The 15 years right after 1958 were learning years for me. I began them as an unworldly young man of 26, spent most of them overseas, and returned as a mature 41-year-old with a much greater understanding of life. I came home quite a different person too; I had learned how right our nation is about so many things, but I had also learned in how many subtle ways we can look wrong in the eyes of others.
To show you what I mean, listen to a story that began in my New York City neighborhood when I was a boy. I come from a family very much involved with the law. Lawyers, district attorneys, judges and cops abound on the family tree. In fact, Uncle Farrell was a New York City DA. Maybe that was why my oldest brother Bill bought a book entitled “My Day in Court,” the autobiography of Arthur C. Train, a NYC prosecuting attorney.
I read all Bill’s books, including the one by Arthur Train. Soon afterward, I was sitting with a Sicilian friend of mine and his mother on their front porch. I just happened to mention Train’s name when to my amazement my friend’s mother crossed herself, and said something I didn’t catch. Then, looking very serious, she looked at me and told me — for my own good — to never say “that name” again because it carried a terrible curse placed on it by a witch.
That shook me up, and for a while there — two days maybe — I was a believer. Then reality set in, and although I never let on about it, I laughed at the idea that anyone could still believe in things like witches.
But later on in life, during my years overseas, I met normal, intelligent people who believed things that were just as strange, and it took me a while to get used to a simple, basic fact: What we believe is a result of where we were born, and what we were taught.
I have a book written by Arthur Train, which elaborates what I am saying; it contains the actual words of someone who believed in witches. I can’t be certain, but this case may be the one where Train came to have a curse on his head.
Train was the prosecutor in one the most bizarre cases ever seen in this nation. He says, “The case was simple enough. An officer ... at a distance of about 50 feet from where he was standing ... saw the defendant, who had been walking peaceably ... suddenly draw a long and deadly looking knife and proceed to slash [a woman] about the head and arms.”
The 20-year-old defendant was the husband of the 50-year-old victim, but she refused to testify. “He is my husband,” she said. “Do not punish him!”
But the husband eagerly took the stand!
“Yes,” he said, “that woman forced me to marry her! But in the eyes of God I am not her husband, for she bewitched me! When her spells weakened I left her and came to America. Here I met the woman I love — Rosina — and as I had been bewitched into the other marriage, we lived together as man and wife.
“Then one day a friend told me that the old woman had followed me over the sea and was going to throw her spells upon me again. The next evening Rosina told me that an old woman had been to the house and asked for me. For days my first wife lurked [near the house], beseeching me to come back to her. But I told her that in the eyes of God she was not my wife.
“Then, in revenge, she cast the evil eye upon [our child] and for six weeks it ailed and then died. Again the witch asked me to go with her. And again I refused.
“This time she cast her evil eye upon my wife — and Rosina grew pale and sick and took to her bed. There was only one thing to do. I resolved to slay her, just as you — giudici [judge] — would have done.
“I bought a carving-knife and sharpened it, and asked her to walk with me to the park, and I would have killed her had not the police prevented me. Wherefore, O giudici! I pray you to recall her and permit me to kill her!”
He was, of course, convicted — of what I am not sure because the books don’t say. What else could have happened? The law was plain and the testimony was clear. But, would any sane man who did not believe what he was saying walk into a court of law, admit to attempted murder, and then ask the judge that the victim be brought to him so he could finish killing her?
What that means is obvious, isn’t it, Johnny?
We Americans are the result of what we are taught.
And so is everyone else.