State of Grace

A Memoir of Twilight Time

by Robert Timberg

Hardcover, 292 pages, Simon & Schuster, List Price: $26 | purchase

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Title
State of Grace
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A Memoir of Twilight Time
Author
Robert Timberg

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Book Summary

Using the author's high-school New York City sandlot football team as a metaphor, a portrait of pre-Vietnam war America describes the period's comparatively uncomplicated lifestyle and remembers the symbolic challenges faced by his teammates and coach. By the author of The Nightingale's Song. 75,000 first printing.

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Excerpt: State Of Grace

Introduction

At the 69th Regiment Armory on 26th Street and Lexington Avenue, in a glass display case just off the lobby, sits a World War II infantryman's helmet. The helmet is intact except for a ragged tear on the right side, about where the temple would be. The card below explains that the helmet belonged to a Redemptorist priest killed in April 1945 while administering last rites to a soldier during the fighting on Okinawa, the final land battle of the war in the Pacific.

The priest was raised on Eldert Lane in City Line, a working-class section of Brooklyn that bumps up against Queens just north of Jamaica Bay. A dozen years later, the priest's gallantry would be extolled in a book by Daisy Amoury called Father Cyclone. On a smaller stage, he gained recognition sooner. Less than a year after his death, the local chapter of the Catholic War Veterans renamed itself the Reverend Lawrence E. Lynch Post.

In 1950, a group of boys from City Line barely into their teens, prodded by an unmarried appliance salesman for the Brooklyn Union Gas Company, decided to start a football team to play in a new sandlot league that had sprung up in Brooklyn and Queens. The team held its organizational meetings at the Lynch post, which occupied the second floor above a fruit-and-vegetable stand at Liberty Avenue and Eldert Lane, in the shadow of the Liberty Avenue El. At one of those early gatherings, the boys realized they needed a name for their team. They tried on a few. Crusaders and Knights were popular choices, but they were already overbooked. In fact, with the proliferation of teams, there were few good names left. Finally, someone with a better sense of place than most thought about where they were: a veterans' hall named for Father Lynch. "Let's call ourselves the Lynvets," he said. Some credit the name to Bob Lulley, the team's first quarterback, others to the baby-faced wide receiver Tommy McCabe. Whoever it was, he never suspected that he had just christened an organization that would become a living memorial to the fallen chaplain.

The Lynvets were winners from the start. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, the years on which this book focuses, they were at the top of their game — sure of themselves, unquestioning of their values, imbued with a relentless if shortsighted optimism.

Much like the nation itself. It was the twilight of innocence, or what passed for innocence if you didn't look too closely. America was at peace, looking confidently to the future, when it should have been holding its breath for what lay ahead.

I played for the Lynvets after graduating from high school in 1958 and before the adult world snatched me up two years later. Though it never occurred to me then, time was running out on the Lynvets as the Fifties drew to a close. The team was balanced on a knife edge and would in a few years time tumble into a future far less hospitable to the values they embodied — and to many of the teammates who left such a lasting imprint on me.

What I didn't sense, could never begin to contemplate, were the changes that would soon sweep the nation, making the Lynvets and the things they came to stand for in my mind — courage, toughness, unflinching patriotism, and an unremitting self-reliance — little more than loutish if exotic anachronisms to the generation that was about to reshape America.

Change was surely on the way, though few of the Lynvets heard it coming. Ultimately, that change would be so powerful that it would transform the nation almost as dramatically as did the Civil War a century earlier. It now seems clear that the strains within American society that converged with such fury in the mid-1960s started making themselves felt a decade earlier. And as the Fifties faded, the clues were there, if your lens was ground just right.

In February 1960, a sit-in at a lunch counter at an F. W. Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina, set off a wave of similar demonstrations throughout the South as the nonviolent drive for civil rights gained fresh momentum. In May of that same year, the first birth control pill, Enovid, went on the market. In November, the youth movement, building since the advent of rock and roll early in the previous decade, surged into national politics as a telegenic Irish-Catholic senator was elected president, succeeding a World War II general two decades his senior. And in January 1961, Hibbing, Minnesota, native Robert Allen Zimmerman moved to New York and began singing his antiestablishment folk songs at Café Wha? and other Greenwich Village coffeehouses under the name Bob Dylan.

And there was more. Over the course of the year 1961, the new president, John Kennedy, quietly made decisions that moved the nation further down the path toward a distant war. Equally as important, a generation conceived in the flush of victory by men and women who had survived the rigors of the Great Depression and the travails of World War II was closing fast on the Lynvets. By the late 1960s, the baby boomers, at least many of the more affluent and better educated among them, had rewritten the social contract in ways that few of the Lynvets would ever decipher. Along the way, they hijacked the culture, employing it to celebrate themselves, to exalt their lifestyle, and to ridicule and otherwise diminish those who weren't them and didn't want to be.

My two years with the Lynvets, a trying and uncertain time in which off-the-field issues threatened to corrode whatever prospects I had, embedded in me values that helped define my future. Even today, looking back over a daunting expanse of years, I see that at critical moments in my life I have measured my actions against what I believed my fellow Lynvets would expect of me. My coach was an often-unemployed football genius named Larry Kelly, who I now realize was one of the most influential figures in my life. What would he think of how I handled this situation or that one? What about my teammates — Hughie Mulligan, crazy Peter Connor, Kenny Rudzewick, the great Ferriola? I feel heartened when I sense their approval, uneasy when the answer comes back, as it does all too frequently, We're not with you on this one, Bob.

In my mind, and in the minds of my teammates, Larry Kelly and the Lynvets have long since been interchangeable. But in that summer of 1958, when I arrived on the scene from alien territory, the Kew Gardens section of Queens, the entwined legend of coach and team was just beginning to build. By then, the Lynvets were fielding teams in all four divisions of the Pop Warner Football Conference. The year before, Kelly had helped coach the Lynvet Juniors to a second straight championship. Now he had taken over the Seniors, the organization's marquee team, but an underachieving one during the previous two seasons. The players ranged in age from eighteen to twenty-one, and everyone was out of high school, one way or another. Some were married. There were a handful of guys like me going to local colleges — Hofstra, St. John's, Queens College, Fordham, Manhattan — but we were the exception. Most had already joined the workforce in a variety of jobs much like those held by their fathers — construction workers, city employees, laborers at nearby Idlewild Airport. Several worked for the Fire Department, or soon would. There were perceptible variations in educational level, economic strata, sophistication, professional promise. What we shared, and this transcended all the differences, was an unadulterated love of the game. That and a desire to be the best so fierce that it must have been tied to something deeper, more complex, perhaps the sense that our youth was slipping away and soon we would be like most of our older friends — good guys, nothing special.

Over the next four years, the Lynvet senior team was indeed special, piling up victories at a staggering rate. Like the New York Yankees in major league baseball, the Lynvets became the team to beat in sandlot football. Opponents could dream of winning a championship, but even in their dreams they knew they would have to take down the Lynvets first. Larry Kelly was the brains of the team, the center of gravity, a great coach and a complicated man. For three of those four years, he was blessed with a gifted quarterback in Bob Ferriola — tall, elegant, a commanding presence in the huddle, his passes impossibly tight spirals that defied you to drop them. Add to Ferriola a corps of racehorse running backs led by the graceful Marine Tommy Vaughan and a sweet-natured kid named Joe Aragona who lived in Rego Park with his older sister and widowed mother. In that fourth year, because of the league's age limit, Kelly had to turn to others, among them the talented but troubled Tommy Wall and an angry kid not long removed from an Army stockade, Mike Montore. But the heart and soul of those teams were blue-collar players like Peter Connor, the Faulkner brothers, Chipper Dombo, Jackie Meyer, and Kenny Rudzewick. Rudzewick was the oddball in the group, the normal one. A bank teller during the day, a college student at night, a fiery defensive tackle in his off-hours, he would become the president of a bank and a pillar of society in the years ahead. The others led lives in varying degrees of disarray. Together, though, they played with such intensity and abandon that at times their own teammates feared being on the same field with them.

I will recount their tales in this book, and also my own, not because any of us are particularly special but because we shared the same transforming experience with a special team, one that flew below radar in the outback of the world's most cosmopolitan city. I also hope to pay homage to a time, for me and the nation, when the path to an honorable future seemed as straightforward as playing hard, hitting clean, and not fumbling the ball.

The Lynvets of those days were not without blemish. Heavy drinking, at team parties but not only then, would in the years ahead diminish more than a few in ways no opponent ever could. Petty thievery was rare, but not unknown. The Lynvets, after all, were educated on the same streets that schooled John Gotti and his crew of mobsters-in-waiting. Many more were stunted by limited ambitions, often arising from the near poverty of their youth, that would cripple their promise as they entered full-fledged adulthood.

In the end, though, their transgressions were small ones. Today, as a nation unsure of its identity finds itself struggling into a new century, the virtues that the Lynvets embodied shine that much more brightly. And the years during which they ruled football on the sandlots of Queens and Brooklyn seem frozen in time — nothing less than that condition of fragile innocence between confession and the next big sin known to the faithful as a state of grace.

Copyright © 2004 by Robert Timberg

Chapter 1: The Lynvets

On a mild December day in 1959, Tommy Wall was leading the Woodside Chiefs to a lopsided victory over St. Vincent's Home for Boys, a team from an orphanage in Brooklyn. At five foot eight, 155 pounds, Tommy was small for a quarterback, but he was quick and smooth, a sure if not spectacular passer. More to the point, he took charge. The Chiefs always fielded a talented team in the Pop Warner league's Junior Division, which consisted mostly of high school kids from the many city schools that did not have football, but they had a reputation as undisciplined and poorly coached. Tommy, at seventeen a tough Irish kid out of Woodside's coldwater Mathews Flats, not only knew the game but kept his rowdy teammates in line. He was slick, too. On one play, he faked to his fullback as he dove into the line, faked a second time to a flanker coming around behind him, dropped the ball to his hip, and drifted untouched into the end zone. The officials lost the ball, clustered over a pile of St. Vincent's players who had tackled the flanker. "Yo, ref, over here," shouted Tommy, holding the pigskin aloft.

Near the end of the game a guy named Sal DiFiglia, whom Wall knew from sandlot football circles, stopped by the bench. "Tommy Wall," said DiFiglia, his tone laughingly formal, "Larry Kelly, the head coach of the Lynvet Seniors, is up in the stands. He'd like to see you after the game." Typical of Kelly to send a messenger rather than coming down himself, Tommy later thought.

But not then. At the moment DiFiglia delivered Kelly's summons, Tommy felt a stab of excitement. The game over, Sal hurried him, still in uniform, into the stands. His cleats clattering on the cement steps, Wall saw Kelly in a maroon Lynvet parka at the center of a clump of Lynvet players he knew, if only by reputation: Chipper Dombo. Tommy Vaughan. The one everyone said was nuts, Peter Connor.

Kelly was younger than Wall expected, twenty-five at the most, and more Ivy League in dress and demeanor than seemed plausible for someone with roots in City Line. Wall noticed that Kelly wore white bucks. In Woodside, Tommy reflected, only fags wore white bucks, fag being his all-purpose word for anyone who went to school regularly, stayed out of the bars, or lived in a detached single-family house. Kelly greeted Tommy cordially, if not effusively, congratulating him on a nice game. Then, with studied nonchalance, Kelly said, "We'd like you to come out for the Lynvet Seniors next year. Bring Ted Horoshak and John McCann and Buster Fiore and anybody else on your team you think can play for us."

Wall, whose mind was as nimble as his personal life was chaotic, quickly processed Kelly's words. During the course of that one game Kelly had singled out the three best players on the Chiefs other than Tommy himself. That was part of Kelly's growing reputation, an unerring eye for talent. Most important, Kelly — facing the loss of his All-League quarterback — was at the game primarily to scout him, Tommy Wall. Kelly asked him for his address and phone number, said he'd be in touch, then, as Tommy recalled it, "basically dismissed me," as if he were a kid who had been called to the principal's office.

In the years to come, Kelly's occasionally off-putting manner would strike Tommy as curious, as if the coach felt compelled to discourage familiarity between himself and his players, at least those who weren't his close drinking buddies. After all, this wasn't the big time, not college, not the pros. This was sandlot football, for Christ's sake. But as Tommy thought more about the day he met Kelly, he realized that it had been a big deal. That day, sure, but in the years that followed, too. Larry Kelly and the Lynvets wanted him. Yes, a very big deal. It would be too strong to say that Tommy Wall, during that brief conversation in the stands, felt touched by God. But it was close.

It didn't feel anything like that to me when I decided to go out for the Lynvets the previous year. I was just a month out of high school that summer of 1958 when I saw a small announcement in the sports section of the Long Island Daily Press, which was not exactly the New York Times but covered the smaller movements of ordinary lives like mine in Queens, a world away from the glamour of the city, which meant Manhattan. The notice said the Lynvet Seniors, whoever they were, would be holding tryouts the following Saturday at some place called Cross Bay Oval, wherever that was. I was preparing to enter St. John's University, a few miles from where I lived in Kew Gardens, but St. John's did not have a football team and I wanted to play football — it didn't much matter where. I called the number in the paper, spoke briefly to somebody named Larry Kelly, telling him who I was and of my experience as a running back at Stuyvesant High School.

"Come down to practice — we'll see what you can do. Bring your equipment," said Kelly, his tone maddeningly neutral.

True, I hadn't actually played my senior year at Stuyvesant, but I had been slated to be a starting halfback and, after a season-ending injury, had been replaced by a kid who was probably going to make All-City that fall. See what I can do? A sandlot team was going to see what I could do? How about, "Great, glad you called, anything we can do for you, need a ride to practice?"

Bruised pride and all, I went to practice. Cross Bay Oval turned out to be in Woodhaven, which was accessible from the apartment building in Kew Gardens where I lived with my mother and two younger sisters only by catching the bus at Union Turnpike and Queens Boulevard, then transferring twice, about an hour trip — assuming you didn't have a car, which we didn't. If you had a car, something that practically no one I knew had, Cross Bay Oval was fifteen minutes away.

Riding the bus to the field, I wondered what I was getting into. Two years of high school football, though injury-plagued, had given me a sense of how a good football team should practice and play. I worried that I was about to throw in with a bunch of guys with guts hanging over their belts who played something that barely resembled the game that Murl Thrush, the Stuyvesant coach, had taught us. Yes, I wanted to play football, but I didn't want to screw around. I decided before I made it to the field that if the Lynvets fell short of my expectations, which were not all that high, but high enough, I would look for another team.

I found the field, was surprised to see players already in uniform. I located Kelly and introduced myself. He was friendly, if reserved. "Get dressed," he said, pointing to a bar called McLaughlin's across the eight lanes of traffic on Cross Bay Boulevard. "We're gonna get started in about ten minutes." The bartender was deep in conversation with a handful of Saturday-morning customers as I walked in. He looked up and gestured toward the back stairs, which led to a musty basement room complete with an out-of-order jukebox and scarred linoleum flooring, presumably the Lynvet locker room. Grumpily I changed into my pads and uniform and jogged back to the field, dodging the southbound traffic streaming toward the Rockaway beaches. Kelly had already gathered the team together.

"The latecomer is Bob Timberg," he said. "He goes to St. John's. He played at Stuyvesant. Sort of. He wants to be a Lynvet. He didn't know that when we call practice for ten, we mean suited up by ten. Now he knows."

I glanced around, saw two dozen pairs of eyes looking me over, all friendly enough, none obviously impressed. Also a few grins. At the time, I thought my prospective teammates had detected my consternation and were privately enjoying it. I would soon learn that the grins were nothing more than recognition that I was getting my first taste of Larry Kelly and Lynvet football.

As we broke up into backs and linemen, a swarthy, smiling kid a little bigger than me came over, stuck his hand out, and said, "Hey, I'm Joe Aragona. You went to Stuyvesant? That's some school — you must be one smart guy. And you're going to St. John's? Wow!"

To me, St. John's didn't exactly rate a "wow," not in those days anyway, but I agreed that, yes, those things were true.

"And you played ball at Stuyvesant? Wow! Did you start?"

Reluctant to explain my checkered history as a high school player, I mumbled something that seemed to meet Joe's need for an answer. By then, he was on to something else, about how the Lynvets were really lucky to have me and how he was a halfback, too, but he had just moved up from the Junior team and probably wouldn't play all that much this season because the team was loaded with running backs, but he had played for Kelly the year before and he was a terrific coach and I was going to love playing for the Lynvets.

As Joe prattled on — that first day he rarely took a breath and talked in transitions — I looked over the field. Cross Bay Oval was not an oval at all, but a pie-shaped public athletic field surrounded by a ten-foot-high chain-link fence at the intersection of Cross Bay Boulevard and North Conduit Avenue, the service road for the Belt Parkway. Howard Beach was just across the parkway, Idlewild Airport, gateway to exotic worlds, about two miles away.

Kelly, I quickly found out, was a no-nonsense coach. Practice was crisp, businesslike, and demanding. There was very little standing around, but several of my presumptive teammates took time to wander over and introduce themselves. I met others, thanks to Joe Aragona, who squired me from group to group between drills. "Kenny, Kenny, meet Bob Timberg, he played for Stuyvesant." Other than Joe, no one seemed to care about my credentials, but each made me feel welcome. More than one used the phrase, "Kelly's a ballbuster," but with an odd twist, as if to say, don't take the coach's comments at the beginning of practice seriously, but take Kelly seriously.

Within half an hour, I knew the Lynvets were the team I was looking for. In an hour, I was marveling at my good fortune at having idly plucked Larry Kelly's phone number out of the paper. I knew nothing about my teammates, but I felt good being with them. Whatever else they might be, they came across as guys who loved the game as much as I did. More than that, they carried themselves like winners. Many of them were. Joe Aragona was just one of a half dozen players who had moved up from the previous year's Lynvet Junior team that Kelly had helped coach to the Pop Warner championship. Joe himself — though it was not at all evident from his earnest, self-deprecating demeanor — had been named the league's Outstanding Back. Bob Ferriola, the quarterback, had been the junior league's MVP two years before, though I gathered that something had not gone well last year, his first as a member of the Senior team. Kenny Rudzewick, a big, blond, sunny defensive tackle, had never played on a championship team in his two years with the Lynvet Seniors, but he had winner written all over him. By the time practice ended that day, I could tell I had stumbled onto something out of the ordinary.

I knew nothing of Lynvet tradition that first day. But as we drilled and scrimmaged, I knew that the Lynvets would not be a flabby, ragtag bunch of football frauds who would swill beer on the sidelines and disgrace themselves on the field. I did well in the scrimmage, breaking loose a couple of times, but I noticed the precision of the blocks that cleared the way for me and the sureness of the tackles that brought me down. These were not my Stuyvesant teammates, who almost to a man were heading for elite colleges and universities all across the country. But the Lynvets were at least as tough and easily as skilled. My first impression, which was accurate, was that many of them were the kind of kids who had dominated the schoolyard or the street corner in the days before we started sorting ourselves out through education, socioeconomic standing, and career choices. They dominated not through intellectual candlepower and rarely through physical intimidation, but by virtue of who they were, their unvarnished selves, the force and magnetism of their personalities, their personal presence.

I headed home after practice that first day thinking that at least one thing in my life was settled. I wanted to be a Lynvet. Everything else was in play.

Copyright © 2004 by Robert Timberg