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February 25, 2011     Post-Gazette
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February 25, 2011
 

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POST-GAZETTE, FEBRUARY 25, 2011 Page13 by John Christoforo A Nostalgic Remembrance Well, it's Presidents' Week and I'm half way through a story about vacationing in the islands with friends back in the day. As a young man teaching school in Boston, I had the school vacations off including the 3ra week in Feb- ruary. Back a few years ago, it was called Washington's Birthday Week and many of my fellow teachers would head for ski country to vaca- tion and maybe break an ankle trying to navigate the slopes of northern New England's snow covered mountains. I tried it once and hated everything except the social activities that took place at the ski lodges. Once I had discovered l~he tropics, that was the end of heading north to vacation. Last week's story involved my old friend, Sal Meli, whom I had grown up with in East Boston and a pal that I taught with. The three of us headed to Puerto Rico for the February vaca- tion, basically to bask in the sun and swim in 80-degree Caribbean waters. Before I ran out of space, I mentioned that we headed for a hotel casino and I tried my hand at gambling for the first time. The only other ca- sino I had ever been in was at the Havana Hilton. Uncle Nick and Aunt Dorothy often took cruises during vacation time and in 1958, they headed for Havana during Easter week. As was often the case, I was invited see- ing Uncle Nick was my God- father. In "58, I accepted their offer and joined them and one of the side ventures was a stop at the Hilton's ca- sino. I didn't gamble. Uncle Nick wouldn't let me. Well, it was the early '60s, Cuba was off limits and San Juan had taken over ag the number one (~arihhean gtop for American tourists and Sal suggested the Casino at the Caribe Hilton, one of San Juan's best hotels. I had beginner's luck, a phenom- enon that only happens to a drawn a 3 hit 21. I stayed at the table for quite a while and kept winning. At one point, I wanted to leave but drew 2 aces. I split the cards, bet ev- erything I had and drew 2 kings, making double black- jack. When I finally quit, I had enough money to go on a Caribbean shopping spree and not think twice. The next day, we headed for St. Tho- mas. We actually had reser- vations at a long-gone resort called the Gramboco Inn. Once we arrived and were settled in, the owner a woman who looked like a hip- pie, told us "about the beaches we should visit. She saw the beginnings of our Puerto Rican tans and as- sumed we were sun worship- ers. She was right and we rented motorcycles and were on our way to the local beaches. During the after- noon, we headed to the main street in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas' capital. For about a mile on both sides, there were stores of every type and description. I bought cartons of cigarettes for $2.10 per carton. Handmade cigars for 50 cents each, assorted sum- mer clothes, jewelry and per- fumes for gifts and several quarts of liquor not on the market back home. The quota was 4 quarts packaged and an open bottle for medici- nal purposes. I even bought a bottle of 100 year old cognac and French absinthe, which not long after, became ille- gal to distill or sell. At that point, Sal told me that he wasn't buying more than one bottle of liquor and I bought more to fill his quota. The one mistake was to purchase a bottle of Japanese scotch. I learned from that purchase, that if I was to buy scotch, it had to c0mc from 5c0tland, I only had one problem. When we flew to St. Thomas, we left some of our clothes at the Hotel Normandie and packed enough for a couple of days in St Thomas. We three then flew to St. Tho- person the first time they try mas. My suitcase didn't. I something. We dressed back then. You couldn't get into most of the better places unless you wore a suit and tie. Once we were properly attired, we headed from the Hotel Normandie to the Caribe Hilton. After we entered the casino, I sat down at a blackjack table and tried my luck. As I said, I had beginners luck. No matter what I did, I won. If I had 18 showing, and foolishly drew a card, with the way my luck was going, I would have had just the clothes on my back. I basically needed a bathing suit. Neither Tom nor Shl were anywhere near my size, but I met some tour- ists from Belmont, MA, and one of the guys lent me a pair of swim trunks. On the last day there, my suitcase ar- rived having been diverted to Rio de Janeiro by mistake. All was well. We had an honor system bar at the Gramboco Inn. You made your own drinks and then paid what vou owed at -- FOR YOU WHO APPRECIATE THE FINEST THE MUSIC FOR ALL OCCASIONS 781-648-5678 the end of your stay. Each af- ter noon we would discuss where we were going to go for dinner over a tropical drink. in the process, we became friendly with several naval officers who often utilized the hotel as their watering hole. There were a few of the sail- ors who were part of the com- pliment of men on the U.S.S. Thresher, a submarine sta- tioned in St. Thomas. A few months later, the Thresher went down in the Atlantic with the entire crew losing their lives. I was very sad- dened when this happened. Well, the trip to St. Thomas came to a close and we headed back to Puerto Rico a bit more tanned than when we left. Fortunately, my suitcase didn't head to South America this time around. Once back at the Normandie, our rooms were waiting for us along with passes to a private beach club, E1 Escambron. At the club, we met an American icon. This gentleman was in Puerto Rico promoting pro- fessional boxing among local athletes. Once we spotted him, we introduced our- selves. The big man smiled, shook our hands and said, "Hello, my name is Joe Louis." We were thrilled, and in conversation just referred to him as, "Champ." I would run into him again several years later in Las Vegas, but this was the first time and I was thrilled. Later that day, I called Dad and Babbononno to tell them about the chance meeting as they were both fight fans and Joe Louis had been their favor- ite heavyweight before he retired. That night, we headed out on the town, eventually end- ing the evening at an all- night dell called the Red Rooster. We met some people sitting at the next table and one of them turned out to be Dick Shawn, a Hollywood ac- tor comedian, who would star in it's a Mad Mad Mad World the following year. It was during this vacation that I developed a taste for Puerto Rican and Cuban food. Much of it was centered around marinated roast pork with sweet plantains, beans and rice with carmel custard and local coffee for dessert. I can still taste the garlic. That Sunday, we flew back to Boston, deeply tanned and fully un-rested needing a day or so to recuperate. Once back at Logan. Tom's father picked him up. and as ar- ranged. Dad was to pick up Sal and me. Actuallv, he and M0m drove past us twice. We were so tanned, they didn't recognize us. The third time. [ flagged them down and they stopped. The February vaca- tion was over. but I still re- member it after all these years. GOD BLESS AMERICA PS To you readers of my colurnn...I enjoy the fan mail: keep it coming!!! * The Socially Set (Continued from Page 9) Pictured at the "Winter Warm-Up" party and fundraiser are, left to right, Michael Kelley, Ricardo Rodriguez and Fritz Klaetke. (Photo by Melissa Ostrow) tour arid activities. Partici- pants meet at the Sharf Visitor Center. In March, a number of "Spotlight Talks" highlight- ing Latin American works of art will be given in the gal- leries. MFA curators, con- servators, and educators will offer 15-minute presenta- tions about art throughout the Museum's collections, focusing on one or two works of art. All "Spotlight Talks" are free with Museum admission and are geared toward an adult audience. This program is supported by The Wallace Foundation. Serving as a complement" to the art of Latin America are the foods and wines of the region. Visitors can en- joy a delicious meal in the Shapiro Family Courtyard at the New American Caf6, which features a tasting menu created by celebrity chef Ken Oringer, inspired by the cuisines of Mexico, Central and South America. In addition, Bravo restau- rant will offer Latin Ameri- can wines and hors d'oeuvres during its "Winesday" event on Wednesday, March 30, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Complete details about "IVIFA Fiesta! are available at www.mfa.org/programs/ series~tufa-fiesta. ....... In 1840, almost as soon as photography arrived in America, the Massachu- setts Historical Society began to collect images of notable figures, artifacts, and landscapes. Examples of these early photographs will be on display from March 11 to June 3 in the Society's exhibition, "History Drawn with Light." We are all invited to view one of Boston's old- est photographs, the "Old Feather Store" by Francis Calley Gray, together with portraits and views by early daguerreotype artists such as the notable Albert S. Southworth and Josiah J. Hawes, and the later work of professional and amateur photographers who docu- mented 19m-century Ameri- can history as it unfolded. The exhibition is free and open to the public, Monday through Saturday, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. The Massachusetts His- torical Society is located at 1154 Boylston Street, Bos- ton. For more information, call 617-536-1608 or visit www. masshist, org. ....... Save the date: Tues- day, March 29, at the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel beginning at 6 p.m. That's when noted Boston Designer, Denise Hajjar will be showing her "Spring/ Summer Collection." The fashion show will benefit the Big Sister Association of Greater Boston. We are told that some "very special friends" of Big Sister Association will be modeling in support of the organization, along with the professional models in a runway presentation. For more information, call 617-927-5990 or visit www.denisehajjar.com or www.bigsister.org. Enjoy! (Be sure to visit Hilda Morrill's gardening Web site, www.bostongardens.com. In addition to events covered and reported by the columnist, "The Socially Set" is compiled from various other sources such as news and press re- leases, PRNewswire services, etc.) Greater Boston's Affordabte Private Cemetery Traditiona[ Burial P[ot (for Z) Starting at 51500 Sl, MEHAEL CEMETERY l C'-~~ GESDKN GOkUM~ARI J,lS 5@0 C:anferburv St 61 7.524.1 036 Bosfdn MA 02131 www.stmichaelcemetery.conq iServitTg the Italian community for over 100 years! The Federal Trade Commission works for the consumer to prevent fraud and deception. Call'1-877- C-HELP (1-877-382-4357) or log on to .ftc.gov. , J