Tuesday, December 01, 2009
Eulogy for Dad
On behalf of my brother and myself and our families I wish to thank you for coming here to honor our father, Vito Scriptunas. I also wish to thank everyone in the community who helped my dad during his final days.- the neighbors in the Twin Lakes area who kept an eye on him, the EMT’s who took him to the hospital, the nurses who gave him wonderful care in his last hours, Dr. Jones who gave my father the tools to live out his final year independently and especially Dr. Chris Wetzel, who’s kindness and compassion helped us through a difficult time.
Many of you know my father as that affable old gardener on Lakeview or that faithful church goer but he lived a long and full life and was a more complex and interesting man than many of you may realize. As one of three sons of a coal miner’s widow, with the family scraping by on a meager miner’s death benefit during the depression, the prospects for anything but a difficult life in the mines were all but certain. My father’s own father died of black lung when he was 16. Often, when he would talk about his boyhood and his father, he would break down and cry. At the time I couldn’t understand this emotion over a man I never knew, about a death that had happened so long ago. Well, I know now, a father can’t be replaced.
My father was a combat veteran of the Eighth Air Force, the 379th heavy bomb group. He received the European African Mediterranean China Medal with 3 bronze stars and the Air Medal with Four bronze stars. He flew 33 missions over Europe as a ball turret gunner. He was a war hero. Now my father would laugh if he heard me say that. According to my father his entire military career was some sort of big misunderstanding. To hear him tell it he was carried along through the war by forces neither rational nor intelligible. The only reason he joined up was because he was going to be drafted anyway and he wanted to try to get in the Navy. But the guy just in front of him in line was the last one they took for the navy so he ended up in an artillery unit and one day they yanked him out of line because he was small enough to fit in a ball turret and they needed gunners so they stuck him in a B-17 and sent him to Europe. But it didn’t really matter because by that stage of the war the Germans had jet fighters and they were too fast for his guns to track so he was pretty much just riding along looking at the pretty clouds.
My father had an artistic side – his handwriting was beautiful and his lettering skills were superb. The colonel in charge of the base in Arizona discover this and offered him a stateside job lettering planes for the duration of the war. He turned it down, which irritated the colonel so much that, by the next week, he was assigned to an air crew and on his way to Europe. This kind of puzzled me so I asked him, “You mean you had chance to stay stateside for the rest of the war and you turned it down? Why would you do that?”
He looked at me and said “Have you ever been to Kingman, Arizona?”
I’m not sure what the term is for an exaggeration in the other direction but I found out later that he left out a few important details. I was fortunate to attend a couple of air crew reunions with him. The waist gunner, Ned Rooks, set me straight about some parts of the story that my father had left out. He told me that rather than being randomly plucked out of the regular army all these guys were volunteers. They signed up to be on a flight crew, and that, at any time, they could go the flight surgeon and be assigned back to the regular army if they couldn’t handle it anymore. He talked about having to crawl down to the ball turret with a portable oxygen bottle to revive my dad because his oxygen line has frozen up in the minus 40 degree temperature, or how he and my father had to climb into the bomb bay and kick the remaining bombs out of the crippled aircraft so that they could land, or how my dad would touch off his guns at approaching fighters even though he was soaked through with aviation fuel from a ruptured wing tank – or how my dad patched up a badly wounded radio operator and the crew decided to land the shot up aircraft instead of bailing out over the field because they didn’t think the radio operator could survive the jump. He was barely more than a boy, but that’s the kind of man my dad was. Ned’s wife, who was married during the war took me aside aside and told me that my father was the cockiest and most confident man she had ever met.
This confidence stood him in good stead after the war. Dad thought seriously about Seminary after the war. My brother and I are grateful that he pursued a different path. So this kid with a general education degree from Scranton High manages to talk his way into Lehigh and come out with a degree in industrial engineering. He pursues and weds my mother, who was from the same town but a different economic background and this at a time when a Lithuanian Irish match could still raise a few eyebrows. His combat training no doubt helped him in his marriage to my mother, who could be every bit as confident and hard headed as he was. But they ultimately had more than 40 years of a committed and loving marriage, and when my mother came down with Rheumatoid arthritis, nearly crippled and in constant pain, it was my father who stood by her, took her to countless doctor’s appointments and cared for her until her death.
So my father could do what needed to be done. He could wallpaper, tile a bathroom, sweat a pipe or build a stone wall. He even designed a building that is still standing. This, after trying to explain to his boss that he was an industrial engineer, not a civil or professional engineer. His boss told him that an engineer is an engineer – do it. So he did it.
We would spend some summers in Ocean City, NJ. One year my parents rented a surf board for my brother and me, a monster 7seven foot long board that took both of us to carry to the water. Unfortunately the very next day I broke my toe in the sand playing football with my father and I didn’t get a chance to ride it. A sand bar had developed about a hundred yards offshore and beyond it were breaking some nice seven to ten foot waves. So I sat on the beach , feeling sorry for myself, as my brother, a little guy on a big board, struggled for half an hour to paddle out beyond the sand bar to where the waves were breaking. He finally got to where he wanted to be and was sitting on the board, waiting for a wave when my father walked over to me and asks “Where’s Neil?”. I pointed to a spot far offshore and said “He’s out there and wow, look at that, he caught a wave, look at him go!” My brother took off on the ride of his life, standing on the board and heading towards Cape May at an amazing speed. Two memories come back. One is my brother’s ride, which to this day, remains the single most impressive thing I have ever seen him do. My father thought otherwise, probably because my brother couldn’t swim. The second memory is my father running down the beach yelling, complete with sandals, socks, hat, watch and glasses and diving in the water to swim out and rescue my brother. I’m not sure what happened after that although I’m pretty sure my brother can fill you in.
I broke my arm badly falling out of a tree when we were visiting my cousins in New Jersey. Broke it so badly that the local hospital told my dad theat they couldn’t set it and that he would have to get me to a specialist in Philadelphia. And not only that, that he would have to get me there within an hour or permanent damage would probably occur. So the local doctors splinted my arm and shot me up with morphine and dad bundled me in the back seat and off we went. The morphine took away the pain but my father took away the fear and I felt like things were going to be all right. And they were. Because my dad took care of it. He got me there in time and I can use this arm. Thanks, Dad.
But my father would also take care of situations that weren’t necessarily his responsibility. I have an early memory, probably one of my earliest, of standing on the seat of the car, looking out the window, as my father, illuminated in the headlights, changes a tire to rescue a couple of stranded teenagers. That’s the man most of you knew. If you needed help you could count on him.
As I got older (and smarter), I came to rely more and more on my father for advice. Sometimes I would even follow it. When I would be offered a chance to take a new position, maybe something that was more of a challenge and would take me out of my comfort zone, he would always urge me to try new things., telling me that I would have far more regrets not knowing whether I could do the job than trying and failing.
He once gave me a training manual he had written for new managers in his company. In it he wrote that every employee has value and more importantly, every employee needs to feel as though they are important. And that’s how my Dad lived his life. When my father talked to you, no matter who you were or what you were doing, whether you were cutting his hair, or filling his teeth or bagging groceries or just walking by, he was not just exchanging pleasantries, he was talking to you. He was interested in you and what you had to say. Vito Scriptunas loved people. And people loved him back.
So I would think that my father would want this for a legacy- that when we think of him we remember that we are all important, that we all have worth, that we all have something to offer and that we should treat everyone we meet in our daily lives with compassion and respect.