Sunday, September 12, 2010

Out of the blue, our boy Harlan turns out to be a thrill seeker. Well, at least a seeker of thrills at the Dutchess County Fair and nearby Lake Quassy and Lake Compounce. Unfortunately, he's still so small there's no way he's riding these things alone...which means either Ilsa or I must ride with him...guess who wins that one!

I kept my eyes closed and my thoughts calm while regretting the recently consumed deep fried pickles and milk shakes. I wasn't sure I'd survive some whirling, spinning, plunging ride at Quassy, and then I looked over to see the look of pure joy on Harlan's face. I wish I hadn't, because then I wouldn't have given in to his cries of "Again, Papa, again!!!" when it was mercifully over.

Anyway, during this summer of thrills, I often thought of this piece from my dad, and am hit with regret once again at all the questions I never asked:

Traug Keller

I had a call recently from Dick Abel, an old friend and classmate. He and I had been in grade school together and later at St. Ignatius, the Jesuit high school in Cleveland. Dick had gone on to become a decorated general in the Air Force, retired last year and had just published a book on Leadership. He said he had run into a mutual friend who told him I was having some trouble and he was calling to see how I was doing. The last time I’d seen Dick was in Cleveland in 2006 at our 45th high school reunion when I was still mobile. That’s a funny story.

We had once been close friends. In the summer of the year before we went into the eighth-grade he and I had been allowed to take a trip together to New York to visit my grandmother, a stern old gal whose attraction for me was her two grown daughters who lived with her in her Brooklyn brownstone on East. 12th St. Patricia and Josephine, Patty and Bo we called them. They were lively and funny with lots of stories to tell about life in Brooklyn. Patty was the older of the two and had been in the Navy during the war. She was sharp witted and irreverent and kept us in stitches most days, not an easy task given the somber mood of my grandmother who had never fully recovered from her husband’s tragic death under a subway train nearly 20 years earlier.

It was pretty exciting for the two of us, a couple of eighth graders going alone to the big city. It was a great train ride in those days. There were Porters who guided us and seated us for lunch in a dining car with crisp white tablecloths and gorgeous glasses and silverware. The whole scene left us speechless though we weren’t about to admit it. We were a couple of cool dudes on our way to Big Town and it would have taken a lot to deflate our balloon. We managed to find our way through the menu with some help from a smiling waiter .We both had fried chicken and agreed it was the best we’d ever had. We showed our appreciation for the great help the waiter had given us by leaving him a 15-cent tip, after haggling back and forth about maybe being too generous.

The ride had been so grand we were almost sad to see it end. The porters saw us off the train and made sure we were headed in the right direction. We figured that the word must have gotten out from the waiter in the dining room about our generosity.
Patty and Bo met us at Grand Central and they were so welcoming we knew we were in for a great time. They took us to Prospect Park one day; to Ebbets field another day and that was fun but mostly we stayed around the neighborhood and soaked up a lot of the things that were different between Brooklyn and Cleveland. It was fun just listening to people talk. “Brooklynese,” Patty called it.

Other things, too. Like a wagon selling vegetables that would pull up in front of the house, and another one for sharpening knives and one that kept calling for trash. They didn’t have things like that in Cleveland. We hung around the house mostly for the first several days and then asked about going to Coney Island, which we had both heard about We asked the girls if we could go and they agreed. The next day they put us on a subway heading toward Coney Island with careful instructions about when to get off and how to get to the amusement park from the subway stop. The last words from the gals before we left my grandmother’s were to enjoy ourselves but not to go on the parachute jump because the ride was frightening.

The first thing we did at Coney Island was to look for the parachute jump. What a sight! It was higher than a football field is long and towered above us like some steel-ribbed giant. We watched as people came down off the ride screaming and hollering and looking as though they’d had a wonderful time. We couldn't wait to go on and so we did.

We sat in the same canvas chair wedged together and were hoisted up and up and when we were close to the top I remember looking around and you could see all of Brooklyn and the ocean and it was for a few seconds a place like no other in this world . Then we hit the top and started down and our stomachs disappeared. We were in free fall for the first 60 feet that lasted at least an eternity. We both knew we’d never stop falling and I remember thinking, God what have we done and then the cables caught hold and we began to drift down toward earth. The sun still shone, the ocean was still beautiful and blue off to the east and we were alive. Alive. It was so peaceful. Except…

Next to me Dick was shrieking like someone had done him grievous harm and there was no one around to help. I had to shush him and nudge him in the ribs a couple of times before he stopped and then we landed and Dick climbed off the chair and regained his old cocky self. I asked him about his tizzy fit later but he was quick to change the subject and I left it alone.
A couple of days later we again climbed aboard the New York Central train and were whisked back to Cleveland. Dick and I remained friends but we were never as close. He was on the football team and I played 00 basketball. We hung around with different crowds.

Then in 2006, I ran into him at our 45th high school reunion. He was kind of the toast of the group, a tall, tanned still sandy-haired, still youthful looking general in the Air Force. A Vietnam hero. Everybody was showering him with accolades. He was being praised to the rafters. It was getting downright tacky.

I stood up, quieted the crowd, and told the Coney Island story. Hell, I embellished it. The group broke up. There were catcalls, cries to have him stripped of his medals, jeers about his manhood.

Then the general stood up. He looked like he could still run 100 yards in full gear in under 10 seconds. The crowd quieted and he began to talk. “Hell, Traug,” he said. “Memory certainly does play funny tricks. The way it was, you were doing so much screaming, the attendants came rushing over to calm you down. They were afraid you’d drive people away.”
The class erupted again. No question who they believed. They heaped shame on me. I slunk away.