My father carried a gun most of his adult life.
He was a used car dealer on the South Side of Chicago. It was before credit cards; most purchases were for cash.
Once, he came home remarking that he’d caught two guys stealing tires from the garage. A single officer came in response, tackling one of the two.
“Got a gun?” the cop asked. Dad nodded, showing him the revolver.
“OK, you cover him and I’ll go catch the other.”
After the policeman left, the thief looked at Dad, then ran off.
“What was I going to do, shoot him over tires?”
* * *
My father, the oldest of three, was orphaned at 11. His mother died of an intestinal blockage, something which today would be treated with outpatient surgery.
With the outbreak of war, he enlisted in the Navy, and married our mother in 1947.
In the early years of their marriage, he tried several times to open a car business, each time running low on capital and closing up to buy groceries.
* * *
The last time he swore at home, I was standing in my crib when someone asked Mom where Dad was. “He’s out effing around,” I piped up. I heard this directly from him, with the comment that it was why he never swore at home.
* * *
When I was a senior in high school, Mother said, “You can go to college anywhere you like as long as you live at home, pay for it yourself, and help in your father’s business.”
They had cobbled together $300 from my bar mitzvah savings, $300 from Marty’s and $300 from their savings, plus $1,000 borrowed on life insurance to start Leonard Motor Sales at 9000 S. Ashland Avenue in Chicago. There wasn’t much cushion for college.
As both of my brothers and all of my cousins went away to college, I thought for a long while that I’d gotten a bad deal. It was only with the passage of time that I came to understand the years I spent at his side were a treasure and a blessing.
* * *
Early on, I had had dreams of fixing cars, using the buffing machine, driving even before I turned 16. Instead, he set me to work shoveling out the shit which accumulated from the guard dog which was chained near the garage entrance.
I can report that my business career was launched shoveling poop.
Dad had studied nights to learn automatic transmission repair, and before owning a car business had lay on a rolling cart in the garage behind our house.
When I asked him about teaching me, he said “I don’t want you learning how to fix cars. I want you to learn how to sell cars, how to speak to people, how to run a business.”
* * *
Speaking of driving, long before I was 16, Dad said, “I’ll give you a choice. When you turn 16, you can either smoke or drive.” Explains why I never took up smoking.
* * *
When the first dog died, Dad bought a Doberman he named Max. However, my youngest brother Jack was more responsible for the care and feeding of Max than Dad was.
One day something happened between Dad and Max leading the dog to lunge at his neck. Grasping the choke collar, he dragged that dog down and into the garage.
Dad’s theory about Dobermans was that they had been bred with heads too pointy, too small for their brains. Giving most of them perpetual headaches. You’d snap too if you walked around in a constant headache, he’d say.
Jack, Dad said, I want you to walk Max down to the vet and have him put down. The vet’s office was four blocks up the same street.
Ten minutes later, the phone rang. Leonard, the vet said, I have someone looking for a dog like this. If you let me sell him Max, I won’t charge you.
Fine, Dad said.
* * *
In college I had a problem (not a pregnancy) with a girl. I went to see him at the lot, to ask his advice.
“You got yourself into this problem, you can get yourself out,” he said and left the room.
* * *
When my grandmother (his mother) died, Dad had been studying Hebrew with a man in a black coat with a black hat. He went into a military school; it was the end of his Jewish education.
My mother, who had grown up in Northern Michigan, never learned Hebrew, either.
Nevertheless, both my brothers and I attended Hebrew School and had bar mitzvahs.
My parents had three sons, seven grand children, and so far, five great grandchildren. Two of the grandchildren are medical doctors, one is a PhD, one is dual-degreed biomedical/chemical engineer, one is an accountant, one an advertising photographer, one a student. All are Jewish.
He died shortly after my eldest son’s bar mitzvah.
* * *
I am older now than Father lived to be. I think of him, of his dogs and his cars, every day.
I left Chicago after college for graduate school, worked in journalism, publishing, and on Wall Street. The people I interacted with included some of the best educated and wealthiest in America.
I no longer envy them. I got the best deal of all.
Happy Father’s Day.