Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Roots

Oops! I totally missed yesterday’s rare confluence of numbers that made it only one of 10 “Square Root Days” this century. It was 3/3/09. The next one isn’t until 4/4/16, and I certainly don’t plan to be around for 7/7/49, which would make me 101 years old – about the age I feel most mornings.

Today, March 4, has always been highly symbolic to me. As a presidency maven, I knew that until 1936, it was Inauguration Day. It was also the beginning of the battle at the Alamo. And, it was my father’s birthday.

He would have been 100 today.

He died at the age of 80 for no particular reason other than indifference to pain and medical care, medical negligence in Florida (of course) and social negligence in his decision to remarry and give up any expectation of being cared for.

I did not really know the man because he was 39 when I was born, because he seldom spoke, because he got up really early in the morning and fell asleep after dinner, because he was that old and because his arm hurt there was never enough time for “catch,” because his generation didn’t share anything with children and because my mother was the governing force in the family. It was an age when parents whispered between themselves, or, in our house, spoke Yiddish about the juicy stuff.

What I know about Arthur Allen is that he was born Avram Abramowitz in Chicago of semi-literate immigrants, the second of five children (Nos. 3 and 5 are still alive at 98 and 93!); he had no middle initial (which made the monogrammed flask my mother once gave him all the more amusing); he had a lousy childhood; he was unemployed during the Depression; discriminated against (hence the name change) early in his career and suffered through the McCarthy Era as a Defense Department employee; despite his age and status as a husband and father (of my older sister) enlisted in the Navy at age 35 in World War II; loved baseball and probably wondered how his Cubs could have used him had he not had to give up his dreams to find a job in the ‘30s.

At age 15, as a resident of a West Side Chicago ward, he was called for jury duty. When he showed up and asked why, he was told it was his duty because he had been voting for years! He grew up in the Maxwell Street neighborhood, a Jewish ghetto that produced Benny Goodman, Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, gangster-journalist Jake Lingle and Jack Rubinstein, later to become Jack Ruby.

I never thought growing up that I should know him better, but maybe that’s for the best. A boy, a man, should have some distance from his father; and a father should be allowed to keep his own confidences.

He grew up poor and complained about the cost of things all my childhood in the post-War boom – but we were never deprived of a thing. He never wanted much – just a cigar for his birthday and peace and quiet. He went on maybe a 10-14 day trip abroad once for work and the gift he brought back from Toledo -- a small pen knife -- remains on my night stand.

What I do know about him and love about him is, in the modern parlance, triangulated. The accumulated knowledge comes indirectly, from what others say and most important how I think and act.

He read a lot and had opinions, but changed them when warranted. I am thinking how taken aback I was when in 1958 Jack Kennedy was on “Meet the Press” and my father said he would never vote for him because of his accent. (I think it was really his memory of Joe Kennedy’s anti-Semitism at work) but I am pretty sure my parents voted Democratic all their lives. My father seemed impressed, when called for legitimate grand jury service, to have seen Bobby Kennedy, the attorney general, in the court building hallway. My parents weren’t exactly free of prejudices of the day, but they knew the right things and did the right things.

Here are other things I know:

I am right-handed and should part my hair on the left. But because when facing me to start assembling my preternatural mop hair my father did it the way he did his own hair, apparently taking no account of the mirror image. Consequently, my hair is parted on the right to this day. (I once tried to part my hair from ear to ear, but I got tired of people whispering secrets up my nose.)

I loved country music from childhood, for no apparent reason. But he did tell me that when we were on a trip to St. Louis when I was about six months old and left in his care for an afternoon, I was colicky and wouldn’t shut up – until he turned on the radio to a hillbilly station.

I am not much of an athlete, but I could throw his “drop,” the early 20th Century term for what is now known as a “12-to-6 curve ball,” which his grandson readily picked up from me with startling effects.

Although relatives always said I was his “spittin’ image” I never knew it – till after he died and I saw him looking at me as I shaved.

I guess I know him best because he had a dry sense of humor, and people sometimes say that about me, too. (He once answered a 6-year-old’s innocent question as to why he and mommy had only two children, by calmly explaining, “One out of every three children born in the world is Chinese.”)

I didn’t grieve his passing until about six months after his death when I was clobbered emotionally in a movie theater watching “Field of Dreams.” And every time I have seen it on TV since.

Happy birthday, Dad.

4 comments:

  1. Very nice tribute. All sorts of things I didn't know...including that Aunt Belle is 93. Ohh.

    Happy birthday, Grandpa.

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  2. Sam Kaplan1:20 AM

    Mine was a younger father, age 24, when I was born. His name was Ira, and my youngest son's name is Ira.

    He died while we were at UM, Ira, at age 45. A friend of mine said to me, "There is no event of greater impact on a man's life than the death of his father." I have never found any reason to think otherwise.

    Had he been able to read your birthday card, I think your father would have been both proud and pleased.

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  3. While I respect a father's need to have some distance from his son -- and vice versa -- I'm very touched by this tribute to your father.

    I know that you pushed yourself to never say no to playing "catch," even on the hottest of summer evenings and weekend mornings, so that your childhood disappointment would not be passed on to another generation. It's one of the pillars of our strong father-son relationship, and it's one of the many ways in which you showed your love, even if you sometimes had trouble talking about it.

    I hope that when you well up at Field of Dreams it is for both the sadness of the catches missed with your dad and for the joy of those had with me. I will never forget the three of us throwing a ball around in the back yard of the house on Leonard Drive. You had to catch my throws back to Grandpa and give him the ball to throw to me.

    I'll also never forget the vicious Allen "drop" -- and I hope it's burned in the minds of a few hitters.

    I have a million questions about your father, and it seems we are both in a quandary about most of them. But you answered some of the most important ones in this post.

    I hope your son is as good as your father's son, and I hope that if I am lucky enough to have a son that he is lucky enough to have a father like you.

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  4. A wonderful tribute to your dad, Ira.
    That's the way most dad's were back then.
    I'm glad you understood that, and gave your own son a lot of what what missing in your son-father relationship. You should be proud; and your dad most certainly would be as well.

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