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Copyright 2004 by Jack Myers. All rights reserved.


Mrs. Weinstein's second grade class crowds around the television in anticipation. Today is America's big day, February 20, 1962, the first attempt by a United States astronaut to orbit the Earth. It's part of President Kennedy's ambitious goal of putting a man on the moon by 1970. Millions watch in anticipation, including all the kids at Longstreet Elementary School. But I am not with my classmates on this historic morning. I am home, having been up all night with a high fever and serious case of the measles. Now the fever has finally begun to break, and my little body is demanding sleep. But I refuse to sleep, and make Mom promise to let me see the liftoff.

Mom says, You're very sick and need your rest, Jimmy.

After I see the spaceman, Mom. After I see the spaceman.

So my mother carries me downstairs to the television in my weakened condition, lays me on the floor. Gets my pillow and blanket, some juice, and makes me as comfortable as possible, which is not very. The launch is delayed, and I fight the Sandman.

Promise you'll wake me, Mom. Promise.

I promise.

Finally, it is time. The A-OK is given. Mom gives me a shake, sits down right next to me on the living room floor, up close near the tube. She squeezes my hand as the countdown begins . . . .

Ten . . . nine . . . eight . . .

I have some vague idea of the danger the spaceman faces. The other day, in the grocery store, two older men were talking about the Mercury mission and the awesome power of the rockets. Mister, says one, you wouldn't catch me in one of them things for all the tea in China. No, sir. They're flyin gas cans is what they are. Nothin but a flyin' bomb. The other man just nods in absolute agreement.

Six . . . five . . . four. . .

The voice of the astronaut's backup pilot crackles over the spaceman's radio. . . .

Godspeed, John Glenn.

Now my mother is making the sign of the cross, and I know that Grandmom has lit a candle this morning in the big church up on Lester Avenue.

Three . . . two . . . one . . .

The mighty Atlas rocket engines erupt, building thousands of pounds of pressure under a space capsule smaller than Uncle Joe's Studebaker. Then, after a few tense moments, the hold-down clamps release, and we have liftoff.

Mom squeezes my hand again and we smile. John Glenn climbs higher and higher, reaching for the stars. Within minutes he's a hundred miles above Earth, traveling at 17,000 miles-per-hour. He will orbit the globe three times in some four and a half hours. But by the time Glenn is making his first pass over Africa and zooming towards Australia, I am already fast asleep. Her promise fulfilled, Mom carries me up to my bed and tucks me in where I'll lay sleeping until long after John Glenn has splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean and they're already making plans for the ticker-tape parade.

At dinner I am feeling better, and tell Dad how I stayed awake to watch the spaceman. He flew faster than a speeding bullet, Dad. Maybe even faster than Superman. Dad says it took guts to do what John Glenn did, and he may not be Superman, be he certainly is a super man. This is high praise coming from the man I know to be the bravest person in the world. Dad says he takes his hat off to John Glenn and it's a proud day to be an American. And this makes me feel special because I know that I too am an American, and being American is a very good thing.

Days later I return to Mrs. Weinstein's class all better and the other kids tease me and say James, James, you missed the spaceman! Mrs. Weinstein let us watch it right here on TV. And I say, No, I didn't miss a thing. Had the best seat in the house and watched it all the way from liftoff to splashdown. So knock off your stuff and just shut your traps.


Us kids are eating cereal and hustling to get off to school when Mom comes in with these buttons. The say "Kiss Me I'm Irish" and Mom is sticking them onto our school clothes. Then, of course, I remember today is St. Patrick's Day. Next Dad comes into the dining room, hurrying so he won't be late for work at Brimstone.

Pam, what is this? Take these things off the kids. I don't want our kids wearing this nonsense. Mom takes the buttons off but she is not happy. Dad is orange and Mom is green, and they've been at it for as long as I can remember. Seems Dad's people and Mom's people have been fighting for 800 years, and from what I can tell they're just getting started.

It makes you wonder how they ever got married. Maybe if you marry someone from the other side it's easier to spy on what the enemy's doing. Or if you're married to the other side and live together it's easier to get your shots in from up close.

I'm not sure yet whether I'm supposed to take sides, be orange or green, English or Irish. Only one thing is for sure . . . I know I am confused.

At the end of St. Patty's Day my father comes home tired and wants a beer. Mom opens him a bottle, pours it in a glass, and mixes in some green food coloring. When she hands the beer to Dad all foamy green and weird-looking he is not amused. Down the sink it goes.

C'mon, Jim, says Mom. Lighten up.

Dad grumbles that a working man can't even enjoy a decent glass of beer without harassment, and pours himself another glass minus the green food coloring. And yes, he'll gladly celebrate St. Patrick's Day when the rest of the country starts celebrating Orangeman's Day . . . which is in July, thank you. But everyone ignores Orangeman's Day in America, except for my Dad and his brother Hank.

You're trying to turn the kids into Irishers, Dad complains. But Mom denies it. Then Dad starts in on the Pope, The Vatican, and the Catholic Church in general. Next he moves on to the Irish, who drink too much, like to complain, and talk tough without backing it up. Maybe they should all go back to Dublin, Limerick, Donegal, and wherever else they came from, and leave decent people be.

Can't go back to Derry or Belfast, Mom observes, they're British occupied.

Don't start with that, Dad says. Northern Ireland is for the Protestants, the rest of Ireland is for the Catholics. It's been that way for a long time, and it's not about to change. Get over it, Pam.

England should be for English, and Ireland for the Irish says Mom.

Well, says Dad, if the Irishers were only half as tough as they all talk, they'd have no trouble taking Ulster in a month. But when it came time for serious action in the Big War, when the world had to stand up to those Germans, no, the old Fightin' Irish had no stomach for it. Declared themselves neutral and left the British and Churchill to face the Nazis all by their lonesome. Now the Irish are content with planting bombs in pubs and blowing up statues of dead English heroes who they wouldn't have had the guts to mess with way back when they were alive.

Mom just shakes her head and goes into the kitchen to prepare supper. No one can compete with the Old Man when it comes to what the politicians call a filibuster. He's the champ . . . that is, except for maybe his brother Hank.

Soon dinner is being served and Dad has quieted down. Ham and cabbage, our traditional St. Patrick's Day meal. Dad may dislike the Catholics and the Irish, but he's a ham and cabbage man. Mom digs in too, and now both are eating with gusto. At least this is one thing on which they can agree. Problem is, nobody asked us kids. We all hate ham and cabbage, big time.

Okay, the ham isn't half bad, but it gets badly polluted by the cabbage juice running all over our plates. I force myself to eat the ham but leave the cabbage, which has been boiled to death then boiled again. The cabbage sits there, soft and grayish white, looking like the brain that got dropped on the laboratory floor in that Frankenstein movie. It smells bad, tastes worse, and turns my stomach. Mom makes me eat a few mouthfuls, but soon it's all mushy, shapeless, and cold, and I refuse to take another bite.

Since I didn't finish my dinner, I can't have any dessert. Morris house rule.

Mom, I ask, why can't we have cole slaw instead of cabbage? It's made from the same stuff but tastes a whole lot better. Mom says that's not traditional for St Patty's Day, not the way it's done in Ireland. If this is traditional Irish food I can begin to understand how they had the famine, and why the people had to flee that country on ancient slave ships with people dying and being thrown overboard to the sharks until the rest arrived safely in New York where perhaps they were able to get their first decent meal in recent memory. If I had to survive on ham and cabbage every night I know it wouldn't be long before I too was a starving skeleton all bony and grinning like the Jolly Roger himself.

I figure maybe next year I can wiggle a St Patrick's Day invitation to Frankie "Tutti Frutti" Pellegrino's house for dinner. Mom says the Pellegrinos eat spaghetti three times a week, and spaghetti is my favorite, next to hamburgers. On the other nights the Pellegrinos eat lasagna, pasta pizule, pizza, antipasti, raviolis, and all sorts of good stuff. Then they have canolis, biscotti, and perhaps some pizzelles for dessert. Maybe I wouldn't mind being called a wop, guinea, greaseball, dago, spaghetti bender if I could eat Italian food every night. Italian is the king of food, and I hate to admit it but our soggy Irish food comes in last. Behind Chinese, Greek, Mexican, German, Polish, and even Jewish in my book. Yep, Irish is dead last. At least that's the opinion of this starving, sorry, half-limey, half-mick for what it's worth.

I wonder if Frankie's Italian family has this north vs. south deal going like the Irish. Even our United States got into a similar mess back when we had the Union and the Confederacy facing off. Or could maybe the Italians be lined up East vs. West? And if Frankie's mother and father are on different sides, I wonder how that plays out. From what I've seen of Italians they'd probably holler a lot, gesture, and cuss up a storm. They're a feisty bunch. And if the going got really tough they might even resort to throwing rotten tomatoes and old wine bottles, and then it'd be time for everyone to duck for cover and start running.

At least that's my theory, anyway.