CHAPTER 10: THE CALABRESE SPARTANS

In 1962, Twentieth Century Fox released the movie The 300 Spartans with Richard Egan and Sir Ralph Richardson. Though critics thought the film sucked, we thought, as ten-year olds, that the movie was the greatest movie since Ben-Hur. As we all know now, thanks to the movie remake in 2007, the Spartans fought to the last man at Thermopylae in 480BC. The Spartans endured pain without crying out or screaming. They wore scarlet cloaks and their helmets were the coolest.

After seeing the movie, we became library rats, learning as much as we could about the Spartans. We read about the Spartan boy who stole a fox and placed it under his tunic. When approached by Spartan authorities, he died, bitten to death by the fox, without screaming out. Our greatest joy, however, derived from the discovery that the Spartans had colonized southern Italy including Calabria. We were descendants of the Spartans!

Not true! Many years later, after more extensive research I discovered that we were descendants of the Byzantine Empire–not quite as sexy as the Spartans.

We eagerly adopted the Spartan lifestyle, which became a source of consternation to our strict parents. Our regimen was legendary. We beat each other daily with clothes hangers without crying out. We perfected our sword play with wooden swords we made. We transformed garbage can lids into our shields, which we decorated with the famous Greek letter lambda in the center. At the age of ten, we had no idea what the upside down V stood for, but it was cool nonetheless. We vandalized garage doors in the neighborhood with lambdas. We drew lambdas on the walls of Cameron School across the street. Only later in my Ancient Greece course in college did I discover the rationale of the mythical upside down V. It was a good thing too because we ten year olds would have found “Lakedaemonians” much tougher to pronounce than Spartans.

The next time we got punished by our parents, we stood at attention and didn’t cry out in pain. Our parents got pissed because they must have derived some pleasure at seeing us cry when punished. For months, we reacted to punishment the Spartan way. Our parents didn’t know what to do. Then, one day the Calabrese-Spartan Empire collapsed, just as the Spartan Empire crumbled at the Battle of Leuctra in 371BC.

Let me backup for moment before describing the collapse of the Calabrese-Spartan Empire.

Even though we were ten-year-old Spartans, we were still Catholics. On Good Friday, Gene and I decided to reenact the Crucifixion in the back yard. Gene’s sister, my cousin Pam, a couple of years younger than we were, wanted to be included too. We convinced Pam that the best role was to be Christ. We were going to play the role of the Roman soldiers.

We tied Pam’s arms and legs to a huge cross we constructed. We leaned the cross against the wall and started shouting: “Crucify him, crucify him!” We started poking Pam with spears we had made. Pam suddenly realized that volunteering to play Christ was a bad idea. “Crucify him, crucify him!” After one too many pokes, the cross moved! It started to fall forward. Pam screamed and we couldn’t stop the fall because the cross plus Pam was too heavy for us. Pam landed on her face, crying as she lay there. We picked her up, untied her and apologized profusely but it was too late. Aunt Pat ran out the door and found daughter crying, bleeding—her face as dirty as it could be. We were severely punished and grounded though Easter.

Every Good Friday, I call Pam long distance from San Diego. After she answers the phone, I yell: “Crucify him, crucify him!” She laughs, but I can still sense that she hasn’t quite forgiven us.

Now, let’s return to the fall of the Calabrese-Spartan Empire. My cousin Gene, for some inexplicable reason, vandalized St. Bartholomew Catholic School where he was a reluctant student. He spray painted his name on the school walls! How dumb could he be? It wasn’t like Gene to do something that dumb. If he had signed anyone’s name, it would have been mine or Pam’s. We would have gotten punished in his place and he would have laughed at our misfortune. But no, he was about to be punished and the Spartan code was going to be tested once again.

I’m getting ahead of myself again.

Uncle Gene and Aunt Pat got called and they went before the principal. We’re talking a big, fat nun. She was meaner than the nun at the orphanage in the movie Blues Brothers. She read Uncle Gene and Aunt Pat the riot act as if she were talking to students at St. Bart’s. They were going to have to pay for damages and Gene was suspended.

When Uncle Gene got home, my cousin anticipated the forthcoming punishment. He stood at attention Spartan-style, confident that he could withstand any punishment silently and stoically.  Gene was in for the shock of his life.

Uncle Gene didn’t hit him! He went after Gene’s most valued position: his drum set. It was a drum set he had saved for, collecting bottles for months after which he took them to the store for a two-cent refund.

He drop kicked the bass drum. “Take that Spartan!” He screamed at Gene. Next, he put his fist through the snare drum. “Take that Spartan!” Gene, once standing at attention, started to slump. Finally, Uncle Gene, in a feat of strength that I’d never seen before (except on the Jack La Lanne Show), bent the cymbal in half. “Take that Spartan!” Gene started crying like we did in the old days. Gene was beaten and I was afraid for my future as a Spartan.

The age of the Calabrese Spartans was just about over.

Soon after the St. Bart’s incident, I got punished by my dad for arriving home late Sunday afternoon. I needed to be home by 5pm to take a bath, put on my uniform, and return to Bishop Quarter Military Academy by 7pm. It was already 6pm and my dad was panicked. My Aunt Mary Ann, trying to protect me, had me climb the back stairs where I jumped into the awaiting bath tub, pretending like I had arrived long before 6pm.

My dad rushed into the bathroom and started wailing on me, water splashing all over the place. I started crying and screaming. Gone was my Spartan bravado, just like Gene’s a few days earlier. On the back porch, Gene was laughing, knowing I was late because of him.

The age of the Calabrese Spartans was over for good.

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About growingupcalabrese

Professor of French and Italian at San Diego State University
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