This week is my Dad’s birthday … the third one we’ll celebrate since he passed. He’s still in my thoughts, a topic of conversations and memories … and still missed. When I think of him, the first word that comes to my mind is Strength. Strength of character … mental strength … emotional strength … physical strength. He was the strongest man I knew while growing up. After all…
- Who else had a father who dug out a basement under a standing house after finding out the first home he bought had termites?
- His scars were so interesting … with good stories behind them, the true ones as well as those tales he had us believing for years…
- Who else had a dad who refused trips to the doctor after falling off the roof into just-trimmed shrubs … or after a hatchet fell off a ladder right onto his head – both times when he was putting up Christmas lights?
Even his movie idols were tough – John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, James Cagney. When we moved to Italy and finally got TV into our home, it was only days before Dad found a John Wayne movie on, heard him talking in a high-pitched Italian voice-over, and that was it. The little TV was unplugged and it was stored for the next seven years (with a brief reappearance for the Olympics) until we moved back stateside.
I grew up in a home knowing my parents loved each other – they were married for 63 years, seeing a lot of life changes through those years. He joined the U.S. Navy soon after the start of the Korean War, and went on to a rewarding 30-year career in the military, earning many commendations and medals throughout his service. He came up through the enlisted pay grades and was later commissioned, advancing through the officer ranks to retire as a Commander. The Navy was his focus, 24-hours a day, seven days a week, before that was a tagline for everything. The guys in his squadron who’d heard about him, painted that on his parking space at one duty station before he arrived. As a kid, I thought that meant he HAD to work that much.
When he wasn’t working, though, time well-spent for him was sitting around the dining room table in the evening with a good glass of Montepulciano (or any good wine), an assortment of basic desserts and good stories while surrounded by his family. It didn’t have to be a full house of folks for it to be enjoyable –small gatherings were just as special to him … pizza dinners, breakfasts with friends, family barbecues through the years, sitting for hours in our local restaurant, Michelangelo’s, in Naples solving the world’s problems with other Navy guys.
He enjoyed the Colts when Johnny Unitas was their QB, the Braves with Dale Murphy in center field, the Boston Red Sox when Yaz was a mainstay … Shirley Temple movies, the Waltons, pizza or chicken parmesan at the local Italian restaurant my folks enjoyed (sitting at “their” table), the John D. MacDonald books from decades ago, crafting his many woodworking projects, good crusty Italian bread, a glass of Tio Pepe fino.
He thought nothing about dropping everything to assist a friend or neighbor with projects or repairs when he retired. He was my “O’Malley” and I know more than a few of us dialed that O for O’Malley when in need. He helped so many, in such a variety of ways. One instance epitomizes so much about him. Years ago as a sports reporter, I called him from an out-of-town event when I was covering a big track meet and my car had made an awful noise heading there. It was before the convenience of cell phones, so I drove onto a curb as close to a pay phone as I could get, called him and put the phone as close to the rattling noise for him to diagnose. He determined it was a broken water pump, drove the hour and a half to where I was working, replaced the pump in my car after finding it among literally hundreds of others in the parking lot, then ran up to the press box to leave me HIS car keys. He drove mine back home to make sure it made it home okay. To him, that was no big deal. To me – it’s epitomized his strength, love, commitment, handiness – all that my Dad was.
Not a day passes that I don’t think of him and miss him. When I see our flag flying, when military planes fly overhead (and I remember him reminding me to be thankful for that jet noise — the sound of freedom) … and of course, when I pull a slice of pizza from the pie and wish he was there to share as well.
And until we meet once more, here’s wishing you a happy voyage home.