My servitude continued well after the fifth grade. I became his eyes and ears in the neighborhood, his muscle. I prosecuted his will in a tough Italian/Irish neighborhood in the Northeast Bronx. I was conscripted for life and couldn’t break the hold he had on me. Although Father Flynn has passed, I am linked to his memory.
You might recall that over the 10 years I’ve been writing “Thoughts from Dr. Joe” I have told numerous stories about Father Flynn. He choked me out, threatened me, bashed me against a wall, threw me out of the Boy Scouts prior to my Eagle Court, and wrote me incessantly when I was in Vietnam. He coined the phase “tough love” long before it became popular in today’s vernacular. Father is the central character in my book, “12 Stories from the Block.”
A few weeks ago Kaitzer and I were attending the Kiwanis Christmas party. I had the pleasure of speaking with Diane Restivo, the wife of my buddy, Al. Diane is a home girl from my old neighborhood in the Bronx. We reminisced and found that our lives had crossed paths when we were kids. Diane and Al were married in my church, Saint Frances of Rome. What a small world!
“Who performed the marriage?” I asked.
Diane didn’t recall but said that the priest had an angry disposition.
“It was Father Flynn,” I said.
They weren’t sure. Later that week I received an attachment of their marriage certificate. It was signed by Father John J. Flynn. I stared at his signature. I never knew his first name was John. To me, it was Father. I wondered what the “J.” stood for.
A few days later I received a picture of the Restivos’ wedding. There was Father Flynn, standing with his back to the altar, wearing his black Coke-bottle glasses and looking as menacing as ever. Once again our eyes met. “How you doing Father?” I mumbled.
I know what made him special. He would stop at nothing to save his boys from the inevitable fate that waited for them on the streets. He was a conspicuous personality with an unflinching perspective of right and wrong. He held kids accountable and if he had to choke you to do so, he would do it. It was tough love and sometimes it was very tough love. But it was always unconditional. Unfortunately his ways are a thing of the past but it was great growing up under his watch and knowing that Father Flynn had your back.
The last time I saw Father was during the bicentennial of the Statue of Liberty in 1986. We met for drinks at Corrigan’s Bar on 237th Street. He was excited about his new assignment, teaching at Saint Patrick’s Seminary in Maynooth, Ireland. It was getting late; I had to catch the red-eye out of JFK. How could I leave this man who had forgiven my darkest sins?
“Father! I’ll come see you next summer,” I said.
He smiled, because you couldn’t fool Father Flynn.
--JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a retired professor of education and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit his website at doctorjoe.us.