Thursday, May 24, 2018

Reflections on My Father-in-Law

My wife’s stepfather, Dale, died unexpectedly yesterday after a three-year private battle with leukemia. He married my mother-in-law when my wife was just a little girl aged two.

He was 84 years old and led a long, active life. To paraphrase Sinatra, he did it his way. Disappointed, discontented and disillusioned with the corporate world of the late 1970s, he and my wife’s mother cashed everything in and relocated a thousand miles from Michigan to the untamed wilds of Hilton Head, South Carolina. There they hung up their architectural shingles and proceeded to build the island up. After clearing out the gators and copperheads.

Dale was the quintessential quiet man who knew exactly and at all times what he wanted. My wife affectionately referred to him as the “Swedish James Bond.” Long, lanky, always debonair even in jeans and black T, always witty. A self-taught gourmet chef, he was the classic definition of an epicure, a connoisseur of fine food and finer wines, a bon vivant, a gastronomist. When we’d stay with them a week or two every year, I can honestly say I never, ever, had a bad meal from his kitchen.

In his later life he became a traveler. Whether to Arthur Avenue to hunt out the latest greatest in cheeses and meats or Wrigley Field to hunt out a winning Cubs team, he and my mother-in-law racked up the frequent flyer mileage. Those long thin legs of his tallied up the kilometers of the Italian north, unknown numbers of rustic hostels, cobblestone streets, Milanese cafes and Tuscany villages. An autodidact with a photographic memory, he picked up conversational Italian one winter to better arm himself for haggling with the beloved peasantry.

I first met him twenty years ago at La Guardia Airport. They were stopping back from a week in Europe, I had just started dating their daughter. I must confess to being more than a little unsettled; I don’t believe he spoke more than a sentence or two with me. In fact, over the next two decades, I think we exchanged perhaps the equivalent of a Shakespearian monologue. He made me look positively extroverted. But that was all right. After dinners, wine freely flowing, he’d regale the party with hilarious stories of his past or their travels. A born entertainer, if a quiet one.

Reminds me of a joke:

Two Swedes meet one night at a bar. First Swede pours two drinks; second Swede says, “Cheers,” and they both down the booze.

Ten minutes later the first Swede pours another round. Second Swede says, “Cheers,” and they both drink.

The first Swede frowns and turns red.

Ten minutes later the first Swede pours another round. Second Swede says, “Cheers,” and they both drink.

Now the first Swede starts trembling with barely concealed rage.

Ten minutes later he pours another round. Second Swede says, “Cheers,” and drinks his drink.

The first Swede can’t take it any longer, explodes, and pounds the table: “Are we here to drink or talk!!??!!??”

That’s not quite Dale, for I never saw him react to anything with anything approaching anger, but I like the fact that silent moderation seems to be a genetic trademark of the Swedes. It certainly was with him. And even though that predisposition to taciturnity kept touchy feelyness out of the equation, he had a profound admiration of and enjoyment in the lives and accomplishments of his daughter and granddaughters; that was obvious to all.

He was diametrically opposed to me on many levels. An MSNBC devotee, I had to actually tell him that channel didn’t work on my cable box when he came to visit our house one day. He also held no opinion on religion or belief in an afterlife. Whether he was an atheist or simply agnostic, I have no idea. But I do think he must have had an inkling to the existence of God. After all, he did live long enough to see his Cubs win the World Series after a century-long drought.

What we did have in common was a love for classical music. I threw myself fully into it in the spring of 1998, right around the time I first met him. A few weeks later, prompted by my future wife, he emailed us a list of ten or twelve essential Classical pieces to investigate. “Once you can hum them all,” he wrote, “we’ll work on a second list.” I still have that email printout somewhere in my files, and when I come across it again I’ll post it here.

As a kid he played the sax and was a serious jazz aficionado. He must’ve gotten a kick out of Patch, who is in her second year playing the sax at school and brought it down with her this past Christmas to play for her grandparents. I also delved a bit into his jazz collection that week, too. Particularly liked a Charles Mingus CD he had. Later while browsing online I discovered a series of CDs on “Hot Swedish Jazz.” Have you ever contemplated such a thing? Apparently, it is. We were going to get the set for him either for his upcoming birthday or next Christmas, but, alas, that is not to be. Perhaps we’ll pick them up and listen to them in his honor on those special dates, dry martinis or glasses of Italian Barolo in our hands and sparkling cider in the girls’.

Rest in Peace, Dale. It was a pleasure to know you; I only wish the ice was not so thick between us.

Grandpa and Little One, 2011

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Prussian War Elephants

Part of the enjoyment of reading is being metaphorically smacked in the brain by a cold wet fish straight out of nowhere. Or, in this case, a gigantic tusked mammal. I’ve read a lot of military history over the past couple of years, and a lot of weird and strange stuff, but this has hands down got to be the weirdest, strangest thing I’ve ever read in a book on war:

… Yet the average Prussian regular soldier was a tough specimen, and no one in the army was tougher than the commander-in-chief, Prince Gebhard von Blücher, whose seventy-three years belied an offensive spirit second to none. His splendid nickname – Marshal Vorwärts (‘Marshal Forwards’) – was well-deserved.

Not everything about Blucher inspired confidence, however, since he suffered from occasional mental disturbances, including the delusions that he had been impregnated by an elephant and that the French had bribed his servants to heat the floors of his rooms so that he would burn his feet. The Prussian high command nonetheless exhibited a commendably broad-minded attitude towards these disorders; their army chief of staff General Gerhard von Scharnhorst wrote that Blücher ‘must lead as though he has a hundred elephants inside him’.

- from Waterloo: June 18, 1815, the Battle for Modern Europe, by Andrew Roberts, page 24

Ok. Now that I’ve passed that little tidbit along to you, I’m going to try my best to bleach my memory of it.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018


So the printing presses ran, and once they began to run, they were hard to stop. The price increases began to be dizzying. Menus in cafes could not be revised quickly enough. A student at Freiburg University ordered a cup of coffee at a café. The price on the menu was 5,000 marks. He had two cups. When the bill came, it was for 14,000 marks.

“If you want to save money,” he was told, “and you want two cups of coffee, you should order them both at the same time.”

The presses of the Reichsbank could not keep up, though they ran through the night. Individual cities and states began to issue their own money. A factory worker described payday, which was every day at 11 a.m.: “At eleven o’clock in the morning a siren sounded and everybody gathered in the factory forecourt where a five-ton lorry was drawn up loaded brimful with paper money. The chief cashier and his assistants climbed up on top. They read out names and just threw out bundles of notes. As soon as you caught one you made a dash for the nearest shop and bought just anything that was going.”

– from Paper Money, page 67, by Adam Smith (pen name of George J. W. Goodman), 1981

Thank God I wasn’t a payroll manager in 1920s Weimar Germany! Although I probably would have a slight advantage in such an occupation, i.e., I’d be sure to get my bundle of notes off to get some hard goods before anyone else. Although, come to think of it, that’d probably get me strung up from the nearest tree. I thereby reaffirm my first statement three sentences back.