Memories of My Best Friend Louie

I can remember the day that I met Louie in 1969 as clear as if it were yesterday. I was at work in the metal manufacturing plant, Gasser & Son’s in Commack, NY. The shop Foreman came out of the office and started to tell the veteran German machinists of this “young whippersnapper” with a beard, mustache and a motorcycle, that was being interviewed by the owners of the company and had filled out an application for a position as a tool and die maker. The Foreman told how this “Hell’s Angels” type guy was a biker from Brooklyn and had the insane idea of applying for a job as a tool and die maker. Not only that but also this guy had put down a desired starting salary on his employment application that was higher than the tool and die makers that had been with the company for 20 years! He went on to say that the handwriting and spelling on the application was very poor and the guy probably doesn’t know what a lathe is let alone any of the other complicated machinery that was in the factory. Without ever seeing the person he was talking about, we all thought it was some drunken biker that had a sense of humor or lost his mind.

Unbeknownst to the shop workers, Louie negotiated a deal with the owners of the company. The arrangement was that they would give him a tour of the shop first. If Louie was happy with what he saw and felt that he could find a way to DOUBLE the profit on any machine in the shop, he’d take the job. They would hire him for a 1-month trial period at his requested salary. At the end of the month if Louie hadn’t performed to their satisfaction, they could terminate him with NO PAY and no recourse for Louie. Louie set his eyes on a milling machine that had a jig on it that held a piece of aluminum to be milled to certain specifications. One worker sat there all day milling one piece after another on both sides, in two operations for each piece. A few short days before the end of the one-month deadline, Louie had designed and built a jig that held 7 of those same pieces on the same machine with only one operator. The profit realized from this invention was more than doubled. Louie was hired permanently full time as the highest paid tool and die maker in the plant. As if this wasn’t impressive enough, over the next few years while working there Louie would, at different intervals, go into the office and sit down with the bosses and let them know how much of a raise he wanted and the deadline for that raise. The first couple of times that Louie did this, the bosses took the attitude of “you ASK for a raise and we’ll consider it, you don’t just come into the office TELLING us how much of a raise you want let alone WHEN.” Louie’s calm polite answer was simple, “I’m not asking you, I’m INFORMING you that I will have the raise in the amount and time frame, OR you can just consider this the one month notice that I’ll be going elsewhere for employment where I’m paid what I’m worth.” Louie ALWAYS got the raise as the bosses new that his mechanical mind that could invent things that made them tremendous profit and a competitive edge was virtually priceless.

After his first week of employment, this extremely confident bearded mechanical genius, and his beautiful red and black motorcycle already fascinated me. I didn’t think I’d ever realize my own dream of learning to ride or own a motorcycle of my own. Then came the first day of rain during his employment and he came to work in a white VW Super Beetle with red pin striping, wire wheels, walnut dash and steering wheel, chrome stick shift, trumpet exhausts, and an 8 track tape player that was playing some of my favorite songs from the group “Gary Puckett and the Union Gap.” Since I was such a VW Beetle fanatic myself with my powder blue Bug, I was envious of this unique Beetle. I had never seen such a Beetle before. The following day it was sunny and dry. I had a habit of pulling my car around to the side of the shop at lunchtime and wash it since I was so proud to own my Beetle and abhor dirty cars. I felt bad that this guy Louie had such a beautiful car and it was also dirty from the rain. Everyone in the shop seemed to be afraid of this new employee, as he was different than they were. He had a beard, mustache, motorcycle, and an attitude of “don’t mess with me.” As much as I’d describe him as “the Fonz” with a beard, somehow I felt that anyone this cool with his ability would allow me to get past this Brooklyn attitude. Against the warnings of coworkers, I approached Louie, introduced myself, told him how I clean my car at lunchtime, and ASKED him if he would ALLOW me to wash his car when I do mine. After the initial skepticism and shock, and after he was convinced I wasn’t going to STEAL his car, he agreed. The look on his face was apprehensive, and he appeared to wonder what kind of strange duck he was dealing with. I washed his car with mine that day and that was the beginning of a lifelong close friendship. Louie eventually sold the Beetle and purchased a gorgeous ’71 Pontiac Trans Am, the envy of the whole company. Many a good time was spent together in that car.

In the days, weeks, and months that followed our friendship grew. I spent many days and hours at Louie’s house in Holbrook working on his 1968 Norton 750cc Atlas motorcycle, our cars, and just hanging out and socializing. His family treated me as if I were one of their own. Their German Shepherd dog, Ginger, took a liking to me that was so strong I used to tease Louie that she’d bite him before she’d ever bite me. Frequently, I’d be invited over for dinner with good Old Italian hospitality. The food and friendship was priceless. Louie’s parents as well as his sister Joanne always made me feel like part of the family. Joanne used to bring out refreshments for Louie and myself when we were working in the garage on our vehicles. On occasion, I’d be invited over for a Sunday family dinner where I had the opportunity to get to know Louie’s other sister Maryann, and brother-in-law that lived in Staten Island, as well as Louie’s brother and his wife from Deer Park. Everyone accepted me with open arms and always made me feel comfortable.

Although we differed in many ways, such as Louie LOVED gardening and I had absolutely no use for it or the things that grew in it, we had enough things in common that the bond got stronger every time we were together. I remember the time that he called me at my apartment 15 miles away saying I had to come over to see something remarkable. I suckered for it and drove all the way over to his house to see that he managed to grow some tomato plants so tall that they reached the second story porch on his house. Although I find tomatoes as just another veggie that I dislike, I took several 35mm pictures showing Louie in his garden. With all the greenery he almost looks like the pictures were taken in a jungle scene.

I remember that Louie had this pet peeve about people leaving their soda bottles on his workbench after a break at work. Knowing this irked him; I beat him into work one morning and covered his bench with 20 soda bottles I had taken from the “return” case in the cafeteria. We all had a good laugh until lunchtime. I happened to go out to my car, only to find it was covered in and out with at least 50 bottles strategically placed in such a manner as to not cause any damage. It took me 15 min of my lunch break to gather them all up and put them back in the cafeteria. We often “pranked” each other and tried to see who could do the best thing to the other guy. It was all in good fun.

I was proud to introduce this kind, thoughtful, respectful man to all my friends and family. Under the tough Brooklyn attitude, Louie was one of the most caring, understanding and compassionate persons I’ve ever met in my life. He commanded respect and never allowed anyone to trample on it. He either got it voluntarily or told you to your face that you had a choice, respect him or make fast tracks to get out of his face. His judgment and philosophy were fair and he treated everyone with respect, as long as it was returned. Unfortunately, this sometimes did not hold true when he was dealing with his own family members. Louie proved the clichÃ?©, “you only hurt the ones you love.” He showered his family with expensive gifts, home improvements, cars, and other fruits of his labor, but on the other hand occasionally said or did things that hurt them. He was always fighting himself from letting his emotional guard down, as he didn’t want to risk getting his own feelings hurt. Somehow, I was always able to disarm him. I actually developed a relationship with him that I believe allowed me to be closer to him more than anyone he knew. He had the typical family feelings that HE could yell at his sister or argue with his Mom or Dad, but don’t anyone else even THINK of doing such a thing or he’d be after you in a millisecond. He loved his family dearly and always tried to take care of them, yet still managed to have the internal conflict of trying not to let his emotional guard down. I always felt that it was the “Brooklyn” in him that he just never was able to let go of. I always teased him about locking everything from toolboxes, cars, house, even when we were there. If we were in the backyard garden, the garage would be closed and locked. If his car was in the street at the end of the driveway and we were working on mine in the garage, his car was locked. This was always an ongoing tease session.

After a couple of years went by, I finally realized one of my life’s dreams by going out and purchasing my first motorcycle. With Louie’s guidance, he taught me how to ride it and maintain it. During the first month the two piece metal clamp with a screw in it that holds the clutch cable would creep open and let loose of the clutch cable, thereby effectively taking away my clutch, it was very disheartening. Louie had me bring it over to his house whereupon he examined it closely and reshaped the clamp to hold better. The following day he called me over and placed something in my hand. I had no idea what this small piece of solid steel rod with two different sized holes drilled in it and a slot up the side was. He smiled and said, “Bring your bike in the garage.” After he replaced the factory designed clamp with this small piece of solid tool steel that slid over the cable and locked onto the ball on the cable, I was amazed. This was such a simple one-piece design that would last a lifetime, probably longer than the life of the bike. There were no words that I could thank him with. My clutch problems were over, forever. I told him he should get in touch with an invention lawyer and see about marketing this cool design as many of the motorcycle manufacturers used the two-piece clamp on the clutches of their motorcycles. Louie just shrugged it off as if no one else would be interested. I tried to pay him for his machining work and the brilliant idea that came out of his head but he refused any money. After another few weeks of trouble free riding, I insisted. In exasperation, he finally broke down and said, “If you insist on thanking me with something, then buy me a tool that you think I would use or need that you can afford.” When I told him that’s kind of a dumb idea, he explained that it’s better than cash because cash would be gone as soon as it’s spent. A tool would be a constant memory of the giver every time it was used. I went out and bought Louie a vice for his workbench and engraved the side of it with my name and the year it was purchased. To this day, it’s on his workbench in his home.

Soon I progressed to a larger motorcycle and the rides got more frequent, the bond continued to grow. Louie eventually sold his motorcycle and built a VW trike. Instead of the usual fiberglass body that can be purchased, he left it as just a chassis and frame and built an aluminum cover for the gas tank and a one for the center console. It was basic, but it made him happy. Many a good time was had on that machine. Louie learned to accept my fanaticism on clean cars and bikes and found that he no longer had a reluctance to wash his vehicles with mine and keep them clean. I learned to accept the “boring” times when I would go over to the house and he had gardening to do. We went out a lot at night, sometimes to bars or nightclubs, sometimes we’d just go park down by the lake at Lake Ronkonkoma and just talk about life. These are some of the most cherished times as we learned from each other. I learned how to not let people walk all over me and to get respect when it was deserved but not given. I learned to “toughen up.” Louie learned there’s nothing wrong with showing feelings and emotions, it doesn’t make you less of a man. We discussed family feelings, friendships, mechanical things, girls, plans for the future, and anything else that you can think of.

Over the years I moved many times, Louie was ALWAYS there to help. Even though I changed jobs, we always seemed to see a lot of each other. Years went by and at one point; Louie got me a job at another metal manufacturing plant that produced ballpoint pen parts. We were working together again. The shop was so loud that we wore earplugs and developed our own sign language to be able to tell each other what was going on or what machine needed some type of attention. Many of our signs stayed with us for the rest of our lives as a way of communicating or goofing with each other. When the bosses would go on vacation, Louie was the boss. He was always demanding, yet fair. His employers would always get their money’s worth of work from him, yet he always made sure that he was fairly compensated. Louie bought a boat and took me boating. I rented airplanes and took him flying. We had a lifetime of working and playing together. I always felt indebted to him for all the things he did for me. Whenever I’d mention this to him, he’d argue back that all the money in the world couldn’t pay me back for everything I’d done for him. I never could see anything that I ever did of value for him. This mutual feeling is what made the bond cement. No one could come between us. There were times that we’d argue and cuss at each other about a problem at work or while working on a problem with one of our cars, motorcycles, or the boat, but it never hurt our relationship. These occasional verbal fights only strengthened our relationship. We could fight with each other, but God forbid anyone attacks one of us with the other’s knowledge. There was no question that we were one.

As life continued on, I moved on to other jobs as well as moving to other locations. Louie was there when my first girlfriend broke up with me. He was there for some of my visits with Helen and Ray Rathkamp, close family friends of mine. He was there when I moved; he was there with other friends of mine such as Bob and Vicki Lorello from Kings Park. He came to Bible Studies with me and found Jesus. He was there on trips to the beach, a trip to Ohio to visit most of my family relatives. He was the BEST MAN at both my weddings because in fact, he WAS the best man I had for a friend. He was there for the problems in my first marriage as well as to help me through the bad times from my first wife’s car accident to the inevitable divorce. He was there for support, a shoulder when needed, an inventive mind when a problem kept reoccurring. He was there with his talent for wood and metal or something mechanical. He was there to help me build a pool deck for my first house, fix my well pump when I ran out of water, fix my garage when the ceiling started to sag from the weight of things stored overhead. His ability to conjure up a solution to a physical problem of almost any kind was staggering.

I learned in our early years that Louie never graduated high school and never learned to read well. Throughout our lives, he often referred to me as his “Data Man.” This was since my abilities to create or build or fix something paled next to his, but I shined in the reading/comprehension department. Actually, we complimented each other in the sense that where one lacked, the other didn’t. I would read the directions, and we would do the work together. We made a great team. There’s almost nothing that we couldn’t accomplish as a team. There was no such thing as “work” if the two of us were on a project together. We simply had too much fun being with each other to consider anything “work.”

I was there for Louie when he needed a Data Man. I was there as the extra pair of hands while working on vehicles, building things for his box garden, and sometimes just for the company as someone to talk to and spend time with. I was there for his happy times and there for the sad ones. I was there for him to help whenever possible in the 5,700 square foot house that he basically designed and built by himself, with some help from friends. I was there when he got a new job or gave up an old one. I was there to help him move to his first rental house before building his own home. We shared all our good and bad times. Even on moving day when I was leaving NY, he had been there to help me pack and to see me off.

All in all, these are just a few crumbs of all the memories that I have and will keep and cherish forever of my very best friend in this world. My heart hurts not just because he’s no longer here in person to visit and joke with, but because there was so much that he wanted to do and never got the opportunity. Due to his developing the diabetes and having 3 hernias his physical ability was heavily impaired. Many a time I went over to his house during the colder months to help split logs or help get firewood from the ground storage up onto his 2nd floor deck as he couldn’t lift the boxes of wood. His motorcycling days ended before he realized one of his dreams of owning a white full dresser Harley Davidson Touring bike and touring around the US. His VW trike sat rotting away underneath the deck at the rear of his house. His magnificent house was only 90% completed as his physical abilities became so limited that he could only do a little bit of work at a time. It was heartbreaking to see his physical ability to function get more limited each month and year that went by for the past 7 years. Fortunately, his mental capabilities never suffered an iota, unlike some people who’s minds deteriorate with other illnesses.

Although I couldn’t make it to NY to say goodbye to my best friend, I have the peace of mind knowing that he had his loving wife and other family and friends at his bedside when he breathed his last. I have found the special place in my heart to keep Louie and all the memories forever. The world has lost one fun loving intelligent and talented man. I know that God is proud of His new Angel, and considers Himself fortunate to have him back home……………I’ll miss Louie Forever.

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