Archive for July, 2016

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Pop

July 30, 2016
Pop (on the right) during his Army days

Pop (on the right) during his Army days

Unbeknownst to many, today happens to be Father-in-Law Day. Those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to do so can honor someone who, though not blood, is certainly an important part of family. So today I take the welcome opportunity to celebrate Pop.

Pop is Tony, my father-in-law, who is 95 years of age. I have known him since 1968 when I was the long-haired boyfriend on the motorcycle dating his daughter. I can only imagine what he thought of me then. However, over the ensuing years we have come to know each other well. He is kind and gentle, a salt-of-the-earth type of man in its best possible sense.

His has been a life filled with 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 lived through the Depression and was a soldier in World War II. He did masonry work, owned a small grocery store back in the 50’s, and worked as a butcher well into his 80’s. Until recently, he was maker of homemade sausage, walker of impetuous Schnauzers, and washer of dishes. He took loving care of Mary, his wife of sixty-plus years who suffered from Alzheimer’s, staying by her side in their home right to the end.

Simply put, Pop is one hell of guy.

He is living history with many stories to tell of by-gone years. One of Pop’s favorite things to talk about is his army days during World War II, a singularly important period in the life of so many like him. Some of his memories are quite vivid in spite of the time that has passed, and his stories offer insights into the individual experience of that period one doesn’t often get in history books.

First arriving at Camp Sibert in Alabama before shipping out, Pop got his initial shocking glimpse of Jim Crow in action. As the bus to town made its many stops, he didn’t understand why all the black folks headed for the back when there were seats available in the front. When he saw the sign posted above the driver, it finally dawned on him what was going on. Then he saw the restaurants that couldn’t be entered, the fountains that couldn’t be used, the bathrooms that were off-limits. When stationed overseas, he ran into Ace, one of his friends from high school. They spent time together chatting about home. Afterwards, Pop was confronted by some guys in his outfit, southerners who took exception to his association with someone of color. Their way of thinking baffles and astounds him to this day.

Pop remembers well his Atlantic crossing on the way to the war, his transport part of a large convoy. A problem much greater than the seasickness rampant on board occurred. His ship, the Washington, developed engine trouble and was left behind by the convoy. Pop said he stood on the deck with a sinking feeling watching the rest of the ships 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 them as protection 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 describes his time in North Africa with awe, both for the exotic nature of the places — Casablanca, Tunis, Oran, Bizerte — as well as the surrealistic experiences which sound at times like vignettes from Catch 22. His outfit had been given the task of guarding 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. When German bombers attempted to destroy the American ships in Lake Bizerte that had gathered in preparation for the upcoming assault on Sicily, the men watched the anti-aircraft fire bursting in the air as though they were watching fireworks.

Like so many of his era, raising a family and buying a home became the priority after the war ended. 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. And it was in this small brick house that Pop and Mary lived until she died and he could no longer bear to live alone.

Things have changed considerably over the years. Pop now lives at our house every other week. New routines have been fashioned to shape his day. Sometimes he’ll take a book we’ve gotten him about World War II and sit on the deck and read a bit. He loves watching sports in their season, especially golf, the Yankees, and the football Giants. Fare like The Steve Harvey Show and The Price Is Right occupy his day, though his TV viewing is now interrupted by more frequent naps.

Gone are the family vacations, senior bus trips to Atlantic City, bowling, and playing golf. Newfangled gadgets like the TV remote or his cell phone sometimes confuse him. He frets about official-looking letters from banks or insurance companies and angrily talks back to recorded corporate calls on the telephone. Though walking has become more difficult, he still helps out as best he can, folding clothes and drying dishes. He misses Mary, he misses his house. But he soldiers on.

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 of aging with the grit and grace and heart that he has shown. He may not have been a famous general or scientist or athlete, but he is a special man none-the-less. He is Pop. I am proud to know him, and I consider myself lucky to have him as my father-in-law.

Pop

Pop, 95 and still ticking