Gerald and Patricia Cislon in Amani Coffee. Gerald grew up on the Northside published his first book, dedicated to Patty, earlier this year. (Photo/Kelly Thomas)
East Deutschtown native Gerald Cislon has an interesting story to tell, and he chose an interesting way to tell it.
At age 67, Cislon published his first novel, “Til the End of Time.” The novel, at heart, is a romance, and tells a fictionalized version of Cislon’s life-long romance with now-wife Patricia Cislon.
Scott, the book’s main character, is a white man, like Cislon, who falls in love with a black woman named Patty. The two run away together to get married, but Patty is killed in a bus accident. Scott is injured in the crash, and the Angel of Death visits him in the hospital to tell him that once Scott fulfils God’s purpose for him, he’ll be reunited with Patty. That purpose turns out to be the Army, and the rest of the book details Scott’s exploits in Vietnam.
Cislon grew up on Madison Avenue, in a house that was destroyed when I-279 was built. Patty grew up in Perry Hilltop, and both graduated from Perry High School in the early 1960s. They married in 2008.
Cislon served in the Army for 20 years, and then worked for the government in a civilian capacity for 17 years until 2005. During his time in the Army, he served in Vietnam, Germany, Iraq and a host of other places, and retired as a chief warrant officer.
“Til the End of Time,” which Cislon wrote as a gift to Patty, came out on Sept. 1. The Northside Chronicle’s Kelly Thomas interviewed Cislon, who now lives in Georgia with Patty, when he visited family in Pittsburgh in late September.
Kelly Thomas: How did you and Patty meet?
Gerald Cislon: Well, we go back to high school. 1957 is when we first met. I was in eighth grade, she was in seventh, and at that point, that’s where the love affair started. All the way back in 1963, we separated. So she got married, I went in the army, made a career.
KT: Why did you separate?
GC: Interracial relationships were forbidden. Pittsburgh is no place you would say prejudice does not exist, especially back then. It was very difficult. We were going to get killed. We were placing our lives at risk, so we had to hide any emotions or feelings. It’s not like today, by no means. That was the reason why we separated.
KT: How did you reunite?
GC: I went overseas and I met my [first] wife. She was half-Korean and half-Japanese. Her Korean name is Suk. Her Japanese name is Kunneko, same as in the book. We stayed that way until, I guess it was 1998, and I had a compelling urge to find Patty, which I did, over the internet, instantly, in a couple of hours. And then my former wife, she wanted to meet Patty, and they started a relationship, a very loving, respectful relationship.
And as it went, my wife died of cancer, but it was her wish I not be alone. So [Patty and I] got back together, and after [Kunneko’s] death we got married. But the infatuation, the love affair, the attraction, from 1957, never diminished, even though we had not seen each other in 40 years, almost.
KT: What was the Northside like when you and Patty were growing up here?
GC: I see the old when I walk around here, Foreland and James, Madison Avenue, Chestnut Street, Concord. I can still see 50, 60 years ago when I was a kid. The houses are still standing, but the people are gone. East Ohio Street was the place to be. You go down there, three of the best baker shops in the world were right on East Ohio Street. [The Workman Savings Bank] used to be on Madison Avenue and East Ohio Street. It was beautiful, all marble inside. You walked in there, heat of the summer, it was like air conditioning, gorgeous. And my grandmother banked in there, so I’d go in with her as a little boy, but all that’s gone.*
We’d put pennies on the street car track, and the old streetcars, they’d go flying. They’d go flying and we’d wait, and go out and look for the smashed pennies. Really neat. And in the old streetcars, the driver would go to the end of the line and he’d walk to the other end of the street car and go back. He couldn’t turn around. So he had two places to drive.
KT: Has prejudice and racism diminished for interracial couples today?
GC: It’s not a racial issue when two people get married. It’s what two people share, and to be quite honest, society should accept that. It has nothing to do with them. It’s what Patty has for me and I have for her. It’s what you’re prepared to sacrifice, because you are going to sacrifice, and you will lose a tremendous amount of your friends, even today. It’s improved, but the conditions still exist.
KT: Which parts of “Til the End of Time” are true?
GC: A lot of the story is true. And as I told the publisher, I’m leaving it open for the reader to decide what’s true, what’s not.
KT: Are there any stories from the Army you’d like to share?
GC: You remember Aunt Tee-Tee and the chicken bones [from the book]? That’s all real.
During the Desert Storm, some officers got activated from Florida and came to work for me at Ft. Steward, Ga., and one was a senior warrant officer, and they put him in a private room. And then they moved a captain in with him, from Harrisburg. And the captain, he didn’t like it because the warrant officer was a black guy and the captain was white. So he would do things to aggravate this warrant officer. So I told the warrant officer, I said, ‘What you do, go over to the mess hall, and get some chicken bones, because it’s all you can eat chicken, take the chicken bones and wash them off.’
‘Then that night, when you know the captain’s about ready to come in his room, you put them in a can. But you got to be in your jockey shorts, you know, and wrap a towel around your head, and when the captain comes in, don’t look at him, just take the chicken bones and shake them up. Throw them on the towel you got on the floor. Do some mumbo-jumbo.’
The thing worked out great. Next morning, Mr. Sands, the warrant officer, he’s laughing so hard he’s crying, he come in [and says], ‘He’s gone, he’s gone!’ I said, ‘What happened?’ He said, ‘I did just what you said, he walked in the door and there I was in my jockey shorts with a towel around my head, shook up the chicken bones, threw them, he never said nothing, he just grabbed everything and ran!’
KT: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
GC: Stay with your dream. Stay with your vision. … Let your imagination be your guide. Dream. That’s the greatest gift you got. Write about your dreams. … Another thing a young writer might do and should do is join a writing group in their local area. There’s writing groups all over.
KT: Are you working on any other books?
GC: I’m working a sequel. I’m working on another one called “The Colors of Our Love,” and the sequel will be called “Gander.” [“The Colors of Our Love” is] about where Scott and Pat get married and they have their family that consists of nine interracial children, seven biological, two adopted into the family. The whole story in “Colors of Our Love” takes place on the Northside, the entire story.
For more information on Gerald Cislon, visit his website at www.geraldcislonbooks.com. To purchase a copy of “Til the End of Time” from Amazon.com, click here. The Cislons hope to create a scholarship fund for underprivileged youth with the proceeds from the book.
*Editor’s note: The Workman Savings Bank building is not gone completely, but is now empty.