In order to understand my father Bernard Olcott the man, we need to turn our attention to a pivotal character in his life. Just like Andy Kaufman was the comedian’s comedian, Michael Olcott was my father’s father. And before examining my Dad’s relationship with his own father, let me start with my own direct memories of the man, Michael Olcott. He treated me very differently from the way he did his own son.
Michael passed in the late part of the summer in 1972 so my memories of him are as a little kid in the late 1960s and early 1970s. My point of reference from those times was as a 7 to 14 year old boy, whose life was split between school in central Florida (Mom’s house) and summers back in New York City (my Dad’s home). Of course, I accepted my bicoastal existence as normal but, looking back, it most definitely was not. I was shuttling between one of the most conservative counties in the USA (Orange County, Florida) and the most liberal (New York County, otherwise known as Manhattan). In the late 1960s. Need I say more?
Orlando in the late 1960s was, before the arrival of Disney, a one horse town and the horse was mostly asleep. For weekend fun, my classmates in elementary school would catch bullfrogs in the swamp or shoot rabbits. I most definitely was the odd kid out. When bored in school (which was often), I would stare at the big maps on the wall and commit them to memory. Kingston, you say? I knew where to find it on the island of Jamaica, south side.
Visiting my grandfather Michael Olcott was an exotic affair for a kid who lived in a Floridian motel apartment 9 months out of the year. For example, I didn’t even know what Jews were. When I heard my Mom utter an anti-Semitic comment, well, I was curious. Who were these terrible people? I asked her to identify one for me in my school — which she did by giving me a name. I took a good look at him the next day. Turned out he was the smartest and funniest kid in the school. I never understood anti-Semitism.
Anyway, I led a life that was more than a little bit sheltered. And I was dying to break out. My grandfather and his exotic culture from a mysterious European country could be my exit.
To visit Grandfather, my Dad and I would drive out in the “horsemobile,” which is what we called any number of tail-finned cars he owned throughout the 1960s. Some of these boats had push button automatic transmissions. Crossing the Queensboro Bridge from Manhattan, these visits would be one of the few times I would venture into the wilds of Queens as a kid, which I knew only as a good place to find airplanes. This was certainly true of Michael’s house in South Ozone Park — it was directly under the approach path for runway 13L at JFK! Parking the car, I would look up to admire the planes flying 500 feet overhead. The roar shook everything. Cool, I thought, but maybe a little loud.
Michael lived in a row house typical of the area. His front door had diamond shaped windows on a weather-beaten wooden door and an outer-borough musty smell permeated the whole house. Michael would welcome us inside with his wife (my Dad’s stepmother), Constance. Leading me to the linoleum dining room table crowned by a circular fluorescent tube lighting on the ceiling, she would address me as “Jimooks,” and asked me what I wanted to drink. On my first visit, I asked my Dad who was “Jimooks,” and he winked and said I was! If you have to ask…
The ginger ale would arrive in a glass marred by greasy fingerprints — when I mentioned that later to my Dad, he merely said that Constance had bad eyesight and couldn’t clean them properly. My Dad and Michael would talk and I remember them mentioning “Jamaica” many times in conversation. I wondered to myself whether they meant Montego Bay or Negril, but naturally they meant the adjacent neighborhood in Queens! Jamaica, Queens (not West Indies) was where the family had lived years ago and where my Dad went to school.
I had asked my Dad about our family origins in the past. For example, I was well aware of the Quebec origins of my Mom’s family which pleased me as suitably exotic. But my Dad wouldn’t tell me — he insisted that I ask my Grandfather. So I did. Michael beamed and his answer gave me another place to chase down on a map — Lithuania! I asked him for the original family name and he beamed again. “Arlauskas,” he said.
Now the family name I was unable to commit to memory at the time, but I went to the maps the first chance I got and found this Baltic country between Poland and Finland. It was a strange case. In Europe, yes, but oddly it was colored the same as a huge expanse behind it, across Europe and Asia under the ominous initials “USSR.” It had been an independent country before World War II, but afterwards it simply became one of many war trophies for Stalin.
Next Week: Part 2
Copyright © 2015 by James B. Olcott