Sticks and Stones
“No. Not that one,” I said. “It’s too big. Look for smaller ones. We don’t really want to hurt him.” The we were my brother Ray and I, Mike Castelli, and our friends, Jerry Rosselli and Albert Santangelo. We were scouring a weeded over, vacant lot near our homes for stones we could throw at someone we saw shuffling down the street. After we collected enough of them, we sat down, concealing ourselves among the higher weeds which were almost tropical in appearance and waited to spring our ambush which we had learned to do from watching so many war films.
World War II didn’t greatly impact our lives. Although he was only thirty years old when the war started our father was never drafted. Perhaps it was because he had two young children. We never knew why, but we were happy he was home. He had a decent job and there was always a roof over our heads, food on the table, and clothes on our backs. For the most part, we were free to run our heedless ways just as we always had. Kids had a lot more freedom in those days.
All the houses on our block were two family dwellings built so close to the street that there was no room for a lawn in front. The houses were separated by narrow alleys that opened up to small backyards with here and there postage sized patches of grass. Everyone knew everyone else. Our mothers talked over the fences as they hung the laundry out to dry in the sun, and they looked out for each other’s children. Our backyard was special because our landlord had erected a trellis through which he had threaded grape vines. In season they provided shade from a hot summer sun, and we used to eat the grapes right off the vines. Our seemingly idyllic lives did not, however, preclude the war touching us, at least peripherally.
As we walked about the streets we could see the little flags hanging in some of the windows. A blue star meant that the family living there had someone serving in the military. The dreaded gold star indicated that someone had been killed. Happily, no one in our neighborhood ever displayed gold. Someone who lived down the street from us, the Giarussos, had a son in the navy whose ship was sunk in the Pacific after being struck by a torpedo, but he was rescued unharmed.
Although the war seemed to be at a remove from us, we were not oblivious to it. We lived a half a block away from a movie theater, and when our gang went there every Saturday, we saw heavily edited bits and pieces of the war through the eyes of MOVIETONE NEWS. I’ll never forget the theme music or the stentorian voice of the commentator which remain artifacts of my childhood. I don’t know whom I hated more at that time, the “Krauts” or the “Japs.” I remember asking myself why all the “Japs” seemed to wear thick glasses and had buck teeth. Certainly, the “Krauts” were better looking.
Sometimes news of the war came to us involuntarily. In the early evening as we waited for our father to come home from work, my brother and I would listen to our favorite radio shows: The Green Hornet, The Whistler, and The Shadow. Occasionally, a broadcast would be interrupted by breaking news. I can still remember one incident when a report of the sighting of a Japanese sub off the coast of California sent us in a panic scurrying to our mother for reassurance that we were not being invaded. We felt relieved when she told us that we weren’t being attacked and that, further, no enemy of ours would ever reach our shores.
Despite a war raging on two fronts, for the most part, the rituals of neighborhood life remained unchanged. The ragman still made his rounds. The slow clopping of a horse’s hooves announced his imminent arrival long before he came in to view sitting on top of his cart calling out, “Rags, rags, and ragman.” We were still visited by a bandy-legged man, his body bent forward as a counterweight to the grindstone strapped to his back, as he trudged down the street yelling, “Knives sharpened, scissors.”
Twenty-First Avenue, our commercial center, was busy, especially on Saturdays. I don’t recall there being less meat hanging from the hooks in Giaquinto’s butcher store. The coffee beans displayed in open sacks in front of our small A&P were just as fragrant as ever. Further down the avenue the sour smell of Menella’s Poultry contended for dominance in the air with the sweet scent of Giannella’s Bakery.
What changed most for us, I guess, were the games we played. Instead of cowboys and indians we played war games. The Japanese and Germans replaced the Apaches and the Comanches as our arch enemies. Sticks that were bows, lances, and one shot carbines magically became modern day rifles; stones became hand grenades. The small hill a few blocks from our homes was transformed, in our imaginations, from a butte in Colorado to Iwo Jima which we stormed with regularity and always heroically. Whenever we were shot, we brought our hands to our chests and slowly slumped to the ground. Hard falls could hurt, and we were having none of that. We were brave beyond belief knowing that we would live to play war another day. The idea of a death or a maiming that was irrevocable never crossed the border between reality and our collective imagination. That would soon change.
After the war ended, the rivulet of our returning veterans quickly became a fast moving stream. Gennaro Simonetti came back from the war as a hero. He won a Silver Star for valor in the Battle of the Bulge when he single-handedly turned back a German attack while manning a machine gun. The side street next to his family’s florist shop was renamed after him. Robert Conti came home with a permanent crease along the left side of his head courtesy of a Japanese bullet. He suffered from migraine headaches after that, a small price to pay, he thought, for being alive.
Our version of the San Gennaro Festival, suspended during the war, was revived in September, 1945. Five blocks of Twenty-First Avenue were converted to a pedestrian only boulevard. Metal arches that spanned the street from side to side, and the colorful lights that attached to them, put away during the war were unpacked and set in place. Every night they were a beautiful, sparkling canopy that we walked under. There were too many foods to sample: sausage and peppers, pizza, meatballs, lasagna, calamari, and zeppole. Wives and fiancées smiled up at their men and held on to them more tightly than usual as they strolled along. Walking among so many happy, laughing people, it was easy to believe that life had seamlessly returned to normal in the neighborhood. It hadn’t. War touches people in ways that are not always obvious.
None of us had ever seen the newcomer before or even knew where he came from. A few months after the war ended, he washed up on our streets like a piece of driftwood. He always wore a light, gabardine topcoat that might have originally been gray, but was now too dirty to know for sure. His stiff, wiry body moved like a machine whose interlocking parts were badly rusted. A bowed head on a rigid neck that seemed locked in place and a hunched back gave his body the look of a question mark. He scuttled about the streets like a crab with broken legs. His left leg was bent and twisted so badly that the knee touched his right leg. When he walked he rolled his right hip forward and dragged his left leg behind him.
The features of his face were smeared as if a sculptor, unhappy with a clay model he was making, had swiped his hand across its face in anger. One eye, half closed, was higher than the other and turned to the outside. His nose was grotesquely flattened against his face. Except for a few broken stumps, he had no teeth.
As he shuffled about the streets, he mumbled to himself constantly and incoherently. Sometimes he would interrupt his monologue with a loud howl that stopped everyone around him in their tracks. They would look at him, shake their heads, and move on.
We had never seen anything like him before in our lives; so the first time we encountered him we shrank away in fear as he passed by muttering and grumbling to himself. In subsequent encounters we realized he feared us more than we feared him, and as it turned out, with good reason. Each time we met him, we moved in closer and closer, encircling him, jabbing at him, and laughing as he tried to escape us. He was like a lame bear surrounded by wolves. Why we chose to taunt him I’ll never know. Is it enough to simply say that we were too young to know better? At what age do children develop the capacity for empathy? Is eight or nine too young?
I don’t remember whose idea it was to lie in wait with stones, but I do know that neither Ray nor I offered an objection.
“Here he comes,” I said.
“Wait till he gets a little closer,” Jerry whispered.
When he was about thirty feet away from us, Albert yelled, “Now!” The four of us stood up and began throwing our stones as fast as we could. That threw off our accuracy which, looking back, was a good thing. Still, we hit him frequently enough.
When the stones began to strike him, he threw his arms up in front of himself for protection, swatting at them as if they were bees buzzing about him. He began to whimper, pulling his body in, trying to make himself a smaller target. In frustration, he stood up and began to roar, his hands clawing at the air in front of him. One stone glanced off the side of his head, and he cried out with a shriek that sounded unearthly. It is so firmly embedded in my memory that I’ve never been able to forget it, as much as I would like to. Inexplicably, he drew himself up to the fullest height his crippled body would allow and opened up his arms as if inviting us to throw more stones.
We were out of stones by then. Our energy spent, we were not inclined to look for more. We just stood there looking at him. He stared back at us for a few seconds before turning around and shuffling away from us. We congratulated each other on the success of our “ambush” and headed home.
Our mother must have been waiting for us because as soon as she heard us enter the house through the front door, she called to us from the kitchen, “Raymond, Michael come here.” We looked at each other. As if the edge in her voice was not cause enough for apprehension, there was the use of our more formal first names as well. Usually, that did not bode well for us.
When we gingerly entered the kitchen, she was waiting for us, drying her hands on a dishtowel. Our mother was not a big woman, but giving birth to two children had left her with some extra heft that gave her a formidable appearance. As we feared, she did not look happy.
As we faced her, I was standing to the left of Ray.
“What’s this I hear about the two of you throwing stones at somebody?”
We were in big trouble. How did she find out so quickly? When we were reluctant to answer, she asked again, more emphatically. “Were the two of you throwing stones at someone?”
Since I was older, Ray always deferred to me in situations like that. I asked myself what I could say that would get us in the least trouble. I came up short when I said, “We were just fooling around, Mama. We…” I was interrupted mid-sentence by a hard slap to my left cheek. That was followed by the sound of an equally hard slap to Ray’s right cheek. In an instant, using both of her hands, our mother had delivered a hard one two to our faces. Bewildered, we looked at each other and began to cry. If we expected our tears to mollify our mother, we were greatly mistaken.
“So, you think it’s fun to throw stones at people? It’s fun to hurt people? Oh. You’re crying. Were those slaps fun? Did it hurt?” With tears flowing down our cheeks, we silently nodded no. “Sit down. I want to talk to the two of you.” We sat down at the kitchen table. Mama sat down on the other side, facing us.
“Nothing good can ever come from hurting a person on purpose, nothing. You embarrassed the family. That man you threw stones at is Mrs. Benelli’s nephew, Reno. He lives with his mother and father on Gray Street. I had to call and apologize.” She paused, shaking her head, while she muttered to herself, “Che disgrazia.”
“We didn’t know, Ma,” Ray pleaded. “We thought he was just some old guy on the street.”
“So, because you didn’t know him it was okay to throw stones at him?” Mama said. Her voice which had begun to soften hardened again.
“No, Mama,” we said in unison.
“That old man is younger than your father.”
Ray and I looked at each other in disbelief. We would never have imagined that this man who shambled about our neighborhood was younger than our father who was only thirty-five.
We knew Mrs. Benelli who lived down the block, but Gray Street was four blocks over and might as well have been on the moon. All the streets in our neighborhood ran perpendicular to Twenty-First Avenue. Gray Street had its own group of kids, who never played with us, the East Nineteenth Street kids, so we wouldn’t have known about Mrs. Benelli’s nephew.
“Reno joined the army after Pearl Harbor. He was part of the invasion at Anzio.” We must have looked as if we didn’t understand because she immediately added, “Anzio is a city on the western coast of Italy. Because he spoke Italian, he was sent ahead to scout. I don’t know all the facts, but Reno was captured by the Germans. They hurt him to get information about his group.”
“You mean they tortured him?”
It was Ray who interrupted. Sometimes when we played war, I was a “Jap” who tortured him. I made believe that I was sewing his eyes open so he could see what I was going to do to him which usually involved pulling out his fingernails.
“Yes,” our mother continued, “they broke his body, but they could never get him to talk.
They shot him in the head and dumped him on the side of the road leaving him for dead, poor soul.” Mama made the sign of the cross and kissed her fingers up to God as if that would send a message special delivery directly to him. “He was rescued by some partisans. Somehow he survived, but you see how he is.”
There was an awkward silence as we processed the heavy information our mother had just laid on us. “I’m sorry, Mama,” I said. Then Ray said, “I’m sorry.”
With her hands, my mother gently touched our cheeks where she had slapped them. Those slaps to the face were an aberration. Mama rarely hit us, and when she did, it was always on the behind. Then she smiled softly as she said, “Your father will be home from work soon. Go wash your hands for dinner.” She never told our father what occurred that day. For that we were thankful. If she had, we wouldn’t have been able to sit down for a week.
We lay in bed that night talking about what had happened. Why had we eagerly become a part of the attack on Reno? It wasn’t as if Jerry and Albert had pressured us. Would we have thrown the stones at someone we knew or someone who did not look like him? We had no answers to our questions which was unsettling to our young minds. Although we never spoke the words that night, we must have arrived at a tacit understanding because we never spoke about the incident again. It was if it were a “cold case” that had been filed in some dark and dusty corner of my unconscious.
The next day at school, we asked Albert and Jerry if anything had happened to them when they went home the day before. They shrugged and shook their heads as if to say no, why would anything happen? We didn’t tell them about the dressing down we got from Mama.
We didn’t see Reno around the neighborhood for the next few weeks, and then one day we ran into him by accident on our way to school one morning. Ray and I turned a corner and almost walked in to him. His one good eye opened wide with surprise, and then the look quickly turned into fear as he began to slowly back away from us. I said, “Wait.” I don’t know why I did what I did next. It was a reflexive action, I suppose. I reached into my lunch bag and pulled out an orange Mama had put in there. Reno looked at us intently. I extended my hand offering him the orange, and he moved away making his body smaller like a dog that had been beaten too many times. I put it on the ground in front of me and moved back a few steps indicating with my hand that he should take it. Cautiously, he moved in to pick it up. He snatched it up quickly and then moved back a few steps keeping his eye on us all the while. He roughly pulled the skin from the orange and began eating it. Because he had no teeth, a lot of the juice ran out of his mouth and down his chin. When he looked up at us again, we could see that tears had overflowed his eyes and were running down his cheeks. He opened his mouth, made a sound that I can only describe as keening, and then turned and wobbled away.
We never saw Reno again. Once, when my parents didn’t think I was listening, I heard them talking about him. His parents were no longer able to take care of him, and they had decided that placing him in a home for veterans was the best thing for him. That broke their hearts.
A lot of years have passed since then, and “cold cases” can be dusted off, reopened, and then returned to their dark corners after no new insights have been gleaned from them. I can’t say why, but from time to time Reno comes to mind, always with attendant feelings of guilt and shame. Maybe it’s my conscience telling me I’ll always have to work at being a better person, that being is always in the act of becoming. For sure, since that day, the only stones I’ve ever picked up are the small, flat ones I try to skip across the calm surface of a lake from time to time.
Roy Innocenti is a graduate of Fairleigh Dickinson University and was enrolled in a graduate program at Rutgers University. He is a second generation Italian-American who had the good fortune of being born into a three generational household anchored by a beloved maternal grandfather. Much of his work is influenced by that experience as well as growing up in a blue collar section of Paterson, New Jersey.