My Hero

Let me tell you about John Goldberg, my Dad.  Keep in mind he never told me a lot about himself.  He didn’t talk of his life as a kid in rural Belarus before immigrating to the US in 1913 at 9 years of age.  He never told about how and why the family found its way from Ellis Island to Hartford, Connecticut.  The little bit of family history he’d share began in Hartford and only used occasional flashbacks to round things out.

Dad was the oldest of the three kids who accompanied Osne, his mother, out of Telechan and somehow onto the ship that transported them from Rotterdam to NYC.  The folks at Ellis Island put it this way:

First name: Yonie

Last name: Goldberg

Ethnicity: Russia, Hebrew

Last place of residence: Pelechany, Russia

Date of arrival: Apr 10, 1913

Age at arrival: 10 years

Gender: Male

Marital status: single

Ship of travel: Campanello

Port of departure: Rotterdam, Holland

Manifest number: 0027

Next came Uncle Jack, listed as Jankel and one  year  younger than Dad, followed by Aunt Sarah, called Sure (pronounced Shoo-rah) in the manifest and one year younger than Jack.

Grandpa Goldberg, here photographed in 1942 and exactly as he is in my memory,

came to the US in 1906, seven years earlier, to earn enough money to send for his family.  In Belarus he’d haul lumber from the forest to the mill in a horse-drawn wagon, that was till the winter of 1906 when snow made his work impossible.  The story goes that, stuck in the snow, he cut the horses loose, walked home, told Osne to pack up the kids and move in with his folks, said his goodbyes and headed off to America and Hartford.  Why Hartford?  Almost undoubtedly because some earlier Telechanik had somehow found his way there.

Here’s a photo Grandma sent  to Grandpa around 1910 to remind him that he was a married man with children.  Dad is on the left.

Now here they are 5 years later in Deh Goldene Medina, the promised land, the golden land.  Dad’s moved over to the right in this one.

All this to explain why Grandpa with Dad in the back, drove a horse-drawn wagon, now full of newspapers, through the streets of Hartford to feed his family in it’s new location.

OK, so see Johnny, my Dad, immigrant kid with no English in the back of that newspaper wagon.  Cut to him as an 8th grade dropout.  Cut again to him at the Hartford Market, working his ass off learning the art of grooming and selling produce.  Next we have a memory contributed by Frieda Galinsky, seen here–I am sure–exactly as she appeared in my father’s dreams…

Mom told of meeting Dad at a dance in Hartford in the Autumn of maybe 1930, of how he walked her home to Front Street and then walked himself home through the swirling Autumn leaves to Earle Street or Acton Street way up in the North End.  She told of how the sound of those leaves scared the living shit out of him alone and late at night.

Dad loved Mom.  They married in 1931.  Mom wanted to move out of the ghetto and be real Americans.  Dad loved mom.  They moved to South Marshall Street so my sister and I would grow up surrounded by Irishmen, French Canadians and lotsa folks from Maine and lose any meaningful touch with Judaism.

Dad loved baseball, so, more often than not with Uncle Jack, we saw a lot of Hartford Chiefs games and, in 1950, my first New York Yankees game.  We’d always take the 8:04 a.m. New York, New Haven & Hartford train express to Grand Central Terminal, eat early lunch at the Horn & Hardart Automat, then take the Jerome Avenue & Woodlawn train to Yankee Stadium where we would always sit behind 3rd base just as we did at Bulkeley Stadium where Dad, Uncle Jack and I would cheer on the Chiefs.

Dad was a quiet man and a Democrat.  “You vote the party, not the man,” he’d say.  “Ideas and policies come from the party.”  He smoked Camels.  He didn’t have a car.  If we drove somewhere with someone who didn’t allow smoking in their car, he didn’t object.  He also didn’t ride back with them.

Dad loved history and read it when he wasn’t reading the Hartford Times.  When I became a big deal Ivy League college student and would bring a classmate home for the weekend, the classmate would inevitably fall into conversation with Dad and not  do whatever I’d brilliantly and thoughtfully planned for the evening.  I  hated that while being secretly so proud of it.

He never wrote me letters when I went away to Boy Scout camp for two-week stretches in the summer.  He never said “I love you” except for in the one letter he wrote to me while in college.  (Where is that letter???) We never talked a lot and, when I needed him most to tell me what a man’s supposed to know, he died.

His death, coming between the last day of my college classes and the first day of my final final exams, was the most important thing to happen to me to that point in my life.  It threw me off the perfectly conventional track to tedium that I’d been so diligently following and left me–without my consciously acknowledging it-terrified and alone.  It left me dropping out of graduate school (studying history, of course) 15 months later, moving to New York (no surprise here either), becoming infatuated with jazz, poetry, sex and intoxication.  It left me frequently wondering, “How did I get here…doing this…next to her?  What would Dad do?”

Now the story’s becoming about me when I don’t want it to.   I set out to write about him and how I loved him because I wanted to and not because of what happened between us.  I’ve left out a bunch of stuff: the wondrous diversity of his friends and associates, his becoming an Assistant Cub Scoutmaster, his devotion to his mother and his occasional displays of temper. Lotsa stuff. Maybe later…

Published in: on December 31, 2010 at 7:27 am  Comments (10)