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Farewell to Andy Rooney, My Grandfather

Editor's note: Justin Fishel is a producer at the Defense and State Departments for Fox News Channel. His grandfather, former "60 Minutes" commentator Andy Rooney died at age 92 on November 4. His funeral was today in New York City.

Growing up watching my grandfather on television was a unique experience.  He was by all accounts a star.  He was on the most watched 10 minutes of the most watched television show throughout my childhood.

And by far the question I got most often: is he really like that in person?  The answer is YES, a painful yes.  Of course that’s why he was so successful.  I feel like I can’t distinguish things he said at the dining room table from things he said on air.  And I’ve seen it written in recent days that below that crusty surface he was a nice person, but that was true of his on-air personality as well.

So let me tell you a few stories and anecdotes about the man you knew, but this time from a grandson’s perspective.  These are things you won't read on Wikipedia, or in the AP about write-up about his life, the war, and his award winning work.  After all, I didn't really know him that way.  He was my grandfather.

When I was a freshman I joined the high school wrestling team, weighing in at a not-so-threatening 106 pounds.  This happened to be the same year girls across the country, and specifically in my school, began to take an interest in the sport.  My parents showed a letter to my grandfather over Christmas break written by my wrestling coach, explaining that some of the team would be wrestling against girls.  That someone was me.  Grandpa looked up at me with absolute pity, then it turned into this unhealthy sort of rage, and he demanded I get down on the floor and assume the wrestling position.  He began to torture me in front of the family, bending me in all of the most painful moves he could remember from his days wrestling at the Albany Academy.  After that he even wrote a column about girls and wrestling.  Needless to say he didn't approve.  And by the way, I never lost to a girl.

When I graduated from college he harassed me about work.  He didn’t have much pity for the unemployed.  He wanted to know what I was doing, like any curious grandfather.  Well, I was living at home with my parents.  So he took it upon himself to call at 5:30 am… every morning.  He prided himself on being up early.  I'd answer the phone next to my bed.

"Hello?" I'd say.

"Jud- you find work yet?”  (He called me Jud)

"Grandpa?" I'd answer, in a half conscious stupor.

"Call me back when you find work," he'd say.  

Then I'd get the obligatory Rooney dial tone that preceded any formalities such as a “goodbye,” or “talk to you later.”

Hanging up prematurely was one of his many trademarks.  Of course it was never premature for him.  He wrote 16 books in his time, but on the phone he wasn't a man of many words.

But, there were those lucky times on the phone when you'd get an "alright!" before he’d hang up.  You might even have been speaking when it happened.

Eventually I did find real work, like him, in journalism.  I work for Fox News, covering the Pentagon and State Department.

I'll admit, the family name helped me get my entry-level job in news.  I didn't have much experience, but I caught on quickly.  And now I take real pride in covering the wars, and much like his own experience, it’s been the biggest story of my generation.

I had the privilege of knowing my grandfather until I was 32 years old.  Not many people can say that – and it’s something I’ll never take for granted.  In that time I learned to appreciate his work and career, but not as much as I appreciated the little things.

For instance he was incredibly messy.  He treated his car like a gym locker.  He loved to burn his trash.  Every year after Christmas morning he’d take me, my brother Ben and cousin Alexis up behind his workshop and we’d burn all the wrapping paper.

Most of all, he loved going to the dump.  The dump was our most regular pastime together.  Ben and I would jump in the back of his car in Rensselaerville, N.Y., which he would fill with junk, and we'd drive a few miles to the dump and throw it all out.  

We’d hang around for a while and play with all the stuff people were throwing out and watch the trash get compacted and organized.  I should mention there was lots of glass and sharp metal in there too, probably not the safest place to take two misbehaving brothers.  But, I wouldn’t trade those memories for anything.

The best part of the trip was on the drive back, when Ben and I spent our time digging around his own personal collection of garbage in the car.  Ben and I routinely found cash back there -- which of course we didn't report -- and once I even found a pair of 60 year-old binoculars he'd taken off a German soldier during the war.  Apparently he used them at the Giants games.  Years later I'd find the gun he took off that soldier tucked away behind the scissors in one of the kitchen drawers.  It was still loaded.

I was always intrigued by what he was doing when I was younger.  If you wanted to find out what he did all day you'd have to start early.  You'd find him using every utensil in the kitchen to make bacon eggs and popovers, maybe cutting some grapefruit too.  After breakfast he’d head up to the five sided shack he aptly named "the Pentagon" to write.  I wasn't usually welcome there. 

But by the late morning he'd head to his woodshop.  He built furniture there.  It was only slightly more dangerous than the dump for a small child, but I loved it. .

One summer my parents left me in Rensselaerville with him and Grandma for a week or so.  He wrote about it later in one of his columns.  He called it “Grandfatherhood.”  I’ll quote from it:

"Up until last week, I thought of Justin as my daughter’s son.  I had seen him for a day or two five or six times a year since he was born four years ago, but I’d never spent an extended length of time with him.  Either his father or his mother had always been present when Justin was at our house.

Last week was different.  Margie and I had this cute little blonde, brown-eyed person with us all week.  I seemed to have him more that Margie when I was there because he wanted to do what I was doing.  I was trying to enjoy what little’s left of my vacation in my workshop.  If I hammered, he wanted to hammer.  If I sawed, he wanted to saw.  It’s 100 percent impossible to accomplish anything in a workshop with dangerous tools and a grandchild who insists on being there with you.

“Are we going to do our work?” he asked as soon as we got up every day.  Some work.

I kept waiting to feel like a regular grandfather.  I kept waiting to excuse him when did something dumb or thoughtless.  Instead, I found myself treating Justin more like a person than a grandchild.  I was liking him more and more as a little friend."

Eventually Grandpa figured out a trick to keep me busy in the workshop.  He was working with a large piece of cherry, making a table he didn’t need.  “That’s good wood,” he’d always say as he brushed it with his hand. 

He cut off a small rectangular shaped piece of the cherry and presented it to me.  He told me it was really important that this piece of wood be sanded as smoothly as possible.  So he locked it into a vice, handed me a piece of sand paper, and let me get to work.  I sanded the hell out of that thing. But every time I showed it to him he said, "it needs more sanding."  Then he’d go back to getting his work done.  It kept me busy for at least two days until finally, on the day he was finishing his table, I told him I was done.  I’d given up.  He asked me, “Are you satisfied with your work?”  Satisfied or not I was not about to keep sanding that thing.

There I was expecting he would somehow incorporate my finely sanded artwork with his cherry table.  Instead he got out his word burning pen he used to sign his work.  He etched into it, in quotations, “Piece of Wood,” by Justin Andrew Fishel.

Realizing at this point I’d been duped, I still liked the idea of keeping the wood better than putting it on his table.  And I’ve kept it to this day.

Justin Fishel is a producer at the Defense and State Departments for Fox News Channel.