Thursday, April 14, 2005



Part Two

There was a lot Dad didn’t teach me, but there was even more he did, most of it unwittingly. But, unlike many families (not most, but more than there should be), I never had cause to be ashamed of Dad; on the contrary, in fact, I remember frequently being proud of him, and for the damndest collection of minor reasons.

For instance, I must’ve been about four when, one Friday or Saturday night, I went to the neighborhood bar with my folks, as I frequently did. This is not as decadent and dangerous to the morals as it sounds. Except for the occasional ethnic enclave in a large city, I’m not sure the “neighborhood bar” or “family bar” as we knew it even exists any more. You could get a simple meal, have a few drinks (draft beer a specialty), visit with your acquaintances, and dance. Kind of like “Cheers,” only without the cynical attitude (“Tell me, Cliff, what color is the sky in YOUR world?”).

Well, there WAS an attitude this particular night, on the part of an idiot that, the more beer he put down, the more he thought he was God’s gift to my Mom. Dad very politely told him to bug off, several times, and my folks finally decided it was easier to leave – and the idiot followed them outside, still keeping up with his form of “let me take you away from all this” lunacy, and scaring hell out of my mother.

That did it. Daddy proceeded to pulp the guy, just beat the hell out of him and left him on the sidewalk. To add insult to a considerable amount of injury, he took the guy’s fedora (“hat” to you young’uns) and tossed it neatly onto the head of a horse tied to a lamp post outside the bar.

Not a mark on Dad. I thought that was neat.

Dad could think and react properly in a mental emergency, too. This one takes a little stage-setting.

Most streetcars in use in Chicago at the time required two guys to operate. There was the motorman up front, and the conductor in the back. The back platform was almost always open: no doors, regardless of the weather. The conductor took fares and transfers, and let the motorman know when it was safe to go: everybody on, etc. The Conductor was actually the “boss” of the streetcar. He ruled his rolling realm by means of a rope that hung in front of him, a rope that ran the length of the car to a bell over the motorman’s head. Simple code: 1 for unexpected stop, 2 for okay to go, 3 for back-up.

Dad stopped it single-handed, without touching the brake. Posted by Hello

One evening, Dad and I had been to the bowling alley. The next streetcar up was across the street, with the stop in front of another neighborhood bar. As we were getting on, the conductor was getting off, going into the bar for either a drink or a bathroom break (the former would’ve gotten him fired, so I suspect the latter).

When the light changed, for whatever reason the motorman took off, leaving the conductor behind. As the streetcar rounded the turn, the conductor ran out of the bar, the other couple of passengers on the back platform looked helplessly at each other – and my Dad stepped up to the rail, grabbed the rope, and gave it one hard yank. The motorman stopped the streetcar right then and there.

My dad was the only one with the guts to Do Something, and the knowledge to know what to do.

I was proud as hell to stand there with him as the sputtering conductor climbed back on board and thanked him. I’ve often wished I could’ve heard whatever conversation ensued between the two man crew at the end of the line, but I’ll settle for the memory I have of my Dad Saving the Day.

Dad wasn’t perfect (I’m not: are you?). Money was a weakness (I inherited it). After moving to Arkansas, between what we had to pay to fix up the house so it was habitable, and a lack of jobs for Yankees, things were tight. For instance, we had one of them newfangled TV sets, brought down from Chicago, but it was the bigger part of the year before we had enough money to put up an antenna high enough to pick up a signal from Little Rock.

We played a lot of Monopoly™ -- what Daddy always called “Monotony” – that winter.

In fact, we were down to our last $25 when, one cold, crappy day, my father came in from town, wearing his hunting jacket .. and a rather sheepish expression on his face. Calling my sis and I over, he told us to each reach into a side pocket of his jacket. Not knowing what to expect (Dad was of the “pull my finger” school of parenthood), as my mother suspiciously watched, we reached in – to each find one of a pair of beagle pups. They were brothers, Mutt & Jeff, and they were to bring us thousands of hours of unqualified love and companionship for almost the next 20 years.

The purchase of same had required the expenditure of the last 25 bucks we had in the world. Ultimately, the dogs provided a pile of fun that no amount of money could purchase – but that was the future. At that present, I suspect my mother was debating whether to use the shotgun or one of the kitchen knives on Dad.

She settled for giving the dogs a bowl of milk: Grandad had a dairy operation, so milk, at least, was one thing of which we didn’t have a shortage.

Besides, my Mom usually did battle with her tongue. During one period, Dad went on a kick of telling her, when they were with a bunch of their friends, “When you turn 40, I’m going to trade you in on two 20s.” Mom let him enjoy that for a couple of months, until one night when they had an especially big crowd around them and he used The Line. As the laughter died down, she looked at him with all the concern in the world on her face, then crossed her eyes slightly and asked, “But, honey, are you sure you’re WIRED for 220?”

Dad shot from the hip; Mom was more like a copperhead, laying in the weeds, stealthily awaiting her opportunity to strike.

Now, these incidents I’ve been recounting are, I hope, amusing, but I’m sure not the stuff to warrant an effusion of Thanks. “Where’s the meat, Pry?”

It was threefold.

First, there was reading. Dad may’ve been blue collar all his life, but he was one of the most literate guys you’d ever hope to meet, and could hold his own conversationally with anyone, high station or low. He never waved his vocabulary or knowledge in your face, but he had both to back him up when conversationally cornered. About the time he retired, he discovered a place that sold “remaindered” books: overruns, returns and such. He went on regular buying binges, and it was the most eclectic collection you can imagine, everything from life on a supertanker to a so-so murder mystery.

I was brought up in a home where, at suppertime, everyone showed up at the table with a book, and conversation was usually limited to “pass the potatoes,” and that only if your arm wasn’t long enough to reach them on its own. In defense of this, I must add that when someone at the table DID contribute a quote or an opinion, the ensuing conversation could be right interesting .. and fairly well-informed, at that.

As for his attitude toward learning … the rather shocking (for the time) “Kinsey Report” on human sexuality was the hottest thing on the market back in late 1951, and 8th grader me was caught trying to hide his copy of it. Dad’s reaction: “Son, if you can understand it, go ahead and read it. I sure as hell can’t make heads or tails of it.” Yeah, sure, Dad.

Two, writing. I stumbled across a cache of short stories which, originally, I thought were penned by my mom (she went on in later life to end up as the National Public Relations Director for the VFW Auxiliary) but, no, they were the creations of my father: literate, imaginative, entertaining, just as this blog site isn’t, but tries to be.

And, Third … people skills.

More on that in the final installment.


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