Over the years there have been a few occasions when I’ve had the opportunity to write about my father, who belonged to that “greatest generation,” the term coined by Tom Brokaw to describe the generation of Americans who grew up during the Great Depression and the Second World War. His book inspired many to tell their stories before time ran out.
My father was a writer, and didn’t need urging to tell stories, but there were a couple he told me that stand out.
He grew up in Cleveland, and was a month from his 16th birthday when he took a streetcar ride that cost him 10 cents to Cleveland Stadium, which was also known as Municipal Stadium but most often just called “the Stadium,” to see the Indians take on the Yankees. He was a great fan of baseball and the Indians. His habit was to sit in the bleachers, which cost 35 cents, but on this particular night he chose to splurge and got seats in the upper level on the third base line.
It turned out to be a particularly fortuitous decision, because this was the night of July 17, 1941, the night the Indians stopped the 56-game hitting streak of Joe DiMaggio, still arguably the most impressive record in all of sports. The upper deck of the third base line was also a good vantage point to observe the exploits of Indian third baseman Ken Keltner, who made two impressive plays, one in the first inning and another in the seventh, to rob DiMaggio of a hit.
“One of the great days of baseball,” is how my father described it to me.
Just a couple of years later he was in an enlistment line. He wound up in the Coast Guard, a radar specialist on a ship patrolling the Atlantic for German submarines. DiMaggio, along with a lot of other ballplayers, including Ted Williams, also served during the war.
While I had long known that my father had exchanged letters with a pen pal from Germany when he was growing up (which included disagreements about Hitler), it wasn’t until about seven years ago that he talked to me in any detail about his experience during the war. This was at the onset of a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease, so I’m grateful the conversation about his experience took place.
It included an encounter with a German U-boat that surfaced, fired and went back under the sea. There were tense moments, the launch of depth charges, and then more tense moments until the remains of the submarine, including bodies, floated to the surface, indicating an end to the battle. It was a grim experience, with the recognition that it could just as easily have turned out the other way.
I have no way of measuring the influence of that experience, but I know that following the war my father devoted himself to peace.
Telling stories, sharing experiences, is a big part of fatherhood, but it’s not what fatherhood is all about. It’s also about conveying how one should handle oneself in the world — and that’s best done by example.
This Sunday will be the first Father’s Day for me without my father.
It’s impossible for me to describe how much I miss him.