Twenty years ago last week my dad passed away and while I still recall every detail of Dad’s last day as if it were yesterday, that is a tale for another time. He was my dad, a scoutmaster, a leader, and a role model. He was my hero.
Dad and Mom struggled providing a middle class lifestyle for me, my sisters and brother. Early on he worked several jobs. One was as a life insurance salesman. Friday’s were his day off and except for winter, every Friday morning he’d wake me early and we’d have breakfast together. While the percolator made the coffee, he’d take down two cups. Dad poured coffee into the cups, one three-quarters full and the other half. In his he’d put a little cream and sugar. In mine he’d top it off with cream and sugar. When we finished he’d hop in the car and drive to Bethpage State Park, meeting up with his golfing buddies to play the famed Black Course, rain or shine.
“It never rains on a golf course,” he’d tell Mom.
No matter what was going on, Dad was there for us. Whether it was scouting, football or baseball trips for me and my brother, a ride to dancing school or to a friend’s house for my sisters, shopping with Mom or taking us on a trip, Dad was eager to do it. He never complained. We agreed nothing was inconvenient for Dad.
As we got older, our interests changed. Jim and I joined the Boy Scouts. Dad volunteered and became assistant scoutmaster and eventually scoutmaster. My sisters gravitated to music, dance and some sports. Dad took us wherever we needed to go.
Dad divided his free time between us and the scouts. One weekend a month the troop camped out somewhere. Another weekend or Saturday or Sunday the family did something even if he took us to a zoo or a park. We never accused him of favoring one of us over another or putting scouting or his interests before family.
Around the neighborhood and within scouting circles others looked to Dad as a leader. When called upon to serve Dad never shirked the responsibility. He enjoyed sharing his ideas and thoughts with others.
Dad kept his sense of humor about things especially when it came to my brother Jim and me. It seemed we always did something that would initially make Dad mad but laugh about it the next day.
One time I locked my keys in my car on 9th Avenue near the old Madison Square Garden. I called Dad and asked if he’d bring me the extra set of keys he kept.
“Sure. Where are you?”
I told him.
“Where? Why don’t you walk over to Bellevue and have your head examined.”
Eventually he came with the keys. We got home near midnight. Dad said not one word to me but we laughed about it the next day and for years to come.
Another time Jim, who was notorious for coming home around two and three in morning, walked into the house around 11PM. My parents, grandmother and I looked at him.
“What’s wrong?” Dad asked.
“Does something have to be wrong?”
“For you to be home this early, yes.”
“My car got a flat and I left the spare in the garage. Will you take me to it?”
Dad nodded his head.
“Where is it?”
“Lake Tiorati,” Jim said as if were around the block.
I smiled and bit my lip. Everyone else stared at him.
“What were you doing there?”
“We were driving around and we got a flat.”
Dad pointed at Jim and me.
“You two need your heads examined. You’re going to be the death of me yet.”
Dad, Jim and Nanny (Dad’s mom and our grandmother) got in Dad’s car and drove to Bear Mountain State Park about an hour from our house. They drove around in the dark.
“It’s over there, I think,” Jim would say.
Dad drove where Jim indicated. No car. After 45 minutes Dad fed up with the entire situation told Jim he was turning around and going home. He’d report the car missing and let the state troopers and park rangers find it.
“I’ll turn around over there.”
As he pulled toward the side of the road to turn, the car’s headlights illuminated a white car not far from them.
“There it is,” Jim shouted.
Nothing was inconvenient for Dad.
Dad pride during our teen years was our Boy Scout troop; Troop 254 from Valley Stream, NY, known throughout Nassau County as “The Renegades.” Through the mid 60’s to the early 70’s Dad had the largest scout troop in the county. Dad prided himself on the amount of boys 15 years old and up in the organization. Many times other scoutmasters asked him how he succeeded in keeping older boys when they couldn’t.
“I don’t believe in having the older boys do the same things as they younger ones. As they get older they must have more responsibility and more privileges.”
The senior patrol, made up of the older scouts who ran the meetings and camping trips, earned campaign hats to distinguish them from the younger scouts. These hats were not Boy Scout issue khaki campaign hats. These were the U.S. Army drill instructor hats made of hard felt and were of deep olive-green. The older boys took a special pride in wearing the hats.
The senior patrol got their own tent, was able to bring folding tables and chairs on certain trips, got their own Coleman stoves and lanterns and allowed to stay up late to talk or play cards. Most went to college only to return to visit Dad during their vacations. Many brought Dad beer mugs from the places they visited. Dad always took special pride in this collection and seeing his boys.
Dad was a Grand Knight in the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic religious organization. He became active after retiring from scouting. He organized trips almost monthly trips to Atlantic City. He began Super Bowl Sunday at the club, bringing a projection TV and arranging the catering in the mid 70’s. He kept the books at there and tended bar.
Dad loved his grandchildren. Whenever I spoke to him, he’d tell me stories about them. He looked forward to the holidays when everyone gathered at either my sisters or brother’s house. He’d watch and laugh at each one. My regret is he never got to meet his youngest grandchildren, my son Andrew and my daughter Jacqueline. He’d get a kick out of them, too.
When Dad passed away 20 years ago I was touched by the distances some of my friends came to pay their respects. Dad’s scouts signed a Troop 254 neckerchief and placed it in the casket with him. His friends from the Knights of Columbus placed a pair of dice with him since Dad used to play craps when he went to a casino.
We could barely move in the viewing at Dad’s wake because of everyone who came particularly the ones I grew up with.
Oddly I find myself dispensing the same advice to my children as he told me.
“Find something you enjoy doing because chances are you’ll be doing it the rest of your life.”
“Stay in school and enjoy it. Once it’s finished you have to go to work.”
Those are two gems I’ve passed on to my son Andrew and my daughter Jackie. I don’t know if they’ll follow it but they’ll realize their grandfather was right. I do. I miss him.