Italian Heritage in New Jersey: John Basilone

In an earlier post, I noted that Italian immigrants and Americans of Italian descent made up approximately 10% of the entire fighting force during World War II; more than any other ethnicity. Despite Italian immigrants kept under surveillance and some put in containment camps, they volunteered by the thousands to fight against their Motherland.

One such great child of Italian immigrants was John Basilone from Raritan, New Jersey. One of 10 children, Basilone was born in Buffalo, New York in 1916. He grew up in Raritan. At age 15 he dropped out of school to work locally for a short time before joining the military.

Staff Sergeant John Basilone
Source: Wikipedia

He first enlisted in the Army in July 1934 and completed his three-year enlistment with service in the Philippines. Basilone was initially assigned to the 16th Infantry at Fort Jay, New York, before being discharged for a day, reenlisting, and being assigned to the 31st Infantry.

After his discharge from the Army, he again worked locally for a short period of time; this time as a truck driver. He wanted to return to Manilla and serve once again, so he reenlisted; this time as a Marine.

He went to recruit training at Parris Island, followed by training at Marine Corps Base Quantico and New River. The Marines sent him to Guantánamo Bay for his next assignment and then to Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands as a member of “D” Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division.

In 1943, he returned to the United States to help with the War Bond effort. He was highlighted in Life and Movietone News. His hometown of Raritan had a parade in his honor. He helped raise money for the War effort.

While he appreciated all the accolades, he really wanted to be back fighting for his country. He requested a return to active duty multiple times. He was offered a commission, which he turned down, and was later offered an assignment as an instructor, but refused this as well. When he requested again to return to the war, the request was approved. He left for Camp Pendleton, California, for training on December 27. On July 3, 1944, he reenlisted in the Marine Corps.

After his request to return to the fleet was approved, Basilone was assigned to “C” Company, 1st Battalion, 27th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division. On February 19, 1945, the first day of the invasion of Iwo Jima, he was serving as a machine gun section leader on Red Beach II. With his unit pinned down, Basilone made his way around the side of the Japanese positions until he was directly on top of the blockhouse. He then attacked with grenades and demolitions, single-handedly destroying the entire strong point and its defending garrison. He continued to fight alongside service members until the very end. It is believed he was killed by a burst of small arms fire.

His actions helped Marines penetrate the Japanese defense and get off the landing beach during the critical early stages of the invasion. Basilone was posthumously awarded the Marine Corps’ second-highest decoration for valor, the Navy Cross, for extraordinary heroism during the battle of Iwo Jima.

He was the only enlisted Marine to receive both the Navy Cross and the Medal of Honor in World War II. Two United States Navy destroyers bear his name.

He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, in Arlington, Virginia. He left behind his wife, Lena Mae Riggi, who was a sergeant in the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve during World War II. They met while he was stationed at Camp Pendleton.

Basilone made America proud, especially at a time when the country needed heroes. He stood up to be counted in the new homeland of his family. He made not just his country proud, but New Jersey proud, as well as those of us who count ourselves among the 1.5 million New Jerseyans of Italian descent proud. We owe him a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid.

Italian Heritage in New Jersey: Frankie Valli

“Newark, Belleville; Frankie Valli walks on water. As he should. Frankie Valli has been around so long he’s attached to everything and everybody. And they are very proud.” ~Steve Schirripa, Talking Sopranos podcast.

Belleville has been home to plenty of talent over the decades. Connie Francis, Joe Pesci, and of course Francesco Stephen Castelluccio, known to the world as Frankie Valli.

Francesco Stephen Castelluccio, aka Frankie Valli
Credit: discogs.com

As Schirripa says, he’s attached to everything and everybody. We all have a Frankie Valli story. For me, I have two. Castelluccio grew up in Stephen Crane Village on the border of Belleville and Newark. My Uncle worked as a maintenance man at Stephen Crane Village. He took the bus from our house in Belleville early every morning and came home every afternoon. As kids we were allowed to walk down to the end of the block and wait for him; but no further than the manhole cover!

His first single “My Mother’s Eyes” was a favorite song my Uncle Chubby would sing with his own band, Chubby O’Dell and the Blue Mountain Boys. To this day whenever I hear that song, I think of my Uncle Chubby and smile.

The music of The Four Season was part of the soundtrack of the youth of not just North Jersey, but America. Songs like “Can’t Take my Eyes off of You” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry” are engrained in our memories. Castelluccio’s original inspiration was another Jersey boy, Francis Albert Sinatra.

The 45 of My Mother’s Eyes
Credit: Roots Vinyl Guide

A new generation was introduced to Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons in 2005 when Jersey Boys opened on Broadway and was an instant hit. Bob Gaudio, an original Four Seasons member, sought to make a musical from the discography of the band. He hired book writers Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman, and director Des McAnuff. Brickman suggested creating a show about the band’s history, instead of repurposing their songs. Sharing the group’s “rags to riches” story. Everyone fell in love with their music all over again.

Castelluccio still tours and recently recorded a new album, A Touch of Jazz, which is his iconic voice singing his favorite tunes from the Great American Songbook.

So Castelluccio started singing in the early 50s and all these decades later, he is still growing strong. God willing, he still has a lot of music left in him.

October is Italian Heritage Month

If you are a regular reader of my blog, you know I am a proud New Jerseyan. I am also very proud of my Italian heritage. October in Italian Heritage Month and as I do each year, I plan on writing about New Jerseyans of Italian heritage that have made a significant impact on our state or our country.

Italian immigrants and Americans of Italian descent have a unique history all our own. More than 1.45 million residents of New Jersey reported having Italian heritage according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The town of Fairfield is home to the most residents with Italian heritage in the United States. Seven of the top 20 towns in the United States with the most residents of Italian ancestry are right here in the Garden State.

The great migration from Italy took place between 1880 and 1914; a total of 13 million Italians came to America and made it home.

At its height, Seventh Avenue in Newark was one of the largest Little Italies in the United States with a population of over 30,000 within one square mile. The center of that neighborhood was St. Lucy’s Church, built by Italian immigrants in 1891. St. Lucy’s holds the National Shrine to St. Gerard, the patron saint of expectant mothers.

That’s where the story of my family begins. The First Ward of Newark.

Like the countless other Italians that came to America, they came to build a better life for their family and future generations. They worked hard, many changed their names to sound American, they learned English, and became citizens. My Uncles joined the military along with the 1.5 million other Italian Americans during World War II, making up 10% of the total fighting force, eager to prove their loyalty to their new home country. While they were off fighting against their homeland, however, tens of thousands of Italian immigrants in America were subject to curfews, forced from their homes, and lived in military camps without trials. They were considered Enemy Aliens.

These Italian immigrants came to America looking for a new home and were ready to prove themselves as good Americans and work. Unfortunately, they weren’t always able to find it. “Italians need not apply” was a common theme. We were looked down upon, no matter where we went in the country.

The lynching of eleven Sicilians in New Orleans in 1891 was the largest and most outrageous mass lynching in United States history. The lynchings took place on March 14, 1891. New Orleans Police Superintendent, David Hennessy was gunned down in October 1890. As he gasped his last breath, he supposedly uttered, “The dagos did it.” Officials quickly arrested numerous area Italian immigrants and attributed the slaying to “Mafia activity.” After a public meeting where people called the Italians “not quite white,” a mob gathered shouting “Hang the dagos!!” To avenge the murder of a popular police superintendent, unrestrained mobs went into the city jail and beat, clubbed, and fatally shot eleven Italian prisoners.

Dago. WOP. Guinea. Ginzo. Goombah. Just a handful of the names Italian immigrants and Americans of Italian descent have been called over the years. Each of which gets a giant eyeroll from me. They are meant to hurt. They only hurt if you let them. I remember hearing a story from my Aunt who said when they moved into a new neighborhood, a neighbor approached her mother (my Grandmother) and asked if they would be going to “our church,” to remind them they were outsiders. Without missing a beat, my Grandfather said “I though it was God’s church.”

From name calling, to lynchings, to being considered enemies of the state, to the stereotype that all Americans of Italian descent are “connected,” I say… whatever.

Let me tell you what it means to me.

Being an American of Italian descent is never forgetting where you came from and honoring it every day. It is about faith and family. It is recognizing our ethnicity is that last one it is “allowed” to be made fun of and not letting it bother us. Ours is a history of food, culture, art, and music that should be celebrated.

I am a New Jerseyan. I am an American. I am of Italian heritage. I hope you go on this historical journey on me for the next month.

Book Review: brat: an 80s Story

When anyone meets me for the first time, two things are obvious. I am a born-and-bred Jersey Girl and I am a Gen-Xer. I still love the music and movies of the 80s. Nowadays when I drive, there are very few radio stations I listen to; most of which are satellite and focus on music of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. My favorite movies included a small group of actors that came to be known as the Brat Pack. Everyone had their favorite. For me, it was Andrew McCarthy.

I saw a lot of myself in the characters he portrayed. In St. Elmo’s Fire, he played a wannabe writer who gets his first byline. I grew up wanting to do two things as an adult: be a writer and a photographer. While I never became a full-time accomplished writer, I do have a few bylines to my name and have a few blogs where I get to scrawl and scribble, even if no one really reads them.

So why am I telling you all this? Stick with me.

Whether it was because I was a teenager or not, the 80s were an awesome time in history (and yes, I used “awesome” on purpose). And the Brat Pack movies had a lot to do with it.

There were times watching McCarthy it almost felt like he wasn’t acting. As if those roles really fit his style. I now know in some instances that was true. Enter his book brat: an 80s story.

brat: an 80s Story by Andrew McCarthy

This fellow New Jerseyan shares his rise – and fall – and rise again in the fickle world of entertainment in his recently published book. Of course as soon as I heard about its release, I needed to read it. Trust me when I tell you, it did not disappoint. I read it over the course of two evenings. The last time I read something so quick was a book from another important figure from my youth; fellow Jersey Girl, Judy Blume, and the book was Summer Sisters.

I quickly switched back to 16 again, watching those movies, listening to that music, and doing things, well, let’s just say I am thankful social media wasn’t around.

As I read, and he mentions places in Jersey in the first few chapters, I found myself wondering if the arcade on 22 he went to was at Bowcraft (a home-grown amusement park), how everyone in Jersey MUST be good at skee-ball and if his brother ever played golf at Hendrick’s Field, the public course in Belleville behind my house. He talked about hanging out in Washington Square Park, which made me remember my first job in the City and walking over to the park and eating my lunch there while I watched the street performers. He talked about going with a friend to the second-hand clothing shops, which made me think of my regular visits to the Unique Boutique.  Like him, I went to the Raccoon Lodge. The biggest difference, however, is that he was 17. I wasn’t allowed into the City on my own until after I graduated from college. But I remember feeling just as wide-eyed as he describes his experiences of familiar places to me.

He spoke of the awkwardness of his high school years. While he was always self-conscious about looking too feminine, I was often self-conscious about looking too masculine. By the time I hit high school, my mother started to give up on getting me to “dress like a girl,” and I fell into the habit of oversized sweatshirts and jeans. I stuck to my denim jacket (complete with a music note of safety pins on the back), an Army Class A jacket I picked up at a second-hand store in Bloomfield, and my father’s camel-hair coat. Add to that my voice was kind of deep for a girl my age, which was quite obvious when I would shout over the marching band as drum major. Sophomore year I felt compelled to chop my long hair off, which completed that perfectly boyish look, even if that really wasn’t the goal. When a teacher from the high school first met my brother, he said to a colleague once he thought I was out of earshot “I’m trying to figure out if he’s more feminine or she’s more masculine.” And so it was and so it has been for most of my adult life. Many years later at a full-time job, I learned some of my colleagues referred to me as “Man Benschoten” instead of my proper last name. I never seemed to be able to outrun that “boy thing.”  Sometimes it still bothers me, sometimes I shrug and don’t care in full Gen-X fashion.

Like him, I enjoyed my time alone. For him, he smoked pot. For me, it was riding my bike over to the high school, climbing to the top of the stadium, sitting in the corner and reading. Smoking pot never even crossed my mind. As far as I knew, none of my friends did and my mother could have worked for the CIA. She found out everything. It wasn’t worth the risk.

“Like the first light of dawn, there is a transitory magic in it, a singular quality, something so fresh it seems it must be occurring for the first time.”

Like McCarthy, I found solace in the arts program. For him it was (obviously) drama and it started him down a successful path that led him to NYU. Me? Well, I never got out of the chorus/background dancers, with the exception of one actual line in the production of “It’s Christmas Charlie Brown” (“watch it lady, you almost made me drop my packages!”). I was in concert band, jazz band, chorus, orchestra, drama club, and marching band. I wasn’t “officially” on stage and light crew, but I helped out backstage with the plays before I summoned up the courage to actually try out. For me, that’s as far as my artistic journey went. I didn’t have “it.”

1986 Mercury Cougar
Me in my Cougar, 1988.
Yes, I thought I was that cool.

His announcement to major in acting when he went to college went over about as well as my announcement to major in journalism. I was pushed at every opportunity to become an attorney. When I came home with my declaration form for the Communication Department, well, I’ll just say it didn’t go over well and leave it at that. Like McCarthy, I stuck to my guns and kept with it. And I discovered I did have an aptitude for certain parts of the process. For me, it was print production and typography, along with writing.

We both had our own departmental champions. For him it was Terry Hayden. For me, it was Dr. Don McKenna and Professor Pete Rosenblum. That dynamic duo were my supporters at every turn. They told me about this thing called “prepress.” Where I get to be involved in the actual process of preparing work to go to press. I was in love. Like McCarthy, I was eager to learn all I could. Also, like McCarthy, some teachers were less than thrilled with my feeble classroom attempts. We both struggled with speech class. My prim and proper professor attempted to remove the Jersey from my accent and teach me a proper mid-Atlantic speech pattern (think Katharine Hepburn). Shocker – it didn’t work. I passed, but I think only because I just kept showing up to class. I didn’t care. I dove head first into learning all I could about prepress and writing.

Throughout the book, he has the ability to weave stories of experiences of his past and how those experiences affected his career as he continued to learn and hone his craft. I took special attention to how he handled anxiety while shooting his first feature movie, Class, and how as a director he quietly says “aaaand… action” instead of yelling “ACTION!” like we all see in the movies.

He told his mother he was a pessimist. I call myself a realist. I think they are two sides of the same coin.
Just about the same time he was becoming interested in the technical aspects of filmmaking, I was becoming more and more interested in the technical aspects of photography and press work. As a girl, however, opportunities at the time were limited. At one job, I did become friendly with a stripper (not THAT kind) and would let me watch him work during my lunch and would occasionally let me make bluelines. Every so often I was told I was told I had aptitude. And just like McCarthy was told “you became a pro on this one, Andy,” I would fly high.

One page 130, he finally gets to my favorite of all the Brat Pack movies; St. Elmo’s Fire and devotes a solid twenty-something pages to it. His character, Kevin, felt like it had followed me around my entire life. Cynical, sarcastic, in the background of the group, the oversized clothes, the camel-hair coat. His behind-the-scenes account of the “Respect bongo” scene, my favorite of the entire movie, was just wonderful.

He talks about his use – and abuse – of alcohol. The year he went into rehab was the year I graduated from college. He faced his demon head on and won. Instead of thinking of it as the end of his career, he continued to push forward. He found his way to… writing.

I also give him a lot of credit for how he handled the end of his father’s life. Gracious is hardly enough to describe how he faced the situation.

Overall, I really enjoyed his writing style and his ability to construct some beautifully written sentences. Over time he came to accept his role as a member of the Brat Pack. He now understands that for many of us fellow Gen-Xers, those movies hold a special place for us. For that, I am thankful.

I hope it is a little easier bein’ you now, Mr. McCarthy.

Always Bee Prepared

Nature is a truly amazing thing. Whether you like to go for a hike, fly fish, or something else, being outside is always an adventure.

Last night’s nature adventure took place at the local Roxbury Community Garden. This is my third season at the garden and it has been a great experience. I’ve met wonderful people and have enjoyed the satisfaction of planting something and watching it grow and provide food. Gardening has also been a great respite from the craziness of every day life.

Last night it also provided bees… lots of them.

Seven thousand to be exact. Roxbury is lucky enough to also offer an apiary. It is right next to the garden, so the bees can swing by and borrow a cup of pollen when they need it. Well, yesterday they decided to make a break for it.

Swarm! Swarm! Swarm!

When I arrived at the garden last night there were plenty of people taking advantage of the beautiful weather. I noticed “bugs” in the area and thought to myself that anglers fishing would certainly appreciate the evening hatch. Until I arrived at my garden plot and realized those bugs were actually bees and they decided to take up residence in my plot.

Yikes!

Honey bees are a an important part of our ecosystem. Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service point to general strengths in honey bee colonies. In 2017, the United States had 2.88 million honey bee colonies, down 12 percent from the record high 3.28 million colonies in 2012, but down less than 1 percent from 2007.

We had quite the discussion as to what we should do. I decided to do what my mother always told me when I was a child and needed help; “ask for help from the friendly policeman.”

I called the Roxbury Police dispatch and explained we had a swarm at the garden and wanted to know if they had any way to contact the Environmental Commission, as they would know how to contact the bee keepers. They said they would see what they could do and would also dispatch an officer.

I was able to capture some of the fascinating process on video.

Luckily, our Garden Manager, Anne, arrived shortly after calling the police and helped us find a solution. As a member of the Roxbury Environmental Commission, she was able to reach out to a few people and come up with a plan. Enter Ken Hyman, Bee Keeper (and Anne’s neighbor).

Ken and his wife are bee keepers and bee conservationists, as well as members of the New Jersey Bee Keepers Association. They were able to come and collect just about the entire swarm of 7,000 bees safely.

An officer arrived at the garden as well to check and make sure no one was injured or stung, which we very much appreciated.

The bees moving to their new temporary home.

It was a long and fascinating process. We were all appreciative Ken and his wife were able to come so quickly and volunteer their services to resolve this specific issue. We were also appreciative the Roxbury Police checked on us to make sure no one was injured or had any allergic reactions.

So what do YOU do if you ever have a swarm of bees in your backyard?

First and foremost, do NOT take a care of Raid or other bug spray to it. Honeybees, unlike yellow jackets, are happy little insects. They pollinate flowers and make delicious honey for all of us to enjoy. According to the New Jersey Beekeepers Association, across the United States, and especially in New Jersey, the increase in development has caused a decrease in the plants and habitat that are critical to the survival of our pollinators. This reduction of food and habitat has drastically reduced pollinator populations. Widespread use of pesticides and herbicides are also influencing this decline.

The best thing to do is contact a beekeeper and ask to have the bees relocated. If we had not been able to relocate those bees, they had a very small chance of overnight survival. If you would like to encourage bees and other pollinators, do not use harsh chemicals on your lawn or in your garden. If you have a birdbath, change out the water regularly to avoid mosquito growth and provide stones or sticks in the water so they don’t drown when they land for a break and a drink. Plant a pollinator garden to encourage bees and butterflies.

If you are a Roxbury resident and are interested in joining the apiary, contact the Roxbury Environmental Commission.

It just goes to show, you never know what wonders of nature you will experience. Yesterday I was privileged to see and experience one of nature’s life cycles.

Kids, a Trumpet, and an Album: 1966

While my husband and I never had children of our own, we have thousands of kids. How you may ask? Decades of students taught by my husband. From marching band during his college years to 25 years as a public school band director. No matter what our kids decided to do professionally, we were always proud. Several over the years, aspired to become band directors and professional musicians. One such musician is Jose “Jay” Oliva.

This past week we were especially proud of Jose, as he premiered his first album. What makes this even more special is he completed this project with his father, a world-class musician at the young age of 88.

Recently, I sat down with Jose to discuss his album.

When did you first start working on the music for this album?

Although we first stepped into the studio in late summer 2020 to begin recording, I’ve been mentally preparing to record this album for over 20 years! Titled “1966,” this album contains music arranged for my father Tomas Oliva and performed by him and his band throughout the 60s. The arrangements in this recording also include some Herb Alpert originals like “A Taste of Honey” and “Green Peppers”.

What was the motivation to do this work?

I grew up listening to these very songs and have been humming them in my head since grade school. My father and I always talked about me re-recording this project and bringing back, even for a moment, this once popular style of music. Beware though, one listen, will have you tapping your number 2 pencil and whistling along with a nice smile on your face. If ever a bad day, queue up our album…bad day…gone!

What was the best part of working on this project? What was the worst part?

The absolute best part of working on this project was being in the studio with my father. He recorded the 2nd trumpets in the album. He toured many countries playing this music and having him step back into the studio 55 years later at 88 years old to re-record his album was absolutely priceless for me.
Another absolutely amazing experience is a guest appearance by my wife on clarinet. There was a small solo part that was written as a “whistle.” While my father and I discussed on the phone who would be the whistler, a sudden light bulb going off as my wife entered the room humming songs as she always does around the house. She played the clarinet in high school and after much convincing, she dusted off that old gem for a super cool solo on “Caliente”.

Who are your musical influences? What music styles are you drawn to the most?

I’m mainly a contemporary style trumpet player who got pulled into the Latin salsa world because it was in my blood and that was the style of music my father was heavily involved in during the later part of his career. He got me a lot of great salsa gigs with many of the top bands in NYC when I started playing professionally. We got to perform together for many years. My true passion however was to become a classical trumpet player. Nevertheless, I would trade being a classical trumpet player if I could play jazz solos like Chet Baker!

My father is a classical trumpet player with an astonishing musical career. He was principal chair in the “Orquesta Nacional del Perú”. He was also part of the World Symphony Orchestra in 1971 under Conductor Arthur Fiedler from the world famous Boston Pops. His amazing career was a huge influence on me as a musician.

If you could collaborate with any musician, who would you choose?

If I could collaborate with any (other) musician it would be Chris Botti. Trumpeter Rick Braun is also on that list.

Where can people find your album?

Even though “1966” is now available on Spotify, iTunes, Amazon, iHeartRadio, and Apple Music, my plan was never to launch it to the public under a record label. Initially, I thought I was just going to put this on a cd and hand it out to my immediate family and friends. My vision after we completed the recording was my dad and I sitting back and listening to the tracks while having a beer on a Sunday afternoon.

After listening to the awesomeness of my band “The Oliva Brass Project” which include Jordan Rose on drums, Mike Bono on guitar, Juan Lukunza on trombone, Adrian Moring on bass, Julio “Chino” Moreno on marimba, my father Tomas Oliva, who is still a world class trumpet player at 88, guest appearances by my wife Katlyn Oliva on clarinet and Kevin Rodriguez, piano on “Green Peppers”, I knew this needed to be bigger than originally planned.

Proud and humbled to say that today, I get to share some great songs that are very special to me and my family. 1966 was the year my father introduced these songs to the world and 55 years later, we get to do it all over again.

Going Old School in Jersey

My entire career has been focused on high tech. From prepress to IT to SEO, everything I’ve done has involved the latest in technology.

I think that’s why people are so surprised to hear I have analog hobbies. I fly fish, as well as tie my own flies. I do yoga, hike, crochet, felt, weave, spin my own yarn, garden, and am learning to sew on a 1951 Singer. I also love photography; old school photography – with film.

For as long as I can remember, I loved photography. There was a point when I was young I actually wanted to be a photojournalist. However, as life became busier, that idea was put aside.

One of my shots from college. My then-boyfriend (now husband) preparing for a marching band competition. Like Raso and Fedele, he is also a “Bill on the Hill” graduate.

I picked up photography again in college when I registered for a film photography class. I used my father’s Canon F 35mm and learned to develop my own film in the bathroom of my home, much to my mother’s displeasure. Seton Hall University had two darkrooms and I spent hours in there working to create the best prints possible. For every roll of film I was able to come up with a few solid shots. While on the school paper, I would work with the photo editor on cropping and resizing. My print production and typography classes were great and I still use the skills I learned back then.

While my photography was eventually put aside, that knowledge served me well while working in prepress, print production, and on press runs.

About two years ago, I purchased a digital camera to get back into shooting again. But what I really longed for was old school photography. I went to a monthly used camera event in Hasbrouck Heights and picked up a Canon F – right back where it all started. Since then a dear friend gave me a Mamiya C300. I also have a Polaroid Land Camera from the 60s. Additionally, I’m toying with the idea of picking up either a Diana F+ or a Brownie Hawkeye.

So why am I telling you this long winded story? Stick with me.

I discovered the Film Photography Project quite a while ago and have placed orders with them several times. However, it is only recently I started listening to their podcast. Wow! I have been missing out on something great.

The The Film Photography Podcast is hosted by Michael Raso, Duane Polcou, and John Fedele – all Jersey guys. Raso, a proud William Paterson graduate (known lovingly as “Bill on the Hill”), brings a curious nature to tackling multiple film-related topics. Polcou has an encyclopedic-like knowledge while making the information easy to understand to the average enthusiast. Fedele rounds out the trio and has a long-standing friendship with Raso that began in the William Paterson darkroom. He is an accomplished videographer, as well as a great musician.

Each episode is full of great information, coupled with a lot of humor. They can switch topics from developing film at home to where to get the best plain pie in North Jersey. Their comedic banter is just great. Put as straightforward as possible – they have that Jersey attitude I live – and love. And yes, I love The Sopranos.

I am currently listening to the entire 10-plus year history; checking out a few old episodes, then a few new. I plan on listening to the entire backlog.

If you are interested in film photography, and I highly recommend it, I urge you to check out the Film Photography Podcast.

Class Action Park

“Shake it off…”

That was the phrase I heard regularly growing up. Whenever I came home with a scraped knee, a bruise on my arm, or even if I was upset about something, I regularly heard that phrase.

What is now often referred to “free range parenting,” was just called “playing outside” when I was a kid. You would go ride your bike, walk to a friend’s house, play with the neighborhood kids. You went out after homework was finished and you came home when the street lights came on.

No cell phones. No worries. And kids didn’t know terms like “liability.”

If you didn’t grow up in the 70s and 80s, it is hard to explain. You were expected to play outside with little to no supervision. Atari had just come out and very few families had one. We would ride bikes and play kick ball. Some kids in Belleville would spend their summer at the Rec House (the town recreation center) and participate in sports. In the winter we would go to Branch Brook Park and go sledding. I remember going full speed down the hill going right into the hubcap of a parked car nearby. I was told to just stand up and “shake it off.”

There were very few worries from parents about kidnappings, possible abuse, or going missing.

I will say my parents were pretty strict and kept me fairly sheltered. When I would go for rides on my bike, it was mainly to head up to the high school track. Not to run, but to go all the way up to the top corner of the stands and read. I was hardly an exciting kid.

Maybe that’s why I wasn’t prepared for Action Park.

I had seen commercials for the fabled park in Sussex County and begged my mother to take me. She repeatedly refused. Eventually another friend and I nagged our mothers enough, and they gave in.

Action Park is a regular topic in Weird New Jersey. Once I even wrote a letter to the magazine about my one – and only one – day at Action Park. I was very excited when I saw it published. This is the edited version of my letter:

I definitely remember Action Park as a kid. My mom and her friend took me, my brother and her friend’s kids to Action Park only once. After much nagging, my mother finally agreed to take me on the Alpine Slide. My first clue that this was a bad idea should’ve been the blood-covered teenager being carried half-way down the mountain after her car flipped over. Of course, I was too young to think, “this might be a bad idea.” Well, I was scared out of my wits and almost ripped the so-called “brake” right off, I was pulling on it so hard (to no avail). I don’t remember going on anything else because I think I probably blocked it out of my memory. –Andrea Lyn Van Benschoten

Tonight I watched the documentary of the now defunct park, Class Action Park. I had heard the stories growing up, but some of the “behind the scenes” stories were funny, sad, and shocking all at once.

Action Park couldn’t exist anywhere else or at any other time. Those of us from Jersey are proud to have our battle scars. You need to be from Jersey to understand what it is to be Jersey proud. And to grow up during the 80s meant you were sort of on your own. Many teenagers headed to Action Park and enjoyed the same freedom.

Action Park – where YOU control the action!

That was the mantra of Action Park. The truth was, there was no control. Kids ran the park. There was excessive drinking and many deaths. Depending on the reports, at least six individuals died during the heyday of the park. In 1986, the New Jersey Herald reported 110 injuries were logged for the summer 1985 season, including 45 head injuries and 10 fractures. That figure grew to 330 for summer 1986. Injuries were so common, the park actually purchased an additional ambulance for the town of Vernon.

Eventually, unsupervised time turned into chaos and death.

Most of my teenage years included skiing at Vernon Valley; the winter version of Action Park. They used the same lift in both the winter and summer, and you could see the snow-covered track of the Alpine Slide. The ride that scared me half to death many years before. It is worth mentioning ski equipment was stolen if left unlocked; the snow machine was often pointed directly where the lift was, so you were covered in snow and ice by the time you made it to the top of the mountain; the lights would regularly shut off while you were skiing down; the mountain was often ice covered. I actually saw someone take a mogul and fly into a pole once.

I also broke my hand skiing once and sprained my wrist another time. I “shook it off” until I arrived home and my mother took me to the doctor the next day to put a cast on. No muss, no fuss. Guess I had a little Jersey toughness in me after all.

Jersey Music and Down the Shore: Perfect Together

carousel

Carousel at Wildwood. Credit: Andrea Lyn Van Benschoten

As it is now Memorial Day Weekend and many of us head down the shore, we often can’t help but think of our youth. Our first car, driving down after prom, windows open, and music blasting.

We have great pride in this state; especially pride for our music. Whether you come from the era of Connie Francis (from my hometown of Belleville), The Four Seasons (from the city of my birth, Newark), Frank Sinatra, Bon Jovi, South Side Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, or The Boss, just like everything else, if you live in Jersey, you have strong opinions about our music.

There is a special sound that comes from Jersey music. As soon as you hear it, you know it is must be a Jersey Guy. But what makes that “Jersey Sound?”

One word: Calliope.

What? Let me explain.

When you go down the shore, you may not head to the rides like The Scrambler anymore, but we all look forward to a ride on the merry-go-round. No matter your age, we all turn into little kids when we head to that special ride that has been on the boardwalk for generations. That unique music mixed with pipe organ and bass drum is one of those happy memories we think about in January when the temperature is in the single digits and the snow is above your knee. While the correct name for the instrument that provides that music is the band organ, most people refer to it as the Calliope.

Now with that in mind, listen to the last minute of Springsteen’s Jungleland or the first 30 seconds of Tenth Avenue Freeze Out, thanks to Roy Bittan. Hear that right hand? That’s the homage to that wonderfully unique sound of the calliope. Add to that Danny Federici’s organ, glockenspiel, and accordion playing, and you have what is known as “that Jersey Sound.”

You can hear this same sound when you listen to Love on the Wrong Side of Town by South Side Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. By the way another Jersey favorite son, Jon Bon Jovi also gigged with the great Southside Johnny.

Many will argue that the prominent use of a horn section is a big part of what makes up that unique sound, and they would be correct. After all, what is The E Street Band without Clarence Clemons? And the use of trumpets hitting the high notes in Southside’s band is a mainstay of his band. But that piano and organ combo is what makes up that special sound.

So as the weather gets warm and we all head down the shore, windows down, wind in our hair, remembering our youth and blast our favorite Jersey music, you can thank the carousels of our childhood for that special music that sets us apart from the rest of the country.

Remembering the Heroes: NNJ Veterans Memorial Cemetery

Since I was a kid, I liked going to the cemetery. I know it may sound strange. I grew up in a big Italian family and, unfortunately, as each family member passed, they would go to the cemetery. Once I was old enough to go a little further away from home on my bike, I would ride to the cemetery on weekends when it was nice. I would sit on the ground, clean the headstones of my loved ones and talk to them. When I was able to drive, I went more often.

Now that I live almost an hour away from Glendale Cemetery in Bloomfield, I don’t get there as often as I would like, but I am still fascinated by cemeteries. They hold not just our loved ones, but the history of our country.

nnjvmc-logoEnter the Northern New Jersey Veterans Memorial Cemetery.

If there is one group of individuals who should always receive our respect and care, it is our nation’s veterans. And those who made the ultimate sacrifice for us deserve our highest level of respect. The Northern New Jersey Veterans Memorial Cemetery’s focus is to make sure vets receive a respectful resting place in Northern New Jersey nearby their families.

It took a long time, lots of planning, and plenty of effort to get this cemetery in place. It is the only veteran’s cemetery that is privately owned and receives no funding from the State or the Federal governments. It relies on their small burial costs and donations to stay in place and available for vets and their families in Northern New Jersey.

This cemetery is the brainchild of John Harrigan, president of Wallkill Valley Chapter 1002 in Vernon, New Jersey. He took on the mission of creating this cemetery and enlisted the help of the Sussex County Board of Chosen Freeholders, VFW organizations, Associates of Vietnam Veterans of America, Sussex County, and services from individuals like Attorney Kevin Kelly, and businesses and organizations Mark DeVenezia of Mulch Concepts, Gardell Land Surveying, Pompton Lakes Elks Lodge 1895, and from the Sussex County Technical School. Local veterans’ organizations also have supported the effort.

The New Jersey State Legislature has approved the addition of the cemetery non-profit on the state income tax check-off list.

Now add my partner-in-crime Lisaann.

She is an amazing individual – a breast cancer survivor, a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Chinkchewunska Chapter; the National Society Daughter of the Union 1861-1865, and the cemetery’s Administrator and she can trace her blood line to many veterans who fought during the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. It wasn’t until she attended a good friend’s Father’s Military Funeral at the Veterans Cemetery in Goshen NY, that she decided she wanted to be part of the mission of the new cemetery in Sussex County. She takes her position seriously and does all she can to make sure the vets who are buried at the cemetery receive the care and respect they deserve.

They do fundraisers periodically, but rely heavily on donations from individuals. This iscemetery-enterance an important place in New Jersey for vets and their families. If you are able, I hope you will consider making a donation to this important location in New Jersey.

If you are interested in planning a service at the Northern New Jersey Veterans Memorial Cemetery, please reach out. I am sure Lisaann and John will help you plan a service fitting of a vet!