Yesterday's Magazette

6 – Dada’s Legend

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By Ned Burke

Dada was a legend in my time.

In his time, my grandfather was just another loving, hard-working father and husband who did what he had to do to put food on the table and clothes on the backs of seven children. It was only after his death that family and friends sat around to recall his exploits, many centered around his feats of strength and his dogged determination.

He was a tall man without an ounce of fat on his lean body. But, it was his hands that attracted the most attention. He had gorilla-type paws, huge and strong enough to tear through a telephone book or a deck of cards with ease. He did this for sport, or for a frothy pint or two at the local pub.

In his younger days, he enjoyed arm-wrestling two men at the same time. It always brought cheers when he pinned down the first man with his left arm, only to use that same arm to lift a cool one to his lips while, at the same time, lowering his other opponent into submission with his right arm.

His strength came from his years at sea as a whaler. This was back when a few daring men would go out in large rowboats, stick a barbed harpoon into the back of an enormous sea mammal, and then hang on for dear life as the enraged behemoth took them on a hellish ride over the bounding sea until it finally tired. It was not a job for the feint of heart. But my grandfather was up to it, and it helped to change him from a gangly teenager to a seasoned seaman.

His inner strength, however, displayed itself when he brought his young family to America in 1910 and settled in Pennsylvania, close to my grandmother’s relatives. Like most immigrants, the only steady work to be found was in the coal mines. For a man who deeply loved the sea and open sky, it must have been a burden for him to go down into the dark, dank earth each day. But he did it without complaint.

He relished the company of his family, but he also enjoyed telling tales to the lads down at O’Tool’s tavern on Friday nights. Men with callous hands and hard faces would sit around to listen to William “Dada” Sweeney spin a yarn about the exotic places and people he had seen during his days at sea. These stories were as close as many would ever get to these far-off lands, so they listened with the rapt attention of school children. And when he finished, Dada would wink and say, “Aye, me laddies, these eyes of mine have seen many strange and wondrous things.”

Many times, the men would get a newcomer to challenge Dada to an arm-wrestling match. It was a sure bet for those with an extra coin or two in their pockets. If that didn’t work, one of the heaviest lads in the joint would sit atop a bar stool and dare Dada to lift him into the air with one hand. It was a stunt Dada did many times. He would grasp a leg of the stool with one of his meaty paws and then jerk the man and the stool high into the air with a stiff, outstretched arm.

As for his determination, one story tells of when he found an enormous, heavy anvil at the bottom of a mine shaft. No one knows how he ever got it to the surface, but several witnesses saw him dragging the iron atrocity, inch by inch, up the side of the steep hill leading to his home two miles away.

Many years later, as a strapping teenager myself, I and three of my strong buddies attempted to move that anvil from its resting place in the basement of my parents’ home. It was an attempt in futility. I never did figure out exactly how many hundreds of pounds the thing weighed, and, as far as I know, the house was eventually sold with the anvil still encased in the basement.

Then there was the incident with his “favorite” sweater. He wore it so much that eventually there were more holes than material in the garment. So, in frustration one day, my grandmother threw the sweater into the blazing coal furnace. Without blinking an eye, Dada reached his bare arm into the inferno and withdrew his smoldering garment. Brushing off the scorched hair on his arm, he simply remarked: “Tis a sin to destroy such fine workmanship. Sure if it doesn’t still have a few good years in it.” Then he proceeded to put it on, smoldering soot and all.

When he was in his sixties, he experienced his first toothache. After a week of torment, he went down to the basement, took an extra helping of some fine Irish whiskey, and pulled out the bothersome tooth with a pair of old pliers. Then he walked back upstairs, blood still oozing from his lip, and said, “Well, there will be no more of that nonsense. Now, what’s for supper?”

He was a diligent parent who kept a close eye on his daughters, especially my mother as she was the youngest in the family. As a result, this sometimes gave my poor father fits when he was dating my mother. One winter night, Dada was sitting in his favorite living room chair pretending to be asleep when my father showed up for his date. Carrying a flask of gin was the cool thing to do then. Upon entering my grandfather’s house, my father wisely tried to hide the flask behind the upright radio in the hallway before entering the living room to await his date for the evening. Dada pretended to wake up after he entered the room and soon excused himself. A few minutes later he returned and announced he was going upstairs to bed. My father was relieved and on his way out he reached behind the radio, withdrew the flask, and hurried out the door. That night, my father said he was very disappointed in the strength of the gin. “It didn’t seem to have the same kick to it.”

It was weeks later before he found out that Dada had secretly gulped down most of the gin and then refilled the flask back up with tap water. When my father asked him how he knew, my grandfather replied: “Aye, it’s the likes of me that knows the likes of you, laddie.”

Many of his sayings still linger in my mind, such as: “After a good meal, a good sleep. After a bad meal, no more work that day.” A drink was often for “medicinal purposes” and upon his death bed he was said to utter that it was “harder to die than to swallow a cow with two horns.”

My family and his friends made certain that nobody ever forget the likes of him.

After all, Dada was a legend.

(*You can read more about Dada in the novel, The Hero of Barryton.)

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