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.