Eat | Read with Brian Connell
What can I say about this person I’ve loved since I was 17? He is really fun to eat with and he is an incredibly empathetic and clear-eyed reader.
Since moving to the south from Philadelphia in 2002, I’ve made countless failed attempts to find a decent cheesesteak. I’ve never understood the psycho-culinary mechanism that makes people outside of Philly get cheesesteaks so consistently wrong, but it’s undeniable and I’ve come to expect it. Still, like a true Rocky fan, I have the gift of hope, so when I see the words “Philly Cheesesteak” on a menu, I order it and say a silent prayer, girding myself for disappointment, sadness, disgust, but just maybe…
The “Philly Cheesesteaks” that I’ve endured over the past 13 years range from confusing to offensive: chopped up hamburger on a hot dog bun; a few steak tips with hardly melted provolone; often a bunch of extra toppings—peppers, mayo, and once some really day-ruining broccoli.
But. I am happy to report that my hero’s journey ended this month at T-Bones Authentic Philly Style Steaks and Hoagies in Birmingham, AL. Don’t let the bravado of their name fool you: they make cheesesteaks exactly how they make them in Philly, which comes down to a few requirements. (1) Chopping up the steak finely, using two long spatulas: the cook thoroughly and rhythmically separates the meat, filling the place with the glorious rat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat of spatula-on-grill action. (2) American cheese. (3) Amoroso rolls that are shipped in from Philadelphia. No other bread works, so don’t even start with whatever Philly steak you think you’ve had—if it wasn’t on an Amoroso roll, it was garbage.
I’ve eaten at T-Bones four times in as many weeks, going for the “Famous Philly,” which includes fried onions. I may branch out one day to one of their acceptable variations (“Pizza Steak,” maybe, or “The Famous on ‘Shrooms”) but forever with the Famous I’ll be happy, I’ll be home.
Growing up, my three siblings and I knew that our dad had been in the Vietnam War, but mostly in a peripheral way. There were no stories or war buddies who came for visits. He didn’t hang American flags or wear hats advertising his division or infantry numbers. We knew he had been drafted, that he was against the war, and that his experience there (among other things) informed his liberal politics. On the 4th of July when we took our annual walk to the neighborhood fireworks, he consistently opted out, choosing instead to sit on the front porch, often alone, until we returned. As a child, I remember thinking it strange that he’d want to miss the excitement of the town, the lights, the music, the fun—and as the fireworks lit up the sky I usually thought of him at some point, a mile away on the porch, and wondered if he was able to see the distant flashes of the show.
A few months ago my dad gave each of his children a bound copy of all the letters he wrote to our mom during his year and a half in the U.S. Army: The Letters (1968-1970) of Francis J. Connell III. He wrote to her nearly every day, and the letters give me a special angle on my dad—he’s 22 years old here, but completely recognizable as his later self, when he would become my dad.
Even as he grapples with his involuntary part in a war he hates, and the fact that it has separated him from his wife of only one month, he is hopeful and pragmatic, a product of post-WWII America:
As to our present circumstances, all we can do is consider ourselves victims of unfortunate circumstances and maintain our idealism through our ordeal. This is all we can do for the time being, El. But in a few months, we’ll be able to move the people of our country—and the world—towards a more receptive attitude to the ideals of true freedom. Even if all we’re able to do is bring a few more idealistic seekers into the world and teach them what we already know, then we’ll be able to congratulate each other in our old age of having lived a good life.
His depression shows up regularly and creates a specific tone. Like if Salinger had written a sequel to Catcher in the Rye (Catcher II: Holden Gets Drafted):
The guy who’s directly in charge of me—Spec. 4 Jim Looney—is really starting to get on my nerves. He’s a rebel from northern Florida and he’s one of the biggest bullshitters I ever met. He repeats everything at least two times and seems to attract every other bullshitter in the company to our hooch. They stand there by my bunk while I’m trying to sleep and try to out shout each other, waking me up after 2 or 3 hours of sleep. Looney doesn’t do more than a couple of hours a work a day, so he’s constantly driving me nuts…I’ve never been so lonely before.
Mostly, though, these are love letters, and the commitment he has to his new wife—my mom—is so earnest that it makes me want to cry thinking that I’m a product of such a sweet and romantic man.
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about us and I’ve come to the conclusion that, even though we’re in a tough spot now, we’re awfully lucky. We have something that nearly everybody else in the world is looking for. And once this year is over, we’ll have it for the rest of our lives…Be brave and do your best to think positive. This will be over in a year and then we can begin to forget about it. Beaucoup love from a lonely G.I.
As the letters go on, his sense of isolation and alienation increases:
Bob Hope is in town, so I have the afternoon off. I’m not going to see him, because everyone else is…I feel lost and blue tonight. I’m afraid the final 3 months are going to be awful because I’ve been feeling so bad for no specific reason. I don’t feel depressed, but I just have no ambition to be cheerful…Every day is a carbon copy of the one before…I want it to end. I wish I could go to sleep right now and wake up on March 24th. It’s unreal to be trapped here. It’s absurd that I can’t accept its truth. 86 days to go.
I can’t help but see him in Vietnam as I saw him each year on the 4th of July on our front porch, electing to remain apart from the entertainment, the crowds, the explosions, sitting in the chaotic silence of his own wars.