From the Bird’s Nest: A Veterans’ Day Tribute
In his book “The Greatest Generation,” former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw paid tribute to those who served in the Second World War. I read the book a few years ago and learned so much more about those brave men and women who were simply cut from a different cloth. The book, in my opinion, is one that every American should read.
Last Wednesday, I listened to the mournful sound of “TAPS” being played as another member of that generation was laid to rest.
But, for me, it was different. It was my Dad.
My father passed away October 28th at a nursing home in Cedar Hill, Texas. His 88th birthday would have been tomorrow.
He, too, was cut from a different cloth. Born one of seven children in Oklahoma, Dad grew up during the Depression. It was a poor family. They didn’t grow up with much.
Dad dropped out of high school before graduation. It was time for him to make his way in the world. There was just one problem. Work was hard to come by. He had already tried twice to enlist in the military. The first time they told him his eyesight wasn’t good enough. Without the military, his options were few.
“Stood there boldly…Sweatin’ in the Sun….Felt like a million….Felt like number one….The height of summer….I never felt that strong….Like a Rock…….”
He heard there were factories hiring in New England. He wanted to try his luck there. There was only one problem. He didn’t have the money to make the trip. Dad went to my grandfather’s boss and asked him for a loan. He figured it would take fifty dollars to get there and asked to borrow the money. He was told to come back the next day for his answer.
The man went to my grandfather. “Johnny asked me to borrow fifty dollars to he could go to Connecticut and find work,” the man said. My grandfather was honest. “I don’t know how I’d ever be able to pay that back,” he said. “You didn’t ask to borrow the money, Johnny did,” was the response.
My grandfather looked his boss right in the eye. “If Johnny said he would pay you back, he will.” His boss smiled. “That’s all I need to hear.” It was a time when a man’s word was good. The next day, Dad got his money.
He made it to Connecticut and got a job. Every time he got paid, he would send a portion of his wages to the man who trusted him.
“I was eighteen……Didn’t have a care…..Workin’ for peanuts….Not a dime to spare….But I was lean and solid everywhere…..Like a Rock……”
Dad told the story one day on his front porch, a log cabin replica on Lake Fork. “I didn’t know anything about how interest worked, but I knew that when you borrowed money, you paid back more than you borrowed. So, after I had paid back the fifty dollars, I sent more money with a note that said I was paying interest and to let me know how much more I owed. Well, I got a letter back about a week later with the money in it. The letter said ‘I’m not a bank, Johnny. Your debt is paid.’”
While working, he met Juliette Brunet Chikosky, a divorcee seven years his senior who had a son. They began
dating. He was working. He had a woman in his life. It was all looking up.
Then came December 7, 1941. And, it all changed.
Suddenly, Dad’s eyesight was fine. He received a draft notice. Instead, he chose to enlist in the United States Navy.
When asked about the branch he chose, Dad told my brother Don, “Well, I knew how to swim and I didn’t like to fly.”
In basic training, Dad was made a swimming instructor. “It wasn’t like it sounded,” he told my brother. “If you didn’t sink like a stone, you were qualified as an instructor.” One of the men in his swimming “class” failed his swimming test twice. He was an Italian from the Bronx. Dad kept working with the young man until he passed. The two became pretty good friends.
“My hands were steady….My eyes were clear and bright….My walk had purpose….My step was quick and light….And I held firmly…..To what I felt was right……Like a Rock.”
Six months later, Dad was made a gunner. So much for not liking to fly. He would spend a good part of the war in an airplane. He said the first time he flew he was airsick. He was told not to mess up the plane. “I threw up in my hat,” he said. He also admitted he might have been a tad hung over.
Dad was stationed on a TP (torpedo) boat in the Atlantic. Those boats looked for German submarines. The planes watched from the air, just in case.
As the war progressed, there were changes in Dad’s life. He married Julie and developed a strong relationship with her father, Ludger Brunet.
“Your grandfather was the most patriotic man I ever met,” he told me that day on his porch. “Every time I’d come home on leave, he had cartons of cigarettes for me to distribute to those I was serving with. I knew there wasn’t a lot of money and I told him he didn’t need to be doing that. But he’d say ‘These men are fighting for all of us. Everyone has to do their part to support them.’ Whenever he’d listen to a baseball game on the radio, he always stood at attention during the National Anthem. He just loved his country.”
On D-Day, Dad was in the air. His job, and the job of those on the plane, was to protect the flank in case there was an attack from the sea.
Dad also heard about the boat his friend, the one he taught to swim, was on. He found out the boat had been sunk and he grieved for the loss.
Then, he found out his friend was alive. He was able to survive because Dad had worked with him until he knew how to swim.
Dad really didn’t like to talk about the war much and when he did, he acted as though nothing he did was a big deal. Part of that reason was his brother Oscar. Oscar was a few years older than Dad. He was in the infantry and was on the front line. He served for a time under General George S. Patton. Dad always believed Oscar was the war hero in the family.
Of course, as history knows, they were all heroes.
“..And I stood arrow straight, unencumbered by the weight of all these hustlers and their schemes….I stood proud, I stood tall, high above it all….I still believed in my dreams.”
After the war, it was time for Dad and Julie to start a family. Susan came first, a year after the war ended. Six years later, it was my turn.
The marriage, however, didn’t last. My mother and Dad separated shortly before my birth. Dad moved back south and met Lois Pollock, a woman originally from Illinois. She was eight years younger than Dad. Nine months after their wedding, my sister Linda was born. (We don’t have half-brothers and sisters in my family. I mean, how do you have half a sister, anyway?)
Despite the dissolving of their marriage, my mother always made sure I kept in touch with Dad. I never knew the circumstances of their divorce. All she ever did was remind me that my dad loved me even though he wasn’t around. We even made a trip to Texas one summer in my early life. Lois and my mother always got along well.
The next summer, when I was about to start kindergarten, Dad and Lois made a trip to Connecticut and I met my baby brother Mike for the first time.
After that, I wouldn’t see Dad again until my sister’s high school graduation and wedding seven years later. But during that time, there were always letters and the occasional phone call, although money was tight and long distance was pretty expensive back then. The following year, I spent the entire summer with Dad, who by that time was living in Basile, LA. There were two more new siblings to meet: My brother Don and sister Tina. Tina’s name was pronounced with a long I, and later, she got tired of having people call her “teena” and started spelling her name with a “y” instead of an “i.” Don, meanwhile, is called Don by nearly no one. He got the nickname “Duck” as a kid. He still has it.
It was that summer that I saw my first professional baseball game. The Astrodome had just opened and Dad took Mike and me to see an Astros/Cardinals game. I saw Bob Gibson pitch. As much as I love the game of baseball, it was only fitting that my Dad, despite the geographical distance between us, would still be the one to take me to my first Major League game.
It was quite a summer. I got my first taste of Dad’s sense of humor one day at lunch. He held out a plate to me that had some jalapeno peppers. I said no thank you. And, Dad got the most hurt look on his face. “Why?”, he asked, “they’re good.” Well, I thought I had hurt his feelings so I took one and took a bite. Dad got an impish grin on his face and said “although it might be a good idea to have a glass of water handy.” The words came out of his mouth just as the heat made its appearance in my mouth. Dad laughed. Everyone laughed.
Except me. I didn’t laugh.
At that time, Dad was working for Union Texas Petroleum. After moving back to the south, he had been a truck driver, a roofer and a construction worker, among other occupations. But the job with Union Texas would last until his retirement.
As the summer started to wind down, it was time to go home. I didn’t know it at the time, but it would be another four years until I would see him again.
At my mother’s funeral.
My mother battled breast cancer for two and a half years, but lost the battle on October 12, 1969. Dad came up to be with Bob (my brother from my mother’s first marriage), Susan and me. I had just started my senior year of high school. Dad and I had a long conversation during his visit. He wanted me to come to Louisiana and live with him. I refused for the time being. I wanted to finish high school before considering the move. He totally understood.
The next April, during spring break, I flew down for a visit. By that time, I was meeting another brother, Robert, who was two years old. A friend of mine came with me and we had quite a week. The first night I was there, Dad took us to a crawfish boil. My friend Bob and I were getting our first taste of another culture. There were many who chuckled at us as we tried to peel them, but we were troopers. We were at the big trough longer than anyone else, but we got our fill. We also spent a couple of days at Toledo Bend and came back with nearly 100 white perch. Before leaving, Dad asked me again about my plans. I told him that after Susan’s first child was born in August, I would make the move.
So, in August, 1970, Dad made the long drive in his pickup truck from Eunice, Louisiana, to Bristol, Connecticut to help haul my belongings to Louisiana, where I went from being the youngest of three children to the oldest of six.
At that time, Dad was still quite a physical specimen, even as he reached his late forties. He had always worked hard and was strong as an ox. And, he could build or fix just about anything. Even on his days off, Dad worked hard. It was really the only thing he knew. And, he expected his children to do the same. Dad owned a side business while he continued to work shift work at U.T.P. He had a combination gas station/café. I started work at the gas station the day after I moved to Louisiana. Mike worked there as well. Linda helped out in the café when necessary. Mom (that’s what I call her. She’s been the only mom I’ve had since 1969 and you’ll never hear me call her my stepmother) showed up at the café every eight hours to change out the shifts (it was open 24 hours a day.)
Dad’s humor got me again during that time. Although I worked in the service station, Dad’s opinion that all I knew about cars was how to start one and turn on the radio was pretty much spot on. One morning, he asked (in front of several people) if I had the radiator flushed in the VW. “No sir,” I said, “but I’ll get right on it.” Dad smiled. “Okay,” he said.
Later in the day I told the man who worked in the afternoons at the service station I needed to hurry and get that flushing done. He looked at me and laughed. “You dumbass,” he said. “Volkswagens don’t have radiators.”
Dad had gotten me. Again.
Two days later he asked, again in front of several, if I had done what he asked. “No, smartass,” I said and everyone in the room howled in laughter.
That story has been told in the family for over forty years.
Eventually I moved out of the house and married. Then, when we were expecting our first child, Dad called to let me know he had accepted a transfer to west Texas. The family would be moving to Brownfield. By that time, Linda was on her own. Mike had just graduated high school and was getting ready to go into the Army. He wanted to be a police officer and figured the best way to get training early was the military. So, Mom and Dad packed up Don, Tyna and Robert and headed west.
Dad worked out there a few more years. But, the man who had worked, and worked and worked his whole life decided, when he could, he would retire. And he did, at age 55.
Dad packed up the family and moved to Possum Kingdom Lake, northwest of Fort Worth. Dad had always
loved the outdoors. He’d hunt some during the winter, but loved to fish year-round. Now he had a chance. My family made a couple of trips out there for family get-togethers. Although by now, Dad was a grandfather, we had enough space for everyone.
Dad wasn’t perfect, not by any means. He laughed easily, but could get angry as well. He also, truth be told, wasn’t really good at that marriage thing. And,while the family was in Possum Kingdom, Mom called me one day to tell me she had decided to end their 28 year marriage. She and the kids moved back to Brownfield.
Dad eventually decided, although fishing whenever he wanted was a good thing, he missed working. Up the road from where he lived there was a job opening for a caretaker at a ranch. Dad applied and was hired.
“It was the best job I ever had,” Dad would joke. “I got a two bedroom house, a truck, an expense account and $800 a month. And the job description was, ‘if it breaks, fix it.’”
The ranch also had a large house on a cliff overlooking the lake. It had two full kitchens and enough
barracks-style bedrooms to sleep more than thirty. It gave the family a place to get together. Mom would come, even though she and Dad were no longer married. Dad, by this time, had some grandchildren who were teenagers and he made sure his boat was available for skiing or trips to a nearby beach. During the visits,
someone would do something to irritate him and he’d go back to his house for awhile, but for the most part, he spent a lot of time laughing and joking. Although he could be cantankerous at times, no one ever questioned his love for his family.
Finally, in 1997, Dad “retired” again, this time for good. He moved to Lake Fork and spent his final healthy days. He fished whenever he wanted to, which was pretty often. He spent time with his yellow lab, Lady. And he had time to reflect, in that rocking chair on his front porch.
“And sometimes late at night….when I’m bathed in the firelight…..the moon comes callin’ a ghostly white….and I recall…..I recall…..Like a Rock, standin’ arrow straight…..Like a Rock, chargin’ from the gate….Like a Rock, carryin’ the weight….Like a Rock.”
Eventually, Dad’s health began to slip. Mike moved him into an independent living facility in Cedar Hill. Mike lived nearby with his wife Leisa and would see Dad regularly. Mike, who was retired from the Cedar Hill Police Department and was now the Chief of Police in Ovilla, Texas, became Dad’s primary care-giver for the remainder of his life. Dad moved from there to an assisted living facility and finally, when he needed constant care, to a nursing home. Mike took care of Dad’s business affairs and, as the only child close by, spent the most time with him. But Mike was still working and his wife, Leisa would go often to the nursing home to have lunch with Dad. As I reflect on what they did, I’m convinced their actions were what God had in mind when He said, “Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother.” Dad had them, and of course, his beloved Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys were his passion, especially in his later years. He had a schedule taped to his television so he wouldn’t miss a game.
Dad and Mike had worked out the plans for the future. Dad didn’t want anything fancy. “Just find me a pine box,” he said. He also picked out his final resting place, at DFW National Cemetery. Dad became, physically, a shell of what he had been and it was difficult to see him fade. He also became forgetful at times, to the point where, on one visit, he asked me after a twenty minute conversation who I was. When I told him, he laughed loudly. “Well, why the hell didn’t you say so?” He then proceeded to ask about my wife, my children and my grandchildren. It had all come back to him at once. But, he had become so weak, leaving the home, even for a little while, just wasn’t an option any more. In April, 2010, Mike had to go to the nursing home to break the news to Dad that our youngest brother, Robert, had died of cancer in South Carolina, two days after his 42nd birthday. Dad was too weak and too ill to make the trip for the funeral. I’m guessing that was the saddest day of Dad’s life.
My last visit with Dad was on New Year’s Day. I was in the Metroplex with the basketball team. I visited with Dad for about an hour and a half that evening. We talked about the Cowboys (naturally) and the family. And, although he was physically no longer the strong, powerful man I had known earlier in life, he said he felt better than a lot of 87 year old men. I planned a summer trip to see him again, but family issues forced me to cancel.
Last week we gathered to pay tribute to him. He would have been so happy to know that his six surviving children and many of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren were there to give him a good sendoff.
As the oldest child, Susan was to be presented with the United States flag at the funeral. But she declined, asking that it be presented to Mike instead. It was an unselfish decision, but it was the right one. Dad’s service was held under a pavilion on a beautiful day. After the flag was folded, it was presented to Mike, not only on behalf of a grateful nation, but also on behalf of a grateful family.
After the playing of TAPS, it was time for the preacher to say a few words.
I’ve been to too many funerals where the presiding clergy didn’t even know the deceased. We didn’t have that problem. We brought our own minister and as my brother Don got up to speak I thought how touching it was. I also knew he was about to do something I could never have done.
I have always been fiercely proud of my family. But I don’t know if I was ever prouder of Don than I was on that day. His remarks were brief, but pointed. He
spoke about the most important things Dad taught us. Do the right thing. Live life to the fullest. Love people. I thought of Dad trying to pay interest on a loan, even though he knew little about it. I thought of Dad at a crawfish boil, in his boat with a fishing pole in his hand. And, I thought of Dad who seemed happiest when he was surrounded by people. And, then Don stressed the importance of passing these three things down from generation to generation in our family.
Do the right thing.
Live life to the fullest.
Perhaps, if we all did that, and passed it down, we someday might have another great generation.
“Like a Rock….sun against my skin…..Like a Rock….Hard against the wind….Like a Rock…I see myself again….Like a Rock…..oh, Like a Rock.”
On this Veterans Day, I want to thank the members of my family who have served in our military: My son Jake (USMC), my brothers Bob Chikosky (US Army), Mike Moon (US Army) and Robert Moon (1968-2010, US Army), my nephews Cody Moon (US Navy), James Hill (USMC), David Moon (American National Guard, Middle East) and my nieces Dawn Mohn (US Air Force) and Alicea Charamut (Air National Guard).
But, most of all, I want to thank my Dad, John C. Moon (1923-2011), United States Navy, WWII.
Thanks, Dad. For everything.
(Lyrics in italics from “Like a Rock” by Bob Seger, Capitol Records, 1986)
(photographs from family archives, Leisa Hill Moon and Julianne Moon Zannini)