June 11th marks a day in my history that I will never forget. It is my little Italian grandmother’s birthday. If she’d lived, she would be 82 today. Unfortunately, we lost her at the young age of 56 – way too soon. So, today I will remember that sweet woman who let me help cook in her kitchen, and watched the Sound of Music, the Wizard of Oz, Princess Diana’s wedding, and news stories about bears eating campers with me. A saintly soul, who once told me that although the little girl who lived around the corner was indeed an evil bitch, it was not in my best interest to beat the crap out of her for breaking the personalized license plate that my dad had given to me for my bike. She taught me to be the better person – at least on paper. There are other ways of getting back at people, she told me that hot summer day when I was ten. Indeed there are. I miss my grandma.
In addition to being my grandmother’s birthday, it is also the day the world lost a great entertainer. On June 11, 1979, John Wayne succumbed to terminal stomach cancer years after having successfully battled lung cancer. Now you may be thinking to yourself that this is an odd thing for me to be writing about, after all, I was only a few days shy of turning seven when John Wayne passed away. I shouldn’t remember it, but I do. I
remember it because it was the first time in my young life that I could recall seeing my father speechless. He sat at my grandmother’s cracked formica table, the newspaper spread out before him, in total and complete, jaw dropping shock. His idol since childhood was dead. I, of course, had no idea who this man was pictured in full color across an entire section of the newspaper. I didn’t recognize him, never heard his name before that day. But my father was visibly upset by this man’s passing. That small moment from my childhood would leave a deep imprint on my impressionable mind.
For years to come, I would be reminded of his reaction on many a Saturday afternoon when I sat and watched a John Wayne movie with my dad. There was Fort Apache, The Fighting Kentuckians, Sands of Iwo Jima, Rio Grande, Hondo, The Searchers, Rio Bravo, The Horse Soldiers (one of my favorites), The Alamo (which I always had a hard time watching but was one of my dad’s favorites), The Man who Shot Liberty Valance (this one introduced me to the music of Gene Pitney, although the song is not used in the film), North to Alaska (I can hear Johnny Horton signing in my head now), Hatari! (my all-time favorite), Donovan’s Reef, McLintock!, Circus World (never liked this one), The Sons of Katie Elder, El Dorado, True Grit, The Undefeated, Rio Lobo, Big Jake, The Cowboys, The Train Robbers, Rooster Cogburn and the Shootist. Of course, this is a mere drop in the bucket of John Wayne’s entire body of work, but these are the ones that were my dad’s favorite and therefore, they are what we watched most often. I miss my dad.
So today, June 11, 2011, I raise a glass and toast my grandmother on her would-be 82nd birthday and pay tribute to the man, the Duke, who was my father’s hero on the 32nd anniversary of his passing. Salute.