Friday, July 21, 2006

Remembrances: Jim F

A remembrance from Tom, about his grandfather, Jim F

When my maternal grandfather, Jim, was 5 years old, a cinder from a passing train flew into his eye. Infection set in, and then blindness. Eventually, his bad eye was replaced with a glass eye, which he wore for the rest of his life.

By the time I met him, Jim was a mild-mannered gentleman who drank coffee and ice-water, and who taught me how to swing a golf club. The earlier, wilder Jim -- before the coffee and ice-water -- was the one I knew only from my parents' stories.

Jim didn’t drink during prohibition because the bathtub gin would make people blind. But once prohibition ended in 1933, he began to make up for lost time. He was not a constant or even daily drinker, but he’d go on incredible benders when he would stay drunk for weeks.

He was also a mild gambler, playing the numbers game and entering various contests and sweepstakes regularly. My solid Scotch grandmother did not approve of his drinking or his wasteful gambling, and she’d give him a piece of her mind when he would stumble in drunk and low on cash.

My grandmother's sermons were wasted on Jim -- he was too drunk to care. When she got after him for wasting money on the numbers game, he would simply sway back and forth in front of my grandmother, wag his finger in front of her face and slur very slowly, “When I win my Forty Thousand Dollars… you’re not going to get one god-damn cent…. Well... maybe I’ll give you a buck.”

It’s no small thing to be known as the town drunk in a city as big as Hartford. But while Jim was a well-known drunk, he was generally harmless. So it's hard to piece together why my grandfather got kicked out of (and told to stay out of) so many bars. He was not loud. He was not violent. He was never one to pick fights.

But there was one thing.... During his barroom escapades, other, more belligerent drunks would sometimes challenge Jim to a fight.

“Okay then,” my grandfather would reply, and then with great deliberation, “Just let me take my eye out. I’d hate to see it shattered,” he’d say, pulling out the glass eye and placing it on the bar.

Onlookers would cringe, his challenger would gag, and the fight would be over before it even began.

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