From time to time I get in this weirdly reflective mood. Something very innocent will normally precipitate the mood, which is exactly what happened yesterday morning. I was just relaxing and sipping my morning coffee and decided to go through some recent pictures and videos that my daughter Megan had sent me. While doing so, I came across a video of my newest grandson, Mason James, smiling for his mommy. I had watched the video many times before, but this time, was surprised with what I saw in his smile. His smile was just like the smile I saw so many times on my dad’s face when he was happy. It was as if Mason’s grin was cloned directly from his great-grandfather.
After seeing Mason smiling, I immediately began reflecting about my dad and the things that would put that same smile on his face. He was always a happy guy, but some things just would make him light up with a special joy. For instance:
SMILE SOURCE #1 – When my father had his garage on South First Street, he had a reputation of being an ace mechanic. It always made him feel good when customers would give him a compliment. Although I didn’t spend a great deal of time at the garage (testimony to my inability to do an oil change,) I was there on several occasions when my dad would be beaming.You see, my dad loved to cook. Even greater than that love, was his passion for feeding people. He would always get the brightest smile when one of his “buddies” would come into the shop around noon and accept my dad’s offer to cook them a steak for lunch.
The building that housed my father’s garage at one time sold automobiles. There was a very large room at the front of the building that he would refer to as ‘the showroom,” but the only item in the entire room was an old GE refrigerator. This ancient piece of equipment seemed to have a never ending stock of butter, steak and wieners. Dad managed somehow to buy steaks at wholesale initially from one of his butcher buddies and eventually from the GBU Club on the corner of Norman Street and Grant Avenue. He and the club president, Stanley Neff, had some sort of deal worked out that kept Dad in stock at all times.
Nevertheless, my dad would prepare steaks on his little griddle on top of his oily workbench for anyone who wanted one, and do so with the biggest smile. They we amazingly delicious, and so there was never a lack of hungry mouths to feed. Between the steak and my dad’s beaming smile and personality, everyone enjoyed their “lunch with Steve!”
SMILE SOURCE #2 – My dad LOVED the Pirates. His idea of a wonderful evening would be sitting on the back porch on his metal chairs, legs propped up on a metal coffee table, and an icy cold Iron City beer in his hands. If either of his sons or any of his neighbors, brothers , sisters or in-laws would decide to join him, all the better.
The mere sound of Bob Prince or Nellie King’s voice on that old radio that Dad kept on the porch would bring the biggest smile to his face that wouldn’t disappear until some Pirate played ticked him off with something he would do. Dad was the prototypical Pittsburgh fan… loved them when they were winning, but called them bums when they weren’t.
SMILE SOURCE #3 – My dad never touched a computer in his lifetime. Even though he
lived until 1999, he remained “roadkill on the computer highway” his entire life. Despite the fact that he didn’t know how to operate a computer, he was nonetheless fascinated by what they could do.
I recall sitting with my dad in front of computer at our house and watching his face as I would maneuver and surf the internet for something special that would delight him. Being able to instantly recall and play ANY song by ANY artist that he could remember or being able to instantly view episodes of his favorite western mesmerized Dad. When I would first connect to an old episode of Gunsmoke or Bonanza, the loudest “Geez” and biggest smile would come across his face as he rubbed his face with his hands as he always did when he got excited.
SMILE SOURCE #4 – A deck of cards and a bottle of beer would always bring a smile to my dad’s face. When I was in high school, EUCHRE was his game of choice and in his later years, a game called TICK became his favorite. It became such a familiar scene to see my dad, Uncle Lou, and my brother Steve sitting around our kitchen table enjoying an evening of playing cards. The menu was simple, a bottle of Iron City or a bottle of Regent Cream Soda, a bowl of Wise potato chips, and beside my Uncle Lou, a big ashtray for his cigar.
Dad was often called an “instigator” by his siblings and virtually anyone he played cards with. Nothing brought a bigger smile to his face than when he had the winning hand. He was never a sore loser, but was more of a gloating winner! When he was victorious, he never said a word, but usually got a grin on his face that was often called a “s**t eating grin!” That grin had an irritating effect on the other players, especially since he was very skilled and/or luck at cards.
After I was married and my career had taken my family and I to the south, both my dad and my mother-in-law, Jean, would come down for a visit at the same time. We always enjoyed these times since it would bring us all together and my daughters would be in heaven with both of their grandparents around. Once the girls were in bed for the evening, we would after convene at the kitchen table for a few games of TICK. My dad’s remarkable ability to immediately rile my mother-in-law was usually illustrated once we began. Jean was an equally skillful player, but a bit more focused than my dad. His greatest joy came when it got to the point that Jean began yelling at him for being so irritating when he won a hand. I have to tell you, he always had that grin on his face after the win and I had to chuckle, knowing that when I looked at Jean, I always saw those pursed lips of anger! Ahh….good times!
SMILE SOURCE #5 – Dance, dance, dance! This smile source is a tougher one to explain, but I’ll give it my best try.
Simply put, by dad liked to dance. He, in fact, was a very accomplished dancer in the opinion of all of my aunts and uncles. I am told that when they were dating and first married, my dad and mom and my aunts and uncles would often find their way to The Kennywood Dance Pavilion many times to enjoy an evening of entertainment. In 2005, The Tube City Journal posted an article that mentioned the pavilion, and does a great job in addressing its fate:
The Kennywood dance hall — in Kennywood parlance, the “Pavilion” — was one of the first structures erected after the park opened in 1898. The two-story enclosed structure featured a clerestory with screened windows and a ceiling of rugged, exposed beams.
But its Victorian details were looking decidedly old-hat by the 1930s, and though the Great Depression meant Kennywood couldn’t buy many new rides, it could invest in its buildings. Indeed, park management credited the Pavilion with keeping Kennywood open during the Depression; people couldn’t afford to play games or buy ride tickets, but they could stand around and listen to music, or dance with their sweethearts.
So, the Pavilion was substantially remodeled and updated into the current Art Deco style, just in time for the so-called “golden ages” of both big bands and network radio. During the 1930s and ’40s, live dance bands did national broadcasts from the Kennywood dance hall, via the Sun-Telegraph’s radio station, WCAE, and the Mutual Broadcasting System.
Dozens of nationally-known band leaders and singers played there, including Benny Goodman, Rudy Vallee, Ozzie Nelson, and Les Brown “and his band of renown.” Lawrence Welk did a week there in 1938, while playing at the William Penn Hotel in Downtown Pittsburgh. (It was the same summer that someone coined the term “champagne music” to describe his bouncy, inoffensive melodies.) Bandleader Tommy Tucker, who employed a then-unknown arranger named Gerry Mulligan, was a regular at the Kennywood Pavilion.
For a long time, Kennywood refused to allow “swing music” to be played at the Pavilion, for fear that it would attract the wrong element, but that restriction was eventually relaxed. Smoking was strictly forbidden; so was alcohol. (And so, for a long time, were African-Americans.)
The war years were good years, and the Pavilion was modernized again. It hosted soldiers, sailors and Marines in town for training or home on leave, and was busy nearly every night. But with the end of the war came a new threat that would ultimately end dancing at Kennywood: Television.
Pittsburgh’s first station, WDTV, signed on at Channel 3 in 1949. Soon, instead of going out to Kennywood to dance in the evening, people were staying home to watch the tube. Then, too, tastes in music were changing. The big bands were in decline, and would soon be eclipsed by rock ‘n roll.
In 1954, Kennywood converted the Pavilion into a fun house called the “Enchanted Forest.” A few years later, it was gutted and a “dark ride” was installed. Passengers boarded little tram cars and rode through various “spooky” attractions. It would be remodeled twice more, and in 1967, was themed as something called the “Ghost Ship” — a sort of haunted pirate ship. A California Gold Rush themed ice cream parlor called “The Golden Nugget” was built into one end, and another ride called the “Road Runner” occupied part of the massive old dance hall.
I was only able to see my dad “cut a rug” at family gatherings. Weddings gave him a great venue to dance, and my mom, aunts and other ladies would all take turns dancing with him. He was that good. In fact, when he was much younger, he used to teach people how to dance on roller skates. I suppose if you’re able to move like that on wheels, transferal to a dance floor came easy.
There was always this one moment, right before he would begin dancing arm-in-arm with a partner that my dad would get this big smile on his face. It was when he would place his hand around her waist, extend his hand, allow her to place her hand in his, and then begin to whirl around the floor in perfect unison with his partner. He would keep on smiling throughout the dance, and relish every moment.
A wonderful recording artist, Luther Vandross, released a song in 2003 that expresses the feeling that I had when watching my dad dance, especially with my mother. Unfortunately, shortly after he recorded the song, Luther suffered a stroke that eventually led to his death just two years later at age 54. The song, “Dance With My Father,” and the lyrics are as follows:
Back when I was a child, before life removed all the innocence
My father would lift me high and dance with my mother and me and then
Spin me around ‘til I fell asleep
Then up the stairs he would carry me
And I knew for sure I was loved
If I could get another chance, another walk, another dance with him
I’d play a song that would never, ever end
How I’d love, love, love
To dance with my father again
When I and my mother would disagree
To get my way, I would run from her to him
He’d make me laugh just to comfort me
Then finally make me do just what my mama said
Later that night when I was asleep
He left a dollar under my sheet
Never dreamed that he would be gone from me
If I could steal one final glance, one final step, one final dance with him
I’d play a song that would never, ever end
‘Cause I’d love, love, love
To dance with my father again
Sometimes I’d listen outside her door
And I’d hear how my mother cried for him
I pray for her even more than me
I pray for her even more than me
I know I’m praying for much too much
But could you send back the only man she loved
I know you don’t do it usually
But dear Lord she’s dying
To dance with my father again
Every night I fall asleep and this is all I ever dream
I really miss my dad. The fact that he was always funny, caring and lucid until the day he died was a gift that God gave to my brother and I. Fortunately, he never suffered from Altzheimer’s Disease as 4 of his 7 siblings did. I hope you’ll excuse what I call the weirdly reflective mood of this post, and celebrate all of the wonderful family and Duquesne Memories that make YOU smile!
I agree about this being one of your best posts. Your father was a lot closer to you than most of the fathers I knew, including my own. But one thing that will always stand out in my memory is of my Dad singing with a quartet when we visited the Hungarian Club in his home town of Pricedale, Pa. He joined in with his old high school cronies to create some beautiful music, American and Hungarian.
I agree with you Jack. Most of the memories of my father were of him yelling at me for not doing something right. Seems like most fathers of that generation were somewhat distant. You are lucky Jim to have had such a great connection.
I LOVED this posting. I think it’s one of your very best. Thanks a bunch!
Jim, so many beautiful memorIes here. I am teary-eyed as I write this brief response. So proud to read about your dad, everytime I open Jim O’Brien’s book, but your words make him come to life for me. I sure miss him a lot.! I can recall having a challenging time keeping up with him on the dance floor at various family weddings, including my own. I guess my dress was too big!
Good read, Jim. Isn’t it funny, that at our age, we still miss our Dads? I, too, would love to dance with my father again.
Talking about our parents is nearly sacramental, as far as I am concerned. Such good people, such hardworking, selfless, giving souls whose like I have rarely met since then. And when you consider that all those good souls were arrayed, living right next to each other, right up the block and down the street (Miller Ave. in Duquesne Place, for me,) from one another, it is a joy to realize how lucky we were to grow up in such a nurturing environment – REAL neighbors – everywhere we looked or walked. Fortunately, even then, I knew (I swear to you I did) how lucky I was to be considered a Duquesne Hunky, and I bless The Lord that every day I know I still am, though hundreds of miles and decades away, but really only a heartbeat away from knowing where home was, where I began, and where I learned how to love and be loved.
Frank, Moon’s son, “Murph.”