It was another great summer living in Maspeth, and at least 3 years since the Dodgers left Brooklyn, which was still a sore spot, but for me, it was another summer of unforgettable childhood memories.
It was the summer of 1960, and I was about to turn 7. Seven was a strong sounding number, and only 3 away from 10. Ten was a big deal, and no longer a single number.
My father’s side would get together a few times during the summer to have a family BBQ, always on a holiday: Memorial Day, Labor Day, Fathers Day, and 4th of July. These were different from other holiday gatherings, because they were outside, and relaxed. Nobody had to be all dressed up, except for my mom and Aunt Stella. These gals wore new house dresses for every occasion. House dresses were the thing back then, but both of these ladies had to kick it up a notch with jewelry. They had the necklace with matching earrings, bracelets, and rings. I guess it was an Italian thing. I hated to dress up. Dressing up was a punishment. I couldn’t do anything that would get me dirty, and what fun was that?
My dad’s side was pretty big. He had 4 brothers, and one sister. Three of the brothers were married, and had children that were of dating age, and that’s where the trouble began.
This barbeque was on the 4th of July, and the most fun holiday of them all, next to Christmas of course. I could hear fireworks going off early in the day, which made all us kids excited about what was to come later when it became dark.
During the day, family would show up with pastries mainly bought from Occhiogrosso’s pastry shop. My grandfather and aunt both loved their stuff. My Uncle Joe and Uncle Lou (who we called Babe) showed up with their kids along with my Uncle Nick and Aunt Sue who came by with their daughters, Marie and Margie, followed closely by their boyfriends, Tony and Sal, who later became their husbands. These guys got along too well and had the same mischievous qualities as my father and his brothers. I guess I was just a product of my environment.
Sal made the big entrance that day, with his brand new fully dressed Harley. This thing was gorgeous. It had shiny chrome, with turquoise and white paint. It went immediately into the 3-car garage, and I was told to keep my hands off. Well, that wasn’t going to happen. Throughout the day I would sneak over to it and climb on. I got caught, but not because I was found on it, but because Sal noticed fingerprints – fingerprints! Ok, Sal was a bit nuts about the bike, and I got read the riot act from dad and grandfather about it, like didn’t I understand English, and the word no? Geez, my grandfather barely did, and now he was asking me.
The food was being prepared. All meats were bought from Conte’s meat market on Grand Ave, a family business run by 3 or 4 brothers. The hamburgers were all hand made, and some steaks sat in the marinade over night. These were things the ladies would be in charge of, along with the salads, and vegetables.
The men were in charge of cleaning up the terrace, attaching the flame lanterns while setting up the tables and chairs in the lower courtyard, and later cooking the food. The beer had to be put into large heavy metal buckets, with big chunks of ice. Pabst Blue Ribbon and Rheingold were the beers of choice. I was always able to con some beer from one uncle or another, and always wine from my grandfather, because he believed it made blood, and I was a growing boy. I think that’s where the trouble started, with the combination of the hot day, and the need for that cold beer now and then.
The announcement came down from the ladies that it was time to get the BBQ started, and them asking why it hadn’t been cleaned yet. My grandfather barked out orders in Italian to my father, and both his brothers, Nick and Dutch. Dutch wasn’t married yet, and they called him Dutch because as a child he had blonde hair that was cut like the Dutch Boy on the paint can. It could have been worse. His name was actually Paul, like mine.
The barbeque was at least 3-1/2 to 4 feet tall at the hearth, with a smokestack that was about 7 ft tall. It was all made of brick by my grandfather, and was the best barbeque I’d ever seen, but because of its size, it needed lots of coal, and wood. This made it a bit tricky to light. I remember watching them debating how to light it when grandpa came over muttering in Italian while pushing both aside. He grabbed the lighter fluid can and squeezed a bunch of fluid onto the coals, and with lightning speed struck a wooden match, and in a flash, there was a mushroom cloud of flame. Everybody jumped back except him. They don’t make ’em like that anymore (or maybe it was the wine).
On the other side of the courtyard the trouble started slowly. I’m not sure who started it, but either Tony or Sal put an ice cube down the other’s back. This led into a full-blown water fight that involved my dad and a brother or two. My grandfather had water connections at back and around the house for watering flowers and his vegetable garden, and that’s what caused casualties. Me, them, the ground, tablecloth and chairs were all wet, like a rainy day.
This didn’t go unnoticed by the council of head command, which included my mom, Aunt Stella, Marie, Margie, and the wives. The wives went after their husbands about how they should know better, and the sisters chased Sal and Tony around the yard yelling about how embarrassed they were of their actions. Grandpa came from around back of the single garage yelling something Italian, while Aunt Stella yelled at everyone, even me. She was good at that.
Things calmed down over time, and the BBQ on Mazeau Street was great. The food was out of this world. The ladies were laughing and cleaning the dishes in the kitchen, while we guys played cards. It was a bit unbalanced, but this worked back then. The fireworks went on all night, and the sky was filled with rockets’ red glare. It was the first time I realized that the unconditional love of a family will overcome and overlook almost anything, and that’s what makes it so powerful.
Paul DeFalco grew up in Maspeth.