Father’s Day is a poignant occasion for me, as for many. I never knew my biological father, who died in an accident. Mom and I lived near Detroit with her oldest sister and her husband, who were childless. That’s how I got a Pop.
Pop was larger-than-life. Born in Nebraska in 1904, he epitomized the strong, silent prototype of the era. As a father-figure, he was stern and strict—no touchy-feely stuff. Pop believed that the school of hard knocks is the best educator. Disdaining cautionary warnings, he stood aside while I took my knocks.
Pops lived for duty. There was right and wrong, and it was his duty—and mine—to do right.
He didn’t get along with my mother, but we were in need, and he fulfilled what he perceived as his familial duty by sharing his home.
He whole-heartedly embraced his patriotic duty to country:
He defied his German immigrant father, who, like many, opposed President Wilson’s declaration of war against Germany in World War I.
He served three years in the Pacific on the antique submarine U-39 in the mid-1920s.
He remained active in the naval reserves for 15 years.
He returned to active duty for five years in World War II, shunning the desk job he could have had due to being older and having a wife, and volunteering instead to be on the aircraft carrier Essex, which took more enemy fire than any American vessel.
In the mid-1950s, to provide Distant Early Warning of Soviet missile attacks, he volunteered to work in the Arctic on the DEW Line, overseeing construction of radar installations every 50 miles for 4,000 miles at the “top” of North America. This job entailed two 10-hour shifts some days, living in spartan Quonset huts during months of prolonged darkness, taking bucket baths in tents when temperatures were 40-60 degrees below, and repeatedly being on airplanes that cracked up landing on the ice.
Pop’s philosophy was that we all have to die someday, and what could be more worthwhile than dying to defend what is right? That attitude carried over to civilian life.
Once Pop had a run-in with the notorious Detroit-area mobster Santo “Sam” Perrone. Pop owned a quarter-section of land up north that was his deer-hunting retreat. He built the cabin, with the primary wall decoration being a twisted piece of metal from a kamikaze plane that had crashed onto the Essex. Perrone happened to be his neighbor. When Pop learned that Perrone’s men were poaching deer on Pop’s land during the off-season, Pop drove over to Perrone’s place. Sam came outside pointing a handgun. Pop was prepared. He lifted his hand into the window opening of his car with his own gun cocked. “Are you willing to trade, Sam?” There was no more poaching.
Pop did things his way. One year, the guest speaker at the annual father-son dinner at my boarding school was Terry McDermott, the only American gold medalist at the ’64 winter Olympics. Everyone gave him a standing ovation, except Pop. I guess Pop figured he had risked his life multiple times in service to his country while all that McDermott had done was skate fast. I still think Pop’s act lacked grace, but the lesson he imparted was never be afraid to be different.
At the next year’s dinner, a senior in my dormitory and his dad sat across from us. It was Mitt Romney and his father, George, then Michigan’s governor. Pop’s philosophy was that the purpose of sitting at the dinner table was to “put on the feedbag,” not to make small talk, and so he never said a word to the governor, even though I’m almost certain he voted for him. Pop felt a duty to attend such functions, not to enjoy them.
Pop went above and beyond the call in caring for his two wives, both of whom he dearly loved. He had 38 years with my beloved aunt, and as the cancer of the spine ate away at her, he contorted himself in bed to provide her maximum warmth.
Years later, when he and his second wife, Katie, were both 90, Katie became incapacitated. Pop was a one-man 24/7 nursing squad. He lost 25 pounds, needed a walker, and finally did the unthinkable: He called me for help. He promised Katie he would outlive her so he could care for her.
After Katie’s passing, Pop resumed his deer-hunting outing. The “man who never missed” shot his last deer at age 92. He quit because his joints were deteriorating. He felt that if he couldn’t haul the carcass unassisted, he had no business shooting an animal.
With Katie gone, Pop’s life lacked purpose and duty. We urged him to live with us, but he would never surrender independence. At 94, we had to take away his car keys when he began suffering fainting spells because of mini-strokes.
That was it for Pop. He lived a strict creed: NEVER be a burden on others. In the presence of two neighbors as witnesses, he asked me to shoot him. I told him I couldn’t do it, and so Pop stopped eating and left this world a month later.
Happy Father’s Day, Pop. And thanks.