Far away and long ago stuff
happened in Gramps life that hed like to forget but he cant,
even though he cant always remember what he had for breakfast, lunch or
But anything that happened 40,
50, 60 years ago he remembers clearly. His grandson, Patrick, is in grammar
school and has to write an essay about an event that shaped Gramps' life when
he was a kid. Patrick keeps asking Gramps to tell him about it. In two weeks he
has to hand in his essay.
Tell me something good,"
Patrick keeps saying. "I have to get an A."
Gramps remembers many childhood
events that might make a good essay but the one that stands out is not
something he should tell Patrick about. His parents would disapprove.
It happened during WWII, when
Gramps was Patricks age, and although it had nothing to do with the war,
it created commotion in the family home. Gramps was in grammar school himself
Young Gramps was a good
student, earning straight As in his first three years of school. His
behavior at times was a problem but the nuns usually gave him a pass because he
was good in his studies and did well on tests, something unusual among the boys
in his class.
The girls always did well but
they studied. Young Gramps studied too because he couldnt go out to play
until his homework was done. He would be quizzed in the kitchen by his mother
while his father sat in the living room listening to his answers. His father
would yell when he could go out.
Then young Gramps
handwriting became a problem. In the transition from printing to cursive, his
penmanship was so poor he brought home a grade lower than an A in penmanship
and that disturbed his father who despite little formal education in Ireland
had a signature that would rival a calligraphers art.
Whats worse, young
Gramps' father could sign his name with both hands at the same time. One of the
signatures would be written backwards and when held up to the mirror it looked
exactly the same as his regular signature. He had been a prisoner of war, a
guest of the English, after the Easter 1916 rebellion in Ireland and had plenty
of time to practice signing his name backwards with his left hand. This was
during his two-year confinement on Spike Island, off the coast of Ireland,
where the British housed Irish prisoners.
Young Gramps father had
been 16 when imprisoned for running guns for the Irish rebels and 18 when the
British freed him as long as he left Ireland. He chose to come to the United
Unlike his father, young Gramps
had trouble writing legibly with just one hand. It was a big enough problem
that he was made to sit at the dining room table after supper and practice his
But a nun then discovered
Gramps couldnt read the blackboard from the third seat in the middle row.
Speculation began that perhaps poor eyesight was affecting his handwriting.
A visit to Dr. Max Erman, an
optometrist and the only medical professional in the neighborhood, determined
that Gramps was nearsighted and would have to wear spectacles the rest of his
life. This news turned out to be a greater tragedy for his father than the news
about young Gramps' bad handwriting.
God help us, Mary,
Gramps remembers his father saying to his mother. The boy will be in all
kinds of fights at school. Glasses arent something boys should have to
wear. Thats how the other boys will think.
His father was right in some
respects. Spectacles on boys in the Forties were not common in grammar school,
at least not at his school. Girls wore glasses and had no problems. Boys
didnt pick on girls unless they wanted to stay after school for the rest
of their lives, as the nuns were quick to tell them.
When Dr. Erman put the new
glasses on young Gramps, he had to admit he saw stuff he didnt
hadnt seen before. His little sister, he discovered, had freckles. He was
happy about being able to see better but in light of his fathers attitude
about a son wearing glasses, young Gramps kept quiet about this new advantage.
When they got home, however,
his father decided young Gramps needed to be ready for any teasing that might
take place at school. Despite protests from his mother, he took the boy down to
the basement and told him to take his glasses off. Then he showed him how to
put up his fists. And, as young Gramps remembers well, his father got down on
his knees and put up his own fists and proceeded to teach Gramps how to defend
Young Gramps quickly learned
how to fake with his left and cross with his right, a standard maneuver his
father had used to advantage as a boxer after emigrating to the United States
from Ireland. It seemed to be a nice trick, but young Gramps didnt think
hed have to use it. The nuns patrolled the schoolyard during recess.
But during the lunch hour on
the first day young Gramps wore his glasses, Larry Moore came out of nowhere
looking to have a fight. Fights back then were always fair. No kicking or
anything like that. Only fists were used. The fight would go on till one boy
quit or the nuns broke it up and levied their punishments - something just shy
of staying after school for the remainder of life.
Young Gramps beat Larry Moore
that day. The fight didnt last long and no nun saw it. Young Gramps faked
with his left and crossed with his right and Larry Moore got a bloody nose. And
young Gramps beat Billy Gallagher the next day using the same combination.
But the following day Fred Ham,
a boy big for his age, came looking to have a fight as well. He didnt
know young Gramps but he knew that he beaten Larry Moore and Billy Gallagher,
both reputed to be pretty tough, although Fred had won fights with both of
Against the much bigger Fred,
young Gramps faked with his left, crossed with his right, and hit Fred in the
eye. There was no blood but Fred got a black eye that brought an end to other
boys looking to have a fight with young Gramps.
Much to his surprise he caught
no flak from his father who took the phone call from the nun who had called to
report the fights young Gramps had been in. In fact, his father, while verbally
deploring such behavior over the phone, seemed rather pleased to discover his
tutelage had worked out so well. His mother, however, was obviously
This isnt Ireland,
Tommy, she said to his father. We cant have a boy going
around beating up other boys just because he has to wear glasses.
Those memories were all clear
in Gramps mind but at the moment he didnt know how to explain to
his grandson how this event - having to wear spectacles and learning to fight
at an early age - had been a seminal event in his grammar school life.
His grandson was alive now in a
new day and age at a time when mothers wanted sons to play soccer out of fear
they might get hurt playing football. And schoolyard fights in the suburb where
his grandson lived were probably unknown. At least Gramps had never heard of
The only real competition his
grandson faced at his age was largely in the classroom where boys and girls
tried to get the best grades possible. The hope was that one day they would win
a scholarship to college.
As a result, Gramps finally
told his grandson hed have to think about what to tell him for his essay
because his mind wasnt as sharp it used to be.
"If all goes well,
Patrick, Gramps said, "I should have a good story when you come home from
But probably not as good as the
one that had just run through his mind after more than 60 years.
Gramps knew it was the best he
But not to young Patrick.