While many people think of the 4th of July as our Independence Day, the day we declared ourselves a new nation back in 1776 (even though we still had several years of bloody conflict ahead before England would recognize that independence), it is a day that is significant to me for more than just that.
July 4th this year also marks the 94th anniversary of the birth of my father, who passed away back in 2003. It is jarring to me, I suppose, to realize my father has been gone 15 years now. He was and is one of my heroes; a man who was a larger-than-life character in many ways.
When I think of my father, I remember a tall, powerfully built man with silver hair and a a gunslinger’s gray eyes; a man who could seem grim, even imperious. When he set his shoulders and his eyes went hard he could intimidate the most fearsome of opponents, and when riled his voice was commanding, brooking no dissent. But he was also possessed of a big laugh and eyes that twinkled with good-nature. Once you got past his hard exterior he was a man with a mischievous sense of humor, a keen intelligence, and a deep love for his family and for his country.
He was born in 1924, in Prohibition-era Chicago. His father and grandfather were German immigrants heavily involved in bootlegging, and even ran a Speakeasy in the city. Violent confrontations with rivals, including the notorious Al Capone, were common. My father remembered that if you sat down on the couch, there was a handgun stuffed between every cushion.
He grew up tough and two-fisted. His father would not tolerate any thought of his son backing down from a fight, and if anyone attempted to bully my father and he didn’t fight back he would face punishment for it.
When World War II broke out, my father enlisted in the Navy, and trained as a fighter pilot. He flew combat missions in World War II and in Korea, and spent time as a test pilot. He retired in 1972 after 30 years in uniform.
He once told me that he served because he believed in the ideals that founded this nation. He was proud of that service, and of his country. He was a student of history, and tried to instill the same interest in me; being the first to tell me that those who failed to remember history were doomed to repeat it. He had a strong sense of right-and-wrong, and taught me the value of honor and integrity.
I admired my father fiercely. While we had our confrontations as I grew up, I was incredibly fortunate as an adult to have the opportunity to really get to know him. We were both a little surprised to discover that, while we had our differences, we really were very much alike in many ways. Sure, I loved him because he was my father and he loved me as a son, but we recognized that we liked and respected each other as people, and we built a strong friendship. The single most precious memory I have is of the moment when my father looked me in the eye and told me he was proud of the man I’d become.
My father taught me to appreciate the freedoms we possess as Americans. We often spoke of the ideal that America represents, and though we both recognized that our country has not always lived up to those ideals, that still makes those ideals worth fighting for.
Independence Day thus has a deep and profound meaning to me; not only the birthday of this nation but of a tough and loving father who helped me to appreciate the true value of being American.
Happy Birthday, Dad. I love you.