I guess the downside of getting older and surviving life is that you live to see your cohorts depart from this earth before you do. When some people leave, it feels as though an immense Flintstone-sized boulder rolled through your wafer-thin life, leaving a cavern big enough to drive a fleet of Mack trucks through. John Mento was one of those boulder-level people.
John and I were classmates for 12 years at the old St. Joseph School on Third Street. From first grade through 12th, we sat in the same rooms, had the same teachers, performed in the same musicals and suffered through the same middle-school and high school teenaged angst.
Wherever you go in life, whatever you do or accomplish; whatever exotic places you may visit or live in: nobody takes the place of the people you grew up with.
No matter what you do or where you go later, nobody and nothing can take the place of the people and the locations where you sprouted and grew to adulthood.
In the first years of school, I remember his mother Helen always hovering and fluttering around trying to protect him, because, as we were told, he’d had a brain operation and “had a plate in his head.” So we all knew to be careful around him, so as not to disturb whatever had been done to him.
After the earliest days, he never came across as delicate in any way. He outgrew the delicacy and became a big burly drummer with a lot of power in his swing. He dominated the Ludwigs, and enjoyed a long career as a rock & roller. The music of our time, the 1970s, was his favorite.
From what I saw, the things that were most important to him was first of all his family: his wife Debbie, his children Danielle and John Jr, his grandson Brandon and his granddog Fitz, who bonded with him especially. Then there was his band, Torn & Frayed, another of his life’s passions.
What I personally appreciated is that John could accept the choices of others even when they were foreign to his own experiences and traditions. If it was important to one of his friends, then it was important: case closed. That is a rare quality in anyone. To find that in a person you have grown up with, who has known you your entire life, is more than fortunate: it is a God-given blessing.
When I wanted to renovate my parents’ home, I called John and told him: “the pink ‘50s bathroom has to go, and the 1970s avocado kitchen really has to go. Pick out some modern designs, base it on a quiet blue shade and choose the designs yourself. When it comes to decorating, I have tunnel vision and cannot see past a single design, to get the idea of the ‘gestalt,’ the big picture. You have better taste than I do, so you design it. Everything. It’s all in your hands.”
And so he did. The whole house has no carpet anywhere—it’s all hardwood and tile, ceramic and porcelain. John did it all: he chose the colors and designs, planned the layouts and set the tile. The house I live in now is entirely of John’s design, from the basement to the bathrooms to the kitchen. He did a great job, and I have the honor and privilege of living in it for my own latter days. I love the colors, and I could not have done a better job of designing it than he did.
I will miss the chatty phone calls “just to catch up.” I will miss the comfort of a connection with a life-long shared history. I will miss the tolerance and acceptance of things he may not have entirely understood himself, but he accepted it and defended it because those were my choices, and he knew me and cared about me.
I will miss you, John. In a thousand, million, lifelong, Flintstone-sized years, nobody will ever take your place and be the same kind of friend to me that you were.
Rest easy, classmate. Beat the drums, design the spaces and watch over your family and friends as you always did. I know in my heart you will never stop doing that.
Cherie Calletta was born and raised in Hammonton. She graduated Saint Joseph High School in 1977, then graduated from Rutgers College in New Brunswick and went to Japan for four years to teach English as a foreign language. She later spent about five years in Germany outside of Frankfurt am Main. After several years in Charlotte, North Carolina, she returned to Hammonton in 2002, where she and her husband make their home.