Lester, My Uncle and My Hero
It was the spring of 1935, or was it the autumn, when my uncle Lester, bachelor brother of my father, tenant by sufferance in our Lower East Side cold water flat, despised for his drinking by my deaf mother, made me a member of the Irish Republican Army.
I was proud of it all, all of it, the rifles Lester said he stored in my uncle Charlie’s pigeon loft around the corner, the escape map he drew for me, tied round by a rosary, on which he had me hurriedly swear a death oath against England on the steps of St Brigid’s Church across the way from Tompkins Square Park. I inhaled the purity of the adventure of it all, for I was eight and the magic of the new and unexpected had its hold on me as it does even until today.
Unlike my friends in parochial school, who didn’t seem to have uncles, Lester took me everywhere. Regularly on Wednesdays we went to Esther’s apartment on Avenue C where he gave her catechism lessons that took a good twenty minutes with me sitting alone in the kitchen reading comic books he bought me, while Esther giggled like a little girl in the next room, once calling out Oh my Jesus, a sign to me that Lester knew what he was doing to convert Esther, and then we would traipse over to Vazac’s Club for an hour with me sitting in the rear booth with Heshie Horowitz our numbers man waiting for the 3 p. m. number call, and then across the way to Berkowitz’s Bakery where with three Irishmen, Lester, his elegant vest thrown on a post and his sleeves rolled up, would help to unload cases from a covered truck all the way from New Jersey while Berkowitz kept a lookout for robbers, Lester said, and with that done and a fistful of money he would call a cab and we would go to Times Square to the Belasco, a real theater, not a movie, where I would sit in the front row and watch beautiful girls dancing in lines and chewing gum and kissing Lester’s face as he chose one to meet him in church, he said, with all the girls laughing away and poking at his fat stomach, and then we would walk fast to St Patrick’s where Lester would take literature from a rack and we would rush down the steps to a cab and back to the Lower East Side where Lester would run up to Charlie’s pigeon coop and take a swig out of a bottle stashed in a feed bag, and then he would comb my hair and would take me home around the corner and give me to my mother as I handed her the St Patrick’s holy literature, and Lester would stick a five dollar bill in my pocket and run down the steps to an emergency IRA meeting, reminding me with a wagging finger to answer all my mother’s questions but to say nothing because she was a Ukrainian and not one of us in the IRA.
Then, late at night, when all were asleep in the flat, Lester would tip toe in, kiss the picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus hanging on the wall above my head, and slip into bed, whispering to me to be quiet as he told me of the English freighter he had just left, just blocks away from our house, soon to leave port with something, he couldn’t say what, set to go off when she was at sea. With that, I fell contentedly asleep as did Lester, the red candle light in front of the picture of Jesus flickering above me and around the room, sending us off to sleep in a grand soft light that aureoled the room.