Memories of Dad

As an estate-sale aficionado and inveterate book hoarder, I have spent too many hours rifling through the libraries of dead people. This glimpse into the reading habits of the recently departed can be dispiriting. I find it best not to dwell on the public’s zeal for bodice rippers and quack medical tracts and simply keep my eyes peeled for the rare gems.

Among my cardinal book-hunting rules: If I spot a book by Damon Runyon, the early 20th-century journalist and scribe of old Broadway, I snatch it up. In part, this derives from a childhood fondness for Guys and Dolls, the musical based on his short stories. But mainly I trace my affection for Runyon—and my compulsion to scrounge books—to my old man.

Among his accomplishments, John Mosedale was the author of The Men Who Invented Broadway: Damon Runyon, Walter Winchell & Their World. Runyon had stoked Dad’s youthful infatuations with newspapers and New York City, two passions that steered a Depression-era kid from Milwaukee toward a long and fruitful journalistic career in Gotham. In “the Broadway book,” as Dad called it, he repaid that debt.

In the winter of 2010, Dad quit chemotherapy treatments for his throat cancer. Determined only to enjoy his remaining months, he holed up in his book-filled New York apartment. Confined to a La-Z-Boy, he frequently dispatched me to hunt down a volume of interest. When I retrieved it, he would thumb the pages and, often, pluck out a newspaper clipping that was somehow related to the book. This filing method was one of Dad’s signature organizational tactics.

A year after Dad died, I was at an estate sale in south Minneapolis when I spotted a hardcover of the Damon Runyon Omnibus. After completing my $2 purchase, I discovered tucked inside a picture postcard from 1915. The photograph showed a young Runyon. The note was brief: “Hello, Cap! How many letters do I owe you anyway? Well, forgive. Leaving here tonight for Havana—Runyon.” It was addressed to W.S. McWade, of Excelsior, Minnesota.

There was also a single-page letter Runyon wrote to McWade three decades later, in 1945. Runyon, who served under McWade during the Spanish-American War, informed his old friend that he recently lost his speech after undergoing surgery for throat cancer.

“I think the truth of the matter is, my dear Colonel, that I have been getting by on borrowed time and my credit is about exhausted. I have no regrets. I have been permitted to live beyond my own expectations and have enjoyed considerable success at a time of life when most men have folded up. And I have had the satisfaction of knowing that I have made a few friends who could think of something nice to say about me when it seemed necessary—among them yourself.”

Like Runyon, Dad said he had no regrets and, despite his ghastly affliction, always insisted he was lucky. He expressed no fear of death. Religious impulse played no role. Dad put zero stock in the afterlife, but he was a great believer in serendipity. He loved to talk about the queer accidents of life, especially his own. I heard him recount our family’s founding story a thousand times: how he and my mom spent childhood summers on the same speck of an island in northern Minnesota but did not meet until they were adults living in New York City.

I am certain he would have relished unfurling that yarn about the Damon Runyon Omnibus his youngest son unearthed in Minneapolis. And if I close my eyes, I can almost hear him pointing out the late
Col. W.S. McWade’s smart system of filing letters inside books.