Because I’m the oldest living Jew in Texas who doesn’t own real estate, and given my status in general as a colorful character, there are those who profess to be surprised that I ever, indeed, had a father or a mother. I assure you, I had both.
For many years my parents owned and directed Echo Hill Ranch, a summer camp near Kerrville where I grew up, or maybe just got older. I remember my dad, Tom Friedman, talking to all of the campers on Father’s Day in the dining hall after lunch. Each summer he’d say essentially the same words: “For those of you who are lucky enough to have a father, now is the time to remember him and let him know that you love him. Write a letter home today.” Many years have passed since I last heard Tom’s message to the campers, but love, I suppose, has no “sell by” date.
When my father was a young boy growing up in the Chicago of the late twenties, his first job was working for a Polish peddler. The man had a horse and cart that was loaded up with fruits and vegetables, and Tom sat on the very top. Through the streets and alleys of the old West Side they’d go, with the peddler crying his wares in at least five languages and my father running the purchases up to the housewives who lived on the top floors of the tenement buildings. There were trolley cars then and colorful clotheslines strung across the sooty alleys like medieval banners. My father still remembers the word the peddler seemed to cry out more than any other. The word was kartofel. It is Polish for “potato.”
In November 1944 my mother, Minnie, gave birth to me in a manger somewhere on the south side of Chicago. (I lived there one year, couldn’t find work, and moved to Texas, where I haven’t worked since.) And all this time my father was far away fighting for his country and his wife and a baby boy he might never see. Tom was a navigator in World War II, flying a heavy bomber for the Eighth Air Force, the old B-24, also known as the Liberator, which, in time, it was. Tom’s plane was called the I’ve Had It. He flew 35 successful missions over Germany, the last occurring on November 9, 1944, two days after he’d learned that he was a brand-new father. As the navigator, the responsibility fell to him to bring the ten-man crew back safely. In retrospect, it’s not terribly surprising that fate and the powers that be had selected Tom to be the navigator. He was the only one aboard the I’ve Had It who possessed a college degree. He was also the oldest man on the plane. He was 23 years old.
After each successful mission it was the custom to paint a small bomb on the side of the plane; in the rare instance of shooting down an enemy plane, a swastika was painted. When one incoming crew, however, accidentally hit a British runway maintenance worker, a small teacup was painted on the side of the plane, practically engendering an international incident.
Tom was a hero in what he still refers to as “the last good war.” For his efforts, he received the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with three Oak Leaf clusters and the heartfelt gratitude of his crew. Yet the commanding officer’s first words to Tom and his young compatriots had not been wrong. The CO had told them to look at the man on their left and to look at the man on their right. “When you return,” he’d said, “they will not be here.” This dire prophecy proved to be almost correct. The Mighty Eighth suffered a grievous attrition rate during the height of the war.
After the war Tom and Min settled in Houston, where Tom pioneered community action programs and Min became one of the first speech therapists in the Houston public schools. In the late fifties they moved to Austin, where Tom was a professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas. It was in 1953, however, that my parents made possibly their greatest contribution to children far and wide by opening Echo Hill Ranch. My mother passed away in 1985, but Tom, known as Uncle Tom to the kids, still runs the camp.
Like most true war heroes, Tom rarely talks about the war. My sister, Marcie, once saw Tom sitting alone in a darkened room and asked, “Is everything all right, Father?” To this Tom replied, “The last time everything was all right was August 14, 1945.” That was the day Japan surrendered.
On a recent trip to O’Hare Airport in Chicago, I commandeered a limo and drove through the area where Tom had grown up. There were slums and suburbs and Starbucks, and the trolley cars and the clotheslines and the peddler with his horse and cart were gone. “Kartofel,” I said to the limo driver, but he just looked straight ahead. Either he wasn’t Polish or he didn’t want any potatoes.
Today Tom lives in Austin with his new wife, Edythe Kruger, and his two dogs, Sam and Perky. He has three children and three grandchildren. He eats lunch at the Frisco and still plays tennis with his old pals. He did not, as he contends, teach me everything I know. Only almost everything. He taught me tennis. He taught me chess. He taught me how to belch. He taught me to always stand up for the underdog. He taught me the importance of treating children like adults and adults like children. He is a significant American because by his example, his spirit, and his unseen hand, he has guided children of all ages safely through the winding, often torturous courses of their lives. One of them was me.
Tom’s war is long over. Indeed, the whole era seems gone like the crews who never came home, lost forever among the saltshaker stars. And yet, when the future may look its darkest, there sometimes occurs an oddly comforting moment when, with awkward grace, the shadow of a silver plane flies inexplicably close to my heart. One more mission for the navigator.