I miss the old guys.
When I was growing up in Farmingdale in the 1950s, my friends and I would encounter local men at the hardware store, the gas station, the American Legion hall or at the VFW, where my dad was the post commander. The men were all veterans of World War II or Korea. Some had wartime injuries. Some were older. They talked softly and, it seemed, mostly of out the sides of their mouths.
They tolerated us kids. They called us Skip, Chief, Johnny or just, “Hey, kid!” If they knew your name and used it, it was a high honor. Sometimes they would call you by your dad’s name, because they knew and liked him, or he was one of them. If you were brave, you could call them by their nicknames, but not in mixed company, then you had to call them Mister.
They cursed — a lot! — and had no hesitation about doing it in front 12-year-old boys. Sometimes they would correct our cursing, explaining the differences between various vulgarities — but never in front of women or girls.
They could fix anything with only a few tools.
“Hey kid, take this bit of wire and wrap it around a pencil and make a spring for your bike,” one would say. “It should work and save you a buck or two.”
They would reuse nails, taking care to straighten and sharpen them. They stored different-sized nails in coffee cans on neat shelves in their garages. The men had names for everything, money especially: a buck ($1), a sawbuck ($10), a double sawbuck ($20).
They taught us how to act like men and to be men. We learned to hold a door open for older people, to tip or touch out hats when we walked by a woman, and to say “Excuse me” when walking in front of an adult.
They had rules like, “Never trust a guy who doesn’t wear a hat or have a pocketknife.” Pocketknives were big to them. We learned how to whittle — first, wooden whistles; later, some could carve a box and chain out of a single block. Oiling a folding knife to make it retract smoothly was an art form.
Old guys showed us how to tie knots so we could move up in rank in the Boy Scouts — square knots (it was a “granny” if tied wrong), sheepshanks and clove hitches. They could splice or join ropes by twisting them. A properly done eye splice (a loop at the end of a rope) would last longer than a piece of truck-stop meat loaf. If there were two different-sized ropes, the men showed you how to tie a strong sheet bend, also called a weaver’s knot.
Sometimes they drank and in front of us without a second thought. A bottle of cheap rye whiskey in a brown paper bag was passed around. Once in a while you’d hear, “Hey kid, take a horn of this!” We’d take a sip and choke and cough, but smile at them, and they would smile back.
They wouldn’t have survived today’s politically correct times. They used slang from the military to describe their wartime enemies. If we pestered them, they’d talk about combat they’d seen. For some men, enduring contempt for America’s former enemies showed in their eyes. We understood: It’s different when people are trying to kill you. They truly were the greatest generation.
I hope I’m that kind of old guy to my grandchildren, but it’s a high standard to meet.
Reader Fred Marks lives in Wantagh.