James Francis Handley
In August 1945 my father, who was 20 years old, was on board a US Navy minesweeper bound for Japan preparing the way for marines to launch an invasion. The invasion became unnecessary when President Harry S. Truman and his advisors decided to use the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, effectively ending the war with Japan. It’s hard for me not to applaud that decision.
After serving in the Navy, my father returned home to Pringle, Pennsylvania, married my mother and joined his father as a loom fixer in a textile mill. Back then fabrics were still being woven and produced in factories in the Northeast. My grand-father lived with us and he and Dad worked both day and night shifts at the mill. I remember because sometimes they slept during the day, and we had to be quiet as we played.
When Dad was not working, we did just about everything as a family…food shopping, church on Sunday, television at night, trips to the lake for swimming and picnicking in the summer and ice skating in the winter. I don’t remember interacting with my father alone much in the early years of my life. My mother was the disciplinarian, making most of the decisions regarding my two sisters and me. She didn’t work outside the house until I needed braces when I was in sixth grade, so my mother was the day-to-day “supervisor” in our world…not my father.
Galway Bay, 1980.
When the textile mill closed in the early sixties, my father got a job with J.P. Stevens at a small research facility they maintained in Garfield, New Jersey even after all the production mills moved to the unionless South. I remember my mother telling the story of how my father got the job with the very real conviction that it was part of God’s divine plan. My mother and father were out at a local bar one Saturday night. A man, I don’t recall whom or his connection with my father, came into the bar and struck up a conversation with them. He worked in New Jersey. When he learned my father was looking for a job, he said he’d seen an advertisement for a loom fixer in the paper and that he had the paper out in his car. He actually went out and brought the paper in for my father…further evidence of God’s hand at work.
Dad could fix anything and was always working when he came to visit.
My father applied for and got the job, and for the next four years he commuted to New Jersey. At least, back then, that was our idea of commuting. He lived with my cousin Carol and her husband in Rutherford, NJ during the week and only came home on weekends. Monday mornings he would leave our house in Pringle at 5:30 AM and drive straight to work in Garfield. Monday through Thursday he stayed at my cousin’s. Friday after work he’d drive back home to us. We all knew when he was on his way up the street because our dog, Sparkle, would start wagging her tail in excitement even before any of us heard the car.
Reflecting back on that time compared to now, I wonder how many men would do that for their families today? Four years? Would they do it for six months even? It is remarkable to me now looking backward. Never mind not seeing your family or sleeping in your own bed four nights out of seven. The weekly drive alone was grueling and hazardous. Today’s interstate highways have changed all that, but in the early ‘60’s Route 80 didn’t exist. The drive consisted mostly of windy, two-lane roads through the Pocono Mountains to the Delaware Water Gap, followed by Route 46, a slightly better road because it was a divided highway, but the going was slow because it had lots of traffic lights. In the winter, the Friday night journeys through the Poconos back to Pringle were downright treacherous. In spite of all that, I don’t remember my father ever not coming home for the weekend.
As I mentioned, my mother was our most constant influence, but there were a few occasions when she turned us over to my father. The day of my cousin Marie’s shower that my mother was hosting at our house was rather memorable. My little sister, Mary Ellen, was only about two years old, so she got to stay home, but my mother must have instructed my father to take my older sister, Jane, and me out for the day. We were probably five and nine. My father took us to a local bar with him. It was a great day for us. Coca Cola and candy bars flowed freely and we played pinball sitting on top of bar stools. All the men got a big kick out of us and kept supplying us with coins to play. What a great day!
Jane, Dad and me at the amusement park.
I don’t remember how my mother found out where we went that day. I vaguely remember being told something like “Don’t tell your mother.” I didn’t. But we lived in a town one-mile square where we were related to just about half the people in town. Someone told. The next time my father took us for the day, we went to Angela Park, a now-defunct, but then brand new, amusement park. That was fun, too. But to this day, I believe I owe my great fondness for sitting at bars to that first time. In restaurants with a bar, I actually prefer to eat at the bar than at a table, much to the dismay of some of my female friends, who, in my opinion, missed out on going to a bar with their fathers, a rite of passage generally reserved for boys.
I have lots of memories of my father driving us places. Along with the textile mills in the North, Sunday drives with the family have also become a thing of the past. Hard to imagine a time when just getting in a car and driving around country roads for an hour or two was considered a pleasurable way to spend the afternoon, something adults and children alike looked forward to. My favorite memory was a drive on the old Chase Road near Huntsville Dam one Sunday afternoon. A little black dog started to run alongside the car and my father stopped and let her in the backseat with us. That was Sparkle. She was just a puppy without a collar, who picked our car to run after…apparently another divinely ordained occurrence. Our first dog. Another great day!
My father died from Alzheimer’s in 2000. A few months after the funeral, my younger sister, who along with my mother, cared for my father to the very end, asked me about Dad’s Days at Douglass College where I went to school. I hadn’t given much thought to those uniquely, all-girl college experiences in years. I told her how my father drove down to New Brunswick by himself every year, and how we would spend the day at various activities around the campus. I would choose our agenda. I vaguely recall bus tours of campus, but in general whatever we did was largely forgettable. One instance I do recall, however, was a really lame performance by a young woman who forgot the words midway through the Ave Maria. I remember a polite exchange of glances between my father and me, and our laughing about it afterwards. I also remember having lunch with my first year college roommate and her father, a college graduate himself. Later my father remarked to me how good it would be to be a professional like my roommate’s father. That evening long after our fathers left campus, my roommate told me her father said he wished he could be like my father who was so personable and easy to talk to. I remember thinking to myself that I was the luckier of the two of us.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad!
As one of three sisters and part of a family that always did most everything together, I have only a few memories of experiences that my father and I alone shared, those four Dad’s Days among them. I knew the concerts and lectures we attended on those days were not exactly the kinds of things my father enjoyed doing, yet he came all four years. I asked my sister what made her ask me about Dad’s Days, and she told me that she was going through his things after he died. In a box in my father’s drawer, he had saved the pins he’d gotten each of those Dad’s Days. At that moment I felt sorry for those who inherit only money and property, lesser gifts than the simple, yet certain evidence I received that day that my father loved me and treasured moments that he and I alone shared. What a great day!