Thomas F. O'Neill
The Pocket Watch
One morning in 1995 when I was living in Maryland and reading our local newspaper I noticed a newspaper ad asking people to volunteer their time to work with the elderly who were unable to get out on their own. I called the telephone number that was listed in the newspaper and I interviewed for the position. The women who interviewed me told me that I would have to go to New York City for a three day training program.
During the training, I shared a Motel room with this young man who answered a similar newspaper ad in New Jersey. I found out that he was going to night school to be a lawyer while he was holding down a full time job at a Bakery.
I learned a great deal from the training and I also enjoyed my time with my new friend and roommate. We went out to a few bars in the evening and when the training ended on a Friday afternoon he asked me to come along with him to meet his Great - Grandparents. They were living in the Bronx, New York, at the time.
His Great – Grandparents were Mr. and Mrs. Christi. Mr. Christi was 95 years old and his wife was 85 years old. When we arrived they cooked up a storm and the food was out of this world. Mrs. Christi told her Great-Grandson to call next time so that they could prepare something in advance. The Christi’s also insisted that we spend the weekend there with them.
Mr. Christi was a retired teamster who enjoyed telling stories about his experiences in life. I truly enjoyed listening to him as he told the stories with the utmost exuberance. I also enjoyed watching the history channel with him on cable television. We watched a documentary on the Kennedy’s. The Documentary showed a film clip of John Kennedy, who was a U.S. Senator in the 1950’s, and his brother Bobby Kennedy asking Jimmy Hoffa, Sr, the former president of the teamsters union, questions at a Senate Hearing; questions like, "did you say I am going to break his back?" and Hoffa kept saying "whose back?" like a little kid being scolded by his parent. In the same film clip Hoffa said to the Kennedy's "I don't know what you’re talking about?" The Kennedy's were trying to trip Hoffa up with trick questions.
Mr. Christi started laughing. He said to us “they asked Hoffa every question but when did you stop beating your wife?" He said, “I have nothing against the teamsters you can't punish the child for the sins of the father." He went on to say, “In those days the teamsters were feared and the teamsters will never experience that kind of power again. Today the teamsters are a mere shadow compared to Hoffa Senior's, time.” He also said to us, “The teamsters today are a pretty weak union they have become a joke.”
He told us a story about a woman that would stop by the teamster union hall every morning on her way to work. In the 1940’s and 1950’s this woman would drop off donuts and make the teamsters a pot of fresh coffee before going to the factory where she was employed. One day the owner of the factory told her that she no longer had a job and that she was being replaced by a younger girl.
In the 1940's that factory owner treated the girls pretty bad and he forced himself on them. When this woman resisted the factory owner's advances, the factory owner fired her. She was fired a few weeks before Christmas in December 1947. When Mr. Christi found out what happened to her, he and a bunch of teamsters from other locals waited in the back of a truck. They waited for the factory owner to go to lunch. When the owner was out in front of his factory, Mr. Christi and his merry band of teamsters pulled up in the truck next to the owner and covered him from head to toe with rotten eggs. The owner stood in front of his factory covered with rotten eggs and all the girls laughed and clapped their hands in total amusement. When the police arrived after the owner called them to the scene, the owner described the assault in detail. The police asked the owner, "Can you describe the eggs that hit you? Were they white eggs? Were some of the eggs brown? Did you notice if any of the eggs had unusual markings? Were the eggs fresh or were they rotten eggs?"
After about two weeks of humiliating experiences the factory owner put two and two together. The fired woman received a knock on her door on Christmas morning from the factory owner, letting her know she was desperately needed at the factory and that she could report to work the next day. The factory owner treated her with the utmost respect after having two weeks of mischief levied upon him.
Whenever the other women had problems in the factory they went to her and the problems were immediately addressed and solved. He said, "I guess in some way she was an honorary teamster shop steward in an unofficial capacity." He also said, "Getting that woman her job back is truly what the union business is all about."
Whenever he told stories his eyes would light up and sparkle with every word. You were able to see the joy in his eyes and in his smile as he recollected his teamster years. I was able to tell by the manner of his speech how much he missed those days. He said, "there was a time when the word teamster meant something -- there was power behind that word. Today everyone concentrates on the bad side of the teamster’s organization. Today the word teamster is a joke and the Teamsters are no longer powerful." He added, “The unions of today have become downsized corporate entities unto themselves, which would appear to be the opposite of when I was a local union President.”
The Christi’s home had a beautiful fireplace and I enjoyed watching the wood burn while I listened to them tell me their life story. Mrs. Christi gave me a tall glass of Red Wine and as I drank the wine I became more relaxed. The crackling sound of the burning wood, the warm flames, and the wine created a relaxing atmosphere. Mr. Christi said that he used to read books in front of the fireplace when he was my age. But, his eyes are now far too weak for the books.
He began to reminisce as we sat in front of the warm fire. He told us about how he parachuted into France when he was 43 years old. His tone of voice changed and a smile came over his face when he began to tell us how he parachuted and landed way off course in France in June of 1944. He landed on top of a chicken-coup that was next to a pigsty. When he landed on the chicken-coup, he lost his balance and fell on top of a pig. Both the chickens and the pig made such a commotion that the owner came running out of his home yelling in French with a broom in his hand. The owner thought his chickens were being attacked by his neighbor’s dog that was also barking at Mr. Christi. When the owner saw Mr. Christi in his American uniform he got so excited that he grabbed him around the waist and kissed him on top of his forehead. He then rushed him into his home so that he could clean him up. The problem that Mr. Christi had was that he could not speak a word of French, and he didn't have a clue where he was in France.
The Paratroopers had little clickers that sounded like Crickets. They clicked the clickers to let the other Paratroopers know they were Americans in the darkness of night. Another problem Mr. Christi faced was every time he clicked his clicker the neighbor’s dog would go berserk and start barking. The Frenchman who owned the Chicken-coup ran over with his broom to quiet the neighbor’s dog which upset the neighbor and caused a shoving match between the two Frenchmen. That was until the neighbor saw Mr. Christi in his cleaned up uniform. The neighbor quickly grabbed his dog and dragged the dog into his house. He then ran back out and kissed Mr. Christi on the forehead. Eventually Mr. Christi met up with the 101st airborne division and he made it through the war in one piece. “The French were so glad to see us” he said, “that was also one scary experience landing in France and being lost with the Germans looking for American Paratroopers.”
He told us that he was proud to have served his country in time of war and of his overall service record. “I fought the Nazis,” he said, “with solders that were in their late teens and early 20’s when I was 43 years old.”
I learned that shortly after he returned home from WW II he was elected President of his Teamster Local. “Although, the labor unions are a mere shadow of the Teamsters glory days,” he said, “The history behind the teamster’s movement can teach us a valuable lesson. The lesson to be learned, we are powerful when we stand together. We have the power to change and to make right the wrongs in the world. We can make our life and our neighbor's life worth living by helping each other and unifying our efforts towards change for the better. Isn't that what America is all about? Isn't that what our solders fought and died for in our country and abroad?”
He spoke about the Jewish neighborhood he lived in before and after returning home from World War II. He said, when he returned home from the War he was shocked to read about the Nazi concentration camps and the gas ovens in the newspapers.
“I don’t think people in the United States were aware of what the Nazis were doing to the Jews in Europe,” he said, “I am sure our Government would have done more to help the Jews if our Government was aware of the Jewish Holocaust.” He went on to say, “I was there in Europe fighting the Nazis but completely unaware of the millions of innocent people that died at the hands of the Nazis. Those events,” he said, “could never happen in America.”
Mrs. Christi told stories about the people who once gave their neighborhood a rich ethnic character. “Years ago,” she said, “growing up in New York was a great place to live. You and your neighbors not only watched their kids, we were truly involved with the entire neighborhood. Our doors were open for everyone and we fed our kids and our neighbor’s children. There were no video games back then. You played out in the street and you learned how to get along with others. We never heard of drugs, and people respected one another. People sat out on their porches and we talked to one another. The kids played stick ball everyday on our block. During the school year, they walked to school and the police walked and talked to people on our block. There were no gangs and gang wars; it was a much different time and place.”
The night before I left to return to Maryland, Mr. Christi walked over and removed a picture from his wall. It was a picture of Mr. Christi’s Grandfather. He took it down so that I could get a better look at what his Grandfather looked like. When he showed me the Picture he laughed. “My Grandfather,” he said, “changed his name from Christiovage to Christi because no one could pronounce Christiovage.”
He told me that he could remember when he was 23 years old watching his Grandfather lying in bed. His Grandfather was 83 years old in 1924, and dying. His Grandfather asked his Son (Mr. Christi’s Father) to get him a small Jewelry box that he kept in a drawer. Mr. Christi said that his Grandfather opened it and took out a pocket watch. The watch was given to Mr. Christi’s Grandfather by Mr. Christi’s Great-Grandfather.
Mr. Christi pulled the watch out of his pocket, “This pocket watch,” he said, “has an engraving inside written in Hebrew, it says,
“Make time for the ones you love for there is always time for humanity.”
With tears in his eyes, he said, “My grandfather died the night he gave me this pocket watch and his presence had a profound affect on me, but most of all, on our entire family.”
Early the next morning, I left for Maryland and that was the last contact I had with Mr. and Mrs. Christi. I learned that Mr. Christi passed away in December of 2003 and his wife passed away in 2005. I know deep down in my heart that their family is truly blessed for having grown up under their wisdom and love. Their spirit will continue to live on and their values will continue to be passed down from their children to their children’s children and to their children because -- they knew how to tell time and make time for the ones they loved.
I realize that I too will someday be elderly. I would like to be remembered not by the material things that I amassed over the years but by the amount of years that I have loved others.
Over the next seven years, I volunteered my time working with an elderly gentleman who swore that back in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s he was a liaison Agent between Richard M. Nixon and the CIA. I truly enjoyed driving him around and he became my tour guide.
One day he insisted that I drive him to West Virginia so that he could show me John Dean's home up close. John Dean was special council to President Nixon during the Nixon Administration. When we pulled up in front of John Dean’s home, my friend told me with anger in his voice, “He (John Dean) is the reason the whole Watergate thing unraveled.”
My friend was an extremely enjoyable and colorful character and I am truly grateful for having gotten to know him. When I moved back to my hometown of Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, in 2002, I lost contact with him, but I am currently in the process of locating his family.
A few days after writing this column I went into a local antique store and bought an antique pocket watch. I had it engraved:
“Time is not of the urgency when one finds delight in the present moment with those they love.”
I would like to pass the watch on to someone before I die. I realize however that in the future, pocket watches will most likely be obsolete due to how fast technology is advancing. I also noticed that my pocket watch runs slow, but as the saying goes, it is the thought that counts.
Thomas F. O’Neill
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