Jack Benny and Dad

jack bennyJack Benny was in the top five of all-time show business personalities. As a kid in the late 1950’s and early 60’s , I watched his tv show and laughed like everyone else. Jack was beloved by all his peers which is unusual in a competitive world. His stage persona was that of a vain cheapskate. This was a scriptwriter’s dream and it did him well for close to sixty years. He died in 1974 at the age of eighty after pretending to be 39 for so many years.

My father celebrated his own eightieth birthday in October, 2002 by falling down and breaking both ankles. He had just left his car and had walked up the stairs to his townhouse. Once inside, he tripped in the foyer and that was that. Somehow my mother helped him into a chair and she called me to come over. I did and it was in the late evening time. A private ambulance service brought him to the hospital of choice. We waited in the emergency area and by 11pm the doctors had done their thing. They bandaged him up as best as possible and told me to take him home.

I was incredulous, if that was being a polite way to say I wanted to take the doctor by the neck collar and slap him from here to tomorrow. I asked him how I was supposed to take him home in my car if he had two taped ankles and couldn’t walk. He said it wasn’t the hospital’s problem as once the medical solution was effected it was now social.

I got the emergency room doctor to call Dad’s regular doctor and I told him that I was leaving my father in the hospital for observation and that was that. The doctor agreed and had him admitted. Dad stayed in the hospital for three days until we had a chance to get him to agree to go into a rehab place in order to mend. Rehab was codeword for nursing home. Other than an overnight stay back at home, he lived in the nursing home for the final six years and nine months of his life.

radioI bought a portable radio for him to listen to but he seemed to quickly lose interest in figuring out how to use it. I then bought him a cassette tape recorder so I could play for him all the recordings off of the radio he had made between 1970 and 2000. One cassette was a couple of Jack Benny radio episodes that had been played on an old time radio program. Ma told me that Dad just loved Jack Benny. I had no idea because he had never mentioned it to me. Now I realized why I liked Jack so much. I had inherited it.

I thought maybe Dad liked Jack because of his penny pinching ways. But Jack did it because it always seemed he wanted to take the money with him when his time came. Dad was frugal as earlier in his earning years he had to pay tuition for five kids in private school. Later on he was paying for a deluxe three bedroom townhouse with two washrooms that my parents bought later in life after renting for so many years.

There was the time Dad, Ma and my kid brother took a short vacation to Wisconsin. They stopped off at the Milwaukee Zoo. Near the front entrance, there was a notice that indicated visitors got in for free if they were from Milwaukee County. Dad told the admission taker that they were from the area. The attendant noticed the car’s Illinois license plate and Chicago vehicle sticker. So, he asked him what his zip code was. Dad hemmed and hawed like Ralph Kramden until Ma shouted out from her seat on the front passenger side, “60649. Pay the man!”

Dad was not vain like Jack but he always used to tell me that he thought he was better looking than me. Maybe he was. And like Jack Benny, he was confused about his age. On his last day here, I asked Dad how old he was and he gave me an age about twenty years younger than the truth. I proceeded to tell him his real age and he looked at me like I was nuts. Despite all the adversity he had gone through that shouldn’t happen to anyone else, he was that younger, always joking, happily married guy proud of his kids and grandchildren. He left us five hours later, his mind frozen in a better time.

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