CHRISTMAS STORIES II
On December 26 last year, NewsWithViews.com published my article “Christmas Stories” in which I recounted acts by those who have touched and transformed my life, leaving sweet memories. I add to those stories more this year in the hope that you might find in them tender mercies and hope to help transcend the difficult moments that presently occupy the nation.
The too forward mail man. My father served in the United States military for 33 consecutive years, through the Second World War, the Korean Conflict, and the Vietnam War. He was a boxer of considerable talent, having fought 61 professional fights, winning 57 and losing 3 with 1 draw. His hands were so fast and devastating that a single right hand from him could knock a 225 pound man unconscious. In 1968 we resided on Chanute Air Force Base where my father served as the Senior Enlisted Advisor to the base commander. In the fall of that year when I came home for lunch from a nearby grade school, I watched as the mail man day after day entered the house without knocking to greet my mother inside. I noticed that my mother was quite annoyed and uncomfortable with these impromptu greetings and so indeed was my golden Labrador retriever Yella. Indeed, I found it remarkable that Yella’s hair on the ridge line of his back would stand straight up and he would growl, showing his teeth, requiring my mother to hold him back while the mail man made overtures toward her. The dog was ordinarily quite docile and friendly to strangers, so it became a point of considerable interest for me that he assumed a more aggressive posture.
My mother did not mention to my father these forward and rude intrusions, but one day at the dinner table I began talking liberally about the mail man’s visits. Only 7 years old, I did not appreciate that the mail man was in fact making sexual advances toward my mother, but my father was quick to discern that point. “He comes into the house unannounced?” my father asked. “He does not knock, he just walks in.” Turning to my mother, “Does he make you feel uncomfortable, Jen?” “Well, yes Ernie,” she said with a bit of hesitation, “he does, but I can handle the situation.” Then silence from my father. Then the conversation continued with lighter topics. The very next morning, however, I noticed that my father did not leave to his base assignment. When I came home for lunch, I noticed that he was still there. Shortly before the noon hour, he pulled one of the kitchen chairs directly in front of the door through which the mail man entered. Shortly thereafter, as I watched from the kitchen, the mail man as usual opened the door without knocking. He was surprised to see my father standing in front of him instead of my mother.
Suddenly a right hand flew from my father’s ear to the chin of the mail man, sending the mail man, his mail bag, and our mail falling from his hand back out the door. I ran to the door and looked out to see the mail man in a heap on the ground with his mail bag on one side and mail falling out and our mail all over the ground. A wooden divide separated our house from the house next door and the mail man had crashed into it, collapsing on the ground. I watched as my father very calmly walked over to the fallen mail carrier. He kneeled next to him. He whispered in his the mail man’s ear in a voice just barely audible to me: “Let me show you how you deliver the mail.” He then gathered all of the pieces of mail from around the mail man, closed the door, and put all of our mail through the mail slot. A short time later he reopened the door and the mail man was gone. Without a word, he walked up the stairs and into the master bedroom, coming down a short time later in his military uniform and headed to work. Never again did I hear anything mentioned of this, and never again did the mail man enter the house to deliver the mail.
Dancing with Jenny. My father boxed from 1942 to 1947, some out of the military and some in the military. He fought under the pseudonym Tommy Reardon. If you do a Google search for that name you will find a picture of him (handsome, isn’t he?) and a listing of his official boxing record (many fights shy of the actual because the vast majority of his fights were never recorded). When I was a boy I used to press my father to tell me about his professional fights, but he told me very little because he was quite humble. He did like to talk about certain experiences he had in the ring. He told me many times that he would often be knocked out while standing up, losing consciousness for just a few seconds but not falling to the ground. During those lapses from consciousness he said he always dreamed he was dancing with my mother, Jeanette. They used to dance together as teens in the 1940s in youth clubs in and around Brockton, Massachusetts. He said that it always was a great disappointment to him when he came to and realized that the person opposite him was not his lovely Jeanette but a fellow intent on decking him.
Another letter to the Secretary of the Air Force. Each year in the early 1970s I remember watching my father type a letter to the Secretary of the Air Force. It was essentially the same letter written over and over again once a year between 1970 and 1974. By the time of the Vietnam War, my father had achieved the highest rank he could as a non-commissioned officer. He was of great value because of his intelligence and because he was instrumental in the design of tests and measurements for the Strategic Air Command. He helped form the curricula used to train Air Force personnel. Although he loved his job, he was frustrated by the failure of the nation to win the war and thought that he could make a difference if only allowed to serve in the field of battle. He also told me many times, “Son there are folks over there who don’t want to be and who probably should not be. They are not motivated to do a good job. I want to be there, but my Uncle (meaning Uncle Sam) won’t let me.” His letter would plead for the Secretary to reassign him to combat. Each time a response would come, thanking him for his present service and his offer to serve in battle but assuring him that he was needed more at home then in the field. That always disappointed him, but he was a dutiful soldier and never complained publicly or showed any sign of discontent.
Tell them not to use any sharp instruments. In his mid-seventies, my father was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation. He was told by local physicians that he needed to have open heart surgery to correct a mitral valve prolapse (which was said to be the cause of the fibrillation). Believing the Cleveland Clinic the best heart hospital in the United States, I sent him there for the surgery. At the Clinic, they hastily scheduled him for surgery but did not perform an independent diagnosis to determine if in fact he was suffering from atrial fibrillation. As I waited for the surgery, I was cautioned by the nurses that when he was released to the intensive care unit following surgery he would be cold to the touch and would look as if he were deceased. They also warned that the surgery involved risks that included death. My father declined the surgery at first, even when told that it was needed to save his life. “Why don’t we avoid the inconvenience to you and to everyone else,” he said to the surgeon and family members as we gathered for the one and only pre-surgical consult. The rest of us begged him to reconsider and, in his usual amiable way, he acceded to our demands.
Not once did I see him for a minute mention himself, his prospects for survival, or even what post-operative complications may arise. Always brave, he was completely uninterested in discussions about what followed a decision to proceed with the surgery. As they prepared him for surgery a few weeks later, a nurse approached me and said, “please follow me. I will take you to a hallway. Your father will pass by on a gurney. You will want to speak to him because this is the last time you will see him until after the surgery.” As she said those last words I could sense from her tone of voice and expression that she knew that this might be a final encounter because of the very real possibility that he might succumb during surgery. As I tried to condense my great love for the man into a few choice words, the gurney whipped by. “Dad?” I said. As he lay on his back he looked up to me with a smile. “Oh hi son. Do me a favor, will you? Please ask them not to use any sharp instruments.” Then off he went with that smile still on his face, having left another on mine. After the surgery, they invited me to enter the ICU, warning me again that he would feel cold to the touch.
I went to his bed side and held his hand. It was warm, not cold. They ushered me out until several hours later. Then as I went back into the ICU, they told me that he would be unconscious and incapable of responding to me. I went to his bedside and leaned next to his ear, whispering that I loved him and telling him that I wish he could show me a sign that he was alright. Defying the nurse’s expectations, he smiled broadly with his eyes closed and his body motionless. A few days later they informed me that he would be leaving the ICU soon and that they needed to remove chest tubes. A male nurse was assigned to the task. He came over to me and said, “I need your help. I have asked your father to permit us to give him pain killers so that we might lessen the pain associated with this procedure. We have had professional football players in here and those powerful men are reduced to tears even with sedation. Since your father says he will not take any more pain medication, I need you to talk to him and convince him otherwise.” I did as the nurse asked. I went to my father and asked if, for my sake, he might agree to take pain medication just during the time they removed the tubes. He shook his head no. I asked a second time. Again he shook his head no.
I then turned to the nurse and informed him that my father had made up his mind and that nothing short of divine intervention could change it. The nurse looked horrified but went ahead with the procedure sans pain medication. After it was over, while I sat in the waiting area, the nurse came out, looking as if he had seen a ghost. “I have never seen anything like it,” he said to me. “We pulled those chest tubes out of his body, which is extremely painful, and he did not utter a peep, not a single word. He just stared in my eyes.” The nurse was moved by the experience, as was I by hearing of it. “Your father is super human,” he said. I knew that to be true. As it turned out, the physicians misdiagnosed his condition. He never needed to have open heart surgery. He did not suffer from atrial fibrillation. As a senior nuclear medicine doctor at the Cleveland Clinic told us over a week after the surgery, “he never needed to have open heart surgery. His problem is not atrial fibrillation, it’s an electrical problem with his sinus node. He only needed to have a pace maker.” They then implanted the pacemaker, and his heart beat returned to normal. A half a year later, complications associated with the original surgery killed him, as he suffered a sudden death heart attack from a clot dislodged from his leg where Cleveland improperly sutured the wound created by an elective bypass procedure the surgeon performed.
Take care of my Jen. My father died on January 22, 2004. In December of 2003, when I returned to join my family for the Christmas holiday, I learned that he had been given a clean bill of health by his attending physicians. My mother Jeanette (Jen) was quite pleased by the news. Indeed, she said the doctors predicted that he would live for many more years. Smiling as others spoke of his recovery, strength, and longevity, my father turned to me and asked if I might join him for a short trip to the grocery store. I agreed. During that car ride, he startled me when with a calm expression he said, “I will not be here much longer, my son.” I protested. The doctors had assured us he would be alive for many years to come.
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Without acknowledging their medical wisdom, he said with certainty, “No, my son, I will not be here much longer.” He then said, “I need to ask you a favor. Will you take care of my Jen when I am gone? Will you do for her all the things that I would do?” “Of course,” I said, thinking that it must have been the extraordinary trauma of the surgery months before that had affected his thinking. “That’s what I need to know, my son,” he said. “Thank you,” and then he smiled. One month later, he in fact died. He passed away silently from a sudden death heart attack in the afternoon. During the earlier part of the day, he took a long walk with my mother. In his 77th year, he had begun to show the signs of his long boxing career. His long term memory had faded, and for years prior he had found it difficult to remember names, places, and events that he and my mother used to share often in conversation. As my mother recalled of that day, somehow all morning long and during their several mile walk together, he reminisced about details he had long forgotten, reliving the many precious experiences they had enjoyed together over forty years ago and repeatedly telling her just how much he loved her and how grateful he was to be her husband for over fifty years. He returned home, sat down in his favorite chair, and then silently passed away.