A July 4th flashback on a 100th anniversary
By Donald H. Harrison
POWAY, California—As the 4th of July pinwheels, sparklers, cloud bursts and other pyrotechnics lit up the Poway-Rancho Bernardo area, the 9-year-old boys behind me kept up a running commentary: “That’s the biggest one yet… That’s the loudest! …. That’s the coolest! … That’s the highest! … Oh, that’s so awesome.” Occasionally, the 3-year-old brother of one of the nine-year-old boys chimed in with his appraisals: “That one is green…. Red! …. Oooh, white.”
Although I didn’t expect the patriotic evening would have greater-than-usual sentimental impact on me, indeed it did. Not only did this past Sunday mark the 234th anniversary of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, it also marked what would have been the 100th birthday of my father, Martin Benjamin Harrison.
It occurred to me that my grandson Shor, one of the nine-year-old boys who was yelling appreciative descriptions of the fireworks, was given the middle name of Martin in my father’s memory, and that coincidentally the boy seated next to him in the parking lot of Congregation Ner Tamid was named Binyamin (Benjamin). The two had been classmates at Soille San Diego Hebrew Day School up to the end of the spring semester.
Shor remembered a favorite family story that had been told about my father – that Martin’s parents, Meyer and Florence, had him convinced up to the point that he became five years old that all those fireworks were in honor of his birth date of July 4, 1910. When my father got to kindergarten, a wiser classmate apprised him of the truth—not for him, but for these United States of America, did people all over the country engage in such celebrations.
I looked back at Sky, our three-year-old grandson, who was sitting in my wife Nancy’s lap, and realized that he was of the age of utter and complete gullibility. Had he been born on a July 4th, instead of nearly four months earlier on the calendar, would I have been tempted to tell him we were going to attend a big, noisy, wonderful celebration in honor of his birthday?
Ner Tamid Synagogue is located up on a hill adjacent to the grounds below of Rancho Bernardo High School, from where the fireworks were set off. When the fireworks burst in the air, they were far closer to us than to the spectators at the high school, perhaps adding to the thrill of the occasion. We have our dear friends Gerry and Judy Burstain to thank for inviting us to Ner Tamid, where they are active members.
I saw at least one dog on a leash in the Ner Tamid parking lot, and I wondered how the animal would react to the fireworks. Seeing him there amid soda cups, hot dogs and salad, I remembered the trick my father once had taught our dog, Casey, who was a mixture of German Shepherd and Boxer. Dad would put some delectable morsel down on the ground in front of him and whistle for Casey, who’d come bounding toward him. Spotting the food, Casey would lick his chops, but two soft words from my father brought Casey to an abrupt halt: “Not kosher,” my father would whisper. Casey would remain rigid in place, disdaining the treif food, but never taking his eyes off it. “Okay,” my father would say, after a pause, “it’s ham.” The dog would gobble up the food immediately.
“Ham? Kosher?” friends would ask.
“What do you expect? A dog knows gornisht about kosher,” dad would reply.
Dad used his sense of humor to great advantage in his profession. For many years, he was the national sales representative of his uncle’s company, Stang Textile Corporation, which sold pocketing and lining to the manufacturers of men’s suits. He had a simpler way of describing his job: “I’m in the shmata business,” he’d say. That’s Yiddish for “old rag.”
He used to travel extensively, taking four, five-week-long swings around the country every year to visit his customers at the clothing factories. In between swings, he would correspond with his customers, often sending them cartoons which he drew instead of relying on more formal written correspondence. One of those cartoons he drew stuck in my memory: A man wearing nothing but a barrel holding his hands up in a shrugging gesture, asks“Pockets? Whose got pockets?” The punch line was below the cartoon. “Marty Harrison’s got pockets! Need some?”
This cartoon and others almost invariably were pinned up on the walls of the cutting rooms of the various suit factories. Dad had the pleasure of seeing his “art galleries” in cities across the United States.
He was quite a story teller too, with an ear for accents and regional dialects. He could tell after listening to someone for less than a minute whether that person was from Cleveland, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Chicago or Kansas City. And he could reproduce many accents, especially when telling dialect stories that often featured Eastern European Jews, French people, British folk, Russians, Australians , Germans, and the panoply of humanity.
Some say dad had a passing physical resemblance to the comedian Myron Cohen, who spent his formative years in the shmata business. Once, dad attended a night of Myron Cohen’s comedy, at the Palmer House in Chicago if memory serves me right. Coincidence of coincidence, they were wearing the same colored suit. As dad started to leave the show room, people asked for his autograph. “I’m not Myron Cohen,” he said. “Don’t be like that—we just saw you on stage!” they insisted. He could not convince them otherwise, so, dad reluctantly signed various pieces of paper, “with best wishes – Myron Cohen.” At last, he got away, and found his way to a bar in the hotel. As luck would have it, Cohen was sitting in a booth.
“Mr. Cohen,” said my father, “I want to apologize to you. I was just mobbed by people who thought I was you and demanded that I sign your autograph. They wouldn’t believe me when I said I wasn’t you, so to get away from them, I signed.”
Cohen was not particularly perturbed by the news.
“You know,” my father ventured. “You and I come from similar backgrounds. I’m in the textile business, just like you used to be—and to tell the truth, I know the same jokes that you tell. I’ve been telling them, and others, for years.”
“That,” declared Cohen, “is a challenge. Sit down.”
So dad said across from the comedian and they made a bet. A drink would be bought for the man who could tell a joke that the other did not know.
Sometimes the joke started differently than the way the other told it, but at a certain point, it would be recognized and the listener would blurt out the punch line. Then the listener would start telling the story, until the other interrupted.
According to dad, the contest lasted between an hour and ninety minutes. Word that Cohen was having a contest with someone who looks like he could be his brother spread through the bar. People craned their necks to listen to the showdown.
At the end of the sessions, two drinks had been purchased. One each.
Dad, our family story teller, died 35 years ago when he was the age I am today. He was a heavy smoker with a three-pack a day habit. Unfiltered Paul Malls. I’m certain he’d have lived to a nice ripe age if he hadn’t smoked. He’d have been able to watch my daughter Sandi and son David grow up, seen both of them married so Shahar and Hui-Wen respectively, and perhaps even met Shor, Sky and his youngest great-grandchild, Brian.
Looking up at the fireworks-stained sky, I recalled that dad had been shocked back to life after suffering a heart attack in the hospital. “Please don’t do that again,” he demanded of us. “I saw myself down there—I was watching what everyone was doing—but I didn’t want to go back. Up above, I saw my brother (Henry), and my father (Meyer) and they were welcoming me.”
We followed dad’s wishes, and did not resuscitate him after yet another heart attack, though it was a very hard decision for my mother, Alice, my brother Bill, and myself.
Our family continues to speculate about dad’s out-of-body experience. Was it evidence of an afterlife? Or was it simply the hallucination of a dying man?
It was an interesting juxtaposition: the last words of a man born July 4, 1910 and volley after volley of fireworks bringing the celebration of July 4, 2010, to a climax.
Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World
Short URL: http://www.sdjewishworld.com/?p=7313