My dad left this world on a cloudy fall day back in 1986. I miss him every day. This is about him…
On a cool spring day in 1927 a young lady named Angelina gave birth to a son. He was named Enrique, a Spanish version of the old and honored Anglo name Henry. He was born in Tampa, Florida on the 11th day of March to Felix and Angelina. There were many things in store for him in his upcoming life.
He spent the first few years of his childhood in the Ybor City section of Tampa, an old part of the city, along with his older
brother Peter. During the early ’30s times were hard for folks. The Great Depression was in full swing and jobs and money were both difficult to come by. Felix decided to do what many other families were doing at that time, move to New York City, where jobs were more plentiful for those willing to work.
Sometime shortly after making that major decision, Felix packed up his small family and made the journey to that great northern city. After arriving there he was able to get a job as a tenement house manager. This is where Henry would spend the next ten or so years of his childhood. This is where Henry would learn to dance, skip school, fight in gangs, steal, see movies, jump across building roofs, swim in the East River, and numerous other things.
Henry once told me of the time one of his sisters was born. He said that he was on a street corner there in New York shining shoes to make a little money to spend on a movie or a ballgame or maybe a candy bar. Times were hard. He told me many stories of how hard it was growing up with holes in his shoes and an empty stomach before bedtime. He talked of the filthy city streets and the filthier, hungry children who were the denizens of these gray avenues of lost dreams.
A whole generation of folks struggled for their daily bread during this time in this country’s history. Many people today have no clue what it’s like to need or want and not get. This generation’s mettle was tempered in the flames of need, and tested in the machine of war. They have been called by some the “greatest” generation. Seeing what they survived and accomplished, one would tend to agree.
Getting back to Henry… in June of 1944 he went with a friend to the recruiter’s office to join up and fight for his country in the most titanic struggle there had ever been on this earth up to that time, World War II. He was anxious to join up before the war ended. His brother Pete had already been in the navy for a year by then and Henry wanted to get into the action before it was all over.
His friend Joe, who was on leave from the army, went with him to the recruiter’s that day to sign the paperwork. Henry was 17 years old. As he was leaning over the recruiter’s desk to sign the papers his friend spoke up and saved him from what could have been a serious error. He almost signed up for the “regular” navy, which was a six-year enlistment period. Joe told him to sign up for the “reserves”, which was only for the duration of the war. Since the war was projected to last maybe 2 or 3 more years at the most, he was better off in the reserves.
He didn’t see any action after all. His brother Peter would tease him in later years that the Japanese knew he was coming so they surrendered. He was on the U.S.S. Piedmont, a destroyer tender. They sailed out from San Francisco in late 1944. He was a Seaman 2nd Class along with most of the rest of the recent recruits. He was in the navy for about 11 months and then the war ended and he found himself sailing back under the Golden Gate Bridge once again headed for home.
He met his brother Pete in Vallejo, California and Peter gave him a watch for a coming home gift. I’ve seen a picture of Peter and him standing on a street in Vallejo in those spiffy navy uniforms. Young, proud men who had recently conquered the world or you’d think that to look at them. By this time Felix and Angelina had moved back to the old neighborhood in Tampa. The war had ended the Depression and opened doors of opportunity for everyone to raise a family and enjoy life a little more easily.
Henry came back home and went to school on the G.I. Bill, which was a benefit paid to returning veterans of the war to assist in their education. He learned air-conditioning service, although he would never work at that career. He ended up working in the freight department of a large Florida airline and spent 33 years there before retiring early at age 52, but I’m getting ahead in the story.
Sometime shortly after returning to Tampa and going to school and doing a few odd jobs here and there, he met a young lady from down south of Tampa, from a place called Avon Park. She had just recently moved up here to get a job and start a life. She was 22 years old; he was 20. They met in the drugstore coffee shop where she worked as a counter girl. She thought he was the most dreamy, gorgeous, handsome man she’d ever seen.
I don’t know what he thought, but it must have been good because they were married a year later and with the exception of a couple of bumps in the road stayed that way for the next 38 or so years. Henry and his wife Lois had a son in 1950 whom they named Steven, and another son in 1961 named Eric. Henry was proud of his sons. He tried to teach them well, and gave them all the things he never had when he was growing up. He was a good father, a not always good husband, but a great man all told.
On a cloudy, windy late afternoon in October of 1986 Henry left this world. He left it quickly as though he had another appointment elsewhere, possibly with his mother Angelina who had gone on before him in 1980. Regardless, he was gone. He left behind the woman from the drugstore that he loved so much, but never really got along with. They were both hard headed. He left behind his two sons, his grand children, and his brother and four sisters. They all miss him greatly.
I talked to this man a lot throughout my life, but not near as much as I would have liked to. He was my hero when I was a child. He was a pain in my ass when I was a teen. He was a voice of reason and experience when I became a young adult. He is a memory that I cherish to this very moment, and I wish so much that he were here today for me to talk with again, so that he could once again tell me the stories of going to the movies for a dime, or listening to Roosevelt on the radio, or being on a navy ship, or test driving tires for General Tires, or him telling me how I shouldn’t do this, or I should do that, or just to hear him grumble about how many damned commercials they play during the movie, or to see him sit back in the kitchen chair and light a cigarette and enjoy his morning coffee.
Henry was my father, a man I love and miss. He led a life full of adventure and full of the ho-hum ordinary, but it was too short by far. No one knows the time of their leaving of this place. One can only live to the fullest every day and hope that when they’re gone that someone like me will miss them as much as I miss Henry. He once said to me, “Eric, you’re never really dead until the last person that remembers you on this earth is gone too.” You’re still alive in my heart, dad!
(c) 2001 V. T. Eric Layton