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Happy Birthday, 91

January 6, 2012

Today is Pop’s birthday. Pop is Tony, my father-in-law, who is turning 91. He is kind and gentle, a salt of the earth kind of man in its best possible sense. He lived through the Depression and was a soldier in World War II. He did masonry work, had his own small grocery store back in the 50’s, and worked as a butcher until he was into his 80’s.  He loves sports, especially golf, the Yankees, and the football Giants. He is husband, father, grandfather, brother, maker of homemade sausage, walker of impetuous Schnauzers, and folder of clothes. He has now undertaken perhaps his most important job, caretaker for Mary, his wife of sixty plus years, who suffers from Alzheimer’s.

Simply put, Pop is one hell of guy.

I write this because Pop is the kind of person who goes unnoticed, just another old-timer on line in the Shoprite or geezer driving too slowly down Main Street. And that is a shame, because his has been a life well lived, full of the struggles that made up the pursuit of the American dream by those of his generation. He followed the rules, worked hard, fulfilled his duties, and kept his faith and integrity intact while doing it. He is living history, someone with stories to tell, if only anyone would bother to listen.

I have known him since 1968 when I was the long-haired boyfriend on the motorcycle dating his daughter. God only knows what he thought of me then. However, over the years we have developed a bond of mutual respect.  Often times after helping him with some small chore or other around the house while the “girls” are otherwise occupied, he would tell me the stories of his past, especially of his army days during World War II, a singularly important period in the life of so many like him .

When his country needed him, he answered the call. After being inducted at Fort Dix, his outfit was taken by train to Camp Sibert in Alabama where he was shocked to see that there was nothing there when they arrived. They had to build their own camp. Being a northerner in the deep South was an even greater shock. A New Jersey boy, Tony was used to mingling with people of color. The negative reaction of those native to Dixie caught him totally off guard. At the completion of training, they returned north by train to Fort Drum before shipping out overseas. Pop was surprised and excited when the train rolled through his hometown, and he proudly pointed it out to his comrades.

It was the time of the Invasion of Sicily, so his unit boarded a ship to cross the Atlantic, part of a large convoy, where a problem much greater than the rampant seasickness occurred.  His ship, the Washington, developed engine trouble and was left behind by the convoy which could not be delayed in its mission. Pop said he stood on the deck with a sinking feeling watching the convoy shrink and then disappear on the horizon. The only thing he could see in the vast, swaying ocean was a single small destroyer which circled his ship to protect it from enemy submarines while the repairs were being made. After a seeming eternity, the Washington proceeded at full steam and rejoined the convoy, making an eventual landing in North Africa.

Pop described his year in North Africa with awe, both for the exotic nature of the places — Casablanca, Tunis, Oran, Bizerte — as well as the surrealistic experiences, which reminded me at times of Catch 22. One job his outfit had was to guard the Italian prisoners who had surrendered (quite gladly, as he remembered). Since Tony was of Italian heritage, he became the translator. He told me of the practice of sending some of the Italian prisoners to the perimeter with unloaded rifles to “guard” the camp and reminisced about watching German bombers attempting to destroy the American ships in Lake Bizerte that had gathered in preparation for the upcoming assault on Sicily. He said the anti-aircraft fire bursting in the air looked like fireworks.

Pop’s next stop was Italy, where he spent the following year. The Army employed something known as Temporary Furloughs during this time, but his unit didn’t get any. Pop asked his Lieutenant about it and was told to go to the Commanding Officer who agreed that this should be remedied, and they decided to pull one name put of a hat. It was Pop! He got to go back to the States. Being stationed at an American camp did not mean luxury, though; there was still rationing going on. In order to get more to eat, Pop would volunteer to work in the kitchen.

Soon after, the war in Europe ended, but Pop worried that he’d now get shipped to the Pacific. Asked about his education, he replied that he took a commercial course in high school. They found out he could type, so he got a job typing up furloughs in an office and didn’t have to go to the Pacific after all. And best yet, he got to go home on weekends. Pop said he was never so happy to have paid attention in that typing class.

After the war, like so many of his era, raising a family and buying a home became the priority. Most of Pop’s family were involved in the building trades, so they each helped the other out building houses in Middlesex County. A son and daughter grew up in the one he built, were educated, got married, and moved away. It is in this small brick house that Pop and Mary still live amongst the memories and artifacts their children left behind.

But those two children remained deeply involved in Pop and Mary’s life. Sunday dinner together has been a long-standing tradition, and Christmas at their house is legendary. My niece and nephew were cared for by them as my brother and sister-in-law pursued their careers. For fifteen summers, we would go on family vacations. The eight of us — Pop and Mary, my brother-in-law and his wife, my niece and nephew, and my wife and I — would head off to places Pop had only heard about before; other than his army years, he didn’t travel much. The great National Parks and wilderness areas west of the Mississippi were our early destinations: Yosemite, Yellowstone, Bryce Canyon, Zion, the Grand Tetons, Arches, Mesa Verde, Denali. Exotic islands followed with trips to Hawaii, the Caribbean, and even the Greek Isles of the Mediterranean. In spite of their increasing age and decreasing stamina, Tony and Mary were real troupers, joining us in all but the most strenuous activities.

Pop loves to talk to folks. Everywhere we went, he would strike up conversations with strangers, especially if they were wearing a Yankee cap. He would chat amiably about the weather or the food or golf. He got a real kick out of it and would tell us about the people he had met over supper. He did the same on the frequent senior citizen trips to Atlantic City or even in the doctor’s office.

I don’t think Pop ever had a meal he didn’t like. He raved about the buffet in the Atlantic City casinos, the “gourmet fare” on the cruise ships, dinners out in restaurants on special occasions or just in the local diner on Route 22, and especially the dishes that his daughter or daughter-in-law prepared. He is now doing the cooking at home (my mother-in-law was a fabulous cook before her illness), often asking my wife for tips and then calling her later on that night to tell her how terrific it turned out.

Things have changed considerably over the years. We don’t go on vacations together anymore. Pop has given up bowling and golf. There are newfangled gadgets that confuse him (the High Def TV, or high tech TV, as he calls it, is a particular nemesis). He worries about driving at night, operating the medical equipment in the house correctly, the numerous official-looking letters from banks and insurance companies. But he soldiers on.

Ninety-one. I cannot imagine what that must be like. But as I watch Pop deal with all the difficulties of his present existence, I feel fortunate to have the chance to observe someone attempting to overcome the unforeseen obstacles that have arisen with the grit and grace and heart that he has shown. He may not have been a general or a senator or a scientist, but he is a great man none-the-less, and I am proud to know him.

Happy birthday, Pop. May there be many more to come. You  deserve them.

Pop and his favorite niece

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