A Day at the Fair with Pop: A Father’s Day Remembrance

I wrote this story in 2002 and I thought it might be a nice time to reprise it today as a remembrance to my grandfather, Harry Werner, on Father’s day. I hope you enjoy it.

A Day at the Fair with Pop

My Grandparents Kathryn and Harry Werner circa 1950

His name was Harry Werner, and he was my Grandfather. My brother Chris and I called him Pop Pop, a name that would carry through into our adulthood. At some point in time, in our mid-twenties, we shortened it to Pop, but it never really felt quite right. Probably because we shortened it so our friends wouldn’t think we’re still little kids. When it was just family, it was always “Pop Pop.” But I’m getting ahead of myself. Pop Pop was a staunch man of German decent, with a slight remnant German accent. He projected an apparent gruffness that was quite intimidating. An unlikely character to take two small boys under his wing, or anywhere for that matter.

It was the 1950’s and Chris and I had just survived the separation of our parents. Chris was ten, two years older than I was. But neither of us was really old enough to know what just happened, other than that dad moved out, and would be visiting on weekends, or whenever. This wasn’t really all that different than it always had been, as dad was a police detective, and seemed to never be home anyway. But by the reaction of all around me, I could tell that this was definitely a big deal, and for some reason my life was about to change.

And change it did. Mom had to go back to work, which meant that Chris and I would have to spend considerably more time with Nana and Pop Pop. We all lived on the south shore of rural Long Island about 30 miles from New York City in a small town called Wantagh, an old Indian name. Nana and Pop Pop lived about six blocks from us, which turned out to be very convenient for our newfound situation. Instead of going right home after school, Chris and I would stay on the school bus about two more stops and get off in front of Nana and Pop Pop’s. Mom would then come there after work from her new job as a Secretary at Doubleday Publishing in Garden City. We would all usually eat dinner at Nana and Pop Pop’s, homework would already have been done, and then we would go home and do it all again the next day.

My Brother Chris and I atop the Empire State Building Circa 1956

The whole transition seemed pretty seamless to me, although the changes were big. But looking back I can only imagine what an upheaval it must have been for my mother and grandparents. Two small boys, a young mother having to go back to work, and a society not yet capable of coping with the reality of a “Broken home”. I remember at the time not at all being worried about how my family would take care of me, but more fearful of how some entity, like an orphanage or somebody, would come and separate Chris and me and put us up for adoption. Naturally this was ludicrous, but not beyond the overactive imagination of a slightly traumatized eight-year-old.

In time, Chris and I seemed to settle nicely into the routine of the schedule, and it became our natural regime. Up until the separation, however, my grandparents were just these old people who we would visit from time to time. They kind of smelled funny, like old people, and they lived in a pretty old farm-style house. Now we were all a much bigger part of each other’s lives, all part of a new little lifeboat that had become our new lives.

Nana was a smallish woman, an Irish-Catholic immigrant with a sweet sparkle in her eye. But she also seemed to have a rather pessimistic view of life and was always trying to scale back my expectations, and those of all around her. But she loved us dearly, and took great care of Chris and me. She rarely went out, choosing instead to devote her time to cooking and generally taking care of the home and our needs. When she did venture out for a ride in the car with someone, or only to Sunday mass, she would always have her trusty rosary beads in her hand nervously rushing through each bead’s prayer as though her life, or her very soul, depended on it. Unfortunately, Nana did not pray silently, but raced through each prayer in a barely audible tone that seemed to keep rhythm with the pace of the car. She was not fun on a long trip – a long trip for her consisting of anything longer than three or four sections of beads. By the end of a five-bead trip, we were all ready for it to be over.

Pop Pop wasn’t really a fun guy either. He was a pretty serious, strict fellow, with a no-nonsense approach to things. He was a house painter by trade, and a very good one, a craftsman. He was short, with a stocky build, and always had a cigar or pipe in his mouth. He also raised and bred prized show dogs, Boxers. He loved animals, and also raised rabbits. He loved gardening, vegetables for consumption mostly, including grapes from which he made an annual offering to the gods. He was a man of the Earth.

While he was a bit gruff, and not particularly comfortable around children, I was intrigued by him and often followed him around, albeit at a distance. I loved to watch him work on a “project”, as I called them. It could be anything from fixing an old roof panel on the barn, or watching him paint. He was very meticulous, and caring in how he approached his work. He was also amazingly adept at handling his animals. They seemed to read him and react positively to him. Perhaps I could see this and it helped draw me to him. He was an enigma; a gruff, staunch German, yet a man of great compassion and sensitivity.

My friends and I also seemed to take the change in stride together. They also got to know my grand parents as well, especially in the summer when we would spend all day at Nana and Pop Pop’s. Chris and I would get up with Mom, have breakfast together, and then walk down to Nana’s. Sometimes we would just get up and walk to Nana’s and have breakfast there. She always had a good warm breakfast with lots of toast and bacon and all good things.

I would also love to get there early enough to watch Pop Pop prepare the dogs’ meal. At any one time he might have a dozen or so dogs under his care. He had a huge bag of dry kibble, which he would mix with water by hand and mush it all together. He had long nimble fingers and strong hands, but they were very smooth for a man who made a living with his hands. For some reason I just loved watching him mash all this together. It also had a sound that was very interesting, especially to a young boy who loved mushy, mud-pie consistency stuff. Sometimes he would let me help: this was a great event for me. My hands and fingers were very small, so it would take me twice as long, but I loved every minute of it. It was also gratifying to then watch the dogs devour my concoction, and I would revel in their enjoyment of what I had provided.

And so it went in our first summer together. I grew more interested in the daily tasks of my grandfather, gradually asking to be involved in more “projects.” On one occasion he finally succumbed to my relentless pestering to be included. He was going to replace some roofing paper on the backside of the barn. Wow, I thought, being on the roof, hammering lots of nails (one of my favorite things to do), and working side by side with Pop Pop. And as intriguing as all that sounded to me, I was still a bit apprehensive about being so close to him for such a long period of time. As it turned out, he was very patient with me, and showed me what I needed to know and then let me at it, correcting me only when absolutely necessary. I can remember him giving me one of his own hammers to use, as mine was a child’s hammer from my little kid’s tool set, and definitely not up to the task at hand. This hammer was big, and I wanted to use it like I saw Pop using his, with his hand around the base. But the head was just too heavy for me, so he just said to choke up on the handle like it was a baseball bat. I could relate to that and I managed to find a spot on the hammer handle that felt OK for my hand to hold. He also helped to place my hand with his own hands and showed me how to grip it tightly, and hammer a nail in steady and true. The big surprise for me was that he actually seemed to enjoy my company, or maybe it was just having a little help. In any event, there were many “Projects” to follow; only these were at his request. I think he actually liked our little projects, as he had also come to call them. Every once in a while I’d hear, “Hey sonny, you want to help with a new project?” I was right there, hammer in hand.

Life was now moving along in the hot steamy days of the Long Island summer, and the dynamics of our small universe was slowly taking over and evolving into a comfortable life. Pop and I had our projects, the routine was starting to gel, and all seemed normal. Chris and I were more focused on just enjoying our summer vacation than we were on any serious aspects of our new “situation”. On occasion, Pop would also ask us to do some chores. This I did somewhat reluctantly, knowing that it seemed fair, at least from his perspective. But I also felt imposed upon for having to do chores at Pop’s house, and my own. Of course what eight-year-old likes chores at any time, much less on summer vacation? But as I said, we reluctantly complied.

Other than the projects I shared with Pop Pop I still had no real sense of him being in tune with the day to day lives of Chris and me. But looking back I can see that the chores were probably more about adding some structure and discipline to our lives, than fulfilling any real need to complete these menial tasks. In some sense, whether intended or not, I think that engaging in these little chores somehow helped to bond us to our grandparent’s home and the lives they lived as well. It made their home more our home too. We were no longer just visitors, but full-fledged family members, and integrally part of their lives. Of course, all of this pop-psychology was probably lost on my grandfather; he probably just needed some work done around the place. In any event, I suspect the effect was still the same.

When Chris and I were not doing chores, we spent our summer days playing with our respective friends. Our two-year age difference was significant at that age in determining friend cohorts. But even though Chris and I each had our own circle of friends, with some degree of overlap, he and I had a bond that was special, and very close. Occasionally he and I would go fishing together or for a daylong hike in the plentiful woods around Pop’s house. While we may have fought often, as brothers often do, we also seemed to understand each other in a way no one else did. We were a good team at whatever we did.

Pop, on the other hand, was still a tough read. Perhaps it was his gruff demeanor, but even with the many projects he and I shared, he still remained somewhat aloof and distinctly apart from our day to day lives. Looking back, I suspect he wanted to reaffirm his protective fatherly role for his daughter, whose heart had just been deeply broken. But I don’t think he was on very firm footing as to what role to play with Chris and me. So I think he just defaulted to being our grandfather, at least for the moment.

It was on a very sweaty August afternoon that Pop’s and our lives were to converge in a very new and different way. Chris and I were cutting the lawn and doing some other chores when Pop uncharacteristically, and looking somewhat uncomfortable, came over and gathered us together. He said that the Long Island Fair was in town, over in Farmingdale, and he wondered if we would like to go… tomorrow! We were speechless. He said they have lots of animals and rides and games and things. Somehow the image of Pop and rides and games and cotton candy just didn’t all seem to go together. I couldn’t even imagine that he knew about those kinds of things. After all Pop was a million years old. But we were eager and quite excited at the possibility, and quickly agreed. And in any event, a parent type person was just a ticket in anyway. Once inside we would be gone, off on our own to explore and experience all the wonders that such an event could provide. Or so we thought.

Needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep that night. Going to the Fair was any kid’s dream, and I was no different. Rides, games, animals…it would all be right there to envelop me to my imagination’s content. Looking back, however, I can only imagine how near panicked Pop must have been. After all, he was pretty much out of his element. I don’t think he ever spent more than an hour or two alone with the two of us at any one time, much less a whole day doing something seemingly so foreign to him. I just couldn’t imagine that he had ever been a regular at the LI Fair, or any Fair for that matter. I could even sense a bit of apprehension from my mom about the prospects of success here. But she seemed to think we would have a good time in any event, and encouraged us to enjoy the day.

The next morning Chris and I were up early and already had our breakfast and were ready for a full-on assault of the Fair. I went out on the front porch to begin my vigil for Pop to come and pick us up. He lumbered into our long winding driveway with his ’54 Pontiac Firechief. He loved this car, and treated it with kid gloves. (He would ultimately keep this car for another 20 years.) The morning was muggy and the locusts were already in full symphony, a harbinger of the hot and humid LI day that lay ahead. Pop gathered his small flock, and without much ceremony we were all off for the 30-minute ride out to Farmingdale.

Pop was a very deliberate driver, cautious almost to a fault, and painfully s…l…o…w. This was torture for an eight-year-old on the way to the Fair, but I managed to maintain some degree of composure, especially in front of Pop. His demeanor just seemed to promote that kind of behavior from both Chris and me. (For example, there was not any of the usual fighting over who would sit in which seat as Chris and I were getting into Pop’s car.) After what seemed like an eternity, we finally approached the site of the Fair. We could see the top of the Ferris wheel glistening in the bright sunshine, and several other tall rides, whirling and spinning as if to beckon us even more. It seemed like the tip of an extremely exciting iceberg. My heart started to race at the distant site of all this.

As we band of three approached the main gate, with its crowds converging magically from chaos into well formed but seemingly endless lines, I could tell that Chris and I were both rethinking our plan to ditch Pop once inside. It seemed like a good idea when we first dreamed it up the day before. Now it seemed like it wasn’t quite as doable, Pop not being someone that you can just ignore, much less strand and the Fair after he so graciously offered to bring us there. Chris and I looked at each other as to say…let’s just play this by ear and see what happens. And in we went.

Once inside something quite ironic and totally unforeseen happened. Pop gathered us up and handed us a bunch of quarters and dimes. He said that we should be careful how we spend our money, as many of the games may look easy, but are not what they appear. He continued by saying that some are even rigged, so be careful. Chris and I were dumfounded. He was ditching us! Well, not exactly “ditching” us, but turning us loose to experience the Fair for ourselves. He told Chris to watch out for me on some of the rides, and make sure I stay with him at all times. If we got lost, we would meet at the Ferris wheel at noon. In the interim, he wanted to look at the animals and see what else the Fair had to offer. Then he said we should all meet at the Ferris wheel at noon anyway, so we could all have some lunch together.

The odd part of this weird turn of events was that all of a sudden I was kind of interested in what Pop was going to be doing. I could see that same thought on Chris’s face as well. So initially we told Pop we would shadow him for a while. He seemed pleased and welcomed the idea. I remember going to see several different pens of animals, like goats, sheep, and pigs. Pop really loved the animals, and was interested in their breeding techniques. This was a whole different side of the Fair that I never really knew existed. Pop seemed to know some of the men there with the animals, and they seemed to know him also, not well, but certainly they had made each other’s acquaintance before. I remember thinking that it was kind of cool that Pop knew these men, and they knew him. It was like knowing someone in the circus. Anyway, we hung out with Pop for a while longer, just to see what other neat things we might see.

After cruising through rows of different animal pens we came upon a whole “Midway” of various game booths. Pop said let’s go on over and toss some dimes. This was one of those seemingly simple looking games that was clearly designed to separate as many dimes from a small boy as he had in his pocket. But it looked so simple: just toss a dime and make it land, and stay, on a plate. There were hundreds of plates. It looked so easy, I should be able to do it blindfolded. Pop said to just try three or four dimes and see how I do. I was out thirty cents in about four seconds. It took Chris a little longer, but with similar results. This was clearly a lesson that was meant to be learned the hard way. I could see that Pop was quite pleased with himself, that his little object lesson had its desired effect. We were both now thirty cents poorer and a whole lot wiser. Pop said that there were other game booths that were perhaps more fun and in which we actually had a chance of winning something. So off we went…together.

For the next hour or so we visited several more interesting games of chance, including the riffle shoot. Both Chris and I did very well here, as our dad during his brief stay with the family, managed to teach us to shoot a BB gun fairly well. I think even Pop was a little impressed at our skill in this area. Pop actually seemed to enjoy the journey so far, seeming to feel more comfortable with the day’s events thus far.

It started to approach lunchtime and we were all getting a little hungry. Pop suggested some good old-fashioned hot dogs and “kraut”. This was perhaps my favorite food group of all times so it was an easy sell. Unfortunately, my idea of a hot dog was grilled or pan fried, but definitely not boiled, as these were. But I figured with enough kraut and mustard I could tolerate it. I proceeded to devour two of the little mutts. The aroma from the vendor’s booth seemed only to enhance the flavor and so I managed to survive the ordeal. I just couldn’t bring myself to tell Pop that I didn’t like boiled hot dogs. He always seemed to not be very interested in the sensitive tastes of children. At home, if it made it to our plate, it was eaten…period. But as I said, I survived, and perhaps even enjoyed the whole thing. And for the piece de resistance, cotton candy. This was a major surprise to both Chris and myself. Pop didn’t have any, but he was the one who suggested that we might like some. Who was this man? Hot-dogs, cotton candy…what’s next?

Well next was the RIDES. Pop was really starting to get into the whole theme here, and said he wanted to see us try some of the rides. Chris, of course, was a major ride fanatic. I on the other hand, was a little more apprehensive and skittish about some of the rides. I tended to get a little motion sick, and was a bit fearful of getting hurt or killed on these things. I was also deathly afraid of heights. Rides that just spun around horizontally, and close to the ground were OK for me. Ferris wheels and other vertically spinning rides, like the Cyclone, were to be admired from the distance, but not actually to be experienced first hand.

I was getting a little worried about not being able to keep up with Chris, and not be able to go on all the rides. Pop at least had the cover of age on his side. At least in my mind, anyway. No one would expect him to go on any rides. But I was a kid and all kids are supposed to live rides. All rides. Chris and I started off slowly, choosing one of the spinning type rides that I liked, or at least tolerated. It was fun, like spinning on a giant turntable with a fence around the edge to keep us all from being spun off into oblivion. But it lasted a bit too long for me. We continued to do a few more rides like that and I was holding up reasonably well, if a little wobbly in the legs. After these spinners, we tried the small semblance of a roller coaster they had there. It was actually sized just about right for my liking, and I really enjoyed it.

Sensing that I was getting a bit more confident and comfortable with all the rides Chris suggested we try the Ferris wheel next. This was not good, but he convinced me that it was safe and that he would sit right next to me. As we approached the base of the Ferris wheel, I thought it looked a lot more appealing from the parking lot. This thing was huge, taller than any of the trees around the Fair area, and I was small. But I was determined to do this. As we climbed into the seat, I felt like this would be doable and that I would survive. I could see that Chris was pumped. I looked over at Pop and he was smiling and waved us off. The view from the top of the wheel was breathtaking, literally. I was OK as long as the thing kept moving. But after a while it stopped, and we were just about half way to the top. I freaked! Chris said it was just the end of the ride and that they need to do this to let people off. I never thought this through all the way before I got on the ride, because if I had, I never would have bought into this stopping business. Once the wheel stops, and it stops very abruptly, the chairs swing back and forth in quite an arc. On the back swing, you are basically facing straight down, and the only thing apparently keeping you from falling straight to your death was a flimsy little strap around my puny waist and some bar across the front of the chair that I could easily slip under. Some idiots, including my brother, actually take this opportunity to rock back and forth even harder in an attempt to “enhance” the experience. Chris started doing this, and I grabbed his hand and told him to stop instantly, or I would kill him where he sat. He reluctantly obliged.

After what seemed like an eternity, we finally made it back to the ground. I felt glad to be on firm footing, and while I was still a bit dazed and a little weak kneed from the fear and excitement, I felt OK, and maybe even a little cocky that I managed to survive intact. I needed a break so I suggested some caramel apples on a stick as a reward. Fairs seem to be the center point in the universe for all manner of foods on a stick. All thought that was a good idea, and so we sat and devoured our candied apples.

With our stomachs full, we assumed our wanderings through the maze of booths and rides and various other venues. Then we happened upon this new, ominous looking ride. It was kind of a Ferris wheel, but with only one large vertical shaft, with a rocket looking thing attached at each end. I watched this beast for a while, and as it spun the two rockets like on a Ferris wheel, each rocket would also rotate as it spun vertically. There was a long line of hapless victims waiting to board this thing. Naturally Chris grabbed me and said we’ve got to ride this thing. Initially I just said “No way!” Chris said it’s only two people per Rocket and they really strap you in good. I could feel my legs begin to tremble at the thought of this monster, and told him that I think I was done for the day. He was persistent, and I could see that he would hound me until I caved. Pop said that maybe we should call it a day, but Chris was crazy for these things, so I said I’d go, but that he needed to make sure I was strapped in good. We stood in line for what seemed like an eternity. As each group of four left the ride, they were a mix of totally exuberant smiles and pasty gray faces. I already knew in which group I would be.

I think that this was just one of Chris’s little ways of torturing me, which he was prone to do. After all, that’s what big brothers do to little brothers. As it was our time to get strapped into one of these rockets, I felt like I was being prepared for a launch into space. I looked into the cage inside the rocket and it looked kind of flimsy. I looked at the operator of this experiment and he was a teenager, covered in grease, and smoking intensely on a cigarette: not a particularly confidence-inspiring site at all. But I was already resigned to be the next to lift off in this contraption. After being strapped in, Chris checked the restraint “system”, and deemed it OK. Big deal!

As the ride started it began rotating me upward, and then started spinning me around in a circle at the same time. I thought to myself, who could like this? It was like being in a washing machine strapped onto a Ferris wheel. But unlike the Ferris wheel, I couldn’t even see anything in terms of any kind of a view, as everything was spinning too fast. Chris was laughing his head off as I was telling him how much I hated this thing. I was really beginning to get scarred and started yelling for them to stop it, now! Chris started to laugh even louder at my demanding that they stop the ride. All of a sudden, I began to feel really nauseous, as everything continued to spin. And then it happened. I just couldn’t hold it in any longer, and began vomiting profusely, everywhere. The spinning kept me from even trying to cover my mouth with my hands, so I just let loose. Chris began to yell, as he was getting covered with the two hot dogs, cotton candy, a caramel apple, and God knows what else I had put in me earlier. Well the ride finally came to an end, but obviously not soon enough for me, or anyone else who managed to get caught in my vomitus wake.

With the ride finally over, I could now survey the damage. Chris, the entire inside of the rocket, and apparently some outside folks, including our dingy operator, were pretty well covered in puke. But as I looked down at myself, I noticed a rather curious thing. I had very little mess on me anywhere. This was an excellent lesson in the scientific principle of centrifugal force. After all, I was at the center of the vomit stream, the point of origin, around which all revolved. A virtual “Eye” in the vomit storm.

As I exited the freshly redecorated rocket, I was even too sick to be embarrassed at what I had done. Chris was furious, being the main recipient of my offering. I looked up to see Pop, kind of smirking and kind of looking concerned. As we approached, he asked if I was OK. I said I was feeling much better now. He said that was probably not a good ride for young kids and they shouldn’t have let me on the ride in the first place. He asked me again to make sure that I was indeed all right. He then walked over to the operator who was busy trying to clean himself of my lunch, and Pop told him he should have known this could happen with little kids. Pop continued to read him the riot act, unmoved by the fact that he was pretty well covered in my lunch. Pop was definitely not happy about this and clearly saw me as a victim. When Pop got done with this guy, we all began leaving the area. Pop then turned his attention to Chris, and said to him, “And what the hell’s the matter with you. You should have known better than to bring him on a ride like that. Maybe that little shower you got will make you think twice next time.” Chris got the message.

I think with that we all felt like it was time to go home. A little battle weary, but no worse for wear; we headed for the exit. As we went past one of the last food venues, Pop asked if anybody wanted some cotton candy. We all had a good laugh. Both Chris and I thanked Pop for taking us to the Fair, and for giving us a great day. Pop said he had a great time himself, and that we’ll all have to come back next year.


(Two Hands on the Hammer)

Well, since that hot muggy day in August, many summers have blossomed, and withered into autumn. Pop passed away in 1976 of natural causes at the age of 88. Several years after our day at the Fair Nana and Pop Pop moved in with us, and lived the rest of their lives in our home in Wantagh. Pop saw me finish college and graduate school, get married, and start my life as a marine biologist. He was immensely proud of me.

Growing up with Pop I had come to know him as a father figure, and as a sensitive and caring man. He was always direct, and spoke his mind. He was also extremely protective of us all. There was an entire generation gap between us, but somehow it didn’t hinder his ability to influence and profoundly affect my life, and my view of the world. He taught me practical things, like painting and how to use tools to build and repair. And it was through those practical lessons that he was able to instill within me a greater lesson, that of how to approach life with a sense of honesty and pride in my work. He made me see that the things I do, and how I do them, reflect on me as a person.

Long after the numerous projects Pop and I shared, his memory still lives on in the many projects I have taken on around the houses in which I have lived as an adult. I have even taught my wife Barbara how to paint, and I have told her that this was the way Harry Werner taught me how to paint. So now whenever there’s any painting to do she does it, and always asks if Harry Werner would be proud of her work. There is no doubt that he would be proud. And this is as it should be; lessons such as these should be passed on, and people like him need to be appreciated by others, whether they actually knew him or not.

Neither Pop nor I could have ever foreseen the evolution that would take place in the nature of the “Projects” that I would eventually undertake. About fifteen years after Pop passed, I started to get interested in woodworking. My interest quickly grew and developed into a full-fledged passion for designing and making fine furniture. I started with simple pieces, then moved on to reproductions of some Arts & Crafts and Shaker pieces and then evolved into my own hybrid designs.

Organic Hall Table in Zebrawood and Bubinga: Pop would be proud of this piece, I’m sure.

Barbara has also taken a great interest in my woodworking, as many of the pieces I build end up in our home. She is very proud of my work, and often remarks at how meticulous I am, and how driven I am to do it right. When she tells me this I often reflect on Pop, and the many hours we spent together, hammers in hand. His voice still resonates in my head every time I begin a project, and I can hear his patient tone and quiet guidance. And every time I pick up a hammer, I can still feel his hand right there with mine, guiding it and holding it steady as he did so many years ago.