By DAN VALENTI
Funeral services for Peter Thomas Valenti McGuire will be Monday, June 24, 10 a.m. at St. Charles Church. Burial will follow in St. Joseph’s Cemetery. Calling hours will be Sunday, 4 to 7 p.m. at Dery Funeral Home, 54 Bradford St., Pittsfield. I will be there, still shaken, no doubt, but proud to stand steady for my brother. You are welcome to any and all of it. This being Friday, I thought I would conclude the tribute to my beloved brother with a remembrance. Writing about him has been my way of dealing with, accepting, and walking straight through what has been a difficult and traumatic experience. I hope something of what I have written conveys who my oldest brother was and what he meant to me and his loved ones.
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(FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, JUNE 21, 2013) — I cannot boil what my brother Peter means to me in the usual manner. I cannot contain the span of his life within a column or even a book. So many memories flood the senses, most of them good ones. Let me then exemplify his life with an incident that, though small at the time, ended up helping in my formation as a “crusader,” someone who always saw the need to help the Little Guy, and downtrodden, and underdogs, especially those who cannot fight for themselves.
Let me then share with you on summer’s first day what is perhaps my fondest, most meaningful memory, one that sums up Peter Thomas Valenti McGuire.
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We are in the middle of a pickup baseball game on the old softball field at Deming Park, a sunny day mid-morning just after the end of school. We are on the cusp of what would prove to be a glorious summer, 1959. I am, for once, not the “little guy,” as I am when I’m hanging around with my older brothers Mike and Pete. We’ve mustered up enough guys for five on a side, closed off right field, and someone has brought a new baseball.
Back in the days of the sandlot, we never sniffed a new horsehide. Our hard balls were not alabaster but rather a form of dark, dysentery green, weighed down by dirt, mud, and alternating afternoons of baking sun and water wet. Often, long after they had shed their horsehide skins, we would wind the baseballs with black electrical tape to hold them together.
That’s why the object I most remember about this day was the ball. A kid got one for his birthday, and he brought it to the park to use in our pickup games. A white baseball: It made me feel like a major leaguer. Even now, I can still remember a certain sadness knowing that by the end of the day, the baseball would no longer be dazzling ivory. It would have begun by then its long march to an electrical tape dressing and then to its final unravelling.
It is yesterday, once more.
From the clubhouse entrance to Deming, he came sauntering in as he usually did at this time: mid-morning, his large girth temporarily satisfied by one mostly wolfed down breakfast. I never knew his real name, and I think he lived on Day Street. To us eight year olds, he loomed over us like a giant. This overweight kid had earned the nickname Tubalard due to his extra weight. Normally, we were inclined to overlook this feature in a kid, but Tubalard was the park bully. He preyed on the little guys. We prayed he wouldn’t come hulking out way. This day he did.
He had noticed the white ball.
“Hey, kid,” he yelled to the pitcher. “Lemme see.”
The kid on the mound hesitated.
“Toss that ball over here now, creep.”
The kid on the mound put the ball down on the hill then ran to the bench. I remember hoping that Mr. Leslie, the park cop, would show up, but he had the evening shift, after he got off his job at GE.
Tubalard, angry that he had to walk over, got to the mound, snatched the ball, sauntered to the bench, and slapped the kid in the face hard a couple times. He then reached down, grabbed a handful of dirt, and poured it down the front of the kids pants. None of us did anything. He walked away with the ball in his hand, laughing.
Fast forward to later that afternoon. The big guys — Mike, Pete, and their friends (guys like Bob Rivard, Keith “Beats Walking” Haven, Pat Clark, Paul Metallo, Pat Gloria, Jimmy Cuillo, Joey Del Gallo, Bruce Trapani et al) — were on the Babe Ruth diamond playing ball. Someone told Pete about what happened. He was playing his customary position, in left, after his idol, Ted Williams. Pete told the guys to halt the game. He spotted Tubalard by the clubhouse, hanging around by the men’s room entrance. That was one of his favorite spots from which to shake down and harass kids — could be for their pocket change, to push them around, or maybe steal a candy bar.
Pete made a bee-line over to the clubhouse and challenged him to a fight.
Word spread quickly, and in those days, the park was almost always packed with kids. There’s gonna be a fight. Pete had called the bully’s bluff. I’ll never forget the look on Tubalard’s face, one of consternation mixed with shock, with a touch of resignation around the corners of the mouth. I didn’t know it then, but looking back, I realize that the look betrayed an immature, petulant young man for the first time having to face the consequences of his actions.
I am back in the moment, those many years ago.
Tubalard wants to run away, but he can’t. First, he can’t run and Pete has the speed of Luis Aparacio. Second, street code wouldn’t allow it. Back then, the street, the sandlots, and the parks contained unwritten rules for boys, and one was never, ever back down from a fight. Don’t start looking for trouble, of course, but if it came your way, you better answer the call. It was far better to lose and get beat than to run away. Had the bully not responded to Pete’s challenge, he might as well have moved out of the neighborhood, donned sackcloth and ashes, and gone into permanent exile, maybe on the Island of Misfit Boys.
Take my hand. I can even now escort you to the exact spot in Deming Park where the fight happened. To me, it is a sacred spot, and I make a habit of visiting Deming and standing on that spot at least once a year. I consider it the equivalent of a spiritual pilgrimage. If you remember where the old Little League field used to be at Deming, picture the right field fence, near the corner. From the corner, walk about 15 paces south. There. You’re on hallowed ground.
A circle of screaming kids form a makeshift ring. Most yell out words of encouragement for Pete. Most fights began with names, pushing, shoving, and wrestling — feeling each other out. With this one, Pete comes in with fists flying, damn the preliminaries. The battle is as one-sided as a candy wrapper. After a couple minutes, Pete relents. He has drawn blood, which trickles out of the bully’s nostrils in thin, red ribbons. He gives Tubalard four directives:
(1) He is to bring the stolen baseball back.
(2) He is to buy another new ball and give it to our gang of kids (Mostly East Street-Lyman Street boys).
(3) He is to make an apology, then and there, to everyone.
(4) He is never to bully anyone again — or else, more of the same but worse.
Tubalard complies with all four. After his comeuppance, he rarely shows up at the park, and when he does, he doesn’t molest anyone.
The most telling detail from that day: After the fight is over, Pete offers his hand to the vanquished.
He taught me that day the importance of fighting for what’s right, for pursuing truth, for valuing justice, and the need to offer reconciliation and a way back into the fold for the beaten and the outcasts.
That, my dear friends, was the essence of Peter Thomas Valenti McGuire, my big brother. He took that sense of justice, right, and fair play into the rest of his life — through high school at St. Joseph, where he took Ellen Reynolds (later to become Ellen Ruberto) to the prom; into the Navy aboard the Bayfield-class attack transport the USS Cavalier in Vietnam; in his 32-year career with the Pittsfield Police Department, the final 29 of which he spent in the detective bureau; and, since 2000, through his ownership of Bob’s Country Kitchen in Lanesboro.
During his personal life, he gave of himself to all, in a selfless manner, without guile.
In a world increasingly lost to an absurd whirl of speed, superficiality, and diversion, Pete stood for something lasting — a personal ethic that valued, above all, the perspectives honored by our Catholic upbringing as faith, hope, and charity.
“The word is love.”
“Forgive my grief for one removed, / Thy creature, whom I found so fair. / I truest he lives in Thee, and there / I find him worthier to be loved.” — Alfred Tennyson, from “In Memoriam A.H.H.”
“OPEN THE WINDOW, AUNT MILLIE.”
LOVE TO ALL.