Tribute To My Dad
My father had been sick for a while. He had recently lost both of his legs due to injuries he sustained while serving in the Army during and after the Korean War. The injuries never fully healed and as he got older, poor circulation took its toll on his legs. I used to call my dad every day, sometimes three or more times, just to check on him and talk. I loved hearing his voice and discussing life in general. I always asked him how he was feeling and his usually annoying answer was, “The same as yesterday, today and tomorrow.” He never complained about how he felt although I knew in many ways he was hurting.
On Friday morning, 22 May, I called “da” to check on him. Since a very minor stroke event over Christmas, he had been much less responsive on the phone. Our 1- hour plus phone conversations now usually lasted but one to two minutes. The previous day, he began vomiting blood but the hospice nurses didn’t seem too concerned. That continued through the day and into Friday. When I called and asked how he felt, he just said, “Not too good this morning, honey.” My sister, who lived with and took care of him, took the phone and told me he was doing very poorly.
I had flown up to New Jersey in March to say my “good-bye” to him. I knew he wouldn’t last long and that visit would likely be my last. Around One O’clock that afternoon, my sister called crying and simply said, “I think today is the day.” He was on the floor and people were trying to help but in vain. That was the end of my father.
Although we often know when the end of a loved one is near, when the eventual happens, we are still caught off-guard and left in pain and wracked with emotion. The greatest saving grace is that I know he was saved and is in Heaven with other family members. My father, Eddie Glenn Tate Jr. was a great father. Like all of us, he had his faults. But he loved his family. My sister Jacqui, my brother Eddie, my sister Brittney and I were the joys of his life. Each of us had differing roles and differing places in his heart. But there was never any doubt of the love he had for us.
I place so much of my success upon my father’s shoulders. His love and encouragement were never in doubt. One of the earliest, cogent childhood memories I have is when I was five years-old and my dad took my brother and me to see the WWI movie, The Blue Max. It starred George Peppard and Ursula Andress and is the story of a ruthless German fighter pilot. Parents often have no idea what may influence their child but this movie, I am convinced set me on my path toward flying military aircraft and my fascination with the German Air Forces in both World Wars. I remember as a kid, when my dad took us to a toy store, I ALWAYS went for the German airplanes. (Yeah, I still do) On the ceiling in my room as a teenager, the constant air battles between scale models always seemed to have smoke and fire trailing from the American airplanes while they were being swarmed by the German. Weird? Tell me about it. Earth to readers, Black guy here. Sheesh! But I am sure my dad innocently taking me to that movie did something to me by sparking a lifelong obsession I cannot explain.
Likewise, my father and I shared a lifelong love of the movie Twelve O’clock High. He would often talk of this movie and the airwar in Europe and working with Vets in Lions Hospital in New Jersey. That was back in the days before DVDs and Netflix and we only had about 5 T.V. channels. So when that movie came on, it was a really big deal. Sandwiches, popcorn, sodas and the world stopped as we immersed ourselves in the movie. A week or two before he died, I called to tell him it was coming on and he watched it. I cannot say for sure if it was the last movie he ever watched but it was certainly one of them. I would like to think it was. Between the two of us, I am sure we have watched that movie over 100 times. The same with The Blue Max.
But my dad’s support for us never wavered. In the 8th grade, I remember taking a standardized test that all New Jersey kids had to take. Back then, I was an incredibly shy kid who froze up anytime I had to take a big test. Well, when the results came back, I was basically an idiot. I was the kid who people wondered how I could leave home in the morning and find my way back home at night. I cannot remember my actual score but it was something like in the lower 30% in the state. I was a moron. When the high school counselors came to talk to each student and their parents, Mrs. Davidson told my parents that it was clear that I was not cut out for normal high school and that they should send me to East Brunswick Vocational School and learn to be a mechanic or something. My dad was pissed. I remember him telling Mrs. Davidson that I wanted to be an Air Force pilot and she basically laughed at him. “Sir, do you realize your son is an idiot? I am surprised he’s not drooling and picking his nose right now.” But my mom and dad both held firm. No! I would be going to Manalapan High School in the fall. When school started, out of 430 some kids in my class, I was ranked around number 250. What Mrs. Davidson ignored was that in a lot of my classes, I was keeping up with most of the kids who did well on that test.
On Memorial Day 1976, something magical happened in my life. Feeling I needed some sort of boost, my mom and dad took me to an airshow at McGuire AFB. There I saw, for the first time the Air Force Thunderbirds. I remember arriving at the show as a flight of 4 F-105 Thunderchiefs flew overhead and broke into the visual traffic pattern. Men in flight suits, the smell of jet fuel and yes, a Black Thunderbird pilot name Lloyd “Fig” Newton. A whole new world, with a clearer perspective opened up to me. No longer did my desired world exist only in plastic airplanes on my ceiling and books about German aces, but I saw, touched and smelled something tangible; something real; something I could actually accomplish.
The next week I went to class and talked to my science teacher , Mr. Shelhamer, and told him what I wanted to do. He said okay and quickly filled out my curriculum for the next 3 years. Chemistry, Biology, Physics, all the math I could stand. The hardest courses available is where I had to live. By the end of high school, I had an ROTC scholarship to the University of Tennessee and was ranked around 30 in my class. My dad, never forgiving Mrs. Davidson, until the time she died, constantly sent her letters with newspaper clippings showing her what “this” moron did. ROTC cadet Colonel and Group Commander, graduate of AF pilot training, every rank achieved, every school completed. I know she hated it but my dad did not care. That is the kind of father he was. Many parents would have simply said, “Sorry kiddo, you just don’t have what it takes. After all, my dad was an auto mechanic. You can make good money doing that.” With Eddie Glenn Tate Jr., that answer was a resounding, “Hell to the no.”
When I left New Jersey in 1979 to go to college, except for summer vacations and brief visits, my life with da and New Jersey ended. I had planes to fly and places to see. His life, however, did not. At his service in New Jersey, it became apparent that his life meant so much to so many people. Black, White, Hispanic, Christian, Jew, young and old; it did not matter.
So many people came out to say what he meant as the neighborhood’s grand old man. One young girl, now a flight attendant with American Airlines, drove like a woman possessed from JFK airport in order to make his service. We kept the funeral home open an extra 30 minutes so she could make it. She arrived in uniform, tears streaming down her face and approached my father and stroked his face. That’s love. She said how he was there at her high school prom when her real father was nowhere to be found. At his funeral in Tennessee, many people showed up including a lady he met on his first day of school when they were just five years-old. Life long friends of 82 years. Can you imagine? Yes, my father was loved because he loved. He loved all people regardless and refused to allow any prejudice or bigotry to enter our house. That is why he spent his entire adult life as a social worker for the state of New Jersey. Great people love greatly. My dad loved greatly.
I loved my dad greatly. Still do. How could I not? I am who I am in large part because of him. I have already felt the sting of his death in that every time I drove to Atlanta to go flying, I would call and chat. More than once I have reached for the phone and told myself I was going to give “da” a ring. For those of you who still have your parents, tell them you love them. You will not have that chance forever.
And for those of you with kids, don’t let other people choose their destiny for them. Back them up, support them and you will never know exactly which act of love you show them will bestow upon them a lifelong ambition and calling.
Mr. Eddie Tate, I love you and will see you on the other side.