November 29th, 2008

A Silk Map

It’s always a bit of a surprise to look through old photos and encounter yourself in a situation or place you barely remember. This was the home of Major Leon Hensel, commander of the headquarters squadron of the SAC 4128th Strategic Wing, in the officer’s housing area of Amarillo AFB, Texas, in December, 1963. He had offered to host a reception for my bride and me after our wedding. I was half drunk that whole day because I knew deep down I was unfit to handle the responsibilities of a husband, a potential father. But you know how it is, you just plunge recklessly ahead anyway, because that’s what immature males feel compelled to do.

Thirty years later, I took my daughter Lara to Manhattan. We visited Lenox Hill Hospital up on Park Avenue, where I witnessed her birth. Then we went to see the apartment on the upper West Side, where she spent her infancy and I began my career as a photojournalist. It was cold that day, so I lent her my leather bombadier’s jacket. Its lining was made of one of the silk maps of Europe pilots used to carry on sorties during WWII.

The Twilight Zone

One morning I took a precise compass bearing from my villa’s terrace to the chapel of Soccorso down in the village of Forio far below, then plotted the line on a map. I marked my location, as indicated by the black arrow. Now imagine my surprise when out of idle curiosity I extended the line. It went right to the heart of Buonopane, in the southern part of the island. The very village that brought me to Italy in November, 1999.

Outcasts, Rogues, and Misfits

My grandmother Edna, the hard-drinking, pipe-smoking and headstrong Irishwoman in the white dress above, always told me I was her favorite little boy, because she knew we were exactly alike. In the early 1900s she gave up her vaudeville singing & dancing career and got married in Ohio to one Frank Joyce, whose ancestors lived in a small village in the Maum Valley, to the west of Lough Mask in the northern part of County Galway, Ireland.

Edna was always drawn to outcasts, rogues and misfits. And liked to hear stories about her husband Frank’s great grandfather, Jack. During The Famine he was convicted of sheep stealing and subsequently transported to a penal colony in New South Wales, Australia. Jack eventually ended up in America, got a job on the railroad.

Edna may have left vaudeville, but she never gave up singing, dancing, smoking, and drinking. She did what she pleased. Always. Frank thought that once his wild wife gave birth to baby Jack, and then Betty, she'd settle down. Not a chance.

The picture below is of Edna and her daughter Betty—my mother!—at the Avalon Ballroom in Youngstown, having a good time. Frank is at home, with the dog, listening to the radio play-by-play of the Cleveland Indians game.

I enjoy being a direct descendant of an Irish sheep stealer and a vaudeville trooper, and a distant relation to the famous writer, James. Such a history provides me all the excuses I ever need for my own wild and outrageous behavior.