Dad would have been 88 today. He passed away in 2008, having lived an astonishing life that he naturally didn’t see as such. Nor, should one have had the honor of meeting him, would one have guessed at all Dad had accomplished or the disadvantages he overcame to do so.
Born of first-generation immigrant parents into an extremely modest situation, he lost his mother from complications from the birth of his youngest brother when he was ten, leaving him with five siblings and a father struggling to feed them in the grip of the Great Depression. Dad was very untypical in that he never, ever let on about the true extent of the extreme poverty and difficulty of his upbringing. It is only as an adult, and through piecing together stories of my uncles and aunts, and a handful of people who’d grown up with Dad, that I came to understand just how dreadful his childhood had been. (There was an old gentleman who lived near the high school I attended, whom Dad directed that we give utmost respect to and do anything he or his wife might ask. I found out later that Mr. Gorman was the bread delivery man, and had ensured Dad’s family got a loaf of day-old bread every day whether they could pay or not. At my dad’s funeral, I related the story, and Uncle Frank informed me that the bread Mr. Gorman delivered kept them from starving more than a few times.)
Like so many of his generation, Dad quit school at 14 to work to earn money to help feed his brothers and sisters. He became a qualified mechanic by age 16, and found steady employment at a local service station. When war came, Dad enlisted in the US Navy on his 17th birthday, March 21st, 1942. He would serve aboard a landing craft, LCT-172, in the South Pacific in Admiral Barbey’s 7th Amphibious Force, in New Guinea, New Britain, and the Admiralties. He was a MM2 at age 20 when the war ended, training for landings on Kyushu.
Dad met Mom and they were married in 1952, producing an older sister, two older brothers, saving the best for last with the youngest. He was a strict but loving father, a natural at it, despite having no example of his own to draw from. He and Mom instilled the values of honesty, hard work, and an appreciation of the value of education in us that has made their kids all happy and successful adults. (Despite the more than occasional indicators that made him ask “What am I raising for kids, idiots?”)
Dad went on to work as a pattern maker and machinist (I found his Machinists’ Union card when we were cleaning out the house), but my Mom encouraged him to go back to school. So, working a full time job AND while raising a young family, Dad went back to night school and obtained his High School Diploma, and amazingly, a Mechanical Engineering degree. An indifferent student in his youth, he was by all accounts an excellent one in his second go-around. Indeed, his innate understanding of mathematics and his passion for mechanical engineering problems helped me and my brother countless times, and remain some of the most amazing discussions I can recall.
Despite a serious heart attack in 1967, Dad went on to a long and productive working career. He invented a machine to shred old tires, a design that is still in use. He adapted that design to the machines in your grocery store that accept and shred plastic bottles, an invention that made his company millions. He retired in 1995, and as he aged, the usual health problems began to take their toll. He lost his wife of 49 years in 2002. (Their last anniversary together was September 12th, 2001, which makes me hate the jihadis even more. )
Dad never talked in detail about his experiences in the war, not until I came back from Iraq. Then, I think, he needed to. The places he’d been, and the things he saw in his almost 3 years in the Pacific are enough to make any combat veteran swallow hard. I didn’t know until later in my Mother’s life that Dad had nightmares every night for 60 years from the war. When she passed, one of the things I most worried about was him awakening alone from those nightmares, with nobody to tell him things were okay.
When Dad’s time came in June of 2008, cancer had ravaged him in a shockingly brief time. But he had already faced death many times. He had been given absolution FOUR TIMES, which has to be some sort of record. An appendicitis in the Pacific in 1944 which almost killed him, his 1967 heart attack, a cardiac arrest on the last day of 2004 (CPR works, folks), and again, on his final day.
Dad was a survivor, and a role model for me whose example still shines. I find myself having problems when I fail to follow the words his voice speaks in my head, and I find success when I heed them. Funny, that. I told him often that I am not sure I ever could have done the things he did, and I meant it. We were so incredibly fortunate to have the parents we did, and that includes a Father whom a man nearing fifty can still look at and apply the word “hero”.
Thanks, Dad. And Happy Birthday. You and Mom enjoy it up there, okay?