119 years ago today

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Getting in the spring spirit in Central Park. Photo: JH.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019. Sunny and mild, kinda chilly, yesterday in New York on the first day of the month, with the temps dropping to the mid-30s by late evening.

It was also the birthdate of my father who was born 119 years ago, in Brooklyn, son of two Irish immigrants, David and Ellen. He fathered nine children in his life. Nine that we know of.

He was one of those New York boys who swam in the East River on the hot summer days, like you see in the old photographs of the city. That always sounded adventurous to me as a kid when he referred to it, until I learned decades later that New York did not have a sewage system (everything went into the rivers) until the late 1920s when Jimmy Walker was Mayor.

Swimming in the East River. Summer of 1900.

When he was a teenager he lied his way into the Navy (about his age), and later in the beginning of Prohibition he worked on a rum-runner boat “captained” by a guy named “Monk.” This was the equivalent of being a drug-dealer in those times.  Except the public liked what they were running. Rum-runners were the gang of sailors and roustabouts who ran the liquor from the boats offshore into the harbors around New York to unload.

He never told me anything about it, but my mother filled me in. Thinking back on it, as a young woman, a girl from the sticks really, she was surely impressed. Interestingly, when I was a young boy, in a bedroom on the other side of the door to my father’s bedroom, I heard him yelling in his sleep one night, responding to “Monk” loudly calling out his name as if they were in trouble. Was he dreaming of his past?

Was my father dreaming of Monk Eastman(?), the head of one of the most powerful street gangs in New York City.

All of this was revived for me when back in the 1990s, when I read a piece in one of the Sunday tabloids (I think – but not sure – the Daily News) about rum-running during Prohibition, and the main character, a “villain” in his day (for the press) was a guy named “Monk.” I could only wonder if it were the same “Monk” my father yelling to in his sleep.

When he was 21 he married his first wife with whom he had seven children. My sister and I were the two children, borne of my mother, his second wife. Although I never thought of him that way, in retrospect I can see that he was something of rogue in his younger days in the city. Albeit a poor man’s rogue, for he was also, thoroughly what today is called a compulsive gambler.

After his rum-running days, he went legit and became a chauffeur. Liveried chauffeur in those days. He loved it. He loved cars — which were, after all, the cell phones of their day. And his employers all had the big ones — cabriolets, Stutz Bearcats and all. The very best. He may not have noticed, but this kid was soaking it all up. It was the one thing he talked about openly and enthusiastically at the kitchen table. All of that ended when he and my mother moved up to Massachusetts. He never returned to New York until forty years later.

I retain this vague memory that he once drove in the Indianapolis 500. He never talked about it, but later I learned about a lot of things that he never talked about, things that were crucially important in his life. It was a sense of public conduct in his driving a car, and a concern that no longer exists with us motorists. There were rules of the road, and navigation that was followed religiously — if you were really good — like perfect manners. And a good driver always exercised caution. Other motorists who lacked them raised his Irish.

My father Frank Columbia about 1931 when he met my mother. He was then working as chauffeur for John “Black Jack” Bouvier, whom he idolized, and who later became famous as the father of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Lee Radziwill.

I disliked my father when I was growing up. I use the word carefully because he was often angry. His and my mother’s relationship was troubled and fraught by his easily ignited rage. There were no sides to take as it was my mother I knew I had to depend on. And she was an attentive mother also. I didn’t realize as a child that he was the child of another man and woman whose relationship was likely far far worse that his relationship with my mother. I see now at this late date that he was, like me, a man trying to make his way through life. And it was a life that he’d accidentally made worse for himself as well as for his wives and families.

His great temper, however, mellowed with age, along with the sense of power that youth bestows and age shrinks. I learned more about him, about the facts of his personal life, his family, his parents, his siblings, that he never never mentioned. Only once when I was old enough to be defiant toward his raging, did he utter, “if you think I’m bad, you shudda seen my mother!”

And, I also learned from other sources, that his father after whom I am named, was a rager too, coupled with alcoholism.

Frank died in the summer of 1973 after a long painful illness that he bore for years. My sister had called to tell me he was in the hospital and on his way out. I went to visit him. He was groggy but conscious. We had little to say to each other and there was no sense of affection coming from either of us. But out of nowhwere he said, as if relieved, “Well, at least I never went to jail.”

I had no idea what he was talking about. I didn’t know what to say. To jail? For what? That “confession” has stayed with me all my life since. Obviously. I don’t doubt his sense of guilt expressed in those last words to me. But having lived long enough, and considered the facts and the realities long enough, I think he was a man who was inflicted with a sense of guilt. That permitted him to do many things in life that he knew were regrettable. That includes criminal too, even if you consider the rum-running.

Frank and Tillie Columbia at the wedding reception of me and my wife Sheila, and her mother and stepfather Jane and Harlow Culbertson in October 1964. Frank was 64, and had been in very bad health for quite some time.

He loved New York though. And always talked about it with an allegiant’s enthusiasm. Although ironically, we were all living in Massachusetts when I learned all of these things about him, and from him — and from my mother who was the natural information gatherer, and recounted to me as I was growing up).

When I turned fifty and was struck by the newly acquired sense of “getting older,” I thought of my father at that age — when I was a young boy.  There’s a family photo somewhere, taken on a summer day in the backyard of the house. He looks like an old man, reminding me of how difficult his life was for himself as well as for those those around him. I was aware that I had had a much better start in life than he, and that in essence, he’d given me that.

I see now that much of myself and my life and my relationship to New York are simply my father’s legacy to me. And a better life I’ve had than he, because of it. He could never have known that but if he had, it would have pleased him. Happy Birthday Frank, up there in Heaven.



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