ESSAYS, ARTICLES, & REVIEWS
HANGIN' WITH THE OLD DUDES
Sept., 13, 2013
My 83-year-old dad recently fell down and broke his hip. After nine grueling days in the hospital and a partial hip replacement, he was sent to a rehabilitation facility called Fox Run, about a thirty minute drive from my house. So every single day he was there (as well as in the hospital)—47 days, all told—I went and visited him. I’d go first thing in the morning and arrive promptly at 9:00 AM.
Since I’ve boiled my whole world down to a one-mile radius: my office, which I rarely go to anymore (located in my dad’s building, where he too has his office, he on top, me in the basement), is located a mile from here, the grocery store is four blocks, the liquor store is also four blocks, the post office is about eight blocks, and handily, there’s a Target and a Best Buy within a half-mile, so I don’t drive all that much anymore. I bought my car nearly a year ago with 10,000 miles on it, and in about ten months put 2,000 miles on it. However, now that dad’s thirty minutes away, and the hospital was about twenty minutes away, I’ve managed to put 2,000 more miles on my car in six weeks. Miraculously, the drivers have gotten significantly worse, due mainly to cell phones and texting. I find it so annoying to be behind someone at a red light who is texting, then the light changes and they don’t go because they’re not paying attention, I have resorted to the profligate use of my horn. I also had a bumper sticker made that says, “Only Idiots Text and Drive, 11,000 Fatalities and Counting . . .” Now, when folks pull up behind me who are texting, occasionally they glance up, see my bumper sticker and suddenly look like they’ve just been accused of mass murder, then quickly lower their phone down and keep right on texting. One kid got so indignant that he pulled up beside me, phone in hand, and gave me his dirtiest look in his arsenal. I grinned, made my hand into a gun and shot him. He quickly sped off. This bumper sticker is a gift that just keeps on giving.
When I got to Fox Run and had to go through a guarded gate each time I entered and exited. Even though it was usually the same kid guarding the gate every morning, I still had to say every time, “Hi, I’m going to see Arnold Becker at Rose Court” (the rehab building is located within a vast assisted living community), and then I was let through. One day I got there and a window installation van was parked at the gate and the guard and the van’s driver were having a long discussion, like ten minutes. Finally, having used up what little patience I have, I honked my horn. Nothing. The discussion continued unabated. I honked again, and once again, nothing. Meanwhile, perhaps six or seven other cars had built up behind me. So I got out of my car and said, “Why don’t you let this asshole through?” The acne-covered kid authoritatively stated, “Get back in your car,” and the unseen van driver said, “Who are you callin’ an asshole?” Anyway, the van was finally allowed to pass and I and the others were finally allowed in.
Rose Court was a nice enough facility, for a senior citizen rehab, with a jovial redheaded gal at the front desk with whom I became friendly. I always smiled at her and asked, “How are you today?” and she always replied with a big grin, “Fabulous. How about you?” I’d say, “I’m doing reasonably well, though certainly not fabulous. Someday I’ll be fabulous,” and she would grin even wider at my astounding wit. I’d then sign in and go up to the second floor.
I always smiled and said good morning to everybody I passed, which was mainly old folks in wheelchairs and on walkers, as well as nurses, therapists, techs and what-have-you, although no doctors, ever. The staff was mainly in their 30s, black and extremely friendly. The aged patients were friendly, too, if they actually heard me. Many, however, just doddered on by, unaware of anything other than their own miserable, feeble existence in a senior citizen’s rehab facility.
Since the hallways all had street signs, I’d mosey up Tulip Blvd. that went past the dining room, where, at 9:00 AM, many folks were always eating breakfast, and half the time I’d find my dad there in his wheelchair at the first table, the boy’s table. The girls all sat at three other tables, each accommodating eight to ten people. When you’re in elementary and middle school (formerly junior high), the boys and the girls sit at separate tables. In high school the boys only hope that the girls will sit with them. But once you become elderly, it separates back out by sex. I think the boys and the girls are no longer interested in what the other ones have to say.
The other half of the time, when my dad was not eating breakfast, I’d stop and get two Styrofoam cups of coffee, then I’d turn right on Monarch Way and go to my dad’s room. I would invariably find him either in bed or in his wheelchair watching the miserable show, “Fox & Friends,” on the reprehensible Fox Channel. The first thing I’d always do is turn off the sound, then I’d give my dad a kiss and give him his cup of coffee. I’d ask him how he was doing and he’d either say fine, or shrug in discouragement. He had been there longer than anyone else. He’d already watched several batches of enfeebled seniors come and go, yet he remained. This was entirely due to the fact that he kept falling down. My dad is an obstinate old son of a bitch. He used to be an obstinate young son of a bitch, but alas, age has caught up with him. Unless one of the staff was there to force him into using the wheelchair or walker, he simply wouldn’t, like every time he got up in the middle of the night to urinate. That’s when he usually fell down, in the bathroom, peeing all over the damn place, which was why, no matter how often they cleaned it, his room always stank of urine. Anyway, rehabs absolutely hate it when their patients fall down—they take it as an indictment against themselves for failing to inculcate them with the information that they so desperately need, which is: they must use their walker or wheelchair. So my dad remained. My dad is far too obstinate to learn anything new at this late date. I asked his nurse and health tech, Denise and Booker, if my dad was the crabbiest patient at Fox Run? They both replied simultaneously, “Hands-down.” It’s good to be number one at something.
So my dad and I would yak for a while, then I’d wheel him to the dining room for breakfast. My dad doesn’t ask for things, he commands. “Get me a cup of coffee.” “Get me a muffin. Make it two.” Etc. When I was younger this used to annoy me, but now I’m just amused. “Yes, sir,” I’d say, hopping to and fetching whatever I’d been ordered to fetch.
Once we were comfortably ensconced at the boy’s table the fun, in my opinion, really began. There was an ever-changing cast of elderly male characters (occasionally a female would infiltrate, but not often). This is what this story is really about, “Respek,” which, Sasha Baron Cohen as Ali G, informed us, “Isn’t even in the dictionary.” These old dudes, most of whom were at least 85, making my dad a youngster at 83, were attended to, but they don’t get no respek. Possibly from a family member, but more often than not, not even there. Nurses and techs made sure they’re dressed, not covered with shit or piss, kept relatively clean, fed, medicated and put to bed. Therapists made sure they’re each given therapy. Clearly, nobody made much of an effort to engage them. And how could they? Too many people were coming and going too regularly to get to know anyone, besides, the staff all had jobs to do, and getting into conversations with the patients wasn’t part of it.
That’s where I came in. Luckily for me I had no job to do, other than amuse my father. And I know how to amuse my father. Although my dad tries with all his might not to laugh, I can nearly always get him to laugh. It’s as though he is, and always was, actively against frivolity, even though he enjoys it. I, on the other hand, live for it, and have, on occasion, made a living at it. There’s also the aspect that if I can get other folks to like me, in front of my dad, then perhaps I’ll earn a shred of his respek, of which I’ve earned very little over the course of my life. In fact, regarding earning my dad’s respect, I’ve lead a life of penury. I’d don’t fret it anymore at 55 years of age, but that doesn’t mean I still don’t desire it.
OK, so we’re seated at the boys’ table, and the first thing I always did was to introduce myself to any new faces and ask their names. I wouldn’t even attempt to shake their hands because most of them could barely lift their arms, and the backs of all their hands were black and blue from IVs. This is where the surprise and delight began. Apparently, nobody bothers to ask old people their names. I have no doubt that doctors and nurses and what-have-you introduce themselves when they first meet an old person, saying something like, “Hello, I’m Dr. Joe Blow, and I’ll be your ottorhinolaryngologist (ears, nose and throat). What’s the problem?” Or, “Hi, I’m Suzie Rottencrotch, and I’ll be your nurse. Where does it hurt?” But seemingly none of them ask, “Oh, and what’s your name, if you’ve got one?” But I always ask the gentlemen their names, then usually follow it up with a few general questions, like, “How old are you?” If they’re older than my dad, as most of them are, then they probably served in the military during WWII. Therefore, my next question is always, “Did you serve in the military during World War II?” and in 100% of the cases they did. One guy, Bob, said, “Truman liked me so much he brought me back for Korea.” Most of them had served in the Navy, on destroyers or PT boats, and most of them had been stationed somewhere in the Philippines. One man, Ken, who was 92, in a wheelchair, his hands curled palm-up on his lap, shaking, staring straight down, said, “I was in an amphibious assault on Luzon.” I asked him a few more questions, then turned to entertain and amuse the rest of table. The next day when I arrived at the boy’s table, I gave my standard greeting, which is imitating Winchester’s snotty Boston accent from “M*A*S*H”, “Gentlemen,” then I turned to Ken and said, “Good morning, Ken.” His head was up that day and he looked flabbergasted. “Yes, I’m Ken. Thank you for remembering.” I said, “Not only do I remember your name, I remember that you were in an amphibious assault on Luzon.” Now he looked like he’d just seen the Ghost of Christmas past. “Yes, I was. Thank you for remembering.” I said, “It’s entirely my pleasure, and I find it absolutely fascinating.” Truly, his mouth hung open in astonishment at the wondrous magic I had just performed.
The next day his attractive younger wife Marion showed up. Let me tell you, for 80 she was a babe. And exceptionally sweet. I wanted to ask him, but never got a chance, “How did you get such a young attractive wife? What makes you so special? Are you rich? Well-endowed? What?” then I would have said, “I’ll tell you what, I’ll arm-wrestle you for her.” Alas, I missed my opportunity.
Having just read a terrific book about Harry Truman, “Plain Speaking,” I added to the Philippines topic, “Harry Truman didn’t hate too many people, but he really couldn’t stand Doug McArthur, or Dwight Eisenhower, for that matter. Truman called them both cowards.” The ensemble seemed shocked by this revelation. Ken asked, “Why did he hate McArthur?” I said, “You were in the Philippines. McArthur split to Australia—“I shall return”—and you and a bunch of other schmucks were left there to fight the war.” Ken nodded, “Yes, we were.” Ed, a round-faced, smiling man who had also served in the Philippines, humorously said, “I disagree with you and Truman about General McArthur, but we’ll save it for another time.” Sadly, that time never came.
Another hot topic was smoking. I asked if any of them had been a smoker? All hands that were able to be raised were raised. Of course, none of them was a smoker anymore. The only one who was presently a smoker was me. One guy said, “I smoked Chesterfields, they were great,” another man said, “I smoked Camels,” Bob said, “Luckies were only five-cents a pack on the destroyer. I’d sit on the fantail and smoke one cigarette after another, flicking them overboard. I’d smoke three or four packs a day. ‘Course I’d give ‘em to my buddies, too.” They all appeared exceptionally satisfied with their memories of inhaling tobacco long, long ago.
And yet another lively topic, and one of my favorites, was boxing. I asked, “Do any of gentlemen remember the Joe Louis-Max Schmeling fights?” and, of course, they all did. If you were over the age of six months in 1936 you listened to the first Louis-Schmeling fight on the radio and heard the devastating news that the German had knocked out the heavyweight champ, the Brown Bomber, in the 4th round. This was extremely exciting, wonderful news for Adolf Hitler, who was not a boxing fan, and the rest of Nazi Germany. Two years later, on June 22, 1938, the rematch finally occurred. In the interim Schmeling had lost the title and Louis had won it back, so this was a championship bout and Schmeling’s chance to win back the title (the second time). Well, in the 1st round Joe Louis completely creamed Max Schmeling, knocking him down three times until he couldn’t get back up and was counted out. This was a great moment for Americans and bad moment for Germans, who would soon start WWII. What was particularly wonderful to watch was the warm, sweet nostalgic looks on all these old dudes’ faces, since many of them had listened to the fight with their fathers. Several of them said, “I listened to the fights with my dad every Friday night.”
Bob, whose full name was Robert Goulet, and was the first-cousin of the other Robert Goulet who played Lancelot in the play, “Camelot,” on Broadway with Richard Burton and Julie Andrews. Therefore, any time I saw Bob I sang out his cousin’s big number in the show, “If ever I should leave you/It wouldn’t be in springtime/For seeing you in springtime, I never would go . . .” and Bob would happily join in. Bob gave me a business card that says, “Michigan Militia, For God and Country, Robert P Goulet P.E. CEF, Commander,” with a United States Department of the Navy seal on it. Since the Michigan Militia is notorious as a racist hate group—and Bob couldn’t have been a nicer, happier guy—I asked, “So what do you guys do? Lynch Negroes?” Bob laughed, but didn’t say no.
I played a game with these guys. I said, “Name any year between 1927 and 1990, when I stopped caring, and I’ll tell you the Oscar-winning Best Picture. Go ahead.” They all looked at me blankly. “Go on, any year up to about 1990.” Nothing. I turned to Ken. “Come on, name a year.” He looked at me and shook his head. “I don’t know.” I persisted, “Any year between 1927 and 1990, Ken, come on.” He finally said, doubtfully, “1934?” I said, “It Happened One Night with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. Try another year.” Ken said, “1935?” I said, “Mutiny on the Bounty with Clark Gable and Charles Laughton. Isn’t this fun?” No response. I pointed at Marion, Ken’s adorable wife, “Go on, name a year. Any year between 1927 and 1990.” She looked like a deer in the headlights and said, “2000?” So, the game wasn’t a big hit, what are you gonna do? They can’t all be winners.
Every one of these gentlemen went out of their way to individually tell my dad that they thought I was smart and funny and erudite. I know this because my dad told me so, with a grin on his face. For perhaps the first time in our 55-year relationship, he seemed legitimately proud of me. Better late than never.