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Let Me Clue You in about My Father

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The following is the essay I wrote about my father, which aired on WVTF Public Radio for Memorial Day on Friday, May 27. The radio station cut this version slightly to fit in their 3 minute format. I had intended to post the old black and white photo of my dad in Germany during WWII (and I'm sure he would prefer that one in which he does look like Elvis Presley), but I wasn't able to upload it. I'll try again later.

In a family photograph of my father, taken in Germany at the end of WWII, he’s standing in his army uniform holding a blonde German child in his arms. Her hair is parted down the middle, pulled tightly into two braids. She looks happy. When I was a little girl, I formed an opinion about that photograph. Regardless of the fact that I hadn’t been born when it was taken, I wondered why he was holding her when he should have been holding me…or one of my brothers or sisters at least. We all agreed that my dad was handsome and looked like Elvis Presley back then.

He was an artillery soldier in Patton’s army, and he always maintained that the only reason he survived the war was because of the big cannon-like gun he stood behind. Standing behind his “Long Tom,” surviving the war when so many didn’t, is probably where his trademark saying began: “Somebody upstairs must like me.”

When he joined the army with 3 of his brothers, he was 19 years old and would later describe it like this: “We thought we were going to a football game.” However, his rudest awakening about war wasn’t the deadly combat he witnessed and participated in. What he saw at the end of the war when his regiment liberated Buchenwald Concentration Camp changed him forever, causing him to suffer from what is known today as “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.” “I can’t believe that human beings are capable of such things” he would say about the holocaust, while shaking his head back and forth, with tears in his eyes.

My dad, Robert Leo Redman, was the youngest of 11, born in South Boston, Massachusetts, and raised in North Quincy in a strict Irish Catholic home. After the war, and for most of his adult life, he struggled with alcoholism. In spite of this struggle, he supported his nine children and wife as a lifelong ironworker, and, when we were old enough to understand, he made sure we were educated to know that alcoholism is a disease, a disease of the soul, he believed.

Although my dad never made it past the 10th grade, because he joined the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCCs) to help support his family during the depression, he’s one of the smartest men I know. He eventually got his GED and passed with very high scores. But it isn’t his book knowledge that I remember the most. My dad taught us some of life’s deeper truths, like the fact that bullies act tough because they actually feel small inside. He also gave us practical advice, such as, “Don’t use vanity license plates or bumper stickers on your car, because cops can tag you easier that way.” He had a lot of experience avoiding cops, and it wasn’t until I was in my 40’s that, realizing I had nothing to hide, I was comfortable enough to boldly spell LET IT BE on my license plate and even risk a bumper sticker.

Robert, who was known as Bebe when he was young, was the first one to cry during a sad movie and the first one ready with a kiss for no reason, or a wet “raspberry” that we would promptly wipe off. He went around the house singing songs from the 40s or reciting nursery rhymes that no one else in our neighborhood seemed to know. (I think he made half of them up.) He was, in his own words, “an operator,” which I understood as a reference to his street smarts. And he had the lingo to prove it. For my dad a beautiful woman was always “a hot tomato,” people who didn’t know what they were talking about were “blowing smoke,” “hatchi katchi” meant “fooling around,” and so did “hot to trot.” He wasn’t bigoted, except maybe against homely girls in favor of the pretty ones. And he never tried to hide the fact that the reason he tuned in to TV football was to watch the cheerleaders at half-time.

But we feared my dad’s wrath as much as we enjoyed his playfulness. Another of his trademark sayings that all his kids remember was, “I WANT THIS PLACE LOOKING LIKE A MILLION BUCKS BY THE TIME YOUR MOTHER GETS HOME…OR HEADS ARE GONNA ROLL.” The stress of raising so many kids on a working class salary and the burden of his emotional wounds were taking their toll. By this time he was looking more like Jackie Gleason and sounding like him too.

This year my dad turned 80. After seeing him for years in his blue collar work clothes, it’s funny to see him in shorts and knee socks, a Hawaiian shirt, his red suspenders, topped off with his favorite WWII veterans cap. He doesn’t wear his false teeth because he can’t whistle when he wears them, he’s says. He’s almost as short as his grandfather, Patrick Bergin from County Tipperary, who was said to be part elf. My dad isn’t too happy about turning 80. He refers to himself as an “old geezer.” The last time he was visiting me in my home on the Blue Ridge Parkway, I tried to cheer him up by asking, “But Dad, what about all the wisdom that comes with age?” “Let me clue you in,” he answered with a laugh, “It’s like a rocky boat.”

We mostly see my dad’s playful side now. He’s been sober for the last 25 years and can usually be found in his favorite living room chair with the TV remote control in his hand. The little kids still flock around him (somehow knowing he’s just a big kid). He still draws a crowd at weddings when he dances the jitterbug with my mother. He’s still sentimental, and after seeing each one of his 10 siblings pass on, and two of his sons, he has earned the right to be.

Where I come from, my dad would be described as “a character.” What else can you call a man who has nicknames for everyone, like mine, which is “Colly Wolly Wolf?” What can you say about a man who can’t contain his awe of life and continually has to ask his kids, “Are you real?” as though he can’t believe we came from him.

My dad is as real as it gets. His gift to life is being himself. And although we lost a part of him before we were born, somewhere in Germany during the war, what he gave us was colorful, forgiving, comical, and very quotable. And this is the story that will go on long after “somebody upstairs” finally claims him.

Comments

WOW!!! Looking good Coll. Maybe in another post you can scan the other picture....xo

Hello, Anonymous Colleen, thanks for reading. I can still picture that green bug crawling up his neck, heading for his ear (or so I thought).

Lovely tribute and great to have so much of your father's stories known while he is still alive to love.

That is so cool that he has overcome so much and aged so well. What a beautiful tribute to him Colleen ;0) So, did you ever find out who the little blonde girl was? Think Elvis would look like your Dad if he lived to be 80 ? Hope you had a great weekend..I'm going to go catch up!

I love his name :-)

That's really lovely, Colleen. You're very lucky to still have your daddy with you.

Just beautiful. Perfect.

Hi Colleen. I find myself rooting through your archives this afternoon. I love this recollection of your father's life. I wish all children would take the time to share their own parents' experiences as you have done here.

Oh Colleen, what a wonderfully moving and heartwarming tribute. Your father sounds like he was a wonderful man. Lucky you. Of course, he is also lucky to have a daughter who is so very caring. Only a heart filled with gratitude and deep love could write such a beautiful piece.

I am honoured that you pointed me in the direction of this post. It allows me not only the opportunity to "meet" a special man, but also the privilege of reading YOUR gracious prose. Thank-you!

Just wanted you to know that I come back to read this post every once in awhile. It still touches me and I love you for writing it (and all your other good writings).

It's hard to beleive he's gone. xo

He certainly was "larger than life" it seems. I've been to Dachau and I can only imagine how awful it would have been to be on site at Buchenwald at the end.
At least he still whistled and sang and found his happiness despite the alcohol and the trauma. I'm sure your family's support had much to do with his victory over his disease of the soul. He sounds like an amazing man. I would like to have met him.

Kat

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