The latest comes from John Connelly, author of several wonderful stories to this blog. John's Smoke Rise East Gate Story takes place at New Year's a long time ago and honors his father, John Connelly Sr.
and for those who remember him
in heaven and on earth.
There are whispers around us and in us. We’d hear them but for the din of impatient trivialities.
"Ten!... nine!... eight!... seven!"
Dad and Mom joined the countdown. The Kin-wood Inn (now Piccolo’s) was overflowing with Kinnelon and Smoke Rise neighbors eager to crow goodbye to 1962 and shout-in a new and glorious year. The room was choked with party hats, short tight-bright dresses, minks, perfume and liberal eye-makeup. Dad sported a Brooks Brothers tuxedo. These were the spoils and temptations of their modern age. Scotch Whiskey and Rye made the transition smoother and more joyous.
"Six!... five!... four!... three!..."
Couples stood each with the other in arm, free hand holding glasses high.
"Two!... one!... Happy New Year!"
With that Mr. and Mrs. Wohltmann cried out a toast in an uncharacteristically bombastic hoot, champagne corks popped and the air filled with little multi-colored streamers from a hundred party poppers. A reflexive singing of “Auld Lang Syne” followed like the expected response at church: May the Lord be with you….”and with your spirit.” Mom, being from Scotland, delighted the crowd by singing in the tongue of her homeland:
“We twa hay rin aboot the braes,
an pood the gowans fyn;
Bit weev wandert monae a weery fet,
sin ald lang syn!”
The old gave way to the new with the oldest of traditions. Mom whispered “I love you” to Dad and the crowd celebrated together the passage to a new age.
The party would go past 2 am. Dad, being Irish, felt compelled to be among the last to leave.
Stepping into the cool evening air he realized, for the first time, just how drunk he was. Struggling to focus, he fumbled with the keys, opened the door for Mom and then slumped into the driver’s seat. Back then, drunk or not, a man drove home. Besides, it wasn’t far. We lived on Orchard Road, just up the road, through the East Gate. It was just a few miles away. Head on the steering wheel he could see his shoes. They were covered in cold mud. He’d stepped in a puddle on the way to the car. “Jasus, Mary and Joseph” he mumbled to himself. Fortunately his tuxedo was unsullied.
It was a warmer New Years than normal. Still cold, mind you, but just above freezing. Mounds of blackened snow lined the streets and walkways, and mud was in abundance. The stars twinkled above as only they do in winter.
Mom asked if Dad could drive and he slurred, “Sure enough, my dear, sound as a pound…..I’ll be just followin’ the lines….,” and starting up, he inched out onto Stone House Road, made a right, and crept along, door slightly open, looking down at the lines. He could hear the crackle of the tires against the wet pavement beneath. The cool blast of air kept him awake.
“Just gotta’ keep followin’ the lines my dear…”
Dad had learned early on to follow the lines.
As a young Irish boy he’d sit at his kitchen table in the ironbound section of Newark. His house so small its address was 33 1/3rd Johnson St. They’d squeezed three homes onto one lot. From that table he’d watch the lines around his mother’s crystal-blue eyes as she examined his tea leaves and smiled.
“Ye have no worries, Johnnie. Just be rememberin’ Jasus and the Holy Saints in all ye do.”
She’d add with wink and a whisper, “and dun be thinkin’ too much of yeself.”
At St. Columba Catholic school he learned to stay in line from the boxing Joey Nuncio got in the ear from Sister Ida. He’d stepped a bit too far to one side waiting in line for the water fountain. His ear bright red and so hot to the touch that the kids had to take turns feeling it. He’d learned, too, from Father Duffy who had reminded him to live a life of quiet piety. An altar boy, he’d rung the bell at the wrong time during Mass and was ordered to report to the rectory. The lines of the priest’s eyes were deep as he smiled and pointed to his long white “alb”, or outer priestly garment, and whispered to Dad , “A spot on the alb is seen afar, Johnnie. So dun be shamin’ the good Lord.” These the whispers of a generation.
And so in line Dad took the Holy Body of Christ Communion, and in line he signed up to fight the Germans. He’d waited his turn in line to bail out of a burning plane over Germany and fell to the earth in one heavenly line of white parachutes, only to end up lined against a wall with his crewmates and shipped to a concentration camp. In line they’d entered the boxcar, in line they’d been run up a muddy hill to the camp, crazed dogs lunging at their legs.
There would be lines for eating, and lines for washing and lines that if you crossed you’d get a bullet in the ear. Lines to march in for months around Germany then lines to board ships for home and lines to welcome him back in the States. He’d learned to trust the lines and that night he’d do the same; just a lot slower.
Ten miles an hour, I think. Maybe less.
He’d been the son; the Christian; the soldier. His mother would be proud, he thought. He’d remembered Jesus and the Holy Saints and had never spotted his alb. The lines went by, one by one….slowly. He stayed in line.
But, he was now 38 years old. A successful developer, he’d moved his wife and five children to Smoke Rise. Neighborhoods now existed thanks to him. A hundred families slept this night warm in the homes he’d imagined and created with his Italian partners. It felt good, this moment….line…….line……….line………to be him.
Approaching the gate, he pulled over and stumbled out. Back then the East Gate was closed and locked at midnight. After that hour everyone had to enter Smoke Rise through the North Gate. A thick metal chain was thrown through the East Gate bars and clasped shut with a large lock. The gatekeeper would go to bed. But Dad had charmed a spare key out of one of the gatekeepers and routinely would let himself in at all hours.
He struggled with the freezing lock, harrumphing in the cold night air. Mom was asleep.
“Come on!” he grumbled. The key wasn’t working. Perhaps it was his cold hands, perhaps the alcohol or something else, but the lock did not cooperate. He stood still grasping the metal gate and tried to steady himself. Something about the cold, seeing his breath perhaps, took him back to Stalag Luft IV and he remembered “Big Stoop.”
It had been a crisp winter night like this when Big Stoop, a German prison guard, made Dad and his comrades line up and strip naked under the glare of prison lights. While the prisoners quivered unprotected from the night air, Big Stoop rummaged through the pockets of their discarded clothing and collected the photos of the mothers, wives and girlfriends back home; then rubbed them to his genitals and howled.
When Big Stoop noticed one prisoner had forgotten to remove his hat, he struck him violently to the ground and crushing the man’s throat under his boot screamed out “Respect! Respect!” until the breath of the GI was no longer visible in the cold night air. If you got out of line, Big Stoop would box you in the ear with such force that he punctured many an eardrum. Dad avoided Big Stoop.
When the camp was liberated, Big Stoop’s body was found in a field, his head on a stake. Big Stoop thought too much of himself, Dad thought. He’d forgotten the Holy Saints.
Just then a light went on in the gatehouse.
“Who’s out there?”
“Never mind, I have a key. I won’t be more than a minute.”
“Who is that? What are you doing there?”
“Blah, blah, blah” Dad mumbled, his mind dulled with drink.
After a minute or so, the gatekeeper stood on the stone porch bathed in yellow light and called out, “You have to come up here immediately. There’s someone who wants to talk to you!”
“Jasus”, Dad thought. He straightened up, suddenly sobered by the gatekeeper’s command. He stepped up the old stone steps and made the little right turn into the gatehouse. The gatekeeper stood indignant and condescending.
“There!” the keeper said, pointing to a phone off the hook and sitting on a nightstand, “HE wants to talk to you.”
The gatekeeper was dressed in a tattered robe like some common shepherd Dad had seen in one of his childhood catechism books. Dad stood in tuxedo and topcoat. For just that instant Dad stared disdainfully at him. The Keep glared back indignantly. After all, Dad had interrupted his slumber.
“Hello?” Dad said.
“Who is this?” a voice demanded.
Dad, usually the jolly fellow was now irritated.
“Who is this?” Dad demanded in return. The gatekeeper began to soften. His face smiling slightly as shock came over him.
“This is Gene Tuite!! Gene Tuite!! I ask again, who is this?”
Gene Tuite was about 20 years older than Dad. He’d been one of the first members of Smoke Rise and was now the leader of a “new” old guard, having had it accrue to him and them with the death of the Kinneys; he was now a self appointed ruler of the world behind the gates. But it was the start of a new year and the stars twinkled.
Dad hesitated, and then spoke up.
“This is John Connelly. What’s it to ya?”
The gatekeeper was now alive with delight. He was grinning broadly and wildly shaking his fists as if to say “Atta boy Johnnie, give it right back to him!!” Emboldened by the support Dad laid it on thicker. The gatekeeper’s mouth hung agape. He was watching the very power of the heavens being shaken; the ruler of the world being cast out.
Tuite demanded “Where did you get that key?”
“None of your business!” Dad barked. The gateman was beside himself.
“You give that key to the Keeper at once!”
“I will NOT! Goodnight to you sir!”
With that, Dad hung up forcefully, now surprisingly clear-headed. The room was still but Dad knew in that instant that everything had changed. He had arrived. He’d stood up to the baddest, most powerful man in Smoke Rise. He was his equal. Maybe, like a favored son he was his better. He’d been the poorest kid in school, unable to muster the dime required for school books. He’d lost his dad while in eighth grade, was boxed about by every nun from 1st to 12th grade, was the youngest of 8 surviving children, lost two brothers and a sister to childhood diseases, collected scrap metal and cardboard, giving the proceeds to his mother. He’d survived anti-aircraft flak and Big Stoop, married a Scottish beauty, started a business and moved his family to Smoke Rise. He stood straight. The gatekeeper stepped aside to let him pass.
“Goodnight to you sir” the keeper said with a slight bow.
“And goodnight to you” Dad countered like some imagined Lord from the Old Country.
Dad stepped onto the porch. It was his moment. He’d followed the lines and had arrived. He could be forgiven, he thought, for thinking just a bit of himself in that instant. Surely mother would approve. This new world, America, had been kind to the Irish. He, like fellow Irish immigrant Francis Kinney, had risen in the less than two decades since the war above his peers his ancestors and his circumstances. He stood for a second, elevated there, bathed in soft yellow light. He smiled the wry smile of a monarch.
The cool air embraced him. His soft blue eyes looked out at his new Ford LTD. He saw his lovely wife, her tan cheek against the window. He thought of his 5 children asleep at home in their beds. He thought of his business partners; his bank account. Proudly he stepped straight forward into the night …..
…..and, “wwwhhhhhhhhh!” a whoosh of cool air passed over his ears like a long cold whisper.
He’d forgotten that Kinney had not built that blasted stoop in a straight line, but rather, curved it around to the left. He fell forward slowly in the dark, then downward. Past howling Joey Nuncio and whispering Father Duffy, smiling in his white alb. Past red-faced, fist-clenched Sister Ida and Big Stoop, lunging dogs and soup lines, scrap yards and tea leaves. Through streaming lines of multi-colored paper and tight-bright dresses, past lines of Scottish verse and lined crystal-blue eyes, Jesus, the Holy Saints and little ringing bells until he landed, face flat, in a small lake of mud and snow and ice.
Rising slowly, he surveyed the cold thick mud from nose to toes.
“Jasus, Mary and Joseph!” he whimpered. Then, after a moment of frustration, he suddenly laughed to himself as he pictured his mother’s wink and listened afresh to the wisdom in her whisper.
Unlocking the gate, driving past and relocking it, cold and looking as any penniless old-world beggar, he once more slowly followed the lines.
Once more they got him home.
Note: John Connelly Sr. lived with his family in Smoke Rise from 1962 to 1980. He is 86 years old now and lives in Jacksonville, Florida with his second wife Winona, having lost Jeanne in 1988. His war experiences were recently written about on a front page story in the Jacksonville Florida Times Union in Jacksonville veteran's story is different from all the others and also Jacksonville man integral part in establishing museum in town where he was a POW.
|Photo from John Connelly: Dad is front row, second from the left.|
Image credit: photo taken of amazing watercolor of East Gate from Kinnelon Library's 2011 CLL Art Exhibit.