Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Uncle Roy's Wake



Some of you have been asking about Dorothy. I've been in contact, and I'll be visiting again soon. She is very grateful for the love, money, and other good things that some of you decided to send, that's for sure. The cats are doing OK, too.

I have an amusing small story to tell, which Dorothy related to me during a previous visit, but before I tell you that one, I figured a re-print of the following would be a good thing. It contains a detail pertinent to the small story. It also contains a cameo appearance by a younger Dorothy. Uncle Roy was her father, and she is the daughter at the wake.

Tomorrow, I'll be back with the short story. This one isn't short, but it's definitely worth the investment of time to read it. Trust me.

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UNCLE ROY'S WAKE

My Dad was not a big fan of his Uncle Roy. Uncle Roy was, according to my Dad, not a tremendously nice fellow. I think the actual term he may have used was "miserable son of a bitch". Uncle Roy might have had some redeeming qualities, but the only impression he made on my Dad (or, at least, the only memory of Roy that my Dad ever talked about) was the following.

My Dad had a fear of heights similar to mine - open heights bothered him greatly - and Uncle Roy used to tease him about it when he was a kid. They'd be in a car, driving over a bridge, and Roy would see that my Dad was uncomfortable. He would then pretend that he had lost control of the car, letting it swerve slightly towards the edge of the bridge and then laughing derisively when he saw how pale my Dad became. He would then call him a sissy. Nice fellow.

Roy was married to our Aunt Anna, the sister of my grandfather. She liked my father and treated him better than Roy did, but I guess it wasn't very hard to accomplish that.

By the time I knew them, they were an older married couple living in an apartment building in West Roxbury. They had adult daughters living elsewhere. I personally never had any problem with them when I was a kid, but I wasn't especially close to them, either. So, when word came that Roy had died, it didn't affect me much emotionally. However, it did affect some plans that my Mom, Dad and myself had for a family vacation.

You see, my Dad worked for Eastern Airlines then. As an airline employee, he was able to travel pretty much anyplace he wanted, free. This deal included his immediate family, too. It was stand-by travel. That is, as long as there were seats free on whatever flight he had in mind, we could use them. This was a courtesy extended by most airlines at that time to other airlines and their employees. I suspect there probably isn't as generous an exchange these days.

At the time of this story, when I was about 11 or 12, we had already used this largesse to spend a week in Fort Lauderdale the past couple of winters. We had also traveled to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Chicago, New York, and a few other spots in the USA. I was a very lucky kid. I would be taken out of school for many of these vacations. The thinking was that travel would be more educational than school - and so it was. This view was also held by most of my teachers. I was not penalized in any way for missing classes. As long as my grades kept up - and they did - no problem.

My Dad had planned a trip to Europe, the first one for all three of us. It would include stays in both London and Paris, and would take 8 days. We had studied up on English and French customs; had read books about getting the best bargains in hotels and meals and sightseeing, keeping copious notes; had pored over maps and itineraries and tour guides; struggled with the math of exchanging our money for pounds and francs and shillings and centimes; had bought new clothes for the trip; purchased many rolls of film for both a regular camera and a handheld 8mm movie camera that my Dad had recently acquired; we made arrangements with neighbors to take in the mail and feed the cat; had all gone to get passports and passport photos; new luggage had been bought; my Dad had meticulously planned the flights, trains, and other connections to the minute; with my Mom, he had made hotel reservations and planned interesting nights out for shows and days full of scheduled tours; every minute detail was accounted for and we were two days from leaving on this exciting adventure of a lifetime.

Then Uncle Roy died.

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Now, even though my Dad was not a big admirer of Uncle Roy, he was a man who knew his duty to his family and to Aunt Anna. He and my Mom seriously considered canceling the trip. However, after speaking with a number of other relatives who knew about the vacation we had planned, they were unanimous in agreeing that we should still take the trip. There was nothing that could be done for Roy now - he was dead. As for Aunt Anna, there would be plenty of other folks there to comfort her and help with the arrangements. My parents agreed, so we continued with our plans for travel, but we would also make an appearance at Uncle Roy's wake, which was scheduled to begin in the afternoon of the day we were to leave.

For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of a wake, it is the viewing of the body prior to burial. Relatives and friends gather to say a prayer or two for the deceased, as well as comfort each other and perhaps trade a few nice remembrances or stories concerning the departed. These days, this is almost wholly confined to funeral parlors. At the time of this story, however, it wasn't tremendously unusual to have a wake at the home of the deceased, or perhaps a relative's. Most pre-burial details would still be handled by a funeral director, and all of the cosmetic and sanitary niceties followed - you didn't just prop the body up in his favorite easy chair - but the coffin would be in the living room (or other suitable space in the house) and the mourners would be free to come and go all day and night, as opposed to the set hours of a funeral home.

Uncle Roy's wake would take place at the apartment he and Aunt Anna shared.

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On the day of the wake, my Mom and Dad carefully planned out how we would be proceed. The body was due to first be put on display at around two that afternoon. Our flight was at six o'clock. We would stay at the wake for about an hour or so, then drive to Logan Airport in Boston. At worst, we would arrive at the airport at 4pm. This would give my Dad plenty of time to park our car in the long-term parking lot; for us to check our bags; and for my Dad to make acquaintance with the counter and gate personnel of BOAC, with whom we would be flying. This last was most important, as it would be a serious breach of etiquette to just rush up at the last minute and demand that your stand-by passes be validated. You had to be a nice fellow and shoot the breeze for a bit, in order to be assured of good treatment. It was common courtesy among airline employees.

We spent the morning going over last-minute details, making sure everything was perfect. Bags were packed, lists checked, tickets and reservations were made sure to be in hand. We dressed in our best suits and such, as not only were we going to a wake, but it was also the custom then to dress for air travel - no "I'm with stupid" t-shirts on airline passengers in those days. All of our bags were loaded into the trunk of the car and we started on our way to the wake.

We got to the house at a couple of minutes after two; just right for being among the close relatives and friends, but after the body had arrived from the mortician and the first sight of the remains had been made by the immediate family. Trouble was, the body hadn't arrived yet.

Small talk was made while the slowly growing crowd awaited the arrival of the funeral director. Everybody in the room, outside of Aunt Anna and her daughters, knew that we were on a tight schedule, and they assured my father that everything would soon be right. My father muttered under his breath to my mother, "The son of a bitch tortured me when he was alive and now he's goddamn well doing it after his death."

The body finally arrived at about 3 o'clock. The funeral director was extremely apologetic, explaining that there had been traffic, an unexpected delay at the parlor, etc. He now asked folks to leave the room so that he could set everything up nicely before the viewing.

After about ten or fifteen minutes, he called the family back in. The coffin was set up by the wall, with floral arrangements and candles nicely laid out. The cover of the casket was open, of course, so that we could all see Roy as we said a prayer. However, as soon as one of the daughters got the first look in the coffin, she said, "That's not my father! Oh, my God!"

General hysteria reigned for five minutes or so, until someone realized what had happened. It was, indeed, Roy in the coffin. However, Roy had always worn a mustache. He had light hair and the mustache was also extremely light. He had also kept it trimmed very close to the lip. The mortician, not knowing that this was a mustache, had instead thought that it was just a couple of days growth of beard and had shaved it off when he did the rest of the face. Profuse apologies were once again the order of the day. The immediate family was calmed down and the proceedings continued.

Aunt Anna was a daily communicant at the Catholic church up the street, so a priest was due to arrive to say a few prayers. He was late. Meanwhile, the clock kept moving. It was now well past the original time that my father had planned for our departure from the wake. As we were getting ready to go, priest or no priest, in walked the cleric. There was no getting around it now - we couldn't leave while the prayers were being said.

The priest said a couple of Hail Marys, an Our Father, and a few Glory Be To Gods. My father is looking at his watch and knowing that we had to get out of here now or we'd never make our flight. The priest finished and went over to comfort Aunt Anna and her daughters. Just about everybody else came up to my father and told him to go, now, while Aunt Anna was otherwise occupied, and they wished us well on our trip. We fairly ran out the door to our car.

My Dad was, among other things, a really fine driver. Nothing stopped him and he had no fear. Blizzards, hurricanes and other natural disasters didn't slow him down in the least. When we visited foreign lands, he drove everywhere. Didn't matter if they drove on the left side of the road or the right; he adapted immediately. And, if he had to be someplace in a hurry, he got there in a hurry. Such was the case now. We sped through the streets of Boston, attempting to get to the airport with at least enough time left to not look like total jerks to the BOAC employees.

We flew through the Sumner Tunnel and onto the airport access road. We arrived at the international terminal and pulled up to the curb with a screech. My Dad hopped out and opened the trunk, and we all grabbed our bags and pretty much ran up to the ticket counter, where we checked the bags and had our tickets stamped. We then made our way down to the gate, where my Dad made some small talk with the folks working there, being his usual charming self in explaining why we were so late. At last, we boarded the plane and were on our way to Europe.

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We settled into our first-class seats. Another perk of being an employee of an airline, and especially one as voluble as my Dad, was that you often got the empty first-class accommodations. As the plane leveled off and drink service began, my mother got this slightly ashen look. My father asked what was the matter.

"Oh, Tom, I think I forgot to pack the film."

"What? For the cameras?"

"Yes, I'm pretty sure I forgot it. I'm sorry."

"Jee-zus Christ! All of the film? How could you forget something that important? Do you know how much it's going to cost us to get more film? Shit!"

My mother felt like crawling under the seat. She may very well have been willing to trade places with Uncle Roy at this moment.

The rest of the flight was uneventful.

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We arrived in London and spent a marvelous couple of days getting to know that great city. We rode on the Underground (still my favorite subway in the world) and visited Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum. The Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace was a treat, as was a visit to the Tower of London. My Mom and Dad were able to buy some film for the cameras, and if I wasn't such a dope when it comes to this computer age, I would post a couple of photos. All was excellent. The wake and the inconveniences of the past few days were forgotten completely.

The world premiere of the film Dr. Doolittle, starring Rex Harrison, was happening in London at that time. It wouldn't be out in the states for another month or so at least, so my Dad decided that we should go see it at one of London's movie houses. And so we did. It was a marvelous picture and we all enjoyed it greatly. It was a long movie, and was being shown with an intermission. We went out to the theater lobby, which had a full-service bar adjacent. As my Mom, Dad and myself enjoyed drinks of some sort, and while my father smoked a Players Navy Cut English cigarette, he suddenly got this horrible look on his face.

"Tom, what's wrong?", my mother asked.

"Oh, no! I... Oh, shit..."

"What? What is it?"

"I left the car running at the airport!"

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When he was telling this story, to my Dad's credit, even after he and my Mom had divorced, he would say at this point:

"There I was on the airplane, laying into poor Connie because she had forgotten a couple of lousy packs of film, and then I went and left the goddamned car running at Logan Airport. What a jerk!"

(My Dad was often the hero of his stories, but he was just as willing to be the butt of the joke if it would get a good enough laugh.)

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In his haste to get the luggage checked and get us to the departure gate, he had left the car at the curb of the international terminal - keys in the ignition, the motor running and the driver's side door, as well as the trunk, wide open. He was fairly well ill watching the second half of Dr. Doolittle.

This was before the days of the cell phone or e-mail. The only way to contact someone in the US was to call them long distance. At the time of the realization, it was after midnight back home, so who could he call? And, even if he reached someone, what good would it do? Whatever was going to happen to the car had already happened. It was either towed or stolen. He wasn't going to call the East Boston police department from overseas. In the end, my father decided to just make the best of the rest of the vacation. He wasn't going to spoil it by worrying about something he had no control over, and that made eminent sense.

We enjoyed the rest of the vacation (and enjoyed a couple of very good laughs about the ridiculousness of the situation) and then returned home.

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Unbeknownst to my father, one of his fellow Eastern Airlines employees happened to be over at the international terminal the same night we had left. Rock O'Connor spotted my Dad's car sitting at the curb, idling, with the door and trunk open. He said to himself, "Isn't that Sully's car?"

After conferring with another EAL employee, and confirming that it was, indeed, my father's car, Rock put two and two together and realized what had happened. His first thought was to get into the car and drive it over to the long-term lot, assuming my father would check at Eastern first, when he got back, to find out if anyone knew the whereabouts of his vehicle.

Rock's second thought, however, was much better. He decided that it would a fantastic joke if he gassed up the car, then brought it back to the international terminal on the day we were due back. He would pull it up to approximately the same spot at the curb, open the door and trunk, and leave it on, so that when my father came out of the terminal, the car would appear to have been running the entire time we were in Europe, with the door and trunk open, and hadn't been stolen or towed or even run out of gas.

It was genius, but it never came to pass. Rock wasn't absolutely sure of our arrival time, so he couldn't guarantee being there at the right time. He wasn't going to leave the car running, door open, unless he could guarantee being there to watch it and make sure that it wasn't boosted by some creep who just happened to be passing by at the time. So, like many other great plans in life, it went by the boards. Great to think about the look on my father's face if Rock had done it, though.

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And that's the story of Uncle Roy's Wake. It was the indisputable masterpiece of my Dad's prowess as a storyteller.

I can sometimes write a decent story, but he could just tell you one. I find that to be a much more difficult feat. The story, on paper, is a good one, but it pales in comparison to what it was like to hear my Dad tell it firsthand. I would give a minor body part to have a recording of him doing so. Sadly, none exists.


12 comments:

lime said...

oh my word i can just imagine! that really is a funny story and i think you do it justice.

mlh said...

Suldog,

Seriously, Bro. I say this from the depths of my very soul and being.

You can write one Helluva story! And if you say that your dad can tell an even better one, then WOW!

Hilary said...

Clearly you share your Dad's ability to tell a tale. You might not think it could happen in text, but I could hear every intake of breath, every snort and each inflection in your voice. I could see each eye-twinkle and wait-for-it expression on your face. This was a hilarious tale, brilliantly told. I just can't wait for the rest of the story.

Sarah said...

this is hysterical! i really could imagine the look on your dad's face when he saw his car, still running. pity that joke didn't come to pass...

Buck said...

So, how DID your Dad locate the car? Did he call EAL or one of his buds when all y'all got back to the US?

Like the others have said: you have a veritable GIFT for story telling, Jim. It's kinda hard for me to believe your verbal story telling isn't on par with your writing, ya know.

Sandra Ree said...

Oh I'm sure his verbal story telling is on par with his writing, Buck! How could it not be?! Funny story Sul, and I agree with everyone, you've definitely have a gift!

Chucka Stone Designs said...

Hilarious! I was biting my nails that you missed the flight but then the running car, too good. Just the thought of Rock gassing it up is classic, he sure was a jokester huh? Outstanding writing and that is just the same as telling a story to me :) You tell a great one always.

Thimbelle said...

You lucky pup! Dr. Doolittle was one of my all-time fave movies when I was a sprout!

And FWIW, standby travel is no longer as easy or pleasant as it once was...

Jeni said...

Boy, I so agree with what everyone else has said here about your story telling ability -you do a terrific job! However, as dismayed as you may be that there is no recording of your dad's voice telling this or any other stories, think of it for the fact the story is now in print and thus is available to people the world over to read and enjoy. And since it is your dad's story put in writing, he still lives on through this medium.

Suldog said...

You are all, as usual, too effusive in your praises. I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Buck - As soon as we got off the plane in Logan and cleared customs, my Dad called Eastern. Luckily enough, he got Rock on the phone. He told my Dad that the car was in the long-term lot, and that he (Rock) had the keys over at EAL. Rock hopped over to international in his car and picked us up. So, all's well that ends well.

Chris Stone said...

great story!

and oddly, though I would have liked to hear about Rock pulling off his joke... the way it ended was perfect.

Janet said...

I had to wonder about the film story, but now I understand why you included it. That's the funniest thing I've read in a long time, and that's saying a lot given that I read your blog.