Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Thursday, June 14, 2012


Today would have been my father-in-law's (mumble mumble) birthday.  Harold was one of eight children born to a shoe-worker in Rockland, Massachusetts.  The family was kind of amazing.  Harold's older brother Bob came down with polio when he was twelve; his parents were told he would never come out of his iron lung but he did, his parents were then told he would spend the rest of his lilfe in a wheelchair but he didn't, then his parents were told he would never walk but with leg braces and crutches he moved around just fine -- he had a long career as a draftsman for Raytheon, drove his own (adapted) car, and did just about any handyman chore that needed to be done; Bob passed away a few years ago while in his nineties.  Harold's baby brother Don has spent his adult life in Coere d'Alene, and still plows his and his neighbors' driveways while in his nineties. Don still remembers fondly how Harold worked during school to get money to buy Don a bicycle, something Don never expected he would ever own. Older brother Jerry worked for the local post office and a small local supermarkeet chain; well-repected in town, he was a stalwart of the local Catholic Church and was still serving as an altar boy (can the term boy be used here?) well into his nineties.  Harold's baby sister Claire was born with Down Syndrome at a time when such children seldom made it to adulthood.  Her parents were told to institutionalize her but they didn't; they were told she could never learn or hold a job, but they taught her to read and write and she worked he entire adult life.  Claire was in her early forties when kidney disease took her but she lived far longer and far better than anyone other than her parents had expected.  She was a sweetheart and we loved her and are grateful that she had a chance to fall in love with Jessie when our little girl was a baby. Sister Mary adopted two children and raised her grandson.  Sister Eleanor raised her two children to adulthood while separated from her husband as he coped with illnesses gained during the war;  once he was cured, he came back; Eleanor never gave up faith -- or her smile.  Sister Ruth had a chance at marriage, but gave it up because she knew she had to take care of Claire.  Ruth was the caregiver of the family, watching out for her mother, for Claire, and for Bob. The three sisters are still living independently (again) in their nineties.This is just a long way to say that in Harold's family problems were meant to be faced and overcome.

      When World War II came, Harold and his cousin Eddie dropped out of high school to join the Navy.  Each had a different reason to fail the Navy physical, so they switched records and conned their way into the service.  Harold was sent to the Pacific on a destroyer as an electrician's mate.  His war stories were always the funny ones and he scrupulously avoided any other ones.  He loved the story about the hot night when a general alarm  was sounded.  Because of the heat, many of the men slept out on deck.  One, startled awake by the alarm and perhaps not realizing where he was, started running toward where he thought his station was and run right off the ship.  Later in the war, the ship took a big hit which tore out most of the ship's midsection.  It still floated but was out of power so Harold was sent down below to fix the electrical wires, which were spitting sparks and needed splicing, and get the pumps working; Harold had to work for days with live wires while standing waist deep in water the whole time.  The ship slowly made its to port and Harold received a Bronze Star -- something he was very proud of but did not show around very much.

     While he was on leave he asked Eileen to marry him.  She wisely said she would just as soon as the was was over.  In her heart he knew that would be some time coming but, dammitall, the War ended two weeks later.  Harold was happy and Eileen was flabbergasted.  We have some very dark film of the wedding and it's hard to make anyone out.  The reception film was even darker, but the reception hall was next to a used car lot, so there were some clear pictures from outside the reception hall.  Those in our generation teased Harold and Eileen for getting married in a used car lot.

    Anyway, married life started.  Somewhere along the beginning of their marriage, they were kicked out of the San Francisco Ballet because Harold hooted at one of the male dancers (I think the poor guy may have fallen/danced into the orchestra pit).  Out of the Navy, with the GI bill in hand, Harold and Eileen moved to a small trailer in Atlanta so Harold could study at Georgia Tech.  He opened up a Sunday morning newspaper stand outside one of the largest Catholic Churches in Atlanta and was able to make enough each week to provide for his family, which now included Kitty and her older brother Michael.  He had a chance to make even more money running bootleg liquor but Eileen put her foot down.  Shortly before graduation, Harold was called into the Dean's office and told that he not going to be allowed to graduate because they had just discovered he had never completed high school, and hinted that Harold had lied on his original application.  Harold told them that he had not lied on his application, showing them the application where it stated that he had attended high school and that nowhere on the application did he say he had graduated or had listed a year of graduation.  The school was over a barrel and Harold graduated as an electrical engineer.

     Harold worked as a rocket engineer, working for companies providing contract services (mainly) to the Air Force.  The family bounced up and down the country, depending on where the contracts were.  Often they could not tell anyone what Harold did for work (Kitty loved to make up the most outrageous and implausible stories about her father) and often they did not know where he worked.  There were times when they had to get in touch with Harold for emergencies; they called a blind number and said they needed to speak to him and he would  call back  from a secure number hours later.  On some evenings during one summer spent at a motel at Cocoa Beach, Harold would wake the kids up anytime between two and four in the morning, saying  that it was a beautiful night for a walk on the beach.  Sonofagun if during those walks they viewed the launching of several rockets from Cape Canaveral, including the original Gemini. How lucky that Harold decided to take the kids for a walk on just those nights.

       Just weeks before Kitty and I were to be married, Harold was laid off from whatever company he had been working for at the time.  Neither he nor Eileen told us, not wanting to spoil the wedding.  This was in 1970 when engineering jobs and contracts were dying off at as rapid pace.  Many engineers facing unemployment for the first time in their lives committed suicide.  Harold took a different route.  Though he had been mainly working as a rocket engineer, he had a solid background in electrical engineering that could be useful in a number of fields.  He ended up at a small audiology company as a jack of all trades -- repairing and designing hearing aids, building soundproof chambers for doctors offices and for hospitals. and  consulting for hospitals for the deaf.

     After a few years of this, the government decided that many of their suppliers were discriminating against older workers, and there were a rush to hire older engineers.  If there were two things Harold was it was older and an engineer.  In the meantime Harold had been learning computers, that new-fangled technology that was beginning to find its way into homes and offices throughout the country.  I had gotten him a pretty good one (for the day) when I worked at Digital Computer.  With his experience, knowlege, common sense, and new computer skills he was able to work until his retirement.

     Retirement meant summers at Cape Cod and winters in Florida.  Harold loved the water, boats, good conversation, puttering areound the house, and just watching people go by.  When he was in his early eighties, he was stricken with pancreatic cancer.  But he was an Irishman and you can't kill them with a stick.  So he cheated the odds and beat the cancer once, but  it came back and he beat it a second, but that the damned villain came back a third time and by then Harold was just too tired.  He had a good life and he had been able to smile and cluck over his kids and grandkids and his two great-grandkids.  Sadly, he died just a few week before his first great grandson was born.  Harold passed and Mark was born; the circle continues.  He would have been tickled pink with Mark and there's a chance that he is still watching now, laughing like crazy over the antics of Mark and his younger sister and of Connor, the "surpirse" grandson who joined the family two years after Harold died. 

     If Harold is watching us, he must be very proud of his family.  Some of us have made some stupid mistakes along the way, but we each bounce back and try harder.  Harold's grandchildren ase universally smart and talented and are already at working making the world a better place.  Harold's great-children are amazing, funny, and bright.  Harold left a damned good legacy.  May each of us do the same.

     While he lived in Massachusetts, Harold had a summer ritual of going to Kimball Farms in Westford for a icecream dinner for him and the family.  Kimball's has great home-made ice cream with large servings and their sundaes and banana splits can make a full meal.  My family also tried to make it up to Kimball's for dinner several times a summer.  Their banana splits are my favorite.  They use a large banana boat -- not one of those dinky things you may find at chain ice cream stores-- which allows them to use a really big banana.  (At other places I have gone to the bananas can be the size of fingerling potatoes.  Ptah!)  Three huge scoops of ice cream -- chocloate, strawberry and vanilla -- each type of ice cream slathered with a specific sauce,  hot fudge on the chocholate, strawberry sauce (though occasionally they use marshmellow sauce here) over the strawberry ice cream, and pineapple sauce over the vanilla ice cream, all topprd with a heavy layer of whipped cream, sprinkled with nuts and cherries.  Just from the heft of the dessert you know you have something special in your hands. Many people just cannot finish the complete banana split.

     Although we are in Southern Maryland, we still honor Harold's brithday with an ice cream orgy.  Burt's Fifties Diner on Route 5 in Charles County serves up some mean ice cream.  Jessie and her kids are in Massachusetts, so they will probably go to Kimball's.  Perhaps her cousins Dennis and April and Sarah will also be along to toast the maker of the feast with ice cream.

     And perhaps Harold will be watching all of us from somewhere.   And as we eat, every bite will remind us of a talented, kind, generous, intelligent, and good-hearted man.

No comments:

Post a Comment