Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Reflections From My Father’s Bedside


When I was a little boy, I wanted to be left-handed. This fervent desire must have seemed odd to the nuns who taught me in school. After all, my right-hand served me quite well in the performance of such important tasks as writing, eating, and throwing a football. I was, despite my best efforts, right-handed.

But my father was left-handed. And to me, being like him was more important than anything. To be a man … a real man … one had to be a southpaw.

He was born on October 12, 1924, the only child of Italian immigrants. A few days after his eighteenth birthday, he was drafted into the US Army, and left the family farm in Alabama to serve his country.

The first beach he ever saw was Omaha Beach in Normandy, France. As part of the signal battalion, he was with – and often in front of – the infantry as they fought their way across Europe under the leadership of General George Patton. On the morning of April 29, 1945, he was one of the liberators of the notorious Nazi concentration camp at Dachau.

My father often showed me swords and medals he’d gotten during his war years. It was fascinating for such a young boy to see these signs of valor and to hear the tales that accompanied them.

One day, when I was about twelve, he told me he had something to show me from the war. I assumed that it would be another exciting piece of WWII memorabilia. But the serious look on his face indicated that this would be no ordinary exposition.

“These are pictures I took at a concentration camp,” he said in a somber tone.

“What’s a concentration camp?” I innocently asked.

He took a breath. “It’s a place where the Nazis were killing people,” he responded. “But we made them stop.”

“I want you to see these for two reasons,” he went on. “First, I want you to know that this really did happen. Sometime in your life, you’re going to run across people who’ll say this never happened. But it did. I was there and I saw it.

“Also, I want you to make sure this never happens again.”

The photographs, as you can imagine, were shocking and horrendous. I wasn’t sure how I could ever prevent such evil from happening again, but I knew I was proud of my father for being one of the men who’d stopped the tragedy in its tracks.

The Holocaust didn’t stop because the Nazis grew tired of killing or because of a negotiation. It stopped because a few young American soldiers entered that camp. And it stopped at that instant. Twenty-four hours later, and the tens of thousands of prisoners inside would have all been murdered.

My father told me that as he and his buddies walked around Dachau, they finally and forever understood the meaning of their mission, and why they had left their homes and traveled so far away to fight for people they did not know.

Like the millions of other members of the Greatest Generation, he returned triumphantly from the war to raise a family and to set about the task of building this country. He never complained about what he had been through or about what sacrifices he’d been called to make. He simply did his best. And he did it with integrity, compassion, strength, and courage.

As many people can honestly say, so too I echo: I’ve never known a better man than my father. I’ve never known anyone as strong, as gentle, as loyal, as loving, and as trustworthy. I’ve never known anyone so willing to do without in order to ensure the comfort of his family.

If the greatest gift a man can give his children is to love their mother, then my father lavished that gift upon us. His goodness and loyalty to my mother was legendary, and his concern for the welfare and happiness of his children was without equal.

From his youngest days, he’d been exceptionally handsome and muscular … a fact which every woman I’ve ever known has made a point to tell me. I remember high school girlfriends of mine who made no secret of getting all googly-eyed whenever my father entered the room. “He’s so good looking!” they’d say admiringly, and then start playing with their hair.

Academy Award winner Loretta Young, a contemporary of the likes of Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, and Jimmy Stewart, once told my father that he could’ve come to Hollywood and been a leading man.

“Nah,” he humbly replied. “They probably would’ve just led me right back out of town.”

During a speaking tour in Los Angeles just after my book was released, he was surrounded by beautiful women, all hugging him and posing for photographs with him.

“Hey,” I said, getting his attention. “Look at you … eighty years old and you’re still getting all the women!”

“They’re all after you,” he claimed.

“Well, I’m standing right here!” I countered. “And all the girls are huddling around you!”

He laughed. He thought it was funny. He knew it was true.

One of them asked him, “Mr. Sacco, who do you think should play you in the movie?”

My father pointed to the cover of the book in her hand and replied, “Well, I don’t know, but whoever he is, he’d better be good-looking!”

The girls giggled and laughed and cooed.

Still, with all the attention from the fairer sex through the years, he was always a steadfastly loyal husband and father. To see that type of example teaches a young boy about honor and family and the bonds that must never be broken.

I once pointed out that at the conclusion of WWII, he’d been a strikingly handsome war hero.

“So what?” he asked me.

“So when you came back to the States, how did you manage to fight off the women?” I asked.

“Fight ‘em off?” he asked in return. “Why would I have fought them off?”

“Good point,” I surrendered.

“But that was before I got married,” he clarified. “Once you’re married, your family’s all that matters. There’s nothing more important than that.”

A man without priorities will soon be a soul set adrift. And for my father, his family and his faith were always paramount. They were the anchors that defined him, that gave him purpose and direction, and that provided him comfort and freedom and peace in times that would’ve challenged even the stoutest of hearts.

Fathers have a way of saying things – even as jokes – and making them sound real.

My father once told me that there was a tribe of American Indians who had trained themselves to lie on the ground and die as opposed to being taken prisoner by the US Cavalry. I never quite understood how the Indians could actually train for such a feat, considering the fact that the first time you do it correctly, you’re dead. But that’s what he said, so I believed it. I still do.

He also told me that there was a little town on the border between Alabama and Florida called “Ala-fart.” I looked on a map and couldn’t find it, so I’m pretty sure such a town has never existed. But I think it should. And I wonder what type of people would live there.

For as far back as I can remember, my father had an affinity for duct tape. It was his preferred method of repairing anything. Garden hoses, windows, toilets, picture frames, eyeglasses, bicycles, jewelry, automobiles, fine china … his philosophy was that if it could be broken, then it could be repaired with duct tape.

I’ve always thought that if my father had been a passenger on the Titanic, it wouldn’t have sunk because he’d have duct-taped it back together. That boat would still be making regular runs between Europe and the US with minimal leakage, if any.

He never attended college, but he felt immense pride in the fact that I did.

He was laid off his job a few weeks before I was to start classes at ND my freshman year. I had received a Notre Dame Scholar Award, but there was still a substantial disparity between the funding attached to the scholarship and the actual cost of attending the school.

I felt guilty about the financial burden at a time when our family would be struggling, so I announced to my parents that I’d go to Alabama or Auburn or someplace more affordable.

“If you want to go to Notre Dame, then you’re going to Notre Dame,” my father informed me. “Don’t worry. We’ll make it work. You just get packed.”

He had been born in the year of the Four Horsemen, the year of Notre Dame’s first National Championship under Knute Rockne. And through thick and thin, through good times and bad, he loved the Fighting Irish.

One night, barely one week before he died, he awoke from his sleep at two in the morning. He looked over at me as I sat beside his hospital bed.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“Here’s something I don’t understand,” he announced. “How in the hell is that quarterback supposed to throw the ball when his teammates won’t block for him?”

“He can’t.” I answered.

“What the hell’s wrong with that coach?” he asked.

“I don’t know.”

“He needs somebody to kick his ass.”

You see, this man was from the ass-kicking generation. And, as it turns out, a good swift kick in the ass does solve a lot of problems. That and duct tape.

People often tell me that I’ve given my father a great gift by writing a book about him, and that by doing so, I’ve honored my father in a way that few sons will ever have.

I appreciate their words, but I tend to see it as being the other way around. He’s the one who gave me the gift. He’s the one who honored me with his story and his legacy. When I speak to a theater filled with people and watch them stand and applaud, I feel a thrill not so much for me as for him. From where I’m standing, he’s the hero. The tears in my eyes are out of gratitude to him, and for giving me the opportunity to share his story, his compassion, and even his humor with countless others.

At one of our appearances in Los Angeles, a woman in the audience revealed that she had been a sixteen-year-old prisoner at Dachau on the morning it was liberated. She came up to the stage and hugged my father. “Thank you for saving my life,” she kept repeating as she embraced him.

I watched grown men in the audience weeping as they stood and applauded.

He was barely able to speak the last few days of his life, but he whispered to me one night that he felt like two different people … the one who wanted to get up and run and play, and the other who was too weak to move.

It was a testament that the spirit, unlike the body, never grows old.

My father knew well that though the fireworks can be spectacular, it is the fireplace that heats the home. And so it is that the heroes of our lives are not the superstars who flash across the sky only to disappear from sight. They are, instead, like him – the humble and rare light that is steady and strong, never wavering, never dimmed, never extinguished, but only hidden in time by the far horizon as it moves to brighten the new world that exists beyond.

As I stood by my father’s bedside and held his hand on the night he died, I couldn’t help but think of his days as a strong young man dashing across Europe with the American Army, of the people he helped liberate, and of all the wonderful things he did for us when we were growing up. In him I could see the embodiment of integrity, of honor, of loyalty, of courage, of strength, of selflessness, and of love.

I realized at that moment that time had done what the war could not. The heart, so strong in battle, so joyous in victory, so generous with family, so cherished by all, was growing weak. And it broke my heart to know there was nothing I could do to heal his. I simply and helplessly held his hand and watched him sleep. I listened to each breath as they slowly and inexorably decreased. I stared at his hands.

When I was a boy, I wanted to be left-handed so that I could write and eat and throw a football like my father. And then, somewhere along the way, I learned that it was infinitely more important to emulate the heart that beats within so that I might one day live like him.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

3. The Juice Goes on a Killing Spree

The story you’re about to read is true. No names have been changed to protect the innocent … or the guilty.

In the early 1990s, before OJ Simpson had gone on his infamous killing spree, I was dating a girl named Kathleen. It turns out that Kathleen’s best friend was a model/actress by the name of Paula Barbieri, who had been featured in Playboy and a number of similar publications.

And it also turns out that Paula’s main squeeze was none other than OJ Simpson, a.k.a. “The Juice.” (He liked being called “Juice.”)

I remember the first time I met OJ. It was in late January, 1993. Kathleen and I had gone over to Paula’s luxury apartment on Wilshire Boulevard in LA to meet with Paula and the Juice.

When we arrived, Paula was there not with OJ, but with Randy Jackson (Michael Jackson’s brother, not the Randy Jackson from “American Idol”).

Kathleen and I had been there only a few minutes when building’s concierge called and informed Paula that OJ was in the lobby and was on his way up to her apartment.

At that point, Randy leapt from his seat, yelled a few expletives, ran out the door, and down the hallway toward the service elevators.

Paula and Kathleen laughed as the panicked Jackson disappeared around a corner.

“Where’s he going?” I asked innocently.

“Oh, the last time OJ caught him up here with me, he beat the crap out of him,” Paula giggled.

I later found out that Paula had a habit of luring men to her apartment, and then inviting OJ over so as to make him jealous and to cause a fight. Their relationship took dysfunction to a higher level than most of us will ever know. I have lots of stories about that (things such as drug use, fights, OJ pushing Paula out of his car on the freeway, etc.), but I won’t get into it here.

Eventually, a happy-go-lucky OJ emerged from the passenger elevator and came sauntering down the hall.

OJ was dressed in a sport coat and opened-neck shirt, as was I. Kathleen was wearing a short but tasteful dress. And Paula was wearing a formfitting see-through fishnet number, along with a very visible, very skimpy bra and thong. I wish I’d have had my camera with me.

So the four of us spent the night on the town going to dinner and then to a few Super Bowl parties. (Dallas and Buffalo were playing in Super Bowl XXVII at the Rose Bowl that weekend.)

There were two main parties … one was at the Santa Monica airport for the Heisman Trophy Winners, and the other was a VIP party at a Beverly Hills hotel for NFL players and their guests.

I must say that OJ had enough manners to introduce me to everybody there, including Howie Long, Lawrence Taylor, and a number of other Pro Bowl caliber players.

As a side note, OJ was driving us in his Bentley that night. Paula was sitting beside him in the front seat, while Kathleen and I were in the back. At one point, OJ turned, laughed, and said, “Hey, I wonder if people will look over here and see a black man driving you white folks around, and think I’m the chauffer.”

“In that case, would you mind wearing a little hat?” I asked him. “And could you stop up here at the Piggly Wiggly?”

Fortunately, he thought the joke was funny, so he didn’t try to stab me.

The next morning, my brother called and asked for my impressions of OJ.

I told him that OJ and I had talked on a variety of subjects and that I found him to be intelligent and gracious. I summed it up by saying, “OJ’s nice enough, but he seems to be the type of guy who thinks he can get away with anything.”

At the time, I had no idea how prophetic those words were.

Over the next year, the four of us would hang out from time to time, as schedules permitted. Once, while Kathleen and I were visiting Paula at her mother’s home in Panama City, Florida, we were watching some cheap horror movie on cable TV when OJ called from LA.

He was watching the same movie. Paula put him on speakerphone and the four of us made comments throughout the film. I don’t remember the name of the movie, but what sticks out in my memory was that OJ kept acting as if he were creeped out by the villain, whose modus operandi was to leap from the darkness and viciously stab his victims.

In fact, Paula laughed at him and told him he was acting “like a girl.”

“I know,” OJ replied, “but this is really scary stuff!”

Fast forward to November of 1993. I was in the airport boarding a plane for Chicago, going to South Bend for a Notre Dame football game.

As I collected my boarding pass at LAX, I noticed a group of people congregated around someone near the gate. To my surprise, it was OJ … and he was waving me over.

“Hey, man,” he said as I approached. “It’s good to see you.”

Then he leaned in closer. “Hey, stand here next to me and talk to me so that these other people will leave me alone,” he whispered.

“Uh, okay,” I said.

After we boarded the plane, he asked if I could sit in the open seat next to him, which I did. During the flight, I told him that I hadn’t seen Paula in a few weeks and asked how she was doing. His answer was quite revealing.

“I don’t know what’s gonna happen with Paula,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, Paula doesn’t understand that I need Nicole in my life,” he answered. “After all, Nicole is my ex-wife and she’s the mother of my children. And Nicole doesn’t understand that I need Paula. I just can’t get either one of them to understand!”

He went on to tell me a story about how he had given Nicole a pair of diamond earrings, and then, after a fight, had taken them back and given them to Paula. At some later event (attended by both women), Paula purposefully wore the earrings and made sure Nicole noticed. Yelling. Screaming. Catfight. Blah, blah, blah. Dysfunction to the nth degree.

OJ seemed to think it was amusing, but when I asked him how having the two women in his life was going to work out, he became very serious and introspective. He then started to once again lament about how he required them both, and how he felt helpless to make either understand his need for the other.

He spoke at length and pretty much worked himself into an emotional state. By the end of his explanation, he was in tears. You read that correctly … the big, bad, USC Heisman-Trophy-winning, Bruno-Magli-shoes-wearing football man was in tears.

On one hand, I felt bad for him. After all, the guy was crying over two women. Then again, I kept thinking, “This guy’s insane. He’s crying over two women!”

I continued on to the Notre Dame campus for the game. If I remember correctly, OJ was headed to some ceremony that weekend that had to do with the NFL Hall of Fame.

Kathleen and I had dinner with OJ and Paula a few times over the course of the following months. It was always pleasant, and OJ was always nice to me. At least he never tried to kill me.

Around this time, I scheduled a trip to Europe, where I had the opportunity to visit Rome. Paula had called me before I left and asked if I would buy her and OJ each a set of rosaries at the Vatican.

I told her that I didn’t realize OJ was Catholic. She said, “He’s not, but Nicole is Catholic and his children are Catholic, so I want to give him a rosary and teach him how to say it.”

“Okay,” I replied. And so I delivered the rosaries when I returned from my trip.

Now … to June of 1994 (two days before the killings).

Kathleen had asked me to attend a Michael Bolton concert with her. Paula had arranged for us to have VIP tickets and backstage passes, claiming that she was now dating Michael and that she wanted us to meet him.

The show consisted of Michael Bolton, his band, twenty thousand screaming women, and me. Afterwards, Kathleen and I went backstage to hang with Michael.

He was a nice enough guy … friendly, rather unassuming, and a bit shorter than I’d imagined. He asked if I enjoyed the show. I told him I did. We chatted for several minutes about a number of things.

At one point, a photographer came over and had us pose for a photo. She (the photographer) then asked for my address, promising to send me a copy. Michael waved her off. “Just give me a copy when you get it developed, and I’ll give it to him,” he said.

He then turned to me. “Let’s have dinner next week with Paula. I’ll give you the photo then.”

“Okay,” I said. “By the way, how did you meet Paula?”

He then proceeded to tell me that he and Paula had met when she was in one of his music videos. “We met and started making out right there on the set,” he laughed. “And we’ve been together ever since!”

“Has she ever been to one of your concerts?” I asked.

“No,” he answered. “She’s never asked to attend one. I suppose she’s not interested.”

I told him that I’m sure she’d enjoy it and that he should invite her to attend.

He told me that he was going to be performing in Las Vegas on the following Sunday (June 12) and that he would invite Paula to be there.

Later that night, I spoke with Paula and told her about my conversation with Michael. She admitted that she had never attended one of his concerts, but added that it was because he had never invited her. She'd therefore assumed he didn’t want her to be there. (What we have here is a failure to communicate.)

“Well, he’s going to invite you to Vegas this weekend,” I informed her. “And I think you should go.”

During that conversation, I asked her what was up with OJ.

She asked, “You didn’t mention his name to Michael, did you?”

I assured her that I hadn’t.

She went on to tell me that she was planning to attend some sort of fundraiser with the Juice the next day (on Saturday) and that she was going to announce to him that their relationship was over. “I should’ve broken up with him a year ago,” she said. “He always wants me to pull him out of his depressions, and I always do it. But this time, it’s OVER. I’m moving on.”

I told her, “Hmmm … I understand that you want to break up with him and all, but I was kinda hoping to get an autographed football before you do.”

“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll get you a football.”

“Ah, that’s okay,” I told her. “On second thought, I don’t really want a football … he went to USC.”

She thought that was funny, though I was being serious.

And so Saturday came and went.

Paula went to the party on Saturday with OJ. Afterward – according to what she later told me – she informed the Juice that he had been squeezed out, that she was done with him, and that she was seeing someone else. She said something along the lines of “it’s not you, it’s me,” and wished him a happy life.

Once again, according to Paula, he was taken aback, but in typical OJ fashion, shook his head as if to say, “Yeah, I’m not worried … you’ll be back.”

The next day (Sunday, June 12), Paula went to Las Vegas to be with Michael Bolton and to attend his concert that evening.

Apparently, OJ attended his daughter’s dance recital that afternoon here in LA, where he spoke with Nicole. The story goes that at some point in the afternoon, Nicole calmly informed OJ that, like Paula, she was done with him, that she was going into rehab, that she was moving on, that she had new plans for her life and that they didn’t include him.

Now, within a span of under twenty-four hours, both Paula and Nicole – both of whom I had personally witnessed this man crying over on a plane – had told him to get lost.

According to Paula, OJ had a history of cocaine use, especially in times of stress … and it would generally result in fits of rage. She said she would try to calm him down during those times, but, of course, now she was nowhere to be found.

Apparently, according to the cell phone records, OJ tried to call Paula dozens of times that Sunday evening, but to no avail.

And he didn’t exactly have other “friends” with whom he could discuss the situation. For example, he was on the outs with Marcus Allen, who had apparently had an affair with Nicole. (By the way, OJ once introduced me to Marcus and Marcus’s wife, Catherine, who looked a lot like Nicole. Catherine eventually left Marcus, and then Marcus hooked up with Nicole … or maybe it was the other way around. Either way, the Juice wasn’t happy about it, and therefore wasn’t exactly fond of Marcus.)

According to the testimony, OJ and Kato went to Burger King that night and picked up something to eat … which, according to Paula, translates to purchasing some cocaine.

All the while, OJ couldn’t find Paula. He called ten, twenty, thirty times. No answer.

The next morning, the world found out that OJ Simpson’s ex-wife, Nicole, had been brutally murdered along with a friend named Ron Goldman. (I personally found out when my phone rang and it was Kathleen screaming, “Paula just called and told me that OJ killed Nicole!”)

A few days later, the Juice wrote what must have been the dumbest “suicide note” in the history of suicide notes. Now he was on the run. He had become a fugitive.

Before long, his friend and former teammate, A.J. Cowling, was driving him north on the 405 in Los Angeles.

I called my parents back in Alabama. “Hey, are you watching this?” I asked.

“Of course,” my father responded.

“Well, you know those crazy people I was hanging out with here in LA? They’re not LIKE the people in that Bronco … they ARE the people in that Bronco.”

I later heard that the police confirmed that OJ had the following items with him during the infamous slow-speed chase: Several thousand dollars in cash, a passport, a fake beard, a gun, a picture of Nicole, and a ROSARY.

Interestingly, Michael Bolton publicly denied ever having met Paula. When a reporter asked about the music video she was in, Bolton replied, “Oh, yeah, I think she may have been a dancer or something in that video, but I don’t really remember her.”

A couple of TV news reporters in LA called and asked to interview me. I declined. I didn’t want to get caught up in that circus, which is exactly what it became.

As I had told my brother, my very first impression of OJ Simpson was that he seemed like the type of guy who thought he could get away with anything. And, as it turned out, he did.

2. In the Footsteps of Forrest Gump

My friends sometimes liken me to Forrest Gump. I don’t think I look or talk or even run like Forrest, so I suppose their comparison stems from the fact that I often find myself in remarkable situations, surrounded by remarkable people. Well, that and the fact that I’m from Alabama.

The truth is that I rarely, if ever, go about seeking said situations. In fact, I’m generally minding my own business when extraordinary events begin to unfold before me.

I’ve met US Presidents, European Royalty, Academy Award Winners, athletes, astronauts, artists, movers and shakers, people who’d like to be movers and shakers, the famous, the not-so-famous, and, occasionally, the infamous.

For example, I was once asked to write a book about a Mafia-type figure from New Orleans. He took me deep into the swamps so that he could personally show me where certain events had taken place, including the spot where, according to him, a group of men had met and plotted the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. His testimony was both revealing and frightening. I'm not sure how true it was, but it was certainly entertaining.

I’ll write about all of these things … and more … in time.

But for now, I’ll tell you about my encounter with a rather nefarious character named O.J. Simpson. Here’s what happened …

Thursday, January 17, 2008

1. Living a Wonderful Life

I had the good fortune of meeting famed film director Frank Capra a number of years ago. He was from the small town of Bisacquino in Sicily, near the ancestral town of my Grandfather, but my friendship with him began when he answered a letter I had written to the Motion Picture Academy.

I was relatively fresh out of college, and was still trying to decide what to do with my life. Like Mr. Capra, I’d gotten my degree in engineering, but wanted to do something different … namely, to touch other people’s emotions through the telling of stories.

In time, I had the opportunity (at his invitation) to meet him in person. I found him to be a warm, receptive, and fascinating individual with a wonderful sense of humor and a keen ability to perceive the world around him.

One day, I asked him the secret of becoming a master storyteller.

He didn’t speak of form or function. Instead, he looked at me and smiled. “Jack,” he said, “if you want to tell a great story, go out and live a great story. Meet people, encounter new things, open yourself up to extraordinary events. Be brave. Be courageous. Be attentive. Be a good listener. Listen to what people are saying, and listen even closer to what they’re not saying. Be aware of your surroundings. Try to understand what other people are feeling. And don’t be afraid of your own emotions … fear, pain, failure, grief, joy, exhilaration, happiness, sadness … they’re all part of the incredible fabric that makes us human, so they’re all part of the grand story.”

I pondered his words for months. Then, after some prayer and planning, I left my formal corporate job as an engineer and embarked on a journey that continues to this very day. I traveled extensively … to foreign lands, across this country, through my neighborhood, to the person right in front of me, and deep within my own heart and soul.

And, just as Frank Capra had foretold, Providence placed me in a position to amass countless stories. Some have been spectacular in their scope and drama. Some have been perfect in their simplicity and structure. Some have involved the rich and famous (and infamous), while others have been about the relatively unknown people who come across one’s path every day. Some have been mysterious, some complex, some humorous, some poignant, some uplifting, some completely silly, and some profound. Some have developed over time and can only be observed from a distance. Others are still evolving and can only be told when the time is right.

All have required the openness and courage about which Mr. Capra spoke. All, even the painful ones, have been both enlightening and enriching. And all have become pieces in the intricately wonderful adventure that we call life.

So let us begin …