Monday, May 30, 2011

Big John in a Box

Today is Memorial Day, 2011 and I am thinking of my father, John Joseph Comey Jr. People rarely called him by his given name. He was known to his friends, neighbors, grandkids, and great grandkids as "Big John." It was because of his height. He was 6 foot 6.5 inches tall and always ducked slightly when he went through doorways. He was string bean thin and Jimmy Stewart handsome when he was young. He grew up along 63rd Street in West Philadelphia, just down from the EL stop, in the same Irish and Jewish neighborhood that William Wharton used as the backdrop for his book, Birdy. Nicholas Cage and Matthew Modine starred in the movie.

My father spoke often of his neighborhood in West Philly. He used the name Sydney Schwartz when he played for the Jewish Basketball League, and his Jewish buddies acquired Irish names when they played for the CYO League. His father's parents emigrated from Ballyhaunis, County Mayo, in Ireland, but they refused to teach him Irish (Gallic). "We're in America now, " they told him. "We speak American."

So he learned some Yiddish instead and would curse up a storm in a language that we didn't understand when he bumped his head on a doorframe. His height also caused him trouble when he enlisted in the Army Air Corps, now know as the Air Force. He wanted desperately to be a pilot and fly fighter planes, but his long, lanky frame wouldn't fit in the cockpit. So instead, he became a flight radio operator and spent his time during WWII at Lahoya Field, several miles up the coast from the mouth of the Amazon River in Brazil. There, he hunted down German submarines that were secretly refueling off the coast. He would go out as part of a crew on a PB-23 Mars Radar plane. Their mission was to take pictures for the Intelligence Boys back at the base. If anything suspicious was spotted, P-38 twin-boom Fighters were sent out to blow it up. A number of  U Boats never made it back to the Wolf Packs in the North Atlantic.

 He told us incredible stories about the natives that lived in mud and thatch huts just down from their base. He showed us a picture of his pet Spider Monkey that rode in his breast pocket. He amazed us with tales about a Tiger Shark that sank a jeep, and Flying Tigers pilots who underwent detox at Lahoya for drug habits they picked up while fighting Japanese Zeros in China. For the rest of his life, he had yellow freckles on his legs from a parasitic jungle fungus because he forget once to tuck his pants securely into his boots.

When the war was over, he somehow always ended up in jobs and places that would accomodate his frame. He drove a Greyhound bus. He took massive fuel oil rigs over the mountains in western PA. He oversaw the construction and maintenance of Exxon gas stations in three states, operating out of a large Suburban Chevrolet. While doing all of this, he managed to take courses at the Wharton School at Penn and Temple University, where he graduated with an Engineering degree.

On January 7, 2010, my father died. He was 92.5 years old. My brothers, John and Dave, and I were with him. My mother had left us in 1996. (She was only 4 foot 11 inches tall. Although tiny in stature, she was regal in bearing and determination. I will save her story for another blog.) The other person present in the hospital room was Father John, a missionary priest from Uganda. With so few priests now in the US, missionaries are coming here to serve. When Father John leaned over close to my father and said, "And do not fear, John, as you enter the dark valley, because you are safe and we are with you," my father took his last breath.

My father was fiercely proud of his Irish heritage. His grandfather had been blinded during the Easter Rebellion in Dublin in 1916. My father visited the Old Sod some years ago with my mother and was completely enchanted. His roots in his old neighborhood were also incredibly deep. In his final days, when he was barely hanging on, he often told the nursing staff his name was Sidney Schwartz.

My brother, John, and I, with our wives, Barbara and Trish, took my father's ashes home to Ireland last September. We stayed on the River Shannon in a rented home between Ballina and Killaloe. My brother logged close to 650 km driving on the right side of a Volvo on the wrong side of the rode (left) without getting us killed. We traveled through Galway, Limerick, Tipperwary, Waterford, and Cork. We stood at the bay in Cobh (Cove) where my great grandparents departed for the promise of a new land. And we knelt in St Patrick's Church in Ballyhaunis, County Mayo, with Big John between us in a sanctioned, air-flight acceptable box.

There was not another soul in the church. It was very windy outside and thankfully not raining. The time had come to finally release my father from his cardboard coffin. We went outside, looking for a cemetery. There was none to be found. Aside from a deserted rectory at the rear of the grounds, we could only find four stone slabs bearing the names of deceased priests from the parish tucked next to the church.

"This will have to do," John declared, holding the box.

He stood next to the slabs and poked a hole in the bottom of the box. I held my breath. This was the moment we had all been waiting for. This was the solemn rite when a man returns to his roots.

Only, just as the ashes began to fall, the wind around us began to whip and spin and swirl. The ashes hardly touched the ground. They flew up into my brother's face and clothes and hair in a tumult of grey, then lifted above him in a frockling play of shadow and light. They rose above the roof of the church into the blue Irish sky. I looked at my poor brother, and, God forgive me, I couldn't help myself. I burst out laughing. John was coated from head to toe with the remains of the man that he loved. John had nurtured and cared for my father the last four years of his life. It was their final embrace. It was also the way that my father decided for us to finally say goodbye. We wept at his last breath in a hospital room on January 7th. We were now laughing, all of us, at his liberation from the tall body that had served him for so long.

My father was finally flying.

Copyright (c) 2011 by James Hugh Comey

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