Why were these guys alive and my dad dead? My dad’s long game wasn’t good.

By Bert Stratton

My father, Toby, had about fifteen pairs of shoes when he died. I didn’t take any of the shoes even though we wore the same size. He had a foot fungus and my mother told me not to take the shoes. My dad owned wingtips, golf shoes, and tennis shoes.

My dad wore Purcells. He was good at sports. He coached my Little League teams and took me every year to the Knights of Columbus track meet at the Cleveland Arena. We also played a lot of tennis. My dad would hit balls with me after work. He would say, “Racquet back. Hit it now. Racquet back, hit it now.” It was like he was on auto-repeat.

Toby wore Bermuda shorts, plus the Purcells and no shirt. That was appropriate tennis attire in the 1960s, at least on the public courts in suburban South Euclid, Ohio. I didn’t appreciate my dad’s tennis instruction. I moped. I should have hustled more. There weren’t any other dads on the courts.

In college I had a summer job at a key-manufacturing warehouse in Eastlake, Ohio. The place was about as big as a Home Depot. It was a warehouse of keys and key machines. A factory supervisor drove around in a golf cart. My dad worked in the front office. I often rested on a wooden cart during unsanctioned breaks. Sarge, the warehouse supervisor, threatened to fire me, but he had a problem – my dad. Sarge said I was a moper. He was right. I told my father I wanted out of the job. I didn’t need money. I didn’t want a car; I didn’t want a UAW card; I didn’t want anything. Besides, I had several thousand dollars from my bar mitzvah.

My dad didn’t let me quit. King Musical Instruments factory was right next door. Why couldn’t my dad have worked there? That might have been fun.

Hy Birnbaum said, “Anything within 10 feet of the cup, Toby sank.” Hy was a friend of my father. In his later years, Hy worked part-time as a pharmacist at the neighborhood CVS. Hy said all his friends were now dead. My dad, for sure, was dead. This was in the 2000s. Hy was in his 80s. Toby died at 68 in 1986.

I ran into John Kelly, who had worked with my dad at the key company. I met John at a folk music festival in Lake County. My klezmer band played there every year. John said one of the “big bosses” at the key company had occasionally slept in the office overnight because he had marital problems. That “big boss” – Sid – had had a slew of problems. His kids had been “real hippies,” John said. I remembered Sid. He had been a loud-mouth know-it-all – a country-club Jew from Shaker Heights. I remember my dad complaining about him, almost nightly, at the dinner table. We were quieter middle-class Jews from South Euclid, an enclave of Italians and Jews on Cleveland’s east side.

My dad disliked all “big bosses,” except the company president, Manny, who was a World Federalist. Not a show-off.  Manny was smart. He came to my gigs in his later years. Manny said to me, “I can still picture your father sitting at his desk.” So could I.

Why were these guys alive and my dad dead? My dad’s long game wasn’t good.

Toby handled pain better than most. For instance, he wasn’t fazed by bone marrow tests, and he never asked for Novocain at the dentist. But he was not made of iron. He had allergies and often caught colds. He said he wanted to be buried with a bottle of Chlor-Trimeton. My dad and I went to the allergist together. The doc saw about many patients per hour. He chatted with each patient for a few minutes, then jabbed. During family vacations, my dad took along syringes and bottled medicine, supplied by the doctor. You could do that back then. My dad and I poked each other. Needles were like family to us.

My dad listened to his body before that became popular. He drank healthful Tiger shakes at the Old Arcade in downtown Cleveland. He was a fitness buff and owned the Royal Canadian Air Force exercise booklet. He jogged in his underwear in the kitchen. Weren’t there jogging shorts back then? He was also a member of the informal Church of Vitamin C, founded by Linus Pauling.

Toby lay on the living room couch during his final days. I said, “Your view would improve if you turned the other direction.” He didn’t care which direction he faced. He had a 104 temperature. We talked taxes, which was our go-to subject. I said I was in the 15% tax bracket. He said I was in the 28 % bracket. How was that possible? I didn’t understand marginal tax brackets — the last-dollar-in concept. I had a lot to learn. Another thing: How come when interest rates go down, bond prices go up?  My dad explained.

Toby had leukemia. I got shingles. My uncle, visiting the hospital, said, “What’s wrong with you, Bert? Shingles are for old people!” I was 36. A couple days later, a nurse called at 3 a.m. and said my dad was dead. I went to the hospital with my mother. The room was tidy — no bedpans, no chucks, no tubes. No more needles.

Bert Stratton is a landlord, writer and musician. He lives in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.