Sometimes It Takes A Youngster A Long Time To Understand


Back in 1966 I got a phone call all the way from the States to Okinawa from Frank, my next-to-oldest brother. He needed some things made over there on the island where I was stationed, so he called me about it.

It took only a few minutes to tell me what he wanted, and I knew exactly where to buy them — a set of end tables and a coffee table made there on Okinawa, ones I had seen. Made of precious woods imported from the jungles of Southeast Asia, they were carved over an inch and a half deep and beautifully hand finished. 

But there was a minor glitch.

There was no way I could possibly afford to buy such things. I told Frank I’d have to get the price and send it to him so that he could send me the money first. 

There was a short pause while that sank in. Then Frank said, “It couldn’t be all that much, could it?”

“I’ve seen what you want and the price is in the neighborhood of two to three thousand.”

Needless to say, it was not a neighborhood I knew well.

“Well-l-l,” he said thoughtfully. “Is that a problem for you?”

“Is it ever!”

“Hmmm. Doesn’t seem like much. How much are you making?”

“About five thousand, give or take a hundred.”

“Well, that’s not bad. That’s about what I make.”

“You only make five thousand a year?”

There was a longer pause. “Oh, I meant five thousand a week.”

That conversation ended with me getting the telephone number of one of the table carvers for Frank. He bought them direct. But you know something, Johnny? Though it may surprise you, I remember that day as one of the happiest days of my life. 

Why? Let me tell you a little bit about Frank.

As I was talking to Frank that day on Okinawa I was 34, which made him 42, and I would say that each of us, in his very different way, was as satisfied with life as a man can get, each having chosen a very different road to happiness. 

My road was an easy one. My childhood was so empty of concern that I never once felt the need to “get somewhere.” I just coasted through life, taking each day as it came. 

Frank traveled a different road. 

When I was six, Frank was 14, a skinny older brother who always seemed to have the answer to my questions. That was 1938. To put that year in context I’ll quote a few prices. They’ll help you to understand my happiness that day on Okinawa. Four things that sold for 12 cents in Lombardi’s Grocery up the street on Staten Island were a quart of milk, a loaf of bread, a pack of cigarettes, and a small, net bag with two dozen marbles in it.

Frank, as it happens, was the marble champion of Brook Street. He had managed to win an incredible number of marbles, enough to almost fill an empty gallon mayonnaise jar he got from Lombardi’s. Ask any kid. That’s a lot of marbles. Even though they cost just six cents a dozen, that jar of marbles must have had something like a thousand marbles in it. At 1938 prices, it was worth a bundle.

One cool fall day that year something unusual happened, and like most things that happened when I was six, I didn’t understand it until years later. 

I remember my oldest brother, Bill, asking Frank a question that day. “You sure you want to do it?”

“Yes,” Frank said. “Somebody should get to use them.”

Bill looked at me. “C’mon, Tommy. You’re in this too.”

I saw that Frank had his gallon jar of marbles, and that interested me because out in front of our house between the curb and the sidewalk was a narrow strip of dirt which originally, I suppose, was a grassy verge. But by 1938 it was a dusty strip of dirt, just perfect for marbles. As I grew from a babe-in-arms to a six-year-old, I often sat out front and watched the neighborhood kids playing marbles there. I saw Frank come out a winner I don’t know how many times. So I had no idea what was going on, but if it involved Frank and marbles I wanted to see him play — and win. 

And win he did that day!

When I got outside I was surprised to see all the neighborhood kids standing in the street as though waiting for something. Bill looked at me and said, “Tommy, you go out in the road too, okay?”

I didn’t know what was up, but since all the other kids were waiting out there expectantly, I went out and joined them. Frank waved to us. 

“Okay!” he said. “Get ready! Here they come!”

I watched as Frank unscrewed the top of his huge jar of marbles. Then he drew his arms back, yelled something, swung the jar forward, and in a flash the street was filled with kids scampering all over, laughing and yelling as they scooped up free marbles and stuffed them in pockets. Me too, of course. I grabbed so many marbles that day they lasted me my whole childhood.

One day years later, as I was standing in the living room of our place in New London, watching out the window to catch the first glimpse of Frank coming home from the train station after World War II, I happened to notice some marbles Mom had put in a glass of water to support the stem of a plant she was trying to root. It reminded me of the day when Frank tossed his marbles into the street for us kids, so I asked her about it. 

That day on Brook Street, I now understand, was the day that Frank became a man. You see, Daddy was unexpectedly taken from us by the after-effects of a stroke, and Bill and Frank suddenly had to drop out of high school to support a family. Frank, though he was only 14, never once complained about it, but it must have been an overwhelming thing to grow all the way up in one day. 

It affected him all his life. He worked harder than anyone I had ever seen, always saying, “If anything happens to me, my wife and kids will be well taken care of.”

I ran across something not too long ago that explains how Frank must have felt the day he gave away his precious marbles:

“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man I put away childish things.” I Corinthians 13:11

Now you can see why I was so happy that day on Okinawa. 

Frank gave his youth to his family, and he never forgot it. 

All my life I watched him working to ensure that his son would never have to do the same. That day on Oki I knew he’d done it.


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