With Veterans’ Day upon us my first memory of such a HERO was John Earl Robinson whose service in the Big One, WWI, was always on proud display in his apartment. Throughout my early youth i spent many a weekend there with my PopPop. i went there after school on Friday and returned home on Sunday morning by way of a bus to our church. He lived only a couple of miles away, but it seemed to be in a different city far away.
My many siblings must have protested, “Hey, he likes Mikie most!,” this despite the fact that this was the man who officially renamed me, “Stubborn Gus, the Knucklehead!” Hey! MAYBE my parents were sending Knucklehead off to boot camp? i do recall sleeping on a military cot!
When i look back at those times, it was my entrance – even before seminary – into a world of ritual. My grandfather did the same old things at the same old times day after day after day after day…and on weekends he pulled me right into the thick of them. One of them, taking place at sunrise every Saturday and Sunday, was the simple yet passionate consumption of toast – preferably burnt – and butter. “What’s better than toast and butter?” one bud would ask the other. And the other would respond, “Nothin!” So we would sit in that humble little kitchen, as if in heaven, staring at each other, very very simple men, so easy to please.
To this day i begin almost every morning at 6:10 at the sanctuary of my kitchen counter, sipping coffee and nibbling toast – preferably burnt. Not a piece goes down without a loving thought of my OLE COMRADE! i even look down at my beagle’s face staring up for crumbs, and i sometimes ask him, What’s better than toast n butter?
And even that i first learned – the hard way – in that little home away from home. It was, i believe, kept our little secret, my pop pop and me, for over fifty years. i think it’s time to be told.
Jackie Robinson, as everybody else called him, besides being my bestest buddy and teacher of all things Philadelphian, was a great boxer. He loved to gross kids out with his “boxer thumb,” popping the bone in and out quite disgustingly, no matter how much you screamed. He was most proud of it! As i said, everything was ritual, so every Friday late afternoon was the same old hike to the Merchandise Mart in Wilmington, Delaware. This was pre-malls, you younger readers! Malls were only marts then, open outdoors. Ours boasted one of the famous, coolest Horn and Hardart Automats (you’ll just have to GOOGLE that!!! even you old-timers, for the sheer fun of it). You’d open a little window with a little bit of change, and get a whole meal! i only wanted the chocolate cupcake! That was our dinner every Friday, followed by a long slow stroll home, looking into every shop window and “sitting on the corner, watching all the girls go by,” which i still find myself singing in his honor. A photo of us was even taken one day and used as the cover of a local magazine.
After all of that ritual came our GRANDEST OF ALL. We took our sacred places, his in a big easy chair, mine atop a plastic-covered ottoman, right in front of the TV. Anyone who lived through the 1950s would know the theme song well, “Look Sharp, Be Sharp” by Maylon Merrick, introducing another nail-biting installment of Gillette’s “Cavalcade of Sports.” Time to meet the greatest boxers – and the not so great, on the planet, the real Rockies before there was a Rocky Balboa. Graziano, Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson, who made our name so proud, Joe Louis, whom Pop Pop never tired of telling me he met!
But on this one Friday night, both of us no doubt so overtaken by the excitement, swinging our paws all over the place – suddenly a left hook caught me, and i found myself on the floor across the room! Stunned as i was, and still stinging, i jumped right up and bolted, running for my life. The old boxer must’ve bolted as well, but i was way too fast for him. i left him in the dust, crying, “Mikieeeee!” i was lost to him for hours. Down in the basement of his apartment house there were large storage cages, one for each tenant. My grandfather had so much junk in his, making it very easy for a little creature like me to crawl in and hide. When he came around screaming, i stayed paralyzed. Now that i’m an old man, i often imagine what the hunt was like for that poor man. My heart aches more than it did then. Neighbors were helping, voices were echoing, but my feelings were hurt far more than my jaw. When my boxing-bud made one last stab at it, the mouse made a little squeak, and then the hugs and the tears. Picture that: the great big boxer, Mr. Jackie Robinson of South Philly, and the same man who marched with Allied Forces in Europe, now on his knees and crying, with a little boy pouring MERCY on his wounded head and breaking heart.
Just a few hours later, i was drawn to the kitchen by the sweet smell of burnt toast, as if nothing had happened. My Pop Pop surely asked me, “Is there anything better than toast n butter?” We both smiled and said, “Nothin!” But we both knew there is nothing really better, or sweeter, than LOVE, MERCIFUL LOVE.