I must be clear – this is something I never wanted to write, but just as I wrote about my mother after she died, I am once again compelled to do so for my father. He died peacefully in his sleep at home in his bed. As other people keep saying to me, “I’d like to sign up for that.” In thinking about it, I would too, but that’s another story.
My dad was a towering figure, mythical in my mind since I was small. Being a weightlifter and athlete, my father in his youth looked like a guy who could have donned the Superman outfit or played Hercules. That does something in your mind as a kid, because I thought my Dad could conquer the world, and I wasn’t so wrong either.
His life started in humble beginnings as a mid-wife assisted his mother in their small apartment in Corona, Queens. Born in the last days of World War I, with “victory” almost at hand, his parents chose to name him Victor, and he would later discover that other parents had similar ideas since there were kids his age named Victor (also Victory and Victoria).
His life began in this simple setting, but his father had plans to get out of the already crowded urban neighborhood. He eventually built a house with two of his brothers “in the country” in a place in Queens called Springfield (now known as Springfield Gardens). In those days this area featured rolling fields, ponds, streams, woods, and farms. This idyllic place was where my father and his brother Dave grew up. Winters featured ice skating on the frozen ponds, and they swam in them in the summertime.
He went to P.S. 37 and then on to Jamaica High School. By the time the Depression hit, many kids on the block had fathers who were out of work. Since my grandfather was a NYPD officer, he kept his job. This made a difference in my father’s life to be sure. After graduating high school, Dad took a job cleaning subway platforms. Later on he worked at the 1939 World’s Fair and often spoke of all the marvels he witnessed there.
Like most everyone else, Dad was eager to get into the fight after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941. He enlisted in the Army and soon found himself in boot camp in Fort Benning in Georgia. Dad’s early days in the Army always sounded like they were more like M*A*S*H than a John Wayne movie. He said that every company had a clerk like Radar, an annoying officer like Frank Burns, and there were a few guys like Klinger looking for a way out. There were many funny stories he told over the years.
One serious story he told me was about witnessing a white officer mistreating a black soldier. My father went to the commanding officer and lodged a complaint. The CO asked him why he was doing this, and my father said, “Because that man is a soldier in the United States Army and deserves respect, sir!” That officer was not only reprimanded but reassigned, and this story is a microcosm of how Dad lived his life: he always did the right thing, even in difficult circumstances, and this lesson was not lost on me.
Another thing my father did was write the column “Grunts and Groans” for the fort’s Regimental Mirror, a weekly newspaper column that looked at life in Company G. In these columns (some of which I found in his files) he writes of the simple things like basketball games, guys who like crosswords, getting mail from home, and soldiers who became fathers. Some of it was humorous, and most of it was obviously meant to lighten the burden for guys who were getting ready to be sent overseas to a war zone. I was so happy to find these columns written by “Sgt. V Lana,” and I finally figured out why I caught the writing bug.
Once my father shipped overseas his story became the same as so many soldiers. He went across on the Aquitania, but the former luxury liner had been converted into a troop transport ship. He landed in Scotland, took a train down to the English Channel, and was soon part of the invasion known as D-Day. As the war progressed he was stationed in the chateau in Fontainbleau and worked in demolitions; his most difficult job was collecting and disarming unexploded bombs that littered the forest and the countryside.
Being that he spoke fluent French, my father struck up a friendship with workers in the forestry service. Some of these people became very good friends with whom he would celebrate New Year’s Eve 1945 (a party that lasted a few days), and many years later I would visit them on my trip to France in 1992. Dad had stayed on to continue his work as a liaison with the French agencies, and he didn’t come home until early 1946, missing the victory parades and fanfare that many soldiers experienced after the war.
When he came home from the war he decided to take a motorcycle trip across country. He and his friend Marcin went all over, ending up in Mexico where they met fellow bikers in Monterrey and had quite a party. They went north through the Midwest, hit Canada, and ended up back in New York by summer’s end. It was quite a trip (something of a quest of sorts) and one he talked about it many times over the years. I think he needed that time on the road before getting on with the rest of his life.
The second phase of Dad’s life came in the NYPD. Becoming a cop seemed like the thing to do, following in his father’s footsteps. He worked as a patrolman for a year, went into plainclothes, and he had found his calling. Dad loved “the job” more than anything. He enjoyed dressing like a derelict to go undercover (or in many other disguises), and he proudly spoke of making an arrest “in every precinct in Manhattan.” He put in his twenty years, but toward the end had an eye on the next phase of his life: real estate.
By the time my father retired he started working as a real estate agent in the evenings. He learned the ropes, got his broker’s license, and quickly opened his own store. Dad had an incredible head for business and became very successful, at one point having three stores along the Brooklyn-Queens border and a number of people working for him. He continued this work until he sold his business in the late 1980s, embarking on yet another career – working for the IRS.
Along the way my father met my Mom, and they are a classic love story. They fell in love, courted, got engaged, then married, and lived in a small apartment. By the time I was a year old Mom was pregnant again with my sister Joan, so they moved into a house with more space for their growing family. My upbringing was typical of those days in that Mom stayed home and Dad went to work. That is all I ever knew, and my childhood was one marked by happiness and abundance. I can never say that we kids wanted for anything. The most important thing of all was a sense of being totally loved.
My Dad also loved my mother totally and doted on her. When he wasn’t working, they went everywhere together. When my Mom got sick in later years, my father became her caretaker. He did everything for her, and I will never forget his dedication to Mom. No matter how bad the situation got – in the end it was quite horrific – Dad never complained and continued to take care of her. When she passed away he was devastated, but we all knew what he had done for her.
This gets me to the other part of the story – being my father’s son. I could have been born to any man, but Dad was not just any man. I know many children feel this way, but I had the best father ever! My Dad did everything to help his children. He went out of his way to make us feel loved, important, and secure. As we grew he understood and appreciated our strengths and weaknesses, and he was always there to lend a helping hand.
Even as the years passed and I got married and had my own family, I never stopped looking up to my father. In fact, until he passed away this week, I still went to him for advice. He will always be the smartest person I ever knew or will know. He was also the most fair, the most decent, and incredibly trustworthy.
Watching my father with my own children (Victor and Lauren) was just a delight. When my daughter was born my father was literally beaming as I placed her in his arms. That glow continued every time he saw my kids for the rest of his life. It didn’t matter how rambunctious they were, he just sat there watching them and smiling. Many times he told me how much seeing them meant to him, and now I feel so fortunate that I was able to bring the kids over to visit with him every week.
Dad was part of what has been called the “greatest generation.” Sadly, these men and women who served in World War II are being lost on a daily basis. There was something about my father, my Mom, and those of his age group that we cannot find anymore. They lived life by a code that seemed embedded in them: there was an inherent decency, a way of talking to people and treating others, and I am afraid to say that when they are all gone this type of person will be no more.
I still cannot grasp my father being gone. He was such an enormous presence, had such an iconic stature, and always taught me to take the right path instead of the easy one. I aspire to be a man as good as he was, but I know that is something I have yet to accomplish. To be the kind of son, brother, father, grandfather, husband, and friend my father was is just a daunting task, but I will try every day for the rest of my life to do so.
I lost not just my father but my best friend. He always called me “Pal” as a kid, and though I called him “Dad” he was also my hero. I told him so many times, but now I can write it here. I miss him so much and my life will never be the same without him.
It does comfort me to know that my Mom and Dad are together now. I imagine my Mom was sitting in the chair – the same chair in which she passed away – across from the bed when my father died. I see his spirit leaping from the bed, no longer encumbered by old age and heft of weary limbs, and my Mom came into his arms and they kissed, then they danced all the way to heaven. I picture the smiles on their faces and, when I can’t sleep (which is often now), that helps get me through the night.
The final chapter involves France, where he lost friends in the war but also made new ones. I will be taking some of my father’s ashes back to France. He never got to return there, a place he loved, but I will make sure he does now. In this way he will be reunited with a land he helped save from one of the greatest evils of all time. Then I will whisper one more time for good measure, “Rest in peace, Dad,” and I know it will be so.