Paul Harvey, 1918-2009

March 2nd, 2009 by Phil Leave a reply »

I don’t remember a whole lot of what happened in my life before about age 4. And shortly after I turned 11, my grandfather passed away. So there was this period of time, from when I was about 4 until I was 10, and every summer, seemingly every summer weekday, I was at my grandparents’ house on 4th Street in Rockford.

There are so many crystal details about that house: the pear tree and the mostly unused garage in the back yard, the weird siding that I remember as being red and black but which might have been two shades of brown, an endless string of baseball games with my cousin Charlie (but he was 3 1/2 years younger than me, so this was when I was a little older, when I was younger it was usually just me there.) And inside: the unfinished basement with the exercise bike in it, the seemingly huge master bedroom, the office with my grandmother’s typewriter and one of the two air conditioners and the bed in the corner next to the brown painted wooden stand that had the little color TV and the TI 99/4A on it, the source of so many hours of Parsec or Alpiner or Munch Man or even stranger things, like when I thought it was fun to play with the Personal Record Keeping cartridge. The yellow bathroom with the rope plant holder and the scale in it.

And on the main floor, the window-surrounded front porch, the slightly sloping back porch, both seemingly always cluttered. And the living room, with my grandfather’s long couch, which he built and upholstered himself, and the long coffee table with the flat square pillow for his feet, and recliner, and the two newspapers he would read, the Rockford Register Star and the Chicago Sun-Times, and the massive TV in the corner which must have weighed at least 100 pounds, and so many nights on the floor in front of the TV with so many Legos, and my grandmother’s bell collection on the landing of the stairs, two stairs up from the living room floor, right where the downstairs air conditioner was. The dining room adjoined the living room but we only dined in there on holidays; it had the china cabinet which was used as a bookshelf and which had the huge two-volume unabridged dictionary from which I learned that there were other Roman Numerals like B and O that nobody knows about and which I’ve never been able to prove since; and the piano which I could never play anything on except once I learned how to play “Silent Night”; and the stereo, which was one of those furniture-console-stereo things, with a turntable inside, you had to pull a door across to get to it; and on the wall above the little desk with the stamps were the high school graduation photos of my uncle and my aunt and my dad, who looked like he had reddish hair then, which never made sense to me; and in the corner of that room, right by the door to the kitchen, the broad dehumidifier.

But the real heart of the house was the kitchen.

The walls were painted two colors, in horizontal bands, some faded yellow and some burnt orange, colors which wouldn’t be permitted in the 21st Century. A little shelf on the wall by the door had the phone – 963-0261 was the number, which I can remember for a couple of reasons, one of them being that every part of the number was divisible by 9, and of course so too was the whole number, just like my home phone number, which was 963-3969. The table was one of those you could put a leaf in, but I don’t think we did that too often. That was the table at which my grandfather would count change and one dollar bills from the machines at the laundry. The table was brown, and its long dimension reached from the wall to within about four feet of the refrigerator, which I remember always being full of things, but I especially remember the pop from Jewel, because my grandmother only shopped at the Jewel on East State Street which later become a Magna and which was so close to Insurance Liquidators, and I remember the Lemon Lime and I remember the Root Beer and I even remember the Red Pop and I remember the nasty diet that has the saccharin in it but only my grandmother drank that so it was okay, and I remember that there was always a 2 Liter of RC in the fridge as well but that was for my grandfather, and I remember once when I was little my grandmother poured some RC and it spilled twice and for a week I thought that 2 liters meant 2 spills, and I also remember that refrigerator always having Parkay in it, and the Red Raspberry Preserves from Jewel because that’s what I ate with my peanut butter, but my grandfather didn’t eat the Red Raspberry Preserves, he ate the Apricot Jelly with his toast. And to the left of the refrigerator was the countertop which was in an L which went around and ended at the shiny brown stove. The countertop had a little food processor on it and I remember my grandmother making bread crumbs with that food processor. There were cabinets there, too, and above the countertop was the cabinet where Fruit Roll-Ups could be found, and also the cabinet where marshmallows could be found, though they weren’t the same cabinet, because the Fruit Roll-Ups were in the same cabinet as the cereal, and the marshmallows were with the things used in cooking.

If you went the other way, to the right of the refrigerator, that’s the little hallway with the door to the basement, and the bathroom off the kitchen which was just a toilet and a sink, and on to the back porch. It’s to the right of that little hallway, on the fourth wall of the kitchen, where there was the other countertop, but that wasn’t used for food. The table went up close to that countertop so you didn’t usually get back into the stuff in the far right corner or the cabinets above or below. I don’t even really remember what was in those. But on the left hand side, that bottom cabinet was the one where the peanut butter was kept, and also the Nestle Quik, my favorite being the strawberry, and the drawer right above that cabinet was the magical drawer, because it was the one that had things like old lighters in it and batteries and the battery tester and all sorts of other things that were always so fascinating to me. And I’m sure there were other things on that countertop too, it wasn’t a deep countertop I don’t think, the cupboards weren’t deep either, but all I remember being on that countertop was one thing, and that was the radio.

This was the mid-1980s of course so this was no digital radio. It could get FM, I think, but why would anybody need FM? The only other thing besides WROK that anybody might ever want to listed to was that station out of Wisconsin which broadcast the Brewers games and I didn’t even change to that that often. Most of the time it was just on WROK. I remember some of the personalities on WROK, like Dan & Doug, and Riley O’Neill, and of course WROK was what was played at the laundry too, and I remember how WROK used to play music too not just news and so forth, because I remember hearing “Come Together” at the laundry and wondering what that “ssssSSHHHkmmm” sound was. But of course you didn’t listen to WROK for all that, not that you didn’t listen to that, but that wasn’t really the main point. Lunch was the main point.

Kishwaukee Coin Laundry was on Kishwaukee St. between 15th Ave. and Broadway. Before they tore the original one down, they being the State of Illinois, the laundry went pretty much up to the sidewalk on Kishwaukee, and went back a long way, it was a long and sort of thin building, and the parking lot was there along side, and toward the back of the parking lot was where the back door was, which was the door my grandfather and grandmother went through. They drove to the laundry, even though it was no more than three blocks from the house on 4th Street. I remember going in the mornings with my grandmother and there would be cleaning going on and I would get a little money to wipe down the tops of the Maytags and also the insides but we weren’t there all day, just in the mornings. She had a Mercury Zephyr which was this darker shade of red and then had one of those soft tops which was white. My grandfather had a Mercury Bobcat the color of rust. The Bobcat was the Mercury version of the Pinto, which meant it was the fancy version of the Pinto, which I would later mean meant that it had an extra layer of rust-resistance maybe which would keep the car from rusting out before it would get side-swiped and burst into flames, not that my grandfather’s car ever did that, since he almost never drove it more than the three blocks between work and home. I actually only remember him ever driving anywhere else twice in my whole life. Once I went with him to pick up some soap. And one time he picked me up at home when I lived on 9th Avenue.

So the thing was that he had this Bobcat and he drove to work in the morning and he would work on machines and fill the RC machine and so forth and I remember helping fill the candy machine which was also the chips machine and also the cigarette machine and my grandparents both smoked Old Golds and their packs of Old Golds were in the drawer in the kitchen just to the left of the refrigerator and I remember how Old Golds sold a lot but also Newports and Viceroys and especially Marlboros. And my grandfather, as I recall, smoked something like three packs a day of those Old Golds. And so the kitchen would always be full of cigarette smoke. It’s just the way it was.

And he drove to work in the morning, but he always drove home at lunch, and then drove back to work after lunch, and drove home again at the end of the workday. And lunch was a very prompt affair. And I don’t remember ever having anything for lunch except peanut butter and jelly. I remember him counting the money at the table and he had this wild hand-made coin sorting contraption made of wood and wire and the idea was you could drop the coins in there and shake it and the quarters would stay on the top level but the dimes would fall to the bottom and I’ll be darned if I can remember what happened to the nickels and of course there were no pennies because the only machine which took pennies was the gumball machine and since those were all pennies you didn’t need to sort those. And when he counted the dollar bills I would sit there with him and if he found a star dollar I would get to keep it. The star dollar was the one where the last character in the serial number was a star which told you it was the first in the series or something like that. I remember learning where the federal reserve banks were and how most of the dollars that came in had a G on them for the Chicago federal reserve bank. Now if he found two star dollars, I only got one, because the rule was, “one to a customer!”

So lunch was often me and my grandmother and my grandfather at the kitchen table with the Old Golds and the peanut butter and jelly and maybe the money though I think the money was more of an afternoon thing and of course the radio which was always on WROK and of course since it was lunch it was noon and since it was noon and since WROK was on that meant the other person in the room with us for lunch was Paul Harvey.

Paul Harvey was of course an old and wise man. Everyone knew this because only an old and wise man could talk like that. Paul Harvey of course provided not just news but also commentary, and yet it seemed to me like everything was pretty much just news, the only commentary really being if the tone of his voice would change to demonstrate amusement. And then of course when he would say Page 2 or Page 3 then it would still be Paul Harvey talking but he was telling us about an important product, which I suppose must have been a denture adhesive, I know many years later he talked a lot about steel buildings and about some sort of dietary supplement, but back in the 80s I think it was about denture adhesives mostly. And I knew denture adhesives were important because they had a lot of commercials for denture adhesives during The Price Is Right and my grandparents both had dentures and eventually everyone gets dentures just like they get glasses and tubes in their ears.

Paul Harvey was the midpoint of the day but he was more than that because the day was literally constructed around him. My grandfather couldn’t lunch at 12:30 because that’s not when Paul Harvey was on. And of course Paul Harvey brought some balance in other ways, too, because he kept you informed about what was going on and I remember that although my grandfather watched the nightly news, it just seemed like they were showing pictures of things Paul Harvey had already talked about, and really you could know everything there was to know about was going on from the sports section of the Register Star and the funnies and from Paul Harvey, except that you didn’t really learn anything about Poland that way.

Now of course Paul Harvey was on multiple times a day, but I only remember lunch and late afternoon when The Rest Of The Story was on, and I think that my grandfather listened to The Rest Of The Story, but since that wasn’t lunchtime there was probably a good chance that I was playing baseball instead.

A little over an hour ago I saw Owen’s status on Facebook and knew from it that Paul Harvey had died. I went to and verified it. There was a picture of Paul Harvey there and then I went to Paul Harvey’s web site and there were some more pictures there and I thought that that didn’t look like the Paul Harvey I remembered, and then it occurred to me, that’s because I didn’t know what Paul Harvey looked like when I was young. I’m 32 now, and I don’t remember ever before in my life having seen a picture of Paul Harvey until an hour ago. The pictures of Paul Harvey in my head in the early to mid 1980s was of an old man with a thin head and short hair. I think I realize now that when I thought of what Paul Harvey must look like, what came to my mind is what my grandfather would have to look like if he could talk like that.

My grandfather died in 1987. He had throat cancer. He was only 57. The combination of three packs a day of Old Golds and the chemicals he worked around at the laundromats for so many years are what did him in. Sure, there’s no way to conclusively prove that. I don’t need conclusive proof when I know that cigarettes killed him.

When my grandfather died my uncle took over for him at the laundry. My uncle bought a duplex on 9th Street the next year and my grandmother moved into one side of it. My dad remarried three months after my grandfather died and we were living in Winnebago then and so although I was over there a lot I wasn’t at my grandmother’s every day during the summer and lunch was more irregular and I’m sure we still heard Paul Harvey sometimes but I don’t have any real recollection of that. My grandmother died in 1993, five days after her 60th birthday. Yeah, at the end, she had diabetes and heart problems and who knows what else. I know that the cigarettes killed her too. That’s what they do.

Many years later when I was living in Normal and I started listening to WJBC during the day I would hear Paul Harvey again. It was all a bit odd because there’d be local promos for Paul Harvey which sampled from that “I feel like busting loose” song which didn’t make much sense because why would a talk radio station have a spot sampling from a song like that anyway? I think I got fed up with WJBC when they fired Keith Gottschalk and I guess that was five or so years ago now so it’s probably been about five years since I’ve heard Paul Harvey.

Outside of my own family, and I guess teachers and classmates, there was this six or so year period of my life where I think the three people who were most omnipresent in daily life were Paul Harvey and Bob Barker and maybe Harry Caray. Harry of course was the voice of sports. Bob Barker was, for better or for worse, and almost certainly mostly for worse, my economics teacher through the first third of my life. But Paul Harvey was the news, the straight and narrow, steady, dependable, reliable, clockwork. That means, of course, that he was the outside world’s manifestation of my own grandfather.

Grandpa’s been gone for over 21 years. I think that I’m not being unrealistic in saying that it’s been that long since I’ve felt that sense of stability and continuity of everyday life that he embodied. It’s not that I feel like I could live that kind of life and be satisfied with it, because I know that when I pound myself into real routine like that I get edgy, edgier than usual, and I just start to wear down. But I still miss the feeling of stability, the assurance of personal order, the predictability of certain things. Paul Harvey’s passing makes me think of my grandfather’s passing. It makes me think about what was different after he was gone, and therefore what existed when he was still there, and what that meant to me, and how that became part of me. I’ve told many people over time about my grandfather’s hermit lifestyle, about the short drives to work, but I don’t think I’ve ever really explored how when he died it marked such a thorough break in continuity for me, right at a point in time where so many other things were going to change too.

Sure, many years later I would hear about how Paul Harvey was some sort of right-wing conservative or whatever. And I realize that whatever he was, that manifested itself not only in what he reported but just in his demeanor. I don’t challenge or reject that demeanor, though. I know that it’s part of me on some level. Obviously it’s not that Paul Harvey made me who I am. But Paul Harvey was definitely a strand in the weave of my childhood, and it’s a strand I still struggle with a great deal, because so much of what my grandfather was and meant is so much at odds with other aspects of who I am now. I fight the hermit, I embrace the hermit, and I have internal wars with the hermit. I fight order and routine. I long for order and routine. Grandpa was such a very good man, who was always right and always fair and so respectable and such a role model and I can’t think of a finer man I have never known and I will be damned if I want to be like him and what the hell can it possibly mean for me to think that, all of that?

Just today I was talking to Anna about what it meant to feel at home. Well, I can’t think of anywhere in the world that feels more like home to me than my grandparents’ kitchen at noon on a summer day, peanut butter and jelly, cigarette smoke, and Paul Harvey. And I can’t think of any other place in the whole world I would rather be.


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