St Valentine’s Day Massacre

Whenever I think about Valentine’s Day I think of two things, my Dad‘s birthday and the men who were lined up against the inside wall of a garage and machine-gunned to death by a rival gang dressed up as cops.

There is no connection between the two events, Dad’s celebration of being born and the infamous mass murder; it’s just that I always think of the two things in that order. And as today is Valentine’s Day aka Happy Heart day that is what I am thinking of at this particular moment.

St Valentine’s Day massacre took place in 1929. It was a violent act set up by Al Capone against a rival booze running gang headed up by Bugs Moran. The shooting of seven unarmed men shocked and outraged the nation. No more so than in Chicago where the slaughter took place. It marked the beginning of the end for Capone in that area.

This horrible event has been chronicled repeatedly in literature, films and television. Although the exact details of what when on that day back in 1929 died with the men who carried out the crime. Much was learned from other members of the two warring factions.

But regardless of the facts, what everyone does know is that seven men died on a holiday set aside for lovers and the wooing of sweethearts. Such bitter irony has never been topped. With the often dichotomous lives led by mob members it is not hard to picture the shooters giving their girls/wives/fiancée’s candy, (illegal) champagne, or flowers before setting off to kill the men in the garage.

Or conversely, stopping off and buying their tokens of affection on the way home. Well, at least most of them as two were arrested immediately after wearing police officer uniforms.

Al Capone, a real killjoy on Valentine’s Day 1929…

I suppose it says something about me when on the most “romantic” day of the year I am thinking of death and birth almost simultaneously. One of the two events is very important to me and that is my father’s birthday. Without his birth, I would not have existed and never had the pleasure of growing up in the special family I had.

I never would have realised that my father was like a John Wayne character in a film. Hard, tough as nails, stubborn, fair, hard-working and devoted to providing for his family; nothing stopped him or slowed him down. It was only in his later years that a “bout of tick fever” that should have killed him (the doctor said if it had been anyone else they would have died) finally slowed him down.

He also was one of the few men that, in modern times, was respected enough that a hand-shake was a good as a written contract. A pretty remarkable man and one who is still going on although in a diminished fashion these days; I owe him a lot, as I said.

As I said if he had not come into the world neither would I and I never would have read about the St Valentine’s day massacre and wondered at the savageness and violence that men were capable of. I also never would have made the decision to move away from the state of my birth to get out from under his shadow.

While growing up, I soon found that if I wanted to spend any time with my Dad at all, it had to be through work. I started cleaning out houses for him at the ripe old age of 5 or 6 for a quarter. Time sped by, as it does, and I was working for him full-time by the time I left high school. But the comparisons were being made already.

“You sound just like your Dad.”

“I thought you were your Dad.”

“Wow, you walk just like your Dad.”

The comparisons went on and on. Don’t get me wrong. I was thrilled to be compared to the man I admired and respected above anyone else. But as I got older I realised that I did not want to be a “watered down” version of my Dad. I wanted to go out into the world and make my own way. I wanted to forge my own identity.

So I left. It was hard but I lived my life, made my own mistakes and I also knew that if I needed any guidance or help, Dad (and Mom) was only a phone call away. Throughout my life they have both helped me a lot; times when I was so down that there seemed to be no way out. They were there.

I guess it is odd that I think of these two unrelated events on Saint Valentine’s Day, but that’s how it is. One event because it so personally affected me and my life; the second because it caught my childhood imagination in a way that very few other things could have; it set up a lifelong fascination about the Mafia and its inhabitants.

So I raise my glass to those lovers out there that are buying their tokens of affection for their loved ones. I’ll be thinking of birth and death and not buying any tokens at all.



Smoke, Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette…

Meg and I have been watching the first season DVD collection of Boardwalk Empire. A superior bit of television drama produced by HBO and starring Steve Buscemi, Kelly MacDonald and Michael Shannon. It is set in the 1920’s; that era of flappers, Eddie Cantor, the Charleston, Prohibition and “oh you kid.” It was also a time of deep-seated corruption in government, both local and not-so-local.

The sets and the costumes are brilliant. The casting, so far, has been beyond admirable; the choice of the Liverpudlian actor Stephen Graham as Al Capone exceeds genius. Of course giving Steve Buscemi the chance to shine and show just what he really has to offer as an actor, goes without saying. But despite my utilizing over 120 words to talks about the series, its plot, and its stars, that is not what I wanted to talk about. And to be honest none of these aforementioned things was what caught my eye.

The thing I noticed above anything else was the smoking.

Now those of you who follow my blog already *and to you good people, I say thank you from the bottom of my slightly malfunctioning heart.* will know that I finally gave up the devil weed after having a heart attack and two subsequent surgeries to save my life. The surgery has left me with a damaged Aorta and this fact alone has made me more health conscious than ever before in my 54 years of treading upon this earth.

My doctor and the lovely “smoking cessation” nurse feed my ego every time I go to my local clinic. I smile and nod each time they praise me on my abstinence and write me a prescription for more nicotine gum. But as I’ve told everyone, the urge to smoke pretty much dissipated after the heart attack. I actually had three (or maybe more) cigarettes on the morning of the heart attack; accompanied by about three cups of coffee. Now this nicotine (and countless other poisons) and caffeine intake was not before the heart attack, it was during it.

But the entire incident was so damn traumatic and bloody painful that I’ve had no real problem staying off the “fags.” That’s not to say I don’t want one, because I do. There is not a day that goes by where I don’t think about how great it would be to take out a cigarette, light it and drag real deep on it. Fortunately for me I a) don’t have any of the damn things in the house, and b) the thought only lasts for a split second.

I always snap back to reality pretty quickly and remember that not only are the damned things really bad for my heart, but they are also a lung sapper. I don’t fancy carrying an oxygen bottle around with me. Of course the amount of stress I am going through at the moment with my, pretty much, forced ill-health retirement and my sudden drop in income of around 23,000 pounds per year has guaranteed that I need to continue taking the blood pressure medicine irrespective of my heart issues.

I’ve just realised that not only have I taken the “long way around the barn,” but I’ve also taken the journey via a “slow boat to China.” I will get to the point I promise.

As every “ex-smoker” knows when you watch television or a film you notice every time an actor lights up and starts smoking a cigarette. In fact it looks like the entire cast of Boardwalk Empire chain smokes. They don’t just chain smoke, they also smoke filter-less cigarettes, which of course they would.

And don’t forget that tasty strychnine and cyanide!

This was the era of Lucky Strike and Camel and Chesterfields and all the other brands that helped America to fill their passion for smoking. Adverts are everywhere along the boardwalk of Atlantic City and everyone, it seems, smokes like there is no tomorrow. While watching the pilot episode I noticed that the actors were smoking a fag and then putting it out. This was followed by immediately lighting up another one.

At one point during the pilot episode I turned to my daughter Meg and said, “Just watching those guys’ makes my chest hurt.” But people smoked like that back then, and by back then I mean when smoking was not the leprous activity that it is considered now. I remember when I was a kid; people had cigarette boxes (or cigar boxes) with a “communal” lighter in their house for guests. Ashtrays adorned every room and you grew up getting acclimatized to the smell of smoke and ash.

Now it’s different, shockingly so. As I watch the remainder of the first season my heart goes out to the actors. I think about the amount of un-filtered cigarettes that they are alternatively puffing on and inhaling via someone else’s smoke and it does indeed make my chest hurt. That is, unfortunately, one of the hazards of the acting profession. I know that the Canadian actor who worked on the TV series The X-files as the Cancer Man (titled that by David Duchovny’s character) smoked herbal cigarettes through the entire series. Very commendable until you realize that herbal fags smell horrible and taste even worse. So while it might have been healthier, it stunk far worse than real cigarettes do.

I just wonder if I would have noticed the amount of folks smoking and the astronomical numbers of cigarettes being smoked in the TV series if I had not quit in August. I have a feeling that I probably would not and that I probably would have enjoyed the show that little bit more. But be that as it may, I’ll continue to watch the show and keep trying to figure out brand names are on the cigarette packet. Not that I’m looking all that hard…

1920’s deadly sophistication.