CHRISTMAS STORIES III
This time of year in particular I am drawn to my family, especially those no longer with us. On December 26, 2011 and December 24, 2012, I wrote articles under this same title about my great father, Ernest A. Emord (a.k.a., Tommy Reardon). There are so many precious moments in his life that teach profound lessons. I feel a great debt of gratitude for those lessons and appreciate the opportunity to share them with you. As my mother used to say of my father, “he is extremely comfortable in his own skin.” He was indeed. He had no affectations, no He was a fantastic boxer, a wonderful athlete of all kinds, a great dancer, a person who very clearly knew right from wrong, a deeply loyal man, a prodigiously honest man, and a courageous person who enjoyed leaping into the middle of a crisis to save the underdog.
While a man of imposing strength, he was humble and unassuming. He ordinarily bore a smile on his face and had an infectious laugh. While a handsome man of incredible physical stature, he always looked out for those less fortunate and made them feel included. While a man of great love for his family, he was ready at a moment’s notice to lay down his life for his country. While a man of great compassion, he had no sympathy for those who harmed others or who lied, and he was quick to reprove them in direct and lasting ways.
Diving for a Ring. As part of his tour of duty in World War II, my father at age 18 served as a navigator aboard a PBY-Catalina doing Air Sea Rescue missions. They flew out of Wheelus Air Base in Tripoli, Libya over the Mediterranean Sea in search of downed American aircraft,those lost at sea, and German submarines. Before he left the United States for his tour of duty, his high school sweetheart to whom he was betrothed, my mother to be, gave him a gold ring with a blue topaz stone in it. She said that it looked to her like his eyes. In fact, his eyes were not blue but light green. Nevertheless, he appreciated the sentiment and wore the ring in fond memory of her. When the PBY was to land on water, the landing gear would be ratcheted up into the wings. When upon the water, the gear had to be worked on in part in the water. My father, an excellent swimmer, was assigned that task. While working on the landing gear, his ring slipped off of his finger and fell to the bottom of the Mediterranean. When he noticed that the ring had fallen from his finger, his heart sank. He knew he had to find that ring. To him, it was a vital symbol of his devotion to my mother. He would not leave the area until it was found. His crew told him that they had to leave for another leg of their mission. He invited them to fly off and return later. They knew his proposition was extremely dangerous. They agreed to wait. He then dove dozens of times, swimming to the bottom, sifting through the sand in the general area beneath the plane’s location. Each time he would search and then return for air and then dive again. They marveled at the intensity of his search but knew that they would have to leave, and leave him, if he did not find the ring soon. Finally he surfaced with a smile on his face and the ring on his finger.
Heavy Weight Champion of Europe. While in the United States Air Force at Royal Air Force Station Alconbury, England, my father trained the Air Force Boxing team. He was apprised by the USAF commander there of an airman whose performance was considered substandard. He met the airman, discovered that he was largely illiterate and came from a tiny town in Mississippi where Jim Crow laws were effectively still in place. He was the son of a share cropper who worked but never owned the land and never earned enough beyond subsistence. He had no formal education and was unable to read or write. He had a very peculiar dialect, characteristic of those who lived in the rural community in Mississippi where he lived most of his life until entering the Air Force. My father felt sorry for him and thought given his size that he might be able to teach him to box. Then, at least, if the Air Force discharged him, he would have a skill that could be turned to financial advantage. As my father came to know the man, he grew to love him. He admired his simple, honest nature and his incredible strength.
He trained him to be a heavyweight boxer. Initially, this man, who we will identify by his first name only (Chuck), proved himself to be gifted in the ring but in actual boxing matches, he assumed a defensive posture, which caused him to lose bouts. “Chuck, you’re as strong as an ox,” my father would say, “throw those combination punches and stay on top of your opponent, you will annihilate him.” But Chuck just could not find it within himself to be aggressive. My father thought that he knew his power was great and feared seriously injuring his opponent. “Chuck, if you do not deck your opponent,” my father would say, “he will deck you.” “You have to understand that the other guy wants to bury you, Chuck. He is not your friend.” Over time, Chuck began to turn. As he watched others try diligently to knock him out, Chuck came to appreciate what my father was saying. Then, one day, in a single match, Chuck went on the aggressive, knocking his opponent out in short order. My father praised him, and then took him through Europe. Ultimately, Chuck became the U.S. Air Force Heavyweight Champion of Europe and remained in the Air Force. Were it not for the constant support he received from my father and his own good nature and humility, Chuck would likely have been discharged and probably would have returned to that same small town in Mississippi to be a share cropper just like his father. Instead, Chuck became a celebrity within the Air Force and remained in the military for years thereafter.
Dig Deep in My Pocket and Take What You Find. In 1965, when I was ages 3 and 4, we lived at Royal Air Force Station Alconbury, England, where my father served in the United States Air Force. Periodically my little band of friends would decide to walk to the British Post Office on the station where rocket pops, Cadbury’s chocolate, and ice cream bars could be had. Still too young to appreciate the value of specific coinage or dollars, I would greet my father who came home from work with a request. Could he help me obtain one of those wonderful rocket pops or chocolate bars or ice cream bars at the British Post Office. He would invariably say, “my son reach down into my pocket and take what you find.” I would reach into his pocket and find dollars and coins and would take that. It was all he had with him, and it would pay not only for my rocket pop but also for the candy desired by all of my friends. I would assemble them on a long march to the British Post Office and, once there, would take all of the coins and dollars and reach up to place them on the counter. I would then invite my friends to ask for what they wanted, and I would ask too. The postal employee would give us the candy and the change, which I would carry back to my father.
This ritual went on dozens of times. In no instance did my father ever say that I could not go or that I should not take ALL of his money. As I reached the waning months of my 4th birthday, I began to feel sorry for my dad. I realized that I had been taking all of his money and worried if he needed that money for his own welfare. One day when I approached him after work, he wondered why for some time I had not asked to go to the British Post Office. “You work for that money, Dad,” I said. “You need that money more than I need a rocket pop.” He smiled, and he said, “Son, I work for you and your sisters and your mother. I do not need anything. It’s yours whenever you care to take it.” Tears welled in my eyes. From that moment on, I never again asked him for money to go to the British Post Office.
The Lonely Secretary. Later in life, after he had retired from the United States Air Force, my father became a real estate broker and operated a Century 21 office in Rantoul, Illinois. He employed there several people, one of which, a secretary, was a lonely woman, dutiful in her job but oftentimes sullen because she did not have a companion. Ever attuned to others’ needs and always willing to defend the underdog and uplift the spirits of the downtrodden became concerned about the woman and talked to my mother about her. I, a Freshman in High School, overheard the discussion. “Perhaps we can invite her to dinner,” my mother said. “That would be nice. I think she needs our help,” my father said. After school, one day, I walked to his office which was near the high school. He was returning to the office himself and met me outside. As we walked in, he saw that people were waiting for him in his office. Rather than proceed in to meet them, he turned to the Secretary and with a big smile on his face said, “Have I told you lately just how pleased I am with your work.
You are so conscientious. I am very fortunate to have you working for me. If you are free, we would like to invite you to dinner this week. Is there a time this week when you could join us? This is my son Jonathan.” He then left me to talk with the woman. I noticed that her spirits improved substantially. She told me how wonderful my father was and what a privilege it was for her to work for him. It was this way with him and I would hear words to the same effect over and over again. Indeed, I still hear those words spoken of my father by those who remember him.
The Storm. On November 17 my boyhood home where my family lived for decades in Gifford, Illinois was obliterated by a tornado. About 200 homes in that tiny mid-western town were largely destroyed. The courageous people of the town now work to restore it, but the place that was our home, that included so many items that caused us to recall our wonderful years there, is now gone.
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In the early 1970’s, when we lived on Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, Illinois, I remember a similar weather event. Then, a tornado warning had been issued, and my father joined our family at home. He directed us to the basement. My mother, never one to worry about her fate, remained glued to the TV set upstairs until, at last, she agreed to come down to the basement as the bad weather came upon the base. My father maintained a cheerful disposition throughout. He kept going outside to look at the weather. “My son,” he said with a smile as the storm raged, “how would you like to take a walk with me to see the wonder of nature?” Although I wondered if it was safe, I trusted my father implicitly and I knew in my heart that nothing could ever happen to us so long as we were together. I said, “yes, Dad, let’s go.” And so, as rain and hail beat down and funnel clouds kept forming with some coming close to the ground, my father put me on his shoulders and with my feet buried in the front of his coat, and he walked with me around the neighborhood, pointing out the funnel clouds and the uprooting of trees and the large hail stones. He was not afraid in the least and because he was not I was not.
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