My father knew characters. He could see people that most of us just miss. They were like people from “You Can’t Take It With You”. They all had quirks that make them “weird” or “crazy” to most folks. My dad saw these traits as interesting. And being my father’s son I eventually learned that such people, these forgotten or different folk, were really worth knowing.
Dad knew a man who could fix any kind of clock but could never remember what day it was. He also knew a man who had memorized the Butler phone book and could tell you what years my April birthday would fall on Easter – at any time in previous or next 500 years. He knew a man who had completed medical school but lived instead on a park bench. He knew a man who had several wartime patents during WWII but when the exigent situation of national survival passed, he went to his bed and lived there for the next several decades. Another man had an extensive coin collection and kept it buried in the dirt floor of his small shack. Such men were always in my life in one way or another and they amazed, inspired and even entertained me. My favorite was Angelo.
Angelo was a true man of enterprise. He walked Highway 8 from Cooperstown to Butler carrying whatever might be the tools his latest job. He did what he had to do to care for his family – who I never met but heard about on several occasions. Angelo might be cutting grass or plowing a garden. He could spray a tree to rid it of pests. He could shovel your sidewalk and driveway. He could harvest blackberries and rake leaves. His small stature never seemed an excuse for the giant tasks at hand. When you were beside him he would talk and talk and talk and in so doing sometimes seemed to come upon yet another idea for making a modest but honest living.
My dad often gave Angelo a ride if he saw him walking along the highway. Angelo did not hitch rides, but gladly accepted if offered. I often had to clear out of the passenger seat of our VW bug and get in the back with my brother to make room for a fragrant Angelo, emitting a powerful smell – the residue of several hard days of work and the garlic infused whatever that he probably packed for his lunch. Ever ebullient, he’d talk and talk and talk as we rode done the highway. Sometimes he’d say something that was grammatically funny and my brother and I would hold our laughter in the back set. My dad was firm in his teaching that we should always respect others and not make fun of accents, loud tone or grammatical faux pax – all of which happened with Angelo in the car.
It was a great day for me when, as a new driver, I had the chance to stop and pick up Angelo myself and give him ride out to Valencia where he was going to help some farmer pull in his hay. Angelo happily sang along with the radio – being unfamiliar with the Tremolos, he kind of gave an enthusiastic scat version of “Here Comes my Baby”, off key and little out of sync but somehow genuine and enjoyable.
A few weeks later my dad told me that Angelo, trying to get back home on a dark and rainy night, was hit by a novice driver along his familiar highway. I thought about his family. I thought about the young kid –my age – who hit him. To this day when I drive by the spot where I picked him up to give him that one ride I remember the energetic man who knew nothing of complaint or excuse. He was always off to do what a man had to do. I so admire that to this day.