This is my day of reckoning. In retrospect, it was only a matter of time. I could only pursue my academic profession so avidly and so extensively in the five boroughs where I was raised before I started to double back on the paths of my ancestors’ lives and my family history started to catch up with me. For the old rusty whistle I am writing about belongs to me—to be precise, it is my daughter’s whistle. And the diver who found it is my Uncle Ed. Before that, it was his uncle’s whistle, who lost it about eighty years ago swimming laps around the tip of Staten Island. At least that’s what the message that came with this bottle says: “South Beach: For Mia. Catch of the day: Uncle Johnny’s Whistle?” For eighty years, this whistle lay underwater, drifting among the detritus of the bottom of the harbor, waiting to be found by its owner’s loyal, loving nephew. It took eighty years, but that nephew, my uncle Ed, did find it. And he then handed it over to his niece, my daughter.
If every underwater artifact is like a message in a bottle, bearing stories from the deep and the past, the stories that this artifact is telling are about me and my own past. And if I read this message right, it turns out I come from people who lived on the waterfront. I honestly had no idea of this basic fact until I started thinking about this whistle.
Let me tell you a story about a watery boundary zone on the western shore of Staten Island, where a young girl could take a tiny ferry to get her leeches from the apothecary in a Hungarian village in New Jersey for her father, suffering from migraines. This was over a century ago, before there was a Verrazano Bridge or a West Shore expressway or even a Staten Island dump, and the town of Travis sat amid a vast estuary: a tidal region where families lived comfortably in the sweet spot between farms and creeks teeming with shellfish. That was my grandmother, going back and forth on that little ferry, and when she had children, they too lived on the water. As a boy, my father would start out in the evening with a few scraps of meat from the butcher and return with enough crabs for everyone, including the butcher. You played on shipwrecks piled up on the shore, and when you got older, had a nose for trouble, and a talent for the maritime equivalent of car theft, you snuck onto the captured Nazi warships that were parked offshore. Yes, once upon a time, the western fringe of Staten Island was the kind of place where you could plunder Nazi warships.
In winter, this fringe would freeze over, and you would have at your doorstep an expanse of ice that literally stretched to the horizon. If you were small enough, and lucky enough to have a champion speed skater named Uncle Johnny for your favorite uncle, you could be picked up and shot across the ice with him like a speeding bullet. Yes, everyone should have an Uncle Johnny, and if you do, you know that he is the perfect antidote to your kind, responsible father; that he could use you and your sibling for extra weight for his bicep curls and, when he wanted to, literally kick the air out of your football.
You might have an Uncle Johnny but my great uncle Johnny was the son of Hungarian immigrants from the great Eurasian steppe and therefore a lineal descendant of Ghengis Khan. If you doubt this, I just ask you to believe me when I tell you that he held us kids enraptured one night around a campfire eating twelve ears of corn in a row like a typewriter and devouring twelve hard boiled eggs at once. Only a descendant of Ghengis Khan could do that. Uncle Johnny in his prime was another species of man altogether: a Hungarian Paul Bunyan who could trim trees the way you and I trim asparagus, and, I’m getting back to my story now, skate across that frozen tundra of Staten Island so fast that he would eventually skate a victory lap around the Madison Square Garden ice as the city-wide winner of the Silver Skates amateur skating award.
If you were a Hungarian Paul Bunyan and the winner of the Silver Skates and a champion skater and you were Uncle Johnny, you thought nothing of tucking one nephew under your left arm and another nephew under your right arm, and hurtling across the ice with such abandon that those two boys would follow that trajectory for the rest of their lives. I like to think of those two boys on that ice—one, my father, so enthralled by that speed that he just kept going and shot out of Staten Island, circling the world for business and pleasure and still not stopping; the other boy, my uncle Ed, just as enthralled, asking himself, “How can I make his last forever?” And so he made himself a life that turned his adventures on Staten Island’s west shore into a trade, a vocation, and an expertise that connects him to the waterfront to this day. You can see a very small sample of this life at “Silent Beaches, Untold Stories” in St. John’s University, where his artifacts are on display. But if you travel to Governor’s Island and visit its “Shipwrecks” exhibit, you will find an entire room devoted to the diving career of my uncle and a caption that reads: “Edward Fanuzzi: A true collector and diver who began his diving career in the late 1940s at fifteen years of age and has been diving ever since. All of the artifacts found in this room and many elsewhere in this exhibit are from his collection.”
If I were building my own collection, I would start with the diving helmet that my uncle Ed fashioned out of a milk box when he was eight. You know—turn it upside down, put some padding around the edges so it does not impale your shoulders, stick a garden hose in the top, make your own compressor to pump air, melt the lead that was always lying around every household in the 1940s for weights around your belt, and lower yourself into the waters by your home for a walk on the bottom of the sea. Did it work? Of course not. But what is a boyhood without a near escape from death?
Before long, Uncle Ed was perfecting his own air mixture, getting his diving supplies from Navy surplus, getting a PT boat from Navy surplus, and starting up a salvage business that brought up sunken ships from New York harbor with a homemade bladder. Yes, he also got a family and a job that led him to the position of Fire Marshall, but happily for us, he kept up the vocation that has retrieved more undersea artifacts from the eighteenth century to the twenty-first than any museum I know. I know this for certain because I have been to his backyard. And except for the objects that are St. John’s and at Governor’s Island, it is all there.
My favorite is the flagpole that points bravely up to the sky amid the old tackle and the extra boat engines. Snaking up that flagpole are the remains of his beloved salvage boat Mary Jane, its portholes and its steering wheel climbing to the pinnacle like morning glories. He loved that boat so much that he actually dove into the hurricane roiled waters of New York Harbor in the early 1960s to save his unmoored ship from a terrible end, but not before diving into more hurricane roiled waters to save another man’s boat, drinking homemade hooch with a lot of grizzled old salts, and driving like a maniac along the shoreline to follow her. New York’s waterfront in those days had nothing on its mean streets. Uncle Ed could not save his salvage ship but he was able to salvage her, recognizing Mary Jane from all the shipwrecks along the shore of Brooklyn and Staten Island by the green paint he had mixed himself.
It took me quite a while to wrest one of those portholes off the flagpole, which is to say from his grasp. I don’t really have a plan for that porthole, but I do have one for this whistle. My plan is to keep it for my thirteen-year-old daughter forever.
As a child, Mia accompanied Uncle Ed on his metal detecting adventures on New York’s beaches and marveled at his eye for small shiny things. (No, I have not allowed her to go deep sea diving in the bottom of New York Harbor with him, and she has not asked.) I keep the whistle for my daughter because it is for me the equivalent of a story, a message in a bottle, about not only the man who wore it but the man who found it and wrote this message: “For Mia—Catch of the Day—Uncle Johnny’s Whistle?” They mean as much as the whistle itself, for in those words is the profound hope of every diver beneath the sea and every collector of artifacts: that the circle be unbroken. I am like that diver: I believe the circle can be unbroken. So I tell these stories to her and tell them now to you, about the diver who found the whistle and a petrified foot and raised two ton hulls and who swam through hurricanes; and about the man who wore the whistle—the great uncle who won the Silver Skates and ate twelve ears of corn and swam laps around the tip of Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island, leading a very tired group of lifeguards far younger than him far behind.
Somewhere in the waters off Fort Wadsworth he lost his lifeguard whistle, the token of his command and magnificent athletic ability, and somewhere off the shore of Staten Island, his nephew, my uncle Ed, found it eighty years later. Is this all true? You should know by now that it is true exactly in the way that the best family stories are true. My uncle gave it to me to give to my daughter, and that’s the story I’m sticking with. As I told you in the beginning, this is my story.
Robert Fanuzzi is Associate Professor of English and Director of the American Studies Program at St. John's. He has authored many articles and the book, Abolition's Public Sphere, on the 19th century antislavery movement. He is at work now on a book on the impact of French colonial racial politics on American literature.
At the Staten Island campus of St. Johns, Dr. Fanuzzi has developed interdisciplinary courses, programs, and campus initiatives that utilize community partnerships and promote civic engagement, particularly in areas of food policy, public history, and sustainable design. The Staten Island waterfront, a fascinating locale for all these endeavors, is also where his family is from. This is his very first creative writing attempt.