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Nov. 12 2009 - 1:25 am | 12,825 views | 3 recommendations | 15 comments

Remembering Greatness on the Worst Day of My Life

wdad2
I buried my father today. He was more of a man than I’ll ever be.

I wouldn’t ever think of trying to work harder, do more or be as honorable as he — Jeffrey Hess — was. Even before he died so unexpectedly this week, I often thought to myself that maybe he laughed at what I did for a living… sitting at a desk or on my couch, typing pointless and mostly useless musings about entertainment and food. For his entire life, he toiled and trudged and bled for hours upon end with his butcher shop and wholesale business, working 15+ hours a day for pretty much my entire life. Manual labor to me is when I have to do laundry or paint a room. Manual labor to him was life. He did it so that I could sit on my ass at a keyboard.

My dad was a butcher. He was a butcher long before it was the hip thing to do. He was a butcher because his father and grandfather (and possibly even deeper into the Hess tree) were. That’s what pretty much what piqued the foundation of my love and curiosity of food and cooking.

From when I was 6 or 7 years old, I went to work with my dad whenever I could. Somehow he’d drag me out of bed at 3:30 in the morning and we’d be on our way to the meat markets at Hunts Point in the Bronx. For some incredible reason, all I can think of right now is how I’d be freezing in the pre-twilight morning darkness, and my dad would always have Little Debbie oatmeal cream cookies in his van. The first thing he did when I got into the truck was to hand me one before even starting the engine. It’s random and pretty goddamn brilliant how tiny little details like that stand out when all is said and done — a mediocre cookie sandwich is now one of my most cherished childhood memories when it comes to my father.

Post-cookie, my dad and I would then go to the meat markets to pick up sides of massive hunks of dead animal for him to take back to his store to break down and sell. There are so many memory triggers and things that I remember about the market: The smell (Oh, the mineral-y goodness of a frigid room packed with dry-aged beef and nasty bits), the massive hunks of flesh that my dad would convince someone to let me punch like ‘Rocky,’ … and most of all, how everyone there knew and loved my dad. Any and all of the vendors we hit up to buy the day’s wares, we were met with a “Jeff! How are you!” and unfathomable kindness toward me. Everyone was amazed to see “Little Jeff,” which to this day I know I can never be. I know now that these gestures weren’t because I was cute, it was due to the surplus of respect that my father had accrued with these blood-spattered fellows at the market and anyone else he’d spent time with in his life.

Even in middle and high school, I worked with my dad at his shop. At that point, he’d sold his shop in the Bronx and opened one up in New Jersey to be closer to home… you know, because rather than working 15 hours a day, now he could work 14 because his commute was shorter. It was a this point that I was slowly becoming obsessed with food. At the shop, my dad let me help with everything, and the sensory part of what goes down in a butcher shop is something I’ll forever cherish. The gruesome and curious sound of making fresh sausage, how I hated having to inject hams and turkeys with a brine gun during the holidays because my hands would get so cold (possibly the reason I hate ham now), the shrill scream of the bandsaw that on several occasions necessitated an urgent call home and a trip to the emergency room for my dad, picking tightly-packed wads of sawdust and fat out of my shoes after a day at the shop. Also, the vibrating hum of cold cut slicer that I used to make turkey sandwiches on, shaving the turkey so thin it would cause fowl shrapnel to pepper the entire device, leading to a more intensive clean-up than my dad would have preferred — a topic that didn’t go unspoken, trust me.

Somehow, during this time at the shop, I managed to convince my dad that he should sell hot lunches to the local businesses in town. Even more ridiculous is that I convinced him to let me cook the food. I wonder if the people in the nearby stores knew that a 14-year-old punk was the one who made their Reuben sandwich or fish and chips platter? Either way, the response was great and the lunch specials started flying out of the door … until the inspectors came in one day and told us that apparently one has to have fire extinguishing devices installed above deep fryers and grills that are inside storefronts. Who knew?!

So, my first cooking gig was shut down by the man, but the spark was lit.

Another incident that stands tantamount in my memory of my dad during those years is perhaps the lowest moment of my teen years. For some reason, one day I decided that I wanted to go buy some baseball cards, so I took $5 out of the register. Had I asked my dad for the money, I’m sure he would have gladly given it to me, but for some ridiculous and irresponsible reason, I just snagged it thinking my dad wasn’t looking. Turns out, he was, and rather than say anything to me, he stopped me before I could leave the store, pulled it out of my pocket, and gave me a stare that I’ll never forget. It said: You’ve let me down, son. You’ve betrayed my trust. “Druggies steal from their parents,” he told me. To this day, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve replayed this moment in my mind and felt like the asshole I was.

For weeks, there was an unspoken tension between me and my dad, yet he still drove me where I needed to be driven, still came to my baseball games … all the while, I knew I had broken a bond between us. That was the best characteristic of my dad. No matter what you did, how much you may have upset him on Tuesday, he was always still just as honorable, dedicated and loving on Wednesday.

His 63 years of life are something my pampered ass cannot fathom. He fought valiantly for his country in Vietnam, going AWOL shortly before being deployed to marry my mom.  I asked him twice about the war, but he refused to speak to me about it. “You don’t want to know about that stuff,” he said. He was trying to protect me. He’d always avoid my questions as a young kid of “Did you kill anyone?” He was a badass nonetheless.

After the war, he bled, hurt and deprived himself of sleep so that me and my two sisters could all do what we want. One time, I mentioned that perhaps I’d just take over his butcher shop at some point. I was quickly met with that classic Jeff stare that could bore a hole through an armored truck. “Never,” he said. He told me that he worked his ass off so that I didn’t have to work as tirelessly as he did, and that I was better and smarter than a butcher.

No, dad. I’m not. Nobody could be better than you … I just hope you’re proud of me. I love you, dad.

dad500


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  1. collapse expand

    I’m sorry for your loss. Those cookies were love personified.

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    What a beautiful tribute, Mike. I’m sure your dad was proud to have produced a son who could express his feelings so well.

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    He’s undoubtedly proud of you, Mike. Don’t ever think otherwise. This is a beautiful tribute to your dad.

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    A WONDERFUL TRIBUTE TO YOUR DAD. MICHAEL WE ARE SORRY TO HEAR ABOUT YOUR FATHER.HEARTFELD SYMPATHY TO YOU AND YOUR FAMILY JIM@NANETTE TRACEY

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    Mike, I was personally very moved by your piece. And not just because your father was my cousin’s husband. I thought I knew this man, but I obviously was wrong. There was so much going on beneathe your dad’s good-natured, quiet persona! He was a man who spoke with the work of his hands and expressed himself with his devotion.

    Reading this today, I was also moved as a son myself. What guys like you and I owe to men like this! All we can do to ever hope to repay them is to be good men/fathers/mentors ourselves.

    Thank you again, Mike.

    • collapse expand

      What so many of us would not give to be able to write such an elegant memorium to a father! You were very lucky to have a dad that you can honor in writing for all of us to read. For those of us who did not win the dad-lottery, we are surly jealous but comforted to know they are out there. What you wrote is what your dad gave you. Such a gift!! And good for you for using it every day and making a living with it. How ironic that you ‘wrote’ the best gift your dad left you!

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    WOW… What a touching story… I just wished I had what you had with your Dad… I was young and admired my Dad, until things went wrong, and I can’t go with my story as its tooooooo painful, even as of now, as I wished I loved my Dad as you do yours… I guess we all can’t be so lucky in life to have such perfect Parents… My Mother was great and still is today, but I have NEVER forgiven my Father for things he did and now the pain sets in again and the tears come to fog up my eyes… I wished I could say half the great things about my Dad that you did yours… God, says to forgive and forget, but can we really or its it just words to pease God and keep smiling… If my Father Died today, there would be tears, but what kind of tears I am not sure of… Could they be Joy or Sadness ???… I won’t know until that time comes… Well, I have said enough and I praise your story about your Father and love you had for each other… You were ONE of the lucky ones and don’t ever forget that… I wished I could have walked in your shoes and others at times… I am truly sorry for your loss and the loss of a great Man – Your Father… Now, you have some pretty big shoes to fill and I am sure that you Dad is watching to see if you stumble a step or two… If so, just remember your biggest fan is looking down and telling you; “It’s ok Son”, everything will be OK…

  7. collapse expand

    I also grew up working in my fathers , uncle and grandfathers butchers shops . Thanks for refreshing the memories of the sound of the bandsaw and slicing machines , along with the smells of meat , fat and sawdust . Food was always an important part of working in the shop as you know , learning to cook and make black coffee was part of life for a son working in the shops . Great article I will pass it along to other cousins that grew up working in the family butcher shops . Joe

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    i feel so sorry for your loss,i to lost my mom and dad i never got over it,i know how you feel,you need to do what your dad wanted you to do. he would never want you to suffer,you have to make this loss your strenght ,and be stronger and be a strong family.phil is my favorate capt and he is still here in spirit.he touched so many people through the show.i felt like i new him and i never met him.ill miss him,my heart goes out to all his family and friends,i prey for all of you and i will never eat a crab and take it for granted knowing how hard you guys work to bring it to us.

    this is to capt sid,i met you in disney world, i stood in line and they close it the next day i went back there again,i was to late,but i went into the store and my wife bought me a vidio seris of deadliest catch and my wife was talkimg to u, and came over and signed it and your crew signed it…you and your crew really made my day at disney world,ill never forget what you did for me,hope to see you again one day god bless all the capt and there crew, be strong andnever forget phil.ps god is happy with phil god now gets his crab legs shipped on time by the best,,,

  9. collapse expand

    Mike,
    Your article and memoriam on Phil Harris and the loss of your dad was like hearing myself talk, as I lost my dad to Parkinson’s Disease 4 years ago this St.Patricks day. Your “characteristic of your dad” was exactly like mine. He was an ex-marine faught in the Korean War and had the utmost respect for people therefore receiving the highest level of respect. Your dads “glare” and use of minimal words to scold you, was my dad to a T. Our dads were extremely similar in how they dealt with people and viewed life. Then I saw the picture of you dad, omg he looks exactly like my dad. I grew up under my dads elbow watching, asking, learning, and doing everything he did on our 4 acer farm on the river that also kept him in jeans and flannel when he wans’t at work as an electrical engineer. My dad knew how to fix and build anything and as a woman I can fix and build things the men in my life can not, and I owe it all to my dad also. I read your article at work and cried. He was my hero and the person I judge everyone against. Thank you so very much for sharing your feelings, it helps me to know I’m not feeling things that are stupid or unusual. I’d enjoy chating about our dads, audpres@aol.com
    Sincerely,
    Audra

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    I lost my father suddenly and know the feeling of loss you’re experiencing right now. This was a wonderful tribute to your dad. I can’t help but think he was very proud of you.

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    Mike, I’m sorry to hear you lost your dad, and thank you for sharing this stirring tribute to him. As brutally hard as it is to say goodbye, I hope you’ll find, as I did when I lost mine, that in many ways he’s still with you, and never really all that far away.

  12. collapse expand

    So sorry for the profound loss you’ve experienced. What an incredible memorial you have made for him.

  13. collapse expand

    A boy’s first hero is his father.
    A man’s last hero is his son.

    My father was a butch too. He didn’t tell me much, but he did tell me when I was about 6 years old that I wasn’t him; I couldn’t be a butcher when I grew up. Crushing to a 6 year old, but in retrospect it was everything that I would ever need to know.

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    About Me

    Oysters. Bone Marrow. Spanish hams. Fish tacos. Shanghai soup dumplings. Sea urchin. Summer tomatoes still warm from the sun. There, my favorite foods are out of the way. To cut to the chase, food is in my genes. My father, grandfather and great grandfather were butchers. I've cooked for fun and pay since I can remember, helping out at my dad's catering company/butcher shop and eventually the catering wing of Zagat's highest-rated restaurant in the country (you've never heard of it). Why am I not a chef or caterer? I'm just too much of a pansy. I didn't want the hours/heat/instability to ruin my love for cooking, so now it's pure recreation. Since ditching the chef idea, I've written for many major news networks and magazines, spanning everything from a blood-soaked Marine invasion into Fallujah to Britney Spears' underwear (lack of, actually) to properly sourcing pork. I hope to share the deliciousness of life with you. Also, pancakes suck.

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    Contributor Since: January 2009
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