Each year I write a Memorial Day column, which always follows the same format: Me wandering around one of our local cemeteries, reminiscing about various people as I encounter their headstones and their treasure trove of memories.
But this column won’t follow that set-up. First, it’s not set in a cemetery. And second, it couldn’t be, since I’m honoring the memory of a man I lost track of more than 40 years ago.
His name was Harry Dillon and he was a striking figure of my youth. It was his clothes that did it — he was always impeccably dressed, and in the most elegant and dapper outfits.
As opposed to the standard earth tone business suit of the day, he wore unusual designs and colors. One that’s still vivid in my memory was a rust-colored double-breasted sport coat, with pleated white pants, and brown and white wing tips. He also always wore spotless high-end fedoras, and it goes without saying he tipped them to every woman he passed.
While he wasn’t Hollywood handsome, he was tall and broad-shouldered and had a big crooked smile that lit up his entire face.
Beyond looks, he was just a great guy. He was that rare adult who always remembered me, called me by name, and never failed to share some sort of conversation when we ran into each other.
And that brings up another of his unusual traits — he was downtown almost every time I was..
So how did I meet Mr. Dillon? I don’t know, but it seemed I knew him from the time I was hatched, which may even be true. My brother thought when our father first came to town, he and Mr. Dillon lived in the same apartment house. I’ve never been able to verify that, but it could explain our original connection.
The only other things I knew about him were he was an Irish-Catholic from New York City; he was unmarried and born around 1900 and he came here to cure for tuberculosis. At least that’s what I thought I knew. More on that later.
As I said, he was a fixture of my youth, from my pre-kindergarten days until after high school. Then in the eight years between when I left town and returned, he vanished. Certainly he wasn’t here when I got out of the service in 1972.
Not that I noticed his absence at first. After 39 months in the Navy, 30 of them overseas, I went through a good-sized post-service crash. I was spending most of my time and energy just trying to understand and adjust to an America very different from the one I’d left.
Eventually, however, the dust settled and so did I. And somewhere along the line I got to thinking about Mr. Dillon and wondering what happened to him. Sadly, I never found that out.
But then I started wondering about something else about Mr. Dillon, namely what work he did.
A lot of the former TB patients who settled in My Home Town came from big money, so they lived the rest of their lives here in comfort, and never had to work to do it. But I always sensed Mr. Dillon wasn’t one of them. So if he wasn’t rich and I never saw him work, where did his money come from?
The mystery solved
Over the years I asked all sorts of people if they remembered Mr. Dillon, but almost none of them did. And of the ones who did, none could recall anything beyond his name. Certainly no one knew any specific about him — that is, until I ran into Peter MacIntyre at Winter Carnival 2007.
Pete was a childhood chum I hadn’t seen in years, so as soon as I did it was instant Old Home Week. We chatted about this, that and the other thing — free association at its best — and suddenly I remembered one day in eighth grade when we were walking by the Elks club and Pete pointed to the big BPOE on the front of the building.
“Know that stands for?” he asked.
“No idea,” I said.
Always a master of good delivery, he paused for a moment before he delivered his punch line.
“It stands for Biggest Pigs On Earth.”
It was middle school humor at its best, and I immediately dissolved into hilarity.
(Author’s note: BPOE actually stands for Benevolent Protector of Elk, which Pete also told me at the time. No matter – I still can’t see those letters on an Elks lodge without at least smirking)
Anyhow, after I mentioned that incident to Pete, he said something about how much his dad liked to hang out with his pals in the Elks lodge and that Pete’d stop in from time to time to visit with them as well.
“Oh yeah?” I said. “So who were your dad’s friends?”
He listed a bunch of names and then hit me with the kicker — none other than Harry Dillon.
“Harry Dillon? You knew Harry Dillon?” I all but shouted.
“Well, I knew who he was,” Pete said, “but I can’t say I really knew him.”
“OK, OK,” I said, feeling my pulse quicken, the inevitable question about to spill out. “But do you have any idea what he did for a living?”
“You mean you don’t? he said.
“No,” I said. “Do you?”
“Sure,” he said. “He was a professional gambler.”
And there you have it — the answer I’d been looking for for decades. This in turn answered a couple of other things, namely why he was always out and about during the day and why he wore such sporty threads: He worked nights, and he was a sport — in the truest sense.
Now remember how I said I knew where Mr. Dillon came from, how old he was and his marital status? Well, I was wrong about all of them.
Last week on a whim I went into the Adirondack Room of the Free Library and looked through the admission records for tuberculosis patients, trying to see if Harry Dillon’s was among them. And as luck would have it, it was. He’d been admitted to a cure cottage in 1929.
But he was from Gloversville, not New York; he was married, not single, and he was a whole lot older than I thought, having been born in 1887. And he could hardly have been less Irish-Catholic, since he was Jewish.
In short, I was wrong about everything concerning Harry Dillon except one thing — he was a wonderful man who was always friendly and kind to me.
And that, ultimately, is the only thing really worth remembering.
(Editor's note: This article was published in the Friday, May 23 Enterprise but was mistakenly not uploaded to the Web until Tuesday, May 27.)