As Good A Man As My Father

There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about my father, generally wondering what he would do in a given situation. He worked hard. Cared for his family. Did the right things. He was a good man.

My father passed away fifteen years ago last week.  He was seventy-six and he died from complications of his Parkinson’s disease.

There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about him generally wondering what he would do in a given situation.  He worked hard.  Cared for his family.  Did the right things.  He was a good man.

Born of immigrant parents into very poor conditions in what would probably be called a slum in Detroit, I never heard him say anything negative about his early life.  His four brothers and four sisters did what it took, like so many immigrant families over the years.  His father had come to Detroit to work for Mr. Ford. I learned more about my father’s early years from my uncles than from Dad… who was not much of a talker about such things.  The brothers had paper routes, including selling papers at the entrance to the Detroit-Windsor tunnel. When a bigger boy decided he wanted that spot and forced one of the brothers to leave, they returned as a group and persuaded the young man of the error of his ways.

They would take a couple of trolleys to get to Navin Field, the home of the Detroit Tigers and peak through the knot holes in the fence to watch the great Tigers of the 30’s.  

Dad took a couple of trolleys to get to high school across town at Cass Tech where he studied aeronautics.  The war broke out during his senior year and when he graduated in June, he lied about his age to enlist in the Army Air Corps about a month before he turned eighteen.

By 1944, at the age of nineteen he was already flying combat missions out of Honington airfield in Suffolk, England.  It is still an active RAF base and a few years ago I was able to take my wife and daughters to visit.  Our guide, a retired RAF officer, took us to eat in the officers’ mess where my dad had eaten a half century ago.  Some of the officers in the room must have been told of our arrival as they came up to thank us for my father’s service.

In August of 1944, on one of his last scheduled missions before he was to return home, dad was shot down over Germany and was a POW until he and his comrades were freed by General Patton and his troops.

Dad only talked about the war one time with me.  One Sunday evening he told the entire story of his time in the service. How he was shot down and captured.  The forced march in the middle of the winter as the Russians closed in on the first prison camp.  The buddy who saved up is Red Cross chocolate bars and bought is way out of the camp, only to get drunk and decide he was safer coming back.

After the war, he joined the Air Force Reserve and flew on the weekends.  Oh how he loved to fly.  He would make it a point to fly over our house and waggle his wings.  He’d take me to the base on family days and show me the cockpit of his plane.  He was about to be promoted to Colonel, I understand, when General Motors, his employer, insisted that he resign his commission.  A shame.

Like so many GI’s dad took advantage of the GI Bill to go to college.  He got an engineering degree and went to work for Fisher Body and later for Chevrolet.  School didn’t come easy but he worked hard and when he got to GM he invented several new ways to test the handling of materials.  He was even on the TV show You Asked For It because he had built the shortest railroad in the world.

Dad was a highly active guy. He was my scoutmaster. Led the candy drives at my school. Raised two sons and two daughters while putting in some incredible hours at work. I can only remember him staying home one day for a flu bug when I was a kid.

But about the time I went off to high school and got wrapped up in my own little world, dad started to have trouble.  He was in the hospital for some sort of ear problem, but I didn’t think much about it at the time.  In my junior year of high school though, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and was one of the first patients to be in a test of new medications.  L-dopa. He was forty-three. 

I remember him in the hospital, still active, still looking like dad, but seeing other patients much further along with this dreadful disease who were doubled over, shaking and frozen at the same time. Dad had to be scared, but he didn’t show it.

He worked for a few more years, but had to retire early.  In 1984, after I had started working, dad had to have open heart surgery. No one in Detroit would take the risk because of the Parkinson’s so Dr. DeBakey did the surgery in Houston.  Several years later he needed a second surgery.  This time at the Cleveland Clinic.

I moved away from home after college for about twelve years, and during that time dad got worse physically but it never seemed to change his attitude about his life.  I moved back and got married.  But then had to move away again for work for another eight years, and by the time we moved back he was confined to a wheelchair, being fed through a tube and having a very difficult time communicating.

But he always had a smile.

When he passed away in 2000 my only regret was that my girls had not really known him as the active, vibrant man that taught me to throw a baseball, took me to the Thanksgiving Day Parade on his shoulders, and let me play touch football with him and his GM buddies when I was in high school.

My dad was 76 when he died.  He was 43 when he got sick.  He never sat me down and talked about his values or his approach to things. He just lived them.  Do your best at everything you do. That was the expectation. Treat people with respect. That was the expectation. Take care of your family. That was the expectation.

When it is all said and done, I hope to be as good a man as my father.