Rutherwood; or, Life on the Run (7/19) — Chapter Seven, Boutonniere (1/3)

OUR HYBRID TEA ROSE in the backyard was covered with buds and blossoms last summer. I used a red filter in Photoshop Express to highlight the red petals in this photo.


BOONE, N.C. (Nov. 20, 2019) – The Godfather is getting love and respect again—the movie, not the man, nor, for that matter, the best ’70s pizza parlor chain in the whole world, for my money, anyway.

Godfather’s thick, mozzarella-laden wedges of my preferred Canadian bacon and mushroom pizza pies were probably what started me down my own personal rocky road to perdition, my own private primrose path to plumpness. In those tight booths of red-and-white-checkered tablecloths, I came of gastronomical age. I learned that anchovies aren’t vegetables and that ice-cold beer in a frosted mug pairs well with brick-oven pizza.

Now I have to sit at tables, not in booths. I order medium-sized, vegetarian pizzas with thin cauliflower crusts. And I drink water—with lemon, maybe. I’ve also come to truly appreciate the Godfather trilogy.

FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA’S 1972 gangster movie The Godfather was selected for national film registry preservation by the Library of Congress as perhaps the second-greatest film in American cinema, according to Wikipedia.

Of course, I’m not talking about an all-you-can-eat buffet of salad bar, pizza and chicken wings, like on Wednesday nights at Village Inn Pizza Parlor. I’m referring to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather I, II and III movies beginning in 1972, based on Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel. As if I need to remind you, the series starred Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino as godfather of the Corleone Mafia family.

Back in the ’70s, Godfather references abounded in everyday life. It was nothing for one guy to make another fellow “an offer he couldn’t refuse,” in jest, anyway. Although “going to the mattresses” meant something quite different to hot-blooded teenagers back then, fans of The Godfather knew this phrase referred to “going to war” with someone else. And then there was, “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.”

A high school freshman in 1973, I wasn’t allowed to go to movies (or go to the mattresses, however one defines it), so I didn’t see The Godfather until I’d moved out of my parents’ house and was paying rent on my own personal Serta Perfect Sleeper. But even as a wet-behind-the-ears kid who, like most other red-blooded American boys, harbored dreams of Joey Heatherton, I was a “button,” too, whether I wanted to be one or not. What?

As far as I was concerned, the closest thing to “family” at Lenoir Hibriten High School was the band. I hesitate to compare our director, George Kirsten, to a Mafia godfather in any way; however, he was and continues to be an object of love and respect for most of his students. We learned more about life under him than under any other teacher, partly because we were band members all four years of high school.

Mr. Kirsten’s favorite saying, “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” is a truism that I’ve carried with me all my life, whether as a tennis or basketball coach during my own teaching career or as a team member of some sort myself. From August 1973 to June 1977, I tried not to be a weak link in the chain that was the Hibriten High School Band. I was a soldier in George Kirsten’s army of student musicians.

So I was also a button in the band’s nine-member trombone section. A senior T-bone player, a wiseguy who had seen The Godfather, gave me and three other ninth-grade trombonists that title, though I have no recollection of specific circumstances. Unless I’m subpoenaed by a congressional committee, I will not squeal on capos or the boss. The only buttons we pushed were on our spit valves and spray bottles.

Frankly, back then I didn’t know what an actual “button” was, because I hadn’t seen The Godfather and no one had explained the term to me. All this talk was nothing but sophomoric good fun, and no person or thing was harmed. It was good-natured banter between a senior and us freshmen. Unlike some other American ninth-graders, I was never harassed or hazed by an upperclassman, certainly not in our band.

Now, having read former FBI director James Comey’s book A Higher Loyalty about mob investigations and his relationship with President Trump, and after having viewed all three Godfather movies, I fully understand several Mafia references, including one that appeared in a recent federal indictment and is back in the news. The reference deals with Trump friend Roger Stone’s suggestion that a congressional witness “do a Frank Pentangeli,” according to The Washington Post publication of The Mueller Report.

The Post commentary states that the indictment “alleged that in November 2017, Stone told [New York comedian and radio host Randy] Credico to ‘[s]tonewall’ after the House Intelligence Committee sought his testimony. The next month, [Stone] invoked a character from the Mafia movie The Godfather: Part II, who, during a congressional hearing, told lawmakers, ‘I don’t know nothin’ about that.’” Last Friday, a jury convicted Stone of witness tampering and lying to Congress in the Trump-Russia investigation.

Over the years I saw the first two Godfather movies in fits and starts, edited for television, but I’d never seen complete, theatrical versions of Godfather I and II and had never seen the 1990 film Godfather III at all until last week. What struck me was how relevant those three movies are to what is going on now in Washington, D.C., beyond just the aforementioned Roger Stone reference. After all, as the character Michael Corleone notes in Godfather III, “Politics and crime, they’re the same thing.” Prescient, huh?

Or maybe not. Maybe that’s the way it has always been from time to time, oxymoronically. Democrat Andrew Johnson, then Republicans Grant, Harding and Nixon. And now Trump. Oh, yes, I forgot to list Democrat Clinton—Bill Clinton, who was impeached for lying to Congress about a sexual relationship with a female White House intern in the 1990s. The Godfather movies anticipate even that general type of corruption involving a government official. Maybe the wiseguy in the Bible—not the three men who followed the star, but the one who wrote Ecclesiastes—was right: “There’s nothing new under the sun.”

Fictional godfather Vito Corleone, played at different ages by Oscar-winning actors Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro in Godfathers I and II, actually has some admirable qualities when he isn’t killing folks. The don is loyal to his family and true friends. The don doesn’t mind gambling and prostitution, but he draws the line at selling narcotics. And the don is a really snappy dresser who wears fresh boutonnières.

What’s a boutonnière? Literally, that’s French for buttonhole—actually, a buttonhole flower that’s now worn with a tuxedo or nice suit on special occasions. A popular movie poster for The Godfather shows Brando in a black tux with a red rose bud on his lapel. A promotional photograph from the film shows that same rose on the don’s breast and what appears to be a white gardenia on first-born Sonny’s lapel.

In the old days, roses and gardenias were popular buttonhole flowers not only for their beauty, but also because their sweet scents made the wearers smell that much sweeter, whether they were or not. In Vito Corleone’s fictional world, the don needs more than one rosebud to quell the stench of lies, corruption and death coming from him and his buttons. But can one bud wield that kind of power in today’s world?

Probably not, unless the don sticks that boutonnière in his pie hole instead of asking for favors.