Writing a book you can expect editorial cuts. When it’s a memoir, however, it means a chunk of your life has been discarded. I can accept that After all, no one wants to know EVERYTHING about your past. On the other hand, some cuts from my Connected: From Godfather to God-the-Father have led to some questions. Two are reoccurring:
How’d you end up with your last name?
What did your dad do to go to prison?
The answers are found in the unedited cuts below:
After my dad’s escape I wanted to know the “why, what and how,” but it took years to learn the entire story. Over time, my mother and father would help me piece much of the puzzle together. When I was twelve, my Aunt Mary furnished me with much of the missing pieces.
Every time I visited my aunt’s house she had fresh baked goodies waiting for me. Maybe that was why she was so chubby. That day was no different. The cake looked great, but I knew it would taste better. I lifted a slice and inhaled a bite. “Bobo, don’t use your hands. You’re old enough to know better. Use your fork.” She chided me with a smile, but then she always smiled. If Santa was a woman, she’d be like my Aunt Mary.
“How much do you know about dad’s escape from prison?” I’m not sure why I picked this time to ask, but I knew it was time to know. “Not much, but I understand a little of why he got into trouble.” “Please tell me, I really need to know.” Up until then, no one at home ever spoke about it, it just was.
“Our family arrived in early 1900s from Poland. Our mother was Italian and father was Polish-Russian. Our father started a small bakery in New York and all of us kids worked at it.” She poured me some milk and cut herself her second helping of cake.
“Papa was always tough on your dad. He didn’t let him go to school and gave him the toughest chores.” She put her fork down, wiped her lips with a napkin and pulled the kitchen chair a little closer to mine. The chrome reflected the overhead bulb swinging over the table. “Bobo, our dad had a very bad temper and your father seemed to get him especially angry. He beat your dad. He hit him a lot. One day, after he turned fourteen, he ran away from home and never returned.”
“Wow, fourteen! How’d he eat, where did he sleep?”
“I received a letter from him about a year later. He said he was okay and was working for a circus. Seems the day he ran away, he wandered around some, and walked over to the old fair grounds where he saw tents set up for a circus performance. That night he snuck in, but got caught. For his punishment, they had him clean out some cages. He somehow talked himself into a job and became a roustabout.”
“A what…? I asked.
“Roustabout, it’s someone who does most any little thing. Later, he became part of their attractions as the ‘Strongman.’ ”
“Dad was a strongman in a circus?”
My aunt beamed, “He was always pretty strong, but he must have really grown.” She went to the sink and wet the end of her napkin, bent over me and dabbed at my lips. “Ah, I’m too old for this.” I grabbed the wet cloth from her.
“But not too old to eat cake with your fingers.” She laughed.
“Please tell me more. I want to know everything.”
“He stayed with the circus until he was eighteen. He then went to work for a safe company in Kansas City. It’s there he met a member of John Dillinger’s gang”
“John Dillinger! You mean the one from movies?”
She nodded. “Yes, but this wasn’t the movies, it was real.” I had visions of James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart. Names like Machine Gun Kelly and Baby Face Nelson flew through my head. “When Dillinger’s guys found out where your dad worked they recruited him. His job was simple, tell the gang where new safes were sent and smuggle them the combinations. I guess this worked like a charm. It sure was a lot less messy than dynamite. Problem is the G-Men grew suspicious of Dillinger’s new, seemingly clairvoyant, ability to know the combinations of the safes he robbed. They traced them back to your dad’s workplace and he was arrested and sentenced to 25 years in prison.”
She opened a cabinet and grabbed a fistful of something out of a box. She motioned me to follow her into the living room. “While in prison, the guards learned that your dad had a knack for cooking and baking so he was assigned to work for the prison’s warden.” She opened a birdcage and dumped some seeds into a small container. She stroked the neck of her parrot, “Who loves her Pumpkin? Who’s your momma?” She seemed to be waiting for an answer, but none came. My aunt swore the bird talked, but I never heard it.
I sat on her orange corduroy couch and waited for her to continue, “Considering he was in prison, he had it pretty easy. He ate well, could go to town to buy groceries, and even had a room in the warden’s mansion.” She closed the cage door and sat next to me. “Bobo, do you know the Bible story about Joseph in the Old Testament.”
“Joseph was Mary’s husband.” Everyone knew that.
“No the Old Testament one, his brother’s tossed him in a ditch and sold him as a slave.” I nodded, “Oh yeah, I remember.” I recalled a vague picture of his colorful coat in my catechism.
“Well what happened to your dad always reminds me of the story of Joseph and Potiphar. Joseph was Potiphar’s slave, but he had a pretty good life. There was one big problem though. It seemed Potiphar’s wife really wanted Joseph.” She winked at me, and I got it. “In the same way, the warden’s wife tried to seduce your dad. Unlike Joseph, he fell to the temptation and before long was having an affair.”
“Bobo, it wasn’t exactly smart being with the warden’s wife. Your dad knew he’d eventually get caught, and wardens back then had lots of power. Your dad figured he’d end up dead if he stayed. One day, he headed to town, but instead of stopping to purchase supplies, he stole the warden’s car and drove straight to Kansas City. He escaped.”
“So how’d he end up with his name?” I asked.
“There was an inmate named ‘Alden Hall’ who just died. He took his name. He kept Ellis, his real middle name.” “Ellis?” “Our parents named him after Ellis Island, where he was born.”
I grew even fonder of Aunt Mary that day. Not just for filling in many blanks, but for the sack of cookies she gave me on the way out.
My dad was on the run many years before meeting my mother. I only learned bits and pieces of his life during those days. He shared very little, but sometimes he’d drop something like, “Oh, I see they made a movie about Bonnie and Clyde– I knew them.” He’d then gave me a short story about them, and end it by saying they were both “nuts.”
As a young boy all I grasped was he was gone and wanted by the law. I didn’t need to know much more to recognize my life had changed. I was too young to understand how much.
The tumor of doubt and fear slithered into my soul. Before long it started to spread and attack my hope. I wanted to have faith, but there in faith in fear and doubt. I wanted to believe God would work this all out, but I wasn’t even sure He existed. If He did, how could I merit His love when I couldn’t even earn my parents?