by Brule Eagan
The Old Man never put much stock in Fathers Day. To him, it was just another Sunday when he could collapse into his recliner, turn on a ballgame, and listen to Jack Brickhouse scream like a lunatic every time the Cubs or the Sox managed to take the field without tripping over their own feet. He was an American League man, anyway, and was a Yankees fan. He’d had a cup of coffee with the Yankees, but never even made it to the minors. He could hit, and he had a hell of an arm, but he couldn’t run for beans. But he loved the Yankees. There’s no other way to explain his giving me a Yankees uniform when I was, I think, four. I know I wore it once. Gave him a lot of joy seeing me in it.
The Old Man had a high school education, and even though he and his parents made a few bucks running moonshine in the Pennsylvania hills during Prohibition, college was just too expensive a proposition back then, as it was for most families, so he decided to join the Marines at 18. That was in 1936, and that’s when he learned how to build things. He was assigned to a battalion of engineers, which meant he learned everything from carpentry to heavy construction. He was part of the “Old Breed”, the First Marine Division, which spearheaded America’s involvement in the Pacific Theater. He got through Guadalcanal without a scratch, but he wound up with a case of malaria so bone-shattering, he was rotated back home. He stayed in the Corps until six months after the war ended, mustering out in 1946 with an education in construction, and hands that shook for the rest of his life.
He saw his opportunity in Chicago, and after a few carpentry jobs, was hired on as a foreman for Kimball Hill Homes, which was building house after house in the Village of Rolling Meadows. About then is when I came along, and about then is when he could afford me. Construction foremen made good money then, and he could afford the tiny two-bedroom house in Niles where we lived until I was ten. Then, we moved into a three-bedroom with a finished basement in Des Plaines. He could also afford a second car, and whatever else we wanted.
Looking at him through today’s lens, you might be surprised to find out just how progressive The Old Man was. He was a union man, keeping up his membership in the Carpenters’ Union, even though he was a foreman, and later, a general superintendent, overseeing several projects at once. He was a New Deal Democrat, and voted a straight Democratic ticket in every election. The only piece of war memorabilia he had was a Japanese Flag he’d taken from the Japanese officer he had to kill. Referral to the former enemy as “Japs” or anything other than “Japanese” was not permitted by anyone at any time. “The Japanese had more raw courage and discipline than anyone you’ve ever seen”, he informed visitors, “and I display that flag out of respect for the man who died fighting for it.” Trips to see his folks during the summer would always include a visit to a couple who were friends of his parents since he was a child, and they headed up the Washington, Pennsylvania chapter of the NAACP. He didn’t care what a person looked like, or how they spoke, or what they ate, or what their favorite comic in the funny papers was. People were people to The Old Man, to be measured by their spirit and their deeds.
The Old Man loved music, too. Couldn’t play a note, and couldn’t carry a tune if it had handles on it, but we had all kinds of music in the house. Flipping through the records, you’d see Caruso and Broadway and Fats Waller and Bix and Stokowski and Horowitz and Erroll Garner. His favorite piece of music was Chopin’s Polonaise in A-Flat Major. He heard José Iturbi play it at a USO show, and was spellbound. Whenever somebody played it on the radio or on TV, he sat motionless, savoring every note.
He went into semi-retirement and moved to Texas with Mom after I graduated high school in 1971. He did a few construction jobs, supervising the building of schools, office buildings, and high-rises. He wanted to teach carpentry, and he did — finally getting enough college under his belt to get his teaching credential. There are a lot of very good carpenters out there now, leaving The Old Man’s fingerprints all over the place.
He was a great joiner, too, joining the VFW, American Legion, First Marine Division Association (which elected him national president), and the Masons. He was proudest of becoming a Shriner. He liked the ceremony, and he liked raising funds for Shriner’s Children’s Hospitals. He stayed with the VFW until he and Mom moved to south Texas. When he asked the local VFW Post Commander why there weren’t any Mexican-American veterans in the post, the Commander said “Because we don’t let them in.” The Old Man thereupon told the Commander where he could stick his Post.
Finally, the day came that the shaking spread from his hands through the rest of his body. His malaria exacerbated the Parkinson’s that took him in 1988.
For the 24 years my Mom outlived The Old Man, she got a monthly check from the Chicago Carpenters’ Pension Fund. She led a life free of financial worry from then on. There’s a variety of reasons I support labor unions. That’s chief among them.
I know I’ve rambled, and I’m sorry about that. I do that. I just think The Old Man was one hell of a guy…and I thought you’d like to meet him. I’d like to think his best traits were passed along to me.
Here’s to our Dads.
William F. Eagan
1918 – 1988