My great honor occurred Memorial Day morning as I stood beside my Uncle Martin, Mackin, as he’s known in what he calls “the clan,” and we shared solemn ground at St. Joseph’s Cemetery in the sacred Minooka section of Scranton, home base for generations of my father’s side of the family.
A few months ago Mackin, 89, made it clear that he didn’t want a birthday party.
“Wait until 90,” he said.
Yesterday he made the long trek up the hill with the aid of a cane that he used more as a decoration than a necessity to stand by the flagpole and bow his head as the priest led prayer and song among the faithful whom each year get fewer and more far between.
Growing up in Minooka, Mackin – whose nickname’s origin remains a mystery – was my confident uncle who, like my father and two other brothers, served in the military during World War II.
Five sisters rounded out the Corbett family that anchored their precious piece of Cedar Avenue, a place loaded with life, fresh garden tomatoes and the Sunday chicken or goose ready for slaughter on a special occasion.
Five boys and five girls lived in that little company house that eventually served as the home to Mackin’s family, a tight fit for a tight-knit piece of the clan.
All my father’s brothers and sisters distinguished themselves.
Little Ann died as a child, a joy of a little girl who succumbed to Scarlet Fever and whose coffin decorated the bay window facing the street for her viewing.
For the record, forgive me if I get a detail wrong here and there. These are my long-ago memories of my long-ago stories that my father, Shamus, told me after I finished my prayers he tucked me into bed as a boy so very long ago.
Among those many Minooka tales, the saga of his younger brother, Mackin, found its way into my head and my heart.
Shamus, by the way, died 15 years ago today at 78.
Mackin didn’t say much when he returned from the war, Shamus said. Mackin saw too much pain to foist that despair on anyone. So he carried it himself. That bravery exemplified Mackin, Shamus said. That courage is there anytime you look in his eyes, my father told me.
I looked yesterday and there it was.
So much experience glistened yesterday in My Uncle Mackin‘s eyes.
Courage, pride, love, loss and the long, hard road from yesterday had taken him to the soft green grass of St. Joe’s, where the names of family and friends are carved into the stone of weathered tombstones.
After the service - with Mackin telling me that he had put the priest “on the clock” and that the Father could have done a real Mass, including communion, rather than a few Hail Marys and a sprinkle of water here and there – Mackin, my wife, Stephanie, and I walked to where so many have walked before, to the spot where his mother and father, my grandmother and grandfather, rest in soft earth of a dangerous promised land that welcome “Pa” from Ireland when he came from there to here. As the song says, indeed, it’s a long, long way from there to here. But here is where the heart is.
“You proved me wrong,” Mackin said as we stood by one of the plots that holds the remains of so many young and old – each as special as the last - who went before.
Yeah, I thought, after saying goodbye to the coal fields and living in California for five years, Stephanie and I came home. Apparently nobody thought we would return. Because Shamus was a state trooper and we lived elsewhere, I hadn’t grown up here as did most of my aunts, uncles and cousins. But I came back to my roots because I needed the roller coaster of emotion that will likely always define Scranton – particularly Minooka - and its people.
Had I stayed in California, among other blessings, I would not have shared this magic moment with the last of the 10 Corbetts who believed with all their heart that nothing compared to their little town and the often chaotic tribal life that went with it.
I’m partial to chaos myself.
So welcome home.
Mackin and I talked about Ireland and unions and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, about how people who understood the sometimes bitter trials of life treated him like “a messiah” during the Depression. Mackin spoke of when “my father brought his farm” with him from Ireland and planted and tended his many vegetables like a master when the work day was done underground, where he worked his way up from laborer to miner and retired with black lung after 45 years in that black deep hell hole.
Yes, yesterday was Memorial Day, and Mackin had a lot of memorializing to do.
As he stood by my side, he never flinched in the sweltering sun. Sweat glistened from his tanned ski, seasoned from the time he puts in planting his own garden and the hour he spends each day picking up litter and cans around the cemetery road. In his red tie and white shirt, his features made him look like my father’s twin. I tried to keep courage glistening in my own eyes.
Mackin hit the beach on D-Day, helped liberate the concentration camps and helped people all his life, Shamus told me. As a labor leader, Mackin called strikes and settled strikes, Shamus said. Mackin understood the value of fairness and did something about it.
My Uncle Mackin stood up for what was right.
And yesterday I stood with him - home, where he and I both belong, surrounded by the spirit of all that is holy, strong, right and good, committed to do our best whenever duty calls.
The savory smell of baked cheese, sauce and dough still fills the air outside the line of Old Forge restaurants that contribute to the proud town’s claim to fame as the “Pizza Capital of the World.”
But now a stench accompanies life on those busy streets that overwhelmingly good, hard-working, law-abiding people call home.
The stink originates from Town Hall, where borough officials struggle with an ongoing investigation that has already resulted in the arrests of former Police Chief Larry Semenza, 48, his second-in- command Jamie Krenitsky, 34 and former volunteer firefighter Walter Chiavacci, 46.
The men are charged with a variety of crimes stemming from allegations that a now 23-year-old woman made about what these first responders did to her when she was 15.
This is not an alleged sex scandal, as some media outlets have labeled the scandal.
This is an alleged sexual assault investigation that goes deep to the abuse of power wielded by wild men with guns and great responsibility over life and death – alleged savages running amok in an otherwise good town.
As you might expect in Old Forge, people have taken sides. Some remain loyal to the accused. Some want revenge. Some want to ignore the sordid allegations and have the inquiry simply go away.
But the bad news is getting worse and is here to stay.
Investigators from three law enforcement agencies – the Lackawanna County District Attorney’s office, Pennsylvania State Police and the FBI – are still conducting interviews and following trails of evidence.
Other allegations include everything from tens of thousands of dollars in missing fire department equipment that suddenly surfaced to a man who allegedly lived in the fire house with “official police permission,” sleeping, bathing and cooking his meals there for decades.
Sources say he violated the lease as well as borough insurance coverage.
Do borough officials know about these accusations?
I called several borough numbers this morning to no avail. A recorded message told me that no one was available to help. We’re talking 10:19 a.m., normal working hours for public servants.
Mayor Michele Petrini Avvisato could not be reached for comment.
Neither could borough solicitor William Rinaldi, who also works as a Lackawanna County assistant district attorney. I left a message for Rinaldi at his private law office and at the DA’s office.
Since Rinaldi is a county prosecutor in the very office that is prosecuting Rinaldi’s former colleagues, Old Forge officials have hired an interim solicitor so Rinaldi is not faced with a conflict of interest.
When I finally reached Borough Manager MaryLynn Bartoletti, she refused to say if she knew anything about the man who borough sources say lived rent free in the fire department for more than 10 years.
“Did you know that a man lived in the fire department attached to your borough building for more than 10 years?” I asked.
“I have nothing to do with the fire department,” she said. “I’m not answering any questions.”
Before Bartoletti came on the line, the borough worker who answered the phone – she would only identity herself as “Sandy,” like I was calling for a hair appointment, refused to give me telephone numbers for borough council members.
“I’m not answering anything,” Sandy said.
To Sandy’s credit, though, she did eventually provide me with the telephone number for the part-time mayor. When I dialed, though, I got a recording telling me that the number had been disconnected.
Maybe I should have dialed the number for the police chief listed on the official Old Forge website where accused pervert police chief Semenza’s name still appears as the leader of the pack.
Old Forge is in big trouble.
And I am not convinced that anybody in elected or appointed government service there is up to the job of fixing what is broken.
Picking up the pizza is one thing.
Picking up the pieces is a whole different ladle of sauce.
On the Friday before the following Tuesday primary election, I called Democratic state Rep. Kevin Murphy about a problem. The Scranton lawmaker from the 113th Legislative District said he’d check out the matter immediately. Murphy reassured me that the issue must be a simple misunderstanding.
Murphy’s political career then began its immediate slide into oblivion.
The cocky incumbent lost his bid for re-election to a former professional boxer and mixed martial arts cage fighter with no political experience other than a choke-hold.
Murphy didn’t tap out, he blacked out.
With no Republican opponent and without a write-in miracle, Murphy will not return to Harrisburg.
And Murphy has nobody to blame but himself.
The Bachelor of Science degree in criminal justice from the University of Scranton that Murphy claimed to possess for decades does not exist.
The desperate spinning he tried during those long few days leading up to his loss failed to convince countless voters that he is anything other than another dishonest politician.
Even in defeat, almost a month after the election, paid public servant Murphy remains dishonest.
As of this morning, Murphy still lists his degree from the University of Scranton on his official Commonwealth House of Representatives biography. Under a color photo of a smiling Murphy posing beside the stars and stripes of the American flag, the lie continues.
“University of Scranton, B.S., Criminal Justice, 1989,” is, indeed, BS, but not the kind that signals the accomplishment and discipline required to graduate with a four-year college degree.
Even dummies who graduate can wave their diplomas above their heads and then go back to drinking beer, passing a beach ball or fellow student above the crowd and move back home before the horrible reality of life hits them right between their blurred eyes.
But Murphy’s horrible reality has festered for decades.
The difference is that he lived the lie. Now it’s time to face the facts. And the facts remain delusional in Murphy’s mind. Murphy is not a college graduate. Never was and might never be. That is up to him and university officials.
But he just can’t seem to bring himself to simply tell the truth.
Before the April 24 election, Murphy told several conflicting stories about why he did not possess the degree he claimed, even going so far as to argue that he always believed he had the degree until I told him he didn’t.
Murphy said he owed money, paid money, never asked for the degree and never accepted the degree. Murphy said he needed to complete a requirement, completed the requirement and even had the audacity to invite taxpayers to his office to see the sacred diploma hanging on the wall once he got his mitts on it. Murphy boldly promised to walk across the stage with the other graduates.
But, the last time I checked with university officials before going on vacation last week, Murphy had not yet received the diploma.
Unless compassionate Jesuits held a private ceremony for Murphy and humility prevented him from issuing a press release about his grand success, Murphy has still not graduated. If he has, I’ll be pleased to announce the feat on the air. I’ll even invite the Jesuits.
But until and unless that happens, Murphy needs to remove his big lie from the official government website paid for by taxpayers.
God knows that state lawmakers have enough trouble with former office-holders either in prison or heading to prison. A little honesty goes a long way on the dirty road to the hopeful restoration of the public trust.
So if Murphy refuses to publicly tell the truth and remove the lie from the website, I’ll tell the truth for him every chance I get. I’ll also ask for help from state Democratic leaders because, if Murphy refuses to truthfully update his biography, party leaders must update it for him.
While we’re at it, what about the official state job application Murphy filled out before getting elected, back when he worked as an auditor for the Commonwealth? Does the application include the lie about his degree? Did Murphy pass himself off as a college graduate to obtain a job that required a degree? Are criminal charges an option? How about an ethics complaint?
Murphy’s official biography includes the fact that he was “raised with Irish Catholic ideals.”
Sure and begorrah, if that’s true, it’s long overdue for Murphy to make a full confession and a mighty good Act of Contrition.
No better meal exists for me than a couple of thick slices of homegrown tomato on a couple of thick slices of freshly baked Italian bread. Add an ice cold bottle of Yuengling laager and I’ve got sacred last meal material.
When I was a child, I’d sometimes stand among my grandfather’s tomato plants in his Minooka garden, close my eyes and inhale the rich, pungent aroma of fresh life on a thick green vine. To this day, if I pick a fat tomato, close my eyes and hold the fruit to my nose, I drift back to a time when cultivating tomatoes meant cultivating the future, when the simplicity of life meant nourishment and tradition.
Such satisfaction has not changed.
We reap what we sow.
And there’s still nothing better than a fat tomato sandwich – maybe with mayo, salt and pepper. But a plain and pure tomato sandwich will always be best.
Purity also remains part of the American Dream – the search for good old ways amid traditional goodness. Tradition allows innocence to thrive and grow rather than succumb to strangulation by poisonous weeds of deceit in our culture that grow and kill before anybody notices or does something about it.
We strangle our dreams in Northeastern Pennsylvania on a regular basis. We allow the weeds to rage out of control. We nourish their roots. The metaphor here goes straight to the heart of our political “culture of corruption” that strangles our hope for a better tomorrow.
I’ve concluded that we will not beat our culture of corruption in my lifetime. So we should not fight to win or lose but fight to fight.
And principle nourishes hope for the better future based on fairness, equality and true growth. If we nourish a true path of awareness, we have a chance to create a culture of awakening – something definitely worth fighting for. Our culture of awakening will help create and nourish a healthy, thriving garden that will nourish those to come for countless decades.
Allow the poison to spread, however, and our dreams will continue to die.
Changing behavior takes precious time and effort.
In the past few years we’ve seen positive change occur as dozens of local and state elected officials and business executives have pleaded guilty to public corruption crimes and either pleaded guilty or been convicted.
They have gone to prison. More gangsters will follow in this ongoing federal public corruption investigation. But what about good people who live stable lives? What about law-abiding hard-working good citizens who know the difference between right and wrong? What do we do to increase the odds that the judicial weed whacking that’s talking place will cleanse our path for good and allow healthy new fruit to blossom?
Sadly, we do far too little to change behavior. Too many otherwise good citizens stand idly by and allow nepotism, cronyism and political patronage to fester. They even teach their children that maybe a political job might one day be in the works for them – if only they play their political cards right and ingratiate themselves to the proper political people.
If not them, maybe their children will benefit. Survival of the fittest becomes the law of the jungle. And the garden is lost. By this longtime coal region tradition that many of our immigrant ancestors quickly learned how to play, we plant evil seeds that sprout and turn to killer weeds that smother the future of fairness.
To truly ripen, we must change the way we think. To thrive, we must stand against old habits that die hard. To mature we must be brave enough to rise up and stretch to our full height into the sun.
I know, I know, the garden analogy is getting old.
But the culture of awakening will only exist if you help it grow. So plant some seeds and know you did something brave to ensure that those who come after you have long gone have a better shot at making their dreams grow.
Smiling and huge and grossly immature, a teenage Greg Skrepenak sat in the bleachers at the Kings College gymnasium. The occasion, I believe, was a speech concerning one war or another by then Congressman Paul Kanjorski. The hulking GAR High School kid had assembled with other Wilkes-Barre city school students for the event.
Skrepenak sat with Raghib “The Rocket” Ismail from Meyers and Bobby Sura, his basketball teammate from GAR.
Reeking with potential and brimming with hope, blinding storylines brightened the lives of these three working class kids from Northeastern Pennsylvania hard coal country.
The Rocket went on to football acclaim with Notre Dame, a multi-million dollar contract in Canada and a finish with the Dallas Cowboys. Sura set college records in Florida and played with the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers in the National Basketball Association. Skrepenak starred as an All-American in Michigan and played for the Carolina Panthers as well as the storied Oakland Raiders.
But Skrep, as he was known around the Valley, ultimately distinguished himself above and beyond his superstar peers.
After retirement from the pros, the Rocket became an evangelist of sorts and a professional bull rider. Sura basically disappeared after a fight at the Woodlands in which he said he was not involved and police concurred. Skrep ran for and was elected to a responsible position of public trust as a Luzerne County commissioner.
Had Skrep played this game properly, abiding by the rules and upholding the public trust, he might have gone to the state house instead of to the big house.
But Skrep scored a federal prison sentence in West Virginia where strains of “take me home country road” echoed off the walls of his skull as he tossed and turned his 6-foot-8-inch frame in a hoosegow bunk and dreamed of the Heights where he lived and loved and learned nothing about integrity.
Now the big man has returned.
His mother picked him up from a recent day at work as a clerk at a buddy’s law firm, according to a published report, and brought him back to the house where he is living under house arrest with mom and dad.
Skrep lost weight and is humbled by his experience, the lawyer told a reporter.
Skrep said he couldn’t talk about his experience yet chastised the reporter, asking why the press couldn’t just leave him alone.
Let me explain it to you, big man.
We can’t leave you alone because you spent too many years expecting our attention.
You and you alone became a celebrity. You and you alone begged us to watch. You and you alone pledged that we could trust you. You and you alone then betrayed the public trust you swore to uphold. You and you alone willingly became a gangster. You and you alone used sacred public service to benefit yourself and your buddies who always thought they were better than anybody and everybody who depended on you to help their often pitiful struggle.
No, Skrep, we will not leave you alone. And you better understand that you will take hits all your life because you are now and always will be an ex-convict who threw it all away.
Amid his failure, his weakness and denial, I wish him well. I believe in rehabilitation and redemption. But, as a former state prison counselor, I also understand the delusion under which the majority of former inmates live their lives after being released from prison.
Too many of them continue to blame others for their faults and dysfunction. Too many refuse to accept real responsibility. They talk about their “mistakes” rather than their crimes. And they desperately grasp image rather than substance. And, of course, they all too often continue to hang out with a bad crowd.
In Skrep’s case, that simply means coming home, where he is staying for the remaining couple of months of his sentence.
Skreps’s father is a hothead with a temper he cannot control. At least he was out of control the last time I saw him, as he put his face close to mine in court following his son’s sentencing and threatened me with violence. I calmly looked him in the eye. I waited but nothing happened. The head of the Scranton office of the Secret Service and an assistant United States attorney witnessed Skrep’s father’s childish display of macho stupidity.
“That was a threat,” the prosecutor said out loud.
But I declined to press charges because I didn’t want to add to the Skrepenak family’s heartache by putting another bad seed into a jam that was entirely self-created.
Skrep and his dad still need therapy. Maybe the whole family needs counseling. Let’s hope they’re up to this terribly emotional task.
Just like that long ago day in the gym, the future awaits.