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Thursday, July 5, 2012

Uncle Ralph

by Donald Dewey

I never came close to climbing into the ring as a contender and my brother never ended up hanging from a meat hook in an alley, but the two of us have always identified strongly with “On the Waterfront”. The link isn’t the Malloy brothers played by Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger, but their mobster patron in the 1954 Elia Kazan movie, Lee J. Cobb’s “Johnny Friendly.” Our uncle Ralph Johnsen might not have controlled the docks, but he was so physically similar to Cobb, down to his heavy jowls, deep, bleating eyes, and quiet growl of a voice that we found it easy to imagine him controlling just about everything in Brooklyn that Johnny Friendly didn’t. Supporting that fanciful impression was his “money game.” But we’ll get to that later.

Like all those of his generation, Uncle Ralph was a man of hats and cigarettes. You can see him whenever you turn on the Turner Classic Movie channel—black-and-white characters going brim to brim and butt to butt, working small miracles every time they move away from one another without putting out an eye with either of their everyday weapons. But even more noticeable than his brown fedoras and Old Golds in my Irish Catholic family was the particular that Uncle Ralph was a Norwegian Lutheran who had seduced my Aunt Mary into marriage with his smorgasbord charms. For those who grew up within the steeples of central Brooklyn, the Scandinavians who inhabited the borough’s southwest area around Lapskaus Boulevard and Fort Hamilton Parkway were at best domesticated Vikings with a secret nostalgia for their pagan rituals. No question that Bay Ridge restaurants relied on their trade for survival, especially on hung-over Sunday afternoons, but what were all those bellicose drakkar pins and logos promoted by the Sons of Norway? Just homage to Leif Ericson’s fabled discovery of America or the tip-off that professional pillagers always had one more invasion in them? Wasn’t the peace-loving cross of the Knights of Columbus good enough for them?

Give Uncle Ralph credit for trying to bridge the cultural gap. At times this meant painfully diplomatic interest in the latest Catholic gossip from another of my aunts: what ballplayers should be rooted for because they were of the right religion, what movies should be avoided because they offended one commandment or another, what priests had just dropped dead before Uncle Ralph and his heathen ways had gotten to know them. Others confronted by these parochial assaults either suddenly remembered phone calls they had to make or refrigerators that had to be defrosted, but the family Lutheran was usually left with only one defense—his habit of nodding attentively as he slowly circled a room and shook all the change he kept in both pants pockets until my aunt’s pious recital had gained something of a musical score. (My mother once cracked that “Ralph keeps his hands in his pockets more than some of those guys in the subway,” but then her opinion hardly counted since she was always the first to go running outside to unplug the refrigerator when my aunt got started with her bulletins from the Vatican.)

Politeness wasn’t Uncle Ralph’s only tactic in trying to ingratiate himself with his wife’s family; he also did his best to inform those on the other side of the barrier why he was proud of his own background. Sometimes this produced only blank stares, as in his peppery bulletin one day that Norway maples were the most common tree in New York City—this to people whose sole interest in trees was how much they cost around Christmas. Other times it approached the dubious, as in his boast that Jimmy Cagney was Norwegian—an ethnic fact not unlike the claims of Hollywood publicists that their latest he-man star is one-eighth Cherokee. He was on more solid ground when he carped at a once-popular beer commercial built around the ethnic diversity of New York City. If Madison Avenue could point out that there were more Puerto Ricans in New York than in San Juan and more Jews in the five boroughs than in Tel Aviv, he complained, why couldn’t they also mention that Brooklyn had the largest Norwegian population outside Norway?

He never received an answer to that one, but he labored on with his instruction. Our cat heard more about the Atlantic voyage of the Restauration than Cleng Peerson’s descendants. One weekday afternoon (when it wasn’t morally compromising) he conducted a tour of his sparely furnished Lutheran church to show his in-laws that there were no traces of a baby’s blood on the altar. He was also emphatic that nobody in the family make other plans for Norway’s Constitution Day in May—a social obligation I still associate with a lot of O’s, for Oslo the capital, Olaf the king, and Ole the neighborhood drunk who annually stood another round for “Ralph and his Catholics.” And maybe most personal of all, he made sure every piece of his ulcerated stomach extricated over the years was dispatched at the Norwegian Hospital, thus giving relatives the chance to see that the place could handle more than frostbite and reindeer poisoning.

Probably inevitable for anyone feeling tested in a social setting, Uncle Ralph had a compulsion to perform, in his case by telling jokes. Even more inevitable, many of the jokes had self-deprecating Scandinavian themes, if with more cultural subtleties than I was able to appreciate at the time. One that has stuck after decades appeared clearly aimed against the Swedes. As Ralph told it, one holiday before he was encouraged to drink more and talk less, two Norwegians and a Swede found themselves near an ice cube death at the North Pole. Suddenly they discovered a magic lantern in the tundra, and the standard genie emerged to grant them three wishes. The first Norwegian said he just wanted to get warm, so the genie transported him to a nice fireplace in Oslo. The second Norwegian said he wanted the same thing, so off he went as well to the fireplace. Asked what he wanted, the Swede replied that he was suddenly feeling very lonely and wanted his companions back. I don’t remember this or any of the other stories bringing howls from my parents or other aunts and uncles, but Uncle Ralph always seemed to show an extra layer of pleasure in arriving at his punch lines, as though he had just evened some generational score in Stockholm.

To say Uncle Ralph worked as an insurance agent was much like saying Johnny Friendly worked as a labor union agent, at least to the impressionable who knew him mainly in his leisure hours. In fact, there were few occasions when I didn’t know him in the far more romantic light of gambling. Cards, horses, pool tables, ballgames—Ralph seemed to dedicate his every free hour to policies Prudential would never underwrite. Other members of the family had their living rooms dominated by sprawling couches, mantle pieces, or television sets; the most conspicuous objects in the Johnsen living room were stacks of playing cards and burnished mahogany chip wheels. Looking for a pencil in a drawer usually meant having to dig under a Jack of Diamonds that hadn’t been thrown away with the rest of an old deck. I don’t recall how much I knew about poker beforehand, but I do know that after spending a weekend with Uncle Ralph and Aunt Mary, I never again had any doubts about the hierarchical order of straights, flushes, and full houses.

Visiting them produced other epiphanies, as well. For instance, there was the Nordiske Tidende, the first foreign-language newspaper I had ever seen outside a candy store or newsstand. It wasn’t that Ralph read the paper or was even fluent in Norwegian; as he put it when I asked him, “I can understand the headlines.” Forget that this is the answer I would give if somebody spotted me holding the newspaper of Laotian tribesmen. More to the point was that he was open to the extortions of a sister, an activist in Brooklyn Scandinavian circles, who pressed a subscription to Nordiske Tidende on him as his tie to a homeland neither of them had ever seen. For her part, Aunt Mary didn’t seem to mind collecting the newspaper every morning and sticking it, usually unread, in the garbage every evening: “We get a lot of rubber bands,” she said. On the other hand, there was no sacrifice for either of them in shopping at a local Scandinavian bakery. The meticulously baked glue of Silvercup, Taystee, and Wonder Bread never had a chance against fyrstekake, or even the Danish helenesnitter—at least until I asked for these discoveries when I returned home and my mother suggested I go take a swim in my favorite fjord.
Exposed as we were to it from an early age, Ralph’s gambling might have seemed like an easy source of corruption. Nobody was more aware of this than he was, leading to a solemn—and morally bracing—ritual when the family teenagers reached their 18th birthday. As his special gift to me, as to my sister and various cousins before me and to my brother and various other cousins after me, he rented a limousine to go to Belmont for an afternoon. On the drive out to the track, he delivered a little homily about the responsibilities of reaching 18 and how these new burdens included knowing how to spend the envelopes of money we had all received for such a signal birthday. In other words, he made it clear, he would be there for advice if needed but any money wagered would be our own. From this experience, he warned, we would get a clear idea of the pitfalls of gambling.

Truth to tell, his little lecture lent a dour Protestant air to what was supposed to be an afternoon of fun; in other words, I had been counting on him to bankroll a few races. But thanks to my sister and the cousins who had preceded me, I had learned enough about racing forms to keep my questions to Ralph to a minimum and remembered enough about arithmetic to keep my bets to five dollars. Also like my sister and cousins before me (and my brother and other cousins after me), I left the track that day with a nice profit, while Uncle Ralph and Aunt Mary bickered in the limo all the way home about whose moronic idea it had been to put down so much on Crazy After All These Years. Needless to say, no one who celebrated an 18th birthday with Uncle Ralph’s help developed a phobia about racetracks.
Another time, Ralph’s desire to impart positive moral lessons led him into the perilous territory of what he presumed Catholic kids should be hearing. The occasion was what he assumed was going to be an innocuous Robert Mitchum war movie, “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison”. He was right about its being innocuous—except that he decided as we went home that the film’s central situation of a soldier and a nun being stranded together in a cave on a Japanese-held island required further explication. So he explained and explained and explained, along the lines of “Deborah Kerr isn’t a real nun, just an actress” and “Soldiers don’t think of nuns as real women, they think of them as female altar boys with a job to do.” By the time I arrived home I was resolved to return to the movie house the following weekend to see what I had missed. (Many years later, I told this story to John Huston, the director of “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison”, and his response was: “Lad, the thought of anyone sitting through that twice is terrifying. You would’ve been better off listening to your uncle.”)

Although he never delivered on a cushy job in the loft as Johnny Friendly did for Terry Malloy in “On the Waterfront”, Uncle Ralph did have a fondness for folding bills (singles) into the shirt pockets of his nephews after we had entertained him around the pool table at his Scandinavian social club. “Go buy yourself a soda and let the old man play with the other old men” was his version of a kiss-off. But nowhere did his benevolence come off as self-satisfied power more starkly than with the money game.
The money game belonged to our family holidays as much as Santa Claus did to Christmas and the Easter Rabbit to Easter. The first ingredient was Uncle Ralph shaking all the change in his pants pockets whenever he was called upon to move from Point A to Point B. The second ingredient was a pack of nagging kids begging him to play the money game—a chorus of charming innocence that, as the hours went on and Ralph pleaded for four or five more beers first, reached lynch mob timbre. Finally, with the other adults present also entreating him to get it over with, he gathered all the kids in one of the bedrooms and explained the rules. The most important of these was that anyone who threw a punch or gouged an eye would be immediately expelled from the bedroom.
As soon as that was on the record, he reached into both pants pockets and came out with more nickels, dimes, and quarters than all the parking meters in the neighborhood could accommodate. Up they all went into the air, over beds and bureaus and nephews, and the scramble was on. The chaos might not have had the same religious significance as when the Greeks dove off the Sheepshead Bay piers every year for an Orthodox cross, but the theological principle was the same—grab first. And through it all Uncle Johnny Friendly stood with a beatific smile, watching out for any foul blows but mostly handicapping the winner to himself.

We talked about the money game the last time we saw each other. I was about to leave on a trip to Europe and he was in bed with little more stomach to surrender and few days remaining on his calendar. He joked that the game had been his opportunity really to do what Aunt Mary said he had always been expert at doing—throwing his money away. But forget about that; did I think I would get to Norway while I was in Europe? I told him I didn’t think so, but at least I was crossing the Atlantic to France on a Norwegian freighter. He tried to look like that was close enough.

I decided it wasn’t. So I took the freighter to Bergen.

Donald Dewey has published 31 books of fiction, nonfiction, and drama, including widely translated biographies of James Stewart and Marcello Mastroianni, and a history of American political cartooning, The Art of Ill Will. His two latest books were published in June—a biography of the trainer Ray Atcel (Ray Arcel—A Boxing Biography) and the novel Wake Up and Smell the Bees.

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