An excerpt from "Almost Golden" By Rob Mariani.
Rob can be reached at email@example.com
'Almost Golden' is available at www.bbotw.com or on www.Amazon.com
Rob Mariani was born in the North Bronx Pelham Bay area in 1940. He graduated from Fordham University where he majored in English Lit and Philosophy. For the past 40 years he has worked as an advertising copy writer and creative director at several New England ad agencies working on clients such as Chase Commercial Bank, Brooks Athletic Footwear, Frye Boots, Brooks Pharmacy and the Hotel Meridian among many others. He has published several on-line articles about famous jazz musicians at allaboutjazz.com and has written a weekly restaurant column for findri.com.
He is currently working on a book about therapeutic horseback riding for disabled children. He and his wife, Jan, reside at North Farm in Bristol, Rhode Island.
UNCLE MATTY VS. THE LITTLE GENERAL
I never really knew if he was a friend of the family because he was our doctor, or if he was our doctor because he was a friend of the family. But Dr. Mat Coppola was the one we all went to for everything from polio shots and poison ivy to allergies and tonsillitis. And I¹m sure if we¹d needed brain surgery, we¹d have gone to him for that, too. He took very literally the term "General Practitioner" and would tackle just about any medical problem you threw his way.
"Uncle Matty," as we called him had an office in a gritty neighborhood just off Gunhill Road. When we were there, we always called him "Doctor Coppola." On social occasions, we called him Uncle Matty because "Uncle" is what we called any of our family¹s close male friends.
Uncle Matty was so successful as a doctor that by the time he was 40 years old, he was well on his way to acquiring a very large portion of the American Dream as it was envisioned there in the beginning of the 1950’s. He had a big three-story house in the lovely Pelham Gardens neighborhood. His neighbors were other doctors, lawyers, professional people, and the championship boxer, Jake LaMotta, "The Bronx Bull." Matty¹s son Donny and his daughter Marjorie both attended exclusive private Catholic schools. He had a big maroon Cadillac with the push-up bras headlights and fish tail taillights. He had a beautiful little summerhouse across the sound in Stony Brook, Long Island. It overlooked the lagoon of the yacht club. So naturally, to complete the picture he bought a yacht.
It was really just a small in-board motorboat with a cabin. There was no room for a head or a galley. It had a couple of padded benches in the bow where two people could sleep uncomfortably. The only thing Matty knew about boats was that he liked them. A lot. He spent every summer weekend he could on his boat, which he enigmatically named "The Little General."
"Why not ‘The Little Admiral’?" my father would ask him.
"Sounds too nautical," was his reply.
Uncle Matty got himself a white captain’s hat and a berth at one of the many shipyards on City Island, just a five-minute drive from his house. He joined the yacht club in Stony Brook. He learned the difference between starboard and port and was ready to take on the challenge of the sea.
I think the first boat lasted one season. Uncle Matty would invite our family of four to join his family and we¹d chug out to the edge of Pelham Bay where we kids could fish and the adults could have Tom Collinses. But Uncle Matty soon felt the need for a larger vessel. And evidently he had the means to buy one because the next season, "The Little General " was in Uncle Matty¹s slip at the boatyard.
"The Little General" was nearly three times the size of his original craft. It was a real yacht with a flying bridge, sleeping accommodations for five or six, an actual galley, and a toilet and shower, an indoor ³lounge,² and a fantail spacious enough to accommodate eight martini-drinkers on deckchairs. Now Uncle Matty had a boat that was sea-worthy enough to go from City Island in the Bronx up Pelham Bay and across the Long Island Sound to his summer home in Stony Brook. He was in heaven.
On a typical sunny Saturday in June, my father and mother and brother and I would all arrive at the dock before noon and pile on board. Uncle Matty would be there, already having downed a couple of eye-openers‹ Bloody Marys, usually. He was dressed in his captain¹s hat, tan bathing trunks and a Hawaiian sport shirt, unbuttoned all the way down the front to reveal a very unpleasant surgical scar. He’d had his gallbladder removed a few years ago and from the look of the scar, I used to think maybe he¹d done it himself. Uncle Matty was a slim, bony man with a dark Mediterranean complexion and a pencil-thin mustache. He breathed through his nose when he talked and his tone of voice always implied a kind of reassuring "it’s-ok-it’s-gonna-be-awright" attitude.
His wife Dot was a beautiful, blue-eyed Irish brunette who made lasagna that caused many of her Italian friends to shake their heads in admiration. She could even make it in "The Little General’s" limited galley space. Uncle Matty¹s intrepid seafaring adventures made her nervous, but she went along for the ride and to make sure he didn¹t drown the kids. In the afternoon she’d pop two or three aspirin and a Coke to calm herself down.
With Uncle Matty at the helm, by one P.M. we’d have steamed out of Pelham Bay and were out on Long Island Sound with land a distant smudge on the horizon. One of the big thrills was seeing herds of porpoise frolicking in our wake. Sometimes they’d follow us for hours. Up on the flying bridge, Uncle Matty would let us kids take turns steering and it would start to feel like a pretty thrilling adventure, like something out of the Saturday morning movie serial, Don Winslow of the U.S. Navy.
There¹d be lunch down in the lounge or out on the fantail. Aunt Dot¹s lasagna, or hero sandwiches with prosciutto and mozzarella. The dads drank from copper-colored cans of Ballantine beer and the moms all had their silvery Tom Collinses. Earlier in the voyage, Uncle Matty would partake of what he embarrassingly referred to as his "coffee enema." This meant that at precisely 3pm, regardless of where we were or what else was going on, he’d stop the boat, drop anchor, light up a Chesterfield, and spend a good half-hour in the head. We kids would use this time to porpoise-watch or fish. Sometimes we’d catch a few flounders and eels, but mostly we’d hook sea robins, a very inedible, prehistoric looking creature, that could put up a good fight.
The commute by boat from City Island to Uncle Matty¹s summer place in Stony Brook, even with "The Little General’s" supercharged engines, was a good seven hours. Towards the end of the summer, as the days grew shorter, instead of making the long haul, Uncle Matty would stay closer to home, cruising along the coast and finding a waterside restaurant where we’d tie up at the dock and have dinner. Dinner with Uncle Matty was a kind of culinary opera with large, bravura arias of food separated by long, drawn out recitatives filled with martinis and Chianti. This one particular night Uncle Matty started out with a bucket of steamers followed by three or four cigarettes and a brace of dry martinis. Then came the lobster and steak washed down with wine and beer, another round of nicotine, some espresso and cheese cake followed by a few brandies.
By the time the meal was over, it was pitch dark outside and the grownups, including Uncle Matty, were three-sheets-to-the-wind, to put it nautically. Now it was up to our woozy captain to get us back across the Bay to City Island. The trip was probably only about three or four miles as the gull flies, but Uncle Matty, not the most accomplished seaman to begin with, was having trouble just finding his way back to the boat. Dot, the dutiful wife had kept her drinking moderate and was able to guide her staggering husband to "The Little General." Once on board, miraculously, Matty somehow clambered his way up to the flying bridge. My dad and I went with him. He started the engines and slipped into reverse, plowing the stern of the boat into the pier. Dishes and glasses in the downstairs lounge slid to the floor and broke. The ladies laughed nervously. Dot rolled her blue eyes.
"It’s-ok-it’s-gonna-be-awright, Dotty," Uncle Matty called out through his nose and promptly flipped the boat into forward gear. With a lurch we came away from the dock at full throttle and were almost instantly traveling at about 30 knots creating waves which nearly swamped the buoy with the sign that read: "No Wakes."
The seas were calm that night and a big full moon had just come up over the horizon. Uncle Matty aimed the boat at the moon. Beneath it were the little blinking lights of the shoreline which we all hoped was our City Island destination. As we got out into open waters the waves began to swell gently beneath "The Little General’s" hull and we took on a forward undulating motion.
Squinting into the darkness, Uncle Matty located the red blinking buoy and the green blinking buoy and was endeavoring to set a course between the two to avoid going aground.
After about 20 minutes, the boat¹s engines gave a kind of surging, sputtering noise and then promptly quit. Uncle Matty turned the ignition key several times but all this produced was a strained, raspy sound., like someone coughing up sea water. Our captain had done a flawless job of re-fueling himself at our waterside landing, but had evidently neglected to do the same for "The Little General." Two miles out into the Bay, nine o¹clock at night, and there we all were, adrift in the moonlight, out of gas. In the distance, we could hear what sounded like a foghorn although, as I said, the night was clear.
Uncle Matty went below to the ship-to-shore radio and after reading the instruction manual by flashlight, he managed to call the Coast Guard for help. He continued to reassure us in his "it’s-awright-don’t-worry-about-it" tone of voice, as if we were one of his patients about to undergo a fairly if-y operation. We sat there on the flying bridge, Uncle Matty, my father, and I, and watched for the Coast Guard cutter. The sound of the rolling waters became fuller and now there was a low vibration in the soft, warm air. The vibration seemed to be emanating up from the water. It was getting louder and then all at once the moon disappeared from the sky.
"Must be clouds passing over," Uncle Matty said to my father, his speech calm and more than a little slurred from booze. But as we stared into the sudden darkness, a huge rust-colored wall was taking shape directly in front of us. It blocked out the entire sky. We began to hear the sound of waves crashing rhythmically against hollow steel. Then the foghorn sound, which had seemed miles away just a few minutes before, exploded off the bow of the boat like some yawning volcano. We realized that we were in the direct path of a huge freighter as it headed full-speed-ahead out of the Bay. The ear-shattering foghorn sounded again. Uncle Matty cranked the ignition and pumped his own ship¹s shrill horn and began frantically flicking his running lights. The hull of the freighter towered over us now. We leaned back in our chairs and gripped the railings preparing to be run over. From down in the lounge, we heard a woman¹s scream. There was a slight bump as the bow of "The Little General" glanced lightly off the side of the freighter. We felt ourselves being turned and lifted in the behemoth¹s wake. By some miracle, "The Little General" had just missed being cut in half and instead had been nudged gently aside by the freighter. We bobbed now in the rolling wake.
"Everybody ok down there?" my dad called off the side of the flying bridge. "Yes, we¹re all right," came Dot’s high voice through the half-open window. It sounded a bit like a sob.
I looked over at Uncle Matty where he stood by the steering wheel of his lifeless boat. He pushed his captain¹s hat to the back of his head and scratched his thinning hair. He stared into the darkness after the retreating freighter, then lit up a Chesterfield and exhaled the smoke into the night. He offered one to my dad who had recently been trying to quit smoking and he accepted it without hesitation.
The silence was broken by the sound of the Coast Guard cutter¹s horn. They towed us in to port and helped secure the boat to the dock. Nobody said much. We all went to our respective cars. Dot helped her husband into the passenger seat of their Caddy. Donny and Margery piled into the back seat. Dot got behind the wheel and they pulled away.
A couple of summers went by and Uncle Matty continued to prosper. He bought himself an even larger boat and christened it ³The Donny-Mar,² in honor of his kids who by now preferred leprosy to spending another moment on the water with their old man.
This time, Uncle Matty had the good sense to hire a mate to pilot his boat. He was a handsome young 19-year-old Spanish kid everyone called Sunshine because he had a smile that could light up a ballroom. From then on, it was pretty clear sailing for Uncle Matty. Sunshine knew everything there was to know about boating and engines and safety on the water. Uncle Matty still steered his boat in open water where he couldn¹t get into any trouble, at least until cocktail hour when Sunshine would take over.
The only drawback to Uncle Matty¹s hiring Sunshine was that his teenage daughter Marjorie fell in love with him. But that¹s another story.