Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Happy Birthday, Dad

Today would have been my Dad's 86th birthday. Happy Birthday Dad.

I imagine what his life was like. Dad's don't share much with twelve year olds. I wonder what it was like to go to war with his three brothers, the uncertainty of what was ahead. What went through his mind when he landed on Utah Beach on August 31st, 1944? Did friend's of his perish on that sand on June 6th? What was it like to occupy buildings vacated by Nazi soldiers? I do know he lost a comrade on New Year's Eve following the Battle of the Bulge. He never stayed at home on New Year's Eve. I still have the picture of his friend who was lost, he and my dad leaning against a jeep somewhere in Germany.

When he returned he began his life-long career with the Coal Mines. He loved the mines. He became involved with Mine Safety until eventually moving into the United Mine Workers. I loved when he took me to the District Office, housed in an old house complete with all the old fixtures. I could copy, climb the stairs until I was tired or people got annoyed, I think I sat in on a few meetings, and I could use his tape recorder to pretend I was his assistant.

He never judged the music I listened to, at least not to me. He taught me about working for the things I wanted (my telescope). We watched the Steelers, the Pirates, and eventually the Penguins. Sunday's when the Steelers didn't play, we watched war movies on TBS. I look back and think, this is like us watching a movie about 9/11. What memory was he transported back to when he watched The Dirty Dozen or Kelly's Heroes. I wish he could have seen Saving Private Ryan - I wish I could have seen it with him.

So, yes this is a music blog and I am getting to the main point of this entry. When my dad got sick, I cleansed my fears, my pre-pubescent stupidity, my opinions and my anger with music. I had at that time really gotten into Led Zeppelin, Motley Crue and Guns N Roses. Life and everyone in it for me was invincible. The music had to be fast and loud. It was, I will humbly guess, my way of hiding the fear that my dad was sick, weak and he couldn't keep up with me anymore.

Then, one day, my neighbor played a song in his basement, cranked to 20, that forever changed me: Pride and Joy by Stevie Ray Vaughan. I knew guitars. Kirk Hammet kicked it, Jimmy Page possessed his but Stevie Ray spoke through his guitar. Again, the obsession began and I had to hear more. On a weekday trip to the doctor's office, I begged to go to the Richland Mall. I bought a cassette of Texas Flood. His music sent chills through me. All of a sudden I needed the blues. It was August of 1990.

My father left this life and met up with his Army buddies and his brother on August 19, 1990. I had to be in control of the situation. I didn't cry for five days. I met people I had seen at his office, Congressman Murtha even paid his respects. Now that I look back, I didn't listen to music for a week. Things had to be done, I had to be strong, I had to make sure my dad would be proud of how we handled ourselves.

August 27, six days later, I was in Spencer gifts (you remember the store with the t shirts, black light posters and stupid gag gifts). Rick Dees was on the radio, I was looking at Red Hot Chili Pepper shirts. It sounded like Rick Dees announced that Stevie Ray Vaughan had been killed in a helicopter crash. Wait, he did say that.

My father and now my new found guitar hero were both gone. All of a sudden I couldnt breathe. This news broke whatever glass barrier I had placed around my self and I was now bombarded with the fact that my dad was gone. No more Steeler games, no more cigar smell when he came home from the Lemon Drop Lounge, no more polkas on Sunday morning. I was listening to Texas Flood a mere hour before my father died. I cried and cried and grieved. How trivial does it sound, even as I write this, that Stevie Ray's death allowed me to grieve for my own father. That something snapped inside of me the moment I heard the announcement.

Had Stevie not gotten on the helicopter that night. I still know what would have happened. I would be sitting at a venue, probably ten or fifteen years later, Stevie would have hit the first note of Dirty Pool and I would have lost it. His music takes me back to that time. It makes me think of regrets, wishing he told me more memories about his time overseas, made me realize the importance of what he did as a mere twenty year old. Maybe that was the plan. His importance would not get handed to me and simply pushed to the recesses of my young memory. I searched, looked at photos, read history books, even spoke to men he worked with once I was older.

I had to earn my father's journey through life.

I wish he could have seen me graduate from high school and college, watch the Penguins win the Stanley Cup with me, walk me down the aisle at my wedding (not that being walked down the aisle by a former hostage negotiator is a bad thing - you understand Mike)and he would tell me stories of the frigid days of December of 1944, running communication lines in the Ardennes Forest ahead of troop movement.

Whenever I hear Stevie Ray, I think of my father, not in sadness, but in appreciation for who he was and what he taught me. I hope I have made him proud in my choices. I laugh at how similar we are (so I have been told). I cherish what memories I do have of him. Dad, Happy Birthday. Stevie, please play a little Riviera Paradise for him tonight.

All those burning bridges that have fallen after me
All the lonely feelings and the burning memories
Everyone I left behind each time I closed the door
Burning bridges lost forever more
"Kelly's Heroes"

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