Gift sends memory rolling down the track Christmas: A toy from youth brings story of a family holiday full circle.

December 25, 1998|By Dan Rodricks | Dan Rodricks,SUN STAFF

Twelve days ago, a stranger with a kind face, an old man in topcoat and hat, handed me a gift. It was a rectangular box, roughly the size of a carton of cigarettes, wrapped handsomely and neatly in holiday paper. "Please, open it," he said, and I carefully pulled away the wrapping. When I saw the markings on the box, and understood its contents, I dissolved instantly into a quivering mound of sobs, crying as I had not cried since the day my father died.

Midst the two worst things that ever happened to my family when I was a kid, the president of the United States was assassinated. I don't mean to suggest that my family felt the pain in some unique way; the whole world seemed to sag under the weight of John F. Kennedy's death on Nov. 22, 1963. It's that now, looking at the event in the intimate context of my family's experience, I can finally appreciate how my parents must have felt at the time, with JFK's death coming in the middle of the mess. Going into the Christmas season that year, my parents must have felt overwhelmed, perhaps defeated, most likely depressed.

Consider that just a month before Dallas, my father's business had burned to the ground.

Joe Rodricks, a muscular Portuguese immigrant, had gone into a foundry venture with four Italian-American friends who lived in southeastern Massachusetts. Each of the guys had worked in various iron works and mills. My father had taken a job in a small-town foundry when he was only 14, after his own father died of pneumonia. He never finished school. Making things from cast iron -- machine parts, some ornamental stuff -- was what Joe Rodricks knew.

In 1949, he and his partners had pooled their savings and borrowed some money to buy the small foundry near Woonsocket, R.I. My father, 38 years old at the time, was listed as the Cumberland Foundry "president," but no one ever had a more overstated title; he spent his days in dirty khakis and steel-toed boots, sweating with the rest of the men, his lungs filled with fumes, his hair and skin coated with the blackish dust that settled, like dry fog, on everyone and everything.

The foundry had about 30 employees, mostly of Italian, Portuguese or French-Canadian ancestry. They had a modest profit- sharing plan, which produced, at Christmas, a modest bonus for each man. But then came that fire, in October 1963.

The phone rang in my house a few hours before dawn. Something about a propane leak. My father slid into his Chrysler and, with Uncle Ralph, his business partner and my godfather, roared off into the darkness.

When he returned home after the longest day of his life, my father was silent. His only words were, "No more foundry," uttered in a quivering voice as he disappeared into a bedroom. That was the first time I ever saw Joe Rodricks appear to cry.

The following Sunday, he drove my mother, my little brother and me to the foundry. He did not speak a word but chained-smoked his filterless Pall Malls, holding the lighted tip by the vent window of the Chrysler as he drove.

When we turned the last corner, the foundry appeared. It was a junkyard -- tin roofing and twisted steel girders already orange with a rusty film, charred wheelbarrows and steel drums, the scorched carcasses of machinery. Nothing was salvageable. I remember running around the place, looking for stuff to loot and to play with, and being scolded for doing so. I was 9, my brother Eddie 7. We couldn't fully grasp what had just happened to our family, and particularly to my father.

Later, when I could better understand, I learned that the foundry was not insured. If my father and his partners were to revive the dream of running their own business, they would have to raise money themselves. That was going to take time.

No money, no savings

In the meantime, there was no income. Nothing. Another deceiving thing about my father's corporate title was the "president" of the Cumberland Foundry never made much money. He took home enough for mortgage and car payments, to keep us fed and clothed, to treat himself to a six-pack of Knickerbocker and a few strings of 10-pin every week. He didn't save money. He certainly hadn't had enough to send my older brother to college. The foundry was a small, hard-sweat business that provided minimal reward to its owners. My father once said that some of his employees, molders who were paid on a per-job basis, took home more pay than he did.

When the foundry went, so did the income.

And then, in early December, my father went into the hospital -- diagnosed with emphysema, 35 years of foundry fumes and cigarette smoke choking his lungs. He was hospitalized in Boston for several weeks. I thought he was going to die.

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