Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Happy 87th, Daddy

Today would have been my Dad's 87th birthday. He was born August 30, 1918 in Chicago, IL; however, if you asked him, he would have claimed that he was born up there while his parents were on an "extended vacation" from their home in a small settlement just to the southwest of Lake Okechobee in Florida. He hated the idea of not having been born in the South and never wanted anyone accusing him of being born a "Yankee".

You'd probably have liked my Dad. He was a lifelong mechanic, loved working with just about anything that could be worked on, even when he wasn't at work. His hobbies at home were cutting and polishing rocks and restoring old "flywheel" engines, even dabbling in old sock-knitting contraptions and cord-weaving devices that I never knew existed. He wasn't the best-educated guy around (it took him a couple of years extra to finish up high school down in Lakeland) but that doesn't mean he was dumb; he just didn't get a whole lot of out of traditional education. He was the type of person who made everyday things work in America. He worked for over forty years as a Pontiac mechanic at a dealership in Sarasota, day in and day out. He took a half-day out one time when he hurt his back, but otherwise he worked unless he was on vacation. He paid his taxes, groused about politicians (particularly Republicans; he was a life-long Democrat, although he was anything but a liberal in most of his views) and really didn't trust guys with beards (which made me really popular around the house when I came back from college my freshman year for Christmas break with a very scraggly beard; our only true yelling and shouting match came over that).

My Dad enlisted in the Army Air Force right after Thanksgiving, 1941 and was in Camp Blanding in Florida when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Fortunately for the AAF, he got the assignment he wanted and was best suited for; a B-24 bomber mechanic. He was sent for training to Texas, then California and then to Oklahoma. His group, the 98th, was sent to Palestine and moved westward across Africa to Libya, then up to Italy as the war progressed. He never talked about his experiences, though one of his best friends from the group lived in Sarasota and his son and my older brother were friends in high school. In the mid-Ninties I finally heard about a stash of photographs my Dad had in a bureau drawer along with his diary from 1944 and we had a pretty good time talking about his experiences. To hear him tell it, the worst part of it all was the extreme weather conditions in the desert and in Italy (always cold and damp), otherwise it was just another day at the office. It wasn't until later that I found out about the strafings by German aircraft at a port in Italy and the time he was trying to defend a British seaplane from saboteurs while manning a .50 cal. machine gun one night in Libya.

He loved my mother. They met in Sarasota at a party while he was stationed at what was then a military airfield (now the airport) and working part time at the Pontiac dealership. They got married, had my older brother, suffered the loss of his father, scraped up money to buy a house from his mother, suffered the loss of a month-old baby boy and then had me in 1955. They took everything in stride. They fussed at each other from time to time about things, Momma handling the finances and doing most of the talking to her two boys while Daddy worked hard to keep the money coming in. We took vacations each summer and drove all over the United States, looking for rocks and fossils, camping most of the time to save money, sometimes staying with relatives and friends in odds and ends of places I'd never heard of and probably wouldn't recognize even now.

About five years ago at this time of the year, my Dad was diagnosed with mesothelioma, an agressive and invariably fatal form of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. Being in the car repair business got him exposed to that stuff pretty much every day from brake pads and transmission parts. He told us in the hospital after his surgery that the practical jokers in the garage would use compressed air to blow the asbestos dust from brake pads over the guy working on them; a lot of those guys have died of mesothelioma already or will pretty soon. Daddy looked at his cancer treatment as just another job for a different type of mechanic to do; take out the bad parts and make the rest of it work. It didn't end up that way; he died in December, 2000.

My mother missed him terribly, though she wouldn't say it in so many words when I would see her, but you could tell. She died in 2002. They are together again in a memorial park in Sarasota, in a nice, uncrowded section near a tree, just down the way from his mother and father. Whenever I get down that way nowadays I stop by and talk to them, thanking them for the way they raised me (at least in retrospect) and for what they left me, both in material and in memories.

So, Happy Birthday, Daddy. I miss you something awful.

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