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Call me Harry

My dad had overheard me calling Mr. Wright “Harry” because since we were friends Mr. Wright told me to use his first name. “Never call an adult by their first name,” dad had told me in front of Mr. Wright. “It’s disrespectful.” I was 6 or 7 years old and agreed with dad. Mr. Wright had insisted I, his little gardening buddy, should call him “Harry,” like a friend. After my dad left, Mr. Wright asked that I call him Harry just when my dad wasn’t around. “It’ll be our secret, Tawm,” he said with his New England accent. More often than not his name came out of my mouth as “Mr. Harry.”Dad was a white-collar man, well versed in propriety. A Yale-educated architect, dad rode the train into the city and worked in a corner office of a tall skyscraper, which had a great view. On the weekends, dad did mostly the same sorts of things that Mr. Wright did next door. He’d clean gutters, rake leaves, fix things around the house and fiddle with our ’59 Rambler station wagon, which he’d bought simply because it had the smallest tail fins of any car that year. Dad didn’t care for tail fins. For fun, dad would listen to classical music on the Hi Fi, play chess or draw dream houses in his study.Both he and Mr. Wright were members of the “Greatest Generation” – World War II veterans – but they didn’t think of themselves that way at all. Now, family men in their mid-30s, dad had fought Hitler and National Socialism in Europe as a teen, and he was in the Battle of the Bulge. Mr. Wright, a blue-collar machinist when I knew him, had been a machinist in the Navy and fought Imperial Japan in the Pacific. From there the differences between the two men, both good fathers, became more pronounced. Mr. Wright drank beer. Dad never did. Mr. Wright had mysterious tattoos that were earned, he said, in battles during the Pacific war. Dad eschewed tattoos and rarely swore. Mr. Wright sometimes swore, well, like a sailor.But the gruff, flinty New England machinist did something more. Something dad had no interest in. Mr. Wright grew gardens. He husbanded bursting green vegetable gardens and riotous flower gardens all around his home. In this, he took a young lad under his wing and introduced me to the wonder and positivity of growing things. He taught me how to weed. “Pull from the base and only when the soil is wet, so you’ll get it all,” he’d say in his dry down east accent. “No, not that! That’s a daisy!” He also built his own greenhouse. Watching him work with the concrete and then the framing and the glass, I was captivated by the thought of one man building a real building by himself.Mr. Wright had three daughters. Carol, the youngest, was a young teen and all grown up to me. I was waist high to her, and she enjoyed my gullibility with some regularity. At Halloween, Carol made a dummy out of old clothes and soaked it with the hose. As I walked in deep darkness down the perfect ambush of Mr. Wright’s garden path, barely able to see out of the slits of my Halloween mask, the sodden dummy swung out and about knocked me over! Before I could gather my wits to run, I did a little croaking dance to the god of adrenaline, then took off like a shot followed by the mocking laughter of hidden teens.Gail, the middle girl, I never really knew, as she always seemed to be out somewhere on some activity. But Pam, the eldest, I just loved. Pam favored jumpers and turtlenecks and played the folk guitar. Pam would reach down and hug me whenever we met. Mrs. Wright, being a schoolteacher, once had Pam come in and play guitar for our third grade class. This was very early on in the ’60s and Pam was no hippie. She sat in front of the class in her corduroy jumper and bobbed hair and sang ballads in a clear, sweet voice.Pam had something wrong with her heart, I was told, a prolapsed or a deviated something. Fixable today, in those days it could not be helped, and so one day Pam died. I was bewildered, sad and quite rattled by this. I hadn’t really realized that people sometimes died, as in I’d never see them again, ever. How Mr. Wright felt, I never saw. He kept it to himself. He seemed far away at times but continued to be mostly always happy to see the little neighbor boy who took an interest in him and his gardens, an interest not shared by his family.Mr. Wright gave me a larger view of the world of men. Real men cared for their families and were dependable workers, sure. But sometimes, real men would have a beer. Not all wore a coat and tie; some men wore dungarees – just like I did. Real men occasionally would not shave on the weekends. They could be gruff and testy and slow to smile. Some men I learned, even had strange tattoos – and they weren’t circus people! These were tattoos that they’d earned, and I learned to not ask “too many questions, by gaw …” Real men were tight lipped and stoical at the death of their beloved child. And I learned that real men grow gardens. Vegetables to be sure, Victory Garden holdovers, maybe, but also flowers. Real men grow marigolds, tulips, crocuses and a rose bush or two so that now and again for no special reason they can bring Mrs. Wright a subtle sweet smelling bouquet of beauty from the side yard.Some real men, never very good at talking, let their garden do their talking for them. And this Mr. Wright’s garden did through the years, with more depth and sincerity than any words could muster.Tom

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