My father was a simple man. He was born in 1910 and lived in a brownstone in the Bronx. He lost his mother and an unborn sibling in the influenza pandemic of 1918. He and his two brothers were sent for a time to live with an uncle and his wife on a farm in Connecticut. The three traumatized little boys flourished under the care and guidance of Frank and Thora. They learned basic things like hunting, fishing, and how to light a fire, all useful information for those who spent a great deal of time in the woods, “running around like wild Indians” as he later described it. The boys loved their freedom and spent hours tracking animals and each other. From Thora they learned tenderness, the responsibility of doing chores, and how to cook over a wood fire in the ancient wood stove which dominated the large kitchen. Frank and Thora treated the three siblings the same as they did their own children. They were free with the deep love they felt for the boys, yet at the same time were stern disciplinarians, especially Frank, who would not tolerate disrespect or a shirking of one’s duties. In time, Albert, the boys’ father, met a lovely woman who agreed to be his wife and took upon herself the challenge of raising the three little Indians.
My father’s education did not happen within the hallowed walls of some university, but rather grew from the unbounded curiosity that drove him all his life. He read constantly, voraciously, and was well-versed on a variety of topics. He was gifted artistically and mechanically. He could draw anything I asked him to, and was constantly taking photographs, much to my (impatient) dismay, for I was his favorite subject. In his retirement, he became interested in n-gauge model trains and jewelry making. If he needed a small part that did not exist, he sketched it first and then built it, sometimes creating the tools necessary to do so.
He was deeply patriotic and would always rise and place his hand over his heart whenever the Star-Spangled Banner was played. He was an aircraft mechanic; he worked on planes and later, helicopters, removed from battle for repairs. He often found shrapnel, pilot’s notes, shell casings, or other detritus. He often shared his finds with me, holding them gently in his rough hands as if they were priceless relics, explaining why it was important to treat them with respect. Although he worked on equipment used in battle, he loathed war and what it did to the lives of everyday folks just like him. At the same time, he understood the price of freedom and why it so often came at such high cost. I don’t remember a specific lesson or lecture on that topic, but I understood from an early age that I was blessed to live in a wonderful country, and that it was the duty of each citizen to defend, however possible, the freedom won for us by the sacrifice of others.
I was ten years old when the Korean War ended in 1953. My mother and I were visiting with grandpa, who was still living in the brownstone in the Bronx when my daddy called on July 27 to tell us of the ceasefire. I’ll never forget the emotion in his voice as he shakily said, “It’s over.” He saved all the Philadelphia newspapers for us to read together when my mother and I returned home. We were not rich, but reference books and a full set of encyclopedias were at hand whenever we needed them, and my love of reading and owning books came early, with his complete encouragement.
He did not live to see the fall of the Berlin Wall or the end of communism in Czechoslovakia; of Czech descent, he certainly would have wept over each of those events. I can picture him seated in the Philadelphia row house he and my mother bought shortly before I was born. He’d have been glued to the TV, watching as events unfolded in Germany and Czechoslovakia. I can almost hear him whisper, “Finally . . . they’re free.”
He never wore the uniform of his country into battle; still, he did his wartime duty by working behind the lines to repair planes and helicopters “for the boys.” He was a devoted citizen of the country he loved, and whose freedom he so cherished.