My Dad - An Extraordinary Ordinary Man
It was only a few short years after my dad had passed away from bone cancer that had metastasized to his lung. I was working as a secretary in a local community hospital. My employer brought in a new office manager. One morning over coffee before starting our busy day, she and I began talking about several things: the nature of the work, the often frantic pace of the job, the dedicated staff there and soon she started talking about her husband and children. Since the brightest light of my life at that time had recently gone out I began to talk about my late father. I described our close relationship. It had become important for me to ‘introduce’ a new person in my life to the one man in mine whom I loved, admired and depended on the most. The man who accepted me for who and what I was without disappointment or judgement. Although he often implored me to lose some weight so I would not develop Diabetes. His own mother had suffered all her life from a very severe case of the disease. He was my father, my protector, my safety and my friend.
It was my dad’s personality and perseverance that I was adamant about describing to others. He had a very difficult life and it ended at the still young age of fifty nine. Distracted as I spoke, I stopped to answer a ringing telephone. When I looked back at this woman, she had tears in her eyes. “You must have loved your father very much” she said. That is what I will try to accomplish by writing this piece. I want tell you about my late father Sam. You will never have the opportunity to meet or know him yourself. He was what I’d describe as a ‘people person’, always open and honest and welcoming to anyone giving him the chance. And no matter how bad things got, he tried to remain hopeful for the future. He had an amazing work ethic that drove him thru his short life even though many health problems got in his way. If he did not succeed in business, it was never for lack of trying.
Unfortunately there were many times in his life when I thought his own his father, three brothers, and a sister really did not take the time to know him themselves. He was closest to his mother, but he lost her when he was still a young man. I was not privy to his family’s childhood relationships, although my dad sometimes told a humorous story or two about growing up with them. And there was one particular incident about a near drowning that occurred on a trip to the Catskills. While exploring in the country, one of my father’s brothers accidentally fell into an old well. Thankfully my dad was able to save him. It was not discussed very often. But there were many stories about the ‘old’ neighborhood, his old friends and the pace of that time in which he grew up. But I can attest to what I witnessed later in his life, as time and financial circumstance widened the gap between them. In my observation, my father became if he was not already, the odd man out in that family.
This past October 23rd would have marked my father’s 100th birthday. But a man with a life like he had; who worked extremely hard in a very strenuous profession; was never in the best of health; and faced many setbacks, hard times and disappointments in his life, could never have lived to that age. His life was simply just too hard. But even in the face of sometime failure, he never lost his jovial sense of humor or his appreciation for the small, significant things in life.
He came from a lower working middle class background in a world of small neighborhood values where people prized friendship and loyalty far more than the trappings of success. Everyone had come from and was basically in the same situation. Those in his Brooklyn apartment building had no more or less than any other neighbor had. It was the late thirties-early forties and the things we’ve come to take for granted in our modern lives today were not even ideas in someone’s imagination yet. No one had air conditioning in their apartment for example, and on a hot, August evening many in the neighborhood, took out wooden kitchen chairs to sit on in front of their buildings. They passed the time with one another talking, sharing, and laughing about life, food, kids and what was in the newspaper that day. And the of course there were the Dodgers.
There are very few still left of his generation who are lucky enough to distinctly recall that time. We as their children remember perhaps bitter sweetly, all those promises and possibilities, opportunity and expectations which were as fresh and new then as we were. Hopefully those kids are telling their own children and grandchildren today about the world they and their parents grew up in. Certainly many things have changed and for the better. Innovations and attitudes improve all the time. But one can’t help but become nostalgic thinking about their own childhood and the ways perhaps that their world was a kinder and gentler one. My father remained all his life, a product of that kind of world. Maybe we were ignorant in our bliss or just too naïve. We came to believe that all one need do is to ‘duck and cover’ to protect yourself. The world has changed in many ways into a much better informed but even more dangerous place. How do you begin to reassure an apprehensive child today that things are going to be alright? I guess you continue to tell them that the good people in the world far outnumber the bad. That’s where strong values and faith come in. When I expressed my own fears to my mom as a kid, her reply was always, ‘Oh, God would never let that happen.’ And I believed her.
Sam was born in an old fashioned, unpretentious wood framed house on Saratoga Avenue in what was then called East New York. It was a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. Many had come from Russia and Poland or other eastern European countries to seek a better life. My grandfather came with the trade of ‘metal spinner’ and soon opened a shop on Centre Street in lower Manhattan. There he put my father to work at the age of fifteen and taught him the business. Only one other of his siblings, his oldest brother, worked with them. They were the business, the three of them although it was my dad who did the primary share of the labor. And it was hard labor. Lugging large rolls of metal around, cutting them into ‘blanks’ to be shaped and formed manually on a spinning lathe into the raw parts that would become the components of light fixtures, vases and lamps. And in the old fashioned shop, the noise was deafening. In order to run one machine, they had to run every machine at the same time. They were all connected to the factory ceiling by overhead belts. As a kid of five or six, I remember being overwhelmed by the sight and sound of it all. My dad was covered in machine grease from head to toe which made him barely recognizable to me. In fact he worked so hard over the years that no matter how much he scrubbed his hands, they really never looked clean. It was not until he had spent months in the hospital that his hands became clean.
My father was a craftsman of great skill although he felt his job opportunities were limited. He believed that he could not work anywhere else because he sometimes got so fatigued standing on his feet, he had to sit on a tall stool in front of his lathe while continuing to work. He always said that another boss would not permit that. He had a debilitating illness as a child called Perthes Disease. One of his legs became slightly shorter than the other as a result. He walked all his life with a limp that became more and more prominent as he got older. To me, that was just the distinctive way in which my daddy walked. As a child growing up in Boro Park, Brooklyn I remember my father had to tread four blocks mostly uphill from the train stop at 50th Street. I used to think that his unique walk was convenient for me because as I waited for him to come home from work, it was easy to spot him, even from several blocks away. He often wore his tattered lumber jacket and an old hat with the ear flaps turned up on milder winter days. He often carried a small brown bag under one arm, the remnants of his home made lunches. I adored him and often watched for him with great anticipation.
Friday nights were extra special because he frequently came home carrying several boxes of cakes and pies. On Fridays his brother got unsold bakery items from a friend of his at Sutter’s in the Village. Whatever he didn’t want for his own family, he gave to my dad. I remember all too fondly the chocolate layer cakes, the babkas and a chocolate cream pie made with real milk not water. Everything seemed to taste better then. My mom was always over the moon for a chocolate cheese cake, her favorite. These serendipitous acquisitions were insignificant in light of the fact that my father worked for a very small salary and did not have equal shares in the business. And the tables turned even more dramatically when his father died and left the controlling shares of the metal shop to his brother.
From the time I can recall as a child, I often felt an estrangement between my father and the rest of his own family. But although they came to grow apart he always loved his siblings, wanted closer relationships with them and never showed bitterness towards them. Everyone eventually seemed to be doing very well financially, but my dad continued to struggle. When I was born, my parents were living in a shabby, fourth floor walkup apartment in Brooklyn. They couldn’t afford anything else. My father had to lug my baby carriage up eight flights of steps from the street.
When grandpa died, his house was offered to whoever in the family wanted it. But the others had more grandiose plans. My father took the offer and we moved back into the home he had essentially grown up in. It was an old fashioned, two family, brick house. In fact his old neighbor across the alley was still living next door. Her name was Mrs. Butter. My dad at one time had three neighbors with the names, Fruit, Fish and Butter. He used to joke that he never went hungry as a kid.
But grandpa’s house came with a lot of problems. It required extensive renovation and my parents were duped by a disreputable contractor. They made the mistake of not moving upstairs, so eventually disruptive tenants made living there a nightmare. Finally when I was eleven, my mother got the home she really wanted. It was not quite the dream house in the suburbs she’d envisioned, but it was large, more modern and had possibilities. And it was in a good location just outside, but still within the city limits.
My dad really wanted to be a musician and thought playing the trumpet like Harry James would be swell. He and Mr. James were the same age, and my father became a big fan of his. In truth, my dad’s father did want all of his children to play a musical instrument. But he made the choices as to who would play what. His only sister received a very expensive, console Knabe piano, that she never actually learned to play, but it became a show piece in her suburban living room many years later. My dad never got what he requested. More importantly than a trumpet, my father’s father hastily pulled him out of high school before my dad could graduate because he was doing poorly scholastically. He then immediately put him to work in his metal shop. That limited his career choices and earning power but had no bearing on his character. He had more street smarts, practical knowledge and was so handy he could fix, or learn to fix, just about anything. But never was there a consideration by his own father that he had physical limitations that the others didn’t. Daddy often wished he could have become a musician, an auto mechanic, anything other than a metal spinner. He often joked about being a popular singer like Russ Colombo, a famous singer-actor-musician of the twenties. He joked about that. He’d even given himself a stage name. He would call himself ‘Bob Lane’.
My mother used to joke to me that ‘the stork must have dropped your dad into that family by mistake’. He had a gentility and sweetness of temperament unique to him. I can honestly say I knew him well enough to see that he never had a mean, prejudiced or jealous bone in his body. He tried always to look on the bright side of things, and never gave up. Often, he went out of his way to help others if he could doing favors for people, repairing things for them but not asking for anything in return. If someone did repay him for his kindness by cooking or baking something special, he was delighted with that. In truth, he really could have used the extra money but it was never asked for or offered.
My mother and I always came first. He tried to provide whatever we needed or asked for. And he was always accommodating no matter how tired he was. As the only driver, he would chauffeur my mom anywhere she wanted to go, or go out of his way to pick me up or take me and my friends to the movies. Many times he took my mother into downtown Brooklyn to shop and without complaint, waited around for hours in the car for her.
It was my father who insisted I learn how to drive a car. I really didn’t want to. But when I was a teenager, my dad had a mild heart attack and was admitted to the hospital. Mom and I had to take several bus connections to visit him there. We also had to drag his clothes and other things he needed back and forth on the bus. It was the first time we really felt lost without him. When he was ready to be discharged, his car still parked outside the hospital, he drove us all home himself. That was that. When I turned eighteen, he bought me an old used, white Chevy that turned out to have a million mechanical problems but he soon started giving me driving lessons. He himself had always been a wonderful driver. And he knew the tri state area like the back of his hand, especially Manhattan and Brooklyn. On those rare occasions when he did get lost, like most men, he hated to stop and ask for directions, but he did. He had the same thoughtful, courteous attitude behind the wheel as he had everywhere else. But believe me, trying to teach me to drive almost put him over the edge at times. I continually wanted to quit but he wouldn’t allow it. Even when he lost his temper and threatened ‘that’s it, I’m finished!’ the very next morning he was waiting and ready for our next lesson. He would reiterate all the benefits of driving and the freedom it would offer. Later it became invaluable in my life because it allowed me to work locally and offered my mother and me the independence he had always talked about.
As a child and teenager, I often remember behaving like the self-centered, immature spoiled brat that I was. My mom, although she worked very hard as a home maker, frequently ran up debts with local department stores. She wanted to make a nice home for us and bought most of our clothes as well. Eventually she had to return to work but I was never pressured into getting a job myself like a lot of other teens had to. Although my mother eventually worked six days a week, she still managed to keep our house immaculate and there was always too much food on the dinner table. My father, on the other hand, was never the controlling type. My mom could spend hers or his money in any way she wanted. The problem was he was so busy trying to make ends meet that he never bothered to get regular doctor checkups. He also felt he could not afford life insurance and never looked into it.
I should interject here that my father was simply a working man and far from perfect. He sometimes angered my mother because he did not take care of his own health. He enjoyed telling the occasional off color joke in mixed company. He did not like to dress up for special occasions and often needed mom’s help because he himself didn’t know what clothes he owned. He also followed the old fashioned practice of ‘falling in’ on people unannounced for some cake and coffee. No need to stand on ceremony. However, the latter resulted in one of the most painful experiences I can remember during my childhood.
My father, mother and I, ‘dropped by’ one Sunday afternoon unannounced at his sister’s lavish home on Long Island only to find every other member of his family along with all their spouses and children had gathered there for a ‘family dinner’. Everyone was invited except us. I was still a child, but old enough to know what had happened. It was not in my dad’s disposition to be confrontational or quick to anger. He simply excused himself at her front door and we started to leave. It was only after one of his brothers came running out to our car and insisted we join them. But to me it always remained a ‘left handed invitation’. My parents may have been deeply hurt, but they never expressed that to me. And to add injury to insult in my opinion, my mom had brought my aunt a box filled with my gently used, outgrown clothes for her daughter. As it turned out, she offered the items to everyone there. When I was older I thought it was foolish for her to do that. They were more than happy to take the clothes for their own children.
My father had a very loving relationship with his own mother. There was nothing he would not do for her and her for him. She always praised him and although I have no proof of this, felt she tried to make up for the poor treatment he received from his father. Grandma Gertrude was hard working, a wonderful ‘hamisha’ gal who put her family first. A wonderful cook that had many mouths to feed. She also had problems with her own health and suffered all her life from diabetes. She later had a stroke which partially paralyzed her at a still relatively young age. One of my dearest third person stories occurred during this time. Momma could hardly speak because of her paralysis. My dad had joined the army. How he passed the physical to enlist has always remained a mystery to us. He however never saw combat duty which he always felt was an embarrassment. Instead the army gave him an Honorable Discharge considering him unfit for active duty because of his physical condition. The timing was right however because he was then able to go home to his ailing mother. When he arrived at the house on 50th Street, he walked in the door and grandma, it was told to me, looked up at him and said his name distinctly and out loud: ‘Sammie!’ It was the first clear word she had uttered in a very long time. Because of the kind of man my father was, I always truly believed that his own mother favored him most.
After Grandma Gertrude passed away from complications from her illnesses, my father felt lost. Then he soon started ‘keeping company’ with my mom. They had met at a local dance. My mom was very stylish and attractive but her additional ace in the hole for capturing his undivided attention soon became her own mother, Bella. She too quickly came to love him. She knew he desperately missed his own mother. She often made him home cooked meals like he used to have. He in turn treated her as he had his own mother, with consideration and respect. Tragically she too passed away at the young age of forty seven due to complications from a fall on the winter ice. Actually I never really got an accurate diagnosis of what caused her death. Medicine still was not very advanced. And because she died before I was born, I never got to meet either of my grandmas although as is Jewish tradition, I was named after both of them. It was evident for the remainder of my mother’s life that she never truly got over the loss of her mom.
I once asked my mother wistfully how she knew my father was the right man for her. She told me a little vignette that occurred just after they started dating. My mom had the sniffles on their previous date. The next time my dad called on her he brought with him a small medicated atomizer from the druggist without being asked too. I believe that spoke volumes to her about him. They got married in February the following year but in a blizzard! My father, characteristically actually had to go out and pick up some of his own wedding guests who were stranded in the storm.
I’ve always felt that to judge a man by the amount of money they can earn, the suit and tie they wear or the attaché case they may carry is a misguided concept. I was always so proud of my dad and in truth felt my mother had married a man so very rich in spirit if nothing else.
My father talked in plain English. He dressed modestly, had simple tastes and interests. He loved sports. He enjoyed a good meal (usually with a fresh piece of rye bread) and a ‘nice’ piece of cake for dessert. He liked to build furniture and built from scratch his own basement workroom. He was often guilty of cat napping in a comfortable chair because he was usually exhausted from work. The world that he came from would describe him as a ‘mensch’.
As a young boy, he had a cadre of what sounded like to me, goofy but harmless friends who liked to play pranks, go to the movies and eat delicatessen. He regaled my mother and me with many humorous stories of his adventures with these fellas. Stick ball in the streets of Brooklyn was their favorite pastime. Basically his friends were ‘nice Jewish boys’ but he also had friends of all ethnicities. These boys were good to their moms, stayed out of trouble and did mostly as they were told. Of course there was that time my dad, without a driver’s license and underage ‘borrowed’ his father’s new Ford Model T to take his pals for a joy ride. I cannot even begin to relate as he did over the years all of the hilarious stories told in retrospect that ensued because of that incident. He had a minor accident and his father made him work off the cost of the damage. Thankfully nobody was hurt and I assume that many of those friends grew up to be good husbands and fathers as well. He lost touch with most of them.
One thing my parents always had in common was they were both great movie buffs. My dad in his later years, would sit up until all hours of the night to watch old movies on TV. He had an uncanny knack for knowing all of the supporting actor’s real names and was a particular fan of actor Charles Laughton’s. He enjoyed war films, gangster movies, musicals with Fred and Ginger and particularly the genre of swashbuckling films. He watched ‘Captain Blood’ or ‘The Crimson Pirate’ over and over again. But I believe his favorite movie was “Mutiny on the Bounty” with Clark Gable and Mr. Laughton. He even had down verbatim, or so I thought, the famous speech Captain Bligh delivers to his mutinous crew as he is cast off in a life boat with a few remaining followers. My father would often recite it with great animation in a comical tone: “You send me to my doom, eh? You send me 1400 miles to the nearest port of call? I shall see you Mr. Christian, all of you, hanging from the highest yardarm”. One evening as a young child, I found him watching ‘Mutiny’ on the Late Late Show. Since it was not a school night, he allowed me to watch with him. I’d never actually seen the movie. My dad began to add his own color commentary to the film. He told me how women at the time went wild at seeing Clarke Gable bare chested something not done at that time. I must have been the only kid in the neighborhood who knew what the Hays Code was for. Finally getting to the part where Captain Bligh delivers his ominous speech, I listened very carefully but soon blurted out, “Dad he’s getting it wrong!” After hearing my dad’s version so often I thought the dialog was wrong!
After my dad went into business for himself, he often worked until very late in the evening to complete his orders. When he did come home, his supper had usually been sitting in the oven for hours, reheated several times. After dinner he relaxed by watching these old movies, many that he had seen as a kid in the movies. One night he was watching ‘Touch of Evil’ with Charlton Heston and Orson Welles. It was a very battered copy of the film. The musical soundtrack was not only distorted (which in itself can be hilarious) but the film was missing some frames here and there, much like a skipped digital signal would be today. In one intense scene Mr. Wells tips his hat as he is about to leave the room and simply disappears off the screen in a blip. “Where the heck did he go?” my dad exclaimed. We then laughed so long and loud it woke my mother up and she was none too happy about that.
My father as a teenager often went by himself to see the movie and show at Radio City Music Hall. Ironically many years later I sometimes skipped high school to do the very same thing. I saw wonderful films there and continued to go even more regularly when I started working. The screen and sound were unbelievable and the live show with the Rockettes was always dazzling. I think my father paid something like ten cents to get in. In early years I went, it was ninety nine cents for the first show in the morning. Today, you can’t even buy a candy bar for that!
I often imagine what my dad would think of films being made today. I know in my heart, he would have loved the character of Rocky Balboa. But the first of Mr. Stallone’s series of films opened just three months after my dad had passed away. I wish I could hear his thoughts on the genius of Steven Spielberg. When ‘Jaws’ premiered my mother and I went to see it on a hot summer afternoon in 1975 but my dad felt he could not skip work to come with us. What would he have thought about the brilliant and eclectic abilities of actors like Johnny Depp, Denzel Washington or Meryl Streep? And there is the movie magic of films like James Cameron’s ‘Titanic”, with those incredible special effects which enhanced but did not usurp the compelling story of the film.
My dad loved opera. In his time he enjoyed artists like Enrico Caruso, Mario Lanza, Mirella Freni and Richard Tucker but he probably would have been a devoted fan of the magnificent Luciano Pavarotti whom I don’t think my father ever heard as he was just becoming a world renowned artist. I do recall dad’s favorite opera, ‘Die Fledermaus’ by Strauss although he loved Madam Butterfly, Carmen, Porky & Bess and especially ‘La Boheme’, the latter was the only opera I could listen to in its entirety. I came to love it.
Also a devoted fan of Broadway show music, Les Miserables would have become his favorite show. The music is so beautiful, the story so compelling and he often talked about the 1935 film starring Frederick March and of course Charles Laughton. “He was endlessly pursued for stealing a simple loaf of bread”. Dad loved telling the film’s story.
It was my father who bought for me my very first Barbra Streisand album. This, at a time when we did not agree about most popular music. He was thirties and forties big band music like Bennie Goodman or Glenn Miller, I was Motown and The Beatles. Its fifty years later and I still adore Barbra. I like to think she was a gift introduced to me by my dad. Her magnificent film achievement, ‘Yentl’, a homage to her own late father, remains my favorite of all her films. I cannot listen to ‘Poppa, Can You Hear Me?’ without filling up with tears.
I often have wished I could write a movie about my father’s life. I know exactly whom I’d cast to play him. There is a down to earth, warm and winning way about actor Tom Hanks that I believe would make him perfect for the role.
My father was a victim of circumstance and when he needed luck on his side, he didn’t seem to have it. But please don’t think of him as meek. Strength or courage can come in many different forms. I was there in his room when his surgeon came in to tell him “I’m sorry Sam, but I’m going to have to amputate your leg”. Without flinching, my dad looked up from his hospital bed and said to him, “I don’t want you to worry doc, as soon as I’m back on my feet, I will see that your bill is paid”.
Being self-employed was a struggle. It was very difficult to set up his own shop. He had to relocate three times due to circumstances. He had to buy all the machines second hand. But he was proud of his new independence and his more modern equipment. But he had a very difficult struggle in turning a profit. His expenses were high both there and at home. But money trouble was nothing new to my father. When I was a child I needed eye surgery to correct a weak muscle in one eye. He had to borrow money for it. He put himself in hock for my surgery without which I would have gone through life with one eye turned out. I actually had a grade school teacher at that time with the same condition which had never been corrected. She strongly advised my dad to do whatever necessary to take care of it. I had a rough enough time in my life being overweight and bullied because of that. Had I also been cross eyed it would probably have been catastrophic for me.
I believe my dad had many wonderful qualities that a lot of other men don’t.
Metal spinning was fast becoming a dying art. Stamping machines were being developed that were speedier and could produce more product in less time. My father did everything himself, from initial stamping of the metal blanks, to the spinning, forming and finishing of the raw product. Many pieces required additional steps. At one point he had to build his own kiln oven because he couldn’t find one to buy. He needed it in order to heat some metals he worked with which were not malleable otherwise. He even made out the billing and delivered the orders himself. Many of his customers were located in Manhattan. It was just as impossible to park there then as it is now. We urged him, but he never took the time to get a handicapped license plate which he surely would have qualified for. But deliveries were always on time and his products reasonably priced considering all the time and effort that went into them. But business can be cutthroat and many of his buyers would readily go elsewhere if they could save a penny or two on a piece. Later he taught himself how to build brass bed headboards and he made beautiful samples. But when he advertised in a Long Island newspaper, no one responded.
By the time he was lying in what was later closed as an unaccredited hospital, misdiagnosed with a blood clot in his leg vein that caused it to swell twice its size, he was earning no money at all. After weeks of wasted time and using up most of his meager health plan, my mother and I convinced him to be seen at the hospital where I was employed.
Under the care of a reputable doctor in a competent hospital, within six hours of his admission, he had received an accurate diagnosis. His swollen leg was the result of a condition called ‘Osteogenic Sarcoma’ that was more prevalent in adolescents than people of his age. This sent both my mother and myself reeling. The foundation of what had been my self-serving life was about to crumble. My mom was totally devastated. She had only loved one man all her life. One that we both had come to depend on for far too much, far too long. After months of radical surgeries and chemotherapy, he passed away on August 9th of that year 1976. Just a week before, he had been transferred to the Brooklyn Veterans Hospital at Fort Hamilton because his health insurance had dwindled to nothing. He qualified as a veteran to be admitted there. But almost immediately after his admittance, he began to have a horrendous reaction to the chemotherapy he had received. Ironically he died the night hurricane Belle was battering the Brooklyn coast. I used to frequently have nightmares where I could see him lying in the ICU, unable to communicate with us, his skin seemingly melting away and the pounding of the rain from the storm hitting the hospital window. He didn’t deserve to die like that.
When you truly love someone - truly value them, it is extremely important to tell them as often as you can and show appreciation in the things you do. But people, particularly young people, don’t always behave as they should. I believe it took me much longer than most, to mature. As a young adult, I was still preoccupied with childish wants and needs and never stopped to consider the true picture.
I have now had forty years to see the error of my ways. Hindsight is always twenty twenty. Basically you live and learn and hopefully become a responsible person sooner than later. And your regrets may be fewer than mine.
A famous proverb reads ‘when the well is dry, we learn the wealth of water’. So many people these days seem to be dying of thirst. We communicate much more, understand so much less. It has become a crazy, modernized, technically myriad world. Of course, if there were no internet, no sites like this one you would not be sitting there reading this now. For that I want to thank you for taking this time so I could 'introduce' you to my father.
He was an ordinary man who possessed an extraordinary character. It was just fine with him for everyone he knew to call him Sam. However, I was the only one fortunate enough to call him dad.
I miss you so much daddy and hope to tell you that when I see you again.