Jewish World Review June 17, 2003/ 17 Sivan 5763
A quiet man lives on
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | LIKE THOUSANDS OF American children, I saw in actor Gregory Peck's portrayal of Atticus Finch, the protagonist in the classic film To Kill a Mockingbird, a resemblance to my own dad. When Peck died last week at 87, on the eve of Father's Day, it precipitated a stream of memories of the unknown Harold Louis Smith: a small businessman, dedicated husband and patriarch of five sons.
My dad, like the fictional Finch, was the strong, shy type, the polar opposite of his spouse, who'd gab and schmooze enough for the both of them. It worked out well.
According to family lore-and this goes back to the late 1930s-my maternal grandfather, an immigrant born outside of Dublin in 1868, was notoriously picky about his only daughter's many suitors. When my father came along, he got the nod, with the following recommendation: "No, he doesn't say much but when he does you better listen." And so they were married in 1940, although neither set of parents attended the small wedding because it was a mixed union: Catholic and Protestant.
One of the most vivid scenes in To Kill a Mockingbird is when Atticus, informed of a rabid dog threatening the community, calmly ditches his eyeglasses and kills the animal with a single bullet. His tough-guy son, Jem, doubted his father was capable of such a masculine feat. He is, after all, an attorney and widower in a small Southern town who insisted he was too old to play tackle football. Jem watches in amazement, with a dropped jaw. A bystander says to the boy, "Didn't you know your daddy's the best shot in this county?"
My own father was never much of an athlete, but he played catch with his boys after coming home from work. As the owner of a marginal car wash, he worked seven days a week, but at least once a year would take me to a game at Yankee Stadium, often with a copy of Barron's under his arm. And on summer evenings, at 6:30 sharp, he'd get out of the car at our home in Huntington and ask the kids, "Who wants to go for a dip?" We'd happily drive to one of the many public beaches, swim for 15 minutes and arrive home for dinner.
I never had reason to doubt his strength. He was six feet tall and solidly built, whose youthful red hair had turned dark and sparse by 37, when I came along. Though his business was located in a racially polarized section of Suffolk County, he never complained when called at four in the morning to attend a break-in, or to bail out one of his workers.
Born at home in 1916, the only child of a rocky marriage, there was little money in the family. When the Depression hit, my grandfather's small jewelry store in New Hampshire went bust and, like millions of Americans, the three Smiths scrapped for cash. While attending the University of New Hampshire, his boyhood house burned to the ground, and soon after his parents were divorced, which in the late 30s was a local scandal. My mother always said that Dad was eager to have a large family because of his background. Though providing for five children-born from 1942 to 1955-was difficult, he was one of happiest people I've ever known. He had few friends, aside from my mother's two brothers, preferring to spend any free time with his wife and sons.
One of my earliest memories, 1959 or so, is Dad deciding to quit his pack-a-day habit of Camel straights. He sat in the den, smoking one cigarette after another until he felt nauseous, and that was the end of it. Cold turkey. I never heard him swear, a trait passed down to my two oldest brothers; he preferred euphemisms like "Holy mackerel!" or "Nuts!" While he was at work one day, my brothers and I convinced Mom to get a puppy, and once home our new mutt Scuttle promptly took a leak, soiling a check that'd arrived in the mail. He lowered his glasses, took a look around and simply said, "Oh, man."
I don't want to give the impression that my father was infallible, even though as a youngster that's what I thought. He was fond of martinis, Manhattans and Schmidt's beer, and on rare occasion, maybe after a holiday party at Uncle Joe's, the ride home could be too adventurous for my mother's taste and she'd tell him to please slow down. Mom would then offer to take over the wheel, but none of us endorsed the idea, since she was the prototypical "Sunday driver."
Perhaps my most lasting memory of Dad was during a 1964 trip to Jones Beach. I'd never seen waves so huge, and at one point got caught in the undertow and was down for the count. Suddenly, my father ran into the surf, scooped me up in his arms and pushed my chest until all the water was expelled from my lungs. I was petrified, not only at the close call but for such reckless behavior. Once the trauma had abated, he took me aside and said, "Pal, that could happen to anyone. Take it as a lesson and be more careful."
Another time I'd landed in Mom's doghouse for, in her mind, foolishly spending a Christmas present of $20 on a cool mock-suede jacket. I was banished to my room-which suited me fine, frankly, since I had a fresh copy of Rolling Stone to read-until Dad came home from work. Then came the family meeting. My mother did most of the talking, ranting about the "fancy, rich-kid" purchase and threatening to confiscate my money-earned from mowing lawns, babysitting and shoveling snow-and put it straight into my bank account. In retrospect, as a Depression child, I can understand her reaction, but it seemed nutty at the time. At one point, she said, "I'll bet you don't even pick up pennies off the street!" When I protested that indeed I did, citing Benjamin Franklin for good measure, my father chuckled. When Mom glared at him, he backed her up and said I needed to be thriftier.
My father was a stoic New Englander and never complained on the rare occasion when he caught a cold or when his chronic hay fever acted up. He skipped annual physicals, which certainly wasn't too smart, insisting that our family "came from good stock." I always believed that both my parents would live until at least the age of 90. He wasn't religious, and when I asked as a child about heaven and hell, Dad brushed it all aside and said, "When you're dead, you're dead. Case closed."
Although he never earned more than $25,000 a year-and that was a rarity-my father was a GOP partisan who believed FDR was a crafty double-talker and JFK a pampered phony. You can debate that view, and my brothers and I certainly did in the 60s, but it illustrates even to this day that not all Republicans are country-club coupon clippers. He despised the elitist New York Times, muttering at its editorials, and was distressed when the Herald Tribune folded. My favorite quip of his, which he often repeated with a smile, was "Democrats eat fried rats."
Harold Louis Smith, my only hero aside from my brothers, died in 1972 of a heart attack a few days after I turned 17. He was only 55 and never got to see the majority of his numerous grandchildren. My mother, devastated after his death, succumbed nine years later to brain cancer, and although she remarried in '76 to a wonderful, gentle man, Dad was the love of her life.
Every June, Father's Day is a melancholy Sunday, as holidays generally are when you get older and think about all the relatives and friends that are no longer alive. I'm a fortunate middle-aged man now, blessed with a loving wife and two fine sons, and though I'm not big on gifts, when the three of them make a fuss over me early that morning, with cards and a book or two, it takes my breath away. Our boys do have their Grandpa Rudy, their mother's brilliant, engaging father, whom they adore, and I give thanks for that.
But it's a shame that my own father is an unknown figure to them, a mythical, b&w photograph, lost to family history. They're amazed that he died so young, but I remind them that I wouldn't trade my 17 years with Dad for anything in the world.
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JWR contributor "Mugger" -- aka Russ Smith -- is the editor-in-chief and CEO of New York Press (www.nypress.com). Send your comments to him by clicking here.