So I Stayed

Fred Tomasello Jr.
Guest Contributor

“Shoeshine Boy” was Dad’s first job. Today, I still have his wooden shoeshine box, a buffing rag, a couple of large horsehair brushes, cans of polish, applicator and the infamous razor strop that is now a collector’s item.  

Me, our Dad and my sister Norma, circa 1955, before Nancy and Angie, our twin sisters, and my brother Joe were born.

In the Army, Dad learned to cut hair and was a barber for a few years before transitioning to hair dresser at Maas Brothers Department Store, then a beautician and finally managing his own beauty salon, Madison Hair Stylists in downtown Tampa, Florida.

As you can decipher from the photo above, Dad knew how to dress well and was always quite serious. My face shows a significant bit of discomfort about my life in general at that time.

The razor strop had a lot to do with that. 

My father’s wooden shoeshine box, including the infamous razor strop.

Dad used that thick, short leather belt to spank me often. When I misbehaved, Mom would say, “Wait until your dad gets home! You’re gonna get it!” Meaning the strop. If the incident couldn’t wait until Dad got home, Mom would take off her shoe and spank me with that. Dad and Mom quit using their hands to “spank” me because my bony elbows would hurt them when I became skillful at parrying their blows. Mom resorted to her shoe or whatever else was handy, like a hair brush, a rolled up magazine, or a long wooden spoon or spatula. Of course, one beating from Mom guaranteed two when Dad got home.

One day, Dad was burning some trash in our back yard and I got a bright idea. I grabbed the razor strop and threw it into the fire. Dad saw what I had done and used a small branch to lift the strop out of the fire. The leather was still smoking when Dad spanked my butt with that hot razor strop. To this day, I wish I had a video of that event so I could post it on Facebook for all my friends to see. Many Dads in our neighborhood during that era had belts or straps or wooden paddles that were used for discipline and punishment. Today, they’d be locked in jail if their kids reported such beatings to the authorities.

In Catholic school from kindergarten to the 5th grade, under their daily threat of corporal  punishment, sins and Hell, I grudgingly learned three of the most amazing and valuable subjects necessary for success in America: Reading, Writing and Arithmetic. When I transferred to public school from the 6th grade on, I was well ahead of my peers and often my teachers, so I hardly ever opened a textbook. 

In the 7th grade, I got another bright idea: I was ready to leave home because I was disciplined so often and forced to work. Armed with my rudimentary 3 R’s, I wanted to challenge life on my own. In addition to the physical beatings, Dad forced us work for our 25 cent a week allowances. I did yard work while my sister Norma worked in the house helping Mom. She and I took turns washing dishes. To me, that was the most unkind, humiliating and unmanly task ever forced upon a macho male living in West Tampa, Florida. 

I wanted out. 

So at dinner that evening, I made my case to Dad and Mom that I intended to leave home. Dad stared at me, silent, with the same face you see in that pic above. He grunted, looked down at his plate of food and continued eating.

The next day, at dinner (where we ate what was served or didn’t eat at all), Dad announced he had spoken to our neighbor across the street and they had a job lined up for me so I could work and leave home as requested.

“What’s the job?” I asked, shocked that Dad would let me go so easily.

“He sails for the Merchant Marines. Their ship needs an oiler. So pack some clothes in a pillowcase and you can get the hell out of here tomorrow afternoon.”

“A pillow case? Why can’t I use one of your suitcases?”

“Buy your own damn suitcase when you get paid,” Dad snarled.

“An oiler? On a ship? What’s that?”

“How the hell do I know. I guess you walk around the engine room with a can of oil and oil whatever needs oiling. He says he can take you on their next trip to South America. You’ll be gone for about a month, live on the ship and when you come back to Port Tampa, you can find your own apartment near the docks since you don’t want to live here.”

That night in bed, my excitement about leaving home for freedom and adventure at the age of 13 soon turned to fear of the unknown. I crumbled. At breakfast the next morning, I told everyone I changed my mind and would like to stay home with the family.

Dad looked at me with that exact same face and said, “OK, you can stay here if you follow my rules. Keep being a pain in the ass and I’ll throw you out myself. You can leave whenever you want to leave.”

So I stayed. 

Many things in our culture and society have changed since then, some for the better and some for the worse. Even though I rebelled at Dad’s disciplinary tactics and rules, looking back on my decision to stay was a good one. Knowing I had the freedom to leave anytime I wanted, the yoke of Dad’s rules and accepting responsibility for my actions rested more easily on my shoulders.

I graduated High School with a “D” average and was accepted into the University of South Florida under Academic Warning, which meant that if I scored a “D” or lower in any class, I was out of school. Since Mom and Dad were taking care of five of us kids at a time, Dad agreed to pay for my first year of college at the Dorm so I could have the best chance of succeeding. 

That’s when he gave me the shoeshine kit, on move-in day at the dormitory.

“One year, Freddy,” he said, “I’ll pay for one year. After that you’re on your own. You can shine shoes for a living like I did. You gotta always have a job.  Always keep your shoes shined, stay neat and clean and do your best because you’re on your own now. I’ve got four other kids to take care of.”

So I scratched my name and address on the big shoe brush, “Fred Tomasello, 337 Beta Hall” in case I lost it. I didn’t, studied long and hard, and became the first Tomasello to graduate from college. 

Also inside the kit was the damn razor strop, a signal to me that Dad had changed his style of discipline. Even though he insisted all of us siblings make it on our own in this world, he was always ready to lend a helping hand, physically or financially. And to this day I am forever grateful.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad.

I tried to apply the same strategy of physical discipline to my family, threatening to use the strop I always left hanging in plain sight but only using the palm of my hand for spankings. Times had changed so much more. I was looked upon as an ancient abusive barbarian, and today I remain alienated from my three children, nine grandchildren and God knows how many great-grandchildren.

Years later, on the afternoon of December 9, 2015, Mom, Norma and I followed Dad’s ambulance from the hospital to Hospice.

He died a few hours later at 12:20 a.m. on December 10, 2015.

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