Brotherly love

I had to make a decision involving one of the most basic of human needs: use the bathroom now or chance a long ride?

We — my siblings and our respective spouses — were on the upper northwest side of the island of Oahu, about to make our return to our vacation rental, a fair trek south in the direction of Honolulu. The public park, where we had just finished picnicking, offered an unequivocally beautiful view of the sand and surf. It also offered what you would expect for a public restroom in a beach town.

So the dilemma before me: Do I brave the germ-infested latrine or gamble on making it back home? I erred on the side of caution. Besides, brother Gene, who had just returned from said facilities, was still alive.

When you gotta go, you gotta go. So I notified the other members of our party of six that I was on my way.

“Hey,” said Gene. “Ask that guy over there what year his Chevy Blazer is.” I looked out to see a white vehicle parked right in front of the restroom. I never knew Gene to be an auto enthusiast. His first car was a Rambler station wagon. From then on, it’s pretty much been pickup trucks. But, no problem. I could do my younger sibling a favor. I assumed he had just had a conversation with the owner, and forgot to secure this one key data point.

As I approached the vehicle, the Blazer’s owner was standing on the running board and assiduously wiping down the top with a cloth. I bade him “hello” and asked the relevant question.

He jumped down immediately to greet me.

“It’s a ’96, he said. This thing is old.”

I looked directly at him now and realized he was about my age. He sported a wispy, gray beard and shaggy mane of hair.

“Well, looks like it’s in good shape,” I said. He smiled, revealing a few missing teeth and many others held together with gold crowns. His face was creased and tanned by the elements.

I said goodbye with a wave and went to the restroom. But as I returned, I had to walk by him again. He was back in his position on the running board and I figured there was no need to continue our conversation. But he spotted me and jumped down.

“Hey, what’s your workout regimen?” he inquired.

The question took me by surprise and it took me a moment to process. Sensing my confusion, he posed with his arms flexed.

“You know, like, what do you do, weights? You look pretty fit, man.”

“Oh, yeah. I do some weights,” I said, a little embarrassed that anyone would notice but admittedly a little “pumped up,” too.

Before I knew it, we were in a conversation that transitioned to a number of other topics, including getting old, retirement, his disdain for those who did not respect the beauty of the island, the best Chinese restaurant in town, among others subjects.

I glanced at my party at the picnic table in the distance. They were intensely observing the entire interaction.

I saluted him with one final adieu and returned once again to my group.

“So did you ask him about the Blazer?” Gene inquired.

I nodded affirmatively.

“A ’96 right?” he said, with a smile. And then the rest of the group erupted into laughter.

Gene then confessed he had no interest in the car. He explained that he had overheard our new friend discussing the Blazer and his request of me was just a joke. Gene had set me up. My own brother had pranked me.


At this juncture in this tale it needs to be noted that brother Gene is a gentle soul, and has possessed this character as long as I have known him.

“I didn’t expect you to actually listen to me,” Gene said, laughing. He underscored this claim by averring that his older brother had never heeded his requests before. And then, he asked, “So, are you going to get me back?”

The words on the tip of my tongue were, “You just wait!” But I refrained from resorting to such a childish response. I took the high road.

“Let me just say that vengeance is sweet,” I said. So much more mature.

We made the drive back to our house. And after dinner, we discussed the day’s events and this episode in particular. We laughed again. But as I thought about my new Chevy Blazer BFF, it dawned on me: I had unwittingly made the guy’s day. I was the second person that afternoon who had asked him about his vehicle. It made him feel proud that anyone would notice, let alone two people in one day.

In his groundbreaking work, “A Theory of Human Motivation,” Abraham Maslow said that we all need food, water, shelter, warmth, as our most basic needs. But above that, he posited, we crave a sense of belonging, of being respected by others.

We are all, after all, part of the same fraternal, sisterly, familial, order. We all desire the same things.

Mr. Chevy Blazer’s spirits were unexpectedly lifted on that day. And that’s not a bad thing. And, with his spirits lifted, he sought to repay the gift by complimenting me. And it worked, quite frankly.

Imagine if seven billion people on this planet did this maybe once a day with a perfect stranger. Could it hurt?

It was then that I realized my younger brother was off the hook. You don’t get any sweeter vengeance than this.

A Self-Made Man

He never made it to high school. At 12 years old, during the Great Depression, he lost his father. His formal education ended then as he took on any odd job he could find to help support his mother and the family.

Despite that inauspicious start in life, he taught himself mechanical, civil and hydraulic engineering. Among projects he would be involved in during his career: Niagara Falls Hydroelectric Power Plant, Pratt & Whitney’s factory for the first Boeing 747 engines, the MX Missile System.

He was a survivor of the 1918 flu pandemic. His twin brother, Albert, did not make it.

Claude Albert Paolini would be 100 years old today, Feb. 18, 2018.

He was a first-generation son of immigrants. He spoke only Italian until the age of five. He learned English in school and in the process learned to defend himself against the bullies who ridiculed his accent and ethnic origins.

He grew up in New York State but identified with the cowboy. And he wasn’t half bad as one himself. Sharpshooter, gunsmith, horseman, rancher. He could even lasso a steer. He brewed a mean cup of coffee. He played guitar and sang old cowboy songs with gusto. And nobody wore a Stetson with more authenticity.

Wedding day, June 1949.

He was a WW II vet who survived a plane crash. He spent three months in the hospital undergoing reconstructive surgery. It was there while recuperating that he received a letter from a young woman who — like many of her generation — was doing her patriotic duty by writing to soldiers. His new pen pal was Antoinette Vespalec from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. They would eventually meet, fall in love, marry and raise a family of 10 children.

He was a skilled sketch artist. If you got up early enough, you could find him most mornings at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee, a mechanical pencil and graphing paper. He’d draw little cartoon characters just for your amusement.

He was a jack-of-all trades — electrical, mechanical, plumbing, carpentry, welding — to name of few of the crafts in which he had more than a passing proficiency.

He was an inventor and relentless tinkerer. His prototype for a drafting device hung in his shop for years. Just before he died, he had designed and was building — from scratch — his own steam engine.

Plans for a steam engine.

He could make anything and usually out of nothing. As with many of his generation who survived the Depression, he was resourceful. Old scrap wood and recycled screws and nails could be transformed into a stylish desk, or table, or set of drawers.

He could fix anything. One summer we rented a beach house that had an old, broken piano in the parlor. He took the thing apart and essentially rebuilt it. This was — as always — amazing. But then he sat down and began playing a tune, revealing another of his myriad talents.

His repairs weren’t limited to inanimate objects. He was our field medic, patching up bruises and cuts of every kind. With so many kids, this was practically a daily duty. He even reset our cat’s broken leg, using a plastic doll’s leg as a cast. That animal followed him everywhere from then on.

He was a man of precision. He had an engineer’s appreciation for measuring and analyzing the world around him. As his kid, you learned your cold-rolled steel from cast steel, ferrous from nonferrous metals (and all of their melting points), hardwood from softwood. You knew the linear feet in a mile and the square feet in an acre.

He could calculate anything, using only a slide rule. Not that he needed it. Once, while on our weekly jaunt to the dump, we asked him to estimate the number of gallons in the nearby reservoir. (We loved to quiz him and he relished the challenge.) He explained, while negotiating the steep, curving road and while shifting the gears in the station wagon, that he had to multiply width by length by height, but that he also had to discount the sloping sides. He came up with the cubic volume and multiplied that by the number of gallons in a cubic foot (7.48 in case you have forgotten). His estimate: 100 million gallons.

A few years ago I dug up a newspaper article on that reservoir. At full capacity it holds: 100 million gallons. (Side note: it was built between 1906 and 1911 by Italian immigrants who used draft horses to haul the stone and to compact the earthen dam.)

He was a man of action and punctual to a fault. Except for a pocketwatch on Sundays, he did not wear a timepiece. But he was never late, usually early, and always impatient to get on to the next thing. He did not like to sit still.

He was a man of few words but profound thoughts. When he was feeling conversational, usually over a cup of coffee, he would preface a sentence with: “I imagine that …” What followed could be a theory about anything from the pyramids to time travel.

He had a great sense of humor. (His favorite joke: “Last year I couldn’t spell engineer, now I are one.”)

He was a man of his word. A handshake sealed the deal. He kept up his end of the bargain and more often than not went the extra mile.

He was generous. What he had, he had earned for himself. But without hesitation he was willing to share anything to help you out.

He was a man of principle. Despite threats and intimidation, he testified in an FBI investigation when an employer was embezzling federal funds intended for the Interstate system. He spent more than a few sleepless nights keeping vigil over his family, but his skills acquired as a child standing up to bullies came in handy. He did not back down.

His signature doodle.

He was a devoted husband. He and Antoinette were equal and supportive partners in virtually everything they did. The couple were routinely off on adventures, trying new businesses, pursuing new hobbies.

You did not want to make him mad. He would remind his kids daily. But he was (to borrow a line) “soft as smoke and tough as nails.”

After his kids were grown and gone, he would invite the whole tribe home. We would find ourselves in the kitchen and we would look around for him. But we knew where we’d find him: out in his workshop. He had things to do. He didn’t say he wanted to talk to us. He just wanted us nearby.

Oh, and he was a pretty good dancer.

Happy 100th Birthday, “Pop.” Luv ya.