Yes, it is the title of a fine novel by Turgenev, which I did read quite some time ago, but it merely provides a title for my ruminating about my father this Father's Day. (This novel is likely the only place where you will find yourself having to learn what nihilism means.) A weekend visit to my uncle, now nearly 96, made me think back about so many things, including my father. As for my father, I took his presence for granted for years on end, until one day he wasn't there any more. And that, amazingly, was 27 years ago, since he still looms large in my sights.
Since he was an outsized personality--literally and figuratively--it's taken some time for me to wrestle with both him and his image. Over time, I understood that I had been conditioned to hold the view of him that the world saw: he was engaging, funny, charming, a man's man, and impossible to equal. At least, that was how I saw him as I grew up and until I was forced to gaze more deeply much much later, as Frank Sinatra was brainwashed by the North Koreans in The Manchurian Candidate to regard Raymond Shaw, as played by Laurence Harvey, as a hero when in reality he was anything but.
I'll start with his having been a head counselor, a role he easily filled for life. That meant he assumed he was in charge. He was strong and confident--I always felt that this persona resulted from his early success as a swimming champ. (That was even more of an accomplishment because he apparently took to the water at an early age to overcome an early and blessedly light case of polio.) He had a good sense of humor--though it did include plenty of teasing that could get on you. He was incredibly popular, in that high school definition of the word. Very few didn't like them, and I have to admit that those few--when I happened to meet them, which was rarely, because they were few--were not a very likeable bunch.
Although he loved comedians, including W.C. Fields, he was the opposite of WC in that he enjoyed both kids and dogs, and his liking was invariably reciprocated. Actually, he liked animals of all kinds, and I remember my Uncle Bill telling me how they had rabbits and other animals at the old house where they grew up at 68 Buena Vista Ave., Yonkers. When he returned to Yonkers, he remained something of a mythic figure. There he would always be "Hooks"--who retained a perfect crawl stroke in the water, had directed amateur shows at the JCC, was a respected member who occasionally attended his Masonic lodge, and would likely have been even more involved in that community had we not moved to Mt. Vernon when I started school. He did abjure titles--he might've headed a number of boards and organizations, including the lodge, had he been willing to spend any major amount of time at it. In this, I would like to think I've at times emulated his example.
That move to Mt. Vernon was something for which I was always grateful. The schools in MV were way better than those in Yonkers and I had great experiences growing up. Harold commuted to New York--he always worked within three or four blocks of Grand Central--and never got that connected to MV, except for when they got him to serve on the temple board. In that he was unlike many of his friends in not being well-off, he served one short term and quickly exited that board. Afterward he warned me never to join a shul until I found out if they had building plans.
He was Groucho's kind of clubman in a way, since he rarely sought out membership but was sought after by members of the Lambs and Players, as well as the N.Y. Regional Board of the Anti-Defamation League. (He fit a slot they needed--a board member who was not a member of B'nai B'rith.) That he resembled an Irish cop probably enabled him to escape being ticketed several times, and allowed him to be invited to join the New York Athletic Club, which he declined, not liking any possibility that he was a token.
He travelled to California often, during his many years with both AFTRA and SAG (they merged about two years ago, only about 50 years after the idea was first broached and only when merger became critical to the survival of both actors' unions). This made it possible for him to keep in touch with the several parts of his family located in Southern California, including my imperious Aunt Ruth, who invariably assumed that the purpose of his being in L.A. was to visit her, and two of my several grown-up (when I was in grade school) first cousins, Bob, a savvy doctor then living in Malibu Beach in high style, and Herb, a sage lawyer who had gone from the Atomic Energy Commission in DC to working for a nuclear reactor builder based in San Diego.
He maintained contact with many members of his family, something in which I've followed his example. As with so many of his generation, he never spoke of what must have been searing experiences in both the Depression (he graduated from law school in 1932, in case today's grads think they have it rough) and World War II. To use one of his lines, he "came on like Gangbusters" because you never failed to notice when he entered a room. He encouraged me to study rather than go out for sports, which in retrospect was wise in view of my limited athletic prowess. He was stalwart in supporting my mother, who developed MS, which limited her mobility for 30+ years. He made sure she accompanied him on many of their trips.
He had no patience so despite what most who knew us thought, he could not teach me to swim or to do anything else. As it turned out, his friends, many of whom were my counselors at camp, couldn't either, but I never figured out why I never learned to breathe correctly when swimming until I taught myself about 40 years later. But I accompanied him to swim meets, where he was usually meet director, armed with the governing whistle round his neck, and comfortably in charge as always. In a way, this set me up to be a college sportswriter, and to a lifelong enjoyment of sports--both in running, a sport he disdained, and as a spectator, which he was incapable of being--yes, Harold Hoffman walked out of the 7th game of the World Series. Why? Because he was bored, as a spectator.