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Neil with flag_LI.jpg


  1945 was an important year in my life. My father came home from the war, and I was sent off to kindergarten. Sigmund Freud would undoubtedly have had a party with those two facts, but he would have been wrong.  The reason these two events are important to me is not because they created any angst, but simply because they are my first memories, and hence, even though I was born in 1940, my conscious life only began four-and a half years later. 

  I probably should point out at this time that my memory is not what it used to be. There are times when I remember very little and other times when my memories of things long gone are as vivid as if they had occurred only moments ago.  There is also some question as to whether the things I remember ever actually happened.  I confess, I cannot tell the difference between real and imagined memories. They are all the same to me.

  The ancients believed that all dreams are sent by the gods through one of two gates: true, prophetic dreams enter our minds through a gate of horn, while false dreams enter through a gate of ivory. I believe this is true of memories too, some are false; some are true, and only the gods know which is which.

  For example, I was born in October, 1940. Dad went to war in ’42. My first memory of him is when he came home in the spring of ’45. I recall hearing a knock on the door, a gentle “rapping at my chamber door” as Mr. Poe describes it.  Mom opened the door and jumped into the arms of a man in an army uniform.  I know what you are thinking.  You think this is a false memory, engendered by watching too many war movies. Think what you will, but it’s my story and my memory, so I’ll accept it as true—at least until I remember something different.  

  I recall the scene as a happy one. Mom was certainly happy, and since I was about as smart as Pavlov’s dog, I associated Mom’s happiness with my own. So, I’m sorry Doctor Freud, my first memory of Dad was a happy one—although, I will admit that his homecoming brought about changes in my up-to that-time mundane life.

  Even though I said earlier that I remembered nothing prior to 1945, I do remember some things prior to Dad’s arrival at the front door. I remember the quiet, steady hum of a vacuum cleaner, the soothing voice of Martin Block announcing the “The Make-Believe Ballroom,” Bing Crosby crooning, “When the blue of the night meets the gold of the day….”The pace of my life up to that time had been slow—slow and safe, quiet and routine. “The Make Believe Ballroom” came on the radio at the same time every day. Bing Crosby crooned the same tunes every day at the same time. It was nice. But it was all about to change.

  Dad came through the door, scooped me up off the floor, held me high in the air, and to my delight, spun me around several times while he exclaimed, “Look how big you are!” Then he put me down and returned to mom almost immediately. I think about that often. Did I disappoint him? Was I supposed to respond? Perhaps say something like, “Yes, Dad, I’m three foot six now”? To be honest, my vocabulary was somewhat limited at the time, as was my mental acuity. I laughed. That was the best I could do. But I guess it wasn’t enough to hold Dad’s interest.

  Not that Dad didn’t turn out to be a good father, but he shouldn’t be confused with those paragons of suburban fatherly virtues like Ozzie Nelson, Ward Cleaver and Robert Young.  We lived in Jersey City, about as far as you get from suburbia in those days and still be in the continental United States. The difference wasn’t just geographic; it was organic. Jersey City was, at that time, a blue-collar, working class town. Fathers went to work, stopped at the gin mill for quick one on the way home, ate the dinners their wives had prepared for them and went back out to the tavern for a few beers and a game of darts, shuffleboard, or gin rummy. There was no TV at the time, so unless you liked Monopoly, or were content to sit in a chair and listen to the radio, the taverns offered the only entertainment.

Dad in uniform

   Women had their routines too. While the men worked, they piled their pre-school-age kids into baby carriages or strollers and paraded up and down Central Avenue to shop, meet their friends and chat before rushing home to prepare dinner. The section of Jersey City I grew up in had been largely German and Dutch before the Irish and Italian immigrants arrived to work the railroads and ‘shape the docks.’ Central Avenue was dotted with German butchers, delis, bakeries and ice cream parlors where mothers could relax in hand-carved wooden booths that reminded their owners of their native Bavaria. There the women could enjoy a light lunch topped off with home-made ice cream, while socializing with their friends. It was not unusual to see a dozen baby carriages lined up outside these establishments while the mothers sat inside confident that if their baby cried, a passerby would notify one of the counter help who would announce that “the baby in the blue (or red or green) carriage is crying” and the mother would go to its aid. The idea that someone would harm or steal a child was unimaginable.  These places are all gone now, along with the idea that it would be safe to leave a baby in a carriage on Central Avenue without an armed guard.

  Dad didn’t disrupt the routine. For the most part, he fit the mold and did what was expected of him—more or less. Dad was good at the ‘stopping at the gin mill, coming home for dinner, and going back out to the tavern’ part. He was an expert gin rummy player, having honed his skills over many years at Leckenbush’s,  Ralph’s, The Woodshed, Bebe’s and sundry other watering holes within a ten mile radius of home, but he wasn’t in the front of the class for the ‘going to work’ bit. I’m not sure what Dad did before he joined the army, but I heard (later in life of course) that when the stock market plummeted in 1929, Dad, who would have been 21 at the time, was working in the mail room of a Wall Street brokerage firm.  According to unimpeachable anonymous sources, Dad volunteered to be cashiered, so that another employee, who had a family, could keep his job.










  I know what you are thinking. You think I am your typical four-and-a half year old, creating a heroic image of his father. Nothing could be further from the truth. First of all, this story is not from my cache of memories; it is some other person’s memory, and whether of horn or of ivory, I do not know. However, if you knew my father, you would not question its veracity, as it is entirely consistent with his personality.  I do not doubt the story. I’m sure he volunteered to give up his position with the firm in favor of another. Whether he did this out of a misguided sense of noblisse oblige, or a fondness for grand gestures, or simply because he didn’t want to work anymore is anyone’s guess, but I put my money on the grand gesture. This was a man whose entire life was devoted to grand, and sometimes foolish, gestures. He lived his life as if he were on stage. Even his funeral was an event.  He was laid out in Fallon’s Funeral Parlor, a family-owned business much too small to hold the crowds that stood in line for three days to say goodbye. And when, as they wheeled his coffin out of St. Paul of The Cross Church, accompanied by an operatic version of Sinatra’s “My Way,” the crowd inside and outside broke into tears and cheers. It simply brought down the house. Dad would have loved it.

  But I am getting ahead of myself.

  At the time, I knew nothing of any of these things. I only knew that Mom was happy and someone new was in the house. I found him quite interesting. For one thing, he could make smoke come out of his nose. I had never seen that before. And I learned a lot from him. For example, I learned that the red, glowing tip of the white stick he put in his mouth was very hot, and that the fluffy white stuff that fell from the end of it tasted awful. And I learned never to go into the bathroom after he had been in there.  

  I also learned about baseball. When Dad was home, The New York Yankees replaced The Make-Believe Ballroom, and the velvet tones of Mel Allen replaced those of Mel Torme. Dad taught me how to make the Ballantine “Three Ring Sign” which seemed to make him happy. I also learned to say “Going, Going, Gone!” while simultaneously making the Three-Ring Sign, which made him laugh. So after a while, I didn’t miss Martin Block and Bing Crosby so much.

  There were other changes too—new smells, for example. Before Dad, the house smelled like lemons, or pine, but after Dad the lemons and pine were overpowered by cigarette smoke, which at first I found unpleasant, but after a while, no longer noticed. Not all the new smells were unpleasant.  Mom drank tea, which had no particular odor unless you stuck your nose in the cup, a practice she discouraged. But Dad liked coffee, so the mornings after Dad arrived always started with pleasant smell of freshly brewed Chock Full o’ Nuts.

  Mom sang or hummed the jingle every morning while she was making Dad’s coffee.

Chock Full o’Nuts is that heavenly coffee,
Heavenly coffee, heavenly coffee.
Chock Full o’Nuts is that heavenly coffee,
Better coffee Rockefeller’s money can’t buy.


This is Dad practicing his parenting skills

Neil and dad.JPG

  So, Mom was happy, which meant that I was happy, and life after Dad was good. It was also far more interesting. Before Dad arrived, my days, as I have previously described, were quiet and routine—quiet, routine, and boring. The most exciting thing in my day would be the occasional visit from one of Mom’s girlfriends, or maybe Aunt Rae would stop by, and every Sunday—the highlight of my week—I could count on a visit from my fake Nana and Pop-Pop. But aside from Pop-Pop, none of the others came to visit me. After a cursory kiss, and comment on my inherent cuteness, I was left to get into mischief while the women drank tea and talked. I was fairly adept at getting into mischief, so I earned my share of attention from the visitors, but I have to admit that it was becoming something of a strain being constantly challenged to find new and creative ways to get noticed. At four and one-half years of age, my creativity was constrained by physical limitations. There were shelves and table tops that looked really interesting, but remained permanently out of my reach. Mom seems to have conspired to place all the good things where I couldn’t get to them. 

  So Dad was like a breath of fresh air, if you discounted the cigarette smog that hung over him like Joe Btfsplk’s black cloud. Once Dad appeared, other males started to show up, uncles, friends, friends of uncles, strangers—all sorts of people started  

wandering in and out of our apartment. Mostly they came at night, after dinner. They were more interesting than the visitors I used to see. They were loud. I don’t think they could hear very well because they shouted all the time—and they laughed a lot. They didn’t drink tea either; they drank beer. I never liked tea much, but I quickly developed a taste for beer. Other children my age had a “milk mustache.” I sported a “beer moustache.”  This, Dad’s friends said, made me “one of the boys.”

The Girls - Mom is in the center

  One day, shortly after Dad had arrived, Mom decided to throw him a “Welcome Home” party. I had no idea what a “Welcome Home” party was, but even at the tender age of four-and-a-half, I understood “party,” especially with Mom and all her girlfriends running around hanging up decorations, picking me up and declaring, ”We’re going to have a party!” every two or three minutes. “The girls,” as Mom referred to her friends, were no slouches in the beer department.  They didn’t drink as regularly as the men, but once they started, they were all in. By the time the guests started arriving in the early evening, Mom and “the girls” were three sheets to the wind, and I was semi-zonked just from having them breathe on me all day.

  Our kitchen was very modern. It had two large zinc tubs along one wall. One served as the traditional kitchen sink, while the other, which was covered with a removable butcher block top, served multiple purposes. With the butcher block top on, it was a cutting board and prep counter. However, its main function was a wash tub for clothes. Mom would remove the butcher block top, fill the tub with hot, soapy water, place a washboard in it and scrub the clothes clean. After which she would hang them out on the line to dry. It was also my personal bathtub. After the dishes and clothes were washed, it was my turn in the tub.

  This day, however, the tub was accorded a special honor. It was selected to hold the piece de resistance, a keg of beer—not your wimpy quarter-barrel, but a full half barrel, all 160 pounds of it, containing the equivalent of 165 12-ounce glasses of beer.  And just to make sure they wouldn’t run out, Mom and “The Girls” kept

another half-barrel on ice in reserve. 

  It took two strong men to heft the barrels up the 21 steps to our apartment, place them in separate large metal buckets filled with ice, tap one and lift it, along with its ice bath onto the tub, where it sat like the golden calf of Israel waiting for the arrival of the idolatrous. From my vantage point about three and a half feet off the floor, it looked like some obscene image, with its bloated belly and dripping spout. It scared me, but it didn’t faze the faithful, who came to worship at its feet all night long.

  The Welcome Home party started quietly enough with the slow but steady arrival of about twenty friends and family, mostly uncles and aunts, “The Girls” of course, and few men who I knew were friends of Dad. They talked, rubbed the god’s belly for good luck and drank the beer that poured from his spout.

  The party grew along with the evening. More and more people came, and soon it was standing room only in our tiny four-room apartment. People were everywhere. I wandered in and out of rooms, was picked up more times than I can remember, kissed more often than I liked, given copious sips of beer, and asked incessantly with varying degrees of sobriety, “What did I want to be when I grew up?” Of course I had no idea. What does a four-and-a-half year old know of the world and the possibilities it offers?  I probably should have answered, “an actuary.” That would have stumped them. Nobody in that crowd would have had the slightest idea what an actuary did. In truth, I didn’t know what an actuary did until I was in my thirties. 

    Mom must have put me to bed at least half a dozen times that evening, but I just kept getting up and rejoining the party. At first I tried the “Mommy, there’s too much noise. I can’t sleep” routine, but eventually Mom caught on to my act, so I had to resort to being cute. In any case, it really was impossible to sleep, what with all the noise and people wandering into my bedroom thinking it was the bathroom. So I stayed up very late and got to see Dad tap a keg.

The party continued to grow in size and volume. Some of the men extracted small, metallic flasks from their jacket pockets, which they passed around the room like the communion wine, each person taking a sip and then passing it on to the next person in line, clearly unconcerned about Ebola or basic hygiene. Perhaps they felt safe in the knowledge that the percent of alcohol in the contents of the flasks was enough to destroy any germ that might have the temerity to present itself uninvited at the party.

  At the height of the festivities, just when you thought it couldn’t get any louder, a hue and cry arose from the kitchen, a wailing that rivaled anything described in the ancient books. The people of Sodom didn’t make this much noise; the Sabine women barely complained in comparison.

Calls came for “Tom” and “Tommy,” and my father, whose name was Tom, responded.

  “We’re out of beer!” the people wailed. “The gods have abandoned us!” they cried. But Dad, along with two or three big men, went into my bedroom and retrieved the other half-barrel. Then the people rejoiced and cheered. Or at least, that’s how I remember it.

  The big men lifted the now-empty keg down from its perch atop the tub, removed the tap and passed it to Dad for the ceremonial inauguration of a new keg.  A hush settled over the crowd—at least the crowd in the kitchen. Those in the other rooms kept on partying, apparently unaware of the significance of the events taking place in the kitchen.  

Me, at Dad's Welcome Home party

  Surrounded by a solemn, respectful crowd, Dad took the tap from the two big men and stood over the new keg. I felt frightened, though I didn’t know why. Dad eyed the barrel thoughtfully, and fingered the hole at the top. He turned and said a few quiet words to one of the big men who nodded his approval. He positioned the tapping rod so that it was in line with the slits in the top of the keg, and with a single, forceful thrust, he drove the rod down and screwed it in place. A few vigorous pumps and the beer gushed into a conveniently positioned pitcher. The atmosphere changed completely. The tension that was in the air was replaced by smiles and laughter. In a matter of minutes, the party had returned to normal—only louder, more boisterous, more frantic. Men danced with other men’s wives; women hugged whoever happened to be close at hand; smoke filled the rooms so completely that from my vantage point, I couldn’t see the tops of the people as I walked past them. A man stripped to his briefs, climbed on to the kitchen table, and sang a heart-rending, but barely audible version of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” Aside from me, nobody paid any attention. When he was finished, he got down from the table, put his pants back on, and rejoined with the crowd as if nothing had happened.


Uncle Neil

  At one point, I wandered into the kitchen in time to watch my Uncle Neil, still in his Army uniform, put his head underthe tap and drink nonstop while a group of his friends counted to 10. It was a really good party, but I couldn’t help but notice the empty keg sitting alone and neglected in a forgotten corner of the kitchen. Somehow, this bothered me and took some of the joy out of the evening. I know it’s stupid, but I felt sorry for that keg. It had been the center of attention, and had given everything it had to the party. Now that it was no longer of use, it had been discarded. There was a lesson in there somewhere, but I was much too young to understand it. I just felt a little down, so I sought out my Mother.

  Mom must have been feeling a little low too, because she was sitting quietly on the couch listening to a group of men that had begun to sing. I didn’t know very much about singing—aside from Bing Crosby, that is. These men weren’t Bing Crosby, but they were pretty good. Gradually, the party quieted down. I don’t know if it was due to the singing or simply because people had run out of energy. I hopped up into Mom’s lap and listened. Dad came

over and sat next to Mom. He put his right arm around her and she snuggled into his shoulder. The men began singing “Heart of My heart” and everybody grew quiet.

Heart of my heart, I love that melody
Heart of my heart, brings back a memory
When we were kids on the corner of the street
We were rough 'n ready guys
But oh, how we could harmonize

  I moved so that I was sitting across Mom’s and Dad’s laps, and leaned back half asleep. Mom put her right arm across me; Dad added his left and together they held me tight.

Heart of my heart, meant friends were dearer then
Too bad we had to part
I know a tear would glisten, if once more I could listen
To that gang that sang, "Heart of my heart"

  It was a really great party, but I fell asleep and missed the rest of it.


Welcome Home!

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