(The following is an excerpt from my new book: Growing Up Together)
Dad taught me never to talk about religion, sex, or politics if you can help it. Of course, those are my favorite topics.
He went to an all boys school and was only taught by Jesuit priests. While he showed allegiance to the Pope, he was more influenced by the "Black Pope," the head of the Jesuit order. In college, he helped found a fraternity for accountants and was elected treasurer. While the other kids sold ice cream in the summer or worked in the factories, he was employed as a surveyor.
During the war, he was stationed in Riverhead, Long Island where he worked in ballistics. He never went to the front, but he knew a lot about guns, even if he never talked about it, and showed no interest in them whatsoever. The only thing he did divulge about his experience was to say, "a lot of people aren't as smart as they think they are." Our mother worked nearby in an aircraft factory, and that's where I was conceived.
He was a numbers man. Dad was attracted to a column of numbers like a moth to a flame. After doing our chores, we were paid our age times our age. So at ten we got a buck, and at eleven a .21 raise! When I wanted a bike, he set up a matching fund. The bike cost a hundred dollars--big money. It took the whole summer collecting bottles for two cents each to make the fifty bucks, but he was good to his word.
On Saturday, we often went to Sears and Roebuck to pick up parts for whatever we were repairing around the house. The basement of the store was full of bins with hardware displayed---screws, nuts, and bolts. Pops had a thing for hardware. Little paper bags with screws or washers were stashed around the house.
He'd test me: "If a dozen screws cost two dollars how much does each screw cost?" If I passed, I got a Bulldog Ginger Beer and a Slim Jim. My sisters hated me for it, but, hey, they weren't sticking their hand into the furnace or cleaning the sewage pipes.
He was an officer at a bank. They called him "the chief,'" and he called me sport. They put him in charge of keeping track of all the money. In fact, he kept track of all the currency in circulation in the state of Michigan. Once, he invited our Cub Scout pack to the bank. He took us to the basement where they burned the old bills. He gave my friend Paul a stack of a million dollars and told him to throw it into the fire. Fifty years later, I ran into Paul and he still remembered it.
Dad was smart, I have to admit. One of his jobs was estimating the rate of inflation. This is long before the sophisticated means they have to do that today. In the spring, our house filled with seed catalogues. He'd compare the price of seeds from one year to the next. When the official results came out in Washington, he was rarely off by more than a few tenths of a per cent.
His goal was to get a seat on the board of the bank. He wanted to be the first Irish Catholic to be appointed. He never said there was prejudice, but you knew that's what he thought. One day we drove past the home of his boss. It was a large house on a spacious lot. Dad nodded towards it and said, "That's where he lives." The look on his face and anguish in his voice revealed how much he cared.
Alas, the shortfall of my father's passion for big numbers, was that his employer, the Federal Reserve Bank, didn't pay much. It's changed since then, but in those days, we barely had enough to survive. On Wed night, payday, dad raced home from work, met mom on the front steps, and passed her some brand new bills--fresh from the mint. She'd turn them over to the cashier at the A&P and the pasta hit the table about a half hour later.
It was frustrating for both of them. Especially since so many of his former classmates and fellow accountants were raking it in doing the books for machine shops, restaurants, local private banks, and in one case the mafia. If he was ever tempted to leave, it was never mentioned. In his generation, you stuck it out, like marriage, or whatever religion you were born into.
Eventually, they put him in charge of integrating the new IBM mainframe computers into the bank. Nobody had done it before; it turned out to be a bigger job than anyone anticipated. It took all his resources for a long time that led to a severe heart attack. He tried with all his might to get back to work but couldn't walk around the block. He never achieved his goal and was bitter about it for a number of years, but overcame it.
My father and I were pretty much polar opposites in terms of temperament and outlook, but I have nothing but the greatest respect for him. He lived by his code and showed what it means to be a man. He spent his last years puttering around a new house he and my mother built for their retirement, but died soon after. Since I had the good fortune to know his father well as a boy, a man with an unyielding nature, I always felt doubly blessed he was my father and not my grandfather.