Sunday, November 2, 2008

Joe Takes Care of His Own, Perpetually.

Part I

It was June 3, 1976, when my sister Joan and her husband Ted went on their very first outing as a couple after the birth of their son. Aaron had been born nine months earlier, to the great joy of all of his family. He was the first local grandchild for my parents. He was a bit colicky, and, of course, a first child, so Joan had been reluctant to leave him, especially merely for recreation and relaxation.

But finally, she was ready to rebuild their social life. So while Joan and Ted rode roller coasters and ate amusement park food with their friends, my parents and I babysat Aaron. I was 17; with that combination of ignorance and arrogance best brought to life by a teenager. Aaron had one of those baby-walker things which, back then, were built narrowly enough to fit through a doorway.

We religiously kept the door to the stairway shut. Which is why I don't know even now how it could have happened. In seconds, Aaron fell down the 3 stairs to the landing by the garage door, his baby-walker upended. I reached down for him, then my mother grabbed him, and in a moment my parents were in the car, headed to the local hospital.

He was pronounced dead at 4:44 a.m.

Part II

My father went into the Navy after high school to avoid the factory worker life led by his father. He had a bright, scientific mind and a knack for the visual. Because he wore glasses, he had to choose one of the more cerebral military pursuits: he chose aerographer's school.

He was stationed in the Phillippines in 1942. Like the other Navy personnel, he evacuated to the island of Corregidor before the fall of Bataan and the Death March. When Corregidor fell in May, 1942, they were captured by the Japanese, transferred to burning hot, packed, stinking railroad cars, and sent to various prison camps in the Phillippines pending final transfer to Japan.

Upon arrival in their Japanese camp, Dad was chosen camp commander by the men. He did not outrank them; it was a democratic election. Although some officers in their ranks were initially miffed, they, too, grew to appreciate his leadership and heroism.

I don't know most of what happened in those prison camps. I do know, though, that Dad endured beatings and torture on behalf of those men for such infractions as demanding better food. Many of them felt indebted to him for life for his actions. One of them was a short, dark-haired man named Joe Perry.

When I was about 7, without announcement, a beautiful new blue bicycle arrived for me. It wasn't my birthday or Christmas. It was Joe Perry just thinking of Dad and his family. I don't know what Dad did for Joe - I wish I did. But there's no doubting that Joe was deeply grateful to my father and would be for life. Our family received kind greetings from Joe Perry every Christmas, every birthday and every first Communion without fail, including 1976.

Part III

Aaron died early on a Saturday morning. Our stunned and devastated family attended church that Sunday. We were barely able to find our way to the pew; the world was so unfamiliar now.

After we got home, Dad told us something he had seen. As he walked up to the altar for Communion, from the corner of his eye, he saw someone he knew. He turned his head to look and saw Joe Perry, standing in the communion line, tenderly holding Aaron in his arms.

Weeks later, we learned that Joe Perry had died. On June 3, 1976.