The couple eventually settled in Drexel Hill as their family of five sons and a daughter filled the Barone household. Grandpop ran a barbershop, and at some point Grandmom opened one of the first hoagie shops in the area, up on Burmont Road. There were lots of people who didn't like Italians, but not many who didn't like those spicy, oil-drenched lunch-meat sandwiches with the delectable hard rolls, onions, tomatoes, lettuce, and oregano. That slice of prosciutto on top certainly did the sandwiches no harm.
After a few years, Grandmom expanded, opening a hoagie shop in a tiny backwater shore town, West Palm Beach, Fla. Many locals today still call them "hoagies." She spent winters there and summers up here, her children filling in when necessary. And I do mean children.
When Dad completed his education - that would be just after fifth grade - he secured two sturdy Coca-Cola crates (they were sturdy then), stacked them behind a chair in his father's shop, and stood thereon to begin his career in barbering. We and he thought he was 10, but, as we discovered just last year after some research, he was 9. Grandmom had apparently upgraded him by one year when he started school so he would complete the requisite five grades earlier and get to work all that much sooner. He never stopped working.
When Dad met and married my mom, the stunning Rose Marie Raffaele of Darby, he was a seasoned hairstylist, and after being staked by his dad, opened his own flourishing salon in Collingdale. It was a bustling establishment employing six to eight platinum blond hairdressers, whom Dad called his "operators," five days a week. Dad was rarely absent; on that final Saturday he put in his usual nine hours.
The price for his hardworking lifestyle was high. His first heart attack struck him in his thirties, and he died less than 20 years later. His fifth-grade education sufficed to equip him as a highly successful business owner, manager, stylist, and mentor to several generations of beauticians. He was father to six children, and from there his family has expanded to more than a hundred strewn about the Eastern Seaboard.
Dad was proud of his life arc, and so am I. He was just as proud to be able to leave me a very different reality. My first and so far only heart attack hit me in my fifties, and a stent, along with a few hundred pills a day, keep me humming along. No such medical marvels were available to Dad.
If my reality extended my life, it also presented options to which Dad could never aspire, not only a high school diploma but college and master's degrees, careers as a high school principal and later a management consultant and author. It also kept me out of hairdressing, a huge blessing to the coiffures of women everywhere.
When my father floated by Lady Liberty as an infant, there was no Medicare, no Medicaid, no Social Security. When that 9-year-old barber stood on his Coke crates, child labor in the United States was at it peak. It would take decades of activism to outlaw the practice. In 1962, the year he died, satirist Tom Lehrer sang these lyrics: "If you visit American cities, you will find it very pretty; just two things of which you must beware: don't drink the water and don't breathe the air."
On Saturday, Dad would have turned 100. It would undoubtedly bemuse him to hear the heated debates about environmental standards, business regulations, and social programs. He started in his beloved America with nothing, took hold of the opportunities available to him, and worked - oh, how he worked - to pass on to me and my siblings a new wealth of opportunities.
As his 100th birthday passes, I look at my own four children with the six advanced degrees they've earned, their splendid careers in education, deaf studies, and speech-language pathology, and I think of that smile on Dad's face as he looked up at his preening, slightly nervous son in the snow-white tuxedo. I supply the words:
"My half-century ends tonight, son. Yours begins. See that your kids receive a fraction of the great gifts I have managed to hand over to you. Work hard. Safeguard the sacred blessings of liberty promised to us and our posterity. This is what you owe to them, to your country, and to me."
To which I'm sure he'd add, "And enjoy the prom. You look terrific."
E-mail Orlando R. Barone at firstname.lastname@example.org.