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A Tough, Old Bastard

Yesterday, I met a tough old bastard. Some of you may think that's not a very nice thing to say, but you would be wrong. Referring to someone as a tough old bastard is a sign of respect, admiration, and a bit of affection as well.

His name is John, and while I'd met him before, we didn't really say anything to each other when we first met at a family gathering. There were lots of people and I didn't have a chance to sit and talk with John. The second time I visited his home, I had a chance to sit in his dining room and really speak with him. Although we sat next to each other, we didn't say a word at first. Louise began asking him questions about his Navy days. “I wasn't in the Navy,” he said, “I was in the Coast Guard.” She asked where he was based. “Boston,” he replied. That was all he said.

I picked it up from there. When I asked what he did, he told me he was a cook on a 300-foot cutter. As we talked a little more, he began to open up. Here's what I found out:

He was in the Coast Guard for three and a half years as a cook. He was also seasick for those three and a half years. He told me what it was like to be a seasick cook on a ship in the North Atlantic. “Normally, if you left Boston for Nova Scotia, you would leave in the late afternoon and be there early the next morning. I remember one trip that was so rough it took us two days.” He smiled, remembering. “I was so sick, I had to ask someone else to stir the pot while I put my head down.” They offered him a transfer so he wouldn't be sick. “I turned it down. No way was I going to let seasickness beat me.” As I said, a tough old bastard.

After finishing his stint in the Coast Guard, he went to work for one of the top catering companies in the area. “We could cater an event for up to 2,000 people,” he told us. He did that for a number of years, until the boss turned him down when he asked for a raise of 10¢ an hour. What did he do? He moved his family to Cape Cod to make more money. “After I left, the guy who turned me down for the raise offered me half of the company if I came back, but I had already left.” A tough old bastard.

Over the course of his career he ran the kitchens of several of the best restaurants in town, and he told us about the twelve- to fourteen-hour days he spent cooking by himself in a hot kitchen. “We used to do catering as well. We'd cater for the Kennedys back in the day.” The day was the 1960s. The days of Jack, Bobby, and Teddy. He described a large king crab he had that he put on a platter for a large press event at the Kennedy compound in Hyannisport. He knew almost everyone back then. We both remembered all the players, and we spoke fondly of what characters they were.

A few years later, he went to Johnson and Wales culinary school in Rhode Island. “But not as a student; as an instructor. I never had any training, and now I was an instructor. After a while, I was the head of the department.” I told him he must have been quite a chef. He told me he was never a chef because he never had any formal training; he just knew how to cook. A tough old bastard.

Coming back to the Cape, he had a chance to buy a local waterfront restaurant but didn't have any money. “I knew a guy at the bank and he said he knew I could cook and would loan me $150,000 but I'd have to pay him back in five years.” He paused, leaned back and smiled at me. “I paid him back in four”, he said quietly with a knowing grin. A tough old bastard.

You don't find very many men like John anymore. They got up every day and did what they had to do to take care of their families. They didn't talk about it. They didn't need support groups. They didn't talk about their feelings. They just got their asses out of bed and did what had to be done. Tough old bastards.

John recently had major heart surgery, and he's still recovering. He uses a cane and sits in his dining room when the family is all around and just watches them. He doesn't talk much; he just smiles to himself and keeps an eye on things. His family was surprised that he spoke that much with me, since he usually doesn't do that. I understand. He's not one for talking. He's a guy who just gets it done. Talking isn't necessary. A tough old bastard.

Thank you, John, for reminding me what being a man is all about. It's not about talking or entertaining people. It's not about chitchat. It's about doing what you have to do to take care of your family. You did it well, sir, and I salute you. You tough old bastard.


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