Closing The Church

CLOSING THE CHURCH 1.

Because I’ve not been a regular church goer for almost five decades I reluctantly consented to attend the final Sunday mass at the soon to be shuttered St. Leo’s in Pawtucket. My reluctance was based on the fact that I knew attendance for this mass would be overflowing and I felt current parishioners and long time St. Leo’s attendees should not lose a seat because of me. However my sister, Virginia, who has been faithful to her faith, no longer drives and needed a ride.

St. Leo’s is a small church and all the familiar icons were on display as we entered; the side baptismal font presided over by a statue of the church’s patron saint, the pink ceilings with holy scenes painted in rectangular patterns and the Virgin Mother standing guard over the votive candles.

Five minutes before the start of the service the pews were packed, a very rare occurrence these past years. I sensed sadness leavened with inevitability in the mostly elderly gathering as Reverend Michael Sisco, escorted by altar girls and past parish priests, began the opening processional.

St. Leo’s had an outsized influence on the Darlington section of Pawtucket where I grew up. My family’s history ran deep. My brother, sister and I all attended St. Leo’s School next to the Church. Raftus baptisms, first communions, confirmations, weddings and funerals were all held in this Church. A memorial brick honoring our parents is part of a collection in front of the entrance.

Although I felt a stranger in the midst of these more diligent worshipers
I also felt a sense of peace as the familiar rituals of the mass unspooled. Prior to the mass my sister, wife, sister- in -law and I lit candles in memory of my older brother Mike who passed this past October. I took great solace in that. My wife and I also found joy, and surprising sentiment, watching the priest, Father Davenport, who married us on this altar forty four years ago return to help celebrate the mass.

For a reluctant attendee, a lapsed Catholic, I was experiencing a flood of emotions in this old building.

St. Leo’s Parish was established in 1916 and flourished for decades. In typical Rhode Island fashion it served a mainly Irish contingent while St. Cecilia’s Church barely three hundred yards down the street had a predominately French clientele. Attendance at both places of worship waned starting in the 1990’s. St. Leo’s was forced to close their school in 2008. In 2011 the decline in parishioners and income necessitated the merging of these two parishes into a new entity called the parish of St. John Paul II, a solution which caused angst on both sides as closure of one church seemed unavoidable. After much speculation the announcement of St. Leo’s closing became official in December of 2018.

Reverend Sisco, who has served as pastor for both churches the past few years, deftly used his homily at this final Sunday mass to mix sentiment with hope. He also leaned heavily on the beautiful sentiments of a letter written to him for the occasion by Sister Marie Fatima (Nunes) O.P., a long time parishioner who penned a powerful homage to the church’s past and to the endurance of faith which transcends any one place of worship. Her words, read by Reverend Sisco, reminded all that it is not the walls, the columns or the choir loft which keeps a religion intact, it is the faith of the people.

This last Sunday gathering was the mass of the Epiphany which celebrates the three magi offering of gifts to the baby Jesus. While there was no gift of a great personal conversion for me in my final hour in St. Leo’s I did feel a palpable resurgence of faith which may mean less reluctance to make occasional visits to places of worship of varied denominations to recapture that sense of shared community.

Funny how even a brother’s reluctant favor can restore one’s faith.

– END –

Will Clooney’s “Catch – 22” Be A Bomb?

WILL CLOONEY’S “CATCH – 22” BE A BOMB? 1

Joseph Heller’s classic novel Catch -22 has sold 10 million copies since 1961. It appears on almost every “best of” literary list. I’ve read it five times. Late in Heller’s career he tired of answering why he had never written anything to surpass it. He’d reply, “Who has?”

Having flown 60 missions as a bombardier in WWII Heller wrote from deep experience. It was, however, America’s involvement in the Korean Conflict and its Cold War policies which provided his anger and angst to produce this iconic work.

Now comes the unnerving news that actor George Clooney has helped produce a six episode version of Catch – 22 which will air in May. This is not the first attempt at transferring Heller’s brilliant portrait of military absurdity from the page to screen.

In June of 1970 director Mike Nichols released his film version of Catch – 22. The results were mixed and many critics found the movie too confusing. One exception was the view of New York Times film maven Vincent Canby who declared that Catch – 22 was
“The most moving, the most intelligent, the most humane..oh, to hell with it!..it’s the best American film I’ve seen this year.”

As a fan of the book and as a Specialist 5th Class in the Army when the movie was released I approached it with wariness . I left the theatre conflicted, perhaps the only response possible to any iteration of this complex novel. The ensemble cast was amazing. I can now only picture Alan Arkin as Captain Yossarian. Arkin has the perfect furtive swarthiness to play the paranoid man trapped in the unending cycle of bombing missions demanded by Catch – 22.

Anthony Perkins, Orson Welles, Richard Benjamin, Jon Voit, Buck Henry and Bob Newhart were brilliant choices to play the menagerie of oddball characters created in Heller’s fertile imagination. Jack Gilford’s portrayal of the hangdog Doc Daneeka is a small, precious jewel. His explanation of Catch – 22’s provisions to Yossarian as they amble between roaring B-25’s taxiing on a dirt runway is a masterpiece in dialogue.

The book’s non-sequential, time warping scenes made the transition to screen difficult and Nichols only partly succeeded. Without a deep knowledge of the book, a viewer could be forgiven their confusion as time flits back and forth in a haphazard fashion.
Nichols main blunder was his elevation in importance of the black market profiteering escapades of Milo Minerbender. Too much time spent on Milo’s purloined grapes, cotton and parachutes caused the movie to almost lose its focus on the message of the insanity of war. Still Nichols managed to paint enough dark disturbing scenes of death, corruption and despair to avoid it becoming a comic take on war.

Press releases and trailers of Clooney’s adaptation hint at some changes. The purposeful chronological jumble of flash back scenes which propels the novel have been re-written to provide a more linear story line in Clooney’s effort. The video clips released also shows an emphasis on blood and gore. While true that many of Yossarian’s squad members perish, most of their deaths in the book are presented in an oblique manner.

Perhaps having six one hour episodes will allow a fuller rendition than the two hours of the 1970 version.

I was serving my own two year stint of duty at Fort Richards in Alaska when the film was released. I had already read the book twice. Therefore this reluctant soldier had to stifle a Yossarian like smirk when as part of my initial orientation, a one on one meeting with our young Captain he began thusly….

“Raftus, do you know why we are here?”

I thought silence the best answer, so he continued…

“If the big balloon goes up (military speak for a nuclear attack) the Russkies have an infantry battalion in Siberia ready to cross the Bering Strait. We are here to stop them.”

That sounded crazy, but arguing with him would only go against Catch -22.

– END –

The Last Pass (Book review published in ProJo on 11/23)

THE LAST PASS – (A BOOK REVIEW)
For seven seasons Boston Celtics teammates Bob Cousy and Bill Russell blended their disparate skills to form a devastating force on the basketball court. Two talents who appeared to share one vision of the game which almost always ended in warm celebratory embraces after another championship.

Surprisingly, historian Gary M. Pomerantz new book, “The Last Pass” portrays a post career schism between the legends which haunted Cousy for decades.
The author provides an intimate, detailed exploration into the complicated relationship between legends Bob Cousy and Bill Russell. What “The Last Pass” deftly delivers is two biographies wrapped in an examination of a nation in constant flux from Cousy’s birth year of 1928 to the present. While many colorful descriptions of their on court heroics are included they are merely subplots to the core of the story which is Cousy’s white man’s guilt for not understanding or helping to relieve the burdens his teammate, Russell, carried as a black man in the divided city of Boston and the discrimination he faced across the country.

Pomerantz conducted fifty three interviews with Cousy over a two and a half year period. Russell refused to participate. Although it is tempting to see the cooperation of Cousy and lack of cooperation by Russell as a distillation of their characters, Pomerantz shows us things were more complicated than that.

Both men began their journeys towards fame from impoverished beginnings. Cousy’s father worked on a meagre family farm in France before emigrating to New York in 1927. Russell was born in segregated Louisiana in 1934 and moved to a public housing project in Oakland, California at the age of eight.

The author provides an excellent retelling of the college exploits of these future teammates as they established their basketball credentials utilizing two opposite skills; Cousy’s innovative ball handling at Holy Cross and Russell’s intimidating defense for the University of San Francisco. The Cooz, as Cousy was known, was six years older than Russell and while he enjoyed great individual success during the early 1950’s with the Boston Celtics the team never achieved a championship. This all changed with the arrival of Russell in 1956 as the Celtics went on to win an astounding 11 of 13 championships during his tenure.

Behind the scenes of all this winning there were times of off court difficulties. In October of 1957 a coffee shop in a hotel the team was staying at in Lexington, Kentucky refused to serve two black players. All the Celtics black players decided not to play in the exhibition game they were to play in that evening. While Red Auerbach, their feisty coach, sympathized with the players he felt the problem was with the hotel and not the opposing team nor the organizers of the game who had sold 10,000 tickets. In the end the game took place with all white rosters including Cousy a decision he later deeply regretted.

Pomerantz paints the two men as, not surprisingly, sharing one common trait, fierce competitive natures which abhorred any defeats. Cousy and Russell were also prideful athletes, but Cousy was more of a loner subject often to tough self analysis while Russell was a much more confrontational and intense individual often offending Boston fans with his comments.

A wide array other characters are portrayed during the telling of these two mens’ stories, fellow Celtics: Sharman, Heinsohn, the Jones boys, Sanders…etc., competitors; Schayes, West, Chamberlain, politicians; JFK, Obama all make cameo appearances.

Cousy’s attempt, at the age of 90, to understand and rectify his perceived slight to Russell is captured by the books subtitle, “Cousy, Russell, the Celtics and What Matters in the End.”

“The Last Pass” is Pomerantz sixth book and adds to his solid reputation as a chronicler of sports, history and civil rights.

– END –

A 9/11 Legacy (Published in the ProJo) 2018

A 9/11 LEGACY

Seventeen years ago on September 11th the world lost the energy, potential and love of 2,977 souls. The families of those killed knew of their dreams as well as their accomplishments. Untold good works and unfulfilled ambitions all also died that tragic day.

Shakespeare in Julius Caesar famously wrote, “The evil men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”

On this anniversary of that horrid day I feel both obliged and privileged to dispute the Bard’s ominous warning.

We lost my cousin Rhode Island native David Angell and his dear wife Lynn on American Airlines Flight #11. I have chronicled David’s success as a television writer and producer and Lynn’s incredible service and volunteer work at The Hillsides Center for Children in California in an earlier Providence Journal commentary. (September 11, 2013.)

After several years of failed attempts at cracking into the very difficult television industry David eventually broke through and in fact with his work on Cheers, Wings and Frasier ascended to the highest level of achievement as witnessed by his 8 Emmy Awards. Frasier became the most profitable comedy show in television history. David and Lynn reaped the benefits and in 1996 created the Angell Foundation and quietly began their amazing charitable journey. So under the radar was their philanthropy that even though David and I were peers and close first cousins who had many adventures together as he grew up in Riverside and I lived in Pawtucket, I knew nothing about the Angell Foundation until after their deaths.

Our family was last with them three days before their plane was hijacked. Frasier was still at the top of the ratings, but, David and Lynn told us that while he wasn’t retiring, he and his two partners had just structured a new schedule so that David would have to spend far less time in California. You see, David and Lynn’s real love was with New England; a condominium in Stowe, Vermont, a new home nearing completion on Cape Cod in Chatham and a town house on College Hill in Providence a city they truly cherished.

David was a proud member of the Providence College Class of 1969 and often worked closely with the school on special projects such as the Angell Blackfriars Theatre which was posthumously named after David and Lynn upon opening in 2005.

David and Lynn’s love of New England continues to be reflected in the grants awarded in their names by the ongoing Angell Foundation efforts. The Foundation focuses on assisting worthy organizations in just two regions; Southern California and New England. For the fiscal year ending this past June, nearly 17 years after their deaths, the Angell Foundation still awarded $630,000 to New England causes. This includes $175,000 to the Rhode Island Community Food Bank, $30,000 to Farm Fresh Rhode Island and $100,000 to Rhode Island School of Design’s Project Open Door which assists underserved teenagers in the state’s urban core cities. In fiscal 2017 the New England initiatives received a whopping $1,220,000 in total grants.

Every year as the calendar reaches early September a sense of loss and sadness naturally comes over David and Lynn’s extended families as well as the other nearly 3,000 families affected. Our sorrow, however, is greatly assuaged as we reflect on the fact that David and Lynn’s generous spirits live on through the great work of the Angell Foundation they quietly established so long ago.

As a counterpoint to Shakespeare’s rather dark “evil lives on…” quote I’ll end with this from his 12th Night, “Some men are born great, others achieve greatness.”
– END –

APEX REMEMBERED

APEX REMEMBERED

The late Norman Fain, one of the principal owners of the Apex stores, would only occasionally visit his properties. Most times it would be at night about an hour or so before closing. Mr. Fain was a quiet, unassuming man and I think very few of his employees even knew who he was as he wandered the aisles dressed in a conservative, grey suit with a fedora perched on his head.

“Good evening, Mr. Fain.” I said as he entered the major appliance department in his downtown Pawtucket store where I worked part time after my Army discharge in 1971 and my return to college.

I continued, “I had couple in today who said they were great friends of yours.”

Mr. Fain half smiled, looked at my name tag, there was no reason he’d know my name, and replied, “Well, Jim, if I had all the friends who claim they are my friends when they come here to buy something, I’d be broke by now.”

“Keep up the good work.” he intoned as he headed for the garden shop.

These days I think of this, and many other memories, every time I drive past the rusting pyramid, the stain splotched facade and the unkempt grounds of the present, sad iteration of the once iconic Apex Pawtucket store.

My family, and I suspect many other local families, had a long history tied in with the Apex store evolution. Both my parents worked at the original Central Avenue location.
My Father in the appliance department (apple and tree analogy) and my Mother as an office assistant in the 1960’s.

My first job when I became old enough to work was in the product pick up warehouse. One of our many duties was bicycle assembly. To break the monotony of this boring task we devised a “test track” to assure the quality of our work. We built multiple ramps by angling shipping pallets propped up on mattresses and we’d ride pell mell over this course with tires squealing on the concrete floor. One afternoon a much older supervisor, perhaps back from a liquid lunch, ramped things up by constructing a circle of fire for us to jump through! So, if you received a singed bike for Christmas from Apex in the 1960’s now you know why.

Despite these shenanigans I was promoted and at 17 wound up as a salesman in the men’s clothing department. I was a very shy teenager and my first customer was a stunningly beautiful young woman who I guessed to be in her early twenties. I was so tongue tied I barely was able to answer her questions. She was buying an assortment of shirts and ties for her boyfriend. I was bedazzled! Who knew such angelic creatures existed? My nerves were so frayed during this, my first retail sales transaction, I could not even get her selection into the Apex shopping bag. With profound patience, and I believe a bit of humor, she helped me arrange the gifts to fit the bags.

During the next few years the Apex empire expanded with new stores and I managed to gain some maturity and much needed confidence. College and Uncle Sam intervened and yet, as noted above, I once again turned to Apex after my Army stint for a perfect part time job while finishing college. In fact it was while working in the major appliance department of the Warwick location that I was recruited by a wholesale distribution company and a long, satisfying marketing and sales career was launched.

So the dilapidated Pawtucket shell of my former employer, much in the news this past year, saddens me. The sorrowful condition allowed by present owner Andrew Gates, grandson of the Apex corporation founder Albert Pilavin, remains a blemish which makes more difficult the daunting task of revitalizing Pawtucket. Larry Lucchino, CEO of the Pawtucket Red Sox recently described Mr. Gates as, “ ..a stubborn owner.”

The Apex stores were always impeccably maintained, customer friendly and the Fain family were generous philanthropist. All of this is now destroyed. Mr. Fain, who passed
in 2003, would not be pleased. Neither are the many former employees of this once cherished institution.

The ballpark proposal failed. The city is talking about purchasing the Apex site for future development. Let’s hope the parcel becomes something to be proud of and the obstinance of one man does not prevail.

Now, here’s the truth about the real friends of Mr. Fain. If a sales associate at an Apex store noticed the numeral “3” as the third digit of the Apex credit card that signified a true friend of Fain and no credit checks were needed!

– END –

Jim Raftus, a retired marketing executive, lives in Cumberland.
Contact at jraftus@aol.com

Tom Ryan And Terry Murray’s Dilemma (Published in Providence Journal 7/18/18)

TOM RYAN AND TERRY MURRAY’S DILEMMA

They are two business giants of Rhode Island. Terry Murray, of Fleet Bank fame, grew up in Woonsocket and Tom Ryan, former CVS leader, ran his corporate empire from the same city. Both made their fortunes in the Ocean State. Now Ryan and Murray face a crucial decision. After decades of mostly accolades for their business acumen and generous philanthropy the final pages of their Rhode Island legacies may read, “Local owners part of a group which allowed a 40 year tradition of Pawtucket Red Sox baseball to end.”

Ryan and Murray may only be two of the nine owners of the PawSox, but, they are the most well known Rhode Islanders of the group. Yet, they have been oddly silent during all the possible permutations of the three years journey from Providence to Pawtucket to, possibly, Worcester. Perhaps the fact that in retirement Ryan and Murray are only part time Rhode Islanders assuages any guilt they might feel in allowing the team to cross the border into Massachusetts.

They are allowing Larry Lucchino, PawSox Chairman and co-owner, to be the front man in all the negotiations. I truly believe Lucchino initially wanted to keep the team in Rhode Island, but, most of all as a builder of ballparks, Camden Yards and Petco Park, he wants to build one more stadium before he takes down his shingle. The long, arduous process which has included missteps by the PawSox themselves, state politicians and the city of Pawtucket has worn Pittsburg native Lucchino down to the point of likely moving the team to Worcester.

There is much more than a ballpark at stake here. Losing the PawSox likely means the end of any hope of revitalizing the Main Street core of Pawtucket. Yes, the city has had some small recent success in opening breweries and artist lofts, but, none of this activity has touched the old heart of the city where vacant, or underutilized, buildings continue down the shoddy path of disrepair.

Ryan and Murray could shift the focus from “Save the PawSox.” to “Save Pawtucket.” They, and all the team owners, should immediately tour the stretch of Main Street in downtown Pawtucket which runs from Roosevelt Avenue to North Union Street with Governor Raimondo, Mayor Grebien, House Speaker Mattiello, local developers like the Peregrine Group, The Procaccianti Group, Brady/Sullivan Properties, plus the C.E.O.’s of Hasbro, CVS and Textron and finally the Presidents of Johnson and Wales, Providence College, Brown, RISD, Bryant and New England Tech to explore the vast potential in revitalizing this area in conjunction with the new stadium at the Apex site.

Saving, renewing downtown Pawtucket as part of the stadium project would resonate much more powerfully with Rhode Islanders than the failed, current tactic of showing artist renderings of proposed new buildings “somewhere” near the ballpark. Repurposing the old, iconic W.T. Grant, Shartenberg’s and Industrial Bank properties means much more to the locals than the sterile new buildings which may, or may not, be built as shown in the various plans. While you will never convince the cadre of loud “not one cent of my money” obstructionist you would win over many undecideds with a plan which speaks to their memories of a vibrant downtown Pawtucket.

So, Misters Ryan and Murray, why am I singling out you two, limited team partners, for this task? Because you have the cache, the local credibility to make this happen. Lucchino, despite his initial good intentions, will always be viewed as the outsider, the interloper.

When the new Durham Bulls Athletic Park opened in North Carolina in 1995 principal owner Jim Goodmon was seen as a villain who had forced the construction against the will of the people. However, Goodmon wisely also purchased the abandoned, sprawling American Tobacco Company property which lay directly across the street from the new ballpark’s main entrance and quickly transformed it into a beautiful, vibrant mix of start up companies, restaurants and apartments. This thoughtful repurposing of a group of old iconic buildings turned him into a hero. In tribute the playing surface of Durham Bulls Athletic Park is now known as Goodmon Field.

Misters Ryan and Murray, that is a legacy to emulate.

Save the real Pawtucket by saving the PawSox.

– END –

Jim Raftus, a retired marketing director, lives in Cumberland.
Contact: jraftus@aol.com

THE SANDLOT

THE SANDLOT

Last week the 106th opening game was held at Fenway Park.

In my old Darlington neighborhood of the 1950’s that meant a group of 9 and 10 year old boys would magically decide to head towards our makeshift ball field. We simply called it the “lot”.

Leaving home I would yell, “Mom, I’m going to the lot.”, as I scurried out the door.

The lot was a small oval plot of scruffy grass, encircled by Warwick and Windsor Avenues, plunked in the middle of our working class neighborhood. Woefully undersized for a ballpark, just 60 feet wide and 150 feet long, our gang made it work. Flat rocks were bases and telephone poles marked fair from foul. The only base paths were formed by our youthful romping. We had no fence.

One benefit of the size was the need for fewer players. We could manage with just 3 to a side; pitcher, shortstop and outfielder. The space was so tiny the pitcher could cover first base. A volunteer from the batting team would catch. The catcher was important because if the ball got past him it could easily land on the street and roll towards the sewer opening in the nearby curb. More than once we pried open the sewer cover and held onto the ankles of a playmate while we dangled him into the well to return our baseball, probably held together by black electrical tape, from the dark, dank mess.

The decision of which team batted first was decided by a vividly remembered ritual. One team captain would toss the bat vertically to the other captain who would catch it with one hand. The captains then topped each other fist over fist towards the knob of the bat. Whichever captain’s fist was the last able to fit on the bat’s barrel won the right for his team to hit first. However, before the bat toss, it was critical to establish if the “fingers” or “bottle cap” rules were in play for these arcane exceptions would change the outcome.

For the most part the neighbors who lived in the houses encircling our field were tolerant of the noise and potential damage to their properties. The one exception was a couple who lived in a home in foul territory past first base. They would keep any errant ball and worst of all they had the only picture window on the block! Fortunately, despite our unanimous hero worshipping of Red Sox slugger Ted Williams, all our gang were righties and we played slow pitch to keep most hits heading towards left field.
Until Charlie moved into the very house next to the picture window home. Charlie was different. He was a year older. He was rugged. He was an unrepentant lefty. After a few close calls with the dreaded window youthful innovation came to the rescue. When Charlie came to bat we simply flipped the field moving home plate to center field and Charlie’s pulled line drive shots would simply crash into a row of tall bushes.

The peculiarities of our oval island field come rushing back. The first player spotting an approaching vehicle would call out, “Cahh, cahh!” in our strong Rhode Island accent and play would momentarily halt. Our seventh inning breaks would consist of sitting on the steps of Artinian’s the mom and pop market located, in a Norman Rockwellian twist, directly behind home base. I’d drink Nehi grape while eating a Zagnut bar.

Curiously we never knew, nor much cared, who owned this little oval of green paradise. We never saw it being maintained. I guess our nonstop baseball, football and track games kept it from being overgrown.

I drove by the other day. A mature tree now rises from our old home plate. I see no sign of a worn basepath.

Times change, but early Spring will always bring these memories back to me.

Play ball!

-END-

Musings and reflections of a Commentary Writer. Watch for weekly post on Wednesdays.