Thursday, June 18, 2015

In the Forest of Tombolo

"In the Forest of Tombolo” is love story inspired by the tales told by a native of Auburn, a veteran of the Second World War. After the war, John Schillace published The Tragic Forest; Tales of the Forest of Tombolo. The small, beautiful work sold only a few copies and John himself is now long gone. My version of those stories is both a tribute to his tales and a work of imagination.

Now available in new and improved formats on Kindle for $2.99 and as a paperback for $9.95.

James Monroe High School in the Bronx

 I met John at James Monroe High School near the end of his career as an English teacher, a great story teller but a poor teacher by the arbitrary standards of the 1970s. More than one principal at Monroe High School had made an effort to fire him, but he fended them all off with repeated promises of retirement.

 High school English teachers spend their lives immersed in works of literature, and second only to complaining about the administration or the students, their favorite topics of conversation are the great writers, from Shakespeare to Salinger. This is why I was so surprised that I knew John for years before he happened to mention his friendship with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, and how he came to know Ezra Pound.

Black GI's in Italy, 1944

None of those big names mattered to the character I have called John Squillace. The story that I imagine him telling me is not about literature but about love, an all-consuming love for the woman he met in Italy during the closing days of the war. Michelina Colonna was herself the mother of one of the Beat poets, but she had abandoned her son as an infant and fled from an abusive husband back to Italy in the early 1930s. By the time John met her, he had deserted from the American army after witnessing a massacre and ended up with a group of renegades and deserters inhabiting a tract of wasteland near Pisa, the forest of Tombolo. The band consisted mostly of Black GI's who had deserted in the face of the overwhelming prejudice they faced in their own army. A number of Italian women, including Michelina, had joined them in the marshes and woods along the coast between Pisa and Livorno, and there was also a small camp of German soldiers left behind when their forces retreated northward. Together, this collection of outcasts survived as thieves and middle men in the thriving black market. When the outlaw camp was finally broken up by a raid led by American MPs and the local carabinieri, the story was front page news throughout Italy. (A 1948 film by Federico Fellini, "Senza Pieta," drew on these events at Tombolo in its depiction of the love between a Black American deserter and an Italian prostitute.)

Ezra Pound

At the same time, the American poet Ezra Pound was arrested for treason, having spent the war making broadcasts for Fascist Italy, and imprisoned under harsh circumstances at a detention center near Pisa. This is where John first met him, and as far as he was concerned, the poet's incoherent and deeply anti-Semitic ranting marked him as no more than an old madman. “Just plain nuts is how I saw him,” is what John said. Then a line of poetry emerged from the endless and vile monologue, words that brought to John's mind the woman he thought he had lost forever: “What thou lovest well remains, all the rest is dross.” Against orders, he spoke to the disgraced poet and came to know him as he was composing the “Pisan Cantos,” considered by many scholars as the best section of Pound's largely obscure grand opus.

An English teacher might be inclined to quote Shakespeare that “the course of true love never doth run smooth,” and that of Michelina and John certainly did not. He was sent to the Pacific, and then back home, and it was many years before he could afford to go back to Italy to find his lost love. Returning to the United States together, they searched in vain for the son she had abandoned. It was only after becoming friendly with a young Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and their fellow Beats that they found her son.

Allen Ginsberg in the early 1950s

 Jack Kerouac
It was when he told me about Michelina's son that I had to question John's story. He said that the boy's name was Gregory Corso, a protege of Allen's who became well known in the world of American poetry and died in 2001. The details John provided certainly correspond with Corso's life except when it came to the eventual reunion of mother and son. I cannot account for the discrepancy other than to think that the memory of Michelina was too painful for John to be completely honest about how their love ended.

Gregory Corso

I cannot provide any evidence for the accuracy of John's account of Pound at Pisa, or later at St. Elizabeth's mental hospital, but neither does anything he said contradict the historical record. His accounts of conversations with Allen and Jack Kerouac at the West End Bar, and at William S. Burrough's apartment in Greenwich Village, also correspond to what many others have reported of those days. The exception might be the quotations from Allen's “Howl” and Jack's “On the Road,” which literary researchers do not believe were written as early as John claims to have heard them. Perhaps both writers were already working on versions of those major works earlier than is generally believed.

Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs in the 60s

The prototype for John Squillace, the John I knew, was a man who overcame many of the limits of his early life. A high school dropout and a less than heroic soldier, he became a man capable of great love.

Seventy years after the events in this story, the swamps and woods of Tombolo are now an Italian nature preserve, still home perhaps to the ghosts of Caesar, Buffalo, Washington, Fritz, Concetta, Lucilla, Luigi, Michelina and John.

Excerpt from the novel: A scene in William S. Burroughs' apartment near Washington Square around 1951. Gregory Nunzio Corso has no idea that he is talking to the mother who abandoned him as an infant.

     When the hashish pipe made its rounds, I took a puff just to be sociable but she declined. I must have fallen asleep on the couch because when I came to, I saw Nunzio and Michelina sitting on the floor chattering away.
     “My old man is dead to me, the bastard,” he was saying. “He dumped me in a bunch of foster homes and only took me back in '41. He thought that if he had a kid living with him, they wouldn't draft him, but they did.”
     “Oh, poor boy. Who took care of you then?” she was leaning toward him, and I could see she was fighting hard not to throw her arms around him.
     “I was on my own. Tito at the Vesuvio bakery would give me bread every morning and the guys with the fruit carts gave me apples or oranges, and that kept me going. I went to school, as if nothing had happened. I got pretty good grades, too. The nuns loved me. But before long, the landlord kicked me out of the apartment. So, I slept on the subways and kept going to school. I became an altar boy just so I could sneak into the church at night and sleep there when it got cold.”
     I could see how his story was tearing Michelina apart, but he was so caught up in it that he didn't notice the effect he was having on her. Kids are like that, of course. Their own life is the biggest deal ever.
     “I'd never stolen anything at that point, and I only got into trouble when a man asked me to deliver a toaster for him. Somebody offered to buy it off me, and I took the deal because my clothes were so ragged they were falling off me. I bought myself a nice white shirt and a tie and went to see a movie. It was “The Song of Bernadette,” about the Blessed Mother appearing to a girl in France. Do you know that movie? You see, I was looking for a miracle too. I wanted to find my mother.”
     Michelina shook her head, and he continued without noticing her tears. She wiped them away as best she could.
      “The cops were waiting outside the theater and nabbed me for petty larceny. I was a thirteen year old kid, a good kid, but they threw me in the Tombs. I was in a cell with a maniac, a man who had killed his wife with a screw driver. I had nobody to put up the fifty bucks bail so I was locked away for two weeks with that nut, thinking every night would be my last. Finally, my old man's mother showed up but I couldn't take living with her, she was too quick with her hands, so I went back to sleeping on the subway. It must have been in the winter of '44 I started to sneak back into the school and sleep there. When the priest caught me, he blamed me for a string of thefts I never did and it was back to the Tombs. This time I was in such a panic I ended up in the psych ward at Bellevue.”
     “Your mother...I..” Michelina almost told him then and there that she was his mother, but he didn't catch on.
     “Yeah, by then I'd accepted that my mother was dead like my old man said she was. I was growing up and interested in girls. That's what got me into real trouble. I asked this girl out and since I needed decent clothes, I broke into a tailor shop on Orchard Street. The suit was too big for me but I put it on anyway and headed for the corner where I was going to meet the girl. We were keeping our date a secret from her parents because they thought I was a bum. Anyway, I didn't get three blocks before the cops grabbed me. This time, it was no more youthful offender status. With two priors, they gave me a three year sentence to Dannamora. You ever hear of it?”

“In the Forest of Tombolo” is available on Kindle for $2.99 and as a paperback for $9.95.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Sir William Johnson, The Iroquois, And The Catholic Highlanders – Champion Or Exploiter Of The Oppressed?

This post is by guest writer Helen Gaines.

There are a great many names which stand out in the history of upstate New York, all of which are worthy of considerable exploration. One of these is Sir William Johnson. An ambitious, grandiose, and eccentric man of ambivalent morals, he has made his mark not only on history but within popular culture. In 1993, he was played by Pierce Brosnan in the movie ‘The Broken Chain’, as a foil for the Iroquois heroes. He also features as a villain in the ‘Assassin’s Creed’ video game series [1]. During his time, he was considered a war hero by the British, and evidently (at least until his ambitions got the better of him) held in high esteem by the Iroquois. He also delighted the public with tales of his impetuously eccentric behavior – one account has him expressing his disapproval of another officer’s conduct by stripping naked and parading in front of him [2]. He was most famed, however, for his close relations with the Iroquois, and his prominent role in the settlement of many Catholic Scots families within upstate New York. However, whether he promoted these groups from pure motives or for exploitative ones remains a moot point…

Johnson And The Iroquois

Rather like T.E. Lawrence (‘Lawrence Of Arabia’) a couple of centuries later, Johnson has been viewed as the kind of semi-mythical colonial-native which the West adores. Tales about him are cut from the same cloth as the ‘Tarzan’ stories (Tarzan, of course, being a member of the English aristocracy) and ‘Dances With Wolves’ – tales in which the white man embeds himself in a ‘savage’ culture, excels at the ways of the natives even better then they themselves do, and ultimately saves the day. Plenty of stories about William Johnson have an uncomfortable tinge of the eternally popular ‘White Savior’ motif [3]. However, it cannot be denied that his conduct with the Iroquois nations, particularly his closest nation, the Mohawk, differed considerably to many approaches of the time. He made a point of learning their customs and ways of doing business, and was deemed useful enough to the Mohawk to be appointed an honorary sachem or civil chief. The Mohawk named him Warraghiyagey which, roughly translated, means ‘Man who accomplishes great things’. He was always careful to deal with the Mohawk according to the customs they preferred, and by all accounts his diplomatic dealings with them were faultless – so much so that he was appointed the British military and diplomatic embassy to them. Indeed, after he left the role, the Mohawk insisted that a faltering agreement with the British would only be upheld if Johnson were to be reinstated [4]. He also included Iroquois women in his numerous affairs.

 Sympathy For The Oppressed?

All of this would seem to paint a picture of a man more enlightened than others of his time, who respected the native way of life and acknowledged a certain indigenous sovereignty. Some have seen him as a kind of kindred spirit of the Iroquois – claiming that his background as a member of an ‘oppressed minority’ may have led him to sympathise with their plight. Notably, later in life he made a point of extending land to Catholic families in Scotland who were losing their land to sheep-farmers in much the same way that the Iroquois were losing their nation to Europeans. Johnson grew up as a member of the Anglo-Irish gentry – not a particularly oppressed group, until the caveat of their Roman Catholicism is taken into account. Roman Catholicism was a powerful force for those families which held it – the Catholic doctrine of forgiveness in particular providing a valuable kind of psychological security [5] denied to the increasingly self-punishing brand of American Protestantism.  At the time, Catholic powers had been making periodic attempts to take the throne of Britain and reinstate Catholicism to the place as National Religion that it had lost some two centuries beforehand. Johnson’s family had even sympathised with the latest attempt – the Jacobite Rebellion. As a consequence, to be Catholic was to be hated, derided, and denied opportunity within Britain. Johnson converted to Protestantism in order to advance his career – but it has been suggested that he retained his Catholic sympathies, and exercised them in his dealings with the Iroquois and the Catholic Highlanders. Whether or not this was true, only the man himself knew. He was vociferous in his defence of the Anglican church [6] against French Catholic attempts to build a place of worship in his town, but this may have had more to do with anti-French sentiment than with religious conviction.

Crafty Exploitation?

But was Johnson really a fair and rational sympathiser with the plight of oppressed peoples? Or was he rather more self-serving than that? It must be remembered that Johnson first came to an acquaintance with Iroquois culture in the pursuance of saleable resources like furs – resources which would ultimately make him rich. This pattern of dealing with the Iroquois only when he wanted something from them followed throughout his life. His main efforts involved persuading them to fight for the British – which he did with gusto and great success. Yet he also did so with notable grandiosity, effectively trying to assert sole control over Iroquois foreign affairs. After the war, his more dubious colors began to show through. Already a very wealthy man, he used his wheedling skills and royally-appointed position to charm, cajole, and threaten the Iroquois out of vast tracts of land. He subsequently became one of the largest landholders in the country. In this, many historians have pointed out that he acted no differently to any other man of his age [7] – but it is curious that a man painted as one so in touch with the Iroquois and thus knowledgeable of the spiritual value of the land they used should appropriate it for his own use in this manner. He even disobeyed the rules of an official Royal Proclamation which sought to restrict the amount of land taken from native groups – and pushed the boundaries of the ‘no settlement zone’ 400 miles west, enabling him and like-minded settlers to grab much more land than even the British Crown approved of. All of this speaks of a man who charmed the Iroquois more for his own sake rather than for theirs. Which brings us to the matter of the Catholic Highlanders.

Tribal Diplomacy

The tale of the Catholic Highlanders can be told in two ways: 1) William Johnson saw that Catholics and Jacobins such as his own family were suffering from shameful oppression in their native land, and invited them over to America, where he provided them with land and a living. 2) William Johnson saw a group of desperate people with tribal leanings he knew he could exploit, and imported them as a tame workforce over which he could lord it. It is doubtful that even the Catholic Highlanders themselves could have told you the truth of the matter. Certainly Johnson invited over the disparate Scots, and certainly he leased them land. He also helped them to improve their land and their stock. But many historians believe that he chose this group of people not because of any cultural sympathy, but because they would be isolated culturally and linguistically from all others surrounding them in America (thus making them more reliant upon him), and because they were already inured with a Georgian-British-style biddable nature towards feudal lords [8]. He became very rich off the rent they paid him, and his practice of using African slaves indicates that he was not averse to using human labor in an exploitative manner.

A Cultural Chameleon

Just as he did with the Iroquois, Johnson used the cultural characteristics of the Scots Highlanders to get what he wanted. He pandered to their traditions, throwing ceilidhs and banquets with one hand and raising the rent with the other. What he seemed to have been very good at was a cultural-chameleon act. He managed to identify and isolate groups which were in need of help, and convince them by mimicking their own cultures that he could help them. He helped himself greatly in so doing. However, whatever the motive, the end result was the same: the Iroquois got a measure of respect under Johnson’s tenure as ambassador to them – much more than they had enjoyed before or would enjoy after in their dealings with Europeans. The Catholic Highlanders got a place to live, and a way in which to preserve their language and culture. Unfortunately, after Johnson’s death, the situation for both groups worsened. Sir William’s son, John Johnson, had none of the diplomatic skill of his father. He was arrogant, and lordly – and ill-suited for warfare. He exhorted the Catholic Highlanders to arm themselves for the loyalist cause during the American Revolution, but his command proved disastrous. Sir John’s conduct during the war meant that the region became highly suspect to the Patriots, and most of the Highland families fled piecemeal to Canada over the course of the War and its immediate aftermath (as did Sir John). As for the Iroquois – well, their diminished state today demonstrates how they fared after the death of William Johnson.

[1] Ubisoft, Assassin’s Creed

[3] David Sirota, “Oscar loves a white savior” , Salon, 2013

[4] Timothy J Shannon, “Iroquois Diplomacy on the Early American Frontier”, penguin Books, Jun 2009

[5] Arthur P Ciaramicoli, “The Heart Of Forgiveness”,, Mar 2015

[6] Alan Taylor, “The Collaborator”, New Republic, Sept 2006

[7] Julian Gwyn, “Johnson, Sir William”, Dictionary Of Canadian Biography

[8] J.P MacLean, “Settlements of Scotch Highlanders in America”, First pub; Royal Society, 1900. Retrieved Electric Scotland 2015

Johnson Hall in Johnstown is a New York State Historic Site and Sir William's earlier home, known as Old Fort Johnson in Amsterdam NY is a National Historic Site. Both are well worth visiting. If you are touring the area, also be sure to stop at Fort Klock in nearby St. Johnsville. A little farther west, the old Indian Castle Church near Little Falls is all that remains of the Mohawk village where Sir William's beloved Molly Brant and her brother, the war chief Joseph Brant, lived. Nearby is the Herkimer Home, the well preserved residence of General Nicholas Herkimer who was fatally wounded while fighting the British and Iroquois led by Sir John Johnson at the battle of Oriskany.