A Gentleman’s Tale

By Ron Ciancutti

You know what the problem is with you kids today? You know everything, and if you don’t know, you look it up on that dang phone of yours and then you know it within a minute. When I was eight or 10 years old, I didn’t have a phone—I had a grandpa. And just like your phone, he knew everything.

PRB1118_Ciancutti_Pappy1.jpg

He took me everywhere. He had a red Buick and when he would pull into my parent’s driveway and honk, I got my jacket and ran to the car. “I’m going with your dad, Mom,’ I would say as I sailed out the door. “OK,” she said with a smile as she fried her chicken or brushed my sister’s hair. I might be gone an hour, or I might be gone a day, but I was safely with her dad, and he and I were best friends.

I never asked where we were going. Sometimes he went golfing with his friend and they let me drive the cart. Sometimes he wanted to go fishing and he had the bait dug, picnic packed, and a hot spot already picked out. Other times he took me to work at his barber shop, and I read comic books all day and listened to old men tell big stories. Then we would go to lunch at the drugstore across the street and later play with the slot cars next door. Now and then we went to the pool room and he shot snooker while I ate pretzels and drank Dad’s Root Beer from the bottle. Do I need to tell you the pool room smelled like cigars and beer and old wood floors and green felt? If I close my eyes, I can smell all that right now; it was wonderful. I can hear the click-clacking discs that were used to keep score that hung from the ceiling. Players moved them with their cue sticks, and I heard the crack of the balls start another contest; there must have been 30 tables. It was loud in there, and men would walk up to me and say, “You with Grandpa today, kid?” I would nod and smile and look them in the eye as I was taught to do. If I shook their hand, I tried so hard to squeeze it tightly, like my dad said I should. They would tousle my hair and yell to my grandpa—“Hey, Pasquale! You gotta a good kid here!” He would nod and smile. They gave me a buck or a couple coins most of the time because that’s what men used to do. See, young boys need to be in the company of men! It’s how they learn, how they are formed, and how they copy the patterns of masculinity a and gentleman’s habits. I loved hanging around those guys.

A Child’s Hero
One time the Buick arrived and we went back to Grandpa’s house and he showed me how to make a slingshot. In his version, he tied a string to both ends of the “Y,” then tied a rubber band to the string, then tied the other end of the string to the other end of the rubber band, and that was tied to the square of leather. So, from the ends of the Y, it went string/rubber band/string/leather. By making the flex of the pull concentrated in the middle, the rock flew like a bullet. I bet that’s not on your iPhone. He finished making it, stepped outside, and immediately picked off a sparrow on a telephone wire a long way away; I watched it fall. Then, without another word, he handed the slingshot to me. He had already carved my initials into the wood. I carried that thing with me for years. I looked up at him (in so many ways) and said, “Thanks, Pap.” He squatted and looked me in the eye, smiling. “Sure!” The way he did things turned everything into a memory. Today, as I make new memories, I live off the old ones.

He saw I loved dogs, but because I was allergic to almost everything, my parents hesitated to get me one. So Pappy bought one for himself and brought it over all the time. When my grandparents took a weekend away, it was my job to bike over and feed and walk the dog. God, I loved that dog, and I proved to my parents I could handle the responsibility. Six months later, I had a dog of my own and have had one continuous line of them since. Pappy did that for me—orchestrating the whole thing so his daughter would give me what he knew I wanted.

Once I was at the beach and was writing in the sand with a big stick, just minding my own business, when another kid came up and took the stick from me. I was a soft-spoken, non-confrontational kid, so I let him take it. Pappy was at a nearby picnic table working on his ledgers and evidently had seen the whole thing.

He called me over.

“Were you done with that stick?” he asked, never looking up from his books.

I shrugged. “I guess so.”

He looked at me.

I said, “No.”

He said, “Go get it. Don’t explain yourself and don’t act mad, just go take it back. That’s all.”

So I did, and the kid looked shocked, but I didn’t stop to explain, and he didn’t question it.

I felt a lot better about everything.

When we left about 15 minutes later, I walked up and handed the stick to the kid, explaining that my grandpa and I were leaving and I didn’t need the stick anymore.

When I got to the Buick, Pappy was smiling.

He and I were once at a college basketball game, and the ball flew into the stands and I caught it. Back then, all the indoor balls were made of leather, so when I held it and felt the difference, I looked at him after throwing it back to the player. “That felt different than my ball at home,” I told him. “That was leather,” he said. “That’s what the college and pro players use.”

He could tell I was fascinated with it, but didn’t say another word.

The following week I was at the barber shop getting my weekly crewcut, and when Grandpa finished, I went to get the broom and dustpan to sweep up; that was always my job.

When I reached into the closet where the broom usually was, a leather basketball was sitting there with a red ribbon on it. I came out of the closet grinning ear to ear.

“You like it?” he asked.

I nodded and hugged him. He was such a hero to me.

Growing Up With Grandpa
My grandparent’s home had a cleared acre in the back, which butted up to the county fairgrounds. When the fair came to town, people could park for free inside the gates, but if they drove a nicer car, sometimes they were willing to pay a dollar to park on Pappy’s “Safe Parking” grass. Fifty cars could fit on the lot if we squeezed them just right. By the time I was nine, I worked that backyard like a “carny,” flipping the lot two or three times a day. At the end of the night, I would hand Pappy a wad of about $150, and he’d peel off a $20 or two and hand the cash to me as my wage. Giving him that extra $1,000 every year during fair week was such a source of pride for me, and he knew I loved it. Every year, I got better and better at it, and up until I was 16, that was the best part of my summer. It was almost a Karate Kid-type of lesson the way he helped me learn and grow into a man.

He always told great stories, too, and his favorite was the tale about hauling a block of ice up a flight of stairs back in the days when he was a coal man in the winter and an ice man in the summer. Well, one day, he was coming up the stairs with a 50-pound block on his shoulder and passed the man who owned the house, on the steps. The man said, “Good morning, Pasquale, go right in, the door is open.” My grandfather said, “Morning, Henry—OK, I will.” But Henry evidently forgot that his wife was taking a bath right there in the kitchen (they used to carry the tub there and fill it from a hose that ran to the kitchen sink), so Pappy threw open the door and there was the lady in the bathtub. About this time, Henry realized he shouldn’t have told Pappy to go right in, so he turned around and was coming up the stairs when Pappy abruptly dropped the whole block of ice in shock over what he saw. The slippery block flew down the steps, taking Henry out like a bowling pin, and then it proceeded to bust out the bottom panel of the door from all that weight. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but everyone was embarrassed and laughing. I probably heard Pappy tell that story 200 times, and long after a stroke had taken his ability to speak, he would attempt to tell the story again and again with gestures, as I actively listened and basically played “charades” with him until he had told the whole thing. Then he would just shake his head and mouth, “Son of a gun.”

I received a call one winter night that Grandma had passed on, and Pappy was taking it pretty hard. I left my college dorm around noon the next day as the January snows swirled and piled around me. It took me twice as long as usual to get home, so the calling hours had already begun by the time I arrived in town. I first pulled into Jack’s Union 76 Station a block from the funeral home and went in to see him as his son filled the tank. “Full Service” was wonderful back then. I handed Jack my necktie because I didn’t know how to make a half -Windsor yet, and we talked in the quiet, respectful tones men do when a tragedy has occurred. He pulled the tie off his neck and handed it to me, adjusting it as I secured my top button. He said, “Be sure to take care of Grandpa now,” he sniffed. “He always took good care of you.” I cleared my throat, “Thanks, Jack.”

And I did—in the manner I was taught.

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.