My Famous Father
My dad, Jim, was a drinker and not just a social drinker, but a bare-knuckled, late-night, bar brawling type of drinker. He loved his women and stepped out on mom when he could, but he was our dad, and we tolerated his life while he was barely involved in ours. That's what the post-war years were like for many families. Our family was poor enough to put a capital P in Poverty.
Back somewhere in the mid-sixties when the old 17th Street bridge was still there, as you crossed the bridge from town and walked along the down-traffic side toward the old junkyard about halfway to 9th Avenue, there was a patch of woods on the right that, if you walked through, you would come out behind the old UVA building on Union Avenue. So close to the railroad tracks, that patch was a hobo haven. (Hobo - Wandering king of the road.)
One evening in the mid-sixties, my nephew Rick and I were walking the mean streets of Altoona, PA (haha) and passing those woods; we thought we saw the light of fire deep inside the covey of trees. Barely visible, we decided, as boys will do, that it needed to be investigated. So in we went as stealthily as we could. As we approached, the fire became more obviously a jungle fire (as the old hobos called them), and a few feet more, we found in the clearing three men sitting around the fire and passing a bottle between them.
"Ho ho," one of them says, "looks like we've got us a bit of company!"
The three stopped talking and turned to look at us. Rick, the braveheart, who, like me, was just entering his teen years, stepped forward into the firelight as if ready to take on all three grown men, whereas I approached far more cautiously.
As I stepped into the light, the man who spoke first stared at me for a long minute and finally said, "You're Jim's boy, ain'tcha? Jim Eichenlaub? I knowed old Jim a long time and I seen you before!"
"Yes, how'd you know my dad?" I asked timidly.
"I knowed em, Hadn't seen him in years. How's he doin?"
"He died in 58," I answered.
"That's too bad. Sorry to hear that! Here, grab a rock and have a drink!" and he offered up the bottle, which Rick immediately grabbed and took a swig and handed to me, and I passed it back to dad's friend.
We sat for an hour or so and listened to the stories old "Willie" told of my dad. His name was Bill or William, ergo the obvious moniker with no surname offered, and I didn't ask.
To my recollection, Wille was a laborer of some sort, worked on construction teams here and there, and dad was a painter and plasterer, so somewhere along the way, they became drinking buddies. Dad died six years after I was born, and I barely knew him, so how old Willie ever recognized me at age thirteen is beyond my knowledge, but he, sure enough, did know me!
It's surprising how life's vagaries can paint a very different picture for us, of those whom we come to know best. To his drinking buddies (those like Willie), dad was a hero among men. Not frightened of anybody, he would fly in knuckles first and clean up the best he could. He would buy drinks for his buddies and accept graciously when offered one. He was a troubadour of the 'Hank Williams" sort and an insatiable flirt, which often kept him away from home for the night.
However, to his family, he was just, well...just dad. He had his demons to deal with and did the best he could, but in 1958 the lead in the paint he painted with, combined with the booze in his belly, finally ruptured in his brain, and he paid the ultimate price for his sins.
My memories of him are few and unfavorable. Not a single tear did I shed at his passing. Not that I hated him or any such thing. I just never got to know him well enough to care, but the frightening man who was so often angry, who fought with my mom and sometimes hit her, was gone, and I didn't miss him in the slightest.
But he was well known in the bars, from the top of Buckhorn mountain, all the way down to Juniata. The Whitehall, Abruzzi, Juniata grill, the Venitian Garden, more bars than churches, and few if any he was not familiar with. Of the churches, well, only God, Himself, knew who he was.