From the Sky - Part XVI

But you really didn't need to spend money to enjoy a Tarentella picnic. Aunt Sal told me that a family could spend the evening at the picnic eating, enjoying music and letting their children play, all without spending a dime if they wished. For struggling families in Walnutwood, the picnics were a blessing; a chance for a night out that didn't empty their thin wallets. Aunt Rae says Grandfather and Uncle also quietly sent the poorest of these families home with food to help them stretch their pennies. This was handled delicately, to avoid embarrassment. "…Come see our bakery," Uncle Gio would say to the parents as Grandfather fawned over the children. Gio would take them in the side door for a very brief walk-and-point tour: (…there is the counter, there is the bench, those are the proof boxes, and there are the ovens…). The tour always ended in the back, inside the cooler, where he would hand the parents a large plain brown bag of food to take home. Zia told me that sometimes the children were being raised by just one parent, usually the mother. The father was dead, had abandoned them, or was perhaps in jail. These single mothers got three bags: one right there and two others left on their doorsteps very early the next morning. Most people in Walnutwood never knew about these acts of kindness. "Papa and Gio believed charity should be a quiet deed," Aunt Sal told me not long ago. "It's an intimate act. There shouldn't be trumpets and fanfare."

As grand an enterprise as it became, the Tarentella brothers never did more than break even on their picnics. Once expenses were covered, the rest of the money went to the church and to local charities. Of course, the picnic would not have been possible without greasing a lot of wheels at the Town Hall. These were also part of the "expenses." An envelope of cash to the police chief, another to the fire chief, another to the zoning officer and so on until everyone was good and properly bribed. When I was told this recently, I was horrified.

"You don't understand," Aunt Rae told me. "It's how things were done back then. You had to play the game. Otherwise there were fines and parking tickets and threats to shut you down. You had to feed the machine." I shot back that the machine was simply government Mafiosi and Aunt Rae sighed and shrugged.

Those bribes were paid for years, until Mayor Bob Jones got wind of them. All the corrupt officials received a phone call from the mayor telling them to resign. Most did so immediately. Those that initially refused met with the mayor personally. Soon afterwards, and looking much worse for wear, they handed in their resignations and quietly left Walnutwood forever. Our town has been a model of honest government ever since. Government Mafiosi in the rest of the state fear only the federal government these days. In Walnutwood anyone tempted to line their pockets risks the possibility of our aging mayor's wrath. That ever-present possibility ensures our town remains an island of integrity in a sea of corruption.

The mayor had some ground rules for the Tarentella's as well. A councilman, Fred Appleton, delivered those rules: My family had to run the picnic according to the full letter of the law. The Tarentella brothers agreed without hesitation. Council soon passed an ordinance requiring an annual permit covering all aspects of the picnic. The fee was fifty dollars, a vanishingly small fraction of the bribes paid previously. Walnutwood would only issue the permit if all the profits went to charity, and the city clerk required a sworn affidavit pledging exactly that. The Tarentella brothers happily complied year after year, and the groundwork was laid for an event that should have continued to this day. Instead the picnic became another casualty of the great war between the Tarentella brothers.

I know I've spent a lot of time talking about the picnics. The last one happened long before I was even born, but I've heard so much about these celebrations over the years that I can almost believe I was there. If I close my eyes, I imagine I can hear the music; the laughter of children; the slowing click-click-click of the money wheel and the barker crying out the winning number; the jingle of the loser's quarters being swept off the table as the winner celebrates his small windfall. I can almost taste the antipasto; the crispness of the homemade limoncello; the warm, sticky cinnamon sweetness of freshly fried funnel cake.