Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Only Necessary Word

Captain Tony Tarracino is a legend in Key West. Born in 1916 in Elizabeth, New Jersey, he fled to Key West as a young man, barely surviving a severe beating provided by some Mafia thugs pursuing him after discovering his gambling scam. To say The Captain lived a colorful life would be the same as stating that the surface of the sun is a little warm.

Throughout his 92 years on this earth, Tony worked on a shrimp boat, captained his own fishing charter boat named The Greyhound, and served as a gunrunner during the Cuban revolution.  He owned and ran one of Key West's most popular bars, Captain Tony's Saloon, and it was there he gave a young guitar player his first break.  The kid had just bombed out in Nashville, and had come to Key West to try and become a bar musician.

Tony liked the kid and, although he already employed a featured band, offered to let him play during the musicians' ten minute breaks, for ten dollars and three Budweisers per night.  That kid, Jimmy Buffett, accepted, and the two became great, life-long friends.  Buffett's ballad, The Last Mango in Paris, is a tribute to his friend and first boss. When Captain Tony ran for Mayor of Key West one year, Buffet served as his campaign manager. He won.

But all his other outlandish accomplishments aside, Captain Tony seems best known for his philandering with the opposite sex.  If prompted, he would proudly tell you of his thirteen children, born to eight different women. Even in his final days, he kept court on a barstool at Captain Tony's Saloon, posing for pictures with the tourists, signing body parts of buxom women who smiled and giggled when he gave their ample rear ends a flirtatious squeeze as they turned to leave.  In his golden years, he talked of how much he loved the scent of women, and how much he enjoyed the feel of their soft skin.

Alan and I were actually enjoying a beer at Captain Tony's Saloon a few years back when The Legend appeared and took his seat on his bar stool throne.  Immediately, a crowd gathered and a line of autograph seekers and picture posers formed in front of him.  I had heard a little of Mr. Tarracino, and I turned to catch a glimpse of the Old Salt, but I honestly had no desire to meet the man.  As a first-hand victim of an adulterous ex-husband, I don't have much patience for those who proudly boast of their infidelities, legend or not.

But when we were visiting Key West once again last week on vacation, a title emerged as I perused a shelf at the local bookstore:  Life Lessons of a Legend.  It was a book written about Captain Tony, by an Iowa School Superintendent and Parrothead, Brad Manard.  Brad met Tony one night as he visited his saloon on vacation, and asked if he could write his story.  He spent a week dining and interviewing the man, getting his incredible life lessons down for all eternity.

I read the entire book on my flight home, and I have to say, I was too quick to judge Tony Tarracino.  Because despite his questionable decisions regarding women and an arguably nasty gambling habit, I found myself genuinely liking the man.

Tony had a word that drove him through life:  Compassion.  He said it was the only word in the dictionary worth anything, and all the other words "should be thrown out." Compassion was the only necessary word.  Tony showed it in the way he treated people.  He loved people (not just the women), particularly when he served as mayor of Key West during the early 90's.  He said he felt like the father of 28,000 people, and he treated the citizens who elected him as his children.  The local merchants say that it wasn't just that Tony loved Key West so much, it was that he loved the PEOPLE who resided there even more.  He was a wealthy businessman at the time, but he fought tooth and nail to protect the "little guy" from the big business moguls who threatened to take over the island, pushing everyone else out.

He was a chronic over-tipper and knew most of the homeless by name.  He helped them as best he could, never judging their situation or questioning their downfall.  His friends say that he felt so lucky to have the privilege to give to those down on their luck, and he did so with a happy, loving, compassionate heart.  He talked incessantly about finding "the jewel" in others.  He contested that even the most ornery old cuss had a kind, tender spot, way down deep somewhere.  He believed that if you looked hard enough, you could find it in everyone.  He always had a kind word for everybody he met.

I wish I had left my Coors Light on the table that day and strolled over to Captain Tony's barstool.  I'd have shook his hand and thanked him for reminding me to be slow to judge (even when it came to philandering old men), to search for the good in people, and to practice compassion above all else.

Captain Tony died on November 1, 2008, surrounded by loved ones and family.  The entire island of Key West cried that night for their lost legend and father.  Then, they lifted their tropical drinks in a toast to him, and promised to carry on the lessons he'd spent a life learning.  I've decided I will, too.

Thanks for Reading!!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Singing for the Smile

My Dad was the first of his generation in his large family to graduate from college.  He worked the night shift at the steel mill, spent a few summers as a garbage man, but he paid his own way and graduated with a degree in education from Kent State University. Education was really important to Dad.

He wanted to make sure each of his kids had the opportunity to attend college as well, and did everything he could to encourage us.

For me, this involved visiting three schools in particular: Ohio State (Dad is an ENORMOUS Buckeye fan and tried his best to sway me in that direction!), Syracuse University, and Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.  The latter two required not only to be accepted academically, but also to pass a singing/dancing audition before being considered for their Musical Theater departments.   Dad freed the time from his ridiculously busy teaching/coaching/refereeing schedule to drive Mom and I to both schools the summer before my senior year.

I really liked Syracuse from the moment I arrived on campus.  The theater professors were welcoming and genuinely nice.  Each potential student was called individually into a small mirrored room to sing our selections and perform a short dance routine to a small panel of teachers, smiling behind a table.  I left feeling good about my audition and hopeful for some positive results.

Then came the trip to Cincinnati.  The CCM campus was quite large, the staff a bit stiff and unsmiling. Immediately upon arriving, approximately 30 of us auditioners and our parents were corralled into a large room and told to sit in the uncomfortable plastic chairs that faced the front, where a giant piano sat.  Just in front of the piano was a long table, where there were seated several music/drama/dance professors, all sporting unfriendly scowls.  The auditioners were asked to take seats in the chairs nearest the front, the parents were to remain in the back.

An older, white-bearded man arose from the table, mumbled a few words of greeting in a forced british accent, then called the first boy's name to begin his vocal audition.  The boy arose, gave his music to the accompanist at the ginormous piano, then nervously took his place on the "X" marked on the floor as instructed by Mumbles.  He began his number, revealing a lovely tenor voice, and as his fear seemed to subside a bit, a delightful personality emerged.  The kid was really nailing it!  Nailing it, that is, until Mumbles held up a hand and yelled, "STOP!"  The boy, mortified and shocked, stopped mid-note, and looked down at his accuser with worried eyes.

Then this pompous old bearded jerk proceeded to tell this sweet boy all of the ways that he had failed with this particular piece.  He gave him fierce criticism that was far from constructive, then told him to start again. Shocked and shaking, the boy began again.  But it was hopeless. Fear had returned to stay, and the man finally cut him off once again with a "Thank you.  That is all."  Defeated, the boy exited and sat down.  His face was so red it permeated to the tips of his earlobes.

I watched as, one by one, this man berated each young applicant, always with a great deal of mock exasperation and stinging words. Every once in a while, he'd decide he liked someone, and would let them finish their number.  This, however, was rarely the case.

Looking back, I'm pretty shocked at my reaction to all of this.  I didn't crumble in fear.  I think I was pretty sure by then that I didn't want to attend this school, with this group of hostile teachers.  I already knew I wanted to go to Syracuse, if they chose me.  So, I honestly had no anxiety.  None at all.  I liked my prepared song, "Cockeyed Optimist" from South Pacific.  It had an easy range, and gave me a chance to show a little personality. And besides, there was a full audience of parents out there for which to perform!  I decided to focus on that and forget about the pompous jerk who would most certainly be cutting me off!!

When my name was called, I handed my music to the accompanist and walked calmly to my mark.  I smiled at the crowd, and nodded for her to begin. As my intro was playing, I looked up and spotted my Dad, standing, in the back of the room.  He stood out, not only because all the other parents were sitting in chairs. Dad stood in the back, arms crossed, leaning against the wall, with a look of intense FEAR on his face.  He was terrified!

I flashed him a quick smile before beginning my number.  It was the best I could do.  I was proud of it.  Mumbles DID, in fact, stop me, about three quarters of the way through my song.  He gave me a few notes, then asked me to begin again.  I did. This time he let me finish.  I was satisfied with that. But as I turned to walk off, I glanced back at Dad.  He was still standing, arms crossed, leaning against the wall.  But on his face was the biggest, warmest, proudest smile I'd ever seen.  I put it there.  Dad was proud.  Really, really proud.  Can I tell you how amazing that felt?

I didn't get accepted at CCM.  I did go to Syracuse University, where I performed in many shows, as well as some after graduation.  Dad attended almost all of them.  He always offered a big hug and a "nice job!" after each one, always telling me he was proud of me.  But none of those reactions were as wonderful as that day in Cincinnati.  That's the day when I not only calmed my Dad's fears, but I made him believe in me.

Thanks for Reading!!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

That's an Irish Lullaby

My dear blogger friends, I write today with a bit of a heavy heart.  I've just returned from a few days spent with my siblings, as we placed Dad in a nursing home back in our home state of Ohio.  He was living a contended life of retirement with our Mom in Winter Haven, Florida, when he suffered a stroke on Christmas Eve, from which he has has never recovered.

The truth is, these may be my father's last days.  The vibrant athlete, carpenter, coach, and teacher who worked his ass off to provide for his large family is now finding it difficult to sit up in bed.  He's not in pain, and he appears to be in good spirits.  Dad just appears to be slowly fading away.

I've decided I'm not yet ready to write about my own heartache over the whole situation, nor the surreal reality my brother, sisters, mother, and I are now forced to accept.  Maybe another day.

Instead, I'd like to share this lovely Irish lullaby, sung by Bing Crosby, from the movie Going My Way.  I believe it was the first song we kids learned.  Dad taught it to us.  Will you indulge me?

Sunday, July 4, 2010

"Liberty Will Reign!!"

Hey Everybody!  I've been gone for a bit, anything interesting happen here while I was away?!  Ha!  I'm so glad you finally got to meet my awesome husband!  Isn't he the coolest?  And by the way, don't let him fool you, he's been carrying me for over twenty years!!

Anyway, in honor of today's 4th of July holiday, I wanted to post something patriotic and moving!  I looked at several clips of groups singing the national anthem, scenes from the stirring musical 1776, and nothing seemed to grasp what I wanted to express today.

Then, I found this tremendous clip from the HBO miniseries, John Adams.  Have you seen it?  It's really tremendous, and among other things, displays exactly how hard our forefathers fought, physically and politically, to ensure the rights we so casually enjoy today.  John Adams was particularly passionate that EVERY man, no matter what status, should enjoy their God-given rights of freedom and liberty.

This is a clip very early in the series, where the men are just beginning to assemble the members of the Continental Congress that would compose and sign the Declaration of Independence.  They asked Mr. Adams to give a speech that will inspire the crowd, and make the case for revolt.  These are John Adams actual words.  I DARE you not to get goose bumps when you hear the actor Paul Giamatti speak them now....