I WAS THE NINTH child in a family of 12, and I came along during a period in my father's life when he just might have been getting a little weary of kids.
The night I was born, so the family leg-end goes (my parents were living in Roxbury, Mass., at the time), my father had come down with typhoid fever.
While the doctor was paying attention to my father, my mother quietly went into the other bedroom and I was born. The whole visit came to $5.
My father's indifference to this new kid on the block never bothered me much; I was just happy to be there and we both realized that we belonged to each other and let it go at that.
This realization was brought to light one day when an older sister said. "Don't yo know Pa likes the girls and Mama likes the boys?" There were six of each in our family and somehow this distribution of affection made sense.
Like the recollections of most of us, my earliest are of a stand-out day or a period of time that turns the past into a patchwork of memories.
My father was an Italian immigrant who came to America in 1896 from a small farming village in the hills about 30 miles from Naples.
His name was Charles and he was 10 years old at the time, the oldest in a family that later listed seven children. Three were born in Italy and four in America. His father had been in America for two years having been recruited from their farm to come to Boston and work as a laborer digging America's first subway.
Like the Army a big family spreads rumors and it is hard to pin down the truth.
What I do know is that his father, my grandfather, was killed in a messy accident while working on the subway.
So my father quit school in the seventh grade and went to work in a shoe factory to help support his family.
From that day on until his death he was destined to work at a variety of jobs, some more rewarding than others.
At the age of 19, he met a 16-year-old Irish girl from South Boston at a dance. Her name was Abigail Cady, which she later changed to Barbara, liking the sound a little better.
They won a waltz contest that night and the waltz never seemed to end for them. They married shortly after, much against her family's wishes and along with a withering stare from his side of the family.
It was a Sunday at St. Roses Church in Chelsea Mass., and the newlyweds set out to prove to both families that what was considered a "mixed marriage" in those days could work.
On the afternoon of my mother's burial, after 60 years of marriage, my father was lying on a lounge, hating what happened. His misery moved my brother who said, "My God it was a love affair."
He heard and said, "She was so beautiful, and her family was so poor over there in South Boston, I had to get her away from the Irish."
The combined nationalities of my parents made us become a very closely-knit family. This was mostly because the Irish relatives did not like us and the Italian side was suspicious.
I guess I must have been about 7 or 8 when my father and I first became aware of each other. At the time I was having a very tough time in the second grade and he was taking the side of the nuns who were making it tough.
"Nobody likes a wise guy," were his words of advice during a period when more sympathetic words were needed.
My communication with my father after that bacame a series of one-liners like, "Take out the garbage," or "Fill the oil bottle."
Throughout our togetherness the lines became stronger to coincide with growth on my part. "I'm giving you enough rope to hang yourself." Later, because he smokes a pipe and chewed tobacco he would advise, "Don't smoke cirgarettes, smoke a cigar like a man. Only girls smoke cigarettes."
To support his large family he held a variety of jobs, some of which I only heard about. One was when he was a bicycle-riding constable in South Braintree, Mass.
He was a law-and-order man when it came to keeping the house in order. It probably was a throwback to his earlier constable days.
Each evening the dinner table was crowded and there had to be quiet. Around the extended table the older children each had a chair. The younger children shared a homemade bench behind the table.
To keep the assemblage from suddenly erupting any second into mayhem he kept a broom at his elbow, and if one of the younger kids acted up he would give him a rap on the head.
The cars he bought were always second-hand and big. One summer when the family was still growing, he bought an open truck out of desperation and put benches in it.
It gave us great status in this neighborhood of large families. We knew that each summer evening when he came home from work we could to to the beach and were allowed to invite a friend or two along.
It was the first and maybe the only time I felt - or had - power and unashamedly wielded it over my pals.
My father excelled in games of skill and was not one of the "let-the-children-win-once-in-a-while" school.
He would wipe you out in checkers or some simple card game with great glee.
It proved practical later in life when word got back to him from some of his cronies that I was investing money in pool.
He caught up with me on a Saturday night, found out I had $3 and promptly ran the rack in six straight games of eight-ball at 50 cents a game, and left me for dead.
As for spectator sports, he tolerated baseball, thought football insane, could not understand basketball, but loved the thundering vibration of the horses coming down the stretch - especially if he had something on a horse up front.
To tell how well he did out there in the world of chance we always had a little barometer to go by.
It might have been a fast horse, a number or a good poker hand, but he would come home, sit at a tinny old upright piano and in a self-taught honkytonk, he would bang out, *"Won't You Come Home Bill Bailey" or some other hit tune of the time.
Like many men with large families during the Depression, the system beat him down. Not being able to work frightened those men. The insecurity made them pull the family together the better to protect them from whatever was out there.
Out there in our neighborhood was a tough bully who beat up at least one kid a day and sometimes two.
One day it was my turn to get banged around when I caught a short-pop fly ball that he thought should have dropped so he could call it a home run.
Still holding the bat he headed for me in the outfield.
I was always pretty fast, faster than that lumbering oaf, so I turned and headed for a real home run with everyone in pursuit.
Banging through the back screen door, (even in hot pursuit we were never allowed to use the front), I almost knocked down my father as he was headed out to the backyard to see what all the yelling was about.
"What's going on?" (It was another one-liner he used on me a lot.)
If I had known what the word "sacrificial" meant I would have said, "My friends want me to be the sacrificial lamb today for the neighborhood bully, so he won't beat one of them up." But all I said was, "That blond kid out there wants to fight."
"No son of mine runs from a fight," he said, sounding like a general. "Go out and knock his block off or leave home."
It was not my first suspicion of whose side he was on in my life.
"It was one hell of a fight, but I won Pop," were the words on a telegram I would have liked to have sent him from Madison Square Garden 10 years later.But no, it happened right there in the old dirt back yard.I guess I almost knocked the bully's block off; anyway he ran, with me chasing him, the fickle crowd now on my side.
My father never mentioned the incident again, and I just knew it was something I was supposed to do.
The one-liners went on. One day an assistant coach accompanied me to my home because I had a broken collar bone suffered in scoring a touchdown that afternoon.
Ignoring the coach's outstretched hand he glared at me and said, "You damn fool."
"Don't do anything stupid," were his parting words the morning I left for Navy boot camp. A few months later, after having a ship torpedoed out from under me, I was home on leave.
Standing in the living room I announced that I had volunteered for submarines and had been accepted.
Again he glared at me, and then the living room ceiling, and said, "I knew it, you just did something stupid."
Our tradition was for everyone to return to the house for a reunion on Thanksgiving Day.
By the time I was grown four children had died, two boys and two girls, from causes that would be cured today in a week.
He liked to take his four sons down to the Eagles Hall, stand at the bar, order four beers and a rock and rye for himself.
The security of Civil Service always impressed him and he never stopped telling me to take the policeman's exam, the fireman's exam, or "Go become a mailman."
An older brother, using the initial CEM, became a very successful cartoonist and illustrator for The New Yorker magazine.
Another brother, older, made a full career as a postal inspector.
A younger brother became a police sergeant. As for me, I was working on newspapers, barely paying rent and liking what I was doing.
We would all stand at the bar sipping our beer and he would look around for his pals to introduce us.
The introductions always started with the policeman, "This is my son John, he's on the police force . . . You know Al, he's a postal inspector . . . This is my son Joe, he does some kind of work for a newspaper . . . And that's my oldest boy, Charlie." Here there was always a pause, because he was never quite sure what the most financially successful of all four of us was doing for a living, and he would say, "He draws pictures for magazines," and we all had to love him for that.
After our mother's death he left the old house and made an attempt to live in Florida with a daughter.
The balmy breezes blowing off the Florida beaches could never stand up to the cigar smoke of his card-playing pals at the Eagles Hall so he came back to live alone in his own home.
He had my brother and his wife, Jean, and seven children to make chicken soup for on Sundays. He would get up early; make the soup, put it in jars and walk the two miles to my brother's home to spend Sunday afternoons.
It was sort of his ticket to get in - which, of course, he really never needed.
On a day before Christmas one time I was moved to write a story about a Christmas at home remembered. The Boston Globe picked it up and ran it on page one.
Knowing that he was a subscriber I called to ask if he had read it. There was a long pause, and he said, "You made us sound like a bunch of Guineas."
He was 87 years old when a sister called one day to say that he had suffered a stroke and was in a nursing home, not expected to live long.
Having just been through months of a situation similar to that and realizing he would not know who was in the room, I knew that when we met I would need one of his one-liners, and none would be coming.
Flying up for his funeral shortly after, I thought about our communications in life and figured, "Hell, for all the one-liners I got from him, he talked to me a lot in a family of 12."