There’ll be ghosts Sunday evening at the St. Joseph Marello Parish Holy Name Society Smoker. Friendly ghosts. And while our hearts will be heavy at times with thoughts of those no longer with us, mostly we’ll smile, and even break into laughter, as we share memories of past smokers, dating back to 1938 at St. Rocco’s Church.
The St. Rocco’s Smoker, traditionally held on Palm Sunday, was already 44 years old when the men of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church — like St. Rocco’s, comprised mainly of parishioners of Italian descent — added a smoker of their own. Like today’s, theirs was the week before Palm Sunday.
That began a friendly rivalry — “our smoker is better than yours” — which lasted until the two churches merged into St. Joseph Marello Parish in 2013. Combined, the smokers have 81 years of history.
What’s a “smoker”? Good question.
Simply put, it’s a get-together of the men of a parish for food, drink and fellowship. But why the term “smoker” and why the proximity to Easter? I had gone to smokers for years before getting a suitable explanation. It came, at last, from Father Paul McDonnell, former pastor of St. Joseph Marello Parish and current provincial superior of the Oblates of St. Joseph in North America.
He said decades ago it was almost impossible to get men to come to Mass, and attending Mass at Easter is a requisite of Catholicism. Finally, an attempt was made to lure them in with food, drink, cigarettes and cigars. Not surprisingly, it worked. And the smoker became a pre-Easter tradition.
The cigars and cigarettes are long gone. But little else about the smoker has changed. Turns out the fellowship was the key and still is.
I’ve been toastmaster at both smokers. The first, at Mt. Carmel some 20 years ago, provided me with a story I’ve been telling ever since. Father Thomas O’Hara, newly installed president of King’s College at the time, was principal speaker and no sooner had he begun when the beeper on funeral director P.J. Adonizio’s belt went off. Stunned, Father O’Hara stopped mid-sentence and asked, “Is my time up?”
“No,” Father Paul, seated next to me, quipped, “but somebody’s is.”
That smoker marked the birth of my Italian alter ego, Eddie “Ackermano.” From the podium I asked the men, if I put an imaginary “o” at the end of my name could I be an honorary Italian? I vividly recall attorney Joseph Saporito Sr., one of those we’ll be missing this weekend, nodding his approval. Jimmy Ardoline, dubbed “Mr. Mount Carmel” at that same smoker, calls me “Ackermano” to this day.
Two others we will recall Sunday evening are Jimmy Murphy and Tony “Palma” Palmeri. I’m chuckling as I write this because when it came to adding humor to the festivities, these two were polar opposites. Tony Palma was the greatest humorist Pittston has ever known. Jimmy Murphy, on the other hand, simply could not tell a joke. Which, to his credit and our dismay, never stopped him.
Tony, a barber by trade, was a story teller. As years went by, the guys knew Tony’s stories as well as he, but still wanted to hear them. “Tell the one about the corn,” I can hear “Doc” Fasciana shouting at one of Tony’s final smokers.
It’s hard to do justice to Tony’s stories in print, but I will try. Tony always inserted fellas in the audience into his stories and at one smoker, he made “Doc” Fasciana, Louie Vullo and Mike Turco the stars of “The One About the Corn.” It went like this:
It was early in the season and no one expected corn to be ripe, when into the barber shop walked Doc Fasciana with a brown paper bag. He held it open, and inside were four ears of corn.
“Lock up and let’s go over to Frank’s Lunch and have him cook them for us,” Doc suggested. Tony was quick to oblige.
Well, no sooner did the plate of steaming corn arrive at the table when Louie Vullo and Mike Turco walked in. Louie is so tall he immediately spied the corn and over they came.
“Is that corn?” Louie asked.
“What the heck do you think it is?” Tony barked.
Ever the gentleman, Doc, much to Tony’s chagrin, asked the two if they’d like to join them. On the plate were two large ears of corn and two smaller ones. Doc offered an ear to Mike Turco, who graciously took one of the smaller ones.
“You brought the corn, you pick next,” Tony said to Doc, and Doc took one of the large ones.
Left on the plate were one large ear and one small ear.
“I was in on the ground floor of this,” Tony announced, “so I get to pick next.” All agreed, and Tony promptly took the large ear.
When he did, Louie Vullo got furious. “I can’t believe you did that,” he said. “If I got to pick first I would have taken the smaller one.”
“Well you’re getting the smaller one,” Tony shouted. “What are you complaining about?”
Tony always ended his routine with this little poem:
Whenever I pass by a church, I stop and pay a visit.
So when at last they carry me in, the Lord won’t ask, “Who is it?”
Surely, He did not when Tony arrived. But He may have said, “Tell the one about the corn.”
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.