Book Bag: ‘The Pilot’s Satchel’ by James Francis Cahillane; ‘You’ll Like it Here’ by Ed Orzechowski

Published: 12/1/2016 3:43:39 PM


By James Francis Cahillane

Off the Common Books

Though he lives in Williamsburg these days, Jim Cahillane has deep roots in his native Northampton. His father, an Irish immigrant, became Northampton’s mayor in the 1950s, and Cahillane junior worked for years in the family’s automotive business following a stint in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War.

After years as an auto executive, Cahillane, 83, has turned to a varied career in freelance writing, from journalism to essays to poetry. In his most recent book, “The Pilot’s Satchel,” he flashes back to a severe medical crisis he went through in 2010 that inspired a range of new poems.

In fact, he calls the work in his new collection “Comatose Poetry.” As he explains in an introduction, when he underwent bowel surgery and then spent two weeks in intensive care, he went on a strange journey of the imagination: “… by any measure I definitely traveled, perhaps seeking a place of rest.”

In free-verse poems like “Captured,” for instance, he likens his ICU experience to that of Allied prisoners in the Pacific during World War II and recalls a trip through the heat of the Caribbean: “My teeth are set into a chicken wire / Cage that rest on / A wooden platform high / Miles above a beach where a / Crashed airplane  / Shares the shore with bathers ...”

And in “Spend All Your Money,” he looks at the sobering effects of the recession that began in 2006-7, both on his family and the country as a whole, to the point his long belief in fiscal prudence was shattered: “... I screamed a never before / Said certainty from my stiffening mouth’s lips / DON’T SAVE / SPEND ALL YOUR MONEY!”

Cahillane includes explanatory text for each of his poems to help address the different subjects his verse recounts: books, travel, theater, emigration, boxing, political races, London’s pleasures, Northampton’s old Union Street jail and many others.

James Cahillane will read from “The Pilot’s Satchel” and recount some of his family’s history at Historic Northampton Saturday at 2 p.m.


By Ed Orzechowski

Levellers Press

Donald Vitkus, born to an unwed young mother in Waltham during World War II, was 6 years old in 1949 when his latest foster parents decided to dump him in Belchertown State School. “You’ll be happy here,” his foster father said, while foster mom chimed in with, “You’ll be with a lot of other kids like yourself.”

So begins the harrowing but ultimately uplifting story of Vitkus, who spent more than 11 years at the infamous Belchertown institution for the mentally disabled. He and other clients were subjected to terrible mistreatment by staff who treated them more like prison inmates.

“”Rise and shine, you retards!” one staff member would greet Vitkus and other boys each morning. “Think you’re gonna sleep all day?”

Vitkus, who’s now in his 70s, was in fact officially listed as a “moron” when he entered the school, his IQ having been measured at 41. But in “You’ll Like It Here,” written by Valley author Ed Orzechowski and told in Vitkus’ first-person voice, Vitkus relates how he overcame a lifetime of neglect, abuse, emotional alienation and other issues to graduate from Holyoke Community College in 2005.

He served a stint in Vietnam, where a buddy next to him was killed by rifle fire, and later got married and had two children. His marriage ultimately failed and his children were distanced, he says, because of his inability to relate to them. Yet Vitkus eventually reconciled with his son, Dave, and the two of them discovered the roots of his past.

“You’ll Like It Here,” published by Levellers Press of Amherst, doesn’t make for easy reading, notably the descriptions of the brutality and regimentation of Belchertown State School — like the time Vitkus was put in a strait jacket and solitary confinement for refusing to take a mind-numbing drug, Thorazine.

But it’s also heartening to see Vitkus move on to remarry, get his degree from HCC and become a human services worker himself, working in a group home with disabled residents and giving them the care he never got. “I never want us to go back to those days,” he says.


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