Reflections on Having and Becoming a Grandfather in Westchester

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Contributor Phil Reisman reflects on his grandfathers, their legacies, and his own role as a grandfather in Westchester County.

I’ve always envied people who got to know their grandfathers. It’s like I was cheated or something.

After all, aren’t grandfathers supposed to be the embodiment of Santa Claus or at least your best pal in the world and as such, a sworn ally in the war against early bedtime, forced feeding of lima beans, and other high crimes of parental tyranny?

My grandfathers died during the Eisenhower era, before the miracle of open-heart surgery — a time when men drank, smoked, and worried too much and were expected to expire one day after filing for Social Security. Today, if some guy dies at age 67 or so, people invariably say, “Oh, he was way too young to leave us.” That strikes me as sad, as well as comical, because the fact is, if you had lived that long as of the mid-1950s, you were already on borrowed time and thumbing your nose at the actuaries.

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Both my grandfathers punched their tickets in full compliance with the mortality tables, which was way too young for me. Think of it in terms of an old A.A. Milne children’s poem: One grandfather died when I was one and “had just begun,” and the other died when I was a month shy of three and “was hardly me.”

Life is so damn short. The reminders become more frequent with age.

While I remember nothing about my mother’s father, I do have a vague memory of my paternal grandfather, after whom I was named. From my toddler’s perspective, he was a giant of a man who bounced me on his knee, his face ringed by smoke from an unfiltered Chesterfield. I remember the day in 1957 that he died and how I experienced that event in the way most small children do when there’s an unexpected death in the family: It came with alarm and without comprehension. He died of a stroke after having lunch and drinks at the 21 Club in Midtown Manhattan, a favorite saloon where, for a brief time, his name achieved a place of honor on the menu next to a blueberry dessert.

My grandfather worked in the business end of movies. He started out as an usher in his immigrant father’s movie theater in St. Paul, MN, and then became a salesman, schlepping cans of silent-movie features in the backseat of his car to theaters all over the Midwest. Rising through the ranks, he moved east and ended up as vice president of foreign distribution for RKO Pictures.

Being a member of the executive circle made him a kind of Zelig. In effect, he was an inside player whose name surfaces from time to time in the indices of books about famous men. Growing up, I heard fragments of interesting stuff about him — call it family lore.

By Stefan Radtke

One story has it that he was ordered by his superiors to go down to Brazil in 1942 and personally fire Orson Welles, the boy wonder who made Citizen Kane but was failing to deliver the goods on a film about the Mardi Gras. My grandfather evidently completed the mission; he also indulged in a lot of partying.

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Then, there was Howard Hughes, the eccentric playboy-aviator who took command of RKO when it was slipping into insolvency. At this stage, Hughes’ loose screws were beyond repair.

One day, the crazy millionaire asked my grandfather to take a secret meeting, just the two of them, in a dimly lit broom closet so cramped, their knees touched. The way I remember it, and it rings true, Hughes supposedly whispered, “What time is it?” My grandfather glanced at his watch and gave him the correct time.

“Thanks,” said Hughes.

And with that, the meeting was over.

I could go on.

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But suffice it to say I regret never having had the chance to know either of my grandfathers.

I never saw them in action, never got to hear their stories firsthand, and never heard them laugh (though my mother said my laugh sounded like her father’s).

Life is so damn short. The reminders become more frequent with age.

A couple of years ago, while walking my dog, I almost died from a mysterious blood clot that silently wound its way from the back of my right leg to within an inch of my heart. Just like my dead grandfathers, I was 66 years old.

I think of those men often, but now more than ever, because this month, I expect to become a grandfather for the first time.

I want my grandchild to know me. I’m planning on it.

I’ve got stories to tell — and I won’t push the lima beans.

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