07 October, 2014

Repost: Birthday Wishes - October 7, 2013

This morning, I received an e-mail from my uncle, my father's older brother, reminding me that today would be my grandfather's 105th birthday. He wrote of my grandfather, "He was heartbreakingly devoted to his own family after growing up without recognizable parents." He recalled that he last saw his father when he took him to the airport the year before he died. 

I, too, last saw my father in person before leaving for the airport. After a long Christmas-New Year holiday in New York, my mom, my son and I headed to the airport to fly back to Denver, only to discover that blizzards in other cities would result in us being stranded in Philadelphia if we boarded our plane. After a testy exchange with a (frankly unhelpful and rude) US Airways representative, we were rebooked on another flight three days later. Once the decision was made, we drove back home in the gently falling snow and I remember being privately delighted to have three more days together as a family, in the house my parents built, still magically decorated for Christmas. It feels like an extra blessing now, since my dad died a little less than a month later. 

My greatest and most intractable regret is that both my grandfathers died before I was born. By all accounts, they were exceptional human beings and deeply devoted fathers. I miss them, even though I never met them. 

My grandfather in his office at (I believe)
the U.S. Naval Air Station in Hutchinson, Kansas, c. 1950s
My dad posted this last year in honor of his father's birthday:

I cannot allow today to pass without honoring my father, Harold Clifford Brown. Today is his birthday, and if he were still living, he would be 104.

My father died in 1975, and although he rarely spoke of his childhood or his career, I have been able to reconstruct much of it. He was just 66 when he died. I was 27, fresh out of graduate school, and had barely finished my first semester at Utica College, my first job - important only in the sense that we never had a chance to be "adults" together. I am diminished by that.

My father was born in 1909 in the very small town of Crossville in southeast Illinois and not far west of the Wabash River. He was abandoned as an infant by his father. Somehow my grandmother ended up in the even smaller town of Naylor in eastern Missouri, barely ten miles north of Arkansas, where she remarried and had three more children. My sense is there was no real attachment between the new husband and my father, and my father may have been the proverbial unwanted stepchild. He never spoke of these things.

He was schooled and graduated from high school in Naylor. Although he had the opportunity to go to college on a baseball athletic scholarship, he enlisted in the navy in 1927 five months after being graduated from high school. He had signed his papers months earlier but had to wait until he turned 18 in October. Although the Great Depression was a couple of years off, he had grown up very poor. He never had a bicycle, and my mother tells me when she baked him a birthday cake soon after they married, he admitted it was the first birthday cake he had ever had. His family needed money, and he regularly sent half of his pay home to help raise his two half brothers and one half sister.

After basic training, he went to Norfolk for further training as a Machinist Mate and then to New London for submarine school. He reported to Pearl Harbor in 1929 and served there aboard three different submarines, all tiny by today's standards with officers and crew totaling only 30-40 (versus 150 today).

In 1938 he shifted to the surface navy and was assigned to the battleship USS Pennsylvania aboard which he served for two years in Pearl Harbor before returning to the Navy Yard in Norfolk to help "fit out" a brand new ship, the USS Raven, as Engineering Officer. By this time, he had worked his way up from Seaman Apprentice to become a commissioned officer.

The Raven was a minesweeper and part of Operation Torch - the British-American invasion of French North Africa in November of 1942. Think Casablanca. He was there but saw neither Bogart nor Bergman. Operation Torch wasn't smooth sailing by any standard, and many died.

He returned to Norfolk and for the next six months worked convoy protection up and down the east coast and even as far south as Panama. In August of 1943, he was sent to the Pacific theater where he saw action in the Marshall Islands, Saipan, and Guam as Materiel and Operations Officer for a flotilla of landing craft. Still in the Pacific, he received his first command position - the USS Mink. He was a lieutenant at this point, and after assisting with the occupation of Japan, he brought the Mink back to Norfolk.

After a tour of shore duty, he joined the cruiser USS Portsmouth as Main Propulsion Officer. I have the actual official naval message he received aboard telling him of my birth. He then commanded the USS Krishna and the USS Minos, both amphibious ships stationed in Little Creek, VA.

His last command was a reserve training center, and he retired as a Commander in 1958 after serving 30 years, two months, and 27 days and with two dozen decorations and awards. I was nine.

I have no idea how many times my mother must have seen him off as he went back to sea, sometimes in harm's way. She tells me that once the good-bye was said he would never look back as he walked down the pier to board his ship. Navy custom supposedly suggested that to do so would be bad luck. I can't argue; he always came home in spite of some close calls with Japanese torpedoes in the Pacific.

He was an officer and a gentleman, and I often think of and am thankful for his service to our country. More importantly though, I am thankful for his love. He was a good man. There has never been a day when I doubted that love or that he was proud of me, and I am thankful for everything he taught me through his words and his deeds. As I stand here today only one year younger than he when he died, I can only hope that he would still proud of me and that I have lived up to the example he set.
Celebrating his birthday on board his ship
Happy birthday, Daddy. You are deeply missed.


I like to think that they are together now, somewhere. 

I see a little of Finn in these photos of my grandfather but even more in the knowledge that my grandfather was an engineer. Finn has an innate need to figure out how things work. Recently, I watched him slowly rotate a hula hoop until he found the spot where the ends of the tube have been fastened together. He brought it over to me and pointed to the metal staples, so I explained how lines can form circles. In Kindermusik last week, the teacher passed out objects that looked like the individual bars of a xylophone - Finn got the note 'A' and 'D'. After listening to each one ring, he promptly flipped them over in search of understanding where the sound came from.


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