Monday, February 24, 2003

My great-grandfather was an odd man. I never met him myself, though he was the only grandparent my father ever knew growing up, and so my dad has a lot of stories about him.

In any case, Frank T. was a rather odd man. One of my favorite stories about him, had to do with his insistence on calling people by their wrong names. Actually, it wasn’t only people, it could also be products, or place names, or whatever else. No one was sure whether he did it on purpose, or if he was just always a bit off, his whole life. But it was a longtime habit, and so ingrained in his personality, that he even did it with his best friend.

His best friend had the rather memorable name of Lemuel Lybarger. His friends, barring old Frank T., always called him Lem. But my grandfather insisted on calling the man Glenn Lombard. Keep in mind that this was the old man’s best friend in the world; the only guy he ever really socialized with in his old age.

Well, being as Lem was his best friend, one day old Frank T. had to call him for one reason or another. And so he called and said: “Is Glenn Lombard there?” And the voice on the phone said: “No, I’m sorry, you have the wrong number.” So grandpa called back. “Hello? Is Glenn Lombard there?” “No, sir” replied the voice, “there aren’t any Lombard’s here.” And grandpa was furious. He was seriously angry and storming around. “I know damn well Glenn Lombard’s there! What’s wrong with these people?”

Another favorite old Frank story had to do with his birthday present to my father. My dad was about to be shipped off to Vietnam. And Frank T. wanted to give him a birthday present. This was rather a surprise to everyone because, in no one’s experience, including that of my grandfather, Howard, who was the man’s son, old Frank had never given anybody a present in his entire life. So there was sort of a big deal made out of the giving of the present. And dad showed up, and it ended up old Frank had given him a burial plot, next to Frank’s own spot. Though it was perhaps a bit of a morbid gift to be giving a young man about to be shipped off to war, my dad remembers it fondly, if only for the fact that it showed the old man had a certain liking for him, even old Frank was sort of generally mean fellow.

An example of which was the time that, after having surgery on his ear, the nurse who was supposed to be taking care of Frank was making a bit of noise in the hallway. Frank had a sore ear, and the noise was bothering him. So he picked up a shoe and lobbed it across the hallway at her. My poor grandmother, who had to live with the old man for years after she married grandpa, always told that story with particular poignancy. Grandma is undoubtedly the kindest human being to have ever walked the face of the earth. But she always tells that story, and another one about a potato she didn’t fix to old Frank’s liking, and you see a bit of fire in the poor woman’s eyes.

But that being said, he wasn’t a horrible guy. I don’t want to paint that picture at all. In fact, my other favorite story about Frank, was the time he took in the orphan kids. After my grandpa Howard’s mother died in an influenza epidemic, the family took up roots and moved to a really rather rough and nasty part of Buffalo. Well, Frank had a car, which was rare enough in those days. And some street kids decided to try to steal it. But Frank and grandpa heard them trying, and Frank yells loudly to grandpa: “Howard, get your gun! Shoot the one that doesn’t run!” So, both kids took off at a sprint, and old Frank found it terribly funny. The incident had the effect, consequently, of giving grandpa a good image in the neighborhood. “Ahh, that Howard, he’ll shoot you soon as look at you.” In a tough neighbor, it was a good thing. But anyway, it didn’t take them long to figure out the identities of the culprits. But Frank wouldn’t turn them over to the police, because they were orphans, and Frank had a soft spot for orphans, on account of his dad had been one. So Frank ended up raising the kids for a while, which, while seemingly in contrast with the rest of his nasty temperament was actually perfectly in character according to grandpa.

I don’t know why I’m telling these stories about Frank tonight. I’m guessing because I realized today that I always call a kid at school I know and rather like by a name that isn’t his. And though I realized it, I think I’ll still call him by the wrong name. And I’ll probably act damn indignant if he doesn’t answer to it. Because the old ways are the best ways, I think, and I’ll always do my best to keep them up.