I have a newspaper article about Harry at age 18. He apparently drove 50 miles to see a body behind glass in Horseheads, New York. The body was an unidentified man named "Bill Bailey" who was an example of the local undertakers art. My future father got a little out of hand and pushed his drunken companion though the plate glass window.
I met Pop at age 3 when he returned from Germany in 1946. My first memory is of rebelling against this stranger and attacking him with a toy hoe. I still remember being surprised by how easily I was disarmed. My second memory is trying to assassinate him by dropping lipstick tubes down the barrel of his shotgun.
Pop was an intelligent man who read a lot. Perhaps he should have gone to college on the GI Bill after the war instead of working two or three jobs to support us. He was a painter, a short order cook, an apple-picker; he delivered newspapers and worked in an ice house.
He told me that Albert Einstein sometimes came into his diner in the early hours with unruly hair for breakfast after working at Cornell. We had an ice box. Eventually he managed to buy us a refrigerator and even a television. He told me that there was more to math than addition and subtraction. He told me about calculus.
He moved us all to Florida in 1953. He had a 1949 Chevy sedan and a trailer with our stuff. I remember the smell of Orange blossoms. The first week was a disaster for me. I saw my first electric stove and placed my hand on the burner when it changed from bright red to black. I spent the day swimming in a lake and my whole back came off in a mass of sun-burned blisters as big as robin's eggs.
Pop was full of advice for me:
- Never make a bet with a man in a bar.
- Always start painting at the top and work your way down.
- Always make sure the money is on the table when you make a bet.
- Never use latex paint over oil paint.
- Always make sure what you will be paid before you do a job.
- Never volunteer
- If you can't handle it, don't drink.
- If work was any fun, they wouldn't have to pay you for it.
Pop took me fishing in Tampa Bay and I caught a dogfish. He told me too stick my fingers in its mouth and get my hook back. I was afraid. He called me a baby and took the fish to retrieve the hook. It bit his fingers to the bone and he cursed. I laughed. He took it well.
He started making money as a painting contractor during the 50s boom and bought us a $2,000 wood frame house and a $2,000 1951 Cadillac. We lived on a road that the county paved with shells every six months. The Mosquito truck came by every night and we always ran behind it in the night-fog it created.
To drive home his lessons, he would set up situations to teach me about life. He asked me to dig an 8 foot by 8 foot hole, six feet deep for a new septic tank and told me he would pay me for the work. When the perfectly square hole was finished after four days, he tossed me a dime and told me again to ask what I would be paid before doing the work.
His main recreation on the weekend was to go to a bar called "The Deep South" and pick a fight with two or more men at the same time. He often accused them of looking inappropriately at my mother. Sometimes he would come home with gravel burns on his face. Mostly not. Mostly he prevailed.
Even into his sixties he would pick fights at bars with much younger and bigger men. He came home one day with a missing patch of scalp from a tire iron. The young man in question took a swing and ran after seeing the look in his eyes.
In High School, I told him I wanted to be a painter like him. He told me to go to college so I could get a job in the air-conditioning. Once, when I was 13 he offered to pay me $8 for caulking carports. This was what it cost him at $2 an hour for a full time painter. When I satisfactorily did twelve of them the first day he told me he was proud of me and that he was putting me on the payroll at $1 an hour effective that morning. He let two painters go that week.
I got accepted at Harvard based on some test scores and my grades in my first year in college. He took a look at the cost and suggested that he could afford a State University but he would do his best to fund Harvard if I really thought it I needed it. I went to the state school for two years and then joined the Air Force. They paid for the last two years and then sent me to Navigator school.
After Vietnam, we didn't see eye-to-eye. He called me a yellow coward. I was hurt but not angry. I don't think he really was following the issues very well.
At the end, Harry liked to pour gallons of yellow oil paint over the automobiles of the people he argued with in bars. He also had a home-made flame thrower filled with gasoline that he kept under his shirt and sometimes employed against adversaries. He was careful to only frighten them.
Life with Pop was never dull. I loved his intelligence and his aggressive nature. His eyes would flash when he was angry. He never gave me advice about love but I learned a lot about other things from him. They don't make them like that anymore.