Enchanting tales my father told me
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.