Friday, August 9, 2013

Remembering My Grandfather: Warren Herzog

Some of you may know that both of my maternal grandparents passed away in the last few months. I was lucky to have grandparents for as long as I did (my grandma was 89; my grandpa 91), but saying goodbye is never easy, especially to people who have always been a part of your life. It took me a little while to gather my thoughts for this post - trying to describe someone like my grandpa in a few paragraphs isn't easy. But I'll try my best.

I don't know a lot about my grandpa's early life. What I do know is that he was born in New Jersey on May 18, 1922, and that he had one brother, whom I never met. He didn't go to college, but he was one of the smartest people I've ever known. (When my mom told him we were moving to Yekaterinburg, he knew immediately that it was the place where the Romanovs were murdered.) My grandpa was a bombardier in the Army Air Corps during World War II, and he had some great stories about his time in the service. He and my grandma were divorced, but they were always very close, checking in on each other every week with a phone call.

They had two children: my uncle, Monte Herzog, and my mom, Nancy. For many years my grandpa worked as a wine distributor, until he retired and got a job at Trader Joe's, which is how I like to think of him. He was their oldest employee and very proud of that fact. He was also very proud of the fact that he used to give all the young employees a hard time. He called himself a curmudgeon and would make a fake angry old man face, but in reality he loved to joke and talk to people about his hobbies, in particular New Orleans jazz. He amassed a huge collection of jazz records over the years, which were eventually contributed to a German jazz museum. He loved to cook and would often brag to my sister and me (both vegetarians) about how little meat he ate. He still lifted weights at 90 and was eventually told he was no longer allowed on the loading dock at work, although if it had been up to him I'm sure he would have kept at it forever.

My grandpa was the crossword puzzle king. I swear it was what kept his mind so sharp for all those years. When we were kids he would occasionally ask for our help, and it was always such a great feeling when we were able to come up with the right answer. But probably my favorite thing about my grandpa was that he loved to sing. Actually, as a kid it drove me insane, because he would want to sing his old ragtime jazz songs to us and try to get us to sing along. The songs were all ridiculous, but I still remember the words to many of them. Some notable favorites:

"I've Got a Bimbo Down on a Bamboo Aisle"
"Minnie the Mermaid"
"Don't Bring Lulu" (a funny song about a girl who drives everyone crazy: "You can bring Kate 'cause she's a nice date but don't bring Lulu. You can bring Tess with a no or yes but don't bring Lulu." And the last line: "She's a certain smarty who breaks up every party. Hullabalooloo, don't bring Lulu. I'll bring her myself!")

And a great little ditty about a woman after a ball. I don't know what the actual name of the woman was, but he usually inserted "Grandma." Here are the words to his version:

"After the ball was over, Grandma took out her glass eye.
Put her false teeth in water, hung up her wig to dry.
Then she unscrewed her wooden leg, hung it up on the wall.
Took off her fake eyelashes, after the ball."

A real charmer. He made us all a mixed tape of some of these classics when we went off to college. I've got it stored away somewhere. He also wrote us letters, which generally started with a date and time in the upper right-hand corner, followed by the words "Craven Manor" (what he named his house, no matter where he lived). Then he'd usually go into some line about the wolves or the vultures circling, but he wasn't ready to go just yet. And then some general stuff about his life, followed by a handful of politically incorrect jokes. Here's a rather tame (and lame) one that he told me:

A funeral procession was winding it's way to the cemetery on top of the hill outside town, when the hearse hit a bump.The coffin was bumped loose, fell out onto the road and began sliding back toward town. It slid faster and faster. Finally, it reached the town and was skidding its way down Main St. Suddenly, at one intersection, the coffin hit a curb, flew onto the sidewalk, smashed through the front glass window of the pharmacy, and slammed up against the prescription counter.The lid popped off, the corpse sat up and said.. "You got anything to stop this coffin?"

For as long as I can remember, my grandpa was hard of hearing. Of course, he was in complete denial about the fact and refused to turn his hearing aid up. It drove my mom insane, but my siblings and I kind of enjoyed it. Having a conversation with him was like a game of telephone: you never knew what he would come up with. Personally, I think he just liked being able to tune everyone out. You couldn't really rattle him either, no matter how frustrated you got. I traveled with him twice: once to visit Sarah in Australia (he was taken aside by TSA for traveling with a corkscrew - you never know when you'll need to open a bottle of wine! - and a dental pick), and when he and my mom came to visit me in London during grad school. He made my mom crazy, walking at a snail's pace, but he was always so good-natured about it that you couldn't really get mad.

Whew boy, this post is getting long. Actually, that's another thing he said. All. The. Time. "Whew, boy." Also drove my mom crazy. Also bizarrely endearing, don't you think?

I could go on and on about my grandpa. He was larger than life, the kind of character who deserves to be immortalized in more than a blog post. But for now, I'll leave you with one of his very favorite songs:

A Mock Ballad
Words by George Whiting, Music by Roland E. Llab (Ernest R. Ball)
Verse 1: I've been looking through the dictionary
For a word that's always running through my mind.
Though I love the name of brother, I was looking for another
And I must confess that word I cannot find
Can it be that all its glories are forgotten,
And it's buried with the language of the Greek?
If it is 'twill ever linger in my memory
As the first word that I heard my daddy Speak...
Chorus 1: Saloon, Saloon, Saloon. It runs through my brain like a tune.
I don't like café, And I hate cabaret, But just mention saloon and my cares fade away.
For it brings back a fond recollection of a little old low ceiling room.
With a bar, and a rail, and a dime, and a pail. Saloon, saloon, saloon.
Verse 2: I can picture swinging doors wide open.
I can almost see the sawdust on the floor.
And I dream of pals and cronies drinking highballs, steins and ponies,
I can see the name of "Ehret" on the door;
But the free lunch counter now is but a memory,
It has vanished with the joys we used to know,
Never more we'll hear that old familiar parting -
Just one drink, boys, just one more before we go.
Chorus 2: Saloon, Saloon, Saloon. Have you been forgotten so soon.
You nestled so sweet in that little side street, so respected, protected by cops on the beat.
Since you've left us the world seems in darkness, like a cloud passing over the moon.
No more joys in my life, no more lies to my wife. Saloon, saloon, saloon.

Warren Herzog: May 18, 1922 - June 29, 2013


Anonymous said...

What a remarkable person and how rich was your relationship! Your tribute to one so important in your life conveyed so many wonderful memories .....among the gifts passed down was truly what you bring to your love and talent for writing. Thanks for the sharing depicted with great love and admiration- wish I had known him!

mvaughn said...

Such sweet memories. Your grandfather reminds me of my grandmother who passed about 5 years ago. She was a real ham and I think of her everyday. I'm sorry for your loss.

Mom said...

Thanks so much, honey, for the lovely post. You got Grandpa perfectly! We will have stories to share about him for years to come.