John C. Barnett

Our Parents

A long over due collection of tribute pages to the individuals who accepted the challenge of raising us.

John C. Barnett

The Barnetts lived down the street from my family on Glenwood Road. Mr. Barnett was a soft-spoken man with a passion for classical music, history, and basketball. Though this did not preclude him from having very strong opinions. Among these were his “no debt” philosophy. He did have a mortgage for a while but paid for most everything via cash and check. His thriftiness was a legacy of growing up during our country’s Great Depression in the 1930s so it was not too surprising for its time. Today if you consider all the students saddled with loans and adults leveraged to the hilt, there are probably more than a few who wished they had followed a Jack Barnett monetary policy.


The last time I saw Mr. Barnett was the evening of our 10th high school reunion. The Barnett’s, as they always did, were showing me their fine hospitality by having me stay the night, instead of at the overpriced hotel where the reunion was being held. We were eating dinner before the reunion and I mentioned to him that he had once taught me how to eat spaghetti. He smiled as if he could recall the day vividly. (He and Mrs. Barnett were anything if they weren’t polite to their guests.) I reminded him how I had tried to cut the pasta with a fork and how he had stopped me cold. Then had demonstrated the proper form of how to twirl spaghetti. It gave us all a good laugh to be reminded how much children need adult guidance on a wide variety of subjects.

Mr Barnett offered many unspoken lessons, too. He had hurt his leg and was forced to use crutches and wear a leg brace. While it visibly pained him at times he never spoke of it. This was also part of his depression era upbringing, it was a “don’t complain mindset” common among that generation. The belief originated in the long held idea that expressing your dissatisfaction with the hand which Life gave you was pointless. Instead, you were to seek solace in what you could in this temporal world. I think classical music and reading world history gave him some relief, but nothing like putting a bunch of kids in his stationwagon and seeing the New York Knicks play professional basketball at Madison Square Garden. His parking pass from his job as an attorney for the Port Authority of NY/ NJ guaranteed a spot in the Port Authority garage at the Bus Station on 42nd street. From there it was an easy walk to the Garden, through streets filled with Porn shops, liquor stores, and homeless people. These athletic contests were more often than not played on Saturday or Sunday afternoons, unlike the majority of today’s contests which are held at night. This was the era before court side tickets cost $2000 each, smoking cigars indoors was commonplace, and we could all reasonably believe in the sanctity of the game and the athletes love for what we all knew to be an activity played by children on playgrounds.

The Barnetts also owned a house on Shelter Island on the eastern end of New York’s Long Island. I visited them countless times during the summer months and on occasion during the winter. When it was cold the first activity of the visit was watching Mr. Barnett light the furnace hidden beneath the kitchen floorboards. It was the ultimate lesson in perseverance. He was the only one who was allowed to light it and also the person least able because of the leg brace. Nevertheless, he did it every time without a word said. His only expression would be some slight grimacing from the contortions he had to put his body through to get the match to ignite the pilot. From these journeys I also learned firsthand the misery of travelling West towards New Jersey via the Long Island Expressway on Sunday afternoons. Even fifty years ago it could be rightly called the world’s longest parking lot. As a small consolation these trips usually included a stop at a Burger King, where we took our food to go. Mr Barnett could balance his coffee and hamburger like a champ while driving, not to mention light his pipe afterwords.

Unlike when visiting their house in New Jersey, a trip to the eastern end of Long Island might include some chores like riding the lawn mower, raking leaves, and taking the trash to the dump. Activities we used to charge our neighbors for in New Jersey but we did for the Barnetts without question. Actually, we needed these sort of activities to fill up our days as the TV’s antenna only received a few channels and the house didn’t have air conditioning. It had been built with plenty of windows on all sides to catch the breeze and a porch in the front for watching the occasional neighbor who might pass by the house. Of course, we filled our days with trips to the beach to swim and sail their dinghy. Plus, we could always count on eating the lunch Mrs. Barnett packed for us.

At night we all gathered around the dinner table and sometimes the conversation turned uproarious. I don’t remember what got us all giggling one evening but it had to do with the seemingly unfunny topic of whether sheet rock or spackling was the most appropriate method for making a repair. Just recollecting the memory of Mr. and Mrs Barnett laughing uncontrollable along with every one else at the table, over a trifle, is how I best like to remember those times on Shelter Island. I couldn’t engineer a better memory if I tried.