Call Me Harry

By Pat Fagan

Prologue

 

Maybe it was luck, or perhaps, Providence, the good Lord’s hand pushing me in the direction of the book section.

There I was, minding my own business, trying to stay out of the way in Target, while my wife shopped. We needed shampoo, toothpaste, mouthwash—the usual stuff—for our trip east to visit my mother who was in her nineties and recovering from a fall.

As for the book section, let’s just say Target is no Barnes & Noble, Powell’s in Oregon or the Strand Bookstore in NYC—it is much, much smaller, almost an afterthought by comparison. As I stood with my back turned at the end of an aisle—laundry detergent to my left, chips and salsa to my right—I backed up to let a young mother with a stroller pass by.

“No good deed goes unpunished” as Oscar Wilde once wrote. Proving Wilde right, I knocked over a display promoting Target’s “Pick of the Month,” a memoir—The Invisible Wall— written by a 96-year-old author, his first published book.

Luck or Providence, you tell me. His bio on the inside back cover listed his hometown as Brick, NJ, a little more than a half- hour drive from my mother’s house. The following morning, at my mother’s insistence, I called. He invited me to visit.

“What’s a good time?” I asked.

“How about now? I’m ninety-seven… last month… putting it off might not be a good idea.”

That was—as Humphrey Bogart said to Claude Rains in the final scene of Casablanca—the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Chapter One

The Boy with the Barely-There Shoes

“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die,
and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there.”
—Ray Bradbury, novelist –

My grampa—on my mother’s side—was not an educated man, not “schooled” you might say, if “schooled” conjures up turn-of-the-century images of bricks and mortar, chalk dust flying, cast iron ink-hole desks, and prune-cheeked marms. Third grade was as far as he got, and even that was cut short after his family—mama, papa, two brothers, and three sisters— all died of tuberculosis during the epidemic of 1900.

Said my mom, when she talked about him—the little she knew about his childhood, “How he survived when the others didn’t is a miracle… he was a fragile child, the baby of the family… bony, underweight, sickly… the good Lord had plans for him… that much I know.”

Almost certain, I am, that my grampa was grateful to the Almighty for being spared, even if he shouldered years of nagging guilt for being the exception.

“Why them? Why Mama? Why not me?”

Most likely, he would have preferred doing whatever it is that angels do in the heavens after the state of New Jersey handed him off to a distant aunt, his own blood—a wretched, heartless woman, my mother said—who tried to wiggle out of her obligation. She already had a boy of her own—the silver on her dollar—and no man about, Jack Daniels being as close as she came to having a male with whiskers anywhere in her third floor, cold-water flat.

The woman, Irish, was known only as Mrs. Scully. Her first name was never mentioned—none that my grampa ever said, or my mother or Aunt Catherine ever heard. She might have been a Bridget or a Maureen or a Deidre—something delightfully Gaelic and at odds with her disposition. But we will never know. Nor does it matter. Says a lot that.

By the time Grampa turned eight, Scully had hustled him into the workforce—70-hour weeks, sometimes more, usually more. First at a thread company, Clark Thread in Newark (NJ) where he did piece work—attaching buttons to cards—much of them swiped from the boy by a co-worker—a man, fortyish and gutter drunk most the time—an Irishman, no less—one of his own.

Working at Clark didn’t earn him much money—six cents a gross—minus what the sot pocketed, still enough to keep a loaf on the table and his aunt at a safe distance.

When I asked my mother why he didn’t speak up, tell his boss, rat the guy out with good reason, she said, “…he was threatened, ‘Keep yer trap shut er ‘e’ ll rip yer tongue out.’” Words to that effect.

After a year or so at Clark, he left for Western Union where he delivered telegrams for eighteen months until he heard the Newark News was looking for a copyboy—someone to run typed stories from desk to desk. (Jimmy Breslin and Gay Talese started as copyboys, as did John Updike.) Lots of news to scurry about at the time: King Leopold the Third’s assassination, and that of President William McKinley; coal miners striking across the States; the Wright brothers launching the first aircraft of any kind—all of twelve seconds airborne—startling the seagulls, no doubt. The list goes on.

Afternoons, he peddled his newspapers on the street at the corner of First and Sussex—prime real estate, the center of things—where “Buffalo Bill” Cody hawked his Wild West Show in fall 1900 and fall 1902. According to family lore, the two—Cody and Grampa—struck up a friendship of sorts, the showman buying stacks of his papers to help the youngster out.

Mind you, the cynical side of me says, “Never happened.” But my mom insisted and my aunt Catherine as well, and with the help of the Newark News archives, the public library, and Buffalo Bill’s museum in Cody, Wyoming, the dates, place and likelihood all match.

Further research suggests that Bill was a good-natured man when it came to hard-luck kids as my grampa had been. In that respect, he mirrored Wild Bill Hickok, who saved the twelve-year-old Cody from a throttling by a ginned-up cowboy for some minor offense. The cowhand got busted up pretty bad for that—bare-knuckle justice at work. Cody never forgot the kindness. Perhaps, buying the kid’s papers was payback of sorts for having his hide saved in 1858. Anything’s possible.

Or, perhaps, Buffalo Bill just saw a bit of himself in my grampa—then twelve—with the jutting ribcage, patched knickers, and barely-there shoes. One difference: Cody hated

school; my grampa loved what little he got of it.
It was at the News that he learned to read and write with the

help of the boys—my mom called the men at the rewrite desk “boys.” They were his Princeton, his Yale, his staircase up.

Said she: “If not for them… the time they took to bring him along… helping him with his reading and writing… there’s no telling where your grandfather might have ended up. Like uncles, they took him under their wing. I continue to pray for their souls to this day.”

Sixty years my grampa worked at the News starting at the age of twelve and retiring as an executive—a department head— after a broken hip failed to heal well enough for him to walk to the bus stop to catch the 5:57 to Newark.

Along the way he was a reporter, sportswriter, ad director, and editor. He loved words—the shape of the letters, the way they collided with one another when putting a sentence together, the challenge they presented in crossword puzzles. (What is a six- letter word coined by Shakespeare meant to describe the lowly mingling with the hoity-toity? Answer: hobnob.) Easy stuff for Grampa. I cannot recall him ever using a pencil to solve The New York Times crossword puzzle, or the Newark Star Ledger’s or the Newark News’. Perhaps, he did. I’m sure he did, though never while I was there.

Most of all, he enjoyed the way words created stories—early favorites of his like Peck’s Bad Boy, The Brothers Grimm, Kipling’s Just So Stories—Kipling’s madcap, off-the-wall explanations for children like: “How the Leopard Got His Spots,” “The Camel Got His Hump,” and “The Rhinoceros Got His Skin.” These were Grampa’s diversions from a hollow belly, frequent bouts with the grippe—Mrs. Scully—and the seven-mile hike he took back uphill at day’s end to save the nickel required for a streetcar ride.

Why? I’m not sure, but he thought I had it in me to become a writer. Certainly not the likes of those he most admired: Mark Twain, Ring Lardner, Melville, Hawthorne, Bierce, Steinbeck, Damon Runyon, O. Henry—that crowd. More on the scale of a colleague of his—a sportswriter named Willie Ratner— affectionately known as “Rat”—a hunched, unshaven, cigar- smoking News hound who covered prizefighting and the horses for more than a half century.

Rat used his typewriter—a 1923 Underwood—the way Rocky Marciano used his right hook, pulling no punches. Ratner was fearless, I was told. Fearless as in… “I don’t really give a damn what you think. I saw it that way. I wrote it that way. Shoot me… you don’t like it.”

Which is almost what it came to during the Great Depression, when Willie tangled with the underworld and was beaten near senseless by henchmen for his sarcastic reporting of fixes—fast ones—pulled on boxing fans in Newark, which was known as a “sucker town” on the fight circuit at the time.

Nobody was ever charged with the crime, by the way. No witnesses. To lift a phrase from any number of film noir icons— Bogey, Edward G. Robinson, the Dead-End Kids: —“…Nobody saw nuthin’… cross my heart… on my mudder’s grave.”

But that’s the price Ratner was willing to pay for a good story. Once the swelling went down, his eyes opened, and his head cleared, he was back at his Underwood writing as he saw it.The truth often ugly. The Mob’s reach notwithstanding.

The thing about writing, my grampa said—using Ratner as an example—is that if you have a story that needs telling, get on with it. There’s no such thing as being too young, too busy, too vulnerable or—for that matter—too long in the tooth.
Frank McCourt was sixty-six when he wrote his first book, Angela’s Ashes, about growing up in Ireland, living as he did as he wrote on page one “…a miserable childhood … Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”

Fertile soil—McCourt’s beginnings—my grampa might have called it for the writer. Then there’s Harry Bernstein, my friend and mentor in this book—Jewish, not Catholic—but safe to say a childhood as wretched as McCourt’s—if not more so. On the flip side, there was Anne Frank, a thirteen-year- old who wrote like a thirteen-year-old during her first year in the Annex. Her diary provided us with a first-person account of Lucifer himself: A beginning and a middle, Frank had, but no ending, no final page tying all the threads together—no happily ever after, cut short by the Nazis as she was.
With few exceptions, Anne wrote daily, getting better by the page—her words evolving from kid stuff to polished— describing herself at one point as: “A songbird whose wings have been clipped… hurling himself in utter darkness against the bars of his cage.” What teenage girl writes like that?

If she hadn’t died of typhus in Bergen Belsen—a German concentration camp—she might have continued with her writing. “I want to go on living after my death,” she once wrote. Despite dying at fifteen, she did just that. History owes much to Anne Frank.

Writing, my grandfather said, when I showed some interest in it, is liberating. No setback, no illness, no tragedy, no loss, no upbringing (brutal or gilded) can survive, if you write about it truthfully.

As Anne Frank wrote: “I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”

It was that way for my grampa, for Frank McCourt, and for Anne Frank. It was that way for the man I called Mr. Bernstein.

About Pat Fagan:

After thirty-five years as an award-winning advertising copywriter and creative director, Fagan turned his attention to writing nonfiction.

This is his debut memoir. He lives in Central Florida with his wife Carol. He and Carol have three children — all happily married– and two beautiful grandchildren, Owen and Kaylie who hang the moon, light the stars, and keep their grampa young.

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