Category Archives: Memories

Closing The Church


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 –



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



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!


No Hoops For You ! 4/15/17

IMG_20170413_164146898IMG_20170413_164146898 copyNO HOOPS FOR YOU !

North Providence Mayor Charlie Lombardi needs someone to post him up down low on the blocks. Incredibly, he has banned pick up basketball games on the Evans Street playground located on Fruit Hill Avenue. In North Providence where local hero Ernie DiGregorio once honed his skills!

According to the mayor’s dictate the Evans Park courts will only be available for town sanctioned games and leagues. The ban is 24/7 all year long essentially shutting out folks, boys and girls, who just want to get together and play some ball.

If Pawtucket had implemented such a ban in the 1950’s and 60’s half of my youth would have been a dark, blank void.

Early September of 1956 when I was ten years old my mother bought me a new pair of shoes from Thom Mcan for the upcoming first day of fifth grade. The Sunday before school began, for budget reasons not having any sneakers, I wore the new shoes for the first time to shoot some hoops at the old Slater Park court opposite St. Teresa’s Church. Rather than the normal smooth concrete base this court had a rough tar surface. As was my routine I worked on my moves, faking out imaginary defenders with incredible skill, for hours until the street lights signaled me home. When I hopped on my bike to head home I noticed the pedals felt odd to my feet. A quick inspection showed that I had worn large, round holes in the soles of my new shoes, literally exposing frayed socks. It was a fear filled ride home knowing my parent’s shaky finances would be sorely taxed by having to buy another pair of shoes.

Yes, give me a basketball and an empty court and I’d be in heaven. Been that way my entire life, beginning with the Potter, Slater, and John Street playgrounds of my youth.

In 1970 at the end of my three year Army stint I was briefly stationed at Fort Meade in Maryland. It was basically a boring way station for guys who were near the end of their tours. I discovered a locked, old abandoned building on the base which housed a long neglected court with bent rims, no nets and missing, or warped, tiles on the floor. I received permission to cut the bolt lock from the door and went about repairs as best I could. The building had an old fashioned coal fired furnace and, amazingly, a bin still filled with dust covered coal. I managed to restart the furnace without burning down the place and spent a week finishing up rehabbing the court.

At first I was the only one to use the gym. Back to playing imaginary games against invisible opponents,but, eventually the sounds of my dribbling and the lights from the court in this remote part of the fort drew attention and slowly other soldiers started joining me. By the time of my discharge there was a fairly healthy group of hoopsters playing almost every night.

In 2008, as I neared retirement from my marketing career, the company I worked for installed a small work out gym in our new building, including a hoop in the warehouse. It became my routine, then in my 60’s, to skip lunch and use the weight machines and shoot some hoops. I found it energized me and kept me sharp. I admit I also took great pleasure in beating my much younger coworkers when we would play H-O-R-S-E at our annual cookouts.

I thought my retirement in 2011 essentially ended my basketball activities, but, in defiance of Mayor Lombardi’s ridiculous edict I plan to find, and inflate, my old Spalding ball and head to Evans Park this afternoon. If I’m really lucky maybe Ernie D. will be there and we can play some one on one. If I’m really unlucky maybe I’ll meet the same fate as John Updike’s iconic character Harry “Rabbit” Angrstrom and die at the age of 70 of a heart attack shooting hoops.

There are worse ways to go!

– END –

My Love Affair With Newspapers


I recently read about the retirement buy out taken by several reporters from the Providence Journal. These retirements leave voids in a cross section of Journal departments; sports, politics and the arts. Every year we see signs of the death knell of newspapers as print vehicles for information. This saddens me almost beyond consolation.

My first experience with newspapers was in 1954 as an eight year old helping my older brother deliver the Sunday Providence Journal in our Pawtucket neighborhood. We used a home made wooden cart to make our rounds, much like the carts seen in old photos of produce peddlers in New York City in the 1920’s. I believe my pay was 25 cents and it seemed like a fortune.

When we returned home from our delivery chores I would devour the Journal’s sports section checking the box scores to see what Ted Williams had done. I’d then move on to the comics getting chuckles from Beatle Bailey and being confused by Pogo and Li’l Abner.

As I entered my late teens my focus shifted and I searched newspapers for columnists like Art Buchwald, Mike Royko, Erma Bombeck, Studs Terkel and Jimmy Breslin. From these icons of commentary I discovered a world outside my small environment. I came to know the politics of Chicago, the swagger of New York City and the witty mannerisms to be found in suburbia. These early forays led to a life long love of the Op Ed pages and the art of commentary as practiced by Calvin Trillen, Roger Angell, William F. Buckley, Maureen Dowd and their many newspaper/magazine stablemates.

Finally out of college, after three years of Army duty, I sent a short freelance article to the Boston Globe in June of 1977. One week later there was my story on the front page with a photo and, most wondrously, a by-line. Emboldened by this success I quickly sent another effort to the Providence Journal. Two weeks later it was featured in the Speaking Out section which occupied the inside cover of the Rhode Islander magazine insert which was part of the Sunday Providence Journal. It had taken me twenty three years, but, I had gone from schlepping the Sunday Journal up the stairs of triple deckers in Darlington to being published in their magazine!

Life; raising a family, creating a career, paying the mortgage and, frankly, a lack of writing initiative shelved my literary efforts until my retirement a few years ago. Since then I have been honored to grace the Op Ed pages of this paper more than thirty times. Now, I fear this time is coming to an obvious close.

This commentary is not meant to rehash the print versus digital debate. That conflict is almost over. In 2014 I attended a forum where legendary Boston Globe sports writer Bob Ryan was a participant and he declared, “ If you are still having a newspaper delivered to your doorstep and you still hold a newspaper in your hands, cherish this for it will not survive the decade.”
My greatest fear, however, is not the digitizing of the news. My true fears are two fold; the disappearance of local ownership and the click monetizing pressure reporters will be subjected to in their writing efforts. Outside corporate ownership always leads to less on the street local reporting while the move to online will emphasize the need for journalist to write in a style which attracts the most clicks, or hits, which can be turned into advertising revenue. When search engine optimization enters into the realm of journalism the readers will severely suffer.

Thomas Jefferson once famously said, “…were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government , I should not hesitate to prefer the later.”

However, Jefferson wrote that in 1787.

By 1809 he declared, “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper.”

I fear the metamorphosis away from locally owned, daily print newspapers to a 24/7 on line social media reporting will have me sadly making the same shift in opinion about my once beloved newspapers.


The Delicate Art of Losing


There it was, right in front of me, a double jump which would also earn me a King. My eight year old grandson, Jack, had made an unusually poor, rushed move. My dilemma is do I tell him?

Susan K. Perry, social psychologist, writing on states, “If your child knows that you’re changing the rules for them, you are teaching them that following the rules is not as important as winning.”

Oh sure, Ms. Perry, I know that in theory you may be right, but, look at that sweet, trusting face.

Jack and I are playing our traditional game of checkers on a faded board painted on the top of an old whisky barrel in front of an antique store. We are in Apex, North Carolina where he, and his sister, Molly, live with our daughter, Katy. Jack was only four when we discovered this fun way to pass the time while the women explored the shops on Main Street. Back then “throwing” the game was easy, he was too young to be suspicious of any purposely bad strategy on my part.

According to Michele Bora, Ed.D, author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions , “The reason you let them win is so that you can teach them how to lose!”

Here’s my problem, Ms. Bora, Jack is now starting to get very good at checkers. These days it requires much less manipulation on my part to make certain I see his wide, joyous smile when he captures my last piece. In this instance, I choose a compromise position. I only jump one of his pieces ignoring the second move.

He quickly recovers and says, “Gramps, you missed a double jump!”

I move subtly into teaching mode, “Oh yeah, looks like we both made a couple of bad moves there, Jack” as we continue to play.

Not surprisingly, the experts say that a child’s age should be taken into consideration when an adult is in competition with them.

Coincidentally, a day after my checkers game with Jack I was involved in a very competitive bowling match with Molly who is ten. She had completed her final frame with a total score of 103. I entered my final frame with a 100 score. So, I needed just a 3 to tie and a 4 to win.

As I stared down the alley, preparing to take my three step approach, my mind drifted back to 1989 when Molly’s mother, my daughter Katy, was 12 years old and I was, well, much younger than my present self. We would often go jogging together through our Arnold Mills neighborhood in Cumberland. It had become a ritual that as we made the final turn onto the street to our house we would finish with a sprint race to see who could reach our driveway first. I had always made the sprint competitive and let Katy beat me by a small margin. Only, on this now remembered Spring night in 1989 when we accelerated from jogging to sprinting there was a new burst of speed from my daughter and a new weight of inertia in my running. For the first time Katy raced progressively ahead of me. Her arms flew up in victory as she reached our driveway.

This now all flashed back to me as I peered at the pins at the end of the bowling alley in Apex, North Carolina. I realized time would pass quickly, Molly and Jack would become adults and experience victories and defeats on their own.

As I released the colorful bowling ball my eyes focused on the number 7 pin tucked far
left on the triangle of pins. I had never thought how difficult it is to only knock down two pins with two rolls of a ten pin ball!

If you are fortunate, first your children, then your grandchildren will provide you with benchmark moments spotlighting the passage of time in a well lived life.
– END –

Military Serendipity – (Published in the Providence Journal 11/10/15)


Perhaps nowhere else in a young person’s life is serendipity more critical than while in the military. Pure luck can greatly affect the chance of survival.

I can vividly recall the September morning on the last day of advanced training in 1968 at Fort Lee, Virginia racing with my fellow soldiers to find our permanent assignment destinations posted on the bulletin board. Names were, agonizingly, not listed in alphabetical order so you had to just search. What was immediately obvious was the designation of RVN (Republic of Vietnam) next to every name on the first two columns. Finally, half way down the third column, was my name – Specialist 4th Class J. Raftus. Next to my name was ALA (Alaska). Mine was the first name not assigned to the war raging in Vietnam. A small smattering of other G.I.’s listed below me were going to Germany, South Korea and Japan. Then the list reverted back to the ominous RVNs. Approximately 85% of our “class” was headed to Southeast Asia.

Each year as Veteran’s Day rolls around the strange mix of relief and guilt I had felt standing in front of that list in 1968 resurrects. I suspect that many military people who were on active duty during those turbulent years, but never sent to combat areas, feel the same ambivalence. We did not shirk our duty. In fact, I enlisted in April of 1968. However, we know that others paid a steeper price, 58,220 with their lives. We share a common bond with veterans of this era, but know our paths were surely different.

Two military flights I took in 1970 confirmed how different these paths were. In April of that year I decided to use leave time from my duties at Fort Richardson in Anchorage, Alaska to visit the World’s Fair in Osaka, Japan. I caught military flights both ways, so my first flight contained troops heading towards Vietnam and my return trip was part of the soldier’s, so called, “Freedom Flights” home. The differences were palpable. My flight going to Japan was a military transport plane, bare boned, a hollowed out fuselage with bench seating facing in from the curved walls. Since I had been to college a couple of years before enlisting I was older than most of the other passengers. Their youth startled me. There was some nervous chatter and a few card games ensued. The mood felt more subdued than somber. Of course, this was not the last leg of their journey to RVN. I was observing them in a sort of mid-stream mentality. Friends have since described their final arrival flight to me. Steve Eno, a Pawtucket native, and a First Lieutenant, told me of how on his flight the stewardess (It was a TWA contract flight.) made this announcement as they rolled to a stop on the runway just outside of Saigon; “Welcome to Saigon. We look forward to bringing all of you home in a year. “ Her voice cracked while saying the final words.

My flight back to Alaska was also a full military flight. The returning veterans, after one year at war, seemed much older than the “cherries” I had flown with ten days prior. The plane was oddly quiet until the announcement was made that we were approaching the airport in Anchorage. Smiles broadened and you could sense a burden being lifted. When the wheels hit the runway the plane erupted with cheers and back slapping. Most of the soldiers upon reaching the bottom of the plane’s exit staircase bent to kiss the tarmac. Alaska, not home, but part of the United States.

It has been well over four decades since this, our most unsatisfactory war, ended. Most of the unwarranted, and greatly exaggerated, rancor towards these troops has abated and they are seen as having done their duty.

This Veteran’s Day I salute all my fellow former military personnel and wish them peace and joy. May serendipity provide good luck to all of us for the rest of our lives.

– END –

My Play By Play Pitch To The Red Sox. (Published in the Providence Journal 10/22/15)


Somewhat forgotten in the angst over NESN replacing popular Red Sox TV announcer Don Orsillo with WEEI’s Dave O’Brien is the fact that there is now an opening for the radio play by play gig.

Now in my fourth year of retirement, I’m looking to start a second career, so, perhaps I should send them my play by play version of some of baseball’s most iconic moments.

It would go something like this:

September 29th, 1954 – Polo Grounds – World Series.

“ Little fires a fastball. Wertz swings and hits a towering drive. It’s heading over Mays’s head into the deepest part of center field. Willie races back, his number 24 barely visible 450 feet from home plate. At full speed he peers over his left shoulder and stretches his glove towards the sky. He’s got it! He’s got it! He twirls, hat flying off, and fires the ball back towards the infield! Willie Mays has just made a catch that tomorrow young boys all across the country will be trying to imitate, and, I have a feeling, for decades to come. Say hey, indeed!”

October 8th, 1956 – Yankee Stadium – World Series.

“Larsen nervously toes the rubber. Yogi gives the signal. The Yankee Stadium crowd is dead silent as pinch hitter Dale Mitchell waits. Larsen nods and starts his motion. Fastball coming in. Called strike three! Larsen has done it! Yogi races towards the mound, leaps into Larsen’s arms and wraps his legs around the pitcher’s body. The 6’4” Larsen is carrying little Berra like a team mascot towards the first base line. Don Larsen has pitched the first no-hitter in World Series history! Not just a no-hitter, but a perfect game! 27 up, 27 down. Don Larsen, not Cy Young, not Christy Mathewson, not Walter Johnson, but Don Larsen! Holy cow!”

September 29th, 1960 – Fenway Park – Final Red Sox home game.

“Williams waits impatiently in the batter’s box while Fisher goes to the resin. 1 and 1 count. The 10,000 plus fans watching their hero for the last time. Fisher deals. Ted uncoils. It’s a high, majestic fly ball heading to right. It’s out of here! Deep into the Red Sox bullpen! Ted Williams hits his 521st home run on his final swing at Fenway! Head down he’s rounding the bases. The small crowd is going wild. Williams touches third and heads home. He crosses the plate and turns towards the dugout, eyes still surveying the ground. True to form for 21 years Williams does not pander to the fans as The Kid bids the Hub adieu.”

October 27th, 2004 – Busch Stadium – World Series.

“Foulke is one out away from never having to pay for a beer in Boston. Edgar Renteria trying to keep the Cardinals slim hope alive. Foulke tugs at the brim of his cap as he stares into Veritek for the sign. Pujols hugs second. Here’s the pitch. It’s a sharp ground ball to the mound. Foulke leaps and grabs it! He takes a couple of steps towards first and underhands the ball to Mientkiewicz. New England, turn up Grandpa’s hearing aid. The Red Sox are World Champions! The Red Sox win the World Series for the first time since 1918. After 86 years Harry Frazee and Babe Ruth have finally been granted pardons.”

Once WEEI hears my recording, I could just sit back and wait for their offer. It would be so great to sit in the press box with Joe Castiglione.
– END –

Yes, He Was A Rich Man.


I never realized the song “If I Were A Rich Man” was so long. But considering the circumstances, I was never more pleased.

My father was a nice, quiet man who, for some reason, could not resist a microphone. He was always affable enough, but rarely initiated conversation, preferring instead to just contribute to the dialogue. He was an Irishman, born in Dorchester in 1910. Irishmen of that generation fell into two camps; boisterous, full throated story tellers or more taciturn observers of life. My father tended towards the latter.

That’s why his life long propensity for “pop-up” performances at public gatherings such as wedding, birthdays and holiday celebrations came as a surprise to those who did not know him well. A surprise for some, a millstone for my dear mother. This lovely woman craved respect, but abhorred the spotlight. She dreaded attending large public functions knowing that if a microphone were present dad would commandeer it. Inevitably as he made his way towards the stage she would exit stage right to find the powder room.

You see, my father had trouble sustaining both pitch and tone for the full duration of his chosen songs. No, he wasn’t the finest singer, but, what he lacked in talent he more than made up for with delivery and charm. It was a shame that mom didn’t stay to see how by the end of his repertoire dad had everyone smiling and clapping. The obvious delight dad took in entertaining won over every audience. Guests would, in fact, would often beg him to “do a number”.

Then in early 1984 dad had his first stroke. For a son it was difficult watching this normally cheerful man, full of life, struggling to regain his speech and struggling to keep his balance with a cane. Slowly the physical damage seemed to be overcome as he worked diligently at his rehabilitation. More troubling was his loss for the simple joys of life. While his speaking skills improved, he rarely chose to speak. The smile which so warmed people seemed to be permanently erased. He appeared to be, psychologically, going through the motions of life.

Our family had a Christmas gathering at Watch Hill in Westerly, Rhode Island. A relative was the Auxiliary Bishop and was able to use a cottage, which had been willed to the Dioceses, for our traditional holiday get together. My wife and I drove my parents to the event where we caught up with the many aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews and nieces which make up our extended family. The evening was fun, relaxed and convivial with everyone paying extra attention to Dad who accepted the well wishes with a series of quiet, “Thank you.” responses.

Towards the end of the night dad made his way to the center of the living room and taped his cane on the wooden floor. Suddenly, slowly he began singing, “Dear God, you made many, many poor people…”.

All the chatter, all the conversations, stopped as his family listened.
“I realize, of course, that it’s no shame to be poor….” he continued in a surprisingly strong voice.

Who knew there are nine long verses to “If I Were A Rich Man”? By the time he lustily concluded with, “Yiddle-didle-didle-didle man” he was luminous and I was a wreck.

So, my Irish father’s singing a Jewish lament at a Catholic cottage at Christmas time was the harbinger that Leo Raftus was not yet finished with entertaining or life.

My father died, mostly peacefully, twelve years later in 1996.

Yes, Dad, you were a rich man. Happy Father’s Day.

Jim Raftus lives in Cumberland, R.I. Contact:
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The Land Of The Rising Sun


Forty five years ago this month (May 1970) I felt like a rock star in Japan.
Young Japanese students toting their backpacks on their way home from school in Tokyo surrounded me while offering pens and pads.

“Sign please, Mister.” they implored.

In my twenty three years on earth I had never before been asked for my autograph. I’d achieved zero notoriety back home to ever warrant such a request. Perhaps being a 6’ 4” American in this land where the average male’s height was 5’ 6” was enough to impress this very earnest group of young beseechers. Not wanting to be the Ugly American, I patiently scrawled my name, in my questionable version of the Palmer Method, on about twenty pads. I noticed that after polite bows of thank you, which I dutifully mirrored, the young boys and girls would stare at my signature even turning it to the left, right and upside down. Slowly the mystery of my elevated celebrity status revealed itself; cursive handwriting. Just as Westerners are fascinated by the painterly, clean geometric lines of Japanese script, the students were intrigued by the loops of my “J” and my “R” and the mounds of my “m”.

My one week military leave in the Land of the Rising Sun was off to a pleasant start.

Tokyo, by 1970, was already an immense, bustling city, potentially very confusing to me and my two fellow Army buddies. Upon our initial arrival we stood at a busy intersection looking for street signs when a middle aged Japanese man approached us and haltingly asked, “You lost?”. We gave him the name of our hotel and the gentleman produced a pen and a piece of paper on which he drew what looked like a series of crosses consisting of one long vertical line with two shorter horizontal lines bisecting the top.
Three of these crosses went straight up the page followed by a 90 degree right turn for the remaining four figures. After handing us this crude map the man pointed at the nearest telephone pole then back at the paper. Ah, ha. The kindly gentleman had drawn a map showing us that we would find our nearby hotel if we followed the telephone diagram he had created. Generosity and ingenuity on display mid-day in the heart of Tokyo.

That evening we stepped out of our hotel to hail a cab to take us to a night club in the famous Ginza District. Hey, we were three single G.I.’s in our twenties, it was not going to be all temples and shrines. We stood at the curb, my hailing finger raised in the air, and watched taxi after taxi pick up customers to our right and to our left. Oh, oh, were we getting our first taste of anti-Americanism? We pondered this as more and more cabbies ignored my index finger. Finally, because we were now the only potential fare in sight, a cab stopped in front of us. The young driver had a decent command of English, as we found out many Japanese do, and he laughed when we complained about not being picked up by earlier taxis. He explained that no one was picking us up because I was hailing them with one finger in the air. Seems that in this highly competitive city the number of fingers you display tells the drivers what multiple of yens showing on the meter at the end of the trip you are willing to pay. It wasn’t discrimination, it was commerce.

At the club the lights strobed off the velvet couches and velvet walls while the all girl Japanese group belted out their version of Rolling On The River. Multiple sakes, combined with our introduction to Sapporo beer, made our trip back to the hotel a perilous, but ultimately, successful venture.

The next morning, groggy, but game, we headed out to board the famous Bullet Train for the trip to the World’s Fair in Osaka. The 1970 World’s Fair had been the deciding factor why we three soldiers decided to not go home for our leaves, but to travel instead to Japan from our post at Fort Richardson in Anchorage, Alaska.

The 319 miles ride on the Bullet Train remains memorable even after four decades have passed. Traveling at the then phenomenal speed of 140 miles per hour the Bullet’s journey included a distant, but spectacular view of the majestic, still snow capped Mount Fuji which rises as a single monolith above the flat landscape. The tracks are often bordered on both sides by massive rice paddy fields. I was amazed that every one of the hundreds upon hundreds of the workers in these fields were stooped, bent over to their tasks. Not one was standing straight or stretching. I could not help but contrast this to my visions of a pot hole crew back in Rhode Island with three guys leaning on shovels, one guy staring at the hole and the crew chief off to the side having a smoke. In retrospect, it is no wonder that this tiny nation took such an unhealthy bite out of America’s automobile and electronics industries in the following decades.

The Fair itself is now just a blur of foggy images: the beautiful Japanese temples, shrines and pagodas surrounded by stunning waterscapes with brilliant flowers and glistening fish in koi ponds, the optimistic, futuristic American Pavilion and the ominously immense Russian Exhibit Hall, a massive curved, red structure topped by the malevolent sickle and hammer flags. The troops at Fort Richardson were told that we were in Alaska in case the Russian Army ever decided to invade by crossing the Bering Straits.

At a Fair eatery we attempted to down our lunches of noodles and shrimp with chopsticks the only utensils provided. As novices to this art of dining we did not fare well. In fact our futile efforts were so lame that several Japanese families recorded us on their Sony camcorders. I’m almost pleased that we were able to supply some video comic relief at their future family gatherings.

The remainder of the week raced by as we gained new insights and grew, just slightly, into more worldly young men. I have but a few faded photographs now as a reminder of this trip. I’m not even certain I correctly recall the full names of my fellow travelers, but I do precisely recall the flight back to Anchorage.

We hopped a military plane in Tokyo filled with G.I.’s returning from their one year tours of duty in Viet Nam. The loud cheers which erupted when we were “wheels down” in Anchorage and the sight of men kissing the tarmac as they left the plane remains seared into my memory to this day.
– END –

Jim Raftus