Commentary: A Special Father

By Louis A. Zona

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Sometimes I think that my dad, rest his soul, had the toughest job in the world: barber.

Everyday he had to deal with issues such as head lice, customers falling asleep in the chair, squirming and crying children, and trying to please customers who expected to look like Clark Gable after experiencing one of Dad’s haircuts.

Dad was an outstanding barber but not a miracle worker. Being a clean freak, he washed his hands again and again after a day’s work. Of course, those were days when cleanliness was not necessarily next to Godliness.

Dad loved the weekend when, after a great Sunday meal Mom prepared, he broke out his fly rod and headed for the creek, or grabbed his golf clubs and, on occasion, checked the paper to see if a Western was playing at the Vogue Theater.

My father loved watching cowboy and Indian films but, on the other hand, absolutely hated films that were promoted by “a cast of thousands.”

I never knew why my dad had this thing about movies that featured thousands of cavalrymen on horseback, or hundreds of swashbuckling pirates taking over an enemy ship at sea.

As for his hobbies, I never saw him land a trout or a northern pike, never knew that he came close to rivaling his favorite golfer, Bobby Jones, or spent that much time in his basement workshop.

But my father, who was nicknamed Red, because of his bright red hair, was smart, humorous, curious and loved the Pittsburgh Pirates and Steelers.

Franco Harris was his favorite football player and his only comment that I can remember about the Pirates was, “That team doesn’t know how to bunt.”

And if he were alive today he’d still say the Pirates never did learn how to bunt.

Although my father wasn’t especially devout, he never missed Mass on Sunday and, through sixth grade, attended St. Vitus Catholic School. He was the first Louis Zona to be taught by the Sisters of St. Francis.

I remember one of Dad’s Mass moments when Holy Communion came his way. Instead of properly responding to the priest after receiving the host with “Body of Christ,” Dad answered with a hearty “Thank you.” The family still laughs about it.

Although not small, my father was not a big man. His size came into play on a fishing trip with his sons-in-law, Mike and Albert.

Somehow Dad ended up on the wrong side of the creek where the overhanging trees challenged his ability to fly fish. Seeing my father’s frustration, Mike took matters into his own hands, grabbed Dad and lifted him onto his shoulders and carried him, fishing boots and all, across the creek.

Since I was also there – at around 16 years of age – Mike picked me up as well and carried me across. To say that we were embarrassed to be carried like toddlers across the stream is an understatement. We reminded Mike for years about the morning that he carried the family across the water like in the story of St. Christopher.

But stories of my father fishing remind me of the morning that Dad, his sons-in-laws, Mike and Albert, and I went fishing for bass on the Allegheny River near Oil City.

All four of us were on a boat that barely held us but we did bring a coffee pot to have a morning cup. And boy did that coffee smell good! But disaster befell us when that fresh pot of Maxwell House tipped over and poured across the seat where Dad and I sat.

Then Dad did the unthinkable. Cupping his hand, he pushed and pulled the hot coffee across his seat and drank it. Although he was a major clean freak, he was not going to let that coffee get away even though we kiddingly reminded him that fishing worms once crawled on that seat coffee had poured across.

Mike, Albert and I laughed as he drank that coffee with abandon.

Dad ultimately left the barbershop and got a job at Mesta Machine Co, a job he loved. My cousin Joe also worked at Mesta and told me about some of the jokes that my dad pulled on his fellow workers like creating wire tails that he hung on the back pockets of guys walking by his workstation.

When spotted by other workers, those tails brought about much laughter. “I just bet that you went by Red Zona today,” was an often-heard comment at the Mesta machine shop back in the 1960s.

Mom had mixed emotions when Dad retired. She knew that since he loved to cook that he would take over the kitchen. And he did – with his favorite dish being any pasta with tomato sauce and various approaches to the cooking of fish.

Whereas Mom could throw things together and work miracles in the kitchen, Dad was more scientific in the way that he approached cooking. And guess whose dishes consistently tasted better?

My dad loved Christmas and each year spent a couple of weeks setting up a display in our living room on two 8-x-12-foot sections of plywood. The display included our electric train featuring many accoutrements such as track switches, whistles and coal-dumping cars.

A frozen lake with skaters and entire miniature villages were included in the display that attracted relatives and neighbors to the Zona residence on Center Street. I enjoyed that time of the year because of Dad and worried each year that it might be his last because of his many ailments.

But Dad left us so much in the way of memories that he never could really die. I continue to picture him in Mom’s kitchen or fixing the miniature railroad tracks on his Christmas display.

I was one lucky dude to have had such a special dad.