Saturday, June 14, 2008

Elegy, Sam Prelutsky

another classic by Burt Prelutsky

[Dear Readers:

Unlike all the other pieces on this site, which were written over the past year or so, this final one was written a quarter of a century ago, a couple of days after my father died.

While my dad was alive, I'm afraid I gave him short shrift. We didn't seem to have very much in common. We were like two friendly strangers who happened to live in the same boardinghouse. Only when he was gone did I become aware of my profound loss.

So, please bear with me while I try to make belated amends.

Finally, a word to the wise: Learn from my sad experience. Don't put off expressing such sentiments until tomorrow. You never know when you're going to run out of tomorrows.

Best wishes, Burt]

Two days ago, I returned from a weekend in San Francisco to learn that my father had died. Sam Prelutsky had been born in Russia, in 1901 or 1902. He never knew for certain. It didn't seem to bother him.

As a young man in America, he settled in a part of Illinois where the most popular organization going was the Ku Klux Klan. After the Cossacks, though, I guess a bunch of farmers wearing sheets wasn't such a big deal. Years later, he used to laugh about his former neighbors inviting him -- him with his nose and his accent -- on Klan outings. Maybe they decided to overlook the obvious evidence in the belief that Jewish people didn't raise chickens and candle eggs.

Later, after he was married, he moved to Chicago. For a while, he worked for a cigar company, rolling the stogies he couldn't stand to smoke. But for most of the time he was a fruit and vegetable wholesaler. He'd drive his truck to the big central market at 3 a.m., pick up his load, and spend the next twelve hours delivering produce. In the dead of winter, he'd be out on that truck shlepping sacks of potatoes. In the middle of summer, he'd be muscling crates of watermelons -- just begging for the hernia he eventually got.

We moved to L.A. in 1946. At that point he came to the conclusion that the people he'd been delivering to over the years had been living the life of Riley, home in bed snoozing while he was up shlepping. He decided to tackle the retail end. A few months at a bad location ate up most of his savings and sent him back to the truck. But L.A., massive sprawl that it was even then, was murder compared to the more compact Chicago.

His next venture was a cigar stand in the Harris-Newmark Building at Ninth and Los Angeles. Not counting the drive downtown, it was still a twelve-hour day, spent mostly on his feet. But at least the lifting and hauling was limited to soft-drink cases and trash barrels. On the other hand, you had to learn to live with the goniffs who swiped candy bars during the noon rush and the merchant princes of the garment industry who'd run up good-sized cigar bills and let you stew until they were ready to pay up. And my father would stew because he couldn't afford to offend the potbellied, cigar-chewing, fanny-pinching sweatshop aristocrats.

He was not an educated man. He couldn't correctly spell the names of those sodas and candy bars he sold six days a week. I don't know if he read two dozen books in his life. He loved America, Israel, pinochle, FDR, and the Democratic party. He liked Willkie, Kuchel and Warren; but he could never bring himself to vote for a Republican.

He wanted me to get good grades, a college degree and have a profession -- something safe and preferably lucrative, like medicine or the law. He couldn't understand someone's wanting to write for a living. Still, when I sold a poem for fifty cents at the age of thirteen, he cashed the check for me -- and much, much later I found out he always carried that undeposited check folded up in his wallet.

Yesterday, we went to the mortuary. We went through the ritual of selecting a casket. "They start at $300," the salesman informed us, pointing at something that looked like an old Thom McAnn shoe box, "and go up." We passed on the coffin that cost as much as a new Cadillac, and settled on an oak box that you could swap for a '65 Chevy.

Then we had to sit there while some woman gathered data for the cosmetician. We tried to explain that it was to be a closed-casket ceremony, but she had not been programmed to receive such information. "Did he wear clear nail polish?" (No, he never wore nail polish. But had he worn nail polish, it would have been clear as opposed to purple or fire-engine red!)

It was finally spelled out for her that they could save their rouge and polish and stupid questions. She turned pale at our impertinence. Her shock was reassuring; she was not a robot, after all.

We buried my father this afternoon. I didn't think I would, but I shed tears. I cried because he had worked too hard for too long for too little. For many years, I had resented him because he had never told me he loved me; now I wept because I'd never told him.

The rabbi's speech was short and simple. What is there, after all, to say at the funeral of such a man? Had the responsibility been mine, I would have said: Sam Prelutsky, who was born in a small village 7,000 miles from here, 67 or 68 years ago, was a remarkable person. He was not a great man or a famous man, but he was the best man Sam Prelutsky could be.

Now, let there be no more tears today, for we are laying to rest a man who's earned one.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Memories Of Nebraska

by Burt Prelutsky

There are, as I see it, two kinds of people. There are those who love to travel, people who would sooner let their drivers licenses lapse than their passports, and then there’s me.

When I was younger, it was usually writing assignments that forced me to pack my suitcase. Now, between those airport security lines that remind me of the endless serpentines at Disneyland and airplane seats that seem to have been designed for the transporting of sardines, long distance travel has lost whatever small allure it ever had.

In fact, of all the trips I have taken in my life, trips that included such destinations as Japan, Yugoslavia, Brazil and Spain, the most memorable one took place about 20 years ago. The locale was Oxford, Nebraska. The purpose was to meet my in-laws for the first time.

Oxford is a town of about a thousand people, located in the southwest part of the state. For someone who was born in Chicago and raised in Los Angeles, it was more exotic than Osaka, Japan. When you live in a big city, it is possible to go a very long time without ever knowing your next door neighbor, so it is a major culture shock to spend a week in a town where you’re the only stranger.

Because my wife and I were staying at a motel in a town about 12 miles away, we had to rent a car. One dark night, on our way back to the Bide-a-Wee, our car suddenly broke down in the middle of farm country. Being closer to my mother-in-law’s house than to our motel, we left the car parked on the shoulder and started walking back. After about five minutes, a car headed in our direction slowed down and stopped. There were two elderly women in the car. They offered us a lift. When I asked them if they weren’t the least bit nervous about picking up strangers in the dead of night, the driver said, “We saw your car, so we knew you’d broken down, and we knew we’d come across you sooner or later.” I sat there thinking, “Toto, we’re not in California anymore.”

It turned out the good Samaritans didn’t live in Oxford, but they knew my mother-in-law, Juanita Boe, and they dropped us off at her front door.

The next unusual thing that happened is that one of my sisters-in-law immediately phoned the owner of the auto agency where we’d rented the car and chewed off his ear for sticking us with a lemon. It was past 10 p.m.. For all I know, he was already asleep, but this was Nebraska, where there is apparently no rest for the wicked.

Another night, we were a little low on gas. Because there was only one gas station in Oxford and it closed up at sundown, I was a bit concerned. But there was no reason to be. My mother-in-law checked the time and told us where the local patrolman was likely to be making his rounds. It seems he had the key to the padlock on the gas pump. Sure enough, a few minutes later, we found him driving down by the ballpark, exactly where he was supposed to be. A few minutes later, I had a full tank of gas.

One afternoon, I walked to the local grammar school to shoot baskets with my 11-year-old niece-in-law. I asked her what was the best thing about living in such a small town. She thought about it for a while and then said, “Everybody knows you.” I then asked her what the worst thing was. This time she didn’t have to think about it. “Everybody knows you.”

The girl’s mother worked part time at the local newspaper. She asked me if I’d mind being interviewed by the editor-publisher. Apparently, if a town is small enough, even a TV writer is something of a visiting celebrity.

So the next day I wandered over to the newspaper. While I sat in the editor’s office waiting for him to get back from lunch, I had a few minutes to check out my surroundings. When he showed up, I asked him if he lived four blocks up and two blocks over. He said he did, and he wondered how I happened to know that. “The other day,” I explained, “I was taking a walk when a cocker spaniel came down the driveway and started barking at me. I thought I recognized him in that family picture you have on your desk.”

So when I tell you that Oxford is a small town, you now have some idea just how small it is.

It was a very nice write-up, by the way, but I guess the guy wasn’t a big fan of Jack Webb, though, because he kept spelling “Dragnet” “Drag Net.”

My most vivid memory of Oxford, however, involves turkey. My wife had told me that her mother was a wonderful cook and had even run her own catering business for several years. Well, the first dinner we had was a beautiful roast turkey. When we returned the next day for lunch, we had turkey sandwiches. That evening, we had turkey for dinner.

The next day, we had turkey for lunch. Also for dinner.

By this time, I could see that we were getting close to the bone, and I was already anticipating a change of pace.

However, when we showed up the next day, I beheld a brand spanking new roast turkey.

By the end of the week, I half-expected to sprout feathers and wattles.

It so happens that I like turkey as much as the next guy, but it was obvious that, after praising her mother’s culinary skills, my wife was at a loss to explain the turkey festival.

Only after we returned to L.A. was the mystery solved. My wife got off the phone with her mom and explained, “My mother knows you’re Jewish and she knows there are lots of things Jews aren’t supposed to eat, but she figured turkey was safe.”
If only my own mother had been as thoughtful. That woman, knowing how much I dreaded salmon patties and barley soup, made the one every Tuesday night and the other every Friday night for as long as I lived at home, and never -- not even on Thanksgiving -- made turkey.

Juanita Boe passed away almost 10 years ago. If she got a gig in God’s kitchen, I can’t help wondering what’s on the menu.