Mother-in-laws get a bad rap, but father-in-laws don’t get any attention at all, it seems to me. Having done what I can to rectify the former, it’s time to do something about the latter.
My father-in-law was born into a large Italian-American family in Brooklyn, New York. How large? Large enough that his accounts of family history quickly descend into confusion for the listener who has to keep track of all the members, a problem that’s compounded by the fact that they all shared the same handful of first names. They grew Tonys in bunches like grapes, it seems.
Brooklyn in those days was a fairly tough place, and kids didn’t venture outside their own neighborhoods very often. If your last name ended in a vowel and you had to go down the Irish block, you ran. The atmosphere of the time is still present in the fiction of Gilbert Sorrentino, especially his novel Steelwork, and also in Vincent Papaleo’s Italian Stories.
Before my future father-in-law was out of his teens, Uncle Sam came calling and summoned him to Korea. He reported late for duty because of an honest mix-up about the date (timeliness is not his strong suit, a trait he passed down to his daughter, much to my chagrin) and missed the boat across the Pacific. Instead of getting tossed into the stockade, though, he was handed a plane ticket. Even with a cushy stopover in Hawaii, he made it to Asia ahead of his unit and got a better assignment as a result. I don’t know if this was the first time his bad luck turned to good because someone wanted to do him a favor, but I know it wasn’t the last. He brings that out in people.
He describes Korea as cold, which corroborates David Halberstam’s attestation in the title of his history of the Korean War. My father-in-law didn’t see action, fortunately for all of us, but his time there wasn’t the most pleasant experience. He did get to go to Japan on leave, where he and some other GI buddies bumped into Don Newcombe and other members of the world champion 1955 Dodgers in the Ginza market. They were in town to play an exhibition against the Tokyo Giants and gave the soldiers free tickets. Roger Kahn tells the story of that Dodgers team in one of the greatest baseball books ever written, The Boys of Summer. Ironically enough, even though my father-in-law grew up in Brooklyn, he’s a lifelong Yankee fan—his greatest flaw, in my mind. Blame Joe DiMaggio, I guess.
Maybe this international experience was the thing that broadened the horizons of that kid from the neighborhood. Back in New York after his tour of duty ended, my father-in-law expanded his cultural horizons and started hanging out in Manhattan more often. He saw artists in their early days who are now legends, including such musicians as Thelonious Monk and Bob Dylan, who’d only recently stopped calling himself Robert Zimmerman. It was around then that my father-in-law took up the family trade and became a teacher—there are multiple educators and principals among his siblings and more distant relations.
As most of the rest of his generation pulled up stakes in Brooklyn and headed for suburban Long Island, he looked farther east and took a civilian job with the Department of Defense. He started teaching the children of commanders and generals at NATO headquarters in Paris, where in his off hours he roared down the Champs-Élysées in a 1964 Mustang. Paris took some adjustment (he inadvertently sabotaged a relationship with a Francophile colleague when he told her how dirty and smelly he found the city) but adjust he did. He saw Edith Piaf sing in one of her final concerts and palled around with Eddy Mitchell, even passing himself off as the pop star’s manager at one point.
When NATO HQ moved north to Brussels, my father-in-law moved with it, but not before meeting and marrying the young Frenchwoman from Algeria who would become my mother-in-law. She gave birth to a daughter (my one-day wife) in Paris and two weeks later found herself in the house in the Belgian countryside where she and my father-in-law still live today. In the intervening decades, they raised a family there while he taught literally thousands of kids and coached countless others, regularly winning championships in soccer and other sports. Those kids grew up to be generals, commanders, and accomplished civilians themselves, and just recently dozens of them, some newly graduated and others gray-haired with grandchildren, flew in from all over the world to participate in a soccer tournament founded in tribute to my father-in-law.
He finally retired just last week after 52 years in the same job and will soon be enjoying a well-deserved vacation in the south of France. As you may know, the French celebrate their independence every summer much like we Americans do, with a lavish display of fireworks, but not on the Fourth of July. Their big party takes place on Bastille Day, July 14th, which happens to be my father-in-law’s birthday. A running joke in his family has it that the spectacular display is held in his honor, and as far as I’m concerned, it is.