Sunday, August 1, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.37: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 37

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Spirit Ancestors

We have ancestors from whom our bodies are not descended.

They are our spirit ancestors. Sometimes we don't know who they are. We only know that our family picked up a defining trait at some point. Sometimes we have the names of those people; we regard them as family friends or aunts or uncles. What our spirit ancestors have in common, though, is that they had the ability to leave a lasting impression. It might be that they possessed a grand idea or a skill, like negotiating, that the family didn't have before. It might be that they transmitted something as ephemeral as a love of music. Our spirit ancestors could provide us with examples of courage, or sophistication, or civility, or anything.

In the case of our nation, we are, as Americans, spiritual ancestors of the Haudenosaunee. The founders of our nation cited the Haudenosaunee, also known as the Iroquois Confederation, as their best, living example of what our country could become. The Haudenosaunee tribes demonstrated that a democratic republic made of multiple states was possible. Such an arrangement could last for generations, perhaps proving as stable as a monarchy but more fair.

However, as far as the individuals on my mother's side, the most obvious spirit ancestor is a monarchist. He was Lovidicus Stockett, Surveyor of the Queen's Works. He rose in the Elizabethan court as an architect and builder of her majesty's infrastructure. Not only did he hold a high office, he set an example that allowed his descendants to hold offices in various royal courts. He was both a blood ancestor and a spiritual one, as he inspired family loyalty to the court that extended through the generations to Thomas Stockett, who hid Charles II in France after the first King Charles was killed. This eventually brought the family to Maryland in order to claim their land grants from Charles II when the monarchy was restored.

More recently, my mother's sister Lois assembled family history and played a part in relating the family temperament. My grandmother, Adele, probably also transmitted to us part of her brother Harry's spirit. Harry Tolson, along with the other Annapolis men in World War II, enlisted and survived the D-Day invasion but later died in a counterattack.

I tried to explain this idea about spiritual ancestors to my father. Unfortunately, I hadn't fleshed out the concept. When I described it in his basement study, he shifted in his seat. He was trying to be patient with me and not smoke while I was visiting but the room reeked. He may have been getting a little irritable as he waited to light his cigar.

"You mean like Caspar?" my father said. He waved the cigar.

"Who's that?" I said, thrown off by the mention of an influence on his life that I hadn't heard mentioned before.

"A friendly ghost. Like your spirits, right?"

"Ha ha." With my right hand, I tried to clear the air of stale cigar fumes. It was futile. There was nothing to replace the smokey air except more of the same. "I meant like my Great Uncle Jack. He influenced the family."

"Oh, well, that makes sense. Uncle Jack was a good man."

On my father's side, we had to address the general lack of spirit ancestors. Maybe that's why my father didn't like the concept. Mostly, those influences had been wiped out. We should have had a spirit from Ireland but we were cut off from it. We should have had American Indian spirit ancestors but they were lost to us, too. That side of our family, such as we know them, mostly left us with stubbornness, grudges, a tendency to argue, religious fanaticism, suspicions about cooperating with a group, and a distrust of doctors.

To balance that, we also had Jenny Roberts, a spirit of joy and gentleness. And then there was the other, even more obvious spirit ancestor, Jack Light. He is the reason for my father's attempts at patience, for family loyalty, for understanding codes, for military service, for generosity, and more. Maybe Jack is the reason that my father felt competent to have a family at all and to sort through the spiritual ancestors available to everyone in books. There was a hidden spirit ancestor, too, from college: a philosophy professor that both of my parents liked. Through him, my father chose doctrines to guide him like those of the Stoics, Socrates, and Plato.

When we become spirit ancestors, we achieve our effect, perhaps, on the people around us. With hard work and luck on their side, the Stoic philosophers exerted an influence that we feel thousands of years later.

I brought up the idea of philosophers as spirit ancestors.

"No man ever steps into the same river twice." My father nodded as he quoted Heraclitus. "Because it's not the same river and he's not the same man. You always liked that one, didn't you?"

"It's one of my favorites, I guess."

Both of us turned our heads as my mother clomped down the stairs. Her hand appeared on the doorframe. She leaned. Her face appeared in the doorway.

"Are you two coming up?" she asked. She stepped out and put her left hand on her hip. "Everyone wants to go out to dinner."

"Everyone, huh?" My father waggled his eyebrows.

"Sure, I'll come," I said. I started to rise. My mother turned.

"Well, is my son paying?" My father hadn't left his seat. He really wanted that cigar.

"I thought I would treat everyone, Bob," she called. While she was employed and he was retired, she took a sort of glee in paying the bills. She could go places. He couldn't really object.

My father sighed. He leaned forward in his chair.

"Always borrow money from a pessimist," my father told me for the umpteenth time.

"Because they’ll never expect it back," we finished together. I knew that wasn't from a philosopher. That was Jack Benny, a spirit ancestor of skinflints and comedy.

"Yes, Ann, I'll come along," my father called up the stairs. He picked up a box of matches. "Give me a few minutes."

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.36: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 36

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Extended Families

"Well, he should never have written it down," my mother said. "It was no one else's business."

Not long after their golden anniversary celebration in 2009, I stopped by to visit my parents before taking a trip. At their dining table, we sat down for drinks of coffee, diet coke, and whatever else was available. In a week, I was scheduled to visit my mother's sister, Lois, so my parents asked questions about how I would travel, how much time I would spend, and other details.

My mother liked her immediate family and she also had grown up with the benefit of a well-documented family tree, which meant she was acquainted with her extended family. The Stocketts and Chaneys and Tolsons in Annapolis knew most of the other, core families in their town. They knew each individual's background and family connections. Their genetic omniscience included my grandmother loaning me a copy of a family tree written by her cousin. It listed a dozen generations back to Thomas Stockett on the privy council of Queen Elizabeth, later to the younger Stockett brothers who came to Maryland for their land grant from the king Charles the Second, down through the years to the farmers, soldiers and tradesmen of the present day. The book also noted my mother's breakup of her arranged marriage and her marriage to Robert Roberts, as well as her miscarriage and stillborn son a couple years ahead of my birth.

I'd gotten the documents for a school project. Although I hadn't been much interested in the project, I had found the records intriguing due to the idea of having two phantom older siblings. My father had always explained the gap in time between their marriage and my birth by saying, "We were in no hurry." So this part had been hidden from me. It was news. I'd asked my grandmother about those entries when she demanded the return of the tube scroll full of the documents and family tree sketches.

"It wasn't a surprise," my grandmother said about the stillbirth. Her voice lowered. "Of course, it was sad. But Ann knew in advance. We all did. The hospital just did what it had to do."

"How did your cousin get to know about the miscarriage?"

"Well, I'm not sure." She stepped back and touched her chin. "I may have told him. But anyway, I think there were two of those."

"Really?" I replied, fascinated. I couldn't understand why my mother had never mentioned any of this.

Years later, after my mother's fiftieth wedding anniversary, I brought up what I knew in response to a different question about our family tree. It hadn't occurred to me that she hadn't told me because she didn't want me to know. I'd known for so long that I took it for granted. It was eye-opening to discover how irritated my mother was and how private she regarded her previous pregnancies. She was mad at her mother and especially at her mother's cousin for writing it down. That had not been, after all, the point of the family tree. Those additions seemed almost compulsive on the part of the family biographer.

"I'm going to have to say something to my mother." She leaned back, arms folded.

"It won't do any good, Ann." My father shook his head.

My mother gave him a sour face. "You're probably right, Bob." She turned back to me, her expression patient but stern. "Anyway, it's all over."

"Your family was always intrusive," my father observed.

In fact, he had often made fun of the Stockett family for being so close. They had stayed in the same area for generations, married second or third cousins, endured tragedies, died in humorous pratfalls, and lived through tyrants in the family, but never moved away. I realize now in hindsight that the Stocketts simply lived the lives that everyone did in small, American towns for hundreds of years. My mother's family wasn't strange - except in the ways that all families are strange. It was my father's family that had grown disjointed and distant. My father thought his experience was normal.

His grandfather, George Earl Gallagher, had come to America near the end of the famine in Ireland. My father searched but found no records about his Irish life. He had heard no family stories, either. George Gallagher married late, had at least one child, my father's father, and died at the age of forty-three. His son remarried late, fathered two more children, my Aunt Jenny and my father, and died at the age of forty-two.

June Light, my paternal grandmother, grew up in an orphanage before her marriage. Her first husband had been Catholic but divorced. That meant Robert Gallagher, my father, and his sister Jenny weren't recognized by the Irish side of the family. They were disinherited from it by birth. In addition, my father's younger brother Jack, always their mother's favorite, inherited everything from her - the English money, such as it was. Other relatives mentioned it to me on a few occasions, always bitterly, so I knew it had happened. In their ways, both of my parents had descended from several generations of not inheriting anything, sometimes because there was nothing to be had. They were the people who did not get the house. In some cases, they did not even get the tea set.

"I started out with nothing, and I still have most of it," my father said many times. I recognize it now as a quote from Jack Benny but my father applied it well to his life.

"I found out more about my family, though," he confided. He had taken my mother on a trip to New York state, near his old town of Elmira, a few years earlier. It was the last big trip they would ever take. There, he visited graveyards and photographed church documents. He followed up by reading census records.

"I've got it all written down in notes," my father pointed to a document on the table as he told me about his family history. "Not that anyone else can understand my notes, probably. Maybe your mother could."

Next to him, my mother sipped her coffee and laughed. She must have seen his pages of Gallagher family history. She would have known that they amounted to a lot of disjointed fragments. That was a problem with my father's projects. Some never finished. When he did bring one to an end, he tended to be abrupt. He was done, apparently, because he had satisfied his curiosity or his desire to complete a collection. He put the finished project on a shelf or in a box, unlabeled. That was it. No one else could make sense of it, maybe. In fact, no one could find it.

When he was younger, he made labels or indexes for his projects. In middle age, he found a place for each collection, often sorted. Past his middle age, he lost the desire to make his work accessible. He kept his collection of genealogy records. If they were in different cigar boxes in different parts of the house, that was fine by him or at least it seemed like too much trouble for him to fix.

"Where are they, Bob?" she asked.

"The best part of the material is a summary in a notebook." He paused to self-assess. "Somewhere."

"In our bedroom?" It was a reasonable question. Sometimes he used his nightstand as a filing cabinet. Same for his dresser. Same for the shelves in his closet.

His gaze grew distant. He frowned. "Maybe. It's all somewhere."

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.35: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 35

Robert Gallagher, Wake

The Good Old Days

"Well, I wish I could say that my memories are getting clearer," my father mused. "But I'm not sure that's true."

We were sidling up to the issue of senility, a tough topic except that he didn't seem to be suffering from it. It was just that we knew other people affected. It had even seemed amusing to him until friends and family felt the impact and we all realized how serious it could become.

"I remember events from the year 1950 better than things from last month," he went on. "But you know that's nothing new. I've always done that. Anyway, it was a big year."

At the time, I was the one who didn't recall that North Korea had invaded South Korea in 1950. That was when my father tried to join the U.S. Army at the age of sixteen. (He didn't succeed until he was seventeen.)

"I think do-wop started up around then," I ventured. "Or was that later?"

"That came later. Anyway, I never liked that much. Same for rock music." In 1950, the big bands playing swing music had to compete with newcomers in the rhythm and blues genre. Swing still topped the charts more often than any other type music, though, with hits from Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Billie Holliday, Count Basie, the Ames Brothers, and Glenn Miller. In a few years, swing and R&B both would start to lose ground to rock. That's when everything started to go bad, according to my father. "Big band music is the best."

This is something that I didn't think about when my father was alive: maybe his fascination with big band music, radio dramas, Joe Louis, the Baltimore Colts, Jessie Owens, serial dramas at the movies, baseball, and Lexington Market all made a sort of emotional sense. Maybe there was a reason he was more stuck in the past than most. Maybe it was his difficult, sometimes homeless young childhood followed by a much better decade while living with his uncle Jack Light in Baltimore. He moved into a home where he was safe from eviction. While he grew up there, the Great Depression ended. The second World War ended. His family got a radio. He was allowed to buy comic books. No wonder that he got the impression that those were the best of times, the best of music and drama, the best of sports. For him, they were. It was the truth.

Sometimes in the twilight of human lives, people feel a renewed excitement about times long ago. That was not my father. He was always excited about anything from 1941 to 1950. He never stopped feeling that the decade of the 1940s was the best.

He held a quiet grudge against some parts of the 1930s, too, the aspects of that era that he associated with his poverty and evictions. He refused to eat prunes. They were for poor people. He didn't like to see blocks of cheese. He bought it sliced. He allowed me to keep my comic books and books. If I didn't want to, I never had to throw out a single toy. (My mother had to persuade us all to let things go.)

Also, my father hated to see peanut butter jars turned into glasses.

That one is a puzzle because it's how I grew up. My mother kept track of the family budget. As a consequence, she would often do things that were frugal like wash out the peanut butter jars and give them to me to drink from.

My father would protest, “We can afford drinking glasses now, Ann.”

But he didn’t dare to throw out any of the jars. He tried it once and my mother made him go out and buy glasses to replace the jars. He had to do it out of his own pocket money. It made him feel foolish. Almost right away, I slipped and broke one of his new glasses, which made it seem worse. He forbid me or my brother to use the glasses.

"They have to drink out of something, Bob," observed my mother.

"Okay. Jars for them," he agreed. And so the habit of cleaning out the jars and reusing them continued. I loved the jars. But my father never drank from them.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.34: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 34

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Driving Blind

Surgeons at the Shady Grove medical center performed my mother's emergency procedure. Their hospital wasn't part of the Kaiser plan, though, and that meant my mother's insurance company had to transfer her to Washington Hospital Center as soon as the doctors would allow. The location change meant a trip into Washington DC on each day that my father wanted to visit my mother, which was each and every day.

My mother's recovery proceeded slowly. She had to overcome a surgical infection, then resurgence of the infection. My father drove to visit her every morning for weeks.

One day he called me at work. He asked me to drop by my mother's hospital room in his place.

"Sure, I saw her last week." I had supplemented my father's visiting schedule and I'd crossed paths with him while there during a couple of my stopovers. It seemed odd of him not to go to her but I was pretty sure I could fulfill his request. My boss would let me off for an extra half hour during lunch if I asked. "It's twenty minutes away. I can do it."

"Good. You'll have to tell her that I can't drive down to her."

"Okay." I squinted as I thought about it. Finally, I started getting suspicious. "Why not?"

"I can't see. More blood vessels burst in my eye." The way he said it sounded strange. Of course, I knew about his problem because it had been going on for years. The capillaries in his eyes suffered regular consequences when he didn't take care of his diabetes. A moment later, I understood what had happened. As soon as my mother had gotten sick, he had stopped taking his medicines on schedule. His blindness had probably been inevitable.

"Yesterday?" I took a deep breath before making any promises. "Do you need me to take you to the doctor?"

"No. There's no point. It happened last week."

"That can't be right." He hadn't stopped driving until today. "You kept visiting mom. It can't be that bad, right?"

"It's difficult. I drove after it happened but I could only do it because I'd memorized the way to the hospital. Today, I couldn't get there even though I knew the roads. I made it to the DC line. People started honking at me. I couldn't see the traffic lights."

"You couldn't see them the whole time, then."

"That's about right. If I turned my head at an angle, I could see traffic lights. But only when they were straight ahead, like in Maryland. At the DC line, the type of signal changes. They put the traffic lights at the sides of the road by the curbs. I tried and tried. But I couldn't see them."

"Oh, holy crap."

"No matter what I did, I couldn't figure them out."

"You got there four days in a row with the same eye problem."

"Well, I waited for other cars to go. That's how I did it. When it's just me in the lane, like today, I can't see the lights to tell me when to go. It didn't matter what I did today. Nothing helped. Finally, I had to turn around."

"You are home now, right?"

"Yeah. I made it. It was hard. I had to stop and rest, twice. I'm going to go lie down. Tell your mother."

"Okay, dad."

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.33: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 33

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Wrong Turn

After my father retired, he started going to doctors about his diabetes. Although he knew that my mother would outlive him, he was aware that she wouldn't enjoy taking care of him bedridden and blind, especially if she knew he had been able to avoid it. He developed better habits with his medicines. Even better, he tried to get along with the doctors.

To everyone's surprise, it was my mother who got ill next. My father called me for help.

"Ann has got something wrong with her lungs." He sounded puzzled.

When I got there, we talked for a while. It turned out that my mother had contracted a lung disease from the air conditioner in her portable classroom. My father couldn't move her or drive her around.

She had known it was happening. She complained to her school about it for two years. The administration never did anything, though. Her illness from it got more and more serious. Finally, she got too sick to work. She could barely move (the only way in which she would ever admit to being too ill to work) and, at that point, it was hard for her to get to a doctor.

When she did go, the doctors dismissed the problem. That's where I came in.

"I can't talk to them," my father said. "Anyway, I can't drive. And your mother really, really shouldn't drive."


When I took my mother to her doctor and advocated for additional tests, the staff decided to allow another round. And another. A few days after one of the tests, the doctors called, alarmed by what they had discovered. My mother had developed a fungal infection in her lungs. That explained why her blood oxygen readings and other symptoms kept getting worse. (The fact that the problem was fungal also explained the failure of earlier tests to discover the infection. The labs had been instructed to look for bacteria and viruses.)

Her ordeal with the lung infection lasted for months. She tried medications. She tried therapies. She underwent surgeries. Three times, the doctors put her under and scraped fungus from her lungs. On the last occasion, she almost didn't recover from the operation. (Giving anesthesia to someone with a lung problem is tricky.) During the cycle of treatments, my fathers eyes improved for a few weeks at a time and degraded for a few weeks, too. Sometimes he could drive her to her appointments. Sometimes he called me to do it.

Eventually, the doctors announced they were done. My mother's lungs were not fine. The physicians simply didn't want to risk putting her under anesthesia again.

For a year, my mother had trouble getting out of bed. She coughed while walking. She wheezed all the time, even while sitting down. The effort of an ordinary chore around the house was too much for her. Then came her diagnosis of cancer.

"The doctor says it's not too bad," she told me as I marched into her living room. "It's just at stage two."

"They said maybe stage three, Ann," my father called.

"Right, I have to go back to the doctor." She wheezed as she walked me to the kitchen. "They're doing more tests. But they have a plan."

The cancer turned out to be at stage four but the extent that was discovered didn't affect her treatment plan much. The doctors wanted to try radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery in that order. Her first radiation treatments didn't seem to make much difference. Her chemotherapy, though, had the odd effect of improving her lungs. The difference was drastic. She stopped wheezing. In fact, she started doing more house chores. Normally, of course, people get weaker during chemotherapy. My mother got stronger.

Unfortunately, the next thing that happened was a pre-operative radiation treatment nearly killed her.

It was a one-time event. The radiation technician that day was a substitute. He aimed the particle beam in what appeared to be a normal way but, in fact, he had missed the target and destroyed part of her healthy stomach. It took an hour for the problematic symptoms to set in. From that point on, her life was in danger.

My father's eyes weren't in good shape. He drove her to the emergency room anyway.

A surgeon began cutting by the next morning. From the ER, they reported that they were shocked to see the extent of the damage. On advice from her regular doctors, the team tried to combine their emergency procedure with cancer removal.

"We had to spend most of the time on the radiation damage," the doctor explained later, when they emerged at the finish.

"So she'll need another surgery for the cancer?" my father asked.

"That would need done anyway, no matter how much we got this time. We got some, for sure. But she's going to have to continue with chemotherapy. I know you might not like the idea but she should probably go back to radiation treatments near the end, just before the surgery."

"When will that happen?" he said.

"Not for months." The doctor stuff his mask into the right pocket of his gown. "I'll write up my opinion to make sure of it."

After nearly dying from the radiation treatment, she was getting told she'd have to go back to it. And everyone in the family agreed it was the right thing.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.32: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 32

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Full Time Grandfather: Tri

Morse Code

"Granddaddy, let me pull your beard!" my son said.

"Daw dit, daw daw daw," my father replied. "Dit daw daw, dit daw, daw dit daw daw. That means 'no way,' kid. No way."

He must have known he had no way to teach his grandchildren morse code. He brought up the code anyway, repeatedly. More than fifty years after Korea, he broke out into spoken code when he wanted to emphasize a point. He also tried to show his grandchildren simple ciphers. ROT-13 and ROT-5 were his favorites. He took his examples of ROT-13 from history. He liked to talk about how the system developed in ancient Rome.

As a child and as a parent, I noticed something odd about his ciphering and deciphering: he separated elements of any cipher into five-letter chunks. Several times, I tried to make him explain it.

"It's just convenient," he said.

That was frustrating to hear as a child but, in retrospect, it seems right. While he served in the Signal Corps, he used five-letter chunks. Those were the easiest form of transmission for telegraph operators. Our state of technology has moved beyond the telegraph, of course, but five-letter blocks are still a popular practice among cipher hobbyists.

In our home, my father didn't play with many other styles of cipher. He stuck with what the army had taught him. He knew about the playfair cipher, for instance, but he never used it.

"Granddaddy, do you have tootsie rolls?" my daughter asked one afternoon.

"Daw daw, dit daw, daw dit daw daw, daw dit dit dit, dit."

"No!" she shouted as he started speaking in code. She put out her hand to try and stop him.

"What does that mean?" asked my oldest boy.

"What do you think it means?"

He gestured past the clutter of his living room to the dining room, kitchen, and beyond.

In defiance of his diabetes, he hid candy around his house. His grandchildren discovered his caches of treats now and then. They raided them, over his protests, until he moved them or until the stacks of Necco wafers or licorice or other candies or chocolates ran out. Usually, the sweets ran out before he could be bothered find a new hiding spot. Then the kids would complain to each other ("You took the last one!" "No, you!") and they went to look for another cache.

"It means," my daughter said thoughtfully, "that I can have one."

"Hah!" he laughed. "Maybe. If you can find one."

Philosophy Rocks

"Get up!" my daughter said. The kids ran up to their grandfather in his lounge chair. "We want to go to the park."

"I'm up," my father replied, his eyes closed. He didn't lift his hands from the padded armrests.

"You're sitting in a chair."

"How do you know that?" he said. His eyes opened. "How do you know this is a chair?"

Two generations after college, he still thought in terms platonic forms. He snuck them into conversations when the kids didn't know what he was getting at. Sometimes he was explicit and quoted Herodotus, Socrates, Plato, or Aristotle. At other times, he introduced the concepts into his conversations simply because he continued to see the world through the lens of metaphysics. Asking how people understood the concept of a chair was, to him, an ordinary example. It was how the ancients questioned human thought and the limits of knowledge.

The family living room stayed rather dim during the day even with light spilling through the main window. The furnishings were blue and brown. My father kept stacks of videotapes on the end tables and also on his shelves next to the television. Above the tapes and DVDs, my mother kept her collection of knick-knacks from Germany and a row of ornamental boxes. On the top of the shelves sat photos of the grandchildren. Between the stacks and collections, my parents had long ago hung a watercolor painting, its protective glass darkened by thirty years of cigar smoke.

At the far west side of the room sat two lounge chairs, one of them ripped by cats and buttressed by black duct tape. The other was a recent acquisition, green-gray in color and not a scratching post. It was plush, comfortable, and my father's favorite.

The area was restful for him until there were grandchildren in it.

"Have you been reading that red book on philosophy?" he asked. He meant a title called Philosophy Rocks. He disapproved of it because it wasn't Plato or Aristotle. The paperback was meant for parents and children to read together.

What he did like about Philosophy Rocks, though, was that it started with Plato's story of the cave and moved on quickly through dozens of other foundational concepts. He liked to hear the kids creating counter-arguments. If philosophers wanted a god because they felt there had to be a prime mover, then who was the prime mover who created the god? If saving two lives were better than saving one, was saving two murderers really better than saving one doctor? He wanted to listen to them thinking.

"What makes this a chair?" he insisted, fully awake but not rising.

"It's got cushions." The youngest poked the cushion next to my father's leg.

"It's got legs." My daughter pointed to them.

"Well, a table has legs," he objected.

"We know it's a chair," said my oldest son, "because you're sitting in it."

He smiled. "Actually, that's a pretty good definition."

When he leaned forward, the kids shouted. "Come on!"

"I'm tired," he replied. "Who says we're going to the park?"


"Okay." He pushed on the arms of the chair and started to rise. "I guess we're going to the park."

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.31: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 31

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Full Time Grandfather: Tri

Modern Radio and Corny Jokes

My kids remember granddad telling corny jokes on long drives. The longest trip they took with their grandfather was to the Prairie Home Companion show at the Wolftrap theatre. They heard old gags and old music on their way to a show full of classic folk music and small town stories. It was a tough show for them. Their grandfather had to keep explaining what was going on. Despite that and the summer heat, they have good memories of the trip.

He kept repeating his classic quips, most of them borrowed from old comic standards.

"Despite the high cost of living," he said many times, "it's still pretty popular."

Sometimes he turned his stories about teaching into classic jokes. About a student who never seemed to bright, he started,

"He was playing catch. Someone threw him a softball. I thought it was funny that he squinted at it like he was wondering why the ball kept getting bigger and bigger." He leaned closer for his punchline. "But then it hit him."

Sometimes the kids didn't get it, not even with a jab from his elbow.

"Sorry," he said once when he misspoke, "I guess that was a Freudian slip."

"What's a Freudian slip?" my daughter asked.

"Ah." The way he sighed, most of us understood that he was mentally shifting into a different mode. "That is when you say one thing and mean your mother."

The kids chuckled although it was what they did, sometimes, when they weren't sure what they were laughing about.

My father had it easier when he sat down to enjoy corny jokes with his grandchildren courtesy of radio or television. In fact, once he noticed how my oldest child liked an episode of Rocky and Bullwinkle, he bought the entire series that night. After that, he could lean back in his padded armchair, turn on the show, and make jokes along with the cartoon characters.

Rocky: Do you know what an A-bomb is?
Bullwinkle: Certainly. A bomb is what some people call our show.

The living room was cluttered and dark. The cartoon animation was crude. The puns were tortured. But the characters remained good-natured. They kept true to their heroic natures and stayed constantly in action. The television screen shone bright with primary colors. Sometimes my father laughed for different reasons than the kids. But all of them laughed.

Rocky: Hey Bullwinkle, we're in real trouble now!
Bullwinkle: Oh good, Rocky! I hate that artificial kind!

The context of the cold war has long been lost but the concept of doing good deeds was still clear to the kids. The heroic flying squirrel had an earnest, do-gooder intention that they could identify. Thankfully, there was no pretense from Boris or Natasha. They referred to themselves as the "greatest no-goodniks." Even if other things weren't clear, intentions were telegraphed like on other kids shows. The main difference for Rocky and Bullwinkle was their dad-joke style of puns, meant for adults. Even near death, the hero issued another dad-joke.

Bullwinkle: (as he sees Rocky lying unconscious on a pile of rocks) Rocky, buddy, speak to me! Don't tease ol' Bullwinkle! Say something!
Rocky: (regains consciousness) Something.
Bullwinkle: Well, that's something.

For a day, my father and my oldest son repeated, "Well, that's something" at every excuse. I hadn't seen the episode yet, so I didn't really understand.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.30: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 30

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Full Time Grandfather: Dva

Old Time Radio

"What evil lurks in the hearts of men?" the speaker blares. A chilling laugh follows. My father chuckles along. He recites the next phrase with the radio announcer, "The Shadow knows!"

That's how he listened to dramas in front of his children and his grandchildren. He spoke the key lines like, "X minus five, four, three, two, X minus one," or "The Lone Ranger rides again!" He grew up with all genres of shows on the airwaves. For crime tales or suspense, he had The Shadow, Inner Sanctum, Dragnet, and Johnny Dollar. For science fiction, he had Beyond Tomorrow, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, X Minus One, and Space Patrol. He got cowboy adventures from The Lone Ranger and Gunsmoke. To scare himself, he listened to horror tales as described by Lights Out, Escape, and The Whistler.

But his favorites were comedies. And the ultimate comedy of his childhood was the Jack Benny show. Something about the character, his unashamed cheapness, his bad violin playing, and his cleverness appealed not only to my father but to most of the nation. My father made time for most of Jack Benny's compatriots and competitors like Grace and Allen, Amos and Andy, Fibber McGee and Molly, Spike Jones, and more. He enjoyed the relatively short-lived Mel Blanc show. Mel, the "man of a thousand voices," performed the characters and part of the sound effects, too, for Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Jack Benny, and a dozen other, popular shows. My father spoke of Mel Blanc's voice artistry in the same breath, sometimes, as the Mills Brothers when they were young and sang their own instrument parts.

As a father, he tried to share his favorite episodes with me and my brothers. As a grandfather, he did the same. My kids found the radio horror dramas too frightening but they liked most of the rest. Although I sympathized with them, one of my fondest radio memories is a scary adventure, a half-hour drama from Escape called "Leiningen Versus the Ants."

The drama centers on a man who owns a Brazilian plantation in the rainforest. He gets news that army ants are headed his way. His neighbors flee. A contrarian, he decided to stay and fight for his farm. He convinces most of his staff to remain. They have a plan, too, and they flood ditches to create a moat at their border. However, the ants link up, climb over dead bodies, and cross the water. Leinigen and his crew burn the ants with torches. But they run out of fuel. The ants keep coming. Finally, Leiningen himself dons a makeshift protective suit and, in a desperate attempt to save his men, races through the ants to the dam upstream. From inside the dam, he floods his crops to save his people. However, on the return to his plantation, he is nearly eaten by the remaining ants and has to be rescued in return.

It was a good adventure. Most of the shows my father wanted to share were pretty good. Radio dramas are a tough sell to kids in the modern age, though. He had a much easier time with movies.

Classic Films

The best old films are ones that are still loved by the entire nation. My father played 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,' 'Wizard of Oz,' and 'Mary Poppins' for my kids. They thought those were great. From there, he didn't have too hard a time getting grandchild enthusiasm for musicals like 'Singing in the Rain' or 'The Sound of Music.' The youngest two kids sang and danced along.

Once as a young teen, my daughter burst into her grandfather's house singing,

Good mornin', good mornin'
We've talked the whole night through
Good mornin', good mornin' to you
Good mornin', good mornin'
It's great to stay up late
Good mornin', good mornin' to you

When the band began to play
The stars were shining bright
Now the milkman's on his way
It's too late to say, "Good night"

So, good mornin', good mornin'
Sun beams will soon smile through
Good mornin', good mornin'
To you and you and you and you
Good mornin', good mornin'
We've gabbed the whole night through
Good mornin', good mornin' to you

My father was shocked but with a smile. The kids had watched 'Singing in the Rain' a few more times. They insisted so much that Gene Kelley was the best dancer in the world that my father turned contrarian and pointed out Frank Harrington and the Nicholas Brothers, because they were black, weren't as famous but still excellent.

"What about Ginger Rogers?" my daughter asked.

"Oh, I guess she was pretty good, too." He chewed on the end of his cigar. "Come to think of it, even if Gene Kelly was best, there were a lot of other dancers ..."

The 'best dancer in the world' conversation slowly turned to being about the best dance routine. Months later, after treating the kids to another showing of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, my father mused,

"I'd forgotten how good Dick Van Dyke was."

He was speaking about the rag-doll dance that Van Dyke puts on, partly as a duet with Sally Ann Howes. The dance mixes eye-catching mime (some of the moves look impossible) with perfect, in-character dance. It might not actually belong in the conversation because it's so different from conventional scenes, so full of character and clown mime, but it is impressive. I've re-watched it a bunch of times now, myself. I see what my father meant.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.29: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 29

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Full Time Grandfather: Odin

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:

privyet (hello)
karashow (good)
pechal'ka (too bad)
ya ne ponimayu (I don't understand)
kak zhal (what a pity)
odin, dva, tri (one, two, three)
mashina (car)
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.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.28: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 28

Robert Gallagher, Wake


In a way, diabetes forced my father to retire. He had not planned on leaving his job. Even after fifteen years of sugar highs and lows, he persisted. He worked five years past retirement age. He ignored his treatment options and worked another year. That meant he had passed the mandatory retirement limit. Still, the county school system didn't force him to retire. 

Since no one was stopping him, he worked another year. Then another. The county was supposed to push him out of his job but they didn’t have enough math teachers. He kept going. One day, after he ignored his medicine for a couple weeks and ate midnight snacks, he discovered that he had woken up at ten-thirty in the morning.

It was a Monday.

"That was the first day I've overslept for a teaching job, ever," he told me in shock. "The alarm must have have gone off. It wasn't broken. I tested it. But I slept right through the noise."

He'd heard strangers in the house when he woke. His co-workers had been keenly aware that he had never missed a day, had in fact never been late before. If you had given a Happy 68th Birthday party to someone a few months earlier and, one day, he didn't show up after a record like that, you might have had thoughts similar to theirs.

None of them wanted to check on him. Some of them, though, felt it was a duty that couldn't be avoided.

"It's better than having his family find him," was the prevailing opinion. So an assistant principal accepted the duty. 

When he arrived at the house, the assistant principal knocked and got no answer. To his surprise, he turned the knob on the front door and found it open. But when he stepped inside for a moment, it didn't feel right. He backed out and closed the door. Instead of intruding, he ambled around the house and the deck. He tapped on windows. He peered inside whenever he could. From a window off the deck, he spied my father lying still and pale in bed. 

"Bob." He tapped the window harder. "Bob."

He thought that he saw my father breathe. It was hard to tell. The vice principal stewed over it and made a decision.

He left. He drove to a payphone and returned after he'd gotten a police officer to agree to meet him at the home. He felt keenly in need of backup. He wanted help if my father was dying and he knew he had to be careful about appearances. That is how the vice principal and the police officer came to be in the house when my father awoke.

The officer, apparently, left after making sure my father was breathing normally. He checked for symptoms of a stroke, too, but otherwise departed without a word. 

"I felt so groggy," my father told me later. "I don't remember the policeman, really. I only know that my principal told me that one of them had been there."

The assistant principal sat next to my father and talked to him for a while. My father must not have made a good impression. The fellow remained grim. He told my father to take the day off.

"Take more than a day," he said. "Go to a doctor about whatever this is, whether it’s diabetes or something else. When you've done that and feel recovered, come and see me."

It took my father a day to get an appointment and three days to return to school. When he went to visit the front office, the principal kept my father waiting while he called in his assistants. After twenty minutes, the last one arrived. They took seats around the big table. 

The principal said, "Bob, we need to talk with you about retirement."

Although they allowed my father to return to Poolesville, he agreed to retire at the end of the year. However, that arrangement only lasted a couple of weeks. After the human resources personnel counted up his sick leave and personal leave, they realized that he hadn’t touched any of it for thirty years. His principal and vice-principals asked to meet him again.

"How's the new guy coming along?" the principal asked.

"He's all right."

"Good. Bob, I've heard from the county. They want you to use some of the leave you've built up."


"Soon." He leaned closer. "Really, really soon."

My father returned to his classroom. He watched someone else do the teaching. He thought about the demand for him to retire.

He was already guiding his long-term replacement. The replacement was young but not a novice, not a first-time teacher. The students liked him but he wasn't a pushover for them, either. No one had any serious complaints about his work. After another week of observing, my father started taking days off. Soon, he took off for weeks at a time.

"I think I'm going to take off until the end of school," he said to me one time as we rested side by side in his easy-chairs. "I've got plenty to do around the house. Your mother is still teaching so I thought the days would be boring. But I’ve been doing a lot. The doctor says I should exercise more. I asked him if I could just do chores instead and he said, 'Sure.'"

"You saw the doctor?"

"He gave me some different medicine. I don't like it. It lets me get around the house a little better, though, and I know I need to take care of my eyes.”

“Did your eyes get worse again?” I knew that blood vessels had been bursting at irregular intervals in his corneas. When they did, the clots blocked his field of view. Sometimes, they rendered him blind for a few days.

“No. Better. My vision partly returned." He relaxed into a self-satisfied smile. "That’s why I could put shingles up on the roof yesterday.”

That made me sit up. He and my mother had been arguing about that job. I could hear her bumping around in the kitchen.

“I thought mom didn’t want you up there," I said. "She told me she was going to pay somebody.”

“Do you know how much they charge?" He snorted. "What a waste of money."

“Did she say anything about you climbing up?” Weeks ago, she had called to see if I could do it. With graduate school, a full-time job, and a kid, I wasn't up for it even on the weekends.

“She’s fine with it.”

“What I said, Bob,” my mother called from the kitchen, “was that I couldn’t stop you.”

“Well, it's the same thing, Ann.” He dropped his voice to a whisper. "She held the ladder."