Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Reflections From My Father’s Bedside

When I was a little boy, I wanted to be left-handed. This fervent desire must have seemed odd to the nuns who taught me in school. After all, my right-hand served me quite well in the performance of such important tasks as writing, eating, and throwing a football. I was, despite my best efforts, right-handed.

But my father was left-handed. And to me, being like him was more important than anything. To be a man … a real man … one had to be a southpaw.

He was born on October 12, 1924, the only child of Italian immigrants. A few days after his eighteenth birthday, he was drafted into the US Army, and left the family farm in Alabama to serve his country.

The first beach he ever saw was Omaha Beach in Normandy, France. As part of the signal battalion, he was with – and often in front of – the infantry as they fought their way across Europe under the leadership of General George Patton. On the morning of April 29, 1945, he was one of the liberators of the notorious Nazi concentration camp at Dachau.

My father often showed me swords and medals he’d gotten during his war years. It was fascinating for such a young boy to see these signs of valor and to hear the tales that accompanied them.

One day, when I was about twelve, he told me he had something to show me from the war. I assumed that it would be another exciting piece of WWII memorabilia. But the serious look on his face indicated that this would be no ordinary exposition.

“These are pictures I took at a concentration camp,” he said in a somber tone.

“What’s a concentration camp?” I asked.

He took a breath. “It’s a place where the Nazis were killing people,” he responded. “But we made them stop.”

“I want you to see these for two reasons,” he went on. “First, I want you to know that this really did happen. Sometime in your life, you’re going to run across people who’ll say this never happened. But it did. I was there and I saw it.

“Also, I want you to make sure this never happens again.”

The photographs, as you can imagine, were shocking and horrendous. I wasn’t sure how I could ever prevent such evil from happening again, but I knew I was proud of my father for being one of the men who’d stopped the tragedy in its tracks.

The Holocaust didn’t stop because the Nazis grew tired of killing or because of a negotiation. It stopped because a few young American soldiers entered that camp. And it stopped at that instant. Twenty-four hours later, and the tens of thousands of prisoners inside would have all been murdered.

My father told me that as he and his buddies walked around Dachau, they finally and forever understood the meaning of their mission, and why they had left their homes and traveled so far away to fight for people they did not know.

Like the millions of other members of the Greatest Generation, he returned triumphantly from the war to raise a family and to set about the task of building this country. He never complained about what he had been through or about what sacrifices he’d been called to make. He simply did his best. And he did it with integrity, compassion, strength, and courage.

As many people can honestly say, so too I echo: I’ve never known a better man than my father. I’ve never known anyone as strong, as gentle, as loyal, as loving, and as trustworthy. I’ve never known anyone so willing to do without in order to ensure the comfort of his family.

If the greatest gift a man can give his children is to love their mother, then my father lavished that gift upon us. His goodness and loyalty to my mother was legendary, and his concern for the welfare and happiness of his children was without equal.

From his youngest days, he’d been exceptionally handsome and muscular … a fact which every woman I’ve ever known has made a point to tell me. I remember high school girlfriends of mine who made no secret of getting all googly-eyed whenever my father entered the room. “He’s so good looking!” they’d say admiringly, and then start playing with their hair.

Academy Award winner Loretta Young, a contemporary of the likes of Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, and Jimmy Stewart, once told my father that he could’ve come to Hollywood and been a leading man.

“Nah,” he humbly replied. “They probably would’ve just led me right back out of town.”

During a speaking tour in Los Angeles just after my book was released, he was surrounded by beautiful women, all hugging him and posing for photographs with him.

“Hey,” I said, getting his attention. “Look at you … eighty years old and you’re still getting all the women!”

He laughed. He thought it was funny. He knew it was true.

One of them asked him, “Mr. Sacco, who do you think should play you in the movie?”

My father pointed to the cover of the book in her hand and replied, “Well, I don’t know, but whoever he is, he’d better be good-looking!”

The girls giggled and laughed and cooed.

Still, with all the attention from the fairer sex through the years, he was always a steadfastly loyal husband and father. To see that type of example teaches a young boy about honor and family and the bonds that must never be broken.

I once pointed out that at the conclusion of WWII, he’d been a strikingly handsome war hero.

“So what?” he asked me.

“So when you came back to the States, how did you manage to fight off the women?” I asked.

“Fight ‘em off?” he asked in return. “Why would I have fought them off?”

“Good point,” I surrendered.

“But that was before I got married,” he clarified. “Once you’re married, your family’s all that matters. There’s nothing more important than that.”

A man without priorities will soon be a soul set adrift. And for my father, his family and his faith were always paramount. They were the anchors that defined him, that gave him purpose and direction, and that provided him comfort and freedom and peace in times that would’ve challenged even the stoutest of hearts.

Fathers have a way of saying things – even as jokes – and making them sound real.

My father once told me that there was a tribe of American Indians who had trained themselves to lie on the ground and die as opposed to being taken prisoner by the US Cavalry. I never quite understood how the Indians could actually train for such a feat, considering the fact that the first time you do it correctly, you’re dead. But that’s what he said, so I believed it. I still do.

He also told me that there was a little town on the border between Alabama and Florida called “Ala-fart.” I looked on a map and couldn’t find it, so I’m pretty sure such a town has never existed. But I think it should. And I wonder what type of people would live there.

For as far back as I can remember, my father had an affinity for duct tape. It was his preferred method of repairing anything. Garden hoses, windows, toilets, picture frames, eyeglasses, bicycles, jewelry, automobiles, fine china … his philosophy was that if it could be broken, then it could be repaired with duct tape.

I’ve always thought that if my father had been a passenger on the Titanic, it wouldn’t have sunk because he’d have duct-taped it back together. That boat would still be making regular runs between Europe and the US with minimal leakage, if any.

He never attended college, but he felt immense pride in the fact that I did.

He was laid off his job a few weeks before I was to start classes at ND my freshman year. I had received a Notre Dame Scholar Award, but there was still a substantial disparity between the funding attached to the scholarship and the actual cost of attending the school.

I felt guilty about the financial burden at a time when our family would be struggling, so I announced to my parents that I’d go to Alabama or Auburn or someplace more affordable.

“If you want to go to Notre Dame, then you’re going to Notre Dame,” my father informed me. “Don’t worry. We’ll make it work. You just get packed.”

He had been born in the year of the Four Horsemen, the year of Notre Dame’s first National Championship under Knute Rockne. And through thick and thin, through good times and bad, he loved the Fighting Irish.

One night, barely one week before he died, he awoke from his sleep at two in the morning. He looked over at me as I sat beside his hospital bed.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“Here’s something I don’t understand,” he said. “How in the hell is that quarterback supposed to throw the ball when his teammates won’t block for him?”

“He can’t.” I answered.

“What the hell’s wrong with that coach?” he asked.

“I don’t know.”

“He needs somebody to kick his ass.”

You see, this man was from the ass-kicking generation. And, as it turns out, a good swift kick in the ass does solve a lot of problems. That and duct tape.

People often tell me that I’ve given my father a great gift by writing a book about him, and that by doing so, I’ve honored my father in a way that few sons will ever have.

I appreciate their words, but I tend to see it as being the other way around. He’s the one who gave me the gift. He’s the one who honored me with his story and his legacy. When I speak to a theater filled with people and watch them stand and applaud, I feel a thrill not so much for me as for him. From where I’m standing, he’s the hero. The tears in my eyes are out of gratitude to him, and for giving me the opportunity to share his story, his compassion, and even his humor with countless others.

At one of our appearances in Los Angeles, a woman in the audience revealed that she had been a sixteen-year-old prisoner at Dachau on the morning it was liberated. She came up to the stage and hugged my father. “Thank you for saving my life,” she kept repeating as she embraced him.

I watched grown men in the audience weeping as they stood and applauded.

He was barely able to speak the last few days of his life, but he whispered to me one night that he felt like two different people … the one who wanted to get up and run and play, and the other who was too weak to move.

It was a testament that the spirit, unlike the body, never grows old.

My father knew well that though the fireworks can be spectacular, it is the fireplace that heats the home. And so it is that the heroes of our lives are not the superstars who flash across the sky only to disappear from sight. They are, instead, like him – the humble and rare light that is steady and strong, never wavering, never dimmed, never extinguished, but only hidden in time by the far horizon as it moves to brighten the new world that exists beyond.

As I stood by my father’s bedside and held his hand on the night he died, I couldn’t help but think of his days as a strong young man dashing across Europe with the American Army, of the people he helped liberate, and of all the wonderful things he did for us when we were growing up. In him I could see the embodiment of integrity, of honor, of loyalty, of courage, of strength, of selflessness, and of love.

I realized at that moment that time had done what the war could not. The heart, so strong in battle, so joyous in victory, so generous with family, so cherished by all, was growing weak. And it broke my heart to know there was nothing I could do to heal his. I simply and helplessly held his hand and watched him sleep. I listened to each breath as they slowly and inexorably decreased. I stared at his hands.

When I was a boy, I wanted to be left-handed so that I could write and eat and throw a football like my father. And then, somewhere along the way, I learned that it was infinitely more important to emulate the heart that beats within so that I might one day live like him.