Welcome to Potomac Place, a serene environment where I have lived for many years. Countless birds, mischievous squirrels, ever-present deer, and other critters abound here just twelve miles from the White House. It’s where I constantly read and occasionally write, when life doesn’t intervene.

I hope to provide you with a new story every few weeks. Read, enjoy, and comment if you chose.

As they say on the radio, “Stay Tuned.”


Acropolis, Athens, Greece.

POTOMAC PLACE

Ischia and Two Lovers I Knew

August 2, 2017

In the heat of August one often dreams of beautiful islands like Capri where the warm sun is tempered by a constant cool breeze off the Bay of Naples. The same can be said of the nearby island of Ischia, long considered the poor man’s Capri or the anti-Capri. Today, Ischia is still a place mainly for Italians from nearby Naples. Unlike Capri, Italian not English is the language you will hear on Ischia. And like Capri, Ischia I’m told can be a captivating place.

It was a recent article by Nathan Lump in Departures Magazine that rekindled memories of Ischia and my only trip there early in 1958.

My invitation for the trip was from Leslie “Les” Smallwood from Rockland, Maine, a fellow Second Class Petty Officer in the Naples office of the Naval Security Group. Les was infatuated with Maria Varella, a beautiful young Neapolitan, who worked in the Hotel Tricarico, where we resided. Les desperately wanted to date Maria, but in those days the Italian customs were far more stringent than they are today. A single woman could only date a man, whether or not he was Italian, in the presence of a chaperone, most of whom were close relatives dedicated to keeping the couple at arms-length. Holding hands was permissible at times depending on the chaperone, but kissing was out of the question. Courting was a long, tedious, draconian, and frustrating process for the couple.

Les and I had recently returned from temporary duty with the Royal Navy in Scarborough, England, monitoring the communications of some 200 NATO nation warships in Operation Strike Back, an exercise simulating a mock Soviet invasion of Norway. Les was a quiet and introspective person. While he had a light side, he was extremely dedicated, serious, and considerate in how he went about his job and things in general. When he approached me and asked me to do him a personal favor that weekend, I knew it had to be something important. Much to my surprise the favor was to act as one of the chaperones on his first officially sanctioned date with Maria. The flip side of being a chaperone is that my accompanying chaperone would be a female who I would meet when Les and I arrived at the ferry pier at Molo Beverello in the port area.

On the trolley from the Hotel Tricarico in the Bagnoli section of Naples, I asked Les what my fellow chaperone looked like. He didn’t have a clue. All he knew was that she was one of Maria’s many cousins. His only hope was that she was friendly. My only hope was that she was as attractive as Maria.

Les and I were on different watch sections. We monitored the Sixth Fleet’s radio communications in rotating eight hour shifts in a 40-hour period beginning with an eve watch from 4 to 12, a day watch the following morning from 8 to 4, and that night the mid watch from 12 to 8 the following morning. At the end of the mid watch you were off for 56 hours. I had just come off the mid watch and had yet to sleep. Les was on his full day off and was well rested and ready for our boat ride to Ischia and a hike through its hills down to its ancient fortification, Castello Aragonese. In contrast, I was ready for some sack time. But anything to help a friend, particularly Les and a beautiful young woman like Maria.

On the trolley that cold sunny morning, I plotted our strategy. Since I was tired, I would sack out on the ferry and once we arrived at Ischia, I would feign illness, sore feet, or find some other reason to delay leaving the boat and the harbor long enough to give Les and Maria a good head start so that they could wander off on their own and do whatever they were so inclined to do. When we arrived at the pier there was the beautiful Maria smiling as if she had won the lottery, and standing next to her was a young woman who resembled Danny DeVito’s mother in the movie, “Throw Mamma from the Train.” For the rest of the story I’ll refer to her as the cousin.

After we exchanged greetings, Les explained that I had worked all night. Maria smiled warmly and thanked me for coming. I told them that I would probably sleep on the boat and not to be concerned during the two-hour ferry ride. In due time, I was shaken awake by the cousin when we arrived at Ischia. I had stretched out in a fetal position on the padded bench seat. She stood looking down at me with her arms akimbo. As I slowly roused myself she impatiently moved her arms up and down. “Andiamo! Andiamo! Subito!” (Let’s go! Let’s go! Immediately!) I shook my head and winced to clear it and to get my bearings. “Aspetti,” (wait) I said. I stood up and walked a few groggy steps and pointed to a sign, “Per favore, devo andare al bagno,” (Please, I have to go to the bathroom) which I honestly did. I took my time and rinsed the sleep from my face and found myself to be the last person on the boat. As I left the ferry I spied Les and Maria far up the hill ahead of the crowd, while the cousin was having a fit as she watched the young lovers fade from view. As I approached her, my smile was met by her shrill bark. Over and over she exclaimed. “Finiscilla con queste sciocchezze,” (Stop this nonsense) and “Le stai facendo scappare,” (You’re letting them get away).

I smiled and nodded, “Si, si” (Yes, yes.) I responded and hunched my shoulders as an Italian would. Her eyes narrowed and she shook her head, “Cattiva persona,” (bad person) she said a few times as I stood my ground. The Italians lingering near the ferry landing turned their heads away to hide their laughter. I hunched my shoulders again and opened my hands and said, “Nessun problema” (no problem).

She grabbed my hand and pulled me along up the hill. In an attempt to slow her down, I dragged my feet like a reluctant two-year old as my fellow ferry riders looked on in amusement. As I reluctantly climbed the hill she continually lashed out at me with invectives that went well beyond my limited knowledge of Italian, and in the process she entertained the curious bystanders.

One of my hopes was that the onlookers did not assume that the cousin and I were an item, while the other was that Les and Maria had found a place to be alone. After about a half hour with the cousin, I’d had enough. When we came upon a bench I sat down and refused to move. “Sono innamorati. Lasciarli soli,” (They’re in love. Let them alone) I said in protest. Her head shaking back and forth, she stamped her feet, “Questo č il problema,” (That’s the problem) she said before she shook her fist at me and ran up the path looking for her charges. I fell asleep on the bench and was awakened a few hours later when Maria and Les returned with a smiling cousin.

While it was a quiet ferry ride back to Naples that afternoon, Maria smiled at me warmly in appreciation for my efforts. A few months later, I left Naples for my discharge at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Les and Maria were married later that year and remained so for 56 years before her passing. They had lived a wonderful life through his career in the Navy and at Northrop Grumman. Along the way they nutured and raised a beautiful extended family of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

Whenever I read about or hear someone mention Ischia I only remember Maria’s warm smile and lucky Les’ big grin.



Swimming Success at the National Senior Games

July 14, 2017

My apologies nor not having posted any stories in recent months, but I’ve been busy completing a play and a novella, along with intensive early morning swim training for the National Senior Games. Now that I've completed those tasks, I share with you a story about my swimming success. I’ll let you know about the play and the novella in the months to come.

Swimming Success at the National Senior Games

On an early June Sunday morning at National Airport I was thrown together with about 20 seniors ranging from their mid-50s to late 80s. These volley ball, swimming, tennis, pickle ball, track & field, and basketball competitors were easy to identify since we were all decked out in hats, shirts and in some cases pins indicating we were old jocks bound for Birmingham, Alabama, and the 30th Annual National Senior Games. I had previously participated in the 1999 games in Orlando, Florida, representing Maryland on its basketball team. This time, I was going as a swimmer having medaled and qualified in the Maryland Senior Olympic Games in the 50, 100, and 200 yard freestyle and backstroke events. (more…)

Jimmy Breslin

March 21, 2017

Last week, I ventured back to the old country, New York City, to join my sister, Carol Gillen Costello, a Knight of Saint Patrick, the venerable organization responsible for the annual parade in the saint’s honor, at its annual and lavish all-day luncheon at the Pierre Hotel on Fifth Avenue.

I was surrounded by the elite of New York Irish strivers who made their way to success. It was a proud group, some again back in diapers, regaling in everything Ireland with a few lavishing praise about everything Trump and lamenting only that gays and those confused about their sexual identity were now allowed to march in their parade.

A few of us were there for the food and drink. Well, everyone was there for the food and the drink. Among the privileged few were some friends of old from the law and labor. One being a lawyer of many dimensions, including his ability to win what were thought to be hopeless cases. He recalled one such case that took an interesting turn from the outset. As he was unloading the document bags from a van outside the federal courthouse on the first day of the trial, a woman stopped and pointed to the red stone on his college ring. “Is that a St. John’s University ring?” she asked. He smiled, “Yes, mam, it is.” She smiled back, “That’s where I went to school.” As it turned out, she was juror number three in his case. The jury rendered a unanimous verdict in his favor.

It was the kind of story that a Queens’ notable, Jimmy Breslin, would tell in one his widely-read columns. Breslin died this week, but his words and that gritty Jamaica Avenue elevated train-like voice will live on in posterity. (more…)

What China?

December 5, 2016

The current alarm expressed by foreign policy experts with President Elect Donald Trump’s recent telephone discussion with Republic of China President Tsai Ing-wen, stirred old memories about the U.S.’s sensitive “One China” policy.

During the 1980 presidential campaign, I was tasked with the assignment to convey to Governor Ronald Reagan, then the presumptive Republican nominee, the U.S. cotton industry’s concerns about his criticism of the Peoples Republic of China, which was and remains a significant market for U.S. raw cotton.

The attached story, "That’s Something I Wasn’t Aware Of," (which appears here in part) was published in "Moments of Truth," my 2014 memoir of short stories, details my discussion with soon-to-be President Ronald Reagan about U.S. commercial activity with each nation.

My principals in the U.S. cotton industry were concerned Governor Ronald Reagan’s statements pertaining to The Peoples Republic of China. At this juncture in the campaign, Reagan was the presumptive nominee when the Reagan bandwagon rolled into Washington for meetings and receptions. Through Nancy Chotiner, a Republican National Committee official, a meeting was scheduled on April 9th, following a reception for Governor Reagan at the Madison Hotel.

Soon after Reagan spoke, Nancy Chotiner took me up to Reagan’s suite, where Reagan and his Campaign Chair, William Casey, were waiting. I had met the governor briefly in 1976 when he was on Capitol Hill and again in Washington at a 1977 reception.

I went over my talking points in silence as I rode up on the elevator with Nancy. Knowing that Reagan was always relaxed and cordial, I, too, was relaxed, and that’s how it played out.

Nancy introduced me to Governor Reagan and Bill Casey. I had talked briefly to Reagan as he made the rounds at the reception downstairs. “Neal is a wonderful name. Did you know that’s my brother’s name?”

“No, sir, I didn’t.”

“Now tell me, how can I be of help?”

I smiled, “Governor, I represent the U.S. cotton merchants. We export U.S. cotton to many countries around the world. A good portion of what has been exported in the last few years is grown in California.”

“Cotton in California – I knew we grew some. Do we grow that much?

“It’s the highest-valued crop produced in California, Governor.”

Reagan turned and looked at Casey. “You know that’s something I wasn’t aware of. I thought our biggest crops were grapes and vegetables.”

“They might be larger in volume produced, but the aggregate value of the California cotton crop exceeds that of the other crops.”

He paused. “That’s interesting. I guess it’s something I should have been aware of, but I left those details to my agriculture commissioner.” (more…)

The People Have Spoken

November 14, 2016

In writing this Blog, in my infrequent Facebook postings, and in my rare Twitter missives, I have focused on stories that hopefully my readers would enjoy. While I have not delved into partisan politics I have related personal political experiences. I will continue to avoid partisan statements or personal views in future postings. But given the concerns of many people expressing their views in emails to me and to others and from what I see in the media, I believe that each of us should accept the results of the process and hope for the best, trusting that our elected officials will act in our best interest.

In my last posting in late September, I related the story, “1972 Voting Standoff,” how my father and I resolved the conundrum of voting for either Nixon or McGovern. By agreement, reluctantly on his part, we choose neither.

This year, I did not view my choice as a difficult one, but as a registered Independent, I felt that I had no choice but to vote for Hillary Clinton, a highly qualified, but albeit flawed candidate. Donald Trump’s overall record as a person, his business shortcomings, and his demeanor, despite my long-time suffering from Clinton fatigue, left me no choice.

We are now learning that many chose to do what my father and I did in 1972. In addition to the 97.6 million registered voters, 43 percent of the eligible voters, who did not vote on November 8th, hundreds of thousands of voters, who, in casting their ballots, either did not choose a candidate for president, wrote in another candidate not on the ballot, or voted for a the Green Party or Libertarian Party candidate. Since Donald Trump won the key Rust-Belt states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan by a combined total of 112,000 votes, the indifference of many mattered.

While Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 2,864,978 votes -- 2.1 percent, Donald Trump was elected president with 306 electoral votes, 36 electoral votes more than the required 270, compared to Hillary Clinton's 232 electoral votes.

Doubt and division have clouded American’s skies this past week. Many Clinton voters cannot accept the outcome, and many more are surprised by the outcome, including Trump supporters, who did not expect to prevail.

In years gone by, when Consolidated Edison, the New York electrical power supplier, was tearing up the streets, as they seemingly always do, the wooden barricades around the chewed-up streets, bore the message, “Dig we must, we’ll clean up and move on.” That has always been the tradition in U.S. presidential elections. Yes, it’s a messy situation right now, but how soon we’ll clean up and move on is another question, the sooner, the better for all of us.

The leaders of both parties are obligated to call for unity. Those who are disappointed have to learn from their loss and move on with their lives as best they can; and, those who are elated have to stop gloating, get down to business, and most importantly, understand that they must govern with the best interest of all in mind.

The Voters Choice

September 23, 2016

The polling data tells us that Americans are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to choosing who they will vote for in the coming presidential election. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have record high negatives in the view of potential voters, some saying it’s a choice between the devil you know and the devil you don’t. Those who are yet to make a choice will no doubt do so in the hours before they vote. My father and I dealt with a similar situation in the 1972 presidential election when the choice was between Richard Nixon and George McGovern. I explain how we resolved that conundrum in "1972 Voting Standoff," a story from my 2014 book, "Moments of Truth."


1972 Voting Standoff

In November 1972, though a Maryland resident for almost a year, I still considered New York my official domicile and continued to vote there, and would until the fall of 1976.

Mary-Margaret and I spent a good deal of time in France in the summer of 1972, as we did each summer before children entered the picture. Though we were far from U.S. politics, the Nixon-McGovern race was the talk of Europe. Europeans constantly asked why the Democrats had nominated a Socialist like Senator George McGovern (D-SD). Mind you, these questions were coming from European Socialists.

We considered ourselves liberal Democrats at the time. While we felt a little uneasy about McGovern, our uneasy feelings about Nixon were off the charts. The guy had obvious character flaws that were clearly visible in my view. There came a point in the 1960 campaign rhetoric when the question was raised, “Would you buy a used car from this man?” I wasn’t sure what was missing, but, as the Watergate tapes would soon reveal, there was a lot missing.

Nixon had Daniel Patrick Moynihan, later to serve with distinction as a Democratic senator from New York, in charge of domestic policy in the White House. As a result, Nixon’s record on domestic issues was credible. His visit to China, however, was a significant foreign policy achievement that had eclipsed everything, including the United States being mired in Vietnam. Simply put, Nixon’s political standing at the time was better than McGovern’s. But he was still Nixon, so we were plenty wary.

A few weeks after the Watergate break-in, and just before we left for France, Don Zeifang, a former housemate from Georgetown Law School, hosted a Fourth of July party at his stellar Arlington duplex apartment overlooking the Iwo Jima Memorial. Pat Buchanan, a Nixon staffer, was holding court during the party and responding to questions about the Watergate break-in. Pat, like many other White House staffers, had no prior knowledge of the break-in, but was sharing speculation he had heard from reporters covering the White House that it was possibly a Howard Hughes or Drew Pearson operation. Hughes was an eccentric billionaire holed up in a Las Vegas penthouse who wanted to stop the atom bomb testing in the Nevada desert, and Pearson was a feared Washington columnist with an uncanny ability to break sensational stories. What either of them could be looking for at the offices of the Democratic National Committee was beyond my imagination.

Mary-Margaret and I left for France unaware, like everyone else, of who was behind the break-in that would undo Nixon’s presidency within two years.

Upon our return from Europe, bit by bit, news items appeared suggesting the break-in was politically motivated. McGovern began pointing his finger at the White House, but nothing had surfaced implicating either the Republican campaign operation or the White House. That’s the way things stood on Election Day, when I found myself getting ready to vote with my father.

Dad was very proud of his son the lawyer and his daughter-in-law the lawyer. He was happy about my presence that day and anxious to show me off to his friends. Voting in New York was always a fun day for me. I got to see old friends along with the older people in the
neighborhood who had watched me grow up and who were pleasantly surprised that I was practicing the law and not being pursued by it.

The bars being closed while the polls were open, the neighborhood men set out for the Jackson Social & Field Club on Northern Boulevard, where Mulligan stew simmered all day, a roast pig sat on the bar to pick at, and the beer, rye whiskey, and scotch flowed freely. Everyone had a great time, and surprisingly little politics was discussed. The men were more interested in what the Giants and Jets were doing in November, discussing the recently concluded baseball World Series, their jobs and families. Since it was a Democratic neighborhood with heavy union membership, the people usually voted a straight ticket.

Late that morning, as we walked down the hill on 31st Avenue toward our polling place at P.S. 151, Dad was uncharacteristically quiet. In fact he was mute. I sensed that something was wrong. That he was fighting inwardly about going against his long-held union beliefs. At the bottom of the hill I stopped.

“What’s wrong, son?”

“I can see it in your body language, Dad. You’re going to vote for Nixon.”

He looked skyward as he pursed his lips. He chuckled. “God will forgive me.”

“But I won’t.”

“Are you going to vote for that commie, McGovern?” I should note that Dad and many from my Woodside neighborhood were still ardent supporters of the late Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI). In their view, anyone who disagreed with them was a commie.

“Well, I haven’t made up my mind. I really came up to vote for Jim Delaney (our Congressman).”

We stood there in silence both shaking our heads back and forth until I broke the ice. “I’ll agree not to vote for McGovern if you’ll agree not to vote for Nixon.”

“How do I know that you’ll keep your word?” he asked.

“We’ll go into the voting booth together.”

“Can we do that?”

“We can try.” I held out my hand to shake on it. “Deal?”

He smiled. “Deal.” We shook hands and walked to P.S. 151. (more…)

Helen Delich Bentley

August 10, 2016

Helen Delich Bentley died last week at the age of 92. She was a unique individual, tough, kind, profane, funny, and highly intelligent. She was a quick study on every subject she covered as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun. She became an expert on the operations of the Port of Baltimore, its dock and warehouse workers, the trucking operations, the shipping lines, and the powerful labor unions representing those servicing the port, which she covered for almost 25 years before her appointment by President Richard Nixon as Chairman of the Federal Maritime Commission (FMC). She served in that capacity for six years and later in the U.S. Congress for ten years, resigning to run for governor of Maryland only to lose in the Republican primary. (more…)

Finding Your Way as the Vice Presidential Nominee

July 30, 2016

The initial days of a national campaign are sometimes awkward for the candidates and their staffs as they set out to convince a nation why it should support their candidacy and vote for them on Election Day. Planning travel and events, coordinating the campaign message, organizing supporters, fundraising, and dealing with unforeseen challenges and others issues are the daily scenario. I have been involved in two national campaigns and here I share one experience of the learning process in the days following the party’s national convention.


“How Do I Contact the Vice President?”

In early September, less than two weeks after the tumultuous 1968 Democratic Convention, I was asked the question, “How do I contact the Vice President?” by Senator Edmund S. Muskie (D-ME) the vice presidential running mate of U.S. Vice President Hubert Humphrey. (more…)

Summer Camp

July 12, 2016

If you happen to be in Grand Central Station on a Friday or Saturday morning this summer you might witness an old ritual, young children gathering with their parents as the children set out on the train for what to most of them will be a life altering experience -- separation from their parents to participate in adventures in the woods, on the water, and on the playing fields or courts where they will make new friends, experience new challenges, test their skills, and learn to fend for themselves.

I recall that experience in Northwest to Huguenot, a short story recently published in the Delmarva Review (Vol. 8, 2015). (more…)

Trumping a Trump

June 12, 2016

When Donald Trump was a teenager in 1962, a student at New York Military Academy, I had just finished my first year of law school at Georgetown and returned to New York City for the summer and a job in construction through my father’s union, Local 15 of the International Union of Operating Engineers. Little did I realize that I would soon find myself working for Donald's father, Fred Trump. (more…)

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