Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The past ain't through with us

I never met my grandfathers. One died before I was born and the other died when I was too young to remember. Obviously, that sucks. Huge revelation I know. Our older relatives are conduits to the past and I often feel cheated that I didn't get to spend any time with my grandfathers. I didn't get enough time with my grandmothers either for that matter. And for whatever reason, I never really knew much about them, or my family as a whole. I knew the basics, but I never looked into it much, I think partly because I didn't have much connection to the past besides my grandmothers for a short while.

Recently I have become more interested in learning about my family history. There are many reasons for this (we did a heritage project with the kids at work and it motivated me to learn about my own heritage; spending time with my girlfriend's grandmother; watching my nieces grow up and wanting to build the connection to the past and future generations; the existential dread of getting older and understanding my minimal significance in the grand scheme of things) but the fact is I just want to know more about who I am. It's always about me.

Anyways, a few weeks ago, my mom gave me a newspaper article about her father. It's from The Hartford Courant, published on May 5, 1953. I reprinted it below. This would have probably been one of the feel good stories a newspaper ran to keep people's minds off segregation, Korea, and the inevitable nuclear war with Russia. I found it fascinating because, like any news article, it serves as a snapshot of a moment in time, even if it is a "fluff piece."

Most of all, I like it because it sheds light on the type of man my grandfather was:

The Human Touch, by Bob Zaiman

When Nick Farr first started operating the Frances Soda Shop on Ashley Street about 15 years ago, he inherited a gang of the neighborhood high school kids. The little store had been their hangout under the previous owner and, after meeting Nick for the first time, they knew right away that he was the type of guy who would permit them to continue using the place as headquarters.

They were a nice bunch of kids, not a "wise guy" in the bunch. Most of the time they would lounge around the booths talking about sports and girls and the rest of the things that interest boys in their teens. Sometimes when the talk ran down, they would go over to the magazine rack and pore through the latest issues. They never bought any of the magazines but Nick Farr didn't mind--as long as they replaced them neatly after they were through reading. 

Business slowed down in the latter stages of the evening and then Nick began to join them. There were about 15 boys in the group and it wasn't long before Nick became a sort of a senior member. On nights when the gang went bowling, they took Nick and let him compete with them. If they had problems, they would talk them over confidentially with Nick. He developed into a "big brother" for the Ashley Street crew.

Friendship Lasts

Well, the years sped by, and the boys grew into manhood but they still came around to see Nick and to chat with their old buddies. The strong bond of friendship between the soda shop owner and the boys never weakened. 

Seven weeks ago, the old Ashley Street gang received some shocking news. Nick Farr had been taken seriously ill and would be unable to work for some time. They called a hasty meeting in the soda shop to figure what they could do to help their hospitalized friend.

"Somebody has got to take care of the soda shop," one of them announce. "Nick's wife has three small children on her hands and she can't handle it."

They all agreed that the most important thing to Nick in his hour of need was to keep his business operating. And, right then and there, six of them volunteered their services. Not one of them had ever worked in a soda shop before but they knew the general routine and besides, Elva, the personable girl who worked for Nick, could advise them when they were stumped.

All six members of the old gang had steady jobs during the day, which meant they could only help out at night but that worked out fine since Elva took care of things from 7am to 7pm.

Share Night Shift

And so, seven weeks ago they started working the shop, each taking a different night. They didn't ask for or expect any money for their services. They were helping out a friend who had once taken care of them in the past. 

Barney, Victor, and Fred Castellani, three brothers who lived across the street worked all day on their mason contracting business, were eager to do their bit. So were Tom Glynn, a Hartford Gas Co. employee, and James Leary, who works at the Hamilton Standard Propeller firm.

Ray Lavery, the sixth volunteer, lives in Manchester now but he didn't let that stop him. He made the trip to Hartford on his scheduled work night and took his turn behind the counter, handling the sales of cigarettes, magazines, camera supplies and the dozens of other items in Nick's store.

Nick is out of the hospital now, but he is still unable to work. It will probably be another two months before he will be allowed by his doctor to spend even a few hours in the soda shop. Meanwhile, the six old friends are carrying on for him and they vow that they'll stay there until Nick is completely recovered.

Getting the story of their inspiring and unselfish act was like pulling teeth. They didn't want any publicity.

"There's nothing unusual about what we're doing," they said. "Anybody would do as much for a friend."

Despite what the men said about their actions, they clearly went above and beyond what most people would do for a friend. It's obvious that my grandfather made a strong impression on these individuals for them to go to such lengths to help him. It induces a sense of pride to hear that your family members made a positive impact on the people in their lives; I felt a similar sense of familial/genetic pride at the retirement parties for my parents. Not to mention, the respect and accolades my family members receive work out great for me because all that goodwill usually extends my way without me having to earn it.

One of the best parts of this article is the language. The writer states, "not a 'wise guy' in the bunch" in complete earnestness. It's fantastic. The entire situation is almost inconceivable. What is a soda shop? Nowadays it would take place in a chain yogurt shop, except it went out of business after 6 months and the boys never got to know the owner who ended up dying because he couldn't afford proper healthcare. Dark times. Makes you yearn for nuclear bomb warnings.

I am grateful for the men who helped my grandfather in his time of need. I'm grateful for the Hartford Courant for writing the story and my mom for sharing it with me. I've always recognized the importance of history but I often didn't apply that to my own life and family history. As I get older I realize, if our own family doesn't even care about us after we pass, who will? It's the responsibility of the living to preserve the spirit and memory of the dead.

Besides, the dead tell us a lot about ourselves if we just listen.

That sounds overly supernatural. I just mean that you can learn a lot about the present from learning about the past, and you can learn a lot about yourself from learning about your family, and I like doing both, and that's about that.

I Love You All...Class Dismissed. 

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