I’m Actually From this Planet

I have spent my first 49 1/2 years on this planet oblivious of my ethnicity. When I look in the mirror some things are self-evident. I am Caucasian, I have hazel-brown eyes and up until 20 years ago, I had brown hair. You might say I am an average white guy. However, unlike just about everyone else I know, I was unable to tell you where my ancestors originated. I couldn’t say, “Hey, I’m Italian,” or, “I’m Greek,” if anyone asked my heritage or ethnicity. All I could say was, “I have no idea.”

Why? I’m glad you asked. I was adopted when I was three days old. All my parents told me was that my biological mother was a single school teacher and couldn’t afford to keep me. Fair enough. I was born in Erie, Pennsylvania, but grew up in western New York. I never really wanted to pursue my biological family because I thought it would be an insult to my parents. The topic particularly upset my mother, who always felt that maybe I thought she wasn’t good enough (this couldn’t be farther from the truth). Pennsylvania is one of the few states that hasn’t loosened privacy restrictions when it comes to adopted kids looking for their biological parents.

Today, Erie’s 100,000 residents are a hodgepodge of every ancestry under the sun from German to Yugoslavian. No Scotch-Romanian however.

It has been more than a decade since my folks passed away, so I don’t feel like it is disrespectful to go hunting for blood relatives at this point. Many people have encouraged me to. I have some paperwork in my possession that I could start that would get my foot in the door with Pennsylvania’s record keepers but I am not quite there.

I have always wondered about my ethnicity. What am I, really? In today’s charged political climate and the hot debate about immigration, I have thirsted for this information because I don’t believe that being “white” is a thing. There is no heritage or culture in just being white. We all came from somewhere else. We are all immigrants. The only people in America who aren’t immigrants are Native Americans. Everyone else either came from Asia, Europe, Africa, or hell, even Australia. I’m no anthropologist but I find all of this fascinating. As Americans, we have developed our own unique culture, especially when it comes to regional traditions and language, but we haven’t been a country for all that long. But just being white? That’s not a thing.

So, what I am I? Who are my people?

My wife actually had the thought that maybe, just maybe, my dad was my biological father. We can’t find my adoption records. What we have found doesn’t make any sense.

Within the last 10 years, I have become the keeper on my family tree. I stood on the shoulders of one of my cousins and filled in the blanks after she and her father did the bulk of it. My father’s ancestors, the Knaaks, are very German. My great grandparents left Germany in 1900 and came through Ellis Island. I have traced the Knaaks back to 1803 or so, I know where they lived, Mecklenberg-Schwerin, I know they were Lutheran, and I know what parish they belonged to. My mother was Korean. Her family and ancestors are nothing but Korean (as far as I know).

My wife got me a 23 and Me ancestry kit for Christmas. A few days later I cracked it open, followed the instructions, and sent my spit off into the great beyond. About a month later I received an email indicating my reports were ready. I only had a few minutes before I had to rush out the door to work but I pulled up enough info to proclaim to the house that I am … wait for it … here it comes … not German … not Korean …

British/Irish with Scottish and Irish Ancestry

 

When you dive into the reports, within the last 200 years, 23 and Me points to London as the strongest concentration of my ancestors; 8 million people live in London today. Mixed in with the list of points of origin for my United Kingdom ancestors – Glasgow City, Scotland, and Belfast, Northern Ireland. My more recent Irish ancestors most likely hailed from County Cork in southern Ireland. Although the breakdown says French/German for No. 2 on the list, the Netherlands (north Holland) is a strong contender for likely ancestors. Apparently what was considered French is greater than I knew. Germany is barely a blip on the report.

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Facial reconstruction of my maternal Scottish ancestor from Achavanich, HIghland, Scotland. Copyright © Hew Morrison

23 and Me offers plenty of rabbit holes for you to dive into and perhaps the two that I find the most intriguing take me back a few thousand years. They can tell you about ancestors through paternal and maternal “haplogroups.” Apparently, I have a maternal ancestor scientists have dubbed “Ava,” who lived more than 4,200 years ago in Achavanich, Highland, Scotland. The paternal haplogroup points to ancestors who were part of the Uí Néill dynasty in northern Ireland, who also spread to northern Scotland.

This information certainly helps me make some sense of a few things.

I have always been fond of Scotch (Highland in particular) and Irish whisky (of course there is a Jameson distillery in County Cork), and gravitate to darker beers – porters, stouts (I love Guiness, and I named my first novel after an Imperial stout). I don’t know if it has anything to do with my taste in food.

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I guess there was a deeper reason why I enjoyed London.

I felt very comfortable walking the streets of London when I visited in 2014. I love books and pubs. I could live in an Irish or English pub. I’m drawn to the sea, I have a year of my life underway – Ava was discovered just west of Scotland’s northeastern shore on the North Sea. I enjoy dreary, rainy, foggy weather (I just hate being out in it).

 

I have always been fond of James Bond films, almost obsessively so, Bram Stoker’s Dracula had a profound affect on me. Stoker was Irish. I love the works of Oscar Wilde and Lord Byron. I adore Hammer Horror films – the aesthetic especially. I enjoy Sherlock Holmes stories and shows like Ripper Street. Boring period movies and TV series set in the Edwardian or Victorian eras don’t do much for me. Much of my favorite pop/rock music originates from England and Ireland. It’s possible I had ancestors in the last 200 years from Manchester, where my favorite band – New Order – hails from.  More likely, some of my forebears came from Merseyside where Liverpool is. I enjoy quite a bit of music that originated there. Everyone knows I am a fan of The Pogues, who hail from London.

Maybe my British/Irish heritage has nothing to do with my tastes at all. Maybe it has everything to do with them.

Bringing this full circle, I am very American. I love American things. Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, cheeseburgers, amusement parks, all that – I am a patriot, I served my country. But I am not a wave-my-flag-in-your-face kind of patriot. I don’t believe in forced patriotism. I don’t run around telling everyone that the United States of America is the greatest country in the world. I am not naive or blind to the horrible things we’ve done as a country, as a people, in the last 245 years or so. However, I know the great things we’ve done as well. I believe in the American dream and realize that it is different for everyone. It is especially relevant for the immigrants who have helped make our country great, those who have contributed to our scientific advances and our national security interests, those who have brought their culture to our shores and shared it and enriched our neighborhoods and communities with their language and song and dance and art and literature.

In my day job, I have become a professional historian and have been one for the past year and a half. In that position, I am like a dog with a bone with my research. I have been that way with the Knaak family tree. I am nowhere near done with that. I’ve just hit a temporary roadblock. I have no doubt that I will dive into what 23 and Me has revealed about me through my DNA. I will embrace my heritage, culture, and history, celebrate it and learn it. I now have reasons to study the history of the United Kingdom, Ireland, the Netherlands and even Charlemagne and the Franks.

I’m not a fan of the royals, I think the colonies were right to rebel against England in the American revolution, British colonialism hurt more than it helped – but the history is fascinating and it is history that helped forge and shape the modern world as we know it today.

I now know what I’m not. I’m not German. But I finally know what I am. I am British and Irish with northern Scottish and Irish ancestry. I am also an American. But you know what? I am still a Knaak. And I always will be and I am proud to be.

I don’t think I’ll be trying haggis any time soon, I will always prefer American football (I might be talked into picking and following a favorite soccer team), I doubt I’ll learn Gaelic, but I may be convinced to wear a kilt.

Just remember, if it’s not Scottish, it’s crap.

 

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My Father’s Handshake

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How your humble author is spending his Father’s Day, poolside, listening to jazz and blogging.

Sorry, I know it’s been awhile since I penned a substantive Jerry Project blog. Life truly does get in the way sometimes. Between two book tours in support of my first two novels, working on the third, and the marketing that goes with all that, the day job and family life, the blog has fallen by the wayside a bit. I have gotten lazy with regard to memoirs and remembrances, content with just recycling previous posts about my parents on the anniversaries of their deaths and on special occasions such as Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.

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John Henry Knaak, Jr. 1935-2007

A thought occurred to me when my 11-year-old repeatedly asked for high-fives the other day. From the moment our children begin to interact with other human beings, one of the first things we teach them is the high-five. Meant as a greeting and also the exercise of some cognitive ability coupled with a motor skill, I’m sure it aids in some kind of early childhood development. The slapping of hands can evolve into a fist-bump perhaps, but it inevitably leads to learning a traditional handshake.

I like a good, strong, firm handshake. I can’t stand dead fish handshakes. Have you ever gotten one of those from someone? I think I’d rather hold a fish. The whole hand, firm grip, good squeeze. I like strong, whole-hand handshakes from women too, not the dainty finger grab. Is that weird?

The handshake was once meant to indicate to people meeting for the first time that their hands were empty. That’s to say they were unarmed. Over time it has come to signify many different things – a greeting between friends, a means of introduction, congratulations, or that a deal has been struck.

We Americans have become a society of high-fivers. We do it to celebrate a great play made by our favorite sports team, we do it when our friend agrees with us or we are passionately like-minded on a subject, and sometimes as a means to give respect for a quip or a zinger. The “bro hug” often takes the place of a traditional handshake with mini-chest bump added in for affectionate effect.

Did Los Angeles Dodger Glenn Burke really invent the up-top hand slap in 1977? The up-top back-around to low-five was popularized (for a minute) by the movie Top Gun. There’s the two-handed high-five, and then there’s the traditional low-five which was more common in the 1970s.

But this isn’t mean to be a history lesson on the handshake or the high-five.

My father, the late John Knaak, didn’t give credence to any of it. Oh, I don’t think he minded seeing it on the sports field or court. (We did joke about athletes’ propensity to slap each other on the ass after a great play.) He just didn’t care for it in life.

You see, you had to earn my father’s handshake. It was important. It meant something. Even when he met new people he gave it reluctantly. I think I saw him shake his friend Jim’s hand once and that was after Jim had come over to fix our furnace. He’d just as soon have you call him “Jack” before he gave you his hand.

My father died in February 2007 at age 71, four months shy of my 37th birthday. In the 36+ years I knew him and had him in my life, my father shook my hand exactly THREE times and I remember each one vividly.

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Your humble author on the bump in Pony League action at Emerson and Glide (now known as Paul Bianchi Park) in Rochester, N.Y. circa 1985-86.

I was 15 or 16 the first time. I was a pitcher for my little league team in the Northwest Youth Athletic Association, which played its games at what is now known as Paul Bianchi Park at the corner of Emerson and Glide streets in Rochester, N.Y. I was the starting pitcher in an all-star game. I was a wisp of a thing at the time. I was a good pitcher that year, I struck out a season-high 16 batters in one game, and I averaged 11 strikeouts an appearance. My high school coaches never fancied me a pitcher, so summer league is where I had the opportunity.

Admittedly, I didn’t have my best stuff in this all-star game. My fastball had no zip and I was hanging curveballs like they were paintings. Even my knuckleball wouldn’t dance. My fastball never had much velocity, but on this day, my normally live arm was anything but. However, I scratched and clawed and scuffled and kept the game close. We were up 4-2 late in the game and a couple of defensive errors put two men on. The go-ahead run came to the plate, the clean-up hitter, the guy I had trouble with all day. I threw everything at this guy, even a KY ball, but he kept fouling pitches off. Eventually, I made a mistake and hung a curve ball out over the heart of the plate. I don’t think it’s come down yet. The three-run home run gave them a 5-4 lead and was the difference in the game. Although  I should have been out of the inning, I still felt like I could have salvaged it by getting this guy out.

Inexplicably my father greeted me behind the backstop after the game and shook my hand. I said something to the effect of, “but I lost. I just didn’t have it today.” He responded with something like, “but you battled, you didn’t give up. You fought hard.”

You see, dad was a high school legend at Scottsville High. Soccer, baseball and basketball – he had a page dedicated to him in his high school yearbook. He played college basketball. I never lived up to his standard as an athlete. I always managed to make the team, but I was never good enough to start. I was a bench warmer most of the time, I played CYO basketball for the playing time, and I gave up on Pop Warner football after two years. For him to shake my hand in this instance really meant something.

The second time he shook my hand was upon my gradation from Edison Technical and Occupational Education Center – fancy name for Edison Tech high school. In June of 1987, I graduated 15th in my class of 300, was already a member of the National Honor Society and earned the Presidential Academic Fitness Award. Also, I was already enlisted in the United States Navy’s delayed entry program. I had played basketball and baseball, and ran cross country. I was involved in student government.

After walking across the stage, collecting my diploma and exiting the George Eastman Theater, my father shook my hand. This one I understood, I had accomplished something. High school wasn’t exactly an easy time for me, but a lot of kids could say that. And considering the events of the past few years, there are thousands of kids who have had it way worse than I ever did.

A lot of good came of that time as well. I did graduate, I was accepted to the two colleges I applied to (even though I didn’t go), I eventually developed my musical taste (which has stuck with me for life) and I met my best friend, who is still that to this day.

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My mom (left) and dad (partially obscured by a balloon) greet me at the Rochester International Airport upon my return from the first Gulf War.

The third time came in 1991. I had just returned from Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm aboard the USS Saratoga (CV 60). I had told my parents I didn’t want any fanfare when I landed at the Rochester International Airport. I told them to just pick me up. They didn’t listen. I didn’t feel like I had done anything during the Gulf War. I ran my squadron’s tool control program. Yes, I was a trained flight deck troubleshooter as an aviation electronics technician, but for whatever reason, I was given the tool control job. I can’t say it wasn’t important, there were major safety concerns when it came to tools and the techs and mechanics couldn’t do their jobs if they weren’t properly equipped.

But I didn’t fight. I didn’t shoot at anyone. I wasn’t shot at. Sure, there were those occasions when we had to wear gas masks on our hips when intelligence thought Saddam Hussein’s forces might launch a SCUD missile at our ship. And yes, we had a member of our squadron taken prisoner after his F-14 Tomcat was shot down. And yes, a member of the attack squadron next door was also taken prisoner after his A-6 Intruder was downed. But for the most part, I watched the war on television like everybody else.

My cousin Debbie had joined a support group of some kind if I recall, and one of our neighbors, who was a teacher (again, if I recall), had sent a ton of letters from her students. I was greeted by a throng of people at the airport. There were balloons and signs and hugs.

And a handshake from my father.

I guess it was because I had survived a deployment aboard an aircraft carrier in a combat zone. Maybe he was just happy to see me after eight months. Whatever the reason, he did it and it was the last time.

My father wasn’t what you would call an affectionate man. Oh, he wasn’t one of those men who are incapable of showing physical love, he was just choosy about how he did it. He never denied me a hug when I asked for one and I have fond memories of sitting with him watching football, basketball and baseball games on TV. He was even known to snuggle with my mother on the couch while watching movies.

But that handshake, that meant something. That was important. It wasn’t given often or lightly and if you were fortunate to get one from John Knaak, well, you must have earned it. And that places you in elite company.

The Death of the American Picnic

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My cousins Dave and Dave, my cousin Bonnie’s husband Tom and your humble narrator at my last family reunion five years ago.

I don’t know when it died. I have a pretty good idea how though. The American picnic appears to be dead. At least the ones that I remember are dead. Am I too nostalgic? Have times changed that much? Or am I just pining for days gone by that I’ll never get back?

Most deaths are traumatic, sudden. This has been slow, glacial.

I’m not talking about family reunions, which I am sure take place on the regular. Heck, I helped organize one a few short summers ago. I’m talking about holiday weekend and spontaneous treks to the park – state parks and county parks. You know the ones I am talking about. You load up the car with dishes to pass. Everyone has their assigned bring-alongs – aluminum foil, buns, potato chips, potato salad, hot dogs, hamburgers, deviled eggs, charcoal, lighter fluid, beverages, condiments. There was sports equipment and games to bring too. Ball gloves, baseballs and softballs and bats, frisbees and lawn darts.

Comedian Jeff Foxworthy tells a great story about the dangers of lawn darts.

In my family, like it was/is for many I’m sure, Memorial Day was the kickoff to summer. My parents and I packed up the car and piled in it. We drove to the agreed upon park and met up with my father’s sister, her husband and my first cousins. I wish memory served but I think my Uncle Freddy would show up way early, by himself, then complain for 30 minutes that everyone else was late.

Somebody would scrape the community Hibachi and then cover it with tin foil. The kids would get some game going and we would play and roughhouse until the food was ready. Tablecloths were draped over the wooden picnic tables and held down by rocks to keep the spring breeze from turning the table covering into an erstwhile kite.

We’d sit and eat. Someone always got into something they shouldn’t – a mud puddle, a creek, a beehive (yes David, I’m talking about you). We’d go swimming in the pond or the lake – whichever that particular park featured.

Some of these late spring gatherings were large affairs, especially as we got older and folks got married and had kids. Memorial Day was just the kickoff, we’d get together for the 4th of July, and have a combo birthday picnic since many of my cousins were summer babies. We may have even had Labor Day picnics too, the memory fails on that.

But my parents were fond of intimate picnics as well. We’d fill up a carry-along jug with Kool-Aid, water or juice, pack sandwiches and chips, and get in the car and drive to a random state or county park. We’d hike or walk and find a shady spot to sit and eat. We’d bring the ball gloves or the frisbee or a Korean throw and catch game with a plastic ball and wicker rackets. We would do this on several weekend occasions during my summer vacations from school.

My parents continued this tradition after I graduated from high school and joined the U.S. Navy. They’d pile the dog into the car, pick up a bucket of chicken and drive to a park and spend the day under a tree while playing fetch with their yellow lab, Princess.

If I visited during spring or summer, there was always a picnic to go to. My activities may have changed – beer replaced pop, I smoked, I hung out with the adults – but it didn’t take much to drag me into a game of frisbee or softball or touch football.

I have opined on more than one occasion that I don’t see many people outside anymore, especially kids. We’ve become a society of shut-ins with our WiFi, cable TV, broadband Internet, binge-watching, gaming consoles, etc. This spring it seems more people are out, which has to be a good thing. I doubt it will last as temperatures in my Northern California town are starting to rise. Where I live, many of us have backyards, some have pools. I’m sure we can’t all possibly spend these beautiful, warm spring/summer days indoors, especially now that school is out for the summer for countless school districts, with many more to come in the coming days and weeks.

On a recent podcast, I discussed that we parents of a certain age don’t introduce our children to certain types of music, most notably jazz, like our parents did. I think this is true of picnics too. CBS Sunday Morning aired a piece this morning about how little vacation time we take, and the various reasons why. Have our occupations commanded so much of our attention and contributed to fatigue and miasma that we prefer to spend our weekends in our abodes? I am fortunate enough to have a pool. I have a relaxing body of water in my backyard. I suppose that’s my excuse.

I recently took my son to a park to play basketball. We have a hoop out front, but I tire of yelling “car” every three minutes so I like to go to a park with a court so we can play uninterrupted or without the fear of vehicular manslaughter. There was a man at the park and he was setting up for something big. He had the pavilion all to himself and he looked like he was getting ready for one of my old childhood family-style picnics. But he was there all by himself…for a long time. He had the tablecloths out, charcoal and the Hibachi going. I felt bad for him until folks started to arrive. But even then, some attendees showed up, dropped off their dish to pass, then left. We didn’t stay long enough to see how this all played out so I hope those folks came back. It still didn’t seem like they knew how to picnic. Everyone just kind of milled around. But who am I to criticize these people for how they get together?

Maybe I was a little jealous or envious that this family was going to have a day like I used to have with my family. I have hundreds of second cousins, most in New York, but numerous others up and down the eastern seaboard. So, I’d have to travel some, and it would take some organizing. Hence the family reunion a few years ago, it was our first full family reunion in 20 years and 100 people showed.

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Maybe the picnic of old has evolved into the backyard get-together. Maybe we did the parks because we didn’t have the room to have a large picnic gathering that included enough games and activities to keep the kiddies occupied. We entertained more last summer than we have the nearly nine years we’ve lived here. The S’mores wench was active, and I do enjoy the swim-up S’mores bar.

This is not to say that people don’t hop into a car and head to a nearby beach, we’ve certainly done that on a few occasions. But it seems like those excursions include eating at a local restaurant in the beach community. Maybe it’s California. Maybe natives of the left coast don’t picnic, maybe they never did. Maybe folks in the northeast or the Midwest or in the deep south still do it.

I threw a poll up for two hours on Twitter today and got no responses. I also flat out asked the question in a Tweet and got no answers. I asked the question on Faceboook, and although I didn’t get that many replies, it sure seems to me that the American picnic is dead. When it died seems to vary depending on who you ask. For some it was fairly recent, for others it died a long time ago.

Do I miss picnics? Do I mourn them? Those are not easy questions to answer, especially given my penchant for nostalgia. I have fond memories of my family picnics. I have some photos of a few memorable ones. Maybe that’s what I miss about them, the people. Most of the then-adults we’d picnic with are deceased, aunts, uncles…my parents.

It seems like the tradition died with them.

Facebook Writing Prompt

A few months ago, an old military pal, Paula, posted one of these Facebook things and encouraged her online community to do it with her. Now, I don’t know how many folks have participated in this particular viral thing. However, when I looked at it, I thought of it more as a writing prompt. None of these things, to me, can be answered yes or no. So, I thought I would give it a whirl with tongue planted firmly in cheek.

Tattoos………………….no. I am not opposed; I just haven’t gotten one yet. I did see a male motorcycle rider today with a tramp stamp. I firmly believe that if you are going to get one, spend some money and make sure you find a capable artist.

Piercings……………….no. I did have my ear pierced once a long time ago, it lasted four days before I took the stud out and let the hole close up.

Children………………..yes, two, one at home, one who lives with his mom in Florida.

Surgeries………………..yes, technically three, unless you want to count oral surgeries. Knee, butt and back. Don’t ask about the middle one. There’s a blog entry for that somewhere in the archive.

Broken Bones ……….yes, fractured my elbow once, fell off my bike when I was 11 I think. Pretty sure I broke my pinky during a flag football practice/scrimmage in Iceland but I never got it looked at.

Shot a gun………………I am ex-military so, yeah.

Quit a job………………..Quit, fired, what’s your point?

Flown on a plane…….more times than I can count, although the first time wasn’t until I was 18 and I was on my way to boot camp just outside of Chicago.

Gone zip lining………..no, but there are some batshit crazy guys in Wales who have one I’d like to try.

Given CPR……………….no, almost had to. We lost 21 sailors in a ferry accident off the coast of Haifa, Israel, 1990, and I was standing by on the hangar deck.

Been to Canada…………….yes, love Canada. Toronto, Winnipeg, Niagara Falls, been to a lot of places in Canada, including Canadian Tire.

Ridden in an ambulance…..no, almost. Was checked out in the back of one when I wrecked a car when I was in high school.

Been to Europe………………..yes, London, England; four places in Turkey.

Stamps in Passport(s) ……..yes, in addition to England, Mexico.

Been to Washington D.C….yes, stationed there for three years. Went as part of a class trip in grade school as well.

Florida………………………unfortunately.

Colorado…………………yes, it’s growing on me.

Mexico……………………………yes, last year for the first time. Best tacos ever.

Las Vegas………………………..yes, if you count a layover at McCarran Airport. They have slot machines in the freaking airport. Of course they do.

Sang karaoke………………..no. Nobody needs to hear me sing. Although I am a professional in the car singer, I can’t carry a tune in a bucket.

Had (a) pet(s)…………………yes, currently? Three cats, a dog, four turtles, Lord knows how many Koi fish, and several vagrant lizards and spiders.

Been downhill skiing……….yes, once, disastrous experience, still think I owe the ski resort money for a binding.

Ability to read music ………no, took piano lessons in grammar school, didn’t even get to Chopsticks. I am not a musical people.

Rode a motorcycle…………..no, I like at least 3,000 pounds of car around me when I go careening down the highway at 75 miles per hour.

Rode a horse…………………….yes, unassisted no…rode a camel once too.

Stayed in hospital…………….kinda, just not overnight.

Donated blood………………..no, my blood stays in my body there Drac.

Driven a stick shift……………Yes, learned on my dad’s 1979 Ford Mustang, four on the floor and four cylinders. It wouldn’t go faster than 82 m.p.h. Believe me, I tried.

Ride in Police Car ………..Military Police count?

Grandkids……………………no, although several people have accused me.

Driven a Boat ……………..yes! My wife didn’t think I could, but I showed her. “Just because you were in the Navy doesn’t mean they let you drive the boat.” Yeah well, I drove a damn speedboat, so there. I came into the slip a little hot, but, whatever. Everyone survived.

Eaten Escargot ……………no, never have, never will. Bleah.

Seen a UFO………………..um…

Been on a Cruise………..yes, if you count the USS Saratoga. Other than that, no. And you’ll never get me on a cruise ship either.

Run out of Gas…………..yes, in my own damn garage no less. Shut up, it’s not funny.

Eat Sushi……………………yes, but where I come from we call it “bait.”

Seen a Ghost……………..seen? No. Experienced? That’s a blog for a different day, but yes, three times.

A Second Life for a Window Into Mine

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This was my father’s Petri 7 35mm camera.

Ten years ago this week, my father John Henry Knaak, Jr., suffered a fatal heart attack. It was 11 months after my mother, Yung Hi Knaak, suffered a catastrophic stroke and died days later. I still say dad died of a broken heart. I inherited my parents’ belongings. Every knickknack, every piece of furniture, every book, every bill (including electric bills dating back to 1984), every stitch of clothing, everything became mine, everything including a Petri 35mm SLR camera kit.

I grew up in Rochester, New York, which is considered the birthplace of photography, as we know it. My high school graduation ceremony was held at the George Eastman Theater, so named for the founder of the Eastman Kodak Company.

When I was growing up, you had to be judicious about the photos you took. Cameras, film (if you don’t know what film cameras were, go ask a grown up), processing and printing cost money. Cameras certainly weren’t cheap and film could be expensive depending on quality and type. You had to be selective with your picture taking – you only had 24 or 36 shots per roll of film. Oftentimes we took our film to a place called Fotomat – drive-through islands located in the parking lots of numerous strip malls across the country. Many of these are now drive-thru espresso stands.

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A photo of a Fotomat booth from my hometown newspaper, The Democrat & Chronicle.

Petri 35mm cameras came along in the 1950s and my father purchased his at a PX in the 1960s while he was in the United States Army. This would be the camera that documented my father’s tour in Korea, his courtship of my mother, and much of my childhood.

The camera itself was sleek and elegant, especially for the time. It was heavy, substantial in your hand. You knew you had a well-made piece of equipment in your hand when you picked it up and felt the heft.

My father used the camera to shoot slides. Yes, we regaled whoever would sit still long enough with the dreaded slide show. We had a projector and a somewhat portable screen. I still have the slides and their carousels. He also took snapshots with print film. My mother didn’t take many photos. You could always tell when she did. You were lucky if you actually were in the photo. As I’ve mentioned before, this is probably why I don’t have many photos of my dad, he was the one behind the camera.

Dad was a bit of a shutterbug. He enjoyed taking family snapshots, landscapes and exterior architecture on family vacations, family pets, zoo animals, antique cars and fire engines at various shows and exhibits. However, he was a bit lackadaisical when it came to getting the film developed. Hell, there might still be an undeveloped roll or two lying around here somewhere. I’m not sure if it was a money issue or a procrastination issue. As I kid I enjoyed taking pictures. I used a Kodak “disc” camera for a while. It was state-of-the-art at the time. The film was contained in a wheel, not unlike a View Master slide picture wheel. You still had to have it developed like regular film. We had a Polaroid camera too, which was the closest thing we had to instant photography.

This Petri camera my father bought halfway around the world was a constant companion on numerous excursions. We drove everywhere for family vacations. I didn’t get on an airplane until I was 18. From the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, to Boston Harbor, and Niagara Falls and Toronto in between, dad chronicled it all with his Petri 7. He treated that camera with care and reverence. There was more than just a hint of melancholy when the image quality started to deteriorate.

Eventually, the Petri 7 gave way to higher-end point and shoot cameras. I had a couple of Canon 35mm SLRs, and I shot with a Canon F-1 when I was in the Navy, but none of them garnered the respect that Petri was given.

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The Petri 7 on display in my cousin’s home. Photo courtesy of Melissa Salatino.

Over the past decade I have had trouble getting rid of some of my parents’ stuff. Household goods and clothes were easier than some other items. Dad’s music collection, my parents’ DVD collection, select pieces of dad’s die-cast metal 1/43rd scale model car collection, his model trains, will all probably stay. Knickknacks are gone for the most part, with a few exceptions. I still have a few pieces of furniture that I refuse to part with.

During a clean out of my home office last year, I came across the Petri 7 35mm camera. I was fairly certain it couldn’t be fixed. Besides, we live in a digital world now. We carry a camera built into our phones everywhere we go. Photography is no longer a luxury, it has become an important way we express ourselves in our everyday lives. The only excuse for not taking a picture now is running out of memory. It’s fitting that an Instagram post triggered the words you’re reading right now.

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A closer view of the Petri 7 in my cousin’s home. Photo courtesy of Melissa Salatino.

When I came across the brown leather case containing the Petri and its accessories, I felt so many emotions – nostalgia, loss, longing, and gratitude all passed through me. And like a very few other things I inherited, I couldn’t bring myself to just toss the camera away. I couldn’t fathom trying to sell it on eBay either.

A bolt of inspiration struck me.

My cousin Melissa, a descendant of my grandfather’s brother Carl, was getting ready for her wedding. I have often remarked that Melissa was born in the wrong decade. Her appreciation of vintage clothing, hairstyles, cars, décor and such is nothing short of remarkable. I thought if anyone could appreciate this camera, it would be Melissa. As an early wedding gift, I shipped the camera to her. It now sits prominently and proudly displayed in the home she shares with her husband Tom.

Melissa posted a photo from inside her home on Instagram today and the Petri 35mm is clearly visible. As I’ve thought about my father this week and how 10 years have already passed since his death, it was a bit of serendipity to see this photo on social media today.

I’m glad this piece of my history, this window on my life, will now bear witness to a new life my cousin and her husband are building together. I think my father would be happy that I found a loving home for one of his most cherished possessions.

Christmas Special Two-Pack

5. How the Grinch Stole Christmas! – 1966

Chuck Jones of Warner Bros. and Bugs Bunny fame animated this fantastic tale of Christmas redemption. Thurl Ravenscroft, the original voice of Tony the Tiger (and totally uncredited), performed the theme song, You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch, and one of my favorite actors of all time, horror master Boris Karloff, narrated Dr. Seuss’ loose version of A Christmas Carol.

The Whos of Whoville love Christmas and the Grinch, a vile, furry green creature whose heart was two sizes two small, hated it. He hated everything to do with it. One year, he gets the awful idea to try to keep Christmas from coming. How does he attempt to do this? By stealing it of course. And he steals everything, I mean everything. He even convinces Cindy Lou Who that he is Santa Claus and that he has to take her Christmas tree to the North Pole for repairs.

Come morning the Whos don’t need trees, decorations or presents, Christmas comes anyway, the Whos starting singing and the Grinch realizes the true meaning of Christmas. He decides to return everything, and I mean everything. And the Whos even let the Grinch carve the roast beast at the annual feast.

I don’t have any real personal attachment to this other than the fact that I just love all things Dr. Seuss, I love books and I love stories. I just like this. The music is fun, Karloff is great as the narrator and Ravenscroft’s rendition of the theme has become synonymous with the Grinch character. For the record, I can’t stand the Jim Carrey live action film. Carrey is more Jim Carrey than he is the Grinch and a 30-minute cartoon was unnecessarily stretched out to a two-hour feature.

This is the only traditional 2D animation that makes my list. There’s a reason for that.

The title of the next film on the countdown of my favorite Christmas movies/specials speaks for itself.

4. A Christmas Story

Peter Billinglsey stars as Ralphie, Darren McGavin of Kolchak – The Nightstalker fame – plays his father, and Melinda Dillon (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) his mom. You may not know that Zack Ward, who plays bully Scut Farkus, went on to play an Umbrella Corporation mercenary in one of the Resident Evil movies.

Jean Shepherd’s tale of childhood Christmas has become a cult classic thanks to TBS bringing it back as a Christmas day marathon several years ago. The story is set in Indiana in the late 1940s and was actually filmed in Cleveland. You can visit the actual house as it has been transformed into a museum in recent years.

This may be set 20 some odd years before I was born but I swear it’s my childhood Christmas brought to life on screen. We’re not talking parallels here, we’re talking direct correlations.

Now, I could give you the synopsis for the film but I’d rather explain how this movie relates to me or how I relate to it.

First of all – the furnace. Darren McGavin spends a lot of time in the basement battling the wonky furnace while shrouded in a cloud of black smoke. Now, we didn’t have furnace issues but I lived in a duplex for much of my childhood, age 5-14 if I remember correctly, and we had oil heat. As I have mentioned in previous posts, we were poor for a good number of years. We didn’t always have money for oil and I remember my dad borrowing oil from the neighbor and transferring the noxious, black fluid via used milk cartons.

I remember what seemed to be the slow build up to Christmas while suffering through endless days in the classroom. Trips to see the department Santa Claus were a highlight of the season, not quite the nightmare Ralphie encountered. In my hometown of Rochester, N.Y., Midtown Plaza downtown was the place to go at Christmastime. It was always decked out for the season and the monorail was a must-ride attraction. It’s been dismantled and put away in storage. Sad.

The scene where Ralphie’s father plugs in the Christmas tree lights or the leg lamp or whatever it was into the multiple plug adapter cracks me up every time. I remember such adapters as a kid. We also had those 4,000-candlepower Christmas tree lights too. It’s a wonder we didn’t burn the damn house down. My father hated all things electric. He wouldn’t touch the house wiring, ever. After my electronics training in the Navy, he’d wait until I came home for a visit and ask me to install a light fixture or a ceiling fan. The house he bought when I was 14 still had the original 1920s wiring, complete with fuse box. I’ll never forget visiting my parents one time when dad had the microwave plugged into the wall with a three-prong to two-prong adapter. He had the coffee maker, toaster and the miniature nuclear reactor we used to cook food all going at the same time. He smoke-checked that adapter and I had to pull two feet of burnt wire out of the wall so I could install the three-prong outlets he had sitting in the drawer for six months.

Dad never won a major award in the form of a leg lamp but I do remember the weatherproofing we had to do every winter with plastic covering the windows and foam in the air gaps under the doors.

We didn’t have the neighbors dogs barge into our house and steal our turkey, but I did get not one, but two BB/pellet guns for Christmas. We won’t discuss what I did with the second one when I was a freshman in high school. I didn’t shoot my eye out but let’s just say the cops were involved.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the movie for me is the rush of opening presents on Christmas day. The thrill of coming down the stairs, or entering the living room (I did live in a duplex on one floor) and seeing that Santa had in fact been there was the stuff dreams were made of. As an only child, I always made out like a bandit, money or no money.

When it comes to A Christmas Story, the late 1940s weren’t much different than the 1970s when it came to the Yuletide season. Jean Shepherd’s childhood Christmases and mine weren’t all that dissimilar and every time I watch it, I feel like I am home for Christmas.

This is a must-watch but I’ll only watch it on Christmas day, and I’ll watch it all the way through uninterrupted at least once.

Christmas Blog Re-Gifting

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I am not above re-gifting, yesiree Bob, I’ll re-gift. I don’t make a habit out of it but I have no shame in doing it. A few of my readers have enjoyed the Countdown of My 100 Favorite Horror Movies, both on Facebook and here at the The Jerry Project. After putting together my favorite Christmas songs, I crafted a list of my 10…er…11…favorite Christmas specials and counted down until Christmas.

So, without further adieu, I re-gift last year’s blogs featuring my 10…er…11…favorite Christmas specials and why (updated for this year of course). Let me know what you think.

The temperature has dropped, the halls are decked and the Christmas programming on television began a few weeks ago. I do love the trappings of the Yuletide season. From the music (which I’ve written about previously) to the decorations and gift-giving, Christmas is one of my favorite things in life.

I have such fond memories of Christmas past. I spent a good part of my early childhood poor, although my parents did a wonderful job of hiding this from me. I always had good birthdays, plentiful Thanksgivings and Easters, and best of all, wonderful Christmases. Now that I am older and understand how little we could afford, I am ashamed of myself for being the selfish snot that I was as a little boy.

Santa Claus was always so good to me. I’ll tell you more about that some other time.

One of the things I do so enjoy about this time of year is the Christmas specials and movies. Since the countdown of my 100 favorite horror movies, and my Top 15 Christmas songs were met with such glee, I thought I would count down my Top 10…er…11…favorite Christmas specials/movies.

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 8.17.48 PM11. A Charlie Brown Christmas – 1965

This is usually the first Christmas special I watch each year (it was the second this year) and I’ll watch it multiple times from the DVR recording before Dec. 25. Last year, a 50th Anniversary Special accompanied the annual airing. I’m not one for the Thanksgiving or Halloween specials. The Great Pumpkin doesn’t do much for me and Peppermint Patty’s presumptuous nature and bad attitude kill the Thanksgiving show for me. However, I adore the Christmas special. From the skating scene to Linus’ monologue and Charlie Brown’s tree purchase – there is so much to like.

[Check out the IMDB entry]

I remember trying to catch snowflakes on my tongue as a kid. Snowball fights. Sliding around in the snow and on the ice. Playing with my friends in the snow. So many of the activities Charlie Brown and his friends engage in remind me of my own childhood.

The one thing that stands out to me about this show is the music. Vince Guaraldi’s score has become iconic and the songs have become Christmas classics on the radio, SiriusXM and online streaming services like Pandora.

Director Bill Melendez truly captures the spirit of Charles M. Schulz’s iconic comic strip characters in this production. It has a sweetness, innocence and charm that, for me, is the perfect way to kick off the season.

It’s not particularly well-animated and the editing is a bit uneven. But it’s sweet and not heavy-handed and I enjoy it.

 

Christmas Tunes are in the Air

261421_471407609572269_662459190_nAs much as I enjoy Halloween and horror movies, I must say, I enjoy Christmas even more. I have such fond childhood memories of this time of year. When I wrote my Thanksgiving blog last year it got me thinking and feeling about those times with my parents and of Christmas past. So I crafted this list of my favorite Christmas music, and decided to re-post it for you here.

I am a traditionalist when it comes to the holidays. Meaning that you must celebrate one before you can even think about celebrating the next. Christmas creep is one phenomenon I’d like to see go away. Stores decorated for Christmas and advertising holiday sales before Halloween is obnoxious.

So, I have a bit of a rule, a tradition if you will. I will not start listening to Christmas music before Thanksgiving. SiriusXM’s Holiday Traditions channel started Dec. 5, and I kicked it off on Pandora with my Johnny Mathis holiday station on the day after Thanksgiving.

I usually start with the Christmas music the Friday or Monday after Thanksgiving. So, this could go from four to five weeks depending on when Thanksgiving hits. I don’t get tired of hearing the same tunes throughout the month of December. Since some of my readers enjoy the countdown of my 100 favorite horror films each year, I thought I’d present my 15 favorite Christmas songs. As I mentioned, I am a traditionalist. I only like what I consider to be the “definitive” version. I don’t care for recent or modern remakes (with very few exceptions) and I really don’t care for attempts at new Christmas compositions, with one exception.

So, without further ado, here are my 15 Favorite Christmas songs and why.

15. Jingle Bells. There is a version out there with Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters. It is a rehearsal for an Armed Forces Radio broadcast and there is a very funny blooper as Crosby blows a line near the end of the song. It’s one of those rare recordings that I would’ve never heard if not for Pandora. Jingle Bells isn’t so much a Christmas song as it is a winter song. But with the use of sleigh bells, it has become associated with Christmas.

14. Baby, It’s Cold OutsideDean Martin and Marilyn Maxwell. Ah, the “roofie” Christmas song. This is one of those songs that are rare these days with two singers basically having a conversation. I am not musically inclined so I don’t know what this technique is called. There is a line in the song that suggests the lady is swigging a spiked drink as the host tries to convince her not to go out in inclement weather. I’ve always thought the host in the song engaged in innocent cajoling. Unfortunately, this song has been vilified in recent years despite new versions.

13. Rudolph the Red Nosed ReindeerGene Autry. The singing cowboy did the original and probably best version of the song, although Burl Ives gives him a run for his money in the iconic Rankin and Bass supermarionation Christmas TV special. Autry spins the tale of a misfit reindeer, who is bullied and discriminated against until he finally gets his bloody revenge. Oh wait, flashed back to Halloween for a second. Rudolph saves Christmas and goes down in…oh hell, you know the story.

12. Let it SnowMichael Bublé. There have been many versions of this song and I do like Michael Bublé’s Christmas efforts. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and countless others have recorded versions of this great tune that, like Jingle Bells, is more seasonal than holiday, but has become a Christmas standard.

11. Holly Jolly ChristmasBurl Ives. Probably my favorite song from Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Ives, as Sam the talking snowman/narrator, sings this fun, festive, upbeat tune.

10. Rockin’ Around the Christmas TreeBrenda Lee. I think I danced to this song in a 4th grade production or somesuch. This is a different kind of Christmas song that incorporates the rock-a-billy style of the 1950s and the imagery of the holiday season. Her version of Jingle Bell Rock is a lot of fun too.

9. I’ll be Home for ChristmasFrank Sinatra. Bing Crosby did this originally as a bit of a tribute to the troops stationed overseas during World War II. As a former U.S. Navy sailor, I can certainly relate. I spent a few Christmases away from home. A bit melancholy, the song tells a bit of story and has a slight twist.

8. Santa BabyEartha Kitt. Only Eartha Kitt could make blatant materialism soft and sexy. The ultimate wish list, Santa gets serenaded and seduced in this wonderful Christmas favorite. Bublé tried to spin it from the male perspective and I thought it flopped. Only a girl can sing this, and Kitt’s rendition is the best ever.

7. Carol of the BellsTrans Siberian Orchestra. This is the only traditional carol I really care for, it’s haunting and rousing at the same time. It is used ad nauseum for the computerized synchronized home light show and for good reason.

6. It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the YearAndy Williams. The king of Christmas in Branson, Missouri, Andy Williams delivered the best rendition of this oft-covered classic. It truly is the most wonderful time of the year.

5. MistletoeColbie Caillat. As I mentioned, I don’t like new Christmas compositions but I make an exception for this one. Caillat really tugs at the heart strings with this beautiful song.

4. The Christmas SongNat King Cole. Mel Torme, the “Velvet Fog,” co-wrote this wonderful ode to all things Christmas, but Nat King Cole’s version is so silky smooth and just oozes Yuletide. What I want to know though is what the hell Chet did to deserve having his nuts roasted every December?

3. Winter WonderlandJohnny Mathis. If Bing Crosby is the father of Christmas music, Johnny Mathis is its uncle. Winter Wonderland may be a seasonal tune, but is has become a Christmas classic recorded by many. But Mathis’ version resonates.

2. White ChristmasBing Crosby. The best selling single of all-time speaks to me because I grew up in Western New York and know first hand what a White Christmas is. I was stationed in Iceland for three years and really got to know it. I miss it living in California. My job doesn’t allow me to get away during the holiday season so I have to do what Bing says, dream of white Christmases like I used to know.

1. Sleigh RideJohnny Mathis. I officially begin my Christmas music listening with Johnny Mathis’ rendition of Sleigh Ride. Recorded by many over the years, there are some excellent versions, but Mathis’ is the best and my favorite Christmas song of all, even though it is more of a seasonal tune.

Let Me Tell You About My Dad

IMG_9593On this Father’s Day I thought I would take some time and tell you about my father. I wrote of my mother on Mother’s Day a month ago, it’s only fitting I give my father equal time.

John Henry Knaak, Jr., was born Dec. 26, 1935. Having a birthday the day after Christmas was a curse for the poor guy. He rarely got birthday cards let alone presents. He was born and raised in Scottsville, New York, just outside of Rochester. I don’t know which hospital. There’s actually quite a bit I don’t know about my father. For all that I do know, there is plenty he kept to himself.

He grew up with his older sister Carole in a home I have referenced previously with my grandparents, John Henry Knaak, Sr., and the former Elizabeth (Betty) Woods. There was an even older sister, my Aunt Joyce, but she died when she was toddler. Pneumonia took her if I recall the stories properly.

IMG_9591From the photos in the album my dad enjoyed his dog, played cowboy and liked to read. He loved music, but I have my own anecdotal evidence for that.

By all accounts, he was a high school legend at Scottsville High. He played basketball, baseball and soccer. His high school yearbook dedicated an entire section to his exploits in the senior edition. Dad graduated high school in 1954 and that’s when his history starts to get murky.

He went on to play college basketball at the State University of New York at Geneseo in Geneseo, New York. However, I have a 1954-55 yearbook from another college. Dad never spoke of a transfer. I do know he didn’t finish his college career at Geneseo or graduate from there. His degree in education came much later from Empire State College.

John Knaak, Sr., died in 1959 and Dad left school to take care of my grandmother. Eventually he found his way into the United States Army and stationed in Korea where he met my mother. They were married in 1962. My father never liked to tell the story of how they met and I didn’t know until after she died in 2006.

IMG_9592The story goes like this. Dad and an Army buddy were walking down the street in a South Korean village and they came upon two young women. Somehow they worked past the language barrier and went for coffee, tea, or whatever you did in a Korean village in the early 1960s. Dad’s buddy took a liking to Kim Yung Hi, and she didn’t care for him. She took to my dad instead and sidled up to him. Thus began the greatest love affair I’ve ever heard of, read about or seen dramatized on a screen.

My father transferred stateside and separated from the Army. He decided that he could not live without Yung Hi. He re-enlisted in the Army and shucked and jived his way back to Korea. Actually, that’s not accurate. He was passed from transport to transport without orders and was told his orders would catch up to him eventually. According to my father, Yung Hi was in shock when she was told he was back. They would eventually get married in 1962 with the help of a general or a colonel. My memory is fuzzy. Back then they didn’t like GIs marrying local girls with the thought being that the soldiers were a ticket out of Korea. My father convinced a senior officer that he was in love and that officer agreed to marry them. He said one of the biggest regrets in his life was that he never reached out to thank that officer who believed in them. When Mom died, they had been married for nearly 44 years. I’d say Dad’s motives were pure.

My folks moved back to the states and ended up in Erie, Pennsylvania. There were stories of living in Columbus, Georgia, and falling down an escalator in Chicago. There are great photos in the album of parties my parents attended. They were very attractive, made a great couple and seemed very cosmopolitan.

IMG_9589Dad became a disc jockey and radio newsman. He had a fantastic voice. In fact, when I tell long lost relatives about Dad or ask if they remember him, they all say, “the one with the voice.” He became best friends with the man who would become my Godfather, the young guy who read the sports.

After trying in vain to have children, my parents chose to adopt. I was three days old when they brought me home. All he could tell me about my birth mother was that she was a single school teacher. Pennsylvania remains Draconian in their efforts to protect privacy when it comes to adoptions. I’d have a better chance getting access to the Vatican’s archives.

We eventually moved back to Rochester when I was two and Dad’s time as a disc jockey unfortunately came to an end. He ended up working tool and die for Bernz-o-matic. When the company decided to relocate, they told Dad he had to move at his own expense if he wanted to keep his job. He declined and spent a long time out of work. He tried in vain to get back into radio. While at Bernz-o-matic, he worked crazy hours and I only seemed to see him when he came home for lunch. I have a soft spot in my heart for hash and eggs. When I’m feeling homesick or really down in the mouth, hash and eggs fits the bill.

I never knew we were poor. I always had Christmas, I always had birthdays. Eventually, Dad landed a job with the City of Rochester. Three years in he could’ve taken a test that would have made him THE Records Manager for the City of Rochester. He said he didn’t think he was ready, declined, and regretted it the rest of his life.

After getting the job, I was nine at the time, he bought a 1979 Ford Mustang. Dad loved Mustangs. This was the car that was used to teach me to drive. I thought my name was “Jesus Christ” while he was giving me driving lessons.

IMG_9586My folks came to my little league baseball games, what high school basketball and baseball games they could. Actually, I don’t think either saw me play high school baseball. Mom maybe. Oh well, I digress. The one and only high school basketball game Dad attended, I was on the Freshman team, was the one where I scored a basket for the other team. I was so embarrassed. The one game he comes to and I commit the biggest blunder imaginable. He didn’t exactly prop me up afterwards.

Dad provided invaluable counsel throughout high school even though I rarely listened. All the trouble I had with time management, girls, money and schoolwork, I only wish I listened. He co-signed a car loan and I made him regret it. My indulgences and mistakes cost my father a lot of money and I always intended to pay it back. I never got the chance.

I always thought Dad was cheap. I learned later he was frugal. And he did have expensive taste, he just never let it show. We were the last in the neighborhood to get a VCR, to get a microwave, to get all kinds of things. Dad explained that he waited to get what he wanted not just what he could afford at the time.

Anyone who knew my father knew he loved music. Frank Sinatra was his favorite. Until a new collection of Las Vegas was released recently, Dad owned everything Sinatra ever recorded. From jazz to Big Band to 1960s rock ‘n’ roll, his collection was very eclectic. There’s even some classical. I played my favorite Sinatra song after I delivered the eulogy at his funeral, It Was a Very Good Year, because I thought it was fitting.

He loved fire engines too. I never understood that one. He loved classic cars. I lost many hours of my childhood at car shows. He was also an artist. Dad loved drawing and painting wildlife, my favorite hangs in my office. He used his skills as an artist for numerous homemade Halloween costumes for me. He also loved photography.

Dad was a collector. He collected vinyl records, movies, die-cast metal model cars, sports figurines and model trains. It was with reluctance that I took possession of all these things after he died. I knew what they meant to him.

IMG_9590He was a quiet, almost stoic man, but he had a wry, dry sense of humor. Laughter around the dinner table was commonplace. He also had a temper, although it took a lot to bring it out. He read the local paper cover to cover ever day. Hell, you couldn’t get his attention until he was done reading it.

I can’t tell you how many days and hours Dad and I spent just playing catch or shooting hoops. I cherish those times with my own son now.

My father always blamed himself for my enlistment in the United States Navy. He felt like he didn’t do enough to send me to the college of my choice. I wouldn’t trade my life experiences for the world, I never blamed him for not having college money for me. I didn’t do enough to send myself.

During my time in the Navy and the years after I got out, I didn’t visit enough for my father’s taste. After he retired, he didn’t visit me enough for my taste. After Mom died, I flew Dad out to California. I’m glad I did. He died three weeks later. I have photos of him with his grandson I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise and at least I got to see him one more time.

My father rarely gave you his handshake. He shook my hand three times in the 37 years I had him. The first time was after I pitched and lost in an all-star game. I didn’t have any good stuff that day but I kept fighting and ended up losing a close game. The second was when I graduated high school and the third happened when I returned from Operation Desert Shield/Storm. You had to earn his handshake.

IMG_9587He didn’t keep many friends, but the ones he did keep, he kept for a long time.

As for family, well, this is where it got confusing. Dad was great at taking us “visiting.” That’s what you did back then. You got in the car and you just went. Sometimes there was an advance phone call, sometimes not. But I remember just showing up at a random relative’s house and Dad saying, “this is your aunt and uncle…” He was terrible at explaining how you were related to these people. About six years ago I became the keeper of the family tree. I learned that my grandfather was one of 12 kids, and that my grandmother was one of 12 kids. Twenty-four siblings. I don’t have a family tree, it’s a freaking bush. I didn’t learn the names of my Korean grandparents until after Mom died.

That was just it. As much as I know about my father, there’s a lot I don’t know. Or, there was a lot I learned after Mom died and still more after Dad died. I was raised on the fringes of the Catholic church but I was never required to participate in anything. When I told him I didn’t want to go to church anymore, he said, “so, don’t.” Dad was a devout Catholic, I have paperwork to prove it, although he died an agnostic. The apple doesn’t fall from the tree on that one. In fact, my mother went through a period where she really embraced Christianity. These are the only times my parents fought – when Mom wanted us to go to church and Dad resisted. Dad and I would go see a movie on New Year’s Eve while Mom rang in the New Year in church.

13428426_1112212272158463_3181607805996718069_nThere is so much about my father I don’t know. What was he like in elementary school? Did he have other girlfriends before my mom? I learned he spent time in the hospital after hurting himself in a baseball game. He was very popular as evidenced by the letters from classmates I found.

As much as he did earlier in his life, Army, radio, he never indicated he was unhappy with his station in life later on. He was entrenched in the American middle class. He owned a home in what can now only be described as a rundown neighborhood. It was getting bad when he passed away, it’s even worse now. This was the neighborhood where I grew up and it saddens me.

These 2,000 words or so don’t even come close to explaining who John Henry Knaak, Jr., was. I was so angry when I was told he died. Angry because he left me. I have no one to call when I need parental advice, not that I ever took it when he was alive. But I know he visits me. He’s visited three times. That’s a different blog for a different day.

Many young people look up to movie stars or athletes. My dad, John Henry Knaak, Jr., for all his secrets and flaws, is my hero.