This is a story like many, however it is more of a story that is unlike most. This is a
story that of a young man who was a good kid but went on to do bad things…spent his life in
prison “on the installment plan”
I grew up in a home that would today be described as dysfunctional. My dad was manic
depressive. A resident patient in mental health institutions more than three times that I recall.
Plus, he was a bad dad. A selfish womanizer, who didn’t take care of his responsibilities,
including but not limited to his children. Samuel Santo Venuti, known as Sam. He was born in
Sicily in 1913. Brought to the US at age 3, Sam spoke Italian as all in the family did. His mother,
Nona died while I was still an infant. She was spoken of endearingly. Her husband, whom I
knew as “Nonu” was a different story. He was mean, and thus not someone a child was fond of
being close to. He was scary to me.
Sam was married once before my mother, and had two sons, whom I have never met. He
was 16 years my mother’s senior. While he was with us, we would go to Nonu’s every Sunday.
It was nothing we found enjoyable, but all the family and in-laws were expected to be there.
I was very fond of my dad, more so than were my brothers. I was his “tont.” He had his
charm, and I idolized him, though I knew he was not a “good” dad. How did I know this from
the age of 5? I don’t recall.
One particularly strong memory of him is that when “Ma” would ask him if we should go
to the beach or the cape this weekend, his response was always “You go the money?” my
mother had the steady income, as a union garment factory worker. Dad was a union laboror, and
worked only when weather permitted. His income was typically second to my mother’s more
reliable work, and he wasn’t going to use his money.
And that’s the way it always was.
My parents divorced when I was 12. Dad suffered from chronic manic depressive disorder..back then.."Nervous Breakdowns....Thorazine the medication..
Dad was on medication to deal with his mental illness. He would at times lapse with his
meds, which always led to another bout with re-admission to the hospital. It seemed to happen
like clockwork. We could always see the signs of trouble well in advance, but as a child you
don’t know to do anything except to make sure you don’t make daddy mad.
It was this particular visit that in his latest bout with his demons, he used his three boys as
pawns to what end I never really understood. But one Sunday, instead of driving home, he just
said we weren’t going home. I don’t think I really know what “kidnapped” meant, or what it
He was daddy, and no matter what, we weren’t there to do anything except what he told us.
We had plenty of spankings...so we are like all children...fearful.
This tale ended three days later, after nights of sleeping in the front seat of the car with daddy,
and in the back seat was the dog and my brothers. He had driven us to Albany, New York. We
just killed time in the coffee shop while he would chain smoke and drink coffee, and we did our
best to behave.
Back in the car, when my father stopped to relieve himself on the side of the road, my
brother Joey, who was 13 and old enough to “get it,” left to go find help. My father returned to
the car, realized Joey was missing, and took off, abandoning us. An hour or two later, after the
police initially thought my brother was a runaway who had stolen the car and taken us on a
joyride, eventually got the story straight. We were reunited with my mother back in Boston. It
was during this time that my mother found out who her friends were, because she had company
day and night. Heading back home, we lost our dog because he couldn’t go on the airplane. I
remember we were three dirty kids. The stewardess must have felt sorry for me, because she
came up to me and asked if I wanted to see the cockpit.
First offense; stolen car.
It’s probably best to explain that my mother had it right. That is to say, you only do what
you feel like doing.
I started school young, at age 5, and therefore, all my peers, were driving when I
couldn’t. Therefore, I searched for and found a car to steal. It started out as nothing more than a
joy ride. There were friends who came and went, never any close relationships, but on this
particular occasion, I had a buddy with me. We would simply walk the neighborhood until we
came across a car with the keys in it, and we’d take it. I haven’t thought of myself up to the time
a juvenile criminal; after all, there were much worse things that “bad” kids were doing. Looking
back, I guess I was a juvenile criminal by definition, regardless of the rational. Now, when I
describe my childhood actions, I find myself explaining that I was a good kid that did bad things.
I did not accept the way most kids “played” with one another. The ranking banter that
for the most part is in jest is just one more childish way of jostling that I didn’t take to. I was
always uncomfortable when people poked fun at me. Later I would learn that most of the time if
they were teasing you it was cause they enjoyed being around you. It took many years for me to
understand that, and because I felt uncomfortable, I refused to do that to other kids. Therefore,
because I didn’t like playing “like that” I didn’t play with them at all. Other than the organized
sports in which I excelled, despite the face I was on the “small side.” I was always at the top of
the list to be “picked” to play on their team.
After the game however, that was another story. Our family was economically
challenged. I remember how hard my mother worked all those years – three jobs, home quickly
to fix dinner for the family, then rush back out to her night job. My father proved himself less
than worthy of my mother’s respect. I would think to myself, “I’m never going to work like
that!” But my mother would say “No one owes you a living,” so before I was 14 I realized that if
I didn’t work, and no one gave me the money, then there was only one thing that could happen. I
could never admit that I couldn’t afford something. Meanwhile my school friends, the sons of
the doctors and attorneys who lived across the street from our blue collar neighborhood, the kids
whose butts I could kick in any organized sport; they all had the money. But I was ashamed to
admit that I never had any money.
I resorted to crime for survival’s sake. If I wanted something, then I took it. Juvenile
shoplifting was easily justified by myself, and that larceny in my heart, although mitigated,
would prove to be a destiny coming true.
I was a strange kid to most of my peers. Often during the silence that often exists when
friends are just hanging out together, I would be in fear that something was being thought
negatively about me. That made me feel very uncomfortable, which made me compensate with
humor. I more often than not did a better job than necessary. The dynamics of socio-economics
was just one of many reasons that I did not connect with my peers.
I graduated high school at the age of 17 in 1968. Four weeks later I was in the Army for
a three year enlistment. I wanted to be a paratrooper. I signed up to be one, but infantry is what
came forward because I didn’t know any better. I didn’t have a mentor or anyone who could
provide guidance, and I did not know that I could have been someone with an education or
Let’s just say his name was Joe, because I don’t remember his name. But I remember the
incident like it was yesterday. At that particular moment I was calling the Nebraska State
Penitentiary my home. I had just violated a probationary sentence, having blown the first of my
more than 20 breaks that I received over a period of 15 years of my adult life. After numerous
testing periods with me, Joe came to the conclusion, “You don’t belong here.” I told him, “I do
belong here because I committed a crime. Worse, I got caught. This is what happens when that
happens.” He responded, “You see you just proved my point. No one who is here has the attitude
you do – honest, fresh and no copping out.” can you imagine the idea that what determines who
goes to jail is their attitude and not their actions? I remember thinking “this guy is a putz – a nice
one, but still a putz.”
Part of the intake system in the “pen” is to put you through a battery of psychological
tests. I don’t recall what they’re called, but I remember best the one that is over 600 questions –
stupid questions, often repeated, which is obviously designed to see if you are filling in the
blanks without thinking of answers that respond to the purpose of the question. Joe said, “Tony I
identified something that you need to think about. Part of your subconscious is putting your
physical self in a position to “get even,” as if your body has not been cooperating in your life,
and your consciousness has been frustrated by it.”
I knew precisely what it was.