Writing about Craig rekindled my interest in autism and savants. In particular, I grew up with a parent, my father, Jack Meltzer, who had Asperger’s Syndrome and was a savant. Savant Syndrome is a rare condition in which people with developmental disorders have one or more areas of expertise, ability or brilliance that are in contrast with the individual's overall limitations.
When I was a child, I was aware that my father was different from other people. Although he was never diagnosed with the condition (since that diagnosis was uncommon at the time), I knew that his special ability was strange, magical and somewhat bizarre.
In the course of my father’s life, as a proprietor of a rare records store, he committed to memory 250,000, eight- to ten-digit record catalog numbers. If he saw the record only once, or looked it up only once in the several thick RCA catalog books he kept around the house, he could identify the title of the record, the artist and the title of the song on the flip side.
On April 14, 1970 a reporter from the New York Daily News wrote a column about my father’s miraculous memory:
“He handed me a Victor record catalog with tens of thousands of numbers inside, then Mr. Meltzer said, ‘Pick out any number on any page and I will name the title.”
“What’s 0189217?” I asked.
“Why that’s easy,” Mr. Meltzer replied. “It’s Sneak, a foxtrot. The other side is Are You Playing Fair. It’s recorded by the Club Royal Orchestra!”
It became clear to me, when I was only seven years old, that in spite of my father’s extraordinary ability, he lacked the capacity to read social cues. When he was invited to be interviewed on TV on The Ernie Kovacs Show, we excitedly gathered to watch his demonstration on our small black-and-white television set.
Although I was so young, I could clearly perceive that Mr. Kovacs was making fun of my father, referring to his recitation of song titles as “useless information” and “a silly pastime.” I could hear the crew in the background laughing.
I was broken-hearted and embarrassed, but the saving grace was that my father had absolutely no idea he was being mocked. He simply didn’t pick it up.
My father could remember hundreds of thousands of numbers, but he could not remember what number my age was or my grade in school. He had no ability to empathize with the desires of a child. My mother was always trying to include him in parental decisions that were beyond his understanding. One time when I was invited to sleep over at the house of a friend, my mother characteristically told me to “ask my father.” When I did, my father answered with this question, “Why do you want to sleep at your friend’s house, you have a bed here?”
I remember that my father’s behavior was often socially inappropriate. He was known to burst into a song at dinner parties and family gatherings. He rarely spoke and when he did, his words struck me as completely off the point of the conversation.
If this is beginning to sound like a pity-party on my side, nothing could be farther from the truth. Growing up, I thought there must be other fathers somewhere who were brilliant at strange things and were also a little thick in the head. I loved my father.
Although he could not empathize with my desire to spend the night with a friend, his ability to empathize with strangers he would never have to encounter in a social setting inspires me, to this day, to try to be more generous. If he read in the paper about a family that lost their house, or had a sick child they could not afford to care for, my father sent them copious amounts of money anonymously.
Because he lacked the ability to read a situation, he also lacked the corresponding ability to be tactful, manipulate people to his own advantage or predict the other person’s emotional reaction to his bluntness.
He was like a child, totally straightforward and honest. Although this personality trait could hurt others, I always found it a relief from the indirectness and guile in many people.
My father never told me he loved me. He never said he didn’t love me. He never verbalized a preference for one person above another. He never spoke of emotions at all, as if they didn’t exist. So it was a surprise one time when I was visiting him in Florida, while we were taking a silent walk together along the oceanfront when he asked me this, “If your mother dies before I do, can I come live with you in New Paltz?”
I was shocked by the question and for an instant I interpreted it to mean he preferred to be with me. I told him, “Yes, of course you can come and live with me. Why did you choose me instead of my brother or sister?’
“You are the only one who owns a house,” he replied.
I loved being with my father when he was dying. We just sat together, silent. I drew his picture, (which he never asked to see). We sang the same song together that we often sang when I was a child. Out of the blue he would break the silence by saying, “Let’s sing Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral, the Irish lullaby.” We would sing it, introduction and all, with harmony.
My father only owned one possession that meant anything to him. It was a RCA wind-up Victrola (a record player). When he was dying, he asked me to bring it into the bedroom. He looked at it often.
After he was gone, I found the party atmosphere of eating and visiting that transpired in Florida exhausting. I longed for the quiet of his presence. It wasn’t until I arrived back home that the sadness began. I wondered what my father would have done to comfort me. If he was in heaven, (which he did not believe in), and he was told I was troubled and asked by an angel what to do to help me, I am sure his response would have been, “Play her a record.”
A few days after I arrived home, I was washing the dishes when all the energy drained out of me. I went to my bedroom to lie down. When I turned on the television, I saw a scene of several old men having a picnic in New York City alongside of the East River. Next I watched one of the old men lift a boney finger and place a needle on an old 78 rpm record. As the scene panned back, I saw the record player was the same exact one as my father’s. The song the old men played to accompany their lunch was none other than Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral, the introduction and all.