Reconnecting Through Music

In 1975 I was in eleventh grade at Msgr. Farrell High School. Frank Caporaso sat in the desk in front of me in chemistry class. Farrell is an all-boys Catholic high school and, as you might imagine, all that testosterone with no tempering female presence sometimes led to a Lord of the Flies classroom ambience. Woe to the teacher who couldn’t out-wise guy the wise guys sitting in front of him. Mr. Ferrero was a nice man but he was from Italy and his accent and unfamiliarity with Staten Island teenage Catholic boy culture left him at a disadvantage. Let’s just say that we enjoyed getting under Mr. Ferrero’s skin and Frank Caporaso was very good at this. That’s what I most remember about Frank from those days: slouching sideways in his desk and lobbing zingers at Mr. Ferrero whose only retort was an accented “C’mon now, Frank, let’s be serious. Really, Frank, c’mon now, that’s not funny.” The back and forth made chemistry a little more bearable.

Frank was a gifted athlete who starred on both the varsity football and baseball teams. Farrell was a sports powerhouse on Staten Island and, as such, Frank had the kind of status that eluded me, an average distance runner on the track team. Frank was a talented enough baseball player to win a four-year athletic scholarship to St. John’s University where he was a teammate of future major leaguers Frank Viola and John Franco.

Four decades after we graduated from Farrell I came to find out that Frank had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in his early twenties and that the progression of the disease had eventually made it impossible for him to continue his career as a financial consultant and to live independently. By the time I caught up with Frank in 2016 he was living at a nursing home on Staten Island and no longer able to walk. One of the qualities that had made Frank a standout athlete was his exceptional speed; now he was confined to a wheelchair. His arms were too weak for him to move the wheels and thus he was dependent on aides to push him. Life had dealt Frank a serious zinger.

As it turned out, the Lord of the Flies aspect of going to an all-boys school also fostered a sense of lasting brotherhood among us. When I learned of Frank’s situation I felt compelled to connect with him. He already had a loyal support network of former classmates and I wanted to be part of that. Beyond my front row view of Frank’s antics in chemistry class we hadn’t been more than acquaintances in high school. Now his friend Pete had told me that Frank was a huge fan of The Who and I had a hunch that it would be across music that we could find common ground and that music would allows us to form a friendship that we had missed in high school. For most of us music was a big part of those years; our favorite bands were as much a part of our identities as our favorite teams and we were intense about supporting and defending our bands. Were you a Zeppelin or a Deep Purple guy or both? Yes or ELP? The Who or Tull? Humble Pie or Johnny Winter? These were very important matters to discuss in the cafeteria, these were logos you wrote on your book covers. Like …

When I decided to pay Frank a visit at his nursing home I was sure he wouldn’t remember me (he didn’t). I walked into his room, identified myself as a Farrell “brother” and then related my memories of his chemistry class comedy routine with Mr. Ferrero. When I told him that I had heard that he was a Who fan and that I had brought my iPad and Bluetooth speaker with Who’s Next cued up and ready to go his eyes widened and I could tell it had been too long since this guy had had a good dose of loud rock and roll. I pressed play, turned up the volume and let “Baba O’Riley” blast us back to 1975. By the time the song was over we were shaking our heads at each other in agreement … agreement about what I’m not really sure … maybe that we had been “there” and that we were now “here” and that the music had just connected us across 42 years of living.

I visit Frank as often as I can. COVID put a hold on things for several months but his nursing home has begun to allow visitors again. Sharing music continues to nurture our friendship. In addition to The Who we’ve listened to and discussed other high school favorites like Pink Floyd and Bowie. Frank has gotten me to consider more closely Tears for Fears and he’s had me explain the political context of The Cranberries’ song “Zombie”.

At some point along the way I asked Frank to sing with me and then to let me bring recording equipment into his room so we could do a recording project together. Frank took it all in stride and we’ve worked on “Levon”, “Rocket Man” and “Your Song” by Elton John; “Shout” by Tears for Fears, and “Space Oddity” by Bowie. Our progress was halted for well over a year when Frank had a tracheostomy that left him unable to speak beyond a whisper. Frank persevered through that and several other major medical setbacks to have recently had his tracheostomy tube removed.

I haven’t written much about Frank’s battle with multiple sclerosis because he doesn’t make a big deal of it. As much as the disease has affected the where and how of his adult life it seems not to have affected Frank’s basic personality. He has the same dry sense of humor and talent for the clever comeback that he had in our eleventh grade chemistry class. When I ask him to tell me about his glory days on the playing field he does so without a hint of conceit nor of bitterness about his present physical challenges. When we were teenagers I wouldn’t have expected Frank to be so humble; but from what his friends tell me he has always been a nice guy who was a great athlete. I think he is as admired now for his tenacity in the face of his disease as he ever was for his touchdowns and base hits. He has also given his Farrell brothers the opportunity to support not only him but each other. His friend Pete observes that “Frank is the glue that keeps us together.” It’s true. For myself, I am able to offer Frank some music to make his days go better. In return he throws zingers at me which make me love him all the more … it’s like Lord of the Flies with a happy ending!