Today is my father's birthday.
He was born November 6, 1906. This would have been his 94th birthday... but this past January marked the eighth anniversary of his death.
In April of 1906 the San Francisco earthquake took more than seven hundred lives. Radio broadcasting did not yet exist. Horse-drawn wagons were far more common than horseless carriages. Upton Sinclair's The Jungle was a best-seller. Women had the vote only in a few western states. Leading political figures still included large numbers of the Civil War generation.
My grandfather was on the police force in Kingston, New York. In the opening weeks of 1919, when my father was a twelve year old boy, his father was slain in the line of duty, a loss that was to haunt my father throughout his life.
There were no safety nets then. When my brother and I were growing up we expressed an interest in getting a newspaper delivery route but would not allow it. He remembered all too well having to deliver papers, remembered how the younger kids had to fight the older ones for a place in the line to pick up their allotment from the newspaper office, remembered long hours in all kinds of weather. My father only completed two years of high school but he was self-educated far beyond that. He was a lifelong reader -- I was introduced to Jack London, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Zane Grey, etc. from old books of my father's -- but he read widely, science, history, travel, biography... Later in life he fell in love with Mitchener's novels, beginning with Chesapeake, a novel he must have read a dozen times. When I was in college I discoved that he was using the same textbook for a college extension course he was taking at IBM as I was in my intro to psych course at school. IBM tried to persuade him to get a G.E.D. and then take college courses for credit but he claimed he was too old to become a student.
Mischief might as well have been my father's middle name. He was a life-long practical joker. He used to entertain my brother and me with tales of jokes played on trolleycar motormen, tricks that led the motorman to abandon his trolley in order to chase my father and his friends. The night before my father's funeral my brother and I sat with his minister, recalling many of Dad's exploits. The next day she wove allusions to many of these tales into her eulogy, leaving us all in a mixture of tears and laughter. Dad would have delighted at the laughter.
During World War II he was stationed in England, preparing for the D-Day invasion. One night, in a pub, one of his friends told him how attracted he was to a young long-haired English girl and asked my father for advice on how to win her. That's easy, my father told him, just tell her that, as everyone knows, the invasion will be coming soon and you'll be going into combat and who knows what will happen and tell her how beautiful her hair is and how much it would mean to you if only she would give you a small locket of her hair to carry into battle with you. My father then took an opportunity to take the young lady aside and warn her about this other Yank, to tell her how he had just been released from confinement, how he had attacked a woman and cut off her hair. You can imagine how she reacted when this young Yank then came up to her to ask for a locket of her hair!
A week or two later my father had a personal hair experience. He decided (probably while under the influence of a drink or three or ten, although Dad did not need to be drinking to do outrageous things) that if he was going into combat he wanted to look like a warrior, so he had his hair cut into a Mohawk-style scalplock haircut... this was fine until an officer saw him and jumped on him for having a non-regulation haircut... and ordered him to get rid of the Mohawk.... which meant that he ended up with his head shaved... Now you may have seen the movie The Dirty Dozen? Where they let tough guys out of the brig if they volunteered for combat duty? That really was done... lots of real badass types were released from military prisons... you could tell them because they all had shaven heads from prison... so people would kind of edge away from my father in bars because they saw his haircut and assumed he must be one of those released criminals.
Dad had had to grow up fast with the loss of his father and became a bit of a two-fisted brawler. He was also an avid hunter and fisherman... until the war. If you have seen the opening scenes of Private Ryan then you have seen something of what my father faced on D-Day. He went through that hell and through the kind of combat where you saw the men you were killing and who were trying to kill you. Most of his war stories were like the two I just recounted for you... what he never talked about was the actual combat... it was only from my mother that I learned about his two recurring nightmares; one in combat where the men he kills keep getting back up and coming at him and one where the men he killed have crossed the ocean and are coming up out of the Hudson River after him. A few months before he died I was visiting him with Adam, my eldest (who was in his early twenties at the time) and he told us (told Adam, really) about some war experiences I had never heard him tell before. (I don't think I will share them with you.) After the war he got rid of all his guns. He and my mother would often go fishing but he never hunted again, never touched a gun for the rest of his life.
He and my mother had known each other all their lives, growing up in the same neighborhood. They were married in their mid-twenties, in June of 1933. They struggled through the Depression. Times were very hard but they persevered and got by without much money... I didn't come along until 1943... followed by my brother in 1946.
Okay, one more story... when my brother got married, the guys in the wedding changed into the wedding costumes (you know, tuxedoes) at my brother's house. After the reception the bride's brothers continued on drinking and were well lubricated by the time they got back to change into normal clothes... only to be stumbling and falling all over the place because they couldn't seem to get their pants on... took them a few tries before they realized that they weren't that drunk, someone had taken needle and thread and stiched their pants legs closed. Yep, my Dad...
So... Happy birthday, Dad!
I miss you.