September 21, 2007

The Biggest Event: Part III

With my father's blessing, and at his request, I ventured into new territory as I went about getting his war medals for him. I allowed my computer to remain powered off this time as I figured that the internet would be of little use to me. With my phone book in hand, I dialed up the office of Congressman Tim Bishop from my district for assistance. A gentleman on his staff was eager to help me, but was unable to because while I lived in Rep. Bishop's district, my father did not. He suggested, rather reluctantly, that I call the office of Congressman Peter King who represents the area my dad lives in. This kind gentleman added that he'd be more than willing to help if "for some bizarre reason" as he termed it, Rep. King's office "wouldn't do anything for me." But, he stated that he believed that they would jump at the chance to get my father the recognition he deserved.

When I called Congressman King's office, I was met with the same friendly, enthusiasm as I was when I called Rep. Bishop's office. This time, I was calling the right place. All they needed was a letter from my father authorizing them to act on his behalf with the Dept. of Veteran's Affairs, and a copy of his discharge papers which I finally pried away from dad after nearly a decade of asking for them. The gentleman from Rep. Bishop's office called me back a couple of days later to ask how things were going, a very kind gesture, and I told him of the generous cooperation I was receiving from Congressman King's staff. This man wanted to hear more about my father, his service, and to find out how he was doing in general. This was more than a service call, this man cared. So did everyone in Rep. King's office.

About a month later, the medals arrived in Rep. King's office. All we had to do was select a date when the Congressman wasn't in Washington, and when the entire family could meet together for this wonderful ceremony with Mr. King. Dad was happy, almost relieved it seemed, to finally get this over with. Really, I think this is something he always wanted to do, but only if it would benefit someone else. In this case, his grandchildren and his own kids would get to see a side of him we hardly knew. This was our father, a grandfather, who was a soldier in the United States Army during wartime. With wounds he received in battle which still affect him today, he was finally to be recognized for his service to his country, even though, as he insists on stating, they weren't for "valor." There was someone else he was doing this for, though I wouldn't find out until much later who it was.

On February 3, 2006, members of my family drove through a torrential downpour to the office of Rep. Peter King in Massapequa Park on Long Island in New York. Mom was in a wheelchair by then, and getting her out of our giant Trailblazer and across the parking lot in the teeming rain was a bit of an adventure. However, it was worth getting wet to witness this event which was almost sixty-two years in the making. I couldn't believe that this day arrived. Dad was finally going to get his medals. My wife and I took the kids out of school and sent notes to their excited teachers explaining their absences, and told our kids what this day was all about. It turns out that there was no need for an explanation as my daughter who was ten years old at the time, and my son was six, both had an appreciation of what was going on and were proud of their grandpa.

Clad in our Sunday best, we rode the elevator to the office to anxiously await our turn with the Congressman. A reporter from The Amityville Record was invited to interview my father and write a story. While waiting for Rep. King, the young woman reporter interviewed dad, my kids, and I, and eventually the Congressman who offered a kind quote. Everything was set for this momentous occasion, and a few moments later, Rep. King appeared and welcomed us in.

We took plenty of photos, videotaped everything, and sat and listened to Mr. King as he spent almost an hour with us, telling stories about his meetings with president Bush, his visit to Rome for Pope Benedict XVI's inaugural mass and other stories of a personal nature. This affable gentleman created for our family a wonderful memory which my wife recorded on our video camera for posterity.

Dad was presented with a Purple Heart, WWII Victory Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, the Good Conduct Medal and the Honorable Discharge Pin.

Then, I delivered a speech for my father which took me some time to write. This is a piece I had rattling around in my head for over a decade as I envisioned this award ceremony taking place. You can read the full text below:

One of my earliest memories was of a time when we were all at the beach as a family. I was about five or six years old; and I remember Dad watching me as I played at the waters edge. A wave came along and toppled me over and I fell beneath the water. To this day, I can recall the fear which I felt as I rolled about in the surf. At one point, I was on my back, and I was able to see sunlight above me and the distorted shapes of others splashing nearby. And then, from above appeared a giant form of a man; a man I immediately recognized as Dad. His massive hand reached down for me, and he pulled me to safety. Dad was my hero.

The entire incident took place in a time span of about ten seconds, yet the scene plays out in my head like an episode of Superman. My fright lasted the appropriate amount of time until the inevitable moment when my Father came to my rescue. That was the natural course of events according to my young mind. Dad was there to protect us; and he did so with ease. I was proud of my father. He was strong, really tall, and had a commanding, deep voice. My friends were afraid of him, and I got a bit of a thrill from that. Yet, the one attribute about him that added to his aura was that Dad used to be a soldier.

There are two photographs of Daddy stashed in Mom and Dad’s house which show him in his army uniform. Both pictures were taken by Grandma on the roof of their home in Brooklyn. At first glance, one would think they were shot on the same day. Yet, upon closer inspection, one can see that not only were they taken at different times, they also portray Dad in startling different circumstances.

One photo shows a young, eighteen year old teenager dutifully posing for a snapshot to be taken by his mother. No doubt Grandma was equally proud and nervous at the same time. Here was her son, fresh out of basic training in his Army uniform about to fight in the war. His uniform was devoid of patches or unit insignia and there was the slightest hint of a smile peeking out from beneath the serious visage of the soldier that Grandma believed him to be.

The other photo shows Dad on the same roof, yet it was taken about a year and a half or more after the first. Here again we see Dad in his uniform. The giant “T” patch of the Texas 36th Division was on his shoulder and Dad wore the same serious, stone faced expression which he offered the first time. However, there was no hint of adolescent cheer. Looking closely, one almost can feel his pain. We know of his injuries. These are wounds which he’s kept quiet for so long they’ve almost become rumors. Yet, the pain persists.

Dad’s strength kept him alive on the battlefield; and it was his strength too which allowed him to raise and protect his family. His bravery in combat was the right of passage into manhood which gave him the confidence to patrol the waters edge and mind a son who depended upon his big, powerful father to save him from monsters and tidal waves. The silent and dignified manner in which he carried himself through his struggles with his injuries both during and after the war defined his method of handling sick kids and medical bills.

Dad worried about us all, and he did so all the time. But, he did it from behind the stoic veneer of a young man in uniform who came home from the war to raise his family and protect them through times of struggle and hardship unique to our big family.

He is as much a hero today as he was sixty two years ago on the battlefields of Italy, or on a rooftop in Brooklyn.

The medals awarded to him today by an esteemed member of the United States Congress, Congressman King, are as much for his service as a parent as they are for his service to his country. At least to me they are.

Dad, I stand here today wishing that I can be the same valiant figure of a man to my own daughter and son. Because of you, one day my children may share a story with their own kids of how their father picked them up when they fell down, and feel a small amount of pride. And, when they do so, I will be in debt to you, as you taught me about strength and manhood. You are an example to us all Dad, and I am proud of you. You are my father, my hero, and I love you.

After we left, proud, satisfied, and off to a nice lunch at a local restaurant, we later gathered at mom and dad's house in the living room where many years earlier we watched "The Wonderful World of Disney" and then witnessed our father re-connect with his violent and painful memories. Dad sat on the couch, and proceeded to tell us war stories for the first time in his life. Without becoming too graphic, he allowed us into his private world to briefly learn about a very private side of him.

We learned that he was shot in the face and in the right arm, left for dead and was almost buried alive, that he was wounded on June 2nd, 1944 and was discharged from the Army hospital in Rome on September 2, 1944. Mount Vesuvius erupted while he was in the hospital and, as dad put it, "the whole war stopped." He told us that when he was finally discharged, he was left without a uniform and had to wear civilian clothes until his division was re-supplied. His orders were to return home to be discharged by the army; but, he wanted to return to unit and to his buddies who went on to fight in France. His injuries were too extensive, and he was unable to handle a weapon, so he was sent home.

A ship was leaving for the United States, and two GI's took him by Jeep to the pier where they made it as the very last people were boarding. If he had missed that boat, he would have had to go into France with his regiment, civilian clothes and all, and then wait to be flown back to the United States.

In the Mediterranean Sea, a German u boat fired torpedoes at his ship, and a US Navy frigate maneuvered in front of them and took the hits. A Navy blimp spotted the u boat and destroyed it with depth charges. He finally made it back home to New York, and enjoyed two weeks in a resort in upstate Lake Placid. New York State treated its returning veterans to this getaway as a "thank you" for their service.

My father's buddies were all eventually killed in action in France.

Since that time, dad has talked about his experiences in battle in greater detail. And, there were times I thought he was reliving the past. The biggest challenge of his life came long after the war and allowed another question to resurface regarding dad and his medals. On August 30, 2006, our mother, dad's wife of fifty two years, passed away after a long struggle with cancer and Lupus. Her death devastated him. It seemed he would never recover from his grief and his incredible loss. The only woman he ever loved was gone and we rallied behind him as we, his children, became strong for him the way he taught us how. I wouldn't find out until a year later the other motive my father had for getting his medals, and it showed how deep and unselfish and devoted dad really is.

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