This might shock you, but my phone rings pretty regularly. Friends, family, business associates, clients, telemarketers, (gulp!) debt collectors, bounty hunters; they all hit up the digits on the regular.
I keep my phone on silent, so there will be several instances throughout the day where I just don’t get to my phone. Sorry about that.
But, I do call back, and when I do, I’m often peppered with this question: “You get my voicemail?”
“Yeah,” I’d respond, “but I didn’t listen to it.”
“I never listen to voicemails.”
Only once every Haley’s Comet do I get asked why, and I’ve sharpened my excuse down to, “I just call back. I figure if it’s important enough to leave a message, it’s important enough to tell me again.”
Well, that’s not entirely true.
Let’s talk role models for a second. I have a few:
My Dad, of course, for being one of the most gentle, logical, likeable, take-life-seriously-but-not-too-seriously people on the planet. But also, you know, because he’s my dad. He taught me everything I know (and most of what I’ve forgotten) about how to be a man.
Quick side-story: I was real young and singing “You’re a Grand Old Flag” in the car for some reason as we were jetting around Niagara County in the car on some errand or another, and there was a line “Where there’s never a boast or brag …” Of course, I asked him, “What does that mean?” To which he replied, “Bragging is when you tell people you’re the best at something, even if you’re not.” As I tried to wrap my Ninja Turtle-transfixed cranium around that thought, he said, “Think of Rickey Henderson.” Ahhh … baseball. I can relate to that. “Rickey Henderson always tells people he’s the greatest. He’s always bragging. That’s not a good thing to do. You shouldn’t do that.”
That story sticks with me to this day. That’s the root of my humility and self-deprecation. I’ve always been uncomfortable accepting praise and tend to deflect it as much as possible. If you ever hear me say things like “MAN I’M KILLING IT OUT HERE TODAY, EVERYONE, COME SEE HOW GOOD I LOOK!” It’s false bravado. I’m trying to make you laugh.
Be humble. Be respectful. Be accountable. Change your oil every 3,000 miles. Always check your tires for tire pressure. Put your dishes in the sink. Get good grades and always fall forward. Those are the lessons my dad taught me. (My dad was also really good at over-explaining and over-articulating his answers to simple questions, and he would talk at great length and in superfluous depth about just about anything. Ask him how to grill a steak, and he’ll wax poetic about the chemical makeup of charcoal. Man, I wonder if I got THAT gene.)
Other folks who I’ve considered role models at some point in my life include (in no particular order), Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, MLK Jr, Cal Ripken, Ken Griffey, Warren Buffet, John Wooden, Vince Lombardi, Frank Deford, my cousin (and godfather!), Bono, The Boss, and (strangely), Charles Barkley.
Of course, you get older and as your ability to reason and comprehend increases, and new technology and a voracious media makes it impossible for anyone of note to hide skeletons in their closet forever, the amount of mythologizing and romanticizing you can do about a person fades into the oblivion, so I’m left with just pretty much my dad and my cousin as my last two real, live role models.
Except, there was another role model, who was my greatest role model, one who lived a full, rich, fantastically adventurous life, and one who I admired more than any person who’s ever walked around this lonely pebble of a planet.
He just doesn’t walk around it anymore. He’s under it.
Francois Contrino was born August 9, 1928 in Martiques, France as the first of five children in a Sicilian family. His first occupation was as a very young bicycle repairman in Marseille.
His father was captured by Nazis due to his involvement in the French Resistance, but was later set free.
After World War II, he had a dream of coming to America to start a new life and escape war-torn France, and in 1947 he made good on that dream, passing through Ellis Island and moving to Buffalo, which at the time was actually a robust cultural, financial and industrial mecca.
He went to work in construction, and also to school for computer science (yup, they had computers around back then, I believe they were the size of a Greyhound bus), and was offered a position with IBM – which he turned down.
One by one, he sent for his family members to move across the Atlantic to Buffalo. They all joined him. His mother, his father, his younger brother and his three younger sisters.
He raised three adoring children. Down the road, all of them became very successful in their own unique ways.
He worked for a foundation company and when he saw it was struggling financially due to mismanagement, he propositioned the owners to purchase the company from them. Could you imagine asking the CEO of the company you work for to buy the company off them? That took some major ball-dacity.
He retired in his 60’s as a millionaire (at his retirement roast, when someone called him a “Multimillionaire”, he made sure to interject, saying, “excuse me, just a millionaire”) with a condo in Florida and a beach house on Lake Erie in addition to his home just outside Niagara Falls.
He was a volunteer firefighter, an underrated chef, a Buffalo Sabres season-ticket holder and a first-class gentleman … and a helluva grandfather to me.
He was called “Papa.” They decided upon the name because he had divorced his first wife in 1976 and when I was born he was living with a woman who would later become his second wife. And we couldn’t call them “Grandpa and Grandma” because then I would have two grandmas and man that’d be a weird tidbit to try and explain to a toddler, so “Papa” and “Nana” it was. And Grandma was “Grandma.”
How do you like your life lessons? Marinated in Brut served with a side of broken English? Papa shelled them out in spades. A sample smattering:
1. When you make your bed, make it “nice-n-neat.” Keep the sheets and blankets even with the edges and wrinkle-free pristine.
2. Enjoy your food. I was often chastised for sucking down sustenance too voraciously. His words: “Nobody’s going to take it away from you.” Every meal shared with family is worth savoring.
3. When in doubt, double-check. Papa and I built a deck once at his cottage up in Canada. He carried a level with him for each individual 2×4 that had to be hammered into place. Before any nailing could commence, each piece must be perfectly level.
4. Work is for work. Play is for everything else. Papa had a habit of stealing people’s plates during dinner. Should you need to excuse yourself from the table, you could count on your meal going AWOL during your absence. And no matter how often he pulled this stunt, he was so creative in his cunning that you still believed him when he threw up his hands and absolved himself from guilt. His breakfast conversations with his best friends were profanity-laced, cigar-smoked exercises in silliness. And he didn’t need to explain the narrative for you to feel like you were in on the secrets.
5. Take care of those close to you while you’re still close. Papa didn’t believe in leaving behind a “Golden Parachute.”. Papa believed instead in providing for his family and friends while he could see (and, perhaps, ensure) gifts and donations were invested wisely and with utility. And it was the time he spent post-transaction that was the true value of his generosity.
6. Get a Ph.D. in real life. Papa often recanted, “The more you study, the less you know.” Although a degree was important, a comprehensive knowledge of how the world works and how to find your way through it was incalculably more valuable.
7. Be a morning person. Papa was up with the birds, or, more accurately, with the fish. On family fishing expeditions, he would quip, “You got to get up pretty early to catch the Yellow Pike.” The Early Worm Catches The Fish, I suppose. No matter how early you rose, Papa was always there, deep in thought at the table, paper in hand, coffee and biscotti on the table. He took time to process the beginning of his day, and took time after work was finished to doze off on the recliner, National Geographic in his lap. You can’t go slow when you’re playing catch-up.
8. Present your best side. When headed to Sabres games, Papa always wore a suit. I’m told he did this because his day job in construction is not conducive to wearing one at work, so he had to wear it somewhere. He didn’t wear jerseys or Sabres shirts or hats or foam fingers. He didn’t curse. He didn’t get drunk. He became a breathing, unified piece of the action itself, lending class to the proceedings wherever he traveled.
9. Try anything that won’t kill you. On a culinary level, Papa made me try all the food I never knew I wanted. Raw Oysters. Liver. Veal. Duck. Escargot. Bouillabaisse. Even if it sounds funny, even if it looks unappetizing, put it in your mouth. No one’s ever died from an adventurous meal.
10. Routine excellence is the only excellence. Papa fell asleep every night at 11:17pm – and not a minute earlier or later – right after the weather finished up on Channel 7. Although he was a risk-taking, fun-loving fella, he was a man of schedules, lists and impeccable organization. A complex concept to many, it was this strict attention to routine which gave Papa simplicity and peace over an ever-changing world where one’s grip slips from time-to-time about everything. Start with the basics by starting and ending the day the same way, every day. The middle’s where all hell breaks loose. Embrace it.
As a young pup, I was a fairly gifted soccer player and did a fair share of goal scoring as an attacker on my indoor team. Nearing the end of one game in particular, I netted a pretty little top-shelf dump-in that notched me a hat-trick. I pumped my fist and slapped some teammates five before returning to the bench after my shift.
As I planted myself there, beaming with pride, watching my team continue to gut it out, I saw my Papa meandering from in the stands over to behind the bench where I stood. He didn’t call me out, just wandered up behind me and whispered in my ear, “Don’t let it go to your head you scored a goal,” then motioned to the scoreboard. I saw. In bright lights, it clearly read, 14-3. For the other team. Successes within the context of a greater failure were no success at all.
When I moved back to Buffalo to finish school, I ventured the 20 minutes up Niagara Falls Boulevard every Wednesday or Thursday for a home-cooked meal courtesy of Papa and Nana. Occasionally, other family would join. Although it felt like just a weeknight to everyone else, for me, these were personal resets. A chance for me to remember where I came from, who I was living for. I was able to visit my Papa alone sometimes, just like when I was just a kid sitting shotgun in the truck going for Ice Cream after a baseball game. We’d talk football. We’d talk hockey. We’d talk fishing and family and anything but life, philosophy or any of the profound experiences from his past or plans for the future. When he left after Christmas for winter in Florida, I lost that ability to re-focus. I started to stray. I got loose with my routines and my ethics. I became lost. Even by a 20 year-old’s stringent standards for “Lost.”
He re-emerged to bail me out of jail. It was the most painful phone call I’d ever had to make in my life. Having exhausted all my other, less embarrassing options to come rescue me from a 36-hour nightmare that ended with me in an orange jumpsuit, I dialed him up and he agreed to meet me.
When I climbed into his car, I didn’t make a peep. I didn’t have to. I knew how that conversation would go, and I believe in our brains we were hashing it out through telepathy. I slunk back, remorseful and pathetic.
News travels fast, and when my dad caught wind of my sojourn into the realm of the foolish, he casually dropped a bomb over my head when he off-hand mentioned, “You know, your grandfather isn’t doing well, he’s got more important things to worry about than watching you fail.”
I hesitantly inquired, “Isn’t doing well, how?”
I have a feeling my dad really wanted to blurt out, “He’s dying,” but couldn’t bring himself to stammer through that third-rail conversation over the phone within the context of another third-rail conversation. So, in measured tone, he simply said, “He’s very sick. Something with his liver or kidneys.”
I left it at that. I wanted no part of exploring his illness further. I had already flooded my rage gauge that day.
It changed the way I saw him. Where once I saw strength, purpose, youthful vitality even at an advanced age, I now finally saw him as fragile, vulnerable … hell … human. His hair, at 74, finally grayed. His gait, at 74, finally grew sludgy and sloppy. His naps grew more frequent. He began to apologize for “not being able to do more,” even as he spent three days doing a majority of the handiwork crafting a swing-set for his younger grandkids. It would be the last construction project of a life spent building everything.
Early in the morning, on August 12, 2003, I was hanging at a friend’s house after work. We were slugging back some beers, chopping it up and playing some guitar along to some of our favorite records. We laughed. A lot. I remember laughing a lot late that night.
Around 2am, we closed up shop and I went to rumble my way home. I had a voicemail from my sister. I’m sure she’s having a great time. She often calls me late when she’s out having fun. We’d catch up and laugh some more.
“You have … 1 … new messages.”
“Johnny …” the incomprehensible sobbing and voice tremble as she said my name made me immediately know something was very, very wrong. She’d called me like this before after fights she’d have with boys or family or friends or whatever, when she needed me there to comfort and inspire her.
“… Papa diiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiied.” And then, just sobs. A tear tsunami. I couldn’t finish the voicemail. I pressed 7. I heard all I needed to hear.
“You have …. no …. new messages.”
It took me a long, long time to process what had happened. I called my mom. I called my sister. I called my uncle. I called my dad. I called any friend who would pick up the phone at that unholy hour. I couldn’t muster up the strength to even cry. I was just tired. But I was not at peace.
The next day, I bought a pack of cigarettes and a bottle of red wine. I drove out to the river to wrestle with the discord in my head.
Had I lost track of all the lessons he’d taught me? Had I been listening? How did an apple fall so far from the tree that it ended up in a Orange Grove? Did he die proud? Did I let him down with that final, silent ride back home from the slammer? Would I ever be the responsible adult he saw so much potential in as a child? Have I been making my bed correctly? Why didn’t I ask him more? More about him. More about his life. His past. His passions and experiences and what made him tick. One more round of golf where he could try to correct my swing, even as I was out-driving and out-chipping him? One more time to hear, “Nice-n-neat” or even “I’ll Breaka-you Face.” I didn’t learn it all. I don’t have this down yet. I’m ill-prepared and ill-equipped to deal without this. Help!
But that’s death. Hell, that’s life. You never get that chance to work with perfect information, in the perfect environment, armed to the teeth with everything you’ll ever need to conquer whatever adversities are catapulted your way. And death is the biggest one of them.
All you can do is stay close to those who care enough to stay close to you. All you can do is wake up early, take risks and stay hungry till your work is done. All you can do is be grateful, and honor those who lived before you by living as well as they wished they could.
I remember his last words to me, some three days before he died. They were hurled from a distance, from a low, weak place in the D.C. al Fine bracket of a hospital bed after I said goodbye, and I’d come back and visit next week to check up.
“You ever get your act together, and you’re gonna do great things.”
It wasn’t supposed to be the last great eerily prophetic, all-encompassing axiom he’d share. He was just commenting on how I’d finished another semester of school and had just one year left.
That was his 75th Birthday. A celebration. We could celebrate because his work here was done. The man who’d always been anything but weak and tired was finally weak and tired.
Three days later, I’d listen to the last voicemail I would ever hear.
Three words and a cry. That was enough to leave me weak and tired from being ambushed by an emotional gut-punch.
So that’s it. If you need me, and I don’t answer, just call back.
But if you’re Papa, feel free to leave a message. This time I’ll listen.
Thirtyist is a series of 30 tales of the 30 people, places, ideas and events that shaped the last 30 years of the life of someone of no particular importance – told in no particular order. To read them all, click on the post tag, “Thirtyist” or on the links below.*