|My dad, his brothers and cousins at the Jersey shore,|
The photo at left is the only one I have of him as a child. He's probably about 10 years old here, which means that in 2 years, he would leave school at the end of 6th grade to go to work. Even as the last of 12 kids, money was tight and the kids all earned their keep.
I found out from a cousin that in the early 1920s, my grandfather lost his job and found work for the summer, doing construction on a church building in one of the shore towns. He took all his sons with him (that many boys was a work crew in itself) and they spent all their non-working time on the beach.
Suffering my own sunburn right now, I can only imagine how badly those pale Irish kids must have scorched in that unaccustomed seaside glare. And I'll bet they enjoyed every moment of it.
What brought me to think about my dad is something I saw on the news. Fabien Cousteau, the grandson of Jacques Cousteau, just came up from 31 days underwater. A feat in itself, and one I can't even imagine, but my first reaction was to wonder what my dad would have thought.
He loved Jacques Cousteau documentaries on TV. He was also a fan of Wild Kingdom, and any kind of travel show caught his interest. There was a stack of yellow-covered National Geographics in the bathroom, dog-eared from frequent readings.
The only way most poor men of his generation got to travel was to join the service. My dad spent his WWII building ships at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, so he never got further than the Jersey shore. But he had a hunger for the things he knew he'd never see. I think he accepted he'd never see them outside of a TV or a magazine, but the hunger was still there.
Big things happened during my childhood. Wars happened, politicians disappointed, men explored under the sea. Most importantly, men landed on the moon. I don't remember the moon landing myself, but I remember my dad's reaction to it. I remember staying in the living room to keep him company while he watched, and was amazed when he called in sick, the only time he'd ever done that, because he couldn't stop watching.
For someone born before WWI, who as a kid had scavenged coal on the train tracks to warm the house, who stole food out of boxcars because he was skinny enough to squeeze through the doors, who didn't even own a car until after WWII, a man on the moon must have been been almost unfathomable.
Being born in the 1960s, a man on the moon didn't seem quite so impossible to me. But his fascination, well, that fascinated me.
Because he'd left school so young, he was never a comfortable reader. He could read, or he'd have never gotten a job or a driver's license, but when he joined the Fire Department in the late 1940s, a high school diploma wasn't required, so he never got one. He read to me when I was little, but he was much happier making up stories for me, or telling me about his own childhood. When I learned to read, he was thrilled, both because I was so far ahead of where he'd been at that age, and because he finally didn't have to do it anymore. From that point on, I read to him.