Letters at 3AM: As Time Goes By
"I'm not quitting. I'm turning," says Michael Ventura in his final column
Michael Luciano Ventura was born in Italian East Harlem of Sicilian parents on Tuesday, February 8, 1916. The New York Times cost one penny, and that day the paper headlined a White House meeting about the German sub attack on the RMS Lusitania that killed 1,198 civilians (128 Americans).
Page 2: "American Burned Alive by Turks" and "Allied Guns Damage Many Enemy Positions."
William S. Hart starred in Hell's Hinges. Enrico Caruso sang Rigoletto.
Michael Luciano spoke no English until he entered public school, then grew to speak the language sonorously, grammatically, and dramatically. It was often said of him: "He can talk the handle off a coffee pot."
Clelia Rosalee Scandurra was born on Saturday, September 21, 1918. The New York Times now cost two cents.
The day before, the paper announced: "Our Casualties Abroad Now Total 35,132." Also: "Report Reds Burned Czarina and Family."
The day of Clelia Rosalee's birth, the Times headlined: "Germans Intrench to Stop Our Advance. ... Turks Routed in Palestine."
Page 5: "Declares America Is World Leader."
Al Jolson was on Broadway. So was D.W. Griffith's Hearts of the World.
Clelia Rosalee was raised in the Sicilian village of Venetico. Her mother was an evangelistic pianist, her father an atheist cornetist. She didn't learn English until she emigrated to the U.S. in 1929. In high school, she won a prize for reading more library books (in English) than any girl in New York City. No one ever bested her in an argument but me, and only once:
"Ma, Pa never won an argument with you, did he?"
"No." Her no always sounded like a quietly slammed door.
"That's too bad, isn't it, Ma? 'Cause nobody's right all the time."
Not quite five feet tall, she stared down the big fears, split in two more than once, taught her children beauty, and gave her eldest, me, a sort of prime directive: "Never get on your knees to anybody."
Clelia Rosalee married Michael Luciano September 15, 1940. Their mentor, Rep. Vito Marcantonio, was a wedding guest. (He's worth looking up.)
That Sunday, the Times bannered: "Improved London Defenses Repel Nazi Raids. ... Italy Advances In Egypt. ... Congress Votes Conscription, Age Limit 21 to 35."
Gone With the Wind was still in its first run, Errol Flynn starred in The Sea Hawk, John Garfield and Frances Farmer in Flowing Gold.
According to next day's paper, during my parents' celebration, Germany flew 400 warplanes across the English Channel and the RAF downed 185. It was the climax of the Battle of Britain.
December 1940: In a picture called Comrade X, Clark Gable's character told Hedy Lamarr's, "You can't have a revolution with people who believe in hot dogs and boogie-woogie." That vexed my passionately Communist parents.
October 31, 1945. The name on the birth certificate is Michael Vincent Ventura. Three days before, my father was discharged from the Army. Eleven weeks before, the U.S. incinerated Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
My mother spent that war staffing Manhattan's Italian-American radical weekly L'Unità del Popolo, working closely with Giuseppe Berti. Postwar, Berti became an important Italian Communist. I suspect it was he who recruited my parents into a Soviet spy ring. My father was a reluctant functionary; my mother was the spy. It seems having four children was a good cover. The FBI peeked, questioned, but did not arrest. Lucky me. (My parents abandoned their fraught sideline sometime in 1953.)
On the Wednesday I was born, The New York Times cost three cents, and the world of 1945 was edgy about atomic bombs. Page one reported that British and American leaders would discuss "the problems to which the discovery of atomic energy have given rise."
Page 2: "World's Top Navy Voted by the House ... to Crush Aggression With Irresistible Force." Page 6: "War Ban Is Urgent, 515 Scientists Say," and "Russia is confident her scientists will develop the atomic bomb."
John Wayne starred in Back to Bataan. Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce.
Oct. 31, 1974, exactly 29 years after my arrival, The New York Times cost 20 cents and the free-for-all Austin Sun hit the streets with my first piece.
The Times' Page 1: "Kissinger Plans 'Salvage' Visit to Middle East – Upset By Arab Meeting." Page 5: "'Terrorism' or Liberation Struggles?" and "Israeli Craft Shell Camp In Lebanon." Page 12: "Kissinger Assures India That C.I.A. Won't Interfere."
Movies: Chinatown, Deep Throat, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
Headlines are announcements from the world that calls itself "the world," beyond which lies the world that is ours, no matter where bombs fall – a world of gestures; glances; utterances; runny noses; nightmares; prayers; guffaws; private parts; paradisiacal hopes; and Heraclitus, who whispers, "All men think" – myriad unnewsworthy moments happening again and again, each time uniquely, and, if they don't happen, nothing else happens.
This must be remembered every time we read a headline.
To be a human being is an incomprehensible adventure that will make of you a marvelous catastrophe.
A marvelous catastrophe. Like a little big bang.
With no notion of the farthest outcomes of your actions.
The Austin Sun paid $35 for my first piece. I had no other money. Slept on sofas of people I didn't know. (Thank you.) Holding that Sun in my hands was the happiest and most confusing moment that had yet happened to me.
I knew my Sun piece was really good, and I knew, on no evidence, that this was the beginning of a life that would truly be mine. Dizzying. I know now how fortunate I am to have had such a day.
That day expanded 40 full years to this day, Oct. 31, 2014.
The early edition's front page is curiously peaceful, but the world is not: "New Russian Boldness Revives Cold War Tradition" (p.7), "Sunni Tribesmen Say ISIS Exacts Brutal Revenge" (p.8), "American Drone Strike Kills 6 in Pakistani Tribal Area" (p.8), "Sweden Gives Recognition to Palestinians" (p.10).
A Sicilian proverb haunts me (I'd like for it not to be true.): "Everything must change, so that everything may remain the same."
As the lyric has it, "The fundamental things apply."
It is 3:01am. I wanted to complete my 40th year as a working writer, come hell or high water, because I like closing circles, and, anyway, I'm a romantic, which is more fun than a lot of other things one can be.
Beyond the world that calls itself "the world," in the world which is ours and which is everywhere, an elderly individual, me, will enjoy the beginning of his 70th year in the inviting dark of 4am, sipping whiskey-laced tea, bundled against the chill, sitting on a bench in the park across the street, thinking whatever, feeling this and that, and watching a small part of the world that is ours wake up to a day that is far more unpredictable than most people would prefer.
Hey: Good luck to you.
For myself, now there's nothing between me and my novel but me, and nothing to do but write it. Live it. Write it. Scary shit. No column. Just me. Crazy-exciting. (And, as my mother used to say, "Funny-peculiar.")
A friend asked, "So you're quitting?"
"I'm not quitting. I'm turning. Leaves turn color before they fall."
And the days become weeks, and the weeks become months, and the months become years.