I’ll take a knee

Last weekend we marked Veterans Day. With it still so close in the rearview mirror, I’d like to keep it as the theme for my column this edition, sprinkled with a little Thanksgiving flavor for good measure.

There were myriad remembrances of our remarkable women and men who served in the military over the years. Parades, ceremonies, remembrances and recognition were the orders of the day last Saturday — and rightly so. Everything we have in this great nation is largely due to the service of those who have protected America in good times and bad, preserving our freedoms.

Ironically, even those who choose to disrespect the very country in which they live, have the right to protest because of our veterans.

With that in mind, I’d like to take knee — but not in protest and not during our National Anthem. I’d like to take a knee in prayer — a prayer of thanksgiving for my greatest hero and one of my best friends — my dad Larry.

We lost Larry mid-October at the age of 96. He was a resident of Catholic Memorial Home in Fall River for the last two years, the victim of Alzheimer’s-related dementia. In the end his mind and his body gave out on him. But while Catholic Memorial was his home, Larry left a lasting impression on a good number of good people. Some of the staff there got to know him and love him. They got a small sample of the man I’ve admired since I can remember remembering.

Larry’s real name was Loridas — a name as French Canadian as you can get, and a name he wasn’t particularly fond of — thus the moniker of Larry.

Larry’s childhood wasn’t the stuff that dreams are made of. He lost his mom when he was six years old. He never finished elementary school, instead holding a number of employment positions as a boy and teen-ager. Larry worked on a turkey farm and apple farm, delivering ice and delivering newspapers. That was when he wasn’t delivering his dad’s lunch to him at the mills.

When most boys his age were playing baseball, climbing trees and going swimming, Larry was usually hard at work. He did manage to find the time to escape into his paradise from time to time though — the North Watuppa Pond. The Watuppa was a stone’s throw from his house, so when he could he would make his way into the woods there, retrieve his hidden bamboo fishing rod and enjoy his time at his own private fishing hole. You see the North Watuppa was, and still is, not for public use, it being the source of the Greater Fall River area’s drinking water supply. But Larry wasn’t there to destroy, but enjoy. When he wasn’t fishing, he would be gathering blueberries and strawberries from around his beloved pond.

He even had the game wardens timed. He knew where he shouldn’t be and at what time. That was Larry’s version of a game-winning home run or 99-yard touchdown run.

Larry was 20 years old when the bombing of Pearl Harbor took place on Dec. 7, 1941. His life of not having much of a childhood would soon extend into his 20s. Instead of waiting to be drafted into the service he decided to enlist in the U.S. Navy. That was in April of 1942.

Larry never talked about his time in the Navy — at least not to me. All we heard was about his time spent as the ship’s cook — a job he loved, despite it being in the hornet’s nest of the South Pacific during wartime.

Soon Larry wasn’t Larry anymore. He was “Cookie” and “Frenchy.” But despite the title changes, he was still Larry, the young man who thought more about others than he did himself. A trait that developed as a young lad.

It wasn’t until he developed dementia that he began to share the real war stories with me. At a time when he should have had the rest of his life to dream about, he was aboard either a U.S. destroyer or a seaplane tender.

Larry told me stories of spending time in the crow’s nest, keeping watch on the horizon for enemy aircraft. He told me of times when he made himself as small as he could as his ship was peppered with bullets from the sky. He told me of lying there as if dead, praying he would not be hit.

Larry told me of a time when a Kamikaze fighter dove at his ship, but was deflected into the sea by one of the vessel’s guide wires. The sister destroyer next to his wasn’t so lucky.

Larry told me of the time his ship, the destroyer used to protect the bigger battleships, finally tracked down and destroyed an enemy submarine. Larry told me how his heart broke for the men onboard that submarine as it rose to the surface just before nose-diving into to the Pacific never to be seen again. He told me how he was haunted by what those men, even though they were the “enemy,” experienced that fateful day. They were fellow human beings after all. They weren’t responsible for the war they were all fighting.

Larry told me about how he would tend to wounded shipmates, feeding them as if they were babies. In a sense they all were children, young men in a place where they didn’t want to be, doing things they didn’t want to do. But they were in places where they had to be, doing things they had to do — all to keep America free.

Larry also experienced seeing the war come to an end. He received his honorable discharge from the United States Navy two days before Christmas 1945. He hopped aboard a train in Tacoma, Wash., and made his way to Fall River to surprise his family, showing up at his home on Christmas Day.

Aside from his shipmates and family and friends in Fall River, no one knew Larry. He wasn’t a famous admiral or politician. But he was a hero, as were every other woman and man who defended this country during World War II and before, and after.

Larry went on to become a great husband and father — and friend and uncle and coworker and human being.

During his last years, Larry wold tell the stories to me over and over again. I knew them by heart, but I would listen to him and look in the eyes as if hearing them for the first time. Larry told the stories to anyone who would listen, and quite often it was someone from Catholic Memorial Home, and they did the same thing.

Larry’s last few years were difficult — for him and for me, but in retrospect, I am so grateful for finally getting to know my dad as I never had. I miss hearing the same stories. I miss him becoming ornery, asking why the heck he was in a nursing home. The only thing I really don’t miss is him asking why he was still around.

Larry didn’t go easily — that wasn’t what he was about. He was tough, a teddy bear, but tough. For five days it was felt that day would be his last. My brother and I kept vigil with Larry for those five days, gently urging him to let go. He finally did, passing peacefully into a life with no more pain, no more tears, no more worries.

Larry was a hero — a war hero, something not everyone can be. Larry was also a regular guy hero. I made my share of mistakes along the way and Larry always forgave, something not everyone can do.

So this Veterans Day and this Thanksgiving, I’ll take a knee — for Larry, and all those like him.


© 2019 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing    †    Fall River, Massachusetts