Saturday, May 28, 2011

Memorial Day: Edward Andersen

Given the holiday coming up, and bearing in mind that we're celebrating not only the invention of the outdoor gas grill, the "blowout" sale and clamdiggers for men, but also honoring the men and women of the armed forces who have served to keep us free -- I submit a tribute to my dad.
Corporal Andersen, December of 1941
     Ed Andersen served in World War II from August 12, 1941 (the day he enlisted) to August 27, 1944 when he was discharged. He was a Staff Sergeant in the Army Air Force. 
     He was born in Philadelphia in June of 1917 to Reinholdt and Annette Andersen. Annette, my grandmother, had actually been born in the States, but returned to Denmark almost immediately afterward, to return here 16 years later, so she was an American citizen all her life. My grandfather, middle name Fred, for whom I'm named, was a naturalized citizen. One of the good things about having very meticulous and organized parents and grandparents is that I still have my father's baptism certificate, my grandparents' marriage certificate, my grandfather's naturalization papers and an entire journal, kept by my father during his time in the Army, from his enlistment in Philadelphia in August of 1941, into February of 1944 in the South Pacific.
     They lived on York Street in North Philadelphia in a house with tall windows and a marble stoop which, I'm sure, my grandmother and her neighbors kept sparkling by scrubbing it every Saturday morning. By all accounts it was a difficult childhood, not damaging in any way (though I'm sure a well-trained therapist could find all manner of dysfunction), but my grandparents were strict (to be expected) as was my great-grandmother who lived with them. The few pictures I have of her show a small, compact woman in voluminous black clothes, usually sitting in an armchair with a potted palm somewhere in the background.
     My father sang in the choir and aspired to be an artist, something that was frowned upon, I guess, by the family. He quit school to go to work, and traveled out West to California to visit family there. He worked on a farm. He was an extra in a movie, a Warner Bros epic called "Valley of the Giants" starring Wayne Morris and Claire Trevor. He did house painting with my grandfather and during the Depression, using my grandfather's panel truck, they did odd moving jobs, including taking loads of baseball equipment and uniforms to and from the train station for the Phillies. As a result, along the way he got to know some of the players, collected autographed baseball cards and other memorabilia, including game balls inscribed by the likes of Babe Ruth, all stuff that would be worth a fortune today. But while he was in New Guinea during the war, my grandmother took it upon herself to clean out his room and throw it all away. I have no doubt she didn't know what she was tossing out, but I don't think he ever entirely forgave her, either.
     He met my mother on Cape Cod after the war when he was stationed at Camp Edwards and they married and he brought her back to Ardmore, PA where he and a friend had an antique/refinishing shop. In addition he also brought my two half-sisters and my half-brother, children by my mother's first marriage. They weren't exactly children at that point, and I think a lesser man might have balked at dating, much less marrying a woman with a ready-made family. But he made it work and he made those kids his own, as much as my brother and I are his.
     He worked hard, doing whatever was necessary to earn a living, eventually taking over the restaurant my grandparents owned in Haddonfield, NJ -- the Homestead. It's not something he and my mother did entirely willingly, but my grandfather was dying of cancer and my grandmother needed the help. And so began a good twenty-five years of long, long days; getting up at four in the morning to go over the bridge Dock Street in Philadelphia to buy produce and fresh fish; spending ten to twelve hours on his feet in a sweltering kitchen, and overseeing a staff of waitresses, dishwashers and cooks that became as much a family to me as my blood relations were. When I was born and they brought me home, he proudly presented me to the kitchen staff, the beaming father with his firstborn son. Upon being presented with me, one of the dishwashers, Ruth, a stringy, no-nonsense black woman from Camden assured my father, "Don't worry, Mr. Andersen, them homely ones always turns out the best!"
     Some time after my brother Robert was born with Down syndrome -- and my parents were told in no uncertain terms that the best thing to do would be to put him in some kind of a nice institution and forget about him, since he wasn't likely to live much past his 'teens -- Dad started hiring what we now call developmentally disabled people to work in the kitchen. He had a natural way of working with them -- mind you he hadn't graduated high school -- and eventually, when the grind of the restaurant became too much, my parents sold the place, he got his GED and went to college at what was then Glassboro State Teachers College, earning a certificate in Special Education. He was in his mid-50's at the time.
     What followed were what he often described as the happiest 12 years of his life. He worked at the Bancroft School in Haddonfield, for people with special needs. He could walk to work through a wooded area near home, passing Hopkins Pond where the bones of Hadrosaurus foulkii -- the first nearly-complete dinosaur skeleton ever unearthed -- were originally excavated on the eve of the Civil War. He taught the young people in his charge practical things like how to count change, how to make a sandwich, how to take a bus. The PhD's and others with Big Special Education Degrees scoffed and were probably a little jealous of my father's success, and of the program he started that got some students out into the world, taking public transportation to work at local businesses, living full lives.
     Upon retirement he and my mother, who had begun to slow down considerably, stayed in Haddonfield for a few years, then moved a few miles away to Riverton, a move I don't think either of them was ever entirely happy about. But they made the most of it. Mother's health deteriorated, so they brought in local ladies to help with the housework and cooking and care, and both my sisters chipped in with their support. After my mother died in 2005 at the age of 96, Dad stayed in the house, being looked after and fussed over by his "girls" as he called them, smoking a pack of unfiltered Camels a day and enjoying a couple of Manhattans, a few beers and the ubiquitous Tastykakes. He became frail and forgetful and, though he rarely admitted it, I think he was done in by my mother's death. They had been together 56 years. 
     When it looked as though money would become an issue, he reluctantly agreed to move into a senior living facility -- where he lasted about a month. A series of falls landed him in the hospital. He had fallen numerous times in the house, often hitting his head and I think the damage was done over time, rather than right away. After the last bad fall -- he was trying to get out of bed to go have a smoke, I think -- he was in a rehab facility where, when I would visit, I was never sure if he knew who I was. He would talk about seeing his mother and my mother and one day I got a call that he had been rushed to the hospital unconscious. Chris and I visited him there in the emergency room. He was in the hospital only a few days more before he died, July 20, 2008. Chris and I were both with him when he passed, holding his hands. 
     Apart from my own death, I don't imagine I'll ever have a more profound experience.
New Guinea
     His time in the war was, not surprisingly, hell. A kid from Philadlephia suddenly sent halfway around the world to New Guinea, where he got dengue fever and malaria and spent time with the natives there who nursed him back to health while his squadron moved on, coming back later to pick him up. The journal he left gives an almost day-by-day account of his time there, the danger, the fear, the heat, the good times, the Australian lady he met (!) and wooed, the bugs, the "Japs" as he called them, and his friends, many of whom didn't come home.
     But he did, as he was meant to. Here's an entry from September 20, 1943:
Just to show how fate takes a hand in things. While I was in Moresby (Port Moresby, Australia) waiting to come up here (Silly Silly) I was asked if I wanted to go up at once or wait a few days. I replied that it made no difference to me. I was sent up on the first flight. It was a toss-up between Jerry Ryan and myself who was to go first – he was supposed to go up first but something happened and I took his place. He came up on the plane in my place and then the very sad news of his death reached us. He was on one of the planes that were shot down in the strafing and bombing raid here on Aug. 15, 1943 – So thanks to the intervening hand of fate – I live to go on.
     And then there's this letter, pasted onto a page of the journal, from The White House, Washington:


"You are a soldier of the United States Army. You have embarked for distant places where the war is being fought. Upon the outcome depends the freedom of your lives: the freedom of the lives of those you love -- your fellow-citizens -- your people.

"Never were the enemies of freedom more tyrannical, more arrogant, more brutal.

"Yours is a God-fearing, proud, courageous people, which, throughout its history, has put its freedom under God before all other purposes. We who stay at home have our duties to perform -- duties owed in many parts to you. You will be supported by the whole force and power of this Nation. The victory you win will be a victory of all the people -- common to them all.

"You bear with you the hope, the confidence, the gratitude and the prayers of your family, your fellow-citizens and your President-- Franklin D. Roosevelt."

      My father was, above all, a gentle, generous man who never failed to say how grateful he was for the life he'd had, how fortunate he was to be in his own house, surrounded by people who cared for him. To the very end, lonely and lost without my mother, he maintained a smile and an interest in our lives. It took a lot to make him angry, and not too much to make him happy. Giving his eulogy, which I managed to get through without entirely falling apart, I told the assembled mourners that "I think my father was the finest man I ever knew". I don't foresee ever having to rethink my position.

Thanks, Dad. For so many things.

1 comment:

  1. Fred...I found this amazingly touching. My father is in his seventies and we don't speak anymore. I try and reach out but it never works out. I love this are an amazing writer. Your friend, Bratprince