The Boy Who Became My Father

Dear Michael and Caroline,

My father lost most of his hearing, the result of nerve deafness, before he turned one year old.
He grew up in a small house in a section of New Jersey called Weequahic, in Newark, heavily Jewish in the 1940s and 1940s. His parents, Harry and Anna, both from Austria, sent him away, on a train, to a special school for the deaf in St. Louis, when he was a boy, maybe only eight or nine.

He was hard of hearing, severely so, able to make out perhaps 10% of all sounds, and this was back before hearing headsets or aids were of great use. He probably had difficulty making himself understood or understanding those around him, frustrating everyone, including himself.

The school in St. Louis was expensive, all that special training plus room and board and the train trips back and forth to New Jersey once or twice a year, but somehow, I’m told, my grandparents, then still of modest means, managed to pay for it year after year. It was a sacrifice and they went without, forgoing new clothes and furniture and vacation, because they wanted my father equipped to survive in the world with the skills he would need, most prominently an ability to speak and comprehend the speech of others.

My father was an absent-minded boy at home, his sisters told me, “his head in the clouds,” a description later echoed by his mother-in-law, my grandmother Sheft. He kept to himself, in his room, and conducted small science experiments, once causing some chemicals to explode.
He went to school in St. Louis for 10 years and I’m certain it left him feeling lonely, maybe even abandoned, and I doubt he ever really felt all that close to anyone in his life, though I could well be wrong, and would like to be.

But let me stick with the little I know. He had two younger sisters, Zelda and Gail, and from what I have gathered, they got all the attention in those days. They were pretty, they had sociable personalities and they enjoyed perfect hearing. Whether my father resented this favoritism I can only guess. How his sisters treated him is purely a matter of speculation.

This much I know, too: my father was bright and athletic, and to no small degree driven. I say this because he played on his high school football team, and more important, because he was accepted as a student at Rutgers University in 1944. Rutgers was then, and still is, a highly respected school, and my father had to be among the very few students there with almost no hearing. As he later told me himself, he always sat in the first row in class, the better to hear the teacher, and also took more notes than other students, the better to doublecheck.

My father was pretty pigheaded back then, and this habit would prevail through his life, both to his credit and detriment equally. For example, it was generally accepted among his family that nobody could tell him much of anything. He was going to do what he was going to do, no matter what his parents or sisters or teachers told him.

I would later see this tendency at work myself years later, as would my mother, her mother and my sister.

P.S. — See Part 2 tomorrow.

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