Labor agitators, crime bosses, thieves, hijackers, abusive fathers, terrorists, drug lords, prostitutes, crooked politicians, hillbillies, fallen nuns and priests, itinerant musicians…these are the people who populate Chris Cahill’s young life.
His grandfather is “Boss” Colin Sullivan, a self-styled 1960s Robin Hood. Little of anything legal or illegal goes on in the 42nd precinct without his knowledge or approval. Christopher’s father, Rory Cahill is Boss Sully’s hulking chief lieutenant, more comfortable enforcing his authority on his women and children than his crews. Christopher’s older brother, Liam, has convinced himself Chris is responsible for the death of their mother, and is determined to make him suffer for it, though the cause of her death had nothing to do with his birth. Rather, it was her injuries from either jumping from her bedroom window, or being pushed, that caused his early delivery.
In a moribund mill town fractured by racial and religious tensions, Chris discovers the first rule of survival: run away. His best friend becomes a farm girl who has a completely different idea of what running away means.
Too soon, though, the protective bastions Boss Sully has spent his life to build come crashing down at the hands of a fickle Rory Cahill, forcing Chris to battle for his own independence rather than accept a life of institutions and foster homes so he can discover the fate of his missing friend.
RULE NUMBER ONE is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2021 by Ronald De Torre
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without the written permission of the publisher except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages.
RORY AND THE REDHEAD
In the late 1950s and 1960s, Colin Sullivan was the undisputed boss of Old Erin: the predominantly Irish, 42nd precinct of New Glasgow. He was simply, and in most cases, affectionately known as Boss Sully.
He came to his position thanks to a long association with the labor movement beginning in the early 1920s as a young steel worker. He was outspoken, and determined, and was not shy in those days to make an example of scabs hired to break the unions. His enthusiasm and dedication became known to labor leaders like Philip Murray, John Brophy, Tom Kennedy, Thomas McMahon, and he was lauded by non-other than John L. Lewis himself, once.
No union contract was signed, no cop on the beat was hired, no business or real estate deal was closed, no labor contract ratified, no bet taken, trick turned, contraband moved, vote counted, pint of stout sold, joint toked, and not so much as a dime was dropped in a vending machine in the 42nd precinct without Sullivan’s knowing or tacit approval. Even New Glasgow’s Bishop, Martin Houlihan, bowed to his wishes when it came to parish priests assigned to Saint Brigid’s. If the man was too young, too liberal, or too handsome, he would be quietly transferred to another section of town, or out of town altogether.
The one person he could not rule was his youngest daughter, Maureen Eileen Sullivan (Reenie to her friends).
In 1960, the city of New Glasgow, clinging to the valleys of the worn plateaus surrounding the Carbonite River, was a thriving steel town, its production rivaling Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Pueblo. Mill owners would say that the daytime color of the sky – hazy gray – was the color of money. They were proud of their progress on the environmental front though, for in the nineteen fifties there were days when the skies would be an impenetrable black.
Just like in those other cities, the jobs in the steel plants attracted immigrants from Europe and the southern United States, all seemingly content to keep to themselves in parts of town carved out to be their own. Former southern share-croppers took over Currytown, the Poles settled near Panther Hill (which, of course, later became Polish Hill), the Scottish near Hillman Park, Italians along Railroad Street (Little Italy), and German Jewish refugees took Ransom Hill, while the Irish took over the 42nd Precinct, which later would be called by some, Old Erin.
Perhaps Colin Sullivan’s greatest disappointment in life up to that time was his inability to father sons. However, his first three daughters were proper Irish girls: obedient to the Catholic faith, including the rules about being deferential and submissive to their father and husbands. Some close to the family suspect Maureen’s willfulness and eventual fate aged Sullivan prematurely.
The source of Reenie’s sharp tongue and rebellious nature were a puzzle and mystery to the Sullivan family. She railed at having to wear dresses, asking why all boys had to do to see her underpants was to lift up her skirt while if she wanted to see theirs, she had to yank down their trousers? She always managed to wear her standard school skirt just a little lower than the other girls forcing the nuns at Saint Bega’s School for Girls to constantly scold her about the tail of her blouse hanging out. When told girls had to cover their heads in church, instead of wearing a hat, she opted for a simple kerchief pinned to her head, but instead of leaving it where her mother pinned it, would reposition the thing as far to the back of her head as was “technically” allowed, even though no one could ever give her a satisfactory definition of “covering” the head. She openly admitted to making up sins for the confessional because it was no one’s business to know what she really had done; that if God knew she was sorry, no one else had to know. She questioned every doctrine told to her in religion classes, and every rule in her Baltimore Catechism until she got an explanation, and even then seemed unsatisfied.
In school, she would stomp her foot in fury if denied the opportunity to study mathematics, science or music because they weren’t meant for girls. She had no interest in improving her penmanship and was indifferent to spelling and grammar. Although her teachers insisted she was bright and intelligent, her grades were abysmal.
At home, if her father asked her to fetch him a beer, she would ask if his arm was broken. Teaching her to do laundry was a disaster: clothes would get tangled and torn going through the ringer, and items drying on the line in the back yard would mysteriously become soiled with various disgusting things that may have been mud, but may have been bird or dog poop. In the kitchen, cookies, pancakes, and bread were either scorched on the outside or liquid in the middle, and potatoes were usually hard as a rock in the center. If mashed, they had the consistency of gravelly concrete.
She turned up her nose at the Sullivan family’s favorite music – Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Dennis Day, or most anything sung with Mitch Miller or heard on The Lawrence Welk Show. Her tastes leaned more toward the likes of Ronnie Drew and the Dubliners, but ranged in a more rebellious way toward Richie Valens, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Later, she accepted the Beatles, but was more interested in the ones who followed after they’d opened the door: Dave Clark Five, the Animals, and the Rolling Stones. Her guilty pleasures came from the “communist” labeled folk-singers like Phil Ochs, Ian & Sylvia, and, of course, Bob Dylan
– listening with friends (some not even Irish) in dark, sometimes forbidden corners of the 42nd, Little Italy, or Currytown.
Colin Sullivan was not shy to meet out corporal punishment for her rebelliousness, but eventually, Reenie would be unmoved, no longer crying, but taking it stone-faced, and eventually stalking defiantly off to her room.
In his frustration, Boss Sully may have believed all his problems with Reenie would be solved if he could find her a husband who could tame her. Tragically, he would find himself to be wrong in thinking this.
In 1952, the movie “The Quiet Man” was released. It starred John Wayne as the stoic man-with-a-past (Sean Thornton), Maureen O’Hara as the spunky, fiery red-head (Mary Kate Danaher), and Victor Mclaglen (Will Danaher) as Maureen’s over-protective brother.
Colin Sullivan’s daughter, Maureen, in her youth, would have reminded many people (who did not have to live with her day-in and day-out) of the movie Mary Kate: spunky, inquisitive, free-spirited, with a yearning to make more of her life than to cook, clean, and raise the children of some ignorant provincial. In the movie, Thornton and Will resolve their differences, and Sean and Mary Kate were able to conquer the difficulties of their past and desires to become a loving couple.
Colin Sullivan was not Will Danaher, nor was Rory William Cahill anything like Sean Thornton. Wayne’s character was a brute with a heart of gold. No one ever accused Rory Cahill of having a heart.
The Presidential election of 1960 spurred the rise of Rory Cahill. There was little concern in the 42nd precinct about the ultimate victor there: not only was John Fitzgerald Kennedy Irish, he was Catholic, but the turnout was unprecedented thanks to the efforts of Rory Cahill. But his efforts weren’t only in the 42nd: he was welcomed in Little Italy, Currytown, Panther Hill, and even Chinatown.
In New Glasgow, bars and taverns were ordered to close when the polls opened, so Cahill went to every watering hole and convinced them to stay open all night the previous day, and close at seven AM election-day morning, before the polls opened. As taverns’ doors closed, Cahill’s men were there to meet the clientele with five-dollar bills and transportation to polling places, even if they resided outside the 42nd. He conspired with Bishop Houlihan to allow all-night vigils to pray for Kennedy’s success, complete with pancake breakfasts, donuts and coffee, so when the polls opened, his people were at the churches with five-dollar bills and rides to the polls. For two months after the election, the employee roll of Cahill’s Plumbing doubled. Republicans even accused him of being able to raise the dead in order to cast a vote against tricky Dick Nixon. Truth be told, what riled them most was that he was responsible for raising double the amount of dead in the 42nd than the Republicans managed to resurrect in the suburbs around New Glasgow, and his efforts to get voters to turn out dwarfed what the Republicans were able to do in their districts by gerrymandering and restrictive voter registration.
At one polling place, there was a well-dressed middle-aged man at a table handing out Nixon literature and buttons. The man was touting the benefits of fiscal responsibility, anti-communism, and trickle-down economy. When Rory approached, the voters around the table suddenly disappeared. The middle-aged man stared icicles back defiantly at the taller, wide-shouldered, square-headed, raw-boned bulk of the bigger man whose hands were clenched like sledge hammers. His carefully groomed black hair waved in the still air of the city as if trying to escape the heat of his rage. The stare from his deep, dark eyes in the middle ages would have given young women in corsets a sudden case of the vapors, but sent the hands of men to seek the handles of their daggers. When the Republican held out a pamphlet, Rory told him calmly, “You’re not appreciated here.”
“I have every right to be here,” the man replied despite Cahill’s menacing presence – the man barely glanced at Rory’s balled fist resembling the head of a ten-pound sledge, “My presence here assures that this is a free election, you mackerel-munching, potato-sucking Mick.”
Officer O’Meara, at Cahill’s elbow, had the unenviable duty of mumbling that the Republican was correct in his legal interpretation, and while his racial and religious slurs were unnecessary and crude, they were not illegal.
Rory nodded, and walked away, but left one of his volunteers. If anyone neared the Nixon table that day, they were approached with a friendly suggestion that they would be better off getting their information from the Democratic table.
In the evening, after the polls had closed, one well-dressed middle-aged man did not return home. The police found him the next day in an alley with two broken kneecaps. The story he told was of four large men he could not identify who attacked him, while a large, square-headed man with dark eyes stood in the shadows.
Some described Cahill as a giant-economy-sized Rudy Valentino, with his ruggedly handsome face and blue eyes so dark they were almost purple. Flirty teenage girls at times would feel faint if his lofty gaze lingered on them, breathlessly explaining later that he had “bedroom” eyes: eyes that silently called “come hither,” inviting them into his crushing embrace. Cahill’s voice was deep and resonant, capable of hypnotic praise or booming castigation. At union meetings he never failed to rally support for his positions.
Why Rory Cahill was captivated by Colin Sullivan’s youngest daughter is up to conjecture. Perhaps it was the challenge of taming her, like a rancher might relish the challenge of breaking a wild stallion. The rancher or stockman might admire the animal’s strength, independence and spirit, but would never be satisfied until all that strength and spirit was under his control.
In 1960, Reenie was only fourteen, but comparing her to a young wild stallion would be misleading. In no way could she be called coltish or awkward. Her physical maturity caused the nuns at Saint Bega no shortage of consternation, causing them at one point to ask for a copy of her birth records from the Hospital of Saint Funech, and further questioned their accuracy.
For his part, Sullivan wanted to reward his prize recruit. Making him a ward boss was the obvious step, but if he could take his unruly daughter off his hands, so much the better. He encouraged Cahill to court Maureen, and since she was schooled at a convent, her main exposure to men and boys were the men and boys who worked for and with her father: steel workers, teamsters, electricians, plumbers, or anyone who could be represented by a union, or wanted to be represented.
Cahill’s unofficial courting of Maureen Sullivan began in 1962. He became a frequent dinner guest, and would stay late discussing business or strategy with Boss Sullivan. During the evening he would complement Maureen on her hair, clothes, or clever dinner repartee. Reenie, indifferent to his bedroom eyes, would receive these with a skeptical narrowing of hers, and a turning of her head. She never thanked him, though her father continually criticized her for the slight. She treated Cahill no differently than the other men who came to the house, keeping her distance and silence.
A wedding took place, with the non-blushing bride reciting her wedding vows through clenched teeth only after Cahill assured her if she did not remain silent otherwise, her friends (and he assured her he knew where they all lived, and for whom their fathers worked) would be in a great deal of trouble, while Mary Sullivan, the bride’s mother, sat stone-faced with disapproval in her pew. Reenie’s sisters and brothers-in-law curiously did not attend.
When their first child was born, Rory named him William Ryan Cahill, and declared they would call him Liam. Maureen had no say in the matter. She refused to even nurse the child. Cahill was forced to arrange for the services of a wet nurse and had to hire another woman to care for Liam once the child came home.
In the two years that followed, Maureen Eileen Sullivan Cahill was admitted to the Hospital of Saint Funech on numerous occasions, suffering from bruises and broken bones, even bald patches on her scalp. The last time forced the premature birth of her second child, named by his grandfather, Christopher Brendan Cahill, when, as Rory claimed, Reenie accidentally fell through her second story bedroom window.
After three months in an incubator in the obstetrics intensive care ward, Christopher came home in the care of a private registered nurse.
Reenie did not return home, pronounced dead at Saint Funech. Mary Sullivan left New Glasgow with the body of her youngest daughter, and every photograph of her that was in the home she shared with Boss Sully. Only one photograph of Reenie remaining in New Glasgow, and that was the one jealously guarded by Liam Cahill.
This was the foundation upon which Christopher’s life was built.