This Sunday is Father’s Day, and with that in mind, I’d like to share some impressions I have of my father, Joe Perrone Sr, which remain with me long after his passing, more than forty years ago.
Although he was a small man physically, standing just 5′ 5-1/2″ tall (he always made sure to include that half inch, as if somehow it was something to be proud of), I never thought of him that way. To me he was the biggest man I ever knew—in my eyes, at least. His stature was measured in degrees of respect. My brother and I may not have always agreed with him, but we had enormous respect for him.
One of my fondest memories is of sitting on my dad’s lap and watching the Friday night fights on the little black and white TV we owned. Dad would puff away on his Chesterfield cigarette, and the darkened room would be enveloped in a blue haze generated by the smoke. He knew every fighter, too, including the likes of Gene Fulmer, Carmine Basilio, and Jersey Joe Walcott, to name a few. We were even watching that night when Emile Griffith beat Benny Kid Paret to death, supposedly over remarks made by him in regard to Griffith’s lack of masculinity. Years later, my brother and I cajoled Dad into meeting us at a movie theater in Hackensack, New Jersey, to watch Muhammed Ali regain his title against George Foreman. A great memory.
Dad loved baseball. Naturally, he was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan. Back in the early 50s, “Da Bums” played at Ebbetts Field, and were sponsored in part by the Bordon Ice Cream Company. If you collected 10 Elsie Ice Cream wrappers and added a quarter, you could redeem them for a general admission ticket to a game. My dad would save the wrappers in an old cardboard suit box, and when he’d saved enough of them, he would my brother and me and a couple of friends to a game.
My pop had strong opinions about almost everything (especially politics) and never failed to make his views known. He was an inveterate writer of letters to the editor, and through the years I have emulated him in that regard. Dad was an optimist, too. I would often think of him when watching episodes of The Honeymooners, as Ralph Kramden, played by Jackie Gleason, would enter contest after contest in the pursuit of an elusive grand prize. Dad’s optimism was different, however. Unlike the TV character, his was not cockeyed, and he backed it up with resolve and hard work to make his dream come true.
When he realized that conditions were growing untenable in the federal housing project where we lived in Brooklyn, he determined to “get us out” of there. He added a second job to his work load, and eventually managed to make his aspiration a reality. He rented a truck, and with the help of neighbors and family members, he physically moved us from Brooklyn to suburban New Jersey. Once we had relocated, he arose early each morning for years to make the more than one hour drive from our home in Oradell to his job at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. And he never complained. Then, in order to keep the dream alive, he worked an additional job at night and on weekends for years to “keep a roof over our heads,” as he put it.
Dad taught my brother and me many things. He taught us to be honest, to never lie, and to always have respect for the police, values I retain to this very day. He taught us to always honor our obligations. He also taught me how to pack a suitcase, how to shave, and how to balance a checkbook (I still balance mine to the penny). I remember him taking me to the local bank to take out a student loan for college, and then, even though it broke his heart to see me go away, insisted on driving me to the train station in Newark to make the trip to Kentucky. He taught me how to drive—or at least he tried to. But, owing to his one and only shortcoming, a fiery temper, he lost patience with my inability to coordinate the gas pedal with the clutch and eventually gave up. (Luckily, a friend’s mother allowed me to use her car, with its automatic transmission, to obtain my driver’s license.)
My father was a musical genius. He played the piano and the organ. He couldn’t read a note, but played everything “by ear.” He could hear a song one time, and then play it perfectly in almost any style imaginable. He had a special trick he used when playing Jingle Bells. He would place a glass ashtray on top of a group of keys on the organ, and as he played the song, the ashtray would jiggle slightly, producing a sound that exactly mimicked that of sleigh bells. I can still see his feet flying over the base pedals as he played such demanding melodies as Tico Tico and Bei Mir Bistu Schein. He actually played for the inauguration of Governor Cahill. That’s how good he was!
One memory that’s not so pleasant is of the cancer that took Dad’s life. His doctors, recognizing that he was terminal, sent him to a VA hospital for an experimental treatment. Unfortunately, he was never able to gain enough strength to avail himself of the procedure, and he died not long after he arrived there. I know he suffered terribly, and to this day I regret not being able to see him more during his stay in the hospital. His wake, however, was a testimony to his good character and popularity. Hundreds of people attended, and I will forever be grateful to all who came to pay him respect. He deserved it!
Take a few minutes and think about your father this Father’s Day. If your dad is still alive, make sure you visit him, or at least call him if he lives far away. And make sure you send him a card. If he’s no longer with you, pause and reflect on the times you spent with him through the years when he was alive. I know Father’s Day is one of those “made up” holidays, but unlike Valentine’s Day or National Potato Day, it’s one of the better ones, and serves a valuable purpose.
Happy Father’s Day to all the fathers out there. And, to my Dad in heaven, I love you with all my heart, and I miss you every day.
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