There is one person in my life who is like no one else on earth.
My Dad is probably the most entertaining and interesting guy you’ll ever encounter. You might find him playing one of his instruments in a community orchestra, dressed up like a Monk for his annual pillgramage to “War” with the Society for Creative Anachronism or digging around a park bench trying to find his newest Geocache.
Retired now, and living in New Hampshire, he’s a regular volunteer at the Seashore Trolley Museum, where he is blissfully driving trolley cars and serving as a board member. Dad looks just like Santa, and children often marvel at him. New Hampshire is a bit like the North Pole even, and his adorable New England-style home looks like it could be Santa’s workshop. See my Dad as Santa on this YouTube video, playing banjo and performing his “Pirate Alphabet.”
Throughout my life, I’ve watched my Dad move from one hobby to another, always pursuing “neat” things of interest to him. There was the model railroad passion, that saw him build a complete miniature town and landscaped countryside that filled the entire basement of my childhood home. As a kid, our favourite aspect were the teeny tiny people that you could glue onto streets and put in shops. We loved that Dad put a Bum inside of a boxcar, and we’d sit watching to spot the Boxcar Bum pass by, screaming in delight when we spotted this special car go by.
Once, he pursued a hobby of blacksmithing. For this craft, he set up a blacksmith workshop in a corner of the basement and spent many hours baking iron rods on hot coals and then pounding the red hot metal into functional shapes. He made friends and family sets of fire pokers. He made hooks for coats, hooks for dishtowels and hooks for hanging up his tools and hooks for hanging coffee mugs. Often he’d work at night blacksmithing in our basement, and this is when that hobby came to an end. Mom repeatedly found that his four children were waking up with black noses, a result of breathing in the sooty smoke. She put an end to what was surely a dangerous hobby to keep in your home.
Other hobbies Dad pursued were collecting convertible 1967 Mustangs, trying to make and sell a household cleaning product he called Zippy, religions, politics (including anti-abortion protesting, something that saw us on opposite sides of the argument) running the Old Tyme Fiddlers Association on Long Island, learning, teaching and using morse code, keeping a ham radio license and talking to truckers, building his own Friendship Sloop boats (he built two from scratch!), clamming and mussel gathering, smoking cigars and pipes, driving old cop cars, and oh so many more hobbies.
It is hard to believe that one man could be involved in so many projects, but this is what seems to drive my Dad most — working on projects and things he finds interesting. My Dad has a creative background from his early years. Born in Ohio, he was raised in Cincinnati, near the border of Kentucky. He was influenced by the culture of nearby Appalachia, and taught himself how to play the banjo at just age five. My grandma tells stories of how he’d sit on their front porch, strumming away. This began a lifetime of music for him, and he excelled throughout school at music lessons, learning how to play many instruments. Traditional school subjects were failures for him, and his grades were so bad that he barely graduated, but music was his gift. He can play anything. At graduation from high school, acceptance at college looked to be impossible. Instead, he applied to music schools, and was accepted at the prestigious Julliard.
Dad moved to New York City to attend Julliard, where he studied french horn. Among the talented artists he studied with was Itzhak Perlman, who went on to become a world famous violinist. I’ve seen one picture of my Dad’s days at Julliard and he looked like a beatnik all dressed in black, playing a piano, while a beautiful girl in a black beret hat leans over the top of the piano, singing. Dad told me some stories of his days at Julliard, complaining once about the smelly ballerinas who used to never bathe and would get in the school’s elevators after practice, stinking it up. He wasn’t fond of New York City it seemed, as the living situation was compact and the stress level of the city was high for him.
Following Julliard, Dad went on to pursue his career playing french horn. He played for a number of orchestras, including the Pittsburgh Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra. For these jobs he traveled around Europe, and took a lot of black and white pictures of his time spent in Italy and The Hague, a place he talked fondly of that fascinated me as a child. The Hague just sounded to me like a magical place filled with castles and moats and people who didn’t speak English.
It was while playing with the Cleveland Orchestra that he met my beautiful mother. She was a cashier working at an antique car museum in Cleveland one summer, a place Dad visited often to indulge his hobby of loving old cars. She was just 19 and to her, he was a handsome international jet setting musician who was going places with his career. Six months after meeting, they were married. One year later, when my Mom was just 20, I was born.
When I was born my Dad was with a short term job with an orchestra called Music in Maine, and we lived near Portland. It was here, living beside the ocean and discovering boats, that he took up a love for Friendship Sloop fishing boats, and decided to make his own. He studied how to do it from old books and diagrams, and constructed a striking Friendship Sloop that he anchored in the harbour near our house. One night a fierce storm came up, and his boat vanished out to sea. This broke his heart. But years later, while we lived on Long Island, he’d build another, and to this day he has that same boat stored in his garage.
Music in Maine came to an end for my Dad and this kicked off a serious of adventures that included living in a tent at a boatyard for a summer, moving to Vermont, where Dad worked odd jobs, including being a farmhand. Dad didn’t want to leave New England, but the promise of work in New York City saw our young family (by this time my two sisters had arrived) pick up from Brattleboro and go to Long Island.
Dad started picking up gigs in the city, getting short term jobs on Broadway musicals, the Met Opera and the odd job such as playing for the 70s singer Peter Lemmonjello. He’d often practice french horn in our home, and still played the banjo and fiddle a lot for amusement. One night, Dad came home from his days working in the orchestra for the Broadway show Porgy and Bess, thrilled to tell us all about his new job with the show. He’d become the orchestra’s only banjo player, and started playing the solo part of Porgy’s “Oh, I got plenty O’ nuttin” number. Mom, and the four of us kids, often went to see the production of Porgy and Bess and we’d all wait in excited anticipation in the audience to hear Dad strum out the banjo solo.
There are more stories I’ll probably tell about on this blog about my Dad — stories like Bubblegum Boats, Snake Powder and The Pee Funnel. I only hope I can do justice to the hilarity of these tales about my Dad. For now, this post will give you readers the backstory about my Dad and his creative background. There’s a lot a may not share, which are painful memories. Because with genius creativity, comes a lot of highs and lows and pros and cons, that made my childhood a real topsy turvy unsecure experience.