On Monday, my sister in-law Bernice posted the following tribute on Facebook. “Remembering our dad, Larry Cegielski, today on his birthday. So grateful for all the memories we have of this fun-loving guy and all that he taught us about love, laughter and family. We will always be proud of him for his hard work and dedication and the ability to make the little things in life the most important. Wish you were here to celebrate, Dad, cause it was always a party when you were around.”
My sister-in-law’s tribute was most definitely written through the rose-colored glasses of three decades gone by, because I can assure you that it was not always a party when my Dad was around — unless, of course, your idea of a party is getting cussed out and beaten with a stick.
Bernice, who truly is the sweetest person on the face of the planet, also had the benefit of being one of a very select few who was absolutely adored by my father. Bernice started dating my brother Donny when she was in high school, and when my brother had the audacity to break up with her for a short period, Donny was practically disowned by my father. And, for the record, I wholeheartedly supported my father’s decision to disown him.
Luckily for all involved, Donny and Bernice got back together and have now been married for more than 30 years.
Along with the touching words, Bernice posted a photo montage of my father on Facebook that did a pretty darn good job of summing up the best parts of my father’s life — and she did it all with just five photos.
The oldest photo, which is in black and white from 1963, shows my Dad at age 29 holding his three sons, Michael, age 4, Donny, age 3, and me as an infant. Little sister Tammy was still two years away from her worldly debut. That photo gives absolutely no indication that my dad was a stern disciplinarian, who occasionally would go a little overboard, especially with my oldest brother.
Another photo, from 1970, shows my dad standing behind the little league team that he coached to a couple of championships. Aptly named the Cardinals (pretty sure my Dad insisted on the name), the team photo includes both of my brothers, who were star players. I’m in the photo too. I led the team to many a win with my standout performances as a batboy. Dad was a great coach, but I am willing to bet that every single one of the kids in that photo were scared to death of him, including his three sons.
A 1973 photo is, I’m quite certain, the only professional photo ever taken of my father. It was taken for the sole purpose of putting it on political campaign material when my dad ran for “Committeeman” of Delaware Township in New Jersey. He lost his first time around, but came back to win the seat a year later.
A photo from the early ’80s shows my father posing with a lunker trout that he probably hauled in from the canal that runs along the Delaware river in Stockton, N.J. He’s posing with his best friend, Frank Yasunas, who obviously caught a lot more fish than my Dad. Even though Frank had the much bigger haul, I’m sure he was being ribbed good by my father about his “puny little fish” compared to Dad’s trophy trout.
The last photo is from 1988, the year before my father died. This one shows my dad dressed in a St. Louis Cardinals jacket and ball cap holding a Budweiser while cruising down the Mississippi River on a paddle-wheeler with the St. Louis Arch and an American flag in the background. This particular photo is my favorite because, if you had to describe my father’s biggest joys in life in four words, you would be pretty close to nailing it with “Cardinals,” “fishing,” “America” and “Budweiser.”
However, the other reason I love this photo is because I was the one behind the camera and I somehow managed to perfectly capture my father’s “I’m about to kick the snot out of you” demeanor.
Outside of a two-day side trip to Gettysburg on the way to dropping my oldest brother off at baseball camp in Pittsburgh in 1967, the trip to St. Louis in 1988 was the only vacation that my father ever went on. I was shocked when I ran the idea to visit St. Louis with him and he actually said “yes.”
It was his love for the Cardinals that got him to travel in an airplane for the first time since serving in the Navy during the Korean War. My Dad started rooting for the Cardinals when he was 8 years old. The first World Series he ever heard on the radio was between the 1942 St. Louis Cardinals and New York Yankees. My father chose to root for the underdog Cardinals that October and it paid off as they defeated the mighty Yankees four games to one. The Cardinals, led by Stan “The Man” Musial, became his team from that time forward.
Flash forward to 1969. I was 6 years old and I had decided that I was going to jump on the “Miracle Mets” bandwagon. Heck, in New Jersey in 1969, just about every 6-year-old kid was jumping on the Mets’ bandwagon. Tom Seaver and crew were busy turning those lovable losers into world champions. As a young kid who lived only a couple hours from Shea Stadium, it was only natural that I declare my newfound allegiance to the boys in blue. Heck, I even liked Mr. Met.
I remember sitting at the dinner table and announcing to the family that I had decided to root for the Mets. My Dad looked at me with the same “I’m about to kick the snot out of you” look on his face and calmly said, “Well, I’m going to miss you.”
“Huh?” I responded dumbfounded.
“Yeah, go get your things. You’re not living here if you aren’t a Cardinal fan.” I looked around the table for help and received none — not even from my mom. Even at age 6, I knew this was quite unfair and I decided I would make the family regret the day they ever messed with me.
I went upstairs and grabbed my ViewMaster, Slinky, a jacket and my pillow and decided that I would leave the old homestead and make it on my own. I made it all the way to the end of the driveway before I started having second thoughts. I was hungry. It was already starting to get dark and, dammit, it had completely slipped my mind that I was afraid of the dark.
Within minutes of leaving, I knew I had made a big mistake. I decided I couldn’t immediately turn around and come back in ’cause I would look silly, so I waited at the end of the driveway for as long as I could (20 minutes tops) before I slunk my way back in the house and declared my allegiance to the Cardinals.
To this day, I am a diehard St. Louis Cardinals fan, and thank God, because it was one of the few things (that and Dr. Demento) that I was able to bond with my father over.
Even though I remember my dad a little differently than Bernice, I do miss him terribly. I can’t believe he has been gone for close to 30 years and now that I’m the same age that he was when he died, I have a new perspective on just how much he missed out on. The thing that saddens me the most is that he never got to meet his five granddaughters and one grandson. I have no doubt that those kids would have melted his sometimes hard-as-nails heart and, much like his feelings toward Bernice, he would have adored them.
Jim Cegielski is publisher of the Leader-Call. He lives in Laurel.