Monthly Archives: January 2011

My Father had a Dream, Too

My father had a dream, one he worked very hard at, but never fully realized.  He wanted to have a successful pickle business.  He worked for a number of pickle companies, and several times tried to start a business of his own.  In Michigan from south of Bay City north to Tawas City, my father was known as “the Pickle Man.”

Dad produced a genuine dill pickle that today would be called “gourmet” quality.  He developed the recipe for his genuine dills and other varieties of pickles—kosher dills, “bread n’ butter” pickles, etc.–over many years of trial and error.

In search of the perfect genuine dill pickle, he would grow his own dill weed and slowly cure the pickles in old whisky barrels.  Dad not only knew the art of canning pickles, he was one of the last individuals able to cooper barrels.  There is a display, a kind of diorama of a coopering shop, which contains his old coopering tools at Pioneer Florida Museum and Village.  He gave demonstrations of coopering there from time to time before his passing at the ripe old age of ninety-seven.

I can remember weeding dad’s dill weed patch on my knees, or hoeing and picking pickles.  My reward, other than reluctantly learning the dignity of hard work, was an occasional fifty cents or dollar to spend as I wished.

Once picked and cured in barrels, the pickles were “canned,” that is, put in glass jars before being sold.  They might be pint, quart, or gallon jars.  The gallon jars were sometimes “used” jars retrieved from restaurants that purchased dad’s pickles.  My brothers and I would wash the jars by hand, and then pack them with pickles.  A label was placed on each jar that proudly stated the pickles contained therein were from the “Waibel Pickle Company.” The jars were then packed into cardboard cases, also often “recycled.”

That was before the franchising of America and the creation of a throwaway society.  Restaurants, dinners, drive-ins, bars, and other such enterprises were locally owned, often “mom n’ pop” affairs.  Each had a reputation for the quality of its food, or the lack thereof.  The arrival of “fast food” killed off the dinners and replaced them with miniature “feed lots” for herds of people.  The great American hamburger with real French-fried potatoes was replaced with cheap food that requires more imagination than appetite, and comes with the promise of slow death by clogged arteries, diabetes, obesity, and chemical poisoning.  My dad’s pickles, however, were “genuine.”

Once canned and boxed, the pickles were then delivered.  My brothers and I sometimes accompanied dad when he made deliveries on his “pickle route.”  A delivery to a drive-in restaurant sometimes resulted in a waitress bringing frosted mugs of root beer out to us, as we waited in the truck.

Occasionally, after the deliveries were made and we were on our way home, dad would stop at a beer garden, or bar, along the highway.  We would sit at a table, since minors were not allowed to sit at the bar.  Dad ordered bottles of soda for us, and a “shell of beer,” or a shot of whisky chased with a draught beer, often more than one.

While my brothers and I sat quietly sipping our Coke or root beer, dad would engage us in a one-way conversation.  He talked; we listened.  Depending upon his mood, which could change in the course of the conversation, he either spoke of the future, when our ship would come in and we would all have money to spare in our pockets, or he tried to explain why our ship was still out at sea.  Actually, I think now that he was really talking to himself, verbalizing thoughts that he had gone over again and again in his mind.  We were merely a passive audience.

Later in his life, when he was around ninety years old and had accepted the fact that his dreams would never be realized, I found it possible to sit down with him and actually have a conversation in which we both talked and both listened.  Often those cherished times together took place over coffee at a local McDonalds, or over coffee and doughnuts at a Dunkin’ Donuts.  On one such occasion, he told me that he was always “building castles in the air,” because he needed something to look forward to, a dream to realize.

I find wisdom in that, especially now that I am old enough to be a recipient of, as well as a contributor to, Social Security.  An important part of maturing is being able to distinguish between our dreams and reality.  We all start out with dreams, visions of things we want to do or become as our lives unfold.  But, as we grow older, we begin to realize that many of those dreams will never be realized.  Happy are those who can accept that fact, and continue on with life, always dreaming, always building castles in the air.

Until the next time, be good to all God’s creation, and always live under the mercy.

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Exit, Stage Right: Notable Transitions

It is strange how such things happen.  Less than two weeks ago, I made reference to Ozzie and Harriet Nelson and their two sons, David and Ricky.  The occasion was the anniversary of Ricky Nelson’s death in an airplane crash on December 31, 1985.

When I wrote about my memories of the Nelson family, and Ricky in particular, David was the only family member still alive.  This morning it was announced that David Nelson passed away at his home in Los Angeles from colon cancer.

David Nelson was the last surviving member of America’s postwar model family.  In many ways his death marks the end of an era in American popular culture.  The stage is empty; the curtain is down; and the lights in the theater have been turned off.  Only the memories remain, and they are the memories of a generation—the “Baby Boomers”—that is itself passing away.

Also among today’s obituaries is Margaret Whiting, who passed away Monday at age eighty-six.  Ms. Whiting was one of the truly great female singers of the 1940s and 1950s.  She is best remembered for her recordings of “That Old Black Magic,”  “Moonlight in Vermont,” and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”  Her recording of “Time After Time” (1947) was featured in the 2009 Hollywood success, “Julie & Julia.”  Her father, Richard Whiting, was a song writer who wrote Shirley Temple’s trademark song “On the Good Ship Lollipop.” 

Among those notable personalities who died during the month of January in years gone by are two presidents, Calvin Coolidge (January 6, 1933) and Lyndon Baines Johnson (January 22, 1973.

Calvin Coolidge never lost an election.  When asked by a lady in Washington, DC what his hobby was, Coolidge replied, “Holding office.”  Coolidge’s sober personality was often made fun of by comedians of the day, like Will Rogers.  He was not a great speaker.  He said very little, but when he did, they were words of wisdom.  “When more and more people are thrown out of work,” said Coolidge on one occasion, “unemployment results.”  On another occasion he observed:  “More and more of our imports come from overseas.”  Not until George W. Bush would the nation be led by one so wise.

Lyndon Johnson, or “LBJ” as he was commonly called, wanted to be another Franklin Roosevelt.  He declared war on poverty, but it was his commitment to the Vietnam War that destroyed his dream of a Great Society and will forever cloud his legacy. 

Another well-known personality who passed away in January was Al Capone, or “Scarface,” as he was known during the height of his criminal influence in the Chicago underworld of the 1930s.  He was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1899, the son of Italian immigrants.  Alfonso Caponi, his real name, was a thug from early childhood. 

As a sixth grader, Al beat up his teacher. The school’s principal then beat up Al, ending Capone’s educational career.  Considering the American Dream to be a fraud, Al Capone turned to a life of crime for fame and fortune.  The coming of prohibition gave him an opportunity.  He moved to Chicago to escape a murder charge in New York and soon became the most powerful gangster of the 1930s, and, perhaps, the most brutal.

Despite his criminal record, Americans turned him into a kind of folk hero.  We Americans seem to admire anyone who challenges authority, especially if he/she comes from the ranks of the under privileged and his/her criminal career can be portrayed as a struggle for social justice in a laissez-faire world where the “have-nots” are forever at the mercy of the “haves.” 

Al Capone as an American folk hero got a boost in April, 2009, when a love song written by him while imprisoned at Alcatraz was re-discovered by Rich Larson from the official Capone Fan Club.  The song, “Madonna Mia,” was given by Al Capone to Vincent Casey as a Christmas present.  Casey was studying for the priesthood at the time and visited Capone in Alcatraz regularly. 

It is thought that Capone wrote the song as a valentine for his wife, Mae.  Often referred to as “a beautiful Italian love song,” it was recorded and released in April, 2009.

My father had a small meat packing business in Freeport, Illinois during the early 1930s.  Among his customers were Capone’s speakeasies in Chicago.  Although he never saw Capone, or had any contact with bootleggers and gangsters, other than to knock on a door and deliver sausages, my father liked to talk about the bootleggers of the prohibition era in Chicago.  One thing he liked to recall was that he went to see a movie at the Biograph Theater in Chicago on the night before the G-Men gunned John Dillinger down on the sidewalk out front of the theater.

The bard, Will Shakespeare, once said that the world is a stage, and we must all play a part.  Among other well-known personalities who exited the stage in January were the poet Robert Frost (1963), the father of modern India, Mohandas Gandhi (1948), and Johnny Weissmuller (1984), also known as “Tarzan.”  Weissmuller was an athlete who won 5 Olympic gold medals and set 67 world records during the 1920s.  I will always remember him as Tarzan, King of the Jungle, “a howling jungle Superman in loincloth,” and hero of 20 action-packed movies.  I saw many of those movies along with my father and brothers.  My dad loved movies about gangsters, Tarzan, and Jungle Jim, also played by Johnny Weissmuller.

Enough nostalgia, I must get on with life as it is, however boring.