Life is not easy. We all have problems-even tragedies-to deal with, and luck has nothing to do with it. Bad luck is only the superstitious excuse for those who don’t have the wit to deal with the problems of life. ”
― Joan Lowery Nixon,
Problems? Yeah, I had a few. But let’s be real. My weird situations are nothing compared to many suffered by others.
Consider Denne Bart Petitclerc, journalist, author, producer. When he was 5 years old in 1934, his father took him to downtown Seattle to admire the holiday decorations. Stopping in front of the giant Christmas tree, his dad told him to “watch the angel (on top of the tree), I’ll be right back.” He didn’t return. He left his child there, abandoning him to be an orphan in the December night.
At least I had a Father to love, to admire, to tell me funny stories, to join in the family business, and then to, maddeningly, watch as he withered away. There were many good years, regardless.
I think we’ve all had pivotal moments like that, when everything changes. Today’s story, a repeat, is about my night when the sky was darkest, and most unfamiliar. Merry Christmas and don’t forget to count your blessings (and not boobies)!
In the spring of 1962, I turned 4 years old. Mom and Dad were living at 1050 Fifth Avenue and Central Park was my playground. In the evening, I would play in my room and when I heard the door open and Dad enter the apartment, I would thrust myself down the stairs, yelling “Daddy, Daddy!” One time I came down the stairs so fast, I tripped and fell. I arrived at the bottom in a tumbled mess.
My Dad would have a seat on the couch, maybe after turning on the hi-fi or plopping the Four Lads on the phonograph. Mom would serve him a Rheingold. “What’s that?” I asked. “Beer,” he said. “Can I try some?” “Sure.” I did, it was not to my taste.
I was oblivious to the fact that the marriage of my Mom and Dad was finished.
Dad was 14 years older than my Mom. That may seem of some minor consequence now, but back then it was a huge age difference. He was just as close in age to my Mom’s Mom, Margo, as he was to Mom.
And unfortunately, things were not so great during the marriage. Even during the honeymoon, my Mom called my Grandmother in tears from Bermuda. Her first night as a married woman wasn’t painless.
Dad was a workaholic and was very much an early to bed, early to rise kind of guy. A workaholic is the sort of person you want to have working for you, but maybe not necessarily the kind to be married to. Especially for a younger girl who was used to going out at night for dinner and parties. After they were married, Dad went to night school to get his law degree at New York Law School, so the young mother was left even more alone at home for two years, listless.
Margo, in the meantime, had made friends with a couple from Florida named Charlie and Fran Irrgang. These were fun loving people who relished The Stork Club during their visits to New York and could drink anyone under the table, even Charlie. The Irrgangs were originally from Chicago but had moved to a small town in Central Florida called Winter Garden, about 20 miles west of Orlando, in the late 1920s or early 1930s. There, Charlie had built up an orange juice concentrate packing operation in a big plant on the north side of Highway 50 and lived in the family compound on Deer Island on the other side of the highway. They had three children, Charlie, Jr., John, and Mary Fran.
Margo was even invited by Fran to design evening gowns for local ladies at the Winter Garden Welfare League’s Bundles Party on Saturday night, April 15th, 1961.
Orlando Sentinel, April 16, 1961
One night in 1962 during one of their visits to New York, they suggested to Margo that they all dine together at The Stork. Bernard Olcott was not present.
John Irrgang was a young smart stock broker with pale blue eyes, a winning smile, and it was love at first sight between him and my Mom. A fast and furious romance developed and in a matter of weeks, Mom had made her decision – she wanted out of her marriage to Bernard Olcott. She gave back her ring and wanted nothing more than child support for me – she just wanted out.
Dad was unable to persuade her otherwise. Heartbroken, he felt the best thing to do was accede to his young bride’s request. To soften the blow, my Mom implied that maybe they could always get back together later on. It is still strange to me how this breakup was not acrimonious. Neither one ever spoke ill of the other. And oddly, in written letters from my Mom to my Dad, even in the 2000s, she would draw little smiley faces.
In any event, back to 1962, maybe Dad thought that he had a chance to win her back after the glow had faded from her infatuation with John Irrgang. So, on my Mom’s urging, he flew down to El Paso with a heavy heart and crossed over to Ciudad Juarez to file for a Mexican divorce. I remember finding those divorce papers years later, with exotic looking stamps and seals. I couldn’t read the Spanish text but I knew it was a hateful document. Dad claimed years later, usually after he had a few beers in him, that he knew of some legal defect in the divorce proceedings pursued under the laws of the Mexican state of Chihuahua. Accordingly, he would say with a grin, he was still married to Mom. More about that later.
All I knew is that one night in the summer of 1962 I was in the back seat of a taxicab on Fifth Avenue, mesmerized by the shadows of my head dancing back and forth in front of me, as illuminated by passing streetlights. The next night, I was in a car driving through the deepest nighttime indigo of central Florida, the loud sound of crickets blazing throughout the shadowless darkness. I was introduced to my new “Daddy John,” “Uncle Charlie,” “Aunt Mary Fran,” and was given my first glass of orange juice, which remains part of my morning routine to this day. I can’t do without it!
Me in 1964 with John Irrgang’s Grandmother, Edie Irrgang.
That first summer in Florida I spent a lot of time with my new family at their boat house on the clear waters of Lake Butler, near the town of Ocoee. The Irrgang men would hang out in the living room drinking beers and watching the game on a large black and white TV mounted near the ceiling, channels changed by an old-fashioned clicking remote. The womenfolk would hang in the kitchen and gossip. If the weather was nice, the boat would be taken out for sessions of waterskiing. The grass outside was not the soft Kentucky Bluegrass that I knew back home but the thick coarse blades of St. Augustine Grass, not as comfortable underfoot.
Once that summer, someone spotted a snake on that crunchy grass and the game on TV was instantly forgotten. My new uncles rushed outside with a hoe and a shovel and do battle with the intruder. Surrounding it, the doomed serpent would coil up and lash out, it’s white mouth clearly visible to me from the safety of the porch inside the house. Finally one of the men pinned the cottonmouth’s head with the rake and then another man, with a quick motion of a spade, did the decapitation. The viper at this point wriggled ever more furiously in agony, so much so that it seemed there were 3 snakes vibrating together. Walking outside for a closer look, I was warned not to play with the head as it could still bite me. Not that I really wanted to pick it up.
A knife was summoned from the kitchen, the animal cleaned, and then thrown on the grill. “Tastes like chicken,” the men said as they ate carefully around the small bones. They offered me some, of course, but as my diet was limited to hamburger and French fries, I declined. Tom Clancy wrote about men who could “hunt and eat snake.” I knew them.
A few years later, I would pull my own green snake out of a Cyprus tree and keep him as a pet.
Dad in the meantime got busy. If the best cure for a broken heart is a new distraction, he found it right away while attending a reception at the Ecuadorean consulate in New York one evening during the fall of 1962. Like Mom, Graciela Levi Castillo was of Latin origin; in her case South American. A graduate from Columbia College, Graciela was the highly educated daughter of Roberto Levi Hoffman from Hamburg, Germany. While studying for his Master’s Degree in Chemistry at University of Bern around the turn of the century, he won a contest sponsored by Guayaquil, Ecuador, a growing city on the Pacific coast that evidently needed drug stores. Roberto won the contest and soon became the first pharmacist in the steamy tropical port.
As a young girl, Graciela had left her local high school, the Colegio Nacional de Guayaquil, to become a boarder at the Penn Hall Junior College for Girls in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. On the strength of her strong academic performance, she won acceptance at Columbia and graduated in 1948. By 1962, she was an accredited journalist and interviewed world personalities such as Gamal Nasser of Egypt, Francisco Franco of Spain, the Agha Khan as well as renowned artists like Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, and Ernest Hemingway.
Fast and furious relationships were in the air. Dad married Graciela on January 19, 1963.