I wanted to wait until after Memorial Day to post this because Memorial Day honors and recognizes military personnel who died while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. Therefore, my father, who served in the Navy for a few years following World War II, then came home to meet my mother, get married, have a family, and live the American dream, wouldn’t qualify as one of the honored dead. And I want to honor him.
Dad was a patriotic American and a member of the ‘greatest generation.’ He never knew his father, grew up poorer than most in the heart of the Great Depression, the youngest child in a family of seven kids with a single mom who barely spoke English. He ran the streets of the Lower East Side of Manhattan with a gang of other mostly Sicilian kids, back when New York had three Major League baseball teams within its city limits.
Look at the dates on his plaque. He turned 16 in January 1945, when the war was still very much alive, still raging and taking lives at a horrifying pace, in Europe, in Asia, everywhere. My father had older brothers in the service. He had older friends in the service, and at least one older member of his gang who’d been killed in action. He didn’t want to miss this moment in history. The son of immigrants, he was fiercely proud to be an American, and so …
… Dad lied about his age. He told the recruitment office he was 17 (the minimum age to enlist) and fooled his beloved, hard-working (mostly-illiterate) mother into signing a permission slip for him to join the Navy, telling her it was a form from his high school. And for a little while, at least, Dad thought he was going to war.
But he was busted. No dice, young man. Come back in a year. And that’s what he did. The war ended as Germany surrendered in May 1945, and Japan followed suit after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were obliterated by atomic bombs in August that year. Dad, an artist, had started his own graphics (i.e., sign) company that was (unbeknownst to him, a creative if naive 16-year-old entrepreneur) a front for an illegal (mob connected) gambling ring.
So when Dad turned 17 and enlisted on the up-and-up, it was as much to escape the sign-shop escapade as it was to do his part for post-war America, serving his country as an administrative clerk (Y3 is yeoman third class) in the U.S. Navy, on land and sea.
OK, so he wasn’t Sergeant York (even though he told us stories about great battles and adventures when we were kids — to hear Dad tell it, he singlehandedly defeated Imperial Japan and rescued my mother for his own in the process, while battling dinosaurs as well, of course). But it wasn’t from lack of trying.
Dad was never a war hawk. He never had a desire to kill for his country. He only wanted to do his part. He believed in America as the place where dreams come true. He believed America was great and always evolving. He adhered to the Dale Carnegie school of thought. He was a Roosevelt/Truman Democrat who loved JFK and voted for Jimmy Carter and was not a hateful man — if he hated anything, it was bullies (and maybe Bill Mazeroski, but it wasn’t personal).
If Dad were alive today he wouldn’t hate this president — Dad was a very funny man, expert at whistling past the boneyard. As long as he had his family, Dad was usually happy. He’d laugh at this president. But Dad was no fool. He would have recognized Trump for the profoundly dangerous and self-serving putz that he is, and would have been patiently disappointed by the shambling wreckage of humanity that elected this coward. But Dad said more times than I can count, “this too shall pass, my son.”
So I don’t think he would have wasted too much time wailing and gnashing his teeth. He would have things to do. Dad would have voted against this president and his halfwitted followers, and then he would have forgotten and discarded them for the self-loathing detritus they are, because Dad was always a progressive-minded man. He’d want to move forward.
Today, though, I’m looking back … back on the life of a great American hero who was self-conscious of his heroism but never took it very seriously (except, perhaps, on Father’s Day), a man who served his country, married my mom, raised a family, and left us way too soon. Dad, I remember you.