Today’s song: WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD/LOUIS ARMSTRONG
My father and I had left our apartment in Queens, about ten o’clock. Shortly, we arrived at Lenox Hill Hospital, where my grandfather, Charlie Hale, a New York City firefighter, was a patient.
My father, also Charlie, parked the car. “Wait here, Son. They don’t allow children in your grandfather’s room. I’ll be back soon.” Something wasn’t right. I could sense my father’s unease, the tension in his body, in his voice.
Sitting in the car, waiting, I thought about my grandfather. I’d heard my father say he acted as if he were the mayor of downtown Manhattan. He knew everyone: Governor Rockefeller, Mayor Wagner, and Tim Mara, the owner of the New York Giants. How does a fireman know all those people? I marveled.
My father would say of his father, “No matter where he was, it seemed like he owned the joint.”
And I’d say, “Bigger than life, right, Dad?” and my father would smile as I repeated the same phrase I often heard my father use.
Grandpa Charlie was forever caught in a whirlwind. He would fly around the apartment, his arms flailing, laughing, cooking turkeys, mixing drinks called Manhattans, and spinning tales. Within minutes his white shirt would be half-hanging out of his slacks, and his tie would have a new gravy stain. I asked my mother about his ties, and she said, “On religious holidays he wears the one with the fewest gravy stains.”
My grandparents had this wonderful painting hanging over the sofa: my grandfather and three other firemen…sitting around a table, staring at their poker hands. “Is that you in the painting, Grandpa?” I’d say, as my grandmother sat down at the piano and started playing, “I’ll Take Manhattan.”
I’d ask him about the painting. “Well, Charles, I remember that night as if it were yesterday. Did you ever see the movie King Kong? It’s a true story, you know.”
“Oh, sure. Now that night, we were playing cards, when the call came in, ‘Engine Fourteen report to Thirty-Fourth Street and Fifth Avenue, gorilla hanging from the top of the Empire State Building. And he’s got a woman with him.’ Oh my God,” Grandpa Charlie would yell, his hands flying up and out as I visualize four clubs and an ace of spades flying through the air. His voice was in full throttle, and my laughter fueled his fertile imagination.
“We jumped from out of our chairs, slid down the pole, and with the sirens screaming raced over to Thirty-fourth Street. Over the rig’s radio the dispatcher’s screaming, ‘Hurry, hurry, Kong’s got a woman in his arms. Oh, no, please hurry.’ And just as we got there, Charles, Kong came hurtling over the side of the building and barely missed our truck. But, by the grace of God, we caught that beautiful woman in the net. And you know who the woman was, Charles?”
“It was your grandmother. That’s how I met her. Helluva night.”
I’d be rolling on the couch, in hysterics, looking at him with those ‘Aw, c’mon are you kidding me, Grandpa, ten-year old eyes’, and I’d say, “Grandpa, how do you think this stuff up? And besides, in the movie the woman’s name is Anne and Grandma’s name is Helen.”
“They changed the name to protect the innocent, Charles. You were innocent, right Helen?” He laughed at that, why, I didn’t know but my grandmother would roll her eyes and just keep playing…as if she’d heard this story a million times before. And she had.
“It’s all true, Charles. I swear every word is true.” And then he’d laugh his unforgettable, suck-the-oxygen-out-of-the-room laugh, shove a slimy cigar into one side of his mouth, and out of the other he’d yell to no one in particular, “And another round of Manhattans, with two cherries this time, one for me and one for Charles, and another Manhattan for my beautiful-daughter-in-law, Dorothy”…his shirt now completely flapping in the breeze.
And my grandmother just played on as Grandpa Charlie shouted, ”Charles, did I ever tell you about the time I rode with the Lone Ranger? You know I was his sidekick before Tonto.” It was grand.
I had been waiting for my father to return to the car when I gazed up to the second floor. A man in a white coat appeared and turned a wheelchair toward the window. A frail man sat in the chair. Now I knew why my father didn’t want me to see my grandfather. A shriveled man, aged far beyond his fifty-seven years, pressed his drawn visage against the glass, foreshadowing a thirteen-year-old’s first encounter with death.
His withered body, battered by a life threatening injury sustained during a fire, exacerbated by the onset of multiple myeloma, made him almost unrecognizable. I saw his mouth moving, but the glass and the distance muted his words. I continued waving as the man in the white coat wheeled my helpless grandfather away from the window. Sitting by myself in the car, I understood, “I know Grandpa,” I said to myself. “This is goodbye.”
My father returned a few moments later and we drove to the Stadium…in silence. I don’t remember much about the game, but I do remember the lights reflecting off the players blue helmets, I remember the smell of cigars hanging on a breeze and I remember the sky, hues of grey meeting the distant buildings, forming the horizon. And I remember my father’s silence.
One month later we received the call. My mother called my sister and me into her bedroom. She told us Grandpa was gone. We just sat on the bed and cried and cried. I didn’t understand how someone so full of life, so full of joy, could be gone.
Now, all these years later I stare at the painting and I laugh when I hear the words King Kong. I think of that cigar hanging from his mouth, his booming laugh and his physical presence.
“Bigger than life, right, Dad?”
“Yes, Charles, bigger than life.”