Saturday, December 31, 2011

No Gavones; Please!

My father was a very uncomplicated man. He was a janitor. He went no further than the fourth grade, but he could read, write, (meaning he didn’t print everything, the way today’s high school graduates do). He could do long division, multiplication, addition and subtraction, and yes, he did this without benefit of a calculator. (We couldn’t have afforded a calculator anyway.)

My dad liked to come home from work every day, have a beer and read the evening paper (Remember those—evening papers?) He did like his beer. But he hated going out on New Year’s Eve. Being Italian, he sometimes used words that I didn’t know, but understood nonetheless. He said he didn’t like to go out on New Year’s Eve because that’s when all the gavones were out.

You can find that word in the back of Lorraine Ranalli’s book, “Gravy Wars,” in the Italian-American glossary. She describes gavones as, “lacking in culture.” My dad would have been less kind, but then again, he wasn’t putting his definition in writing.

No, Dad and Mom weren’t party people. They just preferred staying at home. Of course, they had to, with four kids running around a household supported by a janitor’s salary.

So New Year’s Eve was more of a family night, with us watching Guy Lombardo on TV, then watching the ball descend at Times Square, after which, we kids would be given pots and pans, so we could go outside with all the other non-gavones and bang them as imitation noisemakers, bringing the row-house streets of Philadelphia to momentary life on a cold January morning. And by about 12:45 a.m., we all—kids and adults—would be out cold in bed.

Yeah, we could really party back in those “good, ole days.” Those good, ole, days for me were called the 1950s, and, since I majored in history, I always like to examine the past—My past on the streets of Philadelphia, My past during my years in Minot, North Dakota, My past as a cop, and yes, even my past as a writer. And I think Dad had a lot to do with molding that outlook.

We would always watch those old, black-and-white movies together—the ones that were being shown on early television in those days. He was especially instructive whenever we watched a war movie. You see, I was born while my dad was overseas with the Ninth Infantry Division in Normandy during World War Two, and he was always correcting those old war movies.

“No, that’s not the way it was at all,” he would often say. “We were a lot more scared than that!” So I sort of grew up looking at things “historically.” That’s what the narrator does in my New Year’s Eve story—One More Round, which is available at Untreed, or Amazon, Barns & Noble, or any other outlet for downloadable books. Or you could just visit my Web site,

And—what else—it’s a story about how one particular family rings in the New Year.

So let me give all of you a New Year’s greeting by saying that I hope 2012 is your best year ever, but may it pale in comparison to all those that follow.

Happy New Year, everyone.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

My Worst Christmas Ever

My latest story, entitled, My Worst Christmas Ever, is available from Untreed Reads dot com.

Now this is a true story, or as we say in the industry (doesn’t that sound at least mildly pretentious, in the industry?) Well, it’s a BOAT story. Not that it has anything to do with ships, mind you. BOAT is an acronym meaning based on a true… so it’s based on a true story.

The story as written is true, in that the events are accurate, and this did happen to me, and it happened as I explain it did. But, being a writer, I do take some literary license. But that does not weaken or taint the story’s intent, nor does it lie about the outcome. All the people in the story are real, and they did all react the way they did as the story unfolds.

You’ll see after reading the tale, just why I felt it was my worst holiday, and I think you’ll also agree with that evaluation. You’ll also see why, after many years, that event sticks in my mind, and you’ll understand why I changed my mind about it many years later.

The odd part is that I look back now and still believe I was right to feel the way I did at the time. I was miserable, and justifiably so. Today, I feel very pleased by what happened that night, and I’m every bit as justified in those feelings, even though they are one-hundred-eighty degrees from what I felt at the time.

In other words: I was right to feel the way I did then, and I’m right to feel the way I do now. Even though the two feelings—separated by forty years—are diametrically opposed to each other.

How can that be, you’re asking. You are asking that, aren’t you?

Well, I guess you’ll just have to go to

and find out. There’s a half-price sale today only, so the story costs just 75 cents to download. You’ll see why it was my worst Christmas ever.

Or was it?

You know, we writers can never really make up our minds.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

It's Never Really Our Choice

I do a lot of thinking any time of the year—in fact, too much by most people’s estimation. But I think that balances out what I see as too little thinking—the curse of contemporary civilization.

At this time of the year especially, I like to think about asking. That’s what we’re encouraged to do as children—we ask Santa to fulfill our Christmas desires. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

You see, I’m a firm believer in reading the operator’s manuals that come with most implements. When you buy a new TV, new car, new blender, new iPhone—you’ve got to read the instructions before operating. And how many times have you heard it said that life doesn’t come with operating instructions?

Well I think it does. I think it’s all spelled out quite clearly in the Sermon on the Mount. If you just follow the Gospel of Matthew, chapters five through seven, you’ll have those operating instructions. It even tells us about asking.

In Matthew Chapter seven, Verse seven, Christ clearly states, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For every one that asks; receives.”

So we ask. We ask for Barbie dolls, baseball gloves, footballs, and toy trucks when we’re kids, but we never really stop asking as we age. The presents just get a little more…esoteric. I personally would forego all the toys, gadgets, electronics, and even Superbowl tickets if I could just have the one wish at the top of my list: my family’s health and well-being. I always think to myself, “Is that too much to ask?”

After all, Jesus did say, “Ask and you shall receive.” So why doesn’t he keep his word? That’s one of the questions that always puzzled me, until a few years ago when a friend opened my eyes.

“God does answer all prayers—all requests,” she told me. “And it’s always one of three answers.”

“Oh this I’ve got to hear,” I told her. “What are his three answers?”

“Simple,” she explained. “He says, ‘yes,’ or he says, ‘not now,’ or he says, ‘I have something better.’

It suddenly all made sense to me. Christ didn’t say, Demand and you shall receive. He said ask. That means it’s not our choice. It never really is.

So, as we prepare to celebrate the birth of the author of the Sermon on the Mount, remember his operating instructions for life. Just don’t forget that they’re his instructions; not yours.

So ask away. It’s the season for asking. Your timetable may not be the same as his. And of course, he could always have something better in mind for you.

Just be patient. While you’re waiting, maybe you could log on to

It couldn’t hurt.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Good Writers Always Come Through

I was a big fan of the Peanuts comic strip as a kid growing up. Who am I kidding…I remain a fan to this day.

That’s why I was so anxious to see the first Peanuts TV broadcast. I was in the Air Force and made sure I got myself in front of a television that night back in 1965. I could not imagine how the comic strip could possibly translate to TV. But it did. And beautifully, I thought.

I especially liked the part where Linus goes out onto the stage all-alone and recites the Christmas narrative from the Bible.

“And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them ... and they were sore afraid ... Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy ... For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savoir, which is Christ the Lord ... Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

Linus’s point is that Christmas is about the birth of Jesus and what that birth meant. It’s not about toys, decorations, or days off.

Twenty-eight years later, I went looking for that Bible passage, because I wanted to write a Christmas story for the Cape May County Herald. I had difficulty finding the words Linus spoke in that TV show.

You see, Mark and John start their gospels when Jesus is a grown man, and Matthew’s story of the birth doesn’t even mention shepherds. Only Luke tells that story, and it certainly wasn’t the way Linus had told it.

When I read Luke, his gospel said, “…But the angel said, don’t be afraid. I’m here with good news for you, which will bring great joy to all the people. This very day in David’s town your Savior was born...Suddenly a great army of heaven’s angels appeared singing, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom he is pleased.’ And there were shepherds in the same district ... and they feared exceedingly.”

That just doesn’t have the “pizazz” of Linus’s interpretation. It took me a while to find out why. I’m Catholic, and the Catholic or the Douay-Rheims version of the Bible just doesn’t have the same verbal brilliance…if you will…as the King James version. In fact, a Catholic writer once advised me to “Read the Catholic Bible for its thoroughness; read the King James version for its literature.”

Well, I did write that Christmas column for the Herald, and then, several years later, I saw Charles Schultz, the creator of Peanuts, being interviewed on TV. Schultz explained to the interviewer that he had agreed to write the teleplay for the show only if those lines from Luke’s Gospel were included. Schultz had so much influence, that the network executives reluctantly agreed. Even back in the 1960s, TV moguls weren’t exactly pro-Christian.

I subsequently sent a copy of my story to Schultz. He wrote back and thanked me, saying that it was much more difficult to write the TV show than he had thought it would be. He also said that he could not comprehend the success of the show.

“I think it may have been the music,” Schultz wrote to me.

I think he was understating the influence of two writers: Himself and Luke.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Let's Get a Little Worldly

The airwaves are becoming saturated with the sounds of Christmas. We hear them piped throughout malls and department stores.
“Joy to the world.”
“Peace on earth, good will to men.”
“Long lay the world in sin and error pining.”

Those lines are quite descriptive, and pack a certain emotional strength. There's something ... alive about them.

But how about:
“Joy to the planet?”
“Peace on the planet, good will to men?”
“Long lay the planet in sin and error pining?”

Those are …lifeless.
This Earth is a planet the way the house you live in is a platform. This Earth is a world the way the house you live in is a home. There's a move afoot—whether conscious or subconscious—to drain the life out of our world, and return it to the status of ... a rock. It's inherent in contemporary language.

“Biggest SUV on the planet,” touts one automotive ad.
“Highest crash rating of any vehicle on the planet,” shouts another.
Our species may be observing the heavens to find other planets, but we're listening to possible signals from space to find other worlds. We won't find vehicles on other planets, but we could very well find them on other worlds.

So is it just a trend—this penchant for identifying our human home by its basest nomenclature? By next year, will there be another catchphrase or catch-word replacing “planet” as the sound du jour? Remember when "millennium" was peppered into every commercial and every political revelation? At least we get a thousand-year break before that ear-bleeder reemerges.

“Planet” as a designation for our home is cold and austere. This world was once a chunk of earth, fire, wind, and water—that’s when it was only a planet. When it became a world is debatable, depending on your perspective and your belief system.

If you're a creationist, it happened on days five and six when God created the animal kingdom, from whales to humans.
If you're a Darwinian or a naturalist, well ... you haven't decided yet; it happened somewhere between three billion and three million years ago, depending on which theory you currently embrace. Darwin came out with his dissertation in 1859, hence we've waited 152 years for you nature-worshipers to make up your minds, so what the heck, we'll give you another 152. Let us know when you finally come to a decision.

Natural curiosity demands that I wonder about trends. (Wouldn't a naturalist do the same?) Is this merely another harmless, mindless segue in the evolution of our language? There once was 23-skidoo… Kilroy was here…Do your own thing… Get a life...oh, yeah, that one’s still around. Can’t wait for that to go the way of the dinosaur.

Or is language-modification a deliberate attempt to transform thinking and drain away personality? I mean, we no longer have a culture; we're multi-cultural. We don't have families in individual homes; we have communities. We don't live in a world; we exist on a planet.

Listen, beings live in a world. The reigning 100-meter sprint record-holder is usually referred to as the “World's Fastest Human.” If he were the only person on Earth, then it would make sense that he's the planet's fastest (and only) human. It would be no big deal.

But with imperfect people on that planet to train him, time him, live with him, care about him, dislike him, admire him, be indifferent to him…or mourn him when he's gone—that changes everything.

It makes a world of difference.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Remembering the Andys

The name "Andrew" has a lot of meaning in my family. My wife's brother Andrew was a Marine who was killed at Iwo Jima. My dad's father was Andrew. I have cousins named Andrew, and we recently welcomed our third great-grandchild: Andrew.

So it should be no surprise that during my November 15 “Writer’s Block” broadcast on Lorraine Ranalli’s Cucina Chatter show, I mentioned that I was new at this “Andy Rooney thing.” Ironically, Andy Rooney passed away at age 92 just before that broadcast aired, and fittingly, I have an Andy Rooney story that’s close to my heart.

Like Andy Rooney, my dad would have also been 92 at this time, but he died several years ago in 1996. And, like Andy, he also served in World War Two. Now here’s where the story gets a little more coincidental.

My father and mother married in 1943 while he was in the Army, still stationed stateside. By the time he got his orders to ship overseas, she was carrying his child—a child who was destined to become a hack writer making weekly commentary on Cucina Chatter. His name is not important.

No, wait a minute, his name is very important, because that’s the crux of this story. You see before my dad left for the European Theater of War, he left instructions with his brother to remind my mother that if the child was a boy, he was to be named Paul. If it were a girl, well…that would be my mother’s call.

Many months later, while trudging across Normandy with the Ninth Infantry Division, his ammunition bearer (he was a machine-gunner) handed him a copy of the Stars and Stripes, the newspaper that kept the boys in combat informed of what was going on around them, and what was going on at home.

“You made the paper,” he told my father. As my dad looked at the article, he felt the blood drain from his arms. Whenever he told me this story, he always explained how angry it made him at the time.

You see, it was a simple little piece, headlined, “These Joes Owe Cigars.” It was a list of all “G.I. Joes” who had recently had children born to their wives back home—and there, in alphabetical order near the bottom of the list, was his name: PFC James Vanore from Philadelphia, and right next to it, the name of his son: James Vanore Jr. along with my birth date.

My mother, thinking it very possible that she might never see her young husband again, went against his wishes (and whatever prompting his brother provided) and named his son after him. So today, that hack writer is Jim Vanore, not Paul Vanore (although I do have a cousin Paul in Kennett Square, who does some writing).

My dad tore that section out of the Stars and Stripes, and I have it in front of me now, a little yellowed by age, but covered in plastic so it should at least outlive me. But for all the times I’ve held that piece of newsprint in my hands and looked at both our names and wondered how it must have felt to know that you had a son that you may never meet, I never bothered to turn the paper over—until about 10 years ago.

That’s when I noticed a bylined article about the fierce battle raging near the Siegfried Line as the U.S. army attempted to cross the Rhine. The article was simply headlined, “Flak City,” and it was written by a Stars and Stripes staff writer named Andy Rooney.

Ever since I discovered the other side of that paper, I’ve always felt that Andy Rooney, my dad, and I, have had this small ‘tether’ between us. I know it’s a bit of a stretch, but now, every time I hear someone say, “What’s in a name,” I think of the two Jims and the two Andys.

Two Andys? Oh, I forget to mention—my father’s brother—the one that was to remind my mother that the boy was to be named Paul—he too shipped out before I was born.

You see, my Uncle Andy was an Army medic, and he was named after his father. Uncle Andy was a terrific guy who died when I was in high school. I don’t know if he ever saw the other side of that paper either.

Below are the photo scans of that remnant from the 1944 Stars and Stripes.

The second photo is (I believe) of my dad underlining that article while in the field in France, since he looks a little peeved.

The third has our names at the bottom of the second column. My father underlined them, so the ink bleeds through on the scan. It reads: Pfc James Vanore, Philadelphia—James Jr., Oct 16.

The first is the flip side of the Stars and Stripes, and has a second column article headlined “Flak City,” and the byline underneath that headline reads: By Andy Rooney, Stars and Stripes Staff Writer.