I was born in Newark, New Jersey. When I was five, my family moved to historic Monmouth County on the Jersey Shore. It was a small town founded in the 1600’s. We had one police car in those days. It was almost always parked at the tiny building that housed our police station and post office. The building was in the middle of a street, near the intersection which once served as the town square. Presbyterian, Episcopal, and Quaker churches occupied two of the corners. One corner was a stately century-old private home set back from the street on a large, beautifully treed property. On the fourth corner was The Allen House, a former tavern and lodge called The Blue Ball, built just before 1700. George Washington was said to have visited The Blue Ball around the time of the Battle of Monmouth. The historical society now calls this The Four Corners.
My family’s house was on a lazy street a couple blocks from The Four Corners. In the summer, my neighborhood basked in stippled sunlight filtered through towering elms, expansive maples, and stately sycamores. Weekends in the fall, we’d rake their fallen leaves to the curb and burn the piles. This was before burning leaves, smoking cigarettes, and cars with metal dashboards and no seatbelts were hazardous to our health.
My father established his CPA practice in a historic building less than a mile from home and only a few houses down from the Four Corners. My two younger brothers and I grew up recognizing a sacred fifth season; one that spanned the colorless Jersey winters and ended with relief in early spring; a season that required my father to go back to his office after dinner and on Saturdays– the dreaded Tax Season.
Every year, my elementary school would walk the lower grades in single file past my father’s office along the former colonial highway up to The Four Corners. Our teachers would tell us a story of an insignificant Revolutionary War skirmish between Tory Loyalists and Patriot Separatists. A local Patriot had sparked the incident when, after some drinking time likely accompanied by spirited political persiflage in The Blue Ball Tavern, he took his flintlock into the middle of the dusty intersection and put a musket ball through the bronze Queen’s crown atop the Episcopal Christ Church spire. The Tories were outraged and one of them shot the Patriot. Our teachers would lead us in the steps of the wounded Patriot up into the
vestibule of the church where he had fallen. Then we’d line up again and, one after another, we’d rub the dark stains in the wood floor where he had bled and likely died. (A good story, but one that may be embellished or blended with an actual event. In 1779, Continental troops were quartered at the tavern. The Continental Patriots were known to take pot-shots at the crown in the steeple. A Loyalist party raided the tavern. They killed 3 and captured 9 in what would become known as the Allen House Massacre.)
This was the segue for the class tour of the old graveyards. Threatened into silence, we’d wind through hundreds of tombstones worn and tilted from three hundred winters. The inscriptions in the gravestones were weathered and whispered stories of short hard lives. A favorite stop on the tour was the Jones family plot. I remember there being tiny headstones for each of The Seven Little Joneses who had died over seven consecutive years in the late 1600’s, all on July 7th after their first birthday. 7 - 7 – 7. A chilling if not incomprehensible mystery for second graders in late 1950’s. Today, it’s a forgotten monument to an early American mystery in which modern forensic investigators might find evidence of infanticide and, by inference, the mental illness, unbearable guilt, and unthinkable misery of Mr. and Mrs. Jones.
But there were no signs of misery in my home. It was kept spotless and well-tended by my mother, who doted on us boys and served a food-group friendly supper every night at six. She saw that we left on our morning walk to school clean, combed, and timely - dressed as we should, not as we might have. I remember her perfumed and most pretty on Saturday nights in the hurried moments kissing us goodbye and instructing the babysitter, while my father waited with one hand on the door handle.
These were the years of Cold War air raid drills and fall-out shelters, and American Flyers and PF Flyers, and all afternoon games of Combat that began with odds-evens shootouts for the right to be Sgt. Saunders or Kirby or Little John, the big guy with the BAR. Someone’s younger brother had to be the new guy, who always got killed. The big losers were the Krauts that day.
These were also the years that my paternal grandfather, Pop Pop Vito, came for dinner on Sundays. After he hadn’t come for a while, we were told he had “gone away on business”. Nothing more was said or asked. You just knew not to go there in my house. I never saw my grandfather again. In sixth grade, after a schoolyard shoving match in defense of my final denial of what had slowly become a shadowy truth, I would learn that my grandfather was Don Vito Genovese, the namesake and Boss of the Genovese Crime Family, a hard and feared man. In 1960 he had gone to
federal prison, where nine years later he died, perhaps now reunited with the souls whose blood stain his hands.
About the time Jack Kennedy was assassinated, Dutch Elm Disease claimed all the soldierly elms on our street. Soon after, the town built a new police station on the main drag and the Post Office moved to a strip mall. The old building was relocated to a nostalgic third-generation resident’s back yard when the county roads department widened the intersection at The Four Corners. They left an island in the road and nailed a bronze placard on one of the Sycamores. A few years later, some of the Sycamores fell, too.
I attended a local Christian Brothers prep school for boys and went on to Villanova University in 1970. By the end of my freshman year at Villanova, I was a full-fledged hippie freak in faithful and equal pursuit of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. I became an earnest but part-time member of the counter culture, flirting with elements of radical student groups and underground movements against the war and the Nixon administration. Despite it all, I graduated in 1974 with a B.A. in English, an excellent degree for those who don’t know what they want to do when they grow up.
So naturally, after college, I became a rock concert promoter, a “young impresario” in the local newspaper. I produced shows featuring many of the major rockers of that era, including Bruce Springsteen. On ten or twelve occasions, I stood on a darkened stage with Bruce and the E Street Band secreted in the shadows behind me until the spotlight punched a hole in the darkness with me at its center. The audience, on their feet since the house lights had dimmed, shrieking now as I leaned into the microphone and shouted, “Ladies and Gentlemen, pleases welcome . . . Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band!” Then, as I ran off the stage, it would erupt behind me, an explosion of drums and electric guitars and bright colored lights. In the retelling, I liken the feeling to the scene where the action hero, maybe Stallone in Rambo or Hanks as Gump, is running for his life straight at the camera, narrowly escaping the massive explosion and fireball growing behind him. Great stuff. Glory Days.
But, by the time I was 26, I had tired of working when everyone else was playing (and I needed healthcare insurance benefits). I left the entertainment business to take a job with a multinational health care manufacturer as a distribution supervisor. It led to a career in transportation and logistics. I was afforded the opportunity to travel the world building and supporting supply chains, predominately for the healthcare industry.
I wrote my first novel, The Grandfather Clause, over five years of Sunday afternoons and vacation days stolen from my family. Since then, I have spent my writing time on several projects, most unfinished and all in need of refreshment from the perspective that time and distance bring. They have sat patiently for me to help finish raising our three wonderful children, which was the most glorious endeavor I will do in this life, and to retire from the day job. Well, I have and am dusting off - in no particular order - the follow-up to my first book, The Termination Clause; the screenplay and TV mini-series adaptations of The Grandfather Clause; and a historical fiction work titled Godfathers and Generals. On the back burner may be a book about The Seven Little Joneses.
Speaking of which… Some years ago, I took my family to The Four Corners. I had long promised to show them the graves of The Seven Little Joneses. I wanted to see them again, too. On the way, I told them the stories of the Joneses and the lone Patriot one last time. I led them through the graveyard. We counted the tiny graves – me several times. There were ten, not seven. Ten Little Joneses! Ten infant children of Aaron R. and Rebecca H. Jones who all died within 10 days after their birth.
So, where did the story of The Seven Little Joneses and the lone Patriot standing defiantly in the street shooting a hole through the Queen’s crown come from? I’ve told those stories so many times over the years. What other remembrances that I hold fondly or otherwise are so far afield? Even knowing that our memories play conveniently with the truth and most often live longest the closer they reside to the boundaries of comfort and sorrow, I am now more suspicious of my own. Perhaps we need a word that describes the disparity between the truth and our memory of it. Altered memory? Imagination? Storytelling? Nonetheless, for me there will still only be The Seven Little Joneses and the lone Patriot – much better stories. Going forward when asked if they’re true, I’ll need to refer to the in the movie adaptation of Coramc McCarthy’s great novel, No Country for Old Men. When the wizened Sheriff is asked if a story he told was true, he says, “It’s true that it was a story.”
I will forever miss the smell of burning leaves in the fall, the taste of honeysuckle in the late spring, good friends gone, my parents and grandparents. Sometimes, I wonder if all The Joneses rest in peace.
Copyright © 2007-2024 Philip A Genovese, Jr. All Rights Reserved.