Crosswords and Coin Collecting

Me with Harold Siepel and William Kowalski, Sr.
This picture was taken in 1983, on Grandparent’s Day at Erie Day School in Erie, PA. I’m in 8th grade, and I’m sitting in front of some variant of an Apple, probably a IIe. I’m flanked by Harold Siepel (on the left) and William Kowalski Sr., my grandfathers, both of whom are looking at a computer for the first time in their lives, and possibly the last, too. Within a year and a half, and within four months of each other, both of them would be gone.

This is the only picture ever taken of me with both of my grandfathers. It hangs on our stairway wall now. I find myself looking at it often these days for a number of reasons: the juxtaposition of youth and age, the primitive technology that would soon take over our lives, my instinctive searching in the faces of those two old men for some semblance of me.

I have good memories of my grandfathers, both of whom were the children of immigrants. Grandpa K. worked at Dunlop Tires in Buffalo, from age 19 until his retirement. He, my grandmother, Florence, and my great-grandmother, Amelia, spoke to each other in Polish, which in my childhood was the secret language of arguments and Sunday graces. This Grandpa was a devout numismatist. In his basement workshop he kept books of coins he’d found in his pocket change, which he hoped would someday prove valuable. Wheat-eared pennies, buffalo nickels, and Mercury dimes comprised the bulk of his collection. He disdained the so-called collectors who spent money on rare coins. Anyone could buy one, he said, but that didn’t mean anything. The fact that something special turned up in your pocket out of all possible pockets in the world implied that you were special, too. Thanks to him, coin collecting became a passion of mine. Many years after he died, after shopping at a Country Fair in Erie, PA, I discovered a two-cent piece minted in 1868 in my change. It was the find of a lifetime, and even though Grandpa K. died long before, he was the first person I thought to tell.

Grandpa Harold was a voracious reader and an autodidact. He kept the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle on a clipboard next to his rocking chair all week long, returning to it when a clue occurred to him, but never, ever cheating. Harold’s parents were German, and that was his first language. When he married my grandmother, Emily, an Irish girl, it was regarded as a mixed-race marriage. Both families were scandalized at first, though eventually they got over it. For much of his life Harold was a traveling salesman, but his first job was working as a deliveryman for a brewery. One day he happened to overhear the bosses mention that they were going to get rid of their delivery trucks and go back to horses and wagons. That morning, they asked for a show of hands from the men who knew anything about horses. Harold had never handled a horse in his life, but he raised his hand. “Everyone with his hand up still has a job,” the men were told. “The rest of you are fired.” That job allowed him to survive the early years of the Depression in relative security.

Harold was a good influence too. He inspired my own love of crosswords. In one memorable conversation, he cautioned me to avoid the ‘good-time Charlies’ who would urge me to ‘play hooky’ from school. He loaned me his copy of the autobiography of Eddie Rickenbacker, America’s first ace fighter pilot, with strict instructions to take care of it and to return it when done. I found Rickenbacker’s story so fascinating that I read it several times from cover to cover, and I never gave it back. To this day I feel a twinge of guilt when I look at it on my bookcase.

I was keenly aware from an early age that the world my grandfathers knew as young men had vanished long before I was even born, and to them my world was strange, foreign, and largely a disappointment. My youth was filled with The Brady Bunch and Pac-Man, post-Vietnam cynicism and Def Leppard or Motley Crue cassettes playing on my boom box. I couldn’t relate to their devout Catholicism, and I always suspected they considered my generation something of a letdown. But they never said any such thing to me, and I understand now that my sense of inadequacy came not from any actual disapproval on their part, but from my burgeoning awareness that the world was changing faster than anyone could keep up with—least of all two immigrant boys from tough parts of Buffalo who had survived through ingenuity and hard work.

I try to imagine what must have been going through their minds as they watched me type on that clunky, oversized keyboard and saw the letters appear in glowing green on the monitor. They might have thought it was interesting, or they might have thought it was stupid, just another bit of modern nonsense. Now that I’m a father, I understand that the smiles on their faces were there for one reason: they saw themselves in me, and they were proud.