A Sacred Right and Duty

By Brad McEwen

As is the case nearly every time we’re facing another presidential election (or any election for that matter), I’ve once again been thinking about Poppy.

And although I didn’t know him all that well, few figures loom as large in my life as my maternal grandfather.

And it seems ever since I was old enough to legally walk into a polling precinct and exercise the most precious of American rights, “Tally” Pasino pops in my head.

Sadly, I was barely 8 when Poppy passed away in 1984, just a few days shy of his 80th birthday, and during most of the intervening years between then and my arrival in 1976, we were fairly well separated by the nearly 2000 mile, 20-hour drive from our house in Sparta, NJ to Grammy and Poppy’s little place in Boca Raton, Fla.

Quite simply, I just didn’t have much opportunity to really get to know him on any kind of deep level. The mystery of him, frankly, has always fascinated me.

But despite that—jumbled in with the sepia-hued memories of his thick and wiry forearms (like chiseled granite after a lifetime of physical labor) or the little garden he and Grammy kept (where I learned you just don’t go picking those shiny red peppers and eating them like grapes)—is the important narrative of his life as I understand it—constantly begging to be examined, digested and honored.

That Natale Pasino was born back in 1904—way across the Atlanta Ocean in northern Italy (I’m told a little fishing village outside of Genoa)—certainly didn’t matter much to me back when I would follow at his heels he puttered around my grandparents’ place, or when he was bouncing me on his tree trunk thighs (nearly 80 years of truly working for a living bulk up the legs as well as the arms).

And it didn’t matter much when seeing mom and Uncle Charlie (her half-brother from Tally’s first marriage, known affectionately to me as “Unc”) shared their tears and precious memories years after his passing.

But as I’ve matured, the carefree days of childhood long having given way to the harsh realities of adulthood, it’s Tally’s immigrant story that seems to always come bubbling up from the surface as I think about the world around me and my place in it.

I wish I had been old enough before he passed to properly understand his “immigrant-ness” (if that’s even a thing) or to maybe coax him into sharing some of his memories of the old country, or of living through the Great Depression, but as it is, I can only draw on the stories I remember Grammy telling me before she too joined Pop in heaven my junior year of high school, or those of my mom, who as she gets older relishes sharing the tales of her past.

Apparently, he had a quiet, introspective nature and wasn’t one to dominate conversation with storytelling about something like himself.

Being the relative of an immigrant is certainly not unique—even if it’s a pretty direct one. Heck my paternal great-grandfather, Gerald F. McEwen, also emigrated here, albeit as an adult and from England, a place that shares for more in common with America than Italy—language chief among them.

In point of fact, there’s likely very few of us living in American today who can’t make that distinction, but for some reason the close connection I have to men like Grandpa McEwen and Tally has always fascinated me—challenging me to consider what drew them to make the journey—whileit often appeared (despite the recent rise of DNA and ancestry tracking products like Ancestry and 23 and Me) that many of my close friends (my wife Tay, whose grandfather was the first of his siblings born in the U.S, excluded) never really expressed to me that they were all that concerned about what life was like for their distant immigrant relatives.

I’m not entirely certain why that’s the case, but I’ve always chalked it up to the fact that many of my friends’ immigrant relatives came to America generations ago, while my grandfather came here during the last great immigrant influx of the early 20 Century—an influx that in many respects helped build the country into the leading industrial nation that it is.

Perhaps it’s because we’ve all seen those old black and white photos—boatloads of immigrants pouring off steamships onto the docks of Ellis Island, or of the old ethnic neighborhoods that used to dot all major cities on the Eastern Seaboard, or of the lunchpail-toting workers perched high atop an in-progress skyscraper.

Or maybe like me, you can recall movies with amazing scenes like those in Francis Ford Copolla’s award winning, 1974 film The Godfather Part II, where a young Vito Corleone (not much older than Tally must have been)—on the run from an Italian gangster and separated from his family an ocean away—spends months in quarantine gazing longingly out of a cell window at the land of the free he still hasn’t quite reached despite having completed his weeks-long journey across the pond.

I bring that movie up specifically as I remember very distinctly watching it with my mom back in my Westover high days and seeing her tear up at the scenes of that lonely little boy trying to figure out where he belongs.

At the time I was baffled—the scenes themselves are not particularly heart-wrenching or hard to watch—but it made sense when mom said it made her think of her dad and what he must have experienced—how scared he must have been at 6 years old, coming to an alien place with only his mother and sisters in tow.

Through that lens, Pop’s journey, to me, is incredible.

Thinking about a relative I’ve met and touched and hugged, but who was old enough to have come through Ellis Island (which closed for good in 1954), has remained an endless source of wonder and fascination throughout my life.

While I’m sad the extreme age difference robbed us of time, and ultimately prevented us from having forged a deeper bond, I’m also extremely thankful I was able to spend time with a man who had lived through things most of us only see in movies or textbooks.

And I’m even more thankful for many of the lessons I’ve learned, and the perspective I have, by pondering Tally Pasino’s life—chief among them, an intense sense of patriotism and a deep love of the country that welcomed him into its bosom and provided the opportunity to live a long, productive, free life, and provide those same things to subsequent generations.

I’m simply blown away that things which happened to a man I barely knew, literally decades ago, are having an impact that’s as powerful in my life today as it must have been for Tally, all those years ago.

And man, those are some incredible things to ponder.

According to the paperwork my mom has managed to hold on to all these years later, the steamship that brought her father here arrived in 1910. That’s right, 110 years ago my 6 year-old grandfather arrived in the land of the free and home of the brave, not speaking a word of English, and not knowing what the future might hold.

While we have no idea how many passengers were on board, or who they were, the ship manifest does show Tally wasn’t alone. He was joined by his mother, and three of his four older siblings—Frank, John and Teresa (great aunt Fran would be born in the states).

As the story goes, Tally’s father, joined by his eldest son Sebastian, came to America first. Tally’s dad had been to America before, when the merchant ship he worked on stopped here and he ended up staying for a time with his older brother Charles who had already immigrated here a few years prior and done well for himself.

When he and Sebastian came back the pair found employment and once they had enough money saved up to shelter and feed themselves, they sent the extra home to Italy, so the rest of the family could purchase steamer tickets and join them in their new home—which, for the Pasinos leaving Italy at the dawn of the last century, was very much the land of the free.

That much has always been clear to me, despite the many other aspects of Tally’s life that remain a mystery to me. In the stories I have been blessed to hear, there was always some reference to the sense of pride Poppy (and his entire family) drew from being an American citizen.

They were proud to be American citizens and engage in the American dream. In fact, my mom said it was such a source of pride, her father and his siblings worked diligently to learn English and speak it without an accent, believing that was the proper way to assimilate and thrive.

“They were very proud to be citizens,” she said. “My dad talked about it a lot, how important it was to him and his brothers and sisters. They were proud and they believed in working hard, contributing, voting. It was a big deal.”

Where we gave it only a passing glance in grade school when we learned about the effects of the industrial revolution, and the social, political and economic upheaval in Europe that led to that huge migration at the turn of the 20th century, for Tally Pasino and his family, those things were real.

The need to flee the growing wave of Italian fascism that grew out of that country’s economic hardships was legit. The feeling that in America you could find not only salvation, but a better future for multiple generations of your family, was palpable to the Pasinos and the thousands of other immigrant families who left their generational homes to come here in search of a better tomorrow.

As soon as I was able to formulate my first words, I always spoke the language of America. I didn’t need to trust a stranger to translate important instructions about where to wait for your boat ride into the unknown, or which line to stand in when being corralled into the holding pens all immigrants of that time had to circulate through before being turned loose into whatever ethnic areas they were lucky enough to know someone in.

Frankly it’s hard for me to even imagine my grandmother—who perhaps had never left her hometown—boarding a ship with her three young children, headed across the Atlantic Ocean to a strange and alien place.

When I was a kid, I learned about the Revolutionary War, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the workings of Congress, etc. during the normal course of matriculating through the U.S. public school system that many shamefully discount and discredit in today’s world.

I didn’t come home after a 12 hour day of hard labor trying to feed my children and then have to spend hours studying up independently so I could pass the test that proved I knew enough about civics to be granted citizenship and a key to the opportunities of America.

When I was 20 and finally allowed to vote in my first presidential election—gleefully hoping to help reelect the former governor of Arkansas, who had dazzled my teenage-self four years earlier blowing sax on the Arsenio Hall Show—I just showed up where my dad said we were supposed to go and filled out a ballot.

I had no idea who any of the local, state or other federal candidates were on that ballot, nor did I care as I blindly picked the names that seemed most pleasant to my ear, but you better believe I was voting.

What I didn’t have to do was double check to make sure my citizenship papers were in order so that I could go the polling precinct and take part in the community I had helped to build with my own blood, sweat and tears.

Like many of his fellow immigrants, Tally’s formal educational journey didn’t go much past the elementary level, him instead having to go to work to help support his parents and siblings.

When many native-born peers were finishing high school and thinking about college, Tally was hoping his hard work in the auto repair shop he’d eventually take over would keep him in good graces with the boss so he could keep his job and take care of his own growing, young family.

Despite what must have been incredible hardships in his early life, mom tells me she never heard him complain. Uncle Charlie (20 years older than my mom from Pop’s first marriage) might have, but he never said so either.

Rather, what they both told me was that my grandfather was an amazing man, one who could probably take your car apart and put it back together in less than a day and have it running better than it did the day it rolled off the assembly line, or who could build a house for his daughter’s young family (that’s still standing today) pretty much by himself.

He was a man whose intense work ethic helped him parlay his experience as a mechanic into running his own auto repair business, which he eventually turned into multiple Dodge dealerships.

Over the years, mom and “Unc” told me about Pop’s service to the Jersey Shore community he loved, his time on the city council, about his work with the local chamber. They told me my grandfather, despite his lack of formal education and his immigrant status, was a pillar of that community.

My Grammy—who didn’t talk much about her late husband when I’d walk through the woods to her Country Place apartment back in middle school for some A&W, sour cream and onion pringles, and lessons in the guitar mastery of Les Paul, Chet Adkins, and Mark Knopfler—simply told me how much she loved him and what a good, honest man and provider he was.

But one thing they all told me, on multiple occasions, was how proud Tally was of his country. Not the Italian mainland he left behind at the tender age of 6, but rather his adopted country—the America he credited as being the greatest place in the world.

For Tally, and many others of his generation, America was more than just a place. It was a promise.

A promise that tomorrow can be better than today. A promise that if you work hard, take care of your neighbors and give back to your community, you can carve out of a life for yourself and your family.

A promise that no matter what you wanted to do or be, it could be yours if you were willing to put in the work.

I won’t sit here and pretend that I know whether today’s world is better or worse than the one that led my great grandparents to temporarily split their family and live half a world away from each other, just so they could all be together and hopefully thrive in a new home in a foreign land.

I’m not naïve enough to think, even for a second, that I understand the personal plights of my fellow countrymen or have some grand grasp on what it means to be an American, or a Patriot, or whatever it is we want to call ourselves.

But that doesn’t change the fact that every time I contemplate what I consider to be the most important, not only right, but duty, as an American citizen, I think about Tally.

Although I have no way to confirm it other than what my gut tells me, I don’t think Tally, or his brothers and sisters—who also saw their coming to America as an act of grace from God—were ever too busy to vote.

I’m pretty certain no matter how important the races on the ballot—be it local school board, state tax commissioner, state rep or leader of the free world—those with Pasino blood coursing through their veins knew it was too precious a matter to simply not be bothered.

Which leads me to today.

With less than three weeks left before what many are calling (I believe a bit hyperbolically) the most important election of our time, there’s no escaping the chatter that has emerged around voting, voting rights and what it means to be an American citizen.

I can hardly turn on the TV, open a magazine or scroll through my Google news feed without seeing some headline related to this year’s election.

But regardless of what I think about the news I read, or the various men and women running for office locally, state-wide and at the federal level, nothing has limited my desire to once again brave potentially long lines (and maybe this year hostile crowds and Covid-19) to do what I believe is part and parcel to being an American citizen.

And it appears I’m not alone.

“I became eligible to vote when I was a student at Auburn University,” my friend and colleague Luke Flatt told me recently as we discussed the upcoming election. “Richard Nixon and George McGovern were candidates for president and I drove home on election day to cast my vote in person. It was that important to me.”

Luke went on to say he’s voted in every election since 1972, including those not including a presidential contest, and has never found it burdensome or something he needed to gloss over on his way to doing something else.

“Some say it’s a duty,” he added. “To me, it’s a duty and a privilege. There is simply no better form of government than democracy. May we never take it for granted. Exercising our right to vote ensures we never will.

“I plan to continue to exercise my duty, and enjoy my privilege, as long as I am able and I encourage every voting-age citizen to do the same.”

For Albany area residents, the opportunity to once again exercise that right and privilege kicked off last week when early voting began statewide, despite the current fears surrounding the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Dougherty County Elections Supervisor Ginger Nickerson, who has helmed that position for the past 18 years, told me early voting began last Monday. And in Dougherty County that means registered voters who have not already cast an absentee or mail-in ballot have numerous opportunities to cast their vote at the county’s early voting site before it closes at 5 p.m. October 30.

This year, due to the fairly tight confines of the Dougherty County elections office, early voting is being held strictly at the Flint River Resource Center (sometimes known as the old Bob’s Candies “Candy Room”) at 125 Pine Avenue, in downtown Albany.

Ginger said that until the 30th that facility will be open Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and added it will be open as well October 24th and 25th, when the State of Georgia will hold its annual voting weekend.

That weekend, the early voting precinct will be open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday the 24th and from noon until 4 p.m. on Sunday the 25th, in hopes, Ginger explained, of allowing residents who so desire another opportunity to exercise their voting rights.

For those who plan to vote on the traditional November 3 Election Day, Ginger said all of the county’s usual precincts will be open, with the exception of Precinct 18, which has temporarily been moved from the Bill Miller Center to the gym at Morningside Elementary School, due to ongoing renovations at the former.

Also, as in year’s past, the county’s 28 voting precincts will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

To confirm your assigned voting precinct and access any additional voting guidelines, please visit https://www.dougherty.ga.us/government/departments/voter-registration-elections/

Ginger said the number one question many are asking concerns folks who requested an absentee ballot, but who have since decided they’d prefer to vote in person.

She said as long as the absentee ballot has not been turned in, voters may easily switch to in-person voting. Those individuals are asked to bring their unused absentee ballot with them to their voting precinct (or Candy Room if voting early) to properly dispose of them. There they will also be asked to sign an affidavit confirming their decision to vote in-person rather than absentee.

While Ginger said there aren’t many material changes to the voting process this year, she did add she expects the process to take a little longer for most voters due to the need to maintain social distancing due the current pandemic.

She stressed that masks are not required in the precincts (it’s actually forbidden by law to impose such a measure), but she was clear that the voting stations will once again be set-up with everyone’s health and safety in mind.

She also added that if the 2016 election was any indication, she expects voter turnout in Dougherty County—be it early, in person, on Election Day, or absentee—to be high.

Currently there are 51,000 active, registered voters in Dougherty County (plus another nearly 7,000 who are registered but inactive) and she hopes to see an even greater percentage than the nearly 70 percent who voted in 2016, to cast a ballot this year.

“I wish it was that way every time,” she said of the good turnout. “Voting is one of the most important rights we have and we always encourage all registered voters to exercise that right.”

In order to cast your ballot early or at your assigned precinct you must have a valid form of ID, as outlined by Georgia law, and be registered to vote. To check registration status or see a list of acceptable ID visit https://www.mvp.sos.ga.gov/MVP/mvp.do

I, for one, will be voting early again this year, and while I would never presume to offer any opinion on how one should decide, in honor of Tally and the millions of men and women who helped build this county into the beacon of freedom it truly is, I would like to encourage all those who are eligible, to please exercise that most sacred and powerful right.

Put simply, vote… to hopefully ensure you always can.

P.S. to mom: Thanks for sharing your thoughts and memories and please forgive me any sight errors—some of that stuff has been in the dusty recesses for quite a while. Love you.

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen 

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