Sal Buttaci enters the fray as Contestant #18


Don’t be embarrassed if you are old enough to remember Spanky and the Little Rascals, and the Our Gang comedies.  If you remember, did you get the sense that Buckwheat was just another one of the kids?  Sal Buttaci recalls a time when being a member of the gang was all about having fun with kids in the neighborhood. Sal has been coming to our playground for the seven years we’ve left the gate open. Here he comes again!


By Sal Buttaci

Only a fool would look back on childhood and insist they were the best of times and that those who populated those years were exemplary men and women of honor. But what did this boy of nine understand of the world? Even of our Brooklyn neighborhood?

In our cold-water tenement flat, laughter came easily. Papa and Mama had survived the Great Depression, so what could dampen their gratitude which they constantly paid in prayer and joy?

My father at fifteen emigrated from Sicily in 1920, a time in America when the treacherous Black Hand mobsters preyed on their own people and gave all Sicilians a bad name. It encouraged non-Sicilians to join in with hurling names of their own: Guinea, Wop, Dago. But Papa, though he warned us not to trust gli Americani, he made it unquestionably clear that we were never to insult others for their ethnicity, creeds, skin color or for whatever made them different from what  we were.

We lived on the second floor of this old building long since condemned. On the ground floor, side entrance, Mr. Smith, an old black man with Parkinson’s, worked as a blacksmith. Once my sisters and I joked about him, a blacksmith named Smith who was black, and whose hand shook so badly, it was a wonder he could shoe the horses the policemen and the junk-wagon owners brought him. Papa came to the old man’s defense. We were ashamed. “Don’t be like the other people,” he said. “They let their pride lift them up so high they can’t see how easy it is to break hearts.”

Behind the blacksmith shop, the old man lived with his son, daughter-in-law and their eight children, though only the names of two do I remember: JW and his sister Virginia Smith, my first girlfriend.

On sunny Saturdays, my parents would lead the way to Melrose Park. Behind them followed my sisters Anna and Joanie, the Smith kids, and in the rear, Virginia and I holding hands.

If pedestrians, drivers or passengers, or neighbors laughed at us or called us names, I honestly don’t remember, so wrapped tightly was I in Virginia’s gentle hand. We were like a parade on our march down Graham Avenue. We were feeling the love that seemed to lift us all out of the doldrums of prejudice.

“Look!” JW yelled. “The fountain in the park is on!”

We little kids ran toward the open gate of Melrose.


Our placard, the one that serves as both prompt and trophy, would have been hanging in a diner the time the featured photo was taken.

What would our gang do?






And, as Sal points out, it was not the best of times for everyone.

28 thoughts on “Sal Buttaci enters the fray as Contestant #18

  1. Miryam Howard says:

    Very happy to see your entry Mr. Sal. What a time of history this must have been! Your story presents a very strong realism, yet is mixed with the innocence of a 9 year old. I appreciated how you ended this piece… very prophetic….
    Thanks for your enduring talent.

  2. Cherrye Vasquez says:

    I remember ‘The Rascals’ and the Buckwheat Gang, Sal.

    This is such an interesting read that I waited for more only to find I’d have to fill in the remainder from my own historical perspective (such the point, I suppose).

    Your dad sounded like a very warm-hearted man who truly cared for all. What great lessons of compassion he taught you kids. I wonder what he’d say about the divisiness we see today, and what his perspective would be on our growth in terms of equality – (Just a passing thought).

    I can’t help but wonder what what sort of life Virginia has had all these years.

    Blessings to you!

    • Sal Buttaci says:

      I too wonder sometimes about Virginia Smith. I pray she is living a long happy life with a man who sees her worth, that irresistible smile, the warmth of her hand. As for my father as well as my mother, they were people of strong Christian faith who taught us about how to embrace virtue and consider vice an offense against a loving God.

    • Sal Buttaci says:

      Sometimes I think back to those early days when my parents told me I knew how to write well, that I had to keep writing every day, and I hardly believed them. The times they saw me at the kitchen table writing a poem or story, they would ask if I would read it to them when I was done. At the end of the evening meal, Papa would ask me, to the chagrin of my sisters who wanted to leave the table, to read anew story. I’d stand up and not only read the page but pretend there was so much more by expanding the plot as I moved slowly along. I earned some hard kicks from under the table that told me, “Bad idea!”

  3. Michael Stang says:

    Through an all too human perspective, Sal shows the rest of us a story filled with tenderness and love. The hand of another is truly transcendent. Thank you, Mr. Buttaci, for writing in. How good it is to read you again. Warm wishes.

    • Sal Buttaci says:

      I’ve been away awhile, Michael, due to serious illness. I have not been doing much writing, but I never stopped imagining poems and stories in my head, filing them for future transfer to journal and/or computer. I am so thankful to God for showing me at an early age that writing would be the rafts to save me from rushing waters during my life; and even now to accept the situation without losing faith in my loving God. I also thank you and the rest of the Thorn Gang for keeping me company on this ride.

  4. Sarah Olivito says:

    Good story, Sal, and very familiar. The best stories are the true ones. I remember a tall black policeman helping me in the subway when I was lost and you grabbing my hand and saying “Come on!” I am proud to say I grew up without prejudice, as did my kids, and, hopefully so will their’s.

    • Sal Buttaci says:

      Thank you, dear friends. They say to not look back. Enjoy the moment and dwell on the future, but I enjoy the moments I wander back to spent days when laughter rang. I like to dwell on the delightful hours in the company of family and friends, hours I thought in my fairy-tale head would never end. Thank God there is a Heaven to which we can aspire and reunite one day!

  5. Tina Mills says:

    This one has been added to my “favorites” list. Absolutely love it and cannot wait to share it with my family. The beauty of your family life and words of wisdom from your father brought tears to my eyes, as they often do. Thank you for sharing, Sal.

  6. Lady Pafia Marigold says:

    They say that every dark cloud has a silver lining, but your story, Mr. Buttaci, turned the dark cloud all silver without a drop of cold rain daring to fall on the decency & potential of character lived without apology. This is a lovely sentimental story of how life can be if one is dedicated to caring for others with dignity & the spirit of playfullness combined. Thank you for your story.

  7. Shawna S. says:

    “Don’t be like the other people,” he said. “They let their pride lift them up so high they can’t see how easy it is to break hearts.”

    My throat has closed, I cannot speak and the typed words are blurred.


  8. Chuck says:

    So often people point at their friends/partners who are minorities to prove that they are not prejudiced, but even a child in puppy love with with a Black girl could slip up. That’s the real truth. No matter who we are friends with or choose to be with, we must always examine ourselves and strive to be better. Thank you for sharing this.

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