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Father’s Days

A father and son travel America back when it mattered. 

By From the July/August 2014 issue

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One summer in 1953, seven years before his death, my father and I went on an unlikely coast-to-coast odyssey. The first I heard of our journey east by train was a night in early May when I noticed him at the dining room table, his downstairs desk. He was bent over a sheet of graph paper on which he had written out an “itinerary,” a new word to me, for our trip.

Methodically, he had listed the names of all the cities we would visit in his distinctive, neat, squared-off lettering, like words on a blueprint. He wrote with a big pencil from the furniture store he worked at, E. Bercovich & Sons. 

On that sheet of graph paper, which I still own, he inscribed the cities and the mileage between them, and the days and times of our arrival. We were to begin June 14, a week after school let out, and return July 30, a day before my mother’s forty-first birthday. 

We would travel aboard the gleaming new “Vista Dome” train, departing from the Oakland “Mole,” the dingy downtown station, with our first stop in Denver two days hence. I knew nothing of Denver, except the omelet named for it, nor indeed of most of the places I was about to see. I’d rarely been beyond the Bay Area—not even to Lake Tahoe or Yosemite, where it seemed as if everyone in my class at school vacationed regularly. 

It was strange that my father and I should go on a long train trip together, for we had spent little social time in each other’s company—just the occasional Oakland Oaks ball game or weekends grimly toiling with the mower on the front lawn. 

Exactly why he devised the trip, why he decided to bring me along and not my mother, remains part of the mystery. He must have seen it as a coming-of-age rite. It might have been my father’s way to get to know me better, or perhaps his attempt to show me the world, wise me up, take me out of myself, give me a little sophistication, and perhaps cure me of what he saw as my fears and inhibitions. I don’t recall my mother’s role in all this, just as I don’t remember much of her presence in my early life except as a calm, quiet, reassuring woman dutifully slipping tuna sandwiches into paper bags for my lunch each day.

When we chugged east via Union Pacific, I was fifteen and my father was fifty-one. I never really thought about how old he was—he seemed that same vague age that all parents appear to a kid—much less what it meant to be a man in your early fifties then. It hadn’t occurred to me that I would ever be fifty. I seemed permanently stuck in my mid-teens, and it wasn’t until I stepped off the train six weeks later, back home, that I felt a little less un-stuck.

But whatever would we—this confident, strong-jawed, middle-aged man and part-time actor so at ease in the world and his gawky, stuttering teenage son—find to say to each other on a six-week journey? How would we manage, forced to confront one another constantly without my mother to intervene or my school and his job to keep us apart?

We would soon find out. My father and I set out that summer of ’53 to discover America, or at least to see some of it. Whether we would get to know each other was another matter. 

Our journey was itself an exciting but scary notion. The ultimate destination was the convention of a fraternal organization called Pi Tau Pi, sort of a Jewish Shriners, held in Virginia Beach. But the route was circuitous: Denver, Chicago, Peoria, Lansing, Buffalo, New York, Washington, D.C., then back to Oakland via the Grand Canyon and Los Angeles. 

For some reason, one of my most vivid memories is of watching my father, a one-time traveling man, pack a suitcase—a thing of beauty that typified his precise, tidy, authoritative nature. He would neatly lay everything out on his bed next to the suitcase, then sit at the end of the bed, cigarette clamped in his teeth, studying the clothes, mentally packing them beforehand. Then, with great resolve and in total silence in what seemed an almost religious ceremony, he would carefully, delicately, fold items into squares so that everything fit against everything else perfectly, like a cloth jigsaw puzzle. 

First he would arrange the shoes in their heavy wooden shoe trees (relics today), then his shirts, then rolled-up socks around the shirts, then the sweaters and pajamas and shorts, then two belts wound and tied with a rubber band. When he finished, there was an even flat surface on top of which he gently laid his folded slacks, jackets and neckties, which had been wrapped around an old Life magazine, the ends pressed flat inside. Only a small hole remained, into which he set his shaving kit. Everything fit snugly, nothing jammed into place, no forcing the lid shut. He snapped the clasps closed, all ready to go.

My dad was a vestige of the classic Victorian-era father—a man who believed that parents ruled and were not pals to their kids, as warmly depicted in Life with Father, Father Knows Best, or The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. In the 1950s, parents fussed much less over their kids, who were left to their own devices. 

When he wasn’t warning me against becoming a “lunkhead,” his favorite term of derision, he would caution, “Don’t be a schmo,” the cleaned-up version of schmuck. He had a certain correct way to do everything, whether it was parting his hair, making a bed, cracking an egg, or sterilizing a safety pin to extract a splinter from my thumb, one of his medical specialties. He seemed to have mastered much of life’s detail work. 

In the end, though, I now sense that he was as unsure of how to be a father as I was uncertain of how to be his son. I thought of him as—and remarkably even called him—“father,” like a child from the 1890s. Now and then, to experiment, I would call him “Dad,” but it felt unnaturally chummy and never quite fit him; nor was he ever “Pa” or “Pop.” He called me “son” or sometimes “Jer.”

I was both wary of and in awe of him. It was an odd anomaly; the cheeriness he exuded with others as opposed to the remoteness I felt at home. A suave and attractive man, he stood five foot ten but seemed taller because of his outgoing manner, virility, and presence. Engaging and dapper, he moved with the easy grace of an actor, which he was, though he never made a nickel at it. He earned his living selling sofas and dining room tables. 

From his days with the Peoria Players, he performed in “little theater,” as it was then called, playing acerbic, wise guy best friends, much in the George Sanders manner; he even resembled Sanders. A Peoria critic (in a crumbling review I once found pressed in an old Theatre Arts magazine) predicted a bright future for him in New York. “We expect much of Leonard Nachman in years to come,” it read. 

The merriest sound I recall in our home is of my father holding forth with friends in the living room as I listened avidly on a top stair (“Lenny, tell that story about…”). I can still see him in his big chair, legs crossed, cigarette stuck sideways in his mouth, squinting through smoke as he entertains. He was never without a pack of Chesterfields and a large chrome Ronson lighter. He wielded his cigarette like a prop.

The highlight of the train ride was sitting in the Vista Dome, watching in all directions as the countryside passed by outside, as in a travelogue, with fast-shifting scenery. I was also fascinated ordering meals in the dining car, a new concept. Puzzlingly, you had to write out your order instead of having a waiter take it down. Couldn’t waiters write, I wondered, or was this some old railroad ritual? The waiters and porters—all black, of course—were friendly, at our beck and call. The cramped Pullman berth rocked to and fro until you slipped into sleep like a baby in a cradle.

The trip was also notable as the time my teenage libido kicked in, perhaps triggered by the rolling train ride itself. Trains are as sexy as they are mysterious, the setting of countless thrillers and film noir classics, from North by Northwest to Strangers on a Train and Dark Passage—an entire movie genre, really. Walking up and down the narrow aisles brings you up close and personal with female passengers. 

I remember nothing of Denver except sweating (or “shvitzing” as my dad called it). I had never before experienced hot, damp, sticky, humid weather, not to mention warm rain. Chicago was equally sweltering and moist, the first blast of the horrid heat and humidity we encountered during the entire trip. But nothing could dampen the experience of seeing my first Major League Baseball game at hallowed Wrigley Field. We had only been in Chicago a day when my father announced that his old boyhood chum had got us tickets to a Cubs-Phillies game the next day.

I was a baseball fanatic, my bedroom walls plastered with photos of my heroes—Phil Rizzuto, Ted Williams, Stan Musial. I followed the dramatic saga of my hometown Oakland Oaks as rabidly as any Chicago Cubs fan. Now I was about to actually see some of the famous names I had only read about in Baseball Digest. I knew all the numbers of the stars, their nicknames, even a few batting averages. I despised math but loved poring over arcane baseball stats.

It’s a cliché now, but baseball was the major strand that tied my father and me together, a passion we shared (along with The Jack Benny Show). He had taken me to Oakland Oaks ballgames at home, often with his friend at the store, Sam Bercovich, or the bridge-playing pals who could make my father laugh by tellingjokes too sophisticated or dirty for me. These were the men, with their wives, who made up my dad’s circle of wisecracking cronies. 

We were not a family that played together or traveled together—no circuses, movies, or picnics—so going anywhere with my dad was an occasion. A ballgame was a way to be together, to fulfill a parental duty without really engaging each other. We sat side by side with our eyes fixed on the field. 

As a Pacific Coast League kid, totally wrapped up in the fortunes of the Oakland Oaks, I had no rooting interest in any Major League teams—to me just glittery names unlike the very real San Francisco Seals, Portland Beavers, Hollywood Stars, or Sacramento Solons (whatever a “solon” was). The National and American Leagues existed in another galaxy far, far away. 

Emeryville, “Home of the Oakland Oaks,” was a dingy region of the city that later became a low-rent artist’s colony. The shabby Oaks ballpark was a crumbling stadium made of wood, ringed by liquor stores, card rooms, and pool halls, but it had an intimacy. My image of where professional baseball was played got formed there, and left me utterly unprepared for the splendor of Wrigley Field. 

I’d heard of Wrigley, but it hadn’t occurred to me that it had any connection to chewing gum. It just had a wonderful ring to it, like “Polo Grounds,” “Fenway Park,” “Busch Stadium,” “Forbes Field,” and “Ebbets Field.” The very word “field” evokes sandlots and pastures (as outfields were once known), but what or who were Fenway, Forbes, and Ebbets? 

My dad and I would be seeing a day game, of course, as this was long before lights were installed at Wrigley. One of the vivid moments of the trip (indeed of my life up till then) was walking through shadows under the stands into the bright sunlight and grandeur of the biggest, greenest outfield I had ever imagined. You had to be there and you had to be fifteen. I was overcome, more speechless than usual. 

I had no idea that a baseball park could be so vast and so beautiful and so—well, intensely green, a bright jade hue I’d never seen before, not a blade of grass out of alignment. Here was a lawn I would gladly mow. Wrigley Field seemed ten times as big as the ramshackle Oakland Oaks park—not just wider but much higher. I’d never been in a stadium with an upper deck; it felt like an open-air opera house. 

I found it hard to believe that the diamond was the same size as the one at home. It was so smooth, with dirt the color and silkiness of milk chocolate, the infield artfully manicured with sharply etched foul lines, not a pebble to disturb the satiny surface. And against the outfield brick wall tumbled the fabled ivy, baseball’s Hanging Gardens of Babylon. In Oakland, outfield fences were plastered with faded advertisements for Hertz Shoe Repair or Big Ben Davis Overalls (“Hit Fence, Win Suit”).

As luck would have it, the Phillies’ pitcher that day was their ace, Robin Roberts, whose name sounded fictitious, too alliterative to be genuine, like a hero out of one of the John R. Tunis baseball books I devoured. Yet there Roberts stood on the mound. I didn’t pay much attention to the game itself, too mesmerized by the setting and the surging roar of the massive crowd, unlike the sparse Oaks crowds of some six-thousand nattering fans. 

We sat on the third-base side, in the lower deck, above the dugout, where my father kept score, as he always did, in that neat legible hand, saying little but watching intently, never cheering or booing, a true spectator of the sport, always disgusted when a hotdog runner tried to score from second on a weak single and got thrown out at home, whereupon my dad would exhale his familiar exasperated sigh.

The Cubs game was just a routine midweek ball game, but for me it felt like the seventh game of the World Series, and no game since has come close to surpassing the rush I felt that afternoon in Chicago, not even when we got to New York and took a subway to Ebbets Field to see a Brooklyn Dodgers game in which Jackie Robinson stole home—about the last time any Major League runner ever did that. Fabled Ebbets Field looked puny, a “bandbox” park compared to Wrigley.

We pushed on to Peoria, my dad’s hometown, to visit his boyhood chum Louie Fleischer, in whose liquor store backroom I sat while he and my dad laughed out front. I had never met any of my father’s childhood pals, which gave him a reality other than as my dad. He had a past, a boyhood, just as I did. He had once been me. 

From Peoria we headed for Springfield to visit Lincoln’s home and grave. My dad, I learned, was intensely American. Beyond patriotism or nationalism, he just loved the country and its lore, a trait that I inherited. Like him, I’ve always been far more fascinated by America than Europe. My father never traveled outside the United States, content to stay home and read about the world in National Geographic. Going to Europe then was like a trip to the moon. 

We rode to Lansing, Michigan, to visit my father’s dynamic sister Mary, her husband, and my first cousins, then on to Detroit to meet my very rich great Aunt Julia, who showed up in a chauffeur-driven car, wearing a spooky black veil and smelling of face powder. That courtesy call made for a drab afternoon. I was more interested in talking to Aunt Julia’s black chauffeur than in her stories of life with Uncle Dolph (changed in the war from “Adolf”). Family stories never failed to bore me. Most of the aunts, uncles, and cousins I met on this trip I never saw again.

At long last we aimed toward New York City, the place I most wanted to see, home of still more distant cousins, Bob and Sadie, much talked about in our family because of their wealth and connections. Bob ran a Cadillac agency in Jamaica, Long Island, and Sadie operated a Fifth Avenue fur salon, Corbo Furriers. It would have been hard to meet a more representative capitalistic couple in Manhattan.

They seemed definitive New Yorkers in every way. Sadie was a short squat lady with a commanding presence and a wheezing voice (every sentence ended with her gulping air) who spoke in the broadest accent I’d ever heard, a parody of a New York accent. She and Bob, a tall, square-shaped man with a pink face, white hair combed back smartly, and a booming voice full of crude wisecracks, also had a driver and were on first-name terms with Vincent Sardi, founder of the famous Broadway restaurant I’d read all about. Through Sardi, she could snag tickets to any hit show with a quick phone call. 

Sadie was absurdly generous, forever bestowing gifts on guests for any and all occasions. Whenever we came down to dinner in their Great Neck home, a small package would be waiting on our plates. The house was equipped with an unused swimming pool, a vast back lawn, and a black cook named Dorcus that Bob kidded naughtily. I accepted the daily gifts with fumbling thanks. It was a manner of displaying affection, their New Yorkers’ way of garnering appreciation and respect.

Sadie waddled but did so with great authority, barking raspy orders over the phone to her saleswomen and to husband Bob, who obeyed her every command. Sadie boasted how she had worked her way up in the garment trade in classic fashion, starting at sixteen sewing linings into fur coats. She once casually mentioned that Edna Ferber was a customer. It never occurred to me that anyone in my family might have known anybody of interest to me.

Sade ordered lunch for us every day at her salon, the most tedious place in all New York, with old ladies trying on fur coats, strutting up and down before long mirrors as I sat in the back room amid piles of stoles and remnants, thumbing trade journals about the fur-coat industry and wondering at the weirdness of it all—such as why buying a fur coat required endless discussions about cuffs, pockets, collars, and linings. To me, all the coats looked alike. In her shop, I felt like an outsider in every way, as a boy in an adult world, as a hayseed Oaklander on sophisticated Fifth Avenue, as a male in a female domain, and as a middle-class kid in a mink-lined world.

Sadie loved showing off New York—or just showing off for her small-town cousins, like the day she strode into Sardi’s and, in her asthmatic voice, embraced its owner: “How ah ya tahday, Vincent? Ya got a nize table faw us?” Vincent did indeed, bowing slightly as he personally escorted us to a prize red leather booth. With its burgundy walls and tiny yellow-shaded lamps on the tables, Sardi’s seemed to me the pinnacle of New York sophistication, the epicenter of Broadway, which of course it was. 

I was then deeply immersed in cartooning and transfixed by the famous wall-to-wall caricatures of celebrities that festooned the showcase restaurant, hundreds of sketches as far as the eye could see. I asked if it was OK if I walked around to examine the caricatures up close, difficult to do without leaning across people’s salads. I was struck not just by the drawings but by the inspired notion of decorating a restaurant with them. Even now, when I meet someone for a drink at Sardi’s, I secretly want to gaze at the walls for new caricatures.

More thrilling was my first Broadway play and musical. Sadie got my dad and me center-row orchestra seats for two big hits that summer of ’53, Dial M for Murder and Can-Can, a new Cole Porter musical. I was shocked how small Broadway theaters were, nothing like what I was led to expect by the mythology of the New York theatrical world, where every theater promised to be as grand as Versailles. The gilded interiors were pretty, with huge chandeliers, but no bigger than the Fox and Paramount movie houses in downtown Oakland. 

I had envisioned every theater as Radio City Music Hall, which we had toured a day before, when my dad whispered to me that we were joining the “yokels.” Majestic “Broadway” was surrounded by tacky Times Square joints, swirling litter, hot dog venders, Good Humor carts, and bums of every description—not quite the splendor I had long imagined.

Can-Can was playing at the Shubert Theater in fabled Shubert Alley. Sadie had got us tickets to a matinee, a strange experience. I hadn’t realized Broadway shows were performed during the day. It seemed to me then, and still does, that a musical needs the splendor of nighttime to glitter properly. A musical, to work its wiles, should disrobe in the dark.

Your first musical is as special as a first kiss—or so Can-Can was for me. I was knocked out by the frisky energetic dances and by the sexy, frilly, dance-hall hostesses. I was both embarrassed and turned on by the line of can-can girls as they leaped high in the air, skirts lifted to reveal lacy petticoats, garters, and pink panties, before landing in perfectly executed splits—a highly erotic experience for a lad of fifteen from out west. 

Those saucy chorines set my head swimming and eyes bulging. I’d never glimpsed anything quite so exciting except for my Esquire desk calendar Vargas girls, but each of the girls on the Shubert stage was alive and throbbing, only yards away, jumping and kicking and whirling.

Can-Can oozed sex: not just the chorus girls or even Gwen Verdon slithering across the stage as the snake in a slinky soft-core “Garden of Eden” ballet, but also Porter’s risqué lyrics, full of leering double entendres in songs like “Never Give Anything Away,” “Come Along with Me,” and the show’s big hit, “It’s All Right with Me,” whose theme—that it’s OK to be attracted to a woman other than your girlfriend—startled the romantic in me; a scandalous concept, I thought. 

But easily the most dazzling number was its brilliant title song, which exhaustively lists all the people, creatures, and even machines that can can-can. Like the chorus girls, the astonishing, cart-wheeling, mind-boggling double and triple rhymes left me agog at Porter’s fertile mind and lyric facility (“If an ass in Astrakhan can / If a bass in Saskatchewan can / Then, baby, you can can-can, too!”).

There may be better, deeper, greater shows than Can-Can, but for me it still defines a certain kind of musical now mostly vanished—a musical with a light tread, a romantic twinkle, and innate pizzazz. When it arrived in ’53 nobody could have known that it would be among the last of its kind, then entering its final golden decade. Four years later, West Side Story arrived with a bound, packing heat. 

Can-Can opened me up to everything a great musical can be. It beguiled, moved, and excited me in equal parts, blending all of the most bewitching elements of theater into one delicious, explosive, brilliant, irresistible package, everything performed with high energy, great skill, personality, and style. And yet the show’s greatest appeal, and miracle, is how it all felt fresh and tossed-off, polished but playful, unlabored, extemporaneous, utterly of the moment.

My dad was more fascinated by Colonial Williamsburg, a much-hyped mid-Fifties phenomenon that struck me as a bland history lesson (a much livelier theme park, Disneyland, was just a year away), despite the female guides stuffed into colonial blouses as they demonstrated spinning wheels and pewter forges—cute, but no match for those hot saucy can-can girls I’d left behind in New York. 

Finally we had reached Virginia Beach, site of the Pi Tau Pi conclave, the businessmen’s organization whose actual purpose I was unsure of, except to hold annual conventions. My father was greeted by everyone: “Lenny! Over here! Ed Ziegler—Cleveland!”…“Len Nachman? Henry Friedkin—Miami!” “Nice to see ya again, Len.” “That your boy, Len? Fine looking young man!” 

Most of the men had their wives or girlfriends along, all having the time of their lives. I was the only teenager present and spent most of the three days reading in my room or on the beach, trying to keep out from underfoot so my dad could mix with fraternity brothers. I turned up at meal times, feeling like an alien. I’d never been around partying grownups before, a raucous, semi-boozy scene I was glad to escape from each night after dinner, retreating to our room to watch TV or read a book.

When the three-day convention ended, we took the return train home via the southern route, a long stretch about which all I remember is stops at the Grand Canyon and Los Angeles, where my flamboyant big shot Uncle Carlyle had just purchased a high-tech gizmo called a “tape recorder,” with a microphone he let us speak into. He took us to Sportsmen’s Lodge, the presumed home of Jack Benny’s famed Sportsmen Quartet, where we ran into radio’s famed announcer Ken Carpenter (a Peoria boy!).

And then, after a day at the Farmer’s Market and Grauman’s Chinese Theater, suddenly we were home again, six weeks after we’d pulled out of downtown Oakland bound for Denver. I’d gotten to know my father a little better just by watching him interact with old friends, boyhood buddies, and far-flung members of the Nachman clan. But nice as it would be to say that my father and I bonded during our long trip East, in fact I wasn’t much closer to him than the day we’d left.

We had gotten along fine and somehow found enough to talk about, but there were no heart-to-heart chats, no revelations or insights, no transcendent life lessons, nothing nearly that dramatic. I think we both just felt relieved that we had survived each other.

It was a start. 

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About the Author

Gerald Nachman is the author of Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s, Raised on Radio and Right Here On Our Stage Tonight!: Ed Sullivan's America. He is currently working on a book about the great Broadway musical show-stoppers.