“Are you always that conventional?” Oh, man, what a line. My Dad, Louis Richard Salvucci, used it on a cute chick he saw on the 31 trolley in West Philly. I’m not sure how he got her number, but he asked her out. By phone. Party line–and you gotta be ancient to know what that was. Said cute chick told Louie she had no idea who he was, so how could she date him? Well, I’m here, and said cute chick was one Madeline Villari. My Mother. This was, what 1946 or 1947. So she went out with him. Sly dog.
When my Mom told me that story–and I was well beyond the age of reason–I never quite looked at my Dad the same way. Dude. You laid that line on a woman, otherwise known as my Mother? Shame on you. I wish I had thought of it first.
Let’s get something straight. Of all the people I wish I could get back in my life, my Dad is the numero uno. Maybe he’d be surprised, but maybe not. He was a deeply sensitive guy who rarely showed emotion. Which is why from the time he was in high school until the time he left us, his stomach was always killing him. He was under few illusions about life, but he never tried to push me one way or another. Probably because he knew what getting boxed in meant. He wasn’t about to do that to me.
He came from a big immigrant family originating on the Abruzzo-Lazio border, San Donato Val di Comino. I can’t remember off hand if he was one of 12 or 13, but he was next to the youngest. His own father was one of 17, which Lou never believed. No surprise, I was a singleton, a classic example of regression to the mean. I should be able to rattle off dates and stuff, but I can’t, other than 1937. That one mattered because that was when his father became a naturalized citizen. He, Alfonso, was an Italian emigrant and remained so, which meant my Dad was born–1919– unknowingly, an Italian citizen himself. God love him, he bequeathed dual nationality to me and my family. I stare at that EU Passport and figure, worse comes to worse, I’m gone. I owe you, Louie, once again.
I have an early shot of Louie, probably from the late 1920s, standing in front of Saint Donato’s parish school. Yeah, they named the parish after the town, since probably 75 percent of the families I knew started out there, with names like Cedrone, Antonelli, Gallo, Rufo, and Camilli. I know they didn’t realize that their ancestors had been decidedly tight back in the old country, and that there was a lot of inadvertent cousin marriage in West Philly. I always thought Italian Americans were crazy; but they were inbred, not nuts. In retrospect, it explains a lot of the stuff I saw or sensed. I often wonder if any of these families understood why ” ‘it’ just runs in the family.” “It” would make for an absorbing psychosocial history. Anyway, Louie is there, dressed in a dark suit, and staring fiercely at the camera. He must have been born serious, or pissed off, or both. In his high school yearbook, West Catholic 1937, there he is, a good looking guy–heh, heh, you devil–but described as “quiet, unassuming, workmanlike.” Boy, that was Dad. Was there ever a better description?
Now, Louie should have graduated in 1936, but a duodenal ulcer nearly finished him off (I know he was found, passed out, in a pool of blood, in the Men’s Room at West–and no, I never asked too many questions), which resulted in big time surgery in about 1953, by my guess. He had a Hell of a scar on his belly, and no, he didn’t have war stories, because even the Army wasn’t that desperate. He did war work that involved him stamping a lot of papers for “copper” bound for the “Manhattan District” in Chicago. He told me he figured it out after the War, copper being a codeword for uranium. He recalled on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, he was hanging with his friends in front of a garage in West Philly when the broadcast was interrupted by the news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. You want to know how hard is is to think like a real historian? He told me that the first thing they all asked was “Where the Hell is Pearl Harbor?” and they had to go find a map. So when you think you can understand the behavior and mental world of some Genoese dude who sailed the ocean blue in 1492, please remember that we can’t even easily access the head of one of our own post-Enlightenment types in 1942.
Dad was a Swing Kid. And he played tenor saxophone. God did he love the Big Bands, especially Goodman. But interestingly enough, his saxophone heroes were Lester Young, Chu Berry, and Coleman Hawkins. At his funeral, one of his old friends told me his was the first guy in their circle to bring around Bird’s recordings. Dad saw Tatum live and told me I’d have to wait a bit before I got what Billie Holiday was doing. You do get where I’m going here, right? White boy from West Philly? I never heard him talk about Bud Freeman that way, and as I got older, I realized his love of early Getz was pure Lester Young–although I never pushed that angle with him. After all, he liked George Shearing too–and so did I. He played “Body and Soul” for my Mom once over the phone. Wildly romantic, no?
But, alas, Lou Larkins (I take it that was his “stage name” –I have no clue, but I did hear it once as a kid in West Philly coming from his friend Mike Renzulli)–did not follow music, or woodworking or electronics, or any one of a number of the manual arts at which he was truly–and I mean truly–gifted. Boy, when I compare my fumbling efforts to get a can open with my Dad doing plumbing on the home we moved to in 1960, I feel sort of foolish. Geez, Pop. I got your stomach. How come I didn’t get your craftsmanship? He could fix most anything, cars included. And he actually was, for a time, one of the first generation of people who could operate an IBM mainframe. He actually did contract work for Lawrence Klein and Morris Hamburgh of the University of Pennsylvania in the 1950s on the monsters that his employer, Oscar Mayer, rented out when they were idle. He’d take me down to the plant at 36th and Gray’s Ferry in Philly at night and let me punch cards while he wired panels. How the Hell he taught himself that is beyond me.
If there was ever a guy less suited to industrial accounting, it was Louie. He hated it, but he went to Penn at night in the 1950s to learn. He took care of his family, even though I know he would have sooner jumped off the Walt Whitman Bridge than go into the office. He had that sense of duty that so many of his generation did. You know, no one said this was gonna be fun. I had to grow up before I figured out how admirable he was, because there was no way a guy that creative should have suffered through the profession he did. When he’d take me to the Philadelphia Zoo, and we’d watch the big cats yell for their raw meat and purr (really) afterward, he was genuinely happy. When we went to the Franklin Institute and and he showed me how stuff ticked, he was genuinely happy. When we went to see the resurrected JATP together, he was happy. Or to see Ellington. Or Buddy. Or when he was entertained by Stan the Man, who was making some politically incorrect crack down the Shore, he was happy. Listening to Sinatra on a Friday nightwith Sid Mark and a glass of sherry and a cigarette made him happy. I know, cause I was there. We watched the 1960 Presidential debate together. We watched the moon landing together. We watched the Tonight Show together. We watched David Susskind together. We watched Bill Buckley together. I won’t say we never argued, especially as Vietnam and puberty were becoming twin curses. But he was always cool, and he never had to say much. And he didn’t.
I know he thought I put too much pressure on myself, but he never scolded. I had to laugh when he caught me with a bottle of wine in my car. His only question: “Who’s the joy juice for?” Since he liked the girl I was dating (so did I–we are happily married), his only words were “Be careful.” For a guy who must have spent most of his time not doing what he would have rather done, he was remarkably cool, if not necessarily tranquil. There was no bitterness that I can see now. Hell, he took things out on himself. Lou was no saint, but he lived a remarkably spiritual existence. Dad introduced me to Augustine and Thomas a Kempis. I know he felt that God had abandoned him somewhere along the way. But unlike most of us, he blamed himself, not God. “If thou art neither hot nor cold, I will vomit thee out of my mouth.” If he had a favorite saying, that was it. Think about it. When Dad retired, he became a daily communicant. It was no deathbed conversion. Something sustained him, and quite possibly, it was his faith.
I’d like to say Dad was happy in retirement, but I don’t think he was. When we came to visit, especially after we had kids, that visibly changed. We’d go down to the Franklin Institute again and ride the Conrail engine–Dad, me, and Martin. Or we’d go somewhere, maybe out to a train museum in Lancaster County, and just have a good time. For a bit, he’d be distracted, and his very personal version of the tragic sense of life would dissipate. That was nice to see. I didn’t know that the last time I hugged him–and told my Mom to stop yelling at him for some damn thing–that our next encounter would be in the same hospital, Fitzgerald Mercy, via which I entered the world forty or so years earlier. He was, unfortunately, on the way out.
Woody Allen supposedly said 80 percent of success in life was showing up. By that standard, Lou Larkins was, unbeknownst to himself, a great success. He showed up. Every day. I miss him. Every day.