Friday, March 13, 2009
Tales From The Old Country and Beyond, Part 46
My father loved to drive long distances and he didn't like air conditioning. He'd roll down the car windows in the heat of summer and go. He was, as I've noted in past posts, a horrible driver. All of the accidents on his record meant that our family paid heavily for car insurance.
"My husband drives like a general," my mother used to say with a mixture of pride and worry. What this meant is that he tended not to stay in his own lane and made no effort to "watch out for the other guy." When I was living in Italy, I took some students down to Naples and I drove around in a Fiat van with them. In Naples, everyone drove like my dad and I was reminded of how being in a car with him, even to the grocery and back, was always a bit of a thrill ride.
When I was little he had a dark blue Chevy truck. But with two kids, a truck wasn't very practical so he switched over to a Ford station wagon. That was more or less what he drove for all of my childhood and beyond. In the car business, these station wagons were called "lunch buckets" because of their ability of haul lots of stuff. They were huge, about 20 feet long. Their engines were powerful. I don't think they make them anymore.
In the back of his lunch bucket, my father carried his carpenter tools. But most weekends in the summer, he'd also carry a six horsepower Mercury boat motor in the well underneath the floor of the back where a spare tire was also located. That motor was exactly the size of the well; it was as if the Ford Motor Company knew in advance that everybody who bought one of these things would have a Mercury boat motor to haul around.
The motor was in the car every summer weekend because my father fished every summer weekend. He'd fish before work often as well. He was a lifelong insomniac and it was not rare for him to wake up at three and either head to a Lake Michigan pier to fish for coho salmon or head off for an hour or two and try to catch some perch and walleye in a local lake.
Fishing was an obsession with my dad. Even on days he wasn't fishing and we were driving somewhere outside of town, there was this funny thing he would do. Out of the blue, he would suddenly flare out his nostrils and lean his head out of the car window as he drove. "There's a lake here," he would say. "I can smell it."
Wisconsin has 9000 lakes. Just like in Minnesota, the glaciers carved them out by the bushelful. Saying that there is a lake nearby in Wisconsin is like saying that there is a bar or Catholic church nearby. You're always right. But I like to think that he was indeed really smelling something and that a lake was truly within a few hundred yards every time he did this. The funny thing is that I swear I can do this too.
Then there were his discussions on the psychology of fish. When they would bite and when they wouldn't. What made lures or live bait attractive to them and what didn't. He could talk about this for literally hours on end. He always was a man of detail and precision and fishing was no exception. Iteratively, from tens of thousands of hours fishing he absolutely had figured out the ways of fish or at least freshwater Midwestern fish. If there had been a demand for a Yiddish book on fishing, he no doubt could have written a bestseller.
But that's just it. Jews don't fish. It was a very odd thing for my father to do. My mother was a bit embarrassed by it. She thought it was low class and foreign. My father certainly didn't fish in Europe. But we had a neighbor - a very genial and calm man who worked for AC Spark Plug on the assembly line and married a German woman - who had a six horsepower Evinrude and who took my father out one Sunday. I think that this was about in 1962. He had the patience to teach my father how to fish. The man just exuded calmness. They went out that one day and my father was absolutely glowing when he came back with his line of perch and blue gills. They went out the next week as well. My father had found his first and only hobby that year. In 1964, he bought his own motor just like his neighbor. He never wanted a boat of his own. But having that motor gave him a sense that he belonged in the world of fishing plus it saved him a couple of bucks every time he rented a boat. He was...cough, cough...hooked.
My father was an intense, energetic, manic man prone to violence. But not on a boat. Not when he was fishing. He was transformed on water. I don't understand it to this day, but he could sit for a dozen hours in a little row boat with that little motor of his and he looked like the calmest, beatific man on earth, a sage. It was - and this is a bad analogy - like taking a wild cat, scratching his neck and watching him purr. My father purred when he was on a boat. And he caught a ridiculous amount of fish.
There were always fish in our freezer. We ate it at least five days a week in the summer. My mother wasn't too keen on this fish all of the time diet, but she liked that fact that it saved money. Where she drew the line was that she would never, ever clean them. "If you clean the fish, I'll cook them," was her rule.
My father would usually go out on his own or occasionally with our neighbor. Sometimes he would take me along and I loved these trips. It was just wonderful to be with my father when I knew he wasn't about to blow a fuse any second. Sometimes he and I would take weekend trips up to northern Wisconsin together. We'd literally sit in the boat from dawn to dusk. It didn't matter if it rained. Sometimes it snowed. We'd be in that boat all day and then some.
My father had a friend, a lansman, who lived in Skokie, Moishe. He was a small guy, bald, with pale skin, blue eyes and thin lips. Like my father, he was a builder. It was amazing to me that from a town of less than 100 survivors, three of them would end up being builders in the Midwest, two in Milwaukee and one in Chicago. The other one was my father's arch-enemy Marvin Tuchman. In contrast, Moishe and my father got along famously well. They were both manic and would feed off each other's energy.
But the fact was my mother detested Moishe. It was a visceral hatred. It was partly the way Moishe brought out the most manic parts of my father. I understood just what my mother was fighting against when I was teaching fraternity kids in college. One on one they were fine to be around, talk to and have in class. But put two of them together and they regressed to 12 year olds with IQs of neanderthals. With Moishe, my father turned 12 again. He was a giddy mischievous boy, an aspect of my father that my mother never liked to see.
It was more than that, though. Moishe married a woman who had been used for sex in Aushwitz. She was a beautiful woman, horribly depressed and not very bright. My mother sympathized with her past no doubt. But she had a thing about men who married trophy wives. She used to call these women lalkehs, porcelain dolls. When my mother said of a man, "He married a lalkeh," it was always with a tone of disgust.
Then there was the way their house was kept in Skokie. It was dirty. The lawn typically was waist high in the summer with bicycles and tricycles lost in the grass. My mother couldn't stand to visit. She was ashamed that a Jewish family lived in such a place. My father didn't care.
My father took Moishe fishing one weekend in 1964. Like my father, Moishe had that glow when he came back with his fish. He too was...cough, cough...hooked and they became inseparable fishing partners for awhile. For Moishe, the motivation was a bit different than my father. Living with his wife, who barely said a word and filled his house with perpetual sadness, was hard on him. He needed the escape. Being a kid again with my dad on a boat was probably a perfect way for him to get away.
I never went fishing with Moishe and my dad. I have a hunch that they did more than try to catch just fish on their trips. This was another reason for my mother to hate Moishe.
For two years, this went on. Moishe would just show up without notice and my father would go off with him for a day or two. Then one night Moishe had an argument with his wife, drove up to Milwaukee and started to knock on my window at 3 AM. "Wake up your dad," he said to me. I rolled over and went back to sleep. This man was crazy as far as I was concerned. It was just too much for a ten year old to deal with.
Moishe went over to my parents window and knocked there. My father woke up. Moishe came inside. Off to fishing they went for two days.
My mother was furious when my father came back. He showed her all the fish he caught. He said, "What could I do? He got kicked out of his house. He had nowhere to go."
"I don't care," she said. "That man is not coming to our house any more. I never want to see him again. What kind of man knocks on windows at 3 AM? He wakes up our kids. He's crazy. He's going to make you miserable. You will never go fishing with that crazy man again!"
My mother was unyielding about this issue. Moishe was never again allowed in our house. We would still drive down to Skokie and visit Moishe, but something had truly snapped in my mother that day. My father did not ever try to challenge this new rule as far as I knew. And it's true. Moishe and my father never went fishing together again.
My father still went fishing with our neighbor, though. They had little in common aside from fishing, but that bond was more than enough. My father would talk about his fishing friend and often mention his lack of a financial future. "Sure he's making good money now, but he can't stay in a factory forever." He started to talk to him about investing in real estate. His friend was skeptical. "Look, you don't have to buy anything from me. There are plenty of other good properties to buy."
My father persisted and a few years down the line, his friend bought a couple of four family apartments that my father didn't build. My father was so pleased about this. It just gave him a strong sense of satisfaction to see his advice heeded.
Long after my father died, I went back to my old neighborhood with my sweetie. I think that this was in about 2000. I knocked on the door of my father's old friend. He was still there and still as calm as ever. We talked for a bit over coffee. I reminded him how much I liked sitting on his porch on hot summer days, cracking Brazil nuts and listening to him play accordion. He was happy to remember those times. "You know without your dad, I wouldn't have a thing," he said. "He made me invest. He wouldn't take no for an answer." I know that AC Spark Plug, like most of the good paying manufacturing companies in Milwaukee, had moved out of town in the 1970s or so. They probably gave him a lousy pension.
I should have told him that he gave my father something very tangible, too: the gift of fishing. My father's insistence about his friend investing in real estate truly was my father's way of paying him back for that gift. I didn't say it at the time, but it was true.
And what happened to Moishe? After Moishe's first wife passed, he retired, married a Russian woman and moved into a big house overlooking the Rockies outside of Denver. I lived in Denver for a year when I was first married. My parents came to visit us and of course, my father wanted to see Moishe. I was curious what my mother's reaction would be.
I was surprised that she was all for this visit. We went out to see Moishe and his new wife and I felt none of the animosity that had always been present when my mother would see Moishe way back when. We sat down and had dinner. My mother was in contrast to the days of old, strangely approving of Moishe. He had a nice house. He was married to someone with a brain, albeit a gentile, who kept it clean and cooked well (unlike Moishe's first wife). These were important things to my mother. Above all a house had to be balbatish. That was rule number one with her.
There was still that air of sadness about Moishe that I think was just part of him. The manic part I didn't see at all that visit. My mother even spoke Russian with Moishe's new wife. This I knew was a sign that in her own way, my mother was giving Moishe her seal of approval.
We left after a few hours. That was in 1978. My father died about a dozen years later. He never saw or talked to Moishe again. But he continued to fish for many years. I'll talk more about that later probably.