“A car is a weapon. Weapons kill. They have killed and will kill. When you get into a car, remember, you are using a weapon.” That was a great moment in driver’s ed, old school style. Not exactly Montessori, huh. My “instructor” was a World War II veteran of the First Army, the Big Red One. He worked at Westinghouse in Lester, PA, in the Steam Turbine Division. He was a union guy. He smoked Camel cigarettes. I wouldn’t swear to it, but I think he drank Ortlieb’s beer, although I know he was both a Gretz and Schmidt’s aficionado. He played violin so badly that when he visited my cousin, who played fiddle with the Pittsburgh Symphony, someone told me my cousin ran around shutting the windows to make sure none of the neighbors heard the ensuing racket. God forbid they should think it was coming from him.
Stan came up the hard way. He came from a Polish-Hungarian family in North Philadelphia, and was a high school graduate. He had two brothers and a sister, as far as I know. Before World War II broke out, he was selling sporting goods at a store in Philadelphia on Arch Street named Passon’s. The place was famous, and I’m pretty sure my first baseball glove come from there courtesy of Stan. He was my uncle. I worshiped him. You want to talk about favorites. I had a lot of uncles and aunts. Stan and his wife, Dot, my Mom’s sister (Domenica) were my favorite people. I bore a distinct resemblance to Dot, so much so that people often thought I was her son. I can only imagine how much my Mom enjoyed that. She and Dot had been known to, er, lock horns a bit in their day. Like my Mom would spell her maiden name Vallari at South Philadelphia High to distinguish herself from Domenica Villari, who spelled it properly. God knows that that was about.
In any event, Stan met Dot before the war, and they were married when he came home. I have some of his letters because I have his scapbook from the army, as well as lots of pictures. They are really something. Stan was then known as Lutz, and he called Domenica “Dot” and wrote her when he could. Does this sound like a scene from The Best Years of Our Lives? Maybe it was.
Stan went everywhere on what he ironically termed “my last visit to the continent.” He was in Africa, Italy, France, Belgium and Germany. He was a radio operator and I have his citation for Bronze Star. His unit was getting hammered somewhere by heavy artillery fire, and, Stan being Stan, he stayed at his post, did his job, and probably kept a lot of guys from getting killed by coordinating movements and maybe helping direct return fire. I never asked and Stan never talked about it. He didn’t want to be thanked for his service. He disliked the VFW types and never, never went. I did ask him about that once and he said something to the effect that the people who had been in it–really been in it–didn’t want to talk about what they saw. And that was that. His only souvenir from the war was a case of malaria that I gather he picked up in Italy. I can still remember him getting sick in the 1950s with relapses of the disease. He never complained. Never.
Stan was an average guy, but not your average person, let alone your average Philadelphian. He was not a sports nut. He could’ve cared about the Phillies or the Birds, although he was proud of coming from the same neighborhood as Angelo Coia, who played for the Washington Football Team (oh God). He spoke some Hungarian and some Polish, and taught me how to pronounce the names of some of my Hungarian teachers at the Piarist high school I attended. I guess that was all he had, and if he knew how to swear, I never got any of it, thank God. I can imagine getting thrown out for running a Hungarian obscenity past the Headmaster.
What Stan did do was reinforce something already going on in my life. Stan loved swing bands. He loved Glen Miller (which I never really got into) and he loved Gene Krupa (which I did). When Stan finally managed to move into Delaware County and a new home, he had a Music Room built. The wall was plastered with autographed publicity photos of musicians and bandleaders from the 1930s and 1940s, including a signed one from Benny Goodman. Stan had a pretty fair record collection, and it was always fun going over there and listening to music. I first heard Roy Eldridge play “Rockin Chair” with Gene Krupa at Stan’s house, something I never quite got over. Together, Stan and my Dad were a one-two punch. While I got into rock like everyone did in high school, I also got into Goodman and James and Shaw and Tommy Dorsey. I know I spent as much time listening to those bands as I did to the Stones or The Temptations. To be honest, probably more. When I started learning trumpet, some of this got to be like study sessions. The first time I managed to play along with the trumpet section in Dorsey’s “Yes Indeed” was beyond cool. No, it isn’t difficult, but when you’re 14, you don’t care.
The really amazing thing about Stan was that he knew Gene Krupa personally, and spent time with Gene whenever he was in the Philadelphia area or South Jersey. He’d go up to the Metropole in New York City to see Gene as well, which I thought was just impossibly awesome. Cause it was. Stan had a cigarette lighter (remember those) from Gene, inscribed, a Zippo. Boy would I like to know where that ended up. I’d probably still be smoking if I had gotten it.
I’m not really certain how Gene and Stan became friends and I was too young to inquire much. The absolute high point of my early teenage life was when Stan took me to the Steel Pier in Atlantic City to see Gene with a small group, I think it was Summer of 1965. Stan brought Gene a bottle of Cutty Sark, which was apparently Gene’s beverage of choice, and between sets, we sat in his dressing room while he and Stan shot the breeze. I can’t remember what I did because I was so astounded to be there. Actually, I do remember talking to Jimmy Palmer, who led the House band at the Steel Pier. I was kind of asking him if I could take a crack at at one of the trumpet parts. Since Jimmy didn’t need any subs, and, at all odds, was too busy ogling Diana Ross to be much interested in any conversation with me, it didn’t happen. I did get to have a nice conversation with the pianist Dyl Jones, who was amazingly friendly and more than willing to answer all my idiot questions about what he was doing and how he did it. Gene’s regular pianist was John Bunch, whom Stan also knew well, but John wasn’t on the gig that time. I also got to see Carmen Leggio, who must have been between stints with Woody Herman. He didn’t say much, but man could he play.
Stan was a very, very generous guy. I know he was soft touch for hard-up musicians (isn’t that redundant?). At his funeral, I remember talking to my Aunt Dot, who was crushed. Apropos of nothing, she told me that a certain famous Philly tenor player had borrowed $100 from Stan, which went unpaid as Stan joined the departed at Sts Peter and Paul. Any Philly musician I tell that story to–of the few remaining from that guy’s generation–crack up when I tell the story. I take it our friend had a long-standing, dubious financial history, of which Stan was merely a part. The rest I pass over in silence.
When Jack Kennedy gave his New Frontier speech at the LA Democratic Convention, I listened from Stan’s basement. When I was home from grad school one summer and without wheels, Stan lent me his. He would pretty much do anything for anybody, even though he was making the transition to Reagan Democrat as the Party decided guys like him were dispensable. Believe me, Stan said a lot of stuff my academic friends would have been horrified by, but he was a working class white guy for whom generalizations quickly gave way to individual assessments. So most of the time, I just shook my head as I got older. What the Hell. He had a habit of being around at some of the most memorable times of my life, and that alone made up for anything else.
Stan died relatively young from mesothelioma, aka ship fitters’ cancer. He worked around steam turbines at Westinghouse, and I’m certain that’s where he got it. These days, he would’ve been part of a class action suit. The Nazis couldn’t kill him, but American industry did. I always found that very ironic. His death broke up a lot of people very badly, my Dad included, because Stan was a traveling companion, raconteur, and occasional partner in whatever crime my Dad could actually scare up, which couldn’t have been much. So when I hear people ranting about white privilege and Trump’s people, I bite my tongue. You can say what you want about white working class guys of his generation, but I know what I saw. I can’t listen to Krupa without thinking about him. And next to my father, I can’t think of anyone I miss more.