“Let your soul be built on a collection of moments. These are the moments that will become who you are.”
I included a short video of clips from one of my dad’s favorite movies, “Somewhere in Time,” at the bottom of the page.
I’m not sure what he liked most about the movie, but maybe he saw the same intriguing elements I did; time travel, romance, a twist in the plot, and an ending that wasn’t quite what the audience expected.
I think it was after watching this movie that I first became interested in time travel, or the notion of it, and sought out other movies that dealt with the subject. The “Back to the Future” trilogy, and other sci-fi movies and TV shows were my favorites, and I dreamed of writing my own books that included traveling through time.
My first attempt at authoring a self-published book (Between Worlds) were eye-opening, to say the least. The writing was fairly easy, compared to the editing. I began to second-guess myself and ended up changing the story’s path several times, until I came to my senses and reverted back to the original story.
I can see how my dad’s story-writing is similar; a bit of wandering, followed by a few random thoughts thrown in, but eventually coming back to its true path.
Which, I am beginning to see, is always better in the end.
But I didn’t escape into daydreams to sidestep life. I guess I wanted to rise above it, like an out of body experience. I feared failure and letting people down.
When we played a simple game of cards and I said, “Give me all your sevens,” Mary Margaret or Ivan French would say, “Go Fish,” it got away.
But maybe losing nine out of 10 games of chance kept me honest; it probably sent the right signals, that if you really want something, you better plan on investing the necessary effort.
Worked for me.
I think it started when I raised my hand to recite, and I was wrong. For years, I proceeded in the shadow of a wrong premise; that stand-up can substitute for study, or that somehow wishful thinking, good intentions, could bring about impossible results, results that only a desire to excel, together with photographic memory, can meld to a miracle.
If I tell you the same story in three or four contexts, I come by it rightly. Herman Meis told a joke to the first salesman that walked into his store any morning. If the salesman laughed, Dad corned every drummer who walked in the walk to the same beat!
Dad had a good sense of humor; good and clean. He was a good role model. I used to tell people I got my sense of humor from my father, until he overheard me one day.
Crooking his finger one day to indicate petty palaver, I bent close so he wouldn’t have to shout.
“Look,” he said, his ‘Look’ was kinda hush covered. Dad had that way of punching one palm with his pointy finger to make sure his words come complete with understanding.
“Son,” Dad said. “Don’t tell people you get your sense of humor from me. I don’t think you’re a bit funny. OK?”
I can live with that.
Come to think of it, Herman’s jokes are short and sweet. When Fran walked out the door mad, and the dog trotted out beside him, Dad’s “Good-bye, King” was hilarious.
Yes, he’s right. Dad’s jokes are definitely visual. Like the summer we were working together. Every time Herm opened a bottle of Pepsi, he’d take the top off in one big draught, and that would be his last have at it. And when he put it back, I drank the rest; all but half a swallow of flat cola.
One day I watched him open a bottle beside the door of the walk-in cooler, as I swept the floor in front of the meat counter. He took a long pull on the cold Pepsi, watching and waiting for dad to go downstairs for his regular nap, so I could claim the rest of his Pepsi.
“Tom,” Dad said in the flat voice of a hustler about to announce to the room, he’d never he’d a pool cue in his hand in his life. I looked up just as he pulled an imaginary booger from his nose, wiped it off on the lip of the bottle, gently tapped it into the neck.
Without another word, the proprietor put his Pepsi back into the cooler. And that was all the instruction I needed to keep my dirty mitts off Pop’s pop!
Clay Arnold worked for dad for a while. He earned the nickname Pepsi by always sucking on one on the one hand, while trying to work with the other. Little wonder his first words uttered in the recovery room after an appendectomy were, “Pepsi, please.”
If I ever act silly, remember, I fell out of the Plymouth coming home from Sunday Mass with mother and her friend. I hadn’t reached the age of shooting off my mouth; I sat there on the sui-cide just listening.
We’d been having trouble with the latch on that side; it simply opened on its own, with no encouragement. That day the door learned the meaning of unilateral. Next thing I knew, I hung suspended by the toes outside the car, my head doing a catchy paradiddle on the bricks.
I was blessed; somehow my toes got caught under the seat and Thank God I needed a haircut, the precision clearance was such that only an occasional barely bouncing, but quite audible, blow, gave mother time to brake.
I remember looking at the world upside-down an instant before she let out her shriek for divine intervention.
I thought the lady in the backseat would have a conniption. Can you imagine a God of Mercy who loves little children so much, he holds them gently by the heels? So they won’t miss all the good stuff he plans.
All I can say is that I’ve led a charmed life.
I have a couple memories from A Avenue; some good, some not so good.
I thought a chivaree was fun. That’s when you beat on pots and pans and washtubs—after dark, until the honeymoon couples comes out on the porch, smiling, and waving and blushing and passing out treats. Or gives one of the older kids money for ice cream for all the boys and girls. It was awesome to realize that love makes you do crazy things, like being generous.
This was over on A or B avenue between 16th and 17th Street. Made you feel grown up, that you could wander so far beyond the neighborhood and still find your way back home before deserving a good thrashing.
It was neat when we were just a small family, Mary and I and Jody and maybe little Hermie Ben. I remember mother had time to rock the baby then; closing her eyes so her face was beautiful in repose. Listening to the subdued music of her sorta sad lullaby made me be quiet, watching her nurture the baby she’d brought to us out of love.
The monotony of the rocker and mama’s warmth, the quiet of the living room except occasional insect buzzing, usually was enough to shuffle her baby off to dreamland. So she’d gently slow the motion until her hair stopped gently to and fro. She would look over and smile and, holding breath, lift the little one away from her shoulder, sweating jewels of baby perspiration sweetly beading.
We all loved to go for a ride in the car hot summer nights. Not just because that was before air conditioning; that ice-cold sudsy A & W root beer stand gave away miniature mugs with every large root beer. We’d take turns and I always thought I was being taken to the cleaners.
Johnny Vittengl had a room somewhere between our house and the dairy. He also had a Harley-Davidson and belonged to the local motorcycle gang; I think they called themselves the Night Riders.
Wallace “Sonny” Darling, our second cousin, published a novel based on the Night Riders and how they grew. Only kidding, it’s a story about the initiation rites of this exclusive organization; romantic intellectualizing.
In other words, kinky but thinky.
But at the age of 4 or 5, I never had the good sense to say No, when Johnny asked if it would be ok if he take me on a spin around the block on his pal Harley.
I think they had black leather, even in 1929/1930; no helmets, but Johnny Vittengal carried the colors. And he hoisted me up behind him as if to say, “So long CR, hello LA.”
Every time we took a corner, I swear I caught Johnny’s profile; I noticed for the first time, my neighbor had a moustache! And say, I take it all back, bikers back then did not have safety helmets. However they did sport those aviator caps.
Do you know about the Great McGill? You who knew him would tend to agree that he was one unusual Irishman, God have mercy on his soul. And that’s not derogatory, nor standing in judgment. It might be a suggestion that, in the pursuit of a certain zest for living, Joe McGillicuddy often stood perilously close to the edge.
Joe and I used to tip a few shells of lager beer. One night close to last call at the Picadilly below the Roosevelt Hotel, I was chit chatting with Delores, my wife Betty’s best friend, God rest her soul. I thought Joe had gone to take a leak. Next thing I knew, Joe was getting the bum’s rush, physically and unceremoniously ushered out the archway. Then it was my turn.
“You two came in together; you two go out together,” the manager said. “We don’t want your business.”
I was in a dizzy about what was going on and asked him why. He said Joe was going table to table chugging glasses of any brew left behind.
I’d had just enough 3.2 myself to make Joe’s logic not too bad an idea, knowing first-hand my friend Joseph was usually a bit light financially. But public embarrassment tends to strain relationships. So the odds were against our chance meeting, repeating.
Still, my warm affection for the great McGill survived. After all, Joe was part leprechaun, pedigree that rivaled most, if not all, the mounts Joe rode for the money at county fairs all over the Midwest.
I didn’t know McGill loved horseflesh, until he explained one summer why he was avoiding the circuit. It seemed he had a fast pony; but his speed discouraged the local entries. So Iowa’s Willie Shoemaker filled in the white places of his filly with some shoe polish!
Like McGill’s outstretched hands appealed, inconclusively, “How was I to know that when the field turned into the home stretch, a sudden rain ran my horse’s true colors right off the track?”
Sir Valance never raced again. Joe said “tar and feathers” and “banished for life” were a few of the threats that caught up with him as he fled just ahead of the angry mob. At first, he’d considered hiding until dark, but Joe gave up that option when threatening voices grew too close.
“Tom, what we city boys pass for good clean fun, loses its levity when Iowa farmers feel the laughter reach deep into their pockets,” explained the Great McGill. “When anyone makes them feel that they been had, you’ve had it.”
But the funniest McGillicudy story to come out of the IC Greyhound era goes like this: Joe was devoted to high school. He’d played at least three years cross town at St. Patrick’s, who had laid first claim based on ethics.
Maybe the Great McGill had sat out a season or two for educational reasons. Whatever. The year he came to Immaculate Conception High was the culmination of a summer of uncertainty whether he’d grace the halls of St. Wenceslaus near the packing house, or follow through on the primary promise.
We welcomed him with open arms. But when tournament time rolled around and trimming the travelling squad, Father White took aside the only basketball player that shaved twice a day.
“Joe,” the good padre said. “I’m afraid you won’t be travelling to Dubuque this year with the team. It’s your grades.”
Joseph was crestfallen. “Father, I have to make the diocesan tourney; I been planning on it all year!”
Father was shaking his head no as Joe continued, adamant: “Give me some examinations to bring up my grades!”
“There isn’t time.”
“Ok, what about an oral quiz?”
“All right, McGillicudy, we’ll base your eligibility on a single question about English. Consider it carefully; your answer decides whether you travel with Phil and the boys.”
“Go ahead, Father White, I accept.”
“All right, Joe. Define Synonym.”
Joe McGillicudy mulled it over briefly. Then the dawn of understanding spread over his face, breaking into a grin.
“Got it, Father, a trick question. You had me for a minute, but I got it. Synonym is something you sprinkle on rolls, to make them taste good.”
And that’s what kept the Great McGill from competing his senior year at the great shootout on Loras College campus in Dubuque.
There are a lot of stories about the tournament in the key city. One is that Katie Wilcox and I always managed to get there, even if I had to hitch-hike. It was a platonic friendship and we played it for laughs. One time we got a ride with others in high school and got there early. So we drove around Dubuque studying the natives.
Suddenly, Catherine sat straight up and swiftly cast her eyes from one pedestrian to another, then to another truck driver, and so on.
“Look!” she marveled. “People in Dubuque all have big noses!” I know this won’t track, anthropologically speaking; but so help me, at that moment in time, she was anthropologically proper.
“There’s one!” she whispered in a hiss bordering on hysterical. Then I’d spot a history-making honker turning toward us just as we rounded a corner and we’d collapse into mutual spasms of laughter.
It was like laughing in church; you can’t stop even of your life depended on it. “That lady saw us staring at her,” I said. “I don’t think she was flattered in the least.”
Maybe big breaks makes some folks self-conscious, suggested my big beautiful friend. So the conversation shifted to analytical. One determined it could be the German-Irish heritage of so many living there. But the other thought, No, more likely, the prevalence of larger-than-life schnozollas probably could be traced to the water; or even the effect of atmospheric pressure upon developing offspring.
No matter. Whatever the cause of our teenage disrespect for the citizens of the Seven Hills, we’d forgotten it by game time; by game’s end we were rejoicing with the rest of the IC fans, Our Greyhound had another memorable Class A trophy at Dubuque.
And without the athletic backup of the Great Joe McGill.
We miss him, but somehow I think we’ll all run into the leprechaun. Just look for the select crowd of good ol’ boys and girls, laughing at his Irish antics. With prior approval, of course…
The Dubuque tournament, although a February extravaganza, actually was the beginning of the rest of the school year for seniors, the downward wrap up of the semester leading to summer for the rest of the students.
One time, I was fortunate to ride home in the back seat with a carload of cheerleaders who were also upperclassman. I remember one of the girls was Eugene and Bob Thoennes’ sister. Another was Rosie Robinson.
They were cute girls; I think that was one of the requirements to try out. Anyway, on the way home, I found Rosie Robinson sitting on my lap. And one of the other girls must have dared Rosie, because all of a sudden, she was kissing me.
And you can imagine how I struggled to get away. The rest of the trip is hazy; all’s I know is, it seemed like an unusually short trip. I vaguely remember Rosie being very patient with the new kid, more her sister Rita’s age. Rosie whispered, “You’re a good kisser, but what are you planning with that arm? Just going to let it hang there all the way home?”
And that sweet child gently draped it over her shoulder. And there was something comforting about those blue, bulky knit letter sweaters.
No wonder, Meis mused. (Closing mein eyes in comparable, compromising situations like this, set me adrift in the sea of tranquility.) No wonder the varsity squad wins so many games. With inspiration like this, who could lose?
I felt like rhyming a couple of couplets. At least, I thought, it’s something I don’t have worry about stumbling over…
…or did I?
My sister, Mary, started singing the praises of the annual tournament when she was a freshman on the girls’ basketball team. I was in the sixth grade, the year of my $1,000 nose bleed—another story.
Actually, it was $100, but you know about inflation.
All the Loras students turned out to watch the girls compete. One of them was a handsome guy from Cedar Rapids, who later went to Law school named Joe Severa.
Joe still has an office in a little old brick building on the corner of picturesque Czech Village, a quaint tourist attraction in southwest Cedar Rapids.
Well, Mary Margaret’s glowing accounts of the girl basketball tournament included glowing accounts of Joe Severa, Big Man on Campus. I really knew his brother, Bob, better. I think Bob was one of the handsomest kids I knew. He died young. Once or twice I took time to look up his stone in the Czech section of Oak Hill Cemetery, just to assure him friendships live on.
I liked to watch him when he was a switchman on the railroad. Seeing him work, you knew that this young man loved what he was doing, loved life, and he told the whole world. The confidant assurance, waiting for the step to reach him; the graceful swing of man in rhythm with the rolling train. Lantern in one hand, life by the other.
Little wonder even a heart of such magnitude could sustain this prince. When it gave out, I was shocked.
Ben was the baby of their family. He ended up working for Ma Bell, and a good one. I was maybe 14 and Ben was 11. We lived on 5th Avenue and Severas across the neighborhood on 4th. We were playing over at our house at 1833. I made the mistake of calling Ben a dumb bohemie and compounded it by turning my back to the exception he took it to. Now, Ben was solid, and so he came out me running full force and knocked me to the ground.
I don’t think Benard Severa ever forgave the thoughtless remark. And I don’t think he remembers why I make him glare. He just knows that sometimes in the dark dim past, Tom Meis sullied his image. And no puny lifetime can hope to make up for it.