Sunday, February 4, 2007

My Hero Turned 75 Last Week

My two brothers, Rob and Bill,(seen here with my Dad) their spouses, my Mom, and I collaborated on a birthday party for my father, Ralph for his 75th birthday. You can see a slide show here.
Let me tell you why he's my hero. Born during the depression to Jim , an Italian immigrant from Pietrelcina (the birthplace of Padre Pio) and Filomena, an Italian-American born on Mulberry Street in the heart of New York City's Little Italy. Ralph William Crafa was born breach at 13 pounds into the kitchen of a working class family of six children. Sharing a large old house in a working class neighborhood in Flushing, Queens with various relatives was a study in Italian American culture. Their father played mandolin, violin, and 4-string banjo in an Italian band. Often, practice was in Filomena's cavernous kitchen, while she made Sunday dinner of macaroni with homemade sauce.
Life was difficult for the Crafas during the Depression, but they all went to St. Michael's Catholic School, and enjoyed baseball games in the backyard when their father wasn't looking. He had a large tomato garden in the small yard, which provided tomatoes for Filomena's fresh Italian tomato sauce. Once, the boys joked, "Hey, Pop, if you see a tomato with stitches on it in your garden, DON'T eat it!".
World War II broke out and the Crafas sent their dog Queenie into the military, since they were all too young to sign up. Their father had volunteered for World War I, but, as he like to brag, "the Kaiser heard I was coming, and quit!" The German Shepherd served with distinction, and when she returned, the boys went to pick her up, and were warned that the war might have changed her temperament. As they opened the crate, she jumped into their arms like old times!
She had an intense dislike of the vegetable vendor, however, and used to chase him down the driveway, spilling produce as he ran!
Filomena took a job to help support the family, as a receptionist at Flushing Hospital, where she translated into Italian and Spanish. This left the two oldest daughters, Teresa and Barbara in charge of the brothers on Saturdays. The orders from Mom were to clean the house, and the boys were to have money for the Saturday double feature when they cooperated. They, however, had a better idea. They wreaked havoc until the sisters threw them out, and locked the doors. Then, they knocked incessantly on both front and back doors till Barbara would beg Teresa, "just give them the money and tell them to get OUT of here!"
When the Korean War broke out, Joe went into the Army, and Ralph volunteered for the Airforce. He spent the next four years at the base in San Antonio Texas, dealing with the inevitable cultural clashes. Like when the Southern privates played what Ralph called, "hillbilly music" under his barrack window, waking him up in the morning, Ralph countered the next day by blasting his favorite singer, Mario Lanza's operatic arias. Going into downtown San Antonio was a culture shock as well, as Ralph's black friends had to enter the movie theatre from a separate entrance, sitting in the balcony, or were barred from his favorite Italian restaurants altogether. He couldn't understand segregation, because on Prince Street in Flushing, blacks and whites lived together in harmony.
Returning home to start college at 21, Ralph's found his family had moved to West Islip, halfway down the South Shore of Long Island, to a little home on a lake. Ralph who always had artistic talent, painted a seascape mural on the living room wall, which has remained there for the last 50 years though his parents had long since sold the home. He attended Adelphi University on the GI bill, while holding down a full time job, at Doubleday close to the school, and graduated Magna Cum Laude, going on to Fordham Law School. While at Doubleday, Ralph used to cross Franklin Avenue to pray for a wife at the statue of St. Anthony at St. Joseph's Church. An Irish Immigrant mother of three named Helen prayed in front of that same statue, for a husband for her daughter, who was working as a secretary at LILCO, while attending night classes at Hoftsra University. Around this time, Ralph's friend Don set him up with a girl named Eleanor Bonk, who lived near Doubleday in Garden City. After two years of dating, my parents married in St. Joseph's Church, in front of the St. Anthony statue where both Dad and my Grandmother had prayed.
Their early married life involved sacrifice, living in the old house Helen and Theodore owned in Garden City, as Dad continued to hold down a full time job as one of the first computer programmers at General Motors in New York City, as he attended Fordham Law. He used to arrive home on the train from the City at 11:30 at night, eat dinner, and go to bed. Their only time together was on Sundays during my Dad's study breaks, when they would eat dinner with one set of their parents.
Soon I announced my coming into the family, and my mother quit work to prepare for my birth. She lost her father that year, saddening my first Christmas. By the time Dad was studying for the Bar Exam, I was teething, and crying so loudly, the neighbors would tell my Mom, "She's going to be an opera singer!". Of course, being a fan, Dad like that idea!
Four years later, my brother Bill was born, with a deformity in his legs that required him to wear them in casts for months. Dad's first job as an attorney which he held for 20 years, was at the Aetna Insurance Company in Garden City. My parents bought our home in Northport when I was entering Kindergarten, a charming town with a century-old Main Street ending in a lovely harbor. Dad had a long commute, but wanted to raise his family here. The year was 1967.
Three years later, in 1970, my youngest brother Robert was born. We grew up roaving around our quiet neighborhood and soon the boys and I were old enough for baseball. Dad was an umpire for my softball games, and a coach for the boys' Little League teams. Soon he found himself Commissioner of the entire Northport Little League.
To be continued. . .

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