Friday, January 21, 2011

Where There's Smoke, There's Grandpa

Harvey Kopp
“I smell smoke! Mom! SMOKE!”

Sweaty from the long slog from the bus stop home, I opened the door and knew something was up. I raced from room to room frantically looking for the source of the pungent aroma that was tickling my nose.

“Where’s it coming from?” called out my Mom from the kitchen.

I pulled the pantry doors practically off their hinges, peered under beds, burst into bathrooms, yanked open closet doors, until I found it. It was a thin grey swirl of smoke wafting up from the glowing end of a cigar.


“You got me!”

There hunkered down in the guest room closet, the prize at the end of “cigar smoke hide-n-seek,” was my Grandpa puffing away, flashing a brilliant smile and bubbling up a booming belly laugh.
I wrapped my arms around his neck and hugged him hard enjoying his scratchy cheeks, his pure white impeccably groomed hair, the feel of his dress shirt and tie.  He smelled deliciously of Old Spice, and the slight tang on his breath of the welcoming Budweiser beer my mother gave him upon arriving.

Tree-froggin' Grandpa.  I had to be peeled off...

Grandpa was down from St. Louis for a visit and this wiggling giggling granddaughter could not have been happier.

Harvey Kopp may have had hard times and heart breaks during his life. Probably did. But he never let things get him down.

A self-made man sired by beer-brewing German immigrants, he made his life an adventure from his days of hawking newspapers on the corner as a boy (Extra! Extra!) all the way to becoming notable in St. Louis retail circles.

To my eyes as a single-digit kid, Grandpa consumed life with a healthy appetite. When he was around, things just tasted, smelled, sounded and felt enhanced; more delicious, sweeter, more real.

Grandpa posing as a mannequin his store window.

And a whole bunch funnier.

Grandpa in his element.

Grandpa flew to Florida frequently to see us and to enjoy some well-deserved rest from being a shoe store owner and salesman.

Shoes for men in those days were serious.

Grandpa specialized in fitting men with sturdy, all-leather Stacy-Adams shoes, manufactured in the good ‘ol US of A. These shoes were handed down fathers to sons, worthy of being re-soled over and over again. They had life spans with sharp dressed businessmen in St. Louis including CEO’s at beer companies and baseball sports figures. Even the fellows who “managed” the "oldest profession" patronized Grandpa’s shop on the down low for showy wingtips.

Soles with souls.

We still have a couple of pairs of Stacy-Adams shoes in my father and brother’s closets. The days of serious well-made American manufactured men’s shoes took a downturn with the eventual flood of cheaper made imports from overseas, but Grandpa rode the wave at its zenith.

Me, my little brother and Grandpa beachin' it.

Once my mother could peel me off Harvey (I notoriously clung to him like a tree frog) his transformation from dapper traveler to beach bum would begin.

His goals in Florida, in addition to messing around with his grandkids, were to get tanned, do crossword puzzles, enjoy some beers, and play golf or cards wherever available. Once settled, he would carefully hang up his business duds and don a pair of comfortable swim trunks and sunglasses for optimum relaxation.

And, always, a Hav-A-Tampa cigar not far away, either actively lit or smoldering away waiting for the flame from his silver flip-top lighter.

His left over cigar boxes were cherished objects where I kept all my kid treasures.  All three of us kids took them to school to hold broken crayons, fat pencils and glue much to the chagrin of the nuns.

Those boxes smelled so good.

Grandpa’s base of operations was the patio behind our house that overlooked the Country Club links. There he was a Coppertone slathered king lion surveying his vacation domain.

And that is where the family-famous tradition of the Patio Party began.

My brother and I, feeling left out in the evening when the adults gathered around the bar for cocktails and smoked mackerel spread canapes before dinner, doled out the pestering, persistently, until Grandpa proposed a remedy. If we settled down, he would throw a private and exclusive Patio Party with us for lunch the next day.

We held up our end.

Patio Party!

The next day, mom fixed tuna salad sandwiches with sweet gherkin pickles on the side, Kool-Aid and a Budweiser for Grandpa. Then we put on our 'swim trunks' (underpants) and sunglasses, slathered on the Coppertone and ate lunch on the patio with Grandpa.

Afterward, for dessert, we got to pull Grandpa's earlobe and he would blow a puff of smoke to our unending delight.

The famous patio where it all started.
Grandpa taught me how to play cards on that patio.  Gin and poker.  I learned from a pro.  He honed his prodigious and lucrative card playing skills at the Norwood Hills Country Club and the Missouri Athletic Club frequently winning his plane fares to Florida or Boston.  Or to Cuba where he played golf at beautiful resorts prior to Castro.

To this day, at home card games or casinos, I know I am going to win when I smell cigar smoke drift by.  Where there is smoke, there is Grandpa.

From that patio Grandpa would also plan his attack on the fairways and greens of the Country Club course.  We always kept a bag of clubs in the garage for his visits and he would join foursomes at formal play during the day or swing away solo at dusk carrying his putter, wedge and 7-iron to the 13th fairway tee box.   If we were good and didn't stalk him like baby ducks up and down the frog's hair, he'd dump out a dozen or so balls on the green and teach us how to putt.  "You drive for show, but you putt for dough!"

Sink a good long putt, well read, and the prize would be a "smiley" ball; one with a big gouge out of it where Grandpa had crushed it off the tee leaving a gash like a smile.  Many a cigar box was filled with smileys.

Can you bowl while smoking a cigar?

Grandpa even made the task of changing our diapers a show of prestidigitation as though by sheer magic our diapers would mystically correct themselves.  It was a boffo Vegas act before it's time. 

After popping his knuckles and assuming a fighter's stance in front of the changing table, he would gingerly confirm that the one being changed was not harboring anything solid in the cottony reaches of the nappy.
Then, with cigar gripped tightly between his teeth, Grandpa would unpin both sides and grab one end of the diaper, count 1-2-3 zip! and yank it.  The cascade of baby laughter he would provoke was roll-on-the-floor funny.

Photo booth fun.

But one day, Grandpa's diaper check was not thorough enough.

1-2-3 zip!

The warm brown contents flew in every direction plastering the walls, ceiling and us kids, and even splattering his glasses.  My Mom still can't catch her breath from laughing at the memory of the Pollock-esque mess dripping from all ends of the room.

Grandma was there for that episode as well.  I just remember she threatened to pee herself she was laughing so hard.
Verda, my Grandmother, and Grandpa Harvey separated at one juncture in their marriage.  I never really understood what that meant until I was much older.  They were still both there laughing and having fun with us together sometimes.   So what did that technicality matter to a little kid?

They never actually divorced.  Grandpa just moved into the MAC, hung out with his golfing and card playing buddies, and dated Grandma like she was his sweetheart.
The bond was strong.  As strong as their respective independent streaks.

 Funny how these things get passed down.

Grandma and Grandpa, together laughing, Fort Lauderdale beach.

Grandpa was the first person we ever heard snore.

He could rattle the window panes at night, and we would hide under our covers and giggle at the rising snorts and the falling wheezes that played like a comic bagpipe symphony through the walls.  He would laugh with us the next morning when we would try to imitate his leonine night noises.
Sneep!  Snorp!  Grrrowww!

But one night back in his digs at the MAC in St. Louis, all alone and unexpectedly, Grandpa's snoring got the best of him and he went to the big Patio Party in the sky.

When I was told, and things calmed down, I remembered where he kept his extra shaver and supplies under the bathroom counter so he could pack light on the next visit.  I still dab a little Old Spice on my wrist to remind me.  Just a little sense memory to conjure  up the willing and loving spirit of a man who ate life like a fabulous meal served up on a patio long long ago.

Is that cigar smoke I smell?  Hi, Grandpa.

Jon, Mom, Chris, Grandpa and me.
Chris and I were reminiscing recently, and Grandpa came up.  I was going on at how much Chris resembled him.

Chris, who was quite a bit younger than me at the time Grandpa was with us, said:  "Damn, I wish he was here still.  I feel like you and Jon got to know him so much better. We'd have had so much fun together."

He then high-tailed it out the door to 'drive to the store' for unspecified supplies, as we all do when trying to shake off the sad.

While there, Chris asked the woman behind the smokes counter if she had something other than the cheap cherry or apple flavored plastic-tipped cigars that were displayed.

She reached under the counter and tossed Chris a box of Hav-A-Tampa cigars.

Hi, Grandpa!

1 comment:

  1. Hey you... you were correct... I DID like this, and your GrandDad IS someone I would have loved knowing!!

    Needless to say, I adore your writing...




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