When my dad died suddenly last December, we couldn’t hold a memorial service for him because of Covid-19 restrictions. So I honored him in my own way. I watched Walt Disney’s “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes.”
Dad and Disney movies went hand-in-hand. There wasn’t a Disney movie that came out when I was a kid that we didn’t see, most often at a drive-in.
I think I’ve also seen every John Wayne western and more than a few World War II movies. The DVD collection at his house covered all of that and more, with some “Everybody Loves Raymond” seasons and Fred Astaire musicals thrown in.
Whenever I’d stop in to visit, I’d usually find Dad finishing that day’s crossword puzzle from the paper. Or he’d be reading either National Geographic or a history book that more than likely was a Christmas present. Biographies of generals, corporate titans, World War II (again) and science books lined their bookshelves. And yet, the book that he always went back to was “Concrete Planet. The Strange and Fascinating Story of the World’s Most Common Man-Made Material.” I always saw it next to him. He even had bookmarks sticking out from the pages.
Maybe the fascination with concrete came from his life as an engineer and handyman extraordinaire. There were many kitchens remodeled, many walls plastered and many faucets and showers installed throughout his lifetime in our homes as well as others. He was also a pretty good gardener and tended to a thriving vegetable garden in his backyard.
He taught me how to grill a steak, to dive in the deep end of the pool and play a duet with him on the piano. I also got over my fear of going on the big rollercoaster at Coney Island because he went on it with me. I’d be white-knuckling it all the way up the first steep hill. But then, as the click, click, click of the wheels slowed and we started our descent, Dad let out with this roaring “Whooooooa” from that first hill to the last turn. I was afraid no more!
Dad was also an accomplished musician, with an ear for music that would let him play a song on a whim at the piano. He loved playing the organ, piano and his beloved trumpet, a skill he learned when he was young.
His lifelong friend Jimmy Speciale, who lived just three blocks away from him in their Italian neighborhood in Buffalo, recounted those early days in high school, when they formed a band. Dad played the trumpet and was known as “Frankie Angel.” “He played everything he could get his hands on,” Jimmy told me. “I just went along.”
He put those trumpet and keyboard chops to use in several bands, playing wedding receptions, small parties, senior centers and his own annual Labor Day soiree that became an end-of-summer rite.
One of my favorite stories about his trumpet-playing goes back to the 1960s when our neighborhood had a block party. “It was just a bunch of us neighbors who decided to do something,” neighbor and longtime friend Carl Rosskopf told me. “That’s how it started. We went late into the night and then everyone went home.”
Then, as dawn broke the next morning, Dad, clad in robe and slippers, trumpet in hand, walked out in our front yard and played Reveille to wake up everyone. “So we all got up and continued the party,” Rosskopf said, chuckling as he remembered the event. He said the local news even covered the party. (I have searched for this news clip! No luck yet).
That was also the time the Poker Club started. Our cul-de-sac had about 12 houses on it. Once a month, the dads would meet at a designated house (hosting duties rotated), hole up in the basement for five hours, smoke, drink beer and play Poker. At midnight, they’d take a break and eat dinner and then play a few more hours.
“If you had a good night, you’d win 10 bucks,” neighbor and longtime friend Tom Banks told me. “If you had a bad night, you lost 10 bucks.”
All I remember is waking up the next morning and there would be a pile of coins for me and my brother on the dining room table. The three of them – Dad, Carl and Tom – were still getting together last year, although I believe the game of choice had turned to pinochle.
In addition to the music, whether he was playing one of his solo gigs with just his synthesizer or sitting at his grand piano in the living room, Dad would pepper his performances with jokes. With nods to Henny Youngman, Alan King and Jack Benny, Dad was always the funniest guy in the room. And the jokes weren’t confined to a gig. We heard them regularly in the house, over and over again. It didn’t matter. We’d laugh. He’d laugh. Everybody laughed.
“So this guy goes to a psychiatrist, who tells him to lay on the couch. The psychiatrist asks him what he does for a living. ‘I’m a mechanic,’ he says. The psychiatrist says, ‘OK, get under the couch’.”
One year for Christmas, he received a book that was a collection of Henny Youngman’s best jokes. I tried to memorize as many as possible so when he started, I could give one right back to him. This usually lasted for about a half hour, or even during one of our marathon gin rummy games.
“So this guy goes to a restaurant and tells the waitress he’ll have a cup of coffee without sugar. The waitress says, ‘Sorry sir. We’re out of sugar. How about a cup of coffee without milk’?”
“A guy goes to see his doctor, who tells him he only has six months to live. The guy says, ‘Oh no doc. I don’t know if I can pay you in time.’ The doc says, ‘OK. I’ll give you another six months’.”
They never got old. I miss laughing with him. I miss hearing him play the piano. I miss finishing his crossword puzzles and insisting that there’s no way his spaghetti sauce is better than mine because he adds sauce from a jar. (That’s blasphemy!) I miss his stories about the old days of bathtub gin and Sunday dinners with all the cousins.
I will end this post with one of his signature bits which he told as he sat at the piano. Still makes me laugh.
Everyone had gathered around her majesty the Queen to hear what she thought of the new wines that were presented for her dinner. She started with the white wine.
She took the glass, swirled it a bit and then put her nose to the edge to take in the bouquet.
“I smell the fresh cut hay that I’d smell on our family’s estate in the country. Oh, I have such wonderful memories from there.” The crowd says, “ooooh.”
Then the Queen raises the glass and looks at the wine in the light. “My, it’s just a beautiful golden color, the color of a field of golden wheat that brings such wonderful memories back to me of my summers in the country.” The crowd says: “ahhhh.”
Then she takes a sip as everyone holds their breath. “Oh, it’s lovely. I can taste the peach from my grandfather’s groves, I can taste the oak from the barrel that reminds me of home, of the fields of oak trees at the estate. I am transported to those lush field. It just awakens all my senses.” The crowd applauds.
So the sommelier then pours the red wine for her.
She holds the glass, looks around the room and says, “When I drink the red wine, it makes me fart.”
DAD IN ITALY, 1956
DAD IN THE ARMY, 1950s. GERMANY