Norman, 5-foot -7¾ and broken nose from playing football for the Wolverines in 1938. Slight scent of Williams “Lectric Shave.” Like so many in the greatest generation, he came back from the Second World War, dream deferred.
Norman is Off-Ramp commentator Hank Rosenfeld's dad, who would have turned 99 this August. He died about five years ago... but not before Hank made sure to record a bunch of conversations with him back home in Michigan.
Norman joined the family business helping his father sell shoes … at Sibley’s, the spot for Florsheim Shoes in Michigan. But Hank wonders what might have been ... if his dad had followed his dream of becoming a radio announcer. That's the dream that Hank followed.
Listen to Hank's piece in the audio player... a meditation on dreams, careers, sports, radio, growing up ... and driving.
Driving With Dad
There's an old joke about the 89-year-old widower who decides to get married again. His friends all ask him, “Why would you want to do that? Can she cook?”
Does she sew?
Does she keep house?
Then why get married again?
“Because idiot, she drives at night.”
This story is about my father near the end of his life, but let’s start with a couple of folks who have their whole lives ahead of them: my two nephews in Detroit, Ben and Harrison. “Benjamin Harrison," funny, right?
Ben is my 13-year-old nephew, and his brother Harrison is 9 and they are both baseball players...
"Harrison, who are you playing?"
"Are ya nervous?"
"Last game I played pitcher 3 innings, shortstop 2 innings and first base one inning. I think. Wait! No. First base two innings."
For some reason Harrison has a question for me about radio…
"Uncle Hank, why is NPR so serious?"
"Who ya talking about?"
"NPR. I think they’re too serious."
"Well, maybe you could lend some humor."
"Do you have a joke or something we could put on the air?"
"Um, why did the chicken cross the road?
"I dunno. Why?"
"To listen to NPR! Ha!"
Cute kids. So now I'm with my dad, Norman, five-foot-seven-and-three-quarters, broken nose from playing football for the Wolverines in 1938, slight scent of Williams “Lectric Shave.” We’re on our way in the big Cadillac Seville to watch his grandchildren play ball. Here’s what I always liked hearing my father go on about:
"Dad," I asked him as we rolled along. "Didn’t you start as a broadcaster?"
"Yes at U of M, I took classes in broadcasting. There was a man in charge, Waldo Abbot; he was a terrific guy and at one time a professional announcer. He had a great voice. And I announced on WJR Detroit."
"WJR Detroit? 'The Great Voice of the Great Lakes'?"
"Yeah it was," he went on in his very easy going manner. "Anyway, to answer your questio. The war came along and even though Mr. Abbot told me I could get a job perhaps in –
"Watch out! Better Stop!" I said, as he went rolling through a Stop sign.
"-- Grand Rapids, Michigan, but right after graduating in 1941, a few months later I was in the army fighting, helping to fight World War 2."
Pretty good radio voice. But like so many in the greatest generation, he came back from the Second World War, dream deferred. He joined the family business helping his father sell shoes, at "Sibley’s." “I’ll See YOU at Sibley’s,” is how their radio spots went. Anyway, ever since, I wake up and thank God for my grandfather’s feet.
And I wonder if I went into radio because of my father?
"So what kinda programs did you get on the air," I asked him. "Sports, news or what?"
"Well, I remember one I liked the best," he said smiling. "It was called 'The Cask of Amontillado.' By Edgar Allen Poe. Maybe you remember that? About a man who did something bad and thought he got away with it and he was punished for it in a very ghastly manner."
"WATCH OUT STOP!" I shouted.
"I had my foot on the break." Calm as a cucumber.
"So are you gonna take the 696 here past the Detroit Zoo?"
"No," he said. But then he laughed. "I missed Lincoln. Like I miss all the roads. Don’t you admit, it’s an adventure driving with me?"
"Yeah but I’m afraid you’re gonna go off the road someday. I really worry about you..."
And there’s nothing you can do about it. Not a thing. Well maybe take away his keys. But in the Motor City? Driving is a rite of passage!
"So Dad, tell us the rest of the places you’ve made wrong turns today."
"I can’t really tell you, " he replied. "If I knew that I wouldn’t have made the bad turns."
That made me laugh. "Of course I had my son Hank with me in the car, and he was of no help whatsoever."
I laughed again.
I been in my father’s car like forever. I’d go visit shoe stores with him on weekends in his Plymouth Fury. Then in his low-slung T-bird, a ’66 model, black and so cool the taillights flash flash flashed in the direction you turned. “Sequential signals," they were called. You don’t see much of that anymore. Then there was his Buick LeSabre; you don’t see any of them anymore.
Okay here’s some fun I recall: my dad behind the wheel of my mother’s Mercury Colony Park –with the fake wood paneling--and we motor four hours “up north.” And when we’d get to the motel, my Mom and my sisters would head right to the room. But my brother and I stayed in the car to catch the end of the Tigers game. My Dad had tuned in WJR 760, 50-thousand watts from Detroit and able to reach the gravel parking lots by Grand Traverse Bay.
In fact, my father was friends with Tigers great play-by-play man, Ernie Harwell. I can still hear Ernie on the radio all those nights... “And this big crowd is ready to break loose. Three men on, two men down for the Tigers in the ninth..."
Sometimes I could get my father to do a little play-by-play:
"So it's a summer night in Detroit," I said from my passenger seat of the Seville.
"Whoops," my father said. "I missed the road there..."
I stuck my head out of the window and announced to anybody listening, "That’s the voice of the old announcer!"
And sure enough, he turned on his radio voice: "So we’re anticipating...it’s a beautiful night here in Detroit. There’s not a cloud in the sky. They’ve been looking for some nice weather around here, and they finally got it!"
"Watch out!" I interrupted. "There’s a guy coming."
My dad seemed rather unperturbed. "It's either a right or a left here, I think it’s a left," he said.
"Bacon is to the right."
"I will find it!" he said confidently. "I am not the least bit worried. I just missed the turn there…"
One night we were driving on 8 Mile Road, way east of Woodward, and my father just froze for some reason, right on some railroad tracks. For some reason he had thrown it into Neutral and we were just stuck there. We saw the lights of a train coming and his four kids started screaming in the back seat, and my mother, his wife Dulcie was slamming her hand into the leatherette up front going, “Norman! Norman!”
Finally, he was able to lurch the car forward off the tracks and we made it safely to Shakey’s for dinner.
"Dad," I asked as we continued to look for the ball fields. "Did you see that movie '8 Mile' about Eminem?"
"No, we didn’t see that."
"You’d like it."
"Well if you think we’d like it," he replied. "Maybe we’ll catch it on TV one of these days."
"Oh yeah," I said. "It has some great stuff about Detroit."
What can I say? I’m a booster I’m a builder. Finally we got there.
"Which game should I watch," I asked him. "Ben or Harrison's?"
"Well naturally, the older players are more skilled."
He was always schooling me. And he would have been 98 this August. My father died in 2014. I think in recalling this story: I did go into the family business. Just not the one my father did, eventually.
You know, it’s not strange hearing his voice, more like it’s Reassuring – one of the beauties of radio, hearing that reassuring voice.
One of my dad’s favorite admonishments was, “Did I ever steer you wrong?” No Dad, you always knew what was the right thing to do, even if you did have a difficult time sometimes making a left…