February 1 is the anniversary of the death of my father, Hyman William Perlman (1910-80).
He was indirectly responsible for this blog – and in fact for all the secularism, skepticism, atheism, and humanism that have been the foundation of my intellectual life. He was the first skeptic I ever met, and the effect was lasting. Every time Mom would babble on about “God’s will,” he would snap back, “What’s God got to do with it?”
What indeed. Things may happen for some reason or for none at all. There is certainly no guiding intelligence, let alone the nutjob main character of the Abrahamic religions. Bill understood that.
In recent years, when Mom would start with “God willing,” I remind her that God’s will was for Dad to die so early, whereas we all would have preferred to have him around for all those years. She has lately shut up about God’s will when she talks to me.
Memories of Thatcher’s Pharmacy
Bill was a pharmacist by trade, and I could fill multiple blog entries with life at Thatcher’s Pharmacy, where my brother and I logged many hours. Snapshot memory: driving around the town dropping off, at each doctor’s office, a Christmas bottle (or, for the teetotalers, candy) at Christmastime.
Most kids today are spared the experience of working in the family business, which is too bad, because they have no idea of what their parents do for a living, and they miss out on the all-for-one effort that the family businesses require.
Sit ye down, young’uns, and I’ll tell of the old days, BEFORE all the drugstores became Walgreens or CVS. There were MANY drugstores! Independent ones! With many different names! Rexall/Rite-Aid was the only chain.
Back then, the druggist was an apothecary, perhaps doing some prescribing (some customers called Dad “doc”), even compounding some prescriptions himself – or selling his own hand lotion or cough formula. Drug policy was delightfully loose, and you could get cough medicine with codeine just by signing for it.
Of note is the fact that dad hired the only two black pharmacists in town. It was the 50s, and no one else would hire them. Both were fully credentialed and competent. I’m proud of Dad for that.
Ahead of his time
Dad’s humor was droll and deadpan. Very few people in his small town “got” him.
Along with skepticism, Dad passed on to me some nutritional information that turned out to be 50 years ahead of its time: eat plenty of fiber, drink lots of water, avoid sugar and processed foods (I recall Dad reading food labels and complaining – in the 50s, mind you! - about the artificial flavoring and coloring).
How did he know? My best guess is that this knowledge, associated with the dietary practices of the Seventh Day Adventists and their whole lifestyle in Battle Creek, MI, where the cereal industry was born, somehow found its way into the pharmacy curriculum of the day.
Dad was a sports atheist. He just didn’t give a shit about men chasing, hitting, or throwing balls. Yet he was incredibly fit and muscular. Perhaps it was from lifting boxes of drugstore merchandise and doing a lot of walking. But games? He didn’t have the time, patience, or interest. If anybody played catch with me, it was my uncles.
Thus neither my brother nor I enjoyed any kind of sports competence and always wound up at the bottom of the batting order. Whatever competence we did achieve, we gained on our own, later on.
Bill knew that his sports atheism would cut him off from other men, but he still wouldn’t cave.
I followed sports enough to be conversant, to enjoy the magnificent dominance of the Chicago Bulls in the 90s, and to form a lukewarm relationship with the Bears (especially since their greatest quarterback, Sid Luckman, was Jewish!).
Now that I have left a major sports market and live in no sports market, images of men skating, tossing, hitting, and chasing various objects have been out of my mind for months, and I find that I do not miss them at all. A team called the Oklahoma City Thunder was in the NBA finals, and I never heard of them. Oklahoma City has a champion NBA team?? The Thunder???
One million people turned out to celebrate the Boston Bruins’ championship, more than ever get together for a religious gathering, yet the sports event, and the associated fandom, resemble religion in many ways: long-term identification with the narrative (no World Series for Cubs in 105 years = eternal waiting for Rapture or Messiah), wearing of appropriate regalia (including body painting), pilgrimages and witnessing despite monumental inconvenience (I know one couple who go to Arizona to see the Cubs in SPRING TRAINING).
Also: assumed superiority or at least specialness (no World Series in 105 years) of the in-group; violence against supporters of the other team; consumption of mind-altering substances prior to and during the event; coordinated vocal events (cheers, songs). The only major difference I can think of is that nobody bets on religion.
So Bill was right after all! And consistent: His skepticism about sports was of a piece with his skepticism about religion. Letting go of both is a liberation. He showed that you can be physically fit without playing games, a skill that has benefited me in later life.
The Thatcher’s brand
Dad retired at 55 to work part-time. Thatcher’s Pharmacy was sold to a pair of pharmacist twins. They opened up another branch but didn’t see the branding and franchising possibilities. “Thatcher’s Pharmacy” – the name connotes just the kind of old-time drugstore you can trust.
In 1984, my brother and I, along with Mom and our wives, went to Israel to plant a tree for Dad. Mom wanted us to say Kaddish (the Hebrew prayer for the dead; this was when I would make such concessions), so, this being Israel, my brother and I fully expected to find, say, laminated in the hotel room, a copy of the Kaddish, put there as a public service, like the Gideon Bible. No such luck! It’s Israel, and we can’t find a Kaddish anywhere.
We were forced to reconstruct it from memory. Many of the words are right, but the syntax was jumbled, and for all we know, we stuck together pieces that have nothing to do with each other. We read it at the planting site, and the guide from the kibbutz rolled his eyes. My brother still has the text of what we call the “fractured Kaddish.”
I also said this:
“Bill was a fine citizen, a loyal husband, a devoted father. He consumed little and gave much. He bore others up and was a burden to no one. He did what he believed right, and with laudable consistency, he was right.
“Each of us is part of the vast and astonishing story of creation, the ever-renewing chain of life. We enter and grow…we make our contributions…we beget and teach, we build and write, we design and invent, we buy, sell, consume, heal, love, learn – and we end.
“But we live on as memories and achievements. And so does Bill Perlman. So while we grieve that he is gone, let us be happy that he lived, and by so doing, made our lives the richer.”