A father’s death and a son’s awakening

My father loved our little block as did I.  I learned at an early age to sense a singular mark of respect in a neighbor’s simple greeting that acknowledged the special niche he had earned from people living on that one small block in Brooklyn.  Through the years, he became recognized for the reputation he had earned for both his mechanical skills and for his helpful disposition.  Especially as he was known to be generous in offering his services for free for many of those who often called on him, he was known by almost everyone.  

Butler Place is a small one-way street wedged between one of the graceful surrounding hills that form a circle around Grand Army Plaza, and it ends about three hundred yards later as it abuts Sterling Place with its long row of solid and appealing four-story brownstones.

My father once noted, “Anyone coming down this block either lives here, he’s visiting someone, or he’s lost.”  

“It’s like living in a small town,” he added.  

That we were only a few minutes’ walk to two separate subway systems, both of which would get you to Manhattan in fifteen minutes, was not lost on him.  

Almost everyone on the block owned something that was purchased at A & S Department Store located in downtown Brooklyn, in that dedicated commercial area just on the other side of Atlantic Avenue.  As nothing was bought on credit, even the delivery of a couch was a matter of some importance.  I am sure that there were many who preferred Saturday deliveries to provoke the interest of neighbors.

“Will you look,” a neighbor might be imagined as saying, “the Brennans are getting a new bed room set.”

But the first of many changes that affected the dynamics of this small town atmosphere was the stay at home aspect of a television set.  

The first TV set I saw was a portable ten-inch screen that was perched on top of a bureau drawer in my friend Brian Leddy’s living room in a first floor rear apartment directly across the street from my apartment building.  It was my understanding that Brian’s father had a heart condition of some kind, and under his doctor’s orders, he had positioned himself comfortably on the couch directly opposite their new TV set, whose pale, gray, fuzzy screen at first held an enduring fascination for all of us.  Mr. Leddy seemed well-entrenched in his new position with sheets, a light blanket, and a fluffy pillow being provided, the pillow indicating to me a sense of permanence in this arrangement.   Mr. Leddy was not simply taking a nap; this was his new lair.  He would give a soft hello as I came in, and during this rather lengthy time of recuperation, he was always pleasant.  I had developed the thought that Mr. Leddy looked forward to the interruption of my dropping by, even though I was only a kid calling for his son to come out to play.  After the arrival of the TV set, Brian often invited me into the living room to check it out.  

Perhaps because Mr. Leddy never evinced the attitude of being vulnerable or even bored in his position on the living room couch, I eventually got used to the situation.  I think he saw me as a welcomed distraction.

Like many families, the Leddys could not afford much, but somehow Mr. Leddy’s condition and his total embrace of his doctor’s orders to take it easy for a while, allowed for the expenditure of a new TV set.  We did not consider the ten-inch TV to be small as it was only a little smaller than the twelve-inch TV that was the only other option at the time.  In fact, at this early stage of the game, everything on the screen seemed larger than life and more than adequate for our needs.

Mr. Leddy would need to be diverted in his long recovery stage, and early television held a potential for endless preoccupation.  Even watching the advertisements held a certain appeal at that time.  Television was new, and like the Sabre Jet that had developed during the Korean War, we viewed it as a distinct precursor of the type of technology that was coming right around the corner.  Brian was always adjusting the portable aerial for his father resembling an eye doctor with a new patient being tested for a pair of glasses: “This way, Dad, or is this better?  Okay, now try this.”  I noticed that Brian developed a kindly manner of cooperation with his father in his new role as caregiver, a new level of maturity that I gave him credit for.  Those who had the rooftop aerials avoided this annoying manipulation that Brian’s newfound gift for patience had provided.

None of this appeared to bother Brian who had to be available to turn the channel dial, and I had developed the sense that his father seemed to accept his frail condition as an almost happy circumstance, an odd kind of vacation.  Mr. Leddy loomed large under the covers, and his tilted head lying on the pillow as he looked at the TV set, appeared heavy-boned and dark. Yet he was very friendly and he had about him a certain good-natured warm appeal.  

Mr. Leddy’s hair and eyelashes were jet black as were Brian’s, and I was surprised how easily Mr. Leddy joined in our conversation, even if about some children’s program like Kukla, Fran, and Ollie, or one of the endless stream of cowboy films from the nineteen-thirties that were a welcome daily staple at that time.  Mr. Leddy was big on the idea that the old time cowboys of his youth like Tom Mix and Ken Maynard, with whom we were somewhat familiar from early TV, and the National Theater on Washington Avenue, were the real deal cowboys in comparison to the Gene Autrys and Roy Rogers’ of his son’s era.  I think that discussion, a generational difference of opinion on the relative merits of each other’s cowboy heroes, was a common one in homes where a TV brought the cowboy stars of the nineteen-thirties into the living rooms of the eagerly receptive children of the early nineteen-fifties.  

But no matter how enthusiastically Mr. Leddy described the rugged yet graceful horse-riding skills of the cowboy heroes of his past, they would always appear to us as having the old-fashioned look of movie serials of the nineteen-thirties, rather than having the more modern Technicolor look that the cowboys of our own time and place projected on the local movie screen.

Mr. Leddy was under the mistaken impression that his pervasive use of logic focusing on his heroes being great horsemen and real-deal rodeo cowboys, would have some impact on my very emotional attraction to Roy Rogers and other cowboys we were familiar with.  Characters like young teenager Bobby Benson and the B Bar B Riders were radio favorites that added to the glamor of our cowboy fantasies.  

I had the impression that Mr. Leddy looked forward to my calling for Brian for as a rule, I just wanted to watch another Western when the discussion could continue.  Brian and I both liked these conversations that were always conducted as if the issue was important, which to us it was.  The only cowboy stars from the past having an appeal that came anywhere close to our favorites were Hoot Gibson and Hopalong Cassidy, both of whom we liked and considered more modern in their approach to riding on the range after villains wearing black hats.   

Then, even as I thought that Mr. Leddy was healthy because he looked healthy despite his permanent spot of residence on the couch, I would soon find out that there was a good reason for the doctor’s prescription of extended rest.  Not too long after his confinement to the living room couch, I would be told by my mother as she sat me down beside her on our living room couch, that Mr. Leddy had left that morning to take the IRT train downtown to his union office where, while waiting on line for his check, he had fallen down, and was dead when he hit the ground, as it was later described.

My very first thought upon hearing of the event was an apprehensive sense of sheer dread that is every child’s unspoken yet deeply-felt vulnerability.  I could not imagine my father dying as he seemed so permanent, so invulnerable, and so vital to my life.  I felt that Brian must have felt the same about his father who was now so suddenly gone.  

With that thought I felt frail and vulnerable – but most importantly, I would never take my father for granted again. 

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