The Writers Voice
Favourite Literary Website
When I Grow Up
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
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
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
Critique this work
Click on the book to leave a comment about this work