Friday, February 24, 2006
Happy Birthday, Francis Xavier Martin
Today is my father's birthday.
Had he lived, instead of dying too soon from cancer on May 16, 1995, he would have been 81 years old today.
Typing this entry will be hard for me. I miss my Dad terribly. But I cannot let this day pass without honoring him.
Francis Xavier Martin was born on February 24, 1925 in Fall River, MA. As a boy, he, led a hardscrabble life. His father ran speakeasys and, as my Dad would say, he was "his own best customer." My paternal grandfather finally stopped using his wife and five sons as punching bags after the two oldest boys - my Dad and his older brother, Hugh - got big enough to let him know that if he laid another hand on them, they'd kill him.
On December 7, 1941, the invasion of Pearl Harbor took place. My father turned 17 years old the following February and convinced my grandmother to let him drop out of school and enlist. My father at first went into the Marine Corps, where he went through boot camp at Parris Island. At the end of his training, a formation was called and the newly minted warriors were asked if anyone wanted to volunteer for hazardous duty. As my Dad said, he was "17 and full of piss and vinegar," so he raised his hand. In short time, he found himself transferred into the Army to join a new band of brothers, led by one Colonel William O. Darby - the infamous "Darby's Rangers." During WWII, my father served in the European theater. The picture above is a digital collage I did in his honor. It shows him about the time he was a soldier and commemorates his "special day" - June 6, 1944, D-Day. The caption on it reads, "Frank Martin was a 19-year-old Army Ranger when he went ashore on Omaha Beach that morning. He was still 19 at the end of the day, but had become a man." Note the Silver Star - yeah, he got a couple of those, and a few Bronze ones too. My father was at the invasions of Sicily and Anzio. He was at Monte Cassino. He pushed through France with a man he held at his hero, General George S. Patton. He liberated a death camp, although he would not talk about it with me, only to say, "I saw Hell that day, baby girl." His biggest regret was when they allowed the Russians to take Berlin.
The war had its tol, though. He suffered through several breakdowns in the years immediately following his discharge in 1945. Only after his death I learned that he was married, and had a son, but his wife could not take the breakdowns and disappeared with the biy. He never heard nor saw them again.
A lesser man would have turned to the bottle. A lesser man would have turned to violence. My father did neither. On New Year's Eve in 1956, he crashed a private party in the Bronx with a friend who had been invited. Let's say he got into a ruckus and the hostess, a fiery woman with a finely honed Polish temper, one Dorothy Koretzky, let him know where he stood and tossed him out on his ear into the icy streets. Impressed, my father went back the next day on January 1, 1957 with flowers and an aplogy, and asked her to dinner. They were married later that year on November 17th, and settled in the Bronx to raise three children. I came along in the middle, in 1961.
My Dad raised us well. Church at our local parish, St. Brendan's, was mandatory, no ifs, ands, or buts. As a child, my parents worked hard during the week, but Sundays were for God and family. I remember as a child being amazed that my Dad, who in my mind was a giant of a man, confessing to me that he feared the fires of Hell and prayed for mercy from God. My father was a Knight of Columbus, and later a member of the Holy Name Society. At his funeral, a good friend of his, Monsignor O'Brien, eulogized how he always knew when his sermons were going too long, because he could look to the back of the church where the ushers stood and see my Dad making a cutting motion across his throat. As a second job so we kids could have some special things, like summer camp, my Dad was a sports official for local leagues and was a proud member of the Bronx Umpires Association - the "BUA," which my father insisted stood for "Blind, Useless Alcoholics." He also was the coach for the Maritime Merchant Academy hockey team, and made me a proud 12-year-old by making me his scorekeeper. We would joke that no matter where in the world my Dad went, someone would call out, "Frankie, babe!" because he had that wide a circle of friends.
In the latter years of his life, after he retired at age 62, his life was volunteering at the local VA hospital, working specially with quadrapelegics and parapelgics. Many of the men in his wards were Vietnam vets, and my father saw them as his sons. He told me he felt lucky to be there, because he could help them since he too could relate to them about losing the innocence and fun of teen years to war. During this time, he also attended Mass daily, and said his Rosary twice each day.
When he finally went into the VA Hospital for his cancer, he put up a brave front for us all. Two nights before he died, I called him. I could tell from his voice he was in a lot of discomfort. But all of a sudden, I was compelled to ask - "Daddy, are you afraid to die?" His voice became clear, serene, and he answered, "Oh no, Baby Girl - I know Jesus is here with me, and He will call me home when it's time." I told him I loved him, and he said the same, and we said goodnight. That was the last time I spoke to my Dad.
And when my family gathered at the local funeral home, the director met us at the door and apologized to my mother, saying, "Dorothy, I swear to God, I don't know how it happened, none of my guys did it . . . maybe we can fix it." We went to view him - whaddaya know, there was a smile on his face! My Mom just laughed and told the director, "Leave him be - he's having one last joke for us all."
A red-headed, green-eyed, gregarious Irishman (of course, he took Patrick as his Confirmation name). Always had a joke, a story, a song. A wonderful father, a faithful husband. Loved his faith, loved his family, and loved the world. A remarkable head for sports statistics. Could whistle up a storm. Diehard New York Giants fan. Sang an atrocious version of "Feliz Navidad" in his fake Puerto Rican accent. Nicknamed "Frannie," "Frank, "Red," and "El Gordo." And made the best Tuna-and-Hardboiled-Egg Salad.
Sometimes I sense his presence at Mass, and for some reason I always feel he is there with a group of soldiers, young men standing with their helmets held in their hands, respectfully, while adoring God in the Eucharist.
I love you, Dad. I know you are watching over your grandkids, and be assured Mom and I always tell them stories about you. I know we will see each other again, after this earthly life. Until then, I will always be, your loving and grateful daughter.