The Designated Schlepper - Tales of Grampa Louie
Copyright © R. Kossover, 1994, 2011
One night last fall, my wife was busily retching up dinner, lunch, and most of the previous week's meals while suffering a nasty bout of stomach flu. For three hours, she had been sitting in a chair covered in a blanket with the chills complaining of nausea. Our youngest, Eric, would ask every couple of minutes, "Mommy, are you going to throw up?" or "Mommy, did you throw up yet?" As time passed, he got himself more and more upset. Now that the anticipated unloading was finally taking place, he ran around the house in a panic, clapping his hands, crying "Mommy, don't throw up!" as if his commands alone could stop a grand event of nature.
The eldest, Daniel, hid on the couch, his hands covering his ears, head buried in a cushion. If it weren't for the sheer terror in Eric's eyes, I would have gone into the bathroom to comfort my wife, which is what I really wanted to do. Instead, I picked Eric up and carried him to the couch where Daniel had his head hidden.
I sat on the couch with my arms around them trying to calm the boys down, but Eric just screamed and Daniel kept his head resolutely buried as my wife vomited up some more. As I rubbed Daniel's back, I remembered my father telling me never to panic and inspiration hit me.
"Daniel, let me tell you a story about Grampa Louie." Daniel kept his ears covered, but lifted his head away from the couch cushion. Eric stopped screaming about his mother throwing up long enough to complain that I wasn't telling him about Grampa Louie.
"Okay Eric, I'll tell you about Grampa Louie, too. With that, I began.
"Grandma Hattie had a cousin who lived in Bergenfield, New Jersey, Cousin Fannie, who was a teacher. She was used to being the boss at home. She had a son, David, who was a couple of years older than me. Her husband, Sam, was a pit musician for the Radio City Music Hall. One day Cousin Fannie got a great offer to teach in Passaic, which is a few miles away. The only catch was that in order to teach in the Passaic schools, she had to live in Passaic. This meant she had to move.
"So, she and Sam put the house up for sale and bought a new house on Main Avenue in Passaic. They packed furniture and things into boxes, and got ready to move.
"Now, Fannie didn't have money to hire movers, so she called Grampa Louie on the phone and he agreed to help her move. He emptied the ice out of his delivery truck and drove Grandma Hattie and me to Bergenfield one cloudy Saturday morning.
"Fannie had almost everything packed in boxes. Sam had to take the train to New York for rehearsals at Radio City Music Hall. That left Grampa Louie alone to schlep boxes downstairs and into his truck.
"What's schlep mean, Daddy?" Eric asked.
"It's Yiddish. It means to carry or drag, like you do, well, with moving boxes. Since Grampa Louie was stuck with schlepping the boxes, he was the designated schlepper.
"He didn't have to carry everything, though. Grandma Hattie, Fannie and David all helped. Even I had to carry something. I had to carry a vase from Fannie' bedroom upstairs down to the truck. All the way down the stairs, out of the house and all the way to the truck, Grampa Louie kept saying `don't drop the vase, Ruvy, don't drop the vase.' He stood in the back of the truck and I handed it up to him. As I handed it to him, he kept saying `don't drop it, don't drop it, oy oy oy oy oy, don't drop it!' The minute it was in his hands, Grampa Louie dropped the vase. The vase smashed into pieces and there was dirt all over the back of the truck. Cousin Fannie gave him a broom and he swept out the truck and laughed.
"When the truck was all loaded we started off for Passaic. Grandma Hattie drove Cousin Fannie' blue Studebaker and took David with her. Fannie was so upset with Grampa Louie for dropping that vase and for laughing afterwards, that she rode with him in the truck to make sure he wouldn't speed and ruin more of her things. I loved riding with my father so much that I got to be in the truck with him. I was squished between Cousin Fannie, who was rather fat, and the gear stick.
"It was almost evening when we left Bergenfield. It had been raining all afternoon and was still drizzling as Grampa Louie started up the truck and left town.
"The Garden State Parkway would have gotten us to Passaic in a few minutes. But to avoid highway tolls and to keep Cousin Fannie happy, we drove down Washington Avenue which had a lot of stoplights and railroad crossings. Each of the railroad crossings had a protective gate that came down and blocked the road when a train was coming. We had almost gotten to Route 4 and we were crossing a railroad track when the protective gates began to come down behind us and in front of us. Grampa Louie didn't dare speed up to get away from the track, firstly, because the gate would have crashed down on the truck and secondly, because Cousin Fannie would have thrown a fit. So he stopped the truck, and looked around.
"Off in the distance on Cousin Fannie' side of the truck we saw the reason that the gates had come down and blocked the road. A beam of light seemed to illuminate the gray track in the night and progress slowly toward us.
"`Louie, it's a train!' Cousin Fannie shouted. Grampa Louie just shrugged and looked outside his window. I started to cry. I was scared. I heard the train whistle. Even as it whistled, the noise seemed to get louder.
“`Louie, do something! We're gonna die!' Fannie screamed. The light of the train got nearer. My father said `Watch out, son,' and pulled the gear stick into reverse. It pushed against my hip as it passed me.
"`Now, watch what I do. Don't watch the train,' Grampa Louie said as he turned the truck's steering wheel hand over hand to the left and put his foot on the gas. The truck pulled backward away from the gate to the left and was facing the train.
"`I'm gonna get sick, Louie. Help.' Cousin Fannie said weakly.
"`Vomit later, Fannie, not in my truck!' my father roared at her. He shifted into first and drove straight toward the oncoming train until he cleared the gate, then he swung to the left, away from the train and on to some grass. He jumped out of the truck, ran over to Fannie, gave her a bag and said, `go ahead.' The train rolled on behind us.
"Fannie got out of the truck with the bag, but she didn't throw up. It felt so good without her squeezing me against the gear stick.
"So what happened next, dear?" my wife asked. She'd startled me. I had been so busy telling the boys about my father that I had forgotten completely about her.
"I'm sorry, sweetheart. Are you feeling better? Do you still have the chills?"
She looked a little tired. "No, the chills are gone. But tell me what happened next." Her eyes twinkled with curiosity.
"Well, Grampa Louie pulled fifty cents out of his pocket and put it on the dashboard. He said, `Fannie, we're taking the Garden State, and that's the end of it.' Fannie got back into the truck, and was very quiet. We returned to Washington Avenue, turned onto Route 4 to the Garden State and were at Cousin Fannie' new house in Passaic in about fifteen minutes.
"You mean your father didn't get scared at all while he was driving straight into the path of a train? Not even a little bit?" In her twinkling eyes were questioning disbelief.
"No. In fact, after we had unloaded some of Fannie' furniture at her new house, we went out to a deli and my dad stuffed himself with corned beef sandwiches and kasha varnishkas. You never would have known anything out of the ordinary had happened that night.
"But, Daddy," Daniel asked, "Weren't you scared? And did you look at the train even though Grampa Louie told you not to?"
"Yeah, I looked at the train. And I was very scared. But Grampa Louie was at the wheel and I trusted him. And Grampa Louie didn't panic."
Then I got up and looked at all of them, especially my wife.
"And that's why I'm around to tell the tale."
Labels: Family History