En­chant­ing tales my fa­ther told me

The Beacon Herald - - NEWS - RICK WHE­LAN AS I WAS SAY­ING

As each new amaz­ing ad­vance in tech­nol­ogy, sci­ence, medicine or space travel is re­vealed, I can’t help think­ing of my fa­ther. He was a dreamer and would have been in­cred­i­bly im­pressed with the rev­o­lu­tion­ary dis­cov­er­ies that hu­mans have made since he left the party over 20 years ago.

When as­tro­naut Neil Arm­strong first stepped foot on the moon he called me to mar­vel over this al­most un­be­liev­able achieve­ment.

He couldn’t quite get his head around the fact that one hu­man be­ing (him­self ) could, as a boy, watch his milk be­ing de­liv­ered in a horse-drawn wagon and now, as an adult, watch a mor­tal take a first step upon the moon!

My fa­ther was born in Re­vere, Mass., in 1908. His fa­ther, a bit of a scoundrel, was a tele­graph op­er­a­tor who shuf­fled around the coun­try­side a lot. The fam­ily (three boys and two girls) fi­nally landed in Hart­ford, Conn. … prob­a­bly around the time my fa­ther was eight or nine.

Be­cause of my grand­fa­ther’s in­flu­ence with the pow­ers that be, he ar­ranged for his nine-year-old son to get a job as a candy-seller on the New York New Haven and Hart­ford Rail­road. My fa­ther would get on the train at Hart­ford early in the morn­ing, ride into New York City and then back again, sell­ing his wares out of a large open bread bas­ket slung over his arm. At the end of the day, he dis­cov­ered he was miss­ing quite a bit of his in­ven­tory … goods he didn’t re­mem­ber sell­ing. So one morn­ing my grand­fa­ther ac­com­pa­nied my fa­ther on his daily run, only to dis­cover that, as my fa­ther was ne­go­ti­at­ing a sale at one end of his bas­ket, un­be­knownst to him, peo­ple were filch­ing candy out of the back end. See­ing this, my grand­fa­ther rose to the oc­ca­sion, threat­ened to knock the block off the of­fend­ing thieves (he was an am­a­teur boxer!) and fa­ther’s nascent busi­ness was saved … for a while any­way. There was a revered in­sti­tu­tion lo­cated in my fa­ther’s old Hart­ford neigh­bour­hood. It was called the Hart­ford Re­treat for the In­sane. This “re­treat” sur­vives to this day and is now known as The In­sti­tute of the Liv­ing. In my fa­ther’s day, the place was where very rich peo­ple were sent when their rel­a­tives re­garded them as “crazy.” This In­sti­tute was where, in the 1950s, trou­bled ac­tress Gene Tier­ney was sent and re­ceived 27 shock treat­ments, which she later claimed robbed her of much of her early mem­o­ries. Back in the early 1900s, one pa­tient at the Re­treat caught my fa­ther’s at­ten­tion. He and his friends nick­named her “The Count­ess.” Ev­ery af­ter­noon at around 4 p.m., the Count­ess would be driven in her car­riage out of the Re­treat’s front gates. As she passed my fa­ther and his friends play­ing in the street, the Count­ess would draw back the cur­tain in her car­riage, smile and wave at this lit­tle band of raga­muffins. As he told me this rather mys­te­ri­ous story, my fa­ther’s eyes would glaze over … no doubt won­der­ing who this “Count­ess” was … and what­ever be­came of her.

My fa­ther was born with “stub thumbs” – a med­i­cal con­di­tion that makes one’s thumbs short and stubby and bul­bous. No doubt self­con­scious about this con­di­tion and prob­a­bly mocked by his peers, he was in the habit of tuck­ing his thumbs into his fists most of the time.

One of his early teach­ers no­ticed this be­hav­iour and when she learned of his con­di­tion, she told him how lucky he was to have been born with “as­sas­sins’ thumbs.”

She ex­plained that in days of yore, kings se­lected the bravest and strong­est men in their king­dom to do his bid­ding … like get­ting rid of his evil ad­ver­saries. These king’s men had to have big, strong bul­bous thumbs – (all the bet­ter to stran­gle a per­son with, my dear) … and so she as­sured my fa­ther that he was de­scended from these fear­less as­sas­sins. I never asked my fa­ther if this made him feel bet­ter about him­self, but I’m sure it didn’t hurt.

I sup­pose there are al­ways some things about fa­thers that re­main a mys­tery to their off­spring. My fa­ther was an ex­cel­lent horse­man (he rode in the Gover­nor’s Horse Guard … al­though now a strictly cer­e­mo­nial unit, the Horse Guard was es­tab­lished in 1771 to pro­tect the gover­nor on his trips around the state.)

One day, as I was hunt­ing in his closet for some­thing I found, hang­ing up on a hook at the very back, a shoul­der hol­ster. I never asked him why he had that. I’m sure what my imag­i­na­tion con­jured up was far more dra­matic than the cold hard facts. Per­haps, early in his life, he was a se­cret agent.

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