He was there for me when I entered this world on December 21st, 1961.
I was there for him when he left this world on December 21st, 2015.
He was 18 days away from his 82nd birthday.
My Dad was a quiet man, a humble man, but my Dad was tough and he was a fighter.
He grew up as a child in World War II Germany. His older brother, Werner (my namesake), died at the age of 13, during the war. He died at an asylum while recovering from meningitis. There are questions about what really happened to him.
Dad’s father (Friedrich – my father’s namesake) died at the age of 39, during an air raid, on February 22nd, 1944. He was on a bicycle trying to ensure his family was safe in an air shelter, when ordinance from an American plane tore off one of his legs. He succumbed to his injuries soon after. My father was 10 years old at the time he lost his father.
Dad told me stories of walking home from elementary school when the children had to run and jump into ditches when American fighter planes would strafe the road they were on. Sometimes, some of the children were killed.
He also told me about seeing the city of Wesel (pronounced Vay-sel), after Allied planes bombed it and U.S. troops took it over. He described how the city was devastated, and almost every building had been completely destroyed. When he talked about these incidents, he was matter of fact about it. He said, “It was war after all. Everyone suffered.”
[He exhibited that same detached manner when I spoke to him the day after 9-11 happen. On that day he stood on a beach at Robert Moses State Park, and watched the smoke emanating in the city from there.]
Because his father was dead, his mother had her hands full trying to feed and care for several children. My father had to go and live and earn his keep on a neighbor’s farm for some time, so my grandmother could care for his younger siblings.
As a young man, he took a job in a coal mine. In one instance he described how a gas explosion killed everyone who had been standing in one tunnel. My Dad was lucky that day; he was sitting down having lunch when it happened. Then there was the day he was working next to a conveyer belt shuttling coal out of the tunnel, when something in the ground shifted. The the conveyor fell over and pinned Dad to the tunnel wall. When he was rescued it was discovered my Dad’s hip was broken. He had had enough of working in the mines and quit.
Dad was always good with his hands and worked as a mechanic. He decided he wanted to take advantage of better opportunities in America. It took two years, but he got sponsored and moved to the U.S.A., and settled in Long Island, New York, where there was plenty of work.
Dad was in the U.S. for about six months when he was drafted into the U.S. Army. The Korean War was over so he was fortunate to serve during peace time. He said his Army experience was a good one. Because he could barely speak passable English the Army sent him to classes in addition to his duties in the motor pool as a mechanic. It was in the Army where he learned to read, write and speak English.
Dad was an avid reader, and read everything he could. He especially liked science fiction.
Dad had been going out with my Mom’s roommate, but it didn’t work out. My Mom recently broke up with a guy, and Mom and Dad connected. They married June 30th, 1961. This June would have been their 55th anniversary. They did everything together. They loved each fully all the years they were together. Mom still does – and I know Dad does too.
Dad loved us, and showed it openly when we were young, more reservedly in our teens, and openly again when we were older.
Dad was a big kid and loved to play when he could. He got to live the childhood he never had when I was a kid. He played with us kids when he had some down time. There were times we’d hold his legs down and tickle his feet. He’d go into paroxysms of laughter and kick his legs, sending kids flying all over the living room. He’d play with us in the pool and toss us around. In later years, if he was around he’d always join in when we were tossing a Frisbee around. He loved it. He was wicked in snowball fights, and he took us sleigh riding in the winter.
He played with a lot of my toys in the pretense of showing me “how to use them.” I carried that principle through when my own kids were young. He showed me how to build cool things like trucks, planes and buildings with Lego’s. I was hooked (still am), and that led me to building scale models. He bought me a control line airplane one Christmas. I never remember asking for one, but he spent hours showing me how to fly it. One time trying to get that thing to fly, he gave himself a nasty cut on his leg when the spinning propeller hit him.
From Dad, I learned to enjoy making things with my hands and using tools. Home Depot is a toy store for me to this day. From Dad, I also grew my love of cars, and motorcycles, and how to take care of them myself.
As I said Dad loved to work with his hands. He was also very creative. He made a real stockade fence out of young pine trees. It was six foot high and enclosed the entire back yard. He made a sled out of aircraft aluminum. The thing was a beast and all the other kids feared getting hit by it every time I rode it down the snow hillside.
He built an exhaust system for my mother’s car out of stainless steel. The car most likely rotted away, but the exhaust systems will still be there. He rehabbed 90%+ of our home – with the rest of us helping when needed. He designed, and with my help, built a massive shed to store yard equipment. He built bike carrier racks for paper deliveries out of stainless steel.
He built a stainless steel and wooden cart to attach to a bike to deliver the bulky Sunday newspapers. That cart was later used to haul firewood for the stove, and leaves and yard debris in the fall. Sarah and Zac now use that cart, Dad built 40 years ago, in their own yard.
When it came to cars, he did everything and taught me how to do it all. Complete brake and rotor jobs, , repacking bearings, oil changes, shocks, entire exhaust systems, rebuilding engines, body repair, and on and on. One time I saw him make an emergency gasket from a piece of cardboard. Dad built his own wood chipper from a collection of parts.
There are so many creative things he did and built I can’t count them all.
There were several times Dad took me to the demolition derby at the Central Islip Speedway, and I loved it. In 1977, I saw Star Wars on the first day it came out. I was blown away. I went home and told Dad about how cool it was. I convinced him to go to the theater with me the very next day. He loved it too. It was the one and only time he and I ever went to the theater, just us two.
In the summer, Mom and Dad would pack the tribe into the back of the 1965 Impala station wagon, with our blankets and pillows and we’d all go to the drive-in with our next door neighbors. It was so much fun and remains one of my favorite experiences as a child.
Dad also taught me how to swim, and it wasn’t with the little three-foot pool he put up in the back yard. No he took me to the beach with a neighbor friend, and they took me out into the waves in the deep water and pretty much tossed me in over my head and told me to, “paddle like hell.”
After that shock and watching them laugh as I struggled, they helped me get over my fear, and showed me what to do, and kept having me do it until I had it figured out. I’ve loved the water ever since. I was a very strong swimmer when I was younger.
Dad taught me how to ride a bike and drive a car the same way. When I was 15, Dad was teaching how to drive his 1970 Chevy Nova, a manual shift car. As I rounded a corner, I popped the clutch and gave the car too much gas. The car surged forward. In a panic I lost control of the speeding car. Dad tried to stop the car by reaching a foot over to try and stomp the brake, but he pinned my foot to the accelerator in the process.
Somehow I got control of the steering wheel as we left the road onto a grassy median. Miraculously I shot through a narrow gap between a chain link fence and a telephone pole without hitting either. We bounced down on an adjacent street, my Dad’s foot came off the brake, and both of mine hammered down on it. I stood on those manual brakes with both feet. We skidded across the street, onto someone’s front lawn and came to a stop three inches from hitting a maple tree dead center.
I was shook up. Dad never lost his cool. I was done. I wanted to get out of the car and walk home. Dad wouldn’t let me. He calmly told me, “Get back in the driver’s seat of this car. You’re gonna drive this car.”
I did. He got me to back off the lawn onto the street and he had me driving for another half hour before he let me drive home. I love to drive to this day.
When I entered my latter teens and early twenties, Dad and I weren’t so close. It was nothing bad; we just weren’t close – not communicating.
It wasn’t until I got married, and held down a job with responsibility and opportunity, did we seem to get along better. When I became a father myself, we grew even closer.
Dad was an extremely generous man. Whenever anyone needed help with anything, he’d be there for them. I remember as a kid that whenever Dad saw someone broken down at the side of the road, he’d stop and help perfect strangers. He helped friends and neighbors with house projects, fixing cars, and carrying heavy furniture during moves – even as late as the age of 65.
As mentioned earlier, Dad was a fighter and loved Life. He took his health more seriously in his early 40’s when he started walking 3 miles a day – every day. He also weight-lifted two to three times a week – maintain muscle tone.
He had his first brush with cancer about the time he retired from work at the age of 64. Thankfully it was caught early and was removed.
At this time he already had a heart murmur, but he didn’t let that keep him from his exercises. When he was 62, he went on a hike with me and several of my friends to the summit of Mt. Lafayette, in New Hampshire. We maintained a decent pace. I was really proud that my Dad did so well on that hike, when a couple of guys half his age had a hard time. Mom said he talked about that hike often, saying it was one of the best experiences of his life. It makes me smile to think of that trip and that he got so much out of it.
When Dad was 71, he was diagnosed with CLL – Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia. We were all worried and scared. Dad loved life and was determined to fight. Not only did he do everything the doctors said when he had chemo, he still kept up his 3 mile daily walks.
When he was 74, Dad had a stroke. This devastated us. Dad didn’t even see it coming. He was paralyzed on his left side and his speech was slurred. After a couple of days I was able to talk with Dad. He was very depressed and dispirited. He thought it was all over for him. He couldn’t walk or use his left hand, and could barely speak. He wanted to give up. On the phone with him I told him, “This doesn’t sound like the Dad I know and grew up with. The Dad I know is a fighter, he always figures out a way to overcome a problem. He doesn’t quit until he’s done.”
He later told me that helped him to re-think his situation. Dad became the poster boy for rehab. The physical therapists loved him. He did every exercise they showed him, and he kept working on improving himself. He learned to walk again. When he graduated from a walker to a cane, I got him a custom wood one, to remind him of his hike. He learned how to regain his speech and the use of his left arm. By the time his therapy was done he regained his speech, the use of his left hand and arm and about 95% of his balance and ability to walk unassisted. He started taking his walks again. They just took longer this time.
Dad had a series of remissions and flare ups of the CLL which required chemo. As the years passed, he faced more challenges with cancerous skin lesions which had to be surgically removed. He grew a little weaker in time, but he kept walking, but now it was down to about 2 miles.
Then he had shingles, which weakened him further. His walks were lessened to a mile then to the neighborhood. He began having balance problems, and falling. He still walked, but now had to use the cane all the time and the walks were limited to their block.
On top of all of this he developed respiratory problems by the time he turned 80. His walks were now limited to making rounds inside the house. Then he developed stress fractures in his spine which caused him relentless agonizing pain. Still he wanted to walk. Then came the pneumonia. He wanted to walk, but could only manage a few steps before he was winded.
In December, the doctors told my father his body was shutting down. They told him he was dying. Despite the constant agony, he didn’t want to die. When they put him in hospice, I was on the phone with him. It was my Mom’s birthday. He told me, “I don’t want to be here. Just stand me up and get me walking and I’ll be alright.”
The next day he became unconscious and we were told he would not wake up again. I packed a bag, and with my son Stephen, we jumped in my car and drove 1,400 miles non-stop from New Hampshire to Florida. It took 25 hours.
When I saw Dad laying there unconscious, gaunt and faded, it shocked me. I could not reconcile that this is the same man I feared and respected growing up. This man I always knew to be so strong and capable – laying there so old and weak and wasted away by pain and illness.
When I spoke to him and told him I was there, he moved an eyebrow to let me know he knew I was there. The staff there told us that hearing is the last thing to go. I bent to talk into his ear and said, “Friedrich Erdmann Meyer, I am damn proud to be your son. You’re a wonderful father and the best man I have ever known. You taught me so much about life and I love you with all my heart.”
Dad passed away quietly in the early morning hours on December 21st, 2015. It was my birthday, and the saddest day of my life.
Dad taught me what it means to be a man. He taught me how tough life could be, but also how sweet and enjoyable it is. Most of all, Dad taught me what it means to be a Father.
Dad was a great Father and Grandfather. He dearly loved, adored and cared about all his kids and grandkids.
I loved my Dad from the moment I took my first breath, to the time he took his last. And I still love him, and miss him.
Friedrich Erdmann Meyer
January 8, 1934 – December 21, 2015
Happy Father’s Day Dad…wherever you are.