"Bernie and I would become the best of friends. But if someone had told me that on his first morning there, I'd have told them it was a mighty fat chance."  

My Friend Bernie

Joe M. Young
Date Written/Revised
Autumn 2001

It was January 13th of 1975 when I went to work at my first dealership job as an Automatic Transmission Technician. Like everything else, it was a different business than it is today. The average age of the technicians was about 45 to 50 years old. I was 21 and as green as the newest rookie that had ever turned a wrench in those stalls.

I was scared to death and anxious to fit in, so when in March, they hired a used-car mechanic to repair and recondition their used car stock, I kind of went along with the other techs in giving this new mechanic the silent treatment. They all felt he was taking the jobs they had been doing in their own departments thereby cutting into their paychecks. It was not true, but try telling that to a buch of prima donna Lincoln Mercury technicians..
Truth was that I was glad they had hired a new man because now I wasn't the most recent hired. On his first morning in the shop, Bernie DiCicco asked who the Transmission tech was, and someone pointed to me. He walked over and without so much as a word of introduction or nicety, said, "Have you ever tried to put a bar of soap in one hand and get that same hand clean without using the other one?" I didn't know what to make of him, and just said, "No, of course not". Bernie continued, "Well, I have and it doesn't work. One hand washes the other, and if you'll help me put this manual transmission in that Capri over there, I'll help you when you need it." What could I do but help him out?
I followed him to his work area and he suggested that we just lift the transmission up without a jack since manual transmissions didn't weigh that much in a Capri. After waiting for Bernie to align the clutch splines with an input shaft, we lifted it up. He hadn't put a plug in the back of it, and it spilled two quarts of the smelliest lubrication you can imagine right down the front of my uniform. I was livid. Now, I didn't have a uniform for the day, and this guy was trying to suppress a laugh while apologizing for the mishap.
He had a Chicago accent, stood about 6 feet tall and weighed in at about 195. 35 years old with a wife and five kids, and was as street smart as they come. Bernie and I would become the best of friends. But if someone had told me that on his first morning there, I'd have told them it was a mighty fat chance.

A few weeks later, we were in the middle of a brutally cold storm. Our work areas were outside under an awning type roof. It was windy and rainy. I looked over at Bernie, who worked across from me, and saw that he was standing by his bench with his hands in his pockets, shivering to beat the band. I had come to work with a Ford Cobra jacket that our parts manager had given to me. The jacket was too big for me, and since I was wearing thermal underwear I had taken the jacket off. I grabbed the jacket and handed it to Bernie. I said, "Here, this is too big for me." Without any more words, we both went about our jobs. His wife Joan came down a few days later to thank me for looking after her Bernie.

He could fix anything, and could do it without much fuss or effort really. I began to rely on his advice for just about anything from auto repair to bowling to building a backyard deck. He also taught me things on a subliminal level that I carry with me today. How to recognize the right thing and then how to do it and how to get others to trust your judgment. The right thing to do, was something that adults may recognize but unfortunately usually only do when other eyes are upon them. Since I grew up without benefit of a father, there were a lot of life's lessons I had never learned how to handle. And honestly, just shadowing Bernie I was beginning to see a method to his casual arrogance and intelligence. This next incident will demonstrate how Bernie taught me so much without my even knowing I was learning life's essential skills.

This incident took place about a block from our shop, at a Winchell's Donut shop, which I will carry to the grave with me. It gives the best picture I can think of to illustrate what Bernie was all about. Bernie and I had gotten into the habit of driving over to this Winchell's for a donut and a cup of real coffee. We could have had free coffee that they had going all day in the customer lounge but it was pretty nasty tasting stuff. Plus, how can you sit and bond in a room full of strangers? . This was a morning ritual that usually took place at around 8:30 or so. I really looked forward to our discussions which were not always deep or heavy. Sometimes we got goofy and pissed away some steam. This was also a good time for talking and we would talk about what was going on in our lives at home etc. Although, it was mostly me, since Bernie never seemed to have much in the way of conflict at his home, where he was very much respected.

This particular morning, as we stood in line to buy the donuts and coffee, we both noticed a woman in front of us that was dressed very shabbily. She had come from a dilapidated car with two children in it, who were in their dirty, well worn pajamas. It looked as though they were living out of the car. When it was her turn to buy something, she searched her hand full of nickels and pennies and asked how much one small carton of milk costs, and two plain donuts. She was able to buy only the milk and one donut. She walked away towards her car and Bernie stepped up to the window. He asked for a dozen donuts and two coffees. I didn't question his purchase since Bernie would sometimes buy donuts for other people at the shop. But as he got the box of donuts, I saw him put $20.00 underneath one of them. $20.00 in 1976 would be like $50.00 today, and Bernie was far from wealthy. I was curious about why Bernie did that and started to say something, but Bernie looked at me and shook his head and creased his brow as if to silence the question he knew I was about to ask.

Still clueless, we began to walk to the car we had driven there. The woman was sitting in her old broken down station wagon with the two children who were sharing the donut and milk. She stared straight ahead. Her window was down. Bernie made it a point of walking past her car. When he got next to her, he stopped, turned to me and said, with some amount of indignation, "What the heck is wrong with me? It's not my turn to buy donuts! Why didn't you remind me?" I was trying to figure out what he was talking about, when he started to look around both sides of us. Looking for what, I didn't know. Suddenly, he kind of snapped his head toward this woman who was looking at us, and asked, "Could you use some extra donuts? I accidentally bought these and don't need them now." She asked, "Are you sure?" Bernie said, "Yeah, my partner here let me buy them knowing that it wasn't my day to buy donuts". I caught on finally. She thanked him over and over again and Bernie kind of hurried us out of there and back to the shop.

I was in awe of his kind deed and never got a chance to even talk about it because Bernie, who always kind of put on a hard guy look, told me as soon as we got in the car, "She's probably down on her luck and just needs some help to get back on her feet again." But I knew that Bernie was more intuitive about people than he would like most people to believe. He was sensitive to people's pride and had an uncanny way of helping people, and by the time he walked away, he would have them believing they had more to do with it and with that boosted self-esteem could suddenly take care of themselves. So as with everything else in life, Bernie did what needed to be done and did it as much in the background as possible. .

From the time I met him in early 1975, Bernie was the best friend I had ever had. He taught me to bowl when I thought I would never throw anything but a gutter ball. He showed me how to buy lumber, how to calm an irate customer, and in general, how real men act. He taught me to take your stand even though it might be unpopular, and how to keep your cool when everyone else was blowing up. And like everyone else, I respected and admired Bernie very much.

Friday afternoon, March 16, 1979, and Debi and I were looking forward to the birth of our first child. That day just before leaving work, Bernie told me that he had to go to Scripps institute in Santa Barbara for some extensive medical diagnosis. He had been having these spells of semi-paralysis that no amount of testing could determine the cause of. He had been off of work and in a hospital for two months earlier in the year, giving the doctors a chance to diagnose this intermittent problem. That time in the hospital did nothing but show that he had a cavity in one of his teeth. This Friday, Bernie told me that he was feeling great and said, "It's just like when people bring their cars in here with a problem that isn't occurring right now. How can you find a problem when it is not happening?"
I remember Bernie had quit smoking a year before, but on the day he came home from the hospital earlier that year, he asked me for a cigarette. I said, "Bernie, you don't smoke anymore." He held out his hand and said, "Well, if you're going to die, you might as well do what you like anyway" So, I gave him the cigarette and shook my head. He knew, but didn't know how he knew. He just knew.

We said our good-byes that Friday afternoon after Bernie promised to call and keep me updated as to the results and I never saw him again. His wife Joan told me that he had gotten up on Saturday morning, and began to wash the kitchen walls in order to paint them. She said he had taken a phone call from the dealership and had just hung up the phone when he started toward a ladder to reach the ceiling. He grabbed his head and fell to the floor saying that it felt like someone had hit him with a baseball bat. He asked her to call an ambulance. She ran off to the bedroom to make the call. When she ran back, he was crawling on the floor towards their bedroom. He died before the ambulance got there.

Although the hospital revived his heart, he was brain dead. They pulled the machines off on Monday morning. A cerebral hemorrhage that had been invisible with the diagnostic machines of 1979, had taken the life of a very good person. He was 40 years-old and left behind a wife, five children and so many friends that I'm sure he never knew he had. There never was a funeral. That, according to Bernie's wishes. There was a memorial service for him, which I missed because I got lost following the directions I had been given. Bernie sat down with Joan about a month prior, and told her that he knew he wouldn't live much longer. He said that it was just a feeling, but he was sure of it. He said that he didn't want to further any grieving that might take place, so he wanted his body to be cremated and after a couple of weeks, when his friends and family got over the shock of his death, he wanted Joan to give a simple memorial service if she wished. I still remember when she told me about that conversation, all I could think was, "wait a couple of weeks when friends and family got over the shock?" I felt like I had a hole through the middle of me with a huge vacuum that could never be filled.

As I have said before, in another writing, I am absolutely convinced that Bernie is in an eternal peace waiting for his family, many friends, and others who were touched by his generous personality, but didn't have the opportunity and pleasure of knowing and loving him like we lucky ones did. There were so many more things he could have taught me, and so much more life he had to live.

Bernie DiCicco left my life as quickly as he came into it that morning in March of 1975, and I still find myself asking, "well what would you do Bernie?" or "How do you think I should handle this Bernie?" and I believe if he was standing in front of me today he would give me that little smirk and say, "You know what to do. I know you do, but don't panic, it'll all come in time."

Twelve Generations of Youngs
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