To the family, he was always Somers.
When he was born, a minute or two after his older brother, he was named Lewis Somers Leeds. The ‘Lewis’ was in honor of Dad’s brother; the ‘Somers’ was in honor of one of Dad’s best friends, Somers Kears.
The birth of the twins occurred on June 24, 1928. At that time, Uncle Lewis was in his early forties and there was still a possibility that he would have a son of his own. To avoid any future problems, Mom and Dad decided to call their son, Somers.
Fourteen years later, our parents had another son. Since Uncle Lewis and Aunt Nellie were still childless, Mom and Dad decided to do things a little differently this time around. They named this son Douglas, in honor of General Douglas MacArthur, and Lewis, after good old Uncle Lewis. But this boy would be known as Lewis.
Life was simple. We had a brother named Somers and a brother named Lewis.
When Somers went into the Navy in 1944 at the age of sixteen, the officers insisted he be called by his first name. Thus, Somers became Lewis to his fellow sailors and, eventually, to his friends and acquaintances back home.
Thus, when I was a boy, answering the phone was fun. When the caller asked for “Lew”, I’d respond by saying, “Which one?”
First-time callers assumed they were dealing with a father/son situation and asked to speak with the son, to which I’d reply, “Which one?”
Eventually a code was developed. Somers was “big” Lew and Lewis was “Little” Lew.
Now you know where Bob Newhart and his writers came up with Larry, Darryl, and Darryl.
Laughter. That’s a word that is extremely fitting when we remember Somers. He was always fun-loving and could tease with the best of them. My problem is I never knew for sure when he was teasing. All too often, I took his antics seriously.
Having two brothers sixteen years older than me was both a blessing and a curse. At times, it was like having three fathers. And I tried to please all three of them. There were many times when Somers could not be pleased, but I never knew for sure if he was serious or just teasing me.
One time we were working on Gert and Mac’s back porch and Gert offered to make us sandwiches for lunch. The sandwiches were simple; jumbo baloney, yellow mustard, and bread. Somers insisted that Gert put his mustard on the bread and not the meat. When she handed him his food, he complained that she had gotten mustard on his meat. I know he was teasing, but he sure sounded angry.
When Somers first got out of the Navy, he was hired as an office worker for American Standard.
But let me interrupt this part of the story to provide some background information.
After Somers’ first hitch with the Navy Sea-Bees, he re-enlisted. His second tour of duty took him to Cuba and then to South Africa. It was in South Africa that he came down with Hepatitis. It took a Congressman named Jim Fulton to pull some strings to get Somers transferred back to the states and sent to the VA hospital in Aspinwall. Within a short time he was released and Mom nursed him back to health at home.
I think I was always a little jealous because there were certain food items, like orange marmalade, that were reserved for him.
I bring this up only because it points out the beginning of this numerous health problems – all of which he basically ignored as he tried to live his life to the fullest.
Shortly after beginning his job with American Standard, he was transferred to New York City. Every morning we’d watch Dave Garroway in hopes of seeing Somers waving at the camera.
Living in New York City was not to his liking. Nor was wearing a suit and tie and working in a building. He soon quit that job and became a truck driver for Fort Pitt Supply and began delivering bath tubs and other plumbing supplies. All too often he’d arrive at a building site and find no one there to help him unload his truck. Of course, there were probably times when there were people there and he carried the bath tub on his back anyway. I don’t think he was showing off. I think he just believed he could do a better job by himself.
Those heroics led to a number of back surgeries and, eventually, to chronic back pain. There’s little doubt that those physical exertions added to his painful knees as well.
The knees were probably originally injured while Somers was playing sports. In his youth – and beyond – he played every sport imaginable.
I remember playing center field when he was on the other team. If I played deep, he’d hit the ball in front of me. If I moved in, he’d hit it over my head. I think he had a lifetime batting average of well over 500. Even in slow pitch softball, that was an impressive feat.
Of course, his worst enemy in sports was his own drive for perfection. When playing golf, he was known to bend a few clubs around trees and threw a club or two into the nearest body of water.
And who could forget the time he dropped a bowling ball out of a fifth floor window when he didn’t do as well as he thought he should have.
Speaking of back porches. There was a time that Somers, Seward – also known as Bill – and I were building a back porch on our parents’ home. Seward and I were measuring and cutting the floor boards and Somers was nailing them down. If a board wasn’t cut exactly to his liking, he threw it back at us. It wasn’t long before our scrap heap was getting bigger than our pile of new lumber.
Then Somers got a phone call. While he was on the phone, Seward and I nailed all the rejected boards in place. When Somers came back outside, he had a total conniption and told us we’d turned the porch into something a hillbilly might be proud of. Then he got in his car and left.
After we got all the boards nailed down, we took the circular saw and cut the edge so that everything was even. Somers never mentioned that topic again.
The enigma I saw as my brother with a bad temper and a strong need to be a perfectionist was balanced out by the brother who would let me use his car for an evening of fun with my buddies or a date. He’d also give me money for the date and let me use his credit card to fill the gas tank.
This is also the man who would rent an Easter Bunny costume and sit in Vrabel’s Dairy Store window coloring eggs. He would then have me drive him to various hospitals so he could give eggs and candy to children who were spending the holiday dealing with their illnesses or injuries.
I have so many wonderful memories centered around my brother. Like the time he was helping me fish by casting the line for me. I was – and still am – hopeless when it comes to casting without getting the line all tangled. The fish I caught while he was trying to convince the game warden that he was not fishing – but simply helping his little brother – cost him twenty-five dollars.
Perhaps that’s why, when he took me with him on his truck, he would intentionally grind the gears and blame it on me. Every time the gears would grind, I’d get punched on the arm.
While Somers was still reasonably young, Fort Pitt Supply went out of business. Somers soon got a job with Dilner’s West Elizabeth shipping facility. His job was to load and unload barges. One day, the captain of the tug boat pulled out while Somers was caught between a barge and the dock. That caused his most serious back injury and ended his days of working for a living.
Unfortunately, his more serious health problems resulted from the asbestos with which he was in constant contact while on that job.
So the last few years of his life were spent in pain with his back and knees and the breathing problems from his lung disease. And yet I’m sure none of his siblings would have been surprised if we’d received a phone call from him announcing that he was at the airport and needed to be picked up. He had a habit of surprising us with his visits.
He also had a habit of letting people know they were loved. All four of my children refer to Somers as their favorite uncle… even after I told them how he would wake me up in the middle of the night and tell me it was time to get ready for school.
The man had a heart of gold and was loved by many. He’ll be deeply missed by us all.