Happy Father’s Day

by

06/15/2019

Neighborhood: Bronx, New Jersey


The phone call came on a steamy summer morning, while I was stuck in traffic on the Central Park transverse, the Met’s Temple of Dendur off to my right. A nurse from my father’s hospital equivocated her way through the call. He had been in failing health.

“Where are you now?” she finally asked, with some urgency. “You should see him.”

“I’m stuck in traffic, on my way to a doctor’s appointment in Manhattan,” I said. The light turned green, the yellow cab Camry behind me honked. I gave him the finger, and nudged my car forward. “Are you saying my father is dying?” I asked. A fair question.

“You should see him,” she repeated. I edged east onto 84th Street. Dendur, dedicated to Osiris, god of the afterlife, receded in my rearview mirror. My father was 89. Once tyrannical, remote, and enigmatic, he was now diminished, a husk. I remembered details of my most recent visit.  His hair was long, his fingernails uncut, his once tall and robust body slack.

He looked at me, that day, with deadened eyes. Slowly, he began to speak.

“I don’t know what to say,” he said, his very last words to me. The next time I saw him was in a box, at his graveside funeral service, when a rent-a-rabbi opened his coffin so I could verify his identity.

“Yep, that’s him alright,” I remember thinking, staring at his far-healthier looking corpse.

That was seven years ago. Since then, I’ve given a lot of thought to the stories he told me about his life, and as Father’s Day approaches, I ponder his need to choose me, a little kid at the time, to unload on.

1. He was born in 1923 in the kitchen of his apartment on Garden Street, not far from the Bronx Zoo. His parents were born in Russia, came over in steerage, and spoke little English.

2. His father, Louis, was a mink-cutter in Manhattan’s fur district and learned English by reading the New York Times and Wall Street Journal every day. His mother, Rae, was renowned for her chicken soup and pastry baking. She had a heart condition.

3. He was by far the youngest of three children, a family “surprise,” and he ran rampant in the streets.

4. When his sneakers wore out, he stuffed the soles with cardboard.

5. His friends would fling clods of dried horse excrement from the street into the open door of the Chinese laundry, make obscene gestures, and run away.

6. He played a mean first base, being a tall lefty.

7. When the war started and his friends got drafted, he didn’t want to get left behind, so he went to his local board and asked if they could move him up on the list. They promptly obliged and he was soon sent to Camp Van Dorn, Mississippi for basic, where the southern boys would rub his forehead, in search of Jew horns. The town sheriff wore twin, pearl-handled 45s.

8. “We lived in tarpaper shacks; it was the asshole of the world,” he told the five-year old me.

9. He got clobbered by an MP’s baton in a roadhouse brawl started when he played “Jumpin’ at the Jubilee” by Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five on the jukebox. He saw a lynched black man hanging from a tree. He said there was a race riot on his base that was put down when the still segregated Army sent in half-track military vehicles to quell the violence. In later years, he denied that this event really happened.

10. His unit went to England, then France, Belgium and Germany. His job was to fix small arms, everything under .50 caliber.

11. One time, he flushed out a group of Nazis from a henhouse in rural France. He said his hands were shaking as he pointed his carbine at the Germans.

12. During the winter of 1944-45, his unit was pinned down in the Ardennes. They got bombed and strafed every night. This was the Battle of the Bulge. He got frostbite and nearly had to have his right big toe amputated. Trees exploded from the cold. When the sap froze and expanded, it sounded like gunshots. He wrote a postcard to his parents back in the Bronx: “It is hell hell hell every night,” he said. He had just turned 19.

13. In Germany, he saw a Russian soldier interrogate a prisoner. In an apparent attempt to expedite the flow of information, the Russian pulled out his sidearm and shot the Nazi in the face so that his jaw unhinged and flopped below his neck. “Those Russians were tough,” he told me one time, when I was home from school with the mumps.

14. After the German surrender, he was shipped home. While on leave, he went to Coney Island with his buddy Nicky and they met a couple of girls on the boardwalk. One of the girls would become my mother.

15. He was sent to Texas to be retrained for the Pacific. Then Truman dropped the big one. He was discharged.

16. He came back to the Bronx and picked up where he left off with the girl who would become my mother.

17. He never spoke much about the war. Not when I was a kid, not ever. When some of his contemporaries would start talking about the rations, or basic training, or what they saw or did, he would leave the room. “Empty barrels make the most noise,” he would tell me.

18. He went to night school on the G.I. Bill, studied accounting, and worked his way up the ladder at a big finance company. He hated accounting, he hated his job, and he hated his boss. When I was a kid, he reiterated this to me every single day.

19. In the morning, before work, he went to the liquor cabinet and slugged from a bottle of Scotch before heading to the 4 train and off to work.

20. He showed me how to strip and clean the guns he “liberated” from the war. He had a German luger, a .25 automatic, and a Walther .22 single-shot sport rifle with a checkered stock. He told me to never point a gun, even a toy, at anyone, and said that if someone in his unit even accidently pointed a gun at one of them, they would beat the hell out of that guy.

21. Every night, when he came home from work, he smelled like cigarettes, newsprint, and Scotch. He would go wash up for dinner then sit down and say, “Ahhh, this is the best part of the day.” I thought that all men should smell like cigarettes, newsprint, and Scotch.

22. He sat wordlessly for the rest of the night.

23. He would be asleep in his chair, in front of the Stromberg-Carlson tube tv, by nine o’clock.

24. He suffered from cruel migraines and  popped APC tablets like Skittles, until they wore a hole in his stomach and he got an ulcer. He also had a slipped disc and suffered disabling, chronic back pain that seemed to always flare up on family vacations.

25. He would jump at loud noises and chase me and my sister if we accidentally dropped something. “God damn it; no sudden outbursts,” he would scream, with a fist-bang on the wall, or table, or whatever was handy, for emphasis. We never got punched, but he backhanded us if he could catch us before we dove under the bed for cover.

26. He would never play in the snow with us kids, and never wanted to ice skate or try skiing. “Why would I want to be out in the cold,” he’d say.

27. He screamed at my mother and my mother screamed at him, all the time. “You never talk,” my mother would scream. “Why can’t we ever talk?”

28. Once, at a big upstate softball game between two rival bungalow colonies, my migraine-ridden, bad-back father crushed a windmill pitch and slugged a mammoth grand slam. It towered over the outfield and finally landed on the roof of a far-away cabin with a thunderous “thunk.” We little kids danced with sweaty glee and I screamed, “My daddy won the game.”

29. After years of complaining about work, he somehow got offered a lot more money for a job at a rival company. Our family was ecstatic; the dour, dangerous man of the house might actually become happy! He went back and forth on it for a week, but finally declined the offer. At home, all the air went out of the balloon.

30. He kept eating and drinking and smoking. One Thanksgiving, he had a heart attack. Twenty-two years later, he had another and underwent a quintuple bypass.

31. His company moved to New Jersey and he moved there as well. My parents had been in the same rent-controlled apartment for twenty-four years, well after arson had swept that careworn quadrant of the Bronx.

32. They took the furniture they had owned since they were newlyweds to their new home in the suburbs.

33. When I got married, at 24, he offered to do our tax returns. After the second year of this, he said, apropos of nothing, “My goal is to continue to make more than the two of you put together.” My wife and I found our own accountant.

34. He retired at 65 and opted for his lump-sum payout. The company gave him a gold watch. He thought he was rich. He took my mother on a trip to Aruba once.

35. My mother still complained that he would never talk.

36. He would start drinking in late morning and keep going until he fell asleep at eight. When I’d call to check on him, he’d quickly say, “Hold on. Let me get your mother.”

37. Once he flushed Nazis out of a henhouse with a carbine. Once he clobbered a towering grand slam that won the game.

38. “I don’t know what to say.”

39. “You should see him.”

***

Martin Kleinman  has told his tales of real New Yorkers in his short fiction collection, “Home Front,” (Sock Monkey Press 2013), fiction anthologies and literary publications, and in www.thisisthebronX.info, and on his blog www.therealnewyorkers.com A native New Yorker, Marty has written two books on workplace innovation trends, and is finalizing a second collection of short fiction, “A Shoebox Full of Money.”

 

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§ 2 Responses to “Happy Father’s Day”

  • TSB says:

    The silent fathers. The sleeping fathers. The asshole fathers! It’s weird that the greatest generation was also the most reticent, or produced so many reticent men. The refrain from the mother is heartbreaking. And why did he turn down the better job? My favorite line was the one where he says “my goal is…” and then you get another accountant. The war traumatized generation— its so hard to tease out their actual personalities from the ones formed by the war. Great piece.

  • Thank you TSB — I appreciate your remarks; they mean so much. Peace.

§ Leave a Reply

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