Father's Day 2011 falls on Sunday, June 19th, exactly thirteen days after June 6th. Therefore it was sixty-seven years ago, on June 6, 1944, that my own father as a young man of eighteen years old hit the Normandy Beach, code named UTAH, on D-Day.
I am so very honored to have been given the opportunity, as his son, to chronicle his life and that of my precious mother in the book G.I. Joe and Lillie -- as well as the song by the same name, which appears on The Oak Ridge Boys Colors album.
Once, while doing a book tour interview on a PBS radio show, a very interesting question was posed to your author: In researching your father's war years for G. I. Joe and Lillie, did you learn anything new about him?
I had to think long and hard about that one. I certainly learned more about the Tough Ombres of the Fighting 90th Infantry Division and how they got from Point A to B before and after the invasion.... But did I learn something new about my dad?
I knew he came from an abusive, alcoholic, and dysfunctional family. I knew he had run away and joined the Army. I knew about D-Day, St Lo, and his Bronze Star, Silver Star, and Purple Heart with two Oak Leaf Clusters. I knew about his nightmares and his drinking problems.
I also knew he was a hard worker. He loved my sister and me, and especially his Lillie with all of his heart. I knew he was only 39 years of age when he had his debilitating stroke. And, I knew he spent his entire disabled life feeling badly about what he perceived to be his shortcomings.
I knew he loved WWF wrestling and fried chicken. I knew he liked to boo the Phillies and that he cried on Christmas mornings. I knew that he came to love God, and he certainly loved The Oak Ridge Boys.
He was very proud that his son made something of himself -- despite his fear that little Joey might turn out to be useless because he was not mechanically inclined and couldn't hammer a nail straight into a piece of wood, even if his life depended on it. (I still can't do that very well.)
I have made it my life's work to remember stuff, and there wasn't a new thing that I thought I could learn. But....
Have you seen the Kevin Costner movie Field of Dreams?
It is one of the few "guy cry" movies, along with maybe The Dirty Dozen and True Grit (kidding). Anyhow, what brought the male of our species down to his knees was when the grownup Costner figure beheld his father at about eighteen years old and realized that this sturdy, strong, and good looking young man was his father "before the years got to him!"
Writing G.I. Joe and Lillie brought me face to face for a little while with the young versions of my father and my mother. I wrote the book in a third person style that allowed me to remove myself from the picture and, in so doing, I met a troubled young man who couldn't understand his own father and ran off to "hell." A fun loving and gritty, skinny yet sinewy, street kid who, with a rifle in his hand and an angel on his shoulder, helped to change the very face of the history of the world.
Yes, I remember stuff.
I remember as a small boy watching my dad do a half gainer into a somersault off a high diving board at Cedar Lake Park in New Jersey, when I couldn't have even imagined climbing the ladder. I remember going to the plant with him at midnight when he was called in to fix some huge piece of machinery that only he could fix.
"Come with me boy, you might learn something."
I remember watching him swim like Johnny Weismuller and climb a ladder quicker than a cat. He could drive a car and draw Bugs Bunny and talk like Donald Duck. I remember him making pancakes (about twice a year). I see him sitting next to me at the old Connie Mack Stadium at 51st and Lehigh, eating a hot dog and slugging down a few Ballantines, while hideously booing Johnny Callison ("can't hit") and Richie Ashburn ("a twerp"). He loved Robin Roberts, though. The Phillies never won much anyway, and they sure didn't have much of a chance when he was in the stands.
Years later, I see him in a wheelchair sitting in the handicapped section of Veterans Stadium, booing Mike Schmidt in 1980 and Mitch Williams in 1993. I see him not able to speak. I see him weak and frail. I see him in the "Soldiers Home," and I see him lying in a casket... small and thin... with a flower arrangement from the President of the United States towering over his casket.
I will admit to having an up-and-down relationship with my father. I always felt that Mom understood me, and that he did not. In reality, his constant chiding worked in a positive way for me.
"I'll show him," I would think. "I will leave these streets behind someday and be Elvis...."
Well, I didn't do that. But when that man would watch me sing on a big stage with The Oak Ridge Boys, he would smile the whole time while fighting back tears of joy. My daddy was proud of me. What more could a son ask?
I always wanted to be better at being a "daddy" than he did. God in Heaven knows that I love my two daughters with all of my heart. They have both grown into wonderful and beautiful women, and I would hope that my love and support have had a little to do with it.
But, you know, in retrospect my own father did just fine -- considering the tools and time that he possessed. Daddy only had until age 39. From there on he needed more care than he was able to give. But give he did. The man loved his son, and he came to love Jesus Christ.
I am thankful for him. His strong and manly embrace was always soothing to me, and he made me feel protected. Even as an old man, he would put the good arm around me, hold on as hard as he could -- and weep.
So then... what more can a man ask of his father? A man who worked hard, loved his family, and faced a tough row to hoe his entire life. Yet he still found enough time... to change the history of the world.
I pray that God will gather him up and cradle him deep within His everlasting arms on this Fathers Day.