My father was a scrappy, resourceful kid who, before his 18th birthday had become a decorated veteran of the Second World War.
The son of a bootlegger and a spitfire business woman, my father had charisma and charm and a story for every occasion. And he came by those stories honestly.
Born in 1927, my father grew up in the depression era, living in run-down, bug-infest apartments and rooming houses, and moving so often that he’d barely finish unpacking before he had to pack up and move again. Making friends came easy for my father, but eventually he just gave up trying, preferring instead to practicing drumming with his older brother or boxing at the Boys Club located in the basement of the Chicago Police station. He also took tap dancing and ukulele lessons.
When he was seven, my father lived in an apartment above the tavern on Kedzie Street in Chicago that his father owned. One night he became curious about what went on in the back room of the tavern and snuck down there to find a group of men playing cards. He later learned that one of the men was Al Capone.
It wasn’t long after that that his father went to prison for bootlegging, despite the fact that he had over 80 Chicago Police and Firemen on his payroll helping him bottle the bootlegged bear in the basement.
When my father was eight he began selling the Saturday Evening Post door to door, and was rewarded not with cash but cool prizes like flashlights and pocketknives.
At the age of nine, he earned .25 per hour answering phones at his mother’s place of business and learned a lot about the art of salesmanship (and charisma) from the company’s owner.
And then one night, when my father was 14, he found a newspaper blowing down the street announcing the Pearl Harbor disaster. The next morning, after having stayed up all night eating bananas in an attempt to gain weight, he and a friend appeared at a naval recruiting station. To appear older, they dressed in their fathers clothing, but both failed the eye test.
His next move was to look into the Enlisted Reserve Corps (ERC) where he could join if he were 17, then enlist in the regular Army when he was 18. In either case, he needed to age two and a half years over night. And then he had an idea.
The following morning he went to the church where he and his older brother had been baptized and, putting patriotism before truth, he convinced the church secretary to issue a duplicate baptismal certificate and change the date to his brother’s birthdate, September 25, 1925.
In 1942, before my father was even 15 years of age, he showed up at an Army recruiting station with his bogus baptismal certificate. The enlistment officer promptly demanded a birth certificate, to which my father deadpanned, “The Colonel downstairs said a baptismal certificate was good enough.”
Without further delay, my father was admitted to the ERC. On May 21, 1943, just before his 16th birthday, he was sworn into the United States Army. In the fall of 1944, aboard the Highland Monarch, he sailed to England where he became part of an 11-man crew firing a 155mm Howitzer.
After fighting in the Northern France campaign, my father was moved into the Battle of Ardennes (Battle of the Bulge) which began with a massive German counter-offensive on December 16, 1944 that caught the Allies completely by surprise. Nearly 200,000 Allied and German casualties were sustained in a month of fierce fighting in heavy forests amid brutal weather conditions.
A German lieutenant described the fighting in a December 22nd letter. “Today we overtook a fleeing column and finished it . . . we pulled up along the road with sixty Panthers. And then came the endless American convoy driving in two columns, side by side, hub on hub, filled to the brim with soldiers. And then a concentrated fire from sixty guns and one hundred and twenty machine-guns. It was a glorious bloodbath . . . The snow must turn red with American blood . . . ”
When the Dachau concentration was liberated in 1945, my father became a guard of the German prisoners. He remained in Germany with the Army of Occupation until the spring of 1946, where he returned home a hero with 4 Bronze Stars.
A few years after returning from the war my father met my mother, the love of both our lives. While working two jobs, he attended the Institute of Lettering and Design (after ruling out Ballet and Welding schools) where, in addition to studying hand lettering, he also studied commercial art and photography.
In 1954, my father formed a business called Loop Showcard which eventually became Chicago’s premier commercial art and photography studio specializing in making slides for company’s marketing and advertising. He sold the business in 1999 in order to care for my mother, who was suffering from a terminal illness.
Over the years, my father taught me many things. He taught me to ride a bike and drive a car, but he also taught me to work for what I want (making me wash his car for a month before I could buy my first Partridge Family album), to be honest so that I never had to look over my shoulder, and to never ever burn bridges because you never know how or when or where you’ll encounter someone again.
My father was a hero not only to his country but to his family as well. And he was strong and brave and courageous—a true soldier—right until the end of his life. Three days before he passed, I returned from Las Vegas after running my first marathon. I placed my finisher’s medal around his neck and told him he was my hero. He then looked at me and asked me if I’d read the latest John Grisham novel. “Yes,” I said, “It’s about a judge who offs himself with an overdose of morphine.”
A slow smile formed on my father’s lips. “N-no, dad, I won’t let you do that. And I won’t do it for you.” “But I’m ready to go be with Mom,” he said. So I called his doctor, we took him off his life sustaining meds and gave him ever increasing doses of morphine to keep him comfortable. Before he passed he looked around at his eight daughters surrounding his beside and smiled. “Now I know why I had all girls.”
Though we had our differences and our struggles over the years, I couldn’t imagine a better father. Happy Father’s Day, Daddy!
What about you? Tell me what is (or was) special about your dad.
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