|I was born January 30th, 1953. Remember that
date--it'll be important later.|
My father, Fritz Hembeck, was born in 1902, one of a large brood of eight or so kids. In the mid-twenties, he followed his older sister, Ida, to the United States, Americanizing his name to " Fred' in the process. No other Hembeck ever ventured across the Atlantic, and I in turn never met any of them. Dad eventually served in the U. S military during the Second World War, and yes, it was quite a relief to me as a kid to know that although my father was German, he wasn't a Nazi!! Not every child's concern, admittedly, but in my position, one that preyed on my young mind whilst reading my SGT. FURY comics. Now, although his sister made a family for herself in New Jersey, Fred senior ultimately wound up working as a cook in the Suffolk County Infirmary, situated about fifty miles away from New York City and off in the wilds of Long Island. The small town of Yaphank --that's a Native American name folks, and as soon as I find out what it means, I'll be sure to get right back to you-- housed what was essentially an old folks home, and it also housed Helen Baker, employed at the aforementioned institution as a nurse's aide.
The only child of George and Annette (Nettie) Baker, my mom was born in 1913. When I was just a little fella, my grandma--or "Nanny", as I inexplicably called her, no doubt due to some early pronunciation mix-up--was assigned not only the task of telling me where babies came from ("out of a mommy's belly" was essentially the sum total of all the info I was given to work with) but also to clue me into what was then considered a shady aspect of my dear mommy'--she was (gasp!) a divorced woman!! Shocking! Seems she was married to a man by the name of Omar for a full ten years, but in all that time, they'd had no luck producing a blessed event. Back in those dark days, Nanny informed me, if a wife didn't bear children, it was just assumed it was her problem, certainly not the husband's. And according to my dear old granny, this Omar fella wasn't particularly nice to my future mom. I do believe the term "beatings" came up. Maybe this was an exaggeration from a disgruntled former mother-in-law, and maybe it wasn't. The topic never came up again in the subsequent passage of time. All I know is things weren't hunky dory between Helen and Omar. And while I realize it doesn't quite work this way (years later I found out stuff my Nanny NEVER told me!!...), as much as I've never been overly found of the name " Fred", I think I'd've been even more upset going through life as an "Omar Junior"!?! All due apologies to Omar Shariff and any of my other like named readers out there, of course...
So there I was, another only child, growing up in what my parents struggled to make a middle class existence. I wanted for nothing, basically, though I was smart enough not to develop extravagant tastes. If you do the math, you can see that my parents were considerably older than me. In fact, my mom would occasionally remark about the difficulty of delivering her little bundle of joy. Medical science wasn't nearly as advanced as it is nowadays, and a woman her age having a baby was a real risk to both the mother and the child. Once, she made the curious statement that, upon actually seeing me for the first time, she was grateful that she had decided to keep me, but I just assumed that she was referring to taking on the considerable problems involved with a latter life stage pregnancy, and let it drop. Fact is, I let most everything drop--one thing our little family didn't have was very much communication.
Dad worked from 5AM to 1PM each day. Mom's shift was 3PM to 11PM. They were both off on Thursdays and Fridays, and they both worked weekends. They told me this was for my benefit--with this arrangement, I'd never need a babysitter, and nope, never did have one as it turned out. But I think there was another reason for the staggered schedule-- that way, my parents wouldn't have to spend much time together at all! Believe me, there wasn't much affection between the two of them--heck, there wasn't ANY!! Never saw them hold hands, smooch, any of that there lovey dovey stuff!! Later, when I was old enough to figure things out past Nanny's elementary birds and bees lesson, I found myself sincerely wondering how exactly I ever managed to appear on the scene!?! Some sort of a fluke, perhaps? Sure stumped me, because growing up all I ever heard was a whole lotta bickering going on between my mom and my dad. Don't misunderstand me--hands were never raised, and none of this negative energy was ever directed at Little Freddy (as I was known around the house). Still, listening to all this yelling and all sorts of insults being flung back and forth, well, it was debilitating all the same. And especially since I well knew mom was more than capable of putting the kibosh on a not-so-blissful union--what's to stop her from a calling a second one quits, I wondered?? Well, apparently, I was. Back in those days, unhappy people took a deep breath and kept there loveless gigs going pretty much just for the kiddies sakes. Looking at it now from an adult perspective, this miserable solution doesn't really make a lot of sense, but I sure am glad they stuck it out when I was a kid. Hey, I had virtually no other relatives! What would've become of Little Freddy if my folks split?? Would my new guardians--whoever the wretched strangers might turn out to be-- even let me BUY my beloved comic books? Brrr--don't think I didn't worry about paranoid situations like that when I'd hear my mom lay into my dad verbally yet once again (and yes, she seemed to be the more aggressive of the pair, making me wonder all the more about the nature of her relationship with the long-gone Omar. To get the best of my tough old mom, he must've been some hard cookie!!...)
Don't let me paint you too bleak a picture. Lotsa people have had it far worse than I ever did. We're not talking strict disciplinarians here. Both my folks were relatively easy going (with ME), just unfortunately and somewhat inherently remote. Like I said, I was indulged in most material ways, just a tad bit neglected in the emotional arena. But look at it this way--how was a man who grew up in Germany in the ohs and teens supposed to relate to a kid coming of age in the crazy whacked out sixties?? It must've been a mind-boggling adjustment for my dad, one he sadly wasn't quite up for--though I doubt he wasn't the only one unable to fathom those tumultuous times. Luckily, I was always surrounded by a group of good friends my own age in our neighborhood. Some I knew from kindergarten right on up through my college days, and I firmly believe these long standing personal connections kept me from being a socially inept specimen. Additionally, these associations no doubt substituted somewhat for the lack of familial atmosphere found at home. Of course, when I did leave my buddies and venture back into my quarters, what'd I have to fill in the quiet time? Yup. Comic books. Guess that explains THAT, eh doctor?
As the years marched on, the folks got mellower, especially after dad retired and was around the house all the time. No, they still weren't snuggling on the couch while watching the Lawrence Welk Champagne Hour, but there was a considerably significant decrease in the outright hostilities. A little mutual annoyance was pretty much the extent of things, and I no longer felt concerned that they might split up. Y'see, turns out they had a brand new focal point for there anger--ME! Yup, I was a teenager now, and while I wasn't the sorta kid to ever get into any kind of real trouble--sorry, no good stories there-- my mere attempt to grow my hair to sixties-like lengths was enough to send my staunchly Republican parents into Archie Bunker-like convulsions!
But we got past that, too. College beckoned. I left home. I met Lynn, fell in love big time, and eventually, got hitched. We lived about three hours away from mom and dad, which seemed just right--it was close enough to allow me to visit every month or so, but far enough away to discourage any surprise drop-ins (like THAT would've ever happened, but that's a whole other digression I just don't have the strength to go into now...) That's how I was able to get down to Long Island so quickly in early 1983 when I got the call from my father saying mom had just been rushed to the hospital.
Ironically, despite working most of their adult lives in a medical institution--or perhaps because of it--my folks always resisted seeking help from members of the health profession. Except for when I was about 10 and my dad spent two nights in the hospital battling a mild case of pneumonia, they managed to get away with this head-in-the sand approach to medical care. Until now. Mom was hospitalized for about two weeks, and just as they were about to operate on her to clear some sort of blockage, congestive heart failure killed her, and she died at age 69. Only a few days earlier, going home was definitely seen as being on the horizon. This tragic turn of events caught us all by surprise. After the initial shock wore off, Lynn drove down from our home upstate to join dad and I. Almost single handedly, she got us through the difficult matter of making the necessary arrangements, much to the everlasting gratitude of the both dad and I. And then there was this: at mom's funeral, I remember being mildly surprised to hear my dad say, somewhat wistfully but obviously sincerely, " She was a pretty good wife and mother, wasn't she?..." Guess that proves if you live long enough with someone they're bound to grow on you...
But the title of this indulgent little piece is "The Secret Origin of Fred Hembeck", isn't it? It's not just meant to be a cute title, playing off my by now well-known love of funny books and their penchant for protagonists with hidden beginnings. Uh uh. Turns out I had me my own little secret, one even I didn't know about!! Not yet, anyway...
What happened was this: after a death, there's always paperwork (that's the one advantage to leaving this mortal coil--someone ELSE has to tidy up things after you!!...) Dad and I were trying to get mom's last Social Security Check to go through, after which time her account would, quite naturally, be terminated. We were sitting at a desk, answering some office workers questions about her for the record, and the fellow doing the asking came to one regarding her past marital status. Dad became a bit hesitant. Finally, he acknowledged that she indeed had been married previously, but then looked at me and mumbled something like "...but the boy doesn't even know about it.." "Sure I do--Nanny told me years ago", I replied, seeming to genuinely surprise my father. Then I did find out something I didn't know--these two tried and true Long Islanders had gotten married in Baltimore, Maryland. Huh--that seemed odd somehow?... And then, as things progressed, our case worker informed us that he'd need to see a Marriage License before he could issue us that final check on behalf of Helen Hembeck. So, as we headed towards home to look for the all-important document, I attempted to find out why my folks had gone several states away to make things legal, but the old fella was being reticent and not very forthcoming. No matter. Let's just go find that license.
Frankly, I didn't have the vaguest idea where to look, so I let dad rifle through his strongbox full of fading and chipping papers. A Marriage License. Hm. Usually goes with a Wedding Anniversary, doesn't it? Only, now that I sat down and thought about it, we never had one of those around here, not ever. Just as I was starting to ponder this unsettling notion, my dad came briskly out of the bedroom, triumphantly waving a piece of paper. "I've got it! Here's your mother and mine's Marriage License!!" "Oh yeah? Can I see it" I asked. Apparently so overcome with the good fortune of so easily locating this long buried scrap of legality, my dad proudly handed it over to me. It just then dawned on me that, y'know, I never did know the actual date of my folks wedding--never saw any pictures of the ceremony, either. So, it was with a building curiosity that my eyes darted across the sheet in search of that very special date. And....
Remember what I said way up top? About keeping my birth date filed away in the back of your noggin for later use? Well, now's the time for that later use, gang, because when I looked down and saw that Fred and Helen Hembeck were hitched on April 23rd, 1953, I sure didn't have to think long before I realized the ramifications of this late-breaking but still new-to-me bit of information. For those who may've forgot, yours truly came into this world almost a full three months earlier. A quarter of a year. 83 days. (I'm not gonna count the hours--that would be petty...) Yup, you guessed it-- that would've made me, in the parlance of even our finest dictionaries, a bastard, albeit a temporary one!! It also seemed to explain so much in one swell foop, not the least of which was my parents undeniably rocky relationship, especially early on. Mom undoubtedly believed she was unable to become pregnant, and when the news that it had been poor old Omar's deficiency and not hers, well, that surely shone a whole new light on the time spent with that German cook fella, now didn't it!?! As they say in even the finest of circles, " Surprise!!" Just looking at the official evidence will readily attest to the fact that no one was particularly in any sort of a rush to create a family unit. Thinking back to mom's long-ago offhand remark, apparently, putting little Freddy-the-love-child up for adoption was seen as a first choice of action!?!. Now THAT would've been a whole 'nother life, wouldn't it? Kinda like an Earth 2 version of existence, y'know? ( Sorry. Just felt I had to throw that in to keep the comics fans out there from nodding off...)
All this was swirling around in my head as my dad stood there with his rediscovered treasure. Didn't he realize the smoking gun he'd just handed me ? Probably not. My dad always seemed a bit confused, and while he took great pains to throw me off the track regarding Baltimore( where, I later found out from an independent source, it wasn't at all unusual for couples to go for a quickie no-fuss no-muss marital hook-up), that he then completely dropped the ball by showing me the far more provocative document wasn't at all out of character. Neither was the fact that, once I got over the initial shock, I didn't say anything to him about what I'd just figured out. I mean, what exactly WAS I gonna say anyway--" So THIS explains why you've called me a little bastard all these years, huh" ? No, the folks didn't actually call me that, but it sure would've been funny if they did, wouldn't it? I mean in an ironic way, not a ha-ha way. I stood there quietly, letting this bombshell sink in. Oboy--wait'll I tell Lynn!! She must've been prescient, cuz many was the time when she--well, you get the joke, right? You gotta laugh. The alternative ain't nearly so attractive...
If my life were a Lifetime made for television movie, this would be the point where it was irrevocably changed, and I'd probably set out on some sort of a quest for my past, ultimately tracking down the mysterious Omar. Didn't happen. Lynn and I did toy with the idea of contacting some of mom's old chums when we stumbled across some correspondence from her pre-Hembeck days while going through her effects, but we never quite worked up the necessary emotional momentum needed to play family tree detectives. Bemused by the situation at best, eventually I chose to just let it slip by the wayside. Maybe if the secret of my origins had been revealed to me when I was a kid, it might've made a bigger impression on me, but being thirty when I found out about my somewhat specious entry into this world (by fifties standards, I mean--there's absolutely nothing wrong with being hatched out of wedlock, as I'm sure all the rest of you little bastards out there will gleefully attest), the news caused me little concern. The sleepless nights numbered precisely zero.
I had a happy childhood. Honest. My parents were struggling with a situation that I had no understanding of. They provided for me. That they weren't the best mom and dad ever to spawn an offspring wasn't a crime. They tried, and ultimately sacrificed a lot for me. They drove me batty at times. I'm sure the vice was versa. That we relations didn't truly relate was unfortunate. With luck never afforded them, I'm grateful that I can say that I've managed to grow up and find a partner I'm truly happy to be with and to father a child whom I can devote a healthy amount of time to (which is not to say Julie doesn't take advantage in that area, because she does, but when it's all said and done, I bet I'll be glad she did).
Dad lived another four years, until 1987.He got to see his beloved Mets win it all in 1986, and that was a good thing for Gary Carter right on done to my pop. Luckily for all concerned, he was able to live on his own at home almost until the very end. I made it a point to speak to him on the phone practically every day after mom died, usually saying absolutely nothing of any consequence. Didn't matter. Just seemed like the thing to do. Certainly, April 23rd was never again brought up. It never had been, really. Dad spent his final few weeks in the hospital, and unlike my mom's case, his passing wasn't a surprise to anyone, but an inevitability. He made it to 85, after fathering his only child at the age of 50. Now go back one more time and look at the date at the top of this piece and you'll realize the current significance that number has for me, Fred junior. I'm sure the big guy would have no clue as to what this whole crazy Internet thing was all about, but if he were around today--at age 100!!-- I suppose I'd have to say " Thank you" to both him and to ma. Because if the two of them hadn't made it legal, I really would've been the bastard my old buddy Ron Marz likes to call me!! Hey smart guy, that's TEMPORARY bastard, got it??...
And that folks, is the warm little saga of Fred Hembeck's secret origin. No planets exploded to tell this tale.
Life Story Intro | Home