A hilarious, sometimes gloomy, R-rated recounting of our Baltimore dad's hard life including his World War II service, his enthusiastic drinking escapades, his screwy and woeful family life, and his terrible final descent into medical hell.
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I've Seen Things Go This Bad For Six Months in a Row(Then Turn Right Around and Get Worse)
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2011 The Fabulous Dell Brothers
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Chapter OneOUR DAD – NOW THERE WAS A MAN
He was in the hospital for the last time, surrounded by his four kids. It was almost 1 a.m. on February 9, 1999. Even with tubes pumping oxygen through his nose and into his lungs, dad was laboriously and loudly gasping for breath. Even with all the pain, he tried to make us believe that he was breathing easier and feeling better. He couldn't talk because of the tubes, so he waved his arms at us, gesturing for us to leave his hospital room.
Before he reached this point, he had spent several years in acute pain. He endured dozens of procedures and numerous hospital stays. That morning, he shooed us out of his room, insisting that we go home and rest. We reluctantly left. His nurse assured us she would call immediately if his condition changed. We had been through this exercise dozens of times with dad, and would repeat it several more times with mom. About two hours after we left, the nurse called and told us to return to the hospital immediately. The end was imminent. We didn't make it back in time. He knew he would die while we were away. He wasn't concerned about being alone - he didn't want us to have to suffer and watch him go.
When we got back to the hospital, the nurses gave us some time alone with him. He finally looked peaceful, no longer desperately wheezing and struggling for air. Kempie gently removed dad's wristwatch and said, "So long, pal," one last time.
Dad, Sam Tom "Tucky" (nicknamed after Little Tommy Tucker) Dell, and mom, Elizabeth Doris "Stella" (after the old movie Stella Dallas) Dell, had two sons, Junior and Kempie, and two daughters, Lacey and Evie. The lads were christened the "Fabulous Dell Brothers" one night in Fells Point, a historic Baltimore waterfront neighborhood full of colorful taverns and people. After stops in several bars, we stumbled into Turkey Joe's, a landmark local pub. Turkey Joe himself was standing at the front door as we entered. He shook our hands and asked our names. After we told him, he turned and announced to the packed house, "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Dell Brothers!"
They don't make many men like dad anymore. He was a combination of John Wayne, Jackie Gleason and Archie Bunker. He could be crude and insensitive, but he and Stella taught us many positive life lessons. Stella taught us generosity and kindness. She was always opening our house to stray people and animals and had a revolving door of down-and-out friends, relatives, dogs, cats, parakeets, gold fish, salamanders and toads staying at the Dell hotel and animal hospital.
Before dad succumbed at age 74, he had lived more than ten years, including his many hospital stays, in his bachelor apartment in Kempie's house on the Gunpowder River in Baltimore. Near the end, he was released from the hospital where he had been imprisoned for more than six months. His many medical problems were mainly caused by poor blood circulation, brought on by years of smoking and alcohol, hard physical work, and bad diet, especially when he was drunk. He often told us when he was drinking, "I ain't eatin'nothin'! Don't fix me no goddam plate!" When sober, he too often feasted on fatty foods and desserts.
Doctors had to amputate his left leg - twice. They removed his sternum, and he had no outer structure, other than the ribs and skin the doctors patched together, to protect his chest and heart. Near the end he also developed cancer, which was discovered after he complained of excruciating back pain.
Dad's best friend, Ted Park, said of him, "He could be a nasty bastard." (After mom died, Ted's sister, Carla, mom's cousin, told us, "Your mother could be very difficult" – guess it runs in the family.) But dad was generous to a fault to family, friends and strangers and bartenders, because as he often told us, "Money don't mean nothin' to me."
Dad had a lot of quirks, physical and verbal, that revealed his normal sour disposition. He unwittingly entertained us with his never-ending complaints. He frequently uttered one- or two-word reactions to the people or things that pissed him off. "Ah, for Christ's sake! (often shortened to Ah....!")," and "Bitch!" and "Jam it!" and "Stick it!" forever reverberated off the walls. His favorite gesture, when something displeased him, was to give a sideways middle finger salute in a circular motion.
After years of dental neglect, in his 40s he had all his natural teeth extracted in one session by his Uncle Barry's dentist friend, Dr. Dan. He went toothless for a couple of weeks, gumming everything he ate, until the new set of false teeth was completed and installed. The new chompers never fit correctly, and they constantly pained him. Dad, however, didn't have the patience to get them refitted. He developed a noisy and annoying habit of sucking air through the ill-fitting teeth. This giant sucking sound went unmentioned for years, until it struck Kempie one day at a family gathering.
He mimicked dad's sucking sound which resembled the "thsthsping" sound of a beer can popping open. Junior immediately caught on to Kempie's impersonation, made eye contact, and echoed Kempie's thsthsping noise, as both burst out in their regular laughter at someone else's expense. Their impersonation of dad's misfortune is now a tribute to our dear departed daddy that we still find hilarious.
Our mother was very Catholic. She prayed the rosary constantly, regularly attended mass and novenas, and insisted on sending her four kids to parochial school. She kept many of God's and the Church's commandments, and throughout her life she wore her guilt for her sins, real and imagined, as a dramatic badge of honor.
Mom was very generous, frequently taking down-on-their-luck relatives and friends, even animals, into our home, even though we were usually only a step ahead of the creditors ourselves. She lost her mother very early in life, soon after her brother, John Ell, was born. From about age four, she was the only female in a houseful of males on Belgian Avenue in Baltimore. Her childhood neighbors included the famed sportswriter John Steadman, and Tommy Byrne, who became a pitcher for the New York Yankees and other teams.
In addition to running the household, she and her cousin Carla got war jobs at the Glenn L. Martin plant in Baltimore during WWII. Mom met and married her first husband, Pete Petersen, a rat-bastard, at the plant, but the marriage didn't last. Soon after the war ended, her cousin Ted Park introduced her to his good friend who would become our daddy.
Having been required to learn home management skills at an early age, mom was a very talented cook and housewife. After marrying dad, she did the best she could with scarce resources. Despite dad's many talents, he was more concerned with keeping his many bartenders well compensated than providing her with a regular paycheck. She often had to stretch meals and try to beat off the bill collectors so we could keep the electricity and phone operational. She not only had to deal with dad's drinking but also his many job changes and irregular income.
Dad and mom - a match made in hell - probably should never have married, but they stuck it out for more than 20 years. We kids recall with immense fondness our parents' screaming fights. Mom was a diehard liberal while dad was a staunch conservative. Another of his trademark phrases was "I just don't unnerstand this shit." We well remember mom and dad's calm and reasoned discussion about the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy election. She, naturally, was a Kennedy supporter. Mom said, "I read in the Sun that all the Negroes (as African-Americans were referred to in those days) and Jews are going to vote for Kennedy." Dad replied, "Figures!" Mom promptly invited him to "Kiss my ass!" to which he retorted, "Mark the spot! I wouldn't know where to begin!" Sometimes they varied their responses to each other's invitations to "Kiss my ass" with "Where? You're all ass!"
Over the years, we heard many similar loving exchanges between our parents. The most notable and enduring was the annual "Merry Fuckin' Christmas" greeting which usually took place soon after we kids had happily torn open our gaily wrapped presents.
After years of suffering in an alcoholic marriage, mom eventually left dad in the 1970s. She hooked up with, and eventually married her third husband, Will (Daddy Will to us). He provided her with the financial security she had never known. We then learned how talented she was in the kitchen when she could serve excellent meals made with first-class ingredients. However, when she tried to keep our household afloat under very trying circumstances with dad, many of our meals were less than gourmet quality.
When we were kids, mom's budget generally allowed one fancy meal a week. She called Mondays her "roast night," and she would prepare a pork or beef dinner. The quality of our meals during the rest of the week varied, depending on the money she could scrounge to buy groceries at the Food Fair in Northwood. We ate a lot of meat loaf and potato pancakes. And in the days when it was a mortal sin to eat meat on Fridays, we endured regular swordfish Fridays. We later learned to our horror that our government banned the fish because it was loaded with poisonous mercury.
Dad constantly misused and mispronounced words to our great amusement. He rivaled Yogi Berra with his many malapropisms. He tried to tell jokes, but he always blew the punch lines. We once told him an inane joke, "What do you call the operation a woman gets when she wants a sex change? A Tapadictomy (pronounced 'Tape-a-dick-to-me')." His version was "tack-a-dick-on-me."
He also liked to sing, but he was tone-deaf and couldn't remember lyrics. His unintentional gems often left us laughing hysterically. In his later years his comical comments became even more outrageous and frequently xx-rated, especially as his medical problems and pain increased, because as he often told us, "When your feet hurt, you ain't worth a shit!"
Like many Baltimoreans, he pronounced Baltimore, Maryland as "Baldimer, Murlin." He called one of his granddaughters, Baylor, a colicky, crying baby, "the Exorist," after the horror movie "The Exorcist." The infant girl was a chubby rascal. Another one of his affectionate nicknames for her was "Artie Junior," after Art Donovan. (Before she was born, dad lobbied to name the new baby. He told his daughter Evie, "You don't have a hair on your ass if you don't call it Garrett!")
He called filet mignon "flaming young." His name for Ibuprofen was "Eye-Boo-Bufferin." Arby's was "Ar-lee's," a condom was a "condrum," and Junior's college living quarters (dormitory) were a "dahm-it-tree." The Alert gas station was "Albert," and Taco Bell was called "Take-oh-bell." Orchestra was "awch-estra," catalytic converter was a "cat-less convertible," and Norfolk was "Naw-fuck." He respectfully called females "split-tails." He often told us as kids to "put on your nightgowns," meaning pajamas. When he described something that happened in the past, he would frequently say it had occurred "when Skippy was a bitch," whatever that meant.
He had a philosophical side, too. If things were going badly, he'd tell us, "Don't worry. I've seen things go this bad for six or seven months, then turn right around and get worse." If we were feeling sorry for ourselves he'd soothe us with, "Aw, I can feel the teardrops bouncin' off my cheekbones!" He would also jokingly mock us in a whiny falsetto voice, such as, "Aw, widdle Kempie has a headache!"
He was 6'2" tall and weighed more than 200 pounds - a powerful man with outrageously muscular forearms honed by a life of physical labor. His strength and physical presence made it difficult for us to watch his body betray him in his final years. He was very smart, especially in mathematics, although he didn't go beyond the 8th grade and probably never read an entire book. He was an expert craftsman who could do almost anything mechanically or in carpentry and construction.
He would work for hours on various projects and he did many jobs for friends and family, refusing to take money. He often suggested projects around his grown kids' houses - things we didn't know we needed but gratefully accepted. Although he frequently told us "I can't do the impossible!" he wouldn't consider any job finished until everything met his very high standards. If a big or small problem emerged, he would patiently fix it, saying, "Ain't no big thing." However there are many examples of Dad's impatience. His favorite expression of irritation and exasperation was, "Ah, for Christ sake!" which he sometimes attempted to modify in the presence of tender ears.
Late in his life, during one of his seemingly endless hospital stays, a nurse was trying to draw some blood for the umpteenth time, and she couldn't get the needle to stick in his battered and withered arm. She kept saying, "I'm sorry, Mr. Dell, I'm sorry!" Dad said, "Ah, I'm going to write a book about this goddam place and call it I'm Sorry!!"
The trivial disappointments of everyday life upset him the most - a trait he cheerfully passed on to his two sons. As a boy he was blond-haired, but he went bald in his early twenties. His buddy Ted Park called him "cue ball." His bald head almost always sported an ugly bruise or scar from a run-in with a kitchen cabinet or some other sinister device. After any of his frequent battles with inanimate objects during which he hit his head, he would scream and cuss and respond with physical fury against the offending piece of furniture. Kempie and Junior were repeatedly encouraged through their young lives with gentle words of assurance like, "You're useless as tits on a bull," or "You got a head like a Burma (Brahma) Bull's ass," or "If I had a head like that, I'd shave my ass and walk backwards!"
Junior, in addition to being subjected to verbal abuse from dad and mom, also got it from the nuns and priests through 12 years of Catholic school. Kempie was luckily kicked out of parochial school at an early age after a series of disappointing report cards. Dad would read the reports with disgust, then sign and send them back to the nuns with supportive comments like "Fail him!" and "Make him repeat the grade!" followed by an appropriate punishment. After several more poor reports and the resulting wrath of dad, the two lads learned to show them only to mom, or better yet forge her signature.
Dad abhorred loud, shrill noises. One day he heard an ambulance speeding by our house, with its siren wailing, "Woo, woo, woo!" Unmoved by its mercy mission, dad finally had all the "woo, woo, wooing" he could take and screamed, "Aw, woo, woo, woo it up your ass!" to the offending ambo, which raced on unaware of his sputtering rage. He also hated other grating, high-pitched sounds, such as Stella's frequent strident shrieks.
As kids we often wondered why our home life wasn't like the happy family times we saw portrayed on "Ozzie and Harriet." We didn't know why dad was rarely home for dinner. We didn't really mind that he wasn't there, because it usually made for a far more peaceful scene. When he did make one of his infrequent appearances, family members didn't take turns going around the table discussing our days. We sat in nervous silence praying he wouldn't launch into one of his spectacular tirades. If one of us felt the need to discuss something that happened at school or on the playground, we were often paradoxically ordered to "Shut your mouths and EAT!"
In his later years he told us that on most nights he had every intention of joining us for a joyous family supper. However, after he had parked his car and begun the short walk to the house, almost without fail he heard Stella's eardrum-shattering screeches at us for some indiscretion. Her shrill phrase of choice was, "What in the name of the Christ is the matter!?" which she used on many occasions.
Excerpted from I've Seen Things Go This Bad For Six Months in a Row Copyright © 2011 by The Fabulous Dell Brothers. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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