A Bronx Irish Catholic symbolically becomes an adult at confirmation when a Bishop slaps (lightly) the boy’s cheek to signal that life can have hard knocks.
While I may have learned a great deal from the Dominican Nuns and the Jesuits, it was my Dad who taught my brother Charlie and I how to navigate life and death.
My Dad operated on the instruction found in Proverbs (22:6), “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”
When I was about 5 years old, another kid attacked me in the first landing of our fourth floor tenement apartment.
When I told my Dad, he got down on his knees on the linoleum and said I should punch his hands, left-right-left, first one, then the other, correcting my pug moves until I said, “This is fine Dad but when are you going to take care of Johnny?”
My father said, “You have to fight your own battles.”
I was good at basic Science and Math. My Dad sat at the kitchen table going over and over math that we weren’t yet doing in school, fractions and decimals especially.
When I got to High School I was chosen to study Calculus at the College. I asked my Dad one night to help me understand a calculus assignment. He said he didn’t know anything about calculus but was proud that I was studying something that he knew nothing about.
One evening back from College, my Dad asked me to fix the TV set. It was one of those consoles with a big tube that had a green tint when on but it wouldn’t go on. I said, “Dad, I don’t know how to fix a TV set. He said, “But, you’re studying Physics.” I said, “It’s not that kind of Physics.” Dad said, “So what good is it?” I got mad and slammed my hand down on the top of the TV, jiggling the tube, and the picture flashed onto the screen. My Dad said, “What have you done?” I said, “There I fixed the set.” My Dad laughed, asking “So what principle of Physics allowed you to do that?” Gamely, I said, “Newton’s law, that is, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”
My Dad was surprised when in Grammar School I started competing in oratorical contests. But both my Dad and Mom encouraged that I participate in conversation when adults gathered in our home and they gave me the floor to tell a story or make a point that probably, looking back on it, was more cute than competent – but gave me the confidence ever after to speak publicly.
My Dad always discouraged me from smoking, although he did. When, at 68, he was dying of lung cancer, I asked him if he regretted smoking. I hated myself for asking the question the instant the words escaped my mouth but I hadn’t said it harshly. Nor did my Dad take it badly. He said, “We were like cars, although we lasted a lot longer. Sooner or later a fender comes off or the engine fails.” He was at peace with his imminent death. He gave me a gold ring my Mom gave him. The best gift he gave, however, was his example of how to die after having spent so much time instructing me on how to live.