This is a story about the summer of 1971 when I was a young teen. My father and I lived in an old army tent on a hillside in a rural town some 50 miles south of Buffalo NY. He and I (and my mother and siblings) hand built the house my mother still lives in. It is a coming of age story recounting the ever increasingly scarce traits of work ethic, community, and ability to "wipe your own ass" and not wait for someone else to do it for you.
THE HOUSE THAT AL BUILT
(Based On A True Story)
By Rick Manzone
(From The West Side To The Iron Island)
Most of my childhood memories were born on the streets of Buffalo, NY, the “Queen City”, more specifically, the Lovejoy area, nostalgically known as the “The Iron Island” no doubt due to the large amount of railroad tracks that surrounded it. 399 Gold Street, the first house our parent’s owned, would be my childhood home for most of the 1960’s. We had moved there from the West Site of the city where in the first 6 or so years of my life we lived in at least 3 or 4 different apartments. The house we lived in just before the move to Gold Street was a small house in the back yard of bigger house owned by my father’s employer at the time. A large garage, also owned by my father’s employer abutted the left side of the house. I remember the house had a small front porch. I also recall sitting in a rocking chair on that porch, wearing a red plaid bathrobe. I must have been 5 or 6 years old at the time and had chickenpox or measles or mumps or some other childhood malady. I remember that day vividly because it was the day my older sister got hit by a garbage truck as she crossed the street coming home from school. She was not seriously hurt however the experience stuck with me for life and I often recall it, if only subconsciously at intersections.
The house on Gold Street was a smaller two story home with a postage stamp sized lawn in the front, a small yard and garage in the back which my father had built after we moved in. There was a chain link fence separating the back of our yard from the back yard of the house on the next street over. There was a driveway between our house and the next that was barely wide enough for my father’s station wagon. Separating us from the house to the left was a 3-foot wide alleyway. I could reach out of my bedroom window and practically touch the neighbor’s house.
The main floor had a living room, dining room, kitchen, bath and 2 small bedrooms. There was a mudroom off the back. A wooden porch that had seen better days adorned the front. There was an addition built on the back, which made for a 3rd bedroom, which my parents used as the master bedroom and a small porch on the back that led to the mudroom. I don’t remember if my father built the addition and back porch or not. I do recall my father and grandfather and an assortment of uncles tearing off the dilapidated wooden front porch and building a new concrete porch with a wrought iron railing. The addition of the railing made me feel like our house was something special. At the time I though only rich people had wrought iron. My sister had one of the two original bedrooms to herself. My three younger brothers and myself shared the other. My parents had set up three bunk beds along one wall and a single bunk along the other for my youngest brother. I being the oldest, and largest, was assigned to the top bunk. My parent’s logic was that should I fall from the bunk, I would be hurt the least. There was an attic that spanned the length of the house and a basement that did the same. Eventually my father remodeled the front half of the attic into a dormitory for us boys. Four of the same beds, dressers and lamps all lined up along one wall. The best part of this room was that there were two windows that opened to the front porch roof. I spent many an afternoon on that porch roof contemplating life…. at least the life of a young lad in the sixties. The basement was a simple room where my mother did the wash and the furnace was housed. My mother would banish me to the basement when I was unruly or just being a general pain in the neck. While I was there I was to clean the place up or just sit on the stairs until enough time has passed and I could rejoin the world above ground. I recall one time when my younger brother Joe and I were sent to the basement because we had gotten in trouble for throwing snowballs at a man walking in front of our house. We were supposed to be cleaning up as part of our punishment. Instead we decided to climb out the basement window and escape. Of course as we were making our way up the street my dad was driving down the street to our house and saw us. Joe and I got in a few jams together as we were growing up. Although he is my younger brother, I always thought of him as the tougher one of us. I have a vivid memory of a winter day when a neighborhood bully was beating on me in the middle of the street as other kids looked on. Joe, who is two years younger and was much smaller than I was, charged into the fray and attacked the bully without fear or hesitation. Joe is the warrior of the family.
Growing up in the city, I did as a lot of city boys my age did. I attended public school all day and took the long way home to avoid the neighborhood bullies. I was fairly thin, blond haired and blue eyed up until the sixth grade. My haired turned brown and I became “husky", at least that is what the sizing chart at the Two Guys department store said. I was bullied and ridiculed for most of the rest of my time at grade school and well into my sophomore year in high school for not being as svelte as others. For some reason I was afraid to fight back, afraid of getting hurt. I don't blame my mother, however I do recall always being told by her that fighting solves nothing and that I shouldn't get into fights. What I did not realize at the time was that I was being hurt deeper and with longer lasting effects than if I had fought back and taken a beating. The only fight I remember being in as a kid was when I was about thirteen. A kid who had picked on me for years was once again in my face and I had had enough and went after him with all I had to offer. We rolled around in the street for a while punching the heck out of each other until our fathers broke it up. As my father dragged me away scolding me publicly for fighting, I remember him putting his hand on my shoulder and saying "You did good...you held your own." It was not until much later in life that I came to the conclusion that fighting back and standing up for your self, and I don't mean just physically, usually works toward a quicker resolution and less baggage to lug around.
Being members of the Roman Catholic Church at the time, I was required to attend Saint Agnes several times a week for Religious Education. This however seemed to have little if any influence on my ability to stay out of trouble. Nothing considered criminal mind you, like the shootings, stabbings, drug abuse, and other unconscionable acts being played out in today’s more “civilized” society…. where, by the way, we have the benefit of increased knowledge, a higher degree of access to information, and another fifty or so years of becoming better human beings under our belt. No, our downfalls were such heinous activities as hanging onto the big chrome rear bumpers (you remember bumpers don’t you) of neighborhood cars as they pulled us along the snow filled streets. Or, playing kick ball in the street and refusing to move when a car came along. Until, of course, the driver got out of his car, and then we’d scramble like ashes in the wind. Other favorites of the time were throwing snowballs at cars and busses or swiping penny candy from the corner store, a caper Joe and I would pull off every once in a while, which I’m pretty confident the owner knew we were doing. These dastardly deeds were the best we could muster up back then.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was incorrigible, however when I was in the second grade, my first year at good old P.S. #43, my mother sent a large wooden spoon to school with my older sister to give to my teacher. The spoon had a note attached to it that simply, and quite clearly, read “Use As Needed”. This was my mother’s permission slip for the teacher to apply the same time honored, family tradition method of keeping me in line during the school day as she did most of the time I was home. Believe me I much preferred the wooden spoon to my father’s belt which I felt the sting of on my backside more than once. It is safe to say that I was a “handful”. I wasn’t what you would call a troublemaker…more of a class clown. This would be a trait that would grow and evolve, as I got older.
After swapping school clothes for play clothes and having an afternoon snack of milk and cookies, perhaps the reason for my huskiness, I played in the streets until verbally assaulted by my mother with blaring declarations of “Dinner’s ready…get in here now before it’s cold”! All seven of us would sit at the table. Actually in the house on Gold Street it would be six as my youngest brother Bert was still in diapers. Bert was named Albert Frank Jr. after my father however since everyone called my father Al, it was only natural for Bert to assume the other half of the name. Dad sat at the head of the table with me to his left, with the bay window behind me looking out to the driveway. To my left was Joe being the next younger. My mother sat at the other end of the table. My sister and Chris, the brother born after Joe would sit on the other side. The strongest memory I have of dinner is the number of times I was swatted by dad for eating with my mouth open. He would say, “Nobody needs to hear you eating!” My father detested the noises that come out of someone’s mouth when they eat with there mouths open. I have to admit that until this day I suffer from the same issues. If I am in a restaurant and someone at a nearby table is eating with their mouths open, I have to move. The noise takes over my senses and makes the situation unbearable… thanks dad!
On summer evenings the familiar melodic sound of musical bells meant Mr. Softie was on his way and one of two things were about to happen. Either my parents would have money to buy us some type of ice cream treat and we would dance with joy or they wouldn’t have the money and we would sit on the porch steps watching our friends and neighbors enjoy them. The worst part of the whole Mr. Softie scenarios was that since our house was in the middle of the block, the ice cream truck was almost always parked in front of our house. Some evenings a flat bed truck with a carnival ride called “The Whip” would occupy the ice cream truck’s spot. The Whip was comprised of about a dozen or so two person open cars connected to a chain that traveled in a large oval. The chain would carry the cars along the straightaway and then whip around the ends of the oval. The cost to ride this rather basic yet enjoyable contraption was one thin dime. Sometimes we got to ride “The Whip” and sometimes we got to ride the front porch steps. Our participation in these evening rituals was dependant on whether or not my father had change in his pockets… and if it hadn’t already been spent on a pack of cigs. Don’t get me wrong my father was not a cheap skate or a stingy person. Quite the contrary, he was a very generous person with his limited resources, both of which were time and money. We didn’t have much when I was a kid, but we always had what we needed.
One summer around 1965 or so, my father, being the consummate do-it-yourselfer, was trimming a poplar tree in our yard and fell to the blacktop driveway below shattering a good portion of his vertebrae. He was laid up in the hospital for several months while the doctors reconstructed his spine. During this time my mother and I would trek several miles by foot with a pull behind metal pop-open grocery basket to the Masten Avenue Armory to pick up large cans of Government Issue chipped beef, oatmeal, peanut butter and split pea soup. My father’s pride would not let him accept welfare or other forms of public assistance during his hospital stay. My mother didn’t work, what with 5 children at home to take care of, and I’m pretty sure they had no health insurance other than what my father had accessible from the VA as an U.S. Army veteran. Being a veteran, dad felt he had earned the help of the Armory but still accepted it reluctantly. For the next few years, times were very lean for us. Christmas meant toys from the “Courier Express Toy Drive”, vacations were one day trips to free admission locations such as The Niagara Power Authority, or a day at Emery Park or Chestnut Ridge, or a ride to the country. I have to admit though that I remember those times more strongly and clearly than any others.
Getting back to evenings on Gold Street. When the street lights would come to life I knew it was only a matter of time before my mother’s voice would once again reach out though the night like a construction crane and drag me into the house to spend family time watching the variety show of my parent’s choice, usually either Sonny and Cher, The Smothers Brothers, the Glen Campbell Hour or Hee Haw. Our television was a black and white RCA cabinet model with rabbit ears. Our channel selection was 2, 4 and sometimes 7. Everything on television back then was family friendly and considered wholesome and appropriate. By today’s standards all of the commercials and most of the cartoons would be banned for being violent, racial, sexist, unhealthy and anti government. It wasn’t until we became technologically superior that it all that went to “hell in a hand basket”. But that’s another story.
I would lie on the floor with my arms wrapped around a pillow tucked under my chin, as my mother would be working on some yet to be finished chore and my father amused us with his nightly version of “The Drift Off Dance” as my siblings and I called it. He would light up a BelAir or Raleigh and then start to drift off only to snort, choke, shutter, slightly wake up, mumble something incoherent, and then repeat the scenario several times. During these episodes he would often talk in his sleep uttering some type of broken Japanese language. He always insisted that he knew no language other than English however he did spend time in Korea and Japan while in the Army. The most amazing part of the dance is that the cigarette never left his lips and no ashes ever fell wayward onto his shirt. It is important to mention that my father worked three jobs during those years, all at the same time. He worked a day shift at the Dupont plant after which he would drive taxi for Occhino Towing on the West Side and would then bring home one of their tow trucks and go out on calls during the night. On weekends and school vacations he would often allow me to join him as he went to rescue a disabled vehicle on the I90 Interstate. The most memorable link in this part of my childhood memory chain was the ritualistic rewarding of ourselves for a job well done with hot chocolate and slime dogs.... at 3 o’clock in the morning.... a tradition I still long for but forego for the sake of a healthier heart and fewer “concerned” looks from my spouse. Oh, how I do miss those early morning slime dogs though.