My dad was a tough guy. He was 5′2″, 125 pounds — so he was a short, tough guy. A short, Jewish, tough guy. Short, Jewish guys can be very tough. Ask Goliath.
He had a tough life. He was born in 1915 near Bratislava. They spoke Yiddish and German around the house. His mother was a short, tough woman. She was 4′7″. She raised chickens, which she would kill by grabbing them by their heads and swinging them around until their necks snapped. Apparently the Bratislava ShopRite had an inadequate produce section, so this is my image of my paternal grandmother: a fierce midget in a black dress swinging a chicken over her head.
Her husband, my father’s father, didn’t come home from World War One until my father was five years old. Grandpa Konig had been drafted into the Kaiser’s army, was promptly captured, and spent several years in an Italian P.O.W. camp where he contracted tuberculosis. He did, however, gain ten pounds in captivity — this being, after all, an Italian camp, the food was terrific.
My father had many brothers and sisters and, as the saying goes, back in the old country they were dirt poor but unhappy. So they came to America. In 1929. Just in time for the Great Depression.
Dad was enrolled in a public school in The Bronx where he quickly learned English and, just as quickly, forgot Yiddish and German. One day the teacher called him up to the front of the class to punish him for some adolescent infraction. He asked my father to put out his hands. My father obliged. The teacher rapped my father on the hands with his ruler. My father promptly knocked the guy out. Thus ended his formal education.
Like thousands of other broke, teenage dropouts in the early years of the Depression, he hit the road, riding the rails in freight trains. He did a little club boxing, getting his nose broken three times (“twice in the ring”). He joined FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps for a while and put out forest fires somewhere in the Midwest. He spent a few nights here and there in jail. He spent one Christmas at Father Flanagan’s Boys Town (I’ve got the souvenir menu from that dinner — quite a feast for a runaway kid, complete with cigarettes at every table). He made his way back to New York and hung out in jazz clubs in Harlem. We think he might have dated Lena Horne when they were teenagers. He didn’t talk about it, but apparently he used to get quite agitated whenever she came on TV.
He enlisted in the Army in 1941 and was stationed down south serving as a cook. He made it up to corporal, but got knocked back to PFC. The circumstances of his demotion are one of the great military secrets of the Second World War, locked away in a safe deep in a clandestine bunker beneath the Pentagon — but one can surmise the contributing factors were probably a) an irritating sergeant and b) booze.
Shortly before his company was sent to England to prepare for the invasion, the Army lost my father’s citizen and naturalization papers. They separated him from his company until things could be straightened out. In the interim, he developed a stomach ulcer — contributing factors were probably a) an irritating sergeant and b) booze — and was granted an honorable discharge. I asked him once if it bothered him that he missed fighting in the war. He thought about it for awhile and said that it bothered him that he was separated from his company. That was the only thing he ever said about it, and he only said it once.
He quit drinking when he was 27. By himself. In certain circles, there’s a phrase for that: “white knuckling.” By the time I came along, it had been 20 years since my Dad had a drink. His knuckles were very white.
His last fight was in the mid-fifties. He was at the union hall (he was a painter) and some wiseguy gave him a hard time. Dad took him out. The president of the painter’s union witnessed this and promptly hired my father to be his bodyguard. Dad served in this capacity for a year or so, until the painter’s union president either retired or was indicted, whichever came first.
After that, Dad settled down (more or less). He met and married my mother, had kids, got older. He was a great guy. His name was Armin, so when I had my first son I gave him “Armin” as a middle name. I wanted to honor my father but I couldn’t give him “Armin” as his first name because I knew at some point I’d be saying things like, “Armin, you’re not leaving this table until you eat your vegetables!” That would be like me yelling at my father to eat his vegetables — which, of course, is absurd.
One time, when my son was three, I lost my temper with him over some father-son test of wills. I attempted, for the first — and last — time, to give him a spanking. After receiving a paternal smack on the tush, my son stood up, curled up his little fist and promptly punched his old man right in the nose.
— Comedian Dave Konig starred on Broadway in Grease! and won a New York Emmy as the co-host of Subway Q&A. He recently completed his first novel Good Luck Mr. Gorsky. Konig is an NRO contributor.