July 7, 2013

He was a larger than life character on so many levels.


            My dad passed away earlier this month after Amiodarone, a drug he was told to take for a mild heart arrhythmia, left him with a case of pulmonary fibrosis that completely destroyed his lungs. We were told it was “a rare side effect.” I don’t care to focus on those final days, though. He was a great and happy bear of a man with a booming voice, as vibrant a human being, as vital and charismatic and funny and energetic a character as you’d ever care to meet. Although in that way we were very different, he was a hero of mine and a man I loved deeply. After he died my sister Mary and I wrote the newspaper obituary, but were constrained by formatting and stylistic issues, and it was decided that some of the funnier parts should be left out, as they wouldn’t make much sense to anyone who didn’t know him.

            That’s the thing—no one who ever met my dad soon forgot him, if they ever did. He was someone who left thousands of stories behind. Everyone at the funeral, and there were hundreds, had a George story to tell, most of them funny as hell. He loved a good prank and had a taste for the absurd. When he yelled at me for doing something stupid when I was a kid and I started pouting about the unfairness of it all, he had a way of turning the scene on its head, having me laughing at the whole situation five minutes later. Funny thing is, for all the stories people do and will tell about him, he was a man who rarely talked about himself. He’d talk about his day, share his myriad opinions on every damn thing without hesitation, but whenever I asked him a direct question—about his childhood on the farm or his time in Vietnam, say—more often than not he’d change the subject. I never understood that. But maybe it’s somehow connected to something else.

            My memories of my dad are far too numerous to ever fit into a column, or even a book. Over the past couple of weeks though, as I find myself thinking about him, one facet of his personality always comes to the forefront, and it’s one that goes to illustrate just how rare an individual he really was.

            Watching him as I grew up, experiencing him both as my dad and as someone interacting with the rest of the world, I saw something in him that I’ve seen in very few (if any) people since.

            See, my dad knew everyone in town. He knew cops and firemen (who would often pull into the driveway just to say hey and worry the neighbors). He knew the mayor. He knew rich people and the homeless, ex-cons and soldiers and the kids in the neighborhood. He knew gas station attendants and federal judges and old Greek candy makers. He knew preachers, the guys who set up the wrestling matches at the local arena and the guy who tore tickets at the Marc Theater. He knew professors, professional football players, local TV and radio personalities, and people with special needs. He even knew Boxcar Willie. Wherever we went, it was inevitable that we’d run into someone who knew my dad.

            Part of this was the result of his twenty-three years in the Air Force, the last ten of which he spent as a recruiter, part of it came from his twenty years as the security and maintenance supervisor at a massive shopping mall, but most of it was simply the result of his personality. Every one of these people, even if they were opposed to everything he believed in (as I was when I was in my teens) adored the guy. It took me years to figure this out, but I think I finally have the key.

            He was called by a variety of names—George, Bud, Sarge, Colonel, Papa G, just plain Papa, Dad—but whatever he was called and wherever he was, be it a church or a restaurant or the kitchen table, he was always the same man. The same George Knipfel who was talking to a millionaire or a politician or a cop was the same George Knipfel who was talking to a bum camped out on a bench or the kids from up the street or my sister and me. I remember once walking through Center City Philadelphia when he and my mom had come for a visit. Now, Philly was a badass town at the time, far worse than New York could ever hope to be, so I was a little worried. At one point a bum approached my dad with his hand out, and what did Dad do? He shook the guy’s hand and introduced himself.

            He neither talked up to people nor down to them, whoever they were. He never took on different personalities in different situations. It never occurred to him to do any such thing. He never put on any of the countless masks the rest of us wear all day long. It wasn’t arrogance, but he was confident enough in himself and who he was that it simply wasn’t necessary. He treated everyone he met in the same straightforward, happy bear way of his, offering strangers the same respect he offered everyone else until they gave him reason to do otherwise. And if you didn’t offer him the same respect he offered you, well son you better watch out. (Very few people found that out, and those who did generally deserved it.) He was who he was at work and at home, and maybe that’s why he wouldn’t talk about himself much—he simply didn’t feel he had anything to prove to anyone.

            How many of us can claim we encounter the world every day with that kind of attitude and no masks? He was a remarkable man, and if ever I find the strength to be half the person he was, I’ll be very proud.

            For it all, though, he did keep one mask in reserve for his family’s sake. He never wanted us to worry about him. Not me or Mary, not his granddaughters, and not his wife of fifty-six years. So over the course of this last year as his lungs were failing, he never let us know just how hard he was struggling and how bad things were getting. Even my mom who took care of him every day didn’t know how bad it was. It was his one bit of deception. The last time I spoke with him in the hospital, the day before they put him on the ventilator, he said “Do I sound good to you?” And of course he did, his baritone as strong as ever. I responded “Yeah, but Dad you ALWAYS sound good.”

            Ever since I was very young he’d been King Kong to me. He’d introduced me to the film when I was five or six, and the parallels I saw in him then continued to the end. When I spoke to him that last time in the hospital he was like Kong in the film’s final moments. Even with the planes diving and the bullets hitting home again and again he continued trying to stand to his full height, to prove he wasn’t hurting, and he kept swinging until he simply couldn’t swing any more.


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