My father came back from his war in the Pacific and went to work in a supply house because they were hiring strong young men who wanted to work six days a week.
He had been poised to invade Japan and he once told me over a couple of cold beers that the atomic bomb was the greatest thing that ever happened for me. He figured if not for Harry Truman’s decision, he never would have made it home.
How’s that for finding a bright side to horror?
He lived to be exactly 77 1/2 years old. Come next February, he will be gone 20 years. When I was a boy, I thought he was made of cinderblocks and barbed wire. I loved him and he fascinated me every day. We’d sit down for dinner and my brothers and I would have whatever my mother was eating, but not my father. He went his own way. In his whole life, he never once tasted chicken or fish or any sort of beef or pork that displayed a bone. He loved meatballs and spaghetti, meatloaf, stew and spicy Italian sausages. He poured pepper on everything. When he was a sergeant in the Army, he told me he would trade the food he wouldn’t eat for cigarettes.
“How’d you fight like that?” I asked.
We had a family gathering one summer and The Lovely Marianne made chili. She has this special recipe that calls for good steak, chopped just so, beautiful beans, tomatoes and plenty of spices. My father was on his second bowl and looking for more.
“These are the best pork and beans I’ve ever had,” he said with a big smile on his Irish puss.
“You’re not eating pork and beans,” I said. “You’re eating chili.”
He pushed back the bowl with a look of disgust. “I don’t eat chili!” he boomed.
“Sure you do,” I said. “Look at your bowl.”
“I don’t like chili!” he scowled.
“Sure you do,” I said. “You just told me so. It contains everything you like: beef, beans, tomato sauce and lots of hot spices.”
“I don’t like chili!” he shouted.
“You just told me you loved it.”
“That’s when it was pork and beans,” he said. He scowled at the bowl and went to get another beer.
That was his way. He had his own rules and there was no talking to him once he made up his mind. I’ve met a lot of people in this business who make me think of my father. They’re pig-headed and proud of it.
He and I worked together at a Long Island manufacturers rep for a decade. I treasure those days. He was both my father, and when I first started, also my boss. He was very hard on me. He’d have me do things a certain way because that’s the way he did things. He’d explain how during the war when he was in charge of this big gun they pulled with a truck he always would have to figure a way out for his guys before they got in. That made him cautious for the rest of his life and as he got older, he told me stories about all the things he might have been, might have done, but it was better to be safe. “Stick with what you trust,” he’d say.
“But what about figuring a way out?” I’d ask. “You used to talk about that. There’s safety in that, right? As long as you can get out, it’s good to try things.”
But he was older when we had that conversation and he just shook his head.
Keeping it safe
When I wrote my first book “The Lost Art of Steam Heating” in 1992, The Lovely Marianne and I hired my father to do the shipping. He had retired from the rep in 1985 and had been making my mother nuts because he had no hobbies. We were working out of our house at the time. The books were in a Public Storage space. We’d give my father the shipping labels. He’d gather my mother and they’d first go to breakfast at Friendly’s. They arrived at the same time each day; sat in the same booth and ordered the same food. It was his way. If you wanted to blow them up I could tell you where to put the bomb and how to set the timer.
With breakfast done, they’d go to Public Storage and gather the books they needed for that day. He’d drive home and they’d put the books into boxes. My mom would affix the labels and marvel at where the books were going. In her mind, she traveled to all those places she had never seen, so thank-you for that.
When they were ready, they’d get in the one car they owned (Mom didn’t drive) and head for the post office and UPS where my father would argue with the clerks. “Why did you raise your prices? Why don’t you get the books there faster?” Stuff like that. It was his way. The clerks would just ignore him.
But about that car.
It was an older model and he kept it because he didn’t want a car payment, even though he paid an unpredictable amount of money each month to Warren, who owned the service station on the corner. It was three blocks from where they lived. My father had been going to Warren for years. Warren was his guy. My father stuck with people, no matter what. It was his way.
“You should get a new car,” I said.
“This car is fine,” he said. “I don’t want a payment.”
“But you have a payment. You pay Warren every month.”
“That’s different,” he said.
“But Warren can’t fix your car,” I said. “That’s why you have to keep bringing it in. It stalled on the parkway last month, remember? You had to get towed. You brought it to Warren. He charged you and then the car broke down again last week. Did he tell you when you’re getting it back this time?”
“I’ll get it back when he’s ready,” my father said, giving me that look.
“But you can’t ship the books without a car,” I said.
“Warren will fix it.”
“Let me take it to the dealer,” I said.
“Oh, listen to my son. Mr. Big Shot. You want to take my car to the dealer so they can rip me off?”
“I’ll pay. I need you on the road.”
“Like I need my son to pay my bills. Pfff. I’ll stick with Warren.”
“The car dealer has a computer that can see what’s wrong with your car,” I said. “Warren doesn’t have a computer.”
“Warren is old-school. I like that. And besides, I go home with the girl I brought to the dance.” So that was that.
Four days later, on my birthday, Warren called to say the car was ready. My father walked over there and paid Warren. Again.
On the three-block drive home, the car stalled. Again. He got out of the car and opened the hood. He felt a pain in his chest. He hobbled home and called me.
“Can you get over here? I think I’m having a heart attack.”
I lived 20 minutes away.
“I’ll be right there, but hang up and call 911”
“I don’t want to bother those people,” he said. “You come.”
We buried him the following week.
My younger brother got the car. He took it to the dealer. They put it on the computer and replaced the bad sensor. It cost him $75. He ran that car for five more years and then sold it. It never again broke down.
When my brother showed me the paid bill from the dealer, I asked him for a copy. I took that copy to Saint Charles Cemetery along with a can of Coors Light.
“Brought you a cold one, Dad.” I poured the beer onto the grass. “And I wanted to show you this.” I held up the invoice. “I know it was your way and all that. I know you didn’t trust car dealers because one overcharged you in 1967. I get all that and I understand. But I just want you to know that I miss you.”
And as I said, I’ve met a lot of people in this business that remind me of him. They’re not good at considering new products, or new ideas or new ways of doing things. They think it’s safer to just stick with what’s familiar and comfortable. I get that, but still.
As the years went by, my father stopped figuring a way out before he got in. He just settled in. After a while he couldn’t get out. He stuck with what he thought was safe. But it wasn’t safe. Not safe at all.
And if you’re wondering whether I inherited any of Big Ed Holohan’s pig-headedness, well, you’ll just have to ask The Lovely Marianne.
This article was originally titled “Get uncomfortable” in the December 2017 print edition of PM Engineer.