In 1981, just after my son Chuck was born, my wife Laurie recorded an oral history with my father and I just wanted to read this excerpt.
“I entered the Navy on May 8, 1943 and served until April 1, 1946. Since I was stationed in Chicago for the duration of the war, I tell everyone I successfully protected Lake Michigan from invasion, but I was really a fireman, a Specialist F- 3rd Class. This wasn’t what I wanted to do at all… I really wanted to write, so I applied to Stars & Stripes. My application was approved (maybe because I said I was editor-in-chief of the high school newspaper, which wasn’t true), but when I went for the interview, they discovered I was a fireman, so they said, 'No writing for you!' Instead I was sent to be an instructor in the firefighters school.”
So this was my father… a man who would downplay his achievements rather than boast about them… a man who would shrug off the bad things that happened and look forward to the next good thing… and a man who always had a story to tell that would make the people around him smile.
This was a man who spent 35 years in the New York City Fire Department, working at one time or another in every borough in the city, and retiring with the rank of captain. In the early 1960s, after the roof of a burning building fell on him, I read in the newspaper about “the late Louis N. Rozakis” and said, “Doesn’t this mean you’re dead?” He just looked at me and said, “Well, who are you going to believe—that newspaper or me?”
This was a man who, after he had a prostate operation, told everyone he’d had his uterus removed. And, after his bypass operation at age 80, told us he’d had the pipes cleaned and was good for another 80 years.
This was a man we called “Old Nas” because he took a line of Greek that roughly translates into “the red goats and the white mice should eat you” and turned it into “the Nasay Fahnay Chorus” that he got lots of his relatives to sing at weddings and other family functions.
This was a man who would always back us in what we wanted to do, even if he sometimes wouldn’t admit it. Right after I graduated college with a degree in Accounting, I went to work for DC Comics and spent the first couple of months in a test program selling comic books in neighborhoods around Long Island. I was driving this van covered with pictures of super-heroes and would park it in front of the house and my father would say, “This is what I sent you to college for?” I found out much later how proud he was to show everybody he knew when I had my stories published. And, of course, after I left the comic book business and took a job as an accountant this year, he looked me in the eye and said, “It’s about time you used your degree!”
But more importantly, this was a man who never lectured us on what to do or how to act. Instead, he taught by example and these are just a few of the lessons we learned:
1) If you have a responsibility, make sure you fulfill it. As a kid, I had trouble understanding why my father was always working strange hours. I mean, other dads worked from 9 to 5 Monday through Friday. Mine worked two nights and two days and sometimes weekends and invariably on Christmas or Thanksgiving. And he was not just working in the fire department… he was working as an insurance broker and a tax accountant and a moving man … but all so that there was food on the table, clothes on our backs and a roof over our heads.
2) Treat everybody equally. When Clarence Williams, one of the first black men to join the NY Fire Department, came to work, my father readily shared his locker with him. Of course, Clarence was warned not to touch the pictures of my dad’s “nieces” that were hanging in the locker. By the way, I have a number of female cousins, but I’ve never been able to locate any of ones who posed for those scantly-clad pictures.
3) Just “be there” for people. Without making a show of it, my father would help out relatives and friends who needed it, whether financially, physically or otherwise. He wasn’t looking for glory; he just believed that it was the right thing to do.
4) Common sense is more important than all the rules ever written. My father liked to think of himself as a rebel, but he was much more the man who knew what the rules were and when it made sense to follow them…and when it was more practical to ignore them to get something done.
5) Nothing is gained by holding a grudge. No matter who did him wrong –- and there were those who did over the years -- my father never wasted time holding a grudge. He’d just kind of shrug it off and move on.
6) Smile… and make the people around you smile too. In the past few days, I’ve talked with so many people whose lives my father touched and what they told me all boiled down to the same thing: He always made them smile.
And perhaps that’s the most important lesson of all. My father used to say, “I don’t tell lies…I tell stories.” And I would reply with a quote from songwriter Mason Williams: “This is not a true tale, but who needs truth if it’s dull?” My father loved to tell stories to people – and maybe the details would change a little if you heard the story more than once – but he always made you smile.
In fact, I suspect that right about now, there’s a big back-up in the line of people waiting to get into heaven. I figure my father’s probably standing at the gate telling St. Peter about his adventures on the “Blind Date” radio show or when, annoyed that my brothers were fighting because one touched the other’s piece of cake, he squashed every piece of the cake or about the time in the Sizzler when his shorts fell down.
And down here, we’ll be missing the opportunity to hear those tales just one more time, left only to retell them in our own words. But, if you believe as I do that no one truly dies until there’s no one left who remembers him, well, my father’s probably achieved immortality.