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.