Thursday, March 20, 2014

My Father

By Robert J. O’Connell

 I suppose that it is natural to think back about earlier times in order to bring order to the jumble that makes up the fragmented memories of our family. The passage of time is like looking through either end of a telescope. The here and now we see magnified with all the bumps and bruises on our family history, but as time passes we see less of that and begin to see through the other end where it is possible to see much more of the big picture.

My father remains a shadowy figure in my remembrances. I suppose that this arose from my Mother’s persistent warning that he was always about to die. The  particular fact was that my father had Hemophilia. He was a bleeder. We were all taught to wait for the next big hemorrhage that was sure to kill him. Many had already occurred and left him a cripple. In fact, she told us that if we were not good he would have to beat us and this would cause the  next big one to happen. As a consequence I and all five of my younger siblings were very cautious around Dad. Although he started off his adult life being the prosperous proprietor of several local barber shops, the depression put him out of business. He often remarked that at that time you couldn’t give away a nickel haircut. This always made me imagine a whole crowd of bearded and shaggy men in the neighborhood. Because he was on crutches and a bleeder he was not able to get regular work to support his growing family and as a consequence we lived on welfare and largely, I guess, by his wits.

I have since come to realize that many of the traits that I blamed him for at the time were common to all those who survived the depression. He always dealt in the barter economy even latter in life when he had enough cash to buy what was wanted.  He would put together very complicated many step deals that would allow him to swap something he had with a whole chain of cronies to arrive at the item he wanted. These chains of swaps often took long periods of time. When I was ten he promised to get me a much desired two wheel bike. In the long run (~six years) , the bike was provided although it lacked one pedal and a seat. They too came to me later over another year or so. As a consequence of this type of event I came early to believe that he was a liar. Now I realize that he just had unrealistic estimates of how long one of these deals would take, he always meant to accomplish what he said he could..

During the war, when I was four or five he did get a regular job with the Remington Rand Corp., in Syracuse making trigger guards for 45 automatics. The job advertisement asked for experienced precision grinders. Instantly, my father became one. As there were no able bodied men left in town he was hired with little investigation. After he was shown to his machine and waited for the supervisor to leave he asked the man next to him to show him how to do it. He learned fast and worked there for the duration of the war. Sudden prosperity however had a down side. It turned out that dad was fond of the creature as my Aunt Kate explained, and was likely to spend most of his paycheck standing drinks for his friends in one of the many local bars. 

Payday was Saturday, and my Mother routinely sent me to accompany him to get his check with the notion that he couldn’t take me into a bar. I can still remember the nutty, beery smell of the dark room. I got to watch the bubbles in the jukebox and sit on a tall stool and drink orange soda out of a small glass and eat all the peanuts I wanted. It was fun. But when we did get home and the deficit was noted my Mother took me aside and asked where we had been. I gave an ambiguous answer since I really didn’t know where we had been. Mom then asked what Dad had to drink. I said “tea with foam on it”. That was what I thought it was as we had never had beer in the house.

Mom solved this drinking problem in a very straight forward way. The next time he came home a little tipsy and with a lean wallet, she broke his nose by throwing an empty hammered aluminum coffee pot at him. I can still remember my fascination watching him lie on the bed with trickles of blood running down into his eye sockets from the exposed cartilage of his broken nasal septum. He mumbled that he was going to get even with her but as she out weighed him by at least fifty pounds it never come up and he abstained from alcohol the rest of his life. Although there was often whisky in the house, it was reserved for the occasional guest.

We were a very popular family in the Housing Project because we owned a TV set. Dad was able to swap something for a used one from one of his friends who worked for a local electronics store. I still remember the giant Dumont console with the small screen and a giant magnifying glass on the front. At 3pm every day the local kids would line up at our back door to come in and watch the cartoon show. Mom made them all remove their shoes and to sit quietly on the living room floor. After Howdy Doody was finished at five they all went home. Dad recognized that TV was the coming thing and instantly became a TV repairman. He put a sign in our kitchen window “TV Repair” and gradually business started to pick up. Now Dad knew absolutely nothing about how TV’s worked. But he did knew how to fix them.

I would go on service calls with him, largely to carry his tube caddy. In those days of vacuum tubes most service calls were caused by failed tubes. He would take the back of the set off, use a cheater cable to power it up and I would watch the display as he banged each tube with a screw driver. If the set flickered it indicated that the tube in question might be bad. A quick trip to the tube checker in the local drugstore would confirm the diagnosis and we would sell perhaps a new 12AX7 from the caddy and fix the set. As a result of a previous elbow hemorrhage which damaged his right ulnar nerve Dad could not feel the occasional shock that would occur when he banged the wrong thing with the screw driver. Occasionally this in-house procedure would fail to find the problem. Then the chassis was taken out and put on our kitchen table where it was carefully examined for burn marks or other signs of catastrophic failure. If this too failed, Dad called his friend John, who actually knew how they worked, and the two of them would snip and solder until the thing worked again. I don’t recall them ever failing, although the chassis would sometimes stay on the kitchen table for days at a time. Long enough to disrupt our diet.

Now that my two children are raised and leading their own lives I realize what an enormous task it was for my mother and father to raise six kids and keep them fed and clothed. I don’t know how they managed, but I suspect that it had something to do with light bulbs. I once overheard my father’s two sisters, Aunt Kate and Margaret argue about Dad. Aunt Margaret complained that whenever Dad visited her he stole the light bulbs out of all her lamps. My Aunt Kate responded that Margaret could afford to buy him a sack full and then skip the anguish. I still wonder what he swapped those bulbs for.  

copyright   Robert J. O'Connell,   2007

Robert J. O'Connel
Robert  J. O’Connell grew up in Syracuse, NY, known as the Salt City,  where he graduated from LeMoyne College and gained his PhD from the Upstate Medical University Center at Syracuse.   He was a career  neurobiologist on the research faculty of Florida State University, Rockefeller University, Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology and the (University of Massachusetts)  UMass Medical School.  Semi-retired, Bob and his second wife were engaged in real estate and other endeavors, including continued academic work for the medical school.  Bob passed from this world just last week and will be sorely missed.

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