Making it great again

17 Jan

This wine was not born in the best of times.

Soon after its grapes were harvested and crushed, in the Piedmont, Italy’s finest wine region, a United States Naval pilot had to parachute to safety when a missile took down his fighter jet over North Vietnam. The serviceman, John McCain, would remain imprisoned, frequently tortured, for the next five and a half long years.

Days after McCain’s capture Lyndon Johnson held a secret meeting with his top political advisers. The agenda: Devise a plan to mislead the American people into thinking more enthusiastically about the war in Southeast Asia. “The Wise Men,” as the group was known, concluded that the president should feed his constituents a steady diet of optimistic pablum aimed at advancing the falsehood that America was winning, not losing, an unpopular war in which hundreds of thousands had already died.

Earlier that year, as Italy’s rich vineyards lay dormant, three Apollo 1 astronauts were incinerated aboard their spacecraft as it idled on the launchpad at Cape Kennedy in Florida. Race riots—159 of them—erupted across the country in what came to be known as “The Long, Hot Summer.” Albert DeSalvo (aka the Boston Strangler) was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of 13 women, and a vile segregationist named Lester Maddox, who’d refused to serve blacks at his Atlanta restaurant, was sworn in as Georgia’s 75th governor.

Oh, and my poor father’s beloved New York Mets ended the 1967 season with a record of 61 wins and 101 losses, 40 1/2 games in the National League standings behind the first-place St. Louis Cardinals.

Like I said, not the best of times.

Me, I was a 10-year-old street kid living in a poor corner of eastern Brooklyn, on the border of Queens. Crime and racial tensions ruled here. The only places to buy cheap wine were crappy liquor stores where the inventory and the shopkeepers hid behind thick bullet-proof glass. Blocks away from the apartment house where my family and I lived was the 75th Precinct House. The 75th was often the busiest and most violent police precinct in the entire country. It still is.

All I can remember being concerned about the year that Aldo Conterno produced this very fine Barolo from his family’s legendary nebbiolo vines was getting through the days without getting hurt or even killed.

All of us in the neighborhood fretted over the same thing, I reckon.

My fourth-grade teacher, a nun named Sister Janita, was a big help to me that tumultuous year. Only not for any of the reasons you might imagine.

Sister Janita had grown too old to be in a classroom educating impressionable young minds. She wasn’t a woman who dispensed advice or wisdom to her students, either, at least not at this time in her career. But she was sweet and kind and functional, and so her superiors allowed the nun to keep her position later in life than was probably prudent.

She was also—how to say this delicately?—a loon.

The good sister had a pet pigeon named Lulu that lived in her second-floor classroom. Lulu had full run of the place, flying freely as she pleased. Many times the bird would land on your desk and coo coo coo until you’d share a bit of sandwich bread or some other morsel with her. Once Lulu landed right on my head and cooed until her mistress came around to collect her.

Sister Janita conversed far more with Lulu than with any of her students. Always kindly, always lovingly, always enthusiastically. But most of all, always kookily.

Considering the state of the world outside her classroom in 1967 I count myself lucky to have spent a good chunk of the year well-protected inside the sister’s benign, good-natured little cocoon.

After all, for several long hours a day that entire school year the biggest fear I had wasn’t getting caught up in a riot or a gang fight; it was getting shit on by a crazy old nun’s pet pigeon as it flew by.

We should all have so little to be troubled about today.

My home now is a lovely little town on the coast of Maine. The free local paper’s “Police Blotter” lists items about dogs found wandering without tags or teenagers caught “borrowing” a stranger’s canoe to go out fishing. The town’s only fire truck is new and spiffy, but it doesn’t get out of the garage much.

And yet all of a sudden I live in a very dangerous place again. We all do.

Let’s face it, the year that this bottle of Aldo Conterno’s 1967 Barolo Riserva Speciale got opened wasn’t much better than the year he produced it. You could argue that it was a lot worse. From election night in November 2016 through, well, just through, it’s been one self-inflicted national disaster after another.

Cracking open a 50-year-old Barolo at this time wasn’t my doing. That would be the work of my dear friend Scott, who surprised a small group of friends with it at a dinner celebration just before Christmas. Scott is a sommelier by trade. He’s also a swell guy to have as a friend.

He knew full well that everybody who’d gathered that evening had suffered, often silently, the entire year. And so, in his small and yet extraordinarily generous way, Scott decided to temporarily wrap us all up in a warm blanket made of joy and friendship and, like Sister Janita’s classroom in 1967, even a bit of fantasy.

For a few moments my friends and I could put aside our fears about the next three or even seven long years and escape to a place where good people who love and respect and care for each other can still get to quietly share a common appreciation of something honest and beautiful…

And, yes, even GREAT!

2 Responses to “Making it great again”

  1. Jimmy January 19, 2018 at 2:41 am #

    very well said as always, Mr. M

  2. Mister Meatball January 19, 2018 at 11:51 am #

    Thanks, Mr. O.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: