I was sitting in front of the television getting a last look at Captain Kangaroo before heading to school. It was a damp fall morning in Baltimore in 1961. My father had just gone out the door, and I could hear a familiar sound—the dry heaves of his ’58 Plymouth Belvedere as its engine struggled to turn over.
After a minute he reappeared, his Sorrentine nose crinkled in irritation. “That car is so sensible!” he cried, dashing across the living room. I could soon hear him rummaging around in the basement, looking for something—a pair of pliers, a banana knife—to prod the Plymouth into catching the vital spark.
Most people would agree that that Plymouth—chrome flanks, china-red body paint, tail fins outflung like the marble wings of the Nike of Samothrace—was anything but sensible. But for my dad, that was the very word: sensible, as in the old sense of “easily affected,” even “delicate.” Such English as my father possessed he’d learned as a POW in the Suez during World War II. Affable and handy with small boats, he’d quickly charmed his British captors into letting him man the motor launches they used to visit the tobacconist or a sporting house. Listening in on the banter of boatloads of British officers, eventually graduating to exchanging simple jibes with them, he became imbued with the language of Shakespeare and Kipling, with bits of the big-screen palaver of Errol Flynn and that recent martyr to the Allied cause, Leslie Howard, thrown in for good measure. Years later, when he and my mother were raising two sons in a row house neighborhood where Luckies and Camels were what men smoked, dad stuck by Pall Malls, a brand of coffin nail named for the London street frequented by English clubmen. After a particularly luxuriant exhalation, he would occasionally address one of us boys as “old chap.”
If being sensible was no virtue to my father, being fantastic was just as bad. Here was a man who could watch a performance of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni and see nothing implausible about a statue coming to life in a graveyard and dragging an evildoer down to hell. But the characters appearing our hard-used TV in the 1960s—a talking horse, a spy taking phone calls on his shoe, a housewife who wiggled her nose and turned into a witch—invariably rated the same scornful assessment: “Fantastic!” Held in equally low esteem was terrific. It was a popular encomium among the Kennedy family (“When I was with the Kennedys I use the word terrific a lot. They loved that word,” wrote one Camelot chronicler), but though he admired JFK, terrific signified nothing good to my dad. Terrific was reserved for traffic jams on the way home from work and the thunderstorms that so often broke overhead in a Baltimore summer. Nothing unsettled my father like a thunderstorm—he’d served in a submarine in the war, and the racket reminded him of depth charges.
My older brother and I got big news the summer I turned eight. In a few weeks, my mother would be taking us to Italy—on a jet airplane! (At the time, transatlantic passenger jet service was still a novelty.) My mother’s purpose, I now realize, was to show her family what she’d been up to since she left Sorrento after the war. We’d be gone pretty much the whole time from the Fourth of July to Labor Day. At the mom-and-pop grocery in East Baltimore where he put in sixty hours a week, my father worked for a harried septuagenarian who was disinclined to add a two-month vacation to the leave plan of his produce man. So he would have to stay home.