There Used to be a BallPark… in Weird NJ

Weird NJ is one of my favorite magazines. It only comes out twice a year, in full color, and is full of the weirdness that makes the Garden State unique. I’ve been reading for decades, and I’ve had a few articles published, but none recently. Check my publications list for what I had in their past issues.

Until I found an abandoned ballpark in the Meadowlands on one of my rambles. You can read all about it in issue #48, the one with a big Mighty Joe Young on the cover (one of my favorite old Ray Harryhausen flicks).

You can pick up Weird NJ at local bookstores like the Montclair Book Center, and Barnes & Noble stores across the state, or at their website www.weirdnj.com

weirdnj48

 

Hap and Leonard, and Joe schooling me

I’ll be reviewing the new Sundance series based on Joe Lansdale’s books, Hap & Leonard, for Criminal Element. The first episode gets the tone and the characters just right. Hop on over to Criminal Element for my full review. I’ve been a fan of the disastrous duo since Savage Season, all the way to Vanilla Ride. I have some catching up to do, there’s a new one called Honky Tonk Samurai that just hit the stores.

Here’s Joe putting me in a fingerlock at Bouchercon in Albany, 2013.

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Sending Off a Soldier

My great-uncle Dominic, one of the inspirations for “Grandpa Butch” in Blade of Dishonor, and one of the men to whom I dedicated the book, passed away this month in his sleep. His son Richie, a Vietnam veteran, held a memorial to his departed father this Sunday. Family and friends filled the VFW hall in Nutley, where Uncle Butch sang karaoke, just a few weeks prior.

Uncle Butchie, as we called him, was an unforgettable character. Six feet tall, sporting a Stetson and a handlebar mustache that would make him the envy of every hipster this side of Portlandia, he also possessed a booming voice and a bottomless collection of jokes and yarns, usually just slightly off color. His favorite involved adultery, a refrigerator, and a Volkswagen.

He was a man of great heart. I still remember his New Year’s Eve parties. Dancing with Aunt Josie to Hank Williams. At his memorial this Sunday, two mellifluously voiced bikers sang “Your Cheatin’ Heart” in his honor. And shortly after, “Taps” was played, to send off the old soldier. Dominic served in World War II. Some of his training was done in the South. Maybe that’s where he picked up the hat he wore for years, and his manner of speech. He didn’t have a New Jersey accent. He was full-blood Italian, but always looked and sounded like he walked out of a John Wayne picture. Though he did roofing and plumbing, and drove a white Town Car a mile long, you wouldn’t have doubted it, if someone said he had a cattle ranch and had just roped a steer.

Much of the family gathered for the memorial, including his brother Jimmy. The last of his brother and sisters. As they say, these events are for the living. To set in our minds the man who left us, and remind us of those we still have. I was honored when my cousin Corey, Uncle Dominic’s granddaughter, asked to use my dedication for part of the photo memorial, including the photos of uncles Dominic and Jimmy at the book premiere. Here it is. You can read the full dedication here.

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He will not be forgotten. He touched so many lives, helped so many around him. He danced and sang until the week he died, well into his nineties. He was steadfast and loyal but always had time for a good laugh. A good example for all of us.

And here’s that joke. I wish I could tell it like he could.

Three men are in line at the Pearly Gates before St. Peter.
“Okay, I need to know how you died, to see if you can get into heaven.”
The first man says, “I was just taking my Volkswagen convertible out for a drive. I pull up to a stop sign, and boom! I woke up here. I don’t know what happened.”
The second man snaps, “He don’t belong here. Let me tell you how I died. I’m a hard working man. I work so hard, I forgot to bring my lunch bag today. So I go back home, and when I get to the door, I can hear my wife is in there with another man! By the time I get the door open, she’s pulling her clothes on, but I see his socks, by the open window! He’s out there in his convertible! I’m so enraged, I pick up the refrigerator, and throw it out the window on top of him!”
St. Peter goes “Hmm, well, stand over there, I need to think about you two.” He turns to the last guy. “What’s your story?”
The man shrugs. “Well, I was hiding in the refrigerator.”

Like I said… if Uncle Butchie told it, you’d be laughing.

I’ll miss you, Uncle Butchie. Thank you for being the man you were.

Here’s some of my family and me, at the memorial. Great Uncle Jimmy in front, my Uncle Paul to the right (he’s getting the next book dedicated to him!) and my cousins lined up behind. Richie, Butch’s son, is to the right of me.

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The Two Heroes to Whom I Dedicated Blade of Dishonor

butch and jimmy ww2

They are two of my heroes, but I never knew them. Not really. Pictured above are my uncle Jimmy (left) and my uncle Butch (right) before they shipped off to serve in World War II.

I knew them much later, in their fifties. Sitting at my grandmother’s kitchen table while they drank black coffee and tore apart doughnuts and crumb cake, and solved the problems of the world. I dedicated my first novel, Blade of Dishonor, to these men.

“Another week shot in the ass,” Butchie is fond of saying. He’s the joker, with a hundred stories up his sleeve. After a mini-stroke, he forgot them all. “I lost the comedy channel,” he said. But they came back, one by one. Uncle Jimmy plays the straight man, but occasionally comes out with a biting comment that makes us all laugh.

Jimmy served in Bastogne. “Patton’s tanks saved our behinds.” His feet still ache from the frostbite he received. He put his boots in the campfire, but it wasn’t enough. He was 24 when he was drafted, with a wife and son at home. For funerals of soldiers, Uncle Butch wears his medals and uniform. He also served in Europe, and if I recall, was en route to the Pacific when the bombs dropped.  That’s all I know, because they don’t talk about the war.

Uncle Butch once admitted that he regrets combat. He saw it as young men sent to war to fight someone else’s battles, killing each other for nothing. You fought for the guy next to you. Uncle Jimmy was more pragmatic. It was just something he did, trying to get home.

Yet I saw how it affected them. Around Veteran’s Day, VJ Day, VE Day. The tears of otherwise stoic old men rock us to our core.

After the war, Butch worked for a builder of construction equipment and collected old cars. He has a Model A with a rumble seat that was used in a Ford commercial, a Chrysler 300H, and until recently boated around town in a white Town Car three blocks long. Uncle Jimmy was a roofer, then bought a service station. When they retired, they joined up to do plumbing and roofing on the side. Uncle Butch will still stop at the curb if he sees a discarded lawnmower, take it home for Jimmy to repair while he’s watching the football game, and offer it up when yours breaks down. They kept busy into their nineties. They survived both their wives, caring for them when they became sick.

They grew up in the Depression, in a big Italian family. Living on fried potato sandwiches wrapped in newspaper, so you could read the headlines off your hoagie roll. Foraging in the woods when they were hungry. Uncle Jimmy became a hunter, with a cabin festooned with deer antlers. He hunted with a scope (and friends to point him at the deer!) after his eyesight failed, and I had a freezer full of venison–he called it “goat”–every season.

Uncle Butchie still goes out dancing, at 92. Uncle Jimmy’s cancer put him in the VA hospital. But his son takes him around, to check on the house, to visit family, and at 94, the disease moves so slowly that it hasn’t kept him down. They taught me that a sense of humor, a good heart, and a helping hand for your family and friends will keep you living well no matter what life throws at you. Tragedy, artillery, failure or success. They stuck together, and they’ve survived their wives, brothers, sisters, young and old.

And they’re still doing it.

butch and jimmy now

Writing to Harlan Ellison

I believe the first book I read by Harlan Ellison was his short story collection I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream. Besides being one of the great titles, the story remains a fascinating capsule of humanity at its best and worst. It follows the tortures of a small group of insane and terrible people damned to live within the confines of a Cold War supercomputer gone sentient, a Frankensteinian who despises its former masters with a hate so vitriolic that it has annihilated the planet and kept only five survivors as its playthings. It may not resonate as deeply as it once did, but as a child of the ’80s kept up nights by a senile President picking fights with inscrutable nuclear enemies, its palpable sense of dread was quite affecting.

But that’s just one of Mr. Ellison’s stories. A true master of the short story, I read everything by him I could get my hands on. Deathbird Stories is a favorite of mine (and Neil Gaiman) where Harlan plunges into myth and religion. He’s run the gamut, but they all have one thing in common: a monolithic moral foundation and deeply emotional underpinning. While ghettoed as a science fiction writer, he prefers the term speculative fiction. As tribalist monkeys, we humans love our categories. He’s written magic realism, he’s written fable, such as “Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman,” which is one of the most reprinted stories in the English language. He wrote that in six hours, in one draft. The man’s a storytelling genius.

Energetic and opinionated, he became infamous among science fiction fans as ill-tempered. I drove to Long Island in a ’65 Mustang with leaky brake lines to meet him at a convention at Stony Brook college. To me, he just seemed like a confident man who didn’t take any shit. It bemuses me when people expect someone to take shit. He was heckled on stage about his height, and I imagine some came merely to heckle, to set him off. What struck me most that he was a champion of others’ work more than his own. Dan Simmons was there promoting his latest- Summer of Night– and Harlan found a copy of Simmons’s first novel, Song of Kali, and read the excellent opening paragraph aloud. That doesn’t sound like an asshole to me.

Admittedly, I met him only once, but he was quite gracious at the book signing table and signed things I purchased that I didn’t even ask to be signed. But I’ve been amused for his reputation. Surely he is no saint, and during that minor epoch of the ’70s when science fiction writers were rock stars with big collars and enormous eyeglasses, perhaps he rubbed some the wrong way. He also made it very clear that he didn’t want your damn fan letters. They were a distraction, he said, from writing. Like many prolific writers, he was driven. Whatever his voluminous pagecount was, it was never enough.And like a stage star who says they never read reviews, he may have excoriated fan letter writing, but he interrupted his day to read them.

Now, I’ve never been good at taking no for an answer. And as I was adrift as a young man and seeking a father figure, I had a habit of contacting writers and celebrities I admired, in my search for a male role model. I think I called his house, once, and sat tongue tied until he hung up. I’m not proud of that. And of course, knowing that he didn’t want people writing him, I wrote him. In one of his stories, he quotes Gerald Kersh, a writer he admired greatly. I remembered the quote, but not the source. And in those days before the internet, I would have had to go to the Nutley public library and skim every Harlan Ellison story until I found it, if they had the book, and hope that he footnoted the origin. So I used that as an excuse to write him a letter. And lo and behold, he answered, and of course, chewed me out for busting his balls with my request:


I did find Gerald Kersh. I found Nightshade and Damnations, the collection Harlan edited. I read his excellent novel set in a London slum, Fowler’s End, which is on Kindle for 99 cents, so you have no excuse. I read his other collection, Men Without Bones, which is also on Kindle. Kersh writes like a dream. He’s a writer’s writer. Clever stories, and a style so effortless it inspires awe and envy. He lacks the raw emotional power of Harlan’s best work, but he is also one of the best writers of the last century, and four a lousy four bucks you can take a bite of the heart of his best work. Have at it.

As for Harlan, I wrote this because I sent this letter to Shaun Usher of the excellent Letters of Note blog, and it was showcased a year or so ago. Shaun contacted me after he spoke with Mr. Ellison on the phone, and my letter came up. Harlan said I was an idiot for not selling it on ebay, because of the 200 or so letters he receives a week, mine remains one of the few he’s responded to. I wish I’d kept my copy, no doubt scrawled in my stout lazy cursive, or more likely printed on the daisy wheel printer I had back then. I don’t recall if I begged or beseeched, or merely kissed ass. But it felt good to be remembered. I lay the blame on my Plucky surname, but my head was a whirlwind of formless, aimless energy back then and I’m sure I wrote a few lines that would defy explanation today.

And of course, I just wrote him again. On his web page. That way, instead of intruding on his mailbox, if he reads the forum for his readers, it is of his own volition. But yeah, I’m gonna refresh that page daily to see if he replies. And I know Harlan is yanking our twig about replying to few letters, as a few years later I told an eccentric old lady and voracious reader I knew from delivering medicine at the drug store, Mary Brasseur, about my letter, and she wrote him as well. She said he was a curmudgeon, and he corrected her, he was an ‘irascible sonofabitch’ (or some such; good Mary has passed to the great used bookstore in the sky). I’ve always felt like I knew Mr. Ellison a little, and that he was a bit like Busto (read the letter) and that’s why the quote resonated with him, and with me. I wouldn’t presume to know him from his writing, but as Andrew Vachss says about “children of the secret,” veterans of the same war are attuned to each other’s frequencies.

© 2011 Thomas Pluck

One Who Walked Alone

I was planning on writing about my father’s influence on me and my movie tastes for Father’s Day, and after watching The Whole Wide World- with its portrayal of Robert E. Howard as a man born in the wrong time, who went out of his way to shock and offend, who also ended his life prematurely with a gun- I had a lot to think about. My father shot himself in late September 1997. I learned about it on the 26th; it took a few days for someone to find him. So the tombstone just has an approximation.

My father’s real self was insulated within a constructed persona. He enjoyed offending people, being the life of the party, the company of women, and screwdrivers. After all, it’s hardly a drink; it’s practically breakfast. I spent a lot of time with him, but didn’t get to know him as well as I’d like. Though I don’t think anyone knew the real him; he was very protective of that, with his tough-guy demeanor of ’50s vintage American male raised on racing flathead V8 Fords; he could have walked out of American Graffiti or Last Exit to Brooklyn. I like Dice Clay because he reminds me of a parody of my old man.

I remember sitting next to my Dad during Star Wars, and looking over at him when Luke saw Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru’s barbecued skeletons. I was shocked, but seeing his lack of reaction made me realize it must be okay. The power of neglect. It’s one of my earliest movie memories; that and having to see a re-release of The AristoCats when everyone else went to see Animal House. My Uncle Paul wore out a VHS copy of the latter for us on his $800 top-loader VCR, so we made up for missing it on the big screen.

I used to go see Sly Stallone movies with my Dad a lot. First Blood was my first ’80s action movie. I still love the genre, though Sly is probably my least favorite star. My father liked him because his friend, my “Uncle” Tony Maffatone (who I elegized here) was his executive bodyguard, stunt double, knife trainer and fight choreographer for many years. He was a larger than life character. We had to go see Rocky IV, because he had some screen time. Cobra. Hell, we even suffered through Cliffhanger; but in Dad’s only movie review, he snored loudly through that one.

“Boy that was really exciting. I bet you’re a big Lee Marvin fan aren’t ya. Yeah me too. I love that guy. My heart’s beatin’ so fast I’m about to have a heart attack.”

Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson were two other actors we’d always watch. Death Hunt, where Bronson plays a trapper being chased by Mountie Marvin, was one of our favorites. I’ve got it on the DVR right now. Clint Eastwood was always good- Dirty Harry, the westerns, even Unforgiven. He liked Gene Hackman, too. Tough guys. Tommy Lee Jones. We watched a lot of trash and martial arts films too. David Carradine of course; Bruce Lee, and ’80s anomalies like Megaforce and Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn.

But my father’s favorite actors were ones he was told he resembled. He was a narcissistic womanizer, and I was always surprised at his uncanny ability to hook up with younger women. For a while, he was Burt Reynolds. He had the cowboy hat and everything. This was during the Smokey and the Bandit period. My father looked as wrong without a mustache as Burt did in White Lightning and Deliverance. We never watched that Burt movie together, with the indignity of Ned Beatty’s white ass.

As he aged, Dad morphed into Sean Connery in The Presidio and Rising Sun. He even affected the ponytail, though it never got to The Rock-era lengths. Then as even Connery became an old man in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, he had no one to mimic. If he’d only lived to see Entrapment, where an 80-something Connery gets with Catherine Zeta-Jones, he’d probably still be cruising around in his Corvette.


In his later years, the Vette got garaged and changed out for a black Saab convertible that he liked; he was trying to catch his image up with his age. He never made it to the age of the baby boomer. What actresses did he like? Barbra Streisand. Seriously. And Sandra Locke. Women who weren’t helpless, but always needed a man. That early ’60s image of womanhood, where they could live on their own, and be sexually liberated, but not too liberated. Let’s not get crazy here. Be a lady. At least in public.

Since his death I’ve always believed in the individual right to suicide. I find the laws against it hilarious. Suicide is acceptable in our stories, we just don’t call it that. Do Butch & Sundance take the cowards way out? Thelma & Louise? Kowalski in Vanishing Point? Maybe. I wish my father hadn’t done it, even though we had drifted apart by then. I think if he’d lived, he might not have liked who he was anymore, but I would have liked to talk with him more as age perhaps broke down the armored shell he’d built for himself. But like Howard, when I knew him, he walked that road alone.

…there are men whom one hates until a certain moment when one sees, through a chink in their armor, the writhing of something nailed down and in torment.
–Gerald Kersh

Counting Down the Zeroes: Spirited Away

This post is part of Film for the Soul‘s excellent Counting Down the Zeroes project, reviewing the great films of the past decade.

One more thing to thank Pixar for is helping get Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli some respect in the States. I’ve been a fan since I saw Nausicaa presented at a science fiction convention in the early ’90s; back then was only available on a bootleg VHS with subtitles created by American fans who learned Japanese. Later I saw Princess Mononoke at an Asian Cultural Center in Minneapolis, dubbed for American release. So I thought it was wonderful when in 2003 he won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature with Spirited Away.

Princess Mononoke was the general American public’s introduction to Miyazaki, and it is practically an action film, with a war between nature and a village of gunmakers; it’s an easy sell. Spirited Away is a disturbing fairy tale about a young girl kidnapped and enslaved by a witch. Instead of an action film we get an Alice in Wonderland set in a strange fairy tale world sprung from Miyazaki’s imagination, melding all sorts of folklore.
It is the tale of Chihiro, a young girl who is moving to a new town with her parents. She is angry at leaving home, and sits petulantly in the back of the car. Her father takes a deep forest road, and they come upon an abandoned amusement park. As they explore, her parents find a room laden with delicious food, and begin eating ravenously. Chihiro senses that something is off, and does not eat; she comes upon a boy named Haku, who warns her to leave with her parents, but it is too late. Her parents have begun turning into pigs, and there is no return. They have entered the land of spirits, and cannot escape.
Rather disturbing, isn’t it? No more than a fairy tale, and that’s what this is. Chihiro follows Haku, who wants to protect her, but soon she is in the thrall of the witch Yubaba, a wizened old woman of bizarre proportions. Her parents are soon in Yubaba’s pigsty and Chihiro must find a way to free them and escape; her only choice is to work for the witch, at her bath house, where all the spirits come to get clean. From there on, we follow the naive yet plucky Chihiro as she works off her debt in the spirit world, making friends and learning the secrets of Haku and Yubaba.
The world is one of mystery and wonder, rooted in mundane work life. Another worker named Lin takes her under her wing—she’s one of the few humans there—and teaches her the ropes. They toil together scrubbing the baths, which are visited by frog men, dragons and “stink spirits.” Some are the spirits of rivers and trees, in other guises; others are pure mystery, such as a cloaked, silent figure in a Noh mask who seems a little too friendly and generous. Chihiro learns that Haku is also bound to Yubaba, and hopes to free him as well someday.
The story is slowly paced, but there is always something fantastic going on. The characters are full and believable, whether they are witches or drudges. And as always, the beautiful animation of Studio Ghibli is the backdrop. We see oriental dragons have dogfights in the sky against swarms of paper birds cutting them to ribbons; a spidery man with a dozen gangly limbs operating a coal furnace fed by a tiny army of dust motes; and parades of all kinds of spirits and fantastic creatures as they walk across the bridge to town.
The world has the same grip that the creations of Jim Henson and Terry Gilliam, and it’s not all fun and games. Yubaba takes Chihiro’s name as collateral, and renames her “Sen,” as if capturing her soul. A ravenous spirit begins luring the bath house workers with gold nuggets and swallowing them whole. And Yubaba’s minions include a trio of bouncing, grunting, bearded disembodied heads, and a beastly enormous baby she dotes over. We get a real sense of danger for little Sen, no matter how resourceful she is.
Spirited Away is more than a coming of age folk tale about a spoiled child forced to grow up in a strange world. In part, the bath house is a token from old Japanese culture, “the good old days.” In 2001 when this was made, Japan was undergoing its own economic crisis, and a yearning for the simplicity of old abounded. But he shows the bad side of the past as well, with the forced servitude. The familiar Miyazaki nods to nature are subtle, but there; we see a polluted river spirit fly free, once it is freed of the garbage weighing it down. The punishment for the gluttonous parents is obvious; we have grown fat and need to tighten our belts. So in some ways, it is just as poignant for America now as it was for Japan eight years ago.
But lessons aside, this is a great story; at just over two hours, it never drags or feels indulgent. It envelops you, like a good fantasy should. There are mistakes and redemption; people of compassion and greed, selfish vampires, gluttons and the reward of earnest hard work, pride in doing the right thing, and forgiveness for trespasses. We dive deep into a strange yet familiar world, and meet fantastic and interesting characters. We even see someone eat a dried lizard, who makes it look so tasty you wish you could have a nibble.
Spirited Away is the perfect marriage of the more energetic Princess Mononoke and the children’s fairy tale My Neighbor Totoro, that can be enjoyed by everybody. And while Ghibli has made even better films—Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday are truly great movies—this stands with them, as one of the great films, animated or not. You can watch it subtitled, or with the excellent English dub that was released by Disney in 2003. When you see the wonder of WALL-E, or any Pixar film, know that they stand on Chihiro’s little shoulders.

Lillian Randolph: Erased from Tom and Jerry

Many of us grew up watching Tom & Jerry on the tube, but if you’re old enough you remember the day Tom’s owner changed from a snarky black woman to a strident Irishwoman. Tom’s owner was never named, but she was called “Mammy Two Shoes” by some viewers. Some called her “the maid” when it was obvious that Tom lived in her home. Later, MGM had her legs whitened and her voice re-dubbed by June Foray as an Irish stereotype. The original voice, by black actress Lillian Randolph, was rarely heard again. Randolph was a blues singer who had roles in radio and in It’s a Wonderful Life.

One of my faves- Fraidy Cat, where Tom mistakes her for a ghost

As a child, I remember seeing some of the cartoons before the axe fell. I never thought she was a maid, and there are very few shorts that put her in a maid outfit- she’s usually in a slipper and housecoat, like a single woman reclining after a long day. In fact, in Mouse Cleaning, you can see her dressed up to go to church. That’s one of the few shorts where you get a glimpse of her face, albeit from a steep angle and her hefty bosom blocks most of it. The other banned cartoon, Casanova Cat, is the only one I recall her being in a maid outfit- it’s a fantasy short where Tom goes to call on his white cat beau, who lives in a penthouse.

Rarely seen- Tom’s owner’s face

She does have a caricatured manner of speech, as when she tells Tom, “if you is a mouse catcher, then I am Lana Turner! Which I ain’t.” The NAACP complained about the stereotypical portrayal and MGM removed her entirely in 1949. Lillian Randolph went back to being a blues singer.

Mouse Cleaning

She’s an offensive caricature, no more so than the ubiquitous blackface gags that other cartoons of the time had. Anyone can see why she became the subject of complaints, once you start noticing the shabbiness of the house, and her mannerisms.

whitewashed version :

The Tom & Jerry shorts won more Academy Awards than Disney’s or Warner Brothers’, but I feel they jumped the shark when Chuck Jones came along and reworked the characters. I like Chuck- Hell, I have a tattoo of Pepe le Pew in an undisclosed location– but his Tom & Jerry are way too much like a mute Sylvester and Tweety. They lack the great character of the originals, where Jerry was a tiny Chaplin tramp and Tom was lazy and only chased Jerry when his owner threatened him with sleeping outside. My favorite of all time is perhaps Heavenly Puss, where Tom loses his 9th life and is going to Cat Hell unless Jerry signs an affadavit forgiving him for all his trespasses. It deservingly won the Oscar that year.

You can find many of the original cartoons on youtube, and MGM has released most of them in original form in the Tom & Jerry Spotlight Collection DVD sets. The third set omits two cartoons- Mouse Cleaning and Casanova Cat- and several are edited. They finally released some of the originals and we can all see Tom’s owner as she originally was. If you love the old cartoons, I recommend looking up the originals on YouTube or DVD to see the lost performances of Lillian Randolph.

A Tribute to Tony Maffatone

“Uncle” Tony Maffatone

I recently watched Son of Rambow, a cute kid’s film set in ’80s Britain, about two young kids who make their own sequel to First Blood with a video camera. The film is riddled with the best scenes from that ur-action film, which I saw in the theater at the tender age of 11, with my father. Why? Because my “Uncle” Tony Maffatone was involved in it. Tony was my father’s best friend- if men from that era had BFFs. Men born in the ’40s were more like predatory animals than humans, and would sometimes tolerate each other on their own territory; my Dad and Tony were both hard-asses, and had a deep mutual respect. Both had served as police officers; my father moved to construction, and Uncle Tony became an executive bodyguard, eventually for Sylvester Stallone, which led to small roles, such as a mugger in Nighthawks and one of the two KGB officers spying on Rocky in IV; he’s the one who slips on the ice, which was scripted. He didn’t want to do it, but he did it for Stallone. If you watch the “making of” documentaries for Rambo: First Blood Part II, you can see Tony showing Sly how to fight with a knife. My scary knife collection got its start when Uncle Tony showed me his numbered Jimmy Lile Rambo knives, and a Moran ST-24– one of the Holy Grails for knife collectors.

Skip to 2:42, where Tony chases him from the car; his partner drives

When he was in Thailand and the Middle East working as a weapons consultant for Rambo III, he brought me back a pair of Thai dha swords, a Khyber knife, a kindjal and some Nepalese kukris; thus began a lifelong obsession with dangerous pointy things. My father had made a habit of giving me pocket knives, and a razor-sharp Western M-49 Bowie that hung on my wall, terrifying my grandmother, who had nightmares that it would fall down and behead me. When I got older, I would of course graduate to firearms- especially after getting to handle Tony’s MAC-10, one of the signature weapons of the ’80s. He also showed me the scars where he’d been shot on the job, tempering the respect I had for guns, which were never shown as toys.


Jimmy Lile’s knife from First Blood

Uncle Tony had a small role in some of the most memorable action movies of the ’80s. First Blood is still the best of the Rambo series if you ask me. I love the latest one, but it follows the same formula as the other sequels, while the first story was about how shabbily Vietnam veterans were treated both by the government and the people upon their return. It doesn’t have any hippies spitting on him; it shows the callous disregard of a small town police chief, played by Brian Dennehy, for the burned-out vagrant John Rambo, who only wants to pass through town as he looks up one of his war buddies. That buddy has died of cancer, from Agent Orange, and his family is living in a dilapidated shack.

Don’t push it…

The original gets a bad rap because things would turn 180 with the first sequel, which created the “one arm tied behind our back” and “POWs are still in camps 20 years later, for no reason” memes that fueled the ’80s. It was one of James Cameron’s first films, and has that rollercoaster of relentless action that he would perfect later with Aliens and Terminator 2. Rambo III would try the same formula in Afghanistan, to tepid results; the fight culminates with another duel against a Russian attack chopper, this time with Rambo in a tank, ramming it head-on in a rather unlikely scenario that probably sounded better on paper. The film starts with a great muay thai style stick fight between Rambo and a guy who looks like Al Jorgenson from Ministry, before settling in to a familiar story, where he has to rescue Colonel Trautman with the help of the mujaheddin and a cute Afghan kid, sort of a freedom fighter Short Round. The movie has been sneered at as “Rambo helps the Taliban,” but these guys would be more like Northern Alliance.

It gets a lot of flack as being utterly ridiculous, but it’s not really over the top- hell, it’s not even Over the Top! It’s just mediocre, except for a frighteningly expensive final battle involving tanks, helicopters, mujaheddin on horseback, and truck-mounted heavy machine-guns. There are a lot of explosions, but there’s no real urgency; the director would go on to stuff like The Neverending Story III and would never be allowed near an action movie again. It was the most expensive movie made at the time, but it doesn’t feel like it.


Moran’s ST-24 fighter

The fourth movie brings Rambo back to his bloody guerrilla roots and gives us a believable scene with Rambo manning a .50-cal and mowing down troops- at least he has a shield in the new one. Uncle Tony would be proud. Rambo forges his own knife similar to the Kachin rebel’s head-hunting dha chopper, and goes to town with it. Rambo III, the last movie Tony worked with Stallone on, is probably the last good Sly flick until Cop Land reminded people that he can act when forced. He’s never gone back to the crying emotional rage at the end of First Blood again, but that scene’s always worked for me. This third entry is also the last movie before Stallone started eating steroids by the handful- he looks trim and cut here, before ballooning in size for stuff like The Specialist, where his veiny swollen pecs in shower scene are so horrifying that are distracted from a naked Sharon Stone.

Roid boy

My father said that Tony had stopped working for Sly after this, because Stallone wanted to be part of his own security detail. The action movies had gone to his head; he thought he really was Rambo. Uncle Tony would go on to work for less showy clients, where Hollywood egos and extravagance wouldn’t interfere with the job. He concentrated on his hobby of diving, where he even developed his own equipment. A few years later he tragically died in a diving accident, around the wreck of the USS San Diego, in 2000. One of his close diving friends wrote a fitting epitaph for him here.
His ashes were cast into the sea, and I only learned years later while trying to get back in touch. The last time I saw him was at my own father’s funeral, and he was still in great shape into his late 50’s- regularly running marathons. The next time I dip my toes in the waters of the Jersey shore I’ll think of him. Unfortunately Google also brought up a hit on VeriSEAL, because his obituary article in the NY Daily News had a Hollywood producer named Marty Richards, one of Tony’s clients, claim that he was a “decorated Navy SEAL,” and “Rambo was based on him.” Uncle Tony never made any such claims to me. He was a police officer in Passaic, who trained in security measures and martial arts, and a hero to his friends, family and those clients he protected; there is no need to claim he was a SEAL to boost him up. And “Rambo” was based on the book First Blood by David Morrell; maybe basing the sequel on a “Back to ‘Nam” story was Tony’s idea, but I never heard about it. It’s sad that the boasting of a Hollywood asshole has to tarnish the memory of a good man who can’t defend himself.

update:

I had the honor of meeting David Morrell several times at Thrillerfest and Bouchercon. Rambo’s Daddy is a gracious and talented writer, and he was kind enough to give me a business card where he sits with Stallone, and my “Uncle” Tony Maffatone stands in the background, on the set of Rambo III:

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Rest in Peace, Uncle Tony. I’ll remember reading The Old Man and the Sea when our families vacationed together on Long Beach Island, and we sat on the porch watching the stormy waves hammer the shoreline; I’ll remember lifting weights on the bench in your back yard with you, and sharing dinner with your family. And whenever I see Stallone hold that survival knife to Brian Dennehy’s throat, warning him “Don’t push it- I’ll give you a war you won’t believe,” I’ll remember that you were on set giving the iconic action star cues on how to handle himself with a weapon.

R.I.P.

The Salem Oak … and Diner

500+ year old oak.

Today we wax historic, for travels had me pass through the small town of Salem, NJ en route to Baltimore this week. It’s just off exit 1 on the NJ Turnpike, the last exit before the Delaware Memorial Bridge. You could make a day trip and visit nearby Fort Mott and Finn’s Point, which date to the Civil War. I visited them the last time I passed this way, and only heard about the 400 year old oak tree afterward.

This gives you some scale, with the tiny cyclist.

Now there are older trees; there’s a 3,000 year old bristlecone pine in Yellowstone, whose location is kept secret, to keep idiots from trying to pick souvenirs of its bark. You can’t even take fallen pieces of wood from that part of the park, because of souvenir hunters. This one just happens to be the oldest known tree in the state, because it was standing when the Quakers made this patch of land a graveyard in 1675.

South Jersey, especially the side along the Delaware, has a long history and colonial settlement predates Philadelphia. There are towns with storied histories, like the Othello side of Greenwich, supposedly named because a Moorish princess married a man there, and their progeny settled in that half of town. That’s from William Least Heat-Moon’s excellent road book, Blue Highways: A Journey into America, so if it’s complete bullshit, blame him. I haven’t managed to get down there yet. There are Weird NJ favorites like Shellpile and Bivalve not too far from here, and a muffler man statue in camouflage is between here and Cape May on Route 40, if you’re coming that way.

The Oak Tree is thought to be more than 500 years old; according to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, Salem “was established in 1675 by John Fenwick, an English Quaker. The Friends (Quakers) Burial Ground in Salem has the Salem Oak— a tree 80 feet (25 metres) high that is said to be more than 500 years old— under which Fenwick signed a treaty with the Delaware Indians.” It’s quite a sight, being 88 feet tall and covering a quarter acre with shade. At least according to the plaque.

Across the street is the aptly named Salem Oak Diner, established much later in the 50’s. It’s a classic dining car that was expanded in back. They have a decent menu- we were there for breakfast and Boss Man had a bacon & egg on a bagel with home fries. I’d eaten so I didn’t sample their expansive diner menu except for some fruit, but it’s a nice clean place and worth skipping the nearby Cracker Barrel for, if you want to see the tree.

The classic New Jersey diner.