Have you located it yet? Where could a lie, an exaggeration that would make a national disgrace of a man, take root in that house? A home where no one dared preen or puff himself, where Dad dismissed airs or boasts with just three letters—"SPS," for Self-Praise Stinks—and any boy who made himself out to be one inch more than he was risked humiliation. "All right, who is it?" Mrs. O'Leary asked, chortling one day as she finished the laundry. "Who's the big head who thinks he needs an extra-large jock?"
No one owned up. Not George, not Terry, not Peter, and for damn sure not Sarge.
1964-68 Sandbagger, Bartender, Road Paver, Landscaper, Mover, Student
When you're 18, there's no explaining it. Sometimes everything you love is everything you hate. Maybe it was the smell of four boys in a bedroom just after a ball game, maybe it was singing the same song from the Auld Sod for the 32nd time, maybe it was that eternal flame underneath that infernal pot of Mrs. O'Leary's boiling potatoes. Maybe it was the fact that Dubuque was the only college that showed a glimmer of interest in George. Maybe that's why he was suddenly on the road, the first O'Leary to leave the fold, barreling through a cornfield on a 24-hour Greyhound bus ride to Iowa, a boy who'd never been farther from home than the Jersey shore.
A glimmer, mind you. Not a scholarship. Maybe a grand in financial aid, a bit of an insult, really, after George had quarter-backed his high school team—more on grit than on grace—to an undefeated season. At Dubuque he found himself one of five quarterbacks, promptly converted to bottom-of-the-depth-chart fullback, an out-of-place Noo Yawker on a bad Division III team cheered by a few hundred fans, the glory of his senior season and the warmth of his big family fading, fading...gone.
He knew more than the damn coach did. He was sure of it. He barely stepped on the football field all fall. No, that's a lie. He cut across it at night to get to the Disabled American Veterans Bar to quaff a half-dozen Hamm's. The future coach of Notre Dame? They'd have howled in the locker room if you'd pointed at him and said that. He scraped by academically, quit football and wouldn't have returned for his sophomore year if he hadn't felt so listless that he couldn't stir himself to apply to another school. There was one highlight that second year: the road trip. To South Bend. He walked the hallowed grounds of Notre Dame and sensed the magic that his grades and football skills wouldn't let him touch.
A third helping of Iowa was out of the question. His dad, who'd worked his way up from school custodian to school board president and postmaster of Central Islip, had come to be known as the Godfather, the townsman with the most connections and the deepest devotion to arranging jobs for any man he deemed a good man. He saw the lost look in his boy's eyes and grew uneasy. He turned to Walt Mirey, an administrator in the C.I. school district who'd played football at New Hampshire. Somehow Dad had to wedge the kid through college. Mirey got him in. Dad exhaled. So long, George!
George? What was he doing back at the front door? A week and a half into August preseason camp, George quit the team, quit before he began and took a bus home. Cripes, what was the point? He'd be ineligible for a year because of the transfer, owed a bundle for student loans and couldn't bear another four-eyed professor slowly squeezing his privates in a midterm vise.
He walked through the door. He couldn't meet his father's stare. He hated letting down the kind of man who, the first time he ever flew in an airplane, jumped out of it, on a paratrooper training mission in Georgia. The kind who always forgave you.