"Down! Down! Down!" Left hand on the wheel, right arm flung over the back of the bench seat of the 1969 Vista Cruiser station wagon. The man they called The Big Dud was checking the blind spot as he switched lanes. "Down! Down! Down!"
Ten kids, frozen in shock for a second, dive down, some heads colliding. All scrunched down. Then silence. Waiting for the all clear.
Finally, mom would say, "Dud." It was the way she said it. It was shorthand for: do you have to holler like that? Take it easy; you'll give us all a heart attack.
Still, you couldn't blame Big Dud. How else would you get the attention of ten kids when you gotta change lanes on the highway?
The stories and laughs were flowing last week.
Like the big Sunday dinner. Ten kids rolling their eyes if the Big Dud was handed a stubborn jar to open. They'd watch him grimace and grunt and get nowhere. Then he'd pause, look inspired, and suddenly break into the Popeye theme song. Bop, bop, bop, bop bop bop, ba - bop, bop, bop, bop, bop, bop, ba.... He'd pour the imaginary can of spinach into his mouth then rip open the jar with his new-found strength.
Back then, the Big Dud used to have a beer or two with his Sunday dinner. The beer and the big meal led to er, an explosive, reaction. You could almost hear the rumble. And then....the Big Dud would slam his fist down on the table and simultaneously let rip with a roaring belch and then immediately point to one of the kids and say "bring that up at the next meeting and we'll vote on it!"
Ah, the memories. They got a million of 'em, the Cox family does. A million stories, ten kids---and here's the best number of all: 50. As in 50 years of marriage. That was the cause of the celebration last week when friends and family gathered to honor Dudley and Nora Cox.
To me, they're Uncle Dud and Aunt Nora, and the ten kids are the cousins. Fake cousins, technically. You know, there's no blood relation but the families are together at a million functions, picnics, and even vacations. Most times, you got all the relatives you need. You know the old saying, relatives and in-laws are like dead fish. After a couple of days, they really stink. Not here. We got lucky. We love the Coxes. Aunt Nora and Uncle Dud, my godparents, still send me $5 on my birthday (sometimes more, if I've been good. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, I'm pretty much stuck on the $5). We love 'em. We love hearing how Aunt Nora doesn't know much about sports or Uncle Dud's beloved football Giants---but with no one home one day she knew to grab a helmet when the parakeet got loose in the house. So when Big Dud came home and saw her in the helmet, what did he think? "She's finally lost it."
And, then there were the family vacations: everybody issued a brand spanking new piece of luggage: Hefty or Gladd trash bags. (Irish luggage to some of us). Oddly enough, the same luggage might be used on epic trips to the Laundromat. And remember the trips to Jones Beach and Nanny's rented place on Beach 95th street---from where from they'd watch people screaming for their lives on the top hill of the Playland roller coaster. Ah, the memories.
Through the laughs and the madness you always knew Big Dud was a stand-up guy. And you love hearing the story of Big Dud at the pizza place. When the local joint ran its weekly special, free bottle of soda with a large pie, Dud and son, John, hopped in the car to pick up four pies and four free sodas.
John, small and shy, was like most kids who'd avoid confrontation---and wanted their fathers to avoid the same. No such luck this time. When they got to the pizza place, a lady was ahead of them waiting for her two pizza pies. Big Dud raised an eyebrow when the pizza guy handed her two pies but only one bottle of soda. She said "I thought I get a bottle of soda with each pie." The pizza man replied, "The sign is supposed to say free bottle of soda with purchase of large pie, limit of one bottle per order" or something to that effect. The lady kinda shrugged her shoulders and said "oh well" and turned to leave the store.
That's when the Big Dud sprang into action. He said, "Hold on lady. That's not what the sign says. The sign says free bottle of soda with purchase of a large pie. Now, you ordered two pies so you get two bottles of soda. I ordered four pies so I get four bottles of soda." Dud settled a pair of stern eyes on the pizza guy who wanted to argue but couldn't. He could only fume as he handed the lady her second bottle of soda. She gave the Big Dud a big smile and said "Thank you, sir." The Big Dud said, "You're quite welcome." And then said to no one in particular, "the sign says free bottle of soda with a purchase of a pie, that means you get a bottle of soda with each pie you buy."
Now the pizza man was furious. He had to take it out on somebody. So, he turned to his son working in the back and says, "What are you going to school for? Can't you write a sign?"
Big Dud stood there indignantly waiting for his pizzas and sodas. Young John looked for some place to crawl and hide. When the pies were finally ready, the pizza man handed them to the Big Dud and grudgingly handed over four bottles of soda. The Big Dud walked out proud and announced out loud, to no one in particular; "We would have had a lot of fun back there, rollin' around in the dough!"
We didn't have to hear that one to know the Big Dud was stand-up. Even with all those kids of his own at home---he made sure he took the Boyle kids to the Giants game a few weeks after their father died. They remember. It was against Dallas. The Giants won 23-20. Pete Gogolak kicked a 54 yard field goal.
That was a long time ago, almost a historical remembrance. And the thing is, with Uncle Dud and Aunt Nora, you do tend to appreciate history and heritage. And even if there's no blood relation, you're reminded, gently and profoundly, that you didn't just get here, that the world didn't start on your birthday. You're part of a long, remarkable line. Roots and family and traditions matter. It's genuine. You really feel it.
With a voice, both deep and soft, Big Dud can sing "Danny Boy" with the best of 'em, though at some long ago party, he sang, "A little piece of heaven fell from out the sky....and they called it Ireland," that stays with me decades later. And now, I think, a little piece of heaven? Aunt Nora and Uncle Dud found some, too.
Songs, and laughs, and stories go along way in helping put fifty years of marriage in the books. But, obviously, so does love and friendship. Uncle Dud and Aunt Nora are pals, an enviable team. Daughter Colleen (her siblings say they only thing worse than Colleen sad is Colleen happy) said "the things that drive me crazy about my mother, my father finds endearing!"
Of course, Colleen said that with the greatest admiration. And admired they should be. Raise a glass Nora and Dudley Cox.
(The above comes with help from John Cox who's got the makings of a great family memoir underway).