Wednesday, November 16, 2011


November 16, 2011

You’ve got to hand it to Gramps. He might dodder and forget things, but when it comes to handshakes his is the firmest. It’s an ‘old man’ phenomenon and just trying to extract your paw from that geriatric’s grasp can leave you exhausted. It’s trapped until the old coot himself decides to relax his crushing hold.
Funny, that. Before they up and die, enfeebled old men develop this final burst of ferrous power in their metacarpus. Supergrip. It’s as though they’ve channeled all their earthly strength into that one extremity.
Every now and again you’ll shake a young guy’s hand and recoil instantly because it’s clammy. Fernando the milquetoast Mexican put a mackerel in my mitt. Could’ve been a herring. But the geezer whose right arm terminates in a vise? I’d rather have my hand mangled by him any day.
The firm handshake conveys a sense of sincerity, of trustworthiness, although compression as a strenuous attempt to turn the other guy’s hand to jelly is to be frowned on. Or winced at.
There are guys who stretch their arm out, palm facing down, in a different demonstration of power, one of domination, and that’s the signal to be on your guard. The right half of one’s clapping equipment should be proffered in an orderly fashion, fingers perpendicular to the floor.
Too often I see men extending their hand to a lady. Uh oh, not etiquette because it should be up to the damsel herself whether or not she wishes to initiate bodily contact. And about the only place I notice guys doing the gentlemanly thing in this regard is down here in Dixie, where, frankly my dear, some of the genteel old ways still apply.
Deals, some of them involving thousands, are still made here on a handshake; I’ve even known vendors to take offense when I’ve offered a cash deposit ahead of time.
My painter friend Mike clued me in on the Southern man’s greeting. Long before the handshake stage there’s a mild passing salute which is used to acknowledge a fellow occupant of these Southern states. It’s a swift and silent nod; no smile, not even the hint of anything more than registering the other person’s existence. Somehow, it’s reassuring, though. Comforting. And since then I’ve seen it done many times, had it done to me and now I’m a nodder myself. Call me Noddy.
Many are also interested in one’s wellbeing. As they nick their head, they’ll also inquire mumblingly: “Huzzagoan”, the correct response to which is: “Hey!” I have to warn our British visitors. Do not stop and tell the guy exactly how it’s going, especially if your wife just left you, your car blew up and your last dime turned out to be counterfeit. Just say “Hey!” Quietly.
And then there are the wavers; strangers who greet you as you drive by. You’re thundering along a dirt road, burnin’ rubber with the police in hot pursuit and, hearing the sirens, a guy pruning his roses gives you a friendly wave. Jes’ bein’ neighborly.
The handshake is said to have begun as a way for gentlemen to demonstrate that they don’t have a dagger at the ready. Nonsense! Watch out for the left-handed fellows.
Which brings me to the serial gladhanders: the politicians, with the insincere smiles. Oh, let’s not dignify them with inclusion in this article. There are others infinitely more genuine, more human. These are the Old Sweethearts, usually favorite uncles, although grandfathers also qualify. Not mine on my mother’s side, however. He was a dour and nasty German with a permanent tobacco stain down his beard who made the most revolting gurgling sounds through his pipe. Strange as a Mullah’s jockstrap and the antithesis of warm and fuzzy, he kept saying stupidity was a crime... that needed to be punished!
He wasn’t an Old Sweetheart because, apart from the draconian ideas and those liquid tobacco sounds, this testy old Teuton lacked the major distinguishing mark of the breed: the missing finger.
Oh yes, the real old honeys are mischievous guys deficient in either a digit or part of one. And when you’re seven or eight years old those crazy galoots take enormous delight in tormenting you with the stump: a handshake, a tickle under the chin...
Old Sweethearts also have one other characteristic: a twinkle in their eye. Operatic baritone Carl Colluccini and actors Chief Dan George and Pat Morita qualified with their industrial-strength eye twinkle even though their hands contained a full complement. But Three Finger Brown, aka Gaetano Lucchese, who headed one of New York’s five Mafia families, overdid it by losing a thumb as well as a forefinger when he was 15.
That’s about the age at which my own index finger was shortened when my brother mowed it off on the lawn. So: no fingertip, hefty age... I’m working on the sweetness.
I aim to be an Old Sweetheart with an iron grip when I grow up - if I ever do. No high fives or jiveshakes for me.
Incidentally, I’m not sure you can have female Old Sweethearts. Wifey thought she might just qualify after she broke her middle digit and the doctor set it back askew. Were she ever to be as unladylike as to shoot folks a bird with that crooked digit they’d get only a rough idea of what she’s telling them.


© 2011 Fred Wehner is a journalist formerly with the Daily Mail in London, who then founded and ran the New York News Agency before settling in Monroe 21 years ago.