Mother’s Day is the single most important holiday we have. I wish it were treated as huge as Christmas and you had to shop for all the mothers in your family besides just your own.
Father’s Day, however, is tricky. I cannot tell you how many friends and acquaintances have had distant and difficult relationships with their dads. Now I realize that there are many women who had strained bonds with their mothers, but at least they had one. I know of very few mothers who abandoned their children. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about dads. Due to divorce, and unwanted, unexpected parenthood, I know many “weekend dads,” but very, very few “weekend moms.”
I have strong, fond memories of my dad when I was little. He taught me how to ride a bike. Not that there was a scientific method to it. He put me on this big red Schwinn with the block pedals and placed me on the seat and gave me a push. When I fell, he would put me back up on the seat, give me another little push till I toppled again. Being that I was crashing on to the hard cement of Patterson schoolyard, I quickly learned to stay up.
In that same schoolyard he would hit hundreds of flyballs to me. He could really smack that ball around. He was so terrific at it that word would get out throughout the parish and soon there would be a dozen kids shagging flyballs alongside me. He loved to walk. Hours on end. Often there was a VFW or CWV club at the end of these journeys where he would pop back a few, but I didn’t care. I always got a bag of chips and a Coke out of this “don’t tell your mother” deal.
But there was something odd going on throughout these years that I didn’t quite notice then because I was a kid and how would I know better? He rarely, if ever, talked.
We would go to an occasional Phillies game and that involved well over an hour of public transportation to get there. The ride there? The entire game? The ride back? He might say 10 words the entire time.
Then when I became old enough to talk back and question stuff, he shut up completely. He’d sit at the kitchen table all night, listen to a ballgame or KYW, and drink whatever cheap beer was on sale at the distributor that week.
He completely disappeared into the kitchen for the rest of his life. He had no idea what I was up to. Ever. If a half dozen words were uttered between us for the last 13 years of his life I would be surprised.
He wasn’t a bad guy. He worked every day at the Navy Yard. Never hit anybody. Didn’t blow his wages gambling. I could think of plenty of worse dads just on our block.
It was just weird having this 300-pound alcoholic elephant in the room. When he died at 62 (I was 25), I felt nothing. Not even any shame over that fact.
What happens years later gets strange. My sister called me one day asking me a question about him. I couldn’t answer her. When I hung up I realized that I could barely remember anything about him at all. He had become this blurry photo. In fact, barely any photos of him existed.
I had this blank book sitting on my desk that someone gave me for my birthday. I started writing down any memories of him that I could recall. Usually just a paragraph or two. Something like “he would eat horseradish right out of the jar.”
Some days I would write two or three memories, then go a month without writing any at all. After a year I couldn’t think of any more. Sixty-seven memories. That was it.
The book sat on my desk for a couple years. At the time the desk was in my finished Mullica Hill basement that also featured a huge bar. Many parties were thrown there and during one of those jams, a writer friend of mine saw this book on the desk and, unbeknownst to me, started reading it. He came up to me and said “What is this?” I said, “Well, I guess it’s the story of my dad.” He was fascinated by it and actually finished it at the party. (It’s a really short book.)
To make a long story short, this “book” ended up getting published and has now sold over 30,000 copies. Go figure. All this over a man who barely said two words to anybody.
Now it gets really weird. Ten years ago I buy a rancher in Sea Isle City and my new next-door neighbor, a man named Paul Koons, had read the book and asked me about my dad’s time in World War II. There had been a page that mentioned that my father had fought in the Battle of the Bulge. I told him that I knew nothing about it at all, that my father had never said a single solitary word about his days during the war. I told Paul that before the book came out I thought I would try to find out what I could about his military service and that my efforts had been thwarted by a fire that had destroyed thousands of records.
Here comes the “small world” part of this saga. As it turned out Paul used to work for the Veterans Administration and one day I was sitting in my beach chair when he dropped a two-inch thick dossier on to my lap. It documented my dad’s entire time in the Army from his boot camp induction to a receipt of the $400 check the Army had given my mother to help with funeral costs. How did he obtain all this info?
Well, it turned out that my dad’s records were kept in a different warehouse. A building that stored only the documentation of servicemen who had won medals. What? Medals? What medals?
It turned out that during the Battle of the Bulge my dad was positioned in a tree with a bazooka ready to take out a German tank. Only the tank saw him first and blew him out of the tree. Despite being badly wounded, he got up and continued fighting, saving American lives in the process. For this he was awarded the Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.
However, it doesn’t end like some John Wayne movie. My dad ended up suffering a nervous breakdown and was ordered off to a hospital in Belgium for a couple months before he was shipped back to the States where he spent more time in another hospital in Virginia before he was kicked out into the real world. “Good luck kid.”
Not one person in my family knew about these medals. I’m not even sure he did. My dad. A war hero.
I have since heard from many people who tell me that their dads also never said a word about their time in the war. For a lot of men the horrors were so bad they just blocked it out of their minds forever.
And those medals? With the help of the late Senator Arlen Specter, who I had interviewed many times at WIP, they are now hanging in my house.
Happy Father’s Day dad.
Big Daddy Graham is a renowned stand-up comedian and overnight personality on SportsRadio 94WIP. Check out his new podcast, Big Daddy’s Classic Rock Throwdown, at BigDaddyGraham.com.
Visit BigDaddyGraham.com to order a copy of “Last Call” (orders placed through PayPal by June 13 will arrive in time for Father’s Day).
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 11, Issue 3 June, 2014).
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