as in the old sense of “easily affected,” even “delicate.” Such English as my father possessed he’d learned as a POW in the Suez during World War II. Affable and handy with small boats, he’d quickly charmed his British captors into letting him man the motor launches they used to visit the tobacconist or a sporting house. Listening in on the banter of boatloads of British officers, eventually graduating to exchanging simple jibes with them, he became imbued with the language of Shakespeare and Kipling, with bits of the big-screen palaver of Errol Flynn and that recent martyr to the Allied cause, Leslie Howard, thrown in for good measure. Years later, when he and my mother were raising two sons in a row house neighborhood where Luckies and Camels were what men smoked, dad stuck by Pall Malls, a brand of coffin nail named for the London street frequented by English clubmen. After a particularly luxuriant exhalation, he would occasionally address one of us boys as “old chap.”
If being sensible was no virtue to my father, being fantastic was just as bad. Here was a man who could watch a performance of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni and see nothing implausible about a statue coming to life in a graveyard and dragging an evildoer down to hell. But the characters appearing our hard-used TV in the 1960s—a talking horse, a spy taking phone calls on his shoe, a housewife who wiggled her nose and turned into a witch—invariably rated the same scornful assessment: “Fantastic!” Held in equally low esteem was terrific. It was a popular encomium among the Kennedy family (“When I was with the Kennedys I use the word terrific a lot. They loved that word,” wrote one Camelot chronicler), but though he admired JFK, terrific signified nothing good to my dad. Terrific was reserved for traffic jams on the way home from work and the thunderstorms that so often broke overhead in a Baltimore summer. Nothing unsettled my father like a thunderstorm—he’d served in a submarine in the war, and the racket reminded him of depth charges.
My older brother and I got big news the summer I turned eight. In a few weeks, my mother would be taking us to Italy—on a jet airplane! (At the time, transatlantic passenger jet service was still a novelty.) My mother’s purpose, I now realize, was to show her family what she’d been up to since she left Sorrento after the war. We’d be gone pretty much the whole time from the Fourth of July to Labor Day. At the mom-and-pop grocery in East Baltimore where he put in sixty hours a week, my father worked for a harried septuagenarian who was disinclined to add a two-month vacation to the leave plan of his produce man. So he would have to stay home.
We must have still been airborne when my father began what became a stream of letters to Italy (alas, now lost). Most of the news was grown-up stuff, of no interest to us kids, though for our enjoyment dad always included a section on the doings of the Orioles, whose play that season was not at all fantastic—they were actually providing a credible impression of a good baseball club, even giving Mantle, Maris, and the other princes of the Yankee dynasty a run for their money. My brother and I read with less pleasure my father’s admonitions that we go to church every Sunday without complaining, keep up our streak of perfect attendance at First Friday mass, and, most terrifically painful to us, go to Confession at least once before the end of summer.
Having received my First Communion just a few months earlier, I still found Confession frightening: the queue of nervous children clinging to the wall outside the confessional, the odor of flop sweat in the tiny booth, the smell of that morning’s coffee on the priest’s breath as he bent his head toward the screen. It was hard enough to endure in America. What would it be like to go to Confession in Italy? I tried being extra good, hoping my mother would realize that there was no need for me to be shriven until we were back in the land of Mad magazine, where it was much harder for a boy to avoid the near occasion of sin. But inevitably the dies irae came. Though my brother and I had grown fond of petty offenses such as arming ourselves with hunks of stale bread and bombarding the chickens that fluttered about in a small run beneath my grandparents’ balcony, my aunts persuaded my mother that while a sincere Confession was very much in order, we were sufficiently good boys to walk to church by ourselves. To help get us into the penitent humor, our aunts gave us money so we could go to a matinee at a nearby cinema afterward. It was showing a Disney film about a dog—Old Yeller.
My aunts had arranged for a nun to meet us at the church door and direct us down a side aisle toward the sacristy—mercifully, there would be no confessional booth for the American boys. At the last moment my older brother, who was feeling more sinned against than sinning for having missed a whole summer back home with his mates, made a run for it, back into the secular refuge of the plaza. I was left standing alone at the altar, so to speak, until a white-haired priest appeared in the sacristy doorway, wordlessly beckoning to me. I followed him inside, where we both sat down at a table, he before a little book bound in worn red leather. It seemed odd to do this while sitting, but, as recently instructed by the nuns in far-off America, I nonetheless launched into the Confiteor, in English: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned…” The old priest nodded gravely, and when I’d finished, he began to read from the book, which I saw was likewise in English. “Have you committed the sin of detraction?” he asked gently. After his second query, about “the sin of presumption,” it hit me—this was my father’s English! Now fully at ease, I breezed through with a string of no’s (there was nothing in there about clocking hens with rock-hard pieces of pane cafone), though if the words were too big to understand but nonetheless sounded impressive, I’d pause, nod solemnly, and concede that yes, I had had dealings with the occult (he specifically mentioned Ouija boards, I recall), not wanting my confessor to think I wasn’t paying attention. I had a vague idea that some of the offenses I admitted to were kind of serious (“reckless driving?”—wow, cool!), but as we trod through the catalogue of perdition, it occurred to me that the poor cleric didn’t understand a word he—or I—was saying. He susurrated through the absolution in his lovely Latin, and let me off easy for my penance: “To pray to the Blessed Mother. To be good boy.” As I skipped from the church, I was too relieved to be angry at my brother, who was sunning himself in the plaza, outside the movie house. Old Yeller, here I come!
A 1957 film starring Fess Parker, Old Yeller tells the story of a brave dog that must be put to death by its master, a boy named Travis, after the dog contracts rabies from a wolf while fighting to protect Travis’s little brother. Kids took that kind of story straight in those days, but Old Yeller, translated as Zanna gialla in Italian, was heavy fare by my standards: a boy who has to shoot his own dog!
My mother once told me that she always cried at the death scene in La Bohème—well, Zanna gialla had La Bohème all beat. As jaunty voices singing “Zanna gialla, il piu bel cane del West!” (“Old Yeller, best doggone dog in the West!”) rose behind the closing credits, my weeping more than made up for the stoicism shown onscreen by young Travis. The bright sun made the tears flow even more freely once I stepped outside. My brother discreetly put a little distance between himself and me. For some reason I suddenly thought of my dad, and wondered what he’d think of me blubbering away like that—in the plaza of the very town where he’d grown into vigorous, cliff-diving, cigarette-sneaking boyhood, no less. Then it came to me. I knew exactly what he would say: “So sensible!”