Robert Gallagher, Wake
For years, probably on every other weekend in the summers, my parents took my kids to the Ridiculously Big Park that was Awesome. (That's how my adult children refer to it when they remember.) Its real name may have been South Germantown Recreational Park but there are other parks close by, too. The memories of our children may combine three parks. One had a pool with a slide. Another had a rock wall, a fort, and an obstacle course. Another had a stream, trees, and play equipment.
My father encouraged the park visits because he could wander off and smoke cigars. Rides to the parks gave him time to practice his comedy, as well. He tried to teach the young ones about classic routines.
Cigar in mouth, he puffed, "Did you know that Dizzy Dean was a real baseball player?"
"No." Sometimes all three kids responded. Sometimes, none did because they knew what was coming.
"Funny name, isn't it? Dizzy. He had a brother named Daffy. He really did!" This was his lead-in.
"Like Daffy Duck?" That was a line that usually got them excited.
"I guess so." He shifted in his seat as he tried to steer things to the right track. "Baseball players have funny names."
"Daffy Duck would be a funny pitcher."
"Yeah, I guess so. Anyway, there's a funny bit about the names. It was written by two men called Abbot and Costello. On their baseball team, Who’s on first, What’s on second, and I Don’t Know is on third."
"Granddad, you played that at home." The oldest had already heard the whole thing - more than once.
"You're supposed to say, 'That's what I want to know.'"
"We already know. Who’s on first, What’s on second, and I Don’t Know’s on third."
"Are you being funny?"
"No." He was serious.
"Am I being funny?"
"No." The oldest didn't laugh. The younger two did.
"You could ask me, 'Who's on first.' And I would answer, 'yes.'"
"Maybe 'I Don't Know' Wants to be on first." Sometimes the oldest would wonder about the characters as if they were real people.
"Well, what if I said, 'Who's on second?"
"No!" my daughter would shout because she got the joke. "Who's on first!"
"Right!" He puffed the cigar a little faster.
He was never able to finish. Without kids stepping all over the lines, here's how part of it goes:
Lou Costello: And you don’t know the fellows’ names?
Bud Abbott: Well I should.
Lou Costello: Well then who’s on first?
Bud Abbott: Yes.
Lou Costello: I mean the fellow’s name.
Bud Abbott: Who.
Lou Costello: The guy on first.
Bud Abbott: Who.
Lou Costello: The first baseman.
Bud Abbott: Yes.
If the children were capable of cooperating at that level, I suppose they would have had a snappy routine. My father earnestly yearned for the kids to appreciate the wordplay of piece. I'm pretty sure that he had it memorized. He never got far, though, with the grandkids interrupting and launching into debates about whether Daffy Duck was better than Donald Duck.
He didn't have much more luck in teaching them Russian. The grandkids learned, "Do svidaniya!" for goodbye and a handful of other phrases, most of which disappeared from their minds as soon as our car door closed and we headed back home. These are a few of the phrases I heard from him practice with them. 'Ye ne ponimayu' was one of his favorites:
pechal'ka (too bad)
ya ne ponimayu (I don't understand)
kak zhal (what a pity)
odin, dva, tri (one, two, three)
eta proklyataya mashina (this darned car)
The body of knowledge he passed on the best, maybe, was mathematics. As our oldest said, "He made it seem simple."
He showed patience and clarity of thinking as he sat down with his grandchildren to go over their homework. He listened on the phone to trigonometry and calculus, sometimes physics or chemistry. In return, the kids seemed to like his ideas for solutions. They responded to his leading questions so they could arrive at the right thought.
Sometimes he spotted their difficulty right away.
"Why don't you factor the equation first?" Even though our kids had heard that thought before, their eyes widened when he mentioned it. Sometimes they would start on his suggestion before he spoke his next sentence. "See what you can remove. Then whatever you do next will be simpler."
Not all of our kids went to him with all of their math. But all of them show awareness in their lives about his methods of problem-solving in their work or school. They understand the idea that they can find a simpler approach, a more fitting example at the start, or a methodical path to their solution.