Words of Wisdom!

I want to thank Barry Long for sending me a a wonderful piece by Michael Gartner, editor of newspapers large and small and president of NBC News. In 1997, Michael Gartner won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Barry, one of our former Duquesne neighbors, now splits his time living in Honolulu, HI for 7 mounts of the year, and in Kirkland, WA for 5 months.

Although Mr. Gartner’s original piece was set in Des Moines, IA, I took the liberty of adapting it to bring it home…  The year, 1927; the place, Duquesne, Pa; the family any one of ours; and the message, priceless!



My father never drove a car. Well, that’s not quite right. I should say I never saw him drive a car.

He quit driving in 1927, when he was 25 years old, and the last car he drove was a 1926 Whippet.

“In those days,” he told me when he was in his 90s, “to drive a car you had to do things with your hands, and do things with your feet, and look every which way, and I decided you could walk through life and enjoy it or drive through life and miss it.”

At which point my mother, a sometimes salty  Hunky woman, chimed in:

“Oh, baloney!” she said. “He hit a horse.”

“Well,” my father said, “there was that, too.”

So my brother and I grew up in a household without a car. The neighbors all had cars — the Kapolkas next door had a green 1941Dodge, the Merdas across the street a gray 1936 Plymouth, the Wilsons two doors down a black 1941 Ford — but we had none.

My father, a steel worker in Duquesne’s USS Plant , would take the bus to work and, often as not, walk the 3 miles home. If he took the bus home, my mother and brother and I would walk the three blocks to the bus stop, meet him and walk home together.

My brother, David, was born in 1935, and I was born in 1938, and sometimes, at dinner, we’d ask how come all the neighbors had cars but we had none. “No one in the family drives,” my mother would explain, and that was that.

But, sometimes, my father would say, “But as soon as one of you boys turns 16, we’ll get one.” It was as if he wasn’t sure which one of us would turn 16 first.

But, sure enough , my brother turned 16 before I did, so in 1951 my parents bought a used 1950 Chevrolet from a friend who ran the parts department at a Chevy dealership in McKeesport.

It was a four-door, white model, stick shift, fender skirts, loaded with everything, and, since my parents didn’t drive, it more or less became my brother’s car.

Having a car but not being able to drive didn’t bother my father, but it didn’t make sense to my mother..

So in 1952, when she was 43 years old, she asked a friend to teach her to drive. She learned in a nearby cemetery, the place where I learned to drive the following year and where, a generation later, I took my two sons to practice driving. The cemetery probably was my father’s idea. “Who can your mother hurt in the cemetery?” I remember him saying more than once.

For the next 45 years or so, until she was 90, my mother was the driver in the family. Neither she nor my father had any sense of direction, but he loaded up on maps — though they seldom left the city limits — and appointed himself navigator. It seemed to work.

Still, they both continued to walk a lot. My mother was a devout Catholic, and my father an equally devout agnostic, an arrangement that didn’t seem to bother either of them through their 75 years of marriage.

(Yes, 75 years, and they were deeply in love the entire time.)

He retired when he was 70, and nearly every morning for the next 20 years or so, he would walk with her the mile to Saint Joseph’s Church. She would walk down and sit in the front pew, and he would wait in the back until he saw which of the parish’s two priests was on duty that morning. If it was the senior pastor, my father then would go out and take a 2-mile walk, meeting my mother at the end of the mass and walking her home.

If it was the assistant pastor, he’d take just a 1-mile walk and then head back to the church. He called the priests “Father Fast” and “Father Slow.”

After he retired, my father almost always accompanied my mother whenever she drove anywhere, even if he had no reason to go along. If she were going to the beauty parlor, he’d sit in the car and read, or go take a stroll or, if it was summer, have her keep the engine running so he could listen to the Pirates game on the KDKA. In the evening, then, when I’d stop by, he’d explain: “The Bucs lost again. The millionaire on second base made a bad throw to the millionaire on first base, so the multimillionaire on third base scored.”

If she were going to the grocery store, he would go along to carry the bags out — and to make sure she loaded up on ice cream. As I said, he was always the navigator, and once, when he was 95 and she was 88 and still driving, he said to me, “Do you want to know the secret of a long life?”

“I guess so,” I said, knowing it probably would be something bizarre.

“No left turns,” he said.

“What?” I asked.

“No left turns,” he repeated. “Several years ago, your mother and I read an article that said most accidents that old people are in, happen when they turn left in front of oncoming traffic. As you get older, your eyesight worsens, and you can lose your depth perception, it said. So your mother and I decided never again to make a left turn.”

“What?” I said again.

“No left turns,” he said. “Think about it.. Three rights are the same as a left, and that’s a lot safer. So we always make three rights..”

“You’re kidding!” I said, and I turned to my mother for support.

“No,” she said, “your father is right. We make three rights. It works.”

But then she added: “Except when your father loses count.”

I was driving at the time, and I almost drove off the road as I started laughing.

“Loses count?” I asked.

“Yes,” my father admitted, “that sometimes happens. But it’s not a problem. You just make seven rights, and you’re okay again.”

I couldn’t resist. “Do you ever go for 11?” I asked.

“No,” he said ” If we miss it at seven, we just come home and call it a bad day. Besides, nothing in life is so important it can’t be put off another day or another week.”

My mother was never in an accident, but one evening she handed me her car keys and said she had decided to quit driving. That was in 1999, when she was 90.

She lived four more years, until 2003. My father died the next year, at 102.

They both died in the bungalow they had moved into in 1937 and bought a few years later for $3,000. (Sixty years later, my brother and I paid $8,000 to have a shower put in the tiny bathroom — the house had never had one. My father would have died then and there if he knew the shower cost nearly three times what he paid for the house.)

He continued to walk daily — he had me get him a treadmill when he was 101 because he was afraid he’d fall on the icy sidewalks but wanted to keep exercising — and he was of sound mind and sound body until the moment he died.

One September afternoon in 2004, he and my son went with me when I had to give a talk in a neighboring town, and it was clear to all three of us that he was wearing out, though we had the usual wide-ranging conversation about sports and newspapers and things in the news.

A few weeks earlier, he had told my son, “You know, Mike, the first hundred years are a lot easier than the second hundred.” At one point in our drive that Saturday, he said, “You know, I’m probably not going to live much longer.”

“You’re probably right,” I said.

“Why would you say that?” He countered, somewhat irritated.

“Because you’re 102 years old,” I said..

“Yes,” he said, “you’re right.” He stayed in bed all the next day.

That night, I suggested to my son and daughter that we sit up with him through the night.

He appreciated it, he said, though at one point, apparently seeing us look gloomy, he said:

“I would like to make an announcement. No one in this room is dead yet”

An hour or so later, he spoke his last words:

“I want you to know,” he said, clearly and lucidly, “that I am in no pain. I am very comfortable. And I have had as happy a life as anyone on this earth could ever have.”

A short time later, he died.

I miss him a lot, and I think about him a lot. I’ve wondered now and then how it was that my family and I were so lucky that he lived so long..

I can’t figure out if it was because he walked through life,

Or because he quit taking left turns. “

Life is too short to wake up with regrets.

So love the people who treat you right.

Forget about the ones who don’t.

Believe everything happens for a reason.

If you get a chance, take it & if it changes your life, let it.

Nobody said life would be easy; they just promised it would most likely be worth it.”


This entry was posted in Life in General, Miscellaneous, Parents. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Words of Wisdom!

  1. Linda (Negley) Gibb says:

    You know your Dad had something with the “NO left turns” UPS does NOT allow it’s drivers to make any left turns & they are some of the safest drivers in the world.
    Thoroughly good article.

  2. Bob Dougherty Class of '50 St. Joe's; Class of '54 DHS says:

    Fr. Vogel, Fr. Ferenbach, Fr, Wiesman, Fr,Bernarding (more about him later), Fr, Biller. all @ St. Joseph’s aka “The German Church” vis a vis St. Hedwigs (Polish), Holy Name (Irish), Holy Trinity (Hungarian?) Talk about the melting pot. Anyway, I, thought I was the only altar “boy” (as we were called then) who got whacked by Bernarding – interesting to know that there were others who suffered the same fate..Sisters of Divine Providence: Sr Anthony – 8th Grade, Sr Mary Ruth – 7th Grade – (I can still see Billy Jenkins following her up the aisle with his ruler measuring her rear end), Sr. Xavier – 6th Grade, there was a Sr. Mary Norman and, of course, Sister Julia in the 1st Grade. I still have my First and Eighth grade report cards – did not progress much from 1st to 8th grades

    • Jack Schalk says:

      Hi Bob,
      Sr. Julia was a mainstay at St. Joe. She was probably as wide as she was tall but how she handled all the first grade boys at that time shows what she was made of.
      I still have welts on my hand from Sr. Anthonys bamboo switch. Bob Alexander juked instead of jagged and he ran right into my snowball with his forhead.
      And Billy Jenkins! I could not remember his name to associate him with other deeds but his antics were to be forever etched into the hallowed bricks of St. Joe.
      You mentioned your report cards and the lack of progression, but that was from your point of view. I always held your knowledge in high regard and we went through the school systems together so I know of what I speak.

      • Bob Dougherty Class of '50 St. Joe's; Class of '54 DHS says:

        Re Sr. Anthony: One of the Snyder boys (can’t remember whether it was Jim or Denny -for the sake of this story let’s say it was Denny)) and I were at the blackboard scribbling in the chalk dust with our fingers while Sr. Anthony was quizzing someone. She saw what we were doing and said something to the effect, “Since you like to play with your fingers, I’ll take care of them after school”. After the school day was finished , she marched us to the room where we cleaned blackboard erasers and proceeded to whack away at our hands with her bamboo switch. Denny went first and he began to laugh as she was flailing away. Emboldened by his reaction I, too, laughed when it was my turn. Sr. Anthony said, “If you think it’s so funny, I’m going to repeat the punishment.” Second time, more laughter. Same result the third time after which she sent us on our way. We just wouldn’t give her the satisfaction of crying or yelling out in pain. Just one of my pleasant memories from St. Joe’s.

        It was good hearing from you. I am not on face book. My email address is: bobron6@bellsouth.net

  3. Jack Schalk says:

    This was wonderful picture of life. If it isn’t a play, it should be and I think Neil Simon should write it. There is nothing so funny, or tragic, as life itself.
    I am not certain whose grandparents you were talking about originally but I can shed some light on the priests at St. Joseph during that time period.
    Fr. Slow was no doubt Fr. Fehrenbach or Bernarding. Fr. Fast was definitely Fr. Wiseman. I have served mass for all three and that’s the way all the servers saw them.

    • Ken Denne says:

      Hi Jack,
      Right on re: the priests.. Of course when Fr. Bernarding took over there were fireworks. Larry Curran and I took a left handed hook from him.
      Ken Denne

      • Jack Schalk says:

        The same for me Ken. There was an instant dislike between he and I.
        He was a very difficult man to deal with after a very caring Fr. Fehrenbach.

        Your name will be forever etched into my mind as it was on your garage roof on Friendship St. that I had a firecracker explode in my hand. All of us were firing them off but I found one that had a quicker wick than I did.

  4. nerdse says:

    Thanks for a good, long belly laugh!
    A lot of the way they did things reminds me of my feisty grandmother, as well as my much-loved father in law – except they weren’t quite as safety minded (although if their kids weren’t, the driving privileges got revoked faster than you can say, “3 rights make a left”).
    I recall when my husband & I came home between foreign duty stations. My father-in-law(FIL) had gotten a bit slower; farm accidents had taken a toll & he’d finally gotten his knee replaced, but the damage was such that he had to use a walker & his recovery had been a challenge. I was afraid he’d be a bit nervous about driving so fast as he’d been accustomed to drive before we left to go overseas. We had to rent a car as ours was still on a large boat somewhere on the Caribbean. When we got to my FIL’s place, we followed him & were trying to avoid going too fast, despite my husband’s misgivings. It turns out he was right; after all that caution, trying not to drive so as to make him nervous at all, we pulled in at our destination. He had a handicapped placard & so was parked quite a bit closer than we were. He got out of the car, shook the walker out using one hand (in such a way that anyone closer to him than 6 ft away was in mortal danger), & hollered back across 4 lines of lanes of cars, “Don’t that fancy car yinz rented go no faster’n that?” I laughed so hard I was doubled over laughing, tears running down my face, while my husband (a man of few words like his dad), said, “I toldja so!”
    It also reminds me of tales of my GM when she was a young woman in the early days of driving. Cars were bigger then, & she was driving a car sitting up on 3 pillows with blocks on the pedals so she could reach them, driving to the head of a line of stopped cars, in the opposing lane, & getting scolded by the cops & told she had to back up & get back in line, to which she replied, “I don’t know how to back up. You’ll have to do it for me.” Sighing, they’d let her in & tell her not to do it again. She did it when a freight blocked 5th Ave. in McKeesport, & she wanted to go down a side road to get to a destination & didn’t know how to get there unless she turned up a specific street (no sense of direction). Again, she told them she couldn’t back up& they let her make the turn. Mom, as a girl, would go with friends to the Clairton pool (before Duquesne’s library with its wonderful pool was open). My GM would tell them to be ready by a certain time, but she was often delayed. Wanting to extend their time in the pool, they’d keep an eye out for the road up on the hill, watching for a car that looked like it had no driver! Then they’d get out of the pool, gather their things, & meet her just as she pulled in.
    Obviously, my family’s tales were of the type where caution wasn’t a big thing – I once rode with my FIL when he was taking steep curves on a steep hill & there was a dead drop (to the level of the river road – at that point, at least 50 ft) in that area on the right – & no berm. He’d just push the ball cap back on his head, lean forward, ram the car in gear, grab the wheel with both hands on top, & floor it. It was a real good idea to stay prayed up when you were driving with my FIL! He hated being passed, rode the middle of the road b/c it was “the good part” up in the country around Kittanning, & didn’t believe in going slow.
    My mom was far more cautious, & by the time I came along, my GM had quit driving but she had a friend who believed Duquesne had too many stop signs, so she just went through at least half of them. My best friend’s uncle drove a lot like my FIL, which was very good prep for riding with my FIL! He used to take the kids of any women playing cards with his wife anywhere to get us all away from the “hen party.” We were so grateful for the road trip that we just hung on & talked to each other! It also prepared me for driving in Puerto Rico when we were stationed there. A miss was as good as a mile; road signs often got stolen; they made 6 lanes out of 3, passed on the sidewalk, read the paper on the steering wheel while driving to & from work, & on toll roads, made a game of putting small coins into the basket & driving through the booth fast enough so that the alarm would ring. At one point, I recall that due to a road sign theft in a construction zone, when they changed the traffic flow, we ended up going the wrong way. Mom was visiting & she panicked, & I told her to calm down, they’d just drive around us & give us the finger – which, to her amazement, they did, & we came off the ramp unscathed. Scotland seemed a tame contrast, even with 70 mph speed limits & driving on the “wrong” side of the road! Of course, driving the Baltimore or DC beltways is harrying, too, & the corridor roads between the 2 aren’t much better. I guess the wild driving genes helped. I at least escaped driving in Okinawa; my husband had to drive the bus there that went between the base & the work site (likewise in Puerto Rico). The only difference was, due to terrorist attcks on that bus in PR in late Nov. ’79 that killed 2 & wounded 8, he had to coordinate with PR police & marine escort vehicles. I was glad that wasn’t me!
    I have my share of stories from those overseas duty stations, but I’ve gone on too long now. Thanks again for the laughs!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s