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Yes, Girls Can Play with Electronics: Ode to Smokin’ Joe


He was mine through adoption, but somehow we developed a bond closer than most related by blood. Maybe it was because I retained some dim memories of my birthmother, having been with her in the mother-baby home for nearly two years. So relations with my adoptive mother were rather restrained. Yet with my dad, I had no early-memory dad, hence no handicap.

He was one of those never-endingly patient people. Phillies blunt propped in the corner of his mouth (some people claimed they didn’t recognize him without the stogie), he’d calmly watch me deconstruct the Emerson stereo I received at age 12 for Christmas (at his request) , then put it back together. It was a passion we shared, playing with electronics and gizmos. And he was a giving and equal-opportunity tutor at a time when girls weren’t supposed to be interested in gadgets or computers. My brother never showed such interest, and my dad had a willing and apt pupil in me. So he figured, what’s the difference? Fair due to my mom as well, as she never thought it was unsuitable nor would she suggest I’d be better suited for nursing, teaching or any of the other ‘acceptable’ occupations for women.

So I went into the fledgling electronic banking industry and continued to nurture a love for computers, computer science and engineering.

My dad was a master plumber and HVAC guy; his family business, so it was an expected career path for him. And he was a genius at his work, not to mention adored by his customers. No panicked call about a burst pipe was too late at night. And he always wiped out bills for customers he knew couldn’t afford it.

But his real love was electronics, electricity and anything that was cutting-edge. As a high school senior, he built his own LP recording system and would record hilarious, sodden family parties on 78s. In 1948 he built his own 10″ TV with cabinet, followed in the late 1950’s by a full stereo and tape recording system with built-in cabinet that lasted until his death. He owned the “latest” 16mm movie camera (and those old home movies are still far superior, even now converted digitally, to 8mm or Super8) and spent countless hours capturing my brother and I — summers at the NJ shore, religious milestones, birthdays, mock rock bands, and the sun setting over the sunken concrete ship off Cape May Point. Always with the ubiquitous stogie in his mouth. I look at photos of him as a young man, in his somehow chic surf jams (circa 1958), Ray Bans perched on his nose and still think he was the coolest guy in the world.

He was a reluctant disciplinarian, leaving the yelling and punishment to my mom. I recall one night, I had committed some infraction that I don’t even remember and my mom finally put her foot down, saying, “Joe, you have to give her the belt!”

So my dad marched me into my room, took off his belt and put his finger to his lips. He made an “S” of the belt and whispered, “When I snap this, cry ‘ouch’.” I obeyed as he snapped it twice, adding a little Sarah Bernhardt for good measure.

He also had a passion for theatrical technical directing. When I was a little girl, he’d take me backstage at a local Catholic girls high school where he volunteered, place me under the watchful eye of the nuns there, and then produce the most amazing special effects, direct the lighting crew and engineer LP recordings of the performances, which I still treasure today.

No small wonder that under this tutelage (along with a dose of nature, not nurture — both my birthparents were singers who gave me the ability to sing and dance without kicking out chaser lights), I threw myself into high school theatre when I came of age. And as serendipity would have it, my freshman year I learned that the teacher who’d been managing the stage crew was retiring and they were desperate for a replacement. Of course, I went straight home and asked my dad. Of course, he said he’d do it. And of course, my mom was furious because now she’d have many a night of missing father AND daughter. But it was our special time together.

Long after I graduated, he continued working at my alma mater, becoming fast friends with the priest who directed our productions, Father Sabatini. Sab and my dad were inseparable. My mom stopped calling herself “the plumbing widow” and now referred to herself as “the theater widow.”

When I entered the working world, my dad used to drive me in his copper pipe-smelling station wagon (he preferred it over his work trucks) to the train, then meet me when I came home, the two of us stopping at the local for a quick shot and a beer. We always caught hell from mom, but the relaxed conversation and ‘special time’ was worth it. Two peas in a pod.

Life moved on and I moved to Florida to advance my career. I was married, by Father Sab, of course; danced with dad (who stepped on my train as we walked up the aisle, but no matter) and delighted in the attention he showered on his small grandchildren when we’d come north to visit. One of my favorite photos shows my dad and my then 2 yr-old daughter (in her little summer watermelon dress), bent at the waist watering flowers together. It makes me cry every time I look at it.

In October 1989, I received “the” call from a hospital in Philadelphia. My dad had suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage and it didn’t look good. They were keeping him on life support until my brother and I could organize flights up from Florida. When we arrived, my mom was panicked…she didn’t want to make the decision to remove my dad from life support. But my brother and I knew…we knew the sallow, puffy man lying connected to tubes was just a husk. There was no need for tubes and oxygen. The true spirit of the man hovered somewhere near, and I swear I could smell cigar smoke.

My brother and I went out in the hallway to discuss the best way to bring my mom around and as we chatted, I could see a small figure clad in black bustling up the hallway. I thought I was hallucinating. Having not seen him since my wedding 5 years prior, unbelievably, Father Sabatani was moving towards us. When he realized who we were, there were a few confused moments where I thought he’d been called by my mom, and he couldn’t figure out what the hell my brother and I were doing there. As it turned out, Sab happened to be at the hospital attending a weight management seminar. He’d no idea what had happened to my dad. Serendipity strikes again. So now we had the best person possible available to help ease my mother into letting go of her husband, our father.

His end was fitting. He died with his ‘boots on,’ working on a furnace in the basement of an art gallery. When his sister, who worked in their office, called the gallery after my dad hadn’t checked in for hours, they learned he had suffered his hemorrhage there. He and my mom were to spend their 32nd wedding anniversary visiting us in Florida that month…my mother had just picked up the plane tickets from the travel agency that morning. And it was the first full vacation he’d taken in nearly 10 years. The nearest to “time off” he’d taken since we were little kids, was an occasional weekend at my aunt and uncle’s Pocono retreat, and he was usually working on their sump pump or some other plumbing issue.

We said our goodbyes, observed all the usual Catholic rituals of grief and mourning, led by the grief-stricken-himself Father Sab. I remember being astounded as more than 1,000 mourners poured through the viewing. Many were young people, girls and boys, who told me, “Your dad got me a job working on broadway…”, “Your dad inspired me to become an electrician…”. Some were older fellows, grizzled Irishmen who whispered, “Your dad gave me a job when I first came over…” Endless paeans to his patient mentoring and his generosity of spirit.

He’s with me still. On two occasions, I’ve smelled that distinctive Phillies blunt cigar smoke. The first was innocuous: I was sitting with a co-worker up in the light booth of the auditorium at the university where I worked, chatting about theater. Suddenly, there it was. And my co-worker noticed it before I did. “Who the hell’s smoking a cigar up here?” We looked about for the perp, but I knew deep down that the perp was hovering just over my shoulder, enjoying the conversation and the milieu.

A few years later, I caught the second whiff under much more dire circumstances. I was at the bitter end of a horrible, abusive marriage and my late, estranged and deranged husband had broken into my home, pointing a .357 in my face. I suffered through a 6-hour siege of craziness with him ranting and threatening everything from murder to suicide to both. After the initial extreme shock, the attempts to calm him and reason with him, I suddenly felt an enormous wave of peace come over me and there it was…the unmistakable aroma of cigar smoke. Throughout the ordeal of being held hostage by my husband, we had long gone through whatever supply of cigarettes we each had. So I knew it wasn’t any lingering smoke from us. My husband knew it, too. “Why do I smell cigar smoke” he asked agitatedly. I just smiled serenely, knowing whatever the outcome, I would survive and my kids would be unharmed. Dad was there.

An hour later, my husband shot himself sitting next to me on the couch. I caught the exiting end of the bullet in my jaw. Some messy surgery and weeks of recuperation ensued, but I survived. The scar I bear and missing teeth are testimony to the gentle spirit who watched over me and let me know he was there.

Dad, I owe you everything I am. The genetics I carry may not be yours, but the life force within me is. “Smokin’ Joe” is always hovering just over my shoulder, the aroma of cigars always gently wafting around me.

Happy father’s day, Dad. I’m smokin’ one for you tonight.