In Memoriam: Arthur Briguglio
December 29, 1921 - November 24, 2008
Arthur Briguglio was a great man.
It's difficult to really capture the richness of Artie's life, especially when my exposure to his formative years, even the majority of his life, is second- or even third-hand. So, the story I'm about to tell you is not about a husband, or a father, or a brother in arms. It's a story of affection and of admiration, unique to the relationship he and I had. It's a story about my grandfather, whose inclination for storytelling I seem to have inherited.
Although his drivers license and every form of government identification says differently, Arthur Briguglio was born on December 29, 1921. One of four brothers growing up in the upper east side of New York City, what stories I've heard about my grandfather's youth generally can be categorized as those of mischief. While we've all heard about Artie and his brothers getting into typical boy-centered mishaps, my personal favorite is the time when Pop was caught stealing from a street merchant and was, in turn, walked home by a police officer to talk to his father. When asked what Artie stole, the officer said, "fruit." If you could hold Pop back from laughing while telling this tale, you would eventually hear about how his father went ballistic. Not over the theft, necessarily - Art's father owned a fruit stand, and here was his son swiping fruit from across town.
It was the type of mischief that we can color in Depression-era sepia tones and pass off as mild and distinctly Artie, which is why I guess it felt okay to everyone to find humor in these stories and let Pop reminisce about them often.
One of the most striking memories I have of my grandfather's youth is the story he told me about being forced to stop going to school in 9th grade so he could drive a truck to earn money for his family. He told me he cried when he couldn't go to school any more, and you could always hear the sadness in his voice as he spoke of it. Still, by the time I started to know him, it would be unthinkable to call Pop uneducated. Here was a man whose knowledge and vocabulary far exceeded my own, who had a dictionary covered in brown paper and worn thin from his looking up words in the Wall Street Journal or Barrons he was always devouring. A man who went to radio school at night, who taught me to read the stock pages when I was 9, and who I was never able to beat at checkers no matter how hard I tried, even in his final days.
Always willing to bend your ear about supercolliders, the telegraph, or some other interesting thing he read about in the paper or saw on a PBS television special, Artie was a fountain of information. And just in case you missed something of interest, there was always the occasional Wall Street Journal article clipping that would arrive in the mail to let you know Artie was thinking about you. Artie was both educated by and full of life.
His family knows well the story of how Art and Emma met. We know it well because you never heard a story just once with Pop. However, if you were patient and listened carefully as he weaved through each version, you learned something new each and every time.
A Motor Mac, First Class in World War II, Art spent most of his time in the Pacific theater on the repair ship the USS Samar (ARG-11). However, just before his deployment on the Samar, Art found himself stationed Philadelphia and in between ships. One night, some of his Navy buddies played a trick on him and sent him in search of a movie playing at 14th and Broad, or at least that's what he told Emma when they met on the street in March of 1945. Emma was walking from City Hall on Market Street, while Art, skinny in his Navy uniform, followed her around for a while before asking where to find "The Fighting Lady." Pop liked to joke about Emma being the fighting lady, perhaps because they never actually made it to that movie. Instead, they saw "To Have and Have Not" on their first date together, a movie full of the idyllic romance of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, which I find poetic and telling about their 63 years together.
After they met, Art and Emma went on dates every other night, sometimes to the USO canteen for dancing and donuts, each time Art making sure to escort Emma safely home. Often, they skipped the final midnight trolley that would take them across town, opting instead to walk the long distance from Darby to Yeadon, hand in hand, talking about marriage and children, planning their future life together.
1945 was, of course, the middle of World War II. Art spent the majority of his time in the Navy at war in the Pacific, specifically Bougainvillea and Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, fixing the injectors, generators, and regulators of diesel ship engines. While in the Navy, Artie passed through the Panama Canal twice, picked up colorful phrases like "You eat what the monkey eats, and if you catch the monkey you eat him too," and loaded up on enough stories about twin 50s, seawater soap, boxing, and roughage to entertain generations of his family. Pop said he joined the Navy so he didn't need to live in a foxhole like someone in the Army, though he would laugh that the first thing he did when he landed in the Pacific was step off his boat into a foxhole as bombs were exploding all around. It's sobering to think that many of us, in one form or another, owe our lives to him, our livelihoods forever linked to his chance survival in those amazingly dangerous times.
Of course, we also are in debt to Artie's charm and good luck. While waiting for deployment in Norfolk, Art jumped ship with an engagement ring his mother had sent from New York, and boarded the train to Philadelphia. AWOL and in his dress whites, Art ended up at Emma's Philadelphia doorstep at 6:00 in the morning just a day before he was to set sail. With his Navy buddies covering for him during role call back on his ship, and his Captain completely unaware of his absence, Art proposed to Emma on July 15, 1945. The rest of their love affair, as they say, is history.
It is simply impossible to doubt the love Art and Emma had over those more than 60 years together. If a picture paints a thousand words, then a single, slightly faded image hanging on their wall says it all: Art and Emma, youthful on their 25th wedding anniversary, a completely giddy-with-love smile on Artie's face as he danced with the girl of his dreams.
After the war, Artie worked a few jobs before settling at RCA, where he remained until his well earned retirement in 1981. His work as a tester at RCA, chasing blinking diodes on computer panels that stretched across rooms, are as cryptic to me as today's technology was to him. However, in his 30 years at RCA the engineers named two transistor pathways after him: the Art flip-flop and the Art gate. While I can't claim to have the foggiest idea what either of those actually were, I do know that, even in the bygone era of vacuum tubes, only the truly exceptional get things named after them.
In listening to Pop talk about his time at RCA, you understood that Art was a meticulous tester, the go-to guy when you had an obscure problem nobody else could understand or fix. I suspect that most of us remember moments when Pop was our go-to guy. I know that I have them, and I'll miss the sobering and down-to-earth perspective he always carried so easily.
I still can't pass over the Ben Franklin Bridge without looking at the RCA building in Camden, my thoughts drifting to Pop, his description of the Dog Listening to His Master's Voice, and all that he ever taught me during our time together.
After his retirement from RCA, Art really settled in on the things he is best remembered for. Pop loved his garden, which he tended to in ways only he could: broken wine jugs nursing his tomato seedlings through spring, old windows and boards serving as makeshift greenhouses, coffee cans and old buckets gathering rainwater. Everything Artie did had a certain make-do-with-what-you-have Depression air about it, but nobody can argue with the results. His tomatoes are the stuff of legends - giant and delicious beefsteaks, plentiful enough to pick and eat like apples, right off the vine. He also loved his figs, though I recall years where he fought like a prize fighter with fig trees that, despite his most careful nurturing, didn't produce a single fruit. Eventually, though, he triumphed - the tree that followed him from 8 Highland Avenue was abundant with figs, so much so that he gave me a cutting of it which survives in my own garden today.
Not long before he died, but after he had lost his power of speech, I was talking with Pop about my garden. About the tomatoes that were never as good as his, about my shockingly purple asparagus and, of course, about my adventures with his fig tree offspring. His eyes completely lit up when I told him his cutting had produced four figs. Sensing his misunderstanding, I said, "Not four fig trees, four figs!" and he laughed and laughed and we laughed together some more.
I think if I had to choose one word to describe my grandfather it would be jovial, full of the kind of joy and spirit that is infectious to those around him. He would always sit in a lawn chair outside the back door of his old house overlooking his garden, some iced tea in his hand, wearing a tee shirt from Mr. B's that read "Corny Joker," waving to the chipmunks and squirrels. In that chair, I can see my grandfather's face light up with genuine warmth and happiness upon any visitor's arrival. You always knew Artie was happy to see you, from the way his smile radiated when he said "Hey, good lookin'!" to the way he always shook your hand with both of his.
Besides being a masterful gardener, Artie was also a relentless tinkerer, fascinated with cars, radios, CBs, and just about anything electronic. I think he more often pulled things apart than he actually managed to put back together, and his old basement was certainly a testament to this: a collection of televisions, VCRs, radios, blenders, transistors, resistors, switches, assorted nuts and bolts and newspapers. It was all fascinating to me as a child, but to Pop, the "belt and suspenders man," it was all part of a grand plan to be able to fix anything his family could ask of him. And ask we did - we've all had Artie wiring our houses, fixing our watches and cars and washing machines. He was our very own, one and only, Mr. Fix-It.
In his final months, when I finally came to terms with understanding that my grandfather wouldn't be around for much longer, I found myself remembering him often. Or, more properly, I discovered that my heritage is inescapable. When I fixed a flashlight for my kids with a meter and soldering iron - that was an Artie. Retooling the dishwasher with a drill and some cable ties to keep it running just a bit longer - that's an Artie. Replacing the ends of a hose with spare couplings instead of buying a new one - that's an Artie. Using that hose as part of an intricate web of sprinklers to keep my garden watered while we were on vacation - that's definitely an Artie. Eating tomato salad with tomatoes and basil straight from the garden when we returned. Well, it's just hard to do anything with tomatoes in the summer without thinking of my grandfather.
Once, when I was a teenager, we were all on the beach in Ocean City as a family when it started to rain. It was just a little rain, but enough to drive all the people away. As the beach cleared, Pop sat with me on a straw mat until only we were left. We stared at the ocean in the rain and in silence, alone and in each other's company. Artie was fascinated yet humbled by life and the world around him, but I never really appreciated that aspect of him until reflecting on that rainy afternoon. He always seemed to find the best and brightest side in each day. Life didn't wear Artie down, but rather smoothed him over and gave him even more to be thankful for, more that he could pass on to those around him. I'm thankful for that bright perspective of his, and can only hope those optimistic lessons he tried to teach me don't fade away.
As we all know, Artie was a bit of a pack rat. He saved just about everything, from the check written by the government for a single penny, to the knife he machined in the Navy, the metal handle of which he fashioned from a mold in the sand. One of the artifacts he had stashed away was a thank you card he received not all that long ago. The inside of the card reads:
"I just want to thank you for helping me when I was stranded the other day in your backyard. You were busy with your own car but you took the time to give me a hand. I followed your advice and got a new battery and battery cable - works like a charm! Thank you for caring! The girl with the green VW Rabbit."
I doubt there is a family member in this room who doesn't owe several months of car life to Artie and his poking around under the hood. For many in his family, car internals education was almost a rite of passage - you couldn't really consider yourself a driver until Pop gave you a lecture about how to check your air filter or get your car started again after flooding the carburetor. But even more telling about Artie is that this particular thank you for battery cable advice came from a perfect stranger and was uniquely addressed. The front of the envelope begins not with an address but with a written description:
"To the man at the corner row house, the one with the garden and with two cars in the back yard."
and continues with details on the location of Artie's house for the Postman. I suspect that the folks at the Post Office got a good chuckle out of this, but that everyone there knew exactly whose house the letter was for. Artie granted everyone he met a warm "Hello," and a personality like his, with that deep belly laugh and disarming smile, was impossible to forget.
My grandfather, as I remember him, was the most genuine person I have ever known. He was an antique in the finest sense of the word, his youthful edges worn smooth by a lifetime of living but still shining brightly to the end. He was a masterpiece, our patriarch - one of a kind and absolutely irreplaceable. A man for whom the creation of a tomato sandwich represented an art form all its own, who would touch you gently with the back of his hand when he talked to you, especially when he really started to dig into a story. A man content with macaroni and gravy, who drank his red wine from a juice glass, and who couldn't eat an artichoke without coughing first. A man who was full of stories and corny jokes, but mostly stories.
I know I'll be telling stories about Pop-Pop to my children for years - stories about his generosity, his humor, and his warmth that will last for generations. This is his legacy.
Arthur Briguglio will be missed by all.
November 29, 2008