Had my dad lived, he would have been 97 on Columbus Day. When we were little, he always told us he was being born at the same time Columbus was discovering America. And we believed him.
I’ve written about my dad before. I like writing about my dad. Every time I do, I find myself understanding him a little more. And every time I understand him a little more, I realize I am turning into him.
Not physically, though, except for my face, which is without question his. Body-wise, I could never be my dad. That’s because I didn’t spend my youth pulling a plow. Before his father could afford a horse, my dad and his brothers strapped harnesses over their shoulders and pulled a plow through the fields of the family farm in White Haven. That’ll turn a boy into a powerhouse, which my dad definitely was.
It was freeing himself from farm life that prompted my dad to lie about his age and enlist in the Army before he turned 18. Once his superiors got a look at his ham hock-like forearms and cantaloupe-sized fists, they decided his training would not be on a drill field but in a boxing ring. And when he was stationed in Hawaii, he believed he had it made. The only duty he pulled was to skip rope, hit the heavy bag and represent his regiment in the ring.
Then came Dec. 7, 1941.
My dad did not return home for the next four years.
The 35th Infantry/25th Division, in which he served, was nicknamed “Tropical Lightning” for a reason. They fought in the Pacific from island to island right to the end of the war.
By that time, the 185-pound heavyweight was down to 135 pounds. My dad was 24 and soon to learn two of his brothers had been killed in the European Theatre. He also discovered the family farm was no more. With no sons to help run it, my grandfather had sold the farm and moved to West Pittston, where he took up as a railroader at Coxton Yards.
The Ackermans relocating to West Pittston, my dad often joked, was the greatest thing that ever happened to my mom. Had he not come along, he insisted, she was doomed to a life as an old maid.
That reveals a part of my dad that even four years of fighting in the Pacific could not knock out of him — his playful, good-natured sense of humor. My mom was often the target of that humor, but she never seemed to mind. Dad was devoted to her, and she knew it.
But that didn’t stop him. As an old man, Dad collected aluminum cans which he’d cash in for a few bucks at the recycling center. It became almost an obsession. Once, after a cookout at my house, he almost forgot to bring the big bag of cans he had gathered up, and dashed back to get them.
“What’s with the cans?” asked a friend of mine.
“I’m saving up to go back to Hawaii,” Dad answered, and my friend began to laugh.
“You won’t be laughing when you see me getting on the plane in 20 years,” Dad responded.
“What?” my mom, who overheard this, chimed in. “I won’t even be alive in 20 years.”
“Who said I’m saving for two?” Dad said.
My dad had boundless love for children and a way of charming them “right off the bat,” to borrow one of his expressions. I guess that’s why I am missing him so much these days. I am never closer to my dad than when I scoop up my 22-month-old grandson in my arms.
As a writer, I consider myself a storyteller, and that too comes from my dad. He never once mentioned his years in World War II, but he had dozens of stories about growing up on a farm. My friends were always asking him to tell a few, even if they’d heard them all before. Their favorite they called “The One About the Knife.”
Dad grew up in the Great Depression and, although living on a farm meant you ate well, he’d say, material treats were only to be dreamed of. One of these was a pair of boots the kids would drool over in the Sears catalog. Boots with a sheath on the side with a big knife in it.
One day, one of their friends showed up wearing a pair. They were a birthday present from his grandma.
The kids were all climbing trees another day, and when they heard leaves rustling and branches cracking, followed by a loud thud, they knew one of them had fallen to the ground. Their friend was writhing in pain and rolling around in agony when they reached them. It was the boy with the new boots. And there, sticking out of his bloody forearm, was the knife.
“I have to pull that out of there,” the kid said, and, grabbing the handle of the knife, took a deep breath, and with all his might, yanked it out.
And that, Dad would say with skillful dramatic pause, was when the boy realized it wasn’t the handle of his knife at all. It was a bone.
My friends would cringe. Just the way you are now.
Then they’d ask Dad to tell it again.
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.