Thursday, August 1, 2019

Remembering my dad: Alan Gertsacov

Another August rolls around, and it's difficult to imagine that my dad would have been 82 years old today.  Sadly, he died a long time ago (in 1987, at the age of 49) due to a car accident.

It's never been completely resolved exactly what happened, and why he was out of his car at 2 am on a January night, trying to wave down a driver that apparently didn't see him, and he got hit instead.

At the time, it seemed like it was very important to try to figure out WHY it happened.  There was talk of suing the driver, of starting an inquiry, but my mom never wanted to do that, and so it didn't happen.  And at this late date, it's still a mystery.  But of course, it doesn't really matter.  The fact is, he is dead, and has been for a long time, and it's his memory that I'd like to preserve.

He died when I was 22 years old.  I had graduated college (Photo to the left is of him at my graduation from Penn in 1986) and against his wishes had just started an acting program at the Trinity Rep Conservatory.  He had wanted me to apply to law school, and I did, and I was accepted, but I felt like it was better to take a risk first and go to acting school.  If it didn't work out, I could always go to law school.  If it did work out (and the jury is still out) well, here we are. My dad never saw me perform as  a clown, or come into my own as a performer/entrepreneur/artist.

Here are some of my memories of my dad.

My dad loved practical jokes.  

He'd often hide behind something and scare you when you came in.  His nickname in the family was Boo because he loved to play peekaboo when he was a child.  That apparently continued forward as an adult (and all of my brothers like to do it as well.)  One time when I was probably 17 I was driving my brothers and my cousin somewhere in Warwick (near the Jewish cemetery where my dad is buried.) We spotted my dad's car, and so we pulled up next to him and my brother put himself out the window and yelled BOO!  My dad was so surprised he nearly had a car accident.  Later my dad loved to tell that story!

My dad had a fantastic memory and was great with numbers
He was a champion duplicate bridge player (grand life master) and could remember hands from years ago.  He taught me and my brothers to play cribbage, and backgammon, and gin rummy.  He loved games where he could use his memory and math skills to great effect.  He was probably a blackjack card counter because he did seem to like to play that game too.  When he played craps, he always bet against the player (The house always wins, he would say.)  He was also really good at doing large math problems in his head.  He was always giving me math problems to do, and he'd often say to me "Ad, work with your head, not your hands."

My dad grew up in poverty.
My dad is the tall skinny guy in the hat.
This picture appeared in the newspaper.
My dad's father left his family when he was one year old.  During the war years and after, my grandmother led my dad's family through a number of South Providence haunts.  My dad and his brother had tons of jobs, not for pocket money, but to feed the family.  He swept up at the barbershop, he went on the weekends to Nausauket to go quahogging and sell clams and quahogs on the beach.  During parades, my dad would sell balloons (I still have somewhere, one of the pedal balloon pumps he had.)

 This reminds me of something my friend (now deceased) Pat Cashin told me to tell my son when he wanted a light up toy at the circus.  It's something my dad didn't say directly to me, but he could have.

"Son, there are two kinds of people in the world, those that sell the light up toys and those that buy the light up toys.  We are the people that SELL the toys."

My dad loved flash
Despite growing up in poverty, (or perhaps because of it) he loved to buy people dinner and be "the big spender."  He had a flash of $100 bills, and he loved to peel off a few and pay for stuff.  (I remember once he peeled me of 15 $100 bills so that I could buy my first Macintosh computer!)  At the ice rink he'd wear a fur coat, and he had 3 or 4 gold rings on his fingers and a big gold necklace with a lion on it (he was a Leo!)  He drove a gold colored Lincoln Continental that he loved (oh my god, I'm started to realize that my dad might have been a pimp!)  At family gatherings he almost always picked up the check.  (I remember him telling me that nobody will ever remember the dinner, but everyone will remember who picked up the check.)

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He also took me to a burlesque show when I was 12 or 13.  We went to see Rusty Warren and he let me buy the album "Knockers Up"  I don't know what he was thinking!  My mom and brothers must have been out of town.  The joke that I have a vivid memory of her telling that I did not understand at the time was this:

"They say that women don't like sex.  Completely wrong!  You know how I know?  Take your finger and put it in your ear.  Go ahead, do it.  Now rub it around for a while.  Now take out your finger.  And now which feels better, your finger or your ear?"

My dad loved old movies.

Later on, my dad had a business that was pretty successful, buying and selling used textile machinery around the world. I once drove with him to Indiana and helped out for two days, counting bobbins in a textile factory that was probably on its way to China or Malaysia.  I remember we saw the movie The Shootist on that trip.  He was a big fan of John Wayne, and of Clint Eastwood.  His favorite movie was probably The Sting, and the nose signal is something that he used all the time and my brothers and I still use.  I've taught it to my son also!  (Even though he hasn't seen the movie yet.)  Another one  of his favorite movies was The Dirty Dozen  and Dog Day Afternoon  He loved movies about criminals that did good things.

My dad had a lot of favorite foods.
His favorite was Twizzler's black licorice, but he liked Black Crows, and red licorice, and bridge mix, and Chuckles, and Jujubes, and just about anything else you could get stuck in your teeth.  His favorite ice cream was Blackberry with a side of Butter Brickle, and when we got it at home he'd take Smuckers Jam and add it to his ice cream.  He loved Chinese food, and lobster, and eating cold Caserta's pizza along with the Whimpy Skippy, the pig in the blanket, and the spinach pie.

When he walked into Davis's (the local Jewish deli) they knew that a big order would come in, because he couldn't stop from ordering Nova Lox (cut only by Mr. Davis himself), three different kinds of white fish,all kinds of corned beef, tongue, pastrami, roast beef, pickles, sour tomatoes, and of course lots and lots of knishes.  He taught me to make an open faced bagel sandwich by adding a slice of cheese to the top, and now whenever I go to family gatherings, I'm usually disappointed if the lox and bagels don't come with cheese.)

He also loved to claim credit for the big Thanksgiving dinners, Passover dinners, and Rosh Hashanah dinners that my mom would cook.  We'd have 15 or 20 people over for dinner.  "Did you like the food?" he'd ask.  "I cooked it all myself!"  He said it to get a rise out of my mom, which it did, and later he'd give his bride all the credit.  "My bride did it all!" He'd exclaim.

My dad had his catch phrases. 

Like most dad's, my dad liked to retell the same stories and use the same jokes again and again.  He was also a little bit of a stretcher of the truth.  He used to tell me that he rode with the Jesse James gang.  He was the driver.  (Forget about the fact that this was before cars!)

Here's a few of the old jokes/catch phrases he used to use.  (and I've used more than a few with my kid.)

My dad and I are on our wedding days.
 "Hands down like a soldier."

"There will be a quiz later."

"I gave him the 1-5, 1-5. He gave me 2,3, and 4 back." (My dad said he was a boxer for a short period of time, but I am not sure I believe him.  My mom said it was true, but I want proof.)

"Can you take him?"  (Usually said to your friend, while you were greatly embarassed.)

"Did you hurt the ground?"
 (After you've fallen down.)

"Do I know him.... He and I had looonch together!"  (The punchline to a terrible and raunchy joke)

I could go on, but that's probably enough memories for one day.

I loved my dad, and after he died I had recurring dreams that he was still alive, but on a secret mission, for the government, or the FBI, or the CIA, or for somebody.  In a few of these dreams he came back home to live with us and it was as if he was never gone.  I cherish the memories of these dreams now, and thinking about them makes me feel good.  I don't dream about him anymore. (at least I don't think I do.)

What makes me blue of course is that he never got to see me (or my brothers) grow up and become the men that we are today.  He never got to meet my wife, or my son, or revel in the successes that I've had (or commiserate in the losses.)

Of course, there's nothing I can do about that.  The only thing I can do is hug my child a little closer and make those hard to forget memories with him all over again.

And of course, hide behind something when he enters a room.

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