The first time I met Casanova, I was with my father at a bowling alley. An old man sat at the snack bar stool eating soup. He wore a stocking cap covering his long wild gray hair. His face was covered with an equally lengthy straggly gray beard, stained yellow below his lower lip from the grease in the soup.
“Hello Cassy!” Dad’s voice caused him to look up and chuckle. His voice came from some deep dark cavern and slightly rumbled as it wound its way to his mouth. “Hello power man!” Dad was a foreman for the power company and often had a bowl of soup for lunch in the same snack bar. They obviously knew each other.
“Have you met any new ladies this week?” My head snapped to look at dad. Was he nuts? What ladies could this scruffy man attract to his tattered coat covered unkempt self? “No, not this week, but next week will be better.”
We sat down in a booth to eat our burgers and I kept an eye on ‘Cassy’. “Who is that man?” “Is his name really Cassy?” Dad told me that his real name was Owen Wilson. He had been a brave soldier in World War II but that some of the action he been in during the war had changed him in ways that were beyond repair. He struggled to talk to most people. His wife had left him a while after he returned home from the war and then died not long thereafter.
Dad went on to explain that Cassy lived in an old worn down Airstream trailer down in the river bottoms on a piece of property that was still in his family. He lived on a meager benefits check that was tied to his war injuries.
He went on to explain that life had been very difficult for Cassy. His friends and family were few and far between. Even though he was a very private person, he was a kind man who was a benefit to society though most people saw him as riffraff to be avoided and despised.
“How did he get the name Cassy?” “Oh, that’s just what I call him.” “It’s short for Casanova.” “I call him that as a private joke between the two of us.” Years later, Cassy told me that dad had paid for his bowls of soup at the bowling alley. Even though our family means were sparse, dad apparently skipped eating lunch every other day so he’d have enough money to pay for Cassy’s bowl of soup and roll.
As time went on and I became the man from the power company myself, I encountered many stories about the ‘secret’ things dad did for people to help them through hard times in their lives.
After my first introduction to Cassy, I watched for him as I traveled to school and on my way back and forth to work in the evenings. I saw him picking up junk along the road and depositing it in the trash. All of the ‘good’ folks walking on the same sidewalks skirted the junk and Cassy. Many of them drew their children and spouses closer to them as they sidestepped him in their encounters. I observed looks on their faces as they glanced his way while murmuring something into the ear of their family members.
Cassy just smiled at them and nodded hello as he went on his way.
When I was old enough to get a job in the grocery store, I found that Cassy frequented the aisles of that huge structure. On my first day on the job, I happened on the manager telling Cassy to leave the store because his presence wasn’t good for business. I talked to them and told the manager that I would take care of Cassy from then on if he’d allow him to return under those conditions.
After a brief period and with some restrictions a deal was made. I’d meet Cassy at a certain door on a certain time and day of the week and take care of his purchases and refunds for the pop bottles. I wasn’t prepared for his first purchase though. After refunding the deposit value of the bottles, we walked down the pet food aisle. He said that he needed some Alpo dog food. Pointing to the shelf he informed me that the cans with the blue label were best. He picked up as many as his bottle refund could cover and we went back to the check stand to purchase them.
“What’s your dog’s name?” I asked. Cassy smiled and said that he didn’t have a dog. I looked down at the cans and then back at Cassy before realizing that the dog food was for him. It was all he could afford. He went on to tell me that the Alpo brand was the best and that the blue label cans were the best tasting.
I stood like a deer in headlights as he nodded and walked to the door. He was eating that stuff? Customers saw my open check stand and rushed to be checked out. I couldn’t talk to Cassy about his purchase that day.
The next week, we met again. When I started to object to him picking up the cans of Alpo, he stopped and became very stern with me. “Look at this” he said pointing to the label. “Fit for consumption by all breeds of dogs” it said. “Have you ever fed a dog people food?” “Did they die?” “Well, yes and no they didn’t die, but…” Cutting me off, he said that I was young and as a result was relatively dumb. “When I was in the war, I ate things that were far worse than dog food to stay alive.” “Don’t talk to me about dog food again!” “It tastes good and it keeps me fed.”
I made the mistake of offering to buy him so meat from the meat department during a later visit and it upset him so much that I didn’t see him for weeks afterward. Cassy was a proud man. He didn’t want anyone feeling sorry for him. I wondered how my father had enticed him to eat a free bowls of soup. I obviously didn’t have the touch.
Life went on and I saw Cassy less and less. I had introduced him to several of the women checkers at the store over time and they weren’t upset with his presence. The store manager was transferred and the new manager didn’t mind if Cassy came to the store during the early part of the day while I was in school. The ladies took care of his purchases. Our paths crossed less and less.
A few years after I married, I saw a note in the local newspaper saying that Owen Wilson had died. His obituary was brief. It didn’t tell the story of the man who fought so bravely for his country during the war. It didn’t tell of the effects his wartime experiences had on his life. It didn’t tell of the good man that I knew, the man would pick up the trash that society carelessly threw out of their cars or simply dropped to the ground. It didn’t tell of the man who was avoided due to his appearance; the appearance having been earned by fighting to ensure their freedoms.
Cassy wasn’t a hero in their eyes. He was a bum. A vagabond….maybe something even worse.
I knew different. I knew that he left home for war as a respected young man who paid a price for his service that many would consider to be worse than death.
The problems people saw in Cassy weren’t his problems, they were theirs. They probably would have been mine too if my father hadn’t introduced me to Cassy that day in the bowling alley and told me some of his story. I saw Cassy in a much different light after that and discovered more about him than even my father knew.
As I work to find my ancestors and their stories, I often encounter someone in the family who was different than the others. They seemed to live on the fringe of society. What were their stories? Some of them did fight in wars too. Were their wartime experiences as life changing as Cassy’s? Did society treat them the way it treated Cassy in my day?
While you are busily working to find your ancestry, be sure to try and find their stories too. I promise you that once you do, they will come alive in your mind. Your research may slow a little as you add the color to the names on the page with their stories, but they will become good friends at the same time. You won’t forget them like you do with just names and dates. You’ll find that their stories weren’t all that different than our own stories. The logistics of their lives may have been different but the flow of their storylines will be very recognizable and comparable to our own.