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When I Grow Up


Harry Buschman

Have you ever been in the presence of a great man?

If you have I'm sure you'll agree that it's not much different than being in the presence of a nobody. The great man I have in mind was a very absent minded great man, and he often forgot I was standing in front of him and he would pick his nose or scratch in a way that showed he didn't even know I was there.

I was often privileged to sit in the lap of Ales Hrdlicka. You say "Who was Ales Hrdlicka?" Well, he was my uncle Max's brother, and that's all I thought he was until I was old enough to understand just how important his brother was. He was a world famous paleontologist and the curator of the Smithsonian Museum between 1910 and 1942.

He always wanted to know what I was going to be when I grew up.

He would ask the question every time he saw me, so I guess he was the absent minded type. "What are we going to be when we grow up, little man?" The 'we' would confuse me and I would look around to see who was with me. Nobody ever 'we'd' me at home. I’d shrug my narrow shoulders and think of an excuse to leave the room. “Take the high road, little one,” he’d shout after me. “Halls of ivy. Quiet contemplation – bury yourself in books!”

He was as remote as one of his neanderthal skulls and no more concerned with my future than than he was for the New York Yankee's chances of winning the pennant. He was dedicated to the bones left behind by a species of hominid that expired a million or more years ago. The future of the small creature in front of him was of little concern to him.

I could never imagine Uncle Ales being a husband or a father, a man harassed by the problems my own father faced. I couldn't see him driving a car or fixing a drippy faucet, he was in short, only a great man, and of no practical use to anyone.

His brother Max was not a great man. He was younger and the family passed over him to provide Ales with the finest education a young boy could get in Czechoslovakia. Max was a carpenter, a practical man. He resented Ales and knew full well that all scientists are lost souls, and their theories and discoveries are here today and laughed at tomorrow, but when a carpenter builds a hen house it will outlast the best scientific theory.

While I watched uncle Max in his shop, he too would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, but he never 'we'd me. When I'd answer he'd say, "You're outta your mind! Waddya wanna work on a newspaper for? There ain't no money in a newspaper. A newspaper costs five cents – how can y'make any money in a product that sells for five cents?" He would make me proud of myself when he'd ask me, "Hold up that free end of the 2x4 so's it don't wobble when I cut it." I would obediently hold up the free end, never realizing he asked me to do it so he would know I was out of the way when he turned on the table saw.

It's hard to say why Uncle Ales came all the way up from Washington to visit his younger brother in Halesite. They had nothing in common, and in the rare moments they were together, there was an uncomfortable silence punctuated with deep sighs and a frequent checking of the clock on the living room wall. The only other surviving member of their family was their Aunt Minna in Czechoslovakia, and sometimes they would speak about her. They talked vaguely about sending her money so she could spend her last days in their company – it was a ritual they repeated. It's doubtful she would recognize either of them. Then, because they felt guilty about not having written to her or knowing whether she was alive or dead, they'd change the subject. The subject was always something about the old country. Each of them remembered it differently and rather than argue, they would lapse into silence again. Finding a subject that interested Uncle Ales was not easy. He usually ignored the conversation going on about him at the dinner table and he’d stare at the food on his plate as though it was something on a laboratory table.

Max and his wife Milly lived in Halesite, a tiny village just north of Huntington in Suffolk County, New York. It is the historic site of Nathan Hale's capture and execution. Max could barely write his name, but his wife was a bookworm – the worst kind, she read everything but finished nothing. She would read until she found something else that made her stop and think – then she’d forget to finish the first article. Their house was filled with clippings from newspapers and magazines. Under the cushions of every easy chair I found bits and pieces of information that came her way. She never wrote anything, and her information was collected for her own enjoyment. You might say she was a precursor of today’s cybernaut ... eager to absorb the wealth of the world's knowledge but adding nothing of her own. She, too, would ask me what I was going to be when I grew up.

"Be a landlord," she would say. "Just sit there and every month the money rolls in." She and my uncle rented the second floor of their house to the D’mato’s, an Italian family who owned a soda parlor down the block. Uncle Max worked up an appetite every afternoon and he’d say to me, “C’mon kid, get your hat, let’s see what’s cookin’ down at Tony’s.

Mrs. D’mato often made me a sundae – “A special for the boy,” she’d say. Little boys were a treasure to Mrs D’mato. She and her husband had two girls and for Italians in those days, daughters were not really children.

“It’s the water here,” Mr. D’mato insisted. “Daughters are all we could do.”

While Uncle Max and Mr. D’mato talked politics, Mrs. D’mato would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up. She would make a sour face when I told her I wanted to be a newspaper man. Selling them she understood. Her father still had a newspaper kiosk on Rector Street in New York City. But writing for a newspaper? “So what is that? Is that a living? How will you provide?” she’d ask. In the back of her mind I think, she looked at me as a possible son-in-law.

It often seemed I was the only one interested in the newspaper business and that seemed strange to me. Why would searching for bones, hammering nails, renting rooms to tenants and scooping ice cream sundaes be better than going places where news was being made ... murders ... fires ... what could be better then that?

But who gets to choose, and if they do, don’t they sometimes regret they did? In the long run it’s in the stars. They choose.

©Harry Buschman 1997

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