Late one night in the spring of 1974, A.J. Benza's father, a former narcotics cop and all-around tough guy in the postwar Long Island mold, received a phone call. His brother was distraught because he was sure that his 10-year-old son, Gino, A.J.'s cousin, was exhibiting signs of homosexuality -- or, as he referred to it, "brain damage." He wanted to know if Gino could spend the summer with his cousins in West Islip, in the hope that some of the masculine energy of the household would set him straight.
A.J. Benza is a colorful character in his own right -- a former sports writer for Newsday, gossip columnist for the New York Daily News, frequent Howard Stern Show guest and television host. But "74 and Sunny" (Gallery Books, $26), his memoir of a magical childhood summer, is a quiet, touching, worthwhile read about the power of family.
Obviously this is a terrific story, but I wonder what inspired you to make it into a full book.
You know, you get to a point in life where you start to forget a lot of things about your parents. My parents both died in the '80s, and you think you're going to remember every little aspect about them, and then things start to fade. I dearly loved my dad. I remember so many days from childhood when his opinion, his antics, his personality, won over a room, diffused a fight or started an incident, and it had a big effect on me as a kid, and I wanted to make him immortal in a way.
How do you think that summer changed the way you saw the world
I think what it did more than anything is to make me fully understand that family is everything -- you're in for a penny, you're in for a pound. Certainly, me being 12 years old, I wasn't the one that was going to change Gino's world, but when I saw my father take the lead to make my cousin more comfortable and to make everyone around us more accepting, it was easy to follow. Like most kids who loved their parents, I would have followed them through fire. As now I look back, I think, wow, so many families that you've read about over the years don't know how to handle something as simple yet as complicated as homosexuality. I wrote this book at the same age that my father is in the book, and I have young children, so I'm going through a lot of the emotions my father was going through that summer.
How do you think the story would have been different if it was set in 2015 rather than 1974
If Gino was 10 years old in 2015, I don't think he would have a dad who felt the need to reach out to his brother for help on the issue -- I don't think there would have been the therapy sessions, the worry. Based on what I see around me now in this country, I think it would have been a lot easier. Now I'm talking about growing up in New York or New Jersey, I'm not talking about a kid growing up in Alabama -- it's different all over the country and the world.
What do you think your father would have made of the recent Supreme Court ruling
I think he would have been thrilled with it. Later on [in] his life, as he got older, and softer around the edges, issues like this started to come to the forefront, and at one point he told me: "I'm for anything that makes other people really happy, and keeps me as happy as I am." I love that statement.
To me the book is about the transformative power of love and family. Do you think it would be fair to say that Gino had more of an effect on your father than your father did on Gino
I think that's fair. I think that my father was ready, at that age and that stage of his life, to be transformed, or changed in a good way. Maybe that call that came through the wire that night -- I'm getting kind of shaky saying this, it's emotional for me -- maybe that call was sent to help my family, as much as if not more than little Gino.
Has Gino seen the book
Gino loves the book. He's a very happily married man in Manhattan these days, and we kept in touch during the writing process. He was very helpful in evoking some memories for me.
A.J. Benza discusses and signs copies of " '74 and Sunny"
WHEN | WHERE Wednesday, August 26 at 7 p.m. at Book Revue, 313 New York Ave., Huntington
INFO 631-271-1442, bookrevue.com