He died in 1998 shortly before turning 80. He was a good man and the older I get, the more I wish I had known him a little better. He was already nearly 40 years old by the time I came along.
His father had run out on the family when he was young, so he had to grow up sooner than he should have. I have no doubt it was a pretty tough existence — this was during the Great Depression in coal country in western Pennsylvania. But I think it taught him some valuable lessons about self-sufficiency and tenacity. There was nothing he couldn’t do. He could build and fix just about anything he put his mind to (MacGyver had NOTHING on him.) He was strong physically, mentally and emotionally. I was a little soft as a kid and I was constantly getting hurt. I remember one such a occurrence and crying because of it and him telling me not to cry because of pain. “Tears are for sorrow, not pain” he had said. Indeed, the only time I ever saw him openly weeping was at his mother’s funeral. I never forgot that and I don’t think I ever cried again because I had hurt myself. I’m not ‘tough’ by any definition, but he taught me that I could still be strong.
He was part of the group sometimes referred to as “The Greatest Generation.” He spent 23 years in the military, serving his country during World War II in Europe where he was awarded the Purple Heart after being wounded by a German sniper while on patrol. The nasty scars on his arm were simply part of who he was, but he never talked about the war. He was part of the 29th Infantry Division, landing at Omaha Beach during the Normandy invasion and I suspect it was something that he always carried with him. He also later served in Korea.
Under the G.I. Bill, he was able to continue his education and he became a male nurse while still in the U.S. Army. Providing patient care was, I believe, his truest calling. He held positions at Walter Reed (where I was actually born) and, later, at New England Baptist Hospital. During his career, he provided care to at least six U.S. Presidents (past, present or future) along with a slew of senators, congressmen, athletes and celebrities. I still have the personally autographed photos from Ronald Reagan and the actor Claude Rains (and in the interest of full disclosure, being a huge fan of the movie “Casablanca”, the photo of Claude Rains is the one I keep on display.) He was one of the two attending nurses providing extensive rehabilitation care for Ted Kennedy in the aftermath of the 1964 plane crash. It was the job offer he received after that assignment that prompted him to retire from the military and we relocated to Massachusetts in 1965.
Along with my mom, dad raised four kids. His oldest son (my brother Ralph) followed in his dad’s footsteps and joined the Army at age 17. Ralph also made a career in the military, retiring after 20 years. Ralph’s son, Ryan, is currently serving as an officer in the U.S. Army (a 2002 West Point graduate and recipient of the Bronze Star with “V” device for heroism while in combat in Iraq — dad would have been bragging about his grandson to this day, I’m sure.)
He and my mom divorced when I was 13 or 14 and he moved close to his job in Brookline. I have to admit that the separation kept us from developing the relationship as I grew toward adulthood. I knew he would provide for me if I needed anything — he wasn’t abandoning us, but he and mom were better apart. A couple of years later, he moved to Wareham and we hardly ever saw each other. He ultimately remarried and moved to Ohio with his second wife and I only saw him a couple more times after that. He definitely seemed to be happy in his later years, and I think on some level we connected better, even if it was on very few occasions.
When he died, all three of his sons made the trek to Ohio. One from Massachusetts, one from Rhode Island and one from Colorado. Two of his grandsons were there too, one from Fort Monmouth in New Jersey, where he was attending West Point Prep, and the other flew all the way from Germany to be there. We all had private time together at the funeral home before calling hours began. We ended up in the small kitchen area and, let me tell you, there was nothing sad or somber that day. I think we all knew intuitively that this was more about a celebration and saying goodbye rather than mourning a passing. It was a rare occasion for everyone to be in the same place at the same time and we all had such a collective energy when we got together that it was pretty joyous. If dad had been alive to see it, he would have been pleased and would have been laughing right along with us.
His casket was carried by his three sons, two grandsons and the son of his best friend (who had passed away a few months earlier.) Without even thinking about it or discussing it, we had taken hold of the handles in line in the order of birth: on one side, oldest son in front, middle son, then me at the back. On the other side were his two grandsons, followed by family friend. After we loaded him into the funeral coach, we walked the short distance to the cemetery, rather than taking vehicles. In hindsight, I’m glad we did that. I don’t remember any talking at all, but I think we all connected during that walk. For me, the only truly emotional thing occurred at his gravesite. With his veteran status, he received a full military funeral. Three volleys each were were fired by seven members of an honor guard and the American flag was taken up off of his casket and was being folded by two veterans (they were older gentlemen who were obviously volunteer members from the local VFW — and were more-or-less contemporaries of my dad.) As the bugler began playing Taps, I glanced around. I was standing shoulder to shoulder with my brothers and their wives, and my youngest nephew (the future Bronze Star recipient) snapped perhaps the most perfect salute I have ever seen. It was all so perfect and, I believe, exactly the way he would have wanted it.
My dad would have turned 95 today.