EARLY DAYS

Tales from growing up – from family gatherings and first days of school to playing in the backyard

Feeling the tug of family

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, November 20, 2022. Above, I’m seated on the floor, fifth from left, with my older brother and cousins at a family gathering circa 1965.

I wonder how my great-grandparents, Giovanni Pantalone and Grazia DiMaio, celebrated their first Thanksgiving.

Giovanni had arrived in Providence from Naples, Italy in 1906 with the couple’s oldest child, Mary. The following year, Grazia made the transatlantic passage with three more of their children, including Vincent, my grandfather. Like many Italian immigrants in Rhode Island, they settled in a small apartment on Federal Hill, where Giovanni had found work.

If my great-grandparents did celebrate Thanksgiving during their first year together in America, I imagine 9-year-old Vincent was skeeved out by the turkey. Years later, as the patriarch of our family, he insisted that we feast on capon instead, a castrated rooster fattened to be tender.

“It’s a cleaner bird,” Papa said.

By that time, the Pantalone family had flourished. Giovanni and Grazia’s seven children had 21 kids of their own, with 56 offspring following in the next generation.

My grandfather and his siblings had settled in and around Providence. Like immigrants before and after them, they relished the comfort and support that came with having proximity to kin in a new land. Into this loving family I was born, the 12th of Vincent’s 13 grandchildren.

The Pantalone embrace was sweetly felt at weddings and summer gatherings and especially on Thanksgiving Day, which saw my mother, brothers, and me crisscrossing a two-mile familial footprint in Providence’s Elmhurst and Mount Pleasant neighborhoods. We would trek to Academy Avenue for coffee and sweets with my mother’s cousins Tina and Gracie, whose towering duplex was a joyous extended-family hubbub; to Gentian Avenue for a quick visit with my Auntie Rita and her family, including my closest cousin, Tommy; back to our house on River Avenue to feed our dog and catch a bit of the Macy’s parade on our black-and-white Zenith TV; and then to Auntie Marie’s house on Winona Street, where adults sipped cocktails and kids quaffed Cokes. Uncle Harry made sure there was plenty of ice in the freezer.

Our feast would start with Italian wedding soup, so-called for its heavenly marriage of chicken stock, escarole, mini meatballs, and tiny pearls of pasta. I always asked for seconds.

One year, before we dipped our spoons in the first-course goodness, Papa offered a toast: “Without me, none of you would be here!” he said, raising his glass of wine. Everyone laughed, though I saw my mother shaking her head.

After we all had our fill of capon, Auntie Gracie and her family arrived from Greenville for coffee and dessert. With their move seven miles to the northwest, they were our modern-day Magellans. Other family members would one day venture farther away – to New York and Florida, Ohio and Colorado, California and beyond. But for now, Papa’s brood lived happily in Rhode Island. And I was too young to understand either the tug of the invisible ties connecting my brothers, cousins, and me to Giovanni and Grazia and their passage to America, or the uniqueness of the family closeness to which it gave rise.

Our Thanksgiving celebration continued deep into the night. Around the piano we gathered and sang, on-key and off-key, with smiles all around.

On the five-minute drive home, in the see-your-breath chill of my mother’s Ford Maverick, I was warmed by the sight of lights aglow in houses along River Avenue and by the certainty that in four weeks on Christmas Eve, we would all be back together again.

Elmhurst was a treat on Halloween

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, October 16, 2022.

It was a week before Halloween and my best friend, Chris, and I were in trick-or-treat planning mode.

We’d mapped our Elmhurst neighborhood, delineating in red ink the route we’d take to haul in the most candy. And there had been deliberations over costumes. Chris was going as his favorite football player, wide receiver Homer Jones of the New York Giants, and I had notions of dressing up as a vampire.

Oh, and there was talk of egging our elementary school.

Elmhurst was a trick-or-treater’s dream in 1969. Houses stood close together, candy-givers were generous, and on the streets there wasn’t a parent in sight. From 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., kids ruled.

And the vague notions I had about dressing up as a vampire? Turns out they were too vague. My idea was to smear holly berries all over a white shirt in a macabre display of bloodletting (for some reason, ketchup hadn’t occurred to me). But when I did, a half-hour before going out, the crushed fruit simply looked like I had been sloppy eating a strawberry jam sandwich. What could I do now?

My mother came to my rescue, steering me into our downstairs half-bathroom. She slid a black wig on my head and broke out her make-up bag. Five minutes later, I looked in the mirror and shrieked. Red lipstick, rouge cheeks, and thick black mascaraed eyelashes had transformed me into the sister I never had.

When I showed up at Chris’s house, his older brother, Jeff, looked at me with raised eyebrows.

“You’re weirding me out,” he said.

Pillow cases in hand, Chris and I hit the streets. Most porch lights were aglow, and people greeted us with smiles and good wishes.

“Oh, here’s a football player,” one woman said. “And a pretty girl.” Chris laughed.

On Sharon Street, a kid in blue jeans and a crisp white T-shirt streaked past us holding a pillow case as plump and weighty as a sack of potatoes.

“That’s Jody,” Chris said. “Is he dressed up as a ghost?”

“I think he’s dressed up as Jody,” I said.

We ran to the next lit porch. Chris coveted Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, while I prized Snickers bars. When a house gave us both, we’d double back and try for seconds.

On Nelson Street, a pack of girls approached, including one I had a crush on. I abruptly made a detour onto Wabun Avenue.

“This isn’t our route,” Chris said, following me under protest, but I insisted. I didn’t want to weird my crush out, too.

When we finally crossed Smith Street and passed the buzzing neon clock at Nocera’s Liquor Store, it was 8:30 p.m. Robert F. Kennedy School loomed a half-block away; it was now or never. From his pillow case, Chris pulled a carton nestling four eggs. Miraculously, none of them had cracked.

A new wing had been added to Kennedy, and the second-floor classrooms had huge plate-glass windows.

“That’s your room, right?” Chris asked, pointing to the last window. It was. I had Miss McAndrew for fourth grade.

We flung our eggs like Little League outfielders throwing home – Splat! Splat-splat! Splat! – and then scurried back down Jastram Street, across Smith Street, and into the safety of darkness.

The next morning, Miss McAndrew noticed egg yolk streaks on our classroom window and wondered aloud who would have done such a thing.

The orange streaks would remain till June, a daily reminder of the night Homer Jones and his wigged accomplice added a trick to their Halloween treats.

A summer finale at Rocky Point

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, August 21, 2022. Shown above, the arch at Rocky Point Park, a relic from the site’s amusement-park heyday.

The first time my best friend, Chris, told me he loved Alice Cooper, I wondered if she was in his class at school.

“Alice Cooper’s a guy,” he informed me.

I soon understood why Chris was so enamored with the mascara-eyed rock star. In the spring of 1972, Cooper and his band had released a three-and-half-minute pop anthem that shot up the charts with a refrain voicing every kid’s dream: “School’s out forever!”

Talk about timing. I was in sixth grade, Chris in fifth. As my friend played “School’s Out” over and over in his bedroom in early June, we couldn’t wait for the carefree days of summer to arrive.

We were too young to work, other than my weekend “employment” as a stock boy at my grandfather’s baby clothes store on Federal Hill. So that left plenty of time for goofing around – Wiffle ball in my backyard, Nok Hockey games at the playground, and treks to Wolcott’s five-and-dime for candy, sometimes supplemented by the nefarious “five-finger discount,” if we dared.

Chris and I spent just about every day together, and on occasional nights, we’d gather with other kids in our Elmhurst neighborhood for a game we called “Chase,” which essentially was team hide-and-seek. Trespassing properties all along Rankin Avenue, we’d vanish into bushes, slink behind garages, and climb up trees to evade discovery. Once or twice, a flicked-on floodlight found me before any seeker did, accompanied by a homeowner’s bark, telling me where to go.

And then summer reached the point I dreaded each year: one morning in early August, Chris and his family departed on their annual trip to Altoona, Pennsylvania to visit his aunt. I knew the next 10 days would seem like 10 weeks.

In 1972, there was no texting, no Instagram posts or TikTok videos, nothing but a postcard from Chris that came a week after he had left. I found myself calling his house on the off chance his vacation had been cut short, letting the phone ring dozens of times before hanging up.

When Chris finally returned that year, our summer rituals resumed. And then, with the first day of school looming, we devised a last-day-of-summer plan right out of our dreams: we’d hop on a bus at Kennedy Plaza and travel 11 miles to Rocky Point, the famed amusement park overlooking Narragansett Bay. Three dollars apiece would give us unlimited access to all the rides all day. Heaven!

The day arrived, hot and sunny, and Chris and I stood agog on the Rocky Point midway. We played Skee-Ball, slammed bumper cars, survived the House of Horrors, wolfed down doughboys, and lined up again and again for the new ride everyone was talking about. We’d seen ads for the Flume in the newspaper, hawking “the largest, most spectacular ride in the East, a half-mile of thrilling fun and excitement through forest, rapids, and two splashing 45-foot-high slides into sparkling clear water.” While “forest” and “rapids” were a bit of a stretch, the ride didn’t disappoint. By the end of the day, we were drenched.

On the bus back to Providence, Chris said he wished he could ride the Flume in a never-ending loop. I suppose that’s how we felt about summer, too.

But the following day, bells summoned us to our newly separate schools, signaling the first day of classes and the end of that summer’s ride.

Even then, we somehow knew it would be one we’d long remember.

Free autographs were a sign of the times

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, May 15, 2022. Illustration by Emma Walsh.

Getting the autograph of your favorite professional baseball or basketball player in 1968 cost you six cents – the price of a first-class postage stamp. 

As a young fan, I made treks to the mailbox on the corner of Smith Street and River Avenue in Providence with a sealed white envelope in my hand and the cloying taste of stamp glue still in my mouth. The mailbox swallowed my letter, and all I could do was wait.

In that pre-digital, pre-email world, through the marvel of the postal service, my handwritten letters would, at least in theory, reach Mickey Mantle of the New York Yankees and Sam Jones of the Boston Celtics. Each would see, after my effusive two-sentence declaration of his athletic greatness, that I was asking for his autograph. 

For weeks, I checked our mailbox at home. Finally, an envelope with my name on it arrived, postmarked New York, and I carefully slid out my treasure: a glossy black-and-white photo of Mickey Mantle with his signature on it. Two days later, there was another envelope, postmarked Boston, and now I had Sam Jones’s autograph, too.

Sounds quaint, for sure, especially when you consider what a big business sports memorabilia has become. By 2021, it was estimated to be a $15 billion industry annually and growing fast.

Autographed photos like the free ones I was sent as an 8-year-old are the second most popular item in the memorabilia market, topped only by autographed jerseys. And today’s John Hancocks don’t come cheap. Athletes now command handsome fees for attending signing events and charge $20, $50, $100, or more for a quick swipe of their pen.

And then there’s this: a Mike Trout baseball card bearing the three-time MVP’s signature was recently discovered in an attic in New Hampshire. Its value hovers around $10,000 – a grand slam for the woman who found it.

Back in my childhood bedroom, I noticed a difference between the two signed photos that I had thumbtacked to my bulletin board. Mickey Mantle’s autograph was printed, not written; when I rubbed over the letters with my thumb, they didn’t smudge. The Sam Jones autograph had been scribed by hand: the photo of him in his white Celtics uniform was debossed ever so slightly by the markings of a ball-point pen.

Something else made Jones’s autograph stand out. In addition to his signature, there was a message for me: “With kind regards to John.”

Had Sam written those words himself?

All this came back to me last New Year’s Eve upon seeing reports of Jones’s death at age 88. Just two months earlier, he had been named to the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team with the likes of better-known superstars such as Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, and LeBron James.

A tribute in the Boston Globe celebrated the quiet and gracious man who, after retiring in 1969 as a 10-time NBA champion, became a substitute teacher for 30 years in Montgomery County, Maryland. When students asked what brought him back to middle school after reaching the heights of basketball glory, Jones said he always wanted to be a teacher and, besides, he was too old to guard those young bucks in the NBA now.

According to the Globe piece, a student learned of Mr. Jones’s exceptional bona fides on the day class pictures were handed out. He asked his favorite substitute to sign one of his photos. 

I smiled as I read of the Celtic great complying with the star-struck student’s request – just as, I am all but certain, he had responded to mine.

Following in my children’s Converse footsteps

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, February 20, 2022.

Who was Chuck Taylor anyway?

I didn’t have a clue, but his name was on the sneakers I coveted as a kid. Converse Chuck Taylors – “Cons” or “Chucks” for short – were worn by 80% of college and professional basketball players in the 1960s. Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points wearing them one night.

In 1968, I was an 8-year-old working on my behind-the-back dribble at Kennedy Recreation Center in Providence. Would a pair of Chucks up my game? I was counting on it.

Turns out Chuck Taylor was a journeyman semi-pro basketball player from the Midwest who suited up for a string of teams in the 1920s, including the Columbus Commercials and, presciently, the Akron Firestone Non-Skids. Legend has it, he walked into the Converse factory in Malden, Massachusetts one day complaining of sore feet. He also had an idea or two about how the company could improve its recently introduced basketball shoe.

Taylor must have been a better salesman than set shooter because by 1932, canvas Converse high-top sneakers bore a patch with his signature. Chuck Taylor All-Stars had arrived.

When I first set foot in the Kennedy Rec gym, I was wearing a pair of sneakers my mother had bought for me at Grants department store. Their plastic soles were hard as ice, and I skated across Kennedy’s blond hardwood floor every time I tried to come to a stop. After begging my father for a pair of Cons, he took me downtown to Geller’s on Washington Street. I walked out wearing a pair of Coaches – a Converse sneaker similar to Chucks, but three dollars cheaper. It was a step in the right direction.

When I did finally lace up my first pair of Chucks as a freshman point guard at La Salle, Converse’s foothold on the basketball shoe market was beginning to wane. Adidas, Puma, and Nike were making inroads, and by my senior year, I was one of only a few players on our team still wearing the iconic canvas high-tops. My favorite Converse tagline – “Limousines for the feet” – may have been a copywriting masterpiece, but it stretched credulity when I compared my sweat-stained kicks to a fancy pair of leather Nikes or Pumas. Chucks as basketball shoes were now less like limousines and more like Model Ts.

Converse upped its game in the 1980s with the introduction of its own leather basketball shoes, the Pro and the Weapon. The company also snared endorsements by Larry Bird and Magic Johnson who, in addition to skyrocketing their sport’s popularity as they faced off in three epic NBA Finals, hawked the Converse brand in television and print advertisements.

And what about Chucks? Did they fade away like the two-handed set shot and underhand free throw? Far from it, thanks to an embrace from counterculture music icons ranging from the Ramones and the Sex Pistols to Joan Jett and Kurt Cobain. Cons were classic, affordable, and cool, and their street chic endures to this day. Just ask Vice President Kamala Harris, who proclaims, “It’s either Chucks or heels. Always has been!”

Closer to home, I praised my daughter’s fashion sense when she walked into our kitchen one day wearing a pair of light-blue Chucks. And my son Evan recently returned from Los Angeles sporting black high-top Cons.

I’d like to think my kids are following in my footsteps, but I know better. As I lace up my first new pair of Chucks in almost 40 years – to wear to the office and rock invisibly during Zoom meetings – I realize I’m following in theirs.

Portrait of an invisible boy

John Walsh as a third-grader at Robert F. Kennedy School. As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, November 21, 2021.

It didn’t make sense.

Less than a year after my parents had built a brand-new house in Narragansett, they sold it and moved our family back to Providence. 

I returned to my old elementary school in Elmhurst, and things were different. After Robert Kennedy’s assassination, the name of the school had been changed to honor him, and a two-story addition now housed four new classrooms and a sparkling gymnasium.

Things were different at home, too. Seven months after we moved back to Providence, my dad moved out. It unleashed a riot of emotions in me, but I betrayed none of them. The next day, I sat in Miss Murphy’s third-grade class with an acute awareness: despite the tumult I felt in my stomach, I looked exactly the same as I did the week before. No one knew my parents were splitting up, and I was determined to keep it that way.

The sparkling new Kennedy gym served as an after-school rec center, which was run by a no-nonsense basketball coach named Armand. One day, he asked me my name.

“Oh, you’re Donald’s son,” he said.

As a fourth-grader the following fall, I made the Kennedy team. Armand told us we would practice three days a week, from 3:30 to 5:30.

“Three-thirty means you should be here at 3:15,” he added.

The gym may have been new, but Armand was decidedly old school. He smoked Lucky Strikes and inked precise plays on sheets of white paper clenched by a clipboard. When I threw a “lollipop pass” at our team’s first practice, his reproach was thunderous.

Incongruously, we all called our fearsome coach by his first name, which could be comical. Given my Rhode Island accent, I thought “Armand” was spelled “Almond” – like an Almond Joy candy bar.

I soon discovered I felt no joy at his rigorous two-hour practices. So I skipped one. And then another. And the next time I set foot in the Kennedy gym, Armand’s voice found me instantly.

“Walsh!”

He strode past me in his low-cut white Chuck Taylors, pointing to the door I had just walked through. I followed him into the hallway.

“Where have you been?” Armand said. The disappointment in his voice stung.

I couldn’t tell him that on one day I had opted to play touch football on Rankin Avenue with my friends Chris and Billy and George. Or that on the other I had gone to my cousin Tommy’s house. I especially couldn’t tell him I didn’t actually want to play organized basketball, at least not yet. In Armand’s commanding presence, I couldn’t say a thing.

“What’s wrong, son?” he said. I felt shame rising up in me, similar to when I lied to a friend about why my dad’s maroon Chevelle was seldom in our driveway anymore.

As I turned away to hide my tears, Armand’s voice broke the hallway silence. It was soft and confidential.

“I know things have been tough for you at home,” he said. It wasn’t why I had skipped practice, but Armand’s words touched a part of me that I wanted to hide from the world.

“It’s OK,” he said as I wiped my eyes. “Come try out for the team again next year.”

I did, and played on Armand’s Kennedy squads until I reached high school – likely more than 100 games and 250 practices.

What I remember most about it all isn’t a thrilling win or a heartbreaking loss. What has stayed with me for more than 50 years is Armand’s kindness that day in the hallway, before I ever donned a blue-and-gold Kennedy uniform.

Thanks to him, the boy I had tried so hard to make invisible had been seen.

Beatles had nothing on my band of brothers

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, August 15, 2021. Above, the author, far left, second row, with cousins at Scarborough Beach in 1963.

Fifty-six years ago, on August 15, the Beatles bounded onto a ramshackle stage above second base at Shea Stadium and launched a new era. It was the first major stadium concert by a rock and roll band, with more than 55,000 attendees, mostly teeny boppers, screaming deliriously throughout the Fab Four’s 30-minute set. Of the spectacle, John Lennon would later say, “At Shea Stadium, I saw the top of the mountain.”

Closer to sea level here in Rhode Island, another seismic event took place on that day, noted by fewer people, but life-changing nevertheless, at least for me: my younger brother, James, was born.

I was 5 years old, so my memories of that summer are formed more by family lore and black-and-white photos than actual recall. In one snapshot, my mother is standing at the edge of the water at Scarborough Beach, very pregnant in a flower-print sundress. I suspect she was watching my older brother, Rob, and me ride waves with first cousins from the Pantalone side of our family. There were 12 of us then: Vinny and Ricky and Paulie and Michael and Lorri and Jeannie and Tommy and Steven and David and Anne and Rob and me, the youngest – but not for long.

Longer than my mother expected, though. A succession of hot, humid days arrived after her early-August due date, but not my brother-to-be.

At my grandfather’s red beach house in Narragansett, I imagine Mom’s cousin Gracie or Tina or Etta voicing impatience with mock annoyance and good-humored empathy: “Norma, where is this baby?” I can see one of Mom’s sisters – Gracie or Rita or Marie – shooing her away from the stove where Sunday gravy is burbling. “Go sit down,” one of them would have said. “I’ll make the macaroni.”

The world I remember as a 5-year-old is a never-ending parade of Italian relatives – an affectionate pinch of my cheek one day, a corrective “scoopalone” to the back of my head the next, all in the name of love.

Three blocks up from Scarborough, on Elizabeth and Sewell Roads, five cottages owned by family members stood within shouting distance of one another. Amid the mounting anticipation of my brother’s birth, I imagine Gracie or Tina calling out into the sunrise quiet while everyone is still in bed: “Norma, did you have that baby yet?”

“No!”

Finally, the day came. As the Beatles prepared to take the stage at Shea Stadium, I envision my father helping my mother into their blue Plymouth Valiant and taking her to Lying-In Hospital. Rob and I likely stayed with one of our aunts at the beach. Maybe a black rotary phone rang. I imagine my Aunt Marie’s sweet smile as she gave us the news: “You guys have a baby brother!”

One scene is clear in my memory. Two or three days later, my dad drove Rob and me back from the beach to our double-decker on River Avenue in Providence to meet James for the first time. Rob dashed into the living room, raced past my mother who was sitting on the couch, and disappeared into our bedroom. Then he raced back out.

“Where is he?” Rob said, eyes wide with worry.

“Right here, Robert,” my mother said softly. She was cradling our new brother in her lap.

That night, Rob, James, and I lay asleep under the same roof for the first time. While the Fab Four would split up five years after their mountaintop moment at Shea, our band of three has been together ever since.

Yeah, yeah, yeah!

Springing back to life at Academy Field

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, May 16, 2021. [PHOTO: DEB WALSH]

Outside my house, crows gather in a tree, their feathers black as an undertaker’s coat. The birds know nothing of the pandemic that shut Rhode Island down for more than a year.

The rest of nature is similarly oblivious. Bees buzz, green hosta spears poke through garden soil, pink cherry blossoms make their annual cheery visit. I’m reminded of a verse from Ecclesiastes: “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever.”

While our planet has been spinning for more than four billion years, homo sapiens have only been aboard for roughly the last 300,000 trips around the sun. That makes us relative newbies, with vulnerabilities that are uniquely human. Hello, COVID-19.

And yet we persist. The plink of an aluminum bat distracts me from the funereal crows. Little League is back!

A springtime pleasure of mine is seeing kids swing for the fences at Academy Field, which is across the street from my house in East Greenwich. Watching an inning or two of Little League transports me to Nelson Street playground in the Elmhurst section of Providence, where I played youth baseball 50 years ago. We swung wooden bats then – crack! – but the game was the same. And certain memories stick with me like pine tar.

One such recollection: crouched behind home plate clad in my catcher’s gear – the tools of ignorance – I see my dad watching me play as he smokes a cigarette out beyond the center field fence. Another: after safely sliding into second base, I look past my team’s chain-link dugout and lock eyes with my fifth-grade sweetheart. And then there’s this one: back at home plate, I rise woozily after a runner barrels me over, bouncing my head off the cement-hard dirt. My big-hearted manager, Joe, runs to my aid.

“How many fingers?” he asks, showing me the back of his splayed hand.

“Five,” I say.

“Four, genius,” he replies, holding up a single digit. “Don’t you know this is a thumb?”

Hearing more plinks, I walk across the street to Academy Field. There were no games played here last spring – no collisions at home plate, no balls hit over the fence, no trips to Hilltop Creamery after thrilling victories. It was a season of loss for everyone. 

According to the East Greenwich Little League, Academy Field was “a scratched-out sandlot playing surface” in its first year of service in 1955. Today, it has a tidy grass infield. The diamond is perfectly nestled into one corner of what is a de facto neighborhood commons. Even better, the field sits below street level, and gentle grass slopes provide a natural grandstand for fans. 

And now I see familiar and reassuring rhythms return to this field of dreams. The pitcher winds up deliberately and arcs his fastball to the plate. The batter, swallowed up by a uniform two sizes too big, swings mightily. Plink! The ball rolls three or four feet at most. The pint-sized slugger runs like mad to first base. The play is close. “Safe!” the umpire shouts. 

Judging by the cheers, it must be the kid’s first hit ever. Even I’m smiling.

When I return home, the crows are still in the tree, and one of them greets me with a throaty caw. Often considered a symbol of death, the sizeable black birds are also said to represent transition, transformation, and new beginnings. After a year of lockdown and worry, I’m going with the rosier interpretation.

I hear another plink from across the street, and hope springs eternal, once again, in this old catcher’s heart.

Listening to the secrets in my heart

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, April 18, 2021.

The triumphant note, in bold black letters, greeted me at dawn from the kitchen counter: “I did it!” The pronoun needed no explanation. I knew “it” meant my wife, Deb, had scored us COVID-19 vaccine appointments.

We’d been trying for two weeks. Or, more accurately, Deb had been trying.

“I hit the refresh button for like the millionth time at 3 in the morning,” she said over coffee. “I was about to give up.”

Our slots were back to back at a CVS in nearby North Kingstown the following week. Nice work, Deb.

The word “vaccination” derives from the Latin “vaccinus,” which means “from cows.” In 1798, British physician Edward Jenner coined the term for the technique he used to prevent smallpox, a disease that once killed an estimated 400,000 Europeans annually. 

Jenner theorized that injecting people with cowpox, a similar but milder virus, would fortify a patient’s immune system against the smallpox scourge. He was right. In the 1800s, the French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur applied the term “vaccine” to all such inoculations.

When I was a boy, “vaccination” was not in my vocabulary, but “needle” sure was. That’s what delivered the battery of shots administered by my kindly pediatrician, Dr. Frank Giunta, to protect me from measles, mumps, polio, and more. My early fear of needles – trypanophobia – was intense, but I conquered it by age 6 or 7.

“Look how brave you are!” Dr. Giunta said the first time I held back my tears.

His voice was soothing, and the sleeves of his crisp white Oxford shirt were neatly folded at his elbows. When he placed his stethoscope on my bare chest, he said “Hello,” lowering his head and closing his eyes as he listened to the secrets my heart revealed to his ears alone.

Physicians face a daunting task: to keep us healthy or, at the very least, alive. The pandemic has shone a light on how vulnerable humans are to infectious disease. We all have expiration dates, uncertain yet inevitable, and we do our best to stave them off.

When Deb and I arrived at CVS, the mood at the vaccination station in the back of the store was festive. COVID-19 may have forced people to practice social distancing, but it also has given us common ground. Deb’s story of 3-in-the-morning appointment-making was echoed by two others.

A woman in scrubs called out my name, looking up from her tablet.

I took a seat and rolled up my sleeve. As the nurse rubbed my left arm with alcohol, I noticed I was sitting opposite a greeting card display. I felt a pinch as I scanned the “Get Well” messages.

Driving home, Deb opened a bag of Swedish Fish.

“Want one?” she asked, holding up a red chewy candy.

“Sure,” I said. It only seemed right to celebrate.

We were halfway home – to our house, of course, but also to putting COVID-19 in our rear-view mirror. Our second shots were scheduled for mid-April.

As I chewed the candy like a kid, I thought of Dr. Giunta. If he could listen to my heart now, what would he hear? A strong, consistent beat, like Ringo Starr in his Beatles prime? Or, God help me, the drumming mayhem of The Who’s Keith Moon? 

Or perhaps the good doctor would hear something else altogether. Maybe my heart would tell him how much I love Deb and my three children. How lucky I am to have my brothers. How playing fetch with my dog, Rhody, is a simple and profound joy.

Amid a receding pandemic, maybe my heart would tell Dr. Giunta how grateful I am for everyday blessings.

‘Sláinte!’ Appreciating random acts of kindness in Ireland

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, March 21, 2021. Above, scene by the side of the road in Caherdaniel, Ireland. [JOHN WALSH]

Dan Slattery and I stood on the side of the road, 19 miles from Killarney, where our train was scheduled to depart in less than two hours. On break from school in Dublin, we had spent a week hitchhiking around the Ring of Kerry, the famed route on Ireland’s southwestern coast. A slate-gray sky was quickly turning charcoal; soon it would be dark.

The rev of a car engine teased us; the green Escort was traveling in the wrong direction for our purposes. As it barreled by, the driver and passenger waved out of open windows. “Good luck!” one shouted.

“I guess we could go to the church,” I said, pointing to a solemn steeple rising above the town of Kenmare in the distance. 

Dan wiped the afternoon’s “soft rain” from his glasses with a handkerchief. “They’d have to take us in, right?” he said. He didn’t sound convinced.

I’d found myself marooned in Ireland before. In September, on the first day of classes, I had been standing at a curb in Dublin for 20 minutes when a white compact car pulled up.

“Waiting for the bus, are you?” the man at the wheel said, craning his head out the window. I nodded.

“Drivers went on strike last night,” he said. “Where are you going?”

The kindly Dubliner gave me a lift to school. When I asked him if the bus drivers had announced the strike beforehand, he cackled.

“Why would they do a thing like that?” he said out of the side of his mouth, his lit cigarette waving at me like a teacher’s ruler. “Defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?” 

It had been my very own “We’re not in Kansas anymore” moment.

Back on the side of the road with Dan, time passed, but few cars did. A cow mooed from a nearby pasture.

“She’s mocking us,” I said. “Moooove!”

It had taken us two days to hitch our way out of Caherdaniel, a small village on the outer reaches of the Ring, and we had to break the law to do it. After our repeated pleadings for a ride, a lorry driver delivering milk to the village’s only store finally relented.

“Lie down in back and keep your heads low,” he said, pointing to his truck bed. He told us the Gardai – Ireland’s national police – would revoke his license if they caught him transporting anyone.

The milkman brought us to his next stop, a chic hotel. There, Dan and I pooled our last soggy pound notes and hired a taxi. We had enough fare to reach Kenmare, one town short of our destination. The unsmiling driver opened the back doors of his black Mercedes Benz for us, bedraggled as we were. The car’s warm cabin and soft leather seats were an instant narcoleptic. 

“Here you go,” the driver said half an hour later, waking Dan and me. We clambered out of our temporary sanctuary and onto the roadside again.

It was 1980. There were no cell phones, no Zipcars, no public transportation circling the Ring of Kerry. At this point, Dan and I were wholly dependent on the kindness of strangers.

And then two appeared. The green Escort that had sped past us in the wrong direction now returned.

“Still here, are you?” the driver said, his car idling.

We explained our predicament.

“Hop in,” he said. “We’ll get you to your train alright. Might even have time to stop for a jar.”

Before dropping us at the quaint Killarney railway station, our rescuers treated us to pints of Guinness at a nearby pub.

Dan and I raised our glasses – to the lorry driver, to the black Mercedes, and especially to the fine lads sitting across from us.

“Sláinte!” 

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