The Man Who Fell from the Sky

Like Mrs. Dubose of “To Kill A Mockingbird,” the circumstances that compel our lives are painted in more than black and white brush strokes.

The Man Who Fell From The Sky addresses the root of my uncle’s racism. Though my father and he were born and reared in the same Brooklyn, working-class household, their values and views were world’s apart. Several decades of my life had to pass before I came to understand why they were so different.

Be Forewarned: the N-word is used in “The Man Who Fell From The Sky” published in the  PROLE ISSUE 3 literary magazine.

~

The pale eyes of a soldier glowered at me. The portrait of the World War II vet, my father’s brother, rested on a walnut casket, the picture frame straddling the shallow arch of the closed lid.

I knelt on a pew alongside the casket to murmur a prayer, the token gesture of a dutiful son hoping to ease his father’s grief. Dad had placed Tommy’s photograph on the casket, the picture brought with us on our earlier drive from Queens to the funeral home in Flatbush, Brooklyn, still a mix of working class whites in the early Sixties.

Neither of us spoke about my uncle along the way–not much to say. Thomas James Keenan had scrapped and stumbled through forty-years of life, most of the last half not exactly his best.

A much younger version of Uncle Tommy glared from the picture, taken soon after his return from Europe at the end of the war that defined my father’s generation, divided their so-called Greatest from mine, a  chasm that proved unbridgeable between Dad’s brother and the sixteen-year old version of me.

The sepia-toned portrait captured the 1940s’ ideal of a warrior returned from battle; Tommy’s gaze simmered with challenge, the collar of his flight jacket turned-up Marlon Brando style in “The Wild One.” The flame of a match, poised in mid-air, cast light and shadow across his face, scowling from under a cocked garrison cap, the emblem of a parachute stitched to the material. The insignia on the flight jacket captured my curiosity the most‑-a bat winged Death’s Head suspended beneath a parachute.

Much of my uncle’s past remained a mystery, deliberately so on my part. The photograph resurrected the memory of the final time we met a month earlier; a memory I preferred to keep buried.

~

Uncle Tommy strolled along the walkway behind the last row of the spectators’ balcony. My father, Frank Keenan, had invited him to my first ever indoor track meet, the start of the High School ’63-64 season at the 168th Street Armory in Manhattan. When Dad spotted his kid brother, he grinned; disappointment stole away his smile soon enough. My uncle was half-bagged, no big surprise, other than he showed-up at all. Commitments and promises never burdened Tommy.

He dragged some stranger in tow, a drinking buddy. The two men plunked themselves down in seats at the rear of the balcony, not far from me and a group of my high school team-mates. The river of my tolerance for my uncle ran bone dry years earlier; I prayed the meet would bore the men into leaving.

Like most high school juniors, I had no inkling, let alone experience with the breed of demons that haunted Tommy. He seemed to sail through life unmindful of the world’s written and unwritten rules. His wife and kids, past jobs, nothing tied him down. He vanished on a whim in and out of everyone’s lives, the previous disappearance for more than a year – a job as a roughneck on an oil derrick out west somewhere, or so I was told.

I glimpsed over my shoulder at him throughout the meet, watched him tilt a bottle back and pass the liquor to his pal. A paper bag concealed the contents, more for the sake of borderline legality than modesty, the concession little relief for my embarrassment. He caught my eye mid-way during one glimpse and whistled, a piercing sound, one finger at each corner of his mouth.

“Bobby, hey Bobby,” he called. “Come here. I need your help with somethin”.” I hesitated. “Come on, kiddo, I don”t bite.”

Coach Hafford and Dad were talking a few seats over; my father glanced toward me and nodded. Resigned to my fate, I trudged up the steps of the aisle and plopped next to Tommy. A cigarette, an always present accessory, dangled from the corner of his mouth. I took shallow breaths. He grinned, oblivious to my concern and mussed my hair. The reek of alcohol tainted his words, pure New Yorkeese, the timbre of his voice scorched from years of chain-smoking.

“Hey, Mr. Track Star, Franky says you set the school record for six-hundred yards.” I wondered if Dad also shared how much I puked my guts up after the run. “You wasn”t even on the team. Nice goin”, kiddo, real nice. So, tell me, you got a real shot at winnin” this one, right? Who you up against – you know, worried about beatin” the most?”

“Uh, I don”t know, I…..” Why the big interest?

“What do you mean, you don”t know? Come on, you don”t know who you”re up against?” No anger lurked behind his gaze – a big relief; his expression settled somewhere between amusement and skepticism.

I said, “Well, Grimes, he’s a senior from Boy’s High, a top quarter-miler. Got a big kick at the end of a race. The six-hundred’s kind of a reach for him. I”m a half-miler. I”m going grab the lead, set a hard pace, hope he won”t have as much left to out-kick me. That’s the plan, anyway.”

“All right, sounds good. So, where’s his team sittin”? Point him out?”

Dozens of high schools gathered in the balconies around the open space of the parade floor, transformed into a flat, two-hundred-twenty yard track through the magic of paint and removable ankle high barriers, dangerous if stepped on. A starter’s pistol discharged in the cavernous space. Runners’ feet pounded on the unseen portion of the track below us. Echoes of sporadic shouts, whistles and claps pursued the competitors who came into view midway on the first turn.

“The team’s over there,” I said and pointed to the balcony section opposite ours, across the track. “Don”t see Grimes, though.”

Tom’s drinking buddy gawked. “Will y”all look at that?” His twang sounded western. “Ain’t a white boy in the bunch.”

“Yep, ghetto boys, Bed-Stuy,” my uncle said. “All niggers.”

The offhand manner of his remark disturbed me as much as the racist comment. I glanced at the nearby rows. None of my Negro team-mates sat within earshot.

“We done, Uncle Tommy? I got to warm up, get back….”

“Nah, nah – hold your horses. Here.” He handed me the track meet’s program, listing every race and runner. “Give me a couple of minutes, that’s all. What about the rest of these races? You know – who’s good, who do you thinks got a shot at winnin”?”

His request puzzled me. “I only know some of the runners, the middle distance ones. The sprinters are something else. Ask Frank DiCerbo. He’s the team captain, a sprinter. He”ll know way better than me.”

“Yeah, okay. He here? Where’s he sittin”?”

“Nope. Probably getting ready for his semi.”

“Okay. Later then. Meantime, let’s go through the guys you do know. That okay with you?”

“Yeah, sure.”

Fifteen minutes later, I shared the details of my conversation with a curious Dad. I omitted the racist comment.

“Oh, boy,” he said. The smallest of grins lifted the corners of his mouth. “Anyway, look, Coach says they”re running ahead of schedule. You got maybe a half hour. Better start warming-up.”

“Oh shi…uh, oh, man. I got to go. See you after the race.”

My father ignored the stillborn obscenity. “Good luck, kiddo. Remember – everything else equal, it’s all in the heart. Grimes is beatable.”

“Thanks. See you.”

“Wait a sec. I”ll follow you up. I want to talk with your uncle.”

I climbed the steps, Dad close behind me.

Tommy poked my arm as I passed. “Hey, Bobby, my money’s on you, kiddo. Kick Grime’s black ass.”

Tommy may have picked up on my earlier reaction to his racist comment. “Black” was still an insult in the early Sixties, though more toned down than “nigger.” His reference to betting was not metaphorically, either.

The choice of Tom’s words of support clearly irritated Dad. I said nothing, kept going past the two men, their conversation lost to me. The upcoming six-hundred yard race dominated my thoughts.

~

Tommy’s drinking buddy disappeared after the booze ran out. To give my uncle his due, he hung around to the end of the meet. Besides family, the bookie ring he organized provided additional incentive to stay. Middle school boys, most of them Negro, ran from section to section of the balcony to collect or pay-off bets based on odds from the team captain and my “recommendations”; each runner got a small piece of the action, win or lose.

Dad, Tommy and I huddled on the sidewalk outside the Armory’s entrance. My uncle pleaded his case, puffs of crystal breath drifting through the night-time bite of a fast moving cold front, an Alberta Clipper. My bones out-chattered my teeth; both body parts demanded to go home. Neither got an argument from me or my hundred-thirty-five pounds draped over a five-foot-ten inch frame, not nearly as much padding as the two six-footers next to me. I heard the heater in our Ford Falcon station-wagon beckoning from several blocks over.

My chattering teeth caught Uncle Tommy’s attention. “Here kiddo, take this before you freeze your ass off. Put it over your shoulders or somethin’.” He unzipped his coat, held it out to me. I hesitated. “Come on, put it on. I’m fine. Got this scarf and a hell of a lot more meat on my bones. Come on.”

Dad said, “Go ahead, Bobby. Tommy’ll be fine.” I slipped the coat over mine. It helped.

Tommy pressed Dad. “Just a quick one. One, that’s all.”

My eyes pleaded, No, Dad, please. Mom’s waiting.

“For Christ sake Franky, how often we get a chance to hang-out together? I saw some place over on Broadway, close by, right near the corner on 169th.” My uncle gestured east toward the intersection where Broadway brushed St. Nicholas Avenue. The Armory squatted on northern Manhattan’s backbone ridge, Washington Heights, a tough neighborhood near the George Washington Bridge. Latinos dominated the Heights. In all likelihood the patrons at any local watering hole would be Dominicanos.

They were. Most heads in the bar turned to look at the two and a half gringos who entered. No hostility, just blank glances before their conversations restarted. Tom eyeballed the two closest customers seated at the bar on our left. They glanced away. Small groups of men sat around tables at the rear. No women, the place was for serious drinkers.

Crouched to the right of the entrance the multi-colored neon lights on a jukebox flashed to the syncopated rhythms blasting through its speakers. Brass horns blistered the air, shoved the singers and other instruments into the background. We sat on wooden bar stools opposite the jukebox. I placed my track bag on the floor in front of me.

The bartender, a slight guy with a pockmarked face, approached us. He spoke without an accent, nodded his head toward me. “The boy. You know, I can’t serve no alcohol.”

“No problem,” Dad said. “Pabst for me. What would you like, Bob?” He used “Bob” deliberately.

“A coke’s good. Thanks.”

Dad held out his hand. “I’m Frank, this is my son, Bob. My brother, Tom.”

A bit wary, the bartender shook my father’s hand. “Jose. Call me Joe. Nice to meetcha.”

“Shots for both of us,” Uncle Tom said. “Straight up, a Pabst for me too.” He pressed his body against the bar, his forearm on the surface to shift as close to the bartender as possible. “Bushmills. You got Bushmills or what?” His attitude teetered on the edge of provocative.

The blank faced bartender avoided the plummet over the edge. “No Bushmills. Got Johnny Black if you like. Or Dewar’s.”

Dad said, “Dewar’s fine. Thanks.”

“Hey, I can order for myself.”

“And I can keep the peace. Keep a lid on it, kiddo, or I’m gone. We don’t need any trouble, especially with Bob here. Got it?”

The bartender ignored the men’s comments. He served my soda from a fountain gun and waited for any additional requests. None came. “You got it,” he said, and left.

“Shit, Franky, what kind of joint don’t got Bushmills.”

“The Spanish kind, okay. You picked it. Live with it. You know the neighborhood. This isn’t Farrell’s Bar and Grill.”

Uncle Tom scowled, dropped his attitude a notch.

The brothers talked, discussed family matters, their jobs. They commiserated again over the Dodgers’ move to LA. Dad stuck with his one shot and nursed the beer. Tommy downed two more shots and beers, “boilermakers” in the lingo of the Irish neighborhood bars.

Their conversation paused; my uncle asked to see my medal. He held up the silver for the six-hundred. The pupils of his eyes swallowed the blue irises in the dim lighting. “Nice, real nice, Bobby. I’m gonna be there next time, when you win a gold. You will too, kiddo.” He turned to Dad. “Hey, remember when we were kids? Nobody could catch you. Nobody. You flew. Damned quick on your feet in the ring, too. Real fast.”

“Long time ago,” said Dad. He fought in Golden Gloves tournaments before he and his brothers volunteered for WWII in the months following Pearl Harbor. At Parris Island boot camp, in fatigues and combat boots on a cinder track, a sand trap, he broke fifty-eight seconds for the quarter mile. Dad had vomited his guts up afterwards. The feat impressed and amused the platoon’s DI. I empathized.

Uncle Tommy returned the medals to me. “Here, Bobby. Just like your dad, right? Next year you’re a senior. You’ll get the gold then, more meat on your bones. Like that nigger who beat ya. Right, Franky?”

Dad frowned. “Do me a favor, will you? Watch the race crap. Okay? Not here, not in front of my son. Especially not here. Look, we got to leave soon. Drink up.”

The words stung Tommy. He erupted. “Ah, fuck you. What’s the matter? Afraid I’m goin’ to offend the spics here, too?”

He turned toward the two men a few seats from us. “Hey, yous spics pissed-off if I call yous spics?”

Dad stood. “Goddamnit, Tommy.”

My uncle slid from the stool to face the rear of the bar. He shouted above the music. “Hey, hey spics! Anybody offended here if I call yous spics? Got a problem with that? Come over here.” He pounded his chest with his fist. “We’ll talk about it. Come on!”

Every set of eyes in the bar, twenty pair or so, fixed onto us.

I truly regretted the brevity of my life, the sins I had committed. If by some miracle we survived, I promised Heaven Above to attend the summer seminary thing Father Kane at St. John’s Prep was always pushing. Maybe, just maybe, the priesthood was my calling.

The two guys on the barstools jumped to their feet. They glowered, but took no aggressive action.

Frank stepped next to his wild-eyed brother. An intense air of fearlessness surrounded the broad shouldered men, an intimidating duo; hard-assed cops had nothing over them other than service revolvers. The number of opponents was the least of the Keenan brothers’ problem, not to mention mine. Bullets ignored intimidation.

The bartender stooped before rushing to the wall phone, his hand on the receiver. I hopped from the stool to position myself a couple of steps back off my uncle’s other shoulder. I still held the soda.

The two Dominicano gentlemen exchanged pleasantries in Spanish with the gringos. Something about chinga tu madres and mericons. One stepped a pace forward. An ear-splitting whap exploded in the air; the bartender had slammed the bar’s surface with a sawed-down bat. He let loose with something in Dominican slang. My language-lab Spanish caught que podra ser polica–could be police.

Dad removed bills from his pocket–two twenties, big bucks in those days. His eyes never wavered from the two closest threats. “Joe. Here, take this.” He tossed the money onto the bar. “Keep the change, buy a round for these guys, whatever you want. I apologize for my brother. We’re leaving. Bob out the door. Go!”

“But….”

“Out. Now.”

I started for the entrance, stopped and scooted back to the bar to ditch the soda and retrieve my track bag. At the entrance I held the door open, my foot on the sidewalk, the other across the threshold. Adrenaline shielded me from the bite of the cold air.

My uncle was pissed. The music drowned out whatever he shouted at Dad who grabbed the edges of Tommy’s open jacket and spun him around like a dance partner. He pushed him backward toward the door. Uncle Tommy tried to regain his footing. Dad rushed forward, pushed him backward again. Tommy stumbled past me. He landed ass first on the pavement outside.

I winced, slammed the entrance closed behind Dad. My uncle scrambled to his feet by the time my father reached him. I expected a row. Instead, the brothers stood side-by side and faced the door, their backs guarded by a line of parked vehicles.

“Get away from there,” Dad said to me. “In the street. Behind the cars. Move it.”

I moved it and stopped between two vehicles to rummage through the track bag for any sort of weapon – a short-spiked, running shoe.

We stared at the entrance to the volcano about to erupt.

A sign jutted above the bar, the words Buen Tiempo, Good Times, printed across its surface. Its pale yellow light bathed the door, the brick facade on either side uninterrupted by windows.

Someone, maybe two or three someones, appeared, retreated from the door’s narrow, eye-level window. We waited. The sound of traffic rushing along Broadway underscored the tension. A few pedestrians on their way to somewhere warmer scurried past, oblivious to our predicament.

The hordes of enraged patrons never emerged. Joe must have been one hell of a fast talker. Maybe the two twenty-dollar bills helped, or the actions of the two gringos, combat vets, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, unruffled under fire. Maybe all of the above and then some, our collective of guardian angels played a role for sure.

I’m not going to die! I reminded myself to breathe. Dad’s guideline, “A man’s only as good as his word” percolated from the depths of my conscience. Damn, now I’ll have to attend that summer seminary.

My father broke our trance. “Let’s go. The car’s parked over on Fort Washington Avenue. Tom, I’ll….”

His face contorted in fury, Tommy shrugged off the hand Dad placed on his shoulder. The built-up charge of his anger sought some kind of target, any target. The rumble of “Fuck you” followed the lightning flash of a roundhouse punch aimed at Frank’s jaw.

Dad leaned out of range and stepped to the side, rushed in, unleashing a series of left and right body blows. Tommy staggered backward toward a parked car. Intoxication finished the job. He lost balance, spun and landed hard, chest first, onto the car’s fender. The static crackle of Tom’s anger drained away.

He struggled to his feet, pulled aside his jacket. “Ah, shit!”

A red stain spread across the surface of his shirt above his pant’s beltline. He pulled out the shirt and his drenched white undershirt. Blood gushed from a deep hole in the side of his stomach. He pressed the wound with the heel of his left hand.

“Look what you done, Franky. Look what you done. Damnit. Goddamnit.”

Dad said, “Christ, what happened?” The broken car antenna was what happened. Uncle Tommy fell with enough force to drive the rusty edge of the jagged, three inch stub through his jacket. “Come on, we got to get you to the emergency room.”

Blood flowed through Tom’s fingers and seeped down the waistband across the front of his pants. Presbyterian Hospital’s emergency room was a few blocks away.

He wanted nothing to do with the idea. “Fuck that shit. I don’t got the money.”

“Bullshit,” Dad said. “We’ll worry about that later. You got to clean that out. You’ll need stitches and a tetanus….”

Uncle Tommy waved us away, muttered, “Arghh.” Ignoring all appeals, he started down Broadway toward the corner of 168th Street.

“What are you going to do?” I said to Dad.

“He’s headed in the right direction. Come on.”

We followed a few paces behind. Uncle Tommy reached the corner and started to veer diagonally across the complex intersection of 168th Street, Broadway and St. Nicholas Avenue.

Frank trotted ahead, caught up and stopped him. “The hospital’s this way, next block.” Dad pointed south.

“What do ya think I’m blind, too. Or what, stupid? I know where the fuck the hospital is. I’m goin’ home. It ain’t so bad. I got worse in the 502nd.”

I frowned at the mention of the number. 502nd? 502nd what?

Dad reached for my uncle’s jacket. “Damnit, let me take another look, will you?” Uncle Tommy lifted the bloodied shirts with one hand and removed the other from his wound. Blood began to flow again. “Come on. We’re practically at the damned emergency room.”

Tommy shook his head. “Naw, I press, it stops. I’m headed home. I’ll take care of it there. Clean it out, tape it up.”

Dad took a handkerchief from his back pocket. “Great. Fine, damnit. Here, take this. It’s clean. Bobby, you got a handkerchief or something?”

“Uh, a clean T-shirt….” I fumbled around the track bag, found the folded undershirt and held it toward my uncle.

“Thanks, kiddo.” He pressed the shirt against the wound before stepping into the street. The man lived dangerously; he diagonally entered the intersection; a bus almost clobbered him before he reached the pedestrian concourse in the middle of Broadway. We watched him disappear into the subway entrance of the squat, pillbox building.

“It’s cold,” Dad said. “Let’s go.” We drove home in our rusty but trusty Falcon. Mom never mentioned the incident. I never told her; Dad may have neglected to as well.

The back of Uncle Tommy’s head was our last view of him, his “thanks, kiddo,” the last words to me. The following month, mid-January, we attended his wake.

~

Aunt Margie found her brother several days after his death. Tom’s failure to appear for their occasional dinner together raised her concern. She rode the bus to his flat, a single room occupancy and made the gruesome discovery. The autopsy concluded heart failure. Coroner’s seldom if ever explore beyond the physical.

Dressed in her best black dress, Grandma Lilly sat in the first row of fold up chairs, closest to her son’s casket. Tommy’s death devastated her and had left only five of her original twelve children still alive. His estranged wife, Anne, sat beside Lilly. They held hands as they greeted each mourner. Exhaustion, grief weighed heavily on Anne, an enigma to me. The odds of her husband’s nomination for Spouse and/or Father of the Year dipped farther below zero than an Antarctic winter.

Other mourners waited behind me to kneel at the casket’s side. I crossed myself, rose from the pew to search for Dad who may know the significance of the Death’s Head emblem. I found him alone, smoking, quietly staring out a set of the narrow windows bordering either side of the entrance to the Funeral Home.

“That’s Tom’s Regimental patch, the 502nd. Remember? He mentioned it outside the Armory. He was a paratrooper. I don’t remember which Airborne Division. The 101st? He never really talked much about the war.”

“Not a Marine, huh? Like you and Uncle Jack.”

“Some kind of heart valve problem. Got in the way when we went down to volunteer. They took Jack and me. Tommy was really disappointed.”

“Airborne took him anyway? With a heart problem?”

“He tried again, a bunch of times. He had no intention of taking a 4F, of being left behind safe and sound. His country needed him. The Army eventually took him.”

“But the heart thing….”

“Must’ve been okay for one of the physicals. I don’ know. He wanted a unit as tough as the Corps. Found it, alright. Paratroopers. Those guys landed in the thick of it. Outnumbered, dropped behind German lines at Normandy, surrounded in the Battle of the Bulge. The whole nine yards, right to the end of the War.”

“Huh. I didn’t know any of this stuff.”

“Something else. Your uncle earned a Bronze Star for valor. I don’t know the story behind that either; he never said. Tommy was a hero, a real one. Not some ‘Sands of Iwo Jima’ Hollywood crap, all glory, not a whiff of shit in the hero’s shorts and nothing’s changed when he gets home. Nothing. Your uncle was a real hero, Bob, no matter how you felt about him.”

“Dad, I….”

“Look. You only got to see Tommy’s worst side. I didn’t like it, either. What was….” My father paused, looked away in silence for some moments to regain his composure. “What was mostly left when he came back. Couldn’t really hold anything together. Jobs, family–not for very long anyway. Pissed off at the world. Especially if he got drunk, the part you saw too much.”

“Uh, huh.”

“The older he got, the worse it got. I wish you’d known him before the war. A really fun guy, quick to laugh and joke, great to be around, great just to know. The ladies loved him.” Dad smiled, “We Keenans were lady-killers, you know. That’s how I swooped your Mom off her feet.”

A voice called from the entrance to the room with Tommy’s coffin. “Uncle Franky.”

We glanced down the hall. A solemn faced image of Uncle Tommy, thirteen or fourteen years old, stared at us. My cousin and I saw each other sporadically over the years. Each time, the resemblance between him and his father grew stronger.

“Mom wants to talk for a sec,” said Thomas Junior.

“Okay, be right there.” Dad looked at me. “You coming? You gave your condolences to your Aunt Anne, right?”

“Yeah, I did. I’ll come, sure.”

We walked together down the hall, Dad’s arm across my shoulder.

~

Some battle wounds are less obviously mortal. They fester and kill a soldier more slowly, consume his soul piece-by-piece before your eyes. PFC Thomas James Keenan of the 101st Airborne, 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment never returned to the brother and family who loved him. Not as the son he once was, the man who answered the summons of the pipes, his country’s call and who refused to take the easy way out.

The man who fell from the sky.

  KEENAN, THOMAS JAMES

  NEW YORK

  PFC CO A

  PARACHUTE INF

  WORLD WAR II

  AUGUST 30 1923

  JANUARY 17 1964

  BRONZE STAR

  BURIED: SECTION 2K SITE 2437

  LONG ISLAND NATIONAL CEMETERY

  FARMINGDALE, NY

The Man Who Fell From The Sky” Available in print at PROLE ISSUE 3

Advertisements