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Chapter 004 Have a nip

My Uncle Eskie was born Haskell David Wasserman in 1908 in Boston, the fourth of five children and the next younger sibling of my dad. He was outwardly confident, but with some serious inner issues. He had a very direct style of interacting with people, and I found it refreshing in that post World War II American euphoria of everything being OK, to have someone in my life who said exactly what he felt. But under what might have been regarded as a rough exterior beat a soft heart which no amount of outward cynicism could completely mask. It was, however, his irreverent approach to almost any situation that really drew me to him. I loved Eskie without reservation, as did most of the family, and to actually be sharing a house with him at camp was a treat beyond measure.

Even though Eskie was an alcoholic, he was a pleasant drunk. He was also a chain smoker, something I was indifferent to during those thoughtless days before concerns about second hand smoke. Although devastatingly handsome and charming, he had never married, although there were rumors of an unhappy love affair in his past. He’d gotten a law degree but never practiced. Nevertheless, his older brother, my dad, a practicing attorney, always kept Eskie’s name on his legal letterhead, alongside his own.

Eskie owned a greeting card shop in Boston, but whenever I stopped there to see him during a trip into town, I’d encounter his manager, Charlie, but hardly ever a sign of Eskie. “Is Eskie here?” I’d ask Charlie hopefully, while already knowing the answer. “Nope, he’s next door,” Charlie would respond, somewhat embarrassed, because next door was the bar where Eskie spent most of his working hours, a fact we both knew and accepted philosophically. Charlie often took pity on me and ducked out of the card shop briefly to go next door and tell Eskie I was here, since, being under 21, I wasn’t allowed to enter the bar. Eskie would appear shortly thereafter, reeking of scotch, and beaming with pleasure over the fact I’d come to see him. A quick bear hug followed by a gruff greeting of, “How the hell are ya?” “Great,” was my standard reply, as I always felt pretty darn good in his presence. We’d shoot the breeze for a bit, each basking in the glow of the other’s adoration, and then I’d leave to continue on with my town business, feeling a whole lot better about myself than I had earlier, without really understanding why.

One day when Eskie was visiting our house in Winthrop, shortly after I’d been made editor-in-chief of my high school yearbook, he took me aside and herded me into my brother’s empty room – Jerry was still in Germany fighting the Cold War. “Congratulations on being made editor of the yearbook,” he said to me as he shook my hand. “Thanks,” I replied smiling, pleased he knew about and valued the achievement. When I withdrew my hand, I found he’d placed a 10 dollar bill into it – not an inconsiderable amount of money for an early 60’s high school student. “Wow – Thanks a lot,” I gushed at him. “Aw, it’s nothin’,” he growled back and quickly made to leave the room and thus escape what was becoming an uncomfortably mushy situation for him. Eskie never had to articulate his love for me as it was clearly demonstrated through his actions.

He was an avid fisherman, and one day, he, my dad, and I were out fishing together on Great Pond. Eskie put down his rod for a minute, reached into his pocket and took out one of the little nip bottles of scotch he always carried with him and took a swig. Then he looked at 16-year-old me, as if he suddenly realized he was being rude by drinking in front of one of his favorite nephews without sharing, and offered the small bottle to me with a kindly, “Would you like some?” I eagerly replied, “Yeah, THANKS!” and reached for the proffered bottle, thrilled at the opportunity to be treated as an equal at such a tender age. But my dad immediately intervened with a sharp, “Eskie!” to which Eskie responded, “Aw, Al, let the kid have a drink fer Chrissakes.” Although my dad won that battle of wills, my disappointment was tempered by what a great story it would make to share with my friends back home.

Eskie was one of those people to whom the rules just didn’t seem to apply, and I guess we all envied him a bit for that. Still, it was clear he was far from fulfilled or truly happy. He marched to the beat of a different drummer, one I just couldn’t seem to hear no matter how hard I tried. But I attempted to keep in step with him anyway, and that effort was always pleasant for me.