Sunday, June 20, 2010

Remembering my Dad on Father's Day

It was a moment in time, a second captured on film.

The details are hazy, of course, as you would expect. After all, I was only a toddler, still staring out at the world with a bit of wonder. My best guess is I'm around 4 or so in this photo. That would make my Dad around 40, twenty-two years younger than I am now -- a mere kid.

It was 1952, and my father was still getting over the emotional burden of World War II. He'd been drafted when the U.S. entered the war in 1941, a buck private who made his way to warrant officer pretty quickly, then was shipped off to the Philippines with an artillery unit from Georgia.

He never detailed the fight and all I really know about that time is that he returned home weary and sick. He had picked up some sort of bug, lost 40 or so pounds and, unfortunately, his appetite for life.

My father, like thousands of other U.S. servicemen, had been a lighthearted kid when the world went a little loopy. His youthful blush and zest for life was lost in the South Pacific and it would take a few years for Dad to right himself.

But William, called Bill by family, friends and strangers -- and there were very few strangers in my father's life -- was nothing if not a scrapper. By the time this photo was snapped, he was back in the game, fighting the good fight to provide for his family and capture the American dream -- a home in the suburbs, a car in the driveway, a lovely wife and handful of kids -- four boys at final count.

He had worked in a pawn shop before the war, so it was only natural that he would end up as a pawnbroker. It's a tough business, a job that can tear at your soul if you're not careful. He was careful.

Central Pawn Shop was a tiny place, probably only a dozen feet across in some spots and maybe five times that size from front to back. It was essentially a large, brick box that my father had made usable by creating a loft of sorts in the back. It was on this second floor where he kept the bulk of pawned items -- musical instruments and guns; tires and tools; cameras, record players and speakers; suits and leather coats. On the first floor, in a small, cluttered office screened off from customers and the rest of the store, was a huge safe that was pushed underneath a staircase. It was here where the good stuff -- watches and rings, gold chains and fancy jewelry -- was stored.

Dad's business was capitalism refined to its essence. If you needed money and had something of value, you could offer it up as collateral for a loan. Say you wanted $5 more than you needed to know the time. You might consider pawning your watch. You then had 30 days to repay the loan, plus 10 percent interest. So on a $5 loan, my father would make 50 cents. Of course there were plenty of customers who couldn't manage to pull together $5 all at one time, but didn't want to lose their watch. Each month they would show up with 50 cents, and a little notation would be added to the back of their pawn ticket extending the transaction for another 30 days. For some customers it would take years to pay off their loan.

It was this give and take, playing with nickels and dimes and people's lives that could rip away at your innards. On some intuitive level, my father understood this, managing to balance out his life by always giving out more than he took in, reaching out to family, friends and the community. He was, quite simply, a good soul and constant source of light.

Overstated? Not really. My father was the quintessential "people person", the guy who was always around to lend a helping hand, the consummate volunteer. He joined the Lions Club, selling brooms -- you heard correctly, brooms -- to raise money for the organization's national program to aid the blind; he was the adult supervisor for our synagogue's youth program, president of the shul's Men's Club and Commander of both the local chapter of the Jewish War Veterans and, eventually, the state organization.

He voluntarily raised his synagogue dues every couple of years, just because it was the right thing to do, and at the end of each month wrote checks to a dozen charities, once again because it was the right thing to do.

On Thanksgiving, he donated food baskets to the hungry and on Christmas he volunteered at area hospitals so Christian workers could spend time with their families. During the Jewish High Holidays, he was a volunteer usher. A few weeks later on Sukkot, he was the guy, kids in tow, who went out and chopped down pine branches (trust me, it's a Jewish thing) to cover the communal sukkah -- a sort of hut that is an integral part of the ancient festival.

Dad fancied himself an amateur thespian, joining the city's little theater group, at first only providing props -- hey, if you couldn't find stuff for a production in a pawn shop, you weren't really looking hard. He later took on minor roles -- the rabbi in Fiddler on the Roof, one of the gamblers in Guys and Dolls. He was horrid, but he was always loud, energetic and willing!

In the early 1980s when he turned 71, Dad managed to finally get serious about his volunteering. He quit his day job -- actually sold his business and sort of retired -- then essentially joined the local police department, helping out on its pawn shop detail. He still had a few hours each week to play around with, so he also began volunteering as a gofer at a local hospital. With those two gigs, a little travel with Mom and constant weekend trips to visit nearby family and friends, he managed to stay busy for the next decade.

In the summer of 1997, Dad was diagnosed with stomach cancer. He died four months later, just a few days shy of his 84th birthday. Two days before his death, he rested on a hospital bed, centered in his den, surrounded by a cloth-covered couch and leather recliner, console television and wooden display cases filled with an assortment of tchotchkes. He was draped in robin-blue pajamas and sat listlessly on the edge of the bed, staring out vacantly toward the television and fireplace. The cancer had eaten away at his gut and trimmed off twenty pounds of fat. He looked haggard and tired, but surprisingly fit.

He was lost in that place where people go as death approaches, befuddled and depressed, in pain and straining for breath. He took little notice of my arrival. My youngest brother was in the room. My mother sat nearby. A hospice worker was fiddling with some meds and making small talk about his plans for Thanksgiving.

I was standing in my parent's house, in my father's den, watching him gasp for breath, listening to a hospice worker talk about turkey. It all seemed surreal, a world gone slightly askew. I could make little sense of what I was hearing and what was happening. Neither, apparently, could my father. He glanced over at the hospice worker, a look of puzzlement spreading across his face and slowly began shaking his head. And then he spoke. "I want to go home."

He mumbled the words again, and then again. "I want to go home." It was a plea, the words of a lost little boy, unsure of where he was and where he was headed. "I want to go home." They were the last words I ever heard him speak.

I like to think that my father made it home, met up with his brothers and sister, his parents, aunts, uncles and cousins. I also like to think that just behind his family were some of the thousands of people he managed to help during his life, strangers who had become his friends.

Take a moment and glance back at the photo at the top of this posting. See how my Dad is bending over, checking me out, a father in love with his son. That's what I remember most about my father, a man always reaching out, willing to do a little bending if necessary to make life better for other people.

I mourned his loss when he died a dozen years ago and now I miss him more than ever. He was my hero -- still is today.

MOMENT IN TIME: Me and my Dad (photo above) in the early 1950s at Central Pawn Shop. And, yes, I did enjoy the coke.


  1. Ron, A wonderful sentiment and a beautiful story.

  2. Anytime I would meet someone that knew Dad, they always said what a great person he was. I knew it to be true. With all of the struggles he went through trying to eek out a meager living in the pawn business and put us all through school along with whatever else we cost him, I hope he knew he made a difference in our lives and that legions of peopled loved him.

    Great job articulating what all want to say.

  3. A great memory and makes me think back on my dad who has been gone for 22 years.

  4. Another beautiful, touching post. May your Dad's memory be for a blessing.

  5. I knew this man too. I saw him often. He was and is the person whom we should all emulate. What a smile.Strong but soft handed. I don't think I ever heard the word no come from his lips.