Deep into his 60s, my father’s biceps threatened to rip his shirt sleeves when he reached to scratch his head.
For decades, he supported my mother, brother and me by killing cattle with a mallet in one of the slaughterhouses that gave Manhattan’s now-fashionable meatpacking district its name. For my ninth birthday in 1938, he gave me a used copy of Upton Sinclair’s book “The Jungle,” an appalling description of the meatpacking industry. My father was an avid reader, and would have graduated from high school at 16 if he had not been forced to drop out to help support his parents and brothers. He said. “This book will tell you what your father does for a living.”
I already had some familiarity with what he did for a living. One of the nightly chores was to replace his bloody boots with house slippers when he returned from work and fell exhausted onto the couch. After reading the book, I asked why he didn’t seek a good job, one that wouldn’t bring him home so worn.
“There’s no such thing as a good job,” he replied. “There must be,” I insisted. “Name one,” he challenged. “Airline pilot!” I cried. Without looking up from his soup, he said, “Bus driver in the sky.”
My father saw gentleness in a man as weakness. When he learned that a neighbor occasionally told his wife to rest while he washed the dinner dishes, my father never failed to greet him with “Where’s your apron?” I never knew what would ignite his mockery or rage. Only later could I comprehend the pain he must have felt as neighbors began moving from our Bronx tenement as the Depression lifted. He was stronger, and probably smarter, but they moved to the suburbs or to apartment buildings with elevators, while he trudged up five floors in his bloody boots.
Most of my friends pushed impatiently through adolescence, eager to receive the wrenches, saws and hammers their fathers would hand them. I was reminded every Thanksgiving that I would never be able to handle my father’s tools.
On Thanksgiving, our entire family would gather at my grandparent’s apartment. It was my father’s role to carve the turkey given to him by his foreman. A hush would fall across the table as he stood over the bird. The silence would be broken by someone whispering, “Be quiet; Jack is carving the turkey.” He would begin by drawing the knife blade across his thumbnail to test its sharpness. Always, as though part of a ritual, he would snap his head back, slam the knife to the table and shout, “Can I get one that cuts!” My cousins still recall glistening blades bouncing past their faces.
Someone, usually my mother, would race to the kitchen and come back clutching three or four knives, her face tight with fear that my father would find them unacceptable. After shaking his head and muttering, he selected one, tossed the others to the side and began carving in the silent room until only the carcass remained. Two emotions gripped me throughout the procedure, fear that my slightest movement might distract him, and absolute certainty that I could never carve a turkey.
If growing up meant having a family and celebrating Thanksgiving, I would remain a child.
I did grow up, but knew I would be at risk if anything in my presence provoked my father. Whenever I handed him my report card, I felt as if he stared at me as though I were one of the cows he was about to strike. Dinner — the only meal he shared with my mother, brother and me — was eaten in silence. We were afraid something we said would draw his glare to us, his dark eyes glistening as though fueled by rage he brought home from the slaughterhouse. He wouldn’t dare hurl that glare at the foreman who ignited the anger, but we were convenient prey.
My uncles and the few friends my father had always approached him as though he were an unexploded bomb they were ordered to defuse. Their responses to anything he said were one version or another of “You’re absolutely right, Jack.” Only his father, my grandfather, dared rebuke him when he taunted my brother or me, beseeching in the only Yiddish I understood, “Yankel, lozn im aleyn!” “Jack, leave him alone!”
I entered my teens fearing there were only two types of men, those like my father and those he considered weak. If there were men who somehow were both strong and gentle, I had yet to meet them.
That began to change in 1945 when the war ended and the older brothers of my friends began coming home. When I last saw them, they were street fighters, members of the Fordham Baldies, a gang that made our Little Italy neighborhood unsafe for outsiders. Now they were even stronger, hardened by years as Marines or paratroopers. But there was something different under that strength. Instead of brushing me aside as they had in the past, they called to me, expressing amazement at how tall I had become. There was affection in their voices when they asked about my mother, who had learned from their mothers how to cook Southern Italian dishes. They had left their swagger somewhere overseas and had about them a gentleness I had never seen.
I found the courage to talk to one of them, someone who, before he enlisted, seemed to stalk the streets rather than walk them. I asked why he no longer sat outside the barber shop where the gamblers and their collectors met. He said, “Bobby, I don’t have to prove how tough I am anymore.” If the military could convince a feared street fighter it was safe to reveal a soft side, perhaps it could teach me.
The day I graduated from high school, I went downtown to Whitehall Street and enlisted in the Army. The men who trained and later led me, had jumped into Normandy and survived Bastogne. If there was a manhood test, they had passed it in dangerous places. These were lethal men who would take you behind the barracks and hurt you if you showed disrespect for their calling. But, if they felt you saw something noble in soldiering, they would look at you approvingly, perhaps even grip your shoulder. When my First Sergeant was notified by the Division chaplain that my mother was hospitalized with breast cancer, he called me to the orderly room and said, “I’m getting you home today. One of our planes is heading to Mitchel Field in New York, and you’re on it.” He had won the Medal of Honor for killing people but was more caring toward me than my father.
I saw why the older brothers of my friends no longer had to prove how tough they were. Men, harder than they were, showed them it was safe to express gentleness when it appeared within them. I knew I had learned that same lesson when my platoon sergeant said “Goldfarb, you’re becoming one of us.” His words felt like a benediction anointing me one of the brotherhood.
Two weeks after I came back from serving during the Korean War, I met Muriel, who quickly made clear our marriage would not last very long if I remained my father’s son. Witnessing one of my family’s Thanksgivings was enough for her. She insisted we supply the turkey for our first Thanksgiving dinner, and that I do the carving. I didn’t share her confidence, but knew sitting at the table watching my father do my job would make me the frightened boy again. I had earned the trust of men I admired and was no longer that boy.
Days before Thanksgiving, a newspaper no longer in print, The New York Daily Mirror, always published instructions on how to carve a turkey. I clipped the article and taped it to our kitchen table. Using a clothes hanger as a knife, and a football as a turkey, I butchered fantasy birds for a week.
After her family and mine had squeezed themselves into the kitchen and hallway of our small apartment, Muriel brought out the turkey. My family fell silent while Muriel’s chattered happily as though I were about to do something quite ordinary. It was not ordinary to me.
They didn’t know, but I did, that if my father saw me hesitate, he would impatiently seize the knife from my hand, push me aside and set to work as someone cautioned, “Be quiet, Jack is carving the turkey.”
Quickly I began following instructions I had memorized: First, remove the drumstick, then the wing, then begin slicing the breast. Turkey parts began falling gracefully onto the platter.
How could it be so easy, this act that had tormented me throughout my childhood. The apartment wasn’t silent as I carved. Instead it sparkled with the sound of two families getting to know each other as plates were passed.
It was at that moment I realized how much I owed to the boy who knew he would have to leave home to become a man.
Robert W. Goldfarb is a management consultant and author of “What’s Stopping Me From Getting Ahead?”