Karl - 'A Day Only Years Keep at Bay'

by Karl R. Bossi

Karl - 'A Day Only Years Keep at Bay'

Romeo and Pia at their 25th anniversary party in 1954.

Nearly 50 years ago, when the fateful shot rang out, the day was cool and overcast, a gloomy spring day. Not yet a man, no longer a child, I was only hours away from attending my high school senior prom. On spring break from the all-boys Boston Technical High, I sat alone upstairs reading in the spacious study of our hundred-year-old historic house. In the White House Ike campaigned for another term; a time of prosperity and peace kept the country calm. Beside me, a radio blared Elvis Presley's first big hit, "Heartbreak Hotel."

Downstairs, a noise broke the silence. Mum screamed for me, a hysterical plea. Never before had she sounded so upset. A trembling hand waved for me to follow. Mumbled words, "Something happened," as we ran outside to the garage. She beat me to the side door and pushed it open. There in the dank space lay a scene my brain could not grasp; my heart beat wildly in my chest. On the cold, gray concrete floor my father laid flat on his back with his eyes closed. A growing puddle of garnet-red blood seeped from his head. A few months before, the man we kids called Pop, the head of a successful construction company, had turned 49. But now he was gone; he didn't say goodbye.

In the month of April, depression and death by suicide often go hand in hand. The disease of depression, if allowed to progress, can be as serious as any brain tumor, diabetes, or cancer. The road to recovery for someone severely depressed is long and difficult and requires a combination of psychotherapy and modern drugs to reach a cure. In the 1950s, little was known about this crippling malady. Those who kill themselves should never be stigmatized for their lack of character or in death, branded a coward. They can be compared to a victim of terminal cancer, one who has no choice.

After Pop shot himself, the sedative prescribed by our family doctor left me groggy and virtually mute, alone and grieving in my small bedroom at the top of the stairs. I did my best to cope with the tragedy on my own. Donald and Roger, my two older brothers, were away on Air Force duty. The oldest, Donald was a first lieutenant and a B-52 crewmember, an electronic countermeasures operator in California. And Roger, an airman first class, served on the island of Formosa near its capital, Taipei. Fluent in Chinese, this taciturn bachelor brother had a job eavesdropping on mainland Red China radio traffic. Only Donald, my brusque sibling, and Betty, his outgoing wife, flew home for the wake and the solemn Catholic funeral mass. Burial in the Church went on in spite of his suicide, an act typically not condoned. Betty and Pop were close and it was apparent his sudden death devastated her. Too far away to return, Roger had unwittingly said goodbye to Pop for the last time. The terse telegram from the Red Cross announcing Pop's death came as a terrible blow to this young man on the other side of the world.

My father, Romeo, or Romey to his friends, and my mother, Pia, grew up next door to one other in Dorchester near Upham's Corner. Broad-shouldered and stocky later in life, Romey had dark, soulful eyes. A reserved man, a perfectionist in every way, his keen intellect and analytical mind had been honed in college. As he matured, his head of dark, wavy hair began to thin. He kept his hair slicked-back and shiny with splashes of his favorite hair tonic, Kreml, an odd-smelling brew made with more oil than alcohol. To protect our parlor sofa, Mum used to drape a small towel on the spot where his head rested. He stood only five feet, five inches tall; by high school I had a few inches on him. Pop wished he'd been taller, but lacked the right genes. Small hands and feet followed suit, and the size five shoes he wore were available only at children's stores. Yet, in spite of his stature, Romey exhibited an air of hard-charging confidence.

Pop used to recite a familiar German poem to us once learned in school, "Ich weis nicht, was soll es bedeuten, das ich so traurig bin." The German words were foreign to me and I asked, "What does it mean?" In a measured tone, he replied, "I don't know why I'm so sad." His words didn't strike a chord; the reply never meant much to me. But these first two lines spoke of a famous, old German romantic poem, "The Lorelei," about a mythical, medieval siren on the Rhine River who lured sailors to their death. Perhaps Pop related to its message; sadness he carried within and could not express.

Eighteen years after graduating from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology as an architectural engineer, Romey had launched the Bossi Construction Company on a shoestring budget. As the company's president and treasurer, and then treasurer of Boston's Associated General Contractors, Romey totally immersed himself in the construction business. Whenever Pop helped me with my homework, especially math and science, it looked easy. "Remember, Karl; I told your brothers the same thing. Math is the key." We took his advice; all of us majored in math in college.

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When Pop left the house for the last time, he wore a light-brown, salt-and-pepper woolen overcoat and a dark brown fedora; a brimmed, soft hat like other businessmen wore.

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After launching his own business, my father's company erected myriad schools, and municipal and commercial buildings. The additions and new buildings for federal, state and private entities, included the New England Telephone buildings in Weymouth, Lexington and Dedham; a nursing home in Waltham; schools in Boston, Newton, Arlington, Hanover, Melrose, and Watertown; an incinerator plant in Brookline; and a wholesale food terminal in the South End. In 1952, the price tag for the Methuen Tenney High School came in at about a million dollars, a high-value project. Most of them involved fixed-price contracts; the low bidder usually got the job. A perfectionist, Romey manually estimated the labor and materials costs using the blueprints and materials lists, a laborious tedious process. He played by the rules, winning new contracts on the merits of each bid alone.

Romey had been a successful, respected, building contractor until the final stages of one last contract. An addition to the East Watertown Junior High School ran into cash-flow trouble when the Building Committee under direction of the architectural firm withheld permission to pay progress payments. Final approval of the punch list involving open contract items had dragged on for months in spite of my father's best efforts. Romey lacked sufficient funds to pay the sub-contractors and other creditors. For whatever reason, he elected not to fight. His attorney, Vince Hennessy, whose office was on State Street in Boston, gave Romey the bad news that only bankruptcy remained. A few years later while in college, I visited Mr. Hennessey to seek the truth. Nothing surfaced in his office that gave me any solace. Years later, a former key employee and construction engineer, Tom Marcucelli, put the puzzle together for me.

Bankruptcy had to be the only way out of the financial debacle confronting the ten-year-old enterprise, the focal point of his world. To face failure and disgrace and live with such a personal defeat overwhelmed this product of the Great Depression. Romey assumed that the fine reputation cultivated over the years as a builder and a man of integrity would forever be tarnished; peers, creditors and potential competitors would abandon him. Through personal experiences, Romey knew firsthand the consequences of going broke.

When Pop left the house for the last time, he wore a light-brown, salt-and-pepper woolen overcoat and a dark brown fedora; a brimmed, soft hat like other businessmen wore. Later, a rumor circulated that he had dropped a letter in the mailbox addressed to his wife. Mum emphatically denied ever getting a note. Most people who commit suicide never leave a message behind nor express a death wish.

Close to the end, Pop must have felt helpless, isolated and in deep despair, yet at peace for the end was near. Being incapable of sharing any of these feelings, coupled with an impulsive nature, didn't help. Although people close to him could tell that he loved his wife, just like his stoic partner in life, Pop rarely demonstrated it. Romey had never had much use for religion nor ever expressed any faith in a higher being. It's clear now that Pop was a sick man, locked in the tight grip of severe depression, powerless to accept the possibility of divine retribution.

At the wake inside the Morrissey Brothers Funeral Home, many of Pop's workers, our friends, relatives and some of my teachers had come to pay respect. "Here comes The General", a term some of his men used whenever Romey appeared on a job site to check on its progress. Near the casket, many of them wiped tears away and expressed disbelief about The General's death.

The black funeral hearse with its bronze casket moved slowly down Columbia Road, Blue Hill Avenue and Franklin Park to the American Legion Highway. No one spoke on the way to the cemetery. They buried Romey next to his immigrant parents, Romeo and Rosa, beside the massive, granite monument in the old family plot at the New Calvary Cemetery. As the casket was lowered into the damp grave, I picked up some wet dirt and scattered it on the lid. Mum dropped a last rose into the hole. A deep sadness overwhelmed me, and a knot formed in my stomach. As I turned away from the grave, I thought, "Why did you do it?"

For many years, I cried myself to sleep. And when people asked me how he died, I'd say, "A heart attack. Yeah, he was pretty young," my canned response to avoid replaying the shocking footage of his death and answering the probing questions. After Pop died, the only solace for me was my mother's words, "My dear, in every life a little rain must fall." Whenever Pop's name came up, my older brothers changed the subject. But, the reason why Romey died needed an answer. It took me 50 years to confront what had happened.

Karl Bossi was born and raised in Boston and after graduating from Northeastern University he made a career in the United States Air Force. After serving in Japan, Vietnam, Spain and Turkey, he retired as a lieutenant colonel and became an aerospace logistic engineer. Karl is a published award-winning photographer and photojournalist who lives in Venice, Fla. His historical memoir, JUST CALL ME MOOSE! Growing Up Italian in Americawas published in 2005.