Thursday, February 13, 2014

Personal Essay - My Pal Stan

RIP Stan Kerdock (December 4, 1920-February 9, 2014)

My pal Stan Kerdock died this past Sunday night at 7:00 p.m..  I met him when we first moved to Manhasset in 1972 when I was nine-years-old.  My mother had lost touch with him over the years, and so I located his phone number for her in 2004.  They reignited their friendship.  And he was sweet on her.  He was my friend too.  He was a wonderful adviser about life to many, many people.

Stan was the youngest of  eight children.  He grew up in Mt. Carmel, Pennsylvania, a small coal miners community.  Both his parents were immigrants from Lithuania, and they did not speak English.  Stan's parents died just as he finished high school.  He was very intelligent, but didn't have the means to go to college in 1938.  So he joined the U.S. Army.  Stan was stationed in Honolulu.  Stan told me about this film, From Here To Eternity.  It's based on the novel by James Jones.  Stan said , "That guy had it down to the letter.  I was a sergeant, a non-com [non-commissioned officer.]  Those officers...."  He would make a face of disgust, but I don't think I ever heard Stan say anything negative about anyone.  Stan served there for over three years--and was shipped stateside three weeks before December 7, 1941.  Then Stan trained in Oklahoma to go overseas.  He served with the 88th Infantry Division in the European theater during WWII. He didn't like to talk about his combat service.  I know that he worked as an aid to a general. I know he was in Italy, France, Belgium, and Germany. He was at the Battle of the Bulge, and also the Siege of Bastogne, freezing for forty-one days, cut off from our supply lines. When Stan's war ended in 1946, he was shipped to New York. After eight years in the U.S. Army, he had been convinced into attending the U.S. Army Officer Candidate School in Fort Benning, Georgia.  Stan had one night in New York City before catching the train to Fort Benning, and he decided to go to Roseland Ballroom.

Stan was hanging back by the wall, and he saw a beautiful girl dance by with another fella.  He couldn't take his eyes off of her.  He went over, and he tapped the other fella on the back, and asked if he could cut in. He took the beautiful girl in his arms, and danced, and knew that he had just fallen in love at first sight.  Her name was Wanda, she was eighteen-years-old, and she lived on Prospect Avenue in The Bronx.  Stan did not go to Fort Benning.  He stayed in New York, became a plumber, and married Wanda.  They settled in Great Neck, New York, and raised three daughters, Rita, Susan, and Jean Marie.  Wanda died in 1994, just after her sixty-sixth birthday, after forty-seven years of marriage.  In the past ten years, Stan had been diagnosed with prostate cancer.  His daughters Rita and Susan both died.  He had five grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.   He was diagnosed with bone cancer in the late fall of 2013, and chose to have radiation treatments to fight it.  

Ten years ago, in 2004, when Stan reconnected with my mother, he admitted that he had had a respectful crush on her from the moment he saw her. In September 1972 she hired him as the plumber for our kitchen remodel. My mother Kathleen always has been a beautiful woman, and she was thirty-three then. Stan thought she was even more beautiful when she was sixty-five, and found her just as gorgeous when she turned seventy-five this past November.  His love and devotion to her was unwavering.

Stan and I used to talk about history, movies, books, human nature, and philosophy.  Stan had drowned when he was a boy, and told me he "came back" with a certain amount of psychic insight.  He was such a practical man that I was surprised by this disclosure.  We both had December birthdays, and he liked to joke about how we each called a spade a spade.  He was a truly good man, and offered many glimpses of his mischievous side.  We had our "in-jokes."  His favorite topic of conversation with me, however, was my mother. Her last visit with him was December 23, 2013, just after his ninety-third birthday. Although he did not say so directly, he inferred that he didn't think he had much time left.  He also showed her every greeting card and postcard that I had sent him over the years.  He was pragmatic, but, boy, was he sentimental.

Stan was my last true connection to The Greatest Generation.  He was born into poverty, he grew up during The Great Depression, and he was a combat veteran, and a Purple Heart recipient, of World War II.  He had been forced to be a fighter, and a survivor, by the circumstances of history.  But Stan was really a lover, and a peaceful man.  I am really going to miss my pal.  But I'll be seeing you, Stan.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Personal Essay - All My Loving - The Beatles, Fifty Years Later

According to my relatives, there really was a pall over the United States after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963.  This occurred a few weeks before my first birthday, December 17, 1963.  I look back at family photos and see my parents glowing with happiness over this milestone.  But I've heard too many stories about how hard, how personal the loss of Jack Kennedy was to Irish Catholics.  Many candles were lit,  many rosaries prayed, many novenas said,  and many Requiem Masses celebrated for him. Besides being the ruler of the Free World, the 35th President of the United States and his beautiful wife Jacqueline had a significant influence on pop culture, fashion and art.  But Camelot was over. The temperature on the first day of January 1963 in New York City was a mere 3-degrees.  Spring seemed a long way off.  Grief was fresh and raw, and it seemed as though the country's bereavement would be an extended one.

But then Pan Am Flight 101 arrived by plane from England at 1:20 p.m. on February 7, 1964.  The passengers deplaned on the tarmac of the recently renamed John F. Kennedy International Airport in Jamaica, Queens.  These passenger--John Lennon (23), Paul McCartney (21), George Harrison (20), and Ringo Starr (23)--were the members of a band called The Beatles.  The  group had risen to the top of the UK music charts a year before, in February 1963 after the release of their debut album, "Please Please Me." The commotion across the pond was called "Beatlemania."

Walter Cronkite ran a five-minute piece about the phenomenon on The CBS Evening News on December 10, 1964.  This piece prompted a fifteen-year-old girl named Marsha Albert to write a letter to her favorite radio station, WWDC in Washington, D.C..  She asked, "Why can't we  have this music in America?"   Carroll James, Jr., a young disk jockey at WWDC, convinced a lovely British Airways "hostess" to bring him back a copy of The Beatles single "I Want To Hold Your Hand,"  and played  it on the air on December 17, 1963.  My first birthday.  And then, seven weeks later, The Beatles went on The Ed Sullivan Show the night of February 7, 1964, and opened with "All My Loving."  And the U.S., ready for a resurrection, ready to believe again, gave The Beatles all their loving.

I cannot speak for all Baby Boomers, but I know many of us were shaped by The Beatles and their music. They broke down barriers in so many ways.  When I began to play the guitar and sing at age 9, the first songs I learned (by ear) were Beatles songs.  My lifelong fascination with all things British is linked intrinsically to my love for them.  Their offbeat, dry, zany and intellectual sense of humor had a huge impact on me.  

To commemorate this anniversary, let's focus on that happy day, that time when the United States put away its mourning black.  Young people screamed with joy.  Parents were befuddled by this "new music." We remembered how to laugh.