The first Memorial Day I ever had without the best soldier in the world: My Dad

The first Memorial Day I ever had without the best soldier in the world:  My Dad
Memorial Day ceremony today at 9th and Michigan Photo/Chicago Tribune

I've been to the big Memorial Day event in the neighborhood at the General Logan statue at 9th and Michigan a few times over the years.  They set up chairs and put out flags and lay down wreaths and the whole ceremony is rife with dignitaries.  But at this year's ceremony I had a lump in my throat during the whole hour because I thought about my dad, who was a soldier's soldier.

And who always called it "Decoration Day."

He passed away last year on my birthday during his 93rd year.  He didn't want a funeral or an obituary or anything like that--too corny--but two soldiers came, a young man and woman, and played taps.  They folded up a flag for us, just before we put him in his crypt forever.  And that was that. That he would have liked.

He was the greatest soldier of the greatest generation that fought WW2--The Big One.  He loved the army.  He loved army food and his fellow soldiers and the cities in France and Belgium that he fought through during the Battle of the Bulge--after he entered Europe on the heels of Normandy on his way to Germany to meet the Russians.

He liberated a concentration camp called Ahlem, near Hanover.  They sent him in first.  "It was amazing to me," he always said, "the people were totally emaciated, starving, dying…and all they wanted from me was one thing: cigarettes."  Which he gave them.

He enlisted right after Pearl Harbor, trained in Louisiana, and the Army sent him to the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia to study engineering, before they sent him across the sea to fight the Nazis.  He loved that.

He grew up on Loomis Street in Englewood.  (Yes, that Englewood.  He went to Lindblom High School.)  He spent all his time at Sherman Park. Through the years, I'd ask him if he ever went to this place or that place around Chicago when he was little.  "I never wanted to leave the neighborhood," he said.  "Because if something happened, I didn't want to miss it."  Yet, he knew every street in Chicago and he knew how to get everyplace and he knew the history of everything in town.

Sometime in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan gave him the Bronze Star at a dinner in Chicago.  One of his compatriots in the war was Henry Kissinger, of all people.  Same infantry, same regiment.   My dad went up to him--he had a few drinks and figured, oh why not?  "I don't know if you remember me," he started out.  Kissinger smiled and interrupted him, "Of course I do! You're Lew, that skinny medic.  I'll never forget you."

My dad always said even though the Nazis weren't supposed to shoot at medics, they did anyway.  He dodged bullets, lived in foxholes and learned a lot about how the human body works.  He said his feet got so cold, he thought he'd lose them.  He passed out Purple Hearts to those he treated. It cheered up those who were wounded.

He saw it all.

He didn't go on to become a doctor--or an engineer--but rather a great businessman, investor, developer.  Very kind and considerate and conservative.  Never greedy or impulsive.  He was on important boards--but he also took time to go out on Michigan Avenue and bring apples to the horses drawing the carriages. Once he was at a restaurant at Water Tower Place and sitting in a wheelchair at the next table was a girl with cerebral palsy, who was wearing a Bulls T-shirt.

"Do you like Michael Jordan?" he asked her.  She did.  He left the restaurant briefly and came back with an autographed picture of Michael Jordan that he happened to have at home--and he told her it was hers. She beamed.  He was very happy.

My dad was easy-going and a great sport who was always ready to share a wild ride.  (Literally.  We'd go to Riverview when I was a kid and go on every ride together.  And he did teach me how to drive, not to mention ride a bike!  And steer a boat.  And cook--with my little Betty Crocker stove for little girls.)

He went, just for the fun of it, to shady meetings with our neighbor who he wanted to keep company, a lawyer who represented Fidel Castro's interests in the United States.  In fact, Castro's son came and stayed with him for a time--right next door to us--to keep him away from danger.

He had courage.  True courage.

When we were at the Worlds' Fair in New York in 1964, he found a spider in his Dutch stew at the restaurant in the Indonesian Pavilion.  "Oh, that's a 'Cook' spider," he said, totally unfazed; he took it out and carefully put it on the table.

When he took me for an overnight ride on the Milwaukee clipper across Lake Michigan from Milwaukee to Muskegon, Michigan when I was eight-years-old, we got a stateroom with bunkbeds.  My dad was so tall, he had to sleep with his feet on the toilet at the foot of the lower bunk.  But he didn't care.  When we disembarked, it was the first time I experienced true sadness in my life, true grief, depression.  I wanted to stay on that ship forever.

A few years later we went to Washington, DC and we sat and watched the filibustering of the Civil Rights Act.  We also visited Illinois Senator Paul Douglas' senate office during that trip and my mother was mad because my dad ate too many of the cookies that were offered to us while we chatted with our senator.  "That's what they're there for," he told her.  "For his guests to eat."

When I was bored and wanted time to pass, or wished for some unpleasant experience to be over, he'd always say, "Never wish time away."  And as the years went on, I tried to appreciate in some way--or at least learn something from living in the moments that I wished would pass.

We lived in Uptown.  (After we moved from Hyde Park when I was a toddler.)  He had true-blue friends--and relatives--from every walk of life who he enjoyed immensely.  He'd do anything for them.  And he was absolutely hilarious.  It was impossible to spend time with him without getting sick from laughing.  He totally appreciated the deep human humor of comic geniuses like Jackie Gleason in The Honeymooners.  And he passed that on.

He would have gotten quite a kick out of Donald Trump running for president, let alone winning.  I can only imagine the jokes he would have made....  He would have found it interesting, though, because he knew Trump's father's best friend and used to hear gossip about Trump decades ago when he was just getting started.

He was a great adventure traveler (oh, the crazy vacations we took and the crazy people we met) and a man of a million hobbies--from raising pigeons when he was a teenager to herding cattle as an adult, to art collecting (he knew--and collected--Leroy Neiman from the start) , oil painting (he made some wonderful copies of Piet Mondrians for me), magic classes and "camping" in the first RV of its sort made by General Motors.

He even took baseball lessons with Babe Ruth when he was a kid--and as a young man, he owned a small share of the Cubs and went to stockholders meetings in PK Wrigley's office.  We all got a kick out of everyone at Wrigley Field mistaking my dad for catcher Joe Girardi's father--and all the perks that came with it, like free parking in the players' lot!

All we had to do was say the word "Girardi" and that was code to break out in laughter, wherever we were. In fact, there were a lot of words that were associated with baseball and cracking up.  Like the time on a trip to Arizona when we visited a Wrigley Field groundskeeper's sister who lived there. We had such a good time laughing with her, that we kept it going until the day my dad passed away--with the code words, "Dean's sister."

We decided to keep his distinctive and sought after season ticket to Wrigley Field and I just sat in his seat a few weeks ago, seeing the game from behind the screen--all the while being on TV with all the batters.

My dad always believed in trying.  For whatever reason.  When he realized in the 1970s that Illinois Bell Telephone had no women on its board, he told me to try to get on.  He thought I'd have an "in" because at the time I was the only woman Illinois Bell installer in the State.  I didn't get chosen.  But lawyer Esther Rothstein did.  And my dad thought it was because I planted the seed.

My dad knew how everything worked.  Once when we were coming back from a summer in Scandinavia, the PanAm jet we were on, about to land in New York, suddenly seemed to be crashing.  But my dad knew exactly what was happening--and the plane suddenly took off again without ever hitting the ground.  "Something got in his way,"  he explained, "that's all it is.  And he got us out of trouble."

That's how my dad saw life.  People getting other people out of trouble.  If you were in jail, he'd bail you out.  If you needed cash, he'd give you some. If you needed a friend, he'd gladly be one. Whoever he said he felt sorry for, he tried to help.  And he felt sorry for a lot of poor souls for a lot of reasons.  He used to say to me and my brother, "If anything happens to me...."  We knew what he meant:  how would we make it without his helping hand and moral support?

But sometimes, something did outsmart him.  Like a bird that kept chirping in our Las Vegas hotel room.  That confounded him for days; where is that bird? we wondered.  Until we found out it was our phone ringing.   (And by the way, that style of phone was so pretty--like a bird, perhaps?--that it wound up in the Museum of Modern Art.)

Because of the Army, and being a medic, he knew everything about health, too.  And nutrition.  (He was a wheat germ buff--and in the 60s, when I discovered granola, he was very impressed.)  Whenever I had a symptom, I called him first.  One morning I called  because I had the worst and weirdest sore throat I'd ever had.  What do you think, dad? I asked him, after describing what it felt like.  I was very scared.

"Well, let's see.  Did you eat any pineapple last night?" he said.

Yes, I had.  A LOT of fresh pineapple.  I had been to a party with a Hawaiian beach theme.  "Well, that's what it is," he said, explaining the presence of an irritating enzyme in pineapple.  There was nothing I ever asked him about health that he wasn't right about.  Mental or physical.  He knew all the nuance and made all the connections.  He was the first person I ever knew who could identify a panic attack.  He had purchased a book about them and read it through.  Very much ahead of his time.

But he hated the Red Cross.  My grandfather died at the age of 49 while my dad was fighting the Nazis.  The Red Cross assured my aunt and my grandmother that they'd get to him on the battlefield and tell him.  They didn't.  My dad figured out his father died when he got letters from home from his mother and sister referring to the aftermath of his dad's death, assuming that he already knew.  As generous as he was when it came to charity, he never gave a dime to the Red Cross.

Nor would he ever buy a German car.

But he lived happily with a gun, an arm band and other things he'd taken from a Nazi--for the rest of his long and eventful and very interesting life. Those were the symbols that he'd fought against.  And won against.  And like every soldier they talked about at today's ceremony who fought and lived or fought and died, he was proud and everyone was proud of him.

It was a good war he fought.  Once, during the Bush years when I was on one of my tirades about the Iraq war and the soldiers we were losing there, all for nothing, I said, "Dad, don't you think we should just pull out?  Just leave as fast as when we got there?  Give up and go?"

"Nah, we can't do that," he said.  "They'll think we're crazy."

He gave everyone the benefit of the doubt.  He was my "cute little daddy." That was what I called him when I was a cute little toddler.  Even though he was "6-foot, 4-and-a-half."

And every single day of his life, he lived up to every single inch.

Type your email address in the box and click the "create subscription" button. My list is completely spam free, and you can opt out at any time.

Leave a comment