It was a big deal making that very first vote. Ironically, my polling station when I was 18 turned out to be Grimes School in Mount Vernon, New York, which is where I had gone from kindergarten to the sixth grade. The symbolism was not lost on me. There was a "closing the circle" moment that took me from innocent youngster to full-bred American citizen.
I had prepared for this.
Back then, this voting thing was a serious notion. Anybody running for office from President of the United States to local city alderman was a person who commanded respect and honor. The candidates on a national landscape lived in a different universe. One that was to be revered. These were important people. You didn't see them on shows with comedians or sports programming, unless, of course, it was throwing out the first ball in Game One of the World Series. There was no monkeying around with these folks. They meant business.
Of course, you can see how badly we have changed.
I remember when I first registered to vote in City Hall of my home town. I walked proudly into that building to fill out my forms. I was delighted to be finally counted as an adult. I perused the questions. And then landed on one where you actually draw a side.
WHICH PARTY DO YOU WISH TO REGISTER WITH? DEMOCRATIC OR REPUBLICAN?
Hmmm. It wasn't even election day and I was already deep in thought.
I had only my family household to draw upon. And, well...
My family largely ignored politics, working under the tried-and-true adage that all of them were crooks and they all stunk.
That said, as a youngster, I did listen to the opinions and views around my family. I was trying to reason it all for myself. And, believe me, my household was a cornucopia of political viewpoints.
My mother didn't really care, unless a candidate was particularly good looking. If, however, the guy running was a troll, Mom simply re-buried her nose into Photoplay Magazine and paid attention to more important matters. Like whether Liz Taylor and Richard Burton were going to last as husband and wife.
My father was a little bit more astute, but, although he was registered as a Republican and tended to always vote that way, he liked to announce regularly that "all politicians stink." He used to remind us all the time that his "former boss," General Douglas MacArthur, should have been elected President and, frankly, the country had gone downhill ever since. Thanks, Dad.
My grandfather kept quiet. When he read the Daily News while seated at the kitchen table downstairs, he went through the newspaper from back to front. And almost always concentrated on the funny pages, which he would read to me Fiorello LaGuardia-style. Every time there was a power failure in the house, Grandpa would use that occasion to utter one of his rare political rants.
Yes, deep down inside, Grandpa was awaiting the arrival of Russia on our shores and believed it was imminent. Obviously, the first stage of attack, according to Grandpa, would be a takeover of Con Edison Electric.
Meanwhile, there was one person in our house who had some political opinions and displayed no shyness in voicing them.
I could listen to her musings on current events for hours. In retrospect, none of them made any sense. Except maybe to her. And her most favorite target for her disdain was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
"His wife lived in a suitcase and was having a good time on vacation using the poor peoples' money."
"He could walk better than they said."
"He wasn't in the coffin when they buried him. Instead, they put in all the papers that proved he sold us out to the Japs."
Got the picture? There was no love lost.
Meanwhile, she thought Harry Truman was "fresh." President Eisenhower was a nice man but too old to be President. And John F. Kennedy? She'd sneer with one word.
My grandmother actually thought Kennedy was trying to convert the entire country to the Roman Catholic Church. And, of course, she had a story to back it up. She loved to tell it over and over and over.
One of her cousins was a housekeeper and she happened to have a Polish last name. Well, years before, she got a job working for the Kennedy clan when they lived in Bronxville. But, one day, when Grandma's cousin was allegedly talking about going to church in front of matriarch Rose Kennedy, she mentioned trying a new Lutheran church. According to Grandma, Mama Rose went nuts.
"But you have a Polish last name. You're not Catholic?"
When Grandma's cousin shook her head, the story ends with Rose firing her from her job. That tale carried through with my grandmother for years. And it would always be punctuated with...
"Those damn Kennedys."
Grandma could never say the name "Kennedy" without using the word "damn" before it.
So, amidst all this political rhetoric in my home, what's a kid to think? And how does he register?
On that very first day in City Hall, I registered as a...wait for it...Republican. But, I'm here to tell you that I hold no major binds and ties to that party. Over the course of my life, I have voted for a myriad of candidates from all sides of the aisle. You see, part of my education came from my American History teacher in high school.
Back then, she reminded me of an old spinster lady. I've done a Google search and she is apparently still with us. My math tells me she was only in her mid 30s when I had her, but she looked ancient at the time.
Miss Castriota was an odd sort. She has this brusque manner and, if she caught you chewing gum, she charged you a dime. Kids who had only heard of her feared being in her class. But I thought she had a terrific take on American History and, most particularly, Presidential history. Around Election Day, she deviated from the textbook to give us some non-judgmental thoughts on whoever was running that year.
"When you finally get a chance to vote, just remember to do your home work."
I knew what she was saying. And, since then, I have devoured lots of books on lots of past Presidents. As a result of Miss Castriota's challenge, I have always assumed a very bipartisan and independent stance on viewing Presidential candidates. I have voted for both sides. Indeed, no single person made a deeper impact on my political stance than Miss Castriota.
And I think about her mantra every four years. Indeed, I've come a long way since my first vote in the hallway where I was in the second grade. I'm 3,000 miles away now and, when I registered to vote in California, I looked at the very same party affiliation question again. This time, I went a different route.
NO PARTY AFFILIATION....check.
Here's how different voting is here in Los Angeles. In the past few years, my polling place was in somebody's garage around the corner. This prompted me for the first time to vote by mail. And my ballot is already being counted. If you want to know which way I went, come back to this blog on Tuesday. But I followed the same voices from the past. I listened to the words of Miss Castriota. I did my homework. But, also, for the very first time, I remembered the words that were frequently heard in my home.
"They all stink."
Whatever. Just go vote yourself. And, hopefully, you, too, have done your home work.
Dinner last night: Penne with marinara sauce.