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One of my earliest memories of Grandpa begins with us driving to the Monmouth Park Racetrack. We sure did love to go to the track and root for Julie Krone or one of our other favorite jockeys. He loved challenges, and he especially loved the challenge of picking the ponies. He would read the race programs in the Asbury Park Press and usually pre-pick most of the day's favorite horses before ever leaving the house. Still, on arrival, we always bought the program and maybe a race sheet or two before entering the track grandstand. After picking up a couple of seats right around the finish line or maybe a little past it, back to figuring he'd go. As he went, grandpa would always point out the horses that had won recently or looked like they were due. "I have a feeling about this one" he'd say.
We were always there in time for the first race and even the "correction call" that came over the speakers with changes to the program; He'd make each and every one of the changes to our program; Scratch #3 and #7, add two pounds to #5 and note #9 is on Lacix. Then a trip to the men's room of course, to drop a quarter in the dish and see what the picks sheet the janitor kept had to say.
And after all of that, as if he ever had any luck picking just 1 horse, he always had to have two or more in any race. Of course, he never did win very much and never hit the big trifecta that none of us ever do. That didn't change how much he loved to go or the fun we had when we were there; rooting all the way to the finish, standing and shaking our programs at the horses and their jockeys on the last leg. After most races he'd say "2, 5. Do you see that? I looked at that stupid 5 horse and changed my mind" ... And while he may have won more often with just 1 horse, I know it was the challenge he loved... not the winning.
Of course, I wouldn't be doing him any justice if I didn't mention his collection of hats from the big stakes, yearly race known as the Haskell. Dating back to the mid-eighties, it is the largest collection known to exist.
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But back to my memory. I was in third grade. He and I were driving to the track and we were talking. He had just quit smoking those Kools for the final time after who knows how many years... he was telling me how hard it was to stop doing something you've done as a habit for such a long time; "you have no idea" he said. And no, I really didn't. Of course, in my mind, I remember wanting to say "I've always pulled my socks all the way up, no matter how big they were but it's just not cool to do that with shorts on, so I had to stop." The point of my thought was to tell him that I was sure it was very hard and I was proud of him for quitting. I never said either of the things, but I think he knew; after all, it was a challenge.
Racing wasn't the only sport he loved. Ask him a question about baseball and he would know the answer. As recently as last week, he could be found watching the play by play games broadcast over the internet. He wasn't challenged watching just one game like most people; nope, he had to be watching two or three games at a time.
Few kids had the fortune of growing up with a Grandpa who was as big a kid as him. His basement was a big playground of trains. He didn't have just a board with a train that went around and around. No, by the time he and Grandma moved to Florida, his train layout had more scaled square miles than the town where I live now has real ones. There were tunnels, mountains, valleys, bridges, and even fake waterfalls. There were curves you had to go slow around and some fast run straight aways. There was a railroad station with a full fledged turn table that the trains could get on and use to spin to the right track. It had grown from a small corner of the basement to taking up both of the rooms they had down there.
We went to the hobby shop together from time to time to buy parts and supplies. He always knew how much he had paid 10 years earlier for each of the pieces and parts. From the house, office and warehouse building models that he assembled himself, by hand, to the street lights he went so far as to wire up so they'd light up the town in the dark, to the little people figurines and the match box cars they would have driven if they could (and I always figured when we left, they did), to all of the railroad boxcars and engines. "This used to be a nickel" he'd say ... and "this was a quarter ... and now it's $2 dollars."
The switch board for the railroad rivaled most modern Amtrak control centers. I think there was enough wire in the main switch board to circle the earth at least 10 times; and wouldn't you know he knew what everyone of those wires did and where it went. I think one of his favorite phrases to use in that basement was "there must be a short". There weren't many times it all worked as planned or there wasn't another addition in the middle of completion, but he wouldn't have had it any other way. He really loved the challenge.
He had every tool in the world. I remember when I was younger, he used to say "these will all be yours one day"; not being the most adept with tools myself, I was always quick to point out that I was in no rush to own them ... or for him to go.
I almost always left Grandpa's house with something I made. It was usually made from popsicle sticks or Styrofoam containers. He constantly challenged my creativity and imagination.
The computer was a natural evolution from his train hobby of the past. He got going with it right around the time I was getting ready to drop out of college to start an internet company. In fact, he and Grandma were at the dinner when I dropped the "bomb" on my parents that I was seriously considering starting one. Of course, at this point, I was supposed to be able to get it going and handle college all at the same time. Ha ha.
This was in July of 1995 and fortunately for me, he was watching the stocks of Microsoft and the like start to head upwards and, even at his age, saw the power and potential of the computer and the still infantile internet. I spent the next few years trying to convince most people half his age that the internet had even the smallest use to their business. His realizations were definitely ahead of his age and right on. While it may have lost some luster recently, most of us, especially him, couldn't imagine not using a computer and the internet. He always encouraged me to become the next Bill Gates.
Grandpa told me he loved the way fiddling with the computer could keep his mind active. He caught onto the computer very quickly; it was the perfect challenge for him. In the beginning I was able to keep up with him. While my company was small, I had to know how to do a whole lot of toying with the computers and Microsoft Windows. We'd chat about how many megs of drive space, gigs of ram and processor speed our newest computer had. My friends in college were competing with each other over who had the biggest, fastest, best computer... meanwhile I was usually losing to my grandfather! Of the two of us, he was always the one to ask about new software; I'm sure he was one of the first to use each new windows upgrade that came out.
As my company grew, I had less fiddling time and it wasn't long before he was talking about software and hardware that I hadn't even heard of. Most of the conversations were beyond the scope of what I had done, but I knew how much he liked to talk about it with me, so I'd yes and no most of my way through it.
His computer area in their Florida apartment grew and grew. When we were last there, SMs and I both agreed his CD software library rivaled most of corporate America. He knew where everything was in it; the most organized computer area I've ever seen. With 20 rows and 10 columns, he could still point to a specific CD in an instant... he was like a walking Excel sheet.
And the stock market. One of his favorite uses of the computer was watching those mutual funds of his; another challenge, another puzzle that he enjoyed. He's kept excel sheets and data for years of all the ups and downs that they took. After I sold my company in 1999, he was so extremely excited when I asked him to pick a few mutual funds to put some of the money into. He picked from Vanguard's group and sent me the brochures for about 5 final choices... of which I chose three.
The past year or so wasn't so good. When we talked the last few times, he talked about regrets and some things he would have done differently. He wanted a horse farm filled with race horses... winning ones to be exact. But it was too late in life for that and he knew it. I think what made him so upset about his regrets was his realization that those were just challenges that he never took. And that made him sad. Grandpa could have done it...
He had an amazing wit. While sometimes we all had to cringe a little when he’d start into his next one liner or unannounced pun, it was rare to have to force a laugh. They came very naturally, even though we always tried hard to hold it back… fearing what might happen if we were to encourage his humor on.
We got to talk a lot this past February during the weekend of my Mom's 50th party. He was so happy to have been able to be there for that. For those of us who were in attendance, there was no doubt he had the best time of us all. He spent twice the amount of time that I did on his feet, talking to people and I think he kissed SMs' cheeks more than I did. Even she said how happy he was that weekend. She hadn't seen him smile so much in the 6 or so years that she's known him.
Grandpa was in WWII and though he told me some of his stories from his time in services, I honestly don't remember much about them. I do recall asking once when I was younger if he had killed anyone in the war. Without hesitation, he answered back that he had always shot up into the air and over their heads. Whether that was true or not, I never questioned. To me, it fit his character as the gentle, caring Grandpa I always knew.
It's no secret or surprise that Grandpa will be missed tremendously. He was the kindest, gentlest man that I have ever known. He's always been and still will be a huge part of my life. He taught me to never back away from a challenge. And I'm now standing in front of all of you reading something I never thought I could sit down and write. I hope this makes him smile.