Cueing Up For Last

Four cousins were born weeks apart from four sets of first-generation immigrant parents—three boys, one girl. The family was close, and the four were practically raised as siblings. The girl—Paddy—had crystal-blue eyes and the signature “old country” red hair. So pretty was she that her cousins called her “Paddy Melt” since all the boys seemed to turn to butter when she was around. The cousins protected her like she was a pot of gold, and the young men barely had a chance to introduce themselves to her, given the cousins’ watchful eyes.

The boys, full of personality, had the “devil’s eye.” They laughed loudly, ate heartily, and exhibited great loyalty to the family and tradition. “Aye, how I pity the girls that try to settle those three down,” one of the aunts often said.

Earning Their Keep

But time passed and the boys became men, and the men needed to earn a living.

Patrick was drawn to the tool and die industry, finding good employment there. He often bragged on weekends when the families got together that he “had it made,” and said his job was a “piece of cake.” Some days, after he mounted a piece of steel on his machine and set the gauges to carve the proper impressions, he would stretch out for a two-hour nap, using the folding chair he kept under his tool table. “The machine does the work,” he laughed. “I’m just the boss of the machine.”

Sean was more studious. He thought the din and darkness of the machine shop was depressing. Who wanted a two-hour nap in the middle of the day anyway? Sean had the gift of gab. No one could tell a better joke with better timing than Sean. He worked as a salesman and did very well. He had the finest of everything—cars, clothes, golf clubs, club memberships. “Patrick may be the boss of his machine, but I’m the boss of me,” he would brag. There wasn’t a product made that Sean couldn’t sell.

Emmett loved good, hard physical labor. He was a roofer and construction guy and followed the tradesmen around, always getting and taking the best offer. His ability and diligence were well-known in the industry, and more than a few times contractors would lay off a worker to open a spot for Emmett since he worked so hard and was so inspirational. Despite his pale Irish skin, Emmett had an enviable tan, albeit somewhat red in color.

Years passed and each of the boys took a wife and started their young families. The wives were all good-hearted, loving mates who understood their men and their rowdy tendencies. Their children were the happy byproducts of these teasing, playful uncles, and when the cousins joined an adult softball league, the summers were filled with nights at the ballpark with family picnics and coolers replete with great snacks and camaraderie. The winter holidays were a time of great joy, too, with family and friends always gathered at one of the houses. The boys had become men in every sense of the word. Like their fathers, they came home and gave the wife the check and let her handle the bills and responsibilities of the house, the car payments, etc. They spent freely, but worked hard not to go beyond the well-known limits. 

A Different Kind Of Man

And then one Christmas Paddy brought home a young man to meet the family. He wasn’t the typical man she usually chose. Where her cousins and their personalities had formerly been her “model” to compare other men to, Hank was different. He was quiet and laughed more with a chuckle than a roar. When her mother spoke to Hank, he gave her his full attention and listened intently. He spoke softly but firmly and had a vast vocabulary. The boys’ wives poked and nudged Paddy as some of the things Hank said and the stories he told seemed rather “sensitive” for a man, but coming from Hank it didn’t seem out of place. Clearly, he was a different kind of man than the family had seen before. And for the boys, he was “fresh meat.”

“Paddy, did you meet this guy in your poetry class?” Emmett asked. “So they were fresh out of men and you found this boy?” asked Patrick. “Can I offer him a beer, Paddy Melt, or would he ask for a straw?”  

Nosy Nudging

They were relentless. As the evening wore on, Hank caught on and decided to head the boys off at the pass. At the first opportunity, he asked Emmett if he had a moment. With a half-smile, Emmett said, “Sure.” Hank explained that he was installing cedar shake shingles on his mother’s roof for the first time and was almost finished. He wondered if he could pay Emmett to come out and look the job over before the city inspector came out. “You did that yourself?” Emmett asked incredibly. “Yes,” Hank returned frankly. “Well, heck, you don’t have to pay me. I’ll just come and have a look. I’d like to see the job you did anyway.” Hank smiled. “Well, meet me at this address tomorrow, and at least let me buy lunch afterwards. There’s a nice little bar up the street from there.” Emmett agreed, and was impressed with the handiwork Hank displayed. As they ate lunch, Hank mentioned that maybe Emmett ought to think about hopping around less and instead choose one company to establish some loyalty.  “Benefits might not be so important now,” he explained, “but as you age, you’re going to want to have a good health plan for you and your family.” Emmett smiled, “Yeah, but right now I’m a gun for hire, and companies outbid each other and pay me well. Hank nodded and took a bite of corned beef.

Similar conversations ensued over the next few months, and one by one the family saw that Hank was indeed a special guy: bright, honest, diligent, willing to get dirty, and brave enough to be honest. He advised Patrick to return to school and finish his GED. “One day that hammer’s going to get heavy,” Hank said. “You might want to lead a crew instead of use your back.”

He asked Sean if the company he worked for ever hired sales managers, and if Sean ever thought about moving up from the salesman ranks. Sean admitted that he had, but liked the commissions. Hank pointed out that one day soon a fresh college graduate would take half of what Sean earned to do the same job, and there would be security in an administrative job instead of becoming a “senior salesman.” Sean smiled and shook his head. “Does that boyfriend of yours ever stop talking, Paddy Melt?”

“Did he say something wrong?” she asked.

“Well, I didn’t say that, but he sure sticks his nose in.”

Time Marches On

Some time passed and Paddy and Hank were soon married. They bought a modest house and Hank put a great deal of time into making it as Paddy wanted. He dug gardens here and there for her favorite flowers and painted the house a cheery yellow as she had always talked about. They bought and maintained used cars, and when kids came along, they settled for hand-me-down beds and furniture that Hank always refurbished and made like new. Nothing in their house was new, but every piece was clean and paid for. And Hank also came home after work. No softball leagues, no happy hours, no bowling or golf; he hurried home, had dinner with his family, and then coached his kids’ Little League teams. Paddy was always by his side, assisting the teams any way she could. Their focus on family was a constant. Hank rose steadily through his company ranks, and by remaining diligent, reliable, and relevant, his career was never in danger; he was a staple in the company and knew they needed him just as much as he needed them.

More time passed. Some of the elders in the family had passed on, and their funerals were a reminder that time has limits. Patrick suffered from arthritis and had been on disability through the union for a long time. Clearly, the move to management that Hank had suggested would have been a good idea many years ago. Emmett had taken a spill off a roof recently and was second-mortgaging the house to accommodate the medical bills his plan didn’t cover. He had never stayed with a company long enough to be able to acquire “pre-existing conditions,” which made the new medical coverage very expensive. Paddy’s mom had loaned Sean a fair amount of money when he experienced a “dry spell” between sales jobs, so Sean’s wife often became the family representative in order for Sean to avoid seeing the mother. Clearly he didn’t have the money to pay her back, nor an excuse as to why it might take so long.

Then more time passed, and one evening the four men gathered in the basement of Hank’s parents’ house to shoot a game of pool during a family anniversary get-together. They could hear the family laughing, the music playing, and the muffled voices above them. There was comfort and security in that sound. They were all good family men with good intentions, but sometimes life seemed so challenging. Why did Hank always seem so at ease?

A Melodic Metaphor

Patrick set his beer down, leaned over the table, and broke the rack of balls with a hammer-stroke. The sound of ivory on ivory and the bumps against the rail filled the room. Not one ball dropped into a pocket. Sean, Hank’s partner, cued up and took aim at the 2-ball. He hit the ball bluntly, and it bounced rail-to-rail. Again, all balls remained on the table. Emmett then missed his intended target, and the cue ball dropped directly into a pocket. He retrieved the ball and handed it to Hank. He set the ball gingerly on the table, aligning it with the 2-ball that Sean had sent flying previously. He stroked evenly, and the 2-ball dropped into the corner pocket, with the cue set perfectly in line for the 4-ball.

“How do you do it all so well, Hank?” Sean’s frustrated tones broke the silence. Hank smiled and shook his head, bent to the table, and sank the 4, and the English on the cue ball left him dead in line for the 3-ball. “I only do one thing differently than you guys,” Hank said, as the 3 dropped into the side pocket, and the cue ball took two rails and returned to the middle of the table. The 1-ball was sitting right in front of the other side pocket. Hank kissed that ball perfectly, and the cue ball rolled down to bump the 6-ball, waiting at the corner pocket.

“So? What’s the one thing?” Emmett half-whispered, looking from one cousin to the other.

“I always put myself last,” he said plainly as the 6 dropped and the 7 stood waiting all the way across the table.

“That’s it?’ Sean shrugged.

“Well, that sounds simple, but it’s not,” Hank said as he leaned on the cue stick. “I’d like a new car and new furniture, but that doesn’t line up with the person I married. I wanted a life with her, and I have to compromise to make that work. She wants the kids to have the best that we can come up with, so we have to save for their education, nutritious food, events, family get-togethers—you name it. If that means we live with less stuff, so be it. The advice I gave you guys over the years was simply stuff I would have done to ensure I could remain the working, reliable, consistent “tool” my family needs me to be. I took a vow to her and the boys, and I intend to keep it.  She’s made our home beautiful and filled it with love. I owe them a good life. When I put them first, things work out better. Not always, but usually.”

The room fell silent. Hank dropped the 7-ball and the 5. The 8-ball was gleaming in the low light.  Clearly, his playing had been an example of his words. Everything he did was in consideration of the next shot, by design and not by luck. He steadily stroked the cue ball, and the 8 dove into the corner pocket, but unfortunately the cue ball followed it in. Hank had scratched on the winning shot, and despite running the table, had lost the game because of his error.

He stood up and shrugged. “Still,” said Sean, “that was an impressive run, brother. Can I ask where you got this lofty philosophy of yours?”

“Now that’s simple,” Hank replied. “My dad always said that no matter how modern the times, a man should always act like a man. And I think if more of us did so, the world’s problems would be a snap.”

Ron Ciancutti has worked in the parks and recreation industry since he was 16 years old, covering everything from maintenance, operations, engineering, surveying, park management, design, planning, recreation, and finance. He holds a B.S. in Business from Bowling Green State University and an M.B.A from Baldwin Wallace University. He has held his current position as Director of Procurement since 1990. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at ron@northstarpubs.com.