The strongest and most lasting impression made upon me by my father was the kindness and love that was always there for me. No son could have more respect for a father than I. No son could be more proud of a father for the things he accomplished in his life, whether it be making an important functional unit for the P47 Thunderbolt airplane during World War II or his devotion to us, his family. I always had the deepest admiration for his knowledge of Hebrew, Torah and Tanach, which he learned as a student in the Ukraine, which was called White Russia at the time. He told me about that when I was very young to encourage me to attend Hebrew school, which I did.
On holidays such as Passover he sang like a cantor during the seder, and the Hebrew that he read in the Haggadah was clear and flowing in presentation. It was a heart-warming thing to see and hear. He sang the ancient Hebrew melodies with authentic perfection at the seder table, praising God and Moses for freeing us from the hands of that tyrant Pharaoh.
I always wanted to emulate him and his talents, which also included singing Yiddish songs that go way back in time, some of which I learned by listening to him sing them at different simchas that we attended. It was easy for me because Yiddish was a first language spoken in our home.
During my young growing-up years and beyond he was the one I looked up to for guidance, as he was learned, skillful and strong.
As an apprentice in his father’s shop in Skvera Russia he learned how to make samovars and wine cups and other fine items out of sterling silver.
In America after his job at the aircraft factory was over and he had completed several unfulfilling and non-challenging jobs, he found auto-body coach work, which was the closest thing to the metal work that he could do — and also the most lucrative. I grew up feeling that my Pa’s ability was so vast that he could do anything at all, and he was always my hero.
I remember one heroic thing he did when our brakes failed coming off the George Washington Bridge. It was on a hot summer’s day and my Pa was driving our Cadillac four-door sedan Deville that he had bought two weeks prior to this incident. It was our first car with air conditioning and it was about three years old.
The temperature was close to 90, but it was nice and cool in the car and we were riding along, enjoying our new convenience of air conditioning. We couldn’t help feeling proud of the fine status symbol of a Cadillac automobile, but that feeling was short-lived.
We were coming off the George Washington Bridge heading for the West Side Highway, when the car’s brakes failed. My Pa stepped on the brake to slow down a little, and the pedal went right to the floor. He tried pumping it, but still no brakes. He applied the emergency brake and put the lever into low gear, but that didn’t do much because we were on a steep hill. My mother’s pleading scream rang out as our two-ton Cadillac barreled down with no brakes at about 45 miles an hour, gaining momentum with every passing moment, and it looked as if we were going to plow into anything that was in our path. Somehow we made it to the mouth of the West Side Highway where my Pa managed to steer the car all the way over to the right side of the road to avoid any traffic that might be coming down as we were speeding out of control.
I will never forget what he did at that very moment. It was a maneuver that only an experienced, innovative driver would think of, let alone accomplish. He steered the right front wheel into the high curb that bordered that portion of the West Side Highway and he kept the tire steered into and rubbing along that high curb, using the friction to slow us down. It took quite a while for that heavy Cadillac to finally come to a complete stop.
Everyone who drove by then looked at us questioningly as we were jammed against that high curb. Little did they know how close we had come to making the newspaper headlines. My father remained calm and shifted to Plan B, as he had full control of the situation at that point.
I’m glad I remember all the details of this because his quick thinking and skillful maneuver saved the day and he deserves recognition from our family, who were never told anything about this.
The damage to the car was minimal compared to what it could have been. One tire was flat and completely shredded and the wheel was bent, so he pulled over to a clearing and put the spare tire on. Afterwards he very slowly drove the car all the way home in low gear with the hazard lights flashing using the emergency brake to stop us. There were no more hills so the emergency brake worked fine as a brake.
The next day he replaced the hydraulic brake hose that had failed and replaced the other one also for good measure, and got a new tire and wheel. We did a wheel alignment, and considered ourselves very lucky.
At shul we thanked God with a special prayer inspired by my mother.
I remember right after it happened, when we were standing outside at that clearing, that my mom just looked at my father without uttering a sound, her eyes filled with tears, and her look said it all. Looking at her emotional reaction, my Pa said knowingly, “Wha-at?” as he smiled and chuckled.
I didn’t forget any of it, Pa. And now no one else will either.
By David S. Weinstein