Back from our trip
My old man talks

two excerpts from last year's November novel

Over at the card table, Tommy and Vinny were arguing again. Oddly, it was about who put on a better show; Tom Jones or Engelbert Humperdinck.

“Did you know that Engelbert Humperdinck’s real name was Arnold? Who goes from Arnold to Engelbert? Somebody who takes himself way too seriously, that’s who!” Tommy shook his head mournfully. “Tom never did that. That’s why he still has a career.”

Vinny laughed, shuffling the cards slowly and deliberately, as he always did. He’s never in a hurry. “Some producer or agent named him that, that’s all. It’s what they did back in those days. Didn’t you ever think about what name you’d take to become a big star, Tommy?”

“And what’s wrong with my name, then, huh? You think there haven’t been plenty of famous people named Tommy before? Tommy Smothers, Tommy Dorsey, uh, Tommy, I don’t know, it was good enough for Tom Jones, wasn’t it?”

“That’s just my point. It’s a belly button name. Too common, too ordinary. And your last name, nobody would have gone for it back then, too Italian. They all changed their names, except Sinatra.”

“He didn’t have to.”

Vinny said, “Damn straight. But everybody else did. Dean did it, Tony did it, Bobby, too. And plenty of others. A whole lot of Italian people on TV, but you can’t tell by their names. Look at Alan Alda.”

“Alan Alda? He’s Italian? I guess Alda might have started out longer, eh? But you’re so out of touch, Vinny. Alda ain’t been on TV in years. People don’t change their names so much anymore, either.”

“True enough, but they did. Jack over there, he might be Alda’s cousin. You know about his famous dad, right? Robert Alda?”

Tommy nodded. “Of course. He played Gershwin, back in the day.”

“Yeah, the Jewish guys, they had to change their names, too. He used to be Gershowitz, matter of fact.”

Vinny’s fact bank was overflowing with such information. Tommy was used to him spilling it all out now and then, and provided just enough questions or argument to keep Vinny talking. Tommy won a lot of card games that way, melding left and right while Vinny chattered away.
“Those Jewish guys changed their names, made it big, then Italian guys played them in the movies,” Vinny went on, “Anyway, you ever hear of Alfonso D’Abruzzo?”

“Is that Alan Alda then?”

“Yes, and his father, too. In fact, Robert’s name was Alfonso Giuseppe Giovanni Roberto D’Abruzzo.” Vinny leaned back with a satisfied look on his face.

Tommy demanded, “Why do you know this? Why do you know this stuff? And who has four first names, anyway?”

Vinny answered, “I just know. I read a lot. And my mom had four first names. Well, she had a first name, and two middle names, and then her confirmation name. So.”

“Why did she have two middle names?,” Tommy asked. “I never heard of anybody else who did.”

“Well, now you know two. My mother, and Robert Alda. My mother said she had hers because they had her name all picked out but then her parents wanted to name her after the nurse who took care of her in the hospital. So they added it onto the rest. But probably lots of people have two middle names. You’ve got no culture, Tommy, so you don’t know about this kind of thing.”

Tommy yelled over to Jack,”Hey, Jack, is Alan Alda your cousin or something? Vinny here says you have the same for-real last name.”

Jack yelled back, “I dunno, could be. We’re probably all cousins, Tommy. All our grandparents and great-grandparents came from the same places, right?  They just emptied Sicily and Southern Italy onto boats and sent them over.”

“This is true, sure.”

Vinny said, “What I wonder is if Jack is related to Bobby Darin. Not so many Cassottos around, I think.”

“No, I think there are a lot of those. Jack’s mom’s a Cassotto? Sure, I’ve known a few. Plus, you know, the accordion.” Tommy looked smug as he said this, sure that he was about to one-up Vinny on the trivia field.

“Accordions, sure, my uncle had one. He played it at my wedding, matter of fact.” Vinny had a blank look on his face. He knew Tommy knew something he didn’t, but he was not going to ask.

Jack had come over to listen to the conversation, and looked from Tommy to Vinny, back to Tommy, before finally going ahead and asking, “Okay, I’ll bite. What’s an accordion got to do with Cassottos, Tommy? Did a Cassotto invent one?”
Tommy beamed. “No, a cassotto is a box inside the accordion where they put extra reeds, to make it sound better. Though I personally do not think there is much you can do to make an accordion sound better, this is apparently a good thing for one to have.”

Jack replied, “Sure, okay, I think cassotto just means box in Italian anyway, that makes sense.”

“Edward.” Vincent spoke suddenly. “That’s what I picked.”

Tommy asked, “You wanted your name to be Edward? What’s wrong with Vinny, Vincenzo?”

“No, no, I wanted to be Vincent Edward. That was my trumpet-playing name, back in high school. Only then I got drafted, and Vincenzo Mancaruso was good enough for the army, then married, you know.”

Tommy looked annoyed now. “Vinny, nobody ever called you that in high school. I remember, I was there.”

“Yeah, you weren’t in the band, though. We all had names like that, two first names, you know. It was a little trick we all did when we played at dances and clubs.”

Jack interrupted. “Have you ever noticed how many people around here have two first names? Also two last names. It gets confusing sometimes, especially when they go by their last name instead of their first name. Like Officer Craig.”

“Actually, Jack,” Tommy spoke politely, “I never did notice that. Do tell.” He looked over at Vinny and shrugged.

“Oh, well, I just thought of it, there’s nothing else to tell. Think about it; there are a lot of people around like that. And there’s Dean Martin. He had two first names.”

Vinny and Tommy looked at each other with eyebrows raised.

Vinny said, “I never thought of it that way. Huh. I wonder why he picked it.”

The idea that Vinny didn’t know all there was to know about Dean Martin surprised everyone within hearing distance. But that just brought him back to his original subject, which had been the inferiority of Englebert Humperdinck to Tom Jones, both in name and in talent.

“Who gives a guy the name of an obscure German opera composer, anyway? And why such a long weird one? I guess they thought it would make his music sound more interesting but it didn’t work.

“But here’s the real proof that Tom Jones is better, Tommy. He bought Dean Martin’s Bel Air mansion, back in the early 70s. He knew what a good thing that was, and it probably rubbed off on him, that’s why people still like him now.”

“What rubbed off on him?”

“The coolness of Dino, that’s what.”

“Tom Jones is not cool, Vinny.”

“No, he kind of is, I think,” Jack spoke. “He never really took himself too seriously, except maybe for a little while. That’s what being cool is, pretty much. Knowing when not to take yourself so seriously. Knowing how to be amused at the world and what it thinks of you.”

Tommy frowned. “He had the longest sideburns ever grown. Never was that cool.”

“So did Humperdinck. We all had sideburns that long 35 years ago, Tommy. Even when there wasn’t much hair on top, everybody had plenty growing down the sides of their face. We thought women liked it. I don’t think they really did, though.” Vinny mused over this. “We wore our shirts unbuttoned too far down, to show our chest hair, too. We were making sure everyone knew how masculine we were. And nobody was more masculine then than Tom Jones.”


“Jack? Honey? I’ve been thinking about something. It’s not one of the tuna Thursdays this week, is it?”

“I don’t think so, Mama, I’ll have to check, though. Why?” Jack makes a meal each Thursday from the 1971 Good Housekeeping Menus For A Whole Year of Dinners cookbook. Next year he’s thinking of doing the Saturday ones.

“Oh, I was just thinking that Amy might not be comfortable with something like Tuna-Beet Surprise or one of those other interesting dishes, you know, and so, perhaps you’d skip it this week and just do a nice pasta or stew, maybe.” Ann shuddered a little, remembering a sweet and sour tuna concoction they’d eaten earlier this past summer. Sometimes she regretted Jack’s dedication to his odd little routines. However, last week’s Apple Snow had been a tasty dessert. Jack had made the entire 8-serving recipe so Ann was still enjoying the leftovers this week.

Jack answered, “I think that overall, most of the dinners have been a success, don’t you? I might enjoy making the Broccoli Mimosa Salad again sometime soon, even though that was one of the recipes for Summer.”

“Yes, but why was it called Mimosa, dear? There’s no orange juice or champagne in it.”

“True, true. Still tasty, though. Other than the preponderance of beet dishes, there’s been a fairly nice variety to enjoy. Maybe a bit too much liver...” Jack suddenly realized what was on the Thursday menu this week. It was “Chicken Livers Hawaiian.”

“Hey, Ma, given the choice, would you prefer chicken livers or Spam?”

“Given the choice? Neither one, thank you very much. Forced to choose? I guess, honey, it depends on how it’s prepared. The texture is the key for me, you see.” Jack’s mom was used to his odd questions and answered them without batting an eye. She was married to his father, after all. The apple didn’t have far to fall.

“Suppose there were pineapple chunks involved?”

“Oh, Jack, sweet-and-sour again? Spam, then. You could brown it, I think, and make it, well, firmer to the tooth.” Ann shook her head at him. “Do you really think this is the best impression to make on Amy, dear?”

“Mama, it’s what we do. And this week, it’s Chicken Livers Hawaiian. I’m willing to stay in the spirit of the thing and substitute Spam, which the book calls luncheon meat, but we’ve been doing this for over six months, and I don’t see that having Amy over here means we have to get off track now.”

Actually, Jack saw perfectly well that serving Chicken Livers Hawaiian to a young guest, with heaven only knows what sort of accompaniment, might be taking a bit of a culinary risk. But this was his game and he wasn’t about to give it up for some girl who probably never gave him two thoughts in a row when she wasn’t here tending to his mother. Even if the girl was Amy.

Jack remembers when his mother brought home the Good Housekeeping cookbook. He had just turned five years old, and they sat together and looked through all the pictures. The book began with Spring, but it was early summer when she bought it, so that’s where they began. Only Jack’s mom did not make every recipe, using the book only now and then, once a week or less, and this was hard for Jack to understand at first. He rediscovered the book last Christmas time when looking through the attic for old ornaments, and decided not nearly enough of the culinary adventures contained within had been adequately explored. Also, he realized that his mother had taken liberties with the menus, often only preparing one or two items from them. Jack decided to start in spring, with the first Thursday since that was his full day off, and prepare a complete menu each week.

The first week he made Chicken-Broccoli Soup, corn muffins, broiled flounder, honey-glazed carrots, and chocolate cream puffs. He worried a little over having to prepare the cream puffs until he discovered you can buy pre-baked shells from a bakery and just fill them at the last minute. By the second Thursday (baked pork sausage, “Rice-Cheese Continental,” buttered broccoli, and applesauce-topped pound cake,) he realized what it would be like for even a full time housewife to rely entirely upon these menus for each day’s supper, but one a week seemed utterly doable, so he stuck to it faithfully, only occasionally substituting an ingredient when he knew his mother would just put her foot down and refuse to eat it otherwise.

Previously, Jack had only made occasional vegetable substitutions, but they’d had beef liver twice this summer, meaning he’d already eaten more liver this year than in the previous forty-two, and he knew his mother was less than thrilled with it as well. Chicken livers sounded even less appealing to him, though he could remember his grandma breading them and eating them with spaghetti sauce. She ate boiled beef tongue, as well.  Jack and his mom had gone through the entire Good Housekeeping cookbook ahead of time to make sure there were no Thursday tongue dinners to come up against. Fortunately, tongue had turned up only a few times, on other days of the week. Jack had grown up listening to his mom talk about the foods she ate as a child, foods she refused to prepare for Jack and his dad because, as she put it, when you bite down on them they bite back at you. Tongue was number one on her banned foods list. Lima beans and wax beans were a no-no as well; when those came up on the menu Jack substituted green beans. She really didn’t take kindly to the number of beet dishes she’d had to endure, but they were at least creatively prepared most of the time. Last time they’d merely been sliced, but Jack let her pour salad dressing over them.

What was Amy going to make of Luncheon Meat Hawaiian?