My father is the type of man that traditionally only exists in black and white movies. This may be a cliché of men that grew up in the 1940s and 1950s, however, like many clichés, it becomes repetitive simply because it is true.
On Veterans Day, children around the country — old and young — think back to those who wanted to do something not for themselves but for the good of something greater — the country that they love. I am no different, and there is no manner more fitting to honor my father on this day of remembrance than to salute his service and character.
Like many children of the 1950s, my father grew up idolizing the people he saw on the silver screen. Whether it was John Wayne or Jimmy Cagney, the type of men and the stories they represented spoke to a higher ideal than anything on-screen today. It was easy to relate to these characters, as they were often in line with the men that my father grew up around.
Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950s allowed my father to be exposed to a type of person that is becoming rare in today’s society. Whether it was his father, his grandfather, his uncles or the man who ran the corner deli — those who had served their country surrounded him at every step.
As an adolescent in the 1960s, my father didn’t fall in love with Jimi Hendrix and the scent of marijuana like his peers; he fell in love with a deep sense of purpose and a desire to learn. Throughout his young-adult life, he kept learning and listening to the stories that would shape the deep code of honor and respect he still holds to this day. For the first few decades of his life, this code was applied to a variety of positions across New York City, be they U.S. Marshall or undercover cop.
In the early 1980s, he joined the naval-reserve put forth the motions that would eventually spin him toward his most rewarding career.
Before 9/11, my family could be described as many suburban New Jersey households could. We lived in a nice house on a nice street and went to good schools, both public and private. Growing up, my father worked as a criminal investigator for the state of New Jersey. When he wasn’t spending his nights teaching political science, he was home at 5:30 p.m., just in time to get ready for dinner, and more than enough time to watch a Mets game with his two sons.
All of that changed on 9/11.
The day the towers fell, I knew things were about to change — not just in the U.S. but also within my own family. As we huddled around our television that evening, listening to President George W. Bush address the nation, I had the sense that this could be the last time we were together for quite some time.
Sure enough, on September 12, 2001, my father requested his orders from the U.S. Navy and, overnight, turned from criminal investigator to sailor.
As the country and city began the long healing process, my father went to work — first at Ground Zero, then in Times Square. As a resident of New York from 1950 to 1987, it made sense my father would begin his military career walking the same streets that he had explored with such intensity and curiosity as a young man.
When he did come home, he was somber — not wanting to discuss what he had done or seen while working at what was once the corner of Church and Vesey streets. His ID badge gave some indication to what he was doing: The word “MORGUE” was printed on it in big red letters, a reminder of the carnage that had occurred on that clear and brisk Tuesday morning — an assault on our nation’s principles and, ultimately, a declaration of war.
At this point in time I was really just a child, having such begun middle school and filled with questions about the world that only a father could answer for his son. Unfortunately, over the next few years, my father wasn’t around much. First he was in Manhattan, then Texas, followed by Bahrain and finally Baghdad.
When my father went away to Iraq it was 2003, the war was reaching its most tumultuous months. When kids at school would ask me what my father did, I never really knew how to answer. Thanks to improved technology, however, I was able to stay in touch with my dad but that didn’t mean he was letting me in on the troubles of war.
When we emailed, he spoke in code. He referred to what I would later discover was a classified military base, as the “copy-room.” When days or weeks would go by without hearing from him, his emails would always begin with an explanation as to why the “copy room” had been undergoing renovation. Only recently did I learn about the roadside-bomb attacks on the Humvees he was stationed in, or the time he returned to his friend’s trailer to discover that it had been pulverized by a rocket-launched grenade.
My father would be the first person to tell you that he had it easy. He was not on the front lines, and did not give his country the ultimate sacrifice. He would later equate the work he did in Baghdad to the same jobs he was doing when survailing members of the mafia in the 1980s. He was a counter-terrorism analyst and criminal investigator, not dissimilar to what he had done as a civilian.
When he finally returned to U.S. soil, I, his youngest son had transformed from precocious middle-schooler to longhaired, brassy teenager. He had left me with a keen interest in history, and was perhaps surprised that, upon his return, I had fallen in love with a magical spell known as “punk rock.”
Over the next few years he was stationed in the Virginia- and Washington-D.C. area. I was able to visit him often, and his place of residence was a big reason why I attended Catholic University in Washington D.C. On the long car rides to and from New Jersey, we had the opportunity to catch up for the lost time that had gone by in middle school.
When I have a son, and he asks me what my father was like, it will be these conversations I refer to, as they are how I discovered the man I so admire.
My father’s story is not dissimilar from many others. In his mind, his country, and everything he believed in was attacked, and it was his duty to do everything he could to make sure it never happened again — not entirely different from the characters he had grown up admiring in the John-Wayne movies. In some ways, even though he was not activated until after his 51st birthday, he was living the adventure he had been promised as a young boy.
On this Veterans Day, I reflect on my dad, and the deep sacrifices he has made for our country. When he retired last year, reaching the rank of lieutenant commander, I was pleased with the outpouring of love he received from his colleagues. Many of them greeted me, praising the same characteristic that I held so true about my dad — he was a man who did the right thing — period. It is this notion of “doing the right thing” that I try and keep with me every day.
My father has taught me a lot of things, from respecting the writings of Rudyard Kipling, to the politics of Bill Buckley, to knowing that — if it’s raining — there is always a woman that needs an umbrella more than I do.
The fluid notion found in all these teachings has always been the same: Love your family, love your country and, when something needs to be done, don’t complain about it — just do it, and do it right.
Another cliché is to refer to my father as “the last of a dying breed.” He is a gift, and I truly hope that by using his life and honor as a guide, I will be able to live a life filled with as much character as his.
So, to all out there waxing nostalgic about what Veterans Day means to them, take a moment and think of someone special — someone like my dad.