Fall bursts with bright colors, Oktoberfests and beer, memories from my childhood and the man with the handlebar mustache.
Memories are a curious thing. They come in the form of a person’s personal perspective. Each situation, event or conversation, means something different to all those involved, and also to those not involved. We give different meanings, according to our belief systems, and how we are affected by the event. In Other words, we don’t see things as they are necessarily; we see things as we are. (http://www.getselfhelp.co.uk/perspectives.htm)
The following is my perception and memories of a man who I am truly grateful to have had in my life.
The sun had set and I remember watching the glow of the red sky slowly fade to black. It had been a long day, a great day of blueberry picking but it was late now and clearly we were lost. It felt like hours since we’d left my parents. Maybe it was. Somehow, we missed where they turned. The back roads of the Catskill Mountains are endless, nameless and windy. There were no maps or street lights to guide you on these less traveled roads. I can’t recall everyone who was in that pale blue Volkswagen bus with me that evening, I think my brother was, maybe my sister too but I remember the mood perfectly: content and tired, despite being lost. I think I was seven or eight-years old. Another thing I remember for sure; I wasn’t scared. I felt safe. It was another adventure. Finally, we came upon a tavern and stopped for directions. We followed him inside the small watering hole and waited patiently, spinning ourselves on bar stools as he drank from a frosty mug, no doubt making new friends while he inquired about our whereabouts and how to get back to the Parkway.
This remains one of my earliest memories of the man with the handlebar mustache.
He wasn’t a “blood” relative but we were close like family and called him Uncle anyway. Uncle Jacob (pronounced Yahck-up) lived with his family, his wife and three sons in an affluent part of Westchester, NY, a short walk from Rye Beach and Playland Amusement Park where their famous boardwalk was featured at the end of the movie “Big”, when the “Zoltar the Magnificent” fortune teller machine returned the adult Tom Hanks to his original childhood age/state of being. As a kid I roamed that boardwalk with my siblings a million times over. My family spent lots of weekend time at the house in Rye. Uncle Jacob and my Dad were very good friends. Shortly after my Dad immigrated to this country from Germany, Uncle Jacob gave him a job as a painter’s apprentice and a place to live. That was over 50-years ago. Back then, an immigrant coming to the United Sates had to have a job and a place to live so as not to be a burden on society.
Uncle Jacob’s wife, Tante Theresa, was an amazing cook and made the best Sunday dinners and chocolate chip cookies you ever had. For real. The three boys were older than me and my siblings. I can’t say I had a relationship with any one of them in particular but I do believe that a life-long bond that exists among family members was created between us during those years and beyond. They knew my Dad before he got married, before we were born. They were patient with us when we came over. I remember watching them and my Dad play with this huge train or racing car track that Uncle Jacob built for them. It was on a wooden board as big as a bed, in fact it retracted onto the wall just like a Murphy Bed. It was a fun, comfortable place to be in, like home and even though the neighborhood was a quiet and reserved one, Uncle Jacob’s house was anything but quiet and reserved.
Looking back I realize Uncle Jacob was the most progressive man I’ve ever known.
To. This. Day.
Everything I experienced at that house was unique and unusual although it all seemed quite normal at the time. As a child, I loved Uncle Jacob but it’s only now as an adult that I truly appreciate the happy, wonderful, exciting things he introduced and exposed me to.
I think of him with the same kind of respect I have for Jean Piaget, John Dewey and Ralph Waldo Emerson and realize how amazingly lucky I was to have had this man’s influences infiltrate my childhood. My schooling occurred behind the stone cold walls of a small, strict catholic school but much of my learning occurred under the indirect tutelage of the man with the handlebar mustache. He was a natural teacher demonstrating a hands-on approach to living and learning. He was a modern day Dr. Doolittle only instead of having an English accent; his was German occasionally slurred by a happy consumption of wine or beer. Like the Pied Piper too, children and adults were drawn to him and his charismatic ways.
Let me explain.
In addition to being a house painter by trade, he was a musician and a singer. Actually, he was a party on two feet, a walking Oktoberfest, all-year-round. He played the accordion. Always and everywhere.
He was a butcher. One time he and my dad bought a pig and among other things, made sausage in his basement, letting me hold the clear, thin casing while he cranked out the ground up sausage meat into it. Another time they bought a calf. We ate veal every day in every way for about a year. I don’t eat veal as an adult.
And yet another time when my younger brother wandered into the basement and as he puts it,
One minute there was a chicken running around and the next minute Uncle Jacob laid it on the butcher block and chopped it’s head off.
He was a farmer, growing tomatoes and other vegetables, and berries along the perimeter of the square shaped fence that surrounded the patch of grass that was his back yard.
He raised rabbits. I remembering playing house with them in their living room, dressing them up and rocking them in my arms like I would a baby doll.
He was a Bee Keeper and for some time, kept his bees in boxes on the roof of his quiet little house in the affluent city of Rye. One summer, when I was 10 or 11, he gave me and my friend a job building bee hive frames. He showed us how to hammer and wire them. He treated us like we were capable. At the end of the day he paid us with jars of honey. Soon after, a neighbor complained and called the police. Uncle Jacob called the newspaper and had me come back and go up on the roof where the bees were to show them how safe it was. Eventually, they made him move the bees.
We had freedom to explore in and out and around his house. There was a small concrete swimming pool that was enclosed by a gate on the property that we swam in often, amongst the huge green lily pads and giant orange gold fish that he kept in it.
He made my brother his first fishing pole out of a stick and some twine and helped him catch his first fish with it.
He was a swimmer and swam in the Long Island Sound, probably every night. He would walk to a small alcove with his flippers in hand and his best friend, Horste, by his side. Horste was his dog, I think he was a coonhound. Sometimes we would go and watch him and Horste swim together.
Uncle Jacob and my Dad would lay in the living room on a Sunday afternoon reading the German newspaper or watching soccer, my Dad on the couch and Uncle Jacob on the floor. Uncle Jacob would call us over one by one and tell us to walk on his back to massage his weary muscles.
As I grew older and became more preoccupied with my own life and living, going to college and working, my personal contact lessened and at some point Uncle Jacob left his house in Rye to go live where his heart was, in the back woods of the Catskill Mountains. I never got to see his place there but my mom used to refer to it as Jacob’s Chutzpah! I imagined it to be a place where animals and people could dwell in an uncomplicated way. Tante Theresa remained for the most part in the house in Rye and I was told that when Uncle Jacob would come down from the mountains to visit his grandchildren he’d bring a baby chick or a bunny rabbit in his coat pocket on the train for them to see and hold and play with.
Needless to say, not everyone he came in contact with appreciated his carefree nature and unfortunately, or fortunately, a neighbor who didn’t enjoy his unconventional ways of living (or German music maybe?) had him arrested on a DUI one night after playing at a local party. He was put in a small-town, back woods jail for a few months, to teach him a lesson. Needless to say, sitting idle in a cell didn’t sit well with Uncle Jacob. He asked for a can of paint and a paint brush. By the time his sentence was served, his cell and the whole jailhouse for that matter was left with a fresh coat of paint on its walls, compliments of the man with the handlebar mustache.
Is there someone in your life that had a huge, positive impact on you as a child?
I’d love to hear about them.