Retrospectives

Papa Jack hanging Christmas lights in our first house in Maine

Retrospectives for the previous year are ubiquitous in late December:  “The Best Of” and “Worst Of” lists – movies, theater, books, television, every sport known to humankind and Broadway shows; news stories of significance ranked by their impact on our lives and imaginations; fashion and entertainment “ins” and “outs”, championships and crushing defeats.  Late December also evokes a personal retrospective.  December 29th marked what would have been my father’s 95th birthday and the 29th anniversary of his death on the day he turned sixty six, especially poignant for me since I will turn sixty six in February.

Papa Jack was, as are we all, both ordinary and extraordinary.  He didn’t make any Man of the Year lists.  He was a salesperson selling all manner of products and services over the course of his career from land in Arizona to Yellow Page ads and Walpole Woodworker’s fence; death befell him prior to retirement, he liked his work most of the time.  A father of six and grandfather of fourteen, Papa Jack was an imperfect, but unforgettable Dad. He had few role models to learn to be a father, growing up in pre-Depression three deckers in Lynn, MA, a small hardscrabble mill city of working poor and lower middle class folks north of Boston.  His own father, a show troupe manager from Buffalo, NY, was killed in World War I shortly after my father’s birth; his mother, a former Vaudeville singer and Irish immigrant, died when Papa Jack was still a teenager.  Before World War II, he assembled aircraft engines at the “G.E.”, Lynn’s largest employer.   After Pearl Harbor, he joined the Army.

His closest Army buddy was ‘Sonny’ (John) Laracy, the twin brother of my mother, Betty, which is how my parents met.  Sonny and Jack slogged through half of France, Luxemburg and Belgium; he never told us combat stories, except for one.  Most of his WW II stories poked fun at his predilection for humor and running afoul of rules.  Sonny and he were scouts in an advanced Intelligence and Reconnaissance unit for the 52nd Armored Infantry Battalion.  My dad was a sergeant, and they had their own Jeep, although he told us of driving a half track as well.

In the early bad days of the Battle of the Bulge, in the Ardennes Forest of Belgium, troops were pinned down in the snow by deadly artillery, tank and small arms fire.  On December 18, 1944, my Dad and Sonny were separated as the Germans overwhelmed their position; my Dad remembers looking across a field and seeing Sonny racing away, waving back at him, unable to come back with only a suicidal run risking the lives of the other soldiers clinging to the Jeep as an option.  My father, along with many others, was captured and spent the next three months as a prisoner of war.  He spent several weeks living in a boxcar when American Mustangs returning from protecting bombing runs frequently strafed German trains.  The Americans would form the letters P O W in the snow to caution the pilots and stop the shooting.

At the end of his three months as a POW, the Germans drove several canvas roofed trucks transporting the Americans into a remote field.  The prisoners were herded out of the trucks to stand shivering in the snow.  Another truck backed up to the huddled men, surrounded by their guards. The tailgate dropped to reveal a tripod mounted machine gun and two grim German soldiers, one of whom jacked back the action to chamber the first round.  A tense and hopeless silence followed with only the sounds of the cooling engines.  No birds sang.  After what must have been minutes, but seemed an eternity, the soldiers manning the gun laughed mirthlessly, and the truck drove off, leaving the prisoners to make their way back.  When their captors slipped away, American soldiers soon liberated them.

I remember when I was ten or so, attending a Fourth of July cookout at a friend of my family’s.  The friend was Norwegian by birth and had a wood fired sauna in his back yard.  My dad went in with a couple of others.  As a joke, one of the other men jammed a shovel against the door, and started setting off firecrackers against the walls.  My father yelled for him to stop.  He did not.  My father screamed the only time I ever heard that sound; he was a big man, a strong athlete.  He kicked the door off its hinges and emerged furious and shaking.  The joker ran into the house.

My father was the king of street football quarterbacks among my friends and brothers. In his early twenties, he was the home run champion of the Lynn Softball League, playing for the General Electric team.  Before Tee Ball existed he almost despaired of trying to teach his eight year old son how to hit a baseball.  He patiently drilled a hole through a ball, and secured it with a string and a nail to a tree branch where I would happily, though for the most part, ineffectively flail away.  He stood and called out in the stadium at my college graduation, “That’s my boy!”

My dad drank a bit too much, smoked too much, told an easy, usually irreverent and wonderful joke at any opportunity, especially at wakes, and could quiet a room with his memorable Irish tenor.  Not a dry eye after Danny Boy.  My earliest memories of church are in the choir loft while my father would solo Ave Maria or Panis Angelicus.  To help remember his voice, we only have three songs recorded by my brother on a Dictaphone at my cousin’s wedding in 1970. The sound quality is not good, but he can be clearly heard on this link.  Papa Jack sings “On This Day”  Back arrow to return to post.

He was, like most of his generation, flawed, but resolute, and for his kids, a faultless hero.  A year before his death, he came up from Massachusetts, and we roomed together at a three day Catholic men’s retreat in Augusta, Maine near where I lived.  During recreation time, we played in a volleyball tournament and won.  He no longer could soar as he once had, but was a master of the heart breaking deke and soft placement of a point winning shot.  At the end of the three days, our families joined us.  We all took a turn telling briefly of our experience on the retreat. I was able to tell him and the couple of hundred in the audience that I loved him and always had.  I’m forever grateful that I did.

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13 Comments

Filed under Personal and family life

13 responses to “Retrospectives

  1. Karen Charielle

    Happy New Year Jack! Your post was very enlightening and your father sounds like he was a wonderful man.

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  2. Meg

    Whenever I think about Papa Jack, I remember one of the stories you told me when I was little. It was when you all lived in the old house on Marguerite Road. Papa Jack called you into the kitchen and asked “Hey Jack, come here and hold this for a minute, would you?” What he was holding was a broomstick upright against the ceiling. Of course, what you didn’t realize was that the stick was propping up a bucket full of water and if you tried to do anything besides hold it firmly the water would come crashing down onto the kitchen floor. He walked away chuckling leaving you to figure out your next move.

    I always wished I had the chance to know him. Sometimes when I was little, I dreamed about spending just one afternoon with him. Based on the fact that Nana, now in her 90’s, still gets teary eyed when she talks about him says a lot about how amazing he was not only as a father but as a husband. From the stories you, Nana, the uncles, mom and even Gabe and Amy (despite their age when they knew him) told me my whole life, I always envisioned Papa Jack to be the perfect combination of charming, fun, admirable, hysterical, brave, athletic, handsome and loving. You possess all of those qualities as well, dad. I’ve always felt lucky and proud to have such an amazing dad–and even though your time with your dad was cut short, I know you’ll always remember and cherish those moments you had with him. Happy Birthday, Papa. I wish I could’ve known you.

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  3. Rita

    I can still hear his voice in my mind. It was truly beautiful. Panis Angelicus and all the rest. A good portion of that wonderful sound has been passed on to his sons.

    I also have great memories of him when he and Nana would come up to Maine in the summer and camp on Great Pond in Belgrade Lakes. I can still see him running down the dock and taking a long graceful dive into the water and swimming with long graceful strokes. He was a natural athlete. Your Dad swims just like him…

    Happy Birthday Papa Jack!
    Love,
    Rita

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  4. Diane Caracciolo

    I loved the celebration of life tribute to both You and your Dad…beautiful.

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  5. Meg, Another time I walked by the kitchen and he and Nana set me up. They were laughing, and my father was practicing putting a quarter on his forehead with his head tipped way back. He would slowly bring his head forward and slide the quarter into a large funnel he had stuck into the front of his pants. I couldn’t possibly duplicate the feat, could I? Sure, says I.
    You can guess the rest. As soon as my head was tipped back and the quarter secure, a quart of cold water poured into the funnel.
    Laughter was a regular and necessary part of growing up with my folks, and it was good.
    Rita, his swimming was graceful, steady and strong; he ripped through the water seemingly effortlessly, and until his fifties could outswim me.
    Finally, how about one of Papa Jack’s wake jokes?
    Liam went to work at O’Flaherty’s Funeral Home. On his second day, there were two simultaneous wakes – Sean O’Leary and Paddy O’Brian. Liam carefully dressed them up in the suits brought over by the family. Five minutes before doors opened for the family and the priest was due to come for the Rosary, O’Flaherty discovered a disaster. O’Leary was in O’Brian’s brown suit, and O’Brian looked splendid in O’Leary’s blue one. There would be no consoling the widows. The enterprising Liam assured the panic stricken O’Flaherty that he could make it right and ushered the undertaker out into the front hall to greet the guests. Five minutes later, in they come, and the evening goes swimmingly much to the owner’s relief. When the last mourner left, O’Flaherty could no longer contain himself. “How did you do it so quickly, Liam?”, he asks. “Piece of cake, boss” says Liam. “I switched heads.”

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  6. Greg

    Meg’s comments brought tears to my eyes. One on my life’s regrets (not that I have a ton) was that Dad never met my son’s or I had the opportunity to share them with him. My old man was a hero from another generation…….he never spoke of the war, I believe it was too horrible for him to tell his children. I once asked him if he ever had to kill anyone……..he looked at me with far away eyes and never answered…..I didn’t need one and never asked again. I loved my father and miss him very much……he was never anything but extraordinary to me.

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  7. Stephanie Boynton

    Papa was saw awesome. I remember spending many times camping with him and Nana, I also remember how I basically could do no wrong in his eyes. I am not sure if it was because I was his only daughter’s daughter, it could be because we almost shared a birthday- I being December 27th and he December 29th or maybe it was just because he loved me like everyone says a grandfather should.

    One memory Nana and I laugh about was when we were camping in Truro, Amy was with us, too. Papa and Nana took us to the beach, the waves to this 8 year old kid look like tsunamis, but were probably not all that big. We got to the edge and I said “No way I am not going out there” Papa said “Of course you are”. We went a few more steps, him holding my hand on one side, Amy’s on his other, when a wave came in and knocked us all down. He landed on top of me, I remember the water rushing over me and when I got up I was MAD! I told him he tried to kill me and he just started laughing saying he was sorry. I did not talk to him again that night, I just pouted- but looking back I laugh at what a bunch of nuts we must have looked like. Funny that is one of my most favorite memories. There are many more, going Christmas caroling, watching him play football with all my uncles, him reading stories to Amy and I when we spent the night and the best, how he taught me to ride a bike. It was Gabe’s bike and we were in Maine, but thanks to him when I got home I was able to ride that yellow banana seat bike I never had been able to before.

    I miss Papa, a lot. I always wonder if life would have gone a different direction if he had not died, would we have still ended up in Florida? I think of how much pride he would have watching his great grandson Will play football with amazing skill or listen to Kenny with his beautiful voice that must have been gifted by Papa. He would also get a kick out of Lex and his antics (he has a lot of the Parquette gene in him)

    I will always cherish the 10 years I had with Papa. Amy, Gabe, Jeff and I were so blessed to have known him, spent time with him, hear him laugh and know the love of an amazing grandfather. I have always felt a sadness for cousins that did not get that chance. Thank you for this blog uncle Jack!

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  8. Gabe Parquette

    No dry eyes over here after listening to that clip. Happy Birthday Papa Jack. I miss ya, ya burr head.

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  9. Meg

    Dad, do you have any more songs by him? Isn’t there an Ave Maria floating around somewhere?

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    • I think I do at home on my other PC. I’ll check for it send it to you if I find it. Love to you, Adelaide and the big guy, d

      On Wed, Aug 2, 2017 at 2:02 PM, Quo Vadis? Jack's Blog wrote:

      >

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  10. Barry Parquette

    A Dictaphone? It was a Mayfair AM FM Radio Cassette model 2060 it had 15 Transistors,10 Diodes and two Thermistors! It killed weeks of my weekly income to get that, I brought it solely to be able to hear better,It was the best I could afford at that time. I wanted to understand the words of music, I recorded him at Mary’s Wedding took it home and found out it didn’t work. Meanwhile Dad borrowed it and never got it back, hell I thought It did me no good… he used it in everything he did around the house. Mainly listen to the baseball games I think.. He love the Red Sox. He lost the battery door on it, had paint spatter on it and a few dings and chips from whatever project he was working on. On his passing, I took it back, found it on his work bench, next to the toolbox I got him for Christmas, not sure where that went, I just wanted the radio. I still have it, one of my biggest treasures, because he had his hands all over it… Anyway, I kept that song recording in my treasure box, till I found opportunity to find a way to share it. When I gave a copy to you all, Marty took it another step up a few years later, he had it professionally cleaned and put on CD’s for Christmas gift for all of us. I am amazed it was the only recording we have. I remember professional recordings of him at the high school when the town had their Irish Feast of sorts, they were used to make records! … and we don’t have a copy of them. I tried to hunt them down, perhaps someone might be able to track them down..
    Anyway I side with all of you, his early dismiss was a shock and way too early. I always thought he be around forever.. My favorite memory of him, think I was 13-14? Was where I thought I was going to get my head chopped off by dad, as I beat up a street bully in the back yard I saw Dad cheering me on the back stairs, he was throwing punches in the air showing me the moves. I kind of just stopped and let the kid run home, kind of stunned what just transpired. It was a “huh” moment forever etched into my memory.. It was my first “fight”… Anyway over the years, that bully was just another kid had his own issues in life, like I did, but his life was cut short for he died in fire in his own garage. RIP Frank I hope you forgave me.
    You stated he was strong, I can back that, I remember, as an ex-farm boy, a strong lad myself back in the day, he was the only person I could not beat in arm wrestling and I am talking into my thirties, occasional party fun thing or something he he would still beat me… I also remember he could throw the football almost whole length of Marguerite Road, he could also make it disappear straight up into the sky, we had to wait for it to come back down.. he had amazing arm. You said he was a hero and so did many others, I never seen a bigger funeral and been to many. Never saw so many tears and many men in that mix, nor had I ever seen so many people that I did at Dad’s funeral. Some told me they had stories to share with me but opportune never came, one on my life’s biggest regrets..

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    • Sorry, Bub. Didn’t mean to demean the Mayfair, and I forgot Marty’s kindness in getting them cleaned up.
      As I remember being a bully around you was a hazardous occupation even into your forties.
      Thanks for the shared memories.

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  11. Greg

    Thanks Jack this was a better read the second time around.

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