Not all heroes save people from burning buildings or run headlong into disasters such as the World Trade Center. Instead, some heroes are defined by their life’s work. And then, when told they are heroes or that people are proud of them, they are surprised. Heroes are not aware of the good they have done, but their deeds bring meaning to life.
My father, Lawrence, was born on October 3, 1925 to a 33 year old longshoreman and a 17 year old girl. The facts of that story are unknown to me and will probably remain that way. We didn’t know until about three years ago that my father had a younger brother. We always thought that my father had been an only child. When my father was four, his mother took her other son and ran away from the family. She abandoned my father, then only four years old, on the beach at Coney Island. Hours later his uncle found him. The “official” story was that my father’s mother died when my father was a baby, but I now know that was not the case.
My father was raised by his father and his maiden aunt Rose. He graduated from Catholic School and went to work as a clerk in a law office. During this time he was an avid baseball player and perhaps could have made it to the war-time major leagues, when many of the better players were in the military. But he knew that he needed to be in the fight – the good fight. He wanted to enlist in the Marines but his father objected. Being only 17 at the time, he had no choice but to bow to his father’s wishes. He enlisted in the army instead, with his father’s blessings.
He was shipped to England in 1944 and from there took his first trip to France on June 9. He fought with the Third Army under General Patton, and was among the troops who liberated Buchenwald. He told us about seeing a GI peel an orange and throw the peel on the ground. A camp prisoner picked the peel off the ground and ate it. The sights my father saw would haunt him for the rest of his life. Once, he told us that he had many pictures taken of the camp, but added that they were probably lost. “Just as well,” he said. Once, I walked by the TV room in our house while my father watched the movie, “Judgment at Nuremburg.” The movie was at the scene where films were being show of a concentration camp. My father seemed to be in a deep trance. “It was really like that,” he said in a sad whisper.
After the war, he stayed in the army. Several assignments later, he was a MP in Washington DC. He told of the time he and his partner arrested a couple of sailors for robbery. Robbery was a civilian offence (not to say there would not have been military consequences later, though). Since my father was an arresting officer, he had to testify at the civilian trial. The prosecutor was a woman – an unusual thing in the late 1940’s. My father was not impressed, as the prosecutor did little during the main part of the trial. However, his mind was changed once the prosecutor delivered her closing remarks. She sealed the sailors’ fate with great skill.
While he was in Washington, a friend of his had a date with a 19 year old Washington girl named Patricia. That guy didn’t stand a chance, and my father won the hand of his lifelong companion and wife.
At this point, my father was a sergeant. My mother’s mother told him, “If you want to marry my daughter, you need to be an officer.” That’s when my father went to Officer Candidates School at Fort Reilly, Kansas. My parents were married there on March 19, 1949, sixteen days after my mother’s 20th birthday. My father had dreamed of being an Infantry officer, which was the norm for OCS grads but he was disappointed -- the army realized that other branches needed officers and he became an artillery officer.
My oldest brother, Larry III, was born on January 1, 1950. When my brother was about one year old, my father was stationed to Japan. This was early in the Korean War, and Japan was considered a possible hot spot, so he went without his young family. Since my father was an artillery officer, he was sent to Japan to work on air defense. My mother was eternally grateful that my father was not infantry, and therefore was not sent to the ground in Korea.
By mid 1952, Japan was considered a safe place for dependants – so my mother and oldest brother went over there to join my father. My other brother, Steve, arrived about nine months later.
In the mid 1950’s, the United States was developing it’s missile system. One problem – the “experts” who programmed the trajectories of the missiles had never seen hills. Their calculations were based on the missiles being launched from sea level. My father was aware of this problem, and for several weeks, he, my mother, and my mother’s father sat at the dinner table every night using slide rules to calculate the correct values.
In July, 1956, my family moved to the San Francisco area and I was born about a month later.
A couple of years later my father contracted polio and before he was diagnosed, he continued working as long as he could. He was eventually ordered to go to the hospital. After the worse was over, he was eager to get out of the hospital. During his consultation with the doctor, the doctor told him to squat down on one leg while holding the other out straight in front – then stand up while holding his arms straight out to the side. My father did it. The doctor then told my father to switch legs and do the same thing. My father did it again. The doctor said, “I never could do that. Get out of here.”
My father went to Korea in 1960 and I remember watching him go. It would not be the first time I would see my father go to a danger zone. When he returned a year later, we moved to New York. There, my father was an army bureaucrat. One of his many tasks at that time, was to plan the funeral of President Herbert Hoover(once, twice, three times and again!). Before Hoover finally died, my father had moved on to another position, relieved that he was not the one who finally had to do the job for real.
My mother was in the hospital in October 1962 for a gall bladder operation. One night as she was watching TV she saw President Kennedy’s speech on the Cuban Missile crisis. Watching the President speak, she suddenly realized why my father had been so unbearable over the previous few days. He was involved in the military response but was duty bound not to talk about it.
In 1964, he was stationed to Germany, and the family got to go along. Returning to the US in 1966, he was stationed to command a training center battalion at Fort Lewis, Washington. He received orders to command a ground battalion in Viet Nam in December, 1967. However, a quirk of army bureaucracy together with my father’s stubbornness some ten years earlier resulted in his being considered active reserve rather than “regular” army. Because of this, the assignment was taken away from my father and given to someone else. My father was devastated but my mother was relieved. He finally went to Viet Nam in June, 1968, to work on General Abrams’ staff. If there had been a Tet offensive in 1969, it would have been my father’s plan that defended Saigon.
I was in the seventh grade in 1969. and usually stayed after school to help my science teacher. One day, as my teacher and I left the classroom, my brother Steve came speeding up on my Schwinn bicycle. “Daddy’s home!” he yelled. Military brats all over the world know the joy of that experience. As Steve rode home on the bike, I ran as fast as I could behind him.
After 28 distinguished years of service, he retired from the army in October, 1971.
His next career was with the United States Postal Police. His skill and experience quickly led him to a management position. For the first time in his life, he worked in a union environment. His ability to work with and earn the respect of subordinates was clearly demonstrated in 1974 when he needed an operation to clear an obstruction from an artery in his leg. As is often the case, he needed a great deal of blood for the operation. The shop steward at work, who represented the “workers” side against my fathers “management” side, led a drive that more than replaced the blood that my father needed.
After his retirement, my father dedicated many hours of volunteer service to the American Legion and the VFW. Under his direction, his American Legion Post’s color guard attended funeral services of hundreds of veterans and won several State championships. These organizations honored my father with a surprise testimonial dinner in 2003.
Great sadness came to came to my parents in August, 2002, when their eldest son, my brother Larry, died of a heart attack at age 52. I watched my father as he stood over my brother’s casket saying, “This isn’t right. It’s not supposed to happen this way.”
Patricia died on February 16, 2007, after a long fight with cancer. My parents had been married for almost 58 years.
Lawrence died on Friday August 22, 2008 at 10 am.
He was a hero. My hero.