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By Steven Friedman
"Come with me," my father said before leaving our apartment, and then again in the taxi when it stopped in a neighborhood I'd never been to. Taking a taxi seemed odd when our 1954 Plymouth was parked right there on Church Avenue, near our Brooklyn apartment house.
It had been a rough night. My 17-year-old sister, eight years older than I was, hadn't gotten home until very late—in fact early that morning. My father was waiting for her. Only a few words were exchanged. I could hear the anger in his voice and her pleading: "He was only a friend! Nothing happened!" And then the taxi ride in silence.
The taxi door opened, and my father said to the driver, “Keep the motor running.” My father motioned, and I followed him up a path to the doorway of a brick building. He knocked, and when the door opened, without words, he hit the man, still in his pajamas, with a sharp right hook to the jaw. The man, much bigger, reeled backward. My father walked away, down the path, back to the taxi, with me following. It was dawn, and we went home.
My father must have assumed that my sister had been violated in some way, even though she'd told him that "nothing" had "happened." Since she tended to hang out with older guys and often kept our parents in the dark about her whereabouts and activities, it made sense for him to be suspicious. Also, she hadn't gotten home for hours beyond her expected return—something that always set my father off.
He was all scowl and silence that morning, all 5 feet 4 inches of him—a wiry, well-built man, whose intensity could show itself in generosity and love, but also in a level of rage that exceeded expectation, considering his size and stature. But then again, my father had grown up in a rough-and-tumble neighborhood of Brooklyn, friends to gangsters and thugs, often forced to fight for survival. He emerged a tough guy with a thin skin, who took the side of the underdog and became a defender of workers' rights. He married and divorced young and had a daughter who'd grown up outside his life, but had always stayed inside his heart. This first child, a product of a teenage marriage and an early divorce, had never lived with him, and, though he'd maintained some minimal level of contact, her absence from his daily life had left a huge hole. Now, he was determined to protect the first child of his second marriage, whether she found it awkward or not.
When I think back to that scene on a street in Brooklyn, I feel a connection, both to the man my father was then, and to the different kind of man I was to become. I could see how such fierce loyalty in such a violent act demonstrated a depth of love that always lingered just beneath a hair-trigger temper. While punching out a stranger doesn't immediately suggest love, his sometimes violent actions were, in fact, an expression of caring and protectiveness. But he was a lot more than this aggression, which reflected only part of a complex personality. I believe now that I was there to protect him in some way, to keep him grounded in reality, to prevent him from losing his tightly contained control. What lessons had he wanted me to take from this experience? that protectiveness and loyalty to family come first? that love is most clearly expressed in violence?
Although he had a quick temper and a capacity to strike out physically when he thought his family was threatened, he had a soft, warm, tender side, too. He was physically affectionate and expected that same level of hugs and kisses in return. He belonged to many different organizations, maintained regular contact with friends, was active and athletic (played handball regularly), and loved eating in good restaurants. He took an interest in his appearance and clothing: he'd enjoy getting a haircut, a manicure, and a shoeshine, simultaneously. He loved my mother and showed her great respect. On his $15K salary, he eventually left her thousands of dollars, saved $5 and $10 at a time in a savings account. That money and her social-security checks allowed her to live comfortably for most of the 25 years she survived him. His tears would come easily when he was happy at some accomplishment of mine, or of my wife's, or of other family members, and sad over some loss. He was extremely generous with his time when friends needed his help. Many summers, sometimes with one of his friends and the friend's son, we'd take a trip to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, or the Catskill Game Farm. He loved Willie Mays, and we had a lot of good times at the old Polo Grounds. I have a funny picture of him, holding an ice cream cone in each hand, trying to get back to me in the park, while several deer running loose were trying to steal the cones out of his outstretched hands.
As a 6-year-old coming by ship from "the old country" to America, alone with his mother, around 1908 or 1909, and growing up in a turbulent urban neighborhood in the teens and twenties of the last century, he learned early he had to take care of himself and those he cared about. This meant learning how to show your loyalty to others so that you gained their protection. As a young man, he once took the rap for some criminal activity that gangsters on the street had committed. He didn't have a criminal record, so he knew he'd get off without jail time. Doing this demonstrated his loyalty to the street mobsters, who protected him from that point on. His style of parenting reflected this creed: protect those you love, even if it puts you in jeopardy, and maintain your integrity and respect at all costs.