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GP 26 April 2006: UnCanny Tom Canning

Comrades.  The late historian Stephen Ambrose never knew Thomas A. Canning, but you can bet he wish he did.  On June 7, 1944, Tom and the 413th Anti-Aircraft Battalion landed on Normandy Beach and worked their way through the storied battles of World War II into Germany, right up to the surrender.  Tom did time around the Battle of the Bulge, the very stuff Ambrose wrote about in Band of Brothers.  Perhaps now that they have both gone over to the other side—Tom left us on March 9, 2003—they will meet up somewhere for lunch. 

It got grim along the way.  The Germans did not go down easily.  Inland, Tom writes of “the night of 16th, after one of the hardest days I can remember, we set up as tank destroyers, but by midnight the Germans were about to overrun our position, so we headed north to Monschau in support of the Ninth Division.” 

But, more importantly, Tom was a pal who could have figured in Ambrose’s lesser known, brief, best book: Comrades, Brothers, Fathers, Heroes, Sons, Pals.  Here the historian painted all the hues of male friendship, the real theme of all his work.  Kinship was something Tom had, as all his 1,000 friends and extended family would attest.  Tom was a pal.  He will account for at least 2 chapters in the Book of Unsung Heroes, an elegy yet to be written.  He was the real McCoy

Perhaps it was the Irish in him.  The Irish are the best politicians in the world, because they have the gift of friendship, a warmth that can draw them close to any man.  Of course, tragically, they are often, as well, their own worst enemies, as the cumulative violence in Northern Island too amply recites.  But this bile that pits countrymen against each other never took hold of the Canning family. 

Verses in a Paper Dummy.  His offspring are just out with a book of his prose and poetry, sadly in a limited edition that most of the world will not see.  You would find it a far better missal for modern life than those slim-pickins-self-help books that dot the bestseller lists.  He kept a journal and penned verse for every occasion and almost every mood.  These add up to a marvelous chronicle of life from World War II to the end of the century, and a discriminating but not unkindly peek at doings in and around New York City.  After the War, he only spent four years or so away from the Empire State, working for a Canadian nickel company, which he finally quit since he could not reconcile his principles with their principals.  After all, he had a heart of gold, not nickel. 

He then deigned to become one of our colleagues and closest friends, and later yet contributed many sweetmeats to our poetry section as our Global Province Laureate.  To read him is to remember not only him but all the strands that made New York the Gotham City.  When it is a rich place, it’s all because there are some inhabitants who are more than worker bees, who bring more to the workplace than the daily grind gives back to them.  New York is taken to be a greedy, pushy place, but there are journeymen who are cut from a different piece of cloth.  He gave more than he got. 

A New Yorker.  A witty wordsmith, he was a frequent contributor to the “Metropolitan Diary” in the New York Times.  There, on February 18, 1986, he exhaled: 

February, month of Presidents,
When I devoutly wish my residence
Were far
away in a tropical clime
And this hot toddy were a gin with lime. 

As well, he could mourn the city passing, as in “Department Stores Departed”: 

Where are the department stores of my youth?
The Apple now has as few as Duluth.

Toll the bell for Altman, Bonwit, and Best;
Each has passed to eternal rest. 

Love of Home.  He loved immensely his home and village, as well he might.  Celebrated in “Home on the Hill” are antic children and a parade of happiness: 

This house, this old, congenial house,
Where countless friends have been received,
Where happy children were conceived,
This house, this antic, crooked house,
Where there seem always to be leaks,
Where we have drunk with life’s great freaks. 

This bower of bliss was set in Sea Cliff, a village as far removed as you can get from the Long Island Expressway, the relentless subdivisions, and the Babel of Babylon, yet still be part of that long, crowded finger of land that sticks out from New York City.  Last we knew, this burgh apart was still a wonderful place.  It’s a beautiful, close, fun town with a history, just the sort of place to raise a family, the Canning family. 

A Funster, Not a Punster.  Canning constantly played with words, and was not above pun on pun.  But he was much too much of a prankster with a twinkling eye, a fun-loving guy, to fall into the studied, precious trap that encases those who work up puns all day long.  Having a rollicking good time was terribly much more important than displays of cleverness.  As he said, “I’ve been a sucker for excess.”  At the Sea Cliff house, when the sauce filled up the veins and guests were gathered all around, peals of laughter and chorus after chorus of show tunes jiggled the windowpanes.  It might be “There is Nothing Like a Dame” or “You’re the Tops.”  How apt that one of his poems is entitled “They Can’t  Take That Away from Me.” 

Holy without a Halo.  As we remember, he began the day with devotional reading and then got on to more earthly matters.  He was thankful for a Pope who celebrated orthodoxy and put rigor back into Roman Catholicism.  But he was too impish, enjoyed too much sticking his finger in the eye of the pompous, to ever wear a halo around his head.  In a mocking letter to William Buckley, published in the National Review, he called for a concerted effort to exorcise the language of the word “gun,” so as not to soil the ears of our children.  He prayed, “Let us all pitch in to disarm our lexicon.”  In another knock on the politically correct, he called for aid and succor for LOSERS (Lost Our Spouses; Eternally Regretful Survivors), demanding a raft of benefits for the nation’s widowers including a Bureau of Widowhood, financial assistance for Widowers on Welfare, federal monies for every school district to “establish a compulsory senior-year course in widower-sensitivity training,” a yearly stipend of $100 to keep up the wife’s cemetery plot, $25 for every child to spend on widower dads on Father’s Day, and a stamp program to underwrite purchases of microwaves for LOSERS.  This is a man who had an infinite supply of comic spears in his arsenal. 

A Christian, he was nonetheless too smart to believe any religion had a monopoly on Christ.  A sinner, he said as many or more mea culpas than the rest of us.  Like St. Thomas the Apostle, this Doubting Thomas was just skeptic enough to warily regard any cant for which he could not find the evidence, yet in the end he accepted the charms of Heaven and steadfast belief. 

Family First.  In 2002, he intoned “Happy April Hours,” where the bliss of the season mixes with the warmth of family near: 

“Love is the bond of lives,” a saint reportedly said.
Reflections of four-seventeen caused that phrase to
    Enter my head.
How beautifully we bonded that magical day;
Five children and their father irrepressibly gay. 

As life grew shorter, he could still feel his contentment.  Just 3 years ago, he was put to rest, the last service said at St. Boniface the Martyr.  In the register of that church, we found an August 2002 note that might have been his, though actually another parishioner, probably one of his buddies, had put it there: 

Having gone thru St Patrick’s school back in 1930 thru 1937 I find it very hard to accept communion in any form other than the host.  Given the current climate of happenings in our religion.  This is another thing I find hard to swallow (no pun intended).  Why not dispense the wafer at one mass weekly.  The earliest mass is the best as that's when most of us 70 and 80 year olds attend. 

In other words, we are quite sure Merry Tom went out with his tongue wagging, about Holy Communion or something else.  After all, he had managed to get a word or two to all of us during his last moments on his death bed.  Things were put in order. 

P.S.  On April 13, 2006 the British novelist Muriel Spark, a convert to Catholicism like a whole clutch of British intellectuals, passed away.  One of her most famous works was Memento Mori, which deals with the intrigues and deceptions that were buried in the lives of aging Brits, but, in the end, shows that death will not be denied.  Memento Mori, “remember you are mortal,” has been an enduring theme in literature.  Her last years were spent in Italy, nearer to the Holy See.  Tom Canning has his own “Memento” version: “With that far country looming every nearer / The earth-bound seems shallow, not important / The transcendental you see much clearer.” 

P.P.S.  At right is a picture of St. Boniface circa 1921, that time well before Long Island got torn apart by the highways of Robert Moses.  This was when Long Island was at its best. 

P.P.P.S.  Literature, poetry, memories, and journalism out of the mainstream, spun by the Cannings of the world, can tell us so much more about who we are and where we came from than most of the celebrated, star-seeking patter we hear from “thought leaders” on the airwaves, courtesy of Don Imus or Oprah.  We have just come across a trove of interviews of thoughtful writers by Robert Birnbaum.  His interviews are often more revealing than the actual work of the authors he queries.  The media has become so disconnected from authenticity (another unspoken reason for the decline of both networks and the newspapers) that we must search elsewhere for truth and meaning. We are wanting to hear from people who know who they are and where they are headed. 

P.P.P.P.S.   Til now, we knew nothing about St. Boniface the Martyr, though ever intrigued by his name.  Born in Devonshire in 680 or so, this Englishman set out to bring Christianity to pagan Europe.  In Germany he took up the mission of spreading the word to the heathen, with very great success, such that Pope Gregory III appointed him archbishop of all Germany beyond the Rhine.  But unconverted tribesmen put him to death at the last.  As one friend likes to say, it’s a long, interesting journey up Mount Everest, but a quick trip down the backside.  Obviously there is much work for him to do on Long Island, should he be resurrected.  We wonder what his nickname was.  Bonnie St. Bon?  To his kids, Tom Canning was “Tony.”

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