Monday, August 16, 2010

Grandpop Has Left The Building

On the 30th anniversary of Elvis Presley's death, I wrote this column for Long live The King... of all grandpops.

Elvis Aaron Presley and Robert Fithian Dingler died within a day of each other 30 years ago during the hot and muggy August of 1977.

I remember where I was when I heard the news of Elvis's passing. I think most people do. Elvis was The King, after all, a cultural icon. Fans both young and old were stunned by his premature passing. It was the type of public tragedy that would cause strangers to turn to each other and say, "Did you hear about Elvis? Awful. Just awful."

But I also remember where I was when I learned that Robert Fithian Dingler passed on. I was at the hospital. I was eleven. He was my grandfather.

We were on vacation that week. My grandparents had decided to take me and my older sister to Atlantic City. In my early years, I had stayed at their house quite often, but this was the first time we had actually vacationed together for any length of time. It was my grandpop's idea. I now realize that he must have known something was wrong.

Since my grandparents didn't have much money, we stayed at an establishment that was part motel/part B&B-- minus one of the B's. It was dark and it smelled like an old person's house. The lobby was always full of French Canadian men who were far too old and too fat to be wearing the late 1970's equivalent of a Speedo.

The proprietor, an aging woman who longed for the days when both she and her palace were in their prime, never dusted the fake plants yet she showed up at our door every day to see if we were keeping our rooms clean. It was if everything and everyone in the building didn't notice their own deterioration. The lamps were broken and the hallways were right out of "The Shining." But every time my sister and I would get on the elevator, the aging African-American operator would flash his perfect smile and say in his sing-song way, "Look at me, I'm a thorn between two roses." The whole experience was sweet, creepy and thoroughly hilarious.

Each day was the same: My sister and I would lie on the beach while my grandparents sat on the boardwalk and watched us lie on the beach. Every so often one of them would brave the sand to ask if we were hungry.

Each night was the same as well. All four of us would walk the boardwalk searching for something sweet to eat. My grandmother would buy extra just in case we wanted some later-- which we never did.

When I say we walked together, I exaggerate somewhat. My grandpop would always walk much faster than the people he was with. Sometimes he would get a block or two ahead of his party. Then he'd stop and wait for everybody to catch up. As soon as everyone was together, he'd start the process all over again.

On the night he died, he stayed back at the "Bug-ata" while the three of us hit the boardwalk without him.

I didn't want to go. He was insistent. Upon our return I refused to go up to the room, opting instead to sit with the old men French men and hope they weren't making lewd remarks at my expense. Moments later, my grandmother stepped off the elevator and said, "Would somebody call an ambulance?" This time, I took the stairs.

There he was, lying on the bathroom floor, looking as lifeless and lonely as his surroundings.

My grandmother went with him in the ambulance. My sister and I were put into the back of a cop car where we were quickly forgotten. Folks on their way to the boardwalk stared in the window trying to get a look at the two criminals who were no doubt being hauled off to jail. We got the giggles. The harsher the stares, the harder we laughed. I yelled to the onlookers, "I'm not a hooker. I just have a dead grandfather!"

I actually didn't know he was dead until we got to the hospital. I had seen enough soap operas in my short life to know that miracles happen. But when the doctor delivered the bad news, I fell apart. A nurse gave me a pill that made all the pain go away and in one night I discovered what it felt like to be a criminal and a junkie.

We sat in the lobby waiting for my parents. They were driving down from Philly to pick us up. My grandmother and my sister were unusually quiet. I alternated between TV watching and eavesdropping. The news, of course, was all about Elvis. The conversation was the same.

I'm not sure if it was the mind-altering drug or my normally precocious mind at work, but I found it ludicrous that people would be more concerned about the death of a stranger-- which Elvis was-- rather than the actual death in their midst.

And how could the sobbing fans in Memphis claim to feel about Elvis the same way I felt my grandpop? I began to resent the crying masses. They and their public displays of sadness angered me.

Then I thought about Lisa Marie. I couldn't imagine what it would be like to mourn the loss of a loved one while complete strangers-- a whole country full of them almost-- mourned him as well. Just like Elvis did, my grandfather died on the bathroom floor. How awful it would have been if I had to listen to the whole world speculate as to why.

My grandfather's death went mostly unnoticed. Few people attended his funeral. Those who did talked about Elvis. I wore my sixth grade, blue-and-white, flowered graduation dress to the services because my grandpop strongly believed that little girls should never wear black.

As the world commemorates the 30th anniversary of Elvis's death, I can't help but think about my grandpop. Years after he left us, I learned-- through conversations with family members-- that they all thought of him as cold and unloving. I don't remember him that way at all.

He may have never told me that he loved me but his actions spoke louder than any words. When I would sleep over his house, he would go out and buy me a bag of Baby Ruths because he knew they were my favorite. When he took me to the cafeteria at Sears he would say to the cooks, "This is my granddaughter and she would like a cheeseburger, Coke and tapioca pudding." He taught me to play 500 Rummy-- but he would never teach me his card-counting skill, because he said he didn't want me to grow up to have a gambling problem. We watched the Phillies together. We listened to Sinatra together. We made fun of my grandmother together. He was not a perfect man but he was a perfect grandfather.

Thirty years later the world still mourns Elvis while a 41 year-old woman misses her grandpop.

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