During his 81 years, Eli Ellison had many jobs, among them: bookstore clerk, advertising associate, postal employee, and traveling hardware salesman. He was a hard worker, but his toughest job was being my dad.
My father was really two parents. Throughout my childhood, my mother suffered from an eating disorder and was largely absent from my life. My parents had marital difficulties unrelated to Mom's illness, and they were long divorced by the time Mom died. During the latter half of the 1980s, my father was membership director of the Sheepshead Bay (Brooklyn, New York) chapter of Parents Without Partners.
On July 6, 2004 my father died after a long bout with prostate cancer. He was a strong man, and it was incredibly frustrating for me to helplessly watch him decline. I prefer not to remember him as sick. I want to remember my dad as a young man, the man who took me to his Sovereign Senators softball games on Sundays and the Adventurers theme park on Long Island when I was a child, the man who picked me up--literally and emotionally--whenever he came home. I couldn't wait to see him, especially if he had been on the road for several days.
I remember the man who held my hand when I had a bad headache, who rejoiced at my academic achievements, cheered me on at swimming meets, was thrilled by my published articles, and consoled me during times of disappointment.
My father's self-confidence was both physical and compassionate. He always preferred talking to violence, but he wasn't afraid to assert himself to help others. When I was about five years old, we were passing a basketball court when Dad jumped out of the car to stare down a mob that was egging on a big guy who was beating up a little guy. Welts were appearing on the smaller man's face.
My father pulled his shirt out of his pants like a police detective hiding his weapon. He pushed past the mob, walked up to the large fellow, pointed his finger at him, and said, "If you throw one more punch, I'm taking you down to the station."
As a former attorney, I can't condone impersonating a police officer from a legal standpoint, but from a moral one, my father was right on. Someone said, "He's a cop." The bully and the mob backed off. Dad had just saved someone from serious bodily injury. He was my hero.
Dad gave me a powerful lesson in compassion when I was a teenager. We were leaving an Arthur Treacher's Restaurant when we saw a man lying in the street, and people were stepping over him as if he were trash. They were afraid. Dad wasn't. He said, "Let's get this guy up," and we did.
The careers my father chose reflected this courage and dedication to the less fortunate. A Social Services caseworker from 1968 to 1969, and a Board of Education home instruction teacher for 35 years, he worked in some of New York City's worst neighborhoods. For 20 years full-time, and 15 years part-time, until his last illness forced him into complete retirement, he taught handicapped students too sick to attend school. Dad donated frequently to veterans groups and considered his military service a high point of his life.
From 1943 to 1945, my father was a U.S. Army Air Corps radio truck operator with the 327thFighter Control Squadron in Western Europe. There were plenty of ball games and dances, but there were even more buzz bombs and air raids. And Dad didn't always get enough to eat.
He was a communications liaison between lead pilots in fighter squadrons and controllers in operations blocks. Dad was usually five to ten miles behind the front lines, except during the Battle of the Bulge, when he was right on the front lines.
He was a twenty-something kid who had barely ventured outside his native Bronx, and despite the hardships, there was a great sense of adventure. He traveled by land, sea, and air through Britain, France, Belgium, and Germany, making friends and acquaintances he would otherwise never have met. Unlike most soldiers, men in his unit had frequent contact with civilians. Then, of course, there were the women.
In 1944 my father was a trim, handsome six-footer, but you didn't have to be a Clark Gable look-alike to get a girl. An average Joe could walk into just about any bar over there, and after a few minutes of casual conversation, start getting physical with a woman. It wasn't because she was a slut or a nymphomaniac. It was because she craved physical and emotional comfort. She was often ill-fed, hadn't heard from her man in years, and feared dying in air raids.
After the war, my father cherished the safety and comfort of America as never before. His wartime experiences, which form most of the plot of Dear Mom, Dad & Ethel, reinforced his natural optimism. To him, the peace and prosperity of the United States was blissful compared to the pulverized cities through which he had passed. Whenever I was bothered by a personal problem, Dad always reminded me that no bombs were falling and nobody was shooting at me. To this day, that admonition helps me keep things in perspective.
Another key aspect of Dad's service was that it connected him to all soldiers, past and present, in a visceral way that only those who have been in a war zone can understand. He mourned every U.S. troop death in Iraq. Even he, a rear-guard support soldier, was part of a band of brothers at whose fortitude I can only marvel.
Researching and writing Dear Mom, Dad & Ethel has given me great appreciation for those who survived the hardships of World War II, but my understanding is mostly intellectual. My father, by contrast, knew the subject in his heart and gut because he lived it.
Copyright © 2004-6 Mark Stuart Ellison
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