On Father’s Day last year, I wrote about how it’s only later in life — if at all — that we realize certain aspects about our dads as our relationship matures. I’ve come to find that even then, there are some stories that don’t get revealed until they’re gone.
Dad was three weeks shy of his 91st birthday when he passed away suddenly last month. I say “suddenly,” but Dad had long been prepared for his demise. Like many dads, he did not want to leave his wife and children in a lurch, should he go out on anything less than his own terms.
And so, when he was set 10 years ago to undergo quintuple bypass surgery at Moore Regional, he wrote a couple of letters, sealed them and gave them to my brother Paul for safekeeping, instructing they be opened only upon his death.
I was not even aware of these “in case of death” envelopes until Paul mentioned having them. We passed them around between the four of us prior to Dad’s service.
Like many men of his generation, Dad didn’t overwhelm us with open displays of affection, but we knew how he felt.
“Know that I love you,” he said in the Feb. 5, 2008 hand-written letter addressed “To my sons.” “The four of you have grown into fine adults, whether because of or despite my contributions, it doesn’t matter. Let it be known and acknowledged that your mother bore the brunt of your training and maintenance.”
Training? Maintenance? We sound like German shepherds.
He closed with an order he punctuated with exclamation marks: “And take good care of your mother! Four sons — one mother. Do it!”
Yes, sir. Doing it.
The second letter, typed and printed, dealt with funeral arrangements. Dad remains the most detail-oriented person I’ve ever known, and this letter bears that out.
Among the final arrangement details: “The reception should be catered by a first-class caterer, buffet style, to include several entrees and sides; in other words, more than heavy appetizers.”
OK, Dad. And to drink?
“Bar should have wine of several colors, minimum quality of Kendall Jackson chardonnay or equal, plus beer and soft drinks. Some Beck’s German dark beer would be nice. Don’t forget Clausthaler or O’Doul’s.”
In his entire lifetime, I never saw Dad drink Kendall Jackson, or any other wine that didn’t come from a box or jug. Later in life, he would buy bottles of Barefoot — if on sale! — or Walmart private label bottles. Dad’s price point on a bottle of wine: $5 or less. So that he requested Kendall Jackson-grade will keep us all laughing for years.
But these are the stories we know. Then there are the stories other people know that they don’t share until too late.
A month after Dad died, I got an email one afternoon from an old Army buddy of his. The two of them were in a counter-intelligence unit after World War II, stationed in Munich. He and Dad were friends from that moment on. They kept in touch regularly and shared occasional visits.
But none of us knew the story Dad’s buddy relayed in this email.
“Later in 1954 after returning home I recall Al inviting me to DC for a weekend and fixing me up with a blind date. Turned out to be a charming gal named Laura; yup, Al married her and that’s how we were friends all these years.”
Then there was cousin Willy, who during the reception after Dad’s funeral — sorry, Dad, no Kendall Jackson or Beck’s — shared his special connection to Dad.
We always knew that Dad, unlike most of his eight brothers and sisters, broke ties after high school with Donora, Pa., a small and dirty western Pennsylvania town known for its zinc and coal works.
Dad’s father wanted him to go work in the mill to earn for the family. Dad had other plans and left for Washington, D.C., and a whole new life. The world was a big place, and Dad meant to experience it.
Years later, after high school, his nephew Willy was also bucking family and leaving Donora. Willy told us that Dad bought him a piece of hard-top luggage.
Willy said only when he opened it and looked inside did he actually find a note from Dad. It was short and to the point.
“The world,” wrote Dad, by then successful in the nation’s space program, “is bigger than Donora.”
Dad to me was always the original Rocketman. As a kid I thought he was an astronaut. He’d always leave before a rocket launch and come back several days later.
The first toy I really remember getting from him was a hard plastic astronaut “action figure.” I named him Astro. Astro had a hard plastic crew cut and a plastic-casted space suit. He had a helmet and little air hoses attached to a backpack, but I lost all that. I loved Astro; I wish I still had him.
Dad had his own space toys. He loved his rocket models; they’re still atop the bookcase in his den.
Dad also enjoyed launching model rockets with us and, later, his grandchildren. Whenever the grandkids would come visit, he’d take them out to the Pinehurst Harness Track grounds and launch rockets. He always got the bigger thrill out of it.
I went to visit his grave for the first time a few weeks ago on his birthday, May 29. He’s buried in the little Catholic cemetery next to St. John Paul II School off Camp Easter Road.
It was warm that morning. I could hear the kids behind me on the playground as I stood there looking at where the grass was growing in over Dad’s place.
It was really hard — and more than a little weird — just standing there staring at that plot of earth. And then I heard a WHHHHHUUSSSHHHH!”
A few minutes later, I heard it again. I turned around and looked up. There in the sky was a white contrail and puff of smoke. The school kids were on the playground, launching rockets.
Some stories of Dad you’re just not meant to have until he’s gone, you know?
Happy Father’s Day, Rocketman. The mission is proceeding.
Contact editor John Nagy at (910) 693-2507 or firstname.lastname@example.org.