Wednesday, February 09, 2005

My dad, my first hero

I started a new story this week. It’s different from anything I’ve ever written and as I write it, I realize what is driving it. It’s a tribute to my dad, who died nine years ago next week. Dad was the first hero in my life.

He wasn’t the kind of obvious hero you’d read about in romance novels. In fact, my mother would have pointed out that he was a pain in the posterior. Her favorite saying, “You could drive the Mother of God up the walls!” That was often applied to dad.

He was a design engineer by trade, and for him the word “anal” was invented. Dad used to pour over his designs, waxing eloquently in engineering jargon that I could never comprehend. For me it was far easier to understand Klingon than Dad.

Dad wasn’t a hero you read about in papers, a guy who fought in WWII and stormed the beaches at Normandy or risked being downed by Japanese anti-aircraft fire as he soared over the skies. He wasn’t eligible to fight in the war. His brother, Don, was a fighter pilot. He got the medals and the praise. Dad stayed at home, courtesy of bad eyesight and having to take care of his family.

But he did his part. Dad designed parts that went into the airplanes that fought in the war. He was most proud of these designs. Dad worked for Grumman Aircraft Engineering. They built military aircraft and designed and built several U .S. Navy aircraft that had stellar reputations for aeronautical engineering.

In his spare time, he put together airplane models of the planes he had helped design. One of these sits now in a place of honor in my curio cabinet. I wish I knew what kind of plane it was. Somehow, now, 9 years after his death, it seems important to me.

Dad grew up in Jamaica, NY. His family was pretty well off until his father lost all in the great crash and the Depression set in. I remember Dad talking wistfully about how he always wanted to go to college, and never got the chance. He had to stay home and get a job to support his family. So dad worked running errands on Wall Street instead of going to college, and as he said, “You’d look up as you walked the street because in those days, there were always guys tossing themselves out of windows because things were so bad.”

He’d talk of poverty and how they’d make coal last in the winter by putting it in a can wrapped in newspaper to preserve the heat. He talked of stretching a dollar until it cried. There wasn’t any choice in those days.

But most of all, he talked of those Navy planes he’d helped design and how proud he was he did his bit for his country.

As I’m writing my new romance, which has for a hero a Navy SEAL, I’m thinking of the typical heroes who fight tough, who are known as the best combat specialists in the world, who have seen active duty combat. And my hero isn’t modeled after them, as courageous as they are. My hero is modeled after my dad. A guy who was kinda quiet, never really achieved his dreams, but was determined to make something of himself, despite all the obstacles. I never did know what planes he helped design, or what missions they flew. I was too busy and too impatient to be off doing my stuff.

I just wish I had listened closer all those years ago.

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