Saturday, March 01, 2014


My godfather was my Uncle Ray, my Mom's oldest brother. For those of you not familiar with the East Coast Catholic tradition, your godfather promises at your baptism to be there for you if anything happens to your father. He made that vow in earnest at my baptism at Sacred Heart Church in Emsworth, PA.

Tomorrow is my birthday, and it got me thinking about how every year on my birthday without fail Uncle Ray gave me the coolest gifts. When I was little and in a cowboy phase, I got a Western outfit and cap guns. Uncle Ray and I loved watching the western show "Gunsmoke" and John Wayne movies. We played a game called "The Great Round-up." I'd pretend to be on a horse rounding up Hereford cattle.

My next birthday, he got me a Roberto Clemente autographed baseball mitt. He took me to Pirate baseball games as a kid and I cleaned out his wallet ordering almost every concession from the vendors that passed by (except the Iron City beer, that was for Uncle Ray.) The next year, he gave me a Bobby Orr street hockey stick. I made a goal out of discarded wood. We played street hockey until dark.

The following year, my Dad's illness required a hospitalization and things were topsy-turvy at home. Uncle Ray and his wife, (my Aunt Anna Mae) came to live with us temporarily. They helped take care of me and my siblings until my father got out of the hospital. Aunt Anna Mae wasn't able to have children of her own, so stepping in to take care of 4 boys was quite a challenge for them. Legendary battle of wills ensued that looking back were quite funny. As a kid, I always wished I could give something back to him but I wasn't sure if I ever could.

Uncle Ray worked in the Pittsburgh steel mills and was devastated when the unions lost their strength and the jobs went overseas. He finished his life as an underpaid security guard and never got the steel mill senior benefits he worked for all those years.

He got a horrible cancer and suffered a protracted battle with pain, forcing him to quit working. In his later months, I went to visit him when I could. I was pretty busy, our kids were little, and I hosted a daily program "Richard Rossi Live." (a radio show during evening drive on WPIT-FM, on a a 5,000 watt radio station.)

"That witch has got to go," Ray yelled. He was complaining about his home care nurse. "She's rough, brutal. Mean as they come," he said.

"How so?" I asked.

"There's two types of nurses," he said. "Sweet, pretty ones and then the ones that are like drill sergeants ordering you around. She's the drill sergeant kind.

"So sorry, Uncle Ray. Maybe we need to talk with her."

"You can't reason with a battle ax like her. No matter what we say, she won't change."

"I'll talk to you tomorrow, I'm running late I need to be on-air." I left him to do my radio show from Pittsburgh's Gateway Towers.

The following day, when I went to visit Uncle Ray, he had a smile through his pain. "Have I got something to tell you," he said.

"I'm all ears."

"Remember my mean nurse? Well, she saw you leaving the other day and asked who you were. I told her you were my nephew and that you were leaving to do your radio show. 'What radio show?' she says. 'Richard Rossi Live,' I tell her. 'Oh my god, I love that show,' she says, 'He's your nephew? I had no idea. i listen every night to him.'"

"Really? What a coincidence," I said.

Uncle Ray laughs. "Oh boy, have you done me a favor. I got the royal treatment today. And now she's nice, honey this, and sweetie that. Hell, if I would've known that, I would've told her a helluva lot earlier you were my nephew." He laughed, a rich sonorous laugh through his final agony.

I smiled, grateful I finally gave him something back, even if it was just better treatment from his last caretaker.

Uncle Ray's smile morphed into a more sober expression. "I'm going to the last roundup in the sky soon," he said. "You know what that means, partner."

"Yes, I do," I said.

We said nothing more. He didn't like too many words about feelings and personal pain. He was like his hero John Wayne in that way. In World War 2, his job as a soldier was to gather up the American corpses in body-bags. His mother, my maternal grandmother, said he left for Germany a boy and came back different, a damaged man.

Once during the war, he was to board a combat plane and when the flight was delayed, he went to get a quick beer, missing the plane. The plane was shot down and the beer saved his life. But this time there was no reprieve.

The cancer monster killed Uncle Ray.

He was there every March 2nd for me, and somehow always knew what the little boy inside me wanted for a present. He fulfilled his vows before God at my baptism. He's gone now, so there won't be any baseball gloves, or cap guns, or hockey sticks tomorrow, but at least my crazy life and little radio show brought him one last laugh before his Great Round-up.