Posts Tagged ‘World War II’

This is my new, not-favorite holiday: the first yahrzeit, or anniversary, of my father’s death. In the Jewish tradition, you light a 24-hour candle the evening before the day. The day is determined not by our Gregorian calendar but by the Jewish calendar, which rises and sets with the moon.

A lunar calendar means 28- and 29-day months. This is why Jewish holidays never stay put. Philip Roth, writing about his childhood, said that the adults always talked about Passover being early or late but no one ever said it was on time. Wilfrid Sheed in My Life as a Fan wrote that the Jewish holidays roamed the calendar like shortstops.

On the yahrzeit of your parent, there are prayers to say and visits to make – to the synagogue. I might have appreciated the latter, standing in solidarity with the other mourners, though of course there are no visits to the synagogue just now.

I remember my parents and grandparents lighting the yahrzeit candles for their parents. This practice seemed disconnected from me when I was young. It was something the Old People did, along with moving slowly, not understanding anything I wanted to do, and talking about their vanished world.

[The play] succeeded because it made people laugh and cry and remember the past, all at the same time. And even though one always heard how bitter everything was in the past, the old people were still crazy to relive it. (Emanuel Litvinoff, from his short story “Fanya”)

I felt so disconnected from this ritual and for so long that it only occurred to me while writing this that when my grandparents lit candles for their parents, they were keeping alive the memories of people who had been born in the 1870s.

So now I’ve lit my first candle and said some prayers. Though I recognized years ago that this train was heading my way, it was still a shock when it stopped to pick me up. Also, I’m not sure that lighting a candle and reciting some prayers hold the right meaning for me and my relationship with my father.

Next year, we’ll light a candle and then watch one of Dad’s favorite movies: Stagecoach, The Big Country, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Patton, Sink the Bismarck!, Sink the Hindenburg!, The Enemy Below, The Enemy Above, The Big World War II Movie, The Way Bigger World War II Movie, and The World War II Movie Where We Win Again But You Kids Will Never Understand. Dad also liked Get Smart!, All in the Family, Westerns, the Red Sox, shows about animals or ancient Egypt, and everything that delighted his children. Some of these entertainments might be a tough sell for certain people I live with.

Looking back over this blog, I may have been at my best when I was memorializing family, friends, dogs, musicians, and other writers. I hate to think that I’m turning into A.E. Housman, but you have to go where the writing takes you, and apparently this is where it’s taking me. I even managed to work Run-DMIrving into my music column.

I’ll change the mood in our next exciting post. Brace yourself for 10 Things I Hate About Dogs!

You can live in a box from Costco and chew it up.

Life in the 90s

Posted: November 17, 2017 in music
Tags: , ,

We just visited my parents in the little town in Massachusetts where I grew up and learned not to trust the Red Sox. You have to make some adjustments in Massachusetts. A regular coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts is coffee, milk, and two sugahs. A milkshake doesn’t have ice cream, but a frappe does. If you go down Cape, you’re heading north on Cape Cod, but if you go up Cape, you’re heading south. Traffic circles are called “rotaries,” a sub is a “grinduh,” and my name is forever Stevie.

My Mom lives in a nursing home. My Dad is still hanging on in the house they’ve lived in since 1957. These are the real adjustments.

While we were there, the town put on their annual breakfast to honor veterans. Every place in Massachusetts that can hold itself together long enough to form a government and print pahking stickuhs for the beach is required to have a Veterans Service Officer. Our VSO did a fantastic job with this breakfast. Five hundred veterans and their friends and families filled the hall where I attended my high school prom back in 1493. We had speeches, commemorative pins, a fire department honor guard, and food that beats Army chow any day.

Dad is 90 and increasingly immobile, but he was game to go. After all, he served in World War II. He came home with medals for good conduct and sharpshooting and one he never showed us that he claimed he got for goldbricking.

It took Deborah and me awhile to organize and transport him. By the time we arrived, there was only one table with available seats. Fortunately, our tablemates were Miss Bristol County and Miss Bristol County Teen and their mothers. The four of them were delighted to have a World War II veteran drop in. This gave the two beauty queens a chance to represent. They brought Dad his breakfast from the buffet line and made a fuss over him.


Our featured speaker was Rep. Joe Kennedy III. He’s the grandson of Robert F. Kennedy. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a politician work a room with greater enthusiasm. After his speech he went to every table, looked everyone in the eye, listened respectfully, spoke sincerely. I was impressed. He meant it.

As the event ended, people began to leave the hall, and we were concerned that Joe 3.0 wouldn’t make it to our far corner. Deborah sought him out and asked him if he would come to our table and say hello to her father-in-law, who served in the Army Air Force and kept Texas safe for democracy.

Kennedy said he would, and though he still had a gauntlet to run, he soon appeared at Dad’s side. (Deborah said she had never had anyone reassuringly touch her arm so many times as he followed her while simultaneously greeting people.) Kennedy realized that Dad couldn’t stand, so he took a knee beside him. Dad took his hand and cried as he talked about meeting John F. Kennedy in 1960 when he was running for president.


After Dad calmed down, they had a good talk, and then Dad made a prediction: “Joe, you’re 37 now. In 15 years, you’re going to run for president, and you’re going to make it.”


Kennedy replied, “Don’t hold your breath!”


At that moment, my father closed a circle. The circle began on a blustery winter day in early 1960 when Dad, younger than Joe Kennedy is now, was walking into his favorite hardware store and met a hatless JFK striding down the sidewalk, the whole world and Schwartz Lumber in front of them.

There’s no lesson here, just a family that’s lucky enough to make a new story after so many years together. Mom has Alzheimer’s, but she still can still follow a five-sentence narrative, and when we saw her next she laughed when she heard that Dad had cried. “Of course!” she said. She would’ve expected nothing else.

Dad is in the hospital as I write this. He’s 90, so who knows. Mom is dreaming in her nursing home, waiting for Dad’s next visit. Until they meet again, here are two photos of the honeymooners taken 50 years apart.

The Honeymooners 1964


Happy cat roommates


In case youve read this far: Miss Bristol County Teen is a freshman at the high school. When Dad told her that I had gone there, she asked, Did you know my grandfather? He was a math teacher. I thought, come on, kid, how old do you think I am?! But then she told me his name and I thought, shoot, I did know him.


Captain Frederick Kent Dezendorf, 1914-2011

My father-in-law passed away quietly in his sleep this week, in his house on the beach in Florida. When the morning sun rose, he didn’t. Capt. Dezendorf had stood his last watch. He was 96.

I hardly know where to begin with this guy. He was a seventh-generation son of Brooklyn. His family goes so far back in U.S. history that the British still owe them for several ships they swiped a couple hundred years ago. He went to sea not because of his ancestors, however, but because he loved to read. Rafael Sabatini’s Captain Blood and other sea stories set him on his life’s course.

Fred became an officer on the former Grace Line’s cruise ships, where he met the adventurous young woman, Ginny, who became his wife. She was a stewardess. It was 1940 and for their honeymoon they toured the West in a borrowed car.

These were the people who crushed the Nazis
When the U.S. entered World War II, Ginny drove an ambulance in New York City and Fred captained Liberty ships. He was 27. He crossed the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean in convoys on pitch-black nights that might suddenly be torn by explosions, sirens, and gunfire. In the morning one of the convoy’s ships would be gone. Or two or three or five. The survivors closed the gaps and kept sailing.

Fred was the captain of the Peter Minuit when they developed engine trouble and fell out of formation. A British destroyer kept them company. The Peter Minuit’s crew had to turn off the engines to work on them. As twilight came down their escort had to return to the convoy. Imagine yourself in the place of this young man, standing on your bridge, on your helpless, drifting ship, as the destroyer disappeared into the gloom and a lone voice called back, “Good luck, Petuh…” Sometime in the dark early hours, they got the engines running, and soon they rejoined their convoy. Just another day in the Merchant Marine.

It’s a Great Life
As the war ended, Fred became a pilot on the Panama Canal. He also worked for a time for a shipping company in Venezuela. In the 1950s, Fred moved his family back to New York and took a job as a deckhand for Moran Towing. By the time he left in 1964 he was their general manager.

After a few years as the harbor master in Woods Hole, Massachusetts (where he moonlighted as the driver of the Martha’s Vineyard ferry), he and a partner founded the pilotage at Port Canaveral, Florida. Fred had always loved to work, from the time he was a child helping to support his family by tying up packages at the A&P, and he continued as a pilot until he was 70 – climbing ladders up the sides of ships in the middle of the night to get to the bridge and bring the ship safely into port.

He always said that he’d been lucky. Early on he had found exactly what it was he wanted to do with his life.

In his 26 years of retirement, Fred twice drove across the country in his van with his two Norwegian elkhounds, once going all the way to Alaska. He wrote his life’s story, which he called It’s a Great Life. He loved bird-watching and he passed that love on to Special D, who once wrote to him to say, “Thank you for giving me the birds.” He enjoyed repeating that.

Heaven’s a little closer in a house by the sea
Fred stayed in his home right to the end, with nothing really wrong with him. He was just very old. Shipboard accidents couldn’t kill him. Hitler couldn’t kill him. Falling down a flight of stairs at 82, bashing his head open, and being found the next day by neighbors, with a blood pressure reading of zero over zero, couldn’t kill him. In his last years he slept more and more and mostly fell silent. But when he sat in his accustomed chair by the window with a view of the Atlantic, and someone put on some big band music, he still tapped his foot.

The day after his death, Moran’s Florida tugs flew their ensigns at half-mast – and Fred hadn’t worked for Moran in 46 years.

Fred was predeceased by his parents, his two brothers, and his wife. He is survived by one sister, five children, six grandchildren, six great-grandchildren, one cat, and a thousand stories of courage and resourcefulness that he always told with style and self-deprecating humor. No one loved a good story with a good laugh more than he did, even if the laugh was on him.

Fred’s ashes will be scattered at sea, as he had scattered Ginny’s. If you’re of a mind to mark the passing of this extraordinary man, please make a donation in his memory to your favorite library or to the American Merchant Marine Veterans Memorial Committee. Or give a dish of rum-raisin ice cream to your favorite dog.